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A brief history of humankind


The seed of a mesquite tree took root, once, in the desert by the shores of Lake Turkana. Sensing water deep beneath the sand and rocks, it sent down its long tap-root low into the ground to where, a hundred feet or more below, this water was to be found. Slowly, slowly, over the years, the tree began to grow; not tall, for this was not a place for tall trees, but it sent up its branches towards the sky and it spread down its roots all around. And as it grew, and as its roots forced their way further into the earth, so they turned over and turned up some of the things that lay beneath. And presently there appeared, at the base of the tree’s trunk, some small splinters of bone, too old and too dry for the scavengers to pay any attention to; and so they lay there, for day after day, for month after month and for year after year, until, one day, a man found them and picked them up. They were odd, these bones, and hard and stone-like, and not at all like the bones of any animal that he had seen.

And it happened that these bones, eventually, found their way into the hands of an anthropologist.

Four years later, after an extraordinarily protracted and painstaking excavation, this anthroplogist and his companions managed to recover and to reconstruct, from the ground beneath the mesquite tree, the skeleton of an 11- or 12-year-old boy, almost entire. He was five foot three, this boy, when he died, and was likely to have reached six feet or thereabouts had he lived, or so they calculated. And he had died one and a half million years before.

A decade later, in the Samburu Hills just outside Maralal, twenty fossil fragments were discovered – mainly scraps and shards of teeth and jawbones, they were, but they were older by far than the Lake Turkana boy, and were the remains, perhaps, of mankind’s oldest and most distant ancestors.

And over the years we scattered and spread far and wide over the face of the earth.

Ten thousand years ago, when the ice-sheets retreated, we left our caves made a life for ourselves as hunters and foragers in the plains and the forests. And that suited us just fine: it suited us fine for a long while. But little by little, over time, things began to change.

In the open lands, in Africa, the hunters of wild sheep and goats gradually became herders and pastoralists, as the Samburu and Rendille are today, and went from following their quarry’s migrations between their seasonal pastures to leading them there and protecting them from other predators with their spears and bows, and increasing the size of their flocks.

Further north, a wave of settlers from the Near East crossed the sea and landed on the Greek coast. These people were not hunters and gatherers; nor were they pastoralists and herders. They were the first farmers, and they brought with them tools and techniques for clearing and transforming the land, and for the sowing and reaping of crops.

They lived a hard life, these farmers, and one of constant, grinding labour, in which they would work for months on end with little immediate reward; and their manner of living was unenvied by the indigenous hunters, and mostly ignored, for nigh on a thousand years.

Little by little, however, the farmers’ settlements began to spread northwards and westwards across Europe’s plains and the rivervalleys, and so successful were they that their methods, in time, came to be imitated by my ancestors and by Wilfred Thesiger’s, and perhaps by yours; and they all, in time, came to spend their days tilling the land with stone hoes.

In return for giving up a life of comparative leisure for one of hard manual work, the settled farmers were both rewarded and penalised.

They were rewarded, on the one hand, by conditions that led, in time, to civilisation, to the world’s great empires, and, ultimately, to the Industrial Revolution and to the world we live in today. And on the other hand, and more immediately and tangibly, they were penalised with a decline in both the quality and quantity of their lives over those of their hunting ancestors by every observable measure.

For the average person, the shift to settled farming brought with it a lower material income, a dramatic loss of leisure-time, and a marked reduction in physical health, compared with their hunter-gatherer and pastoralist cousins, as measured both through stature and through life-expectancy. And this was not just for a transitional period of a few years or a few hundred or even a few thousand, but for more or less the whole of recorded history, right up until the dawn of the nineteenth century.

In 1800, the daily wage of an English farm-labourer would buy eleven pounds of wheat. He probably would have had other things to spend it on, mind; but if it was wheat that he wanted, then that was how much of it he would have got. But in ancient Babylon, in 1800 BC, the daily wage of a farm-labourer would have bought fifteen pounds of wheat. And in classical Athens it would have bought twice as much. The English farm-labourer would have eaten other things besides wheat, though. With the wages from his ten-hours-a-day, 300-days-a-year job, he would have been able to afford, in a typical day, some hunks of bread and a little cheese to go with it, with perhaps some bacon-fat as well, and he would have washed it all down with some cups of weak tea, and also some beer. All of this, put together, would have given him about 1,500 calories-worth of nourishment. Whereas the daily food intake of the average hunter-gatherer, working just three hours a day, both then and now, and in all the tens of thousands of years before the first farmers arrived in Europe, was and is around 2,300 calories, and it is far more varied and far richer in protein besides. So by farming the land instead of foraging and hunting in it or leading their herds across it to their seasonal pastures, people became poorer in terms of what they could afford to feed themselves, and this despite them working so much harder and so much longer.

And besides this, the new manner of living changed both the culture and the composition of the people. Because the qualities and attitudes that make you good and successful at lounging about for days painting yourself with war-paint, and then seeing off a leopard that’s prowling around your camp or grabbing your spear and launching yourself off after a wild pig at half a second’s notice, and then feasting until you’re too fat to move, are not at all the same as the qualities and attitudes that make you good and successful at ploughing a field with a stick and scattering the good seed on the land, and then feeding and watering and weeding it day after day, and keeping the birds off, and weeding some more, all in anticipation of a harvest that could be half a year away or more – if the weather holds and if the rains don’t fail. In that sort of life, the farming life, you tend to get a higher proportion of serious, duty-driven individuals with a strong work-ethic, who go in for deferred gratification and who are well suited to performing simple, repetitive tasks for hours, days, weeks and months on end.

Or, to be technical about this for a moment, you get a lot of the sort of people who inherit genes for what neuroscientists call a ‘strong response inhibition mechanism in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex’, which is something that makes them better at being conscientious, organised, disciplined and self-controlled, and not so good at being spontaneous or acting on impulse. The sort of people, in fact, who at another time might be content to spend their whole lives sorting cheques into account-number order, or else training all hours to be good at a sport that they don’t actually enjoy, because it’s wrong to quit things.

But apart from turning out the puritans and pedants of the future, one thing that settled farming did do very well indeed was to vastly increase the number of people that the land could support, and wherever farming took hold the population exploded. This meant that eventually, by sheer weight of numbers, the new people swallowed up the old and the new way of living replaced the old way altogether.

And from there it was not such a big step to the cotton mills.

That’s progress for you, though. And that’s civilisation.

Warwick Cairns ebook, ‘In Praise of Savagery’, is out now and is a cracking read. Ostensibly an ode to Wilfred Thesiger, it contains some top-level travel writing about remote bits of Northern Kenya. Get your copy by following these links: Amazon UK, Amazon US.

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