Within anarcho-primitivism plays an ongoing dialectic pinpointing origins of the problem of civilization. Impugning only capitalism or the industrial age is much too timid. From the left, radical environmental activist leader and author Derrick Jensen impugns the point people exceed their capacity for self-sufficiency, the dawn of cities. In the trilogy Ishmael, The Story of B and My Ishmael fiction writer and civilization critic Daniel Quinn renders agriculture as humans’ dichotomizing choice to be Givers or Takers. Couple city settling with plant cultivating & animal herding and you’ve hit the collective anprim sweet spot.
Looking farther back than agriculture as the start of humans’ split with nature slashes approval. Anarcho-primitivist author and Anarchy Radio host John Zerzan’s look back to origins of art and language has appealed to some but with less enthusiasm. In his 3/13/19 radio show Zerzan reals in analysis on the catalyst of controlled fire, instead positioning civilization’s birth at the point humans domesticated animals and plants. Some say focusing at this fixed ~10 millennia point paints too simple a picture, ignores all civilizations’ embers heating up, culminating to ignite the world ablaze.
The debate on civilization’s origins parallels the debate on what qualifies as a technology. Values connoted by technologies are biased to support the interpreter’s view on origins. For example, those who blame agriculture see the plow as an obvious tool of civilization. Those who include controlled fire in the blame see hearths uncovered in archeologic digs as technological shifts in humans’ relationship with living communities that set the stage for domestication of plants and animals. Agriculture-blaming purists deny that using fire is technology toward civilization, perhaps to justify keeping fire in their rewilding repertoire, or perhaps in an effort to ward off criticism of hunting and cooking animals. In the premise set forth here placing civilization’s origins with the beginnings of human primate’s colonizing lifeways, inventions such as mortar and pestle are not catalysts toward civilization if they are not used as colonizing instruments, but spears are catalysts toward civilization if they are used as colonizing instruments, no matter the complexity of design. (Yes other species use hunting implements, but not in a way that degrades and massacres large scale living communities in a mega-regional and eventually worldwide colonizing schema as humans have.)
Even today various old fire methodologies manifest that offer insight into how civilization might have transitioned in through fire use. I’ve joined Pemón people in southeast Venezuela in slash & burn jungle ‘gardening’, turning yucca into bread to put on the trading network between villages. I’ve surveyed evidence of rotational camas plot burns abandoned centuries ago on a Salish island tribes once used not to inhabit but just to grow and harvest the tasty bulbs. I’ve seen native people burn redwoods’ underbrush clearing space for huckleberry and oak ‘gardens’ and grazing meadows for hunting deer and elk, cultivating ‘crops and livestock’ into the forest (their words) for so long that features that once made the pre-human forest robust are replaced by and made dependent on human lit fires. And I’ve heard female native docents frustrated with male docents’ focus on telling children stories of hunting and war rather than how wild edibles were foraged and fire was used to extensively clear land for planting of domesticates maize, beans, squash, and melons, the staple plant foods, evidently deemed less masculine today, provided by women’s labor.
Observations such as these spark wonderings on impacts of earlier humans’ fire use on habitats, and in turn on their own culture. To what extent and how did controlled fire lead to agriculture? Being domestication was likely not the original purpose of many inventions like fire mastery, what were the transition periods, catalysts, and factors setting the stage for full blown civilization to erupt? How did early human actions with fire shape early human ethos, and vice versa? How do these moves toward civilization form an overarching theory on humans’ adaptations and evolutions from their origins into H. sapiens current domesticated form?
Fire Transformed and Stratified Humans
Comparative anthropologist and anarcho-primitivist author Layla AbdelRahim’s theorizes that human primates shifted away from symbiotic habitat roles as seed spreaders into a predatory mindset, lifeway and foodway. No matter the exact nature of the cause, the problem is revealed in the shift from foraging plants to hunting animals. AbdelRahim’s conception connects with other analysis on the impact of early human ‘progresses’. Back to Zerzan’s Anarchy Radio show, the following week 3/19/19 I called in with a follow up question on his ‘domestication not controlled fire made us civilized’ statement: What set the stage for domestication? His answer: division of labor and ethos of control. Despite how long ago humans’ first sparked flame then how long it took to integrated it into routine use on a widespread basis, it is more than conceivable that fire mastery was a crucial step toward not only dividing labor but controlling, preying upon and colonizing bioregions. One could argue that other animals have domesticated other life, or have divisions of labor, or shaped entire ecosystems with control over elements like water; but no other has gained perhaps the supreme control, control over fire. Changes in ethos and ultimately world impact were certainly monumental.
In primatologist and biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham’s book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, cooking allowed for increased calories to shift from the gut to the brain for inventive thinking that gave humans a new advantage, a power over other species. Human relations not only changed with other species, but within our own. For example, men shifted their focus from foraging to hunting, providing periodic meat, while women continued foraging and gathering, providing the steady sustenance of cooked vegetation. While men went out on risky killing quests, women were tasked closer to the hearth. Cooking was susceptible to pilfering, so a ‘primitive protection racket’ formed pairing cooking women with stronger male counterparts to control food distribution. Hence cooking instigated the cultural practice of food as property and men’s subjugation of women through pair bonding, an ownership-of-women patriarchy continuing to this day. (And yes, some women have hunted; imitating and adopting oppressive ways happens. Generalities in cultural analysis tell a generalized story.)
With men’s shift to hunting specialization resulting in not only predation upon other animals but domination of female mates, one might question if women’s later shift from gathering specialization to joining men in adopting agriculture might equalize the power imbalance. But agriculture further polarized the sex power imbalance. Researcher on gender and technology Deborah Spar is wrapping up her latest project with the book: The Virgin and the Plow: How Technology is Changing Who We Are, and How We Live and Love. She finds that agriculture settlement needed children to both work and to inherit accumulated property. For men to know who their children were, as their rightful laborers and heirs, they began controlling women’s fertility. Agriculture honed the notions of adored female virgins and monogamous wives. As humans domesticated themselves and others, this desire to establish paternity intensified a patriarchal hierarchy with men at the top, and women, children and other animals leveled beneath as property to exploit.
The Human Primate – From Prey to Earth’s Top Predator
A likely timeline is that earliest bipedal primates foraged for millions of years, then scavenged for perhaps over a million more before the rather recent advent of organized hunting. Our herbivore biological bodies still speak to our origins, It took time to adapt to including meat in the diet, and the fact that our bodies had to adapt points to meat not being our biological origins. Accommodations in our biology followed our shift to predatory behavior.
AbdelRahim’s anthropological predation theory parallels an anarcho-ecology colonization theory. Wild communities thrive through intricate interactions, responsive dynamics, cycles of life becoming death becoming life, and a constant striving toward diverse connectedness and homeostasis. Mutual aid nurtures primal freedom within wild’s chaos. Changes are met with attempts to re-stabilize the living system. Species slowly shift their ranges, reforming networks through co-adaptations. Defense mechanisms ward off more invasiveness than a community can withstand. Species die offs occur but are limited; if their roles cannot be replaced the missing functions shape-shift the community. This is generally how hominids lived with others from their first steps out of trees for millions of years, notably as more prey than predator. But as human primates invented a series of technologies giving them not just abilities to survive, but powers to expand, control and conquer their predators and all others, they converted into a colonizing species, in time degrading all Earth’s bioregions.
When one Homo species honed the ability to control fire, changing their foodway making their brain even more inventive, did this cascade into Homo colonizing the planet? Long before animals and plants were brought under H. sapiens total control, humans played roles in wiping out their predators, spread across Earth, and reformed continents of habitats. In their book Man the Hunted: Primates, Predaotrs, and Human Evolution anthropologists Robert Sussman and Donna Hart smash the man-the-natural-hunter myth with evidence of early humans succumbing to predators such as cats, dogs, hyenas, snakes, crocodiles, and raptors. Progression from prey to colonizer of the planet implies myriads of inventions, catalysts and adaptations, some more impactful than others. For the foraging primate, fire mastery meant not only protection from predators, but turning their predators into their prey with fire-formed weapons, then cooking them to further feed their inventive brain. Fire’s warmth welcomed expansion into colder climates where they continue bringing other predators under their control. Fire mastery may have been the most significant technology transfiguring a resourceful species from foraging prey living within habitat ranges to Earth’s most effective predatory colonizer.
Spread of Colonizing Ethos
Imagine the immense series of ‘advances’ with accompanying progress trapping repercussions, cycles of stories with the same motif differing only details. As various bands of Neanderthals mastered fire with flint (Andrew Sorensen, Emilie Claud, and Marie Soressi, Neanderthal fire-making technology inferred from microwear analysis, Scientific Reports, 8, article number 10065, 2018), it may never be revealed the extent fire altered their lifeway and environments. By analyzing DNA in plaque on Neanderthal teeth, paleomicrobiologists discovered a band seemingly with fire under a thousand miles from a band possibly without fire. One from Spy cave in Belgium mostly ate meat like woolly rhinoceros and wild sheep. Others in El Sidrón cave in Spain were vegan, no trace of meat, just mushrooms, nuts, bark, and moss. The Belgian Neanderthals mainly hunted; the Spanish foraged. (Laura Weyrich, Sebastian Duchene, and Alan Cooper, Neanderthal behavior, diet, and disease inferred from ancient DNA in dental calculus, Nature 544, 357-361, 20 April 2017) Imagining the outcome of contact between fire and non-fire human bands serves as a lesson in how supremacy expands by applying Andrew Bard Schmookler’s theory presented in his book The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution. Spoiler alert: Evolutionary dynamics drive power in unavoidable ways people don’t choose.
Play along: Imagine Neanderthal groups living within reach of one another. If all choose the way of life without aggressive fire use, then the entire region may live in homeostasis. But what if all but one choose mutualism within habitat, and that one uses fire for expansion and conquest? What are the possibilities for those confronted by the aggressive fire powered neighbor?
- One group may be attacked, defeated and destroyed, leaving lands seized as spoils of war.
- Another may be defeated, but incorporated, or even subjugated to serve the conquerors.
- Another flees into less livable place, ceding former habitat to the growing power-seeking fire-controlling Neanderthals.
- Others decide to defend their autonomy. But the irony is that to win, they too must become aggressive. Since the attackers honed ways to grow their power with innovations in organizing strategies using fire technology with ferocity, the defensive Neanderthals must transform into something more like their adversary.
The four possible outcomes are destruction, absorption and transformation, withdrawal, or imitation. In every possible outcome the lifeways of predation and colonization spread. And, neither the oppressor nor the oppressed are free, but owned by the technology, the ethos. While this imaginary scenario lacks the ring of truth because the Neanderthal line was cut short before population and territorial pressures intensified, H. sapiens continued on with scenarios like these and impacts still felt today. This parable explains for example why both civilized men and women comply with cultural norms on pair bonding and monogamy. They are fixed in perpetual compliance with colonizer/domesticator normatives established as far back as the geneses of fire mastery and agriculture.
AnPrim Supremacy In Denial
Was it not humans’ shifts toward predation and colonization that changed the nature of plants and animals through preferential selection, not just in how others live in relation to the new powerful primate, but who lives and who dies? Would H. sapiens have been able to domesticate eventually the entire planet without predation, without colonization, and without the fire that sparked them?
Denial of catalysts toward agriculture such as controlled fire and hunting is denial of human supremacy through patriarchy and speciesism. This is why anprims struggle with defining human habitat ranges – they don’t want limitations experienced by wild animals as homes, they are trapped with desiring a destructive sham freedom to colonize, they are accustomed to the entitlement to roam so extensively and fearlessly that they no longer sense total belonging within a bioregion’s community of life. This is why anprims laud hunting, justifying it in the wings of more recent indigenous people’s cultures and mythology of earlier humans’ primal ventures in predation – they don’t want to live as foraging primates, they have been conditioned to hunger the hunt of animals, unwittingly craving civilization’s catalyst. This is why anprims mock veganism, dismissing it with invalid claims of being nothing more than leftist drivel – they don’t want to acknowledge their own innate compassion for animals suppressed by predatory indoctrination. As in the parable of the tribes’ futile ending, is it not a choice to rewild? Do attempts to rewild clash within the human as the embodiment of civilization?
Denial is strewn in civilization’s institutions too, like science. Humans tend to interpret what they wish to be true. They want early humans to ‘naturally’ be the way they want to be today. For example, modern culture’s pro meat macho bias embraced Raymond Dart’s 1950’s ‘killer ape’ theory that early humans were vicious predators, man-the-mighty-hunter. It was embraced so completely that many still hold the belief despite evidence now pointing to the opposite conclusion, that early humans were running for their lives from bigger meaner creatures now extinct. And when people today do face the reality of earliest humans as prey not predator, they often shift their era fixation on ‘caveman’ days of hunting as the ideal period; anything earlier (foraging or scavenging as prey) is too uncomfortably early.
Cherry picking bias manifests when there is evidence of early human cannibalism or infanticide or rape or pedophilia, anprims have a reflex to excuse it away as an exception due to some extreme condition, not norm. This is why it’s so challenging for scientists to believe there have been early humans who did not eat meat, even though our biology is herbivore. When evidence of any meat eating is found, the dietway is overgeneralized as routine, and by every member of the group, and all groups in all places and times. When evidence of folio-frugivore foraging is found, science’s reaction is to say ‘it’s safe to assume’ this was not the case with everyone, or they must have been eating insects or lizards or something but there was just no evidence left of it.
Return to Wild
“Wilderness is … a cumulative topos of diversity, movement, and chaos, while wildness is a characteristic that refers to socio-environmental relationships”
Layla AbdelRahim (Children’s Literature, Domestication, and Social Foundation: Narratives of Civilization and Wilderness. 2015 New York: Routledge. p. 3)
Some animals hunt, most forage, each playing their roles, In her books and presentations AbdelRahim makes a strong case that the human primate’s nature and function within living communities is as forager. I’ve always intrinsically known I’m a forager. Look at my finger nails. These are not the sharp claws that slash open skin. These are the fingers made for picking berries and mushrooms. These are the hands for pulling up roots. Look at my teeth. These are not the teeth that rip chunks of raw muscle from bone. Humans have grown so very far away from themselves that they can no longer even see their obvious nature right in their own bodies. This has nothing to do with morals, but who the human biology, their being is. If humans were meant to hunt, they wouldn’t need all the weaponry, or the rituals and indoctrination convincing their body and mind to behave outside their nature.
Early humans began as wild forest edge specialists who, through colonization with technologies as fire mastery, evolved into adaptive generalists, but not as one people in one instant. Civilization is not one event in time, but a tangle of invasive actions that converted lifeways and mindsets into supremacy, bewilderingly manifesting blatantly in those who strive for a way pre-civ, or anti-civ, or post-civ. Tediously de-colonizing by pulling back the veils with an unblocked mind gets one nearer to sensing humans’ wild freedom. An anti-colonizer finds the way of primal anarchy to be overt and/or covert smashing civilization with a cunning refusal to relent, while rewilding earth toward its pre-civ abundant flourishing.
In today’s ruined wilds, the way of primal anarchy is uncultivating civilization. Technologies that perpetuate civilization can be operated to discard civilization and the ethos that led to it: predatory control and colonization. This colonizing Homo-driven sixth mass extinction event is no time to play the fabled caveman exploiting pristine remnants. The first step in rewilding is sensing Earth’s call for healing and responding to it. Sciences such as restoration ecology can be utilized until humans awaken their lifeway that innately co-tends wild co-homes. In giving back to the wild, humans return themselves to the wild, reviving the ethos of mutualism in habitat.
In response to AnPrim On Fire John Zerzan stated refutations in his April 2, 2019 Anarchy Radio show. Here are my responses in bold to his points in italics (paraphrased from my notes).
-Controlled fire was around 2 million years ago, very least several hundred thousand years ago.
*Colonization tends to start innocently, linger for a long while, then erupt to top dominator position. For example, kudzu came to the states from Japan in 1876 for an exposition in Philadelphia, then in 1883 for an exposition in New Orleans. Home owners wanted it to provide shade, farmers wanted it to feed cows, and the government wanted it to control erosion. By 1946, kudzu had been planted by humans on 3,000,000 acres. It started spreading into cities and overtaking wild habitats. By 1997 the government listed kudzu as a noxious weed. Despite large scale efforts to eradicate it, today it has encroached into 7,400,000 acres. Since humans began colonizing, this story of unintended consequences is told again and again, with different characters and settings.
Comparing kudzu to controlling fire, kudzu in its co-adapted indigenous habitat in Japan is akin to earliest humans’ first forays with fire, foraging in wakes of wildfires and moving food out of and into wildfire hotspots (earliest cooking). This was a wildfire-nourishing-human relationship manifesting as erratic opportunity.
The first step to humans harnessing fire, akin to kudzu being brought from its home into far away expositions, is early humans maintaining fire over a period of time, transporting it, forming base camps around it.
The final step to humans harnessing fire, akin to kudzu’s entwining with civilized human culture, is human’s ability to make fire by hand. With this invention human’s relationship with fire shifted from opportunistic to habitual and dependent, perhaps the first ‘progress trap’. Archaeological evidence puts this at 700,000 to 120,000 years ago, though a long time passed before widespread use. If I had to give a guess on when civilization with all its ‘most advanced’ conceptions first began, I’d guess on an epicenter shortly after H. sapiens came onto the scene.
Anarcho-primitivism is not selecting a time to replicate, but understanding and finding wild paths forward.
-Fire was not just for cooking, but warmth and light to ward off predators.
*Temperature is one setter of habitat range boundaries. Like all bodies the human body living primitively thrives within a certain temperature spectrum. Areas falling outside that spectrum have a natural force to keep the species population in check. Ignoring and encroaching past temperature spectrum limits through innovations is an act and ethos toward colonization.
-In terms of domestication, when you use fire you don’t change the nature of fire. He goes with domestication, with a definition of: changing the nature of something, namely animals or plants, about 10,000 years ago.
*What does it mean to ‘change the nature’? Controlled fire sparked humans’ protracted invasion of all bioregions leaving extinctions in their paths long before agriculture. This forever impacted, altered and degraded interconnections between life and with habitat. This altered plant and animal cultures and biologies everywhere. All plants and animals ‘change the nature’ of one another as they form and reform, shift and reshift. That is the way of wild, so I don’t understand the significance of ‘change the nature’; but I do see intensifying control under colonization, with agriculture being a major intensification.
Regarding the mainstream’s link between civilization and domestication (agriculture), exploring definitions of ‘domestication, ‘civilization’ and ‘colonization’ offers some clarity.
Domestication- the process of hereditary reorganization of wild animals and plants into domestic and cultivated forms according to the interests of people. In its strictest sense, it refers to the initial stage of human mastery of wild animals and plants.
Civilization- the stage of human social and cultural development and organization that is considered most advanced.
Colonization- the action of appropriating a place or domain for one’s own use.
Since humans came down from the trees, they have had stage after stage of inventions that at the time would be considered increasingly organized ‘advancements’. Some were slow and some fast, the latest was the organized ‘advancement’ of agriculture.
-If you want to argue that fire set in motion an ethos of control, domesticating vector, you have to show some evidence for that. Because nothing changed until actual domestication of plants and animals when everything changed, hierarchy & patriarchy. If you don’t see a change in band society, egalitarian anti-hierarchal, that’s common knowledge,
*After incursions dissolved into settlement, humans reigniting their innate yearning for embeddedness with nature. Even today humans long for wilderness connection at their core. Assuming fire played a role in humans’ expansion out of Africa, here’s evidence that early humans had behavior of control, predation and colonization, whether driven by or resulting in an ethos of control, predation and colonization:
Felisa A. Smith, Rosemary E. Elliott Smith, S. Kathleen Lyons, Jonathan L. Payne. Body size downgrading of mammals over the late Quaternary. Science, 2018; DOI: 10.1126/science.aao5987
“Elephant-dwarfing wooly mammoths, elephant-sized ground sloths and various saber-toothed cats highlighted the array of massive mammals roaming Earth between 2.6 million and 12,000 years ago. Prior research suggested that such large mammals began disappearing faster than their smaller counterparts — a phenomenon known as size-biased extinction…
With the help of emerging data from older fossil and rock records, the new study estimated that this size-biased extinction started at least 125,000 years ago in Africa…
…as humans migrated out of Africa, other size-biased extinctions began occurring in regions and on timelines that coincide with known human migration patterns, the researchers found. Over time, the average body size of mammals on those other continents approached and then fell well below Africa’s. Mammals that survived during the span were generally far smaller than those that went extinct.
The magnitude and scale of the recent size-biased extinction surpassed any other recorded during the last 66 million years, according to the study, which was led by the University of New Mexico’s Felisa Smith.
“It wasn’t until human impacts started becoming a factor that large body sizes made mammals more vulnerable to extinction,” said the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Kate Lyons, who authored the study with Smith and colleagues from Stanford University and the University of California, San Diego. “The anthropological record indicates that Homo sapiens are identified as a species around 200,000 years ago, so this occurred not very long after the birth of us as a species…
…the research team found little support for the idea that climate change drove size-biased extinctions during the last 66 million years. Large and small mammals seemed equally vulnerable to temperature shifts throughout that span, the authors reported”
Lyons went on to say that restructuring from large to small mammals has “profound implications” for the world’s ecosystems. Large mammals tend to be herbivores, devouring large quantities of vegetation and effectively transporting the associated nutrients around an ecosystem. When they disappear, the small mammals are poor substitutes for important ecological functions.
Further, controlled fire could be the birth of compulsory labor and taxation. When humans began coming together to share the fire, their relationships formed new intimacies and power dynamics. As today, there would have been a social pressure to gather a constant supply of firewood as the price to pay for benefiting from it.
With patriarchy comes speciesism, a new power over animals in humans’ shift from prey to predatory. Fire was used to clear out caves inhabited by other animals for shelter from the elements. Fire was used to engineer weapons to ambush larger herbivores. Fire was used to corral and entrap large mammals to kill and cook them.
Fire was the most important technology in expanding into new terrains and developing early human societies. Whoever wielded fire had more power. Once the terrains were dominated, early humans began managing the biomes, which benefited certain other life as well, often creating a thriving diversity. Evidence of more complex management such as still practiced by some native people is found 100,000 – 200,000 years ago.
Before fire, the human diet was mostly plant based. After fire which brought on organized hunting and meat, the human body slowly began adapting with changes in teeth, gut, etc. But at the human biological core, humans remain herbivores, and thrive best with that dietway.
-If you are a raw food vegan you might want to arrange the story of human species to fit that, the impulse of that then you don’t like fire or cooking or hunting.
*It’s challenging for people today to conceive of a way without fire, cooking or hunting, just as people deny that our species is a colonizing one. Without fire, we would not have been able to colonize. Without a colonizing ethos, we would not have used fire to expand outside the primal human habitat. Just imagine, without fire humans may still be mostly in Africa, and megafauna may still be in every land. Fire mastery hoisted human ferocity, and with that wrought a fiery new lifeway onto all.