Trade is the Origin of Time

For hundreds of thousands of years, humankind existed without active timepieces or clocktowers. Sundials existed, sure, but as passive markers of time, there was no active ticking of the hands on the clock or the clicks of the pendulum’s peak ascent to one side or the other. In large part, activity occurred in large, organic blocks of silences, when the most regular, definitive marker of time was day dimming to night and the dark yielding to light.

For two hundred thousand years of homo sapiens sapiens, time was a smooth consistency of silence interspersed with occasional activity marked by the thrill of the hunt, the pain of a squatting childbirth in the forest, a child’s first words, the ceremonies issuing the young into adulthood, and the fights and battles that marked an active ending of life. Apart from those significant moments, there was little to mark time as humans knew it, minus the days and the seasons and the movements of the stars across a silent sky.

A tribe or village would have encountered an outsider on an altogether different level of time; one in which excitement and watchfulness would have rippled through the arrangement of family structures. “What does this stranger have that we can take? What does this stranger need that we can give?” were likely common thoughts in a large, hostile, kind, diverse, and unknown world. The reactions to the appearance of an outsider would have varied depending on the nature of the culture’s development, as some travelers were undoubtedly attacked as a threat and others were taken in on the edge of starvation because they did not present a threat.

Somewhere along the line, a stranger would bring items of uniquity with him, and either have them taken from him by force or he would share them freely for a meal. Flint was once a commodity; and the promise of the flint-bearing stranger’s future return with more of the sparking rocks would ensure the safety of his passage. One can easily imagine a pretty face in exchange for the flint rocks to be a driving force for many of those early traders, as would be rare or semi-precious stones, salt procured from evaporated tide pools or dry salt lakes, rudimentary sugar products for quick energy, medicinal herbal bundles from far away (including psychoactive organic substances), and eventually, the pleasures of spices from far-off lands to cover the smell of rotting meat.

A long time ago, these natural interactions would have developed a certain kind of wanderer: a soul who went far afield from one familiar and safe place to another familiar and safe place to bring the products of the one place to the other for some degree of mutual gain. Personalities are as varied as the individual personal experiences constituting the person, and most accustomed to such a lifestyle would naturally have been adventurous loners sharing their seeds and peppercorns and cinnamon bark for sharing a lover’s bed, a house and family if the relationship worked out, or a mere meal and water if in dire need. Friendships would have arisen, and with each return visit to a responsive tribe, bonding and trust would become the subtext of the exchange. As in modern international trade, trading partners in millenniums past shared the commodity equivalent of love that either kept the peace or caused jealousy and war.

As these loner traders expanded their worldview, they found one another and banded together to realize enterprise. Eventually, trade routes were established, and regular deliveries of goods became the first active, manmade ticking sounds of time in the silent landscape, marking a sense of definite time that did not come from the sun and the dark through the seasons, especially once the necessity of the new commodities were established in a new culture. Such expected visits by these traders required a timely deliveries of goods, such as salt for food preservation before the winter, livestock in springtime, or vital herbs required for ritual medicine and seasonal battles of territory and local resources.

Trade began a sense of time independent of the natural world’s sense of it, in which humankind had lived largely silently for hundreds of thousands of years. Campfire storytellers morphed into traveling bands of group storytellers, bringing music and plays from far away to share entertainment; something different coming from the outside world that tribal arrangements became curious about by the repeated return of the solitary trader of stories and flint.

Time moved faster with the increase in trade. While once a yearly visit by a former stranger was expected to bring necessary things with which to harness fire, pretty objects with which to adorn oneself, tasty spices to flavor one’s food, and medicine to sustain or save lives, multiple visits by many now-familiar traders were anticipated as much as the Pony Express and the Wells Fargo Wagon were expected in the American West, bearing news, entertainment, and commodities for exchange. This regularity of delivery has now led to digital Amazon package tracking down to the hour, and expected food delivery in less than an hour, regulated by the timepieces of a finally interconnected, time-dependent world based on trade.

Trade made time happen. The establishment of the regularity of time allowed schedules to occur and prompted time to speed up. No longer do we have to wait for the seasons to change before we can hope for the appearance of a package of wonders; we can look at modern time on our cell phones or smart watches with expectation instead of hope. And the establishment of a universal standard of exchange called “money” enabled the elimination of imbalances between the perceived value of eggs and the perceived value of fruits and vegetables, as they all have a definite value according to the currencies enabled by established time standards. These, in turn had been initially enabled by trade that occurred long ago in ages past by a single visitor traversing a harsh and unforgiving landscape for the benefit of a familiar and welcoming tribe.

Trade and currency have become the silences of the pendulum’s ticking between shipping and delivery. We ignore the silent time mostly because we nowadays hate the silences, believing them, falsely, to be a vacancy between the action although they carry the majority of the time between time’s clicking markers. The silences don’t occur to us because the swaying of the pendulum bob is where most of the action takes place between the shipping center of point A and the delivery destination of point B in modern trade … and we believe, mistakenly, that the ticks of the watch are the real action.

Trade is the origin of modern time. Trade made modern time occur and then speed up to a now-rapid pace. Whenever there is a doubt that trade is unnecessary, it would be wise to then wonder how mankind would manage to move counterclockwise and operate in a world punctuated mostly by birth, first words, rituals of adulthood, and violent death, all inside a reality made of broken clocks and motionless pendulums in a world where time is merely day, night, seasons … and the movements of stars through the silent millenniums.

Author of Mind Control Empire, The Color of Poetry, and Quietus: The Color of Poetry II

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