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Sedentism and domestication, separately and together, transformed human life in ways that still affect us today.
Sedentism and domestication represent not just a technological change but also a change in worldview. Land was no longer a free good, available to anyone, with resources scattered randomly across the landscape; it was transformed into particular territories, collectively or individually owned, on which people raised crops and flocks. Thus, sedentism and a high level of resource extraction (whether by complex foraging or farming) led to concepts of property tat were rare in previous foraging societies. Graves, grave goods, permanent housing, grain-processing equipment, as well as the fields and herds, connected people to places. The human mark on the environment was larger and more obvious following sedentization and the rise of farming; people transformed the landscape in more dramatic ways--building terraces or walls to hold back floods.
Fertility, Sedentism, and Diet
One of the more dramatic effects of settling down was the change in female fertility and the rise in population. A number of different effects together caused the population to grow.
Child Spacing Intervals Among modern foragers, a woman's pregnancies tend to be spaced three to four years apart because of the extended period of breastfeeding characteristic of these societies. Extended means not just that children are weaned at three to four years of age but that they still nurse whenever they feel like it, as frequently as several times an hour (Shostak 1981, 67). This nursing stimulus triggers the secretion of a hormone that suppresses ovulation (Henry 1989, 41). Henry points out that, "the adaptive significance of such a mechanism is obvious in the context of mobile foraging. A single child, who must be carried for some 3 to 4 years, creates a heavy burden for the mother; a second or third child within this interval would create an unmanageable problem for her and also jeopardize her health.
There are many reasons that nursing continues for three to four years in foraging societies. The foraging diet is high in protein, low in carbohydrates, and lacks soft foods easily digestible by very young infants. In fact, Marjorie Shostak observes that among Ju/'hoansi (!Kung), a contemporary foraging people of the Kalahari Desert, bush foods are rough and difficult to digest: "To survive on such foods a child would have to be older than two years--preferably substantially older." (1981, 66). (See EthnoProfile 19.1: Ju/'hoansi [!Kung]). By having her child nurse exclusively for six months, a mother does not have to find and prepare food for the infant in addition to her ordinary routine. Among the Ju/'hoansi, infants over the age of six months are given solid foods in the form of prechewed or pounded foods, a supplement that begins the transition to solid food (67).
The length of time between children in foraging societies serves to maintain a long-term energy balance in women during their reproductive years. In many foraging societies, adding the caloric requirements of nursing to the physical demands of mobility, and the burden of food-gathering in the context of a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet can keep the mother's energy balance low. Where nutritional circumstances are marginal, the period of pregnancy and nursing can even constitute a net energy drain, resulting in a sharp drop in fertility. Under such circumstances, it will take the woman longer for her to regain her fertile condition. Thus, the period when she is neither pregnant nor nursing frequently becomes essential to building up her energy balance for future reproduction.
Fertility Rate Changes In addition to the effects of breastfeeding, Ellison notes, age, nutritional status, energy balance, diet, and exercise all affect female fertility in a graduated way (1990). That is, intense aerobic exercise may lead to the loss of the monthly period (amenorrhea), but less intense aerobic exercise may disrupt fertility in less obvious but still significant ways.
Recent studies of North American women who engage in high levels of endurance exercise (long-distance runners and young ballet dancers, for example) demonstrate several effects on childbearing. These data are relevant to the transition to sedentism, because the levels of activity of the women studied approach the levels of activity of women in modern foraging societies.
Researchers found two different kinds of effects on fertility. Young, highly active ballet dancers studied by Warren (cited in Henry 1989) experienced their first menstruation at about 15.5 years, much later than a nondancing control group, whose members first menstruation was at about 12.5 years. High levels of exercise also seem to affect the endocrine system, reducing the time during which a woman is fertile by about one-third.
Summarizing the effects of foraging on female fertility, Henry observes:
It would appear then that a number of interrelated factors associated with a mobile foraging strategy are likely to have provided natural controls on fertility and perhaps explain the low population density of the Paleolithic. In mobile foraging societies, women are likely to have experienced both long intervals of breastfeeding by carried children as well as the high energy drain associated with subsistence activities and periodic camp moves. Additionally, their diets, being relatively rich in proteins, would have contributed to maintaining low fat levels, thus further dampening fecundity. (1989, 43)
With complex foraging and increasing sedentism, these brakes on female fecundity would have been eased. The duration of the breastfeeding period would have declined, as would the energy drain on women (Ju/'hoansi women, for example walk about 1,500 miles per year, carrying about 25 pounds of equipment, gathered food, and young children). This is not to say that a sedentary life is physically undemanding. Farming requires its own heavy labor, both from men and women. The difference seems to be in the kind of physical activity involved. Walking long distances carrying heavy loads and children was replaced by sowing, hoeing, harvesting, storing, and processing grain. A diet increasingly rich in cereals would have significantly changed the ratio of protein to carbohydrate in the diet. This would have changed the levels of prolactin, increased the positive energy balance, and led to more rapid growth in the young and an earlier age of first menstruation.
The ready availability of ground cereals would have enabled mothers to feed their infants soft, high-carbohydrate porridges and gruels. The analysis of infant fecal material recovered from the Wadi Kubbaniya site in Egypt seems to demonstrate that a similar practice was in use with root crops along the Nile at what may have been a year-round site by 19,000 years before the present (Hillman 1989, 230). The influence of cereals on fertility has been observed by Richard Lee among settled by Ju/'hoansi, who recently began to eat cereals and experienced a marked rise in fertility. Renee Pennington (1992) notes that the increase in Ju/'hoansi reproductive success seems to be related to a reduction in infant and child mortality rates.
The Decline in the Quality of Diet
Westerners have long seen agriculture as an evolutionary advance over foraging, a sign of human progress. Put simply, however, early farmers did not eat as well as foragers. Jared Diamond (1987) writes:
While farmers concentrate on high carbohydrate crops like rice and potatoes, the mix of wild plants and animals in the diets of surviving hunter-gatherers provides more protein and a better balance of other nutrients. In one study, the San [Ju/'hoansi] average daily food intake (during a month when food was plentiful) was 2,140 calories and 93 grams of protein, considerably greater than the recommended daily allowance for people of their size. It's almost inconceivable that San [Ju/'hoansi] who eat 75 or so wild plants, could die of starvation the way hundreds of thousands of Irish farmers and their families did during the potato famine of the 1840s.
Skeletal evidence makes the same point. Skeletons from Greece and Turkey in late Paleolithic times indicate an average height of 5 feet 9 inches for men and 5 feet 5 inches for women. With the adoption of agriculture, the average height declined sharply; by about 5,000 years ago, the average male was about 5 feet 3 inches tall, the average woman, about 5 feet. Even modern Greeks and Turks are not, on average, as tall as the late Paleolithic people of the same region.
Increase in Precariousness
In the short term, agriculture was probably developed in ancient southwestern Asia, and perhaps elsewhere, to increase food supplies to support an increasing population at a time of serious resource stress. Over time, however, as dependence on domesticated crops increased, so did the overall insecurity of the food supply system. Why?
Proportion of Domesticated Plants in the Diet There are several reasons why early farmers depended more and more on cultivated plants. Because the agroecology created an environment favorable to the plants, farmers were able to cultivate previously unusable land. When such vital necessities as water could be brought to the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Mesopotamia, land on which wheat and barley was not native could support dense stands of the domesticated grains. Domestic plants also provided more and larger edible parts and were easier to harvest, process, and digest. There is good evidence that they also tasted better. Rindos lists a number of modern food plants that derive from bitter wild varieties. Finally, the greater yield of domesticated plants per unit of ground also led to a greater proportion of cultivated plants in the diet, even when wild plants were still being eaten and were as plentiful as before.
Reliance on a Smaller Number of Plants Unfortunately, reliance on an increasingly smaller number of plants is very risky should those plants fail. According to Richard Lee, the Ju/'hoansi, who live in the Kalahari Desert, use over 100 plants (14 fruits and nuts, 15 berries, 18 species of edible gum, 41 edible roots and bulbs, and 17 leafy greens, beans, melons, and other foods; 1992b, 48). By contrast, modern farmers rely on no more than 20 plants, and of those, three--wheat, maize, and rice--feed most of the world's people. Historically, it was only one or two grain crops that were the staple for a specific group of people. A decrease in this crop has devastating effects on the population.
Selective Breeding, Monocropping, and the Gene Pool Selective breeding of any given plant species decreases the variability of its gene pool, eliminating varieties with natural resistance to infrequently occurring pests and diseases and lowering its long-term survival chances by increasing the risk of severe losses at harvest time. Again, the more people depend on a particular plant species, the riskier their future. Monocropping is the practice of growing only one kind of plant in a field. Although it increases efficiency and short-term yield, it exposes the entire field to destruction by diseases or pest damage. The outcome could be starvation.
Increasing Dependence on Plants As cultivated plants took on an increasingly large role in their diet, people became dependent on plants and the plants in turn became completely dependent on the people--or rather on the environment created by the people. But the people could not completely control that environment. Hail, floods, droughts, infestations, frost, heat, weeds, erosion, and other factors could destroy or significantly affect the crop, yet all were largely outside human control. The risk of failure and starvation increased.
Increase in Disease Connected to the evolution of domesticated plants was an increase in disease, especially of the epidemic variety, for which there were several reasons. First, prior to sedentism, human waste was disposed outside the living area. As increasing numbers of people began to live near each other in relatively permanent settlements, the disposal of human waste became increasingly problematic: Large quantities of fecal material had the potential to transmit disease, and animal and plant wastes nourished pests, some of which served as disease vectors.
Second, a larger number of people living very near each other served as a disease reservoir. Once a population is large enough, the likelihood of disease transmission increases. By the time one person recovers from the disease, someone else reaches the infectious stage and can reinfect the first. Consequently, the disease never leaves the population. The speed with which school children catch and spread colds, influenza, or chicken pox illustrates how a closely packed population and germs interact.
Third, settled people cannot just walk away from diseases; by contrast, if someone in a foraging band falls ill, the others can walk away, reducing the likelihood that the disease will spread. Fourth, the agricultural diet may have reduced people's resistance to disease. Finally, the rise in human population provided a greater opportunity for germs to evolve in human hosts. In fact, as we discussed in Chapter 3, there is good evidence that the clearing of land for farming in sub-Saharan Africa created an excellent environment for malaria-carrying mosquitos, leading both to a dramatic rise in human malaria and the selection for the HbAHbS genotype.
With the development of agriculture, human beings began to intervene more actively in the environment. Deforestation, soil loss, silted streams, and the loss of many native species followed domestication. In the lower Tigris-Euphrates valley, irrigation waters used by early farmers carried high levels of soluble salts, poisoning the soil and making it unusable to this day.
Increase In Labor
Raising domesticated plants and animals requires much more labor than foraging. People must clear the land, plant the seeds, tend the young plants, protect them from predators, harvest them, process the seeds, store them, and select the seeds for planting the next year; similarly, people must tend and protect domesticated animals, cull the herds, shear the sheep, milk the goats, and so on.
Primitive societies are societies without a State. This factual judgment, accurate in itself, actually hides an opinion, a value judgment that immediately throws doubt on the possibility of constituting political anthropology as a strict science. What the statement says, in fact, is that primitive societies are missing something - the State - that is essential to them, as it is to any other society: our own, for instance. Consequently, those societies are incomplete; they are not quite true societies--they are not civilized--their existence continues to suffer the painful experience of a lack--the lack of a State--which, try as they may, they will never make up. Whether clearly stated or not, that is what comes through in the explorers' chronicles and the work of researchers alike: society is inconceivable without the State; the State is the destiny of every society. One detects an ethnocentric bias in this approach; more often than not it is unconscious, and so the more firmly anchored. Its immediate, spontaneous reference, while perhaps not the best known, is in any case the most familiar. In effect, each one of us carries within himself, internalized like the believer's faith, the certitude that society exists for the State. How, then, can one conceive of the very existence of primitive societies if not as the rejects of universal history, anachronistic relics of a remote stage that everywhere else has been transcended? Here one recognizes ethnocentrism's other face, the complementary conviction that history is a one-way progression, that every society is condemned to enter into that history and pass through the stages which lead from savagery to civilization. "All civilized peoples were once savages," wrote Ravnal. But the assertion of an obvious evolution cannot justify a doctrine which, arbitrarily tying the state of civilization to the civilization of the State, designates the latter as the necessary end result assigned to all societies. One may ask what has kept the last of the primitive peoples as they are.
In reality, the same old evolutionism remains intact beneath the modern formulations. More subtle when couched in the language of anthropology instead of philosophy, it is on a level with other categories which claim to be scientific. It has already been remarked that archaic societies are almost always classed negatively, under the heading of lack: societies without a State, societies without writing, societies without history. The classing of these societies on the economic plane appears to be of the same order: societies with a subsistence economy. If one means by this that primitive societies are unacquainted with a market economy to which surplus products flow, strictly speaking one says nothing. One is content to observe an additional lack and continues to use our own world as the reference point: those societies without a State, without writing, without history are also without a market. But common sense may object - what good is a market when no surplus exists? Now, the notion of a subsistence economy conceals within it the implicit assumption that if primitive societies do not produce a surplus, this is because they are incapable of doing so, entirely absorbed as they are in producing the minimum necessity for survival, for subsistence. The time-tested and ever serviceable image of the destitution of the Savages. And, to explain that inability of primitive societies to tear themselves away from the stagnation of living hand to mouth, from perpetual alienation in the search for food, it is said they are technically under-equipped, technologically inferior.
What is the reality? If one understands by technics the set of procedures men acquire not to ensure the absolute mastery of nature (that obtains only for our world and its insane Cartesian project, whose ecological consequences are just beginning to be measured), but to ensure a mastery of the natural environment suited and relative to their needs, then there is no longer any reason whatever to impute a technical inferiority to primitive societies: they demonstrate an ability to satisfy their needs which is at least equal to that of which industrial and technological society is so proud. What this means is that every human group manages, perforce, to exercise the necessary minimum of domination over the environment it inhabits. Up to the present we know of no society that has occupied a natural space impossible to master, except for reasons of force or violence: either it disappears, or it changes territories. The astonishing thing about the Eskimo, or the Australians, is precisely the diversity, imagination, and fine quality of their technical activity, the power of invention and efficiency evident in the tools used by those peoples. Furthermore, one only has to spend a little time in an ethnographic museum: the quality of workmanship displayed in manufacturing the implements of everyday life makes nearly every humble tool into a work of art. Hence there is no hierarchy in the technical domain: there is no superior or inferior technology. The only measure of how well a society is equipped in technology is its ability to meet its needs in a given environment. And from this point of view, it does not appear in the least that primitive societies prove incapable of providing themselves with the means to achieve that end. Of course, the power of technical innovation shown by primitive societies spreads over a period of time. Nothing is immediately given; there is always the patient work of observation and research, the long succession of trials and errors, successes and failures. Prehistorians inform us of the number of millenia required by the men of the Paleolithic to replace the crude bifaces of the beginning with the admirable blades of the Solutrian. From another viewpoint, one notes that the discovery of agriculture and the domestication of plants occurred at about the same time in America and the 0ld World. One is forced to acknowledge that the Amerindians are in no way inferior--quite the contrary--in the art of selecting and differentiating between manifold varieties of useful plants.
Let us dwell a moment on the disastrous interest that induced the Indians to want metal implements. This bears directly on the question of the economy in primitive societies, but not in the way one might think. It is contended that these societies are doomed to a subsistence economy because of their technological inferiority. As we have just seen, that argument has no basis either in logic or in fact. Not in logic, because there is no abstract standard in terms of which technological "intensities" can be measured: the technical apparatus of one society is not directly comparable to that of another society, and there is no justification for contrasting the rifle with the bow. Nor in fact, seeing that archaeology, ethnography, botany, etc. give us clear proof of the efficiencv and economy of performance of the primitive technologies. Hence if primitive societies are based on a subsistence economy, it is not for want of technological know-how. This is in fact the true question: Is the economy of these societies really a subsistence economy. If one gives a meaning to words, if by subsistence economy one is not content to understand an economy without a market and without a surplus--which would be a simple truism, the assertion of a difference-- then one is actually affirming that this type of economy permits the society it sustains to merely subsist; one is affirming that this society continually calls upon the totality of its productive forces to supply its members with the minimum necessary for subsistence.
There is a stubborn prejudice in that notion, one which oddly enough goes hand in hand with the contradictory and no less common idea that the Savage is lazy. While, in our culture's vulgar language, there is the saying 'to work like a N*****," there is a similar expression in South America, where one savs "lazy like an Indian." Now, one cannot have it both ways: either man in primitive societies (American and others) lives in a subsistence economy and spends most of his time in the search for food; or else he does not live in a subsistence economy and can allow himself prolonged hours of leisure, smoking in his hammock. That is what made an unambiguously unfavorable impression on the first European observers of the Indians of Brazil . Great was their disapproval in seeing that those strapping men glowing with health preferred to deck themselves out like women with paint and feathers instead of perspiring away in their gardens. Obviously, these people were deliberately ignorant of the fact that one must earn his daily bread by the sweat of his brow. It wouldn't do, and it didn't last: the Indians were soon put to work, and they died of it. As a matter of fact, two axioms seem to have guided the advance of Western civilization from the outset: the first maintains that true societies unfold in the protective shadow oft he State; the second states a categorical imperative: man must work.
The Indians devoted relatively little time to what is called work. And even so, they did not die of hunger. The chronicles of the period are unanimous in describing the fine appearance of the adults, the good health of the many children, the abundance and variety of things to eat. Consequently, the subsistence economy in effect among the Indian tribes did not by any means imply an anxious, full-time search for food. It follows that a subsistence economy is compatible with a substantial limitation of the time given to productive activities. Take the case of the South American tribes who practiced agriculture, the Tupi-Guarani, for example, whose idleness was such a source of irritation to the Urench and the Portuguese. The economic life of those Indians was primarily based on agriculture, secondarily on hunting, fishing, and gathering. The same garden plot was used for from four to six consecutive years, after which it was abandoned, owing either to the depletion of the soil, or, more likely, to an invasion of the cultivated space by a parasitic vegetation that was difficult to eliminate. The biggest part of the work, performed hy the men, consisted of clearing the necessary area by the slash and burn technique, using stone axes. This job, accomplished at the end of the rainy season, would keep the men busy for a month or two. Nearly all the rest of the agricultural process--planting, weeding, harvesting--was the responsibility of the women, in keeping with the sexual division of labor. This happy conclusion follows: the men (i.e., one-half the population ) worked about two months every four years! As for the rest of the time, they reserved it for occupations experienced not as pain but as pleasure: hunting and fishing; entertainments and drinking sessions; and finally for satisfying their passionate liking for warfare.
Now, these qualitative and impressionistic pieces of information find a striking confirmation in recent research-- some of it still in progress--of a rigorously conclusive nature, since it involves measuring the time spent working in societies with a subsistence economy. The figures obtained, whether they concern nomad hunters of the Kalahari Desert, or Amerindian sedentary agriculturists, reveal a mean apportionment of less than four hours daily for ordinary work time. Lizot, who has been living for several years among the Yanomami Indians of the Venezuelan Amazon region, has chronometrically established that the average length of time spent working each day by adults, including all activities, barely exceeds three hours. Although I did not carry out similar measurements among the Guayaki, who are nomad hunters of the Paraguayan forest, I can affirm that those Indians, women and men, spent at least half the day in almost total idleness since hunting and collecting took place (but not every day) between six and eleven o'clock in the morning, or thereabouts. It is probable that similar studies conducted among the remaining primitive peoples would produce analogous results, taking ecological differences into account.
Thus we find ourselves at a far remove from the wretchedness that surrounds the idea of subsistence economy. Not only is man in primitive societies not bound to the animal existence that would derive from a continual search for the means of survival, but this result is even bought at the price of a remarkably short period of activity. This means that primitive societies have at their disposal, if they so desire, all the time necessary to increase the production of material goods. Common sense asks then: why would the men living in those societies want to work and produce more, given that three or four hours of peaceful activity suffice to meet the needs of the group? What good would it do them? What purpose would be served by the surplus thus accumulated? What would it be used for? Men work more than their needs require only when forced to. And it is just that kind of force which is absent from the primitive world; the absence of that external force even defines the nature of primitive society. The term, subsistence economy, is acceptable for describing the economic organization of those societies, provided it is taken to mean not the necessity that derives from a lack, an incapacity inherent in that type of society and its technology; but the contrary: the refusal of a useless excess, the determination to make productive activity agree with the satisfaction of needs. And nothing more. Moreover, a closer look at things will show there is actually the production of a surplus in primitive societies: the quantity of cultivated plants produced (manioc, maize, tobacco, and so on) always exceeds what is necessary for the group's consumption, it being understood that this production over and above is included in the usual time spent workmg. That surplus, obtained without surplus labor, is consumed, consummated, for political purposes properly so called, on festive occasions, when invitations are extended, during visits by outsiders, and so forth.
The advantage of a metal ax over a stone ax is too obvious to require much discussion: one can do perhaps ten times as much work with the first in the same amount of time as with the second; or else, complete the same amount of work in one-tenth the time. And when the Indians discovered the productive superiority of the white men's axes, they wanted them not in order to produce more in the same amount of time, but to produce as much in a period of time ten times shorter. Exactly the opposite occurred for, with the metal axes, the violence, the force, the power which the civilized newcomers brought to bear on the Savages created havoc in the primitive Indian world.
Primitive societies are, as Lizot writes with regard to the Yanomami , societies characterized by the rejection of work: "The Yanomami's contempt for work and their disinterest in technological progress per se are beyond question." The first leisure societies, the first affluent societies, according to M. Sahlin's apt and playful expression.
If the project of establishing an economic anthropology of primitive societies as an independent discipline is to have any meaning, the latter cannot derive merely from a scrutiny of the economic life of those societies: one would remain within the confines of an ethnology of description, the description of a non-autonomous dimension of primitive social life. Rather, it is when that dimension of the "total social fact" is constituted as an autonomous sphere that the notion of an economic anthropology appears justified: when the refusal of work disappears, when the taste for accumulation replaces the sense of leisure; in a word, when the external force mentioned above makes its appearance in the social body. That force without which the Savages would never surrender their leisure, that force which destroys society insofar as it is primitive society, is the power to compel; it is the power of coercion; it is political power. But economic anthropology is invalidated in any case; in a sense, it loses its object at the very moment it thinks it has grasped it: the economy becomes a political economy.
For man in primitive societies, the activity of production is measured precisely, delimited by the needs to be satisfied, it being understood what is essentially involved is energy needs: production is restricted to replenishing the stock of energy expended. In other words, it is life as nature that--excepting the production of goods socially consumed on festive occasions--establishes and determines the quantity of time devoted to reproduction. This means that once its needs are fully satisfied nothing could induce primitive society to produce more, that is, to alienate its time by working for no good reason when that time is available for idleness, play, warfare, or festivities. What are the conditions under which this relationship between primitive man and the activity of production can change? Under what conditions can that activity be assigned a goal other than the satisfaction of energy needs? This amounts to raising the question of the origin of work as alienated labor.
In primitive society--an essentially egalitarian society--men control their activity, control the circulation of the products of that activity: they act only on their own behalf, even though the law of exchange mediates the direct relation of man to his product. Everything is thrown into confusion, therefore, when the activity of production is diverted from its initial goal, when, instead of producing only for himself, primitive man also produces for others, without exchange and without reciprocity. That is the point at which it becomes possible to speak of labor: when the egalitarian rule of exchange ceases to constitute the "civil code" of the society, when the activity of production is aimed at satisfying the needs of others, when the order of exchange gives way to the terror of debt. It is there, in fact, that the difference between the Amazonian Savage and the Indian of the Inca empire is to be placed. All things considered, the first produces in order to live, whereas the second works in addition so that others can live, those who do not work, the masters who tell him: you must pay what you owe us, you must perpetually repay your debt to us.
When, in primitive society, the economic dynamic lends itself to definition as a distinct and autonomous domain, when the activity of production becomes alienated, accountable labor, 1evied by men who will enjoy the fruits of that labor, what has come to pass is that society has been divided into rulers and ruled, masters and subjects--it has ceased to exorcise the thing that will be its ruin: power and the respect for power. Society's major division, the division that is the basis for all the others, including no doubt the division of labor, is the new vertical ordering of things between a base and a summit; it is the great political cleavage between those who hold the force, be it military or religious, and those subject to that force. The political relation of power precedes and founds the economic relation of exploitation. Alienation is political before it is economic; power precedes labor; the economic derives from the political; the emergence of the State determines the advent of classes.
In machine based societies, the machine has incorporated the demands of the civil power or of the market, and the whole life of society, of all classes and grades, must adjust to its rhythms. Time becomes lineal, secularized, "precious"; it is reduced to an extension in space that must be filled up, and sacred time disappears. The secretary must adjust to the speed of her electric typewriter; the stenographer to the stenotype machine; the factory worker to the line or lathe, the executive to the schedule of the train or plane and the practically instantaneous transmission of the telephone; the chauffeur to the superhighways; the reader to the endless stream of printed matter from high speed presses; even the schoolboy to the precise periodization of his day and to the watch on his wrist; the person at "leisure" to a mechanized domestic environment and the flow of efficiently schedule entertainment. the machines seem to run us, crystallizing in their mechanical or electronic pulses the means of our desires. The collapse in time to a extension in space, calibrated by machines, has bowdlerized our natural and human rhythms and helped disassociate us from ourselves. Even now, we hardly love the Earth or see with eyes or listen any longer with our ears, and we scarcely feel our hearts beat before they break in protest. even now, so faithful and exact or the machines as servants that they seem an alien force, persuading us at every turn to fulfill our intentions which we have built into them and which they represent--in much the same way the perfect body servant routinizes, and finally, trivializes his master.
Of such things, actual or possible, primitive societies have no conception. Such things are literally beyond their wildest dreams, beyond their idea of alienation from village or family or he earth itself, beyond their conception of death, which does not estrange them from society or nature but completes the arc of life. There is only one rough analogy. The fear of excommunication from the kinship unit, from the personal nexus that joins man, society and nature in an endless round of growth (in short, the sense of being isolated and depersonalized and, therefore, at the mercy of demonic forces - a fear widespread among primitive peoples) may be taken as an indication of how they would react to the technically alienating processes of civilization if they were to understand them. that is, by comprehending the attitude of primitive people about excommunication from the web of social and natural kinship we can, by analogy, understand their repugnance and fear of civilization.
Primitive societies may be regarded as a system in equilibrium, spinning kaleidascopically on its axis but at a relatively fixed point. Civilization may be regarded as a system in internal dis-equilibrium; technology or ideology or social organization are always out of joint with each other - that is what propels the system along a given track. Our sense of movement, of incompleteness, contributes to the idea of progress. Hence the idea of progress is generic to civilization. And our idea of primitive society as existing in a state of dynamic equilibrium and as expressive of human and natural rhythms is a logical projection of civilized societies and is in opposition to civilization's actual state. But it also coincided with the real historical condition of primitive societies. The longing for a primitive mode of existence is no mere fantasy or sentimental whim; it is consonant with fundamental human needs, the fulfillment of which (although in different form) is precondition for our survival. Even the skeptical and civilized Samuel Johnson, who derided Boswell for his intellectual affair with Rousseau, had written:
When man began to desire private property then entered violence, and fraud, and theft, and rapine. Soon after, pride and envy broke out in the world and brought with them a new standard of wealth, for men, who till then, thought themselves rich, when they wanted nothing, now rated their demands, not by the calls of nature, but by the plenty of others; and began to consider themselves poor, when they beheld their own possession exceeded by those of their neighbors.
This may be inadequate ethnology, but it was the cri de couer of a civilized man, for a surcease from mere consumption and acquisitiveness, and so interpreted, it assumes something about primitive societies that is true, namely, predatory property, production for profits does not exist among them.
The search for the primitive is, then, as old as civilization. It is the search for the utopia of the past, projected into the future, with civilization being the middle term. It is birth, death, and transcendent rebirth, the passion called Christian, the trial of Job, the oedipal transition, the triadic metaphor of human growth, felt also in the vaster pulse of history. And this search for the primitive is inseparable from the vision of civilization. No prophet or philosopher of any consequence has spelled out the imperatives of his vision of a superior civilization without assuming certain constants in human nature and elements of a primitive condition, without, in short, engaging in the anthropological enterprise. A utopia detached from these twin pillars - a sense of human nature and a sense of pre-civilized past - becomes a nightmare. For humanity must be conceived to be infinitely adaptable and thus incapable of historic understanding or self amendment. Even Plato's utopia presumes, at least, a good if no longer viable prior state, erroneously conceived as primitive by the refined Greek when it was merely rustic; and the republic was, after all, founded on a theory of human nature that was certainly wrong. Nevertheless, it was a saving grace, for Plato believed that his perfectly civilized society would realize human possibilities not merely manipulate them.
Even the most brilliant and fearful utopian projections have been compelled to solve the problem of the human response, usually with some direct or allegorical reference to a prior or primitive level of functioning. In Zamiatin's We, a satirical work of great beauty, the collective society of the future is based on, and has become a maleficent version of, Plato's Republic. The people have been reduced to abstract ciphers, their emotions have been controlled and centralized (as in the Republic, mathematics is the most sublime language; but it is not a means of human communication, only an abstract dialogue with god); and history has ceased to exist. Zamiatin documents the growth of the internal rebel who is gradually educated in the experience of what the regime defines as love. When the revolt against this state of happiness occurs, the civili power uses two ultimate weapons: one is a method of instantaneously disintegrating the enemy. Since the enemy is legion, the other method is the "salvation" of the person, as an eternal civil servant, through a quick, efficient operation on the brain that results in a permanent dissociation between intellect and emotion without impairing technical intelligence. Zamiatin's description of the rebel rendered affectless, lucidly describing the changes on his beloved coconspirator's face and feeling nothing as she dies, anticipates Camus and transmits in its terrifying, poignant flatness a psychological truth about our time that has become a dreadful cliché. Zamiatin informs us that such a materialist, secularized and impersonal utopia can function only by altering human nature itself.
And, outside the glass wall of this utopian city which had arisen out of the ruin of the "final" war between the country and the city is a green wilderness in which primitive rebels live off the land, alive to their humanity, and seek to free the ultimately urbanized brother within.
"We have virtually abandoned living in traditional societies," explains Diamond when we meet. "But this was the only way of life that humans knew for their first 6m years on the planet. In giving it up over the past few thousand years, we have lost our vulnerability to disease and cold and wild animals, but we have also lost good ways to bring up children, look after old people, stave off diabetes and heart disease and understand the real dangers of everyday life."
Diamond is wearing a bright red jacket, checked trousers, a carefully ironed shirt and a tie. With his moustache-less beard, he looks more like a renegade Amish preacher than a distinguished biologist. His book, subtitled "What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?", is a form of rescue anthropology, he explains, a bid to save the last useful nuggets of tribal life before it is finally destroyed by the spread of nations and states.
The World Until Yesterday is Diamond's latest foray into a field that he has virtually made his own – the biological analysis of human history – and will be eagerly awaited by a global army of loyal readers. While traditional historians concentrate on treaties and successions, Diamond has concerned himself with the ecological constraints that influence the fate of a particular nation or state.
Consider Diamond's astonishingly successful Guns, Germs and Steel, which has sold more than 1.5m copies since its publication in 1998. It was written to provide an answer to a basic question: why did Spain conquer the Incas and not the other way round? Or to put it in more general terms, why did the nations of the west prosper at the expense of the rest of the world?
Historians have tended to avoid this question or have alluded to the innate intellectual vigour and genetic strength which, they have suggested, are possessed by western people. Diamond has no truck with that thesis. Europe became a power base because its nations grew out of the first farming societies, which arose in the Middle East 8,000 years ago, he says. And agriculture first appeared there because the world's most easily domesticable animals, including sheep, cattle and horses, were found there. With this head start, Europe was able to maintain a level of food production that allowed the first political states and military power bases to materialise. Guns and steel were invented there and were then used to conquer the rest of the world. Lacking these technologies, the Incas had little chance against the Spanish. Germs – "Europe's sinister gift to other continents" – followed in our wake.
https://www.theguardian.com/science/201 ... thropology
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