It’s fascinating to explore the deeper roots of our family tree. They reveal a lot about the path that led us to today. Homo sapiens emerged in Africa, somewhere between 300,000 and 130,000 years ago, depending on which expert you read. DNA mapping asserts that the oldest surviving human group is the San people of South Africa and Namibia (also known as Khoisan, Bushmen, or !Kung). Their genes are the closest to the ancient female from whom all living humans descend (Mitochondrial Eve).
The San have been hunter-gatherers since the dawn of humankind, enjoying a way of life that managed to survive into the 1970s. Eight hundred years ago, the San homeland included all of southern Africa. Since then, Bantu and European herders and farmers have displaced them from their better lands. They now reside in the Kalahari Desert, where they are being devastated by the dark juju of modernity — missionaries, bureaucrats, booze pushers, and the money economy.
The Pygmies, who live in the rainforest of central Africa, are the second oldest surviving group. They also managed to live as hunter-gatherers into recent decades. The Pygmies and San coevolved in their ecosystems, and their way of life was genuinely sustainable, like all other (normal) animals. They did not live like ecological firestorms. Prior to the arrival of outsiders, they had no domesticated plants or livestock.
In the tropics of Mother Africa, meat spoiled quickly, and yummy carcasses quickly attracted mobs of ravenous scavengers. When folks wanted a steak, they killed something. Preserving and storing meat was impractical and unnecessary, a stupid idea that never occurred to anyone. This limitation was a blessing, because it made large-scale hunting impossible, keeping low limits on population. It was impossible for nomadic hunters in the tropics to acquire and preserve surplus meat that could feed non-hunting specialists like priests, technicians, warriors, or kings.
Somewhere between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago, pioneers began migrating out of Africa, into southwest Asia. They discovered new species of big game, many of which had no instinctive fear of small, smelly, goofy-looking tropical primates with sharp sticks. In tropical regions like India, Southeast Asia, and Australia, traditional lifestyles essentially continued, because meat storage was impractical.
Pioneers who migrated into colder regions were confronted with daunting new challenges. They were something like moon explorers. Outside the tropics, food was less available all year long. Surplus had to be carefully stored to ensure winter survival. They needed weatherproof shelters, warm hearths, and stylish wardrobes of fur clothing.
The San and Pygmies lived in sustainable, time-proven, low-tech ways. However, in chilly non-tropical regions, where living was more complicated, ongoing innovation boosted the odds for survival. The clever ones invented sleds, canoes, kayaks, lances, harpoons, nets, snares, and on and on. For the moon explorers, innovation became insanely addictive, because cool gizmos reduced the odds of premature death. As centuries passed, innovation became something like an endless arms race, a nightmare-inducing runaway train, according to Alfred Crosby.
Clive Finlayson discussed the humans living in snowy Europe from 20 to 30 thousand years ago. The clever Gravettian culture preserved surplus meat by freezing it in pits dug in the permafrost. Finlayson perceived the storage pit to be a wicked invention, because it radically changed the world. “They had found ways of producing surplus, something almost impossible in tropical climates, and with it emerged an unstoppable drive to increase rapidly in numbers.” Food storage infected the moon explorers with a new and diabolical idea, “more is better.”
Around 10,000 years ago, in the Fertile Crescent, the genie of domestication emerged from the magic lamp, and steered humankind into the express lane to catastrophe. Jared Diamond wrote a fascinating essay on the emergence of domestication. Obviously, it was impossible for the cunning conjurors to foresee the unintended consequences of the monster they were creating. If a vision had revealed the dark future to them, Diamond thought that they would have immediately ceased their experiments, and made food production taboo. The shift to agriculture “was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered.”
No matter how hard the control freaks tried, most plant and animal species proved to be unsuitable for domestication. Of the 200,000 species of wild plants, only 100 have been enslaved. Of the 148 species of terrestrial herbivores and omnivores weighing more than 100 pounds (45 kg), only 14 have been enslaved. Of those 14 species, 13 were enslaved in Eurasia, including the big five: cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, and horses.
None of the 14 species enslaved originally resided south of the equator in Africa. Horses, donkeys, and zebras are close relatives, and can interbreed. Horses and donkeys were enslaved in Eurasia, but all four species of African zebras defiantly resisted 200 years of efforts to destroy them — the older a zebra gets, the more vicious it becomes. Freedom is precious. No surrender!
In the homelands of the San and Pygmies, few wild plants were suitable for domestication. Of the crop plants domesticated in Africa, all originated north of the equator. In their ancient homelands, the San and Pygmies had no domesticated plants or livestock, and zero need for long-term food storage. Progress was not an option for them, so they lived simply and sustainably, like their hominid ancestors had for the last two million years.
Unfortunately, the moon explorers wandered into harsh ecosystems where it was impossible to live like tropical hunter-gatherers. The way-too-clever oddballs eventually became exotic invasive loose cannons. Large game became scarce, then small game. The dark and slippery path to agriculture was nicely described by Mark Nathan Cohen.
Diana Muir noted how the process unfolded in prehistoric New England. In the good old days, game was abundant. Stuff like acorns and shellfish were reserved for famine food. As game became scarce, shellfish became a mainstay. An adult male would need 100 oysters or quahogs each day. Thousands were dug and smoked for winter consumption, a tedious job. In the lower layers of huge shell dumps are oyster shells 10 to 20 inches across (25 to 50 cm) — oysters 40 years old. In higher levels, the shells get smaller and smaller.
Eventually, the seeds of corn (maize), squash, and beans reached New England. If a region was home to 100 tribes of hunter-gatherers, and just one tribe adopted corn, helter-skelter followed. The farmers produced more calories, and could feed more bambinos. With abundant stored foods, they had a much better chance of surviving harsh winters when hunting was poor.
Eventually, farmers outnumbered hunters. Muir wrote, “Once any group in a region decides to adopt agriculture, no neighboring group can afford not to.” Farming spread, population grew, conflicts increased, and villages were surrounded by defensive wooden palisades. Soils were depleted, new fields displaced forests, and stronger tribes trumped weaker ones. Progress!
In Mother Africa, the San continued their traditional way of life (i.e., naked, illiterate, heathen savages). The folks who stumbled into Europe took a different path. The turbo thrusters of progress roared. In the Czech Republic 25,000 years ago, folks lived in mammoth bone huts. A bit later, folks in France were painting gorgeous graffiti in caves. A bit later, folks were whacking down forests, living in filthy cities, and slaughtering each other in great numbers.
Pleistocene Europeans had heroically transformed from “anatomically modern humans” (like the San), to “behaviorally modern humans” (like the Trumps). Hooray! This miracle began maybe 50,000 years ago, an event celebrated by the cult of human supremacy. They call it the Great Leap Forward — cave paintings, complex language, ceramics, ornaments, rational thinking, and on and on. It had a lot to do with migrating out of Africa and adapting to exotic ecosystems via technological innovation.
The bottom line disturbs me. Until recently, the San followed an ancient path, which didn’t wreck their ecosystem. The folks who adapted to non-tropical ecosystems eventually strayed away from a two million year tradition of sustainability. Consequently, after a relatively brief rocket ride of bad craziness, the climate is trashed, the ocean is trashed, and seven-point-something billion primates are painfully discovering the embarrassing side effects of great leaps.
It’s fun playing “what if?” Imagine what the world would be like if our ancestors had remained in sub-Saharan Africa, and continued living like wild tropical primates — and nothing was domesticated. Would Europe and America still be home to mammoths, rhinos, and saber-toothed cats? Is there something we might learn from our bloody adventure?
Image: A San Tribesman (Source)
Cohen, Mark Nathan, The Food Crisis in Prehistory — Overpopulation and the Origins of Agriculture, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1977.
Crosby, Alfred W., Throwing Fire: Projectile Technology Through History, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2010.
Diamond, Jared, “Evolution, consequences and future of plant and animal domestication,” Nature, 418, 700-707 (8 August 2002) | doi:10.1038/nature01019 Free download.
Diamond, Jared, Guns, Germs, and Steel, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1997.
Diamond, Jared, “The Worst Mistake In The History Of The Human Race,” Discover, May 1987. Free download.
Finlayson, Clive, The Humans Who Went Extinct — Why Neanderthals Died Out And We Survived, Oxford University Press, New York, 2009.
Muir, Diana, Reflections in Bullough’s Pond: Economy and Ecosystem in New England, University Press of New England, Hanover, New Hampshire, 2000.
Thomas, Elizabeth Marshall, The Harmless People, Vintage Books, New York, 1989.
Turnbull, Colin M., The Forest People, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1961.
Wade, Nicolas, Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors, Penguin Books, New York, 2006.