What we can learn from our hunter-gatherer ancestors
Caroline Wickham-JonesThe roots of our current problems of climate change and resource depletion go back 6,000 years to the arrival of farming
As an archaeologist my work is rooted in the past. As an inhabitant of the 21st century, I try to be "green". As an academic I am keen to re-awaken interest in the ancient hunter-gatherer population who lived in Britain before the arrival of farming 6,000 years ago. In my recent research, I found that all three come together and, what is more, they help me to show that archaeology has relevance – it is not just old stones and bones.
There is a growing realisation that life, as we live it, is not sustainable. We devote books, magazines, courses and thinktanks to the problem. But the existing analysis is shallow; it focuses on the present and on the status quo. For this reason, there is no quick fix for us today; to talk about climate change, renewable energy or staycations is merely to scratch the surface of something much deeper.
In reality, the roots of our situation go back 6,000 years to the radical changes in lifestyle that came about with the introduction of farming. Why, and how, the change took place is still an archaeological mystery. For my part, I am interested in the consequences rather than the mechanism of this introduction. Within a couple of hundred years of the arrival of the first sheep on British shores, it seems that the hunter-gatherer way of life had all but disappeared across the UK.
What is interesting are the long-term implications that resonate to the present day. Fields had to be cleared, fertile ground had to be maintained; there is evidence of sophisticated fertilisation from early on. Many common illnesses began to appear as people settled down, lived in larger communities, in close proximity to their animals, and dealt with waste and new foods. Our relationship with the world began to change; we could practise control, but not on everything. Increased stresses included a fear of the wild: unproductive wild lands; wild animals; and vermin. There was also the fear of famine, of uncontrollable weather. As we began to develop the power of control, so we learned what it was like to lose control.
At this time, we see a marked change in attitudes to hunter-gatherers that has resonated through the millennia. Whether considering the opposed attitudes of Hobbes and Rousseau, the scholarship of Darwin, or recent coverage of the Roma, the ambivalence in our relationship with those who lead a more nomadic way of life is clear.
Farming underpins our society. Farming has permitted population growth, it created stability for industrialisation and provides the economic basis for life today. Even our language reflects the importance of cultivation and domestication: through concepts of paradise, civilisation, culture (the word "lady" has roots in the kneading of bread).
Farming bought benefits, but with a sting in the tail. More reliable food production led to population increase; food surplus and a settled lifestyle facilitated innovation: we can track an exponential increase in technological development from the arrival of pottery to present day Tupperware. The specialisation that first developed in the neolithic period has led to our almost complete dissociation from the means of production on which we now rely. Our addiction to energy took off: from hand-drawn prehistoric ploughs, to oxen-led medieval ploughs, to water and then steam, the emerging dominance of oil, and our current package of nuclear/wind/wave. We rely on energy and we no longer produce it for ourselves.
Our current analyses offer an unreliable quick fix. We need to add the deeper understanding of time for solutions to be long lasting. Sadly, however, the lessons of archaeology are rarely direct. Of course we could solve the problems of today if we reverted to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, but global populations and changed circumstances make that impossible. There is no simple solution. The answers offered by an analysis of the past are more general; they relate to scale and they are actions that we can take on board, though we may not like their message. We need, for example, to reduce our individual energy consumption: we can do that; we need to become more self-sufficient: we can do that; we need to see the world differently: no problem?
Over time, we have seen that economies of scale can be false economies; increasing specialisation can be loss of wisdom; industry can reduce ability.
Deep archaeology is getting exciting. Only by employing it can we see that the current issues – climate change, resource depletion, food scares – are symptoms, not the problem.