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Protohistory : how did civilization emerge?

Oh yeah, it only makes sense to adopt a sedentary lifestyle as long as you have a year-round food supply that allows it. My first post was wrongly formulated, but the question I had in mind was rather that when that food supply is endangered, probably due to a growing local population in what we can assume to be villages, why would people invent agriculture and deteriorate their diet rather than just dispersing? Population density at regional level was still very low so there was certainly a lot of room. My assumption (which could actually be wrong) is that people wanted to live in larger numbers in one place than hunting and foraging could allow. And that may be a reason why they began to develop techniques to increase the local food supply.

For the Natufians at least, there is some evidence that climatic changes might have pushed them into the very first stages of agriculture. The region they inhabited (SE Anatolia) was incredibly rich in foodstuffs, allowing them to adopt an at least mostly sedentary lifestyle even as hunter-gatherers following the LGM. During the Younger Dryas, while the Middle East wasn't impacted nearly as signifcantly as North America and Northern Europe*, rainfall in the region did drop noticeably, accompanied by the spread of grassland. This could well have forced the Natufians to adopt a diet more dependent on said grasses as their earlier foodstuff were much less abundant, and ultimately to the domestication of them. It's certainly not proven, but the timeline matches up pretty well with what is generally considered to be the early stages of the neolithic revolution.

* Contrary to what some pop-history and psuedo-history narratives might claim, the Younger Dryas was not some global catastrophe. It was pretty bad around the North Atlantic where temperatures dropped by upwards of 10C, but most of the world experienced much less signifcant changes - indeed the Southern Hemisphere was barely affected at all.
 
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I am skeptical, very skeptical, of this so-often repeated observation about the misery of early sedentary life.
It allowed people to survive in conditions that would have killed them before. There would have been no evidence of misery without this advent because there would have been no life.

It's sorta like the designers of American strategic bombers in WWII. For a long time they wouldn't bother to buttress the parts of the planes that never got hit by fighters or flak. Since there was never any damage on those parts, what would be the point? And then they realized that their data came from the bombers that returned.
 
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How do they know this and how is that even possible?
Watch the lecture by the director of the institute that did the research. About 53 minutes in, there are some good depictions of the genomic histories of various groups and how they changed very quickly.
genomics.png
 
lmao!
 
We know, because of our advanced understanding of biology and nutrition, that this diet may not have been as healthy long term. But one observes that only by being able to contrast the effects of one diet with another over a lifetime. At that time, people would have thought along a much shorter timescale: tomorrow's lunch. Food being abundant and reliable right this minute would have won out over any possible effects over a lifetime.

Our "advanced" understanding of biology has had fats demoniced and then paised, cholesterol, eggs, etc, in the last 30 or so years. Woody Allen's joke ended up applying, meaning: "nutrition science" has been a mess throughout the 20th centiury and remains a mess.

I rather think that societies that existed, more or less stable (otheewise they woudl go extinch) in their environment for millenia knew a think or two about nutrition that was appropriate for that environment. Far more than researchers now speculating about what people back then might have done. For them, it was a matter of survival.
 
I rather think that societies that existed, more or less stable (otheewise they woudl go extinch) in their environment for millenia knew a think or two about nutrition that was appropriate for that environment.
One could even go so far as to say that the studies that gauge the relative lifespan of individuals reflect an anachronistic modern emphasis on the value of the individual self. Maybe the survival of societies is best served by limited individual lifespans--just through childrearing age for most--and then just a rare aged wise man or woman who survives beyond that to carry forward societal wisdom. And hunter-gatherers might have a different calibration of that ideal age due to the greater danger of early death.
 
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One could even go so far as to say that the studies that gauge the relative lifespan of individuals reflect an anachronistic modern emphasis on the value of the individual self. Maybe the survival of societies is best served by limited individual lifespans--just through childrearing age for most--and then just a rare aged wise man who survives beyond that to carry forward societal wisdom. And hunter-gatherers might have a different calibration of that ideal age due to the greater danger of early death.
I was thinking something along those lines: If settling somewhere creates conditions where people have more children, then larger, permanent settlements become an "adaptive" behavior, almost in an evolutionary sense. Where Behavior A results in women having more children, and in more of those children reaching adulthood, than Behavior B, then over a long timespan, the group that exhibits Behavior A will outgrow and usurp the group that exhibits Behavior B. And when it comes to children, two things are broadly true: First, human children are extremely vulnerable for a long time. Second, individual humans will make choices that would shorten their own individual lifespan if it increases the chances of their children living to adulthood. It almost doesn't matter if people exhibiting Behavior A die before they're 35, or are short, or have bad teeth, or live under the thumb of a tyrannical dictator, if they have 10% more kids who reach adulthood. It wouldn't matter to the populations, over 100 generations; and it wouldn't matter to the parents of 4 hungry kids who come across a village that will take them in.
 
You can actually tell if a hunter gatherer group was probably new to an area(such as the postulated first peoples in the Americas), they would suffer for several generations from seasonal nutritional deficiencies as they had to learn how to extract sustenance from new ecosystems.

The spiral fractures on the wrists of young hunter gatherer women were a constant, though. Ah, the noble savage.
 
Second, individual humans will make choices that would shorten their own individual lifespan if it increases the chances of their children living to adulthood. It almost doesn't matter if people exhibiting Behavior A die before they're 35, or are short, or have bad teeth, or live under the thumb of a tyrannical dictator, if they have 10% more kids who reach adulthood. It wouldn't matter to the populations, over 100 generations; and it wouldn't matter to the parents of 4 hungry kids who come across a village that will take them in.
Good post. Just wanted to add I don't really think individuals were making many lifestyle choices back then. Its not like today where a nuclear family can decide to move to Denver or Oslo or Cape Town. You kind of have to go with what the group is doing. At best maybe an extended family can make a choice if a tribal split is happening but mostly you are just going with the consensus.

Even now are we really making choices? Society and population may well collapse. We go along with whatever currently seems 'normal' even if it's against our interests.

All the variables are way beyond our ability to calculate so we make most decisions based on 'social proof' (which is nowadays manipulated by corporate images of what 'normal' is)
 
Good post. Just wanted to add I don't really think individuals were making many lifestyle choices back then. Its not like today where a nuclear family can decide to move to Denver or Oslo or Cape Town. You kind of have to go with what the group is doing. At best maybe an extended family can make a choice if a tribal split is happening but mostly you are just going with the consensus.

Even now are we really making choices? Society and population may well collapse. We go along with whatever currently seems 'normal' even if it's against our interests.

All the variables are way beyond our ability to calculate so we make most decisions based on 'social proof' (which is nowadays manipulated by corporate images of what 'normal' is)
Yes, I think going with the group was probably a bigger factor in a low-information environment. But there had to have been people who struck off over the mountain, or across the water, to see what was on the other side. Maybe those were younger people without families yet, but some would have been families or whole villages who were suffering a drought or a flood or a famine. We see that today. People make incredible journies - and many of them literally die on the way - just because their current situation is so bad that risking death is worth it. We live in a high-information environment today, so people have some idea of what Western Europe or the United States looks like, and what might await them there, before they decide to go.

But still, people crossed the Pacific in small boats and traveled from Asia to North America, in great enough numbers that they probably died in droves and still proliferated. And they settled down at almost every step of the way. There are places here in the Americas where whole civilizations have disappeared, but I would imagine that indigenous peoples from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego are all descendants of the people who crossed over from Asia, possibly as much as 24,000 years ago. A quick Google search says the Zuni of New Mexico & Arizona may be the oldest existing indigenous group in North America, possibly going back 4,500 years. They may be direct descendants of the Ancestral Puebloan peoples (who were themselves descendants of even older groups, who no longer exist).

As for who made the choices to migrate - in some cases, over large distances or over terrain that wasn't itself a place they could settle - I imagine there were leaders in each group who made those decisions, if the decision wasn't made collectively. One way or another, they did it.

I think it's broadly true that populations that settled down grew larger than populations that were nomadic. Maybe human settlements have to pass through some kind of crucible, and many of them failed. It's possible that, when looking at the sweep of history, settling down and establishing villages, towns, and cities was "high risk, high reward", and while whole civilizations ultimately failed and disappeared, maybe settling down was still the best bet for the development of human civilization. Of course, the individuals, families, and communities making these choices wouldn't have been looking 5,000 years down the road. They might not have been looking 50 years down the road. So in the moment there had to have been something that told them that farming the banks of this river here was the thing to do. Maybe their feet hurt and they didn't want to walk any more, and good enough was good enough, and hey, there's fish and ducks in this river, and hey, bison migrate right past here twice a year, and then -boom- fifty years go by and, what do you know, we have a village in the spot where somebody's grandparents decided to take a break because their feet hurt. :lol:

(It may be that one of the many unrealistic things about the Civilization games is that players get to choose where their Settlers found a new settlement.)

 
My general impression from reading over the years is that human populations kept growing to the point that the nomadic lifestyle became untenable: individual populations reduced their range to a smaller territory, and had to begin making it more productive via farming. This is not something I'd argue,but it seems generally sensible to me, and nicely explains why civilization appeared in several locations apparently at once -- though in archaeological terms, "at once" is very relative. However, Jane Jacobs argued that cities grew first from populations wanting to trade, and provided a basis for agriculture to grow around them. It's been 15+ years since I read her thoughts on that (Cities and the Wealth of Nations, maybe).
 
Yes, I think going with the group was probably a bigger factor in a low-information environment. But there had to have been people who struck off over the mountain, or across the water, to see what was on the other side. Maybe those were younger people without families yet, but some would have been families or whole villages who were suffering a drought or a flood or a famine. We see that today. People make incredible journies - and many of them literally die on the way - just because their current situation is so bad that risking death is worth it. We live in a high-information environment today, so people have some idea of what Western Europe or the United States looks like, and what might await them there, before they decide to go.

But still, people crossed the Pacific in small boats and traveled from Asia to North America, in great enough numbers that they probably died in droves and still proliferated. And they settled down at almost every step of the way. There are places here in the Americas where whole civilizations have disappeared, but I would imagine that indigenous peoples from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego are all descendants of the people who crossed over from Asia, possibly as much as 24,000 years ago. A quick Google search says the Zuni of New Mexico & Arizona may be the oldest existing indigenous group in North America, possibly going back 4,500 years. They may be direct descendants of the Ancestral Puebloan peoples (who were themselves descendants of even older groups, who no longer exist).

As for who made the choices to migrate - in some cases, over large distances or over terrain that wasn't itself a place they could settle - I imagine there were leaders in each group who made those decisions, if the decision wasn't made collectively. One way or another, they did it.

I think it's broadly true that populations that settled down grew larger than populations that were nomadic. Maybe human settlements have to pass through some kind of crucible, and many of them failed. It's possible that, when looking at the sweep of history, settling down and establishing villages, towns, and cities was "high risk, high reward", and while whole civilizations ultimately failed and disappeared, maybe settling down was still the best bet for the development of human civilization. Of course, the individuals, families, and communities making these choices wouldn't have been looking 5,000 years down the road. They might not have been looking 50 years down the road. So in the moment there had to have been something that told them that farming the banks of this river here was the thing to do. Maybe their feet hurt and they didn't want to walk any more, and good enough was good enough, and hey, there's fish and ducks in this river, and hey, bison migrate right past here twice a year, and then -boom- fifty years go by and, what do you know, we have a village in the spot where somebody's grandparents decided to take a break because their feet hurt. :lol:

(It may be that one of the many unrealistic things about the Civilization games is that players get to choose where their Settlers found a new settlement.)

There are so many factors that can come into play, and it's hard to unpick which are significant, which bad decisions were avoidable, and which choices were really just good luck. Also, if the migrating people lacked some genetic traits they might not have been able to get far into new territory and survive.
I'll give an interesting example at the end of this post if you can stay awake! :)

Sedentary populations can be unlucky for reasons that would have been inexplicable to them at the time.
For example, if the soil is selenium deficient, the consequence will be that the fertility rate of women is lower. So one group of farms thrives and others not that far way do not.

In North America there are places that are terrific for raising cattle, but close by, there are areas with the same appearance, same vegetation, watered by the same streams that are terrible because the soil has a higher fluorine content and some livestock can get very ill from eating the grass there. For early settlers that would be inexplicable. Fluorosis is also a problem in some parts of India and China when people use deep wells for drinking water. Bad luck for them!

Even the presence or absence of Neanderthal genes in more modern populations would have had an effect on the farming communities that arose around Europe.

The presence of certain Neanderthal genes can be the cause of a greater proportion of premature births, but at the same time those same genes increase the chances of the prem baby and mother surviving. If the net effect is a higher survival rate then that will lead to population growth. Otherwise they can diminish and fail completely.

There are also combinations of Neanderthal genes that are beneficial against some diseases and detrimental in others.

Some recent findings are that the mortality rate from Covid (and likely other strains) is much higher in populations
with higher proportions, and very much lower in, for example, East Asians, who have almost no trace of Neanderthal genes. Bad luck for the early European communities exposed to corona viruses, irrelevant to the Asian ones.

Not relevant to early farming, but interesting IMO: a recent pharmocogenetic finding is that effectiveness of painkillers like ibuprofen is higher in people with (IIRC) three particular Neanderthal genes. WTF!

As you mentioned, there are some groups who went to extraordinary lengths to find places to settle and farm. One that fascinates me, because of work done by a colleague who died tragically a few years ago, are the Lapita people who were able to colonize Micronesia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and islands as remote as Easter Island and the Chatham islands.

A few quotes and factoids from:
Charles E.M. Pearce and Frances M. Pearce,
Oceanic Migration - Paths, Sequence, Timing and Range of Prehistoric Migration in the Pacific and Indian Oceans,
2010.

The Polynesian motif (the most familiar example would be actor, The Rock) is characterized by a tall body, a round head, a long thick trunk and short thick arms and legs and a large muscle-mass.

Anatomists are said to be able to recognize a Polynesian skeleton from uniquely large muscle attachments visible on the bones. The selection principles involved are, of course, a limiting of the body’s surface in relation to body mass to reduce loss of body heat and a maximizing of muscle mass to enable maximal capacity for exercise and for shivering, both of which generate body heat and are major protections against hypothermia.

Statistics based on factors such as stature/weight index and sitting to standing height index (ratio × 100), which are measures of a cold-adapted body type, suggest that New Zealand Maori are more cold-adapted than any other recorded cold climate group. Eskimos and Lapps have sitting to standing height indices of about 52.5, Maori has one of 53.8. The stature/weight index "ranges from under 2.6 for males from cold climate regions such as Finland, Iceland and England, through to values above 3.2 for Vietnam, Burma and India (Molnar, 1983). The Polynesian male values of between 2.22 and 2.39...are lower than that recorded from any cold-climate group".

How did a people who live on Halmahera, one of the Spice Islands on the equator, acquire an amazing resistance to famine and hypothermia?

Interestingly, they also have a relatively greater proportion of Denisovan genes than most other populations.
Did the presence of genes from cold-adapted, distant ancestors help them in their extraordinary migrations?

So many mad professors, so few Igors to do the lab work. :)
 
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I think it's broadly true that populations that settled down grew larger than populations that were nomadic. Maybe human settlements have to pass through some kind of crucible, and many of them failed. It's possible that, when looking at the sweep of history, settling down and establishing villages, towns, and cities was "high risk, high reward", and while whole civilizations ultimately failed and disappeared, maybe settling down was still the best bet for the development of human civilization. Of course, the individuals, families, and communities making these choices wouldn't have been looking 5,000 years down the road. They might not have been looking 50 years down the road. So in the moment there had to have been something that told them that farming the banks of this river here was the thing to do. Maybe their feet hurt and they didn't want to walk any more, and good enough was good enough, and hey, there's fish and ducks in this river, and hey, bison migrate right past here twice a year, and then -boom- fifty years go by and, what do you know, we have a village in the spot where somebody's grandparents decided to take a break because their feet hurt. :lol:
Yeah life is crazy like that
 
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