To Beijing for a month...

I'm leaving this night for Beijing and will interrupt my daily clippings on "In the air of our times" and my irregular posts on CRUCIAL TALK. I'll be back by July 15th when I'll restart my daily selections and ruminations.

In the meantime, I plan to post photos of my daily trips in Beijing and eventually some commentaries on my FLICKR site:
I'll try to relay my postings on FLICKR to CRUCIAL TALK... hoping that it works.


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Answers for contemporary visual arts.
Part 4: The economic road to religion.

In a nutshell:

We only have a vague understanding of the shift from "animist knowledge-power" to the later "military-political-religious power" and I posit that what happened during this foundational moment in the emergence of civilizations is what drives our societies till this very day.
From that time dates the shift in the function of art from "a societal tool for sharing the worldview of the men of knowledge under anismism" towards "a societal tool for imposing the worldview of the men of power under military-political-religious power".
It is my understanding that to comprehend what's going on in the art-world today, we have to understand this shift from animism to centralized power. The reason for this is quite simple I should say. We are indeed assisting nowadays at the disintegration of the model of society based on centralized power that governed societies for the last 5,000 years... but we experience difficulties trying to discover where all that is leading us and this is causing much confusion in late-modern societies and particularly all around the art-world. This temporary hole in societal consciousness is unfortunately shamelessly exploited by market vultures who, under the spell of the logic of capital, are totally blinded from any artistic or societal concerns.

What we know for a sure fact is that everywhere on earth two determining factors were at work for thousands of years whose interactions eventually unleashed the unifying of tribes under a central military-political leadership:

- .. the gradual emergence of agriculture allowing for larger concentrations of populations.

-.. the evolution of animist thoughts towards:

* or the creation of gods

* or secular philosophical systems.

Those two factors followed their specific ways in different geographic and climatic conditions and it follows thus that their interactions led to many variations on the themes of:

-.. tribal unification by force under centralized power

-.. adoption of religious / philosophical worldviews.

-.. adoption of societal cohesion building tools: language, laws, education, art,...


The first signs of agricultural activities date some 10-11,000 years ago which is long after the appearance of anatomically modern humans and the attempt to explain why hunter/gatherers began to cultivate plants and raise animals have generated very few answers that resist scrutiny.
In "The origins of agriculture - a biological perspective and a new hypothesis", published in Australian Biologist 6: 96 - 105, June 1993, Greg Wadley & Angus Martin write: "Climatic change, population pressure, sedentism, resource concentration from desertification, girls' hormones, land ownership, geniuses, rituals, scheduling conflicts, random genetic kicks, natural selection, broad spectrum adaptation and multicausal retreats from explanation have all been proffered to explain domestication. All have major flaws ... the data do not accord well with any one of these models. '
Recent discoveries of potentially psychoactive substances in certain agricultural products - cereals and milk - suggest an additional perspective on the adoption of agriculture and the behavioural changes ('civilisation') that followed it."

At this stage of our understanding of history, we have to accept the fact that there is no generally accepted explanation for the origin of agriculture.

Our general belief in the idea of progress ingrained deeply in all of us the belief that agriculture placed humans squarely on the road of progress but some inescapable facts suggest that humans were far worse off after they took up full-scale agriculture than when they were foraging:

  • life expectancy: In "The worst mistake in the history of the human race"Jared Diamond writes that "Studies by George Armelagos and his colleagues then at the University of Massachusetts show these early farmers paid a price for their new-found livelihood. Compared to the hunter-gatherers who preceded them, the farmers had a nearly 50 percent increase in enamel defects indicative of malnutrition, a fourfold increase in iron- deficiency anemia (evidenced by a bone condition called porotic hyperostosis), a threefold rise in bone lesions reflecting infectious disease in general, and an increase in degenerative conditions of the spine, probably reflecting a lot of hard physical labor. "Life expectancy at birth in the pre-agricultural community was about twenty-six years," says Armelagos, "but in the post- agricultural community it was nineteen years. So these episodes of nutritional stress and infections... affecting their ability to survive."

  • average height: paleopathologists have learned from skeletons that agriculture is directly linked to changes in human height. In "The worst mistake in the history of the human race" Jared Diamond writes that "Skeletons from Greece and Turkey show that the average height of hunter-gatherers toward the end of the ice ages was a generous 5' 9" for men, 5' 5" for women. With the adoption of agriculture, height crashed, and by 3000 B.C. had reached a low of only 5' 3" for men, 5' for women. By classical times heights were very slowly on the rise again, but modern Greeks and Turks have still not regained the average height of their distant ancestors". I always had wondered how it was possible that the many mommies found in the desert of Xinjiang in the Western part of China were of people of 6 and often over 7 feet tall. (180, 210 cm) I guess that Diamond gave me the answer.

Jared Diamond gives "three sets of reasons lo explain the findings that agriculture was bad for health:
First, hunter- gatherers enjoyed a varied diet, while early farmers obtained most of their food from one or a few starchy crops. The farmers gained cheap calories at the cost of poor nutrition. (Today just three high-carbohydrate plants - wheat, rice, and corn - provide the bulk of the calories consumed by the human species, yet each one is deficient in certain vitamins or amino acids essential to life.)
Second, because of dependence on a limited number of crops, farmers ran the risk of starvation if one crop failed.
Finally, the mere fact that agriculture encouraged people to clump together in crowded societies, many of which then carried on trade with other crowded societies, led to the spread of parasites and infectious disease. (Some archaeologists think it was crowding, rather than agriculture, that promoted disease, but this is a chicken-and-egg argument, because crowding encourages agriculture and vice versa.) Epidemics couldn't take hold when populations were scattered in small bands that constantly shifted camp. Tuberculosis and diarrheal disease had to await the rise of farming, measles and bubonic plague the appearance of large cities".

So why in the world would humanity so uniformly around all the world have adopted a system that made it so much worse off than before?

Notwithstanding the limitations of the science of history we dispose nonetheless of some certainties:

1. Archaeological records indicates that plant and animal domestication arose independently in at least 7 to 9 separate locales: excavated millingstones indicate the use of small seeds and the find of cereal grains reported in archaeological diggings indicate the initial appearance of low level food production in the period going roughly from 10000 to 5000 years ago.

2. Detailed studies of Greenland ice cores & deep-sea mud cores suggest that climate change occurred regularly during the evolution of the human species from 2 million years ago to approximately 12,000 years ago and climatic fluctuations could be extremely abrupt on very short time scales. As R. Alley, P. Mayewski and B. Stauffer state in an article titled "Twin Ice Cores From Greenland Reveal History of Climate Change" Vol. 9, No. 2, October 1996, pp. 12-13. © 1996 American Geophysical Union: "Locked within two cores of ancient ice is evidence of unprecedented swings in Earth's climate throughout the ages. These icy archives tell us that large, rapid, global change is more the norm for the Earth's climate than is stasis." they then go on to conclude that "In short, the ice cores tell a clear story: humans came of age agriculturally and industrially during the most stable climatic regime recorded in the cores " See the graph here under from "The Science of Abrupt Climate Change" by Dr Jeffrey M. Masters.

Glaciologist Lonnie Thompson from Ohio State University and his research team have undertaken similar studies of ice cores from ice fields and glaciers in Peru, Bolivia, Antarctica, Greenland, Kurgyzstan, China, Africa and the Russian Arctic during the last quarter-century. Their studies found a similar cooling period, at the Younger Dryas, as seen on the graph here above from Greenland ice cores followed by a global warming. "These glaciers are very much like the canaries once used in coal mines. They're an indicator of massive changes taking place . . .in the tropics" says Thompson.

The global warming that started some 11-10,000 years ago was accompanied by monumental changes in the fauna and flora that led to an increase in the size of grains and also the concentration in certain areas of wild cereals in profusion. The argument then goes that pressed by other factors (population growth, drug addiction,...) humans took the presence of large quantities of cereals around them as an opportunity to source food.

The process took thousands of years to go from initial low level food harvesting to the appearance of full blown agriculture with settlement-subsistence systems centered around farming. Initially patches of land endowed with profusion of wild cereals were protected and harvested. Gradually seeds were sown and later land was cleared and tilt to increase the quantity and reliability of supply. It has to be noted that farming fully substituted hunting and plucking only in the last centuries... In "The transition to agriculture in Northwestern China" Bettinger, Barton, Elston, Madson, Brantingham, Oviatt, Wang and Choi argue that "... the interval between the initial appearance of (low level) food production and the appearance of full blown agriculture, as denoted by settlement-subsistence systems centered around food production, is perhaps 5500 years in Mesoamerica, 4000 years in eastern North America, and (arguably) 3000 years in the Near East".

Along the same line of massive global change or to be more accurate as a consequence of global warming some botanists suggest that increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide acted as fertilizer on the fauna.

In an article titled "Origins of Agriculture" Robert C. Balling writes that

  • "Rowan Sage of the University of Toronto's Department of Botany presented an opinion article in which he developed the idea that low atmospheric CO2 levels during the late Pleistocene era (the last great glacial advance, which ended about 12,000 years ago) did not allow agriculture to develop. Toward the end of that glacial era, CO2 levels had fallen below 200 ppm. As the earth began to pull out of the Ice Age, CO2 concentrations increased from roughly 200 ppm 15,000 years ago to more than 250 ppm 12,000 years ago.

  • ... A rise in atmospheric CO2 levels would have increased productivity of many plants by up to 50 percent, as hundreds of studies show. Further, the water efficiency of domesticated plants increased, so they developed a competitive advantage over many weeds".

  • "the remarkable synchrony of agricultural development around the world. Wheat, barley, lentils, and chickpeas were all domesticated in the Middle East by 10,000 years ago. In eastern Asia, rice and millets were domesticated 9,000 years ago. A thousand years earlier beans and chili peppers were "farmed" in Mesoamerica. Sugarcane in Southeast Asia, potatoes in the Andes, squash and sunflower in eastern North America, millet and sorghum in central Africa, and sesame and eggplant in India were all independently domesticated at about this same time".

  • "Compared with the length of time of human existence, the period of initial plant domestication all around the world took place in the blink of an eye".

  • "The conditions during the Pleistocene simply did not allow plant domestication and the successful establishment of agriculture—low carbon dioxide levels certainly could have played a major role".

3. Greg Wadley & Angus Martin, from the Department of Zoology of the University of Melbourne,
write in "The origins of agriculture – a biological perspective and a new hypothesis" (published in Australian Biologist 6: 96 – 105, June 1993) that "
The ingestion of cereals and milk, in normal modern dietary amounts by normal humans, activates reward centres in the brain. Foods that were common in the diet before agriculture (fruits and so on) do not have this pharmacological property. The effects of exorphins are qualitatively the same as those produced by other opioid and / or dopaminergic drugs, that is, reward, motivation, reduction of anxiety, a sense of wellbeing, and perhaps even addiction. Though the effects of a typical meal are quantitatively less than those of doses of those drugs, most modern humans experience them several times a day, every day of their adult lives"

Their argument goes as follows:

  • Studies by "Zioudrou (1979) and Brantl (1979) found opioid activity in wheat, maize and barley (exorphins), and bovine and human milk (casomorphin), as well as stimulatory activity in these proteins, and in oats, rye and soy".

  • "... researchers have measured the potency of exorphins, showing them to be comparable to morphine and enkephalin (Heubner et al. 1984), determined their amino acid sequences (Fukudome &Yoshikawa 1992), and shown that they are absorbed from the intestine (Svedburg et al.1985) and can produce effects such as analgesia and reduction of anxiety which are usually associated with poppy-derived opioids (Greksch et al.1981, Panksepp et al.1984). Mycroft et al. estimated that 150 mg of the MIF-1 analogue could be produced by normal daily intake of cereals and milk, noting that such quantities are orally active, and half this amount 'has induced mood alterations in clinically depressed subjects' (Mycroft et al. 1982:895)".

  • "cereals and dairy foods are not natural human foods, but rather are preferred because they contain exorphins. This chemical reward was the incentive for the adoption of cereal agriculture in the Neolithic. Regular self-administration of these substances facilitated the behavioural changes that led to the subsequent appearance of civilisation".

4. For over a million years human ancestors have derived their subsistence from hunting animals and gathering fruits, roots, leaves and seeds. The same division of labor is invariably observed around the world: men go hunting, women gather they take care of the food, the medicine, the roof, the dress and the children.

Agriculture was thus typically an extension of women's gathering of seeds.

It should thus not come as a surprise that women took central stage in the socio-economic structures that emerged with the adoption of agriculture. This economic process has to be seen expanding gradually over thousands of years giving way to enlarged socio-political groupings that gradually abandon their nomadic migrating ways.

In summary:

With retreating glaciers by the end of the ice age some 12,000 years ago the world got warmer and wetter than before. Greater rainfall and a higher concentration of CO2 in the air nourished grasses like wild wheat and barley that in some areas thus spread like wild fires. This attracted large concentrations of grazing animals followed by hunter-gatherers who gradually abandoned their nomadic ways and settled down in villages. The individuals continued to share an animist worldview while women were asserting their centrality through an increased recourse to cereals. All early agriculturalist societies seem indeed to have been matriarchal...

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