Saturday, November 9, 2013

Farmers versus cavemen

A few anthropology links today. I noted this one a while back: Stone Age farmers, hunters kept their distance (Washington Post)
At first, the indigenous people largely disappeared from the scene altogether, fleeing to the north to continue their traditional mode of life. But even when they drifted back and became neighbors with the farmers, they remained to a large extent a breed apart.

“We don’t really know who set up those social boundaries, so we don’t know if it was the farmers who didn’t mix with the hunter gatherers or if it was the hunter-gatherers who wanted to stay by themselves,” said Ruth Bollongino, a biologist at the University of Mainz and the lead author “2000 Years of Parallel Societies in Stone Age Central Europe,” one of two new papers on Neolithic Europe published online Thursday by the journal Science. “Or maybe its both groups that wanted to keep their own identity.”

This is an old story. Think of the plot of “Shane,” in which the ranchers do battle with the “sodbusters.” Recall the tensions between “the farmer and the cowman” in the musical “Oklahoma!”

An enduring debate for decades has been whether agriculture arose in Europe through “cultural diffusion,” in which the techniques of farming and animal husbandry were adopted by the indigenous population from distant sources, or whether an entirely new population of people rolled into that part of the world and pushed out the natives. The second paper published Thursday in Science, reporting an analysis of hundreds of skeletal remains from multiple sites in Central Europe, provides evidence for the second scenario, which likely involved some degree of unpleasantness.

“There’s certainly a big culture clash at that time,” said Wolfgang Haak, a geneticist at the University of Adelaide and co-author of that paper. “Farmers are probably loud, noisy and stinky at the same time. They come with domestic farm animals and just take over the place.”

...the isotopic analysis showed that the people from the hunter-gatherer lineage were still living that way, with a diet relying heavily on fish, and the people from the farming lineage continued to be farmers. Everyone stuck to their way of life and rarely interbred...“They shared the same burial place for something between 400 and 600 years, so it would be very hard to explain that they did not know each other. We believe that they were close neighbors and had contact with each other and traded with each other. But still they didn’t mix.”
As the article mentions, there has been an ongoing debate about whether farming expanded from its river-valley origins because people heard of it and decided it was a better way to get their calories, or whether agriculturalists, because they always need more land to keep up with their growing populations, just forced out indigenous people and took over their land by virtue of their superior numbers and group cohesion (organized religion seems to follow settled agriculture).

The conventional wisdom taught in schools when I was younger (and probably still is), is that prior to settled agriculture, humans were living a poor and miserable existence, working day and night to eke out a meager subsistence on what they could wrest from a harsh and unforgiving environment, with no possessions save for what they could carry, and always on the move.  They had no art, literature, music or culture of any sort, and were constantly in conflict with one another for scarce resources.

Then, the story went, someone realized you could grow plants, especially cereals in the same location year after year. With a stable and reliable source of food and storable surpluses, we would be better fed and no longer have to worry about the vagaries of nature. Humans could finally leave that precarious and beastly existence behind and invent all the wonderful things we enjoy today: art, music, literature, architecture, science, laws, government and technology. We began climbing the ladder of progress, which continues in an unbroken line from the first farm fields to today's globalized urban environments.

This story was especially influenced by the Enlightenment, where thinkers posited about man in a "state of nature" apart from society or civilization. These Enlightenment thinkers had no real science to back up their claims, though, they were merely armchair thinkers who may have heard some snippets here and their about the "savages" encountered during the nascent expansion of European settlers into other parts of the world (mirroring very closely what had taken place in Europe millennia earlier), but had no real experience of life outside of their settled, hierarchical, agricultural civilizations which is all they had ever known. Neither Hobbes nor Rousseau had ever encountered a "primitive" civilization face-to-face. It was just all idle speculation.

That speculation turned out to be spectacularly wrong. Studies of our closest primate relatives confirmed beyond doubt that humans are inherently social creatures and have been living in small  groups far before we were even humans. The "solitary human" is a myth and never existed. And it turns out that the precarious existence of pre-agricuturalists that I described in the preceding  paragraph is far more descriptive of the average person living under settled agriculture than any hunter-gatherer.  Add to that the fact that as we saw in Progress was invented around 1870, that this awful mode of existence didn't slowly vanish as we commonly believe - most humans under the agricultural regime pretty much lived this exact same way into the lifetime of our great-grandparents! Today, sitting atop our gushers of oil in our industrial societies, we smugly congratulate ourselves at our progress and assume we were headed here all along rather than occupying a temporary blip in human history, even though billions continue to live on the edge of subsistence around the world even today.
Humans began seriously studying the few remaining hunter-gatherer tribes in the twentieth century (instead of simply driving them away and murdering them). It turned out that their existence was hardly on the knife-edge of survival; in fact they worked far less and were far taller and healthier than neighboring agricultural populations who frequently suffered from bouts of starvation and malnutrition when their staple crops failed. Hunter-gatherers had numerous methods to keep their populations in check and well under the carrying capacity of the surrounding environment. Agriculturalists' utter dependence on a few annual plant crops and burgeoning populations are a recipe for disaster. Even more troubling is that agriculture produces extremes of wealth and poverty not seen in hunter-gatherer cultures, meaning that while a few lived in luxury, most people lived a far more precarious existence no longer having direct access to nature's bounty, becoming dependent upon sociopathic elites. And far from having no art or music, hunter-gatherers have a rich oral culture and tradition and produce beautiful works of art.

There were no written records of the transition to agriculture (writing being an invention of the agriculture regime and first implemented to keep track of property ownership and debts). But the bones of our ancestors had a story to tell once our science had advanced far enough to read it. The story was very different than what we first thought. When agriculture came, so too did overpopulation, overcrowding, hunger, malnutrition, cavities, poor hygiene, stunted growth, shortened lifespans, and chronic diseases. Living in close proximity to other humans and animals for the first time gave rise to a frightening host of new pathogens which could jump from humans to animals and easily pass from person to person. Camps gave way to villages and then to cities, leading to human waste piling up, as well as burgeoning social conflict, and eventually laws, kingship, slavery, and organized territorial war in place of small interpersonal skirmishes, and a boom-and-bust cycle of alternating feast and famine that has brought down civilizations for all of human history.

I think the article above pretty clearly cements the idea that agriculture is not the boon people once thought it was. If the agricultural life were really so superior, and living off the land so precarious and stressful, then clearly the hunter-gatherers would have dropped their lifestyle and instead joined the farmers or taken up farming themselves. They didn't. In fact, based on the study, it looks like they avoided farming and farmers to the greatest extent possible for centuries. This is certainly not something that people living on the edge of survival would do voluntarily. I imagine that they took one look at the unremiting toil of the farmer working his fields from dawn to dusk with his wife stooped over a mortar and pestle grinding the grain all day long, wracked with arthritic joints and coughing with disease and said, "No thanks, we'll stick to camping and fishing thank you very much." But eventually, there were just too many agricuturalists and too few hunter-gatherers. They were pushed to more and more marginal lands, and then they were (mostly) gone. While we have no written records of the Neolithic revolution in the Near East, we have plenty of records of what happened when European cultures encountered the hunter-gatherer and village cultures of the New World and Australia. And once the land is covered in farm fields and the populations have swelled to enormous proportions, there is no going back.

Here's a recent piece by Ian Welsh describing this phenomenon:
The most important question about any ideology or social structure are these.  Does it win?  Can it defend itself?

Hunter-gathering, if the land-capacity isn’t close to carrying capacity, is usually a pretty good way to live.  What we see in the archeological record is that when the land gets close to carrying capacity, there is ton of violence, the number one cause of death of adult males becomes violence.  Enough below the carrying capacity and there is very little violence.  This is a generalization, there are exceptions, but the data seems to indicate it is generally true.

Hunter-gatherers are, generally speaking, healthier than agriculturalists and pastoralists.  They live longer, suffer less from disease, are taller, their women have wider hips and suffer less from childbirth, they have better dentition and so on.  The societies, again with some exceptions, are more egalitarian than most agricultural societies (though very early agricultural societies are more egalitarian than late hunter-gatherer societies, again, in general).  They also have vastly more free time than agriculturalists.

Basically, being a hunter-gatherer is about as good as it gets for most of human existence.  There are some better agricultural societies to live in for brief periods (certain periods of Roman history, say) but they are rare.  Industrial society produces better medicine and goods, but we work harder and have vastly more chronic disease even at the same age, and industrial society includes as its concommitent things like the widespread rape in the Congo and African poverty: that’s a requirement of our society, is not incidental.

But hunter-gatherers lose confrontations with pastoralists and agricultural societies.  It’s a great way to live, but more dense societies were better at violence, so hunter-gatherers were forced to the margins.

Whatever your society is like, it has to be able to win confrontations.  However your ideology organizes your society, even if that ideology produces a much more enjoyable society to live in than your competitors, if it can’t win in either the long or short term against its competitors, you’ve got a problem.
How to Create a Viable Ideology (Ian Welsh) Do go and read the whole thing; Welsh has been writing some great stuff lately.

And another note. With the advent of land and property, it seems like women became just another form of chattel, traded and controlled like so much livestock. But hunter-gatherer cultures were often much more egalitarian from a gender standpoint. In fact, they may have been so in the past, as this article asserts. It turns out that the artists of those visionary cave paintings were women:
Women made most of the oldest-known cave art paintings, suggests a new analysis of ancient handprints. Most scholars had assumed these ancient artists were predominantly men, so the finding overturns decades of archaeological dogma.

Archaeologist Dean Snow of Pennsylvania State University analyzed hand stencils found in eight cave sites in France and Spain. By comparing the relative lengths of certain fingers, Snow determined that three-quarters of the handprints were female.

"There has been a male bias in the literature for a long time," said Snow, whose research was supported by the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. "People have made a lot of unwarranted assumptions about who made these things, and why."

Hand stencils and handprints have been found in caves in Argentina, Africa, Borneo, and Australia. But the most famous examples are from the 12,000- to 40,000-year-old cave paintings in southern France and northern Spain.
So much for the caveman myth. I especially like this part:
For the new study, out this week in the journal American Antiquity, Snow examined hundreds of stencils in European caves, but most were too faint or smudged to use in the analysis. The study includes measurements from 32 stencils, including 16 from the cave of El Castillo in Spain, 6 from the caves of Gargas in France, and 5 from Pech Merle.

Snow ran the numbers through an algorithm that he had created based on a reference set of hands from people of European descent who lived near his university. Using several measurements—such as the length of the fingers, the length of the hand, the ratio of ring to index finger, and the ratio of index finger to little finger—the algorithm could predict whether a given handprint was male or female. Because there is a lot of overlap between men and women, however, the algorithm wasn't especially precise: It predicted the sex of Snow's modern sample with about 60 percent accuracy.

Luckily for Snow, that wasn't a problem for the analysis of the prehistoric handprints. As it turned out—much to his surprise—the hands in the caves were much more sexually dimorphic than modern hands, meaning that there was little overlap in the various hand measurements.

"They fall at the extreme ends, and even beyond the extreme ends," Snow said. "Twenty thousand years ago, men were men and women were women."
Indeed so. It makes sense that men had much more testosterone back then, when strength, athleticism and dominance were paramount, and competition for women much more fierce. We modern, civilized, domesticated men are probably a pretty pale shadow of what we used to be (and as a man it gives me great pains to say this). Just another reminder of what we're learning about what we've lost.


  1. Well, good stuff! First comment just on the coexistence. I heard that only some 10% of European genes are Near Eastern.

    I figure it was a long time before the more predominantly farming populations were strong enough to steal the forager women. I am surprised the diet remained so differentiated... after all, in the Americas, it was a rare tribe that was only forager and did not cultivate some as well. In varying degrees.

    More later.

  2. Farmers are diseased and have parasites. To put it simply, they shit where they eat and live, and that causes disease problems. (And living with pigs, if they do, causes problems as well.) Over time they get resistance, but the hunter-gatherers don't have so much, so they need to not interact if they don't want to get sick.

    1. Probably the best argument. Yup... Foragers fled the farmers like people fled the plague ridden cities. And they created powerful tabus against mixing.

  3. "I think the article above pretty clearly cements the idea that agriculture is not the boon people once thought it was."

    You make it all too black and white. In Europe, foragers fled from the animal farmers. In North America, turkey, here and there, was the only domesticated animal, and people did not need to flee. In fact, according to a table put together on N. Am. tribes, about 40% ag and 60% foraging was the most favorite combination, and as such, would not have caused the malnutrition and other problems. In fact, I think it's probably the most pleasant way to live of them all -- being sole forager can be pretty brutal at times, esp. in climate vagaries and in the winter.

  4. "When agriculture came, so too did overpopulation, overcrowding, hunger, malnutrition, cavities, poor hygiene, stunted growth, shortened lifespans, and chronic diseases."

    Mmmm... that's the popular story. I read it this way: When inequality (elites) came, both foraging (where plenty allowed it) and foraging cum cultivation led to intensification, which in turn led to overpopulation, overcrowding, hunger, malnutrition, cavities, poor hygiene, stunted growth, shortened lifespans, and chronic diseases. And it also led to increasingly agriculture as we know it, monoculture, rape of the soil, and back breaking labor.

    There is good evidence that in areas where ag took over, populations fell and it was many centuries before they recovered. Makes sense, no? If the sole ag lifestyle is so nasty, then the populations will fall until they figure out some of the problems.

  5. Excellent stuff on the problem of power. Thanks for the link.


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