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Re: [TGC] Anthropology: Why did we start farming?

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  • Richard Balfour
    wow love that synopsis and ref. new to me too in the detail, thanks. part of the plan C stuff, theorizing locally but for intent to use politically around
    Message 1 of 3 , 4 Dec, 2017
      wow
      love that synopsis and ref. new to me too in the detail, thanks.
      part of the plan C stuff, theorizing locally but for intent to use politically around here, is of course food security,
      and losing a job to grow your own is hard to sell until first you lose the job, and no other is coming,
      ok have to do it, gross, grow food. It is such a pain?
      -so, models of the idyllic hard working farm community; how to get there, one family in the bush does not work for many right now, we are so codependent?
      This is why  a nation raised on basic training might survive better than the unattached to the earth.

      On 2017-12-04, at 3:30 PM, Karl S North knorth@... [thegreatchange] wrote:

       

      " however we can't go back there"

      Oh HO! Careful, Hugh, with that collegial "we"! That surely includes you and me, although a few of us in the alternative agriculture movement have made baby steps toward systems that obey ecological imperatives. A small population of hunter/gatherers exists who are still pretty much there. And a much larger peasant population that practices a virtual subsistence economy of horticulture mixed with hunting and gathering, retains many of the needed skills. The best of those pre-industrial small scale farming models use a carefully animal-integrated system that takes advantage of the multiple functions of animals: draft animal power, manure management for tight mineral cycles that build soil health, and of course meat, milk, fiber and leather. 

      All the same, I think the case against agriculture in general is strong - though that may sound strange coming from a farmer. An earlier heavy hitter critic of the "agriculture as progress" narrative was anthropologist Mark Nathan Cohen. His first book The Food Crisis in History (1977) concluded a long, tightly argued thesis this way:

      The data suggest that for much of human  history labor costs for food went up; that man moved into more and more inhospitable environments; and that he forced himself to concentrate on less and less palatable [or healthy - KN] foods. Our technology, which we are inclined to view as a great liberating force, appears in historical perspective to be more of a holding action. Rather than progressing, we have developed our technology as a means of approximating as closely as possible the old status quo in the face of our ever-increasing numbers. 

      ​and, evoking the 
      coming 
      energy descent,

      Perhaps it will ​aid us in our economic transition to realize that human populations once face the notion of eating oysters and later the prospect of eating wheat with much the same enthusiasm that we now face the prospect of eating seaweed, soy protein, and artificial organic molecules. 

      ​Since then, he and many others have elaborated the same theme. Even more radical than James Scott - or more sanguine depending on your viewpoint - is Derrick Jensen's ​The Myth of Human Supremacy:


      Agriculture - by which I don't mean hunting and gathering, or horticulture, or pastoralism, but agriculture - leads to overshoot.  That's what happens when you convert land solely to human use. Converting land solely to human use is by definition inherently destructive to all others [the non-humans] who live there. 

      ​Hence,​


      Any form of sustainable food procurement... will have to not be human supremacist. Human supremacism is unsustainable. 

      These days writers like Jensen have plenty of earlier work to draw on.​ Jensen quotes Jared Diamond thus:


      The adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered. With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism {and the ecological destruction, and militarism - Jensen}, that curse our existence.

      ​​In his earlier book, Endgame, which targets civilization itself, Jensen relies on anthropologist Stanley Diamond's 
      In Search of the Primitive: A Critique of Civilization (1974)
      ​,
      for this quote:


      Civilization originates in conquest abroad and repression at home. 

      ​Just sayin....​



      On Mon, Dec 4, 2017 at 3:21 AM, hugh Hugh@... [thegreatchange] <thegreatchange@yahoogroups.com> wrote:
       

      I think he is completely correct - however we can't go back there - as we have destroyed the very environment that made that lifestyle possible. Such an existence also requires a very small population - it also requires the maintainance of a huge body of cultural knowledge - that's gone. While our amazing technological advances and understanding of the earth and the universe can, but probably won't, inform the survivors of the oncoming mess, it would be fantastic if this knowledge could be integrated. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have a Rip Van Winkle afterlife - with memory (at 500 year intervals) ! .. I'd so love to see what happens.

      H




      On 4/12/17 3:20 PM, Alexander Carpenter alexander@... [thegreatchange] wrote:

       

      https://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n23/ steven-mithen/why-did-we- start-farming

      Review by Steven Mithen

      • Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James C. Scott
        Yale, 336 pp, £20.00, September, ISBN 978 0 300 18291

      When our ancestors began to control fire, most likely somewhere in Africa around 400,000 years ago, the planet was set on a new course. We have little idea and even less evidence of how early humans made fire; perhaps they carried around smouldering bundles of leaves from forest fires, or captured the sparks thrown off when chipping stone or rubbing sticks together. However it happened, the human control of fire made an indelible mark on the earth’s ecosystems, and marked the beginning of the Anthropocene – the epoch in which humans have had a significant impact on the planet.

      In Against the Grain James Scott describes these early stages as a ‘“thin” Anthropocene’, but ever since, the Anthropocene has been getting thicker. New layers of human impact were added by the adoption of farming about ten thousand years ago, the invention of the steam engine around 1780, and the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945. Today the Anthropocene is so dense that we have virtually lost sight of anything that could be called ‘the natural world’.

      Fire changed humans as well as the world. Eating cooked food transformed our bodies; we developed a much shorter digestive tract, meaning that more metabolic energy was available to grow our brains. At the same time, Homo sapiens became domesticated by its dependence on fire for warmth, protection and fuel. If this was the start of human progress towards ‘civilisation’, then – according to the conventional narrative – the next step was the invention of agriculture around ten thousand years ago. Farming, it is said, saved us from a dreary nomadic Stone Age hunter-gatherer existence by allowing us to settle down, build towns and develop the city-states that were the centres of early civilisations. People flocked to them for the security, leisure and economic opportunities gained from living within thick city walls. The story continues with the collapse of the city-states and barbarian insurgency, plunging civilised worlds – ancient Mesopotamia, China, Mesoamerica – into their dark ages. Thus civilisations rise and fall. Or so we are told.

      The perfectly formed city-state is the ideal, deeply ingrained in the Western psyche, on which our notion of the nation-state is founded, ultimately inspiring Donald Trump’s notion of a ‘city’ wall to keep out the barbarian Mexican horde, and Brexiters’ desire to ‘take back control’ from insurgent European bureaucrats. But what if the conventional narrative is entirely wrong? What if ancient ruins testify to an aberration in the normal state of human affairs rather than a glorious and ancient past to whose achievements we should once again aspire? What if the origin of farming wasn’t a moment of liberation but of entrapment? Scott offers an alternative to the conventional narrative that is altogether more fascinating, not least in the way it omits any self-congratulation about human achievement. His account of the deep past doesn’t purport to be definitive, but it is surely more accurate than the one we’re used to, and it implicitly exposes the flaws in contemporary political ideas that ultimately rest on a narrative of human progress and on the ideal of the city/nation-state.

      Why did people start farming? At the ‘Man the Hunter’ symposium in Chicago in 1966, Marshall Sahlins drew on research from the likes of Richard B. Lee among the !Kung of the Kalahari to argue that hunter-gatherers enjoyed the ‘original affluent society’. Even in the most marginal environments, he said, hunter-gatherers weren’t engaged in a constant struggle for survival, but had a leisurely lifestyle. Sahlins and his sources may have pushed the argument a little too far, neglecting to consider, for instance, the time spent preparing food (lots of mongongo nuts to crack). But their case was strong enough to deal a severe blow to the idea that farming was salvation for hunter-gatherers: however you cut it, farming involves much higher workloads and incurs more physical ailments than relying on the wild. And the more we discover, as Scott points out, the better a hunter-gatherer diet, health and work-life balance look.

      This is especially true of the hunter-gatherers who dwelled in the wetlands where the first farming communities developed, in the Fertile Crescent, the arc of South-West Asia now covered by Jordan, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, southern Turkey, Iran and Iraq. Scott’s book focuses on Mesopotamia – the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates where the first city-states also appeared – though it takes many diversions into ancient China, Mesoamerica, and the Roman and Greek ancient worlds. Until about ten thousand years ago, Mesopotamia had been a world of hunter-gatherers with access to a huge range of resources: reeds and sedges for building and food, a great variety of edible plants (clubrush, cat’s-tails, water lily, bulrush), tortoises, fish, molluscs, crustaceans, birds, waterfowl, small mammals and migrating gazelles, which were the chief source of protein. The wild larder was routinely replenished by the annual cycle of the ripening of fruits and wild vegetables, and the seasonal changes that brought the arrival of migratory species.

      More mystery being explored. The "mystery" is not the past; it is our myths and beliefs about it.

      --

      ______________________________ ________

      Alexander Carpenter

      305 Sovereign Lane

      Santa Rosa  95401

      California, USA

      cell 707-527-2732 

       

      \




      --
      Karl North -  http://karlnorth.com/
      "Pueblo que canta no morira" - Cuban saying
      "They only call it class warfare when we fight back" - Anon.
      "My father rode a camel. I drive a car. My son flies a jet-plane. His son will ride a camel."
       —Saudi saying


      Richard Balfour  
      Strategic Planner
      • SPORPORI Strategic Planning for Ocean Rise and Peak Oil Resettlement Institute

      7276 Denman Road Denman Island BC Canada V0R 1T0             250 335 0766
      Balfour Strategic Planning
      www.plancanada.com

      • Vancouver Peak Oil Executive www.vancouverpeakoil.org

      balfourarch@...











    • Jada Thacker
      My two bits -- The advent of agriculture is the most revolutionary event in human history, and not for the better. Humans evidently were forced into
      Message 2 of 3 , 5 Dec, 2017
        My two bits --

        The advent of agriculture is the most revolutionary event in human history, and not for the better. Humans evidently were forced into agriculture to avert starvation due to climate change and the simultaneous disappearance of the megafauna. With cereal grain agriculture came (likely for the first time in large scale) the ability to produce surplus, storable food. But the corresponding ability to produce surplus population led also to the co-evolution of the division of labor by occupation, and inevitably it would seem, to what I call the "division of labor by ownership" wherein the owners did not labor at all, and the laborers did not own at all. Thus commenced slavery in its various formulations.

        In hunter-gatherer societies, it had not been physically possible for any member of the common group to control the food supply of another, much less the supply of all. Agriculture, surplus food, and the concept of private ownership of the commons changed all that. What had necessarily been communistic, egalitarian tribes 300,000 years in the evolutionary making, now were rapidly displaced by pyramidal hierarchies of ever-more totalitarian power structures. The human supremacy of the environment was mirrored by human hierarchy in society. The result, civilization, grows like a cancer and fails like clockwork, but not before immiserating practically every life form it touches before it collapses. Modern capitalism merely expedites the process of benefiting the owners at the expense of the owned.

        Civilization -- which cannot exist without agriculture -- remains the most catastrophic invention of human race. The fact that we appear to revel in its continuance and fear for its demise is the height of human perversity. We were designed by evolution as small-group, communistic hunter-gatherers and are still most successful and happiest the closer we approximate this organically adaptive self-organizing structure. Outside of formal government, all human social groups -- civic organizations, charities, religious congregations, sports teams, bands, choruses, symphonies, dance troupes, youth organizations, even political parties, and especially families -- are all voluntary, egalitarian, and essentially anarchic (democratic).

        We have every reason to be suspicious of civilization and no good reason to celebrate it. When Europeans set out to exploit the world in the 16th century, they did not discover famine, disease, social pathology and socioeconomic totalitarianism among the indigenous hunter-gatherer tribal cultures they invaded and subjugated. Indeed, these pathologies are what the invaders imported as an unsustainable replacement for prehistoric societies that had proved sustainable since the end of the last Ice Age. As Sahlins pointed out, prehistoric peoples were in fact the "original affluent societies" because they were best equipped to sustain themselves with the least amount of effort and with materials ready to hand.

        By comparison, agricultural civilization is an epic human tragedy compared to which the advent of fossil-fueled Industrial Revolution is but a continuance -- i.e. expansion and perfection of social injustice and ecological collapse -- by mechanical means. We now live unsustainably hand-to-mouth via monetary debt-slavery enforced by coercive government hierarchy instead of living sustainably hand-to-mouth via the voluntary labor of our own communal, anarchic, hands. 

        Thomas Hobbes had it exactly backwards: human life in a "state of nature" was not "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short," but it rather has been so for the vast majority of humans since the advent of "civil society" (civilization). Marx astonishingly also got it exactly backwards: human society is not evolving toward communism, but inexorably away from it toward socioeconimic collapse. Both armchair theorists erred because they were abysmally ignorant of anthropology -- nor did they grasp even the sociological evidence available in their own time. 

        Weirdly enough, the book of Genesis got one thing right. If nothing else, it cogently relates the parable of the downfall of humanity: God cursed Adam by dooming him and his kind forever afterward to be farmers. That we should now celebrate Adam's disgraced fate as progress only demonstrates the depth of civilization's suicidal depravity.

        Jada


        On Monday, December 4, 2017 5:44 PM, "Richard Balfour balfourarch@... [gaiapc]" <gaiapc@...> wrote:


         
        wow
        love that synopsis and ref. new to me too in the detail, thanks.
        part of the plan C stuff, theorizing locally but for intent to use politically around here, is of course food security,
        and losing a job to grow your own is hard to sell until first you lose the job, and no other is coming,
        ok have to do it, gross, grow food. It is such a pain?
        -so, models of the idyllic hard working farm community; how to get there, one family in the bush does not work for many right now, we are so codependent?
        This is why  a nation raised on basic training might survive better than the unattached to the earth.

        On 2017-12-04, at 3:30 PM, Karl S North knorth@... [thegreatchange] wrote:

         

        " however we can't go back there"

        Oh HO! Careful, Hugh, with that collegial "we"! That surely includes you and me, although a few of us in the alternative agriculture movement have made baby steps toward systems that obey ecological imperatives. A small population of hunter/gatherers exists who are still pretty much there. And a much larger peasant population that practices a virtual subsistence economy of horticulture mixed with hunting and gathering, retains many of the needed skills. The best of those pre-industrial small scale farming models use a carefully animal-integrated system that takes advantage of the multiple functions of animals: draft animal power, manure management for tight mineral cycles that build soil health, and of course meat, milk, fiber and leather. 

        All the same, I think the case against agriculture in general is strong - though that may sound strange coming from a farmer. An earlier heavy hitter critic of the "agriculture as progress" narrative was anthropologist Mark Nathan Cohen. His first book The Food Crisis in History (1977) concluded a long, tightly argued thesis this way:

        The data suggest that for much of human  history labor costs for food went up; that man moved into more and more inhospitable environments; and that he forced himself to concentrate on less and less palatable [or healthy - KN] foods. Our technology, which we are inclined to view as a great liberating force, appears in historical perspective to be more of a holding action. Rather than progressing, we have developed our technology as a means of approximating as closely as possible the old status quo in the face of our ever-increasing numbers. 

        ​and, evoking the 
        coming 
        energy descent,

        Perhaps it will ​aid us in our economic transition to realize that human populations once face the notion of eating oysters and later the prospect of eating wheat with much the same enthusiasm that we now face the prospect of eating seaweed, soy protein, and artificial organic molecules. 

        ​Since then, he and many others have elaborated the same theme. Even more radical than James Scott - or more sanguine depending on your viewpoint - is Derrick Jensen's ​The Myth of Human Supremacy:


        Agriculture - by which I don't mean hunting and gathering, or horticulture, or pastoralism, but agriculture - leads to overshoot.  That's what happens when you convert land solely to human use. Converting land solely to human use is by definition inherently destructive to all others [the non-humans] who live there. 

        ​Hence,​


        Any form of sustainable food procurement... will have to not be human supremacist. Human supremacism is unsustainable. 

        These days writers like Jensen have plenty of earlier work to draw on.​ Jensen quotes Jared Diamond thus:


        The adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered. With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism {and the ecological destruction, and militarism - Jensen}, that curse our existence.

        ​​In his earlier book, Endgame, which targets civilization itself, Jensen relies on anthropologist Stanley Diamond's 
        In Search of the Primitive: A Critique of Civilization (1974)
        ​,
        for this quote:


        Civilization originates in conquest abroad and repression at home. 

        ​Just sayin....​



        On Mon, Dec 4, 2017 at 3:21 AM, hugh Hugh@... [thegreatchange] <thegreatchange@yahoogroups.com> wrote:
         
        I think he is completely correct - however we can't go back there - as we have destroyed the very environment that made that lifestyle possible. Such an existence also requires a very small population - it also requires the maintainance of a huge body of cultural knowledge - that's gone. While our amazing technological advances and understanding of the earth and the universe can, but probably won't, inform the survivors of the oncoming mess, it would be fantastic if this knowledge could be integrated. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have a Rip Van Winkle afterlife - with memory (at 500 year intervals) ! .. I'd so love to see what happens.

        H




        On 4/12/17 3:20 PM, Alexander Carpenter alexander@... [thegreatchange] wrote:
         

        Review by Steven Mithen

        • Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James C. Scott
          Yale, 336 pp, £20.00, September, ISBN 978 0 300 18291
        When our ancestors began to control fire, most likely somewhere in Africa around 400,000 years ago, the planet was set on a new course. We have little idea and even less evidence of how early humans made fire; perhaps they carried around smouldering bundles of leaves from forest fires, or captured the sparks thrown off when chipping stone or rubbing sticks together. However it happened, the human control of fire made an indelible mark on the earth’s ecosystems, and marked the beginning of the Anthropocene – the epoch in which humans have had a significant impact on the planet.
        In Against the Grain James Scott describes these early stages as a ‘“thin” Anthropocene’, but ever since, the Anthropocene has been getting thicker. New layers of human impact were added by the adoption of farming about ten thousand years ago, the invention of the steam engine around 1780, and the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945. Today the Anthropocene is so dense that we have virtually lost sight of anything that could be called ‘the natural world’.
        Fire changed humans as well as the world. Eating cooked food transformed our bodies; we developed a much shorter digestive tract, meaning that more metabolic energy was available to grow our brains. At the same time, Homo sapiens became domesticated by its dependence on fire for warmth, protection and fuel. If this was the start of human progress towards ‘civilisation’, then – according to the conventional narrative – the next step was the invention of agriculture around ten thousand years ago. Farming, it is said, saved us from a dreary nomadic Stone Age hunter-gatherer existence by allowing us to settle down, build towns and develop the city-states that were the centres of early civilisations. People flocked to them for the security, leisure and economic opportunities gained from living within thick city walls. The story continues with the collapse of the city-states and barbarian insurgency, plunging civilised worlds – ancient Mesopotamia, China, Mesoamerica – into their dark ages. Thus civilisations rise and fall. Or so we are told.
        The perfectly formed city-state is the ideal, deeply ingrained in the Western psyche, on which our notion of the nation-state is founded, ultimately inspiring Donald Trump’s notion of a ‘city’ wall to keep out the barbarian Mexican horde, and Brexiters’ desire to ‘take back control’ from insurgent European bureaucrats. But what if the conventional narrative is entirely wrong? What if ancient ruins testify to an aberration in the normal state of human affairs rather than a glorious and ancient past to whose achievements we should once again aspire? What if the origin of farming wasn’t a moment of liberation but of entrapment? Scott offers an alternative to the conventional narrative that is altogether more fascinating, not least in the way it omits any self-congratulation about human achievement. His account of the deep past doesn’t purport to be definitive, but it is surely more accurate than the one we’re used to, and it implicitly exposes the flaws in contemporary political ideas that ultimately rest on a narrative of human progress and on the ideal of the city/nation-state.
        Why did people start farming? At the ‘Man the Hunter’ symposium in Chicago in 1966, Marshall Sahlins drew on research from the likes of Richard B. Lee among the !Kung of the Kalahari to argue that hunter-gatherers enjoyed the ‘original affluent society’. Even in the most marginal environments, he said, hunter-gatherers weren’t engaged in a constant struggle for survival, but had a leisurely lifestyle. Sahlins and his sources may have pushed the argument a little too far, neglecting to consider, for instance, the time spent preparing food (lots of mongongo nuts to crack). But their case was strong enough to deal a severe blow to the idea that farming was salvation for hunter-gatherers: however you cut it, farming involves much higher workloads and incurs more physical ailments than relying on the wild. And the more we discover, as Scott points out, the better a hunter-gatherer diet, health and work-life balance look.
        This is especially true of the hunter-gatherers who dwelled in the wetlands where the first farming communities developed, in the Fertile Crescent, the arc of South-West Asia now covered by Jordan, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, southern Turkey, Iran and Iraq. Scott’s book focuses on Mesopotamia – the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates where the first city-states also appeared – though it takes many diversions into ancient China, Mesoamerica, and the Roman and Greek ancient worlds. Until about ten thousand years ago, Mesopotamia had been a world of hunter-gatherers with access to a huge range of resources: reeds and sedges for building and food, a great variety of edible plants (clubrush, cat’s-tails, water lily, bulrush), tortoises, fish, molluscs, crustaceans, birds, waterfowl, small mammals and migrating gazelles, which were the chief source of protein. The wild larder was routinely replenished by the annual cycle of the ripening of fruits and wild vegetables, and the seasonal changes that brought the arrival of migratory species.
        More mystery being explored. The "mystery" is not the past; it is our myths and beliefs about it.

        --
        ______________________________ ________
        Alexander Carpenter
         
        \




        --
        Karl North -  http://karlnorth.com/
        "Pueblo que canta no morira" - Cuban saying
        "They only call it class warfare when we fight back" - Anon.
        "My father rode a camel. I drive a car. My son flies a jet-plane. His son will ride a camel."
         —Saudi saying


        Richard Balfour  
        Strategic Planner
        • SPORPORI Strategic Planning for Ocean Rise and Peak Oil Resettlement Institute

        7276 Denman Road Denman Island BC Canada V0R 1T0             250 335 0766
        Balfour Strategic Planning
        www.plancanada.com

        • Vancouver Peak Oil Executive www.vancouverpeakoil.org

        balfourarch@...













      • Richard Balfour
        Helmut, the intent of our SSP war games was to seek that integration on the downslope, plan C. Right now working on the migration issue, trickle migration
        Message 3 of 3 , 5 Dec, 2017
          Helmut, the intent of our SSP war games was to seek that integration on the downslope, plan C.  Right now working on the migration issue, trickle migration already is incipient chaos, so mass migration is just impossible to deal with. The continuation of the worthwhile more benign aspects of our culture is the goal, as the Dark Ages showed, it is easy to lose everything on the downslope.  The aspect of self defence pops up quickly in the analysis, and defence of the refuge is absolutely necessary, and involves at some point the turning away of the next arrival at the gates, that is the hard part. We do not respect the limits of growth now, and the real limits are so low for real sustainability, that the handbook on footprint limitation in a eco-basin becomes downright draconian in perspective, it has to be.  This makes the sale of the concept almost impossible, which is another way of saying what these latest links are saying?
          As no place needs more people, for any reason, moves for survival even are to be questioned. The aspect of new overshoot, over-running of the land is the issue as decanting of the human pyramids precipitates into the food baskets.
          r
          On 2017-12-05, at 9:58 AM, helmut@... [thegreatchange] wrote:

           

          Many thanks, Alexander and Helga!
          Very interesting.

          HL Enjoy today, tomorrow comes anyway - ecoglobe.ch/requiem



          I think he is completely correct - however we can't go back there - as we have destroyed the very environment that made that lifestyle possible. Such an existence also requires a very small population - it also requires the maintainance of a huge body of cultural knowledge - that's gone. While our amazing technological advances and understanding of the earth and the universe can, but probably won't, inform the survivors of the oncoming mess, it would be fantastic if this knowledge could be integrated. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have a Rip Van Winkle afterlife - with memory (at 500 year intervals) ! .. I'd so love to see what happens.

          H




          On 4/12/17 3:20 PM, Alexander Carpenter alexander@... [thegreatchange] wrote:
           

          https://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n23/ steven-mithen/why-did-we- start-farming

          Review by Steven Mithen

          • Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James C. Scott
            Yale, 336 pp, £20.00, September, ISBN 978 0 300 18291

          When our ancestors began to control fire, most likely somewhere in Africa around 400,000 years ago, the planet was set on a new course. We have little idea and even less evidence of how early humans made fire; perhaps they carried around smouldering bundles of leaves from forest fires, or captured the sparks thrown off when chipping stone or rubbing sticks together. However it happened, the human control of fire made an indelible mark on the earth’s ecosystems, and marked the beginning of the Anthropocene – the epoch in which humans have had a significant impact on the planet.

          In Against the Grain James Scott describes these early stages as a ‘“thin” Anthropocene’, but ever since, the Anthropocene has been getting thicker. New layers of human impact were added by the adoption of farming about ten thousand years ago, the invention of the steam engine around 1780, and the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945. Today the Anthropocene is so dense that we have virtually lost sight of anything that could be called ‘the natural world’.

          Fire changed humans as well as the world. Eating cooked food transformed our bodies; we developed a much shorter digestive tract, meaning that more metabolic energy was available to grow our brains. At the same time, Homo sapiens became domesticated by its dependence on fire for warmth, protection and fuel. If this was the start of human progress towards ‘civilisation’, then – according to the conventional narrative – the next step was the invention of agriculture around ten thousand years ago. Farming, it is said, saved us from a dreary nomadic Stone Age hunter-gatherer existence by allowing us to settle down, build towns and develop the city-states that were the centres of early civilisations. People flocked to them for the security, leisure and economic opportunities gained from living within thick city walls. The story continues with the collapse of the city-states and barbarian insurgency, plunging civilised worlds – ancient Mesopotamia, China, Mesoamerica – into their dark ages. Thus civilisations rise and fall. Or so we are told.

          The perfectly formed city-state is the ideal, deeply ingrained in the Western psyche, on which our notion of the nation-state is founded, ultimately inspiring Donald Trump’s notion of a ‘city’ wall to keep out the barbarian Mexican horde, and Brexiters’ desire to ‘take back control’ from insurgent European bureaucrats. But what if the conventional narrative is entirely wrong? What if ancient ruins testify to an aberration in the normal state of human affairs rather than a glorious and ancient past to whose achievements we should once again aspire? What if the origin of farming wasn’t a moment of liberation but of entrapment? Scott offers an alternative to the conventional narrative that is altogether more fascinating, not least in the way it omits any self-congratulation about human achievement. His account of the deep past doesn’t purport to be definitive, but it is surely more accurate than the one we’re used to, and it implicitly exposes the flaws in contemporary political ideas that ultimately rest on a narrative of human progress and on the ideal of the city/nation-state.

          Why did people start farming? At the ‘Man the Hunter’ symposium in Chicago in 1966, Marshall Sahlins drew on research from the likes of Richard B. Lee among the !Kung of the Kalahari to argue that hunter-gatherers enjoyed the ‘original affluent society’. Even in the most marginal environments, he said, hunter-gatherers weren’t engaged in a constant struggle for survival, but had a leisurely lifestyle. Sahlins and his sources may have pushed the argument a little too far, neglecting to consider, for instance, the time spent preparing food (lots of mongongo nuts to crack). But their case was strong enough to deal a severe blow to the idea that farming was salvation for hunter-gatherers: however you cut it, farming involves much higher workloads and incurs more physical ailments than relying on the wild. And the more we discover, as Scott points out, the better a hunter-gatherer diet, health and work-life balance look.

          This is especially true of the hunter-gatherers who dwelled in the wetlands where the first farming communities developed, in the Fertile Crescent, the arc of South-West Asia now covered by Jordan, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, southern Turkey, Iran and Iraq. Scott’s book focuses on Mesopotamia – the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates where the first city-states also appeared – though it takes many diversions into ancient China, Mesoamerica, and the Roman and Greek ancient worlds. Until about ten thousand years ago, Mesopotamia had been a world of hunter-gatherers with access to a huge range of resources: reeds and sedges for building and food, a great variety of edible plants (clubrush, cat’s-tails, water lily, bulrush), tortoises, fish, molluscs, crustaceans, birds, waterfowl, small mammals and migrating gazelles, which were the chief source of protein. The wild larder was routinely replenished by the annual cycle of the ripening of fruits and wild vegetables, and the seasonal changes that brought the arrival of migratory species.

          More mystery being explored. The "mystery" is not the past; it is our myths and beliefs about it.

          --

          ______________________________ ________

          Alexander Carpenter

          305 Sovereign Lane

          Santa Rosa  95401

          California, USA

          cell 707-527-2732 

           

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          Richard Balfour  
          Strategic Planner
          • SPORPORI Strategic Planning for Ocean Rise and Peak Oil Resettlement Institute

          7276 Denman Road Denman Island BC Canada V0R 1T0             250 335 0766
          Balfour Strategic Planning
          www.plancanada.com

          • Vancouver Peak Oil Executive www.vancouverpeakoil.org

          balfourarch@...











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