I wanted to do some deeper stuff on the concept of wealth and what it means. I figured the best place to start was at the beginning.
Modern humans (homo sapiens) emerged in Africa about 200,000 years ago. By the end of the Pleistocene era they had spread eastward along the Equator to India, Asia and Australia. As the glaciers retreated they moved north into Europe and across the Bering Strait into North America.
Early humans were hunter-gatherers, which basically means they wandered around looking for food. In some areas they needed protection from the environment too. From what we know of such people in more modern times they lived in tribes and wandered within set boundaries unless forced to go elsewhere.
That’s really not a lifestyle conducive to acquiring material possessions. You can safely assume that pretty much everything they owned was functional – tools, clothing and shelters. It was all handmade too.
Let’s say your tribe wandered into an unoccupied valley filled with game and wild foods. Life would be pretty good. But sooner or later other groups would join yours, and your own would grow. Eventually resources would become scarce.
Wealth in those days would consist of controlling enough resources to ensure the survival of your tribe. If you don’t have enough resources, some or all of your tribe will die during the winter.
As your tribe stays in the valley you become more knowledgeable about your environment and you make technological advances. You identify grains, nuts and roots that are edible after processing (such as drying, crushing and leeching out the tannic acid from acorns) and you learn how to preserve foods for the lean months. You also learn how to use certain leaves and seeds as well as salt to add flavor to your diet.
You develop tools like hooks and harpoons to catch more and bigger fish, and you develop tactics that allow you to hunt larger game and kill predators. You learn to make baskets and pots from reeds and clay, allowing you to transport and store food and water. You learn land management techniques like setting fires to clear out under brush, and you begin to domesticate sheep and goats.
While all the tribes in the valley migrate somewhat, some spend most of their time in the hills and others along the river banks. They occasionally meet and trade with each other, for both tribes mutual benefit.
All these innovations and the effort to use them mean that more food will be available, thus allowing your tribe to grow larger and still survive. But occasionally famine strikes and there are times of drought.
For generations upon generations your tribe has known that certain grasses produce an edible grain that can be harvested, dried and crushed into a powder. This powder can be mixed with water and eaten as a paste or the paste can be mixed with animal fat and baked on flat rocks to produce a bread. This has long been a staple of your tribe’s diet.
Then one spring a young know-it-all notices out that where some of the grain was spilled the previous fall there are now shoots of that grass growing. He pulls up some of the grass and sees that at the base of each is one of those grain pods, now split open with a green shoot and a root coming out.
He shows his father. “Shaddup and get to work” his father says, slapping him on the head. “I told you to tan those green hides and you better hurry up or I’ll tan yours!”
But this youngster doesn’t give up and eventually convinces his father to let him try an experiment. He spreads some of the extra grain leftover from the previous year (it was a very good year) on a bare patch of ground. Birds immediately swoop in and begin eating the grain.
“I told you it wouldn’t work” his father says, slapping him on the head. “Now go gather some firewood like I told you.”
But genius is not easily deterred. The boy reasons that if he covered the grain with dirt the birds couldn’t eat it. Using a sharpened stick to till the soil he plants some of the grain and covers it up.
A couple weeks later the boy shows his father a thick patch of green shoots emerging from the soil. “Look at how much grass is growing now!” he says.
“I always said you got my brains and your mother’s looks” his father replies.
It wasn’t quite that simple, but almost.
The basic concept of planting seeds started the Neolithic Revolution.
The Neolithic Revolution was the first agricultural revolution. It was the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture and settlement. Archaeological data indicates that various forms of plants and animal domestication evolved independently in six separate locations worldwide circa 10,000–7000 years BP (8,000–5,000 BC). The earliest known evidence exists in the tropical and subtropical areas of southwestern/southern Asia, northern/central Africa and Central America.
However, the Neolithic Revolution involved far more than the adoption of a limited set of food-producing techniques. During the next millennia it would transform the small and mobile groups of hunter-gatherers that had hitherto dominated human history into sedentary societies based in built-up villages and towns, which radically modified their natural environment by means of specialized food-crop cultivation (e.g., irrigation and food storage technologies) that allowed extensive surplus food production. These developments provided the basis for high population density settlements, specialized and complex labor diversification, trading economies, the development of non-portable art, architecture, and culture, centralized administrations and political structures, hierarchical ideologies, and depersonalized systems of knowledge (e.g., property regimes and writing). The first full-blown manifestation of the entire Neolithic complex is seen in the Middle Eastern Sumerian cities (ca. 3,500 BC), whose emergence also inaugurates the end of the prehistoric Neolithic period.
COMING TOMORROW: Wealth Part II