From foragers and farmers to complex societies

So, as I’ve also tweetet I read quite a bit of stuff in The Human Past during this weekend. I know some of you are probably sick and tired of hearing about this book and wondering when I’ll finish it and move on to something else; those of you who feel this way will probably be happy to learn that I’ve now read more than half of the book (10 of the 19 chapters).

However the likelihood that I’ll give the book a rest is not very high. I find some of this stuf just incredibly interesting, and I don’t really feel like stopping half way through. The chapters I’ve read over the last week or so have mainly been about the rise of agriculture in various parts of the world and the consequences thereof (names of the chapters I’ve read over the last week: ‘The World Transformed: From foragers and farmers to states and empires’; ‘From foragers to complex societies in Southwest Asia’; ‘Origins of food-producing economies in the Americas’; ‘Holocene Africa’; ‘Holocene Europe’. The book also has a chapter about East Asian agriculture and one about Holocene Australia and the Pacific Basin, but I haven’t read those yet).

One of the interesting things about a book like this is that it makes you realize how much you didn’t know that you didn’t know. I touch upon my own ignorance a lot in this post, and I do it in part to make the readers perhaps start asking themselves some of the same questions I’ve been asking myself: How much do I actually know about this stuff? And how much of that ‘knowledge’ is actually mostly just sh*t I have made up along the way? I never really got a ‘what were you thinking? How could you be so stupid?’-type reaction along the way, but I probably ought to have had it and only my self-pride shielded me from it.

I have never really thought much about how farming came about; whether ‘plants or animals’ came first and which factors impacted this; how agriculture spread, from where and how fast; why it sometimes failed to spread to a specific area or region? How much it might have mattered that some specific places of the world are better suited to this food-production stuff than other places? All kinds of questions pop up once you start thinking about these things. At some specific loci on my knowledge map, I realized while reading the book that my own almost complete lack of knowledge about the subject had not in fact stopped me from having formed quite strong preconceptions about the way things were ‘supposed to have worked’ in the past. You form narratives in your mind, and often those narratives will be dead wrong because they are too simplistic, based on lack of information or perhaps just plain stupid if you give them even a moment’s thought. But you don’t, so the ideas stay where they are until they can be replaced by something else. I had no idea that Sahara was relatively fertile land some millenia ago, I had no idea that the spread of one small bug likely impacted the feasibility of cattle herding in Africa significantly in prehistoric times. I hadn’t thought about how risky the adoption of agricultural practices might have been in some marginal areas with, for instance, significant (long-term) variation in rainfall, nor had I thought about the fact that some places probably were very well suited for the hunter-gatherer way of life and actually didn’t ‘need farming’ to form what was at that point relatively complex societies. In my mental model agriculture used to be the ‘always obviously better choice’ for food procurement, so it didn’t occur to me that the food output of foraging groups some places could locally surpass that of agricultural societies. I also didn’t think about how farming and traditional food procurement strategies could be combined in various ways and how scales and degrees are probably better ways to think about these things than are zeros and ones. It did not occur to me when I started reading this that the process from foraging to farming wasn’t actually just a one-way street; in some places, farming came and then went away again because of climatic- or other factors which impacted food production enough to cause people to give up on that new way of life and go back to what used to work (this last one I actually consider quite embarrasing given my knowledge about Ancient China – I knew this already! Only I didn’t, really. But I ought to have known: “The northern frontiers of the Chinese world formed a zone where the opposing modes of life of the farmer and the herdsman mingled and combined. Down the centuries sometimes the pasturages would advance and the cultivated land shrink, sometimes the arid lands would be conquered and developed by the sedentary peoples. Just as certain tribes of herdsmen changed over to agriculture, so some Han adopted the nomads’ mode of life.”).

I have actually never really thought about how the process of animal domestication (and plant domestication, naturally…) probably depended crucially on which animals were actually around to be domesticated in the local areas, or about just how differently the continents, and local regions as well, were endowed on that score when these ideas first took hold (let’s just say that, for instance, there weren’t a lot of horses in South America pre-1500). Before I read these chapters, I never really thought of farming as some process which gradually developed over thousands of years, where hunter-gatherers played a very significant role in the evolution of the food-production process – I usually (wrongly) sort of assumed that some guy somewhere (perhaps several guys, living in different places) got this Great Idea, ‘and the rest is history’. I always wondered why nobody got that Great Idea a lot sooner, and I guess I’ve sort of gotten that question answered by now.

The last week’s reading has made me think long and hard about which other stupid ideas with no basis in facts I may have put into my head without realizing it. I’m sure there are a lot of them. I think that if you’re asking yourself questions like those after you’ve read some stuff, this is a good indicator that you’ve actually learned something. Ignorance, and its close friend stupidity, is incredibly easy to overlook, because there’s so much of it that you don’t even know where to look for it. You need to know something about X to figure out what you don’t know about X.


June 3, 2012 - Posted by | Anthropology, Archaeology, Books

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