“In the world I see, you are stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Centre. You’ll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You’ll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. And when you look down you’ll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty carpool lane of some abandoned superhighway.”
-Tyler Durden, Fight Club
In a weird little subterranean corridor of Beijing, tucked between a subway station and a shopping mall, is the Wangfujing Paleolithic Museum. It’s the sort of place that an estate agent would describe as ‘cosy’ or ‘intimate,’* but interesting and professional enough to justify the ¥10 entry fee.
When I was a kid I wanted to be an archaeologist. This ambition lasted until a living, breathing archaeologist came to visit our school and told us that she spent 80% of her time studying. Fuck that noise, I thought.
A friend of mine actually studied archaeology at university, and told me that the first thing her sleep-inducing professor had said to everyone was “if you think this course will turn you into Indiana Jones, there’s the door!” Had I been there, I would have instantly leapt through it, returning at the last possible second to grab my fedora.
I may not have the patience to be an archaeologist or paleontologist or even one of those rogue Egyptologists who turns up on the History Channel talking about pineal glands and alien helicopters, but I’ve always had a passing interest in human history. How and where we live (and have lived) is something that fascinates the hell out of me.
I even sat through the film version of Assassin’s Creed recently just to watch Fassbender get medieval on everybody’s ass. Alas, half the film was in Spanish, and what little of the language I’ve picked up from Breed 77 albums stretched about as far as sangre, fuego, and listening to the gf’s whispered translation of the Chinese subtitles:
“He is to be, how you say, washed in the…”
“Fire! Purified by fuego!”
When I returned to England from Canada as a kid, I started studying British history at school for the first time. With a rich tapestry that included Viking invasion, Roman occupation, the battle of Agincourt, the battle of Rourkes Drift, and probably a few events that didn’t involve violence and bloodshed, I was so disappointed to end up learning about what is literally the most boring historical period imaginable: the 17th and 18th century agricultural revolution. I’m barely exaggerating when I say I’d rather go water boarding in Guantanamo Bay with my balls wired to electrodes than hear about selective breeding, four course crop rotation or Jethro Tull and that fucking seed drill of his.**
China is something of a Mecca not only for those who want cheap trainers, but for archaeologists and paleontologists too. When the New Oriental Plaza mall was being constructed in 1996, the workers hit historical pay dirt by discovering nearly 2,000 bone fragments and primitive tools. The resultant underground museum has done a sterling job of preserving the find and telling the story of early humankind, including some stunning CGI visuals that put you right in the heart of the Stone Age.
I would argue, and have argued, that there are two historical events where the human race really (and I mean really, seriously, heinously) fucked up. If you are thinking it’s Brexit and Trump then sit down, son, you have not been paying attention.
One of them was the Industrial Revolution, which I will inevitably bitch about in a future entry that I’ll loosely link to life in Beijing. Long before that, though… way way back in the early chapters of pre-history, there was this faulty O ring that blew our species up on the launchpad something like 12, 500 years ago. The Neolithic Revolution (or the original agricultural revolution; the more interesting one) was when most humans shifted from a nomadic, hunter-gatherer existence to a more sedentary, agricultural-based society.
If you ever watch anthropology documentaries about some middle class, military brat type in chinos who goes to stay with headhunters or other tribal peoples for a week, they usually spend a lot of time sitting around a campfire eating meat and laughing with the locals. Telling jokes and stories is an important part of your day when you haven’t got much to do (trust me on this). The morning is for hunting, the afternoon is for eating, the evening for telling campfire stories, and the night for worrying about your children being snatched by a leopard.
The Neolithic Revolution fucked all this up for most people. Staying in one place meant a denser population*** as well as a surplus of food, but the menu shrank considerably. A side effect of putting a stake in the ground and penning yourself in with your plants and pets and livestock is that your available sources of food instantly narrow. If you become a sheep farmer then your staple food is lamb or mutton, if you become a turnip farmer, then your staple food is turnips. The combination of restricted food and sudden backbreaking labour led to a downturn in nutrition. Archaeological evidence indicates that people’s teeth very quickly began rotting and their growth became stunted (it supposedly took until the 20th century for the human race to return to a pre-Neolithic Revolution average height. That’s a long time spent as shortarses!) Another side effect was absolutely rampant disease. Poor nutrition leads to a poor immune system, and poor sanitation leads to an awful lot of people rooting around in each other’s effluent.
It wasn’t all bad. This period gave rise to some pretty cool things like architecture, mathematics and, I imagine, that cliché about not shitting where you eat. But it also gave rise to human hierarchy and, therefore, wealth inequality for probably the first time.
Whenever I get homesick for England (which is less often than last time, especially because I’ve been back there since) it is for a chat about pumpkins with a pipe-smoking Bilbo Baggins or a bawdry chat down the pub with Friar Tuck. It is, in other words for a place and time that doesn’t actually exist (and, if it ever did, would almost certainly have smelled of rancid feces).
The perception that I’m some kind of cantankerous armchair anarchist who thinks the wheels of industry should screech to a halt while I start pulling back my bowstring and taking aim is understandable, but the distant past or the post-industrial future are not where I actually want to spend my time. Living in the past is for people who listen to Jethro Tull. The present is exactly where I belong. And there is nothing wrong with staying in one place (even if it does make one’s feet itchy) a long as it’s the right place for you.
*(or what those who aren’t selling anything and don’t have a thesaurus would call ‘very small’)
**(To this very day, whenever I see anyone wearing a Jethro Tull t-shirt I want to leap forward and punch them in the flabby jowls, and not just because they have a shite taste in music).
***(kids of different ages can be raised at the same time when you don’t have to carry them around hunting, right?)