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IN GREEK mythology, it was Prometheus who defied Zeus by giving fire to humanity. Fire, that led to civilization’s hearths, metalworking, the Industrial Revolution, and our modern age. In fact, this train of thought didn’t come to me unaided, but I enjoy reading.
The London Review of Books, November 29, 2017, contains “Why Did We Start Farming?” by Steven Mithen. The article reviews Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, by James C. Scott, Yale University Press, 2017.
Scott’s book offers a counter-thesis to the generally accepted view that humanity’s shift about 10,000 years ago from hunter-gatherer to farmer was a beneficial one. Another review of this book appeared in “The Case Against Civilization,” by John Lanchester, in The New Yorker, September 18, 2017.
What caught my eye in each article, though, was mention of an even earlier and more epochal event: 400,000 years ago, somewhere in Africa, when Homo erectus learned to control fire.
How this came about is open to conjecture. An ember of a forest fire? A spark thrown off in chipping flint? The heat of rubbing two sticks? Or, explained through myth: Prometheus and his defying Zeus.
First, Prometheus; and then on to some nuggets gleaned from the London Review of Books and The New Yorker.
Prometheus was a Titan. To give you an idea of the family, one of his brothers, Atlas, was condemned to hold up the sky for eternity (these days, we usually think of him holding up the Earth). Prometheus was a trickster and culture hero credited with the creation of humanity from clay (a familiar theme appearing in Chinese, Egyptian, Hindu, Maori, Native American, and Sumerian beliefs, as well as in Genesis and the Qur’an).
What got Prometheus in trouble, though, was his returning fire to humanity, hitherto hidden from mortals by Zeus, the chief god. For Prometheus’s infraction, Zeus sentenced him to eternal torment: Prometheus was bound to a rock, where each day an eagle would feed on his liver, which, each night, would grow back again for the eagle’s next snack.
Those Greek gods didn’t fool around. However, there’s also a Hollywood ending, some say, in which Hercules sets Prometheus free.
LRB author Mithen notes, “Fire changed humans as well as the world. Eating cooked food transformed our bodies; we developed a much shorter digestive tract, meaning that more metabolic energy was available to grow our brains.”
New Yorker author Lanchester says, “Our closest animal relative, the chimpanzee, has a colon three times as large as ours, because its diet of raw food is so much harder to digest. The extra caloric value we get from cooked food allowed us to develop our big brains which absorb roughly a fifth of the energy we consume, as opposed to less than a tenth for most mammals’ brains.”
Conventional wisdom has it that humanity’s dependence on fire was the beginning of human progress away from hunter-gathering and toward farming. Archeological evidence, though, shows a huge gap between that first spark, some 400,000 years ago, and the relatively recent, 10,000-year-old, transition to farming.
What’s more, Mithen offers Scott’s thesis as a question: “What if the origin of farming wasn’t a moment of liberation but of entrapment?”
That is, hunter-gathers had an easy life among rich resources there for the taking. By contrast, Mithen notes, “… farming involves much higher workloads and incurs more physical ailments than relying on the wild. And the more we discover, as Scott points out, the better the hunter-gatherer diet, health, and work-life balance look.”
Mithen cites examples from archeological digs in places as varied as the Middle East’s Fertile Crescent, ancient China, and Mesoamerica. For example, the Wadi Faynan in southern Jordan is a Mithen research speciality. A hunter-gatherer site flourished in Wadi Faynan between 12,500 and 10,500 years ago in what was oasis-like surroundings.
Then this site, known today as WF-16, gave way to a farming village now identified as Ghuwayr I. Mithen writes, “Piles of excavated grindstones testify to the back- and knee-breaking work of grinding barley grain; meanwhile, domesticated goats had begun to eat up the local vegetation—the first step to today’s barren landscape.”
It’s true that fire gave the warmth of the hearth, metalworking of the Bronze and Iron Ages, the Industrial Revolution, and the wonders of our modern age. But, in the bargain, humanity also got firearms, explosives, the atomic bomb, and the air of Beijing and Delhi.
Maybe Prometheus had it coming. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017