Lecture: Studying Western Civ & Paleolithic and Neolithic Eras

Studying Western Civ

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In every field of human endeavor, there are tools. Whether it's a hammer, knitting needles, or a computer, tools help us understand and get the most out of an activity. hammerThat's true in history too. Some people think of history as "just one damn thing after another" (a quotation attributed to everyone from Harry S. Truman Harry S. Truman was the 33rd President of the United States. As the final running mate of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944, Truman succeeded to the presidency on April 12, 1945, when Roosevelt died after months of declining health. Wikipedia to Winston Churchill). But there's a big difference between reading history and doing history.

In this class, we'll do both, but doing is a lot more fun than reading. Of course, to do history, you need tools. History is constructed by people in the time and place they live. It is informed (some people say biased) by the circumstances where it emerges. So the history we'll be doing will have a peculiarly early 21st century, developed country, American nationalistic kind of flavor.

But before we can start, I have to introduce you to some tools.

Tool 1: Context

Context means the events and environment surrounding what you do. Every event that happens today, whether it's a war, an election, or a celebration, has a historical context.

This class, college Western Civilization, even has a context. It has become a controversial class. Some people think universities should stop offering it all together. This is because the course is "Eurocentric", focusing on the development of European (and later United States) culture to the exclusion of the rest of the world.

I teach World History also, so I'm very close to the middle of this argument. Like those who oppose Western Civ, I think all students should be exposed to knowledge about the whole world. With today's electronics and global marketplace, to not know about the world is to not know anything. But I also think there is a need for an in-depth understanding of ones own culture, and ours is heavily influenced by the development of what we call "The West".

So even just taking this class, you are involved in a context you might not have known about before.

Tool 2: Types of history

Unless you've been to college before, or were lucky enough to be enrolled at a progressive high school or with a progressive teacher, you may only know one type of history: political history. That's where you learn names, dates, and lots of facts about what happened with governments. Some people find that exciting. I don't. I think political events are useful as a framework, and many can be fun to study in depth, but memorizing is not my idea of a good time.

There are many different types of history:

political economic social
intellectual military technological
biological gender women's
environmental demographicof or relating to the study of changes that occur in large groups of people over a period of time (Merriam-Webster) racial

Social history focuses on people and what they do, even people who aren't rich or important. Economic history (the area of my own training) "follows the money", tracing actions pertaining to trade, goods, the exchange of wealth. You can tell from the list that each has a different focus, and the development of each kind has led us to a better understanding of the past.

Let me give you one example. Let's say a political historian looked at a battle during the Middle Ages. CastleThe castle of Leoch was under siege, the siege was going well, then all of a sudden the Campbells, who were besieging the castle, gave up and went away. Using letters written from the combatants to each other, the political historian concluded that the commanders of Leoch were superior in leadership, which accounted for their "victory". But an economic historian, using the list of supplies at Leoch compared to the supplies of the Campbells, concluded that that the victory resulted from the castle's better supplies and resource management. Then a biological historian examining the diaries of the commanders on each side, concluded that the result was due to a disease that spread through the water supply outside the castle but did not affect Leoch itself, which had a deeper well.

Each historian had a different interpretation, and each contributes to our understanding of what really happened.

Tool 3: Geography

If this course is Western Civilization, and west is a direction on the compass, then where is "The West"?

Take a look at a map:

world map with Europe and Africa in the middle

Where would you draw a line separating "The West" from "The East"? Traditionally, some would draw that line at Jerusalem, because the concepts of West and East come from the time of the Crusades, when European knights went east to fight the Arabs. But what about the United States? And is Latin America "the West"? What about "westernized" areas, like Australia?

The problem is that "The West" is an intellectual concept, not an actual location. That doesn't mean it's not important to know the physical geography of Europe or the United States, where most of this concept developed. It is! Mountains, rivers, climate systems, can all affect history. But The West in historical context (there's that word again!) is a set of cultural traditions and values based on a common set of historical circumstances. It includes concepts like democracy, private property, and individual rights. It includes common traditions in the development of art, literature, and religion. But it can't be drawn on a map.

Tool 4: The Timeline

Since Western Civ starts in a time we call "B.C" but we currently live in "A.D.", it 's important to understand the timeline. The Western conception of linear, progressive time was developed into two eras by the Catholic Church. Both ends of the timeline, the end going back in time (the past) and the end going forward (the future), are infinite.

Historians also refer to centuries: they'll write "in the 5th century B.C., Greece was in a golden age". When the heck is the 5th century B.C.? If the Peloponnesian War took place in 431 B.C., was that during the Greek Golden Age? (Yes, it was.) Take a look at and play with the timeline, and just close the pop-up window to come on back.

See and play with The Timeline in popup window Click here to open document in new window

(if you don't get a pop-up window, be sure to make sure you aren't running a "pop-up blocker" inside your browser!)
Text description

Tool 5: Primary and secondary sources

Historians have several tools we use to analyze the past, and archaeological and written sources are the most important. A primary source is written or created at the time you are studying (what I call "documents" are just written primary sources). For example, if you are studying the 16th century, and you are examining a letter, diary, legal document, artwork, building, clay pot or anything that was actually written or created during the 16th century, then it's a primary source. We will be working with and analyzing many primary source documents, because to do so is really "doing history". Interpreting primary sources is the main task of any historian.

The sources with which you may be most familiar, however, are called "secondary" sources. These include your textbook and most popular books and websites about history. A secondary source is written, often as a narrative or story, by people who have examined primary sources and created a story based on that evidence. Secondary sources occasionally cite their primary sources, but this is rare in a textbook or popular history book (it's usual only in publications intended for professional historians, or term papers for history classes).

The reason that history is not a "dead" subject, and the reason that history books are perpetually in need of revision, is that any discovery of new primary sources (like a letter from the destroyed city of Pompeii, for example) or any reinterpretation of the old sources, can completely change the accepted story of what happened in the past. If one declares a certain archaeological dig to be "the oldest inhabited site in the West", this will change if an older site is discovered. Re-analysis and re-evalution is what history is all about. Today's "truth" is tomorrow's misinformation.

See if you can tell which of these sources are primary and which secondary:

statue of Akhenaton1. Statue of Akhenaton, Egyptian king, from the time of his reign Primary or secondary?

2. From The Satires, by Juvenal (~A.D. 130)

"There never was a case in court in which the quarrel was not started by a woman...."

Primary or secondary?

3. From Noble et al, Western Civilization, the Continuing Experiment (1999).

"Europe in 1500 was profoundly different from the Europe of 1300."

Primary or secondary?

4. Herodotus, Histories (~440 BC) on events after Cyrus (a Persian king who died in the 6th century BC)

On the death of Cyrus, Cambyses his son by Cassandane daughter of Pharnaspes took the kingdom. Cassandane had died in the lifetime of Cyrus, who had made a great mourning for her at her death, and had commanded all the subjects of his empire to observe the like.

Primary or secondary?

Paleolithic and Neolithic ErasChauvet horses

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The Paleolithic Era

For many decades, what we knew of Paleolithic artistic expression was from the Lescaux Caves in France, which has paintings dating from 17,100 BC. But in 1994, an even older Paleolithic cave was discovered, also in France, which may date from as early as 30,000 BC. What's remarkable about it is the images of the animals, which show a highly sophisticated artistic technique.

There's a lot we don't know, of course. Archaeological evidence is, like historical (written) evidence, always subject to interpretation. New findings lead to the construction of new narratives about the past.

What really happened during the Neolithic Revolution?

Here is a recent article about the Neolithic Revolution.

What is the thesis of this article?

 Click here to open document in new window

The authors are arguing against Jared Diamond's thesis, that agriculture and pastoralism (animal raising) caused people to settle down into communities. But that idea is actually much older than Diamond's work, which was published in the 1990s. For a long time that has been the narrative describing the Neolithic Revolution: people learned to farm, then they created communities.

Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson are arguing using the evidence at Göbekli Tepe (9600 BC) and Çatalhöyük (7500-5700 BC), both ancient archaeological sites. They claim that despite the buildings and sophisticated activities in these settled communities, there was no evidence of agriculture.

So that reverses the narrative: now the theory is that people settled first, while they were still hunting, gathering and scavenging. Only later did they get into agriculture and raising animals for food.

The Goddess

We have other long-standing narratives that guide our understanding of the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras. One is that gods and shamans dominated the spiritual life of prehistoric peoples.

Shamans in ancient cultures are often romanticized today. We see them as in touch with spiritual forces. On the reverse, more cynical side, we see them as charlatans, fooling the people, because we all know that rationally gods would not have interfered with people's daily lives.

When we project our own modern, rationalist, present-based ideas onto the past, we're sure to miss something.

Shamans were ancient scientists. Theirs was one of the first "jobs" to be paid for by the surplus produced by the community. Their job was to intercede for the community with the forces of nature, which they did through rituals that we would now call "religious". But often such rituals were timed to the seasons, and corresponded to the shaman's insightful observations of the patterns in nature. Shamans tracked solstices and stars, weather patterns and rainfall. As society became more dependent on agriculture, their intercession with the supernatural became ever more important, and the more practical and political monarchs relied on them for both information and their own legitimacy.

In a society that was increasingly dependent on agriculture, a division of labor emerged. People who were good at making food containers, or hunting, or digging irrigation ditches or designing buildings could do that and not worry about engaging in agriculture themselves. The society fed them in return for their services. Shamanism was such a service. Some  historians and archaeologists also believe that a gender division of labor emerged, and modern analysis blames this on biological functions. Men, who often fostered their own physical strength and hunting prowess, would leave the community for days or weeks to get fresh meat. Women, many of whom bore babies, tended crops along with tending children. They engaged in labor that tended to be less intensive than hunting, but more extensive, long-term, and interruptable.

For many centuries we have been taught that this division naturally occurred and that it extended to political power, which became the province of men, while domestic affairs became the area dominated by women. And even before Judeo-Christian times, it is assumed that many of the shamans (and the spiritual forces themselves) were male. This is despite the fact that the stable lifeline of the community was in agriculture and that women were acknowledged as the givers of life.

Perhaps it is the fact that the hierarchies of gods and goddesses that we know about preside over particular areas that are considered male or female. Gods like Poseidon or Osiris rule great natural kingdoms (of the sea and the underworld, respectively). Goddesses often represent wisdom, love or aspects dominated by the moon. And yet there is no reason that goddesses would not have been worshipped as the highest dieties, and that later Judeo-Christian scholars and religious figures chose to ignore this to emphasize the dominance of the monotheistic God, who by the time of Jesus was male in most traditions.

What's interesting is that the possible dominance of female dieties can change the narrative.

Excerpt from BBC Documentary: Divine Women (2012) with Bettany Hughes

Divine Women: When God was a Girl

Notice in this clip that not only are the dieties female and their life processes noted with reverence, but that the figure from Çatalhöyük is sitting on a throne. She looks like a political ruler.

There is not enough evidence to claim matriarchy (rule by women) in the prehistoric West, but it is an intriguing possibility. Did the Neolithic cultures even divide the sacred and the secular? Do we assume that even if the holy areas were controlled by females, that the males were always politically in charge?

Notice also that Hughes' thesis denies both that of Diamond and that of Acemoglu and Robinson. She claims that Çatalhöyük is not a settlement at all, but a religious center. Acamoglu and Robinson seem to base their whole "settlement first, then agriculture" theory on this place being a settlement. If they are wrong, and Hughes is correct, then their new theory is also in question.

Lessons of history for Neolithic and Paleolithic

So there are three take-aways here:

2. New historical theses frequently deny older historical theses, which changes the narrative of the past.

3. Archaeological evidence (and historical evidence) can be examined in different ways to fit into different narratives.

4. Life in Paleolithic and Neolithic times was likely more complex than we've been led to believe.



All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.