Through the long human story, we find our ancestors living out several different basic strategies, each more complex than the last. The transition between is often a transformation.
The Paleolithic (Old stone age) is the longest period of human experience. In this phase, we hunted and gathered. We were nomadic or semi-nomadic. We lived in small groups and made decisions in a relatively open, egalitarian way. The distance between headman and tribesman was minimal. This long phase of our time was spent getting a toehold and spreading all across the earth. The earth could never have been as densely populated by people as it is now if this strategy had continued. The “carrying capacity” of a small nomadic group is very finely balanced on a knife-edge of luck and skill and the relationship between the number of mouths to feed and the available food would have been constantly on everyone’s mind. Sick babies would likely be abandoned and sick elders in hard times would “walk out on the ice flows” to improve the odds for their families. The level of complexity in this life was low, the number of places where their lives overlapped and engaged with others was minimal. Strangers were serious business. The Neolithic picks up exactly where this leaves off.
The Neolithic (new stone age) is the first display of large-scale radical human change. It’s a stunning shift because after this incredibly long period of things never changing there is a sharply punctuated barrel role into an entirely new approach. The agricultural revolution was not at all simply that farming appeared as an art and science but the huge number of cultural shifts that clicked on as if inevitable. The Neolithic runs from about 9000 BCE to 6500 BCE. In this time high technology is a plow and seeds are Microsoft stock options, a tech upgrade is an improved spear point and it takes hundreds of years to be thoroughly incorporated. This period of around 3 thousand years is a transformation of humanity where virtually everyone alive changes their entire way of living. Suddenly we are no longer nomadic. Everyone settles down in small agricultural villages. Its as if a bell rang calling everyone in from the forests. Think of it, we suddenly have to learn together as never before. Suddenly we have permanent neighbors. Suddenly we have many times the number of people in our lives than we had ever experienced. Imagine the uncertainty and the excitement. This is a period of suddenly increased complexity without precedent. The individuals making this amazing transition must have felt so many different things. There must have been a bit of a gold rush quality about it because there’s no way this happened without something viral in the wind. There must have been arguments and frustration between the early adopters and the old-fashioned types wondering what life was coming to. There must have been situations where seeing became believing as nomads looked at settled families and saw children looking a little fatter and happier and grandparents living longer better lives. The thought that we could be healthier and live longer had to have huge appeal but the settled farmers likely also looked less stressed out and worried about the future. I suspect it looked like a solid investment that shouldn’t be missed.
How did they handle this transformation? Did their extended families join larger agricultural communities as a group? Did they experimentally cooperate with friendly tribes? Did they break up their wandering tribes into individual families and build their first permanent structures at the edges of settlements? Imagine them learning to fit in. They must have watched and talked and learned and shared information and probably bartered work for seeds, or tools or knowledge. And this was probably the hazy beginning of haves and have-nots. People move in who are not exactly kin. They don’t have everything you have and they are just getting started. It looks like they are envying your ox and ass, cut that out, you! And so began our time to live as settled humans, stuck in one place after wandering where we pleased for a hundred thousand years; We hunkered down, hoping for a decent season, yelling at the neighbors to shut up.
There’s nothing about this transition that isn’t amazing. Just think about any other animal on earth doing this…in a two to three thousand year period making a global change in its life strategy. Another essential shift emerging in this period can’t be ignored. The proto-Indo European language, which evolved into nearly half the languages spoken today seems to have spread virally during this exact period. Undoubtedly this was essential to forming large communities of strangers and giving them a common tongue. More about that here: Digging up the language bone.