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Pathfinders: Digging up the Dirt

New excavations are suggesting that some complex settled societies sprang up thousands of years before agriculture, in a complete reversal of orthodox thinking about the Neolithic revolution. A dig at Wadi Faynan in south Jordan has unearthed what looks like an amphitheatre dated 11,500 years old, some three thousand years before settled farming, while another dig at Göbekli Tepe in southern Anatolia has revealed the world’s first temple, dated 11,000 years old (New Scientist, 5 October).

According to orthodoxy prehistoric hunter-gatherer (HG) communities, being nomadic due to the need to range for scarce food, were incapable of population expansion, of developing surpluses or ‘wealth’, and of creating sophisticated urban cultures, social stratification, writing and organised religion. This is why the Neolithic or agricultural revolution is called a revolution. An HG community with a theatre is understood to be about as likely as a fossilised rabbit found in a dinosaur’s stomach.

If temples and amphitheatres came first and agriculture came after, could it be that social and not material forces were the driving factor of change – ideology before subsistence? Perhaps HG groups invited a lot of people to ritual raves and then found they needed to develop better ways of producing food on-site. Instead of temples being a product of urban life, perhaps temples gradually grew villages and towns around themselves like particles attracting mass.

But the materialist view, upon which the case for socialism is built, doesn’t insist that settled civilisation depended on agriculture, it only says that settled civilisation depended on a reliable food supply. In most cases that would have meant agriculture, but if it could be provided some other way, eg. by natural abundance or spaceships dropping food parcels, then so be it. Apparently these sites were stocked up food-wise, but pre-agriculture this could hardly have been the norm. A neo-Hegelian counter-attack against materialism, whereby culture determines material conditions, doesn’t seem on the cards quite yet.

Another major boulder was dropped in the anthropological pond recently by Steven Pinker’s recent book The Better Angels of our Nature (reviewed on page 20, short interview on page 13).

Pinker’s theory can also be seen as ammunition against socialism, for two reasons. First, if capitalism is able to deliver peaceful non-violence, even in theory, a major plank of the socialist case against it is removed, since that case argues that capitalism is intrinsically violent and divisive. Secondly, it upends fondly-held ideas about so-called primitive communism in which Mesolithic hunter-gatherer bands existed in a state of noble grace until mean old property-based society came along to turn free love into Fight Club.

Does Pinker intend his argument to be used this way, as neo-Hobbesian propaganda? Probably he won’t lose sleep if it is, given his own unexamined assumptions about what socialism really is (ie. Stalin, tanks and purges). But the evidence is what it is. If it is damaging to the socialist case, that’s a problem for us.

In the first place, accepting for argument’s sake that the murder rate has declined through history (and guessing about prehistory), we would have to congratulate capitalism on a job well done. Or partly well done. Credit where it’s due. But could it achieve zero-crime and zero-violence in the future? Perhaps, with hyper-surveillance and the utter subjugation of workers, mind and body. It’s hard to see how it could achieve zero-war unless one ruling class were able to destroy all the other ruling classes in a global war and then dominate the smoking ruins that were left. That capitalism has made progress in reducing violence does not mean that it will continue to do so, or that socialism could not do better.

In the second place, it is not supposed that primitive communism was a Garden of Eden, merely that it was unlikely to have been a warzone. Marx and Engels speculated that, in the absence of property relations before agriculture, there would be no material incentive for class society, war, female oppression and all the other features of today’s ‘civilised’ world. And indeed, there’s no sign of prehistoric warfare, weaponry, fortifications and the like, despite the fact that the available evidence is more than enough to reveal such signs if they were there. Such signs tend to be unambiguous and hard to miss. Incidences of conflict prior to 10,000 years ago constitute a ‘tiny handful’ and ‘are very much the exception’. Conversely, the 11,500 year old Abu Hureya settlement near the Euphrates, for example, shows continuous occupation for 4,000 years with no sign of violence whatever (John Horgan, Scientific American blog, 29 June 2010).

Suppose, again for argument’s sake, one were to leap the credibility gap and grant Pinker the best possible case, that violence has been endemic in all human societies, no matter how far back you go, no matter what the material conditions. Even then, would this prove that aggression was written into the genes, as Pinker and others are wont to conclude? No, it wouldn’t. It would only prove that material conditions were not the only factor behind violence. Marx’s argument about materialism was not that it was the sole factor in determining social conditions, but that it was the decisive factor among several. In prehistoric societies there could have been other factors at play.

A recent study of ‘lethal aggression events’ among mobile forager bands seems to bear this out (‘New study of foragers undermines claim that war has deep evolutionary roots’, Scientific American, 18July). Of the 21 groups observed, three had no lethal events whatsoever, a problematical result for Pinker and other natural violence advocates. Of 148 documented events only two were due to fights over resources, most of the others being ‘miscellaneous personal disputes’ such as insults, jealousy and theft – interestingly suggesting that property concepts cause trouble even in HG bands. Significantly, the most common cause of violence was revenge for previous attacks, showing that violence once established breeds more violence. Almost all the events involving multiple attackers and multiple victims, which the observers categorise as ‘war’, stemmed from just one group.

Not content with arguing for natural human aggression, some enthusiasts want to trace it all the way back to our ape forebears. Notable here is Richard Wrangham with his ‘demonic ape’ thesis. But the evidence for innate ape violence is just as flimsy and opposition to it strong. ‘Chimpicide’ seems to be a cultural artefact, neither universal nor innate. The relatively peaceful bonobo pygmy chimp also stymies such claims. Meanwhile studies of the oldest known human ancestor, the 4.4 million year old Ardipithecus ramidus, have caused a ‘tectonic shift’ in anthropological circles recently, according to one researcher: ‘We now know, especially in light of Ardipithecus, that hominids have always been a far less aggressive clade than are chimpanzees or even bonobos’ (Horgan, 2010).

Why Pinker, Wrangham and others are so keen to show that violence is innate can only be guessed at. Were it true, capitalism could be acquitted of all war crimes and socialist revolution represented as  pointless. At stake is the essential Hobbesian question, can we be free or must we always be ruled? Socialists say that we can and should be free, and we work to create a future in which humans make themselves anew and are not bound by supposed primitive behavioural urges, whether these are angelic or demonic.