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Weekly theme: After the Ice age - food and sex

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David Prudames, British Museum David Prudames, British Museum | 17:41 UK time, Monday, 25 January 2010

Early domesticated cattle
Last week we heard about how making and using objects made us human. This week, we find the last Ice Age drawing to a close, about 10,000 years ago, and our ancient ancestors understanding and developing ideas about two of the most fundamental of human concerns: food and sex.

Jill Cook, curator of the oldest objects at the British Museum, told me about the impact of the outstanding development of the age: farming.

Before farming we had to go with the seasons, follow the animals and respect the natural world as very much part of it. Once we became farmers our relationship with nature changed. It became a relationship which wants to dominate nature, to change and control it.

Harnessing nature by cultivating crops and domesticating animals was a slow revolution that took centuries and occurred independently in about seven different parts of the world. But its effect went much further than food supply.

Farming meant people could stay in one place for much longer and to envisage, and invest in, the future by clearing the land and planting crops. The development of farming encouraged the development of villages, and gave us the chance to plan ahead.

We start to stay in one place and we become ever more reliant on things. People who haven't got land need to make things to trade for food. We start to distrust each other, so we have to make notes about what we've traded. If we haven't got goods to trade, we need money. We also need pots to cook and store things in.

Our population begins to build. Politics and hierarchies develop. All the things which are part of our modern world, including the devastating effects of climate change, crop failure and famine, began at this point.

This week's objects tell the story of humans finding new ways to find food, new ways to live, and starting to understand the male role in reproduction.

There's domesticated beasts in the Egyptian clay model of cattle; new food preparation tools in the shape of the Jomon pot from Japan and Bird-shaped pestle from Papua New Guinea; the Maya maize god worshipped in Mexico to explain seasonal crop cycles, and the early contemplation of the sexual act in the lovers figurine from the Middle East.

Despite a distance of 10,000 years, the impact of this age on our lives is clear:  the towns and cities we live in, the pots we use to cook our dinner and even the markets we buy it from - puts a new perspective on seasonal veg when you consider those people who in millennia past developed the tools and knowledge to make it possible, doesn't it?

It might only be week two, but in these objects we find the roots of the modern world - to subvert the old cliché, perhaps the ancient past isn't such a foreign country after all?


  • Comment number 1.

    I feel the BBC is to be congratulated for coming up with such an interesting and inspiring series. As a cattle farmer I was particularly interested in the programme on 27 January on the clay model of 4 Egyptian cows. It seems interesting that in Africa, at least, our ancestors started to herd cattle in response to climate change, when many people are today calling for us to move away from keeping cattle in response to current climate change, due to their methane emissions -something I believe to be misguided since it overlooks the important role that grass-fed cattle can play in providing fertility for crops without recourse to artificial fertilisers, and in increasing, instead of decreasing, levels of carbon in the soil. I can accept that blood was often taken from cattle during this period but what puzzles me is the apparent contradiction between Neil MacGregor's and Martin Jones' claim that cows' milk at this time (5,500 years ago) would have made humans unwell, because we had not evolved to tolerate ,it and the point by Professor Diane Gifford-Gonzalez, from the University of California in the introductory article on the website that, 'Art from the time [7,800 years ago], made in the then-green Sahara, depicts spotted cows like these, with curving horns and full udders.' As any farmer knows you never see a cow with a full udder unless she has been separated from her calf for a significant period in order to milk her. Cows with calves at foot never get very full udders because the calves drink the milk at regular intervals. If anyone knows more about when we started to evolve to tolerate cows milk I would be very interested to learn more.

  • Comment number 2.


    Thanks, for bringing this very informative and important set of topics up for the weekly theme column.

    (Dennis Junior)


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