Stop the Press! Let’s Take a Good Look at Our Common Ground
Picture this: It’s 1492. A small group of Arawak Indians stand on the shore watching a collection of wooden boats rowing towards them. Approaching them is Death, in the form of dozens of filthy, hungry Spaniards whose germs, if not their swords, will kill them, maybe not today, but eventually, and all of them.
The Spaniards came in boats with dark sails. They rode giant “deer,” the like of which had never been seen in the new world, were followed by massive, slobbering hounds and sported hairy faces. The Arawaks, to Spanish eyes, were all but naked, pierced, tattooed, lived in huts, babbled incoherently.
The two sets of people could not have represented more different habits and approaches to the business of life. The way they dressed; the things they built; the gods they invented to worship. But that is all we are talking about here: culture. For all of the people involved in this little scenario were — well, people. What separated them was culture, not biology, and biology gave them much more commonality than difference, even if those commonalities did not save their skins.
We inhabit the earth today with a never-before-experienced global awareness, thanks to the process of globalization. And never before, because of our various environmental crises, has the urgency to recognize this been so great — all the action that needs to be taken requires unprecedented global cooperation.
And yet History often operates with difference as its default mode: Protestant-vs-Catholic, Muslim-vs-Jew, Han-vs-Mongol, Black-vs-White, etc.
But the simple fact is that we are one species, homo sapiens sapiens, and this means that we share almost all fundamental behavioural traits. The stories of history admit to remarkably few scripts — development from simple polities to ever more complex ones, struggles for power, resources, land; dynastic struggles, such as lie at the heart of India’s foundational epic, the Mahabharata, or wars over women, as in Homer’s Iliad (one of Europe’s foundational texts).
The familiar narrative arc of all societies are particularly visible in seven categories of human social life: Religion, politics, economy, warfare, technology, relationship with the environment, and gender relations. Let’s take a look at them below.
1. Gods, Mountains, Ancestors and Stars: Where Religions Unite
What are religions for? All religious beliefs serve similar purposes: they generate social cohesion, legitimize political power, explain the origins of the universe and humanity’s role in it, and provide a moral code and/or a legal framework. From Sumer to China and Mesoamerica to Australasia, humans worship various iterations of powerful forces for the same reasons.
And yet in religion one can see what appear to be radical differences: consider for instance Hindu polytheism and the monotheism of Judaism, Christianity or Islam. While on many levels, Hinduism may seem to be exceptional, in its profusion of deities, together these gods serve the same explanatory, ritual, political and social roles as Mosaic Law.
It is tempting (and possibly correct) to explain similarities within Afro-Eurasia as the result of direct influence. You could look, for instance, at the role of the Aryan migrations of several millennia BCE and at how one can trace ideas, habits and divine identities along their path. People, in other words, moved around, and brought their deities with them. From Zoroaster in Iran to Akhenaten in Egypt, and the later Israelites in the Near East, notions of High Gods, and even of Satan, appear along with embryonic moral codes identifying salvation as a goal, entwined with binary notions of Good and Evil.
Or you could compare Maya cosmology, which is bewildering and complex, with that of Old World monotheisms, which seem quite straightforward in comparison. In the functions of religions and in their development we can see familiar traces of the relationship between political power and the mysteries of the universe — between “God and Caesar,” as the New Testament puts it.
Freud’s notion of authoritative sources to explain the universe (The Future of An Illusion, 1927) is relevant here — and is a human universal. As are Emile Durkheim’s ideas about religion as the expression of community (Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 1912), which are equally applicable globally. So is Paul Tillich’s concept of being tied to “ultimate concerns,” from the Latin verb religare — to be tied or bound to that which is most important in life (The Dynamics of Faith, 1957). These, and many more core concepts from the sociology of religion, help illustrate how religions function in all societies, and what problems they arose to solve. Rather than being entirely unique, distinct and unrelated cultural forms, all religions actually share profound characteristics which come from Humanity’s specific needs and concerns as a species.
2. From Big Man to Democracy: Universal Tendencies in Politics.
Human societies have see-sawed between tyranny and some form of what we can loosely call “democracy.” Yet community consensus has always played a role in power, even if there is a common myth that as the march of history goes on, we get progressively more democratic. The over-emphasis of democracy’s Greek roots has clouded historians’ ability to see mechanisms of consensus in the ancient, and the non-Western world.
Quite apart from the fact that ancient Greece’s democracy was highly selective — in its exclusion of women and slaves, who made up more than half the population of most city-states — the revolutionary institutions and practices built by Athens in the fifth century BCE were not quite as revolutionary as we have for generations been taught. Says sociologist John Keene: “…One of the first matters to be straightened out in any present-minded history of democracy is what might be described as the Greek plagiarism of democracy.” Athens went further than most previous societies, and with its prodigious literary records we know more about their processes than almost anywhere else, not to mention the fact that they coined the term “Democracy” (and for this it is truly exceptional).
But Greece did not “invent” democracy. Their brand of participatory politics was a concept and practice that was in use around the world from very early times. In the pre-Greek Mediterranean and North Africa we find evidence of “assemblies” among the Phoenicians of Sidon, Tyre and Biblos, among other cities, representing a serious attempt at participatory government and a check against tyranny. Further back in time, in the second millennium BCE, across the desert in Mesopotamia, while many inscriptions tell of what appear to be all-powerful, even megalomaniacal rulers, other evidence, for example from the city of Mari, tells of the central role of assemblies in keeping monarchs in check (perhaps an echo of earlier tribal politics in evidence before the first cities).
Other inscriptions detail contracts between people and kings, demanding that they rule in the people’s interests. These demonstrate a widespread and extremely early concern for a say in one’s own governance — the kernel of democracy.
When Alexander the Great entered India he found what self-ruling “republics,” electing their leaders and holding them to account. The oral histories of several regions of Africa, including the Buganda of Uganda, the Akana people of Ghana and the Zulu of South Africa, all reference strong tendencies to select leaders — even kings — and have them rule in accordance with popular will.
Many societies throughout most historical epochs, in other words, have shown tendencies towards such consensus-seeking — which can be seen as a part of a common human inheritance — not a Greek invention ex nihilo, passed along exclusively to super-progressive Europeans.
The Greeks, in other words, drew on a political tradition that was both innate to some extent, and shared at the very least around a much-enlarged culture area that included the wider Mediterranean, the Middle East and North Africa, and Southwest Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Less information exists about early politics in the Americas. There is plentiful evidence for social hierarchies — kings, emperors and priests — yet we do not have sufficient details to draw firm conclusions about the countervailing forces that might have been equivalent to those in the Old World.
3. From Shells to Pork Bellies: What’s With All This Trading?
About 500 BCE, a group of Phoenician sailors row ashore to land on a strip of beach in West Africa. They lay out some leather and metal goods on the beach and retreat to their ship, where they send up a smoke signal. In due course, some locals come and examine the goods, and put out a certain amount of gold as an exchange. This process, described by Herodotus, is known as “dumb barter,” the way you would have traded with “others” at this time in history.
In economics, the desire, as Adam Smith put it, to “Truck, barter and exchange, one thing for another,” is universal, and has played a major role in spreading DNA (as merchants, usually men, took wives or concubines), religious, political and technical ideas, as well as generating wealth among and between communities with the movement of goods.
Such habits have an inestimably long heritage among humans: “Trade and exchange in human societies are certainly as old as the first human being,” says the historian Philip Curtin. It has even been suggested that what is widely considered the first human artefact, the Acheulian hand axe of Homo Habilis(some 1.7 million years old), may have been of more use as an item to trade than to cut with. If the urge to barter goes back into our evolutionary past, it follows that it spread out of Africa and was inherent in the people who variously populated the planet, and few societies are, or even have been, so isolated that they did not come into contact with others who had something to trade. Those that were (such as Polynesian islanders) routinely employed technology (see below) to travel to other areas in search of goods (and mates).
In the Old World cores of China and Rome, trade along the ancient silk routes was the connecting tissue which moved goods, people, germs and ideas from China and Asia to the Mediterranean. By the thirteenth century the Pax Mongolica created the world’s largest-ever contiguous free trade zone. Islam and Nestorian Christianity went east; Buddhism left India and established itself in China; silk became key to the economies of major states such as Persia and Byzantium, and spices transited the Indian ocean and the Middle East enriching states and kingdoms along the way. Trans-Saharan trade linked the forest economy to the south with North Africa, bringing slaves, Gold and Koala nuts, while products of the Sahel moved south, along, of course, with Islam which played a key role in West African history from the tenth century onward.
Trade was also central to Mesoamerican civilizations, from the Olmec to the Maya and Aztec, often controlled by elites who moved prestige items such as quetzal feathers, obsidian and jadeite — all key to their maintenance of power.
Trade, therefore, a common human activity, acted to link regions, further connecting the world and bringing people into contact, often with the result of narrowing cultural gaps and mitigating the effects of geography on culture. And trade globally, did the same things; not only did it move goods and enrich some people. But exchange achieved symbolic and expressive goals: One of the earliest items every traded were cowrie shells. These were almost universal in pre-history and show up in vast quantities. Often worn as decoration, they symbolized relationships between people, status, and signalled belonging within alliances.
4. War! What is it Good For?
War, said Heraclitus, is father of all, king of all. Some it makes gods, some it makes men, some slaves some free. The Greeks were not alone in understanding the place of war. “The art of war is of vital importance to the state,” says China’s Sun Tzu (fifth century BCE). “It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.”
Whatever you make of it, war happened, everywhere, as far back in history as we can find humans. Recent historical research suggests that there have been few, if any, truly peaceful societies. Those which are, likely have not always been. Sweden, known today for safe cars and progressive politics, gave us the less-than-sensitive Vikings in times past.
Many scholars have argued that nomadic societies are strangers to war, yet anthropologists and archaeologists report frequent devastating raids between small bands of nomads and hunter-gatherers, generated by the same issues that plague relations between states: struggles over physical resources, land and women. Archaeologists are increasingly revealing how ancient, or pre-state, societies practiced warfare, perhaps on an even greater scale per capita than later state societies.
War in some form even shows up among our primate cousins. Chimps come off particularly badly, as they frequently raid neighbouring groups and engage in bloody battles (Bonobos, on the other hand, prefer love to war and spend more energy having sex).
The point of all this war? Well, it was probably an adaptation that was naturally selected because it conveyed a survival advantage. Again, this is a species-wide inheritance — everyone who walked out of Africa over the last 2 million years had it buried in their DNA, and used it to bludgeon their way into new territory and deal with competitors and rivals.
5. From Flints to Fusion: How Human Societies Use Technology
All human societies are technological to one extent or another. We use tools, and in so doing we change the environment around us. While the drive to tinker with our environment may be a biological inheritance, geography leads us to different technologies — the ones that are most appropriate for our environment. But technology is not only about wreaking changes on the earth, or making processes more efficient; it is a surprisingly cultural phenomenon, as historian Francesca Bray puts it: “Technology is culture, that is, its work is as much the making of subjects and the production of meaning as it is the making of objects and the mastery of nature.”
Archaeologists think that the earliest “hand axes” belonging to prehistoric man, and seen as the first “tools,” may actually have had social meaning and uses, or were valued as much as objects as tools, possibly even playing a role in sexual selection (my hand axe is bigger than his…). Similarly, technological processes (such as iron smelting which until very recently in Africa was accompanied by the sacrifice of a goat — and the occasional beating of a child to make it cry), often acquire an aura of magic, being seen as tinkering with some of the planet’s most mysterious forces to produce something of great value from useless matter. And just in case goat sacrifice and child-beating sound irreducibly “African” in their superstition, never fear; parallels can be found in other places where societies exhibit an “irrational” behavior around the supposedly rational application of technology.
Technological superiority has been used historically as a measure of innate difference between peoples — less technical being considered “less civilized.” But all societies use the technology appropriate for them and which allows them to sustain themselves. Agricultural civilizations, such as the earliest ones in Sumer, Egypt, China, and the Indus Valley, all had large populations and found that their agricultural techniques (irrigated crops) further increased this population. Thus growing, they were constantly spurred to technological innovation. China is the poster child in this sense. With a steadily expanding population, it generated such frequent innovations — in agriculture, iron-smelting, and hydraulic engineering — that many scholars ask why the Song Dynasty did not initiate an industrial revolution around 1100 CE.
6. At the Mercy of the Elements: The Human Animal and its Ecosystem
In the environment, human societies encountered something that defined them as powerfully as their biology. We are all, in other words, vulnerable to the environment. Here is where you can often locate the reason for differences between human societies — their geographies.
Is it any surprise that nomadic reindeer herders of the arctic never developed agriculture? Why was the Fertile Crescent so important for early sedentary societies and urbanism? Why did large Eurasian-style empires not develop in Africa before the fourteenth century? Jared Diamond has argued that Eurasian civilizations benefitted from contiguous terrain, the Indo-European plains, which, once the horse was domesticated, could be ridden at great speed, allowing connectivity and the spread of ideas and practices, as well as the building of large land empires.
Climatic and ecological similarities likewise permitted civilization to sprawl across Eurasia on the backs of horses, camels, cows, pigs, sheep and goats — on a handful of usefully-domesticated quadrupeds, in other words, the like of which did not pertain in New World, and only to some extent in Africa. Try running a major empire on guinea pigs. Similarly, Africa’s lack of storable grains explains the absence of large empires there until after the arrival of yams from Indonesia. Rice, which admits to an indigenous variety, did not take well to many regions in Africa, neither did many large animals which came to grief with tropical diseases.
Other historians, such as Ian Morris, have also argued for the role of “maps not chaps” in explaining human differences, and while it is not easy in every case to see the exact consequences of environmental factors, many are obvious. The mountainous region of Southeast Asia, known to historians as “Zomia,” sprawls across multiple countries today, including Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, Burma and China. Scholars have argued that inhabitants of this region share more with each other than they do — or have done — with “valley” people from the same political entity. The mountains define their politics, as mountains have historically lured people as an escape from taxes and military service.
Yet while environments differ around the world, humans share the same fragility in the face of the environment. The environment gives, you might say, and the environment taketh away. Similarly human frailty in the face of the climate has been demonstrated repeatedly throughout history: examples of societal “collapse” abound: The Vikings of Greenland likely succumbed to a cooling climate which closed their trade routes with ice. The Pueblo people of the American southwest similarly suffered from a cooling climate (which in their region meant not ice but water shortages and agricultural failure). Meanwhile along the oases and deserts of the Silk Road in the thirteenth fourteenth century, increases in trade and population growth combined with cooling temperatures to put the Tarbogan, a kind of obese marmot, in contact with humans, handing off in the process fleas infected with Yersinia Pestis, or Black Death to you and me.
These examples of ancient climate change affected populations in an equal opportunity manner, like climate change today, and there was little that local populations could do about it.
7. Men and Women: Everywhere, Patriarchy!
Is the gender divide historical, biological, anthropological, or fictional? Is it only a part of western civilization? Or a product of industrialization? Is it a pre-modern hangover? How does history help answer these questions?
While there are considerable differences between civilizations when it comes to the relationships between men and women, scholars have fairly conclusively proven that there have never been any fully matriarchal societies. Patriarchy, however, has almost always been fully enforced within agrarian societies, from the Inca to the Chinese. Examples abound of powerful women in history — Cleopatra, Boudicca, Malinche, Joan of Arc, and many dowager empresses of China, yet they all played their roles within rigidly defined, male-oriented worlds, all of them the exceptions which prove the rule.
Historian Barbara Ehrenberg has written about the “Great Male Takeover,” putting this event at around 10,000 BCE, with the advent of farming in the Near East. The world over, as populations became sedentary, building permanent, year-round structures, domesticating plants and animals, gender roles became written in stone.
While some people gained power over others through their control of storable surplus (which enabled them to dispense food to others, leading to the power to call in favours), the increasing size of sedentary communities led to the need for laws and more “complex” social structures — hence embryonic government — and what we might call “power.”
Additionally there was work to be done, and someone had to organize it. In the 1950s British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon discovered one of the first masonry towers ever built, in Jericho. Dating to about 8000 BCE, it was some 28 feet tall. Archaeologists estimate that it took 11,000 working days to build. Who persuaded all those men (women?) to work? Was it built with cooperation or forced labour? Who determined how it was done, or why? Who, in other words, was the Man?
And the question is significant, because from the beginning of “the Man’s” tenure on the planet, he was, well… male. Why? Many historians, Ehrenberg among them, think that the answer is largely biological, in what may be an unfashionable position today. The demanding practice of child rearing, and the resultant restriction of women to the hearth and home, had men taking on public roles in those early sedentary societies. The earliest of these societies subsisted from both hunting and varying amounts of agriculture. Women were often the prime gatherers and horticulturalists — this could be done near the home. Men frequently made extended trips away from the home. A nursing mother was not the first choice to go on a deep-sea fishing trip.
To turn the idea around a little; men’s relative redundancy in the domestic sphere rendered them more appropriate for public-sphere activities, which, as sedentary society developed, became institutions such as the temple, the palace and the army. Men, in other words, driven from the hearth by their uselessness in the process of child rising, invented jobs for themselves and these jobs became the loci of power.
And in sedentary societies, not only did some people end up with less than others, creating classes of haves and have-nots, but one entire gender actually ended up becoming one of the commodities — women. In lists of trade goods from Han China, or from tenth-century Arab accounts of trade in Africa, among other places, women frequently appear as items alongside other consumables such as timber, metals, pottery, and spices. For our purposes here, the gender gap is one of the central commonalities linking humanity. Arguably, an Afghan woman — for example — has more in common with a Tibetan woman than an Afghan man.
What, then, is the take-home from all this commonality?
The main point I want to make here is that we as a species are moving inexorably towards a future in which a recognition of our commonality is essential, as the borders between us shrink. The main causes of said shrinkage are globalization (which forces us to be neighbours) and climate change (which demands concerted planetary action). Certainly, huge challenges remain: identity still causes intractable conflict (Christian/Muslim, Arab/Israeli, etc.). But never before have we faced such dire need to recognize our similarities, if we are to act as one people, under one increasingly hot sun, which cares neither for colour of skin, creed nor gender.