Ch. 4. The Great Environmental Divide

    Tribal society had no geographic or environmental constraints. If human beings could live in any given place, they could live there as clans and tribes. 1

    It was different for the new more complex kind of society. Peasant agriculture required land that was fertile enough to grow a substantial surplus of storable food. The majority of land on this planet is not capable of doing that, at least not with peasant technology. There was usually plenty of room for tribal people to live alongside aristocrat-peasant societies. 2

Fertile Crescent

    Peasants and aristocrats occupied the fertile land. Tribal herders and subsistence farmers occupied the marginal land. Even in the Fertile Crescent, there were many areas that could not grow grain successfully, but they could grow grass. 3

    Around 8500 BCE, sheep and goats were domesticated by the Neolithic villagers. After that, it is possible to identify the camps of nomadic herders. The consensus among archaeologists is that it was not the hunting and gathering tribes who took up herding. It was some of the settled agricultural people who returned to the wandering life with their flocks. 4

    Some tribes evolved to become primarily nomadic, roaming with their animals in search of pasture. Other clans were semi-nomadic. For half the year they stayed put while they planted and harvested a crop. The rest of the year they were on the move with their herds. Some were sedentary subsistence farmers. Between their crops and their animals they could get by, but they could not produce a reliable yearly surplus. 5

    Some tribes were still hunter-gatherers. At various times in various places, there were fish to be caught, honey and bird eggs to be collected, obsidian to be mined, clay to be turned into pottery, and many other niches for survival. We have to assume that all of these different groups, with their different strategies, were either regularly or occasionally trading their products with each other. Together they formed a giant, interrelated and symbiotic community. 6

    In the 5th millennium BCE, the new cities appeared. Aristocrat-peasant society had arrived, and the era of “state formation” was beginning. When we finally get written accounts in the 3rd millennium, it is clear that aristocratic rulers looked down on tribal populations. They were not peasants. It was difficult to collect tax from them. They were uncivilized and disruptive. This probably reflects the attitude of most aristocrats toward tribal “barbarians.” The reality was that for the tribes to succeed under the new conditions, they usually had to be smarter, faster, and tougher than either the aristocrats or the peasants. 7

British Isles

    Tribal land was not necessarily barren land. Ireland was an example of this. The Emerald Island was bright green, but most of it had thin soil and too much rain. Cereal crops were not able to dry completely in the field. The harvested grain could not be stored. It would mold. This made it impossible for the Irish to develop permanent cities with stable populations prior to modern times. There was a lot of vegetation, plenty of animals, and a lot of food, but provisions could not be accumulated and stored. The Irish had to spread out in order to remain close to their food supplies. The same was true for most of Wales, Cornwell, and Scotland. 8

    When a society is able to bring together large numbers of specialized workers in an urban environment having all of those talented professionals interacting with each other generation after generation creates a multiplier affect. The whole can become greater than the sum of its parts. 9

    Tribal people were no less capable as individual craftsmen and artists than the specialized workers of aristocratic-peasant states. Their problem was that tribes were mostly unable to assemble large numbers of specialized professionals together in one place because they had no way to feed them. Tribal people lived on land which was not capable of producing a reliable surplus of storable food that could support large cities. That was their only handicap, but it was a severe one. With no peasant villages and few urban centers, tribal societies were not able to produce and concentrate nearly as much wealth as aristocrat-peasant kingdoms. 10