Archaeologist Robert L. Kelly is the author of The Fifth Beginning: What Six Million Years of Human History Can Tell Us about Our Future. He looks at four world-changing inventions of humankind – technology, culture, agriculture, and the state – each of which contained the seeds of the next, and then looks at the archaeological record that our society is creating to hypothesize a fifth phase of human existence. And it’s one that might make our present time look positively prehistoric.
Mary-Charlotte Domandi: I’m delighted now to welcome Robert Kelley. He’s an archaeologist. He’s a professor of anthropology at the University of Wyoming, and he’s author of the new book The Fifth Beginning, What Six Million Years of Human History Can Tell Us About Our Future. Welcome.
Robert Kelly: Thank you.
MCD: So, you are what you call in your book, a dirt archeologist. You like to dig up old, buried objects and try to make sense of them. How did you come to write a book that looks really as much toward the future as the past?
RK: Well, if you ask archeologists why they do what they do, they’ll probably quote you Winston Churchill, who once said, “The farther you look backward, the farther you can look forward.” So, I decided to take that charge seriously and think about what do I know about human prehistory, what have I learned over the last 40-odd years, and what can it tell me about what lies in the future.
MCD: The title of your book, The Fifth Beginning, suggests that there were four previous beginnings. And I was hoping we could talk about each one. The first one was the beginning of technology. What are the earliest forms of human technology and how did they arise?
RK: The earliest forms of human technology are some very simple, stone tools. The earliest ones date to around 3.3 million years ago. We don’t know for certain exactly what they were used for, but most likely for hunting and then the processing of animal carcasses. So, it reflects a shift, perhaps, in diet towards the inclusion of more meat in the diet. And those stone tools, once they appear, it’s some time after that, but partly as a function of technology, that the human way of life changed fairly dramatically. And it made us very, very successful, and we moved out of Africa into Southwest Asia, and eventually into Europe.
MCD: The second beginning was the beginning of culture. What do we mean by culture?
RK: The capacity for human culture is the capacity to think about the world as a symbolic construction. It’s not simply the use of symbols, although that’s part of it, but it’s the ability to think about the world as being something other than what it is materially. So, it entails the ability to think about stories about the past, to come up with legends and myths. It entails religious thinking. And those capacities are reflected materially in objects that we can only call art objects, that are simply decorations that appear to have no material function to them. And it shows up a little later in burial ritual. People were not simply disposing of a body, but were performing some kind of ritual with it, which we take to mean that they’re sending the person’s spirit over to the other side, whatever believed the other side was. But they certainly believed there was something beyond death. This is the beginnings of religious thought.
RK: Those things, art objects, things like carved pieces of ochre or carved ostrich egg shells, beads, show up early in the last 100,000 years. This marks another dramatic change in how people related to one another, because they could now relate to one another, not just as another being, but as a member of another tribe, another culture. It made us very, very successful, because it was sometime after 100,000 years ago that fully modern, cultural humans moved out of Africa and began to colonize literally the entire world.
MCD: So, the third beginning was agriculture. And again, there are interesting questions about how agriculture began. It’s not like some hunter gatherers kind of drew up a plan to create a whole new global system of food production. What happened as far as we know?
RK: Well, the first thing that we know is that agriculture economies originate independently in a number of different places in the world: wheat and barley in the near East, rice in China and southeast Asia, millet in Africa, maize in Central America, and there are others. These transitions we also know didn’t happen very, very quickly. They took quite a bit of time, in some cases 1,000 or 2,000 years to shift from a hunting and gathering to fully agricultural economy. They are almost certainly a function of population growth, of hunter gatherers reaching their carrying capacity and understanding the relationship between seeds and plants. Some of them are making their environment produce more food by intentionally planting seeds, spreading plants out of their natural range, and eventually, probably through a very accidental process, they domesticate those plants. And by domesticate, we mean the plants came to depend upon humans for their existence. In the old world, the same thing happened with animals as well, herd animals, sheep and cattle, horses.
MCD: Now, just as agriculture arose independently in different places, did cultures also arise independently in separate places, and they kind of recognized each other when they came together?
RK: That’s a very good question that I don’t think we have the answer to. Actually, I hope to be researching that question next spring, because it does appear that across Africa, sometime after 100,000 years ago, you have these little sort of lights coming on. I think of them as lights coming on across the continent, where people were making some very simple art objects. And they appear and then they seem to disappear, and then they come back again. And it doesn’t appear in real force until about 50 to 60 thousand years ago, when the lights come on all over the place, and they stay on.
MCD: So, the fourth beginning was the beginning of the state. Now, this was a direct outgrowth of the shift to agriculture?
RK: The shift to agriculture allowed human populations to increase. That increase is competition, locally on the landscape, because agricultural land is not available everywhere. Some of it is quite expensive to create. In Europe, you had to clear forests in order to grow food. Agricultural land became in short supply, and your choice is either to take it from someone else or to create new land. And sometimes, it appears, the choice was to take it from someone else. So what appears with the state society is four or more sort of bureaucratic levels of government. You have a ruling body, then you have a second set of bureaucrats, you have a lower level of managers, and at the very bottom you have a large number of workers. This is the beginning of the sort of hierarchical structure of human society. It’s also the beginning of warfare.
I don’t want to say that life before states societies was all peaceful. We can certainly find evidence of people killing each other, going back 10,000 years or more, but those appear to be relatively rare. And in many cases, it appears to be one-on-one violence. It’s one individual becoming angry at some other individual for some reason. It’s with state societies that we see warfare, that we see standing armies, that we see people going to war against people with whom they have no personal grievance. People who go to war because if they don’t, the option is they’re going to be killed. This is different. This is a completely different way of humans relating to one another, and we still live in that time now.
MCD: You have written that things like not only warfare but also poverty, racism, and sexism are a result of this latest shift, this era that we’re in, the era of the state that’s based on agricultural, culture, and technology. They’re all together. And there are a lot of people who think that these things like poverty, racism, sexism, and war are the result not of the conditions we’re living in but the human condition itself or human nature. What’s your response to that?
RK: If it were purely a function of human nature, then we would see it going back 50 or 60 thousand years, but honestly we don’t see it prior to the origins of the state, about 5,000 years ago. The evidence from human remains suggest that men and women, for example, were relatively equal. They did different things but in terms of their wellbeing, as it’s recorded in human bone, there doesn’t appear to be a dramatic different between the two. We don’t see groups of people that have a story of inequality written in their bones, in terms of their bone chemistry reflecting diet, in terms of the reflection of pathologies that might be produced by overwork or by poor diets.
We don’t see that kind of variation as we see once state societies appear. And there are classes of slaves who are clearly doing much, much more work than other people. There are individuals who clearly are getting a poorer diet than other people, and we can see that written in the chemical composition of bone. It all changes once state societies appear. Racism, sexism, these are practices that are designed to control large groups of people, and their mistreatment is reflected in human remains.
MCD: How do our non-hierarchical or relatively non-hierarchical hunter gatherer ancestors compare to the primates from whom they evolved, who as I understand are rather hierarchical creatures?
RK: The primate ancestors that humans evolved from, it was a line that would go on to become chimpanzees and bonobos. It’s highly likely in those early days that we might have been as hierarchical as those primates were. The egalitarian nature of hunting and gathering society may well have been an active adaptation that was a way of life that proved successful for the entire group and for the individuals within that group. We see egalitarianism is not simply the absence of inequality, but egalitarianism among living hunter gatherers is a cultural behavior that’s actively constructed, and it certainly puts the brakes on some of the desires of humans that are not particularly admirable.
We all want to take care of number one, but what hunter gatherers figured out is that the best way to take care of number one, yourself, is to actually make sure that other are taken care of, because then those are the people who are going to care of you when you’ve been unsuccessful hunting. When you become ill and you can’t go out and gather plants, other people will step in and take care of you, because you’ve been generous with them in the past. So, the egalitarian nature of humanity is something that’s actively constructed. But in a way as it becomes actively constructed, it becomes our human nature. Hunter gatherers share not simply because they’re making a mathematical calculation of if I share with this person, then they’re going to owe me. They do it because it’s what they consider to be what a reasonable human being does. It becomes their nature.
MCD: It’s so interesting because it seems like we have that egalitarian nature so deep within us. I mean, it’s part of our ethics and morality in a lot what gets talked about in every kind of debate that we have in the news, like healthcare and things like that. And at the same time, we have these things like war, poverty, racism, and sexism that are so un-egalitarian. And I don’t know if those things are a step backwards to our chimp selves, or if just as egalitarianism was a cultural product of these big transitions in humanity, whether these phenomena are also kind of like a new part of our selves.
RK: The culture that was constructed in the increasingly competitive world of early state societies creates the culture of today. It creates an expectation that there are different groups of people, and that those different groups of people have more or less capacity than other groups, or that they have more or less rights than other groups. So, 200 years ago, 95% of white people would’ve considered it normal, acceptable, and even rational that Africans should be enslaved. This is what state culture does, and it is actually designed to ignore any empirical evidence to the contrary. It’s basically a lie. We all know that. And the good news is we can change that.
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MCD: Now, we are, you argue, at threshold of a new beginning, the Fifth Beginning, that’s the title of your book. And I like the line in your book that said, “If something can’t go on forever, it won’t.” What is it about our time that can’t go on forever?
RK: Well, what can’t go on forever is lifestyles that are increasingly more expensive, that require increasing amounts of energy and resources to be extracted out of the earth. What can’t go on forever is increasing inequality between the haves and the have-nots of the world, partly because at some point people will rebel.
MCD: You write about three processes that are going on right now. One is the excessive cost of war. One is the reach of global capitalism and its continuing search for cheap labor, which logically has to run out at some point. And then there’s automation and the destroying of jobs, not necessarily good jobs but the replacement of labor with machines, essentially. All of this is existing within a globalized world, where through transportation and communication and everything else, we’re not the world even that our parents knew. How are those things working right now, and how do you see them creating conflict and resolving?
RK: At some point, we have to recognize as many people have recognized that the cost of war is destroying the rest of society. We can’t have a national healthcare. We can’t take care of the nation’s infrastructure, because we’re pouring billions and billions into a machine of war, and a machine of war that we can’t really use. We can’t use it against a North Korea. We could absolutely crush that country in a few days, but they have nuclear weapons, and they’ve got guns trained on Seoul. So, we can’t use this awesome military might. Nuclear weapons is really the end of this 5,000 year escalation in the cost of war. Now, all we can do is pour a lot of money into conventional weapons, $13 billion aircraft carriers, $800 million stealth bombers, that we can’t really use.
The second process is a very natural process to capitalism. Capitalism works; it’s successful by reducing its costs. And its biggest cost is labor, so capitalism has long looked for ways to reduce labor. It’s done this in two ways: One is through machinery; the other is through moving labor to cheap markets on the globe. The globe is finite, so at some point within the next century or so, we will have tapped out all the world’s cheap labor. We already see what will happen as a function of that process, which is to remove labor through automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence. The logical endpoint here is a world in which people are no longer needed for their labor. I don’t know what that really means, but it certainly means that capitalism cannot continue in the way that it’s been continuing for the last couple of centuries.
The third process is really a function of a global capitalism. It’s brought people of very different cultures together in a very intimate way. This has partly been by moving people around the globe through slavery, a couple of hundred years ago. Now, through war, which is moving people out of countries as they seek refuge from it. It’s now possible for them to do that; the transportation system allows it to happen. So, we now have many people from other countries living here in the United States.
This has brought people together, who even a century ago would not have been brought together in as intimate a way as they’ve been brought together today, and that’s both created a problem and a wonderful opportunity. It’s created a problem because our culture is essential to our vision of who we are, and the mere presence of other cultures for some people is they find it threatening. They worry that their way of life is going to disappear. For other people, being introduced to cultural diversity opens up a new culture for them, and it’s a culture of global citizenship. It’s a culture in which homogeneity becomes the oddity and cultural diversity becomes the norm.
For young people today, growing up with people of different cultures is that to them is normal life. It’s not normal life for many of the older people today who are uncomfortable with it. Moving people around, allowing the global movement of sports and music, movies, all creates a very different sense of what one’s culture is. It’s a global culture. It’s one in which diversity is acceptable and okay. And I believe that that will become the global culture in another century or so, and it won’t happen without considerable growing pains, and we’re witnessing those today.
MCD: How would you actually describe the fifth beginning. The first four beginnings were based on the archeological record, then the fifth kind of extrapolates from that. Is that right?
RK: The evidence for the fifth beginning lies in the dramatic changes in the human signature on the face of the planet: increasing amounts of trash, massive increases in the size of buildings, in the size of cities, in the numbers of shipwrecks, in the presence of material on the moon and on Mars. These are all the indicators that archeologists use to clue them in to a time period during which human society is undergoing radical change. So, the information we used to discover four previous beginnings is also telling us that there’s a fifth beginning going on now.
What I think the fifth beginning marks is the origin of global self governments, and that’s going to entail the end of war as a way to solve disputes, because war just doesn’t work the way it used to. It’s also going to mark the end of nation-states really as sacred entities. I mean, boundaries may continue to exist but they’ll become a way to just keep track of how well people in different parts of the world are doing. I think it means the end of capitalism as we know it, and the beginning of world citizenship.
MCD: That certainly sounds like a world that perhaps many of us would want to live in, but meanwhile we have all these processes based on the first four beginnings that are playing themselves out. Does it have to play itself out completely in order for the next phase to come into being? In other words, does the entire continent of Africa have to be totally exploited for cheap labor and industrialized? Do we have to play out the arms race? I mean, you say we can’t have a nuclear war, but we seem to have a president who may not believe that. Do the vast majority of people have to be replaced by robots? All things like that before we can move on?
RK: One of the advantages we have in the fifth beginning is we know something about the past. We can take advantage of that fact. We can see what’s coming, and I believe we can choose to make that transition with a lot less pain than previous transitions were made. We know a lot about how human society operates, and what leads it to peaceful existence and what leads it to violent existence.
I say in the book that we can make this transition the hard way or the easy way, a movement to a global form of governments, a movement to a more peaceful world, one that aims to ensure prosperity for everyone is a world that we can achieve. It may be that we have to go through some structural changes that will be very painful. It may be that we have to go through a third world war that will be unbelievably destructive. It may be that we have to cope with the continuing rampages of a changing climate before we get it. Or we can use the past to look down the road, see what’s coming, and leapfrog to the end of the process, that would be the easy way. At the moment, it looks like the world is choosing the hard way.
MCD: They should listen to archeologists.
RK: I like to think that archeologists could be the heroes of the world.
MCD: Now, all these changes that we’ve talked about: technology, culture, agriculture, the state, and now a post-capitalist, some kind of world governed society or transnational society. Do you see all these changes? Can they accurately be called progress? Is there distinction between evolution and progress? Progress kind of has a moral and ethical tinge to it, evolution doesn’t so much.
RK: Yeah. Evolution doesn’t care. It doesn’t care if you’re living well or living poorly. It really only cares if the species reproduces. So, evolution is very cold-hearted. I’d like to think that most humans are not cold-hearted. I think most people want to live in a world where their neighbors are more or less as prosperous as they are. I don’t want to live a world where there are fantastically wealthy people and phenomenally poor people. We can choose to construct the world we want to live in. I don’t think it’s true; I refuse to accept that enormous inequalities in wealth is an inescapable fact of life. It is not.
MCD: When I was in college, I was drawn to the idea of world government, and world government is definitely a piece of what you’re talking about. And at that time, the people who were working on that kind of thing were promoting the use of a kind of made-up composite language called Esperanto and that was supposed to be the common language of the future. And I was explaining all of this to an old, German uncle of mine once, when I was visiting Germany. And he looked at me with this very kind and wistful expression, and said, “Wie wäre die Welt ohne Bayrisch,” which means, “What would the world be like without the Bavarian dialect.” He was just in love with Bavarian culture, and that really affected me. And I realized that he was right, and that local culture is real and beautiful and important. And I guess I wonder how you see the interplay of a world system of government and commerce and really strong, local culture?
RK: There’s actually no reason that you can’t have both. When we look at things like the recent vote in Spain by the Catalonians, who voted to secede from Spain, and they’re not the only ones talking about this. The Basques have talked about it. The Scots have talked about it. The Tyroleans in Italy have talked about it. Heck, the Texans have talked about it. Part of what they’re feeling there is that their culture is under attack. No one’s culture lasts forever. They are all constantly changing over time, but no one wants to feel that their culture is being changed through forces that they can’t control. So, these various cultures around the world have to be given a sense that they’re not going to be crushed. Language is a very important part of people’s culture.
RK: When we look at movements around the globe, it often revolves around language. There are different responses to that. Canada found a response, which was you’re going to have two national languages and everything’s going to be done in both of those languages. It’s an expensive option, but it lets the French population of Canada–it gives them a stronger sense that they’re not being ignored. They’re not being told that they have to get with the program or leave. They’re being told they’re a valid and valued member of Canadian society, that’s one way to approach it.
English is becoming the lingua franca of the world. It’s doing what the people who devised Esperanto wanted to do, which was creating a global language. Some people will push against that. France will push back, but other countries don’t seem to have a problem with it. They see speaking in English as being very, very valuable, because they can now tap into a huge world of scientific and other literature that might otherwise be difficult for them to get a hold of. They’re okay with it, if English comes in as a purely second language and is not being pushed to replace their native language.
I spent some time in Finland a couple of years ago. And one morning I was standing waiting for the Tram to come, and I was listening to some teenage kids talking, and they were talking in Finnish, but then they all switched to English for a few sentences, and then they switched back to Finnish. For them, English was becoming their language, and they were so okay with it that they could move back and forth between the two. I believe the Chinese are feeling this way as well. All young people in China are learning English because they see this is how they’re going to tap into the rest of the world.
MCD: Now, how do you think about in a peaceful future we can talk about cultures like French and English speaking Canadians and so on, that are inherently benign, they’re a little different, but then there are toxic cultures like ISIS and Boko Haram and any number of mafias all around the world. Those are also cultures. They raise children and have their values and try to put those values out. And what do you do with that in a peaceful world?
RK: You recognize that those sort of toxic cultures are really expensive for those people to maintain them, but they maintain them because there really isn’t a viable option. The appearance in the Middle East of ISIS, Al Qaeda, these are driven in part by the economic situations of their countries. The problems in Syria are actually linked to climate change. There was a long, long drought in Syria that drove people from the rural areas into the cities, where there simply wasn’t enough work for them, where the government wasn’t prepared to deal with this shift from a rural to an urban population. They weren’t prepared to deal with it, economically. We see the result, and the result there is the result that happens anywhere. When people are pushed up against a wall, they will fight back. So, the strategy should be it has to be a two-pronged strategy. Obviously, you have to fight those toxic cultures as a criminal element, but you also have to recognize the material causes of those cultures and do something about them.
MCD: So, as listeners, as citizens, as thinking people who might be listening to this program right now, thinking about the fifth beginning that you’re talking about and being really maybe on the cusp of an old system and a new one. I think you said somewhere in the book that future archeologists might think of our time as prehistory. Is this a set of processes that happen by themselves? Are there things that we as individuals or as groups or as voters can really do to push ourselves toward the less destructive scenario? I mean, you’re talking about the eradication of national boundaries. It’s a pretty big vision. Is there anything that we can do to see to it that we take the easier path?
RK: I think as individual citizens, some of the things that we can do are quite frankly at this point in US history … I actually hate to say it, but we have to peacefully and lawfully, but vigorously and relentlessly, oppose any action by our government that is going to operate against an internationalization of the world, of the economy, of government. The strategy that the current administration would like to take us on is not going to work. It may eventually, by breaking the international system, get us to a more peaceful and prosperous world, but it will do it with a great deal of agony. Individual citizens can do anything possible to make the people of other cultures, of other races, of other religions, feel very, very comfortable in their community. That can be everything from lending a hand when you know a family is in trouble to merely holding the door open for somebody, make people feel that they can be comfortable with their culture in the midst of the larger US culture.
MCD: You talk about the internationalization of the world and of government, but right now we’re in a situation where trade agreements tend to favor corporations and often supersede national laws about environment and labor and things that really matter to people. The human quality of greed is with us, especially in highly industrialized societies. How do you envision a peaceful world government that isn’t based on that kind of corporate greed that seems to be the essence of what we are today in so many ways?
RK: Well, that’s a difficult question, but greed is not an inherent piece of human nature. Greed is a cultural construction. It’s a cultural behavior. It’s something that we’re taught, and capitalism teaches that it’s acceptable. You’ll remember the movie Wall Street from some years ago, with the famous line, “Greed is good. Greed works.” If we’ve constructed a culture in which greed is considered good, we can construct a culture in which greed is considered bad.
MCD: Have you imagined the mechanisms by which a different set of values would be institutionalized?
RK: It’s difficult to institutionalize that sort of change. It’s probably a change that has to come up from the bottom, so to speak, in which we simply do not continue to reward those kinds of behaviors and to reward in fact the opposite.
MCD: Robert Kelly is an archeologist at the University of Wyoming. He’s author of the book The Fifth Beginning, What Six Million Years of Human History Can Tell Us About Our Future. Before we go, I wanted to ask you what’s been the response to your book so far?
RK: The reviews on it have been very, very positive. One review said it was quite simply the best archeological essay the reviewer had ever read. There are some people who are using it in classes. It’s being used in at least a few places as one of these freshman seminar books, because it’s relatively short and it’s written for the public. So, it’s a language that’s accessible to freshman. And I’m happy with that.
MCD: Robert Kelly, thank you so much for being with us.
RK: Well, thank you for taking the time. I appreciate it.