Principal Work, Sex, and Power. The Forces that Shaped Our History

Work, Sex, and Power. The Forces that Shaped Our History

Determining the forces that have shaped our history is always a contentious matter. Seen through the work of authors from Jared Diamond to Eric Hobsbawm, people’s fascination with what drives the actions of the human race is inexhaustible.

This book seeks to reach a much wider audience than his previous, more academic books. Purged of any jargon, this volume will be accessible to an audience who are relatively new to Marxism. It attempts to discuss and explain the foundations of social structures and themes that have recurred throughout the phases of global history in the interaction between humans and their environment. From communities of Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers to the machine-civilisation of recent centuries, Thompson takes us on a journey through the latest thinking in regard to long-term historical development.
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2015
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Pluto Press
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english
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Work, Sex and Power

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Work, Sex and Power
The Forces that
Shaped Our History

Willie Thompson

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First published 2015 by Pluto Press
345 Archway Road, London N6 5AA
www.plutobooks.com
Copyright © Willie Thompson 2015
The right of Willie Thompson to be identified as the author of this work has been
asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
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Simultaneously printed digitally by CPI Antony Rowe, Chippenham, UK
and Edwards Bros in the United States of America

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Contents

Preface and Acknowledgementsix
Historical Timelinex
Introduction: The Fabric of History
1. Cosmos, Creatures and Consciousness

1
9

2. Cooperation, Stone, Bone and Dispersal

20

3. The Neolithic Transformation and its Consequences: Settlement,
Wealth and Social Differentiation

27

4. Gender Differentiation, Sex and Kindred

35

5. Status Differentiation, Hierarchy and Hegemony

55

6. Exploitation and Violence

78

7. Ethics, Ambitions, Crime and Punishment

99

8. The Origins of Belief in the Supernatural and the First Salvation
Religions112
9. Monotheism

130

10. Imagined Communities: Signs and Symbols, Ident; ities and Nations

145

11. A Broad View – The Rhythm of Empire

164

12. Human Reality in Transformation: Modern Population, Migration
and Labour

176

13. Inhuman Powers: Capitalism, Industry and their Consequences

187

14. No Such Thing as a Free Lunch: Trade-Offs, Opportunity Cost and
the Dynamic of Unintended Consequences

203

15. Social Critique

219

16. Socialism: Its Promise and Paradox

229

17. Desperately Seeking Significance

243

Notes251
Index268

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‘People make their own history, but they do not make it out of whole cloth; they do not
make it out of conditions chosen by themselves, but out of such as they find close at hand.’
Marx
‘History is not the realm of happiness.’
Hegel
‘Every document of civilization is also a document of barbarism.’
Walter Benjamin
‘Who, whom?’
Lenin

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Preface and Acknowledgements

The structure of this volume is thematic, and consequently historical situations
and events which appear in one chapter, such as sex or religion, are on occasion
discussed later on from a different angle in another context. Some of the chapters
are mostly thematic with examples drawn from a variety of very different historical
eras, others have a more chronological slant. My modest intention is to try, in a
popular fashion, to examine historical development over an extended period and
global scope and make linkages where appropriate to the structures of human
interaction in context and situation.
The opening sentence of Michael Mann’s four-volume masterpiece, The Sources
of Social Power is: ‘This book is bold and ambitious.’ Attempting to discuss similar
themes within a single volume feels more like megalomania, and I am particularly
conscious of Flaubert’s remark (also quoted by Mann) that historical writing is
‘like drinking an ocean and pissing a cupful’. Much that could be included has of
necessity to be omitted. Nevertheless I think that the project is a worthwhile one
and my hope is that it will encourage readers to engage not only with the themes
which are addressed here but also the historians referred to in the following pages.
For rendering dates I use the modern forms of Common Era (CE) and Before
Common Era (BCE) in place of the older forms still widely used, AD and
BC. Occasionally, when relevant in dealing with very long stretches in the past,
Before Present (BP) is employed. When quoting from texts written in American
English I have for consistency’s sake changed the spelling (apart from titles) into
British English.
Bibliographical Note – the historiographical area surveyed by this volume is so
broad that an appropriate bibliography would be as long as the volume itself – and
would then still be inadequate. The texts that have been of most relevance to this
sketch are referenced in the endnotes.
Thanks are due to friends and colleagues who have enlightened me greatly in
discussion of these themes, particularly Myra Macdonald who has read the text
and made many acute and helpful suggestions on both content and style (errors of
fact and interpretation are of course my own). Appreciation is also due not least to
my ever helpful and endlessly patient editor at Pluto Press, David Castle.
Willie Thompson
May 2014

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Historical Timeline

c. 200,000 years before present (BP), Palaeolithic Era
The estimated approximate date for the emergence of Homo sapiens in Africa with a
stone-using (Palaeolithic) technology, hunter-gatherer economy, and little evidence
of representational culture. Other human species (hominins) continued to survive.
c. 60–15 thousand years BP, Palaeolithic Era
H. sapiens by the later date had spread through Africa and Eurasia using more
developed stone technology and with significant evidence of representational
culture. Other human species, principally Neanderthals, continued to exist in
a northern hemisphere dominated by glaciation, and interbreeding has been
demonstrated. Modern humans penetrated to Australasia.
c. 15–10 thousand years BP, Mesolithic Era
In this period the ice retreated (with intermissions) in a context of global warming.
The Palaeolithic economy shifted its emphasis from hunting to gathering and
exploitation, when available, of shoreline marine resources. A more developed
stone technology is termed Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) H. sapiens reached the
Americas and other human species disappeared.
c. 10,000 years BP, earlier Neolithic Era and agrarian era; first great technological revolution
The ice age ended and the beginnings of agriculture and animal stock rearing
made their appearance. The most developed and versatile stone-using (Neolithic)
technologies were devised, as were a range of new technologies, especially pottery
and weaving. There occurred a big expansion of representational culture and the
beginnings of significant social differentiation in more concentrated settlements.
c. 4000 BCE, later Neolithic Era, urbanisation
Urban development commenced in Mesopotamia with local rulers and focused
on a local god. The process was accompanied by accelerated social stratification.
Technology remained predominantly Neolithic. Written scripts were also
developed.
c. 3000–1100 BCE, Bronze Age, beginning of written history
The growing importance of metal tools and weaponry, principally bronze, is
apparent, spreading throughout Eurasia. Social stratification and division of labour
developed increasingly together with the first empires and divine monarchies,
initially in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Similar but Neolithic monarchies developed

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Historical Timeline

xi

in Mesoamerica and the Andean coast. Alphabetic script was devised and spread
in western Eurasia.
c. 1000–200 BCE, ‘Iron Age’
A shift to iron-using technology occurred throughout Eurasia accompanied by
social, political, and cultural disruption, invasion and collapse of empires and
dynasties throughout the continent, to be replaced by iron-technology based
successors.
c. 600 BCE–500 CE, Hellenistic Era
A succession of agrarian and herding-based empires developed in Eurasia and
sub-Saharan Africa with iron-using technology; imperial polities remained the
norm. Far-reaching technological and cultural developments advanced, especially
in China. ‘Salvation religions’ spread throughout Eurasia, including monotheist
ones. Coined money was invented.
c. 500 CE–1500 CE, final phase of dominance of iron-using territorial empires
The empires and dynasties of the first centuries of the millennium largely collapse,
to be replaced by similar successors. States upholding the rival salvation religions
of Christianity and Islam were in almost continuous conflict. Technological and
scientific advance continued, mostly in China the Arab empire and the Indian
subcontinent, supplying part of the foundation for the subsequent technological
breakthrough.
c. 1500 CE-present, globalisation era, second great technological revolution
Initial ‘globalisation’ commenced with European societies’ acquisition of
the American continents and destruction of native civilisations. Production,
communication and technology were all transformed with the shift from natural
power sources to ones based on fossil fuels and directed on scientific principles.
Western global hegemony was established. These changes were accompanied by
unprecedented population growth, global shift from rural to urban predominance,
cultural upheavals and greatly enhanced destructiveness of weaponry. New
forms of seaborne empires became the norm. In the twentieth century nuclear
weaponry threatened universal destruction and environmental dangers were
belatedly appreciated.

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Introduction: The Fabric of History

The Purpose of this Volume
The ‘fabric of history’ referred to here is a metaphor for the changing range of
activities which constitute the human reality along with the world of material
artefacts and social institutions which these activities produce. Within a blink
of evolutionary time, the species Homo sapiens has transformed the world of
inorganic materials, the organic world of plants, animals and other life forms –
and especially the world of its own activities and the being of its own existence. It
was a development through time within a framework of the three universal, tightly
interlocking realities – work, sex and power – with their radiating implications –
which constitute the reality of human experience as a social species and provide
this volume’s title.
It is a perfectly normal and understandable presumption to take for granted that
the evolutionary emergence of modern humans and the historical transformations
they have brought about were in some sense embedded in the nature of things. As
we shall see, that was only very partially the case. H. sapiens spread over most of the
earth’s surface as a foraging hunter-gatherer. It will be argued that in the context
of planet-wide climate change around ten millennia ago there was indeed a certain
inevitability about the first of the great economic revolutions, the shift towards
agricultural production or pastoralism as a dominant lifestyle and also the general
form of the resulting social structures which emerged. The second and recent
great innovation, to a world of artificially-powered mechanisms, it will be argued
however, was a contingency which became a reality only against the odds and was
not implicit in the nature of the human species and the world it inhabited. Nor is
there reason to presume that this current state of affairs will persist indefinitely;
natural or social calamity could knock away its material underpinnings and stop
it dead.
The human story is certainly not just one damned thing after another (let
alone one damned narrative after another). The argument of this book shares
the presumption that although the future is unpredictable (as is true of biological
evolution) history in the most general sense, combining economic, social political
and cultural activity, has a logic which can be deciphered after the event – but
the role of contingency and the potential of paths not taken have to be kept
under consideration. History could very often have gone in a quite different
direction from the one that was actually realised – the species in its early days
for example could easily have been wiped out by natural forces when it was still

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small in numbers and according to some accounts that was actually the most likely
outcome – even bare survival was at that point against the odds.
What is being attempted here therefore is to discuss how and why, within the
overall framework of the great transformations, history took the general direction
it did and other potential ones proved abortive. Humans are the only species which
have a history in that sense; others are the province of natural history or biology.
The difference arises from the unique form of consciousness that humans possess,
the ability through representation to reflect on the past and evaluate the future,
to consciously choose one option or course of action over another, to create and
attach importance to symbols. These issues are discussed in subsequent chapters.
The emphasis here is to examine the organic, material, social and cultural forces
which underlie these developments throughout the course of human experience,
with chronological narrative as a secondary concern – although certainly that has
to be taken into account. In 2010 the British Museum produced a well-deserved
best seller entitled A History of the World in 100 Objects. It is a magnificent piece of
work and I thought of supplementing it with A History of the World in 100 Atrocities,
but decided that would be too horrific to cope with. Walter Benjamin’s aphorism,
quoted at the beginning of this volume, comes forcefully to mind.
What motivated me to write this book was an intense appreciation of his remark
combined with an acute consciousness of the improvements in social relations
that have been achieved in certain parts of the world and the fragility of these
advances in the face both of malign social forces and environmental deterioration.
In this context I continue to regard Marx’s perspective, loosely defined as historical
materialism, as being the most appropriate for human history and human affairs,
though also conscious of its insufficiencies.
Regrettably the conclusion seems inescapable: that the human story up to
the present, despite all the remarkable material, intellectual and artistic cultural
accomplishments over the millennia, has been overall a pretty bleak and grisly
one and that the great majority of human beings who have lived and died over its
course have been victims, rather than beneficiaries, of the historical process. The
fabric of this volume, if not the fabric of history itself, is somewhat grim and
dark – though, as will be evident from the record, there is also a contrary weave
of resistance, achievement and hope; history need not in the future continue
predominantly as a catalogue of calamity, or in Voltaire’s phrase, ‘. . . nothing more
than a tableau of crimes and misfortunes’.
I am concerned to examine and to explain so far as possible both the similarities
and the differences between social practices widely separated in time and space.
The author of A History of the World in 100 Objects, the Director of the British
Museum, Neil MacGregor, writes that: ‘The similarities between the cultures of the
old and the new worlds [Eurasia and the Americas] are . . . strong. Both produced
pyramids and mummification, temples and priestly rituals, social structures and
buildings that function in similar ways . . .’1 or as Daniel Lord Smail expresses a

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similar sentiment: ‘We celebrate the diversity of human civilizations, but it is the
similarities that are the most startling, the thing that continually reminds us of our
common humanity.’2
Aspects of these processes have been investigated with great depth and
sophistication in recent decades by archaeologists, anthropologists, historical
sociologists and historians. Just a few names to mention in this context include
Perry Anderson, Christopher Boehm, Fernand Braudel, Jared Diamond, Kent
Flannery, Ernest Gellner, Jacquetta Hawkes, Michael Mann, Joyce Marcus, Joseph
Needham, Chris Stringer and Ellen Wood.
The objective of this volume is to outline and assess in a concise and easily
presented form the conclusions which emerge from their and others’ work, and
to do so within the context and interpretation of historical materialism. This
perspective emphasises that human societies are part of an organic world upon
which they are ultimately dependent and which they work collectively to transform
to their purposes. The notion that nature exists to suit human convenience is not
merely fallacious, it is also very dangerous, and yet the human species is the only one
to have also separated itself from nature. That separation, and the manner in which
it has developed, is what constitutes history, and is this volume’s central concern.

Work
The many terms used in English in relation to work with positive or negative
connotations are a reflection of its multiple forms – ranging from ‘achievement’
at one end of the scale to ‘penal servitude’ at the other. Work is human activity
intended to achieve satisfaction in one form or another for oneself or other persons,
but not all activities of that sort count as work. ‘Work’ implies the expenditure
of effort, more often than not against intrinsic difficulty. The boundary however
between work and other sorts of activity such as play or entertainment is a very
fuzzy one – and even entertainers work at entertaining. Depending on its quality
work can be fulfilling and joyful or it can amount to torture. What is indisputable
is that socially organised and directed work, both manual and mental, upon natural
substances, has been intrinsic to the transformations of the material and social
universe that have occurred throughout history, and the changing character of
work is the principal element in social development.
As Engels remarked at Marx’s graveside, humans first of all have to secure a
food supply, tools and facilities for shelter before they can embark on religious
speculation, cultural endeavour, law-making or war-making. This is not to say that
the latter activities are of lesser importance in the great scheme of things, or
that they do not impact upon and give shape to the former ones. Or, as a school
textbook of economic history I recall put it in unconscious tribute to the Marxist
‘base/superstructure’ metaphor; economic activity, of which work is the principal

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component, is the foundation of everything else, but not necessarily of greater
importance, for foundations exist to carry better things.
Following roughly 190,000 years of life working as hunter-gatherers and
foragers, humans have in the last 10,000 years carried through the two radical
transformations indicated above. The first of these was certainly profound, but
the second, with even greater and constantly accelerating consequences, is just
over two centuries old and produced the world we are familiar with – which
could be designated as the technological era. Its framework was the economic
and social structure known as capitalism, which has dominated the era through
its protean development, and generated historically momentous endeavours to
modify or abolish it while retaining the technological advantages with which it is
associated.
Neither of these transformations, despite a certain inevitability about the
first, was consciously intended; they followed from innovations and practices
intended to fit in with the then pre-existent social order. A key proposition of this
volume is that from an indeterminate period following the initial establishment
of agricultural production, but probably around 7000 years BP, human history
has been principally the history of forced labour in multiple forms, what Michael
Mann terms ‘compulsory co-operation’ – which implies a social class division,
based on very different varieties of work, between enforcers and enforced. Basic
forms of this relationship include tribute exaction, slavery, serfdom and wage
labour, which are discussed in the course of the volume, as is the resistance they
have provoked.

Sex
So far as there is any specific purpose in the non-human biosphere that purpose
is reproduction – at the micro level genes propagating themselves – and for
any land-dwelling vertebrate sex is a necessary precursor to the production of
offspring. However it is more than that as, even outside the human context, the
existence of non-reproductive sexual activity among numerous species (up to
1,500 of them) indicates.
The discussion of sex in subsequent chapters takes account not merely of
acts of copulation among human beings, but also of the very numerous forms it
can assume, the consequences which it carries and the associated activities which
surround it, far exceeding those engaged in by other species.
In the metaphor of ‘the fabric of history’ the cultural and social context
of sex is the red thread that runs across it. Not only does it result frequently
in reproduction, creating family groups in diverse forms and implying all that is
associated with child-rearing in such contexts. It permeates every pore of human
culture, generating differentiation in occupational roles, modes of clothing
and deportment, the social interaction both between and within the genders in

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particular societies, and is the dominant theme of cultural production – literary,
aural and visual – in every one. Endeavours in some cultures to downplay, hide
or even deny the importance of sex, such as taboo words, have only served to
emphasise it.

Power
According to Michel Foucault power relations constituted by what he would call
‘discourse’ are crucial to every social interaction (and not only work and sex). We
need not go quite so far, but even so there is no denying power’s centrality. It has
in history permeated social relations of almost every sort – though possibly need
not do so in the future. Nevertheless, up to the present the voice that has echoed
down the millennia has been the voice of command.
Michael Mann’s four-volume magnum opus of historical analysis covering
developments from the Bronze Age to the contemporary world is entitled The
Sources of Social Power, and this book is greatly indebted to it, though diverging
on crucial aspects. Mann, whose standpoint reflects the influence of Max Weber,
identifies three determinant sources, namely economic power, political power and
ideological power. He argues that at different times in history one or other of
these forms was the dominant one. This necessarily less extensive single volume
is concerned to examine how power relations, namely the manner in which a
person or persons are in a position to compel another person or persons to do
the bidding of the former and how that relationship was resisted. The aim is
to examine the complexities of the interweave between such relationships and
the other forces which determine the processes of historical development. The
concern here is not only with the manner in which these processes work out on
a social scale but also to attempt some explanation of the motivations which can
be seen or deduced to have inspired individuals, both those who exercise power
and those who resist it.
The text embodies the proposition that the most significant of power relations
is the means by which elite groups at various levels of society and different phases
throughout history forcefully acquire a greater or lesser part of the product of
basic producers, the essential foundation of nearly all historical societies to date.
Power of course has other dimensions, from the relations within the nuclear
family to organisations of varying complexity.
Over the centuries of written history not only has there been a persistent
division between elites and basic producers, but they take persistently repeated
forms. While relations between the two show multiple variations, they do so within
a limited number of basic social structures. Among elites themselves, the parallels
in their mode of operation are even more astonishing, whether we are discussing
the court of Sargon the Assyrian, that of the Ming dynasty, the Roman and
Byzantine emperors, the Muslim caliph, the medieval kingdoms, the Vatican or the

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Politbureau. Whether these are polytheist, monotheist or atheist we find the same
forms of intrigue, manoeuvre and treachery, flattery and factional alliance. The
instances can be multiplied indefinitely and are reflected in organised collectives
further down the social scale.

Progress, What Progress?
Unprecedentedly, a creature that was evolved around 200,000 years ago on the
African savannah to cope in its ecological niche with the basic objectives of all
living organisms, nutrition and reproduction, also, while not neglecting food
and sex, ultimately left a representational record of its thought processes and in
addition latterly devised technologies covering the globe, so complex in nature
that their construction and functioning requires to be carried on by a limited cadre
of experts. Moreover, and most remarkably, it has devoted itself to reflection on
life, the universe and everything. In the words of the philosopher Raymond Tallis,
‘we are cognitive giants’. The phenomenon may be summed up in the fact that
the English word ‘culture’ has two divergent meanings – either the routines of
everyday life with the tools which make them possible; or else what we think of as
intellectual/artistic achievement.
It was once popular – it is now much less so ­– to define that course as ‘progress’.
The concept of ‘progress’ is a loaded one, and it normally implies approval, as in
the phrase, ‘We’re making progress’, but that is not necessarily so; it can be used
in the opposite sense, as in Hogarth’s title, ‘The Rake’s Progress’. In this volume
it is used neutrally. Certain realities are unquestionable. Since the emergence
of the species which has arrogated to itself the arrogant title of Homo sapiens
sapiens (colloquially, ‘very wise guy’) its population has expanded from a very
small number, possibly only a few dozen at one stage.3 Peter J Richardson and
Robert Boyd argue that ‘At the time of the final modernization of the human
brain, humans were most likely a rare and, given the nature of the Pleistocene,
endangered species’,4 but now six to seven billion in number and still growing,
with increasing average longevity. This growth has been accompanied by, and been
dependent upon, an unceasing, if irregular, refinement of technique and ability to
exercise control over the natural environment, multiplying beyond measure the
quantity and character of consumables and material objects available to (some)
individuals and communities – I am writing this with a computer keyboard and
screen, not with a reed pen on papyrus.
If you like – and with some reason – you can refer to all that as ‘progress’, but
there are few nowadays who would not recognise at the same time its deficiencies
and contradictions. As Jacquetta Hawkes once remarked over half a century ago,
a man can have equally depraved thoughts whether driving a Cadillac to LA or
trotting to Ur on a donkey.

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Likewise, the question being addressed is what lies behind or underneath these
similarities in social structures and forms of behaviour taking place in radically
different circumstances. The ‘fabric of history’ does not, needless to say, imply
any notion of ‘human nature’, which merely poses the same question in different
terms or evades it altogether. No satisfactory answer is pretended here – finding
that is a research programme that has been ongoing over many decades past and
will be to come. This book tries to bring together a number of considerations
– in however introductory a manner – that helps to illuminate the underlying
question. It draws on the work of many authors who have contributed to the
discussion, as will become apparent. Most of them are of a recent or relatively
recent character.

Not by Bread Alone
For all the importance of basic material considerations in relation to long-term
historical development, they do not suffice to explain the sphere of social culture
both ‘high’ and ‘low’ – the whole range from leisure to lawmaking, drinking to
drama – nor of ideologies, ethics or attitudes to the imagined invisible world
which have at all times, positively or negatively, permeated the waking lives of
every human being from cradle to cremation (or alternative means of disposal).
With that in mind, it is scarcely to be disputed that history’s course of
development is largely determined by the nature of the interaction between
productive technique and the hugely varied range of activities, embodied in every
collective, from family units to governments, which depend upon it. For example
Mao Zedong’s aphorism that ‘power grows out of the barrel of a gun’ implies
both a theoretical knowledge and a technology of firearms and explosives. If
we can argue that there is a consistency in the socio-economic weave of human
societies, nevertheless the patterns of colour incorporated in that weave –­ in literal
terms the range of cultural practices – are as enormously varied and complex
as the multiplicity of languages, dialects and argots spoken and written by the
bearers of culture. One cultural feature that has had a particularly far-reaching
global impact over the past 3,000 and especially the past 2,000 years, has been the
emergence, expansion and fragmentation of monotheist religion, originating in
a small Levantine community, then spreading and frequently dominating, firstly
through Eurasia and part of Australasia, then eventually the remainder of the
globe. Its social, cultural and even economic significance has been enormous,
and appropriate space is devoted to it in this text, as demonstrating both the
consistency and the variation in human practices.
Finally this volume considers contradictions, in the shape of the adverse
consequences that have been produced by the course of historical development
or progress and the attempts made to overcome them – from the biological
consequences of human settlement, increase and agriculture to institutions

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such as slavery and wage labour or the increasingly destructive powers of
improving technology – and eventually to the growing menace of environmental
catastrophe which threatens at the present time. To attempt in short compass a
general perspective on the course of human development, is no doubt a foolishly
ambitious project, but may, hopefully, represent a modest input into the discussion
of how humans can cope with a very uncertain future.
To briefly outline the pages that follow, Chapter One is concerned with the
place of Homo sapiens, humans, in the cosmos, in their planet’s biosphere – and
that very specific feature of their biology, the consciousness which makes humans
what they are. Chapter Two considers the initial millennia of human development,
the different species of humans, their migrations, their technologies and what can
be known about their lifestyles. Chapter Three deals with the initial agricultural
transformation of c.10,000 years BP, its causes and consequences and its continuing
heritage. Chapter Four addresses what has been the central reality of human life
in all times and places – sex, reproduction and kinship. Chapter Five focuses upon
the emergence of two other major realities, domination and hierarchy, the contexts
of economic and social exploitation. Chapter Six, dealing with exploitation and
violence, examines the praxis of domination and hierarchy. Chapters Seven to
Ten examine dimensions of social practice which are intrinsic to the nature of
human existence – ethics, religion and identity. Chapter Eleven is concerned with
the lead-up to the second great socio-technological transformation, focusing
on the centuries prior to the intrusion of European power into the Americas,
Eurasia, sub-Saharan Africa and Australasia. Chapters Twelve and Thirteen deal
with that transformation itself, in the shape of European-enforced globalisation
and the ‘Industrial Revolution’. Chapter Fourteen considers the general theme
of opportunity costs and unintended consequences throughout history. Chapters
Fifteen and Sixteen discuss attempts which have been undertaken throughout
history to overturn the structures of domination and exploitation that have
characterised historical development; including the most recent and global,
namely socialism. Finally, Chapter Seventeen summarises considerations on the
significance of humans in the global environment, the central characteristics of
their history and prospects for the future.

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Cosmos, Creatures and Consciousness

Our Place in the Cosmos
In the English language the term ‘history’ has two distinct though connected
meanings. In one sense it can mean a record of human doings, embodied in
a written narrative or analysis, sometimes referred to as historiography, and in
another the actuality of what occurred in the past. In the narrower sense of
the first, the reconstruction of the events involved depends on written records
(sometimes supplemented by artwork) – the general form in which the science of
historiography is understood, and has a timespan of roughly 5,000 years.
The approximately 2.6 million years of hominin1 existence on the planet prior
to that are reconstructed by archaeologists through material remains of artefacts
or preserved body parts. The drawing together of evidence from the millennia
of written history and from the longer stretch of archaeological investigation is
sometimes referred to as ‘Deep History’. The much lengthier span of organic life,
extends to around 3.6 billion years, and is studied through biology and evolutionary
history. An even greater timespan which saw the formation of the stars, including
our own with its planets, and eventually the Big Bang which generated the universe
and where it all started, is the province of cosmology. This in its entirety has lately
been referred to by some as ‘Big History’ and all of it is relevant to the present
situation of human beings.
We read from time to time, in discussions of the possible universes that might
have emerged from the Big Bang, approximately 13.7 billion years ago, assertions
that it was fortunate for us that the one which happened to be actualised2 was also
one that happens to be ‘favourable to life’. That is a basic error; our universe is for
the most part totally inimical to life, which could not conceivably exist either in
the cold of interstellar space or in the interior of a star. Its only possible location
is as a thin skin on a planet receiving energy inputs from its parent star, along with
other conditions which permit the complex chemistry of life to function; and
from what is known of our own solar system or the exoplanets identified so far in
other systems, few, if any of these, are anywhere like suitable.
Certain conclusions however strongly suggest themselves. The number of
exoplanets so far identified is around 5,000 and rising, and these are all comparatively
near us by cosmic standards. It is therefore a virtual certainty that there exist many
billions of planets throughout our own galaxy. Another near certainty is that the

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process of evolution that has taken place on our own world was an enormously
unlikely outcome. Among the billions of these exoplanets some must be suitably
constituted and placed to harbour life forms. The likelihood therefore is that life
is actually quite prevalent in the universe. The probability is also that it is mainly if
not overwhelmingly unicellular, as it was for most of earth’s history and that any
multicellular organisms that happen to arise are likely to be primitive and simple.
So far as our own sun’s family is concerned, on no other of its planets could
multicellular organisms survive for more than a few seconds. Extremophile
bacteria could perhaps just possibly cope with Mars, some of the Jovian moons or
Saturn’s moon Titan, but even that is extremely doubtful, and in any case hardly
counts. In this particular region of our galaxy, at any rate, we are utterly alone. A
further consideration applies to the galaxy as a whole.
It seems that our own galaxy is untypical compared to its neighbours, especially
the nearest one, the Andromeda galaxy (with which we are on eventual collision
course). The big black hole at the centre of our galaxy, though millions of times
larger than the sun, is relatively small as such entities go, and unusually quiescent.3
The one in Andromeda is much larger and much more active, blasting out deadly
radiation in every direction as it consumes interstellar gas and stars caught in its
gravitational field and probably making life impossible on any of the planets that
galaxy contains. As long ago as 1930, Olaf Stapledon’s science-fiction novel First
and Last Men envisaged an end to human life due to the radiation of a nearby
supernova – which is by no means an impossible scenario.
What applies to cosmic space also applies to cosmic time. Although the earth
has existed for around a third of the universe’s age, that span constitutes the
merest blink on its scale – recent calculations show a future of 100 trillion years
before the last stars are extinguished and an inconceivable 10100 years before all
matter disintegrates and what was the universe consists of nothing but radiation.
In what we think of as the present, ‘the train of cosmic time has barely left the
station’. Needless to say, humans will be long gone well before the universe looks
any different from how it does at the moment, even considerably before the sun
expands to vaporise the inner planets, as it inevitably will in another five billion
years or so.

The Biological Reality – Our Place in the Organic World
The sponge is not, as you suppose,
A funny kind of weed;
He lives below the deep blue sea,
An animal, like you and me,
Though not so good a breed.

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This rhyme4 prefaced a popular textbook of biology from which I learned a great
deal as a teenager. However the last line is open to challenge. Sponges are as
much evolved as any other life form, including humans, and are adapted to fit
into their environmental niche as much as ourselves. To be sure, they are much
less structured or complex than any vertebrate creature, or indeed most other
invertebrates, but the sponges, if they had the capacity to reflect on these matters,
might not necessarily consider that to be a disadvantage, for while structure and
complexity has its advantages and privileges it also has its downsides – which
apply to societies as well as to individual organisms; and sentience all too often
equals suffering.
Humans, members of the biological domain (or superkingdom) of eukaryotes,5
and the animal kingdom,6 share the planet with a multitude of other species in that
kingdom, not to speak of the kingdoms of plants and fungi, and the two domains
of the prokaryotes (less complex unicellular organisms), archaea and bacteria. Any
adequate appreciation of the human story has to take account of these absolutely
fundamental relationships.7
To get a sense of perspective of where modern humans stand in earth’s history,
famously, if the whole of that history were compressed into one year, the first
clearly fossilised multicellular animals, most famously the trilobites, began to
flourish in the seas only in late November, the dinosaurs were extinguished around
Christmas, Homo sapiens appeared about 20 minutes before the end of the year,
with the building of the Egyptian pyramids and everything else that has followed
in the last two minutes.
At first glance there appears to have been a continuous drift towards greater
complexity throughout life history – prokaryotes to eukaryotes, eukaryotes to
multicellular life forms, evolution of these towards continually more complex
forms until that process resulted in the human brain, the most complex object
in the known universe. This appearance however is almost certainly illusory. For
about two thirds of life history, originating approximately 3.5 billion years BP
(before present) the prokaryotes were the only life forms, and for at least 80 per
cent of the time life has existed on earth the only organisms were unicellular ones.
It is an open question whether the initial appearance of living organisms was
accidental or possibly predetermined by the chemistry and environment of the era
in which they first evolved, but the much later development to eukaryotes and then
multicellular organisms was more likely accidental.
The late Stephen Jay Gould argued that if the film of life could be rerun from
its beginnings, there is no likelihood that the second showing would produce the
same or even similar outcomes. His contention is disputed, opponents pointing
to the convergent evolution of life forms to suggest that similar evolutionary
pressures would bring about similar if not identical results – the eye for example
has evolved several times in slightly different ways, and growing brain power
does seem to be an overall feature of life’s story to date. Nonetheless Gould’s

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contention appears to be the more convincing. The ancestors of the vertebrates
were merely one of many competing phyla8 in the Cambrian seas, with no more
likelihood of survival than several others which failed to make it beyond that era.
Jumping forward to the Pleistocene, the era in which H. sapiens evolved, if matters
had gone slightly differently it would have been the Neanderthals who survived
and modern humans who suffered extinction. Whether the former, given time,
could have replicated the achievements of the latter is an open question.9

The Evolutionary Record
Early life most likely evolved in the seas and so certainly did the original multicellular
organisms, of which the ancestors of the fish, the earliest of the vertebrate phylum,
were one. Between 400 and 350 million years ago one lineage of lobe-finned fish
evolved lungs and colonised the land (arthropods – ‘jointed legs’ – in various
genera including insects and arachnids were there before them). These pioneering
vertebrates were confined to watery landscapes both on account of their skins and
the necessity of laying their eggs in water, as amphibians do. The development
of amniote reproduction by means of shell-enclosed eggs enabled opportunities
for wider colonisation and was taken advantage of by two lineages, one of which
led to reptiles and their bird relatives, and the other, the synapsids (one of the
latter, though it was not ancestral, being the famous sail-backed dimetrodon), to
mammals. Early reptiles and synapsids, both descended from amphibians, looked
externally very similar.10
The emergence of the earliest dinosaurs and the earliest mammals was roughly
contemporaneous, but for tens of millions of years the former dominated the
macro zoology of the planet. The antiquity of the primate lineage, to which
humans belong, is uncertain, though it could extend as far back as 85 million years
when the dinosaurs were still flourishing. The ancestors of the primates lived in
the trees of tropical forests and evolved characteristics suited to that way of life,
including advanced colour vision. Most mammals lack significant colour vision
as their ancestors were nocturnal and depended primarily on smell. Primates
however possess it, for a tree-dwelling lifestyle necessitates the ability to recognise
the ripeness or otherwise of fruit. Arboreal life also resulted in the development
of forelimbs which were evolutionarily designed for grasping rather than walking,
especially the thumb-like character of the fifth digit.
Most primates are even now primarily arboreal (gorillas and baboons are
exceptions) and none apart from the ancestral human lineage, extending back
between five and nine million years, are bipeds who walk upright, freeing their
forelimbs, no longer principally devoted to climbing, for all manner of other
purposes. Modern humans are the only existing mammalian true biped – indeed
such ability is the distinguishing anatomical feature of the Homo lineage.11 Donald
V Kurtz notes that ‘Bipedalism and erect posture required morphological changes
in the hominins from head to toe and complementary physiological and metabolic

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changes that affected females in particular . . . Bipedalism is the key factor that
defines early humans’.12
Palaeontology indicates that around 15 million years ago a large number of ape
species flourished in the tropical and subtropical regions of Africa and Eurasia
(none existed in the Americas). Only half a dozen or so now remain, including
that hyper-predator with a grossly overdeveloped brain, H. sapiens. Humans as well
as being social animals are also conscious ones – which is not to say that other
animals are necessarily without this attribute, but the complexity of the human
form is without parallel in the animal kingdom and is fundamental to history.
The question of how much longer human life on earth is likely to persist is one
which has increasingly come to the fore. Even if we avoid self-extermination or
self-created environmental catastrophe, our own species’ lifespan is nonetheless
limited as much as is the span of an individual life – or that of any particular
species, none of which is forever.
Nevertheless, life on planet earth is extraordinarily tenacious overall and has
come through unimaginably catastrophic episodes, including the snowball earth
which preceded the Cambrian era, the name attached to the emergence of complex
life forms around 550 million years ago with a variety of body plans that are still
with us today. Later, enough of life survived the worst era of extinction at the end
of the Permian 250 million years ago to evolve the enormous complexity which
has characterised the following aeons.
All the life forms visible to the human eye, from the titchiest near-microscopic mite to the mightiest redwood and everything in between, are structured
assemblages of eukaryotic cells and in the ‘wild’, are either looking for another
one to eat or liable to being eaten. Among animal species this also applies to
each other, apart from a few exceptions such as herbivores so big and powerful
(elephants and gorillas for example) as to have no natural predators. These were
the grim and brutal realities which confronted the earliest humans.

A Social Animal
Human beings are social animals, a characteristic we share with many other
species, both vertebrate and invertebrate, but we occupy a unique position on
the planet in two critical respects. Recent research has demonstrated that many
species of non-human animals – from birds to primates especially13 – exhibit
cultural differences, characteristic social patterns of behaviour varying between
different groups; but humans, by means of their unique attribute14 of language, do
so on a scale wholly beyond comparison with any other animal. Secondly humans,
also equipped with hands bearing opposable thumbs, beggar all comparisons in
their ability to consciously alter and manipulate the surrounding environment to
their convenience. The limited use of tools by non-human species are natural
phenomena; culture as it is understood by humans is something very different –
and it was not invented by the presently existing species of human.

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The distinctive feature of later hominin behaviour, beside the use of language, is
the control of fire, something that every other animal avoids. It is this ability above
everything else that can be said to mark the transition from nature to culture. The
first unambiguous evidence of control and use of fire goes back around 400,000
years but was almost certainly practised from around 1.5 million years BP – it was,
like the knapping of stones for greater convenience, first undertaken by earlier
species of hominin, from whom Homo sapiens undoubtedly inherited it as the first
critical step in cultural evolution, marking an existential separation from nature.
The entire span of human history can be reasonably interpreted as a sustained
endeavour to increase the separation from nature, to control and eliminate as far
as possible the natural constraints that the flesh is heir to and must have afflicted
severely the earliest members of the species – attacks by predators, failure of food
supply, constant discomfort, constant assault from internal and external parasites15
and dangerous microbes, early death. Most readers of this volume live in societies
and cultures where that project has succeeded spectacularly – too spectacularly
indeed for the good of the species. However it required a very long time – around
150–170 thousand years as far as can be ascertained – before H. sapiens’ culture
took a dramatic leap forward both in the material sense of made objects and the
abstract one of symbolic expression.
In the course of organic history this last represented another dramatic novelty.
While the neurological processes of the trilobite or the triceratops (at least 150
million years apart) are not open to investigation, we can take it for granted that
neither they nor coexisting animals gave any thought to the meaning of their lives
or reflected upon the origins of the world they lived in. Rather, like every other
creature, they simply got on with their invertebrate or reptilian thing – namely
feeding and breeding, the dominant concern of every animal apart from Homo
sapiens. Humans though are different; they possess a unique form of consciousness
and through that consciousness they are situated in history as well as nature.

Consciousness
Human consciousness remains a phenomenally mysterious phenomenon.
Understanding of its relationship to that physical object, the brain, has advanced
substantially in recent years in the sense of determining which areas of the brain are
associated with which forms of mental activity, but understanding consciousness
and its central activity, choice, from the inside as it were, has scarcely improved in
the course of the past seven decades.16
Based on laboratory experiments (rather than Freudian speculation) it has been
suggested that the role of consciousness is a very minor one17 and that most mental
activity indeed takes place at an unconscious level. Certainly most of the physical
brain is devoted to controlling unconscious bodily processes and only a minor part
of it is concerned with conscious activity, and much conscious activity, to be sure,

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is combined with an unconscious reflex. It is necessary to think only of activities
like driving a car, riding a bicycle or playing tennis.18 Nevertheless it seems rather
improbable that our cities are built and our aircraft flown, let alone our quarks or
our cosmos investigated, by individuals who, it has been suggested, remain only
10 per cent conscious (though if applied to warfare or financial speculation the
idea might be rather more convincing). This volume is written on the presumption
that consciousness is a reality, and since it is basic to the history of our species, the
immediate concern in this chapter is to discuss how it might have evolved. In the
words of Colin Renfrew, ‘. . . the notion of mind encompasses intelligent action in
the world, not merely cognition within the brain’.19
In terms of the human metabolism’s energy budget consciousness is a very
expensive item indeed and could scarcely have evolved unless it fulfilled some very
strong evolutionary purpose. Nevertheless it might give us pause to consider that
while there are some individuals with such powers of concentration that they can
play several chess games simultaneously while blindfolded, and Stephen Hawking
can advance our understanding of the cosmos from inside a totally helpless body,
for most of us it is surprising how little control we have over our conscious
thought processes if resting and not focusing on a specific activity. Our minds
skitter all over time and space with streams of different associations all competing
for attention.
Consciousness is a process rather than an entity, swirls of electrochemical
activity in the brain. The notion that it could exist apart from its physical basis
is nonsense, as absurd as imagining that digestion could exist without bowels or
circulation without veins and arteries. Disembodied spirits are a contradiction in
terms. Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution, though
evolution, being a hit-and-miss affair, may well produce organs or functions which
lack any immediate survival value. However the advantages of cognition, even at
primitive levels and not necessarily involving what humans would recognise as
consciousness let alone self-consciousness, are not difficult to perceive.
Basically, cognition enables an organism to take advantage of alternative
possibilities. Filter feeders like sponges, which are loosely articulated assemblages
of cells without much differentiation, or the tentacled, more developed, sea
anemones and corals, which are anchored in place, have to take whatever comes
along in the way of food or danger. There is no need for such organisms to have
any conscious awareness of the environment, let alone the self, whereas a mobile
organism with a nervous system can ‘choose’ between flight or fight; if a predator
it can select its potential victim, and if fleeing estimate the best available place
of refuge.
However Derek Denton (The Primordial Emotions: The Dawning of Consciousness)20
has a rather different interpretation of consciousness’ origins. He argues for
its emergence as an evolutionary consequence of air-breathing vertebrates –
initially amphibians then the early reptiles and the related reptile-like ancestors of

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mammals – moving into parts of the landscape where amphibian skins would be
liable to dry out (frogs for example will let themselves die of dehydration rather
than actively seek for water).

Awareness
These creatures therefore had to develop a form of cognition enabling them to
monitor the level of their bodily fluids so as to take appropriate action in terms
of regulating them, including air, ‘. . . masterpieces of evolutionary invention
emerged with the colonisation of dry land. They reflect the genesis of intentional
behaviour’.21 Denton writes that, ‘The theory I wish to propose is that primary
consciousness arose from the primal or primordial emotions . . . The creature
could then begin to exercise options’22 He goes on to quote Christopher Higgins,
‘The idea of a goal is an integral part of the concept of mind, and so is the idea
of intention. An organism which can have intentions, I think, is one which can be
said to possess a mind’.23
Evidently consciousness is not applicable as a concept to unicellular organisms,
though some of those, particularly those concerned with the immune system,
give a tolerable imitation. There are multicellular organisms, which nobody would
dispute fall into the same category – most evidently plants and fungi – but it
applies also to certain animals – a worm cannot be aware in any sense when it is
being eaten alive by a bird, or a jellyfish by a turtle – neither has any semblance of
a brain, nor do sponges, sea anemones, corals and comb jellies, though some of
these have nervous systems.
Organs of cognition at the front of the organism, and an expansion of nervous
tissue to coordinate its cognition and its activities, namely a brain, has however
been throughout evolutionary history a characteristic of most mobile animals
whether invertebrate or vertebrate. It is however to be doubted whether any
invertebrate possesses consciousness at any level (though claims have been made
for octopuses, connected with their ability in captivity to run mazes, and the bees’
honey dance is very impressive): they can probably best be regarded as organic
robots. On the other hand the larger-brained non-human mammals at least, and
possibly even birds, probably do have some rudimentary form of awareness at a
pre-reflective level – domestic pets like dogs and cats, for example, can and do
demand food and attention from their owners.
It is indisputable that the brain is the physical basis for consciousness –
adequately demonstrated by the fact that brain lesions or chemical influences have
more or less dramatic effects upon its operation. It is equally clear that human
consciousness, and whatever forms of the same are sustained by other species,
have a similar physical basis. How that translates into the subjective experience
that we know as consciousness is a so far unanswered conundrum. The fact that
conscious activities of particular sorts can be identified as occurring in particular
regions of the brain does not get us any nearer to a solution.

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The likelihood however is that most species of mammals, while possessing an
immediate consciousness inhabit a continuous present – specific memory would
be an unnecessary and expensive add-on (some unfortunate humans due to brain
damage find themselves in a similar situation). It is also probable that most,
though not all, non-human learning operates at an unconscious and reflex level
without specific conscious memory. However human consciousness operates at
an enormously more complex level which involves not merely awareness but the
awareness of being aware and consequently some sense of personal identity.
It requires a considerable effort of imagination, but it is not altogether impossible,
since no doubt it underlies our own more developed one, to envisage what a
non-conceptual consciousness might feel like, one which was simply a focus for
sensory stimuli without any terms to name them. It is necessarily speculation, but
that may well be the sort of consciousness to be found in nonhuman mammals –
and very possibly other classes as well, birds, reptiles, amphibians. A consciousness
at that level would permit its owner to have subjective experience of suffering and
satisfaction. Scarcely less intriguing and exasperating is the question of at what point
on the evolutionary scale an organism can be said to experience conscious processes.
It has practical implications as well, since on the answer depends one’s idea of
which experiences it is permissible for humans to subject a non-human organism
to – whether experimental animals in laboratories, targets of hunts, farm animals
or pets.
The development of brain power in the primate order exceeds anything
in previous evolutionary history and is almost certainly related to the fact that
with a few exceptions primates are predominantly social animals – cooperation,
signalling, status and rank, competitive display and alliances are all very much in
evidence and even inter-species cooperation has been observed among monkeys
hunted by chimpanzees. The reasoning abilities revealed by chimpanzees through
experiments are startlingly impressive and chimpanzees both in the wild and
in captivity, recognise themselves as individuals. It has even been suggested
that humans should be considered the third chimpanzee species along with the
common chimp and the bonobo.

Advanced Cognition
As primates exceed all other orders of animals in cognitive ability, so humans
exceed all other primates. Verbal language may possibly not be the only factor in
this differentiation (brain size presumably has a lot to do with it) but it is certainly
one of the most important. What linguistic abilities were possessed by pre-modern
humans is impossible to guess, but the likelihood is that, at least among the later
species, it was not wholly absent – Neanderthals certainly had the necessary
anatomical structures for speech formation (as chimpanzees do not): ‘. . . human
language and intelligence evolved not to make us better at foraging but to make us
better at social networking’.24

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It can be generally agreed that language is not absolutely necessary to
consciousness. Given memory, it is possible to think in mental images even if
one does not have a word for the object of cognition. However consciousness
combined with language is an extraordinarily powerful piece of cognitive
equipment; it makes us indeed ‘cognitive giants’. It enormously increases the scope
for the cooperation seen among other primates such as the chimpanzees who hunt
monkeys and the monkeys who aim to avoid capture, and of equal or even greater
importance we think ahead and evaluate consequences: ‘our hypotheses die in
our place’, according to the saying. We can as a consequence formulate and discuss
plans and projects and foresee the consequences of alternative lines of action. The
importance of that for survival among forager bands is immeasurable.
Two closely connected further cognitive inheritances from our evolutionary
past deserve mention in relation to our mental equipment. Firstly, the fact that
humans are pattern-seeking creatures, liable to find meaningful patterns in all
manner of unlikely contexts, and secondly, the attraction of false positives. The
first of these is ambiguous in effect, but has evident advantages. Observation of
patterned regularities can reveal facts about the natural or the social environment
that would not otherwise be apparent25 (and in a modern context this disposition
is intrinsic to scientific observation). The second, also perfectly understandable in
evolutionary terms, is likewise very useful in a Palaeolithic environment – for the
liability to mistakenly identify a threat, i.e. a ‘false positive’, even though erroneous,
is certainly not without its survival advantages. To suspect that a rustle in the
undergrowth might be a sabre-tooth, or the night-time shadow on the cave wall
could be a leopard, suggests swift evasive action. If you are wrong no harm is
done, but if you ignore the danger you may well become the carnivore’s dinner.
Like all other animals adult humans are, and with good reason, inherently
lazy (energy must be conserved as much as possible); greedy (food should be
consumed while the opportunity exists); and cautious. Injury reduces prospects
of survival; animals of the same species in the wild do not fight with each other
unless territory or mates are in question, and when they do such conflicts are
seldom or never pushed to the extent of serious injury. The excitement of the
hunt is a contrary impulse if the prey is capable of inflicting significant damage,
but few predators apart from humans face that problem.
In humans these first two tendencies can, and have to be, countered because
they conflict with social functioning and cohesion, and that is what various forms
of socialisation are essentially about. At the same time, like certain other foraging
animals, humans are also curious and adventurous, and consequently as individuals
pursue personal projects, usually culturally determined or influenced ones. Our
concern is with the reality that humans are simultaneously biological organisms
focused on feeding and breeding, and social entities operating in the matrix of
cultural forms. The contradiction between innate evolutionary impulses and the
no less evolutionary demands of socialisation is a foundational part of the human

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reality. That contradiction applies especially to human sexuality, to be discussed in
due course, and while paralleled by that of the chimpanzees and their close cousins
the bonobos, is quite unlike that of most other animals, even among the primates.
Consider in this context ‘the seven deadly sins’. A moment’s thought will
demonstrate that as usually codified these are dispositions to ‘sin’, rather than
actual sinful deeds. But gluttony, pride, lust, anger etc., in themselves have a clear
survival value – gluttony, greed and sloth for the reasons cited above, pride and
envy to inspire dominant behaviour, anger to motivate defence or successful
aggression, lust for reproductive success. However if they were to enjoy universal,
constant and uncontrolled expression social cohesion would be impossible, the
basic requirements of living incapable of functioning. These dispositions are
inescapable and even necessary but they have to be appropriately channelled, and
in all known instances they are channelled in one form or another.

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2
Cooperation, Stone, Bone and Dispersal

Human Beginnings
The Palaeolithic (literally ‘Old stone age’) or prehistoric origin of human society
was no mere preliminary to the historical societies but accounted for by far the
majority of the human timespan – no less than 95 per cent of it. The reader
has to be advised that this is an intensely contentious area with major divisions
among experts regarding interpretation and new discoveries making substantial
alterations to the picture almost on a monthly basis. Chris Stringer in his The Origin
of our Species, 2011, remarks that his volume is likely to be out of date even before
publication. What follows is therefore an outline dealing with the broad picture
connecting the least disputed developments. The first migration of humans from
Africa was that of Homo erectus, which spread onwards from what is now the
Middle East throughout a large swathe of Asia, including the north of China and
Indonesia as well. How these humans reached Java is unclear, since it is unlikely
they had boats, but they were certainly there.
Modern humans likewise evolved in Africa, probably from an erectus line
through Homo ergaster, Homo antecessor and Homo heidelbergensis (which also left
Africa and whose European component may have been the Neanderthals’
ancestor, though there are other possibilities).1 There is strong evidence that all
of these human species, including sapiens, or at least some of their communities,
practised cannibalism. After all, if you don’t recognise strangers to be as mentally
real as yourselves there is no reason in principle why you shouldn’t eat them. As
Christopher Boehm has remarked, ‘There seems to be a special, pejorative, moral
“discount” applied to cultural strangers – who are not even considered to be fully
human and therefore may be killed with little compunction.’2

Migrations – the Palaeolithic and After
The period in which some modern humans first left Africa is highly contentious.
The tentative majority view (Recent African Origin hypothesis) is that the
definitive migration occurred around 70,000–65,000 years BP and that an earlier
exodus, possibly as early as 125,000 years BP, was abortive. Whatever the timing,
Palaeolithic modern humans spread much more widely than their predecessors,
though that of course took time. They reached every corner of Eurasia and all the

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surrounding nearby islands, arriving on the Australian continent around 50,000
years BP, and eventually the then peninsula of Tasmania. Paradoxically, in view
of later developments, the most distant leading edge of the expansion might have
been the most technologically sophisticated. Jared Diamond comments,
[A]s of 40,000 years ago, Native Australian societies enjoyed a big head start
over societies of Europe and the other continents. Native Australians developed
some of the earliest known stone tools with ground edges, the earliest hafted
stone tools (that is, stone axe heads mounted on handles), and by far the earliest
watercraft, in the world. Some of the oldest known painting on rock surfaces
comes from Australia. Anatomically modern humans may have settled Australia
before they settled western Europe.3
The continental Australian population of eventually 300,000 failed, due to isolation
and their relatively small numbers relative to other continents, to develop further
their technology of stone, bone and wood. The even more isolated population of
Tasmania (c.4,000 in number), cut off by rising sea levels from the remainder of
the continent, suffered significant technological regression, becoming by modern
times, ‘a uniquely simplified material culture’, a circumstance which suggests that
population size and diversity was indeed important.4
The native Tasmanians, exterminated by colonisers in the nineteenth century
(though their genes live on due to some interbreeding) actually lost many of
the cultural advances that their ancestors had brought with them, such as bone
tools and the capture and consumption of scaly fish. ‘The stone technology of
the Tasmanians, when first encountered by European explorers in A.D. 1642,
was simpler than that prevalent in parts of Upper Palaeolithic Europe tens of
thousands of years earlier.’5 They may even possibly have lost the ability to generate
fire, having to rely instead on preserving the source or waiting for fire started by
a lightning strike, though this is uncertain. Evidently, however, genetic heritage
alone did not suffice to ensure cultural advance, environmental (and possibly
cultural) pressures were enormously important.
Somewhat later between 15,000 and 12,000 years BP, three migrations across
the Bering land bridge connecting eastern Asia and what is now Alaska, or
possibly by coastal travel south along the continental coast brought Palaeolithic
modern humans to the Americas, filling every part of the continent from Alaska
to Patagonia, eventually developing Neolithic cultures based on maize or potatoes
and even the only known examples of Neolithic civilisations.
Humans have always been a migratory species, not surprisingly as the earliest
bands of H. sapiens had to be constantly on the move in pursuit of food sources,
whether animal or vegetable. Nor should simple human curiosity (which can be
dangerous, but is on the whole a survival advantage) be altogether neglected.
However the migrations of this species, filling every habitable niche on the

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planet, was totally unprecedented, nor has it ever ceased. Striking instances, some
of which will be discussed more extensively later on, include the migration of
Indo-European speakers westwards and southwards from their point of origin
in the region of modern Iran, bringing iron-using technology into Europe and
destroying the Bronze Age Minoan and Mycenaean civilisations of the Aegean,
while establishing the cultural foundations of the Indian subcontinent.
Also, probably in the first millennium BCE, the Bantu language group spread
southwards in sub-Saharan Africa. Greeks subsequently founded nearly a thousand
overseas colony city states between 750 and 550 BCE – even prior to the high
point of classical Greece. Contemporaneously the iron-using speakers of the
Celtic language group covered much of the European peninsula and beyond from
Ireland to modern Turkey, to be followed by Germanic speakers during the first
millennium CE, to be followed by Slavonic-speaking peoples during the same era,
and behind them steppe nomads from further east, who brought their language to
the Carpathian plain.6 In a rather earlier historical period migrants whom generic
evidence links with the island of Taiwan were settling the uninhabited islands of
the east Pacific archipelagos.7
In the first millennium CE there occurred the Arab migrations from their
Arabian homeland across North Africa and up the Nile, as well as south along
the Red Sea African coastline. In the following millennium Polynesian settlers
colonised the uninhabited New Zealand islands and even reached a location as
unlikely as Easter Island. During the past five centuries the extent of migration far
from declining, increased phenomenally, consisting of voluntary or semi-voluntary
migration from Europe to all the climatically temperate areas of the planet (and in
North America across the continent from east to west) as well as wholly coerced
migration in the form of the slave trade from Africa to the Americas. World
migration continues unabated, though now largely in the opposite direction.
If Palaeolithic humans were anything like their descendants of historical times
the most important pull behind their long-range migratory behaviour – outside the
customary bounds of their necessarily nomad lifestyle – was more than anything
else the hope of improving their life prospects. Since the advancing edge of the
expansion into uninhabited territories could have no way of knowing what it was
likely to encounter since there were no humans to report back, it is reasonable
to conclude that these people moved because their existing territories were
unsatisfactory for one reason or another, endangerment or failure of food supply
being the most obvious.
Life must have been very precarious, under constant menace from drought
which decimated plant and food animal populations and affected sources of
drinking water; its opposite, flooding, having the same effect. Other climatic
disadvantages would have included dust storms; volcanic eruption; intrusion
of predatory animals also being forced to migrate and endangering the animal
food supply if not humans directly. Another possibility however that cannot be

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altogether excluded is the exact contrary – growing population putting pressure
upon resources, or even interpersonal conflict within the hunter-gatherer society.

Primitive Revolution?
Flint was the material of choice for the manufacture of Palaeolithic artefacts – at
least those which survive for the attention of archaeologists. It is a quartz stone
found mostly in the form of nodules originally solidified in chalk strata, but often
eroded out, as on beaches. It has a somewhat glassy appearance, superficially
resembling the chemically very different and scarcer obsidian or volcanic glass. Its
principal virtues are its hardness and the fact that it can be chipped to produce a
very sharp edge that, when it becomes worn, can be sharpened again by further
chipping (though not as much as obsidian which can take an edge sharper than
the sharpest steel).
Flint can therefore be used to form all manner of tools, especially hand axes
made from the core of the nodule and cutting knives, spear points or arrowheads
from the flakes chipped off. To produce these effects the nodule had to be flaked
and trimmed in a precise fashion, which must have required a very high degree of
skill and practice. At some point around 50,000 years BP it was discovered that
by heating the flint in an appropriate fashion it could be made more malleable for
working. When flint was unavailable, inferior sorts of stone or other materials had
to serve. Wooden artefacts, of which there must have been many, seldom survive,
though those made from bone, such as needles, or antler, including ornaments,8
often do. Objects made from animal skin or sinew are least durable of all, but
occasionally leave behind traces of their existence. Shells too might be used
as cutting or scraping instruments or worn as jewellery, as they appear to have
been by some Neanderthals. Ochre, a pigment derived from grinding a yellow or
reddish pigmented clay and mixed with a suitable binding agent such as fat, for
body decoration or marking surfaces such as cave walls, appears to have been used
by all communities of modern humans and probably Neanderthals as well.
At some point between 77,000 and 69,000 years BP what has been described
as a ‘mega-colossal’ volcanic eruption occurred on the island of Sumatra,
leaving behind Lake Toba, the largest volcanic lake anywhere in the world, and
constituting possibly the most massive eruption of the last 25 million years. The
effect on the biosphere must have been calamitous (several metres of ash were
deposited as far away as India) and it is not unlikely, though not entirely certain,
that the human population was significantly reduced, so that an ‘evolutionary
bottleneck’ was created with no more than a few thousand breeding pairs left
alive. If the Recent African Origin hypothesis is justified, the eruption may have
indeed been connected with the beginning of the migration throughout Eurasia
and further afield.9

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If there is argument about the consequences of the Toba eruption there is none
that the event actually occurred. Similarly there is no question about the reality
of another development in the region of 50,000–40,000 years BP referred to at
times as the Upper Palaeolithic Revolution, but intense disagreement regarding its
significance. One hypothesis is that it resulted from a population surge which may
have occurred once the presumed bottleneck consequent on the Toba eruption
had been passed. It signified in long-term perspective a dramatic enhancement of
human capacities in both technology and abstract culture.
A far more diverse kit of stone tools appears in the archaeological record from
this point on, especially the flint blade, which must have required an especially high
degree of skill to produce. Composite bone and flint tools such as harpoons also
make their appearance. For the first time in the record symbolic representations
also appear, ‘an artistic tradition of astonishing competency’,10 represented at its
most accomplished level by the famous cave paintings, mostly of game animals.
How is this to be interpreted? One school of thought holds that genetic
development, possibly resulting from the previous ‘evolutionary bottleneck’,
reprogrammed the human cognitive and conceptual apparatus so that intellectual
accomplishment previously impossible was now on the agenda, and laid the
foundation for the remainder of human history to date. The most far-reaching
interpretation of these advances is that proposed by Alan Walker, namely that
language, as distinct from a much more primitive form of vocal signalling, also
had its origin at that point.
The alternative interpretation, which is also the majority view, is that while the
Upper Palaeolithic Revolution was real enough, it was less of a sudden novelty
but more of a breakthrough (not necessarily unconnected with human dispersal,
population growth and climatic variation) based on a long previous accumulation
of technique and experience which eventually assumed much more advanced
characteristics. The idea that language may have originated from no earlier than
50,000 years BP does appear very improbable; however the hypothesis that the
present existing linguistic groups may have originated in that era has rather more
traction.

Clans and Initiation Rituals
Undoubtedly the earliest human collectives (as again is the case with other apes)
were limited family groups. Clans, which necessitate the use of conscious conceptualisation, and constitute a wider form of association where the presumed genetic
relationship is as often as not a mythical one, are a subsequent development. There
is of course no record of when they made their first appearance, but ‘The Netsilik
data suggest that foragers without clans sometimes created extensive networks of
cooperating nonrelatives’.11

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Clans are an association of supposedly related but separate family groups
situated in different locations. Their material advantage is that when a particular
familial group falls upon hard times – suffering deprivation or threatened with
attack – other members of the clan in better provided circumstances elsewhere
are under a social obligation to help them out and entitled to reciprocation when
the circumstances are reversed. To justify the arrangement a ‘blood relationship’,
real or imagined, is invoked since kinship is of central conceptual importance in
such societies. All the clan members are supposedly descended from the same
real or imagined ancestor, human or mythic, reinforced usually by supernatural
underpinning. Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus suggest that,
[Forager] societies with clans enjoy advantages over those without them. They
have created large groups of people, claimed as relatives, on whom they can rely
for defence from enemies, for amassing the foodstuffs needed for major rituals
. . . . The advantages of clan-based society may even tell us something about
the disappearance of the Neanderthals. Neanderthals displayed low population
densities and show no archaeological evidence for social units larger than the
extended family . . . . The Neanderthals may simply have gone the way of most
foragers who had no social units larger than the extended family.12
In spite of the importance of birth relationships Flannery and Marcus note that
while one is born into a family one has to be initiated into a clan, and initiation
rituals are of central importance in all forager communities; they continue into
the early agrarian ones and persist even in places which develop into urban
concentrations. It has been suggested that Greek drama had its origin in initiation
rituals associated with the god Dionysius.13 Initiation rituals continue into the
present, most notoriously in US student fraternities, but also in schools, military
establishments, workplaces and suchlike institutions. They used to be an almost
invariable feature at the conclusion of an apprenticeship in the skilled trades of
British industry. These latter examples are essentially rather vicious games, but
in prehistory and among existing clan societies they were and are a very serious
business. While extending also to women, initiation rites mostly applied to males
and normally, though not invariably, involved interference with their genitals in
one way or another (as tends still to be the case).
Initiation usually proceeded according to the following pattern. Groups of young
males on the verge of manhood were taken away from their normal surroundings
by designated practitioners, and subjected to painful ordeals, circumcision being
a very common one, with the aim both of requiring them to endure painful
experience and to fix the experience in their memory, as well as creating a feeling of
companionship from having suffered the ordeal together. Following this they were
then initiated into the secrets of the clan and the universe as understood by the clan
elders. They were next returned to their normal surroundings where celebrations

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were held to mark their emergence into adulthood and then full membership of
the clan. For elites, royalty and particularly monarchs, special initiation rituals
were often prescribed. Among one West African tribe, for example, the king was
‘recircumcised’ – i.e. his entire penis was skinned. Presumably in this case there
were not too many applicants for the post – which may have been the idea.

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3
The Neolithic Transformation and its
Consequences: Settlement, Wealth and
Social Differentiation

The hand of history’s course at 8000 B.C. lies heavily on us.
              —Jared Diamond
This chapter aims to identify and examine briefly a cluster of events which,
sometime around 10,000 years ago following the retreat of the last glaciation to
date, were to set the stage for all future historical developments. The basic social
and cultural structures that have prevailed down to the present day, examined at
greater length throughout this volume, were initiated in this period as an inevitable
consequence of a fundamental shift in lifestyles. That they were a natural
consequence is underlined by the fact that similar developments occurred quite
independently within the space of a few millennia in widely separated parts of
the globe.
According to Colin Renfrew, quoting Robert M Adams, ‘the independent
emergence of stratified, politically organised societies based upon a new and
more complex division of labour is clearly one of those great transformations
which have punctuated the human career only rarely, at long intervals.’1 The
first five millennia or so of these developments can be interpreted only through
archaeological remains, while from around 5,000 years BP written documents
provide evidence of an entirely novel sort.

The First Agricultural (Neolithic) Revolution
Some signs of incipient agricultural practices are noted as long ago as 70,000
years BP, but these did not lead anywhere, only demonstrating the ingenuity of
early H. sapiens. It took until the end of the last glaciation, around 10,000 years
BP, for the principle to be revived. At that time a Mesolithic2 hunter-gatherer
community or communities in the region which is now termed the Fertile Crescent
in the Middle East adopted a new lifestyle,3 and consequently according to Jared
Diamond, ‘. . . geographic variation in whether, or when, the peoples of different
continents became farmers and herders explains to a large extent their subsequent
contrasting fates.’4

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The Mesolithic era was characterised by the disappearance of the tundra
big game of the late Palaeolithic and involved instead greater emphasis on the
gathering side of the equation and, where possible, the adoption of a seafood diet.
The emerging Neolithic5 economy, in contrast to the nomadism which had defined
earlier eras, depended principally on settled habitation, especially at this period in
the area of alluvial rivers. It focused on domesticated food crops, in the case of
the Fertile Crescent emmer wheat,6 to be followed rapidly by the domestication
of beasts which had previously been hunted as prey, usually cattle, sheep, pigs and
equids (principally asses; horses came later) allowing them to be used as a source
of meat and skin and in some cases as draught animals. No doubt rising carbon
dioxide levels 10,000 BP proved favourable for agriculture. One consequence was
that these pioneers had to adjust genetically to a diet containing gluten and milk,
which previously had been rejected by human immune systems.7 They also needed,
as historian/philosopher Ernest Gellner remarks, ‘a sense of long-term obligation
and permanent relations’.8
The agricultural revolution did not stop with food crops; other plant species
were involved, and the domestication of plant life was followed and accompanied
by that of animals. Dogs, all descended from wolves, are almost certainly the first
domesticated species, and probably as early as the Palaeolithic, though the earliest
definite skeletal evidence is no older than 15,000 years BP. Domesticated dogs
are effective companions and assistants for Palaeolithic hunters – domesticated
cattle, sheep, llamas, goats or pigs evidently are not. (Horses might be in principle,
but never were in reality; they were a hunted meat source and among the last
large animals to be domesticated, camels being the last of all.) The domestication
of animals was followed by that of birds (pigeons were probably the first) and
even of insects – the semi-domesticated honey bee and the wholly domesticated
silkworm, the latter being dependent upon humans for survival, the adult breeding
form unable even to fly. The Amerindian Neolithic societies however lacked large
draught animals.
Overall the consequences, even the relatively immediate ones, were enormous.
The shift to agriculture set in motion a cycle of development which transformed
the human planet, at first comparatively slowly and eventually with ever-accelerating speed. How it came to be initiated is far from evident and archaeology can
only reveal its consequences, doing no more than hint at what might have been the
motivations behind its introduction. Latterly the concept of an original Neolithic
Revolution, propounded by V Gordon Childe in the 1930s has been challenged
on the grounds that the process was replicated elsewhere from the Nile to the
Yangtze river valley to the Americas, and settlement prior to agricultural activity
certainly occurred, and in different parts of the world. Even so, in global terms the
concepts appears to be valid enough. Pre-Neolithic settlements of considerable
size have been unearthed, most famously at Göbekli Tepe on the Turkish-Syrian
border – though the precise sort of activity which went on in these settlements

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remains disputed among archaeologists. Michael Mann, the renowned historical
sociologist, suggests that pre-Neolithic settlements of flint miners or fishermen
were likely developments.
As with revolutions of any sort, whether political, industrial, social or Neolithic,
the details always complicate and qualify the main outlines of the concept. The
Neolithic was a series of revolutions widely separated in time and place rather
than a single event. But the transformation in human lives which they initiated,
eventually covering most of the globe, was real enough.
In societies governed by tradition as hunter-gatherers must be, sudden dramatic
changes in lifestyle voluntarily arrived at are rare. It has been calculated that
agricultural methods depending on vegetable products of the sort practised by
the Neolithic farmers have a lower nutritional yield than Mesolithic subsistence
practices would have done, not to mention a much less congenial lifestyle for both
sexes. As Jared Diamond points out,
There was often not even a conscious choice between food production and
hunting-gathering. . . . in each area of the globe the first people who adopted
food production could obviously not have been making a conscious choice
or consciously striving toward farming as a goal, because they had never seen
farming and had no way of knowing what it would be like.9
Anyone who has performed agricultural work (particularly of the arable sort)
without machinery will be aware what tedious, laborious and backbreaking toil is
involved. Even when the crop has been brought in, tedium and toil continues –
mostly for women – in grinding the grains in primitive querns; not to mention the
work of processing animal or vegetable fibres into cloth. The adoption of such
an economy can be surmised to have been compelled, most likely by changing
climatic conditions, to gain access to a more secure source of food supply, if a
still highly unreliable one. In one rare instance, namely the coast of the Northeast
Pacific Ocean, where seafood was unusually plentiful and easily accessed, a
Mesolithic economy could become a settled rather than a nomadic one and no
transition to agricultural production took place. Such possibilities do not appear
to have obtained anywhere else, and certainly not in the Fertile Crescent where
systematic agricultural production originated.10 Jared Diamond in his account of
why agriculture evolved differently in different locations writes that
[O]ne cannot decide at present whether the origins of Chinese food production
were contemporaneous with those in the Fertile Crescent, slightly earlier, or
slightly later. At the least, we can say that China was one of the world’s first centres
of plant and animal domestication. China may actually have encompassed two
or more independent centres of origins of food production.11

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Other Examples
There is some evidence, though no certainty, that Neolithic agricultural practice
may have spread from the Fertile Crescent to the Indus valley and laid the
foundation for the civilisation which flourished there around the same period as
the Egyptian, which was most likely initiated quite independently of the Fertile
Crescent. Both the latter and the Indus valley civilisation were dependent on
wheat crops, as was the more developed irrigated cultivation which first emerged
in Mesopotamia in the sixth millennium BCE.12 It is unlikely however that the later
adoption of rice-based agriculture in the Yangtze valley came about via cultural
diffusion. It too is most likely to have been an entirely independent development,
and indeed in this case the archaeological evidence demonstrates fairly clearly
the transition from a gathering to a cultivating economy. Wherever agriculture
developed, Mann notes, ‘the overall trend was towards greater social and territorial
fixity . . . agricultural success was inseparable from constraint’.13
Although full understanding of the Neolithic revolutions remains to be
established, what is unquestionable is that the adoption of agriculture in
Mesoamerica and the Andean region, the former based on maize and the latter on
potato tubers, were entirely isolated developments, independent of each other and
evidently of Eurasian ones. Sub-Saharan African agricultural cultures may also have
developed independently, though this cannot be known with certainty, and several
independent instances in New Guinea also probably did. There is even evidence
of its beginnings among the Australian Aboriginals of the temperate eastern zone,
where the economic basis prior to European colonisation nevertheless remained
a foraging one.
The likelihood is that if the post-Mesolithic agricultural revolutions had not
occurred when and where they did, they would have happened at some other
times and places, or in other words, once Homo sapiens had covered the terrestrial
globe this form of living was virtually certain to emerge sooner or later once
climatic conditions permitted the production of food crops, even if initially as
a supplement to a predominantly gathering economy. The fact that the major
instances occur within very roughly the same time period, relatively speaking, all
over the world, suggests with near certainty that the impact of the global warming
which accompanied the end of the glaciations approximately 10,000 years BP, was
a causative factor planet-wide, both putting pressure on the existing resources
of a hunting and foraging economy and presenting the possibility of alternative
food sources.
Jared Diamond’s ground-breaking work, Guns, Germs and Steel, includes a very
plausible hypothesis, backed up with detailed empirical evidence, of why Eurasian
(and Egyptian) developments occurred much earlier and developed much further
than those in Mesoamerica, northwestern South America, Australia or sub-Saharan
Africa. Basically he contends that geography and biology were intrinsic to the
respective outcomes. ‘Food production spread much more rapidly to some areas

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than to others. A major factor contributing to those differing rates of spread turns
out to have been the orientation of the continents’ axes: predominantly west-east
for Eurasia, predominantly north-south for the Americas and Africa.’14
Consequently the principal regions of agricultural settlement in Eurasia were
located where food crops, particularly those derived from grasses, ripened at
approximately similar times, encouraging their spread by imitation. Also, and more
importantly, there were far more potential candidates to become food crops, in
the shape of seeds, fruits and tubers, than was the case in other parts of the globe.
‘Virtually all of [the most suitable grasses] are native to Mediterranean zones or other
seasonally dry environments. Furthermore, they are overwhelmingly concentrated
in the Fertile Crescent or other parts of western Eurasia’s Mediterranean zone,
which offered a huge selection to incipient farmers.’15 They were also easier to
domesticate – in the Americas for instance the domestication of maize proved
both very difficult, and regionally restricted. It took centuries to accomplish. ‘A
next stage of crop development [in the Fertile Crescent] included the first fruit
and nut trees, domesticated around 4000 B.C. They comprised olives, figs, dates,
pomegranates, and grapes.’16
The difference in availability of animal candidates for domestication was of
equal or perhaps even greater importance. Sheep, pigs, goats and cattle were not
only food sources, but in the case of the latter of energy as well, particularly in the
use of oxen for transport and ploughing. Likewise with horses, somewhat later,
and finally camels. Both of these were sources of milk (rather specialised ones),
but much more generally transport and, in the case of horses, agricultural energy
as well.
A massive range of innovations accompanied these advances, ones which were
central to all succeeding pre-industrial cultures and remain still at the forefront
of our own. Among the most important are woven fabrics from either animal
or vegetable sources (wool, silk, cotton) and pottery. Although pottery figurines
are known from the late Palaeolithic, functional use of this substance, with one
known exception, appeared only in the Neolithic. The pottery objects in question
are mostly containers, and may well have originated from the practice of lining
with clay the baskets or skins used for transporting liquids. In Japan, pottery even
preceded agriculture. For cutting tools or weaponry however, stone, or occasionally
obsidian, remained universal; metal technology still lay millennia in the future.
Even with stone technology, however, an innovation took place; one which
has given its name to the era, Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age), replaced by Neolithic
(New Stone Age). Alteration occurs in the appearance of the stone instruments.
Frequently made by grinding rather than chipping they become more polished
and more sophisticated – their often beautiful appearance can still amaze. In some
very fertile Mesopotamian areas where any suitable stone was lacking, sickle blades
were made of overfired clay, which could be as sharp as glass, but just as fragile.

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Economy and Inequality in Eurasia
This section deals with the material basis of inequality in its earlier forms; other
dimensions are considered in Chapter 5. Archaeology prior to the appearance
of the written word can only reveal to a limited degree the social structures and
relationships of the cultures in question, though even that limited degree can be
substantial. The remains of buildings can suggest, if not with complete certainty,
what kind of activity occurred within them, and if residential, clues to the relative
status of the occupant. Indications are even stronger if burial remains of the
deceased are found within.
The great Egyptian pyramids and Tutankhamen tomb, albeit from a literate
culture, demonstrate beyond any possibility of doubt the mechanical sophistication
and expertise not to mention the riches, of the Bronze Age society which created
them. Individuals of maximum wealth and prestige, especially rulers, liked to take a
lot stuff with them into the afterlife, even though not having future archaeologists
in mind. The Sutton Hoo treasure accompanying the burial of an East Anglian
king is an example from a very different and possibly illiterate culture. Very
few archaeological sites speak so clearly and unmistakably as these spectacular
examples, and the degree of social inference which can be drawn from lesser ones
is less revealing, though it can still be considerable.17
Certain conclusions, from the tentative to the well-established, can usually
be arrived at. A settled lifestyle means that stuff can be stored. With the
multiplication of stuff, beyond what an individual can eat, wear or carry around
(both of non-perishable agricultural produce and manufactured objects of use
or decoration) social differentiation inevitably follows. It is speeded up if the
well-endowed families (rather than individuals at this stage) help out their less
privileged neighbours in times of shortage, for this then sets up an obligation that
sooner or later has to be repaid, possibly in labour (or sometimes sexual) services
of some kind, and the economic screw is tightened. Moreover, accumulated
stuff has to be protected from other covetous fingers and that too has social
implications. The early Jericho possessed fortifications (the oldest known) around
8000 BCE, long before the emergence of the first cities in southern Mesopotamia.

The Americas
Thanks to archaeology, for a variety of reasons the origins of agriculture in the
Americas is better understood. It emerged in two separate and almost entirely
unconnected centres, namely Mesoamerica and coastal Peru