A lament to a past that might have been but never was

Conventional wisdom pins the invention of agriculture down to the ‘fertile crescent’ of the Middle East. Possibly starting in Chogha Golan some 11,700 years before the present.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the height of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the end of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

This was where humanity started on its journey to the current world of climate change, extinctions, pollution and over-consumption. However, new research suggests agriculture was also invented much earlier by the Gravettian culture who flourished during an inter-glacial period, around what is now the Black Sea, maybe 33,000 years ago. Humans around this time also domesticated dogs – the oldest evidence has been found in Belgium, dated 32,000 years before the present.

That interglacial was apparently brought to a sharp end when New Zealand’s Taupo super-volcano exploded and knocked the world back into a new sequence of Ice Ages, also apparently nipping the agricultural revolution in the bud.

But suppose it hadn’t – that the climate had stayed warm. How would the world be today, 33,000 years after the agricultural revolution instead of about 11 or 12000? There was nothing inevitable about the way technology emerged – if you look at general tech, by which I mean everything from energy harnessed to the things people had in their homes, like combs, pots, pans and so forth, we find little real difference between (say) the Roman period and the Medieval period.

The Oruanui eruption, Taupo, 26,500 BP. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Taupo_2.png

The Oruanui eruption, Taupo, 26,500 BP. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Taupo_2.png

A lot had to do with energy sources – which were limited to wind, fire, falling water, and human and animal power. Even the invention of gunpowder did not much change the calculation: it was not until steam came along that things took off.

The industrial revolution was product of a unique diaspora that combined the thinking of the ‘age of reason’ with a climatic downturn that seemed to prod people into new innovations, financed by a rising band of new-rich Englishmen who’d made their fortunes on Carribean sugar and had money to burn.

Don’t forget – this was partly a result of chance. The Chinese never industrialised despite being just as smart, just as resourceful, and having similar opportunities. The Romans didn’t, either, earlier on, though they had a society as complex and urbanised as our modern one.

The point being that our alternative Gravettian timeline might have rolled along with what we might call the ‘Roman/Medieval’ level, forever. Or they might have industrialised. Steam engines and a moon programme 28,000 years ago? Why not?

There are other dimensions, too. Back then, Neanderthals were alive, well and living in Gibraltar. Sea levels differed – anybody heard of ‘Doggerland’? Or ‘Sahul’?

Whichever way things went, odds are on that if the glaciations hadn’t done for that agricultural revolution 33,000 years ago, we’d be rag-tag bands back in the stone age again now, this time without easily-scoopable fossil fuels and metals.  Pessimistic, but when you look at the way the world’s going now – where else are we going to end up? We lost the space dream, and we’re busy smashing each other and using the resources we’ve got as if there’s no tomorrow. Which there won’t be, if this carries on.

Do you think the Gravettian world might have been different?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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9 comments on “A lament to a past that might have been but never was

  1. Almost certainly different. My speculation involves the lack of development of what Riane Eisler has termed “dominator psychology,” which I speculate was caused by a series of natural disasters (such as the eruption of the Taupo super-volcano) inflicting psychological trauma on world populations. A longer stress-free development of civilization might have seen humans emerge with a wholly different paradigm of civilization, one based more on cooperation and communication than dominance and violence.

    Well, one could hope, at least.

    • It’s an intriguing thought which I agree with. The genetics point to at least one major bottleneck, possibly more – humans, genetically, are unusually close. Taupo, quite possibly; Toba is another suspect. I’ve also seen it reported that the genetic bottleneck may have come from the fact that only a very, very tiny band seem to have migrated from Africa. Possibly ‘all of the above’ – in which case it is difficult to avoid concluding that these were also shaping forces for some of our apparently unique characteristics – ranging from our unerring ability to exploit an environment until it breaks (Easter Island!) to our innate ‘us vs them’ mentality. And, I think, Eisler’s dominator hypothesis which, I suspect, repeats on smaller scales in smaller groups.

      I suspect all these were survival advantages in hard times. But they have quite the reverse effect in times of comfort. Change some of these factors and maybe humanity might have had a different nature – and with that, a different path in the world. Intriguing prospects for stories, of course…

  2. You write about such cool stuff! I can’t see any way that the world wouldn’t be different. You’re talking about an equation that begins with a +20,000 year shift in the timeline and then adds in a crazy number of variables. :)

    • Thanks. Yes, this one is a particularly cool. Which is why I thought I’d share it with some of my very cool blogging friends around the world! I agree, if our world had agriculturalised 20,000 years early it would be very different today in every way. The question is how, and I guess my rather pessimistic assessment of the human condition points to us having already gone through the cycle of growth/over-exploitation/collapse that seems to dog the human condition through its history. I’m hoping that with awareness we might change that.

      • Well, I too wouldn’t hold out much hope that given an additional 20,000 years we’d somehow avoid the mistakes we’ve made. Instead, we’d make them (and some new ones). Awareness is certainly needed right now, but more important is cooperation and I’m not seeing much of that at any level. We need to run and with each passing day our inactivity means we need to run faster still, yet we remain bogged down in politics while the planet suffers. I hope NZ is better at addressing issues, for what I’m witnessing here in the US isn’t encouraging. We have real global issues that need addressed and only bickering governments to address them. It’s like a group of children fighting over one crayon to color a 2000 page book. We need a global leader on issues and the US seems to have checked into rehab for the indefinite future. I’m ashamed.

        • NZ has taken the lead on some issues but we are a very small country. One about to go into an election where all the bickering of politicians is being played out on fast forward. I guess little different from anywhere else in that sense. Sigh…

  3. Rob McKie says:

    I’m not sure it would be that different, maybe some different and earlier advances in technology, different theologies and religions. But at the end of the day one thing that has been constant in human civilization, is that despite how advanced civilizations may have been, they all fall to fragile human nature and much knowledge gained is lost needing to be discovered again by future generations. it seems to be a natural pattern that keeps on repeating itself.

    • I totally agree. And it’s that fragile nature that worries me. The tragedy of history is that the stories change – but human nature doesn’t. What worries me is that this keeps being repeated on ever-larger scale. And as a species we DO have the intellectual capacity to understand and stop it, if only we could get past that fragility. It’s down to simple things like tolerance, kindness and understanding. I sometimes think (or hope) that the world is beginning to find those things as a general step up, and then something happens like last week’s appalling crime in the Ukraine. Sigh…

  4. Rob McKie says:

    I don’t want to be seen as condoning the actions of a few crazy Russians/cossacks/tartars/Ukrainians, but was last weeks tragedy that surprising? its just an example of the evolution of weapons and their increased destructive power, from slingshots to spear to arrow to gunpowder to guided missiles each evolution has changed the face of the world. Historically this attack is little different from nomadic tribes attacking caravans on the silk road, or crusaders molesting pilgrimages to the holy land, or privateers intercepting Spanish gold galleons, in all of these innocents were always the victims.

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