Category Archives: Uncategorized

History became legend, legend became myth

7.8-7.5 thousand years ago

This has proven my most popular post! For more on the general topic, here’s Patrick Nunn with an article and a book, The Edge of Memory: Ancient Stories, Oral Tradition, and the Post-Glacial World making the case that “some ancient narratives contain remarkably reliable records of real events.”

Here’s a Klamath Indian story, recorded in 1865 (much abbreviated here).

One time when the Chief of the Below World was on the earth he saw Loha, the daughter of the tribal chief. Loha was a beautiful maiden, tall and straight as the arrowwood. The Chief of the Below World saw her and fell in love with her. He told her of his love and asked her to return with him to his lodge inside the mountain. But Loha refused to go with him. The Chief of the Below World was very angry. He swore he would have revenge on the people of Loha, that he would destroy them with the Curse of Fire. Raging and thundering on the top of his mountain, he saw the face of the Chief of the Above World on the top of Mount Shasta. From their mountaintops the two spirit chiefs began a furious battle. Mountains shook and crumbled. Red-hot rocks as large as the hills hurtled through the skies. Burning ashes fell like rain. The Chief of the Below World spewed fire from his mouth. Like an ocean of flame it devoured the forests on the mountains and the valleys. The Curse of Fire reached the homes of the people. Fleeing in terror before it, they found refuge in Klamath Lake. [Eventually the Chief Below the World] was driven into his home [by the Chief above the World], and the mountain fell upon him. When the morning sun rose, the high mountain was gone. The mountain which the Chief Below the World had called his own no longer towered near Mount Shasta. For many years the rain fell in torrents and filled the great hole that was made when the mountain fell upon the Chief of the Below World. Now you understand why my people do not visit the lake. From father to son has come the warning “Do not look upon this place.”

Almost 7,700 years ago, a volcanic eruption destroyed most of what had been the towering Mount Mazama, leaving behind a 4,000 foot deep crater that became Oregon’s Crater Lake. The Klamath Indian story about the origin of the lake preserves a clear memory of this event, from long before the invention of writing.


The story, and its connection with real geological events, is presented in When They Severed Earth From Sky. The book demonstrates in this and many other cases how myths and legends can preserve detailed information about the past. If you’re interested in how earlier generations remembered history and conceived of the past – a big topic on Logarithmic History – the book is strongly recommended. It’s intellectually worthy, setting forth general principles that govern the formation of legends, myths, and other oral history. And it’s also a fun read, casting new light on familiar figures like Prometheus (related to current Caucasian myths, and tied to volcanic Mount Elbrus in the Caucasus) and the Golden Calf.

First farmers

8.80 – 8.32 thousand years ago

Farming is now spreading out of the Fertile Crescent. Farmers have crossed the Aegean, and appear in the Balkans and Greece. (They got to Cyprus more than a thousand years earlier.) Farmers have also begun spreading out of the Yellow River and Yangzi River valleys in China.

There’s an argument among philosophers of a utilitarian bent, started by Derek Parfit, over which is better: a world with just a few very happy people (more happiness per capita), or a world crowded with a multitude of people for whom life is just barely worth living (more total happiness)? The choice of the latter has been dubbed the “Repugnant Conclusion.” Whatever the philosophical merits of one possible world or another, there’s little doubt about which direction social evolution usually takes. “God favors the side with the largest battalions” (a saying often attributed to Napoleon, but actually predating him), and agricultural populations have mostly managed to replace hunter-gatherers, even though they are probably worse fed and sicker on average. The DNA evidence shows that in Europe it’s mostly replacement we’re talking about, not just the spread of new technologies. Migrants originally from Anatolia pushed aside indigenous hunter-gatherers without much interbreeding. In Western Europe the replacement wasn’t entirely peaceful. In the north, in what is now Germany and the Low Countries, farmers from the intrusive Linear Pottery (LBK) culture built fortified settlements, and there was an unpopulated no-man’s land between farmer and hunter-gatherer territory. Along the Mediterranean shore, farmers from the intruding Cardial (Impressed Ware) culture sometimes killed foragers, and kept their heads as trophies.

For a while, a decade ago, it looked as if the spread of agriculture might also explain much of the distribution the world’s major language families. Peter Bellwood’s book First Farmers made this case. According to this theory, the first farmers in Europe were speakers of an early Indo-European language that eventually gave rise to most of the languages of Europe, as well as Iran and northern India. We’ll see in days to come on Logarithmic History that the story turns out to be more complicated.

Roots and grains, clans and kings

9.85 – 9.31 thousand years ago

Agriculture got started in the Near East by 10,000 years ago, yesterday on Logarithmic History. But a very different agricultural system may have begun around today’s date on the margins of Kuk Swamp in the highlands of New Guinea. This early date is controversial, but agriculture was clearly in place by around 6.5 kya.

The folks at Kuk Swamp were harvesting (and at some point cultivating) root and tree products: taro, yams, and bananas. We know relatively little about the early history of such crops, and their New World counterparts like manioc and sweet potatoes, since they don’t preserve as well archaeologically as grains like wheat, rice, and corn/maize.

And there may be a more consequential difference between roots and tubers, and grains. Many root crops don’t keep well once they’re harvested. Better to leave them in the ground and harvest small amounts as needed. But grains have to be harvested all at once, and then stored. There may be a further socio-political implication to this: in the case of grains, concentrated stores make it easier for tax collectors to step in and appropriate a part of the product. Around the world, grain agriculture eventually ends up associated with complex stratified societies, with elites supported by rents and taxes extracted from a dependent peasantry. Places where root and tree crops were the basis of subsistence were less likely to develop political organization beyond the local level. Highland New Guinea winds up illustrating this, with productive agriculture and dense populations, but tribal-scale politics right up to the mid twentieth century.


The Andes, where the potato was first cultivated, and a succession of empires eventually flourished, may be the exception that proves the rule. At high altitudes, potatoes could be preserved by freeze drying.

James Scott, a political scientist with some anarchist sympathies, has a recent book out, Against the Grain: Deep History of the Earliest States, about the relationship between grains and the state formation. And in an earlier book, The Art of Not Being Governed:An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, he argues that stateless folk in Southeast Asia sometimes opted for root crops for political reasons – to preserve their independence – more than ecological ones.

Domesticated, I tell you

Agriculture on this planet is about 50 million years old, if you count ants and their underground fungus gardens. But human agriculture seems to begin about 10.5 thousand years ago, in the Fertile Crescent in the Near East, with the domestication, in a short space of time, of barley, two varieties of wheat, sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle. (As we have seen, the domestication of dogs came earlier, maybe a lot earlier.)


Agriculture is one of the greatest changes ever in the human condition, but whether it was a net improvement for the average person is questionable. There’s a lot of evidence that people were worse fed, and sicker, in a lot of places once they started farming. On the other hand, agriculture supports more people per acre than hunting and gathering, usually by several orders of magnitude, so population pressure is probably a big motive for experimenting with planting seeds.

pop density

But we are still left with an unsolved question. Why, after tens of thousands of years in which human beings showed little inclination to adopt farming, does it develop independently within a five thousand year span in half a dozen spots around the globe? I’ve run into anthropologists who think that it just took that long for populations to reach carrying capacity, but this shows no appreciation at all for the time scale of exponential population expansion. Any human population with room to grow can increase its numbers tens or hundreds of time on a time scale of less than a thousand years. So something other than population-below-carrying-capacity must have kept people from taking up farming for a long, long time. Two possibilities

1) The Ice Age climate wasn’t suited for farming. This explanation was proposed by Robert Boyd, Peter Richerson, and Robert Bettinger. We’ve already seen that Boyd and Richerson argued that the extreme climate swings of past glacial periods favored adaptation via cultural learning (rather than via individual learning or natural selection). These same swings ­– like the dramatic return to glacial condition in the Younger Dryas Cold Event – might have been too much to allow for prolonged settled life in one place, and attendant experiments with agriculture.

Another version of the argument: here’s a recent article, The ant and the grasshopper, presenting evidence that seasonality was the key factor in the the invention and adoption of agriculture. In seasonal environments, there was an incentive to store food to even out annual variations. This encouraged people to settle down, and then to start sowing plants and herding animals. The seasonality factor may explain not only when agriculture happened, but also where.

2) People weren’t genetically adapted to settled life. For example, living a settled life generally means more exposure to disease. It could have taken a long time for humans to evolve resistance to diseases of sedentism. Another possibility: natural selection might have affected behavior over this time. There’s an argument to be made that human beings are a self-domesticated species – that we have selected ourselves, as we have selected other animals, to be tamer, and less aggressive. This agreement is laid out in Richard Wrangham’s recent book, The Paradox of Goodness, and I considered it in a blog post of the same title. Wrangham is mainly concerned with the transition to Homo sapiens, but some of the same morphological changes occur in the transition from early to later Homo sapiens over the past several tens of thousands of years. It may only be in the last ten thousand years or so that many human populations grew tame enough to live in settled communities and take up agriculture. In both ants and humans, behavioral evolution toward increasing cooperation within the species may have been a precursor to the domestication of other species.


11-10.5 thousand years ago.

We celebrated the evolution of the first flowers on Amborella Day, March 17. Now we can finally celebrate people having pots to put flowers in. The earliest pots in the world come from the Jomon culture in Japan. (Although they were more for cooking and storage than for flower arranging, of course.)


The advent of pottery defines the beginning of the Neolithic (New Stone Age). In some places, the Neolithic coincides with the inception of agriculture. But not everywhere. The Jomon are hunter-gatherers, ancestors to Japan’s Ainu. They live in villages, harvesting marine and arboreal resources (e.g. shellfish and acorns), which are rich enough that they can settle down and develop an increasingly elaborate ceramic tradition. A pot like this one was not thrown on a wheel, but made by hand, from coils of clay. Jomon means “cord marked,” from the patterns marked on the pots with cords.

No-knead bread

The Younger Dryas Cold Event, last hurrah of the last glaciation, is over. In the Near East, people are once again settling down in villages, harvesting wild grain, and hunting. Tomorrow on Logarithmic History comes the first generally recognized human domestication of plants – wheat and barley specifically. So to commemorate, here’s a recipe – one of the most popular ever from the New York Times – for no-knead bread that you can make overnight (although early farmers may have favored porridge and flatbread.)


Jared Diamond took a dour view of agriculture, calling it the “worst mistake in the history of the human race.” And fans of the paleo diet claim that you should try to eat like our ancestors did before the invention of farming. But there are counterarguments: Many hunter-gatherers ate more starch and sugar (in the form of honey) than paleo proponents assume. Also, human populations (at least populations of farmers) have evolved since the beginning of agriculture; many of us are no longer quite genetically adapted to a hunter-gatherer diet. Finally, feeding most of the planet on a meat-heavy paleo diet may be impossible.

In any case, studies from the They Institute (“They did this one study …”) show that bread won’t make you fat if you only eat bread you bake yourself. So indulge.

No-knead bread


  • 3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, more for dusting
  • ¼ teaspoon instant yeast
  • 1 ¼ teaspoons salt
  • Cornmeal or wheat bran as needed


  1. In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add 1 5/8 cups water, and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably about 18, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees.
  2. Dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes.
  3. Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to work surface or to your fingers, gently and quickly shape dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth) with flour, wheat bran or cornmeal; put dough seam side down on towel and dust with more flour, bran or cornmeal. Cover with another cotton towel and let rise for about 2 hours. When it is ready, dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.
  4. At least a half-hour before dough is ready, heat oven to 450 degrees. Put a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic) in oven as it heats. When dough is ready, carefully remove pot from oven. Slide your hand under towel and turn dough over into pot, seam side up; it may look like a mess, but that is O.K. Shake pan once or twice if dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned. Cool on a rack.


11.6-11.1 thousand years ago.

Luzia, an adult female Homo sapiens fossil from central Brazil, died about 11.5 thousand years ago. Her skeleton narrowly missed being destroyed in last year’s fire in the 200 year old National Museum in Rio de Janeiro. Here’s a story about the fire.

Luzia is named after Lucy, the famous Australopithecus afarensis from Laetoli, but she’s no relation, or at least no more relation than the rest of us. When Luzia was discovered (1975) she presented quite a puzzle. She’s one of the earliest known South American human fossils. Her skull, well-preserved, looks nothing in particular like the skulls of later Indians. It’s more similar to the skulls of modern Australian aborigines and Africans. She’s also short, under five feet.


There hasn’t been any analysis of Luzia’s DNA but we now may have a better idea who her relations are. Southeast Asia was occupied for tens of millennia by hunter-gatherers of the Hoabinhian culture, which persisted through melting ice caps and rising sea levels, up to the arrival of farmers originally from South China. Scattered groups of foragers in the region are remnants of this population. It is likely that the Hoabinhians, or nearby Melanesians, or related folk, traveled up the Pacific coast and were the first human arrivals in the New World. (A direct trip across the Pacific is another possibility, but seems less likely.) These early Americans were largely replaced (they may never have been very numerous) by the ancestors of modern Indians, making a modest contribution to the DNA of the latter.

We noted earlier that there seem to be linguistic traces of this early migration in some of the languages of South America. It’s also worth mentioning that early twentieth century anthropologists thought Melanesia and native Amazonia show some striking cultural similarities, especially relating to men’s houses, all-male cults, myths of matriarchy, and sacred flutes. Some anthropologists have coined the term “Melazonia” to capture the similarities in social systems in the two places. Here’s from a recent book.

One of the great riddles of cultural history is the remarkable parallel that exists between the peoples of Amazonia and those of Melanesia. Although the two regions are separated by half a world in distance and at least 40,000 years of history, their cultures nonetheless reveal striking similarities in the areas of sex and gender. In both Amazonia and Melanesia, male-female differences infuse social organization and self-conception. They are the core of religion, symbolism, and cosmology, and they permeate ideas about body imagery, procreation, growth, men’s cults, and rituals of initiation.

Note that “40,000 years” may be too big by a factor of 3. The usual assumption has been that these similarities result from parallel cultural evolution  – easier to imagine for cultural evolution than for language history – but maybe there is an ancient historical connection too.