In what is probably the worst idea I’ve ever had, I’m reading and blogging The Dawn of Everything by David Wengrow and David Graeber.
The Davids ended their last chapter with the question, “If the adoption of farming actually set humanity, or some small part of it, on a course away from violent domination, what went wrong?” As I remember Chapter 6 established that farming didn’t lead humanity toward violent domination, but I don’t remember much evidence that farming led humanity away from it either. It seems like they established that adopting farming has no inherent relation to violence. They did hypothesize that the presence of farmers may have led or urged nearby foragers toward violent domination. This is in keeping with their notion of people defining themselves and creating their culture in opposition, defiance, or contrast to nearby people. We are not like them.
But on to Chapter 7 which is also about farming. When I was in school it was assumed that farming appeared in a few river valleys of the world around the same time and that rapidly this led to civilization with monumental architecture, stratified hierarchies with mathematics, law, and writing. Not that anyone knew why. The hierarchies were assumed to have arisen to manage the distribution of land because land would lead to new modes of property. Or to deal with the floods. Or something like that.
Since then archeologists have established that monumental architecture appeared in many places that had no farming (as DofE has shown) and that in places that did have farming thousands of years passed before clear evidence of stratified hierarchies emerged. Moreover, as the Davids talk about early in Chapter 7, anthropologists have established that farmers don’t need hierarchies to manage land. Communities can quite easily maintain open field communal land use with distribution and conflict resolution without need of hierarchies. It has been done and is done all over the world.
Chapter 7 further points out that plant domestication didn’t just happen in 5-6 river valleys: “Archaeological science has changed all this. Experts now identify between fifteen and twenty independent centers of domestication.” There’s a cool map on p253 with documented areas and some inferred areas too. It isn’t just rice, wheat, corn, and potatoes. There are lots and lots of indigenous horticultural and agricultural crops.
There’s some discussion of an idea that I first read in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel about the effects of east-west versus north-south continents on ecological corridors. If you haven’t read GGS, it’s definitely worth your time.*
There’s a sub-section Why Agriculture Did Not Develop Sooner. The Davids appeal to climate arguments of the sort which I seem to remember they were skeptical of before–or is that my middle-age-brain-fog? A warming period geologists call the Holocene began 12K years ago putting to bed the last ice age, and this brought climate changes that scientists associate with farming. (I talked about three not-unproven accounts of how this might have happened in my blog about Chapter 6.) The Davids mention one earlier warming period called the Eemian interglacial which took place around 130K years ago. Why didn’t farming happen then? “The impact on human populations was limited by our then restricted geographical range.” For figures who care about being open-mindedly iconoclastic it’s strange they don’t consider the possibility that earlier members of the genus Homo were around then and could have taken up some form of farming without any physical evidence likely to remain for us today. They after all used fire and had Acheullean stone tools.
Anyway, one of the highlights of the chapter is when the Davids leave the intellectual history of ideas behind and start describing three farming groups: (1) Farmers moving into central Europe where they eventually seem to have been slaughtered and enslaved out of their farming habits by the coastal foragers. (2) Herders moving into the Nile Valley who were much more successful. (3) Polynesian farmers in Oceania spreading island to island and largely avoiding foragers (like non-farming Australian aborigines). They also discuss the ‘play farming’ of the Amazon. What they mean is groups moving seasonally in and out of farming so as not to be too dependent on it. Hate the term. (Anarchist-peacenik-vegetarian bias. They don’t talk about ‘play hunting’ or ‘play warfare’.) Davids discuss Amazonia and historical impressions of it, but it’s a muddled discussion, and one of the many places where one glimpses the book this could have been if the Davids had built their narrative culture by culture rather than framing all this in what-did-we-think terms. (So far this book gives me a lot more respect for Boas’s regional cultures.)
There’s a “quick reprise on the dangers of teleological reasoning” because the Davids do not want us away from their intellectual guidance for long, and then the Davids end with “farming, as we can now see, often started out as an economy of deprivation: you only invented it when there was nothing else to be done…” which seems like a head-spinning turn from what they were saying earlier about playfulness and choice etc, and an implicit endorsement of the farming-is-fate arguments they’ve been opposing since the beginning of the book. They haven’t shown what an ‘economy of deprivation’ even means. Irritating and sloppy ending.
Next: Chapter 8 Imaginary Cities
*Jared Diamond like the two Davids is not trustworthy on social contracts. He tries to summarize at one point the three basic social contract theories, chooses Rousseau to represent them, dismisses Rousseau as wrong, wrong, wrong, and goes on to tell us how he thinks real states arose, which turns out to be–pretty close to John Locke’s idea of the social contract.