Ancient History

In this group we aim to explore the beginnings of human societies and how the change from hunters/gatherers to settled agricultural communities took place and then affected the development of art and culture. Who were the key actors? What were the roles of women and men? Some historians claim that the change to agriculture was worse for women, but is that true? Often in written history the story of women tends to get missed out as an aspect of life that was ‘normal’ and not worth reporting, while battles led by men are key features. Much more is known these days about ancient cultures because the tools we can use to decipher old scripts or ancient bones are improved. So there is much new knowledge leading to new theories about the developments of societies. All participants are invited to contribute with their own explorations, leading to us all learning from each other.

Group Convener : Greta Sykes

The Group meets in Crouch End, N8 on a Wednesday of every month, 2.30 – 4 p.m. The number of places available per meeting is 15

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Upcoming Meetings

18 December 2019 : Ian will talk about an aspect of anthropology

Past Meetings

November 2019

David Pashley spoke about DNA. He told us he had read David Reich’s book and found it puzzling and at times not very clear. The book was familiar to at least another one of us, but all of us had talked and thought about the fascinating story of how humans became humans and how the difference between us and our nearest ape relatives is ever so small. David gave us a feel for the various branches of humanoids and showed us their geographical movements and origins. It was in the 70s, he said, that the first genetic assessments were made. These started with mitochondrial DNA. By now approximately 6,000 ancient peoples have been analysed. Neanderthals existed for a time at the same time as homo sapiens, and it is now assumed that they intermingled with each other. David mentioned the Denisovan teeth from 40,000 years ago and Heidelberg man from Spain 400,000 years ago. 10,000 years ago hunters and gatherers spread throughout Europe. It is suggested that farming which followed led to similar DNA in Europe. We discussed the arrival of nomadic tribes from the east, about 5,000 years ago, who rode on horseback. Did they really have such a huge impact on DNA through engagements with farming communities and their women. This story continues to fascinate and we agreed to have further sessions on the subject.

October 2019

At this meeting Pat focused on rock and cave art and had some fascinating examples to show us, some of them over 60 000 years old. She told us about the different theories as to why people started drawing and painting. She mentioned the many different sites where such works have so far been found. We concluded that much remains speculation, as we find it difficult to think ourselves into the thoughts and feelings of people so long ago. It was a very interesting session and we thanked Pat for it. Research from areas, such as anthropology, psychology and archaeology can, however, help to throw light on the distant past.

August 2019

Despite a lower than usual attendance (due to a change of date) Nevertheless, we spent a lively and enjoyable hour and a half on the subject Ancient Egypt, Greece and Mesopotamia. This is one of the topics Greta has done quite a lot of work about. She gave a talk two years ago on it, and still finds the changes that took place among those early civilisations fascinating, especially, when one looks a bit more deeply at the place of women and the role of gods and goddesses. Both ancient Egypt and ancient Greece believed in many gods and goddesses. The arrival of monotheism had a gradual effect on all the early cultures in the area. Byzantium became Christian. Greta referenced Professor Judith Herrin who has done much to enlighten people in her book Byzantium :The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire (2007), about it

July 2019

Our July meeting focused on the change from hunter gatherers to agriculture. This is, of course, an extremely fascinating ‘moment’ in human history, and one can talk and write about it for a long time, with few definite conclusions. Was the step from the freedom of the gatherers and hunters a result of climate changes, or was it due to human explorations or both? Was it a lucky development or was it a harder life than before? We can only guess at it. It certainly led to many more dramatic changes.
Mark gave us a complete overview of the latest theories. Known facts are that the change to agriculture first took a foothold in the Fertile Crescent (Mesopotamia) and along the Yangtse river. An interesting aspect of the change was that women did not need to feed their babies for several years any more, because the new variety of foods, such as cereal, could be digested by much younger children than before. The changes took place over many thousands of years and arrived in Britain at about 5000 BC. Again, many questions were raised and we had a good discussion.

June 2019

We started our meeting with a splash. Margot talked to us about the latest findings regarding the human species and other similar creatures. It used to be easy to distinguish between us, homo sapiens, and the Neanderthals. We were at the top and could look down at a species that was far below ours in terms of intelligence. These times are gone, Margot showed. From the news that we mingled and mixed with the Neanderthals things have moved on to show that nothing is quite as straight forward as it appeared.There are many hominid species that all developed over the thousands of years close to us. There were hobbits for over a hundred thousand years, famous Lucy, probably, was one of those. Even the idea that we all came out of Africa is not simple. There may have been human species that developed in the Far East, and there were waves of those who left Africa.This was a very enlightening session with plenty of discussion and ideas for other research in the future.