Photo of old seeds arranged in a lines on a tree stump.

Weekend Long Reads: Human Civilization Might Be Older Than We Thought

by Kevin Schofield

This week’s “long read” is an essay on archaeology in Palladium magazine, discussing some recent developments that might upend the dominant thinking on when human society began.

Nailing down the timeline for the dawn of human civilization has always been a bit of a guessing game, because human society predated recorded history. Even those societies with robust oral histories tend to maintain them only for as long as the society itself remains viable. So archaeologists exploring the dawn of human society try to extrapolate what happened based on an examination of what the essay calls the “extended phenotype” of the human race: the marks that humans leave on their world. For the most part when dealing with early societies, the extended phenotype consists of buildings, tools, and bones — often long buried.

The mainstream thinking holds that agriculture was a necessary precursor to large buildings, simply because it was required to feed the hundreds of workers needed to build larger edifices. This supports the belief that society first rose in the “Fertile Crescent” region, because of the warm climate, high-quality soils and reliable rivers supporting rich agricultural societies.

But recent discoveries are questioning this thinking, as excavations have uncovered buildings that predate by thousands of years the first known occurrences of agriculture. This is leading to speculation that aquaculture, organized hunting, and ranching of feed animals, along with the development of food storage and preparation techniques, might have led to societies rising long before agriculture was developed. And along with this is the tantalizing notion that there were complex human societies, with architectural legacies, prior to the last ice age — and potentially back to the earliest days of Homo sapiens. In 2009, archaeologists discovered stone tools on the island of Crete that date back 130,000 years — a puzzling find given that Crete would only have been accessible to humans by boat.

The essay also discusses how fields such as archaeology tend to resist changes to their prevailing paradigm such as this, until the evidence is so overwhelming that the old way of thinking is simply absurd. And similarly, modern societies also tend to resist wholesale revisions to their creation myths when they contradict current political sentiments. Egypt, it points out, is a notable exception to this: an Islamic nation that still embraces its ancient polytheistic roots. Its paper currency has Islamic mosques on one side and the pyramids on the other.

The handful of archaeological finds that suggest complex human societies predating agriculture are apparently not enough to cause the field to revise its timeline — yet. What we don’t know is how many more of such societies will be found in the years to come.

Why Civilization Is Older Than We Thought

Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and publishes Seattle Paper Trail. Previously he worked for Microsoft, published Seattle City Council Insight, co-hosted the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast, and raised two daughters as a single dad. He serves on the Board of Directors of Woodland Park Zoo, where he also volunteers.

📸 Featured image is attributed to Max (under a Creative Commons, CC BY 2.0 license).

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