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March 21, 2004

What Happened? (cont.)

In the comments section of my previous post on the (re)appearance of dominance heirarchies in civilized societies, I posed the following thought experiment:

If two hunting-and-gathering societies impinge upon one another's territories and begin to fight over resources, what is the worst that one group can do to the other?

Compare that situation to one in which at least one of the two groups in conflict is a settled agriculturalist (the other being either agriculturalist, hunter/gatherer, or pastoralist). What are the possibilities now? What new outcome has become possible?

Since I obviously got a head start on this one, let me map out what I think the answers are. In the first case, the worst that one group of hunter/gatherers could do to another is to kill them or drive them away. . . .

What Happened? (cont.)

As a rule, one would suppose that the group that evidenced superiority on the field of battle (or in whatever form the contest in arms took place) would take possession of the territory under dispute, forcing the surviving members of the weaker group to go over the hill in search of greener pastures, where, quite possibly, it would find itself in conflict with yet another group already in possession of said pastures, and the whole cycle would start all over again. If we postulate constant demographic pressure -- ie, a tendency for human groups to multiply in numbers beyond what any limited territory can support -- such a mechanism would be sufficient to drive human migration over the surface of the earth.

But there comes a time when there are no more good hunting and gathering territories to be occupied. Then it becomes necessary to develop more intensive methods of wringing a living out of marginal areas in the countryside, if the weakest groups are going to survive at all. (I mean intensive in the sense of being able to support more people per unit area.) Agriculture and the domestication animals are the two ways that emerged.

O.k, now suppose we have a small horticultural village whose territory is invaded by a neighboring tribe, of whatever type, acting under demographic necessity. If the invading tribe is the stronger, then the two possibilities I described above are still there: the agriculturalists can be killed or driven away. But if there happens to be a genius among the invaders, a third possibility suggests itself: the agriculturalists can be captured and put to work double-time, as it were, feeding not only themselves but the invaders as well.

Two things about agriculture make this possible. One is that, if it is grain that is being cultivated, the annual food supply comes in a lump sum at the end of the harvest. This food supply is something that can be seized and doled out by an organized force. (Note, btw, the derivation of the English word "lord" from the medieval English word "hlafward" meaning "loaf keeper")

The other thing about agriculture, including tree agriculture (dates, orchards, etc) is that it ties the agriculturalists down to a place, so they cannot run away. If they are going to survive they have to stick around to tend to their crops. If they light out for the territory, they are going to come into conflict with hunter/gatherers already in possession of the countryside, who are (by assumption) stronger than they are. What's more, if they have been practicing horticulture for several generations or more, it?s unlikely that they even remember how to live off the fat of the land.

So, in a word, the new possibility that has appeared is conquest. Conquest, I submit, though seldom mentioned, is every bit as much of an innovation in human culture as was the domestication of plants and animals; it was the original sin that dare not speak its name.

But even so, we still haven?t explained what happened right before the rise of civilization. An isolated example of conquest -- and there are some, at Catal Huyuk (sp?), for example -- need have no consequences beyond its own immediate neighborhood.

So the real question becomes: what are the dynamics when a conquest occurs on an otherwise featureless plain that is dotted with horticultural villages? That's the second thought experiment I would like us to engage.

Posted by lukelea at 07:52 AM