[Note: This is the twelfth 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 199 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.]
When a hungry chimp snatches a small monkey, termite, or bird egg, all she needs to eat it are fingers and teeth. When a hungry baboon discovers a carcass abandoned by lions, he can chew the meat and fat off the bones and hide. It’s very different when a persistence hunter chases a large kudu until it is exhausted, and then suffocates it. What now? Imagine turning a road kill deer into a feast without a knife. Have a bloody good time!
Chimps use slender sticks to fish for termites. They use clubs and rocks to aggressively attack critters that annoy them. Macaques use stones to smash open shellfish. Vultures use rocks to open ostrich eggs. Ravens use gravity to crack open the nuts they drop. This is not complex technology.
Our ancestors began a transition from found tools to manufactured ones. The oldest ones discovered so far, mostly simple choppers, were found in Africa, and date to about 2.5 million years ago. A major advance emerged around 1.5 million years ago — biface knapping. Some types of rocks, like obsidian or flint, can be carefully knapped to knock off flakes having razor sharp edges. These were useful as scrapers, knives, and choppers. Later, ancestors learned how to knap long sharp blades, and attach them to handles. Still later, they became skilled at chipping flakes into delicately shaped spear points and arrowheads.
We glowing screen people arrogantly smirk at the primitive technology of our early Stone Age ancestors. In reality, stone tools were revolutionary inventions that shifted the hominin saga onto a new, unusual, and risky path. For the first time, folks could effectively skin and butcher large animals — an ability that greatly expanded their food resources, and provided high quality nutrients for their jumbo-sized energy-guzzling brains. Imagine a world in which teeth were the only cutting edges for any purpose. Civilization would be impossible, and hominins may have never evolved.
Kathy Schick and friends once successfully butchered a dead elephant with stone tools. A mature adult’s rugged hide is about one inch thick (2.4 cm). Scavengers like hyenas don’t even bother trying to chew into the carcass of an elephant that recently died. They let it bake in the sun for a few days, allowing decay to soften it up.
Our ancestors used sharp cutters to remove hides, cut meat off bones, and dismember the carcass into portions easier to haul back to camp. They used stone hammers to smash open bones, to extract the marrow, which was rich with fat. Fat is an essential nutrient, and the meat of wild game has only one-seventh of the fat found in supermarket beef, according to Schick. Ancestors may have scavenged elephant carcasses, but adult pachyderms may not have been prime targets for hunters. Once you strip the meat off of the exposed side, flipping over a dead elephant is a huge challenge. Smaller game takes less effort.
We have no idea when spear technology was first developed. It could have been two or three million years ago. Wooden artifacts are highly prone to decompose over time. Spears were also revolutionary. They made it easier to kill large game, and allowed the ancestors to be less dependent on scavenging. Spears were also useful for discouraging attacks from man-eating predators.
Thrusting spears, or lances, were driven directly into the prey by hungry hunters, at close range. Javelins were thrown spears that could kill from a distance, which was much safer. Carleton Coon mentioned a tribe that could hurl long spears with deadly accuracy from up to 180 feet away (55 m).
The oldest spears found so far were discovered in a coal mine at Schöningen, Germany. Frederick Coolidge wrote that seven spruce spears, a throwing stick, and other tools were found near ten butchered horse carcasses. The spears were 400,000 years old, up to 6.5 feet long (2 m), scraped smooth, and pointed at both ends. They were made by the ancestors of Neanderthals (Homo heidelbergensis). The fact that Neanderthals could survive for hundreds of thousands of years using such simple weapons is evidence that they lived in a time when large game was abundant, and it was proof that they were not dummies.
The killing power of spears was boosted by the invention of the atlatl, a spear-throwing device that enabled the weapon to be hurled farther and faster. Alfred Crosby noted that in Peru, an Incan warrior with an atlatl could send a short spear completely through a conquistador wearing metal armor.
Eventually, nobody is sure when, the bow and arrow was invented. Like the spear, this deadly technology spread around the world, and over time enabled the slaughter of countless millions of animals. Of course, with state of the art weaponry, well fed clans grew in number, conflicts increased, and hunters increasingly had to also turn their weapons on strangers who encroached into their territory.
A bloodless alternative to conflict was migration into lands uninhabited by hominin competitors. Many frontier regions introduced the ancestors to new species of prey, and clever folks invented specialized technology for killing them. Joe Kane spent time with the Huaorani people of the Amazon rainforest. Their armory included spears and blowguns. Poison darts would kill monkeys in the branches above, requiring the hunter to climb up and retrieve them. Over time, lads who did a lot of tree climbing developed odd-shaped feet. Their big toes bent outward, providing a tighter grip.
Carleton Coon mentioned other tribes using different poisons that relaxed the muscles of monkeys, so they would fall from the trees. No climbing needed. Pygmy poisons were a potion made from ten different plants, beetle larvae, and snake venom. They paralyzed muscles and stopped the heart. In Japan, the Ainu built booby traps, in which deer tripped on a cord, and a bow shot a poison tipped arrow into the animal.
When marine mammals were speared, their corpses often sank into deep waters, never to be retrieved and consumed. The solution was to carve barbed detachable harpoon heads which would not pull out of the animal’s flesh. The embedded head was attached to a cord linked to the hunter above. When the dead animal sank, it could then be retrieved and invited to lunch.
Innovation also led to the use of rock-throwing slings, bolas, hunting nets, traps, and on and on. You could fill a book on this subject, and Alfred Crosby did, covering the entire spectrum from rocks to nuclear weapons. Humans are remarkably creative when it comes to devising an endless stream of new and improved systems for killing things. It’s been a nonstop arms race.
The wheels of innovation spin faster when populations grow, and become able to support more and more nerdy specialists. Also, trade with other regions brings distant groups into contact, where they are exposed to the gizmos and ideas from other cultures, and this can greatly stimulate the imaginations of anxious nerds. The velocity of change in my lifetime has been dizzying, impossible to keep up with.
Craig Dilworth described what he called the Vicious Circle Principle (VCP), a cycle in which (1) scarcity spurred technological innovation, (2) innovation increased access to more resources, (3) more resources increased consumption, (4) increased consumption fueled population growth, (5) population growth led to resource depletion, and (6) resource depletion led to scarcity once again.
The VCP cycle keeps repeating, each time ratcheting up the impact, until it eventually slams into firm resource limits, or chokes to death on its own pollution. Some hunter-gatherer cultures managed to survive into recent times in a low impact manner — until the radicalized VCP mob barged into their world via loggers, miners, missionaries, and so on.
Dilworth noted that, from its beginning, technological development has degraded ecological sustainability. Should we be proud of our legendary wizardry? Species that don’t manufacture tools, like chimps, never experience this predicament. Our current technological utopia, swarming with billions of hominins, continues to work tirelessly to destroy the ecological basis upon which it depends, a one-way dead-end path. How smart is that?
Evolution is brilliant! When predators are free to perform their natural ecosystem services, their prey do not experience population outbursts. Chimps make no effort to exterminate the big cats that prey on them, consequently there are not seven billion chimps pounding the stuffing out of the planet. The sacred dance of predator and prey works beautifully until it gets blindsided by technological innovation. Technology improved our abilities at offence (killing game) as well as defense (exterminating competing predators). Balance got blown out of the water.
Dilworth mentioned that by 200 B.C. the leopards and lions of Greece, and along the coast of the Near East, were gone. Several centuries later, tigers no longer survived in northern Persia and Mesopotamia. Predator extermination is a standard process in cultures that enslave domesticated animals. Today, few wild high-level predators survive in most of the civilized world.
Environmentalists tend to focus their campaigns primarily on problems related to modern technology, because they think it’s especially terrible. Dilworth’s VCP sees all technology as dangerous and unnecessary. Across Eurasia and the Americas, megafauna extinctions surged between 10,000 and 30,000 years ago — in the Stone Age, prior to agriculture and civilization, when fewer than ten million humans likely wandered the Earth. It was an enormous ecological holocaust that our culture has largely swept under the rug. Today, few consumers wake up screaming from nightmares about the bloody extermination of mastodons, saber-tooth cats, or woolly rhinos by high-tech hunters. We are also careful not to think about the mass extinctions happening right now, as we pedal to work.
The bottom line for Dilworth is that if technological development was truly wisdom-driven, intelligent, and beneficial, it would not have transformed the planet’s healthy genuinely sustainable wild ecosystems into toxic devastated wastelands, depleted countless precious resources, and sabotaged the climate. Why do we continue proudly teaching children about our magnificent big brains and the wonders of progress? The good news is that the VCP cycle is unsustainable, and will eventually blink out. What will be left when it does?