Chapter 1: Genesis
How did we get here?
How did we come to live in a world where so many human beings are packed into so many cities across the world? How did we create so many wonderous buildings our ancestors could never have dreamed of? How did we create a global society where so many people are well fed, but so few actually produce food? How did we figure out how to fly?
We take the modern world for granted, but maybe we shouldn’t. Homo sapiens have existed for about 200,000 years, and 94% of that time we were all hunter-gatherers, living in small groups of no more than 50 people or so. And only in the last one tenth of one percent of our existence have we lived in a global society complex and sophisticated enough to create skyscrapers, automobiles, smart phones and vaccines.
It’s time we told that story.
In this 30 minute episode, I cover the origins of human society, which remained relatively unchanged until the Industrial Revolutions:
How we evolved into “smart man”
How we stopped foraging and started farming
How we started building cities
How we developed trade and money
How we developed government and religion
How we invented writing
How we developed a system of social inequality
How our ideas spread out across the Eurasian landmass
Sources for this episode include:
Barker, Graeme. The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory: Why do Foragers Become Farmers? Oxford University Press. 2006.
Davies, Glyn. A History of Money: From Ancient Times to the Present Day. University of Wales Press. 2002.
Diamond, Jerad. Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. W.W. Norton & Company. 1997.
Ferguson, Niall. The Accent of Money: A Financial History of the World. Penguin Books. 2008.
Harari, Yuval N. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. HarperColins. 2015.
Roberts, John M. A Short History of the World. Oxford University Press. 1997.
Scholes, Roger. “Stories from the Stone Age.” FilmRise. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 2004. https://www.amazon.com/Stories-from-the-Stone-Age/dp/B074XCV69C
I used to work in this office building off the 110 freeway in Los Angeles. I’d take the subway there and back most days. And what I loved about that commute was the view of the skyline as I left work.
As I’d head back toward the metro station, I would cross this land bridge over the freeway, descending into downtown LA. The sun would usually set behind me, and the light reflected off the palm trees and the windows of the massive buildings. It looked spectacular.
Ancient Rome had great structures, but nothing like the skyscrapers of Los Angeles. And across the world, there are countless cities with more impressive skylines than LA’s. And it probably took about a thousand years for Rome to become the marble city we think of, with the Colosseum and pantheon, baths, arches, and temples. Los Angeles was built up in a quarter of that time.
Not everything about that walk was great, mind you. Crossing the freeway was a moment when you could just feel the tension among the drivers below, stuck in a traffic jam, beeping their horns. In the downtown streets, you could see hundreds of cars moving, but hardly any pavement. The smell of the exhaust rising up was nauseating. And growing every day was the number of sidewalk tents, housing some of the tens of thousands of Angelenos experiencing homelessness.
How did we come to live in a world where so many human beings are packed into so many cities across the globe? How did we create these wondrous buildings our ancestors could never have dreamed of? How did we create a world society where so many people are well fed but so few actually produce food? How did we figure out how to fly?
We take the modern world for granted, but we shouldn’t. Homo sapiens have existed for about 200,000 years and 94% of that time we were all hunter-gatherers, living in small groups of no more than 50 people or so. And only in the last one tenth of one percent of our existence have we lived in a global society complex and sophisticated enough to create skyscrapers, automobiles, smart phones and vaccines.
It’s time we told that story.
This is the Industrial Revolutions.
Chapter 1: Genesis.
Before we can tell the story of the first industrial revolution, we need to spend a few episodes explaining how we got there. So, let’s start at the beginning. And I mean, the very beginning.
There’s a place in modern-day Tanzania called the Olduvai gorge. And 2 million years ago, there was an early hominid species there called Australopithecus. Among the findings at Olduvai are stones that were chipped to give them a more jagged edge. These crude choppers are the first known example of technology as we think of it, and they predate homo sapiens by well over a million years.
There used to be many species of human beings, whereas today there are only homo sapiens left. It’s believed that the descendants of Australopithecus evolved into the first human species, which subsequently evolved into homo erectus.
Homo erectus walked the earth for about a million years and without knowing it, of course, they laid the foundation for modern humans. They developed thumbs (allowing grip) and bigger brains. They started making wooden bowls for their food. They ate a lot of meat compared to earlier humans, and the process of hunting forced them to move around a lot.
Today we often think about this nomadic hunting lifestyle in terms of our diets and exercise. Nowadays we don’t move around as much as we used to, and we eat too many carbs. So now we need to ignore our monkey-brain impulses to consume as much as we can, and we pay gyms to let us to do mundane tasks on machines so we can try to burn as many calories as our prehistoric ancestors did. Yeah.
But the hunting lifestyle was more important for what it meant for another aspect of human health: sex and reproduction. Most mammals only reproduce during set periods when they’re in heat, and then they can’t help it but to reproduce. Early humans needed to move quickly to follow the herds they hunted. So, they became more selective about when to make babies.
Furthermore, most mammal offspring grow into maturity very quickly. Kittens in the wild, for example, leave the care of their mothers within a few weeks to start foraging for food. It takes years for a human child to grow to a point when it’s no longer dependent on its parents for food and protection.
The result was the slow development of remarkably human concepts like love and family. The eventual species of homo sapiens never would have come about without them. And human family units formed the first building blocks of society.
The other major building block came about 300,000 years ago, when homo erectus figured out how to control fire. They would gather around the fire to cook their meat and keep warm. Sitting there together, they would have slowly learned how to communicate.
It wasn’t long after that the first homo sapiens begin to appear, and for about a hundred thousand years they continue the nomadic foraging lifestyle of other human species.
But about 70,000 years ago, something significant happened. We’re not sure exactly what it was. Jared Diamond calls it “The Great Leap Forward.” Yuval Noah Harari calls it the “Cognitive Revolution.” Scholars believe it was probably the advent of language – maybe because the voice box got better, or the brain got better – or both, or possibly neither. Whatever it was, human beings start moving out from Africa to the Middle East, then Asia, then Europe, and eventually to the Americas, Australia, and Polynesia.
Hunter gatherer societies – or “forager” societies, if you want to speak like the scholars do – were typically small bands of up to 50 people, related by kindship. Relationships were face-to-face and egalitarian. Decision making was informal.
But a band of 50 people isn’t big enough for a healthy gene pool – you need at least 500 people for that. So, bands formed complex arrangements and alliances with their neighbors to trade and, more importantly, intermarry.
But the bands didn’t always get along. Blood feuds are incredibly common with forager societies, and there were quite a few violent skirmishes.
By the time human beings reached South America, about 12,000 years ago, something else big happened, way back in the Middle East.
You probably know about this strip of land. It includes much of Israel/Palestine, especially the Jordan River Valley, up to Syria and around the mountains of southern Turkey, and back down into the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, and over to the Zagros mountains around the Iraq-Iran border. At the end of the last Ice Age it became wetter and warmer, leading to a huge abundance of wild grains. Hence the name, the Fertile Crescent.
Now, it’s important to remember that agriculture was also later developed independently in other parts of the world – certainly in modern-day Mexico, South America, China, West Africa, New Guinea, and possibly a few other locations. But the way it happened in the Fertile Crescent, in particular, had a profound impact on the rest of history.
Why people decide to start doing agriculture is a bit of a debate, and there are a number of possible story lines for how it happened in the Fertile Crescent. The best story I know is a combination of explanations that goes something like this…
Forager societies will generally get their food from whatever sources as they can find. And in the Fertile Crescent, around 13,000 BC, that included grains from the new grasses growing across the region.
Today, when we think of the countries making up the Fertile Crescent, we don’t think of a very hospitable climate for agriculture. But 15,000 years ago, it wasn’t as hot and dry. The ecosystem of the region at that time could support all kinds of life for humans to consume. And the people there were eating over 150 different species of plants, fruits, nuts, and animals, most importantly the gazelles.
In the region we call the Levant – Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria – a society called the Natufians hunted these gazelles, probably using slingshots and spears, and picked wild fruits and nuts. But they also started harvesting the nearby wild grasses around them for their seeds. The Natufians made primitive sickles, which look more like sticks with some sharp stones wedged in them, to efficiently cut down the grasses of wild wheat and barley.
They realized these grains were less perishable than the meat and fruits they ate. So long as they were kept dry, the grains would remain edible for years, even decades. That created a great deal of food certainty.
And as they harvested the wild cereals, they tended to favor the best ones. As they’d walk back to their camp, seeds probably fell out, onto the ground. Suddenly the best of the best grains would be the ones growing near their camps. So, they’d stay at camp longer, and return to the same camp year after year. They developed seasonal patterns for hunting and for harvesting and even built permanent houses.
A similar process happened with the fruits they picked. This is going to be a little gross, so bear with me: The seeds of the fruit they ate would have gone through their digestive systems. The designated areas where they (ahem) relieved themselves would then grow inadvertent gardens.
Okay, back to the grains. While they were harvesting wild cereals, they weren’t yet cultivating them. That’s an important distinction. They are still a foraging society, not farmers who domesticate crops. But they did start doing things to help the plants along. For example, removing competitor plants so cereals would flourish and using fire to enhance grazing conditions for gazelles.
Now, they couldn’t have eaten pre-domesticated cereals raw. It wouldn’t have been digestible and probably would have hurt their teeth. So instead they ground it up and processed it into a pancake-shape biscuit to be heated on a stone next to the fire. This is the precursor to bread.
Storing the food also led to food surpluses, which meant there were opportunities for early trade, and we know there were trading networks going as far as the Red Sea and Mediterranean because of the shells they collected from those shores, and we can assume they arranged marriages with other tribes in that trading network.
When this grain-harvesting process started, there were probably only about 1000 Natufian families in the Levant. But as the process of harvesting increased, so too would the population. And with the larger population, they probably overhunted the gazelles and other animals of the region, making them more dependent on grains.
Then came a devastating bit of climate change: the so-called Younger Dryas. This period was something of a mini Ice Age, and it created a much drier, colder environment in the Levant. Natufian society was decimated. Most of them either returned to a nomadic way of life or died.
But there must have been a few tribes that made a calculated decision to continue their way of life in what small oases of fertile land remained. To make it work, they deliberately planted seeds of the grains in the ground to cultivate and harvest and survive. This was the first time in human history anyone made the conscious decision to become farmers.
The Younger Dryas lasted over a thousand years. During that time, grains were truly domesticated and farming had become a way of life. When it ended, and the region became wet and warm again, farming exploded across the Fertile Crescent.
The high yields on the crops convinced people far and wide to adopt farming and create permanent settlement. Compared to foraging, farming tended to be a much surer bet for eating every day.
That doesn’t mean life was better farming. For one thing, the human body had evolved for the purposes of hunting and gathering, not carrying huge loads of wheat around. Early farmers routinely suffered from hernias and slipped disks in the spine. And settling down meant a more sedentary lifestyle, whereas the human body had evolved for lots of walking and running every day.
Settling down also meant families could grow bigger. Nomadic foragers usually had no more than 2 or 3 kids in their lives because, for the first four years or so of a child’s life, he or she needs to be carried. A parent can’t carry more than one child at a time, at least not over those long distances. But if there’s no more traveling to do, a woman could start having babies at upwards of one per year.
And with all the farming to do, having more children was very useful. Foragers would have lots of free time to hang out in the shade of a tree or by a camp fire, talking, making tools, etc. They’d only be hunting or gathering a few hours per day. But farming was labor intensive. You need to plant the seeds, harvest the grains, grind the wheat and barley, bake it or store it. And with all the wheat and barley growing after the Younger Dryas, it was a full-time operation.
More farming meant more food. More food meant more kids you were able to feed. More kids meant more hands for even more farming. Even more farming meant even more food, which meant even more kids, and so on. Communities grew from bands of 30 or so people to villages of hundreds or even thousands.
But again, there were downsides. Wheat is not enough for a proper diet. There’s not enough protein in it. Kids were growing up on porridge, which weakened their immune systems. Having 10 kids suddenly meant at best having only 4 or 5 kids who would actually survive. Plus, farmers had to constantly worry about droughts and locusts and all sorts of other disasters.
So over time, they domesticated other plants too. The first were peas, which were domesticated by 9000 BC, and grew considerably larger and softer than their wild ancestors. Later came lentils and chickpeas. One domesticated plant that came around by 7000 BC wasn’t even used for food. It was flax, and it was used to make linen clothing.
But the more important development was the domestication of animals. Scholars used to think it started in the Zagros mountains with goats later in the development of agriculture, but it may have been happening earlier in the mountains of southern Turkey.
To avoid overhunting wild goats, people realized they should target the males only. A few males could impregnate a lot of females, thus keeping the herd large enough for sustainable hunting. And if we’re killing the males, shouldn’t we kill the most aggressive males? After all, the affable males will produce more affable offspring. The same went with sheep, and later, cattle. After a while, they were tame enough for humans to simply adopt them, raise them, and yes, slaughter them when the time came.
The great thing about animals like goats, sheep, and cattle is that they are herd animals. The way they evolved included the wiring in their brains that tells them to follow a herd leader for survival. When humans domesticated them, it was humans who stepped in as the herd leaders. Now the humans had a source of protein in the meat and dairy of their domesticated animals.
As the communities of the Fertile Crescent grew, so too did the food surpluses, enough to support a few non-farmers who could specialize in other pursuits. These included pottery, basket weaving, textile weaving, toolmaking, and even structure building. Specialization was born.
The Fertile Crescent also had other important resources available for these communities, which really start taking off around 4000 BC.
A notable one was limestone, which could be used to make plaster. With plaster floors and walls, you can build bigger, more secure settlements. Another was the trees of the region. Wood helped build the cities and burn the fires needed for daily life. On some of the trees grew luxurious fruits like dates. On others, olives.
Olives were a particularly important commodity because they could be grinded into oil. Not only is olive oil delicious, it can be used in cooking and for lighting oil lamps. Plus, it could be transported, allowing traders to export it and import other useful commodities in return.
Another important resource for the development of trade was salt. Again, tasty, but also, it’s a natural preservative. Salt could be found around the great Dead Sea of the Jordan valley, and allowed traders to move olives, fish, and other food products large distances.
Also, in the region was malachite ore, which while in rock formations, has a distinct blue color that the people liked, so they mined it. At some point, they realized that they could smelt it and turn it into copper.
All of this farming and trade led to three big developments: money, religion, and political power. Today, we get really frustrated whenever money, politics, and religion intermingle. We prefer them to keep separate. But back then, they were closely related and supported the development of one another.
Somebody needed to manage the food surpluses in the granaries. We know by 4000 BC people are wearing dyed wool clothing and jewelry, status symbols that demonstrate their wealth. So, there are at least a few families getting rich through trade, and the early political leaders were likely picked from among these families.
So too were the priests. Humans had been practicing some form of religion, mostly animist practices, for thousands – perhaps even tens of thousands – of years. Part of that practice involved ancestor worship. By this time, ancestors had been tracked for so long the people may have started thinking of the early ones as gods. Other spirits, such as the sun and moon, were easy to adopt as deities as well. It’s hard to know for sure how that leap was made, but it was made around this time with the help of priestly classes.
Priests were able to reassure farmers that their harvests would be bountiful if the farmers pleased the gods. Priests would conduct rituals, farmers were asked to make offerings. In a world when droughts and locusts and other disasters were always a threat, these farmers were willing to take their chances with the new religious orders.
Chiefs propped up priests and vice versa. The chief would publicly demonstrate his piety to lend legitimacy to the new religions of the priests. The priests in turn would ascribe holy legitimacy to the chief’s laws.
This system probably sounds rather cynical, but it was hugely important. Without it, the communities would have fallen apart. Again, human beings evolved in small bands of no more than 50 people, with whom they could enjoy informal, face-to-face, egalitarian decision making. That doesn’t work in a city with thousands of people who aren’t closely related by kinship.
In a forager society, decisions can be made by letting everyone around the camp fire voice their opinion. Good luck trying that with 3,000 people. In forager societies, people don’t kill the kin who they live with, but they do kill people from the neighboring tribe who killed their kin before. If those kinds of blood feuds existed in a city, it would quickly wipe out half the population. (and that’s not an exaggeration, that’s something an anthropologist figured out)
I’ve seen it noted that, in America today, people in small towns become very aggravated by government bureaucracy. Everyone in the town knows each other, and they know the efficiency of interpersonal relationships. Moments when they get held up by red tape, instead of being able to have a quick conversation, are understandably frustrating. Meanwhile, Americans who live in large cities are more likely to appreciate a large bureaucratic apparatus that can keep society functioning. Most people they see on a daily basis are people who they don’t know and don’t especially trust, so they’re happy to leave the business of managing the extraordinarily complex system to elected leaders and their functionaries.
Plus, having a leader with power and authority allows society to have a functioning system of redistribution. With the priests supporting the legitimacy of the chief, the chief can demand that his subjects contribute some of their food to the communal granary. That’s right, taxes are older than money itself. And this surplus stock of food can support all kinds of specialists, like craftspeople, the priests, the bureaucrats, a standing army or police force, and the leader himself. These specialists allow the community to grow in prosperity and to preserve peace within it.
As the system developed, the bureaucrats needed a way of keeping track of all the food and other products. What they created at first were clay balls. They’d cut the balls in half, put inside little tokens like stones or shells to represent a certain quantity, put the top half of the clay ball back on. Then they’d add a bunch of little markings on the outside, such as a drawing of the commodity it represented, like a sheep, and a marking that indicated who it belonged to. Then they’d harden the clay in fire. When it was time to make a transaction, they would smash open the clay ball to look at the quantity inside.
As inefficient as that innovation sounds, it actually lasted them thousands of years before they needed to improve on it.
The economy was a barter system. I give you a sheep, you give me 2 bags of wheat. You give me 5 vats of olive oil, I give you 2 vats of beer. The problem with the barter system is it becomes too complex as you add more and more commodities.
An economy with only two commodities only requires one rate of exchange. Three commodities and you need three exchange rates. Simple enough. But if you have 5 commodities you need 10 exchange rates. And with 100 commodities, you need nearly 5,000 exchange rates. Who the hell is going to keep track of that?
Up until this point, metals like copper, silver, and gold were traded for jewelry and other status symbols, but they didn’t really serve a functional purpose. But at some point, people realized that they were really useful in trade as a unit of exchange. By 3000 BC, the Sumerians – an ancient Mesopotamian civilization – had started using pieces of silver as the world’s first legal currency – the shekel.
Something else happened around 3000 BC in Sumeria. They came up with a simple time-saving idea to the old clay ball scheme. They used a clay tablet instead. With the sharp edge of a reed, they scratched markings of the commodity, the owner, and the quantity.
But slowly they figured out how to use that system not just to track accounting, but to convey ideas. One example was combining the sign for “head” with the sign for “bread” to produce a new sign for “eat.” Even more significant, they figured out how to make signs for abstract ideas with phonetic representation. The Sumerian word “ti” meant both “arrow” and “life.” So, to draw the abstract idea of “life” they drew an arrow. Soon enough tablets were filled with all kinds of symbols mimicking language. They had invented writing.
Money and writing are obviously going to be important during the Industrial Revolutions, but they were also critical to the development of political power and religion.
The markets were held in the temple and priests were put in charge of weights and measurements and records of transactions. Sumerian rulers raised taxes and imposed fines using silver now. With the shekel, they were able to set some fixed prices on goods, including oil and cloth. Around this same time, Egypt begins a similar system using copper and gold. Money made it easier for the administration of society to function, so the rulers had a keen interest in spreading the concept of money. Priests, similarly, had a keen interest in sanctifying it.
With this new economic structure, a system of interest evolved to help people take risks in lending. Rulers set interest rates to help ensure it remained somewhat fair. As all of this went on, the writing system was forced to get better and better. People started using clay tablets to describe the debts they were owed, written out by the debtor. The tablets were kept safe at the temple. When the debt was paid, the tablet was smashed. An elaborate system grew out of this, where you could sell the debt to someone else, and soon anyone holding the tablet could claim the money owed to them, like an ancient bond certificate.
The development of interest likely accelerated the gap between rich and poor in the ancient world. It also probably led to investment in enterprises creating new technologies, like the wheel – and bronze.
By this point, there’s been several waves of ideas leaving the Fertile Crescent to the wider world, over the course of thousands of years, beginning with crops.
The problem was, the crops of the Fertile Crescent can’t grow everywhere. The climate differences of geography are to blame. In Africa, the crops could spread west along the Mediterranean coast and about as far south as Ethiopia. But because of the Sahara, they couldn’t make it to West Africa. Because of the thick tropical rainforests of central Africa, they couldn’t make it any further south. Similarly, they couldn’t make it far enough north in Siberia to cross over to the Americas, or far south enough in Asia to cross into the tropics of Indonesia or to Australia.
Of course, agriculture developed in many of these places anyway, but they never got the useful animals like cattle and horses that were native to the Eurasian landmass. The only domesticated beast of burden native to the Americas, for example, was the llama. Nor did these places have access to the ideas growing out of the Fertile Crescent, which were able to develop thanks to that region’s diverse and abundant resources.
Instead, the developments coming out of the Fertile Crescent spread on an east-west axis to other parts of the Eurasian landmass. In the east, they met with the now-growing civilization in China.
China had already developed agriculture and may have even independently invented writing. Slowly, the crops and animals domesticated in China – like rice, pigs, and chicken – were traded westward. So was a new fabric they developed called silk.
China got plenty in return too. Wheels, weaponry, and horses allowed a great empire to grow there. By the 200s BC, China was minting coins. It’s a lot easier to know the value of your coin when it has standard markings on it, sanctioned by your emperor. No more need for weights and measurements every time you want to make a trade.
Civilization subsequently grew in other places, like India and Europe.
Along the way, new inventions came along, like iron, tanning and leatherworking, bridges and ships. And new forms of learning, like mathematics and philosophy.
But for most of human history – that is, since we’ve started writing down what happens to us – our social structures have remained pretty much the same. Some people got to be kings or warriors or priests. But most people were peasants, working craftspeople, or slaves, if not still foragers. There were exceptions, like ancient Athens, but those were very few and far between.
That all changed with the Industrial Revolutions. It’s not just that they brought about new material goods, they totally transformed the political, economic, and social structures that had slowly developed since the end of the Younger Dryas, nearly 10,000 years ago.
This podcast will be about more than the technological advances – it will tell the story of how the Industrial Revolutions created universal education and universal suffrage. How they led us to create the NFL and NBA. How by the 20th Century they led us to save millions of lives with new cures, and during the same century, led us to terminate millions of lives with failed economic experiments and gas chambers. It’s going to tell the story of computers and space travel, mass media and new religions. By the end, it’s going to explore what’s next for our governments, our economies, our planet, and our species.
Stay tuned by subscribing on Apple, Google, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Sign up for the newsletter or find me on social media by visiting www.IndustrialRevolutionsPod.com.
And come back next week to find out how mass tragedy and violent conflict set us on a path toward industrialization.
For this first chapter, I want to take a moment to thank those who helped make it possible, including everyone who has subscribed to the podcast already, and who rated it on Apple. Thank you to Bridget Larson, who created the artwork for this podcast; Jan Pierce and Steve Glasser for their much appreciated, pro bono legal advice; Phil McGowan, Jon Moze, Mary Thorson and Colin Bennett for their input on audio equipment – Mary and Colin, by the way, have a podcast about crazy Wisconsin history stories called Muskrat House, check it out. Jon has one in the pipeline as well, which I will share on social media when it is available. – Thanks also to Eric Hogensen, my parents, and of course, to my biggest fan, sounding board, and wife, Sarah… WHO you might just be hearing from on a soon-to-be-released episode. Stay tuned.