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Wednesday, June 8, 2011


Recent fieldwork and theoretical reinterpretations have somewhat blurred the distinction between the earlier stage of human development and the stage characterized by domestication of animals and cultivation of grain, but it remains the case that anyone looking backward from the present sees the following picture: A very long period, perhaps 100,000 years or more, during which Homo Sapiens merely reproduces itself, as does any other species, changing little or not at all genetically, so far as the fossil record indicates, followed by a rather brief period of historical time -- time, that is to say, for which we have some sort of record of human doings -- during which ever more rapid, social, intellectual, technological, and political change takes place, bringing us by dint of an explosion of material changes in the past two centuries to our present situation.

How did human beings live prior to the Neolithic Revolution? Since that long period of human existence seems lost forever in the mists of time, anthropologists have been forced to carry out a series of extremely elaborate inferences and extrapolations in an attempt to reconstruct some story of early human existence. They have had three bodies of evidence to go on. First of all, homo sapiens is a natural animal species evolving from earlier animal species, as have many of the animal species that are still found on the earth, living and reproducing, presumably, as their species have for many millions of years. So one observes lions, eland, chimpanzees, vervet monkeys, and stoats and tries to extrapolate. Studies of the feeding practices of mammals, coupled with post-mortem examinations of their bones, allows us to make reliable inferences and generalizations concerning the kinds of teeth and jaws that are characteristic of carnivores. herbivores, and omnivores. [I am aware that all of this is virtually baby talk to the sorts of sophisticated readers who might migrate to this blog, but I want you to think about how much observation, experiment, inference, and theoretical reconstruction is required to draw the simple conclusion that early homo sapiens ate a mixed diet of meat and plant foods.]

The second body of evidence is the fossilized remains of human bones, analysis of which makes it possible to form tentative conclusions about life expectancy, and even the stresses and strains of getting food. [Just as the discovery a few years ago of a slave graveyard in New York City allowed forensic anthropologists to draw conclusions from the deformations of the bones concerning the extraordinarily stressful work the slaves were forced to engage in.]

The third body of evidence is fossilized remains of tools and of firepits and cave sites, together with animal bones that have been [so far as we can tell] deliberately burned or broken, which tells us something about their diet. All of this permits us to conclude that human beings prior to the Neolithic Revolution had a reasonably sophisticated toolkit, consisting of sharp flakes struck from stones, carved ivory, and other fossilizable implements [leading one to wonder what other tools they had that were not susceptible to becoming fossils.]

[Brief autobiographical aside: During a trip led by a South African anthropologist to a site in the Northern Transvaal called Makapansgat, which was continuously occupied for twenty thousand years until the nineteenth century, I saw a microlith -- a tiny arrow head -- half projecting from an excavated cave wall. I plucked it out and put it in my pocket. This was about six kinds of illegal acts, and I hope the statute of limitations has run on at least some of them.]

Although it may not have occurred to you before in quite this way, this story poses two very difficult questions: First, and most obviously, what explains the rapid change of the past ten millennia, and most particularly of the past two centuries? And Second, equally puzzlingly though not so obviously, what explains the total absence of change in the period ten or fifteen times as long before that?

Neither of these is a problem for the Christian, Judaic, and Islamic traditions prior to the nineteenth centuries, for whom the creation account in the Old Testament is dispositive [as the lawyers like to say.] Nor were they problems for the Graeco-Roman authors of the classical tradition. But both are very much problems for ethnographers and anthropologists, once all the hard slogging work of digging, interpreting, and so forth has reconstructed the time line I have described. [Note, by the way, that archeological work on New World remains, and the slow appropriation, by European historians, of the Chinese historical traditions, although both complicate the picture somewhat, do not at all change the basic shape of the time line. The Neolithic Revolution stands, pretty much unchallenged, as the point at which unchanging reproduction, millennium after millennium, stops, and what we call historical development begins.]

There are, of course, a great many hypotheses to answer this pair of questions, but the most influential in modern methodological ethnographic circles is that of Marx - namely, that the locus of historical change is the class structure of a society. Taking over Hegel's notion of historical periodization [a notion that also played an important role in Tylor's classic work on the stages of religious development], Marx early in his life [in Part One of The German Ideology] put forward the thesis that the story of human history is essentially the story of progressively more advanced division of labor, with the consequent class struggles between those who control, and those who do not control, the means of production. This is, no doubt, a very powerful explanatory hypothesis, with whose use historians can organize a great deal of historical data and work out explanations of a wide variety of important historical events -- the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, the development of medieval feudalism, the English Civil War, the French Revolution, the American Revolution, the American Civil War, and so on.

But to an ethnographer interested in the pre-history of the human species, Marx's hypothesis must be construed as implying the claim that human groups -- tribes, bands, clans, or whatever one wished to call them -- exhibited no internal division of labor, nor any class structure based upon differential ownership of the means of production!

Transparently, Marx's story poses a new question: If division of labor, and the consequent class structure, is the engine of history, and if pre-historic humans therefore exhibited no division of labor or class structure, then what caused division of labor, class structure, and history to start, at the time of the Neolithic Revolution? One possible answer is that with the domestication of animals and the cultivation of grain, a significant productive surplus came into existence, and this provoked disputes over the control of the surplus that became transformed into class divisions.

How did human beings survive and reproduce prior to the Neolithic Revolution? The question asks not only by what techniques, or in what physical manner, did humans survive -- what did they eat and drink, what tools, if any, they used, etc. -- but also how we shall conceptualize their condition. What theoretical account shall we give of it?

Once again, enter Marx. And once again, the most important texts are early. In the same portion of The German ideology, Marx argues that it is collective, purposeful transformation of nature, or "production," that distinguishes the human species from other animals. Animal species live and reproduce in more or less successful adaptive relation to their environment. As the environment changes -- water becomes more or less available, food sources vary, climate changes -- the species adapts in ways that become encoded in its genetic make-up.

When human history gets going, social structure substitutes for species adaptation as the mediating element between humans and nature. Men and women still spend their time reproducing their conditions of existence, but now one must appeal to the social fact of differential ownership of the means of production to explain how, and how well, they do this. The social comes to interpose itself between the psychological and the natural as a third, autonomous category of existence.

In the absence of a social structure internal to the human group that mediates the process of production and reproduction, pre-historic human beings can only be thought of as living in a symbiotic relationship with their environment -- not productively transforming it, but living off it. Small bands of humans, we are asked to believe, hunt wild animals and gather such foods as grow naturally. They are, in short, Hunter-Gatherers.

All of this is in the nature of a theoretical reconstruction, buttressed by archeological
ce derived from the excavation of campsites, burial grounds, caves, and such like.

Imagine, if you can, the extraordinary excitement that anthropologists experience, when they hear that there are still groups of human beings living TODAY in this same prehistoric fashion! Primitive hunter-gatherers still living out the age-old patterns, far away in remote comers of the world so removed from modern settlements, trade routes, and even voyages of exploration that somehow they have been left behind by history! In the Outback of Australia, in the farthest reaches of the Kalahari, in the depths of the Amazon rain forest, the reports come back of the last remnants of extremely primitive peoples who neither domesticate animals nor farm, but live by ranging over their environment like herds of mammals, hunting and gathering.

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