Monday, June 20, 2011

On Nazinomics - The Capricorn Thesis

The Sumerian god Enki had the goat and the fish as his symbols, which were fused into the "sea-goat" symbol, which by Old Babylonian had become the sea-goat that the Greeks would rename "Capricorn." The Babylonia codex of constellations lists SUḪUR.MAŠ – the "goat fish" as a constellation, and the symbol is also used on boundary stones. These boundary stones form an important part of the coming narrative on land rents, since the Sumero-Akkadian world would base a great deal of their social economy on setting up of boundary stones, and collecting barley rents on them.

The importance of both goat and fish to the question of ownership is not mysterious, while the Jerichoan culture, and its sister domestication cultures, were dry agriculture, the explosion of civilization in the late neolithic and bronze age is based on the move to wet agriculture, that is, irrigation. Tracing the line we can see why this happened: the first grain domesticators were mountain people, which is why two of the Jerichoan domestications were animals well suited for mountain pasturing: the sheep, and the goat. But it is Capricorn that is the old constellation, as "Aries" was, at the time of the Sumerians, the "farm worker," not the ram. Only much later is Aries important as the procession of the equinoxes had shifted. In the time of the Sumero-Akkadian world the Plieades marked the vernal equinox, which is quite possibly why, in many cultures, the six stars of the Plieades are known as the seven sisters.

However this is just a cultural resonance, a story out of many stories. It would be a mistake to believe either that it is determinative, or that there is an imperative to explain it out of all of the others. Many will make those mistakes. Instead it is an indication, one that we will follow up on. But to begin to establish a thesis requires some heavy lifting, in this case, genetics and paleo-climate.

It is important to remember that there are waves of domestications and climate changes. We find, from the genetics and archeology that there is a Dryas Domestication wave that leads to pastoralism, a Holocene Break domestication wave that leads to agrarianism, and a Peak Holocene wave which leads to irrigation. The first begins around 12000 YBP with the dog– whose origin is still unknown, the second at the end of the Dryas, which gives us an artificial precision to what may well have been an on going process at 10500 YBP, and the third at 7000 YBP.

The Capricorn thesis is that the Dryas domestication wave shows that human beings had begun domestication activities of the three major types: animal, grass, and tree, as we will see, these are different activities with the same basic goal. The Holocene Break domestication wave shows mountain cultures developing a stable grain domestication strategy, why will be described below. The final wave shows the integration of the Jerichoan cultural complex, which included towns and fields, with the river tool kit, which included, among other things, pottery, as well as fishing. The Carpricorn thesis being presented then is that the grain fetish clearly visible among archeologists, combined with biblicalism and the search for proto-capitalism that we will encounter again, has placed an artificial linealism on the Jerichoan culture. It's just too convenient for too many preconceived notions.


The first question to examine is why three mountain cultures domesticated dry agriculture, corn, wheat-barley,and millet-rice. The answer comes from the genetics of domestication. In their natural state, grains have a brittle husk that shatters. Before domestication, humans threshed wild grains. The advantage of the brittle husk is that threshes cleanly, but more of the seeds are lost as it is threshed. For migratory, nomadic, or semi-sedenetary humans, this is not a problem, because the lost seeds resow the field of grain. Humans take what they can get, and leave behind a field that will renew itself by the time they return. They don't need to plant, and they don't need the intensiveness of cultivation. However, a single base pair change makes it so that the seeds cluster, rather than shatter. But these are harder to thresh. This mutation is recessive, that means that dominant shattering grasses will carry it, and when two dominant's cross, they will produce some double recessives, double recessives that cross will produce non-shattering grass purely. This mutation exists among wild grasses, and is stable, so that even if it represents an introgression, it represents one that works for wild grasses. Looked at from the perspective of grass evolution, the non-shattering grass offers animals that can chew it, or thresh it, some grain that will be a greater reward, and that means they will move through the grass, shattering the rest. This means that the recessive will drop down to the level of presence enough to attract animal foraging, but not below that point. Animals will eat their fill, leave some behind, and shatter the rest. The recessives will also be somewhat more resistant to non-specialized pest outbreaks.

This means, however, that to domesticate grain and produce only recessive domestic grain which does not shatter, requires isolation from wild grain, otherwise, the wild grain's dominant shattering quality will appear in all the grain that pollenates with it. From this it can be seen why mountain mesolithics are the first domesticators: because mountain and terrace agriculture allows for the isolation of fields more easily from wild introgression, as well as from competing animals and other humans. The characteristic wearing patterns of domesticated flint threshing can be used to separate the move from threshing of wild grains to the threshing of their more domesticated equivalents, even before there is a genetic divergence. This kind of threshing culture continued until well into the 20th century in Turkey and Crete.

Interglacial periods produce natural terracing:


The occurrence of periglacial climatic conditions produced a strong and systematic conditioning of the hydrographic system evolution. Generalized areal erosion of the relief summits and prevalent sedimentation along the valley floors in the middle-upper portions of river catchments were the results. Afterwards, the temperate phase that followed, with a generalized and marked uplift during the Middle and Upper Pleistocene (P. AMBROSETTI et al., 1981), favored the rapid incision of alluvial deposits and of the bedrock itself, forming terraces or completely erasing the original material. Consequently, sedimentation migrated valleywards down to the river mouths, along the coasts and to the Adriatic Sea.


While ultimately the topsoil will migrate to the delta, it will, in intermediate phases, produce terraces, whose artificial versions are still used in hill and mountain agriculture. These natural terraces produce the sizable, defendable, and isolatable basis for domestication of grain. The process implies, however, selection from stock: namely selection of seeds that would otherwise be eaten, but are instead sown again. However, we have population evidence that human beings are doing exactly this with animals: selection for desired traits.

The process of fluvial terracing also produces a well drained bed of rounded pebbles, in general, at three layers for each of the interstadials. This creates the ideal form for dry agriculture, where a soaking rain leads to germination, and then drainage leads to hot rapid growing conditions.

The other component as to why hill and mountain people stabilize during the post-Younger Dryas moment is seen from the limnology, or coastlines, of the period. The Younger Dryas both began, and ended, quickly. This means that sea levels fell, and then rose, at the rate of over 1m per year during the onset and ending phases. While this would not end fishing as a way of life, it will mean that those along rivers that are moved by tens of miles will not develop the same degree of sedentarism.

For reference this map of the Persian gulf shows how much of what is now sea, was then dry land, or a large lake. Fishing peoples would have to move with the changes in coastline, which is why the examples we have from the period are from places where the coast was relatively stable, in Asia, or along the nile with the early Khartoum people. These peoples had pottery, because pottery fits with their need to store, and probably ferment, the catch of the sea. The mountain peoples, since they must travel some distance to their terraces, and do not have water transport, would not see the same value for heavy pottery. More over, since they do not have access to water and clay in the same abundance, what is common to the fishing people, is trouble for a non-draft animal Jerichoan culture. They would have had to acquire the clay, carry it back to their home, reconstitute it with water, itself precious since it was well or carried, and then make pottery. Thus the Jerichoan culture should not be seen as "pre-pottery" but as not fanatically devoted to it enough to integrate it. It just was not worth the trouble for them.

Thus grass type domestication favors hill/mountain people, because they are most easily able to isolate the results. However, the same pressure works against the adoption of pottery, since its weight acts against the daily activity.

The second area of domestication is the area of animals, here recent experiments with the fox, and genetic searches within felines indicates that the key trait is not an SNP – Single Nucleotide Polymorphism, or variation in a single base pair on the DNA – but in fact is a complex of inter-related genes. The key trait is low flight distance, however, in selecting for low flight distance only, a variety of other traits are affected, including coat, development, and morphology. Domestication of animals produced the retention of juvenile features, levels of hormones, and patterns of coloration, even if these are not at all selected for.

This produces a crucial difference between domestication of grains, and the domestication of animals. Animals represent a spectrum of domestication, all that is needed is a low enough flight threshold for use, which means that mixing with wild or feral populations does not ruin the whole, but it takes time, on the order of decades. Contrasting this with grains, which can be culled for domestication almost immediately, but which can be spoilt with cross pollination. The genetics reveals that domestication of animals often happens more than once with a given target species - two and perhaps three times for pigs, twice for sheep, an unknown, but more than once, for dogs – but that grain domestication only happens once or twice for a given target species. Once domesticated, the seeds merely need to be carried and planted, and they can be crossed or hybridized.

From this it can be seen why an explosion of domestication of grain would also produce a domestication environment for grazing animals, they could be isolated on the terraces, both from wild types and from carnivores, fed on the stalks of the threshed grain for part of the year, or on the grain itself. However, it is not necessary that this be so, which allows for other kinds of animal, even meat animal domestication path. There is essentially only one way to domesticate grain, that is, by isolation, however, all that is required for animal domestication is time.

The third kind of domestication is that of trees. Tree domestication requires a relatively high degree of sedenentation, and a high degree of climatic stability. Not all trees require cutting and grafting, for example the almond, though a member of the same genus as the apple and pear, can grow easily from seed. However, while some trees lend themselves to terraced dry agriculture, in general, trees require a higher degree of hydro stability than terracing affords.

From this we can look backward: the dog, flaxseed, rye, and figs represent a not inconsiderable list of domestications. They have not been as easily localized by genetics, making it hard to know where they came from. However, that they predate the "Eden" moment is relatively clear. What is working against these cultures, however, is the shock of the end of the Younger Dryas. The Younger Dryas was cooler and drier, but it was also relatively stable during its course. This stability, as well as the existence of terracing from the previous glacial, or stadial, periods, means that the same process that the post-Holocene Break people would exploit is already occurring. It is of course possible to speculate that had the Younger Dryas not ended, that these people's would have completed the domestication of other grains and animals, but whether they would have or not, climate intervened to change the location of domestication.

What this represents then, is a summary of one prong of the toolkit that was to become middle paleolithic society, it is an important prong, but it is also excessively fetishized – grain being "the most precious possession" – is a result of the role of grain in the 19th century, when modern archeology was being born. Just as with the "Agricultural revolution as analog to industrial revolution" narrative, it is in part the result of people imposing their own conditions on the past.

The next post will deal with the archeology of the other half of the goat-fish, that of the fishing peoples of the neo-lithic, and their contribution to human advancement.