Sunday, July 28, 2013


Once upon a time, long, long ago, musicians Stephen Stills and Judy Collins enjoyed a romance.  Then, Judy sailed away and broke his heart.  Stephen wrote Suite: Judy Blue Eyes, which I recently heard again.  One line made my head spin: “Don’t let the past remind us of what we are not now.”  Why not?  Remembering the past sounds like an excellent idea.  What we are not now is wild and free human beings — normal & authentic.

I just finished Brian Fagan’s book, Cro-Magnon, which describes an important segment of my family history.  The happy news is that there have been three studies of the mitochondrial DNA of modern Europeans, and their genes are primarily indigenous.  The invading farmers from the Fertile Crescent did not exterminate the natives.  The genes of the eastern immigrants are somewhere between 15% and 28% of the modern European DNA. 

It staggers the imagination to contemplate the astonishing wildness, beauty, and vitality of Ice Age Europe.  It’s heartbreaking — and illuminating — when these grand memories remind us of what we are not now.  After reading the book, I feel a much stronger connection to the ancient cave paintings.  Those artists were my ancestors, and their images belong in the family album.  My people once lived in lands inhabited by wooly mammoths, aurochs, bison, and vast herds of reindeer.  They lived beside streams that thundered during salmon runs.  This gave me a sense of homecoming, a powerful remembering.

Fagan does a nice job of describing the world of the Ice Age, and the wild swings of the climate — growing glaciers & melting glaciers.  When the climate warmed, the hunters and their game moved north, and when frigid times returned, they moved south.  The hunters followed the meat, and the meat followed the grass.

“There were at least fifteen to twenty short-term events when temperatures were up to 44.5 degrees Fahrenheit (7 degrees Celsius) warmer than during the intervening colder intervals.”  The climate could swing from pleasant to freezing over the course of a lifetime.  Siberia was once a tropical forest, the Sahara once had lakes and grasslands, and there was a time when you could walk from France to England.

The sad news is that the hunting tribes of Europe became farmers.  This may have been similar to the spread of corn from Mexico to the tribes of the north — an amazing innovation that bit us on the ass, and cast wicked shadows on the unborn generations.  Fagan helped me to better understand the transition to agriculture, in which ongoing innovation in hunting technology played a leading role.

All hominids have African ancestors.  Some of them migrated to Asia, where Neanderthals first walked onto the stage.  Some Neanderthals moved to Europe maybe 300,000 years ago, where they hung out in cool temperate forests.  Their primary weapon was a heavy thrusting spear with a sharp fire-hardened tip.  These were great for killing large slow-moving animals. 

Fagan believes that the Neanderthals were luckless dullards, because they displayed almost no innovative cleverness over vast spans of time.  They were simple and stable, and their dance on this planet may have been far longer than ours will turn out to be — and they didn’t destroy paradise.  What dreary bores!

“Cro-Magnon” refers only to the Homo sapiens clans that inhabited Europe, but our species originally emerged in Africa, maybe 170,000 years ago.  Around 45,000 years ago, some moved into Europe, and within 5,000 years, they lightly inhabited much of the continent.  Cro-Magnons left us the gorgeous painted caves, magic peepholes into fairyland.  Neanderthals went extinct about 30,000 years ago, for unknown reasons.

The trademark weapon of Cro-Magnons was the lightweight throwing spear, tipped with stone or antler.  It was excellent for hunting on open land, and it could kill from a distance.  It made it easier to kill a wider variety of prey, like deer and reindeer.  Thus, there was more meat on the table, more bambinos in the nursery, and more spear-chuckers running around the bloody countryside.  Even during warm eras, European summers were short, and plant foods were limited, so meat was the core source of nourishment.  Homo sapiens have been purebred hunters since day one in Africa.

Later, the bow and arrow arrived.  Bows may have been used 18,000 years ago, based on circumstantial evidence, but the oldest bow found so far was from 10,800 BC.  The bow was a diabolically powerful weapon.  It could be fired from any angle, and quickly reloaded.  It could kill critters large and small from a long distance.  It was great for forest hunting.  Nets, traps, and barbed fish spears also came into use.  Rabbits, birds, and rodents now appeared on the menu — more meat, bambinos, and hunters — and less and less wildlife.  Our consumption of plant foods and shellfish increased.

Around 12,900 years ago, the Younger Dryas period brought frigid weather back again, for a thousand years.  It brought severe droughts to the Near East, and the humans adapted by harvesting and planting grass seeds.  And the rest, as they say, is history.  The combination of excess cleverness, deficient family planning, and climate change put us on a bullet train to global catastrophe.

“Within a surprisingly few generations, the people of the Near East and southeastern Turkey were entirely dependent on farming.  When wetter conditions returned at the end of the Younger Dryas, the new economies spread like wildfire across Anatolia and into southeast Europe, where they were well established before eight thousand years ago.”

What we know about human evolution and Ice Age Europe is quite fragmentary.  Time, glaciers, and civilization have taken a big toll on the meager evidence.  The timeline is full of holes, the dates are controversial, the theories are controversial, and the research continues.  Fagan’s book also has some holes, which can be filled by a visit to Wikipedia.

Annoyingly, he inserted a number of ideas unsupported by hard evidence, based on speculation.  For example, Neanderthals probably didn’t have complex language because they persisted in living in a simple manner.  Their primitive brains may have lacked the neural circuits necessary for feverish innovation and pathological ecocide. 

Fagan is the captain of the Homo sapiens cheerleading squad.  He gushes with praise for our unbelievably clever species.  “Effective technology, an acute self-awareness, and an intimate relationship with the environment made the Cro-Magnon personality practically invincible.”  In frigid regions of Europe, they “adapted effortlessly to the ever-colder conditions.”

I’m glad that I read this book, because I learned a lot from it, and I will not forget it.  The entire era of civilization has existed during an unusually long period of warm and stable weather.  Our food production system is fine-tuned for this climate, and it’s going to have tremendous problems as the planet gets hotter and hotter.  Fagan helps us remember the scary roller coaster of climate history, and how it mercilessly hammers the unlucky, over and over again, big brains and all.

Given the fact that we’re currently beating the stuffing out Big Mama Nature, the gushing praise for human intelligence and innovation emits a noxious cloud of stinky funk.  Where is the line between brilliant innovation and idiotic self-destruction?  Are they the same?  Is it possible that simple and stable do not mean stupid?  These questions should not be swept under the rug.  We really, really need to remember what we are not now.  We need to discover the long lost treasure.

The next book on my voyage is The Humans Who Went Extinct, by Clive Finlayson, who is far more sympathetic to our Neanderthal relatives.  Sounds interesting.  Stay tuned.

Fagan, Brian, Cro-Magnon – How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans, Bloomsbury Press, New York, 2010.


Michael Sosebee said...

Humans are unusually successful for a species. Of course the fate of every successful species is to wipe itself out.

What Is Sustainable said...

Well, ants, rats, roaches, and starlings are successful. But they have the instinctual wisdom to faithfully obey the laws of nature.

Indeed, humans are unusual animals. Maybe everyone in the world can agree on that.