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by piero scaruffi | More news and opinions

For a new History of Prehistory

A Common-sense Revision of Prehistory

A history of prehistory needs to take into account factors that may or may not be irrelevant for the history of history, but that were extremely important in the ancient world.

A New History of Prehistory - Part 1: A Race of Young People

In my opinion, archeology fails to understand what it finds because 1. most archeologists are male and 2. most archeologists are not doctors. Because they are male, they tend to think in terms of what ancient men did; they hunted and they fought wars. They don't think in terms of women, who raised children and spent many more hours in caves.

Because they are not doctors, they neglect fundamental facts. My favorite is that the life expectancy of prehistoric people was very low, possibly in their early 20s The average life expectancy in Egypt 4000 years ago is estimated to have been 25, so imagine in prehistory. Here is a diagram of the distribution of age based on the skeletons we found so far:

(From the museum at Newgrange, Ireland)

A few regions of the brain are not yet fully formed at that age. We assume that they thought like we (today's adults) think, but we forget that most of them never became adults. It was a society of very young people, and the correct comparison would be with an isolated group of teenagers. Over the last few millennia adults have ruled the world. This is not necessarily true of the previous millennia.

The short life expectancy may explain why so many actions of "primitive" people appear irrational and barbaric to us. It is not necessarily that the human brain "evolved", but quite simply that society was mostly made of very young kids. Imagine turning the government of your country over to teenagers. And no wonder that old people were worshipped like demigods: they were a rarity and they thought in a different way. They still do, it's just that they are no longer a rarity but they are the ones who run society (and don't even give voting rights to teenagers).

It often seems puzzling that human civilization took so long to show any progress. The Egyptian civilization hardly changed at all over a thousand year period, and ditto for the ancient Chinese and Indians. Again, it is puzzling only if you don't consider that most people were dying very young. Teenagers may have the motivation to change the world (or at least the way their parents lived) but some of them succeed in changing the world only after they become adults. It is adults who change civilization. Teenagers in general are curious (e.g., about new genres of music) but rarely (Mozart) can create something durable that is new. It is later in life that they come up with theories and actions that change the world. And the "geniuses" are a tiny percentage of the masses. When most people died young, the chances that the survivors were precisely the ones who could change the world were slim. Imagine if Aristoteles, Platon, Leonardo, Newton, Einstein, Edison and so forth had all died in their early 20s: what would Western civilization look like? Probably exactly the way it looked two or three thousand years ago. Before progress could pick up, humans needed to extend life expectation . That was indeed very slow "progress": extending the median life of humans took a very long time. Because cultural/technological innovation tends to be driven by mature individuals (at least in their late 20s if not 30s and 40s), that slow progress caused all other kinds of progress to also proceed at a very slow pace. Again, this has to do with the way the brain grows up: the brain takes more than 20 years to reach the point when it can be both creative and constructive. This not the only factor, but a necessary factor. If people don't live long enough to construct a new society, society will not change much from one generation to the next one.

(This also begs the rarely asked question: what would happen to human civilization if humans lived 200 or 1000 years? What would the brain of a 200-year-old person do that a 50-year-old brain doesn't do? It could be that there is an ideal age before and after which thinking actually deteriorates or it could be that the brain does something at a certain age that right now we can't fathom).

The aging of the population over the millennia certainly had many practical effects. It also had at least one known genetic effect. Studies (e.g., by Iceland-based deCode Genetics) have shown that older fathers transmit to their children more mutations than younger fathers. Each added year of age results in about two extra new mutations. A 20-year-old father transmits on average 25 new mutations to his child while a 40-year-old transmits 65 (for the record, mothers always transmit about 15 new mutations regardless of their age). When men died in their early 20s, the number of mutations between one generation and the next one was minimal. As men started living longer lives, and therefore could afford to have children much later in life, the number of mutations between one generation and the next one increased dramatically. The human race is likely to have (genetically) changed very little for as long as life expectancy was low, and a lot more when life expectancy increased.

Two things that always fascinated me about the ancient past are the fact that religions come with such implausible stories of miracles and the fact that civilization was born in the famous river valleys (Nile Valley of Egypt, Tigris/Euphrates valley of Iraq, Indus Valley of Pakistan and Yellow River valley of China), which are all hot regions of the world.

Religious books need to be "interpreted" for a simply reason: they are collections of grotesquely false statements. Historians find parallels with the true history of a region, but the specific episodes mentioned in religious books are pure lunatic fantasies, and the kind of fantasies that today would have you hospitalized in a mental asylum. Perhaps religions were born among very young people, and perhaps women had a stronger role in religion than we know. The original prophets were not old wise men, but young gossiping females. Among the functions of a young brain that are not fully formed is the function that constrains what the brain can imagine and what it will broadcast to others as true. Children make up stories. Teenagers tend to exaggerate what they witnessed and to imagine details that they actually never saw. This is normal. The part of the brain that rationalizes sensory inputs and therefore prunes the possible versions of a story down to the one or two that are plausible is not fully formed yet. Children like to invent stories and teenagers like to exaggerate stories, and they like to tell them to other young people as if they were accurate, a mixture of still being children and already being adults. Many studies have demonstrated significant sexual dimorphism in verbal ability, which is probably due to the fact that language-related cortical regions tend to be much larger in the female brain. This results in greater communication skills, but also in what is popularly known as "gossip". Conclusion: if you are a young woman, you are more likely to make up things AND to spread the rumors that you just made up. Whether it was males or females, the main point is that a young society is more likely to create and believe in implausible facts like deities, prophets and miracles than a society of older people. That's actually what children do all the time and to some extent that imagination carries on in teenage years and into the early 20s. Most people of those societies were in that age group. Last but not least, not enough is known about the instict of imitation, but we do know that infants seem programmed to imitate the gestures of adults and that later teenagers tend to imitate the behavior of other teenagers. Imitation is much less evident in older people and virtually irrelevant to understand the behavior of elderly people. Hence a younger society is more likely to replicate beliefs and rituals than an older society it. At younger age imitation is not guided by rational thinking. Young people tend to be rebellious against established norms but are also much more likely to create a new set of norms for themselves and then to believe firmly in that set of "cool" norms.

Today the most advanced nations tend to be in cold regions of the world, and countless reasons have been offered for this, but civiliztions were mostly born in hot climates. I suspect that this apparent contradiction has to do with age groups too. Young brains work better in hot climates, old brains work better in cold climates. When you are young, you still function well if you are sweating and suffocating. In fact, you tend to be happier and more active. When you are old, heat kills you. On the other hand, young people get depressed by cold weather. Older people function well in cold (not too cold) weather.

A New History of Prehistory - Part 2: A Herstory of Women or the Missing 50%

The male bias in the disciplines of archeology and ancient history is even more pervasive and may account for several mysteries that archeologists never cracked. For example, archeologists routinely assume that the first tools were stone tools that require strong men to make and strong men to use, and mostly used for hunting and killing in general. If you are a woman, and try to think like a woman of two million years ago, you reach a different conclusion: before those brave athletic men could go hunting, they had to survive their childhood. A child in those days, just like today in many poor countries, is constantly with the mother. Mothers know what fathers easily forget: that babies (of both genders) are helpless for several years. Before the invention of kindergartens, and especially when grandparents were dying young, mothers had to take care of those helpless babies, and many of them. One tool that is common to all societies is a tool to carry babies around: the sling. The first tool was probably invented by women to carry babies with them wherever they had to go. A baby can never be left alone, especially in the conditions of two million years ago. Another tool that is necessary to survive childhood is: clothes. Babies were protected from cold and sun by the tool to carry them but, once they started walking on their own, needed clothes: children can get sick much more easily than adults. Once they survived childhood, those brave boys could go on and become hunters and, yes, build amazing tools for hunting (and for killing each other). Therefore the story of tools from a woman's perspective is very different from the story of tools from a male perspective. (See also my review of Timothy Taylor's "The Artificial Ape").

Leonard Shlain has argued that women (not men) started eating meat: males would do perfectly well without meat, women have a much greater need for meat. However, archeology tends to think of hunting as a "male" activity, not a female one. That's despite the fact that archeologists found ancient skeletons of women buried with weapons (the Pokrovka mounds). The first explanation given to those findings is that women were warriors, not that they were hunters: somehow hunting has to be a male activity (as in "it requires intelligence and cooperation, and how would one expect that from women?") Would it be possible instead that the first hunters (not gatherers) were women, that they (not men) invented the meat diet, and that only later women "hired" men to hunt on their behalf? There is no question that men have been consistently stronger fighters and faster runners than women, so it would make perfect sense that women ended up "using" men for that chore.

See also my slide presentation "A HERstory of Women/ Women in History": in ancient times deities and chiefs seem to be more female than male. Whatever the meaning of those early statuettes, frescoes and seals, the emphasis seems to be on a symbolic activity that is more "female" than "male" in nature. If archeology focused on the lives of women, it might better understand ancient civilizations that were not as male-dominated as they have been in the last 3000 years.

Ditto for art. Archeologists consistently come up with "male" theories to explain the frescoes of prehistoric caves even if they admit that it was women, and not men, who spent more time there. After all, the paintings show men hunting animals. Male archeologists conclude that it was men drawing their mighty adventures in the world. But try to think like a woman and you get an alternative interpretation: why does a woman make a drawing on a blackboard of, say, the shape of the USA for the children of the class? Who is more likely to make that drawing for children? The men who fought in the wars to create and protect that country, or the women who stayed home and raised the citizens of the future? Who is more likely to draw an elephant for children to explain what an elephant is? The one who hunts elephants or the one who stays home and teaches children what they need to know to become one of those hunters?

The female brain reaches full maturity between 21 and 22 years of age. The male brain does not reach full maturity until about 29. ("Sexual Dimorphism of Brain Developmental Trajectories During Childhood and Adolescence", the world's largest study of brain development in children, conducted by the National Institutes of Health - NeuroImage, volume 36, number 4, pages 1065-1073, July 15 2007) If most people died before 25 in prehistoric societies, that means that those societies were likely to be dominated by women, not men. Is it surprising that in pretty much every culture of the world the oldest representational artifacts consistently represent women (from the Willendorf statuette to the figurines of Malta) and that the oldest creation myths consistently ascribe the creation of the world to a woman (from Mesopotamia's Nammu to Japan's Amaterasu)?

Last but not least, if this argument holds water, one should wonder why is it that just about all civilizations when writing appears (i.e. history begins) are male-dominated. Are male domination and the invention of writing somehow connected? If women were the first to use symbolic art, why not the first to use symbols to communicate, i.e. to invent writing. I always felt that writing has to do with sharing experience: who had vast amounts of knowledge to share, the woman who had to raise children in a hostile environment (and therefore needed to know about plants, berries, mushrooms, diseases, dangers, seasons, clothing, fire, cooking, and so on) or the man who may have simply wandered around in search of sex and food? Who are the first doctors, weavers and cooks in history, men or women? Who had knowledge to share in the first place? It may well be that the first prehistoric writers (sorry for the oxymoron) were women, and not men. Popular culture has popularized the notion that prehistoric men used violence to enslave women: according to this theory, the reason why women would accept the rule of men is that men are stronger and used violence to subdue women. Is it possible that women were perfectly happy to accept what we modern people see as the rule of men, when in fact it was the invention of women? Once women learn to read and write, they can exchange the fundamental knowledge needed to survive. Why go out and hunt and run around and so forth? Why not just plan and manage things, and let men do the dangerous jobs? Isn't that what every highly educated person wants to achieve: you want to start your own business based on the knowledge you acquired, but hire less knowledgeable brute force to actually buy the raw materials for you, build the goods for you and transport them for you. Hence there are two possibilities: one is that men became kings and gods because they used violence, and the other one is that woman planned it that way because she preferred a world in which it was man who risked his life to protect her lifestyle.

That still doesn't explain why men went on to dominate society. It could have been a side-effect of this partition of roles. Wars, raids, hunting and hard work killed men. Women had delegated the dangerous activities to men, but the result was that many more men were dying than women, i.e. that each society had many more women than men. The law of supply and demand always tends to win: men became more valuable than women, just like any scarce resource.

Once men became more valuable than women, their activities became the most important: wars and raids were no longer done when needed, but simply for fun. The fighting became more important than the lifestyle that it was meant to protect, and history became the litany of nations at war that today we are familiar with.

A New History of Prehistory - Part 3 - The Missing Mutation: Are We Really Smarter than our Ancestors?

Several innovations that happened in the Neolithic seem to provide no advantage and sometimes create problems instead of solving them. About 10,000 years ago the burial ritual lasted a lifetime and the living were supposed to give offerings to the dead that were not valuable. At some point the burial ritual became much simpler but the living were supposed to give offerings to the dead that were valuable (e.g., food at times of starvation). Neither attitude makes a lot of sense from a materialistic viewpoint: what is the adaptive advantage of wasting goods and food for dead people? At the same time the cult of the dead moved from underground to aboveground (temples, pyramids), again an incredible waste of resources.

When historians try to explain the course of civilizations, they look for clues in the environment. We may not be looking in the right place. We accept the idea that the environment caused humans to do x and y just because it sounds credible, but it doesn't hold water if one checks the facts. For example, domestication of animals makes little economic sense in the Near East when there were approx 100 goats per capita during the Neolithic; i.e., one could just walk outside and grab one. Domesticating goats was a massive investment for no practical benefit. Settling down made no sense either: when you turn from a nomadic life to a stationary life, you and your belongings become more vulnerable to Nature's whims. Domestication of animals and agriculture happened for some other reason, not because of the pressure of the environment. Ditto for the treatment of the dead. Before the Neolithic the idea was that the living have to help the helpless dead relatives. During the Neolithic suddenly it's the other way around: the living beg the dead for help. The former idea makes a lot of sense: you get weaker and then you die and therefore whatever happens next is a problem. The idea that a dead person has powers is senseless. It can't give an evolutionary advantage to anyone. It just makes it more likely that you won't find the real solution to the problem that you are trying to solve.

Nomadic barbarians (Germans, Mongols, Turks) came to dominate the world. The environment alone does not explain that, nor does it explain that the barbarians of the British islands went on to create the largest empire on Earth.

I find it more reasonable to assume that a random mutation in the brain of Homo Sapiens caused humans to think differently, i.e. to create a different symbolic system, i.e. to behave differently, which happened to cause domestication, agriculture, cult of the dead, religion, city-states, etc. For whatever reasons, the new mind survived and the old mind died out. After the fact, we (the abovesaid mutated brains) convinced ourselves that the new brain (our brain) was smarter than the old one, and that the various innovations make a lot of practical sense.

Historians tend to assume that circumstances cause change in the way we think, that, for example, first we invented agriculture, then a religion that goes with agriculture, that first we invent the working class, and then Marxism comes along. But it may be easier to see it the other way around: first there is an evolutionary change in our brain (and therefore a new religion), then we come up with agriculture; first there is an evolutionary change in our brain (and therefore a new ideology), then we do the industrial revolution. Even the change from treating other human groups as inferior (Neolithic humans routinely killed and ate other humans) to treating all humans as equal may be due to an evolutionary change in our brain, not to any cost/benefit analysis.

A very small change can cause a very big difference in behavior. One person gets a new brain, a brain that enables him to invent agriculture or the industrial revolution, and then passes it on to her/his children. If they do better than the other humans, and this could be sheer luck or mass murder, and so end up ruling the human race, then this new brain is the one that succeeds. Then they convince themselves that their brain is smarter than the old brain: the winner writes the history.

A physical change in the brain caused people to think differently. The brains of the original homos created a metaphysics in which the dead NEED HELP from the living: therefore the burial ritual lasts forever. The children are supposed to take care of the parents who are dead. (Why? Maybe they thought that the dead are on a difficult journey and need help from the living). The offerings are often practical tools that are not valuable but help people in a journey or in a fight.

Later the brains of homos changed and created a metaphysics in which the dead CAN HELP the living. Therefore the burial ritual is all about showing how devoted you are to them and for the rest of your life you give them your most valuable possessions to earn their support. The parents are supposed to be still taking care of their children even when dead. (Why? We know this one: the dead acquire supernatural powers).

Again, this is not just some ideology imposed from the religious/political powers. This is physically in the brain. The brains of the Neolithic worked in a way that made them believe the dead need help. The brains of the Greeks/Romans, of the ancient Chinese, etc worked in a way that made them believe the dead can help. Physical differences in the brain explain the different metaphysics.

Most of us are scared if we are left alone in a dark room with a dead person, even though rationally we know that the dead person is just an object that cannot move. It's irrational but that's the way it is. Our brain feels the fear, period. It's a physical feature of our contemporary brain.

The brain that thinks the dead are helpless and need help also believes that they are still here on Earth, and wants to protect them, and therefore keeps them near the tribal house, friendly territory. The brain that thinks the dead are powerful and can help also believes that they are already far away, and wants to build a bridge towards them.

Once a random physical mutation happens, the brain makes sense of it: "I evolved, i am better than the brain of the ancient people". And therefore self-perpetuates itself... until another random mutation succeeds in establishing a new brain.

Neolithic humans started creating objects of no practical value, that eventually evolved into jewelry, art and passtimes. They also valued social skills, like playing games, storytelling and dancing. Evolutionary psychologists try to explain each of these in terms of what mental skill they improved or knowledge they transmitted, but it is implausible that someone would tell a story to explain the threat of tigers instead of just saying "beware of tigers", or that a group of people would play football to train for hunting big game instead of hunting smaller animals to train for hunting big animals. Religious rituals are also utterly useless. Something like a procession is a big waste of time. These things did not happen because they were useful but because the brain had mutated into a brain that makes us do those things, whether they make sense or not, just like the brain makes us speak and see, whether that's the best way to survive or not.

Then the very same brain convinced us that those things are useful.

A New History of Prehistory - Part 4 - The Discovery of Fatherhood

We have to teach it in schools: sex leads to pregnancy that leads to babies. Babies are not given by deities to a woman: they also "belong" to the man who had sex with that woman nine months earlier. It is not trivial at all. It doesn't look like any other animal has made the connection yet: no female and no male animals seem to realize that, by having had sex, they may become mother and father. It is likely that the connection was not obvious to Homo Sapiens either for a long time. After all, it takes nine months, during which one could find an infinite number of other possible causes. And it doesn't happen all the time: the vast majority of sexual intercourses do not end up in pregnancies. Children don't get it, teenagers don't get it. Even when told, they still behave as if it were a myth. The connection is not obvious at all. There must have been a moment when it dawned on humans that a) there is a connection between sex and pregnancy; and b) this means that babies have fathers, not just mothers. Before that day, men must have had a very superficial interest in the offspring of their women. After that day, a man started having a vested interest in figuring out exactly which were "his" babies, which means that suddenly the sexual behavior of a woman became not only her problem but also "his" problem. I suspect that the requirement of exclusive sex was born with the notion that babies have fathers too. After realizing the connection, a man would want to control a woman's sexual life in order to identify with certainty his children.

A New History of Prehistory - Part 5 - The Invention of Agriculture

The traditional narrative is that humans discovered agriculture and created city states that gave them a lot of advantages. But that is unlikely to be the real story. The nomadic life had numerous advantages over the settled life in times when there was plenty of food available for free. An agricultural society has terrible problems to solve: droughts, floods, pests, irrigation works, and, last but not least, thieves. It is unlikely that cooperative life emerged spontaneously. It is more likely that communities emerged because dictators armed to their teeth forced other humans to work for them: grow food, domesticate animals, fish, store and administer food, cook, trade with other similar communities, etc. The early settlements most likely depended on slavery, not on voluntary cooperation. There is no evidence of cooperation in ancient civilizations: there is evidence of brutal repression and enslavement. The early city states were not paradises of peace and prosperity but concentration camps. People ran away whenever they could. Life outside the city state was relatively easy and safe in times when there was plenty of food available for free in forests, rivers, lakes and seas. Those who succeeded in organizing a centralized armed state forced the others to become slaves of an agricultural system that involved hard work to protect from the natural elements and from fellow humans. Dictatorship, not democracy, fostered the first city states and the agrarian societies. The first dictators were scientists who discovered agriculture and realized that agriculture required "collaboration".

A New History of Prehistory - Part 6 - How Humans became Smart

Human babies are the dumbest babies in the animal kingdom. Other animals start walking and eating right after being born; human babies need to be fed and protected for years. Human parents need to take care of the most helpless babies in the animal kingdom. The dumber the children, the smarter the parents have to be in order to keep them alive. Dumb children require very smart adults in order to survive. Dumb children explain why human intelligence is the best in the animal kingdom. There is a direct correlation between the degree of intelligence in the adults and the degree of "stupidity" in their offspring. You create very intelligent parents by giving them very dumb children to watch, protect, lecture, etc. There is a self-reinforcing loop at work: because humans make the dumbest children, they must be very intelligent adults; and, viceversa, in order to produce intelligent adults the children must be very dumb. Human children are also uniquely prone to destruction: they destroy objects, and they even harm fellow children. Human children would create violent and anarchic societies if adults weren't able to create ordered societies. The more "anarchic" the babies, the more organized the adults need to be. The adults need to create the social infrastructure that will contain the anarchic self-destructive tendencies of their children. Human children are also unique in the way they disobey adults. Cubs of other species are happy to follow their parents and live the same lives that their parents and ancestors lived. Human children are rebels from a very young age and, later in teenagehood, they may even become ashamed of living the same life that their parents lived. The problem, of course, is that they might repeat the mistakes that their parents narrowly survived. The less obedient the children, the stricter must be the society created by their parents. Basically, the fact that human children are so "retarded" compared with other animals has required the evolution of adult brains that are so "smart" compared with other animals. The fact that human children are destructive and disobedient has required the evolution of adult brains that are very good at creating organized societies. One can view all the fundamental attributes of human civilization as a consequence of adults having to raise children who are so unlikely to survive.

A New History of Prehistory - Part 7 - From Tribal to Global

Today we despise incest, and, in fact, sexual relations between siblings and even cousins are illegal in most "developed" countries (notably in every single state of the USA). The scientific reason is that genetic defects are more likely to occur in children born from parents who are close blood relatives. In practice, however, it is also illegal for step-siblings to have sex, although their blood relationship is not so close, and it's illegal to have sex with an adopted sibling (which is not a blood relative at all). In reality it is not the science that makes us abhor incest but a cultural norm. The funny thing is that in ancient times this cultural norm didn't exist: aristocrats often married within the same family. The farther you go in time, the more "normal" incest was. Almost all the kings and queens of ancient Egypt married a sibling (if not their own mother!). Of course, in ancient times when tribes were small and they were isolated from each other (in fact, fearful of each other) incest was almost inevitable. The transition from tribal societies to larger political entities (eventually, states) happened because tribes were conquered by other tribes, and then incest became a threat to the state: tribal loyalty tends to prevail over loyalty to the king, and incest increases tribal loyalty, whereas marriage outside the tribe tends to dilute it. The state had a vested interest in forbidding incest (except among the rulers). Incest became a "sin" in all the religions invented after the rise of states, notably Christianity and Islam. Religions had the same vested interest: in order to expand beyond the original tribe, they needed a world of only one tribe, a "universal" ("catholic" in Greek) tribe. Hence there was a de facto alliance between state and church to forbid incest. People accepted the new "moral value" because it was probably excited to marry outside the tribe, despite the cultural shocks of having to accept different traditions and even dialects. Hence the abolition of incest was crucial in creating a national (not tribal) spirit: because you married someone from the other side of the country, you think of your family as belonging to the country, not to the respective "tribes" of you and your wife. The more people move away from tribal marriages (from "incest") the stronger the cohesion of the national state becomes. Fast forward to the post-colonial world, and it has also become "exciting" to marry outside the nation. The spirit of a united Europe has been strengthened not only by supra-national political agreements but also by the fact that so many Europeans married beyond the borders of their home country. We can foresee a day when intercontinental marriage will become so common that people will truly become citizens of the world, not of a specific country. It all started with the outlawing of incest, one of the fundamental events in the history of humankind.
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