19 Apr 2021
Social hierarchies enable large-scale societies to efficiently cooperate and interact, but are also used to maintain oppressive power structures and create lasting socioeconomic injustices. No specific form of social hierarchy is natural, because each is rooted in imagined orders created by humans and is thus a cultural choice – but some form of oppressive social hierarchy has existed in every complex society. Though not all forms of hierarchy are necessarily oppressive, e.g. among family members, citizens, states, humans and animals, and humans and machines. Quotes below are from Sapiens:
Understanding human history in the millennia following the Agricultural Revolution boils down to a single question: how did humans organise themselves in mass-cooperation networks, when they lacked the biological instincts necessary to sustain such networks? The short answer is that humans created imagined orders and devised scripts [writing]. These two inventions filled the gaps left by our biological inheritance.
However, the appearance of these networks was, for many, a dubious blessing. The imagined orders sustaining these networks were neither neutral nor fair. They divided people into make-believe groups, arranged in a hierarchy. The upper levels enjoyed privileges and power, while the lower ones suffered from discrimination and oppression.
… [these] distinctions – between free persons and slaves, between whites and blacks, between rich and poor – are rooted in fictions. [There are many theories behind the hierarchy of men and women – some biological but not very convincing.] Yet it is an iron rule of history that every imagined hierarchy disavows its fictional origins and claims to be natural and inevitable. For instance, many people who have viewed the hierarchy of free persons and slaves as natural and correct have argued that slavery is not a human invention. Hammurabi saw it as ordained by the gods. Aristotle argued that slaves have a ‘slavish nature’ whereas free people have a ‘free nature’. Their status in society is merely a reflection of their innate nature.
Yet, to the best of our understanding, these hierarchies are all the product of human imagination. Brahmins and Shudras were not really created by the gods from different body parts of a primeval being. Instead, the distinction between the two castes was created by laws and norms invented by humans in northern India about 3,000 years ago. Contrary to Aristotle, there is no known biological difference between slaves and free people. Human laws and norms have turned some people into slaves and others into masters. Between blacks and whites there are some objective biological differences, such as skin colour and hair type, but there is no evidence that the differences extend to intelligence or morality.
Most people claim that their social hierarchy is natural and just, while those of other societies are based on false and ridiculous criteria. Modern Westerners are taught to scoff at the idea of racial hierarchy. They are shocked by laws prohibiting blacks to live in white neighbourhoods, or to study in white schools, or to be treated in white hospitals. But the hierarchy of rich and poor – which mandates that rich people live in separate and more luxurious neighbourhoods, study in separate and more prestigious schools, and receive medical treatment in separate and better-equipped facilities – seems perfectly sensible to many Americans and Europeans. Yet it’s a proven fact that most rich people are rich for the simple reason that they were born into a rich family, while most poor people will remain poor throughout their lives simply because they were born into a poor family.
On the origin of hierarchies:
In most cases the hierarchy originated as the result of a set of accidental historical circumstances and was then perpetuated and refined over many generations as different groups developed vested interests in it.
For instance, many scholars surmise that the Hindu caste system took shape when Indo-Aryan people invaded the Indian subcontinent about 3,000 years ago, subjugating the local population. The invaders established a stratified society, in which they – of course – occupied the leading positions (priests and warriors), leaving the natives to live as servants and slaves. The invaders, who were few in number, feared losing their privileged status and unique identity. To forestall this danger, they divided the population into castes, each of which was required to pursue a specific occupation or perform a specific role in society. Each had different legal status, privileges and duties. Mixing of castes – social interaction, marriage, even the sharing of meals – was prohibited. And the distinctions were not just legal – they became an inherent part of religious mythology and practice.
The rulers argued that the caste system reflected an eternal cosmic reality rather than a chance historical development. Concepts of purity and impurity were essential elements in Hindu religion, and they were harnessed to buttress the social pyramid. Pious Hindus were taught that contact with members of a different caste could pollute not only them personally, but society as a whole, and should therefore be abhorred. Such ideas are hardly unique to Hindus. Throughout history, and in almost all societies, concepts of pollution and purity have played a leading role in enforcing social and political divisions and have been exploited by numerous ruling classes to maintain their privileges. … If you want to keep any human group isolated … the best way to do it is convince everyone that these people are a source of pollution.
On their role:
Hierarchies serve an important function. They enable complete strangers to know how to treat one another without wasting the time and energy needed to become personally acquainted.
Unfortunately, complex human societies seem to require imagined hierarchies and unjust discrimination. Of course not all hierarchies are morally identical, and some societies suffered from more extreme types of discrimination than others, yet scholars know of no large society that has been able to dispense with discrimination altogether. Time and again people have created order in their societies by classifying the population into imagined categories, such as superiors, commoners and slaves; whites and blacks; patricians and plebeians; Brahmins and Shudras; or rich and poor. These categories have regulated relations between millions of humans by making some people legally, politically or socially superior to others.
On their implications:
Of course, differences in natural abilities also play a role in the formation of social distinctions. But such diversities of aptitudes and character are usually mediated through imagined hierarchies. This happens in two important ways. First and foremost, most abilities have to be nurtured and developed. Even if somebody is born with a particular talent, that talent will usually remain latent if it is not fostered, honed and exercised. Not all people get the same chance to cultivate and refine their abilities. Whether or not they have such an opportunity will usually depend on their place within their society’s imagined hierarchy.
Second, even if people belonging to different classes develop exactly the same abilities, they are unlikely to enjoy equal success because they will have to play the game by different rules. If, in British-ruled India, an Untouchable, a Brahmin, a Catholic Irishman and a Protestant Englishman had somehow developed exactly the same business acumen, they still would not have had the same chance of becoming rich. The economic game was rigged by legal restrictions and unofficial glass ceilings.
[These biased imagined orders create a vicious cycle for the oppressed tiers of the hierarchy, where they continue to be oppressed through additional biases created in the wake of the initial imagined order, even long after the initial order is officially abolished.]
Such vicious circles can go on for centuries and even millennia, perpetuating an imagined hierarchy that sprang from a chance historical occurrence. Unjust discrimination often gets worse, not better, with time. Money comes to money, and poverty to poverty. Education comes to education, and ignorance to ignorance. Those once victimised by history are likely to be victimised yet again. And those whom history has privileged are more likely to be privileged again.
Most sociopolitical hierarchies lack a logical or biological basis – they are nothing but the perpetuation of chance events supported by myths. That is one good reason to study history. If the division into blacks and whites or Brahmins and Shudras was grounded in biological realities – that is, if Brahmins really had better brains than Shudras – biology would be sufficient for understanding human society. Since the biological distinctions between different groups of Homo sapiens are, in fact, negligible, biology can’t explain the intricacies of Indian society or American racial dynamics. We can only understand those phenomena by studying the events, circumstances, and power relations that transformed figments of imagination into cruel – and very real – social structures.
17 Apr 2021
Large-scale human societies depend on imagined orders (i.e. shared beliefs) to function, as they enable lots of people to cooperate effectively. Quotes from Sapiens:
The population growth from the Agricultural Revolution required more depth and complexity of imagined orders:
The food surpluses [of the Agricultural Revolution] produced by peasants, coupled with new transportation technology, eventually enabled more and more people to cram together first into large villages, then into towns, and finally into cities, all of them joined together by new kingdoms and commercial networks. … Yet in order to take advantage of these new opportunities, food surpluses and improved transportation were not enough. The mere fact that one can feed a thousand people in the same town or a million people in the same kingdom does not guarantee that they can agree how to divide the land and water, how to settle disputes and conflicts, and how to act in times of drought or war. And if no agreement can be reached, strife spreads, even if the storehouses are bulging.
When the Agricultural Revolution opened opportunities for the creation of crowded cities and mighty empires, people invented stories about great gods, motherlands and joint stock companies to provide the needed social links. While human evolution was crawling at its usual snail’s pace, the human imagination was building astounding networks of mass cooperation, unlike any other ever seen on earth. … All these cooperation networks – from the cities of ancient Mesopotamia to the Qin and Roman empires – were ‘imagined orders’. The social norms that sustained them were based neither on ingrained instincts nor on personal acquaintances, but rather on belief in shared myths.
Impressive, no doubt, but we mustn’t harbour rosy illusions about ‘mass cooperation networks’ operating in pharaonic Egypt or the Roman Empire. ‘Cooperation’ sounds very altruistic, but is not always voluntary and seldom egalitarian. Most human cooperation networks have been geared towards oppression and exploitation. The peasants paid for the burgeoning cooperation networks with their precious food surpluses, despairing when the tax collector wiped out an entire year of hard labour with a single stroke of his imperial pen. The famed Roman amphitheatres were often built by slaves so that wealthy and idle Romans could watch other slaves engage in vicious gladiatorial combat. Even prisons and concentration camps are cooperation networks, and can function only because thousands of strangers somehow manage to coordinate their actions.
Both the Code of Hammurabi and the American Declaration of Independence claim to outline universal and eternal principles of justice, but according to the Americans all people are equal, whereas according to the Babylonians people are decidedly unequal. The Americans would, of course, say that they are right, and that Hammurabi is wrong. Hammurabi, naturally, would retort that he is right, and that the Americans are wrong. In fact, they are both wrong. Hammurabi and the American Founding Fathers alike imagined a reality governed by universal and immutable principles of justice, such as equality or hierarchy. Yet the only place where such universal principles exist is in the fertile imagination of Sapiens, and in the myths they invent and tell one another. These principles have no objective validity.
It is easy for us to accept that the division of people into ‘superiors’ and commoners’ is a figment of the imagination. Yet the idea that all humans are equal is also a myth. In what sense do all humans equal one another? Is there any objective reality, outside the human imagination, in which we are truly equal? Are all humans equal to one another biologically?
Advocates of equality and human rights may be outraged by this line of reasoning. Their response is likely to be, ‘We know that people are not equal biologically! But if we believe that we are all equal in essence, it will enable us to create a stable and prosperous society.’ I have no argument with that. This is exactly what I mean by ‘imagined order’. We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society. Imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. Rather, they are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively. Bear in mind, though, that Hammurabi might have defended his principle of hierarchy using the same logic: ‘I know that superiors, commoners and slaves are not inherently different kinds of people. But if we believe that they are, it will enable us to create a stable and prosperous society.’
Imagined orders can be maintained by coercion, but the most effective and efficient way is to make people truly believe in it:
If people realise that human rights exist only in the imagination, isn’t there a danger that our society will collapse? … Such fears are well justified. A natural order is a stable order. There is no chance that gravity will cease to function tomorrow, even if people stop believing in it. In contrast, an imagined order is always in danger of collapse, because it depends upon myths, and myths vanish once people stop believing in them. In order to safeguard an imagined order, continuous and strenuous efforts are imperative. Some of these efforts take the shape of violence and coercion. Armies, police forces, courts and prisons are ceaselessly at work forcing people to act in accordance with the imagined order.
However, an imagined order cannot be sustained by violence alone. It requires some true believers as well. … A single priest often does the work of a hundred soldiers far more cheaply and effectively. Moreover, no matter how efficient bayonets are, somebody must wield them. Why should the soldiers, jailors, judges and police maintain an imagined order in which they do not believe? Of all human collective activities, the one most difficult to organise is violence. To say that a social order is maintained by military force immediately raises the question: what maintains the military order? It is impossible to organise an army solely by coercion. At least some of the commanders and soldiers must truly believe in something, be it God, honour, motherland, manhood or money.
An even more interesting question concerns those standing at the top of the social pyramid. Why should they wish to enforce an imagined order if they themselves don’t believe in it? It is quite common to argue that the elite may do so out of cynical greed. Yet a cynic who believes in nothing is unlikely to be greedy. It does not take much to provide the objective biological needs of Homo sapiens. After those needs are met, more money can be spent on building pyramids, taking holidays around the world, financing election campaigns, funding your favourite terrorist organisation, or investing in the stock market and making yet more money – all of which are activities that a true cynic would find utterly meaningless. Diogenes, the Greek philosopher who founded the Cynical school, lived in a barrel. When Alexander the Great once visited Diogenes as he was relaxing in the sun, and asked if there were anything he might do for him, the Cynic answered the all-powerful conqueror, ‘Yes, there is something you can do for me. Please move a little to the side. You are blocking the sunlight.’
This is why cynics don’t build empires and why an imagined order can be maintained only if large segments of the population – and in particular large segments of the elite and the security forces – truly believe in it. Christianity would not have lasted 2,000 years if the majority of bishops and priests failed to believe in Christ. American democracy would not have lasted 250 years if the majority of presidents and congressmen failed to believe in human rights. The modern economic system would not have lasted a single day if the majority of investors and bankers failed to believe in capitalism.
Imagined orders are built into peoples’ lives to get them to believe in it:
How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined. You always insist that the order sustaining society is an objective reality created by the great gods or by the laws of nature. … You also educate people thoroughly. From the moment they are born, you constantly remind them of the principles of the imagined order, which are incorporated into anything and everything. They are incorporated into fairy tales, dramas, paintings, songs, etiquette, political propaganda, architecture, recipes and fashions.
The humanities and social sciences devote most of their energies to explaining exactly how the imagined order is woven into the tapestry of life. In the limited space at our disposal we can only scratch the surface. Three main factors prevent people from realising that the order organising their lives exists only in their imagination:
a. The imagined order is embedded in the material world. Though the imagined order exists only in our minds, it can be woven into the material reality around us, and even set in stone.
b. The imagined order shapes our desires. Most people do not wish to accept that the order governing their lives is imaginary, but in fact every person is born into a pre-existing imagined order, and his or her desires are shaped from birth by its dominant myths. Our personal desires thereby become the imagined order’s most important defences.
c. The imagined order is inter-subjective. Even if by some superhuman effort I succeed in freeing my personal desires from the grip of the imagined order, I am just one person. In order to change the imagined order I must convince millions of strangers to cooperate with me. For the imagined order is not a subjective order existing in my own imagination – it is rather an inter-subjective order, existing in the shared imagination of thousands and millions of people.
In order to understand this, we need to understand the difference between ‘objective’, ‘subjective’, and ‘inter-subjective’.
An objective phenomenon exists independently of human consciousness and human beliefs. Radioactivity, for example, is not a myth. Radioactive emissions occurred long before people discovered them, and they are dangerous even when people do not believe in them. Marie Curie, one of the discoverers of radioactivity, did not know, during her long years of studying radioactive materials, that they could harm her body. While she did not believe that radioactivity could kill her, she nevertheless died of aplastic anaemia, a disease caused by overexposure to radioactive materials.
The subjective is something that exists depending on the consciousness and beliefs of a single individual. It disappears or changes if that particular individual changes his or her beliefs. Many a child believes in the existence of an imaginary friend who is invisible and inaudible to the rest of the world. The imaginary friend exists solely in the child’s subjective consciousness, and when the child grows up and ceases to believe in it, the imaginary friend fades away.
The inter-subjective is something that exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals. If a single individual changes his or her beliefs, or even dies, it is of little importance. However, if most individuals in the network die or change their beliefs, the inter-subjective phenomenon will mutate or disappear. Inter-subjective phenomena are neither malevolent frauds nor insignificant charades. They exist in a different way from physical phenomena such as radioactivity, but their impact on the world may still be enormous. Many of history’s most important drivers are inter-subjective: law, money, gods, nations.
Changing or dismantling these beliefs requires an even more powerful belief:
Peugeot, for example, is not the imaginary friend of Peugeot’s CEO. The company exists in the shared imagination of millions of people. The CEO believes in the company’s existence because the board of directors also believes in it, as do the company’s lawyers, the secretaries in the nearby office, the tellers in the bank, the brokers on the stock exchange, and car dealers from France to Australia. If the CEO alone were suddenly to stop believing in Peugeot’s existence, he’d quickly land in the nearest mental hospital and someone else would occupy his office.
Similarly, the dollar, human rights and the United States of America exist in the shared imagination of billions, and no single individual can threaten their existence. If I alone were to stop believing in the dollar, in human rights, or in the United States, it wouldn’t much matter. These imagined orders are inter-subjective, so in order to change them we must simultaneously change the consciousness of billions of people, which is not easy. A change of such magnitude can be accomplished only with the help of a complex organisation, such as a political party, an ideological movement, or a religious cult. However, in order to establish such complex organisations, it’s necessary to convince many strangers to cooperate with one another. And this will happen only if these strangers believe in some shared myths. It follows that in order to change an existing imagined order, we must first believe in an alternative imagined order.
In order to dismantle Peugeot, for example, we need to imagine something more powerful, such as the French legal system. In order to dismantle the French legal system we need to imagine something even more powerful, such as the French state. And if we would like to dismantle that too, we will have to imagine something yet more powerful.
There is no way out of the imagined order. When we break down our prison walls and run towards freedom, we are in fact running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison.
16 Apr 2021
The Neolithic (First Agricultural) Revolution marked a pivot from hunter-gatherer to farmer lifestyles ~10,000 years ago, creating powerful implications for the rest of human history. It enabled the development of modern society, including (delayed) benefits of population growth, cities, specialization, trade, and new forms of government; though it came with the immediate costs of disease, violence, poor nutrition, and grueling labor for the vast majority of the population, and opened the door for the long-term cost of increased inequalities.
In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari presents an initially dismal view of the Agricultural Revolution, characterized by the suffering of farmers without improvements in quality of life. This is consistent with Jared Diamond’s views as well.
… about 10,000 years ago, … Sapiens began to devote almost all their time and effort to manipulating the lives of a few animal and plant species. From sunrise to sunset humans sowed seeds, watered plants, plucked weeds from the ground and led sheep to prime pastures. This work, they thought, would provide them with more fruit, grain and meat. It was a revolution in the way humans lived – the Agricultural Revolution.
Scholars once proclaimed that the agricultural revolution was a great leap forward for humanity. They told a tale of progress fuelled by human brain power. Evolution gradually produced ever more intelligent people. Eventually, people were so smart that they were able to decipher nature’s secrets, enabling them to tame sheep and cultivate wheat. As soon as this happened, they cheerfully abandoned the gruelling, dangerous, and often spartan life of hunter-gatherers, settling down to enjoy the pleasant, satiated life of farmers.
That tale is a fantasy. There is no evidence that people became more intelligent with time. Foragers knew the secrets of nature long before the Agricultural Revolution, since their survival depended on an intimate knowledge of the animals they hunted and the plants they gathered. Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease. The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.
The culprits were a handful of plant species, including wheat, rice and potatoes. These plants domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa. … [Sapiens] had been living a fairly comfortable life hunting and gathering until about 10,000 years ago, but then began to invest more and more effort in cultivating wheat. Within a couple of millennia, humans in many parts of the world were doing little from dawn to dusk other than taking care of wheat plants.
How did wheat convince Homo sapiens to exchange a rather good life for a more miserable existence? What did it offer in return? It did not offer a better diet. Remember, humans are omnivorous apes who thrive on a wide variety of foods. Grains made up only a small fraction of the human diet before the Agricultural Revolution. A diet based on cereals is poor in minerals and vitamins, hard to digest, and really bad for your teeth and gums.
Wheat did not give people economic security. The life of a peasant is less secure than that of a hunter-gatherer. Foragers relied on dozens of species to survive, and could therefore weather difficult years even without stocks of preserved food. … Farming societies have, until very recently, relied for the great bulk of their calorie intake on a small variety of domesticated plants. In many areas, they relied on just a single staple, such as wheat, potatoes or rice. If the rains failed or clouds of locusts arrived or if a fungus learned how to infect that staple species, peasants died by the thousands and millions.
Nor could wheat offer security against human violence. The early farmers were at least as violent as their forager ancestors, if not more so. Farmers had more possessions and needed land for planting. The loss of pasture land to raiding neighbours could mean the difference between subsistence and starvation, so there was much less room for compromise. When a foraging band was hard-pressed by a stronger rival, it could usually move on. It was difficult and dangerous, but it was feasible. When a strong enemy threatened an agricultural village, retreat meant giving up fields, houses and granaries. In many cases, this doomed the refugees to starvation. Farmers, therefore, tended to stay put and fight to the bitter end.
Village life certainly brought the first farmers some immediate benefits, such as better protection against wild animals, rain and cold. Yet for the average person, the disadvantages probably outweighed the advantages. This is hard for people in today’s prosperous societies to appreciate. Since we enjoy affluence and security, and since our affluence and security are built on foundations laid by the Agricultural Revolution, we assume that the Agricultural Revolution was a wonderful improvement. Yet it is wrong to judge thousands of years of history from the perspective of today. A much more representative viewpoint is that of a three-year-old girl dying from malnutrition in first-century China because her father’s crops have failed. Would she say ‘I am dying from malnutrition, but in 2,000 years, people will have plenty to eat and live in big air-conditioned houses, so my suffering is a worthwhile sacrifice’?
What then did wheat offer agriculturists, including that malnourished Chinese girl? It offered nothing for people as individuals. Yet it did bestow something on Homo sapiens as a species. Cultivating wheat provided much more food per unit of territory, and thereby enabled Homo sapiens to multiply exponentially. Around 13,000 BC, when people fed themselves by gathering wild plants and hunting wild animals, the area around the oasis of Jericho, in Palestine, could support at most one roaming band of about a hundred relatively healthy and well-nourished people. Around 8500 BC, when wild plants gave way to wheat fields, the oasis supported a large but cramped village of 1,000 people, who suffered far more from disease and malnourishment.
The currency of evolution is neither hunger nor pain, but rather copies of DNA helixes. Just as the economic success of a company is measured only by the number of dollars in its bank account, not by the happiness of its employees, so the evolutionary success of a species is measured by the number of copies of its DNA. If no more DNA copies remain, the species is extinct, just as a company without money is bankrupt. If a species boasts many DNA copies, it is a success, and the species flourishes. From such a perspective, 1,000 copies are always better than a hundred copies. This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.
However, Harari also recognizes the Agricultural Revolution was the foundation of modern society and the eventual quality-of-life improvements that came with it:
The stress of farming had far-reaching consequences. It was the foundation of large-scale political and social systems. Sadly, the diligent peasants almost never achieved the future economic security they so craved through their hard work in the present. Everywhere, rulers and elites sprang up, living off the peasants’ surplus food and leaving them with only a bare subsistence.
These forfeited food surpluses fuelled politics, wars, art and philosophy. They built palaces, forts, monuments and temples. Until the late modern era, more than 90 per cent of humans were peasants who rose each morning to till the land by the sweat of their brows. The extra they produced fed the tiny minority of elites – kings, government officials, soldiers, priests, artists and thinkers – who fill the history books. History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.
Aside: Harari notes agricultural revolutions occurred independently in several regions, rather than being exported from a single region. These occurrences depended on the region’s (opportunistic) environmental abilities to domesticate plants and animals, rather than certain regions being exceptionally intelligent. This is also consistent with Jared Diamond’s view in Guns, Germs, and Steel.
Scholars once believed that agriculture spread from a single Middle Eastern point of origin to the four corners of the world. Today, scholars agree that agriculture sprang up in other parts of the world not by the action of Middle Eastern farmers exporting their revolution but entirely independently. … From these initial focal points [of Central America, South America, China, North America, New Guinea, and West Africa], agriculture spread far and wide. By the first century AD the vast majority of people throughout most of the world were agriculturists.
Why did agricultural revolutions erupt in the Middle East, China and Central America but not in Australia, Alaska or South Africa? The reason is simple: most species of plants and animals can’t be domesticated. Sapiens could dig up delicious truffles and hunt down woolly mammoths, but domesticating either species was out of the question. The fungi were far too elusive, the giant beasts too ferocious. Of the thousands of species that our ancestors hunted and gathered, only a few were suitable candidates for farming and herding. Those few species lived in particular places, and those are the places where agricultural revolutions occurred.
03 Apr 2021
Just because we don’t know what happened, doesn’t mean what did happen was unimportant.
If the larger picture of ancient forager life is hard to reconstruct, particular events are largely irretrievable. When a Sapiens band first entered a valley inhabited by Neanderthals, the following years might have witnessed a breathtaking historical drama. Unfortunately, nothing would have survived from such an encounter except, at best, a few fossilised bones and a handful of stone tools that remain mute under the most intense scholarly inquisitions. We may extract from them information about human anatomy, human technology, human diet, and perhaps even human social structure. But they reveal nothing about the political alliance forged between neighbouring Sapiens bands, about the spirits of the dead that blessed this alliance, or about the ivory beads secretly given to the local witch doctor in order to secure the blessing of the spirits.
This curtain of silence shrouds tens of thousands of years of history. These long millennia may well have witnessed wars and revolutions, ecstatic religious movements, profound philosophical theories, incomparable artistic masterpieces. The foragers may have had their all-conquering Napoleons, who ruled empires half the size of Luxembourg; gifted Beethovens who lacked symphony orchestras but brought people to tears with the sound of their bamboo flutes; and charismatic prophets who revealed the words of a local oak tree rather than those of a universal creator god. But these are all mere guesses. The curtain of silence is so thick that we cannot even be sure such things occurred – let alone describe them in detail.
Scholars tend to ask only those questions that they can reasonably expect to answer. Without the discovery of as yet unavailable research tools, we will probably never know what the ancient foragers believed or what political dramas they experienced. Yet it is vital to ask questions for which no answers are available, otherwise we might be tempted to dismiss 60,000 of 70,000 years of human history with the excuse that ‘the people who lived back then did nothing of importance’.
The truth is that they did a lot of important things. In particular, they shaped the world around us to a much larger degree than most people realise. Trekkers visiting the Siberian tundra, the deserts of central Australia and the Amazonian rainforest believe that they have entered pristine landscapes, virtually untouched by human hands. But that’s an illusion. The foragers were there before us and they brought about dramatic changes even in the densest jungles and the most desolate wildernesses.
27 Mar 2021
Were ancient societies exceptionally peaceful or violent? As with most things, it depends; no sweeping conclusion can be made.
Finally, there’s the thorny question of the role of war in forager societies. Some scholars imagine ancient hunter-gatherer societies as peaceful paradises, and argue that war and violence began only with the Agricultural Revolution, when people started to accumulate private property. Other scholars maintain that the world of the ancient foragers was exceptionally cruel and violent. Both schools of thought are castles in the air, connected to the ground by the thin strings of meagre archaeological remains and anthropological observations of present-day foragers.
The anthropological evidence is intriguing but very problematic. Foragers today live mainly in isolated and inhospitable areas such as the Arctic or the Kalahari, where population density is very low and opportunities to fight other people are limited. Moreover, in recent generations, foragers have been increasingly subject to the authority of modern states, which prevent the eruption of large-scale conflicts. European scholars have had only two opportunities to observe large and relatively dense populations of independent foragers: in north-western North America in the nineteenth century, and in northern Australia during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Both Amerindian and Aboriginal Australian cultures witnessed frequent armed conflicts. It is debatable, however, whether this represents a ‘timeless’ condition or the impact of European imperialism.
The archaeological findings are both scarce and opaque. What telltale clues might remain of any war that took place tens of thousands of years ago? There were no fortifications and walls back then, no artillery shells or even swords and shields. An ancient spear point might have been used in war, but it could have been used in a hunt as well. Fossilised human bones are no less hard to interpret. A fracture might indicate a war wound or an accident. Nor is the absence of fractures and cuts on an ancient skeleton conclusive proof that the person to whom the skeleton belonged did not die a violent death. Death can be caused by trauma to soft tissues that leaves no marks on bone. Even more importantly, during pre-industrial warfare more than 90 per cent of war dead were killed by starvation, cold and disease rather than by weapons. Imagine that 30,000 years ago one tribe defeated its neighbour and expelled it from coveted foraging grounds. In the decisive battle, ten members of the defeated tribe were killed. In the following year, another hundred members of the losing tribe died from starvation, cold and disease. Archaeologists who come across these no skeletons may too easily conclude that most fell victim to some natural disaster. How would we be able to tell that they were all victims of a merciless war?
Duly warned, we can now turn to the archaeological findings. In Portugal, a survey was made of 400 skeletons from the period immediately predating the Agricultural Revolution. Only two skeletons showed clear marks of violence. A similar survey of 400 skeletons from the same period in Israel discovered a single crack in a single skull that could be attributed to human violence. A third survey of 400 skeletons from various pre-agricultural sites in the Danube Valley found evidence of violence on eighteen skeletons. Eighteen out of 400 may not sound like a lot, but it’s actually a very high percentage. If all eighteen indeed died violently, it means that about 4.5 per cent of deaths in the ancient Danube Valley were caused by human violence. Today, the global average is only 1.5 per cent, taking war and crime together. During the twentieth century, only 5 per cent of human deaths resulted from human violence – and this in a century that saw the bloodiest wars and most massive genocides in history. If this revelation is typical, the ancient Danube Valley was as violent as the twentieth century.
The depressing findings from the Danube Valley are supported by a string of equally depressing findings from other areas. At Jabl Sahaba in Sudan, a 12,000-year-old cemetery containing fifty-nine skeletons was discovered. Arrowheads and spear points were found embedded in or lying near the bones of twenty-four skeletons, 40 per cent of the find. The skeleton of one woman revealed twelve injuries. In Ofnet Cave in Bavaria, archaeologists discovered the remains of thirty-eight foragers, mainly women and children, who had been thrown into two burial pits. Half the skeletons, including those of children and babies, bore clear signs of damage by human weapons such as clubs and knives. The few skeletons belonging to mature males bore the worst marks of violence. In all probability, an entire forager band was massacred at Ofnet.
Which better represents the world of the ancient foragers: the peaceful skeletons from Israel and Portugal, or the abattoirs of Jabl Sahaba and Ofnet? The answer is neither. Just as foragers exhibited a wide array of religions and social structures, so, too, did they probably demonstrate a variety of violence rates. While some areas and some periods of time may have enjoyed peace and tranquillity, others were riven by ferocious conflicts.