Pathfinders: Digging Optimism

There’s a bit of a revolution going on in archaeology at the moment. It started a few years ago with the excavation of the temple complex of Göbekli Tepe in southern Anatolia in Turkey. The structure consists of concentric circles of 20 ft high, 20 ton stones and the earliest phase of building is dated to the Epipaleolithic, a period of post-glacial hunter-gatherer groups that came before the Mesolithic era, and long before the agricultural developments of the Neolithic. At somewhere between 10,000  and 20,000 years old, Göbekli Tepe is the oldest known temple structure in the world.

That’s if it is a temple. So far nobody is quite sure, and guesses have ranged from a sanctuary to a banquet and festival venue to a proto-religious centre devoted to Sirius, the dog star. If a sanctuary, it’s not clear what guests might have been fleeing from. If it turns out the structures were roofed over, the stargazing theory will be dogged with an obvious problem (New Scientist, 14 August 2013). The festival centre idea is the most novel, and the most troublesome.

What nobody disputes is the remarkable fact that there is no sign of agriculture anywhere near the temple, nor any trace of a permanent settlement. In archaeological terms this is an anachronism, and it’s not just Göbekli Tepe. At the Syrian site of Tell’Abr, dated 11,000 BP, and also at Dja ‘De and several others, pre-agricultural villages – consider the significance of the phrase – have been excavated with large communal buildings, while at Wadi Faynan in Jordan what looks like an amphitheatre has been excavated, dating to 11,600 BP. Somehow hunter-gatherers who knew neither the potter’s wheel nor the plough were doing large scale monumental building 3,000 years before settled farming, and 7,000 years before the Pyramids (New Scientist, 2 October 2013).

To say that these discoveries have blown a hole in orthodox theory is putting it mildly. The assumption has been that environmental limitations, possibly population growth, or global warming or some other factor, caused distressed humans to abandon their hitherto successful foraging life and develop settled agricultural techniques. You could sum it up as ‘necessity is the mother of invention’. Marxian materialist thought has been in agreement with this narrative, and indeed through Marxist archaeologists like V. Gordon Childe may even have been the parent of it.

Some modern archaeologists are now asking themselves whether we’ve got it all wrong. Instead of changes in material conditions creating changes in overlying cultural strata, could major changes in the cultural superstructure instead have caused seismic changes in the material basis of society? To a socialist, that’s rather like asking if you can boil a pan of water without turning the gas on.

Something’s certainly wrong with the picture. Evidence is gathering that, instead of a sudden headlong rush into farming spurred possibly by some calamitous event, an extended period of ‘proto-farming’ grew up alongside and complementary with hunting and gathering, in which human groups acquired the knack of managing forests and game. In other words, there was slow agricultural evolution, not fast revolution, and it took place independently on every continent. Moreover, the great advances of farming technology, such as hybridisation of different strains for higher yield, tended to come about during phases of material plenty, not need, quite the opposite of what orthodox theory predicts (New Scientist, 31 October).

A plausible explanation for this is that while foraging provided the main diet, proto-farming was a sort of hobby which produced not the basics but the luxuries, and groups were in no hurry to rely on it as a main food source. This makes sense because the technology of hybridisation must have been a lengthy, trial-and-error business, and not one to be conducted in a hurry when times were particularly tough. Indeed some Scandinavian sites show that when the farming failed, the groups went back to foraging, and not the other way round.

If this view is right, it lends sustenance to the idea that early ‘temples’ like Göbekli Tepe were really feast-centres for gatherings of otherwise nomadic tribes, perhaps coming together to celebrate some seasonal prehistoric equivalent of Christmas, and that settled living and farming grew, organically and much later, round such established centres.

There is another factor to consider. It has been well documented in studies that humans have a bias towards loss-aversion, meaning that they are more likely to act to prevent a loss than to achieve a gain.

In the context of the pre-Neolithic this implies that agricultural technology could have developed after the fact of material plenty, in order to preserve it, rather than before it, in order to acquire it.

What’s wrong then is not materialist thinking in itself but a particular iteration of it. If we factor in loss-aversion as a material motivator, we see that human social change can still be understood perfectly well in materialist terms, just not quite in the way we imagined.

And what, queries the impatient reader, does any of this have to do with the cost of my gas bill?

Just this: there are many people out there who, although sympathetic to socialist ideas, have failed to lend a hand or get involved in promoting the case for socialism for the simple reason that they have a fatalistic, even millennialistic view of social change. In short, they imagine that socialism, or any large-scale upheaval, can only come about after some global cataclysm which knocks out the entire governing apparatus of capitalism. That this amounts to an argument for doing nothing is almost beside the point. It’s not a political stratagem, it’s a suicide note, and a more depressing view of humanity and of the future would be hard to come by.

What if such people have got it backwards? What if recent work in archaeology is telling us a different story, that instead of being driven forward by disaster and desperation, humans are spurred on by success? Other things being equal, how much more motivating is it to offer a vision of the future based on a history of successes, than to offer dark and gloomy forebodings based on a history of failures? After all, we humans have got a lot of things right as well as wrong, and despite capitalism’s rat race and rigged laws, values of tolerance, empathy, equality, mutual aid and democratic cooperation are surprisingly resilient in almost every country.

If we want people to come together in support of collective liberation from an economic system that’s outdated, restrictive, destructive and viscerally unequal at every level, perhaps we ought to start creating arguments that build on the abundance of energy and creative genius that humans have, and not do what everyone else does, beat people over the head with a big nailed stick.

That way, maybe we could finally extend the season of goodwill to a year-round phenomenon.


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