Before there was a literate, and philosophical, historical record, humans existed at least some 80,000 years. Around 12,500 years ago in the region surrounding Anatolia in modern Turkey, agriculture slowly began (the Neolithic Revolution, which spread across Eurasia over a period of some five thousand years or more), at first with the domestication of sheep, pigs and cattle, and then crops. This raises two questions:
- What was the default view of life by pre-agrarian humans? Did they see themselves as special among living things?
What changes did the rise of agriculture bring about?
Now we have no record of unrecorded events, obviously, so we have to try to reconstruct the past by reference to the present, and this is, to put it mildly, difficult. Non-agrarian societies are known by anthropologists as “foraging” societies (they used to be called “hunter-gatherer” societies, but there was a clear gender bias in this – in fact the amount of food gotten through hunting is, in such societies we can observe, minimal compared to the gathering), and while we have studies of some such societies in the past couple of centuries, we have only physical remains of the pre-agrarian Indo-Europeans, and so we do not know much of what they thought. Anthropology is rife with projection onto the past to serve the agendas and prejudices of the present.
Consequently, we only have speculation, which frees me to speculate.
In the foraging societies we know today, living things are rarely distinguished from human beings. In some cases, members of other species are considered honorary humans for totemic (tribal symbolic) reasons. In other cases, human beings are considered honorary members of other species. There is reason to think that in the prehistoric ancient near east, human life was, like animal life, considered to be extinguished at death, and that the notion of a “soul” was not even metaphorically held . It seems there is no clear “default” view in foraging societies – which ought not to surprise us, as we have no reason to think that human culture was any the less complex in the past than now (technologies excepted).
One thing that is true of pre-agrarian existence is that foragers needed to understand the life-ways of their food species, both plant and animal. A forager that doesn’t know when a fruit or tuber is harvestable, or where a bird or other hunted animal lives or what it looks like, is a hungry forager. Experience of foragers in the modern era suggests they know the appearances, habits and habitats of their prey species as well or better than a modern biologist. However, if it isn’t hunted or gathered, they do no better than a suburban American. From this we may surmise that knowing the living world depends a lot upon what need we have for it.
Classification among foragers is generally fairly consistent with classification by biologists, excepting such cases as totemic animals and sacred species. In a famous paper, anthropologist Ralph Bulmer noted that among the New Guinea Highlanders, the cassowary (a flightless relative of the emu and the kiwi) was not classified as a bird, but afforded human rights and status (Bulmer 1967). The Karam do not hunt the cassowary, nor do they classify it among the birds, although their neighbours do. Similar attitudes occur among other foragers (Berlin 1973, Atran 1998).
But by and large, foragers, while never reaching the “in harmony with nature” myth of romanticism, do have a pretty decent handle on the objective biology they find around them. Did that change when humans became sedentary and started to live in towns and cities?
Some think so. One author believes that when cities evolved, martial necessities of walls to protect them (and thus to control the viable land surrounding them) made the inhabitants start to see civilised living as distinct from wilderness, and so to see humans as separate from the rest of the living world. I rather doubt this happened, if it did, in such a sudden fashion, but it seems reasonable that humans started to see themselves as separate to, or above, nature in the early period of civilisation (that is, the invention of city states), as we see it in several archaic myths, such as the Arcadia mythology of the Romans, yearning for a rural (that is, agricultural, not wild) past.
In fact, wilderness was less an idyllic scene to the early civilisations than it was something to be beaten back and feared, as farming was the source of civil wealth, not forests. The shift from the “riches of the forest” shared by foragers to the ownership by elites of the land on which farming and animal husbandry took place is crucial to understanding how the living world was seen after the Neolithic Revolution.
Every civilisation needed to understand basic facts about the animals and plants they farmed, so it is not surprising that societies like the Indus Valley, Mesopotamian cities, East Asian cultures and so forth all had extensive classifications of animals and plants, and understood a fair bit about anatomy and physiology. However, there is little to no evidence, Hindu apologists and similar movements aside, that the living world was the subject of a sustained and careful investigation in these areas. This is not to say that there were none, but only that the evidence does not survive if there were. Where there was, it was in the Hellenic civilisation of around the sixth century BCE.
Have I missed something? Made an error? Let me know in the comments. This series will be revised as we go.
Atran, S. (1998). “Folk biology and the anthropology of science: cognitive universals and the cultural particulars.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 21(4): 547–609.
Berlin, B. (1973). “Folk Systematics in Relation to Biological Classification and Nomenclature.” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 4(1): 259-271.
Bulmer, R. (1967). “Why is the cassowary not a bird? A problem among the Karam of the New Guinea highlands.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 2(1): 5-25.