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How Civilization Started | The New Yorker
"In “Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States,” James C. Scott, a professor of political science at Yale, presents a plausible contender for the most important piece of technology in the history of man. It is a technology so old that it predates Homo sapiens and instead should be credited to our ancestor Homo erectus. That technology is fire. We have used it in two crucial, defining ways. The first and the most obvious of these is cooking. As Richard Wrangham has argued in his book “Catching Fire,” our ability to cook allows us to extract more energy from the food we eat, and also to eat a far wider range of foods. Our closest animal relative, the chimpanzee, has a colon three times as large as ours, because its diet of raw food is so much harder to digest. The extra caloric value we get from cooked food allowed us to develop our big brains, which absorb roughly a fifth of the energy we consume, as opposed to less than a tenth for most mammals’ brains. That difference is what has made us the dominant species on the planet.

The other reason fire was central to our history is less obvious to contemporary eyes: we used it to adapt the landscape around us to our purposes. Hunter-gatherers would set fires as they moved, to clear terrain and make it ready for fast-growing, prey-attracting new plants. They would also drive animals with fire. They used this technology so much that, Scott thinks, we should date the human-dominated phase of earth, the so-called Anthropocene, from the time our forebears mastered this new tool.

We don’t give the technology of fire enough credit, Scott suggests, because we don’t give our ancestors much credit for their ingenuity over the long period—ninety-five per cent of human history—during which most of our species were hunter-gatherers. “Why human fire as landscape architecture doesn’t register as it ought to in our historical accounts is perhaps that its effects were spread over hundreds of millennia and were accomplished by ‘precivilized’ peoples also known as ‘savages,’ ” Scott writes. To demonstrate the significance of fire, he points to what we’ve found in certain caves in southern Africa. The earliest, oldest strata of the caves contain whole skeletons of carnivores and many chewed-up bone fragments of the things they were eating, including us. Then comes the layer from when we discovered fire, and ownership of the caves switches: the human skeletons are whole, and the carnivores are bone fragments. Fire is the difference between eating lunch and being lunch."

"It was the ability to tax and to extract a surplus from the produce of agriculture that, in Scott’s account, led to the birth of the state, and also to the creation of complex societies with hierarchies, division of labor, specialist jobs (soldier, priest, servant, administrator), and an élite presiding over them. Because the new states required huge amounts of manual work to irrigate the cereal crops, they also required forms of forced labor, including slavery; because the easiest way to find slaves was to capture them, the states had a new propensity for waging war. Some of the earliest images in human history, from the first Mesopotamian states, are of slaves being marched along in neck shackles. Add this to the frequent epidemics and the general ill health of early settled communities and it is not hard to see why the latest consensus is that the Neolithic Revolution was a disaster for most of the people who lived through it.

War, slavery, rule by élites—all were made easier by another new technology of control: writing. “It is virtually impossible to conceive of even the earliest states without a systematic technology of numerical record keeping,” Scott maintains. All the good things we associate with writing—its use for culture and entertainment and communication and collective memory—were some distance in the future. For half a thousand years after its invention, in Mesopotamia, writing was used exclusively for bookkeeping: “the massive effort through a system of notation to make a society, its manpower, and its production legible to its rulers and temple officials, and to extract grain and labor from it.” Early tablets consist of “lists, lists and lists,” Scott says, and the subjects of that record-keeping are, in order of frequency, “barley (as rations and taxes), war captives, male and female slaves.” Walter Benjamin, the great German Jewish cultural critic, who committed suicide while trying to escape Nazi-controlled Europe, said that “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” He meant that every complicated and beautiful thing humanity ever made has, if you look at it long enough, a shadow, a history of oppression. As a matter of plain historical fact, that seems right. It was a long and traumatic journey from the invention of writing to your book club’s discussion of Jodi Picoult’s latest."

"The news here is that the lives of most of our progenitors were better than we think. We’re flattering ourselves by believing that their existence was so grim and that our modern, civilized one is, by comparison, so great. Still, we are where we are, and we live the way we live, and it’s possible to wonder whether any of this illuminating knowledge about our hunter-gatherer ancestors can be useful to us. Suzman wonders the same thing. He discusses John Maynard Keynes’s famous 1930 essay “The Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.” Keynes speculated that if the world continued to get richer we would naturally end up enjoying a high standard of living while doing much less work. He thought that “the economic problem” of having enough to live on would be solved, and “the struggle for subsistence” would be over:
When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession—as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life—will be recognized for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease.

The world has indeed got richer, but any such shift in morals and values is hard to detect. Money and the value system around its acquisition are fully intact. Greed is still good.

The study of hunter-gatherers, who live for the day and do not accumulate surpluses, shows that humanity can live more or less as Keynes suggests. It’s just that we’re choosing not to. A key to that lost or forsworn ability, Suzman suggests, lies in the ferocious egalitarianism of hunter-gatherers. For example, the most valuable thing a hunter can do is come back with meat. Unlike gathered plants, whose proceeds are “not subject to any strict conventions on sharing,” hunted meat is very carefully distributed according to protocol, and the people who eat the meat that is given to them go to great trouble to be rude about it. This ritual is called “insulting the meat,” and it is designed to make sure the hunter doesn’t get above himself and start thinking that he’s better than anyone else. “When a young man kills much meat,” a Bushman told the anthropologist Richard B. Lee, “he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. . . . We can’t accept this.” The insults are designed to “cool his heart and make him gentle.” For these hunter-gatherers, Suzman writes, “the sum of individual self-interest and the jealousy that policed it was a fiercely egalitarian society where profitable exchange, hierarchy, and significant material inequality were not tolerated.”

This egalitarian impulse, Suzman suggests, is central to the hunter-gatherer’s ability to live a life that is, on its own terms, affluent, but without abundance, without excess, and without competitive acquisition. The secret ingredient seems to be the positive harnessing of the general human impulse to envy. As he says, “If this kind of egalitarianism is a precondition for us to embrace a post-labor world, then I suspect it may prove a very hard nut to crack.” There’s a lot that we could learn from the oldest extant branch of humanity, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to put the knowledge into effect. A socially positive use of envy—now, that would be a technology almost as useful as fire."
jamescscott  fire  technology  hunter-gatherers  2017  anthropology  johnlanchester  anthropocene  sedentism  agriculture  nomads  nomadism  archaeology  writing  legibility  illegibility  state  civilization  affluence  abundance  jamessuzman  bushmen  kalahari  namibia  khoisan  mesopotamia  egalitarianism  humans  self-interest  jealousy  greed  inequality  accumulation  motivation  society  happiness  money 
october 2017 by robertogreco
New Book Argues That Hunter-Gatherers May Be Happier Than Wealthy Westerners : Goats and Soda : NPR
"There's an idea percolating up from the anthropology world that may make you rethink what makes you happy.

The idea is not new. It surfaced in the popular consciousness back in the late 1960s and helped to galvanize a growing environmental movement.

And now several books are bringing it back into the limelight.

The idea is simple: Perhaps the American and European way of living isn't the pinnacle of human existence. Humanity hasn't been marching — in a linear fashion — toward some promised land. Perhaps, Western society isn't some magical state in which technology free us from the shackles of acquiring basic needs and allows us to maximize leisure and pleasure.

Instead, maybe, modernization has done just the opposite. Maybe the most leisurely days of humanity are behind us — way, way behind us.

"Did our hunter-gatherers have it better off?" James Lancester asks in a recent issue of The New Yorker. [ ]

"We're flattering ourselves by believing that their existence was so grim and that our modern, civilized one is, by comparison, so great," Lancester writes.

This idea surfaces, over and over again, in the fascinating new book by anthropologist James Suzman, called Affluence Without Abundance.

Suzman has spent the past 25 years visiting, living with and learning from one of the last groups of hunter-gatherers left on Earth — the Khoisan or Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert of Namibia.

A study back in the 1960s found the Bushmen have figured out a way to work only about 15 hours each week acquiring food and then another 15 to 20 hours on domestic chores. The rest of the time they could relax and focus on family, friends and hobbies.

In Suzman's new book, he offers rare glimpses of what life was like in this efficient culture — and what life was like for the vast majority of humans' evolution.

What we think of as "modern humans" have likely been on Earth for about 200,000 years. And for about 90 percent of that time we didn't have stashes of grains in the cupboard or ready-to-slaughter meat grazing outside our windows. Instead, we fed ourselves using our own two feet: by hunting wild animals and gathering fruits and tubers.

As people have diverged so widely from that hunter-gatherer lifestyle, maybe we've left behind elements of life that inherently made us happy. Maybe the culture of "developed" countries, as we so often say at Goats and Soda, has left holes in our psyche.

Suzman's experiences make him uniquely qualified to address such philosophical questions and offer suggestions on how to fill in the gap. So we spoke to him about his new book.

What do you think of this idea that the hunter-gatherer way of living makes people the happiest they can be? Is there anything that suggests this to be the case?

Look, the Bushman's society wasn't a Garden of Eden. In their lives, there are tragedies and tough times. People would occasionally fight after drinking.

But people didn't continuously hold themselves hostage to the idea that the grass is somehow greener on the other side — that if I do X and Y, then my life will be measurably improved.

So their affluence was really based on having a few needs that were simply met. Just fundamentally they have few wants — just basic needs that were easily met. They were skilled hunters. They could identify a hundred different plants species and knew exactly which parts to use and which parts to avoid. And if your wants are limited, then it's just very easy to meet them.

By contrast, the mantra of modern economics is that of limited scarcity: that we have infinite wants and limited means. And then we work and we do stuff to try and bridge the gap.

In fact, I don't even think the Bushman have thought that much about happiness. I don't think they have words equivalent to "happiness" like we think of. For us, happiness has become sort of aspirational.

Bushmen have words for their current feelings, like joy or sadness. But not this word for this idea of "being happy" long term, like if I do something, then I'll be "happy" with my life long term.

The Bushmen have a very different sense of time than we do in Western culture. In the book, you say we think of time as linear and in constant change, while they think of it as cyclical and predictable. Do you think that makes them happier?

This is one of the big, big differences between us and hunter-gatherer cultures. And I'm amazed that actually more anthropologists haven't written about it.

Everything in our lives is kind of future-oriented. For example, we might get a college degree so we can get a job, so that we can get a pension. For farmers it was the same way. They planted seeds for the harvest and to store.

But for hunter-gatherers, everything was present-oriented. All their effort was focused on meeting an immediate need.

They were absolutely confident that they would be able to get food from their environment when they needed it. So they didn't waste time storing or growing food. This lifestyle created a very different perspective on time.

People never wasted time imagining different futures for themselves or indeed for anybody else.

Everything we do now is rooted in this constant and enduring change, or our history. We look at ourselves as being part of our history, or this trajectory through time.

The hunter-gatherers just didn't bother locating themselves in history because stuff around them was pretty much always the same. It was unchanging.

Yes, there might be different trees sprouting up year after year. Or things in the environment change from season to season. But there was a systemic continuity to everything.

I think that it's a wonderful, extraordinary thing. I think it's something we can never get back — this different way of thinking about something as fundamental as time.

It manifests in very small ways. For example, I would ask them what their great grandfather's name was and some people would just say, "I don't know." They just simply didn't care. Everything was so present-focused.

Today people [in Western societies] go to mindfulness classes, yoga classes and clubs dancing, just so for a moment they can live in the present. The Bushmen live that way all the time!

And the sad thing is, the minute you're doing it consciously, the minute it ceases to be.

It's like making the perfect tennis shot. You can know all the theory in the world about how to play tennis. But to make the perfect shot, it's a profoundly physical thing. It's subconscious.

So the Bushmen held the secret to mindfulness and living in moment. Is that key to their happiness?

There is this supreme joy we get in those moments, you know, when time sort of disappears.

I felt that way when I was younger, and I used to go clubbing and dancing. Time disappeared. There was no earlier that day and no tomorrow.

So is there a way people can get this hunter-gatherer sense of time back? To live in the moment subconsciously?

I think there are some things in modern life that can fill in the gap left by not connecting with nature the way hunter-gatherers did.

I think sports can help fill this void or going on long hikes. You can also lose sense of time by doing activities which give you a great sense of purposed fullness and satisfaction, such as crafts, painting and writing.

After spending so much time with the Bushmen, does Western society just seem crazy?

Ha, ha. When I was younger, I was angry about "us," you know about the way people in our society behave.

But over time, I realized, that if I'm open-minded about my Bushmen friends, I should be open-minded about people here.

So over time, the experiences have really humanized everybody. I've come to realize that all types of people — and their cultures — are just as clever and just as stupid."
globalism  happiness  anthropology  bushmen  jameslancester  affluence  abundance  jamessuzman  namibia  khoisan  culture  society  time  hunter-gatherers 
october 2017 by robertogreco

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