Ancient History & Civilisation


Fire—Primitive Tools—Weaving and pottery—Building and transport—Trade and finance

If man began with speech, and civilization with agriculture, industry began with fire. Man did not invent it; probably nature produced the marvel for him by the friction of leaves or twigs, a stroke of lightning, or a chance union of chemicals; man merely had the saving wit to imitate nature, and to improve upon her. He put the wonder to a thousand uses. First, perhaps, he made it serve as a torch to conquer his fearsome enemy, the dark; then he used it for warmth, and moved more freely from his native tropics to less enervating zones, slowly making the planet human; then he applied it to metals, softening them, tempering them, and combining them into forms stronger and suppler than those in which they had come to his hand. So beneficent and strange was it that fire always remained a miracle to primitive man, fit to be worshiped as a god; he offered it countless ceremonies of devotion, and made it the center or focus (which is Latin for hearth) of his life and home; he carried it carefully with him as he moved from place to place in his wanderings, and would not willingly let it die. Even the Romans punished with death the careless vestal virgin who allowed the sacred fire to be extinguished.

Meanwhile, in the midst of hunting, herding and agriculture, invention was busy, and the primitive brain was racking itself to find mechanical answers to the economic puzzles of life. At first man was content, apparently, to accept what nature offered him—the fruits of the earth as his food, the skins and furs of the animals as his clothing, the caves in the hillsides as his home. Then, perhaps (for most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice), he imitated the tools and industry of the animal: he saw the monkey flinging rocks and fruit upon his enemies, or breaking open nuts and oysters with a stone; he saw the beaver building a dam, the birds making nests and bowers, the chimpanzees raising something very like a hut. He envied the power of their claws, teeth, tusks and horns, and the toughness of their hides; and he set to work to fashion tools and weapons that would resemble and rival these. Man, said Franklin, is a tool-using animal;24 but this, too, like the other distinctions on which we plume ourselves, is only a difference of degree.

Many tools lay potential in the plant world that surrounded primitive man. From the bamboo he made shafts, knives, needles and bottles; out of branches he made tongs, pincers and vices; from bark and fibres he wove cord and clothing of a hundred kinds. Above all, he made himself a stick. It was a modest invention, but its uses were so varied that man always looked upon it as a symbol of power and authority, from the wand of the fairies and the staff of the shepherd to the rod of Moses or Aaron, the ivory cane of the Roman consul, the lituus of the augurs, and the mace of the magistrate or the king. In agriculture the stick became the hoe; in war it became the lance or javelin or spear, the sword or bayonet.25 Again, man used the mineral world, and shaped stones into a museum of arms and implements: hammers, anvils, kettles, scrapers, arrow-heads, saws, planes, wedges, levers, axes and drills. From the animal world he made ladles, spoons, vases, gourds, plates, cups, razors and hooks out of the shells of the shore, and tough or dainty tools out of the horn or ivory, the teeth and bones, the hair and hide of the beasts. Most of these fashioned articles had handles of wood, attached to them in cunning ways, bound with braids of fibre or cords of animal sinew, and occasionally glued with strange mixtures of blood. The ingenuity of primitive men probably equaled—perhaps it surpassed—that of the average modern man; we differ from them through the social accumulation of knowledge, materials and tools, rather than through innate superiority of brains. Indeed, nature men delight in mastering the necessities of a situation with inventive wit. It was a favorite game among the Eskimos to go off into difficult and deserted places, and rival one another in devising means for meeting the needs of a life unequipped and unadorned.26

* This primitive skill displayed itself proudly in the art of weaving. Here, too, the animal showed man the way. The web of the spider, the nest of the bird, the crossing and texture of fibres and leaves in the natural embroidery of the woods, set an example so obvious that in all probability weaving was one of the earliest arts of the human race. Bark, leaves and grass fibres were woven into clothing, carpets and tapestry, sometimes so excellent that it could not be rivaled today, even with the resources of contemporary machinery. Aleutian women may spend a year in weaving one robe. The blankets and garments made by the North American Indians were richly ornamented with fringes and embroideries of hairs and tendon-threads dyed in brilliant colors with berry juice; colors “so alive,” says Father Théodut, “that ours do not seem even to approach them.”27Again art began where nature left off; the bones of birds and fishes, and the slim shoots of the bamboo tree, were polished into needles, and the tendons of animals were drawn into threads delicate enough to pass through the eye of the finest needle today. Bark was beaten into mats and cloths, skins were dried for clothing and shoes, fibres were twisted into the strongest yarn, and supple branches and colored filaments were woven into baskets more beautiful than any modern forms.28

Akin to basketry, perhaps born of it, was the art of pottery. Clay placed upon wickerwork to keep the latter from being burned, hardened into a fireproof shell which kept its form when the wickerwork was taken away;29 this may have been the first stage of a development that was to culminate in the perfect porcelains of China. Or perhaps some lumps of clay, baked and hardened by the sun, suggested the ceramic art; it was but a step from this to substitute fire for the sun, and to form from the earth myriad shapes of vessels for every use—for cooking, storing and transporting, at last for luxury and ornament. Designs imprinted by finger-nail or tool upon the wet clay were one of the first forms of art, and perhaps one of the origins of writing.

Out of sun-dried clay primitive tribes made bricks and adobe, and dwelt, so to speak, in pottery. But that was a late stage of the building art, binding the mud hut of the “savage” in a chain of continuous development with the brilliant tiles of Nineveh and Babylon. Some primitive peoples, like the Veddahs of Ceylon, had no dwellings at all, and were content with the earth and the sky; some, like the Tasmanians, slept in hollow trees; some, like the natives of New South Wales, lived in caves; others, like the Bushmen, built here and there a wind-shelter of branches, or, more rarely, drove piles into the soil and covered their tops with moss and twigs. From such wind-shelters, when sides were added, evolved the hut, which is found among the natives of Australia in all its stages from a tiny cottage of branches, grass and earth large enough to cover two or three persons, to great huts housing thirty or more. The nomad hunter or herdsman preferred a tent, which he could carry wherever the chase might lead him. The higher type of nature peoples, like the American Indian, built with wood; the Iroquois, for example, raised, out of timber still bearing the bark, sprawling edifices five hundred feet long, which sheltered many families. Finally, the natives of Oceania made real houses of carefully cut boards, and the evolution of the wooden dwelling was complete.30

Only three further developments were needed for primitive man to create all the essentials of economic civilization: the mechanisms of transport, the processes of trade, and the medium of exchange. The porter carrying his load from a modern plane pictures the earliest and latest stages in the history of transportation. In the beginning, doubtless, man was his own beast of burden, unless he was married; to this day, for the most part, in southern and eastern Asia, man is wagon and donkey and all. Then he invented ropes, levers, and pulleys; he conquered and loaded the animal; he made the first sledge by having his cattle draw along the ground long branches bearing his goods;* he put logs as rollers under the sledge; he cut cross-sections of the log, and made the greatest of all mechanical inventions, the wheel; he put wheels under the sledge and made a cart. Other logs he bound together as rafts, or dug into canoes; and the streams became his most convenient avenues of transport. By land he went first through trackless fields and hills, then by trails, at last by roads. He studied the stars, and guided his caravans across mountains and deserts by tracinghis route in the sky. He paddled, rowed or sailed his way bravely from island to island, and at last spanned oceans to spread his modest culture from continent to continent. Here, too, the main problems were solved before written history began.

Since human skills and natural resources are diversely and unequally distributed, a people may be enabled, by the development of specific talents, or by its proximity to needed materials, to produce certain articles more cheaply than its neighbors. Of such articles it makes more than it consumes, and offers its surplus to other peoples in exchange for their own; this is the origin of trade. The Chibcha Indians of Colombia exported the rock salt that abounded in their territory, and received in return the cereals that could not be raised on their barren soil. Certain American Indian villages were almost entirely devoted to making arrow-heads; some in New Guinea to making pottery; some in Africa to blacksmithing, or to making boats or lances. Such specializing tribes or villages sometimes acquired the names of their industry (Smith, Fisher, Potter . . .), and these names were in time attached to specializing families.30a Trade in surpluses was at first by an interchange of gifts; even in our calculating days a present (if only a meal) sometimes precedes or seals a trade. The exchange was facilitated by war, robbery, tribute, fines, and compensation; goods had to be kept moving! Gradually an orderly system of barter grew up, and trading posts, markets and bazaars were established—occasionally, then periodically, then permanently—where those who had some article in excess might offer it for some article of need.31

For a long time commerce was purely such exchange, and centuries passed before a circulating medium of value was invented to quicken trade. A Dyak might be seen wandering for days through a bazaar, with a ball of beeswax in his hand, seeking a customer who could offer him in return something that he might more profitably use.32 The earliest mediums of exchange were articles universally in demand, which anyone would take in payment: dates, salt, skins, furs, ornaments, implements, weapons; in such traffic two knives equaled one pair of stockings, all three equaled a blanket, all four equaled a gun, all five equaled a horse; two elk-teeth equaled one pony, and eight ponies equaled a wife.33 There is hardly any thing that has not been employed as money by some people at some time: beans, fish-hooks, shells, pearls, beads, cocoa seeds, tea, pepper, at last sheep, pigs, cows, and slaves. Cattle were a convenient standard of value and medium of exchange among hunters and herders; they bore interest through breeding, and they were easy to carry, since they transported themselves. Even in Homer’s days men and things were valued in terms of cattle: the armor of Diomedes was worth nine head of cattle, a skilful slave was worth four. The Romans used kindred words—pecus andpecunia—for cattle and money, and placed the image of an ox upon their early coins. Our own words capital, chattel and cattle go back through the French to the Latin capitale, meaning property: and this in turn derives from caput, meaning head—i.e., of cattle. When metals were mined they slowly replaced other articles as standards of value; copper, bronze, iron, finally—because of their convenient representation of great worth in little space and weight—silver and gold, became the money of mankind. The advance from token goods to a metallic currency does not seem to have been made by primitive men; it was left for the historic civilizations to invent coinage and credit, and so, by further facilitating the exchange of surpluses, to increase again the wealth and comfort of man.34

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