[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.]
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?