The End of the Ice Age and the Rise of Urban Fire
History of the Global Brain XI
There is a power in the push and pull of opposites. Gravity's shackle fights momentum's fleeing force to keep a planet racing on the circle of its course. The battle between flexor and extensor muscles gives a strongman might to lift the front end of a car. Inhalation and exhalation vivify the lungs. Compression and expansion pound the heart to pump a tank-truck-full of blood a day. At Ice Age's end, sociality would draw men and women into conformity chambers of unprecedented size. One byproduct would be conformity's antithesis - diversity - surging ideas at ferocious speed into the arteries of the inter-human brain. Old networks would give way to new, hastening the pace at which the fuel of concepts from afar would kindle flares of fire in the furnace of mass mind.
I. Biology, Evolution, and the Global Brain
II. Creative Nets in the Precambrian Age
III. Networking in Paleontology's "Dark Ages"
IV. The Embryonic Meme
V. From Social Synapses to Social Ganglions: Complex Adaptive Systems in the Jurassic Age
VI. Mammals and the Rise of Mind
VII. Tools of Perception - The Construction of Reality
VIII. Reality is a shared Hallucination
IX. The Conformity Police
X. The Huddle and the Squabble - Group Fission
Roughly 130,000 years ago , the diversity generator drove tribes to run an artificial crease down their centers, sorting shoulder-rubbing neighbors into two opposing groups. These primordial forms of fabricated cleavage , known to anthropologists as moieties, were apparently a way to keep the deformities of inbreeding at bay.
The members of a moiety were forbidden to marry each other, but were forced to pick their mates from among the members of the competing coterie, no matter how distasteful that prospect eventually may have seemed. For moieties soon showed earliest man's ability to build mountains of separation from molehills of similarity. If one moiety identified itself with day, its pouting Siamese twin would declare itself an avatar of night. If one chose to be summer, the other marked itself as winter. If one was earth, the other was defiant sky.
Such hair-splitting snowballed in pre-history. After moieties came clans . Clan members believed they were descended from an animal or plant whose powers they bore. In a sense each member of a Bear clan was half man and half bear.
Clan members were not allowed to kill and eat their ancestral animal or plant - their "totem" - except on sacred occasions. Each totem was one of the dietary staples of the entire tribe. The result: each clan was forced to specialize in a different menu, and to preserve the animals and plants which fed the members of rival clans. Clans of this nature were so universal that they existed in early Australia and among the Siberian immigrants who trekked across the Bering Straits siring "native" American tribes from the Tlingit of the Pacific coast to the Iroquois near the Atlantic sea.
But all of this was prelude to the subdivisions which would later brew diversity. Roughly 10,000 years ago, there arose a whole new kind of pressure cooker for the sweet-and-sour opposites of conformity and diversity. This was the neolithic city.
The neolithic City
like war, ambush and raids have long boosted the ingenuity of even bacteria's social brains. A human tribe that did well in the recurrent fray could bully its neighbors mercilessly. A tribe less able to spit forth fresh stratagems was likely to be plundered or simply wiped away. Cities were a quantum leap in tactical defense - offering almost impregnable sanctuary from the prospect of a violent death.
The founders of Jericho , surrounded by ramparts and three-story high stone towers, constructed this radically new form of protective complex 10,000 years ago. Jericho's mortarless boulder walls, built when most humans were still living in huts and caves, were 6.5 feet thick and four times the height of a neolithic man. They were surrounded by a trench nine feet deep and 27 feet wide. This invention of a town wall protected by lookout towers would still be used ten millennia later in the age of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.
Conformity enforcers such as the need to flock helped cities come to be. The palisades which kept invaders out held citizens tightly in, compressing them into a common mold. All shared a common reservoir of language, mode of thought, cultural reflex, religion and ritual. Yet urban life heightened the generation of diversity. Author Dora Jane Hamblin and Harvard archaeologist C.C.Lamberg-Karlovsky feel that one lure of packing like sardines into the urban can was, ironically, the opportunity to express oneself. "A variety of roles," they write , "awaited the man - and woman - of the city.
The city, in fact, depended on variety. Its concentration of numbers was possible only because its residents performed specialized duties that would be supported by the larger society of which the city was a part. But the possibility of specialized occupations, in turn, made the city attractive. No longer was every man forced to be a hunter or a farmer, every woman a mother and housekeeper. In the city - from the time of the very first cities - there were trade goods to be manufactured, commerce to be conducted, shrines to be tended [and]... massive construction projects to be undertaken....." There were also walls of plastered brick to be covered with artwork, patterned rugs to be woven, pottery to be made from strips of clay, jewelry to be crafted from limestone, from imported shells, and from the teeth of deer, and makeup to be ground and mixed from red ocher and green and blue minerals brought from far away.
The walls of Jericho couldn't have been built without the division of labor, fine-tuned organization, and excess time which dripped like honey from the bustle of a civic hive. Hamblin and Lamberg-Karlovsky add that "the tantalizing variety of city life, offering the possibility of following a personal bent rather than a parent's footsteps, must have been as powerful a lure in 8000 B.C. as in the 20th Century A.D."
The plains of the middle east on which cities saw first light had been freed from the frigid sparseness of the Ice Age. The thaw made this vast expanse an Eden. Not only did toothsome plants flourish in quantities modern humans had never been able to find, but deer, wild sheep, pigs and other roaming steaks and chops were thick as ants on a melon rind. A hunter could bag more meat in a day than his glacier-age forefathers, combing lands sucked dry by sheets of ice, could manage to sniff out in a month.
Tell Mureybit was a village of stone houses established in Syria 10,000 years ago. The fabled "abundance of farming's harvest" which allegedly allowed the flowering of cities would have been a waste of time. The residents feasted on wild grain and ate the animals they brought down with their bows. Even Jericho's monumental builders banqueted on wild seeds and the flesh of charging beasts.
A handful of eccentrics tamed tall grasses and sought the secrets of harnessing vegetation's genes. Through breeding, these fanatics nudged the hollow stems of einkorn wheat into bearing not three to six scrawny seeds but between 20 and 100 bulging starch-and-protein packs. A single stalk could now produce 40 times as much food as a dozen or more of its feral progenitors.
Some men and women laid out former hunting and foraging land in plots and cultivated the new crops. Others learned to use the conformity enforcers which hold a grip on social animals. Taking advantage of a beast's need to follow a leader and subordinate itself to a superior, these inventive keepers gentled sheep, goats and dogs into following convenient paths. The pioneering pastoralists could now nab a plenitude of meat, milk and wool without the risky and often fruitless pursuit of the hunt.
Yet Neolithic religion testified to the way in which hunting and the killing power of an animal's armaments still obsessed the early city-dwellers. Nearly nine thousand years ago, one out of three rooms in Catal Huyuk was a shrine. None bore agricultural motifs - sheaves of grain or harvest emblems. The centers of the sacred's walls carried mural after mural of men with bow and arrow bringing down herds of fleeing deer.
But the most overwhelming symbols paid homage to the animals these fledgling pastoralists were still struggling to tame. Each tabernacle was filled with the skulls of long horned bulls aligned in overpowering majesty. Horned skulls flared from the walls, were painted full-size on the plaster, and were installed for maximum effect on rigid benches over which their white weapons swept and curved, aiming points directly at the chests of standing worshippers. The men of the middle east had only recently domesticated the wild ox, Bos taurus, an animal seven feet high at the shoulders whose horns might reach ten feet above the ground. Untamed males of this plains species would step forward from a hard-won harem, lower their heads and disembowel humans who dared to assail them with the irritation of a spear. These confrontations would have been vivid in the minds of the Catal Huyukans, who still hunted the bull's wild relatives, aurochs, and stuffed their storerooms with venison by tracking down Red Deer. The barely subjugated descendants of the Bos taurus oozed a strength and potency beyond that of the human male. Even a modern domesticated bull - whose size has been decreased and whose temperament has been softened by roughly 800 generations of selective breeding - is easily provoked to charge with murderous force against the wisp of "mighty" man.
British anthropologist Chris Knight is certain neolithic females deliberately withdrew their carnal favors to prod men into hauling home fresh meat. No wonder the horned heads which could so easily split the rib cage of an owner were painted next to women with their legs spread wide in sexual invitation, pregnancy, or birth, and between plaster wall moldings of round, full breasts whose nipples yawned with teeth and jaws or expressed their obdurate "no's" via actual bird beaks and animal tusks emerging from the nipples' centers. Other paintings underscored the fierce edge females gain from their fecundity by portraying yet more open-crotched women, knees splayed outward from their hips - with their arms resting on the bodies of leopards. These images carried contrapuntal meanings. They shrieked the slashing pain of sexual denial while roaring with an appetite for sexual savagery.
Goddesses, the archaeologists call the ladies of the wall paintings and of numerous full-bellied figurines. But we have no way to know if that is what they were. The suggestion of the decor was clear. Bulls had a power to pierce the walls of feminine refusal. This awed male humans with their far smaller penises and infinitely tinier bulk and might. Men, so easily cowed by womanly disdain, could only worship and hope to gain the thrust of a bull's horns and enormous phallus penetrating vaginas with vast overloads of sperm. It was the bull who could truly make children grow in a grudging damsel's womb.
Despite its evocations of lust, strife, torment and the wild, religion was used to synchronize the emotions and the symbol set of those who lived within the city's walls. This fervid enticement to cohesion and to the discipline of ritual geared the members of a town to think and work in harmony.
Meanwhile, the diversity generators of pride and peculiar environment prodded each city to devise its own approach to survival and to the gathering of wealth. One example came in the contrast between a pair of towns on the Turkish Konya Plains eight thousand years ago. Catal Huyuk was in an area rich in wild herds which included not only aurochs and deer, but the pig Sus scrofa. To harvest this abundance of galloping groceries, the Catal Huyukans were big game hunters par excellence. Their stone-tool industry specialized in weapons to bring down large prey - long spearheads, arrowheads, daggers and the like. But not far away lay the village of Suberde, whose surroundings presented a different menu: wild ass, wild sheep, and the mid-to-small-sized Roe and Fallow Deer, augmented by such relatively minuscule game as fox and wolf. The flint and obsidian crafters of Suberde devised weapons very different from those of Catal Huyuk, miniaturized for small-target precision. Even Suberde's arrowheads were an unusual pattern designed for compactness and for exacting accuracy.
Networks through trade
Each town offered its particular package of technology, raw materials and technique. Such options hit mass circulation ten thousand years ago, when the multi-million-year-old commerce between tribes exploded dramatically. Additional cities sprang up to provide food, shelter, and good service on the paths men used to swap the wares of obsidian-mining and tool-making towns with the products of those rich in salt, pottery, cloth and the red coloring-material hematite, or with rarities from the south central Russian hubs of copper and lapis lazuli.
The cascade of merchandise drew distant centers into a commercial web. Oasis hubs like Jericho provided accommodations and water channeled from underground wells through stone aqueducts to exhausted and thirsting tradesmen pounding the now-permanent exchange routes; and Catal Huyuk - with its hundreds of worship rooms - offered solace to passing merchants filled with uncertainty and anxious to draw fresh guidance from the gods. From 5500 bc to 2500 bc, the middle east's overlapping trade networks in obsidian inched the 1,500 miles from Crete's city of Knossos - eventual birthplace of Greek civilization - to Bahrain, where the Persian Gulf reaches toward the Indian Ocean. But these trade loops were a mere beginning. Obsidian in the ancient Asian city of Hattusas has been traced to Africa's Ethiopia, 2,500 miles away. Iranian cities like the 6,500 year old Tepe Yahya were pivot points for the transport of goods from India to Mesopotamia.
A city could not survive without the nourishment provided by a web of planters and animal domesticators in its outstretched locality. Nor could it thrive without a flow of foreigners delivering essential rarities. The tongue-and-groove relationship between distant minilopolises triggered a cross fire of ideas, methods and styles, swelling the pool of choices within a city even further than before. Each approach was tossed into a continent-crossing whirl of notions which cosmopolites could tap, test, adapt and frequently recast. The conformity enforcer made cultures ape each others imitatively. The diversity generator ensured that the mix in circulation was perpetually swelled.
Methods and perspectives spread across amazing distances. Some archaeologists have proposed that the civilizations of Greece and Israel and the agriculture which vivified all of Europe got their start in Catal Huyuk. Even Egypt, some experts declare, adapted its knack for soil-cultivation from Catal Huyuk and the other Asian cities with which the settlers of the Nile were bartering their wares.
Meanwhile roughly 450 miles away, another complex of prehistoric towns - the Ubaidian minilopolises of southern Mesopotamia - exported the know-how of their cultures up the Tigris, Euphrates and Karkheh-Karun rivers to the remote coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The later city states of the Tigris and Euphrates would, in turn, catapult their wares and myths 1,400 miles east to the Harappan civilization in Pakistan, probably picking up ideas from the early civic snarls of the Indus River in their turn.
Cities as neural ganglions
All of this heralded the coming of a global brain. A city was like a neural ganglion, a center of collaborating ecologies. Catal Huyuk built its edifices and many of its finest works of art from oak and juniper, yet had no trees in its vicinity. All were felled on hillsides far away and floated down the river to satisfy the city's needs. The fir from which were carved the elegant adornments gracing sacred alters and the best homes came from the Taurus mountains, as did epicurean delicacies like almonds, pistachio, apples, acorns (good not only for feed but as raw material for leather tanning chemicals and for yoghurt making), and berries like juniper and the wine makers' favorite, hackberry.
Other mountains closer by provided greenstone, limestone and volcanic rock. Catal Huyuk's alabaster and calcite came from Kayseri, and its creamy white marble from lands far to the west. Its cinnabar was imported from Sizma, and its shells from Mediterranean beaches many miles and mountain ranges to the south. Salt, one of the greatest lacers of distant cultures into nets of trade, came from Ihcapmar, whose industry was based on the mineral gifts of a nearby brackish lake. There is no flint on the Turkish plateau where Catal Huyuk is located, yet the citizens of the town used the finest varieties of this stone to manufacture daggers with serrated blades and everyday utensils to start the kitchen fire or to scrape skins for the leather industry. On the other hand, the Catal Huyukans ignored the multi-colored cherts which could be obtained nearby. Still more exotic semi-gems like rock crystal, carnelian and jasper came from such unfamiliar locations that archaeologists have not yet pinned their sources down. All were fodder for Catal Huyuk's most value-added artisans. Some maestros made ordinary implements into status symbols for far-flung elites, creating the finest in weaponry, in sickle blades for wealthy farmers, in chisels and gouges for the upscale carver of wood and bone, and in prestige knives with finely sculpted wooden hilts and pommels of the choicest chalk.
Then there were the luxury items from the town's master obsidian polishers: bowls of awesome grace, make-up trays and rings. Adding to the extravagance was the output of artistes in shell work: wonderfully colored necklaces, armlets, bracelets, and anklets. Meanwhile, virtuosos carvers worked with horn and bone, covering boar tusks with geometric designs, and fashioning fine-tipped make-up applicators, kitchen goods like cups, spoons and ladles, wrist guards for bowmen and hooks and eyelets to fasten belts. Pottery, so prominent in other cultures, was apparently a sop for the poor. "Mass-produced" into containers of all kinds, its forms imitated the workmanship of items with "traditional prestige" -those painstakingly crafted of wood and basket-weave.
Each extravagance strutted the stuff of the complex adaptive system's resource shifters, which shuttled wealth and influence to those whose work appeared majestic and away from those whose contributions seemed mundane. Though early cities like Catal Huyuk had up to 35 acres of straight-lined, low-slung, flat-roofed, brick housing complexes, each nuclear family's two-room suite was completely self-contained, walled off from the others for privacy and equipped with its own kitchen and sitting and sleeping nooks. Despite the nearly identical layouts of their apartments and the fact that each dwelling was sandwiched wall-to-wall between those on either side, the citizens of Catal Huyuk took petty divisions between groups of neighbors a good deal further than did the still wandering tribes of Mesolithic hunters, with their simplistic separations between moieties and clans.
In tribal society, each member had been a generalist. Even the shaman presumably had known the arts of tracing prey and other disciplines essential for day to day survival. But a city provided the luxury of concentrating on a single field, then of walling oneself off with those who shared one's metier. Catal Huyuk's shrines, as we've said before, filled one out of every three apartments in the sprawling complexes. The plethora of priests were a pampered elite. They lived in their own part of town, apparently inhabited more spacious buildings than their fellow citizens, and deigned to purchase the finer things in life from the bead maker and weaver sweating in the marketplace. The complex adaptive system's resource shifters and utility sorters shovelled privilege to these intercessors with divinity.
None of the 200 priestly quarters excavated during the first two years of the Catal Huyuk dig (which admittedly, only covered a few neighborhoods in a very large town) showed any signs of home-industry. Priests had no sickles for reaping crops and grain, yet they were gluttonous gourmets, savoring fourteen different kinds of delicacies - from wheat, barley and peas to apples, almonds, beer and wine, along with the meat of game and in all probability honey and such elegant milk products as butter and cheese. The servitors of the supernatural had no looms, yet their homes were rich in cloths and draperies. They possessed no implements for crafting finished stone, yet their household treasures included ceremonial weapons of polished obsidian graced with intricate carved handles depicting such whimsies as the entwinement of a pair of snakes. Priests admired themselves in obsidian mirrors. Their jewelry contained beads with holes too fine for penetration by a needle made of modern steel. These perks of holiness were the most lavish since the dawn of human artistry. No wonder country tribes deserted "indigenous culture," headed toward the towns , and sought to make their fortunes in previously unheard-of ways.
Specialiazation and competition between groups
Like the Ice Agers who'd sealed themselves in arbitrary moieties, pioneering urbanites subdivided into pockets of exclusivity. Each of Catal Huyuk's neighborhoods was for artisans of just one kind - weavers had their district, potters another. This cliquishness gone awry swiftly upped the subtlety of the collective brain. We discussed in a previous episode how each fissioning group forms its own peculiar ways, its own view of the world, its own emotional stance, and even its own gene pool. Fission takes a different shape when contained within a city's walls. Groups may set their boundaries, but they do not march off to start afresh in distant territory. Instead, each adds to the repertoire of tactics bubbling in the public mind.
Biologist and cultural observer Lewis Thomas might have called the contribution boiled up by each group to demonstrate its "specialness" another hypothesis available should others fail. But subcultures do not meekly wait for the day when their chosen system may save the day. Instead all compete like soccer teams for top rung in power and prestige . This claustrophobic contest jolts city life into a soaring progress that would have dizzied earlier Stone Age bands. But more about the surprises which would pop from subcultural gamesmanship in later chapters. Let's return to nitty gritty.
Judging from what we know of early Sumer, Greece and Rome, the spokesmen of what passed for gods in Catal Huyuk surely had an attitude restricted to their clique, a priestly hoard of creeds which justified their wealth, aloofness, and disdain for toil. Rival subcultures, those of the butchers, bakers and tanners, would have coveted their own realms of expertise, their own emotional postures, and their own peculiar ways of getting at the "truth."
The group in charge would dominate mass consciousness, dictating which manners of perception, dress and speech were allowed and which were thoroughly outré. If a crisis arose and the reigning elite seemed helpless to turn catastrophe aside, other microgroups would vie for number one. The winner - often the subculture whose mode of operation could best defang the threat - would become the next maker of the group's mind, the arbiter of what was chic and what was not, of how to think, talk, walk and decorate oneself. The more subcultures, the greater the playbook of vying strategies, and the brighter a community's combinatorial craftiness.
Through all of these advances, from the axons of trade to the dendrites of diversity, synapses were forming for a faster interhuman brain than any deployed before by multicellular organisms. As early as 6,000 BC, we can see the birth of a new modernity - the evolving blueprint for whole new forms of future interactivity.
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