October 20, 2009

Ascendancy to Power: Agriculture

Posted in Ascendancy to Power: Agriculture tagged , at 1:35 am by Jeremy

In my previous post, I discussed the stirrings of the pfc’s power during human prehistory in the form of language and myth.  As noted in that post, we see mythic symbols first appearing in the archeological record by around 30-40,000 years ago.

But it was about 10,000 years ago that an equally important revolution occurred in the pfc’s transformation of our human experience: the rise of agriculture.  Many anthropologists view the domestication of animals and plants as inextricably linked with what they call “a revolution of symbols” creating the “alienated sense of self … necessary for agriculture.” [1] Humans began to see themselves as agents separate from nature, who could plan, control and transform the plants and animals around them for their own purpose.  This was the beginning of the “domination and exploitation of the environment… the very foundations of our culture and mentality.” [2]

An important pfc function – long-term planning – became a key characteristic of agricultural society.  No longer could you just take what Nature offered.  You had to plan for the future, store seeds away for next year’s planting even if your family was hungry now.  And along with this new structure of society arose a whole host of pfc-mediated concepts that have become an integral part of our human consciousness: ownership, complex hierarchies and specialization of labor.

The gains from our transition to agriculture are self-evident: reliability of housing, food and clothing … the list goes on and on.  But something else we gained – something less beneficial – may be gleaned by Captain Cook’s description of the hunter-gatherer Tasmanian islanders he came across on his travels:

They live in a Tranquillity which is not disturb’d by the Inequality of Condition: The Earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life, they covet not Magnificent Houses, Household-stuff etc… In short they seem’d to set no value upon any thing we gave them… they think themselves provided with all the necessarys of Life and that they have no superfluities.”[3]

There’s a highly politicized debate ongoing about hunter-gatherer culture: were they in fact “happier” and “more affluent” than humans became once we got “trapped” by the requirements of agriculture?  This debate usually tells us more about the political biases of the debaters than the realities of hunter-gatherer societies (i.e. “hunter-gatherers were happy because they had no possessions” versus “hunter-gatherers were warlike because they lacked civilization”).

In another post, I plan to explore that issue further, but for now there’s  something important (and non-political) that I’d like to focus on: something the Tasmanian islanders and other forager cultures didn’t have that we do have in plenty.  It’s summed up by the Buddhist term dukkha – the suffering that arises from clinging to things, possessions, desires, plans.  In short, I suggest that the pfc-mediated concepts that accompanied the rise of agriculture gave dukkha to human society in addition to its other gifts.

Perhaps even more important than agriculture in the pfc’s ascendancy to power was the rise of what Merlin Donald calls “external symbolic storage” – the complete set of symbols created by society on walls, papyrus, stone or clay and passed down from one generation to another.[4]

The rise of “external symbolic storage” began as early as Upper Paleolithic times, attested to most recently by the spectacular finds at Hohle Fels cave in Germany.  Now, the pfc had a means of transmitting its concepts that was even more powerful than language.  Ideas could be fixed and instilled into the pfcs of each new generation, automatically shaping each developing mind to view the world based on a previously created construct.

Early external pfc: Writing tablet from Uruk, Mesopotamia, c. 3000 BCE

Early external pfc: Writing tablet from Uruk, Mesopotamia, c. 3000 BCE

But following the rise of agriculture, and the resultant specialization of human activities, came a new, potent form of external symbolic storage: writing.   The advent of writing made symbol transmission even more powerful, creating what we might think of as an “external pfc” – a detailed symbolic construct of the world built up over millennia, outliving its human creators, shaping the mind of each new generation.

In my next post, I’m going to look at a strange, new development in human thought that began in the first millennium BCE and has profoundly affected our Western way of thinking ever since: the rise of dualism.


[1] Hodder, I.: Cauvin, J., (2001 11:1). ‘Review Feature: The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Agriculture’. Cambridge Archaeological Journal:105-121.

[2] Cauvin, J., (1994/2000). The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Agriculture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[3] Quoted in: Bellwood, P., (2005). First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

[4] Donald, M., (1991). Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

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1 Comment »

  1. […] other animals.  Similarly, the rise of the “tyranny of the pfc” that I’ve traced through agriculture, monotheist dualism and the scientific revolution, could be paraphrased in these lines from the […]


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