Monday, December 11, 2017


In the Ojibway language, Kitchi-Gami means Lake Superior.  Johann Georg Kohl (1808-1878) was a German travel writer, geographer, and ethnologist.  In 1855, he spent six months visiting trading posts and missions in Ojibway country near Kitchi-Gami, mostly at the Apostle Islands off the north coast of Wisconsin, and at the settlements at the base of Keweenaw Bay, in northern Michigan.

Kohl’s book, Kitchi-Gami, was published in 1860.  It presents a different perspective from John Tanner’s 1830 book, The Falcon.  Tanner was a white man, kidnapped as a boy, who spent 30 years among the Ojibway, had a hard life, and described his many struggles.  Kohl was a visitor from outer space who was fascinated by the Ojibway.  He interviewed many, learned a lot about their culture, and discussed numerous subjects not mentioned by Tanner.

Kohl was eager to record as much as possible about the Ojibway, because it looked like Native Americans were rapidly dying off, and would soon be gone.  At the same time, the brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm were working to preserve remnants of the traditional culture of Germany, because the rustic folks who still remembered bits of it were also dying off.

Both the Ojibway and wild Germans were cultures that inhabited vast ancient forests, sacred places of magic, mystery, hungry wolves, and mystical little people (fairies).  Kohl noted that the folktales of both had similar themes and lessons.  Ojibway birch bark wigwams were of comparable quality to the huts of poor peasants in Lithuania, Ireland, or Polish Jews.  Like Scandinavians, the Ojibway fished at night using torches.  Germany had witches or sorcerers who could cause others harm by curses, charms, or spells.  The Ojibway had Windigos, men or women possessed by evil spirits who were terribly common.

Kohl’s gift to us is a remembrance of the closing days of the wild frontier, when Ojibway country was relatively unmolested, except for its furbearing animals.  The St. Mary’s River was the eastern outlet for Kitchi-Gami.  Bears crossed it during seasonal migrations.  In 1811, the migration lasted all summer, and 6,000 bears were killed, as many as 100 per night.  Before Kohl arrived, the greedy fur mining industry in the region had peaked, sharply declined, and moved westward.

Near the St. Mary’s River was a settlement named Rivière au Désert, because it was a ghastly, hideous eyesore in the wilderness — scruffy patches of oats or barley planted amidst stumps.  “Nature is here, at the outset, a pleasing wild forest garden; but when civilized man breaks into it, his axe and his fire produce a desert of half-carbonized tree stumps and skeletons.”  French Canadians call these patches of cultivation “un désert.”

Kohl was fascinated by the spiritual life of the Ojibway.  In Germany, the black robes commonly taught that the world is a hellish nightmare of demons, wickedness, and abominations.  The Ojibway, on the other hand, loved their sacred land, and cared for it.  Their culture was not fixated on the soul’s path in the afterlife.  They had a vibrant spiritual connection to life in the here and now.

Unfortunately, the here and now was sharply different from the good old days.  Kohl chatted with an old woman whose name meant “dawn.”  He called her Aurora.  The blitzkrieg of civilization had pushed the Sioux out of their forest homeland, and westward onto the prairie.  Tribal warfare intensified.  People no longer felt safe.  Aurora had lost three brothers, and ten other close relatives.  She said that the Ojibway were far weaker since the Long-knives arrived.  They used to be healthier and stronger, able to go ten days without food and not complain.  Their traditional culture was withering.

He was amazed to learn about the Ojibway vision quests, which were part of their rites of passage into adulthood.  Nowhere in Europe did young boys or girls courageously “fast for days on behalf of a higher motive, retire to the most remote forests, defy all the claims of nature, and fix their minds so exclusively on celestial matters, that they fell into convulsions, and attained an increased power of perception, which they did not possess in ordinary life.”  Sometimes it took ten days of fasting to have important dreams.

In Germany, Christian preachers taught their flocks to give away their wealth, and live a life of unconditional love.  Native Americans were perplexed to observe that the teachings of the black robes often had no association with their behaviors.  The aliens seemed to be possessed with a frantic desire to seize and hoard as much wealth as possible.  They were arrogant, domineering, and impressively dishonest — the opposite of loving.

The Ojibway actually practiced what the Christians preached.  “As a universal rule, next to the liar, no one is so despised by the Indians as the narrow-hearted egotist and greedy miser.”  Voyageurs and traders regularly travelled through Indian country with valuable goods and full purses.  There were no police or soldiers in the wilderness, but it was very rare for a trader to be attacked for the sole purpose of robbery.  But the two big fur trading companies “often plundered each other’s posts, and employed the Indians for that purpose.”

Kohl was impressed by the charity of the Ojibway.  “There are no rich men among them.”  An Indian will not hesitate to share his last meal with a hungry stranger.  The principle is “that a man must first share with others and then think of himself.”  He was also impressed by their egalitarian society.  No man, not even a cripple, considered another Indian to be his superior.

Kohl was not a hunter-gatherer in Germany, and he was not raised in an egalitarian society.  He did not understand that hunting abilities varied greatly.  In The Art of Tracking, Louis Liebenberg noted that among the San hunters aged 15 to 38, “70 percent of all the kudu kills were made by only 17 percent of the hunters, while almost half the hunters made no kudu kills at all.”

The “communist” Ojibway annoyed him with their absolute commitment to generosity.  The poor hunter “is forced to give all his spoil away, industry is never rewarded, and the hard-working man toils for the lazy.  A man often has to support others, without complaining.  So, all are fed, and none ever get prosperous.”  The heathens were more Christian than the Christians.

Liebenberg wrote a lot about persistence hunting — running after game until they collapsed from exhaustion (a practice that led to our ancestors becoming bipedal).  Kohl noted that the Ojibway also did this.  Horses were not ideal for hunting in a forest.  Running down elk was easiest in the deep snows of winter, when the hunter travelled on snowshoes.  Sometimes bears were chased down.

One day, when Kohl was in the Apostle Islands, “A warlike maiden suddenly appeared, who boasted of having taken a Sioux scalp, and she was led in triumph from lodge to lodge.  I was told that a supernatural female had appeared to this girl, who was now nineteen, during the period of her great fasts and dreams of life, who prophesied to her that she would become the greatest runner of her tribe, and thus gain the mightiest warrior for husband.”

Women were healers, prophets, and enchanters.  “It may be easily supposed that these squaws, owing to their performing all the work of joiners, carpenters, and masons, have corned and blistered hands. In fact, their hands are much harder to the touch than those of the men; and, indeed, their entire muscular system is far more developed, and they are proportionately stronger in the arm, for the men do not do much to bring out the muscle.”

Raised in rigidly strict Germany, Kohl was amazed by how loving Ojibway parents were.  “Indians have an ape-like affection for their children.  Even fathers are very kind to their sons, and never treat them with severity.”  Europeans often exposed (abandoned) unwanted children, but the Ojibway never did.  But when the elderly could no longer keep up with the band, they were left behind.

In Kitchi-Gami country, there were numerous locations named Lac du Flambeau (Torch Lake).  In summer, when vast clouds of mosquitoes made life miserable, the deer waded into lakes and ponds, just keeping their heads above water.  Hunters in canoes quietly moved toward them from downwind, with birch bark torches burning.  The deer calmly stared at the light, and were easily killed.

So, dearest reader, there’s a sampler.  Kohl also described their wigwams, canoes, diet, food preservation, sugar making, fishing, clothing, revenge killing, warfare, spells and magic, medicine, vision quests, dreams, ceremonies, stories, reverence for copper, symbolic drawings on birch bark paper, and on and on.

Kohl, Johann Georg, Kitchi-Gami: Life Among the Lake Superior Ojibway, 1860, Reprint, Minnesota Historical Society Press, St. Paul, 1985.

NOTE: Early editions of this book refer to the Ojibway as Ojibbeway.  These people are also known as the Chippewa and Anishinabe, in a variety of spellings.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Northern Antiquities

Paul Henri Mallet (1730-1807) was a Swiss historian who had a fondness for the Teutonic (Germanic and Scandinavian) tribes of northern Europe.  Their strength, ferocity, and devotion to total liberty eventually enabled them to reduce the Roman Empire into a bloody blotch of road kill.  Mallet had no fondness whatsoever for the corpulent, decadent, oppressive Romans <spit!> and their legions of slaves.  The Teutonic tribes enjoyed a life of magnificent freedom.  Listen:

“They were free because they inhabited an uncultivated country, rude forests and mountains; and liberty is the sole treasure of an indigent people; …and he who possesses little defends it easily.  They were free because they were ignorant of those pleasures, often so dearly bought, which render the protection of a powerful master necessary.  They were free because hunters and shepherds, who wander about in woods through inclination or necessity, are not so easily oppressed as the timorous inhabitants of enclosed towns… and because a wandering people, if deprived of their liberty in one place, easily find it in another, as well as their sustenance.  Lastly, they were free because, knowing not the use of money, there could not be employed against them that instrument of slavery and corruption, which enables the ambitious to collect and distribute at will the signs of riches.”

The second great achievement of the Teutonic tribes, according to Mallet, was eventually abandoning their demonic indigenous spirituality and converting to the one, and only, non-demonic religion, that was dedicated to the worship of a volatile Middle Eastern sky deity.  In Northern Antiquities, Mallet tried to sum up what was known about these tribes prior to conversion.  It provided a window between the early Roman observers, Julius Caesar (51 B.C.) and Caius Cornelius Tacitus (A.D. 98), and the later Christian historians, like Adam of Bremen (1076), Saxo Grammaticus (born about 1150), and Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241).  He also cited a number of less famous sources, now obscure, which help make his book unique, but not flawless.

Twenty centuries ago, Tacitus described the wholesome, old fashioned animism of the German tribes.  “They conceive it unworthy of the grandeur of celestial beings to confine their deities within walls, or to represent them under a human similitude: woods and groves are their temples; and they affix names of divinity to that secret power, which they behold with the eye of adoration alone.”  In the pagan era, northern Europe was still largely covered with a vast primordial forest.  If you wanted to travel, you used a boat.

Unlike modern multinational religions, in Teutonic spirituality, female deities played prominent roles, and the living natural world was sacred.  Odin’s companions were ravens and wolves.  Mallet wrote, “The earth, the water, the fire, the air, the sun, moon, and stars had each their respective divinity.  The trees, forests, rivers, mountains, rocks, winds, thunder and tempests had the same; and merited on that score a religious worship, which, at first, could not be directed to the visible object, but to the intelligence with which it was animated.”

A thousand years later, near the end of the pagan era, their deities had become humanized — wise, crazy, loving, gullible, brutal, lusty, fickle, and so on.  The pantheon of deities was patriarchal, headed by Odin, the All Father.  By now, the Indo-European influences were unmistakable.  Indo-Europeans were a culture from eastern lands that spread across the west, leaving a pattern of closely related patriarchal pantheons.  They spread from Greece (Zeus), to Rome (Jupiter), Germany (Wotan), and Scandinavia (Odin).  Half of humankind today speaks Indo-European languages, including almost all modern European languages.

Tuesday is Tyr’s day, honoring the war god.  Wednesday is Odin’s day (Wotan’s day), dedicated to the shaman, poet, magician, singer, and chief war god.  His wife Frigga was Mother Earth; the Saxons called her Ostara (Easter).  Thursday is Thor’s day, for the red haired, skull crushing thunder god.  Friday is the day of Freyja, the goddess of love.  The winter solstice was the shortest day of the year, Mother Night.  This was the time of the Jul feast (Yule), a celebration of Frey, the sun, with hope that the coming year would be bountiful.  Today Yule time has become a surreal marketing holiday.

In Denmark, every nine years, a ceremony was held in January.  “The Danes flock together in crowds, and offer to their gods ninety-nine men, as many horses, dogs, and cocks, with the certain hope of appeasing the gods by these victims.”  A similar ceremony was held in Uppsala, Sweden.  After the sacrificial humans and animals were killed, and their blood drained, their bodies were hung from trees in a nearby sacred grove dedicated to Odin.

From the perspective of ecological sustainability, the humanization of deities activates flashing red warning lights – it is not a characteristic of sustainable cultures.  Human supremacy is a standard symptom of self-destructive societies (see Jensen and Livingston).  Notions of superiority were also inspired by the domestication of plants and animals, which radically reconfigured ecosystems solely for the benefit of humans (see Scott and Diamond).  Finally, the northern tribes waged war with iron weapons and, as every school child knows, metal-making consumes nonrenewable resources, a habit that often leads to addiction and overdose.

In what is now France, the Gauls were farmers living in permanent villages and towns.  They were heavily dependent on domesticated plants.  To the east, across the Rhine, were the Germanic tribes, who were primarily hunters and nomadic herders, raising domesticated cattle and sheep in a wilderness of forests and wetlands.  When threats approached, they packed up and moved.  Their livestock was self-propelled, and capable of feeding themselves.  The Gauls were helpless sitting ducks who could not move their stuff away from danger.  Their granaries were not mobile, and their towns were quite flammable.

Throughout the centuries nomads have enjoyed being parasites on hard working farmers.  The Berber proverb is: “Raiding is our agriculture.”  Tacitus said this about the Germans: “They will much easier be persuaded to attack and reap wounds from an enemy, than to till the ground and wait the produce.  They consider it as an indication of effeminacy and want of courage to gain by the sweat of the brow, what they may acquire at the price of their blood.”

Mallet added the master key to understanding all human history — “The weak had no right to what they could not defend.”  Today, liberals piss and moan about the horrors of capitalism, but capitalists are merely recycling the ancient tactics of nomadic herders, like the Mongols and Huns.  Consumers are their weak and vulnerable prey.

Thus, the Teutonic tribes were warriors, and war was their source of honor, riches, and safety.  It was essential that warriors die a violent death, with their arms in their hands, ideally laughing with their final breath.  Folks who died of disease or old age were sent to a low class afterlife in Niflheim.  Courageous fighters were sent to the premier afterlife in Valhalla, where they would spend eternity in bloody battle.  Every day, they would delight in cutting each other to pieces, and then magically recover, mount their horses, and ride back to the hall of Odin for a night of feasting and oblivion drinking.  Yippee!

Dying in bed was totally shameful.  Iceland and Sweden had ancestral cliffs (ättestup), where the sick and aged plunged to a violent death, to end their lives honorably.  Those too weak to jump were sent to Valhalla by a caring friend smashing their skull with an ancestral club (ätteklubbor).  Stafva Hall in Sweden had annual festivals, with singing and dancing, after which the wobbly geezers, beyond their expiration dates, leaped into the lake far below.

In the Teutonic tribes, women were considered to be equals and companions.  Society could not survive without their hard work.  Germans admitted them to their councils, and consulted with them on the business of the state.  In the north, it was common to meet women who delivered oracular information, cured the worst maladies, assumed whatever shape they wished, raised storms, chained the winds, travelled through the air, and performed every function of the fairy art.  There were ten prophetesses for each prophet.

The book concludes with a happy ending.  Once the freedom loving Teutonic people had finished rubbishing Rome, liberty was restored to Europe, and the victors leaped on the escalator to modernity.  As Mallet was writing in 1750, life was grand.  People and their belongings were now safe and secure.  Fields were filled with laborers.  Numerous cities flourished in peace and prosperity.  Paganism went extinct, and everyone flocked to the new religion, in which believers were promised an eternity in paradise as long as they did not kill, or lie, or steal, or fornicate, or judge others, or hate their enemies, or think blasphemous thoughts, or accumulate wealth.

Mallet, Paul Henri, Northern Antiquities, 1770, Reprint, AMS Press, New York, 1968.

Other sources:

Adam of Bremen, History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, 1076, Reprint, Columbia University Press, New York, 1959.

Anderson, Rasmus Björn, Norse Mythology: Or the Religion of Our Forefathers..., 1875, Reprint, S. C. Griggs and Company, Chicago, 1884.

Caesar, Julius, The Gallic Wars, London MacMillan, London, 1908.  DOWNLOAD

Grammaticus, Saxo, The First Nine Books of Danish History, 1514, Reprint, David Nutt, London, 1894.  DOWNLOAD

Grimm, Jakob, Teutonic Mythology, 4 vols, 1883, Reprint, Peter Smith, Gloucester, Massachusetts, 1976.  This book provides the most information on Teutonic myth and folklore, but it is difficult to read.  All four volumes can be read at Google Books.

Metzner, Ralph, The Well of Remembrance, Shambhala Publications, Boston, 1994. 

Tacitus, Caius Cornelius, edited by Hadas, Moses, Complete Works of Tacitus, The Modern Library, New York, 1942.  This volume includes Germania.  DOWNLOAD

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Mountain People

Anthropologist Colin Turnbull was born London in 1924, and raised in a surreal upper class family, which he described in his important book, The Human Cycle.  World War Two jolted the pampered lad into the bloody real world.  In the 1950s, he spent lots of time in the Congo, with the Mbuti Pygmies, who inspired his masterpiece, The Forest People.  It was a beautiful life-changing experience to live with healthy, happy humans who were profoundly in love with their sacred forest — nothing like the zombies of England.

When war in the Congo zapped his plans for another visit, he accepted an assignment to learn about the Ik tribe in northeastern Uganda.  The government wanted a plan for transforming them into law-abiding taxpaying farmers.  For unknown thousands of years, they had been hunter-gatherers in the Kidepo Valley, an arid mountainous savannah.

In 1962, their traditional lands became a 540 square mile (1,399 sq km) wildlife preserve, the Kidepo Valley National Park.  Hunting was banned, and the Ik were moved into the mountains.  They were expected to magically shape shift into farmers in a region that experienced droughts about one in every four years.  Turnbull’s study ran from 1965 to 1967, and the first two years were back-to-back droughts.  Crops withered in the fields, the granaries were empty, and about 2,000 people began to starve.  Turnbull described the cultural meltdown in The Mountain People. 

Turnbull wrote, “The hunter and gatherer gives little thought for the morrow, getting his feed fresh, from day to day, with the ready assurance of someone who has come to terms with the world around him.  He knows the world he lives in as few others do, and he lives in sympathy with it, rather than trying to dominate it.”  A farmer can lose a year’s work in one night.  A hunter can only lose a day’s work.

When he first got there, the famine was just beginning.  Two months later, the horror began.  People became totally self-centered.  Their two interests in life were now food and water.  Most became habitual liars, and most took every opportunity steal Turnbull’s stuff.  They pulled many juvenile pranks on him, hoping for him to get hurt or die.  “The people were as unfriendly, uncharitable, inhospitable, and generally mean as any people can be.”  They laughed hard at anyone’s misfortunes.  It was amusing to steal food from the feeble, and push them down.

Upon being weaned at age three, youngsters were thrown out of their parents’ house.  Evicted children formed bands and wandered the countryside looking for something to eat.  Lucky ones found some figs, the unlucky ate dirt and pebbles, and soon died.  Feeding children and elders, who couldn’t take care of themselves, was a foolish waste of precious nutrients.

Turnbull was often scolded for his idiotic generosity.  He was feeding folks who were soon to be dead, cruelly prolonging their misery.  Adults refused to feed their starving parents, or let them into their house.  When they died, most were quickly buried in the family compound, in secrecy.  If the villagers found out, they would expect a funeral ceremony, which required a feast.

Famines were a crappy time to be born.  Nobody was happy to see you, nobody cared.  When out foraging, mothers put their babies down roughly, and didn’t watch them carefully.  Maybe a hungry leopard would relieve her of her little bummer.  One time, a leopard ate a baby.  Sleepy from a delicious meal, the cat laid down for nice nap.  Men found it, killed it, and ate it, baby and all.

Turnbull once took pity on an old woman who was close to death.  He wanted to create a new village, where the abandoned people could be properly cared for.  She was not interested.  She wanted to die near her son, who would not take care of her.  Turnbull fed her, and gave her some food.  She burst into tears, because this triggered memories of “a time when people had helped each other, when people had been kind and good.”  She was the last survivor who remembered the good old days.

Stuff like this fills most of the book.  Turnbull spent 18 months eating by himself in his Range Rover.  For some reason, he got the blues.  He hoped “that we who have been civilized into such empty beliefs as the essential beauty and goodness of humanity may discover ourselves before it is too late.”  “Most of us are unlikely to admit readily that we can sink as low as the Ik, but many of us do, and with far less cause.”  Whoa!

I first read The Mountain People in 2001, and it snapped my mind.  It was an unforgettable book that you wished you could forget.  I was blindsided by the misery, cruelty, and horror, and this was the impression that I took away from the book.  In 2017, I read the book a second time, and it blew me away again, for another reason.  Near the end of the book, Turnbull shared some troubling conclusions that I was too dazed to grasp in my first reading.  He held up a mirror, so his well-fed readers could see their own deformities, and get their noses rubbed in them.

Having spent years with the Mbuti, he had directly experienced a healthy functional society.  Before that, he had grown to adulthood in twentieth century Western society, a world of atomic bombs, concentration camps, and the brutal extermination of tens of millions.  It was the opposite of a functional society.  It had become pathologically individualized and de-socialized — similar to the Ik, and in many ways worse.  The Ik give us a taste of our days to come.

“We pursue those trivial, idiotic technological encumbrances and imagine them to be the luxuries that make life worth living, and all the time we are losing our potential for social rather than individual survival, for hating as well as loving, losing perhaps our last chance to enjoy life with all the passion that is our nature and being.”  Today, Americans speed down the highways in their motorized wheelchairs while the polar ice melts, and monster hurricanes obliterate societies.  Sorry kids!

Here is a comment, from 45 years ago, that could have been written today.  “The state itself, is resting ever more on both intellectual and physical violence to assert itself.”  Heads of state and their assistants fill the air with “loud-mouthed anti-intellectual blabberings.”  The populace learns not to believe, trust, love, hope, or think.

The Mbuti enjoyed a society harmonized by a common set of beliefs, values, and lifestyles.  Everyone was on the same channel.  Our society is a cranky boisterous mob of numerous competing cultures, classes, and religious beliefs.  “In larger-scale societies we are accustomed to diversity of belief, we even applaud ourselves for our tolerance, not recognizing that a society not bound together by a single powerful belief is not a society at all, but a political association of individuals held together only by the presence of law and force — the existence of which is a violence.” 

Love is not a hardwired function, like breathing.  It has to be learned.  When love is not reciprocated, it dies.  The Ik demonstrated that love can go extinct.  When lonely consumers are starving for love in modern society, many choose to purchase companions. “The keeping of pets, which is one of the characteristics special to civilization, indicates a deterioration in human relationships.”

The Ik were excessively individualistic, spending their days in solitude and boredom, rarely forming significant relationships.  Each one was alone, and content to be alone.  Turnbull often sat with Ik men on a ridge overlooking the valley, gazing into space.  Day after day, all day long, not a word was ever spoken.  This reminds me of the spooky smart phone cult in my town today.  People gather around tables in a café, each silently gazing at their glowing screens.

The Ik expelled their children from home at age three.  Westerners wait until kindergarten, when the kids begin their decades of institutionalization.  The state now oversees health, education, and welfare.  We are indoctrinated with an “individualism that is preached with a curious fanaticism.”  This radical individualism “is reflected in our cutthroat economics, where almost anything is justified in terms of an expanding economy and the consequent confinement of the world’s riches in the pockets of the few.”

When it was released in 1972, The Mountain People got a lot of attention.  Immediately, hordes of dignified scholars explosively soiled their britches.  Heresy!  The Ik were nothing but an extreme exception, a bizarre mutation!  Civilized humans are moral and virtuous!  We are the greatest!

Turnbull, Colin M., The Mountain People, Touchstone, New York, 1972.

HERE is a 5-minute video about Colin Turnbull and the Mbuti.  The narrator says, “His advisor at Oxford wrote that Colin Turnbull is tall, fair, handsome, impulsive, and elusive.  All his screws are loose, real communication with him seems impossible.  Perhaps one has to belong to one of the backwards races in order to get his wavelength.”

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Nutrition and Physical Degeneration

My mother, who was born in 1916, had a “sweet tooth.”  When I was born, she had dentures, no teeth.  White flour and sugar were common ingredients in many meals I consumed between childhood and into my 40s.  She got diabetes, and I did too.  My first dentist said I had teeth like a horse.  They are crowded and crooked.  All four of my wisdom teeth were surgically removed, because they were growing sideways, toward the molar next door.  I brushed my teeth, but still got cavities.
Back in the sixteenth century, Queen Elizabeth also had a sweet tooth.  Sidney Mintz told an amusing story about her meeting with a German gentleman, who was deeply impressed when her smile revealed a mouthful of black teeth.  The peasants looked much healthier than the royalty, because they couldn’t afford sugar, which was an expensive luxury in those days.
In 1893, Weston Price became a dentist in Cleveland, Ohio.  As the years passed, Price became aware of a highly unusual trend — the amount of tooth decay that he observed was growing sharply.  Something strange was happening.  He was watching a serious health crisis emerge right before his eyes, and he didn’t understand the cause.  Price suspected that the problem was related to dietary changes.
His curiosity grew.  Finally, he decided to do some travelling, in search of healthy people, to see how they lived differently.  He spent much of the 1930s visiting many lands, examining the teeth of the residents, taking photographs of them, and studying their diets.  He went to remote places where people continued to live in their traditional manner, in regions including Switzerland, Ireland, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, the Arctic, and Peru.  He found many people with beautiful perfect teeth, and he found many with serious dental problems, like his patients in Cleveland.  Importantly, he discovered a clear difference in the diets of the two groups.
The people with happy teeth ate the traditional diet of their region, never used a toothbrush, and never saw a dentist.  The people with crappy teeth ate a “modernized” diet, including white flour, refined sugar, canned vegetables, jams, and marmalades.  Those who lived in remote villages in the hills were fine, but those who lived by the shore, and ate imported modern foods, suffered for it.  If one brother stayed in the hills, and the other brother moved to the city by the sea, the difference in their dental health was often striking.  Among those eating the modernized diet, the incidence of problems varied from place to place.  In some locations, only 25 percent of them had problems, but in other locations up to 75 percent were affected.
The children of those who ate modernized diets had even worse problems.  In addition to tooth decay, their dental arches were deformed, so their teeth were crowded and crooked (like mine).  Their nostrils were narrower, forcing some to be mouth breathers.  Their skulls formed in unusual shapes and sizes, often narrower than normal.  Their hips and pelvic bones formed abnormally, making childbirth more difficult.  They suffered from far higher rates of chronic and degenerative disease, including cancer, heart disease, and tuberculosis.  Their overall health was often weak or sickly.  Some were mentally deficient.
Price finally went home and wrote a book to document his findings.  Nutrition and Physical Degeneration was published in 1939.  The book is loaded with stunning photos.  Readers will never forget the powerful pictures.  Most of the book’s contents, including the pictures, are available HERE.  Click through the pages.  His writing includes some racist language that was common in that era.
For the first 200 pages, the chapters proceed, region by region, comparing the health of the people, based on their diet.  His descriptions get repetitive, because wherever he goes, he reports the same findings — people who ate their traditional diet had healthy teeth, and people who ate the modern diet more often had lousy teeth and other problems.  
All of those enjoying good health included some animal-based foods in their diet.  He noted, “It is significant that I have as yet found no group that was building and maintaining good bodies exclusively on plant foods.  A number of groups are endeavoring to do so with marked evidence of failure.”
I did some research to see if white flour and sugar were newer foods for the working class and poor.  Yes, they were.  By the late nineteenth century, both products had become widely available and inexpensive.  The primary reason for this was new technology, steam-powered steel roller mills, which appeared around 1890.  Melissa Smith and Steven Gundry wrote about the unintended consequences of roller mills.
Previously, grain had been milled between stones, which ground together all parts of the wheat berry, resulting in whole wheat flour.  White flour had been made by bolting — sieving whole wheat flour through fine cloth.  This was a time-consuming process, so white flour was expensive.  White bread was a luxury that only the rich could afford.  The waste byproduct of the bolting process was the super-nutritious bran and germ, which was usually fed to livestock.
The new roller mills crushed the grain, rather than finely pulverizing it.  This made it much easier to separate the bran and germ from the powdered endosperm (white flour).  Because of this, white flour could now be cheaply mass produced.  Since people perceived white flour to be a desirable luxury food, they eagerly consumed it.
Gundry noted that the new process eliminated both the fiber-rich bran, and the germ, which was rich in oil and vitamins.  White flour was little more than highly refined carbs, which rapidly enter the bloodstream — empty calories.  White flour had a much longer shelf life than whole wheat, because it had no oil which would go rancid over time.  White flour could be shipped to the ends of the Earth, and stored indefinitely.
By the 1920s, folks realized that white flour was crap.  New regulations required that white flour be “enriched” with nutrients, including thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and iron.  Despite enrichment, white flour remains nutritionally inferior to whole wheat.
With regard to sugar, the steel roller mill was a big improvement.  It could extract up to 85 percent of the juice from the cane.  The previous technology could extract only 20 percent.  So, each ton of cane could produce much more sugar, which lowered the price, and enabled mass production.
Sugar became a major component of the working class diet.  By 1900, 20 percent of the calories in the English diet were provided by sugar.  Many factory workers started their day with a slice of white bread spread with sugar-packed jam, marmalade, or treacle — many calories, few nutrients.  According to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, the average annual consumption of caloric sweeteners per person in the U.S. peaked in 1999 at 151.6 pounds (68.7 kg).  In 2016, it was down to a mere 128.1 pounds (58 kg).
Sugar consumption nearly doubled in the U.S. between 1890 and the early 1920s — an era of rapid growth in the candy and soft drink industries.  In some U.S. cities, diabetes deaths quadrupled between 1900 and 1920.  By the 1930s, the cancer rates in the U.S. were clearly on the rise.  Diabetes and cancer are far less common in societies that do not eat a Western diet.
Smith discussed Dr. Thomas Cleave’s “Rule of 20 Years.”  The old doctor noted a spooky pattern.  In numerous locations, 20 years after the arrival of white flour and white sugar, primitive people started to suffer from heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, gallbladder disease, and colitis.
You are what you eat!
Price, Weston, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, 1939, Reprint, Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation, La Mesa, California, 2008.  LINK
Mintz, Sidney W., Sweetness and Power — The Place of Sugar in Modern History, Penguin Books, New York, 1985.
Gundry, Steven R., Dr. Gundry’s Diet Evolution, Crown Publishers, New York, 2008.
Smith, Melissa Diane, Going Against the Grain, Contemporary Books, Chicago, 2002.
Weston Price Foundation — info on nutrition and health.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Last of the Nomads

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to introduce you to Yatungka and her husband Warri, the last two Mandildjara people to live in the traditional way on the Western Gibson Desert of Australia.  William Peasley wrote their saga in The Last of the Nomads.

Aborigines have one of the oldest continuous cultures on Earth.  They have lived in Australia for at least 40,000 years, some say 60,000.  Nomads first inhabited the more fertile regions, leaving the deserts for later.  Folks have lived in the Gibson for maybe 20,000 years.  Most readers, if dropped off in the Gibson, naked, with a spear and boomerang, would be dead in a day or three.  Water is extremely scarce.  For the paleface colonizers, the desert is dangerous, miserable, a land of horrors.  For Aborigines, it was home sweet home, where they belonged, a sacred place.  They had an intimate understanding of the land, and learned how to live in balance with it.

Yatungka and Warri spent most of their adult lives as pariahs, because their relationship violated a tribal law that defined permitted and forbidden marriages.  Laws were taken very seriously.  If they returned to their people, they might be beaten, or even killed.  So, their family lived away from the tribe, wandering from waterhole to waterhole, hunting and foraging.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the government made efforts to move the Aborigines into settlements, where intense culture shock led many to lose their identity, become massively depressed alcoholics, and abandon their ancient traditions.  The sons and kinfolk who stayed with Yatungka and Warri eventually moved off to civilization, but the outlaw couple feared to join them.

Anyway, in 1977, it was the third year of an extreme drought, the worst in a century, maybe the worst in many centuries.  The kinfolk of the outlaw couple were worried about them.  Mudjon was a respected elder who had been raised on the desert in the traditional way.  He knew all the waterholes, and cared about Yatungka and Warri.  His dream was to take the Mandildjara people back to their desert paradise, return to the old ways, and preserve their traditions.  Few of the young were interested.

Mudjon asked a white friend to help him search for the couple, and he agreed.  Mudjon was joined by five white lads, including Peasley.  They loaded up three vehicles and took off across the vast roadless desert.  Mudjon knew that this was probably his last visit to the territory of his people, and the last time a traditional Aborigine would drink from each well, or leave footprints in the dirt.  Peasley noted, “It was very sad for him to move through the land where once his people hunted and laughed and sang around the campfires.”

The chapters describing the long search contain some fascinating passages about the old way of life.  Mudjon was a master at reading the land, noticing the countless slight details that provided strong and detailed messages to him, but were invisible to the whites.  Without a map for the 1,500 km (932 mi) journey, he guided the team from waterhole to waterhole, looking for signs of the couple.  It was a powerful experience for him, to see old campsites, windbreaks, caves, springs, rock paintings, and other artifacts — the remains of an ancient culture.

Eventually they found signs of the missing couple.  At several locations, Mudjon started a brushfire that sent smoke high into the sky, where it would have been visible from up to 160 km (99 mi) away.  Warri did not respond with a smoke signal.

It was an ancient custom of the desert people to routinely light brushfires as they journeyed from waterhole to waterhole.  This had three benefits.  (1) Fire flushed out hidden game.  (2) It signaled their progress to other groups.  (3) It regenerated the earth and stimulated plant growth.  Fresh green sprouts attracted game.  Wildlife became dependent on burning.  This was called firestick farming.  In recent decades, in regions no longer visited, the burning has ceased, the water holes are not kept cleared, and animal and bird life largely disappeared.

One happy day, they saw smoke from Warri, and drove to his campsite.  When Mudjon greeted him, there were no smiles, hugs, or handshakes.  Warri was about 150 cm (5 ft) tall, naked, extremely thin, and both eyes were inflamed.  He wasn’t strong enough to hunt, so they were living on quandongs (peach-like fruit).  Yatungka returned from foraging with several dingo dogs.  She displayed no signs of excitement.  She was about 165 cm (5’ 5”) tall, younger, naked, very thin, but in much better physical condition.

They would not survive much longer at the waterhole.  The rescue party knew that the nearest well that still had some water was 150 km (93 mi) away, an impossible journey on foot.  The couple agreed to return to the Wiluna settlement with Mudjon and company.  They wanted to see their sons again.  Mudjon assured them that there would be no drama about the taboo violated long ago.

In Wiluna, many folks came to look at the long-missing couple, and were stunned to see their emaciated condition.  “There were no greetings, no shouts of joy, in fact there was no sign of recognition on either side, and yet the sons of Warri and Yatungka were within a few meters of their parents.”  Tears streamed down the cheeks of Warri and many others.  A few months later, Mudjon got very sick, declined, and died.  A year after their return, Warri and Yatungka caught a disease.  He died in April 1979, and she died a few weeks later.

For me, this was a powerful book, not primarily for what it said, but for the silent message unperceived by the white heroes who came to the rescue.  Peasley spent his boyhood on a farm in Australia, and he sometimes discovered signs of prehistoric campsites.  He felt sad that, after more than 40,000 years on the land, the people had not been able to leave behind anything more significant than simple campsites, grinding stones, rock paintings, and so on.

For me, this low impact living was an amazing achievement.  They successfully adapted to a hot dry ecosystem, and it was a wonderful home for them.  What a terrible problem!  The Gibson Desert that the rescue party drove across looked nearly the same as it did 1,000 years ago, or 10,000.  The silent message screams “genuine sustainability, beautiful, healthy culture!”

Humans are also capable of adapting to godforsaken nightmares like Chicago, jammed together with millions of isolated, anxious, stressed out, depressed strangers… ah, the wonders of progress!  The rescue party was proud of their advanced technology, which gave them the ability to dominate, exploit, and rubbish the continent.  What significant artifacts will they leave behind to impress the youngsters of generations yet to be born?  Will the land be in no worse condition in another 1,000 or 10,000 years?  These questions are taboo, heresy in a culture whose god-word is Growth.

Peasley did confess to having some uncomfortable thoughts.  When the rescue party knew that the couple was alive and nearby, he realized, “We were about to intrude into the lives of the last nomadic people in the Western Gibson Desert, and in doing so, it was possible that we might be responsible for bringing to an end a way of life that had gone on for several thousand years.”

Peasley, William John, The Last of the Nomads, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, Australia, 1983.

The Last Nomads is a 45 minute Australian documentary of this story.

The Future Eaters provides an environmental history of wild Australia, the early human impacts, the mass extinctions, and the lessons painfully learned.

The Life and Adventures of William Buckley tells the story of an Englishman who abandoned civilization and spent 32 years as a hunter-gatherer in the early days of Australian colonization.

The Life and Adventures of William Buckley

William Buckley was born in Cheshire, England in 1780.  He was trained to be a bricklayer, but the monotonous work bored him.  He joined the militia and was a soldier for four years.  Then, he met some scruffy lads, and got busted for receiving stolen property.  In 1803, he was rewarded for his mischief with a one-way nine-month pleasure cruise to a luxurious resort for white trash in Middle of Nowhere, Australia.  He never saw his family again.

It was not a high security penal colony, because fleeing into the vast wilderness was essentially suicide.  In just three months the prison routine got unbearably boring, and Buckley joined three other lads in a great escape.  One was shot by a guard, and the two others soon lost their courage and gave up.  Buckley was a stubborn cuss, not an obedient bootlicker.  He refused to surrender, bid farewell to his cowardly mates, and abandoned the British Empire.  Good luck Willy!

A mile or two later, in an incredible act, he passed through a time warp, and entered a vast Stone Age wilderness inhabited by cannibals, venomous snakes, and vicious packs of dingo dogs.  He was free as can be, suddenly a clueless unarmed hunter-gatherer in a reality quite similar to 40,000 B.C.  For the next 32 years, he never saw a civilized person, forgot his mother tongue, ceased knowing what year it was, and continuously worked to improve his survival skills.  Fresh air, sunshine, and absolute freedom.  Imagine that!  His escape inspires pleasant fantasies for daydreaming corporate inmates trapped in cubicle farm workstations.

In the next several months, Buckley ate shellfish and occasionally observed a few passing natives.  One day he stumbled upon a grave with a spear sticking out of it — Lucky Willy’s salvation.  He took the spear, and used it for a walking stick.  Later, while having a pleasant nap, he was spotted by two native women, who returned to their camp with wondrous news of a white man.  Everyone came to see him, and he was given the name Murrangurk, the name of the corpse in the grave, previous owner of the spear.  They believe that after death, souls return as white men.  They were very happy to find him, and Willy now had relatives who held him in great awe.

Over time, he mastered their language.  He learned a great deal about hunting, fishing, and foraging.  He now dined on organic swans, emus, shellfish, shrimp, opossums, squirrels, large ants, roots, wombats, kangaroos, black snakes, grubs, lizards, toads, rats, and mice.  Yum!  Technology included long spears, short spears, spear throwers, boomerangs, tomahawks, shrimp nets, and fire-making sticks.  Their portable mansions were bark tents.  They weren’t too interested in clothing, fashionable folks wore a few strips of hide.

His saga often mentions seeing gatherings of 100, 200, and 300 natives, which surprised me.  My minimal knowledge of Aborigines, based on twentieth century commentaries, led me to believe that they lived in small groups in a harsh land where food was scarce.  Buckley indicated that they were intimately attuned to the cycles of the seasons, knowing when and where abundant food was likely to be found, for a temporary span of time.  They lived a wandering life, trying to move from one food banquet to the next, improvising along the way.

Buckley arrived in Australia in 1803, just one year after the first non-Australian arrived in the wilderness.  Willy spent 32 years with the Wathaurong Aborigines in the Port Phillip and Geelong districts (near Melbourne), and then made contact with sailors in 1835.  In about 1849, as he neared the end of his life, he told his story to impoverished journalist John Morgan.  Buckley could not read or write.  The saga he told was based entirely on memory, long after the events occurred.  He especially remembered the events that had made the deepest impressions on him — conflict and bloodshed.

Throughout the short book, he describes numerous violent events.  Many folks were speared to death, and many of their corpses were eaten.  Very often, women were the cause of bloody disputes.  These conflicts were commonly resolved by spearing the woman, or the man who was with her, who was not her husband.  Whenever someone was speared, the family of the victim was obliged to seek revenge, immediately, or at a convenient opportunity in the future.  If the chief offender was not available, a member of his family would do.  Sometimes two tribes clashed in large rumbles, and several died in the process.

Buckley reported that all deaths were believed to be the result of human agency, never natural causes.  For example, when a man from an enemy tribe died from a snakebite, Buckley’s tribal brother-in-law was suspected of sorcery or something.  The enemies attacked and speared the family that had kindly adopted him.  Buckley became an orphan in a dangerous world, and he cried and cried for hours.

He felt safe and relaxed when living alone by a river or shore, but dangerous people could suddenly appear at any hour.  Any day he could become the main course at dinner.  One white man who met him later in life said he was of “a nervous and irritable disposition, and a little thing will annoy him much.”  Another noted that he “was always discontented and dissatisfied.”

His wild days ended when he met some sailors on the shore.  They were utterly surprised to see a dirty, nearly naked, six foot five inch (2 m) white man with long flowing hair, and a spear.  It took him some time to remember English.  He was greatly relieved to return to civilized society.  He worked as an interpreter for colonists.  Their mission was to meet native chiefs, and buy their land for a pile of trinkets.  The natives had no chiefs, and no concept of owning land or selling it, but they did have a fondness for blankets, knives, and stuff.  They did not understand what these transactions actually meant.

Buckley the bricklayer built the chimney for the first brick house in a primitive frontier settlement now known as Melbourne.  Before long, a steady stream of ships was unloading settlers.  Pissed off natives found exciting new opportunities in sheep rustling, looting, and spearing terrorists.  There were many conflicts, and the well-armed terrorists eventually conquered the Aborigines, and profitably began mining the soil, grassland, forests, and wildlife.  Buckley married the widow of a friend who had been speared.  Soon after, he got typhus.  In 1856, he died of injuries received from being run over by an ox cart in Hobart.  The end.

This is a short book, and Morgan was not a master wordsmith.  The book is a unique snapshot of a time, a place, and a life — a reminder of the era of low impact living.  It’s an effective antidote for those who suffer from the illusion that wild tribes of hunter-gatherers universally enjoyed idyllic lives of love, peace, and happiness.  It’s also sad. 

Today, two centuries later, the wild ecosystem of 1803 has been severely and permanently damaged.  This is not a path with a long future.  The Aboriginal path very closely resembled genuine sustainability.  All paths include some conflict and bloodshed, some coherence and happiness.  We live in interesting times.

Morgan, John, The Life and Adventures of William Buckley, 1852, Reprint, William Heinemann Ltd, Melbourne, 1967.