Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Wild Free and Happy Sample 25.5

 [Note: This is a new section in my rough draft of a far from finished book, Wild, Free, & Happy.  It will be inserted before sample 26.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews.  These samples are not freestanding pieces.  They will be easier to understand if you start with sample 01, and follow the sequence listed HERE — if you happen to have some free time.  If you prefer audiobooks, Michael Dowd is in the process of reading and recording my book HERE.


In his lecture, Four Domestications, James Scott described four turning points that radically changed the course of the human saga — the domestication of fire, plants, animals, and ourselves.  We domesticated ourselves by radically changing the way we lived, in order to protect and nurture the survival and growth of crops and herds.  We controlled their lives, and they controlled ours.  Many tasks had to be performed at specific times for optimal results — tilling, planting, weeding, watering, harvesting, etc.  Herders also fine-tuned their ongoing schedules and activities for the benefit of their livestock. 

We’ve already looked at the domestication of fire, and how this superpower radically altered the human saga.  It enabled tropical humans to survive in chilly non-tropical regions (snow country), colonize the planet, and eventually become participants in monstrous fire-breathing industrial civilizations.  This chapter will focus on plant and animal domestication, which mostly began within the last 13,000 years, and fired up the turbochargers for our high-speed one-way rocket ride into the unknown.

Supply and Demand

Mother Africa was the homeland where hominins first evolved maybe six million years ago.  Experts do not agree on when humans first emerged.  Estimates range from maybe 250,000 to 400,000 years ago.  For almost the entire human saga, our ancestors were nomadic foragers — hunters and gatherers.  Around 60,000 years ago, some pioneers decided to see the world, and began exploring the tropics of southern Asia, on a path toward Australia. 

Around 42,000 years ago, humans were present up north in Europe, a region with a temperate climate.  It was a major shift, moving outside of the tropical climate for which evolution had fine-tuned us.  The curiosity of these explorers helped to accelerate our journey to a stormy future.  Long term survival in a non-tropical region required loads of radical innovations.

As mentioned earlier, William Rees proposed two fundament ecological concepts.  (1) Every species will expand to all locations that are accessible to them, where conditions might allow their survival.  (2) When they expand into new habitat, they will utilize all available resources, until limits restrain them. 

Humans regularly bumped into limits as they colonized the world, and cleverness often provided ways to bypass the obstacles.  As long as wild foods were abundant, there was no need to pursue farming or herding, which required far more time, difficulty, and risk.  Large game was our ancestors’ preferred food but, over time, hunting a bit too much could gradually deplete the delicious herds.  Efforts then had to shift to class B and class C foods — small game, forest animals, waterfowl, fish, shellfish, insects, and so on. 

Barry Cunliffe noted that as the last ice age weakened, the climate warmed, and the more comfortable Holocene era began.  The forests of Europe were able to migrate northward from the Mediterranean, displacing some tundra regions, and their megafauna residents.  These forests were home to more solitary game like aurochs, boars, elk, deer, and small animals.  The total biomass of these forest animals was only 20 to 30 percent of the biomass of the tundra herds they replaced.  Reduced access to easy meat motivated lifestyle changes.  Folks learned that it was easier to survive in locations close to coastlines, lakes, rivers, and wetlands, where a year round supply of foods might be gathered.  This new way of living apparently worked well enough for a while. 

Diana Muir wrote an environmental history of New England, from the ice age to today.  On the tundra, folks hunted mastodons, horses, bison, and four species of mammoths.  There were sabertooth cats, giant bears, giant beavers, and musk oxen.  As the climate warmed, forests spread northward.  When the tundra megafauna declined, folks hunted for deer, bear, beaver, moose, waterfowl, turkeys, and heath hens. 

Rivers had huge runs of salmon, shad, and alewives.  Stuff like acorns and shellfish were reserved for famine food.  As game got scarce, shellfish became a mainstay.  An adult male would need 100 oysters or quahogs each day.  Thousands were dug and smoked for winter consumption, a tedious job.  In the lower layers of huge shell dumps were oyster shells 10 to 20 inches across (25 to 50 cm) — oysters 40 years old.  In higher levels, the shells got smaller and smaller. 

Eventually, the seeds of domesticated corn (maize), squash, and beans reached New England.  Tribes that pursued the new experiment could produce more food, and feed more people.  When fields were first cleared, and the virgin soil was still highly fertile, agricultural land might sometimes produce a hundred times more food than an equal area of wild land used by foragers.  Of course, population pressure is a predictable cause of social friction and bloody conflict.  Because they had no livestock, they had no manure to help conserve soil fertility, which declines over time, shrinking the harvests.

The big picture here is an endless struggle for survival, in which limits periodically stomped on the brakes, and cleverness often found new ways to temporarily sneak around them.  Cleverness is not an all-powerful miracle-making magic wand.  It also has limits, as the folks on Easter Island discovered, when the last tree fell (whoops!).  It’s not easy to cleverly sneak around food scarcity.  Options often boiled down to starvation, mindful family planning, or a blind leap into the mysterious realm of food production.

Cradle of Civilization

Jared Diamond seriously wondered why some cultures could remain rich and powerful for centuries, while many others rarely, if ever, had an opportunity to sniff prosperity’s butt.  He invested a massive number of brain cycles in a quest to find answers.  In 1987, he published his boat-rocking essay, “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” [Link or Link]. 

He wrote, “Archaeology is demolishing another sacred belief: that human history over the past million years has been a long tale of progress.  In particular, recent discoveries suggest that the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered.  With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism that curse our existence.”

Ten years later, in 1997, Diamond published his classic, Guns, Germs, and Steel, in which he presented a book length discussion of what he had learned.  Domestication emerged independently in maybe nine locations around the world, but one region in Eurasia played a starring role in influencing the chain of events that eventually led to the bruised, beaten, and bleeding world outside your window.

It began one day, thousands of years ago, when some intrepid pioneers happened to stumble into an amazing jackpot known as the Fertile Crescent, the Cradle of Civilization.  Gasp!  It was as if their wildest dreams had come true!  The place was home to a great abundance of wild game and plant foods — a heavenly paradise. 

Life was grand for a while, but as the mobs grew in number, they naturally smacked into more and more annoying limits.  Cleverness inspired behaviors and illusions that put folks on the treacherous path to farming and herding.  This generated a surge of temporary prosperity, while it permanently degraded the ecosystem.

Unfortunately, as centuries passed, the forests, soils, and wildlife got rubbished.  Paradise deteriorated into depleted cropland, deserts, ancient ruins, and persistent bloody conflicts.  The Fertile Crescent (like every other region), was not an ecosystem that could tolerate endless agriculture.  Diamond noted that farming is a slow motion act of ecological suicide.

In 2002, five years after Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond published a paper, “Evolution, consequences and future of plant and animal domestication.” [Link]  It presented some additional thoughts.  The emergence of domestication, maybe 10,500 years ago, inspired tremendous changes.  It commenced in Eurasia, primarily in the Fertile Crescent and parts of China, where the whims of “biogeographic luck” provided perfect conditions for seriously dangerous mischief. 

Not only were wild foods abundant, but an unusual number of the plant and animal species possessed characteristics that made them suitable for domestication.  Despite centuries of trial and error, clever humans have discovered that it’s impossible to domesticate the vast majority of plants and animals.  To be suitable for domestication, species must have specific collection of vulnerabilities.

For example, Diamond listed six obstacles that made it impossible to domesticate most large animal species.  Any one of these could prevent enslavement: (1) a diet not easily supplied by humans, (2) slow growth rate and long birth spacing, (3) nasty disposition, (4) reluctance to breed in captivity, (5) lack of follow-the-leader dominance hierarchies, and (6) a tendency to panic in enclosures or when faced with predators.  

Diamond wrote that there are maybe 200,000 wild plant species in the world, of which about 100 have been domesticated.  The Fertile Crescent was home several wild grasses that produced large cereal seeds (barley, einkorn, emmer, and spelt), a rich source of carbohydrates.  There were also several varieties of pulses (peas, beans, and lentils) that provided protein.  In the whole world, purely by random chance, the Fertile Crescent was the biggest treasure chest of future super foods, both plant and animal.  It was essentially ground zero for the birth of civilization.

Globally, there are 148 species of large land-dwelling mammalian herbivores and omnivores that weigh more than 100 pounds (45 kg).  Sub-Saharan Africa is home to 51 of these species, but none of them have been domesticated, because they luckily failed to meet all of the six criteria for enslavement.

Of the 148 species, just 14 have been domesticated.  Nine of the 14 only had regional significance, but five species eventually became multinational superstars.  The Fertile Crescent was home to four of the five: the goat, sheep, pig, and cow (horses are the fifth) — an amazing coincidence. 

Of the 14 domesticated species, 13 of them originated in Eurasia.  Consequently, it’s no coincidence that Eurasia played a primary role in the growth and spread of acute, highly infectious, epidemic crowd diseases.  Farming and herding created communities of humans that lived in unhealthy proximity to unnatural concentrations of livestock, poultry, rats, fleas, mosquitoes, etc. 

This encouraged a number of animal pathogens to adapt to human hosts, including influenza, smallpox, tuberculosis, plague, measles, and cholera.  Diamond noted, “Such diseases could not have existed before the origins of agriculture, because they can sustain themselves only in large dense populations that did not exist before agriculture, hence they are often termed crowd diseases.”

Nomadic foragers lived in small groups, enslaved no livestock or poultry, and periodically moved their camps — a brilliant strategy for avoiding diseases.  On the other hand, humans who lived in crowded villages and cities made tremendous advances in unsanitary living.  Crap and garbage was all over the place, all the time.  Rivers were the source of drinking water, and the dumping place for sewage and filth.  A later chapter will take a closer look at disease.

Diamond noted four developments that dimmed the future for hunter-gatherers, and encouraged the expansion of farming and herding.  (1) Over time, hunting gradually made large game less abundant.  (2) We learned new skills for collecting, processing, and storing foods.  (3) Societies competed, spurring innovations that improved our ability to survive.  (4) Growing populations required large-scale food production.

Folks who inhabited a paradise of plant and animal super foods, learned lots of tricks for maximizing food production.  Population surged, spurring the emergence of cities and civilizations.  Civilization encouraged the development of stuff like metallurgy, industry, deforestation, soil destruction, warfare, overcrowding, patriarchy, and slavery.

So, let’s rephrase what William Rees said about species.  (1) “Every civilization will expand to all locations that are accessible to them, where conditions might allow their survival.”  As they expand, they will take along their livestock, crop seeds, weaponry, culture, technology, religions, and diseases.  (2) “When they colonize new habitat, they will utilize all available resources, until limits restrain them.”

Eurasia spans from Europe to China.  The earliest centers of domestication were the Fertile Crescent and parts of China.  State of the art food production provided both centers with powerful advantages over their more humble neighbors.  The two centers became hubs for territorial expansion, and their languages, genes, tools, and cultural influences have spread around the world. 

This is a spooky story.  From the two hubs, the realm of farming and herding spread in many directions.  In the sixteenth century, European travelers began noticing striking similarities in Indo-Aryan, Iranian, and European languages.  They appeared to have a common ancestor.  As the years flowed by, scholars noticed that lots of other languages also had similarities.  A category was created to name this large assortment.

Visit Wikipedia’s discussion of Indo-European Languages.  See the maps that show how this language family spread across the Old World over time.  Around 500 years ago, the age of global colonization exported them to the Americas, Australia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and elsewhere.  Today, the native language of about 46 percent of humankind, is an Indo-European tongue.

Drop a pebble in a calm pool of water, and rings of ripples spread in every direction.  Diamond wrote that humankind’s long and stormy story of food production, population growth, civilization, and global domination, began in the Fertile Crescent.  The pebble is called domestication.

Diamond lamented, “If they had actually foreseen the consequences, they would surely have outlawed the first steps towards domestication, because the archaeological and ethnographic record throughout the world shows that the transition from hunting and gathering to farming eventually resulted in more work, lower adult stature, worse nutritional condition, and heavier disease burdens.”

Looking back from the twenty-first century, we can readily see the many unnecessary wrong turns that our ancestors made.  At the same time, we can observe the world around us today, and readily see the catastrophes that those wrong turns triggered.  It’s heartbreaking.  Cleverness without foresight is a deadly duo.  It sure is an interesting time to be alive!