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A long tale of ‘enablers’ (Part I)

Published on 22 April 2012
Updated on 16 July 2024

(This blog entry is in two parts. In Part I an “enabler” – horsemanship – is shown progressively to transform the material society of the steppe. In Part II the social consequences of the enabler’s impact are visited)

“Enablers”– the way we do things – drive society: unwittingly, haphazardly, and unpredictably. They often precede “values”, shape and strengthen them, or constrain their content. Over time “values” will in turn inform the enabler’s scope: certain uses may become prescriptions or “taboos”. Greenland Norse rather starved than copy the Inuit in eating salmon and seal[1]. Enablers never are inevitabilities.

Over time feedback loops between enablers and values may become very complex, and it is then seldom possible to determine the direction of causality. Inversions often occur – to the delight of revisionist historians.

My intention here is to trace the emergence of a primeval conflict in human society, one that reverberates to this day. Listen to international political discourse, and you’ll recognize this conflict, though dressed in different, modern garb. It is the relation with the “other” – the “enemy”, or if you prefer “evil” – as in Axis of Evil.

The conflict with the “other”, I’ll maintain here, squared off the nomad and the sedentary agriculturalist – the settled. These cultures have been enemies for a long time. Armed with writing the agriculturalist has derided the nomads as “barbaric” – ridiculed them for not having a “state” – and living off plunder. Underlying the derision is primeval fear of the nomad on horseback, skilled in “parting” shot, who will not stand and fight as a Roman legionary would.

parthian shot

How did nomadism emerge? I’ll trace major steps (disregarding many intermediate as well as lateral links). If you asked yourself how nomadism emerged, here is a likely “historical” recipe:

  • Domesticate the dog, certainly by 5000 BC. Only with a dog can a herd be managed (except that there was no herd then – yet);
  • Domesticate sheep and goats. The flock typically follows a “lead female”. Controlling this animal means that one controls the herd. A shepherd and a dog can do it. Maximum size of the herd: 1-2 hundred animals. Use at this time: meat on the hoof;
  • Domesticate cattle. Use at this time: meat on the hoof, and leather for clothing;
  • Domesticate the horse. Use at this time: winter meat, for only the horse can push away the snow and ice covering grass, or break ice for drinking water from a pool. Cattle and sheep can’t, but will gladly follow in horses’ steps. This allows the pastoralist to increase his range significantly;
  • Select genetically for wool in sheep. Use wool for spinning and felt production (to make yurts) – you may use or trade wool and its products. Demand for larger herds emerges;
  • Learn to ride the horse. One rider with his dog can easily control 500 sheep, so you can manage the larger herd;
  • Invent the wheel[2] to build wagons, and yokes as well as harness to pull the wagons. You can move your larger herd freely about, so as to secure the best pastures;
  • Develop metallurgy for use in bites for the horses, arrow points for chase and fight, and axles for the wagons and carts, so they can roam without them breaking down;[3]

At this point one no longer is a pastoralist with a hut on the steppe and doing local transhumance – one can roam the wide steppes at will, sleeping in yurts, hunting, gathering honey for sugar and mead, producing metal objects, and gathering buckwheat, which is not wheat. Time horizon: say 1000 – 500 BC, depending on location.

As mobility increases social structures adapt – getting along when everyone is on the move is not as easy as when everyone is more or less sedentary. Social systems of mutual obligations emerge: vertically to the head of the clan; horizontally by creating “guest-host” relationships with neighbors for the orderly transhumance through the steppes on the basis of reciprocity. The rest becomes the “other”.

By 500 BC the Eurasian steppe was populated, its peoples highly mobile. All sorts of local variations emerged in response to the environment, and customs. Myths emerged: they are “time capsules” of information garbled in oral transmission[4].

Increasing the herd to make good losses or quickly to accumulate wealth was niftily done through raiding. One seldom raided locally – one raids the distant “other”. The best livestock rustlers became heroes. Heroic culture emerged.

At some point nomads met agriculturalists along the ecological border zone: they had much to exchange. Animals and their products, but also metals, were traded for grain, wine, and women. The boundary between steppe and “sown” was fragile. Nomads may decide to raid and rob, rather than trade, particularly if operating from deep within the steppe. Nomads, like the Parthians, may stop the advance of the settled’ troops – like at Charrae. Raids may even lead to permanent subjugation of the settled. This was not too difficult. Non-industrial societies were ruled by small tributary elites; kill them, and the nomads may heave themselves in their place (this is what Genghis Khan did), while leaving the peasants relatively undisturbed[5].

The process of nomadisation took good 5000 years. When we look over this period it is “enablers” than stand out, and a society slowly adjusting and adapting both to environmental constraints and change as well as the new possibilities of human ingenuity and skill.

Karl MARX was not wrong in pointing to materiality as the source of human behavior and social change. Where he went wrong is that he wanted to construct a “theory” – he needed immanence in order to predict. He thought he had found this inevitability in the “ownership of the means of production” the ultimate key to human relations. In fact humanity’s daily struggle with reality is the never-ending source of change and adaptation as it discovers “enablers” and their many uses. Paraphrasing DARWIN: “From so simple a beginning endless forms of social life most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

[1] See: Jared DIAMOND (2004): Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Viking, New York.

[2] Wheels and draught animals go together. See: Jared DIAMOND (1997): Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.Norton, New York. The only exception is the Chinese wheelbarrow.

[3] David W. ANTHONY (2007): The horse, the wheel, and language. How bronze-age riders from the Eurasian steppes shaped the modern world. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

[4] See: Elizabeth WAYLAND BARBER – Paul T. BARBER (2006): When they severed earth from sky. How the human mind shapes myth. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

[5] See: Jack WEATHEFORD (2004): Genghis KHAN and the making of the modern world. Crown Publishers, New York.

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