March 20, 2013

Ethnic consciousness began with archaic-modern human encounters

A conscious awareness of your own distinctiveness relies on a contrast with whoever it is that you're distinct from. Earlier I tossed around some of Julian Jaynes' ideas about the origins of self-awareness, but before that there was group awareness. Where did that come from? It must have required encountering an Other or out-group that was so strikingly different that it sparked an awareness of the in-group's distinctiveness. For the first time, we sought answers about what made them, them -- and us, us.

And this encounter does not create symmetric effects in each of the two strikingly different groups. Typically the groups are not equal in size and local dominance -- one is large and established, the other is small and upstart. Individuals of the established group do not need to band together to maintain their position, while those in the upstart group do. They're just eking out a living, and small groups are more likely to go extinct from random dumb luck alone.

The greater solidarity that grows within the small upstart group allows them to slowly take over the formerly large group and become the new establishment, waiting to be displaced by the next wave of upstarts. Again, this happens most intensely when there is a strong Us vs. Them contrast, not just any old groups who are small vs. large in size. They look different, talk different, act different, eat different, think different.

These are the basic ideas behind Peter Turchin's concept of the "metaethnic frontier" or faultline between two societies, which breeds greater group awareness and solidarity among the initially weaker group. That imbalance in the growth of solidarity is one of the key differences that eventually leads the expanding group to grow complacent, and the expanded-upon group to band together, push back, and perhaps take over the formerly dominant group. His lively, readable book War and Peace and War develops these ideas to account for the rise and fall of a range of societies and empires.

To keep the model from growing unwieldy, Turchin focuses primarily on societies that are beyond the hunter-gatherer way of life but still pre-industrial. This includes agrarian and pastoralist groups. Generally the story is one of an expanding large group, and a small group that bears the brunt of that expansion -- the Celts who fanned across Europe, squeezing the Romans in the Italian peninsula, or the Persians and Arabs who squeezed Byzantium from the east, and the Slavs, Avars, and Bulgars who squeezed it from the west. These pressure cooker conditions caused the besieged groups to stick together more toughly and cultivate a strong group identity, ultimately leading to Roman and Byzantine dominance over the former giants, who had begun resting on their laurels.

If it happened that way in historical times, why not in prehistorical times as well? Before agriculture, though, human hunter-gatherer groups would not have been so strikingly differentiated as they would be when the nomadic pastoralists from the steppes clashed with the sedentary agrarian civilizations of Eurasia. Today the pygmy hunter-gatherers occupy a somewhat different niche in Africa than the Bushmen hunter-gatherers, but the contrast is nowhere near as stark as Mongolian vs. Russian or Roman vs. Arabian. And with transportation limited to walking, hunter-gatherers from Africa, Australia, Asia, and Europe would never have run into one another.

But back in those days, they could do better than Mongolian vs. Russian -- they could do human vs. Neanderthal, human vs. Denisovan, and human vs. a mystery archaic species in Africa. We know that anatomically modern humans existed alongside the archaic hominins for awhile because the moderns show genetic evidence of having picked up genes from the archaics. Where environmental conditions have been favorable and where fieldwork has been extensive, archaeology also shows overlap of modern and archaic groups in Europe and western/central Asia.

And we know that the contrast would have been huge because when humans first encountered the archaics, it was in a setting that we were not best adapted to. They had gotten there first, adapted pretty well, and established themselves. We were just a ragtag bunch of newcomers shaped to fit Africa. Even in Africa, the modern-archaic encounter must have been outside our normal habitat range up to that point -- because someone else was already there.

To human beings who had just wandered into a strange new territory, the entrenched archaics must have seemed disturbing and unsettling -- not only their looks but their sounds, their social behavior, their hunting tactics, everything. Their whole being was shaped to fit a different environment than ours was. Now, if a species seems too different from us, like if humans see a pride of lions, we don't feel a keen Us vs. Them antagonism (not at a safe distance, anyway). They're obviously not us, but they're not really in the same game as us, otherwise we'd both have similar adaptations, including those evident to our senses.

But if something looks and behaves more like us, they're probably fashioned for a similar way of life as we are -- and that means they're our direct competitors for territory and resources. Of course, if they look identical to us, they're probably from our own small group, perhaps even being close kin, and we'll feel warm toward them and treat them all right.

It's where they just cross that perceptual threshold of "looking kinda like us" -- but no further -- that we would've felt the strongest sense of Us vs. Them. It may not quite have reached the atmosphere of "Holy shit dudes, I think we just wandered onto the Planet of the Apes." But they would have seemed extremely weird, twisted, and unsettling in our eyes, if not in the eyes of a Martian biologist, who would see the two groups as we would see cheetahs and leopards.

Beholding not only a single individual but an entire population of humanoid creatures, and observing that they are thriving in this land rather than drying up like freaks of nature should be -- we are forced to ask ourselves what makes them, them, and us, us. They have some weird inner essence, so we must have a normal and healthy inner essence. That binds all of Us together, against Them.

Where did our unique, healthy, strengthening essence come from? Responses could have varied, but a totem animal was probably the main answer. Whatever path they chose, though, this is how creation myths, origin narratives, and so on got their beginning. Not to mention the visual and material creations that reinforced ethnic identity and made the origin myths more palpable. (In a later post, I'll focus in more detail on the birth of prehistoric art as an outgrowth of modern-archaic encounters.)

The main difference between these prehistoric origins of ethnic consciousness and the post-agricultural pattern is that in the past 10,000 years, it was the larger dominant group who expanded at the expense of a tiny besieged group, whereas in prehistory it was tiny tribes of explorers who secured a toehold in somebody else's territory. We felt like, if we want to hold on here, when they are so numerous and well established, we'd better stick together.

Once it became clear that the moderns and archaics were pursuing fairly similar niches, we realized that this town isn't big enough for the two of us. Then our greater ethnic consciousness emboldened us to take them over, whether by displacing them from the territory and letting them starve, or killing them outright. It wasn't our greater intelligence or fancier tools that killed off the archaic humans -- it was our team-fanatical social psychology. We were in it to win it.


  1. What do you think of Judith Harris' theory that we ate the Neandertals because they were hairy?

    I had typically heard that the Neandertals had inferior technology and lower population density, which is why they lost. Their not inventing clothing is why Harris thinks they were hairy. Interestingly, we can look at the divergence between pubic and head and clothing lice to know when body hair receded and clothes appeared. I think there might also be distinct bugs that hang out in clothes that scientists also compared, but less sure about that.

  2. I don't know your email address, so the only way to point out a study on trends in emotional words in literature over decades is by linking it here.


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