The deep history of the domestication and enslavement of humans

Steven Mithen writes: When our ancestors began to control fire, most likely somewhere in Africa around 400,000 years ago, the planet was set on a new course. We have little idea and even less evidence of how early humans made fire; perhaps they carried around smouldering bundles of leaves from forest fires, or captured the sparks thrown off when chipping stone or rubbing sticks together. However it happened, the human control of fire made an indelible mark on the earth’s ecosystems, and marked the beginning of the Anthropocene – the epoch in which humans have had a significant impact on the planet.

In Against the Grain James Scott describes these early stages as a ‘“thin” Anthropocene’, but ever since, the Anthropocene has been getting thicker. New layers of human impact were added by the adoption of farming about ten thousand years ago, the invention of the steam engine around 1780, and the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945. Today the Anthropocene is so dense that we have virtually lost sight of anything that could be called ‘the natural world’.

Fire changed humans as well as the world. Eating cooked food transformed our bodies; we developed a much shorter digestive tract, meaning that more metabolic energy was available to grow our brains. At the same time, Homo sapiens became domesticated by its dependence on fire for warmth, protection and fuel. If this was the start of human progress towards ‘civilisation’, then – according to the conventional narrative – the next step was the invention of agriculture around ten thousand years ago. Farming, it is said, saved us from a dreary nomadic Stone Age hunter-gatherer existence by allowing us to settle down, build towns and develop the city-states that were the centres of early civilisations. People flocked to them for the security, leisure and economic opportunities gained from living within thick city walls. The story continues with the collapse of the city-states and barbarian insurgency, plunging civilised worlds – ancient Mesopotamia, China, Mesoamerica – into their dark ages. Thus civilisations rise and fall. Or so we are told.

The perfectly formed city-state is the ideal, deeply ingrained in the Western psyche, on which our notion of the nation-state is founded, ultimately inspiring Donald Trump’s notion of a ‘city’ wall to keep out the barbarian Mexican horde, and Brexiters’ desire to ‘take back control’ from insurgent European bureaucrats. But what if the conventional narrative is entirely wrong? What if ancient ruins testify to an aberration in the normal state of human affairs rather than a glorious and ancient past to whose achievements we should once again aspire? What if the origin of farming wasn’t a moment of liberation but of entrapment? Scott offers an alternative to the conventional narrative that is altogether more fascinating, not least in the way it omits any self-congratulation about human achievement. His account of the deep past doesn’t purport to be definitive, but it is surely more accurate than the one we’re used to, and it implicitly exposes the flaws in contemporary political ideas that ultimately rest on a narrative of human progress and on the ideal of the city/nation-state. [Continue reading…]

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