When COVID-19 first hit, many of us quickly created social bubbles to provide some sense of normalcy in the months ahead. My provincial health agency urged us on, suggesting everyone identify a few people “you can hug and touch” while keeping the rest of the world at bay.
The dream was that we could somehow teleport ourselves back to some fictive, long-ago era of independent households. Yet as I sealed up my first bubble, it was already failing because of the dense web of interactions that sustain urban life. Our plumber came to fix the sink; we needed groceries; there were close meet-ups at the park. And that was just us.
When our bubbles burst amid a second virus surge, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Social bubbles never last long: We have tried and failed for more than 10,000 years.
As an archaeologist interested in how people lived through humanity’s great challenges, I have written a book on how we muddled our way from Pleistocene hunting and gathering to today’s capitalist economy. After reading thousands of pages of scholarship on past societies, I’d like to say that we repeatedly rose to the occasion by innovating a new kind of government or changing the way we made things. Sometimes this happened, but most of the time we carried on in the same way, hoping our problems would just go away.
Living in an era when disruption is widely celebrated, it can be easy to forget that for millennia, we have leaned on tradition to guide our lives. Trying circumstances led us to rely on what and who we knew best, often drawing a line between insiders who could be trusted and outsiders who could not. Creating a social bubble has always been a seductive solution to the problem of social change.
The problem is that the desire to turn inward when times get tough runs counter to the long-term trend towards larger, more heterogeneous, societies. Almost 130 years ago, French sociologist Émile Durkheim noted that modern life was built on interdependence and specialization. Having more people together in one place has inherent scalar effects that lead to both conflict and innovation.
A page from Toronto’s history
A great example of the futility of bubbling comes from where I live. The transition to village life in the Toronto area began around 1000 AD. Before this time, the Iroquois families indigenous to this region were more mobile. They got together in larger groups for short periods of time, but they enjoyed considerable freedom in who they associated with and for how long.
In the 11th century, life changed as people became more reliant on corn and stayed in one place for more time. Over a few generations, the Iroquois replaced their smaller, more temporary houses with longhouses occupied year round.
Longhouses are bark-covered, pole-framed structures with a central row of hearths and communal storage at either end. The buildings were an architectural innovation, but one designed to minimize the changes associated with village life. Each hearth belonged to a nuclear family. The families, in principle, were all closely related on the mother’s side.
Iroquois settlements got bigger over the next few centuries. Their response to more people in one place was to make more bubbles. Longhouses proliferated and grew in size — some would grow to over 100 meters in length. To avoid others, the Iroquois faced their longhouses in different directions and built privacy fences. Their actions created tight-knit social units that nonetheless proved brittle amid the hustle and bustle of village life.
Bubbles broke down from the inside. Maybe two sisters did not get along, or refugees needed to be crammed inside. Men brought visitors through to smoke tobacco or sit in sweat lodges. The movement of people back and forth punctured the bubble, and a longhouse’s layout was constantly in flux to keep everyone happy.
Bubbles could also break down from the outside. Co-ordination between longhouses was needed to rebuild a palisade or dispose garbage. A village needed to agree on a leader for battle and to negotiate field boundaries, in a dynamic similar to Wendat villages.
The clearest indicator that longhouse bubbles had burst was the Feast of the Dead. By the beginning of the 14th century, the Iroquois routinely exhumed their dead when a village was moved and mixed the remains into a large pit. This re-internment was the culmination of a multi-day feast that celebrated lineage differences, then erased these differences by commingling ancestors. The emphasis of the event was therefore on the village, and later on village confederacies, rather than the longhouse lineages.
Back to COVID-19
The Iroquois are one example in a broad pattern of bubbling when villages, towns, and cities first formed.
Amid a second COVID-19 surge, it is tempting to try to shut out the world. It won’t work. Ten thousand years of human history shows us that now is the time to experiment with new ways of pandemic living.