A New Age?

“We are in the most fundamental way, Stone Age people ourselves.  From a dietary point of view, the Neolithic period is still with us.  We may sprinkle our dishes with bay leaves and chopped fennel, but underneath it is all Stone Age food.  And when we get sick it is Stone Age diseases we suffer”  – Bill Bryson, At Home, pp. 46-7.

Are we really just late Stone Age people?

Are we really just late Stone Age people?

Bill Bryson’s brilliant book At Home, tracing the history of the house and its various rooms, starts with a chapter on how and when people actually started to have homes for the first time – when the first cities arose back around 10,000 BC.    He notes that it’s odd that people formed cities and switched to agriculture.   Hunter-gatherers had a better diet, were healthier, and the move to agriculture was in some ways a step down.   Of course, larger populations could grow and the human need for community was far better achieved when we weren’t simply searching for game in small groups.

He also notes that this happened all around the globe at about the same time – give or take a few thousand years.   That may seem like a wide discrepancy to us, but given that humans have been around for almost 200,000 years, it’s pretty amazing that suddenly we developed agriculture.   Some foodstuffs like corn (maize) are completely human made, reflecting a remarkable capacity to manufacture new plant species.   In a real sense, that was the start of our “age” of humanity.

Bill Bryson's "At Home" is the latest must-read from the witty intelligent author

Bill Bryson’s “At Home” is the latest must-read from the witty intelligent author

Sure, there are sub-strata – the iron age, the bronze age, etc.   Perhaps from a wider perspective humanity entered the “mechanical age” or the “age of agriculture” about 12,000 years ago, and that age is ending.   Civilizations rose and fell in the last 12,000 years, but something happened in Europe to create a whole new reality.   The Europeans moved from a traditional view of the world — one with practical knowledge built on core religious beliefs and long held traditions — to a radically new understanding of reality.

With the enlightenment individualism reached a new level.   Up until then individuals existed, but identity and core perspectives remained communal, even in Europe.  The idea of “individual rights” would have been virtually meaningless in most of human history, individual rights were always part and parcel of community rights and values.   Distrust of tradition and an embrace of reason freed the human mind to go places that were either off limits or at least unimagined before.  The printing press created the capacity to spread ideas and knowledge, making rapid growth in understanding and science possible.  Gunpowder took war and politics to another level, making possible the sovereign state and the conquest of the globe by European imperialists.

With the industrial revolution humans (workers) ceased to be seen as individuals with worth, but as objects; simply means to an economic end

With the industrial revolution humans (workers) ceased to be seen as individuals with worth, but as objects; simply means to an economic end

Through the industrial revolution, the rise of capitalism – an entirely new mode of production that greatly expanded the capacity of humans to create material wealth – humans came to see the planet as an object to be conquered, exploited and used for whatever humans wanted.   The environment was no longer sacred, but there to used as we see fit.

All of this led to the ultimate breakthrough – modernism.   If I could label the new era, it would be the quantum era, one where science, knowledge and technology create a dramatic breakthrough in human capacity comparable to the rapid and still inexplicable (at least with any certainty) rise of agriculture and cities 12,000 years ago.   If we are still at base Stone Age humans eating Stone Age food and getting Stone Age diseases, we may be at the beginning of not just a new era, but a new age of human development which could last 10,000 or so as well.   Looked at in that light, this is an extremely exciting era to be part of!

Will our future be megapolis life, artificially produced and engineered?

Will our future be megapolis life, artificially produced and engineered?

The new era will see new foods, new diseases, new cures, and probably a completely new way of life.  If we could glimpse 5000 years into the future, we might be appalled at how different it would be.   The core family structure might give way to something new, the new individualism may mean human culture will be completely remade.

One thing is likely: the new era will have its peaks and valleys, major disasters and eras of plenty and prosperity — even if those terms take on completely different meanings.  The glimpses we see are both compelling and frightening: genetic engineering, lack of privacy, borders ineffective, humanity more divorced from nature and community than ever before.   Or will we reject that path and try to develop a future more in tune with nature and each other, choosing that over the materialist individualism of the post-enlightenment era?

Fat, connected and having all our needs taken care of by machines - is that the future?

Fat, connected and having all our needs taken care of by machines – is that the future?

Where this new era is leading is yet unknown.   Our modern physics, genetic discoveries, and ability to manipulate both the planet and life itself is new territory.   This brave new world will yield a new kind of human.   We’re straddling eras as we dash madly into a future that is almost uncertain to be unlike anything we have yet to imagine.

  1. #1 by lbwoodgate on December 8, 2013 - 10:06

    I might be wrong Scott but from what I have read about the modern diet, heart disease, diabetes and even most cancers are not the result of cave man diets. Some of the basic food stuff, especially red meat, may be part of the two eras but the way we cook it today (with oils) and the fact that we don’t have to run it down and capture it to be able to serve it (forced exercise) means that we are more susceptible to these 20th century diseases.

    • #2 by Scott Erb on December 8, 2013 - 12:11

      These may be diseases of the new era, with genetically modified foods, chemically enhanced flavors, etc. A good read: “What Has Gotten Into Us” by Mackay Jenkins: http://www.amazon.com/Whats-Gotten-into-Us-Staying/dp/1400068037

    • #3 by Norbrook on December 9, 2013 - 10:49

      Actually, it turns out that heart disease – including coronary artery disease – has been around for a long time. In various mummies it’s been found to be – much to anthropologists surprise – relatively common.

      The problem with saying that many diseases are due to “modern diets” instead of cave man diets is that there was no single “paleo diet,” which is now a fad. What there was, was “whatever happens to be around and edible.” I should also point out that many of the diseases like cancer, etc., turn out to be diseases that develop with old age, which, given that most paleolithic people didn’t make it beyond 40, meant that they’d have been unlikely to live long enough to develop them.

  2. #4 by Alan Scott on December 11, 2013 - 10:30

    Given that hunter gatherers were generally living on the edge of starvation and supplemented there diet with rotting meat, insects, and what ever else they could scavenge, living long enough to die of today’s degenerative diseases is a fair trade off. Today’s big gulps are much better than drinking from the contaminated water hole our ancestors drank from.

    • #5 by Scott Erb on December 11, 2013 - 16:31

      Actually Alan, it appears that health and diet got worse with the advent of agriculture, and life expectancy in early cities was well below 30 years. So I think hunter gatherers diets probably weren’t as bad as you suspect. I do think that today’s issues are different – health care costs have skyrocketed thanks to unhealthy life styles and choices, and many people have lower quality of life as they age because they have numerous health problems due to poor choices (often driven by marketers). Whether this is better than the past is a complex question, and ultimately a matter of both what one values, and how “bad” or “good” one thinks the past really was. There are no clear answers, just a variety of often contradictory theories based on weak evidence.

  3. #6 by Alan Scott on December 11, 2013 - 23:11


    I think the comparison between hunter gatherers and early farming communities is valid perhaps in that farming communities had a less varied diet. I vaguely remember a study I read years ago where scientists examined burial remains of Native Americans from the pre Columbus era. It may have been in the Mississippi river region. The remains spanned a time before and during a large increase in maize production. As corn became a larger percentage of the diet of an increasing population, health problems presented themselves in the remains of the population.

    You have the trade off of a larger more secure food source with a less varied, less vitamin rich diet.

  4. #7 by Strawberryindigo on December 23, 2013 - 20:25

    Life is a river and evolution is change and I hope we improve. We cannot go back to what we were nor should we.

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