This week’s The New Yorker featured an article by John Lancaster entitled: “How Civilization Started: Was it even a good idea?” (Online version’s title: “The Case Against Civilization: Did our hunter-gatherer ancestors have it better?). In reviewing some anthropological, political, and historical research, with an emphasis on James C. Scott’s Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, Lancaster makes the compelling argument that we should not write off the hunter-gatherer lifestyle as barbaric and less-than. History reveals that progress through time is not always progress in civilization, so this is something I can agree with.
From what I know of hunter-gatherer societies, and then confirmed in Lancaster’s article, they embraced equality and community, something that desperately lacks in the individualistic culture of the present. One connection I had not made before this article, however, is that of the glory days of the hunter-gatherer to Eden with Adam and Eve. Biblically speaking, the clearest example of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle took place in Eden, and it was not until Adam and Eve’s eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that they were cast out of that lifestyle and entered into the agrarian model, ushering in the Neolithic Revolution. Lancaster helped make that connection for me, albeit, unintentionally I’m sure.
Lancaster quotes renowned ecologist and author, Jared Diamond, who called the Neolithic Revolution “the worst mistake in human history” to which Lancaster affirms in stating that “among historians of the era, isn’t very controversial.” Before I break down my thought process in this idea’s connection to Eden and The Fall, let me first explain how the Neolithic Revolution is traditionally explained in the history classroom. When studying ancient civilizations in the 6th grade classroom, and really all of popular history, the Neolithic Revolution is seen as a leap of progress; from the barbaric, primitive hunter-gatherers to the sedentary, successful lifestyle that would lead to “the birth of the state, and also to the creation of complex societies with hierarchies, division of labor, specialist jobs, and an elite presiding over them.” All of these byproducts of the Neolithic Revolution are most often regarded in a positive light. To this day, these characteristics mark some of the most successful nation-states. A state= organization; hierarchy= order; division of labor= more free time. This view takes the approach that progress through time is progress in civilization; of course, it does not specify for who this progress benefits.
If we are to take the biblical story of creation and Eden seriously, however, history after The Fall can be anything but progressive. By the very terminology used, The Fall equates a regression in humanity’s relationship with her Creator; all of subsequent civilization is life that is not in physical commune with God, Creator of all. The Neolithic Revolution was God’s punishment to mankind, where
He said to Adam, “Because you listened to your wife’s voice and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘Do not eat from it: The ground is cursed because of you. You will eat from it by means of painful labor all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field (Genesis 3:17-18).
Using the Bible as our source for understanding the transition from hunter-gatherer living in Eden to the “painful labor” of the Neolithic Revolution, Lancaster’s argument makes perfect sense. The Neolithic Revolution paved the way for modernity by creating Statehood through the taxation of grains (Scott). It would be undeniable to point out that statehood, with all of its benefits, has also led to the worst atrocities in history. Lancaster points this out when he summarizes the great German Jewish cultural critic, Walter Benjamin’s words: “every complicated and beautiful thing humanity ever made has, if you look at it long enough, a shadow, a history of oppression.”
The more a society progresses as the majority of people see it, the more opportunities there are for inequality and destruction, or sin, as we Christians know it to be. As we are surrounded by millions of babels, those monuments that show the greatness of man, may we be humbled by the fact that God’s perfect creation was designed to be experienced in the simplest of ways. No surplus, no excess; more community, more equality. As we pray for God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, may we look forward to the not yet kingdom of the new earth, where we may simply be living as hunter-gatherers.