Saturday, June 15, 2019

Wild Free and Happy Sample 17


[Note: This is the seventeenth 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 201 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.]

Communal Hunting

Life in snow country was an annual roller coaster ride.  The warm season was generous in dispensing food, and the frigid season was stingy.  The key to winter survival was adequate fat, because maintaining body heat required more energy.  Fat is stored energy.  Game carried the most fat at the end of the warm season.  For humans, this was the best time to acquire meat for winter storage.

Herd animals were wanderers, following their stomachs to where there was greenery to gobble.  In some regions, there were large seasonal migrations of game animals.  The warm months were spent in the cooler uplands.  When winter approached, they wandered down into the warmer valleys.  Herds often followed regular routes on a predictable schedule, and hunters knew this.  As winter waned, and stored meat was running low, the spring migrations began.  Hurray!

Back in Mother Africa, the annual cycle was far more stable.  Because there was no need to store meat for a cold season, there was no need for a period of intensified hunting.  In snow country, intensified hunting was an important seasonal tradition.  In many regions, this task was best performed by communal hunting.  It took a number of forms.

Communal hunting could be very wasteful.  The objective was to acquire lots of top quality meat.  In the good old days, game was abundant, seemingly infinite.  The notion that mammoths could ever be wiped out by overhunting was a ridiculous idea (in times of plenty).  They had no good reason not to live as wastefully as American consumers, because it didn’t matter.  Life was grand!  Eventually, starvation gave folks important lessons in limits and mindful conservation. 

Předmostí

Předmostí is near the city of Přerov, in the Czech Republic.  It is located at the southern end of the Moravian Gate, a narrow corridor that passes between the Carpathian Mountains to the east, and the Sudeten range in the west, linking southern Poland and Moravia.  It has long been a strategic trade and communications route.  Naturally, it was also a route for the seasonal migrations of game animals in the Pleistocene, including mammoths.

Předmostí has the largest mammoth bone accumulations in central Europe.  The skeletons of more than a thousand have been uncovered so far.  Mammoth bones were used in the construction of their huts.  Excavations have found hearths, a cemetery, stone and bone tools, and carvings made from mammoth ivory.  One carving has been named the Venus of Předmostí. 

Folks inhabited Předmostí between 27,000 and 25,000 years ago, and again later, about 20,000 years ago.  During this time period, at many locations in central Europe, numerous Venus figurines have been found.  The figurines inspired archaeologist Marija Gimbutas to imagine a paradise of goddess worshipping people that preceded the dark arrival of patriarchy and bloody warfare, a popular and controversial theory.

Dolní Věstonice

Dolní Věstonice and Pavlov are small neighboring villages north of Mikulov, in the Czech Republic.  In the twentieth century, when a villager decided to dig a cellar, he discovered the remains of a large dwelling built with mammoth bones and tusks.  Multiple excavation sites in these villages have revealed fascinating details about Pleistocene hunters, who lived there from 29,000 to 24,500 years ago.  They lived on terraces overlooking the river, where they had an excellent view of the vast treeless steppe below.  These mammoth bone huts were common in central Europe.

At one camp, four huts were located close together, and the small settlement was surrounded by a low wall made of mammoth bones and rocks, covered with brush and turf.  The huts were something like teepees, covered with animal skins.  They had a circular foundation made of rocks and heavy bones.  Between the huts was a large outdoor fire pit.  Up the hill was a small hut containing a kiln for baking clay.  This is the earliest evidence of making ceramics (they did not make pottery).  They created a variety of figurines, including the heads of bears, foxes, and lions, and Venus figurines with prominent breasts and buttocks.

At a nearby location, the largest lodge was 50 feet long (15 m) by 20 feet wide (7 m), and had five hearths.  At one hearth, two long mammoth bones were stuck in the ground, to support a roasting spit.  Southeast of the lodge were piles of bones, including about 100 mammoths, mostly young.  There were also bones of horses, reindeer, hares, wolves, and foxes.  At one dig, they found the remains of a child wearing a necklace with 27 fox teeth.  The skull was covered with red ochre, and the body was covered with the shoulder blades of mammoths. 

Artists have studied the skulls found in the area, and made paintings of what the people would have looked like in life.  When exhibited in Prague, the portrait of a prehistoric wild woman embarrassed the public — because she looked too modern, not like a dirty primitive beast — she looked like the proper and dignified ladies in the gallery (gulp!).

Roche de Solutré

At the Roche de Solutré site, near Mâcon, France, archaeologists have found the remains of up to 100,000 horses.  Prior to 1866, when experts realized the bones were prehistoric, local farmers had been hauling them away for many years, using them for fertilizer.  In some places, the surface of the ground was paved with ancient horse bones. 

The valley was likely a common route for the seasonal migrations of animal herds.  In the summer months, herds grazed at higher elevations to avoid heat and insects.  They spent the winter months grazing in the warmer floodplain of the Saône River.

The bone beds are located fairly close to the bottom of a steep limestone cliff.  For years, folks theorized that the horses had been killed by driving them over the edge.  A new and improved theory disputes this, claiming that the bones were not located close enough to where flying horses should have crash-landed.  Hunters probably drove the animals into natural rock corrals, or box canyons, where they were trapped.  Once cut off from escape, they were killed, butchered, and smoked.  Wild horses were extremely dangerous prey.  Big strong stallions would aggressively attack hunters, and stomp them to bloody bits.

The bone bed covers 2.5 acres (1 ha), and is up to 29 feet (9 m) thick.  The oldest bones are 55,000 years old, horses killed by Neanderthals.  These were covered by six feet (1.8 m) of sterile soil.  The next layer is a thick one, the remains of animals killed between 37,000 and 10,000 years ago.  Experts say that they were killed by Cro-Magnons (Homo sapiens).  Prior to 22,000 years ago, the majority of bones were horses.  After that, reindeer bones became more common.  This was an era of rapid climate shifts.

Buffalo Drives

On the western plains of North America, a common method of communal hunting was driving herds of buffalo off cliffs.  White folks called these killing sites buffalo jumps, the Blackfeet called them pishkuns.  Pishkuns were scattered from Canada to Mexico.  There were more than 300 in Montana alone.  For thousands of years, prior to horses and guns, this was a primary method for hunting buffalo.  At the bottom of the cliff at First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park in Montana, is a buried layer of compressed buffalo remains that is up to 18 feet thick (5.5 m).  An estimated 6,000 buffalo died here over the centuries.

Jack McNeel described the hunts.  When scouts observed a herd moving into the vicinity of a pishkun site, hunters moved to appropriate locations, and became noisy and animated.  The herd panicked and ran away from them, moving into drive lanes that funneled the herd to the brink of doom.  Brave teenage buffalo runners, camouflaged in buffalo hides, led the animals toward the cliff.  The runners would disappear over the edge, but safely land on a ledge below, whilst the surprised buffalos flew over them, and plummeted to the rocks below, where butchers waited.

The Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is in southwest Alberta.  It utilized one of the longest and most complex drive structures on the plains.  Natives constructed drive lanes that reached up to 6 miles (10 km) into the gathering basin.  They followed the contours of the land, to help the flow of animals move as smoothly as possible.  The bone deposits at the bottom of the cliff are 39 feet (12 m) deep.  This pishkun was in use by at least 6,000 years ago.

In the journal of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Lewis noted that on May 29, 1805 they discovered the rotting carcasses of about 100 buffalo at the bottom of a cliff, as well as great numbers of well-fed wolves that were “very gentle.”  For amusement, Clark felt inspired to shoot one of the chubby blissed out wolves.  Shepard Krech shared additional comments on pishkuns from other early white observers. 

It was impossible to have precise control over a stampeding herd.  When enough animals had died to meet hunters’ needs, the herd did not realize it was OK to stop leaping.  Lots of meat, especially bulls and animals with little fat, was left for the enjoyment of happy scavengers — everything was recycled.  Cows provided better hides and meat.  The tongue and hump were the choicest cuts.  In summer, meat was dried for winter use.  Also, meat was mixed with fat and berries to make highly nutritious pemmican, which was stored.

The use of pishkuns faded out when Plains Indians acquired horses between 1700 and 1800.  Until then, buffalo had a distinct survival advantage in their ability to run at speeds up to 35 miles per hour (56 km/h).  When Indians got horses, the buffalo lost their speed advantage, and became much easier to kill.  Later came guns.

Reindeer and Caribou Drives

Reindeer live in northern Eurasia, and caribou live in Greenland, Canada, and Alaska.  The two creatures are the same species (Rangifer tarandus), but there are nine subspecies, like tundra reindeer, woodland reindeer, tundra caribou, woodland caribou, etc.  Several are now endangered.  The species is unique in that both sexes grow antlers.  Davis and Reeves described how humans hunted them.

All around the Arctic Circle, reindeer and caribou have been hunted for thousands of years.  They provided meat, sinew for sewing, bone for needles and awls, antler for tools, fat for light, heating, and nourishment, and hides for bags, snares, clothes, and tents.  They made survival possible in a hostile climate.

Every spring and fall, herds made seasonal migrations along traditional routes.  Hunters knew when and where to expect them.  These routes often had bottlenecks that concentrated the herds, ideal locations for hunting.  Commonly, groups of hunters would drive the herds into killing places.  To direct the movement of a herd, drive lanes included barriers — log fences, brush fences, snow drifts, rock cairns.  Some locations had corrals of wood or stone to capture the herd.  In Siberia, animals were driven into nets.

Herds were sometimes driven into deep snow and then lanced or shot with arrows.  In Greenland, caribou were driven off cliffs.  Some hunters used snares, open loops suspended from branches, to grab animals by their necks or antlers.  Snares were placed along game trails, where animals voluntarily moved, or scattered along drive lanes where hunters or dogs aggressively drove them.  Records from 250 years ago report that near Churchill, Manitoba, caribou herds were driven into corrals that were one mile (1.6 km) in diameter, and 350 to 600 people participated in the kill.

The easiest method, where possible, was to drive the herd into streams or lakes, where the struggling animals were lanced by hunters in canoes or kayaks.  Two hundred animals could be taken in a few hours.  During a two-week summer hunt on Lake Mistinipi, hunters speared 1,200 to 1,500 caribou.  One Copper Inuit settlement, inhabited between 1500 and 1700, was located close to a caribou migration route.  During two centuries, an estimated 100,000 caribou were driven into the lake and killed.

Lads in canoes did not always stop killing when they had all the meat they needed.  In a frenzy, they killed as many caribou as they could, the entire herd, if possible.  It was a great pleasure to kill so easily, many months since the last migration.  Near Hudson Bay, an observer in the 1890s found hundreds of carcasses left to rot — overkill.

In Scotland, Norway, Sweden, and Finland, many thousands of pit traps were dug in migration routes to catch reindeer.  Animals could be driven into the pits during their outbound and inbound migrations.  In southern Norway, trapping pits were used as early as 11,000 years ago.

Caribou herds had been following traditional migration routes for 8,000 years or more.  Indians and Inuit built permanent settlements along the routes.  In the nineteenth century, when hunters began using repeating rifles, animals could be killed from farther away, requiring less stalking skill.  The caribou harvest sharply increased.  Before long, herds abandoned traditional routes, communities starved, and their settlements went extinct — an unintended consequence of progress.

Compared to the good old days in Mother Africa, it was far more difficult for tropical primates to survive in cool climates.  The selection of kill sites, and the construction of drive lanes, corrals, and pit traps, was a major effort.  On the days of mass kills, large numbers of people were required for success.  Preserving meat and hides took weeks of work.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Wild Free and Happy Sample 16


[Note: This is the sixteenth 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 201 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.] 

Food Storage

In the tropics of Mother Africa, meat spoiled quickly, and yummy carcasses soon attracted mobs of ravenous and dangerous scavengers.  When folks fancied a juicy steak, they killed something.  Preserving and storing surplus meat was unnecessary, and highly impractical, a stupid idea that never occurred to anyone.  There was no reason to hunt heavily for a while, dry lots of meat, haul it around, and constantly protect it.

Snow country was a different story.  Winter made travel, hunting, and fishing more difficult.  Folks who accumulated and stored surplus food for the winter months were far more likely to survive and inhale the fragrant aromas of blooming springtime flowers.  For our human ancestors, fine-tuned for tropical living, long-term food storage was a weird and unnatural idea.  But once some pioneers learned how to do it, far more regions became potential locations for future colonization.  With storage, we were able to expand into lands having harsher climates.

Clive Finlayson jabbered about a group of humans known as the Gravettian culture, who managed to survive in the steppe-tundra of the Eurasian Plain from 30,000 to 20,000 years ago.  Large game was abundant.  Here they invented one of the most diabolical Earth-shaking technologies of all time (gasp!), the storage pit!  Holes chopped into the frozen permafrost could be used as scavenger-resistant deep freezers, to store surplus food for the lean seasons.

Finlayson believed that food storage was a significant milestone on our long and painful descent to modernity.  Surplus made clans more secure, as long as adequate food resources remained available.  Acquiring surplus food for winter dining required intensified hunting, which could lead to waste, spoilage, unintentional overhunting, population growth, and the depletion of game over time.

An additional quirk of snow country was that folks needed to burn lots of calories to stay warm and strong in their physically active outdoor life.  So, a diet rich in fat was essential.  The fat content of game animals varied with the seasons.  Meat had the most fat in late summer and autumn.  In late winter and spring, many animals were unfit to eat due to insufficient fat.  In lean seasons, Native Americans killed buffalo just to eat their tongues, which were high in fat.

Dixie West noted that animals with minimal fat were junk food.  When humans and other carnivores eat lean meat, they can lose weight, because digesting it requires more energy than the meat contains.  Folks commonly smashed and boiled the bones that contained the most marrow, to extract the precious marrow fat.

In snow country, as long as large game remained readily available, labor intensive agriculture made zero sense.  As game became scarcer, hunting was gradually displaced by farming.  This began about 6,000 years ago.  In regions less suitable for farming, hunting persisted longer.  The focus shifted from storing meat to storing grain.  According to Finlayson, the concept of producing surplus food, and competently managing the surplus, set the stage for the birth of civilization.

The advantages of food storage in snow country encouraged the dawn of the “more is better” mindset, which eventually became a core belief in cultures engaged in agriculture or herding.  The Gravettians and other hunters stockpiled frozen or dried meat.  Farmers loaded granaries with calorie dense grains.  Herders stored their meat on the hoof, gathered milk daily, and slaughtered livestock only when needed.  They strove to accumulate as many animals as possible.  In different forms, the practice of food storage spread across snow country, eventually crossing from Siberia into the Americas.

Life was simpler for tropical hunter-gatherers, like the San people of the Kalahari.  On a really crappy day, if a gang of hyenas snatched an antelope just killed by hunters, what was lost was merely the work of a single day.  They were able to maintain their conservative traditional way of life for many, many thousands of years.  It was not a high impact way of life.

For the food hoarders of snow country, on the other hand, misfortune could suddenly eliminate months of tedious work, and endanger winter survival.  Their food stockpile could be wiped out by fire, flood, scavengers, spoilage, vermin, theft, and so on.  The whole community might starve and blink out.  Over the long run, “more is better” cultures, with their denser populations, were more likely to swerve into bloody turbulence.  Storage is big juju.

Dress for Success

Hunter-gatherer cultures differed widely in their dependence on technology.  The utterly simple Kalahari way of life was practiced by our hominin ancestors for at least two or three million years.  In the tropics of Mother Africa, evolution spent several million years fine tuning our bodies for life on the savannah, and the result was an excellent design. 

After hominins migrated out of Africa, and colonized tropical Asia and Australia, some folks decided to wander north.  It was a cool place to live, and the farther north they wandered, the cooler it got.  In snow country, tropical primates were like fish out of water.  Brrrr!  They wrapped themselves in animal hides, lived in protective shelters, and huddled around warm campfires.

In 1908, Knud Rasmussen told the story of a Greenland Eskimo named Qumangâpik, who had four wives and 15 children.  The first wife froze to death, the second was buried by an avalanche, the third died of illness, and the fourth froze to death.  Of his 15 children, one starved, four were frozen, and five died of illness.  Then, Qumangâpik froze to death, with his wife and two little children.  Three of his kids outlived him.  In frigid times, ripped or inadequate clothing could be a death sentence.

Over time, early colonists in snow country learned how to cut and sew hides into custom tailored clothing that provided better protection for both humans and their body lice companions.  Killing a deer, tanning its hide, and turning it into coats, trousers, hats, or footwear, was a time consuming process.  Deerskin attire was not especially warm, especially when soaking wet or frozen.  On the plus side, it could be boiled and eaten when starvation threatened.

The first stitching was likely done with sinew, or thin strips of leather.  Eventually, some groups learned how to spin plant fibers into thread, which could be used for stitching seams together.  In the Republic of Georgia, researchers have found spun and dyed fragments of flax fibers that were 34,000 years old. 

Needles were used for sewing clothing and tents, and for making nets.  Animal bone needles with eyes, about 25,000 years old, have been found in Central Europe.  Needles have not been found at Neanderthal sites yet, but looking for a needle in a haystack is far easier than finding an extremely old needle buried somewhere on the Eurasian land mass.

Over time, folks got better at spinning different types of high quality thread.  It was spun from plant fibers like flax, cotton, or hemp; or animal fibers like wool.  Eventually, a clever person invented weaving, a process that wove thread into cloth.  Cloth could be used to make a wide variety of useful things.

Kassia St Clair described how gathering and processing plant fibers was time consuming.  So was carefully collecting and preparing fibers from sheep, goats, silkworms, and others.  So was spinning and weaving.  In some regions, folks may have devoted more hours to their wardrobe than to acquiring food.  For hardworking people, clothing was precious, and carefully kept mended and patched.  Many owned little more than what they were wearing.

During the agricultural era, wool clothing was popular in snow country, until the eighteenth century, when new technology made cotton cloth cheaper to make, and more profitable.  Cotton was the dominant fabric until the 1970s, when synthetic fibers rose to dominance.  It won’t be long now until almost all clothing is polyester, which is exceedingly cheap to produce from petrochemicals using state of the art automation, and super cheap sweatshop labor.

Today, many consumers own enormous wardrobes of apparel, much of it rarely worn, if ever.  Modern attire is not designed for rugged durability, but to be rapidly mass produced, in order to meet the demand for the latest trendy styles.  Trendy styles have deliberately short lifespans.  This encourages radicalized consumers to maximize their apparel purchasing.  For them, nothing is more embarrassing than to be seen wearing obsolete fashions.  Landfills are stuffed with countless tons of formerly trendy attire.  Much of it is discarded while still in excellent condition.

Great Leap Forward

A number of thinkers have jabbered about a miraculous turning point in the human saga.  Before this event, humans were dim witted, knuckle dragging, mouth breathing bubbas.  And then — shazam! — we triumphantly glided across a magic bridge, from the archaic era into the modern one.  Our species was gaining momentum on the treacherous path to technological utopia and ecological dystopia.

Jared Diamond once speculated that if space aliens had visited Earth 100,000 years ago, humans would have appeared to be nothing more than ordinary animals.  But then, as the millennia passed, those critters were acting less and less ordinary.  By 40,000 years ago, our modernizing ancestors were demonstrating revolutionary changes that were both beneficial and risky.  What happened?  Diamond named this miracle the Great Leap Forward.

Of course, Diamond was raised in a crazy self-destructive wonderland of high technology — extremely clever stuff that enabled humankind to beat the living crap out of the planet’s ecosystems for no sane purpose.  Actually, those “ordinary” two-legged ancestors, observed by space aliens, were the one and only critters on Earth who were capable of conjuring domesticated fire — a fantastically revolutionary innovation.  It was close to step one on the long march to world domination.

For Diamond, the act of routinely using domesticated fire seemed ordinary and insignificant.  In his 1992 reality, even four-year olds could easily burn down the neighborhood with a cheap disposable lighter.  In addition to fire, the visiting space aliens would have also seen that the two-legged critters were unique in their ability to knap sharp stone tools, and manufacture assorted gizmos for hunting.  Our hominin ancestors had been developing these unordinary skills for more than two million years.

Extremely weird was the fact that those fire critters were at the top of the food chain, yet they had no serious fangs, claws, speed, strength, or size.  All the other top predators had naturally evolved some combination of those traits, gradually, over the course of millions of years.  But today, those traditional natural predators are being pounded into oblivion via guns, cyanide, habitat destruction, and so on.  There are not seven-plus billion lions and tigers and bears staring at cell phones.

With the Great Leap, humans began doing more and more things beyond what ordinary animals did.  They baked ceramic figurines in kilns, made flutes, wore ornamental beadwork, sewed clothing, invented new and improved tools, and built trophy homes with mammoth bone walls.  These luxurious dwellings have been found in Ukraine, Czech Republic, Poland, Romania, Belarus, and Russia.

Venus figurines have been found in Slovakia, Italy, Austria, Russia, Germany, Czech Republic, Switzerland, France, Romania, and Siberia.  They were carved in soapstone, steatite, sandstone, mammoth ivory, horse bone, serpentine, black jet, antler, limestone, and hematite.  Venus figurines date from 30,000 to 10,000 years ago.

Folks learned how to process red and yellow ochre, hematite, manganese oxide, and charcoal into pigments useful for cave painting.  Wild artists crawled far inside caverns with torches, and painted gorgeous portraits of the sacred animals for which they had the deepest respect and reverence.  Images included the horse, lion, auroch, rhinoceros, salmon, bear, mammoth, buffalo, owl, hare, ibex, auk, weasel, reindeer, chamois, and fox.  Often, artists placed their spread out hand against a wall, and sprayed paint over it, creating a hand stencil.

Those folks did not spend most of their lives indoors, isolated from the wild ecosystem, like astronauts in orbit.  They had no glowing screens.  Their world was entirely wild and alive, and they were intimately involved in it, every minute of every day, bloody hands and all.  The paintings celebrate their sacred relationship with the animals that fed them, clothed them, and sometimes killed them.

Prehistoric cave art has now been found in every continent except Antarctica.  In France and Spain, it has been found in almost 340 caves.  Famous sites include Chauvet in France (30 to 32 thousand years ago), Altamira in Spain (15,000), and Lascaux in France (18,000).  Recently, D. L. Hoffman’s team found paintings in three Spanish caves that were more than 64,800 years old — about 30,000 years before the arrival of humans.  This was the Neanderthal era.

The Great Leap Forward has also been called the Cultural Revolution or the Cognitive Revolution.  Cognition is about thought, understanding, and knowledge.  Twenty years ago, some believed that the leap was the result of miraculous genetic mutations that turbocharged our intelligence, but that theory went extinct, for lack of convincing DNA evidence.

A number of experts theorize that the leap was encouraged by powerful advances in complex language and communication, but this is impossible to prove via archaeological evidence.  Spoken words are not preserved in fossils.  We may have been singers and poets several million years ago.  We’ll never know.  Many primates and other animals are vocal.

Some sort of Great Leap certainly occurred in snow country, maybe between 50,000 and 30,000 years ago.  Our tropical primate ancestors were excited to discover lands loaded with abundant food, but challenged by a life-threatening climate for which evolution had not prepared them.  The only way they could stay, and feast on the delicious wildlife, was to cleverly invent a collection of prosthetic technology that would increase the odds of winter survival.  Eventually, the accelerating pace of cultural evolution enabled us to conquer the planet, explode in numbers, and savagely vandalize Earth in every imaginable way.

While many of the innovations of the Great Leap were survival-oriented prosthetics, others were not.  Painting, ornamentation, figurines, flutes, and so on were probably motivated by spiritual affairs, or the desire for enjoyment.  Obviously, for a while, these were not folks who were desperately struggling to survive.  Their new indulgences would seem to indicate that these folks were living in a bubble of affluence, leisure, and decadence.  They had learned and refined the skills of survival, and their food resources were temporarily abundant.  They were rich.  Life was good.

They remind me of America’s baby boomer generation, of which I am a member.  We were born at a time when industrial civilization soared to ridiculous excesses, fueled by an orgy of consuming enormous amounts of premium quality nonrenewable resources, as if they were infinite.  Some have called this joyride in self-destruction “The Blip” — a brief extreme spike in many trend lines, something equivalent to an asteroid strike. 

History repeatedly reminds us that high impact lifestyles always have an expiration date.  Yet, despite being proud descendants of the Cognitive Revolution, our clever minds routinely refuse to comprehend this simple and vital idea.  Magical thinking is always an effective cure for the unpleasant deliriums caused by occasional whiffs of reality.

Anyway, over the long run, was it truly a leap “forward” into greater joy, wisdom, health, and sustainability?  Or, was it something else?  When was the planet healthier and happier?

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Wild Free and Happy Sample 15


[Note: This is the fifteenth 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 201 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.]

Smashing Limits

Fearless prey was a lucky but temporary windfall jackpot for migrating hominins.  Another major asset was our ability to digest a highly diverse diet of plant and animal substances.  Because we aren’t fussy eaters, we can survive changing conditions better than many other species.  This advantage was greatly expanded by our unique ability to cook foods.  We can nourish ourselves in chilly Greenland, steamy Amazon rainforests, and the scorching Sahara.  In recent times, humans have also become the top carnivore in marine ecosystems, despite the fact that we don’t even live in the water. 

Over the span of millions of years, animal species of all types and sizes evolved time-proven anti-predator strategies for self-defense — flying, fleeing, swimming, climbing trees, diving into burrows, injecting venom, counterattack, camouflage, and so on.  These ancient strategies worked fairly well, but not every time.  Predators needed sustenance too.  Ideally, predators and prey lived in relative balance.  This encouraged wild ecosystems to maintain a state of long term sustainability.  Perfect!  It discouraged population explosions that can become ecological hurricanes.  Hooray!

When musk oxen were attacked by wolves, the group backed up together into a circle, butt to butt, with their horns facing outward, and patiently waited for the hungry predators to give up and have a good cry.  When raccoons, squirrels, or bear cubs were attacked by predators, they zipped up the nearest tree and giggled at the frustrated killers.  These excellent time-proven strategies failed when heavily armed hominins arrived with their deadly projectiles.

For many grassland herbivores, speed was an essential predator defense strategy.  Pronghorn antelopes can run for more than 20 miles (32 km).  They can flee at speeds up to 70 miles per hour (112 km/h), for up to two miles (3.2 km).  Pronghorns originally evolved high speed flight to outrun hungry cats — species that went extinct maybe 12,000 years ago.  Today, wolves and coyotes are way too slow.  Sadly, ranchers have installed some fencing on the prairie, and pronghorns can’t leap fences.  The fence prevents escape, the animals pile up, and enable mass kills.

When bison are attacked by natural predators, grazing stops, and running begins — the whole herd following the leader.  Slower animals, like calves, the elderly, and the sick or injured become the main course at lunch time.  This strategy worked well for millions of years until Neanderthals and humans organized communal hunts, and chose locations where fleeing herds could be guided into traps or off cliffs.  In this situation, follow the leader escapes could be disastrous.

For eons, sea birds, sea turtles, and marine mammals found security by living on islands.  This advantage was diminished by the invention of canoes, kayaks, harpoons, and so on.  Many of these island animals lived in a way that made them highly vulnerable when hungry aliens washed up on shore.  Many had a hard time fleeing or hiding.

Critters that found security in camouflage or concealment became far more vulnerable when hominin hunters set fire to the grass.  Excellent camouflage lost its advantage when enslaved dogs joined the hunt.  Their powerful sense of smell enabled them to quickly find prey that were difficult to see.  Critters that evolved the ability to make high speed escapes became more vulnerable when hunters began riding enslaved horses.  When hunters used both horses and dogs, game was far less likely to survive.

Evolving to jumbo size was another very effective anti-predator strategy.  Big, strong, healthy, mature elephants, rhinos, and hippos had little reason to fear wild carnivores.  Size mattered.  Predators preferred to kill their youngsters, because they were less dangerous, and easier to kill.  Jumbo size species have far lower rates of reproduction.  Wee critters, like mice, bunnies, and insects, are popular items on the menus of many animals.  Consequently, they reproduce like champions. 

Unfortunately, when hominins adapted spear technology, jumbo size became a serious handicap.  Elephants were big, slow, easy to find, and had lots of meat.  Hunting large game was energy efficient.  Killing a mammoth required far fewer hours and calories than killing a thousand bunnies.  Around the world, 50,000 years ago, the land rumbled under the feet of countless megafauna, every continent a Serengeti.

Stephen Wroe summed it all up.  Over millions of years, many animals developed anti-predator strategies that were good enough to keep their species in existence.  Tragically, the arrival of tropical primates armed with specialized high-tech hunting technology radically altered the rules of predation.  Advanced kill power, combined with fearless prey, sparked a revolutionary shift.  In the new paradigm, animals had to move beyond traditional anti-predator strategies, and strive to develop new and different anti-predator strategies that were hominin-specific.  Species unable to make this transition were more likely to blink out.

Technological crutches enabled our ancestors to become direct competitors with wolves, big cats, and other carnivores.  Wherever hominins expanded, they had the ability to destabilize long running ecosystem relationships.  Crutches also made us less vulnerable to man-eating predators.  Spears enabled our ancestors to better repel the predators that could help keep hominin populations stable and healthy.  This rubbished the laws of nature.  Imagine rabbits inventing tools that allowed them to kill foxes — soon there might be seven billion bunnies staring at cell phones (gasp!).

Colonizing Snow Country

Obviously, tropical primates evolved to survive in tropical ecosystems, which were warm all year round.  By and by, some hominins migrated out of tropical regions, and into temperate ecosystems, which had four seasons, including snow.

When tropical primates began wandering into regions with frigid winters they were confronted with new and serious challenges to survival.  They were presented with a painful warning similar to modern highway signs: Wrong Way!  Do Not Enter!  But, instead of cautiously turning around, and going back to more comfortable lands, some proceeded deeper into the domain of the frost giants, and discovered many super-cool new ways to die prematurely.  The game rules radically changed.  Warm clothing, protective shelter, new tools, and food storage boosted the odds for survival.

Outsmarting Evolution

A bedrock theme in this book is that the ecosystems which move through the millennia guided by genetic evolution tend to make transitions in a fairly graceful manner.  Ungraceful ecosystem transitions are far more common when the hominin residents naively develop a never-ending abusive relationship with the super-sticky tar baby of cultural evolution and technological innovation.

Japanese snow monkeys slowly and smoothly adapted to a temperate climate via genetic evolution.  Humans emerged maybe 300,000 years ago, when the hominin drama was already heavily dependent on cultural evolution (fire, weapons, stone tools, etc.).  Our homeland in Mother Africa had a tropical climate, and genetic evolution had provided our species with better heat tolerance.  Human genes have not made extensive changes in 300,000 years.  We remain able to live happily in tropical lands, but still can’t survive in snow country without a load of prosthetic technology. 

Between the Arctic, and the Mediterranean, there were several climate zones — ice, tundra, steppe, and woodland.  When the climate plunged into frigid periods, glaciers and ice sheets expanded downward from the north, which compressed the zones to the south.  There were times when the ice sheet extended from Scandinavia to northern Germany, and covered most of the British Isles.  At times, large areas of France were tundra.  The Mediterranean Sea, a large body of warm water, moderated the climate of southern Europe, so the temperature swings were less intense in Gibraltar, and wild foods remained abundant for the remaining Neanderthals.

One indicator of climate shifts is the types of bones found at various time periods in the layers of cave crud.  The layers associated with Neanderthals usually indicated warm, moist, woodland or forest.  Woodland conditions were identified by the bones of aurochs, red deer, boar, cave bear, leopard, giant deer, and temperate rhinoceros.  The ideal weapon for woodland ambush hunting was the thrusting spear, and it remained the perfect tool for 400,000+ years.

It’s important to understand that the more recent sites, which are associated with humans, often indicate steppe-tundra conditions, when the land was cold, dry, open, and treeless.  Steppe-tundra conditions were identified by the bones of woolly mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, horse, musk ox, ibex, moose, Artic fox, and reindeer.  In steppe-tundra habitat, the wide open landscape had no trees or brush for hunters to hide in.  So, their preferred weapon was the javelin, which could kill from a distance.

When humans wandered into the steppe grasslands of Eastern Europe 36,000 years ago (the “European Serengeti”), their tropical bodies were not fine-tuned for freezing weather, nor had they evolved the clever trick of hibernation.  Moving into a winter wonderland was something like colonizing Mars.  At this point, their choices were: (1) give up and freeze to death, (2) turn around and return to home sweet home, or (3) innovate like crazy and struggle to survive in a hostile climate where large game was abundant.

Health Advantages

Aside from stuff like frostbite, winter hunger, and respiratory issues from smoke filled shelters, there may have been significant health benefits to colonizing temperate ecosystems.  Our African homeland was tropical, with a climate that ranged from warm to hot year round.  Tropical ecosystems have the highest biodiversity of plant and animal species, including the entire spectrum from elephants to microbes.  The colder the ecosystem, the lower the biodiversity, because many species have not evolved the ability to survive months of intense cold.

Pathogenic tropical parasites include malaria, schistosomiasis, and sleeping sickness.  Some regions in Africa are uninhabitable due to the high risk of sleeping sickness.  Tropical viral diseases include yellow fever, and three hemorrhagic fevers: Ebola, Marburg, and Lassa.  A warm climate is also home to more species of disease transmitting insects, many of which have poor cold tolerance.

The tropics are home to numerous other species of monkeys and apes, with whom humans are more likely to swap diseases.  For example, AIDS is caused by the HIV virus, which is probably a mutation of the SIV virus that is carried harmlessly by chimps.  Today, chimps, gorillas, and humans are dying from Ebola.  It is likely that tropical diseases had far less impact 50,000 years ago, long before deforestation, bushmeat hunting, agriculture, herding, irrigation, high mobility, and explosive population growth.  A later chapter will devote more attention to disease.

Monday, May 13, 2019

The Golden Thread



As I write these words, I’m wearing sweatpants and an old faded shirt.  I suspect that most readers are also wearing clothes.  Oddly, humans are the only animals that make and wear clothing.  Our ancestors evolved in the tropics of Mother Africa, where it was so warm that many folks preferred the comfortable and practical bare naked look.  Evolution spent several million years fine tuning our bodies for life on the savannah, and the result was an excellent design.

After humans migrated out of Africa, and colonized tropical Asia and Australia, some folks decided to wander north.  It was a cool place to live, and the farther north they wandered, the cooler it got.  In snow country, tropical primates were like fish out of water.  Brrrr!  They wrapped themselves in animal hides, lived in protective shelters, and huddled around warm campfires. 

Over time, they learned how to cut and sew hides into custom tailored clothing that provided better protection for both humans and body lice.  Eventually, they learned how to spin plant fibers into thread, which could be used for stitching seams together.  In the Republic of Georgia, researchers have found spun and dyed fragments of flax fibers that were 34,000 years old.  At some point, folks learned how to weave thread into fabric.  We aren’t sure when.  Cloth made from natural fibers is perfectly biodegradable, leaving few clues for modern archaeologists.

Kassia St Clair wrote an interesting book about fabric, The Golden Thread.  It’s not a comprehensive history, but a collection of snapshots — linen wrapped mummies in Egypt, the silk monopoly in China, wool production in medieval England, slavery and the rise of cotton, synthetic fibers, and so on. 

My great-great-grandmother, Sarah Cleaton Rees, was a handloom weaver in central Wales, and so were many of her female kinfolk and neighbors.  Flannel was made from wool produced by herds of sheep grazing on the surrounding deforested hillsides.  Prior to power looms and factories, millions of women spent much of their lives spinning, weaving, and sewing in their homes, where they could also tend to their children. 

I learned about St Clair’s book by reading a fascinating essay, No Wool, No Vikings.  My ancestors also include Vikings from the west coast of Norway, where the homesteads were scattered across numerous rocky islands.  Boats were how they got around.  Sheltered deep water harbors were not common, so boats were designed to ride high in the water, so they could stop in shallow places, or on beaches.  Early boats were propelled by paddles or oars. 

Sails were not used until clever folks learned how to add keels to boat bottoms.  Keels made wind powered sea travel possible.  Large, sea worthy, shallow draft boats with sails set the stage for the Viking era — several centuries of rowdy raiding, pillaging, bloodshed, and colonizing that rocked northern Europe. 

These new boats totally surprised many communities that had formerly been safe and secure for centuries.  In A.D. 98, Tacitus wrote about the Suiones, who lived along the Swedish coastline.  For them, the sea provided an invincible defensive barrier.  It was impossible for enemies to attack them by water.  For the first time, Viking ships made many safe places vulnerable to violent surprise attacks.

While history recorded the names and sagas of some heroic male warriors, it disregarded the hard working women who made the Viking era possible.  The adventurous lads were attired in wool from head to toe, slept under wool blankets, and traveled long distances in boats with woolen sails.  This required large numbers of sheep, and enormous amounts of tedious human labor.  The wool of 18 sheep was needed for each blanket.  It took two highly skilled women more than a year to make a typical square sail.

Viking sails were another revolutionary turning point in the human saga.  They enabled Scandinavians to cross the Atlantic and establish settlements, like L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada.  In Viking times, most of humankind spent their entire lives fairly close to their place of birth.  Imagine gaining the ability to sail to unknown lands more than a thousand miles away.  This was a mind-blowing possibility.  It rubbished the traditional perception of space and limits.

Long distance sea travel flung open a ghastly Pandora’s Box.  Sailing ships enabled aggressive conquerors to colonize vast regions around the world.  Environmental history is loaded with horror stories of pathogens delivered by long distance sea travel — potato blight, anthrax, Dutch elm disease, chestnut blight, white-nose fungus, bubonic plague, smallpox, cholera, typhoid, yellow fever, influenza, and countless others.  Millions of unlucky indigenous people were forcibly absorbed into oppressive alien systems.

Anyway, wool was a life preserver in snow country.  The notion of “no wool, no Vikings” can be expanded to “no wool, no Britons, Saxons, Scots, Picts, Teutons, Gauls, Vandals, etc.”  Prior to the nineteenth century, clothing was the product of extremely labor-intensive processes.  For hardworking common folks, clothing was precious, and carefully kept mended and patched.  Many likely owned little more than what they were wearing.  Like moon explorers, wool space suits enabled tropical primates to survive in chilly life-threatening environments.

In the eighteenth century cotton began displacing wool.  Large cotton plantations emerged in the American south, where legions of slaves enjoyed miserable lives.  Power looms and cotton gins sharply reduced the labor needed to produce fabric.  Cotton remained the dominant fabric until the 1970s, when synthetic fibers rose to dominance — rayon, nylon, polyester, and so on.

In recent decades, polyester clothing has shifted from cruddy, stinky, and creepy to comfortable, practical, and very cheap.  It’s made from petrochemicals, which arouse the snarling displeasure of Big Mama Nature.  A lot of the apparel sold at stores in your community is made by poor women who work long days, in nasty conditions, and maybe earn $37 per month.  The apparel industry is the world’s biggest employer of women, of whom only two percent earn a living wage.

As the human herd grows, more folks enter the consumer class, and clever marketers wickedly accelerate the pace at which super-trendy styles suddenly become horribly uncool.  So, the demand for new clothing accelerates.  “In 2010, for example, it was estimated that 150 billion garments were stitched together, enough to provide each person alive with twenty new articles of clothing,” according to St Clair.  “For the first time in human history, the vast majority of fabric being made has become disposable, something to be consumed and thrown away within weeks or months of being made.  Synthetic fibers made this possible.”

Marc Bain reported that the future of clothing is plastic (synthetic).  Wool has become an endangered fiber.  Cotton production experienced modest growth since 1980, and has now plateaued.  Polyester zoomed past cotton in 2007.  In 1980, its production was 5.8 million tons, rising to 34 million tons in 2007, and is projected to soar to 99.8 million tons by 2025.

It’s daunting to contemplate the future of clothing.  Wool production is limited by the availability of grazing land, and the need for much manual labor.  It seems impossible that the huge human herd can go back to dressing in wool.  Cotton production requires cropland, fertilizer, extra-large doses of pesticides and water, and lots of energy-guzzling machinery.

The human herd recently zoomed past 7.7 billion.  Should current cropland be used for producing more food, more fiber, or more urban spawl?  Oil is a finite nonrenewable resource, and the mother of polyester.  The easy to extract oil is about gone, and what remains is increasingly expensive to produce.  Resource limits guarantee that the plastic clothing era has an expiration date.  All industrial scale apparel production is ecologically unsustainable.  On the bright side, neither cotton nor polyester biodegrade when buried in landfills.  So, the latest fashions in coming decades might be mined from dumps.

Will climate change solve this challenge by transforming snow country into a toasty tropical nudist colony?  Our ancestors once lived like the San people of the Kalahari, in a time-proven low impact manner.  Their way of life was leisurely compared to the workaholics of snow country.  The San had no need to spend much of their lives spinning and weaving.  They had no need to construct sturdy warm cottages.  They had no need to produce and store surplus food for consumption during the icy months.  They had no need for herding livestock, or planting crops, or mining minerals, or building cities.  Imagine that.

St Clair, Kassia, The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History, John Murray, London, 2018.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Wild Free and Happy Sample 14


[Note: This is the fourteenth 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 200 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.] 

Expansion and Limits

William Rees noted that every species has two traits.  (1) They will expand to all locations that are accessible to them, if conditions allow their survival.  On the other hand, negative feedback can discourage new expansion, or encourage retreats.  The climate might be hostile.  Food or water resources might be scarce.  Powerful predators or hostile people might live there.  So might disease agents, like tsetse flies, malarial mosquitoes, or parasitic worms.

For walking critters, the area accessible for expansion has limits.  People with domesticated horses or camels have greater potential for long distance expansion.  The same is true for folks having watercraft that can travel on rivers, or move across seas and oceans.  Also, folks with flying machines, or driving machines.  Critters that know how to make fire and sew warm clothing can expand into snow country, far beyond the normal and appropriate habitats for tropical primates.

(2) When critters expand into new habitat, they will utilize all available resources — until they smack into limits, and have to back off.  This is no big deal for animals that live as they naturally evolved to live — without complex tools.  When a resource becomes scarce, they can switch to a substitute, if any, or they can move elsewhere, or they can turn into cat food.

Technology can expand what resources are available.  A mammoth is not a resource that an empty handed hominin can utilize, but a hominin with a thrusting spear, stone blade, and fire drill can.  Fishing with a hand net is one thing, a motorized trawler is another.  Hunter-gatherers did not mine and smelt ores, fabricate machines, drill oil wells, or replace wilderness with mega farms growing millions of tons of corn — but industrial civilizations do.

As you can see here, there are limits to expansion.  Innovation and technology can push back narrow limits, sometimes to a huge degree.  For example, 10,000 years ago, the human population was maybe 10 million.  Today, it’s seven-point-something billion, thanks our ability to cleverly bypass countless limits, our feeble ability to foresee the unintended consequences, and our reluctance to question reality when we’re enjoying regular meals. 

This artificially swollen carrying capacity can only be temporary, because it is fantastically unsustainable.  Modern folks, the most educated generation ever, have a fervent blind faith in the ridiculous idea that we have no limits.  They’ve been angrily pissing on Thomas Malthus for almost 200 years for suggesting the logical and rational ‘heresy’ that unlimited growth is impossible.

Technological innovation is the fruit of diabolically clever genius.  But… it seems that genius and wisdom rarely, if ever, meet.  Wisdom is almost invisible in our culture, a ghost, a will-o-wisp.  All the spotlights are on geeky genius, as it enthusiastically tap-dances across the stage, like a whirlwind of nerve gas.

Genius designs and builds 440 nuclear power plants — before giving any serious consideration to the enormous challenge of how to permanently store countless tons of radioactive wastes that can remain highly toxic for a million years.  Wisdom cries.  Wisdom recommends turning off the lights, turning on your thinker, converting your Mercedes into a chicken coop, and discovering the evolutionary purpose of those mysterious five-toed thingees at the ends of your legs. 

Genius, the hyper-ambitious idiot savant, gives us automobiles, cell phones, hydrogen bombs, plastic diapers, landfills, and a severely rubbished ecosystem.  The bottom line is that healthy, sustainable, ordinary animals like chimps have zero need for wisdom, or genius, or foresight, or technological innovation.  They live in the manner for which they evolved, period.  Imagine that.

Unlike wild chimps, we are not free.  Industrial civilization keeps us in cages.  Miles Olson pointed out that we are essentially enslaved by the powers that control the technology we are addicted to for survival — corporations that provide energy, transportation, food production, and so on.  Chimps would not notice if all of these corporations went bankrupt next week.

Hominin Wanderers

Anyway, hominins emerged in Mother Africa, and eventually expanded around the world.  This was not unique.  Long before hominins appeared, many “ordinary” animals travelled widely — mammoths, horses, wolves, salmon, bears, bison, migratory birds, and so on.  These species did so gradually, allowing evolution to fine tune them for new conditions — with zero dependence on technological crutches.

Much later in the hominin saga, Homo sapiens emerged, maybe 300,000 years ago.  In Africa, this era is sort of a black hole in the archaeological record.  Minimal evidence has been found.  Paul Jordan wrote that the geologic chemistry of African caves was lousy for preserving bones, while the limestone caves of Europe were excellent.

By and by, our human ancestors wandered out of Africa, and entered the Middle East somewhere around 130,000 and 100,000 years ago.  Clive Finlayson suggested that this was not an exodus to escape problems, and it was not purposeful — brave pioneers eager to explore the unknown.  Folks just gradually moved into new regions over the span of many generations, like roaming herds of bison, going where their stomachs led them.

The early pilgrims were probably small groups, and there were likely multiple expeditions over the centuries.  They wandered eastward, across tropical regions of Asia, and arrived in Australia maybe 50,000 years ago.  Humans began migrating into Eastern Europe about 36,000 years ago, and arrived in Portugal 2,000 years later.  Finally, we wandered into the Americas maybe 13,000 years ago.

Moving through the tropical regions of Asia was not a daunting challenge for critters that evolved in tropical Africa.  They didn’t need clothing or warm shelters.  Meat and plant-based foods were available year round.  They may have left some African pathogens behind, and they may have discovered some new pathogens in Asia.  Tropical ecosystems are home to high biodiversity, including pathogens.

In Asia, as well as Africa, they remained vulnerable to man-eating predators that were big, strong, fast, smart, and armed with sharp teeth and claws.  In both continents, our ancestors were at a distinct disadvantage — smaller, weaker, slower, and wimpy in the teeth and claws department.  Back then, the notion that we would someday become the dominant animal on Earth seemed hilarious.

Self-defense was a primary challenge.  Folks likely kept a fire burning all night, with someone staying awake on guard duty.  They used spears, clubs, rocks, and impolite suggestions to discourage unwelcome visits from their hungry carnivorous neighbors.  In those days, being a plump juicy walking meatball 24 hours a day inspired folks to constantly pay acute attention to the sights, sounds, smells, and patterns of the surrounding reality (unlike today’s cell phone zombies).  Like all other animals, it was not common for humans to die from old age.  The other primary challenge was regularly acquiring food.  Cold turkey withdrawal from a serious addiction to food is unpleasant, often fatal.

Fearless Prey

OK, now pretend that it is 75,000 years ago, and you are a huge, powerful, ass-whooping aurochs munching on the greenery along a river in tropical India.  One fine day, a few strange animals appear in the meadow — brown, hairy, stinky, fairly small, oddly walking on two legs, and carrying long sticks.  What the <bleep> are those?  You sense no danger and continue grazing.  Healthy mature aurochs fear no other animals.  Large carnivores prefer to attack game that is less likely to tear them to bloody shreds.  Suddenly, the gang of alien critters charge and ram their sticks into you.  Game over. 

Thanks to predator control programs run by the U.S. government, wolves ceased living in the Tetons for a while.  By and by, new generations of elk and moose lost their memory of wolves.  Later, some wolves from Yellowstone began drifting back in.  They were delightfully surprised to discover herds of delicious animals that had absolutely no instinctive fear of them.  William Stolzenburg wrote that wolves could simply stroll into a herd and snatch away their calves.  Eventually, animals realized that wolves were dangerous predators, and promptly rewrote their survival manuals.

Back in Mother Africa, no critters ever forgot that lions, leopards, hyenas, and humans were vicious serial killers.  Life on the savannah was an endless crime wave, the bloody sacred dance of life.  When human pioneers wandered away from their original African home, into the great unknown, they regularly encountered (and ate) a wide variety of animals that had no fear of them — at first.

In 1921, Knud Rasmussen’s arctic expedition made a winter camp on Danish Island.  Out on a walk, “we encountered a hare so amazingly tame that we were tempted actually to essay his capture with our bare hands.  Soon afterward, we spied a lonely caribou who at once was all curiosity and came running toward us to investigate these strange visitors.  Never before had I encountered from animals such a friendly greeting.”

Tim Flannery wrote about the elephant seals that lived on Tasmania’s King Island.  Some weighed up to four tons.  When hunters found them, the seals calmly watched as the animals around them were killed.  It was a surreal experience.  The hunters felt like gods.  In 1802, when European explorers arrived at Kangaroo Island, off the south coast of Australia, the fearless kangaroos could be calmly approached and shot in the eye, or smacked with a club.

In 1805, when the Lewis and Clark expedition was crossing into Montana, Lewis wrote, “The buffalo, elk, and antelope are so gentle that we pass near them while feeding, without appearing to excite any alarm among them, and when we attract their attention, they frequently approach us more nearly to discover what we are, and in some instances pursue us a considerable distance apparently with that view.”

On numerous islands, the first explorers found that the wildlife was incredibly tame.  Birds could be killed with a stick, and many islands were home to enormous bird communities.  Thriving colonies of fish knew nothing about hooks or nets.  When legions of sea turtles came to nest, they were sitting ducks.  For a while, newcomers to islands enjoyed an easy life of feasting —until limits began raining on the party.

Surplus Killing

Sometimes hungry predators kill more prey than they need, and abandon what they can’t use.  Often surplus carcasses are simply abandoned, tasty offerings for the local scavengers.  Surplus killing is common with many species including badgers, wolves, red foxes, leopards, lions, spotted hyenas, bears, coyotes, lynx, feral dogs, house cats, and humans.

A pack of 19 spotted hyenas once attacked a herd of Thompson’s gazelles, killing 82, and severely injuring 27.  Only 16 percent of them were eaten. 

During a severe Minnesota winter, when the snow was very deep, the deer had a hard time moving.  Wolves killed every one they found, leaving many uneaten. 

Sometimes surplus killing is deliberate and purposeful.  Weasels kill voles as winter approaches, and leave them in burrows for later dining.  In Alaska, a wolf pack killed 17 caribou in early February.  Over the next three months, they returned, dug up carcasses, and continued dining on them.

Barry Lopez spent time with native Alaskan hunters, and wrote a book about wolves.  When a wolf chases and confronts a caribou or moose, their eyes meet, and their spirits communicate, in what Lopez calls the conversation of death.  The prey can chose to resist, which sometimes works, or they can attempt to flee, which sometimes works.  A sick or elderly prey might indicate surrender — take me, let my healthy comrades live.  Or, the wolves might suddenly end the confrontation and walk away.  If there is to be a death, both predator and prey choose this outcome during their spirit-to-spirit ceremony, wrote Lopez.

Wolves and moose have coevolved for a very long time, and both comprehend the sacred power of the life and death encounter.  They are fully aware of what is happening.  Wolves know that a strong, healthy, mature moose can splatter their skulls with a swift kick.  When wolves are desperately hungry, the risk of injury is secondary to the risk of starvation.

Domesticated animals are a different story.  Many have had their wild intelligence bred out of them, rendering them passive and infantile.  So, when the hungry predator confronts them, and it’s time for the conversation of death, the wild spirit of the prey is absent — the lights are out, nobody is home, a truly pathetic situation. 

In South Africa, one leopard killed 51 sheep in a single attack.  There are a number of stories of wolves killing 20 or 30 sheep and just eating 2 or 3.  If a herd of prey makes no effort to flee, or are helplessly trapped, predators sometimes keep killing them.  In the family of life, predators evolved to be natural born killers.  Their sacred mission is to discourage population outbursts in prey species, and the consequent ecosystem impacts.  They help maintain balance.

It’s daunting to contemplate the ongoing expansion of highly skilled human hunters into new regions outside of Mother Africa, where they certainly encountered fearless prey.  Did the human hunters instinctively treat fearless critters the way hungry wolves treat clueless sheep?  As humans entered Australasia, Eurasia, and the Americas, large animal extinctions followed.  They were the most desired prey, and they had not coevolved with heavily armed tropical primates.