Prehistory: A Review
by Robert Klassen
by Robert Klassen
I recently repeated The Teaching Company course called "Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations." The lecturer was Brian M. Fagan, archeologist and professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The copyright date is 2003. I will only touch on highlights and raise my own questions on certain issues.
Current research indicates that our planet started cooling down 18 million years ago. This had long-term impact on flora and fauna. Tropical forests gave way to open savanna and some species came out of the trees to become ground foragers. The Sahara Desert region was wetter or dryer in long cycles, alternately attracting flora and fauna and repelling both. This is called the "Sahara Pump." The primate called Homo Erectus presumably spread from southern Africa into Europe and Asia around 2 million years ago via this mechanism.
The Neanderthal primate appeared in Europe 150,000 years ago. I thought this lecturer's description of the appearance of Homo sapiens sapiens in Africa 200,000 years ago was mighty fuzzy, but he finally settled on an African date for "fully modern humans" of 115,000 years ago. These people eventually "pumped" into Europe and Asia after 100,000 years ago, roughly coinciding with the onset of the Ice Ages.
Small populations of Homo sapiens sapiens lived near small populations of Neanderthal for 40,000 years. This lecturer adamantly insisted they could not interbreed. I took his reasoning at face value and thought about putting a population of click-speaking (Khoisan) Pygmies next to Indo-European-speaking Caucasians for a similar time to see what would happen. A current genetic mapping project should settle the issue.
Now we come to the definition of civilization. It's the state. A state means civilization and civilization means a state. I know that a good many of my friends would disagree, but this is the academic definition in this course. The first city-state was, according to this lecturer, Uruk in southern Mesopotamia. A city-state was defined as a centralized location with a population of at least five-thousand having a central ruler, therefore Uruk was by definition the first civilization. I think this is nonsense.
People had been farming in Mesopotamia for thousands of years before Uruk. Farming villages were scattered everywhere and the natural human trend toward specialization of labor was well under way. Distinctive Halaf and early Al-'Ubaid pottery was traded far and wide. Farmers specialized in raising grain, sheep, goats, and donkeys and all were traded up and down the rivers. The precursors to writing were small clay counters shaped like the goods traded. People specialized in weaving goat hair and wool, and that was traded. Trading itself was of singular importance; timber used for construction in the south was floated down the rivers from a thousand miles north. Academics seem to think that the important feature of Uruk was its temple. I think it was the appearance of a bakery and a brewery, critical specializations in a society which lived on bread and beer. All of this occurred before the rise of a central strong-man ruler, but according to the definition used here it wasn't civilization. They had no wars.
As the lectures proceed from region to region around the planet, we see the same pattern emerge again and again. In southeast Asia, for example, the farming villages thrived in autonomy for 2,000 years before they were "civilized" by a centralized state. I would say they were enslaved, not civilized.
I was intrigued by ancient Crete. Part of what we think we know comes from Greek mythology and part from archeology; I dismiss the mythology. They call the cities there palaces, but when I examine the photos I see residential commercial emporiums. Indeed, the people of Crete specialized in making olive oil and wine for export and they were the long-distance traders of the Aegean. Unfortunately the island was buried under volcanic ash before historic times.
I was also intrigued by Mohenjodaro on the Indus River, because it looks much like the commercial cities on Crete. It was probably destroyed by flood, but the later Mauryan Civilization seemed to take up and expand international trade by sea as if it had that tradition in memory. International trade outlived Indian empires.
I am not particularly interested in the brutalities of the Chinese warring states or the brutalities of the Meso-American warring states. Although the academic focus of interest seems to be on the periods of violent contest for power, I think they were aberrations of normal human behavior. As boring as it may appear, production and trade were demonstrably the real foundations of civilization. The strong-man central state was the parasite that infected normal human society, and killed it.
I don't expect academics to change their definition of civilization anytime soon. They play their own kind of nose-counting politics. This professor, who is keenly aware of the role of global climate changes in human history, subscribes to the suddenly popular anthropogenic hypothesis of global warming, which is false. The "science" of eugenics had a similar reign of popularity. But I suspect that the underlying reason for rejecting observational evidence in both cases is an ideological devotion to the state as the giver and the protector of their special class.
Buyer beware, these are professionally produced, directed, and rehearsed courses. They are entertaining, informative, and occasionally deceptive. Human prehistory is particularly difficult because archeological evidence is scarce, yet I have to wonder if we're not finding what we're not looking for? For example, archeobiologists working in Syria revolutionized our knowledge by refining their method of recovering ancient grass seeds at hearth sites. What was human life at Uruk like before the rise of political government and the building of its defensive wall? Maybe if we think in those terms, we'll find out.
March 15, 2007
Robert Klassen [send him mail] retired from a forty-year career in critical-care respiratory therapy. He is the author of five books, including Atlantis: A Novel about Economic Government, and Economic Government, which describe a solution to the problem of political government. Here's his web site.
Copyright © 2007 Robert Klassen