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The road to riches


Programme One: Clever and Greedy

Presenter, Peter Jay

Hello. For most of my working life I've been trying to understand, and explain, one big thing - money. Money, or the lack of it, touches the lives of each and every one of us. It dictates the way we live, what we do and what we dream of doing. For many of us money is the most important thing in our lives

And so every day, all over the world, three billion of us go to work to make money to live… We churn out goods and services worth £20 trillion pounds a year. More than 160 billion bank notes circulate. That's an awful lot of money…And we all use it. You're never too young to dream of what money can buy… or too old

The average British family earns over a million pounds in a lifetime….so, we're all millionaires, sort-of. But a billion people live on less than 60p a day… The two richest people in the world are worth £4m an hour or £1,000 a second.

Couples say they argue about money more than anything else. More than sex, more than what to watch on TV. We love it so much we have to be reminded how dangerous it can be…

How did it come to control our lives? How did we create a world in which money could buy…almost anything?

Over the years I've come to realise that the answers to those questions might help us understand a little better how money works today. so come with me on a journey through time along the road to riches - from an age of innocence to a world where money rules… And like all good stories, ours will start at the very beginning…

(Uruk)We'll go back thousands of years, travel to the world's first civilisation… (Hadrian's Wall) We'll trace the rise and fall of empires… (Caravel)And follow in the wake of the great explorers… (Mexican pyramid) We'll see what they saw, (Manhattan)the wealth they unleashed. (Russia) We'll follow the arguments about systems. (Africa) And about why so many still have so little. (Cemetery) And we won't overlook the lost lives and wasted wealth which we have squandered in wars along our quarrelsome road to riches.

We begin with our nearest relations, the chimpanzees. When we started out, were we like them.

In Atlanta Bill Hoskyns is studying chimpanzees. He's given them tubes filled with peanut butter. They like that….. Next he's going to offer them a deal… He wants to see if they can understand the idea of swapping things. That would show that they are capable of economic behaviour. The deal is swap a tube for a banana. The chimps get it. Could they be bartering, deliberately offering something in exchange for something else….?

Bill Hoskyns

What we saw was me offering them a banana in exchange for them returning the tubes to me. And we saw at least three or four individuals scanning the coral, finding the tubes and bringing them back and putting them out of their cage to me in exchange for bananas. I would call it barter because clearly the chimpanzees understand that I need something from them. The chimpanzees are offering something to me and I'm giving them something for that behaviour so I'd say that meets the definition of barter.

Peter Jay

Every day we learn about how much we have in common with chimps; but there's one thing we don't have in common. And that's money. We use it; and he doesn't… and that use of money, unlike barter, really sets him and us apart.

Humans and animals share the earth; but the animals aren't players in our human economic system. Certainly, they do not buy and sell. At most they are bought and sold. They're in our zoo and we're looking in on them. Why is it that way ? Is it because of the way our brains have evolved ?

This is the skull of a chimpanzee - our closest living relative. it's got a brain about a quarter or a third the size of ours. It's got large canines and a projecting face. The ancestor we shared with it is probably very like these Australopithecines which appeared about four million years ago. In brain size they're very similar to the chimpanzee and living a lifestyle probably very similar to the chimpanzee.

Around two million years ago we get the first members of our genus collected together as homo habilis. Now with these the brain size has expanded somewhat to about half the size of our brains today. And it's looking rather more human and behaving rather more like a human - these species are making stone tools.

By about one and a half million years ago we have species in the fossil record referred to as homo erectus. Now homo erectus has a rather larger brain size that remains stable for about a million years from about one and a half million to five hundred thousand. They're making new types of tools called hand-axes. Now they remain pretty similar in the archaeological record for about a million years so we're in a rather stable and successful period of evolutionary time.

By 130,000 years ago the first members of our species were present in the fossil record in Africa. They have brain sizes the same as ours today. It is not until after 50,000 of these being present in the fossil record that we see the big new innovations in behaviour. That's probably relating to how the brain is changing within the skull, not in terms of its size, but how it's networked together.

This event in the brain was the crucial moment, the revolution when we evolved language, made new tools, developed art. We imagined solutions to practical problems AND we dreamed of new wealth. In short we became clever and greedy.

How exactly did that clever and greedy brain begin to create wealth and put humans on a different plane from the animals? Archaeologist Steve Mithen is planning a journey to find out. And it's in this rocky, dusty, sandy landscape in Jordan that he'll find the first clue.

Humanity's very first step along the Road to Riches happened in this area. The revolution in the human brain had made it possible. For millennia people had been roaming this landscape, hunting and gathering food. There are still nomads here today. It was on the edge of a sort of Garden of Eden.

Prof Steve Mithen

Ten thousand years ago when there were people first living here it was radically different. The area as a whole was covered with a scrubby woodland in which there was oak and juniper growing. And then down in the valley by the river there was a really lush woodland down there and there were trees such as poplar and willow and figs, it was very lush environment down there. Then coming up onto the slopes there was coniferous woodland as one reaches higher. So the major topography is much the same it's just greener, lusher, richer. It was quite a vibrant environment in which these people found themselves.

We came down here for about a week one spring a few years ago. I spent days walking across these arid slopes miles and miles in this heat, finding occasional flint artefacts but not very much….

And it was on the --- typical --- last afternoon that I walked up this slope. And immediately I knew there was something different here because on the ground there was not just the occasional flint artefact but it was covered in them, plastered in them.

So we began looking at them carefully and we could see that they were not just pieces of flint but pieces of flint that had a distinct look about them that made them look early which was what we were looking for. But it was also what was missing. There was no pottery here and we hate pottery, it's late prehistoric or classical so that was lovely. And as we began scratching the surface we could see there were little alignments of stone, little circles of stone and we began to think maybe there's features here. Of course at the time we didn't know if those features related to the flintstones. So we had various strands of evidence which began to tell us this was a very interesting place to work.

Peter Jay

Just how interesting, only gradually became clear. He had found one place where for the first time those early wandering people stopped walking. As the archaeologists dug they began to realise that they had found a site of extraordinary importance. Whoever had lived there had settled down. And those clever pioneers began to experiment with nature, shaping them to human uses. But why here and why then?

For thousands of years the world had lived through an ice age. As it thawed the Near East got warmer, wetter and more fruitful. People no longer had to roam in search of food. It was all round them. So they settled down, made permanent homes. But then climate played a cruel trick. The bright interval receded; and it got colder and drier. Our settled pioneers found that they had to take control of their environment in order to survive. They began to cultivate plants and later to breed animals.

In short - they were discovering farming. it took root, as the weather finally got kinder again. This excavation is unearthing that great moment in human history.

Prof Steve Mithen

This is the place in the world where farming first happens. Farming is known to have started in several places in the world, in America for example, independently but this is the place where it happens first much much earlier than anywhere else. This is the place where farming spreads out to Europe so directly relevant to us. Most of the things that are traditional European in farming came from here, the wild cereals and so on that developed into domestic strains were first cultivated here. Most of the legumes were first cultivated here, even most of the animals were first domesticated here, and the goats and sheep and so on were all round here.

Peter Jay

Even the tiniest clues can help archaeologists build a picture of how those early farmers lived; and as our knowledge grows, one things stands out. they couldn't possibly have made this leap forward to farming had it not been for their clever brains. Finding a skeleton brings us closer to them.

These bones are over ten thousand years old. Steve Mithen travels to Amman to meet an expert who has flown in to examine the skeleton, Charlotte Roberts.In the laboratory they take a first look at the skull

It looks a bit crushed unfortunately, but such remains can often tell us how they lived, hunting, gathering or farming. As the skeleton is pieced together, the human being emerges. So what does it tell us?

Once farming was discovered its efficiency and advantages were irresistible. On another dig a few hundred meters away - and a few hundred years later - we find fully developed farming.

Prof Steve Mithen

I've walked no more than 200 meters from the previous site and through no more than 500 or 600 years and I'm faced with this remarkable settlement. There's substantial architecture, houses built in a rectangular pattern. They're joined in a complex fashion so you can imagine a proper village here with streets and courtyards and storerooms and houses such as you see here with grinding stones still surviving in the midst of it.

The only thing big enough to have started this transformation is the start of farming. Farming would have been needed to provide the food to have supported the population living in these substantial villages. But you know farming isn't just an economic change it transforms the whole of social relations, it creates a need for trade and exchange because people are living here permanently. In fact if you look at the last 100 thousand years the start of farming is the biggest transformation that has occurred and after it the rest just unfolds as history.

Peter Jay

So, it was all down hill from then on. Well, up to a point. Even if nowadays farm houses sometimes contain the most unproductive types, farming has, over the last ten millennia, enabled us to feed a thousand times as many mouths.

Prof Steve Mithen

I live in an old farmhouse; and it speaks to the farmer that is deeply imprinted in me as in every one of us. Farming was what above all else lifted humans above all other species. When we learnt to produce more food than was needed to feed just the farmers we created the surplus that has fed the people who have done everything else ever since, the carpenters, the teachers, the artists, the industrial workers, the doctors, the professionals, the entertainers - the creators of what we call civilisation and wealth. From that moment we were on our way.

Peter Jay

In Jordan where it began, as everywhere else, farming transformed human life. The farmer himself has been the most enduring model of the human producer. The partnership with animals enriched and empowered humans, while multiplying the herds and flocks. Crops did the same; and yields shot up. Hundreds of times more people could be fed from each acre. Families no longer needed to roam over vast areas. And with enough food to feed more than just those who worked on the farm, others could be released to pursue careers outside agriculture.

Just what a dramatic effect the new farming techniques had is vividly revealed here five hundred miles away at Çatal Hüyuk in central Turkey.

Archaeologists are combing through the remains of what may be the world's first town, trying to shape a picture of life in one closely packed thriving community. Thousands of people lived here…..and died here…

Nine thousand years ago obsidian was the first ever credit card…

Obsidian is a shiny, black volcanic rock. The people of Çatal Hüyuk hoarded it and obviously treasured it. And during our visit we hear that modern scientific techniques have just pinpointed the volcano from which it came 160 miles away in Capadocia.

Something absolutely fundamental to mankind's story happened here. This shiny hard and beautiful stuff caught his eye - and hers - and we began, not just to use it, but to accumulate it. Acquisitiveness was born; and that allied to their clever and greedy brain set these early humans on a course to Midas and Croesus and the Moghuls and the Rockefellers - and Bill Gates, a course trod by no other species but ours.

I hitch a ride with Turkish, archaeologist, Nur Balkan'Atli. She has been studying this site which turns out to have been perhaps the world's first factory, sending obsidian artefacts to Catal Huyuk and miles beyond.

So this was a kind of workshop place where they made instruments for the rest of the known world?

Nur Balkan'Atli

Yes they just produced blanks and these blanks were retouched in the settlements to be used as tools.

Peter Jay

(Peter in hot air balloon)The first factory has to be a sight to see; and there's only one good way to see it in its full setting. Getting airborne takes just the right conditions. Like early man's search for economic lift-off. His clever and greedy brain carried him clear of his nomadic beginnings.

From our perspective, it was an amazing take-off. Those obsidian pioneers down on the ground here may not have known it, but they had moved us forward on the Road to Riches.

Nur Balkan'Atli

That's the volcano that produced the obsidian that prehistoric man extracted to use for their tools.

Peter Jay

Early men and women what did they like about obsidian?

Nur Balkan'Atli

It's easy to knap, it's easy to retouch and it's beautiful….

Peter Jay

Useful and beautiful adds up to valuable and saleable. Add transportable, especially over long distances, and you have tradable. That surely was the mix that gave early man, after farming, his other great economic weapon. It was called trade. It was based on the discovery that you and I can swap something and both feel richer. Do it over long distances and everyone feels richer. Trade soon became the pulse of the prehistoric world. As today it linked communities, creating new opportunities. The stage was set for the next big leap forward... And we're on its trail.

The trail takes us into an unfamiliar land. Few outsiders come here. Farming and trade were invented further west; but their most spectacular consequence - cities and the first stirrings of civilisation - happened here.

It was right here that it all began, in this neck of land where Europe, Africa and Asia meet, between the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf to the east and west, between the Black and Red Seas to north and south. Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, where we've just been and, a little further east, where we are now, modern-day Iraq. The area is known as Mesopotamia - literally the land in the middle of the rivers. It was the rivers which gave life to the area and to this day still do. With water farmers can work a miracle a year, millennium in and millennium out

Water flows through our story like breath in the body - water to drink, to irrigate, to travel upon and to dispose of waste. And in the very earliest times not two rivers were more important than the Mesopotamian twins, the Euphrates and, right here, the Tigris. Six thousand years ago they were already carrying river boats with timber, copper and gold; and this region became the cradle of the very first cities because of the fertility which they, the rivers, unlocked in the soil.

Uruk was the very first city of all, created by the Sumerians. The only inhabitants left today are the night watchman and his family. And they've had very few British visitors since the Gulf War.

Here six thousand years ago were the glorious temples and public monuments of a proud city. Uruk was home to 10,000 people, later rising to 50,000. It was a flourishing centre of trade, craft, and growing wealth. The inhabitants of this city achieved the greatest of all firsts on the Road to Riches, the first civilisation.

Dust to dust and ashes to ashes. Man's first civilisation could hardly seem more completely obliterated than in this desert landscape that was once the world's first city. And yet, scuff up the sand, look again, and I'm walking on literally hundreds of bits of pottery which those early Sumerians all those thousands and thousands of years ago.

36:28 Pottery was only one of their myriad inventions. Surveying the work of these amazing pioneers in Uruk we find that from the simple elements of farming, settlement and trade they built a complete society with government, laws, organised religion, art and science. It was an awesome achievement.

And they gave us the hours and minutes by which we tell and measure time itself. Aeons of time later it is to Cambridge that we now go for the full measure of that first civilisation.

Prof Nicholas Postgate

One of the first things that strikes you when you go to Uruk is the sheer size of the buildings. These are not just houses which have been slightly expanded to accommodate a religious cult they are very large buildings. For example one of the largest Uruk period temples is 80 metres in length - Kings College Chapel is just under 100 metres in length so they were actually on the same scale as these major medieval buildings.

Peter Jay

Nicholas Postgate is Britain's leading authority on the Sumerian civilisation; and to gauge the quality of its life and its art he wants us to see one of the great treasures of that period. It's called the Standard of Ur; and it's in the British Museum.

Prof Nicholas Postgate

This thing which looks a bit like a box is in fact a bit of a mystery because we honestly don't know what it is. However It's a wonderful artefact for us because it encapsulates so much about the society of ancient Mesopotamia. It's not just that it has some very revealing scenes but even the substances of which it is made tell us a lot about that society. You have the blue background which is supplied by pieces of lapis lazuli which must have been imported from hundreds of kilometres away in Afghanistan. The figures are in white - they're made of seashells which must have come from the Gulf and then the whole thing is held onto the wood with bitumen - a sort of gooey petroleum - which comes from hundreds of kilometres up the Euphrates. So the object itself tells us a great deal about the extent of Sumerian trade links with the outside world.

Peter Jay

The cradle of the first civilisation, in Mesopotamia, was also the first cradle of war. That legacy is all too familiar in Baghdad today. Wars with neighbours and wars with more distant powers have consumed much of Iraq's modern wealth. And the aftermath of war, sanctions and shortages, still cast their shadow. They affect both the pressing preoccupations of daily life in the bazaar and the rarefied atmosphere of the nation's once well-endowed museum.

Dr Mohad Sayeed

We had to evacuate and empty all the cabinets especially because most of the small objects are very fragile. To move it out because we are in an area that was targeted during the war through planes and missiles all the time.

Peter Jay

But the best of the few remaining treasure celebrates a happier story.

Dr Mohad Sayeed

This is the vase which was discovered in Uruk and actually excavated in Uruk. The most important thing on this vase is that they are showing the levels of living beings let's say

Peter Jay

This relief here?

Dr Mohad Sayeed

Yes so you see the source of life, water, here are the waves of the water… plants… animals… people who are serving gods and the goddess of love and fertility and people who are bringing her the offerings.

Peter Jay

But even those blessings - water, farming, fertility, to say nothing of architecture, mathematics, art and religion - were not the limit of our legacy from Sumerian civilisation. They also gave us…..WRITING !

The evidence lies in Berlin. For decades it defied scholars, concealed in what seemed. to them an impenetrable code. It is still kept under strict security. Thousands of years had gone by since anyone had read this material.

It was written on small clay tablets - millions of them - by scribes in our first city, Uruk. The code - known as proto-cuneiform - and the message of the tablets were first cracked by Hans Nissen

Prof Hans Nissen

It was basically the keeping control over the economic transaction. This was a centralised economy. They collected lots of foods and other raw materials in central stores and distributed them from these central stores again to the people. So there was a need for it was concentrated where you had a large amount of everything. And to keep track of this must have been quite difficult once it went over a certain border. So I think this is basically what started it but on the other had they must have recognised already the power of writing from the very beginning.

Peter Jay

This very first writing was pressed into soft clay. And, improbable as it may seem, it was accountants who made this most fruitful of inventions, just so that they could count their beans more accurately. A riddle wrapped in an enigma, if ever there was one. But will we ever decode it all ?

Prof Hans Nissen

It depends very much on my mood and the day. Sometimes I tend to think well we're pretty much advance already but if we really think seriously then we are just in at the beginning. And the problem the really pessimistic outlook is that we never will reach a full understanding… I even suspect that in cases where we think we have … already that our future will tell us that we aren't quite on the right track.

Peter Jay

The city of Ur was, like Uruk, part of the Sumerian civilisation. Before the Sumerians there were just farmers and traders. After them, there were also craftsmen, architects and astronomers, soldiers and scientists, priests and philosophers, artists… and even accountants !

Staggering and magnificent as were the achievements of the Sumerians, pioneering the very idea of civilisation and its earliest achievements in astronomy, mathematics, food production and social organisation, they failed to lay one vital paving stone along the Road to Riches. They had no money, not anyway as we understand that term; [and that invention later in the story.']

Something at least was left to later civilisations. But it was the invention of civilisation itself that was the Sumerians' ultimate legacy to those who came after. The idea caught on; and it spread to nearby Babylon. the ancient home of the famous hanging gardens, has recently been rebuilt by Saddam Hussein.

In Jordan the archaeologists' quest for new evidence - to confirm or change their theories - goes on. Lying somewhere on this ground, unnoticed for thousands of years, may be the next piece in the jig-saw.

Their search, like the road to riches itself, includes many failures and disappointments and false trails. They may have to search a hundred slopes in vain before they can hope to find what they want.. You win some, you lose some.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the origin of farming and the towns and the cities that derived from it, is that it all happened by accident really.

Prof Steve Mithen

When those first people put seeds in the ground and tamed animals they were just trying to cope with the short term, ensuring a supply of food for the next season or the next year. They were laying the foundations for the great works of civilisation and also for the ecological disasters and the social tensions that ultimately derive from a farming lifestyle. But when they were putting their seeds in the ground they had no idea what they were letting themselves in for and of course all the rest of us today.

Peter Jay

At the end of the day, as the archaeologists unwind and prepare to depart, it's time for us to move on and see where the road to riches leads us next

In our journey through time we need to keep remembering that there is no one road that all must tread. Nor are the roads which seem to reach furthest always straight. Nor can onwards and upwards ever be any sort of summary of our story.

But here our road will lead westward, to the story of how money began and what it is. And we'll travel along... the superhighway of that time, the Mediterranean Sea to witness the rise and fall of Greece and Rome.

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