Work in Progress: Permutations of Developmental Sequences in the Origins of Civilization

Robert J. Braidwood (29 July 1907–15 January 2003)

Recently I learned about the beer-before-bread hypothesis of the origins of civilization. The idea is usually associated with Robert J. Braidwood, who formulated the question in this way:

“Could the discovery that a mash of fermented grain yielded a palatable and nutritious beverage have acted as a greater stimulant toward the experimental selection and breeding of the cereals than the discovery of flour and bread making? One would assume that the utilization of wild cereals (along with edible roots and berries) as a source of collected food would have been in existence for millennia before their domestication (in a meaningful sense) took place. Was the subsequent impetus to this domestication bread or beer?”

This is from a symposium — Did man once live by beer alone? — published in American Anthropologist, from October 1953. The idea is usually credited to Braidwood in 1952. However, Braidwood published a paper — “From Cave to Village An account of a recent expedition to Iraq which sought the remains of a prehistoric revolution in the life of man: the birth of agriculture and animal husbandry,” Scientific American, Vol. 187, №4 (October 1952), pp. 62–67 — and a lecture — The Near East and the Foundations for Civilization — in 1952, neither of which mention the beer-before-bread hypothesis. Moreover, Braidwood himself credits the idea to Jonathan D. Sauer, whose contribution to the American Anthropologist symposium is first after Braidwood’s query. Sauer wrote after Braidwood’s query:

“The pioneer cultivators of wheat or barley must have been faced with a pitifully small return of grain for their labor. Yields of the primitive grain crops must have been poor, even after the development of cultivated forms which retained the ripe grain in the head, instead of shattering the inflorescence and scattering the grains on the ground when ripe, as do the wild wheats and barleys. Planting and harvesting small grains without the plow or other efficient tools would seem to me a game scarcely worth the candle except for a more rewarding stake than mere food.”

I was sufficiently interested in this question to obtain a copy of The Near East and the Foundations for Civilization by interlibrary loan. It is an excellent summary of the sequence of stages leading up to civilization in Mesopotamia, but there is no mention of the beer-before-bread hypothesis. However, we can take Braidwood’s stages in the development of civilization as a point of departure. These stages are as follows:

  1. Incipient agricultural and animal husbandry stage (coupled with a terminal food-gathering stage)
  2. Food-producing stage
  3. Primary peasant efficiency (permanent villages, pottery, metallurgy, weaving)
  4. Established peasant efficiency (market towns, temples, expansion into riverine areas)
  5. Incipient urbanization
  6. Civilization properly speaking

Needless to say, this is an obvious example of cultural evolutionism, and the proponents of cultural relativism would be able to poke holes in this sequence pretty easily, but that isn’t a helpful approach. In all the extensive literature on cultural evolutionism there are background assumptions — often on the part of both advocates and detractors — of the inevitability, necessity, and inflexibility of some (any) proposed sequence of cultural evolution. This is just silly. We can easily demonstrate civilizations in many different parts of the world evolving from simpler technologies and institutions to more complex technologies and institutions, and there are clearly patterns to this development, but the patterns are not absolute. Stages and sequences may vary among different cultures in the evolution, even as there may be broad overlaps of developmental stages.

At the same time as there are widely shared presuppositions about the inevitability and fixity of cultural evolution, there are also, among archaeologists, a large number of theories about the origins of civilization. This creates a zero sum game of scholarly bickering, in which it is assumed that if my theory of the origins of civilization is true, your theory must be wrong, and vice versa. Again, this is just silly. Different theories fix upon different aspects of the origins of civilization, and different aspects of the origins of civilization may be of greater or lesser prominence in the origins of some pristine civilization or another.

It is almost universally acknowledged that large-scale agriculture plays an important role in the origins of civilization, but large scale agriculture differs in different parts of the world as the domesticable cultivars differ, and the beasts of burden that came to be employed in agriculture differ. In the Old World, cereal grain agriculture was crucial, whereas in the New World maize and potatoes were the crucial staple crops. Maize can grow in the tropical and sub-tropical biomes of Mesoamerica, whereas potatoes grow best in the Andean highlands. These different cultivars, and the different climates, virtually guarantee that the cultures that grew up around agriculture based on these cultivars are going to be different in each case.

What we ought to be doing is not to try to find some one, single invariable sequence that holds for the origins of all civilizations, but to identify any and all distinct and discrete stages in the development of a civilization, wherever it is to be found in the world, and then to compare these distinct, discrete stages to other stages found elsewhere. Some of these will be sufficiently similar that we will see they are essentially the same, while others will be distinctive to the origins of one and only one civilization. In pursuing such a method we would arrive at an exhaustive taxonomy of the stages in the development of civilization, with each particular civilization having its own developmental sequence that is a mix-and-match of all known developmental stages. However, this mix-and-match of stages of development would not be random; at the same time, it would not be fixed and invariable. A few dominant patterns would be revealed with a lot of outliers that don’t fit the most common pattern of development. This all seems so obvious to me that it seems strange even to have to spell it out explicitly, but I haven’t seen this spelled out explicitly elsewhere, and the barren debate between cultural evolutionism and cultural relativism is predicated upon not recognizing this obvious state of affairs.

With this in mind, we can easily see that some civilizations might have come into existence by the mechanism of bread-before-beer, while others may have come into existence by the mechanism of beer-before-bread. These stages of development are mutually exclusive, but both may be represented by actual historical civilizations, and both fit within a broad development sequence, although the sequence is different in detail in each case, even if, in the big picture, there is a roughly similar sequence of development. Taking the biggest of big pictures, every civilization is the result of cultural evolutionism, but when we narrow in on the details the stages may be different — sometimes different in order of appearance, sometimes qualitatively different stages are swapped for each other, sometimes a stage may be left out, while other times a stage may be added that is absent in other civilizations — and this difference in the developmental sequences of civilization could be characterized in terms similar to those of cultural relativism.

A common idea about civilization not always made explicit is what we might call the urbanization first hypothesis, such that civilization begins with urbanization — viz. V. Gordon Childe’s urban revolution. In Braidwood’s evolutionary sequence, urbanization appears in stage 5 and is consolidated in stage 6 (we could even formulate this in Braidwood’s own terminology as primary urbanization and established urbanization). However, there may be sequences of development in which urbanization — or, at least, population concentration — appears at a different stage in the development of a civilization, or has distinct consequences. Say, an agricultural village grows into something like a city, and it is not until the proto-city is established that it begins to produce beer. Or, contrariwise, say that a city grows up around a community that is producing beer, and large-scale agriculture only comes into existence in order to support the city and its important beer production enterprise. (Note that Göbekli Tepe seems to have been a population concentration without agriculture, though this site was not discovered until much later, so mid-century archaeology knew nothing of it.)

We understand that the earliest towns like Jericho, Çatalhöyük, Mehrgarh, etc. were proto-urbanizations that do not possess all of the properties of urbanization that we find in later more mature cities like Ur or Mohenjo-Daro, etc. The process of transition from proto-urbanization to fully-fledged urbanization literally took thousands of years to unfold, from about 10,000 YBP to about 5,000 YBP, but this should not surprise us as stone tool use unfolded over almost two million years, and included human ancestors long before human anatomical modernity, and the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution also likely unfolded over thousands of years, though we have much less evidence of this transition than we have of the transition from proto-urbanization to urbanization proper. The urbanization first hypothesis can be confronted with archaeological evidence presented as what may be called the religious center first hypothesis, according to which we would invoke Göbekli Tepe, where evidence shows monumentality in art and architecture, but without urbanization and without agriculture.

Göbekli Tepe

Given that there may be several valid theories of the origins of civilization, and that these several distinct theories involve slightly different developmental sequences, we can then step back and take a really big picture look at how these several mechanisms for the origins of civilization are related to each other. Let us make three assumptions:

  1. There are many civilizations in the universe, perhaps many civilizations in our galaxy, which means that these many civilizations may embody distinct mechanisms of origins and development.
  2. There are many different theories of the origins and development of civilization.
  3. Of the many theories of the origins and development of civilization, some will be relatively simple and others will be more complex.

Given these three assumptions, we can make two predictions about civilizations in the universe, based on a Pareto distribution and a bell curve. I predict that, under the above assumptions, 20 percent of theories will account for 80 percent of civilizations; I further predict that the 80 percent of civilizations explained by 20 percent of theories will be explained by theories of mediocre complexity that fill the bump of a bell curve, with highly simplistic theories accounting for a declining number outliers on the one side, while highly complex theories account for a declining number of outliers on the other side. These two ideas can be expressed as follows:

  1. Origins of Civilization Bell Curve: I predict of the many developmental sequences that are pathways to civilization, that the bump in the bell curve will be filled with the most common mechanisms for the origins of civilization, representing some degree of mediocrity of the complexity of the mechanism; the left of the bell curve will be sparsely populated by the simplest possible mechanisms, while the right of the bell curve will be sparsely populated by the most complex mechanisms for the origins of civilization.
  2. Origins of Civilization Pareto Principle: I further predict that about 20 percent of the developmental sequences leading to civilization will account for about 80 percent of instances of planets with civilizations, making these 20 percent of mechanisms literally the vital few, i.e., those mechanisms most responsible for civilization’s prevalence in the universe (to the extent that civilization is prevalent in the universe).

The above predictions will be familiar to anyone who read my blog post On the Representation of Origins of Life Mechanisms Implicated in Biospheres, in which I made parallel predictions for origins of life mechanisms, which, like proposed mechanisms for the origins of civilization, are numerous. While the origins of life is lost in four billion years of the mists of time, the origins of civilization are very recent on this time scale, and, moreover, we now know that pristine civilizations independently appeared in geographically distinct locations, that that there may have been multiple developmental sequences leading to civilization on Earth.

I have made a sudden leap from discussing the origins of civilization on Earth to the origins of civilization in the universe. I wanted to express my assumptions in the most general way possible, so that they are applicable anywhere in the universe — all science should and does aspire to this degree of generality, though I have noted recently that the pendulum of science is swinging away from a nomothetic paradigm and is increasingly favoring an idiographic paradigm. In an idiographic paradigm, theories of cultural relativism will predominate over theories of cultural evolutionism, and (another prediction) we should expect that, the further we go from Earth, the greater variability we would find in terms of cultural relativity (where we are able to identify and theorize cultures on other worlds among other species). This is, in itself, a nomothetic generalization about cultural relativism.

Any theory of civilization should be applicable to civilization anywhere in the universe, even if there is no civilization anywhere in the universe except Earth (or, even if there is not yet any civilization other than on Earth). This is the proper scope of science. While we have developed geology on Earth, and all our examples were terrestrial examples until we investigated other worlds (having visited the Moon and having sent spacecraft to other planets), geology as a science should be universally applicable. If you took a geologist from Earth and set him down on a planet orbiting a star in the Andromeda galaxy (making suitable provisions to keep the terrestrial geologist alive), he would be able to identify the laws of superposition as they are manifested on this planet, no less than the laws of superposition hold on Earth. It is this level of generality that I hold must also apply to the social sciences, of which a science of civilization would be an instance.

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