An article on theguardian.com by David Graeber and David Wengrow - Unfreezing the ice age: the truth about humanity’s deep past - reports on the archaeological discoveries that are shattering scholars’ long-held beliefs about how the earliest humans organised their societies during the Ice Age.
Using the evidence of princely burials, stone temples, mammoth monuments and bustling centres of trade and craft production stretching back far into the ice age, the authors describe an overall pattern of seasonal congregation for festive labour.
Almost all the ice age sites with extraordinary burials and monumental architecture were created by societies that lived by dispersing into foraging bands at one time of year, gathering together in concentrated settlements at another. This was not necessarily to plant crops; the large Upper Palaeolithic sites are linked to migrations and seasonal hunting of game herds – woolly mammoth, steppe bison or reindeer – as well as cyclical fish-runs and nut harvests. 'This seems to be the explanation for those hubs of activity found in eastern Europe at places like Dolní Věstonice, where people took advantage of an abundance of wild resources to feast, engage in complex rituals and ambitious artistic projects, and trade minerals, marine shells and furs. In western Europe, equivalents would be the great rock shelters of the French Périgord and the Cantabrian coast, with their deep records of human activity, which similarly formed part of an annual round of seasonal congregation and dispersal'.
Archaeological evidence now suggests that in the highly seasonal environments of the last Ice Age, our remote ancestors were shifting back and forth between alternative social arrangements, building monuments and then closing them down again; allowing the rise of authoritarian structures during certain times of year then dismantling them. 'The same individual could experience life in what looks to us sometimes like a band, sometimes a tribe, and sometimes like something with at least some of the characteristics we now identify with states'.
Perhaps today's seasonal festivals are in fact a legacy of the ancient patterns of seasonal variation, fostering social and political self-consciousness. Comment