At first, I thought this one would be a no-brainer for me: the very beginning of the Agricultural Revolution. Despite being only a few months away from an honors degree in anthropology, with a specific focus on archaeology, it never ceases to perplex me. Why in the world did anyone ever think it would be a good idea to transition away from a leisurely, healthy, socially equitable way of life and replace it with a labor-intensive, physically degenerative, and incredibly hierarchical substitute? Of course, I know that these changes didn’t happen overnight, all at once. But even incremental changes shouldn’t have gone unnoticed, especially when they were all changes for the worse. Let’s even stipulate that agriculture’s toxic effects on the rest of society (such as the emergence of social inequality, which you’d think would be a pretty obvious red flag) took thousands of years to develop, and the only immediately apparent changes were the massive (though possibly incremental) increases in labor-intensity. You would think each successive generation would notice that they were working harder than the previous generation, but not getting much for their efforts other than more disease, worse nutrition, and shorter life expectancy.
It’s a bit of a mystery that any group of sane people wouldn’t just look around one day, say “bugger this,” and go back to the healthier and happier way of life that the other groups around them were still practicing. I have a theory as to why they didn’t, but, like any such theory, it’s fantastically hard to prove, and rather involved, so I’ll set that aside for now. The point is, it would be nice to know why the agricultural revolution ever got off the ground at all, since right from the outset it should have been obvious to everyone involved that it was not just bad for the land around them (and remember, this was at a time in human history when basically everyone still revered the land as a literal God), but even worse for the agriculturalists themselves. I’ve always wished I could see how it happened, so I thought it would be easy to answer today’s daily prompt.
But here’s the thing about being a “fly on the wall,” as the prompt puts it: you can watch things unfold all you like, but you’re powerless to stop them. To me, that would be worse than not knowing for certain. To watch the first domino fall, to be there at the moment when everything went wrong, and to be unable to act…that would be torture. I wish I could have been there, in that time period, sure, but not just to watch and come back home; what would be the point? I don’t want to be present at the moment the Agricultural Revolution began just to watch, I would be there to stop it. To prevent the destruction of the natural world by human civilization before it even began. If I were just there to watch, it would be the worst thing I could possibly imagine. It would be like what happens to Harry Potter when he is exposed to the Dementors: being forced to relive the horrific tragedy that started the whole story in the first place, over and over, utterly powerless to change it.
So instead, here’s my answer: I would want to be a fly on the wall at any point in human history during the hundreds of thousands of years before that moment, before it all went wrong in Mesopotamia. (And in a couple other places, like Mesoamerica, China, and maybe India, but mainly Mesopotamia.) If that can’t be done, then let me see any human culture in the past ten thousand years untouched by agricultural civilization. Give me the hunter-fisher-gatherers of Mesolithic Europe, or the indigenous Ainu of the Japanese islands, or the Woodlands cultures that inhabited Manhattan island less than five hundred years ago. For that matter, give me a modern culture living in an ecologically responsible way, if you can find one. Most of them have been exterminated or assimilated by the monumentally destructive force that is global modern industrial capitalism, but there are still a few pockets of sustainable human culture left. Give me that. Show me a human culture in harmony with their environment. Let me watch, and learn, so that I can do my part to try to steer my own culture back towards something similar. Something sustainable, responsible, and sane.