Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Falcon

For almost the entire human saga, our ancestors were hunter-gathers.  For most of us, these kinfolk are long forgotten in family memory.  Quite a bit has been written about wild societies by visiting outsiders from civilization, strangers who could not fully understand the cultures of their subjects.  The Falcon is the autobiography of John Tanner, a fascinating book that gives readers a ringside seat at a wild society, prior to conquest, from the viewpoint of an insider.

Tanner was a white lad born about 1780, in frontier Kentucky, not far from Cincinnati, Ohio.  At the age of 9, he was captured by the Shawnee and taken to Saginaw, Michigan, where he was treated harshly for two years.  Then, up at Mackinaw, an Ottawa woman, who had lost her son, bought him for 20 gallons of whiskey, blankets, tobacco, and other treasures.  He was given a name that meant “the falcon.”

Tanner was a rough, tough, honest man who endured an incredibly difficult life.  He lived among the Ottawa and Ojibwa people from roughly 1790 to 1820, and spent this period hunting, trapping, fishing, and defending himself from a variety of angry and violent folks.  He traveled thousands of miles by foot, canoe, and horseback through a vast wilderness.  His saga mentions visits to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan; Pembina, North Dakota; Lake of the Woods, Ontario; and Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba.

This story takes place in an era of bloody helter-skelter, when the traditional way of life was seriously assaulted, and beginning to disintegrate.  Disease ridden, pale faced terrorists had landed on the east coast, and their infectious pathogens spread to distant regions of the interior, killing enormous numbers of natives.  Terrorists were beginning to settle on the frontier.  Tanner’s parents had moved west from Virginia, stupidly planning to acquire prime real estate in an extremely dangerous wilderness.

In that era, many New England tribes had become heavily dependent on agriculture.  Corn produced far more food per acre than forest, leading to increased population density and conflict.  Diana Muir described how corn quickly depleted the soil, requiring ongoing deforestation to clear new fields.  When the devastating epidemics arrived, tribes had been on an unsustainable trajectory to run out of forest that was suitable for cropland.  Corn helped the Iroquois become a dominant power, and their aggressive expansion forced other Algonquin tribes to flee westward.

At the same time, the fur trade was a booming, and there was intense competition for pelts.  Many traders were lying, cheating, racist creeps.  Industrial scale trapping drove the beavers close to extinction in eastern regions, so traders and trappers had to keep moving westward.

As eastern tribes were forced westward by warfare, settlers, and the quest for pelts, they put growing pressure on the fierce Sioux tribes of the prairies, who were not amused.  Tanner spent a lot of time in hot zones close to Sioux country, where he was in constant danger of losing his scalp.

The Sioux hated Tanner and his tribe for trespassing.  Because Tanner was the offspring of terrorists, many of his Indian companions and family were wary of him — terrorists were often whirlwinds of evil spirits.  Several times, they tried to kill him.  Finally, the terrorists hated him because he looked like a savage, thought like a savage, and spoke a savage tongue.  He once made an effort to return to his kinfolk in Christian society, but he didn’t belong in that bizarre world, and kept catching fevers.

Indians were tolerant of gender-benders.  On a visit to Leech Lake, Minnesota, Tanner met the son of a chief who was an A-go-kwa — “one of those who make themselves women, and are called women by the Indians.  There are several of this sort among most, if not all the Indian tribes.”  The A-go-kwa was about 50-years old, and had lived with many husbands.

The central theme of the book is the endless struggle to survive.  Starvation was a primary threat, and getting food was job #1.  Mike Culpepper wrote an essay on Tanner’s life, including a description of his diet:  “Tanner hunts bear, buffalo, moose, but also eats muskrat, rabbit, beaver, porcupine, otter and other animals trapped for their fur, and, when game is not available, his dogs, horses, and scraps of leather.  He eats ducks, geese, blackbirds, and swan.  He fishes for sturgeon, dory, and unnamed small fish that are eaten by the handful.  He consumes corn, wild rice, and berries.”  Yum!

Throughout the book, Tanner and those around him suffer from infections and fevers.  He lived in an era where diseases were common and largely incurable, for both wild folks and the civilized.  Howard Simpson described the situation after 1812, as settlement of the Midwest began:  “The most lethal dangers the pioneers had to face were neither savages nor wild animals.  They were typhoid, malaria, dysentery, malignant scarlet fever, pneumonia, erysipelas in epidemic form, spotted fever, or what would now be called meningococcal meningitis, and diphtheria.”

Homo sapiens is a bipedal species — we move on two legs, not four.  This evolutionary trait enabled long distance running, chasing game until they collapsed from exhaustion, a practice often mentioned in discussions of the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert.  Tanner also mentioned this.  “There are among the Indians some, but not many, men who can run down an elk on the smooth prairie, when there is neither snow nor ice.  The moose and the buffalo surpass the elk in fleetness, and can rarely be taken by fair running by a man on foot.”

Tanner, armed with a low tech, single shot musket, killed lots of animals.  One winter, he was hired by a fur company to provide meat for Scottish settlers.  In four months, he killed about 100 buffalo.  Another winter, he hunted with a buddy.  “O-ke-mah-we-ninne, as he was called, killed nineteen moose, one beaver, and one bear.  I killed seventeen moose, one hundred beavers, and seven bears, but he was considered the better hunter, moose being the most difficult of all animals to kill.”

Nomadic people found some trade goods useful: muskets, ammo, gunpowder, knives, axes, pots, blankets, corn, etc.  They gained no prestige by hoarding valuable trade goods, because it was dumb.  The stuff they owned had to be hauled along, every time they moved to a new camp.  So, one pot was enough.  Consequently, they trapped just enough to secure the necessities, and no more.  Traders learned a toxic secret — offering booze seriously motivated the trappers to produce far more pelts.

Oblivion drinking is a regular celebration in this saga.  After a long, harsh winter of trapping, pelts would be taken to the trading post.  Necessities would be acquired, and the leftover income would be invested in 10 gallon (38 l) kegs of booze.  Over the course of the book, at least 100 gallons of rum and whiskey were guzzled.  Multi-day drunks often resulted in impolite comments, bloody fights, and murders.  Their lives were harsh, and a lovely drunk provided a vacation from the daily routine, a spirit journey.  Booze destroyed many lives.

In Tanner’s day, in roadless woodlands, dogs were their beasts of burden.  On the wide-open prairie, there was a new beast of burden, the horse.  The Spanish had brought horses to America, and some escaped.  They rapidly grew in numbers.  By 1700 or 1750, plains Indians had horses — lots of horses.  Horses greatly increased their ability to hunt, feed more people, and zoom across the plains at superhuman velocity.

Each horse was the private property of an individual.  Only fools hoarded 100 iron pots, but owning 100 horses provided immense social status.  Horses fed themselves, moved themselves to new camps, and hauled people and stuff.  Stealing them from neighbors was an exciting way to demonstrate your bravery and get rich quick, or die trying.  Raiding was a popular pastime.  Naturally, it was a good way to make enemies, and ignite long-term feuds.  In the horse age, living in a remote location was no longer safe and secure.

Tanner described the bloody side of raiding:  “I had four horses, one of which was a very fleet and beautiful one, being considered the best out of one hundred and eighty which a war-party of Crees, Assinneboins, and Ojibbeways, had recently brought from the Fall Indians.  In this excursion they had been absent seven months.  They had fallen upon and destroyed one village, and taken one hundred and fifty scalps, besides prisoners.”

Tanner spent most of his life in the Great White North, a region known for long and extremely harsh winters.  On chilly nights, they huddled around fires inside drafty lodges.  Tanner mentioned several close calls with death.  Once, after breaking through the ice, “we were no sooner out of the water than our moccasins and clothes were frozen so stiff that we could not travel.  I began also to think that we must die.  But I was not like my Indian brother, willing to sit down and wait patiently for death to come.”

Homo sapiens evolved on the warm tropical savannahs of Africa, where a year round supply of organic food was generally available.  They didn’t need clothing or shelter.  Hypothermia was never a risk.  Life was so much easier in an ecosystem for which evolution had fine-tuned our bodies.  Remember that.  The status quo is zooming toward sharp limits, and our soft lifestyles are a temporary high-impact luxury.

Tanner, John, The Falcon, Penguin Books, New York, 1994.  Free PDF download.

Culpepper, Mike, John Tanner Between Two Worlds.  This 10-page essay fills in many helpful details missing in Tanner’s words, and better describes the big picture dramas that affected his life.  It discusses his controversial end.

Fierst, John T., Return to Civilization, Minnesota History, Minnesota Historical Society, 1986.  This 15-page essay describes Tanner’s troubled life in Sault Ste. Marie, in the years after his story had been published.

Dr. Edwin James transcribed Tanner’s story, in 1828, at Sault Ste. Marie.  He edited out lots of excessive details, to make the story more readable.  The 1830 edition, published by Baldwin & Craddock in London, includes an 18-page introduction by James (HERE).

Muir, Diana, Reflections in Bullough’s Pond — Economy and Ecosystem in New England, University Press of New England, Hanover, New Hampshire, 2000.  Chapter one describes the ecological and social turbulence generated by the adaptation of agriculture by the Native Americans.

Simpson, Howard N., “The Impact of Disease on American History,” The New England Journal of Medicine CCL (1954):680.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Cradle of Humankind

East Africa is called the Cradle of Humankind because it’s where our ancestors originated.  As noted in an earlier post, two to four million years ago, the region became cooler and dryer.  Forests shrank.  The ancestors of baboons and humans moved out of the forest and adapted to savannah ecosystems (grasslands with scattered trees).

In this new habitat, male baboons evolved large canine teeth, to better deflect predator attacks.  All baboons retained the physique for scampering up trees.  Baboons still live sustainably, as they have for millions of years, because they continue to live in the manner for which evolution fine-tuned them.  They adapted to their ecosystem without altering it.  They did not make weapons and hunt animals larger than they were but, on happy days, they could mob a leopard and disassemble it.

Our ancestors evolved into critters that stood on two legs (bipedal).  They became furless, sweaty, long distance runners who, in a hot climate, could chase animals until they collapsed from exhaustion.  Heavy sweating kept them cool whilst jogging for hours.  With these traits, evolution created a new mode of offense, but it was weirdly stingy about providing defensive assets like speed, strength, teeth, or claws.  These ancestors were less agile at zooming up trees.  Over the eons, many species of bipedal apes have evolved, but only one still survives.

In the early days, the ancestors acquired new abilities very slowly, via evolution.  At the same time, other species were also busy evolving new abilities for countering our advances, and maintaining the balance.  For large animals like apes, genetic evolution can take thousands of years to stabilize a new and improved trait.  Evolution does not always mean progress.  We’re discovering that big brains can be more trouble than they’re worth.

With our transition to tool making, we began gaining new abilities by inventing them, a much faster process.  Spears enabled our ancestors to impede the man-eating predators that had kept their populations neat and tidy.  This rubbished the laws of nature.  Imagine rabbits inventing tools that allowed them to overpower foxes.  With spears, we could also kill large game, acquire abundant meat, and feed more bambinos.

By becoming tool freaks, our ancestors stumbled into the dangerous juju of cultural evolution, a painful experiment that has achieved enormous momentum and speed.  There are now seven-point-something billion of us.  We are the best-educated generation ever, the most destructive, we know it, and don’t seem to care much.  There is an important lesson here, summed up by Orgel’s Second Rule: “Evolution is cleverer than you are.”

Here’s a happy idea.  Genetic evolution is the result of a process that constantly generates billions of random mutations in every species of flora and fauna.  Most mutations are maladaptive and promptly blink out.  When mutations survive and continue, we call this natural selection.  William E. Rees reminds us that cultural evolution is also subject to something like natural selection.  Maladaptive cultural mutations, like soil mining or forest mining, are unsustainable.  Natural selection has no mercy for cultures that refuse to learn the dope slap lessons of repeated mistakes.  In the long run, the family of life will always trump self-destructive cultures, in a messy and merciless manner.

Rainforests are a paradise for biodiversity, providing a pleasant home for huge numbers of species.  Savannahs support far less biodiversity, but provide excellent habitat for many large animal species.  A square mile of rainforest contains tons of biomass in its trees, far more biomass than a square mile of grassland, but grassland can produce more new biomass every year, primarily during the wet season.  This nutritious vegetation grows close to the ground, a convenient location for grazing animals.

The biological productivity of grasslands (savannahs, prairies, and steppes) enabled the emergence of large herbivores and their predators in Africa, Eurasia, Australia, and the Americas.  For grassland herbivores, size and speed are evolutionary assets, because they discourage predators.  Lions scatter when menaced by uppity elephants.  Elephants live longer than bunnies.  Size matters.  Bigger is better.

Some species use simple tools like sticks, stones, or blades of grass, but our ancestors took the fabrication and use of tools to new levels.  They learned how make blades, projectile tips, scrapers, and axes by chipping flakes off stones.  Confronted with an organized gang of hungry apes with spears, giant size lost its advantage, and became a serious handicap.  Cultural evolution trumped genetic evolution.

In addition to getting extremely clever with tools, our ancestors also learned how to make and use fire, an ability that helped keep man-eating predators at bay.  Fire allowed us to inhabit the entire planet, and disrupt the balance of ecosystems wherever we went.  Cooked foods were easier to digest, so we could extract more nutrients.  Cooking also enabled us to digest formerly inedible materials.  Thus, our food resources were greatly expanded.

Stephen Pyne is the world’s expert on fire history.  He described excavations at Swartkrans Cave in South Africa.  At the oldest layers, the pre-fire level, no charcoal is found.  There are complete skeletons of big cats, and the scattered gnawed bones of the critters they ate, including hominids — cats were the top predator.  Charcoal is found in newer layers, the fire age.  Here are found complete hominid skeletons, and the scattered bones of the critters they gnawed, including big cats — hominids had become the top predator in the cave.

Pyne concluded, “Without fire humanity sinks to a status of near helplessness, a plump chimp with a scraping stone and digging stick, hiding from the night’s terrors, crowding into minor biotic niches.”  Combined with fire, our ability to make spears, javelins, hammers, choppers, baskets, nets, and so on propelled our blastoff into outer space, far beyond Africa.  Maybe fire and tool making are the reason that evolution didn’t bother enhancing our defenses.

Baz Edmeades is a specialist in megafauna extinction, and he notes that our ancestors were not masters of sustainable living.  Africa was loaded with megafauna species at the dawn of the Pleistocene 1.8 million years ago, but many were gone by 1.4 million years ago.  At the Olduvai Gorge site in Tanzania, in 1.8 million year old deposits, they have found the butchered bones of rhinos, hippos, elephants, antelopes, and buffalo.  Elsewhere, evidence suggests that our ancestors were tending fires 1.6 million years ago.

In the good old days, Africa had nine species of big cats (three today), nine species of elephants (one today), and four hippos (one today).  There were giant antelopes, giant hyenas, giant pigs, giant monkeys, and giant baboons — all gone.  Primary suspects include an Australopithecus species and Homo erectus.  Homo sapiens emerged much later, maybe 100,000 years ago.

Edmeades emphasizes that during this wave of extinctions, there were not corresponding extinction blips in Siberia, Europe, Australia, or the Americas.  In these other regions, most megafauna species thrived for another million years — including many species that blinked out in Africa and South Asia.  If climate change was the primary cause of megafauna extinction, the northern hemisphere should have been hammered harder, because it was the region most affected by glaciation.

Lars Werdelin is a specialist in the evolution of mammalian carnivores.  He ponders the current efforts to designate a new era of geologic time, the Anthropocene, the period when humans began causing irreversible impacts.  When did it start?  Some think 1945, or the Industrial Revolution.  Others say the dawn of soil mining and animal enslavement.  Paleontologists like Werdelin observe reality from a perspective that embraces a much broader sweep of time.

He notes that between 3.5 million years ago, and 2 million years ago, the number of large carnivore species in Africa was reduced by half.  Today, only two percent of the African large carnivore species still survive.  This transition does not correspond to what is known about climate patterns — similar extinctions did not occur in other regions at this time.  A more likely suspect is the appearance of an early species in the Homo genus.  With regard to the kickoff date for the Anthropocene, Werdelin notes, “Humans have had the ability to affect ecosystems on a major scale for the past two million years.”

Björn Kurtén was an expert on the fauna of Pleistocene Europe.  The megafauna included varieties of mammoths, rhinos, horses, aurochs, reindeer, giant hippos, giant deer, giant musk ox, giant hyenas, giant bears, giant cheetahs, giant cave lions, saber-tooth cats, leopards, antelopes, goats, and many others.  Many of these species survived in Europe until the Late Pleistocene (which ended 10,000 years ago), but are now gone.

Kurtén concluded, “The mass death can hardly be ascribed to climatic causes alone, for there was no similar mass extinction in earlier interglacials.  It seems fairly certain that modern man has played a dominant role in the wiping out of many species, although perhaps by indirect influence as much as by actual hunting.”

Edmeades notes that, in Europe, warmth-loving megafauna species, like the straight-tusked elephant, hippos, and woodland rhinos, went extinct by 25,000 years ago, around the time of the last glaciation.  There were many glaciations during the Pleistocene, and some were more severe than the last one.  The last glaciation corresponds to the time when Homo sapiens colonized Eurasia.  Cold-tolerant mammoths and wooly rhinos survived in Western Europe until 12,000 years ago.

In North America, prior to human colonization, Edmeades says the ecosystem remained comparable to Africa 1.8 million years ago.  There were condor-like birds with 16-foot wingspans (4.8 m), mammoths, and mastodons.  In addition to cheetahs, “No less than five other kinds of big cat were living on an extravagant assortment of camel, llama, deer, horse, musk ox, bison, goat and sheep species.  With its giant bears, giant beavers, giant armadillo-like species, giant tortoises, and its giant ground-sloth species, North America was, without exaggeration, a super-Serengeti containing many more big-animal species than present-day Africa.”

“The population of every organism on Earth,” he writes, “is limited by collisions with the wall of limited resources.”  Baboon numbers are limited by the availability of nutrients they can acquire with their bare hands.  Specialized meat eaters like lions are limited by the availability of prey animals.  Both lions and baboons live as evolution fine-tuned them.  Food may be abundant one season, and scarce the next.  When abundant, populations increase.  Starvation is perfectly normal and natural.

Our ancestors had the added benefit of being omnivores.  When hunting was bad, they could dine on roots, nuts, and fruits.  This dietary safety net provided a huge strategic advantage over specialized meat eaters.  Of course, even omnivores can experience mass starvation.  All life requires nutrients, and all nutrients are finite.

The ancestors also benefitted by having cutting edge technology like fire, javelins, lances, harpoons, nets, snares, boats, and warm clothing.  Modern humans have blindsided the planet by converting many wild ecosystems into freaky food production plantations, dramatically increasing their nutrient resources — as long as the soil remains fertile, and pests, viruses, droughts, deluges, and frosts don’t nuke the plan.

Everyone agrees that, once upon a time, many species of megafauna inhabited every continent, and that most are now extinct.  Everyone agrees that the extinctions did not occur at the same time, around the world.  There were not major spasms of extinctions in places where our ancestors had not yet arrived.  The extinct species had previously survived multiple eras of global and local climate swings, which were sometimes sudden and severe.  Climate shifts do alter the flora and fauna of affected ecosystems, and this contributed to regional extinctions, like the hippos of London.

When it comes to success at long-term sustainability, the chimps, bonobos, baboons, and every other non-human species, get high scores.  When the food supply in their ecosystem declines, they starve and die.  Our lineage took a different path.  Instead of starving, they increased their food supply via innovation.  Wild and free chimps, without technology, would struggle to survive beyond their current habitat.  They live where evolution fine-tuned them to live.

The creature you see in the mirror has the body of a meat-eating hunter.  It is bipedal, designed to be a long-distance runner in a hot climate.  Its hands, arms, and shoulders are fine-tuned for hurling projectiles (killing from a distance), and making and using tools.  Our ancestors were hunters more than a million years before Homo sapiens appeared.

Daniel Quinn wrote Ishmael, a best-selling novel that defined two classes of human societies, Takers (naughty) and Leavers (nice).  The fall of humankind was the transition to agriculture and civilization.  The book torpedoed sacred cultural myths and blew my mind.  Hunter-gatherers certainly have far less impact than civilized folks, but the history of megafauna extinctions is important. 

So is the fact that plant and animal domestication emerged independently in several regions.  Some groups of hunter-gatherers chose to increase their food supply rather than rely completely on the fickle luck of the hunt — or become masterful at family planning.  They cleverly began displacing the wild ecosystem to produce plant and animal foods — a transition that had Earth-shaking unintended consequences.

Worse, by producing far more food, their population bloated.  There is strength in numbers.  For thousands of years, mobs of hungry dirty farmers and herders have been steamrolling wild societies, helpless deer in the headlights of progress.  This is a real pisser!  High impact societies routinely trump low impact ones.  Consumer culture has become a monster factory where students are entranced by dark juju sermons on Sustainable Development™.  This feels like the Mother of All Predicaments.

The good news is that Big Mama Nature will not allow this tragic game to continue forever.  Highly educated consumers are consuming nonrenewable resources at a growing rate, blissfully ignorant of the existence of limits — a wall that they will slam into.  At the same time, centuries of progress are destabilizing the climate that has enabled the existence of civilization.  Wildlife populations are severely depleted and plummeting.  We are getting very close to the peak of our batshit crazy joyride of turbocharged foolishness.  An era of healing is coming.

Meanwhile, on the rainforest sidelines, are the chimps and bonobos, our closest living relatives, who have lived in the same place for millions of years without leaving scars on the habitat.  Imagine that!  Humans are animals, an extremely embarrassing fact that most of us adamantly deny.  I have no brilliant solutions to offer today.  My humble suggestion is to think like an animal.  Thinking like a consumer is pushing us toward the coffin of humankind.  All the best!

Edmeades, Baz, Megafauna — First Victims of the Human-caused Extinction, 2013.  This fascinating manuscript has been withdrawn from its home location ( for updates.  An earlier version is available HERE.

Kurtén, Björn, Pleistocene Mammals of Europe, Aldine Publishing Company, Chicago, 1968.

Pyne, Stephen J., Fire: A Brief History, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 2001.

Rees, William E., Is Humanity Fatally Successful?, Vancouver Institute, British Columbia, 2003 (Download).

Werdelin, Lars, Hominids, Carnivores, and the Origin of the Anthropocene, Swedish Museum of Natural History, 2015 (50 min video).

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Good Old Days

I’ve been reading John Tanner’s autobiography, The Falcon, (Download).  He was born in Kentucky in 1780.  At age 9, he was kidnapped by the Ojibwa, and adopted by an Ottawa chief.  Tanner spent 30 years living as a wild hunter-gatherer, wandering in the wilderness between the Red River of North Dakota and Lake Huron in Michigan.  He once tried to return to his birth family, but white society was intolerably creepy.

One day on the prairie, he met an odd fellow.  The stranger brought news of a Shawnee prophet who had a vision for a great healing.  Ever since the disease ridden, pale faced, radicalized Christian terrorists had washed up on the shores of Turtle Island, life had gotten ugly for Native Americans.  The terrorists, who seemed incapable of honesty, kept pushing the tribes westward, generating much tension and bloodshed.  At that time, the Sioux of the plains were pushing back hard against the unwanted immigrants displaced from their traditional lands in the east.  Nobody was happy.

Tanner listened to the prophet’s list of instructions.  Never allow your fire go out.  Let no dogs live.  Never steal, lie, strike others, get drunk, or go against your enemies.  If you follow these instructions, you will become invisible to the Sioux, and can live in peace.  A flashback slithered into my boggy old thinker.  This story sounded familiar.  Computer magic remembered my notes on Alvin Josephy’s book, 500 Nations, pages 305-306.  Bingo!  They read:

305 In Indiana in 1805, Lalawthika (the noise maker), an alcoholic brother of the heroic warrior Tecumseh, fell into a trance, and visited with the Creator in a vision.  306 He quit drinking and changed his name to Tenskwatawa, meaning “the open door.”  He was later known as the Prophet.  He preached to many tribes about declining morals and the need to return to traditional values.  They needed to reject Christianity and return to their old religion.  They should drop the selfishness, envy, and lust for possessions that the whites had taught them, and return to the way of sharing.  They should cast out of their lives domestic animals, woven clothes, and metal tools.

Upon reading this, a name farted out of my boggy old thinker: Donald Trump.  I was startled at this weird association, and then burst into a big smile.  This led to another flashback, a passage on the Ghost Dance I had written for What Is Sustainable.  Here’s a bit of it:

In the 1860’s, deranged Europeans rode their brand new railroads into the Great Plains and commenced the Buffalo Holocaust.  By 1890, the buffalo were at the brink of extinction.  For the Indians, the buffalo were the core of their existence.  With the buffalo gone, their traditional hunting life became obsolete and impossible.

In January 1889, a Paiute prophet named Wovoka had a vision.  He encouraged folks to perform the Ghost Dance.  They should gather and dance five days and four nights, then on the fifth day bathe in the river.  It was powerful dancing, with up to 500 in a large circle.  Many enjoyed manic frenzy, some fell into hypnotic trances, some collapsed and became unconscious.  The Ghost Dancing spread from tribe to tribe, eventually expanding over a vast region of the American west.

The vision was that if the Ghost Dance was properly performed, a great flood would come and wash the whites back across the ocean to their European home, where they belonged.  The ancestors and the buffalo would be reincarnated, the epidemics of white diseases would cease, and life would return to the good old days.

A different version of the Ghost Dance story, described by Lame Deer, used the metaphor of rolling up and disposing a filthy old carpet, which was a symbol for the white man’s world.  Imbedded in the filthy carpet were roads, mines, cities, farms, factories — every form of ugliness that civilization brought with it.  When the old carpet was rolled away, beneath it was revealed a healthy wild Fairyland — the land as it was prior to the invasion of the whites and their diseases.

The Ghost Dance became so popular that the white invaders began to get spooked.  They were intimidated by the fact that large numbers of Indians were enthusiastically dancing, with the goal of cleansing their lands of the white race forever.  They perceived (incorrectly) that the natives were conspiring to launch a violent rebellion.  The army was called, and several hundred Ghost Dancers were exterminated at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890.

This story spurred the recall of another memory, an old rant on the vision of Nongqawuse, in South Africa.  Some snips:

When the Dutch Afrikaners (Boers) invaded the Eastern Cape region of South Africa, the Xhosa tribe fought them long and hard.  Beginning in 1779, eight bloody frontier wars were fought.  In 1806, the British replaced the Afrikaners and continued the struggle to conquer Xhosa land.  In 1853, a lung disease began killing off the Xhosa’s cattle herds.  Problems worsened when a severe drought hit.  Things started looking grim.

Then, in 1856, after decades of terrible struggles and misfortunes, an 11-year old Xhosa girl named Nongqawuse had a vision.  She communicated with spirits of the dead and they informed her that the colonist invasion was the result of their cattle having been cursed by witchcraft.  The spirits then gave her some important instructions in order to remedy this situation.

To lift this curse and return to days of peace and plenty, the living Xhosa had to do three things:  stop cultivating their fields, destroy their grain reserves, and kill all of their cattle.  If they did this, the whites would be driven into the sea, the dead would return, and they would refill the granaries, restore the crops in the fields, and bring herds of immortal cattle.

At this point, the Xhosa split into two groups, the believers and the non-believers.  In 1856 and 1857, the believers did as the ancestors instructed them.  They dumped their grain and slaughtered 400,000 cattle.  Having destroyed their food supply, tens of thousands then proceeded to die of starvation.  Tens of thousands were forced to go to towns and take oppressive low-paying jobs.  Only 37,000 remained on their lands, out of 105,000.  By the 1870s, white settlers occupied most of the Xhosa’s lands.  The surviving Xhosa were rounded up and moved to reserves in British Kaffraria.

Anyway, these stories emerged from cultures whose good old days were behind them, following bloody collisions with civilization.  The present was out of balance, miserable, a dead end.  It was time to perform big ceremonial magic, return to the traditional path, and live in peace and prosperity.

As I write in early 2017, Donald Trump is the new U.S. president.  His mantra is “Make America Great Again.”  It’s time for Americans to perform the Trump Dance, and restore the good old days of cheap and abundant oil, coal, iron, and timber, when men had good jobs, mothers stayed home to raise large families, minorities knew their place, and Kennedys boogied in the White House.

To return to the traditional path, we must expel the crazy, dangerous Mexicans and Muslims.  We must replace public schools with private religious schools, and graduate kids who are blissfully ignorant about evolution, climate change, and overshoot.  We must let the Reaper take the commoners, and reserve health care for people who matter.  We must eliminate all restrictions on loggers, miners, ranchers, and bankers so our wheezing economy can have one last screaming squirting orgasm of mindless destruction.

This time, it will work, by golly!

Image: “The Ghost Dance by the Oglala Lakota at Pine Ridge.”  Illustration by Frederic Remington, 1890.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Baboon Metaphysics

Baboons are a fascinating branch of the family tree.  We humans have big brains, complex language, and a staggering collection of tools.  Yet, with smaller brains, grunt communication, and no tools, baboons have brilliantly lived sustainably for millions of years — like every other species of animals, except you-know-who.

Long ago, primates began as cute insect eating tree critters.  Climate change has always been a mischievous rascal, periodically redefining the rules of survival.  Two to four million years ago, east Africa, the “cradle of humankind,” became cooler and dryer.  Rainforests shrank, and grasslands expanded.  Many forest species went extinct.  Chimps and bonobos were lucky.  They remained in the forest and managed to adapt to changing conditions.

Baboons are interesting because, like humans, their ancestors moved out of the forest and adapted to savannah-woodland ecosystems.  They have managed to survive in a rough neighborhood that includes lions, hyenas, leopards, cheetahs, crocodiles, and trigger happy farmers.  Baboons demonstrate that primates can survive in a dangerous habitat without spears, fire, complex language, or throbbing big brains — and they can do this without causing irreversible degradation.

Baboons evolved in a tropical ecosystem.  They don’t need protective clothing or shelters.  They have a year-round supply of food, so they don’t need to hibernate, or stash nutrients for lean seasons.  Their diet majors in plant foods, including palm nuts, jackal berries, figs, and sausage fruit.  They also consume animal foods like insects, rodents, fish, shellfish, hares, birds, vervet monkeys, antelopes, and human infants.

Anyway, my muse gave me a dope slap and told me to pay more attention to baboons, so I read Baboon Metaphysics, by Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth.  The authors have joined the animal intelligence crusade, and are working to discredit the common misconception that nonhuman animals are little more than mindless stimulus-response automatons.  Their research was performed by intruding into wild baboon communities and performing annoying experiments on them.

Modern humans have been lobotomized by their extreme disconnection from the living world.  If folks spent their days in continuous contact with wild animals, no research would be needed to certify their obvious intelligence.

Metaphysics is defined as “the part of philosophy that is about understanding existence and knowledge.”  This is much like intelligence, which is intellect, the faculty of understanding.  Cheney is a biologist, and Seyfarth is a psychologist.  Their objective is to persuade readers that nonhuman animals, like baboons, supplement their instincts with aspects of genuine intelligence.

My focus is ecological sustainability, and I see “animal intelligence” from a different perspective.  All wild nonhuman animals adapt to their ecosystem and go with the flow.  They have lived sustainably for millions of years.  What could possibly be more intelligent?  It doesn’t seem intelligent to knowingly destroy the ecosystem, and radically destabilize the climate, whilst stumbling around staring at glowing screen thingies.

Here are three reasons why there aren’t seven-point-something billion baboons in the world.  (1) They didn’t exterminate most of their predators.  (2) They made no effort to increase the volume of food produced in their habitat via soil mining; they adapted to the wild food supply provided by nature.  (3) They lived as evolution had prepared them to live, wisely avoiding the toxic tar baby of innovation and technology — the express lane to extinction.  Birds evolved to fly; baboons did not.

All nonhuman species live in accordance with these three principles, whilst the human population continues to grow explosively.  It is out of control because modern folks generally lack foresight, and the wisdom to practice mindful self-restraint.  They lack the intelligence to comprehend the ecological foolishness of relentless campaigns of predator extermination.  Naturally, living in vast crowds conjures a new class of predators — infectious diseases and degenerative diseases.

Meanwhile, baboons have no need for wisdom.  They enjoy the management services provided by Big Mama Nature.  Predators happily keep their groups stable.  In the great dance of life, we all feed one another.  The authors note, “Predation accounts for the vast majority of deaths among male, female, and juvenile baboons.”  Baboons do not spend the last years of their lives decaying; they feed the lions.

Baboons intelligently avoid predators by sleeping in trees, or at the top of steep cliffs.  In daylight hours, they return to the savannah to forage.  (YouTube has many fascinating baboon documentaries.)  Males are much larger than females, and when predators visit, it is their responsibility to rush in and be as loud and belligerent as possible.  Males have large canine teeth, and predators are careful to avoid being wounded; they prefer sneaky low-risk surprise attacks.  Males hold off predators whilst the females and young try to escape.  The lives of males are nasty, brutish, and short.  Females can live 20 years.

Powerful aggressive males encourage group survival.  The alpha male baboon is the primary sperm donor in each group.  His evolutionary mission is to father as many offspring as possible, but his time in office is usually brief.  A new alpha, on average, is master of the harem for just seven to eight months.  Consequently, he promptly tries to kill the offspring of all lactating females, so these mothers will be freed to produce offspring with his genes.  This infanticide custom provides a secondary control on population growth, and encourages the production of badass defender daddies.

Like many other species, baboon society is hierarchical.  There are many levels of rank in the group, and every individual knows his or her current position.  Among female baboons, ranking is fairly stable.  They spend their entire lives in the group of their birth.  Males, on the other hand, migrate to other groups as young adults.  The arriving young lads are a threat to the status of the current alpha.  Challenges usually involve macho posturing, loud shrieks, and high-speed chases — not injurious beatings.  An individual male’s rank can change frequently.

Paul Shepard once asserted that ground monkeys (like baboons) are “the most aggressively status-conscious creatures on Earth.”  I wonder if humans are even more so.  Baboons play the status game without rubbishing their ecosystem.  Modern humans devote their entire lives to hoarding manufactured status trinkets.  Countless landfills are piled deep with discarded trinkets, thrown out to make space for our newer, bigger, flashier, trendier foolishness.  We cannot wean ourselves from habitual car driving, because travelling intelligently would take a huge toll on our social status (sorry kids!).

We are not doomed by faulty genes.  We’re doomed by mindlessly marching to the beat of screwy beliefs, but belief is voluntary.  We do not have to shop till we drop.  Thinking outside the box is a sign of intelligence.  It’s OK to question consensus reality.  It’s OK to stand strong against the powerful currents of our insane culture.  It’s OK to leap over the fence and pursue a meaningful and rewarding life.  This may be the only life you ever live.  Live well!

Cheney, Dorothy L., and Robert M. Seyfarth, Baboon Metaphysics — The Evolution of the Social Mind, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2007.


Tuesday, January 3, 2017


Tikopia (tik-o-PEE-a) is a wee island in the Pacific, quite close to the middle of nowhere, the remains of an ancient volcano.  Its area is 1.8 square miles (4.6 km2), much of it steep rugged hillside.  The closest neighbors live on Anuta, 85 miles away (137 km), a long and dangerous voyage in a dugout canoe.  Tiny Tikopia is eleven times larger than Anuta. 

Humans arrived in Tikopia maybe 3,000 years ago, and brought along pigs, dogs, fowl, rats, and the seeds of Polynesian foods.  For a while, folks ate well, dining on the abundant birds, fish, and shellfish.  As abundance faded, slash and burn agriculture gained momentum.  Deforestation crept up the slopes, and eroded soils washed down, accumulating near the shore.  Efforts were made to stabilize and expand the shoreline.  As a result, Tikopia’s land area is now 40 percent larger, and the reef area is 41 percent smaller.  There is much more land suitable for raising food.

The crater of Tikopia’s volcano used to be a saltwater bay linked to the sea, home to plentiful fish and shellfish.  Soil deposits have now blocked the connection to the sea, turning the bay into a lake.  This sharply reduced the marine life that formerly thrived in the bay.  The villages that depended on this food were screwed.  Around 1700, they exterminated a village having fertile land.  Another village fled in fear, paddling into the ocean, almost certainly drowning.  Conflict is hunger’s shadow.

The lake water is too salty to drink, as is the ocean.  Drinking water is obtained from springs flowing out of the hillsides, coming from sources above the villages and latrines.  Ashes, excrement, and kitchen wastes are used to return nutrients to the gardens and orchards.

Over time, folks planted more food-producing trees.  Eventually, they developed a clever three-story system of arboriculture, mixing tall, medium, and short tree species.  These included bananas, papaya, coconuts, sago, chestnuts, and almonds.  On the ground, they grew root crops, like taro, sweet potatoes, yams, and manioc.  This system maximized food production, reduced erosion, enriched the soil, was less vulnerable to cyclone damage, and did not require endless toil.  Pigs swiped too much human food, and were eliminated before 1800, as were the dogs.

Nature kept life interesting by sending drought years and frequent cyclones.  These could hammer the food supply.  Because Tikopia was so far from anywhere, importing food from elsewhere was not an option.  Folks preserved calories for famine years in two ways.  (1) They dug pits and fermented taro, breadfruit, and manioc into glop called masi, which could be stored for several years.  (2) The pith of the sago palm was dried and ground into storable flour.

Each house was assigned specific garden plots and orchards that comprised their primary source of nutrition.  If you ran short, you starved.  Carrying capacity expanded and declined in synch with food production.  When conditions got tight, older males in the household would set limits on reproduction.  The families complied, because everyone understood the painful consequences of having too many mouths to feed.

Because it encouraged social stability, population management was intelligent and ethical.  It was done in several ways.  Junior members of the family might be expected to remain bachelors or spinsters.  Everyone practiced coitus interruptus.  Efforts were made to induce miscarriages to end unwanted pregnancies.  Newborns were promptly suffocated.  It was usually OK to have two sons, but subsequent male offspring were strangled, to avoid conflicts over land inheritance.  Unmarried males sometimes jumped into a canoe and never returned.  Others swam out into the open sea and fed the sharks.  When all options failed, it was time to fetch clubs and go on the warpath.

I invite you to watch The Island of Tikopia, a pleasant 53-minute video.  It shows us cool people living in a tropical paradise.  Tikopia is blessed by being tiny, isolated, unsuitable for industrial agriculture, and having no valuable resources.  Hence, they have not been obliterated by modernity.  They will never suffer from automobiles or cell phones.  Even today, Tikopians live in functional communities, and enjoy an easygoing way of life that is unimaginable to frantic consumers thrashing through life in Crazyland.

The video does not focus on how contact with civilization has impacted their society.  On a different island, the Sentineli welcome all visitors with a shower of arrows.  They have learned from painful experience that outsiders can be bad juju.  Tikopians had no fear of visitors, because anyone who paddled in was a mellow islander like themselves.  Whites were different; following a visit in 1828, a quarter of the population died from disease.

Missionaries began to wash ashore in 1857, occasionally visiting the island.  Within 50 years, they had made a few converts.  Half were baptized by 1928, and by 1955, most were nominally Christian.  Chiefs who agreed to be baptized were rewarded with metal axes, knives, adzes, and other amazing stuff.  Heathens who preferred the ancient path were rewarded with self-righteous intolerance.

More destructive than dysentery, pneumonia, measles, and influenza was the deliberate introduction of European morality.  Much of the traditional culture managed to survive, but Christians were especially uptight about sex, family planning, and which deity to worship.  Naturally, the stern prohibition of premarital sex was disregarded by almost all youths, including horny young Christians.

Naturally, the mission’s opposition to population control had negative results.  Population soared 37 percent from 1,288 in 1928 (too many), to 1,753 in 1952 (way too many) — just in time for a devastating cyclone, and a bloody plunge into helter-skelter.  This drove anthropologist Raymond Firth crazy.  Christian culture was obsessed with compulsory conformity, but disinterested in the predictable results.  Tikopians had evolved a remarkably competent culture that adapted to the ecosystem and mindfully lived within limits.  Leave it alone, he shouted.

Anyone who has studied European history knows that this irrational morality of unrestrained growth has, over the centuries, led to the death of hundreds of millions via wars, famines, and epidemics.  Is this truly more ethical than intelligent family planning?  The principles of carrying capacity and overshoot apply to both tiny islands and the entire planet, as we are now in the process of discovering.

When the first humans arrived in Tikopia, there were no mammals.  There were no wild herbivores to freeload on their food supply.  The only man-eating predators were sharks, which swam outside the reefs.  In the absence of large predators, humans were the dominant animal.  There were no lions, jaguars, or hyenas to provide essential population control services.  Thus, a culture of mindful restraint was the preferred path to sustainability.

Today, Tikopia is one of 900+ islands in the nation of Solomon Islands, which is 95 percent Christian.  The Tikopian population crisis has been addressed by sending folks to establish colonies on other islands — islands that have been depopulated via exposure to the diseases of civilization.  Other Tikopians enjoy rewarding careers in manual labor at coconut plantations on larger islands.  How much longer can the consequences of European morality be sidestepped?  Sea levels are rising, cyclones are intensifying, and low-lying islands in the Solomons are vanishing.  Good luck islanders!

Firth, Raymond, We, The Tikopia, American Book Company, New York, 1936.

Firth, Raymond, Tikopia Ritual and Belief, Beacon Press, Boston, 1967.

Kirch, Patrick Vinton and Douglas E. Yen, Tikopia — The Prehistory and Ecology of a Polynesian Outlier, Bishop Museum Press, Honolulu, 1982.