Recent Prehistory

Trying to maintain a skeptical stance when talking with religious people is, in the main, pointless. They’re hard-wired not to get it. But while getting nowhere attempting to discuss current events with respect to Judaism and the Middle East, I got curious about the historical roots of the whole mess. That’s more interesting, and less contentious too.

So I ordered a couple of books from Amazon on Bronze Age prehistory in Europe and the Mediterranean basin.

The period from 5000 to 500 B.C. was one of extraordinary changes, I know that much even before the books get here. At the beginning of that period, agriculture had been invented, but the use of bronze for weapons was still far in the future. As far as we know, there was only one “city” (today it would be counted no more than a town) of any size in the world — Eridu. Everything else was mud huts. Actually, Eridu was mud huts too, but there were a lot of them.

Based both on the descriptions in the Bible and on the remains that have been excavated of walled towns, it seems likely that as population increased throughout the region, there was a whole lot of raiding going on. The capture and enslavement of the Hebrews would hardly have been unique at the time. Nor would their tendency to overrun towns like Jericho, when commanded to do so by their priests, have been unique. Pretty much everybody in the region would have been doing the same thing. For thousands of years.

History is written by the winners. The sheer tenacity and strong sense of tribal identity of the Hebrews, both of which were rooted in their unusually fervent religion, probably did a lot to insure that they were among the winners. You don’t have to believe in God to see how effective such a belief system would have been.

At a somewhat later period, the Hebrews got into a head-butting contest with the Romans. The Romans, at this period, had nothing resembling a fervent religion. They had something even better: A great big army. Today’s struggles in the Middle East can be traced directly to the fact that in 70 A.D., the Roman Emperor Titus got peeved with the Jews’ stiff-necked intransigence (which was directly due to their religion), destroyed their capital city, and decreed that they no longer had a homeland.

Rome was the first truly modern multi-cultural, multi-ethnic state. It was extremely successful for a very long time. Its success was rooted in a secular, democratic belief system, which placed a high value on civic duty, on reciprocal social bonds, and on competition for prestige in worldly things.

But that was later. Rome was founded in 753 B.C. The Bronze Age was ending and the Iron Age was beginning. Right now I’d like to know a lot more about the cultures that moved across that area between the founding of Eridu and the founding of Rome.

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2 Responses to Recent Prehistory

  1. arclein says:

    One enduring idea about our robust prehistory is the idea of the movement of peoples. It seems logical given the apparent extreme movements experienced in the historical era.

    It was never the option it became with the advent of the horse and iron tools and weapons. Low mobility limited warfare to a smaller clan and tribal environment similar to the trojan war. Mobility there was by water and it clearly was very unusual.

    Observe instead that society consisted of clans nicely removed from each other. You do not get the sense that long overland marches were in the cards.

    The evidence supports organized societies that became big enough to dominate their region for thousands of years.

    this was finally disrupted by horsemen and locally made iron weapons.


  2. midiguru says:

    Thanks for the comments, arclein. I want to know more about this era! At the moment, I’m not entirely convinced “that society consisted of clans nicely removed from each other.” There were trade routes, for starters. There were nomadic shepherds whose territory was probably large but not occupied for the entire year. There would have been periodic displacement — that is, refugees whose lands had been taken over by someone stronger.

    No, long overland marches would not have been in the cards for the most part. The Egyptians certainly had the resources to mount that type of campaign at a fairly early date, but I know very little about how Egypt was established as a regional power.

    I’m not sure what evidence you’re pointing to that supports the idea that “organized societies … became big enough to dominate their region for thousands of years.” What little we know about this period, unfortunately, is based to a considerable extent on pottery and gravesites. Archaeologists sometimes talk about the “beaker people” of Europe, for instance, as if they were a single group that dominated a region for a long period, but all we really *know* is that a certain type of pottery was made in a large region over a long period. If one group of beaker people conquered and enslaved another group of beaker people who were genetically distinct, we would probably never know about it.

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