There is an immediate sense of absurdity in considering the relevance of labour unions to our most ancient ancestors. I bring that up first not to subvert that feeling but to highlight the fact that for an almost total majority of human history any discussion of organized labour was moot. This dialogue has only become recently relevant.
A full treatment of the history of labour must begin with an examination of what we know about the lives of our ancestors prior to the emergence of written record. Amid those millennia during which our ancestors lived migrant lives, following closely the patterns of nature as hunters and opportunists, exercising that early spark of consciousness with rudimentary tools and somewhere, somehow, harnessing fire; out there our truest and most fundamental understanding of labour was forged into our genes through a continuous interaction with the environment.
To draw clear conclusions about prehistoric labour we need to focus exclusively on conclusions that can be obtained directly from available evidence. A difficult circumstance but not impossible. The recent discoveries in practical archaeology provide many clear examples of diet, population dispersion and genetics. Archaeology has also given us some definite knowledge of prehistoric manufacturing skill in artifacts both artistic and utilitarian.
In addition to the Archaeological record we can gain insight from the next two most reliable sources.
First, the eco-mythic cosmologies preserved in the oral histories of contemporary tribes from many regions of the world. Particularly those histories that predate the rise of monotheism. Most particularly from those tribes that have resisted the inculcation of occidental monotheisms.
Lastly we may consult the earliest preserved writings of human civilizations. Particularly those accounts of illiterate peoples, ‘wild’ or ‘barbarous’. Most particularly texts of original authorship. (Anything attributed to Homer, for instance, would fail the latter qualification since the works of Homer were most certainly the product of several authors over generations. However, these same works do qualify as eco-mythic cosmologies and are useful thusly.)
For this text I will avoid theory and conjecture, of which there is an abundance on prehistoric life. Further I will put aside the wealth of observations collected on the behaviors of our cousins, modern wild apes, which are distinct and serve as an odious model for understanding our own ancestry. No more useful than, say, an iguana, but often put forward in support of social theories.
Oral and written histories combined with archaeological artifact/data give us three points of reference from which we may observe (not derive) clearly some knowledge of prehistoric labour.
For the sake of brevity I shall leave the burden of producing specific examples to the reader. They are numerous and commonly available. Given access to these three bodies of information any person exercising their capacity to reason, carefully aware of and restricting the influence of opinion and superstition, will come to a simple set of observations.
Prehistoric labour was confined to the individuals need to extract food, fiber, fuel, and medicine from the surrounding ecology. (I do not mean that their life was restricted to these concerns, only that this was their labour as we would understand it.)
Living in small groups provided a redundancy in the group’s ability to labour to meet the needs of every individual in the group as a balance against natural variation in ability of individuals to perform any given task and the variability of the availability of each individual to labour over time due to illness or injury or circumstance.
Each individual was capable, learned, and carried out all forms of labour.
Labour, then, for our prehistoric ancestors was communal and complete. They were simply human and the ‘job’ they all had was being human. Think, hunt, search, move. An austere but certain job market. If circumstances unfolded to separate or isolate an individual from a group that individual took with them knowledge of the entirety of human industry and they would exercise that knowledge.
This ancestral history of labour is shared by all of humanity, every course and region of culture. It is the root of what it means to work. Only relatively recently have we begun to experiment and expound upon the working dynamics of our efforts. No matter what we do or how we organize ourselves the root is ever-present.
Organized labour is a human necessity. In the coming chapters I will return at interval to the root ancestral truth of labour to demonstrate its perennial importance, not simply as an idea, but as an aspect of our nature that is a part of each of us as surely as our beating hearts. The recognition of our ancestral relationship will provide illumination of critical conflicts in the organization of labour throughout history in every culture. This will give us sound guidance in contemporary efforts to refine our organized labour, in ways that promote peace, security, and individual fulfillment without requiring anyone to give these things up so that we might have them ourselves.