Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Wild Free and Happy Sample 07


[Note: This is the seventh sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy.  I don’t plan on reviewing more books for a while.  My blog is home to reviews of 199 books, and you are very welcome to explore them.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews, if you are interested in specific authors, titles, or subjects.] 

Fire: Big Juju

Civilization would have never been possible without the domestication of a superpower we call fire.  Look around you, and eliminate everything you see or use that was directly or indirectly made possible by the combustion of coal, petroleum, wood, or natural gas.  For example: metal, concrete, plastic, glowing screens, internal combustion engines.  If you could magically eliminate everything enabled by fire-based processes, you’d immediately be sitting naked in a wilderness — except that your existence was also made possible by a fire-powered civilization.  You and I are fire children.

The original tool for kindling fire is called a fire drill.  Its spindle is a straight, pointed, dry wooden stick that is spun back and forth with the hands.  The tip of the spindle is inserted into a cone-shaped socket in a fireboard of dry wood.  Rapidly spinning the stick creates friction as it rubs into the fireboard’s socket, and eventually, if all goes well, a glowing ember comes into being.  The fireboard is then tilted to drop the ember into a fluffy wad of dry tinder.  The ember is gently blown on, forcing its heat into the tinder.  Finally, a wee flame emerges in a puff of smoke.  Success!

Tom Brown described a Native American legend about fire making.  One day, the Great Spirit gave people the “wisdom of whirling wood.”  The spindle was the male element, active and aggressive.  The fireboard was the female element, receiving the whirling spindle, and nurturing a glowing ember.  The ceremony was like two lovers passionately meeting, and giving birth to a powerful being.  The bundle of tinder was the Earth, which nurtured the new life into fullness.

The invention of the fire drill enabled our tropical primate ancestors to migrate into chilly non-tropical ecosystems, and eventually spread to all continents, even the arctic.  As hungry hominins, skilled at ambush hunting, moved into unknown lands, many species of megafauna gradually disappeared from the stage — millions and millions of animals.  Without fire magic, I expect that hominins would be absent in much of the world today — the regions having annual or permanent snowy seasons.  The Americas would maybe still be home to mastodons, wooly rhinos, sabertooth cats, and other beautiful wild giants.

The original hominin homeland, south of the equator in Africa, was a highly unlikely location for the emergence of civilizations.  Jared Diamond wrote that, of the crop plants domesticated in Africa, all originated north of the equator.  He added that no large herbivores suitable for domestication originally lived south of the equator in Africa — only the guinea fowl was enslaved in this region.  This implies that if we had never wandered out of our ancestral homeland, the planet might have remained unspoiled.

Anyway, some too-clever African ancestor succeeded in inventing the fire drill.  What if a hungry crocodile had dismembered this person ten minutes before the big discovery?  Would we have been likely to migrate out of Africa, and spread around the Earth?  Would the world of today be a civilization-free wilderness, home to fantastic numbers of animals?  Would London still be a vast ancient forest, home to hippos, elephants, giant deer, aurochs, and lions?  Would the Thames still thrash and splash with huge migrations of giant salmon?  Would a wee population of hominins still be chasing critters across the savannah — wild, free, and happy?

Types of Fire

Stephen Pyne, one of the world’s foremost experts on fire history, described three categories of fire.

(1) Natural fire is not ignited by humans.  Nature can start fires via lightning strikes, volcanoes, meteors, or falling rocks.  It rarely ignites when the temperature is cold, the ecosystem is moist, or where little or no fuel is present.  When conditions are ideal, these wild fires can quickly reduce large areas of forest or grassland to ashes.  This is perfectly normal and natural.  In regions where wildfires commonly occur, like America’s west coast, the vegetation consists of many species that are fire dependent or fire tolerant.  Some plants actually require fire to germinate their seeds.

(2) Anthropogenic fire is started by humans, deliberately or unintentionally.  It can be ignited in many different ways — fire drills, flint and steel, friction matches, electric sparks, machinery, power lines, chemical explosions, atomic bombs, and so on.  Until recent centuries, it primarily burned biomass fuels like wood, grass, or dung.

Unlike modern societies that burn fossil biomass imported from distant lands, preindustrial communities had firm limits on the firewood available nearby.  At its peak in A.D. 1050, the Native American civilization at Cahokia (near modern St. Louis) was home to 30,000 folks who cooked and heated with wood.  This was twice the number of folks living in London at the time, and London was Europe’s biggest city north of the Alps.

Cahokia’s homes were wood framed and thatched, and the palisade that surrounded the settlement was made of logs.  They had no carts, horses, or iron axes.  By 1250, it was a ghost town.  Did they run short of fuel, overhunt, deplete their topsoil, perish from warfare, experience a climate surprise, or all of the above?

Anthropogenic fire has been used extensively around the world to alter ecosystems, in order to make them more suitable for agriculture, herding, and wild game.  More on this subject later.

(3) Industrial fire is a more recent variation of anthropogenic fire.  Its primary fuel is associated with fossil biomass — coal, petroleum, and natural gas.  It can burn anywhere — in airplanes, ships, diamond mines, and skyscrapers.  It can burn on barren sand dunes, in soggy rainforests, or in the frozen arctic.  Industrial fire is often designed to burn automatically, like in a furnace or water heater.

Fossil biomass consists of enormous deposits of sequestered carbon.  Coal is rainforest vegetation that accumulated over the course of 60 million years.  Oil and natural gas come from dead phytoplankton that accumulated over 250 million years.  Combined, this is a one-time 310 million year stash of extremely high quality energy.  Industrial civilization is furiously burning this fuel on a huge scale, at an increasing rate.  Every day, the remaining fuel is further depleted, to support the survival of several billion humans who live like there’s no tomorrow.  What could possibly go wrong?

Pyne says that the civilization of our grandparents was limited by the amount of fossil fuel reserves remaining — eventually, the fuel gage would drop to Empty, and the party would end.  The current generation has a new and closer limit.  Before the needle ever hits Empty, the planet will become an ecological catastrophe.  The Big Burn is belching out far more harmful waste than our planet’s ecosystem can absorb.

The oceans are acidifying.  Carbon is building up in the atmosphere, resulting in rising temperatures and intensified storm systems.  Ice packs are melting, and sea levels are rising.  More than a billion people survive on food grown on cropland irrigated with water from melting snowpack and glaciers, which are shrinking.  Acid rain is hammering forests.  Millions of people are sick and dying from the perpetual haze of industrial air pollution.  And on and on.  Fire is powerful juju.  Wistfully modifying Smokey the Bear’s slogan, “Only you can prevent anthropogenic fire!”

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Wild Free and Happy Sample 06

[Note: This is the sixth sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild Free & Happy.  I don’t plan on reviewing more books for a while.  My blog is home to reviews of 199 books, and you are very welcome to explore them.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews, if you are interested in specific authors, titles, or subjects.] 

Bipedal Locomotion

Baboons survive today because their ancestors evolved a successful approach for living on the savannah.  They did this by organizing into powerful bad ass gangs.  Like all other non-human animals, baboons still survive by living in the manner for which evolution has fine-tuned them, free from addictions to crutches like fire or complex weapons.  They stayed in their tropical homeland, and could possibly remain there for another million years, if the human turbulence in their ecosystem mercifully mellowed out.

Unlike baboons, our ancestors took a radically different approach to surviving on tropical savannahs.  They quit knuckle walking, evolved an upright posture, and became bipedal — standing, striding, and sprinting on two legs, not four.  This transition reduced or eliminated their ability to quickly scamper up trees, where they were less vulnerable to predators.  So, a new category of primates was born: hominins — bipedal ground-dwelling primates. 

The earliest bipedal primate is the subject of controversy.  It may have lived as early as 6 million years ago.  By about 4 million years ago, our ancestors’ feet had become less useful for grasping (climbing trees), and more attuned for walking smoothly.

In Tanzania, 3.6 million years ago, two bipedal ancestors left their footprints in wet volcanic ash.  In 1978, at the Laetoli site, scientists discovered 70 of their fossilized footprints, in a sequence that was 88 feet long (27m).  These ancestors were probably Australopithecus afarensis.

Why the shift to bipedal travel?  Over time, as climate change expanded grassland, the distance between groves of trees increased.  Knuckle walking is OK for short trips, but striding is more comfortable and energy efficient for longer journeys.  Standing upright provided a better view of the surroundings.  It also made them more visible to hungry predators.  It freed up their hands for carrying things like food, water, infants, embers, and tools.

For brief high-speed getaways, hominins were far slower than galloping chimps.  Alfred Crosby noted that bipedal striding is like walking on stilts, and it increases the odds for falling down.  Four-legged critters (quadrupeds) like canines, cats, or horses move in a manner that is far more graceful, stable, and speedy.

On the savannah, evolution typically selected for prey animals that were better high speed escape artists.  Consequently, it also selected for the predators that were more effective at killing them.  If prey gradually got larger, predators gradually got larger.  If prey got faster, so did the predators.  If prey got too good at surviving, they would overgraze the savannah and starve.  If predators got too good at hunting, they would eliminate their prey and starve.  The ecosystem was an endless bloody evolutionary soap opera.

With regard to our ancestors, evolution advanced an unusual mutation.  Instead of size or speed, it selected for heat tolerance and long distance running.  Compared to four-legged critters, standing upright exposed less of their bodies to hot sunbeams, and their bushy hairdos provided extra heat protection.  Their nearly furless bodies, equipped with three million juicy sweat glands, allowed them to shed body heat better than other savannah mammals. 

Tree-dwelling primates enjoyed a diet majoring in fruit, which grew all around them, all year long.  On the savannah, there was less fruit, so foraging required travelling farther, and finding other things to eat.  Some believe that our ancestors became bipedal to improve their success at scavenging — beating competitors to fresh carcasses.  Bernd Heinrich wrote that at Yellowstone Park, dead animals are reduced to a pile of bones in just seven hours.  In Africa, hyenas devour the bones too.

The person you see in the mirror has a body that is optimized for running, not walking.  Your toes and heel tendons provide a bounce when your foot hits the ground, improving energy efficiency.  Your legs and spine are fine-tuned for jogging, keeping your head and eyes steady.  Skilled runners gracefully glide along, lightly skimming across the land.

The shift to bipedal locomotion resulted in some radical changes in our ancestors’ skeletons.  Notably, the pelvis got narrower, which reduced the size of the birth canal — the passageway through which fetuses pass during birth.  This challenge was dealt with in two ways.  (1) Birth occurred earlier, when brains were smaller and less mature.  This extended the duration of childhood, the spacing between births, and the need for extended parental oversight.  (2) Since bipeds no longer slept in the trees, they could grow heavier and bigger.  Increased size was an asset for hunting and defense.  Longer legs enabled longer strides, which boosted running speed.  Larger bodies retained water better, delaying dehydration.

Bipedal locomotion was an unusual evolutionary experiment.  Few if any humans still live in the manner for which evolution fine-tuned us, a practice known as persistence hunting.

Persistence Hunting

On the savannah, predators made speedy attacks, and their prey attempted quick getaways, but both soon had to find shade and chill out, because bursts of high exertion promptly led to overheating.  Consequently, predator attacks were resolved quickly.  If a charging lion failed to promptly take down its target, the attack ended, and the prey might live to see another day. 

Our ancestors gained the ability to engage in steady long distance running, hour after hour, in the oven-like midday heat of tropical savannahs.  Once a chase began, the prey animals immediately scattered.  The hunter quickly selected an animal that was less strong and speedy, and began trotting after it.  Even when the prey was miles ahead, the hunter would doggedly follow its trail, reducing its ability to rest and cool off.

Persistence hunting requires no weapons.  Hunters must possess a deep understanding of animal behavior, great skill in the art of tracking, an intuitive mind, a healthy body, and sufficient water and nutrients for a long run.  Kalahari people had exceptional tracking skills.  Women were as good as men, or better, at interpreting spoor.  At the end of a successful pursuit, the prey might collapse from exhaustion or heat stroke, or simply stop running.  If the hunter found it still alive, he could suffocate it or bonk it on the head. 

Liebenberg was maybe the first civilized person to participate in persistence hunting (he nearly died from heat stroke).  He observed a six and a half hour chase that covered 21.7 miles (35 km), on a day when the temperature ranged between 89°F and 107°F (32°C and 42°C). 

He noted that tracking encouraged wild people to develop heightened abilities for intuitive thinking, because the tracks of their prey were rarely clear and complete.  Knowledge of animal behavior helped to fill in the blanks and suggest the most likely escape route.  The mental process was fast, automatic, effortless, and often unconscious.  Intuition also enhanced social relationships.  Wild people were far more sensitive to each other than folks in the modern world, whom Liebenberg saw as being severely handicapped by shallow or dysfunctional relationships.

Maybe our ancestors learned persistence hunting from hyenas, who hunt in packs, using their super-sensitive noses to follow animals until they are exhausted.  Or, maybe they first learned by chasing small, slow moving critters.  Somehow, maybe several million years ago, our hominin ancestors learned the clever trick of using overheating and exhaustion as deadly weapons — and the keys to survival.

Every gardener who has experienced backaches or sore knees, is painfully aware that evolution did not fine tune hominins for spending long hours on their knees or bent over, engaged in tedious repetitive movements — digging, cultivating, planting, weeding, picking, threshing, grinding, and so on.  What you see in the mirror is a body optimized for long distance pursuits across hot African savannahs — a meat-loving hunter and forager.

Bears have never forgotten their identity, consequently they confidently continue to live like bears, which is why they remain perfectly sane, and have no need for psych meds.  The same can be said for all the wild animals alive today.  The glaring exception is a super large mob of modernized persistence hunters who have become extremely disoriented by memory loss.

Young children, even in the deepest darkest McMansion suburbs, are fascinated by bears, lions, horses, bunnies, piggies, and others.  They play with teddy bears, pretend to be horses, and love looking at animals in picture books.  The kids are animals, and their hominin ancestors have been fascinated by animals for six million years.  Sadly, most will spend their lives in a reality where most of the animals they’ll closely experience will be thoroughly domesticated critters purchased for companionship or status display.

Jung said that we still retain unconscious memories of our arboreal past, when falling out of trees caused big fear.  Many of us have suddenly awakened with a gasp when a dream included a sudden plunge.  Nightmares commonly involve being chased or attacked by dangerous predators.  In crowded movie theaters, when the woman is about to be stabbed by a psycho killer, the hall explodes with loud squeals and screams, like our primate ancestors in a distant rainforest.

Over the last six million years, every species of bipedal primate has gone extinct, except one — and almost all of us have abandoned persistence hunting as a routine component of basic survival.  Don’t worry.  Close your eyes and imagine what humans might become if we spent the next 200,000 years sitting on couches, staring at glowing screens, washing down greasy pizza with fizzy sugar water.

Running Goes Global

By and by, as hominins spread far beyond the savannahs of tropical Africa, so did persistence hunting.  It spread around the world, because it works, and because evolution fine-tuned us for doing it.  For almost the entire hominin saga, we lived on our feet.  Running was a key factor in our ancestors’ survival, until we got wheels, four legged slaves, and other weird and troublesome things.

Tim Flannery reported that the Aborigines of Western Australia would pursue an individual kangaroo until it was overheated and exhausted.  The chase could take several days.  Johann Kohl wrote that the Ojibway would often run down elk, especially in the winter, when deep snow soon wore out the animal.  Hunters on snowshoes could pursue the animal for hours.  Kohl also mentioned a Sioux hunter who chased a bear to exhaustion.

Bernd Heinrich wrote about the Penobscot tribe chasing down moose, and the Navajo and Paiutes wearing out pronghorn antelopes.  In Southern Africa, hunters chased steenbok, gemsbok, wildebeest, zebras, and others.  Wendell Bennett wrote about the Tarahumara people of Mexico pursuing deer and turkeys until they collapsed.  

Peter Nabokov noted that some Tarahumara lads could run 170 miles (273 km) without stopping.  Mexicans would hire them to capture wild horses, sometimes chasing them for two or three days, until the horses could run no more — while the men remained fresh.  Nabokov quoted a Hopi man: “Long ago when the Hopi had no sheep, no horses, no burros, they had to depend for game-capturing on their legs.”

Nabokov provided numerous accounts of Indian messengers traveling great distances.  One ran 50 miles in six hours.  A Mojave lad ran 200 miles (322 km) in 24 hours.  Seven days a week, a Tarahumara man ran a 70 mile (112 km) route, carrying a heavy mailbag.  After running 15 miles (24 km), Zuni runners still had a slow heart rate and no signs of fatigue.  Men in their seventies continued to have tremendous endurance, as well as low blood pressure.

For wild people in open country, running was essential for communication, warfare, hunting, ceremonies, and rituals.  Apache boys of 8 to 12 years old regularly ran to improve their endurance and pain tolerance.  They ran carrying big loads, and they ran up mountains.  Apache warriors were much stronger and braver than the U.S. Army lads sent to exterminate them.

Nabokov wrote that 4-year old Navajo boys had to get up before sunrise every day and run four miles before having breakfast.  Speed and strength were essential when attacking enemies, or being attacked.  No one will help you in this world, you must run to get strong.  Your legs are your friends.

I spent many years sitting indoors at school desks, learning reading, writing, and arithmetic, loading my brains with the ideas necessary to be an obedient, punctual, productive cog in the industrial society that’s pounding the planet to pieces.  Wild Native Americans, during the years of their youth, were being taught to be strong, brave, and extremely healthy.  They learned the skills needed to survive in their ecosystem, in a low impact manner.  During their entire lives, they sent nothing to landfills.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Wild Free and Happy Sample 05


[Note: This is the fifth sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild Free & Happy.  I don’t plan on reviewing more books for a while.  My blog is home to reviews of 199 books, and you are very welcome to explore them.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews, if you are interested in specific authors, titles, or subjects.] 

Savannah Pioneers

When our ancestors moved from the forest to the savannah, they began a journey into an entirely different way of life.  Critters that evolution had fine-tuned for arboreal living were poorly prepared for surviving on open grassland.  They were not big, strong, or speedy.  They didn’t have horns, fangs, or claws.  They couldn’t digest grass.  They had to adapt to different sources of food, and different threats to their survival.  It took centuries of trial and error to develop new ways of living, and hundreds of thousands of years to evolve new and improved bodies fine-tuned for their unique experiment.

In the early days, our ancestors were not apex (top level) predators, they may have been more like walking meatballs, easy prey for big cats, packs of hyenas, huge crocodiles, and other hungry carnivores.  Chris Stringer mentioned genetic research indicating that today’s Earth-pounding mob of Homo sapiens trace back to an ancestral population of about 10,000 breeding individuals.  Earlier, a million years ago, in the Homo erectus era, there were just 20,000 breeding individuals.  For a very long time, our ancestors existed not too far from the brink of extinction.  It wasn’t easy being a highly vulnerable ground-dwelling primate.

Scavenging and Primitive Hunting

Our ancestors on the African savannah were hunter-gatherers, and their diet majored in plant foods, with a regular supplement of highly nutritious animal foods.  In the early chapters of the great hominin adventure, they were not expert hunters with effective weapons.  Meat was acquired via scavenging and primitive hunting.  With bare hands, they could grab critters like grubs, grasshoppers, termites, maggots, snails, shellfish, lizards, and frogs.  They could kill animals sleeping under bushes, dig up others from their burrows, chase down slow moving aardvarks and porcupines, and snatch immature youngsters.  Large birds could be knocked down by throwing clubs.

It’s easy to forget that rocks can be lethal weapons.  Wendell Bennett wrote that the Tarahumara people of Mexico threw stones with remarkable accuracy, killing rabbits, birds, and animals up to the size of coyotes.  Some of their groups did more hunting with stones than with bows and arrows.

Alfred Crosby wrote that any human more than eight years old, male or female, can throw projectiles farther and more accurately than any other species.  This ability gave us the power to effect change from a distance.  Well-thrown projectiles could drive away hungry predators or kill a plump bunny for dinner.  Researcher Frans de Waal noted that stone throwing chimps also have “impressive long-range aim.”  (Ouch!)

Crosby noted that a few hundred years ago, Europeans visiting Samoa got a painful lesson in the superb stone-throwing skills of the natives.  Of the 61 men sent ashore, 12 were killed by well-thrown rocks.  Humans also invented the rock-throwing sling, which was even more deadly, especially when loaded with lumps of lead.  Many of the conquistadors visiting Mexico had life-changing experiences while getting stoned by the angry sling-twirling Indians.

Scavenging is getting meat from carcasses that you didn’t kill — leftovers from large carnivores, or animals that died from other causes.  In later times, as the ancestors became more skilled at hunting, scavenging was not abandoned.  Meat is treasure, no matter how it is acquired.  Scavenging was often less work and less dangerous than pursuing and killing an animal.

During the day, our ancestors paid careful attention to the skies.  When vultures flew in a specific direction, they might be en route to a fresh carcass.  Circling vultures were strong evidence of a banquet directly below.  Once you got a hot tip, it was best to move quickly, in an effort to beat other scavengers to the banquet.

Hyenas work in gangs, and can quickly strip the scraps off carcasses, leaving few leftovers, if any.  Their arrival time was sometimes delayed by their need to stop, pant, and cool off from time to time.  Our ancestors were far better at shedding heat, an important advantage.  If hyenas or jackals arrived first, it was sometimes possible to mob them and drive them off.  On lucky days, it was possible to steal lunch from a lone cheetah.

Lions were another story.  To drive them away from a kill, surprise was important.  You and your buddies should suddenly charge, waving your arms, shouting, throwing rocks, swinging clubs, or maybe start a grass fire upwind.  Smart scavengers never tried this when lions were just beginning their lunch feast, and were still very hungry.  It was best to wait until they were full and ready for a nap.  Lions rarely consume brains or marrow, and sometimes leave some meat scraps for the intrepid.

It was also important for scavengers to pay attention to trees.  When leopards didn’t completely consume a kill at one sitting, they stored the leftovers up in the branches.  Leopards are night creatures.  If you found their unguarded stash in the daytime, there was less chance of getting shredded and devoured by an angry cat.

Right now, your eyes are following a track of squiggly scratches, and your mind is comprehending meaning from them.  My thoughts and actions created those tracks, and they contain specific meaning for those who have learned how to interpret them.  The farther you are able to follow my tracks, the more you will learn about me.

Similarly, animals leave behind tracks and other signs as they move across the land.  Folks who are skilled at reading this information can accumulate pieces of a story.  They can perceive a fantastic amount of information by studying spoor — footprints, urine, feces, saliva, blood, fur bits, feeding signs, smells, sounds, and so on.  Spoor provides clues about the animal’s species, gender, size, behavior, direction of travel, time of passage, and so on. 

Fresh tracks left by a game animal indicated that it had passed through the area, and the direction it was moving — essential information for hungry hunters.  Also, spoor left by large carnivores indicated predators on the move.  Following their tracks might eventually lead to a recent kill, and a carcass to scavenge.

The San

Louis Liebenberg is a South African lad who has spent years on the Kalahari Desert with the San people (other names include Khoisan, Bushmen, !Kung).  He was not a nerdy anthropologist, he directly participated in hunts, and eventually became a skilled tracker.  He wrote two outstanding books about tracking, scavenging, and persistence hunting.

One time, Liebenberg asked some San trackers if they could actually recognize the spoor of an individual antelope.  They burst out laughing at his incredibly stupid question.  They couldn’t imagine anyone not being able to do this.  When they see a human footprint, they immediately know which individual in their band made it.  Children can identify the tracks of their parents.  Footprints are as unique and recognizable as faces.  To see the footprints of an unknown stranger was highly unusual, and would inspire caution. 

More anthropology books have been written about the San than any other wild people.  Geneticists have found that they have the oldest DNA of any living culture — it is the genetic foundation of nearly all modern humans.  Their genes are the closest to the ancient female from whom all living humans descend, known as Mitochondrial Eve.  Thus, your family tree likely leads back to ancestors similar to the San.  (Pygmies are the second oldest living culture.)

The San have been hunter-gatherers since the dawn of humankind, and they enjoyed a way of life that managed to survive into the 1970s.  Eight hundred years ago, the San homeland included all of southern Africa.  Since then, Bantu and European herders and farmers have displaced them from lands suitable for grazing and agriculture, forcing the San into the Kalahari where, on average, two of every five years are drought years, and severe droughts occur one in every four years.

There are large regions of the Kalahari that are quite flat, an endless landscape having no notable landmarks for a white boy like me, who would quickly become hopelessly lost, and turn into vulture chow.  The San, on the other hand, always know exactly where they are, across large regions, because they orient themselves by the layout of plant communities, noting their size, shape, position, and unique features.  They know the face of their land as well as they know the faces of their family.

Richard Lee wrote about the San.  Their primary food was mongongo nuts, which dropped once a year, but could be gathered all year long.  Meat was their second most desired food.  The Kalahari provided them with about 100 edible plant species, which they were careful not to overuse.  The San expected periodic times of scarcity, so they reserved some plant species for drought food.  Portions of their territory were set aside for lean times.

John Reader wrote about an extreme drought in Botswana that lasted three years, resulting in the deaths of 250,000 cattle and 180,000 people.  The San didn’t starve.  Each week they spent 12 to 19 hours foraging for their sustenance.  They lived in one of the harshest environments on Earth.  At the same time, hungry farming people had shifted to foraging during the drought, so the San lands were supporting a larger population than that of normal times.

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas has spent a lot of time with the San.  She wrote her first book on them in 1958, and her third in 2006.  Like any intelligent culture, their safety net included mindful family planning, to avoid the problems caused by overpopulation, and its trusty companions: environmental degradation, hunger, and conflict.

Because of low body fat and vigorous physical activities, San women began menstruating later.  Some did not have regular monthly periods.  Children were usually nursed for about four years, which further reduced their mom’s fertility.  Most of the women had one to four offspring.  Nomads moved frequently, and belongings and infants often had to be hauled long distances.  A woman could only carry one infant, so just one twin was kept.

When a child could not be kept, the woman gave birth alone, away from the camp, and buried the newborn before it drew breath.  In their culture, a newborn did not immediately become alive, so disposing it was OK.  Crippled or badly deformed infants were not kept, because they would be a drain on the wellbeing of the band.  To avoid unwanted pregnancies in harsh times, it was common for folks to abstain from intercourse. 

Jon Young is the star of several YouTube videos on nature connection.  He was an early student of Tom Brown, the famous author of many books on tracking and nature awareness.  Young visited a number of wild cultures to find those that remain most closely connected to nature.  He discovered that the San people were incredibly well connected.  They refuse to enter houses, because people who live indoors go insane.

Young says that with the San, you always feel safe.  They are super intelligent, super happy, super vital, and great problem solvers.  You never feel competition.  The people are in love with every aspect of the ecosystem around them, celebrating with childlike wonder through all stages of their life.  Every person in that community is committed to the flowering of every other person.  They are incredibly aware of their surroundings at all times, because a brief lapse of attention can kill you in lion country.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Wild Free and Happy Sample 04


[Note: This is the fourth sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild Free & Happy.  I don’t plan on reviewing more books for a while.  My blog is home to reviews of 199 books, and you are very welcome to explore them.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews, if you are interested in specific authors, titles, or subjects.] 
 

Orangutans

Our orangutan cousins in Sumatra spend about 90 percent of their time in the trees, where they are safe from hungry tigers.  Living in low density, often solitary, they enjoy a peaceful life, free from the emotional aggravation of living in an anxious crowd.  Of all the apes, they are the least noisy, usually silent.  They move through the trees at a leisurely pace, never in a hurry.  There is always something to eat in the rainforest.  On average, females give birth every eight years, a longer spacing than any other mammal.

Orangutans are very intelligent.  Researcher Biruté Mary Galdikas said, “I’ve had this feeling, ever since I was very young, that the tropical rainforest represents the original Garden of Eden.  Our ancestors left the garden, but orangutans never did.  They maintained a childlike innocence that humans lost a long, long time ago.”

Sadly, a mob of palm oil tycoons are furiously replacing the rainforest with palm plantations, mostly in Borneo and Sumatra.

Chimpanzees

Chimpanzees can grow to a standing height of 5.5 feet (1.7 m), weighing up to 130 pounds (60 kg).  Males are larger and more robust than females.  Chimps spend most of their time in the trees.  Because of their size, they are less speedy and graceful at leaping through the tree canopy, compared to smaller primates.  So, when they want to visit somewhere not close by, they go to the ground and knuckle walk.

Humans evolved for living on the ground, and are optimized for long distance running.  While chimps are smaller than humans, their arboreal lifestyle has made them far stronger.   One experiment found that the arm strength of male chimps is five times that of humans.  Big heavily muscled human wrestlers cannot hold a chimp still, even a young four year old. 

Frans de Waal warns that “Having a chimp in your home is like having a tiger in your home.”  When chimps feel threatened by a human, the human is in danger, and if he attempts to defend himself, the chimp will be even more brutal.  Outdoors, when humans appear to be harmlessly passing through, chimps generally ignore them.

Chimp bands are dominated by an alpha male, who is often backed up by one or more alpha wannabes.  From time to time, the alpha is challenged by lower status males, one of which will eventually dethrone the cocky king of the harem.  When the alpha is defeated, the new alpha often kills the infants of nursing females, so they will become fertile sooner, and produce offspring having his superior genes.  An alpha tends to be abrasive to everyone, to intimidate them, and assert his control.  When male strangers make an appearance, they are welcomed with teeth, fists, clubs, and stones.  In skirmishes to defend territory, chimps are sometimes beaten to death.

Bonobos

Bonobos and chimps live close to each other, but their rainforest habitats are separated by the Zaire River.  The two species have never met in the wild, because neither can swim.  They look a lot alike, and until 1929 were thought to be a single species.  Chimps far outnumber bonobos, and their territory is much larger.  Male bonobos can weigh up to 86 pounds (39 kg), and females up to 68 pounds (31 kg).

The bonobo culture is strikingly unusual for primates.  Their groups are matriarchal.  Males are second-class.  Females determine how food is shared, and they eat while the males wait.  Chimps have sex only when a female is fertile.  Bonobos have sex almost anytime, several times a day, with anyone interested, young or old, in every imaginable way.  Because of this, it’s impossible to know who your biological father was.  So, no youngsters are deliberately killed.

Bonobos are incredibly lucky.  They live in a habitat with abundant food, and no serious competitors in their ecological niche, an ideal situation that does not encourage competition.  Chimps live in leaner lands, and compete for food with gorillas and baboons.  They feel the squeeze of crowding, and they reduce this pressure by infanticide, and by killing or driving away competitors.

Primate Diets

The first primates evolved from small nocturnal insectivores that gobbled bugs during the dinosaur era.  Today, all primates are omnivores, consuming both plant and animal foods.  None are vegetarians, but gorillas are primarily leaf eaters (folivores).  Most primate species are mainly fruit eaters (frugivores).  Tropical forests typically provide a year round supply of fruit, so most primates live close to them.  Fruit is 75 percent of a chimp’s diet, and sugar is rapidly converted to energy.  It’s interesting that human babies have a preference for things that taste sweet, a relic of our tree dwelling days.

Protein is an essential nutrient for primates, and it is mainly acquired by consuming animal foods, and certain types of leaves.  The primary source of animal protein is insects.  When insects are abundant, they can provide up to 90 percent of a healthy primate’s diet.  Meat is a high quality source of protein, far superior to plant sources.  It takes less effort for our digestive systems to utilize the protein from meat.  Some primates are good at predation, killing small animals.  Some are scavengers, dining on the leftovers of carcasses abandoned by carnivores.

While plant foods are most of their diet, bonobos also eat caterpillars, earthworms, shrews, reptiles, bats, flying squirrels, and small forest antelopes (duikers).  Chimpanzees also eat insects, birds, eggs, monkeys, duikers, bushbucks, wild pigs, and carrion.  Baboons also eat insects, fish, shellfish, rodents, hares, birds, vervet monkeys, and duikers.  The orangutan diet includes more than 400 types of food, but it majors in ripe fruit.  They sometimes dine on invertebrates, like caterpillars and worms, and, on rare occasions, meat.  Gibbons feed mainly on fruit, but also consume leaves, insects, bird eggs, and sometimes young birds.

Hominins are unusual primates because some species learned how to kill and cook large animals.  This was made possible by their experiments in tool making, and the domestication of fire.  Unlike other primate lines, hominins are able to digest big servings of highly nutritious animal foods.  Shepard Krech noted that the diet of Native Americans could sometimes include six to twelve pounds (2.7 to 5.4 kg) of meat per day.  For employees of the Hudson Bay Company, the daily ration was seven to eight pounds of meat.  Of course, the diet of wild artic societies consisted almost entirely of animal foods.

The Bottom Line

Non-hominin primates did not make complex weapons, strive to exterminate predators, spread around the world, enslave other species, invent agriculture, explode in numbers, live in filth, and die by the millions from infectious diseases.  They did not wage war against infectious diseases, soar into extreme overshoot, load the atmosphere with crud, and blindside the planet’s climate.  Instead, they continue to inhabit a niche in their ecosystem, and live as they have for millions of years, without rocking the boat.  This is nature’s way.

Somewhere along the path, hominins began exploring new paths that eventually led them farther and farther from nature’s way, into dark and dangerous realms.  A growing number of the cool new tricks we discovered had uncool consequences, eventually triggering disturbances that not only rocked the boat, but rocked the planet.  Edward Abbey said, “Man is literally undoing the work of organic evolution.”  This is the opposite of intelligent.

The accelerating frenzy of half-clever experiments has catapulted human modes of living to places far outside of the time-proven design encoded by our genetic evolution (hardware).  The long parade of naughty booboos was the result of an impulsive adolescent fling with cultural evolution (software).  I don’t believe that our hardware is fatally flawed.  Our software is, without a doubt, a deadly threat to us, our descendants, and the entire family of life.

In the coming decades, our operating system is going to crash, again and again, because of its countless bugs.  Before long, our radicalized blind faith in utopian techno-fantasies will be thoroughly rubbished by the nightmares we created with good intentions.  As life as we know it melts down, even stupid people (hopefully) will come to reject our culture’s fantasies.  What should we do?  Any bright ideas out there?

The disintegration and abandonment of the failed culture will create a vacuum, an opening for new modes of being, which must be radically different, radically simpler, and ecologically wise.  Now is a good time to be contemplating how things got to be this way.  Now would be an excellent time for serious efforts to learn from our many mistakes.  Repeating the same mistakes, generation after generation, is so embarrassing for critters with big brains (blush!).

In the following chapters, I’ll sketch out my interpretation of the human saga, from the perspective of humans as animals — not the Crown of Creation.  Happy trails!

Monday, November 26, 2018

California: A Fire Survey



Stephen Pyne is among the world’s foremost experts on fire, and the author of many books.  California: A Fire Survey presents a blazing discussion on how fire has perplexed and bedeviled the Golden State.  One of every nine Americans lives in California.  Thanks to the arrival of industrial civilization, 170 years of rapid growth, and a culture devoted to the hardcore pursuit of wealth and excess, the state’s ecosystems resemble the smashed up cars at the end of a demolition derby.

Throughout the colonization process, the newcomers were possessed with a burning desire for prosperity.  The madness shifted into high gear as the nation industrialized, and created the infrastructure for mowing down ancient forests, exterminating millions of buffalo, eliminating vast numbers of fish, and extracting valuable minerals with fanatical zeal.

When it reached the Pacific, the culture of furious greed collided with an unusually flammable ecosystem.  “An estimated 54 percent of California ecosystems are fire dependent, and most of the rest are fire adapted.”  The land has been burning for thousands of years, because of natural wildfire, and human caused burns.  This has displaced numerous fire intolerant species.  Under ideal conditions, once ignited, a California fire can burn and expand for weeks or months.  The potential for expansion depends on three things: fuel, terrain, and weather.  Of these, the availability of fuel is something that humans can influence.

There are two main types of fuel, forests (mostly in the north) and chaparral (mostly in the south).  Chaparral is grassland dotted with brush.  Much of its vegetation is flammable, and chamise is especially so.  Once it is older than 25 years, it burns with intensity, and then reseeds and resprouts.

“Malibu Canyon is to wildfire what the Red River is to flooding.”  Pyne called it a fire bellows.  It often provides an ideal combination of excellent fuel, fire friendly terrain, Santa Ana winds, and human foolishness.  It burns explosively.  Many celebrities have built mansions in the canyon, because it offers fantastic views of the ocean.  Malibu had major fires in 1956, 1993, 2003, 2007, and 2018.  While mansions come and go, taxpayer anger grows at spending millions of dollars on fire control to protect the property of the superrich.

Native Americans limited the buildup of fuel by deliberately setting fires.  When little fuel was available, fires burned with less intensity.  In regularly burned forests, fires stayed close to the ground, and were less likely to become serious crown fires.  This kept the forest more open, easier to travel in, and provided better habitat for game animals.  Regular burning thwarted the sacred sequoia’s competitors — fir, cedar, and pine.  The competitors, especially white fir, deposited thick layers of flammable debris that prevented sequoia regeneration, and encouraged intense fires that could kill the giants.  Fire made the majestic sequoia groves possible.

The newcomers to America had a very different perspective.  In their minds, fire destroyed precious timber, sending enormous potential profits up in smoke — horror!  And so, the cult of aggressive fire suppression was born.  Fight fires like crazy, in every possible way, and send the huge bills to taxpayers.  The unintended consequence of this brilliant strategy was an enormous buildup of unburned fuel over time, which set the stage for major conflagrations.  Oops!

Southern fires arrive like Godzilla.  Northern fires arrive like a flash flood or blizzard — in late August 1987, lightning ignited 4,161 fires in Northern California, destroying 755,475 acres (305,729 ha) and 42 homes.  Firefighters worked furiously to extinguish every ignition, but some escaped and spread out of control.  By and by, a few wise guys began reconsidering their self-defeating strategy, and contemplated using regular prescriptive burns to control fuel buildup.  After many decades of fire suppression, the forests had become severely clogged with fuel.  Mechanically removing fuel buildup from vast areas of forest is a huge and enormously expensive project.

Southern California fires were violent, frequent, and unavoidable.  In addition to forests and chaparral, a new major source of fuel was growing — suburbs.  Wildfires happily reduced wooden structures to ashes.  So, the wise guys created fuel breaks — strips of vegetation 100 feet (30 m) wide were cleared to separate the McMansions from the chaparral.  This often worked to stop the spread of flames, but not airborne sparks.  Regularly maintaining fuel breaks was expensive, and taxpayers bleated about the cost of prevention.

As the sprawl monster expanded, there was less and less space for fuel breaks in new developments, at which point fuel reduction implied suburb reduction, an unpopular idea.  Many, many suburbanites, for decades, with astonishing ignorance, stubbornly resisted replacing their extremely flammable wood shingled roofs with fire resistant material.  A number of local governments did not ban development in fire prone locations where the landscape was a wind tunnel.

Reducing the fuel load via prescribed burns was possible, in theory, but fire creates smoke, and smoke annoys suburbanites, especially the palace dwelling celebrities.  Smoke does not readily blow out of the bowl-like Los Angeles Basin, home to 17 million.  By 1947, the air in L.A. County was so filthy that the herd got uppity.  Numerous regulations were created, but the wildfires laughed at them.  So, the only remaining option was expensive and intensive fire suppression.

Whenever the Santa Ana winds blow, and there is adequate fuel, ignition requires no more than a spark.  In one Southern California national forest, 37 percent of fires were caused by bulldozers, chainsaws, and other equipment, vehicles caused 2 percent, power lines 2 percent, miscellaneous 14 percent, smokers 5 percent, campfires 4 percent, kids with matches 5 percent, lightning 2 percent, car crashes 2 percent, arson 8 percent, and unknown 19 percent.

In 1849, when the Gold Rush began, a city of canvas tents suddenly appeared along San Francisco Bay.  By 1906, it had rapidly grown into a major city, in which 90 percent of the structures were still wood framed.  As many other U.S. cities had already discovered, this was a recipe for catastrophic fire.  Plus, the city was unluckily nestled close to the San Andreas Fault and the Hayward Fault. 

On April 18, 1906, an earthquake sent waves across the land surface, ripping apart streets, water mains, and gas pipes.  Numerous fires soon appeared and quickly spread.  Hot air rose so fast that it sucked more heat upward, creating a chimney through the atmosphere.  Four days later, 28,188 structures had gone up in smoke, and 2,000 to 3,000 people perished.  On the outskirts of the city, only a fringe of houses remained standing.

Many homeless refugees fled across the bay to Oakland, and many stayed there.  Prior to settlement, about 2 percent of the Oakland region was woods.  As the city grew, grassland fires above the town burned often and harmlessly.  But a new gold rush was emerging — real estate development.  Suburbs were expanding up the hillsides.  Wealthy elites built their mansions where the views were stunning.

Rapid growth in the bay region increased the demand for lumber, which accelerated deforestation elsewhere.  A super ambitious developer in the Oakland story was Frank Havens.  One of his schemes was to plant fast growing eucalyptus trees from Australia, and make megabucks selling lumber and firewood.  Too late, he tearfully learned that his trees were worthless until they were 75 to 100 years old.  He discovered this after he had planted up to eight million trees along a 14 mile (22 km) strip from Berkeley to Oakland.  These trees drop lots of highly flammable bark strips as they grow, and when hard frosts kill the trees, they dump loads of highly flammable leaves.

By and by, the East Bay hills became the Malibu of the north.  Seasonal Diablo winds frequently howled in from the east, rushing through the dangerous fuel buildup.  A 1923 inferno burned 584 homes.  This was followed by fires in 1946, 1970, 1980, and finally, the Tunnel Fire of October 1991.  That year, a frost had killed eucalyptus trees, boosting the fuel load.  A record heat wave followed a summer of drought.  Many homes in Oakland were jammed close together, and many had wooden roof shingles.

The Oakland Hills firestorm began as a grassfire, which then exploded as winds gusted up to 65 miles per hour (100 km/h).  Power lines got zapped, disabling 17 water pumping stations.  Oakland had nonstandard fire hydrants, which could not be used by assisting fire departments.  In just one hour, 790 structures were destroyed.  Eventually, 3,354 houses, and 456 apartments and condos burned.

And so, dear reader, I wonder if treating an ecosystem like a treasure chest, and looting it as fast as possible, with complete disregard for future generations, using all the latest gizmos invented by mad scientists — “progress” — is truly a healthy path.  I wonder why our schools are still preparing youngsters for a life of mindless hardcore looting.  That seems a bit odd.  It isn’t even fun.

One thing missing in the book is the Big History perspective.  Fire was domesticated in Mother Africa, and the hot idea eventually spread everywhere.  Siberian hunters originally brought fire-making knowledge into the Americas.  What was California like when they arrived?  Did thousands of years of Indian burning displace fire intolerant species, and actually create a fire prone ecosystem?   

Bill Gammage described the scale of Aboriginal burning in Australia.  Most of the continent was burnt about every 1 to 5 years.  Just 40 years after the British colonists banned burning, the site of a tidy dairy farm could be replaced by dense rainforest.  This suggests that the hunter-gatherers radically altered the ecosystem.  In another book, Fire: A Brief History, Pyne described how domesticated fire altered many ecosystems.

Pyne, Stephen, California: A Fire Survey, University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 2016.

There are several Pyne videos on YouTube, running from 15 minutes to an hour.  He is articulate and well informed.  Many of his fire books are available on Amazon.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Wild Free and Happy Sample 03


[Note: This is the third sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild Free & Happy.  I don’t plan on reviewing more books for a while.  My blog is home to reviews of 196 books, and you are very welcome to explore them.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews, if you are interested in specific authors, titles, or subjects.] 

The Primate Clans

Primates include both apes (no tails) and monkeys (tails).  Over the eons, different primate species evolved in different ecosystems.  Each location had a different mix of climate, food resources, advantages, and dangers.  These variables encouraged unique evolutionary adaptations.  The adaptations that best increased the odds for survival were more likely to be passed on to the following generations.  Each ecosystem was also in a process of endless change, sometimes slow and gradual, and other times fast and extreme.  Over time, in response to change, primate evolution fine-tuned beneficial adaptations, and abandoned the duds.

Since Neanderthals disappeared from the stage, our closest living relatives are the chimps and bonobos, with whom we share up to 99 percent of our genes.  Next closest are gorillas, and in fourth place are orangutans.  The ancestors of all four relatives have inhabited tropical forests for millions years without trashing their ecosystems.  Mainstream culture teaches us that they are less intelligent than we are (an advantage?).  Unfortunately, evolution has not outfitted them with bulletproof hides to protect them from bushmeat hunters and crabby farmers.  They do not instinctively mob and exterminate loggers, miners, and developers.

Let’s take a peek at a few of our primate relatives.

Snow Monkeys

Japanese macaque (snow monkey) habitat ranges from sub-tropical to sub-arctic.  In their sub-arctic locations, temperatures can dip to -4°F (-20°C).  Snow might cover the ground for four months, in depths up to 10 feet (3 m).  As winter approaches, their summer fur grows and thickens into gorgeous insulated coats.  Bands sometimes take a pleasant soak in a hot spring, on a snowy winter day.  They have been observed at elevations as high as 10,433 feet (3,180 m).

During the summer, they build up body fat by feasting at the warm season buffet, which includes the fruit, seeds, nuts, the vegetation of 213 plant species, and the crops of crabby gun-toting farmers.  They also dine on fish, insects, and invertebrates.  In winter months, they survive on stored body fat, and rough foods like leaves and bark.  They huddle together to keep warm. 

Hominins (human ancestors) evolved for life in the tropics, where there was no need for warm fur.  When they migrated into non-tropical regions, life got dangerously chilly.  To survive in snow country, they needed warm clothing and shelters — technological crutches that require tedious time-consuming toil that was completely unnecessary in their natural habitat.  They did not gradually move out of warm lands, and let evolution perfectly fine tune them for cooler places.  They were already extremely unusual high-tech critters, with their thrusting spears and domesticated fire.  They impatiently bypassed evolution.  Oh-oh!

Baboons

When climate change shrank the forest and expanded the savannah, the ancestors of baboons evolved in a way that allowed them to spend much of their time on the ground.  Few of them now live in tropical forests, but all baboons have retained the physique for scampering up trees.  Baboons intelligently avoid wild predators by sleeping at the top of steep cliffs.  Sleeping in trees protects them from lions and hyenas, but not leopards.  In daylight hours, when many large carnivores are snoozing, baboons forage in groups, paying constant attention to reality.

Spending time on the ground increased their vulnerability to daytime predators.  Male baboons evolved big, strong bodies and large canine teeth.  When predators approach, male baboons form a point defense to obstruct a quick, easy, surprise kill.  While the males hold off the threat, the females and their offspring have a chance to escape.  Baboons did not fabricate weapons and hunt animals larger than they were but, on happy days, they could mob a leopard and disassemble it.  Readers who have killed adult leopards with their teeth and bare hands know that this can be very dangerous.

The ancestors of both baboons and humans moved onto the savannah, where they learned to survive as ground dwelling primates in a rough neighborhood that included lions, hyenas, leopards, cheetahs, and crocodiles.  Baboons demonstrate that primates can survive in a dangerous habitat without spears, fire, or complex language — and they can do this without causing irreparable ecosystem degradation.  With smaller brains, grunt communication, and sticks and stones, the baboons have brilliantly lived sustainably for millions of years.  They continue to enjoy a healthy, pleasant, and traditional wild life.  Thus, our ancestors were not forced to choose between tool addiction and extinction. 

Baboons have tails, so they are monkeys, not apes.  Paul Shepard noted that ground monkeys are “the most aggressively status-conscious creatures on Earth.”  High-ranking males have primary access to females and food.  The rank order in the hierarchy regularly changed.  So, to maintain or elevate your rank, it was important to brutally attack your inferiors at every opportunity.  Daily life was a state of heightened stress and anxiety.  Any minute you might be chased, pummeled, and bitten. 

Robert Sapolsky spent 30 years studying a troop of baboons.  Over time, he came to like a few of them, but he really disliked the troop, because they were exceptionally mean to each other, hour after hour, day after day.  He came to understand that hierarchy and competition can be a destructive force in a community, and this principle also applied to humans, many of whom are shattered by stress filled lives.

Gorillas

Gorillas evolved a different mode of sustainable living.  They never left the tropical forests, and their diet is primarily vegetarian.  They would have a hard time surviving outside of the forest.  Gorillas spend hours each day stuffing their faces at the salad bar.  They have evolved large guts in order to digest this bulky fibrous feast.  Insects provide the animal food in their diet.  In one study, 25 percent of gorilla poop samples contained bits of termites.

Males can be twice as heavy as females, growing up to 485 pounds (220 kg).  The big guys can’t climb trees, but smaller gorillas do.  Trees are a place to sleep, and to escape from predators.  They live in groups of 6 to 30 individuals, dominated by one or two silverback males.  Silverbacks are generally shy and relaxed, except when disturbed by uninvited humans or other gorillas.  The only predators they fear are humans.

Gibbons

There are about 20 species of gibbons, apes that inhabit the tropical forests of Southeast Asia.  Gibbons are primarily arboreal, and they live in small monogamous groups.  They can swing through the tree canopy with astonishing speed — up to 34 miles per hour (55 km/h).  Science calls this form of travel brachiation.  Today, physically fit humans still have a limited ability to brachiate.  As a schoolboy, I used to swing by my arms, from rung to rung, on the monkey bars at the playground. 

Members of most gibbon species range in size from 12 to 17 pounds (5.5 to 7.5 kg).  Because they are small, confronting large predators is not an option, so the males and females of most species are about the same size.  Smallness is an asset, enabling them to travel rapidly through the forest canopy.