[Note: This is the thirty-first 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 202 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.]
Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time close to nature. The deer, bears, skunks, bats, foxes, coons, wolves, beavers, coyotes, and weasels tolerated my passing as long as I behaved calmly and respectfully. None of these wild beings had the slightest interest in becoming my friends, or my fur children. None depended on me in any way. None fully trusted me.
All were absolutely free to live as they wished, every minute of every day (unlike me). They all had a perfectly healthy relationship to the land (unlike me). None of them ever sent anything to a landfill, or caused permanent damage to the land, water, or air (unlike me). All of them will celebrate when the lights go out, the last car dies, and the last bullet is shot. Hooray!
Gray wolves are the wild ancestors of dogs. Their history is a bit misty. One source wrote that gray wolves emerged in Eurasia maybe a million years ago, and migrated into North America maybe 750,000 years ago. Their range spanned across the northern hemisphere, from Europe and Asia to North America. They didn’t fancy living in tropical forests or intensely arid regions. Instead, they adapted to grasslands, forests, and artic regions.
Humans emerged in Mother Africa, south of the equator. Over the course of maybe two million years, in various ways, our ancestors transitioned from foragers and scavengers, to persistence hunters, to innovative weapon users, and then teams of communal hunters. Africa was wolf-free, but it had a home team of man-eating predators, like big cats, big snakes, big crocodiles, and packs of hyenas. They did a good job of weeding out the weak, the sick, the injured, the inattentive, and the unlucky. They kept our clans tidy, fit, and strong.
Wolves evolved in Eurasia, north of the equator. Barry Lopez noted that wolves shared their food with others in the pack. They educated their young. They could hear clouds passing, and were able to smell prey from a couple miles away. They were expert trackers, and hunted in a state of heightened concentration, paying relentless attention to details. Wolves generally travelled in packs of 6 to 10 animals, and could sprint as fast as 37 miles per hour (60 km/h). Like many man-eaters, they mostly moved and hunted at night (not a great time to be out alone).
Wolves and humans likely never met one another until some human pioneers eventually wandered north out of Africa, across the equator, and into wolf country. History is clear that wolves had no taboos against feasting on yummy tropical primates. In many cultures, big bad wolves enjoyed starring roles in their myths, because they had to be taken very seriously in real life. One source noted that wolves and Eskimos were equals — prior to the arrival of firearms. For them, wolves were valuable teachers. I have never seen a wolf in the wild, and I hope I never see one in lockdown
The Dynamic Duo
Everyone agrees that dogs were the first domesticated critters, but exactly when and where remains highly controversial. Wolves and humans maybe began their cautious relationship while scavenging snacks from animal carcasses. Wolves were certainly attracted to the garbage piles at human camps. They can chew up bones that humans can’t. Humans were also magical critters who had the fantastic ability to regularly emit indescribably delicious turds that canines cannot resist.
We’re not sure how, but canines (wolves or dogs) and humans gradually became hunting buddies. Eventually, via a long process of selective breeding, wolves were reduced to dogs, critters less likely to rip out your throat, and kill your friends and family. Dogs were four-legged garbage disposals that helped keep camps tidy. Compared to a wolf of the same size, a dog’s skull is 20 percent smaller, and its brain is 10 percent smaller. Dogs have smaller teeth and jaw muscles, after thousands of years of dining on human refuse and other soft foods.
Anyway, the hunting buddies had complementary skills. Dogs had superb senses of smell and hearing, excelled at team hunting, and were far speedier than humans. Humans had the advantage of weaponry. They had the spooky ability to hurl projectiles (sticks and stones) with remarkable accuracy, often with lethal results.
So, sniffing dogs could discover the presence of coons, and chase them up a tree, where humans could then kill them. Thus, dogs ate better, and humans ate better, while coons (and other prey) became more vulnerable to predation. Previously, the coon’s ability to quickly climb trees was their primary defense tactic, for maybe a million years or three. It now became less safe to be a coon. By gaining access to more food resources, the number of both dogs and humans could grow.
Actually, “buddies” exaggerates the intimacy of the relationship. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas spent lots of time with the San hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari. Writing in the 1950s, she noted that the dogs in their camp were skeletal and weak from starvation. The dogs were owned and named, but folks never fed them anything except shit. When a mongrel made a move on the humans’ food, it was stoned or whipped. At night, they chased away visiting hyenas, jackals, and leopards.
Louis Liebenberg also wrote about the San. By the late 1960s, hunters were using dogs, which radically changed the game. On their own, dogs were not top class hunters. Sometimes they could run down small animals. When they teamed up with humans, both could eat more meat. And so, ancient food chain balancing acts were disrupted, and life became less safe for some.
With dogs, it became far easier for the San to kill gemsbok, because when pursued, they will eventually stop, turn around, and confront the dogs, at which point it was much easier for hunters to kill them (deer also eventually stop and surrender). Gemsbok was a prime prey for hunters, because they were fairly large, and fairly numerous. Despite the assistance of dogs, hunters still had to possess exceptional knowledge of tracking, animal behavior, and the ecosystem. This traditional knowledge was vital for mindfully directing the dogs toward the most promising locations to find a hot lunch.
Wireless Voice-Activated Herding Robots
At some point in the game, clever shepherds, with abundant free time on their hands, taught dogs to quickly and accurately obey their exact instructions for controlling the herd. With a well-trained dog, a herder on foot could manage 150 to 200 sheep. With this great advance, humankind was well on the path to the wondrous realm of modernity.
Writing in 1902, Irishman W. G. Wood-Martin wrote: “The dog is the greatest conquest ever made by man, for the taming of the dog is the first element in human progress. Without the dog, man would have been condemned to vegetate eternally in the swaddling clothes of savagery. It was the dog which effected the passage of human society from the savage to the patriarchal state, in making possible the guardianship of the flock. Without the dog there would be no flock and herds; no roast beef, no wool, no blanket, no time to spare; and, consequently, no astronomical observations, no science, no industry. It is to the dog man owes his hours of leisure.”
The Deadly Trio
Liebenberg noted that following the introduction of dogs to hunting, some folks also added horses to the Kalahari team of hunters and dogs. Consequently, the traditional method of persistence hunting — tirelessly chasing game for hours during the heat of the day until they collapsed — was no longer necessary. Speedy horses made it far easier for the team to hunt speedy antelopes. Dogs will chase anything that moves, and horses excel at high-speed pursuits.
As a result of this great advance, the hunting game got too easy. Hunters no longer needed to possess exceptional knowledge. At the same time, the San lost access to much of their former hunting territory. Now, as the elders die, large portions of a two million year old knowledgebase are going extinct, including much of the original hominin software. The San live in permanent villages. Game over.
Around A.D. 1300, Marco Polo described how Genghis Khan used the deadly trio for an industrial scale approach for acquiring wild meat. It included two flanks of mounted hunters, each having 10,000 men and 5,000 great mastiff dogs. The line of hunters would extend to the length of a full day’s journey, and no wild animal would escape their dragnet. These hunts were like a bloody vacuum cleaner.
Later, with the adoption of firearms, the deadly trio become a bloody foursome. Guns made it much easier to kill large animals with the squeeze of a trigger. Pita Kelekna wrote that when the breech-loading rifle arrived on the U.S. west, the buffalo herd was reduced from 60 million to 1,000. Back east, there was high demand for buffalo robes and tongues, and new railroads delivered the profitable merchandise. At the same time, the U.S. government was eager to clear the troublesome heathen savages from the west, and repopulate the region with respectable tax-paying, God-fearing settlers.
Here’s the issue. All members of the family of life, in all types of ecosystems, continuously coevolve at a gradual pace. Species at the foundation of the food chain, like insects, evolve the ability to produce massive numbers of offspring. On the other hand, large, long-lived species that experience minimal losses to predators, like elephants and hippos, do not breed like roaches. Hunter-gatherers were very interested in pursuing large game, rather than mayflies. The more they came to depend on the use of the dynamic duo, the deadly trio, and the bloody foursome, the more success they could have at overhunting, and causing extinctions. This was not a slow and gradual process of coevolution, it was more like a technological asteroid strike.
Big Juju Transition
Paul Shepard was an original thinker who could soar far above the concrete walls of consensus reality. He perceived the Pleistocene to be the zenith of the human journey, and the high-water mark for the health of life on Earth (the Pleistocene ended 11,700 years ago). Many professors can’t do this. In the creative minds of wizards, an imaginative interpretation of deep history can conjure provocative visions, and sometimes blow large holes in deeply rooted cultural myths.
For nearly the entire saga of life on Earth — a 4.5 billion year pilgrimage — all critters everywhere were perfectly wild and free, as they should be. No species anywhere owned, controlled, and selectively bred others. Shepard perceived the emergence of domesticated dogs as something like a horrific cosmic tear in the universe. A new and turbulent epoch was born. He wrote, “The history of ecological catastrophe begins with the hound.” To the conventional mindset, that sounds like a ridiculously stoopid idea. But today the family of life is being massacred by the conventional mindset, a ridiculously stoopid rampage.
The act of gradually transforming a vicious, wild, man-eating predator into a tolerable shit-eating hunting buddy was super-big juju. Mischievous folks discovered that the spirit of wildness was something that could be suffocated. If you faithfully drowned the wildest pups in the litter, and allowed the wimps and dimwits to breed, over many generations you could produce genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that were the opposite of wild — mutant canines who would obey commands from domineering tropical primates. These oddballs were highly vulnerable to wolves, coyotes, big cats, and other wild predators. They were unlikely to survive outside the human sphere.
Over time, this understanding of control inspired some diabolical impulses. Why should we spend so much <bleeping> time chasing wild animals all over the place? Why don’t we just rip out their normal wild spirit and turn them into passive critters that we can keep in dense confinement near camp? Wow! Cool idea!
After many centuries of trial and error, the demented efforts of obsessive-compulsive control freaks succeeded in breaking wild aurochs, sheep, goats, and pigs. For thousands of years, humans had perceived these wild animals to be sacred beings. We painted magnificent portraits of them in caves. Now, reduced to freakish GMOs, they were forcibly bred, castrated, branded, sheared, bobbed, hobbled, milked, slaughtered, butchered, and eaten. Urp!
During this era, a number of groups were also fooling around with plant domestication. By and by, territories most suitable for intensive exploitation were able to sharply increase their food production. More and more fields were cleared on the soft floodplain soils along rivers. Grasslands for herds were expanded by exterminating primordial forests. Naturally, this led to growing numbers of bambinos, more tents in the camps, and increased social tensions.
Many centuries later, the last major GMO mammal emerged from the madhouse. The domesticated horse was a critter with a far more disruptive destiny than the dog. Shepard wrote that horses and hounds can be seen “as destroyers of nature and humankind.” As noted, the deadly trio of hunter, dog, and steed enabled stunning advancements in wildlife extermination. Horse power was used to accelerate soil mining, forest mining, and ore mining. Horse power pulled wagons, plows, and war chariots. Horse power revolutionized raiding, warfare, and empire building. The Mongol empire was enormous [MAP].
Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus was born around A.D. 1050. He shared many snapshots of the testosterone powered mega violence that came into full bloom during the era of domestication. “Now the warriors, who were always pillaging the neighborhood, used often to commit great slaughters. Plundering houses, cutting down cattle, sacking everything, making great hauls of booty, rifling houses, then burning them, massacring male and female promiscuously — these, and not honest dealings, were their occupations.”
King Gram boasted, “Singly against eight at once I drove the darts of death, and smote nine with back-swung sword, when I slew Swarin, who wrongfully assumed his honors and tried to win fame unmerited; wherefore I have oft dyed in foreign blood my blade red with death and reeking with slaughter, and have never blenched at the clash of dagger or the sheen of helmet.”
Stable, long lasting egalitarian cultures like the San, were based on sharing, cooperation, and simple sticks and stones technology. Cultures of domestication are based on self-interest, competition, domination, and technological innovation. The horse powered expansion of herding and farming turbocharged food production, population growth, and the size and number of horrendous bloody conflicts. These aggressive cultures sort of behave like wildfires — as long as they can find resources to consume, and conditions remain favorable, they grow and spread.
In wild times, when wolves killed a deer, it was a perfectly normal act, and nobody soiled their britches. When domestication arrived, and herds of my animals were grazing, wild predators immediately shape-shifted into demonic enemies that had to be exterminated — every single one of them, if possible.
In wild times, it was perfectly normal and natural for wild herbivores to munch on the greenery. When domestication arrived, wild grasses shifted into being my grass needed by my herd to increase my wealth. Wild critters that helped themselves to my grass were thieves that could not be tolerated. They had no right to exist.
In wild times, there were zero fields planted with crops. The countryside was a free all-you-can-eat buffet. Help yourself, take what you can find. Have a nice day! When domestication arrived, all the birds, bunnies, coons, deer, and bears that were tempted to sample the fruits of my hard work, in my fields could not be tolerated. Kill them all!
In normal wild ecosystems, Big Mama Nature encourages long term health. A forest roasted by a wildfire can usually heal and recover. In ecosystems ravaged by Big Daddy Dominator, the damage is often irreparable. The vegetation is stripped off, wildlife erased, the land dries out, flowing springs disappear, the climate gets hotter and dryer, persistent toxins soak in, precious soil is blown away, washed away, or rendered infertile by salt buildup, and so on. When a Big Daddy settlement is eventually reduced to wasteland, the survivors migrate elsewhere and promptly begin repeating the same cycle of mistakes.
Big Mama is sustainable and durable. Big Daddy is a one-way death march that burns every bridge behind it. The ecosystems he rubbishes can never fully heal, and return to their original condition. He’ll strive to expand his domain, by any means necessary, as far as possible, but Earth is finite. You can’t destroy more than everything (but he’ll try). Big Daddy is well on his way to what is known as a Pyrrhic victory. His heroic efforts for glorious conquest are terribly successful, but the losses he suffers in the process are so enormous that the final victory is meaningless.
In countless city parks and squares, it’s common to see huge bronze statues of male conquerors, holding deadly weapons, riding their snorting steeds. They are proud monuments of the fanatical Big Daddy cult. The message of each is “I courageously destroyed the despicable opponent that threatened our glorious way of life.”
Big Daddy is a huffing, puffing, smashing, killing, whirlwind of self-destruction, burning up the fossil energy, moving the topsoil into the sea, causing mass extinctions, poisoning the waters, and on and on. He is the proud father of an accelerating, out of control climate disaster — a massive challenge against which the brightest nerds in the world are impotent, reduced to delivering happy rainbows of magical thinking (hopium). On the bright side, the economy continues growing! Hooray! Let’s go shopping!
OK, well what would a monument celebrating Big Mama look like? It would not be bronze. She detests animal slavery. She has no cannons. What she has is the power of persistence, the power of life, the power of regeneration and healing. Her monument would look like a wild planet. She will someday watch Big Daddy wheeze, stumble, collapse, take his final breath, and dissolve into the ecosystem. Then, for many thousands and thousands of years, the surviving species will strive to restore some form of ecological balance once again.
Oh! A hand is raised in the audience, a question. Hey, in the New World, substantial civilizations emerged that seemed to have Big Daddy DNA, but they had no horses, cattle, sheep, goats, almost no metal tools or weapons — essentially Stone Age.
Good point! In fact, several big bloody civilizations did emerge in the horse free Americas, develop productive agriculture, and feed growing mobs. In South America, they were making a few bronze tools, and ornaments of silver and gold. When Cortes first arrived, the Valley of Mexico had two million residents, and Tenochtitlan was a city of 200,000 — twice the size of Paris at that time.
In 1492, compared to the Old World, the Americas still had far more wild lands, ancient forests, and abundant wildlife. Without large herds of livestock, there was not abundant manure to optimize soil fertility and crop production. Luckily, the lack of horses, plows, wheels, and roads limited their trade, travel, expansion, industry, and agriculture. Like Australia, the Americas enjoyed a lack of contagious infectious diseases, because they did not have large concentrations of domesticated animals from which to acquire exotic pathogens.
In 1492, Native Americans did not discover Spain, it was the other way around. Because Europe had horses, they had long distance trade networks which linked a variety of cultures and civilizations. Networks enabled the spread of devious ideas, kooky religions, domesticated plants and animals, dangerous technological innovations, and deadly epidemics.
Kelekna noted that both people and ideas moved slowly in a horseless world, if they moved at all. The brilliant mathematical achievement of the Mayans was the invention of the zero — 500 years before the Hindus. In the Old World, the extremely useful idea of zero spread fast and far, while the Mayan zero never left home. The voyage of Columbus depended on the existence of countless tools, resources, and skills, none of which were invented in Spain. Some came from as far away as China, like gunpowder, forged steel, paper, and printing. Imagine what today would look like if the concept of gunpowder had never left China, and was still only used for glittering fireworks.
Ronald Wright pointed out that in 1492, after at least 15,000 years of separation, the cultures of the Old World and New World directly met each other. In Mexico, the invaders found “roads, canals, cities, palaces, schools, law courts, markets, irrigation works, kings, priests, temples, peasants, artisans, armies, astronomers, merchants, sports, theater, art, music, and books.” Agriculture enables dense populations, hierarchy, and complexity.
Wright also talked about “progress traps,” beneficial innovations that were also severely addictive, like horse domestication, agriculture, metallurgy, autos, or computers. Once you got hooked on the habit, good luck quitting. Over time, the impacts of their unintended consequences kept ratcheting up. The dodgy solution for problematic progress was to introduce more and bigger progress — snowballing lunacy. Progress traps had no safe and easy Undo button.
Large predators used to provide an important check on our numbers, but many went extinct. We got too good at killing them. We got too good at killing large game. We got too good at confining herds of livestock. We got too good at producing and storing huge harvests of calorie dense grain. We got too good at coercing dense populations of humans to obey orders and perform tedious, difficult, dangerous, soul killing work. We got too good at perfecting insanely unsustainable technology. Now what? [UNDO] [UNDO] [UNDO] Shit!
Mother Africa was the land where hominins first evolved two million years ago. The human line emerged maybe 300,000 years ago. Hominins coevolved with the ecosystems they inhabited. Africa was blessed with good luck. Jared Diamond noted that no crop plants were domesticated south of the equator in Africa, and there were no large herbivores that were suitable for domestication — only the guinea fowl was enslaved in this region.
Thus, the official way of life remained nomadic hunting and gathering. Traditional wild Africans caused much less disturbance than folks who emigrated out of Africa, into exotic ecosystems, where old survival strategies met many new challenges. Those who wandered into Eurasia discovered wild cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, and horses. These animals were domesticated and, along with agriculture, they ignited radical change in the human saga.
Lyall Watson wrote a biography of Adrian Boshier (1939-1978), an English boy who arrived in Africa at the age of 16. He learned to venture into the bush alone, taking just a knife and a bag of salt, in search of old Africa. Boshier slept in caves and dined on stuff including bats and lizards. He collected the venom of snakes and scorpions to earn some money.
At a cave in the mountains of Makgabeng, Boshier discovered ancient paintings, and some of these were terribly disturbing and depressing. The images included sheep — peculiar critters from outer space. Some folks had migrated back into Africa, and they imported a number of destructive habits and beliefs.
By three or four thousand years ago, this exotic invasive culture had metastasized into a widespread pastoral economy that often led to conflict and overgrazing. This unsustainable way of life caused ever-increasing destruction. It has now almost completely eliminated the earliest human culture — the culture of our oldest, wildest, and freest ancestors — the folks whose genes we all carry.
Extra Credit Reading
Out of courtesy to loyal readers, I’ve tried to avoid recycling earlier writing here. My second book, Sustainable or Bust (2013), discussed dogs in three essays. These essays are also on my blog.
Before Dogs Became Pets looked at the wolf-to-dog transition, and the shift from scavenger to hunting companion, to herding aid, to pet. For tribal people, dogs were not beloved “fur children.”
Stray Dog Blues talked about the soaring global dog population (900 million in 2018), of which 75 percent are strays. Vicious dog packs are a growing problem. Dogs eat humans, and humans eat dogs. The pet industry makes huge profits.
Beyond Zenith described how dogs helped hunters kill more game. War dogs were trained to kill foes on the battlefield. Dogs have now become pets, living toys. Health issues with dogs are increasing.