Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Stove, or Cooker, or Range I

About ten to twelve thousand years ago the first major act of piracy occurred among the human species: The invention of agriculture.

Prior to that time we lived in small groups, no more than 50 individuals of mixed generations, by hunting and gathering.
The Wikipedia article on "Hunter-gatherer" describes one attendee's contribution to the 1966 "Man the Hunter" conference thusly:
Marshall Sahlins presented a paper entitled, "Notes on the Original Affluent Society," in which he challenged the popular view of hunter-gatherers living lives "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short," as Thomas Hobbes had put it in 1651. According to Sahlins, ethnographic data indicated that hunter-gatherers worked far fewer hours and enjoyed more leisure than typical members of industrial society, and they still ate well. Their "affluence" came from the idea that they are satisfied with very little in the material sense. This, he said, constituted a Zen economy.
Hunter-gathering requires a certain skill set which includes stone sculpture, zoology, physics, geometry and botany. It also requires a certain range: an area which provides sufficient plants and animals to feed the group. Equality is a requisite for the teamwork needed to compensate for the survival skills of the prey, and outwit the competition (lions, tigers and bears, et al.) It also enforces an economic outlook which confines the concept of property to that which one makes, and can carry. The notion of owning land is dismissed as the patent absurdity it is; a complete mismatch of time scales.
This way of life is no idyll. It takes knowledge and skills absent in most of us today. It is not an overly generous life style. So the weak and sickly do not last. And the total number of people per acre is so scant as to be risible in our age of the world. OTOH crowding might mean no more than another group barely in sight after a day's walk. Compare this life to a career working a blast furnace and it comes out on top for ease, pleasure and longevity. If you survived the first several years of life, when nature was most assiduous in pruning, you could look forward to most of your three score and ten -- barring accidents. I submit that a blast furnace is far more likely to provide some than a savanna or wood.
Few groups were so blessed (cursed?) as to find one range generous enough to permit settling. One such region was my own, the Pacific North West of North America in which a temperate climate combined with fertile forests by an ocean embayed, with many islands, to provide ample provender the year 'round. To illustrate the point the coastal trading language. contained a word which meant "He went East over the mountains to live on the desert." There was also a word that meant "He went crazy." It was the same word.

After settling a curious result followed: equality gave way to hierarchy. Loose notions of property tightened until acquisition became more important that use. This was viewed with spiritual alarm. The Potlatch, in which the point of the party was to gift the attendees with all one's possessions, freed one's spirit to re-experience the purity of the nomadic hunter-gatherer. This state was fleeting. It was never long before a neighbor felt the need for a spiritual cleansing and issued his invitations. It was a carousel of aggressive generosity.

One such experience may have corrupted a farmer into the first great Pirate. Some how he acquired enough means to support a modest crew of bully boy ruffian-wannabes. These he grandly called his "Army". He spent a fair effort talking up 'the present danger' which he assured everyone his army would protect them from. Of course he wouldn't object to a little help. Donations of food were useful. Of course it would make the army's job easier if everybody stayed put.
See we could pile rocks and mud up to make barriers -- call them 'walls -- we can all hide behind them if another army comes by looking for trouble. Or we can go out looking for trouble. Won't that be fun? Of course, we'd need a bigger army, which would need more food, which means we have to do something about finding new things to eat. How about that grass? Isn't it great? Good exercise for the teeth and jaws! Slimming, too. That's quite a roll of antelope fat you have there. Well, don't get tetchy! Of course you can live on grain. Lets see, maybe if we smash it up with these stones it won't take so long to chew. I soak mine in water. Overnight usually. (It tastes funny if you leave it more than a week. Kinda fun, though.) Well, try heating it up. With a hot rock of course. Just drop it in 'til it boils. Ya'know, it smokes and bubbles. No, it's not magic; I don't think; is it magic? Fiddlesticks (whatever they are) the rock is hot, you touch, you get hot. Same-same. The water and grain gets hot. No magic.
Down the road a bit was another tribe making a go of it. they had a mess of pretty crystals they'd bring to batter with. Some times a blue stone was worth a basket of grain and sometimes it took two.Other times they was that pinched they'd give two for a half basket.
Then the First Act of Piracy was committed. The Boss Man's nephew, the one who went around explaining the rules, called out a proclamation. Henceforth the Boss Man was King. That meant he owned everything as far as he could see. That's why you paid taxes, so's he wouldn't off you for ingratitude.
It was the first use of the concept: "Stand and deliver!"
Before one knew where the old time religion had gone the pirate chief was strutting around with a copper band around his head to keep his mighty brains contained. The army Bristled around him making everybody bow to him and call him "King". His brother was very prompt to point out all the ways the King was perfect in God's sight while almost everyone else -- especially the one's who didn't tithe to the King's Brother's Church -- stank to God, His Holy Nostrils, and generally Pissed Him Off -- which would account for why everybody's life was such a misery.

The new food supply, besides being indigestible, took a lot more work than hunter-gathering. The first weeds were discovered and the long battle with crabgrass and dandelions among the wheat stalks began. If it wasn't for all the new possessions -- split level hovels and such -- the young folk would take off into tho veldt. If it wasn't for all the new possessions and upholding the family's honor.
With the new hierarchy of King, Priest and Army came artisans and craftsman who made the specialized tools of fawning, worshiping, arming and farming. At bottom were the peasants doing the plowing, the seeding, the tilling, the weeding, the guarding, the mending, the gathering, the threshing, the gleaning, the rendering (of tithes and rents and bills), the storing and the manuring.
The women, when not required to work in the fields, got to tend the household chores. The kitchen garden plot. The gathering of herbs and fruits and nuts. The cooking of meals. The weaving of the baskets tight enough to hold water to boil the grain they ground into a porridge, thin or thick, or gruel depending on the state of the larder which they had to maintain and keep vermin free.
Of course a basket is not exactly indestructible. Hell it's not even all that durable. So, with a splendid burst of creativity, pottery sprang upon an expectant world.
But this is all back story.
to be continued...
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