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Cultural Beginnings #9

Music is one of the oldest of the human arts.  Bone pipes and flutes have been found that are tens of thousands of years old.  One of the oldest yet discovered, a mammoth-tusk flute produced perhaps 35,000ya, has recently been unearthed from a cave in the Swabian Mountains of Germany.  That was in the last Ice Age and the musician must have been used to scrambling across the frozen glaciers.  It is remarkable to me that, in an age when so much of one's time and energy and thought must have been devoted to simple survival, that some people could first imagine and then find the resources to create a musical instrument.

Science is garbage!  Or, rather, garbage can help produce good science, especially when one is looking at the earliest evidence of humans' decision to settle in organized groups.  Researchers in the Near East have been able to distinguish temporary hunting camps of 12,000ya from sedentary villages of about 9,000ya because the latter had primitive forms of communal garbage disposal, while the ealier hunter-gatherers kept their garbage inside the houses.  This strongly suggests that urbanism got its start much later than previously supposed.  Given the fundamental fact that sedentary life had "such a profound" and negative "impact on all aspects of life," and "[w]ith it came a complete change in mentality and morality, laws relating to personal property and communal responsibilities,” evidence that civilization is even less "traditional" for human beings is always welcome.

On the other side of the world, in South America, recent research indicates that settled agricultural culture was flourishing in the La Plata region of present-day Uruguay about 4,800ya.  The researchers posit a plausible climatic theory for why humans settled down around the world at this time.

"Combined analyses of preserved pollen and phytoliths indicated that, as in other regions of the world, the mid-Holocene was characterized by significant climatic and ecological changes associated with important cultural transformations. During this period, around 4,500 years ago, the climate was much drier than it is today and "Wetlands became biotic magnets for human habitation providing an abundant, reliable, and a resource-rich supply of foods and water. Furthermore, wetland margins offered an ideal place for the experimentation, adoption, and intensification of agriculture encouraging the Los Ajos' community to engage into horticulture", explains [Jose] Iriarte, currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama."

I have written several times before of the earliest signs of wine culture in the Eastern Mediterranean around 9-10,000ya (see especially Cultural Beginnings #5), so I am pleased to see research on Chinese beverages has pushed back to about the same period.  In the Chinese case, the drink was "a mixed fermented beverage of rice, honey, and fruit."  The find comes from Jiahu, a site "already famous for yielding some of the earliest musical instruments and domesticated rice, as well as possibly the earliest Chinese pictographic writing."  This fascinating article goes on to describe fragrant liquids, probably fermented drinks, discovered in sealed vessels from about 4,000ya.

December 11, 2004 in Cultural Beginnings | Permalink


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"Given the fundamental fact that sedentary life had 'such a profound' and negative 'impact on all aspects of life...'"

No-one in the article characterizies sedentary culture as "negative", this is Jak's judgement. Left unstated is why he holds this view. Certainly the ancient peoples who adopted sedentary life considered it preferable to migratory life, else why would they have switched?

Posted by: Peter Caress | Dec 15, 2004 1:30:35 AM

Certainty of food supply is why they did it. I'm pretty certain that within a generation or two the decision to go with agriculture was already being regretted by those who could see that it led directly to domination of one group by another, that it led directly to division of labour and thus dependency.

The moment we chose sedentarianism -- just a tiny fraction of our history away -- most basic freedoms that are truly human (developed over millions of years rather than just the few thousand of the current domineering system) were lost. We swapped freedom for consumption.

Does anyone really believe that having the freedom to choose one of forty different toothpastes is worth giving up real freedom?

Posted by: Jak King | Dec 15, 2004 6:07:17 AM

I wonder if switches occurred as abruptly as a within a generation or two. As the article shows, "semi-sedentary" cultures have also existed. Some Native American tribes used small scale agriculture to supplement their food suplies; it's plausible that groups became gradually less sedentary and eventually completely sedentary as they improved agricultural techniques and found good land for farming.

I think you romanticize non-sedentary cultures too much. It could be an incredibly hard life. I read somewhere that children in the early agricultural cultures were significantly more likely to live to adulthood than in hunter/gatherer groups -- for this reason alone, people would have choosen sedentary life over nomadism, had the choice ever been presented so starkly.

Posted by: Peter Caress | Dec 15, 2004 7:10:46 AM