What really happened in 10,000 BC?

May 3, 2008

10,000 B.C.

Directed by Roland Emmerich

With Omar Sharif, Camilla Belle & Steven Strait

I realise no one's going to see the movie 10,000 B.C. for a lesson in natural or early human history. But it's still hard not to keep a running count of the doozies in the film.

Like the woolly mammoths? As a species, they were close to extinction 12,000 years ago. They survived in a few isolated areas — but certainly nowhere near the deserts of Southwestern Asia/Northern Africa, where they're beasts of burden in the movie's version of ancient Egypt.

I don't want to begrudge anyone a couple hours of mindless fluff. 10,000 B.C. isn't a very good movie, but it's not especially harmful. But the title of the movie caught my attention because 10,000 B.C. is actually an enormously important moment in the history of human beings.

It's the beginning of what anthropologists call the Neolithic revolution — the period when humans, who had survived since the dawn of the species in nomadic bands that gathered food and hunted animals, began to develop techniques allowing them to get food through cultivating plants and the domestication of animals.

The popular version of what early human societies were like is shaped by the assumptions and prejudices of today's world — and in turn, this depiction of people 12,000 years ago behaving pretty much the same as we do today is another element in an ideology used to justify the current society as unchanging and unchangeable.

No one called for the Neolithic revolution to take place. It came about first in the Levant region east of the Mediterranean Sea — present-day Syria, spreading to Iraq — probably as a result of favorable climatic conditions that made food supplies more abundant, making it possible for hunter-gatherer bands to be less on the move and begin investigating how to cultivate plants, rather than gather them.

Prior to the Neolithic revolution, for the 100,000 years that modern humans were a species, the hunter-gatherer band was the rule. One of the chief characteristics of humans at every stage of history is that they live in cooperation with each other. In hunter-gatherer societies, it was a very rudimentary form of cooperation — working together to forage for edible plants and to hunt animals.

That specific form of cooperation depended, above all else, on what people did to get food and other means of survival — or to put it in the terms that Karl Marx and Frederick Engels used in developing their understanding of human history, it depended on the mode of production of the necessities of life.
Thus, for example, the hunter-gatherer bands depended on foraging for food scattered over a wide area, and this forced on them the condition of living as nomads, constantly on the move. That in turn meant that the bands had to be fairly small, so only a small number of children could be supported, and everyone had to be adept at hunting animals or at gathering.

In other words, the conditions of producing food and other necessities required that there be a rough equality among all the members of the band — which is why Marx and Engels referred to this as an era of "primitive communism".
Based on the evidence uncovered by anthropologists, there seems to have been, generally speaking, a sexual division of labour in which men hunted and women gathered — likely to do with the biological fact that women bore children and were less able to participate in days-long hunts.

But no social significance was attached to these different roles. In fact, women's gathering, not men's hunting, was the dominant means of obtaining food in a majority of cases.

This bears no resemblance at all to the world of 10,000 B.C. In the movie, women in the hunting tribes are there in the background, but it's a man's world when it comes to any action of significance. If women have any useful role other than to raise children, it is as the bearer of legends and superstitions — and in the case of the seer Old Mother, using her supernatural powers, but only to make sure the male heroes succeed.

But, a different way of producing necessities gave rise to a different form of cooperation. A more abundant food supply based on cultivating plants and domesticating animals meant that human societies could grow in size and adopt a more settled lifestyle.

This had a consequence for the role of women. Instead of a need to limit the number of births because of being on the move, there was an incentive for women to have more children, to be the next pair of hands to work — which increased the burden of child-rearing and diminished women's social role.
With a more stable and efficient system of food production, humans could produce a surplus for the first time.

Of course, when there was a surplus produced by human labor, there was a surplus that could be taken — the material incentive for war and conquest emerged. The production of a permanent surplus also allowed a division of labour to develop. This first emergence of divisions in human society didn't take the form of exploitation and oppression. But ultimately, it was the root of the development of something previously unknown — a class society.

Over hundreds and thousands of years, the individuals, families or social groups that had, at first for the good of all, taken responsibility for managing the surplus began to view themselves as separate from the rest of society, with their own superior position being natural and necessary.
Threats to that position had to be stopped — thus, the need for systems of coercion and repression, which became more extensive as the demands of production grew.

The emerging rulers of society needed to justify their position of superiority, so superstitions and legends were altered or concocted for the purpose. That in turn gave rise to the need for another form of specialised labour — ideologists, such as priests, who would be the guardians of the ruling ideas that justified class stratification. These elements do show up among the bad guys in 10,000 B.C. — the pyramid-building empire of the Almighty, whose arbitrary power depends on the barbarism of slavery.

This society is obviously based on Egypt, though around 3000 or 2000 B.C. — and it's worth noting that historians believe that slavery, though it existed in ancient Egypt, was relatively rare. The ancient societies where slaveholding became widespread were located further north, in Europe — the Greek and Roman Empires.

In every society divided between a minority of rulers and a majority who do the work, the ruled have dreamed of a world of equality and justice. The history not just of the past few centuries but of past millennia is filled with stories of the oppressed rising up in rebellion against the conditions imposed on them — with the hope of overturning their oppressors and establishing a different kind of world.

[Abridged US Socialist Worker http://www.socialistworker.org]

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.