Against the Grain

How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization

Richard Manning

North Point Press

Against the Grain
AROUSAL
It is high summer at my mountainside home in Montana, when days are long at this latitude. The season is, if not yet desperate, at least frenzied, because we who live in the northern Rockies know that the climate makes life difficult when winter comes. The cold comes fast, so flora and fauna grab for photosynthesis or its various derivatives while they can, in a constant buzz and bustle. The observer of all this sees a race for a more prominent seat in the sun: set seed sooner, get taller faster to shade a rival, learn to grow in a bare spot no other can tolerate, secrete poisons to kill the competition, send out roots to steal water that belongs to others. The color that traces this race is green; primary producers announce their success in sucking up sun by making a display of it. The various subplots thickening among the wider cast of characters spin off the main plot played out among plants. Everything depends on the plants' success, on green. All the rest is secondary.
Mimicry, attraction, repulsion, information. These secondary dramas are a primal struggle staged in a blinding array--the red of devil's paintbrush, the yellow of arrowleaf balsamroot, the blue of pentstemon, the gaudy flash of butterflies drawn, like me, to these colors. Too often they draw me away from the keyboard, into the hills, into the vital stories of others. Every shade signals something about food and sex, the links in every being's path to the future. Unlike me, though, the butterfly is a player on this stage. To my eyes, this is simply a pleasant display. My pleasure is vestigial, relict, when compared to the intensity with which it is examined by all thoseother eyes around me. For them, reading the code of color is survival.
Color reveals a layered natural text, most of it straightforward and necessary information. Some of it is the ink on a contract of partnership: the black sheen of chokecherry or currant signals to bears and birds that the fruit is ripe, and then chokecherry sprouts from bear shit and bird shit miles away. This is how chokecherry uses color to recruit bears and birds to spread its genes. Sometimes, there is deceit, as when a perfectly edible butterfly evolves into a dead ringer for a foul-tasting species. There is no premium on honesty or fair play where survival is concerned.
Every so often I test this observation with a cruel trick, leaving the bright-red plastic jug that holds gas for my chainsaw out on my front porch. On the right sort of day, calliope hummingbirds arrive within minutes to buzz and hover an inch or so away, believing they have encountered the world's biggest flower. I don't mean to lie to them. More, I am a child trying to form the first few letters of a fully formed and unimaginably complex alphabet of hummingbirds. Color makes me want to be able to read what is being said all around me. It is not a trivial desire, more an ache, a longing that grows out of what I suspect is a profound loss--even more lost to many of my fellow humans who don't live as I do, with long days to think and wander a relatively undisturbed mountainside forest.
Every fall I try to plumb some of the depths of this longing with a sort of game some humans play. I hunt meat, an experience that is a pathetic substitute for what the hummingbird knows and sees every day, but one of the few ways I have of sustaining a life that is visibly coupled to the forces that created it. I don't kill for sport but for meat. Venison and elk provide most of the protein at my wife's and my table. Through the years, I have come to look forward to these fall weeks of hunting, less for the killing than for the seeing. Then I am able to perceive more detail--literally. Hidden layers become visible. Every subtle shift of shape or sound in the forest may signal the advent of an important moment. Hunting enlivens the senses like no other experience, giving me a taste of what it must be like to truly see and hear.
Sometimes I hunt birds with dogs, and, again, the pleasure is not so much in killing the birds as in observing the dogs, equipped as they are with noses many times more powerful than mine. They raise their heads and face the wind, and their nostrils pulse and flare as if they are pumping in every bit of air to sample the surroundings. They smell the world in the same way that I see it.
I came to believe it was possible for me to know more of the world this way. One year I was hunting elk, and before seeing or hearing the beasts, I smelled them. I could smell the coming kill, and I was right. We know more than we think we do. Experiments have shown that normal people given the whiff of a T-shirt can tell whether it was worn by a man or woman, even have a sense of whether the wearer was attractive. How much of this have we sublimated? What would it be like to meet other humans and smell, say, anger, or arousal, as I am sure my dogs do?
Sensual experiences of this sort have spawned a certain curiosity in a few people, have sent perfectly civilized and privileged modern individuals to live among primitives in an attempt to comprehend in some blundering, bumbling manner just where the doors of our perception open. Richard Nelson, an anthropologist and a friend, made such a pilgrimage, spending his early adult years living among the Koyukon people of the Yukon River basin, an experience he recounts in fine books like Make Prayers to the Raven.
Nelson once told me a story. He had left the Yukon and settled on an island in the far different maritime environment of southeast Alaska, where he spent years hunting deer and closely observing the place, about which he eventually wrote The Island Within. He still maintained contact with his Koyukon friends, and after several years he invited a couple of them to come visit him--a big deal for them, in that they had never been outside their familiar surroundings. Geographically unmoored as we postmoderns are, it is difficult for us to imagine what this means, but try to understand a human life in which all referents, all mental anchors and guides, are set in the natural features of a particular place.
Nelson, of course, was curious as to how they would respond, but not quite prepared for the way this reunion with old friends workedout. It was silent. As with all reunions among friends, there was catching up to do, greetings to be made, stories to tell--but none of this happened, at least not right away. His friends simply lapsed into silence. They were so wrapped up in observing everything around them that there was no part of their brains left for speech. This went on for days. When finally they did speak, they revealed to Nelson all sorts of details about his closely observed island that he himself had never noticed.
There are beings, many of them human beings, that see, smell, hear, remember, sense more than we do. This is not a genetic accident, like being taller than six-foot-five or having an IQ of 150 or high cheekbones. This is a matter of culture. The human beings who maintain these hyper-refined senses are hunter-gatherers. Their impressive powers of perception have been noted and detailed by just about every student of hunter-gatherer groups. It is not only that they sense more than the rest of us do, but that they do so in a qualitatively different fashion. In his book The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram leans on philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty's concept of synaesthesia to explain Abram's own experience with hunter-gatherer perceptions. The term "synaesthesia" describes something every child knows. In fact, Merleau-Ponty believes that we have "unlearned how to see, hear, and, generally speaking, to feel." Synaesthesia is the mental function (or suite of functions) in which the senses run together, in which colors have a feel to them and tastes have a color. We speak of a loud shirt, of bright music, yet how often do we sense reality this way? For Abram and other observers, the phenomenon marks a total immersion in sense, when the observer is no longer in control, no longer separating and analyzing sight, sound, and texture, and becomes a part of his sensual surroundings. That is, the observer calls forth the world.
"As soon as I attempt to distinguish the share of any one sense from that of the others, I inevitably sever the full participation of my sensing body with the sensuous terrain," writes Abram. "Many indigenous peoples construe awareness, or 'mind,' not as a power that resides inside their heads, but rather as a quality that they themselvesare inside of along with the other animals and plants, the mountains and the clouds."
I mention all of this because my own hunting tells me it is true, and that is part of why the experience enlivens me. Yet I know it better still from the more common experience of making music. I became a musician as an adult. The advantage of that approach is that one has an adult's drive and discipline to pound away at practicing the necessary technical skills day after day. The disadvantage is that one needs the drive and discipline. Merleau-Ponty is right about "unlearning." As adults, we have unlearned how to hear. As a literate society, we trust notes on a printed page--indeed, authorities of all sorts--far more than we trust our own ears, such that a large part of my struggle to learn music has been to teach myself to hear. Immerse a child in music before this unlearning has occurred and real music, not just notes, flies from her fingers like the sung notes of a bird.
Yet lately, after years of learning the fundamentals and years of learning that the biggest barriers I face are those I unconsciously erect for myself, I have begun to believe what a music teacher once told me: "My main job is to teach you that you know a lot more than you think you know." The physical marker of this dawning awareness has been for me something very much like what Abram describes. I finally began hearing chord changes, and hearing a C as a C, only when the senses blurred, when individual notes took on color and texture, not just sound. There came a day when I realized that some notes had edges, had thickness, and I found myself shifting position to try to see the backside of a note, so real was the sense of depth. At the same time, I found that more and more it was not my fingers and mind playing the music but my whole body. For me, this is not about making music; it is about exploring the horizons of what it means--or at least meant--to be human.
There was a time in my life when I enjoyed fly-fishing, before Montana's rivers became a floating fashion show for the catalogue-fresh Orvis gear of dot-com millionaires. I can understand, though, why those with means gravitate toward this pursuit; it's not just aboutcatching fish. No other form of hunting I know requires such a thorough knowledge of the prey's habits and surroundings. Fly-fishing is simply a means for contemplating rivers.
Once I was fishing a favorite stretch of a favorite creek at the finest hour of the day. Dusk was thickening to dark on a late summer evening and all the right bugs were on the water. I was taking fish and really didn't want to quit, but the fact was, I could no longer see. One can still fish under such conditions if the mind can correctly fill in the blanks where vision fails, but mostly the mind guesses and misses. Nonetheless, I played along. All of a sudden, my mind's eye leapt from its usual perspective to zoom in on a scene across the creek where I imagined my fly to be drifting toward a productive hole. I saw that particular spot as if in close-up, but also fully illuminated, bright as day. Then, just as my imagination had provided daylight, it delivered an enormous rainbow trout, arching out of the stream to take my fly. I felt a little stupid when this hallucination seduced me into tensing my rod to set my hook in the phantom fish. Less stupid when the hook set solidly, and I fought a nice fish for a while, finally landing it. It was the fish I had imagined, no mistaking it.
 
 
This is a book not just about agriculture but about the fundamental dehumanization that occurred with agriculture. It will argue that most of humanity struck a bitter bargain over the past ten thousand years, trading in a large measure of our sensual lives for the bit of security that comes with agriculture.
We can't really conceive of what we humans lost with the process of civilization--with agriculture--until we ask what human nature is. What makes us human? Our intelligence? Our use of tools? That we are oversexed? Social? Tinkering? Bellicose? Self-aware? Each of these traits has been put forward at some point to distinguish us from the rest of the animal world, and, to a degree, that discrimination is the point of the exercise. We manufacture dichotomous answers to the question, us versus them, because, at least unconsciously, all too often consciously, the answer justifies our dominion, our shabbytreatment of the rest of life on the planet. When we examine these attributes, however, we find little reason for dichotomy. Crows use tools, as do chimps. Gorillas are self-aware. They pass the mirror test--that is, they know the image in the mirror is a reflection, not another ape. So do chimps and dolphins. Porcupines are oversexed. (Yes, I know: very carefully.) So what makes us unique?
The search for an answer has sent a lot of thinkers to places like Lascaux, in the south of France, where in the caves, as elsewhere in Europe, are accomplished paintings of animals, the result of fine observation. They flow from a sense of wonder, and a need to preserve that aesthetic experience in art, an impulse felt as long as forty thousand years ago. Anthropologist Ian Tattersall invokes the impression they give at the beginning of his book Becoming Human, where he describes the thirteen-thousand-year-old drawings at the Combarelles caves in France:
You are mesmerized, not simply by the subtlety of these marvelous engravings--done at the time when a landscape around Combarelles, now oak forest, was open steppe roamed by mammoths, wooly rhinoceroses and cave lions--but by their sheer ancientness. For this is not in any sense crude art; it is art as refined in its own way--and certainly as powerful as anything achieved since.
In other words, these people were like us, and therefore worthy of our contemplation. Art is evidence of their humanity. For some, the European caves make a particularly comfortable beginning point for this rumination, because their inhabitants were "European," and thus presumably in our lineage--"our" meaning the branch of Caucasians that eventually colonized the world and became the dominant culture. Leave aside for the moment that this short-changes the other geographical branches of the human endeavor. If there is such a thing as a human nature, it doesn't really matter much which set of humans we examine first. Europeans will serve as well as any others.
The painters of Lascaux, however, were, in a very real sense, not "us." They were Cro-Magnon people, and while it is generally heldthat the European lineage descended from them, I'll argue later that this is simply not true, neither culturally nor genetically. The ancestors of the Caucasian line arose elsewhere. The Cro-Magnons were hunter-gatherers, of course. In their time, there were no agricultural people. Yet does their art make them like us? Certainly it does, and certainly it is a marvel. Does it define the beginning of a human nature? Not really, in that I think it is derivative, as are those previously cited defining traits like sexiness, tool use, and self-awareness. I am with Tattersall in my wonder at what appears on these walls, but I think the art is the result of a far more dramatic and fateful turn of events, an accident of evolution, hundreds of thousands of years before. It was that accident that made us human.
 
 
The highly touted human brain is but half of the chicken-or-egg story of what makes us who we are. The other half is suggested by the old adage "You are what you eat" (a pun in its original German form: "Mann ist was mann isst"). As is the case with chickens and eggs, it is pointless to ask which came first, our appetite or our brain, in that each depends intimately on the other.
The clear physical evidence of this quantum leap in hominid evolution is the enlarged cranial cavity that showed up suddenly in our lineage's fossil record about 2.5 million years ago. That is, in an evolutionary instant, a strain of upright apes became equipped with a larger brain, about half again as large, proportionate to body weight, as the brain of other primates. Besides its sheer size, there is evidence that the brain's configuration--its circuitry, if you will--became more sophisticated in the bargain. The planet has not been the same since.
I have argued above that all of those attributes that we believe set humans apart from the rest of creation are derivative, but this development of the brain is primal, axiomatic. That is, a quick change in brain size is a genetic quirk, an accident, a mutation, and that accident might have occurred in most any species with a brain. That's not the interesting question. More interesting is: Would it be a good thing? In evolutionary terms, would it have conferred fitness if it hadoccurred in some other species? So highly do we regard our big brain that the question seems odd, but imagine for a moment a hypercharged brain not imbedded in a body as mobile as ours, or, more important, in one suited, with its unique hand, to make wide use of tools. Super-intelligence still might be an advantage to such a being, but would it be enough of an advantage to overcome its cost?
A brain, energy-wise, is an enormously costly organ. That is, pound for pound, it takes far more energy to keep it running than any other organ. It accounts for about 3 percent of our body's mass, yet close to 20 percent of our energy needs. The quantum leap in brain size brought with it a stiff increase in the individual's need for calories. Thus, if that bigger brain did not bring with it at least a proportional leap in our ability to feed it, there would be no net gain, and it would not confer fitness, would not survive evolution's merciless test.
It was in this sense that the development of a big brain was in fact derivative, in that our line of apes already had some assets at work. The sudden leap in brain technology made a bigger, flashier engine in a chassis that was already engineered to handle it. We know this because our closest relatives that didn't get this big brain are still fairly impressive animals, relying on a set of skills that would dovetail nicely with souped-up intelligence. Our nearest relative is the chimpanzee, of which there are two species. In fact, an honest taxonomy--if such a thing is possible, with our anthropocentric bias--would argue, as some scientists have, that chimps comprise three species, and we are the third.
We can safely assume, however, that the fundamentals of chimp existence common to human existence were present in a common ancestor. Shared behavior argues for this. Chimps are, for instance, highly social. They are unrelentingly libidinous, especially the smaller of the two species, the bonobo (or pygmy chimp). They have a division of labor. Males hunt meat in groups, with organized and complex strategies. Their primary prey are colobus monkeys and young antelope, but they hunt as many as twenty mammal species, not to mention some birds.
More important, though, their hunting figures into a broadly omnivorouslifestyle. They are generalists, relying on many different plants and animals to support themselves. I once got a sense for how far this goes when walking in a stream-slit canyon in western Uganda with a caretaker of the protected habitat for a band of chimps. The guide pointed out one particular species of tree and told me that whenever the chimps get diarrhea, they visit that tree and eat its leaves. Analysis of those leaves showed they contain a substance very effective in suppressing diarrhea.
It is this already developed generalist's strategy that allowed our big brains to be a gain in terms of fitness. We could use them to store and sort our expanded catalogue of food.
The argument that these are interdependent developments is supported by a haunting example cited by Susan Allport in her book The Primal Feast. The koala of Australia, cuddly as it appears, is a notoriously dimwitted beast. Further, it is almost wholly dependent for its food on a single species, the eucalyptus tree. Not so long ago, in evolutionary terms, however, the koala ate a large array of plants. Dissecting a modern koala reveals a tiny brain rattling around in a large brainpan. Evolution has wiped out the need for a large brain, so presumably downsized it to avoid the energy costs, but evolution has not yet had time to downsize the cranial cavity.
 
 
There are two broad lines of nutritional strategies among primates. The slothlike, small-brained sedentary line eats mostly leaves, a low-quality, high-volume food patiently digested in a large (and also energetically costly) digestive tract. The larger brain dictates a wider, more energy-rich diet, which in turn dictates motion. It also comes with a shorter digestive tract, which, in part, compensates for the energy costs of the brain but also requires high-quality food. Anthropologists speculate that humans came into this set of equipment just as the conditions of life in Africa were changing, such that this new strategy would confer fitness.
The environment was becoming drier; forests, those great leafy masses of fodder for the sedentary, were disappearing, being replaced by grasslands and large, grazing herbivores. Just as we developedthe need to hunt more and the brain to allow us to do so, there appeared a large supply of animals worth hunting--big, rapidly reproducing piles of meat. Predecessor primates likely had eaten meat, but now conditions aligned for them to depend more heavily on it.
Meat protein, however, would not do the job alone, because meat lacks some necessary nutrients and is an inefficient way to satisfy all of a body's carbohydrate needs. So we also began using our big brains to identify and locate plants that stored carbohydrates in starchy taproots. These supplemented the range of fruits primates had long consumed. We can imagine the shape of these changes on a variety of levels, chief among them the newfound priority on information. This was the beginning of the information age. Humans began satisfying their increased appetites by consuming an increased number of species, both plant and animal. This required more than the knowledge of antelope and colobus monkeys that had sustained primates to this point. New beasts with new habits became prey. Human hunters were forced into competition with bigger, more dangerous predators, with the result that humans themselves became targets, requiring new strategies for defense.
The new demands on the plant side were even more daunting, and likely placed the extra burden on women. There are a range of arguments as to why a division of labor makes sense; most are linked to the fact that plants are stationary and so dovetail with the duties of child rearing. Whatever the reason--those offered are speculation--we do know from the examples of surviving hunter-gatherer societies that a detailed knowledge of plants is usually a specialty of women. What fruit is ripe when and where? How best to collect and store it? What plants satisfy which needs in what seasons? Buried in these questions is what the psychologist Paul Rozin of the University of Pennsylvania labeled the "omnivore's dilemma." That is, the increased appetites of the omnivore lead to using an ever broader array of species, which leads to experimenting. The real gain from that novelty is a broader base of support for the species. When eucalyptus trees all die in a given place, so do all the koalas, but omnivores have options. The cost of that experimentation, however, is learning the hard way which plants are poisonous, and which parts of plants arepoisonous, or poisonous in certain seasons. The legacy of exploration remains in humans' routine consumption of toxic plants. The rest of the animal world can't tolerate the bitter tannins that we relish in our teas. Potatoes are full of nasty alkaloids that we render harmless by cooking. The knowledge must have come at a terrible cost. Some mistakes were fatal.
All the more reason to grant importance to information, to cataloguing and cross-referencing it in that extra space in our cranial cavity, but above all, to gathering it. Our link to this information was and is our senses. Our survival as a species depended on a keen sense of sight, especially in using color cues to draw us to fruit, to discern subtle variations that distinguished an edible fruit from a poisonous look-alike, to see and smell which leaf above ground signaled the presence of a ripe taproot below. Hunters must have sat for hours analyzing every muscle twitch of prey. Every snap and crack in the forest carried a message, every shift in the wind a shift in fortunes.
There must have been a huge role for synaesthesia in all of this. We could go further still and suggest, as Abram did, that the hyper-senses of humanity create our world--that we see, touch, and smell it into existence. This is the notion that may help explain to a rationalist's understanding the Australian aborigines' concept of Dreamtime. There is a parallel universe, which is Dreamtime; our senses call it into existence and make it into the real world in which we live. But we don't need to go so far down this epistemological path to understand that this fundamental change in brain and appetite sponsored the changes that made us human.
 
 
Part of what distinguishes humans from all other species is their ubiquity. Before the quantum leap in brain size 2.5 million years ago, there were a number of upright primates, using tools, socially organized, coexisting in Africa. With their merely adequate brains, all of these primates had a limited range; with bigger brains, that limit lifted and the great diaspora began. Yet we have no reason to believe that a population explosion drove our species out of Africa. Instead, our omnivorous appetites gave us command over an ever-wider diet,which in itself granted us the ability to range over the planet, and to weather periods of upheaval like the ice ages. As of 300,000 years ago, the human brain had evolved to roughly its modern size. As of 100,000 years ago, humans had inhabited a part of the Middle East and Asia. We were in Europe 40,000 years ago. We may have been in Australia as far back as 60,000 years ago, but certainly by 45,000 years ago; Siberia shortly thereafter; North and South America no less than 15,000 years ago. No other species is so widespread. We achieved this range without agriculture, with nothing more than stone spears and all the information we could hold. Information was gathered by, even spread by, another tool of ours: social cohesiveness. Food bound us together.
During the roughly 290,000 years from our beginnings as humans to the beginnings of agriculture, there was one long, slow trend in our existence. Early humans consumed a few plants and a few very large prey animals, then gradually shifted to smaller animals and a wider variety of both plants and animals. This trend stands out in the archaeological record, but we can appreciate the logic of it by examining the Plains Indians of North America and their hunting practices before Europeans came. The widely used technique then--and the evidence says this technique stretches back to the beginnings of humans in North America--was the "buffalo jump." A group of people, men and women alike, used their knowledge of buffalo movements to haze and herd the animals toward a cliff, then stampeded them over the edge. The payoff in calories for this minimal effort was enormous, but it required social organization and sharing, both of the labor involved and of the proceeds.
No single human, or even a family of humans, can eat a buffalo or a mammoth in one sitting. There was no way to store the meat, no way for an individual to accumulate wealth, so communal feasting became the payoff for social organization. The primate line has long held with this practice. Male chimps gather for ritual feasting. Dominant males share choice bits of food with subordinates to reinforce the social structure, the proto-business lunch. Chimps are even more adept than we are at using food to forge sexual bonds. When a group of bonobos finds a large tree full of ripe fruit, they don't immediatelyattack it, but instead celebrate by everyone copulating with everyone else. Male bonobos routinely trade meat for sexual favors after a successful hunt, the proto-dinner date.
The difference between chimps and humans in this regard is promiscuity. The norm in chimp societies is to stage riotous orgies of public copulation. The norm in human societies is private copulation and lasting (or serial) bonds, either monogamous or polygamous. Of course there are examples of human societies more promiscuous than others, but, interestingly, anthropologists have identified a strong positive correlation between promiscuity among humans and males' time spent on, and attention to, hunting. There is a long list of genetically encoded reasons as to why this strategy makes sense. For instance, a few males, with luck, kill a large amount of meat, enough to go beyond their immediate families' needs. Trading it for sex is a way of extending the "family" to better allocate the meat. At bottom, though, is the fact that our big cranial cavities require young to be born in a relatively primitive and helpless state. All of this implies a division of labor, a marital contract written in terms of food.
The power of food to bond humans together can also be seen in a counterexample, reported by Colin Turnbull in the late 1960s, when he was curator of African ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Turnbull spent the years 1964-67 living among the Ik people in Uganda, who, because of a political upheaval, were forced from their native hunting lands to a barren mountainside. Simply put, they had no food, so of course there was no food sharing; but all of what we moderns and even our hunter-gatherer ancestors regard as the fundamental decencies of the human condition fell apart: children stole food from old people; one mother rejoiced when her child was snatched and eaten by a leopard; children were abandoned. All family structure broke apart. Allport comments on Turnbull's report: "The Ik had no place else to go, and they abandoned instead many of the things we take for granted about being human, many of the things we never though could be abandoned: love, cooperation, empathy, the sharing of food." (Emphasis in original.)
Food makes human bonds possible. The anthropologist LornaMarshall reported in detail how this binding works among Africa's !Kung bushmen with the sharing of meat immediately after a kill:
The fear of hunger is mitigated; the person one shares with will share in turn when he gets meat and people are sustained by a web of mutual obligation. If there is hunger, it is commonly shared. There are no distinct haves and have-nots. One is not alone ... . The idea of eating alone and not sharing is shocking to the !Kung.
Big brain aside, we still are animals bound by the primary law of the animal world--namely, that our attentiveness first and foremost is focused on food and sex, because these are the prime guarantors of the survival of our genes. Our larger brain does not exempt us from this requirement; it simply shapes the ways in which we satisfy it. It creates in us an attentiveness to the conditions of life so intense it borders on love. Some have called it that. The biologist E. O. Wilson raises the notion of biophilia (in his book by the same name), literally, a love of life. What he means by this is an attentiveness through our senses of the conditions of life. He argues that such an intense devotion to our surroundings would indeed confer fitness. That is, it would provoke an obsessive focus of one's senses on gathering the information necessary to ensure our survival and the survival of our genes.
Think now of a red, ripe plum. I react first to its deep color, a wine red that can grab the eye from across the room, shining through a maze of all other colors. How long has this very shade of red been drawing human eyes? Think next of its shape, the round, full shape that provokes synaesthesia, a blur now to the (in my male mind) feminine butt. How quickly this red and this curve can cross from senses to sensuality. How often do these colors and these lines, from Lascaux and Combarelles forward, re-create themselves in our art, in the expression of our sense of the aesthetic that gave rise to painting, dance, and music, even at the very beginning? We can ask the same question about this art as we can about the human brain: Why is there art? What fitness does it confer? Why do we find it so deeplysatisfying? Does this aesthetic, wrapped as it is in food and sex, perform something of the same function that food does, the function so glaringly- absent among the displaced Ik?
 
 
People who study and live among the vestigial hunter-gatherers of the world usually develop affection and respect for them, set in a wistfulness for what has been lost. I have dwelt much on the nature of their economy here, but those who have spent time with them more often mention their distinctive character traits such as honesty, affection, and humility, or social traits like egalitarianism. Such societies are generally without leaders or hierarchy, without rich and poor. Either all enjoyed abundance or all suffered want. These attributes are no accident, as comparisons with early agricultural societies will show us later, but this wistfulness for the hunter-gatherer life needs some tempering, lest we fall prey to stereotypes of the "noble savage" sort. Hunter-gatherer life could be as violent as our own when tribe encountered tribe. Indeed, even chimpanzee males from a given group form gangs to attack and kill the males in a neighboring group. Infanticide and cannibalism are both common among hunter-gatherers (as they also have been among "civilized" agricultural people).
No matter what the hunter-gatherer character, however, it is important that we try to understand it, because in doing so we begin to define human nature. If there is an inherent nature in humans, it is a product of evolution. Evolutionary pressures take a long time to enter and to leave our genome. Our kind has spent at least 290,000 years as hunter-gatherers, only 10,000 as agricultural people, making the latter way of living a relatively brief and novel experiment. Only small traces of agricultural life can be read in our genes. We still run on hunter-gatherer software.
Our species spent its formative years in Africa, largely, we imagine, because there was no real need to move on; nor had we yet evolved our bag of tricks sufficiently to give us the generalist's ability to do so. There was no need because hunter-gatherer populations are generally stable. Being in constant motion, they have no soft foods toreplace mother's milk, so children are not weaned until they are about four years old. The resulting spacing of births, about four years apart, along with a measure of infant mortality and infanticide, keeps populations static.
Just as likely, we had some enemies back then, large predators that kept us in check, just as tigers and mountain lions prey on humans today. Much is made of the deep-seated preference of humans for a room with a view, a commanding vantage that allows us to survey a large area, the reason why trophy homes are built on hillsides and apartments with a view of the park demand a premium price today. It's often suggested that we get this preference from our grassland days: we needed a commanding view to avoid being eaten.
Thus our apprenticeship taught us not only to use tools, to eat a wide variety of foods, and to hunt, but also to avoid predators. We left Africa, spread to the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, and then took these tools to Australia and finally across Beringia (the former land bridge, now the Bering Strait) to the New World. On the two most recent stages of that trip, where the evidence of our coming is clearer, the archaeological record shows a massive wave of extinctions. In North America, for instance, all of the large mammals indigenous to the continent became extinct, including wooly mammoths, giant bears, tigers, sloths, camels, and horses. The big mammals we have left, such as moose and elk, came across the land bridge with the humans; that is, they had already coevolved, made their peace with the conditions of humanity.
An iconoclastic scientist at the University of Arizona first successfully defended the notion that this wave of extinctions was caused by nothing more than the arrival of humans. Before Paul Martin, most scientists believed that climatic upheavals at the end of the last ice age wiped out these mammals. Martin argued they were hunted to death by creatures with nothing more than stone spears and some skill at defeating predators. Martin, whom I interviewed once late in his career, was more or less ridiculed and hounded for promoting this theory; but he persisted, and the evidence mounted, and today his is the generally accepted explanation. If the hunter-gatherer world was Eden, then Eden spread across the world by means ofwholesale slaughter. If we are building a model of human nature, this, too, must be factored in.
Furthermore, spread across North America are the archaeological sites of the Clovis people, the name for the culture that first colonized North America. The sites show evidence that this colonization entailed massive waste. People could not store the proceeds of wiping out a herd of mammoths in a single cliff jump, so they ate what they needed and moved on. A harsh new set of conditions prevailed on the planet, and with them came a suite of animals such as bison, elk, musk ox, cape buffalo, tigers, and some camels capable of surviving human tactics. That is, between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago, humans reshaped the composition of earth's megafauna. Think of this as proto-domestication.
 
 
For a variety of reasons all tied to humans' special basic abilities, we are unique among predators and foragers. We do not pay nearly as heavy a price for depleting our food sources. We have so many alternatives: we can simply switch food, or move to a new range, or both. Because of this, we are the most ubiquitous species on the planet, inhabiting all of the ecotones for more than 15,000 years. No other animal or plant has done so. This unique ubiquity also explains the trend in the human diet over the long course of our evolution as hunter-gatherers. Biology teaches us that predators will maximize their use of prey with, literally, mathematical precision. Mathematical models have been constructed to analyze how a given animal can best balance the energy costs of obtaining food against the energy obtained. The models work remarkably well, down to the point of predicting how far a lizard will move to snatch a fly. Applied to humans, the model says they should go for the biggest, most docile creatures they can find, and they did. As those became rarer or even extinct, they moved to less efficient prey. We moved toward variety.
Just how far we moved can be read in the well-preserved carcass of an early iron age man buried in a bog in Denmark. His stomach contained the remnants of sixty different species of plants: not the sum total of the range of his diet, merely the range from a day or so,what happened to be ripe or on hand at the moment. Multiply that number through the seasons and across the animal kingdom, and some appreciation for that human's catalogue of sensual clues begins to accrue. Learning to live off hundreds of species of plants and animals required an attention to color, light, shape, and motion that must have bordered on obsession. No wonder we began painting in such fine detail so early in the course of human events. It is as if we were brimming with observation and had to let it all out. The way we preserved our species during our formative years not only made us hunters and gatherers, but painters, singers, and poets, all of the essential sensuality of these arts winding back to food and sex.
In his Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke reminds us of the perils of ignoring this legacy:
Physical pleasure is a sensual experience no different from pure seeing or the pure sensation with which a fine fruit fills the tongue; it is a great unending experience, which is given us, a knowing of the world, the fullness and glory of all knowing. And not our acceptance of it is bad; the bad thing is that most people misuse and squander this experience and apply it as a stimulant at the tired spots of their lives and as a distraction instead of rallying toward exalted moments. Men have made even eating something else; want on the one hand, superfluity upon the other, have dimmed the distinctness of this need, and all the deep, simple necessities in which life renews itself have become similarly dulled.
A dulling that began in earnest with the invention of agriculture.
Copyright © 2004 by Richard Manning