IN DEFENCE OF HISTORY
Reflections on origins of development of human society from hominids to pre-capitalist formations
THE EVOLUTION OF THE HUMAN SPECIES
EARLY HUMAN SOCIETY
THE STONE AGE
THE ANCIENT FAMILY
MATRIARCHY OR MATRINLINEAGE?
POLYANDRY AND TRANSITION TO PATRIARCHY
THE DEVELOPMENT OF AGRO-ECONOMIES
THE DEVELOPMENT OF PRIVATE OWNERSHIP OF PROPERTY
ASIATIC MODES OF PRODUCTION?
THE DEVELOPMENT OF CLASS SOCIETY IN THE `CLASSICAL’
ERA OF EUROPE AND THE TRANSITION TO FEUDALISM
POST-ROMAN BRITAIN: ANGLO-SAXONS AND VIKINGS
FEUDALISM – WHAT’S IN A NAME?
NATIVE AND BLACK AMERICANS
THE AFRICAN CONTINENT
MODERN TIMES – THE SAN OF SOUTHERN AFRICA
IN DEFENCE OF HISTORICAL MATERIALISM
NOTES AND REFERENCES
“According to the materialistic conception, the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life… On the one side, the production of the means of existence, of articles of food and clothing, dwellings, and of the tools necessary for that production; on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species. The social organization under which the people of a particular historical epoch and a particular country live is determined by both kinds of production: by the stage of development of labour on the one hand and of the family on the other.”
Frederick Engels “Origins of the Family Private Property and the State” [Preface to the First Edition of 1884, FLPH sixth impression pp6-7]
It was Edward Thompson who famously wrote of the “enormous condescension” of history. Nowhere is this more so than with the period of history that covers the time before recorded accounts. The general view of so-called `cavemen’, in popular culture sometimes even ahistorically conjoined with the period of dinosaurs, is way off beam. So, too, is the notion that these were particularly brutal people. Contrary to the generally perceived view of pre-history, the main conclusion of experts in the field about the people of pre-history is that: “humanity is generally humane, but from time to time is subject to bouts of extreme and unpleasant ruthlessness”. [“Britain BC – Life in Britain and Ireland Before the Romans”, Francis Pryor, Harper Perennial (2004) p xxvii] It could be a description of the 21st century!
The process whereby one society or even one human species makes social, or biological, advances over others would appear to be almost a `law’. At least to the extent that it is more likely to be the case than not that the pace of development occurs because one condition is superior to another. Uneven development is the very stuff of history. Of course this is not a linear projection, in that advances do not necessarily always follow advances. They can just as easily be followed by regression or stagnation as not. The pace of development can be accelerated or decelerated according to a variety of factors. The role of individuals and ideas, chance even, can be decisive in inhibiting development. Conflict between possibilities is always inherent and an unevenness of development will generally imply an outcome favourable to one form over another. Not always so, of course. Nonetheless, throughout pre-history – and of course recorded history as well as the present – social or biological superiorities are able to take more advantage than inferiorities to eventually triumph. Material resources that apply are likely to, at least in the long term and if sustained, provide an edge.
In the 1980s, the term `dinosaur’ was assigned oddly, yet derogatorily to progressives who insisted that `modernisation’ was often a code for dilution of principles, regardless of the several hundred million years of successful evolution of those creatures. In a similar way, more advanced societies look in a derogatory way upon others, either in retrospect towards the remote past or when they collide in actuality; others that often manage or managed their environment with such care that they had not been obliged to resort to more advanced methods of controlling their environment. It’s a strange thing that success can lead to relative backwardness, whilst adversity pushes us towards success, enabling cultural amnesia about our past weaknesses.
For example, recorded history is seen as a mark of civilisation, whereas, until very recently, the oral tradition was marginalised by academics. Yet oral collective memory was for most of our existence as a species at the very centre of the drive to preserve knowledge. The oral, bardic tradition survived in for example in a place such as Yugoslavia in much the way it had done for thousands of years until as recent as the 1930s, when poet historians wrote it down. Superficially, a society such as that can seem to move on yet old notions can strongly survive in the minds of people.
We are the same people as we were in the Stone Age, only our technology and the social relations applying from the ownership of this divide us from our ancestors. It is not for example technology that prevents us from applying our co-operative instincts but the social relations. These were a means to enable us to enhance the benefits of technological development but now they have become a brake upon progress. The answer to this conundrum is to change the social relations.
What is remarkable is that despite this `law’ of uneven development, human society has perpetually sought to make the most of whatever kind of environment it found itself. A persistent lesson is that, if we control nature, we control our own social and even biological evolution. But it is “not simply a question of biological evolution suddenly being supplanted by cultural evolution. Rather, the development of each was shaped by the other for many millions of years until … humanity assumed a predominantly cultural mode of adaptation.” [Charles Woolfson “The Labour Theory of Culture – A Re-examination of Engels’s Theory of Human Origins” Routledge & Keegan Paul (1982) p21]
The key questions that constantly arise are: `when’ and `how’ this occurred and to what extent it is a process than continues to unfold. Moreover, the answers to these concerns directly inform, and flow from, our view of the present. The entire arena of retrospective historical analysis is filled with political bias relating to present analysis. In short, particular takes on assessments of global comparative history will inevitably be conditioned by the larger philosophical world of the analyst. In the context of palae-anthropology (the study of human origins), archaeology, ancient and medieval history, all of which may be characterised in the single phrase of `pre-history, this is less clear than with the analytical controversies in modern history. Yet most of these disciplines are, whether individual practitioners like or recognise it, determined largely by the scientific method. Objectivity, however, varies.
Palae-anthropologists rarely take excursions into subjectivity and, whilst all historical disciplines are subject to violent controversies, are cautious in the extreme in reading too much into an observable series of facts. Archaeologists, with their ready acceptance of ritual and religion as a means of explaining uncertain phenomena, too frequently enable processes of ideological obfuscation. A case in point is the frequent discovery of early Stone Age implements that suggest no obvious practical use. A chief or shaman’s badge of office, will declare one analyst, receiving mass media endorsement. Whilst others who suggest a practical version of use will find themselves ignored because it does not present a good story, one that reinforces the prejudices of our own age that the presence of an elite is a necessary and universal part of the human condition.
The kind of retrospective analysis of history that only accepts that humanity achieved Olympian heights of knowledge in the most recent centuries is deeply patronising. For instance, the notions that people believed the world was flat and had no knowledge of other continents are, at the very least, simplistic. Cultural diffusion of knowledge or inventions was simply the way of the world before the development of class society. The cultural big bang was arguably much more of a slower process than the phrase, which hints at the `sudden’ appearance of recognisably modern human behaviour. We may be sure that fully modern humans were around 75,000 years ago but certainty about how we subsequently developed to the beginnings of recorded history eludes us.
The similarity of the universality of the use of such diverse items as spears, the bow and arrow and pyramids is evidence either of the continual independent invention of a good idea, reinforcing the universality of human ingenuity, despite the unvarying constant of uneven developmental levels in time and space. The evidence of cocaine and tobacco, indigenous to South America, in samples of hair taken from Egyptian mummies, suggests that, at the very least, trade by proxy right across most of the world was possible thousands of years ago. That is to say, that one culture traded with another, which in turn traded with another and so on in a chequered fashion, increasing in value as the commodity passed on. Whilst understanding of the origins of such goods would necessarily be hazy, this does not mean that it was absent. The invention of instruments of death such as the bow and arrow came well after and as a natural extension of the spear launcher, or the slingshot. Its absence in Native Australian culture, other than as a children’s’ toy traded with other outside Pacific peoples, suggests that it was a development of society after 40,000 years ago.
Such factors invite query about the motive force for development and the debate is stunningly relevant to modern concerns. It is the contention of this author that an appreciation of the processes that seek to maintain and extend the beneficial nature of a society lays at the heart of understanding the nature of a given culture; that material reality, the actuality of a society, largely and ultimately, if not consistently, makes the nature of a society. In a sense this work is, therefore, a defence of the `materialist conception of history’. It is based upon the latest scientific, anthropological and archaeological knowledge, as best can be ascertained. A number of case studies have been selected as promoting the best arguments for this contention. These take us from the very beginnings of humanity to the earliest periods of recorded history.
This intentionally wide ranging study arises because the remarkable things about what seems to be a law of uneven development is that humanity, as Beethoven had it in one of his earliest works, influenced as he was by the French Enlightenment, has been for ever “climbing towards the light”. This `Holy Grail’ in each and every culture examined has been to achieve maximum social harmony with maximum material production. As humanity has become successful in the maintenance of subsistence economics, populations have risen and where new production methods have been resorted to these societies have been impelled to move forward. The inherent contradiction in such a project is always that the process to achieve this has depended upon divisions of labour and social relations that arise from this.
The concern here is to understand why it was not always thus and what relevance this may have for us today. For such relations would seem to be an alienation of the essential or `natural’ state of humanity, albeit that we may legitimately argue about the degree to which nature is moulded by circumstances that we live in. After an early phase of collectivity, social relations based upon a surplus over and above subsistence have always been maintained by special groups, elites, or classes, pick a term according to your favourite philosopher, historian, or sociologist. It does not seem so contentious, yet it is so, to say that societal relations based upon such a system can be characterised as a form of class struggle. It is this contention that forms the basis of the present work.
THE EVOLUTION OF THE HUMAN SPECIES
Unquestionably, the most significant, if brief, application of the historical materialist conception of history arises from the treatment of early human origins accorded by Engels. His sketch, “The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man”, was published for the first timein 1896 but had been written much earlier, probably in 1876, as an unfinished introduction to a larger work, which itself was never completed. The introduction would, however, be included in Dialectics of Nature when this was first published in 1925, since an outline plan of 1878-1880 of Engels makes clear that he intended any understanding of palaeo-anthropology to be seen as integral to a wider scientific comprehension.
Nonetheless, Engels’ work in this area needs to be read today with great care, since he based his analysis on the state of scientific knowledge prevailing in the late 19th century and, hence, reproduces many errors of the time. For example, mostly around issues of timing in geological and historical development, the level of tool use in the animal world, the character of the evolutionary progress of some creatures and the biochemistry, genetics and medical facets of certain aspects discussed in his work. But the essence of his analysis remains consistent with most modern anthropological and archaeological understanding.
That understanding is now extraordinarily deep; geneticists have suggested that all ape-like species shared a common ancestor seven to ten millions of years ago, although something of a `fossil gap’ had long led to controversy and speculation about the details. In 2000, the finding of hominid bones in a volcanic layer, dated at six million years old, roughly confirmed that the split came before this time. Certainly, the first humanoid apes walked the plains of Africa on their hind legs over four million years ago. The 1974 discovery of the bones of `Lucy’, a 3 million year old creature, in the Afar region of Ethiopia, may or not be directly linked to Homo Sapiens but she was certainly an efficient biped. (The difference between walking on all fours and two legs is very obvious in the anatomy of the knee, the hip and pelvis.)
What we now know as Australopithecus afarensis dates from about 7 million years ago, when the area around what is now the Red Sea was flooded. Indeed, Australopithecus has usually been found in the immediate vicinity of former lakes and rivers. This has fuelled much speculation about a water bound existence for our early ancestors, although the really serious implication of our understanding of this creature is that it was self-aware, not that it was water living. There is nothing in the fossil record to either prove or disprove the water-based scenario. Lucy’s bones were found lying among crocodile and turtle eggs and crab claws at the edge of a flood plain near what would then have been the coast of Africa. But this only proves a life alongside water not in it. Yet, although it is not entirely conclusive, a convincing battery of circumstantial arguments presented by theorists proposing the existence of an `aquatic ape’ amount to an intriguingly attractive case that is difficult to rebut, if only because a good deal of it is based on retrospective analysis of possibilities.
The aquatic ape theory (AAT) suggests that our earliest ancestors found themselves living for a prolonged period in a semi-aquatic habitat. This has been subjected to ferocious assault and there are indeed many flaws to the proposition, yet its essential proposition is, at the very least, intriguing and has gained some degree of currency with time. But it has not yet – and may never – overtake the hypothesis that our origins lie in a forest dwelling creature being forced to adapting to life on the savannah, possibly due to a climate change that is generally accepted did occur.
The AAT essentially confronts the savannah origins model by addressing the question as to why humans differ from the gorilla and the chimpanzee much more markedly than they differ from one another. One difficulty with the standard theory is that the adaptations humans achieved to cope with grassland living are not paralleled in other savannah mammals, even those such as baboons, who are also descended from forest-dwelling ancestors.
The key question in this hypothesis is why and when humans lost their body hair. Among the hundreds of living primate species, only humans are naked. The AAT offers the scenario that when our ancestors moved onto the savannah they were already different from the apes. That relative hairlessness and bipedalism evolved much earlier, that the aquatic phase was the first key adaptation that led to others. It points out that the non-ape features of human physiology are common in aquatic ones. In response, critics point to the absence in humans of other more common aquatic creature features. Both stances are largely unprovable because they rely on differential comparison in the absence of concrete evidence about a specific creature. AAT’s arguments are however very plausible.
Either a subterranean or a wet habitat generally results in hairlessness. Other non-human mammals that have lost fur are either swimmers or waders. Unlike on land, the best insulation for mammals in water is not fur, but a layer of fat. The counter theory is that humans became hairless to prevent overheating but this would be a rare and possibly pointless development, since a fur covering actually acts as a defence against the sun. Less hair would perhaps facilitate sweating but, again, this would be an unusual strategy for survival. Shedding hair brought severe disadvantages, for infants would have been carried around clinging to their mothers’ fur.
Even quite slim humans are actually exceedingly `fat’ by the standards of other primates, in the proportion of fat cells in our bodies. Other land mammals store fat internally; aquatic mammals and humans deposit it under the skin. All infant primates except our own are slender; human babies accumulate fat even before birth, particularly of the kind that is useful for buoyancy. In the skinning of, say a chimpanzee, fat deposits remain attached to the tissue; with humans, the fat comes away with the skin, just as it does in aquatic species.
Now that we know that it was bi-pedalism that came first, before the big brain and tool making, the question is why. If the habitat were flooded, our ancestors would have had to at least partially walk on their hind legs to keep their heads above water. At least one known and long-extinct swamp ape evolved bi-pedalism, too. The proboscis monkey of the mangrove swamps of Borneo and the bonobo chimpanzee, which lives partly in a seasonally flooded forest, also attempt bi-pedalism and enjoy water. The bonobos often and unusually mate face-to-face as humans and many aquatic mammals do. For, when the spine and the limbs are in a straight line, this inevitably affects the position of the sex organs.
The human respiratory system is only partly involuntary; in most normal circumstances we can control our rate of breathing. Voluntary breath control is generally found in aquatic mammals, so that they can determine when and how long to dive. This degree of breath control is critical to modulating emitted sounds. The human descended larynx is unusual. Other land mammals breathe mostly through the nose and have to bring the larynx down to `vocalise’. Human babies are born to cry like that and only after a while does their larynx descend. As any swimmer knows, gulping air through the mouth is a more efficient means of proceeding through water. Wasting water and salt, unlike other mammals, humans, of course, sweat! Tears water our eyes in response to irritants, as do the walrus, the seal and the sea otter.
Finally, it really is true that, as Bertie Wooster constantly thought explained Jeeves’ cleverness, that fish is good for brain development. A diet rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, abundant in marine food, would have been more easily accessible to an aquatic ape and may have been an additional factor in the expanding brain. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fats, which make up as much as a quarter if the grey matter of the brain, are found in significant amounts in oily fish and offal. It is speculated that our scavenging ancestors would have had a diet high in offal and this would have had an effect on their intellectual development. Modern humans, especially the young, respond dramatically to artificially ingested Omega-3. It is vital to the development of the brain and eye and a deficiency of this in early life adversely affects personal potential. The behavioural response of incarcerated young offenders is also known to be radically affected by a switch to an Omega-3 high diet. In the course of some environmental change, did early hominids move from scavenging offal to a fishy diet, which was perhaps equally to their taste? Even if this is a valid hypothesis, it does not prove aquatic living, merely aquatic diet; not necessarily the same thing at all.
Whilst being a perfectly valid, and maybe even partly accurate, conjecture, the main difficulty is that AAT is just that, a supposition. It does not stand up to serious scientific scrutiny, if one employs the normal standards of inquiry and evidence. It is, as the fundamentalist critics of Darwin say, `just a theory’! Actually it is less firm than that, its adherents often describing it as a hypothesis. Unlike Darwin’s theory, which can be seen to work in each and every instance of life’s existence, the AAT hypothesis is too narrow for that. The difficulty is that the theory is too seductive and attracts all manner of adherents that it tends to be classed along with other more freakish claims about humanity’s history. A strong criticism is that AAT theorists posit arguments without sufficient authority or research and there is a tendency to avoid sourcing references for specific claims.
Among simple and sound concerns are that: a) the diving reflex, b) hymens (which are assumed by the AAT to be an adaptation to aid health in a swimming environment), c) the infant swimming tendency and d) `salt hunger’ are all features actually present in many terrestrial mammals, with absolutely no evidence of their having an aquatic phase in their present morphology. Some instincts may simply be even more ancient than we realise and the savannah theory for the origin of bi-pedality, sweating-nakedness and sub-cutaneous fat is still a viable theory.
Critics also point to the fact that the AAT would require the ape to have been neck-deep in water most of the time for the notion to work. Even Hardy had speculated that the aquatic ape had spent no more than perhaps five or six hours in the water at a time, hardly a powerful force for evolution, no matter the length of time involved. Too much of the AAT case is subjective, for example advocates say that humanity is streamlined for water living. Yet this is patently not so, as the enormous effort required to swim demonstrates (and as too many of us can testify to when we look in the bathroom mirror!).
Little regard has been given to recognising that aquatic predators would have existed. Claims that the extent to which sponge and pearl divers can hold their breath under water are an outcome of past adaptation fail to recognise the degree to which the human body can be trained to extremes. Whilst the `race memory’ idea, that humans like being in and around water, does not prove anything more than just that.
Loss of hair is actually highly unusual for aquatic and semi-aquatic mammals. Cold environment living seals, otters and beavers have retained hair but the practice is not by any means restricted. Actually almost all aquatic mammals in warm areas also retain all their hair. The hairlessness of humans is actually less dramatic than we think. There is a case that an element of sexual selection has applied in humans, in that a less hairy hair patterns in a mate may convey less testosterone and hence possibly a less aggressive pattern of behaviour.
Even so, there does seem to be a developing consensus that our ancestors did inhabit, at the very least, inland lakes and rivers and began to enjoy partial life in water, at least wading to an extent. The image of hominids on the edge of the water, instead of in the middle of the plain, is increasingly an acceptable presentation. Whilst it is now more generally accepted that, at least by the time of Homo erectus, some of our ancestors must have been shore-dwellers and subsequently made their way out of Africa to the Far East by following the coastlines. The reality is that much of the AAT is just as easily explained by living near water but this hardly amounts to an aquatic ape. Indeed, mainstream explanations for our evolution do not preclude the idea that our ancestors lived near, on the edge or even slightly in water and that this had an effect on our physiology.
Whatever the case about AAT, it does not fundamentally deny the theory that labour was at the root of forming humanity; it merely proposes that a particular kind of ape had evolved in a particular way. Even if our proto-human at 6 million years, or whatever, had evolved from a watery environment it had still to evolve tool use. Now various primates are now known to utilise tools. Chimps use rocks to crack nuts by using one rock to break another held on an `anvil’ stone, a skill learned by watching the mother.
At whatever point it is eventually generally accepted that this occurred, language speeded up the process of sharing information of this kind, a process we call education! Another evolutionary modification of importance to human development, whether due to aquatic living or not, was the rather risky one whereby the mouth became an organ of multiple use beyond merely feeding. Not only was it of use in talking but also it could be a third hand and be used for breathing. (Chimpanzees do not breathe through the mouth at all.) The problem with all this is that, unlike other apes, the risk of choking is fairly high.
But it is with material developments of the body, the evolution of the hand at perhaps two million years and a big brain only 1 million years ago, that humanity began to climb towards the light. Speculation about the nature of the brains of these creatures is inevitably fraught with difficulty. The archaeological discovery of a three million year old natural pebble, possessing natural features such as holes that look like two startling eyes and, underneath, the vague appearance of a nose and more than a hint of mouth has not led to it being defined as having been artificially crafted. But the context of its finding hints that a creature understood its symbolism – the form is not truly representational – and saved it from a myriad of other less distinguished pebbles, carrying it twenty miles from its source of origin.
A fascination with stones was clearly a hallmark of hominids. About two million years ago their brains began to expand but it had been before that, about 2.4 million years ago according to our present state of knowledge that the first stone implements appeared. It may be that we will never detect the earliest use of tools not because we may not find them but because they were so crudely made that no one could ever prove that they were artificially made. Some early stone tools are made out of material containing unusual fossils, such as shells, making them unambiguously chosen for a purpose. Finding such things in the course of excavating rock faces for suitable tool making stone would have been a common experience to early humans. The resemblance of fossils they found embedded in rocks to actual creatures, for they were once such, would have been obvious to early humans. However these people accounted for the existence of fossils, the notion that the inert form somehow stood for the form of an animal is in itself evidence of an awareness of the notion of symbolism, what might become a trigger for employing symbolism.
Keeping a stone tool made from a rock containing a fossil clearly arose because there was something special about the tool beyond its function. For many, many thousands of years to come, the very mobility of life-style open to humans would inhibit any notion of material goods beyond what was easy to carry and made for a regime of `portable’ instruments and portable art. The marrying of such tastes, in the form of symbolic decoration, into an aesthetic, or culture was in itself perhaps the first indication of evidence of an appreciation for art, which came well before the actual appearance of cave paintings. Quartz crystals, another example of collecting objet d’art, were gathered and regarded by Homo erectus in many parts of the world. The use of unusual colours of material to make stone tools from, for example as with green lava found in the Olduvai Gorge, indicates through the appreciation of colour the capacity for symbolic thought.
The notion of humankind must be extended to include all hominids, or proto-humans. It took more than one species to create `man’s’ history. A minority of experts argue that hominid activity of a human character can be discerned as early as 300,000 years before the present, plus or minus a few tens of thousands of years. The best current guess seems to settle with the possibility that Homo sapiens may have been anatomically modern about 150,000 years ago, but most concur that we did not, seemingly, become behaviourally modern until about 50,000 years ago, some say less. One theory suggests that a genetic mutation related to cognition enabled this great leap forward. But the truth is that we really do not know. Maybe early sapiens were as capable as later ones and we just cannot see or find the evidence. Either way, modern humans were certainly able to make better tools and homes and forage better. But the dividing line between modern human and others in the homo classification may not be as great as we think, or hope.
It is a commonplace to note the similarity between humans and chimpanzees. Yet the last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees probably lived in East Africa as long ago as between 8 – 6 million years ago. The currently oldest classified hominin fossil in the published literature is dated at 7.4 – 6.4 million years. At roughly 2.5 million years ago the first stone tools (termed the "Oldowan Industry") are evident. This coincides with the appearance of Homo habilis, a busy toolmaker, extant up to at least 25,000 years ago, perhaps even later, in remote parts. Homo erectus, descended from Homo habilis migrated around 1.8 million years ago, first into the Near East, then into Asia and finally later from the Near East up into Europe. Homo erectus may have evolved into Homo heidelbergensis but some query the distinction as only being a question of size. Either way, these archaic hominins in turn gave rise in Africa to modern, yet archaic, humans probably 250,000 to 200,000 years ago to the present, whilst Neanderthals lived from 200,000 to 30,000 years ago predominantly in Europe.
The very existence of such creatures as humanity is indeed awe-inspiring. It needs no gods or god to make our existence wondrous. Nor has the path been easy and straightforward. Our family tree was once thought to be a straight-line progression from the upright walking apes through Homo Habilis, Homo Erectus, the Neanderthals and, finally, Homo Sapiens. But the difficulty with this is that takes no account of a pattern observable in other life forms of intensely variable branching, the existence of many variant species, not to mention much extinction of unsuccessful varieties. We now know that many different bipedal apes have lived at the same time and that, while they were both alive at the same time, Neanderthals and Sapiens were not directly linked. Some 13 different species of humans have existed, as well as many related forms. At one point, there may have been as many as ten different human species all living in different habitats, perhaps unknown to each other, but all at the same time:
Our understanding constantly changes; half of the 20 or so extinct forms of humanity have been found in the last ten years alone. Yet another unshakeable `fact’ has been exploded recently; that hominids got no further than a certain point in south east Asia. This arises from the discovery of Home floresiensis on the island of Flores in the Indonesian chain of islands. Floresiensis, which became extinct `only’ 18,000 years ago, was possibly a pygmy version of either Home erectus or an even earlier species, or other as yet undiscovered line of humans. (Amusingly, floresiensis is usually dubbed the `hobbit’, as in JRR Tolkein’s invention.)
Arguments about the extremely small brain size of floresiensis have raged, for a seemingly fixed rule of evolutionary downsizing leads to only a small comparative reduction in brain size. A modern human pygmy is not a smaller brained sapiens just smaller in overall stature. Amidst considerable controversy, some have read the initial evidence as not being suggestive of a new species of now extinct humans but of a micro-cephalic disorder, a condition leading to minute brain size, in one individual from a group of pygmy modern humans. However, the discovery of many more individuals now challenges this. Even `younger’ remains of the hobbit human species have been found, at 12,000 years old and the confirmation that the ability to butcher carcasses and cook meat had been found. The even more tantalising prospect is that floresiensis is not a pygmy adaptation of Homo erectus but of an entirely different species altogether – still extant only a few thousand years ago. This means that, certainly, sapiens, Neanderthals, erectus and floresiensis, whatever status this has, must have all shared the planet at the same time perhaps as recent as 30,000 years ago, even if they were not necessarily aware of the fact.
One view is that different hominids were isolated all over Africa in distinct ecological settings, and through the process of evolutionary change they developed into many different and distinct species. A shift in the territory that proto-humans exploited was the starting point for a chain of events that sparked evolutionary changes. Plains life, as distinct from the jungle, was ideal territory for the evolution of upright walking and the opposable thumb.
The first stone tools were little more than broken pebbles, perhaps even accidentally smashed ones, this making a sharp edge available to tear flesh. Perhaps such items were used almost without thinking about it as something to hand, leading later to the conscious breaking of pebbles to gain more effective edges. Such tools were effective where it mattered in evolutionary terms, in enabling the dismemberment of carcasses and the more efficient ingestion of nutrition by those capable of using such a tool. For more than a million years the nature of tools of this kind remained unaltered.
Throughout nature, social species are more effective competitors than less social ones; the gregarious nature of humanity was and is its essential survival tool. This tendency of collective living also brought safety in numbers against predators such as the big cats. Social skills, enabling the resolution of conflict were critical to survival, especially in increasingly larger groups. Self-evidently, any single unit of individuals if divided, even if momentarily, provide a predator with an easy target. Weakening the collective would not have been a good evolutionary move.
As the brain expanded so did the skull. Now, walking on two feet brings particular problems to mothers, for shifting the weight of the body from four to two legs naturally forces a physical need to limit the nature of the load bearing pelvis. A narrower pelvis is necessary but this impinges upon childbirth. The bigger the brain got, the more difficult giving birth became. The flexibility of the human baby skull enabled what is effectively a premature birth of a baby requiring maximum nurturing.
A high degree of gregariousness seems to be critical to human development. Even `Boxgrove man’ – Homo heidelbergensis (or ergaster, there is a debate about which species it was), found in England and dated at half a million years ago provides much evidence not only for much larger groups than many people would imagine but also a large degree of collectivism in social behaviour. The archaeological record suggests hunting as distinct from scavenging as the main method of obtaining food at an earlier age than previously thought. The earliest hominids certainly foraged much as animals do. The turn to meat eating possibly began in earnest with scavenging and this seems to have a significant turn in behaviour with implications for cultural development. Having said that, the abundance of finds of stone tools in the archaeological record may be distorting our retrospective interpretations of history, specifically by assisting in the encouragement of an over-emphasis of the role of scavenging followed by hunting in human development. Necessarily, the tool making that goes with gathering plant life does not last and the tools that slash flesh can just as easily separate fibres. For an enormous amount of time, the welcome addition of protein to the human diet that came from animals was but a matter of chance.
Consciously organised hunting is clearly a mark of human behaviour. Perhaps, even, that the hallmark of humanity is civilisation and the achievement of such a status is achieved through conscious, revolutionary cultural development. That is to say, that cultural, as distinct from biological, evolution of creatures to such a level marks them out as humans. Such a view challenges a seemingly ever-present reluctance on the part of experts to assign intelligence and the core values of so-called `civilisation’ to even undisputed Homo sapiens, unless they have developed elites, writing and go beyond pantheism.
If it is the case that hunting did not come naturally to humans but evolved from scavenging, this suggests more than we realise. The human, perhaps hominid, scenting senses are poorly developed, so our form of the hunt became much more considered and inventive, compared to natural carnivores. (It is likely, of course, that the degree of the sense of smell enjoyed by hominids, then early man and then later stages in human history all faded in steps as the need for it became less necessary. One is tempted to wonder if this suggests that the processes of physical evolution have not ended with humans, as is so often suggested.)
The very act of thinking ahead to obtaining the exclusive and first use of a prey, before naturally evolved hunters take their fill, was an incredible feat of lateral thinking. Hunting skills, especially those that followed drive-hunt techniques, in fact require deep reflection and this was perhaps even the first intellectual pursuit. The most skilled hunters employed a bewildering away of talents such as should incline us to think them a precursor to the Sherlock Holmes school of detection! But, ultimately, it was the hand, rather than the nose, which made humanity different.
It was Frederick Engels in “The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man” who, almost intuitively, first remarked on the significance of physical evolutionary changes arising from the artificial relationship that humans have with nature, despite his not having the knowledge of later archaeological discovery. The moment humanoids began not to rely on their hands for walking; this was “the decisive step in the transition from ape to man”. [Frederick Engels `Dialectics of Nature’ FLPH Moscow (1954), `The Part Played by Labour in the Transiition from Ape to Man’ p228, 230, 231/2] Toolmaking may or may not have been the very first step in the evolutionary process generated from upright posture enabled but a great leap forward had occurred “the hand had become free” enabling “the mastery of nature”.
Equally significant and relevant to the debate about what is fundamental to human nature is that “it is obviously impossible to seek the derivation of man, the most social of all animals, from non-gregarious immediate ancestors”. [p231] It is now largely accepted that even hominids were capable of transmitting knowledge through the generations and thus establish a cultural tradition. How else could hand axes of a remarkably standard design have been made across immense periods of time? (Note that the customary term `hand axe’ is misnamed, these tools were used for a massive array of purposes other than chopping.) Someone, somehow, taught the next generation, across a long line, the discoveries of an earlier generation. Certainly, hand axes display exactly the same means of manufacture from 700,000 years ago until their use became increasingly obsolete as the Bronze Age emerged.
With efficient, even beautiful, hand axes dated at 700,000 BP, it does not seem such a tall order to expect that early humans could very quickly learn to apply themselves to abstract images. But this is a controversial hypothesis. The earliest accepted figurine, from at least 250,000 BP and therefore well before the upper Palaeolithic, is a natural pebble reminiscent of the female body that has been `improved’ by artificial grooves that emphasise the form. A complex flint artefact from well in the Middle Palaeolithic, that displays nested semi-circles straight and arced lines of an unknown character, dates from 54,000 BP. Probably somewhere between these two dates, something very special happened.
But it had been a long haul to get that point. Famously, the most remarkable findings in this field have been made by the Kenyan team Louis and Mary Leakey in a lifetime’s study of East African sites. They perhaps alone have been responsible for the clarity that all humans are ultimately African, a remarkable blow to Eurocentric racist notions of superiority. Indeed, we must even begin to ponder the meaning of species superiority syndromes. From 1948 onwards, the Leakeys discovered and dated three anatomical remains from as far back as 40 million years ago. Proconsullived from approximately 23 to 14 million years ago and ranged in size enormously from something similar to a small monkey to that of a female gorilla. It inhabited a wide range of environments and was probably a fruit eater. Both this and Kenyapithecus, from 14 million years ago, whilst having characteristics reminiscent of humanity were nonetheless not human., the oldest ape, is regarded as the source that led, after many branches, to man. It
However, Zinjanthropus (`East Africa Man’, now defined as Paranthropus boisei) from 1.7 million years ago, found at a prehistoric lake in Olduvai Gorge in what is now Tanzania, is definitely a hominid, a sub-human stage of development. The tools that were found with the fossil bones determine this as an accepted fact, despite the still ape like character of the anatomy. Whilst the bones of small animals found with Zinjanthropus are suggestive of a significant degree of hunting.
The co-ordination of hand and eye, through the brain, are self-evidently critical facilities for the production of such tools. The question as to whether the development of the brain or the hand came first was a heatedly debated issue for over a century. Those arguing for the brain may not have realised it but their view was entirely based upon philosophical notions that originate in the head rather than in reality! Not only is it now clear that tool use made the brain but that, without the thumb, humanity would never have obtained command of its environment. It was once thought that tool use was exclusive to humanity although it has been long appreciated that all the great apes use tools in captivity. In recent decades, it was understood that chimpanzees and then orang-utans used them also in the wild. That was so until, recently, a gorilla was observed contemplatively using a stick both to plumb the depth of a pool of water and then to use it as a walking support to navigate a crossing. Another was seen laying a branch as a bridge to cross swampy ground. Clearly, the basis exists for assuming that tool use was an evolutionary development of one or more common ancestors of the great ape family. But a fundamental requirement for more creative tool use has to be the `opposable’ thumb, absent in apes but present in human species, whereby all the fingers and the thumb meet in a manner facilitating manipulation.
However, an upright posture has to come before the development of the hominid hand and the limited development of the brain. Without the evolution of bi-pedalism nothing else could have occurred and certainly a range of organs needed to be developed. The decades of controversy that beset the archaeological community on these questions is slightly bemusing in retrospect, since it is only too obvious that freeing the hands from walking allows them to evolve into more effective instruments. Further, that the development of the hand would have stirred the brain, even if that organ would take later precedence. The one could not have occurred without the other. Even with a most limited brain, Zinjanthropus was an accomplished toolmaker and underlines the true `missing link’, not a creature but an idea rooted in reality – that labour was the agent of human development.
But what can we say of consciousness itself? The possession of so-called `theory of mind’ appears to be key to human consciousness. This describes an understanding by an individual that another may act in a particular way in given circumstances. It is an attribute that very young humans only begin to nurture from their third year of life and appears to be heavily linked to the ability to communicate.
The best way to predict the behaviour of others is to comprehend what you yourself would do. Thus an understanding of the collective is predicated upon self-consciousness. To read the minds of others by reading your own mind is a powerful tool in evolutionary terms, so much so that it results in an exponential replication of the effect. So fundamental to human thinking is this form of consciousness that it fuels the anthropomorphic quality we all have of assigning human characteristics to almost any other creature. Cartoon characters and pets are the main sufferers of this tendency; dim brained but sweet Winnie the Poo, a `selfish’ species such as the domestic cats, the `loyalty’ of a dog etc etc. It is a very human trait; a range of techniques have been experimented upon in recent decades, seeking to discern consciousness in animals. So far, only some of the higher primates, especially chimpanzees and the orang-utan have displayed evidence of limited self-awareness. In particular, the ability to practice deception appears to be a key indicator of consciousness.
Science will not permit us to speculate about the precise social basis for the development of human traits amongst our ancestors but it is intriguing to note that bonobo chimpanzees not only engage in face to face sexual intercourse, they also have a matriarchal `political’ system, in which sex is used to control aggression in males and bond them to the group. They also walk upright; their hands thus free the main benefit is that they are able to carry food back to the family. The social cohesion that is so forcibly and powerfully enhanced by social, political, familial, and sexual culture is almost painfully reminiscent of humanity.
Whatever the case may be in this area, hard evidence exists that, by around 300,000 years BP archaic Homo sapiens had a fairly sophisticated tool kit of scrapers and cutters. Could much of this have been developed without speech or communication techniques of any kind? The development of language skills in early humans was simply not physically possible until the position of the voice box, or larynx, had dropped around 200,000 years ago. It had been at a much higher point, as is the case with other primates, resulted in higher sounding vocalisation, even with males. A brain forged by labour was already well able to rationalise, so it was simply a matter of time before an evolutionary advantage was put to work with individuals that were able to use the more modulated result of a dropped larynx to create sounds with meaning. Since the evidence, in the form of artefacts, for the emergence of sapiens arises from the results of the application of collective thought through vocalisation, it may never be possible to prove the degree to which speech was a key evolutionary change following upright posture, the hand and then the brain in making our particular species of ape.
Frequently, commentators refer to speech evolving from the need for the hunter to communicate. Too much reliance has been placed on the need for communication actually in the course of the hunt as a possible source for the origins of language. The reality of hunting in modern communities such as the San for example is that it is necessary to engage in extensive collective debate before the hunt. The opinions of all are taken into account, including the women and men who are not skilled hunters. For anyone with knowledge of the surrounding environment may be able to contribute intelligence and all who have an interest in the outcome of the hunt, which in a collective food gathering community will be the entire population, will have opinions as to priorities.
Speech is unquestionably an intimate part of the exchange of collective knowledge; the act of hunting does not necessarily depend upon it. It is only with the development of specialised big game hunt, a later development specific to larger communities that follow herds, which a more rigid sexual division of labour ensues. This form of activity will need developed forms of communication, usually silent in character. Surely, given that humans initially learn speech in close harmony with their parents and especially with their mothers, it can be said that the first speech collective must be sited not in the hunt but the necessary process of imparting information about danger, or what is good to eat?
The notion often peddled that early humans were naturally aggressive is also completely wide of the mark. Aggression is a useless emotion in communally organised societies. The modesty required of hunters of modern day hunter gatherers in southern Africa is an essential component of communal living. The plain truth is that exaggerated aggression or extreme personal competition, as is the norm in contemporary society would be a deeply unhelpful trait in a collective living. (By the way, is it not a truism that contemporary life craves social peace and seeks it in personal living space?)
These theories have more to do with the competing ideologies of modern day society. Comments about `man the hunter’ and this being the source of language are all the more irritating, for the answer is to be seen in every single family on earth, all around us, here and now. Where do humans learn to speak? In the womb, initially, long before it is born. Babies pick up the sounds of their mother and those close to her and are able to distinguish the intonation of their native language, but not strange languages, from an astonishing early age. Hours from birth, babies are able to discern the voice of the mother. Obviously the degree to which this is this hard-wired into our brains will depend upon evolutionary factors but where did the facility first emerge?
Babies, the whole world over, clearly respond to what we think of as silly baby talk. We now understand that this `comfort language’ is but the first step to understanding one’s native tongue. But where did this come from? Why is it so universal, whether the mother is a speaker of Mandarin, or Malay, or Mandinka? Language is also much more than a question of deciphering a string of sounds and understanding words and sentences. It is a matter of intonation and body language, too, especially facial communication. Babies quickly learn to associate particular sounds with certain facial gestures, hand and body posture. Would not communication historically also begin with such insights?
Clearly, there is a massive evolutionary advantage to those who are able to communicate well, irrespective of the existence of actual speech. Put simply, can we not imagine the process in history, whereby the early hominid forager, a mother with a child hanging onto her hip, would indicate what is good and what is bad to eat? Rather than the supposition that speech began with directions on which way to move to head off a hunted prey, surely the sensible conclusion is to look more in this direction, of mother and child relations? Indeed, rather than viewing big game hunting as the source of speech we should consider it to be a development of it.
There are continuities in expression use with ape relatives but the meaning has often been changed. Conscious body language is culture dependent and social context can be relevant but most human expressions are hard-wired; for example, children born blind smile, even though they have never seen a smile. Unconsciously pointing the body away from someone or something indicates dislike or disgust. Deceit is revealed by the action of covering the mouth or nose. Performers and professional gamblers speak of reading the `tell’ of a person, little tell tale signs – such as unconsciously leaning in a particular direction – that may indicate what hand you are holding something in. You can say that you like somebody but your hands may signal otherwise by veering wide apart from the body, suggesting that you don’t really think this.
It is important to note the distinction between voluntary and involuntary body language when considering para-language, which may be the source of spoken language. Yet language is not entirely a taught thing; rather it is part of our brain’s biological make up. It may be viewed as an evolutionary adaptation to enable information to be communicated. The ability to learn language easily is limited to a short period of human development. Despite what we may presume, the vocalisations that mothers make when they use `Babytalk’ are actually meaningful melodies and the patterns are near universal across languages. It is by no means coincidental that babies nearly always experience a massive vocabulary spurt, closely following the ability to walk unaided. For now they are able to wander a little way from their mothers they are vulnerable and good communication must be available to them.
A chimpanzee may be taught an apparent humanesque understanding of vocalisations but once acquired they cannot see beyond using communication to express selfish and immediate wants. Even a two-year-old human can speak about abstractions just for the sake of it. The kind of thinking behind such a use of vocabulary is fundamentally and qualitatively beyond anything but human comprehension. Perhaps earlier species of humans were more like the chimp and later evolutions acquired increasing ability until the complexity assumed by sapiens?
The process of thinking is not the same as speaking. We do not always think in English but often in a symbolic way. Multi-lingual people are often confused about what language they think, or dream, in. When we read a text normally, most literate people can see blocks of concepts before them; not words as such but descriptions, objects and actions. Unless consciously checking the text, they do not spell out individual words in their head, or out aloud, let alone the sounds that make these up. Very rapid readers take in whole chunks of phrases; speed-readers sense the trend of a page by picking out key words. It’s all very rapid, even with the most average of readers.
A single movement of the relevant organs does not create the sounds of speech but a varying combination of simultaneous movements, involving the body and the tip of the tongue and the lips, with the soft palate either open or closed. By three months, human babies’ vocal tracts change, the larynx descends into the throat, opening up the cavity behind the tongue that allows it to move backwards and forwards to make vowel sounds. The larynx having now dropped, this provides a range of potential sounds. No mute community however remote their territory or primitively developed their society has ever been found. The babble of young children complete with their own invented grammar is indicative of the hard wiring of this talent in all humans. As is the case with the self-invented Nicaraguan sign language of schools newly created for deaf children after the Sandinista revolution. The common universal design to all languages is a seemingly instinctive grasp of the complexity of grammar.
A mother and her sisters would surely use the first words coined by humans, to refer to her baby and perhaps her own self. The sense of `you’ and `me’ is the beginning of consciousness. The word for `mother’ might be the first to be learned by her baby, as so often at present, and then by other members of the band. It would as likely as not be something like `ma’, the root of just the word for mother in so many of the world’s languages. Its origin could well be the baby itself, since this is almost the natural sound of a baby’s opening mouth seeking the breast. `Ma’ is as likely to have come before `danger’ or even a name for a feared predator.
The evolution of speech is nearly not so mysterious as how it is actually achieved in present day humans! The sites of activity in speech making are known but it seems that the brain operates interactively and can co-opt areas that normally have other uses if needs be. However, one of the brain’s newer speech centres,Broca’s area is sometimes observable in the faint wrinkle patterns on fossilised skulls of habilis. (It was Paul Broca, who in 1861 identified the area that is now named after himself.) But earlier evolved areas of the brain control non-verbal communication and this talent exists in many creatures other than humans. the `Broca’s area’, appear to be particular important in controlling language communication.
Perhaps manual signing evolved at the same time as speech, although it seems more likely that the latter developed out of the former. Every spoken concept in every language is accompanied by mime cues. For so-called body language is largely hard-wired. When agitated our amygdala, which is part of our defence response network, prompts the release of hormones, disrupting the control of rational thought. This activates brain-stem circuits to produce protective facial expressions and protective postures.
Most body signals are universal to the human species. The head-nod of agreement and understanding is widely used throughout the world to show understanding and agreement. (Although, seemingly, Bulgarians shake their heads to affirm agreement!) There may be physiological explanations to this universality of gestures that lie outside of the brain. Some claim that the head-nod cue is related to the memory of the movement of a baby’s head in accepting the breast. If so, this is an example of how one single gesture of importance could have emerged as a word before a sound was attached to it. Although the emphatic head-nod, with a forceful initial downward phase (`yes, yes, yes!’) suggests a separate origin from the less vigorous `yes’ nod, which starts out with an upward movement.
Also common across cultures, languages and times are the hand shrug, meaning helplessness or inability, and the hand-to-face covering of the eyes, indicating shame. Spoken language, utilising words, is not even necessary to ensure mating. Non-verbal signs are exchanged in the process of courtship, and shoulder-shrugs. These physical mood signs provide messages about physical and psychological closeness, yet the voice – not words – is still paramount in the process of mutual reassurance. Long before those little words were voiced, the meaning was conveyed with the voice.
, a slow negotiation of flirtation
, and seduction, for example
lip pouts, head-tilts
But if many creatures engage in nonverbal communication, what sets our humans apart are the special areas of our brains that control the movementsof the fingers, lips, and tongue. Perhaps if it had not been for the evolution of finger movement enabling themanufacture of tools, other communication organs would have not developed.By pantomiming the process of tool creation through manual and vocal communication, languagewas born.
Whilst the left side of the brain deals with individual speech sounds, the right hemisphere processes the tone and melody of speech. The view that musicality was important in the evolution of speech is still contested but nonetheless has useful insights to recommend it. Baby talk for example is pure musicality and learning the rhythm of a particular language is known to be crucial to the process of learning the language itself. Just as our ability to learn new languages fades rapidly after a young age, so too is our talent for music best fixed early on. The incidence of perfect pitch, the ability to render any note exactly on queue, is much rarer than we think. Yet it is found amongst babies and toddlers, stunningly more so than in older humans. A baby cannot talk or sing at six months of age but it most certainly possesses an acute sense of rhythm. Such a sense may be said to be innate but is only largely transitionary. By the time they are twelve months old this acuteness fades as the core rhythm of the culture they have been born into is assimilated.
It is possible that humans are born with the talent but loose it between the age of three and six, unless it is especially nurtured. This is so since, once having learnt the language of our community, we no longer need an ability that interferes with acquiring the other new knowledge we will need. After all, speakers of a language inside a small family group speak remarkably alike but this is not so of a wider community. Think of how a son or a daughter answering the home telephone will often be mistaken by those calling who outside the nuclear family for the father or the mother. We only share a degree of accent and pitch and only being able to understand our native language when it is spoken just as we first learned it will inhibit communication.
This touches on the evolution of speech in that tunes are processed in a separate and probably earlier region of the brain to speech. (We all can hum the tune but don’t know the words!) It follows that early humans will have more likely had recourse to musicality than language. Did therefore language evolve from musicality? The science of the origins of speech is still very sketchy, only very recently was it discovered that, of all creatures, mice are much more musical than our vague and often hostile perception of their squeaking would allow. Male mice spontaneously construct complex songs almost instantly and sing them for minutes at a time, in response to sex pheromones deposited in the urine of female mice. This ultrasonic response could only be heard by us if it were slowed down and lowered in pitch. Individuals have a preferred selection, focusing on particular syllables and varying the length of attention to each syllable.
We all appreciate that birds engage in singing, primarily the males. But only a few other creatures utilise song. Dolphins, whales, gibbons and humans join mice as the only mammals that have adopted this strategy. We can readily understand that bird song is focused upon mating, or perhaps territorial warning. But it is also possible that human speech is a refinement of similar uses of song, enabling much greater subtlety of tone and intent for a male seeking to interest a potential mate. In the classic evolutionary way, success literally breeds success. Thus the strongest candidate for selection as the basis for the origin of speech would seem to be sex. The utterance of soft, rhythmic cooing sounds to a potential mate, as a calming sign of affection or non-violent intentions does not seem to be so far away from the sometimes incoherent mutterings of a love-sick adolescent to his girlfriend! Tone rather than intellectual content is the decisive factor in love-making.
But how can the limited use of melodic utterances lead to such a complex phenomena as human speech? Our own species’ bias towards speech as a means of communication has blinded us to the possibilities for non-verbal origins of self-consciousness. Human perceptions about reality are sited not in the speech areas but in evolutionary more distant non-verbal emotion based centres. Indeed, the hypothesis of many in this field is that self-consciousness may have evolved from neural circuits earlier adapted for childcare, that feelings for others were turned inward towards ourselves. In this model, consciousness came before linguistics, a way around that seems self-evident to me but which is nonetheless as contested as anything about human origins is.
Engels knew nothing of these many discoveries but he rightly concluded that: “Labour begins with the making of tools. And what are the most ancient tools that we find … They are hunting and fishing implements.”…“(t)he animal merely uses its environment, and brings about changes in it simply by its presence; man by his changes makes it serve his ends, masters it. This is the final, essential distinction between man and other animals, and once again it is labour that brings about this distinction.”
Past distinctions about intelligence between man and animals must now be viewed as actually being between hominids and animals, since tool making was not by any means confined merely to Homo sapiens. (Aside from the troubling problem that use of tools is not restricted just to the various ape species and that the distinction between `sentient’ human and `instinctive’ animal is by no means as clear as some would wish.) But even with this caveat, which only queries what it is that we define `we’ as, Engels urges that we should not flatter ourselves too much: “at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people … but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws”.
The enormously long period before the end of the Stone Age is a period marked by new technological solutions in different parts of the world at different times, even up to the present. This perhaps gave rise to a view of peoples that utilised such technologies as `backward’, uncivilised or even savage. This is especially true of those communities `discovered’ during the period of European global exploration from the 15th to the 19th centuries.
Such cultural arrogance seems to be a recurrent mark of later, developed societies, where elites dominate. Flint knapping, the main form of stone technology, dates from a staggering early period. This doesn’t make it an easy skill! On the contrary, it’s much more difficult to do than one might at first imagine, in fact doing it effectively arises only after the skill is honed through the practice of being handed on across the generations. This implies a process of teaching, which in turn almost certainly requires language of some degree. Also, the worn state of antler `hammers’ from this period is taken to be indicative of forethought. It was unquestionably one of the main means to the `transition from ape to man’, as Engels described in one of the earliest accounts to understand the political implications of human evolution:
“Labour is the source of all wealth…It is the primary basic condition for all human existence, and this to such an extent that, in a sense, we have to say: labour created man himself.” [Frederick Engels `Dialectics of Nature’ FLPH Moscow (1954), `The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man’ p228]
This issue of tool use affecting and being affected by evolution is particularly important to grasp in considering the mind-boggling implications of their being more than one species of human. One of numerous misconceptions to dispel is that the Neanderthal was not truly human. Some physical attributes of the Neanderthal, such as heavy-settedness, recall later regional developments amongst Sapiens, associated with cold, northern climates. Indeed, some commentators suggest that, if placed in a modern context, trimmed, be-suited and showered, time-travelling most Neanderthals to the present could be to partially loose them in a crowd. But this may be overstated, even if we should beware of the assumptions of past assessments of Neanderthal. Assuredly, they would seem at the least very `foreign’ to us, perhaps threateningly so!
The Neanderthal pelvis was not as well adapted as that belonging to Sapiens for long range walking. This had implications for the range of hunting and foraging thus enabled and may have been a factor in competition for resources that disfavoured Neanderthal. But these were people in so many ways. We can point to the practice of burying loved ones, even a foetus; that care for others was commonplace and that they possessed surgical skills as all reasons for re-evaluating the standard view of them held in the past.
60,000 year old Neanderthal remains from Mount Carmel clearly show the possession of the hyoid bone, which lies at the back of the tongue and is taken to be clear evidence for the capability for speech. If there was ever a spoken language that might be exchanged between past Sapiens and Neanderthal, we will never know. But that the body language of the two species was very different is not an unreasonable supposition, the question is: how difficult would communication between them have been? Studies of the skulls of Neandertals indicate that they would not have been capable of the full range of vowels used by modern humans. Some experts argue that this means that Neaderthals and Sapiens could not have been able to communicate at all. Such experts have obviously never had sight of a teenager’s text messaging! For command of a wide range of vowels is not completely necessary for a basic language and, if a large number of obviously different consonants were used, even a relatively complicated language would have been possible. See how you get on with the following phrase, if you find my Neandertalese too difficult to understand, the clue is that the words have only just been used in the middle of this paragraph: th wld nt hv bn cpbl f th fll rng f vwls sd b mdrn hmns.
The question of when exactly speech of some kind arrived is uncertain but it was certainly the case that the obvious is true, that speech occurred because humans had a need of it, as Engels had it: “men in the making arrived at the point where they had something to sayhere is no definite agreement on when or how language use first certainly emerged. Estimates of the time of its origin range from forty thousand years ago, during the time of Cro-Magnon man, to about two million years ago, during the time of Homo habilis. Fossil evidence indicates that the main areas of the brain associated with language began to enlarge as long ago as 1.5 million years, in Homo erectus. Although, erectus did not have a ribcage enabling finely tuned speech control. Homo floresiensis‘ ancestors are assumed to have utilized some kind of seafaring raft, enabled by some form of language to convey complex concepts. Analysis of the brain of Floresiensis suggests intellectual capabilities not widely divergent from primitive Sapiens to each other”. But t
Words are likely to have evolved from a range of sources; for example, imitative sounds of the world around them, such as inanimate objects, animals, human biological or anatomical sounds, oral gestures in sympathy with manual or other body language, aarbitary symbols – or sounds devoted to particular dangers or particular events, and rhythmic chants and ritual vocalisms. There is even a theory that advanced speech was inspired by psychoactive fungi that is known to make humans very talkative! Species such as Psilocybe, which lives on animal dung, which is plentiful on grasslands, would have been very attractive to human populations seeking a new food source. Regular ingestion of the fungi could have stimulated involuntary vocalizations that may have advantaged particular humans as mates. Not necessarily linked to this theory, but one can see the possibilities, access to language may have provided a real evolutionary selective advantage in some humans by being able to dazzle and deceive others. Words, unlike gestures and involuntary exclamations, do not readily reveal your true mental state but, as we all know, a suitor with a way with words can be very beguiling.
The term `Proto-World language’ refers to a hypothetical ancient language from which all modern languages may have come. This was perhaps spoken 200,000 years ago, the time suggested for the separation of the ancestors of all humans alive today from analysis of mitochondrial DNA. It would not necessarily be the first language spoken but only the latest common ancestor and there may have already been a long evolution. (If Homo neanderthalensis had the faculty of speech, their language would not have been related to Proto-World.) Despiute this theory, language could well have developed independently in different groups of early humans from proto-linguistic means of communication. Traditional historical linguistics states that so far it has been impossible to show that all the world’s languages are related. Critics say that from a purely statistical point of view, even among any two unrelated languages, there will most likely be a number of similar-sounding words with similar meanings.
We cannot be sure but it is probably in the process of thinking that the two species of Neanderthal and Sapiens fundamentally differ. It is currently believed that cross breeding was possible but led to sterile offspring. Sapiens is marked by an ability to make leaps of unconnected thinking, Neanderthals possibly placed notions and talents in unconnected places in memory. Such a way of looking at the world would have provided absolute focus on objectives but did not permit quite as much creativity as our species is capable of. This did not mean that Neanderthals were poor craftsmen but that their grasp of design was more prosaic than poetic. Their way of thinking was fixed in the biochemistry of the brain and this was not apparent from their physique. Their children grew up faster than ours but this kind of development minimises the passing on of parental experience. Every generation of Sapiens passes on the ironic metaphor about not reinventing the wheel; Neanderthal was probably (metaphorically) doing it all the time, albeit with panache and cleverness.
Deliberate employment of fire by Neanderthals from at least 60,000 years ago appears to be more generally accepted, at least now, whilst modern humans were certainly employing fire in a variety of ways from 25,000 years ago. The dating of the first use of fire is a highly controversial question, with wild ranges of dates employed in competing arguments. Some strong cases exist that might put the practice back into the millions of years bracket and the use of it by hominids. But, equally, the evidence could be explained by some naturally occurring event and it seems likely that fire was used in this way for a very long time in widely diverse locations and peoples.
Nonetheless, it is certain that ancient peoples learnt very early on that heat treatment of some stone materials changes their behaviour in a useful way, making it better for modelling and providing sharper edges. The way that fire modified stone in the manner in which cave surfaces were affected is likely to be one of the first ways that this became obvious. The later use of fire to split rock to enable the widening and deepening of caves may have led directly to mining.
Possibly, other than flint or similar tool material, the first use of mineral mining, initially picked off the surface but increasingly followed to its source, is the extraction of ochre. This is a generic term for various iron ores, which were used for their red, yellow and brown pigmentation effects. Later manganese was used to make black. This crumbly iron oxide easily dissolves in water to form a paint, or dye. No doubt, it would be observed that exposed veins of it would have seemed to stream blood. Even relatively unimaginative people could see that. Would it really be so difficult to go to the next step of extracting it for use?
Certainly, the use of ochre by Homo erectus has been dated back to 400,000 BP. It is possible that its utilitarian employment in tanning hides, or as a personal skin protector, was discovered before its employment as a painting substance. Ochre has been used to disguise the scent of the hunter from the prey and it is but a small step towards symbolically ritualising the role by turning this into adornment. Evidence for systematic quarrying of any kind has been dated to the Middle Palaeolithic and for underground mining to the early Upper Palaeolithic. But, whatever date mining was adopted and well before Sapiens, from 300,000 BCE (Before the Common Era, a more globally relevant timing device than BC), material things can be seen in themselves as communications or symbols. The tinting of drawings and carvings on walls and on objects in red ochre was commonplace and was a practice followed by Neanderthal and Sapiens.
But the latter took the practice to an art form of enormous subtlety and all undeveloped peoples have employed the material in one way or another. Even today, the San of the Kalahari use ochre in ritual ceremonies, its red colour obviously redolent of blood and symbolising life. For all hunters know the appearance of red on prey as the sign that their group could now be sure of eating. From celebrating the event to seeking to control it, even if only symbolically, did not require a great leap in imagination. Indeed, such a twist of logic – imagining that power to overcome the natural world is not an uncommon consequence of the use of psychoactive agencies such as cannabis. It is only in recent years that many experts have begun to accept the obvious fact that was staring them in the face all along. Just as modern hunter-gatherer folk are bound in communities served by shamans who seek fulfilment in trance induced altered states of consciousness, so too were our ancestors so inspired. Indeed, it is now clear that the use of opium and cannabis – far form being a western `decadence’ – came long before beer, wine and spirits.
The artificial etching of bones has been attributed to hominid, especially erectus, activity from 300,000 BP, plus or minus several tens of thousands of years; as for example marked human bones, found in Germany, and dated at 250,000 years ago. One find consists of a series of 28 marks, radiating lines, seven above, seven below, with 14 in the centre. We cannot know its purpose but the coincidence with the timings of a month of four periods, consisting of two short initial and ending phases, is too tantalising to engage in the doomed attempts of many to pass this off as accident. (Scientific tests on the nature of the marks have established a conscious determination to produce the markings.)
That a sentient being, capable of organising hearths, homes and collective work areas could not be capable of observing the phases of the moon – a feature of simple and obvious relevance to the life of these peoples – is simply not credible. It is possible that this tally recorded some unknown value for the group of sevens of trite significance. But any woman today is able to recognise the value of such a mnemonic, for it can only assist in identifying periods of sexual availability and potential fertility or infertility – for knowledge of both phases of the menstrual cycle of considerable interest to a sexually active woman in a time when modern scientific contraception and fertility aids were unavailable. Accident, or meaningless doodling, or is this evidence of the application of thought? We can never know for sure.
It is of course a pretty risky affair for any man to go treading into this territory! But modern scientific research, much of it conducted by women, comes to our aid. The big problem with this seemingly self-evident assertion is that it turns out that menstruation is much more complex than the assumption that a 28 day cycle is `normal’. Yet, since that it the popular, if erroneous, assumption in our own society perhaps it was also so in earlier times? Or, at the least, can we say that the rough and ready marker enabled some social interaction of relevance to many women to be embarked upon? Even so, the biological-social mechanism that underpins menstruation is a delicate one and it remains phenomenally difficult to match current experience to that of ancient times.
Studies of modern women living in the most isolated and undeveloped communities in the world suggest that the high rate of child birth, if not child survival, lends itself to many fewer menstruations and hence a possibly even more fragmented cycle amongst communities of women, making it even more difficult to extrapolate ancient practice with modern experience. But our knowledge is very limited, are we comparing like with like? What is clear is that later, more male dominated societies have tended to view menstruation, due to the connotations with `spilt’ blood, quite mistakenly, as a health threat and consequently have erected taboos about the matter. It became a typical response to consign women to special living quarters during the menstrual phase.
Whilst sisters and mothers do have much more co-ordinated cycles, a fact that in modern times gives rise to the notion of an `average’ menstruation, major scientific studies of large populations of modern women have established that there is a tendency to a longer than 28 day cycle in the very young to a even longer range in the quiet mature woman. Nonetheless, from the early 20s to the early 40s, perhaps only an eight of modern women, the 28 day range is fairly typical. The age profile of a society of early humans is likely to have been very different from modern populations. A cycle of 29 days – the lunar cycle is strictly 29.5 days – in fact currently provides for the most optimum fertility. Is this a co-incidence? (Interestingly, concern for lunar eclipses seems to have been a pan-European phenomenon.)
Most likely, there is some elemental vestige of a feature that may have existed in an ancestor species, it is controversial to suggest even this but may it even have been the case that some hominids employed mating seasons? Could a reflection of this carried over into early sapiens societies? Levels of melatonin, also associated with the sleep pattern cycle, rise to a peak just before menstruation for example, not now to any specific effect. Any shared `light-dark’ experience, if it ever did exist amongst, say, hominids is most definitely not the trigger in modern humans.
But we are on stronger ground in perceiving some remnant of earlier social behaviour in the matter of co-ordinated cycles in close knit groups of women. A study back in 1971 first established the now accepted observation that living in close quarters, especially in multiple numbers, does lend itself to co-ordinated cycles. The original source of the study, close friends living in dormitories, is seen to be the most perfect scenario for the biology to not only prove itself but reflect a possible origination and evolutionary value.
But these are not directly influenced by the moon, not now in humans at least. There are many but only a minority of life forms – one monkey species, some frogs and others – experience direct hormonal stimulation in response to solar or lunar `messages’. Human female menstrual co-ordination response to pheromone `scents’ unconsciously giving off signals. But close matched synchronisation does not necessarily bring a high evolutionary advantage and in any case may not be easily achieved in the increasingly atomised social structures that emerge after the earliest phases of human development. The subtlety of the process may even lend itself to form of biological evolutionary change that may never be proved. The only tantalising clue that a degree of social synchronosity amongst a group of about to be initiated adult young women may have once had a reproductive purpose is the known prevalence of seasonal group sex activities in ancient undeveloped cultures. Given all this, it is anyone’s guess as to whether the scratchings of groups of 28 or 29 marks were relevant to any of this but there is an element of the circumstantial yet decidedly material that certainly rises beyond the wilder clutchings at straws to discern gods and monsters that need appeasing as explanations for the strange behaviour of our ancestors.
Understanding of the causes of pyschosis is still very sketchy. Given that this is a condition unique to human, it has long been wondered if its origins lie in the evolution of the human brain. The argument that flows from this centres around the presumption that the most recent evolved neural circuits are the most complex and thus the most prone to failure to function correctly, leaving sufferers of manic conditions to rely on archaic circuitry that does not respond well to modern living conditions and results in what we have deemed to be mental illness. It is assumed that a mutation that confers an advantage can also lead to disadvantages. The difficulty lies in identifying what evolutionary mutation is somehow lost. Now an element of genetic inheritance appears to be mingled with other factors, such as substance misuse, in generating pyshosis. The line between `sanity’ and disorder may be very fine indeed;
Schizophrenics, a late developing condition often amongst young adults, are prone to hearing often multiple voices, to such an extent that the ability to function normally is heavily impaired and the resultant internal chaos impels the sufferer to abnormal behaviour. Disruptions in pathways in the brain cause disturbances to cognition, emotions and behaviour. New research suggests that it may be possible to prevent many cases before a person is born. Schizophrenia is most likely the result of a genetic vulnerability coupled with environmental and psychosocial stressors. One theory proposes that both schizophrenia and language have a common evolutionary origin. Since language is co-ordinated by both hemispheres of the brain, with speech being handled by the dominant side and thought by the non-dominant side, perhaps the normal segregation of thoughts and speech fails and thoughts are, for example ‘heard’ as speech.
Contrary to perception, a condition such as autism is perfectly compatible with a high IQ. Although it was once only associated with a below-normal IQ a better means of diagnosis and an understanding that it can present in a spectrum of severity has led to a vast increase in the numbers of individuals now thought to be autistic. Some degree of social disconnectedness has been understood as a core feature of the disorder ever since it was first described in the 1940s – the name derives from the Greek for `self’ – and it is this aspect that makes it interesting from the point of view of the history of human evolution.
But seeing this as a form of extreme selfishness devalues the individual; nonetheless, a low-empathizing/high-systemizing trait clearly spans the autism spectrum. Central to the modern diagnosis is a realisation that intelligence and social development are two quite different things. A simple test involving a story about one child hiding an object from another elicits the absence of `theory of mind’, the realisation that arises from the age of four or thereabouts that other people have thoughts and intentions that may differ from one’s own. On behind told the secret that the object is hidden where the owner will not expect it, the autistic does not answer the question as to where she should look for it with the answer that she would look where she believed it to be but with the location that that he has been told the object is. This `mind-blindness’ is located in the autistic’s detachment. There is still controversy over the details of this research, some attribute the narrow interest in detail, as well as other symptoms of autism, to an inability to plan, to control impulses and to switch attention as needed to solve a problem.
Moreover, it is increasingly clear that the gender based empathizing-systemizing dichotomy, far broader than the spatial-verbal one that has long been a feature of sex-difference research is relevant to this area of study. On average, women are better at empathizing and men at systemizing. It is very important to recall that phrase `on average’, since there are plenty of `male’ brains in female bodies, and vice versa. In this theory, autism is a case of the `extreme male brain’. The latest theories about autism focus on the fact that it is largely a male condition; is it perhaps a consequence of patriarchy, a result of evolutionary sexual selection? This, it is proposed arises since – until very recently – men have been selecting females who are less likely to challenge authority and females have been selecting males most likely to provide for a family in monogamous society. Features that may have been valued in males in a female focused society are disparaged by patriarchy but these characteristics thrive in the autistic.
A study by Janet Shibley-Hyde, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison is suggestive of a view that gender differences are far less genetically based than has been proposed in recent decades, which has been a harkening back to an earlier consensus that such differences were unalterable. Now, the pendulum seems to be swinging back to the centre again. The main factor in determining the weak involvement of women in science appears to be related to the relative lowering of girls’ self-esteem on entering puberty compared to boys. Much of the popularly presented evidence of differing electro-chemistry of the brain between the genders can be accounted for by nurture rather than nature. Women are not just born more sensitive or desirous of being cared for than men are; they are largely made to become so by social conditioning. For example, women may be twice as likely to suffer depression in the Americanised world but in the relatively gender-equal Scandinavian countries this tendency does not display this anywhere near like as markedly. A study of 37 nations showed that the more women have financial independence the less they are attracted to men who are obviously good breadwinners. Arguably, the developed western and Americanised world – and the rest of the world where it becomes more and more influenced by these trends – is creating major gender differences in personality and performance as well as physique (as with the growth of diabetes) in humanity by the very nature of its social and economic system. Is this a forced form of biological evolution, perhaps?
Autistic people see the world though sense rather than interpretation, similar to the instincts of animals. They are inept at understanding people but relatively good at making sense of the world, especially through extreme interest in systemising, inputting something and transforming it into an output according to some internalised rule. Since some autistics have a disabling low IQ, in such cases the systemizing may take the form of a seemingly purposeless obsession and it displays of this that first led to seeing the condition as a mental illness.
It is now not considered out of the question that autism may be understood as an unregulated variant of the adaptation that produces moments of single-minded genius in humanity. Perhaps it is the very evolution that enabled tool making to be contemplated in the first place? Another theory has it as a relic of the natue of males in the earliest humna cultures. Either way, it is increasingly accepted that the condition is illuminated by the knowledeg that creative engineers, musicians and scientists tend to think; that is to say in picture-based, rather than word-based ways. Famously, Einstein grasped the theory of relativity in just this manner. A systemising talent, often seemingly chaotic but marvellous in its attention to detail, frequently appears to run in families with links to autistic individuals. Such men – and they are nearly always males – are associative thinkers, who do not present their ideas in a coherent narrative. They are frequently left handed, ambidextrous, or clumsy because they `ought’ to be so and have learned to be right-handed; they are often anarchically anti-hierarchical in outlook.
Many in this category are thought to have Asperger’s Syndrome, whereby some features of autism exist but not the full blown clinical condition. Suffering a disorder at the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, Asperger’s individuals are able to function normally, but have difficulty reading the emotions of others. Some become very successful and often not diagnosed as having the condition but seen as brilliant, eccentric, absent minded, socially inept, and a little awkward physically, even being subject to repetitive body motor mannerisms. In early childhood, especially, there is anxiety related resistance to changes to routines and often a fierce compulsion to avoid certain behaviour or keep to certain patterns. An inability to engage in collective creative play may drive the child to solitary writing and painting as a form of `self-help’. It is postulated that many high achieving creative people in the past have had undiagnosed Asperger’s.
A key diagnostic for Asperger’s is patchy ability, where some skills are better than others, often to the level of greatness in one field and ineptness in another. Patterns of interest that are abnormal in intensity and the tendency to become preoccupied with a particular subject can lead to a highly successful career. This may arise despite a tendency to fail to develop peer relationships and the skill of social reciprocity, as in thespontaneous sharing of enjoyment or interests with others.
Those with the condition may be thought to have a different way of using language, to the extent of having an impressive vocabulary and demonstrate a precocious ability to read words, far above what would be expected at their chronological age. Contrasted to this is a significant difficulty in understanding the nuances of verbal language and using instinctive human social skills. There may be a real difficulty with socialising and interacting, possessors of the syndrome may employ gaze avoidance, even typically turning away at the moment of greeting. Yet it is possible for them to superficially learn social skills much as `normal’ people learn any technical skill. Their role may be to pass on innovative ideas to more standard thinkers.
Either way, in the history of technology, one thing leads to another; the pounding of ochre, to render it useful for painting, led to the wider employment of grinding technology. Both processes made wild seeds of all kinds useful, before it was then used to make the seeds of grasses edible to humans. Grinding artefacts have been found from 50,000 BP but were these possibly a feature of the first sexual division of labour? The Native Australians assigned grinding tools to gender according to the purpose. Grass seeds for women, ochre for men.
Although the first deliberately cultivated plants may have been narcotic poisons and medicines, which were rendered portable by the carrying of budding shoots. As well as cannabis, Stone Age peoples knew all other substances such as cocaine bearing leaves, tobacco and betel. Amongst other things, the coca leaf suppresses the appetite, so there was good cause to know the value of such a plant. Although, so far, the only certain evidence we know of concerning the widespread use of psychoactive plants appears to be after the Upper Palaeolithic. But the deliberate inhalation of smoke from campfires might be an exceedingly ancient practice.
Increasingly, modern pharmaceutical companies are returning to ancient wisdom about herbs and plants and looking to find active chemical receptors that may be utilised from these clinically. It is perhaps relatively well-known that the active ingredient of aspirin can also be found in the willow tree. But modern medicines such as the cancer drug taxol, has been derived from the Pacific yew tree. Clinical trials have begun on Figwort, to use its properties to treat for diabetes-related leg ulcers, it having been now found to have been used for such purposes in history. Traditional names from our medieval period often betray the original uses that actually date back to pre-historic times; sage, an old name for wisdom, it is now realised may aid memory, whilst the obviously named lovage is suggestive of its old use as an aphrodisiac, it may perhaps be the exception that `proves’ the rule, since many substances have been incorrectly claimed to have such properties. Not all herbal medicine was in later times correctly applied, as humanity became more distant from nature so too did its understanding of natural remedies. But many other traditional remedies are currently being seriously investigated by modern science, such as the following, with the lines of query being pursued:
Marsh mallow intestinal irritation
Mistletoe calming affect on the nervous system
Black byrony chilblains
Goosegrass lymphatic system
Sweet flag malaria
Yellow iris mouth sores
It is of course vital to get all of this into proportion. The point here is that our condescending view of the past blinds us to the very real achievements of cultures that were and are, at different times, positioned at a technology stage before what we have accepted as the start of civilisation. It does not mean that applying Stone age medicine to the present is our best strategy! Homeopathy, the notion of a holistic alternative to drug therapy, is established as being entirely unproven as a workable medicinal approach, despite its predilection for herbs. It is in fact a late 18th century invention, with little connection to traditional medicine. The commonality it may share with this is that it proceeds on the basis of treating like with like and works, if at all, more or less on the placebo effect, enabling the body to produce it own version of pharmaceutical products as a result of the patient feeling as if s/he has been viewed as a human being. Perhaps it is this aspect that has resulted in the World Health Organisation treating homeopathy, along with more traditional medicinal practices, with some respect if only as an aspect that needs more research? A WHO report notes firmly that knowledge of acupuncture is exceedingly ancient, is still widely respected in China and increasingly is accepted as a feature of modern medicine.
The notion that ancient society could have discovered, perhaps through tattoo culture, that needle insertion may positively affect parts of the body does assault modern scientific honour. It has been able to understand that such stimulation may result in the body producing its own health reviving biochemicals. It was difficult to accept, until the evidence firmly indicated that surgery did not begin with ancient Greece.
Basic surgery is often compared with butchery and with good reason, both imply hands-on knowledge of blood and gore. Is it not clear that early humanity had intimate knowledge of the anatomy and dissection of game? Would it not be an obvious next step to apply this to themselves? Trepanning, or slicing into the skull usually to relieve endemic pressure pain in the head is now known to have been practised widely by ancient peoples, even by the Neanderthals. The earliest date for dentistry is constantly being pushed back; it used to be thought to be the evidence amassed from Denmark to be 3,000 years ago, the latest finds unambiguously put the earliest date back to 9,000 years ago. In what is now Pakistan, decayed portions of teeth were drilled by an ingenious drill rotating at 20 times a second.
No doubt some of these extraordinarily modernistic applications of medial and scientific knowledge were conveyed as being no more than a result of the ways of the shaman in exercising his traditional magic. But ancient peoples did not think of this form of knowledge as a bit dodgy, this was the cutting edge of science for them.
Magic may be said to have the same relationship to science as does religion to philosophy. Whilst magic proceeds from an understanding that the world and it environs are sometimes thoroughly strange, it blunders into the realm by hoping to replicate this strangeness by design. Arguably religion seeks to work in the same way, in applying an overarching unified theory of all things to explain incongruity away somehow. But magic can sometimes hit upon an application of validity without quite knowing why this is so, only an atheist can, I suppose, see less justification for the obvious errors of ancient religion. Yet the simple reason for why magic had some validity and why religion was always a metaphor for something else, an ideological justification for something in society, is rooted in the fact that religion became increasingly divorced from magic, the two having been originally one and the same. Obviously, a magical element remained even in the most `modern’ of religious creations, the obvious example being the transposition of bread and wine into the body of Christ.
Contemporary assessment of so-called `witch doctor’ magic is perhaps less harsh that it once was but retrospective condescension still applies. Interestingly, retrospective judgement on ancient religions was and remains as condescending, yet the implicit critique always seems to be the progression in turn from pantheism, then on to a pantheon of gods and then to the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition of monotheism represents a gradual dawning of enlightenment. But the development of religion from magic represented an application of idealist, rather than materialist, philosophy. That is to say an idea, conjured up from no particular sense of reality, in some way played a community need.
Magic represented an extrusion of what began as a series of practical observations of the world. If I throw this substance onto the camp fire, in a short while it will explode into bright yellow and red star bursts. Generations of wily practitioners of magic may well fall into announcing that some amazing thing will happen when they decide that it will as a means of establishing credence for his powers, shamanistic activity of this kind is still locked into the whole tribe. Whatever ideology is prescribed for such events and the role of persons associated with them is conditioned by a knowingness that the power of the magic has some basis in the real world, even if it extends the real world. Religion, as an extension of magic into a new territory, even if it utilises magic initially to establish its credibility, ultimately resides entirely in the world of imagination and faith. Followers believe something is so because the ideology tells them it will be. In the absence of ever new magical demonstrations, formal ritual asserting group faith became increasingly important.
However practical was the abundant knowledge of nature attained by prehistoric humanity, cultural knowledge of human history was limited by the absence of effective means of mass access. Societal knowledge was thus rooted in ritual, or habitual group behaviour. Ritual was and is deeply ideological but it is often lacking in self-awareness. Myth emerged out of ritual as a conscious form of social control, enshrining group customs, faith and beliefs into poetry and music. Archaeologists are rightly accused of dubbing everything they do not understand as a ritualistic matter. This is not necessarily wrong, however. It is the way contemporary society understands ritual that is as erroneous. Everything is `sacred’ in primitive societies. Everything has its proper procedure, how to obtain food, how to eat, dance, sleep, fight and even how to mate…
We must think of ritual less as being redolent of the catholic mass and much more of the way an older but recent generation picked up a pinch of spilled salt and threw it over their shoulder! Less because they believed they were actually making an offering to the devil, or literally there and then blinding him in the eyes but much more because that’s what you do. Accepted social customs become ossified, even distorted from their original meaning. People do things less for the ideologically motivated reasons advanced for doing them than because they collectively embrace the act itself and value the feel of being a part of familiar way of doing things. Often such a way is a licence to be extravagant, carefree even.
The development of myth as a form of ideological dominance began to really take off with the rise of elites, especially in Greece, where a ruling military class quite consciously promoted it. Our later worship of ancient Greek culture as high art ignores the ideological role it had once played, although the intellectual elitism has not been lost on later elites! Poetry became divorced from song and dance, which had been the peoples’ culture.
The tradition of collective chanting in Native American tribes is an example of the early form of this but it had not yet developed into a ruling class ideology since there was as yet no ruling class outside of the Mesoamerican cultures. In Greece, the mythic poetry of the ruling class held little appeal to the mass of the people, who were fed songs exhorting them to work, messages of how there was paradise in the old days, when work was not needed, echoes of the memories of primitive communism. The famous Greek tragedies may be traced back to a historical origin in tribal life reminiscent of the “most advanced ritual dreams of the North American Indians”. These enactments held inner meaning that was only understood by initiates, a process arrested in Native American society. But the secret societies evolved into a “guild of actors” in Greece. [Thompson p172/3]
Creation myths are common to all societies, from the Greeks to the Native Australians, before modern scientific explanations rendered them quaint. Each contains the seeds of the need for partiality and exceptionalism about the societies that spawned the stories. But such myths also invariably hint at the nature of the society in which the story emerged. The creation myth of the Judeo-Christian tradition is of course well known, especially the role of Adam and Eve. It is less appreciated that Eve was Adam’s second spouse. His first wife was Lilith, a bird of prey, the Vulture Goddess of death and regeneration, who later became a powerful witch. Lilith flew away because Adam couldn’t control her! Eve was his second wife, made from his rib, so that she would be obedient and stay with him. In this story lies the origins of class society, which itself is rooted in misogynistic overthrow of primitive communism. As we shall see, the origins of private property and the development of patriarchal society are totally intertwined. Indeed, we may speak of the matrilineal tribe and the patrilineal state.
Since the original purpose of the clan was to maintain a food gathering collective based upon specialised diets, expulsion from the group by banishment to the wilderness was often tantamount to a death sentence. The terror of such a fate is testified in many ancient cultural texts that make reference to banishment and we know of the practice throughout the world, amongst the Norse, the Greeks and others. Adoption into another clan was permissible and a frequent means of introducing fresh blood into a group. Understanding the nature of ancient society means understanding the nature of the family; but before we do that we must consider the nature of the productive forces that gave rise to specific forms of human relations in this epoch.
We cannot conceive of the Stone Age as a period of barbarity. For that we must wait upon the development of class based societies! Art and science had not yet become divided. Yet, we may call the form of human knowledge of this period about nature and man `science’, just as we may class the classical thinkers as early scientists. Early human civilisations often experimented and observed basic requirements of the scientific method, even if an accumulation of knowledge across generations was necessarily limited.
Yet, the standard of living and the quality of humanity in this period were much better than we normally think. Indeed, the fact that “(t)he average Stone Age individual may have enjoyed greater freedom than the serf (or even the average citizen of a modern democratic state) is simply ignored” in standard accounts of pre-history. [Rudgley p7] Popular perceptions of how difficult life must have been in the Stone Age are completely misconceived and twisted by mainstream notions of `progress’. Peoples still following a hunter gather lifestyle, such as the !Kung of the Kalahari are able to rely on not only a healthier diet but also a larger daily calorie intake than most of the people of most developing countries but also most of the poor of the developed world.
With the introduction of farming and the consequent population growth, there was a discernible reduction in average height and weight and even life expectancy. The domestication of animals brought an increase in many diseases that humans did not have natural resistance to; diseases we now taken for granted as normal to humans but which were actually transferred from livestock. Yet this is surely a feature we can relate too, given our modern experience with BSE? But at least we can understand the source of our epidemic. To the ancients, such events must have seemed frightening and mysterious, understanding of which can only have been arrived at by metaphysical references.
Yet, the notion of the Stone Age as savagely backward and uncivilised is clearly misplaced: “all the elements of civilisation – writing, scientific thought and practice, medical knowledge, technology and art – were present”. [Rudgley p12] Humans are simply stunningly and consistently talented throughout history, largely irrespective of race, time and location. The much-vaunted notion of consistent progress, up until the moment it came to `us’, does not face up to the fact that `they’ were not much different than we are.
More importantly, we now know that the great civilisations of the ancient world rested upon the foundations of earlier societies; for example, the emergence of Egyptian civilisation arose out of a slow development of what had gone on before. Previously, it had been thought that an especially talented outside elite had stormed in and took over; Egyptian hieroglyphics were not copied from elsewhere but arose from an earlier domestic concept. The notion of the apparent emergence of the Minoan or the Mycenaean civilisations, seemingly coming out of nowhere, is now seen as fundamentally flawed. Until very recently, for many in the field of history, Europe would seemed to have begun with the Indo-Europeans; it is proper to ask what went before. Now, it is increasingly accepted that there were previous cultures, at least in central and eastern Europe, of considerable civilisation up to 5,000 BCE that were overtaken by later developments.
In no way were the peoples of this time backward. The naturally mummified 5,300-year old corpse found on the Swiss-Italian border in the Ötztal Alps has been the subject of intensive scientific enquiry. The link between tattoos and medicinal acupuncture was established and has reinforced understanding that ancient peoples had recourse to a far better health service than had classically been suggested. One of the lesser commented upon understandings arises from the objects carried by this ancient lost traveller that were made from no less than 18 different kinds of wood, stressing just how important the mastering of wood technology was. These are finds that normally elude archaeologists.
Whether this Alpine find relates, ethnically, to the pre-Indo-Europeans or not is not clear. One thing that is certain is that there was an Indo-European culture of considerable importance. This now seems an unassailable fact, especially given the massive linguistic research that has been undertaken in the last hundred years or so. Most but no means all of the various European languages are descended from Proto-Indo-European, spoken perhaps 5,000 years ago. Scholars have reconstructed much of this presumed language on the basis of data from its ten daughter branches, which are: Germanic (English is a bastard of mostly old Germanic and French), Italic, Celtic, Greek, Baltic, Slavic, Albanian, Armenian, Indo-Iranian, and the two dead branches Tocharian and Anatolian. The former was spoken from the 6th to 8th centuries, before becoming extinct, in what is now the Xinjiang province of China. The latter was a group of languages spoken by non-Turkic peoples in what is now Turkey, the most well known of which was Hittite. Even Persian is Indo-European is that its core vocabulary generally has words of a common origin, as with mâdar ‘mother’.
Yet evidence for a forced take over by Indo-Europeans is sketchy. Perhaps it was not a straightforward military invasion but simply a spate of uncontrolled immigration! Either way, a melding of the two cultures occurred, mostly favouring the incomers, but there must have been a significant shift in the nature of the economy because afterwards everything was different. The most obvious parallel is that of the interface between Europeans and Native Americans. Yet it is clear that there were phased waves of intervention by the Indo-Europeans, who may have represented many different tribes and `nations’. An early phase may have been only a little more warrior cult orientated than the Old Europeans but the later phase was decidedly different. Old Europeans may have even have moved to the Aegean out of the path of the Indo-Europeans.
These Old Europeans may or may not have had continuous connections with the earliest Sapiens inhabitants of Europe. But one thing is clear that their society was rooted in the early Stone Age. The myth that `cavemen’ were brutal savages is a most enduring one. It is interesting that the notion first took hold when the discovery that such society existed coincided with the greatest disparity in wealth and power amongst humans possibly ever was emerging. Perhaps it comforted those in the 19th century, on the edge of destitution, ever fearful of unemployment that they lived in brick hovels and not natural caves!
Obviously, hominids and humans, like animals will have always used the natural shelter of caves. But much of the myth around `cavemen’ arises from discoveries about the use of caves during the last 20,000 years rather than much earlier. This was especially so following the discovery in the 19th century of cave paintings. A good deal of mystification surrounds these sites. Now, such caves are usually natural `cathedrals’; often sites with special acoustic properties that could only be reached with great difficulty. The heightening of senses in dark environments, especially the results of sensory deprivation, accompanied or enhanced by psychotropic substances, produces hallucinatory experiences.
In a world where two-dimensional representations were rarely seen, the siting of the wonderful cave paintings in a place where sound could be produced to add to the spectacle, the sight of such representations would have been thrilling. Singing or telling of the great tales of creation and myth would have further enhanced dramatic potential from the scene. Expressions of amazement at the depth at which cave paintings have been found and the awkwardness of the journey to get to them rather miss the point. Context is everything in understanding that which we find strange. The journey would have been as much the purpose of the exercise as the arrival. This is especially so if the event that the illustrations served was an initiation ceremony, for initiation was often accompanied by a test of endurance or a feat of heroism.
Moreover, the experience of heightened perception arising from sensory denial, perhaps also accompanied by the ingestion of stimulants, would have been accentuated by the awe that the natural surroundings inspired. The whole implies a kind of living performance art, accompanied by music and song, costume and even drama. Not only that, the very sense of being so far underground would have contributed to the whole, for it was the common opinion of ancient peoples that life originated underground but also ended there. This was a journey to an awesome place, for the underworld was heaven and hell. These wondrous underground cathedrals were hosts to events less like going to church on a Sunday than a school-leaving ritual. More like burning your school uniform or having your stag night than celebrating your holy communion. Even if it was more like a pilgrimage than going on a pot-holing weekend!
One site of cave paintings in France is in a series of `roomed’ caves, each of which definitely seems to depict a particular stage in gynaecological activity. Is it too fanciful to think that this could have been some kind of school for midwives? It must have served, at the very least, to initiate young women into the mysteries of the feminine biology.
Going one step beyond such cultural practices was to recreate ritual cave cultural sites in human made environments and we see this with the development of enormous stone monuments. Malta was the home of a civilisation from 4,500 to 2,500 BCE that poured out stunning monumental buildings, its culture replete with female iconography. Indeed, this imagery is almost the hallmark of life in this period. Symbolic expressions of the uterus, vagina, pubic triangle and even the bird egg shape appear time and time again. Even egg shaped graves from 7,000 years ago have been found in an old cemetery in Slovakia. A barrow from 2,000 years afterwards found in Gloucestershire is laid out like a giant woman, with walls equal to her spread legs, a vulva-like opening and a mound where a pregnant belly would be. Something similar may be found in Tipperary and Sligo. Monuments such as our own Stonehenge, it is now realised, were not notions imported from the east but developed from an earlier tradition right across Europe of utilising caves and splintered rock formations in a ritualistic way.
Throughout Europe in fact, towards the later Neolithic and early Bronze Age, ritual landscapes play a role in processional activity, which increasingly involves theatrical skills. Often, a view of the landscape as the monument is hidden from view until a final moment. The alignment of passages or openings in monuments to reveal sunlight or starlight at particular moments in the year becomes more frequent. The science of measurement appears, as does the conscious use of acoustic techniques in Neolithic chambered tombs. These were brightly painted and scented and ceremonies were marked by rhythmic music, which often created sensory perceptions. (Some slim evidence exists that percussion instruments were being made for musical purposes in the Middle, certainly by the Upper Palaeolithic or 20,000 BP.) The use by shamans of hallucinogenic drugs, such as magic mushrooms, enhanced their `interpretatitive’ roles. The frequent appearance of symbols, such as zigzags and spirals, that may mark the use of psychoactive agencies by virtue of the images thus induced, are commonly found. Another, not necessarily exclusive interpretation has zigzags and wavy lines as possibly representing water, obviously a key feature of life.
Stylised imagery was a dominant feature of Stone Age culture especially that recalling the female body, ovals and triangles for example. Other enormously old symbols often appearing are lines and dots, perhaps standing for males. But many of these enigmatic markings, especially later one, defy interpretation or `translation’. There are obviously only so many variations on the ingenuity of humans in producing symbols, so to what degree the frequent similarity implies cultural interface, or simply the expression of an obvious idea is open to question. The later appearance of `letter’ like signs and marks in caves, that bear an astonishing resemblance to each other, raise serious issues about the onset of literacy and what we mean by that are to be found in places at enormous distance from each other, in the Indus Valley, the Sumerian, Minoan, Phoenician, Etruscan and early Chinese cultures. Were these artificial mnemonics, or memory devices?
That early human society had detailed knowledge of astronomy is increasingly being accepted as evidence puts the matter further and further back in time and place. A bone has been found with artificially etched group of seven plus fourteen plus seven radiating lines, possibly marked by a Homo erectus. It is clearly a counter of some sort. Now this is a creature that is capable of arranging an organised community, complete with special working areas, a segregated hearth and living space. The inevitable debate about to what degree hominids were capable of abstract thinking and communication produces the usual range of conservatives and radicals, modernisers and traditionalists. It cannot be proved that knowing the week before and the week at the end of a monthly lunar cycle was at the heart of the inscriptions on this bone but it does not seem such an outrageous inference. Of course, it could be that this was just a tally: it’s your turn to take seven; my turn to take two lots of seven…and so on. But, think about it!
The regularity with which ancient markings appear with some connection to the monthly lunar cycle cannot be mere co-incidence; at least as far a sapiens is concerned. A 35,000 year old bone and wood artefact, found in South Africa, has 29 markings upon it; whilst a 20,000 year old animal tooth found in Australia contains 28 separate markings and an engraved bone found in the Congo, from 8,500 years ago, provides evidence of lunar notations. This sort of thing is, in a sense, early mathematics.
But, if it is possible to count the phases of moon, why not count other things? An engraved antler, 14,000 years old and found in western France, is the accepted earliest evidence for a tally stick from the Neolithic and this, too, is widely believed to record astronomic data. Whilst similar cultural expressions from peoples living in what is now Siberia and Hungary from 24,000 and 34,000 years ago indicate a knowledge of great numbers and lunar calendars, aided by mnemonic devices. Is it the case, perhaps, that lunar-based cultures were rooted in hunter gathering and that the `religions’ of the times changed to become more solar based, as the turn to agriculture occurred? The Taï plaques, found in France and dating from 11,000 BP, are made from rib bones and are the earliest examples of a combined lunar and solar calendar.
The idea of such sophisticated knowledge being possessed by `primitive’ cultures has been difficult for some historians to grasp. Yet, if these were fully modern humans, at least half of them – the women – would readily grasp the vale of a lunar, or monthly, cycle calculator! Unfortunately, it has been men – sadly often those with little grasp of the real world – who have been responsible for much of the past assessments of ancient history! No doubt, women made much of the seeming co-incidence of the menstrual cycle, in an age without streetlights and sanitary pads. Predicting the arrival of the full moon – an invaluable aid to a hunter – is but a mere next step from observing the cycle. When you take the step of recording more than one thing, it is not a great leap to make a mark designating what it is you are recording. We should call that `writing’ but our own cultural history prizes the classical Greek and retails their prejudice against peoples stuck in earlier techniques.
Indeed, the democracy of primitive communism may have relied heavily upon knowledge of the calendar. For a large nation could have been divided into four tribes (seasons), twelve clans (months) and thirty families (days). A smaller nation could utilise the same method but having less major divisions. The purpose of the exercise would be to ensure that it was the turn of each group to exercise leadership as the lunar calendar progressed.
It is now abundantly clear that even the earliest humans knew some astronomy. The position of the sun and moon are obvious first steps in knowledge. Certainly, the siting and positioning of graves, with regard to the primary positions of the compass, dating from the Middle Palaeolithic is enough evidence alone. But there is circumstantial yet convincing evidence of such knowledge from an even earlier date and why would there not be? Would Home Sapiens not gain knowledge of the natural world from the earliest times? The Australian aborigines are supposed to have been cut off from the rest of humanity for at least 40,000 years. Like the Native Americans or the Native Siberians, they know the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, constellation, by the same name. Surely something that could only have dated from some time long before, or again, some extraordinary insight in common. (We shall see how collectives of women of such a number formed the first kinds of group marriages.) Either way suggests some profundity.
But such a development only came after thousands of years of development of new technologies. Although we will never know for sure, since fibres simply do not normally survive to become archaeological deposits, the baby sling is likely to have been perhaps the earliest human invention. Since humans no longer had the fur that our nearest relations still possessed, our babies had nothing to hang on to. It is but just a short step from the sling to employing fibrous or skin technology to make containers. We have the discovery of fired clay with basketry impressions on from 26,000 BP to tell us that the earliest experiments on the way to pottery were in `filling the holes’ in string bags! Next came ceramic artefacts such as models of animals, always cited as `ritual’ objects (!); pots would be next. The earliest current accepted origin for pottery is now not the near east but west Asia, along the Amur River in Siberia, whilst the Japanese follow close behind, from 12,700 years ago. China lags behind in beginning to follow the practice `only’ in 9,000 BP. What is clear is that these are separate developments. It was simply an idea whose time had come.
The origin of writing is a subject clouded with controversy, with standard minded historians fighting hard to defend the near east as the site of its origin and a particular script as the very first. But they have got even that wrong, let alone can it be said for certain that only one culture began the practice and all others learned by assimilation. It is now virtually certain that the writing of Mesopotamia has it origins in an even earlier practice of utilising clay tokens, shaped in geometric patterns, to stand for varying items of value, so many head of sheep or goats, etc. As quantities became very large, they would be parcelled up for convenience into a clay packet and symbols would be marked on the outside to denote the contents. In time, the `priests’ responsible for the accounting realised that they only needed to put the same marking on a tablet and discount the tokens. Writing had been invented.
But it was no noble pursuit but simply the by-product of a system of activity associated with a surplus re-distributionist economy. Evidence from this time of the phenomenal adornment of some bodies found in graves has been supposed to be suggestive of hierarchy. Given the sheer amount of time it would have taken to simply make thousands of beads, it is reckoned that not everyone would have received such treatment. But this supposition has the danger of our understanding of what constitutes a hierarchy imposed upon ancient values. Status need not have meant personal wealth; hierarchy did not necessarily mean class. Instead of thinking of princes and peers, why not a supremely talented person, talented in matters that would hold little value in our commodified society? A special knowledge of the heavens, or flair for interpreting auguries may have been enough to justify a very special send off. Age and gender specification is sometimes seen as evidence of hierarchy but, until significant property surpluses arose and men (that is to say males not humans) pioneered a new conception of inheritance, our understanding of what hierarchy meant in ancient times cannot match our own cultural meaning. Indeed hierarchy seems a very masculine notion and perfectly matches patriarchal notions. Before then, one is tempted to speculate that women `let’ the men think they were running things!
But before an economic hierarchy can develop, there needs to be surplus. From around 8,000 or 6,000 BCE, still in the Neolithic era, so great were the actual surpluses that the practice of pooling resources communally – presumably form many different villages – by actually bringing them to a central location must have been transformed into figurative act by employing tokens and swapping them. This mechanism will have become traditionalised and no doubt, some form of priestly elite, acting as honest broker and `accountant’, will have sought a share for their needs. This evolved into making gifts to `the gods’. In time, this turned into a virtual and eventual tax to the burgeoning city-state, with priestly kings as its bureaucracy.
Put this way, by taking the abstraction out of the process, it is clear that writing is not so grand a mark of `civilisation’ after all. It’s no more than a mnemonic system that might seem like random markings if we were not aware of the key to decipher them. Indeed! Possible writing, certainly symbols of meaning, has been seen in the 7,000 year old Tartaria tablets from Transylvania, and in 5,500 year old disc shaped seals from Bulgaria. Perhaps there were earlier attempts and we have simply not found them, or the attempts were half-hearted and simply not necessary in the economic systems that prevailed. Writing of letters and numbers seems to have less to do with putting down the wise words of the gods that with ensuring a fair and accurate tally of food surpluses.
In Britain, by the Upper Palaeolithic (13,000 to 10,000 BCE), human societies were organising in small groups but these were connected and well informed about each other over extraordinarily long distances. The early British were more hunters than gatherers, since the climate did not support plant growth enough to supply enough to stay alive. The dominant mode of `production’ was communal drive hunts of migrating animals, events that were marked by social occasions conditioned by ritual, or to demystify the term, the studied observance of custom and habit. Communal `production’ of large animals was more productive if hunted by stealth, rather than the earlier mode whereby large number of hunters collaborated on the drive stampede system, forcing herds over cliff edges, places which became sites of special note – or `worship’ – as they became redundant.
Specialist and skilled hunters aimed for the heart, with increasingly more effective technology, moving from the hand-thrown spear to the sling thrown spear to the bow and arrow. Antlers of deer became to be used in shaman-led dances, as well as more practically in stalking disguises. This period of development in the British Isles led to a rapid growth in population, from only a thousand or so around 9,000 BCE to five thousand in 7000 BCE. It also saw the rise of ever more complex ritual behaviour and prolonged processes in funerary cultures, which appear from 5,000 BCE.
As already observed, the truth is that ritual is a very human response to life. Even in modern society, our culture is marked by ritual, practices often incomprehensible to the uninitiated. Each social grouping has a specific way to behave, whether arising from football, pop or drinking cultures. Religion, as we know it, only goes part of the way to explaining the nature of pre-historic humans, since their notions of spirituality were enmeshed with life itself. Ideology developed as society did so. In the hunting period, the authority of the elders was extended into ancestor worship. Only later, as kings emerge is the notion of a god in the king’s image developed.
The art of the hunter gathering age was necessarily more portable than was so in later stages. The pattern of seasonal movement only really began to slow down in Britain after 3,000 BCE. As it became unnecessary to follow the herd, hunting shelters became more fixed abodes. Early postglacial people made homes by bending birch saplings and covering them with hides. Other techniques, such as shore fishing and shell collecting remained from the earliest times and also encouraged sedentary occupation. The north sea coast is marked by many remaining Mesolithic hillocks marking out stretches of beach used by particular bands, which left behind huge shell midden mounds, themselves mistaken in times past for religious `offerings’, when the reality is more complex. For pre-historical peoples, society co-existed with nature in a qualitatively different way from us; attitudes to the animal world and to the landscape itself were very different from ours.
A very clear and repeated ritual practice involves water, which held special significance, perhaps arising from its obvious elemental role and fundamental importance to the growth of all life – especially crops. Water is seen as a symbol, separating this life from that of the ancestors. A long tradition of making offerings at track ways and across watery landscapes is known. The enormous array of artefacts found in waterways is now generally agreed to be `offerings’, rather than lost goods. Now, you can say that primitive peoples would make sacrificial offerings to the gods to prevent bad things happening to them if you want. Or you can imagine that homage to important things and places helped people feel at one with their surroundings.
Does suburban man not put the proverbial garden gnome out for himself as much for the neighbours? Are there not many layered messages in the act? I’m a good sport…this is my territory…and I can be as silly as I want to…I don’t care how naff it is, I’m just a child at heart…and no doubt many other possibilities. Perhaps there will be the odd person that thinks of God, there are after all ornaments that celebrate the role of the garden as a function of the Creator. Non-functional human intervention into nature and the landscape is best understood in the same manner as the strange things that the British do with their gardens but for one factor. The impulses are conducted today entirely within a private space, save for the presentation front garden, whereas prehistoric peoples could only think in terms of the collective.
Evidence for a big change in the way agriculture was performed hints at something almost akin to a `revolution’, albeit very gradual in adoption. (In contrast, British peoples took to metal working quite quickly.) It is now accepted that there is no archaeological evidence of incomers in the Neolithic period in the sense of invaders or intruders but there was a time when historians could not conceive of a new advance without putting it down to invaders of superior cultures. The discovery in archaeological layers of a sudden spurt in use of new container or implement technology reveals new cultures. These developments may all be viewed quite simply in Marxist analysis as a classic case of productive forces surging ahead of productive relations.
Flint knapping was frequently carried at the source site for its own sake, as part of an occasion. Whilst the skill required to make stone tools was not easily acquired, there does not seem to have been much of a social division of labour. Nor was there any element of private ownership of the flint resource. Our distinction between work and play, private thoughts and public ritual as expressions of religion, or ideology, would be a meaningless notion to these peoples. The location of hand axe finds far from their mining source suggests `trade’, yet this was no market economy. Items are found where they were specially appreciated. Indeed, the very conception of value was completely different.
Contemporary mainstream ideology seeks to understand our prehistory by commodifying our conception of the hallmarks of our ancestor’s main cultural and economic activity. High and remote special places in the minds of people of the past had different a different resonance. The discovery of gold weaponry or other grave goods, or the very barrows that they are found in, are translated into our own conceptions, as when it is always assumed that they belong to `kings’.
We have no need to fix upon our forebears of this epoch our own conception of leadership, or the notion of high politics. It was simply not like that. Many of the funeral practices that seem to us to suggest the honouring of important individuals were just that, it is simply that our relative conception of importance has become skewed by the differences between our economic and political systems. The cultural significance of the send off given to modern day celebrities is perhaps of equal or even greater import than that provided to monarchs a century or two ago, unless you are Princess Diana, when you get the relative measure of both! Tribal bands assigned great rank and status to long-lived grandparents, whole tribes will have revered the role of individual council members of special note. But there is no question that it was not until much later in the pre-historic era that small groups of high-ranking individuals appeared and were honoured as such.
The relative `value’ assigned to manufactured goods between our society and the pre-historic world is also a source of misconception. Many polished axes, exclusively made for use in Neolithic ceremonials, would have shattered if used. Clearly, the items had a strong value for the people that made and admired them. An enormous expenditure of effort was devoted to hand axe creation. Most flint mines in the earlier Neolithic (4,200 to 3,000 BCE) in southern England were real mines with supporting pillars. The period in which these artefacts were made saw a rapid rise in population, which can only be associated with increasingly effective food production techniques. A widespread network of field boundaries developed and clearly a great deal of `civic engineering’ took place, much of it associated with digging earth or moving giant stones. For example, barrows, or large earth mounds surrounded by a big ditch and the better-known projects from the period, such as Avebury and Stonehenge.
Undoubtedly, if constructed today, somewhere like Stonehenge would certainly be a very costly project, was this so when it was first conceived? This is, of course, the most obvious and glorious of a massive range of monuments in the landscape made by ancient peoples in our islands. Misunderstanding their purpose and the motivation to construct them is common; for it is usually the case that contemporary logic is applied. In fact: “The mistake is to apply modern market economics to history and prehistory.” [Pryor p162] Extrapolating to the present day, with or without machines, the sheer manpower and effort required in the creation of such monuments cannot be taken as any kind of indicator of the level of development. For the whole point about them is as much the collective effort amongst large extended families, or clans, to create them as their existence itself, perhaps more so. In modern times, we bemoan the fact that we only meet relatives from beyond our immediate nuclear families at weddings and funerals. In prehistory, such social interchange was the means by which society was held together, just as today perhaps the process of work achieves the same thing.
Stonehenge would have originally been a vision of loveliness not a brooding weathered grey ruin. It was a composite of blue and skin-pink, perhaps in some way symbolic of humanity’s place in the universe. The basic material was fashioned from boulders of the incredibly hard sarsen rock, which was only able to be cut by an even harder form of sarsen. The sparkling blue stone is spotted dolorite, its source long known to be from the Preseli Hills in South Wales, perhaps the site of an original and earlier monument devoted to the ceremonial activities of a people who had moved to dominate a new fertile territory. The production of the stone was at the supreme edge of stone making technology, which in fact was used in making corn grinding tools and was often associated with women’s work.
It is evident that some kind of communal activity was marked on the site of Stonehenge from 10,000 years ago. Whilst, from the obvious beginning of stone monumentalism to the cessation of such building, it may be said that it took 1,100 years to `complete’ the monument. But this may be a complete misnomer, since it suggests an end product was always certainly in mind. This may or may not have been so, but surely misses the point that the erection of each new stone was an end in itself, the product of an engaged community in a shared sense of what was not just accepted behaviour but the focus of communal endeavour in a given year or even generation.
Whilst not an astronomical observatory as such, the monument is clearly linked to the movements of the moon and sun, it displays the rising sun in midsummer in such a way that it is framed by the surrounding hills and stones to project powerful light across the site. More importantly, perhaps, the processional route towards the monument faces the midwinter sunset on a symbolic moment. Looking ahead to the coming winter and possible food shortages for some, what better moment to hold a communal sharing out of resources?
If Stonehenge was pretty certainly not a giant computer it did play a role in the observation of astronomical phenomena and periodic events in our solar system with effects observable on Earth. In particular, the summer and winter solstices and the full moon, with its very special illusion were central to the Stonehenge experience. This phenomena of the winter moon, today, is only well known now to experts, enthusiasts and ruralists – oh, and some filmmakers! For those who have never properly seen it, this can be quite a startling experience and a clever `magician’ could easily weave it into an act designed to `show’ how he has brought the moon closer to us on command. The illusion is based on a simple fact that, when the full moon is low down in our view of the sky, it appears to be much larger than when it is high in the sky.
We know that ancient peoples were aware of this phenomena, amongst others, Ptolemy has described it and he was surely only one in a long line of people who could see the effect for themselves in a world untainted by modern urban light pollution. It is quite easy to see that the size of the moon does not change with its position in the sky. All you have to do is to hold some small measuring device, a small pebble will do, but if you wanted to be really accurate about it, you might make a grid of regularly spaced marks on anything to hand, a flat piece of wood, or a stone, perhaps – and recall that so many of such artefacts have been found and so many `experts’ have discounted their `astronomical’ role. You could then remember how many spaces wide on your grid the moon seemed to be at different points in the year. Holding your measuring standard up to the moon you could prove to all who would participate in your experiment that the moon is no bigger or smaller at any point in the year.
Yet is certainly does look to be stunningly bigger at some points in the year and presumably even those ancient people who had it demonstrated to them by some shaman would express doubt. It might prove tempting to hold the power to your own conscience and show just how clever you are in the grandest and oldest `parlour’ game of all, against the canvas of a Stone Age landscape. Using the surrounding hills as a framing device would be a good starting point, but a forward thinking shaman might plan ahead and have giant stones placed to provide maximum effect next time the phenomena arose. In this way, a hereditary priestly elite, refining and passing on their knowledge from one generation to the next, might be able to demonstrate in the most spectacular way possible their power to call the moon to the ground to just touch a special stone placed in the right position in homage.
But how does it work? When the moon is low, generally, we see it framed by filled space: hills on the horizon, trees, man made structures and the like and compared to these things that we know the rough size of the moon seems bigger than when it is merely seemingly just suspended in the night’s sky with only tiny pinpoints of light around it. Then, there’s nothing much to compare it with and our brain, in trying to make sense of how big this thing is, forces us to resolve the dilemma by making us see it bigger than we normally do. It’s an optical illusion, reality and our unconscious brain senses playing with each other. It is similar to looking at a set of rail tracks disappearing into the distance, any converging lines will appear wider the closer they are to the person looking at them.
Presumably, the effect would be more spectacular from particular vantage points in the landscape, those that possessed suitable comparison framing points. People would begin to get to know about these over the generations, in time they would be seen as special sites. The effect can be observed with any full moon, that is to say every month. But, when the full moon coincides with the summer solstice, the sight is especially awesome, with it seeming as if the swollen moon, perhaps a hundred times bigger than it normally is, has just skimmed the earth. If the weather is favourable, the sun may tinge the moon to a virtually blood red colour, reddish orange at the very least. Even astronomers, who are thoroughly familiar with the illusion, report that they find the sight spooky in the extreme. Now, this only happens when the moon being at a particular point in an 18.6-year cycle of `tilted’ orbits boosts the usual illusion.
On the ground, with no knowledge of any of this, ancient people merely knew that the moon, with its odd connection with the monthly mystery of menstruation, grew enormously every 19 years or so. So, for them, roughly the last time this happened those young people in the community, their own sons and daughters included, had been or were about to be born. This must have been seen as a good time to initiate a whole generation, or a roughly similar aged group of young people into adulthood? It’s easy to know when to look out for it, since it will be the night when the midday sun will have been as high as it can ever get. The sun and the moon are now exactly opposite each other in the heavens, the sun being at its highest and the moon at its lowest, the time when it looks gigantic. This tells us that we are at the height of summer, from here on, gradually, it’s all the way downhill to winter until the seasons turn once again.
So, on some days, once every 19 years, the full moon rises south enough to mark a position on the surrounding `station stones’, which are probably amongst the earliest of stones. Perhaps Stonehenge provides for composite needs. Is the sun symbolic of the male, the moon of the female? Are these symbols of gender-based initiation societies? Is this a mark of a new generational shift? If it is the case that, broadly, two new stones were laid, one each for every new generation of young males and one for the young females, every two decades, perhaps at midwinter, then what we see today could easily have been built in 1,200 years.
One notion is that the ancestors were represented by stone and the living by wood. Moreover, that the nearby River Avon was viewed in much the same way as, say the Ganges is today – a place to despatch the dead or their ashes at least. For the bodies of millions of people from this period are missing, where are they if not mingled with the waters of the Avon? In such a scenario, people would have come from far and wide, perhaps only visiting once a year, or even just a few times in their life. Perhaps such pilgrimages only came at moments of birth, adulthood and death? The symbol of the henge and its ceremonies would have underlined the social economic system far from its immediate environs. It demise may perversely tell us more about its use than its remains do. The real question may well be: why was it no longer needed?
Even so, what was it for? To be flippant, but not totally inexact, Stonehenge is an outstanding example of a monument that was host to a combination of the Changing of the Guard, the Church of England, the BBC, the Coronation, the London Eye, Live Aid, the World Cup, the Muslim Hajj and your local village fete. It was also perhaps the Inland Revenue of its day and one does not have to be an economic determinist to appreciate that its role in extracting surplus from the productive population was a powerful motive in its constant expansion. Indeed, this structural development is testament to such a function. A culture that may have migrated from South Wales brought its earlier ceremonial customs with them to the location of a new site for major agricultural exploitation of natural resources. In the course of potent economic development, massive surpluses enabled a celebration of this. Perhaps in the fallow times after harvest and in preparation for the winter a massive share out was subject for ceremony; an elite would have no difficulty in finding a role for itself in the process.
But, certainly, whilst the southwest was home to a vastly productive agronomy, elsewhere in Britain this was not the case. The old ways persisted for a very long time and elite driven societies did not mostly emerge for a very long time to come. The most outstanding evidence of prehistory’s focus on clan are those monuments dating from 3,800 BCE; the causewayed enclosures all over Europe, each of which are often very different from one another, a feature that implies local cultural significance. They used to be thought of as being earlier versions of the later Iron Age hill forts but most are not in defensive positions in the landscape. Only in 1965 was it first suggested that another interpretation was possible. Connecting sciences of geography and biology to archaeology with a smattering of anthropology, much in the way of Engels, has enabled experts to truly understand the barrow. Essentially, originally a string of sausage-like ditches, separated by the length of a man, and dug by each clan’s own work gang, a barrow is less a mound of earth and more an event!
Their origin lies in the special gatherings held at traditional meeting places on a specific day in the year that were the highlight of peoples’ lives then. The festival would be a combination of all social interchange that would have been needed, after people had been scattered by the new agricultural revolution across large territories. A range of `ritual’ events may have taken place, if not all at the same time then at different special days throughout the year. There would have been matchmaking, initiation of young men and women from childhood to young adulthood, there would have been displays of new craft workings, the exchange of seed corn and animal stock. It is useful to understand that, whilst we can still see the element of initiation in what are sometimes referred to as `rites of passage’ event sand cultural expressions, this is effect is diffused through the prism of complexity that marks our society. Initiation into adulthood in older cultures was akin to a second birth, such phases of life and death, were seen a part of a continual cycle of birth and rebirth. In many cultures around the world and across time, initiation of males takes the form whereby a boy faces and ordeal away from the community, so as to return a man.
It is not known what specific initiation rites were practiced amongst early British peoples but, certainly, various forms of body mutilation were practiced by from the earliest times as initiation rites. The best known of these remain in the form of genital mutilation. In the earliest phases of society, in many cultures, initiation was followed by sexual intercourse, even communal mating. Spring and summer festivals a form of marriage. When intercourse was relatively collective, paternity was of little consequence. Ritual bodily mutilation, even if it is only the removal of something of the person, a little finger, a tooth or even just a lock of hair appears to be a common feature of initiation rites. The burial or consumption of these parts by fire seems to point to a parallel with death. Indeed it is death of a sort, death of the child. Purification, in water of blood, is another common feature of such customs, marking initiation into the clan.
One intriguing and ancient practice of Native Australians, that may explain the continuation of the later developed custom of circumcision in many cultures, is the deliberate bleeding of the penis in coming of age rites. (Circumcision was always originally carried out at the onset of puberty not soon after birth.) It turns out that this was a desperate attempt to recall menstruation, in the hope of acquiring desirable female skills and the refresh the body in the way the nature supposedly assists women! Such supposedly therapeutic blood letting certainly also occurred amongst native peoples of Oceania and South America. It is of course, as earlier noted, now known that all manner of surgical procedures of a wide range were performed not only in undeveloped cultures that still existed in the modern era but also in the Stone Age of the past.
Community gatherings were above all a time for an extended family to place mementos of recently departed relatives before all, making the ditch of each clan a place to note, comparing each of the clan’s efforts. The clan ditches made up a great circle, where a central enclosure was divided into special places of meaning, sectors representing life and death, personal and communal matters. The filling in of a clan’s ditch was a matter of some importance. All manner of items would be buried, perhaps even the leftovers from a great feast. But this was not seen as rubbish, but as `offerings’ in that the common sense of the day suggested that one had always to return something to the earth if you took something from it. Today’s commodification of things taken from the earth has rendered such a conception as lacking in common sense. The barrow was seen as a site of a memorable event, its very prominence in the landscape a way to fix it in the years to come – a memorial in fact for all to see; a communal monument to `us’. Not, as later peoples would think, to a deity or to a powerful ruler, for such notions go hand in hand with much later economic and social development. In itself, an understanding of this brings enormously profound insights into ancient society.
This is not to say that there was no element of ritual involving the supernatural, on the contrary. Ritual concerning death and resurrection is deeply woven into the culture of ever historic society. The practice of burying the dead is deeply ancient, Neanderthals employed it and so too did Sapiens, both species made `offerings’ to the dead. A pig bone found in a human grave dug some 100,000 years is evidence of ritual burial implying that a high degree of self-awareness had certainly led to a sense of mortality. It has been suggested that the practice of laying down flowers may be more to do with the knowledge of the medicinal value of plants than to aesthetics but who is to say that an appreciation of both was not at play? There is evidence that some Neanderthals de-fleshed corpses before burying them, especially children, a practice followed by some Sapiens and continued for a long time before full burial or cremation. There was certainly a bias amongst Neanderthals more towards the burial of youth than adults. Is there here a hint of the knowledge that sometimes young things, replanted, gave up life once again, as with the green shoots of plants; perhaps there is here an association of the bones of humans with the seeds of plants. Is it not more likely that this was comfortably symbolic rather than an actual belief? Comparable to the vague hope of resurrection after death that is still common in our society, a true affirmation of the triumph of hope over experience!
How to treat the bones of loved ones and even ancestors, when you are a participant in a nomadic economy? Well, take them with you of course. The systematic defleshing of corpses, either by exposing them to birds, or by more active agency, using fire or tools, resulting in skeletal remains, enabled this. Defleshing represented the departure of the person and, in even earlier times, perhaps partaking of the flesh, as a means of renewing the life of the deceased was not unknown, a practice that lingered in some societies around the world, especially when protein was sometimes a scarce food source. Bones themselves were not seen, as in the early Christian notion of being a requirement for Judgement Day, as a vital part of the person and may have been thought of more in the form of a memento. The sorting and reordering of bones was a common practice.
The development of communal funeral rites and burial of bones in a special place was the common sense response to such a life style, no doubt with associated ideological, or religious, justifications in the form of stories and songs and other cultural expressions. With a more sedentary style of life, associated with communal farming activity, the barrow enables the continuation of communal grieving. Barrows were a way to achieve this, with their completing mounds seen as a symbolic sealing off of a long-standing monument. But, well known as they are, these were not the only monuments.
Our understanding of ritual landscapes in Britain has leapt forward in knowledge arising from the use of aerial photography. The `cursus’ is a kind of monument specific to the British Isles, which has been identified only in recent years in abundance. Possibly several hundred are known, each different, with many being located in Scotland. They are best seen as a kind of performance art, placing man in the centre of the landscape. Physically, a cursus is a series of spectacular and enormous parallel slashes cut into flat grassland, displaying pale rocks beneath.
The dead played a role in peoples’ lives in a way we would not comprehend. In the earliest periods of settled Sapiens, the practice of burying relatives actually in the home or right next to it was normal. But, of course, homes tended to be a place to return to. Only in settled communities in Asia Minor 10,000 years ago was domestic burial a feature. Communal burial mounds, found all over the world, are evidently a mark of the wandering tribe. There is no issue of morbity here, for often our only evidence of the past lies in the treatment of the dead and such treatments, then and now, reflect the nature of the society we live in.
With increasing surpluses came competition for power and resources, paradoxically so maybe. Even into modern times, some traditionally focused societies still employ communal burial customs. But, in Britain, after 3,500 BCE, individual burial or cremation became much more common as the assertion of property rights becomes an issue. With individual, as distinct from communal burial, the dead keep their personality; individual cremation seals the process even more certainly.
Celebrating the arrival of the summer and departure of the winter solstice was certainly a matter of importance in so far as the application of survival techniques was concerned. The arrival of light or dark was a vital regard for societies that possessed only limited recourse to artificial light. Stonehenge, begun 12,000 years ago, was certainly a `counting device’ of some kind and probably related to these considerations in some way. But, in many ways, what is for Britons the best-known expression of the Stone Age is better understood as a landscape theatre, a setting for a ceremonial route from river Avon to bring the deceased. Like many monuments it testified to the power of the priests to predict seasonal; and astronomical events. It was ancient before it took its current form. Subsequent to the building of the present Stonehenge, an elite social structure arose in early Bronze Age and spread from Wessex. No doubt, homage in the form of contribution of grain and other products were a part of the ritual and mark the beginnings of a commodified economy.
This period of the last incarnation of Stonehenge marks the certain beginnings of class society in the British Isles but the economic system that gave rise to it was not widespread across the Isles by any means. As farming gave rise to massive surpluses and a sedentary life style began to fix, the need for massive monumental activity to gather the tribe for economic and cultural interchange became less relevant. Landscape ritual behaviour no longer made sense. Much more needed were defensive fortifications to protect the wealth of these societies from other tribes still adhering to a mix of hunter gathering and farming. There was no significant outsider intrusion merely a clash of economic systems. Nor was there a loss of techniques per se, it was merely no longer relevant to engage in such communal construction.
By 2000 BCE, the population of the British Isles had grown massively, especially in those areas of intensive agronomy. This was both a cause and an effect of rising productivity of foodstuffs and technological advances. Five hundred years earlier, the employment of metalworking had begun. The intensely `ritual’ character of this skill has been often commented upon and it is important to contextualise this. Certainly, the seemingly magical (scientific?) process whereby stone was turned into malleable and hard material lent itself to ritualisation. The intensely physical activity made it a peculiarly male affair and the practice was at this stage carried out necessarily removed from habitation. But the skill was freely exercised on behalf of the group.
As elsewhere, technological developments, both in materials and agriculture, were central to key social changes in the culture, economics and politics of ancient Britain. Up to only a few centuries before Roman rule, there are no signs of any controlling elite in the lay out of excavated settlements. No large houses, no special sites, no evidence at all for an all-powerful elite has been found for all of the bronze Age and most of the Iron Age in Britain. At no point from the early Bronze Age, around 2150 BCE, to the late Bronze Age, from 750 BCE, can it be said that Britain saw commercial exploitation of copper as we would understand it; rather this was a side activity of communities of farmers, digging in the surface during the quiet times of the agricultural year. There was a lot of this material around, the Great Orme mines of Llandudno yielded staggering levels of ore over the period, up to 238 tons. [Pryor p274]
It is now reckoned, after years of controversy over the matter, by serious archaeologists that most men at the time possessed a bronze sword and spear. Yet there are no Bronze Age battlefield cemeteries, in Britain and Ireland at least. Overall, enormous hoards of bronze tools have been found in the ground, possibly thousands of swords, axes, knives and other objects. Many of these were subject to deliberate destruction, not to keep the market value of the items high – because there was no `market’ as such. This was a society bereft of the notion of `commodity’; certainly tools had a use value but, since there was a relative abundance of the ore, no especial cache for rarity.
A clue to the cultural attitude of the time are the discoveries in Britain – so far unique finds in northern Europe – of early Bronze Age plank-built boats, interred for posterity when they were still perfectly usable. It is postulated that they survived for us to find only because they were ritually `killed’ and returned to the earth when there was still `life’ in them. So too, were perfectly good bronze tools and weapons and it seems that there were good points in the landscape to do this. Such ritually disposed of metal work has been found in abundance in and by the River Thames, always in specific places.
Iron Age Britain possessed fairly definable regionalised economies. In a way, this regionalisation underlined the markedly uneven economic development, similar to that which applied globally for much of the 20th century in one set of islands. In Scotland and the north west of England, the economy was based on self-sufficiency, although a surplus of production applied this seems to have been in the main bartered away. In central and southern England, possibly eastern England also, a redistributionist economy prevailed, that is to say, a community culture operated some form of collective rationing of surpluses. In the south west of England, the territory dominated by Stonehenge, a `client’ economy existed, whereby defined status distinctions were markedly applied and the distribution of surplus was elite-driven.
At 150 BCE, these regional economies, each with highly distinctive and separate dialects, could be said to have defined even the geo-political nature of communities. In the redistributionist south east and centre of England, open undefended settlements dominated. The East Midlands and east Anglia was also like this. The elite dominated south west England was characterised by small, defended communities, linked by some cultural, economic and ideological ties, with hill forts throughout. Such elites began in a small way from as early as the 8th century BCE but, even here, a strong attachment to egalitarianism is discernable to at least the 5th century and possibly later.
Nonetheless, a `clientage’ economy, based on livestock ownership, with some sites revealing higher status has been generally proposed. What used to be thought of as fortification sites are now seen as livestock farmsteads, with funnel like earthworks formations more likely to be for cattle handling than for defence. Even the Iron Age hill top enclosures of the south western zone of Britain, including Wales, could have been places where local communities gathered in times of importance, much as they had done in with the earlier ditched causeway enclosures.
Initially, iron working was viewed as part of the process of agriculture, in the gathering of ore nodules from the fields. There is a very strong sense of a cultural attitude that iron smelting should be equated with fertility. Big social changes in Britain only come from the Middle Iron Age, from 500 BCE, when a distinct trend to hierarchical systems can be discerned. Warrior leaders, both male and female, increase in importance and the temptation is to assume that possession of iron weapons was associated with a more effective military potential. Only with the end of the Iron Age do we see a move to warlords producing their own coinage and `kingdoms’ begin to emerge.
There is a limited evidence for some minimal form of invasion in Yorkshire but this could have been in the form of a slowly emerging warrior elite that could have come from the mainland continent of Europe or even simply borrowed ideas from there. An unusual `square’ barrow culture emerged that buried warriors complete with chariots. Such cults were but one form of `occupational’ specialisation. Indeed, the Iron Age was a period that saw the widespread development of specialised trades and warriordom was but one of them borne out of a new need to protect surpluses.
Hill forts were not merely built to impress but the image of strength was all-important. The presence of masses of deep storage grain pits speaks volumes for the nature of society at this time. Centres of population supporting three to four hundred people reveal a growing population able to generate significant agricultural surpluses. This created a socially fluid situation, where competition for resources stimulated conflict. Military elites with an evident talent for warfare may well have not imposed themselves on communities but have been invited to come in as protectors. Warfare was still by no means total, battle sites even from the late 6th to 5th centuries BCE are more redolent of skirmishes than anything else and there are no significant associated mass cemeteries.
It took the Romans to show Britons how warfare could be `industrialised’! Nor was life in pre-Roman Britain as awful as the Romans would have us believe, it was simply different. Roundhouses in the British Iron Age could extend up to 80 foot across and were the largest single span (that is without a central support pillar) structures in the ancient world. The domestic life of a Briton was not so bad and matched their economic system. Communal production went hand in hand with communal domesticity. The benefits of Roman central heating are somewhat over-exaggerated compared to the efficiency of the actual communal warmth of the veritable crowd that inhabited a round house. Whilst the joys of Roman baths were not actually as much needed by a people wearing self-ventilating wool clothes and the sensitive scents of bath oils are made redundant by wood smoke filled rooms. The extraordinary sense of community generated by a lifetime of living cheek by jowl with forty odd other people was a privilege quite lost on the Romans!
But there were many in the emerging elites of Britain who thought well of the Roman system, once they had seen the possibilities, and considerable social change was already underway even before the invasion. As Engels put it, In a “society based on ties of sex, the productivity of labour develops more and more; with it, private property and exchange, differences in wealth, the possibility of utilizing the labour power of others, and thereby the basis of class antagonisms: new social elements, which strive in the course of generations to adapt the old structure of society to the new conditions, until, finally the incompatibility of the two leads to a complete revolution.” [F Engels `Origins’ p7]
The use of money in the British Isles only emerged in the few hundred years before the Roman period, coming after the certain gathering momentum of the development of elites from 400 BCE. There may well have been exchange systems before this but the later incarnations are clearly imitative of the Roman system. But to really understand the Roman `invasion’, we should think less of massive Italianate immigration but more of the development of a commodity economy as the character of Romanism.
Property in the earliest of days reeked of domesticity, it was mostly pottery, cooking utensils, clothing and ornaments; but there were also tools, boat and weapons but even these were mostly personal in character. Food no longer had to be found daily and hunting morphed from an urgent necessity to a sport. Surpluses of animals and crops and their by-products belonged to the community. But in Britain, from the moment that an elite developed, big changes in society were afoot. Elaborate enclosures, separate from the rest of community mark out this development. We know that major tribal centres – almost towns – in places such as pre-Roman St Albans and Colchester developed. A steep increase in population occurred. Even if the degree of central control was doubtful, named leaders – nascent `kings’ – of tribal nations had emerged, with high status unusual graves. During the entire course of the Iron Age, a major decline in the amount and quality of grave goods for the bulk of the population occurs. At the most, ordinary people are now buried only with a personal ring. The arrival of a commodity economy had taken place. Shortly before the arrival of the Romans, it is clear that a major reorganisation of society had occurred, tantamount to a political revolution.
It is by the study of the development of the family as an institution that Marx and Engels illuminated the way that class society developed. It was Engels who articulated their common view and whilst his conclusions on the history of family were based on relatively limited academic sources, as with his work on early humanity, they remain entirely valid but largely unacknowledged. His main work, “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”, published in 1884, relies heavily on Lewis Morgan’s pioneering analysis of the Native Americans, or `Red Indians’.
This is the seminal Marxist text illuminating these questions. After Marx’s death, in rummaging through Marx’s manuscripts, Engels came upon Marx’s précis of Ancient Society – a book by progressive US scholar Lewis Henry Morgan and published in London 1877. Engels set out to write a special treatise – which he saw as fulfilling Marx’s will. Working on the book, he began with Marx’s notes and some of Morgan’s factual material and conclusions. He also made use of many and diverse data gleaned in his own studies of the history of Greece, Rome, Old Ireland, and the Ancient Germans, which enabled the two theorists to put the material into wider context.
Morgan had spent a great part of his life among the Iroquois Native Americans of New York State, especially the Senecas and extensively reported the system of extended blood relationship (consanguinity), which co-existed with the closer family relationships. There prevailed among them a form of monogamy easily terminable on both sides but as described by Engels in one of many mind boggling paragraphs, of an almost puzzle like descriptions of a different conception of what the family was:
“The Iroquois (male) calls not only his own children his sons and daughters, but also the children of his brothers; and they call him father. The children of his sisters, however, he calls his nephews and nieces, and they call him their uncle. The Iroquois woman, on the other hand, calls her sisters’ children, as well as her own, her sons and daughters, and they call her mother. But her brothers’ children she calls her nephews and nieces, and she is known as their aunt. Similarly, the children of brothers call one another brother and sister, and so do the children of sisters.”
Nephews as sons? Aunts as mothers? Cousins as brothers? Complex and strange as all this sounds, in reality it was no more than the way of life of all peoples in early stages of development throughout the world. Clearly, our knowledge of this degree such detail only comes from the observations of other peoples from a higher stage of development from the Romans to modern anthropologists. But the pattern is repeated so often and so consistently that it is unremitting. Those who would dispute that these kinds of relationships are not at the root of that inelegant and arguably meaningless phrase, human nature, are unable to bring any evidence of the existence of modern style family and property relations from any time much before classical antiquity.
This nomenclature described by Engels was not meaningless but reflected the sense of relationship that one single person felt with several hundred different people. It was a snapshot in the history of the development of kinship that the change from hunter gathering to communal settled farming signifies. Similar familial relations were widely the case amongst Native Americans but also among peoples across the world. The feel of this extended consanguinity was still evident in the 19th century across Africa, Australia and Asia. Engels noted a remarkably similar system among the Dravidian tribes, the Gaura and the Tamils of India. Anyone familiar with the lively extended family relations of British Asians will have felt the hint of the roots of this atmosphere in its distinction from the western nuclear family, as the term `cousin brother’, often heard in inner cities of the UK, implies. Whilst the romanticised attachment to Scottish clans that remains as an ossified remnant of the practice will be widely familiar.
Firstly, let us consider the British Asian family. Mainstream Britain thinks it is familiar with the modern extended Asian family but in truth this is not only more complicated than we think it is, familial relations betray hangovers from earlier forms. Let us take a fictional `me’ to illustrate it. My father’s father is, of course my grandfather; but my father’s aunt (my great-aunt in the English custom) is my grandmother. All of what in the English way would be my first cousins are actually brothers and sisters to me, as well as in the usual way all of those who are my father’s other children. But my nieces and nephews are not only just those who are children of all of my father’s children but also those who are children of my first cousins, since they are – as already explained – my brothers and sisters. I am not permitted by custom to marry my blood related aunt or uncle, that is my father’s direct brothers and sisters. But, in theory, I could marry their father or mother, who would be one of my `grandparents’ in the Indian tradition.
In other words, saying that, if I am a man, my sister’s children are as much a part of my family as my own may sum up the entire relationship. Clearly, this is a patriarchal system but one that does not atomise the family completely into just the offspring of one man. It owes just a little to the matrilineal system by recognising not a mother right but a sister right and then extends this to brothers. In removing the central figure of a mother and her daughters alone as the means of establishing lineage, the modern Asian system would seem to invert the essence of collective mother right. No longer do all sisters recognise all their children in common as one family. But all siblings, regardless of gender do so. Moreover, this is done as a means of more effectively retaining property within a given male line by granting brothers access to multiple familial relations as they continue the passing on of property within the male line.
Turning now to the Scottish clan system, one that we think we know so well from modern tourist promotion of the concept. By the time of recorded history, this was actually effectively a mechanism for feudal government in the Highlands from the 10th century, arising from roots in a largely uncertain past. It lasted until the English smashed it as an alternative power source in 1745. It grew out of a similar system to the Native Americans practiced in ancient Celtic Ireland, from whence the Scots came. The clans, such as, say, the Campbells, now united the common people to an elite and the custom had become revolutionised from an earlier matrilineal system into allegiance to a dynastic chiefdom.
Clan descent in one case may have come from the Norse King Ingiald, the 7th century ruler of Uppsala, in another from the Irish Eochu, King of Tara. Mostly, it recalls a vague remembrance of Scots descent, with a chief at the head of other minor chieftains under his strategic but not absolute command. It represents the military wing of the old Tribal Council, with the democratic element shorn off as patrilineal descent took over and the economy of the clan no longer depended upon a communal agriculture in a single territory.
The punaluan family in Hawaii was a form of the system that indicated an even earlier character that must have been once widespread. Engels described the Hawaiian system in detail. Sisters and cousins were the common wives of a parallel group of husbands, excluding brothers from the arrangement. Indeed, what we would call the brothers of women were not brothers but punalua, the sense of which is usually best translated as companion or partner. Brothers would have a parallel, sharing arrangement with another series of women, not their sisters, as common wives, or punalua.
The development of class society had taken place in the Hawaiian Islands but the very constraints imposed by life on isolated islands with limited natural resources had minimised the possibilities of expansion of the level of productive forces. Along with the lingering of old if modified forms of family and property relations, the ossified laws of `kapu’, or taboos, seemingly proved by habit, myth and magic, that reinforced the position of a native elite, were challenged by western ideas. Almost overnight this began a process that would demolish the established order in favour of external imperialism. In the process and by 1891, “the destruction … of the matriarchal society of Old Hawaii (was) conclusive. No woman had held any position of political importance for nearly fifty years.”[Helen G Craig “ The betrayal of Liliuokalani – last queen of Hawaii 1838-1917” Mutual Publishing Honolulu 1982 P261]
Kinship organizations were identified by animal names in Native American tribes, a similar practice, albeit further evolved, with the `genea’ of the Greeks and the `gentes’ of the Romans. The fundamentally common feature was that the members of such groups were recognised as descendants of one particular founding ancestral mother. Paternity was uncertain and only the female line counted for defining membership of a clan. The prohibition of marriage within the clan was strictly observed.
Native American clans elected their `sachem’, or chief, in normal times along with another chief for wartime. The sachem had to be chosen from among the members of the clan but the military leader could be chosen from outside, or the role was sometimes left vacant when it was not immediately needed. A son was never chosen to succeed his father as sachem, since mother-right prevailed and the son belonged to a different clan. But the office could pass to a sachem’s brother or to his sister’s son. Both men and women voted in the elections. The sachem he had no power to coerce and the war-chief could only give orders on military expeditions. Whenever a sachem or chief had been deposed, they became the same as any other member of the group. Rather than the role imagined by the makers of `Western’ movies for chiefs, who imposed a post-Iron Age view of leadership, we should think more of the Speaker of the House of Commons! Indeed, there is some sense in which the role has clear continuity with our own past. Even today, the Speaker is the highest commoner in the land and the rituals that accompany the role emphasise this but we would not dream of imagining that s/he could take us to war, or order the execution of a miscreant, or carry out any executive action.
Among the Patuxets, of what is now southern Maine and Long Island, it was “not unusual for a sachem, even for one presiding over an alliance of many villages, to be a woman”. [Josephy p206-7] The shaman, who could be a man or a woman, was known in their Algonquian language as a `pow-wow’, meaning simply `he dreams’, a reference to the person who talks not to the talk itself. Typically, white Europeans misunderstood the response whenever they pantomimed their desire to have a serious talk with `the boss’ and this word came up. The Native Americans customarily left such interfaces with strangers to the `pow-wow’ and Europeans ended up thinking that the word referred to the notion of a conference, whilst in reality it implied the special function held by someone who could `think outside of the box’. The role was a combination of doctor, hypnotherapist and political advisor – definitely not sole leader as the Europeans always assumed. Like shamans the whole world over, his insight arose from an altered state of consciousness that allowed him to see the big picture, including perhaps the analysis that in the long run nothing that one did mattered, all that counted was oneness with nature. The pow-wow’s main job was to expose him or herself to lateral thinking on behalf of the community; this was a talent that entitled the holder of office to honour and respect but not to unmediated power or special ownership rights by any means.
What little personal property that was left by the dead remained within the clan but was usually shared by the closest relations; with a man, by his own brothers and sisters and maternal uncle, a woman left her belongings to her children and sisters, but not her brothers. Man and wife could not inherit from one another, or children from their father.
Personal names indicated the clan one belonged to and in Native American tribes marked one out as a member of what European Americans so often believed were `societies’. White Americans never quite grasped the distinction between clan, tribe and nation. Nations were usually but not always connected by language origin; few in North America developed the nation state, except perhaps the Iroquois. But the peoples of Central America most certainly did. Tribes were usually dialect related and defensive treaties united both nations and tribes. But the clan cut across all.
Throughout the world, members of the clan owed each other help and protection and an injury to one was an injury to all from this came the obligation of blood revenge. First, mediation was tried between clans to obtain settlement by apology and offerings. If the clan was not placated, avengers were appointed to kill the slayer, an act accepted by all but amends were much more typically made in the form of an `offering’, initially to the gods and later in the form of property of some kind to the wronged person or their loved ones. This is the origin of that kind of morality in the Arab world, so despised in western culture, whereby family pride must be restored by so-called `honour killings’.
It may be that the widespread practice of disposing of valued goods in water was a means of placating the injured party. Returning that which came from nature, which if it was a treasured weapon will have been made from natural resources, was a way of punishing a wrong doer. It is later interpretation based on the conceptions of the Gods and God of the classical and modern worlds that always sees offerings as some kind of worship. Ideology was more of a cult of nature in the process of transition to polytheism.
Among the Senecas, prisoners of war who were not killed were adopted into a clan of the tribe, with full rights, in a ceremony performed at a public council of the tribe, as a `religious’ rite. All religious rites were clan orientated and at periodic big gatherings, each clan sachems and war-chiefs had priestly functions. The clan had a common burial place, even amongst Christianised Native Americans the mother is buried in the same row in a cemetery as her children, but not the father and among the clan attends to the burial. Native American tribes possessed communal territory for hunting and foraging, distinguished from others by neutral land. Such a system prevailed as the boundary forests between the prehistoric Germans, the space between Danes and Germans, the Sachsenwald between Germans and Slavs.
Certainly in America, each clan had its own council of all male and female adults, which elected officials and took all decisions as the sovereign power. A tribal council composed of all the sachems and war-chiefs of the different clan, who could be deposed at any time. It was held in public, with anyone free to join in the discussion, with the Iroquois the final decision had to be unanimous, as was also the case in regard to many decisions of the early Germans. One of the sachems could take emergency action on his own, until the council could meet to review this. This was perhaps the beginning of executive power outside of the battlefield but it was little developed. There was no standing army or police, no nobility or monarch, no judges or prisons. All disputes were settled by the whole of the community. Land belonged to the whole tribe but smallholdings were allocated to households. There were no needy, all those sick or disabled were cared for communally, all were free and equal, women included.
The clan was originally matriarchal rather than patriarchal. The point of the change was to clarify paternity, since the inheritance of property has now become important. It is now only the man who can dissolve the marriage and the prohibition of conjugal infidelity occurs. With the patriarchal family, household management lost its role in public life and social production.
Marriage by capture, from outside of the tribe, was possibly the start of patriarchy. A more likely source, however, is that the pairing marriage undermined matriarchy, although the property relationship that capture provided could well have been a model. The increasing complication of group marriage, arising from population growth, made it impractical and it was replaced with the pairing family. Polygamy, despite its costliness, and promiscuity became the right of men, although either partner, leaving the children belonging to the mother alone, could dissolve the marriage tie.
The ancient Germans practiced polygamy, at least for the distinguished members and the leaders of the tribe”. Women had a high status and partook in public affairs. Caesar claimed that groups of a dozen or so Britons shared wives in common and it seems most outside the Roman world practiced this. However, Caesar’s understanding is best explained as group marriage and, of course, in such conditions it was uncertain who the father of a child was. The tribe was subdivided into a number of groups related by blood on the mother’s side, within which it was strictly forbidden to marry but otherwise group pairing was the norm.
Sparta practiced a modified form of pairing marriage, with elements of the earlier group marriage. The unfree helots were segregated, so Spartan men were less likely to take them as sexual partners and their women held a more honoured position in Sparta than anywhere else in Greece. In Greek mythology, the equality of goddesses belongs to an earlier period. The reality of recorded classical times was that woman were subordinate to men and subject to sexual competition from female slaves. “It is the existence of slavery side by side with monogamy, the presence of young, beautiful slaves belonging unreservedly to the man, that stamps monogamy from the very beginning with its specific character of monogamy for the woman only, but not for the man.” [Engels, Origins]
So, if the clan was originally matriarchal rather than patriarchal, the point of the change was to clarify paternity, since the inheritance of property has now become important. It is now only the man who can dissolve the marriage and the prohibition of conjugal infidelity occurs. With the patriarchal family, household management lost its role in public life and social production. “The first class opposition that appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male.” Eng Orig
Observing Australian aborigines, Europeans could only see immorality and promiscuity. But there was in fact a strict code of law. Group marriage of an entire section of men, often scattered over the whole continent, with an equally widely distributed section of women.
It is clear that among Native Americans, women ruled the roost. An observer of the Senecas reported: “woe to the luckless husband or lover who was too shiftless to do his share of the providing. No matter how many children, or whatever goods he might have in the house, he might at any time be ordered to pick up his blanket and budge; and after such orders it would not be healthful for him to attempt to disobey … The women were the great power among the clans. They did not hesitate, when occasion required, "to knock off the horns" as it was technically called, from the head of a chief, and send him back to the ranks of the warriors. [Quoted by Morgan, p464]
Group marriage was evident amongst most Native Americans, A man who married an eldest sister had the right to take all her other sisters as his wives when they were of age, a relic of the time when a whole line of sisters had husbands in common. In California, Native Americans had festivals specifically for the purpose of promiscuous sexual intercourse, an echo of group marriage when the women of one clan had all the men of the other as their common husbands, and conversely. In Europe, periodic Saturnalian feasts were a memory of such festivals of procreation and the same practice applied among Australian aborigines, the Hos, the Santals, the Punjas and Kotars in India, among some African peoples.
The gradual transition between group marriage and pairing is evident in the ceremonial practice of sexual atonement, widely practiced within what used to be called the Near East. In Babylon, women were obliged to permit sexual intercourse annually in the temple of Mylitta; in Asia Minor it was the temple of Anaitis, although women could choose a sexual partner before they were allowed to marry. Similar customs applied across much of western Asia. The sacrifice by which women obtain the right to choose became increasingly ritualised and less onerous as patriarchy set in. Instead of an annual `ceremony’, the requirement was made once. The right of mature women to promiscuity was ritually transferred to virgins, from within marriage to before marriage, from random intercourse within a group to selective sacrifice to some and finally only to one.
The Thracians, Celts, the `aboriginals’ of India, the Malays, in Oceania, the Native Americans, north and south, the early Balearic Islanders and Augilers of Africa and the Bareas of Ethiopia – all practiced sexual freedom for women before marriage. This would have been the last vestige of an earlier universality of equality. But a practice developed whereby a community figurehead, a shaman or `priest’ perhaps, represented the community and exercised the right of the first night with a bride. In most societies, this evolved into a male-based property orientated relationship with women. In some cultures, the earlier shamanistic practice ossified into a ritual that was, in effect, a relic of group marriage. These rituals have been noted at least in the Alaska region, the Tahus of North Mexico and the European domains of the Celts. From the latter, the practice lingered into feudal times, mostly in France and Spain and it has been hinted at in Norman England, as a means whereby landed aristocrats could have their way with young virgins of the oppressed classes.
It is often dismissed as not having been in reality practiced but merely cited by those with axes to grind, as another instance of the insensitivity of the, sometimes foreign, landed aristocracy. The bride of a vassal’s bride is supposed to have been obliged to at the very least offer his lord the privilege of deflowering her on her wedding night. For a supposedly apocryphal practise on a par with threatening the children with the bogyman, its repeated appearance in ancient texts as the `jus prima noctis’ (law of the first night), or `droit de seigneur’ (master’s right), or as in the former Spanish South American colonies, `pernada’ is remarkably persistent. Even if it were merely a practice hinted at by the lords just to frighten the peasants and to underline how they were owned, body and soul to their masters, the nature of the supposed myth only serves to emphasise just how intertwined laws that protected rights of property and sexual access had become and now so favoured a male dominated, class ridden world. It had not always been thus.
MATRIARCHY OR MATRILINEAGE
The term “matriarchy” came into common use after the publication of `Das Mutterrecht’ (`Mother-right’) The question of whether or not some cultures in the early historical period were matriarchal is a controversial one amongst academics in capitalist societies. But China, with a half century of Marxism-Leninism to underpin ideological work, the notion of matriarchy is more easily accepted. by J J Bachofen in 1861. His thesis was that women had occupied a very high social status in primitive society.
It seems possible to argue however, that from around 5,500 years ago, in particular parts of the world we can discern the beginning of the rise of patriarchy. It arose gradually and for a while women maintained by tradition and custom a position of importance that was independent from men. In China, as in ancient Egypt, Minoan Crete and archaic Greece, women were recognized as embodying an authority derived from their femininity, symbolised by the Mother Goddess. Current archaeological discoveries of matriarchy society such as the Banpo, Yangshao and Hemudu cultures are beginning to reveal more.
Gender and social egalitarianism is suggested by evidence from early Neolithic burials. But much mid-to-late-Neolithic mortuary evidence points to the sexual segregation of labour and the inferior social status of women in relation to men and the inclusion of women.
In a significant number of Neolithic sites, male skeletons greatly outnumber female skeletons. This may point to female infanticide, to better care provided for male rather than female children, or at least to a cultural context in which the burial of women did not warrant the same ritual attention given to men. Many Chinese scholars argue for the existence of a matriarchy in China’s pre-historic past, although it seems evident that by late Neolithic times, women’s status may have begun to decline. The greater number of graves and grave goods for males than for females suggests that social structures were becoming increasingly male dominated, and increasing differences between rich and poor burials suggest the development of an elite. It is all a matter of timing. Evidence for matriarchial society in ancient China is elusive, not the least since its early Neolithic period was so distant, i.e. 10,000-5000 BCE.
A significant discovery in one Neolithic settlement, part of the `Hongshan culture’, centered in western Liaoning province and eastern Inner Mongolia, dates to 4000-2500 BCE. A temple complex excavated there contained fragments of a life-sized terracotta statue of a young woman or goddess, as well as small `Venus" statues’, clay figurines portraying rotund, sometimes pregnant, women. These are very similar to similar statues of great antiquity found throughout Europe. By the time of the Shang Dynasty, Chinese society appears fairly patriarchical. In the oracle bones (jiaguwen), of the 700 personal names, only 170 are female.
Even up to around 2500 BCE, female dominance was a factor. Chinese legend has it that the Bao-Xi clan’s mother encountered a "big man" and become pregnant, Shennong clan’s mother felt the power of a dragon-god and became pregnant, Ying Qie’s mother ate a sparrow egg and become pregnant. Such legends are only about mothers, never fathers, and suggest that clan and blood lineage was based on the mother line. Chinese family names certainly used to be taken from the mother, instead of the father. By the time of Zhou, clan names began to lose meaning, with the formation of city states naming systems started to shift. By the time of warring states, people started taking on the name of their city state, or their lost city state as their last names and only a few matriarchal names survived, Jiang and Yao.
In the earliest of human societies, women dominated the labour process. In the languages of undeveloped peoples, the term for `mother’ is often identical with `producer’. Sadly, this is often misunderstood as being merely related to birth labour! Sex partners did not even live together. Maternal care and responsibility for the young was the key to all this. It was social motherhood that began the process of collective labour. This is a very difficult concept for people of our civilisation to grasp. We mean by ‘mother’ a woman who has given birth to a child. But the Australian aborigines had no term to express the blood relationship between mother and child, since the notion was not significant. The `mother’ of a band, or group, or clan was the most respected of all the mothers in the group, who collectively `mothered’ all children in the group, regardless of who actually gave birth to any of the children. Although, to be sure, a woman who had borne a child would have always been aware of that fact. Not that anyone knew, or probably even cared, who their father was!
The Seri Indians of Lower California, a people at a fairly low level of development and hence still adhering to many old ways, actually call themselves Km-kaak, meaning Assam, such as the Kacharis, call themselves `Machong’, or `Motherhood’. It’s so obvious, when you think about it! “Woman or Elderly Woman; or `Our Great Motherfolk Now Here’. There is no word in the language for father. Later evolved terms for the people of a tribe more usually translate as `The Human Beings’, or more prosaically, `The People’. The Melanesians call themselves Veve, or `Motherfolk’. The daughter-clans of the tribes are distinguished from each other through a second name, like the Native Americans often an animal, so that a clan might be called the Owl Motherfolk, or Shark Motherfolk. The hill tribes of
A birth mother might be classed as an `elder sister’ and children as `younger sisters or brothers’. But the Mother was something else. To everybody in this stage of human development, their `Mother’ was not their birth mother, or even the mother of a group of siblings but the mother of society! If we have to use meaningless notions of hierarchy, a mother was the prime minister or president of the group. Little wonder that the `religion’, better understood as the ideology of such societies focused on what is known as the Earth Mother. Birth connections or immediate genetic ties meant nothing. All the women – even those who were infertile – were all mothers to all the children and, further, they were all `sisters’ in a way that meant much more than the use of the word to the same members of a feminist group, or a trade union, today would mean.
Bachofen’s term, mother-right, is in many ways a more perceptive term than matriarchy. The difficulty is that one is drawn to understand the words matriarchy by comparison with other `archies’. (From the Greek word `to rule’.) Such as democracy (rule by the people), or aristocracy (…). Critics of the view that matriarchy is the original state of human politics distort the concept in their often-outraged fulminations. They think in terms of the modern world, in their heated opposition. It is not correct to think that women ruled. No one and everyone ruled. It was inevitable that matriarchy would go much beyond being a childcare collective, it evolved into becoming a labour collective.
But if `motherhood’ was celebrated, so too was `brotherhood’ but not as a blood concept. We have all heard the term blood brother used, if we have seen a Hollywood western. In Sierra Leone, the closest term for ‘family’ is Ndehun, or ‘brothership’, a concept denoting a deep bond between people.
Aside from the issue of childrearing, the major division of labour was, as is generally understood, between men and women. Not men and women who were parents of a group of children but a group of sister/mothers and a group of brother/fathers, operating as a food collective. Men who were social brothers to women, were elder brothers or `mothers’ brothers’, or social `uncles’ to children. In many languages there is a special term, similar to elder, or even chief. The term `cousin brother’ in modern Indian society, like the widespread social `auntie’ is redolent of these customs.
Society was ruled by a system of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour and attendant relationships. The totem (best and wrongly known as the symbolic artefact in Native American communities) was the means whereby everyone was classed as a member of the clan. But a taboo banned sexual relationships within the totemic group. People were categorised as clan kindred and non-clan strangers and the latter was often an enemy.
Before the process of uneven development took form and one society was able to offer superior artefacts or foodstuffs, trade was minimal. The main relationships between two different clans were either sexual or confrontational. Interestingly, the close relationship in many languages for the words meaning sexual intercourse and physical combat may not be, contrary to a usual assumption, that it is in some way related to the passion common to both activities! In many early languages, or in the roots of later versions, the words for both activities are the same. It is possible that this has a great deal to do with the fact that one or the other activity was the main reason for inter-clan relationships.
Since in modern society sexual intercourse between close blood relatives is prohibited as “Our taboo against incest is altogether different in character than that of the earliest societies. Little was known about the `facts of life’. The ancient taboo was designed to avoid sex competition within the group of the kind common to the world, for this disrupted the labour collective of both men and women. Social harmony was won through sexual separation. Without this, there was no way that more advanced systems of `production’ could have ensued.
Before animal husbandry, it is probable that there was uncertainty about the precise mechanisms for achieving pregancy, other than women bore the child. This gave women a great control of a mysterious nature over life and a very clear sense of importance to communities. When it became clear, by a process of elimination, perhaps something that women had always suspected, that the injection of fluids by the male was the certain factor, the view that women not determined the gender of the child would perversely remain. In fact, genetics now tells us that it the male that determines trhe child’s sex but the sense of women’s power remained until only a few decades ago as another burden for women to carry! But this was a development that lay ahead. Men were the hunters of big game, which took them away from home for long periods of time. In the organised hunt, men had to co-operate with other men, a feature unknown in the animal world where competitive struggle is the rule. This may have selected for the qualities of cooperation, ingenuity, strength and dexterity.
Women provided the staple diet of roots, tubers, seeds, berries and plants. In the Pacific, breadfruit, in Africa millet or yams, in Asia rice, in the Middle East and Europe cereals, in America corn, potatoes or acorns. They also hunted small game, grubs, lizards, shellfish and small mammals. Women might actually have been better hunters of small game than men were, simply because it is generally the case – at least in the present – that far more women than men have sharp hearing and smell senses. Did women `invent’ hunting also? Whatever the case, sometimes, women would have brought some creatures back to the camp alive, to provide the first experiments in domestication. Mostly likely perhaps, beginning with the rearing of orphaned progeny of game, especially milk and fleece-giving species.
The use of sticks, possibly the first use of tools, to procure food from the ground was noted for being a female activity and perhaps led to the discovery that returning a seed from a collected plant to the ground would see it return in another season. The Shoshone Indians of Nevada were called `Diggers’ by the first Europeans to encounter then because they widely used digging sticks to obtain tubers and this was also a widely used practice amongst Native Australian women and the !Kung. Whilst the native women of Central Victoria, in Australia, used pointed seven-foot poles, hardened in fire to loosed earth and harvest natural yams. Constant digging and turning over the soil acted in the same way that ploughing does, to enrich the soil over time. Returning the remains of eaten food to the soil, in the manner of an `offering’, would result in the crowns of tubers growing again.
Perhaps, in the process of using long digging sticks, the earliest women also discovered the spear this way? If so, this would have been very early in human history. In a sign of the usual reluctance to ascribe real intelligence to early humans, until clear evidence appeared of throwing spears some 400,000 BP scepticism of an early date for such technology was widespread.
The development of wooden tools – and bone, too – may have been more extensive than with stone. Bones as well as bushes were used in the last Ice Age to make shelters and may well have predated wood from a very early time as a material in this respect, since the discovery of the carcass of a large animal might well encourage the employment of its internal bulk as a very rough (if smelly!) shelter. Yet, arguably, `The Stone Age’ was really the `wood age’. Evidence for what may well have been sophisticated employment of wood technology by early human society does not turn up for the obvious reason that organic remains do not survive. Some slight evidence exists for the making of polished planks three quarters of a million years ago, certainly a quarter of a millions years back. Whilst the early use of bone seems obvious, even in unfashioned form. Evidence for this will necessarily be absent. The earliest date relates to the discovery in South Africa of 70,000-year-old bone tools – twice as old as those found in Europe.
The division of labour between the sexes went beyond men hunting and women gathering. The stunning truth is that, apart from `military’ duties, a collective of the women handled pretty much everything else. Cooking, preparing and preserving food required the invention of heating techniques, containers, ovens and utensils. Rendering plants digestible needed experimentation in cooking techniques. Hundreds of homeopathic medicines and the science of botany were discovered by women. Nothing less than the discovery of science arose; to make flour into bread, and the use of yeast and the invention of beer implies knowledge of primitive biology; chemistry, physics and mechanics arise from tanning, pot-making and spinning, string making and basketry. Let us not pretend that these advances were high science but the applications were practical and the notion of messing about to see what you could come up with has always been part of the scientific enquiry. If the historical progress of this period of scientific knowledge can be viewed as pretty hit and miss it was nothing that men would not indulge in; finding something by chance has more often worked out better than trying hard to make something deliberately! For example, we know that, much later, the early medieval alchemists tried to get gold from urine and got phosphorus instead, although the Egyptians did succeed in turning red cinnabar into liquid mercury.
One of the oldest tools in the world are scrapers so often found in archaeological digs, these were women’s tools. Even in modern times, the women of the Inuit or Native Americans in Montana use the same tools found by archaeologists that were used in the Ice Age in Europe. Did Inuit men hand over the task to their women, or did Ice Age woman use to same tools as the Inuit! `Eskimo’ women are known to be the craftswomen behind the artistically fashioned bone implements. It is not the so-called `Bushmen’ in South Africa but the `Bushwomen’, who manufacture scrapers identical with those of Palaeolithic Europe.
Almost as an extension of cooking techniques, Native American women would smoke leather over a shouldering fire to make shields so tough that they were certainly arrow-proof but could be resistant to bullets. The remarkable houses of the Pueblo Indians were built by women; the Plains Indian wigwams were made by women, as did their sisters make shelters amongst the Australians, the Andamaners, the Bedouin, and the nomads of Central Asia. The women struck camp and transported everything from one place to the next. It was the women who collected and carried firewood and water.
Only when work was assigned to the new class of oppressed slaves did women become banned from hard work. Women’s work was now classed as handicraft or domestic and women of the community found themselves in sexual competition with slave women, who had little choice in the matter.
Speech certainly was a requirement of the organised hunt but not for long periods of time, when absolute quiet was really vital. Sign language may even have been the first `speech’ but considering that speech is truly a social requirement where better for it to emerge than in camp amongst the women and children? In most early languages there are expressions and words, even amounting almost to a special dialect, uniquely belonging to the women. After all, women walked or sat and worked together all day long. Consider the modern African village, where all of the women of the village work together, talking about all manner of things as they grind millet.
Women, then, were certainly the innovators, the first doctors and nurses, architects, scientists and engineers, the first teachers, perhaps even artists, probably historians too. These societies were more than merely following a mother line in familial terms; their entire economic, political and social system was geared to female pre-eminence. It is inconceivable that such mother rights could be called anything other than matriarchy, rule by mothers, not in the sense that men were suppressed but that their role was simple limited.
What can we say of men?! Outside of their original purpose of defence, and then large game hunting, their role was to supply unskilled and heavy labour. The increasingly successful collective application of aggressive male power, to harness large game, had been the means to provide a food surplus to enable women to initiate new productive capacity though `market gardening’ style agriculture. In this period, men prepared the ground for cultivation and perhaps carved out a niche in making use of the timber they felled. As time moved on and populations expanded both in size and location, agriculture was necessarily carried out in more difficult terrain. As a by-product of this process, men now surely initiated many new practices. Perhaps they became expert at handling large boulders and pioneering megalith stone technology and cave reconstruction. Mastering primitive carpentry and masonry, men pioneered new heavy technologies, their inherent strength advantage being applied to new technology of mass production.
Agriculture became their preserve with the employment of the plough, given its requirement for strength to turn over stony ground, whilst they became more and more responsible for looking after of the increasingly huge herds of semi-domesticated animals, as these grazed further away from home. With the invention of the pottery wheel, manufacture became a commodity production, perhaps the first true commodity, taken over by men. Men took over oven technology, invented by women, and developed them into forges. The development of metal technology would certainly have been a male preserve, given the manual strength required for its deployment. As it became more physically demanding, mining for ores, too, would have become more a male activity. It may be said that the application of brute force, a function almost of testosterone, changed the world. Now exploitation of natural resources had become a male concern, the balance of power changed. Clearly, a great reversal had taken place and the notion of private property was the next step.
POLYANDRY AND TRANSITION TO PATRIARCHY
The form of the family began to modify in the face of new power relations. In Arabia, before Islam, a range of customs were practiced, indicating vestiges of older forms that had yet to fully adapt to a new property and personal relations system. The varying and extraordinary systems indicate an element of social transition, some of which partly recognise some element of choice for a woman but only in the context of patriarchy. Before Islam outlawed all these customs in favour of its own accepted practices, four kinds of matrimony were acceptable:
1) A man asked a father for a girl’s hand in marriage and provided a dowry; this process settles paternity.
2) A man being already married to a woman, transferred his sexual rights with her to another man of higher status, temporarily and only until she became pregnant, purely for the purpose of ennobling the child, whom he became responsible for when his wife returned.
3) A group of less than ten men made a pact for group sharing of sexual relations with a woman. When she had a child, the woman made an unalterable choice of a father from amongst the group according to her own inclination, who now became officially responsible for the child.
4) A woman signalled, by placing a flag on her home, her sexual availability to any man who could without freely have sexual intercourse with her. There was however a catch, whenever a child was born, fortune-tellers and physiognomists (character analysts of the face) declared their unalterable opinion as to which man was the father was and he now had responsibility for the child.
The latter two systems, of course, suggest a modified form of group marriage, a system that has, derogatorily, been described as `sexual communism’. As we have seen, originally and under primitive communism, several brothers would marry several sisters jointly, or a group of men from one tribe would jointly marry a group of women from another tribe. As the private ownership of land became the norm, group marriage evolved into a modified form, which is called polyandry, a word from Greek roots meaning literally more than one man.
Polyandry may be defined as a form of socio-sexual relationship whereby more than one male mates with a single female in a collaborative relationship. It seems to be associated with a system of land tenure that prevents fragmentation of already smallholdings. Perhaps there is a hint of the earlier forms of open sexual relations in matrilineal societies, with the simple difference that this is a patriarchal form.
In Tibet it was the ancient custom for a group of brothers to marry a group of sisters, and for the two groups to practice sexual communism between them, each of the men cohabiting with each of the women. (A vestige of this may also be discerned in the “levirate,” a custom existing among the early Jews and other ancient peoples, by which a man was obliged to marry his brother’s widow.)
Group marriage was altered by the private ownership of land into a system of male group relations with one wife. In the remote Himalayas, where arable land is scarce, marriage of one woman by several brothers was generally practiced until recent times, with the children regarded as the offspring of the eldest brother. When the brothers died, the land went to the sons, who in turn marry one wife.
The practice is also known to have existed among the Tuda tribe and other peoples in Tibet and Sikkim, also the Tiyyans of Kerala and the Todas of the Nilgiri hills until fairly recent times. Peoples on the coast of Malabar, a society of soldiers of fortune, introduced polyandry. Such a custom is also said to have prevailed amongst the Jats of the Punjab during the 19th century, whereby there was a custom permitting sexual relations between a wife and her husband’s younger brothers. (In Indian languages an occupational groups is called a `jat’ and has connections to the untouchables, of which there will be more in the section on the Asiatic mode of production.)
The Sinhalese, in the past, generally and widely practiced fraternal polyandry, until very recent times. A wife would be shared in common by several brothers and this is known to have lingered in Shri Lanka. Euphemistically referred to as ‘eating in one house’ it has not been legal for a long time, though it is possible that it may still survive in some remote areas. The earliest text referring to the practice is the Mahabharata, where Draupadi was the common wife of the five Pandava brothers. The earliest record among the Sinhalese is an inscription from the 14th century, where a queen is described as chief consort of two brother kings. The English writer Robert Knox in 1681 noted that it was common for two brothers to live with one wife and that paternity of children was shared. A Portuguese historian noted in 1685 that typically once a marriage ceremony had been concluded, the first night of consummation was allotted to the husband and each subsequent night to successive brothers to a maximum of six in all.
Sir James Emerson Tennent in 1859, just as the British were outlawing the practice, wrote that polyandry still existed in the interior, mainly amongst the well off. A woman frequently would have three or four husbands, and sometimes as many as seven and, as a general rule, husbands were members of the same family, and most frequently brothers. The custom persisted mainly due to a desire to limit family size and to keep property undivided in families. An obligation to perform compulsory service to the state by land-holding males resulted in the prolonged absence of farm owners. To ensure that their fields were cultivated, extended marriage fixed joint property ownership. In a nutshell, fraternal polyandry emphasised economic solidarity. (Interestingly, the Vedda of Sri Lanka, followed a convention of figurative representations of humans, very much like the San of southern Africa.)
Polyandry was practiced in the north east of Africa, parts of India, Polynesia and America. In Africa, the system arose from a fraternal dowry co-operative for the procuring a wife, but the eldest brother was recognized as father of all children. Some Native Americans practised polyandry on and off. In the Shoshoni tribe, for example, this took the form of a temporary union prior to marriage. The South American Taruro and Cawahib institutionalised the practice as an infrequent possibility.
The aboriginal tribes of India marriage practiced collective pre-nuptial sexual intercourse within the tribe. There are but two remaining tribes in the world where polyandry is regarded as the normal form of marriage, the Todas of southern India and the Marquesans of Polynesia, although everywhere else in the islands polygyny is the norm. The former practice the fraternal type but the latter apply a non-fraternal form. Amongst the Toda, who associate polyandry with low economic status, the numbers of females to males has been traditionally low. Paternity was determined by a ritual in which one brother presents the wife with a toy bow and arrow as a totem of acceptance. All the children were ascribed to the last husband to carry out the rite, even though he may have been dead for years. In the Marquesas, a main husband acted as the principal in the management of family affairs. The other husbands were not his brothers but the younger sons of families of lower rank. They were even allowed to leave one household and join another. Here, too, severe economic conditions were the root cause for such a familial arrangements.
So, many and varied forms of family and marriage have applied right across the world and across the ages. Whilst we know of remnants of earlier forms of relationship that have survived in the most surprising circumstances, including elements of the early forms of equality. For example, in 17th century Lithuania, the penalty was double for the same crime committed against a female as against a male. Women had matrimonial right to jointly owned property and the power to represent, or be represented, her family in the court
THE DEVELOPMENT OF AGRO-ECONOMIES
Agriculture was adopted all over the world, seemingly independently and at differential rates of progress, a process that laid down the basis for uneven economic development that continues to blight the world. An idea whose time had come saw cultures throughout the world adopt the habit of farming. The orthodox view is that this is largely a matter of cultural dissemination. But there must have been an element of chance in some developments and localised innovation, too. For what is surprising is how similar developments occurred in places vastly apart form each other in relatively short historical periods.
Over a period of about 5,000 years, cultivation and stockbreeding become the norm. The first evidenceDomesticated sheep were being kept around 9,000 BCE in northern Iraq. From 8,500 BCE, goats, sheep, and cereal grains were produced right across Mesopotamia. Goats were domesticated by 8,000 BC in central Iran; pigs at 8,000 BCE in Thailand and asses, by 7000 BCE in Thessaly, and at 7,000 BCE in Iraq; and horses from 4,350 BC in the Ukraine. Cereals and pulses were domesticated in about 8,000 BCE in present-day Syria, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Jordan and Israel. The cultivation of crops then seems to have spread from the point of origin. Wheat and some of the legumes had reached Greece by 6,000 BC and in the next centuries in the Danube Basin, the Nile valley, and what is now Pakistan. Such crops reached Britain and Scandinavia from 4,000 to 2,000 BCE. for plant domestication is set at 10,000 years ago but the heavy dependence on domesticated crops and livestock does not appear until about 6,000 years ago.
By 7,000 BCE people in Central America were cultivating corn and other crops. The cultivation in Iran of the ‘Emmer’ and ‘Einkorn’ wheat varieties, rice in the Yangtze Valley of China and apples in south-western Asia also began. A thousand years later, wheat, barley and lentils began to be farmed in Neolithic cultures of Thessaly, Crete, and the Cyclades. Rice cultivation had spread across China. Oranges began to be grown in India and the Tigris valley, and maize in Peru. By 5,000 BCE, wild pod corn was tamed in the Tehuacan valley in Mexico. Millet was grown along the Yellow River in China. Native Americans began to live in river flood plains and cultivate crops. Irrigation started in the Middle East and cotton in Mexico. The domestication of some wild plants by people living in the Mississippi region and, in Iran, wine making began.
By 4,800 BCE, in Tehuacan in south central Mexico, maize, squash, chilli peppers, avocados, and amaranth were cultivated. The domestication of citrus species was now widespread in various parts of the world. There is evidence even in Britain from 4,500 BCE of Indus Valley reaches massive heights in the exploitation of wheat, peas, sesame seed, barley, dates and mangoes, creating centres of culture. managed woodlands. As early as 4,000 BCE, it may be said that the agricultural revolution has arrived in enormously large regions of the world. The new system is focused on the production of basic staples: “wheat, barley, pea, lentil, broad bean, and chick peas in West Asia and Europe; maize and common bean in Central America; the ground nut in South America; pearl millet, sorghum, cowpea, and the bambara groundnut in Africa; rice and soya bean in China." [J. G. Vaughan and C. A. Geissler The New Oxford Book of Food Plants, xviii (1997)] We can now see the basis of the origins for what have been viewed classically as the beginnings of civilisations. Farming in Mesopotamia by the Sumerians and Hittites had reached a new level of productivity, fuelling the creation of empires. Whilst agricultural production in the
THE DEVELOPMENT OF PRIVATE OWNERSHIP OF PROPERTY
Ownership of private property could have begun with the special task of looking after herds, a task that may have become a hereditary clan role. Increasingly, the heads of families saw these things as their right, along with the products of specialised artisanship. Many societies did not develop slavery until the Romans brought the mode of production to them, as a `civilising’ development! But, where it did develop outside of the classical civilisations, it was not really seen as a productive force, Native Americans either killed prisoners of war or adopted them into the tribe, this may have been especially so with women. But, since the productive forces to enable slaves to produce surpluses beyond their keep were not available, the notion of exploiting them did not arise.
It was only after the introduction of family controlled stock rearing, with animals multiplying at a dizzy rate, and abundant crop production – all of which needed more labour than was available in small settled units – that slaves acquired an exchange value. The exploitation value became even more pronounced with the development of metalworking and mining, volume textile and ceramic production. The practice of breeding of slaves is an obvious corollary to the breeding of animals. The newfound wealth would impact devastatingly on the old ways of the clan and tribe.
According to descent through the female line, when what was initially the customary protector of herds, or fields, mineral sources died, such rights would go to his brothers and sisters or her children, or his mother’s sisters but his own children got nothing. This dilemma was resolved more rapidly than might be thought. For it occurred without disturbing the clan. Seemingly, it was simply a matter of changing the way people took their names! All that had to happen was that it was asserted that the children of men would stay within the clan along with those of women. Such a change began to take place amongst Native Americans from almost the moment that Europeans began to invade the continent.
Patriarchy emerges in an intermediate form as a means of owning resources. The original meaning of the word family comes from the Latin. A `famulus’ is a domestic slave, and the `familia’ is the total number of slaves belonging to one man and designated an entirely new social mechanism. The southern Slavs used the term `zadruga’, meaning a bond of friendship, or `bratstvo’, a brotherhood, to class the transition from matriarchy; this was a family of several generations of the descendants of one father, together with their wives, who all live together communally and pooled their labour and surplus.
The head of the household was a man but there was also a dominant woman, who was responsible for all the women. Yet supreme power rested with the family council of all the adults, like the tribal assembly it took all of the important decisions. Such family communities still existed in Russia in the nineteenth century and were recognised in ancient law codes, such as the Pravda of Yaroslav. There were similar laws in Dalmatia, Poland and Bohemia. The Germans are known to have had a `house community’, which often included bonded labour. The system existed in ancient times in Ireland and in France, `parconneries’ are known to have survived in Nivernais until the Revolution, and in the Franche Comte and Saone et Loire into the nineteenth century.
The level of development of a society is revealed by level of complexity divisions of labour. Tribal ownership, with its vast and uncultivated lands has a limited division of labour, largely based upon personal relations. Common ownership of land marked a level of development of human beings whereby the immediately available was conditional on an abundance of territory but a minimum level of production.
Our notion of what constitutes civilisation is skewed. The oldest city discovered is on a site in Anatolia in Turkey, called Çatalhöyük; it has been dated as over 9,000 years old. There are no defensive fortifications, no weapons of war or signs of violence were found and the city was full of feminine imagery. This was a precocious civilisation of some 7,000 people. The extraction and manufacture of obsidian into jewellery, tools and mirrors was the source of much of its wealth. The dominant cultural and ideological expression found were devoted to what is commonly called the Great Goddess, the matriarch of the old world.
Similar signs of what we should think of high culture are to be found from the Indus Valley civilization in Pakistan, another of the earliest centres of development. Just as at Çatalhöyük, archaeologists could find no signs violence or weapons of war. At Caral in Peru the oldest city ever discovered in South America, going back to 5,000 years, the story is the same.
Neolithic findings in Transylvania, `goddess’ civilizations found in Crete and Malta are often taken as evidence for the existence of a female-centred culture in early hunter-gatherers. This was initially highly controversial in the academic world and some experts still contest the thesis strongly.
Contrary to the preoccupations of western historians for the last 200 years, the architecture we all think of as ancient Egyptian came only as a result of standing on the metaphorical shoulders of earlier cultures, as indeed does all of modern society. Settlers in Malta, some 7,000 years ago founded a new culture that preceded all the classical civilisations that so astounded the Victorians and others. This was at least five hundred years before the very first serious monuments were created in Egypt. This was a transitional economy from primitive communism to a higher plane of activity. But it was clearly developed enough to prove it existed in the only way possible.
Hard stone is not found locally, so it had to be imported by sea from afar to make tools to carve the local limestone into the most stunning of monuments. These are the oldest still standing stone monuments in the world, yet until recent decades little was understood about them. For one thing, this unknown, probably maritime civilisation simply emigrated from Malta, why or to where no one knows. 23 massive structures remain; some stones are 50 tons in weight. Originally covered in red plaster, the structures echo a cave culture. Many reliefs in stone owe more than symmetry to earlier cave paintings found elsewhere.
This was clearly a `goddess’ focused society, implying a heavy bias to matrilineage. There is no trace of weaponry anywhere and scant evidence for elites, despite those who would read more into some signs than it might justify. The existence of large complexes is often taken to be evidence for elites. Considered in context, the remains seem more suggestive of an extension of the `cave cathedrals’ of earlier times. Halls were lined with carved stone in imitation of earlier megalithic architecture. Certainly roofed, some believe with stone, they were clearly impressive places in their hey-day.
It is important to understand such community centres as a primitive composite of the now fractured purpose of the many strands of current society. These centres were part BBC, church, state, executive, science laboratory and observatory, hospital, trading centre and market. They united and focused all society’s activity. No wonder such attention was lavished upon them. Such centres were not simply built anywhere but were located within the landscape in a meaningful way. They were aligned to the sun and stars. Evidence of `libation’ activity, the pouring of liquid ceremoniously into what we would think of an altar has inevitably been allocated to the role of ritual. That some of this activity involved poisonous snakes points to the possibility of use of hallucinogenic venom to engender `magical’ responses. It has all the hallmarks of shamanism and it salutary to recall that the pouring of water onto the head of a baby in Christian baptism hints at such customs, without of course the artificial stimulants to obtain psychological outburst from the priest!
There’s no evidence of slave society, or of particularly separated elite. But the evidence of open and inner sanctums does suggest the beginnings of a priestly cult; a form that would lead to later economically separated hierarchies. This stage of development is superseded by the development of city-states, uniting a number of tribes and employing the use of slave labour. An element of the common good remains but private property has emerged.
Knowledge of the continuous and ancient civilisation of China is notoriously sketchy in the west, a fact that has its origins in a bias caused by long-standing imperialist ambitions over that country. There are also important differences in interpretation of ancient society between its scholars and others, notably because Marxism informs historiography.
Humanity’s presence in China is exceedingly ancient but how old is a matter of controversy. What is clear is that our understanding is still very limited as archaeology is a relatively new discipline in China. Fossils of what is now known as Changyang Man in 1957, an archaic Homo sapiens dating back 200,000 years. More recently, Chinese archaeologists have even argued that newly found evidence proves that a tributary valley on the middle reaches of the Yangtze River might be one of the regions where Homo sapiens originated.
Three human tooth fossils, belonging to humans and dating back to between 2.15 and 1.95 million years ago were found. Fossils of bone implements, along with stone tools and evidence of fire usage were found in the same cultural strata in a range of locations. The fossilized bone implements bear traces of conscious beating. Clearly, this challenges the `Out-of-Africa’ hypothesis. Pieces of stone technology and traces of human fire usage found in Banxia were said to date back 130,000 years, the ruins of human fire usage in Nianyu Mountain 120,000 to 90,000 years.
Chinese civilisation developed quite separately since deserts and distance separated it. As elsewhere, China had a foraging culture gradually adopting farming. The Yangshao Culture, dated at 7,000 to 5,000 years ago, saw the flourishing of pottery making and a significant advance in construction methods. The remains of small villages have been found, with sizeable moats, two meters or so in width and depth.
About 5,000 BC, the bulk of the Chinese had made the transition to farming. Clearly the peripheral regions of today’s China were not so in ancient times. The Great White Pyramid of Xian in Tibet is claimed to be the world’s largest at about 300 metres high and is estimated at 4,500 years old. There are over 100 pyramids, made of clay; one is as large as the Pyramid of the Sun of Teotihuacán in Mexico and the Great Pyramid of Giza. Most are flat topped and some have small temples on top.
More towards the cradle of Chinese civilisation, the Banpo Culture, from 10,000 to 5,000 BCE, was centred in the middle valley of the Yellow River. Its pottery was simply decorated mostly symbolic fish designs, which suggest that the fish was a tribal totem. On some pottery, 22 different marks appear, which seem to be some kind of primitive script. This is believed to have been a matriarchal clan society. Women were dominant and marriage was not between permanent couples. Women and men were buried separately in communal graveyard, but children were not buried with adults. The mother would put the body of her child into pottery jar and bury it in a pit close to her house. More burial articles were found in the pits containing girls than those of boys.
Rice was grown in eastern China circa 5500 BCE, and about five centuries later an agricultural society developed in the Huang He valley. The Longshan Culture, based in the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River, dates from 4,350 to 3,950 years ago. Both stone and bronze tools were used and this was a patriarchal clan community in transition between the Stone and Bronze Ages. Both the potter’s wheel and bronze forge were in use, suggesting a significant move towards division of labour.
Famously, China views its own history through the prism of succeeding dynasties of royal households that also accord with stages of development. But the early stages of Chinese history show a belief that hereditary rule came quite late and that the collective principle was firmly adhered for a very long time. Huangdi is considered to be the founder of Chinese civilization as well as its first ancestor. He is supposed to have lived about 4,000 thousand years ago, as leader of a patriarchal clan community, one of the strongest tribes in the middle valley of the Yellow River.
This was a time when many tribes came to settle there to engage in farming and frequent land disputes resulted. Huangdi resolved this situation by organising a motivated and trained army. After 56 battles against other tribes, much of the area along the Yellow River was pacified under a union led by Huangdi. He was named the Yellow Emperor, after the yellow colour of the earth, a symbol of farming. The new tribal union thus constituted the first Chinese state and proceeded to issue bronze money to facilitate trading. The commodity economy had arrived. His remains were buried in a mausoleum in today’s Shaanxi province.
In the same epoch, Yu the Great is still respected as the ruler who placed the regularly flooded Yellow River under control. He is considered to be the last figure appointed under the ancient system whereby the election of the leader followed the merit system. His son, Qi, violated this practice, overturning the leader put in place by his father, so as to establish the Xia Dynasty (21st-16th century BC), thus initiating a hereditary system of monarchy.
Certainly, under present understanding, between 2000 and 1600 BCE, a more complex Bronze Age civilization emerged out of the diverse Neolithic cultures in northern China. The Bronze Age came to China, although the metal was at first only used for weapons. After excavations in Henan Province it is clear that the once mythic civilisation of the Xia dynasty was all too real and at exactly the locations claimed in ancient Chinese texts. The Xia, dominated by the slave mode of production, marked an evolutionary stage between late Neolithic cultures and the later urban civilization of the Shang dynasty.
Until 1928, it was difficult to separate myth from reality in regard to the Xia. But, since then, archaeologists have uncovered urban sites, bronze implements, and tombs that point to the existence of Xia civilization in the same locations cited in ancient Chinese historical texts. Evidence of the development of elites is clear, as society became richer, leaving subsistence agriculture behind to produce a surplus. Burial practices changed, with grave goods generally more evident and disparities between the wealth of burials appearing. The period was marked by a rise in warlike activity, with many settlements being protected by packed walls of earth. Human sacrifice was practised, the bodies of victims being buried under the foundations of buildings.
The Shang dynasty ruled from about 3,600 years ago for the next five or six hundred years, created a highly organised state in the central part of China. Though they ruled only a part of China their cultural influence spread through most of it. Writing was invented in China about 1,500 BC, the evidence for this being oracle bones used for fortune telling. The worship of many gods and the practice of ancestor worship began. From 1,300 BC bronze was more widely used other than for weapons and the first real cities, big palaces and temples appear. Human life, under a slave owning system, was cheap. When a Shang emperor died his servants and slaves followed him into the afterlife and due to the need to constantly replenish labour stock, warfare to capture slaves was common. The king presided over a ruling military class. Defensive works around cities appeared everywhere, so much so that the word wall and city were interchangeable.
The Liao Dynasty (1125 – 916 BCE) was established by the Khitan tribe from Manchuria and claimed to be the legitimate successors of the Tang. Once united, the Khitan whose economy was principally based on horse and sheep husbandry. (The Khitan operated in their own territory known as Khitou, an expression distorted by Europeans into Cathay, the name by which China was known by them until only a few hundred years ago. A nomadic zone covered northern grassland nationalities and a fishing economy applied to a Khitan area between the Xar Moron and Tuhe rivers, and the Jurchen in the northeast. Having once formed a confederation with neighbouring conquered tribes, Liao military control now massively expanded across China. The dynasty astutely learned to all different social systems to co-exist in various areas of their territory, accepting the nature of the different levels of economic development between the north and the south. A developed tribal system, with much of the old customs and rites, was left standing for the Khitan alone. The established Khitan administrative system stayed in place in the north, covering the Tartars and other nomadic peoples. Jurchen overtook and rules
But slavery was employed for the Bohai people who lived in the eastern area. Agriculture was mostly focused on the enormously large Han people who lived in the southern area. A feudal system had been practiced in the Central Plain states for some time, having been established under the Tang. This was continued, as was the use of Chinese as the state language. All existing customs, bureaucracy and the tax systems were retained under the hegemony of the Khitan. The integration of the three economic zones, with separate social systems, into a political system promoted economic development, with the southern feudal economy beginning to dominate. Although, in the early years of the dynasty, territorial expansion was sought, giving rise to increased use of slavery as an economic tool for a period, the trend was towards reform towards a feudal economy with elements reflecting earlier communal structures.
The Zhou overthrew the Shang dynasty and control was gradually extended over most of China proper north of and including the YangtzeValley. Under the Zhou, an amalgam of city-states later saw central control over local governments through agrarian taxation and a form of feudalism expanded dramatically as the number of slaves diminished rapidly. Whilst agriculture was in many cases directed by the government, lands were now owned by a class of nobility who distributed it to peasants in a manner highly redolent of European feudalism. For example, a piece of land was divided into nine squares, with the grain from the middle square taken by the government and that of surrounding squares kept by individual farmers. This way, the government was able to store surplus food and distribute them in times of famine or bad harvest. Bronze making, which was integral in making weapons and farming tools, was run by the nobility.
Authority was delegated to this hereditary hierarchy, increasingly ruling more and more autonomous feudal-like states, with a hereditary warrior class, lording it over peasants and domestic slaves. Each of these local rulers, or vassals, was generally able to pass his position on to a son, so that in time the domain became a hereditary vassal state. The rulers of the states and the members of the nobility were linked both to one another and to their ancestors by bonds of obligation based on kinship. Below the nobility was an official class and below them the peasants, which were also both hereditary conditions.
The dynasty gave their followers land in return for chariots and soldiers in time of war. The use of iron-tipped, ox-drawn ploughs and improved irrigation techniques produced higher agricultural yields. This in turn supported a steady population increase, the circulation of coins for money, the beginning of private ownership of land, and the growth of cities. Military technology also advanced and a peasant-conscripted infantry was created, largely making redundant the former hereditary class of warriors.
The Zhou dynasty, which first put forward the doctrine of the divine right of rulers, saw the growth of a class of officials and advisors to the rulers. The most important of these was Kong-Fuzi (known in the West as Confucius), who elaborated an ideology of acceptance of social roles and duties. Rulers had a duty to be benevolent while subjects should be respectful and obedient, women should submit to their father and later their husband, or son if widowed. The Taoist religion also bloomed, proposing a belief in going with the way of things, like a stick being carried along on a stream.
This rapid economic growth and social change took place against a background of extreme political and military instability, as China entered the Iron Age. A growth in population was accompanied by the production of much new wealth, as a new class of merchants and traders arose. China was plunged into a period of warring states from 403 – 221 BCE as Zhou control broke down. The state of Ch’in (sometimes written in Roman script as Quin), then a peripheral state of the northwest, prompted an increasingly weakened Zhou regime to collapse in 256 BCE and within a generation later, the Ch’in had effectively taken over. The name China is derived from this dynasty. Territories were divided into provinces governed by bureaucrats appointed by the emperor. Private landholding was reinforced and standardisation pursued as the regime embarked upon a course of unification and expansion of China.
Effectively, the Ch’in (Qin) had unified China under one emperor, so much so that private ownership of weapons was banned. Roads and irrigation were canals built and the various parts of the Great Wall of China were linked up. Kong-Fuzi’s teachings were opposed and an ideology of autocracy promoted. It was an emperor from this dynasty who was buried in a tomb, famously, with over 7,000 terracotta warriors. Initially, the dynasty shared power with hereditary nobles but shifted to government by central appointment and imposed a firm legal approach, which disfavoured merchants and prized land ownership. The elite found benefits to be sure, in personal terms, but their ability for independent action was constrained. From the time of the first emperor onwards, in the third century BCE, “hereditary feudal houses were gradually attacked and destroyed, while the king or emperor (as he soon became) governed by the aid of an enormous bureaucracy, a civil service unimaginable in extent and degree of organization to the petty kingdoms of Europe”. [Joseph Needham. Introduction to `The Genius of China’ Robert Temple Simon and Schuster (1986) p8]
Heavy taxes and forced labour caused much resentment. In northern China a peasant rebellion broke out and was defeated, then a second rebellion that began further south was successful and the last Ch’in emperor was executed. The Early Han Dynasty (206 BCE to AD 8) arose from turbulence that followed rebellion against the autocracy of the Ch’in. A rebel leader of humble origin, Liu Pang, founded the dynasty. A policy of laissez-faire was adopted in an effort to promote economic recovery. During the Han dynasty, Chinese civilisation emerged as possibly the most advanced in the world. Inventions such as the watermill and the foot chain pump to irrigate rice fields, the use of buffaloes to pull ploughs and crop rotation all massively increased food production. Population by 2 AD was 57 million. Silk was exported to the west, passing through many hands to the Roman Empire. The last and longest dynasty, later and more often known as the Manchu, were to preside as the last imperial dynasty of China until 1911.
The implementation structure of European feudalism was military-aristocratic, whereas that of China was bureaucratic. Modern historians in the Peoples’ Republic of China date the truly feudal period from the Zhou to 1911 and see no problem in this analysis. Western historians do frequently describe the Zhou period, at least as feudal, because its early decentralized rule invites comparison with medieval rule in Europe. But most dispute an over-arching parallel in the broad sweep of Chinese
history, seeing the later powerful state bureaucracy as contradicting the feudal nature of society. Undoubtedly, the structure of society was different at the top but the effects were not so very different for the mass of the people! Where there was indeed a great contrast was in the consequences for societal advance.
Despite long periods of cataclysm, a revolution in economics saw a massive degree of capital accumulation and the growth of an urban hierarchy. This, allied to a bureaucratic organization based on merit that guided the process, caused the knowledge and use of science to grow spectacularly. ModernChina’ see: www.rit.edu/~flwstv/china.html)] agriculture, oil production, astronomy, music, mathematics, physics, money, medicine, cartography, umbrellas, fishing reels, wheelbarrows, rockets, guns, underwater mines, poison gas, parachutes, hot-air balloons, manned flight, brandy, whiskey, chess, moveable type printing, the steam engine, rudders, the compass, and multiple masts, the stirrup, guns and gunpowder – all these things were first and foremost Chinese and not a single modern European development could have occurred without having been invented by that civilisation. [Prof. Fred L. Wilson, Rochester Institute of Technology, `History of science –
Whatever the perambulations of western historians over whether China was feudal or not, the Chinese people have always been clear about the matter, preferring to consider ownership and control rather than courtly manner as a test for what the economic system was that they wished to abolish! At the national agrarian conference of the Chinese Communist Party, held on September 13, 1947, it was proposed to carry through an agrarian law containing the following uncompromising provisions in the new constitution of the Peoplkes’ republic:
“Article 1. The agrarian system of feudal and semi-feudal exploitation is abolished. The agrarian system of ‘land to the tiller’ is to be established.
Article 2. The land ownership rights of all landlords are abolished.
Article 3. The land ownership rights of all ancestral shrines, temples, monasteries, schools, institutions, and organisations, are abolished.
Article 4. All debts incurred in the countryside prior to the reform of the agrarian system are cancelled.”
The Chinese sphere of influence was historically strong right across north and east Asia. Much of the disruption of Chinese civilisation, the many changes of course in dynastic rule and the many wars and civil wars that created a much more complex course of events than the preceding rough outline can convey arose from the many incursions of `barbarian’ tribes from the north and east. From 300 BCE, many walls were built across central Asia to separate the world of the nomads from the world of Chinese agriculturalists, more as a symbolic marker and route for military movements than as a containment exercise.
Pastoral nomadism, it is only now appreciated, did not predate the beginnings of agriculture and provide a way into it, it was a separate by-product of agriculture. Society evolved either pastoral nomadism or settled urban centres as alternatives at much the same time. Nomadism arose about 4,000 BCE, especially on the Eurasian steppes, which earlier hunter-gatherers and later agriculturalists found uncongenial to their way of life. The domestication of the horse truly unlocked the potential of central Eurasia, the bronze bit taming the creature. Mongols, originally forest dwellers, are the most obvious example of the Inner-Asian people to exploit this lifestyle.
Amongst the Mongolians, exogenous marriage to different clans applied. A recital of family history was practised so as to prove the legitimacy of a marriage. Clans and neighbouring tribes provided brides for each other and marriage by capture, essentially kidnapping was not unusual. Indeed, Genghis Khan’s father obtained his wife and Genghis’’ mother in such a way. Indeed, it was Genghis’ role to bring a more modern way of deciding leadership. Before him, inheritance of leadership was due not to the chief’s offspring but to the most senior of the clan. From about 1,000 AD, Mongol clans began to breakdown into extended families, although they retained pantheistic shamanism as a relic of their earlier form of communal until at least the 16th century. Whilst land was traditionally owned – and largely still is, despite a privatisation law – in common. Traditionally, in the autumn, after the breeding responsibilities for their herds (not just horses but sheep, goats, camels, yaks and cattle, too) Mongolian men engaged in collective hunting of predators, especially the wolf. These groups evolved into an astonishingly effective war machine – a cavalry in fact. It was not a standing army but a citizen force – all men were soldiers and herdsmen at the same time.
Famously, the Mongols won an empire and tributaries stretching from Poland to Vietnam, from Iran to Siberia. The seeming ruthlessness that accompanied this had a kind of rationale. The genocidal levels of civilian deaths that followed in the wake of Mongol invasion made sense in that farming was despised and peasants seen as disposable in any attempt to turn the fields into pasture grasslands. Conquest for the Mongols, as with so many predecessor nomadic armies initially meant plunder and slaves. Nomads, by definition almost, had little interest in monuments but landscapes are an entirely different thing and these became the sites of myths and legends, whilst the history of these times passed into the oral tradition.
But a by-product of the phase of conquest led to control by the Mongolians over China from 1271. This led to the Yuan dynasty, which ruled until it fell to the Chinese Ming in 1368. The practice whereby the history of one dynasty was rewritten by the next clouds our understanding of these times. But, in the end, the Mongol rulers of China `turned native’ and opted for an economy based upon state taxes rather than private rent by money or labour. In any case, the onset of modern methods of warfare, based upon explosive devices and projectiles, began to make nomadic armies largely obsolete.
The complexity of historical developments in Asia was lost on western observers until relatively recent times, arguably perhaps even to the present to some extent. In writing of `Asiatic’ modes of production, Marx and Engels were applying a view general in the west at the time that Asian civilization had more or less provided not only the first developed societies but were also still rooted in the earliest forms of production. Their writing on this was an attempt to understand pre-slave and pre-feudal monumental construction in China, India, the Euphrates and Nile river valleys.
THE ASIATIC MODE OF PRODUCTION
Since exploited labour was extracted in the form of goods directly received from the community, the earliest property form of this mode was the direct religious possession of communities. A ruling class later emerged from the theocracy that originally oversaw the process with consent. After 1857, Marx and Engels no longer thought in terms of a distinct Asiatic mode of production, and kept to the idea of four basic forms: primitive communism, the ancient mode of production, feudalism and capitalism. As we have seen, Asian history was more complex than they, or much of the west, thought. Indeed, it is still the case that the detail is an exotic part of historiography. Even so, we can say that there was a significant difference between Asia and Europe.
This area of the work of Marx and Engels has been much criticised for their inaccuracy and Euro-centrism. Yet their analysis of what they called the Asiatic Mode of Production arose from an understanding of the difference between taxes and other forms of value extraction from labour and was not so far off the mark. In the so-called `Turkish’ mode of production, the state was the landlord, and the rate of rent differed by law according to the religion to which the farmer belonged. Where the farmer was a Muslim, it was a seventh of the produce and where he was a non-Muslim, such as a Christian, it was a fifth.
A system applied in India under the Moguls, where the `ryot’ (from the Arab root `rayah’, a non-Muslim subject of the Ottoman Empire, meaning one of a flock) peasant paid tribute to the state. This system largely resulted in an absence of private landed property for production. The appropriation of surplus from labour was in the form of tax not subject to market pressure and this clearly distinguishes this from those European systems in which the surplus was taken as a `rent’. Moreover, the parallel with the feudal landowner in the Mughal period was the `iqta, also known as jagir, and as tuyul. This was a system whereby a tax farmer (an iqtadar) was assigned to collect revenue or produce from a defined area of land in return of services rendered. That is to say, they received landed income in return for providing military service. This system may or may not have applied before Islam came to the region.
But, either way, the Sultanate that was established in Delhi and in Bengal found it a more convenient and just as lucrative convenient way of sourcing revenue. Marx estimated that the rate of profit in Asia was a quarter higher than in Europe but the rate of surplus value of a quarter lower. Influenced by their background in extracting surplus from concentrated labour, the British later tried out transferring the traditional system to large scale landed estates, a travesty of communality. The simplicity of organisation for production in self-sufficing communities at once supplies the key to the secret of the constancy of Asiatic societies and explains the disastrous famines that followed the industrialisation of agriculture under imperialism. This `zamindari’ system is usually considered by ordinary people who experienced it to have been broadly feudal and many Asian academics agree with them but mainstream Western academics disagree! After independence zamindari was abolished in India and Bangladesh but is still present in a form in Pakistan.
It is not entirely the case that Europeans had not ever experienced rent-tax related surplus extraction systems. There were those marginal European peasant systems, such as `métayage’ (the word comes from a Latin root, `mediaetas’ meaning half), whereby a farmer paid half of the produce to the landowner who in turn had provided stock and seed as well, and the cottier’ (cottager) peasant system, employed in Ireland, where land was rented in ever decreasing small proportions for a rent fixed by competition. In the `corvée’ system, a day’s work of unpaid labour was due by a vassal each week (a sixth of his labour).
But no discussion of Asiatic modes of production is possible without entering the much-vilified world of the Indian caste system, which ryot merely lay on top of. (The word ‘caste’ originates from the Portuguese word for breed; they had found the system strange and applied this understanding to the concept.) Caste in India once defined a person’s occupation, even though it is now a question of social pecking order, comparable to clan marriage systems. Surnames indicate the caste and dictate political allegiances, eating habits and social intercourse. Most scholars accept that it dates back to the Aryan culture of 3,500 years ago.
The main castes are:
Brahmins – priests and scholars
Kshatriyas – rulers and warriors
Vaishyas – merchants and professionals
Sundras – agriculturalists, servants and labourers
Dalits – best known in the west as Untouchables, who do the most menial of work.
(There are, however, castes within castes – such as the Yadavs, once cow herders but now also land owners, who dispute their lowly status.)
Hinduism teaches that human beings are divided into four categories, seemingly defined by skin colour. (Buddhism, though largely similar to Hinduism, is a minority force in India and disagrees with the caste system and sees all as equal.) The Brahmins supposedly have white skin, the Kshatriya red skin, the Vaisyas have yellow skin, and the Sundras are black. But actually each hue is thought to imply attributes. The Brahmins (white) have goodness, the Kshatriya (red) passion, the Vaisyas (yellow) have both passion and goodness, while the black skinned worker Sundras are supposedly imbued with darkness. The Dalits are simply outside of society. Since people believed that diseases could spread through touching, it is likely that this was the rationale that lay behind the prohibition applying to `untouchables’ from close contact with the higher castes. Hindu religious stories are replete with accounts of wars between the good Aryans and the dark skinned demons and devils.
Genome scientists have discovered a strain of genes common to Europeans and upper-caste Hindus of the Indian subcontinent. The implication is that higher castes are closer to, particularly East Europeans, while lower caste Hindus are more similar to Asians. The study reinforces archaeological evidence of the linkage between Europeans and Indians. The genetic distance between Brahmins and Europeans was smaller as compared to the distance between Kshatriyas and Europeans. On the other hand, it is far greater between Europeans and Sundras. This supports the view that there was a major invasion of Aryans some 4,000 years ago, when there were communities already there of widely different origins; recent Africans, Mongols, Australoid and Dravidian, which had come from the Mediterranean and were then the largest group in India.
In the northwest corner of the Indian subcontinent, before the Aryan invasion, the Indus Valley was home to one of the largest ancient urban cultures. This was not known about until the 1920s and much remains to be excavated, including the deciphering of its script. This was a very highly developed and sophisticated civilization of the Harrapa and Mohenjo Daro people. The Sanskrit speaking people, the Aryans took over the Indus Valley, where their horse driven chariots gave them military supremacy. They considered the locals to be cattle thieves and they were destined to be Untouchables. The original aim of the Aryans would have been to separate themselves from the darker skinned native peoples. This `apartheid’ was eventually transformed into a complex set of social rules and regulations. Caste members can live and socially mix with only those belonging to their caste, which also determines what an individual may eat and drink and earn a living.
The Aryan culture was strongly patriarchal in character. New genetic research has also revealed that Indians belonging to higher castes are genetically closer to Europeans than are individuals from lower castes, whose genetic profiles are closer to those of Asians. Moreover, the analysis of Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA suggests that the Europeans who entered India were predominantly male. This may explain the partial but particularly severe misogynistic features of the caste system. Brahmin women were not permitted to use Sanskrit and had to speak only a dialect form. They were assigned subservient positions, exemplified by the obligation for a widow to follow his deceased husband on the funeral pyre in the custom of ‘sati’.
Undoubtedly, the caste system began as an ethnically based class divided society. But later developments modified it, for example, invasions of Greek and Hun warriors who stayed were integrated in the Kshatriya Varna, warrior castes. The Vaishyas became the landlords and the locals became the peasants. The worker Sundras became stratified into locals and descendants of Aryans with locals. Finally, for those who find it too difficult to see any of this as feudalism in the classic European way, the formation of sub-castes (jati) from the 4th century initiated the formation of a feudalesque system as power began to devolve from Brahmin/Kshatriya kingdoms down to local jati lineages.
Before leaving India, as an aside it is instructive to note that the world’s most notable remaining, truly, nomadic economy, the Roma, travellers or `gypsies’ have been in Europe since the 12th century. There are many theories about their origins but, now, the standard view is that they are of Indian origin. The Romani language has many Hindustani words, pronounced in exactly the same way. Among the castes of India, there is a group called the `cingari’, `cengar’ or `tzengar, which means the most humiliated of persons and it is believed that they are related to the Roma. In the past, they were wrongly associated with Egyptians (hence the name gypsy), or “athinganoi” in Greek, which interestingly means `untouchable’ ” from which was derived most derogatory names as: tingan, tinker, tigan, cinkan, ciganin, cigonas gitanos, zingari, saracini, and others used today across Europeans and the world. (There are maybe 15 million Roma living in Europe and more than 20 million in the world.)
Returning more certainly to Asia, in Japan, a system with strong parallels to the European feudal system was under establishment from before the 10th century and remained largely unaltered but for small modifications until the 19th century. The last couple of these centuries, known as the Tokugawa shogunate, or the Edo Period, from the 17th until the mid 19th was marked by a feudal-like military dictatorship. Perhaps this may be considered a deformed feudalism but before Edo something very much like a vassal received tenure in exchange for an oath of loyalty. Academics are very loath to call this `feudalism’ but if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck….!!!
It is the ‘daimios’ and the ‘bushi’ or ‘samurai’ of Japan can be compared to vassals, in that land was granted to them by a central authority, rather in the manner of the fief. Japanese ancient history is as complex and often opaque as many others. But a cursory examination of the background to its `feudalism’, indeed its entire history, indicates that the normal pattern of rising surplus and rising population, the consequential development of a warrior class, leading to the concentration of resources in the hands of the few, with following mechanisms for maintaining the process of extraction of surplus and the establishment of political systems and ideologies to buttress this, all are in place.
Current fashion amongst a great many historians is to deny that there was such as system as feudalism, at least in the sense of a world historic system such as hunter-gathering or capitalism. But it all depends on what you mean. If we confine our definition merely to the specific mechanism that was employed in Europe, then such an assertion may have validity. If we use the term as a derisory epithet meaning `pretty backward’, it elucidates nothing. It is worth pointing out that the word `feudalism’ is not a contemporary medieval term, being invented by the legal profession in the 17th century to describe relationship between members of the aristocracy. Since then, a vast range of definitions, some resting upon the sociology of obligations, others on cultural aspects, have arisen and fierce controversy exists as to whether this or that society, at this or that stage, may be classed as feudal. None of this really assists in the matter. For it is the simple notion that the ownership of productive land by an aristocratic elite, a class even, exploiting the labour of peasants tied to land by various mechanisms, resulting in varied forms of social relations and permitting relative low level technological states, that informs the Marxist perspective.
To set an understanding of Japanese `feudalism’ in context, we must comprehend that human activity on these islands did not follow any unusual course of events, its history is as ancient as anywhere else. On the basis of archaeological finds, it has been postulated by some that hominid activity in Japan may date as early as 200,000 years ago, when the islands were still connected to the Asian mainland. Most observers accept that, by between 35,000 and 30,000 BCE, Homo sapiensJapan. had migrated to the islands and had well-established patterns of hunting and gathering and stone tool-making . By around 10,000 BCE, a Neolithic or Mesolithic culture had been established, possibly by ancestors of the Ainu aboriginal people of modern
By 3,000 BCE, the Jomon people were making clay figures and vessels with patterns made by impressing cord and sticks. These people mainly utilised mostly hunting, gathering and fishing, with a rudimentary form of agriculture, which around a thousand years later evolved into rice-paddy farming. The discovery of distinctive high mounds of earth has been taken by some to imply the development of elites but it could equally match a more general pattern from other cultures of communal endeavours made possible by the development of surplus and linked, at least initially, to the distribution of these.
Perhaps encouraged by the existence of this flourishing society, migration from the northern Asian continent and the southern Pacific areas appears to have resulted in the Yayoi culture, which flourished between about 300 BCE and 250 AD and may have only partly merged with the Jomon. Famously, Japan is composed of a series of islands; as late as the latter part of the 19th century, Hokkaido and northern Honshu were inhabited mainly by the Ainu, who still lived as hunter-gatherers with limited agriculture, while the people we know today as Japanese occupied the rest of Honshu and the whole of Kyushu and Shikoku, Honshu the main islands. The Ainu are physically quite distinct from the Japanese. Unusually for this part of the world, the men are able to grow luxuriant beards and have profuse body hair. Although their genetic makeup is now clearly understood to be very similar to other eastern Asians, including the Japanese and Koreans, the origin of the Ainu language is unknown.
Whatever may be the case in terms of ethnic orientation of class society, the emergence of an incipient elite is now clearly discernible. In most of what is now Japan, the earlier bronze technology gave rise to a later iron age, including weaponry and agricultural technology by the first century AD in permanent settled agricultural villages. We may thus speculate that social system roughly equivalent to that pertaining prior to the Roman occupation of Britain may have existed at a roughly similar period. Certainly by this time, the population increased and society became more complex. Individuals accumulated wealth through land ownership and the storage of grain, and developed distinct social classes.
The irrigated, wet-rice culture was similar to that of central and south China, requiring heavy inputs of human labour. Since Japan had abundant water, the development of a centralised state was less required so early on. The localised forms of an early state that did occur did not lead to a highly stratified society. In 57 AD, Chinese sources described what they called `Wa’ as a land of hundreds of scattered and warring communities based on earlier tribal formations. Although there may be a large element of seeking to denigrate the Japanese, these sources imply that the social changes from earlier communal forms of living had only partly eradicated past practices.
Although social relations were described as taking a vassal-master form, that is to say that, already, some form of land tenure from a lord occurred, it was also said that there was no social distinction between men and women and that there were even been women rulers in Japan; that women served as priests. But polygamy was said to be practiced, with the elite having upwards of five fives and even ordinary men having two or three, although it is possible that this was a form of group marriage that only later became exclusively male favouring. Whatever the exact nature of the transition from earlier forms of society, around 250 AD, the establishment took place of strong military states centered around powerful clans vying for territory, since it is clear that only a tiny minority of the available land was fit for farming given the technology of the time. But the clan system was soon suppressed and ownership of land was acquired by a few.
A long period of uncertainty followed, with a degree of nomadism sontinuing. From the 9th century, power increasingly resided in an elite under the Mikardo, the commander in chief but no firm centre of power existed. The power of the shoguns, a name merely meaning `general’, and the military feudalism of which the daimios and their attendant samurais were a part, did not really begin until the middle of the twelfth century and did not reach its full development until the middle of the fourteenth. The shogun was a military ruler of Japan, a term meaning ‘barbarian-quelling general/marshal’. The rank of shogun was originally given on a temporary basis, the first being given in 784. Following a triumphal war, in 1192 it was made a hereditary position, succeeded to by varying dynasties until 1867.
The daimios were the class of feudal lords and, whilst their role is reminiscent of that of the shugo (`protectors’), or provincial governors, who dominated from the 1190s until the late 15th century, their economic position was not the same. By the process of shugo ryōgoku, the shugo were transformed into daimyo class in the early 16th century. Only in 1871 were the daimios deprived of their feudal privileges and jurisdiction, but not land ownership, and made official governors for the state in districts they had previously held as effective rulers.
By the 12th century, a military class had begun to rule over the countryside, albeit within the overall concept of imperial prestige. Power struggles between the central authority and local landed ownership, redolent of European politics of the period developed. Under the `Alternate Attendance Policy’, the daimios and their families were compelled as to where and when they could live and divided in sub-groups, the Kokushiu, Tozama (`outer lords’, who only submitted later on), and Fudai.
The fortunes of the daimios’ trusted retainer class, the karos, the term resides in an earlier role of clan elders, followed that of their masters. In time, the karos formed a kind of kulak class through `onchi’, a reward of land given by a daimyo to a retainer for exceptional service that enabled them to become petty landowners. Under the karos were the Hatamoto, the Gokenin, and the great bulk of Samurai. The remainder of the population consisted of farmers, artisans, and merchants, with the Eta and Hinin at the lowest end of the ranking system.
The samurai (`one who serves’) are of course well-known due to a western movie penchant for glamorising them. (Bushido – ‘the way of the warrior’ – a warrior is a bushi – is the term for the philosophy and mindset of the samurai, in particular the ideals of honour and bravery.) The samurai remained the traditional warrior class of Japan until 1876 and the role arose out of the continuing battles for land among three main clans. The Samurai eventually became a class unto themselves between the 9th and 12th centuries AD. After 1192, they acted as the de facto rulers of Japan. Increasingly, social stratification developed and, until the 1590s, the status of samurai was somewhat fluid – it was possible for those born in the lesser classes to aspire to this status, especially in times of war. Many samurai now worked in normal times alongside the peasantry until they were need for military service. The jizamurai, or `samurai of the land’ or `soil’ were a specific group of rural samurai who were not entirely removed from the peasantry by their special role .
Civil war and power struggle had forced a need for such a group. As a measure to inhibit such possibilities, the confiscation of arms from all non-samurai took place at the end of the 16th Century. A concerted clampdown on social mobility followed and all men who carried arms were considered samurai and obliged to live in the castle town of their daimyo. With few battles now to fight, the samurai developed a stylised way of thinking, shaping the romance of the way their role is now perceived. Facing defeat with death is the most notable of the honour bound system that evolved. Defeat in battle required death and suicide developed as an alternative to formal execution, although execution could be avoided by taking up a monk’s habit and there were even militaristic groups of clergy.
From the late 15th century, the daimyo, or `great name’ now dominated as autonomous lords in across a province, district, or village level. A daimyo generally governed lands worth more than 10,000 koku. (A unit of rice, 44.8 gallons/180 litres, that was used to measure wealth and productivity; one koku was held to be enough rice to feed one man for a year.) A simple samurai might be awarded a stipend of 100 koku a year. Just as in other feudal societies an element of gradation existed in elites as well as underclasses. A mujo daimyô was on the lowest rung and whilst he possessed an income of up to 20,000 koku, he had no castle. But Daimyo virtually controlled their territory like a petty king, even waging customs wars against each other. Under the nidome principle, they would refuse to allow certain commodities to cross their borders; essentially a form of economic warfare.
The final victory of a feudal landed system eliminated much of the faction fighting that had beset the elite for so long. The samurai class found itself increasingly fragmented, either they rose to become feudal lords or, more likely, fell into the underclass. Many samurai found themselves master-less and became a ronin (` a wave man’) by the development of stable feudal estates and formed the basis for many bandit and outlaw groups that plagued the countryside. The traditional honorific role of the warrior class faced redundancy. Some daimyo resorted to employing ninja, a term applied to irregular forces, spies, and assassins.
As in Europe, specialisation of labour resulted in trade or craft guilds but, in a conscious attempt to prevent the rise of a new basis for wealth creation, merchant za were outlawed in 1585. Indeed, the chonin, the class of merchants and artisans, figured below the peasants if above outcasts on the social scale. Such outcasts might be the eta, a term used to describe those people who handled tasks considered exceptionally distasteful. Executioners, butchers, undertakers, midwives, even the makers of leather armour were considered eta. The connection was any job handling the dead or the remains of the dead; the term is possibly derived from etori, or butcher. Eta were considered practically subhuman, especially in the late medieval period and to have such origins remained a stigma into modern times.
The peasantry, as in China, was not treated to a completely subservient role. Their labour was too important for that. Many small farmers paid kuji, dues levied through corvée labour by sending men from their families to carry out infrastructure work on the basis of a certain amount of time of unpaid labour due each week. A myo was a land holding registered to a cultivator family that obligated taxation and service under the Shoen system. Shikki, or rights to a particular holding, entitled the owner a fixed percentage of the annual crop. This was a private estate, exempted from central government control, and often subject to a complex ownership system. The fine detail of this system lasted unchanged until the late 16th Century, when it was finally eliminated by sweeping changes in policy on land ownership. But a relatively back ward economic system still existed and was maintained only by the policy of isolation. Japan was a society in the process of change but hardly know it. Limited European contact with Japan occurred on and off for some of the late medieval and all of the early modern. By the 19th century, despite a similar desire to isolate itself as China had, the ruling elite in Japan had finally determined that it needed to modernise and to face the world.
A parallel interpretation of the situation in Japan as not being so far from western European feudalism as is currently conventional claimed may be proposed for the Arab and Turkish ‘iqta’ and Russia, from the 13th century, had institutions like feudalism and what became known as ‘pomestie’ has many analogies with the fief. Perhaps discussion on Russia can not strictly be defined as the Asiatic mode, both since it is not in Asia and since the system that applied before capitalism began to be a force in the late 19th century is more redolent of feudalism than not. Nonetheless, Asian economic and military questions undoubtedly forced the peculiarities of the system that did apply.
For a very long period, what remained as the coherent entity of Russia, the state of Muscovy, was surrounded on all points of the compass by hostile forces and the Tatar invasion from the 13th century challenged the very survival of Russia. But, as nomads, the invaders chose to remain in the southern grasslands, so as to feed their herds. Russia’s economy was kept separate by the payment of tribute to the Tatars, who did not need to develop a manufacturing base, which would permit them to keep pace with advancing military technology.
Even so, a long period of struggle had a deleterious effect on the nascent state, which was became a military dominated society. The ruling elite consisted of two kinds of landed hierarchy, nobles who held hereditary estates called votchinamilitary caste was created during the reign of Ivan III and the strategy succeed in eventually unifying the vast number of independent principalities that had arisen in the face of Mongol conquest. and gentry who had been given estates, or pomestie, by the state as a temporary source of revenue in exchange for military service. This
This system of land tenure forced the nobes to tie the peasants to the land and resulted in the spread of serfdom throughout Russia, the last vestiges of which were not eliminated until the 1917 revolution. Even after the Tatar threat had dissipated, rivals such as Poland, Ukraine and Sweden made the warrior-estate system still relevant. This was feudalism with uniquely Russian characteristics, especially the continuance of a repressive military dictatorship. It was however, a recipe for the creation of an ever-growing parasitic, minor aristocracy that would always be objectively redundant unless the threat of invasion existed. From 1722 until the revolution, the system was further ossified by a rule that made all who achieved the lowest grade of army officer a hereditary noble. Meanwhile, the older aristocracy and the monarch kept hold of real power.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF CLASS SOCIETY IN THE `CLASSICAL’ ERA OF EUROPE AND THE TRANSITION TO FEUDALISM
It is often claimed that modern, bourgeoise liberal democracy is somehow a return to the democracy first advanced by the Greeks, although such advocates rarely account for how this failed to provide the franchise for both women and slaves. No doubt the origins of this uncomfortable fact lie in the truth that the early stages of bourgeoise liberal democracy coped quite comfortably with excluding both groups!
But what is even more galling is the failure to recognise that the democracy of the ancient Greeks was a distortion of an early democracy that lay in primitive communism. The case for this is strongly and persuasively put by George Thompson, in his “Aeschylus in Athens – a study in the social origins of drama” [Lawrence and Wishart (1973)] As Thompson himself describes his work, this is a “reinterpretation of the plays of Aeschylus … in the light of the … transition from tribal society to the state”. [Thompson p vii] Interestingly, Thompson made much of his expert evaluation of Greek culture and history by measuring the life values of “peasant-fishermen” of West Kerry, in Ireland, whom he had become familiar with, and which still echoed ancient Celtic society.
It is well known that democracy stands for `rule of the people’ and that `demos’ stands for the people in that phrase. Thompson shows how, in fact, the earliest use of the term `dˆemos’ had existed since prehistoric times as a territorial unit, a piece of land that later became allocated to a clan and, after the sixth century BCE, to private ownership. An elected chief organised a roll of male citizens through patrilineal descent. “What the democrats had done was to abolish the old tribal system which, being modelled on the old but at the same time democratic, was readily accepted by the people as a reassertion of their ancient tribal tights –not a break with the past but a revival of the past”. [Thompson p195]
Another myth that is often appears is that Roman marriage was especially advantageous to women. Marriage in the Roman civilisation has usually been praised as a humanistic form, being based on a free and freely dissolvable union of two equal partners for life. But this is too simple a view, as there were many differing forms of marriage in Rome. The arranged elite arranged marriages and, for everyone in fact, the nature of married life depended greatly on their age, sex and social status. It is true that the state did not unduly interfere; no civil ceremony was needed, only mutual agreement. But marriage had become as economic a matter as anywhere else in ancient society outside of tribal cultures. For both males and females brought a larger network of family members and the security that came with it and, for the woman, her husband’s social status.
After the ending of tribal society and during the early history of developed Roman society, patriarchy ruled. A woman was the responsibility of her father until that was passed to her husband, although mechanisms to keep the dowry in the bride’s family were maintained and the father of the bride could continue to intervene between the husband and wife; although a husband did benefit from membership of his new, extended family after marriage. A free Roman couple with some wealth were permitted to have common interests outside the sphere of children and family and the upper classes operated calculating relationships, with easily unpicked financial arrangements and easy divorce. Even so, the written evidence of the `middle’ and political classes suggests many marriages with true companionship and love. The ideal of a partner for life was not easy to maintain, with uncertain times and health factors but the records of tombstones indicate that such marriages did exist.
Turning to wider societal questions, aspects of many European legal systems go back to the Greeks and the Romans, after they had replaced tribal property with private property and established a system of legal principles on how ownership should be established or transferred.
Greek merchants traded widely and developed a complex system of contract law as a means of protecting their interests. This covered the concept of damage retribution for animals, slaves, rent, or goods; the right to exclusive use of a name in commerce was protected. Unfair trading and banking rules were established. The state did not prosecute individuals for social crimes; it was up to wronged individuals to process a claim. Written Roman law began around 450 BCE, when fundamental principles were summarized on twelve wooden tablets, which were on public display in the forum. One of these tablets concerned possession, another land rights. In time, Roman law increased in complexity.
Roman laws were extended to its imperial possessions as they were acquired. A common misconception is that the empire was about creating space for Italians, whilst this did happen it was a minor aspect of Roman expansion. It is best to think in terms of the empire as a source of new slave labour and an exporting of a cultural and economic system. The burgeoning elite amongst conquered Celtic peoples would be given an opportunity to become Romanised, largely through the acquisition of lands that, under tribal law, belonged to the clan. This is what it truly meant to be Roman! Interestingly, much of the process that ensued bears remarkable similarity to that employed by European Americans against Native Americans a millennium and a half away. Italianate Romans became rich as absentee landowners after `purchasing’ tribal land from individuals who had been granted custodianship by tribal custom. But it was not theirs to sell, according to traditional local law. This is exactly the process that enabled the powerful elite of the USA to develop.
In Roman law, it was only necessary to prove unchallenged ownership for a year in the case of goods and two years in the case of land. No doubt, from this comes the now mistaken adage about possession being nine tenths of the law. It was definitely the case that possession in Roman law gave an advantage. Anyone disputing ownership had to show that the acquisition was illegitimate and tribal law did not count, only Roman. There were plenty of tenants, whose rights were limited. Land workers were not tied to the land, as serfs would later be.
The impetus for Roman intervention in Britain is best understood as belonging to the realms of trade and the mergence of a market economy. In the immediate period before occupation, raiding of Britain by Romanised Gaulish tribes took place. Some limited immigration from these sources occurred, mostly as a by-product of the creation of physical trading markets. South coast ports such as Poole Harbour were becoming more and more populous and sizeable. Britain, rather in the manner of the way its own colonies a little less than two millennia away would send away their raw materials, exported metals, grain, hides and slaves to the Empire; whilst it was luxury goods, such as wine and jewellery, that were imported.
The old hill forts, which had been centres of redistribution, were increasingly abandoned as surpluses went towards trade. The bulk of population were not much affected by the turn towards a commodity economy, for the old exchange networks between ordinary people remained unaffected. Rather as the elite of the developing world in the 20th century existed in a cocooned secondary money economy, the elite of old Britain found a need for coinage, which we first know of in Kent about 100 BCE. Several of the larger and wealthier British kingdoms struck their own two-sided coinage, fashioned after the Roman style.
The political turmoil following the collapse of Catavellaunian kingdom, a short-lived but sizeable confederation of several southern tribes with a capital at Colchester was the rather modern-sounding pretext for Roman intervention. The `invasion’ of the territory of the Atrebates of Surry and Berkshire by the Catavellauni of Hertfordshire and Essex was deplored by Rome, which promptly organised its own invasion to `put things right.
Attila demanded massive tribute from Eastern Roman Empire and successfully obtained a doubling of an earlier obtained annual subsidy of gold and the opening of markets to Hunnish traders. The Huns then became occupied on an unsuccessful attempt to take Persia. Then, in 450, a new Emperor of the East refused to pay up. The Huns decided to attack the Western Empire, seeing it as a weaker force. Although, the Hun had by now developed some siege capacity, they had become a more sedentary nation and could graze only a fraction of their former horsepower. They were, however, able to rely on an alliance with Germanic tribes, such as the Ostrogoths, Burgundians and Alans, who occupied the eastern side of the Rhine. The Franks were split between pro- and anti-Roman factions. Devastation was brought as far west as Gaul and Italy was partially invaded too.
But, Attila died suddenly in 453, on the night of his wedding feast, possibly after massive internal bleeding caused him to choke on his own blood. This was perhaps caused by alcohol-triggered esophagal rupture. With the loss of confidence this caused, the empire of the Huns faded quickly. In 454, their Germanic allies deserted Attila’s sons after their disunity over future strategy became clear.
These allies were critical to the Roman culture too. Tribes that were neither Romancolonies nor had been granted citizenship were bound by treaty (foedus) to provide allied warriors when need arose. The term is the root of the word `federalism’. A foedus indicated a solemn binding treaty of mutual assistance. Roman subsidy in the form of money or food was replaced as tax revenues dwindled in the fourth and fifth centuries. The foederati were billetted on local landowners, which came to be identical to being allowed to settle on Roman territory. Large local landowners living in distant border provinces found their loyalties compromised. The Empire began to crumble and in 376 the Visigoths demanded settlement rights on the southern bank of the Danube river as foederati. Two years later they rebelled and defeated the Romans. A loss of military manpower forced the Roman Empire to rely more on foederati but their loyalty was always suspect. By the fifth century Roman military strength was almost completely based upon foederati units. These uncertain allies delivered the fatal blow to the dying Roman Empire in 476 when their commander deposed the last Roman emperor Romulus Augustulus.
The Roman Empire, whilst being an example of a second stage slave owning society, developed to something approaching capitalism. The collapse of the Empire resulted in a regression to a third system, that of feudalism. Here `rent’ is paid in a certain amount of produce, or time, shadowed in a modern remnant such as sharecropping. Money-rent emerged in the final phases of feudalism.
In much of Europe, after the decline of the Roman Empire, legal confusion abounded as much as did the economic, political and military situation. After the withdrawal of the legions, much of its legal system remained in what had been Roman Britain. Later, as Anglo-Saxon influence grew and a historic compromise was made with the British Celtic tradition, some Roman law was melded with that of the Germanic tribes but the end result was definitely a temporary dilution. However, the Normans re-introduced Roman law, along with full-bloodied feudalism. Elsewhere in Europe, the next four or five hundred years saw Roman civil law largely adopted in most European countries due mostly to its attractions as regards ownership and exchange.
Historians usually explain the collapse of the western half of the Roman empire in the fourth and fifth centuries by looking at either long-term view institutional factors, or short term political causes. The division of the army around 300 AD into border troops and a more mobile complement had decided effects. The army became diluted with `barbarian’ auxiliaries and the border troops were distracted by involvement in local farming activities. The division of the Roman Empire into two parts clearly led to the demise of the western half but the division was arguably a recognition of the inevitable. For all of our cultural focus on the fall of the Empire the truth is that the eastern half of the empire, known from 476 AD as the Byzantine Empire, would exist until 1453, a further thousand years.
The sheer size of the Empire was always a fundamental problem in funding its protection but then the growth of the Empire had been the reason for its success. The economy of the western Empire was strong only as long as it was expanding and producing more slaves as it did so. Once expansion ceased, problems set in. The infrastructure of the west was relatively poorly developed, there were few cities and enormous tracts of undeveloped territory. Whilst there was actually a massive trade deficit with eastern regions of the Empire long before the break into two.
Contrary to earlier historical thought, Rome did not decline and fall in one fell swoop, it was a much more gradual process. The Empire was oriented mainly around Mediterranean and other sea trading routes that enabled regional economic specialization and consequent economies of scale. The struggle with `barbarians’ was less a clash of cultures than a clash of economic systems and some tribes became Romanised, as in what is now England. The conflict in the east was an altogether different matter, much more a question of great power politics and the shift from Rome to Constantinople reflected this.
Only by the Arab invasions of the 7th and 8th centuries was the Mediterranean largely denied and the essential characteristics of the Roman Empire, the Mare Nostrum, finally extinguished. Germanic tribes, having occupied the western Empire, sought to continue it and maintained at least trading ties with the eastern Empire. But, with the increasing disruption of trading routes, the regions could not count on achieving the proceeds from the sale of their own specialised goods to obtain other from elsewhere that were needed for a rounded economy and self-sufficiency became obligatory. Unable to draw on economic resources beyond the locality, the west reverted to an agrarian economy, laying the basis for feudalism.
Before this, once isolated barbarian tribes increasingly banded together to form more powerful confederations, such as Goths, Franks and Alamanni, whilst pirate raids in the Mediterranean were focused on the western part of the sea. Civil war caused a drain on resources and the pressure piled on a century later, when the division of the Empire left the western half with less wealthy provinces. This should have made it harder to fund military expenditure but the size of the army increased by half as much again in response to the need. Economic crises followed one after the other. The silver content of the denarius diminished to virtually nothing, prices soared to silly levels as inflation raged, yet every effort to order stability to return failed. For long periods, there was a definite lack of a circulating currency arising from the hoarding of bullion by fearful Roman citizens, and frequent looting of the state treasuries by barbarians.
Despite a massive growth in bureaucracy and in ideas for state intervention in economic matters, there is a real sense that few understood the nature of the crisis they lived amidst. Constant leadership changes, often of a poor quality, did not help matters and resulted in a permanent sense of direction changing. Internal social unrest was a problem, especially since the system of latifundia resulted in a monopolisation of agriculture that led to small farmers loosing their livelihoods. The stark contrast between the fact that the poor people became poorer and rich people became richer undermined confidence of the citizenry the status quo.
The regions began to appear more important relative to the centre itself. Local languages begin to be used for administrative and literary purposes. A single emperor was replaced by a `tetrarchy’; a collective of senior and junior emperors toured the Empire with their courts, in turn fuelling the desires of newly powerful provincial cities. In turn this lead to the creation of two entirely separate states in the form of the western and eastern empires; it is usual to term this `the Byzantine Empire’. Yet the word `Byzantine’ would not have been known to its inhabitants, since it dates from 1557. The Empire’s own name for itself was `Romanía’, or Basileía Romaíon, a direct translation into Greek of the historic Latin name of the Roman Empire, `Imperium Romanorum’.
Byzantium was remarkably stable and unchanging for a very long time but its increasing prosperity saw its elite with no real power, only honorary titles, and this led to political instability. Although the Empire was still ruled by a central authority, by 1040 it was plagued by intrigue and rebellion by a new class of provincial lords with their own military capacity. Political struggle between the desires of the mass of its people and the elite resulted in new agricultural laws adopted from the 11th century. These new rules were presented at the time as a solution to the struggle between the `poor’ and the `powerful’. A system of land grants, known as `pronoia’ (plural pronoiai, Greek for `provisions’) was created.
Some – mostly Marxists – view this as the beginning of a localised variant of the feudalism that was beginning to grip the old western half of the empire; but it remains a contested arena in Byzantine studies, as does the whole question of what constitutes feudalism and where and when it applied, within historians generally. New though the 11th century application was in Byzantium, the emperor had revived the essence of an old idea, from the earlier stages of the unified empire, when strategoi, or military commanders, in charge of military districts, or thema, collected rent from the peasants who farmed the land. However, the paroikoi, those who worked the land under either the old thema, or the new `pronoiai’ system, were not serfs as in the feudal system of western Europe. They owed no particular over-arching loyalty or service to the earlier strategos or the new `pronoiar’, as in both cases the emperor was still the legal owner of the land. But there is no doubting that this was a system of pre-industrial exploitation of peasant labour, whereby an elite class syphoned off wealth, and it was most certainly not a slave orientated system of economics and politics.
Essentially, pronoiai were a license to tax everybody who lived within the boundaries of the grant. But pronoiars often could claim part of harvest and held hunting and transportation rights, factors that make them more like vassals than some commentators would conceed. Even so, pronoiars were mainly tax collectors on commission and often had no real connection to the territory they controlled; whilst the peasants had few obligations to pronoiars beyond the land rent. The major differences between the Byzantine pronoia and the Western fiefs arose from the fact that with the former the state apparatus of state revue generation was so developed that the holders of pronoia were almost considered as salaried officials, in the latter this aspect of the state’s financial structure had all but collapsed, its function being effectively `privatised’. Whilst there was no direct parallel to the European system of intertwined mutal obligations, that bred a semi-mystical cultural overlay of what might be viewed almost as etiquette, the pronoiai system was clearly defined.
The size and value of the land grant, the number of peasant tenants and the duties owed by them were recorded, along with the duties owed by the pronoiar to the emperor, although a good deal of autonomy existed here. If necessary, the emperor could request military service, although the pronoiar could not force his taxpayers to join him. The pronoiar might even lead a rebellion against the centre with the support of their tenant/taxpayers. But this was often a game of power play, with a renewed or reinforced pronoia grant settling the issue.
These land `provisions’ rendered members of the aristocracy less likely to plot against the emperor, yet most grants were `leases’ to those who were part of the Emperor’s own family, leaving the land under centralised state control. In the 12th century, the same process of extending pronoiai to army officers, in place of a regular salary, took place. In the 13th century, pronoiai were permitted to be inherited, a factor that is suggestive of even more of a similarity to feudalism of western Europe. Even the church – and noble women – were allowed pronoiai and pronoiars could also `sub-contract’ pronoia grants of their own.
But, from herein, the empire found itself squeezed by the Ottoman EmpireThe island city of Venice, being defensible from invaders, resulted in it seeking Byzantium as a protector control when most of the empire and Italy was overrun. Consequently, Venice began to specialise in trade and commerce, it was a centre of the earliest form of capitalism and, by the 11th century, the dominant power of the Adriatic. There is a sense in which the feudalisation of Byzantium was paralleled by the capitalisation of Venice, which began to stretch its influence across the islands and coasts of the eastern Mediterranean., which in a sense supplanted it, and Constantinople was lost in 1453. Indeed, the Ottomans continued to use their own version of the pronoia system, which they had borrowed from the Byzantines.
THE POST-ROMAN BRITISH ISLES: CELTS, ANGLO-SAXONS AND VIKINGS
Quite who or what the Celts are is a matter of controversy amongst those in the field of history. In a sense, whether they were a nation, a tribe, a language group, a culture, an art form or a way of life may not matter. What is clear is that, from around 3,400 years ago, proto-Celtic peoples moved from Asia to south-east Europe. There was a point at which these peoples, originally of Indo-Aryan origin, appeared in what is now Bohemia. The blood group ‘O’ appears in their modern descendants, which designates them as separate from most inhabitants of Southern Indian, where the ‘B’ blood group predominates. Subsequently, these peoples migrated west, where they dissipated in various waves of integration and movement. The lowland Celts of the Danube from around 1200 BC slowly made their way across Europe, founding unique lake dwellings in the Danube valley, Switzerland and Scotland. They were skilled in metals working of all kinds but iron and were mixed farmers who still practiced cremation rather than burial. They easily blended with the megalithic people among whom they settled, still also strongly following matrilineal descent and an element of matriarchy. Famously, the Celts brought a new depth to culture and art, so much so that the distinctive style of their artefacts may cloud interpretation of the degree to which they assimilated or were assimilated in turn amongst existing local populations.
Another, later, group appeared on the Rhine around the 6th century BC. Frequently hired as mercenaries for other powers, by now Celts were displaying all the hallmarks of a warrior culture and an emerging class society. During the period of Greece and Rome, Celtic culture dominated north of the Alps. What we think of today as Celtic areas, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Cornwall and Brittany, are remnants of this period. DNA analysis of modern people of Basque, Irish Gaelic and north Welsh backgrounds has led to suggestions that the pre-Roman inhabitant of north and west Britain came from Iberia. By the 10th century the ‘Celts’ could be said to have been fragmented into small groups with a similar cultural heritage. The Romans had used the words ‘Celtae’, ‘Galli’ and ‘Galatae’, sadly, the notion of a Celtic people is more or less the invention of 18th century antiquarians.
In Gaelic, the word clann means family or children and denoted a system that was completely distinct from the Sassenach or Lowland Scots and English. The clan system remained under feudalism, having been reduced to little more than a legal means to govern the ownership of land. In earlier times, at least among the Scotii, the predominant economics were cattle based. It may be that the emigration of the Scots eastward from Ireland from the sixth century onward. to what is now west and northwest Scotland was triggered by shift in the methods of production that required expansion to new lands. Recorded references to clans from the 12th century in land deeds often concern low status free men but more powerful lordship was nonetheless developing. The advent of Norman influence hastened this process, more in the Lowlands than the Highlands and a new aristocratic class came into being.
Generally, a `modern’ clan is a vastly extended family, descended from some notable individual, often bearing his name. Some Scottish clans are descended from the ancient Scots; others are descended from Norman, English, and Viking warlords. Strictly speaking, a Scottish clan consists of the chief’s family and the branches that can prove descent from the founder through the female line, even in times of recorded history. Increasingly though, a clan included every family that accepted the authority of the local chief. Certainly, originally, children took their mother’s name and daughters inherited her possessions. Female promiscuity before marriage was acceptable. Abortion and divorce was a woman’s right.
The law of royal succession among the separate and shadowy Picts was through the mother, even if the monarch was male. There were queens, who could rule in their own right. Among them is the legendary Irish warrior queen, Maeve. Of course, the famed British Boudicca testifies to this tendency also. Slavery could not be hereditary; the Celts’ slaves were captive foreigners without civil rights who could be freed, under the tutelage of the clan.
Interestingly, during the conquest by the English of North America, and throughout the French and Indian War, the English authorities frequently negotiated with the Native Americans for their military assistance. While they were not as successful as their French counterparts, the English were able to rely on the influence of the Scottish Highlanders, whom the Indians viewed as being similar to themselves. Both cultures had great respect for the orator and elder, held battle and war dances and kept ancient clan traditions in high regard. Their similarities led the English to refer to the Scots as cousins of the Indian.
The Native American political system, or `state’, was remarkably similar to that still in existence in North America, when the descendants of the Celts, and others, later encountered the natives there. Military leaders were no dictators, the commander of the Gauls in the war against the Romans, had always to give account of his conduct of the war to the allied tribes’ council to Caesar’s astonishment. The Roman author Strabo wrote that among the Gauls there were three groups of men who were held in exceptional honour: the Bards, the Vates, and the Druids. The Bards were the musicians, singers, and poets. The Vates were diviners and soothsayers, diviners, and natural diviners. The priestly Druids in the early stages appear to have been less significant than during the period of the Roman conquest.
Celtic religion was nature worshipping and polytheistic, recognizing many levels of supernatural beings and divinities, female as well as male. The Celts believed that the course of nature is the will of the Gods. Thus they venerated both local and general deities, usually in natural sanctuaries, especially shrines at springs, rivers, lakes, and in woodland. As we shall see, echoes of continuity between Celtic culture and Native Americans are stunningly strong. In Romano-British territory and in areas near to the borders most of this was squeezed away over the period from 43 AD to 410 AD, with continuity of a sort thereafter. Yet, outside of Rome’s sphere of influence, many of the old ways continued in some parts of the British Isles and, of course in nearly all of Ireland.
Even there, however, the process of the development of elites was under way following the importation of some of the ideology that underpinned the notion of empire. The emergence of kingdoms was evident, firstly the dominant Ulster, just before Britain came under the Roman sphere of influence. The spectacular `fort’ enclosure of Navan in County Armagh was the cultural centre of the kingdom of Ulster. This was actually a ceremonial amphitheatre, a round monument rebuilt as many as eight times. In its earliest stage, it seems to have been a dwelling of sorts, possibly originally a Neolithic funeral site. Perhaps the dwelling stage encompassed some role as the seat of a tribal council, personified in some way. Increasingly, from 94 BCE, its role looks to be more and more like that played by Stonehenge, with building that symbolised houses. The rebuilding fashion appear linked to a custom of burying the site under a mound, periodically sealing it off in the same manner as a barrow. A likely scenario is that this represented a kind of Iron Age `Valhalla’, where heroes ceremonially feasted and at the end the entire site was burned down and buried. A structural resemblance to a wheel is evident. Such evidence suggests the typical development of Iron Age warrior cults, for which pre-eminence was won by reference to the need to defend increasingly prosperous societies from outside attack. In the 4th century, Ulster became overshadowed by the rise of the Kingdom of Connacht, after King Niall, established a dynasty that lasted until the 11th century. In a parallel development, the Kingdom of Tara also emerged elsewhere on the island.
If Celtic society in the British and Irish Isles was pushed to the margins firstly by Roman influence, the later influx of what have become known as Anglo-Saxons more or less ended all but ossified notions of the old order. There were in fact many Germanic tribes that migrated: the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Frisians, and Franks. In contrast to the Celts, all these tribes already operated class society. The Saxons called the native Britons, ‘wealas’, which meant foreigner or slave, from this derogatory term Cymru became Wales. Many native British went to Brittany, to escape servitude.
But enormous numbers of native Britons remained where they lived, or did not move far. The notion of a massive immigration of Germanic peoples has been challenged by recent DNA analysis, which suggests that only a modicum of Saxons added to the mass of British blood lines. There must have been interbreeding and mixing to a much greater extent than has been previously assumed. A similar debate has surrounded the later Norman `invasion’ and current thinking has settled upon a notion of a wholesale replacement of the elite by a new group, little disturbing the balance of the life of the mass of the people at that time. If there are parallels with the Anglo-Saxon and Norman invasions, what is clear is that the normal life of the previous inhabitants was massively disturbed. A new linguistic, cultural, economic, legal and political system entirely supplanted much that thad previously existed.
Anglo-Saxon territory coalesced into a division of seven separate kingdoms, each ruled by a king. In these parts of Britain, mostly England but parts of Lowland Scotland too, dominated by the Germanic tribes, the lowest of the low were now the slaves and, in the early centuries of Germanic occupation, the economy was to a great extent dependent upon them. Generally slaves were captured in raids or warfare, the leaders of a losing army being executed and their people enslaved. The conquest of Celtic areas led to the creation of a massive slave workforce. But, over time, this ethnic and linguistic basis rapidly faded. Sometimes, when times were particularly hard, Anglo-Saxon people began to sell themselves into slavery to ensure survival. For bondsmen, or the `theow’, had clearly defined rights and rules set down what grain provisions they should be given. They could even own property and could earn money in their spare time and even, if they had enough, buy their freedom.
The `ceorls’ (churls) were the ordinary people but `freemen’ who generally did not own land. Ceorls had the right to seek compensation, could bear arms, serve in the military and take part in folk meetings. Although there were three classes of ceorl, the dividing line was vague but with increasingly diminishing status and menial tasks to perform. The geneatas were a kind of `middle class’ peasant, paying ground rent to their overlord for the land they used. The word came from geneat, meaning `companion’, suggesting a closeness to the lord. A range of assorted duties applied, from working on the lord’s land to building fences and fortifications and doing odd jobs for the lord. The kotsetla paid no rent but had to perform more numerous duties, such as working for the lord one day week, three days a week at harvest-time and acting as a guard. The gebur were totally dependant on their lord, working two or three days a week for him, having surrendered any land that had originally held in return for permanent protection and being unable to pass on any form of property or wealth on death.
The class above the ceorls was the lowest rung of the elite. This class, the thegns (thanes), or knights, owned at least five hides, enough land supposedly to sustain one family. Although the actual size of a hide seems to have varied from 40 acres to 4 square miles but 120 acres seems to be the norm, suggestive of much more than subsistence farming. (A ceorl that possessed five hides of land gained the rights but not status of a thane.) Hides were grouped together in units called ‘hundreds’, comprised of approximately 100 hides. In charge of the hundred was the hundred `eolder’, and each shire contained many hundreds. The thanes were primarily a warrior class. In times of peace, thanes had to serve one month of military service out of every three in rotation, to provide for a permanent army. In a state such as Mercia, in the English Midlands, there might be as many as a thousand thanes. They were obligated to provide duty to the king in military service, forming the backbone of the Anglo-Saxon army and the maintaining of good local infrastructure. Good service could result in the granting of lands and occasionally promotion to the next rank of the elite.
The thanes were divided into two groups, king’s thanes and inferior thanes by law. The origin of this was that, when leaving Germany, bands had gathered around a notable warrior. On occupying new territory, band chiefs who were nearest the king were in a favourable position to claim the best and largest chunks of land. But little else separated them from other thanes, there was no special class privilege as such beyond inequality of ownership. It would take a very long time for these to form themselves as a new class. The King’s thanes only answered to the king himself, as opposed to another thane, holding their lands on his sufferance on pain of providing good service to him. Thanes would accompany the king as bodyguards and officials on a rota basis.
But society had not yet become rigidly class distinct, ceorls could and did become thanes and they, in turn, could become eolderman, the next rank above the thanes. (We get the word `alderman’, a now archaic form of superior member of a municipal council, from this rank.) From the late 9th century, this complex social system would ossify into clearer roles, fixed upon the relationship to the land. The role of eolderman was not originally hereditary but, as the same office began to remain in one family for more than one generation, after a couple of centuries they were only chosen from a few powerful families. Essentially, by the 10th century, the eolderman became the ruling nobility, the king’s man in a shire, responsible for administration, justice and troop mobilisation. Increasingly, these responsibilities were concentrated in fewer hands, with several shires being governed. By the early 11th century the term eolderman began to be replaced with `eorl’, or `earl’, this was possibly an anglicisation of the Danish ‘jarl’.
Germanic customs of social relationship had been reminiscent of many tribal cultures, with its roots deep in hunter-gathering. In the earliest days of Germanic immigration these relationships were still strong. The basic family unit and the wider extended family clan looked after its own, extracting justice or ensuring it was met when there was, say, a rare murder. Women continued as part of their birth families even after they married and their kinsmen were expected to take action if her husband abused or her in any way. Oaths of loyalty up and down society created mutual obligations and responsibility between two individuals of differing social status. In a sense the relationship was a kind of social kinship. The system of `comitatus’, or mutual obligation that existed between classes, would become important in the laying down of later more definitely feudal society. Tacitus described the process in Germania of a basic unit of the comitatus, or gefolge, based on the loyalty of warriors to their chieftain. A foreigner could be given the protection of the tribe and in time were able to join as a full member. But, as agricultural production became fixed upon a dominating ownership of a few, the old system broke down.
The Germanic tribes generally had been headed by a ruler who was deemed to be responsible for the luck of the tribe, oversaw sacrificial ceremonies and interpreted and proposed tribal law. These `kings’ were elected by the witan or council of leaders and then confirmed by the folk. But they were also subject to recall and could be removed at will by the tribe. Succession to the throne was not guaranteed as the council had the right to choose what they considered to be the best successor from the elite. Only by the middle of the ninth century was the royal family of Wessex accepted by all tribes as the stable English royal family with a hereditary right to rule.
Later Anglo-Saxon society may be viewed as in transition from slavery to feudalism. A little commodity production had started although even though coins were minted, their use was not widespread, and most goods were bartered. The later serf class of early medieval society emerged fairly straightforwardly from the Saxon ceorls. Ordinary people increasingly found the earlier phase of mutual obligation form into subjection to the more powerful landowners. Both Germanic and Norse early settler societies had treated those who worked but did not own land with relatively egalitarian regard as far as personal and tribal rights were concerned, even if a treaty in 886 AD valued a Danish freeman as only equal to that of a Saxon gebur, the middle ranking ceorls! But this relative regard began to break down fairly quickly, once the land had been unfairly distributed. Although the degree to which this occurred varied, West Saxon laws made no distinction between ceorls and `half-freemen’, as Kentish laws did. But half-free people could well have been indigenous Britons. The word Welsh is derived from the Saxon word ‘waelas’ meaning ‘foreigner’ or ‘slave’ and was applied to all the native British, irrespective of where they lived. Only later, was the term exclusively applied to those who called themselves the Cymru.
By 1066, a complex social strata existed; at the bottom were serfs and slaves, who had mostly emerged from the lower ceorls, half-freemen and native Britons; next cottagers or cottars; then higher ceorls, who rented farms of up to fifty acres; then thanes, who drew rents in kind from the ceorls; then earls, each ruling one of the six great earldoms that covered the country; and above all, the King. But there were few slaves in the villages, most were in the households of the rich. Whilst the church stood for the freedom of slaves, the main factor was that the system no longer quite worked and slavery was formally abolished in 1102.
The traditional source of slaves had largely dried up, few prisoners were now taken in the skirmishes that had characterised the `occupation’ and the basis for relatively frequent battles did not exist. Long term imprisonment as a punishment by the courts for serious robbery had been a source of slaves. The Germanic tribes had brought their own legal system. The monthly hundred provided the lowest court, above that was the six monthly shire court. Trial by ordeal was common, if hit and miss; essentially, if a wound healed without festering, the guilty was presumed innocent. For punishment, there were only the options fines, mutilation, death, or forfeiture of property to the king, since a state system had not yet developed to provide for prisons. As in other cultures of the time, punishment in Germanic society had been proportionate to the offence as well as the rank of the person offended against. The well off agitated for financial alternatives to enslavement, in cases where one of their family had serious erred. Prisons were still a thing of the future and working off a debt by slavery implied not only putting the slave to useful toil but also guarding and such a course was only practical for those with major estates with it own armed body of men and, in any case, the new villeinage system seemed to be working even better than slavery.
But before all this, before the run down to the Norman invasion and the consolidation of a feudal economic system, Anglo-Saxon society found itself challenged by a range of Viking invasions, ultimately both groups of interlopers found means to co-exist and eventually merge. `Viking’ is a designation that really describes a way of life rather then being the name of a single ethnic or language group. As such it may be ascribed to any of the truly Scandinavian countries of Norway, Denmark and Sweden, probably in that order in terms of frequency of the activity. In the late 9th century, the various Germanic tribes, who had founded independent kingdoms in England and lowland Scotland, found their ascendancy challenged by Viking invaders. Enormous battles for supremacy were fought. But it unclear that the Vikings were really seeking in supplanting the Anglo-Saxon kings as a new ruling class; it is possible that they were really aiming at tribute taking, the taking of land followed almost as a by-product of success on the battlefield.
Although they travelled right across Europe and even further by sea and inland waterways, the Vikings were essentially farmers, albeit that hunting and fishing formed an important part of their economy. But a culture of trading and raiding arose from their marvellous command of ship and navigational technology. Since this led to a good deal of absentee activity, women were by far from marginalised, as they were needed to keep the farm functional in their husbands’ absences. Whilst male children inherited on the death of their father, female siblings also could inherit goods and property, albeit in smaller proportion and a wife would inherit in the absence of children. Many powerful women are celebrated in the traditional sagas and in some lavish burials. Commodity society was as yet undeveloped but wealth was recognised in the form of booty. Personal tools of the trade would be buried with an individual, sometimes symbolically bent or broken out of potential use. A warrior would be buried with his sword and shield, a seamstress with her spindle and needles.
Returning from a raid with riches and wonderful things was a form of initiation, having proved himself a young warrior, returning from adventure in a faraway land could return to respect. Others may have begun to expand a talent for acquiring things into a business and hence trading began. Acquiring beads, glass, pottery (good clay is rare in Norway) and metallic adornments from afar and turning these into decorative artefacts could be turned into a cottage industry for the local market in Norway. Whilst slave trading was a natural extension of coastal raiding and became an important part of the Dublin based Vikings, who eventually intermingled to found a strong cosmopolitan trader presence that can still be discerned in a certain local ambience. Trading and raiding led to settlement, settlement led to occupation but not necessarily in the sense of `swamping’ the local inhabitants.
Like all Iron Age warrior cultures, the Vikings found their talents were of use in exerting power in other cultures with less of a commitment to force. In short, they may have become gradually equally at home with emigration as with forging a role for themselves as a new ruling elite, rather as white settlers in Kenya sought to do in the 20th century. From as early as the 7th century, evidence now exists for Viking intermarriage and settlement in parts of Britain and Scandinavian customs, especially in burial rights, evidently began to be taken up by sections of the native British. Particularly strong genetic, geographical and archaeological evidence exists for a strong migratory presence in the northern and western islands off Scotland, before this time the preserve of a mysterious tribe only known to historians as the Picts.
The Vikings referred to the Picts (Latin for painted) as the Peti and those who argue for an assimilation strategy on the part of the Vikings draw an analogy with the inter-relationship between the Vikings and the Lapps in Norway, whereby the less developed culture was allowed an element of autonomy on the basis of accepting tribute to the militarily stronger culture. Vikings took the best farming land but seem to have respected Pictish burial grounds, evidence for tolerance, perhaps. Assimilation would appear to have been more pronounced than was the case on the far north of Norway. We may consider the Viking `conquest’ of the Scottish isles as peaceful co-existence in a dominant relationship and there is even evidence, in the form of mixed styles of cooking utensils, for intermarriage with Pictish women. But the economy of the area changed dramatically. A big shift to fishing as well as farming took place and this was not just a question of diet. Dried fish were exported and became a commodity to be traded around the North Sea.
The Norse (Normans) in northern France integrated into society as a new ruling elite. In Dublin and elsewhere they hung on as a trading elite, having been ejected as a ruling class in 902 AD and driven out of York in 927. Yet the Picts, their language and culture, virtually disappeared from history as the northern Scottish based Vikings simply took over. The huge number of Scandinavian place names in Orkney and Shetland, for example, being suggestive of such dominance. Their language transmuted into a dialect, Norn, still spoken as late as the 18th century and some words are still utilised amid the local Scottish English. It is possible that large numbers of Picts were absorbed, one way or another, but communities of separate identity simply faded away, individuals dying off en masse in economic distress; or, as was the case in Tasmania, also an island and where land mass was restricted being ethnically cleansed.
But the genetic evidence for Celtic settlement in the Scottish islands, even in the Orkneys, is also strong and, of course, the Gael is spoken in the western islands. But much of this may have come from incomers after the Viking intrusion. The present state of knowledge is such that we simply don’t know whether the Picts were exterminated or faded but archaeological evidence for the former is slight.
Silver by weight formed the international currency at the time and Vikings were especially fond of decorated armlets or necklaces made of silver in such a way that small bits could hacked off one at a time, when the need for currency arose. Whilst coins were in circulation, it did not seem to matter who issued them, since it was weight that people went by. Silver coins from France, Arabia and England (the penning) followed a standard weight set by Rome in the 4th century.
The Isle of Man became a Viking base, where much of the wealth gained from Dublin’s trade found its way. There, Viking men intermarried with local Celts to form a new culture, led by the Norsemen in an independent kingdom. There is some evidence of wives being buried with their husbands but other women were treated with more deference. Viking men found a niche for themselves as a warrior elite right across Europe. Viking warriors, mostly from Sweden and called the Rus by the Slavic population, established themselves as the rulers of Moscow and gave their names eventually to Russia. They were trading with the Arabs by the 9th century along the Volga River. By the tenth century, Norway was a unified kingdom and its rulers were key players in British politics.
Unquestionably, despite some reliance still on collectivism amongst the Vikings themselves, in their earlier phase, they treated the societies they captured as a slave economy. `Thrall’ was the word used to describe a slave, hence the English expression `to be in thrall’ to someone and these were the lowest rung in the Viking social and economic order. Whilst the main sources for slaves were war, piracy and trade, their numbers also included those born into slavery and various criminals. A man who failed to discharge his debts could become the slave of his creditor until he redeemed his debt. Thralls had few rights and could hold no land, so instead of being fined for lawbreaking they were beaten, maimed or even put to death. However, a thrall led astray by a freeman could be been punished for it. A slave had the right to kill in defence of his wife even but a freeman could not. Even so, a slave was generally treated as having no more rights than a cow. It was normal to pay the owner the price of eight cows if you killed his thrall.
Although a thrall could not own land, possessions and money, even time to do work for himself were permitted. Buying and selling at market or, in private if the value was small, was also possible. The children of slaves also became slaves but ill treatment was not generally thought proper. Complete freedom could be bought immediately with the right amount but, even if freed, a slave and his descendants were dependant on his former owner’s family for generations. Some slaves were merely servants; other inherited the condition and debt slavery, for a specified time applied, possibly only to Norwegian born people. But the breeding of slaves was rare, capturing adult foreigners were simply cheaper. This modified into kidnapping and ransom of wealthy or important individuals.
Over a two hundred period up to 1032, on average every eight or so years, a cull of large numbers of Irish natives would be captured by Vikings probably to trade as slaves. But Vikings did not truly follow a fully-fledged slave economic system and this was not introduced as an alternative economic model to Ireland. Even so, slave trading was a vital part of the Viking economy and slaves were captured from as far apart as the Mediterranean, to the North Sea and the Baltic. A chief was certainly followed in his grave by at least one retainer. But slave raiding was used extensively to found new societies. Gaelic DNA has been found amongst Icelanders, suggesting that slaves were taken there with the Scandinavian settlers. But a significantly larger proportion of females to males have been identified, indicating that perhaps `native’ wives were also taken from the British and Irish Isles.
In England, the Danes, initially acting as a kind of part-time, seasonal force of pirates, moved from raiding to settling from the late 9th century. Before the practice was abandoned as unfitting behaviour for aspirant and up-market settlers, enormous hordes of plunder were taken back to Scandinavia, as evidenced by the stunning quantities of silver found buried in the ground there. In an echo of earlier practices, this may have been returned to the earth as an offering, especially since there was little practical use for it in the homeland, which would have been awash with silver.
In an act of supreme realpolitik, what is now Englandwas spilt by agreement diagonally into two parts and the Scandinavian sphere of influence was known as the Danelaw, although this was still an integral part of the English kingdom. Despite differences in the names used for administrative sub-divisions for localities, the legal system that applied was much the same across England, indeed even in Scandinavia. The only major differences now were in religion and, as the Danes were converted to Christianity, even this difference grew less.
For ordinary people, there may have been little to choose between the two nascent monarchical systems. Yet, there is some reason to believe that even many Anglo-Saxon peasants preferred the more hands off approach of the Danes, whose trading inclinations made them diffident, if sometimes rather violent, aristocrats. This may truly have been a case of `better the devil you do not know’! For, arguably, unlike the Saxon kings, Viking aristocrats were not so far away from more egalitarian ways. They were certainly more pragmatic and adaptable than the recently Germanic lords. England was in the process of re-inventing itself and the Vikings were a dynamic part of that process.
The relative status of the various divisions of the Anglo-Saxon social system and the Scandinavian is difficult to match. For one thing the pyramidal nature of the two systems were not entirely comparable, the Viking perhaps looking a little flatter, not quite so graded. But if the Scandinavian freemen seem less oppressed than their Anglo-Saxon equivalents do, an emergent elite is all too evident. Perhaps it was simply that the Vikings had had less time to force new social relations in the context of their new British situation, whilst they had also been forced to establish themselves in the more peripheral regions. Nonetheless, especially in the Danelaw of England, we find, above the freedman, the `bondi’ and `karls’, land holders of varied status, with or without hereditary rights to their land. Holding rights were fiercely defended and could not be usurped by the upper elite; in Scotland such rights survived for some into the eighteenth century! The elite was composed of the various ranks, the lowest rank of which were the landsmenn, a kind of baron. The jarl was an independent lordship, won by inheritance or force. Early on there was little difference between powerful jarls and petty kings. Only by the eleventh century were the jarls subordinated to a centralised king.
Those warriors who did settle, take lands for themselves, may have simply made themselves the new rulers without significantly affecting the lives of the locals. In time, with the arrival of more settlers, the Danish culture and elements of its language did superimpose itself. Despite the preponderance of Scandinavian place names in a rough line drawn from the Mersey to East Anglia, spilling over the diagonal `peace’ line, a new lord of the manor may well have simply had the village renamed. There is even a sense in which such names became fashionable and associated with progress rather than conquest and there is good cause to accept that Danes, the remnants of Britons and the various Germanic tribes began to mix in many ways from hereon. Despite the undoubted ethnic mix, the Anglo-Saxon kings referred to all who inhabited the Danish part of England over almost two centuries as `Danes’, irrespective of their background. Is it to fanciful to imagine here the seeds of that north-south divide that is so obviously part of Britain’s heritage, much reinforced though it was by the Industrial Revolution?
Whatever the case, the Danes now set about adopting the trappings of a ruling elite, in particular the issuing of coinage, something that had been rare back home. Taking up Christianity was part of an international strategy to demonstrate across Europe, as well as England, that they were a serious political elite, demonstrating to all that they were `as good’ as the Anglo-Saxon elite. It is difficult to grasp now just how significant York was as an internationally recognised capital in the 10th century. The ultimate irony is that, after a period of shared leadership, the kingship of England was to fall, by the most famous date of all, 1066, to descendants of the Vikings, following the Norman Conquest. (The Norse dynamic did not fade so quickly, it was only in the 15th century that the northern isles were ceded to the Scottish crown by Norway.) This time, the new ruling class was firmly committed to the feudal economic system. Gradually, this class would extend its reach across the whole of the British and Irish Isles. As for the bulk of the British people, whatever their ethnic and linguistic background, following the Norman takeover they were either landed or not, peasant or lord.
FEUDALISM – WHAT’S IN A NAME?
The word ‘feudalism’ has been given a variety of meanings; arguably it is the very word `feudal’ which obscures understanding! In particular, there is a tendency to use it as a derogatory term implying out of date and reactionary views coupled with an overly grand style of ruling. But this takes us nowhere, if we are interested in analysis. The term itself originates from the Latin `feodum’, or `fief’, a unit of real property known as a fief, itself derived from a Germanic word for `cow’! The underlying meaning is to indicate the notion of movable property. The system proper, as understood in its medieval form, can be tracked back for certain to the territories of the Franks in the 9th and 10th cent, although historians argue over whether the roots of this go back to the Roman period. What is clear is that the system was an adaptation, in more advanced circumstances, of earlier, Iron Age conceptions whereby agricultural villages bought protection from warriors in exchange for tolerating their rule, as a replacement for the collapse of state structured order of Imperial Rome, especially in those states that emerged from the break-up of the Carolingian empire, under Charlemagne that virtually followed.
The past role of the country villa and the big latifundia was critical to the development of the system in that it lent itself to reinvention as the basis for a new social system. The landlord-tenant relationship had so evolved that it could provide the basis of mutual obligation, with the landlord increasingly being seen as a lord protector. Under the Roman and German concepts of the `patricinium’ and `mundium’, local men of power and wealth provided protection and, increasingly more important, the hereditary right to use certain lands, and received military service in exchange. Under the manorial system in England, not generally precisely the same thing as feudalism as such, serfs held the land they worked in return for work on the `demesne’, the lord’s land, and payment in kind.
Whatever they were called, serfs were distinguished from slaves mainly by the rights they held by inviolable customs. This still made peasants servile as a definite class but allowed a high degree of personal liberty. In particular, they could usually pass the right to work the land on to a son. In west Europe, many different names were accorded to a range of types of arrangements from the completely servile to the freeholder who paid a form of rent. Nor was the essential idea entirely new, serfdom often now arose out of the conquest of a people as it had in parts of the Aegean in even earlier times. The unifying central conception of the application of a local agricultural economy, with a political system based on personal contract of peasants with a warrior class, we might see this as a defining conception of feudalism.
In Britain, the Norman Conquest saw a firmer application of the feudal system, which spread right across Europe, applying national characteristics according to local conditions. Generally, Christianity was important in moulding the character of feudalism, since the church provided a ready made state structure for the new ruling class to wield. The landed aristocracy was a warrior class, often a knight but more powerful roles existed in degrees of ever increasing importance, such as dukes and earls. Their status was related to the strength of their armies, which in turn depended entirely on the number of land-bound vassals possessed. A squire was originally the main servant of the knight but later came to assume some of his grandeur as a respected commoner.
The ceremony of homage required the vassal to kneel, put his hands in those of his lord and declared loyalty; the lord showed his commitment to the bond by kissing the vassal and raising him to his feet. The vassal then swore an oath of faith to the contract and would be given some token of the contract that had been made between them. This procedure served to cement the personal relationship between lord and vassal but the appearance of equity in the relationship was entirely illusory. Originally, the contract had to be renewed on the death of either party but it became a mutually hereditary matter.
The distinction made by many, whereby Europe was feudal and Asia was not, arises from making too sharp a distinction and seeking to find absolute commonalities. The key seems to be to consider whether similar mechanics apply. Is there an aim of forming a military by the centre (a king/emperor) by making grants something of value (a fiefdom/a tax commission) to a regional power broker (vassal/proniar), beholden in some way to the to the centre, in return for a specified form of service? If we apply such a set of criteria, we find pre-industrial exploitative societies right across the globe at different times and places, some surviving, some falling, some eventually changing into something different. Attempts to distinguish between European feudalism’s property fiefdoms and the service tenure of Asia and the Near East ignore the commonality that at the root of both was a devolution of power from the centre to the locality based on rights and responsibilities of both in exercising exploitation of peasant labour. In a sense the means by which this was done is largely a superficial question; easy to write but controversial to many academics.
Historians who deny the relevance of west European feudalism to other societies, especially in Asia, are often anxious to stress their rejection of Euro-centrism and their comprehension of the importance and the differences in world history. But, in so doing, they apply the very euro-centrism that they decry! For we must not seek the origins of `feudalism’, or whatever we wish to call post-slavery, pre-capitalist exploitation systems, not in Europe but right across the globe and more specifically in Eurasia. Interestingly, historians in China, India, Japan and the Middle East have much less reserve than do their counterparts in Europe in employing the word `feudal’.
A similar Roman institution, emerging from the chaotic 5th and 6th centuries, was the `patrocinium’, commonly translated by the term `clientage’. There was something very much like this system of central authority franchise to exploit labour in return for homage, in the Anatolian kingdom of the Hittites as far back as the 7th century BCE and perhaps the final British south-western elite in charge of Stonehenge. But these were largely one-off experiments. What unites them is a break down of central authority, previously reliant upon slave ownership. This emerges as a common feature in the giving of devolved rights to vassals, or tax contractors across cultures and times. This kind of system seems to have begun with the end of the Tang Empire in the late 8th century and Khorasan by the early 9th century.
The massive semi-global decline of trade, already referred to in a Roman context, badly hit Europe from around 700 AD, after the Arabs closed off the Mediterranean and routes from India to the Byzantine Empire. Byzantium was the channel by which east-west trade occurred but important as this was agriculture was still responsible for the vast bulk of wealth creation, hence the changes that occurred there too. Nonetheless, the international economic crisis generated deep problems in commerce and manufacturing, resulting in the short-term decline of big urban centres. The effect was slow to spread and gel but by the 10th century it was clear that a new system had emerged.
This was the key moment in the creation of `feudalism’ and it spread not from Europe but arose independently, although perhaps not coincidentally, in Carolingian Empire, in the Tangut nation, and with the Ching in Northern China, the Turkic empire in the Altai and in India. The beginnings of a such a process also arose with the Caliphates of Cordoba, Baghdad, in Syria, Fars. These were, at the time, the real centres of world culture, trade and economics. Western Europe was but at the edge of the process! European feudalism was born in the region between the Rhine and Loire but it was rapidly exported to Italy and England. The rest of France, Spain and Germany adopted some degree of feudalism in the 12th century. Even central and eastern Europe followed to an extent, especially after the Byzantine Empire was feudalised.
It is no accident that the beginnings of a new kind of independent horsed warrior arose across Eurasia at his time. Feudal armies were thorough and effective in subjecting the peasantry in a way that did not work with slave systems and in each case a newish economic and social class ensured that they exercised state power by one means or another. Power may have been over-layered and complex but who can doubt that it was ruthlessly exerted?
The value of a vassal was in his military ability and the strength of his loyalty to another. It implies a paternalistic relationship. The word comes from the Celtic `gwas’, or `boy and originally meant a young male slave. It has resonance with the derivation of the word `Differences in forms existed even between England and France. In the former, the King’s vassals’ vassals had to take oaths of ultimate fealty only to the King. But, across the Channel, it was not rebellion for a sub-vassal to fight against his lord’s lord. knight’, which comes from the Old English `cniht’ and similar terms in Frisian and Dutch all meaning `lad’. Those who pose the later western chivalric connotations to imply a semi-detahced relationship and thus divorce western and eastern medieval agricultural exploitation from each other conveniently forget this factor. The status of the original vassals was always a reflection of the status of their monarch but clearly the power relationship would occilate according to circumstances. The meaning of the word `peersense of rough and ready parity. Even where devolution went to extremes, as in 10th century France, the majority of vassals had no fixed estate. ’ suggests a
Whilst, everywhere, the group of original vassals subdivided into the stronger and well-landed upper echelon and a force of landless knights. For whilst the prince granted fiefs to his barons, who made oaths of loyalty to him that obligated service, they in turn might `sub-contract’ parts of their fiefs to knights who swore loyalty and service to them. Knights might acquire two or more fiefs, and then they too might find it worthwhile to devolve further. Such a process created a feudal pyramid. When a knight accepted fiefs from more than one lord, the notion of liege homage was invented to enable him to declare one of his lords his `main man’.
Feudalism in England was fixed upon the exchange of land for military service. Everything was based on the valuation a fief was required to pay to support one knight, to the extent that such fees were used as a kind of monetry denomination. Fees varied according to a particular fief and it might be sub-let to an extrordinary degree. In fact, we can view lords of the manor less as a minor king and more as the harbinger of a later form of management of a network of sub-tenants and sub-leases, with each level reporting to the next.
Amazingly, the nature of land tenure in Scotland remained strongly feudal until quite modern times. Indeed, it may be said to have only formally ended in 2004! The Abolition of Feudal Tenure etc. (Scotland) Act 2000 effective from 28 November 2004, replaced the feudal system with a system of outright ownership of land. Vassals now own the land outright and sub-tenant interests were removed. The Crown’s historic grant of land, in return for military or other services, which had given the vassal ownership of use (`dominium utile’) was replaced by direct and unqualified property rights. Sub-grantees, who previously had an interest (`dominium directum") in the land now became mere rent tenants. Such vestigial remains of the customs at least of the feudal system are famously still observable in the village of Laxton in Nottinghamshire. Land is still farmed using the open field system and a feudal court meets annually now, albeit with authority only over the management of the farmland. Whilst the tiny island of Sark, in the Channel Islands, remains to this day a feudal state in form at least. The island is a fiefdom of the larger nearby island of Guernsey and administered independently by a Seigneur, who is a vassal to the land’s owner – the Queen of the United Kingdom.
NATIVE AND BLACK AMERICANS
What happened when the culture of Europeans and Native Americans – north and south – collided is instructive for two important reasons. Firstly, as Morgan, Marx and Engels discovered, it illuminated our understanding of how our own systems of family, property and the state developed. Secondly, it – perhaps less certainly – gives some clues to the matter of the clash of cultures that must surely have occurred as primitive communism was supplanted by a more developed social system. The recent fad for `counter-factual’ history is assuredly a crass thing but it is possibly relevant to point out that had the slave system of Rome evolved into a capitalist system, as it was arguably beginning to, then the history of the world would have been somewhat different!
European America began with Africa. The ancient states of Mail, Ghana and Songhai indirectly supplied Europe with about a quarter of its gold requirements before the start of the late medieval European voyages of discovery and this trade was in many ways the source of their wealth and power. It was an attempt to bypass the Arab monopoly of trade across the north African desert that first saw the European nations explore the route around the west coast of Africa. The first signs in modern times of African slaves in Europe can be dated to the expansion of Portugal into the continent from 1415 onwards. But it was not quite the same thing as the later Atlantic slave trade. The Portuguese began a profitable trade in gold and slaves from the west coast of Africa to Europe in the 15th century but it was not until 1518 that signs of the classic triangular Atlantic slave trade can begin to be discerned.
As an aside, it is instructive to compare the attitude of what was then the most civilised nation on the globe, with the then remote and only recently modestly developed nations of western Europe. China viewed empire and discovery with an entirely different attitude. With an enormous fleet, even of deep ocean going craft, that was probably greater than any nation on earth, China engaged in its own voyages of discovery, across the whole of the coastlines of Asia and eastern Africa. They knew the north eastern edge of the Pacific and the Indian Ocean well. But they did not engage in plunder, conquest and slavery, even if they viewed the nations they met as uncultured. Trade on an equal footing with others was all important and Chinese philosophy restricted warfare only to defensive measures.
Not so, the Europeans; the first slaves in the Americas came direct from Europe, albeit originally via Africa. But such slavery was seen as a restoration of old customs and followed many of the legal practices that had applied in ancient times. Marriage was permitted amongst slaves and they could buy themselves out of freedom and had certain rights concerning their treatment. The state would even grant freedom for good deeds. All this changed with the African triangle slave trade. No rights were permitted the slave, the owners could, in effect, treat them as they wished. The emergence of racism as an ideology can be dated to these developments, whilst the Atlantic Slave Trade has disturbing echoes of the use of forced labour by the Nazi Third Reich. In both cases, racism was an extension of the ideology of empire and the legacy of these 400 years is still deeply etched into the nature of the West European and North American society.
Slavery in the Americas was not a regression to an earlier mode of production; it was no more than the most ruthless application of capitalism, albeit in an early form to capital accumulation. In the 17th century white settlers turned their attention to sugar, an industry that is heavily capital and labour dependent. The plain fact is that it was simply more profitable to capture new, ready made slaves than to breed them. The commodification of people as slaves engendered an ideology of a qualitatively different kind, which saw enslaved humanity as entirely disposable asset in much the same way the developed economies of the northern hemisphere view some plastic artefacts, food and cosmetic packaging, or increasingly aspects of electrical and electronic goods; disposable commodities all.
There are those who will object to this, claiming that racism is endemic to all human society. Fear of the unknown might be, yet the entire history of humanity suggests that strangers were traditionally treated with respect. Skin colour, language, religion or culture was never a real problem. Of course, there have always been hostile wars between one society and another, a classic battle for resources and power always generated national or ethnic hostility. But none of this is racism, which is a function of imperialistic capitalism. Whilst the European cultures that took root in the Americas for long periods of time could be characterised as a `mixed economy’, that seemingly displayed elements of slave, feudal and capitalist economies, most clearly the driving force was capitalistic and it began off the coast of Africa. Consider a case that maybe viewed as broadly European, possibly North African, that of the Canary Islands. The original inhabitants of the seven main and four small Canary Islands were not at all Spanish, or even `American’. Whilst the islands are set well out into the Atlantic, they are only some 115 kilometres from Morocco. Yet this was arguably the first conquest on the way to the Americas.
This brief story brings us right back to the origins of class struggle in the Stone Age. Indeed, the aboriginal people of the Canaries have been identified with the Cro-Magnons. A range of other peoples who subsequently migrated have been variously classed as Euro-African, east and west Mediterranean, `oriental’ and Nordic. The earliest aboriginals, known a little inaccurately as `Guanches’, actually a name specific to Tenerife, survived as separate groups in very remote areas across the island group until modern historical times. (The various names of the island are, of course, all European inventions, the name Canaries being related to the Latin word `canis’ for `dog’; this is probably due to a case of mistaken identity, a kind of giant seal living off the coast of Gran Canaria being mistaken for a `sea dog’.) Certainly various languages related to Berber have been identified although the Guanches were mainly tall, fair-skinned and haired, long headed and wide faced.
A fair amount is known about a continuous Stone Age type culture from at least 4,000 years ago to the 15th century, when slave raids began to undermine the cohesion of the native cultures. The economy was largely pastoral, with herds of goats, sheep and pigs being maintained. But the seeds of ferns in some areas and cereals in others were ground and toasted and on some islands success in this sphere was beginning to create surpluses. But clearly a great deal of maritime life was also consumed. Pottery was decorated with geometric designs. Domestic life was carried out in dwellings in caves and some houses made of stone and interwoven branches for roofs. In Fuerteventura, houses were partly underground.
Problems arising from a limited and isolated population affected marriage customs on the smaller islands. In Lanzarote, female polygamy applied, with a woman allowed up to three husbands. It is said that on Gomera, a visitor would be offered a night with the wife as part of the hospitalities. But male rights to polygamy were not permitted anywhere in the Canaries. Tenerife allowed male divorce, with little obligation to the children thus illegitimated.
On the smaller islands, the signs of clan and gender initiation societies are evident. On Hierro, men and women each had their own god to worship. Stylised female statuettes, similar to many other Stone Age cultures, have been found on Gran Canaria. Whilst, across the islands, the embalming of the dead was practised – perhaps a custom that the Berber-related peoples had brought – and this contributed to a major part of religious life. Thousands of mummies were found ling ago, complete with offerings of food alongside them.
Different tribes had formed two on Fuerteventura, two on Gran Canaria, four on Gomera, nine on Tenerife and no less than twelve on La Palma – not one of the largest islands by any means. Whilst a hereditary system existed for leadership it was a clan brotherhood system, a `brother’ succeeded a chief. An open air community council still governed, even on Gran Canaria, but there land was controlled by the chief (knowledge on `ownership’ is confused) on behalf of the tribe and allocated to family groups according to merit and service. The coastal peoples relied on fish and shellfish but the interior was dominated by agriculture. Female infanticide was practiced in times of famine but, clearly, these were becoming less frequent. Gran Canaria was home to a significant agricultural surplus and, here at least, some form of elite had developed. Houses were decorated according to rank and this was also indicated by length of hair, short for the common people.
A priestly class was also important on Gran Canaria and there was a community of totemic virgins. A kind of droit de seigneur also existed. Other indications that economic development was beginning to fuel great social changes before the Spanish arrived are identifiable. Settlements of up to 14,000 homes have been unearthed and large collective grain stores existed, it has been estimated that the population of this single island had reached 30,000. The people here decorated their bodies with removable, highly coloured tattoos and stamped their skin with a kind of seal made from clay or wood. But personal possessions were still very limited.
Theft was treated differently in each of the islands, hardly being an issue on La Palma. On Hierro, there was an underground prison. On Gran Canaria and Fuerteventura, the death penalty was available for serious crimes, being carried out by dropping a heavy stone onto the skull of the condemned. But, elsewhere, economic sanctions applied in the main, such as withdrawal from the annual allocation of land.
The discovery of the `Fortunate Islands’ as they were once known was not so fortunate for the indigenous population. As with the American continent, this was as much as class of ethnicity and culture as a clash of economic systems. Once Spanish possession was consolidated, European style land ownership was clarified and distributed to a few colonisers and, in the case of Gran Canaria, 31 collaborators. The islands were turned over to classic imperialist single crop exploitation, first of sugar cane and later of the grape vine. The Canary lslands were in fact the test tube that led to the exploitation of the Caribbean that in turn led to the European conquest of the entire Americas.
The European experience of America proper began in the Caribbean. Firstly, let us consider one of the main islands of the Caribbean – Jamaica. In fact it was the Native American Tainos who were the first to settle the island of Jamaica, anywhere from around 600 to 900 AD, the date is still disputed. (The modern version of the name of the island is a mangling of the Tainos own name for the island. They called it `Xaymaca’, meaning `land of springs’, or possibly, `land of wood and water’, or possibly `Yamaye’, it’s presumably a question of accent.)
The Tainos maintained a polytheistic, ancestor worshipping culture that held much in common with the pre-slavery societies of old Europe. Since there were no valuable spices to trade, the aims of the Europeans rapidly changed to enslaving the local population to operate a capitalistic precious metal mining economy along with a cash crop agriculture. Little wonder that, once they had grasped the conception, the Tainos fought against slavery ferociously, for they preferred death to enslavement as their cultural upbringing simply did not prepare them for the economic class role the Europeans had in mind. Like all tribal societies, Taino village communities were democratically organised and only loosely grouped in national or regional alliances, only a perfunctory state machine existed. Tribal life was centred around communal living quarters, with social life being ordered around male fraternity and female sororal groups. Complete equality in the community of genders existed. A combination of terror, death in battle, ethnic cleansing, lack of immunity to European diseases, disruption of traditional food gathering techniques and being worked to death saw the population of Tainos communities savaged.
It is difficult to be sure how large the Tainos population was in Jamaica before the arrival of the Spanish, following the 1494 landing of Columbus, but there were certainly many thousands of inhabitants in villages along the coast and rivers. The best estimates suggest that there were perhaps 60,000 inhabitants living in Jamaica when the Spanish first arrived. Tainos were related to the Arawak people of what is now Guyana, having migrated northwards from that territory and parts of what is now Venezuela to the island. Indeed, remnants of the Tainos remain in Venezuelan forests even today. In fact, the Tainos were the first Native Americans encountered by Europeans in the new world, in the Bahamas in 1492. They also occupied Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hispaniola as well as Jamaica. There were around 300,000 Tainos in Hispaniola when the Spanish arrived in 1492. Within 16 years this number had been reduced to 60,000, within another mere four years to only 20,000. By 1548 there were probably less than 500 left and the Tainos were certainly extinct in this island sometime before 1586. In all perhaps a million people in the Caribbean alone were exterminated by the arrival of Europeans.
The Tainos shared roots with the Caribs, who occupied the southern half of the sea that took its name from them and there were even more reasons for the Europeans to displace this great tribe. The Caribs were altogether a fiercer community than the Tainos, men practiced marriage by capture, generally putting male prisoners of war to death, so there had been no development to classic slavery, but the Caribs were possibly on their way to a more war-like existence. But Caribbean native technology was entirely rooted in the Stone Age, they had no iron at all and the sight of the cutting effectiveness of Spanish swords was enough to amaze and subsequently quell opposition.
Disappointed by the absence of gold on the island, the Spanish used Jamaica as a base for supporting the conquest of the Americas. A regime of forced labour was introduced into mines and the fields so exploitative that this, combined with contact with European diseases, resulted in the disappearance of the native population by the mid-1600s. The importation of a few black slaves, initially directly from Spain, began as early as in 1501 and within two decades a few thousand slaves came directly from Africa to the Caribbean every year. Recent studies show that the Tainos lasted much longer than had been thought and may even have survived by admixture with runaway communities, so that rather than extinction Tainos society melded with Afro-Jamaican.
In 1655, an English expedition claimed the island and subsequent settlement grew with land grants to enable the establishment of sugar plantations. (Spain officially ceded the island to England under the Treaty of Madrid in 1670.) After a brief period of trying the cope with indentured European labour to work the plantations, the use of African slaves was resorted to. A plantation slave owner in Barbados was appointed governor of Jamaica in 1664, bringing an initial thousand English settlers and black slaves with him to begin the cultivation of cacao and sugarcane.
The large scale importation of black slaves ensued and, within another few decades, sugar estates intensively worked by them were established throughout the island, and sugar and its by-products dominated the economy, although other crops, such as coffee, and livestock rearing were also developed. The combination of high labour exploitation and cheap land gave enormous profits to the increasingly absentee English plantation owners, whose power now rested upon the triangular trade of British manufactured goods, African slaves and Caribbean sugar.
Overall, more than 1 million slaves are estimated to have been transported directly from Africa to Jamaica during the period of slavery. Some 200,000 of these were sent on to other parts of the Americas. Slaves born in Africa far outnumbered those who were born in Jamaica, about ten thousand a year were imported. In the earlier period of the Jamaican slave trade, enslavement was mostly restricted to people from the Akan, the Ga, and the Adangbe tribes from the territory of what is modern Ghana. After 1776, Ibo slaves from what was known as Biafra, from the south of modern Nigeria and Kongos from Central Africa began to dominate.
Given the scale of this human trafficking, it was inevitable that slave rebellion would become a regular feature of Jamaican society. Ever since their arrival in Jamaica, slaves employed a variety of resistance tactics, such as feigned illness, outright absenteeism and collective go-slows – right through to sabotage, theft and murders of whites disguised as accidents. We will never know the full story of these illicit and often covert actions, since often the point of the exercise was to damage the master’s business without alerting him to a specific culprit or even offence. Underlying all this is the essential weakness of slave owning economic systems, especially ones reinforced by stressing the unworthiness of the enslaved, that the slave is a completely unwilling partner. It does not help for stability if ready alternatives are to hand and, in Jamaica, there was always a small complement of slaves who would run away to live in small bands in the mountains. These became known as Maroons, although the first true Maroons were descendants of slaves who had fled to the hills during Spanish rule and then following the British take-over of the island in 1655.
The last of the Spaniards to leave Jamaica left behind a small number of now freed slaves, who took to the hills as unconquered bandits, or maroons. The term `maroon’ arises from the Spanish `cimarron’, a name given to domestic cattle in Hispaniola that roam away and are lost back to the wild. It was then applied in its modern and corrupted form to Native Americans who had escaped slavery and, by the 1530s, was being used to denote runaway Africans. The Maroon movement was a sub-continental phenomena, right across Latin America tales are told of runaway rebels, in Mexico, Panama, Colombia and Brazil. African resistance to slavery went further than merely seeking liberation. Once a critical mass of runaway slaves had gathered together, they sought to establish democratic, ordered communities, in which subsistence agriculture rather than agro-capitalism was the basis of the means of production. For these were models of just societies and sought to recreate the best of old African traditions.
The struggle to attain human rights began amongst African Americans 150 years before the French and American Revolutions! This often took the form of maroon cultures, which are variously known throughout Latin America as quilombos, mocambos, cumbes and palenques; the quilombos in Brazil, from 1575, controlled a population of a fifth of a million. The Negro Republic of Palmares even adopted an African political system, with an elected leader. For much of the 17th century, thousands of mostly Angolan Africans enslaved by the Portuguese established this mighty independent republic in north eastern Brazil. During an ultimately abortive invasion by the Dutch in 1630, many slaves escaped to the forests in the mountains. A maroon zone had already taken root from 1605 and the fresh influx enabled a viable agricultural economy to be set up.
The Portuguese finally managed to destroy Palmares in 1694 after forty years of continual warfare. But as many as ten separate self-governing communities formed and coalesced into a confederation under a popularly elected head of state, Ganga Zumba. This united diverse populations of not only Angolans, but other Africans, native Americans, Jews, and even poor and displaced whites. By the second generation this republic included many people of African descent but born in Brazil and mixed race people with both native American and African ancestry. Though the institutions of Palmares were derived from those in Angola, the people were of mixed genetic backgrounds. Ganga Zumba, the first `king’ may actually have been a Native American.
There were repeated invasions by, first, the Dutch, and, later, the Portuguese but these met with little success. A double palisade surrounded the largest settlement in Palmares, with a spike lined trough between the two rows of pickets. There were over 200 buildings in the community, a church, four smithies, and a council house. After the expulsion of the Dutch in 1654 by the Portuguese, the expeditions increased to sometimes in excess of one per year. Between 1654 and 1678, there were at least twenty such incursions. The Palmarinos engaged in reprisal raids on the Portuguese plantations and villages, freeing slaves, and thus swelling their own numbers. Between battles, trade in crafts, foodstuffs, and munitions ensued between Palmares and some of the colonial population. The trade was profitable enough that some segments of the colonial community wanted peaceful coexistence with Palmares, but the plantation owners wanted its destruction because of the hope that Palmares provided to the slaves on the plantations.
When the Portuguese offered a peace treaty in 1678, the leadership of the war-weary Palmarinos agreed to relocate and runaway slaves had to be returned to their owners; but this triggered a split among the people and weakened resistence. In 1694 an invasion by mercenaries breached the palisades at Palmares, killing 500 warriors, capturing another 500, and effectively destroying the Republic. Two hundred of the warriors leaped from the precipice at the rear of the compound rather than submit to capture. Although they continued resistance for more than a year thereafter, the Palamares leaders were betrayed and killed.
The maroons of Surinam also maintained a major resistance that effectively saw them maintain a degree of independent life for some 60,000 people. The Dutch received control over Suriname, today still `Dutch Guiana’, in 1667 under a treaty with Britain. From this time, slaves of west African origin often escaped into the bush and resurrected their home cultures and came to be called “Bush Negroes” by the Dutch after fifty odd years of guerilla war. These peoples still constitute some one tenth of the population.
From the very first period of major exploitation of enslaved labour to the period when abolition of the practice began major slave revolts took place in the Americas on a regular basis. Little wonder that pressure to end the system eventually brought results. Revolts took place in 1519 in Hispaniola, 1522 in Puerto Rico, in 1530 in Mexico, 1550 in Panama and Peru, in 1575 in Brazil, 1609 in Mexico and in 1639 on Providence Island.
Some one and a half thousand rebelled in Jamaica in 1655, followed in 1663 by nearly 76 years of insurrections. The same year, 1663, there was a major uprising in Virginia. In 1674 an outbreak took place in Antigua. In 1708 Long Island and, in 1712, rebellion occurred in New York City followed by another in 1739 in South Carolina. The `Tackey’ revolt broke out in Jamaica in 1760. Dutch Surinam saw a major revolt in 1763, two years later, in 1765, the Africans in Honduras rose up. A plot was uncovered in 1768 on St Kitts and another major outbreak occurred in 1773 in Jamaica. 1791 saw the beginning of the successful Haitian Revolution led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, which lasted until 1803 and involved half a million. In 1804 Haiti became the second republic in the
Western Hemisphere – a black one. Enslaved Africans revolted in St Lucia in 1796. Over a thousand slaves attacked Richmond,
Virginia in 1800. Next year African slaves rebelled in Guadeloupe. In 1811 slaves rebelled in Louisana.
In 1822 a conspiracy involving thousands of slaves in South Carolina saw 37 Africans hanged. The following year there was a major revolt of Africans in Guyana. Brazilian slaves engaged in a protracted struggle from 1828-1837. In 1831 slaves rebelled in Antigua and also the `Nat Turner’ in Virginia ttok place. Cuban slaves rebelled in 1844 and, in 1848, in the Virgin Islands. In 1859 John Brown famously attacked Harpers Ferry in Virginia, he and two others were hanged. Even after the formal end of slavery a gritty endurance against lynchings segregation and repression endured, whilst the long struggle to achieve abolition of all distinctions based on race has only begun to achieve some relief. Poverty is now the lasting legacy for the descendants of black and native peoples of the American continent.
It is not necessary, or even possible to detail each of these magnificent struggles in great detail. It will be of particular interest to the British reader perhaps to consider the legacy of the struggle in Jamaica, for it shed light on the spirit of so many Black British from this background. Slaves sent to Jamaica were mostly from modern Ghana, Nigeria and Benin, a region beset with tribal warfare in the latter part of the 17th century and the early part of the 18th. Whilst this made it easy to play one tribe off against another, in the pursuit of the slave trade, it also meant that the skills required for insurrection and uprising were readily accessible to the newly enslaved. In the last quarter of a century of the 17th century (1673, 1678, 1685, 1690 and 1696), there were no fewer than five rebellions, albeit mostly involving a few hundred slaves on one plantation at a time.
The 17th century ended with two groups of maroons, one in the west central and another in the east central area of the island, holding on to independent territory in the interior. Intense struggle from 1720 culminated in a peace settlement in 1739 ending what history has seen as a war that conceded Maroon autonomy. The two rebel groups on the island were in close touch and this posed the ever-present danger that they might regroup and `infect’ the dominant black population. So, the planters moved from a strategy of containment to one of harassment as the 18th century progressed. This generated a renewed sense of confidence and militancy amongst the slaves, emboldened with each new wave of ever more defiant arrivals from Africa. In the 1760s, a wave of disconnected minor insurrections swept the island. In 1765, Coromanti slaves on 17 estates united in a well-planned rebellion but premature action led to easy defeat and savage reprisals, including mass executions.
Maroon communities in Jamaica saw themselves as in a permanent state of war with the British. The stronghold of the Leeward Maroons was in the south central part of Jamaica and the Windward Maroons took the north and northeast. The Leeward Maroons had an elected central chief and were divided into stratified units based on military ability and labour skill divisions. Some units specialised in guerilla raids on plantations to obtain provisions and free slaves, especially women to boost their village populations, since most runaways were risk-taking men. Others were formed into hunters of wild hogs, or preservative salt makers, ground clearers and women were the cultivators of food crops.
The Windward Maroons did not have a central leader but developed a loose alliance of villages under local leaderships, linked by democratic federation. Their almost legendary woman leader, Nanny, who supposedly had supernatural powers, was based at Nannytown deep in the Blue Mountains, along with a permanent troop of 300 or so highly warriors. Maroon villages were located in places with a commanding view of the lowlands. Guards were permanently posted to watch for the British and warned of the arrival of hostile forces by blowing a conch shell or cow horn, as was the practice in parts of West Africa.
The effectiveness of maroon resistance threatened not only the plantation economy but slavery itself. So formidable were the forces of the maroons that they were unbeaten after 85 years of intense conflict, with a stalemate being declared in 1739, thus ending the First Maroon War in a remarkable way. The maroons won a form of limited autonomy and control over the lands they held, enabling a political and economic system roughly based on African traditions. There was however a price to pay for this victory; the Maroon semi-states had to agree to help Britain in case of invasion by another power, agree to return runaways and prevent new maroon communities from being set up.
But the white Europeans proved to be a treacherous ally; during the rest of the 18th century the maroons found it increasingly difficult to maintain a separate social standing above enslaved blacks. In July 1795, a force of nearly six hundred maroon fighters launched a revolt that would become known as the Second Maroon War. Only with difficulty was this rebellion suppressed and in the following year most of the Trelawny Town community that had provided the rebels was deported to Novia Scotia. Those that survived the winters, about 550, were taken in 1800 to Sierra Leone to settle for good, eventually landing up in Sierra Leone. From hereon, to save themselves, maroons collaborated in suppressing other slave revolts but their communities diminished and grew less African, with a small number surviving to this day.
The state rid itself of the troublesome and ungovernable slaves by promising freedom of a sort. It had not been the idea of the establishment, for a movement was already underway as has been often told. The sideshow story here is as instructive as the real core factor, slave rebellion was the backcloth to yet more cultural and economic mismatch. Even willing black settlers from various parts of England’s American Empire were sent by philanthropists to Sierra Leone to found liberated colonies; some were volunteers on the side of the King in the war of independence with what became the USA. These often runaway slaves were awarded their freedom and as much land as each family could cultivate by the Empire. The land was `sold’ by the resident Koya Temne chieftain in what the European called Sierra Leone on behalf of the tribe but buyer and seller were talking past each other, whether the misunderstanding was entirely deliberate on the side of either agent to the transaction is unclear. But the Koya Temne tribe’s customs dictated that no-one could possible own land, for nature `owned’ the land and the tribe merely looked after it on nature’s behalf; all that could be sold was the right to settle.
Back in Jamaica, Akan slaves were at the heart of most revolts; in 1673 about 300 of them rose up in Saint Ann in the north, followed in 1690 by a revolt of about 400 Akans in the southern parish of Clarendon and in 1745 in Saint Thomas. In 1760, an Akan, named Tacky, who had been a chief in Africa, led the most widespread slave revolt in Jamaica’s history. Beginning in the north-east, it spread to the capital of Kingston and took some six months to suppress, finishing the job off with a mass execution of nearly 400 slaves. Other, less significant revolts took place in 1761, 1765, and 1766. But, if these outright assaults on the very conception of slavery brought no immediate change to the system, the confidence of the ruling class was constantly challenged and other social and economic factors began to undermine the system.
As a means of minimising the cost of providing food, planters began to distribute small plots of unused land to their slaves for use during limited free time periods. It is a mark of the efficiency of non-alienated production that, not only did slaves produce enough for themselves, many produced surpluses for sale. In the process, a nascent peasantry was being formed. Also, the racial basis for slavery relied upon ethnic purity and this was an increasingly blurred factor. Children of slave women were born enslaved but many mixed race people were declared free by their masters/fathers, whilst other highly regarded slaves, often by virtue of longevity of service, were also freed. A `middle class’ of not entirely free but not totally enslaved persons began to develop and increasingly sought civil rights.
In 1813 a petition demanding the right to give evidence in court, signed by more than 2,400 free mixed race people, was delivered to the House of Assembly, which agreed to this. Three years later, the mixed race petitioned for full political and civil rights on the grounds of no taxation without representation. Tax strikes were threatened unless they were granted these rights and the authorities began gradually removed restrictions, culminating in 1830 with the `Act for the Removal of All Disabilities of Persons of Free Condition’, which provided civil rights to 44,000 mixed race people. But this still left the bulk of the population enslaved and seeing an element of emancipation only served to give notice to them as to what might be possible,
The so-called `Baptist War’ of 1831, was named thus because of the perceived role of that church in giving slaves ideas above their station. It has also been known as the Christmas Rebellion and was led by Samuel Sharpe, a Baptist deacon and domestic slave. This revolt saw much of western Jamaica rise up and some 430 blacks, including Sharpe who was the last to be executed, were put to death. The revolt was a decisive factor in pushing opinion in the establishment in Britain toward ending slavery.
Whilst the artificially imposed slave system of the West Indies took on all the superficial aspects of earlier modes of production, replete with the minutiae of slave marketry, it was a special interregnum that could not last. It only existed due to a special form of ethnic chauvinism, a racism that lay embedded in capitalistic imperialism. Jamaica was in fact a gigantic prison labour camp, a private sector concentration camp defended by the British state. Britain ended the slave trade in 1807 but the institution was only abolished in 1834, by which time, in a population of a third of a million, blacks outnumbered whites by a ratio of almost twenty to one.
In 1833 an act of parliament transformed slavery into so-called `apprenticeships’ in British colonies; slave children then under the age of six or subsequently born were to be free. All others had to endure a six or four year unpaid ‘apprenticeship’ before full emancipation and slave owners (but not slaves!) were also compensated with the then massive sum of over six million pounds. Resistance to this outrageous injustice was strong in a number of parts of the island. In Saint Ann, `apprentices’ even engaged in strike action against work without wages, which was suppressed by force of arms. By 1838, the apprenticeship system was ended and full emancipation granted to a third of a million slaves in Jamaica and the plantations had to now begin to pay wages to its workers.
Church missionaries bought large tracts of land in carefully chosen locations, so as to subdivide them in very small plots to sell to the former slaves and prevent the growth of African-style villages in the interior, well away from the sphere of influence of Europeans. These holdings were really inadequate for crop cultivation and this grievance, coupled with many rent-related disputes with sugar estate owners resulted in many former slaves establishing themselves as small peasant farmers often on land obtained by squatting, which usually provided a much better basis for subsistence farming.
From 1845, plantation owners began to import indentured servants, mostly from India but also from China. Up to 1917, when this practice ended, more than 37,000 from the Indian sub-continent migrated to Jamaica as indentured labourers. Whilst this imported labourer ultimately undermined both peasant and later proletarianised labour and triggered the first flush of a Jamaican diaspora, a century of struggle for economic and political rights ensued.
One Samuel Clarke campaigned for black voters to support `coloured’, or mixed race, candidates in the elections of 1851, enabling them to win two seats in the House of Assembly. Clarke himself was elected to local government ofice in 1853. But direct representation in the House of Assembly eluded blacks and injustices continued and the frustration led directly to a serious rebellion. On October 11th 1865, in the Morant Bay Rebellion led by Paul Bogle, some 500 blacks marched to the parish capital to confront the authorities, following heightened concern over a court case a few days earlier. The government reacted with maximum force, which resulted in nearly all the protestors being executed. More than 600 bystanders were whipped and an entire village was razed to the ground, leaving thousands homeless.
Back in Britain opinion about these matters had shifted dramatically. Up until the formal abolition of slavery across the Empire, most blacks in Britain – and there were many of them – were free. But not all were so and bounty hunters openly and efficiently preyed on runaway slaves in London and Bristol in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. After the end of British rule of the colonies that now made up the USA, many refugees from slavery found their way to the British Isles in search of personal freedom. It was generally thought that a mid 18th century legal ruling on the matter meant that the 11th century ban on the slavery of the British people applied to all those who lived within the confines of the homeland. But this was not strictly so, property law respected the rights of owners of slaves who were enslaved under non-domestic circumstances. This had been the backcloth to the ending of slavery and now contradictory notions of chauvinism and fair play battled it out; the end result was a public outcry in Britain over the handling of the colonies.
As far as Jamaica was concerned, this forced the introduction of the crown colony government, weakening the power of the white dominated assembly from 1866. This system increased the power of the British-appointed governor and further reinforced institutionalised racism. Hundreds of peasant families who held receipts but no formal title to their land were summarily ejected as squatters. This period marked the beginning of a proletarianised sugar and banana plantation economy based upon corporate ownership. Thus, in the space of a couple of hundred years, did a mixed group of African people find themselves projected through economic modes – first they were slaves, then peasants and finally proletarians.
Returning to our larger theme of the Americas, what is abundantly clear, at least in retrospect, is that the peoples of America were by no means savages. Our picture of pre-Colombian America has been much distorted by the perception, arising from the 400 years that it took Europeans to conquer the continent, that the various civilisations were somehow disconnected. Moreover, that a few now sketchily understood nations were an aberration. It is a mark of the resistance to accepting the humanity of the peoples that inhabited the continent that the date when they took possession of it is a matter of intense controversy. Was it 12,000 years ago, or 30,000? Increasingly, evidence points to the latter but many US archaeologists dispute this with a ferocity that is hard for those of European stock born in European to grasp.
More and more evidence emerges that is suggestive of the hypothesis that contact between the `old’ world and the `new’ across the ridge of ice once connecting Europe and the Americas may have been possible. Whatever the actual truth of this, at least the myth that surrounds the `discovery’ of America by Columbus has now been severely knocked by an increasingly wider acceptance of the idea that limited Norse contact did once take place. The north-eastern Native American Beothucks were probably the `Skraelings’ (a Norse term roughly equivalent to `aboriginals’) described by Viking explorers, and if so these were therefore the first Native Indians ever to encounter modern Europeans, at least. Norse descriptions of natives obsessed with the colour red, as in their search for trading of red cloth, matches the Beothucks, who decorated themselves so extensively with red ochre that the early British invaders called them Red Indians. This term unfortunately subsequently found a new lease of life as a racist epithet, ostensibly but inaccurately based upon the Native Americans’ skin colour.
Native Americans were not all hunter gathers by any means, even in the North. The beginnings of agriculture in America have been dated to 8,000 years ago. Whilst what those in thrall to the notion that civilisation was initiated by Greco-Roman tribes will find that concept supremely challenged by a study of ancient America, which saw developments towards high status cultures very early in history.
These `higher’ level developments date from the Olmec civilisation of Mesoamerica from 1,500 BCE, which built possibly the largest pyramid in the world, covering 40 acres, to the classic Mayan civilisation of 650 AD, which boasted a population of 10 million. The Hopewellian culture of the Ohio valley, which peaked around 500 AD, was the centre of a strong trading culture that held sway right across much of North America. Based on a dazzling array of artefacts that they exported across the continent, their wealth enabled huge settlements. Interestingly, these were marked by dome shaped burial mounds, or what British archaeologists might call `barrows’, thirty feet high and two hundred feet in circumference. These were the sites of a communal burial culture, which took place amidst the artefacts of their trade. There was supposedly a sort of controlling elite, which lived in the ceremonial centres of the domes, and a social system, based on hereditary privileges, religious ranks and specialist crafts, with “an organised direction over co-operative labour”. [Alvin M Josephy, Jnr “500 Nations – an illustrated history of the North American Indians” Hutchinson/Pimlico 1995 p37]
The obvious inference is that this civilisation was in the process of evolving from something very much akin to early British, or `Celtic’, society into something else. Perhaps, their economy was less agricultural based than the builders of Stonehenge, and more manufacturing orientated, but the mark of something new was about it. It would be dangerous to be too strong in making parallels but these appear too frequently not to be aware of them. These were not the same cultures, and their hallmarks were not always the same. But we know more for certain about Native Americans than we do about the Celts. For the moment, we can discount as unnecessary the newer theories that contact could have occurred between Europe and America during the Ice Age, across the firm ice edge of the then frozen northern ring of the Atlantic. For it is an abiding theme of ancient history that progress was more often than not locally developed independent of any `civilising’ wave from an advanced early civilisation. Such notions are increasingly discredited for the very good reason that our understanding of what came first gets pushed back all the time and, despite the reappearance of the Middle East as a focal point, the location of a true `Eden’ rarely lasts for more than a few decades.
The still extant Majorville `medicine’ wheel, near Calgary in Canada is startlingly reminiscent of similar monument in Stone Age Britain too dismiss the thought that a similar mode of production will likely produce similar cultural expression. (Incidentally, the translation of the Native American word for a combination of requirements that might more properly be termed `science’ may have occurred simply because Native Americans viewed knowledge as people based rather than production based.)
This wheel was constructed by aligning rocks and boulders to form a hundred foot diameter wheel, the spokes point to special sites in the surrounding hills. Such wheels were common on the plains and were normally situated on high points to enable a mental picture of thousands of miles of territory, a combination of map and calendar, picturing the seasonal appearance of waterfowl or natural crops of berries in places in the landscape. You can call such devices `sacred’, as anthropologists have done but a better way is to conceive of them as essential to survival. Certainly, the knowledge that was passed on gave the possessors some status in society.
But North America was host to many more advanced civilisations and, again, resonance with British pre-Roman society abounds. The barrow turns out not to be unique to Europe. From 700 to 1600 AD, the Mississippi culture was focused on that region. Within the centres, enormous earthen mounds dominated the urban sprawls. The mounds were topped by “temples or homes” of leaders that served as the sites of “public rituals or spectacles”. [p40 Josephy p40] A trading network around it served much of North America.
By around 1,000 AD, one powerful city, Cahokia, which was eventually continuously occupied for 700 years was the largest population centre in North America, until overtaken by Philadelphia in 1800. At its centre was a walled city of five square miles with a hundred pyramids or earthen mounds. The most important members of the chief’s clan lived on the flattened top of the biggest mound, larger than any pyramid anywhere else in the world. Cahokia’s craftsmen were organised into `guilds’, or special clan. The Hodenosaunee, known better as the Iroquois sprang from the influence of Cahokia.
We think of our own past negatively in terms of comparison with Roman development and, if we ever made parallels with the Native Americans, we think only of the `Plains Indian’, since Hollywood chose to focus on the last phase of the Indian Wars with these purely hunting peoples. As an aside – but an important one – US culture has brought us up to think the plains people savage and bloodthirsty warriors, every fighting some perceived but minor injustice. This is a farrago of dishonesty, the plains natives did not know or understand bloody warfare before they were shown how to wage it by the Europeans. Plains natives ritualised warfare; the mere touching of an enemy actually brought more and higher honour than killing one. As with pre-Iron Age sites in Britain, there are no mass graves to find in the territory inhabited by Native Americans predating the arrival of the Europeans. There was considerable uniformity in the culture of these peoples; indeed, a common sign language existed across Native North American nations, despite the many different dialects of different language groups.
But when we consider the Hodenosaunee, who were the first major culture Europeans interfaced with, we must immediately understand that these were not plains Indians but settled communities in transition to a more developed civilisation. Their people lived in communal longhouses, some over 150 feet in length, housing a dozen immediate families. The women owned the houses and controlled all domestic life and shared equally in social decision-making.
The five territories of the five-nation League were seen as a great longhouse hundreds of miles long. In each nation, the women elected a clan mother and these selected the male chiefs to represent the clans at the Grand Council of the League. This confederation influenced enlightenment philosophers in Europe in their thinking on democracy and hence, indirectly, the constitution of the USA! Benjamin Franklin rightly admired the Iroquois League of the north east of what is now the USA and it influenced his thinking on the US constitution.
From 300 BCE, the Hohokams began to apply irrigation to southern Arizona. The Anasazi, from 900 AD, dominated the Colorado Plateau, where they built more than four hundred miles of straight road. The largest apartment house in the world, until 1882 in New York, covering four acres and housing a thousand people was built in what is now Four Corners County. There were “no palaces or special buildings set aside” for an elite, “(a)ll lived alike”. [Josephy p61]
In 500 AD Teotihuacán, the ruins of which Mexico City was built upon, was a city of 150,000, with the attendant sophistication and infrastructure that would be expected, at a time when no European city came anywhere near to that size. [Josephy p65] By the 15th century its population had reached 250,000, making it probably the largest city in the world. But there was a definite elite class, a hierarchy of priests and secular rulers at the head of an empire served by a state machine that dominated Mesoamerica. It faded by 900 AD, after a thousand years, in favour of the Aztecs.
The Toltecs of north Mexico, politically ruled by a theocracy, saw a civil war from 987 AD between two factions, much as happened in Rome, pressures from nomadic tribes to the north 1180 another crisis between factions and collapse came. The Aztec civilisation constructed, early in 15th century an aqueduct four miles long. It cities were serviced by advanced civic services and it had the most powerful empire on the continent, with the largest standing army anywhere in the world. Aztecs were applying the concept of `zero’ a millennia before the Europeans acquired the concept from India, via the Middle East and in the process misnaming the entire numbering system that flew from zero as the Arabic numbering system.
Ancient Mexico had a system of hereditary classes, the two key ones being noble and commoner. But these were not yet fully fixed and a variety of service based roles applied across the two main groups. State officials, artisans, ritual ceremonialists and the armed elite were all set apart and rewarded by privileges and exemptions. Nobility was not originally hereditary but was fixed on access to better resources and education and so evolved into a hereditary system. The Aztec military had only a core of professional warriors and an ordinary person could rise in class through a ritualised cult of taking prisoners in war to become come full-time warriors. When attaining adulthood, boys stopped cutting their hair until they took their first captive. It was shameful to be a warrior with long hair, indicating lack of captives. A third class of traders, not part of the traditional Aztec society, also arose but was not highly regarded.
Slavery had not yet assumed a high degree of economic importance and was not a true commodity. The Aztecs had no coins, so most trade was made in goods such as blankets but cacao was so appreciated, it was used as a kind of `money’. Mineral gold had little value, indeed the violence frequently employed by the Spanish in winning even just a small amount of gold was incomprehensible to the Aztecs. Slaves that were distinct from war captives did constituted an important class but their status was less similar to that of ancient Greece and Rome and more akin to that applied by north Europeans but with even greater rights. Clearly, this was a slave owning system only beginning to come into being.
A slave’s children were free and a slave could have possessions and even own other slaves. Slaves could buy their liberty, and slaves could be set free if they were able to show they had been mistreated, or if they had children with, or were married to their masters. On the death of their owner, higly regarded slaves freed, although the others could be `inherited’. Extraordinarily, a citizen without property rights over a slave could be declared a slave themselves if they prevented the escape of a slave! A master could not sell a reasonably good slave without his or her consent. Slavery to a murdered person’s family was used as a punishment as an alternative to a death sentence, or for debts or social misdeameanours of various kinds; this was also allowed as a voluntary act. A slave who was sold four times as incorrigible could be sold to be sacrificed, although a form of appeal was permitted.
Famously, human sacrifice was employed in Mesoamerica and South America and the Aztecs practiced it on a particularly large scale, sacrificing human victims on each of their traditional 18 festivities. But not all sacrifices involved humans. Inflated claims by conquistadors such as Díaz are suspect. He claimed there were 60,000 skulls in the Tlatelolco, a place of similar importance to Tenochtitlan. But only archeologists have only found found 300 skulls in digs in the area. Often sacrifices were of sick male children, criminals, prisoners of war and even volunteers. While it is clear that the Aztecs did practice human sacrifice, there is great doubt as to claims of cannibalism. Some commentators have suggested that human flesh of prisoners of war was part of an aristocratic diet, since the normal diet was lacking in proteins, others have repudiated the proposition as Spanish propaganda. In fact, there are only five accounts of cannibalism from after the date of the conquest, none of them particularly suggestive of widespread ritual cannibalism. Only one account by an Aztec of supposed cannibalism following ritual sacrifice exists and that claims anyway that the apparent cannibalism was actually a sham.
The Aztecs were conquered by relatively small armed force of Spanish n 1521, after much of the population had died from hunger and smallpox. The population at the time of the conquest is estimated at 15-20 million; seventy years after the conquest, the estimated population was 1-3 million. These higher stage Native American societies were on a par with Greece or Rome, at the stage of empires dominated by city state politics. Their rivalry contributed to their weakness in resisting the shock of what was effectively the arrival of aliens! The employment at first accidentally but increasingly consciously of what was in effect a genocidal bacteriological warfare hastened the inability of Native Americans to resist. The conscious adoption by the Europeans of a divide and rule policy, stirring neighbouring enmity, melted the core features of such societies.
There followed four centuries of invented legal fictions, broken treaties, widespread kidnapping, targeted assassinations, purchases of land from those without the right to sell. It is not perhaps commonly appreciated that, long before the need to turn to Africa for plantation labour, slavery in the New World began with enforced labour of peoples native to the Caribbean plantations, moving to the capture of native Americans in New England, through the encouragement of slave catching raids between tribes, to the cynical transporting of prisoners of fomented Indian wars, both between tribes and between the European settlers. Entire tribes were exterminated in the 17th century, even by 1730 fully one quarter of the slaves in southern Carolina were Native Americans. [p226 Josephy]
The Native American economy was effectively destroyed by their interface with Europeans. Trade with the whites, especially in north in furs, was often more immediately economically rewarding than traditional hunting or farming and knowledge of the old ways became lost. Swapping beaver skins to be used for the European hat trade for pots and knives seemed a good idea to start with. But, in time, the Native Americans found themselves reliant upon the traders, as cloth replaced fur and leather for clothing and powder and shot replaced the bow and spear. Entire tribes of peoples and species of animals were exterminated. Collective discipline, especially clan loyalty, broke down. The traditional political society of Native Americans faded and, eventually, the increasingly depleted hunting lands left no other choice but to work as wage labourers. The much-revered (in US convention) early Puritans actually prosecuted Native Americans for hunting on the Sabbath!
Whites saw the vast tracts of land occupied by Native Americans as wasted by the right to roam of just a few thousand `savages’, whilst hundreds of thousands of European desperate for a new life poured into America. The ethnic cleansing of the Native Americans became lauded as a noble pursuit. Adolph Hitler, as a boy devoured tales of white men conquering the savage `Indians’ and it is clear that his notion of `lebensraum’ for the Germans in the territory of the Slavs owed more than a little to the manner in which Europeans had cleared North America of the native occupants. As a boy, Hitler was fascinated by stories of the `wild west’, allied to those of the ancient Germanic tribes and Teutonic knights. He viewed his project to establish an empire, `reich’ in German, in the east as being no more than what the Europeans had done in America. As a true petit bourgeois, he saw no problem with his vision of settling Germans with farms on the banks of the Volga, dispersing the native Slavs as he did so. The fact that these peoples had adopted a communalist economic system only seemed to make his fantasy all the more reasonable. The depopulation of eastern Europe of Slavs and Jews was his true final solution to German’s late development and the United States of America had shown him how it could be done.
Hitler’s vision of eastern expansion was no more than an elaboration of the reality of centuries of precedent. During the late medieval period, millions of German-speaking people had established themselves far beyond what would become the borders of the unified Germany of the 19th century in small enclaves right across central and eastern Europe. Lebensraum was but the concept of `joining up the dots’. The subsequent defeat of Nazi Germany and the post-war settlement much reduced the presence of such Germanic enclaves but they were still there. Largely forgotten in recent times, the reunification of Germany in the 1990s and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, saw tens of thousands of Germans from all over eastern Europe welcomed with homes and jobs, despite their complete unfamiliarity with modern German culture.
The parallels between the Nazi eastern war against the Slavs and the European western war against Native Americans are thus far too uncomfortable. Ethnic cleansing, the clash between economic systems, cultural hegemony, total war and dishonesty in treaty relations were the tools employed in both. Forced marches were the `normal’ method of forcing Native Americans from one territory to another, out of the way of whites. Long before the term `holocaust’ had been heard, on along trek from Alabama to Arkansas, some 13,000 Choctaws perished of cold, hunger, mistreatment and sheer misery. The Creeks lost 45% of a population of 22,000 during the `Trail of Tears’ removal in 1836. Out of 18,000 Cherokees, some 4,000 perished during their enforced removal from Georgia. The native population of California was reduced by 90% from 1769 to 1850, when only 30,000 were left, a figure that reduced to 10,000 by 1900. [Josephy pp326-7, 349]
It is sobering to consider that, from the outset of the European invasion of America to the final solution of the `Indian problem, a population of 25 million across the entire continent was ruthlessly slashed to one tenth of that. And yet this was supposedly a civilising, modernising movement. Such amoral `virtues’, displayed for hundreds of years by Europeans in America and for a mere decade and a half by Nazi Germany were completely outside the experience of the native peoples of America. The USA was founded upon the graves of Native Americans, the Third Reich sought to achieve a similar `achievement’ through the massacre of 28 million citizens of the Soviet Union and many millions of others.
The techniques employed by the British Empire – the empire upon which the sun never set but the blood never dried – right across the globe were begun in America and taken forward by the United States. Divide and rule was a lesson borrowed from Caesar. Civil war amongst Native American was deliberately fomented, even amongst the once so united Hodenosaunee. Divisions and war between British and Americans on the one hand and British and the French on the other divided Native Americans, as they were pressed to side with one or the other.
Ideological divisions amongst Europeans completely puzzled Native Americans, who “never quarrelled about religion”, as a respected orator, Sagoyewatha of the Senecas, noted. [Josephy p283] Even though religious controversy often stood in for rivalry over power and resources, this too was, at least initially, a conundrum for the Native American tribes. Amongst most North American tribes, few signs of developing elites can be discerned. The best evidence for the beginnings of rank advanced by those who have sought to diminish the communism of the Native Americans is the `potlatch’, a
ceremonial feast, held by some Native American peoples of the northwest Pacific coast, as in celebration of a marriage. The host would distribute gifts according to each guest's rank or status and a potlatch could involve extravagant and competitive giving and the deliberate destruction of valued items as a display of superior wealth, to demonstrate one clan being better than another. This hardly amounts to an economic system!
Moreover, it was most certainly not the basis for the mobilisation of forces in the doomed but courageous last efforts to resist private ownership modes of production and the cultural expressions of collectivism and ethnicity. The class struggle to retain primitive communism may have been ethnically focused but it was there all the same. The remarkable chief, Tecumseh, defeated in the battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, led a revival rebellion movement inspired by his vision of a pan-Indian movement based on the common ownership of land: “…the only way to stop all this evil is for all the red men to unite in claiming a common and equal right in the land, as it was at first, and should be now…sell a country! Why not sell the air, the clouds and the great sea, as well as the earth?” [Josephy p311]
The oppression of Native American societies is now generally recognised to have been a major cataclysm, a historical injustice of enormous magnitude. It is well-known now that the deliberate near extinction of buffalo, a source of food, clothing, fabric and trade goods, was designed to undermine the Native American economy. In the twelve years following 1874, 30 million buffalo were reduced to a mere one thousand. [Josephy p378] But it went beyond economic warfare, it was the very system of social and productive forces and relations that was in the gun-sights of European Americans.
It was the US Commissioner for Indian Affairs who, in 1889, quite clearly set out the objectives of European society. Ethnicity, cultural and religious practices merely made it easy to identify the personality of the enemy. But it was the social relations that went with communal relations of production that was the real enemy: “The tribal relations should be broken up, socialism destroyed, and the family and the autonomy of the individual substituted.” This heralded the introduction of new legislation that enabled a further mass land grab. Two years before this statement, in 1887, Native Americans amazingly still held 138 million acres. By 1934, this had reduced to only 48 million, a great deal of which was in any case leased to whites.
It took 400 years for the clash of social systems associated with the arrival of Europeans before the Native American system was finally largely eliminated. Such systems had ranged from Stone Age hunter gatherers through limited farming communities, trading nations, slave based autocracies and the beginnings of empires. None had developed into any kind of form similar to the European feudal system, or any similar arrangement applying in Asia. This had been a class conflict between pre-feudal systems and early to middling forms of capitalism. How much longer did the clash of cultures in other parts of the world to work its way through? The period of time from the arrival of elites to their total domination of society is a period that will vary from society to society but most will have taken far longer than 400 years to eliminate communal ownership. Most cultures saw a degree of ethnic identity accompanying the class based conflict, few saw it applied quite as savagely as the Americas did.
From 1970 onwards, some tribes learnt to use the highly litigious capitalist system of the US to obtain restoration of their true inheritance, using the fact that some land that may have been in a historical backwater is now prime real estate. Whilst these cases have not always totally succeeded, the progress made gives some indication of the enormity of the overall wrong perpetuated upon the Native American peoples. The tricks used by Europeans to rob tribes of their land were sometimes so feeble that they could not stand the test of time. A petition to the state legislature in 1859, used to semi-legally swindle the Shinnecocks of tribal land, had been `signed’ by 21 persons. But the petition was actually half populated by a simple `X’, the rest were mostly dead people or children and some names were repeated. 800 acres of prime land now worth the equivalent of £100 million were swapped for less favourable real estate. A civil court case is in the throes of contestation.
State legislation in 1970, for the first time ever, was used to force the return of 48,000 acres of Taos Pueblo land in New Mexico. In 1980, the Supreme Court ordered $105 million compensation to the Black Hill tribe of West Dakota. This sounds a lot of money until one realises just how tiny a proportion of the wealth extracted from their lands was eventually returned to the rightful owners. Even though the tribe had been guaranteed ownership by an 1868 Treaty, gold was later discovered. The US congress annulled the treaty to allow $4 billion worth of gold to be mined.
In 1985 some 900 acres of Rhode Island became the subject of legal controversy after the Narragansett engaged in a ten year battle to reverse the 19th century abolition of their tribal authority and the reserving of a mere two acres to these people. In 2001, 7,600 acres in California including 314 in the Death Valley national park, has been returned to the Timbisha Shoshone. This is the first time that national park land has been restored to a native people. In 2005, after a Supreme Court judgement, some land rights in Fort Apache, Arizona, were secured for the White Mountain Apaches in addition to $7 million compensation. Some recompense perhaps, but nowhere near like justice has been achieved. The truth is that the greatest and most powerful state on the planet, the United States of America, achieved pre-eminence partly due to the massive accumulation of capital stolen from the Native Americans whose conception of property was still communistic when the biggest robbery of the history of capitalism unfolded. Britain, France, Spain and Portugal either staved off historical redundancy or funded new ventures, in Britain’s case an entire new empire, through the same process.
In conclusion, the common thing about all these societies was that they were on the verge of achieving greater things not backwards peoples incapable of making their own way towards higher forms of development. They did not have advanced methods of production because they did not need to develop them. The accoutrements of so-called `civilisation’ had not been acquired because they did not need to. Their culture and ideology was as developed as it needed to be and there was no inherent reason why more sophisticated forms could not have been achieved without the violent inter-relationship that contact with Europeans brought.
For example, achieving a written language is not so difficult, once the concept is seen and a need for it emerges. Native American tribes adapted scripts only with very little outside help. The Cherokees invented an alphabet in the 1820s, developing mass literacy at a rapid rate; thousands were using it within only a few months, so that by 1828 the tribe was able to produce its own newspaper. [Josephy p322] Once grasping that they had to live in some way comparable to the life of the Europeans as best they could to survive, tribes such as the Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks and Seminoles opted for acculturation and the rest is, as they say, history.
They were by no means alone amongst undeveloped peoples. Having acquired a massive empire across much of Eastern Europe and most of Asia, and recognising that such an empire needed a bureaucracy, Genghis Khan ordered that a script be found for Mongolian and this was introduced virtually overnight. What became the vertical script still used by modern Mongolian, was borrowed from a Turkish speaking vassal state, the Naimans, which had been adapted in turn from the Uighurs, who acquired it from the Sogdian vertical script, that had been inspired by Aramaic. Whilst masses of Siberian peoples, as despised as the Native Americans had been under the Tsar, we helped to acquire written scripts suitable to their tongues following the modernising drive of the Soviet revolution.
Due to its modern associations with the Arab and Islamic world, Ancient Egypt is often not thought of as being part of the African continent but it was unquestionably more associated with north and east Africa than anywhere else in antiquity. Modern research has dispelled the myth that its great architectural projects were the pure result of the application of slavery. But the question here is not whether slavery existed but whether it dominated the economy of ancient Egypt.
True slavery was a key feature not at the very earliest stages of civilisation but certainly in the intermediate period. It appears to have been limited to the periods of conquest from around 1500 to 715 BCE after that only various forms of `bondage’ can be demonstrated. Indeed, foreign domestic slaves and skilled artisans in state workshops, mostly involved in the production of luxury goods, had a relatively good position compared with the intensive exploitation endured by the Egyptian peasant. A `tax’ yield as high as 30% has been postulated as common and legal coercion such as the slavery system was not employed to ensure agricultural production.
It is likely that private land ownership as we know it did not exist, land was held by various religious cults as a form of state land and any landowning that did exist was held tenuously. The property of the four great temple cult groups was handled by the same administration that directed royal land. Secular state officials managed the everyday needs of the temple holdings. Lands attached to the funereal cults of previous pharaohs were handled by the royal treasury and at least the Amun cult’s lands provided fodder for the army. Only once was the delicate balance of power between a priestly class and the titular head of state, the Pharaoh, disturbed. It is considered by some commentators as a failed example of a groping towards absolute monarchy that became so common in later epochs.
Akhenaten (1352-1336 BC), an Egyptian pharaoh from about 3,500 years ago, is noted for having made major if short-lived changes, often called a revolution but always seen in religious terms. (Suggested dates for the start of his reign vary from to 1350 However, many important reforms in culture, art, politics and probably economics underlay this and this aspect is almost never commented upon. It may not be unrelated that only a few reigns before him had been the most famous female pharaoh, Hatshepsut. Clearly, the single most important thing about Akhenaten is that he overthrew Egyptian polytheism in favour of monotheism in the form of the worship of a previously obscure, now single, god, Aten.to 1333 BCE.)
Historians are unable to provide a clear reason behind the move. But, interestingly, the monotheistic development of the Jewish religion dates from a similar period. Akhenaten’s emphasis was on the Aten, the sun disk. Yet since visual imagery was central to Atenism but proscribed in Judaism, it is not generally beieved that there were actual connections. Akhenaten’s reasons for his religious reform seem evidently political. Priests of the cult of Amon had risen to such a high status that they commanded greater income and authority than the Pharaoh. Given that we can discern a tendency to favour depiction of the Aten towards the end of his father’s reign, it seems that some sort of struggle was brewing and Akhenaten triggered this.
Soon after becoming Pharaoh, Akhenaten took the name by by which posterity knows him. It means “he who is of service to Aten”, a deity to be revered a the single god, except for Ra himself, the sun god. The Pharoah claimed that only he was able to communicate with Aten. In one fell swoop, this cut away the need for priests and they and the worship of Amon were simply banned and their temples, a source of grain taxation, closed.
Akhenaten relocated away from Thebes to a new capital, named Akhetaton. This became the new centre of government and trade. The city’s architecture prized naturalistic styles and scenes. Maybe even, Akhenaten sought to mobilise old thinking about naturalism to assist in what was really a bid to gain dictatorship? Akhenaten even had himself portrayed less god like and more human. He was shown in scenes where he was embracing his daughters, and sitting with his wife and children in a family manner. Strangely, images of the Pharaoh were portrayed in a distorted fashion, with an elongation of the head, large breasts, swollen stomachs, and small splayed legs. The impression was more feminine then masculine; was this perhaps a nod towards old matriarchal notions?
Monotheism only began as attempts to create a single state power, ultimately this led to the notion of the divine right of kings. The case of Akenhaten surely resembles a possible case of monotheism being allied to the needs of a single power elite centred around the Pharoah. There must have been an element of the remnants of primitive democracy and city state devolution in the various temple cults and Akenhaten’s coup d’etat did not go through easily. The "Amarna Letters", clay tablets sent from outposts and foreign allies suggest that the empire was disordered. This period is also associated with an outbreak of a plague, or serious influenza, which may explain both some unrest and the ease with which the Akenhaten revolution was so easily overturned after his death.
Either way, he had somehow angered the bulk of the population, especially after sites devoted to Amon were destroyed in an intensity of reforming zeal. Most of the cities in Egypt were deprived of their estates and plantations and the new Aten temples were staffed by corrupt lackeys of the Pharaoh. On his sudden death, everything connected to Akenhaten was destroyed but, ironically, the burying of inscribed stones as foundations to new temples has allowed us thousands of years later to reconstruct his story to some degree. The development may be seen as a return to scientific naturalism, by seeing the sun’s energy as the ultimate source of life and eliminating ritualism to allow for a personalisation of religion. In the new temples, Aten was celebrated in open sunlight and not, as the priest cults had practised with the many gods, in dark temple enclosures.
While Egypt may sometimes be seen as African, especially Nubia, little is known of the many other developed civilisations in the continent’s history, especially that of West Africa, Zimbabwe and Abyssinia. This makes it difficult to apply historical materialist analysis to African societies outside of the hunter-gather cultures simply because there is a dearth of evidence. What is clear and what is remarkable is just how advanced society was before the Europeans began a five hundred year strategy of exploitation that has severely dented the course of its development.
The creation of the West African states of Songhai, Ghana and Mail (none being the same territory as the modern states of the same name) was the result of pagan and subsistence economies to the extraordinary potential that arose from the serendipity of the location of these places on trading routes to the Islamic and, via the Arab bloc, the Christian worlds. But the benefits that accrued did not significantly arise out of local exploitation and the well-ordered and broadly egalitarian societies that developed were a testament to this.
When Europeans arrived at the Bay of Guinea they were astonished to find mile on mile of well-planned streets bordered by rows of trees. Travelling for days inland, they found the countryside full of fertile fields and well-dressed and well-fed inhabitant garbed on colourful, locally woven clothes. The state of Wagadungu (Ghana), through local oral historical records of 144 heads of state, places its origins around the 7th century BC. The word Ghana, meaning ruler, was misunderstood as being the actual name of the state. But Wagadungu had not developed into a strict class society. Leadership was inherited through sibling matrilineage, the sister of the head of the council provided her brother’s heir. To this day, the Akans of Ghana and the Mandikas of Senegal and Gambia practice matrilineage.
A council of members representing all social strata strictly guided the ruler. The state had however conquered local minor rivals and required tribute from others. It maintained a mixed economy of intensive farming, iron and gold production, stonemasonry, carpentry, pottery and cloth manufacture. A vibrant trade in goods to Egypt and the Middle East involved the selling of gold, salt, copper and slaves. But this was not the Atlantic slave trade; slavery was part of the social systems of the developed West African states in the same way it had been, say, of the Vikings or the Anglo-Saxons. Prisoners of war were enslaved and it could be a punishment for unusual or serious social crimes, only after the west had brought intensive commodification of human labour did a taste for man hunting set in. But well before this, the Almoravids, north of
Ghana, who had converted to Islam, declared a jihad against the Wagadungu in 1076, destroying its base as a power and absorbing a great deal of its northern territory.
The Sahel, a savannah region south of the Sahara, after 750 AD, became the centre of the culturally and politically dynamic culture of Mali due to the strategic importance for trade across North Africa it held. The historical founder of Mali, Sundjata Keita or Sundiata, is said to have been a magician among the Soso peoples who had taken over the remnants of the Ghanaian empire. According to African oral histories the small state of Kangaba, led by Sundiata defeated the nearby kingdom of Soso at the Battle of Kirina in 1235 and unified a vast region that was to become the Mali Empire with Timbuktu as one of the major cultural centres of the world.
But subject states began to break away and, with the decline of Mali, the kingdom of Gao asserted itself. The dynasty of Songhay then controlled most of West Africa, larger than all of the European states combined. Programs of ambitious centralization, and standardization were enacted and Timbuktu once again became a prosperous commercial city, reaching a population of 100,000 people.
But, once again, subject peoples began to revolt, the Moroccans defeated the Songhay in 1591 and the empire quickly collapsed.
Hausaland, between the eastern reaches of the Niger River to the west and Lake Chad in the east, was made up of a number of decentralized villages. In the 11th century, some evolved walled towns. From the late twelfth century, these combined into several kingdoms ruled by partly divine monarchs until the intervention, from the 1450s, of a pastoral people, the Fulani, who were in search of a land that could support their herds. The Hausa states possessed armoured cavalry a feature that may well be indicative of some moves towards a kind of feudalism.
Angolans were often to the fore in the struggles of slaves in the American continent. This should be no surprise given the story of the extraordinary 17th century female leader of what is now mostly Angola, Nzinga (1583-1663). From the sixteenth century, the Portuguese, threatened by England and France, shifted slave-trading activities designed to satisfy the growing demand for this human labour in New World colonies such as Brazil, to the Congo and South West Africa. In an error so typical of invaders of one culture against another, the Portuguese mistook the name of the titular ruler, `Ngola’ for the name of the region and called the land of the Mbundu people `Angola’. These peoples proved determined never to accept conquest and Nzinga turned out to be an exceptional strategist, leading the resistance against the Portuguese until her death at the age of eighty. Nzinga was delegated to negotiate a treaty with the Portuguese and remarkable was able to achieve a result on more or less on equal terms. This enabled
a short term settlement but the then Ngola, Nzinga’s brother proved to be of a weak character, refusing to engage in military tactics to resist Portuguese domination.
Nzinga converted to Christianity for political reasons and used this to forge links with the Portuguese; she adopted the name Dona Anna de Souza. Portugal’s appetite for slaves could not be satisfied and Nzinga in turn formed a temporary alliance with one tribe, turned on yet another tribal grouping, tangled with her earlier allies and, in the process, oversaw the creation of a new army out of a range of disparate forces from across the region. By 1626, Nzinga led an exodus of those unwilling to submit to new territory at Matamba, where they founded a new state beyond the reach of the Portuguese. This provided sanctuary to runaway slaves and Portugal’s African soldiers; a form of military organization known as `kilombo’ was established, whereby family ties were renounced and militia lived communally. Rebellion was fostered amongst those who lived in territory controlled by the Portuguese through a puppet ruler.
A tactical alliance was made with the Dutch against the Portugal and when that failed, Nzinga led her forces once again to the hills and engaged in guerrilla struggle against the Portuguese, although now past sixty, leading her warriors herself. In 1659, weariness of the long struggle dominating thinking on both sides, a peace treaty was signed. Nzinga’s people attempted social and economic reconstruction and she devoted her efforts to resettling former slaves and developing an economy that did not depend upon the adbhorrent trade. Matamba focused on developing trading and capitalising on its position as the gateway to the Central African interior. It had become a formidable power that dealt with the Portuguese on an equal footing. Never surrendering, Nzinga died on December 17th 1663, although after her death the carefully crafted alliances that had kept the Portuguese at bay fell apart and they dominated the region from 1671, although the interior would not be subjugated until the 20th century.
Such mammoth struggles were made by the importance and scale of the Atlantic slave trade. Between 1500 and 1880, some 11 million Africans were forced to move to the Americas. The 18th century was the peak period and 80% were landed in the period between 1701 and 1850. The consequences of the slave trade were devastating to Africa in many different ways. The evolution of social systems into higher forms was stunted. New servile based systems were created in the continent where they had not been before. Elites were encourages to behave in a personally corrupt and non-developmental way. Four hundred years of the trade inhibited the modernisation of an entire continent. West Africa, which had in many ways been the most developed region, was massively affected by the loss of mostly young people and such losses were often focused on specific locations. In the latter part of the 18th century, 80% of the slaves delivered to Jamaica came from the Gold Coast, modern Ghana.
In the 16th century, the Portuguese introduced a monarchical system among the Quicongos. Although the Tchokwe tribe, which emigrated south from central Africa to the area south of the present day Lundas in Angola in the 17th century, maintains a matriarchal social system. The smallest social unit of the populous and numerous Batnu tribes was and is the Kraal, the household, consisting of a man, woman or women, children and other relatives, living in the same household. The man was the head of the household and often had many wives; he had complete authority over the family. A heriditary system based on the elder in the male line applied. Even so, the degree of the democracy depended on the strength of the chieftain and he was not above the law and could be criticized both by advisors as well as by his people, and compensation could be demanded for faulty leadership.
Yet much of African culture remains and its people are proudly defiant. Tribal life, even in African nations long past the hunter gatherer phase, is still a vibrant part of society. This life weaves culture and religion, art and science, politics and economics all in one, as humanity has always done. Just as was the case amongst Celts and Greeks, in Africa, initiation into the tribe is a kind of rebirth. In a similar way, Africa’s traditional religions are a public matter and about maximum involvement of the individual in the commune. In contrast, communal initiation in developed western society is dying out, or has become commodified; whilst modern religions are mainly entirely a private matter, for a small elite band of followers, or even purely for the sanity of the individual. Africa remains mired in underdevelopment, yet for many the urge to catch up is strong. Others still cling to traditional values in a traditional setting.
MODERN TIMES – THE SAN OF SOUTHERN AFRICA
Only in the last 50 odd years has attention of academics, journalists and film makers been focused upon the peoples originally called by the Dutch the ‘Bushmen’ due to their regard for the remarkable knowledge of an environment that that Europeans found challenging, a term now considered to be derogatory. Some, echoing the way African Americans reclaim the term `nigger’, argue that the term "Bushman" could be used in a positive way for all the people in southern Africa who shared similar ethnic backgrounds and customs.
The San are in fact more than one group of non-Negroid peoples in sub-Saharan Africa and they have no collective name for themselves. Inevitably, what to call Bushmen has become a political issue in post-apartheid Africa. In Angola, the name Kwankhala is used, or even Bosquimanos, a Portuguese term. Zimbabwe tends to use the terms Amasili and Batwa; Botswana tends to refer to the Basarwa or a Mosarwa, said to mean people of the south or Tengyanateng, people from deep within the deep. Some in Botswana have argued for the N/oakwe, or Red People, even the First People, whilst the term Khwe, or Knoe, which means “people” in Central Bush languages, is sometimes used.
The San are believed, through genetic archaeology, to be the earliest surviving inhabitants of Africa and thus a people that all other Homo sapiens are linked to, in effect the first people. Along with the pygmies As the earliest known aboriginal inhabitants of southern Africa, their way of life hardly changed for some 40,000 years, some say 70,000, until they encountered European interference. Archaeological evidence of San type behaviour can be found in northeast Africa, in Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. Rock engravings in Libya made by a foraging culture point to a time when the Sahara was a pleasant environment. The Haze and the Sandawe of Tanzania, whilst not ethnically like the San had a foraging economy and used click consonants. of Central Africa, the San have been considered a possible root or source for the female DNA lineage – the legendary Mitochondrial Eve.
Despite big differences in the languages used by all the Bushman groups, the basic principles of social organisation and ideology largely have identifiably similar origins. All the disparate groups are the only people to use clicks – rendered as an exclamation mark or forward slash in writing – as well as more usual sounds in their language. Those who are able to use the click in spoken language have no difficulty with it but it may be readily assumed that its demise enabled fluency. Its loss as archaic in all other languages raises questions as to whether the click was one of the first sounds in language. The San also had a manual communication system for use while hunting, reinforcing the view that speech was not initially a by-product of hunting.
The San defy European attempts at racial categorisation. They do not have the normal African appearance, which is in fact – despite the stupidity of racist attempts to link the Negroid appearance to monkeys – a later development, making the bulk of Africans the most modern humans there are, with perhaps the exception of the vast `mixed race’ population of the world. The nature of blood types suggests that they were genetically the closest to the same African core stock from which the Negroids emerged. It is generally accepted that there was a divergence some 15,000 to 25,000 years ago. The San are smaller and more sharp-featured than the West African `Bantu’, with lighter skin (sometimes defined as `yellow’, or `red’) and different characteristic eye and facial shape.
Their ancestors populated the grassveld and shrub lands of southern African plateau and mountain ranges for millennia. Archaeology suggests that the San were in southern Africa for the best part of the last 10,000 years. Their nomadic and scattered nature resulted in the emergence of a variety of differentiated groups. The Khoikhoi, or Hottentots, were a pastoralist group that arrived in the South African region approximately 2,000 years ago.
Probably, the Khoikhoi were originally San, together the two groups are known as Khoisan. The Khoikhoi’s reliance of an economy of stockbreeding cattle, sheep, and goats enabled them to expand from present day Zimbabwe to the South African plateau, edging the San into the mountain ranges and the Kalahari, areas unsuitable for livestock breeding.
A foraging economy demands extensive land, and permanent settlements are rarely possible, as people have to keep moving whenever the local food supply becomes depleted. Possessions are limited to what can be carried, and dwellings are very simple huts and tents. This kind of economy is the longest lasting of all kinds and can still be found today in parts of South America, Indonesia and Africa.
The San were nomadic hunter-gatherers, living in the desert without sustenance for long periods by storing water and fat stored in remarkably extended buttocks, a characteristic still very noticeable, especially in the women. Disgracefully, this led Europeans to capture `specimens’ of what they thought to be sub-humans to export to Europe for distasteful and insensitive naked exhibits of sexual titillation. In complete contrast, with a culture based around healing, there was a total absence of warfare between San bands. Each band considered itself to be autonomous. The San actively promoted gender equality as part of their way of life, although there was a strong but not exclusive gender division in ritual activity and work.
Plants and small animals belong to those who obtained them and are used by the immediate family. The hunting party of a small group of adult males wins larger animals, with no one in command. Although, gender roles applied, they were not fixed. Women would sometimes assist in the hunt and the men would sometimes help gather plant foods, for hunting was sporadic, depending upon the availability of game. A cactus from Kalahari used by the San to stave off hunger during long hunting expeditions is now to be developed by a western pharmaceutical into a remedy to fight obesity. The six-foot plant, called Hoodia, could reduce appetite by up to 2,000 calories a day.
A present of meat by convention but not law was given to neighbours if an animal was killed after following it into another band’s territory. The kill belonged to he whose first arrow penetrates the prey and stays in the flesh long enough for its immobilising poison to work. This came from poisonous plants, the venom of snakes, or beetle. However, although the killer could dispense largess, the meat of all large animals had be shared with everyone in the band according to a fair distribution system of mutual sharing.
The San enjoyed a sharing society, where competition and greed were unknown. The band is in itself an early form of political society. But San society did not lend itself to a centralised, hierarchical structure. Informal debate took place, it was not held anywhere special place, and often ongoing or recurring. They had no chiefs and all decisions were made communally within the group. Although the San did not have rulers, the leadership of senior members of the band or those with particular abilities was recognised. Even if leaders had formal authority over the disposition of a band’s resources and movement this was a limited power and leadership was exercised symbolically.
Each band was not closed community but broke up and realigned continuously, marriage, and the resolution of difference being key factors in such processes. Once married, a person may join the band of a spouse and enjoy equal rights. The husband worked for his wife on marriage, and the couples themselves arranged these unions, with no property issues arising. Marriage was possible within the band, but incest taboo suggested that it should be outside. Procreation outside of the ethnic group would have been unknown, the Ju/wasi of Namibia still resist marriage with outsiders. Either party in a marriage, in an act of formal parting, could obtain a divorce for any sensible reason.
The role of children was as socialised as all others, except for the making of poison, a taboo for them. The games played by children were a basis for the hunting skills necessary in later life. Children began to share in band responsibilities when they were seven or eight years old. Boys joined the men in hunting and the girls helped the women with their gathering. The only family relationship in which authority existed is with parents and children.
That this was a primitive communistic society is all too clear when we consider ownership questions. Property law of the San was centred upon the commonwealth of resources in a band’s operating territory, water, wild plants and animals, were there for the equal use by all. Water specifically could not belong to any one, although waterholes were band property. Other bands could use these resources with the agreement of their spokespersons.
The whole paraphernalia of any kind of market economy was frowned upon in San society. Commercial contracts and bargaining were seen as practices leading to social tension. But giving and receiving, borrowing and lending, sharing in general was a vital part of social intercourse. Personal possessions were few, being largely made up of tools, cooking and cutlery instruments, clothing, ornaments and musical instruments. The concept of shared matrimonial property was unknown.
Inheritance of deceased person’s possessions was subject to gift-giving partnerships, an important part of social interaction. Gift giving was an essential way of maintaining relationships between supportive networks. One had special gift partners and exchanges would go back and forth according to the varying good fortune of either partner as time went by. Children did not receive inheritance goods but the partnership, often before the parent actually died. The children passed possessions to the gift partners, so as to continue to relationship.
`Crime’ as such was virtually absent but physical violence to another, incest, adultery and improper use and distribution of the natural resources was considered to be harmful to communal interests. These wrongs, along with individual disputes were judged by collective opinion the aim of which was to resolve a conflict through talking and public shaming. An offender could be ejected from the band, unless greater harm would result to the collective than was justified compared to the original misdemeanour.
Most lived in small groups of five or six families, totaling 25 to 50 people, united through bonds of kinship and trade. These bands moved about the landscape, coming together and dispersing according to the season. They hunted with bows and arrows and ate root and berries. Like our ancient ancestors, this life-style is now understood to be rather suited to our nature and anatomy. Studies over the past 40 years or so of the !Kung San group, probably the most studied foraging society in the whole world, who still retain a sort of nomadic lifestyle, show that they spend an average of 32.5 hours a week in obtaining food, a good deal of which is eaten raw, but meat is always cooked. The !Kung can use up to over 200 plant species and take in some 2,400 calories a day. Being rather short and thin, this is an adequate amount for their size. Some 35% is taken in the form of meat, 40% in mongongo nuts, at 80% fat a highly valuable source of energy.
Living in rock shelters, in the open or in crude shelters of twigs and grass or animal skins, the San made no pottery, rather using ostrich eggshells or animal parts for storing and holding liquids. They are now justly famous for their `rock’ art, placed on naturally interesting places in the landscape, such as caves, overhangs or smooth slabs of rock. A vigorous debate surrounds the motivation for the art, which typically depicts animals, the hunt or dance. Painters used ochre, mixed with blood or animal fat, or carved features into the surfaces of stone.
When Europeans first encountered this rock art some 350 years ago, they considered it primitive. But when a shaman painted an eland, he did more than celebrated the creature, it was about capturing the essence. It is now widely believed that the famous trance dance of the San is the basis for rock art. Certainly, clear parallels between the images and the ceremonies are evident. This was a vital part of the San culture; many tens of thousands of individual rock paintings have now been recorded. The paintings symbolically enable hunters gain power from the animals that are represented but not necessarily killed.
The eland was an animal of the great `spiritual’ power, one of well being and healing, of beauty and peace and plenty. The eland is the largest antelope in southern Africa not easy to kill and therefore it had some kind of significance just for its size. But it is also remarkable for the level of fat its body contains, a substance of great significance to the San. Its super-calorific nature imparting a symbolic sense of potency
Much has been made of the spiritual nature of the San and the link between the paintings and their main ritual activity has reinforced esoteric comment. But there was a minimum of ‘religion’ as we would know it. As with all cultures, San ideology cannot be separated from their way of life. Their world-view was focused on the interrelationship of nature and human beings, with birth and death being subject to no special formal rituals. Certainly, plants and animals are seen as being endowed with the essence of deceased San, empowered with the gifts of generosity and punishment. But the reality is much more prosaic, the trance dance, the major form of ritual of the San, is seen as a kind of community medicine and could occur spontaneously in normal San life. Today, it is only performed for tourists on demand when some specific group member is ill.
As if it were somehow known that a trance dance was needed as a healing act for the community, children would start up a rhythmic game around the evening fire, and adult men then joined in. Some of the men would leap over and dance around the fire. The children joined their mothers in a circle around the fire, clapping and singing. As the dance reached a peak of excitement, some of the men obtained a transcendent state that arrives with long periods of rhythmic activity. They would then call for the better health of one and all, especially a band member who is ailing. The dance would go on for hours on end and be deeply involving for all. It seemed to make everybody feel better and a suffering individual gained sustenance from the communal feeling of goodwill. The associated rain dance was much more of a celebration of a good hunt, although it is similar to the trance dance; no appeals to the spirits are involved.
A handful of surviving San bands have held on precariously in isolated parts of the Cape Province and the Transvaal but the majority are now to be found in the Kalahari regions of Namibia, known as the Nama and Herero and some of the forgoing life style remains but altered in many respects by interaction with modernity. In South Africa, the !Khomani now have most of their land rights recognised through action by the ANC government. In contrast, the G//ana and G/wi tribes in Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve are among the most persecuted.
European style agro-economics d
estroyed the nomadic way of life, as herds of cattle destroyed the sources of wild foods. The usual ethnic cleansing practices followed. Less than 10,000 traditional San Bushmen remain across the six countries of the Kalahari (Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Angola). Outside of these areas, they are often treated appallingly. Some 100,000 people consider themselves San in the various countries of Southern Africa. Before Europeans colonised Africa, the San co-existed peacefully with the Zulu, Xhosa, Swazi and Ndebele. The Bantu nations have adopted many of the click consonants, unique to the Khoisan languages, indicating consensual interbreeding. Substantial elements of the Khoisan language are retained in the language of the Griquas of Western Cape.
“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes. … In ancient Rome we have patricians, knights, plebeians, slaves; in the Middle Ages, feudal lords, vassals, guild-masters, journeymen, apprentices, serfs… Our epoch … possesses, however, this distinctive feature: it has simplified the class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.” [Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Communist Manifesto, MESW, pp.35-36]
Eric Hobsbawm has written that: "Marxism … has been mistakenly attacked for an alleged blind objectivism … The historical interests of most Marxist historians were not so much in the base – the economic infrastructure – as in the relations of base and superstructure.” Further, that the application of science to history “returns us to the basic approach to human evolution … to study the modes of interaction between our species and its environment and its growing control over it …`Modes of production’, based on major innovations in productive technology … have been central to human evolution. These innovations … do not make themselves. Material and cultural forces and relations of production are not separable. They are the activities of men and women in historical situations not of their making, acting and taking decisions, but not in a vacuum.” [Eric Hobsbawm speech to the BritishAcademy Colloquium on Marxist historiography – The Guardian 15.1.2005]
Prehistory occupies a massive proportion of all human history; recorded history is the merest slice of our existence – all the books and papers recording contemporary events perhaps account for a twentieth of all the events that have happened to our species. In this preoccupation, there is an abiding prejudice against accepting the reality that early human and their hominid relatives were more intelligent and sophisticated than we previously thought. The extraordinary resistance to accepting early dates for human development of technologies amongst the established community of experts is legendary. Clearly, some caution is necessary and evidence is a necessary. But time and time again, the experts bend to new theories, human development is dated further back, the level of hominid capability is accepted as greater than previously accepted.
What is clear is that humans have a “long tradition of symbolic activity that can be traced back to an extremely remote period”. [Rudgely `Lost Civilisations…’ p209] Traditional historical theorists assert that a cultural `big bang’ took place around 40,000 years ago and that is when fully modern humans began. This is in the long tradition of asserting that historical change occurred in a sudden rush towards civilisation. Yet another `suddenly’! What is abundantly clear – and what has been the purpose of this text to demonstrate – is that the painfully slow universal evolution through various states of human sophistication, punctuated by moments of revolutionary transition in which new distributions of power are forced, is intimately linked to the conditions of reality that humans found in their human pre-history. Whilst ideology plays a vital role in enabling humans to make sense of their surroundings it is not necessarily the underlying determining force, As Marx noted: “The necessity for predicting the rise and fall of the Nile created Egyptian astronomy and with it the dominion of the priests, as directors of agriculture.” The Tigris and the Euphrates, and the Yangtze played the same role that the Nile played for the Egyptians for others.”
[Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I, Moscow 1961, note on p.514.]
The concept of Marx’s historical materialism is set out by him in his foreword to the `Critique of Political Economy’. Famously, Marx says that: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness … Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production.” [Karl Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, MESW, p.182]
This work follows this tradition and the thesis here is that overlapping and successive stages of human society, attributable to definite modes of production marked by distinct forms of division of labour and property ownership. At every stage, societies can regress, stay static or transform. But, as society becomes more complicated tensions emerge that are not resolvable within the existing economic structure. Humans began their journey with a definite form of collectivism that is still observable in undeveloped cultures. Under this `primitive communism’, as no social surplus was produced, there was no ruling class, indeed, society was classless.
We can view the emergence of so-called `civilisation’ as the second epoch in history, initially characterised by communal and state ownership but this was an external slave mode of production, usually employing the direct possession of human beings from other ethnic groups. With the development of private property and the increasingly disproportionate distribution of ownership, we see the emergence of classes, ideologies reflecting this, and a separation between town and country interests. These contradictions undermined social stability and disparities of economic development between cultures left advanced states vulnerable to invasion.
Repeatedly, we have seen that the notion of a tribal ruler, and later the petty kings, leading to the single kings of unified nation states, was a transition form from earlier communal conceptions of ownership. The chief in earlier times had held the land for the tribe. New ideologies underpinned the introduction of the unification of leaders, dispensing with shamanic roles and the notion of a peacetime spokesperson of a council of elders in favour of a single war leader who held all power of all matters. It was not so difficult to shift towards the ideas that would lead to the principle of the divine right of kings. Each extension of the ideology of divinity was a step towards enshrining the personal possessions of elite families as an ersatz form of collectivism.
In the beginning, Nature owned the land and all its treasures, humanity could `borrow’ stuff from Nature but had to always put something back. Then all of nature was understood to be ethereal gods of different aspects of nature, later becoming ever more personified. Individual men could act for the gods and the tribe by `looking after’ the land for them. Gods became warlike and grouchy, so did some men could own the land and be protectors of all, then rulers of all. Then rulers became gods themselves, the ruler’s family could own all of the land; the only solution to the competition between gods paralleled the competition men. One ruler – one god, it became increasingly a case of King and God. Sub-contracting to local rulers kept the territory and the class ruling it together
In the feudal mode of production that followed in Western Europe’s experience, the primary form of property was the possession of land and reciprocal labour-capital relations, the possession of humans was dependent upon their being tied to the land they worked. Similar but not entirely the same systems of pre-industrial exploitation developed in many parts of the world. Later, the capitalist mode of production, associated with modern industrial societies, saw the development of property ownership through the possession of objects and services. Labour is employed by contract, with few obligations on capital and many on labour. Enormous portions of humanity presently live under such a system of society but it cannot be said to be a permanent state of living, given the range of complex developments we have reviewed.
In the theory of class struggle, every mode of production, except those of primitive and advanced communism, is characterized by fundamental class division and exploitation. The ruling class owns land, capital or even people and extracts surplus. Peasants, slaves and serfs are obliged to work for others, whereas workers in capitalist societies are forced to work on pain of starvation.
The ruling class of each mode of production, who control their own state, are challenged and replaced by a new ruling class when its rule ceased to advance progress of production. Thus the feudal nobility in Europe, who were dominant because they owned the land, were replaced with the growth in trade and industrialization by the capitalist class, who gained ascendancy because of their control of capital; while the bourgeoisie in their turn are doomed to be replaced by the working people. These changes in modes of production always occurred through class polarization, and are always mobilised by revolution.
A final few words about material reality and history, via a brief tour of the cosmos! Many of us will know that it is said that Einstein’s famous theories explain a great deal about the universe but there are still problems – uncertainties. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle may be summed up as the more accurately you try to measure the position of a particle the less accurately you are able to measure its speed and vice versa. This uncertainty may never be smaller than a certain fixed quantity, known as Planck’s constant. Because this is only a tiny number the effects in everyday life are unnoticeable. But the science that arises from this, quantum theory, underpin all modern science, except Einstein’s theory of relativity and our understanding of the cosmos.
Quantum mechanics suggests a degree of unreliability in science. Relativity does not help us understand whether the universe has always existed or whether it came into existence at a particular moment in time. The big bang theory suggests the latter. But quantum theory makes it possible for space-time to be finite and yet have no boundaries. If there are no boundaries, no edge and therefore it is not possible to create or destroy it. It just is. Yet it is also well-known that most mainstream cosmologists are currently in favour of the idea that the universe exploded in a big bang and has been expanding ever since. This standard model failed to predict, as we now know, that everything in the universe is moving apart at an accelerating rate, something that does not seem to fit with the image of a massive explosion, creating star matter and then throwing it out; surely we suppose, the universe would slow down, albeit very slowly?
A generally accepted problem with this standard model is that it does not tell us what happened before the Big Bang or suggest a future. But some have seen it as favouring religiously inclined notions of a creator. Yet even Big Bang enthusiast, Stephen Hawking, in his `A Brief History of Time’, has written that: "So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place then for a creator?" Well, yes…precisely!
Marxist scientists, notably in Soviet days, have long argued that there is an interpretation of what we currently know about the cosmos that supports the `always there’ hypothesis. Interestingly, mainstream opinion is gradually being nudged away from the big bang. Cambridge University academics have now proposed just this, that the universe has no beginning or end, it just is. Yet this could well co-exist with the Big Bang notion in that it may address the what before and what after questions. Perhaps, as life itself seems to, the cosmos goes through an endless cycle – of birth, growth and death. The big bang would not then be a creation, but a transition in an endless process.
The discovery that the universe is dominated by `dark matter’, something we cannot yet properly define, has led to the suggestion that it is this that pushes galaxies apart and drives the endless cycle. This arises since matter is so far apart and still moving, the process causing a vacuum-like "big crunch", which triggers dark energy to materialize into matter and radiation.
Thus “the Big Bang is not a beginning of time but really just the latest in an infinite series of cycles, in which the universe has gone through periods of heating, expanding, cooling, stagnating, emptying, and then re-expanding again." (BBC report – Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok, 2002; (National Geographic NewsApril 25, 2002),
This would make the universe not only infinite but eternal; moreover, this posits the idea that there have been many, many big bangs. One clear law of physics most of us can probably remember from those dreary classes long ago is that neither matter nor energy, which are actually aspects of the same thing, can be created or destroyed. God, religion and the Big Bang theory suggests otherwise; now no-one need be in doubt about those wet Tuesdays of double physics– it was true! Not all of it, but that which positions itself around material existence and experimental truth certainly was.
The history of human beings and what used to be called natural history are not so very different; both can only be understood by reference to material reality. It is the historical tradition that roots itself thus that I seek to defend. In defence of history, it points the way to an understanding of our existing world as well as our past, it may also just help us work out a way to the future also.
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