99% vs 1%

What treasures lie in our pre-history -- are there more Machu Picchus?

No, this isn’t a post about economics or Occupy Wall Street.  It’s a post about human history.  I’ve begun to read the book At Home by Bill Bryson, which is a history of “private life,” going through the development of homes, kitchens, food, etc.

He makes a point in the book that gives me pause.   The history that we know as recorded history — starting with the early development of agriculture and cities — is less than 1% of human history.   The first homo sapiens appeared 250,000 years ago, our history is at best 6000 years, though only the last 2500 has reasonably reliable records (albeit only from parts of the planet).    That means that 99% of history is hidden from us.   Humans with the same cognitive abilities have been inhabiting the earth for a long time, but we have few clues as to how they lived.   Humanoids with high levels of intelligence have been around millions of years.

That raises two contradictory puzzles.  First, what the heck happened during that “pre-history”?   Were we simply hunter-gatherers eeking out survival in a world buffeted by ice ages and difficult conditions?  Or were there civilizations and relatively advanced societies that rose and fell?  Second, why did we develop so quickly so fast in the last 5000 years?

There are other oddities.   Apparently the foodstuffs we’ve inherited from those past civilizations, such as corn, required a tremendous amount of genetic engineering.   Not in the lab like the stuff Mansanto does, but through trial and error, cross breeding, and who knows what else.   Corn is not natural, it was a human creation.  This means that past civilizations must have been very good at dealing with crops and foodstuffs.   The fact we cannot “recreate” their processes (Bryson informs that a conference designed to determine the origin of corn disintegrated into acrimony and disagreement) shows that at least in those cases our knowledge may fall short of theirs.

We currently define development and civilization in terms of materialism and consumption.   We’re “civilized” because we have a lot of stuff.  We have high definition TV’s, XBox’s, cars, highways, airplanes, computers, and grocery stores loaded with everything one could possibly imagine eating.   We eat animals, but not in the way of our ancestors.   Rather, we turn animals into objects we construct — genetically engineered and fed a particular way solely to get them to market quicker and with more meat.  A product that just happens to be a biological life form.

We’re so immersed in this materialist/consumption oriented view of progress and civilization that it’s hard to imagine societal development along a different path.   We see 99% of human history as being a waste land where savages roamed the earth eeking out an existence with no meaning – mere animals (and don’t forget how we treat animals!)   Only the last 6000 years have had meaningful existence, and the first 5000 of those are iffy.

We live disconnected from nature and community

On it’s face that’s an absurd way to look at human existence and history, yet unless we take the time to shake ourselves out of the cultural fog that causes us to keep our eyes shut and simply reproduce the world we see around us, it seems natural to look at progress and development in purely material terms.  Once we recognize that our materialist/secular rational western point of view is a cultural construct that programs us to value certain things over others it’s like we’re sleep walking, oblivious to other ways to understand and appreciate life.   We may enjoy a walk through nature and feel a smidgen of something deeper — but how often to thoughts and stresses of the modern world even invade those moments?   As Rousseau once put it: “man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.”   We just don’t recognize the chains.

So to borrow from Plato, what if we were to wake up, to be led out of cave and see reality — in this case to view the expanse of the human history we do not know because it was not recorded?    The only way we can attempt that is through imagination.

What if a society developed with sophisticated knowledge of plants, animals and nature, but without using the same lens of science that we use?  Rather than breaking things down into chemicals and reducing knowledge to general processes, what if that knowledge was holistic, based on how things interact and what works in the world?    What if all of the world was taken as valuable and not subdivided and treated as disposable, or a means to an end?

Humans might be able to build sophisticated cities with plumbing, comfort and utility without having electricity or a major power source other than water and sun.   Animals would be part of the community.   People would still eat them, but in a way that respects the cycles of life and the animal’s role in nature.  The same with plants – they would be used fully seen as valuable life forms in and of themselves.  Knowledge about them would be prized and humans might know more about agriculture than we now know even with science.

A sense of oneness between humans and nature could have yielded strong civilizations that persisted millennia  without leaving a trace for us to find.   Sophisticated oral histories and other forms of communication may have been developed.   Perhaps they disintegrated, perhaps we don’t understand them.  Imagine if our civilization collapsed — most electronic information would dissipate as the grid went down, if someone happened on a CD or DVD in the future it would be a bizarre shinny metal object, certainly not something bearing knowledge!

In fact, if you think about it the idea that creatures as intelligent and sophisticated in thinking as we are roamed the planet for 247,000 years and then only recently discovered a path out of a primitive state is absurd.  Moreover, our current lifestyle works against who we are — our bodies, nervous system and psychology is not geared for the modern stresses and pressures of the consumption oriented competitive world we’ve created.   Our misguided approach to food is creating massive levels of obesity, diabetes and disease.   We have constructed a world out of synch with the kind of creatures we are, and one that disconnects us from both nature and each other.

Our lifestyle does us harm

Yet we are to believe that we are the pinnacle of civilization, that everything before us was primitive or savage.  I find it more likely to believe that humans have lived in meaningful advanced civilizations throughout much of human history.   As fallible humans in a changing world those civilizations have risen and fallen, and no doubt some were better and more successful than others.  Looked at this way, I can’t help but wonder if the path we’ve chosen in the last one or two thousand years might not be one of destruction and decay rather than progress and development.

  1. #1 by Alan Scott on April 11, 2012 - 00:13


    What exactly is your point ? How can you just lump all of the events of the last 1 or 2 thousand years together ? Human history is filled with starvation, murder, disease and disaster . Utopia does not exist . If you want a less materialistic world, try religion .

    I personally would rather die of diabetes or clogged arteries in my 50s than die of the 1001 diseases or starvation that would have killed me in my 20s back a few thousand years ago .

    • #2 by Scott Erb on April 11, 2012 - 00:15

      I suspect people may have been healthier in the distant past, they may have lived long lives. It’s certainly possible. I do know I would not have wanted to live 700 years ago.

  2. #3 by titfortat on April 11, 2012 - 02:53

    This guy has a different take on things.


    • #4 by Scott Erb on April 11, 2012 - 03:01

      Ah, but because he acknowledges different views which often exist because of underlying philosophies, it reinforces the idea we really don’t know. The evidence he has access to is very meager — that’s why vastly different theories can be built. Almost all his evidence is from more recently than 3000 years, and he assumes that’s when we started agriculture (we don’t know) and that’s the reason for changes. But we still don’t know for sure what came before.

      But the bottom line is really can’t know – the clues left leave different possibilities and interpretations. I think that’s sort of cool.

      • #5 by Titfortat on April 11, 2012 - 13:30

        Youre right, we can never really know. All we can do is make educated guesses. I think, believe, that many of his points seem accurate. In truth they kind of relate well to the post you wrote. 🙂

  3. #6 by Alan Scott on April 11, 2012 - 11:45

    Scott ,

    There is always the myth of the noble savage running around in a garden of Eden thousands of years ago . A Tarzan, or Adam and Eve. For most people it was a struggle to get through each day . Even into colonial times things were not great . People tended to have 8 or more children and if they were lucky 2 would make it to adulthood . There is a local cemetery which goes back to 1800 near me . I’ve seen the grave markers where some thing swept through and killed the children very close together .

    The elites may have had it good, but the commoners had it rough . There was no nanny state to give you health care . If your family did not take care of you in old age, tough. Not that you had much of a chance of that . The up side was that it cut down on the need for divorce. You were not going to be stuck with the same spouse 30 or 40 years . One of you would die , freeing up the other to find a new partner .

    • #7 by Scott Erb on April 11, 2012 - 11:48

      We don’t know what it was like more than 3000 or 4000 years ago. It may not have been “noble savages,” there could have been more advanced cultures. We don’t know one way or the other, and the evidence available is meager.

    • #8 by Titfortat on April 11, 2012 - 13:34

      Most of the diseases that killed us en masse in the last several hundred years are all born from the mixing of domesticated animals with humans. Pre agricultural communities rarely if ever did this. Odds are they were probably healthier than us in general, regardless is you have a sink and toilet in your house. 😉

      • #9 by Norbrook on April 11, 2012 - 20:13

        Actually, most of the diseases that killed us en masse were around long before then. The difference was that we didn’t live in large, close population centers with dubious sanitation. Something that made you sick enough to die might only have killed a small village or tribe, not a large city with trade networks.

  4. #10 by Norbrook on April 11, 2012 - 20:18

    One of the things I’ve found amusing about paleoanthropology is how often they’re shocked that prehistoric humans managed to do things. For example, they were absolutely sure that humans couldn’t have reached the Americas prior to a certain time, and now they’re finding strong evidence that … err.. well, they did. Apparently it’s shocking that early man figured out how to build a boat.

    BTW, if you want another example of an engineered crop, look no further than what makes the flour for your bread. Wheat as we know it is actually a hybrid of three species, and is unusual in that it’s diploid for all three. The other type of wheat we grow is actually a similar hybrid of two species.

  5. #11 by Alan Scott on April 13, 2012 - 00:12


    ” We don’t know what it was like more than 3000 or 4000 years ago. It may not have been “noble savages,” there could have been more advanced cultures. We don’t know one way or the other, and the evidence available is meager.”

    What do you mean we do not know how people lived 3 or 4 thousand years ago ? You are looking at late Bronze Age, early Iron Age. Sumer, Assyria, Babylonia, and ancient Egypt left plenty of evidence of how the most advanced cultures existed . All of that technology only allowed them to reach higher population levels than the nomadic tribes surrounding them . So they murdered one another with metal spears instead of the stone spears their ancestors used .

    You are right that diabetes and obesity were the least of their troubles .

    • #12 by Scott Erb on April 13, 2012 - 00:16

      I’m talking the pre-history. Humanoids with intelligence have been around for over a million years, homo sapiens like us have been around at least 250,000. We only know at best a few thousand years back, with traces and snippets after that.

    • #13 by Scott Erb on April 13, 2012 - 03:17

      Another point, from Bryson’s book. He talks about how little we know about the people who lived in Great Britain after the fall of the Roman Empire. They mostly used wood so their structures have rotted and disintegrated. There are more questions than answers about how they lived (or why). Bryson is a witty writer, very enjoyable to read by the way. Now, if that can be true for less than 2000 years ago, how much of human history may hold things we would be amazed at?

      • #14 by Norbrook on April 15, 2012 - 15:30

        One of the other things to remember is that most “civilizations,” as well as general human habitation, have been around shorelines. With the end of the ice ages, there was a concomittant rise in the sea level, so many of the traces may be serveral hundred feet underneath the ocean.

  6. #15 by Alan Scott on April 13, 2012 - 11:55


    Primitive societies are rough . You have to be able bodied . If you become sick or disabled for any length of time you die. On one of those TV nature shows, the researchers examined a burial chamber on one of the Islands in the North of Great Britain . I believe it was bronze age or earlier . It was extensive . They found almost no one who lived beyond the age of 30 .

    You are right that human beings evolved to deal with a different existence. Our ancestors did not get enough to eat to worry about our degenerative conditions . They never lived long enough to have clogged arteries or Alzheimer’s .

  7. #17 by Stephen Kahn on April 21, 2012 - 03:03

    What is the “good life” is very subjective. Evolution has no “purpose.” If we regard our purpose as “survival” and “happiness,” it is not clear to me that abstract intelligence provides a great advantage. We run a great risk of destroying ourselves as a species with our vicious cunning that we often mistake as “wisdom.” Ray Kurzweill, the author of The Singularity is Near thinks we will merge with artificial intelligence to create a new kind of creature. DARPA is working on the 100 year space program so we can try to cross the vast reaches of Interstellar space to see if we are alone in the vast universe. I won’t live that long, but I would love to know if anyone else is out there.

    • #18 by Scott Erb on April 21, 2012 - 13:40

      Fromm’s “Escape from Freedom” helps put in perspective the dual edged sword that the enlightenment provides. We throw off “irrational” traditions and beliefs and embrace reason and rationality, yet we are still at base creatures driven by impulses and emotions. Our individualist enlightenment personas often disconnect us from community and make it harder to find meaning in “ordinary” existence. That’s not necessarily bad, but it makes our lives full of material convenience and psychological challenges.

      • #19 by Titfortat on April 21, 2012 - 14:54


        I read somewhere that the human brain starts to disassociate when groups become larger than 150 or so. This is very evidenced by the fact that we have no problem stepping over homeless people in the streets in our major cities. Try doing that to someone you know or is the relative of someone you know. Aint going to happen.
        But like Alan keeps pointing out, we are SO much better off than our early ancestors. 😦

  8. #20 by Titfortat on April 21, 2012 - 12:54

    I won’t live that long, but I would love to know if anyone else is out there.(Stephen)

    My friend and I were having this discussion once and we realized that if there was anyone else out there it would probably be the reason we all come together as humans. We would all have a common enemy. 😦

  9. #21 by Scott Erb on April 21, 2012 - 15:05

    Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 150 number in “Tipping point.” It’s hard to know how to define if we’re better off. In purely material terms we’re better off than known human history (though again, so much is unknown, especially anything before 5000 years ago!) In terms of psychological health and well being, it’s not a clear case that our civilization creates more happiness and contentment than others in the past — or that we’re that much healthier (indeed, the chemicals and other poisons we ingest and live with daily may be harming us). That of course is not a new argument — Rousseau and others were questioning our belief in the superiority of our way of life long ago!

  10. #22 by Alan Scott on April 21, 2012 - 17:15

    Titfortat ,

    Where is your evidence ? If things were really so rosy back in UGG the cave man’s day or even just the Bronze Age, you would have human remains of a lot of old people . Very few remains show an elderly population. You can argue whether or not the diets of any time line population were superior to today’s , but you have to have evidence, not theory .

    Not that old age was unknown. Ramesses II supposedly lived to 96 . He was the greatest Pharaoh of ancient Egypt.

    Human beings like all other animals tend to increase in number rather than in longevity when conditions such as climate , food, and water are favorable . Really only in the modern era, which you are all condemning, is life good for a large % of the population .

    Again we have remains from ancient times. Fossils, bones, teeth . Only the elites lived good in the good old days . I’ve seen where they can tell from the bones of Roman gladiators what their diet was and their general health before they died .

  11. #23 by Titfortat on April 21, 2012 - 22:32


    You miss construe what I am trying to say, I am in no way saying “Rosy”. I think each time period has its own issue’s, my concern is that you think that we have it so much better than all other time periods. The challenge with your outlook is that you actually have to be able to “define” better. Unfortunately, neither you or I can say definatively what better is because we were not there to make an actual comparison. It may make you feel better to think that your/our time period is the best but the reality is that is only a subjective viewpoint.

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