Monday, 2 February 2009

A 50,000 Year Old Global Network?

Last Thursday I went to a fascinating talk by Graeme Barker on the shift from hunter gatherer to farming societies on Borneo.

I went along to understand more about the technology dynamics of the Papuan Highlands, but I picked up something very unexpected.

Graeme Barker discussed the orthodox models of the spread of agriculture around the world, and compared it to the new understanding that has been emerging recently. The former model supposes that there were a few migration waves, and a few innovation events. Opposed to that is the new model, based on recent archaeological and ethnographic evidence. This suggests that there was relatively intensive interaction among neighbouring groups that facilitated technology transfer over long distances. Mango from India grown on Borneo, and bananas from New Guinea carried to West Africa - are the suggested evidence for that.

So, based on this, here is my speculation.

What if our (or at least, my) model of the global society is completely wrong. If there really was so much and such constant interaction among neighbouring groups for tens of thousands of years, then maybe a good model would be a network of societal relationships that have existed since the rise of our line of humans. (If you wanted to be truly outrageous, maybe you could extend this argument further back, to some previous homo species.) Then what we'd have is a description of this network, and the rifts along this network, say due to geographic reasons (rise and decline of the sea level, for instance). This network would give a completely different story about globalisation, or what we mean by it now. In this reading, the term ‘globalisation’ would be a reference to the dynamics of a particular network property.

I work on a network model of the global economy, and keep getting into fights with economic historians who claim that the level of globalisation was much higher, say, two hundred years ago, than now. They use macroeconomic measures, which I think misses the point of network complexity. (The latter concept is not really in the toolbox of macroeconomics, so the debate is really futile. It tends to be fun, though...)

But maybe the picture of the global network being there all the way back to the spread of the homos would change the entire discourse. You would have a global network, maybe, with more or less complex structures being built up in different geographical locations. Then the current globalisation would be, perhaps, a build up of a complex structure that covers the entire geographical spread, with any new local complex ‘outgrowths’ necessarily being integrated into the global one. In other words, ‘globalisation’ would not merely refer to the existence of a global network - as that has been around for a while - but the emergence of an overall structure which would encompass all new network build ups in a way that they could not be regarded as separate systems.

What do you think?
(Maybe modelling the global economy’s network structure for the past three decades is an un-ambitious project after all, how about 1700 times longer?)


At the Barker lecture, there was some meat on the expected topic as well. The description of two tribes, living next to each other, with entirely different approaches to their immediate general environment, the technology set they use, and the attitudes towards non-traditional consumption, was extremely interesting. One completely refusing to open up, being very mindful not to harm their forest, sticking to old technologies, and refusing new products, such as rice. The other one, the exact opposite: treating the forest as their ‘property’, quickly adopting new technologies, and taking up new consumption patterns. Beautifully highlights how impossible the quest is to have an economic development plan ‘good’ for all. The ‘incremental, local, community based’ just got an other supporting argument?


  1. Tamas, this is way too complicated. Can't you make your point in a human language?

  2. Sorry. Will try harder.

    The point, perhaps, is that the traditional dichotomy of closed versus open economy could be refined with the use of a network framework. (I am not sure if it is possible to avoid the term 'network' entirely.) Then, if Graeme Barker was right about the long distance connections having been there for several tens of thousand years, we would have been in the somewhat open economy phase already a long time ago.

    But then comes the argument with 'complex structures'...

    The way I imagine it is visual. A simple network is flat, like a two-dimensional map. And when you have many crosscutting connections, then it builds upwards, in a third dimension. Thus forty thousand years ago there would be a fairly flat network, with the scattered small human groups having small outgrowths of many cross cutting relationships. The latter will be local, so as if there were a lot of small humps on the map. Then as civilisations rise, these would be larger humps. Maybe globalisation is when there are no separate larger humps. It is all part of an enormous relationship hill.

    (I am not certain at all that this got any clearer, but one thing is for sure: both the network AND the archeologist lot will now slaughter me...)

  3. Tamas, even if you managed to get legible, that would still not make you right.

    Are you suggesting that there was a global society forty thousand years ago?

  4. You are nuts.

  5. Now, there is a statement that would get easy support...

  6. hey, dragon tamer, that wasn't exactly an argument was it?

    i would be inclined to be rather sceptical about this idea, too, but so would be tamas, it seems.

    however, you have to give it to this post that A. it was interesting, and B. there was an argument in it

    you cannot just wipe it off with the word of authority.

  7. Bee, it would fill a library to list my problems with it. It is an intellectual non-starter.

  8. I'm afraid, you still have not put forward any arguments...

  9. Bee, I will have to leave now, but will come back and give you a few arguments if nobody else does it before me.

  10. How nice of you (is there anyone moderating this?). I will have to put the kids to bed.

  11. at least now we know which time zone you are in...

  12. Well, in theory I could moderate it. I'd rather wait for those arguments. Anxiously, I might add.

    Off: good night to your kids.

  13. Um... minor point: which of the two above-mentioned societies of Borneo lasted longer?

  14. They have been coexisting as long as memory goes back. As I understood, none of the two is threatened now - but that would be a question to Graeme Barker, I guess.

  15. Maybe there is "no royal way" - a complex language to descript a complex idea is just adequate. :)
    Which idea is more than inspirative. "Closedness" of a structure in reality is never pure. In a world which gave birth to the Book of Kells, nicest heritage of ancient Irish culture, you may suppose the life was restricted to some monasteries with a limited number of candle sticks - and the limned blue initials are made of Lapis Lazuli arrived straightforwardly from Afghanistan.

  16. I asked Graeme Barker about Gabor's question. Here is the answer:

    "The two tribes are the Kelabit and the Penan. We know very little about their origins. The Kelabit's own oral history goes back perhaps a couple of hundred years, shading into mythical history. A major goal of the Cultured Rainforest Project is to investigate the histories of foraging and farming in the Kelabit Highlands, where the Kelabit and Penan live. Of course identifying when foraging and/or farming were variously practised in the past is not the same as being able to link those histories to the present-day Kelabit and Penan. So the answer to 'how old are the Kelabit and Penan?' may be that we don't know and may not be able to know. You can't go from identifying (as we have) rainforest foraging societies at Niah cave in Borneo 50,000 years ago to saying that Penan (rainforest foragers) have been around in Borneo for 50,000 years."

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