Friday, April 23, 2010

The new history is deep history

When we think about science, most of us think of dramatic breakthroughs. We think Darwin and Wallace, Einstein and Bohr, Copernicus and Curie and we imagine everything changed overnight.

Most science, however, develops in bits and pieces, twisting and turning, waxing and waning, until, after thirty years, things are new. Even the dramatic shifts, like natural selection, took decades to get from radical to mainstream.

If you’re at all curious about things, you notice this in a single lifespan. Consider deep history; the story of humans from 150K to 3K years ago. In the past 30 years discoveries from genomics, climate research, linguistics, plant research, translation, anthropology and archaeology, combined with the revision of old biases, have dramatically changed our understanding of deep history. In each case, of course, computation has been a fundamental driver. That’s how it works – new instruments make new science.

It’s been growing slowly from all directions, but the sum is a very different world from what some of us learned in the 1970s. The human brain is evolving and changing far more dramatically than we imagined, and that evolution has not slowed with modernity. Our concepts of human speciation are being transformed; there were many “species” of human coexisting into deep history – and, like dogs and wolves, they probably crossed often.

Pre-agricultural humans were far more populous and widespread than we once imagined; the large populations of pre-invasion (early agricultural and hunter-gatherer) North America probably reflect worldwide pre-agricultural patterns.

Even after the development of agriculture and writing we see thousand year intervals of relative stasis in China, Egypt and Mesopotamia. How could this be when our fundamental technologies change in decades. Are the minds of modern Egyptians radically different from the minds of only 6,000 years ago? Why? Why do we see this graph at this time in human history?

What did humans do in Georgian caves for 30,000 years? Thirty thousand years of waving and sewing and nothing changes?! They could not have had the same brains we have. They seem more … Neandertal.

Fascinating times, and there’s much more here than I can address in one post. That’s why I’m adding a new tag (label) for this blog -- “deep history” in anticipation of much more to come.

For now see also:

Update: What does the Antikythera mechanism teach us about deep history? It cannot be the only anomaly of its kind in all time.


Charlie Stross said...

Currently on the road so I don't have the reference to hand, but part of my on/off reading is a book titled "Deep History and the Brain", on much this subject (author escapes my memory); one point made early on is that, traditionally, the study of history predates Darwin's breakthrough and the entire idea of deep time. Consequently it's implicitly framed in terms of Bishop Usher's 6000-odd year time scale for biblical Creation. Even historians who are not young earth creationists are working in a field that was established before the true scale of deep time was appreciated, and so there's an uneasy fade-out in the historical record ... the whole problem being made worse by the lack of documentary evidence from significantly more than 6000 years ago.

There's also some recent work on cave inscriptions that suggests some glyphs found on cave walls may well have been symbolic communication, going back up to 75Kyears, but it's still controversial. (Which leads me to wonder: if there was a written culture that long ago, how hard would it be to detect? My guess: incredibly hard, if not impossible, in the absence of monolithic constructions such as engraved stone slabs -- which tend to be created by the large institutions made possible by agriculture and sustained settlement.)

Barry said...

I'd add that it's probably simply extemely hard to invent and establish things. We're used to a very large number of people, with a higher percentage spending their lives working on abstract data accumulation and knowledge generation. We have a lot of people tinkering with things that don't work, and not dying to it.

With writing and distance travel (even traveling a few hundred miles is important), the number of people who are sharing knowledge skyrockets.

Stephen said...

Hi All,

If you want some interesting insights on early history. I recommend Steven Mitten's book "After the Ice". It concerns human culture from 20,000 years ago to present based upon archiological investigations around the world. It is slightly dated but well worth the effort. Not exactly a pape turner but very intersting. So what got us out of caves and messing around with animal husbandry and clay? Whatever is was it happened about 8 - 9 thousands years ago after the younger dryas.

John if you want a copy I will send it too you.


John Gordon said...

Thaaag get iPad. Thaaag get Blogger profile. Soon Thaaag blog.

Doesn't Betsy have a blog? You know you want to start one. I want to be reader #1.

Mitten's book is still in print:

From the reviews it sounds like a quirky ("curious") book that even diligent readers have to slog through. I added it to my cart, so no need to send it -- it costs only a little more to buy than to mail w/ Amazon "free shipping".

Stephen said...

Thaaaag has lunch. Pizza ( equivalent of rotting fish picked up by the shore)

Re Mitten's book... Quirkey is probably the right word. On the other hand, most other writings on this subject is either pretentious or overly academic. I think Mitten is trying to use a writing technique that attempts to place us in the living world of these people. After I got used to it I rather enjoyed what he was trying to do. There is a lot of interesting information there not the least of which is that modern civilization arose after the Younger Dryas and has florished because the climate has remained remarkably stable and warm with a few exceptions. What surprised me was the REALLY short period of time we have been here. The other question that is interesting to think about is, WTF happned at the end of the Younger Dryas that essentially resulted in civilization. Before that there really weren't any cities, writing agriculture etc etc. Then within 8 or 9,000 revolutions of the sun were flying around the world using auxillary brains.

re blogging

Thaaag dips toe in water. Thaaag considers blogging but blogging is for young who think time is longer than a day and that there ARE answers. Thaaag can see the tiger! No days for blog.

You are gracile. Thaaag is thaaagish.



Stephen said...


you said, "In each case, of course, computation has been a fundamental driver. That’s how it works – new instruments make new science."

When I was thinking about this it occurred to me that time may be at the center of this somehow.

When did we conceive of time? Why would you even need a concept like this. I was poking around at this idea in my alter ego as Thaaag. Thaag thinks about time as being the current day. Only need one of those at any given point. Perhaps early humans had a more sophisticated sense of time revolving around seasons or the presence or absence of different foods. ... Short list. No numbers required.

My guess is that when you live in larger groups there is pressure to change your concept of time and your need for abstract representations of it becomes more important. Much longer list of things to represent and remember. More numbers and number concepts required. Hence more computation. Perhaps the size of our living groups required the invention of computation. You have to know how many goats you had in the morning before you can throw a rock at your neighbor for making off with some them in the afternoon. The thrown rock implies the birth of civilization. Now we need rules and rules beget more rules. We have to invent numbers to keep track of those rules and then lawyers and shamins to make more.

I think the rock throwing began in ernest about 8,000 years ago. It may be that the world did begin in a very real sense about 6000 years ago. That's whern all the rule books start to appear. Perhaps our quest for more accurate representations of time invented science, mathematics, religion, politics, war and culture.

Back to you.

PakoPako said...

Antikythera mechanism? That anything related to the Baghdad Batteries?

John Gordon said...

I like the comments in Brad's post ...