So what does make us human? What differentiates us from our closest relatives the great apes? These were some of the questions posed to us as students of Prehistory & Archaeology way back in the 1970s. Naturally, the philosophical framework of a course with such a title is going to be artefact-driven. Archaeologists deal in physical remains. Prehistory means there is no written record. Mostly all we are left with are bones, stones, post-holes, hearths, bits of wood (if we’re lucky), stains in the soil, and that prehistorian’s joy of joys – the rubbish pit and/or midden.
(After all, there is nothing so fascinating as poking through other people’s garbage – as long as it doesn’t smell too much. Just think what future archaeologists will make of our landfill sites, and what their contents will say about us. See WALL.E the movie for starters.)
But back to that ‘what makes us human’ question.
In the early 1970s it was widely thought that the appearance of tools was a key criterion. Their construction suggested evolving cognition and the ability to forward plan. Tool-making further presupposed the facility to walk upright, thus leaving hands free to access materials, and to fashion them for preconceived purposes.
For a time this seemed a useful marker, but then as palaeontologists delved ever further back through the remains of our pre-human ancestors (mostly in Africa’s Rift Valley) it became clear that even by 2.5 million years ago, pre-humans were making tools. The picture was further confused by the realisation that chimpanzees also make tools, albeit crudely fashioned ones – e.g. hammers to crack open nuts, or break into bee hives.
Large brain size was another criterion (judged back then on the basis of the cranial capacity of skull remains), this supposedly indicating a well developed intelligence. I’ve never liked this much, feeling it had a whiff of eugenics about it. I also remember finding it perplexing to discover that Neanderthal brains were apparently larger than those of modern humans even though Neanderthals were supposed to be ‘inferior’.
None of this seemed to advance my understanding at that time, and besides, now we find that back in the Paleolithic, and in two distinct phases hundreds of generations apart, humans of the northern hemisphere interbred with Neanderthals. The evidence is there in our genomes.
I left Prehistory behind long ago. As a discipline, I felt it never would be capable of revealing the aspects of humanity that are truly important. And while inferences might be drawn (read: guesses made) about social, religious, political and economic systems from the fragmentary remains of ancient humans, archaeology alone cannot retrieve the all important drivers of human development, the intersecting sets of shared beliefs that create human culture.
After all, we do not know why Stonehenge was built, or what people actually did there, or who organised its building and the activities that took place within the great stone arcades. We never will know. But we can date associated remains, source materials, conjecture on construction techniques, work out how long the place was used, and then we can admire it as an astonishing edifice built by people with an apparently limited technology.
The physical remains,then, are indeed important, but what I really want to know is what was the intention of its builders; what beliefs led to Stonehenge’s conception and realisation.
By now you may be wondering why this post includes scenes from Dubai, including the 9th century pot above. Here’s a clue from the bazaar:
And another from the Gold Souk:
And at the Dhow Harbour:
And in the mall:
Yes, you have guessed it. Trade is the clue. And so, having ruminated on archaeology’s limitations, I can say that one of the things it does do well is reveal ancient trading patterns across the globe. In fact only last week it was announced that a study of sediments from a waterlogged 8,000 year-old Mesolithic (ostensibly hunter-gatherer) settlement in the English Channel contained introduced wheat grains that suggest trade with European farmers.
In this regard then, the movement of goods, the origins and spread of food species can be tracked across the millennia. We can thus surmise that even 8,000 years ago humanity was already out shopping, and that, down the ages, this would seem to be one shared behaviour pattern that is exclusively human. We all do it, and probably always have, because whatever territory was commanded on a day to day basis, it probably did not provide for all its inhabitants’ wants and needs.
There may have been the need to share with other groups a particularly good source of flint for tool making. Inland and maritime communities would have met to exchange materials and foodstuffs. There would also have been the pressing need to find mates well outside the group of related family members. And there might have been a yearning for salt or, in season, for honey or for a particular fruit, all of which might have involved negotiation with outsiders. Fresh water sources might also have been at issue, or the need for extra hands for some seasonal hunting or farming pursuit. And so, for these reasons and more, we would have traded, bartered, exchanged, made treaties and contracts, formed alliances, given and received gifts. This was also probably how some us of ended up with Neanderthal DNA in our genomes.
From the historical record we also know that when it comes to dealing in resources and commodities, hostilities may be instigated, or suspended depending on those whose interests rule. Safe havens, forums, fairs, markets, shopping centres, bazaars, souks, malls are places we all recognise. In the past such gathering points would have also provided venues for song and dance, spiritual and ritual observance, political rallies, exchanges of information and specialised services, the telling of tales.
Dubai, these days, is one of the world’s shopping capitals, reinvesting its wealth from oil refining and trade in the ’shop till your drop’ model. It brings together the concepts of the marketplace and the caravanserai, but on a mega, upmarket 5* scale. Yet it also draws on ancient roots, and on actual trade routes that go back to at least 3,000 BCE. Back then copper and the pearls dived for off Dubai Creek were the stock in trade. Later, as commerce between the Mediterranean and the East began to thrive, dhow merchants made the most of Dubai Creek’s favourable geographical position. The trade continues, only now it is western cars, refrigerators and Coca Cola going east, while the spices, as they have for centuries, come west.
Shopping then, provision and consumption, is, I suggest, what makes us uniquely human. And while I admit that this does not seem a particularly elevating pursuit for our time on this wonderful planet, it nonetheless engages pretty much all of us, from Manhattan bankers to Congo hunter-gatherers. Multifarious mechanisms of exchange bind us in relationships of largely peaceable cooperation. The squabbling over resources, and corporations’ drive to make profits at others’ expense threatens us and our planet. But either way, it is hard to see where this never-ending shopping spree will take us. Maybe we need to take a hard look at those landfill sites of ours, and consider what future archaeologists will have to say of us. I’m not sure we will want to hear it.
copyright 2015 Tish Farrell
Inspired by Jennifer Nichole Wells and her One Word Photo Challenge: teal