Occupational Specialization as Far Back as the Bronze Age

Linear B is an ancient form of Greek, used around 1500 BC (the Bronze Age) in Mycenean Greece. Stuff written in Linear B gives us one of our oldest views of human life and can reveal things that other ways of looking at the past (e.g., bones, genes, tools, pottery) cannot. At the end of The Riddle of the Labyrinth (2013) by Margalit Fox, a book about how Linear B was deciphered, is a section about what the deciphered tablets turned out to say.

One thing they revealed is considerable occupational specialization. According to Fox  (pp. 273-5),

Mycenaeans plied a range of trades. Many tablets reveal the names of occupations . . . metalsmiths . . . textile work . . . tanners . . . leatherworkers . . . priests and priestesses . . . soldiers, rowers, and archers . . . swordmakers and bowmakers, chariot makers and chariot-wheel repairmen . . . goldsmiths and perfumers . . . woodcutters, carpenters, shipbuilders and net makers; fire kindlers and bath attendants; heralds, hunters, herdsmen, and beekeepers. . . . bronzesmiths.

Occupational specialization is at the center of my theory of human evolution. The decipherment of Linear B showed that it has existed as far back as we can see. Today there is an enormous amount of occupational specialization, but it also flourished when accumulated knowledge was much less.

The more you see the centrality of occupational specialization to human nature, the more you will see how modern schooling malnourishes almost everyone who undergoes it — which is almost everyone. Human nature takes people at one place and time — such as Mycenaean Greece — and pushes them to become adults who do all sorts of different things (woodcutter, herald, beekeeper . . . ). It takes people who start off the same or almost the same — same place, same food, same weather, similar genes — and creates diversity among them. Modern education tries to do the opposite: Take a diverse set of students and make them the same. One example is No Child Left Behind. Another is that in almost every college class, all students are given the same material, the same assignments, and graded on the same one-dimensional scale. We don’t need everyone to be the same; in fact, we need exactly the opposite. The more diverse we are, the sooner we will find solutions to pressing problems, because they will be attacked in many different ways.

4 Replies to “Occupational Specialization as Far Back as the Bronze Age”

  1. I can recommend the 1958 “The Decipherment of Linear B” by John Chadwick, who had taken part in that decipherment. The hero of his account is Michael Ventris, an architect by trade who had not gone to university. Ventris was the real thing, a genius, and I don’t mean “genius” in the grade-inflated US sense.

    Chadwick had worked with Ventris and so his portrait of him and his working methods is authoritative. Inside my copy of the book I’ve found a cutting of a review of a biography of Ventris by Andrew Robinson; the cutting is dated April 2002. “The Man Who Deciphered Linear B: The Story of Michael Ventris” (Thames and Hudson). Here’s one quotation from the review “it is a testament to the remarkable level of education available in some schools before the Second World War that Ventris left Stowe (a term early …) with a degree of fluency in Latin and Greek not matched by most of today’s graduates in Classics.”

  2. Professional specialization far predates that.
    See the Sumerian proverbs from the Oxford ETSCL project: you find professionalized makers of clothing (fullers who make felt, weavers) and scribes and temple workers, and even a hierarchy of disgrace:

    A disgraced scribe becomes an incantation priest. A disgraced singer becomes a flute-player. A disgraced lamentation priest becomes a piper. A disgraced merchant becomes a con-man. A disgraced carpenter becomes a man of the spindle. A disgraced smith becomes a man of the sickle. A disgraced mason becomes a hod-carrier.
    catalog of texts – proverbs at the end

  3. in modern education, not everyone attends the same schools or takes the same classes.

    Seth: Well, yes, but surely you’ve heard the term “meritocracy”. Those who believe in it inevitably think highly of one-dimensional measures of achievement, such as IQ scores. Somehow merit is one-dimensional.

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