Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Hunter-Gatherers in Morillo's Tri-Sectoral History: Conclusion

Hand Stencils, Pettakere Cave, Bahasa, Indonesia,
c. 35,000-40,000 years or 1150-1300 generations ago

THE preceding posts in this series (Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4) have touched on Stephen Morillo's sketch, in part of the first chapter of  Frameworks of World History, of hunter-gatherer societies during the most recent third of Homo sapiens' existence: the last 70,000 years or about 2300 generations.*

Morillo's account of hunter-gatherers' political, economic, and cultural activity mainly concerns the last 70,000 years because in his view it was near the beginning of that period that human beings probably became self-conscious, started using language and telling stories, and became capable of making music and art.1

According to Morillo, hunter-gatherers bands, which he says usually consisted of 80 or fewer people,
Stephen Morillo
If Morillo is correct on those points, one can draw several conclusions: 
  • Political power did not become concentrated enough to gain special advantages in, or eliminate the independence of, economic life or cultural life; 
  • economic power did not become concentrated enough to destroy the independence of cultural or political life; 
  • cultural life did not become a source of centralized control over economic or political life.
Did hunter-gatherer bands thus have a kind of threefold social order, with cooperation in the economic realm, egalitarian relations in the political realm, and freedom in the spiritual and cultural realm?

While the three realms seem to have been relatively autonomous, largely because they lacked the power to absorb each other, it is of course problematic to speak of cooperation, equality, and freedom among hunter-gatherers living tens of thousands of years ago.

One problem is that each of the three just-named ideals assumes the presence of individuals who to a significant degree recognize themselves as individuals, and perceive themselves as clearly distinct from other individuals.

Alexej Jawlensky, Girl with Peonies, 1909
Although Morillo supports the view that human self-consciousness emerged 70,000 years ago, the depth of that self-consciousness is far from certain.  By some accounts it would have been embryonic and only slightly developed.

Thus, one of the twentieth century's foremost historians of religion, Mircea Eliade, in his Cosmos and History5 analyzed religious ideas from around the globe and across history, and provided substantial evidence that it is only quite recently (as measured against the whole lifetime so far of Homo sapiens), that human beings have developed a strong sense of the individual human personality and of personal history.

Mircea Eliade, 1907-1986
Eliade argued in Cosmos and History that archaic mentality, to the extent that we can know its religious ideas from documents and other historical traces, reveals that it sought in various ways to ritually erase any sense of historical time and individualized consciousness.

The goal of archaic cultures, according to Eliade, was generally to bring the individual into conformity with various patterns of behavior that had been deemed sacred because they were believed to have been established by gods, heroes, and ancestors at the beginning of time. To Eliade, the archaic man
sees himself as real only to the extent that he ceases to be himself (for a modern observer) and is satisfied with imitating and repeating the gestures of another.6 
Erastus Salisbury Field, Pharaoh's Army, c. 1865-1880

To act in archaic cultures according to the sacred patterns that had been established for everything important --  "alimentation, generation, ceremonies, hunting, fishing, war, work" -- meant to merge with the gods and the eternal beginning, and with the only reality an individual could have.7  To go outside those sacred patterns was deemed by archaic mentality to be a fall into meaninglessness, sin, or error.

According to Carl Jung
the further we go back into history, the more we see personality disappearing beneath the wrappings of collectivity. And if we go right back to primitive psychology, we find absolutely no trace of the concept of an individual. Instead of individuality we find only collective relationship or what Lévy-Bruhl calls participation mystique.
Rudolf Steiner, from his own perspective, also thought that the modern sense of individualized awareness was something that had only really begun to flower comparatively recently in historical terms, while having millennia-old roots in group consciousness. 

What follows if the members of a hunter-gatherer band living, say, 50,000 years or 1600 generations ago had a kind of group consciousness or group self? Hunter-gatherer groups, even so long ago, were of course more complex organizations than flocks of birds or sheep, or than packs of wolves, but a gross exaggeration can sometimes help to make an idea clear: 

When birds fly in formation, arguably that is more like the movement of a single organism than it is like "cooperation." When sheep move about a field with no political hierarchy among them, it doesn't mean they value "equality." The fact that no member of a wolf pack is in a position to do much in the way of censoring the voices of other members of the pack does not mean they enjoy cultural "freedom."

The conclusion of this five-part series then, is that if Stephen Morillo's account of social relations in hunter-gatherer bands over the last 70,000 years is accurate, then economic, political, and cultural life were not notably merged together in those bands.  A kind of threefold order existed.  The threefold articulation of society however was not intentional, but a result of the inability and lack of need at that time to concentrate economic or political power.

Economic life was based on sharing, political life established little or no hierarchy, and cultural life was uncentralized, but individuals may have had little awareness of themselves as individuals, or as distinct from the group.  In that light, "cooperation," "equality," and "freedom," if they had any meaning at all, could not have had anything like the meaning they have today.

*Since historians generally give dates only in years, this blog will sometimes add an estimate of how many generations ago an event took place. The estimates given are arrived at by assuming 3.25 generations per century. Some of the reasons for choosing 3.25 can be seen here.   

1 Stephen Morillo, Frameworks of World History: Networks, Hierarchies, Culture (New York: Oxford UP, 2014), 14.  
2 Ibid., 24.    
3 Ibid., 24, 33.    
4 Ibid., 27-28.
5 Mircea Eliade, Cosmos and History:The Myth of the Eternal Return (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959), https://archive.org/stream/CosmosAndHistorytheMythOfEternalReturn/EliadeMircea-CosmosAndHistorytheMythOfEternalReturn#page/n1/mode/2up (accessed April 12, 2016).  
6 Ibid., 34.  
7 Ibid., 20, 35.  

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