What really happened in 10,000 B.C.?

March 28, 2008

Alan Maass explains what a new Hollywood movie can tell us about early human society.

SURE, I realize no one's going to see the movie 10,000 B.C. for a lesson in natural or early human history. But it's still hard not to keep a running count of the doozies in the film.

Like the woolly mammoths? As a species, they were close to extinction 12,000 years ago. They survived in a few isolated areas--but certainly nowhere near the deserts of Southwestern Asia/Northern Africa, where they're beasts of burden in the movie's version of ancient Egypt.

Or: How do the film's heroes--in their journey to save members of their band who were captured to be slaves--walk from their native Arctic environment, through a sub-tropical jungle, and then across a desert in a matter of a couple weeks?

Can a gigantic saber-tooth tiger (another virtually extinct species by this point) really be tamed if you save it from drowning? Or did hollering, "Now, you better not eat me!" do the trick?

And don't get me started about the giant, man-and-horse-eating, chicken-raptor-o-saurs.

I don't want to begrudge anyone a couple hours of mindless fluff. 10,000 B.C. isn't a very good movie, but it's not especially harmful. Better the millions were spent on computer-generated special effects than bullets or bombs.

What else to read

Frederick Engels' The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State is the crucial Marxist account of the origins of human society, and one that is all the more amazing for having anticipated many discoveries of modern anthropology.

Look for Myths of Male Dominance by Eleanor Burke Leacock, who updates Engels' analysis, with particular stress on debunking the myth of the "natural" superiority of men.

The Meaning of Marxism, by Socialist Worker columnist Paul D'Amato, is an excellent and concise introduction to the ideas of Marx and Engels, including their theory of history.

But the title of the movie caught my attention when I first saw it in ginormous letters on a billboard. Because 10,000 B.C. is actually an enormously important moment in the history of human beings. It's the beginning of an era when, in one small area of the globe, groups of people changed the ways they provided what they needed to live, and that led to the development of the basis for the first settled human societies.

Anthropologists call this the Neolithic revolution--the period when humans, who had survived since the dawn of the species in nomadic bands that gathered food and hunted animals, began to develop techniques allowing them to get food through cultivating plants and the domestication of animals.

There's no reason to expect 10,000 B.C. to depict the Neolithic revolution accurately. But the way the film does depict early societies--like many other movies and TV shows and books, right down to the comic strip B.C.--sheds a lot of light on how human history is mangled.

The popular version of what early human societies were like is shaped by the assumptions and prejudices of today's world--and in turn, this depiction of people 12,000 years ago behaving pretty much the same as we do today is another element in an ideology used to justify the current society as unchanging and unchangeable.

NO ONE called for the Neolithic revolution to take place. It came about first in the Levant region east of the Mediterranean Sea--present-day Syria, spreading to Iraq--probably as a result of favorable climatic conditions that made food supplies more abundant, making it possible for hunter-gatherer bands to be less on the move and begin investigating how to cultivate plants, rather than gather them.

Based on the archeological evidence, the first plants to be cultivated in Mesopotamia included wheat and peas; sheep and goats were likely the first animals domesticated. The same process took place at later times in different parts of the world--involving, obviously, different plants and animals--sometimes as an independent development, sometimes because other early societies came in contact with those based on the new ways of living.

Prior to the Neolithic revolution, for the 100,000 years that modern humans were a species, the hunter-gatherer band was the rule. One of the chief characteristics of humans at every stage of history is that they live in cooperation with each other. In hunter-gatherer societies, it was a very rudimentary form of cooperation--working together to forage for edible plants and to hunt animals.

That specific form of cooperation depended, above all else, on what people did to get food and other means of survival--or to put it in the terms that Karl Marx and Frederick Engels used in developing their understanding of human history, it depended on the mode of production of the necessities of life.

Thus, for example, the hunter-gatherer bands depended on foraging for food scattered over a wide area, and this forced on them the condition of living as nomads, constantly on the move. That in turn meant that the bands had to be fairly small, so only a small number of children could be supported, and everyone had to be adept at hunting animals or at gathering.

In other words, the conditions of producing food and other necessities required that there be a rough equality among all the members of the band--which is why Marx and Engels referred to this as an era of "primitive communism."

Based on the evidence uncovered by anthropologists, there seems to have been, generally speaking, a sexual division of labor in which men hunted and women gathered--likely to do with the biological fact that women bore children and were less able to participate in days-long hunts.

But no social significance was attached to these different roles. There was no sense, for example, that men's labor was more important than women's. On the contrary, evidence from excavations and the observation of hunter-gatherer societies that survived in remote areas until recently indicates that women's gathering, not men's hunting, was the dominant means of obtaining food in a majority of cases.

This bears no resemblance at all to the world of 10,000 B.C. In the movie, women in the hunting tribes are there in the background, but it's a man's world when it comes to any action of significance. If women have any useful role other than to raise children, it is as the bearer of legends and superstitions--and in the case of the seer Old Mother, using her supernatural powers, but only to make sure the male heroes succeed.

By the same token, the pronouncement that the main hero D'Leh is a man of "great destiny," according to the faceless narrator, as opposed to any other man of the tribe makes no sense either.

In a hunter-gatherer society, the idea that some people were born to lead and others to follow would seem as nonsensical as the ancient legend that a flat earth was supported on backs of elephants does today. This isn't because the members of hunter-gatherer societies were more virtuous, but because survival depended on the efforts of everyone--and because the means didn't exist for anyone to accumulate much beyond their immediate needs, and thereby rise above the rest of society.

BUT A different way of producing necessities gave rise to a different form of cooperation. A more abundant food supply based on cultivating plants and domesticating animals meant that human societies could grow in size and adopt a more settled lifestyle.

This had a consequence for the role of women. Instead of a need to limit the number of births because of being on the move, there was an incentive for women to have more children, to be the next pair of hands to work--which increased the burden of child-rearing and diminished women's social role.

With a more stable and efficient system of food production, humans could produce a surplus for the first time--more than they needed for their immediate survival needs. The surplus needed to be stored and counted, so the first systematic use of written language dates from this time, and there were developments in stonework, pottery, metallurgy and construction that would have made no sense for the nomadic hunter-gatherers.

Of course, when there was a surplus produced by human labor, there was a surplus that could be taken--the material incentive for war and conquest emerged.

The more effective ways of producing held the promise of further developments, too--if, for example, a society could support one person who would devote their labor to developing better methods of agricultural production, such as irrigation. But this specialization of labor could only happen if an individual or group of individuals took control of how the surplus produced by the whole of society would be used.

This first emergence of divisions in human society didn't take the form of exploitation and oppression. But ultimately, it was the root of the development of something previously unknown--a class society.

Over hundreds and thousands of years, the individuals or families or social groups that had, at first for the good of all, taken responsibility for managing the surplus began to view themselves as separate from the rest of society, with their own superior position being natural and necessary.

Threats to that position had to be stopped--thus, the need for systems of coercion and repression, which became more extensive as the demands of production grew.

The emerging rulers of society needed to justify their position of superiority, so superstitions and legends were altered or concocted for the purpose. That in turn gave rise to the need for another form of specialized labor--ideologists, such as priests, who would be the guardians of the ruling ideas that justified class stratification.

These elements do show up among the bad guys in 10,000 B.C.--the pyramid-building empire of the Almighty, whose arbitrary power depends on the barbarism of slavery. This society is obviously based on Egypt, though around 3000 or 2000 B.C.--and it's worth noting that historians believe that slavery, though it existed in ancient Egypt, was relatively rare. The ancient societies where slaveholding became widespread were located further north, in Europe--the Greek and Roman Empires.

The tendency of a movie like 10,000 B.C. to focus on the greed and megalomania of the rulers of these ancient empires is apt enough. But it does give a picture of these societies as having arisen out of a few individuals' thirst for power.

In understanding how humans got from the primitive communism of the hunter-gatherers to the tyranny of slave empires, it's important to underline that the first crystallization of divisions within human society would have been seen by everyone as a step forward--and those who first took on the responsibility of directing the use of society's surplus wouldn't have done so to increase their own wealth and power, but out of a sense of responsibility toward others.

But over generations and centuries, such divisions calcified into a different relationship, with different motives, reaching a point when, as author Paul D'Amato put it, "a figure that begins as a giver turns into its opposite, a taker--that is, an exploiter." Thus, the rise of class society was an unintended consequence of developments in the ways humans produced the necessities of life.

There is one unexpectedly telling scene in 10,000 B.C. among all the rest. In it, the hero D'Leh despairs that the tribesmen he led to free the slaves are outmatched by the Almighty's huge army of overseers. D'Leh's mentor responds: "Those they make do their work are even more."

The other unintended consequence of the changes in how humans produce for themselves--one every bit as inevitable as the rise of class society--is the emergence of the struggle between oppressor and oppressed.

In every society divided between a minority of rulers and a majority who do the work, the ruled have dreamed of a world of equality and justice.

The history not just of the past few centuries but of past millennia is filled with stories of the oppressed rising up in rebellion against the conditions imposed on them--with the hope of overturning their oppressors and establishing a different kind of world.

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