Saturday, 10 May 2008

The old world Chapter 1 In the beginning

In the beginning…

The oyster is older than us. Older, perhaps even, than grass.

History is usually defined as the emergence of farming, as the climate grew suddenly warmer some 10,000 years ago. We still live in that Holocene era that came after the Ice Ages. But we know the oyster predates all of that. With farming came the need to write things down, for laws to instil social orders, came ownership and kingships and all the trappings of what we are taught in school.

From this we call it affectionately the Earth, but that accounts for only one third of the planet. Textbook history tends to be land-centric, for obvious reasons.
In another perspective we might better call it the Rock.

But before farming, hunter gathers spread out from the African tropics to the deserts of the near East, crossed the Baring Straights to the Americas and survived in the Andes. Stone age tools from what seem like similar communities have been found in the Nile and in Britain and France. The lyre and the harp have been found in both.

Michael Cook in his Brief History of the Human Race argues that in the fourth to second millennia BC, the communities of the Atlantic fringe constituted one single cultural zone linked by the ocean. “At the same time the region had the advantage of easy communication to with both the Baltic and the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean was one of the world’s most precocious regions of maritime development.”

We know all this also from oysters. In archaeology oyster shells are used now for carbon dating. In mathematical terms the oyster is a constant in our history but it
predates all our own history, an invisible submarine life-giver, pumping oxygen into estuarine waters, a neolithic nabob, an overgrown plankton in itself, which it resembles hugely, surrounded by its family, animatedly filtering the waters around it and spawning in huge numbers.

To a naturalist, the oyster is one of the most successful species on the planet, or it was. Until we came long.

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