Thursday, April 16, 2020

Wild Free and Happy Sample 37

[Note: This is the thirty-seventh 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 203 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.] 


Two super foods were domesticated in the New World, potatoes and corn.  It’s possible to grow both without draft animals and plows.  Both plants produce more calories per acre than any Old World crop plant, except for rice, an Asian super food.  Super foods possess especially powerful juju for accelerating the growth and collapse of dense and self-destructive populations. 

Potatoes (affectionately nicknamed “spuds”) can be grown in a wide variety of soils and climates, at elevations ranging from sea level up to 14,000 feet (4,267 m).  Spuds originated in the Andes region of western South America.  They are now grown in at least 149 countries.  There are still many varieties of wild potatoes in the Andes, and they come in every size, shape, and color.  The tubers of some varieties contain bitter toxins, which encourage hungry critters to eat other stuff.  Spuds are smarter than they look.

It’s unclear when they were first domesticated, but it was certainly prior to 2000 B.C.  There are maybe 400 types of domesticated spuds.  Prudent farmers might plant 50 to 60 varieties in their fields, because something that kills one is less likely to kill all.  Spuds are awesome.  The plants mature rapidly, in just 90 to 120 days.  Per day, they produce more food energy per acre than any other crop plant.  An acre of potatoes produces up to four times more calories than an acre of grain.

John Reader noted that potatoes are an especially nutritious plant food.  Compared to cereal grains, spuds provide a better mix of carbs, protein, vitamins, and minerals.  The carbs are primarily starch, which is released into the body more gently than carbs from fats or sugars.  Spuds are a good source of B vitamins, and deliver lots of vitamin C.  Grains have more protein, but spuds provide protein of higher quality, including essential amino acids that the body must acquire readymade. 

Reader says that, of all foods, potatoes provide the “best all-round package of nutrition.”  In Ireland 200 years ago, adult males consumed an average of 10 pounds (4.5 kg) per day.  With a glass of milk with every meal, they would get 4,000 calories per day, and receive all the required nutrients.  At times of hard labor, lads would sometimes eat up to 20 pounds per day.  While Irish peasants were often dirt poor, dressed in rags, and living in mud huts, they had a healthier diet than most Europeans.  Unfortunately, being well nourished enabled higher birthrates.  Population soared almost 500 percent in 154 years (1687 to 1841).  Danger!

Inca Empire

Spuds are associated with the Inca (Inka) civilization, whose capital was Cuzco (Cusco), Peru.  The founders were the Quechua people, who were hunter-gatherers long before they became farmers.  Hunter-gatherer cultures were living in Andes by 12,000 years ago, and they were the ones who eventually domesticated potatoes. 

The Inca civilization was sort of a flash in the pan, existing from about 1438 to 1533, until snuffed out by Spaniards, and their diseases (smallpox, influenza, typhus, measles).  Preceding the Incas, there were a number of civilizations that rose and fell in the Andes region over the span of several thousand years.  The Inca Empire had a population of maybe 6 to 14 million, overseen by an elite class of 15 to 40 thousand.  The elites were not universally loved, and many folks celebrated the arrival of the tyrannical Spanish, which they saw as a great liberation from unbearable oppression. 

The Inca Empire was 2,200 miles long (3,540 km), and 190 miles (306 km) wide.  Prior to the tsunami of Europeans and their slaves, the Incas were the largest empire that ever existed in North and South America.  They were home to 40 percent of the combined population of both continents.  The range of the empire was essentially limited to habitat that was suitable for llamas and alpacas, extremely important animals that provided meat, manure, hides, and fiber.  The Incas had no wheels, no writing, no iron or steel, no riding animals, and no draft animals to pull carts or plows — but llamas were used to haul loads of stuff.

The Incas grew food on terraced plots, and built irrigation systems.  They built stone cities and temples, cut tunnels through mountains, crossed rivers with rope suspension bridges hung from stone towers.  They built causeways across wetlands, and cut pathways along the sides of steep slopes.  They had 14,300 miles (23,000 km) of paved roads, long enough to encircle the globe.  Teams of relay runners could carry messages 1,491 miles (2400 km) in five days.  Great roads also accelerated the spread of diseases, Spaniards, and missionaries.

The original staple food for folks in the high Andes was potatoes, which were often grown in rotation with quinoa and kañihua (cañihua) — two plants that produce high protein cereal-like seeds, but neither are technically cereals, because they aren’t card-carrying members of the grass family.  The seeds of both can germinate at or near freezing temperature. 

Plots of cropland were periodically fallowed, and herds of llamas and alpacas were moved in to drop steaming gifts of precious fertilizer all over the place.  In season, folks dined on fresh spuds.  Surplus spuds were freeze dried into chuño, a nutritious commodity that the tax collectors came to collect.  Chuño could be stored for years.  Archaeologists at one site found chuño created 2,200 years ago.

Chuño can be made at elevations above 13,000 feet (4,000 m) during the long dry season, when there are freezing temperatures at night, and bright sunlight in the daytime hours.  Chuño country is not far from the equator, but high elevations create an unusual combination of “tropical noon and arctic midnight,” which is perfect for freeze drying. 

The process for making chuño could take two months.  It involved freezing, soaking in cold water, freezing again, rubbing, squeezing, and drying in direct sunlight.  The complicated process removed the water, skins, and toxins.  The end product was light, firm, highly nutritious, and chalk-white.  Incas also freeze dried the flesh of birds, fish, alpacas, and llamas.  The word “jerky” came to us from the Andes.

Civilizations cannot exist for long if they don’t have effective systems for storing substantial quantities of food (usually grain) to keep folks fed during lean seasons, lean years, and wartime.  In the Old World, the emergence of agriculture and pottery-making were closely associated.  When dried grain was stored in sealed ceramic containers, it was not lost to rats and mice.

Incas stored chuño, jerky, and corn in thousands of frosty underground warehouses scattered throughout their empire.  Stored food provided abundant fuel for the rapid expansion of their empire — road building, urban construction, military adventures, and so on.  It also provided a social safety net.  Some say that Incas never starved.  Fifteen years after defeating the Incas, one Spaniard commented that food stored near Xauxa enabled him to feed 2,000 troops for seven weeks. 

At some point prior to the Inca era, corn from Mesoamerica arrived in the Andes.  Corn produced high yields, was suitable for long term storage, did not require labor-intense freeze drying, and was easy to transport (but nutritionally inferior to spuds).  Corn cannot be grown at elevations above 8,200 feet (2,500 m).  Where it could be grown, folks grew corn instead of spuds.  Inca leaders actively encouraged the intensified production of corn, and John Reader called this decision a “masterstroke.”  Folks had to build new terraces and irrigation systems to grow more corn.  Potatoes remained the most important crop, but the decision to deliberately maximize the output of super foods lit the fuse for the explosive growth of the Inca Empire.

So, once the Inca leaders were defeated and out of the way, the kind and loving Spaniards shape shifted into cruel, greedy, demonic monsters.  They snatched all the awesome gold and silver treasures in Cuzco, melted them down, and shipped eleven tons of it back home.  Then, they learned about the Potosí silver mine, assembled lots of forced labor, and created a boom town.  In the year 1592, Potosí produced more than 400 tons of refined silver.  By and by, back in Spain, this tsunami of wealth blindsided an already wobbly economy with soaring price inflation.  It also funded the creation of the Spanish Empire.  The royalty, giddy with enormous wealth, decided this was a good time to go on the warpath. 

In addition to gold and silver, lots of other stuff was sent back to the Old World, including turkeys, guinea pigs, cocoa, and tobacco.  A planet-rocking time bomb was also shipped back home — two super foods: spuds and corn.

Super Foods Supercharge Europe

Clive Ponting noted that until about 1800, most of the world’s great cities were outside of Europe.  In the year 600, Rome was home to 50,000, while 100,000 lived in Teotihuacán in Mexico.  Of the 100 towns and cities in Europe in 1000, half were in Italy.  In 1086, London had a population of just 10,000.  The staple foods in Europe were cereal grains, which produced far fewer calories per acre than spuds, were far less nutritious, and far more laborious to plant.  Corn and spuds could be planted with simple hand tools and human muscle power.  Wheat, rye, barley, and oats grew best in soil that was pulverized by harnessing a plow to oxen or horses — a far more resource-intensive process.

Spuds arrived in Spain by 1570, and gradually migrated across the continent, arriving in Scandinavia 100 years later.  The adaptation of corn also spread slowly.  Dirt poor subsistence farmers, who constantly felt the cold breath of starvation on their backs, were exceedingly conservative.  They were never eager to impulsively throw all caution to the wind, and bet their survival on weird exotic crops from outer space.

Alfred Crosby noted that skeptical farmers were eventually convinced that the exotics were better in many ways than the crops they traditionally grew.  Over time, corn became a staple in southern Europe.  Potatoes were widely adopted in northern Europe, where they produced far more nutrients per acre than traditional grain crops.  It took 5 acres (2 ha) of grain to feed a family of five, but just 1.5 acres of potatoes.  Farmers could raise potatoes on marginal soils, using only a spade.  Unlike grains, spuds needed no grinding or milling.  Like grains, potatoes were also vulnerable to molds, fungus, and weather that was too wet or cool.  Western Europe was best suited for growing healthy forests and wildlife, rather than spuds, cereals, livestock, and tropical primates.

Grain could be stored for years, but not spuds.  Europe’s climate was unsuitable for making freeze dried chuño.  Western Europe had mild winters during which the ground rarely froze.  Spuds could be left buried in the field for several months, unharmed by light frost, until springtime warmth returned. 

Spuds provided some extra security for farm families.  When grain is ripe, it has to be harvested and stored.  William McNeill noted that full granaries were treasure chests of essential nutrients, which made them primary targets for annoying visitors, like tax and rent collectors.  Collectors grabbed the grain, but left the spuds alone, because they were too much work to dig up, and they couldn’t be stored indefinitely.  Landlords and nobles wanted grain.

Passing troops were even more despised than the collectors.  In the old days, armies did not haul around caravans of food supplies.  Instead, they stopped at farms, confiscated their stored grain, and left the peasants to starve.  This was a common practice, and more than a little discourteous.  In wartime, while soldiers were dying on the battlefield, peasants were dying in their huts, which seriously disrupted the stability of food producing rural communities.  How smart was that?

During the War of Austrian Succession (1740-48), Fredrick the Great was astonished to discover that far more spud growing peasants survived, compared to those who grew grain, lost it, and starved.  Like the tax and rent collectors, passing troops didn’t have the time or desire to dig up fields of potatoes.  It was much faster and easier to empty the granaries and march on.  Fredrick realized that if folks planted more spuds, wartime would be less devastating to society.  It was wise to be nice to peasants.  So, he distributed free seed potatoes throughout his kingdom. 

McNeill noted that others soon joined the parade.  Leaders in Austria, Russia, and France recognized the strategic advantages of joining the spud cult.  Over time, the resistance of conservative peasants melted away.  More and more came to the conclusion that they preferred boiled potatoes to death by starvation. 

This inspired a wave of innovation in agricultural practices.  Traditional processes were fine-tuned for maximizing grain output.  New and improved processes were needed to accelerate spud production, and clever folks came up with some bright ideas.  In the traditional system, every year either a third or half of the cropland was left fallow, to suppress weeds.  In the new system, fallow land became potato fields.  Amazingly, the amount of grain harvested was not diminished, and spud harvests provided a mother lode of bonus calories. 

Before long, bonus bambinos were squirting out of wombs, at just the right time.  See, turning fallow land into potato fields required additional labor, because happy weeds now had to be mercilessly killed, in late spring and early summer, by workers with hoes and spades.  By utilizing this extra labor, farmers could now produce two to four times more calories per acre, and feed even more bambinos.

McNeill’s big idea was that potatoes radically changed world history during the era spanning from 1750 to 1950.  Spuds had become popular in Ireland and the Scottish highlands, but were especially important on the vast European plain, which spanned from northern France, Germany, Poland, and eastward into Russia. 

While spuds required more farm labor, skyrocketing population growth provided more workers than needed in the fields.  Surplus people provided a labor force for the Industrial Revolution, which developed rapidly in northern Europe.  Low wages and miserable working conditions were more desirable than starvation.  The transition to fossil energy turbocharged the boom years.  The era of 1750 to 1950 was also a time when Europe established colonies and built empires.  McNeill noted that the entire world was rapidly and radically transformed.  Then, around 1947, European empires began disintegrating, and a new era began.

He wrote that without potatoes, Germany would have never grown into a leading military and industrial power in Europe after 1848.  Russia would not have become a major threat to Germany after 1891.  Millions of Europeans would not have migrated to America and other regions.  And so, the humble dirty spud triggered an avalanche of chaotic bad craziness that blindsided societies all around the world.

Alfred Crosby wrote that, aided by potatoes and corn, both Europe and America were able to harvest far more food.  People were better nourished, so child mortality dropped.  The population of Europe leaped from 80 million in 1492, to 180 million in 1800, 390 million in 1900, and 556 million in 2019.  Europe was bursting with people, and many migrated to colonies — Australia, New Zealand, southern Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Canada, and the U.S.  Bottom line, world population leaped from 450 million in 1500 to 7.8 billion in 2020.  Crosby concluded, “Calories can make as much history as cannons — more in the long run.”

Monocultures Beg For Trouble

Jeffrey Lockwood studied locusts.  He described a swarm that visited Plattsmouth, Nebraska in June 1875.  It was 110 miles (177 km) long, up to a mile (1.6 km) high, and travelled at 15 miles per hour (24 km/h).  They visited for ten days, and covered maybe 198,000 square miles (512,817 km2).  This swarm may have included 3.5 trillion locusts, and there were many other hungry swarms.

Where the swarms touched down, they devoured the greenery.  They voraciously ate the clothing off of the clueless settlers, who had not majored in environmental history.  In a few hours, a field could be rubbished.  To express their deep gratitude to the settlers, for so generously providing such a wonderful banquet, the departing swarm might leave behind 940 million eggs per acre.

The ambitious American settlers suffered from get rich quick fever.  In an era of above average precipitation, they plowed up large regions of western plains and planted wheat.  Unmolested plains ecosystems are home to a highly diverse mix of species.  Big Mama Nature cherishes diversity, and detests manmade monocultures (spit!).  It turns out that wheat was a grass that locusts considered to be the most delicious food of all, and wheat was the primary crop on the western plains.  Locusts were far less interested in gobbling up grazing land or dairy pastures.

Wheat was first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, homeland of the Judeo-Christian culture.  Wheat thrived in the Mediterranean climate, which provided generous winter rains to germinate the thirsty seeds.  The Bible mentions locusts 28 times.  Richard Manning once said, “The domestication of wheat was humankind’s greatest mistake.”  (Or, was it corn, or potatoes, or rice, or…?)

As I bike around my town, I often see pennies lying on the street.  For most folks, the low value of a penny simply does not provide sufficient motivation to stop, bend over, pick it up, and take it to the bank.  This is something like a healthy diverse ecosystem — the things that critters value are widely scattered.  Now, compare that to a monoculture.  Let’s dump a sack of $100 bills on the street, a dense concentration of value.  This treasure promptly attracts a large excited swarm and is rapidly swept away.  Right?

Similarly, infectious diseases are far more likely to create epidemics in large, densely populated cities, with poor sanitation, and lots of malnourished people — especially societies that are interconnected with complex networks of long distance trade and travel.  This is a highly vulnerable combo — a dense monoculture of people, plus high mobility ($100 bills).  It’s much safer to live in small, remote, isolated villages that have clean water, adequate nutrition, and little or no contact with the outside world (pennies).

Like the wheat and locust duet, it’s a similar story with other crop plants.  Unnatural density is begs for trouble.  James Scott wrote that both humans and crops are vulnerable to viral, fungal, and bacterial diseases.  Crops can be damaged by snails, slugs, insects, birds, rodents, and other mammals.  Weeds can diminish their access to sunlight, water, nutrients, and space.  A serious vulnerability for civilizations is that their survival depends on a successful annual harvest of just one or two staple foods.  Over the centuries, many have gotten blindsided by droughts, deluges, floods, fires, pests, frosts, storms, crop diseases, and mean enemies.

Hunter-gatherers were more like the pennies scenario, low density people, in isolated groups, who obtained their nutrients from widely scattered local sources — healthy diversity, not goofy sprawling monocultures.  Wild folks could live perfectly well by looking for pennies, because they couldn’t imagine something as ridiculous and unbearable as living in mobs of weird smelly strangers and pursuing an obscenely wasteful $100 lifestyle.

And now, an important story.  John Reader was impressed by how nomadic foragers benefitted from their time-proven ultraconservative way of life.  Some plant and animal foods were regularly eaten.  Others were deliberately set aside to be famine food.  Some groups also reserved portions of their land as a safety net that was only used in lean periods.

In the 1960s, anthropologists in Botswana were astounded to observe how well the San people lived during the third year of an extreme drought in the Kalahari, one of the harshest ecosystems on Earth.  Neighboring Bantu farmers were hammered by three consecutive crop failures, and 250,000 of their cattle died.  United Nations famine relief kept 180,000 farming people on life support.  Some farmers who didn’t get food relief had to forage for wild food, putting further strain on food resources.  Still, the San were able to acquire their food with just 12 to 19 hours a week of effort.  They dwelt in a desolate “wasteland” that no civilized people could survive in, and they lived well and joyfully. 

And so, dear reader, please remember this snapshot of ultraconservative wild survival, because it is strikingly different from stuff on the following pages about crop failures, blights, famines, and so on — the life threatening vulnerabilities of being completely dependent on the ups and downs of a small number of domesticated food plants.

Clive Ponting wrote an incredible information packed book on environmental history.  Most readers have never felt the gnawing hunger of living during an extended food shortage.  We have no memories of the “good old days” of wholesome, low-impact, horse powered, organic agriculture.  Ponting summed it up like this: “Since the rise of settled societies some ten thousand years ago the overwhelming majority of the world’s population has lived in conditions of grinding poverty.”  He added, “Until about the last two centuries in every part of the world nearly everyone lived on the edge of starvation.” 

In the old days, “All but about five percent of the people in the world were peasants, directly dependent on the land and living a life characterized by high infant mortality, low life expectancy and chronic undernourishment, and with the ever-present threat of famine and the outbreak of virulent epidemics.”

Ponting’s perception of the past is very different our culture’s romanticized version, which presents us with stuff like the paintings of happy dancing peasants by Pieter Breughel.  Having read loads of environmental history, I know that Ponting was not a creep who invented fake history.  The era of muscle powered agriculture indeed gave the planet and its critters a painful beating.  Of course, today’s fossil fuel powered nightmare has enabled us to beat the planet even faster and harder, in ways never before believed to be possible.

Potato Blight

John Reader wrote that spuds first arrived in Ireland between 1586 and 1603.  At that time, its population was somewhere between 1 and 1.5 million.  By 1845, when the blight began, it had soared to 8.5 million, and the survival of about 90 percent of them depended almost entirely on potatoes.  Well-nourished peasants had higher birth rates, and stronger resistance to disease.  But when the blight nuked the spuds, a million peasants, weakened by hunger and disease, stood in long lines to take selfies with the Grim Reaper.

Because Ireland had a wetter climate, it was not an ideal place to grow cereals.  Spuds could often tolerate dampness that would rot oats.  So, potatoes were less risky, produced lots of calories, and didn’t require a draft animal and a plow.  Ireland was the first nation in northern Europe to largely switch from cereal crops to spuds. 

Before long, the exotic tubers were popular everywhere, from the palace to the pigsty.  Brian Fagan noted that the population explosion had been fueled by several varieties of outstanding, gourmet spuds, like the Black, Apple, and Cups.  But the production of these types could not keep up with the growing numbers of spud addicts.  Feeding large families on small plots of land inspired a determined search for varieties of spuds that were even more productive.

By 1835, the Lumper, or horse potato, won the competition and became the dominant spud on the Emerald Isle.  It came from England, where it had been developed for use as livestock fodder.  The remarkably unexciting Lumper was coarse and watery, less nutritious, more vulnerable to disease, but indispensable life support for dirt poor peasants who had way too many kids.  On the plus side, Reader said that the Lumper was 20 to 30 percent more productive than the fancy upper class spuds it replaced.  On the downside, every single Lumper in every single field was an exact genetic clone (imagine a world with 7.8 billion Donald Trumps).  What could possibly go wrong?

The famous Irish famine of 1845 was, in some ways, no surprise to anyone.  Back in the good old days, crop failures, famines, and epidemics were commonplace.  For example, Clive Ponting wrote that between the tenth and eighteenth centuries, France had 89 famines that were widespread national disasters, of which 26 of them hit in just the eleventh century.  England suffered numerous local famines in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  Famine rocked all of Europe from 1594 to 1597.  Famine struck Belgium and Finland in 1867 and 1868.  Rinderpest zoomed into Europe from Russia, where it killed 1.5 million cattle from 1709 to 1714.  And so on.

Anyway, long before the late blight fungus arrived in Ireland, crop failures in 1740 and 1741 killed 400,000 Irish people.  The late blight didn’t arrive until 1845.  John Reader mentioned a theory that the late blight fungus originally emerged in the highlands of central Mexico.  By and by, it migrated to South America.  From there, in about 1841 or 1842, it hitched a ride with a shipment of potatoes to the United States.  In 1843 the first outbreak of blight appeared in New York and Pennsylvania, and then spread along the east coast.  Two years later, in 1845, it had spread west to the Mississippi, and north into Canada. 

Meanwhile, in 1843, farmers in Flanders and Belgium were suffering losses from viral diseases and dry rot.  To cure the problem, they ordered what they thought were healthy seed potatoes from the U.S. (where the blight was raging).  Oh-oh!  In the winter of 1843-44, the late blight fungus crossed the Atlantic in a load of spuds.  Transatlantic trade in potatoes was made possible by new and amazing high-speed steam ships, and by the use of ice to prevent spoilage.  Previously, sailing ships were too slow to deliver a load of spuds in good condition. 

It’s interesting to note that sailing ships were also too slow to deliver live cholera microbes to the New World.  But then, in 1832, a speedy new steamship from Britain was able to zoom across the ocean, and deliver cholera to a population in Montreal that had zero immunity.  Before long, many were surprised when they erupted with firehose diarrhea.  From there, the disease spread like lightning across the New World.  Once again, millions took selfies with the Grim Reaper.

I need to pause for a second here to emphasize an important notion: there’s no place like home.  During the maybe three million years when our wild ancestors lived in a low impact manner, they dined entirely on local wild foods.  They naturally spent their lives in the region where they were born, because they were not migratory critters like geese, storks, or butterflies.  They never forgot the creator’s instructions on how to live like tropical primates, which is why they lived very well for a very long time.  They didn’t invent cars, planes, and other goofy stuff.  Every day, they simply walked to work — perfectly sustainable transportation.

Spuds evolved in the Andes, where they adapted very well to a unique high elevation ecosystem, and enjoyed happy and fulfilling lives.  In recent centuries, travelling tropical primates, who were far from their homeland, discovered spuds, and eventually carried them to distant lands that were less ideal than the Andes.  When planted in Europe, they triggered a scenario similar to the “bull in a china shop” proverb.  Prior to farmers, about 95 percent of west and central Europe was a healthy happy paradise of primordial forests.  This harmonious situation was not in any way improved by deforestation, spud addiction, and huge swarms of tropical primates with voracious appetites.

Richard Manning noted that when spuds are planted in regions outside their Andes homeland, they can be far more vulnerable to insects, fungi, and viruses.  Apparently the late blight fungus is widely dispersed, and usually dormant.  Its wakeup alarm goes off when the weather gets too damp or chilly.  Writing in 2000, Manning noted that in upstate New York, a 100 pound sack of ordinary spuds could be bought for $6, but organic spuds would cost $30.  The difference is because no other food crop is blasted with so many pesticides, in order to zap insects and fungi. 

In Brazil, some regions get sprayed 30 times during the growing season.  Also, unlike cereal grains, potato seeds are living tissue that can transfer disease from this year’s crop to next year’s.  So seeds also get blasted.  (Potato seeds are chunks of tubers grown last year.  Each chunk must have an “eye” on its skin, a potential embryo for a new plant.)

Sorry!  Back to the blight.  The summer of 1845 was a cool and wet one.  Blight struck Ireland, and parts of Belgium, France, and the Netherlands.  Then it spread to Demark, Wales, Scotland, northern Italy, southern Norway and Sweden.  Four months later, 772,204 square miles (2 million km2) of fields were ruined.  It was a memorable and heartbreaking experience.

Cecil Woodham-Smith wrote about the Irish famine.  The 1841 census revealed that Ireland was probably the most densely populated region in Europe, thanks to spuds.  The census noted that half of the people resided in rather unpretentious affordable housing units — small, windowless, single room, mud cabins.  In 1845, the fields were looking fine and healthy — until three weeks of wet and cool weather spoiled the party.  The crop failure was partial.  Fields of cereal crops were not harmed.

In 1846, the blight was severe, and the harvest of both spuds and grain was a poor one.  They weren’t going to have enough seed potatoes to plant all the fields in the spring of 1847.  Across much of Europe, the 1846 harvest was a total or partial failure.  Black fields stretched for hundreds of miles, and the stench of rot was overwhelming.  By September, not even folks with money could acquire food.  They ate cabbage leaves and blackberries.

Across Europe, the winter of 1846-47 was extremely long and severe.  The Thames was jammed with floating ice.  By January, the Irish folks in county Mayo looked like skeletons.  The sheep, cattle, poultry, and dogs were gone.  The one remaining pig would not be long for this world.  The blight in 1847 was light, but the planted acreage was just 20 percent of normal, for lack of seeds.

In 1848, all the land got planted, and the people were giddy with hope that their troubles were over.  Things looked awesome, until the middle of June, when the wet weather would not stop.  The blight was severe.  In July, some fields would turn black overnight, and millions of ripe spuds rotted in the ground.  Even spuds stored away before the blight rotted.  Cereal crops were also damaged by heavy rains.  There was little to harvest.

In the end maybe a million emigrated, and a million died.  Woodham-Smith noted that mortality records were incomplete.  She estimated that for every person who died of starvation, ten died from disease.  The most popular pathogens were two types of “famine fever” — typhus and relapsing fever, both were spread by lice, and both were quite unpleasant.  A bit less popular was dysentery, which was caused by contact with fecal borne pathogens.

Farmers rarely if ever have a plan B when their crops fail, or their granary is swiped.  Their leaders may or may not come to their rescue.  The Irish didn’t get much help.  Earlier in this chapter, we looked at the San people of Botswana who easily survived a three year drought.  Not being chained to one piece of land, and not being heavily addicted to monoculture crops, allows more options for survival — and a healthier, more enjoyable life. 

Friday, April 3, 2020

Free Brain Food

The following links take you to the sample sections of the rough draft of my unfinished book, Wild, Free, & Happy.  For an optimal experience, I recommend reading them in order.  Enjoy!


Full Blog Contents (Samples, Rants, 210 Book Reviews)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 01 (Introduction)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 02 (Early Days)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 03 (Primate Relatives)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 04 (Primate Lifestyles)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 05 (Early Hominins)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 06 (Bipedal Hominins)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 07 (Fire: Big Juju)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 08 (Fire Domestication)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 09 (Neanderthals & Humans)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 10 (Genes vs. Culture)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 11 (Social Structure)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 12 (Techno Innovation)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 13 (Communication)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 14 (Out of Africa)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 15 (Smashing Limits)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 16 (Great Leap Forward)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 17 (Communal Hunting)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 18 (Extinction Spasms)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 19 (Climate Shifts)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 20 (Imperceptible Overkill)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 21 (Perfection of Hunting)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 22 (Grassland)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 23 (Super Grass)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 24 (Manmade Grassland)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 25 (Sacred Forests)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 25.5 (Stumble to Domestication)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 26 (Animal Domestication)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 27 (Pigs & Cattle)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 28 (Sheep)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 29 (Goats)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 30 (Horses)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 31 (Dogs)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 32 (Plant Domestication)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 33 (Eco-History Heroes)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 34 (Corn 01)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 35 (Corn 02)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 36 (Corn 03)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 37 (Potato)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 38 (Disease 01)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 39 (Disease 02)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 40 (Sacred Predators)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 41 (War on Forests)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 42 (Energy 01)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 43 (Energy 02)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 44 (Food: Soil)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 44 Update Destruction

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 44 Update Nutrients

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 45 (Food: Water)

Intermission (Old diary sketches)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 46 (Who Are We? 01)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 47 (Who Are We? 02)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 48 (Family Planning)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 49 (Limits)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 50 (Path to Domination 01)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 51 (Path to Domination 02)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 52 (Human Web 01)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 53 (Human Web 02)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 54 (Pirahã)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 55 (Climate 01)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 56 (Climate 02)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 57 (Climate 03)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 58 (Climate 04)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 59 (Islands)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 80 (Megafauna Extinct rewrite)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 81 (Grassland rewrite)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 82 (Forest rewrite)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 83 (Human Web update)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 84 (Wild Free Isolation)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 99 (Bibliography)

Bright Green Lies (Book Review)

The End of Ice (Book Review)

A Farewell to Ice (Book Review)

Life After Fossil Fuels (Book Review)

Unsettled (Book Review)

The Art of Not Being Governed (Book Review)

Megafauna (Book Review)

Under a White Sky (Book Review)

The Passenger Pigeon (Book Review)

GeoDestinies 2022 (Book Review)

Clean Green Incoherence (Rant)

Nonrenewable Geology (Rant)

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Wild Free and Happy Sample 36

[Note: This is the thirty-sixth 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 203 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.] 

Aztec Erosion

M. Lourdes González-Arqueros and team studied soil erosion in the Teotihuacán Valley, northeast of Mexico City.  Mexico’s soils have taken a beating over the centuries, and the blame is commonly directed to the settlers from the Old World who arrived in the 1500s.  They imported many destructive practices, pathogens, and hooved locusts (goats and sheep).  Research done by the study concluded that the indigenous people were already reputable soil molesters when the white folks arrived.  They analyzed erosion patterns during three different periods of time:

(1) In the Teotihuacán period (A.D. 1-650), forests still grew on summits, hill slopes, and foot slopes.  This restricted some soil erosion.  Organic corn was grown by no-tillage methods (picks and spades) on the lower ground. 

(2) In the Aztec period (1325-1521), forest area in the valley was drastically reduced as population increased, and agriculture expanded up the hillsides.  During this period, much of the landscape was devoted to agriculture.  When sloped land is deforested, increased erosion is an expected consequence.  In the Aztec period, rates of soil loss were much higher, compared to rates in both the earlier Teotihuacán period, and the later modern period.

(3) In the modern period (after 1970), forest area has recovered a bit.  A large portion of cropland is now planted with prickly pear, a perennial plant that is fast growing, rapidly rooting, and usually has deep roots.  Soil destruction was lower than during the Aztec period, but the study did not give modern practices the Sustainable Agriculture™ seal of approval.  Too many people continue living too hard.

The team concluded that land use and soil management were prime factors in the erosion, more so than precipitation and topography.  I wish their study hadn’t skipped around the years between 1521 and 1970.  Anyway, before the Spaniards, the land was gradually being beaten to death.  Then, the colonists launched a full scale war on forests, while flocks of their imported sheep and goats prevented forest recovery, and their overgrazing accelerated erosion. 

Then, around the 1960s, the Green Revolution rolled in, with mechanization, water mining, synthetic fertilizers, hybrid seeds, and trainloads of chemical fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides, and pesticides.  Around the world, population continues soaring, while staggering amounts of soil run away from home.  In the modern mindset, unborn generations, ecosystems, and the atmosphere are seen as disposable — cosmic litter, like plastic water bottles or cigarette butts.  Our education system is completely lost in a soft, warm, foggy dream world of full blown dementia (perpetual growth, electric cars, voyages to Mars). 

Oh!  Speaking of Mars, he was the Roman god of war in his glory days.  Earlier in his career, he was a deity of virility, fertility, springtime, and a guardian of agriculture.  Farmers hated nature, because wildness refused to behave like an obedient servant.  It was hard work clearing forests, stripping away the wild vegetation, exterminating the wildlife, and pulverizing the soil.

Nature was a mortal enemy of the Roman Empire, because it was a persistent threat to their food supply.  Trees, brush, grass, and critters constantly invaded the wheat fields.  Every day, Big Mama Nature worked hard to restore health to badly injured ecosystems.  She used all her tricks to rubbish the hideous fields — droughts, deluges, hail storms, frosts, heat waves, howling winds, wildfires, locusts, blights, birds, deer, boars, and on and on.

She also used pandemics.  One of my ancestral homes was in Gran, Hadeland, Norway.  The Black Death hammered the population, many farms were abandoned, and joyful forests reclaimed their fields.  My kin told me that one day, many years ago, a lad was hunting in the woods.  He shot an arrow, and it struck a bell.  He was surprised to discover an old church concealed in the dense forest.  Nobody among the living knew anything about the mysterious church, or the community it had served before the plague.

Mixtec Erosion

The Mixtec culture of southern Mexico is ancient.  Their homeland is mostly located in the state of Oaxaca which, long ago, was one of the most advanced regions in the Americas.  The Mixtec people managed to avoid being absorbed by the Aztec empire, and their writings are much older than those of the Aztecs or Incas.  Some believe that the Mixtecs were the ones who originally conjured domesticated corn out of wild teosinte.

In the good old days, prior to agriculture, their homeland was largely forest.  Today, regions of the treeless highlands have become a desert that not even thorns can grow in.  Oaxaca is Mexico’s second poorest state, and a third of its people have moved away.  Photographer Matt Black happened to meet some Mixtecs in California, where they were accumulating vast fortunes by doing backbreaking farm labor for $40 a day.  They chose this path because their homeland had become a disaster area.  Many of them are illiterate, and most speak only their native language, Mixteco.

In 2011, Black got curious about them and decided to visit their homeland, Mixtecapan (the place of the Cloud People), one of the world’s oldest farming cultures.  Wow!  Some places have lost up to 16 feet (5 m) of topsoil.  A number of villages are half-deserted, and some of their fields have eroded to bare bedrock.  More than a million acres are so severely damaged that the U.N. now calls the region one of the most heavily eroded landscapes in the world.

Most stunning of all, Black described the disintegrating village of Santiago Mitlatongo.  One day, a cliff above town fell apart, dumping stones as large as houses on the village below.  Whole cornfields disappeared into sinkholes.  Homes sank into the ground and vanished.  Eventually, the whole village broke away from the surrounding land, like a calving iceberg — homes, fields, churches, stores — an area of about two square miles (5 km2) was in motion.  Writing in 2012, Black noted that it was still sliding, a few feet per day, a half mile (804 m) away from its original location. 

Corn Blight

H. Arnold Bruns wrote about a serious corn blight that hit the U.S. in 1970-71.  The southern corn leaf blight (SCLB) destroyed 15 percent of the corn crop.  It was enabled by innovative plant breeding that focused on maximizing yield ($$) by designing highly productive hybrid seeds that had very little genetic diversity.  These hybrids reliably generated big money for farmers, who eagerly bought the magic seeds.

On the downside, when conditions were optimal, up to 85 percent of the corn in a field was highly vulnerable to SCLB fungus.  The winter and spring of 1970 were wetter than usual, providing ideal conditions for disaster.  Some farmers lost 80 to 100 percent of their crop.  In the Corn Belt, some clusters of counties had average losses of 35 to 50 percent.  Across all of the state of Mississippi, losses were 30 to 40 percent.  This inspired big fear.  Would the entire U.S. crop be lost?  What would we use to feed livestock and poultry?  No more whiskey?  Gulp!

Before 1930, almost all corn was allowed to pollinate naturally, which resulted in high genetic diversity that reduced the possibility of catastrophic blights.  Then came the hybrids which, in theory, were more vulnerable to crop failure, but they almost always provided far higher yields and profits.  Today, in the major corn growing nations, 97 percent of the corn planted is hybrids.

The amount of food energy lost because of the SCLB blight was greater than the lost food due to the potato blight of Ireland in the 1840s, during which the Brits made little effort to feed the starving.  The message of both blights is that there is great danger in growing monocultures of extremely uniform crop plants.

Today, Brun worries that the new GMO fad is busy creating ideal conditions for bigger and better disasters — billions of herbicide resistant seeds having dangerous genetic uniformity.  What could possibly go wrong?  Right now, a blight is working hard to drive a stake into the heart of the banana industry — and winning.  The entire crop is genetically identical clones.

Wild Free and Happy Sample 35

[Note: This is the thirty-fifth 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 203 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.] 

The Curse of the Soil Molesters

If you are a lucky one, and your high school education provided you with a competent understanding of environmental history, you would probably be bored out of your mind by now, reading my tiresome jabber about stuff that every teen should know.  But, if you have been institutionalized for years in a more typical school system, there’s a chance that you’re stumbling through some uncharted territory here.  If so, it’s time we had an embarrassing “birds and bees” talk about soil molesters — the naughty things they do in their fields, and how their actions harm the region, the nation, the generations yet to be born, and the long term health of the planet’s ecosystem.

The birds and bees talk I got at age 15 had to do with boys, girls, sex, and reproduction.  The primary objective was to help kids avoid unintended and unwanted pregnancies.  With regard to my relationship with soil, I never got a similar talk, I had to figure it out on my own.  If we want to avoid ignorantly creating unwanted wastelands, the safe and effective prevention is abstinence — never, never, never engage in invasive and abusive forms of intercourse with highly fertile ecosystems.  Remember how our wild ancestors lived.  Think!

At the dawn of agriculture in Mesoamerica, folks majored in growing corn, beans, and squash.  They used techniques that were similar to other regions of the world where plant domestication emerged.  Their farm equipment was digging sticks and hoes, so the first places they molested were often along shorelines, rivers, wetlands, and flood plains, where the soils were soft and moist.  When the planters first rammed their digging tools into fertile virgin soil, the initial harvests could be impressive.  But with every year, when a field was replanted, the nutrients in the soil were a bit more diminished, and the harvest was a bit smaller. 

Depending on soil quality, a field could produce decent autumn harvests for up to maybe six years.  When “evil spirits” (nutrient depletion) eventually reduced yields, the field was abandoned, and a new one was cleared.  The abandoned field might be given a rest for maybe 10 or 20 years, to recharge its soil a bit.  Then, it might be cleared again, and returned to production for a while.  This cycle might be repeated a few times, sometimes for several generations, but not forever.  There is no free lunch.  Long term agriculture is a progressive and terminal pathology.

In Mesoamerica, this was called the milpa system, in other regions similar practices were called slash and burn, swidden, or shifting agriculture (milpa means corn field).  Milpa is the opposite of wild and free.  Big Mama Nature adores healthy soil, and strives to protect it.  Where rainfall is generous, she clothes the land with forest.  Where rain is more modest, she covers the soil with grassland.  Wild and free has three huge benefits.

(1) Protected soil retains moisture better than bare naked soil that is exposed to the sun and wind.  Consequently, wetter soil encourages a wetter ecosystem, promoting the existence of springs, streams, ponds, wetlands, and a greater abundance of many forms of life.  Magnificent swamps are home to far more biodiversity than deserts.  Both forests and wild grasslands send roots deep into the ground, so they can better retrieve nutrients and water, hold the soil in place, and continuously improve soil health and fertility with each passing century. 

In the milpa system, the primary crops are annuals, plants that live just one season and then die.  Trees and many grassland plants are perennials, plants that have longer lifespans.  Annuals have to be replanted every year, after the farmer first pulverizes the soil surface.  This disturbance encourages some of the precious carbon stored in the soil to be released into the atmosphere.  It also encourages the moisture in the soil to evaporate, which makes annuals more vulnerable to drought.

(2) Protected soil is held in place by the green blanket of vegetation, which prevents it from being blown away by the wind, or washed away by rain or snowmelt.  Bare naked sloped land is especially prone to water erosion, which can rip deep gullies into hillsides over time.  Earlier, I mentioned the catastrophic erosion in the Yellow River watershed that created gullies 600 feet deep (183 m).  Paul Shepard noted that massive erosion in the watershed of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers dumped so much soil into the Persian Gulf that 35,000 square miles (90,650 km2) of salt marsh was created.

Once upon a time, on a lovely Sunday in June, Wes Jackson was driving through Mennonite country in Kansas.  He stopped to observe a Mennonite’s field, which had recently been planted.  During the previous night, a hard rain had dumped up to five inches (12 cm) in some places, a normal event in that region.  Mennonites devote extra effort to being good stewards of the land.  Compared to industrial agriculture, their methods have lower impact.  Looking at the field, Jackson observed that the rain had washed the seeds away, and the ditches were clogged with rich black mud.  It was a wipeout. 

Then, Jackson went to inspect a prairie not far away.  It was not damaged at all.  In fact, it had been invigorated by the refreshing rain, and none of its soil had run away.  Prairies can absorb 14 times more moisture than tilled cropland.  Forests and prairies can be fairly eternal, but cropland has an expiration date.  Sooner or later, the soil is depleted, and the cropland becomes wasteland.  This can take many generations, it’s not an immediate house-on-fire threat, so it’s easy to pretend that all is good.  But the damage caused is cumulative and almost always irreparable.

Richard Manning noted that a healthy wild prairie can absorb 5 to 7 inches (13-18 cm) of rain in an hour with no runoff.  A field of corn or soybeans can absorb 0.5 to 1.5 inches (1.3-3.8 cm) in an hour, and the excess water runs off almost as fast as from a parking lot.  This difference explains the catastrophic 2008 floods in the U.S., following several days of generous rainfall.

(3) Protected soil is often an ongoing miracle of continuous improvement.  Several thousand years ago, as the glaciers melted, Iowa’s soil was exposed to warm sunbeams for the first time in ages.  Vegetation recovered and, with each passing century, the happy prairie created an ever growing layer of tremendously fertile black topsoil.  Before settlers arrived in the nineteenth century, the soil was remarkably deep in places.  Because the sod layer was so healthy, thick, and rugged, native people with corn seeds could not rip it open with digging sticks or hoes — much to the delight of the prairie, and Big Mama.

The Iowa Association of Naturalists became freaked out by soil erosion in Iowa.  In 1999, the state was losing 240 million tons of its “black gold” every year.  This incredible treasure of soil had been created over thousands of years by a thriving tallgrass prairie.  Half of it had been lost since 1848, as the settlers launched a full-scale war on the soil, armed with the insanely destructive steel moldboard plows manufactured by a demon-possessed madman named John Deere.

Jared Diamond once visited Iowa, and observed a church in corn country that was more than 100 years old.  He said that the churchyard was like a table, a plateau elevated ten feet (3 m) above the surrounding fields, which had been savagely molested by the radicalized fanatics of the Deere cult.

Geologist Walter Youngquist noted that half of Iowa’s topsoil had been flushed down the Mississippi River, and dumped into the Gulf of Mexico.  On some Iowa hills, streaks of the ancient tan and gray marine clays, which had long been buried under the black gold, were beginning to see the light of day once again.  He wrote, “The great enemy of soil and, therefore, civilization, is civilization itself as we know it — the human-induced accelerated rate of erosion.”  From a human timescale, topsoil is a finite nonrenewable resource.  Destroying it is foolish.

The Danse Macabre

The emergence of plant domestication in both the Old World and the Americas typically triggered a devastating chain reaction of consequences — increased food production, deforestation, soil destruction, ballooning population, technological innovation, social stratification, bloody warfare, patriarchy, empire building, civilization, megalomania, ridiculous decadence, collapse, and ruins.  Then, if anything was left of the ecosystem, folks dusted themselves off, regrouped, and repeated the same mistakes, again and again, until the land was absolutely and permanently wrecked.

The transition to domestication, in multiple regions, was an extreme shift away from maybe two million years of the traditional hunter-gatherer way of life.  Our wild ancestors rocked the boat far, far less.  They were lucky to enjoy a very long era of wild, free, and happy — the calm before the storm (or the wellbeing before the epidemic).

William McNeill wrote that both plants and animals can become hosts to diseases.  Some microparasites simply enjoy an ongoing free ride on their hosts, snatching some nutrients, but not too many.  Others seriously weaken their hosts and kill them.  McNeill imagined that, in addition to plants and animals, there was a third category of hosts — ecosystems.  Over time, some human societies became foolishly clever, and mutated into macroparasite (large predator) roles, attacking and degrading healthy ecosystems.  McNeill thought that the relationship between these rogue societies and the family of life came to resemble “an acute epidemic disease.” 

When agriculture escaped from Pandora’s Box of powerful evils, it created something like a devastating infection in the family of life.  This reminded me of a meme from the era of bubonic plague epidemics: the dance of death.  Everyone was sick and dying, especially the priests, who visited the sick.  Why didn’t God even protect his own special agents?  Hello?  Many lost their faith.

Johannes Nohl reported that during plague years, a number of communities in Europe engaged in country dances, in order to dispel depression.  In 1424, a Scottish lad named Maccaber arrived in Paris.  Folks believed he had supernatural powers.  He initiated an ecclesiastic procession, the Maccaber Dance (Danse Macabre) — the Dance of Death.  Every day, for months, crowds of men and women danced in the cemetery.  Folks wore scary masks to drive away the evil spirits.

The notion of a dance of death is sort of a fitting description for how ecosystems were impacted by the emergence and expansion of agriculture.  Let’s sketch out a generic pattern for how agriculture triggered its own whirlwind of evil spirits.  The horror began with clearing and planting in soft moist soils.  This led to more food, more people, and tired soil.  This led communities to gradually expand the size of the milpa, until it reached the limits of prime locations to deflower.  Then, planting began to move up slopes.  If forests covered the slopes, as they often did, the tree people were chopped down.  This led to more food, more people, more soil depletion, and more erosion and gullying.

As communities expanded their realms, at some point they were likely to bump into other communities, and generate some friction and sparks.  The survival of each settlement required folks to protect their stores of corn and beans — precious treasures that opponents were eager to swipe or destroy.  Consequently, many Native Americans surrounded their communities with tall and sturdy wooden palisades.  Dean Snow wrote that corn spread into Iroquois country around 1350 to 1400.  Population grew, villages got larger, longhouses got longer, and most villages had double or triple palisades.  This defensive strategy was similar to the Old World practice of building fortifications, moats, and walled cities.

In the conflict game, the cardinal rule is strength in numbers.  At first, a village might be managed by a tribal chief.  Then, multiple villages would unite, and live under the protection of a warlord.  Later, these alliances merged together into kingdoms or empires.  Communities that prepared for conflict were more likely to survive than communities that attempted to avoid the mother of conflict via family planning — reproductive taboos.  By and by, civilizations appeared, and initiated full-scale warfare on ecosystems.

Big shots in lofty power centers got very big headed and heavy handed.  Their minds floated in a giddy dream world, soaring with grandiose infantile visions of full dose megalomania.  One day, in an online encyclopedia, I was looking at a discussion of pre-Columbian (before 1492) civilizations in the New World.  I was suddenly walloped by a mind expanding dope slap.  SMACK! 

My eyes scanned a series of photos of ancient Mesoamerican ruins.  They were strangely similar in many ways — huge pyramids, elevated temple platforms, sculptures, palaces, streets, and plazas.  It was spooky how these New World images resembled the ruins created by the early civilizations in the Fertile Crescent and the Mediterranean basin.  Civilizations around the world, totally isolated from each other, clearly exhibited symptoms of the same acute disease — the curse of cleverness, domination, patriarchy, and self-glorification.

Why were so many people forced to spend their lives engaged in monumental construction projects that survived centuries longer than the brief explosion of decadence and egomania that created them?  What could be more ridiculous?  Well, (blush!) today’s industrial civilization has succeeded in boosting human foolishness and mindless destruction to levels never before believed to be possible.  No generation has created more and bigger ruins than the voracious mob alive today.

Beginning around 1200 B.C., a series of New World civilizations appeared here and there, aggressively devoured their resource base, enjoyed a giddy orgasm of debauchery, and then plummeted into oblivion.   The parade included the Olmecs, Mayans, Aztecs, Toltecs, Oaxacans Incas, Mixtecs, Zapotecs, and so on.  This pattern of growth and collapse was also the norm in many regions of the Old World — Uruk, Babylon, Phoenicia, etc.  Like fireflies, they blink on for a moment, then off.  In unsustainable cultures, what goes up must come down, no exceptions.

Old World civilizations were fuelled by junior grade propellants like wheat, barley, and rice.  New World civilizations were turbocharged by two highly potent propellants: corn and potatoes.  Clive Ponting noted that in A.D. 600, wheat powered Rome was home to 50,000.  At that time, in the Valley of Mexico, corn powered Teotihuacán was home to 100,000 (others say 150,000).  It is located about 18 miles (30 km) northeast of Mexico City. 

The Old World had many powerful things that Mesoamerica did not — livestock, horses, wheels, ships, and advanced metallurgy.  Maybe the Romans were handicapped by their inferior food, or by the persistent barbarian attacks, or by the waves of infectious diseases nurtured by animal domestication, or by their soils depleted by several centuries of wheat farming, or by their lead pipe water distribution system.

In 600, hungry dirty Europeans were struggling to survive in what we now call the Dark Ages, while Teotihuacán was a state of the art masterpiece of monumental architecture (look at online images).  There was the Street of the Dead, the Pyramid of the Sun, and the Pyramid of the Moon.  Aztecs ominously referred to Teotihuacán as “the place where men became gods.”  The society was destroyed in about 650, and everything flammable was burned.  By 900, it was an abandoned ghost town.

Much later, in 1521, when Spaniards arrived, the Aztec civilization of Tenochtitlán (Mexico City) was one of the biggest cities in the world, with a population of about 200,000 (some say 250,000), which was five times larger than London.  The invaders were amazed to see a big city in which the streets were not stinky and slippery with deep horse shit.  Aztecs are also known as the Mexica.

In an effort to recycle soil nutrients, the Aztecs fertilized their fields with human poop.  Imagine how much poop 200,000 people can plop every day.  Imagine continuously moving that poop out to the cornfields — without the benefit of wheeled carts or (nonhuman) beasts of burden.  Despite challenges, their population was soaring to new heights — until Old World diseases rumbled into town like a mega-death steamroller.

Several of the Spanish invaders wrote down accounts of what they observed, including the Aztec rituals of human sacrifice.  Prisoners were taken to the top of the temple-pyramid, where they were cut open, their beating heart removed and offered to the sun, and their corpse kicked down the steps.  Several Spaniards estimated that the number of folks sacrificed was maybe 20,000 per year.  On one especially sacred occasion in 1487, according to Aztec sources, the dedication of the main pyramid in Tenochtitlán was even bloodier, possibly more than 80,000.

Michael Harner focused his attention on the human sacrifices.  What was their purpose?  He noted that scholars tended to consider the practice shocking, but sacrifices were not unique to Mesoamerica.  Old World cultures had their own tradition of bloody mass murders that were inspired by periodic outbursts of holy hysteria and rabid intolerance.

Harner contemplated the notion that there was more to the rituals than good old fashioned religion.  Long before the rise of the Aztec culture, the deer in central Mexico had been hunted to scarcity.  Tenochtitlán was built on a manmade island on the western shore of Lake Texcoco.  The lake was too shallow and salty for fish to live in, so the meat department majored in domesticated turkeys and hairless dogs (Chihuahuas).

In the Andes, the Incas also performed sacrifices, but on a much smaller scale.  Their meat department was more generous, including llamas, alpacas, and guinea pigs.  Because long distance travel was extremely difficult, the people of the Andes didn’t acquire turkeys or Chihuahuas from Mexico, but they did get corn.  On the other end, Mesoamerica did not acquire llamas, alpacas, guinea pigs, or potatoes from the Andes.

While it’s possible to be fairly well nourished on a diet majoring in corn and beans, it takes some luck.  Both have to be consumed during the same meal, in adequate portions, in order to assemble essential proteins.  Adding some meat to their diet could help compensate their protein requirements.

John Reader noted that fat is essential for the absorption, transport, and storage of vitamins A, D, E, and K.  Growing children especially need two types of fat.  Arctic folks can enjoy excellent health on a diet of blubber and raw meat, but Aborigines would abandon a kangaroo that had too little fat.

Reader noted that we need to consume 40 to 50 nutrients, including carbs, fat, protein, 14 vitamins, and 15 minerals.  The building blocks of proteins are 22 types of amino acids.  From the food we eat, we can assemble 12 types of amino acids.  We cannot assemble the other 10 types, they must be consumed readymade.  These are called “essential” amino acids.  All 10 are present in plant foods, but not in the ideal proportions.  When our diet is missing just one essential amino acid, protein assembly ceases. 

It is possible to get by on a combo of cereals and beans, but this option was not practical until the era of agriculture.  For non-farmers, meat is an essential component of a healthy diet.  Different types of animal foods provide proteins, but we need to reassemble them into forms that our bodies need.  Reader said that the one and only animal food that provides the exact mix of required proteins readymade is human meat.  Full scale cannibal cultures are impossible, because the rate of consumption would far exceed the rate of reproduction.

Harner proposed the theory that the Aztec sacrifices had two roles, one was religious, and the other was about reducing malnutrition.  Aztecs often raided their neighbors, and brought back prisoners.  They did not annex their land, but they left behind survivors to breed replacements that could be captured during future raids.  Prisoners who were not eaten on the battlefield were taken back home, where they were kept in sturdy wooden cages, in which they were fattened up for an upcoming sacrifice.

Bernal Díaz was a Spaniard who was an eyewitness to sacrifices.  He wrote:  “Moreover every day they sacrificed before our eyes three, four, or five Indians, whose hearts were offered to those idols and whose blood was plastered on the walls.  The feet, arms, and legs of their victims were cut off and eaten, just as we eat beef from the butcher’s in our country.”

In the sacrifice process, the heads were also removed.  In Tenochtitlán, their skulls were displayed on a rack near the temple.  Two soldiers were assigned the job of estimating the number of skulls on the rack.  They concluded about 136,000 skulls (not including the ones on the towers).  Sacrifices were also normal events in other Aztec cities.

As school children, we were taught that civilization was an outstanding achievement, a great leap forward.  We also learned that our wild ancestors, who had far less eco-impact, were primitive, stupid, and pitiable.  Their lives were “nasty, brutish, and short.”