What happened when we all moved in together?

In 10,000BCE there were 4 million people in the world. The WORLD. You can do your own modern comparison, according to whatever you find most staggering.

These people were not, of course, evenly distributed. Or we wouldn’t all be here doing whatever bullshit human endeavour thing we’re doing with this span of time we have arbitrarily assigned the label “Monday”. They, or some of them for some of the time, moved and lived in groups, which would, some of them for some of the time, join up with other groups and then split and then reform anew, sometimes on a seasonal basis. Göbekli Tepe in Turkey is proposed to have been a meeting point for disparate mobile groups, where periodically everyone from the terrain around would gather for a big BYO Gazelle and Aurochs party. But, at the very least and even given these constraints, there must have been so much damn space.

Here is the value of space: it allows the creature dwelling in it to attempt to adapt its environment to its liking. This of course includes the capacity to move to a different space better suited to its survival, as well as tinker with the setup of the existing space. Animals and plants both do this, on micro and macro levels, and always have, on both sides of the development of agriculture. The hunter-gatherer is essentially a perpetual environment tinkerer, and the agriculturalist scarcely less so, except with slightly (and for a long time only slightly) less emphasis on the moving around part.

What the four million people did next

You may be familiar with the idea that we were domesticated by the Neolithic “package”, just as much as we domesticated the other creatures and plants in the Fertile Crescent around the 8th-7th millennia BCE. While you, an intellectual, may imagine yourself the master of all things, controlling and tinkering with your environment as you weed out and thin stands of grain, you may overlook the fact that your behaviour is changing too; to wit, you’re now apparently a slave to this bit of grass and you’re getting a bad back. You’re also living in the same place as a load of animals and you have fleas. The two-way street nature of domestication is something I’ve previously accepted on the level of an aphorism, while being taught to question individual components of it (it can’t be true, for example, that hunter-gatherers who successfully tapped into seasonal animal migrations for mass food harvesting had no sense of a seasonal rhythm, or ability to defer gratification. Clearly they understood certain things happened regularly and planned for them).

But I’ve never seen the two-way street idea put quite so startlingly as it is in James C Scott’s Against the Grain:

The new crops became “basketcases”, which could not survive without our constant attentions and protection. Much the same was true for domesticated sheep and goats, which became smaller, more placid, less aware of their surroundings and less sexually dimorphic. I ask in this context whether it is likely that a similar process affected us. How were we also domesticated by the domus, by our confinement, by crowding, by our different patterns of physical activity and social organization. (p 20)

Woah there, we perhaps used to be more sexually dimorphic? What would that even look like? As Scott relates, it is clear from the skeletal evidence that early agriculturalist humans do indeed become smaller, and less well-nourished, than hunter gatherer populations. So what goes for the physical level…

Beyond the morphological and physiological consequences of domestication for man [sic] and beast lie changes in behavior and sensibility that are more difficult to codify. The physical and cultural realms are closely connected. Is it the case, for example, that like their domesticates, sedentary, grain-planting, domus-sheltered people have experienced a comparable decline in emotional reactivity and are less instantly alert to their immediate surroundings? If so, is it related, as in domestic animals, to changes in the limbic system, which governs fear, aggression, and flight responses? (p86)

And here’s the kicker:

Selection works by variance and inheritance, and only 240 human generations have elapsed since the first adoption of agriculture and perhaps no more than 160 generations since it became widespread. (ibid)

Now let me talk about overly bright ceiling light fixtures.

Big Lights

If you are a Big Light person, we are not going to get on. At least, we’re going to get on great right up to the point at which I come over for dinner, and spend the whole evening glancing twitchily at your GREAT BIG 100W LIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE CEILING wondering when you’re going to turn it off and put nice calming warm side lamps on. Surely you can feel how awful it is to have the Big Light on. Can’t you?

This is apparently just the way my nervous system is set up – I allegedly respond to, and potentially am overwhelmed by, stimuli of various kinds at lower levels than most people, perhaps as many as 80% of people in fact. I’m not sure to what extent we can say this “sensitivity processing” thing maps directly onto the “emotional reactivity” thing Scott is discussing above, although clearly both involve perceiving stimuli and formulating a limbic response to it. Not my area. Scott thinks this is a research question it would be hard to address in an objective way, and I think this remains true whether we posit that the entire population now shows reduced emotional reactivity relative to the pre-Neolithic, or only a large proportion of it. We’re still essentially in the business of trying to assess something we need to be outside our minds to assess (best leave it for the robots then).

But we can still interrogate the idea of heightened sensory processing in deep past contexts, I think. Consider that you are, in the nomenclature, a Highly Sensitive Person living circa 8000BCE, and periodically you rock up to Göbekli Tepe to hang with your steppe-mates and roast some aurochs. You probably find this a bit of a trial. There is noise, there is heat, there are faces, faces, faces, aurochs, aurochs, aurochs. Talking, arguing, celebrating. Everyone else seems to have the time of their lives doing this and you’re just dreading the two-day migraine. The sheer visual weight of the 6m pillars of the structure may drag on your eyes and niggle at your brain, accustomed as they are to lighter vistas containing smaller objects. Though conversely you may find the solidity of walls a source of relief, as they artificially cut out for you a portion of audio-visual information in the vicinity.

Thanks be to the Great Aurochs, you don’t have to live at Göbekli Tepe all the time. But some day your poor descendants, who also have your trait, will end up living in fixed settlements and encountering cows, faces, people, fire, noise, smells and so on in unprecedented concentration and increasing quantities on a daily basis. At that point, around the time the population really starts exploding from 5000BCE, perhaps this is a difference which becomes observable in behaviour (at least to those who carry it). A bit like Dunbar’s number, which has made itself apparent in an age of global communication where it should be possible to have more and more and more human connections, except we now realise it isn’t.

Are we getting more or less sensitive?

With sedentism and population concentration, the amount of space accessible to you at any given time is dwindling, so your only option is to adapt the space you have with physical objects and social conventions. Maybe the sensitive descendants of the person who gets a migraine after the Big Feast are going to be the ones to “invent” the notion of walls as a fixed fact of habitation, or the notion of privacy, to help them cope. Maybe architecture and the permanent delineation of physical space itself is driven by those with heightened sensory processing capacity. Or maybe the trait starts to die out because those with it are less successful in the new environment (faffing around with other people’s lighting arrangements is not a successful reproduction strategy), and above all perhaps this process goes hand-in-hand with Scott’s posited reduction in emotional reactivity to surroundings. In a pushme-pullyou of sensibility development, people in agrarian proto-states don’t need to be so reactive to threats, and they benefit from being less sensitive to light and noise. In which case, our modern day extra-sensitive 20% of the population may be at a lower level (though of course a much larger absolute number) than it was in 10,000BCE, and it may continue to get lower.

Or I could have this entirely the wrong way round. Perhaps the trait is a by-product of some desirable quality which was selected, or has started to be selected, by the conditions of sedentary life; and the heightened sensitivity baggage accompanying it was enabled, for the first time, by audio-visual barriers like walls and social conventions like privacy which are features of that life. In this version of the timeline, it’s the endless horizon of the Anatolian steppe and all the little critters moving on it that overwhelm and weed out the sensitive, rather than the walls of Göbekli Tepe. In that case, for as long as human populations continue to grow and their habitats intensify, the proportion of the trait should only increase.

I should cap off all this by underlining what Scott continuously does, that the sharp delineation drawn between hunter-gatherer and farming “modes” is very much retrospective (and, he thrillingly argues, an output of ten thousand years of agrarian state ideological propaganda). In any case sedentism does not require a fixed field cultivation strategy, it can be a way of life for wide spectrum hunter-gatherers too. So this isn’t about one “population” having a trait and the other not having it, whichever way round we decide that to be. It’s just one possible “behaviour/sensibility” feature that I am suggesting may have been thrown into the evolutionary churn by the event of domestication, its consequences perhaps hardly begun (240 generations! That blows my mind, I don’t know why I’ve never thought about it).

And, unlike changes to long decomposed limbic systems, it might even be something we can find a way of measuring in the record. For once, a series of small walls is exactly the evidence base you need.


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