Alternate prehistory

I just finished reading Stone Spring by Stephen Baxter. It’s an alternate prehistory novel set in 7300 BC in the former land bridge that connected Britain to the continent, before the water from the melting glaciers raised sea levels and turned perfidious Albion into an island nation. Against this backdrop of climactic change occurs the story of the Etxelur people and how they come to build great dikes to keep out the sea and thereby changed the face of the earth itself. The book is first and foremost a novel, so the story focuses mainly on the relationships and petty struggles between the various individuals and factions and not on the admittedly dry and boring geological details.

After a small tsunami wipes out half of her tribe, Ana organizes her people and their neighbours into a labour force that works on the dikes during the abundance of the summer. Her obsession with preventing the sea from claiming more lives and land eventually leads her to buy stone and slaves from another tribe.

Essentially, this part of Stone Spring depicts the hydraulic theory of state formation in action, which proposes that states formed because people needed to organize themselves in order to build and maintain complex irrigation systems, otherwise they’d have starved to death.

I didn’t like this part of the book because it felt unrealistic from an anthropological point of view.

Yes, where physics geeks obsess over the scientific flaws in fiction, anthro-geeks obsess over the terrible portrayal of social and cultural processes abundant in fiction. Specifically, I didn’t like Ana’s organization of the Etxelur into a proto-state, with hierarchical politics and even an emerging labour market fueled by flint exchanged for stone and slaves. The simplified schema of political organization in anthropology holds that humans, as hunter-gatherers originally, live in small band-level societies where members are relatively equal in social status and resources. As populations grow and become more complex, they come to live in tribes, then in chiefdoms. In the chiefdom greater difference between leaders and followers emerge. Note, though, that a chief is not a king, and their power rests on the various alliances and friendships they have cultivated. The position of chief is far more precarious than that of king, and a chief’s people have far more power on their side and therefore are far more likely to tell the chief to piss off if they don’t like what the old boy is saying.

To be fair, Baxter may have been simply practising dramatic license. The transition from tribe to chiefdom and from chiefdom to state can take generations, probably centuries. A rare and charismatic individual can also spring up among a tribal-level society, and the force of their personality can be so strong that their followers come to follow orders in a way not usually seen among tribal folk. Certainly Ana would count as just such an individual.

Another issue, though, is the way that age is treated among the Mesolithic folk (though technically the Neolithic had already arrived in other places). A thirty year old person is considered ancient and someone in their forties is positively half-dead. This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how hunter-gatherers treat their elders and of how life expectancy factors into their worldview. Yes, life expectancy is low among hunter-gatherers, but this is due in large part to the high rate of infant mortality, which brings down the average. If an infant should survive their first year, then they have a greater chance of surviving their second year, and then their third year, and so on. Hunter-gatherers can live for a fairly long time and it would not be unusual to see people survive into their fourth or fifth decade. While much rarer, some people also survive to their sixties and seventies.

In fact, current anthropological theory holds that senescence (i.e., the period of life after people have mostly stopped reproducing) serves an evolutionary purpose among humans. One way the elderly contribute to survival would be in helping to take care of the grandkids. As well, the aged accumulate much knowledge which can help the younger generations survive. One historical example is of a tsunami devastating the regular food sources of a certain group of South Pacific islanders (I must confess to forgetting the name of the tribe in question). One of the elderly persons told the rest what kinds of food would serve as suitable emergency food based on the elder’s memories of when the same thing happened when he was a child.

Still and all, though, Baxter clearly knows a fair bit about hunter-gatherers, which is surprising considering that his education is in the physical sciences. That’s what make the niggling mistakes niggle so much.

There are two sequels planned for the story, making for an alternate history trilogy, with the next book apparently being set in the Bronze Age, judging from the title (Bronze Summer). Of course, with such a massive change as prehistoric dikes being built that prevent the English Channel from forming, the world of the sequel will be greatly different from ours. It’s rare enough to find hunter-gatherer fiction, Clan of the Cave Bear notwithstanding, so I’ll probably pick up the next book when it comes out, but I’ll probably still nitpick the details. What can I say, that anthropology degree needs to be used for something.

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