Book Summary: “The Fifth Beginning: What Six Million Years of Human History Can Tell Us” by Robert Kelly

Title:  The Fifth Beginning: What Six Million Years of Human History Can Tell Us About Our Future
Author: Robert L. Kelly
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 4 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

One of the world’s leading authorities on Hunter Gatherer societies gives his interpretation of overall human history

Key Take-aways

Kelly believes that:

  • Mankind has gone through five different beginnings where our life fundamentally changed. The prime drive of these beginnings was increased competition due to population growth.
    • The beginning of technology
    • The beginning of culture
    • The beginning of agriculture
    • The beginning of the state
  • We are now entering a fifth beginning.

Important Quotes from Book

From the perspective of a species, evolution’s job is to ensure the continuation of that species’ genetic material. As long as you live to reproduce and rear young to reproduce, evolution doesn’t care about you. It has no greater purpose. What’s curious about the process, though, is that in achieving its purpose, evolution creates some creatures remarkably different from those it started with… And everyone today—from Dutch dairy farmers to Silicon Valley computer scientists—is the result of our ancestors trying to be the best hunter-gatherers they could be. In trying to be one thing, organisms reach a tipping point and become something completely different. This is what evolutionary theorists label emergent phenomena.

In this book I argue that humans have passed through four such tipping points over the past six million years. I label them beginnings since they mark periods when the basic character of human existence changed and our species began a new life. In chronological order these are the beginning of technology, the beginning of culture, the beginning of agriculture, and the beginning of a political organization called the state. Knowing how archaeologists recognize these beginnings will lead to the conclusion that we’ve arrived at yet another tipping point: the fifth beginning. Humans arrived at each of these beginnings through several processes, but a primary driver is increased competition brought about by population growth… our Pleistocene ancestors who wielded stone tools beat out those who didn’t. Those who had gained the capacity for culture beat out those who did not. Agriculturalists eventually overran hunter-gatherers. And chiefdoms and tribes gave way to state societies, which now dominate the world.

In the fifth beginning, the one we are now in, I expect the evolutionary process to encourage more such relationships and to bring about an economic, social, and political order based more on cooperation than on competition; in fact, the fifth beginning might mark an era in which we compete at cooperation.

In my mind, the only question is whether we make this transition, the fifth beginning, the easy way or the hard way.

Instead, evolution has always tried to make us the best at one thing, but in doing so, it turned us into something quite different. My cherished hunter-gatherers, for example, became agriculturalists while trying to be the best hunter-gatherers they could be. And in trying to be the best industrial, capitalist, competitive nation-states we can be, we too should expect to become something completely different. To cut to the chase, capitalism, the globalization of culture, and the arms race are working together to guarantee a complete change in the organization of human society. It’s the end of war as a viable way to resolve disputes, the end of the nation-state and capitalism as sacred organizational and economic forms, and the beginning of global citizenship. It’s the end of the world as we know it.

Prehistory teaches us that humans excel at solving problems, that evolution has always been remaking us.

Acquiring food efficiently is job one for any organism; if a species fails at that task, it’s doomed.

On the other hand, an organism that develops technology can leapfrog the long process of biological selection and cut to the front of the evolutionary queue. So the costs and benefits of stone tools tell us that hominins upped their game in the late Miocene competitive environment and that they probably did so from close to the bottom of the evolutionary scrum pile. Technology allowed them to win harder-toacquire foods at an energetic gain. They might have started as scavengers (we don’t actually know), but they eventually used stone tools to hunt animals.

With stone tools, those small, two-legged hominins that had been living by trekking from forest patch to forest patch moved into a new niche. With their hands free, they were preadapted for stone tool use: to carry cobbles to where they might be needed, to cut or scrape meat from large carcasses, to make digging sticks to dig up tubers, or to fashion simple spears to hunt small game. Technology opened up a new niche for two-legged hominins.

Technology was a game changer, the first tipping point, the first beginning for a new kind of primate.

Fire might also have been an important element of this new technological adaptation. Fire provides warmth and light at night as well as protection from predators; it also allows a hominin to cook dinner. Cooking increases the value of meat by breaking it down and doing some of the digestive tract’s work in advance; it also makes meat much easier to chew.12 Cooking also converts carbohydrates in tubers into more easily digestible sugars. A hominin eating cooked food can get away with smaller guts because cooking does some of the digestion for it.

Cooked meat, it turns out, is brain food.

Cooked meat, even if it makes up only 10 to 20 percent of the diet, can have a perceptible eff ect on energetic efficiency.

Your brain is an expensive organ; it makes up 2.5 percent of your body weight, but requires 20 percent of your energy. By cooking food, Homo diverted energy that had been spent on maintaining a massive gut to maintaining a large brain.This may be what helped drive another hallmark of humans, a brain that is large relative to our body size.

Technology was part of an adaptive complex that entailed bipedalism, changes in diet, and eventually the use of fire. Technology was especially important because it became a crucial part of the human adaptation. Nothing that followed in human history would have been possible without our ability to use things to fulfill our needs; in fact, those humble Oldowan tools were the beginning of space travel. And technology is a crucial part of social interactions, for example, as trade goods, status symbols, and weaponry.

Coupled with bipedalism and fire, tools made hominins more successful than their niche’s competitors. Those using tools raised more off spring to adulthood than those who did not, and passed on the genetic material (e.g., for mental structures and fine motor control) that permitted toolmaking and using. That was good news, but change creates new problems just as it solves old ones. Relying on stone tools, for example, added a new task to the hominin’s day: finding the appropriate rock and learning how to work it. Our busy workdays began in the lower Paleolithic.

After I wrote a book about modern hunter-gatherers, a colleague asked me if there was anything about them that I thought could be extrapolated back in time. Very few things, I replied, but one was the division of labor. Among living hunter-gatherers, men hunt large game, and women collect plant food, small game, and shellfish.

The reason is that they often have breast-feeding children with them, and small children are not compatible with hunting.

The important point is that from our perch in space we see our ancestors change from arboreal, fruit- and leaf-eating, non-toolmaking primates into something completely different by about 1.5 million years ago: bipedal, ground-dwelling, tool-using, most likely hunting, probably cooking, perhaps pair-bonded hominins. In trying to shape the best arboreal primate possible, evolution turned us into something completely different.

It’s our capacity for culture, to see the world differently, that sets humans apart from the other primates. Anthropologists debate when humans acquired this capacity, but sitting on your perch in space, watching the hominin world go by, you can’t help but notice something happening between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago. At some point, hominins became cultural beings, humans as we know them. This is when we became capable of religious thought; when we could tell stories and use metaphors and analogies; when we could create science, art, music, and poetry; when we could become emotional over a speech or a song.

I think of the era of human evolution between 1 million and 200,000 years ago as something like putting together a symphony orchestra, with different instruments coming on stage at different times and not all tuned to the same key. But archaeological evidence suggests that sometime after 200,000 years ago, the orchestra is seated, their instruments tuned, ready to play Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

• • •

We assume that the capacity for culture is rooted in biology, specifically in some aspect of the brain’s neurology. British archaeologist Steven Mithen has perhaps come close to describing what that biology does. Mithen argues that the mind works with two kinds of intelligence. One of these is general intelligence. Its capacity is refl ected in the size of the brain, or, more specifically, the size of the neocortex (the larger outer portion of the brain), which governs the size of our working memory. Greater working memory permits an organism to hold more than one thought in mind and to “put two and two together.”

The other kind of intelligence, Mithen argues, is more specific and is contained in four “modules” that store and work with particular kinds of information: (1) a social module that helps us understand the behavior of others; (2) a physics module that helps us understand motion, action, and reaction, that is, the properties of technology; (3) a linguistics module that permits us to speak with a range of sounds and about a range of abstract subjects; and (4) a natural history module that catalogues the behaviors and attributes of plants, animals, and inanimate objects. Mithen argues that chimps have all these modules except the linguistic module.

Humans’ “great leap forward,” according to Mithen, was cognitive fluidity, the neurological linking of these different modules.

At least two levels of intentionality are necessary for an organism to have a theory of mind. Theory of mind entails the capacity to know that others have other thoughts, possibly different from your own. Being able to “read minds” is obviously an advantage to a social organism. Having three levels of intentionality is a precursor to culture (I know that you know that we both understand that the ancestors are seeking their bones).

Growth in brain size really took off 500,000 years ago.

By at least 40,000 years ago, hominins were no longer just very clever apes; they were human.

So our best evidence for human burial ritual, a sign of a belief in an afterlife, of religion, and of culture, appears in the last 50,000 years, at the same time that art becomes widespread.

We assume culture is adaptive. By that, we mean that a shared understanding of the “meaning” of the world must have motivated behaviors that increased the reproductive fitness of those hominins with the capacity for culture over those who lacked such a capacity.

What is probably at work here is a selective process that operates at the level of a group rather than at the level of individuals. Culture creates a group because people identify with others who share their beliefs about the world.

In other words, culture is a crucial tool in cooperative relationships.

Coupled with language, culture is a low-cost way to enforce cooperation.

And those who are cooperative are rewarded… . Compiling data from six modern foraging societies, anthropologist Eric Smith found that men who were good hunters and who were generous have more off spring than men who are poor hunters (and who consequently have little with which to be generous).20 Men who are good hunters can obviously feed their children better. But Smith also found that generous hunters were able to marry early and to attract wives with similar food-producing capabilities. Their generosity also created debts and alliances with people who then watched over their off spring. And in their old age, generous men found themselves surrounded by helpful family members and friends.

Selfish behavior has its benefits, but in a cultural environment, so does selfless behavior.

If the capacity for culture allows for the creation of a symbolically constructed universe, and if humans can see that generosity is a good thing, then generosity could become reinforced and made more frequent through culture. Good hunters would continue to have high rates of reproductive fitness, but so would the people who gather around them and who, through culture, have a way to ensure generosity.

From your perch in space you don’t see much significant change across the globe after 50,000 or 60,000 years ago. . . until about 10,000 b.c. Then you have to pay attention. The third beginning entails the appearance of domesticated plants: wheat and barley in the Near East, millet in northern China and rice in southern China and Southeast Asia, maize and squash in Mexico, potatoes and quinoa in the highland Andes, millet and sorghum in central Africa. That’s only the start, however, for the first domesticated plants are later joined by peas and lentils, tomatoes, fruit trees, grapes, bananas, and yams, among others.

Another new item you see is domesticated animals.

In brief, from our perch in the stratosphere, we witness a global human migration driven by slow population growth, and by 10,000 b.c. nearly the entire world is colonized by hunter-gatherers. Homo sapiens was a colonizing species, and movement was an essential component of the hunting and gathering adaptation. What happened when there was no place left to move?

Sitting on your perch in space, you see a world dominated by hunter-gatherers transform into a world dominated by agriculturalists.

And this changed everything.

All of this—sedentary communities, agriculture, and competitive feasting—were brought on in large part by an imbalance in population and food. Agriculture solved that problem—and it might have created a new one.

Hunter-gatherer women produce few off spring largely because of their workload and diet. A complex physiological process that involves the energy stored in a woman’s body, how much a woman eats, and how much she works governs whether a woman can become pregnant. In brief, a woman who is thin, working hard, expending energy in breast-feeding, and not eating much—and this describes many huntergatherer women—will not ovulate regularly, or a fertilized egg might fail to implant in the uterus. A hunter-gatherer woman might give birth to four to six children during her reproductive years. If half of those die before reaching maturity, the result is a very, very slow growth rate and a nearly even balance between children and adults in cemeteries.

Agriculture changed this by changing the energetic demands on women. The availability of weaning foods (rice, potatoes, maize, and bread) meant that farming women could wean children at an earlier age, relaxing one pressure and allowing women to ovulate more quickly after birth.

So women’s workload might have increased at first, but then it may have decreased and become more seasonally concentrated. A relaxation or seasonal concentration of workload would have altered women’s physiology and also increased their ability to conceive. As a result, women in farming communities gave birth to more children during their reproductive years than women in hunting and gathering communities.

After agriculture appears, change comes

fast and furious. The last ten thousand years, and especially the last five thousand years, witness more change than the previous six million. This is the time of cities, swords and spears, gold and silver, temples and palaces, roads, bridges, jewelry, spices, chariots, money—and men and women in chains. This is the time of states.

For anthropologists the term state refers to societies that have at least three levels of political hierarchy: most simply, a ruling class, a bureaucratic class, and laborers… a select few benefitted far more than the masses from developments in trade, the arts, and the sciences. A few were rulers, but most were ruled. Paleolithic hunter-gatherers would have been shocked.

What is most noticeable from your perch in space is that the many small, sleepy agricultural communities scattered around the world of ten thousand to five thousand years ago have been replaced by large cities with massive public architecture. In addition to houses are buildings that provide a specific function—as places of worship, burial, business, or bureaucracy—but the purpose of others, says anthropologist Paul Roscoe, is to leave visitors, as well as the rank and file, in “shock and awe.”

Increased production wasn’t simply to support a growing population but also to free some people from food production. This included a state’s elite and bureaucrats, but increased production was really necessary to free up laborers for a state’s shock-and-awe feats.

In agricultural and foraging societies, even the large, socially complex ones that anthropologists call chiefdoms, kinship is the dominant principle that links people. But in state societies, the kin linkage between the rulers and the ruled is severed. Don’t misunderstand: kinship still matters enormously in state societies…  in state societies, kinship matters more within than between classes. In early state societies, a new set of relationships was added, ones that entailed codified relations with the ruling body, such as government officials, tax collectors, and military commanders. Relations with these people are governed by cultural and legal rules.

The shift away from kinship as a guiding principle was crucial to states, and it played a role in two important changes: dramatic social inequality and organized war. These two new elements of life underwrote the remarkable achievements of early civilizations.

But now, with the appearance of the state, we see weapons designed specifically to kill people: swords, spears, and pikes, and eventually longbows, crossbows, and the whole wicked menagerie of medieval warfare. As a response, people also invested in defensive works such as palisaded villages, walled towns, and castles with tall keeps designed for a final stand.

Many ancient states become insatiable empires.

Let me be clear on this: hunter-gatherers, ancient or modern, do not reflect human nature any more than do other categories of people.

Nonstate societies might conduct small-scale raids or kill one person in retaliation for a death of their own, but Carol Ember found that states are far more likely to participate in atrocities. In fact, they excel at scaring the hell out of their neighbors by murdering noncombatants, torturing captives, raping women, public mutilation and execution, the taking of trophies (e.g., heads), and the destruction of sacred property (e.g., statues and temples). And these tactics are taken not just against neighbors but against folks within the state as well.

Dictators must be ruthless because they have only two options: remain in control at the top or, like Libya’s Mu‘ammar al-Gadhafi, meet an ignoble end in a drainage ditch.

States also glorify the horrific side of warfare… And by glorifying warfare, states promote a culture of violence that ensures a continuation of warfare.

The origin of states begins a vicious cultural cycle. States become empires and exploit their resident populations mercilessly, as leaders “buy off ” their potential competitors and create allies within their ranks. The result is waves of destruction across the landscape.

Civilization’s dirty secret is that it was built on the backs of slaves, indentured servants, and peasants. We see poverty for the first time in state societies.

Nomadic hunter-gatherers and many small-scale agricultural communities have social orders that anthropologists label “egalitarian.” This doesn’t mean that everyone is equal.

What egalitarian means is that everyone has equal access to the critical resources of life: food, water, mates, living space, and the technology to acquire these. The only variable is individual talent and effort, and the power that such differences might bestow is kept in check by peer pressure.

Archaeology shows that as states spread their reach, no society in the world has been immune from oppression or from being oppressors. Is there any light at the end of the tunnel that is not an oncoming train? Yes. In each of the past four beginnings, humanity devised new levels of cooperation: pair-bonding, sharing, alliances, trade. This beginning is no different. At the same time that war has become less useful, as capitalism has undermined its future viability, and as globalization has brought about a clash of cultures, the twentieth century has also witnessed some of the largest cooperative ventures of human history.

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