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51GD7A9F3WL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Recently I reread War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage, with a particular focus on the transition in Europe during the Mesolithic/Neolithic. Today with ancient DNA we know that in western Europe there were two distinct populations which came together with the arrival of agriculture. One population, which is very similar to modern southern Europeans, was a synthesis of Ice Age indigenes and an intrusive group from the Middle East. The other population, Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, were related to, or in part ancestral to, much of the heritage of modern northern Europeans. An interesting aspect of the division between these two populations is that their genetic distance was very high, on the order of 0.05 to 0.10. Or that between continental races. Additionally, the hunter-gatherers may have been a fearsome sight to behold, large robust people with dark skin and hair and piercing blue eyes. A novelistic treatment of the meeting between hunter and farmer invites itself naturally (Ted Kosmatka?).

WillianGolding_TheInheritors Further back in time you have the meetings between our own lineage and Neandertals and other assorted hominins. No doubt some of the same discordances that characterized the interface of farmer and hunter would have applied in these situations, though even more starkly. I’ve read a fair number of novelistic takes on this “first contact.” Clan of the Cave Bear of course. But also Bjorn Kurten’s Dance of the Tiger. I’m finally getting to reading William Golding’s The Inheritors. And Robert J. Sawyer’s Neanderthal Parallax series, which is a strange twist on the theme, deploys many of the same tropes as prehistorical fantasy despite its science fiction setting.

Orientalism But a major problem with these books is that they turn the Neandertals into reflections of some aspect of our own dreams and nightmares about ourselves. Jean Auel’s Neandertals in Clan of the Cave Bear were patriarchal brutes, as opposed to the matrifocal Cro-Magnons. Ayla’s nemesis Broud is a nightmare inversion of dreamy Jondalar. In contrast Sawyer and Kurten depict Neandertals as a more gentle folk, more or less, in comparison to the rapacity of modern humans (Golding also goes in this direction). This is the same problem that Keeley observes in War Before Civilization, and that Steven Pinker explored in depth in The Blank Slate, though applied to our own species, with Europeans tellingly substituted for modern humans. Against this reference the Other is a noble savage, with different weights to nobility and savagery contingent upon cultural fashion.

cover_passing Contemporary American discourse about social justice is marinated in this intellectual framework, the heir of the age of white supremacy and scientism which crested in the early 20th century. Left-liberals who espouse strident progressive social justice views ascribe regressive practices among non-whites purely to extraneous Western colonial influences, as if non-white peoples were innocents in the garden before the arrival of Europeans, lacking agency for good or will. Whereas a previous generation of white supremacists perceived in the non-Western the inferior and primitive, a modern generation of Westerners sees the authentic and pristine. Though the moral valence differs, the underlying structural framework is invariant. To truly carve nature about its joints in a manner which exhibits appropriate fidelity we need to go beyond this reflex. Hopefully in such a manner we can also begin to probe our own past without fewer illusions which are haunted by the present.

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Human Nature 
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  1. M says:

    Re: robusticity and skin tone I think the recent paper by Mathieson found no differences in height between hg and the earliest farmers in Germany and Central Europe with the Spanish farmers shorter than both. Contrasts in BMI as another proxy for robusticity of a sort only significantly distinguished between late neolithic bronze age central europeans and ceu / Whg, not Whg and the LBK early neolithic.

    For all that, the hgs could’be had more robust body form still; the power of the tests may be limited and hgs would have eaten a different diet, one which might have led to them being larger.

    It seems further like Scandinavian hg were a little lighter than farmers.

  2. As a liberal, I run into the above-mentioned mistake all the time: if A is bad to B, then B must be good. This leads to peaceful hippie Neanderthals, Native Americans who all have impeccable moral standards, and homicidal religious maniacs who just can’t help but let out their righteous rage because Britain redrew their borders a century ago. I have even seen the Rwandan genocide described as being the result of European interference in an otherwise idyllic Africa. News alert: there are bad people everywhere. Some win, some lose. Europeans are not the sole source of evil on earth. Just one of them.

    • Replies: @Robert Abrahamsen
    We need many more liberals like you.
  3. I like the notion of agency for good or will.

    The pair of polar opposites, good and will, fits with my not very well informed notion of Buddhism. Is this a Freudian slip on RK’s part, revealing something previously veiled about his beliefs and morality?

  4. I’ve read a fair number of novelistic takes on this “first contact.”

    Check out The Stone Arrow by Richard Herley. Anthony Burgess liked it.

    http://richardherley.blogspot.com/2008/09/stone-arrow_01.html

  5. Whereas a previous generation of white supremacists perceived in the non-Western the inferior and primitive, a modern generation of Westerners sees the authentic and pristine.

    Sounds a lot like what has happened with American Indians. European colonists said that the Indians had “wasted” America. They had just left it alone and hadn’t “improved” it. Thus, it was morally proper for people who would improve it to take it over. Ironically, the landscape looked empty because European diseases had denuded it of the people who had previously used it. “Look at this meadow. It would be great for growing crops but it’s just being wasted.” Yes, and twenty years ago, crops were being grown there.

    Nowadays, so many Americans who care about nature have the warm and fuzzies for Native Americans because they, unlike Europeans, don’t try to change the landscape but instead “live in harmony with nature.” It is a great untruth, something that those who are paying attention have known since William Cronon’s classic Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (1983). On a broader scale, there is Charles C Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (2005), found in the books on the right. Daniel Botkin’s Our Natural History: The Lessons of Lewis and Clark (1995) considers the United States northwest of St. Louis.

    • Replies: @George123
    Indians definitely changed the landscape more than some people admit, but they had an ideal of harmony with nature that is lacking in the West. Western culture, and particularly Western science, is all about dominating the physical environment.

    Dominating the natural environment, and consequently organizing society towards the pursuit of knowledge as the major goal, seems to many Westerners as the only worthwhile human life.

    Many other cultures, including Native Americans, thought differently, even though they did dominate the environment to some degree.

    Its useless to argue otherwise. Taoism, for instance, argues for harmony and integration with natural forces, Western science argues for the opposite.
  6. Left-liberals who espouse strident progressive social justice views ascribe regressive practices among non-whites purely to extraneous Western colonial influences, as if non-white peoples were innocents in the garden before the arrival of Europeans, lacking agency for good or will.

    This is not true at all. Left-liberals have had plenty to criticize non-whites about- whether it be the liberal paternalists of their day in the 19th century railing against “savage customs”- such as the Indian practice of killing widows (the sutee- including the forcible version), to liberals around the time of Marx who followed his line disparaging a backward non-Western world. On India for example Marx said “Indian society has no history at all” and charged it with being a culture of static ways and stagnation. Fast forward and you have the left-liberals of today criticizing everything from female circumcision, to traditional male dominance, to lack of parliamentary democracy in said Third World..

    .
    Whereas a previous generation of white supremacists perceived in the non-Western the inferior and primitive, a modern generation of Westerners sees the authentic and pristine.
    You can always find SOME arguing for primitive authenticity, but this was not only an argument of the left, but the right as well, as Said’s Orientalism and other works show.

    To truly carve nature about its joints in a manner which exhibits appropriate fidelity we need to go beyond this reflex. Hopefully in such a manner we can also begin to probe our own past without fewer illusions which are haunted by the present.
    It is an open question whether today’s right wing racialists can do this given their set of both illusions and propaganda, or whether the left can either.

  7. I am in full agree meant with Roger Sweeny here… I think the noble savage idea has to be dropped in favour of a more clear-sighted view of human nature, especially the degree to which human beings have always shaped their environments. The hunter-gatherers I lived with in the Kalahari were shaping their ecosystem using controlled burning and even deliberate replanting of the species they considered most tasty and useful. This has recently been shown to be the case for Australian hunter-gatherers as well. I think the books mentioned, but especially the detailed material presented on environmental manipulation in Charles C Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (2005) nicely presented the same message.

    But there is another issue.. and that is that despite extensive ecological manipulation by foragers, the internal logic of INTENSIVE management results form much denser human populations who come into conflict far more often. There is also some evidence that sedentism altered birth pacing, due to the availability of calorically dense weaning foods, such as cereals and starchy roots. Despite the data on increased malnutrition and infectious diseases in populations undergoing transitions to farming economies, there is also evidence of an uptick in population growth.. leading eventually to expansion of these populations outward from their centres of origin. In doing this, they might have occasionally come into conflict with resident foragers.

    Compare the likely success of these two communities when they come into conflict:

    1) a group with permanent leadership positions and a strictly enforced chain of command tends to get everyone’s weapons pointed in the same direction, get people, and supplies, moved efficiently and strategically…

    vs 2) than a system where everyone has an equal say and groups must either act on consensus or wait until some committee makes up its mind before a war leader can be appointed or a plan of attack can be debated.

    You know who will move fast and act decisively. You already know who is likely to win that conflict.

    A socio-economic hierarchy prepares some people’s children for leadership and warrior roles from childhood, and concentrates the resources necessary to underwrite the costs of producing and maintaining weapons, training officers in tactics, and even maintaining a standing army. All of this has clearcut survival value once you have sufficient population growth to lead to potential violent competition between communities for land and other resources.

    During the shift to food producing economic strategies, claims of ownership on behalf of the corporate group (I don’t mean a modern business corporation, here, but rather the corporate group as a kinship entity, such as a lineage or clan) became necessary to keep control over sufficient land and other resources (like water and hunting grounds) for at least the next several generations. Such claims had to be backed up, at times, with force. Increasing so as the landscape filled up with more and more people.

    In other words, cultures which stayed with the more egalitarian forager logic tend to lose out to systems that are quicker to act and more aggressive. And foragers adapted to this threat, not always by fighting even harder, but often, more shrewdly, by developing trading arrangements and offering their labour and skills during peak drudgery in the farming system. In the egalitarian foragers I studied in the Kalahari, this resulted, after over 800 years of coexistence between foraging and the farming economies, in a pattern of mutual benefit. This was facilitated by the foragers’ multilingualism and capacity for conforming to the fantasies of the farming ethnic group, who even today often imagine themselves to be the superior peoples, in a sense looking after the foragers, who they see as politically inferior and more childlike.

    The politically inferior part is, of course, true. A more hierarchical society such as that of the Bantu-speaking BaTswana, is an adaptation to a lineage based risk management strategy necessitated by competition over land and management of vast herds of livestock. Young men traditionally were trained to this discipline by means of specialized age-grades (they are even translated as “regiments”). We even have a phase for this: we call it “military discipline”. With military discipline, you can just go out and wipe out the whole forager camp while they were still arguing and debating about what to do to resist you and your invasion of their lands and resources (prehistory and history is so full of this sort of thing i doubt you will need me to detail any…!) The forager found out long long ago that they had to use other skills to keep their ethnic identity and their access to resources in the presence of the invaders form the north.

    I doubt if the relationships between foragers and farmers in Europe were much different form what we observe int he Kalahari or other parts of the world today. As farming and pastoral peoples began to invade Europe and other parts of the world from the centres of origin of this kind of economic system, they were already organized for warfare to defend land rights or to rustle each other’s livestock. Many such Holocene cultures incorporated moral and behavioural codes stressing obedience to authority to prepare children for a lifetime of acceptance of socio-economic hierarchy.

    Childrearing methods must be calibrated to these alternations in economy and political organization. It is especially important to counter objections to unfairness and inequality in human children. For several million years, our brains evolved, after all, under a relatively egalitarian forager logic, and are very sensitive to injustice and unfairness…( but that is a matter for another discussion…).

    The system of upbringing, of child-rearing, in such farming or pastoral cultures, therefore, also had to adjust. The ideology and internal logic of these cultures had incorporated ideological systems that rationalized a certain degree of obedience to chiefs and senior male leaders, and a relatively inferior status for women and captives. The kinds of discipline imposed, with all its attendant rules, and themes of story telling and games, also became more competitive and authoritarian in response to the kind of adult behaviour that was needed for the culture to survive. In the densely populated older centres of plant and animal domestication, occasional raids between communities, to steal property or take captives, had been going on for a hundred generations before farming people began to move into more distant river valleys up the Indus, the Yellow river, the Mississippi, or the Danube.

    So, from a tiny fraction of humanity that got set on this course of economic change involving much more intensive environmental management, the pace of population growth and cultural change quickened.

    Cultural paradigms, that served for two hundred centuries in a world of foragers, no longer fit.

    This has nothing to do with alterations in human nature, by the way. Foragers are no more superior human beings compared to farmers than vice versa. So far all the evidence we have on culture change suggests that these alterations in systems of thought and behaviour (switch from generalized reciprocity to more balanced reciprocity, for example; or from reciprocal access to resources, to usufruct tenure of village lands held in common, to freehold tenure, to private property) have not unduly stretched the evolved human capacity for paradigm shift. The human capacity for paradigm shift is an adaptation to culture, not to any particular culture. Cognitive systems in humans do not have to be upgraded to learn to farm or look after cattle, nor are they unduly challenged by the development of symbolic writing or mathematics or networking on Facebook. It is what humans do.

    We are, at present, definitely NOT living in a time of great cultural stability. So we might expect to see a lot more internal cultural variation and innovation and upheaval – some of which will come in the form of ideas and thinking we would call scientific and rational. We might also see more of which we might call “fundamentalist” – some ideological changes can depart in the direction of greater militancy or even greater xenophobia, as the case of Israel clearly illustrates. . We will continue to see culture change, but we would be foolish to cling to the notion that it will represent “progress” toward higher morality, greater intelligence, or more rationality and enlightenment.

    If we play with the notion that all ideological systems might in fact be dependent variables, and look to the underlaying independent variables to find the direction of our causal arrows, we then might begin to imagine a set of independent variables that might give rise to less need for ideologies based on “fuzzy” notions about the superiority of some folk over other folk, and generate a culture with less need to paint one bunch of humanity as victimized “noble savages” and others as oppressors and bad guys?

    We can. But sadly, these are the roads less travelled, I think.

  8. @ben tillman
    As a liberal, I run into the above-mentioned mistake all the time: if A is bad to B, then B must be good. This leads to peaceful hippie Neanderthals, Native Americans who all have impeccable moral standards, and homicidal religious maniacs who just can't help but let out their righteous rage because Britain redrew their borders a century ago. I have even seen the Rwandan genocide described as being the result of European interference in an otherwise idyllic Africa. News alert: there are bad people everywhere. Some win, some lose. Europeans are not the sole source of evil on earth. Just one of them.

    We need many more liberals like you.

  9. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    I just read the Inheritors a few months ago after a friend sent it to me and told me that it was the kind of thing I’d like. Another great book of this sort is Shaman, by Kim Stanley Robinson. I do love anthropological fiction and agree that the interface between hunter gatherers and first farmers would be fertile territory for fiction. Michael Crichton’s 13th Warrior was likely envisioned as a Neanderthal encounter novel, though that aspect of it was not particularly obvious in the movie version. I’d love to see more of this kind of stuff. 🙂 http://www.amazon.com/Shaman-Kim-Stanley-Robinson/dp/0316098086

  10. I was reading “The River of the West” which told stories of some of the early interactions between fur traders and the Native Americans of the Rockies. I found this passage to be interesting for its old timey bluntness:

    Of the causes which have produced the enmity of the Indians, there are, about as many. It was found to be the case almost universally, that on the first visit of the whites the natives were friendly, after their natural fears had been allayed. But by degrees their cupidity was excited to possess themselves of the much coveted dress, arms, and goods of their visitors. As they had little or nothing to offer in exchange, which the white man considered an equivalent, they took the only method remaining of gratifying their desire of possession, and stole the coveted articles which they could not purchase. When they learned that the white men punished theft, they murdered to prevent the punishment. Often, also, they had wrongs of their own to avenge. White men did not always regard their property-rights. They were guilty of infamous conduct toward Indian women. What one party of whites told them was true, another plainly contradicted, leaving the lie between them. They were overbearing toward the Indians on their own soil, exciting to irrepressible hostility the natural jealousy of the inferior toward the superior race, where both are free, which characterizes all people. In short, the Indians were not without their grievances; and from barbarous ignorance and wrong on one side, and intelligent wrong-doing on the other, together with the misunderstandings likely to arise between two entirely distinct races, grew constantly a thousand abuses, which resulted in a deadly enmity between the two.

  11. Sgt says:

    @ Razib

    Maybe you are just joking about “hunter-gatherers may have been a fearsome sight to behold, large robust…” — I refer you to: ‘Beating ploughshares back into swords: warfare in the Linearbandkeramik’ by Mark Golitko & Lawrence H. Keeley. The “farmers” were a technologically advanced, invading culture i.e. ‘farmer-warriors,’ and more likely it was the other way around as the San beheld the Bantu.

  12. @Roger Sweeny
    Whereas a previous generation of white supremacists perceived in the non-Western the inferior and primitive, a modern generation of Westerners sees the authentic and pristine.

    Sounds a lot like what has happened with American Indians. European colonists said that the Indians had "wasted" America. They had just left it alone and hadn't "improved" it. Thus, it was morally proper for people who would improve it to take it over. Ironically, the landscape looked empty because European diseases had denuded it of the people who had previously used it. "Look at this meadow. It would be great for growing crops but it's just being wasted." Yes, and twenty years ago, crops were being grown there.

    Nowadays, so many Americans who care about nature have the warm and fuzzies for Native Americans because they, unlike Europeans, don't try to change the landscape but instead "live in harmony with nature." It is a great untruth, something that those who are paying attention have known since William Cronon's classic Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (1983). On a broader scale, there is Charles C Mann's 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (2005), found in the books on the right. Daniel Botkin's Our Natural History: The Lessons of Lewis and Clark (1995) considers the United States northwest of St. Louis.

    Indians definitely changed the landscape more than some people admit, but they had an ideal of harmony with nature that is lacking in the West. Western culture, and particularly Western science, is all about dominating the physical environment.

    Dominating the natural environment, and consequently organizing society towards the pursuit of knowledge as the major goal, seems to many Westerners as the only worthwhile human life.

    Many other cultures, including Native Americans, thought differently, even though they did dominate the environment to some degree.

    Its useless to argue otherwise. Taoism, for instance, argues for harmony and integration with natural forces, Western science argues for the opposite.

    • Replies: @Roger Sweeny
    I'm not sure there's much real life useful content to the statement, "[American] Indians ... had an ideal of harmony with nature that is lacking in the West." I very strongly suggest that if you polled a representative sample of Americans, at least 80% would agree with the statement, "We should live in harmony with nature."

    What exactly does that mean? What effect does that have?

    Also, there were something on the order of 500 native cultures before Columbus. I do not think it is possible to say that they all "thought" something.
  13. @George123
    Indians definitely changed the landscape more than some people admit, but they had an ideal of harmony with nature that is lacking in the West. Western culture, and particularly Western science, is all about dominating the physical environment.

    Dominating the natural environment, and consequently organizing society towards the pursuit of knowledge as the major goal, seems to many Westerners as the only worthwhile human life.

    Many other cultures, including Native Americans, thought differently, even though they did dominate the environment to some degree.

    Its useless to argue otherwise. Taoism, for instance, argues for harmony and integration with natural forces, Western science argues for the opposite.

    I’m not sure there’s much real life useful content to the statement, “[American] Indians … had an ideal of harmony with nature that is lacking in the West.” I very strongly suggest that if you polled a representative sample of Americans, at least 80% would agree with the statement, “We should live in harmony with nature.”

    What exactly does that mean? What effect does that have?

    Also, there were something on the order of 500 native cultures before Columbus. I do not think it is possible to say that they all “thought” something.

  14. The way it shows up in the real world is that to survive, Indians did change their environment, but were self-restrained when it came to the natural world as a result of a belief system that did not see the purpose of life as dominating the natural world. Also, their society wasn’t organized around the pursuit of knowledge and technology as the summum bonum.

    I’m sure there are good anthropological studies out there which give details about specific Indian practices that show the self-restraint I’m talking about.

    I agree polling wouldn’t be informative, and that the Western attitude has changed, and even that a society can have a belief system that it completely fails to carry out in practice, like Europe with Christianity – pay lip service to peace and turning the other cheek, but do whatever the hell you want.

    As you say, we need to look at actual practice. As Chomsky has long pointed out, its the norm for criminals to present themselves as motivated by the morality of their time.

    However, belief systems are not uninformative.

  15. M says:

    Trouble is, were the Native Amerivans, “more restrained” or did they just have less know how (no books, etc with which to develop knowledge) and different environments which were not as far down the post farming Malthusian trend (less need to “master” the environment to survive)?

    If it’s more the latter reasons then probably expecting much of a change from imitation of belief systems is just a lot of John Frum.

  16. Gav says:

    ” …. may have been a fearsome sight to behold, large robust people with dark skin and hair and piercing blue eyes”.

    I could take exception to that. I think I look really nice.

    @ Helga Vierich

    “Compare the likely success of these two communities when they come into conflict:

    1) a group with permanent leadership positions and a strictly enforced chain of command tends to get everyone’s weapons pointed in the same direction, get people, and supplies, moved efficiently and strategically…

    vs 2) than a system where everyone has an equal say and groups must either act on consensus or wait until some committee makes up its mind before a war leader can be appointed or a plan of attack can be debated.

    You know who will move fast and act decisively. You already know who is likely to win that conflict.”

    Yeah. Plataea and all that.

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