In After Eden, Kirkpatrick Sale answers these questions in a radically new way. Integrating research in paleontology, archaeology, and anthropology, he points to the beginning of big-game hunting as the origin of Homo sapiens’ estrangement from the natural world. Sale contends that a new, recognizably modern human culture based on the hunting of large animals developed in Africa some 70,000 years ago in response to a fierce plunge in worldwide temperature triggered by an enormous volcanic explosion in Asia. Tracing the migration of populations and the development of hunting thousands of years forward in time, he shows that hunting became increasingly adversarial in relation to the environment as people fought over scarce prey during Europe’s glacial period between 35,000 and 10,000 years ago. By the end of that era, humans’ idea that they were the superior species on the planet, free to exploit other species toward their own ends, was well established.
After Eden is a sobering tale, but not one without hope. Sale asserts that Homo erectus, the variation of the hominid species that preceded Homo sapiens and survived for nearly two million years, did not attempt to dominate the environment. He contends that vestiges of this more ecologically sound way of life exist today—in some tribal societies, in the central teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism, and in the core principles of the worldwide environmental movement—offering redemptive possibilities for ourselves and for the planet.
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About the Author
Kirkpatrick Sale is the author of a dozen books, including The Fire of His Genius: Robert Fulton and the American Dream; Rebels against the Future: The Luddites and their War on the Industrial Revolution: Lessons for the Computer Age; The Green Revolution: The American Environmental Movement, 1962–1992; and The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy. He is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a former editor at the New York Times Magazine.
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The Evolution of Human Domination
By Kirkpatrick Sale
Duke University PressCopyright © 2006 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
The Dawn of Modern Culture
70,000-50,000 YEARS AGO
A fierce and sudden volcanic winter descended upon the earth sometime around 71,000 years ago, when Mt. Toba, an enormous volcano on the island we know as Sumatra, in the Andaman Sea, exploded in the largest surface eruption that the earth has known for the past 400 million years. The mountain's ash and debris shot at least twenty miles into the air and were eventually scattered worldwide: 480 square miles of ash, it is reckoned, settled over the earth, burying all of the Pacific islands and the Indian subcontinent under a coat of as much as 10 inches of heavy sediments and darkening the skies around the globe with more than an incredible 1.1 billion tons of stratospheric dust and sulfuric acid aerosols. All that remained behind was a huge caldera, the largest natural lake in southeast Asia, 60 miles long and 36 miles wide.
Temperatures plunged. Michael Rampino, a geologist at New York University, has figured that the drop must have been about 15 to 25 degrees Fahrenheit worldwide, maybe 75 degrees in higher latitudes, wiping out many plants in the tropics and as much as two-thirds of them in some temperate climates, and resulting in summers at least 15 degrees cooler and winters even worse. Minute ash particles raining from the sky would have penetrated the lungs of many animals, impairing breathing, and settled in the feathers of birds, making flight impossible. Ice core records show that the sulfuric acid haze persisted in the atmosphere for six years, reflecting the sun's rays and keeping the earth in a perpetual winter. It was followed by a severe mini-ice age that lasted for as long as a thousand years, probably the coldest period of any during the final 60,000-year Ice Age that it ushered in. Northern forests became treeless moss-and lichen-covered tundra over permanently frozen earth or semiarid grasslands dotted with stunted shrubs, while tropical rainforests turned into dry open savanna, and grasslands into wind-swept deserts.
The results for the hominid species then on earth would have been catastrophic. Some remnant populations of Homo erectus were living in Indonesia and China, and a certain number of those not in the immediate vicinity of the ignimbrite lava flow would have survived, especially in the more tropical areas, but their populations, also affected by ash particles and now dependent mostly on a diminished animal supply and cold-water shellfish, would have dropped severely. The Neandertals of Europe and the Levant, with bodies already adapted to the cold and millennia of experience with cold-weather survival, would have fared better, but their food supplies would have dwindled too and the northern populations were probably hit far harder than the Mediterranean ones. And in Africa, where modern Homo sapiens populations lived, only those in a few favorable pockets not made unlivable by the extremely cold and dry conditions—such as in coastal southern and eastern regions and along the Mediterranean, where water was available and marine food supplies adequate—could have resisted the volcanic winter.
An increasing number of new fossil finds suggest that it was at this point, and most likely in response to these sudden extreme conditions, that the surviving Sapiens populations began to develop, or more aggressively adapt, both cultural and psychological mechanisms that turned them into fully modern beings.
Homo sapiens had been modern in body for maybe 90,000 years by then: the earliest fossils of what are called "anatomically modern humans" have been found at some two dozen sites in Africa and two in the Levant (southwestern Asia but then geographically and climatologically an extension of Africa), the earliest at the Kibbish Formation in Ethiopia, dated to about 195,000 years ago. Whether this speciation process creating Homo sapiens was a relatively rapid event, as some paleontologists of the Stephen Jay Gould school argue, or a more gradual development out of Homo erectus and what is sometimes called "archaic Homo sapiens," as I am inclined to think the record shows, there is no doubt that some time around 150,000 years ago modern humans, fully erect, gracile in form and face, existed in Africa, with braincases in the range of 1,400-1,550 cubic centimeters (living human brains average about 1,350-1,400 cc.).
But it has been difficult to determine if these early Sapiens were modern in culture — that is to say, in day-to-day behavior, in artifacts, in social units that would be generally recognizable to us today—or rather still used the tools and thought the thoughts of their ancestors. The general record (which is not very replete in Africa and difficult to date in the range of 250-127,000 years ago) indicates that for the most part the kinds of tools associated with these modern people were old-fashioned ones that had been in use, both in Africa and Europe, for the preceding 100,000 years. In a few places, it is true, as recent discoveries are showing, there were flashes of modern culture of the kind that would come to characterize the later fossil record. In Katanda, for example, a site in the eastern Congo on the Semliki River, eight whole or partial barbed stone harpoons and four worked bone artifacts have been dated to 90-80,000 years ago (though with a range of probable error that could extend the most recent date forward to 71,000 years), providing the first clear evidence of Africans fishing in a concerted way and one of the earliest examples of the use of bone, and not just stone, to create weaponry. (Two earlier sites, Mumbwa and Broken Hill caves in Zambia, have bone fragments "puta-tively," but not convincingly, suggested as tools.) And in two sites in Tanzania, pieces of obsidian dated to 130,000 years ago have been found that originally came from the Rift Valley in Kenya, nearly 200 miles away, suggesting either a long-distance trading network or long-distance transport of valuable materials, both hallmarks of the later modern culture. But these exceptions only serve to underscore that for the most part these early Sapiens were a people, as the anthropologist Richard Klein of Stanford University has put it, "similar to their precursors but very different from their successors."
Then, about 70,000 years ago, something changes. A modern culture begins to emerge.
It is my thesis that under the pressure of trying to survive the sudden and harsh volcanic winter, these Sapiens had to expand their means of wresting a living from nature in a dramatic way, leading to the kind of practices that would afterwards mark the species for the rest of the Stone Age—and indeed, in most ways, down to the present. Or, to put it another way, it was those humans who either developed or adapted in this modern way, with a culture centered on the regular hunting of a great variety of species, crafting better tools, creating new weapons from a wider set of materials, and developing rituals for tribal cohesion, who were able to survive in these harsh conditions. It is after all a basic principle of anthropology, as Robert Foley of Cambridge University puts it, that "ecological conditions ... provide the basis for evolution in social behaviour," and these were ecological conditions in the extreme.
We can imagine them, several dozen clans of Sapiens who lived in deep caves along the coast of southern Africa, looking up with fear and astonishment as the huge gray clouds began to fill the blue sky, blocking out the sun and turning the warm day suddenly cold. We can sense their bewilderment and confusion, perhaps their anger, in the days and weeks afterward, as the gray clouds persisted, unlike any weather they had known before, and the temperatures kept dropping, vegetation began to wilt and die all around them, and many of the animals they depended upon seemed either to have migrated away or to have become victims of the falling ash and unusual cold.
There are more than twenty caves and rock shelters along the southern coast that were occupied as the volcanic winter began, stretching in a 1,200-mile arc from the Steenbokfontein Cave on the Adantic Ocean, some 200 miles north of the Cape of Good Hope, around the tip of the continent into the Indian Ocean, and up the east coast as far as Border Cave near modern-day Swaziland. This would have been a particularly advantageous place for human and animal survival, despite its low latitude, because the Cape region evidently had a greater number and diversity of plant species per square mile than anywhere else on earth—more than 8,000 species, for example, two-thirds of them unique, grow there today—and the oceans were full of mammal, fish, and shellfish species that were unlikely to have been much affected by the drop in temperature. But it would take a newfound ingenuity and cleverness, some serious problem-solving at both an individual and a tribal level, to exploit this diversity enough to survive.
And this is just what the fossil record shows.
Blombos Cave can tell the story of what happened in southern Africa, though it is only one of a dozen caves where evidence has been found. About 30 yards above the blue-green Indian Ocean, some 190 miles east of modern Cape Town, it is a small cave with a long, narrow opening that was occupied for several millennia around 70,000 years ago by people who exemplified the modern culture of the volcanic winter. A team of archeologists led by Christopher Henshilwood of the Iziko Museums of South Africa and the University of Bergen has systematically uncovered since the first dig in 1992 exactly how resourceful and resilient they were.
First, and most important, the Blombos band had a stone-tool technology that was new to humankind: a system of punching off long, thin blades from blocks of fine-grained quartzite or silcrete stone, probably with a wooden awl or punch, and then shaping them with careful stone blows into small, very sharp two-inch points. These would then be fastened on wooden hafts either with some kind of vegetal mastic, traces of which can still be detected on some points, or thongs of hide or vine, which of course degenerate in time and do not fossilize; this is the oldest known evidence from anywhere in the world of composite tools. The resulting spears were weapons sharp enough to penetrate the hide of almost any of the larger local mammals, and could be thrown from a relatively safe distance with enough power to cause serious injury and, if a number of them are thrown at the same time at the right places, death. Along with similar spear points from a dozen other southern African caves in the period around 70,000 years ago, this development marks a true watershed for the Sapiens species.
One indication of the importance of die spear points is that in many places the original stone came from long distances away, suggesting that the artisans knew which stones were best for getting a sharp edge and were willing to invest in the time and trouble to get them. The points of silcrete and fine-grain stones at Blombos, for example, are almost all from non-local sources, as is much of the ocher; at Border Cave the chalcedony used for nearly half the spear points came from some twenty-five miles away; at Nelson Bay Cave on the southernmost coast the proportions of exotic stones range from 83 to 99 per cent over the millennia of occupation there. Such long-distance resource gathering implies a greater degree and wider range of exploitation of the countryside than previously seen, and even the possibility of a cooperative trade among different bands so as to add to their repertory of resources (new foods or flints) and weaponry (new woods for spears). Two anthropologists who have examined the artifacts of this period, Stanley Ambrose and Karl Lorenz, have argued in fact that this new stone industry "marks the first time in human history when there was a significant change in human territorial organization," another survival response to volcanic winter.
It is possible that Sapiens did some sort of hunting in previous millennia, but if so the targets would have been small game that might be stunned by throwing a rock or even caught by casting a net. Meat was an important part of their diets, but it is generally thought that it was usually obtained by scavenging: taking a half-eaten carcass from a tree where a cat had left it for safekeeping, or chasing away a hyena or a flock of buzzards from some young antelope corpse. And the fossil record suggests that humans normally took back to their camps predominantly the heads and feet of most animals—that is, the parts that were left behind after the carnivores had eaten the choicer ones.
But now the food crisis was acute. New measures had to be taken, new and larger food species sought out, new means of killing developed and perfected. Hunting, and of large animals, now became a fundamental part of Sapiens' survival. The unmistakable evidence of spear points in Blombos and the other caves of southern Africa—which make up tool types known as the Howieson's Poort and Still Bay industries, after two other cave sites—shows that: it is proof, according to Richard Klein, who has worked this part of the continent since 1976, of "a precocious emergence of fully modern human behavior."
But Blombos has even more. In a series of excavations from 1992 to 2000, Henshilwood's team found not just a few isolated artifacts made out of bone but evidence of what they call "a bone tool industry," also dating from around 70,000 years ago, the earliest record of the use of this material outside the Katanda site in Congo. Among the tools were three formal, standardized, foot-long spear points, shaped by stone and then highly polished—probably with leather and a stone powder, most likely ocher—and thus aerodynamically efficient and capable of deep penetration into an animal; the other two dozen pieces were smaller points that may have been daggers or awls.
Still more evidence of the primacy of hunting comes from the animal remains at Blombos, which show a great variety of species and a great abundance of specimens. Of the land animals, the most numerous were little ones like the dune mole rat and the rock hyrax (similar to a woodchuck), more than 2,000 samples of which were found, but there were also numerous seals, antelopes from elands to klipspringers, and even evidence of rhinoceros (which would have weighed in at some 3,000 pounds) and hippopotamus (as much as 6,000 pounds). That this was not exceptional is shown by the remains from other southern African caves, which have evidence of wildebeest, hartebeest, zebra, a variety of antelopes, and such decidedly dangerous prey as the giant cape buffalo (which could weigh as much as 2,000 pounds, with a horn span of 6 feet), elephant (9,500 pounds), and bush pig (150 pounds, but fierce). And it is clear from three clues that these animals were hunted and not scavenged: stone cut marks on the bones are abundant and do not overlie the tooth marks of other carnivores, as is typical with scavenged bones; whole carcasses rather than just select bones are present, showing that the entire animal was butchered in the cave; and a large number of bones of young animals (especially buffalo) are present, which are rarely found at scavenger sites because other carnivores typically devour them at the kill.
Of course these early hunters may not have been all that efficient—that is Klein's considered view—and it may have taken several generations to develop the art of effective hunting in the coordinated groups that would be needed to take down a giant buffalo or zebra, but there is no doubt that hunted animals, many of them large and some of them quite dangerous, begin to be an important part of the Sapiens' food source and hence inevitably of their way of life. Judging from the evidence at Klasies River Mouth Cave, the anthropologist Richard Milo has said that these people "were apparently active hunters who produced composite tools and who planned and executed complex tasks within a social framework," in other words, hunters of a "modern" type on a par with, if at first not quite as proficient as, the later Sapiens of Europe. And lest there be any question, the tip of a stone point has been found in that cave embedded in a giant buffalo from this era.
And aquatic species too, in greater variety and abundance than ever before. Some fish and shellfish had been harvested from at least 125,000 years ago — in fact it has been suggested that it was the presence of polyunsaturated fatty acids, Omega 3s and Omega 6s, that was responsible for the dramatic expansion of the Sapiens brain—but now there is evidence, as especially in Blombos, of expanded and sustained seafood exploitation. Seals are the commonest animal—there seem to have been at least 240 individual animals brought to the cave—but there are also dolphins, penguins, possibly whale, shellfish including snails, limpets, and brown mussels, and such large deep-water species, not found in the record before, as red stump-nose, catfish, and black musselcracker (of which there are more than 1,200 bones). In the opinion of the Henshilwood team, a number of the bone artifacts at the site were used for fishing, and the breakage patterns of the bones there indicate that the fish were actively caught rather than scavenged.
Excerpted from After Eden by Kirkpatrick Sale. Copyright © 2006 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsIntroduction 1
1. The Dawn of Modern Culture: 70,000-50,000 Years Ago 11
2. The Conquest of Europe: 55,000-20,000 Years Ago 37
3. Intensification and Agriculture: 20,000-5,000 Years Ago 71
4. The Erectus Alternative: 1,800,000-30,000 Years Ago 105
Source Notes 145