Day By Day

Monday, June 25, 2007

New Evidence on the Origins of Settled Communities

When I was in school Marxism was all the rage among academics -- still is for many of them -- and it colored nearly everything that was thought and said and written. Regarding human origins we were taught that settled communities did not become possible until the beginnings of the "agricultural revolution" [in those days everything had to be a "revolution"] roughly ten thousand years ago.

The "agricultural revolution" theory had the virtue of intellectual coherence, even elegance. It linked together the rise of agriculture [the material base] with the beginnings of social stratification, the specialization of work, the rise of warfare, the first state organizations, the start of organized religions, and a host of other things in a simple explanatory framework. The only problem was, no matter how much archaeologists and prehistorians struggled to torture the hard evidence dug out of the ground to fit their theories, there were always a lot of things that could not easily be explained away.

The recent collapse of the Soviet system, and general disillusionment with Marxism, has opened the way for contrary evidence to be considered. Today the "agricultural revolution" is no longer in vogue and new areas of investigation are being explored. One intriguing change is a new appreciation of the importance of coastal environments, especially wetlands. These extremely rich environments seem to have provide populations with sufficient resources so support settled communities and a degree of social complexity long before the coming of agriculture. Now, a stunning find, has pushed the beginnings of settled communities and social complexity far back, not just before agriculture, but before the first anatomically modern humans appeared [roughly 200,000 years ago].

The Times has the story:

Our earliest ancestors gave up hunter-gathering and took to a settled life up to 400,000 years earlier than previously thought, according to controversial research.

The accepted timescale of Man’s evolution is being challenged by a German archaeologist who claims to have found evidence that Homo erectus — mankind’s early ancestor, who migrated from Africa to Asia and Europe — began living in settled communities long before the accepted time of 10,000 years ago.

The point at which settlement actually took place is the first critical stage in humanity’s cultural development.

Helmut Ziegert, of the Institute of Archaeology at Hamburg University, says that the evidence can be found at excavated sites in North and East Africa, in the remains of stone huts and tools created by upright man for fishing and butchery.

Professor Ziegert claims that the thousands of blades, scrapers, hand axes and other tools found at sites such as Budrinna, on the shore of the extinct Lake Fezzan in southwest Libya, and at Melka Konture, along the River Awash in Ethiopia, provide evidence of organised societies.

He believes that such sites show small communities of 40 or 50 people, with abundant water resources to exploit for constant harvests.

The implications for our knowledge of human evolution — and of our intellectual and social beginnings — are “profound” and a “staggering shift”, he said.

Read the whole thing here.

Of course this is extremely controversial and much work needs to be done before it will be accepted, but if it is eventually confirmed it could well usher in a new "paradigm shift" and the rise of a new scientific consensus to replace the now-discredited Marxist model that dominated the field for so long.