When We Were Nicer

Steven Mithen

  • On Deep History and the Brain by Daniel Lord Smail
    California, 271 pp, £12.95, December 2007, ISBN 978 0 520 25289 9

Are you enjoying your morning coffee as you read this? Or your evening glass of wine? Did you enjoy watching the match last night? Have you read any good books lately? Oh and by the way, how is your sex life? According to Daniel Lord Smail activities like these are the true drivers of history. Forget great men with great ideas, the march of progress or the ‘seeds of change’: the essence of the historical process is the manipulation of human chemistry by the substances we consume, and the activities we engage in willingly or which are imposed on us against our will.

A provocative thesis regarding the significance of the long-term past and our evolved neurochemistry, On Deep History and the Brain radically rethinks the relationship between biology and culture, reversing the common assumption that the latter is simply derivative of the former. It looks way back beyond the conventional starting point of history, the earliest civilisations of five thousand years ago, to the Palaeolithic period when, Smail argues, the key features of our neurochemistry evolved. It then proposes that neurochemistry has shaped the course of human history right up to the present day: ‘What passes for progress in human civilisation,’ he writes, ‘is often nothing more than new developments in the art of changing body chemistry.’

What Smail provides is not another version of the crude evolutionary psychology that has become popular in recent years: that of Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, Steven Pinker and their acolytes, who argue that we still have biologically fixed Stone Age minds constituted by mental models evolved to solve problems of Pleistocene environments, principally those of the African savanna of three million years ago. Smail provides one of the best critiques of evolutionary psychology I’ve read, and then advances a far more sophisticated argument about the significance of our evolutionary past in the light of human history.

The first part of the book argues for the existence of a ‘deep history’, faulting those historians who cling to the idea that anything which occurred more than five thousand years ago is of no relevance to the modern world and the human condition. I have to take Smail’s word for it that such historians still exist, as after more than a century of prehistoric archaeology they would be an astonishing throwback to another age. He explains how, in the late 19th century, history created its own self-serving niche by giving priority to the study of written documents over other traces of the past: primarily, the artefacts that became the stuff of prehistoric archaeology. This allowed historians to cling to a biblical orthodoxy about the deep past, and to avoid asking difficult questions about the stone tools and human remains associated with the bones of extinct animals (mammoths, for example) that were being uncovered in river gravels and which challenged the veracity of Genesis. As such, history divorced itself from the study of the past prior to the first written documents, and led some to believe (apparently, some still do believe) that there was no prior history at all – nothing more than an unchanging prehistoric past.

As an archaeologist, I was intrigued by Smail’s view of the role of documents in the writing of history. He argues that information intentionally placed within documents is often the least trustworthy. Of greater value is the information that has drifted into documents without the authors’ having been aware of it. The absence of intention means that

we can trust the facts that emerge from [their] analysis in just the same way that we can never really trust the facts intentionally conveyed . . . The unintended meanings found in all documents are like sediments that have precipitated out of solution. Gather up that sediment. Add water and stir. What you have now is something resembling the original solution, what the French might call a mentalité, and from this we can write our histories.

This process, Smail argues, is far closer to the manner in which archaeologists work with artefacts than to the traditional view of how historians read texts. A number of archaeologists, though, have recently been making the converse argument that we should be interpreting pot sherds and stone flakes as if they were parts of a deliberately created text rather than unintentionally discarded rubbish. I have never found these arguments convincing, precisely because of the issues of intentionality that are of such concern to Smail.

Human history unquestionably begins long before the origin of writing five thousand years ago and needs to be studied from all types of traces, not only documents and artefacts but also languages and DNA sequences. Nineteenth-century geologist antiquarians often made an analogy between the evidence of sediments, fossils and artefacts, and the pages of a book we were just learning to read. This analogy is now far more powerfully applied to DNA, as its sequences of bases literally contain the evolutionary history of humankind, though in a language that we have only just begun to read.

Deciding how deep into the past one must go to find the start of human history takes us into difficult terrain – perhaps more difficult than Smail appreciates. It should not be contentious to suppose that those members of our species who did not keep any written records about their own past were nevertheless historical beings whose societies, culture and behaviour can be adequately understood only by knowing about what went before. It is evident from their material remains that they had a sense both of the past and the future. But what about the other types of Homo who lived in the Palaeolithic, either contemporary with or before the first Homo sapiens at c.200,000 years ago? Species such as Homo neanderthalensis, heidelbergensis and erectus had mentalities and linguistic abilities that were probably quite unlike our own. Did they have a sense of their own past? Did they appreciate that they themselves were historical beings?

The burial practices of Homo neanderthalensis suggest that they may have done so, but even this species shows an unerring technological repetitiveness, making essentially the same types of stone tool year after year for millennia, with no more than minor variations on a limited number of technological themes. Indeed, many archaeologists treat the Earlier Palaeolithic as if it were a ‘historyless’ period, to use the term coined by Oswald Spengler and cited by Smail when denying that such periods ever existed. Smail might have done more work on the Palaeolithic, as what he assumes to be ‘the myth of Palaeolithic stasis’ may, in fact, be the reality prior to Homo sapiens.

Some archaeologists (myself included) see a radical break, either with the emergence of Homo sapiens or rather later, at 70,000 years ago, when the first unambiguously symbolic artefacts and body adornments are known. Found in Blombos Cave in South Africa, they date from just prior to the great diaspora – the populating of Asia, Europe and eventually the Americas by Homo sapiens from its African home. This was also the start of cumulative culture change, along with symbolic behaviour in all its artistic and religious manifestations. My guess is that 70,000 years ago was most likely the time when the final stages of the evolution of language occurred, in itself probably the ‘catalysing event’ that kicked off the new type of historical process Smail warns us against accepting.

While the period from 200,000 to 70,000 years ago certainly marks the start of a new type of historical process, it could not be the start of history itself. For as Smail rightly acknowledges, even our small-brained relatives, the chimpanzees and baboons, have history, their current social arrangements being interpretable only from a past sequence of alliances, friendships, enmities and machinations. Individuals keep track of the altruistic or self-serving behaviour of others and gauge their own actions accordingly. So too it must have been with the much larger-brained, but still pre-modern Homo, especially if it is correct that the key selective pressure producing those large brains was the pressure to keep track of an increasingly complex social world. But whether the Neanderthals knew that they themselves were historical beings remains unclear, just as it does for our primate relatives today. Indeed, a question that Smail debates is whether having a consciousness of history is a prerequisite for having a history at all.

The so-called ‘Neolithic revolution’ is a rather more contentious idea than Smail acknowledges. He uses the term, originally coined by Vere Gordon Childe in the 1930s, for the period between approximately ten thousand and five thousand years ago, when throughout most of the world mobile hunter-gatherer bands became sedentary farming communities, and from there rapidly moved on to found towns and in some regions the first state societies. In global terms, this was a response of Homo sapiens to the start of the Holocene some 11,600 years ago, with its warmer and wetter climate than the preceding Pleistocene. The specific paths to sedentism and farming varied in different regions of the world where these independently emerged, as did the process by which farming spread out from such centres.

Recent books by Graeme Barker and Clive Gamble argue against the notion of a Neolithic revolution. They favour long-term continuity: a slow and gradual change from the Palaeolithic to the Neolithic with no discernible thresholds. I am on the side of Smail and struggle to understand how my archaeologist colleagues can claim that the Neolithic brought anything other than fundamental and irreversible changes in demography, politics, society and economics. Although the term ‘revolution’ may be inappropriate for a process taking five thousand years, and the term ‘Neolithic’ should not be used outside Europe and the Near East, the ‘Neolithic revolution’ was indeed what Smail calls ‘the fulcrum of the great transformation’ in human history.

While Smail may not be as closely acquainted with the ongoing debates in prehistoric archaeology as he might be, he is a passionate defender of the discipline. In some circles, archaeologists continue to be thought of as second-class historians, struggling to reconstruct the remote past in the absence of documentary evidence. As Smail writes, ‘the veil of time undoubtedly obscures’ the archaeologist’s vision, ‘but no more than the twin veils of cultural misunderstanding and self-deception that cloud the accounts of eyewitnesses.’ Documents in fact are little different from the artefacts studied by archaeologists, or indeed the languages and DNA sequences which contain their own records of human history.

It is with the shift to sedentary communities and eventually state societies that Smail sees our Palaeolithic-evolved neurophysiology coming to play the driving role. Ironically, he argues, one of the first things the shift entailed was a return to a primate-like social structure, with dominance hierarchies often maintained by random acts of violence against subordinates to maintain them in a constant state of stress. This type of social structure is found among chimpanzees and baboons, yet is curiously absent among those human hunter-gatherers known from the ethnographic record. These societies are egalitarian, employing various social mechanisms – joking and teasing would be instances – to prevent individuals gaining dominance over others. This is most likely an adaptation to the harsh environmental conditions – the Kalahari desert or Canadian Arctic – in which hunter-gatherers survived long enough to be historically recorded. The archaeological record does on the other hand provide examples of dominance hierarchies among hunter-gatherers who lived in more productive environments, such as the 12,500-year-old Natufian societies of the Levant. But these are minor exceptions. The majority of Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers were egalitarian, this being a necessary adaptation to Ice Age conditions and their mobile lifestyles.

Developing arguments originally made by Christopher Boehm, Smail proposes that with the Neolithic revolution, a ‘long-dormant’ neurophysiology was turned ‘back on’. Village, town and city living provided ecological situations in which individuals could once again maximise their own advantage by gaining dominance through random acts of violence. The control of agricultural surpluses or trade routes was not enough to maintain their power base: they also needed to control the brains and bodies of their subordinates by manipulating their neurochemistry. The political elites, Smail argues, were not aware that they were engaging in such biological interventions; they were simply repeating what had seemed to work in gaining them power. Random violence is a winner every time.

Not just physical violence either. Smail’s arguments will be particularly striking and persuasive to those familiar with the 9000-year-old Neolithic settlement of Çatalhöyük in Turkey, one of the earliest known towns. Here we find horrendous wall paintings and sculptures showing decapitated people and monstrous animals. It is a culture of suppression through terror, with – no doubt – a priestly caste benefiting from these visions of a Neolithic hell. Had the Çatalhöyük people been hunter-gatherers they could simply have moved on – the landscape around the town appears to have been strangely empty of people at this time – but being tied to houses and fields, their cattle and sheep, their pots, baskets and mats, they had to stay and let their body chemistry come under attack from those who had sought, and were intent on maintaining power.

The Neolithic was just the start. Because the neural states of humans are plastic and thus manipulable – quite unlike the fixed mental modules proposed by evolutionary psychologists – we see a succession of new forms of economic, political and social behaviour emerge during the course of history. Those that had the greatest impact on our brain-body chemistry became the most ingrained features of human culture: religion, sport, monumental architecture, alcohol, legitimised violence – and sex for fun. These emerge independently in state societies, as is made evident in the late Bruce Trigger’s monumental study Understanding Early Civilisations, for the good reason that they are most effective in moulding and manipulating our body chemistry. As Smail argues, it is not the diversity of human civilisations that we should find most startling but their profound similarities, which remind us of our common Palaeolithic heritage.

Sporting or theatrical spectacles are perhaps the ideal ‘tools of tyranny’, as Etienne de la Boétie called them in 1548. They have all sorts of mood-altering consequences among spectators, and la Boétie was right to describe them as ‘drugs for the people’ – anticipating by more than 350 years the drug-dependent society evoked by Aldous Huxley. What better way for elites to build and maintain their power than to create stress within a population by a culture of terror and then very kindly to offer the means for its alleviation by arranging such events? Smail calls the activities that influence the body chemistry of others ‘teletropic mechanisms’. Some of these are ‘symbiotic’, since they do not necessarily work against the self-interest of those affected. Sexual arousal, for instance, generates oxytocin and may be of mutual advantage to couples experiencing it. Others are simply exploitative, such as those that cause stress. And some are ambiguous. Smail considers church liturgies: these can be comforting to listen to, alleviate stress and anxiety, and can hence be classified as symbiotic. But, from a Marxist perspective, one might equally see them as controlling and exploitative. Indeed, Smail suggests that this is why religions such as Christianity considered various ‘autotropic’ practices such as masturbation and alcohol – which alleviate one’s own stress – as sinful. Gossip is another example, and here Smail draws on Robin Dunbar’s argument in his book Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language (1996) that gossip is as much a means for alleviating stress as for exchanging information. Thus its denigration, especially once it had been gendered as predominantly female, emerges as another means to prevent the self-alleviation of stress. It is far better for those in power to be in control of their subordinates’ body chemistry than to leave it to the subordinates themselves.

The expansion of such autotropic mechanisms may indeed provide one of the grand explanations of historical change from the Middle Ages to modernity, replacing as they do the teletropic mechanisms used by the elite to maintain their power base. Thus coffee, sugar, chocolate and tobacco, coming from Africa, Arabia and the New World, followed perhaps by the increasing popularity of sentimental novels and pornography in the 18th century, allowed people to modulate their own body chemistry, resulting in profound social and economic change. There was, in Smail’s opinion, a ‘tectonic shift’, and in light of the case studies he provides, the development of a neurohistory is indeed going to have a massive impact on our understanding of the last three hundred years. Making the Palaeolithic relevant to the drinking of tea is no mean feat.

Behind these arguments is a profound insight regarding the relationship between culture and biology. A common misapprehension is that the course of human evolution has involved a transition from our being biological to being cultural creatures. While we may acknowledge the use of tools and social learning among our primate relatives as well as other animals, such as the stick-wielding Caledonian crow, we still distinguish ourselves as alone having a capacity for culture. Although this must have a biological basis, the assumption is that once we had crossed the Neolithic Rubicon to create the early civilisations, our biology became a mere evolutionary backdrop, something to be acknowledged but of no concern when explaining the great artistic and scientific achievements of humankind.

Smail sees things differently. ‘We can finally dispense with the idea, once favoured by some historians, that biology gave way to culture with the advent of civilisation. This has it all backward. Civilisation did not bring an end to biology. Civilisation enabled important aspects of human biology, and the drama of the past five thousand years lies in the fact that it did so in ways that were largely unanticipated in the Palaeolithic era.’ So students of history will in future need to know the names of a new set of impersonal actors: dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and the rest. Historians, Smail argues, have to become more scientifically literate. Equally, biologists and physiologists have to become more historically minded and appreciate just how much our bodies and brains are products of society and culture. As he concludes, ‘we need not dig only in the dusty topsoil of the strata that form the history of humanity. The deep past is also our present and future.’