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Saturday, December 18, 2010

The pandora's box of sedentism

I recently again  listened to the Teaching Company course "Big History" by Professor David Christain. It is an absolutely fascinating series of lectures which take one from the Big Bang to the present day (in 48 lectures). There are so many interesting elements of this course but the one that struck me this time around was the discussion of the concept of sedentism.

Sedentism is defined in Wikipedia as:
In evolutionary anthropology and archaeology, sedentism (sometimes denominated sedentariness), is a term applied to the transition from nomadic to permanent, year-round settlement.
Professor Christain suggests that sedentism was not as simple as nomads settling down when they they figured out how to farm and domesticated animals. He suggests that sedentism was a type of a trap which created a series of moral dilemmas which we are still grappling with today. Nomadic hunter societies simply did not allow anyone the luxury of carrying those who could not carry themselves. It was a cruel world where those who could not travel did not survive.

The initial transition to sedentism potentially started with cultures who stopped wandering because of  they lived in locales where food was so abundant that people could settle down. However, once settled, the trap was sprung. It likely prompted an expansion of population which created imperatives for intensifying exploitation of local resources. Remaining in one place expanded the possibilities for supporting populations which could not survive in a wandering society.

Once a society was constituted to support those who who needed resources they could not generate themselves, it set the stage for a series of moral dilemmas which we are grappling with today. In Natufian culture over 10,000 years ago, the entitlements were likely very modest. Settled people came to accept that they could not leave their elders and family out in the elements and refuse to feed them. While their ancestors were incapable of carrying the old and invalid, the change to a settled people created a whole new world of the possible. Many of the possibilities set the stage for explosive human development. It was at the cost of creating a question which we will grapple with as long as people are around.

The moral imperative to care for those who cannot entirely care for themselves is part of what makes us human. It is not simply a drain on resources but I believe our empathy and willingness to to help sustain others is a key element in the development of complex social and productive networks. However, it consistently places human populations in moral dilemmas where limits must be placed on largess.

Over 10,000 years ago, the transition to sedentism set events in motion which now compel us to scramble for resources to provide complex mix of goods and services (including medical services).  Resources will always be scarce in that legitimate wants will always outstrip the resources available to meet them.  No longer does it suffice for us to simply provide basic shelter and subsistence diets for those who have limited capacity to generate their own resources. It begs the question (s) - How much or little are people entitled to and why? What is the minimal set of goods and services now? How will this morph over time and how fast? How are these decisions to be made? 

These are not easy questions because they have no durable answers. Beware of anyone who who is sure of their answers.


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