Friday, July 21, 2023

Wild New World


Dan Flores is a historian who has been studying the stormy relationship between humans and the family of life for many years.  He calls this subject Big History.  Wild New World is a fascinating and disturbing masterpiece.  It’s a thick book loaded with ideas gathered over a long career.  The core focus is on North America, which was once an Eden-like paradise of abundant wildlife.  What happened?

Our species emerged in beautiful Mother Africa maybe 300,000 years ago.  Maybe 60,000 years ago, adventurous folks began wandering off into the outer world.  Our exploration of the planet was underway.  Folks went east to Asia, and north to Europe.  By maybe 45,000 years ago, folks were in Siberia and northern Asia.  So far, the earliest evidence of humans in America dates to maybe 25,000 years ago.

Flores described two important discoveries in New Mexico.  At Folsom (1908), the bones of 32 extinct giant bison, 12,450 years old.  At Clovis (1914) the bones of extinct mammoths, 13,000 years old.  At both sites, flaked flint points were found with the bones, smoking gun evidence of human hunting.  A huge surprise!

Humans were team hunters skilled at killing delicious wild animals, preferably jumbo sized megafauna.  As bands of pioneers migrated into new frontiers, a number of megafauna species gradually went extinct, in one region after another, a sequence corresponding to the timeline of human arrival. 

Today, our culture celebrates human brilliance.  We’re simply too smart to disrupt the planet’s climate — global warming is a hoax!  We deny responsibility — not our fault.  Similarly, we’re too smart to cause mass extinctions — not our fault. 

It’s much more comfortable to blame prehistoric climate change.  But the wiped-out species in America had survived for millions of years, including numerous eras of unusual heat and cold.  They weren’t dainty weaklings.  Why did this killer climate shift only exterminate large animals, not small?  Why did it just affect America, but not other continents at the same time?  Hmmm…

In the 1960s, Paul Martin began using a new technology, radiocarbon dating, a better tool for dating prehistoric artifacts.  This enabled him to compare the dates of human presence in North America with the dates of extinctions.  He learned that human arrival came first, and extinctions came later — during a process that took maybe a thousand years. 

Stunned, he referred to this process as “blitzkrieg overkill,” because of its unusual speed.  To Native Americans, this implied that their venerable ancestors foolishly hunted too hard.  They’ve never been fond of the paleface settlers who foolishly obliterated their ancient homeland, and they especially disliked Martin.

We’ve now learned that as the human diaspora advanced around the world, the same pattern followed: arrival first, then extinction.  By 2006, Martin had learned more.  He wrote, “I argue that virtually all extinctions of wild animals in the last 50,000 years were anthropogenic.”  Yikes!  The indigenous white folks of Europe had done it too!

Evolution had fine-tuned us for living in tropical climates.  Many of the new lands we wandered into had uncomfortably chilly non-tropical climates.  We were forced to develop innovative solutions, like needles, awls, sewn clothing, and protective shelters. 

When we arrived in new regions, the wildlife was clueless.  Mysterious bipedal primates did not trigger danger alarms, because we didn’t fit the standard predator template.  “We were a brilliant new predator with sophisticated weapons, dogs, and fire.”  For a while, hunters enjoyed the pursuit of fearless prey, many of whom became victims of fatal tameness, like dodos.  During the Lewis & Clark expedition, Clark once bayoneted a wolf that calmly walked past.

Hunting focused on jumbo sized animals that didn’t breed like bunnies, or zoom like gazelles.  Small groups of humans roamed across vast roadless wilderness on foot, armed with Stone Age weapons.  Game was depleted over the course of centuries, and the process of decline could have been imperceptible to living generations.  As game got scarce, the diaspora advanced into new regions.

Everywhere we migrated, the megafauna had evolved large strong bodies, a traditional defense against fierce predators, like sabertooth cats.  Unfortunately, when the predators were bloodthirsty primates from outer space, jumbo size was a vulnerability, and high speed escape was not an option.  The big guys could be killed with primitive spears.

America was the last major stop of the human diaspora, which had begun maybe 35,000 years earlier.  During this long process, pioneers had become highly skilled survivalists.  When the Beringia land bridge emerged from the sea, they advanced from Siberia into the “American Serengeti.”

I was shocked to realize the very long time spans of evolutionary history prior to human arrival.  The camel family in North America blinked out 10,000 years ago, ending a 40 million year residence.  Horses went extinct 9,000 years ago, after enjoying four million years here.  Mammoths wandered in from the Old World 1.5 million years ago.  It’s heartbreaking to comprehend the impact of the blitzkrieg.

IMPORTANT!  So, a number of species blinked out.  When the American megafauna extinction surge wound down, what came next was 10,000 years (100 centuries) of relative stability, according to Flores.  The human pioneers remained, and eventually coevolved with the species that survived.  This preserved the continent’s downsized wildlife community.  Humans learned ecosystem limits, established wise taboos to avoid overhunting, and nurtured a culture of profound respect and reverence for the entire family of life. 

Species that survived extinction now had less competition.  With the giant bison gone forever, the much smaller bison we know today exploded in number.  They reached reproductive age faster, and successfully coevolved with the remaining survivors.  

Sadly, the 100 centuries of stability zoomed off a cliff 500 years ago, when visitors from the Old World began washing up on the Atlantic coast — something like a bloody asteroid strike.  The aliens brought with them an assortment of deadly infectious diseases for which natives had zero immunity.  There were maybe four million natives in 1492.  Epidemics rapidly spread westward, killing about 90 percent of them within 100 years. 

This die-off sharply reduced hunting pressure on the wildlife, which was free to grow explosively.  In 1585, Thomas Hariot was astonished by the fantastic abundance of animals he saw in Virginia.  It was an Eden created by disease.  Settlers were free to hunt like crazy in a wilderness where there were no rules or regulations. 

In addition to diseases, colonists also imported their infectious worldview.  Their religion had roots in a herding society that treasured enslaved livestock, and detested predators.  Their Old World culture was built on a foundation of human supremacy, domestication, civilization, manufacturing, fanaticism, patriarchy, environmental devastation, and pathological self-interest. 

From time to time, Flores stopped to take a long hard piss on the notion of self-interest, a demonic quirk in the settler’s worldview.  I suspect it emerged with the rise of farming, herding, personal property, and individual salvation.  Its one all-consuming question has been “how can I get what I want?”  We suffer from an insatiable lifelong pursuit of social status, to the fullest extent possible, by any means necessary.  Nothing else matters.  Sorry kids!  Sorry wolves!

The traditional worldview of most tribal cultures majored in cooperation instead.  It nurtured mindfulness, and profound reverence for the family of life, the mother of their existence.  They were something like the folks who made the passionate cave paintings at Chauvet.  With few exceptions, the named gods of Native Americans were animals — coyote, raven, rabbit, etc. 

In the Old World religion, humans were very special critters, the other animals were not.  By and by, settlers from the Old World flooded into America.  They had domesticated animals and religions and economic ideas wherein “animals were not kin but resources.”  Their lives had no sacred significance.  So, the more hides, pelts, and furs you could take to market, the more cool stuff you could get.  Yippee!

Native folks thoroughly detested the monstrous colonists, but were fascinated by the unusual stuff they had.  Fifty deerskins could be traded for a metal pot.  Hatchets, axes, and knives were more expensive.  Whiskey was intoxicating.  The desire for this stuff was powerful, but it wasn’t free.

It was in the self-interest of the market, and the colonies, to leave nothing of monetary value unmolested.  Wild animals were pests that stood in the path of progress, and their extermination would continue until it was no longer profitable.  For natives, all options sucked.  They struggled to do their best.

In 1972, I was a roller coaster operator.  Riders slowly went up the steep hill, and then rapidly zoomed downhill screaming their brains out.  Flores provides readers a similar experience.  Most of his book describes the terrifying mass insanity that ravaged America in the last 500 years.  Readers will scream their brains out as they plunge deep into the cesspool of Big History, our horrifying monster closet.

Flores wrote that the invaders forced “a transformation of a hundred centuries of Native America into a re-creation of Old World civilization on a new continent.”  Five centuries ago, Old World folks and animals arrived, “and then, like some new contagion spreading inland from the coasts, proceeded to effect a widespread demolition of almost all that was here.”

In one year, 1743, the port at La Rochelle, France “took in 127,000 beaver pelts, 30,300 marten furs, 12,400 river otter furs, 110,000 raccoon pelts, along with its big haul for that year, the stripped skins of 16,500 American black bears.”

“In 1874 Bozeman market hunters were hip-deep in the big bonanza.  That year they shipped out 48 tons of elk skins, 42 tons of deerskins, 17 tons of pronghorn skins, and 760 pounds of bighorn skins.”

“Governments at all levels paid money for the heads or ears or scalps of a suite of animals — wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, grizzly and black bears, jaguars, bobcats, lynx — for the single purpose of promoting agricultural economies.”  Dead animals (or meat chunks) injected with strychnine were put everywhere to poison scavengers — wolves, coyotes, eagles, vultures, ravens, magpies, foxes, skunks.  It was sold in bulk in every store.

To delight ranchers, Montana put out 3,567,000 poison baits to kill predators.  Between 1883 and 1928 Montana shelled out payments on 111,545 wolves and 886,367 coyotes.  In one year, a wolf killer earned enough to buy a ranch and livestock.

Passenger pigeons, had been in America for 15 million years.  My father was in diapers when the last one died in 1914.  “The largest nesting site ever reported, near Sparta, Wisconsin, in 1871, spread across 850 square miles (2,200 km2).”  One flock was estimated to have 3.7 billion birds. 

Life on Earth is powered by energy.  Sunbeams feed the plants, and plants feed the critters.  Agriculture and herding amplified the energy flow for humans.  More recently, the flow has been explosively accelerated by burning fossil hydrocarbons, which are not limitless or harmless.  We can now temporarily feed more than eight billion.  We’re heating the planet into a toasty concentration camp crematory.  The machine’s guiding force is insanely clever childish self-interest, which is dumber than dog shit, but far more powerful than foresight, wisdom, cooperation, and mindful self-control.  SCREAM!!!

Flores, Dan, Wild New World: The Epic Story of Animals & People in America, W. W. Norton, New York, 2022.