Thursday, November 14, 2019

Wild Free and Happy Sample 26


[Note: This is the twenty-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 202 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.] 

Animal Domestication

What is “domestication?”  With regard to animal domestication, there are two different meanings, and those who use the word don’t often reveal which one they mean.  James Scott distinguished between “domesticated,” meaning tamed (modified behavior), versus “fully domesticated,” meaning genetically different from their wild ancestors as a result of selective breeding (modified DNA), and dependent on humans for their survival.  Elephants in India have been tamed to do work for humans, but they remain genetically wild.  Poodles are obviously genetically different from their gray wolf ancestors.  The difference between wild humans and civilized ones seems to be far more cultural than genetic.

On the following pages, “domesticated” will refer to animals that have been held in captivity for many generations, selectively bred to encourage specific traits, and genetically different from their wild ancestors — manmade critters that had never existed before.  They look and behave differently.  Animals that have merely been tamed, like a friendly peanut loving squirrel, are not a matter for concern.  But the control and exploitation of domesticated critters has really rocked the ecological boat over the centuries.  The enslavement of animals enabled the growth of most civilizations, increased their environmental impacts, and frequently stimulated bloody conflicts.

Why Do It?

As we’ve learned, the success of hominins has been substantially boosted by our success at hunting and feasting on large wild herbivores — animals weighing more than 100 pounds (43 kg).  Herbivores did not compete with humans for the same wild foods.  They converted the solar energy that was stored in grass into a highly nutritious form that we could digest.  This enabled hominins to develop big brains (but not necessarily wise).

As we’ve learned, “the perfection of hunting” eventually moved our ancestors over a line.  We began taking some game a bit faster than they could replace their losses.  For a very long time, large game remained abundant in many lands, enabling local hominin tribes to live well, and grow in numbers.  As long as food was abundant and easy, there wouldn’t be much motivation to contemplate family planning strategies and wise taboos.  But growing numbers of mouths needed growing amounts of food in order to remain strong, healthy, and alive. 

While large game was abundant for a very long time, the delicious critters were not infinite in number.  Big Mama Nature was simply not in the mood to magically accelerate herbivore reproduction in order to keep the tropical primates fat, happy, and annoying.  It was long past time for the half-clever primates to learn some important lessons about life.  Because they lacked immaculate wisdom, acute foresight, or PhDs in wildlife management, they were forced to learn these lessons the hard way.  Big Mama fetched a paddle named scarcity.  Smack!  Ouch!  Stop it!  Smack!

As we’ve learned, climate change reconfigured the ecological playing field.  The last glacial period spanned from about 80,000 to 12,900 years ago.  The peak of this ice age was the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), which spanned from 26,500 to 19,000 years ago.  Barry Cunliffe said that at this time, much of Europe was buried under ice sheets up to one mile (1.6 km) thick (as was North America).  So much water was held frozen in glaciers that global sea levels were 410 feet (125 m) lower than today.  During the frigid LGM, forest country was pushed far to the south.  Trees survived along the Mediterranean Sea, the Atlantic coast of Portugal and Spain, and the south shore of the Black Sea.

Following the LGM, a warming trend began, which spanned from 19,000 to 12,900 years ago.  Then, the Younger Dryas cold snap chilled things down again for another 1,300 years, until 11,600 years ago.  Then began the warm climate period that we still enjoy today, which enabled the possibility of large scale agriculture, civilization, skyrocketing population, and the fantastic craziness of modernity.  This warm era has lasted an unusually long time.  Normally, we’d be overdue for a shift back to cold.  Instead, we’re sliding sideways at high speed into a much hotter era, and it seems likely to blindside life as we know it.  Clive Finlayson warns that the end of farming is just one climate change away.

The warm era that we’ve been living in for the last 11,600 years led to a sequence of big changes.  Glaciers shifted into retreat mode, and a tundra ecosystem eventually emerged on the newly exposed soil.  A bit later, steppe grasslands appeared, displacing some tundra.  Still later, increasing warmth enabled the expansion of forests.  As forests migrated northward, they began displacing the open tundra and grasslands that provided optimal habitat for the herds of large herbivores that our ancestors so deeply loved.  So, hunters had to devote more attention to forest critters, which were less abundant: elk, aurochs, red deer, roe deer, wild pigs, and small animals.

For centuries, the human diaspora enjoyed some freedom to roam and expand.  There were still frontiers, beyond which humans had never before set foot.  Eventually, uninhabited ecosystems became more and more scarce, and red neon No Vacancy lights became common.  Continued expansion ceased being free and easy.  The intrepid pioneers kept smacking into <bleeping> limits, which got very annoying (and sometimes bloody).

As we’ve learned, the increasing scarcity of large herbivores required that the menus at the diner had to be rewritten.  Expanding forest cover inspired folks to relocate to wetlands, or to the shorelines of seas, lakes, and streams.  A number of foods that used to be second class became regular mainstays — birds, small game, fish, shellfish, plant foods.  They had been second class because they were far more labor intensive than hunting large game.  Tedious hard work sucks.  Second class stuff had also provided a life insurance safety net, a reserve of food set aside for droughts, famine times, and so on.

Mark Nathan Cohen, Diana Muir, Craig Dilworth, James Scott, and others noted that there was a clear pattern in the archaeological record at many locations.  The older evidence indicated a diet in which large herbivores were core.  Above the old layers, evidence revealed the shift to labor intensive second class foods.  Above that, evidence of herding and horticulture begins to appear — food production that was even more labor intensive.  These shifts were motivated by a gradual process of growing scarcity. 

Scott pointed out that our hungry ancestors were not merely domesticating plants and animals, they were also domesticating ecosystems to promote this new and laborious experiment in weird living.  Forests were being swept aside, and replaced by open cropland and pasture.  Wild animals that might harm crops or livestock were no longer welcome to exist in these new domesticated ecosystems.

Long ago, overspecialization contributed to the extinction of the saber-tooth cats, as hominin hunters competed more and more for their primary prey.  Our ancestors avoided a similar fate.  They were omnivores, so they could consume a huge variety of stuff that wasn’t meat.  Because they had fire, and knew how to cook, they had far more food options than species that were restricted to a raw food diet.  At the same time, successful efforts at eliminating man-eating predators sharply reduced the vital assistance they had provided for discouraging population growth.

Scott summed up the pluses and minuses of animal domestication.  Both a deer and a steer provided meat, bones, hides, and tendons, but the deer required zero human assistance to grow from doe to adult.  The steer could require corrals, winter feed and shelter, herd dogs, salt licks, and a source of water.  As long as deer and other game was plentiful, labor intensive herding and farming would have been moronic.

On the plus side, enslaved female livestock could be milked.  Milk could be made into cheese, yogurt, and butter, and stored for later.  Herders have milked cattle, zebu, water buffalo, yak, goat, sheep, reindeer, dromedary, camels, horse, and ass.  Dairy foods provide vitamin D, an essential nutrient.  In winter months, folks living in snow country often could not acquire sufficient vitamin D via exposure to direct sunlight, so dairy foods could provide a beneficial supplement.

All infants can digest lactose, the sugar in milk.  Before animal domestication, kids would normally become lactose intolerant a few years down the road.  They could no longer digest milk.  Lactose intolerant people are able to digest cheese, yogurt, and butter.  In cultures with a tradition of dairy consumption, evolution eventually modified the gene pool for lactose tolerance in adults.  This shift was not universal in all humans.  In cultures where milk is not consumed, most folks become lactose intolerant after infancy.

Poultry and waterfowl produced meat and eggs.  Folks rode on the backs of horses, donkeys, yaks, reindeer, and camels.  Mounted cavalry radically redefined the rules for warfare and raiding.  Beasts of burden were used to pull plows, carts, and sleds, and to haul loads of cargo on their backs.  Animal manure could be used for fertilizer or burned as fuel.  Hairy critters, especially sheep, provided fibers that could be spun and woven into many useful products.  An animal can give up its hide just once, but a sheep can provide wool every year. 

Herders could also tap some nutritious blood from living animals from time to time.  Up to 80 percent of a wild human’s diet was plant based food, but animal products provided nutrients that were beneficial for a strenuous outdoor way of life.  I have found no evidence of wild cultures that were vegetarian.

From Aurochs to Cattle

On many fine days in years past, I have taken walks in grasslands where cattle were grazing.  I always felt safe, because the animals were not the slightest bit anxious or aggressive.  I walked, they grazed, all was good.  Let’s take a peek at the cattle family tree.

Aurochs were the wild ancestors of today’s herd of 1.3 billion domesticated cattle.  They were huge, strong, and fierce — the opposite of the passive cud-chewing manure makers of today.  In regions having ideal conditions, bulls could grow up to 6 feet (180 cm) tall at the shoulder, and weigh up to 3,300 pounds (1,500 kg).  Their horns were much longer than cattle, and pointed forward, aggressively.

Some believe that the species originally emerged in India between 1.5 and 2 million years ago.  They survived in a world along with similarly large, strong, and fierce predators.  Eventually their range spanned from England to China.  Aurochs’ preferred habitat was dense ancient forests with lakes, rivers, bogs, and fens.  They didn’t hang out in frigid tundra regions with woolly mammoths and horses.

In 51 B.C., Caesar wrote that aurochs were animals “a little smaller than elephants, having the appearance, color, and shape of bulls.  They are very strong and swift, and attack every man and beast they catch sight of.  The natives sedulously trap them in pits and kill them.  Young men engage in the sport, hardening their muscles by the exercise; and those who kill the largest head of game exhibit the horns as a trophy, and thereby earn high honor.  These animals, even when caught young, cannot be domesticated and tamed.”

Charles the Great, also known as Charlemagne (A.D. 747 – 814), once had a painful encounter while on a hunting trip.  When an aurochs appeared in the forest, his hunting buddies fled in terror.  Charlemagne was less intelligent.  He rode up to one, drew his sword, and pissed off the monster, who gored his leg.  From that day forward, the humbled king walked with a limp.

The famous explorer Marco Polo (1254 – 1324) also described them.  “There are wild cattle in that country as big as elephants, splendid creatures, covered everywhere but on the back with shaggy hair a good four palms long.  They are partly black, partly white, and really wonderfully fine creatures.”

Anton Schneeberger (1530 – 1581) was a Swiss botanist and doctor based in Poland.  He wrote that aurochs had no fear of humans, and did not flee from their approach.  When they were teased or hunted, they got very hot-tempered and dangerous, sometimes hurling idiots high into the air.

Cis van Vuure wrote the book on aurochs.  He thought that domestication began about 9,000 years ago, in the Middle East and Pakistan.  Over time, the mighty aurochs was reduced to countless variations of dimwitted cattle, fine-tuned for specific climates and uses (meat, hides, milk, draft).

As agriculture expanded, Europe’s ancient forests and wetlands shrank.  Grain farmers detested aurochs molesting their crops, and herders resented them dining on prime forage.  Aurochs stood in the path of progress.  The last aurochs died in 1627, in the Jaktoróv forest, in Warsaw province of Poland.

It’s hard to imagine such notoriously fierce animals being forced into slavery.  Alasdair Wilkins wrote about recent DNA research on cattle.  The ancestors of every domesticated cow in the world trace back to a tiny herd in the Middle East, a herd as small as 80 animals.  The process of domestication may have taken a thousand years, and it was likely done by sedentary people.  It would have been impossible for nomadic herders to confine huge powerful animals with a tremendous love of wildness and freedom.

Nobody ever hitched a wagon or plow to an aurochs.  Nobody put a saddle on one.  Nobody milked them, and made aurochs cheese.  They were wild, free, strong, and extremely dangerous.  And so, they no longer belonged in the heavily managed manmade societies we were creating.  Today, thanks to centuries of selective breeding, we can now dine on hamburgers made from the bovine equivalent of a dimwitted yappy poodle.

The Unlucky Losers

The vast majority of living plant and animal species have luckily remained wild and free.  Jared Diamond wrote a lot about domestication.  Of the world’s 148 species of large land-dwelling herbivores and omnivores, only 14 had been domesticated prior to the twentieth century.  Nine of the 14 only had regional significance, but five species soared to become multinational superstars — the cow, sheep, pig, goat, and horse.  All five were domesticated in Eurasia, before 4000 B.C.

Most of the unlucky 14 were native to Eurasia.  In the Americas, only the llama and alpaca were domesticated, and they lived in small herds.  People didn’t drink their milk.  They never spread to cultures beyond the Andes, so the Indian civilizations of Central and North America did not have pack animals beyond dogs.  In North and South America, the heavy toll of megafauna extinctions may have eliminated a number of potential domesticates.  In Australia, zero large animals were enslaved.  In Africa, no large mammals were domesticated south of the Sahara — in this region only the turkey-like guinea fowl was domesticated.

Diamond wrote that the large herbivores most vulnerable to enslavement were species that were easy to feed, rapid growing, disease resistant, and could be bred in captivity.  They did not panic in confinement, nor were they dangerously violent.  These unlucky species were herd animals that had follow-the-leader dominance hierarchies.

James Scott wrote that over the passage of generations, selective breeding produces slaves that are more passive, less alert, less intelligent, and more dependent on human care.  They reach reproductive age sooner, preserve some juvenile aspects, and produce more offspring.  The brains of domesticated sheep are 24 percent smaller than their wild ancestors, and pig brains are one third smaller.  Because they were dullards, Paul Shepard referred to domesticated livestock as “goofies.”

Domesticated animals are born in captivity, and many never experience wildness and freedom during their entire lives.  One perk of their enslavement is that their lives are, in some ways, luxurious.  They are provided with food, water, and salt licks.  Many are provided with shelter from the hot sun, and frigid weather.  They enjoy an unnatural level of personal security because predator eradication programs ensure they will usually be safe from deadly attacks, month after month, until their luck runs out, and their masters send them for a visit to the butcher.  Enjoying such an easy life, they don’t need energy guzzling big brains.  (As previously noted, human brains have shrunk about 10 percent in the last 20,000 years.)

Friday, November 1, 2019

Wild Free and Happy Sample 25

[Note: This is the twenty-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 202 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.] 

Wandering Tree People

Imagine that you possessed a magic potion that provided super-human powers of vision.  If you dabbed a drop on each eyelid, your perception could soar high into the sky, where you could look down on an entire continent.  Imagine that this trance allowed you perceive, in fast forward mode, the appearance of this landscape over the passage of many thousands of years.  You would quickly notice that forests exist in a state of continuous change.  In ordinary reality, you can’t notice this, because the tree people live much more slowly than we do.  They almost appear to be frozen in time, as old as the mountains.

Grandmother oak was old and wise when I was born.  She was old when my mother was born, and my grandmother too.  She’ll be a bit older on the day when I cross to the other side, but she might not have yet reached the midpoint in her life journey.  Humans, on the other hand, zoom through life like hamsters frantically galloping on treadmills, and we blink out in just a few decades, like sparks floating away from a campfire on a starry night.

Over the centuries, as climate trends gradually zig and zag from warm, to cool, then warm again, the tree people are always on the move.  They expand into open lands during warm eras, and retreat with the return of ice ages — up and down, over and over, like the tides of the ocean.  Dinosaurs still exist today in the form of birds, winged creatures that can quickly escape to distant regions when changing conditions threaten their survival.  Trees can’t fly, but they can and do migrate — but far more slowly than winged dinosaurs.

Peter Wohlleben noted that a strong wind can carry some seeds a mile (1.6 km) away.  Birds can carry seeds several miles.  In ideal conditions, a tribe of beech tree people can advance about a quarter mile per year.  Compared to trees, the human genome has little variation.  We are like seven-point-something billion Barbie and Ken dolls.  Tree genomes are extremely diverse, and this is key for their survival.  Some trees are more drought tolerant, others are better with cold or moisture or fire.  So, change that kills some, is less likely to kill all.  Evolution has fine-tuned them to courageously endure the challenges of life.

Like the trees, animal species also ride the climate roller coaster.  Retreating glaciers exposed soil which then became tundra — high quality habitat for wooly mammoths, reindeer, horses, and hunters.  If the warming trend continued, tundra might transform into steppe grassland, and maybe later to forest.  The expansion of forest created challenges for both our ancestors, and large grazing animals.

Barry Cunliffe noted that there were far fewer food resources in woodlands.  The total biomass of forest herbivores was just 20 to 30 percent of the total biomass of tundra herbivores.  So, woodland hunters had to live in smaller groups, and more dispersed.  As forests recovered, growing larger and denser, folks likely migrated to where there was more adequate food, like sea coasts, streams, lakes, bogs, swamps, and river deltas.  In some regions, large areas of unbroken forest may have been uninhabited.

When the climate trend reversed, and ice ages returned, forests retreated, displaced by expanding steppe and tundra.  This open land was far better habitat for large herbivores and the folks who hunted them.  One day, a very clever person had a shocking revelation.  Wow!  It wasn’t necessary to patiently wait centuries for climate changes to diminish forests and make their hunting grounds more attractive to herds of game.  They could achieve the same results by killing some trees, creating openings in the forest where the grass people could expand and thrive.  So they did.  By creating more and larger grassy openings, hunting clans could attract more and larger game.

Later, when outsiders smuggled in domesticated livestock from other lands, traditions changed.  Herding had some advantages over hunting.  By milking the livestock they could, over time, extract four times more calories from their enslaved animals, compared to simply killing and eating them.  Milk was produced every day.  Nutrient dense cheese could be stored for later use.  Naturally, if some livestock is good, more is better.  Herders couldn’t eat trees, so they devoted more effort to encouraging stuff they could eat.  Of course, wolves and other livestock-loving predators had to go bye-bye.

In addition to smuggling in livestock, devious outsiders also brought the seeds for domesticated grasses, like wheat, oats, barley, millet, and so on.  These, of course, required open land, abundant sunlight, and fertile pulverized soil.  Consequently, tree people had to go bye-bye to make space for the plowmen.

So, over time, folks created manmade grasslands for three different objectives: (1) to encourage large game, (2) to benefit livestock herding, and (3) to enable grain production via soil mining.  Naturally, the expansion of manmade grasslands required deforestation projects.

Primordial Forest

In my first book, I included a section on the Norse story of Ragnarök, the twilight of the gods.  These powerful humanlike gods succeeded in temporarily subduing the four forces of nature.  Of course, nature violently broke loose, and gave the arrogant control freak gods their bloody just rewards.  And so, Earth was cleansed, healed, and renewed. 

One of the few deities that survived the great battle was a son of Odin, named Vidar, famous for being strong and silent.  Vidar’s home was surrounded by the solitude of a vast and impenetrable forest.  He lived apart from humans, and had no influence on them, beyond inspiring profound awe and reverence. 

Rasmus Björn Anderson wrote that Vidar was the god of the pathless forest, where neither the sound of the ax, nor the voice of man, was ever heard.  “Vidar is the imperishable, wild, original nature, the eternal matter …a force which man sees and reveres….”  It’s neat that my Norse ancestors, in the good old days, were filled with a deep respect and reverence for creation, in its wild and unspoiled form — combined with a deep distrust of control freak deities who got too big for their britches.

Primordial forests have never been an optimal habitat for hominin hunter-gatherers.  These ancient forests were far more common ten thousand years ago.  Since then, it’s staggering and heartbreaking to comprehend how much forest has been lost to the herders, farmers, miners, road builders, urban developers, industrialists, and the endlessly growing mobs of radicalized consumers.

Let’s take a little joyride, and visit Western Europe 1,900 years ago.  Caius Cornelius Tacitus was a Roman journalist.  He wrote Germania in A.D. 98.  It provided a brief overview of several dozen Germanic tribes of the era — the Batavi, Chatti, Usipii, Tencteri, Chauci, Fosi, Cimbri, Anglii, Varini, and so on.  [MAP]

Germania was a vast wild frontier of forest and marsh, “a land rude in its surface, rigorous in its climate, cheerless to every beholder and cultivator, except a native.”  Germanic tribes were isolated from the outer world by the Rhine, the Danube, the sea, mountain ranges, vast primeval tracts, and “mutual dread.”  Germania was a region of wild freedom and fiercely independent anarchist tribes.  They built no permanent settlements.  Their flocks and herds grazed in the openings and edges. 

Tribal warfare provided ongoing entertainment.  Fearless aggressive warriors, skilled at using spears with iron blades, preferred raiding to farming.  “They even think it base and spiritless to earn by sweat what they might purchase with blood.”  Raiding was a common pastime in herding societies, where personal status was determined by how many animals you owned (the origin of the “more is better” mindset).

Tacitus wrote a fascinating description of the vast Hercynian forest.  From the Rhine, it spanned east, across modern Germany, to the Carpathians, and all the way to Dacia (Romania).  A quick traveler could cross the forest north to south in nine days, but it was very long, from east to west.  Caesar noted, “There is no man in the Germany we know who can say that he has reached the edge of that forest, though he may have gone forward sixty days’ journey, or who has learnt in what place it begins.”  Pliny also mentioned it:  “The vast trees of the Hercynian forest, untouched for ages, and as old as the world, by their almost immortal destiny exceed common wonders.”  Remember that the Hercynian forest was just one of countless primeval forests that thrived all around the world.  Few still exist today, and the future for those looks bleak.

Forest People

Julius Caesar roamed Western Europe 150 years earlier than Tacitus, and wrote about his heroic adventures in 51 B.C.  He was the emperor of Rome, and his mission was to expand the Empire, and slap down uppity subjects.  His primary attention was focused on provinces of Celtic people in what is now France, Belgium, and England.

Caesar made a brief foolish attempt to conquer the super violent Germanic tribes, and he quickly realized the error of his ways and retreated.  In those days, armies didn’t haul caravans of supplies with them on their campaigns.  Instead, as they marched, they simply swiped food from the farms they passed.  The Germans were primarily herders who built no permanent settlements, and had no granaries loaded with food for invaders to swipe.  When danger threatened, the people and their herds vanished into the dark forest mists.

German tribes built no roads in their forest, and they invested much blood and fury to surround their homelands with a wide barrier of uninhabited wilderness.  In those days, raiding other tribes was a good way to improve warrior skills, grab booty, and cure boredom.  Life was more secure when outsiders lived nowhere close.  The best neighbors were those who lived far away, and were never seen. 

Caesar’s journal reveals an interesting situation.  The Rhine River was a large, treacherous, swift moving river, and there were no bridges in those days.  It took a lot of effort and luck to get from one side to the other, and once you set foot on the German side, a super violent welcoming party was eager to immediately cut you to bloody bits.  The German tribes were strong, proud, wild, free, and determined to remain so forever.

For the German herders, nothing would have been more stupid than eliminating the vast ancient forests that provided a valuable security buffer.  The Roman legions were fine-tuned for open battlefield combat, where heavily armored lads attacked in rigid formations.  Caesar learned that this approach was ridiculous when confronting the guerilla warfare tactics used in the forests of Germania, where there were no roads, no granaries to loot, and rage-crazed fanatics behind every tree.

Caesar had a similar problem in England, when he met the Britons, who did not warmly welcome the Roman thugs.  Few Britons grew grain.  They were herders and hunters who lived on milk and flesh.  The men had long hair and moustaches, and they applied woad to turn their skin blue, causing legionnaires to wet their pants with fear.  Britons were skilled at hit-and-run guerilla warfare.  They would swarm out of the forest, kill disorganized troops, and return to the forest, where Romans dared not follow.  There was only one place where the Thames River could be easily forded, and many sharp stakes were planted along the shore, and under the water.  Caesar failed to conquer them.

In Sweden, forests also provided freedom and security for the common folks.  Vilhelm Moberg celebrated the fact that peasant society in Sweden had remained stable and functional for 5,000 years.  In most of the regions of Europe, peasants suffered centuries of misery under the heavy fist of feudalism.  They were not free.  They lived in lands crisscrossed with roads, which enabled their oppressors to keep them under surveillance and control.  When the natives got uppity, soldiers could readily be brought in to smash them.

The big exceptions were Sweden, Norway, and Switzerland, where the peasants were largely able to remain free.  The Swiss, surrounded by powerful enemies, were protected by the Alps.  The Norse and Swedes were protected by their vast, dense, rugged, roadless forests.  It’s simply impossible to exterminate folks who cannot be found.  Moberg glowed with gratitude for his nation’s forests, which allowed the rustic peasants to preserve their freedom until the industrial era metastasized. 

From time to time, there were uprisings in Sweden, and kings summoned their troops.  In open country, the troops had absolute advantage, and could easily smash troublemakers.  In forests they found no roads, didn’t know where they were going, and soon became perfectly lost.  It was terrifying.  Behind every bush might be a man with a crossbow, ready and eager to send you away to Valhalla. 

The forest people knew every hill and rock in the woods.  They could pick the time and place to strike, leveraging their maximum advantage.  When it was not wise to strike, they vanished into the wilderness.  The forest was also a safe sanctuary.  When trouble was advancing, they gathered as many belongings as possible, and moved to locations where they would not be found.

In the future United States, Richard Lillard noted that early settlers from heavily deforested Europe were overwhelmed when they first laid eyes on the incredible abundance of enormous trees.  Back home, many had existed on a diet that majored in porridge, but in this new land they were free to hunt as much they pleased, with zero risk of punishment.  They were astonished to see settlements with wooden fences and sidewalks — an amazing luxury!  Common folks were free to cut as much firewood as they wished, and keep their homes warmer than royal palaces in the old country.  In America fish and fur were abundant and cheap.  Folks felt like they were lottery winners.

Forest Indians, on the other hand, did not celebrate the arrival of the freaky space aliens.  The natives were masters of guerilla warfare, and they took much pleasure in making life as miserable as possible for the hideous mutants.   When planning an assault, they carefully calculated the lay of the land, the weather, the morale of their enemy, and where they were weakest and most vulnerable.  They might silently crawl on their bellies across a mile of briars and thorns in order to strike from the most advantageous position.

Ambush was a favored tactic, according to Lillard.  At the ideal moment, attack suddenly with a burst of terrifying screams and whoops.  Retreat, ambush from another side, duel, retreat.  Pounce and maneuver like cats or wolves.  Make constant bewildering movements.  Terrified soldiers often fired blindly in surprise.  And then, when they were frantically reloading their muskets, natives with hatchets zipped in and euthanized the defenseless aliens.  In the end, the highly contagious diseases of civilization blindsided the Indian nations.

Colonized People

Caesar also described the Celtic tribes who lived under radically different conditions — the Gauls (France), Belgae (Belgians), and Britons (English).   The Celts lived west of the Rhine River, on the other side from the wild and free Germans to the east.  The Celts were the conquered, exploited, civilized subjects of an evil empire.  Obedience to their imperial masters was compulsory.  Naughty subjects were reduced to wolf chow or slavery (around 30 to 40 percent of the residents in Rome were slaves).  Obedient subjects had to regularly pay a generous tribute to the Romans.  Families were required to provide their sons to serve as conscripts for the Roman legions (most legionnaires were conscripts, not lads from Rome).

The Celtic tribes lived in permanent agriculture-based settlements.  They were chained to a place they had to defend, because the cottages, granaries, fields, and herds that they depended on for their survival were vulnerable to being confiscated or destroyed by invaders.  Their villages were linked together by road systems that enabled the Romans to promptly thrash rebels, and keep their subjects under strict control. 

Memorize this vital factoid: in several Western European languages, the words for “road” and “raid” evolved from a common root.  In Peru, the Incas controlled a vast empire via an excellent road system — but the same roads later made it extremely convenient for the horse-mounted Spanish invaders to quickly and easily conquer them.  More recently, nations have sharply increased their control via railroads, navies, superhighways, air forces, and electronic communications.  When railroads reached the western plains of the U.S., the buffalo and Indians were doomed.

Anyway, Caesar’s report gives us a glimpse of two cultures.  On one side of the Rhine were wild Germanic tribes that majored in herding.  On the other side, were the civilized Celtic tribes of farmers, herders, artisans, technicians, and bureaucrats — the colonial subjects of a powerful empire.  In earlier times, prior to conquest, the Celts were likely herders too.  Earlier still, both the Germans and the Celts had been wild anarchist hunter-gatherers.

The transition from hunting and foraging to herding, farming, and civilization marked a huge and terrible turning point in the human saga, and the saga of Big Mama Nature.  With sharp metal axes, they began a world war on the defenseless tree people.  These destructive cultures grew and became more and more unsustainable.  They kicked open the gate to a treacherous path that eventually led to the super high-impact way of life we suffer from today.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Wild Free and Happy Sample 24

[Note: This is the twenty-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 202 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.] 

Manmade Grasslands

It didn’t take long for our hominin ancestors, creatures of the grass, to learn that large game was most often found in grassland habitats.  Forests were more challenging to hunt in, and they were mostly home to small game.  This fact of life motivated hunters to eagerly follow their stomachs to wonderlands of grass-fed, organic, all-you-can-eat flesh.  Therefore, the human diaspora out of Africa tended to pursue routes that majored in grasslands. 

As they migrated out, their journey took them to grasslands in the Middle East, and then Europe.  Barry Cunliffe noted that a vast steppe grassland began in Hungary and ended in Manchuria, providing an easy to travel grass highway that was 5,600 miles (9,000 km) long.  As an added bonus, the steppe was largely carpeted with excellent vegetation that was drought-resistant and frost-tolerant. 

Later, around A.D. 1300, Marco Polo described the Silk Roads that spanned across the steppe, connecting the civilizations of Europe and the Far East.  This link enabled much cultural knowledge to move back and forth (a mixed blessing).  The steppe also enabled the emergence of tribes of pastoralists, with their large roaming herds of livestock.  These tribes were sometimes absorbed into powerful empires, like those of the Mongols and Huns.

Once established in Asia, the front line pioneers of the human diaspora were eventually able to wander from Siberia, over the Beringia land bridge, and then explore the incredible grassland Serengetis of the Americas.

Anyway, our early hominin ancestors could not help but notice that when occasional wildfires burned off the dry grassland vegetation, tender shoots would soon emerge from the ashes.  Fresh greenery looked heavenly to the hungry grazing critters, and hunters deeply loved grazing critters.  Fire was a good tonic for the health of grass.  It burned up accumulated dead foliage, allowing more solar energy to feed the grass people.  Also, when the snows melted away, the ground warmed up faster when the litter was gone, enabling the growing season to begin earlier.

Several million years ago, a clever hominin learned how to kindle a manmade flame by generating friction.  One day, by accident or intention, flames from a campfire somehow ignited nearby grass, and winds pushed the roaring blaze across hill and dale, incinerating brush, trees, dry grass, and unlucky wildlife. 

This exciting experience gave birth to a devious idea.  They could deliberately start grass fires wherever and whenever they wanted.  Burning fried the shoots of woody vegetation, eliminated dead plant debris, and encouraged grass to produce at optimal rates.  They could encourage bigger herds of game by expanding and maintaining high quality grassland.  They could entice game to graze in locations optimal for hunting them, like places close to a water source, and not far from camp.  By cleverly controlling nature, they could eat better, feed more bambinos, and enjoy a higher standard of living.  So they did. 

We folks in the era of glowing screens have a hard time imagining that the practice of deliberately burning grass was a remarkable history bending innovation.  But back in the good old days, it was a very hot idea.  The routine eventually spread around the world, and substantially reconfigured many ecosystems.  It was a highly influential transition in the human saga, far more significant than smart phones or automobiles, which are ridiculous unsustainable amusements that have no long term future.

Initially, fires were used to expand or improve open grassland.  Once woody vegetation was eliminated, additional fires were routinely set every few years to prevent its recovery.  Eventually, there were no more seeds of woody plants hiding in the sod, so the burn cycles could then be less frequent.

The practice of attracting large game by maintaining top quality grassland is often called firestick farming.  It was an easy low tech way to increase food resources.  Alfred Crosby noted that firestick farming had transformed much of six continents a long time before the first field was planted.  Let’s look at a few examples.

Australia

In Australia, the firestick farming practiced by Aborigines was a time-proven fine art that evolved after many centuries of trial and error, learning and tweaking.  Humans arrived between 70,000 and 50,000 years ago, and they must have brought with them the magical art of fire starting.  Within several thousand years of their arrival, 85 percent of the megafauna species were extinct, including 1,000 pound (453 kg) kangaroos, 400 pound (181 kg) birds, lizards 25 feet (7.6 m) long, and tortoises the size of Volkswagens.  Over time, many dry forests that were not fire-tolerant went up in smoke, and were displaced by fire-promoting eucalypt forests.

Bill Gammage described the Australia that British colonists observed in 1788, when they first washed up on shore.  The landscape looked radically different from today.  Much of what is now dense forest or scrub used to be manmade grasslands.  Early white eyewitnesses frequently commented that large regions looked like parks.  In those days, all English parks were the private estates of the super-rich.  Oddly, the Aborigines who inhabited the beautiful park-like Australian countryside were penniless bare-naked Stone Age anarchist heathens.  Their wealth was their time-proven knowledge, and their respect for the land.

In 1788, large areas of Australia had been actively maintained by firestick farming, which greatly expanded habitat for the delicious critters that the natives loved to dine on.  The Aborigines used both hot fires and cool fires to manage vegetation that was fire intolerant, fire tolerant, fire dependent, or fire promoting.  Different fires were used to promote specific herbs, tubers, bulbs, or grasses.  When starting a fire, the time and location was carefully calculated to encourage the desired result.  According to Gammage, most of Australia was burnt about every one to five years.  On any day of the year, a fire was likely burning somewhere.

The natives generally enjoyed an affluent lifestyle.  They had learned how to live through hundred-year droughts and giant floods.  No region was too harsh for people to inhabit.  Their culture had taboos that set limits on reproduction and hunting.  During the breeding seasons of important animals, hunting was prohibited near their gathering places.  Lots of food resources were left untouched most of the time, a vital safety net.  The Dreaming had two rules: obey the Law, and leave the world as you found it.

The colonists were clueless space aliens.  Their glorious vision was to transfer a British way of life to a continent that was highly unsuited for it.  Australia’s soils were ancient and minimally fertile, and the climate was bipolar — extreme multi-year droughts could be washed away by sudden deluges.  But, they brought their livestock and plows and gave it a whirl.  They believed that hard work was a virtue.  The Aborigines were astonished to observe how much time and effort the silly newcomers invested in producing the weird stuff they ate.

The new settlers wanted to live like proper rural Brits — permanent homes, built on fenced private property.  They freaked out when the natives set fires to maintain the grassland.  Before long, districts began banning these burns.  This led to the return of saplings and brush.  So, in just 40 years, the site of a tidy dairy farm could be replaced by dense rainforest.

Without burning, insect numbers exploded.  Without burning, fuels built up, leading to new catastrophes, called bushfires.  The Black Thursday fire hit on February 6, 1851.  It burned 12 million acres (5 million ha), killed a million sheep, thousands of cattle, and countless everything else.

Mark Brazil shared a story that was full of crap.  In Britain, cow manure was promptly and properly composted by patriotic dung beetles, which returned essential nutrients to the soil.  In Australia, none of the native dung beetles could get the least bit interested in cow shit.  It was too wet, and too out in the open.  Cow pies could patiently sit on the grass unmolested for four years, because nobody loved them.  This deeply hurt their feelings.

Australian flies, on the other hand, discovered that cow pies made fabulous nurseries for their children.  Each pat could feed 3,000 maggots, which turned into flies — dense clouds of billions and billions of flies — which the hard working Christians did not in any way fancy.  Being outdoors was hellish.  In the 1960s, folks imported British dung beetles, which loved the taste and aroma of cow pies.  Oddly, this is one example where an introduced exotic species apparently didn’t create unintended consequences.  When they ran out of pies to eat, the beetles simply died.

Anyway, a continent inhabited by Stone Age people was substantially altered by firestick farming and hunting.  The Australia of 1788 was radically different from when the first human arrived.  We’ll never know if continued firestick farming would have eventually led to severely degraded ecosystems.  Some serious injuries can take a long time to fully develop.  Many attempts to deliberately control ecosystems have spawned huge unintended consequences over time.  For example, agriculture.

United States

In the central U.S., the prairie ecosystem emerged in the last 8,000 to 10,000 years, displacing the tundra that had emerged as the ice sheets melted and withdrew.  Prairies support complex biodiversity, with different mixes of species adapting to different mixes of soil types, moisture, and climate.  Two hundred years ago, the prairies were home to 30 to 60 million bison, and numerous other herbivores.

Stephen Pyne wrote that when white colonists landed in America, the western portion of the Great Plains was shortgrass prairie, too dry to support forest.  But the eastern portion was tallgrass prairie.  Most of it had rainfall and soils suitable for forest, but Native Americans had gradually pushed back the forest cover.  They maintained this highly productive prairie by burning it every three years or so.  It provided excellent habitat for buffalo and other delicacies.

Burning was a common practice almost everywhere in North America.  By A.D. 1000, the expansion of manmade grasslands enabled buffalo to cross the Mississippi River for the first time.  By the 1600s, they had reached Massachusetts on the Atlantic coast.  In some regions, forests were periodically burned to prevent the accumulation of brush.  This was often done in late autumn, after the leaves had fallen.  Pioneers commented that these fire-maintained forests resembled European parks.  The open floor made it easier to travel, which sped the process of colonization.

Shepard Krech wrote that California Indians burned chaparral (dense brush) to entice deer.  Along the east coast, there were oak openings (meadows with scattered trees) as large as 1,000 acres (404 ha).  Manmade grasslands in the Shenandoah Valley covered a thousand square miles (2,590 km2).  Indians in Oregon’s Willamette Valley engaged in extensive routine burning.  When colonists ended this traditional burning, there was a tremendous recovery of forest in many regions.  Krech noted that Indian fires sometimes exploded into raging infernos that burned for days, sometimes killing entire buffalo herds, up to a thousand animals. 

Between about A.D. 800 and 1300, Indian agriculture greatly expanded, majoring in corn (maize), beans, and squash.  Much of their cropland was former forest, and it was kept cleared by regular burning.  Their fields were often 100 acres (40 ha), and sometimes 1,000.  Because they had no livestock to produce manure for fertilizer, soils were often depleted in a few years.  So, they cleared more forest, and the depleted fields once again grew trees.  This cycle could be repeated until the soil was junk.

In the Midwest, where large areas of forest had been replaced by manmade tallgrass prairie, the topsoil was deep and highly fertile.  Settlers, arriving with plows and draft animals, were able to turn the thick sod, plant grasses like corn and wheat, and reap impressive harvests.  Today, maybe one percent of tallgrass prairie still survives.  A number of states that were once primarily forest or tallgrass prairie are now sprawling farmland.

Michael Williams noted that as the diseases of civilization spread westward, Indians died in great numbers.  They had zero immunity to highly contagious Old World pathogens.  Diseases spread westward far faster than the expansion of settlers.  The half-lucky Indians who survived the epidemics were herded into reservations.  Consequently, the cycle of periodic burning stopped, and the forests quickly returned.  The high mortality of disease resulted in extensive reforestation.  Forests in 1750 may have been bigger and denser than they had been in the previous thousand years.  When whites eventually arrived to create permanent agricultural communities, the regrown forests had to be cleared.

Britain

When the glaciers of the last ice age began melting, sea levels were very low, and England was connected by dry land to Ireland, Scandinavia, and continental Europe.  Barry Cunliffe wrote that as the ice retreated, and the climate warmed, the newly exposed lands went through a sequence of transitions — from tundra, to steppe, and then forest.  Essentially most of Western Europe became a vast forest.  Large game thrived on the tundra and steppe, but the expansion of forests reduced grazing land area, and the abundance of large game.

By 9000 B.C., hunter-gatherers apparently made some small clearings in the forest to attract game.  By 6000 B.C., England became disconnected from the continent by rising sea levels.  By 4500 B.C., when farmers and herders began to trickle in, England was largely a forest, except for the highlands.  Hunters dined on red deer, wild boar, and aurochs.  By 3000 B.C., there were substantial clearances for cropland and pasture.  By A.D. 1100, just 15 percent of Britain was forest.  By 1919, it was five percent, Britannia was essentially stripped naked.

Jed Kaplan’s team of researchers wrote a paper on the prehistoric deforestation of Europe.  It included stunning maps that illustrated the shrinkage of forests between 1000 B.C. and A.D. 1850.  [MAP]  Forests can be pushed back by killing them via burning, chopping, or girdling.  Tropical primates are the only critters that have the spooky ability to create such massive change, affecting entire continents.

In the 1970s, Hugh Brody was working on a British documentary about the Inuit people of Canada.  He had worked closely with an elder named Anaviapik, who had never travelled outside of his homeland.  When the film editing was done, both got on a plane, and flew to London to bless the finished version.  One day, Brody took Anaviapik for a drive in the countryside, and he was totally freaked out by what he saw.  “It’s all built!”  The natural face of the land had entirely been torn off, and replaced with manmade scars.

J. B. MacKinnon mentioned the story of a British scientist visiting the U.S.  From an overlook in the White Mountain National Forest, he could gaze down on 800,000 acres of woodland — an overwhelming experience.  The man burst into tears and had a long, hard cry.  At Yellowstone, he saw wolves in the wild for the first time, and he dropped to his knees.

Ireland

The story in Ireland was similar to Britain in many ways, but Ireland got much more rainfall, annually receiving 50 to 200 inches (127-508 cm) of precipitation.  The wet climate encouraged the growth of lush temperate rainforests.  Frederick Aalen noted that early hunter-gatherers arrived about 8,000 years ago, when the isle was covered with a dense unbroken forest.  Folks lived along coastlines, lakes, and streams.  In the forest they created some openings to attract game, but these were apparently small in scale.

Farmers and herders began arriving around 3500 B.C., and the long war on trees commenced.  By the end of the 1600s, the destruction of native forests was nearly complete.  When Aalen wrote in 1978, just three percent of the land was covered by natural forest or fake forest (tree farms).  Deforestation had many unintended consequences.  William MacLeish noted that in the good old days, the rainforest wicked up a lot of moisture from the land, and allowed the breezes to disperse it into the atmosphere.  When the trees were gone, this dispersal ended, but the Gulf Stream continued delivering warm rainy weather from the Caribbean.  Consequently, water tables rose, bogs spread, and ground turned acid.

If we disregard the serious damage caused by deforestation, Ireland seemed to be a perfect place for raising livestock.  Winters were mild, the grass was green all year, and there was no need to grow, cut, and store hay for winter feed.  Barns were not needed to protect livestock from the cold.  Milk and meat were available all year round.  Herding worked well, but the very rainy climate made it rather risky to grow grain, despite the rich soils.

In A.D. 1185, King Henry II sent Giraldus Cambrensis (Jerry of Wales) to Ireland and report on the conditions.  His report mentioned many beautiful lakes, where some of the fish were larger than any he had ever seen before.  Common freshwater fish included salmon, trout, eels, and oily shad.  Along the coast, saltwater fish were abundant.  The woods were home to “stags so fat that they lose their speed.”  There were vast herds of boars and wild pigs.  Small hares were numerous.  Wolves had not yet been fully exterminated.  He said it was common to see the remains of Irish elk, a species that vanished on the island before the arrival of humans.  Their remains were commonly found in bogs, often in groups.

The Irish people lived like beasts, he wrote.  They held agriculture in contempt, and had no interest in the glittering wealth of the outer world.  There were large tracts of land suitable for crops, but folks had no interest in a shift to backbreaking drudgery.  The herding life worked just fine.  Cambrensis felt great pity for the uncivilized natives.  “Their greatest delight was to be exempt from toil, and their richest possession was the enjoyment of liberty.” 

Ireland was a great place to be a hunter-gatherer, as long as the clans avoided classic booboos like overhunting, overbreeding, or allowing the introduction of domesticated livestock and bloodthirsty colonizers.  Unfortunately, booboos happen.  The wild stags, wolves, and boars were perfectly adapted to the ecosystem, and caused no permanent injuries.  Humans often have a difficult time smoothly blending into ecosystems.  Will shamans ever discover a safe and effective cure for cleverness fever?

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Wild Free and Happy Sample 23


[Note: This is the twenty-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 202 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.]

 Super Grass

I previously mentioned the notion that humans are creatures of the grass.  Recently, I stumbled on information that added a deeper dimension to this theme.  It all began when I read that the area of global forest cover has been sharply reduced since the early Miocene Epoch.  This stimulated my curiosity, and led to an exciting wild factoid chase.  The Miocene spanned from 23 to 5.3 million years ago.  It seems that the early Miocene was wet and warm, and many ecosystems were forests.  I was surprised to learn that as late as 20 million years ago, much of Antarctica was covered with temperate forests.

Anyway, later in the Miocene, maybe 6 to 8 million years ago, it got cooler and dryer, and a new type of major ecosystem emerged — grasslands.  They can thrive where it’s too dry for trees.  Over time, expanding grassland displaced large areas of forest.  This shift was an important turning point in the human saga.  As forests shrank, there was less habitat for tree-dwelling primates, causing a number of species to tumble off the stage.  Some primates moved out onto the savannah, and figured out how to survive in open country as ground-dwelling primates.  They included the ancestors of baboons and humans. 

So, it was a gradual but substantial shift in climate patterns and ecosystems that made it possible for our ancestors to invent a new career path as hunters of large herbivores.  As the climate got cooler and dryer, grass species more tolerant of arid conditions rose in importance.  At this point, we need to take a brief side trip into some technical stuff.  I’ll keep it as short and simple as possible.

The entire family of life is solar powered.  Incoming solar energy is received by green plants, who use it to produce sugar.  This process is photosynthesis.  It converts solar energy into a form of chemical energy that plants and animals must have in order to survive.  Some animals acquire it directly by eating plant material, and others get it indirectly by dining on plant-eating animals.  Thus, photosynthesis is the foundation of life on Earth.

The process begins by splitting water molecules (H2O) into hydrogen and oxygen atoms.  Then, in a fancy magic act, hydrogen is stirred together with CO2 to make sugar (C6H12O6).  The process results in some leftover oxygen atoms, which are released to the atmosphere.  Notice that animals exhale the CO2 that plants must have, and plants exhale the oxygen needed by animals, a sacred circle dance.  Plants can use the sugar to fuel their growth, or they can convert it to starch, and save it for later.  Plants can also make fat, protein, and vitamins.  They’re much smarter than they look.

The act of snatching carbon from the air, and incorporating it into living plant tissues, is called carbon fixation, or carbon sequestration.  As more carbon gets sequestered into the plants and surrounding topsoil, then less of it remains in the atmosphere.  This is great, because too much carbon in the atmosphere can lead to catastrophic climate juju, like the freaky changes we’re now just beginning to experience.

I should also mention that petroleum and coal are substances made of sequestered carbon that accumulated over the course of 500 million years.  Big Mama Nature wisely stored it away in a safe place deep underground, where it could cause no mischief.  Unfortunately, it has become very trendy for ignorance-powered societies to retrieve enormous quantities of this ancient carbon and foolishly burn it up, in order to indulge in a decadent joyride of self-destructive childish whimsy.  Big brains can make big mistakes.  It’s so embarrassing!

And now, (gasp!) the plot thickens.  There are two categories of plant species, based on the mode of photosynthesis they use: C3 or C4.  C3 produces a compound that has three carbon atoms, and C4 produces a compound that has four carbon atoms.  Both types are very old, but the shift to a cooler and dryer climate greatly boosted the expansion of C4 species.  Maybe 85 percent of the plant species on Earth are C3.  Their method of carbon fixation is simpler and less efficient than C4. 

Elizabeth Kellogg studied C4 plants.  In one experiment she found that, under ideal conditions, C3 plants could theoretically capture and store up to 4.6 percent of the solar energy they received, while C4 plants could get up to 6 percent (i.e., 30 percent more than C3).  While only 3 percent of flowering plant species are C4, they account for 23 percent of all carbon fixation in the world.  In other words, they produce much more of the precious chemical energy (sugar) that the family of life depends on.  Kellogg calls the C4 process a turbocharger.

There are four conditions under which C4 plants have a big advantage — high temperature, high light, low moisture, and low nutrients.  Because they use much less water, C4 plants better conserve soil moisture.  They also produce more root biomass, which increases their tolerance for drought and fire.  Of the 12,000 grass species, 46 percent of them are C4, and they include corn (maize), sugar cane, millet, and sorghum.  (Mad scientists are now trying to alter DNA to make rice C4 too.)

When critters consume C4 grasses, this diet leaves behind physical tracks.  Spencer Wells wrote that the bones of Native Americans revealed whether they were corn farmers or hunter-gatherers.  Because corn is a C4 grass, the bones of corn eaters contained molecular C4 markers.  Baz Edmeades talked about the ferocious dirk-tooth cats (Dinofelis), a species that went extinct about 1.4 million years ago.  We know they were creatures of the savannah, not the forest, because analysis of their tooth enamel indicated that they dined on herbivores that ate C4 grasses.

And now, dear reader, at long last, we are ready to proceed to the exciting conclusion of this tedious jabber.  It’s time to turn the spotlight on the heroes of this story, the C4 grass species.  Kellogg noted that in the last 8 million years, as climate change drove the retreat of tropical forests, the domain of C4 grasses has greatly expanded.  They are now significant components of major grasslands around the world.

C3 grasses were better adapted to moist forest floors and limited sunlight.  They were less able to thrive on arid grasslands.  Out on the savannah, conditions were ideal for C4 grasses, because they needed less water to enjoy a happy life.  Here they moved from the sidelines to the center stage.  Receiving many hours of direct sunlight every day, they were able to manufacture generous amounts of chemical energy (sugar), and this gave them the ability to grow rapidly. 

And so, these highly nutritious grasses became a highly desirable food source for the animals that were able to digest them, which required some adaptations.  Baz Edmeades noted that the blades of these grasses were tough, highly fibrous, and coated with abrasive silica.  Evolution responded by providing some animals with new and improved teeth that were more tolerant of abrasion, and better able to pulverize the plant fibers.  Other critters were issued new and improved digestive tracts, populated with bacteria that were fine-tuned for chemically breaking down fibrous glop.  The critters that succeeded in adapting to the new banquet made big gains in size and diversity.

Of course, too much of a good thing will have consequences.  If herds got way too large, the vitality of the grassland would be degraded, leading to starvation.  So, evolution came to the rescue by promoting a variety of big strong bloodthirsty carnivores, who delighted in inviting large herbivores to join them at lunchtime.  To make this sacred dance more sporting, evolution also encouraged the development of herbivores who could boogie across the grassland at high speeds.

Edmeades concluded that the rise of highly productive C4 grasses radically changed the world.  It spurred the evolution and spread of an astonishing variety of grassland herbivores and their predators.  It led to the emergence of spectacular Serengeti-like ecosystems in Africa, Eurasia, and the Americas — fantastic wonderlands of abundant life.

Graham Harvey noted that the herds of grass-eating critters benefitted the grasses.  Grazing actually stimulated plant growth.  In a brilliant design, new blades of grass emerge from growing points located close to the ground, where they are less likely to be damaged by hungry teeth.  The faster that grasses can send up new blades, the more sunlight they can capture, the more sugar they can make, and the happier the whole ecosystem becomes.

Grazing also benefitted grasses by regularly nipping off the rising shoots of woody vegetation.  If trees and brush were allowed to grow and spread, they would compete with the grass plants.  Then, the herds of hungry herbivores would have less to eat, and so would the carnivores that adored red meat.  Herds religiously offered their deep gratitude to the grass people by lovingly depositing nutrient rich manure and urine all over the place.

The big picture here is that the shift to a cooler dryer climate encouraged the substantial expansion of grassland, which boosted the expansion of C4 grass species, which propelled the evolution and expansion of large grazers and carnivores, which boosted the global tonnage of living meat.  These megafauna migrated and settled on five continents (not Australasia).  Around the world we find species of horses, bison, elephants, antelope, deer, hyenas, wolves, bears, and so on.  The moral of this story is that climate change can radically alter the face of the planet, and the family of life.

Later in this amazing transformation, another powerful agent of radical change joined the cast of the grassland soap opera.  These critters walked on two legs, and resembled what you see in the mirror.  They eventually assumed the role of apex predators, something that no other primate had ever attempted.  Our ancestors did not wait patiently for evolution to provide them with the speed, strength, fangs, and claws that are customary for natural born carnivores.  Instead, they invented hunting weapons, learned how to make fire, and began experimenting with a way of life that no other animal in the history of the planet had ever attempted.  It’s notable that every other animal species continues to live like they did a million years ago — ultra-conservative, and perfectly sustainable.

The advance of the new critters marked the emergence of an extremely spooky, highly contagious, multi-drug resistant virus known as cleverness fever.  For a few million years, its mind-altering effects gradually intensified.  Ten thousand years ago, they surged.  Today they are skyrocketing.  Humankind is now engaged in full scale warfare against the entire family of life, including itself.  A lively and entertaining soap opera has shape shifted into the mother of all horror shows.  Will the current swing to a much warmer climate provide the miraculous silver bullet cure for the mass hysteria of cleverness fever?  Stay tuned.