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Solving the Mystery of the Birth of the State
Still Starving After All These Years
Do you want an end to war and inequality? Listen to your starving ancestors for clues to a solution.
by Jeri Studebaker
Like all good soccer coaches, those doing battle with the state should first execute a bit of opposition research. What exactly is the state? Why hasn’t it faded away? And where did it come from in the first place? Clastres puts it nicely:“…perhaps solving the mystery of the birth of the State might also permit us to clarify the conditions of the possibility … of its death”
Let’s begin with definitions. Anthropologist Keith Otterbein offers a satisfyingly pithy one: The state is “…the notion that it’s appropriate for some individuals to rule others….”A state, in other words, is a place in which everyone accepts that a small elite maintains control over everyone else, through violence or the threat of it.This elite group controls the larger group’s resources, including its food supply, and determines who gets to eat, when, and how much. If you refuse to work a job in most Western countries, for example, chances are you won’t eat much, eat well, or maybe even eat at all. Although other characteristics define the state, these two -- social hierarchy and violence – constitute the heart of the beast.
To get a gut feel for the state, all it takes is checking out a few non-state societies like the Canadian Eskimo (now called the “Inuit”), the Gwi of southern Africa’s Kalahari Desert, or many other groups that until recently were still enjoying an indigenous or tribal way of life. In these groups no one rules, and no one controls the food supply -- or any other resource necessary to the group’s well-being. Food is divided equally among families. When they had extra food, the Gwi even spread the word, so that strangers could come share in the bounty. In traditional societies, people are kept honest not through violent law enforcement, but through shame and humiliation – it would be embarrassing to have your neighbor whispering that you shook your child too hard, or slept in instead of helping weed the pumpkin patch.
Marble mask from Uruk, Mesopotamia.
From Wikipedia (article: “Uruk”); in the public domain
At the opposite end of the spectrum from the Inuit and Gwi are communities who’ve lived for long periods without enough food. As a matter of fact, it turns out that starving societies might look a lot like state societies. I say “might” because for obvious reasons we don’t have many in-depth studies of long-starving people. In 1972, however, the British anthropologist Colin Turnbull published The Mountain People, a detailed description of the Ik, a group in north-eastern Uganda that was pushed off their aboriginal land and had been living on the edge of starvation for several generations by the time Turnbull moved in with them. As a consequence of their dire situation, the Ik’s social system had collapsed: Men regularly abandoned their families, brothers stole from sisters, parents stole from children, and Turnbull saw children snatching food directly out of the mouths of the elderly, whom the anthropologist described as “semi-animate bags of skin and bone ... [with] the blotchy look of a corpse that has been smoked.”
At the age of three, Ik children were kicked out of their parents’ homes. As a result, for protection against area wildlife and starvation, they formed into age bands, and within these groupings into “buddy” pairs. Buddies rarely remained buddies for long, however, before turning on each other. Most Ik villages had two age bands: a junior group aged three to seven, and a senior group aged eight through 12 or so (some 13- and even 14-year-olds managed to remain in the bands before getting booted out).In each band the strongest child, with the help of his buddy, ruled the group. Bands hunted food collectively in the mountain ravines outside their villages – figs, berries and bark when they could find them, earth and pebbles when they could not. When the seniors stumbled upon the juniors eating at a fig tree or berry patch, the seniors used violence -- sticks, stones and fists -- to drive the younger children away.
At the age of 12 Ik children were driven out of the senior band and into adulthood. By this time, having been betrayed by more than one “buddy,” they’d learned to trust no one. If they needed to for safety or the help others could give, adults might hunt together, but these excursions resulted not in food sharing but in fighting, envy, and suspicion: Turnbull notes that “… if, inconceivably, there was neither acrimony nor envy, then there would be suspicion that during the cooperative effort one might have laid oneself open to a subsequent charge of indebtedness.” Suspicion of others was often warranted, however; when an “elite” group of Ik men still strong enough to walk trudged to the nearest town to claim government food for their village, Turnbull watched these men on the way home gorge on the food, some until they vomited. Only one man carried food home to his wife.
Could it have been long-starving communities like the Ik that lead to the ugly entity that was the first state? The world’s first truly large cities, what we call “the birth of civilization” and the birth of the state, all materialized after 4000 BC in lower Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is now Iraq. Interestingly, researchers are beginning to realize that around this same time monumental climate change devastated not only Mesopotamia but the world in general. The “5.9 Kiloyear Event” was, according to the American Geophysical Union, “one of the most striking climate changes of the past 11,000 years, [causing] the abrupt desertification of the Saharan and Arabian regions midway through that period.”The AGU goes on to say that “the resulting loss of the Sahara to agricultural pursuits may be an important reason that civilizations were founded along the valleys of the Nile, the Tigris, and the Euphrates.”
The 5.9 Kiloyear Event probably came on like gangbusters. Many believe it was an example of “Rapid Climate Change,” or RCC, a shift in climate so fast and furious that it disrupts both humans and the environment, and, according to climate-change scientist Nick Brooks is noticeable “over timescales on the order of a human lifetime.” This climate revolution dried up so much land so fast that tens of thousands of some of the world’s first farmers suddenly became unable to feed themselves. Near-Eastern farming communities could have been affected in one of four ways:
One, some died out in short order.
Two, those close enough to large rivers like the Tigris and Euphrates were able to relocate in time to survive.
Three, other communities spent generations wandering through hundreds of thousands of miles of desert wasteland, isolated, starving, barely alive, sometimes stumbling upon small oases only to find these drying up after a few years.
Four, after starving for generations, a few of the groups in “Three” above stumbled upon large oases with permanent food Supplies. By then however the group would have mutated into a society like the Ik’s, with people arranged in hierarchies based on age and/or physical strength, hierarchies kept in place through violence. And when this fourth kind of group happened upon the gentle climate refugees at the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (see “Two,” above), it was easy to force these refugees into the violent, hierarchical social order that is the essence of the state, and that too of the long-starving Ik.
The ruins of Uruk, Mesopotamia, one of the world’s first cities, in 2008.
From Wikipedia (article: “Uruk”); in the public domain
The archaeological name for the 4000 BC Mesopotamians who lived immediately before the 5.9 Kiloyear Event (and through the birth of the first state) is “Ubaidian,” a name adopted from the low mound, or “tell,” where their remains were first found. Only six feet high but as big around as 28 American football fields, Tell al ‘Ubaid sits about halfway between Baghdâd and the head waters of the Persian Gulf. In the Middle East a mound is a tell-tale sign of an ancient city now buried under desert dust and debris. While al ‘Ubaid today sits on desert land surrounded by a barbed wire fence set into concrete posts, in 4000 BC it was an island rising roughly three feet above the Mesopotamian marshes.
Even today Ubaidians remain a mystery. Although they had the rudiments of writing, we haven’t deciphered it yet, so we piece together information about them from what they left behind. We do know they lived in multi-roomed brick homes with staircases, insulation, waterproofed roofs, drain pipes, central hallways, and floors made of wood, brick, or packed earth. We also know their architecture was so sophisticated that they almost certainly knew advanced mathematics, math that included the Pythagorean theorem.
Most amazing of all, however, Ubaidians shouldered none of the ugly baggage lugged around by their conquerors. Since Ubaidians all lived in the same kinds of houses, archaeologists assume social classes were unknown to them, as were poverty, slavery, hunger, war, crime, violence and sexism.Ubaidians apparently lived in a kind of Garden of Eden. Unfortunately, they were kicked out – by cold-blooded people I call Urukians, inhabitants of what archaeologists call Mesopotamia’s “Uruk Period” (c 3900-3100 BC).
In addition to the climate devastation that laid waste to Mesopotamia during the 5.9 Kiloyear Event, recent years have brought to light another new piece of the origin-of-the-state puzzle: the first cities were far from the giant leap forward we’ve been taught they were, and were actually a few giant leaps backwards, with people packed like sardines inside city walls, most of whom were dirty, hungry, poor and sick. William Haviland, Professor Emeritus at the University of Vermont:“[E]arly cities were disease-ridden places with relatively high death rates…. Dense population, class systems, and a strong centralized government created internal stress….Warfare was common; cities were fortified ….”Like the new climate-change information, this second relatively new piece of the puzzle also fits with the notion that the first state was begun by people resembling the long-starving Ik of Uganda.
Since archaeologists tend to focus on ruling-class winners over lower-class “losers” we know little about the final Ubaidians, who undoubtedly melted into the lower classes and slave populations of the new Urukian state.A few scholars however are complaining about the lack of attention given the ordinary people of the 4th millennium BC, and are working to remedy the situation. One such scholar is anthropologist Reinhard Bernbeck, of New York’s Binghamton University. According to Bernbeck, labelling the switch from Ubaidian to Urukian the “birth of civilization” is a monstrous misnomer; more accurately it was “the genealogy of enslavement and alienation,” and “the advent of public repression.”Bernbeck believes Urukian-era “subalterns” endured hideously miserable lives. Workers, he says, were victims who suffered. As people acquainted with human freedom and equality – they’d heard old stories passed down from their ancestors -- subalterns had to be tortured into surrendering their freedoms.
During the chaotic switch from the Ubaidian to the Urukian era, writing drops out of the Picture. All we have to illuminate this period are the art and other objects left by those who suffered through it (spears, helmets, maces, tables, chairs, statuary, buildings, etc.).Fortunately, because of little items called “cylinder seals” we have an abundance of images from the period. Cylinder seals were locking devices and picture IDs, and while small ones were about the size of your thumb, the largest measured up to four inches. Since they were metal or stone and bored through lengthwise, seals could be looped with a leather thong and worn around one’s neck or wrist, for ease of use.
Here’s how cylinder seals worked: First, seal carvers engraved unique images belonging to you and you alone onto your sealstone.Second, by rolling your sealstone over wet clay, you left your “signature” on that piece of clay. Third, you then attached this signature to your bottle of wine, chest of gold, or bushel of barley so that after the clay dried no one could touch your possession without breaking the clay.
According to Bernbeck, Urukians were probably first anywhere to show class conflict in their art.Owners of sealstones could engrave anything on them from goats, boats or flowers, to temples, people or thunder gods.Although Ubaidians had used seals for quite some time before Urukians latched onto them, the latter ushered in their own special brand of seal images, including people in “unequal relation” to one another, and pictures of “violent class conflict” -- scenes never found in Ubaidian art.
For example, on one Urukian seal two naked men are shown torturing four others. The torturees, also naked, seem tied in knots: bound hand and foot, arms tied tightly behind their backs, thighs pressed flat against chests, calves pressed smack against thighs. At the right end of the squat picture frame, another naked man kowtows to a giant in a calf-length tunic. Brandishing a sharp-tipped spear as tall as he is, the giant quietly watches the action.The torturers hold stick-like instruments over the bound men, ready to let them drop.
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According to Bernbeck, although this and similar Urukian images are usually labeled “war scene,” they actually portray “the repressive forces of an emerging state against its own population.”The damning evidence:if the armed men were warriors, why show them naked?Bernbeck says these are the first representations of human inequality in history, and that they indicate dramatic social change during the switch from Ubaidian to Urukian times – during, in other words, the birth of the first state.
Urukians are almost more of a mystery than the Ubaidians they supplanted. We do know, however, that the transition from Ubaidian to Urukian was a time of chaos -- just what one might expect from a period during which hordes of climate refugees suddenly descended on the people living between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers as the 5.9 Kiloyear Event began ravaging the Middle East. Bernbeck says “the Uruk period in southern Mesopotamia is characterized by a massive rural-urban migration that led to the growth of a few cities, the largest among them Uruk.”Suddenly there are 10 times more mouths to feed at the southern ends of the Tigris and Euphrates. It seems likely that the reason irrigation was invented here, around the same time the 5.9 Kiloyear struck, was to grow enough food to feed the sudden torrential influx of refugees.
The evidence suggests that at some point in time starvation-blunted Urukians turned the Tigris-Euphrates climate refugees into slaves who not only grew the Urukians’ food, but also made their clothing, homes, built their mammoth storage facilities, and met other of their needs – at the ends of whips, chains and maces.How did this happen? Simple: I suggest that the Urukians, like the Ik, had learned during generations of near-starvation to use human-on-human violence to get the nourishment they needed to survive. In addition they’d probably invented some of the first human-on-human weapons. Since their refugee targets possessed no such skills or weaponry, the ensuing conflict would have been no contest. Small, well-coordinated groups trained physically and psychologically in the use of violence and “advanced” weaponry can control larger groups lacking such training.
What if the state is indeed the product of an ancient culture formed by the mental and physical stress of long-term starvation? What difference would it make to us today? If nothing else, it might help us see and understand how repulsive and anti-human the state actually is.It would bring people face-to-face with the grotesque origin and core of the societies they call home. Also, if the state is a system born out of starvation, might it be that even modern state-society children, like Ik children, are inculcated with a deep-seated fear of scarcity and a lack of trust in others? The Ik could think of almost nothing but food. Even copulation was “a chore, only mildly pleasurable, like defecation,” and Turnbull once saw a couple mutually masturbating on top of a hill -- so they wouldn’t miss any food that might pass by below. The Ik fear of scarcity must have been almost intolerable, and one can see how a culture begun by people like them might automatically infuse its children with a generalized fear that there will never be “enough” – of anything.
For all but the past 6000 years, chances are good that our ancestors resembled the Inuit, Gwi and Ubaidians. Over hundreds of thousands of years we lived in groups in which everyone automatically shared with, protected, and trusted one another, so that we no doubt evolved to need this kind of social environment on a psychological level. Could it be that those of us living in state societies today accept being ruled by a violent elite simply because we have no one else to turn to? Like the Ik, we seem to look at our peers with “acrimony, envy or suspicion.” From our food- and hoarding disorders to our many kinds of violent theft (shoplifting, burglary, embezzlement, assault, rape, abuse, murder, war and so forth), Americans and the members of other state societies resemble the Ik far more than we do the Inuit and Gwi. Perhaps before we can rid ourselves of the state we need to relearn mutual trust and sharing, along with new ways of looking at competition, cooperation, personal property, ourselves, life, existence and each other. We definitely need new ways of training our children in these same areas.
Jeri Studebaker taught prehistory and anthropology at the university level. She is author of Switching to Goddess and Breaking the Mother Goose Code.
Do you want an end to war and inequality? Listen to your starving ancestors for clues to a solution.
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This short and vigorous book consists of a penetrating collection of interrelated essays whose defining characteristic is that they pin down, magnify and mirror back to us, with embarrassing clarity and force, our most dysfunctional yet unexamined ways of thinking, living and relating to each other in the early 21st century. Our ills are diagnosed with x-ray vision and laser precision.
The book assesses our situation from a neutral vantage point outside the cultural echo chamber of values, opinions and beliefs in which most of us find ourselves immersed. In doing so, it reveals what most of us can’t see. It confronts us with unpleasant truths about ourselves, the acknowledgement of which is imperative if we are to heal and improve our lives. The book also points to sane ways forward, and the appropriateness of these ways become self-evident once they are elucidated.
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