Some people seem to have a pretty rosy idea about what life was like for our ancestors, especially for those who lived before the advent of agriculture and the rise of civilization. Perhaps it’s because there are no written records from that time, so we don’t know precisely how these people lived. Or it could be driven by our innate desire to live simply, after enduring a world that gets more complicated every day.
Truth be told though, the people who lived before the rise of civilization did not have easy lives. I’m not talking about the obvious problems like having poor medical care or busting your rump all day to catch a meal. The most glaring difference between how we live and how our ancestors lived, is how much violence these people had to deal with.
Many of us can’t help but notice how crazy and violent the world is today. We look at the news and we see the wars, the murders, and the genocide, and we conclude that we’re living in incredibly dangerous times. However, that is an illusion. We simply live in a time when information can be passed from one person to the next, faster than ever before. And no matter which era you live in, bloody headlines are popular. We think the world is overwhelmingly violent, but we’re just hearing about it more than we did before.
Do you want to know how violent the world was before the rise of civilization? Take a look at what these anthropologists recently excavated in France.
Two men, one woman and four children were killed, probably in a raid or other violent encounter, the researchers report in the December Antiquity. Their bodies were piled in a pit that already contained a collection of left arms hacked off by axes or other sharp implements. Scattered hand bones at the bottom of the pit suggest that hands from the severed limbs had been deliberately cut into pieces.
It’s unclear who the arms belonged to. All the Bergheim skeletons have both their arms except for a man with skull damage caused by violent blows. His skeleton lacks a left arm, the researchers say. They have been unable to determine whether that arm ended up in the pit.
Chenal’s group doesn’t know whether attackers targeted victims’ left arms for a particular reason. The arms could have been taken as war trophies, the team speculates.
Or, how about this 7000 year old mass grave that was investigated earlier this year.
Cleaning and sorting the bones revealed the incomplete skeletons of 13 adults, one teenager, and 12 children—10 of them under 6 years old, and the youngest only 6 months old. The skeletons were dated to between 7200 and 6800 years ago, about as old as those found at the two other mass graves.
The skulls showed signs of lethal blows, and more than 50% of the shin bones recovered from the grave were broken. “The fractures we found here were clearly fresh,” Meyer says. He and his team suspect that these people were either tortured or mutilated shortly after death.
Good lord. It seems that our ancestors were just as screwed up as some of our fellow humans are today. That might lead you to believe that there’s nothing special about this. After all, people still do horrible stuff like this today, and have been doing it for centuries. These cases are hardly revelatory, right?
However, something has changed over the past few thousand of years. This violence is just as shocking and brutal as it has ever been, but it was far more common back in the day. If you could look at all the skeletons that have been excavated and dated from prehistory, you’d find that on average, about 15% show signs of dying violently.
To put that in perspective, the most violent city in the world is San Pedro Sula, Honduras, which has a murder rate of 171 per 100,000 people, per year. Hondurans have an average life expectancy of 73 years, so over the course of a lifetime, people living in that city (if the murder rate stayed the same) would have a 12.5% chance of dying by violence.
The world’s most dangerous city, is still safer than the world of our ancestors. And on average, the number of human beings who die violently around the world today is about 7.9 per 100,000 people per year. If you can believe it, we are living in the most peaceful time in human history.
At this point, you might be wondering what any of this has to do with prepping.
Well, ask yourself what you’re prepping for. I’m sure there are a lot of scenarios that involve personal crises, as well as certain disasters that could make life miserable for a few days. However, you should also be prepping for the possibility of total social collapse. The kind of collapse that could last for weeks or months, or even years.
Which is why it’s worth recognizing the hard lives that people lived before civilization. You have to remember that something changed in a big way when we started building complex societies, which lead to a sharp decline in violence. Most of the academics who recognize this change seem to think that the advent of governance is responsible for this decline, but the state is only one small part of what makes a civilization work (and in many cases, not work).
What really holds a civilization together, is the act of prioritizing human cooperation above violence. At some point in time, we started to realize that other people were more valuable to us personally if they were alive, even if we didn’t like those people. We’re all proficient at different tasks, and when there are more people working together, there are more opportunities (and prosperity) for everyone. That is the real linchpin of civilization.
So what you’re really preparing for is an event that could break down the highly specialized order that our mutually beneficial cooperation has created over the millennia, which would suddenly leave us with far fewer resources than anyone could survive on. If that happens, our ability to keep violent instincts in check in exchange for living in the comforts and conveniences of civilization, would become irrelevant.
We would be temporarily hurled back into the brutal world of our ancestors. A world without any guarantee of safety or peace, with widespread violence on an unprecedented scale. The real disaster you’re gearing up for, doesn’t just include the disruption of public services like police departments and courts. It includes the possibility that some event could cast the trust and cooperation of civilization into doubt, even for a brief period of time. Without that trust, the world is many times more terrifying and dangerous than it is today.