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"If an Aztec nobleman and a high-ranking Egyptian bureaucrat had met, they probably would have found each other totally disgusting," Anthropology professor Bruce Trigger says. "Egyptians despised military people because they were crude and violent. Yet they could have swapped ideas on managing people."
Trigger has spent much of his career contemplating how people from early cultures behaved and what made them tick. He spent the last decade and a half on his latest book, Understanding Early Civilizations: A Comparative Study (Cambridge University Press, 2003), in which he takes a close look at seven civilizations in an attempt to discern the nature of humanity.
Ever since anthropologist Bruce Trigger came down with chicken pox as a child, he has had a love for ancient cultures. His mum brought him library books to while away the time during his illness, including a beautifully illustrated book on Egyptian artifacts that blew his young worldview wide open.
Years later, he studied anthropology at the University of Toronto, followed by a doctorate at Yale. He became an expert on the archeology of Egypt, the Sudan and the Huron of prehistoric Ontario. Trigger joined McGill's Department of Anthropology in 1964 and was made a James McGill Professor in 2000.
Archeologists try to piece together how people behaved in the past (and why) without the luxury of interviewing or observing their subjects, or referring to written records. All they have are those objects that survived and have been recovered and identified.
Trigger explains the two main branches of thought about how societies develop. The ecological view is that people adapt rationally to similar environmental situations by coming up with similar solutions and responses. The cultural relativist opinion is that the human mind is capable of great differences, and so societies develop in distinct, idiosyncratic ways according to cultural and historical tradition.
There is also the third option. "Back in the 19th century, anthropologists talked about psychic unity; somehow the human mind was biologically geared to think along similar lines under similar situations," Trigger says.
Trigger wondered which of these approaches were right. What are the common elements to all human behaviour and belief, and what are the variable aspects? To get to the root of the matter, he decided to do a sweeping comparative study, asking not only how certain cultures were alike, but also how they differed.
Comparative studies are tricky to handle objectively. "Answers are always interpreted in the light of expectation. People are always willing to believe the evidence is faulty; the analysis is wrong if they get an answer they don't want to believe," he says.
Trigger chose seven early civilizations, ranging in time from 2700 BC to the late 19th-century AD, at similar levels of development: Old and Middle Kingdom Egypt, northern China, southern Mesopotamia, the Aztecs in the Valley of Mexico, the Classic Maya, the Inca of Peru, and the Yoruba and Benin of West Africa. Trigger defines early civilization as "the earliest form of complex hierarchical societies that were sufficiently organized so that they could endure over long periods of time."
Each society developed independently of the others, and (with the exception of Mesopotamia and Egypt) their languages were entirely unrelated. The material remains of these societies include art, buildings, everyday objects and some texts.
Trigger imagines that each culture would have been very different to live in. Despite this, they shared certain traits.
He was struck by their single pattern of religious beliefs. "First of all, it's the belief that supernatural forces animate and sustain the world and the universe. Secondly, that those forces depend on the energy the human beings provide in the form of sacrifices for their own survival."
Law and order need to be maintained in large societies such as these early civilizations, Trigger says. Upper classes preserve that order, and are provided for by the lower classes that produce food.
"When you put the gods into the equation, it becomes interesting. Farmers become necessary to produce the food, which feeds the upper classes, who keep the social order going. Then the farmers and the upper classes are able to feed the supernatural forces that keep the universe going. So it's a transposition into the supernatural realm of beliefs that govern things on earth.
"It also defines rights and responsibilities for each of these classes. The lower classes have to produce surpluses and hand them over. In return, the upper classes have to keep their exploitation at a rate that is tolerable. In other words, they can't try screwing more out of these people than they have a right to. They are also responsible to the gods. Without that, cosmic disorder sets in."
Trigger adds that this system is like a modern-day constitution, "except it's not done in terms of political or economical or philosophical concepts. It's done in terms of shared beliefs about how the universe works."
There are ways in which the cultures were dissimilar, such as each society's distinct artistic and architectural styles. Trigger saw another peculiarity: even though the cultures' social structures were alike, "one difference in virtually every society was what people consider to be a good or a meaningful life (for upper-class males)."
In ancient Egypt, the ideal life was bureaucratic: "getting along with superiors, only stabbing them in back when they didn't see it coming," Trigger says. Books from 2500 BC advise Egyptians not to overeat at their boss' house lest he think they lacked self-control, and to be careful not to talk too much in the boss' presence. By contrast, the Aztec ideal was to be a successful warrior — there was no greater glory than to die in battle. The Shang of China also valued military traits, but more so in the service of hunting and capturing animals (or humans) to sacrifice to the gods, whereas the Yoruba admired successful politicians, who had often started out as shrewd traders.
So does Trigger feel he has answers to, well, civilization? Not really, but he says, "I have a much better understanding of the questions that have to be asked, and I feel more confident being critical of approaches that are frankly a waste of time."
"Culture is important, but the traditions of what crops you plant are as much a part of culture as are the myths of the gods you create. Ecological adaptation and social institutions constrain behaviour as well. There is also this way the human mind functions that results in people analyzing problems in particular ways, tending to come up with similar solutions, for no reason other than that their minds are all a product of tens of thousands of years of evolution."
Trigger feels strongly that the social sciences have to work more closely with evolutionary psychology and neuroscience, "in order to build the large-scale comprehensive theories of human behaviour, which can explain why people do what they do."
At this stage in his career, Trigger devotes more time to theory than to material culture, and he is impressed most by archeologists' leaps of inspiration in their research and their imaginative applications to solving the conundrums of mute objects. Nonetheless, he says, "I never visit an Egyptian museum without reverting to my early childhood. I go around wondering at how this magnificent stuff was made."