Artifacts, Culture, and Adoption

Last week I came in on the last half of a PBS program about “The Secrets of Stonehenge.” I’d read most of the different bits and pieces, but it was nice to have them all pulled together with attractive shots of Stonehenge and its environs. However, the last ten minutes or so raised my eyebrows and started me wondering…

According to what the archaeologists have, ahem, unearthed thus far, the construction and most maintenance of Stonehenge tapered off after the arrival of the Bell Beaker culture around 4,500 Y.B.P.* According to the TV program, isotopic tests of skeletons related to the new culture show that the new elites were local, born and raised in England. This raises some interesting questions. Had they adapted the Bell Beaker culture with its use of copper and bronze (Chalcolithic and Bronze Age), and its system of strong social and economic differentiation? Where did they encounter the new culture, and how did they bring it back to England? The presenter strongly implied that yes, the egalitarian communal native farming culture had been overcome in the space of a century or so by the hierarchical metal users. Stonehenge was abandoned. But the new rulers were still natives to the region.

Genetic tests, however, suggest that instead of a purely cultural transition where local people were exposed to the new culture, adopted it, and brought it back to use at home, an invasion took place. Something or someone drove the older peoples of southeast England off their land. Although the use of stone tools did not come to an end, the metal-users overwhelmed the natives, at least genetically, and made their own imprint on the land with individual burials in mounds instead of communal cremation graves. Up to 90% of the individuals tested show “genetic replacement” with genes from the steppes rather than from England.

It is important to note that in at least some parts of the European mainland, a climate shift occurred at about this time. This led to the failure of agriculture in the Danube Basin and some places to the west (what is now Romania, Ukraine, Hungary, the northern Balkans). The cooler and wetter climate favored pastoralism over farming, so the transition might not have been as violent as some earlier students of the topic suggested. I don’t know enough about the paleoclimate patterns in England to hazard a guess as to the situation there, and the TV program didn’t say. However it happened, Bell Beaker replaced neolithic farmers and Stonehenge faded from communal use, at least the communal use from before 4,500 Y.B.P. Copper and Bronze replaced stone in ceremonial functions and slowly took over other jobs as well.

What I started wondering about, as I skimmed over the first chapter draft of the fifth Shikhari book, is this: can someone adopt pieces of a culture without taking in other bits of that culture? The Native American groups on the Great Plains, for example, took in things like metal pots and arrowheads, metal knives, and glass beads, fitting them into their own cultures. It was not until after the 1820s that some groups shifted their economies to better fit the free-market methods of the traders.

So… what about Shikhari and the Staré? Thus far, 150 years after contact or so, the Staré have adopted large chunks of human culture but kept even larger parts of their own. What if that starts to change? What if there is a movement among some of the upper Stamm to stop, or even to go back. True, the humans prevented the aliens from destroying Shikhari again, but what if it were the humans’ communications signals that brought the aliens back? Large numbers of the first Stamm, the leaders of the Staré, died in the fur-drop plague. Are there enough of the moderates to balance out new voices who want the humans gone, or complete separation of Staré from human? How could the Staré keep what they want of human technology while purifying it of human contamination and ideas? Or is it too late?

I have a feeling that this will be part of the book, along with Benin S. Petrason returning (boo, hiss). And someone going to see what exactly is going on with the wildlife, and that strange desert area with the glittery dust…

* Years Before Present, present being 1950

Welcome, Instapundit readers! Thanks for visiting.  The Shikari series is  what happens when books like Tunnel in the Sky and StarCat get crossed with Rudyard Kipling, H. Rider Haggard, and Jim Corbett’s books about India. The first book is suitable for age 13 and up.


19 thoughts on “Artifacts, Culture, and Adoption

  1. I think perhaps there’s a distinction between adopting foreign/alien culture, and adopting foreign/alien technology. Or maybe it’s the difference between accepting the products of a foreign culture, vs accepting the culture itself. The Plains Amerinds acquired the products of European culture and technology by barter or theft or spoils-of-war, but never acquired the ability to make such goods for themselves. What the Plains tribes did not do was adopt European lifestyles – living in large groups, permanent settlements, towns and cities, written laws, courts, permanent government, roads, extensive and permanent commerce networks, etc. – until they were forced to.

    If the Staré have only adopted human technology, and are pragmatic enough to only take those goods that will improve their way of life without significantly changing it, then IMHO it’s entirely believable for them to be able to keep most of their own original culture. But if they’ve changed their social patterns and way of life due to human influence, then going back will be a lot harder.

  2. It’s a choice among products, technology, and culture. The range of effect goes from immediate want and long-term dependency to long-term needs and longer term integration and upsets. The Stare had a fairly good tech level before the attacks; religion then made it anathema, but the reasons why almost died out with their carriers. The data were there, but it took another technical species to reassemble the pieces in context.

    OK, I could expect Kim, a high second Stamme holy one, and perhaps Tomas’ associate, known as the Red Wombow ,,, or Wed Wombow to Rigi?

    That’s a very nice touch, to hide cultural history, tech, and anthropology in YA fiction. Cats are extremely clever, as you don’t see the dead mouse. 🙂

    Kor would be all too happy to arrange for the elder Petrason to find his foolish son’s abode on the plains, and perhaps allow him a small knife. Perhaps.

    • Alas, it was one of Petrason’s allies who became one with Shikhari’s environment, not Benin. Although that may change…

        • Yes, he was an ally/classmate who later became intimately familiar with the dining habits of one of Shikhari’s large predators. If Benin had been eaten, the beast probably would have succumbed to indigestion. Or spat him out, because Benin’s taste is, let us say, lousy.

  3. Ooh. 2018 would be 78 years after present?

    I’ve been suspecting that some of the other cultural shifts we’ve seen have another mechanism.

    Late bronze age collapse being one of the ones I think may fit the pattern.

    Suppose a large complex society depended on a behavior caused by some form of magical thinking. Like ‘we do these economic movements because the blessing of the king is important’. The magical thinking becomes discredited, and the behavior stops or changes. A long string of military victories might promote a myth of the king’s military invincibility, which might be shattered by a significant run of defeat and incompetence.

    • 2018 is 68 years After Present.

      “Suppose a large complex society depended on a behavior caused by some form of magical thinking. Like ‘we do these economic movements because the blessing of the king is important’. The magical thinking becomes discredited, and the behavior stops or changes. ”

      This is, IIRC, the currently-accepted reason for the collapse of one of the big Mesoamerican empires, either the Inca or the Maya. (Maybe both, actually.) A long-lasting drought discredited the entire existing power structure; the old cities collapsed along with the old ruling class, and the people went elsewhere to try something new.

        • Some of those environmental factors were self-inflicted: i.e., using their wooded areas to create plaster for their temples led to deforestation, which in turn led to flash floods over-running their irrigation/water control channels.

          As far as culture question goes, this is already occurring in the series – Lexi has been off-world, is apparently trained in advanced military tech. Eb is referred to by the Stamme as “Wise One”, as is Rigi (despite her misgivings). Rigi has consistently demonstrated across the series that she respects and understands the Stamme culture, and realizes that it (as shown so far) is a Cultural Response to a Biologically Imposed Situation.

          The big question, IMO, is really this: Will the idiots who come from Home continue to refuse to listen to the humans and Stamme of Shikari or will they cease being idiots? IMO, first route leads to something that is a cross between Indian and Boxer Rebellions, where the second path could resemble something like Canada/Great Britain relationship.

          Only time and the Author will tell.

  4. Additionally, Rigi and her mother prefer the handiwork of the Stare’ to the machine-made clothing. Rigi has bowed to a 4th level Stamme because she felt that he was a master of his craft, which opinion was later confirmed by her escort.

  5. Archeologists are taking best guesses… FWIW… So I’d be taking anything like that with a large grain of salt.

  6. I don’t think you can choose only the bits and pieces (including technology) of another culture that you want to adopt and not get some “contamination” from the other parts of the alien culture those bits and pieces are embedded in.

    For example, you may haul your water in leaky woven buckets or hollowed out gourds that only grow so big or some such, and because of this you are pretty much restricted to living along rivers and lakes. But then those strange people passing through give/trade/leave behind stone or wooden or metal containers that don’t leak as much and hold a lot more water per hand-carried trip. Water become less “expensive.” Now you can either have more of on hand at the hut, which may lead to better and different cooking methods, and/or you can live farther from the water source, because transporting the water has become more efficient. You figure out how to manufacture your own similar containers out of fired clay, or you establish a trading scheme to keep the supply of metal containers coming. Now you can live in more places, which may expand your range and your population. You can send out scouts and exploring or raiding parties that can carry their own water supplies. This will drive other changes, such as developing your own methods and reasons and technology for handling the expanded ranges and population. Your culture is already starting to look a little more like the exploring culture you got the new technology from, even though all you really got from them a new kind of water container.

    Likewise for any other bit of technology or culture (and I see technology as part of culture), if you bring something strange into your own local ways, it’s going to exert its own influence by its very presence. Even if you explicitly set out to adopt “only” that particular piece, the possibilities it opens up are going to lead you in a similar direction as the culture it came from.

    (* and by adopt, I mean for the long term, not just getting a one-off example that you can’t replicate or obtain more of).

    • And I meant to say I think this hold true where the adopted bit of culture is tangible like a bucket or intangible like an idea.

  7. I think the main thing is that, if you borrow something, you have to grab it and make it your own. You can’t cut and paste. You can keep the name and even maintain the feeling that it’s foreign, but it has to become yours.

    • This is why it is entirely correct to.grab foreign words and pronounce them however you like. Once they become vocabulary items in another language than their original one, they become subject to the new language’s rules. Grabbed fair and square!

  8. The first, and most transformative thing the plains Indians adopted was horses. It is something of an irony that the thing most responsible for the peak of their culture was also the harbinger of their downfall.

Comments are closed.