My first coherent memory of the term Black Friday was in 2008, when we had two Chinese students staying at our house for Thanksgiving and they went out all night to “celebrate” this American consumer tradition. History tells me that the term dates to the 1960s, and of course I was well aware of people starting their Christmas shopping the day after Thanksgiving throughout my life. I was a rare participant, having suffered lifelong from male-pattern-shopping-disorder.
Despite advanced degrees and extensive world travel, I am unable to appreciate the beauty of this image. What’s wrong with me?
Now, the casualties from this year’s simultaneous shopping frenzy are already mounting as I write this, so as a historian I immediately think of parallels in earlier civilizations, such as the human sacrifice found in many MesoAmerican cultures. You can argue there is a difference between religious beliefs and consumerism, but you can also argue exactly the opposite, and indeed in history the distinction between belief and ritual is entirely academic.
Here is an image of the world’s oldest “ceremonial” site, Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, 5,000 years older than Stonehenge. (at Global Heritage Fund we are trying to conserve it through community development projects) Some have called it the world’s oldest “religious” site but we have no idea if and what religion possessed these hunter-and-gatherer societies of the Fertile Crescent at that date. We can only know about the site’s ritual use, and even much of that is still theoretical.
Even if we know what she is doing, we don’t know what she is thinking
The world is full of early megalithic structures, places like the Celtic stone circle in Austria seen above, or Göbekli Tepe, or Stonehenge, or the famous Easter Island statues, or the Spinx for that matter. Pyramids themselves, found in the Fertile Crescent, Egypt (duh), and of course throughout the Americas, are a kind of megalith, even if the earliest ones are rammed earth, or in this case, adobe brick.
Lima is full of huacas (pyramids) like Rome is full of Baroque churches
So, we have the ancient ritual sites and their megaliths, and we have our modern ritual sites, which are megamalls, and progress is certainly measurable because we sacrifice a miniscule fraction of the number of people they used to sacrifice at these various ritual sites. So where do the megafauna fit in?
Traditionally we ascribe the rise of religion to the abandonment of the huntering and gathering lifestyle for settled agricultural societies. If you are always on the move, you can’t build a temple, right? Göbekli Tepe conflates that, since it was built by pre-agricultural society, although there are intriguing connections to the early domestication of plants and animals. Every historical shift has a push and a pull, and the ready availability of plants and animals in the Fertile Crescent and Eurasia in general was a pull, but the demise of megafauna was likely a push.
Is that a dodo?
One of the quaint truths about human societies is that they almost never, ever live in any sort of harmony with nature. We love the myth of people living in harmony with nature, and that myth meant Avatar made a boatload of money, which is too say that myth FED our expansive economic ecosystem that depends on consumption of more resources than our environment can sustain. That is ironic in the original sense of the word, BTW. It is relatively easy to see in the fossil record how prehistoric humans on every continent wiped out the megafauna: giant kangaroos, mastodons and woolly mammoths, huge felines, etc. We might wonder at how they could have managed these huge kills, but the “big game hunter” still exists – the human impulse is to go big. And when a tribe managed a big kill, they got a big payoff in terms of calories and clothes and tools. So we killed off all those big beasts. Probably a very male thing.
Unlike architecture. Hard to see the male imagery in that…
While the men were going big in the hunt, the women were gathering fruits and nuts and berries and eventually emmer wheat and barley and THEY probably figured out the idea of agriculture, which was much less dramatic than the big hunt but more productive in the long terms of calories and clothes and sustained societies better. Besides the Ice Age was over and nutrients in the soil were OFF THE HOOK.
3000 year old bread. Stale, but nutritious.
SO, if you go to the Fertile Crescent today you see lands of milk and honey where everything grows in blue peace with the environment, yes? Well, no. It’s more like lots of desert, because of the lovely human tendency (all genders pull together on this one!) to exploit our resources until we totally run out.
I remember touring the archaeological monuments of the Burren in County Clare, Ireland, where our guide pointed out from one summit the remains of eight significant prehistoric monuments, wedge tombs and dolmens and the like, and noted that there was only one contemporary house in the same viewshed, because the land was much MORE populated five thousand years ago.
You know, before it got gentrified
Now comes the time in the story when I make an analogy to heritage conservation. So here goes. In preserving and conserving historic sites, we tended to start with the megafauna: the huge monuments like Pyramids and Great Walls and Palaces and whacking great ginormous temples….
Then we got a little more sophisticated, which is to say feminine, and started cultivating our cultural landscapes, but since we did it in a curatorial (male) fashion, we tended to demolish as much as we conserved, so we got historic landscapes that were more like petting zoos than living landscapes…
Skansen, the granddaddy of them all
But then we started listening to the likes of Jane Jacobs and tried to imagine actual sustainable environments that retained their roots: both in architectural design and place history, and we imagined we could sustain these historical cultural landscapes in a living, evolving way…
And that’s as far as we have gotten. Happy Black Friday!
PS: I treated the monuments to landscapes argument a year ago here.