Racism in Prehistory and Pre-Racism
Maybe 10,000 to 15,000 years ago in Europe, racism likely was rife and led to murders and countless wars. We’ve found broken skulls next to weapons, and now we have evidence of race. Racism likely has continued uninterrupted ever since, although causes and intensity have differed over time.
I read A Short History of Humanity: A New History of Old Europe, by Johannes Krause and Thomas Trappe, trans. Caroline Waight ( (German) ( (trans.))), a recent lay survey, coauthored by a scientist in the field, of archaeogenetics research findings. I’m also drawing on other sources.
What happened was that many farmers and gatherer-hunters lived nearly side-by-side for millennia. Those near each other received similar amounts of the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Ultraviolet exposure has important consequences. It can cause skin cancer and kill people. But also, it can help the body use vitamin D, which is needed to use calcium, which is needed for bones to be strong. Both farmers and hunter-gatherers needed strong bones, since both groups had to do hard physical labor, farmers all day although with some days off waiting for crops to grow, gatherer-hunters every day because people usually eat every day, although working for only part of an average day. Without D, anyone’s bones would have gotten soft and broken, and then they couldn’t have farmed or hunted much and maybe not gathered much. So, all of them must have gotten some vitamin D. They wouldn’t have known about calcium, D, or UV, they couldn’t have talked about it, but their bodies would have responded to all that and that would have mattered to health and to survival. They would have paid attention to health and survival.
Among people who got a lot of vitamin D, their bodies over many generations would have prioritized cancer prevention. So, they would have developed more melanin in their skin. With melanin, they would have had darker skin color. Our closest primate relatives are chimpanzees and, concealed under their fur, they have light skin, but people have very little hair and so their skin is exposed, so people who live near the equator, with all its sunlight, live longer if their skin is darker.
But among people who got very little vitamin D, their bodies over many generations would have prioritized efficient absorption of ultraviolet through the skin. So, they would have developed less melanin and then had lighter skin color.
Early farmers raised cattle but mostly for milk and not much for meat. I don’t know why they didn’t raise them for meat, even though they likely knew that hunter-gatherers killed animals for meat. Maybe farmers thought it too hard to keep animals captive long enough, compared to the work of raising crops, or maybe domesticated meat was not good back then. Whatever the reason, they instead tended to raise and eat vegetables (and, for all I know, fruit). Hunters, on the other hand, ate plenty of wild meat and fish, even beached whales. That dietary difference meant that hunter-gatherers got more vitamin D while the farmers got some but less.
I don’t know how different the skin tones were. It seems the average difference was likely visible. It likely increased over generations until melanin levels were optimal for each group of people.
If that was the only difference between them, it might not have mattered much. It could have been trivial. Maybe two-year-old children would have pointed to other people and asked their parents about their skin shade, but children are curious about lots of things that hardly matter, they get explanations (or they don’t), and life goes on. But skin tone was not their only difference.
Economics Drove War
Their economies were starkly different, and to the point where they often killed each other over them. Gatherer-hunters knew they could simply take what is available by just reaching for it or killing it. At the same time, they would have had little reason to take from nature more than they would consume before it spoiled; and probably there wasn’t much more to take of one or another critical food than they could consume, because they likely exhausted most of what they found and needed. Then, when food ran low where they lived, they simply moved to where food was more abundant, maybe moving a couple times a year, maybe more often, probably eventually returning to where they used to live when food had become abundant there again and repeating the cycle of consuming and moving.
Someone moving that often probably doesn’t have time to build a new home at every address. It makes more sense to live in existing shelter, usually not humanly-made, such as caves, although limited to the number, locations, and sizes of safer caves. So they probably abandoned their living quarters when they moved, and found new homes, rough as they were, in their new neighborhoods. Moving is work and someone moving before the wheel and the wheeled wagon were ever invented would rather not carry very much. So they probably didn’t possess much and preferred not to acquire much beyond what they were consuming as food and clothing and a few light and small tools. It’s easier to make or find new tools at a destination. Simple tools are faster to make than complicated ones. This discourages making tools complex. This tends to keep tool design simple.
But farmers cultivated and grew what they wanted, and probably more. That’s because farming has uncertain results and sometimes a farm harvest fails, such as if unexpected weather destroys a crop still in the ground. So, shortfalls happen and the farmers know it and have to anticipate them. Crop failures have to be made up for in other harvests, and that encourages growing surpluses as insurance. But refrigerators didn’t exist, and surpluses of some crops would soon rot and be wasted and maybe have to be removed. Removal of waste would itself demand hard labor. So, before anything would rot, they could trade their surpluses for what they wanted to acquire, such as a variety of food they hadn’t grown themselves, tools, and building materials, like for fences. They could specialize in something, become good at it, and rely on trade to get what they needed but couldn’t readily make themselves.
Farmers would not have traded much with hunter-gatherers if the latter didn’t have much that farmers wanted. Tools by hunter-gatherers likely were simple and farmers could make simple tools themselves. If farmers needed complicated tools and could keep them because they were fairly stationary, but couldn’t get them from hunter-gatherers, the farmers might make their own and trade with other farmers only. They couldn’t trade to get food the hunter-gatherers didn’t have, such as if hunter-gatherers couldn’t gather or hunt much more than they consumed themselves because supplies from nature were limited until new supplies grew later. Since animals but not plants run long distances, maybe they could have hunted for surplus meat and traded it, but farmers don’t seem to have traded much for hunter-gatherers’ hunted meat supplies, or farmers would likely have had about as much vitamin D and about as much melanin as hunter-gatherers did, so maybe hunter-gatherers didn’t have much surplus meat or farmers didn’t want it, perhaps because they didn’t perceive much benefit or didn’t trust the source, the hunter-gatherers. So, farmers wouldn’t have respected hunter-gatherers even on the basis of trade. Farmers would have traded mainly among themselves.
Farms were stationary, except when soil was exhausted and in that case fresh potential farmland might be nearby, and farming was all-day work, so farmers and their families likely wanted to live near their farms and store their preserved product near their homes and farms. If their farms were all near, their homes could be near and permanent. So, their homes were likely stationary. In that case, farmers could afford to build them to last, to be substantial, and to have some architecture and features they chose that would be too complex for housing that would be abandoned soon.
So, farmers gained the economic efficiencies of trading with each other to get what they wanted while gatherer-hunters probably did very little trading. And there were more differences.
Farming depended on farms and on the farmer owning the output, thus on exclusivity of land sequestration and crop retention, thus on a larger community’s acceptance of the principle of private property being applicable to farms, tools, and crops. Otherwise, farmers and their families and whole agricultural peoples were implicitly threatened with being starved to death. For farmers to stay alive, exclusivity had to be enforced with fences, warnings, and violence.
But hunting-gathering depended on access to what is available from nature without people’s interventions. An apple tree is an apple tree and gatherer-hunters wouldn’t see why an apple tree should be owned and thus conceptually unavailable even though it’s within reach and the apples are edible, fresh, healthy, and plentiful. Hunting animals that run faster than people can requires tracking and chasing and, if an animal crosses a farm but the hunter is blocked, the animal prey may be lost and the hunter has to start again, which demands more work. So, to hunter-gatherers, farms that exclude people threatened them with denial of access to food from nature, thus threatening the starvation of entire gathering-hunting peoples.
Farmers rarely taught gatherer-hunters how to farm. The evidence that it was rare is that farmers and gatherer-hunters were genetically separate people. If teaching of farming was common, or learning by gatherer-hunters watching farmers was common, the people would not be genetically distinct and they would have died with evidence of both economic systems. Instead, a gatherer-hunter or a few figured out how to farm, and the farms and farmers at work would have been visible to gatherer-hunters, but it seems either the farmers refused to teach it or most hunter-gatherers didn’t learn it and the farmers in effect just kept their knowledge to themselves and their offspring and then spread out from more or less what is today Turkey into the rest of Europe and eventually the rest of the world.
Over time, farmers expanded their land holdings and displaced hunter-gatherers, forcing the latter into land niches the farmers didn’t want, or didn’t yet want. The process was gradual. Thick forests were too hard to fell back then. A lot of land that today would be converted in a year or so to farming was hardly even considered back then. But still, in the long run, farmers were winning against gatherer-hunters. And there was another difference.
Income inequality likely was large and persistent. Farmers traded; hunter-gatherers didn’t much; hunter-gatherers had to move often so they had to travel light while farmers didn’t move much and could keep more stuff; so farmers could have more assets. Farmers’ better housing represented greater wealth. We’ve found some of it.
And more: To support themselves, by one estimate gatherer-hunters needed 15 hours a week; by another, 2 to 4 hours a day. Farmers, however, likely worked almost all of their waking hours (except I think that they had weeks off when crops mainly needed time to grow and ripen, since long ago crops took longer from land preparation to the harvest). To farmers, hunter-gatherers having shorter work hours likely made hunter-gatherers look lazy. To hunter-gatherers, farmers having longer work hours may have made them look like time-wasters who risked losing or exhausting natural food supplies.
Families and Divisions
Then there’s something more personal. Gatherer women mated, maybe sometimes involuntarily thus raped but nonetheless in some sense mating, with farmers; but few farmer women mated, involuntarily or otherwise, with hunter men. So, probably, many matings by gatherer women were voluntary. Personal relationships today are usually complicated and they likely were back then, but we know something about larger modern patterns across voluminous numbers of relationships, and probably some of the same patterns would have applied to ancient relationships, too. Economic attraction is a phenomenon that’s well-known in modern marital customs, exceptions being only exceptions and attraction on other grounds being irrelevant here. The movement of gatherer women to farmer men but not of farmer women to hunter men may reflect farmer men having been economically wealthier than were hunter men.
And family sizes differed. Farmers got milk but hunter-gatherers got little or none. So hunter-gatherers’ babies needed mothers’ milk for some years longer than farmers’ babies did. Back then, lactating or breast-feeding suppressed almost any woman’s reproductive ability (it doesn’t today). So a gatherer-hunter family over a lifetime tended to average only about four babies and, of those, only about two babies survived to reproductive age. That’s okay for community stability; but farmers drank more milk, babies could have it from non-human animals, breast-feeding or lactation was shorter, and mothers over their lifetimes could give birth to more babies. Births in recent centuries often killed mothers, shortening their average lifetimes, and that may have been true millennia ago, but that likely would have been as true of gatherer-hunter women as of farmer women, so, among women who survived giving birth, a farmer woman was likely to have a baby sooner. Thus, farm families grew larger than did gatherer-hunter families. Farmer communities grew larger; hunter-gatherer communities did not. Over generations, hunter-gatherer communities got outnumbered. They used to be everyone; farmers didn’t yet exist and the first farmers were few in number. Slowly, that switched. Farmers came to swamp by numbers.
Farmers could produce more than they could consume and then trade the surplus. Hunter-gatherers could, too, but probably didn’t produce much surplus for trading. Whoever could trade enough could save other people from having to grow or find their own food. The people who could get all their food by trading could do other activities, even full-time. More specialties could be developed, and that could lead to higher expertise, often producing more value with which to create and trade surplus products, including goods and services.
Among people who acquired all of their food by trading for it, farmers would be more popular than hunter-gatherers, especially once farmers (here including cattlers) started raising animals for food and would trade meat, too. People who could rely on farmers for their sustenance could grow their families, become a larger proportion of populations, and encourage more farming instead of gathering and hunting, building a cycle that would enrich farming and virtually doom hunter-gatherers. And so it is today: In the United States, most people live in cities and buy their food, while farmland is roughly two fifths of U.S. land and the few hunter-gatherers left anywhere in the world tend to find themselves isolated on land no one else wants or under pressure to give up.
Correlation and Convenience Producing Racism
All these differences then known could easily have been correlated with skin color. Race could thus be a handy one-word proxy for other key differences. The enmity between lighter-skin farmers and darker-skin hunter-gatherers could then be quickly expressed through racism. It would have been convenient for people in persuading others to join them, to the ultimate deaths of the darker-skin people in defeat. And darker-skinned people were widely defeated.
Today, hunter-gatherers have almost vanished. Gathering-hunting is no longer able to sustain the world’s population, which has multiplied to dozens of times what could possibly be sustainable by that economic model. If we switched to it completely, in about a month or two most of us would have had to die.
In the economic wars between farmers and gatherer-hunters, racism probably helped the lighter-skin people to win land for farming and a principle of exclusive ownership, which led to affluence, the acquisition of wives, and the increase of children. Thus, racism itself became part of a formula for success.
Much of this was in Europe, and Europe became a model for economic success, and, more invidiously, for White economic success based partly on a drive to defeat Blacks into economic failure. It worked.
Before Racism and Maybe Just as Bad
And racism either is far older or has an invidious precursor. To this day, when we modern people want to insult some men for being brutal and out-of-date, one of the insults we hurl at them is that they are Neanderthals. But none of us are descended from Neanderthals. They were of our species, they were like us, and they were like the early modern humans who were, somewhere in the world, contemporaries of Neanderthals. They were contemporaries between 40,000 years ago and 300,000 years ago, give or take. (You can see what the Smithsonian Institution said about when Homo sapiens lived and when Homo neanderthalensis lived (as accessed ).)
Neanderthals were maybe like cousins, but they were not our direct ancestors. They sometimes lived near each other, but only rather late in Neanderthals’ existence, and the insult would not have begun before then. Neanderthals didn’t have much body hair, so most of their skin was visible, and color likely varied according to the latitudes at which they lived. Their Homo sapiens or early modern human contemporaries spread out from Africa and likely encountered Neanderthals in Europe and Asia.
Neanderthals, when we’re literal, are dead. They’re extinct. They’ve been extinct for a long time, something like 40 millennia. We still carry a little of their DNA, but not one of us is known to have much of it today. There are efforts to use DNA to bring to life a few extinct non-human animals, but, to my knowledge, resurrecting Neanderthals is only being debated, not being invested in. Neanderthal DNA is available in old bones, but we’re not trying to revive that group. I’m not sure the idea would be as popular as bringing back, say, woolly mammoths.
So, we, today, are carefully insulting people, technically hominins, as being not us, but as being the Other, specifically as being Neanderthals.
Linguists recognize that many old meanings and words survive through thousands of years. For as long as our species has had speech, which may have been 50,000 years and perhaps a couple of million years (NPR said that, while a professor who studied languages said only about 70,000 years (still plenty), a scholar and a researcher both in linguistics said pre-language speech is about 27 million years old, and Smithsonian Magazine said maybe 25 million years, all as accessed ), our ancestors have had heads and hands and ways to label them. The word Neanderthal (or Neandertal) itself likely has a recent etymological origin, but the word’s definition, supporting different words over time, likely has persisted since the two sets of hominins started paying attention to each other.
The insult choice may have originally correlated with body types, because Neanderthals were stockier and shorter while early modern humans of the time were relatively thinner and taller and these characteristics could have been seen at a distance. Race may not have been a distinction, because no one was yet farming and everyone was still gathering or hunting, so neighbors when they were neighbors even through multiple generations likely had the same amount of melanin and thus the same skin color, and, when the wheel wasn’t yet invented, probably almost no one traveled any net distance that was far in a single lifetime. So, if that choice of insult was not originally correlated with racism, it likely correlated with a precursor of today’s racism, something invidious that likely was immutably based on birth.
Not the End
There probably has been continuity through time for versions of the attitude against the Other. If it was suspended or forgotten for a while, that’s great, but it came back.
Today’s struggles against racism are against history and prehistory going back more than ten thousand years and maybe hundreds of thousands of years. These are difficult disputes, with widespread passions on both sides. But it’s necessary to address them and try to resolve them within our lifetimes, because racism excludes many people from societal participation and beneficence and does so on an irrelevant, thus invalid, ground. We can replace most gathering-hunting with agriculture, including the raising of animals, and we can explore and pursue other avenues of possible progress, without being racist. And, by not being racist, we can explore and pursue more avenues of possible progress. Most of those avenues will be dead ends; most inventions of all kinds and efforts at discovery of anything are duds. But enough succeed that they pay for all of the failures. And more of us are pitching in with expertise and effort. That will tend to increase the totals of success. Racism is a difficult barrier to remove, as is the more general barricade by invidious discrimination in its many forms, but removing them is an imperative in the interest of entire societies.