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A Phoenix Fiction Writer Rising From The Ashes of Nonfiction




The Fantastic Electric History Machine 

I studied ancient history in my undergraduate college program at the Hutchins School of Liberal Studies at California State College Sonoma where I mostly engaged in supervised independent studies. Thus I researched library books to follow ideas I had about the nature of ancient history as well as to divine what the conventional perception consisted of. I had read some of Toynbee's work describing cultures and civilizations as organisms. I had also read Admiral Mahan's comment that too many people relate what happened at the battle of Trafalgar but too few reflected on why the ships were there.

There were three intellectual endeavors that I found particularly engaging from pursuing the study of ancient history. First, I read of Fredrik Barth's adventures among the transhumant herders of Iran and Afghanistan as a way to understand how ancient cultures might have existed in prehistory. Second, I became fascinated with what I thought was a unique idea of how ancient trade routes might have affected history and then ran across the book Rome and China by Frederick Teggart that showed he had already considered that in a book published before I was born. Third, I also had some preconceived ideas about trade and history which I felt hadn't been explained before that Teggart didn't note.

I became, over time, more and more intrigued with the idea that civilization arose from trade and that most of what we called history represented alterations in trade routes. It seemed to me that trade routes acted like electricity in that it took the path of least resistance. I had been trained in electronics where electrons moved along the path of least resistance to create elaborate electronic circuits such as sawtooth wave generators. I began to wonder if trade routes could be conceived of as electronic-like circuits that might also behave like a sawtooth wave generator: electronic voltages were gradients that seemed akin to economic price gradients for commodities that flowed from areas of surplus to areas of scarcity. It also seemed as if cities served somewhat like capacitors and other things were like resistors.

Thus I conceived of "The Fantastic Electric History Machine" which applied the circuitry concepts from electronics to the trade routes of civilization. A sawtooth wave generator in electronics had electrons flow in greater numbers for a period of time and then suddenly cut off, only to start ramping up again and cut off again. The circuit worked as an oscillator because of the arrangement of parts, not because anyone was in charge or controlled the process. Maybe history was the same way: the very existence of certain trade relationships resulted in a sawtoothed response.

I delved deeper and deeper into history and prehistory to reconcile how humans developed civilization. We all supposedly began as primitive hunter-gatherers scavenging for sustenance, living in extended family clans throughout the world. Somehow we then developed religions and languages that produced a polyglot tribal existence in territories where cultural traditions provided for interactions with the local ecology of animals and plants.

Typical explanations of prehistory assert that proto-farmers learned to sow crops and thus occupied the same place over many years forming villages that grew into cities. I never understood how they could propose this. Learning to sow crops doesn't mean that sufficient nutrition would exist for people to live in one place for a year. Crops tend to be seasonal and variable, so that people would plant crops, harvest and eat them before the year was over and then starve.

What I saw in history represented a different view. I viewed hunter-gatherers as nomadic people who ate crops and animals seasonally. If they were in an area where this allowed them to remain in a local place while the crops and animals migrated around them, they might have formed villages. However, more likely was the tactic of following migrating animals, particularly larger animals, to hunt them over the year. During these nomadic hunts they would encounter crops that emerged at the time they were there, and thus could be eaten.

In the process of doing this they would occasionally kill animals with young, and in some cases adopt the young as pets. It doesn't take any genius to realize that keeping a young animal as a pet will result in an adult animal soon afterward. These adult pets provided two advantages. First they often would become attractants to the animals being hunted. Second, managing these animals provided resources such as fibers and food. Tethering an animal as an attractant would invariably result in cases where mating with wild animals occurred, resulting in pregnant and milk producing animals. I actually encountered an anthropological study of a Pacific Island tribe that raised pigs where the tribe seemed to be unaware that it was wild hogs that impregnated their pigs.

Thus it would not be a major transformation for hunters that followed herds to actually become herders of their domestic attractant animals. This would be a case of the domestic animals following along with the natural animals with the humans exploiting both. However, over time this would have resulted in new resources such as cheese and fermented beverages. Thus following migratory wild animals with domesticated variants offers an easy path for hunter-gatherers to become herders.

At the same time, migrating herders will encounter natural crops at times as well. Strawberry patches, apple orchards, mushrooms, etc., existing in the wild would produce fruits and vegetables. The hunter-gatherers might camp for a period where they encounter some ripe foods. In subsequent years they might discover that these foods were now growing in the trash piles of former camping grounds. Again, it doesn't take genius for them to figure out that intentionally sowing seeds would provide a greater bounty in the following year. Therefore, agriculture could very easily have resulted from herders returning each year to seasonal camps and harvesting the enhanced plantings.

Herders likely traveled as individual clans following migrating animals, but there would be multiple unrelated clans doing the same. Occasionally these unrelated clans would encounter each other, such as at river fords, or where trails converged. And, perhaps more importantly, animals migrate typically from winter to summer grounds: they spend lengthy periods in these end zones. It would mean that any sequence of clans traveling with the animals would also end up spending lengthy period in these end zones and thus have to interact with each other.

Indeed, it is highly likely that clans assembling seasonally at end zones would have to establish some means of regulating their interactions. There might not be property rights, but some way of allowing later arriving clans to have places to stay would be necessary. Also, because nobody had watches or calendars in those days, and each clan would encounter different delays during their treks, the first arriving clan might likely be different each season. There might be some concept of inherent place for a clan to settle, but how this would be regulated seems problematic.

Also, if a clan tended to stay in the same place during end zones, they might be inclined to construct some facilities for managing their herds. Wild animals forage and likely the domestic animals would also forage, but wild animals move about to exploit newly grown forage while the clan animals would have only a limited ability to do that. It's possible that the end zones would be where large adult domestic animals would be slaughtered and only young kept because that allowed the clans to avoid overhunting the local areas and also reduced their required food for their animals.

End zones were also likely places where interactions between clans became major trading opportunities. Indeed, clans from widely disparate areas would converge on the end zones with entirely different items that they had brought with them. This could result in the creation of major trade facilities that allowed herders from one region to meet with herders from other regions and engage in exchange of commodities. Stonehenge, for example, might have been simply a place for such a trade facility.

The gathering of clans at these end zones would occur over period of time as the different clans arrived. However, leaving these end zones would be more problematic. Somehow the clans would have to leave in an ordered sequence at times that allowed them to arrive at their opposite end zone in an appropriate time. Therefore, Stonehenge as well as other henges may also have provided astronomical calculations that facilitated the orderly process of seasonal travels.

It is also likely that these trade facilities might have been found in regions outside of end zones as well. For example, seasonal rains may have made rivers impassable at times so that herder clans had to wait at fords until the water subsided. Again that would result in multiple clans occupying the same space, even if they did not occupy the same end zones. The ford sites would thus likely develop facilities that allowed the clans to engage in exchange of commodities. These trade facilities might not be inhabited throughout the year, but were just ad hoc places during the times that herders were passing.

However, each trade facility might also require different regulations for the clans. Thus a river ford would want to create some protocol over where the clans waited and which clans crossed in what order. In other places there might be some other regulatory protocol for that location, such as the reoccupation and harvesting of whatever crops were in former trash piles. Thus each trade facility likely would operate enormously more efficiently if some authority at the facility existed over time, perhaps year-round, to consistently implement the protocols for that location.

It is my opinion that villages and cities began in those trade facilities. In a ford, for example, it would be extremely more economically efficient if someone stayed at the ford and organized the process for the clans, instead of having them fight among themselves. Fredrik Barth gave an example of a lone soldier in Iran whose job was to regulate the crossing of a particular ford.

The crucial point is that for individual clans the ford represented only a momentary process, while for the multiple clans that followed this path, the process existed as a continuous need for an extended period. Plus, sometimes the ford was needed at both ends of the seasons. There might also be boats or rafts employed that the clans themselves simply would not have. As a consequence, having someone live at the facility to be available to oversee the protocols would produce a major economic advantage for all the clans.

Similarly, someone might be assigned to stay at an area where seasonal crops existed in order to facilitate the expansion and assignment of crops. The person might live all year long in this area but existed primarily from providing the herders with facilities and trade opportunities. The seasonal crops might not be enough for a village, but the interaction with the herders provided access to many other resources. Indeed, the short time periods when the herders passed could become virtual "county fairs" that became major social events.

Although the end zones provided chances for herders to engage in the exchange of commodities, the occupants of the trading facilities gained the opportunity to engage in this exchange over a longer range of times with groups that may have little opportunity to interact because they were on different trails at different times. As a consequence, the trading that occurred at these facilities could become vastly larger than the mere interaction of herders. In addition, food items might be dried and stored by herders and then exchanged at these facilities that therefore became sources of food for storage.

The herders, in turn, would have information about where they had been, or even where they were going, that the occupants of the trading facility could put to use. It is believed, for example, that writing originated when trade goods were shipped from one place to another. The sender would take ceramic icons for goods and put them inside a hollow clay sphere that would then be fired. The conveyer would deliver both the goods and the ceramic ball to the receiver who could break the ball to match the numbers of the icons with the numbers of goods. Over time, this process became simplified by impressing the ceramic icons onto a clay tablet which was then fired. The tablet would accompany the goods and the impressions be matched at the end.

However, this process implies that someone at point A sent something to point B via a third party in a manner that both sides might never interact except by tablet. This implies an authority at point A and point B needing to communicate. This could eventually lead to formal trade via herders from one trade facility to another requiring each clan to carry a tablet from the prior facility. The herders would necessarily require the services of the trade facility to exist and therefore would be unlikely to steal the goods if there was an instituted protocol that a clan needed a tablet in order to access the facility.

The facilities, in turn, could develop a means of communication that provided important information that would be also impressed onto the tablet. Thus writing possibly evolved primarily to allow trading facilities along migration routes to communicate and transfer commodities via the herders. The herders might be dependent on the facilities to implement the protocols that made their existence more economically efficient, even if it means something as simple as crossing a river or harvesting seasonal crops.

This trade and communication from individual trading facilities could also vastly increase the economic activities involved. If the trading facilities for a particular network of herders existed quite separately from another trading facility for a different network of herders, the two trading facilities could communicate and exchange commodities that would otherwise be unavailable by developing and using caravans specifically for that purpose. Once the protocol of sending goods by icons impressed on tablets existed, the two facilities could utilize caravans not only for the two adjacent facilities but for transferring commodities from distant facilities.

The key is that trade is always two-way. Something goes from point A to point B in exchange for something that goes from point B to point A. However, that may not necessarily occur simultaneously. The herders could always go from point A to point B in the spring, but from point B to point A in the fall, spending a season in an end zone. Thus the trading facilities would reconcile their records annually to determine what had been shipped and received.

Therefore, cities evolved from these trading facilities that serviced the herders. Herders came, over time, to carry commodities in addition to the underlying herding for the purpose of exchanging them at the trading facilities. Those commodities, in turn, represented high value items, such as silk or gold, that subjected the herders to robbery. Prices were something that existed ad hoc, so there could be little means of ensuring that something retained its value from point A to point B.

Herders en route to trading facilities would only carry small amounts of valuable commodities that might not be worth the trouble of a robbing an armed convoy. But at the trading facilities the valuable commodities would be concentrated. Therefore one reason that cities evolved from trading facilities occurred by storing the inventory of valuable commodities in secure facilities. The proto-cities themselves, initially, might not have held great wealth of their own, but they provided secure facilities for the herders to store valuable commodities.

Perhaps the development of writing occurred also from inventory receipts provided by the storage facilities to herders so that a herder clan would present the tablet and receive the actual goods represented by the icons. In some cases the herders may have "stored" some items they would need on their return trip rather than carry them on the entire migration route. The economic efficiency this provided would justify paying a "warehouse" fee by the herders.

If there were a network of such warehouses, the herders could travel very light without carrying everything needed on a year-long sojourn. As a consequence, herders might find the guaranteed payment to transfer a clay tablet with goods to be an economically preferable sideline rather than engaging in trade themselves. Trade caravans might have begun initially as ad hoc shipping agreements between herders and trading facilities. Or, perhaps, the clan leaders developed relationships with officials at trading facilities that reflected mutual investments. The tablet allowed the herder to store something when it was at a low price and retrieve it when the price was higher, such as the beginning and end of seasonal availability.

Indeed, the tablet itself might become a means of exchange where a herder in one place traded the tablet for goods or services which the provider receiving it would redeem in the place of origin for the tablet. The result would be a situation where the entire commerce of a region was conducted entirely ad hoc by herders acting as individual clans on a migratory route, but the physical evidence for that commerce existed entirely within the facilities that were erected to facilitate the herders in a particular location.

In some cases these proto-cities might exchange local food for some clothing that herders made from their animals, then exchange the clothing for some iron ore offered by other herders who extracted it from an outcrop on their remote travels, and then the inhabitants of the proto-city would transform the ore into metal using kilns at their facilities. The proto-cities would then be able to produce iron weapons or tools that existed nowhere else simply by virtue of acquiring ingredients from remote areas.

Imagine the difference between confronting a lion on the Serengeti plains with a wooden spear compared to having an iron weapon. Consider also the difference between a winter in the Alps of Europe wearing a cloak made from sheepskin compared to a cloak made from a lion's mane. Iron ore is readily available from outcroppings in the Alps while lion skins are readily available in the tropical African plains. The Niger River runs north from the plains to Timbuktu while the Rhone River runs from the cold interior of Europe to the Mediterranean. One needs only to build a trading facility on the opposite coast of the Mediterranean to send traders to Timbuktu to have an opportunity for vast wealth exchange: that trading facility, historically, was Carthage.

Thus the rise of civilization, meaning primarily the existence of cities, could be entirely explained by the existence of nomadic herders in the normal course of their existence. The herders themselves did not develop civilization, but the herders caused the development of civilization through their need for facilities to provide services to the herders. Villages did not arise from agriculture but rather from herder encampments, some of which involved propagating seasonal crops along the herder trails.

The wealth of cities that developed from these herder facilities depended very much on the vigor of the herders. Kingdoms eventually arose as cities moved to shelter and protect the herders on their way to and from the facilities. From the initial tablets used to ensure that herders carried commerce, the cities extracted taxes for using the facilities. Metals that were originally raw ores became instead metal blanks which over time were standardized into coins (partly to dissuade counterfeiters by complex engravings certifying content).

In the Dark Ages of Europe, where trade routes shifted because of technological developments in seaborne shipping, the existence of herders remained. The herders of Europe carried important commerce from city to city during the Dark Ages. The arrival of caravans to the herder encampments became the large fairs that marked the Medieval calendar. Cities existed primarily to facilitate the herders and to maintain the manufacturing of transported goods, but the herder caravans also brought technological "tinkers" and other professional services on a circuit.

Indeed, the development of the concept of nations in Europe occurred primarily because of the disruptions of these caravans. In essence, nations defined their borders by their willingness to defend and secure the trade caravans through their territories.


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Last Modified January 1, 2018

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