The lunatic fringe in prehistory

Michael Forstadt (forstadt@HUSC.HARVARD.EDU)
Tue, 14 Dec 1993 11:41:23 -0500

Seeker1 writes:

>I never said that primitive communities were *only* defined by geography.
>In fact, this is probably only true in the agricultural era, after the
>Neolithic revolution. Nomadism and hunting-gathering continued (there
>[sic] still today) but the *majority* of the human race decided they
>couldn't wander around all the time and grow good crops. Fact remains, no
>matter how mobile people in the past were, 95% of them never went more
>than 50 miles from where they were born. That's a big difference from the
>modern era.

Well, I have a lot of picky little problems with what seeker1 is trying to
say here. Its sounds like rather than adequately defending his or her
previous statements, seeker1 is burying him- or herself in an
ever-deepening hole. To start off with -- and this is a relatively minor
point -- seeker1 seems to be reinforcing the largely artificial
"primitive" vs. "modern" dichotomy. By the way, where would
postmodernists or "modern primitives" fit into this schema?

More to the point: despite the "disclaimer," seeker1 still sounds a lot
like a determinist, both in the geographic and economic senses. By
focussing on a pre-agricultural vs. post-Neolithic dividing line, the real
"facts" of human variability tend to become masked and oversimplified. As
any archaeologist knows, hunter-gatherers run the gamut from being highly
mobile to highly sedentary. Pastoralists, who do not just occupy the minority
fringe, can also be completely sedentary or extremely mobile. Most
importantly, agriculturalists -- although often sedentary -- have since
the early days always maintained widespread trading links. For example, in
the earliest Neolithic of southwest Asia, contact was common between
sedentary communities in the southern Levant and those in Anatolia.
Someone was doing a whole lot of schlepping. Actually, I tend to think a
lot of people were moving around. In any event, I would like to see more
evidence for the 95% of people who were just sitting around the house
until the "modern" era. I would argue that only with the advent of
television has this figure been remotely approached. What I am getting at
is this: there is probably a good argument to be made that mobility has
decreased with "modernization," rather than increased. Email has, in fact,
only contributed to this phenomenon. I don't even have to get dressed and
schlepp all the way out to the curb to stick a letter into my mail box
anymore. One final comment on a more positive note; its comforting to know
that seeker1 has finally solved the riddle of agricultural origins which
scholars have been puzzling over for the last 100 years.

Mike Forstadt
Department of Anthropology
Harvard University