46. Early civilizers

(continued) Chapter 5.           Faster Evolution in human historical times


2.  Egypt, the longest lived human civilization

Recognition of Egypt as a distinct culture is commonly said to have begun about 5,000 years ago when a strong man, Menes, unified the lower Nile valley. The capital he established at “White Walls,” later known as Memphis, grew into a major center that dominated Egyptian society during that long-ago time known as the Old Kingdom. Far out in Egypt’s portion of the Sahara Desert, however, lies evidence of a much older story.


At a place called Nabta Playa, in the southern desert west of Abu Simbel’s famed rock temples, lie hundreds of extremely ancient stone circles, stelae, tumuli and other megalithic structures. Discovered by American scientists in 1974, these extensive works are thought to have been constructed by an “advanced urban community” sometime between 9,000 and 11,000 years ago (the number that keeps coming back). The question naturally occurs:  where did the advanced people of that urban community come from?


The Sahara region was not nearly so desertified then as now, and supplied ample grass, wildlife and water for human occupation. Predating Stonehenge by thousands of years, a Nabta Playa stone circle clearly designed to serve calendrical purposes evidences considerable sophistication and mathematical literacy by its builders;  satellite photography indicates its alignment points to where the solstices would have appeared at that time 9,000 to 11,000 years ago.


Regardless whether Egyptian civilization is 5,000 or 11,000 years old – or more – it is the oldest continuously distinct human civilization surviving on the planet today.


3.  The Harrapan civilization of south Asia

A little over 5,000 years ago the great valley of the Indus River in south Asia was home to the bronze-age Harrapan Civilization – also called the Indus Valley Civilization – in the Punjab region overlapping northwest India and Pakistan, and including part of eastern Afghanistan. The ancient city of Harrapa rose around 3,300 BCE, reached its zenith around 2,600 BCE and was in decline by 1,300 BCE.  Once a major economic center and the oldest known urban culture on the Indian subcontinent, Harrapa is today a mere village where archeological excavations were first undertaken in 1921.


Dominating an area the size of western Europe, the Harrapans were the largest of the six ancient Old World civilizations, but are the least well known. They had invented writing and the ancient “Indus script” is widely preserved on many artifacts such as pottery, amulets and seals, but to date the script remains an undeciphered key to missing knowledge of this important early people. Ancient Harrapa is famous for having perhaps the world’s first water and sewer systems, said to have had connections to all houses and buildings as is customary today.


4.  Ancient China

Interestingly, modern Chinese claims of their own origins are disputed within the international scholarly community. Not in dispute, however, is solid archeological evidence of extremely ancient human presence in the region that would become China and of considerable sophistication in the culture of its earliest peoples. An oft-cited example is Ban-po, a Neolithic village inhabited by at least 4,500 BCE (6,500 years ago), designed in such a way that its drainage, food storage and defense from attack were all integral to its construction. These features as well as pottery, tools and other artifacts bespeak a culture considerably advanced for its time.


Social stratification seems to have been pronounced, with the dynastic form of rule – i.e., extreme inequality between socially highest and socially lowest – solidly in place from earliest times. The first recognizably cohesive civilization, the Xia dynasty along the Yellow River from about 2,100 BCE until 1,600 BCE, is the first mentioned in ancient written records. The dynasty is attributed to Yu the Great, the first in a long line of Chinese notables who sought to prevent Yellow River flooding from routinely destroying farmers’ crops. Too bad they didn’t have communication with the Egyptian peoples who so well used the Nile River’s annual floods to advantage.


5.  Civilizations of Mesoamerica

Some archeologists controversially claim humans were present in Mesoamerica as early as 21,000 BCE, but experts of course differ on this. Controversy yields to confirmed certainty that hunter-gatherers roamed the Mesoamerican region by 11,000 years ago, and that their transition to stay-put agriculture was underway by around 9,000 years ago. Some 7,500 years later – around 1,500 BCE – a permanent village-farming lifestyle was fully established in the region, with systematic cultivation of maize, beans, squashes, chiles and cotton. The peoples of the Caribbean islands and adjacent central American mainland flourished as their agricultural practices evolved and refined. By 1,200 BCE they had firmly established their civilization along much of the Gulf of Mexico’s western coastal periphery. They subsequently prospered for hundreds years, spreading their trade activity and influence as far south as present-day Nicaragua and Panama.


A dynamic people, they engineered extensive sacred complexes and massive stone sculptures, invented ball games, and passed on a love of chocolate to future civilizations around the world. They invented a dual form of writing grounded in hieroglyphic symbols which encompassed a syllabic form of combined graphic and phonetic symbols. This system’s complexity suggests a fairly complex organized religion, which would have produced a priesthood to interpret the symbolism, and their descendants did indeed use it to record their gods and religious practices (human sacrifice rituals, etc) over nearly three millennia until the Spanish conquerors arrived in the 16th century CE.


Who were they?


Well there’s a bit of mystery. Their ethnic origins are unknown and we don’t know what they called themselves. The subsequent Maya and Aztec civilizations, located in the same regions, are thought to be their direct descendants and it was the Aztecs who gave them the name “Olmec” meaning “rubber people” – whatever that may imply. Since we lack archeological evidence of Olmec origins, we must defer – as all good scientists do – to logical hypothesizing, and this produces a suggestive observation.


The trade winds, which have from time immemorial carried sailing ships back and forth across the central and north Atlantic, blow southwestward in an almost direct line from the remnant volcanic island group, today known as the Azores, to the shores of Mesoamerica. And there’s that mysterious pre-historical date again –11,000 BCE – when hunter-gatherers are confirmed to have been in – or arrived in – Mesoamerica. Plato tells us (as the ancient information he obtained from Egyptian priests) that the Atlanteans maintained active trading with both the Mediteranean peoples to their east and the island peoples to their southwest. Plus, there would have been survivors…


6.  Andean Civilizations

Far to the south of Mesoamerica the most recent of our six original civilizations was taking shape by around 900 BCE, centered in the South American region we now call Peru with extensions into northern Chile and southern Colombia. The earliest known people (nobody knows where they came from either) were called the “Moche,” with their successive descendants variously called, in order, Nasca (Nazca), Chimu (Chimor), and Inca. These Andean civilizations, each in its own generation, wrought important cultural and engineering developments, such as adobe-brick pyramids the Moche constructed, the large ancient geoglyphs (stick figures up to 1,200 feet long, outlined by placed rocks and discernable only from the air above) in the high Nazca desert of southern Peru, and the spectacular Inca citadel at Machu Picchu. Their population centers appear to have been of smaller geographic extent than the other primal civilizations, perhaps due to the steep Andean topography, but the culture they evolved has left indelible marks on modern South Americans.


On bloodthirstiness

Like the Olmecs-Maya-Aztecs, these Moche-Nasca-Chimu-Inca all exhibited extraordinary levels of violence and creative bloodthirstiness. Actually, none of the six early civilizations were very “civilized” by modern notions of civility and polite behavior, but these early Americans do stand out. Human sacrifices by the Aztecs eventually rose to (at least) tens of thousands of lives per year. The reportedly preferred method was a ripping-out of the beating heart, though decapitation, skinning and dismemberment of the conscious victims were also enjoyed. They did these things, they said, in order to give the highest possible honor to the gods. In consideration of the known murderous history of New World native civil’i-zations, and may the gods thus honored be damned, one can only regret that the equally murderous Spanish invaders, who savagely destroyed the Aztec and Inca polities, didn’t arrive sooner.


In other times and places we have seen comparable behaviors justified in the name of religion, or perhaps ideology which looks much the same. Since in our own time we see comparable bloodthirstiness consistently exhibited, here two millennia later, by such ilk as the Nazis, Stalinists, Maoists, Pol Pots, Islamic State (who loudly proclaim Allah with their wanton killing) – and not a few lesser genocidal psychopaths tucked away from reporters’ prying cameras in places like Chile under Pinochet, Hutus-versus-Tutsis and, lately, Central African Republic – we shall eventually need to stop and dwell a while on the evolutionary emergence or lack of it in what may be called human “morality,” “ethics,” “spiritual growth,” and “empathy” for one’s fellow humanity. But not yet.


With these early historical details necessarily noted, let us expand our focus of interest to some other patterns all six of humanity’s first civilizations displayed in common.


A one-way difference

For starters they all represent an initial cultural plateau of sorts by small bands of people who at some point consciously chose to quit a hunting-gathering lifestyle, i.e., “finding” their food each day, in favor of settling down and staying in one location to “grow” their food as crops planted and harvested – and herded – in the surrounding fields. Thereby they multiplied, were fruitful, and became much larger groups of people. Their decision to make this basic change was stupendous – it massively changed the course of human evolution and human history over ten thousand years and right down to the present day.


Give it some thought. If you are a hunter-gatherer your small group of perhaps thirty to a hundred people (rarely more) – mostly related to each other like a modern clan – moves constantly about from place to place in search of edible berries, roots, vegetables, fruit, and whatever animals you can manage to find, sneak up on and kill (all hunting involves soundless sneaking-up-on, downwind, preparatory to the kill). Most wild animals have grown wise to you and your killing ways, so their meat is now a rare treat, hard to come by. Your group size is inherently limited – if there’s too many of you, you simply cannot find enough food in a typical day to feed everybody. Some go hungry, and starvation is a familiar old enemy. You must keep your group size small – and you have to keep moving, constantly moving. Every day, all your life, the constant gypsy moving about, just as grazing cattle and horses do, is normal, essential. Mostly, shelter does not move with you. If a cold rain falls during the night, you get wet, cold, sleepless. That’s life.


But all things evolve. After somebody came up with the bright idea of keeping food animals handily enclosed in a pen, feeding them, eventually letting them out to graze under a herder’s close supervision, things began to change. One could no longer range as far when hunting and gathering. One must needs stay fairly close to the food animals in their pen because they needed fairly constant tending and feeding. And if one can no longer range far and wide, one might as well plant some of the grain seeds instead of eating them all, so that – as is well known – they will grow, mature, and can be harvested to become more food. This changes the daily-yearly schedule – this changes everything. And after the change one is no longer a hunter-gatherer. One is a farmer.


The change wasn’t this clear cut, of course, the changes were gradual – one by one, a little of this, a little of that. Collectively the changes happened, piecemeal, over quite some thousands of years – say, ten thousand years. But happen they did. Before the changes everybody had been hunter-gatherers. After the changes far fewer were still hunter-gatherers, and many more – eventually a majority – had become farmers. After a while almost all were farmers. They no longer moved about from place to place every day. They stayed in the same place all the time. And they learned how to build mud-and-grass huts to ward off the cold night rain, a vast improvement all agreed. The places where they stayed in their assembled huts were called villages. Babies were born, more babies survived than before because the fields planted with grain yielded more edible grain, and the villages became larger. It became necessary to plant still more fields in order to feed all the hungry new mouths. Some villages grew large, some became towns, a few became cities. Most were situated along rivers.


In modern times we describe this long, slow transition in a few short words – we speak of it as “the invention of agriculture,” as if it were a preordained event, planned and quickly executed. Not so. Had you been there at the time, as one of those living through it, the change would have seemed as logical and natural as breathing. And it would have seemed slow. We moderns glibly say “They invented agriculture about ten thousand years ago, and cities resulted.” Zap. But if you had been there it wouldn’t have happened all fast like that, it would have happened slowly, incrementally, so that over the course of your one single lifetime you probably wouldn’t have noticed much change, hardly any at all. Exactly as we moderns don’t notice much change in global warming – it “seems” slow, barely noticeable over the course of a single human lifetime. Not so.


Yesterday the Charleston arrived, we danced, and then it was only remembered. Some remember the arrival of “the bomb,” and then the war was over and the cold war took its place – to fade and be replaced with…what we’ve got today. Who remembers when McDonald’s arrived, staffed exclusively with bright clean look-alike teenage boys, and then became part of the landscape, the arches elongated and now placed on the roof. Who remembers when virtually everyone grew a garden – like farmers, we all grew a lot of our own food. No more. Today we hunt and gather at Kroger, Piggly-Wiggly – evolving still.



The most interesting pattern surrounding the transition to agriculture is its irreversibility. It’s like a one-way turnstile:  you can go through one way…but you cannot go back. The peoples of the civilizations so briefly described above became chained to their farming lifestyle. A few still hunted sometimes, of course, for the wild game animals were seldom hunted clear to extinction (notable exceptions during recent geologic times include the black rhinoceros, wooly mammoth, passenger pigeon, quagga, Caribbean monk seal, Tasmanian tiger, dodo – some scientists say humans have caused 322 extinctions in just the past five hundred years), but people who opted for the farming lifestyle quickly became wedded to it. Besides, their fields quickly spread to cope with the necessity to feed their growing numbers – and what had been hunting-gathering terrain succumbed to the plow unless it was simply too steep or rugged.


Imagine what would happen today if all the citizens of Missouri were suddenly told: You must return to a hinter-gatherer lifestyle, you’re on your own. Even if they knew how to do so in a survivalist mode, which not one in a thousand does, very little of the state of Missouri remains that hasn’t fallen under the farmer’s plow, so where could they hunt and gather? Be concerned if you live in one of the states bordering Missouri…  No, once you’ve decided to become a farmer you’ve made a one-way choice. Even if everyone in your village voted to go back, they couldn’t do it – other villages and towns and cities have turned almost all the wilderness to farms. This is true all over most of the earth.

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…to be continued in one week…


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