44. The last prehistory

(concluded) Chapter 4.           Fast Evolution


It’s easy to peer so intently at the trees that we forget our subject is the forest, so let’s pause for brief reminder of where we’ve been and where we intend to go. The stages of recent human evolution discussed in this chapter – presented in linear sequence and mostly described fairly briefly – are not intended to provide the depth of a history lesson. No, this chapter’s focus is something more important for understanding our real subject: mindsets.  We are examining and attempting to discern, at least minimally, the pattern of human cultural evolution over the past fifty thousand years. During these fifty millennia a pattern unfolds in several overlapping stages which represent the important transition from Long Evolution (13.8 billion years of creating the universe and life within it) to Fast Evolution (the current human condition). “Fast” evolution involves humanity’s passage into an unprecedented new situation where our evolution has greatly speeded up.


Fast evolution indeed. If we regard humans as being constituted of three aspects – the personal body, the personal mind, and the group culture – the first two were with us from our beginning, but the third, group culture, is a completely new thing (i.e., a mere 50,000 years is very “new” as the tail end of 13.8 billion years). This is not to say culture was absent from earlier humans, for – as archeology show us – humans always congregated into small family-based tribal clusters from our earliest beginnings as a species.


But the size of such groups was inherently self limiting for hunter-gatherers, because mother Earth’s foraging grounds can sustain and feed only so many people congregated in a group. Above some minimum size – controversially said to be perhaps around a hundred people, more or less – there are “too many,” so a new group must needs break away and go constitute a new startup group in unpopulated territory. In both cases, for survival and wellbeing of those involved, the “group” culture is quite as important as the “personal” body and mind. Then as now, culture was an integral aspect of our selves.


Our modern human culture – integrally important to each and every one of us, and daily growing more so – now evolves at an accelerating rate which is not merely thousands of times faster than the long, slow evolution out of which we emerged, it is millions of times faster. And in modern times this acceleration grows constantly faster. The changes which now occur in a single day of modern human culture are greater by far than those which happened slowly, over tens of thousand of years, during our first 150,000 years, and the long eons before that. Culture other than normal, miniscule, changes within the family-tribe was not a significant factor for human beings until the most recent 50,000 years began, and was slow to start changing a bit faster even then.


Nor is this meant to imply that evolution of the human body and mind have not also speeded up, for it has in both cases. Our bodies are undoubtedly mutating a lot faster nowadays than they used to mutate, back before we began routinely, daily, ingesting perfluorocarbons and the hundreds of other chemicals from the plastics, pesticides, and herbicides in our food chain which  – a new thing – go straight into and fundamentally change snippets of DNA within the trillion cells in our bodies and the bodies of our human children in fetus utero, in their early childhood development, and throughout their lives. Our minds also undoubtedly change faster now that we routinely multitask our way through every single day of life – augmented by and absorbed in social media – than they did way back when we used to mentally engage only with “where is the next nearest blackberry or pawpaw patch.” But these personal aspects of our selves do not change nearly so fast as the group aspect we call culture – which includes everything our contemporary group (now become globalized homo sapiens, all of it) does over and above what we each do personally with our own bodies and minds. Which is quite a lot.


And so those most recent fifty thousand years of human culture per se present a logically convenient period for describing the transition from Long to Fast evolution. Once again, here are the stages of the pattern previously discerned as having unfolded over that period [YA = years ago]:

  • ~50,000 to 11,000 YA: 39,000 years of slowly accelerating human evolution;
  • ~11,000 YA: a major discontinuity, from which Great Flood legends persist;
  • ~11,000 to 5,000 YA: a 6,000-year lacuna during which the archeological record is relatively more sparse and about which relatively less is known or said;
  • ~5,000 to 300 YA: approximately 5000 years of history recorded in writing;

…As of 300 YA the transition to Fast Evolution was complete…

  • ~300 YA to present: Industrial Revolution, and accelerating related changes.

*          *         *


10,000 Years ago: growing food

There is one exception to that informational lacuna of the past 11,000 years. A popular rule of thumb says human beings invented agriculture about ten thousand years ago (i.e., roughly 8,000 BCE). Most scientists accept this, often repeating it among themselves and in popular articles. As a rule of thumb, it’s easy to remember and is probably not inappropriate for a topic as vague as when and where we people began the all-important transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers. It may be considered all-important because the human customs and norms we recognize as “culture” arose from “farming” – i.e., the “culturing of plants and animals” – mostly for food. Hunting and gathering lifestyles do not typically lead to what we moderns would recognize as “our kind of culture.”


Also, as you would expect, methods for cultivating food were discovered independently multiple times in multiple places around the globe. At least eleven separate regions of the Old and New Worlds are regarded as independent centers for origination of agriculture – all around the same time…  All parties agree that in all these places around the earth, farming got started – roughly – 10,000 years ago. Archeological evidence does indeed indicate this as approximately the right figure. Everywhere. Quite a coincidence.


Doesn’t such coincidence seem a bit odd? I think it something of a mystery as to why the basis for such coincidence is not much questioned. If you think about it, why didn’t somebody discover-invent agriculture, say, 50,000 years ago? Or 100,000? Or 22,000 or 85,917.6…?  Or at least at hugely different times in different places around the globe. Yet there it is, in the archeological evidence: “roughly” 10,000 years ago. Everywhere.


Maybe this is coincidental, but maybe also means maybe not. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that humanity’s earliest known civilization arose directly out of the earliest known agriculture, which took root, so to speak, in the highly fertile crescent of ancient Mesopotamia – about a thousand years after vast flooding had picked up fertile soils at the east end of the Mediterranean, transported them long distances and laid them down to depths averaging eight feet in Mesopotamia. It seems odd coincidence that, about the same time, ten millennia ago, the utterly anomalous and fertile loess soils of the northern Chinese plain birthed agriculture which led directly to the first civilization in ancient China. Paying attention to geophysical details, the coincidence can be comparably tracked to other places around the world where – about 10,000 years ago, as the scientists all agree – our human ancestors took up agriculture, something they had never done before, and they did so within about a millennium after a large asteroid strike in the north Atlantic Ocean precipitated colossal floods long remembered around the earth.


Do we discern the possibility, even perhaps the likelihood, of cause and effect here? Did the asteroid strike and its aftereffects set up new conditions which invited peoples everywhere  to begin growing their food instead of hunting and gathering it?  But no, the subject is out of bounds for scientific minds because the notion of a Great Flood comes from the province of religion and therefore must be eschewed as superstitious myth. And no, it is equally out of bounds for religious minds because it’s too old – literal reading of the Bible convinces them the world wasn’t created until just a few thousand years ago.


Here in the Early Twenty-First Century Years of Our Lord, how oh how can we intelligent mortals know what we’re doing or where we’re going when closed mindsets block out intelligent inquiry of reasonably apparent evidence on where we came from?

*          *          *


Nowhere, of course, did agriculture start quite exactly the same way, or at exactly the same time. In the Levant, for example, we find evidence that – as nearly as scientists can assign dates – wild grains such as barley, wheat, rye and oats were being reaped, threshed and pounded into food and fermented into beer by 20,000 BCE; this was followed by domestication of pigs (15,000 YA) and sheep (perhaps 11,000 YA). However, farming of most other foods began after the aforesaid great discontinuity of about 11,000 years ago. One thing is certain: wherever agriculture became established, permanent villages came into being, and populations that formerly had been nomadic now stayed put in one place.


The following brief sampling will lend sufficient feel for agriculture’s unfolding since then. All dates from the hazy prehistory before human writing began are approximate and should be read with tolerant understanding of how difficult it is to establish old numbers with scientific certainty that they’re in the ballpark or even, conceivably, on the money.


  • 11,000 to 6,200 Years Ago in China:    Wild rice was domesticated and became a staple, accompanied by soy and several types of beans.
  • Around 11,000 YA in the Levant: domestication and cultivation of emmer and einkorn wheat, hulled barley, lentils, peas, chick peas, flax and vetch.

– – – – – – – – the theoretical 10,000-year “agriculture boundary” – – – – – – – –

  • 10,000 YA in areas of modern Turkey and Pakistan: wild aurochs were domesticated, selectively bred and transformed into modern cattle.
  • 10,000 to 7,000 YA in South American Andes: domestication of common vegetables (potatoes, beans) and livestock (llamas, alpaca, guinea pigs).
  • 10,000 to 7,000 YA in Papua New Guinea: Bananas hybridized, followed by cultivation of sugarcane and local root vegetables.
  • 7,000 YA in African Sahel: Sorghum domesticated.
  • 6,000 YA in Mesoamerica: Wild teosinte domesticated into maize (modern corn).
  • 5,600 YA in Peru: Cotton domesticated.
  • 5,000 YA: Camels domesticated.


So it took about five to seven thousand years, this so-called Agricultural Revolution. The transition from hunting-gathering to agriculture began about ten thousand years ago and was well along in many parts of the world by around five thousand years ago. By three thousand years ago, when most of the history they teach in schools begins (usually starting with the Greeks, as if that were the story’s beginning), agriculture was fairly completely established and had become the dominant means of acquiring food around the world. It really changed the way people lived – as well as who got to boss who around.



There is a strong body of thought that (I’m not making this up) beer was the driving force which led to the establishment of agriculture and – thence – village life, grainaries, accounting, writing and civilizations. This point of view has acquired scientific respectability (well, at least among some scientists) and appears in respected media such as National Geographic.


It goes like this. Somebody gathered some edible grain seeds with intention to pulverize and eat them. That somebody went off on a hunt and forgot about the container of seeds setting outside. It got rained on. The now-moist seeds sprouted. It rained again, enough to fill the container with rainwater. Natural yeast caused the container-full to ferment, thus flavoring the now-transformed water. By the time the hunters got home the brew was right. A thirsty hunter smelled it, was curious enough to taste it – and beer was married to humanity forever.


This happy scenario happened many times, all over the earth, and after a few thousand years almost all humans had settled in villages where they could tend the fields which grew the grains that made their beer. It’s a hard story to argue with. It works equally well for fruits which turn quickly into wine when fallen to the ground and collected into a pail where, with water added, they turn mushy and ferment. The just-so alcohol content of beers and wines tends to result in people coming to view these perfectly natural products as “happy drinks.” And thus the die is firmly set.


There’s more. Anytime you get more than about a hundred people all living permanently in one place, their necessary natural excretions eventually foul the water in and for some distance around that place. After enough deaths have led them to notice the correlation between filthy water and sickness, they realize that the steady beer drinkers tend to stay healthy. This in fact happened countless times over several millennia, reinforcing the view that drinking beer-ale-stout-wine in infinite varieties is a healthy thing to do – a view which sustained the American Revolution and persists e’en to the present moment.


Before moving on let it be noted that not everyone switched to agriculture (though they unhesitatingly traded for beer with those who did).  Some of the human groups who continued their hunter-gatherer ways of living – many until forced otherwise by the irresistible technological changes of the past century – include the native peoples of North and South America, Australia, sub-Saharan Africa and much of Siberia. A few hunter-gatherers persist today, notably the San people of sub-Saharan Africa and several tribes of the remote rainforests in Amazonia and Indonesia, but even these are dwindling as their children encounter – and opt for – cell phones, flipflops and other modern attractions.


A comparable alternative to agriculture was – and is today – the nomadic herding life so naturally suited to arid regions. Herding can sustain life where rainfall is too low for economically viable farming but arrives at frequencies sufficient to maintain grass cover. Since ancient times, varieties of sheep, goats, cattle, camels and horses have been herded across the world’s arid middle and the steppes from Ukraine to Mongolia, as have reindeer across the breadth of European Lapland and Eurasian Siberia. As with surviving hunter-gatherers though, the spread of modern technological culture is steadily eroding nomadic herding, primarily through encroachment onto its remaining, diminishing, homelands.


*          *          *


The end of the stone age

Sometime during these fifty and more centuries of transition to agriculture, the stone age ended, closing a vital and interesting chapter in the evolution of humankind. After something like three million years of humans and our near-modern ancestors shaping and using natural stones as tools with sharp edges, points and hammer faces for pounding, we made the gradual transition to metals. The new knowledge of how to dig out and crush ores, melt out the metals and then shape them into tools far better than stone, spread across farming cultures like wildfire – a mere few thousand years from start to finish.


5,500 YA: Beginning of the bronze age

The process of melting metal out of its source ore is called smelting. Our perfection of this new technology is commemorated as the start of the bronze age. Copper was the first metal we learned how to do this with. Nobody knows why one of our brighter ancestors decided to pursue the smelting of copper but, clearly, this early-modern ancestor had something we might call vision plus the persistence to keep experimenting until he or she successfully achieved the result he or she had – incredibly – somehow managed to envision.


After enough copper had been smelted out, it could be hammered (or poured into a mold) to the shape of a knife or other tool – and it would be better than the stone tool it replaced. (To appreciate this first-time accomplishment, imagine you have just been assigned to find some copper ore, dig it up, smelt it, and make a knife out of it. How will you begin?) The new and better copper tools are thought to have been first crafted in southeast Asia, although – given the rapid pace at which metal technology spread around the globe – it almost certainly had to have been independently discovered about the same time at several locations around the earth. Which leaves us to wonder…why?


Copper is a fairly soft metal, so, while it was observed to be better than stone tools, it wasn’t a whole lot better. We don’t know why, but some bright body got the idea that – since copper was harder than stone, some other metal might be harder than copper – and therefore copper might be made harder if some harder metal were mixed in with it.


Never forget dear reader, not for an instant, that these late-prehistorical human ancestors had modern minds that were pretty much exactly like ours today.  Pause;  think about that;  let it soak in.  To where do your thoughts go next?


And so it came to pass: after much persistent experimentation and quite a bit of faith (remember, this was the very first time), somebody dug out some tin, smelted it out, and mixed it with the molten copper. Shazam – the combination made a nicely harder alloy called bronze, and a knife made of it could hold an edge far better than a mere copper knife. And so, from around 3,000 to 1,000 BCE, what we call the Bronze Age prevailed. Within a mere thousand years it had diffused from Southeast Asia across Eurasia to the western isle now know as Britain. Bronze age technology spread also to north Africa where, for reasons unknown, it did not diffuse cross the Sahara Desert.


And with that we have overlapped onto the invention of writing, around 5200 years ago, after which the evolution of human culture really speeded up. Recorded history began.

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…to be continued in one week…


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