Essays on miscellaneous topics
Short stories
Academic writing and teaching 
Social & political comments  
Theater-acting-teaching kids 
Entertainment reviews 
My family & its history  
Other personal autobiography

e-mail me

Agrarian societies

In fall, 2015, I've begun visiting a Yale course on agrarian societies.  As always happens with new reading and discussion, new thoughts and questions wander into my brain. I'll record some here as the course proceeds.  Corrections/comments are welcome.

Download PDF of  Owen Lattimore, Studies in Frontier History (complete book, 21mb)

On this page, go to:
DEFINING NATURE (Sept. 13, 2015--response to September 9 class and a Sept. 11 colloquium on the idea of an anthropocene)

Our first readings were mostly on early Chinese history and the development of agriculture.

“Nature” is a broad topic with a rich heritage of discussion. The more I think about its meaning, the more confused I get. Is it the sum of existence "out there" at any given moment (and not quite the same existence a moment later)? When are humans part of it and when not? If the history of hominins has been an ever-expanding imperative to re-configure their environment, should we define that imperative itself as "natural"? Should we make a distinction between our intended changes and the willy-nilly changes of other living creatures (familiar examples: beaver dams, microbe effects [thanks, Barbara])? Of non-living phenomena (e.g., volcanos, meteors crashing into the earth)? Does the tendency of our conscious choices to have unintended consequences, usually unpleasant, mean that we should view our own changes as no less (or only marginally less) willy-nilly?  

Do any of those questions matter, or can we get by just fine with an impressionistic meaning, as we get by with calling something "red" even though we have no certainty that another person is seeing exactly what we're seeing, and even though we're all responding to the same wavelength of light?

As I read the next text for the course, which looks at measurable ways to plot human transitions from hunter-gathering (were we then more part of nature?) to agriculture (less part of nature?) and beyond, I suspect that some (many? all?) of my questions will be getting addressed as the course proceeds--if I can be patient.

For now, let me look at snippets of Western concepts of “nature,” with which I have had some familiarity, and with that context pose questions to clarify what confuses me. 
  • By accident, the jumping off point many decades ago in my own studies for approaches to “nature” was the intellectual history of European-originated attitudes towards language.  For example, Greek and Roman mythology (at least) posits states of nature in which the earliest humans were brutish and disorganized, brought to the “arts” (including technology and agriculture) and thereby civilization by an antique master of language (where language separates us from the beasts and teaches reason)—typically an orator or philosopher or lawgiver, though in Horace (at least) a poet.
  • Genesis informs us that before the Fall, humanity lived in a state of harmonious nature.  Afterwards, though exiled from Eden into a hostile state of nature where they are intended to suffer hardships (pain of childbirth, food provided by the sweat of one’s brow), Adam and Eve (presumably thanks to their gardening experience in Eden) already have adaptations for tilling the soil.  (Perhaps not incidentally in relation to classical myths about the power of language, reason and law-giving, God has Adam confer divinely inspired names upon the animals.)  Their sons become a crop farmer and shepherd (cf. Oklahoma’s reconciliation prescript that “The farmer and the cowman should be friends”); in murdering Abel, Cain is responding to a supposed slight by God (one of those divine mysteries we should not seek to understand), but I think their different types of farming are symbolically crucial.  Genesis provides for a Western interpretation of nature that says (for starters): (a) in its primal, divinely ordained form nature was “tamed,” but (b) thanks to human frailty, nature became hostile, (c) it is apparently human duty to re-tame nature (as part of living a pious life?) as much as possible (although I suppose at some level we’re also supposed to lie back and accept our divinely ordained suffering), and (d) we should expect clashes between different kinds of farming.
  • Monasteries seem to have stressed self-sufficiency that included gardening (with multiple implications). 
  • Skipping over topics like the pastoral tradition, Francis Bacon's advice to steal “nature's” secrets by raping her (though not what we mean today when we refer to our rape of nature), Hobbes's definition of the state of nature, evolving landscape philosophies, or the myth of the noble savage, we can ask: how much do notions like Armageddon and Original Sin drive opposition to what you, gentle reader, and I would consider a more enlightened, “scientific” approach to the evils that humanity has gifted to the environment, especially notorious today but having roots in selection pressures in the course of hominin evolution?  I think it’s no accident that scholars (mainly in the West?) are searching for a meaningful, new term (cf. debate about “anthropocene”) as we face the terrible, accelerating consequences of such a heritage in (take your pick) recent decades, centuries or millennia; in part, this seems variously to be a quest for a moral compass, repentance and atonement for not having previously owned up to the (non-religious) experience of homocentrism, shock at what our species has wrought, and maybe a cleansed, non-religious version of the medieval geocentric universe that places us once again at a morally ambiguous center of, if not the physical universe, at least our own species-wide narcissistic world. 

Back to earth.  My concern is to understand parallel (and shifting) notions in other cultures, especially those most removed from (or of minimal influence on or by) Western experience.  What other views (=definitions) of nature were floating around, and how much gets lost, when translating, by using English “nature” (or some other Indo-European language’s terminology, or natura during Latin’s heyday as a proto-universal Western language). 

Does this problem occur today when different languages address issues about “nature”?  While that would be important if true (I have no idea about translation protocols for emotionally/politically volatile terms), for my purposes, the question is about the past and whether scholars today inadvertently blur important distinctions by falling back on an assumed commonality of what is meant by “nature.”  And vice-versa: does a Chinese dialect, say, translate English “nature” into a term that misses some of our meaning (assuming we share a common meaning…)?

Do we learn anything by reflecting on what seem to have been (natural?) cultural imperatives to link agriculture (or anything else relevant to human survival) to appeals to divinities, divination, astrological influences, and the like? Probably easier to answer: does human or animal sacrifice satisfy needs for truly (as opposed to superstitiously) protecting food supplies?

NOTE ON VARMINTS: Our recent readings included comments about how Chinese farmers wanted to get rid of intrusive crop destroyers like elephants and tigers, and one professor observed that this didn’t necessarily happen elsewhere.  If I understood correctly, the difference was that ruling elites might, for personal purposes (as opposed to ecological concern), protect such species (e.g., for hunting), so that there was a kind of class basis to what was allowed.  I gather that such protection was flying in the face of the (presumably) vast agricultural population, who I expect still secretly destroyed these varmints when they thought they could get away with it.  

I wonder if, just as we respond with dismay to destruction (once to protect agricultural livelihoods, now for sheer profit) of what we see as exotic, appealing organisms like elephants or tigers, foreigners who lack our varmints experience similar dismay at what we glibly destroy.

CODA: I’m pretty pessimistic about the chances of rallying enough of humanity to put the brakes on our freight train to oblivion, and I’m skeptical of the ability of new technological fixes repairing the old without introducing newer, unanticipated horrors.  But neither am I repudiating what I see as our biological-cultural evolutionary heritage that may end up destroying that which sustains us.  This habit seems the result of some evolutionary logic encoded in genes from our remote past for species survival (now, I like to think, outdated**).  Can we postulate a different evolutionary path pf behavior for creatures with our brain capacity?  If there’s any hope (about which I’m also skeptical, but I have grandchildren and so must hope), it requires developing tools that the vast bulk of humanity will somehow accept for facing up to ugly truths about ourselves while fabricating and internalizing behavioral norms to reverse our unpleasant heritage under control.  Perhaps this is my secular version of Original Sin mitigated by ever-increasing mitzvahs.

*[Sept. 14] A specialist in such matters informs me: ",,,as far as Chinese and Japanese are concerned, they took an older term (with a range of meanings, some of them Buddhist) and made it the equivalent of English / French / German natur(e). That was in the same historical moment that terms such as society, biology, and religion were imported into East Asia. The words today look venerably ancient (they are all derived from classical Chinese), but none is older than the 1860s."

**Hmmm.  I wonder if our epigenetic makeup happens to have evolved a trigger to turn off survival impulses that are actually self-destructive.  Isn't it pretty to think so?

PREHISTORIC ART, EARLY WRITING (Sept. 19, with updates, in response to discussion-group remarks on Sept. 16 about (1) prehistoric human artistic expression and (2) the first writing as used for accounting purposes)


Intriguing observations were made about how prehistoric humans (late prehistoric, but still well before the Neolithic period) used decoration (e.g., body painting, petroglyphs and cave painting) to alter their cultural environments or communicate ideas (even if we can’t be sure exactly what those were). 

The Peabody Museum’s Echoes of Egypt exhibition a couple of years back, for which I was a docent, included a section on hieroglyphs that offered the speculation that pre-literate Egyptian pottery designs may have provided a basis for a hieroglyphic approach to writing.  John Darnell wrote (

Predynastic cultures in Upper Egypt created symbolic representations of their understanding of the cosmos.  On the surfaces of their pottery they painted scenes, and along the rocky cliffs of the Western and Eastern Deserts they carved hundreds of rock art depictions and tableaux.  These images are not literal depictions of daily life along the Nile Valley…but religious, political, and cultural symbols. [C]ombinations of images represent a graphic means of linking and reconciling the paired worlds of desert and Nile.  Over time, some individual images or groups of images develop a specific meaning…. Although this syntax of images conveying concepts is not true writing, as it conveys no phonetic information and is limited in application, the recognition of the ability of groups of images to convey information across time and space provides the protohistory of writing in Egypt.

Darnell’s suggestion makes me wonder more about prehistoric art.  Was there any genetic selection for human expression through, say, drawing in particular or signs in general?  What have we inferred from sign language use about development of non-spoken communication? 

Long ago I read that cave paintings were magical efforts to gain control over the hunted animals being portrayed, and until now I didn’t question that.  But from where did that generalization come?  Are there current cultures who echo the cave painting ethos, and did anthropologists interview them about what they were up to?  (Even if so, can we trust those answers?) Perhaps the paintings represented something entirely different.  The hand images on some cave paintings could easily have been to preserve the…identity? inner self? something else?...of the painter (or his [her?] family, friends, tribe?).  Might a painted scene portray an actual hunt of such importance that it should be memorialized?  Or a scene of everyday hunting that would give viewers a reassuring reminder of the value of their daily lives?  Or a teaching tool?  Or some combination of such possibilities? 

In a cave (say) with a plethora of paintings, was there any master plan for their development?  Does what we see reflect a sequence of pictures added according to some cultural standard (such as keeping an “historical” record of important group events—and what could be more important than maintaining individual group and existence through food acquisition) as time passed?  Why are the scenes only about hunting—or are they? 

Why were some paintings in dark areas where they could only be seen (and painted) after some hiking, torches in hand (or some other fire-lit technology like torches attached to walls and kept alight by designated members—an elite? a subservient caste?—of the social group)?  What was the effect on those involved in producing (or visiting) the paintings?  Could there even have been hallucinogenic effects of the cave atmosphere in which the pictures were produced or viewed?  Were there health implications of inhaling the smoke?

And what about designs on, say, petroglyphs or early jewelry?  What specific meaning might they have had to the carvers and their (presumably very small) societies?  That is, might they have been more than just decorations?  How might they have helped cohesion in a given social group?  Or indulged what may be a long-standing human need to be differentiated from every other human being even while having a drive to belong?  Or helped distinguish a particular social group from neighbors, who at least at times were presumably competitors for resources (or, depending on how their cultures evolved, maybe even bragging rights)?  As Darnell suggests about pre-writing decorations on Egyptian pottery, were such designs already markers on the road to what we comfortably (see below) label as writing?

And so on.  I ask these questions with the assumption that they are impossible to answer with reasonable certainty, though I don’t know all the tools archaeologists have used to diagnose what was happening. 


All that provides a segue to the evolution of writing and its relation to keeping accounts. 

Since I knew almost nothing about Mesopotamian history, I trolled through the web until I came upon a couple of essays by a UCLA cuneiform scholar, Robert Englund (since these articles are available via Englund’s own web site, I take them to be in the public domain):  
         Accounting in Proto-cuneiform       Late Uruk Period Cattle and Dairy Products

I also used (among many sites on the subject) what appears to be an intellectually responsible archaeological web site.

While this material is of course only a drop in the cuneiform knowledge bucket, it has multiplied my understanding of cuneiform way beyond what I knew, and I now have thoughts (more accurately, questions) about implications of what I’ve read. 

I’ll start with this quote from Englund, which suggests that accounting functions led to writing (at least in Mesopotamia) rather than actually being early writing (though of course definitions are always up for grabs, and the important issue would be to figure out what we gain by making the definition one way or another): “Most who have studied the matter have considered early writing to be a collateral development from the exploitation of an increasingly complex method of fixing quantitative data.” 

I find this diagram in Englund’s essay quite helpful:

cuneiform history chart

“Plain tokens” are “accounting devices” with numerical meaning.  They have a range of shapes which probably depicted certain market animals, containers and labor, and some have markings that might have indicated quantities.  They would have been cross-lingual and so could override translation matters. 

What most startles me about this is the 4-5 millenia (into what archaeologists call the Uruk IV period) during which they were apparently used before a more sophisticated system evolved.  (This assumes, of course, that our failure to find earlier evidence of such an alternative system truly means that such evidence NEVER existed.) 

Then, maybe because of expanding market goods, around 3500 BCE and for two to four centuries, “complex” tokens emerged; I’m a bit confused on the exact difference distinction “complex tokens” and “bulla” (I expect our professor's account of a clay ball with tiny cattle models inside is an example of such phenomena), but the latter seems to have been a gradual evolution or adaptation of the former, and they both seem important, contemporaneous responses to the growing limitation of simple tokens. On the surface of these balls (Englund calls them “envelopes”), incised markings seem to have indicated what was supposed to be inside. These objects seem to have been (at least in part) developments to reduce the chances of information being changed (or "reinterpreted") as time passed between an agreement or planned transaction and completion of the agreed-upon action. 

So at this point a lot is being symbolically communicated without what we would yet call writing.  Indeed, the earliest cuneiform is referred to as “proto-cuneiform,” which seems to mean it doesn’t count as “real” writing, yet smacks of “writing.”  It seems to be the stage of Mesopotamian communication-through-signs that developed for accounting purposes. 

Towards the end of what is diagrammed above as the time of complex tokens and bulla, what some would call the earliest (Mesopotamian) writing takes the form of transferring the previous token efforts to incisions on clay tablets.  (A case has been made that plain tokens continued in use for another couple of millennia, maybe as late as the 7th century BCE—a tribute to the apparent trustworthiness of their role among, at least, traders.) 

(Side note: When learning about Egyptian history in recent years, I read accounts that hieroglyphs and cuneiform appeared around the same time, with cuneiform probably coming a bit earlier—around 3300 BCE.  The accounts of cuneiform I'm using in this commentary suggest a different chronology.) 

Other questions include:

  • What exactly is the dividing line between “mere” accounting and other sorts of communication through writing?  Once numbers (quickly, I would expect) are supplemented with words (e.g., “sheep,” “laborer,” “infant” [cuneiform apparently used “womb-sucking”], “butter,” “deliver,” “large”), would it not be tempting (or "natural"?) to use the symbols for other purposes?  What about when an official’s role is specified, or dates and seasons, or sex, or age, or “lists.”
  • One commentator suggests that distinguishing among people (e.g., laborer, supervisor) point to implicit (or explicit) references to class.
  • What kinds of sub rosa communication like doodling and memo-keeping might have gone on that has long since disappeared?  I'm thinking here of a far more advanced state of writing, during ancient Egypt building projects in the Valley of the Kings, where we have found huge repositories of discarded "notes," including satirical cartoons, on chunks of discarded rock.  Might proto-cuneiform scribes have idly indulged in (and shared) such activities during breaks or when otherwise bored and unobserved?