© Kat Morgenstern, September 2007
Prehistory is a very dark and mysterious chapter of our human ancestry. Hundreds of thousands of years lie between our earliest beginnings and our present incarnations. Not just human beings have changed tremendously in their physique and habits, but the world has changed as well. Prehistoric climate changes, popularly known as the 'ices ages' have had a dramatic impact on the places we inhabit and the foods that were available to us.
The actual timeframe of human evolution still remains a matter of dispute among archaeologists and anthropologists. It is generally agreed though, that the earliest hominids populated Africa, where bones have been found thought to be at least 3.5 million years old. But 'Lucy' as archaeologists have named her remains was not very similar to modern humans.
Homo erectus, who shared far more characteristics with us, first appeared as a distinct species somewhere between 1.8 - 1 million years ago. He inhabited Europe as early as 900 000 BC, a period referred to as 'lower paleolithic'. Around 600 000 BC the use of fire developed, sparking a number of significant cultural developments. Sites in southern France and Spain bear witness to these earliest Europeans. From these roots the prototype of prehistoric humans, known as 'Neanderthal Man' developed. However, this species eventually died out, while his cousin 'Homo sapiens' eventually evolved into Homo sapiens sapiens about 100 000 years ago, inheriting all the skills and many features of his predecessors. It took approximately another 90000 years before the cultivation of crops began. For the previous million years or so man survived on his hunting and gathering skills, which must have been impressive.
Prehistory is generally poorly understood. After all, we have few things to go by in order to reconstruct daily life as it might have happened in those distant days. Most of what we think we know is deducted from the very few finds at archaeological digs, predominantly derived from European sites and the Middle East. Needless to say, this perspective is strongly biased. Which sites are chosen for excavation is a very haphazard business, usually preceded by some lucky find. It takes money, resources and interest to pursue the matter further. Most explorations have been driven by the enthusiasm of one dedicated researcher. But no doubt numerous other sites still slumber on, deeply buried beneath multiple layers of dust and dirt that have accumulated through the ages.
Also, the few artifacts that have been found from extremely ancient layers are stone tools, obviously with a rather limited range of applications. We know almost nothing about what other materials would have been used, or how, as few materials can survive several hundred thousand years. Yet, stone is heavy and cumbersome to work and no doubt other tools and implements were made that were more readily formed into useful items. But these are lost in the dust of time. Another bias is revealed by the fact that historically most archaeologists conducting this type of research were men. Based on the numerous arrowheads they found, they of course drew the conclusion that stone-age diet was dominated by meat obtained by brave hunters.
By contrast, more recent research has dedicated itself to far less glorious remains, which nevertheless are a lot more conclusive than heroic imaginations - the study of fossilized feces. Although long poo-pooed by established archaeologists it was found to be a surprisingly rich and accurate source of information of what people actually digested - which apparently were mainly plants. Not quite so exciting in terms of sensational discoveries.
It has long been held a popular notion that civilization basically did not exist before the development of agriculture during the early Neolithic age. Earlier humans are often imagined much like brutish ape-like creatures, who simply roam, forage, hunt and gather - too dumb and dull to think of anything else to amuse themselves with. It has been theorized that certain skills were only developed once the free roaming spirit of those early humans had been disciplined by the rigors and demands of the seasons - the hard labour of ploughing, sowing, planting, growing and reaping. No doubt this theory holds true for certain skills, for various obvious and less obvious reasons. But to suggest that prior to the development of agriculture civilization was non-existent would deny aeons of cognitive evolution without which the idea of agriculture would never have been borne.
Although it would be misleading to generalize with regard to the habits of diverse tribes that lived millenia before us, there are certain traits that were common, though perhaps not universal, despite the vastly varying cultures, lifestyles and habitats. Hunting and gathering is usually regarded as the most primitive subsistence lifestyle - yet, in some ways it is also the most sustainable, fostering socially egalitarian communities that were mostly based on family ties.
Cultural evolution can be defined as the process of developing the tools and skills to deal with certain challenges. Therefore challenges present the key stimulus for any kind of development. The challenge to survive as a hunter/gatherers is not inconsiderable - and early humans met the challenge for hundreds of thousands of years, without depleting their natural environment. Agriculture was invented about 10000 years ago and many of the environmental crisis we face today are directly related to this paradigm shift, from the destruction of the world's forests in order to grow crops, to the depletion of land due to monocultural plantations, to salination and a thousand other woes.
Early humans were nomads. They roamed within a certain range. Trespassing into another group's range could result in conflict. However, due to population limits, each group's range was quite extensive. It is often assumed that finding food must have been incredibly challenging and time consuming, yet, research has demonstrated that in favourable habitats only an average of 3h per day are needed to collect food, plus some more time for preparation. Anyone who has ever even partially lived on foraged foods knows that nature supplies plentifully - each thing in its season. It is also a popular idea to imagine that people were moving around constantly, only remaining in one place for a matter of days. But there is no reason to assume such restlessness. It seems far more likely that people would move from campground to campground in accordance with the seasons, in tune with the things they would find in each place. And it seems reasonable to assume that they would remain in each place long enough to gather and process for transport whatever gifts Mother Nature had offered. Only in areas that are particularly hostile, such as deserts or the circumpolar regions, would frequent moving be necessary since food supplies are less abundant.
(At the 1966 'Man the Hunter' conference, Marshall Sahlins presented a paper entitled, "Notes on the Original Affluent Society," in which he challenged the popular view of hunter-gatherers living lives "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short," as Thomas Hobbes had put it in 1651. According to Sahlins, ethnographic data indicated that hunter-gatherers worked far fewer hours and enjoyed more leisure than typical members of industrial society, and they still ate well. Their "affluence" came from the idea that they are satisfied with very little in the material sense. This, he said, constituted a Zen economy. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hunter-gatherer)
Food availability controls population growth. Although hunting and gathering is not quite the laborious task some anthropologists imagine it to be, the lifestyle is simply not suited to tending to large families with lots of kids that need to be cared for and fed. Raising crops has certainly increased the availability of food and thus made it possible to feed more mouths, which in turn, once grown up, would be helpful hands to tend to the farm work. But it did not take too long before the settled way of life created hitherto unknown social problems - slave labour, hierarchical social structures, famine and hunger when crops failed, and power struggles over possessions and land. the implications drew enormous consequences in the long run. Suddenly fewer people could raise enough food so others could afford not to work the fields, but instead to become expert craftsmen, priests or rulers - the emergence of a class system. Hierarchical social structure soon divided society into those above and those below. A settled lifestyle encourages accumulation of goods as a symbol of wealth, where previously excess baggage merely presented a hindrance to free movement. Multiplying life-stock and growing the family was an indicator of status and power. A bigger family could tend to more animals, larger fields and bigger homesteads. Surplus food could be traded for goods. Trade really took off in the upper Neolithic age, fuelled by the unrestrained exploitation of natural resources. The Neolithic cultural paradigm that nature's resources are inexhaustable and are freely available for human exploitation unfortunately still persists. Even though the writing has been on the proverbial wall for thousands of years - many a once thriving civilization contributed to its own demise through over exploitation of the natural resources on which it depended. Only recently has humanity begun to recognize that there are limits and that, if life is to continue in its richness, we must find a way to live sustainably.
Hunter/gatherers on the other hand need to be acutely aware of every little change in their surroundings and to be able to either adapt or move. Thus, they were in tune with the seasons of everything: they knew when the animals were breeding and they could read their tracks. They could smell the rain and they knew when a certain plant was about to flower or produce fruit. By necessity they had to live in balance with their environment - their survival depended on it in a much more immediate way. Man has learned the 'civilized arts' of controlling nature to an ever greater degree, but we have yet to learn how to live in balance with nature.
In classical mythologies we learn that the female Goddesses gave mankind the gifts of civilization - agriculture, art, and even science. The movements of the planets, the sun and the moon became crucially important for calculating the correct times for ploughing, planting and harvesting. It has even be suggested that the art of writing was invented to meet the challenge of keeping track of possessions, primarily in order to keep records of trade and taxes - the budding of agriculture and the burgeoning of bureaucracy went hand in hand.
The art of writing certainly gave a boost to culture, but it would be wrong to assume that prior to the invention of the written word there was no art or culture. Oral traditions preceded written canons for countless generations, as tales were passed around campfires and knowledge was transferred from father to son and mother to daughter, long before the dawn of 'civilization'. Today we have gained access to the knowledge of bygone ages, at least in as much as the ancient manuscripts have not been destroyed by the ravages of time or deliberate destruction - but we have lost much of our once vibrant oral traditions.
There are many theories about how mankind discovered agriculture, but one common thesis is that hunter/gatherers would come to the same camp grounds year after year and throw their leftovers and garbage in the same areas. Eventually they noticed that the foods they liked sprouted from their garbage dumps and around the campground, which thus enticed them to experiment with deliberate planting.
In the Old World, agriculture developed about 7000 - 8000 years ago in an area that extended from north-western India to Asia Minor and the Red Sea. This region had a mild, continental climate marked by seasonal changes - conditions which are very favourable to agriculture.
It seems incredible that grains of all things, such as wheat, barley, rye, oats, sorghum and millet were among the earliest plants to be cultivated, considering the effort it must have cost people to collect enough to make a worthwhile meal. Grains are derived from grasses and wild varieties behave rather unruly - instead of staying neatly put the seeds would easily scatter and fly off with the wind once they had ripened. It is also interesting to note that where present, the same types of plant families became domesticated around the same time in different locations around the world. In Central America it was corn that became the chief staff of life, while in Asia it was rice - which nutritionally is the most valuable species. Other plants that were developed during these nascent agricultural beginnings were various members of the cabbage family as well as cucumber and onion. Apples, pears, almonds, figs, dates and grapes soon followed. Interestingly, from the earliest beginnings people also grew two types of Flax - one with long fibres, suitable for processing as yarn for weaving, and an oil rich variety, which provided a much needed dietary component (the area where it was first developed was lacking in large game and thus in animal derived fats).
Some of these species are highly adaptable to less favourable climatic conditions and their cultivation soon spread far to the north. Oats and flax could be grown even in Scotland, while most members of the cabbage family are fairly hardy to cold and wet conditions. These foods became the staple diet of northern Europeans - supplemented by numerous wild species that never entirely vanished from the dinner tables - even to this day. The habit of foraging wild edibles, be it aromatic herbs in spring or fruit and berries during the summer or nuts, mushrooms and roots in late fall is still alive and well in many parts of the world.
In southeast Asia conditions were not suitable for growing the above mentioned crops. Instead taro, yam and bananas were brought under domestication. Taro, a member of the Arum family, is very productive, producing very large roots and needing virtually no care. They can be lifted as needed though old roots become stringy and coarse.
The earliest centers of cultivation in the New World are found in Mexico and Peru. In South America Quinoa, a Chenopodium, well adapted to the Andean highland became the most important crop, while in Central America Corn took the place of 'chief staple'. Surprisingly, the earliest agricultural evidence from Central America was found in the form of squash seeds that have been dated to 10 000 BC. Archeoethnobotanists have established that the seed were indeed derived from a domesticated variety found in a cave near Oaxaca. Other early New World crops found at the same site were cotton and peanuts.
This revolutionary discovery has completely unhinged the earlier and well established theory that the earliest inhabitants of the New World only arrived there about 10 000 years ago. Further evidence now suggests at date of approximately 60 000 BC - and perhaps even earlier than that.
It is remarkable that almost all plants and animals that we use today for our sustenance were domesticated roughly during the same period of time, from between 10000-5000 BC. Although we have bred new varieties of the same things ever since, we have not domesticated any new crops or animals. Furthermore, our actual food diversity has shrunk considerably since our prehistoric foraging days - what we find today on our supermarket shelves is a fraction of what could in fact be available to us if we included wild food in our diets. Some universities are now undertaking research to study so called 'new crops' - useful plants which our prehistoric ancestors have used, but which fell by the wayside over time. Some of these crops are interesting, because they are very hardy and undemanding and thus may proof useful for cultivation in arid environments.
Thus, despite our great intellectual and technological advances, there are some important lessons we should learn from our prehistoric ancestors:
We need to learn to live in balance with nature and to use its resources sustainably, and we need to learn to diversify the range of plants we use for food and study alternative crops that can adapt more easily to the changing climate conditions. Many of such 'adaptable plants are considered weeds. Presently large portions of the population are still engaged in chemical warfare against weeds, a strategy we may live to regret.
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