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In my penultimate article, I outlined the rise and fall of early partnership cultures as described by Riane Eisler. She made an implicit connection between the destruction of the partnership civilization and environmental conditions when she wrote about invaders coming from ‘the less desirable fringe areas,’ and ‘the arid lands of the north, as well as the deserts of the south.’ However, she did not investigate climatic conditions at the time of these invasions, and, indeed, the palaeo-climatic data required probably weren’t available then.
In this article, I focus on more recent evidence for the interaction between climate and civilization, particularly in North Africa. From this analysis, it appears that a drying of the climate may have been a major factor driving the transition from partnership to dominator cultures.
THE EMERGENCE OF COMPLEX, DOMINATOR SOCIETIES
Nick Brooks of the University of East Anglia, UK, has studied the relationship between the evolution of civilization and climate in the northern sub-tropics. These are the latitudes in which the first civilizations arose around the globe: North Africa, Mesopotamia, South Asia, China and northern South America.
Brooks was not concerned with the extensive agricultural, village-based partnership culture described by Riane Eisler. To him, complex societies, as he calls them, are the hallmark of civilization. These were relatively densely settled towns and cities, often fortified. They were highly organized with significant social stratification and specialization. They were ruled by powerful leaders, and built elaborate tombs, palaces, monuments and temples. They were early States, with centralized government power that extended over a substantial surrounding area. Usually based on irrigated agriculture, they traded widely, and were technologically innovative. Unlike the partnership cultures, their art included representations of violence and authority.
With the notable exception of Minoan Crete, described in my last article, these complex civilizations were dominator cultures. Comparing them with the village-based partnership cultures, we can see that both were creative and technologically innovative. The key differences were that the later civilizations had larger and denser populations, hierarchies of power, and a culture of violence. Brooks argues forcefully that it was climate change that drove this transition.
The ability of any region to support humans depends on three broad factors. First is the natural endowment of climate, soils and other resources such as minerals and water for irrigation. Second is the density of the population and its level of material affluence. And third are the technologies available to exploit available resources. If the population is low and/or its demands are modest compared to the carrying capacity of the environment, the Earth will be experienced as abundant. But if the population is too large or has excessive ‘needs’ or lacks essential technologies, there will be scarcity no matter how fertile the land.
Not surprisingly, estimates of the human population at the dawn of civilization vary widely. But 10,000 years BP (before present), when agriculture and settlement began, there may have been as few as 5 million people on the planet. At this time, the Earth was still emerging from the last Ice Age, with glaciers retreating. Thus more land was becoming available to support the population, and the latitudes of North Africa and the Middle East were entering a warm wet period. During the Ice Age, the Sahara was so dry that it was uninhabited. But by 10,000 BP it had numerous water bodies, abundant flora and fauna, and was being reoccupied. In other words, this was a time of low population pressure when the Earth would have seemed abundant and nurturing. It was in this context that the partnership cultures described by Riane Eisler emerged and spread. There was plenty for all, and therefore little reason for competition or conflict between social groups. Indeed, peaceful cooperation avoided the wastage of energy and resources due to conflict.
By 6,000 BP the population is estimated to have risen by only 50% to 7m, but it increased more rapidly thereafter, possibly quadrupling to 27m by 4,000 BP and doubling again to 50m by 3,000 BP (or 1,000 Before Common Era) – a 10-fold increase since the end of the Ice Age. Thus the population pressure grew very significantly over these three thousand years, and the demand for natural resources would have risen even faster with the emergence of more sophisticated societies.
Perhaps more significant than population growth, however, was the fact that the benign climate didn’t last. The generally warm, wet conditions following the last Ice Age were broken about 8,000 BP by a cold, dry period lasting a few centuries, after which the climate was less stable, and rainfall became seasonal. There was a similar, but less severe, episode around 6,000 BP. Then, between 5,000 and 4,000 BP, rainfall collapsed and the Sahara, Middle East and Mesopotamia became as arid as they are today.
According to Brooks, the challenge of this growing aridity was a major driver of cultural and technological innovation. In essence, there were two different responses. One was to adopt a nomadic way of life based on herds of cattle, or flocks of sheep and goats where conditions were even drier. Life was sustained by moving with the seasonal rains, and the availability of fodder and water. This way of life continues to this day in some regions, thus demonstrating its resilience compared to urbanisation.
The second response to the drying of North Africa was to retreat to rivers and oases as the desert advanced. There, the pressures created by high population densities led to the emergence of cities, complex societies and technological innovation. By contrast, in Mesopotamia drying of the climate about 5,000 BP freed more land from inundation, thus enabling a rapid expansion of population and the emergence of the Uruk civilization.
The example of modern land use in the Sahel indicates that there was also a third, intermediate response. In the semi-arid lands on the fringes of the desert, subsistence farming continued. I’ll return to this point later.
Nick Brooks hypothesized that as people retreated to the wetter areas, some groups would have been at an advantage due to their location and resources. Thus a natural process of social stratification would have begun. As the climate continued to dry and refugees arrived from the desert, there would have been further stratification – perhaps resulting in a pool of lowly labourers or slaves for undertaking construction of irrigation works, monuments and temples.
An alternative scenario is that at least some of the nomads would have begun to raid the towns. Such conflict would explain the increasing evidence of fortifications including town walls, and the depiction of violence in art. It is also consistent with the picture painted by Riane Eisler of invasion of the earlier partnership cultures by nomadic tribes.
AN IMAGINATIVE RECONSTRUCTION
At this point I invite you to indulge in a little imaginative reconstruction. First, we can draw an analogy with the treatment of refugees and illegal migrants by rich countries today. Barriers are erected to keep out the hordes, and those who succeed in entering a country are relegated to menial, low paid work. Thus we can see the process of social stratification at work, and we can imagine the anger and frustration of those who are excluded, and consequent acts of violence and terrorism.
Now imagine yourself thousands of years ago. Many generations back, your tribe ceased farming and became nomadic herders as the climate dried. Today, it is one of many groups moving constantly across the landscape, following the rains in search of fodder and water. Survival is a perpetual dance with nature, and a constant struggle to defend your traditional rights from neighbouring clans. Nature no longer seems benign, and peaceful cooperation amongst clans has become the stuff of myth - a long-lost paradise or garden of Eden. In response, your people and your gods have become more violent, and you’re more willing to follow an aggressive leader, who in turn uses force to control his followers. Yours is a world in which hardship is common, and only the strong survive; a world of trauma.
The last decade has been particularly dry. Your remaining stock are emaciated, and your people are close to starving. The only way to survive is to find more fodder and water. So your clan moves out of its traditional territory, coming into conflict with your neighbours, or perhaps raiding the nearest oasis town. In this way, you bring the trauma of battle to hitherto peaceful settlements, which then begin to arm and defend themselves against future raids. If your tribe has tamed the horse, you will have the lightning, traumatic impact of an air raid today. You will be seen as ‘devils on horseback’ as the Janjaweed are called in Darfur.
As the climate continues to dry over the centuries, so this conflict intensifies. And so does the shift towards dominator societies. Perhaps your tribe goes beyond raiding, and takes over a peaceful agricultural town. Judging by Biblical and other historical sources, the men are most likely killed, and the women kept as slaves and concubines. The egalitarian community is replaced with a power hierarchy based on force, and warlike male gods displace the mother Goddess. And even towns that defend themselves successfully move inevitably towards the dominator end of the spectrum as the need grows for organized defences, military leadership and service, and the traumatic violence of war.
THE SAHEL TODAY
Let’s now compare this scenario with the relationship between nomads and farmers in the Sahel over the last half-century. The Sahel is the semi-desert region just south of the Sahara, running east-west across Africa. It includes parts of many modern countries including Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Upper Volta, Ivory Coast, Niger, Nigeria, Chad and the Sudan (including Darfur). Its recent history is tragic, devastated by drought, desertification and war.
Traditionally, this semi-desert land supported nomadic pastoralists to the north, and settled farmers to the south, where rainfall was higher. Theirs was a mutually beneficial relationship. With the coming of the annual rains, the nomads moved north as fresh grass grew and water holes filled. They moved south again in the dry season, grazing the stubble of the farmer’s crops and receiving millet in exchange for manure. Both herders and farmers had a deep understanding of their environment and its sustainable use. For example, traditional rules governed the migration routes and how long the herders stayed at each waterhole along the way.
This sustainable system of land use broke down under a number of pressures including population growth. The region was unusually wet in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, encouraging northward expansion of agriculture and the growing of cash crops rather than traditional foods. Many deep water wells were drilled leading to an increase in cattle numbers and overgrazing. Then, starting in the early 1970’s, the region suffered two decades of severe drought with a 20% drop in rainfall. Crop yields were drastically reduced, many of the nomad’s cattle died and they were forced to sell others, thus becoming refugees.
In the words of Nick Brooks: “The over-extension of agriculture, and consequently of pastoralism, into historically marginal areas as a result of a failure to appreciated the nature of long-term ... climatic variability in the Sahel, resulted in massive loss of life and livestock, the destruction of communities and livelihood systems, and massive societal disruption on a regional scale. In some areas drought also helped to trigger conflict, for example in the case of the “Second Tuareg Rebellion” in Mali ...”
More recently some commentators have described Darfur as the first climate change war due to decades of drought. This is undoubtedly an over-simplification, as New Internationalist magazine for June 2007 made clear. The north of Darfur is home to Arab pastoralists, and the south to African farmers. However, both groups are Muslim and intermarriage means that all Darfurians are of mixed ancestry. They coexisted peacefully for centuries “with inevitable disputes over resources between fixed and migratory communities resolved through the mediation of local leaders.”
However, after a long fight against European colonialism, the independent Sudan has been ruled by northern Arabs who have neglected the south and Darfur. This led to war from 1955 – 72, which erupted again in 1983 due to the imposition of radical Islam and the discovery of oil. “The people’s suffering was exacerbated by a devastating famine in the mid-1980’s, during which the Government abandoned Darfurians to their fate.” Thus the drought is but one factor in the emergence of violent Arab supremacism in the form of the Janjaweed. A recent report by the UN Environment Program similarly concluded that conflict over water and land helped spark the war. This was followed on 18 July by a report that a huge underground lake had been detected in Darfur, exploitation of which would help bring an end to the war which the article claimed was significantly due to conflict over water resources.
In a wider context, recent research has identified drought and other climatic stresses as contributory factors in many conflicts. Data show that when rainfall is significantly below normal, the risk of low-level conflict escalating to full-scale civil war doubles in the following year. (Jim Giles "Rainfall records could warn of war" New Scientist, 2 June, 2007, p.12) Another New Scientist article (21 July 2007, p.19) reported the results of a study by David Zhang of 1000 years of Chinese archives which had revealed that 12 of the 15 major bouts of warfare in that period coincided with cold weather which would have led to food shortages. And a recent UN report claims that desertification could displace 50m people in the next decade – mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and central Asia. Such a dramatic increase in the number of environmental refugees seems likely to exacerbate ethnic and national tensions.
The discussion in this article illustrates how the trauma of climate change exemplified by drought may have led to the rise of dominator cultures, and the demise of the partnership way of life. If true , it reveals the fact that partnership only worked as a cultural form in a time of universal plenty. The advent of shortages due to population growth and climate change led ineluctably to competition and conflict. There are clear lessons in this history for us today which I will start to explore in my next article.