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September 7, 2023
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September 21, 2023

Are You Sitting Down?

Photo by Ivan Obolensky

One of the most profound revolutions in human history occurred well before agriculture. It was the period when humankind transitioned from nomadic to sedentary. More precisely, it was when humans started to remain in one location for extended periods as opposed to repeatedly pulling up stakes and moving on.

When this occurred exactly is open to debate. Given that the cave paintings of Southern Europe occurred some 35,000 years ago, it was likely before that, although most sources today point to it occurring some 12,000 years ago with agriculture beginning in earnest some 2,000 years later.

Given that the history of civilization and humans in general has been repeatedly extended into the past as more sites are uncovered and researched, I think it is fair to say that we’ve been around far longer than we know.

Regardless of when it happened, humans decided to stop wandering, and this had profound effects in many unexpected ways. With permanent communities came the concepts of property, ownership, wealth, buildings, and ultimately the means to produce more advanced products and technologies. Culture could be more easily handed down, and languages had a chance to grow and remain consistent. Consider the ideas of a workshop, a business, or even a home? All of these became possible with a permanent location. Agriculture and husbandry soon followed.

Why this occurred is unknown, although there are several theories from climate changes to the scarcity of game due to human success at persistence hunting. Whatever the reason, sitting down and staying put turned out to be the first vital step on the road to civilization. With permanent settlements came increases in population, which led to the faster spread of ideas, and the beginning of what is called the wisdom paradox. Specifically, how did humans transition from isolated nomadic groups, who had followed this lifestyle for thousands of years, to suddenly creating the foundational organization from which advanced civilizations evolved—all with no apparent changes to our genetic makeup? Was this shift the result of learned behavior, environmental necessity, or simply inspiration? The paradox is the extraordinary and unexpected difference between the before and the after.

For myself, I believe the answer lies with population density. (See blog: You Are Not Alone, or the article: The Motivation of Genius, Part I, for more detailed information.) There are two thresholds, an upper and a lower. Once that lower threshold is crossed, communication efficiency is enhanced. Language takes on a regularity of dialect and meaning, which furthers a sense of community, more effective communication, cooperation, and a cross-pollination of ideas. Stepping over that density threshold created large behavioral effects from what appears to be a minute change. The result is anything but gradual, but such changes are not unknown in nature. Consider the transition from grasshopper to locust. The transition is so abrupt it looks discontinuous, and yet population density is the catalyst. Perhaps it is the same with us?

For humans, our transition came from living together in larger numbers than the traditional hunter-gatherer bands could sustain. Villages acted like magnets for humans, which began by a group deciding to remain in one place. That starts with sitting down and that leads to thinking. Such behavior was revolutionary then, and strangely, it is just as revolutionary today, given the frantic hustle that is endemic around us.

Put in that way, may I offer you a comfortable chair and a hearty: “Viva la revolución!”?

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