Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Humans Who Went Extinct

Clive Finlayson is an evolutionary ecologist and a champion skeptic.  He routinely rejects theories based on no evidence, even if they are solidly supported by popular whims, like the widely held belief in the inferiority of Neanderthals.  What science now knows about human evolution is something like finding 100 pieces of a 10,000-piece puzzle.

Experts have a strong urge to fill in the blanks with their opinionated imaginations, an approach that is far from trusty.  The mindset of mainstream modern science worships Homo sapiens like Hitler worshipped Aryans — the master race — whilst the holy species rips the planet to shreds right before their eyes.  For 300,000 years, Neanderthals had the good manners to remain in balance with life, as did most of our ancestors.  Good manners are important.

The whims of Ice Age climate patterns are the primary reason why you and I are not gorgeous, sexy, brilliant Neanderthals today, admiring a passing group of wooly rhinos, in a healthy world where bison far outnumber people.  Finlayson’s book, The Humans Who Went Extinct, convinced me to reconsider my perception of the human journey.  Not many books do that anymore.

The era we live in, the 10,000 years of civilization, human domination, and ecocide, is but an eye blink in the long human journey.  Our era is a freak, because the climate has remained relatively warm and stable for an amazingly long time.  The pattern of the last 70,000 years has been a roller coaster of surprising climate shifts, from milder & wetter, to colder & drier.  Shifts could occur within a single lifetime.

When the glaciers grew, sea levels plunged, forests shrank, countless animals died, and some went extinct.  The deer and hippos fled or died, and were replaced by wooly mammoths, wooly rhinos, musk ox, and reindeer.  Sea levels 30,000 years ago were 120 meters (400 feet) lower than today.  You could walk from England to Holland.

The Younger Dryas cold snap lasted a thousand years, and ended 11,600 years ago.  Warm weather melted the glaciers, life migrated northward, forests returned, and the land was filled with abundant megafauna.  This was the last waltz for many cold-tolerant megafauna.  The breezes were filled with the yummy aroma of sizzling mammoth meat.

In the Middle East, the Natufian culture was developing a sedentary way of life that majored in harvesting the abundant wild cereal seeds.  Within a thousand years, folks were experimenting with the dangerous juju of cultivation.  Tragically, they could never begin to imagine the unintended consequences of their cleverness.

Many have pointed to agriculture as the father of our disaster.  Lately, I’ve been more inclined to point to tool addiction.  Hominids were able to move out of the forests and survive.  The savannah offered immense amounts of meat, but acquiring it with bare hands was not easy

Once you get started with innovation, is it possible to stop?  Yes.  The macaques of south Asia break open shellfish with stone axes — they have been tool addicts for ages, but their excellent manners and beautiful small brains protected them from being flushed down the toilet by the Technology Fairy.

The ancestors of the chimps evolved large canine teeth for dining on meat, whilst early hominids developed meat-processing tools instead.  Baboons hunt small animals without weapons.  Tool-free small-brained monkeys of the American tropics eat a wide variety of jungle critters.

Could large-brained humans ever comprehend the healthy consequences of living tool-free, like the monkeys?  There is something deliciously appealing about the notion of living in harmony for millions of years without psych meds and cell phones.

And now, the plot thickens.  The Ice Ages did not hammer Africa, Australia, or India.  These southern folks continued living in the traditional human manner, as low density, low impact hunter-gatherers.  Northerners, on the other hand, stumbled onto a new and dangerous path.

Almost everyone has seen an image of the Venus of Willendorf.  She was carved by a member of the Gravettian culture of early humans, which thrived across the chilly treeless plains of Europe, from 30,000 to 22,000 years ago.  They were clever folks who loved reindeer stew.  They lived in huts with frames made of mammoth bones, covered with hides.  They made textiles, baskets, kilns, jewelry, and figurines.  They painted the caves at Chauvet and Les Garennes.

Finlayson laments that we modern civilized folks suffer to this very day from the curse of the Gravettians, “who lost their own way and all sense of their Pleistocene heritage.”  It was these far-too-clever white folks who created the most diabolical invention of all time — (gasp!) the storage pit.

Southern folks enjoyed a warm climate, and a year-round food supply.  Most foods could not be stored, because they would soon spoil.  The crazy Gravettians lived in a frigid climate, where all you could see in any direction was endless empty steppe-tundra.  Food appeared occasionally, like when migrating herds of reindeer passed through.  When they did, the Gravettians hunted like crazy, and stored surplus meat in pits that they had dug in the permafrost.

Finlayson referred to these pits as dangerous toys.  “They had found ways of producing surplus, something almost impossible in warm climates, and with it emerged an unstoppable drive to increase rapidly in numbers.”  If some surplus was good, then more was better, and you could never have too much.  Abundant food led to growing numbers and bad manners.  Finlayson emphasizes that our nightmare actually began 30,000 years ago, and agriculture was merely its hideous grandchild.

Later, the weather warmed, and the megafauna were gone.  Descendants of the Gravettians tried hunting small game for a while.  They learned how to enslave herbivores, which led to domestication.  Instead of storing meat in storage pits, they stored living critters in grassy prisons.  Others began growing plants for food, and storing the harvest in granaries.  By and by, ecosystems fell under human control.  Agriculture opened the floodgates to explosive population growth.  We embarked on an insane vision of “taming the future.”

Countless cultures and species were blown off the stage by climate shifts.  Finlayson insists that luck may be the most important factor in the evolutionary process.  Oddly, if luck had made Neanderthals the winners, and they had the good manners not to invent psych meds and cell phones, and the world of today was an incredible paradise — we’d still be long overdue for a turbulent climate shift.

Reading this book, I was impressed by the incredible resilience of life.  Over and over again, forest ecosystems were wiped out and replaced with treeless ecosystems that later changed back to forest ecosystems.  Countless species disappeared in this exciting tilt-a-whirl ride of climate shifts, and countless species adapted and evolved.  Our ancestors nearly died out 73,500 years ago, following the Mount Toba eruption.  A few thousand survived.  Today we’re at seven-point-something billion.

This is a small book, but it is jammed with information.  We really can’t know who we are, and where we came from, if we don’t understand the turbulent sagas of the Ice Ages.  The end of our entire way of life is just a climate shift away.  In the past, it was a zigzag between cold and warm.  Future zigzags seem likely to be between warm and roasting.  Hang on to yer arses, and the best of luck to ye!

Finlayson, Clive, The Humans Who Went Extinct — Why Neanderthals Died Out And We Survived, Oxford University Press, New York, 2009.


Anonymous said...

i reccomend you watch First Footprints, 4 part doco on Aboriginal Australians who were not hunter gatherers but had a sophisticated way of working with nature for food and ecological conservation, for the last 60,000 years.

What Is Sustainable said...

Thanks! I'll take a look when I have time.