- From: Joe Bernstein <joe@xxxxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Sun, 19 Feb 2006 23:19:48 +0000 (UTC)
In article <45f42aF6g2efU1@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>, VtSkier
Joe Bernstein wrote:
[False stereotype of American Indians as hunter-gatherers en bloc.]
mean hunting and gathering, um, well, that would be the Utes,
who were roundly mocked by all their neighbours for their
backwardness, or it would be the Canadian tribes (with some
exceptions), or some of the mountain groups. The Californian
and other coastal tribes don't qualify because they had something
different going on, comparable to the Jomon of Japan (the world's
first potters); in particular, they had villages. And further
south, you have people like the Olmecs and the Incas, until
you get (again) to small backward populations in places like
Brazil and Argentina.
Ah, be careful here.
1) Brazil is a big place.
2) There is mounting evidence that Amazonian Indians
in fact led settled lives, in villages, with
extensive/intensive farming. Trouble was, their
materialism was made up mostly of organic material
which doesn't last in a humid environment.
3) There is also evidence that the Argentinian natives
to a certain degree gave up farming in favor of
hunting, much like their relatives on the Great
Plains of North America.
My position in this area is roughly as follows:
1) As a kid, I learned in school about the Indians, though not in any
particularly systematic way. At core, my take on "All Indians were
hunter-gatherers" as a profoundly outdated stereotype derives from
my having learnt otherwise over thirty years ago. (Some of this
probably also came not from school but from proximity - I grew up
and also currently live close to the northern margin of farming
hereabouts, so local monuments visited on field trips or vacations
are related to farming peoples.)
2) Around the age of 20, I studied comparative urban origins. This
entailed strictly minimal studying up on Mesoamerica and Peru. My
grasp on either of those areas has always been pretty weak, and
on areas further from them, even weaker - though because I consulted
an old family friend who's worked at Cahokia, I did end up knowing
a bit more about US Indians' farming as a result.
3) A year and a half ago, I helped a friend research what North
America, and specifically its northeastern chunk, was like around
1640. Basically, I used the "Northeast", "Subarctic", and (minimally)
"Arctic" volumes of the Smithsonians' <Handbook of North American
Indians> as starting points and then pursued more detailed information
(and especially more current archaeological info) tribe by tribe or
region by region. Now, this *specifically* omits the Southeast,
whose Smithsonian volume appeared while I was working and didn't
hit any libraries I had access to until the work was done. So I've
looked at that volume since, but not really studied it. I also
scanted everything south or west of Pennsylvania even in the
So I'm not some kind of great expert here, but just from this more
or less incidental study knew the hunter-gatherer thing was false.
I was more trying to say "OK, *if* there were any hunter-gatherers
left, they were in places like Patagonia or Amazonia", not "I know
for sure that the Patagonians and Amazonians were hunter-gatherers".
I'll concede to your greater knowledge if you've read pretty much
anything at all about those peoples.
If you mean the Plains Indians who followed the buffalo, um,
pastoral nomadism is an advanced way of life complementary to
agriculture; it isn't how people lived up to 10K BC, when they
didn't have pastoral *animals* domesticated. (It also isn't how
people lived *on the Plains* until the Spanish brought horses
The Plains Indians didn't follow the lifestyle of Pastoral
Nomadism in the way that the Altaic peoples did or even the
way the Sami people do to this day. They didn't "own" the
herds. They simply followed along with little attempt to
control or "herd" the animals. Though some control was
certainly to be had with fire, though that's a limited
method for obvious reasons.
Um, well, depends on what you mean by "herds". I was thinking of
their dependence on horses. Your point that they didn't have
domesticated *prey* as the Sami or the Central Asian types did,
is however a valid rejoinder.
Apparently the Plains Indians, in many cases, gave up
agriculture altogether to go hunting. Some tribes kept
their sedentary ways, farmed, and traded with the nomads.
The Mandans come to mind with their very substantial
log and mud houses, not unlike houses built by the
Scandinavian people just before and during their great
As indicated above, I have no difficulty believing that, I just
haven't studied it myself.
There's a recent book titled <1491> that's useful on this stuff,
although the author's a bit too keen to emphasise how Shocking
And New the information he's providing is.
Oh, come on, to VERY many people this information is
NEW and certainly shocking, because it upsets a lot of
widely held notions both about the NUMBER of people that
were in the Americas and their level of culture.
I thought the emphasis, while not something you would
write in a scholarly tome, was warranted in this piece
for popular consumption.
All of what is in this book, could be found elsewhere
in scholarly material, in a lot less readable form.
Thing is, <1491> is very clearly aimed at people even less informed
than I was before 2004, and this annoys me. I tend to take for
granted that everyone who picks up serious books will know at
least as much as I did in grade school.
Now, conceded. The population stuff isn't new, but it isn't
what I was taught in grade school. (I caught wind of it in the 80s
but didn't pursue it then.) I did, however, read a fair amount about
it in 2004-2005, and so the way the guy presented it as hot off the
presses ... felt kinda like nails on a blackboard to me.
All this, mind you, from picking the book up in a store and reading
maybe 20-30 pages then and there. On the one hand, I *haven't* read
the whole book. On the other, I obviously *am* interested, and will
probably *end up* reading it sooner or later. So while I find it
irksome, I'll certainly recommend it on a case by case basis, and
in *this* case - with someone tossing off a stereotype that I
could've corrected him on in grade school - sure, everything the
book says will come as a real shock.
(Oh, and I snipped an attribution line I shouldn't; this is the guy
I'm talking about...)
There are dozens of reasons proposed for the start of civilization.
Oh, yeah. They are strictly speaking off-topic here, since they
precede writing in most cases (I'd say, "in all cases", but some
folks would counter-argue with respect to India), but there sure
are dozens of reasons.
Personally, I prefer the end run advocated by Robert McCormick
Adams in <The Evolution of Urban Society> - that it's more
interesting to look at *how* it happened, than to try to answer
the often unanswerable, and often contingent, question *why*.
Indeed I so much prefer this approach that my own definition of
"civilisation" is "society past a certain point in that process",
rather than any specific criterion.
Well how did it happen? Did a population get to a point of
size where a certain level of organization is required?
This is a popular viewpoint but I'm not sure it's warranted. Note
that Harappa is a fairly clear case of, at a minimum, *different*
organisation, and Harappa offers not only enlarged populations but
also dependence on irrigation (the other popular "prime mover").
So meseems it can't *just* be that simple.
(IOW you seem here to be talking about causes, and Adams at least
doesn't *do* that.)
Did that population then "allow" a big man to speak for them
and direct them in certain matters? After a while did this
population require someone with more authority? A Chief?
Then a King with hereditary backing for a *continuity* of
authority? How about some security issues from threats by
neighbors? This might require the creation of a state with
All the while this is happening, a class of people not
directly involved in primary production (agriculture) are
advancing ideas which gradually and almost inexorably becomes
Well, there's a *couple* of things missing from this summary, at
1) In general, there seems to be a theocratic component to this
sort of thing. Early "big men" tend to have some kind of religious
sanction. (This isn't some kind of iron rule, but is typical.)
2) Civilisations vary widely both in how far along this process
they get, and in what results. I mean, in central Asia and in
Peru they managed to get pretty far without even doing writing.
So your "ideas" has to be taken fairly loosely.
I could expatiate at some length on what *sorts* of ideas - Adams,
whom I cited, talks about changes in the nature of the deities
along the path, while Paul Wheatley, whom I didn't previously cite,
has a lot to say about the physical form of cities. (He is,
unfortunately, mostly wrong about this being a universal norm;
to my considerable surprise it turned out to be untrue of Gangetic
India, where his sole cited example is centuries too late to
matter.) But it's been a long time, so I won't.
Oh, maybe I put too strongly the warnings in 2), since you go
on immediately to:
The how, are the steps noted above. Not always developing
at the same speed or in exactly the same way, but developing
But *then* we get:
The why is *clearly* population growth.
The population growth is brought on by human populations
obeying the Law of Nature, which is, "The number of
individuals in a given species will increase as the
food supply available to it increases."
There are about nine places on the earth where agriculture
developed independently. There are probably as many places
where civilization arose pretty much spontaneously with
little or no influence from the other "civilized" areas.
There are also places where agriculture developed and
civilization never did (New Guinea highlands for instance).
See, right there you have your answer. No, agriculture does *not*
somehow automatically generate civilisation. Period. Full stop.
Further, the hearths of agriculture and those of civilisation
*don't match*. For example, the important East Asian source of
agriculture is in Southeast Asia, but civilisation arose around
the Yellow River something like a thousand miles away. This is
actually pretty typical.
In particular, if you have anything like nine "pristine"
civilisations (where "pristine" is your "little or no influence"),
you're doing what I do, and counting Egypt, Mesopotamia, Harappa,
and perhaps Central Asia as separate instances. (I'm currently
reading up on the archaeology of the western half of this region,
which may force me to give up this view, we'll see. But anyway...)
All four of these, however, derive primarily from a single hearth
of agriculture somewhere in I think Turkey or Syria. (There's
another *in* Central Asia - source of inter alia apples and if I
remember right cotton - but it's not central to the Central Asian
civilisation I'm talking about, any more than the foods coming
from Southeast Asia like rice were central to Harappa.)
Furthermore, European agriculture derives from that *same* source.
And yet Europe produced *no* pristine civilisations.
I don't know why not. I don't know nearly enough about European
archaeology to talk coherently about what Europe *did* produce;
and this is irksome because the people who in the late 1970s and
early 1980s declared all this sort of cultural evolution stuff
invalid, relied heavily on examples from the European bronze age.
But I do think it's clear that it's nothing so simple as "if you
farm, you'll probably get civilised." New Guinea looks freakish
because it was left alone, as societies on the continents weren't;
but it isn't necessarily freakish.
I don't have a handy list of sources of agriculture - learned
about that back in 1984 and have since forgotten. But FWIW my
list of "pristine" civilisations runs: Mesopotamia, Egypt,
Harappa, Central Asia, India, China, Mesoamerica, Peru. All of
these except Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica have serious scholars
who doubt their pristineness, and I'm definitely unusual for
non-Indians in claiming that India might be pristine.
So what's your list - either of pristine civilisations, or of
hearths of agriculture - look like?
Joe Bernstein, writer joe@xxxxxxxxxxx
<http://www.panix.com/~josephb/> "She suited my mood, Sarah Mondleigh
did - it was like having a kitten in the room, like a vote for unreason."
<Glass Mountain>, Cynthia Voigt
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