Our egalitarian past

According, to current archaeological theories, our direct ancestor, Homo Sapiens appeared around 300,000 years ago. Homo Sapiens lived in small social matrilineal groups which could be viewed as extended families. Members of these groups acquired sustenance by gathering edible plants, scavenging, and hunting and so became known as hunter/gatherers.
Beside Homo Sapiens there existed v several subspecies of our predecessor Homo Erectus, but all, except the Neanderthal, became extinct around 115,000 years ago, before the Last Glacier period. From a biological point of view, the fact that we survived, borders on the miraculous: we were relatively weak and badly equipped, with small fangs and no claws, consequently we couldn’t kill bigger prey. We also had shorter arms than our cousins, the great apes, so we were unable to climb trees to escape predators or gather fruits. Also, we had no fur to protect us from extreme weather conditions. However, both, Neanderthals and we had one important advantage over other hominids: a much larger brain. But even that was not enough for the Neanderthal who, in spite of being physically stronger, could not survive the harshness of the Last Glacier period, and around 40,000 years ago disappeared.
The question which arises is: why did Homo Sapiens survive while the Neanderthals did not? The old theory that Homo Sapiens killed them has been completely abandoned. There are no signs of violence perpetrated on Neanderthal skeletons. The only plausible explanation is the fact that the Neanderthal continued the traditional (with the sole exception of Bonobos) social structure of hominids, that is, patrilineality and competitive violence. In contrast, Homo Sapiens underwent the first and the greatest revolution in the history of high-level species: they replaced competition and brutal patriarchal domination by cooperation and matrilineality. Furthermore, this cooperation was altruistic, resulting in the social structure of hunter/gatherers becoming egalitarian. (These conclusions have been reinforced by observing the still existing Hadza people of Tanzania who still live like the very early hunter/gatherers. The Hadza have not created art or religion which emerged among other hunter/gatherer societies at least 35,000 years ago).
What prompted the development of egalitarian, altruistic cooperation is not certain but unquestionably, among the many factors, was exceptional human intelligence and creativity. Altruistic cooperation was not the result of some religious or moral doctrine – which appeared many, many thousands of years later. It was profound and innovative. They were able to comprehend that taking care of other members of their social group was equally if not more important. Why? Our ancestors already knew by observation of animals that cooperation was necessary for survival, but there arose another element in Homo Sapiens’ minds. Animals live in a constant state of fear, but Homo Sapiens experienced and recognized freedom from fear which provided humans the space to become aware that they are inseparable from others.
Cooperative altruism could not happen without the expansion of abstract thinking. The ability to observe and relate cause to effect involved the discovery of the future, beyond animal instinct. For example, it became very evident among the early agricultural societies that they had to preserve seeds for the next growing season. These qualities are uniquely human, distinguishing Homo Sapiens from other life forms.
Abstract thinking, in turn, was intimately connected with another development: human spoken language. Spoken language made possible precise communication and sharing with others the results of individual creativity.
With the development and expansion of all of these factors, human society abandoned the primitive animal form of stratification inherited from their predecessors the great apes. Furthermore, it decisively prevented its re-emergence – otherwise, Homo Sapiens would have shared the same fate of the Neanderthal.
Homo Sapiens not only survived but embarked on an unfathomable journey of further development. Since this publication is not dedicated to presenting all their accomplishments, I will focus only on a few which demonstrate the superiority of altruistic cooperation, the basis of biological evolution, over competition and its credo of the survival of the fittest.
The first is the communal sharing of food. This has been observed in numerous anthropological studies of survival of aboriginal societies, particularly among the Hadza people, which, as I mentioned earlier, embody the early stage of the development of hunters/gatherers. Whatever food – roots or fruits gathered by the women or meat from hunting performed by the men – is shared with other members of the tribe. The concept of keeping food only for oneself is alien to them.
The next great accomplishment of Homo Sapiens is the development of technology. Its earliest manifestations, such as the sharpening of stones or the igniting and maintaining of fire, are even older than Homo Sapien society. A very important accomplishment was the making of clothing, without which humans living in areas affected by the Last Glacial period would not have been able to survive. It was a complex, cooperative endeavour. It required noticing that the hides of animals could be used to protect the naked body from cold, that they had to be cut into pieces and sewn together. This required the development of sewing implements and material with which to bind, all the result of the conscious, creative and intelligent cooperation of many people. They were motivated not only by the goal of their own benefit – they were altruistically working together so the whole community could survive.
Another result of cooperation were sophisticated hunting tools like the bow and boomerang. Though they were manufactured by individuals, their invention and bringing to perfection was the result of cooperation which spanned generations. Particularly the creation of the boomerang, a marvel of aerodynamics, evolved out of innumerable trials and errors before it could be effectively used.
Another example of cooperative effort is the discovery and development of pottery. The earliest pieces dated around 20,000 years ago. Again, it required keen observation to notice that clay could not only be molded but if kept sufficiently long in the fire, would harden. From that, the evolution of creative technology led to the enormous benefit of the ability to transport and store liquids and solids. It may not sound too impressive but imagine our modern life without any kind of container to store food. Pottery also was a medium where the creators could express their artistic abilities. Let us have a look at pieces produced, around 6,000 years ago in the Tryppilia Cucuteni culture.
Another unique accomplishment of Homo Sapiens was the creation of art. There is much archeological evidence of its presence. A very mature, large-scale artistic endeavour was discovered in the Chauvet cave in Ardeche, France, a veritable ”gallery” of paintings and engravings. The cave arts demonstrate consistent altruistic cooperation necessary to produce them. The creators had to fabricate pigments, tools for painting and engraving, and light in the cave which was completely dark. Their efforts were continued by many generations spanning thousands of years – the earliest paintings are dated around 35,000 and the latest around 26,000 years ago.
The presence of animals as the main motif of these paintings points towards another unique creation of humanity, religion. There is no evidence that Neanderthal was capable of reaching such a level of abstraction combined with a feeling of gratitude and respect. The Chauvet cave was never used for habitation; it was not only an artistic display but a “shrine” dedicated to animalism. It may be difficult for us to understand why humans were killing animals and at the same time worshiping them. However, if we look from the perspective of hunters/gatherers, killing animals was not a matter of choice but necessity. Killing animals was for them natural, however, at the same time, they expressed their gratitude towards the hunted ones. They also illustrated their respect to dangerous predators such as lionesses (beautifully portrayed in the Chauvet cave – perhaps humans hoped that by doing that they would not become their prey).
From a similar period comes the evidence of another religion: the cult of femininity and motherhood, in the form of figurines of so-called Paleolithic Venuses which are dated around 35,000 to 40,000 years ago. These little sculptures are found all over Europe, and the Middle East representing pregnant and opulent women. They have a religious character, but also emphasize the importance of maternity and the matrilineal social structure. The cult of femininity continues even now in a variety of forms like the Dakini principle in Tantric Buddhism and the cult of the Virgin Mary in Christianity.
Before the arrival of agriculture, hunter/gatherers, for perhaps 200,000 – 100,000 years, dwelled in caves or some form of primitive shelters made of wood branches, reeds, and similar materials, like those used presently by the Hadza people.
Later on, around 10,000 years ago, profound changes took place in the history of Homo Sapiens. People began to domesticate and cultivate wild plants. That marks the beginning of the so-called agricultural revolution and had the most profound impact on the social structure and lifestyle of humanity.
Previous hunter/gatherers began to settle down, and there emerged a new sophisticated technology of the building of permanent dwellings: houses. Already around 10,000 years ago, houses made of dried clay were discovered in the area of the Fertile Crescent. Later on, 8,000 years ago, all around northern and central Europe, people began to build wooden structures called longhouses. Their size could reach 300m2 so some archeologists suggest that these houses could accommodate whole small communities, similar in size to those of the hunter/gatherers.
The most technologically advanced single-family houses come from the agricultural civilization called Trypillia Cucuteni. They were built by using wattle-and-daub, a technology which was very popular in the Middle Ages and later in Europe, and still is utilized by the Iroquois – the native people of Canada and the USA.
The settlements of those early, agricultural civilizations of longhouses and Trypillia-Cucuteni had regular structured houses which were arranged according to definitive patterns: longhouses in the form of linear “streets,” while in Trypillia-Cucuteni, concentric circles. It is obvious that this could not be accomplished without close, voluntary cooperation. They provide proof that people were able to form larger, more complex communities without any evidence of stratification.
Around 12,000 years ago Homo Sapiens domesticated wild dogs. Somehow, humans “convinced” these animals to assist in hunting and to even act as protectors. Looking at this phenomenon from a wider perspective, we can appreciate this accomplishment of our ancestors, who discovered that the idea of cooperation is applicable beyond the society of humans, and can be expanded to embrace their relationship with animals. Later on, several kinds of animals such as sheep, goats, and pigs became domesticated, which became the second phase of the agricultural revolution.
Around the same time, in the area of the Fertile Crescent, emerged a new phenomenon which was the main aspect of the agricultural revolution: as already mentioned, the domestication of wild cereals and followed later by other plants. Since the beginning, Homo Sapiens had two main sources of nutrition: plants and meat. However, until the arrival of agriculture, hunters/gatherers were only able to collect what was available. It all changed when they discovered that some plants could be domesticated- an early form of “genetical modification.” This is very difficult to appreciate fully, but we should be aware that it required, not only the ability to relate to causes and their results but also persistence. It also involved foresight and the altruistic willingness to pass the acquired knowledge from one human generation to another. Changing the nature of a plant, without any previous experience and methodology, took hundreds of years.
The arrival of agriculture did not immediately impact the egalitarian and cooperative social structure. The existence of such advanced agricultural civilizations such as Tripilia Cucuteni proves that it was possible to introduce a relatively complex social organization without abandoning the egalitarian structure.
However, the further development of agriculture became the main cause for the collapse of egalitarianism. The existing societies were too “naïve” to handle the more complex social structures needed for large conglomerations of inhabitants. For example, in the Fertile Crescent Jericho established as early as 8,000 BC or Indus valley city-state Harrapa ( 3300 -1300 BC) had, respectively, around 3,000 and 23,000 inhabitants. There evidence of the presence of a relatively complex social structure and beginning of relatively mild form of stratification. The first stage of the Homo Sapiens journey, the era of egalitarianism, came to an end. The consequences of stratification will be presented (hopefully soon) entitled: “Stratification – road to catastrophe .”

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