I don’t know; needs more study and more corroborating evidence, but sounds plausible to me. I don’t see the lack of writing as an obstacle.
Actually, I think it’s funny how arrogant we literate societies are, thinking that just because we have writing, we can preserve All The Knowledge. Tell that to the keepers of the library of Alexandria. Or the British military, whose records-building that kept track of the careers and service records of their enlisted men was bombed into rubble during the Blitz. The truth is that what we think of as preserved history is, at best, cobbled together from scraps.
Imagine if someone tried to figure out our current civilization if none of the computers survived and time whittled away 90% of the written books and paper, chosen randomly (perhaps a Ms. magazine here, a recipe card there, a book of Grimm’s fairy tales with sixteen pages randomly destroyed, maybe half of a set of stereo instructions, possibly one third of a Gideon’s Bible and two thirds of a biology textbook . . . ) That’s pretty much what deciphering history is all about, and the farther back you go, the worse it gets.
Memory is subject to adaptation, it’s true but . . . First, interpretation of data is subject to biases and politics. Second, lorekeepers were professionally trained in the art of memorization. Third, most of what you are talking about here is not memory at all. It is social custom, and social customs are imprinted upon us as small children and take active conditioning to break; and if you doubt that, I invite you to try to pee your pants deliberately in front of another adult at some point, even a spouse, and see if you can do it and how easy that is for you (yes, some people are going to say “That’s disgusting!” I would counter with, “See how deeply the conditioning affects you.”) Consider how difficult it is to change outmoded social customs like misogyny and racism when we, as a people, are making an *active effort* to do so.
Granted, I hope she’s wrong. It’s a pretty pessimistic view to think that we must have strictly defined hierarchies to maintain large populations (though I suspect this may explain much about the stupid ways in which we as a people behave in large groups.)
Annalee Newitz has a fascinating article at IO9 on early neolithic societies: How Farming Almost Destroyed Ancient Human Civilization.
Roughly 9,000 years ago, humans had mastered farming to the point where food was plentiful. Populations boomed, and people began moving into large settlements full of thousands of people. And then, abruptly, these proto-cities were abandoned for millennia. It’s one of the greatest mysteries of early human civilization.
…The problem is that people in Neolithic mega-villages had inherited a system of social organization and spirituality from their nomadic forebears. Because nomadic life requires everyone in the group to share resources to survive, these groups would develop rituals and customs that reinforced a very flat social structure. Certainly there would be families that had more prominent positions in a hunter-gatherer group or small village, but if they ever started hoarding resources too much that would be bad for the entire group…
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