Friday, September 2, 2011

MIGRATION 3. Our Faustian Bargain: Domestication's Aftermath

There is probably nothing new to say about our choices as to origins. Born in sin, condemned to die?  Born in innocence, going to glory? Aggressive, ravening conquerors, triumphant over all the world? Basically well-intended, but falling to the ever-present 7 Deadlies? A golden age, followed by a silver, then leaden? Or progressing ever steadily toward utopia? Was the heinous third (1914-45) of the XXth-century an aberration, an example from which we have (not) learned, or business as usual? Hobbes or Rousseau? All these possibilities mist over any new entry in such a grand debate about human nature. The scientists dealing with early times cut through some of this by dealing with what they dig up or analyze in the lab or by computer. Yet they too feel the temptation to use the details, almost always contested in their interpretation, to construct a version of our story. And so even they fall into the pit of limited possibilities. 

I am clearly in the group that sees an Old Golden Age brought down by our succumbing to the wiles of the Great Tempter. Although there is little enough evidence about how we lived and what our attitudes toward life were pre-15 millennia ago, I am quite content to think well of us. We had language, well-honed economic skills including cooked food, the urge to travel, story-telling, art, music, dance, fire, clothing, shelter, trade, education. I am content to think we did without warriors, religionists, jealous husbands, neglectful parents, border guards. The mutually supportive small band was something we had evolved successfully into,-- language, omnivirousness, and sex the primary pillars of our often-wandering existence. 

Maps of migration show, from genetic information, that we spread across Africa, then out through the Sinai, along south Asia, reaching Australia by 40-50 KyrBP, by boat, yet. We seem to have visited some near relatives, whose remains have been found farther north, in Siberia. We, too, moved northeast into East Asia and Siberia. From western Asia, we curved around into Europe, and once again, may well have befriended cousins, the Neanderthals. Why these others did not hang around isnt clear, but que sera, sera. Our entry into Siberia positioned us for a later (15 KyrBP) emigration to America. The ICE was in retreat, so the first Americans had no visa problems. And some of us, remarkably, island hopped across the Pacific.

A millennium (mill) is a long time, to us. The end of the last glacial age was 12 or so mill ago. Our very successful way of life had carried us all over the Eastern Hemisphere, and humans were crossing to the Americas then, maybe even earlier, as well as later. Then, about 12 or so millennia ago (only 600 generations), migrating in our minds as well as over the Earth, we moved into an idea: Instead of just eating up, consuming, everything we hunted and gathered, we could eat some and use the rest to produce more. Through observation, reflection, discussion we invented domestication.

Domestication of grain -- wheat, rice-- was first to come from the idea that it was better to use partially than to consume totally. Wheat cultivation began about 12 mill ago in west Asia; rice not too long after in east Asia (the Yangtze). Sheep and goats were domesticated in that period, too, with pigs and cattle a couple of mill later. (Agriculture appeared in the Americas about 6 mill ago, about the same time horses were domesticated in central Asia--donkeys a bit earlier; I wonder why we didnt think of riding beasts sooner?)  

We began this Revolution of the Neolithic, of agriculture, maybe as a supplement to the storage of gathered food. It must have seemed enough of a boon that we kept on working on it, figuring out how to make it work for us. Early work seems to have run on for a few millennia before cultivaion had gained its full sway over humanity's ways (not everybody, true,  but today, who doesnt want a cell phone?)

What does agriculture require? A bit of land, to start. Preferably fertile, and easy to water. A lot of hard work, in the beginning by our hands, aided by stone tools. So strength and stamina were a plus. Accumulated experience, turned into knowledge and even wisdom about the seasons & climate, techniques & the best seed, and what would aid plant growth, and what retard it. 

So for those entranced by this cyclical process of producing food, instead of seeking it out, there could be no more gadding about the continents. Get a plot of land, prepare it, plant and cultivate, harvest and store. Settle down; meaning build shelter. In a word, property. Would that have had to be? Could the band not have continued as mutually supportive cultivators on jointly acquired land? Maybe, and maybe that is the way it started, with hunting & gathering supplementing this new food source. But it is also possible to see the scenario over the first few centuries/millennia, of agriculture as an experimental time, trying different methods and ways of production. Frankly, this is all beginning to sound a bit pseudo-Marxian to me, but also commonsensical. Even the next step, where somebody gets greedy, wants to produce more, wants to control more land, claims there has to be one person in charge. A situation arose where an edge in physical strength gave an economic edge, an edge in the ability to protect and acquire more; a situation where a more fertile couple had more children, more mouths, growing into more arms to do the work. And how soon would it have been before paternity was understood, and still more labor produced? How far can that early situation be from the male-dominated household, instituting mono- or poly- gamy, marriage to certify ownership of child-bearers and of children, of labor?  And once you are that far, and it is reported by those who study the development of early Chinese civilization*, matrilineality is replaced by patrilineality, the head of a farm & household joins with others to protect and acquire, and we can talk not of bands, but of clans and tribes and kingdoms, chiefs and emperors.  And somewhere in there, someone thinks of propitiating the fickle weather, and we end up with ancestor worship or sky spirits or a patriarchal Almighty. And now when someone comes wandering by, they may be conscripted or chased off, although it is pleasant to think that ancient ideas of hospitality may have been rooted in that pre-revolutionary time of free migration. War and slavery are a simple extrapolation from the need for land and labor. And the impulse to art would be easily dedicated to the grandiose and ornamented, the accoutrements of royalty, the ultimate land-owner. And over all, the use of language to persuade, bully, and lie to an ever-growing, but ever-less-free populace.

For the pudding would have proved a large one. Agriculture was a success; so the powerful who controlled the farms and their product told the rest of us. The settlements about farming plots became villages; the villages were gathered into counties; some grew into cities, and continue to grow today. And we gloried in conquest, and we built empires; all the lands our ancestors had wandered over, we subjected to our rule. 

After a few millennia of testing, then, the formula was in place, and repeated and elaborated around the world. Culture and society, religion and government, all worked together to weigh down, layer over, redirect, our natural, biological, genetic impulses. When you have property, you dont have to share. When you have marriage, you stone adulterers. When you have religion, you burn free-thinkers. Migration, of persons and of thought, could now be legitimately channeled by power, and even shut down. Germans could climb a wall, and be shot for it. By Germans. Legitimately. Iraqis can be blown up by mad fellow countryman, or incarcerated by well-mannered immigration officials in Australia (I was interrogated by one once). All in the name of this revolutionary, agriculture-derived civilization. Yet in human terms, genetically & biologically, migration is not the problem; control and borders and territoriality are what go against our grain. 

So the Earth has been divided up; the boundaries are quite clear if disputed; the peoples should know where they belong. Yet still we move. Travel for pleasure or profit, but also for the chance to make a different life, we migrate. Hindered and blocked, we migrate. Told what to think, our minds migrate thoughts & plans. And invent new wonders -- all too often then confronted by the layers of control our agriculture societies developed for their slave empires millennia ago. And so the struggle between our nature and our Faustian civilization must go on.

*The next post contains some notes from this period in Chinese history.

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