After the Ice Age

April 25, 2010

After the Ice Age: How Calendar-keeping shaped Early Social Structuring

Michael Hudson (UMKC) in Paul G. Bahn, ed., An Enquiring Mind: Studies in Honor of Alexander Marshack (American school of prehistoric research monograph series, Oxford and Oakville: Oxbow Books, 2009):149-53.

I first met Alex Marshack in 1982 at a lecture he gave in New York City, where we both lived. That evening he described the Paleolithic “time-factored” notational systems and monuments that traced the rhythms of the moon and sun, and how Neolithic calendars governed the rhythms of planting and harvesting, as well as the rites of passage and social integration via festivals that were occasions for gift exchange and intermarriage. After the talk I introduced myself to him, and more than twenty years of friendship followed.

I was writing a history of interest-bearing debt and debt-annulment practices (“clean slates”), and was just beginning to trace the genesis of interest-bearing debt and how early societies dealt with the problems it caused. This led me to note the calendrical timing of early debt payments, along with the standardization of money and interest rates as a byproduct of weights and measures calendrically based for periodic distribution by Mesopotamia’s temples and palaces. Alex saw immediately the convergence between my research, working backward from classical antiquity to the Early Bronze Age, with his own studies going forward from the Paleolithic. He introduced me to the Peabody Museum’s director, Carl Lamberg-Karlovsky, who later helped me organize a group of assyriologists and archaeologists to publish what are now five colloquia on the genesis of money, account-keeping, debt, urbanization, land tenure and public employment.

At our second colloquium, held at New York University in 1996 on urban development in the ancient Near East, Alex summarized his views on how the time-keeping practices that began in the Paleolithic laid the foundations for civilization in the Near East and Europe. Using many of the slides from the lecture I had heard him give fourteen years earlier, he described the calendrical orientation of early ceremonial sites, reflecting their role as seasonal gathering places. The literal meaning of orientation, after all, refers to the east where the sun rises, as if to sanctify temples and other monuments of rulership by grounding them in the heavenly cosmos, “on earth, as it is in heaven.” The videotape operator became so fascinated as soon as Alex took the podium that she forgot to press the “on” button on her machine.

The fact that Neolithic agriculture was dependent on the seasons, Alex explained, made the calendar the key to post-Paleolithic social organization, shaping “the way in which archaic communities structured their modes of cultural complexity” inasmuch as agriculture “increasingly requires ‘time-factored’ divisions of labor and skill, allotted times and places for specialized activities, and calendrically precise times for ritual, aggregation, and exchange.” The same may be said of trade. Sea commerce depended on the annual winds, and even war-making traditionally was waged after the harvest was in.

Calendrical rhythms determined the times when sparse populations came together in the seasonal gatherings that were the occasions for exchange – of family members as well as gifts. These ritual sites typically were on rivers, often near distinguishing natural features such as caves. The most famous sites were orientated to the rising or setting of the sun at the four major points of the year, the solstices and equinoxes. Their calendrical character was further reflected in the art whose calendrical reference Alex showed to reflect the seasonality of fish mating, deer molting and vegetation sprouting.

Based on the spread of artifacts reflecting a diversity of notational systems – signs that had been viewed simply as decorative markings prior to his 1972 article on the Blanchard bone’s lunar notations c. 28,000 BC – he postulated a worldview extending from the Atlantic to the Russian plain. “Long-distance movements and a dispersal of cultural influences were clearly present during this [Magdalenian] period.” “On the Russian plain … there were summer and winter sites along [the network of rivers that flow toward the Black Sea], including riverside sites that were specialized for seasonal resource exploitation and for seasonal symbolic performance and production.”

Alex concluded that rather than trying to explain “the rise of agriculture in the essentially material and materialistic terms of regional resources, changes in climate and demography, technology, and modes of harvesting and storage, or in terms of the self-domestication of plants and cereals through periodic harvesting,” archaeologists and prehistorians “may now also have to consider the long and incremental cognitive and conceptual preparation that made these other processes viable.” He traced this cognitive development largely to the development of calendrical observation and its associated social structuring. “The well-known urban tapestries of temples, records, astronomies, and regional calendars, day-and-night hours, scheduled debts, and debt amnesties, and the increasing specialization of skills and the times and places for their use, all required a developing, increasingly precise, and carefully monitored calendar.”

This paper was the closest he came to publishing his long durée synthesis. Alex often spoke of writing a sequel to The Roots of Civilization describing how classical social structuring, myth and ritual preserved traces of Paleolithic cosmology. And what makes the Ice Age so relevant, after all, is how its time-structuring led to subsequent social practice – the civilization dimension of his book. Archaic calendrical regularities led to practices that survived even into the Bronze Age and classical antiquity. But he concentrated so much effort on defending his interpretation of Ice Age notational systems that he never got around to further elaborating his view of the Paleolithic as the matrix out of which subsequent thought evolved.

What he did elaborate was how time-factored notation evolved into arithmetic. Alex emphasized that tracing lunar patterns did not have to involve mathematical calculation. Paleolithic calendar keeping was pre-mathematical, predating actual arithmetic in the sense of counting in the abstract. It represented sequence (as do the alphabet and the musical scale) but not numbering as such. But it was the matrix out of which counting systems developed, inasmuch as the first phenomena to be counted seem to have been the rhythms of the moon and sun, not one’s fingers. The key number 28, for instance, evidently was derived from the days of visibility in the lunar month, to which Alex attributed the prominent role of the number 7 as its divisor. This suggested that the first phenomena being counted were calendrical, and special significance came to be given to number in an increasingly abstract sense. Some New Guinea and Indonesian counting systems started from the fingers and went up across the arm and neck and down the opposing arm, up to 28 points.

It was in the Neolithic, he believed, when some individuals began to count everything and developed more abstract mathematics, searching for a clue to the order of nature, as expressed first in its calendrical rhythms and then in natural musical and more abstract cosmological proportions. This search for order was the inspiration for science, as well as for myth and ritual.

Some people seem to have found remarkable parallels between calendrical fractions and those of tuning the musical scale. The 12 months of the year found their counterpart in the 12 tones of the musical scale, and the “Pythagorean comma” found its analogue in the gap between the solar and lunar years. These parallels fascinated Alex, and he arranged for us to meet with music historians. But he realized how speculative it was to infer how far archaic individuals had gone along these lines. How could we know whether we were being anachronistic? We had found these parallels, but the dangerously speculative waters of reconstructing archaic awareness dissuaded us from publishing until we could make a more thorough case.

One nonetheless can deem the pattern-seeking individuals who embedded these proportions in ancient mythology to have been proto-scientific, given their power of abstraction and ability to find connections. Myth and ritual, religion and social structuring sought ordering in nature, and also social equity. In a sense Alex himself was like a shaman in seeking to re-create the cosmological template that led chieftains to organize social rhythms to coincide with calendrical cycles.

The problem in trying to re-create the archaic mental template, of course, is that surviving tools, inscribed bones, art and burials, monuments and buildings were only a shadow. There are suggestive inferential phenomena, but the only conclusive facts that could prove Alex’s reconstructions would be written narratives. Recognizing that artifacts have little conclusive to say about the social structures that produced them, he scoured the anthropological literature for studies about what chieftains did, and also shamans, to whom he looked as kindred spirits. To suggest the ways of thought that inspired Paleolithic calendar-keepers and civilization’s cognitive takeoff, he compiled a library ranging from archaeoastronomy to classical myth and ritual, seeking clues in the practices chieftains among the Native Americans and other surviving tribal enclaves. But only in classical antiquity did writers begin to explain the logic behind their policies. All that one finds earlier are records of what was done, not why, so there is no way in which the grand schema that Alex postulated can be more than inferential.

The line of analysis that he initiated did not fit into any academic box in the sense of a discipline and departmental definition. That was his strong point. But it also made it hard to fit his discoveries into the curriculum, even that of anthropology or archaeology, quite apart from the fact that his background as a science writer did not include the PhD that has become the union card for modern professorship.

I have been no bolder in publishing my own ideas along the lines we discussed over the years. As a coda to my reminiscences of our discussions, I may briefly sketch the train of effects on which we agreed on how the calendar shaped the development of urban centers, weights and measures, and political divisions into calendrical tribes (thirds, fourths and twelfths). Of particular importance was the shift from lunar to solar calendars, and how early societies handled the disparity between the 356-day lunar year and the 365¼-day solar year, with a New Year interregnum of chaos, after which order was restored to start the new year in balance.

Early weights and measures were divided into calendrical fractions for distribution on a monthly basis. This required the standardization of months, and hence the creation of a solar year with artificially standardized 30-day months. The mina’s fractional division into 60 shekels mode of in turn determined the rate of interest – 1/60th per month, doubling the principal in five years. Rome adopted a 12-fold division, and its rate of interest was 1/12th.

Serving as a cosmological model for social organization, the calendar found its spatial analogue as the template for early walled cities, which typically had four gates (sometimes as many as twelve) reflecting the cardinal points of the year (or months). Major streets often were aligned to the rising or setting sun, except where adjusted for wind factors.

Greek city-states divided society into calendrical tribal fractions (halves, thirds, fourths or twelfths) as a means of rotating administration of their ceremonial and increasingly political center. It seems that each city-state sought to do so in its own way as a sign of distinction, but shared a common denominator in changing the calendar and tribal divisions together as new tribes were added. Each tribe was assigned its proportional period of rotating control of the center on a seasonal basis (for “four-square” tribal divisions) or monthly basis for twelve-tribe nations. When the calendar was changed, so were the tribal divisions.

Alex and I often spoke of how such social structures imitated astronomical rhythms to create what must have been perceived as early social science, aiming to establish regularities in earthly structures to reflect those of the heavens in a kind of “sympathetic logic.” This ran the danger of becoming magical, e.g. in astrology, much medical philosophy and other associative logic associated with early societies. But the attempt to create an ancient “general field theory” of society and nature also provided the intellectual impetus for what has become civilization.


Alexander Marshack, “Space and Time in Pre-agricultural Europe and the Near East: The Evidence for Early Structural Complexity,” in Michael Hudson and Baruch A. Levine, eds., Urbanization and Land Ownership in the Ancient Near East (Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, 1999:19-63), pp. 19 and 53.
Ibid., pp. 40 and 32.
Ibid., p. 57.
Ibid., p. 53.
See for instance Aletta Biersack, The Logic of Misplaced Concreteness: Paiela Body Counting and the Nature of the Primitive Mind, American Anthropological Association, January 1982.
I have traced the calendrical basis for the payment of debts, weights and measures in “How Interest Rates Were Set, 2500 BC – 1000 AD:PRIVATE Máš, tokos and fænus as metaphors for interest accruals,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 43 (Spring 2000):132-161; “Reconstructing the Origins of Interest-Bearing Debt and the Logic of Clean Slates,” in Michael Hudson and Marc Van De Mieroop, eds., Debt and Economic Renewal in the Ancient Near East (CDL Press, Bethesda, 2002):7-58; and “The Development of Money-of-Account in Sumer’s Temples,” in Michael Hudson and Cornelia Wunsch, ed., Creating Economic Order: Record-Keeping, Standardization and the Development of Accounting in the Ancient Near East (CDL Press, Bethesda, 2004):303-329.
I elaborated this idea in my own contribution to Urbanization and Land Use in the Ancient Near East, “From Sacred Enclave to Temple to City.”
When the Athenian Cleisthenes changed the number of tribes from 12 to 10 late in the 6th century BC, for example, he adjusted the public prytany calendar accordingly, from a 12‑month to a 10‑month basis.


One Response to After the Ice Age

  1. [...] and enslavement from debt, insightful rulers came up with a means to correct that concentration by declaring an Alulu Year (or Hallelujah Year, Lev. 25:23-28, :54). Debt slavery was forgiven, property restored, [...]