When all the crap began: Supplement Part 1
Women's oppression, class, organised religion, war, and private property are not natural, writes Jack Conrad
Humanity is a revolutionary species. According to the best available model, we emerged in southern Africa thanks to a female-led coalition. Maybe 180,000 years ago, maybe even further back than that, a hooting, jumping, gyrating, playful, empowering, threatening, gender-bending, ochre-painted ‘picket line’ was responsible for taking control of female sexual availability and therefore the production and reproduction of immediate life.
The fetter of alpha male dominance, rivalry, jealously and violence shattered under the impact of this portentous carnival of the oppressed. A socially constructed, matrilineal reverse-dominance burst through. And, having succeeded, the human revolution leapt from group to group.
To this day red ochre is applied as body paint by women in tribes such as the Himba and San in southern Africa. Anthropologists call it sham menstruation. Women colour themselves before what can, for good reason, be considered a monthly re-enactment of the human revolution. Eg, the eland bull dance involves women partying, displaying overt sexuality, pretending to be male, pretending to be animal, encircling a young menarcheal girl ... it can last for five days. The message is unmistakable: the community is in charge of “sexual contact.”
Evidence of the preparation of ochre in the archaeological record surely indicates the presence of symbolic culture. Admittedly there are plenty of blank spaces in any attempt to put together a theoretically coherent picture of prehistory. Nonetheless, I think we are on safe ground when we say that our entire species once embraced a militant egalitarianism.
As Fredrick Engels recognised, the break with alpha male domination “was the first condition” for modern humans. Mistaken though he was in some of his conceptions, choice of data and conclusions - inevitable given that he was writing in the late 19th century and therefore reliant on an undeveloped archaeology, anthropology and primatology - Engels was capable of the most profound insights. Eg, the human revolution produced what he called “primitive communism”. His remarkable reconstruction of ancient history, The origin of the family, private property and the state,  was first published in 1884 and quickly came to be regarded as a Marxist classic.*
It can usefully be added that a good case can be made for “our ice-age fellow humans”, the Neanderthals, too. Seemingly entirely apart from out-of-Africa humans, at least for some of them, at least for some of the time, Neanderthals appear to have arrived at something closely approaching, or closely resembling, the human revolution. Eg, black, red and yellow pigments have been found at Neanderthal sites. The general opinion is that they too used it as body paint. Camilla Power sees Neanderthal populations as oscillating between alpha male domination and a tentative egalitarianism, depending on shifts in climatic conditions.
Anyhow, by symbolically locking the female menstrual cycle and the phases of the moon into a monthly re-enactment of the original human revolution, primitive communism was framed, celebrated and reasserted. As a consequence, the life of the whole community moved according to a female-driven, on-off lunar rhythm.
Let us begin with the ‘on’ from the male point of view. Hunting is best done by moonlight (hence the hunter’s moon). In the tropics the searing heat of the midday sun drains energy and can prove exhausting. Moonlight extends the working day. Hunters can both keep cool and keep track of intended prey. And because we lack nocturnal vision a bright moon has another advantage. Dangerous predators can be spotted ... and avoided or sent packing.
Now the ‘off’. Having returned to the campsite with raw meat, roughly in time for the full moon, there is cooking, feasting, dancing, ceremony, story telling and love-making. For a fortnight men become husbands, women wives (hence the honeymoon).
But, with the last quarter of the waning moon, the system switches. Women’s solidarity is back ‘on’. Collectively they become sisters, ritualistically making themselves inviolable. They seclude themselves from their husbands. Meanwhile the men are obliged to leave their wives’ households and become brothers and hunters again.
This socially established cycle with its monthly ‘sex strike’ enforced a male-female division of labour and replaced the virtual sexual monopoly of the alpha male with group marriage between the tribal clans and their successive generations - the moiety. Immoral only for those with a “brothel-tainted imagination”.
Primitive communism triggered qualitatively higher levels of cooperation: language, totemic religion, myth, forward planning, art and long-distance hunting (the monthly female sex strike also helped calm male fears of being cuckolded, not least because the involvement of all able-bodied males in the hunt was a social expectation).
So successful was the new order that population numbers steadily grew and not only in Africa. Egalitarianism worked.
Despite that we now inhabit a grossly unequal society. A society far more polarised than anything prior to the human revolution. “Almost half the world’s population lives on less than a dollar a day.” Simultaneously the richest one percent of adults own 40% of global assets and the richest 10% of adults account for 85% of the world total. The United States alone boasts over a thousand billionaires. They “control more wealth than 90% of the US population”.
Logically, if humanity began as a revolutionary species, there had to be a turning point, a transition where revolution and egalitarianism gave way to counterrevolution and inequality. So where, when and why did “all the old filthy business” begin? (a phrase of Karl Marx’s - otherwise translated as “all the old crap”). Closely related questions I shall attempt to answer.
Over the years the left has mainly got it wrong - badly. The nearer to the present, the less the excuse. The Levellers of the 17th century fondly looked back to the ancient liberties of their Anglo-Saxon “predecessors”. In that spirit the Russian Narodniks banked on preserving the peasant mir. Here was their native socialism. James Connolly touchingly portrayed pre-conquest Ireland as owned by its people who were “knit together as in a family.” Latin American anti-imperialists display the exact same kind of romanticism. Eg, glowing references to “Inca communism” (which find eager sponsors in Evo Morales, Sendero Luminoso and Túpac Amaru).
The radical anthropologist, Lionel Sims, rejects such misconceived accounts - they disregard “all of what anthropology and archaeology have to say”. There was, he contends, a counterrevolution “long before” any of that.
I am entirely sympathetic to Sims and his argument. Indeed I am convinced he is right when he says that there was a counterrevolution “long before” either European high feudalism or the rise of Spanish colonialism.
That said, it must be appreciated that the prehistoric past is a highly contested subject, crucially in academia. There is no unanimity, no “all” about it. Eg, mainstream archaeology tends towards the utterly contemptuous when it comes to primitive communism.
Culture began, so we are told, with agriculture, fixed settlements, monumental building, social stratification and the vertical division of labour. Here was the real human revolution for mainstream archaeology ... and from then on things are reassuringly depicted as steadily ascending to ever greater heights of rationality, wealth and happiness. The Whig version of history. Neither primitive communism nor any counterrevolutionary overthrow comes into it.
In the immortal words of Colin Renfrew, aka Baron Renfrew of Kaimsthorn - former Disney professor of archaeology at Cambridge and now senior fellow at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research and perhaps the most prestigious of contemporary British archaeologists - “not a lot happened until the Neolithic”. A condescending attitude if there ever was one ... and, given his positions, prizes, gongs, lordly title and honorariums, testimony to the poverty of contemporary bourgeois thinking.
Renfrew posits a “sapient paradox”. A supposed gap between “genotype and take-off”. Our ancestors became visibly modern anatomically around 250,000 years ago - in Africa (Renfrew finds little to support the multi-regional hypothesis). However, according to the ermined professor, the cultural “take-off” only commences with the Neolithic a mere 12,000 years ago. Hence Renfrew brushes aside as “dogma” all theories which propose that the “great human behavioural revolution” began 100,000 years ago - and by definition any time before that.
The contention that Homo sapiens emerged with “full linguistic abilities, and with a different kind of behaviour” is rejected by Renfrew on the basis of what he claims is a lack of hard evidence. Reasonable, if true. But the undeniable fact is that human infants show a remarkable capacity for acquiring language. Many scientists, theorists and philosophers consider the learning of language an innate human quality. Hence the ‘language instinct’ and ‘language facility’.
More than that, throughout the world and throughout recorded history - no matter how ‘backward’ they are deemed to be - every human group exhibits a wonderfully creative mastery of language.
For any doubters, it ought to be pointed out that linguists insist that all the 5,000-10,000 languages spoken in the world today are equally capable of transmitting the full content of culture. John Lyons writes in his university primer: “The truth is that every language so far studied, no matter how primitive or uncivilised the society using it might appear to us in other respects, has proven on investigation to be a complex and highly developed system of communication.”
While there might still be people living something like a Stone Age-type existence, Lyons finds that “there is no such thing as a Stone Age-type of language”. Indeed there is every reason to believe that there never was - if by that is meant a halfway house pidgin or quasi-language. Our ancestors probably had a communication system broadly similar to chimps, bonobos and gorillas ... and to all intents and purposes went straight from there to fully-fledged language. A dialectical leap from analogue to digital communication and simultaneously a dialectical leap from Darwinian evolution into human culture. Chris Knight considers song, laughter and play the vital behavioural portal.
Unmoved by that prodigious feat, what commands Renfrew’s admiration are not the hunter-gatherers of 30,000, 50,000 or 100,000 years ago. That though they almost certainly had fully articulated language, passed down powerfully explanatory stories from one generation to the next and had a real handle on nature (the group would have had intimate knowledge of their immediate environment, be able to predict the seasonal movement of animals, the coming of rains, etc).
Despite that, such people, in Renfrew’s opinion, ought to be studied by animal behaviourists. In effect, they ought to be classified as sub-human. Outwardly looking like us, they are not us inwardly. He goes further. As if from the pages of Mein Kampf, hunter-gatherers are ranked organisationally below the “social insects, including mound-building termites”.
Why such an asinine assessment? Apart from an abiding high Tory affection for the British empire and its patronising attitude towards the ‘childish’ native peoples, there is the seductive, widely held, but erroneous assumption that human intelligence undergoes linear progress and therefore, the further back one goes, the less intelligent people will be.
In my opinion, Stephen Jay Gould convincingly demolished all such claims with his brilliantly argued book The mismeasure of man (1981). Fundamentally they result, he says, from a “deeply held prejudice” - namely equating biological evolution (ie, adaptation) with cultural progress. Note: evolution is not conceptually synonymous with progress.
The large brain is the biological basis for human intelligence and, with that, culture and cultural transmission. But, once culture and cultural transmission was in place, it ran ahead with little or no reference to Darwinian processes and genetics. We know that culture can progress at extraordinary speed (it can also go into a tumbling reverse). Hence differences between groups of people - ancient and modern - need to be explained in the realm of culture, not biology.
The eugenical agenda of Renfrew and his ilk - conscious or unconscious - is pretty transparent. Flatteringly, contemporary humans might be placed on a higher plane than fellow Homo sapiens in the past. Yet, even if only by implication, the western upper classes are classified as innately superior. Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending give this story a particular ethnic twist with the claim that Ashkenazi Jews have the highest IQ of any ethnic group because of their “success in white-collar occupations” - a caste position with origins in medieval Europe. But it amounts to the same thing. Hunter-gatherers, past and present, are classified as stupid and innately inferior.
Nonetheless, we are extraordinarily similar to our Palaeolithic ancestors and to each other. Whatever else might be questionable about their overall methodological approach, the sociobiologists Jerome Barkow, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides have the virtue of stressing the deep commonality between prehistoric and modern populations. Contemporary human-to-human genetic variation is estimated to be no more than 0.5% (in other words, we are 99.5% “similar”). There is every reason to believe then that intelligence is extraordinarily similar too.
Not that we should rely on self-serving IQ tests with their well known cultural biases as our criteria for judging. The human mind is transcendingly complex. The “highest product of matter” (Lenin). To reduce this unique marvel of nature to Gradgrindian numbers like weight or height is Mickey Mouse, not serious, science. In practise, intelligence is used to solve manifold problems and to exploit manifold circumstances to achieve manifold ends. Certainly intelligence is a particularly human way of dealing with the environment.
Not surprisingly Renfrew admires those societies which built temples, palaces and pyramids: eg, the mega-constructions of “Teotihuacán in Mexico, Giza in Egypt or Ur in Iraq, or indeed Stonehenge.” In his reckoning fully articulated language comes about with the Neolithic (beginning in the fertile crescent of the Middle East and the Indus valley roughly 12,000 years ago). Presumably it then trickled down to benighted hunter-gatherers from the villages and towns of class society.
Hence what archeologically establishes, what archeologically sustains, what archeologically vindicates Renfrew’s prejudice is a vulgar materialism: ie, the self-evident fact that hunter-gatherers leave behind the lightest of footprints. They go from here to there during the course of the year and generate precious little material detritus: baselessly interpreted as indicating cognitive inferiority.
Apart from exceedingly rare human skeletal fragments, the odd jumble of butchered animal remains, occasional barely detectable campsites and a limited range of stone tools, their Palaeolithic counterparts offer next to nothing that can triumphantly be unearthed and put on media-grabbing display. Lack of interest by archaeologists who presumably aspire to be celebrated alongside Heinrich Schliemann, Arthur Evans and Howard Carter follows.
Using the studies of Lewis Henry Morgan and other anthropological trailblazers, undertaking his own historical researches and bringing to bear the dialectical and materialist method, Engels successfully located the human revolution in its essentials. An event - albeit possibly spread over thousands of years - which resolved the contradiction between the “jealousy of the male” and the group or collective. What he called the “horde”. Engels shows a corresponding ability to locate the essential conditions which made the counterrevolution. In the last analysis, he roots both revolution and counterrevolution in two main determinates: the production and reproduction of the means of subsistence (“food, clothing and shelter”) and the production and reproduction of human beings themselves (the “family”).
Let us revisit Engels’ argument (and where necessary see how it stands up in light of contemporary research and theory). Engels situates the counterrevolution against egalitarianism in the Neolithic and the seemingly benign conditions brought about by the “domestication of animals and the breeding of herds”. He is convinced that before this epochal shift hunter-gatherers lived a noble life, but often stood on the edge of starvation. Periods of plenty alternated with periods of famine. Infanticide, premature death, malnutrition and group extinction were presumed to be common occurrences.
The Neolithic provided a permanent surplus product for the first time. From here Engels reasons that the private ownership of herds “must have developed at a very early stage”. Given the sexual division of labour, those owners would doubtless be male. They were the hunters, the providers of meat. Obviously cattle originated in their sphere. From the growth of male-owned herds - and thus the growth of private property - Engels derives the appearance of war, slavery, the state and the patriarchal family.
What was the first form of private property must have been the first form of theft. Opposites which, of course, constitute a single whole. Grazing lands, watering places, cattle themselves would have constantly been fought over, not least due to the social power they conferred. Private property therefore leads to war. Archaeologists find evidence of homicidal violence: eg, enlodged spear blades and arrow heads in human remains, which first appear alongside “the emergence of leaders” in the Mesolithic, but especially with the Neolithic. Hastily dug pits in which massacre victims were unceremoniously dumped have been found. For instance, in 1983-84 excavators uncovered a “communal grave containing the remains of 34 individuals” dating from around 5,000 BCE. Bodies were “piled on top of one another ... all having suffered a violent death”. 
War captives come as a by-product of war. Instead of being summarily butchered they were more and more enslaved: males used as routine labourers and to tend ever expanding herds; females as cooks, nurses, weavers, etc (or with the most attractive as second wives, concubines, prostitutes, etc). It was quickly realised that their work produced a surplus. What slaves delivered to their masters proved to be worth considerably more than required for their maintenance. Subsequently, war became a means of gaining slaves. War captives were no longer a by-product of war, but became one of its prime aims. People were stolen and traded because they could be exploited. Such were the beginnings of civilisation.
The greater the number of slaves, the more society cleaved into classes. The ownership of slaves certainly fouls, perverts and corrupts all traditional social relationships. A few get richer and richer. Meanwhile, the mass of people are steadily reduced to a position that approached or was barely distinguishable from servitude. And, once society is characterised by rich and poor, free and slave, oppressors and exploited, antagonisms become irreconcilable. The state is invented.
In essence the state consists of armed men, though it has other coercive adjuncts - in our day courts, judges, prosecutors, prisons, etc. The state exists to prevent social chaos and disintegration. Purporting to stand above society, in actual fact it keeps class struggles within safe limits. Hence the state is the state of the ruling class and serves as an apparatus for dominating, subduing and if need be crushing the oppressed and exploited. It ought to be added, to the degree that class antagonisms become acute, and other neighbouring states compete, the state can assume such proportions that it swallows society itself.
What of the family? The old sexual division of labour remained unaltered and yet the new conditions turned domestic relations upside down. Though women occupied the first place in the household, that very position ensured that their status declined compared with men.
The owners of herds (and slaves) grew ever more wealthy, influential and ambitious. Their spouses benefited in part, of course, but they had no ownership stake. Inevitably the time came when men seized control over the household. No longer were they to occupy second place. No longer would they perform bride service. From now on men were to be in charge.
Rich men purchased wives from their fathers in exchange for cattle (bride price). And the women were treated as such. Henceforth, they became the “slave of the man’s lust, a mere instrument for breeding children”. A degraded, humiliated position only seriously challenged in the 19th century with the rise of the socialist working class.
Understandably, better-off males would have been strongly inclined to reverse matrilineal tradition. And inheritance, previously traced exclusively through the female line, was indeed successively “overthrown” in one group after another. In its place “inheritance from the father was instituted”. Herds were then passed down through the patriarch. As a direct concomitant the wife had monogamy imposed on her. Alone she was expected to be faithful.
Engels famously dubs this change the “world-historic defeat of the female sex”. Hence the “first class antithesis” coincides with the “development of the antagonisms between man and woman in monogamian marriage”, and the “first class oppression with that of the female sex by the male”. The antagonisms of class society therefore find cellular expression in the family.
A far-reaching revolution happened with the domestication of animals, polished stone tools and then the subsequent cultivation of crops, a sedentary existence, pottery, etc - a technological package which significantly boosted labour productivity. Nevertheless, this revolution allowed, paralleled, cemented a social counterrevolution.
As one would expect, far from being simple, the transition to class society was extraordinarily complicated, with all manner of experimental dead ends, partial reverses and hybrid formations.
One thing is quite clear, however. The Neolithic counterrevolutionary revolution resulted from definite social and cultural factors. Therefore, we can confidently say that inequality, male domination and private accumulation are not natural, not biologically determined - as claimed by Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) and his present-day pseudo-scientific equivalents.
Nowadays, the idea that hunter-gatherers endure a life of extreme poverty is considered untenable by anthropologists. Engels was badly wrong here. Back in 1966 Marshall Sahlins paved the way for a thorough-going intellectual reassessment with his “original affluent society” thesis.
Hunter-gatherers should not be thought of as bourgeois ladies and gentlemen with inferior tools and lazy habits, who survive by no more than the skin of their teeth. A solipsistic notion derived from Adam Smith and his “economic man”. No, far from suffering terrible deprivation, hunter-gatherers are usually more than able to satisfy all their needs. Sahlins boasted considerable experience as a field researcher ... and one can justifiably project from his contemporary insights directly back to the middle Palaeolithic. His full-scale study, Stone Age economics, was first published in 1974.
Hunter-gatherers have no interest in the endless accumulation of things. That would be to more and more hobble and immobilise themselves. Moreover, what they hunt, what they gather, is overwhelmingly shared with others in the community through what Sahlins calls the domestic mode of production and the system of gift-exchange. Suffice to say, hunter-gatherers enjoy a wonderful variety of foodstuffs - a variety only approached under capitalism with supermarket chains such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose.
Indeed, so easy is their existence that hunter-gatherers are able to devote plenty of time to relaxing, gossiping, telling stories, debating, playing with the children and, all in all, thoroughly enjoying themselves. True, they have very little in the way of possessions and no conception of landed property, but because of their Zen-like “want not, lack not” philosophy they are “free”.
It must also be borne in mind that the few remaining African hunter-gatherer tribes we see today were pushed into the marginal, arid zones they now often inhabit only relatively recently - both by native Bantu and white European farmers (who combined to wipe out much of the larger local fauna, thereby making the bringing home of meat much more problematic).
We can, I think, quite reasonably infer that hunter-gatherers in the middle Palaeolithic lived the good life. In other words, under the initial conditions of primitive communism there was affluence (Marxists call it abundance).
As will be readily understood, Sahlins and his theory contradicts the one-dimensional version of history promulgated by ‘official communism’ and ‘official Trotskyism’. The productive forces and their relentless development being venerated as the main, if not the sole, criterion for judging social progress. Any society which relies on the hand axe is therefore automatically ranked below one that glories in nuclear power stations, factory farms and space weapons. Human relationships, human development, human freedom pass unnoticed, are belittled or are simply denied.
Two illustrative examples
First: Fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism, a Soviet textbook of the ‘red plenty’ era edited by Otto Kuusinen (1881-1964). We are meant to believe that the “primitive instruments of labour” provided “such a meagre subsistence” that there was “scarcely enough to feed each member of the commune”. The low level of technology supposedly produced people of a corresponding mental stature. They were “ruled by childishly naive religious ideas” and lived in “blind submission to tradition and custom”. Unlike Homo Sovieticus, of course.
Second: ‘official Trotskyism’. It is no better. In his magnus opus Ernest Mandel (1923-95) depicts prehistoric people as entirely absorbed in “seeking and producing food”. Taking for granted this premise - courtesy of highly jaundiced accounts written by European explorers, missionaries and colonial administrators - Mandel says “primitive man” (sic) could not devote “himself” (sic) to any other activity. And, despite such all-engaging exertions, our ancestors apparently lived “on the brink of famine”, and that for “thousands of years” ... that is, until the Neolithic revolution came to their rescue. This, declares Mandel, is the “most important economic revolution man (sic) has known since his (sic) appearance on earth”. Leave aside the sexist language - still the norm in most leftwing circles even in the mid-1970s, when my edition was published. The fact of the matter is that his argument was already discredited when the first edition of this version of his book came off the presses in 1968.
While Mandel celebrates the Neolithic counterrevolutionary revolution, the original human revolution simply passes him by. Sexual contradiction and sexual politics do not appear to have entered his mode of thinking about the prehistoric world. Nor seemingly could he comprehend the idea that people who possess next to nothing in terms of property can have full and rewarding lives.
Lionel Sims is convinced by the “original affluent society” thesis. During the middle Palaeolithic there was, he says, “abundance”. That said, the underlying condition which sustained primitive communism was the presence of teeming herds of large animals: eg, elephant, zebra, wildebeest, buffalo, giraffe, hippo and antelope. Through coordinated, long-distance hunting expeditions they provided the meat in plenty which made primitive communism hugely advantageous ... and not only for the cohesion of the group, but for the well-being of each and every constituent individual too.
In general such animals and humans unproblematically coexisted. While hunting techniques slowly improved, there evolved a corresponding instinctive, or quickly learnt, mistrust of humans. Hence humans and megafauna not only coexisted: they coevolved. The hunting of hunters and the reproduction of the hunted proceeded in rough equilibrium.
However, as modern Homo sapiens spread out from Africa into Palestine and the Arabian peninsula around 80,000 years ago, then headed into southern Asia, south-east Asia and China, then into Australasia some 60,000 years ago, then into Europe 45,000 years ago, into the Americas 20,000 years ago, finally reaching the Tierra del Fuego tip of South America around 10,000 years after that, problems mounted up. The relationship between hunted and hunters proves unsustainable. Consumption eats into reproduction to the point of wide-ranging animal extinctions. Primitive communism therefore increasingly malfunctions.
Numerous authors have sought explanation for mass animal extinctions in climate change. Continents drift and weather patterns shift with global wobbles, sunspots, etc. Every secondary school student knows that. As a concomitant, ice sheets advance and retreat, and sea levels rise and fall. The last glacial maximum was around 20,000 years ago. There followed a global warming which 5,000 years later saw deserts once again expanding in northern Africa, central Asia and Australia. Eg, 7,000 years ago the great lakes of the Sahara were visibly drying up. A to-and-fro pattern repeated over millions of years. The argument being that, as established habitats disappeared, so did associated megafauna (an animal weighing over 100lbs).
How does that thesis stand up to criticism? Even rapid climate change, despite its title, surely moves far too slowly to see off most big land animals. Why should even a sudden climate transition - one taking no more than a few decades - result in their demise? Surely they, or at least some of them, would migrate or adapt? That is what they have done over the dozen or so known ice ages that have occurred during the last two million years. And we are, after all, discussing continents with varied climate zones. Not islands such as Iceland, Britain or New Zealand. In short, climate change fails to convince when presented as the overriding explanation for the mass extinctions which happened in what were far removed times and places.
Take Australia. The fossil record shows that its megafauna survived and evolved through numerous climatic shifts over 55 million years (following the Australia-Antarctica split and the break-up of the Gondwana supercontinent). However, its big animals went extinct round about the same time in the late Palaeolithic - and not only in the dry interior, but in lush zones too, such as the south-east and New Guinea (joined to Australia in the Megalania continent during the last glacial maximum). Apart from middle-sized red and grey kangaroos and crocodiles, the megafauna died out in each and every climate zone (as did a whole range of smaller animals). Ergo, in explanatory terms, climate change surely fails.
Mass extinction of megafauna is increasingly explained by a combination of human entry and animal naivety. Paul Martin presented what he called the “blitzkrieg hypothesis” in 1984. From my admittedly limited reading on the subject, I would call this the established consensus nowadays.
In Australia and the Americas megafauna are thought to have possessed no instinctive, or quickly learnt, mistrust of humans ... till for most of them it was too late. Hunters killed the unsuspecting, slower animals and on a huge scale. Easy meat. Incidentally, to this day in the Galápagos and Antarctic birds and mammals, which evolved in the absence of humans, “are still incurably tame”. If conservationists had not vigorously campaigned to get governments to agree protectionist measures, doubtless they would have been annihilated too.
It appears that within a few hundred years of the estimated time of human arrival most of the megafauna were under severe pressure in Australasia and the Americas. Only those already evolved to move fast, fly or hide survived. The rest plunged into extinction. An observation not to the liking of those with a sentimental attachment to first peoples. Nevertheless, facts are facts. A whole range of animals, especially the largest - ie, those that could feed the most people with the least effort expended by hunters - died out in a remarkably short period of time.
Do not imagine that each and every individual animal was killed, butchered, cooked and eaten. Rather hunting rates overtook reproduction rates - and perhaps only by a narrow margin at that. It might be assumed that there would be nothing more threatening than lowering population densities. Overhunting can, though, tip what is often a delicate balance and bring about a sudden, crunching, headlong extinction. A phenomenon known as “critical slowing down” in the relevant literature.
Computer simulations produce “serious decline” and “eventual extinction” with predation rates of no more than four or five percent. Carnivores which find their natural prey disappearing through over-hunting by another species face doomsday - that is for sure. No doubt breeding patterns and other biologically determined patterns of behaviour were amongst the contributing factors. Eg, in general, the bigger the animal, the more impoverished the environment, the slower the rate of reproduction.
In Australia monotremes, the diprotodon, zygomaturus, palorchestes, euowenia, eurycoma, etc had all gone extinct by around 46,000 years ago (dates are far from certain). That is, big birds, big mammals and big reptiles. In North America a similar mass extinction was completed around 11,500-10,000 years ago. The horse, glyptotherium, musk ox, mammoth, bison antiquus, giant beaver, ground sloth, maerauchenia, mastodon, camel, etc all disappeared. In South America the horse, ground sloth, mastodon, mammoth, camel, arctodus, etc went the same way.
The best explanation joining these widely dispersed mass extinction events is human colonisation. Hunters would stroll up to an unconcerned giant herbivore, like the eight-ton megatherium ground sloth, and spear the poor beast to death. In a similar manner hungry European sailors exterminated the dodo when they landed to reprovision on Mauritius in the 17th century.
The influx of modern humans into continental northern Siberia likewise probably accounts for the extinction of the steppe bison and woolly mammoth around 12,000-10,000 years ago (a dwarf version of the mammoth survived on Wrangel Island in the Russian Artic ocean and St Paul Island in the north Pacific, which were only colonised by humans a few thousand years ago).
In Australia 93% of the larger mammals were lost with the coming of humans and this seems to have had far-reaching ecological consequences. Giant herbivores consumed vegetation on an industrial scale. The “continuous” wet and dry forests which covered thousands of miles in northern and eastern Australia were as a result variegated, full of open spaces and young growth. With the removal of the megafauna, the undergrowth thickened, fallen leaves accumulated ... till lightening struck.
What had once been light and localised seasonal burnings were transformed into raging, giant, murderous bushfires. Many medium and small animals were killed as a result ... to the point of species extinction. Moreover, with much of the flora reduced to charcoal, thin, ancient, dry, mineral-poor soils were blown or washed away. Australia’s biomass underwent a severe crash. Fire-resistant eucalypts flourished and came to dominate. But they did so in an ecosystem maintained by Aboriginal fire-stick ‘farming’ ... an eco-system sent further crashing by European colonisation some 200 years ago.
If the optimal condition for primitive communism was the hunting of megafauna, their steady reduction in Eurasia and almost total elimination in Australia and the Americas was bound to trigger a profound social crisis. Exported versions of primitive communism became more and more prone to breakdown.
* Engels based himself in no small part on what is now commonly called Marx’s Ethnological notebooks. Marx was a voracious reader. He was also in the habit of putting down extensive extracts of what he had read into notebooks. They were accompanied by pithy comments and possible lines of thought. In this case, centrally, there is a synopsis, and re-arrangement, of Morgan’s Ancient society. There were, however, comments on other authors, observations and wider thoughts on anthropology (see L Krader [ed] The ethnological notebook of Karl Marx Assen 1972). One must presume that Marx was planning to incorporate his anthropological studies into the greater Capital (perhaps book four, on the state); that or he was thinking about an entirely separate work along the lines of Engels and his Origin.
- Though it is out of date in this or that respect, the groundbreaking study remains Chris Knight’s Blood relations (London 1991). A wonderful book, which mainstream academia has done its best to ignore. Much to its discredit, the same can be said of the leadership of the Socialist Workers Party. Having first mocked its central thesis, the organisation then proceeded to impose an outright ban on any further discussion. My work presented here is in part an attempt to bring out the tremendous significance of Knight’s discoveries.
- It is not impossible that the human revolution began as far back as 750,000 years ago. Having attended one of his lectures, I believe that this is the contention of João Zilhão of Bristol University, a leading expert on the Neanderthals. In my view, however, the evidence is thin.
- As the reader may recall, I authored a popular account of the human revolution, its preconditions and rippling consequences. See J Conrad, ‘Origins of religion and the human revolution’ Weekly Worker December 17 2009.
- C Knight Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute March 1988.
- C Power and I Watts Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute March 2001.
- For an archaeological discussion on the dating of red ochre finds see Science January 30 2009.
- K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 26, London 1990, p145.
- I shall be using this phrase throughout. By it I imply nothing derogative: rather early, ancient, original, primary, etc. It should be pointed out that because of its other connotations there are those who prefer ‘early communism’, or ‘communal mode of production’.
- See F Engels, ‘Origins of the family, private property, and the state’ in K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 26, London 1990.
- F Schrenk and S Müller The Neanderthals Oxon 2009, p88.
- Obviously hominids originated in Africa. So what I refer to here by ‘out-of-Africa humans’ are the two little population movements. The first which found its way into Palestine around 120,000 years ago and then appeared to die out, and then the second which crossed the Red Sea into the Arabian peninsula some 80,000 years ago and subsequently spread over every part of the globe.
- See Radical Anthropology No4, November 2010.
- See cpgb.wordpress.com/category/resources
- That is still the case for surviving social ‘fossils’ amongst the hunter-gatherers in central and southern Africa.
- K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 26, London 1990, p154.
- JB Davies, S Sandstrom, A Shorrocks and Edward N Wolff The world distribution of household wealth July 2007: escholarship.org/uc/item/3jv048hx#page-1
- K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 5, London 1976, p49.
- C Hill The world turned upside down Harmondsworth 1975, p158.
- J Connolly The reconquest of Ireland Dublin 1972, p2.
- For example, the influential writings of José Carlos Mariátegui (1894-1930). See www.neue-einheit.com/english/extras/extra32e.htm
- L Sims ‘World-historic defeat of women’ Weekly Worker April 22 2010.
- J Lyons Language and linguistics - an introduction Cambridge 2002, p27.
- Ibid p28.
- See C Knight, M Studdert-Kennedy and JR Hurford (eds) The evolutionary emergence of language. Cambridge 2000.
- C Renfrew Towards an archaeology of the mind Cambridge 1982, p2.
- SJ Gould The mismeasure of man London 1981.
- See G Cocheran and H Harpending The 10,000 year explosion New York 2009.
- See J Barkow, L Cosmides and J Tooby (eds) The adapted mind: evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture New York 1992.
- See in particular LH Morgan Ancient society Gloucester, Mass, 1974.
- K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 26, London 1990, p145.
- Ibid p132.
- Ibid p162.
- J Guilaine and J Zammit Origins of war Oxford 2005, p77.
- Ibid p86.
- K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 26, London 1990, p165.
- Ibid p173.
- See chapter one in M Sahlins Stone Age economics London 2004.
- A Smith The wealth of nations Harmondsworth 1986, p119.
- M Sahlins Stone Age economics London 2004, p14.
- O Kuusinen Fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism Moscow 1961, p155.
- E Mandel Marxist economic theory London 1977, p28.
- See www.geog.ox.ac.uk/research/climate/projects/bodex/bodele_shorelines.pdf
- The best available book on this subject is Tim Flannery’s The future eaters Melbourne 1994.
- J Diamond Guns, germs and steel London 1998, pp42-43.
- JM Drake and BD Griffen Nature online, September 8 2010.
- S Mithen After the ice London 2003, p254.
- T Flannery The future eaters Melbourne 1994, p228.
- See RM Blench and KC MacDonald The origins and development of African livestock Oxon 2005.
- K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 6, New York 1976, p503.
- N Yoffee Myths of the archaic state Cambridge 2005, p2.
- See I Kuijt (ed) Life in Neolithic farming communities New York 2000.
- Stephen Mithen argues that Göbekli Tepe itself provided the opportunity for people going from “gathering wild cereals” in order to feed those who “worked and gathered for religious ceremonies” to the cultivation of “domestic strains” (S Mithen in H Whitehouse and LH Martin [eds] Theorising religions past Walnut Creek, California, 2004).
- Although I find it hard to take much of what they say seriously, I am referring to David Rohl, Andrew Collins, etc.
- Genesis ii, 14.
- See A Belfor-Cohen Annual Review of Archaeology 1991, pp167-86.
- I Hodder (ed) Religion in the emergence of civilisation Cambridge 2010, p3.
- Ibid p17.
- Ibid p278.
- Science November 20 1998.
- C Renfrew, ‘Monuments, mobilisation and social organisation in Neolithic Wessex’ in C Renfrew (ed) The explanation of culture change: models in prehistory Pittsburgh 2003, pp539-58.
- See JN Lockyer Stonehenge and other British stone monuments astronomically considered: wwwforgottenbooks.co, 2007.
- See A Marshack The roots of civilisation New York 1971.
- See news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/871930.stm
- See C Ruggles Astronomy in prehistoric Britain and Ireland Cambridge 1999.
- L Sims ‘World-historic defeat of women’ Weekly Worker April 22 2010.
- L Sims ‘World-historic defeat of women’ Weekly Worker April 22 2010.
- A Whittle Europe in the Neolithic - the creation of new worlds Cambridge 1996, p190.
- B Arnold and D Blair Gibson Celtic chiefdom, Celtic state Cambridge 1996, p15.
- Here I am borrowing from the French medievalist Marc Bloch. See M Bloch Feudal society London 1965, p292.