Friday, December 1, 2017

Word of the Day: Anthropocene

adjective: Anthropocene
relating to or denoting the current geological age, viewed
as the period during which human activity has been the
dominant influence on climate and the environment.

Against the Grain
Today's post explores the new book by James C. Scott, Against the Grain

In it, Scott questions the long prevailing theory that sedentism, towns, and agriculture were great leaps forward in human well being. He attacks the myth that the early city states attracted people to them by offering better nutrition and leisure opportunities.

He contrasts this with newer theories that indicate quite the opposite. That early city states had to capture and hold large populations in bondage. That life as a barbarian was easier, healthier and freer.

One reason for this bias for the long prevailing view that city states and agriculture were good for humans is that these states kept written histories and the barbarians did not. These written histories were put down by the upper classes to emphasize their greatness.

The Noble Savage Redux

Scott points to a new genre of books questioning this establishment view of city states like ones by Charles Mann and Elizabeth Kolbert.

The - 1491 by Charles Mann

Before it became the New World, the Western Hemisphere was vastly more populous and sophisticated than has been thought—an altogether more salubrious place to live at the time than, say, Europe. New evidence of both the extent of the population and its agricultural advancement leads to a remarkable conjecture: the Amazon rain forest may be largely a human artifact - Without a Trace, The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

Since the origin of life on earth 3.8 billion years ago, our planet has experienced five mass extinction events. The last of these events occurred some 66 million years ago when a six-mile-wide asteroid is thought to have collided with earth, wiping out the dinosaurs. The Cretaceous extinction event dramatically changed the composition of biodiversity on the planet: Marine ecosystems essentially collapsed, and about 75 percent of all plant and animal species disappeared. Today, Kolbert writes, we are witnessing a similar mass extinction event happening in the geologic blink of an eye. According to E. O. Wilson, the present extinction rate in the tropics is “on the order of 10,000 times greater than the naturally occurring background extinction rate” and will reduce biological diversity to its lowest level since the last great extinction.

Writing, A Tool for Exploitation not Enlightenment

We often think of writing as a tool of creative expression but what if it was originally one of the main tools used to oppress and enslave man.

Levi-Strauss on the Functions of Writing from His 1955 book, Tristes Tropiques

Claude Levi-Strauss, the famous French anthropologist, speaks about how the development of writing invariably accompanies cities and empires. It is used to further the integration into a political system a considerable number of individuals into castes and classes. It is more often used seems as a tool for exploitation rather then enlightenment.

Grains and the Rise of Taxation

The taxability of cereal grains was what allowed for the rise of the state:


Other early staple crops were not suitable for taxation. Tubers (root vegetables) are too easy to hide (buried underground). Legumes (beans) are indeterminate, meaning there is not definite harvest time.

Domesticated Humans

Early states domesticated not only animals but humans too. These states needed enormous amounts of save labor to survive. Even then, these city states were fragile and often collapsed due to disease.

An example of this is the Great Wall of China. While many people know that it was built to keep invaders out, it also served the purpose of keeping a large slave population trapped inside.

China Travelers - Who built the Great Wall, when and why?

Why was the Great Wall of China built?The Great Wall of China was built to protect China from its enemies and invaders from the North, especially the Mongols. The Mongols were a tribal group that would regularly conduct raids into China. Despite the wall, the Mongols eventually conquered China. The Wall also kept Chinese citizens from leaving China.

Rise of the Narcissist

Scott argues that early states dominate archaeological and historical records beyond their true weight.and that there is an institutional, narcissistic bias toward funding city state research

Hunter gatherer nomads, while comprising the majority of human populations historically, left thin archaeological records

Further, written, cuneiform records exacerbate this bias because they are state centric records of taxes, tributes, royal genealogies and foundation myths.

When Hunter Gatherers Dominated

Scott argues that our state centric view of human history overlooks the fact that, until fairly recently, the vast majority of humans did not live in city states. For example, when the first major city states were founded in Mesopotamia in around 2,000 BC, there were roughly 25 million human inhabiting the planet and only several thousand lived in cities. It was only around the year 1600 when the human population living in city states overtook nomadic peoples.

The natural mode of living for most humans until recently has been nomadic since only small portions of the globe were naturally suited to agriculture.

Missing the Point

By focusing on state, we miss the fact that most humans throughout history did not live within confines of it. These historical states were also relatively weak compared to the fierce nomadic bands that surrounded them but this too is often overlooked since historians most often focus on the classical ages of these states.

The peaks of city states were often short and state rule more often resembled what we all the dark ages when rule was fragmented and ineffective.


domestication of fire, plants, animals
concentration of food and population

fire rendered previously inedible plant digestible,
nutritious and palatable
large brain and small gut attributable to this

domesticated grains provided reliable calorie source

domesticated animals can eat things we find indigestible
this making these calories available to us

Rise of the Weak

domestication changed genetics of domesticated plants and
they became less robust requiring constant attention less
did domestication also not effect human
word of the day domus
compared to hunter gatherers agriculture was confined,
crowded, linked to calendar
burden #1 more onerous
burden #2 epidemiological diseases due to concentration
burden #3 taxes


why states collapse
often chain of events
rarely recorded in written record
3 main fault lines
urbanism leading to deforestation floods and siltation
intensive agriculture lead to salinization of soil

barbarians raiding states
spending on defense
spending on tributes (protection money)

became trading hubs for nomadic peoples
main commodity traded was slaves
state replenished work force via wars of capture


south africa case excavation shows
earliest layer cats eating hominids
later layers humans eating cats with fire
decisive factor in transforming fortunes of mankind
hominids used fire 400k years before modern humans

much of world's fauna fire adapted (pyrophyte) due to human
used it to clear old vegatation
and replace with grasses and desirable shrubs
that created desirable hunting grounds
***niche construction***

fire externalizes the digestive process
gelatinizes starch, denatures protein
chimpanzees require a gut three times as big as ours
humans eat far less food and expend a lot less energy
extracting nutrition from it
allowed us to eat a much greater range of foods
allowed neanderthals to colonize northern europe

Smaller Guts, Larger Brains

efficiency led to changes
guts less than have size
smaller teeth
brain three times larger than other mammals

No comments: