No, it wasn't because of velociraptor attacks
November 17, 2014 6:30 PM   Subscribe

Roughly 9,000 years ago, humans had mastered farming to the point where food was plentiful. Populations boomed, and people began moving into large settlements full of thousands of people. And then, abruptly, these proto-cities were abandoned for millennia. It's one of the greatest mysteries of early human civilization.
University of Notre Dame anthropologist Ian Kuijt dubs these collapses "failure of the neolithic experiment."... But Kuijt doesn't believe people abandoned Basta because its population outstripped its resources. Instead, its population outstripped its belief systems.
Annalee Newitz of io9 sums up the modern theories on why the first large human settlements collapsed, particularly one that blames an inability to cope with representative government and private property.
posted by Etrigan (89 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm gonna blame it on libertarianism.
posted by slater at 6:31 PM on November 17, 2014 [15 favorites]


But the ideology of these Neolithic people in mega-villages, Kuijt speculates, may have treated any kind of social differentiation as taboo. As soon as somebody took enough power to be a representative or proto-politician, other people would rail against them. He believes that major conflicts may have grown out of this tension between a belief in flat social organization and the need to create social hierarchies in larger societies.

Human civilization: Mistreating John Galt since the neolithic.
posted by Drinky Die at 6:38 PM on November 17, 2014 [8 favorites]


The prevailing feeling in the anthro classes I took in college was that there were major disadvantages with proto-agriculture that had nothing to do with scarcity, but rather with declining nutrition, quality of life, and lifespans, that led people to pursue other options. After all, before sedentary chiefdoms and kingdoms started to take over territory in earnest, the option to just skip town and live in the woods would have seemed far more viable than it is today.
posted by fifthrider at 6:47 PM on November 17, 2014 [17 favorites]


Archeologists have recently found what appears to be an early ad for AirBnB in the ruins of Basta.
posted by fallingbadgers at 6:51 PM on November 17, 2014 [13 favorites]


Shit, the Republicans were right all along. Socialism really was the downfall of society.
posted by T.D. Strange at 6:53 PM on November 17, 2014


Anyone who has organized a burning man camp knows that a week is about how long it takes for people to start hating a shared living arrangement. Also to start spreading disease. Also to run out of water and food.

Wait, why do I go to burning man again?
posted by poe at 6:54 PM on November 17, 2014 [40 favorites]


Here's a slightly expanded version of the human timeline for anyone keeping score:

1,500,000 years ago - Fire
200,000 years ago - Homo sapiens
170,000 years ago - Clothes
150,000 years ago - Mitochondrial Eve
60,000 years ago - Migration out of Africa
40,000 - 50,000 years ago - "Behavioral modernity"
25,000 years ago - Neanderthal extinction
10,000 - 13,000 years ago - Animal domestication
9,000 - 10,000 years ago - Agriculture
7,500 years ago - Copper smelting
7,000 years ago - Wheel
5,500 years ago - Writing
5,300 years ago - Bronze age
3,300 years ago - Iron age
8 years ago - Twitter
posted by dephlogisticated at 6:55 PM on November 17, 2014 [62 favorites]


This article really makes me want to play Civ.
posted by GrumpyDan at 6:58 PM on November 17, 2014 [8 favorites]


This article really makes me want to play Civ.

Steam tells me I have 500+ hours in Civ 5 and close to that for Civ 4. I don't even like those games that much. Where the fuck did all that time go.
posted by curious nu at 7:03 PM on November 17, 2014 [10 favorites]


But we'd spent tens of thousands of years as nomads before that, and weren't yet ready to abandon our ancient beliefs that no family should ever accumulate more than its neighbors.

Well, that's a pretty big assumption. Or two. Both that we were ready to abandon such beliefs, or that we had hadn't done so already. Or that ever had them in the first place, for that matter.
posted by IndigoJones at 7:04 PM on November 17, 2014 [5 favorites]


I blame it on a the Mousterian flake-tool gap.

That or someone saw the big mammoth picture board.
posted by clavdivs at 7:05 PM on November 17, 2014 [10 favorites]


Clearly it was the Nam Shub of Enki. ;-)
posted by Freen at 7:10 PM on November 17, 2014 [21 favorites]


Shit, the Republicans were right all along. Socialism really was the downfall of society.

Yeah, this article was weird. I mean, did I miss the part where there's any evidence whatsoever for the theory that our early anarcho-socialist ancestors abandoned their society because anarcho-socialism just doesn't scale?
posted by latkes at 7:12 PM on November 17, 2014 [11 favorites]


I kind of think that agriculture is a harmful virus. It leads to hierarchies and they are bad for the goal of humans having non-miserable lives. I studied the humanities in college and came to this conclusion and have yet to be convinced otherwise. So yeah not surprising that our first attempts failed. Our first attempts at most things fail.
posted by bleep at 7:17 PM on November 17, 2014 [2 favorites]


fifthrider: I can also see the imposition and creation of social hierarchies driving that process. Quite similar to "Going Galt" except it was the bulk of the population abandoning a self-appointed elite rather than the other way around.

Of course this is the danger of of history and anthropology isn't it? It becomes really easy to slide into taking the bits and pieces of evidence and weaving political fairy tales held together out of your own assumptions and biases.
posted by Grimgrin at 7:22 PM on November 17, 2014 [3 favorites]


Actually, I think that farming is not substantially superior to hunting and gathering: farmers typically work harder, live shorter lives, are more susceptible to disease. Crop failures are catastrophic. Hunter gatherers would work 15 to 20 hours a week to sustain themselves with the rest given up to leisure. Farming is much harder, but provides the same tradeoff that farmers made in droves during the industrial revolution: increased average stability in exchange for harder work.

My guess is that they just decided that the tradeoff just wasn't worth it in the end. That is, until you had grumpy people show up wielding pointy things telling you they wanted something called "tribute" in the form of grain.
posted by Freen at 7:23 PM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


This is just odd. We know of many societies that have collapsed because the system couldn't support large-scale agriculture or a system of resource extraction very well, and it frequently seem that its because they're trying to support elites they can't, rather than issues with some egalitarian system. The Mycenaean palace system is a good example of trying to support a large scale system of palaces in an environment that couldn't support it: result, the collapse of the system and the Greek Dark Ages.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 7:24 PM on November 17, 2014 [9 favorites]


The belief system argument sounds plausible to me, mostly because these large settlements were really rare. If they didn't or couldn't transport bulk goods then each settlement's size would depend on its local production. A few settlements would be fortuitous enough to grow very large, and that's how you get places like Çatalhöyük: I suppose it had great access to food and water and it got past the stage of being vulnerable to attack from nomads. Eventually a large settlement would reach the point where it could just support itself, and then Malthus would step in: a single famine or plague would make the whole system fall down. Any survivors would need to migrate widely because the local countryside had already been picked bare and other settlements were already overtaxed.

So once a big settlement collapses, that's it - it might even bring down neighbouring settlements, and in any case it will take generations to repopulate. It would be a perpetual cycle of slow growth followed by collapse until the very idea of a big settlement sounds ominous.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:25 PM on November 17, 2014 [3 favorites]


I kind of think that agriculture is a harmful virus. It leads to hierarchies and they are bad for the goal of humans having non-miserable lives.

Yeah, but it also led to beer. So there are positives and negatives here.
posted by Drinky Die at 7:27 PM on November 17, 2014 [2 favorites]


lesbiassparrow but they are saying there is no evidence of "elites" in these settlements. At least not in terms of living space/possessions.

This whole piece is just made for an Ursula K. LeGuin story, though.
posted by emjaybee at 7:29 PM on November 17, 2014 [7 favorites]


Ironically, pre-agricultural nostalgia exists because hunger is no longer a dominant force in people's lives.
posted by dephlogisticated at 7:33 PM on November 17, 2014 [27 favorites]


Yeah, but it also led to beer. So there are positives and negatives here.

Yeah, but beer helps to make the other, social byproducts of agriculture tolerable - thus delaying a collective, postmodern "fuck this" of a similar nature to the one hinted at in the article.

I mean, I know that without beer *I* would have skipped town to live in the woods decades ago. As it is, I'm still sweating it out in the cube farm.
posted by ryanshepard at 7:34 PM on November 17, 2014 [4 favorites]


dephlogisticated: 8 years ago - Twitter

I refuse to believe that Twitter occurred 8 years ago. It would have been impossible for humans to have developed technology of that sophistication during that barbaric era.
posted by surazal at 7:35 PM on November 17, 2014 [7 favorites]


With farming comes the animals which were kept close to home. Disease would be more prevelant.
posted by clavdivs at 7:37 PM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


Yeah so now we're justifying income inequality and wealth hoarding as a good thing? But civilization would collapse without us richer people! That's a, ah... convenient Theory for some, I'm sure.
posted by ctmf at 7:38 PM on November 17, 2014 [11 favorites]


This seems like a really ideologically tendentious theory.
posted by edheil at 7:44 PM on November 17, 2014


With farming comes the animals which were kept close to home. Disease would be more prevelant.

Putting the domesticated animals aside, I spend more time than I should considering life like rats and cockroaches. So evolution creates this brilliant human animal that can send rockets to the moon...at the same as it creates brilliant little creatures that will never be stopped from stealing from them and who will likely outlast them on the planet. I'm kind of an atheist, but maybe agnostic just because that sort of "Oh, so you think you're so hot?" God is probably the type of God I might be willing to worship.
posted by Drinky Die at 7:44 PM on November 17, 2014 [3 favorites]


"example of trying to support a large scale system of palaces in an environment that couldn't support it: "

I agree as we find this happening in the Americas.

Nice post btw
posted by clavdivs at 7:46 PM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


Can't help but notice the lack of citation and data as the piece goes on. This is fan-fic.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 7:47 PM on November 17, 2014 [9 favorites]


This is a fascinating subject. After spending quite some time totally invested with the Bronze Age Collapse, this was the next topic that drew my attention.

Has any one read Why the Rest Rules - For Now? This subject specifically isn't discussed, but the author posits what is essentially a "maximum complexity" vs "technology" scale. Complexity has diminishing returns at the limits. When you hit the maximum limit of complexity for the technology you have, you essentially enter a Malthusian trap. If you don't innovate out of it, you collapse. It's hard just to stagnate at a complexity/technology level at the fringes because the structures are somewhat brittle.

So, examples would be the Romans maxing out with Iron Age tech, but failing to industrialize, the Chinese then beginning to quasi-industrialize but failing to develop the market/class structures needed to do too much with it.

Not saying this is air tight, but I could see these early quasi-cities basically maxing out New Stone Age tech, and overstretched, unable to surmount any number of challenges: population pressure, political collapse, climate change. Their Bronze Age decedents could get more out of the land and go further, until they had their own complexity trap in the Bronze Age Collapse.
posted by spaltavian at 7:49 PM on November 17, 2014 [8 favorites]


Yeah, this read as a weird trolling by Newitz of her own website. Maybe it was a slow news day. Usually both their politics and their science is better than this (let alone their science fiction!). George Dvorsky, for instance, is a quite decent, usually careful and reasonable science writer over there. This, not so much.
posted by chortly at 7:49 PM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


Yeah so now we're justifying income inequality and wealth hoarding as a good thing? But civilization would collapse without us richer people! That's a, ah... convenient Theory for some, I'm sure.

Well, a decent short definition of civilization would be social stratification, so... yeah. You really can't have a civilization that doesn't involve somebody telling somebody else what to do.
posted by spaltavian at 7:51 PM on November 17, 2014


kjs3 wrote:
You mean like collectively coming up with things like a reliable, adequate food supply? Human lifespans averaging more than late 20s? Universities? Care for the elderly beyond their ability to keep up with the migrations? Art more sophisticated than ocre-on-rocks or other transient markers? Conceptualization of social groups beyond the extended family who aren't direct competitors?
I'll concede the point on universities, and really I'm not a proponent of the "all of our problems started when we settled down and began farming" school of thought but many of my neighbors (I live in Southeast Alaska) are descendants of cultures that have lived in this area for thousands of years without any significant agriculture to speak of and every time I walk out my door to go downtown I pass examples of their cultures' "art more sophisticated than ochre-on-rocks." Most of your other points don't apply, either.

I get where you're coming from, but it's a big world and it's been host to quite a diversity of cultures. Agriculture certainly helped some groups achieve the accomplishments you site but others got there by different paths.
posted by Nerd of the North at 7:54 PM on November 17, 2014 [17 favorites]


I kind of think that agriculture is a harmful virus. It leads to hierarchies and they are bad for the goal of humans having non-miserable lives.

You mean like collectively coming up with things like a reliable, adequate food supply? Human lifespans averaging more than late 20s?


Agriculture didn't achieve this, industrialization did. Early farmers were less healthy then their hunter-gathering neighbors, but there sure were a hell lot more of them. But dental and skeletal records bear this out, across a couple societies: farming adopters were shorter with more dental lesions than their recent ancestors.

This isn't to paint a rosy picture of a golden, pre-civilization era: hunter-gathers often practiced infanticide for a reason. I've got to imagine infant mortality went down; or least starvation as the cause went down with agriculture. But it seems if you made it to late childhood, you were generally better off in hunting-gathering cultures. So it's really easy to see how the cost/benefit analysis was a toss up, and the first cities could have collapsed in a wave of "fuck this".
posted by spaltavian at 7:58 PM on November 17, 2014 [9 favorites]


"Streets didn't exist in Çatalhöyük — homes were erected next to each other, honeycomb-style, and people just walked over each other's roofs to get home through doors in their ceilings.

I want to go to there.
posted by Mchelly at 7:59 PM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


now I have visions of George Peppard downing a Reingold and extolling his compatriots about "killa cockroaches"

Cites? A lot of this is common knowledge but it is good to link.
posted by clavdivs at 7:59 PM on November 17, 2014


If we're talking about ~10,000 years ago, then you're not talking about the history of all human civilization, not by a long shot:
A comparison of DNA from 600 modern Native Americans with ancient DNA recovered from a late Stone Age human skeleton from Mal'ta near Lake Baikal in southern Siberia shows that Native Americans diverged genetically from their Asian ancestors around 25,000 years ago, just as the last ice age was reaching its peak.
I'd be interested to know how the experience of the Incans, for example, who were cultivating distinctive crops at least as long ago as the timeframe we're considering, compares.
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:59 PM on November 17, 2014


I kind of think that agriculture is a harmful virus. It leads to hierarchies and they are bad for the goal of humans having non-miserable lives.
Yeah, but it also led to beer. So there are positives and negatives here.

In conclusion, agriculture is a land of contrasts. Thank you.
posted by snap, crackle and pop at 8:00 PM on November 17, 2014 [10 favorites]


I get where you're coming from, but it's a big world and it's been host to quite a diversity of cultures.

Yeah, Nerd of the North, I knew as soon as I wrote it someone would pretend the exception proves the rule and if one is selective enough in the points one disputes, you get to be right.
posted by kjs3 at 8:02 PM on November 17, 2014


[One comment removed, please cool it a little with taking shots at other mefites.]
posted by cortex at 8:08 PM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


Yeah, Nerd of the North, I knew as soon as I wrote it someone would pretend the exception proves the rule and if one is selective enough in the points one disputes, you get to be right.

It's not one exception, though. It's fairly consistent. Go to the Smithsonian, that's the first you notice about human history: declining height of farmers. Germs, Guns and Steel goes over a study of native American cultures: declining health in the skeletons of a tribe over the period they adopt agriculture.

You've got to keep in mind how marginal early agriculture would be. I know there's a million ubermen out there beating their chests and talking about how they would be bad ass hunters, and how eye-rolling the noble savage myth is. But the benefits of civilization really didn't pay out for a while, and it surely did lead to a level of social stratification previously unseen in human history.

The benefits of a system would not at all be overwhelmingly obvious to some guy in 7,000 BC, especially if things were't going swimmingly. A bad crop year, a dick chieftain, a plague and the cost-benefit rapidly swings back to the old ways.
posted by spaltavian at 8:10 PM on November 17, 2014 [12 favorites]


George spiggot
When comparing similar events over a strech of time there is not necessarily a direct connection between them. Necessity is the mother of invention.
When two industries are said to belong to the same culture, a connection between the folk producing is denoted although no contemporaneity in age is implied.
One culture may occur in one part of the world at a given time and in a vastly different area at another time.
posted by clavdivs at 8:13 PM on November 17, 2014


I saw the headline, thought I'd make a joke comment like, "Maybe they just realized how bad it sucked," and it turns it out wasn't even a joke.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 8:18 PM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


I don't know, this does seem to gloss over the Pacific Northwest of North America, where the tribes had a HIGHLY stratified society the further north you got from, say, the Oregon/California border (as a rough modern-day reference point), but no agriculture. They survived fine until European contact, had very advanced art (again, moreso the further north you went, up to a point; I think Vancouver, BC is generally regarded as the nexus) and rituals and trade networks. The carved orcas, masks, totem animals, et cetera you see? That wasn't random. Eyes had to be a certain size, features had to face a certain way and be present (or not).. there is absolutely A Way to make those images.

From the article: Certainly there would be families that had more prominent positions in a hunter-gatherer group or small village, but if they ever started hoarding resources too much that would be bad for the entire group. So people would strongly discourage each other from ostentatious displays of social differences.

There was a whole thing in PNW societies called the potlatch. Big party. The wealthiest members - usually the chief - would go through elaborate gift-giving ceremonies. You were expected to give something equal or better in return. If you couldn't, you were effectively in social-debt to that person. These ostentatious displays were actually a linchpin of how the society functioned. The bit I quoted sort-of goes along with this, in that these items aren't hoarded, but its point seems to be counter to these other societies, so.. I don't know. Maybe that was true for that part of the world, or maybe the fact that PNW could do it without relying on actual agriculture let them slip some weird "evolutionary" trap, but.. I get the impression the author isn't as widely-studied as they should be.
posted by curious nu at 8:21 PM on November 17, 2014 [6 favorites]


Never ascribe to culture that which can be easily explained by cholera. Or typhus.
posted by jenkinsEar at 8:23 PM on November 17, 2014 [11 favorites]


I kind of think that agriculture is a harmful virus. It leads to hierarchies and they are bad for the goal of humans having non-miserable lives.

Yeah, but it also led to beer. So there are positives and negatives here.


I also like the porn
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 8:31 PM on November 17, 2014


don't know, this does seem to gloss over the Pacific Northwest of North America, where the tribes had a HIGHLY stratified society the further north you got from, say, the Oregon/California border (as a rough modern-day reference point), but no agriculture. They survived fine until European contact, had very advanced art (again, moreso the further north you went, up to a point; I think Vancouver, BC is generally regarded as the nexus) and rituals and trade networks. The carved orcas, masks, totem animals, et cetera you see? That wasn't random. Eyes had to be a certain size, features had to face a certain way and be present (or not).. there is absolutely A Way to make those images.

Jared Diamond argues that the PNW was so bountiful that they were able to attain the surplus calories needed to create chiefdoms: the intermediate state between hunting-gathering and farming state societies. This presumably wouldn't have been an option in more marginal regions like the Levant/Mesopotamia.
posted by spaltavian at 8:31 PM on November 17, 2014 [2 favorites]


I kind of think that agriculture is a harmful virus. It leads to hierarchies and they are bad for the goal of humans having non-miserable lives.

Yeah, but it also led to beer. So there are positives and negatives here.

I also like the porn


You haven't looked at enough hunter gatherer cave paintings if you think porn didn't predate agriculture.
posted by Drinky Die at 8:43 PM on November 17, 2014 [3 favorites]


Venus of Willendorf.
posted by clavdivs at 8:52 PM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


[kjs3, cut it out.]
posted by cortex at 8:54 PM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


Çatalhöyük was occupied for something like 1,800 years, with up to eighteen levels of settlement.

I think they knew how to live together in large numbers just fine. This is an intriguing hypothesis but falls short of being either convincing or compelling.

I've been through Konye but didn't visit Çatalhöyük. Next time maybe ...
posted by Autumn Leaf at 9:00 PM on November 17, 2014 [8 favorites]


I've spent enough time in very remote field camps that if you offered me $1million to lead a group of 100 randomly selected people in some kind of survivalist situation for 5 years I'd laugh in your face. Unless they were all also field camp veterans in which case we'd have a jolly good time and a truly fantastic sauna culture.

Or I was allowed to summarily execute anyone annoying at will, I guess that might work too. How many of these people do you want back at the end?
posted by fshgrl at 9:14 PM on November 17, 2014


Or I was allowed to summarily execute anyone annoying at will, I guess that might work too. How many of these people do you want back at the end?

Next season on Survivor: Aztecas!
posted by T.D. Strange at 9:22 PM on November 17, 2014


[kjs3, it's totally fine if you want to drop us a line at the contact form to ask about moderation stuff, or make a metatalk post if there's a specific community-centric discussion about same that you want to have, but repeatedly insisting on having a metadiscussion in the middle of a thread is not gonna work and it's something you've tried to do on a few separate occasions at this point. Please cut it out going forward.]
posted by cortex at 9:32 PM on November 17, 2014


1,500,000 years ago - Fire
200,000 years ago - Homo sapiens
170,000 years ago - Clothes
150,000 years ago - Mitochondrial Eve
60,000 years ago - Migration out of Africa
40,000 - 50,000 years ago - "Behavioral modernity"
25,000 years ago - Neanderthal extinction


Err... Homo Rhodesiensis and H. Rudolfensis should be in that chronology. Hell, if you're going back to 1.5M BCE, H. Anetecessor, H. Cepranesis, H. Ergaster, H. Floresiensis (aka Flo), and H. Habilis should be there as well. Never mind H. Sapiens Idaltu and the yet unclassified folk found in the Red Deer Cave in China, who may be H. Sapiens but are seriously on the edge of the clade if they are.

And you can firmly file me as one of those who are certain that it isn't H. Neanderthalensis, it is H. Sapiens Neanderthalensis. They're far too close to H. Sapiens Sapiens to be anything but.

Lordy I hope I spelled all those right. I'm only human -- just like all those guys I listed.
posted by eriko at 9:47 PM on November 17, 2014 [6 favorites]


Um, fshgrl. You have really given a good synopsis of "The 100".
posted by clavdivs at 10:17 PM on November 17, 2014


it was a really long time between fire and clothes, and from clothes to the wheel. and pretty rapid - based on the timescales - from steam power to space travel. the long view provides some needed context for our 24-hour, always on world of today.
posted by TMezz at 10:39 PM on November 17, 2014


All it takes is one vampire.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 3:23 AM on November 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


I'd have thought that the collapse mechanism was similar to what happened in the Bronze Age. One mega-site suffered a catastrophe, necessitating abandonment. The migration of those people caused a cascade failure in other nearby communities.
posted by ob1quixote at 4:34 AM on November 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


I thought climate change doomed most of the early settlements?
posted by Renoroc at 4:44 AM on November 18, 2014


Renoroc, from the article: "University College London archaeologist Stephen Shennan and his team found that there was no correlation between climate shifts and population drops in Europe." There's a link to the research abstract in the article.
posted by harriet vane at 4:51 AM on November 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


Coincidentally, I've been reading After the Ice lately, which is kind of a grand survey of human life from 20,000-5,000 BCE, and it's a really interesting read. I recommend it to anyone who found this article interesting.
posted by A dead Quaker at 7:04 AM on November 18, 2014 [4 favorites]


I rather think writing was the turning point of acceleration in development, buy I am so much not an anthropologist.

(Gesture-typing initially suggested “worrying” instead of “writing. ” Google Keyboard might have point.)
posted by seyirci at 7:09 AM on November 18, 2014


Very interesting post; the linked article provides a lot of food for thought (and extra points for not padding it out with "supporting links"). I'm depressed, but not surprised, by the number of people in the thread who have no apparent interest in prehistory but choose to waste everybody's time by snarking about contemporary politics. Do I really need to point out that "socialism" and "libertarianism" have less than nothing to do with what the article is about?
posted by languagehat at 8:34 AM on November 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


While watching a NOVA about the human genome project, the geneticist said that within the last 50,000 years, something dropped the population of all planetary humans down to 1,200-1,500 individuals. So was it at this time, or when people sheltered in cave systems and made paintings of all they lost?
posted by Oyéah at 10:40 AM on November 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


You're thinking of the Toba catastrophe, which was long before the time in question.
posted by Thing at 10:46 AM on November 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


Do I really need to point out that "socialism" and "libertarianism" have less than nothing to do with what the article is about?

Hmm. I feel like I get that. But on the other hand, I didn't follow the evidence behind the central claim that society might have broken down because the community resisted the idea of hierachy. In modern terms, socialism or anarchism are short-hand for egalitarian polical systems. So that's why I used those terms. Obviously I didn't think our neolithic ancestors were reading Marx.
posted by latkes at 10:56 AM on November 18, 2014


Metafilter: collapsed in a wave of "fuck this".


Sorry, could not resist.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 1:12 PM on November 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


"The benefits of a system would not at all be overwhelmingly obvious to some guy in 7,000 BC, especially if things were't going swimmingly. A bad crop year, a dick chieftain, a plague and the cost-benefit rapidly swings back to the old ways."

Especially since the people would have been almost unimaginably more superstitious than modern humans. Even going back to Roman ritual, the number of things that were dependent upon augury or other nonsense would be staggering to most people living today. It's totally easy to see how a bad year of crops could be interpreted as a sign to bug out and live among the trees again.

Or, frankly, since there were so few of these mega-settlements, they could have collapsed from a variety of different reasons, including climate, disease, feuds, any number of things.

(Also, from skimming around on the Çatalhöyük site and wikipedia page, the idea that there was no social stratification seems contradicted by the different burial rites — decapitation — that are thought to correspond to social status.)
posted by klangklangston at 1:51 PM on November 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


Strongly alluring topic, but what can we really say about how these people felt and reasoned? The distance seems impossible to span. Applying loaded notions of 'technology', 'climate change' and 'belief systems' to whatever it is that happened at Catalhoyuk seems akin to imagining spaceships in Egyptian hieroglyphs. It's an excercise in story-telling, or, yes, fan-fic. Which is great, btw — the one thing I'm sure of is that the people at Catalhoyuk had stories of their own, as well.
posted by dmh at 5:55 PM on November 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


Strongly alluring topic, but what can we really say about how these people felt and reasoned? The distance seems impossible to span. Applying loaded notions of 'technology', 'climate change' and 'belief systems' to whatever it is that happened at Catalhoyuk seems akin to imagining spaceships in Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Climate change either happened or it didn't, but it's not a "loaded notion" and it doesn't matter if they understood it or not. Same for technology: they had it, whether they would recognize what they had as a continuum of improving tools and ideas. Their technology allowed them to do things, and not other things. It would have affected their actions, regardless of what they thought about it.

Beliefs systems makes more sense to criticize, but to the extent that we can say very little about what a pre-literate society believed. But it's certain they had belief systems, and the possibility that it impacted how they grouped themselves isn't a stretch.
posted by spaltavian at 6:41 PM on November 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


"Climate change either happened or it didn't, but it's not a "loaded notion" and it doesn't matter if they understood it or not. "

Yeah, though I was a bit annoyed at the dismissal of climate change out of hand, given that subsistence-level agriculture doesn't really take a huge amount of change to disrupt. One 100-year flood isn't climate change, but it can swamp fields enough to kill an entire crop and have people starve to death. One extra cold winter can wipe out an entire herd. The climate change data we have is much more general than that, and so yeah, it probably wasn't an ice age or a multi-decade shift in regional temperature means, but that doesn't exclude five years of drought or anything.
posted by klangklangston at 8:13 PM on November 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


The notions are "loaded" to the extent that they are of comparatively very recent vintage and carry a rather specific (in time and culture) set of connotations. The word "technology", for me, evokes notions of progress, rationality, innovation, standardization, industry, power — none of which really applies, I think, when you're slinging mud & timber together to build some place to dwell. To call that activity, or the fashioning of a spear, or the preparation of a clay pot, "technological" as I understand the word, with all its various (modern) connotations, rather distorts the reality of the activity, certainly as conceived by the home-builder or spear-maker, I would think.

I didn't mean to equate technology, climate change, belief systems and spaceships in the sense that they are equally sound. Rather I'm struck by the idea that there seems to be hardly anything that connects our experience of the world with that of the people of Catalhoyuk, and mostly I just marvel at the range of human experience.
posted by dmh at 8:38 PM on November 18, 2014


Quite true.
Climate change don't consist only in changes of temperature; almost as important are changes in humidity. This affects both herb and animal eating animals. Generally, the herb eating creatures don't adjust as the latter. When this happens they either die out or migrate. It's about proportion of all factors that life needs including fauna. Example: the cold period or what was once called the Reindeer age in late palaeo, remains of red deer are present, but the proportion of red deer to reindeer is small.
posted by clavdivs at 8:59 PM on November 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


"The word "technology", for me, evokes notions of progress, rationality, innovation, standardization, industry, power — none of which really applies, I think, when you're slinging mud & timber together to build some place to dwell."

"Technology" is pretty much any craft or skill that can be socially transmitted. The word "technology" comes out of that Industrialization soup of buzzwords, but techne was a philosophical debate for pre-Socratics and actual technology includes stuff like fire, used by early humans at least a million years before these mud huts.
posted by klangklangston at 11:06 PM on November 18, 2014 [4 favorites]


It is obvious that words must come from somewhere, and I think there is no argument that technology derives from the word techne, but to say that "technology" applies to the art of making fire in the same way it does to art of making space shuttles, that seems akin to saying that Oedipus was a Freudian... It's a rather distorting retrofit that does not capture the very different relationships people have to these "technologies", nor does it relate the moral dimension of the concept of "techne" in classical times and how that differs from our understanding, nor does it explain why, if it is so generically transmissible, "technology" flourishes in one era and not in others...

The point being that I see these notions function as a kind of trope, i.e. as story elements that help to construct a story about something that may have happened a long time ago. I don't think they accurately reflect the subjective experience at the time — meaning simply that I think the stories which must have gone around some time after the collapse of these large settlements, the first hand evidence if you will, would have been rather different, perhaps involving angry gods, and this is why the 'belief systems' story is so alluring, even when that notion itself is also a retrofit.
posted by dmh at 1:24 AM on November 19, 2014


Technology really just refers to an improving "kit" of tool making. The first time tools became fashioned, rather than just picked up, it's technology. Technology does apply to making fire the same way it applies to making space shuttles. The word has modern connotations because we weren't in a position to see that evolving process until recently, but it was happening.

Asking what were the upper limits of complexity allowed by Neolithic technology or something like that is entirely reasonable to ask. Just like we can talk about disease vectors during the Black Death, even though Medieval people would not recognize that as their "subjective experience".
posted by spaltavian at 6:07 AM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


"It is obvious that words must come from somewhere, and I think there is no argument that technology derives from the word techne, but to say that "technology" applies to the art of making fire in the same way it does to art of making space shuttles, that seems akin to saying that Oedipus was a Freudian... It's a rather distorting retrofit that does not capture the very different relationships people have to these "technologies", nor does it relate the moral dimension of the concept of "techne" in classical times and how that differs from our understanding, nor does it explain why, if it is so generically transmissible, "technology" flourishes in one era and not in others... "

No, it's like saying that Oedipus was a fiction. "Fiction" is a newer word that still describes a category that was extant before that word. And "technology" as we use it now was a translation of the German "technik," which comes directly from "techne." Likewise, the discussions that Aristotle and Plato had about "techne" are foundational to how we talk about technology today, with wide-ranging implications around how we conceive of "natural" versus "artificial."

The objection that being generically transmissible is undermined by technology flourishing in one era and not another is flawed for several reasons. Firstly, it begs the question in rendering "technology" as something that's absent when it's not flourishing. Secondly, generically transmissible doesn't mean that it's necessarily transmitted, e.g. words are generically transmissible but some eras have recorded greater increases in vocabulary than others. Thirdly, it treats "technology" as some Platonic notion existing a priori rather than something that's affected by material conditions, e.g. Chinese invention of the printing press didn't have much of an impact in the West due to a variety of non-technological factors (capital versus labor costs, literacy, government policies).

"The point being that I see these notions function as a kind of trope, i.e. as story elements that help to construct a story about something that may have happened a long time ago. I don't think they accurately reflect the subjective experience at the time — meaning simply that I think the stories which must have gone around some time after the collapse of these large settlements, the first hand evidence if you will, would have been rather different, perhaps involving angry gods, and this is why the 'belief systems' story is so alluring, even when that notion itself is also a retrofit."

That's kind of an incoherent position in this case. I understand what you're saying; for example, people often talk about "rights" in Athenian democracy, when Athenians would have found the concept entirely alien — the Polis was about duty, not rights, and translations that apply rights theory to e.g. Plato are anachronistic. But with both "technology" and "belief systems," they're abstractions that work in large part because they are abstractions of continuous human experience. That doesn't mean there aren't modern interpretations that would be alien to ancient humans, e.g. Heidegger's concern about technology as dehumanizing "standing reserve" in the face of mechanization, or Foucault's concepts of "self-techniques," where the tools aren't physical at all. But those are specific interpretations of a general concept that is incredibly basic — pretty much every human to ever exist has used a tool or seen a tool used at some point in their life. It's part of the definition of humanity.
posted by klangklangston at 11:30 AM on November 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


Likewise, the discussions that Aristotle and Plato had about "techne" are foundational to how we talk about technology today, with wide-ranging implications around how we conceive of "natural" versus "artificial."

I see what you mean, but I think this is a rather arbitrary observation, since it is hard to imagine any topic on which Aristotle and Plato did not shape our thinking. It's only a slight exaggeration to say they created the categories of western thought, including the notion of 'techne', so it is hardly surprising that there is a relationship between techne and technology or that we still use it as an explanatory device. It's just not very clear how that relates to a society 5,000 years prior to the ancient Greeks, of which we know hardly anything.

I just don't see how or where you think Plato (or Tacitus or Aurelius or Seneca for that matter) rely on the notion of 'techne' to explain the rise and fall of empire s/states. They explain events in terms of moral fortitude, family/lineage, cunning, fate, etc. It's a radically different style of analysis.
posted by dmh at 5:09 PM on November 20, 2014


Techne and its relationship to production is central to a lot of Aristotle's arguments on the ideal polis. In fact, there's a whole discussion on slaves versus automatic tools that plays into Aristotle's endorsement of slavery even as he (by discounting natural slaves) argues that slavery-by-law is unjust.

Further, you're still attempting to apply the incoherent argument that concepts have to be understood subjectively to be applicable to a subject. Bats don't understand ecology, but that doesn't prevent us from talking about habitat loss affecting their behavior.
posted by klangklangston at 7:10 PM on November 20, 2014


dmh, just because the word 'technology' acquired certain Modernist connotations such as the ones that you mention that doesn't over rule the broader meanings of technology such as those that KlangKlangston mentions. And within the context of their initial 'discovery' and application I don't think it is particularly controversial to consider that the effective use of the physical properties fire as a technology for illumination, warmth, cooking, etc, was any less transformational, or 'high tech' if you will, than telecommunications technologies based upon particular usage of the properties of light or electro-magnetic spectrum. Technology as being inherently about 'progress' or the latest discovery/device/gadget is but one aspect of the bleary eyed Modernism hangover the West in particular is still recovering from.

A key part of understanding the long and deep history of the role of technology in human experience is looking past the more recent connotations that have attached themselves to the concept. Believe me, I have been trying to get undergraduates to stop thinking that technology=newest iPhone since 2007 when iPhones were considered 'cutting edge technology.'
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 3:01 AM on November 21, 2014 [2 favorites]


Oh and speaking of angry gods and such - for whatever reason I've become the first port of call for several friends when their wifi isn't working, even though I know next to nothing about the intricacies of wireless networking. When my basic set of possible remedies fails (is the router plugged in? Did you turn it of and on again? Are you entering the password correctly) I just plain out tell them that wifi is essentially a form of black magic beyond the ken of mere mortals such as ourselves and to maybe go have a cup of tea or something it'll probably start working again soon.
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 3:07 AM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


Techne and its relationship to production is central to a lot of Aristotle's arguments on the ideal polis

Wow, no, in so far as your argument is that scientific research and technological development played a decisive role in Aristotle's conception of the ideal polis, as contrasted with our present ideals.

Further, you're still attempting to apply the incoherent argument that concepts have to be understood subjectively to be applicable to a subject

I see how I may have given this impression, but that's not my intent. What interests me is the way in which we form stories when we have no facts to shape them, as is the case for Catalhoyuk. Yes, environmentalism and technology and belief systems are all powerful, valid explanatory devices, but (in the absence of information) mostly validate our reification of these concepts rather than anything that actually occurred.
posted by dmh at 5:26 PM on November 21, 2014


"Wow, no, in so far as your argument is that scientific research and technological development played a major part in Aristotle's conception of the ideal polis, as it does in our time."

No. Scroll up and stop trying to move the goalposts. You complained about "technology" as incomprehensible to earlier civilizations, I pointed out how the philosophy of technology is directly linked to Aristotelian conception of "techne," and that he does use the connected concepts of tools and artisans in a variety of contexts, and that the slavery argument he promulgates is directly tied to attitudes about artificial technology. He might not agree, but it would not be incomprehensible.

" Yes, environmentalism and technology and belief systems are all powerful, valid explanatory devices, but (in the absence of information) mostly validate our reification of these concepts rather than anything that actually occurred."

This is only true if you don't accept any reification of the concepts to begin with. Otherwise, archeological evidence is reasonably sufficient to infer activity and no subjective information from Catalhoyuk is required. They're maps that are drawn after visiting the territory.
posted by klangklangston at 5:35 PM on November 21, 2014


Scroll up and stop trying to move the goalposts

I think it is amazing that we tell stories about something that happened to our ancestors 10,000 years ago, but I have little faith in the degree to which we can meaningfully comprehend the environment they lived in, given that it's been only about a century from the development of the light bulb to the internet.

Otherwise, archeological evidence is reasonably sufficient to infer activity and no subjective information from Catalhoyuk is required

There is hardly any evidence. It's the very paucity of evidence and the distance in time that make the article remarkable in the first place. Whatever we infer from the fragmentary data says more about our reasoning than about what happened.
posted by dmh at 5:57 PM on November 21, 2014


"Whatever we infer from the fragmentary data says more about our reasoning than about what happened."

No, not really. Going down that path leads to just denying pretty much all science that's not based on directly observable phenomena. Believing that the universe is about 13.8 billion years old doesn't tell us more about our beliefs than it does the age of the universe. That combined with your idiosyncratic definition of technology makes it seem like you've been reading too much Foucault for your own good and are caught in the shifting sands of Continental anti-rationalism.
posted by klangklangston at 2:46 PM on November 22, 2014 [1 favorite]


here's Charles C. Mann on Göbekli Tepe! The Birth of Religion - "We used to think agriculture gave rise to cities and later to writing, art, and religion. Now the world's oldest temple suggests the urge to worship sparked civilization."
Hovering over Göbekli Tepe is the ghost of V. Gordon Childe. An Australian transplant to Britain, Childe was a flamboyant man, a passionate Marxist who wore plus fours and bow ties and larded his public addresses with noodle-headed paeans to Stalinism. He was also one of the most influential archaeologists of the past century. A great synthesist, Childe wove together his colleagues' disconnected facts into overarching intellectual schemes. The most famous of these arose in the 1920s, when he invented the concept of the Neolithic Revolution...

Anthropologists have assumed that organized religion began as a way of salving the tensions that inevitably arose when hunter-gatherers settled down, became farmers, and developed large societies. Compared to a nomadic band, the society of a village had longer term, more complex aims—storing grain and maintaining permanent homes. Villages would be more likely to accomplish those aims if their members were committed to the collective enterprise. Though primitive religious practices—burying the dead, creating cave art and figurines—had emerged tens of thousands of years earlier, organized religion arose, in this view, only when a common vision of a celestial order was needed to bind together these big, new, fragile groups of humankind. It could also have helped justify the social hierarchy that emerged in a more complex society: Those who rose to power were seen as having a special connection with the gods. Communities of the faithful, united in a common view of the world and their place in it, were more cohesive than ordinary clumps of quarreling people.

Göbekli Tepe, to Schmidt's way of thinking, suggests a reversal of that scenario: The construction of a massive temple by a group of foragers is evidence that organized religion could have come before the rise of agriculture and other aspects of civilization. It suggests that the human impulse to gather for sacred rituals arose as humans shifted from seeing themselves as part of the natural world to seeking mastery over it. When foragers began settling down in villages, they unavoidably created a divide between the human realm—a fixed huddle of homes with hundreds of inhabitants—and the dangerous land beyond the campfire, populated by lethal beasts.

French archaeologist Jacques Cauvin believed this change in consciousness was a "revolution of symbols," a conceptual shift that allowed humans to imagine gods—supernatural beings resembling humans—that existed in a universe beyond the physical world. Schmidt sees Göbekli Tepe as evidence for Cauvin's theory. "The animals were guardians to the spirit world," he says. "The reliefs on the T-shaped pillars illustrate that other world."

Schmidt speculates that foragers living within a hundred-mile radius of Göbekli Tepe created the temple as a holy place to gather and meet, perhaps bringing gifts and tributes to its priests and crafts­people. Some kind of social organization would have been necessary not only to build it but also to deal with the crowds it attracted. One imagines chanting and drumming, the animals on the great pillars seeming to move in flickering torchlight. Surely there were feasts; Schmidt has uncovered stone basins that could have been used for beer. The temple was a spiritual locus, but it may also have been the Neolithic version of Disneyland.
as mann notes, however: "increasingly, archaeologists studying the origins of civilization in the Fertile Crescent are suspicious of any attempt to find a one-size-fits-all scenario, to single out one primary trigger. It is more as if the occupants of various archaeological sites were all playing with the building blocks of civilization, looking for combinations that worked. In one place agriculture may have been the foundation; in another, art and religion; and over there, population pressures or social organization and hierarchy. Eventually they all ended up in the same place. Perhaps there is no single path to civilization; instead it was arrived at by different means in different places."

fwiw, i think we're at a similar moment in history -- between 'ages' -- like with the neolithic and industrial revolutions :P
posted by kliuless at 5:55 PM on November 22, 2014 [2 favorites]


That combined with your idiosyncratic definition of technology makes it seem like you've been reading too much Foucault for your own good and are caught in the shifting sands of Continental anti-rationalism.

Well, that is rank nonsense, but it is heartening to see how you faithfully illustrate the dangers of leaping to conclusions based on elaborate conceptualizations and little in the way of evidence.
posted by dmh at 7:13 AM on November 23, 2014


-What should a Bayesian infer from the Antikythera Mechanism? "we don't have a very good idea of what antiquity was like"
Who made the famed Antikythera Mechanism, the astronomical calculator that was raised from an ancient shipwreck near Crete in 1901?

The complex clocklike assembly of bronze gears and display dials predates other known examples of similar technology by more than 1,000 years. It accurately predicted lunar and solar eclipses, as well as solar, lunar and planetary positions.

For good measure, the mechanism also tracked the dates of the Olympic Games. Although it was not programmable in the modern sense, some have called it the first analog computer.
-an unknown archaic population: "Humans interbred with a species that is neither human nor Neanderthal that lived in Asia 30,000 yrs ago."
posted by kliuless at 10:32 AM on November 30, 2014


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