By Faith Knutsen
When I don my Day-Glo and slog-jog around Mansfield Road (my neighbors are considering bumper stickers: “Slow For Bipedal Orange Snails”), one of my favorite routes starts west and ends up heading south, the rising sun on my right. But the road’s twists and turns convince my mind’s eye that I’m facing north. This 180-degree miscalculation gives me quite the mental gyration, trying to equate what I think should be reality from what clearly is reality.
I’m enjoying similar mental gymnastics these days reading “The Dawn of Everything” (Graeber and Wengrow, 2021), which questions accepted wisdom about human cultural evolution.
We’re taught that society evolved through clear-cut stages: hunter-gatherers, settled agriculturalists, the Industrial Revolution, and (voila, pinnacle achieved!) capitalism-driven democracy. But “Everything” posits that in the 200,000 years since modern humans started to systematically outlive, outpace, outmaneuver and eventually subjugate all other living organisms, evidence indicates that before the ‘second stage’ (sedentary agriculture), those just-like-us ancestors weren’t merely existing in isolated, extended-family-group hunting bands. Rather, the ‘first stage’ was full of socially innovative, wide-traveling, interconnected populations, constantly experimenting not only with occasional agriculture (long before it became a year-round way of life), but also with numerous different forms of concurrent yet highly varied social organization.
One case in point is Taljanky, in modern Ukraine. Almost 6,000 years ago, the inhabitants of a major urban center lived in hundreds of concentrically built homes. No house was more extravagant than others; it has no monuments, monoliths, fortifications or rich graves. Artifacts in each home include creative and individually distinguishable pottery, as well as imported items like salt and copper. While the book acknowledges the impossibility of definitive statements about these ancients’ social structure, the authors do describe potentially comparable modern-day European equivalents. There, in similarly arranged concentric communities, no household is held superior to others, but all are equally connected with, and are obligated by complex tradition to share goods and services with their neighbors on either side. Theirs is a circular, rather than a hierarchical, social construct, based on cooperation and reciprocity, not competition.
The writers’ hypothesis: Rather than evolving in linear fashion toward the optimal pinnacle of social structure, humans went down one of hundreds of byways, forgot their ancient alternatives, and got stuck in one predominate frame of mind.
My morning jog, in microcosm, is a modern human condition. I get stuck in a mindset that tells me where I’m located. But that gleaming sunrise in the ‘wrong’ place demonstrably proves me entirely mistaken.
Whatever the specifics of the case, favorable suns have clearly risen over successful settled communities for more millennia than was previously imagined — and the needs of those communities, however organized, haven’t altered. Innovation to meet those needs is just as strong today. It’s not only in Europe that modern comparables can be found to get us unstuck from “pinnacle achieved” thinking.
One of the details that struck me about the Taljankian study was their organized approach to an abundant and extremely varied local diet. Not only did the settlement’s residents hunt local wild animals, but each individual home cultivated gardens with multiple types of grains, in addition to harvesting fruits and nuts.
The modern local food movement reflects the same desire for regionally available, diverse sources of fresh produce. While there is significant advantage to quality-controlled, commercially available food, smaller-scale regenerative farming, involving and employing members of a local community, can lead to reduction in industrial-scale food waste and harmful byproducts. Athens’ own local foods movement is widely recognized. Activists like Leslie Schaller, one of its co-founders, and Michelle Ajamian and Brandon Jager, co-owners of Shagbark Seed & Mill, are nationally sought speakers and experts for their eloquent storytelling and commitment to local foods. Their approach led me to understand the vital relevance of the local foods movement (and introduced me to the best tortilla chips on earth!).
The local food movement’s goal is to achieve, in the modern era, the same dietary access in today’s commercial social construct that Taljankians owned 6,000 years ago. And that’s just one area of regional comparison. The Taljankians’ housing equality is a far cry from the status quo at our presumed apex of social organization. But a half-century old enterprise, Habitat for Humanity, focuses on affordable, stable housing for families otherwise unable to achieve it. The way Habitat’s houses are built, collaboratively by the new owners and community members, echoes a nonhierarchical cultural approach. Our local Habitat is run by highly innovative CEO Ken Oehlers, who also oversees the recycled housing material ReStore and has conceived of a new enterprise that will bring construction services to the part of the market that’s in desperate need and unable to afford commercial rates.
There are tens of other admirable leaders in our community who fit into this category of “impact entrepreneurs,” dedicated to finding new solutions to social problems while simultaneously discovering new ways to be sustainable in that difficult quest. These innovators are all about looking out for their neighbors. They’re all about the circular construct.
I’m not suggesting that Utopia was once achieved, but rather that there appear to have been multiple alternatives to our current standard which bear new assessment.
It’s pretty easy to accept that something we learned in grade school about our prehistoric ancestors is wrong. It’s a bit harder to rethink the current world’s choices (if our same-brain forebearers could equitably live in side-by-side societies of such vastly different construct, could we do the same)? And it’s hardest of all to accept the error of one’s own sense of direction (am I seriously facing south right now?!).
For myself, I’ve arrived in 2022 looking at models from 6,000 years’-gone ancestors, and at the same time at inspirational impact-oriented entrepreneurs in Appalachian Ohio. I’m not looking for the straight path, nor to conquer any summits. I’m seeking twisting path towards circling up, connecting and collaborating.
Faith Knutsen, a born Athenian, directs social enterprise support and capital access programming for OU’s Voinovich School. She is the daughter of the late William Beale, an emeritus A News columnist.