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Rethinking Society: Everything We Think We Know Is Wrong

What made us go from small bands of hunters and gatherers to massive societies made up of millions of people? How did, in the evolutionary-equivalent of a blink of an eye, agriculture, art, technology, law, cities, architecture, religion and all of the other complex ideas, behaviours and concepts of civilisation arise out of some upright apes? Were we destined to the societies we live in today – rife with inequality and at war with nature?

Was it inevitable? A divine spark? A deal with the agriculture devil?

No. In one case at least it was probably beer. 

The Accepted Creation Myth

For hundreds of years scientists and historians have thought that some wily hunters in the distant past realised that planting some of the seeds made more food next year appear – and agriculture was born, societies became larger, more complex and “civilised” and inevitably became less equal and less reverent of the natural world. Overtime the mastery of farming led to dominance over nature, pastoralism led to the inequality between man and beast (and women), and that the inequality and un-sustainability of our modern global society is the un-alterable state – unless we return to barbarism.

Our pre-agricultural ancestors were thought to have lived like modern hunter gatherers – dwelling in small, mobile bands that politically left-leaning would emphasise were equal in wealth and democratic in nature, whilst right-leaning would emphasise the Hobbesian hell of the right of might and equality only in poverty. Despite these differing emphasises – both agree that this life disappeared with settlement and farming, which required the hierarchal management of labour and land.

The emergence of early cities, and nations, demanded even steeper hierarchies and distance from nature, and with them the whole civilisational package – leaders, administrators, the division of labour and social classes and the separation of man from nature. The lesson of these past tales, then, is clear: human equality and freedom have to be traded for progress.

This story, despite the contradicting archaeological evidence I discuss later, can be still be found in popular books such as Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday and Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order. It popularity arises because it can be used by left and right. ‘The March of Civilisation’ can be a positive story that could be deployed to justify the rise in inequality brought by commerce and the structure of the modern state or can be used, as first done by philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau to call for a return to the “state of nature” where we were originally free, but with the coming of agriculture, property and so on, we ended up in chains.

rethinking society

Old/classic progression of Civilization.

Busting the Myth

Much of what we think we know of our past is actually a myth – indeed it is our origin myth, a modern equivalent of the Garden of Eden. At its core is a story of the rise of civilisation and, with it, the rise of the state and dominance over nature. Like all origin myths, this narrative has enormous power, and its reach and resilience are preventing us from thinking clearly about our present crises. As the creationist tale of the bible was used to legitimatise mans exploitation of nature, our modern equivalent fills the same need: if you have you ever heard a environmentally-positive measures or policies aimed at tackling inequality be dismissed as backward step, that a policy ignores humanities inner conflict and competition, or what may be sustainable for hunter-gatherers is not for large modern societies – you’ll have encountered it.

Doubts in this myth have always existed – as the famous Marshall Sahlins wondered in his ‘The Original Affluent Society’, why foragers with their two- to four-hour working day, were really so much worse off than the nine-to-five farmer or factory worker – the question has always arisen with the myth: why is farming is so hard and bad for the farmers so why would they do it.

What do we mean by farming is hard and bad relatively compared to hunter-gatherer life styles? Modern hunter gatherers we find today around the world have the work/life balance thing right too – working between 2-4 hours a day to get the calories they need. Early Farmers likely had to work every day all day to barely subsist and had a much less varied diet (try eating porridge for every meal every day and not be tempted to go back into the forest). And when you take for example that life expectancy in the skeletons found went from 40-50 in hunter gatherer societies down to 20 on average in the earliest farmers you begin to wonder why farm. Even in ancient Rome – the pinnacle of civilization – it was still only 22 (suddenly the tv show Plebs isn’t that far off reality). 

Festival into Farming 

Well this is where the beer comes in.

Sites in Turkey, including the famous Gobekli Tepe, show that before agriculture, hunter-gatherers started harvesting wild grasses. They were using the ancestors of wheat and barley to make beer – crushing them up in big tubs and leaving them to ferment. They found hundreds of these tubs and even simple musical instruments.

What were they doing – having a festival of course.

At this proto-Glastonbury hunter gatherer groups would come from miles around to drink, listen to someone rock out on the deer-horn flute and enjoy themselves.

Over time the evidence shows people became reluctant to leave the party. They built stone houses, started to plant the grasses as thatch for roofs and eventually to make bread and not only beer. Art and religion flourished as pissed-people philosophised. And the festival grew, spawning many more over the area. More resources where needed and people got jobs organizing it – becoming brewers, bakers, farmers, priests and kings.

Eurasian agricultural history spread out from sites like Gobekli Tepe in Modern Turkey and the last 10,000 years of have been a hangover.

early society ruins

Gobekli Tepe

Imagining New Societies

This hangover though is one story and not the same blueprint stamped across the world’s peoples.

Excavations in Louisiana, for example, show that in about 1600BC Native Americans built giant earthworks for mass gatherings, drawing people from hundreds of miles around – evidence that shatters the notion that all foragers lived simple, isolated lives.

Farming when it spread to Europe actually first time died out as locals rejected it – preferring the rich fisheries of the North and Atlantic Coasts. It came a second time though – maybe a the points of stone-spears wielded by Into-European grain-growers who spread across Europe, N. Africa and W. Asia. Academic still argue so we’re simply not sure whether farming was a free or forced choice.

Indus valley settlements such as Harappa show no signs of palaces or temples and instead suggest dispersed, not concentrated political power – despite having defined social castes.

Ukrainian mega-sites show evidence of settlements that break our definitions of early cities – massive populations spread out in what can only be described as garden cities across the step mixing gardening with foraging and then deciding to return to hunting in several hundred years.

Some peoples like the Cherokee and the Inuit even alternated between authoritarian kings and police with the power of life and death, to super democracy (where no-one had the compel anyone to do anything) depending on the season. 

Whilst we have to be careful about how very limited the evidence is – one thing is clear – there isn’t one story of human society. We play, we invent, create, destroy and reinvent our own societies and can do again.

Rethinking the March of Civilisation

The so-called “agricultural revolution” – the Neolithic Faustian bargain when humanity swapped a balance with nature and egalitarian simplicity for wealth, status and hierarchy – simply didn’t happen.

The shift from foraging to agriculture was slow and patchy; much of what has been thought of as farming was actually small-scale horticulture, and perfectly compatible with egalitarian and sustainable social structures. Similarly, the rise of cities did not necessitate kings, priests and bureaucrats – this just happened to be the form our continent took.

But why does this matter? Well knowing the truth of the past means that when pressed with the sheer complexity and interconnectedness of current global challenges we know humanity has the imagination and ability to come up with societies that are equal, prosperous and sustainable. That the myths which have lead many to conclude that we need more authoritarian leadership to combat the ‘inner savage nature’ of the masses or calls to return to some mythical edenic state of sustainability by mass population culling are simply false.

As we seek new, sustainable ways to organise our world, we need to understand the full range of ways our ancestors thought and lived – questioning conventional versions of our history which we have accepted, unexamined, for far too long.


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