THE BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE MYTH
Why The Grass is Always Greener in the Other Century
by Michael Shermer
Long, long ago, in a century far, far away, there lived beautiful people co-existing with nature in balanced eco-harmony, taking only what they needed, and giving back to Mother Earth what was left. Women and men lived in egalitarian accord and there were no wars and few conflicts. The people were happy, living long and prosperous lives. The men were handsome and muscular, well-coordinated in their hunting expeditions as they successfully brought home the main meals for the family. The tanned barebreasted women carried a child in one arm and picked nuts and berries to supplement the hunt. Children frolicked in the nearby stream, dreaming of the day when they too would grow up to fulfill their destiny as beautiful people.
But then came the evil empire—European White Males carrying the disease of imperialism, industrialism, capitalism, scientism, and the other "isms" brought about by human greed, carelessness, and short-term thinking. The environment became exploited, the rivers soiled, the air polluted, and the beautiful people were driven from their land, forced to become slaves, or simply killed.
This tragedy, however, can be reversed if we just go back to living off the land where everyone would grow just enough food for themselves and use only enough to survive. We would then all love one another, as well as our caretaker Mother Earth, just as they did long, long ago, in a century far, far away.
There are actually several myths packed into this fairy tale, proffered by no one in particular but compiled from many sources as myth making (in the literary sense) for our time. This genre of myth making, in fact, tucks nicely into the larger framework of golden age fantasies, and has a long and honorable history. The Greeks believed they lived in the Age of Iron, but before them there was the Age of Gold. Jews and Christians, of course, both believe in the golden age before the fall in the Garden. Medieval scholars looked back longingly to the biblical days of Moses and the prophets, while Renaissance scholars pursued a rebirth of classical learning, coming around full circle to the Greeks. Even Newt Gingrich has his own version of the myth when he told the Boston Globe on May 20, 1995, that there were "long periods of American history where people didn't get raped, people didn't get murdered, people weren't mugged routinely."
I first encountered what I call the Beautiful People Myth (BPM) in a graduate course co-taught by an anthropologist and a historian in the late 1980s when both fields were being "deconstructed" by literary critics and social theorists. Anticipating the kind of anthropology done in the 1970s when I last studied the science—the customs, rituals, and beliefs of indigenous preindustrial peoples around the world—I was shocked, and soon dismayed, to find myself bogged down in such books as Michael Taussig's The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America (1980), with such chapters as "Fetishism and the Dialectical Deconstruction" and "The Devil and the Cosmogenesis of Capitalism." I couldn't figure out what was going on until the anthropologist announced his was a Marxist interpretation of history that sees the past in terms of class conflict and economic exploitation (the Beautiful People lived before capitalism). Taussig's anthropology of indigenous peoples of South America proclaims (229):
Marx's work strategically opposes the objectivist categories and culturally naive self-acceptance of the reified world that capitalism creates, a world in which economic goods known as commodities and, indeed, objects that appear not merely as things in themselves but as determinants of the reciprocating human relations that form them. Read this way the commodity labor-time and value itself become not merely historically relative categories but social constructions (and deceptions) of reality. The critique of political economy demands the deconstruction of that reality and the critique of that deception. This is as clear as the waters of the Rio Negro to me. I gleaned from my professors' commentary on the book (for I simply could not get enough it) that indigenous peoples lived m relative harmony with their environment until you-know-who came along. Fortunately the class was provided with some readable material that brought balance to the discussion, such as William Cronon's Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (1983). Cronon restates the Beautiful People Myth and why we must resist its temptation (12-13):
It is tempting to believe that when the Europeans arrived in the New World they confronted Virgin Land, the Forest Primeval, a wilderness which had existed for eons uninfluenced by human hands. Nothing could be further from the truth . . . . Indians had lived on the continent for thousands of years, and had to a significant extent modified its environment to their purposes . . . . The choice is not between two landscapes, one with and one without a human influence; it is between two human ways of living, two ways of belonging to an ecosystem . . . . All human groups consciously change their environments to some extent—one might even argue that this, in combination with language, is the crucial trait distinguishing people from other animals—and the best measure of a culture's ecological stability may well be how successfully its environmental changes maintain its ability to reproduce itself. In the early 1990s when I was team-teaching courses in cultural studies I encountered two more versions of the BPM, both of which push the blame further back in time and put it on other entities. In Carolyn Merchant's The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution (1980), the author points her finger at science when, "between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the image of an organic cosmos with a living female earth at its center gave way to a mechanistic world view in which nature was reconstructed as dead and passive, to be dominated and controlled by humans" (xvi). The pre-scientific organic model of nature, says Merchant, was as a nurturing mother, "a kindly beneficent female who provided for the needs of mankind in an ordered, planned universe" (2). Then the Dead White European Males (DWEMS) destroyed this organism, and with it egalitarianism. Hierarchy, patriarchy, commercialism, imperialism, exploitation, and environmental degradation soon followed. To prevent doom, Merchant concludes, we will have to adopt a new lifestyle: "Decentralization, nonhierarchical forms of organization, recycling of wastes, simpler living styles involving less-polluting 'soft' technologies, and labor-intensive rather than capital-intensive economic methods are possibilities only beginning to be explored" (295).
In Riane Eisler's The Chalice and the Blade (1987), the author goes back 13,000 years to find another bogeyman. Instead of DWEMs perhaps they should be called DMOACS: Dead Males of All Colors. Before the DMOACs there was "a long period of peace and prosperity when our social, technological, and cultural evolution moved upward: many thousands of years when all the basic technologies on which civilization is built were developed in societies that were not male dominant, violent and hierarchic'" (vxi). As Paleolithic hunting, gathering, and fishing gave way to Neolithic farming, this "partnership model" of equality between the sexes gave way to the "dominator model," and with it came wars, exploitation, slavery, and the like. The solution, says Eisler, is to return to the equalitarian partnership model where "not only will material wealth be shared more equitably, but this will also be an economic order in which amassing more and more property as a means of protecting oneself from, as well as controlling others will be seen for what it is: a form of sickness or aberration" (201). The Beautiful People Myth lives. Why?
The grass seems greener in the other century for the same reason it does on the other side: the very human tendency to want what we don't have (hope springs eternal in the human breast), reinforced by a distorted and unfair comparison of the realities (warts and all) of what we do have. The BPM is just one manifestation of the greener-grass psychology, but it has special appeal to us because of a conjunction of two historical circumstances: (1) we know more about our past than anyone in history and, with the aid of books, films, and television, can envision that past—or at least a fantasy of it—as never before; (2) this normal historical fantasizing is exaggerated by the realities of modern overpopulation and environmental pollution. In other words, pressures on the environment are higher now than they were in the past, but that past was no idyllic Eden.
Debunking the Beautiful People Myth
While political demagogues and apologists for certain business interests may want to debunk the BPM as a way of cutting off discussion of the environmental pressures of modern industrial society and its impact on indigenous cultures and peoples, that is definitely not my purpose. Rather, I want to examine the anthropological and historical evidence that disproves the BPM and then show how holding to the myth in the face of contrary evidence actually stands in the way of our effectively solving environmental and societal problems.
In a fascinating 1996 study, University of Michigan Ecologist Bobbi Low used Murdock and White's 1969 Standard Cross-Cultural Sample to test empirically the proposition that we can solve our ecological problems by returning to the BPM attitudes of reverence for (rather than exploitation of) the natural world, and opting for long-term group-oriented values (rather than short-term individual values). Her analysis of 186 Hunting-Fishing-Gathering (HFG) societies around the world showed that their use of the environment is driven by ecological constraints and not by attitudes (such as sacred prohibitions), and that their relatively low environmental impact is the result of low population density, inefficient technology, and the lack of profitable markets, not from conscious efforts at conservation. She also showed that in 32% of HFG societies not only were they not practicing conservation, environmental degradation was severe.
University of Illinois anthropologist Lawrence Keeley's new book, War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (1996), examines one element of the BPM—that prehistoric warfare was rare, harmless, and little more than ritualized sport. Surveying primitive and civilized societies, he demonstrates that prehistoric war was at least as frequent (as measured in years at war versus peace), as deadly (as measured by percentage of conflict deaths), and as ruthless (as measured by killing and maiming of noncombatant women and children), as modern war. One prehistoric mass grave in South Dakota, for example, yielded the remains of 500 scalped and mutilated men, women, and children—a full 50 years before Columbus ever left port.
UCLA anthropologist Robert Edgerton, in his book Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony (1992), Edgerton surveys the anthropological record and finds clear evidence of drug addition, abuse of women and children, bodily mutilation, economic exploitation of the group by political leaders, suicide, and mental illness in indigenous preindustrial peoples.
Richard Wragham, in his book Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence (co-authored by Dale Peterson, 1996), traces the origins of patriarchy and violence across cultures and through history all the way back to our hominid origins long before the Neolithic Revolution.
In other words, centuries before and continents away from modern economies and technologies, and long before DWEMS, humans dramatically altered their environments. As we shall see below, the Beautiful People turned such ecosystems into deserts (Southwestern America), caused the extinction of dozens of major species (North America, New Zealand), and even committed mass eco-suicide (Easter Island and possibly Machu Picchu).
The Beautiful People have never existed except in myth. Humans are neither Beautiful People nor Ugly People. Humans are only doing what any species does to survive; but we do it with a twist—instead of our environment shaping us through natural selection, we are shaping our environment through human selection. Since we have been doing this for several million years the solution is not to do less selecting, but higher quality selecting based on the best science and technology available. Demythologizing the BPM is one place to start.
The Eco-Survival Problem
The story begins two to three million years ago when ancient hominids in Olduvai Gorge in eastern Africa began chipping stones into tools. Archaeological evidence reveals an environmental mess of bones of large mammals scattered amongst hundreds of stone tools probably abandoned after use—in other words, our hominid ancestors littered the place. It is not for nothing that the Leakeys (1992) called this hominid Homo habilis—the handy man.
Around one million years ago Homo erectus added controlled fire to our technologies, and between half a million and 100,000 years ago Homo neanderthalensis and Homo heidelbergensis developed throwing-spears with finely crafted spear points, lived in caves, and had elaborate tool kits. It appears that many hominid species lived simultaneously and at this point we can only guess what speciation pressures these changing technologies put on natural selection. Perhaps human selection was already at work on itself (Gould, 1997).
Sometime round 30,000 to 35,000 years before present (BP), Neanderthals went extinct (for reasons hotly debated amongst paleoanthropologists) and Cro Magnons flourished. By now the tool kits were complex and varied, clothing covered bodies, art adored caves, bones and wood formed the structure of living abodes, language produced sophisticated communication, and anatomically modern humans began to wrap themselves in a blanket of crude but effective technology. The pace of technological change, along with the human selection and alteration of the environment, took another quantum leap (Tattersall, 1995).
From 35,000 to 13,000 BP humans had spread to nearly every region of the globe and all lived in a condition called HFG: hunting, fishing, gathering. Some were nomadic, while others stayed in one place. Small communities began to form, and with them possessions became valuable, rules of conduct grew more complex, and population numbers creeped steadily upward. Then, at the end of the last Ice Age roughly 13,000 years ago, population pressures in numerous places around the globe grew too intense for the HFG lifestyle to support. The result was the Neolithic, or Agricultural Revolution. The simultaneous shift to farming was no accident; nor does it appear to be the invention of a single people from whence it diffused to others. Farming replaced HFG in too many places too far apart for diffusion to account for the change. The domestication of grains and large mammals the produced necessary calories to support the larger populations (Roberts, 1989). In other words, overpopulation triggered another quantum leap in human selection and alteration of the environment.
Now a feedback loop was established—a 13,000 year-long complex interaction between humans and the environment, with the rate of change accelerating dramatically beyond what stone tools, fire, and HFG could ever do. Around the globe peoples of all colors, races, and cultures altered their environments to meet their needs. And these altered environments, in turn, changed how humans survived: some continued destroying their ecosystems, some moved, some went extinct (Crosby, 1986). By the first year of the Common Era (2,000 years ago) the globe was filled with humans living in one of five conditions: (1) complex stratified agriculturalism, (2) simple peasant agriculturalism, (3) nomadic pastorialism, (4) general HFG, and (5) specialized HFG.
From the earliest civilizations at Babylon, Ur, Mesopotamia, and the Indus valley, to Egypt, Greece, and Rome, all the way to the Early Modern Period, most people lived similar lifestyles: over 90% were farmers. They used the barter system or had crude forms of money. Small numbers of the elite had access to goods and services, but the majority did not (Geliner, 1988).
The problem these Neolithic farmers faced was, at the most basic level, the same one their Paleolithic HFG ancestors faced and, for that matter, the same one we face. I call this the Eco-Survival Problem: since humans need environmental products to survive, how can we meet the needs of our population without destroying our environment and causing our own extinction? In other words, how can human selection continue without selecting ourselves into oblivion?
The Trade Off
One of the problems in shattering the myth of the Beautiful People is that the alternative would seem to imply that civilization was a universally progressive step in cultural evolution. If they weren't the Beautiful People, then we must be. Not necessarily. One of the mysteries for archaeologists and environmental historians to solve is why our ancestors made the shift from HFG to farming. Writers like Jacob Bronowski (1973) see this step as the first great achievement in the "ascent of man." In reality, if judged solely by health and longevity, Paleolithic people were taller, bigger boned, ate better, lived longer, and had more free time than anyone from 13,000 BP to this century. The average height of HFGers at 13,000 BP, for example was 5'10" for men, 5'6" for women. By 6,000 BP the average dramatically dropped to 5'3" for men, 5'1" for women. Not until the 20th century have heights again approached these marks, and still haven't. Studies from modern HFG societies also show that they have much more free time than Neolithic farmers (or any farmers up to the Industrial Revolution). Kalahari bushmen, for example, invest between 12 and 19 hours per week in food gathering and production, with an average of 2,140 calories and 93 grams of protein, higher than the FDA's Recommended Daily Allowance (Boserup, 1988, 31).
If HFG is so great, why did human groups take up farming? It requires more hours per day of work, it produces dependency on a narrower base of a less dependable food supply, and generates greater populations through which spread more rapidly (Crosby, 1994). For starters in many parts of the world the Neolithic revolution was really an evolution. According to Ester Boserup, "It apparently took ancient Mesopotamia over four thousand years to pass from the beginning of food production to intensive, irrigated agriculture, and it took Europe still longer to pass from the introduction of forest fallow to the beginning of annual cropping a few hundred years ago" (29). Still, in the grand historical sweep of the last 100,000 years, something big happened at the start of the Neolithic that demands an explanation.
Archeologist Kent Flannery (1969) concludes, from his digs in 10,000 year old Mesopotamian village sites, humans turned to farming not to improve their diets or the stability of their diets (since it did neither), but to increase the carrying capacity of the environment in response to larger populations. Small, local populations had grown large enough that they had exceeded the carrying capacity of their ecosystem and so turned to farming in order to produce enough calories to survive. In his book The Food Crisis in Prehistory: Overpopulation and the Origins of Agriculture (1977), Mark Cohen argues that the planet held as many people as could be supported by Paleolithic technology. Another way to say this is that the Beautiful People overpopulated and exploited their environment and so were forced to turn to technology to save themselves. Or as Alfed Crosby put it so well: "Homo sapiens needed, not for the only time in the history of the species, to become either celibate or clever. Predictably, the species chose the latter course" (1986, 20). The Neolithic evolution was simply a human selection response to an Eco-Survival Problem. Whether the trade out was worth it or not is irrelevant. We had to take that road or go extinct. We face a similar problem today.
Environmental history is the study of the effects of large-scale natural forces and contingent ecological events on human history, how human actions have altered the environment, and how these two forces interact (Worster, 1988). This is not drum-and-trumpet history—wars and politics, generals and kings—the proximate causes of history. This is the study of the currents and eddies upon which we ride like flotsam and jetsam on the historical sea of change—the ultimate causes of history.
Reconstructing environmental history reveals that the great rise and fall of civilizations, previously credited to "great men" or "class conflicts," was as often as not the result of human environmental destruction. In each of four geographical locales we find a form of ecological suicide—ecocide—where the people living there filed to solve the Eco-Survival Problem. That is, they were unable to meet the needs of their population without destroying their environment and thereby caused their own extinction. These four examples not only demonstrate that the BPM is wrong, they show what could be in store for us if the global rate of population growth is not checked, and if solutions to environmental problems caused by human selection are not found.
1. New Zealand - If anyone fits the BPM it is Polynesian peoples as portrayed in films living in an Eden-like condition of endless summers and timeless love. Yet environmental history paints a different portrait. When Europeans arrived in New Zealand in the 1800s, the only native mammal was the bat. But they found bones and eggshells of Large moa birds that were then already extinct. From skeletons and feather remains, we know they were an ostrichlike bird of a dozen species, ranging from three feet tall and 40 pounds to 10 feet tall and 500 pounds. Preserved moa gizzards containing pollen and leaves of dozens of plant species give us a clue to the environment of New Zealand, and archaeological digs of Polynesian trash heaps reveal that ecocide was well under way before the DWEMs arrived (Crosby, 1986).
Moas are believed to have evolved their flightless condition in New Zealand over millions of years of a predatorless environment. Their sudden extinction around the time of the arrival of the first Polynesians—Maoris—offers a causal clue. Although many biologists have suggested a change in climate as the cause, or Maori hunting as the last straw to an already drastically changing environment, Jared Diamond (1992) makes the case that when the extinction occurred New Zealand was enjoying the best climate it had in a long time. If anything, the preceding Ice Age would be a more logical choice for an extinction trigger. Also, C14-dated bird bones from Maori archaeological sites prove that all known moa species were still present in abundance when the Maoris arrived around 1000 C.E. By 1200 C.E. they were all gone. What happened?
Archaeologists have uncovered Maori sites containing between 100,000 and 500,000 moa skeletons, 10 times the number living at any one time. In other words, they had been slaughtering moas for many generations, until they were all gone (Cassels, 1984). How did they do it so easily? As Darwin and hungry sailors discovered on the Galapagos islands, animals that evolved in an environment with no major predators often have no fear of newly introduced predators, including humans. It would appear that moas were to the Maori what buffalos were to armed American hunters: sitting ducks. In the process the Beautiful Maori People exterminated one of their major resources.
2. Native America - When anatomically modern humans crossed the Bering Strait from Asia into the Americas some 20,000 years ago (estimates vary considerably), they found a land teeming with big mammals: elephant-like mammoths and mastodons, ground sloths weighing up to three tons, one-ton armadillolike glyptodonts, bear-sized beavers, and beefy sabertooth cats, not to mention Native American lions, cheetahs, camels, horses, and many others. They are now all extinct. Why?
Reed (1970) has suggested that these species were unable to adapt during the period of rapid climactic change at the end of the last ice age. But the weather was getting warmer, not colder, meaning that as the glaciers receded there were more niches to fill, not less; plus, comparable extinctions at the termini of previous ice ages resulted in no comparable megafaunal extinctions. Paul Martin and Richard Klein (1984) point to massive archeological "kill" sites where huge numbers of animal bones are found, accompanied by spear points buried in the rib cages of such animals as mammoths, bison, mastodons, tapir, camels, horses, bears, and others—the obvious remains of multiple species hunted into oblivion. Since mammals adapted to both cold and warm weather went extinct, climate is an unlikely cause. Krantz (1970), in balance, argues for a combination of climate and hunting as the trigger of the megafaunal extinctions, showing how human hunters also took over the niche of the carnivores they hunted, and in the process threatened the niche of such herbivores as the now extinct American Shasta ground sloth. Either way, the actions of the Beautiful Native American People were the deeper, ultimate cause since without the intervention of these sapient hunters such mass extinctions almost surely never would have occurred.
Archaeologists are also discovering that these indigenous Americans were no less destructive of their botanical resources. When the DWEMs first arrived in the American Southwest they found gigantic multi-story dwellings (pueblos) standing uninhabited in the middle of treeless desert. When I first visited these numerous sites in Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico, I could not help but wonder how the Anasazi (Navajo for "Old Ones") could have survived in this desolate landscape. Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, is one of the most striking examples. Here you find a "D" shaped structure that was originally five stories high, 670 feet long, 315 feet wide, containing no less than 650 rooms and supporting thousands of people, all nestled in a dry, and, treeless desert.
Construction at Pueblo Bonito began around 900 C.E. but occupation terminated a scant two centuries later. Why? Well-meaning tour guides there will tell you that a drought drove the Anasazi out. David Muench (Muench and Pike, 1974) dramatically closes his volume by concluding that the Anasazi "were a people escaping—from precisely what we cannot be sure—and they fanned out across the land like so many gypsies, carrying a few possessions on their backs and the cultural heritage of a thousand years in their heads" (161). We now have a fairly good idea of precisely what they were escaping from: their own ecocide. Archaeologists have calculated that the Anasazi would have needed well over 200,000 16-foot wooden beams to support the roofs of the multi-storied Pueblo Bonito. Paleobotanists Julio Betancourt and Thomas Van Devender (1981) used packrat "middens" in Chaco Canyon to identify the fauna of the region before, during, and after the Anasazi occupation. C14 dating of the pollen and remains of plants in the midden reveals that when the Anasazi arrived in Chaco Canyon there was a dense pinyon-juniper woodland, with ponderosa pine forest nearby. This explains where the wood came from for building. As the population grew, the forest was denuded and the environment destroyed, leaving the desert we see today. As they destroyed their environment the Anasazi built an extensive road system to reach further for trees—upwards of 50 miles—until there were no more trees to cut. In addition, they built elaborate irrigation systems to channel water into the valley bottoms, but the erosion following the deforestation gouged out the land until the water table was below the level of the Anasazi fields, making irrigation impossible. Then, when the drought did hit, the Anasazi were unable to respond and their civilization collapsed.
3. Machu Picchu - The closest I have ever come to having a mystical experience was a 1986 trip to Machu Picchu, the so-called "Lost City of the Incas" in the Andes Mountains in south central Peru. Nestled in a narrow saddle between two peaks at 9,000 feet altitude and 50 miles northwest of the 12,000-foot high Cuzco (the world's highest city), Machu Picchu is 4.5 hours by train, where you then take a circuitously steep dirt road to a tiny plateau hanging on the edge of a cliff. Clouds swirl around the adjacent peaks, and when dusk descends upon the stark ruins and the fog rolls in, you can almost sense the presence of the last of the Incas who escaped the predatory Spanish centuries ago.
(The experience was enhanced by the fact that a terrorist organization, the Shining Path, had started a major prison riot to free their comrades. Many were killed on both sides. The head of the Peruvian military convinced the terrorists to surrender, whereupon he had over 50 of them murdered. In response, the Shining Path blew up the train to Machu Picchu the day after I was on it. In addition, New Agers believed that there was a planetary "harmonic convergence" at that time, so they converged on Machu Picchu, forming circles and chanting New Age mantras. Finally, to my shock I discovered too late that I was not booked at the pleasant Machu Picchu Hotel at the top of the mountain, but rather I was at the corrugated tin-roofed Hotel Machu Picchu down in the Urubamba River Valley, next to the train station. My wife and I were rescued by a school teacher with Retinitis Pigmentosis who offered her spare bed to us if I would assist her to the top of the treacherously steep Huayna Picchu peak adjacent to Machu Picchu.)
No wonder it took the Yale archeologist Hiram Bingham so long to find the place in 1911. He spent decades attempting to determine if this was the famed 16th century last citadel of the escaping Inca leaders–Vilcambamba—concluding, over the opposition of most archaeologists, that it was. It appears that it was not. So what was Machu Picchu and what happened to the people who lived there?
What Hiram Bingham (1948) discovered was a five-square mile city with a temple, citadel, about 100 houses, and agricultural terraces linked by more than 3,000 steps and an elaborate irrigation system carved into granite, for what appears to be an extremely limited system of farming. The Incas had no cattle, horses, domestic pigs, poultry, or sheep, and most of their meat came from small animals such as guinea pigs, rabbits, and pigeons. Llamas were mostly beasts of burden and sources of wool rather than protein. The Incas were, therefore, highly dependent on agriculture. Yet here they had no native wheat or other cereals, no olives, rice, or grapes, and few green vegetables. Maize and potatoes were the primary source of calories so we can assume that this is what the Incas grew on these agricultural terraces surrounding Machu Picchu (Hemming, 1970). Strangely, 173 skeletons were found, perhaps 150 of which were women (Hemming says 135 skeletons, 102 females), but it is unlikely that people of Machu Picchu were the victims of war because of the natural defenses of the geography. The Spanish never knew about Machu Picchu, and archeologist Paul Fejos (1944) believes no defense was necessary as this was most likely a sacred religious city, not a military outpost.
According to Hemming (1981), Machu Picchu was not a last refuge, but an older city that flourished at the height of the Inca empire. If so, and this point remains highly debated, what happened to the people of Machu Picchu? In light of what we have seen happen around the globe, particularly in places of limited agricultural and animal resources, it seems reasonable to consider the possibility that the extremely limited carrying capacity of Machu Picchu was exceeded by population and environmental pressures, and the people there were forced to abandon this magnificent outpost.
4. Easter Island - In 1722 the Dutch explorer Jakob Roggeveen came upon the most isolated hunk of real estate on the planet—an island 2,323 miles west of Chile, 4,000 miles east of New Zealand, and so remote that the nearest island is 1,400 miles away—Pitcairn, the desolate outpost where the Bounty mutineers took refuge. What he found when he arrived on Easter Sunday (hence the name), were hundreds of statues weighing up to 85 tons, some of which stood 37 feet tall. It appeared that these statues were carved from volcanic quarries, exported several miles, raised to an upright position without metal, wheels, or even an animal power source. Oddly, many of the statues were still in the quarries, unfinished. The whole scene looks as if the carvers quit in the middle of the job.
How and why did these Polynesian peoples carve and raise these statues and, more importantly, what happened to them? Thor Heyerdahl (1958) was shown by modern islanders that their ancestors used logs as rollers to transport the statues, and then as levers to erect them. Piecing together the history of the Easter Islanders from archeological and botanical remains, it appears that around the time of the fall of Rome—400 C.E.—eastward migrating Polynesians discovered an island covered by a dense palm forest that they gradually but systematically proceeded to clear in order to make land for farming, use logs for boats, and for transporting statues from the quarry to their final destination (Bellwood, 1987). Between 1100 and 1650 C.E. the population had reached 7,000 living in a fairly dense 103 square miles. The Easter Islanders had carved upwards of 1,000 statues, 324 of which had been transported and erected. By the time Roggeveen arrived the forests had been destroyed and not a single tree stood. What happened in between? As archeologist Paul Bahn and ecologist John Flenley conclude in their intriguing 1992 book Easter Island, Earth Island, they committed ecocide. "We consider that Easter Island was a microcosm which provides a model for the whole planet" (213). Initial deforestation led to greater population, but this triggered massive soil erosion, resulting in lower crop yield. Palm fruits would have been eaten by both humans and rats, initially introduced for food, attenuating the regeneration of felled palms. Without palms and palm fruits, the rats would have raided sea bird nests, while humans would have eaten both birds and eggs. No logs for boats meant less fishing, so the people began to starve. This, coupled to limited land, led to internecine warfare and cannibalism. At that point a warrior-class took over, battle spear-points were manufactured in huge quantities and littered the landscape. The defeated peoples were enslaved, killed, and some were even eaten. With no logs or ropes there would have been no point in carving additional statues, or finishing the ones already started. The statue cult lost its appeal, rival clans pulled down each other's statues, and the population crashed, leaving only a handful by 1722 (Flenley and King, 1984).
The lesson is clear but especially disturbing when you consider that on an island 10 by 11 by 13 miles it would have been possible to witness the last palm tree being cut down. They had to know it was the end of their most important resource, yet they did nothing to stop it. The Easter Islanders were not the Beautiful People, but neither were they any worse than the DWEMS. It would appear this is a very human problem. Easter Island may very well represent Earth Island.
What Will We Do?
Change in physical, biological, and human systems is inevitable, and the science of history records this change. Humans have been altering their environment for millions of years. As soon as a stone tool is chipped or a wooden spear is carved, the step toward ecological change by human selection has begun. Living in HFG societies, as populations grew the pressures and changes on the environment increased. It is not that there was just more change, but that the rate of change accelerated. Humans caused the extinction of large numbers of species for tens of thousands of years. Civilization has accelerated the rate of change even more, and for the last 10,000 years peoples of all races and geographic locales have significantly altered their environments.
Humans have been successful in changing the environment for productive uses that have led to a higher standard of living and a richer, more diverse lifestyle. We have also changed it for destructive uses leading to the extinction not only of whole species, but of whole peoples. Change, good and bad, cannot be stopped without stopping history because change is history. And as chaos and complexity theory have shown, small changes early in a historical sequence can trigger enormous changes later. So many quirky contingencies construct determining necessities, making it virtually impossible to reverse the change once it is under way (Shermer, 1993). Once the channel of change is dug, it is almost impossible to jump the berm to another channel. There is no going back in history; we can only go forward. The question is what type of change will be triggered by human actions, and in what direction will it go?
As for our future, it is very difficult to legislate historical change because of the impossibility of determining the consequences of legislative actions. Which change do we prohibit and which do we allow? Since all human actions cause change in the environment, once we start down the road of prohibiting actions that cause change, where do we stop? Obviously the majority of us have no desire to return humanity to a HFG state. Nor could the environment support our population under such a condition. We are animals, it's true, but we are thinking animals. All technologies alter the environment—from stone tools to nuclear power plants. Once we start down the road of technologically-triggered change, there is no turning back. But you can go forward in a new direction.
One solution to environmental problems is more and better science and technology, and the application of them to solve problems older science and technologies caused. My libertarian inclinations make me resistant to supporting government intervention to solve the problems. Free-market solutions are already available to many of these free-market caused problems, if only the market could be allowed to act in a truly free manner. Yet my historical and scientific training leads me to fear that free markets could result in a planetary ecocide—Easter Island writ large. Perhaps the risks run too high for us to place our trust in the free market.
Are we on the verge of imitating our ancestors who were unable to solve their Eco-Survival Problem? There is compelling evidence that overpopulation, pollution, global warming, the ozone hole, chemical poisoning, and many more could threaten our very existence. But there is equally good evidence that we can adapt and solve problems. There is no need to cry doom yet. But we should be alert. If we are going to legislate change, it should be based on the best scientific knowledge available. The politics of this most political of sciences has muddied the issues. We need more data. It would seem that a truly "wise use" of government funding would be for more and better environmental science in order to determine with high confidence what needs to be legislated, where, and when. Will we be like the Easter Islanders standing there staring at the last palm tree and say "screw the future, let's cut the damn thing down"? Or will we heed the lessons of history and find a solution to our own Eco-Survival Problem? There is a difference between us and all those who failed to find this solution. We are the first humans to realize the consequences of our actions in time to do something about them. The question is, what will we do?
The Beautiful People Myth was written by Michael Shermer. This article was appropriated from Skeptic magazine, Vol. 5, No. 1, 1997, page 72. Skeptic magazine is a quarterly publication of the Skeptics Society, devoted to the investigation of extraordinary claims and revolutionary ideas and the promotion of science and critical thinking.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
We're always told that a long time ago there lived beautiful people co-existing with nature in balanced eco-harmony, taking only what they needed, and giving back to Mother Earth what was left. Wonderful, caring stewards of the environment. No wars and few conflicts. The people were happy, living long and prosperous lives. Hunting, fishing, gathering. But then came the evil European White Males carrying the disease of imperialism, industrialism, capitalism, scientism, greed, carelessness, and short-term thinking. The environment became exploited, the rivers soiled, the air polluted, and the beautiful people were driven from their land. This is the Beautiful People Myth.