Earlier this year, it was finally confirmed that humanity’s exodus from Africa occurred only around 50,000 years ago.
This settled a dispute, though there was actually very little, concerning a massive super-volcanic explosion at Toba, in what is now Indonesia. This cataclysm erupted around 3,000 cubic kilometres of ash. No other volcanic eruption during the life of humanity has even come close to this. Toba caused a six-year volcanic winter and an ice age that lasted for a millennium. Fantastically huge pyroclastic flows, made up of superheated ash and gas, would have incinerated everything in their paths, and massive tsunamis would have hurtled out, drowning all the coastal areas they reached.
We were almost wiped out. Some geneticists believe that less than 500 individual Homo sapiens remained alive after it, and even more conservative estimates are in the low thousands. It is possible that this was one band, one tribe. They must have been utterly shocked.
We evolved on the grassy savannahs of sub-Saharan Africa, where there was game a-plenty. Human species adapted to hunt this game: we stood up, better to see, and better to run, on our powerful legs. We, modern humans, also developed something very special: language. We could talk. Speaking is a very complex process, and requires vocal cords that can be varied in tension; the hyoid does this. It also requires a lowered larynx, which we have, but other apes which have a hyoid, for example chimpanzees, do not.
Being able to talk means being able to think, to have abstract ideas, to plan ahead and communicate instructions. We were no longer sniffing the air and pointing towards the antelopes, we were using sophisticated, organised techniques that depended on a level of cooperation that only verbal communication can give.
For tens of thousands of years, we hunted like this, successfully expanding our numbers. We surely thought that this must go on for ever. And then Toba erupted.
We had always foraged; as omnivores, we need to eat fresh plan material all the time. In the aftermath of Toba, these foraging skills would have been crucial to our survival.
The American anthropologists Steven Kuhn and Mary Stiner* have convincingly demonstrated that the division of tasks by sex has been a successful human strategy. To put it simply, men do the dangerous things, and those that take them away for days or weeks; like hunting large animals. Women stay together, with the children, out of harm’s way, forage and trap small game. This system is very successful at protecting the women and children, who are essential for the group to survive. What we don’t know, is when this adaptation evolved. Kuhn and Stiner are conservative; they stick with the archaeological remains of fish-hooks and other paraphernalia that can only be dated back to, around 30.000 years ago.
It has always been presumed that the way this division came about was that women stopped being part of the hunting group and men continued. But now that we know the timeline surrounding Toba, there is good reason to argue that the inverse may have been the case; we may have been forced into a lifestyle based almost completely on foraging..
We do know that our ancestors left Africa by crossing the Red Sea near its mouth. At the time the elimate was cooler, and more water was held in the polar ice-caps, so sea levels were 60 or more metres lower. We island-hopped our way out of our native continent.
But why? Because we were foraging along the shoreline. It’s likely that any of us who were already on the shore when Toba erupted, died in the tsunamis. Somehow, most likely by following a river, our ancestors made it out of the interior to the sea. The sea remained plentiful, and a desperate remnant of humanity was saved from extinction.
Our movements at first were slow, but, as populations slowly recovered, we advanced. Once we crossed out of Africa, we began to move more quickly, and by 30,000bce had populated the globe, always working along the shores and up the rivers. We cannot live far from water.
As we moved north we encountered large fauna again, and rediscovered the old skills of hunting. But we had learned: protect the women and children, for they are the life of the tribe. So the men began to travel away from the group to hunt again. This is probably how our division of tasks by sex came about. Women’s need to succour and protect their children made them stick with gathering and foraging, while men began to hunt again. But this process is the inverse of what most of us thought; it would mean that we did not diversify from hunting to foraging, but from foraging to hunting; or in other words, from a female-oriented task base towards a male one.
We know that we were very good at it, by the numbers of megafauna we killed. Whole houses built of mammoth bones have been found. Specialising in our task areas made us better at them; men became better, more successful hunters, and women better foragers.
We carried on like this for around forty thousand years. And then, 13,000 years ago, something seminal happened, at a place called Wadi an-Natuf, in what is now Jordan. We discovered wild grain. A culture called the Natufians appeared, and we know that they harvested and stored wild wheat and barley, to make a kind of cake.
It was certainly women who discovered these grains, in their endless foraging and searching. They would have had a fantastic knowledge of the plants that grew all around them. They would have discovered that the grains of wild grasses, if dried, would keep for years. Children’s bellies could be kept full even in the lean seasons. This was a major breakthrough.
The Natufian culture was struck by a mini Ice Age called the Younger Dryas Event, climate and this may have caused them to develop the first agriculture, planting seeds and harvesting the crops. This may have been more reliable than simply foraging for wild grains. Natufian culture disappeared around 9000 years ago, which by the way, made it a very durable culture. However, changes in climate together with soil exhaustion and the fact that the Natufians had domesticated goats, which denuded the land, brought the culture to an end.
But the lessons learned were not forgotten, and agriculture soon appeared again in several different locations. Again, women almost certainly made the connection that they could plant and harvest the grains, and this would mean less need to move. Women are under far greater pressure to remain sedentary, that is, in one place, than men are. That is because they have children. It is both difficult and dangerous to wander with children; they are at constant risk and their cries attract predators. So there was a strong impetus to develop settled bases in which to live, and the domestication of dogs certainly helped. Not only could dogs hunt with the men, but they would stay with the women and help to protect them.
Any parent who ever took children to the beach has seen how they guide water along channels made in the sand, and our ancestral mothers must quickly have discovered the same; irrigation. Very soon after this, the first permanent settlements appear, as at Catal Hoyuk in Anatolia in Turkey. We know a great deal about life in these places, though much yet remains a mystery.
Hundreds of miles to the east, at the far end of the Fertile Crescent, lies the cradle of the first human civilisation we know of. It lies in Mesopotamia, which means ‘land between two rivers’. Here, settled agriculture and irrigation was pursued on a huge scale, with large numbers of workers digging irrigation canals that linked the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It was men doing this work, and they were now shackled to it, as Sumerian myth reveals: humanity was created by the gods because they were sick of the backbreaking toil on the land.
Here, the emphasis changed. The issue was no longer producing enough, but a surplus. The modern world had been born; civilisation had arrived.
It was believed for many years that the impetus to civilisation was war, that people came together in cities for defence against other people. However, in the closing years of the last century, a Peruvian scientist, Dr Ruth Shady, began an excavation at a site at the edge of the Andes that became known as Charal. Fibres from baskets used to transport the stones it was built of were found trapped between some, and these were sent for radio-carbon dating.
The result amazed everyone: they were from 2700 bce, making Charal, by a thousand years, the oldest great city in the Americas. An even greater surprise was awaiting. Charal had no defences. None. And even more strikingly perhaps, it had not been destroyed, but abandoned. Charal did not fall victim to raiders and plunderers, but to soil salination, the direct result of the irrigation that had made the desert bloom.
For the very first time it was proved that something other than warfare could have provoked the beginnings of civilisation. The ‘War begets cities’ theory was turned on its ear; instead, could it be ‘cities beget war?’
If warfare were not the reason cities originally evolved, then what was? The answer is simple. Massive-scale agriculture produced huge surpluses which could be traded. At Charal, the product was cotton, which was traded for fish, lime, and other items from hundreds of kilometres away. So the buying and selling of agricultural produce may have been the stimulus for the very first cities, beautiful places where merchants could come to barter, find lodging, eat well, drink and enjoy the company of perfumed and beautiful women.
In Sumer, the product was grains. Huge surpluses were generated, which were traded for goods of every imaginable sort. The cities became rich, and as they did so, they decorated themselves and made themselves beautiful; it was the beginning of a civilised culture that we can trace directly to our own. And just as women had been the first to discover grains, their contribution now was vital, for without their fertility, which was a metaphor for the land’s, the booming cities could not have developed.
The greatest city of Sumer was Uruk, the cult-centre of Inanna, the first anthropomorphic incarnation of the Goddess we know the name of. She was beautiful, wild, tempestuous and untameable; she was haughty and imperious and yet utterly charming. She was a goddess of sex, seduction, fertility and war, incarnated as a proud young woman at the peak of her beauty and fertility—the nightmare teenager with looks, attitude, and in her case, super-powers. That which stood in her way she won over through her beauty, charm and sexual prowess, outwitted, or simply pushed imperiously aside.
Uruk, under Inanna, was proud, beautiful, a city of arts and culture, and fabulously rich; it had all the hubris to match hers.
But it was their tremendous wealth that made these cities targets. Soon the hard eyes of men focussed on them; why work to have all this when one could simply ride in and take it at point of spear? Little by little, the necessity for warriors and warrior code thrust men and violence to the fore. By the middle of the 3rd Millennium bce Sumer and all the lands around it were ravaged by constant wars of acquisition and plunder, in which whole cities were destroyed and their populations massacred or taken as slaves. Soon cities had walls and defences, and the smaller towns were abandoned.
The patriarchy we know today took over. Eventually, mythically, it even killed the Goddess herself in the form of the giant serpent Tiamat, and reduced women—whose fertility and cleverness had brought civilisation into being—to chattels; a story that is all too depressingly well-known. Inanna was tamed and bound but she never disappeared, for she is Ishtar, Astarte and Ashtoreth, Venus, Isis, and Mary; and many more, and all bear the title they inherited from Inanna—Queen of Heaven.
When Uruk became the greatest of the Sumerian cities, Inanna, incensed that she and her city had been unfairly treated by the other deities, went to her uncle, Enki, the Lord of Wisdom and Craft, to demand that the gifts of civilisation be transferred to her. In typically direct style, she got him drunk and took the gifts, or Mes, and then set off downriver in her barge. When Enki sobered up, he sent terrible monsters to get them back, but Inanna defeated them all, triumphantly taking the Gifts of Civilisation back to her E–anna Temple for the glory of Uruk.
And what were these Gifts of Civilisation? What, indeed, are they now? They included the arts of kingship and governance, of heroism, of metalworking, of brewing beer, of writing, wisdom and judgement; of beauty and lovemaking, music, art and rejoicing.
But they were also warfare, terror, killing, weariness, enmity, the troubled heart and falsehood. Fiesty Inanna couldn’t choose which to keep and hand down to us, and which to return; for as the English historian Michael Wood said, ‘You must take them all, and once taken, you can never give them back.’