The First to Stand Still and The Origins of Civilization
It is estimated that human beings have been on this planet for around 200,000 years. What we know of history really only begins 10,000 years ago, and even that is sometimes a stretch. So, what were we doing for the other 190,000 years? According to most anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians, we spent that time roaming the planet in the nomadic lifestyle of hunter-gatherers.
The hunter-gatherer lifestyle was probably fairly simple. They wondered the land, following animal migrations and making sure to remember where all the best berry-bushes and sources of good rocks were located. They got in conflicts with each other, and sometimes bullied the other hominid species that were still around at the time. For the most part, though, it was an idyllic era. The entire Earth was our Garden of Eden.
There would have been no need for diet pills, or CrossFit gyms, in this long-lost era. Exercise for our ancestors was simply a fact of life. The fat and lazy couldn’t keep up on hunting trips, and gathering wasn’t so easy, either. One berry won’t strain your back, but a basket full sure will. But a single reason for fitness triumphed above all others: early humans had no choice but to walk everywhere.
The constant walking, I believe, is what led to the transition from the nomadic lifestyle to the development of civilization, complete with cities and kings and sewers. And the first person to stop walking and settle down was a philosopher.
“Forget this,” he (or she) said as he was trudging along through something difficult, like snow or stinky mud. “This is a nice spot. There are wild fruits to eat, and wood to burn, and the occasional deer or rabbit that is stupid enough to come close.”
So the first settler decided to stand still, and sedentary life turned out to be pretty nice. He got to think about things and look at the stars without some tribal chief telling him to pick up the pace.
His whole tribe said he would surely die, and he almost did. But he was a smarter than the average prehistoric human. When the firewood ran out and he was cold, he figured out how to build a house. When the numbers of wild animals began to dwindle, he learned about domestication. When the fruits and berries were out of season he invented farming to ensure his food supply, and ceramics to store it through the winter.
Other people occasionally crossed through his homestead, and for many years they all thought he was crazy. He had to do a lot of extra work to survive in one place. But they also saw how happy he was at the end of the day when he could sit in a chair (his chair) and survey the land (his land).
Many years later, his old tribe found themselves wandering back through the same area. A few of them must have thought they would come across the corpse or their former companion, ravaged by hunger or wild beasts. Instead, as they were chasing down a herd of mammoths they came across something quite different. They ran into a fence.
The tribe realized that their defector had figured out a completely new way of living. Before he knew it, new houses were being built next to his sanctuary. More fences sprung up, separating one person’s land from another’s. At first, this didn’t seem like such a bad thing. Maybe, because he had led them in this Neolithic Revolution, the others would be grateful and would make him their king.
This was not to be the Philosopher’s destiny. After all was said and done, it was easy for everyone to copy his innovations and make them their own. It was not so easy for the Philosopher to become big and strong and intimidating. His old tribal chief, who used to get on the Philosopher’s back for not walking fast enough, was surely the one who reaped the benefits of Rule. Not because he was smart enough to earn it, but because he was strong enough to take it away.
That is why, to this day, Philosophers can’t shut up about the ideal Philosopher King. Because for a brief, beautiful moment in time Civilization belonged to them. Then someone came along and copied them, and took their kingship away.
But there are always new things to figure out, right?