Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Seeing The Forest In The Study Of Pre-History

Roughly half of the posts of this blog are related to the study of pre-history leaking into the historic era and the present at times. 

For the study of pre-history to be interesting, satisfying, comprehensible, and even at times useful, the student needs to be able to the forest level big picture and not just the tree level details.

What are we looking for at the big picture, forest level?

1. A Credible Narrative Story Of The Genus Homo.

The foundation of everything else one derives from the study of pre-history is a narrative level understanding of the story of the human species and its archaic predecessors. This continues up through not just the point at which the first writing appears, but also up to the point at which reliable, literal, comprehensive written accounts of what happened in the past appear. This happens at different times in different places and in different domains.

In this context, a narrative is a story of a people or peoples. It is a possible, plausible, sequential description of actual groups of people who respond to conflicts and pressures and in a cause and effect manner.

To be credible, it needs to be supported by credible evidence. A narrative's credibility is greatly improved and the narrative is more robust, when that story is supported: 

* by multidisciplinary lines of evidence that are consistent with each other to within the tolerances of the uncertainties in what we know, 

* by independent sources of evidence within the same discipline, ideally by more than one group of independent researchers, 

*when it is not contradicted by any credible evidence that can't be explained by tweaking the narrative, 

* when it stands the test of time after it has been published, and 

* when it is consistent with the historical, anthropological, linguistic, biological, climatological, and logical process that have been established by other means.

It is important to have some level of narrative from start to finish, but more detail, which can be a product of advances in research and more advanced study and doesn't take away from the necessity of first having a strong grasp of the higher level narrative.

For example, you need the context of the bare bones Out of Africa narrative to understand the prehistory of the Americas.

While it isn't logically necessary for this to be the case, in reality, the human narrative can be well understood in broad migrations and admixtures that happen mostly in punctuated waves of coherent peoples with a common origin who are genetically similar, share culture that is expressed though a language, one or a small number of religions which are revealed for example in rituals related to the dead, kinship practices, a technological package including means of subsistence and characteristic art and artifacts, and stories which may or may not be transmitted down to us in more or less fragmentary forms depending on the circumstances. 

We can't always find evidence about all of these elements, but we can always reasonable assume that all of them existed in a coherent form at the time whether or not we can learn what they were. We can also have some sense of what the missing pieces about which we have no direct evidence for a particular people were like by analogy to similarly situated ancient and modern peoples about which we do have evidence.

Biogeographic Regions

It is useful to study prehistory in biogeographic regions, often on the scale of large portions of continents and associated nearby islands defined by watersheds, mountain ranges, jungles, deserts, and similar geographic barrier boundaries, that have for long periods of prehistory and/or history, been distinct. 

Key regions include sub-Saharan Africa (sometimes broken into West Africa, East Africa, the Congo basin, Southern Africa and Madagascar and other Indian Ocean islands), North Africa and the Sahara, the greater Nile River basin, Southwest Asia (also known as the Middle East) sometimes divided into the Levant, Mesopotamia (i.e. the Tigress and Euphrates River Valley), and Arabia, West Asia (i.e. Anatolia and Iran and sometimes also the Caucuses Mountains), Europe (with various subdivisions thereof), Central Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia (mainland and island), Melanesia, Australia, Oceania, North Asia (often distinguishing the Spice Road area at its southern boundary), North America (often distinguishing Pacific, Northern and Southwestern and Southeastern areas or certain watersheds), Meso-america, the Caribbean, and South America. I frequently tag the entire region of the Americas using the ethnocentric term "New World" without intending a non-descriptive connotation.

Prehistoric Eras

It is useful to study prehistory for particular functionally defined eras within those biogeographic regions or across biogeographic regions that are distinct but interact with each other. At the forest level this means:

* The pre-modern human era. This era starts at the chimpanzee-hominin split around 7-13 million years ago, to the evolution of Homo Erectus around 2 million years ago, to the evolution of anatomically modern humans around 300,000 years ago in Africa with the earliest representatives leaving Africa around 125,000 years ago and the main wave of modern humans ancestral to modern humans alive today leaving Africa around 75,000 to 50,000 years ago.

A partially overlapping era is the Middle Paleolithic era which is associated mostly with archaic Neanderthals and Denisovans, and with modern humans in and out of Africa prior to the Upper Paleolithic era.

* The Upper Paleolithic era. This era starts around 75,000 to 50,000 years ago, with the main wave of modern humans leaving Africa and parallel mass migrations within Africa. The older date is often linked to the Toba eruption and from the appearance of litmus test modern human technologies like the use of bone tools, more refined stone tools like flint spear and arrowhead points, and the use of bows and arrows. The more recent date is often inferred from the analysis of human population genetics. Historically, this was often thought of as the appearance of behaviorally modern humans, although that interpretation, while held by some scholars, is no longer a consensus one.

Within the Upper Paleolithic, important landmarks are the migration of modern humans across the Wallace line to Australia and Melanesia around 50,000 years ago, the migration of modern humans into Europe coinciding with the beginning of the extinction of Neanderthals from about 45,000 to 30,000 years ago, the emergence of distinct West Eurasian and East Eurasian populations of modern humans around 40,000 years ago, the era before and after the Last Glacial Maximum around 20,000 years ago, the first pre-Neolithic pottery of about 16,000 years ago in East Asia, the migration of the founding population of the Americas into North and South America from Beringia around 15,000 years ago, the Younger Dryas event around 12,900 years ago, and the Mesolithic in the several thousand years before the Holocene era when hunter-gatherers start to repopulate Europe from their Last Glacial Maximum refugia.

* The Holocene era. The Holocene era starts around 10,000 years ago. The main division of Holocene era peoples are Neolithic, Copper Age (a.k.a. Eneolithic a.k.a. Chalcolithic) which is sometimes bundled into the early Bronze Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. The divide between the Bronze Age and the Iron Age is often placed at Bronze Age collapse ca. 1200 BCE, even though the Iron Age doesn't really start in earnest for a century or three after that, emerging from the pre-classical, post-Bronze Age, dark ages. (Classical refers mostly to Greco-Roman Iron Age civilization.) The Neolithic era radiates at the technological package spreads from the several independent places where it originates reaching different places at different times. The Copper Age starts around 3500 BCE with the early Bronze Age starting a few centuries later and becoming fully expressed by about 2500 BCE. There is a major civilizational disruption around 2200 to 2000 BCE associated with the 4.2 kiloyear climate event.

The Holocene era is associated with the earliest Neolithic Revolutions during which modern humans domestic plants and animals so that they can transition from being hunter-gatherers to stone tool using farmers and herders. Confusingly, in East Eurasia, and in Russian scholarship, pottery predates this food production revolution and the initial use of pottery is often used to define the Neolithic era, while in the Fertile Crescent and in Western scholarship, the Neolithic is usually defined by the food production revolution which predates the use of pottery.

Some scholars recognize the Anthropocene era. This is the era in which modern humans start to influence the environment and climate decisively relative to other animals) coinciding roughly with the post Last Glacial Maximum Mesolithic era and continuing to the present.

The Iron Age coincides with the beginning of the historic era in some contexts, after which the historic eras of the Middle Ages (roughly from the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 400s CE to the Renaissance and Reformation in the late 1400s), early modern period (starting with the Renaissance and Reformation), and modern era (roughly starting with the Enlightenment in the 18th century) follow. Other time periods within what is mostly the historic era that I frequently reference include the Migration Period, Y1K (i.e. the vicinity of 1000 CE), and the divide between pre-Columbian and post-Columbian eras in the New World (at 1492 CE, but also descriptively dated from first contact with something European sourced or driven).

2. How Did The Narrative Impact The Modern World

A second major forest level objective of the study of prehistory is to understand how prehistory has impacted our life in modern times. 

This could involve, for example, evolutionary and prehistoric understandings of human genetic variation, or the relationship of attested language families to each other. This can pull the study of prehistory into its causal consequences in the historic era, especially in the immediately adjacent oldest historic periods, usually with a bridge period (often from the Bronze Age and first reduced to writing in the Iron Age) of legendary history where there are written accounts of the past that are somewhat fantastical and merge fact and fiction.

3. Developing An Inventory Of What Has Happened In Humanity's History That Did Not Have A Big Impact On The Modern World

Studying the prehistory of moribund or extinct peoples, languages, and cultures helps us understand the range of what is people for humanity, even if as it happened, those particular peoples or what they did, didn't have a direct influence of much note on the modern world.

For example, it is helpful to know if there were instances where herding and farming were developed and then abandoned (which appears to have largely happened, for example, in Neolithic Ireland) before being readopted.

4. Understanding Historical Human Processes.

By analyzing at a forest level the narratives, modern impacts, and possibilities exposed by the study of prehistory, allow us to see larger patterns and understand how the long term, big picture course of history unfolds.

When two peoples meet, do they make war, do they respect each other's boundaries, do the blend, is one subjugated to the other culturally, do the admix and if so in what manner? Under what conditions does htis play out one way or another?

How much of history appears to be driven by climate, by technology, by economics, and geography, and how much does it appear to be driven by the contingent decisions of particular individuals? What technologies are developed many times independently and what technologies are developed only once or rarely and spread widely?

How do new cultures and new biogeographic phenotypes emerge?

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