I desired to read a good ethnography of Middle Eastern life in the 1800s, but not happening upon one, I settled for Our Moslem Sisters: A Cry of Need from Lands of Darkness Interpreted by Those Who Heard It, edited by Annie Van Sommer and Samuel M. Zwemer. (Published in 1907.)
Sommer and Zwemer were Christian (Calvinist) missionaries–I don’t know much about Sommer, but Zwemer‘s story is interesting:
In 1929 he was appointed professor of missions and professor of the history of religion at the Princeton Theological Seminary, where he taught until 1937. He had married Amy Elizabeth Wilkes on May 18, 1896. … He founded and edited the publication The Moslem World for 35 years.
The book itself is a collection of essays written by missionaries working in different countries, from Morocco to Bulgaria, Turkestan to Indonesia, on the subject of women in Islam. Much of it is an explicit appeal for more funding, since missionaries must eat and often don’t have much income. As such, the authors have a certain interest in emphasizing that “conditions here are very bad and only through more funding for our missionary work can matters be improved.”
While we must therefore be cautious of the authors’ motives, there remains a remarkable consistency between different accounts (Islamic divorce law is cited as problematic in most nations) and with more recent ethnographies I have read.
For example, some years ago I read Lila Abu-Lughod‘s Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society, published in 1986. This is one of the saddest books I have read that is not about genocide. In it, the women, who are not supposed to publicly express notions like “I love my husband but he married a second wife and now I am heartbroken,” turn to poetry and song to give voice to their sadness.
We have, as well, the rather obvious conditions of life in Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as areas controlled by groups like ISIS and the Taliban.
On the flipside, of course, we have women like Benazir Bhuto, Prime Minister of Pakistan from 1988 to 1990 and from 1993 to 1996. The US, meanwhile, has not had a female head of state. I have also known Muslims personally who were very warm and loving toward their families.
But without further ado, let’s jump into the text (as usual, quotes will be in “” for readability):
“The seclusion of the Harem is more or less rigid according to the caprice of some exacting husband or mother-in-law. As far as the younger married women’s experience goes it is mother-in-law rule literally, for seldom is a man permitted to take his wife to a home of his own. The sons and even the grandsons must bring their brides home to the father’s house and all be subject to the mother. A household of fifty is no uncommon thing. … Often she rules with a hand of iron, probably to make up for her own hard life in her younger days, intermixed with an honest desire to preserve and promote the honor and dignity of her house. For the honor, dignity, and aristocracy of a family are often estimated according to the rigor of the seclusion of its women-folk. …
“Among the strictest people a young woman is not permitted to be seen by even her father-in-law. Nor is it allowable for her to be seen by any male servants except eunuchs. Under such conditions it might be wondered how a woman could keep her domestic machinery in running order, but as one woman said, who had never seen the face of her cook although he had been employed in her house for thirteen years, when asked the question, “How do you tell him what you want for dinner?” “Oh, he knows my wants, but when I wish to give a particular order, I tell the maid servant, she tells the little boy servant, and he conveys the message to the cook!”
“It seems like the irony of fate that these women who are kept in such strict seclusion should be so extravagantly fond of society. They welcome in the most hospitable manner any visitors of their own sex. It is pitiful to see how they love to have glimpses of the outside world. A missionary lady tells of a woman whom she often visited, who had never been outside of her house since her marriage, forty years before, and who begged her to tell her something about the flowers, saying, “Ah, you are happy women, free to go here and there and enjoy life!” …
“It seems part of the nature of the Egyptian to distrust his womenfolk and to believe them capable of any misdemeanor. Therefore they must be carefully watched and kept in check. This distrust reacts upon the nature and character of the women, often making them truly unworthy of trust, but many of them are very sensitive on the subject and feel keenly this unfair position into which they are thrown.
“What has been said about the strict seclusion of Egyptian women refers chiefly to the middle and upper classes, for the poorest women, those of the peasant class, have the greatest freedom. They go about unveiled and manifest a character of marked independence and self-reliance, but they are ignorant beyond description, such a thing as books and schoolroom being unknown quantities to them, and their lot is a life of drudgery.
“Many of the village women labor in the fields from early morning to late at night, especially during the cotton season, seven or eight months of the year.
“During the cotton-ginning season many women and girls work from 4 o’clock A.M. to 9 o’clock P.M. in the cotton-ginning mills. Those in the vicinities of larger towns are vendors of fruit, vegetables, milk, cheese, and butter. On market days great troops of village women can be seen on the country roads, their wares in big baskets on their heads, their babies perched astride their shoulders, wending their way to town. Those who live in the larger towns are often employed as hodcarriers for masons. …
“Unhappy marriages are a natural result of the seclusion of women in Egypt. It would be highly improper for a man to see his bride until after he had married her. He has not even had the privilege of choosing her. His mother did that for him, and it goes without saying that the young man is not always suited. …
“Frequent divorce is a natural result of these unhappy marriages. Divorce in any land is a social evil but in Egypt it is especially so, because the divorce laws are such that in a peculiar way woman is degraded by them.
“It is difficult to obtain exact figures regarding the percentage of divorce, as all cases are not recorded. There are some who say 50 per cent. of marriages end in divorce, others say 80 per cent… An experienced missionary when asked her opinion, said, “Divorce is so common that to find a woman who lives all her life with one husband is the exception.”
“In fact it is such an exception that it is a subject for remark, and a visitor in a house where such happy conditions exist never fails to be told about it.
“Many women have been divorced several times, and a woman of twenty years of age may be living with her third husband.
“A native Bible woman who had worked among Mohammedans for fourteen years when asked, “How many men or women of twenty-five years of age she thought likely to be living with their original partners?” said, “Do you mean that they should have kept to each other and that neither has been divorced or married anybody else?”—”Yes.” She laughed and said, “Perhaps one in two thousand.” …
“The question has been asked what is the condition of the children of divorced parents. According to the law the mother is given an allowance by her former husband on which to bring up their children to a certain age; then they are his. If they are girls they often are allowed to become servants to the mother’s successor, although there are fathers who do have enough natural affection to give the daughters of a former wife the proper place in the house. The allowance given a divorced woman when she has children is most often a mere pittance and too often she never gets one at all. She marries again and the children live with grandparents or other near relations or even alternate between the houses of the remarried father and mother, thus becoming mere little street waifs who have no definite abiding place. They certainly do suffer from neglect, but seldom are they victims of deliberate cruelty, although such cases are not unheard of. …
“Yet even among Mohammedans polygamy is a dying institution. … Among the middle classes the difficulty of supporting more than one wife at a time is decreasing polygamy. But by no means is polygamy an unheard-of thing, even if it is going out of fashion. Fashion is always slow in reaching the country places, and it seems to be in the country villages that polygamy seems to be more generally practised. Two brothers, representative country-men, wealthy and conservative, were known to have very extensive harems, each one having twenty-four wives and concubines. …
“Child-marriages have always been considered one of the curses of the East. In Egypt thirteen is about the average age at which the girls are married, but one is constantly meeting with cases of marriage at a much earlier age. A woman of twenty-five, prematurely old, seemed to take great delight in telling of her marriage when she was only seven years old, about as far back as she could remember. Another often tells the story how she escaped being married when she was only eight years old. The guests were all assembled, the elaborate supper had been enjoyed by all, the dancing women had been more than usually entertaining; the time for the bridal procession came around, but where was the bride? Her father searched all through the house for her. At last he found her lying asleep in the ashes in the kitchen. His father heart was touched and he said to those who followed him, “See that baby there asleep! Is it right to marry her?” At the risk of bringing great disgrace upon himself, he then and there stopped the marriage and the next day started her off to school. …
“The evangelical community has the reputation of being the best educated class of people in Egypt. The last census of all Egypt showed that only forty-eight in one thousand could read. A special census of the native evangelical community showed that three hundred and sixty-five in one thousand could read. The census also brought out the fact that in the evangelical community female education has taken a great step in advance, showing that while in all Egypt only six women in one thousand could read, in the evangelical community two hundred in one thousand could read.”
EvX: Throughout the book, missionaries in different countries (with a few exceptions, like China,) aver that divorce is a source of greater suffering than polygamy, since only a few people could really afford to have many wives at the same time. In an area, for example, there might be very little prostitution, but a rich man could marry a poor girl, keep her for a week, then divorce her, marry another poor girl, keep her for a week, divorce her, etc. For the men, divorce appears to have no real effect on social or economic status, but for the girls it could be very problematic.
Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we’re finishing up with Arthur Griffith’s oddly named The History and Romance of Crime: Oriental Prisons.Griffiths was a British prison administrator and inspector of the late 1800s. I am not sure when the book was published, but I believe it was sometime in the early 1900s, for Griffiths mentions events that occurred up to 1899 and died in 1908.
“The land of the Pharaohs has ever been governed by the practices and influenced by the traditions of the East. From the time of the Arab conquest, Mohammedan law has generally prevailed, and the old penal code was derived directly from the Koran. Its provisions were most severe, but followed the dictates of common sense and were never outrageously cruel. The law of talion was generally enforced, a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Murder entailed the punishment of death, but a fine might be paid to the family of the deceased if they would accept it; this was only permitted when the homicide was attended by palliating circumstances. The price of blood varied. It might be the value of a hundred camels; or if the culprit was the possessor of gold, a sum equal to £500 was demanded, but if he possessed silver only, the price asked was a sum equal to £300. …
“Compensation in the form of a fine is not now permitted. … The price of blood was incumbent upon the whole tribe or family to which the murderer belonged. A woman convicted of a capital crime was generally drowned in the Nile.
“Blood-revenge was a common practice among the Egyptian people. The victim’s relations claimed the right to kill the perpetrator, and relationship was widely extended, for the blood guiltiness included the homicide, his father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather, and all these were liable to retaliation from any of the relatives of the deceased, who in times past, killed with their own hands rather than appeal to the government, and often did so with disgusting cruelty, even mangling and insulting the corpse. Animosity frequently survived even after retaliation had been accomplished, and blood-revenge sometimes subsisted between neighbouring villages for several years and through many generations.
“Revengeful mutilation was allowed by the law in varying degrees. Cutting off the nose was equivalent to the whole price of blood, or of any two members,—two arms, two hands, or two legs; the removal of one was valued at half the price of blood. The fine of a man for maiming or wounding a woman was just half of that inflicted for injuring a man, if free; if a slave the fine was fixed according to the commercial value of the slave. The whole price of blood was demanded if the victim had been deprived of any of his five senses or when he had been grievously wounded or disfigured for life….
“The modern traveller in Egypt will bear witness to the admirable police system introduced under British rule, and to the security afforded to life and property in town and country by a well organised, well conducted force. In former days, under the Pashas, the whole administration of justice was corrupt from the judge in his court to the police armed with arbitrary powers of oppression….
“Until 1844 the Egyptian police was ineffective, the law was often a dead letter, and the prisons were a disgrace to humanity and civilisation. Before that date the country was covered with zaptiehs, or small district prisons, in which illegal punishment and every form of cruelty were constantly practised. It was quite easy for anyone in authority to consign a fellah to custody. One of the first of the many salutary reforms introduced by the new prison department established under British predominance was an exact registration of every individual received at the prison gate, and the enforcement of the strict rule that no one should be admitted without an order of committal duly signed by some recognised judicial authority.”
“There are few notable buildings in Turkey constructed primarily as prisons. In fact there are few buildings of any sort constructed for that purpose. But every palace had, and one may almost say, still has its prison chambers; and every fortress has its dungeons, the tragedies of which are chiefly a matter of conjecture. Few were present at the tortures, and in a country where babbling is not always safe, witnesses were likely to be discreet.
“In and around Constantinople, if walls had only tongues, strange and gruesome stories might be told. On the Asiatic side of the Bosporus still stand the ruins of a castle built by Bayezid I, known as “the Thunderbolt” when the Ottoman princes were the dread of Europe. Sigismund, King of Hungary, had been defeated, and Constantinople was the next object of attack, though not to fall for a half century. This castle was named “the Beautiful,” but so many prisoners died there of torture and ill-treatment that the name “Black Tower” took its place in common speech.”
EvX: I believe this is Bayezid’s fortress, the Anadolu hisarı, which awkwardly has an i with no dot over it:
Bayezid himself was an interesting character. According to Wikipedia:
Bayezid I … He built one of the largest armies in the known world at the time and unsuccessfully besieged Constantinople. He adopted the title of Sultan-i Rûm, Rûm being an old Islamic name for the Roman Empire. He decisively defeated the Crusaders at Nicopolis (in modern Bulgaria) in 1396, and was himself defeated and captured by Timur at the Battle of Ankara in 1402 and died in captivity in March 1403.
Back to Griffiths:
“Directly opposite, on the European side of the Bosporus, is Rumili Hissar, or the Castle of Europe, which Muhammad II, “the Conqueror,” built in 1452 when he finally reached out to transform the headquarters of Eastern Christendom into the centre of Islam. The castle was built upon the site of the state prison of the Byzantine emperors, which was destroyed to make room for it. The three towers of the castle, and the walls thirty feet thick, still stand.
“In the Tower of Oblivion which now has as an incongruous neighbour, the Protestant institution, Robert College, is a fiendish reminder of days hardly yet gone. A smooth walled stone chute reaches from the interior of the tower down into the Bosporus. Into the mouth of this the hapless victim, bound and gagged perhaps, with weights attached to his feet, was placed. Down he shot and bubbles marked for a few seconds the grave beneath the waters.
“The Conqueror built also the Yedi Kuleh, or the “Seven Towers,” at the edge of the old city. This imperial castle, like the Bastile or the Tower of London, was also a state prison, though its glory and its shame have both departed. The Janissaries who guarded this castle used to bring thither the sultans whom they had dethroned either to allow them to linger impotently or to cause them to lose their heads. A cavern where torture was inflicted and the rusty machines which tore muscles and cracked joints, may still be seen. The dungeons in which the prisoners lay are also shown. A small open court was the place of execution and to this day it is called the “place of heads” while a deep chasm into which the heads were thrown is the “well of blood.”
“Several sultans, (the exact number is uncertain) and innumerable officers of high degree have suffered the extreme penalty here. It was here too that foreign ambassadors were always imprisoned in former days, when Turkey declared war against the states they represented. The last confined here was the French representative in 1798.
“Another interesting survival of early days is the Seraglio, the old palace of the sultans, and its subsidiary buildings, scattered over a considerable area. In the court of the treasury is the Kafess, or cage, in which the imperial children were confined from the time of Muhammad III, lest they should aspire to the throne. Sometimes however the brothers and sons of the reigning sultan were confined, each in a separate pavilion on the grounds. A retinue of women, pages and eunuchs was assigned to each but the soldiers who guarded them were warned to be strict. The present sultan was confined by his brother Abdul Hamid within the grounds of the Yildiz Kiosk, where he had many liberties but was a prisoner nevertheless. Absolutism breeds distrust of all, no matter how closely connected by ties of blood.”
EvX: The Kafes, strange as it sounds, was real–a prison for princes. According to Wikipedia:
Thereafter, the “rule of elderness” was adopted as the rule of succession in the House of Osmanli so that all males within an older generation were exhausted before the succession of the eldest male in the next generation. …
It became common to confine brothers, cousins and nephews to the Cage, generally not later than when they left the harem (women’s quarters) at puberty. This also marked the end of their education and many sultans came to the throne ill-prepared to be rulers, without any experience of government or affairs outside the Cage. There they had only the company of servants and the women of their harems, occasionally with deposed sultans. …
At different times, it was the policy to ensure that inmates of the Cage only took barren concubines. Consequently, some sultans did not produce sons until they acceded to the throne. These sons, by virtue of their youth at the time of their fathers’ deaths, ensured that the rule of elderness became entrenched …
Confinement in the Cage had a great impact on the personalities of the captives in the Kafes and many of them developed psychological disorders. At least one deposed sultan and one heir committed suicide in the Cage. …
The last Ottoman sultan, Mehmet VI Vahidettin (1918–22) was aged 56 when he came to the throne and had been either in the harem or the Cage his whole life. He was confined to the Cage by his uncle (Abdülaziz) and had stayed there during the reigns of his three older brothers.
This system sounds like it couldn’t possibly have produced good rulers. So after the Turkish sultans condemned their posterity to prison, who actually ran things?
That’s all for today. Everyone take care, follow the law, and stay out of prison!
Sayyid Qutb lived from 1906 – 1966. He was an Egyptian writer, thinker, and leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. He was executed in 1966 for plotting to assassinate the Egyptian president, Nasser.
The Muslim Brotherhood was founded back in 1928 by Islamic scholarHassan al-Banna. Its goal is to instill the Quran and the Sunnah as the “sole reference point for … ordering the life of the Muslim family, individual, community … and state”; mottos include “Believers are but Brothers”, “Islam is the Solution”, and “Allah is our objective; the Qur’an is the Constitution; the Prophet is our leader; jihad is our way; death for the sake of Allah is our wish”.
The MB’s philosophy is pan-Islamist and it wields power in several countries:
323/354 seats in the Sudanese National Assembly,
74/132 seats in the Palestian Legislature,
69/217 seats in the Tunisian assembly,
39/249 seats in the Afghan House,
46/301 seats in Yemen,
16/146 seats in Mauritania,
40/560 seats in Indonesia
2/40 seats in Bahrain
and 4/325 and 1/128 in Iraq and Lebanon, respectively
In 2012, the MB sponsored the elected political party in Egypt (following the January Revolution in 2011,) but has had some trouble in Egypt since then.
The MB also does charity work, runs hospitals, etc., and is clearly using democratic means to to assemble power.
According to Wikipedia:
As Islamic Modernist beliefs were co-opted by secularist rulers and official `ulama, the Brotherhood has become traditionalist and conservative, “being the only available outlet for those whose religious and cultural sensibilities had been outraged by the impact of Westernisation”. Al-Banna believed the Quran and Sunnah constitute a perfect way of life and social and political organization that God has set out for man. Islamic governments must be based on this system and eventually unified in a Caliphate. The Muslim Brotherhood’s goal, as stated by its founder al-Banna was to drive out British colonial and other Western influences, reclaim Islam’s manifest destiny—an empire, stretching from Spain to Indonesia. The Brotherhood preaches that Islam will bring social justice, the eradication of poverty, corruption and sinful behavior, and political freedom (to the extent allowed by the laws of Islam).
Back to Qutb:
In the early 1940s, he encountered the work of Nobel Prize-winner FrencheugenicistAlexis Carrel, who would have a seminal and lasting influence on his criticism of Western civilization, as “instead of liberating man, as the post-Enlightenment narrative claimed, he believed that Western modernity enmeshed people in spiritually numbing networks of control and discipline, and that rather than build caring communities, it cultivated attitudes of selfish individualism. Qutb regarded Carrel as a rare sort of Western thinker, one who understood that his civilization “depreciated humanity” by honouring the “machine” over the “spirit and soul” (al-nafs wa al-ruh). He saw Carrel’s critique, coming as it did from within the enemy camp, as providing his discourse with an added measure of legitimacy.”
“As a brown person in Greeley, Colorado in the late 1940’s studying English he came across much prejudice. He was appalled by what he perceived as loose sexual openness of American men and women (a far cry from his home of Musha, Asyut). This American experience was for him a fine-tuning of his Islamic identity.”…
Qutb concluded that major aspects of American life were primitive and “shocking”, a people who were “numb to faith in religion, faith in art, and faith in spiritual values altogether”. His experience in the U.S. is believed to have formed in part the impetus for his rejection of Western values and his move towards Islamism upon returning to Egypt.
The man has a point. American art has a lot of Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol schtick.
In 1952, the Egyptian monarchy–which was pro-western–was overthrown by nationalists (?) like Nasser. At first Nasser and Qutb worked together, but there was something of a power struggle and Qutb didn’t approve of Nasser organizing the new Egypt along essentially secular lines instead of Islamic ideology, at which point Qutb tried to have Nasser assassinated and Nasser had Qutb arrested, tortured, and eventually hung.
Aside from the fact that Qutb is Egyptian and Muslim, he and the alt-right have a fair amount in common. (Read his Wikipedia Page if you don’t see what I mean.) The basic critique that the West is immoral, degenerate, has bad art, bad manners, and that capitalism has created a “spiritually numbing” network of control (your boss, office dress codes, the HOA, paperwork), and a return to spirituality (not rejecting science, but enhancing it,) can fix these things.
My impression–Muslim monarchs tend to be secular modernists. They see the tech other countries have (especially bombs) and want it. They see the GDPs other countries have, and want that, too. They’re not that interested in religion (which would limit their behavior) and not that interested in nationalism (as they tend to rule over a variety of different “nations.”) Many monarchs are (or were) quite friendly to the West. The King of Jordan and Shah of Iran come immediately to mind.
(I once met the Director of the CIA. He had a photograph of the King of Jordan in his office. Motioning to the photo, he told me the King was one of America’s friends.)
But modernization isn’t easy. People who have hundreds or thousands of years’ experience living a particular lifestyle are suddenly told to go live a different lifestyle, and aren’t sure how to react. The traditional lifestyle gave people meaning, but the modern lifestyle gives people TV and low infant mortality.
That’s the situation we’re all facing, really.
So what’s a society to do? Sometimes they keep their kings. Sometimes they overthrow them. Then what? You can go nationalist–like Nasser. Communist–like South Yemen. (Though I’m not sure Yemen had a king.) Or Islamic, like Iran. (As far as I can tell, the Iranian revolution had a significant communist element, but the Islamic won out.) The Iranian revolution is in no danger of spreading, though, because the Iranians practice a variety of Islam that’s a rare minority everywhere else in the world.
I hear the Saudis and certain other monarchs have stayed in power so far by using their oil money to keep everyone comfortable (staving off the stresses of modernization) and enforcing Islamic law (keeping the social system familiar.) We’ll see how long this lasts.
So one of the oddities of the Middle East is that while other parts of the world have become more liberal, it appears to have become less. You can find many Before-and-After pictures of places like Iran, where women used to mingle with men, unveiled, in Western-style dress. (In fact, I think the veil was illegal in Iran in the 50s.) War-torn Afghanistan is an even sadder case.
“After the end of the Second World War, Zahir Shah recognised the need for the modernisation of Afghanistan and recruited a number of foreign advisers to assist with the process. During this period Afghanistan’s first modern university was founded.… despite the factionalism and political infighting a new constitution was introduced during 1964 which made Afghanistan a modern democratic state by introducing free elections, a parliament, civil rights, women’s rights and universal suffrage.“
While he was in Italy (undergoing eye surgery and treatment for lumbago,) his cousin executed a coup and instituted a republican government. As we all know, Afghanistan has gone nowhere but up since then.
Zahir Shah returned to Afghanistan in 2002, after the US drove out the Taliban, where he received the title “Father of the Nation” but did not resume duties as monarch. He died in 2007.
His eldest daughter (Princess of Afghanistan?) is Bilqis Begum–Bilqis is the Queen of Sheba’s Islamic name–but she doesn’t have a Wikipedia page. The heir apparent is Ahmad Shah Khan, if you’re looking for someone to crown.
Back to the Muslim Brotherhood.
One of the big differences between elites and commoners is that commoners tend to be far more conservatives than elites. Elites think a world in which they can jet off to Italy for medical treatment sounds awesome, while commoners think this is going to put the local village medic out of a job. Or as the world learned last November, America’s upper and lower classes have very different ideas about borders, globalization, and who should be president.
Similarly, the Muslim Brotherhood seems perfectly happy to use democratic means to come to power where it can.
(The MB apparently does a lot of charity work, which is part of why it is popular.)
The relationship between the MB an Saudi Arabia is interesting. After Egypt cracked down on the MB, thousands of members went to Saudi Arabia. SA needed teachers, and many of the MB were teachers, so it seemed mutually beneficial. The MB thus took over the Saudi educational system, and probably large chunks of their bureaucracy.
Relations soured between SA and the MB due to SA’s decision to let the US base troops there for its war against Iraq, and due to the MB’s involvement in the Arab Spring and active role in Egypt’s democracy–Saudi monarchs aren’t too keen on democracy. In 2014, SA declared the MB a “terrorist organization.”
Lots of people say the MB is a terrorist org, but I’m not sure how that distinguishes them from a whole bunch of other groups in the Middle East. I can’t tell what links the MB has (if any) to ISIS. (While both groups have similar-sounding goals, it’s entirely possible for two different groups to both want to establish an Islamic Caliphate.)
The MB reminds me of the Protestant Reformation, with its emphasis on returning to the Bible as the sole sources of religious wisdom, the establishment of Puritan theocracies, and a couple hundred years of Catholic/Protestant warfare. I blame the Protestant Revolution on the spread of the printing press in Europe, without which the whole idea of reading the Bible for yourself would have been nonsense. I wager something similar happened recently in the Middle East, with cheap copies of the Quran and other religious (and political) texts becoming widely available.
In Hunters, Pastoralists, and Ranchers: Reindeer Economies and their Transformations [PDF,] Ingold describes the social distribution of food among hunter-gatherers. In normal times, when food is neither super-abundant nor scarce, each family basically consumes what it brings in, without feeling any particular compulsion to share with their neighbors. In times of super-abundance, food is distributed throughout the tribe, often quite freely:
Since harvested animals, unlike a plant crop, will not reproduce, the multiplicative accumulation of material wealth is not possible within the framework of hunting relations of production. Indeed, what is most characteristic of hunting societies everywhere is the emphasis not on accumulation but on its obverse: the sharing of the kill, to varying degrees, amongst all those associated with the hunter. …
The fortunate hunter, when he returns to camp with his kill, is expected to play host to the rest of the community, in bouts of extravagant consumption.
The other two ethnographies I have read of hunter-gatherers (The Harmless People, about the Bushmen of the Kalahari, and Kabloona, about the Eskimo aka Inuit) both support this: large kills are communal feasts. Hunter gatherers often have quite strict rules about how exactly a kill is to be divided, but the most important thing is that everyone gets some.
And this is eminently sensible–you try eating an entire giraffe by yourself, in the desert, before it rots.
Even in the arctic, where men can (in part of the year) freeze food for the future, your neighbor’s belly is as good as a freezer, because the neighbor you feed today will feed you tomorrow. Hunting is an activity that can be wildly successful one day and fail completely the next, so if hunters did not share with each other, soon each one would starve.
Whilst the successful hunter is required to distribute his spoils freely amongst his camp fellows, he does so with the assurance that in any future eventuality, when through bad luck he fails to find game, or through illness or old age he can no longer provide for himself and his family, he will receive in his turn. Were each hunter to produce only for his own domestic needs, everyone would eventually perish from hunger (Jochelson 1926:124). Thus, through its contribution to the survival and reproduction of potential producers, sharing ensures the perpetuation of society as a whole. …
Yet he is also concerned to set aside stocks of food to see his household through at least a part of the coming winter. The meat that remains after the obligatory festive redistribution is therefore placed in the household’s cache, on which the housewife can draw specifically for the provision of her own domestic group (Spencer 1959:149). After the herds have passed by, domestic autonomy is re-establisheddraws on its own reserves of stored food.
But what happens at the opposite extreme, not under conditions of abundance, but when everyone‘s stocks run out? Ingold claims that in times of famine, the obligation to share what little food one has with one’s neighbors is also invoked:
We find, therefore, that the incidence of generalized reciprocity tends to peak towards the two extremes of scarcity and abundance… The communal feast that follows a successful hunting drive involves the same heightening of band solidarity, and calls into play the same functions of leadership in the apportionment of food, as does the consumption of famine rations.
I am reminded here of a scene in The Harmless People in which there was not enough food to go around, but the rules of distribution were still followed, each person just cutting their piece smaller. Thomas described one of the small children, hungry, trying to grab the food bowl–not the food itself–to stop their mother from giving away their food to the next person in the chain of obligation.
Here Ingold pauses to discuss a claim by Sahlins that such social order will (or should) break down under conditions of extreme hunger:
Probably every primitive organization has its breaking-point, or at least its turning-point. Every one might see the time when co-operation is overwhelmed by the scale of disaster and chicanery becomes the order of the day. The range of assistance contracts progressively to the family level; perhaps even these bonds dissolve and, washed away, reveal an inhuman, yet most human, self-interest. Moreover, by the same measure that the circle of charity is
compressed that of ‘negative reciprocity* is potentially expanded. People who helped each other in normal times and through the first stages of disaster display now an indifference to each others’ plight, if they do not exacerbate a mutual downfall by guile, haggle and theft.
I can find no evidence, either in my reading of circumpolar ethnography, or in the material cited by Sahlins, for the existence of such a ‘turning-point’ in hunting societies. On the contrary, as the crisis deepens, generalized reciprocity proceeds to the point of dissolution of domestic group boundaries. ‘Negative reciprocity’, rather than closing in from beyond the frontiers of the household, will be expelled altogether from the wider social field, only to make its appearance within the heart of the domestic group itself.
Thus the women of the household, who are allowed to eat only after the appetites of their menfolk have been satisfied, may be left in times of want with the merest scraps of food. Among the Chipewyan, ‘when real distress approaches, many of them are permitted to starve, when the males are amply provided for’…
In situations of economic collapse, negative reciprocity afflicts not only the domestic relations between husband and wife, but those between mother and child, and between parent and grandparent. If the suckling of children is the purest expression of generalized reciprocity, in the form of a sustained one-way flow, then infanticide must surely represent the negative extreme. Likewise, old or sick members of the household will be the first to be abandoned when provisions run short. Even in normal times, individuals who are past labour have to scavenge the left-overs of food and skins (Hearne 1911:326). In the most dire circumstances of all, men will consume their starving wives and children before turning upon one another.
Drawing on Eskimo material, Hoebel derives the following precepts of cannibal conduct: Not unusually . . . parents kill their own children to be eaten. This act is no different from infanticide. A man may kill and eat his wife; it is his privilege. Killing and eating a relative will produce no legal consequences. It is to be presumed, however, that killing a non-relative for food is murder. (1941:672, cited in Eidlitz 1969:132)
In short, the ‘circle of charity’ is not compressed but inverted: as the threat of starvation becomes a reality, the legitimacy of killing increases towards the centre. The act is ‘inhuman’ since it strips the humanity of the victim to its organic, corporeal substance. If altruism is an index of sociability, then its absolute negation annuls the sodality of the recipient: persons, be they human or animal, become things.
This is gruesome, but let us assume it is true (I have not read the accounts Ingold cites, so I must trust him, and I do not always trust him but for now we will.)
The cold, hard logic of infanticide is that a mother can produce more children if she loses one, but a child who has lost its mother will likely die as well, along with all of its siblings. One of my great-great grandmothers suffered the loss of half her children in infancy and still managed to raise 5+ to adulthood. Look around: even with abortion and birth control widely available, humanity is not suffering a lack of children. ETA: As BaruchK correctly noted, today’s children are largely coming from people who don’t use birth control or have legal access to abortion; fertility rates are below replacement throughout the West, with the one exception AFAIK of Israel.
Furthermore, children starve faster and are easier to kill than parents; women are easier to kill than men; people who live with you are easier to kill than people who don’t.
“Finally, as the footsteps stopped just outside the igloo, it was the old man who went out to investigate.
“He emerged to see a disoriented figure seemingly unaware of his presence. The being was touching the outside of the igloo with curiosity, and raised no protest when the old man reached his hand out to touch its cheek.
“His skin was cold. …
The figures, of course, were the last survivors of the Franklin Expedition. They had buried their captain. They had seen their ship entombed by ice. They had eaten the dead to survive. …
Inuit nomads had come across streams of men that “didn’t seem to be right.” Maddened by scurvy, botulism or desperation, they were raving in a language the Inuit couldn’t understand. In one case, hunters came across two Franklin Expedition survivors who had been sleeping for days in the hollowed-out corpses of seals. …
The figures were too weak to be dangerous, so Inuit women tried to comfort the strangers by inviting them into their igloo. …
The men spit out pieces of cooked seal offered to them. They rejected offers of soup. They grabbed jealous hold of their belongings when the Inuit offered to trade.
When the Inuit men returned to the camp from their hunt, they constructed an igloo for the strangers, built them a fire and even outfitted the shelter with three whole seals. …
When a small party went back to the camp to retrieve [some items], they found an igloo filled with corpses.
The seals were untouched. Instead, the men had eaten each other. …
In 1854, Rae had just come back from a return trip to the Arctic, where he had been horrified to discover that many of his original Inuit sources had fallen to the same fates they had witnessed in the Franklin Expedition.
An outbreak of influenza had swept the area, likely sparked by the wave of Franklin searchers combing the Arctic. As social mores broke down, food ran short.
Inuit men that Rae had known personally had chosen suicide over watching the slow death of their children. Families had starved for days before eating their dog teams. Some women, who had seen their families die around them, had needed to turn to the “last resource” to survive the winter.
Infanticide, cannibalism, and human sacrifice were far more common prior to 1980 or so than we like to think; God forbid we should ever know such fates.
“Many Neolithic groups routinely resorted to infanticide … Joseph Birdsell believed that infanticide rates in prehistoric times were between 15% and 50% of the total number of births, while Laila Williamson estimated a lower rate ranging from 15% to 20%.:66… Comparative anthropologists have calculated that 50% of female newborn babies were killed by their parents during the Paleolithic era. Decapitated skeletons of hominid children have been found with evidence of cannibalism. …
“Three thousand bones of young children, with evidence of sacrificial rituals, have been found in Sardinia. Pelasgians offered a sacrifice of every tenth child during difficult times. Syrians sacrificed children to Jupiter and Juno. Many remains of children have been found in Gezer excavations with signs of sacrifice. Child skeletons with the marks of sacrifice have been found also in Egypt dating 950-720 BCE. In Carthage “[child] sacrifice in the ancient world reached its infamous zenith.”:324 …
“According to Shelby Brown, Carthaginians, descendants of the Phoenicians, sacrificed infants to their gods. Charred bones of hundreds of infants have been found in Carthaginian archaeological sites. One such area harbored as many as 20,000 burial urns. …
“… the exposure of newborns was widely practiced in ancient Greece, it was even advocated by Aristotle in the case of congenital deformity — “As to the exposure of children, let there be a law that no deformed child shall live.” …
“The practice was prevalent in ancient Rome, as well. … A letter from a Roman citizen to his sister, or a pregnant wife from her husband, dating from 1 BC, demonstrates the casual nature with which infanticide was often viewed:
“I am still in Alexandria. … I beg and plead with you to take care of our little child, and as soon as we receive wages, I will send them to you. In the meantime, if (good fortune to you!) you give birth, if it is a boy, let it live; if it is a girl, expose it.” 
“In some periods of Roman history it was traditional for a newborn to be brought to the pater familias, the family patriarch, who would then decide whether the child was to be kept and raised, or left to die by exposure. The Twelve Tables of Roman law obliged him to put to death a child that was visibly deformed. …
“Philosopher Han Fei Tzu, a member of the ruling aristocracy of the 3rd century BC, who developed a school of law, wrote: “As to children, a father and mother when they produce a boy congratulate one another, but when they produce a girl they put it to death.” …
“Buddhist belief in transmigration allowed poor residents of the country to kill their newborn children if they felt unable to care for them, hoping that they would be reborn in better circumstances. Furthermore, some Chinese did not consider newborn children fully “human”, and saw “life” beginning at some point after the sixth month after birth.
“Contemporary writers from the Song dynasty note that, in Hubei and Fujian provinces, residents would only keep three sons and two daughters (among poor farmers, two sons and one daughter), and kill all babies beyond that number at birth.”
“It was not uncommon that parents threw a child to the sharks in the Ganges River as a sacrificial offering. The British colonists were unable to outlaw the custom until the beginnings of the 19th century.:78
“According to social activists, female infanticide has remained a problem in India into the 21st century, with both NGOs and the government conducting awareness campaigns to combat it. …
“In the Eastern Shoshone there was a scarcity of Indian women as a result of female infanticide. For the MaiduNative Americans twins were so dangerous that they not only killed them, but the mother as well. In the region known today as southern Texas, the Mariame Indians practiced infanticide of females on a large scale. Wives had to be obtained from neighboring groups.”
In 2005 a mass grave of one- to two-year-old sacrificed children was found in the Maya region of Comalcalco. The sacrifices were apparently performed for consecration purposes when building temples at the Comalcalco acropolis. …
Archaeologists have found the remains of 42 children sacrificed to Tlaloc (and a few to Ehecátl Quetzalcóatl) in the offerings of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan. In every case, the 42 children, mostly males aged around six, were suffering from serious cavities, abscesses or bone infections that would have been painful enough to make them cry continually. Tlaloc required the tears of the young so their tears would wet the earth. As a result, if children did not cry, the priests would sometimes tear off the children’s nails before the ritual sacrifice.
It is perhaps more profitable to ask which cultures didn’t practice some form of infanticide/infant sacrifice/cannibalism than which ones did. The major cases Wikipedia notes are Ancient Egypt, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (we may note that Judaism in many ways derived from ancient Egypt, and Christianity and Islam from Judaism.) Ancient Egypt stands out as unique among major the pre-modern, pre-monotheistic societies to show no signs of regular infanticide–and even in the most infamous case where the Egyptian pharaoh went so far as to order the shocking act, we find direct disobedience in his own household:
3 And when she [Jochebed] could not longer hide him [the baby], she took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch, and put the child therein; and she laid it in the flags by the river’s brink.4 And his sister stood afar off, to wit what would be done to him.
5 And the daughter of Pharaoh came down to wash herself at the river; and her maidens walked along by the river’s side; and when she saw the ark among the flags, she sent her maid to fetch it.
6 And when she had opened it, she saw the child: and, behold, the babe wept. And she had compassion on him, and said, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.”
7 Then said his sister to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and call to thee a nurse of the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for thee?”
8 And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Go.” And the maid went and called the child’s mother.
9 And Pharaoh’s daughter said unto her, “Take this child away, and nurse it for me, and I will give thee thy wages.” And the women took the child, and nursed it.
10 And the child grew, and she brought him unto Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. And she called his name Moses: and she said, “Because I drew him out of the water.”
I don’t know the actual infanticide numbers in modern Muslim countries (le wik notes that poverty in places like Pakistan still drives infanticide) but it is officially forbidden by Islam.
Today, between the spread of Abrahamic religions, Western Values, and general prosperity, the infanticide rate has been cut and human sacrifice and cannibalism have been all but eliminated. Abortion, though, is legal–if highly controversial–throughout the West and Israel.
According to the CDC, the abortion rate for 2013 was 200 abortions per 1,000 live births, or about 15% of pregnancies. (The CDC also notes that the abortion rate has been falling since at least 2004.) Of these, “91.6% of abortions were performed at ≤13 weeks’ gestation; … In 2013, 22.2% of all abortions were early medical abortions.”
To what can we attribute this anti-infanticide sentiment of modern monotheistic societies? Is it just a cultural accident, a result of inheritance from ancient Egypt, or perhaps the lucky effects of some random early theologian? Or as the religious would suggest, due to God’s divine decree? Or is it an effect of the efforts parents must expend on their few children in societies where children must attend years of school in order to succeed?
In ecology, r/K selection theory relates to the selection of combinations of traits in an organism that trade off between quantity and quality of offspring. The focus upon either increased quantity of offspring at the expense of individual parental investment of r-strategists, or reduced quantity of offspring with a corresponding increased parental investment of K-strategists, varies widely, seemingly to promote success in particular environments. …
where r is the maximum growth rate of the population (N), K is the carrying capacity of its local environmental setting, and the notation dN/dt stands for the derivative of N with respect to t (time). Thus, the equation relates the rate of change of the population N to the current population size and expresses the effect of the two parameters. …
As the name implies, r-selected species are those that place an emphasis on a high growth rate, and, typically exploit less-crowded ecological niches, and produce many offspring, each of which has a relatively low probability of surviving to adulthood (i.e., high r, low K). A typical r species is the dandelion Taraxacum genus.
In unstable or unpredictable environments, r-selection predominates due to the ability to reproduce quickly. There is little advantage in adaptations that permit successful competition with other organisms, because the environment is likely to change again. Among the traits that are thought to characterize r-selection are high fecundity, small body size, early maturity onset, short generation time, and the ability to disperse offspring widely. …
By contrast, K-selected species display traits associated with living at densities close to carrying capacity, and typically are strong competitors in such crowded niches that invest more heavily in fewer offspring, each of which has a relatively high probability of surviving to adulthood (i.e., low r, high K). In scientific literature, r-selected species are occasionally referred to as “opportunistic” whereas K-selected species are described as “equilibrium”.
In stable or predictable environments, K-selection predominates as the ability to compete successfully for limited resources is crucial and populations of K-selected organisms typically are very constant in number and close to the maximum that the environment can bear (unlike r-selected populations, where population sizes can change much more rapidly).
Traits that are thought to be characteristic of K-selection include large body size, long life expectancy, and the production of fewer offspring, which often require extensive parental care until they mature.
Rushton’s book Race, Evolution, and Behavior (1995) uses r/K selection theory to explain how East Asians consistently average high, blacks low, and whites in the middle on an evolutionary scale of characteristics indicative of nurturing behavior. He first published this theory in 1984. Rushton argues that East Asians and their descendants average a larger brain size, greater intelligence, more sexual restraint, slower rates of maturation, and greater law abidingness and social organization than do Europeans and their descendants, who average higher scores on these dimensions than Africans and their descendants. He theorizes that r/K selection theory explains these differences.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention that the article states, “Rushton’s application of r/K selection theory to explain differences among racial groups has been widely criticised. One of his many critics is the evolutionary biologistJoseph L. Graves, who has done extensive testing of the r/K selection theory with species of Drosophila flies. …”
Genetics or culture, in dense human societies, people must devote a great deal of energy to a small number of children they can successfully raise, leading to the notion that parents are morally required to put this effort into their children. But this system is at odds with the fact that without some form of intervention, the average married couple will produce far more than two offspring.
If you construct a pyramid with base side 12 [cubits] and with a seked of 5 palms 1 finger; what is its altitude?
Most Egyptian geometry questions appear to deal with more mundane matters, like the dimensions of rectangular fields and round granaries, rather than pyramids. (The Egyptians had not yet worked out an exact formula for the area of a circle, but used octagons to approximate it.)
A “pefsu” problem involves a measure of the strength of the beer made from a heqat of grain, called a pefsu.
pefsu = (the number of loaves of bread [or jugs of beer]) / (number of heqats of grain used to make them.)
For example, problem number 8 from the Moscow Mathematical Papyrus (most likely written between 1803 BC and 1649 BC, but based on an earlier manuscript thought to have been written around 1850 BC):
Example of calculating 100 loaves of bread of pefsu 20:
If someone says to you: “You have 100 loaves of bread of pefsu 20 to be exchanged for beer of pefsu 4, like 1/2 1/4 malt-date beer,”
First calculate the grain required for the 100 loaves of the bread of pefsu 20. The result is 5 heqat. Then reckon what you need for a des-jug of beer like the beer called 1/2 1/4 malt-date beer. The result is 1/2 of the heqat measure needed for des-jug of beer made from Upper-Egyptian grain.
Calculate 1/2 of 5 heqat, the result will be 21⁄2. Take this 21⁄2 four times.
The result is 10. Then you say to him:
Behold! The beer quantity is found to be correct.
“Behold! The beer quantity is found to be correct,” is one of the most amusing answers to a math problem I’ve seen.
The Berlin Papyrus contains two problems, the first stated as “the area of a square of 100 is equal to that of two smaller squares. The side of one is ½ + ¼ the side of the other.” The interest in the question may suggest some knowledge of the Pythagorean theorem, though the papyrus only shows a straightforward solution to a single second degree equation in one unknown. In modern terms, the simultaneous equations x2 + y2 = 100 and x = (3/4)y reduce to the single equation in y: ((3/4)y)2 + y2 = 100, giving the solution y = 8 and x = 6.
My suspicion is that these societies were more advanced and complex than we generally give them credit for, (especially the northern European ones) simply because we don’t have any written records from them and the archaeological trail is scanty.
We have amber, traded from the Baltic Sea down to Italy, north Africa, the Levant, and beyond; tin, mined in Cornwall, Spain, Brittany, and southern Germany, then traded all across Europe, north Africa, and the Middle East; and of course copper, which was mined all over.
In Egypt the bronze age was clearly glorious, but Greece and Spain also saw the rise of cities, palaces, art, and even aqueducts and sewers. Greece and Egypt had writing and were beginning to develop math (I don’t know much about the Spanish cities.)
And then, around 1200 BC, it all collapsed.
Within 50 years, almost every major city in the eastern Mediterranean was sacked, destroyed, conquered, or abandoned. The kingdoms of Mycenaen Greece, the Hittites of Syria and Anatolia, and the New Kingdom of Egypt (and Canaan) all collapsed. The written language of Greece (“Linear B”) was completely forgotten and disappeared. The Hittite capital was burned, abandoned, and never rebuilt; Anatolia didn’t return to its former level of complexity for a thousand years. Babylon and Troy were sacked; Egypt was invaded by the Libyans.
And no one knows why.
The most proximate cause is the “Sea Peoples,” a motley assortment of sea-faring folks who suddenly show up in the local records (especially Egyptian) and conquer everything in sight. As Ramesses III recorded:
The [sea Peoples] made a conspiracy in their islands, All at once the lands were removed and scattered in the fray. No land could stand before their arms: from Hatti, Qode, Carchemish, Arzawa and Alashiya on, being cut off [ie. destroyed] at one time. A camp was set up in Amurru. They desolated its people, and its land was like that which has never come into being. They were coming forward toward Egypt, while the flame was prepared before them. Their confederation was the Peleset, Tjeker, Shekelesh, Denyen and Weshesh, lands united. They laid their hands upon the land as far as the circuit of the earth, their hearts confident and trusting: “Our plans will succeed!”
Who were the Sea People? Where did they come from? According to Wikipedia, they were:
the Denyen, identified by some with the Greek Danaoi and by others with the Israelite tribe of Dan;
the Weshesh, who have not been strongly linked to a people documented in other sources.
The most famous Sea People were the Philistines, who appear to have hailed originally from the Aegean before being defeated by the Egyptians and settled in the southern Levant, where they came into conflict with the Israelites. There’s fairly decent evidence for the Philistine connection, because we have written accounts about them from the Egyptians and the Hebrews, plus the archaeological remains of their cities, which are full of Greek pottery.
Most of the other potential identifications are based on little more than linguistic similarity–in other words, we don’t really have any idea where a lot of them came from.
In Greece, the invaders appear to have come by land, migrating from the north, not the sea.
One of the things I’ve noticed about migrations is that once they start, (for whatever reason,) they keep going. Suppose a famine hits Group A, so they flee the area and displace Group B. Group B pushes out Group C, who take to the seas and end up destroying towns hundreds or thousands of miles away. Events in Mongolia can reverberate into Poland; a sudden abundance of food and medical care in Africa ends with migrants in Sweden.
Along a 3-kilometer stretch of the Tollense River, archaeologists … have unearthed wooden clubs, bronze spearheads, and flint and bronze arrowheads. They have also found bones in extraordinary numbers: the remains of at least five horses and more than 100 men. Bones from hundreds more may remain unexcavated, and thousands of others may have fought but survived.
“If our hypothesis is correct that all of the finds belong to the same event, we’re dealing with a conflict of a scale hitherto completely unknown north of the Alps,” says dig co-director Thomas Terberger, an archaeologist at the Lower Saxony State Service for Cultural Heritage in Hannover. “There’s nothing to compare it to.” It may even be the earliest direct evidence—with weapons and warriors together—of a battle this size anywhere in the ancient world. …
In one spot, 1478 bones, among them 20 skulls, were packed into an area of just 12 square meters. Archaeologists think the bodies landed or were dumped in shallow ponds, where the motion of the water mixed up bones from different individuals. By counting specific, singular bones—skulls and femurs, for example—UG forensic anthropologists Ute Brinker and Annemarie Schramm identified a minimum of 130 individuals, almost all of them men, most between the ages of 20 and 30.
The number suggests the scale of the battle. “We have 130 people, minimum, and five horses. And we’ve only opened 450 square meters. That’s 10% of the find layer, at most, maybe just 3% or 4%,” says Detlef Jantzen, chief archaeologist at MVDHP. “If we excavated the whole area, we might have 750 people. That’s incredible for the Bronze Age.” In what they admit are back-of-the-envelope estimates, he and Terberger argue that if one in five of the battle’s participants was killed and left on the battlefield, that could mean almost 4000 warriors took part in the fighting.
The article has some entertaining illustrations, so I urge you to take a look.
The Tollense is a small river in north east Germany, near the Baltic Sea and fairly close to Poland. We have yet to find the remains of any bronze age cities, towns, or fortresses nearby, (the closest known settlement was 350 km away,) but somebody built a 120 meter wooden causeway across the valley.
Was the Tollense part of a major trade network the armies were fighting over? Or was this just the only road in the area? (Serbian Irish has a great post that lays out their position that the battle was actually an attack on a very large, heavily fortified trade caravan. Lots of interesting material in Serbian Irish’s post. [Their argument hinges on claims that there were women, children, and old people among the dead, which I have not seen reported elsewhere, but I also have not read the original papers the archaeologists published, so maybe Serbian Irish knows something I don’t.])
The Science article notes, hilariously, that prior to uncovering a bunch of skulls with arrowheads lodged in them and big, bashed-in holes, many archaeologists genuinely believed that real battles hadn’t occurred in the Bronze Age:
Before the 1990s, “for a long time we didn’t really believe in war in prehistory,” DAI’s Hansen says. The grave goods were explained as prestige objects or symbols of power rather than actual weapons. “Most people thought ancient society was peaceful, and that Bronze Age males were concerned with trading and so on,” says Helle Vandkilde, an archaeologist at Aarhus University in Denmark. “Very few talked about warfare.”
You know, those Bronze Age chieftains just collected swords for show, kind of like people who watch too much anime.
This line of thought got started, (as far as I can tell) after WWII, when archaeologists and anthropologists began promoting the idea that war and violence were modern, Western aberrations, and that primitive peoples were all peaceful, nature-loving paragons of gender equality. Much of the accumulated evidence for prehistoric human migrations was dismissed under the slogan, “pots, not people,” an exhortation to interpret the sudden diffusion of new pots and other cultural artifacts as just evidence of trade, not the movement of people. But as I noted before, it’s looking a lot more like “People, not pots.”
This was a pretty stupid line of thought, given that we can actually count the number of homicides committed by modern hunter-gatherers, and have abundant written records of extreme violence committed within the past few centuries by one tribe against the next, from cannibalism to attempted genocide. (Heck, within the last few decades.)
At any rate, the article discusses in some detail evidence that the soldiers who died in Tollense weren’t just some local brawlers, but were trained professionals, most likely part of a large army drawn from across Europe:
And yet chemical tracers in the remains suggest that most of the Tollense warriors came from hundreds of kilometers away. … archaeologist Doug Price analyzed strontium, oxygen, and carbon isotopes in 20 teeth from Tollense. Just a few showed values typical of the northern European plain, which sprawls from Holland to Poland. The other teeth came from farther afield, although Price can’t yet pin down exactly where.
Further clues come from isotopes of another element, nitrogen, which reflect diet. Nitrogen isotopes in teeth from some of the men suggest they ate a diet heavy in millet, a crop more common at the time in southern than northern Europe. … DNA from teeth suggests some warriors are related to modern southern Europeans and others to people living in modern-day Poland and Scandinavia. …
(Now if only someone could test some Philistine DNA, so we can resolve this “Were they Greek or did they merely have Greek pots?” debate once and for all.)
Twenty-seven percent of the skeletons show signs of healed traumas from earlier fights, including three skulls with healed fractures. …
Standardized metal weaponry and the remains of the horses, which were found intermingled with the human bones at one spot, suggest that at least some of the combatants were well-equipped and well-trained. … Body armor and shields emerged in northern Europe in the centuries just before the Tollense conflict … At Tollense, these bronze-wielding, mounted warriors might have been a sort of officer class, presiding over grunts bearing simpler weapons. …
And not long after Tollense, the scattered farmsteads of northern Europe gave way to concentrated, heavily fortified settlements, once seen only to the south.
This is basically a complete revolution in our understanding of the Bronze Age in northern Europe.
Tollense is located near the apex of three different cultures: the Lusatian (centered mainly on modern Poland;) the Urnfield Cultures throughout most of Germany, (these two were related, but Wikipedia says, “The central European Lusatian culture forms part of the Urnfield tradition, but continues into the Iron Age without a notable break;”) and the Nordic cultures of the northern coast.
Interestingly, the Lusatian culture (and the Urnfield Cultures in general) arose around 1300 BC, or about 50 years before the battle. They replaced the earlier Tumulus Culture, which had interred its dead in big burial mounds (tumuli,) and disappeared right around 1200 BC. The Lusatian and Urnfield Cultures cremated their dead. (In this case, the pots are literally full of people.)
Wikipedia says of the Lusatians:
Metal grave gifts are sparse, but there are numerous hoards (e.g., Kopaniewo, Pomerania) that contain rich metalwork, both bronze and gold (hoard of Eberswalde, Brandenburg). Graves containing moulds, like at Bataune, Saxony or tuyeres attest to the production of bronze tools and weapons at the village level. The ‘royal’ tomb of Seddin, Brandenburg, Germany, covered by a large earthen barrow, contained Mediterranean imports like bronze-vessels and glass beads. Cemeteries can be quite large and contain thousands of graves.
Well known settlements include Biskupin in Poland, and Buch near Berlin. There are both open villages and fortified settlements (burgwall or grod) on hilltops or in swampy areas. The ramparts were constructed of wooden boxes filled with soil or stones.
Of the Urnfield:
Fortified hilltop settlements become common in the Urnfield period. Often a steep spur was used, where only part of the circumference had to be fortified. Depending on the locally available materials, dry-stone walls, gridded timbers filled with stones or soil or plank and palisade type pfostenschlitzmauer fortifications were used. Other fortified settlements used rivers-bends and swampy areas.
At the hill fort of Hořovice near Beroun (CR), 50 ha were surrounded by a stone wall. Most settlements are much smaller. Metal working is concentrated in the fortified settlements. On the Runder Berg near Urach, Germany, 25 stone moulds have been found.
Hillforts are interpreted as central places. Some scholars see the emergence of hill forts as a sign of increased warfare. Most hillforts were abandoned at the end of the Bronze Age.
And of the Bronze Age Nordic Culture:
Even though Scandinavians joined the European Bronze Age cultures fairly late through trade, Scandinavian sites presents a rich and well-preserved legacy of bronze and gold objects. These valuable metals were all imported, primarily from Central Europe, but they were often crafted locally and the craftsmanship and metallurgy of the Nordic Bronze Age was of a high standard. The archaeological legacy also comprise locally crafted wool and wooden objects and there are many tumuli and rock carving sites from this period, but no written language existed in the Nordic countries during the Bronze Age. The rock carvings have been dated through comparison with depicted artifacts, for example bronze axes and swords. There are also numerous Nordic Stone Age rock carvings, those of northern Scandinavia mostly portray elk.
Thousands of rock carvings from this period depict ships, and the large stone burial monuments known as stone ships, suggest that ships and seafaring played an important role in the culture at large. The depicted ships, most likely represents sewn plank built canoes used for warfare, fishing and trade. These ship types may have their origin as far back as the neolithic period and they continue into the Pre-Roman Iron Age, as exemplified by the Hjortspring boat.
Of course, it is quite likely that the tumulus-urnfield transition had nothing to do with the Libyans invading Egypt and the fall of Troy. But the evidence so far points to the possibility of a much wider, more generalized catastrophe, that either began in one area and then prompted a cascade of peoples to invade and conquer their neighbors in multiple directions, or that affected several areas all at once.