Sunday, June 30, 2019

Wild Free and Happy Sample 18

[Note: This is the eighteenth 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.] 

Megafauna Pioneers

Every continent has regions of grasslands — savannahs, steppes, prairies, and so on.  Grasslands provide the nutritious greenery that can nourish herds of large herbivores.  Forest or desert ecosystems are far less ideal for grazing animals.  Meat provides nutrients that are essential for good health — nutrients much harder to acquire from wild grassland vegetation.  Hunters prefer to kill a large animal, rather than numerous rodents, grubs, worms, and so on.

Naturally, the existence of large herbivores needs to be kept in balance by the existence of hungry carnivores.  Too many grass eaters can turn grasslands into barren wastelands.  Large herbivores and large carnivores are both megafauna.  Megafauna are animals weighing more than 100 pounds (45 kg).  (Outside of America, more than 50 kg.)

Many families of megafauna species have expanded across five continents: Africa, Europe, Asia, North America, and South America.  During glacial cycles, some regions currently separated by water became connected by dry land, as sea levels dropped.  Land bridges allowed megafauna on both sides to cross over into new habitats.  Australia has mostly been isolated from the other five continents.  It has its own unique story of herbivores, carnivores, and megafauna extinction spasms.

Buried under downtown London, construction crews have discovered the remains of hippos, elephants, Irish elk, aurochs, and lions.  North America was the original homeland for the ancestors of horses, bears, rhinos, camels, and others.  Horses and bears spread across the five continents.  Camels expanded into Asia and Africa.  Rhinos vanished from America five million years ago.

Mother Africa was the homeland for the saber-tooth cat group, which later expanded across Eurasia, and then to North America and South America.  Africa was also where the elephant-like family began, which eventually colonized the five continents, diversifying into many forms over millions of years, including mammoths and mastodons.  Until 13,000 years ago, mammoth country ranged from Western Europe, across Siberia, and down into Mexico.  In the Americas, before hunters from Siberia arrived, there were seven elephant-like species.

On nutrient rich grasslands, a major trend in evolution was to encourage herbivores to gradually expand to jumbo-sized proportions, a trait that increased their odds for survival.  Bigger was better — thicker hide, stronger, and more dangerous.  Size mattered.  For example:

Giant beavers could grow to 7.6 feet (2.3 m) long, and weigh up to 276 pounds (125 kg) — about the size of a black bear.

Giant ground sloths could grow as large as elephants.  They could stand erect up to 20 feet (6 m) tall, and weigh 2,204 pounds (1,000 kg).

Giant armadillos were mammals that had an armor of bony plates.  Some weighed more than 1,000 pounds (454 kg).

Short-faced bears were among the largest land dwelling mammalian carnivores.  They could weigh over 1,500 pounds (680 kg).

Irish elk were giant deer that could weigh more than 2,500 pounds (1,133 kg).  Their enormous antlers weighed more than the animal’s skeleton.  They could spread up to 13 feet (4 m) across.

Of course, the rise of jumbo herbivores encouraged evolution to also select for larger carnivores.  Grasslands were home to a continuous evolutionary arms race, the ancient sacred dance of eaters and eaten.

Later, when skilled teams of hominin hunters became prominent, jumbo size eventually became a huge liability.  (Jumbo herbivores became as vulnerable as whales did when primates began harpooning them from boats.)  Jumbo herbivores were easy to see, and they did not excel at high speed getaways.  To hungry hunters, they were slow moving giant meatballs.

In 1961, Colin Turnbull noted that a Mbuti pygmy hunter could singlehandedly kill an elephant with a short handled spear.  This deadly spear technology was available to African hunters two million years ago.


Paul Martin stimulated much controversy in the study of megafauna extinctions.  In the 1960s, he was surprised to discover that in Africa, about 1.4 million years ago, a cluster of megafauna species went extinct.  The number of elephant-like species dropped from twelve to eight.  Three species of sabertooth cats, adapted for preying on large animals like the elephant family, also vanished from Africa.  These cats had two long upper teeth that were useful for stabbing through the very thick hides of elephants.  When the elephants declined, the huge incisors became a fatal handicap.

Baz Edmeades notes that this time period corresponds to when hominin hunters developed the larger and more complex Acheulean class of tools.  Apparently, hominins were getting better at competing against the sabertooths for jumbo-sized prey.  As the prey populations declined, so did the cats that ate them.  Hominins can survive on a far wider variety of foods.  When elephants are scarce, they can feast on eggs, grubs, or lizards.

The notion of hominin-caused extinctions 1.4 million years ago did not sit well with those who proposed the Great Leap Forward theory.  While Jared Diamond accepted the notion of the more recent overkill in North America 13,000 years ago, the far earlier date clashed with his belief that humans were essentially cute chimp-class primates until 40,000 years ago, when the miracle of turbocharged cognitive abilities arrived.  (This date also corresponds to the start of the human migration into snow country.)

Later, Martin grated even more nerves when he presented his research on the megafauna extinctions in North America.  He framed them as a rapid thousand year “blitzkrieg” (lightning war) of overkill.  Following World War II, there was a golden age of anthropology, when scholars visited many lands, and learned that most wild folks were not stupid, fiendish, bloody savages.  In fact, they had many admirable traits.  In fact, in many ways their lives were far healthier and saner than those of the anxious stressed out consumers of industrial civilization.

It became trendy to issue shining halos to wild people, because they were clearly not relentless maniacal planet thrashers.  Indeed, compared to modern consumers, their eco-impacts can seem close to insignificant.  But, as centuries pass, even modest impacts can gradually snowball into embarrassing blunders that hurl numerous species off the stage.

In hindsight, it’s easy to see that most or all techno-innovations have unintended consequences (even fire drills and wooden spears).  These consequences can often outweigh the benefits.  Also, the combined consequences of numerous innovations can swirl into bad juju hurricanes that can sharply impact the stability of entire ecosystems, even the planet’s atmosphere and climate systems.

It’s important to put these impacts into proper perspective.  Compared to modern consumers, whose whirlwind lives have staggering eco-impact, the lives of those Pleistocene ancestors were much closer to ecologically sustainable.  Walter Youngquist reported that in just the last few hundred years, highly educated civilized people have dug up and burned 500 million years of safely sequestered carbon, most of it during the lifetime of the baby boomer generation — me and my peers.  Look, it took 1,400,000 years to finally drive all sabertooth cats extinct on five continents.  It took just 40 years for greed-crazed American yahoos, with their rifles and railroads, to exterminate something like 60 million buffalo, and waste most of their meat.  Technology matters.

At the same time, paying careful attention to reality leads to far less cognitive dissonance than indulging in magical thinking.  Dan Flores prodded the romantics.  If the Paleolithic was such a long wonderful era of harmony, why did our ancestors abandon it?  Why, in the last 50,000 years, did they fan out across the world?  Why does the pattern of megafauna extinction spasms correspond to the geographical pattern of human expansion?

It’s always embarrassing to compare the human saga to our ancestral baseline.  Chimps and bonobos have continued to live sustainably, in the same way, in the same place, for several million years, without swerving off to dangerous experiments in technological innovation.  We seem to be the one and only living species that has wandered off the traditional path.  Many cultures have foolishly succeeded at monopolizing the exploitation of resources in their territories — a perfectly insane joyride of ecological self-destruction that will not have a happy ending.

Now, I must confess that I find it a bit difficult to effortlessly believe the overkill theory without a doubt.  I mean, how could a modest population of hunters, travelling on foot, armed with spears, exterminate all of the horses in all of North America, over the course of a dozen centuries or so, while the bison and others survived?  Many readers who have hunted wild horses with spears will find this idea hard to swallow.  To get a deeper understanding of this extinction tragedy, it’s time to pull on our waders, slog down bloody Megafauna Lane, and take a bunch of selfies.

Trail of Tears

Hominins have been around for maybe 2.8 million years.  During our visit on Earth, there have been several spasms of megafauna extinctions.  The spasms during the hominin era began in Africa about two million years ago, when the hominin predecessors of Homo sapiens were romping around on the savannah. 

Our species emerged maybe 300,000 years ago, and eventually expanded eastward, across tropical Asia.  Around 50,000 years ago, folks arrived in Australasia, setting off a wave of large animal extinctions.  Over the course of several thousand years, 17 out of 18 genera of megafauna blinked out.

What’s a genera?  It’s the plural of genus.  A genus is a category of closely related species.  For example, the Homo genus includes the species Homo sapiens, Homo neanderthalensis, Homo erectus, and so on.

Around 40,000 years ago, humans wandered into Europe, where the extinctions were less extreme because the local megafauna had already been living with dangerous armed primates (Neanderthals and others) for maybe 500,000 years.  The megafauna had learned the hard way that primates were not their good little buddies.  In the European spasm, 21 of 37 genera vanished.

Eventually folks expanded across northern Asia (Siberia), and crossed into the Americas, where the extinction spasm was rapid and intense.  Asia lost 24 of 46 genera, North America lost 45 of 61, and South America got hammered hard, with 58 of 71.

Finally, on many isolated islands, extinctions happened much later, when humans arrived.  For example, 4,700 years ago in Cuba, 1,500 years ago in Madagascar, 500 years ago in New Zealand, and so on.

Attentive readers will perceive that this series of extinction spasms clearly corresponds to the expansion of humans into new regions.  [Martin’s chart]  It is also absolutely clear that the pattern of extinctions does not correspond to patterns in climate history.  Most or all of the genera that blinked out had been in existence for at least several million years, and had survived numerous glacial cycles.

Fernando Fernandez summed up the extinctions more broadly.  Between 50,000 years ago, and A.D. 1500, about two thirds of the world’s megafauna species went extinct.  In this process, of the 150 genera of large mammals, at least 97 went extinct.  This statistic does not include the extinctions in Africa prior to 50,000 years ago.  When we take a moment to reverently sniff reality’s butt, it’s easy to see that, in the long run, innovation is not a good little buddy of the family of life.  Our magnificent standard of living has mindlessly created a global gas chamber.

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 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 (6 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?