The Human Story – Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great

When we study history, we tend to focus on unified polities such as Egypt, France or the League of Nations. This emphasis on unity often leads to labels that mask much of the historical differences associated with the institution in question. One needs only think of Europe and the many different cultures spread across time to understand this idea. I mean, what even is Europe when analysed through a historical dimension?

Today we are going to attempt to tackle something that is even more complicated and hazy than European history: Ancient India. Indian history is comprised of many diverse and distinct cultures which existed over thousands of years and as such, it is rather difficult to put together a clear, coherent and unified history. But we will try.

The (Very) Basics of Hinduism

Hinduism, as with all other world religions, is extremely complex and this article could never, in no way, do justice to the intricacies of it. That being said, hopefully you will understand a little more of the religion (if you don’t already know much) as it is important to comprehend the basics of Hinduism to understand the evolution of history on the Indian subcontinent. So, let’s go.

The Vedas

Remember our old friends, the Indus Valley Civilisation from the fourth instalment of this series? Remember how they were one of the earliest civilisations, but they basically just disappeared under a veil of mystery around 1750 BCE? Well their civilisation was replaced by migrating Aryans (not to be confused with the Nazi’s “master race”) wandering east from the Caucasus. The reason that we know about these guys is because, unlike their predecessors, they left behind some of the earliest religious texts, the oldest of which are known as the Vedas. These Vedas lie at the core of what would later become known as Hinduism.

Not much is known about the authors of these texts as they tend to focus on the ideas rather than on the authors themselves. This allows the reader to look at the message without being influenced by the messenger. There are tonnes of stuff in the Vedas which we do not have time to look at but one of the more culturally important messages to come from the scriptures is the idea of the caste system.

The Caste System

The caste system is one of India’s most enduring and fascinating (and from a western point of view certainly, unjust) establishments. One of the Vedas speaks of Purusha, the cosmic man, whose sacrifice by the gods led to the creation of all life on earth. This parable puts forward a divine explanation for the caste system known to Hindus as the Varna:

  1. Brahmins – the top class are represented by Purusha’s mouth as they are the ones that speak to the gods.
  2. Kshatriyas – the arms of Purusha represent the ruling class, including the warriors and administrators.
  3. Vaishyas – the third caste are the merchants and artisans who provide the money for the priests and the warriors. This caste come from Purusha’s thighs.
  4. Shudras – the bottom class are represented, unsurprisingly, by the feet of Purusha. This class consists of labourers and farmers who are the foundation of the social order.

The caste system is infinitely more complex and intricate than this but this division into four basic classes remains constant throughout much of India’s history. The caste system lays the foundation for another huge concept in Hinduism: dharma.

Dharma

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One’s role in life and society is predestined and defined primarily by birth and by caste. Someone must fulfil the role that they were born into, even if they are terrible at it. It is better to be an awful warrior than the world’s greatest actor if your role in life is to be a warrior. This is dharma, and someone is better fulfilling their own dharma poorly than playing the part of someone else’s, no matter how well.

Samsara, Moksha and Karma

There are both personal and social reasons for performing your own dharma. The social reasons are rather obvious: dharma and caste combine for excellent social cohesion. There will always be the exact correct number of priests and the exact correct number of farmers and the exact correct number of toilet cleaners (I think you get the picture).

Samsara is the cycle of rebirth (or reincarnation), the idea that when we die our soul is transferred to another living thing as it, itself, is being born. If one fulfils his or her dharma, then they are born into a higher being. This would lead someone, not of this culture or religion, to believe that being reincarnated as a brahmin is the ultimate goal but this thought would be incorrect. The eventual goal of dharma is to be released from the merry-go-round of reincarnation altogether. This release is known as moksha and the law that holds all of this together is karma.

These laws are a great way to organise the social order from top to bottom. Everyone has a role to play in the community and society stays in balance because there is a religious element to it.

Hinduism does have one major design flaw though for those ambitious brahmins and kshatriyas wishing to forge an empire. Originally the brahmins had tried to set themselves up as the political elites but Hinduism does not place a premium on its worshipper’s obeying the leaders because everyone’s path to salvation is an individual and personal experience (perhaps giving a religious tinge to Margaret Thatcher’s famous quip that “…there is no such thing as society.”)

Buddhism

Budha

Historians cannot pinpoint the beginnings of Buddhism exactly but according to traditional biographies the story begins in the sixth century BCE with a prince who had known wealth and opulence his whole life. Prince Siddhartha Gautama’s father had locked him in the palace because a prophecy foretold that the family would lose the kingdom if the young prince ever left. This was, however, extremely comfortable as house arrests go: he had fine foods, entertainment and a beautiful wife. Naturally, however, the curious prince began to believe that there must be more to life and snuck out from the palace on several occasions. The legend tells that on his travels, Siddhartha encountered an old man, a sick man, and, finally, a corpse. Having realised the ubiquity of suffering and death, Siddhartha decided to leave the palace and renounce the crown and seek out the holiest men to discover how it was that life could come to such a miserable end.

Siddhartha became an ascetic, abstaining from much of life’s pleasures and fasting and meditating for days on end hoping to find enlightenment. Finally, after meditating for seven weeks under a tree it finally came to him: Siddhartha had achieved nirvana.

He finally understood the meaning of life and began to teach it to people who became his disciples. Siddhartha had become the Buddha (which means Teacher) and taught the Four Noble Truths. These are the principles that form the foundation of Buddhism and they are:

  1. All life is suffering
  2. The source of suffering is desire
  3. To stop suffering, one must rid themselves of desire
  4. The eightfold path – the path to freedom from suffering:
  • Right View
  • Right Intention
  • Right Speech
  • Right Action
  • Right Livelihood
  • Right Effort
  • Right Mindfulness
  • Right Concentration

As a religion Buddhism requires a lot of meditation and moderation and not much fun rituals and Buddhist monks have literally no power unlike the priests of other religions and they must renounce everything. (The exception being Shaolin monks: I mean, who doesn’t want to be a Kung Fu monk!?)

However unattractive Buddhism may have seemed to the higher classes, it was an exceptionally attractive option to the lower caste Hindus. In theory, anyone who follows the eightfold path can be free of suffering and achieve nirvana, maybe even in this life rather than having to be reborn for potentially thousands of years.

Ashoka: the Buddhist Emperor

  For the vast majority of history on the Indian subcontinent, India was not one place but rather many different principalities and city-states. India did, however, experience indigenous political unification twice in its long history: the Mauryan Dynasty (321 – 185 BCE) and the Gupta Dynasty (320 – 550 CE). One particular ruler of the Mauryan Dynasty, Ashoka the Great, is worth mentioning as he attempted to rule through quasi-Buddhist principles.

Initially, Ashoka had been a great warrior who expanded the empire that his grandfather had founded but experienced a conversion to Buddhism after witnessing his own army devastate the vanquished kingdom of Kalinga. Ashoka built stupas (mound like monuments to the Buddha) all over the kingdom to show his devotion. He also erected pillars that proclaimed his benevolent rule and described how he was going to rule through something called “Dhamma” which was his policy for public welfare.

1597px-The_great_stupa

Ashoka’s empire was not governed with individualistic goals in mind like we see in Hinduism but was rather run through relational goals. This is one of the reasons that his empire was not all that Buddhist; Buddhism is not concerned with the order of the world but argues that fulfilment of the self will lead to the order of the world.

In the end, Ashoka’s empire did not outlast him by much and Buddhism declined in India, almost to the point of extinction.

The Bigger Picture

Hinduism is the most flexible of the world religions largely down to it being polytheistic and the belief that the many gods can, equally, take many forms. This makes it easy for Hindus to assimilate other religious traditions. This is precisely what happened with Buddhism and in time the Buddha became worshipped as another incarnation of one of the Hindu gods rather than as a mortal teacher. In the end Hinduism enveloped the Buddha rather than eradicating him. This meant that Hinduism, with its tremendous amount of variety and flexibility with it’s core values of samsara, karma and the caste system have provided an incredible amount of cultural and social unity to the Indian subcontinent for millennia.

As unfortunate as it was for the Buddha to have his teachings disregarded in his homeland of India, it was also fortunate that his teachings migrated east to China. And next time, we will follow his teachings and make the same journey eastward.

The Rest is History

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt
  7. West Vs East

The Human Story – West Vs East

In this, the seventh article of the Human Story series, we are going to explore the horrible and totalitarian Persians and their conflict with the virtuous and democracy loving Greeks. I mean that is what millennia of teachings have told us right – that the Greeks were good whilst the Persians were bad? I mean the Greeks gave us Plato with his Republic and the idea of the righteous Philosopher King and Socrates who knew that he knew nothing whilst the Persians did not even philosophise. Clearly West is Best… right?

Well that is exactly what we are going to find out today.

The Combatants – Persia

Let’s start with dissecting the awful Persians, shall we? The Persian Empire would end up becoming the model for most contiguous land-based empires throughout history. Much of what we know about the Persians and their empire comes to us from an outsider writing about them. That is, of course, the Father of History himself, Herodotus: the first true historian. The fact that Herodotus is Greek is important as it also introduces us to the concept of historical bias for the first time.

The Persian Achaemenid dynasty was founded in 539 BCE after King Cyrus the Great conquered much of Mesopotamia, including Babylon. Cyrus freed the Jews that had been exiled in the city by the Neo-Assyrian Empire (who you will recall had a fetish for displacing huge groups of people in an effort to control them), thus ending a sad period of Jewish history known as the Babylonian Exile (he gets some great coverage in the bible by the way, sometimes he is even referred to as messiah!). This humanitarian act had an upside for Cyrus: with the Jewish elites allowed to return home Cyrus gained a loyal buffer state between Persia and the ever-threatening Egyptians to the southwest.

As great as Cyrus was, his son-in-law Darius I became even greater and extended his father-in-law’s empire east as far as India, west as far as Egypt (with loyal Israel within its sphere of influence) and north to Anatolia. There were Greeks already living in Anatolia when Darius’ armies marched in to occupy and these people were known as Ionian Greeks and will shortly become relevant to the narrative.

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The Achaemenid kings ruled their empire with a light touch and conquered kingdoms could keep their kings and elites so long as they pledged allegiance to the Persian king and paid their taxes. Therefore, the Persian king was often referred to as the “King of Kings”. Persian engineers improved the infrastructure of the conquered kingdoms with a better road system that allowed for a very impressive postal service to relay messages back and forth across the colossal empire. The Persian elites embraced Freedom of Religion, a very basic human right that even nowadays is not fully implemented across much of the modern world. The Persians were Zoroastrians (a religion that still exists and claims to be the earliest form of monotheism). Zoroastrianism introduces the idea of the good versus evil dualism that we all know so much about (God/Satan, Darth Vader/Luke Skywalker, elves/orcs). However, the Persians were not interested in converting people to their own religion. Perhaps the most surprising fact of all, given how awful this empire was, is that Zoroastrianism forbids slavery so there was not a slave to be found in the whole of the Persian Empire.

It seems that the Persians were probably not all that bad after all and their empire would probably not have been a bad place to live in the fifth century BCE. That is of course, unless you believe Herodotus and the Greeks.

The Combatants – The Greeks

We all know about the Greeks: the incredible architecture, the meaningful philosophy, the powerful drama, the evocative literature, the very words for astronomy and biology derive from Greek, as does so much more in modern society. The Ancient Greek culture that so many of us in the west still associate with was one founded by poets, mathematicians, philosophers and architects. The Greeks gave us the language to discuss politics, the fist dedicated history books, and gifted us with democracy.

When we think about the high point of Greek culture we tend to think of the Parthenon and the surviving tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. However, what we are really thinking of is Athens in the fourth century BCE, right after the Persian Wars. Athens valued individualism and disdained anyone who could not argue political opinion. Athenians were citizens first before they were anything else and the elites of their society were politicians guiding the state by persuading this free-thinking populace to vote for proposed legislation.

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Ancient Greece was so much more than just Athens, however. The Greeks lived in city-states, most of which featured some form of slavery and in each and every one of them, citizenship was limited to males. Each city-state had its own form of governance, ranging from democratic (unless you happened to be a slave or a woman) to completely dictatorial and the people who lived within these city-states would have considered themselves citizens of that city, not of anything that would ever be called Greece.

One of the greatest contradictory Greek city-states to Athens was that of Sparta. Along with Athens, Sparta is the other Greek city-state that springs to mind when people think of Ancient Greece. This is, in part, due to the huge success of Frank Miller’s 300 graphic novel and the subsequent Zack Synder movie of the same name. As sensationalised as 300 is, there is no denying that ancient Sparta was one of the most extreme societies that has ever existed. Spartan society could best be described as a sort of eugenic warrior state. When each new citizen was born the elders would inspect the child, killing it if they perceived any imperfections. At the age of 7, each Spartan male entered into the state education system, known as the agoge, which drilled them in the arts of war. The agoge was both mentally and physically brutal, sometimes to the point of death. This was all to create an effective and unquestioning soldier, loyal to the state. The result of this torturous education system was the best Heavy Infantry of the ancient world. The ideals of duty to state and self-sacrifice were paramount whilst individualism was discouraged.

Who tilled the land and did the menial jobs of ancient Sparta if all male citizens were off soldiering? The Helots did, of course. We cannot discuss Spartan culture without mentioning the Helots. These were a massive caste of enslaved people upon whose backs Spartan society was built. The Helots are the reason that Sparta could devote their whole culture toward producing perfect soldiers. By 480 BCE, there were about 7 Helots for each Spartan and this imbalance left the government in a perpetual state of fear of a slave revolt. The irony of producing this perfect warrior culture was that the Spartan army was not one to fight abroad, but rather to prevent the Helots from rising up in revolt at home. These unfortunate people were treated abysmally in order to keep them in constant fear of their masters and it was Spartan law to brutally beat (and even murder) Helots. Life would have been unbearably  sucky for the Helots of ancient Sparta!

The Greco-Persian Wars

From 499 until 492 BCE the abovementioned Ionian Greeks, supported by the Athenians, rebelled against their Persian overlords. In 490 BCE the Persians invaded mainland Greece but were decisively crushed by an outnumbered Athenian army at the Battle of Marathon. The Persian King Darius I began preparations for a second invasion. However, he died before the preparations were complete, thus leaving the task to his son, Xerxes I.

Xerxes invaded mainland Greece in 480 BCE and at the Battle of Thermopylae, a small force of Greek warriors led by King Leonidas I of Sparta resisted the much larger multi-ethnic Persian force for two full days before finally succumbing on the third day of battle.

After the battle, Xerxes captured Athens and burned the city to the ground. However, almost all the inhabitants of the city had fled to the island of Salamis at the news of the Greek army’s collapse at Thermopylae. Xerxes attacked the Greek fleet under unfavourable conditions and was soundly defeated at the naval Battle of Salamis. After this defeat Xerxes pulled the majority of his army back to Asia, leaving a contingent to finish the campaign. This army was defeated by the Greeks at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BCE, ending the Persian offensive on Greece for good.

The War is Won! What now? More War!

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In the wake of the shared Greek victory, the people began to see themselves more as Greeks and less as Athenians, Spartans or Corinthians etc. Athens emerged as the de facto capital and then flourished under a new Golden Age. When we combine the high-minded rhetoric with the undeniable power and beauty of Ancient Athenian art and philosophy, it is easy to visualise the foundations of western civilisation. If you buy into this then you must be happy that the Greeks won the Persian Wars.

However, even if you put slavery and the other social injustices aside, Ancient Greek society still had a whole slew of problems.

The Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 BCE) was a 27-year conflict between the democracy loving Athenians and the kingship embracing Spartans. The war was fought, as so many are, over power and resources and the Athenians did not come across all saintly as evidenced in the Melian Dialogue. The Athenian navy sailed to the island of Melos, a Spartan colony, to demand that the Melian people submit to Athenian authority. The Melians argued that they had never actually fought alongside the Spartans and intended to remain neutral throughout the conflict. Unimpressed with the Melian response, the Athenians declared: ‘The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.’ Obviously this was not a terribly democratic nor enlightened position to take. So, what exactly did the democratic and meritocratic Athenians mean by such a statement and what did they intend to do to the Melians who only wanted peace? Tragically, and unsurprisingly, they killed all the men and enslaved the women and children of the island.

So yes, Anaximander gave us cartography, Thales gave us geometry, Hippocrates gifted humanity with a better understanding of disease and physiology and Pythagoras gave me a sore head with angles, but the true legacy of Ancient Greece is one of deep ambiguity. All the more so because it was the tyrannical Spartans and their allies who triumphed in the Peloponnesian War.

Did the Right Side Win the Greco-Persian Wars?

Did the correct side really win the Persian Wars? Most classicists and defenders of the west will argue that of course they did. After all, winning these wars set off a cultural flourishing that gave us the Classical Age. Additionally, if the Persians had won then they may have strangled democracy in its infancy.

This is certainly a possibility but as a counter argument to the classicists let’s consider three things:

1. Life under the Persian Kings was pretty good and if we consider the previous five thousand years of human history then there have been far more successful and stable empires than there have been democracies.

2. Life in Ancient Athens was not all that great, especially if you were unfortunate enough to be a slave or born a woman. The government was notoriously corrupt and ultimately this government derived its power not from the citizenry but rather from the imperialist notion that ‘might makes right’ – look no further than their awful abuse of the people of Melos. It is true that Athens gave us Socrates, but one must also remember that that same Athens also forced him to kill himself too.

3. Under Persian rule, the Greeks may have avoided the Peloponnesian War which, ultimately ended up weakening the Greek city-states so much that Macedonia (a state that had been under Persian influence until they were kicked out of Europe) and its king Philip II were able to conquer all of them. Philip’s son, Alexander III, would then go on to make more bloody conflict with the Persians and Greece would not glimpse democracy for a further two millennia. All of this could have been avoided if they had just lost to Persia in the first place!!

So, did the good guys truly win the Persian Wars? It is one of history’s great ‘What Ifs?’

The Rest is History

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt

The Human Story – Ancient Egypt

Today, we move onto the final and most influential of the River Valley Civilisations: Ancient Egypt. Most people would not recognise Mesopotamian cuneiform or know the names of any Babylonian kings, but chances are that they would recognise hieroglyphic symbols when they see them and have most likely heard of King Tutankhamun. When we think of ancient civilisations, it is often Ancient Egypt that our minds wander to. There are several reasons for this. For example, the Great Pyramid of Giza is the last remaining of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, but more importantly, Ancient Egyptian Civilisation lasted a really long time: over 2,500 years!

Due to the longevity of the civilisation, Egyptologists tend to decompartmentalise Ancient Egypt into neat packets of time:

• Early Dynastic Period (3050 – 2686 BCE)
• Old Kingdom (2686 – 2181 BCE)
• First Intermediate Period (2181 – 1991 BCE)
• Middle Kingdom (2055– 1690 BCE)
• Second Intermediate Period (1674 – 1549 BCE)
• New Kingdom (1549 – 1069 BCE)
• Third Intermediate Period (1069 – 653 BCE)
• Late Period (672 – 332 BCE)

The history of Ancient Egypt occurred as a series of stable periods (the Kingdom periods), separated by periods of relative instability (the Intermediary periods). For the purposes of this post, we will be focusing on the Old, Middle and New Kingdom periods of Ancient Egyptian civilisation.

Harnessing the Nile

The fertile floodplain of the Nile had been the lifeline of its region for much of human history and it gave humans the opportunity to develop a sophisticated agricultural economy and a more complex and centralised society. Early nomadic hunter-gathering homo sapiens had begun living in the Nile region of northeast Africa as early as 120,000 years ago. As the arid north African climate became increasingly warmer and dry, populations were forced to concentrate on the shores of the Nile.

Egypt-Hieroglyphs

So far in our discussions of the River Valley Civilisations, we have been focusing on the distribution of resources and geography. Just as the violent and unpredictable Tigris-Euphrates River System had shaped the world view of early Mesopotamians, the Nile shaped the world view of the Ancient Egyptians. Unlike the two great rivers of Mesopotamia, the Nile is regular, easily navigable and gentle. Each summer the river flooded fields at precisely the right time leaving behind nutrient rich silt for the planting season, making it one of the richest and safest agricultural regions of the ancient world.

Unlike the labour intensive, complicated hydraulic engineering projects required in Mesopotamia to irrigate the crops, the Nile was so chilled that the Egyptians used a simple form of water management, known as Basin Irrigation, where the farmers used the flood waters to fill earthen boxes and canals used for irrigation. Planting was so easy in the region that farmers would throw seeds around their fields and then let animals tread over to press the seeds into the ground: no need for the back-breaking tilling that the Mesopotamians relied on their slaves to do.

The predictability and benign nature of the Nile allowed the Egyptians to produce large food surpluses with relative ease and little work allowing time and energy to be spent elsewhere: think incredible monumental projects. It has been suggested that the nature of the Nile may also be the cause of Ancient Egypt’s optimism. One example of this can be seen in the contrasting views of death; whereas the Mesopotamians saw the afterlife as a gloomy and dark place to fear, their Egyptian counterparts viewed the afterlife as nothing more sinister than a continuation of the current life.

The Old Kingdom

The Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt can be viewed as the glory age of the civilisation. It was during this time that the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx were erected. The Sun-King Ra and the idea of Divine Kingship also have their roots in this period of Egyptian history. Divine Kingship stated that the pharaoh was either a god or very close to a god which sounds like a good gig to have if you are the pharaoh, but they were not expected to act like a person, instead they were expected to act like a god. In Ancient Egypt this meant behaving like the River Nile – cool, calm and benevolent.

The pyramids are impressive to behold but they also represent an extraordinary degree of political and social control over the population. After all, it can not be easy to convince thousands of people to dedicate their own lives to constructing a massive tomb for someone else: unless they believe that person to be a deity. The most famous of the pyramids are the Pyramids of Giza which were built between 2575 and 2465 BCE. The grandest of these, the Great Pyramid was built to entomb the pharaoh Khufu. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Great Pyramid was built by a workforce of 5,000 permanent, salaried employees and up to 20,000 temporary workers who were summoned under a system of national service to work on a three or four month shift before returning home. These temporary workers were housed in a nearby camp and received payment in the form of food, drink, medical treatment and, for those who died on duty, burial in the nearby cemetery.

Now we need to ask the question: Why would you build such a colossal structure in the first place?

It boils down, like so much throughout history, to religious beliefs. If humans did their jobs well then the pantheon of gods would maintain the cosmic order of things and seeing as the pharaohs became gods upon death it was only logical that the populace would want to please their pharaoh. So, if Khufu wants a tomb 150 metres high, then Khufu shall receive a tomb 150 metres high.

Pyramids_of_the_Giza_Necropolis

When Khufu left this earthly plain to join the gods he would have found Ra at the head of the proverbial table. Ra began as a regional god to the Egyptian city of Heliopolis but eventually became the central figure of the pantheon of gods. He was the god of both the sun and creation and represented light, warmth and growth.

To move away from religion, the Old Kingdom was unusually literate and possessed two forms of writing: hieroglyphs for sacred writing and a form of demotic script for contracts and other administrative duties. The Egyptians of the Old Kingdom had much use for contracts and governing administration as they were ridiculously rich. However, like all good things, Ancient Egypt’s Old Kingdom came to an end and around 2250 BCE a series of droughts led to infighting over power which then led to the first Intermediate Period.

The Middle Kingdom

When the civilisation emerged from the first chaotic Intermediate Period, after roughly a century, the Middle Kingdom period of Ancient Egypt blossomed and saw pharaonic rule return to the land but with some distinct changes. Firstly, the rulers were outsiders from the south: Nubia to be precise. And secondly, this new ruling class fostered a new pantheon of gods, of which Amen replaced Ra at the head of the table… only to later merge with Ra and become Amen-Ra.

The Middle Kingdom Egyptians developed a new hobby: conquering. More specifically, they conquered the homeland of the new rulers, Nubia, with its rich goldmines and quarries. In turn, they themselves were conquered by Semitic-speaking peoples wandering west from the Levant who dominated the natives with superior weaponry. These people brought weapons made of bronze, composite bows and chariots. One of these wandering groups, the Hyksos (meaning “ruler(s) of foreign lands”) were able to conquer all of Egypt, but rather than destroy the native culture, they assimilated into it. In a cruel twist of fate (from the Hyksos point of view at least) the angry and conquered Egyptians adopted these advanced military technologies brought over by the Hyksos and campaigned against them until they were able to expel these foreign rulers. This period of instability was known as the Second Intermediate Period.

The New Kingdom

By 1549 BCE Egypt, once again, had an Egyptian pharaoh, Ahmose I, and after all the warring, Egypt emerged from its position of geographical isolation. This New Kingdom Egypt continued the military expansion and began to take the form of a proto-empire.

Interestingly, the most expansive pharaoh was a woman, Hatshepsut, who expanded Egyptian influence, not through conflict, but through trade. However, most pharaohs, being men, focused their efforts of expansion through military means. This would eventually bring the Egyptians into conflict with the Assyrians, the Persians, Alexander the Great and finally, the Romans.

One pharaoh, Akhenaten, attempted to force a previously obscure god, Aten, onto the people as the supreme deity and suppressed the veneration of most other gods. Soon after Akhenaten’s death the cult of Aten was abandoned, and the traditional religious order was restored. One leading figure of this divine restoration was Akhenaten’s son, Tutankhaten, who changed his name to Tutankhamun. This was pretty much all that the young king did, however, before dying at the age of 17. The only reason that Tutankhamun is so famous is because his tomb was plundered by 20th century British archaeologists whereas most other pharaohs had their graves robbed by ancient people.

The last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt worth mentioning is Rameses II or Rameses the Great (although as you are about to see, Rameses the Creator would be a more appropriate epithet). He ascended to the throne in around 1279 BCE and went on to build more temples, and erect more obelisks and statutes and sire more children than any other pharaoh in history (Photo below shows the Great Temple of Rameses). Rameses was a bold military leader and led his army against the Hittites in the largest chariot battle ever fought at Kadesh (in modern Syria) and, after fighting to a stalemate, agreed to the first recorded peace treaty in history. Rameses II is also believed by many to be the Pharaoh of the Exodus story.

Temple_of_Rameses_II,_eight_Osiris_pillars

The story of Moses’ departure from Egypt with the Israelites leads us perfectly to the most crucial aspect of Ancient Egyptian culture. Rameses and Moses lived around the same time as the Pyramids of Giza were being built, right? Wrong. The Pyramids were built around 2500 BCE during the Old Kingdom, whereas Rameses died at the grand old age of 90 in 1213 BCE… 1,300 years later! The fact that Egyptian culture remained so similar for such an extensive period means that it all sort of blends together when we tend to imagine it.

The reality is that the Pyramids were more ancient to Julius Caesar than Julius Caesar is to us by an additional 500 years (let that sink in for a moment). Ancient Egypt lasted 1,000 years longer than Christianity has even been around and it lasted longer than western civilisation has so far too and its time had ended before the idea of western civilisation was even a twinkle in Herodotus’ eye.

The Rest is History

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia

The Human Story – Mesopotamia

Today we are going to look at the ancient lands of Mesopotamia. This historical region in west Asia is situated within the Tigris-Euphrates river system and located in modern day Iraq, Kuwait, parts of northern Saudi Arabia, the eastern reaches of Syria and stretched to south eastern Turkey.

Mesopotamian sites provide evidence for the earliest developments of the Agricultural Revolution from around 12,000 years ago. It has also been identified as the place where much of history’s greatest and most important early developments occurred: innovations such as the wheel; the planting of the first cereal crops; development of cursive script; astronomy; and mathematics.

Taming the ‘Land Between the Rivers’

Around 3000 BCE, cities began to pop up in the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, just like they had done so in the Indus River region. The name itself is taken from Ancient Greek: “meso” meaning “between” or “middle” and “potomas” being “rivers”, so translating as “[Land] between the/two rivers”.

Map

The early Mesopotamian cities engaged in a basic form of socialism where the farmers contributed their crops to the public granaries, out of which the workers such as metalsmiths, builders, doctors or merchants were paid uniform wages of grain. This supply of food meant that if someone lived in the city then they could put their talents to work as something other than farmer or shepherd and thanks to this form of proto-socialism they could be sure that they would eat.

Although a farmer or shepherd could give up his harvest or flock respectively, they did not have to. One of the legacies of Mesopotamia is the enduring conflict between country and city and can be seen in the adventures of Enkidu and Gilgamesh in the Epic of Gilgamesh. This epic poem is one of the oldest known works of literature and its main theme is mortality, but another important theme throughout is the conflict between nature and civilisation and the epic ends with Gilgamesh singing the praises of the city of Uruk. What this allegorical tale tells us is that the people of Mesopotamia were proud of their accomplishments and their domination of the natural environment.

They had every right to be proud of their achievements too as we shall soon see!

City Life

El-zigurat_(1)

So, what were the cities of Mesopotamia like? Let’s take a quick look at Gilgamesh’s home city of Uruk. This was an impressive city with massive walls and an extensive canal system used to transport goods around. Archaeologists reckon that 90% of the city would have been buildings whilst only 10% would have been streets, so it is easy to see why the canals were so important for the trade of the city. Several monumental temples would have towered over the Uruk skyline. These massive temple complexes were known as ziggurats. The priests who ran these ziggurats initially held most of the power in the city as it was believed that they had a direct communication line with the gods.

The Tigris and the Euphrates rivers were pretty decent for agricultural development, but they paled in comparison to the reliable, on-schedule flooding and easy irrigation of the Indus Valley. Lots of slave labour was required to make the Euphrates-Tigris river system useful for irrigation. They were hard to navigate and flooded unpredictability and violently. The Epic of Gilgamesh talks of a great deluge of biblical proportions that may have been inspired by a particularly devastating flood. The poem claims that this near-extinction level flood was brought about by the gods when the people were making too much noise as the gods tried to sleep. So, it stands to reason that the gods are both violent and unpredictable (much like the rivers) and therefore it was only natural that the priests who led the religious rituals that were designed to placate the gods held so much power.

Roughly 1,000 years after the first temples had sprung up, we find that Mesopotamian cities began to create another structure to rival them: the palace. Responsibility for the well being and success of the social order was beginning to shift from the gods to men. This power shift between god to man – man to god is one that we will see throughout history for…. well, probably forever.

These new kings, who most likely started out as military leaders or very rich land owners, took on a quasi-religious role. How did they do this? Usually by engaging in a ‘Sacred Marriage’ ritual; in other words, they had sex with the High Priestess of the city’s temple. How do we know that the kings and priestesses engaged in sexual rituals? It was all written down and recorded. Of course, it was!

Writing: Really that Great? Yes!

The Mesopotamians gave us writing. Very early in Mesopotamian history (around the middle of the fourth millennium BCE) cuneiform was invented for the Sumerian language. Cuneiform literally means ‘wedge-shaped’ due to the triangular tip of the stylus used to impress symbols onto wet clay. The earliest, yet, discovered texts are in the form of seven archaic tablets that were found in a temple dedicated to the goddess Inanna at the city of Uruk.

Although the earliest texts were found in a temple, cuneiform itself was initially invented to record transactions: for example, ‘I exchange X bushels of wheat for Y amount of your sheep.’ Most remaining cuneiform tablets are some form of receipt. Nothing more exciting than the receipt you receive from the supermarket, really except very, very old.

Cuneiform

Why did this happen in Mesopotamia? Well the Fertile Crescent may be very fertile, but it lacks pretty much everything else. To get metal for tools, stone for buildings and sculptures, cotton for clothing or wood for burning the Mesopotamians had to trade. Writing evolved as a (very fortunate for human advancement) by-product of this trade as a means for accounting and recording each transaction.

We cannot overestimate the importance of writing, but it is important to note two points:

1. Writing leads to elites. Reading and writing are not things that everyone can do, and it helps build a class distinction. Foraging societies were relatively egalitarian, but Mesopotamia had class stratification (including slaves as pointed out earlier). The development of the written language played a huge part in widening the gap between the different classes.

2. Writing leads to actual history. Once writing enters the picture, humanity can record events. Prior to writing, history is mostly guesswork and archaeology; you just need to look at the Indus Valley Civilisation to see this (and they had a written language, it just has not been deciphered yet).

The Boring Stuff – Laws and Taxes

The city-state period of Mesopotamia ended around 2000 BCE. Perhaps due to drought caused by a shift in the course of the rivers and their tributaries led to rural nomads passing through and conquering the environmentally weakened cities. They settled these existing cities and founded new cities. These new Mesopotamian city-states were similar to their predecessors in that they still had temples and writing but they were also different in other ways. Firstly, the proto-socialism of the earlier culture was replaced with private enterprise: people could produce as much as they liked so long as they gave a cut of it to the government. And thus, humanity had entered the age of taxes!

The political landscape of Mesopotamia changed too. Tribal chiefs became kings who tried to extend their power beyond their city walls and pass this power onto their sons. The most famous of these kings was Hammurabi who ruled Babylon from 1792 – 1750 BCE. Hammurabi is famous for his Law Code which established everything from the wages of surgeons and ox drivers to the punishment for adultery. Nearly half of Hammurabi’s Code deals with matters of contract, one third addresses issues concerning household and reproductive issues, such as paternity, divorce, inheritance and sexual behaviour. Perhaps one of the most significant innovations to criminal law, the presumption of innocence, is first found in the Code. The Code is seen as an early example of a fundamental law regulating a government, i.e. a primitive form of constitution.

Hammurabi attempted to portray himself in a dual role through his Law Code. He saw himself as the shepherd and the father of his people. Sound familiar? If you were brought up in a Christian household then it should.

I am indeed the shepherd who brings peace, whose sceptre is just. My benevolent shade was spread over my city, I held the people of the lands of Sumer and Akkad safely on my lap…

The Exciting Stuff – Empire and Conquest

Even though territorial kingdoms like Babylon were more powerful than any cities that had come before them, they were still not actually all that durable. Babylon was soon taken over by the wandering Kassites. They literally wandered into the kingdom and just took over!

The Assyrians have the deserved reputation of being the brutal bullies of ancient Mesopotamia, but they did provide us with an early example of probably the most important and durable form of political organisation in world history: The Empire.

The biggest problem for an empire is that they are diverse and multi-ethnic which makes them hard to unify. Just wait until we reach the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the late 19th and early 20th century – ay ay ay!

The Neo-Assyrian Empire (911 – 612 BCE) grew from the home cities of Ashur and Nineveh to encompass the whole of Mesopotamia, the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea and even parts of Egypt. They conquered these lands through the most brutal and efficient army that the world had seen up to that point. Perhaps the most seminal aspect of the Neo-Assyrian army was that it was a meritocracy: that is, the generals and officers were selected not along familial lines, but rather, by their abilities to lead. These leaders were often very nasty and would displace hundreds of thousands of people, separating them from their family and their history. The army also engaged in the usual activities of conquering armies such as raping and pillaging, but interestingly also chopping off the appendages of their enemies; apparently, they had a penchant for noses.

This brutality was all done in the name of Ashur, the great god of the Neo-Assyrian pantheon, whose divine regent on earth was the king. Through the king, Ashur kept the world going and as long as conquest continued then the world would not end. However, if the conquering ever stopped then the world would end. When your world view is based on the apocalypse happening if you ever lost a battle and then you lose a battle, your whole world view implodes. This is what eventually happened and in 612 BCE the city of Nineveh was captured, and the Neo-Assyrian Empire came to an end. Long live the Neo-Babylonian Empire.

The empire as a political structure was here to stay!

The Rest is History

Next time we will be exploring the land of the pharaohs. That’s right ladies and gentlemen  we’re off to visit Ancient Egypt.

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation

 

The Human Story – The Indus Valley Civilisation

Today we are going to take a close look at civilisation and a closer look at the oldest civilisation of them all, the Indus Valley Civilisation.

A civilisation is any complex society characterized by urban development, social hierarchy which is controlled by a social elite, symbolic systems of communication such as writing and a supposed separation from and command over the natural environment. You will recall from the last instalment of the Human Story series that the proto-cities of Jericho in the Levant and Jiahu in the far east had some of these characteristics but failed in possessing all of them: hence why they are not considered civilisations. Another way to look at the prerequisites for the status of civilisation is whether a society possess at least four of the following:

• Surplus of food
• Specialisation of labour
• Social stratification and centralised government
• Shared values (e.g. religion)
• Writing

Born of Water

IVC Map

The Indus Valley Civilisation, sometimes known as the Harappan, named after the first site of their discovery (Harappa), was a Bronze Age civilisation that lived and thrived in the flood plains of the north western regions of South Asia in what is modern north east Afghanistan, Pakistan and north west India. Along with Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia (both of which we will cover soon) the Indus Valley Civilisation was one of the three early cradles of human civilisation and the most widespread of the three.

This was just about the best place in the world to set up an ancient civilisation. The rivers reliably flooded twice every year and provided the most calories available per acre of land of almost anywhere on the planet. The slow southward migration of the monsoons across Asia initially allowed the Indus Valley villages to develop by taming the floods of the Indus and its tributaries. This flood supported style of farming led to large agricultural surpluses which, in turn, accommodated the development and growth of cities. It is likely that the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation did not develop irrigation technology as they did not need to, instead, relying mainly on seasonal monsoons leading to floods. This is what made the ancient Indus Valley region such a desirable piece of agricultural real estate: nutrient rich silt deposits were naturally spread across the flat, well-watered floodplains. Ironically, this reliance upon the monsoon and lack of irrigational knowledge may have led to the eventual downfall of the Harappan civilisation when the climate changed drastically, but we will come to that soon.

An Egalitarian Architectural Wonder

Everything that we know of the Indus Valley Civilisation has been discovered through archaeology. This culture did have a symbolic written system, however, no one, yet, has been able to decipher it and the secrets of the Harappan civilisation continue to remain a mystery. Want to make a name for yourself amongst the archaeo-linguistic scene? See if you can decipher the writing below:

IVC Language

What archaeologists and researchers have been able to uncover though is absolutely astonishing. The Indus Valley Civilisation created incredible cities, Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa being the two most well-known. As of 2018, archaeologists have discovered over 1,000 sites and settlements belonging to the Indus Valley Civilisation. It is estimated that Mohenjo-daro alone could have been the home to 50,000 residents.

These sites indicate that the Indus Valley Civilisation knew about advanced urban planning. The cities were laid out in dense multi-storeyed homes using standardised bricks stretching along perpendicular streets, rather than the usual erection of buildings in a hodge podge fashion found throughout history the world over. This level of urban planning would have required some form of city civic planning. Perhaps even more incredible than the standardised layout of the cities was the orientation of the layout. The larger cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation were designed in such a way as to catch the wind and create a natural form of air-conditioning! It amazes me to think of the forward planning and ingenuity that must have gone into these cities at such an early stage of their development.

The advanced architecture of this civilisation is shown in the impressive dockyards, warehouses, granaries and protective walls. The massive walls of the Indus Valley Civilisation were most likely used to protect the people from floods and may also have dissuaded military conflict.

There is one huge cultural architectural anomaly of the Harappan that sets them in stark contrast to their Egyptian and Mesopotamian contemporaries. There is a serious lack of monumental structures to be found in the Indus Valley. There is no conclusive evidence of temples or palaces which suggests that there was possibly not even kings or priests and amazingly there is a lack of evidence for armies too.

The largest building discovered at Mohenjo-Daro is not a temple, nor was it a palace. It is a giant public bath known as the Great Bath and it is the earliest known water tank of the ancient world. No one knows for sure what the Great Bath was used for, but scholars generally agree that it was most likely the centre piece in religious functions where water was used to purify and renew the well being of the bathers. Perhaps it was some sort of large baptismal pool. Later Indian culture placed huge emphasis on ritual purity which is the basis of the caste system still in use today. I don’t think that it is a massive leap of faith to assume that this may have its origins in the Mohenjo-Daro Great Bath rituals…. although it probably does not.

Great Bath

Most city dwellers appear to have been traders or artisans living with others pursuing the same occupation in well defined neighbourhoods. Although some houses were larger than others, Indus Valley Civilisation cities are noteworthy for their apparent egalitarianism. It appears that almost every home had access to water and drainage facilities, including flushing toilets which were connected to a sophisticated sewage system that carried waste away from the cities using big sewer ditches that ran under the main streets. (The sewerage and drainage systems that developed in this region was far more advanced than any found in urban cities in the contemporary Middle-East and even more efficient than those found in many parts of modern Pakistan and India.) This gives the impression of a society with a relatively low wealth concentration, though there are clear signs of social levelling seen in personal possessions and decorations. Perhaps the wealthy of the Harappan were content to keep it to themselves and not flaunt it in the faces of the less well off.

Peaceful Traders

There is substantial evidence to suggest that the Harrapan traded far and wide. Archaeologists have discovered materials from distant regions used in the Indus Valley for constructing seals, beads and other objects. Soapstone seals with images of animals, people (perhaps deities), and other types of inscriptions (including writing that has yet to be deciphered). Some of these seals were used to stamp clay onto trade goods as identification markers and have been found as far afield as Mesopotamia in the Middle East. Bronze and the materials used for making bronze have been discovered in the Indus Valley region. So, what I hear you ask? Well, neither bronze, nor the materials used to manufacture it are native to the Indus Valley region, so they must have been traded for.

Cotton.jpg

What exactly did the Indus Valley Civilisation have to trade? Their main export was cotton cloth. The farmers of the Indus Valley were the first people to spin and weave cotton. In 1929 archaeologists recovered fragments of cotton textiles at the Harappan city of Mohenjo-Daro, dating to between 3250 and 2750 BCE. The Indus cotton industry was well developed and some of the methods used in cotton spinning and fabrication continued to be used until the industrialisation of India in the early nineteenth century. That’s over 5,000 years!! Well, I guess if it’s not broken then don’t try to fix it.

Toys IVC.jpg

The Indus Valley Civilisation, aside from being incredible city developers and cotton merchants, were an unbelievably peaceful society. Over 1,000 sites have been uncovered but very little evidence of warfare or even weaponry have been found. Archaeologists have discovered more children’s toys than swords or spears in the Indus Valley region. I think that there is a lesson for the whole world here.

What Happened?

Around 1900 BCE the Indus Valley Civilisation began to decline until it eventually faded into historical obscurity 200 years later. So, what happened to these peaceful people? Several theories have been put forward to explain the disappearance of the ancient Indus Valley people. The first is that they were conquered. It is possible that the Harappan were overrun by people invading east from the Caucasus and they had little weapons with which to fight back. The second theory is that an earthquake changed the course of the rivers so much that many of the tributaries dried up. Without the adequate water supply for irrigation the cities could not sustain themselves, so the people simply left. The third (and most probable) explanation is another type of environmental disaster: aridification. It is quite possible that aridification of the region in the third millennium BCE may have been the initial spur for urbanisation. However, this drying of the region never ceased and eventually reduced the water supply enough to cause the civilisation’s demise and forced the population to migrate further eastward in search of water supplies.

Whatever caused the eventual decline of the Indus Valley Civilisation, it is one of history’s great tragedies that such a peaceful, innovative, egalitarian and prosperous people succumbed at such an early stage of the human story.

The Rest is History

Next time we will be travelling west to the ancient lands of Mesopotamia where we will learn of the epic struggle between urban life and wild life. See you then.

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement

The Human Story – Early Settlement

Last time we discovered that the Agricultural Revolution stimulated a massive shift in human activity: agriculturalists manipulated the environment to suit their needs rather than adapting themselves to the environment. With their newly discovered control over the food surplus, these farming folks were able to begin creating settlements. However, thousands of years passed before civilisations began to spring up across the great River valleys of Afro-Eurasia. What came after humans had settled but before the early great civilisations?

Here we will have a look at three Neolithic archaeological sites and their significance and importance in paving the road to civil societies. This article will be a little shorter than usual and should be regarded as more of a supplemental to the previous, Agricultural Revolution, post.

Before we start it is important to understand the importance of the proto-city. A proto-city was a large village or town of the Neolithic period which exhibited features of both rural and urban life. A proto-city is distinguished from a true city in that it lacks planning and, or centralized rule. For example, Jericho had a class system but no roads, while Çatalhöyük seemingly lacked any social hierarchy. This is what distinguishes proto-cities from the first city-states.

Now onto the important stuff.

Göbekli Tepe

Göbekli Tepe changes everything! Some archaeologists and researchers believe that these interconnected structures in southern Turkey were built by hunter-gatherers. If they are correct then it would mean that the ability to construct monumental complexes was within the capacity of these types of groups, overturning previous assumptions.

gobekli

The site dates to 12,000 years ago and consists of pillars of varying size with reliefs of many varied animals such as lions, bulls, boars, gazelles, donkeys, insects and arachnids, snakes, other reptiles and birds, particularly vultures. Some of these pillars and the artwork are very impressive indeed (I mean, just look at that sculpture ->), even more so when considering that the artisans were most likely stone age hunter-gatherers. Wow!

The lead archaeologist of the German team excavating Göbekli Tepe was Klaus Schmidt who believed that the site was not a settlement but rather a sanctuary or shrine where people from a wide region would periodically congregate. He argued that Göbekli Tepe may have contributed to the later development of urban civilisation, saying: ‘First came the temple, then the city.’

Jericho

‘When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city.’ Joshua 6:20

Almost everyone knows of or has at least heard of the Walls of Jericho (any WWE fans out there?) and how the Israelites conquered the city with the help of a little divine intervention. By the time that Joshua’s band of Israelites captured the city some 3,400 years ago, Jericho as a settlement was already ancient by any standard.

The land where Jericho, the proto-city, was eventually built was within close proximity to both the Jordan River and the deep, clear waters of an oasis spring which led to repeated settlement prior to Jericho itself. The original Wall of Jericho was either a defensive or flood protection wall thought to date to approximately 10,000 years ago! If interpreted as a defensive fortification wall, then it is the oldest city wall thus far discovered anywhere in the world. This Neolithic wall was complemented by a stone tower built into it. It is estimated that the wall would have stood at roughly 15 feet high with the tower looming over it at a height of 28 feet. The height of the wall, the thickness of the wall (approximately 6 feet) and the addition of the stone tower, suggests that it was used as an urban fortification. The construction of such a project implies some sort of social structure, the division of labour and a social hierarchy class system: just as we saw when we looked at the Agriculture Revolution last time.

Tower_of_Jericho

The ruins that have been excavated at Jericho indicate that the proto-city was governed by a distinct ruling class and that they were almost certainly closely connected to the priests. There were sophisticated artisans and most likely a small merchant class too. Though the economy of Jericho was based primarily upon the farming of wheat and barley, there is considerable evidence to suggest a reliance upon both hunting and trade. From these archaeological discoveries, we can see that the people of Jericho were not quite ready to fully cut the ties with their hunter-gatherer roots.

Now it is time to travel east to the Henan Province of modern China to learn of a people who may have been the first to discover things that we take for granted nowadays.

Jiahu

Jiahu was the site of a Neolithic settlement based on the central plain of China near the Yellow River. This area was originally settled around 9,000 years ago by a complex and highly organised society and would have been home to at least 250 people and perhaps as many as 800.

There are three very important and exciting discoveries attributed to the people who lived in the Jiahu settlement. The first of these are the Jiahu Symbols which may (or may not) be one of the world’s earliest examples of written language, dating back to approximately 8,600 years ago. Some scholars believe these 16 markings to be similar in form to some characters used in the much later Oracle Bone Script (the earliest known form of Chinese writing from the late 2nd millennium BCE). However, others have disputed this claim and do not believe that the markings represent any form of systematic writing but are merely etchings for decorative purposes.

The second of these incredible discoveries are the Jiahu Flutes: thirty-three flutes which have been delicately carved from the wing bones of cranes and are believed to be the oldest playable musical instruments in the world. The third and final discovery from the Jiahu settlement is evidence of an early fermented beverage. This alcoholic drink was created by combining rice, honey, hawthorn fruit and, or grapes and the residue found embedded on pottery vessels is dated at 9,000 years old. This Jiahu concoction is thought to be the oldest known fermented wine to date. And wine and other alcoholic beverages have been fuelling terrible decisions ever since!

Jiahu.jpg

And The Rest is History

I hope that you are excited to learn about the Great River Valley Civilisations as those will take up the next three instalments of the Human Story. Next time we will visit the incredible inhabitants of the Indus Valley Civilisation and learn a little about ancient Indian toilets! See you then.

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution

 

The Human Story – The Agricultural Revolution

Last time we looked at early man and his migration from the African continent and dispersal throughout the planet. Today we will focus on the most important innovation that Homo sapiens ever stumbled upon and the ramifications of what that means for us today.

The First Seeds

For most of human history, our ancestors were hunters and gatherers, risking life and limb to provide a slab of mammoth meat and some edible berries upon the dinner table. And then everything changed. In a mere 15,000 years, humanity has gone from hunting and gathering to creating such improbabilities as the airplane, the internet, the destructive power of the nuclear bomb and the delicious pizza. These are all things that we take for granted in the modern era (perhaps except for the nuclear bomb) but the reality is that without the advent of agriculture we would have none of it.

15,000 years ago, humans were gathering fruits, nuts, wild grains and grasses whilst hunting allowed for more protein rich sources of food. By far the best source of hunting was fishing as the rivers and coastlines were bountiful in marine life and they were unlikely to provide much of a threat to the fishermen – not much chance of a sea-bear mauling them to death, really. This is the primary reason why so much of humanity’s early migrations were along coastlines and up rivers.

Wheat

This changed when different pockets of humans began to develop agriculture. It is worth noting that the cultivation of crops developed independently over millennia with the nascent farmers using the crops that grew locally. For example:

• The Fertile Crescent and Egypt began the cultivation of wheat around 11,000 years ago
• East Asia and the island of New Guinea started farming rice and taro respectively around 9,000 years ago
• West Africans began domesticating sweet potatoes around 5,000 years ago
• In the new world, the potato was first grown in the Andes region 7,000 – 10,000 years ago whilst Maize was created by human selection in Mesoamerica (Mexico) roughly 6,000 years ago

All over the world, people began abandoning foraging in favour of agriculture. It is easy to assume that since so many tribes developed this way of life independently of one another then it must have been a good choice, right? Not necessarily.

We tend to imagine that the lives of our foraging ancestors were harsh, nasty and short but the fossil evidence suggests otherwise. The bones and teeth of foragers appear to be stronger and healthier than those of their agriculturalist progeny. Additionally, anthropologists who have studied the few remaining hunter-gatherer tribes have noted that they spend significantly less time working and more time on leisurely pursuits such as storytelling, art and music so it is hardly a great leap to assume that earlier hunter-gatherer tribes did the same.

As with everything else there was advantages and disadvantages to hunkering down and reaping what the earth provided…. providing you were willing to put in the back-breaking work, that is.

Advantages
• Farming provided a controllable food supply. Although there may have been droughts and flooding, human selection allowed the early farmers to breed hardier crops which meant less chance of starvation.

• It also meant that there was a surplus of food. A food surplus makes cities possible and allows the specialisation of labour to develop. Before farming, everyone’s job had been foraging for food where it takes approximately 1,000 calories of energy to gather 1,000 calories of food. This made it impossible to create large population centres. However, if there is a food surplus then it can support more people not directly involved in food acquisition. This led to people being able to specialise in other jobs such as trades people who could, for example, design and create better farming technology which in turn made farming easier which lead to more food being created more efficiently.

• Agriculture can be practised all over the planet, although in some areas it requires significant manipulation of the environment: irrigation, controlled flooding, damning or terracing.

Disadvantages
• To keep feeding more and more people as the population grows requires radically changing the environment of the planet.

• As the population grew and settlements expanded in size, disease was able to spread more easily throughout these packed settlements.

• Farming is hard work, especially before the Industrial Revolution. As such, one down side that is so often associated with the social order of agricultural communities is, unfortunately, slavery.

Not Quite Farming but Not Quite Hunting

An interesting and good alternative to both foraging and hunting is herding. It is quite simple really: domesticate some animals and then take them on the road with you. The advantages to herding are that the domesticated animals provide milk and meat. They can also provide wool and leather to produce clothing and shelter. The primary disadvantage to the herding, nomadic lifestyle is that you are forced to move around often in search of new grass for your herd to pasture and this makes it very difficult to settle and build cities.

Nomad

The reason that herding only really caught on in certain parts of the world is that there are not too many animals that lend themselves to being domesticated by humans. Herders were geographically restricted to Afro-Eurasia and even then, herding was (and still is) mainly practised in the high plains of central Asia. The only animal native to the Americas that was even semi-useful to humans was the llama.

Interestingly, looking at it from a purely biological viewpoint, one of the greatest evolutionary traits that an animal can have is its usefulness to humans. Many animals that can be considered either dangerous or of little use to us have either been wiped out or are on the brink of extinction. For example, there are an estimated 1.4 billion cows in the world, whilst only 23,000 lions.

Why It Happened

Back to the Agricultural Revolution. Why did it happen?

Plant

This is a question that no one knows for sure but there are some prevailing ideas. Perhaps the pressure of population growth necessitated a solution and agriculture was that solution even though it required more work. Maybe this abundance gave people more time to experiment with domestication or perhaps planting seeds originated as a fertility rite. Some historians have even made the argument that humans needed to domesticate more grains to produce more alcohol – for which human civilisation is forever grateful.

Perhaps there was no Agricultural Revolution at all but the whole thing came about accidently because of the evolutionary desire to eat more. Evidence suggests that early hunter-gatherers knew that seeds grew when they were planted. It is human nature to want to do more of something when you know it produces something that you want more of. This could have led early farmers to find the most accessible forms of crops and plant them and to experiment with them, not because they intended on furthering human development, but rather, because they simply wanted more food.

Archaeologists working in southeastern Greece found an early example of this. In the Franchthi cave that had been almost continuously occupied for 35,000 years they found evidence that roughly 13,000 years ago the inhabitants of the cave had been domesticating snails. They had been selectively breeding them to make them bigger and more nutritious. This was hardly a revolution but simply people trying to increase their food supplies.

How It Happened

We have looked at why it happened (and determined that we do not know) so now we will briefly look at why it happened (spoiler: we do not know).

Historians have postulated various theories as to how this massive shift in human activity came about. One such theory suggests that warming climates led to lush eco-systems with abundant food supplies. So much food, in fact, that the foragers stopped migrating and, instead, began to settle down. After several generations of population growth, the food began to become scarcer in these “Gardens of Eden” but the people had become so sedentary by this point that they had forgotten how to effectively forage. If this theory is correct then people would have been forced to get more out of the land. People already had a deep understanding of the local plants and of nearby animals that could be domesticated. Bingo!! You now have agriculture.

Cow.jpg

Another theory proposes that quarrels between different groups of people would occur over resources such as food, ponds and sexual partners. These peoples began to “claim” the land not for agriculture but, rather, to protect and safeguard the members of their group. In this scenario the people stayed in one place long enough to gain an awareness of the yields produced by the local vegetation and later developed agriculture to control and grow these yields rather than rely on the capricious nature of, well, nature.

Both theories are fraught with problems and actions inconsistent to the lifestyle of hunter-gatherers. However, as agriculture developed independently and at different times throughout history, the reality is that there are probably numerous reasons for how it came about. Regardless of the reasons for it, agriculture represents an incredible shift in human activity. Before agriculture, humans had adapted themselves to the environment. After agriculture, humans adapted the environment to suit their specific needs.

Some even go as far as to suggest that the Agricultural Revolution had been a mistake. In his incredible bestseller (seriously, if you have not read this then you need to), Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari suggests:

Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease… The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.

What Harari seems to forget to acknowledge in this viewpoint is that Homo sapiens is just another animal. We have looked at both the advantages and disadvantages of the agriculturalist lifestyle over the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and ultimately it boils down to that one primal urge that all life forms have and propagated the very first organisms: the survival and expansion of the species.

And The Rest is History

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey