Humility (2)

During the last, say 150 years there has been unrelenting and consistent technological change in nearly all areas – medicine, communications, travel, energy, the list is seemingly endless. It is almost unbelievable, actually. Somehow there seems to have been a parallel assumption that we humans have also changed greatly, maybe because we think we must have changed to bring forth all these marvels, and maybe, even more, many of us think that with all these new wonderful tools the measure of people, their character and behavior, must be changing rapidly as well. There has been, for at least six or seven generations, a steady belief in inevitable progress in all areas, including the character and behavior of humans.

This is a huge, huge mistake, in my opinion, because human nature hasn’t changed despite all these technological breakthroughs. The evidence of our own eyes and memories, for those of us who have been around for eight or nine decades, is exactly the opposite, as is the historical record – we humans have been bad to each other, always and forever.

Go way back, way way back, before farming, before towns and cities, the time of great ice and terrible animals, and humans barely hanging on in remote safe places. When a group invaded another group’s territory, back then, it seems they captured the women and children but killed off all the men, all of them, so there would not be retribution. Surely humans then, and in the years since, and today, are selfish, vengeful, hateful, lustful, cruel, possessive acquisitive, tyrants, murderers, just as humans are loving, caring, friendly, empathetic, self sacrificing, and noble.

Look over the last 150 years – many huge wars, hundreds of millions dead, maybe 70 million in the two World Wars alone. Millions more killed with famine, whether in China, Russia, India, Asia, or elsewhere. Millions more lost to disease. Remember that a century ago only smallpox had been defeated, there remained the scourge of measles, mumps, whooping cough, scarlet fever, polio, rickets, cholera, not to mention millions more lost to raw poverty. Yes, it is true that today millions of people are living far better than their forebears, but does this mean human nature has changed? That the legacy of grim news that has underpinned all the technological triumphs will somehow miraculously end?

I think not. Somewhere in the rush to greatness, and the ability to build and invent great things, we seem to have entirely lost awareness that we are both good and evil, flawed and noble, and any excess – ANY – promises difficulty, death, destruction. Nowadays we may look back and consider earlier people cautious, conservative in behavior, keeping their heads down, but maybe the truth of the matter was they were raised humble, cautious, well aware of their own dark side, and the dark sides of others. Throughout all of history the battles have remained the same – on the one had wresting survival from a hostile world, which we humans successfully did such that the world seems now to be ours, but on the other hand always, since the beginning, struggling with the much larger danger – ourselves, our conflicts and fights, and these days our narrative driven views that only we are right and all others not only flawed but even evil.

In ancient times, when we were not the apex predator, the world was above us, more powerful, and we were careful, humble, cautious, because we had to be. Now we rule the world, but it has not been the world that has brought evil, it is ourselves, plain as day, brought forth in the urgency of ideology and zealotry and certain-ness, and further complicated because the public megaphones respond to only anger, rage, froth. My sense is the greater mass of us are sick of all of it, and want to just get on with our lives, as best we can, and all of us know that only through humility will come the wisdom to regain some kind of balance.


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Are we dumbing down?

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I wonder if we as a species are dumbing down. Before farming (ie, dense settlements, crowds, and a need for administration) human bones we have recovered shows that skeletons were stronger and brains bigger. In fact the very recent discovery of that skull in northern China, maybe 150,000 years old, has a brain bigger than modern man’s. My guess is we had bigger brains because we needed to remember everything in order to carry forth learning and culture. We did this with stories, I am sure, stories as a way to encode memory for years, then for generations.

Then with farming, and the development of a priestly class, writing developed, first used to catalogue the administration of commerce and materials, and to document religious structure and belief. Until very very recently – as in, the last say 500 years – only a tiny percentage of we humans could read and write; needed to read and write,. Then, about 400 years ago, education in the literary arts became more widespread, and now, in the 21st century, nearly everyone can read at some level.

So for the last say four or five centuries humans began to store their memories and their data with writing and scrolls and books in levels great enough to see the broad development of libraries. Libraries, and palace records, documented what had been learned and exported all this information to ink and paper such that humans did not, any longer, have to carry everything around in their head. At the same time, of course, culture and civilization became increasingly complex, requiring great specialization in the professions and in learning itself – further requiring the use of paper and ink to hold records, instructions, historical accounts.

With the wide use of reading and writing the tremendous importance of verbal and oral histories, and teachings, began to diminish. What had been held in a person’s large brain was now stored somewhere else. This meant that the brain no longer needed to remember so much. And maybe this is why the average brain of we humans today is smaller than the brains of our ancestors who had to survive in a world filled with terrible animals, great ice, and huge swings in climate.

Now we have entered a third phase in this process, in the last half century – the development of the computer, the ability to store incredible amounts of information on chips and drives. This was something in the early years but still required the printing of thousands of pages to reveal the stored data. However, in the last 20 years the “cloud” and the Internet has created a paradigm shift – now everything is stored in the “cloud” and there are applications and programs that enable anyone on earth, using a cell phone or computer, to ask any question and receive an answer. This is called “googling.” You see it all the time, someone asks a question and someone else peers at their phone and a half minute later gives an answer, because they googled the cloud and the cloud spat back an answer.

So these days humans no longer have to remember everything with stories, as our bigger brained ancestors had to, or know enough to read a card catalogue to find data in a library – no. These days all someone has to do is be able to read and click in a question, and the “cloud” gives the answer.

If human brains shrank with the advent of writing, the first form of remote storage, won’t brains shrink even more, and faster, with this “cloud?” Why exercise your brain, train it to learn and hold information, contain it and sort it, when an external thing does it for you? All those stresses and pressures creating neurons and pathways will fall idle.

The brain will shrink.

We are making ourselves stupid.


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Screamers (Humility # 2) on fishboats

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When I was fishing on the East and Gulf Coasts a long time ago – actually a damn long time ago – there was a saying that wandered the docks. When boats tied up together in a port the guys working on the boats would talk to each other, on the dock or aboard boats or in the nearby barroom, catch up on scuttlebutt and gossip, tell lies. There was a phrase that floated around about some captains – actually at times more than some captains – and that phrase was, “He’s a screamer.” This meant that this person could not give an order without screaming the words, shouting, and often it seemed the case that no order was properly given unless it included at least two graphic insults.

There were of course more captains, usually many more captains, who were not screamers, they were level-headed men (and these days they include many women too) who had the crew’s respect, who rarely had to give orders because the crew knew what was expected and jumped to.

If you were lucky enough to be on a boat with a “good captain, meaning, someone who was all right to work for, this usually meant you were also on a boat that was well maintained, that carried the proper survival gear, where things usually worked, and where you made money. The crew members often became friends. I can name many boats which were based in New Bedford which had the same crew for two or three decades, they fished together, hunted deer together, and their captains, I am almost sure, were never screamers.

I worked for both types, and let me tell you, working for a screamer was dangerous, difficult, and downright scary at timers. The biggest issue was that screamers could not keep crew, they either fired those they did not like or drove the crew away, which meant that those of us who remained had to work twice as hard training the new guys every trip as well as doing the work. Boats with screamers in the wheelhouse gathered foc’sle lawyers down below, and disgruntled complainers, and laggards and bums.

I always figured the good captains remembered where they came from, how hard it was to learn the ropes, and had the good sense to admit when they didn’t know something, and were unafraid to ask. The good captains explained what was needed and gave others the respect to get it done, and in my experience if you treat someone as if they will do the job well, they usually do, whereas if you hover and pester the result is terrible.

The good captains were humble. They knew they did not know everything. They honored the weather and the force of the ocean. They supported the others around them and the others around them supported them. They went to work and brought back fish and an income, and they did it without breaking the crew.

Screamers? Never humble. Always trying to be on top, and better than. Never listen. Shout and scream and get angry easily. Have these ideas they have come up with which they declare must be true and refuse to admit they make no sense.

“Watch out for him, he’s a screamer.”

It feels, these days, the screamers gave taken over damn near everything, shouting their point of view and beliefs everywhere, insulting others, not listening, and most of all not learning or facing facts. Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone in the wheelhouse who assumed everyone on the boat was equally intent on making an income and coming home safe. That’s the case, or was, in the fishing industry, anyway.

It seems to me that the reason it feels like we have screamers everywhere – in politics, in the media, on school playgrounds – must have something to do with forgetting that we cannot have a community unless people listen and speak carefully, meaning, are humble with themselves and others. At sea, in the microcosm world that was limited to the boat, a screamer was toxic, dangerous, and inflected the entire world. In ancient times such a person was driven from the tribe, shunned, left to wander alone. Maybe we could use a little more of that now, because with all the screaming going on, people lose sight of what they don’t know, what they need too learn, and what they should be doing to keep the community strong.


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The genetic plot thickens

When the Kennewick Man was discovered in Washington State a great argument ensued. Native tribes demanded that the bones remain with them, as an honored ancestor of 9,000 years ago. Others – non-Natives – argued the Kennewick Man carried “Western” traits (whatever the heck that means) and might have origins from Europe. A battle ensued. Along the way, of course, DNA analysis and genetic testing has evolved rapidly, such that today there are complete genomes of ancient peoples available from both the Old and New World. Recently, as the article below describes in fascinating detail, Kennewick Man has been confirmed as a true Native American ancestor, and his remains returned. It is still the strong belief, supported by evidence, that Native American peoples came from Eurasia, mainly Siberia, some 15,000 to 24,000 years ago. We have already forgotten that just two decades ago the STRONG belief was that nobody was in the Americas until the “Clovis” people appeared 12,000 years ago. As every year passes, dramatic rethinking is being forced by new finds:

  • Ancient people reached the Americas at least 20,000 years ago, and maybe much earlier;
  • Ancient peoples understood maritime seafaring and wandered widely, but during a time when sea levels were much lower such that all their sites are now covered;
  • Ancient patterns of trade and resource exchange were complex and widespread, often covering thousands of miles;
  • All during human development the climate has changed, some times rapidly, in enormous swings, equally as dramatic then as the current concerns about global warming have people panicking today;
  • There is now a begrudging acceptance that humans living in the time of the great animals were, for thousands of years, NOT the top predator, but barely able to linger in out of the way protected sites.

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The Volcano Has Changed

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The volcano in southwest Iceland has been erupting for 85 days more or less, and until very recently it was erupting every 7-12 minutes, flowing lava for a minute or two, then subsiding. The time between eruptions was long enough for the lava to cool on the surface and the mountain to become dark. Even yesterday, though the eruptions seemed to be a bit closer together, there were long pauses, several minutes, when the mountain went dark.

No more. Something happened. Yesterday or the day before the top of the volcano, a sort of lid over the pool of lava, fell into the lava pool, and pool seemed wider afterwards. This evening when I turned on the video feed the lava flow was steady, changing very little minute to minute, flowing all the time. This means that the flow of lava emerging from the vent must be five to twelve times the flow when the eruptions were sporadic, and it seems in the night shots I see now that much of the lower lakes of lava and pooled material are glowing red and moving.

Wow.


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Razor stone…

I built this theory that during the last ice age, thousands of years, even tens of thousands of years before the accepted time of crossing the land bridge ( less than 15,000 years ago), people might have been in the Americas, living along the coast, sheltering on islands in glacial refugia away from the great carnivorous animals and near fish and marine mammals for food. Because, then, people must have been few in number, and because even in our earliest days humans knew it was healthiest to find mates not directly related to family members, I think it is fair to guess that bands of raiders went out and sought to steal people from other groups. This behavior has often been documented even in recent memory, as for example knowledge that First Peoples from way north in British Columbia sailed their great canoes south to the Strait of Juan de Fuca to capture women and slaves from Puget Sound tribes living along the shores of the strait.

Evidence exists that ancient people were tremendous seafarers, surely able to leave the sight of land for fish, for travel, and while a coastline in an ice age might have long sections bounded by cliffs of ice, I speculate travel was possible, and frequent. The structure of the ice age world revealed in the Strong Heart Series is, of course, fiction, but as true as I could make it based on the research I did. It seemed to me then, and still does, it would be a lot easier to have other people capture and steal mates from inland neighbors if you could offer something of tremendous value in exchange. In my stories, I imagined that these ancient People walked south across the Great River for razor stone – they crossed the Columbia for the obsidian available in Oregon – and then they headed toward the Bering land bridge with this razor stone to trade for wives at a meeting place somewhere midway along that land bridge.

Of course this idea contradicts accepted theory on every level – my tales took place not 12,000 years ago nearly 70,000 years ago – I suggest people could navigate their great canoes 2,000 miles along an exposed coast and survive, I argue that because of the great animals humans barely survived in out of the way and hard to reach refuges, protected by ice, by water; that humans lived and even thrived all this time along the strip of shore now buried hundreds of feet beneath a rising ocean.

This tale came to me in 2012, or the first draft did, and I thought, then, God has a sense of humor, a wicked one, and as sure as I am writing this today, at some time in the near future something will be found confirming that humans have been in the Americas far longer than 15,000, or even 20,000 or 40,000 years. It better be a damn good find because everyone with careers built the current thesis will fight to the death to protect that thesis, as even now some still fight to protect the 12,000 year “Clovis” thesis, which was debunked by the finding of a spear point in a mastodon bone in Sequim, Washington that is 13,800 years old – the oldest evidence of hunting, I think, anywhere in the Americas.

But, that razor stone, and the idea a people collected that stone for use in trade for wives with other people living far, FAR away, beyond the land bridge, was not when my story first appeared ridiculous to me, and now may be even more reasonable based on the report that obsidian – razor stone – only available in Oregon, has now been found under Lake Huron, at least 9,000 years old. The age of this find fits within current dogma about the end of the ice age, but also shows that people, even back just as the ice was melting, traded materials over thousands of miles.

We know so little….


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Camping in the old days (1)

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My dad was a serious hunter and camper. He was in the 10th Mountain Division during World War II, he called them the “ski troops” but then they invaded Italy and fought all the way to Germany and war’s end without donning a ski once, and when my sister and I were little kids we were camping in the back yard all the time, using gear he had brought back from the war or a tent his father had used years earlier. When I grew older I had a best friend older than me, Doug Bysiewski, and we would go down back into the fields and forests behind our house and pitch a tent and stay over night, as often as we could, exploring, finding owl nests, poking snapping turtles, messing around the UMass dump, and of course smoking. Once when I was about 10 or 11 there was a huge rainstorm and the tiny creek beside our house which drained into a wide swamp past the corn field, where Doug and I trapped muskrats every winter, flooded, enormously, such that the swamp was flooded, too, reaching all the way to our back yard, so my dad took the little 13 foot cedar canoe his dad, the serious hunter in our family, had built in the 1920s, and Doug and I took the 12 foot Old Town we had, and we pushed off from our back yard and followed the flooded rivers all the way to the Connecticut River ten miles away, passing over fences and losing the channel, wandering through forests, beneath trees. It was a great adventure.

There was nothing to do in Amherst during the summer. Nothing. We kids got into trouble because what else was there to do? UMass was expanding with all these new buildings being built, a gold mine for mischief, rummaging through half built buildings, stealing smudge pots – remember them? – riding our bikes all over hell and gone, seeking excitement. We couldn’t go to work picking tobacco or cucumbers until we were 14, and when the colleges let out Amherst became a ghost town, so Doug and I camped out a lot. My dad taught us how to use an ax, build a fire, make a splint for broken bones, rig a temporary shelter, and the scoutmaster for North Amherst, a great guy, took us troops camping all the time too, on Mount Toby, where one night I woke up to find a porcupine inside the tent.

Back then, before Eastern Mountain Sports or REI, nobody did this, not really, except idiots or kids whose dads had been campers, too, and there didn’t seem to be many of them. I started using my dad’s Army mummy bag when I was 11 and used it through graduate school, it weighed a ton but was warmer than anything. He had these rubber boots, insulated, which I later used winter climbing in New Hampshire in 30 below weather and my feet stayed warm, also Army issue.

So when the summer I was 12 I was sent to this camp near Mount Monadnock to get me out of the house and home town trouble I carried with me all this old gear, because at this camp we ended the season with a two week long camping trip. It was the main and to me only attraction of the place, otherwise filled with pre-Ivy league boys from New Canaan and Shaker Heights and Greenwich, but it was actually an OK place. You could shoot a .22, which my dad had taught me well, chop wood, navigate with a map in the woods, which were all good, but every Friday we had greasy fish sticks and dead white mashed potatoes and stewed tomatoes for lunch and we had to eat it, meaning, every Friday afternoon I got sick.

Eventually the Great Day came when we embarked on our Long camping Trip, which involved an 11 hour drive from New Hampshire all the way to Baxter State Park in Maine, this in an era before the Interstate Highways had been built. We took a huge trailer with canoes and gear and packs and supplies, including the newly invented and marketed dehydrated foods by Bolton, in cardboard boxes. The latest thing, these foods. We split into two groups, and one group paddled about 40 miles of the Penobscot River near Mt. Kathadin and the other group climbed the mountain, and then we switched places. There was some kind of campsite by a bridge over the river we used as our base camp.

The first night out we didn’t make it to the site and had to camp off the road near Millinockett, Maine, hundreds of yards from a huge stinking pulp mill, this was early August, a heat wave, and all of us sweating in our bags breathing in the pulp stink while mosquitoes the size of humming birds devoured us. Remember I was in my dad’s war mummy bag, frying.

The trip was, in memory, great fun, and an adventure, but we had our issues. The river channel was blocked by log jams and we had to beat portages through thick brush for over a mile a few times to get downstream, and there were rapids a little too large for safety, and I don’t think any of the counselors, who were just college kids, knew what they were doing. On the mountain, it rained and blew, but the mountain is dramatic. One year, the second year I went to that camp before finally turning 14 and being able to work and make some money on the farms, we took a bush whack route up Kathadin, from a side with no trails, and that was something.

Back then, there were no 10 essentials, people made fires wherever, you’d find piles of tin cans everywhere you camped, few people were in the woods, and you’d see cigarette butts everywhere.

However, that first year, and the second, too, one thing nearly ruined the entire trip. It was this dehydrated food. The meat was horrible, and the noodles never got soft, everything tasted of plastic and glue, and there was never enough. The premier feature of this food was the Bolton Biscuits, which were these hard scone-shaped biscuits you’d break your teeth against. The second year I prepared for this experience. I packed a full can of Dirty Moore beef stew and I carried that, hidden, all through the trip, every day nursing along one Milky Way Bar for 10 days, and in the 10th and last day, the last night out, I broke out the can of stew and shared it with two other boys at a separate fire. The stew lasted all of four bites each. It was fantastic.

On the way back from those trips, all of us filthy, clothing horrible, we’d get outside the State Park on the way to Millinockett and the long way home and there was a Dairy Queen there and we’d stop and each of us get an enormous cone of smoothie ice cream, twirled into a peak. My God but that ice cream was good.


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The Fire Below….

Right now, May 24, 2021, there are at least two volcanoes erupting, one in Iceland and another in the Congo. Both eruptions are big and long lasting, producing rivers of lava. The video below is the Iceland volcano, which has been erupting for a couple of weeks. To me it is astonishing to see the molten rock flowing like water, even producing waves. Even more astonishing is the realization that beneath us lie cubic miles of hot molten magma. Here in the Pacific Northwest we live beneath a line of great volcanoes, one of which exploded 40 years ago, Mount St. Helens. It seems that these great volcano areas lie along the edge of a continental plate, such that when another great plate thrusts beneath it, huge earthquakes happen. There was an earthquake here in 2001, big enough to cause damage, shake buildings, cause higher buildings to sway back and forth, and this earthquake was nowhere the size of what everyone is predicting eventually. It seems the energy of the rock thrusting beneath other rock creates friction and heat, and magma, which will burst to the surface under pressure. There are other areas, like Yellowstone, which have been called “super volcanoes” because of the size of the magma chamber beneath.

We have evidence of huge eruptions in the past, huge. We know about huge flooding of magma across thousands of square miles of land, just as we now know of enormous glacial floods in the past, not to mention asteroid strikes, some large enough to create craters fifty miles ion diameter.

So, are these two eruptions occurring now an indication of a period of greater volcanic activity? We won’t know until after it happens.

All of which to say, again, geologic time is totally different than human lifespan time-sense. Our ability to hear eye witness accounts of events is limited to, at best, 70-90 years. Then information is second-hand, then third-hand. By the time of third and fourth hand transmission memory has been lost, the stories have changed, the great event is lost in the mists of time. We humans like to erase uncomfortable history, and we do it all the time. We seem wired to forget pain, discomfort, such that we can endure it again. There is evidence that 700 to 1,000 years ago great forest fires swept the entire U.S. West, all of it, a thousand times worse than the worst fire season we have seen to date.

When I see a video like this one here I am reminded of how little we know, and how humble we should be…..


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Ancient Humans Thought Experiment (3)

I think there has been a lack of imagination about how ancient humans lived and survived. In addition to missing, until recently, the awareness that throughout human history humans have persisted through enormous climatic changes (one ice age after another), we have also imagined how ancient humans lived by comparing them to the few remaining hunter gatherer societies remaining on earth. By the time human studies and anthropology and archeology came into being as specific fields of study (no earlier than 1850 and really not until around 1900) most hunter gatherer groups had been decimated by disease, encroachment, and crowding. When I was in graduate school in 1970 some papers appeared contradicting the belief that ancient human groups spent all their time foraging for food, or hunting, frequently starving, always desperate and stressed. Studies of the Kalahari Bushmen in Africa, near the Kalahari desert in Botswana, demonstrated that in fact they lived pretty well – hunting one or two days a week, gathering foods a few days a week, and spending a lot of time socializing and telling stories. Researchers were also astonished to find that, once infant and childhood deaths were accounted for, adults lived to the same age as modern humans. So the belief was either that ancient tribes struggled always, or, perhaps, actually lived a nearly suburban life.

While it may well be that ancient tribal groups lived very much as the few remaining hunter gatherers today live, what seems to be missing is that the major difference between now and then is that back then the great animals were thriving – mammoths, mastodons, and great sloths could be found nearly everywhere, as could their predators. And what predators they were – great lions larger than modern lions, huge saber tooth cats, dire wolves standing four feet at the shoulder and weighing 200 pounds, and short face bears, carnivorous bears weighing a ton, able to run 40 miles an hour, and reaching as high as 15 feet.There were big hyenas and other carrion eaters, too. In fact, attached below, a mass grave of Neanderthals was just found destroyed by what are believed to be a pack of hyenas, yet even this article misses the main point.

Where I think the lack of imagination lies is understanding how ancient humans must have responded to these animals. Humans are small, weak, and slow, though their endurance over long distances is perhaps the best of any animal on earth, and there is even one theory stating that ancients hunted big game not by attacking that game but by running it down, harrying it again and again until it collapsed with exhaustion. Whenever a human wandered the plains or forest, he or she wandered in territory used by the great predators. Yes, groups gathered together with burning firebrands might have been able to take on a pack of dire wolves, but just as surely the wolves would have had their day. Humans had to find places that were safe from these predators, and safe for long periods of time, because years were needed to raise a child to adulthood, to grow and learn what was needed for survival – at least 13-15 years, probably longer. Every time a group moved, they were vulnerable to attack. If they chose to remain in one place, say a big cave, they needed to range far and wide for game and foods, also vulnerable to attack. Life was always risky, and dangerous, and harsh, and the most dangerous elements were the great predators.

This suggests to me that early humans, all the way up to the end of this last ice age and the beginning of agriculture, must have chosen to find places to live that were, to the degree possible, isolated from easy attack yet near sufficient food for survival. The only such places I can imagine would be along the shore, the seashore or a great lake, on a nearby island, separate from the mainland but with the mainland accessible for hunts, and close, too, to marine resources such as shellfish and fish. On the mainland, such a secure place would be a cave, something with a relatively narrow entrance that could be guarded with fire and spears, but the most secure places would be nearshore islands with marine resources and access to nearby mainland game.

What does this suggest? First, that it is likely that those groups of humans living inland might often have been destroyed, again and again, over thousands of years. Second, that any groups living along the seashore on nearby islands had a better chance of long term survival, but we will never know because the places they lived, the seashore and islands, have long been buried by the rising seas as there last ice melted. And, third, and to me most important, when those groups along the shore felt the need to find new resources, they followed that shore, island to island, over the centuries, and this suggests that the first long human migrations were along coasts, not the interior.

If this is the case, and I believe it is, then throughout human history, over the many times land bridges appeared with the coming of the ice, it is highly likely that humans traversed those land bridges, including the one between Eurasia and the Americas. And, if humans lived along the shore on islands, then from their very beginnings they used boats, initially hollowed out trees to make canoes, to follow that shore wherever it led.

The first real humans, it seems, were Homo Erectus, erect man, who survived nearly two million years, maybe until nearly the present, eventually either merging with later humans or dying out (I think merging is much more likely). Slightly smaller than we humans today, with a smaller brain case, Erectus used fire and has been found in Africa, Europe, Asia, and Indonesia. Some believe Erectus used canoes. Later species, or subgroups, of humans, with larger brains, also used fire and boats. But during all this time, those two million years, in addition to over 20 ice ages coming and going, until the last 10,000 to 12,000 years those humans all shared the earth with the great predators. These great and terrible animals must have been the defining control on humans, the factor that kept the human groups small, distant, often unsuccessful. Only with the end of this last ice advance, as sea levels rose and agriculture emerged, and as the great animals became extinct, did humans overrun all the earth. But, for over 99 percent of our history, if this thesis is correct, humans were restricted to those isolated places that could be considered safe – islands, maybe even glacial refuges among the sheets off ice.


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Ancient Humans Thought Experiment (2)

Humans arose during the last two million years, according to available fossil evidence, with so-called “modern humans” – that is, humans leaving behind evidence of culture, art, technology – emerging perhaps as recently as 70,000 years ago, or perhaps 200,000 years ago. Nobody is quite sure and a bitter argument is raging about the exact when and where, though nearly everyone agrees the first such “modern” people arose somewhere in Africa before migrating elsewhere.

This means that humans evolved coincident with the ice ages, that two million year period we call the Pleistocene within which ice has advanced and retreated on a roughly 100,000 year cycle, at least 20 times, with the most recent ice age having its “maximum” about 20,000 years ago before retreating until, maybe 12,000 years ago, the ice was mostly gone (except for some remaining caps in Canada and Eurasia). But, before that 20,000 year ago maximum, there were many rises and falls during the previous 80,000 years. It seems that even during the height of an ice age the summers could be hot, maybe as hot as today, just shorter, and of course the winters were colder. It also seems that the temperature could rise and fall over a very very short period, maybe as little as a year or two, certainly a decade. It seems likely that the way an ice age begins is not that somehow glaciers far in the north grow thicker and thicker and then march inexorably south to cover much of the land north of 40 degrees north; instead, a more likely cause is that the snows fail to melt one summer, then another, then another, until after 10 years the snow compresses to ice and after 100 years a thick glacier in place exists.

The earliest humans, as far as we know, did not farm, or grow crops. This invention, agriculture, started about 10,000 years ago, following the latest ice age, when a roughly 10,000 year period – the interglacial – began, when the weather stabilized for centuries of warmer weather. It may be, in fact I am sure it was, that humans during the ice time worked a form of “primitive” agriculture – using fire to clear underbrush so food plants could thrive, for example. The first human societies, whether modern or not, were hunter-gatherers, seeking game for meat and gathering nuts, fruits, edible plants, as well as foraging along the shore for shellfish and seafood, and of course fishing.

The ice age warm time between ice advances before the warm time we are now in occurred about 120,000 years ago. It was called the Eemian, and lasted 10,000 years. The average temperature during that interglacial was apparently warmer than even today’s warmer days, maybe as much as one or two degrees Celsius warmer, and the sea level back then was as much as 20-50 feet higher than the sea level is today. During the over 20 previous ice advances during the Pleistocene, land bridges appeared as sea levels dropped because of all the fresh water locked in ice. Sea levels dropped as much as 330 feet from sea levels today, and during the entire ice period, as the ice advanced and retreated, so did sea levels vary.

All of this serves to show that there were short periods of generally stable warm climate conditions called interglacials that lasted between 5,000 and 15,000 years (generally) with the warm period before the one we are now in – and approaching the end of according to the glacial record – happening over 100,000 years ago, maybe before the appearance of so called “modern” humans. This means that for most of human history, in fact for all of it, we lived and evolved during periods of great changes in climate, huge changes, some times happening within a year or two, and certainly within one or two lifetimes. These changes in temperature, weather, sea level, storm intensity all surely greatly influenced behavior patterns of prey animals and the location of edible plants. Along the seashore, the tide lines would rise, and fall, some times greatly, and all these changes would alter the locations and behavior of seafood clusters.

Of course, we humans have incredibly short memory spans. Who among us knows, for example, what our grandparents or great grandparents did every day to live? These days many people remember winters when the snow was much deeper, when they were children, though maybe that was because they were half their adult height. When I was a kid in the 1950s I remember vivid stories and memories of the Great Depression, seeing older men and women still carefully saving and pressing flat tin cans for reuse. Most people alive back then knew of times when electricity was scarce, even unavailable. A life without electricity today would seem unimaginable for most people alive in developed economies. Yet, a century ago, 1921, electricity was still not available for over half the U.S. population. The point here is that huge change is happening all the time these days and we forget about the change as time passes, and especially as those who lived in such different times pass on, because then instead of hearing directly from an eyewitness we hear from someone who was told by someone, and this must be the case for almost anything that happened more than 60 or 70 years ago. And, beyond that, say, back to the Civil War, the people alive then are now our great or great-great or even great-great-great grandparents, myths of imagination and memory.

So, even though during most of our history the climate has changed greatly and often, any changes occurring over, say, a century and surely over two or three centuries would not be seen in the immediate life of anyone living, not really, such that then there would be legends of warmer times, or colder times, almost myths, lost in the haze of memory and history. And this means that we humans think that what has been happening in our most recent memory – a year or several years – is what has and will always happen. We are, if nothing else, adaptive, and so we adapt, and as the climate changes, we adapt or die. We need to find new hunting grounds, or new edibles. We need to move the village because the sea now floods our shelter. The great herds upon which we depend have suddenly wandered away over newly exposed land that rose from the sea (though in fact the land emerged from the falling sea).

All of which to say, even though the climate has changed always (but changed much less during the warm times between glacial advances and retreats), within the lifetime of one person, much of the change, maybe all of it, would be impossible to see, and big changes over, say, four generations would soon be considered exaggeration or myth. What is true, though, is that the changes taking place force adaptation, learning, adjustment, flexibility, and this was surely the case everywhere on earth, even those places near the equator far from the advancing ice, because they, too, would be changing as well.

I think it was the ice ages that had much to do with making us human, maybe as much as the control of fire for the ability to build culture and learning with stories. These days many if not most among us think we face a climate crisis. What many if not most of us fail to realize is that the human condition is exactly one of adapting to climate crises, and it has always been so.


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