Saturday, January 4, 2014

Cleverness Sends Us (All of Us) Over the Edge (Yay, Neanderthals?)

Don't you just hate it when you miss a good book?

I know I do (take a look at one I'm currently kicking myself over).

All hominids have African ancestors.  Some of them migrated to Asia, where Neanderthals first walked onto the stage.  Some Neanderthals moved to Europe maybe 300,000 years ago, where they hung out in cool temperate forests.  Their primary weapon was a heavy thrusting spear with a sharp fire-hardened tip.  These were great for killing large slow-moving animals.
Fagan believes that the Neanderthals were luckless dullards, because they displayed almost no innovative cleverness over vast spans of time.  They were simple and stable, and their dance on this planet may have been far longer than ours will turn out to be — and they didn’t destroy paradise.  What dreary bores!
“Cro-Magnon” refers only to the Homo sapiens clans that inhabited Europe, but our species originally emerged in Africa, maybe 170,000 years ago.  Around 45,000 years ago, some moved into Europe, and within 5,000 years, they lightly inhabited much of the continent.  Cro-Magnons left us the gorgeous painted caves, magic peepholes into fairyland.  Neanderthals went extinct about 30,000 years ago, for unknown reasons.
The trademark weapon of Cro-Magnons was the lightweight throwing spear, tipped with stone or antler.  It was excellent for hunting on open land, and it could kill from a distance.  It made it easier to kill a wider variety of prey, like deer and reindeer.  Thus, there was more meat on the table, more bambinos in the nursery, and more spear-chuckers running around the bloody countryside.

What Is Sustainable

Sunday, July 28, 2013


Once upon a time, long, long ago, musicians Stephen Stills and Judy Collins enjoyed a romance.  Then, Judy sailed away and broke his heart.  Stephen wrote Suite: Judy Blue Eyes, which I recently heard again.  One line made my head spin: “Don’t let the past remind us of what we are not now.”  Why not?  Remembering the past sounds like an excellent idea.  What we are not now is wild and free human beings — normal & authentic.

I just finished Brian Fagan’s book, Cro-Magnon, which describes an important segment of my family history.  The happy news is that there have been three studies of the mitochondrial DNA of modern Europeans, and their genes are primarily indigenous.  The invading farmers from the Fertile Crescent did not exterminate the natives.  The genes of the eastern immigrants are somewhere between 15% and 28% of the modern European DNA. 
It staggers the imagination to contemplate the astonishing wildness, beauty, and vitality of Ice Age Europe.  It’s heartbreaking — and illuminating — when these grand memories remind us of what we are not now.  After reading the book, I feel a much stronger connection to the ancient cave paintings.  Those artists were my ancestors, and their images belong in the family album.  My people once lived in lands inhabited by wooly mammoths, aurochs, bison, and vast herds of reindeer.  They lived beside streams that thundered during salmon runs.  This gave me a sense of homecoming, a powerful remembering.
Fagan does a nice job of describing the world of the Ice Age, and the wild swings of the climate — growing glaciers & melting glaciers.  When the climate warmed, the hunters and their game moved north, and when frigid times returned, they moved south.  The hunters followed the meat, and the meat followed the grass.
“There were at least fifteen to twenty short-term events when temperatures were up to 44.5 degrees Fahrenheit (7 degrees Celsius) warmer than during the intervening colder intervals.”  The climate could swing from pleasant to freezing over the course of a lifetime.  Siberia was once a tropical forest, the Sahara once had lakes and grasslands, and there was a time when you could walk from France to England.
The sad news is that the hunting tribes of Europe became farmers.  This may have been similar to the spread of corn from Mexico to the tribes of the north — an amazing innovation that bit us on the ass, and cast wicked shadows on the unborn generations.  Fagan helped me to better understand the transition to agriculture, in which ongoing innovation in hunting technology played a leading role.

Read it all here.

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