Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Horse in Human History

Our ancestors evolved on the savannahs of tropical Africa, arid grasslands home to herds of large herbivores.  Later, some ancestors migrated out of Africa, into non-tropical Eurasia, a cooler climate for which evolution and experience had not carefully prepared them.  They discovered northern grasslands, called steppes, home to herds of gazelles, argali sheep, saiga antelope, reindeer, and wild horses.  These shortgrass prairies extended 5,000 miles (8,000 km) from Hungary to Manchuria.  The struggle to survive on the steppes encouraged innovation (warm clothing, tighter shelters, food storage, etc.).  Groups that developed better stuff were less likely to become buzzard food.

The first species of the horse genus (Equus) emerged in North America about 4.5 million years ago.  Some migrated to South America, and others crossed the land bridge to Eurasia, and spread as far as Western Europe.  Maybe 15,000 years ago, hunters from Siberia discovered America.  Over the following centuries, a surge of megafauna extinctions occurred.  The last horse in the Americas died in Patagonia about 7000 B.C.  In 1493, Spaniards brought domesticated horses back to America, and by 1550, there were 10,000 roaming the golden plains.

In Pleistocene Europe, humans loved to hunt horses.  At the Roche de Solutré site, near Mâcon, France, archaeologists have found the bones of up to 100,000 horses, with dates ranging from 37,000 to 10,000 years ago.  During seasonal migrations, horses were trapped, butchered, and smoked.  By the sixth millennium B.C., the once plentiful wild horses of Western and Central Europe’s river valleys were apparently eliminated by overhunting.  To the east, large numbers of wild horses managed to survive on the vast open steppes, where they were less vulnerable to traps.  Hunters on foot were much slower than speedy critters so, prior to horse domestication, few humans could survive in the steppe ecosystem.

Cattle, goats, and sheep were domesticated in the Middle East, but horses were domesticated much later (4000 B.C.), on the Pontic-Caspian steppe, which spans from the Ukraine to western Kazakhstan, along the north coasts of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea.  Wild horses were big, strong, fast, intelligent, and aggressive.  When spooked, they attack, and swift kicks can be fatal.  They were not easy to domesticate.  Zebras, their Equus cousins, have never been tamed — the older they get, the meaner.

Prior to the enslavement of horses, society was powered by human muscles.  The addition of horse power was a tremendous boost.  They could move much larger loads.  On horseback, humans could move rapidly, and travel long distances.  The Horse in Human History, by anthropologist Pita Kelekna, is a mind-altering book.  It describes our turbulent 6,000 year relationship with domesticated horses.

Few readers were raised in tribes of nomadic pastoralists.  Our civilized world teaches us grand stories of magnificent empires, and their ongoing conflicts with scruffy bloodthirsty barbarians.  Kelekna reveals the missing half of the story that our culture has bleeped out — the tremendous impact these nomadic horsemen have had in shaping the world of today.  As they grew in scale, both the sedentary farmers and nomadic horsemen caused injuries to the ecosystem.  The earlier hunter-gatherers of the steppe caused far less disturbance.

At first, domesticated horses were kept for meat, milk, and hides.  Compared to other livestock, horses were more tolerant of snowy conditions, better able to survive on low quality forage, and required less pampering.  Because horses were highly mobile, and could go up to four days without water, herders could utilize grasslands farther from rivers, and maintain larger herds.  Nomadic life was an ongoing quest to move hungry herds to greener pastures, so agriculture was rarely an option.  They learned to survive largely on milk, milk products, and wild foods.

Eventually, folks figured out how to utilize horse power for hauling packs, and for pulling carts, wagons, chariots, and plows.  By and by, they transported trade goods, technologies, religions, ideas, and infectious diseases over long distances.  Bridle, saddle, and stirrup innovations eventually enabled humans to ride horses, at high speed, while effectively using deadly weapons.

One herder on foot could oversee 150 to 200 sheep, but a mounted herder could manage 500.  Horse domestication promoted the expansion of farming and herding, spurring population growth and conflict.  Mounted prospectors were better able to explore remote regions, and horse power was a tremendous asset for labor intensive mining operations.  This set the stage for the emergence of the Iron Age on the Anatolian steppe (Turkey).  Iron was history-altering big juju.

Warning!  Before you sit down with this book, be sure to have an inflatable raft nearby, because you’ll soon be up to your neck in blood.  Kelekna thoroughly documents how horsepower led to “bloodshed, massacres, deportations, enslavement, amputation, beheadings, torture, incineration, rape, castration, famine, pestilence, and destruction.”

Old fashioned warriors on foot became sitting ducks for speeding war chariots.  Later came mounted cavalry, which was even more deadly.  Then, armored knights on armored horses.  Then, infantry soldiers got halberds, pikes, and crossbows, which reduced knights to wolf chow.  Then, cannons.  And so on.  In an endless arms race, every brilliant innovation was inevitably trumped by something even more deadly.  Societies that did not maintain cutting edge capabilities were doomed to be dismembered by the cutting edge.

Readers learn about the Mongol blitzkrieg that rapidly created the largest contiguous land empire in history, spanning the steppes from the Baltic to the Pacific.  It survived for a few centuries until the Ottomans stomped them.  The spread of Islam spilled oceans of blood, as did the Christian Crusades.  Kelekna’s tireless recital of bloodbath after bloodbath, the rise and fall of countless cocky gangbangers, is stunning, and before long, absurd.

The words you are reading right now are English, another inheritance from the steppe nomads.  English is one of many Indo-European languages that branched off from the nomads’ ancient mother tongue, proto Indo-European (PIE).  Around 3000 B.C., PIE split into two language families, as people zoomed off in many directions in their new horse drawn carts.  The satem group includes Baltic, Slavic, Albanian, Armenian, Iranian, Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, and Nepali.  The centum group includes Celtic, Italic, Germanic, Greek, Anatolian, and Tocharian.  Today, the first language of more than a third of humankind is one of the Indo-European offshoots.

Multinational religions absorbed spiritual beliefs of the steppe nomads.  Zoroastrianism originated among Iranian tribes.  Their beliefs included one supreme god, a seven day creation, angels and demons, a coming savior, virgin birth, heaven and hell, and judgment day — which influenced Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam.  These four religions emerged between 2000 B.C. and A.D. 1000, the era of equestrian empires.  Today, their believers include 72 percent of humankind.

To better appreciate the impact of horses in the Old World, it’s interesting to look at the horseless Americas.  Llamas and alpacas were the only two large animals domesticated, and neither were suitable for riding.  Incas had no wheels, so they had no carts or wagons, and no need for smooth roads.  They did build bridges, dig tunnels, and cut steps up steep hillsides.  “Without the horse, the central steppes of the Americas — the prairies and pampas — remained undeveloped for agriculture and largely uninhabited.”

Pack trains of llamas could travel up to 12 miles per day (19 km), with each animal carrying up to 101 pounds (46 kg).  Horses, donkeys, and mules were far better pack animals.  Speedy long-distance communication was provided by messages relayed from one Inca runner to the next.  This was much slower than Genghis Khan’s pony express system, which could move messages 248 miles (400 km) per day.

Up north in Mesoamerica, they had wheels, but they were only used on tiny clay toys.  Northern pack animals had two legs.  On a good day, a healthy lad might carry 50 pounds (23 kg) for 13 to 17 miles (21 to 28 km).  Without carts or pack animals, Mesoamericans could not create vast sprawling empires like Rome.  While the Mayans built some roads, hiking in Mexico was via dirt paths, where they existed.

Military activities were restricted.  Each soldier had to carry his own provisions, which limited load size and distance travelled.  Thus, if supplies could not be snagged from villagers along the way, adventures would have been limited to round trips of eight days or so.  In Eurasia, huge Mongol cavalries could zoom across the steppe at 68 miles (110 km) per day.

Ideas also moved slowly in a horseless world, if they moved at all.  The brilliant mathematical achievement of the Mayans was the invention of the zero — 500 years before the Hindus.  In the Old World, the extremely useful idea of zero spread fast and far, while the Mayan zero never left home.  The voyage of Columbus depended on the existence of countless tools, resources, and skills, none of which were invented in Spain.  Some came from as far away as China, like gunpowder, forged steel, paper, and printing.  Imagine what today would look like if the concept of gunpowder had never left China.

Bottom line, if horses had never been domesticated, the world of today would be unimaginably different, and far less trashed — maybe.  In fact, big bloody civilizations did emerge in horse free America, develop productive agriculture, and feed growing mobs.  In South America, they were making bronze tools, and ornaments of silver and gold.  When Cortes first arrived, the Valley of Mexico had two million residents, and Tenochtitlan was a city of 200,000 — twice the size of Paris at that time.

By 1705, on the buffalo rich plains of Texas, the Comanche acquired horses.  “Like the Eurasian steppes, before the horse, the prairie had few human inhabitants.  Tough sod discouraged farming, and hunting speedy large mammals on foot in open country was not easy.”  Comanche horsemen could now ride faster than buffalo, and kill as many as they wanted.  Many more people could be fed.  Other tribes got into the game, and grew in size.  Like any ecosystem, grasslands have limited carrying capacity — growth is the mother of conflict.

The domestication of plants and animals, especially the horse, radically altered the human saga.  Hunter-gatherers were egalitarian, non-hierarchical.  Personal belongings were minimal, and sharing was the key to survival.  For pastoralists, domesticated horses were perceived to be personal property, and status symbols.  A new, toxic, and highly contagious belief was born — you are what you own.  Stealing horses became a get-rich-quick scheme.  Raiding led to counter raids, blood was often spilled, and an era of intertribal warfare emerged, in both the Old World and New.  Today, the insatiable and idiotic hunger for status is pounding the planet to pieces.

I’ve only scratched the surface here.  Kelekna did an outstanding job of giving us a long, powerful, and sobering look in the mirror.  Thankfully, she does not visit the fairy pool of magical solutions, fill the obligatory slop bucket, and dump it over our heads.  The traditional path of endless escalating growth and conflict isn’t taking us anywhere good.  She suggests that contemplation, communication, and cooperation might provide an antidote for the urge to self-destruct.  We haven’t tried that.  Hey!

Kelekna, Pita, The Horse in Human History, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2009.

Today, horse power has been replaced with machines powered by fossil energy, a nonrenewable resource that does not have a long and rosy future.  Can seven-point-something billion humans return to horses?  By 1900, modern cities had become horrid smelly nightmares.  Read this:  From Horse Power to Horsepower.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Inner Life of Animals

In his bestselling book, The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben revealed the fascinating magic and mystery of trees.  He spent his childhood close to nature, where he was fascinated by the family of life.  In his adult years, he has been a forest manager in Germany, continually striving to nurture the health of the land, and minimize harms.  He has spent much of his life outdoors.  Consequently, he has developed a perception of reality that is quite different from the herd.

In his new book, The Inner Life of Animals, he directs his attention to animal life, which is also little understood by mainstream society — the folks who spend most of their lives in climate controlled compartments.  For them, the natural world is often just a meaningless blur of scenery along the freeway, and wildlife sightings are mostly on glowing screens.  The new book is a pleasant voyage into a kinder and gentler mindset.  Readers are served a banquet of interesting ideas, mostly.

Wohlleben is a caring man who wishes that humans would cause far less damage and suffering in the world.  That’s his message.  At his home in the woods, he keeps goats, horses, rabbits, dogs, and chickens.  He apparently treats them with kindness until they drop dead from old age, or become terminally ill.  He confesses to drinking goat milk and making cheese, but says not a peep about meat (a touchy subject these days).  He detests factory farms, hunters, and industrial forest miners.

He has a deep appreciation for the coherence of wild ecosystems, and the remarkable relationships that coevolution has produced.  A primary focus of his book is to confront the cult of human supremacy.  Like patriarchy, and get-rich-quick fever, human supremacist beliefs intensify the madness of modern society.  The cult asserts that anything non-human is below us.  It’s perfectly OK to cram 20,000 chickens, shoulder to shoulder, inside a metal shed, without guilt or shame.  They are mindless machines that can feel no pain, organisms incapable of thoughts or feelings.

Supremacism has left a boot print on the English language.  Throughout the book, there are two categories of critters, “humans” and “animals,” implying that humans are not animals.  Of course, that’s not true.  Take off your clothes and look in a mirror, and you will see an animal that looks a lot like a chimp or bonobo, our closest living relatives.

In the mirror you will see a furless tropical primate that evolved an upright bipedal stance fine-tuned for long distance running.  This enabled us to survive via persistence hunting — chasing animals across the savannah for hours, until they collapsed from exhaustion.  Louis Liebenberg wrote about this.  Our ancestors have been hunters for several million years, long before we became Homo sapiens.  As every gardener knows, our bodies are poorly designed for gathering seeds, nuts, melons, and berries — too much bending and backaches.

Wohlleben hates hunting, which in its current form is “no longer appropriate.”  During the season, the woods are crowded with hunters, hiding close to bait piles, with high-powered rifles.  Bullets are whizzing all over the place, and up to 650,000 wild boars die every year.  Some animals are merely wounded, and suffer agonizing deaths.  He doesn’t describe what “appropriate” hunting would be.  Society has vigorously exterminated wild carnivores, whilst growing staggering amounts of boar food.  Is boar overpopulation appropriate?

Wohlleben owns a number of domesticated animals, and they spend their days in locations enclosed by electric fences.  They cannot go where they please, and the fences discourage the indigenous wild lynx from dining on his exotic invasive critters.  This disturbs him a bit.  “Nature didn’t intend for goats and horses to spend their whole lives as prisoners behind a fence.  Let’s not pretend: these animals would hightail it in a heartbeat if they could.”  (Did nature intend the existence of domesticated animals?)  The best he can do is treat them respectfully.

He lives in the twenty-first century, when many people own domesticated animals, a source of wealth and status.  For these folks, wild predators are evil.  Chickens are fox food, and foxes are demonic anti-capitalist anarchists.  Many also plant large fields of boar food, and get quite upset when boars come to enjoy their generous offering.  Some farmers surround their corn fields with electric fences to keep them out.  In the good old days, before domestication, nobody owned the large game and edible plants.  Nobody got upset when wild predators consumed wild herbivores, because nobody’s status was diminished.  In egalitarian societies, all people were equal, and status consciousness was totally inappropriate.

In The Others, Paul Shepard brilliantly described how important it is for all humans to spend their entire lives in healthy wild ecosystems, surrounded by many species of wild animals.  He also explained the many ugly consequences of capturing, confining, and domesticating “goofies” and “hooved locusts.”  Civilized primates are seriously deformed and traumatized by spending their lives in isolation from their wild relatives.

It’s easy to gobble a Big Mac when you have been taught that animals are like rutabagas, dumb organisms.  Now, we’re learning how sensitive and intelligent animals are.  To complicate matters, in his tree book, Wohlleben revealed that plants are also not dumb machines.  How can we feed ourselves in a morally acceptable manner?  Chimps and bonobos happily beat small animals to death, eat them raw, with no guilt at all.  A robin eating a worm is not evil.  We all feed one another.

Wohlleben is a fountain of stories.  Foxes lie down, tongues out, and play dead to attract hungry crows.  Goats move away from the herd when it’s time for them to die, because their corpse will attract predators.  Hives of bees with insufficient honey for the winter will attack weaker hives, kill defenders, and swipe their stash.  Swifts rarely stand on the ground, they sleep while soaring.  The book is loaded with hundreds of anecdotes like these.  I shall let you discover them on your own.

According to the human supremacist myths, animals do not have consciousness, self-awareness, or emotions.  They cannot feel pain, communicate, remember events, grieve, express gratitude, or recognize individual humans.  Today, the core of the controversy over animal intelligence is whether or not they are capable of thinking. 

Humans, of course, can think like crazy.  In our brains, the neocortex is the engine of self-awareness, consciousness, and thinking — and humans have the greatest neocortex of all.  Oddly, while most of the book is dedicated to challenging human supremacy, Wohlleben refers to our neocortex as the “crowning achievement of creation.”  Indeed, no other species is capable of experiencing so much cognitive dissonance.

Folks who understand environmental history and ecological sustainability, and have learned how to engage in critical thinking, can readily detect enormous flaws in the core myths of our culture.  The view from their mountaintop, far above the thick smog of dodgy beliefs, perceives that thinking is at least as much of a curse as a blessing.  We can live without glowing screens, but we can’t live in a toxic wasteland, with a hostile climate.  Supremacist myths trump common sense.  You can lead the herd to the pool of knowledge, but you can’t make them think.

“Mommy?”  “Yes, dear?”  “What is intelligence?”  “Sweetheart, intelligence is turning old growth forests into money, destabilizing the climate, acidifying the oceans, driving many species to extinction — and not caring.  Intelligence is speeding across the land in motorized wheelchairs, dumping trash on the moon, creating vast coastal dead zones, and developing miracle cures for the infectious and degenerative diseases that emerged with the birth of civilization.”  “Mommy?”  “Yes, dear?”  “I don’t want to be intelligent.  Can I be wild, free, and happy?”

Wohlleben, Peter, The Inner Life of Animals, Greystone Books, Berkeley, 2017.

Monday, December 11, 2017


In the Ojibway language, Kitchi-Gami means Lake Superior.  Johann Georg Kohl (1808-1878) was a German travel writer, geographer, and ethnologist.  In 1855, he spent six months visiting trading posts and missions in Ojibway country near Kitchi-Gami, mostly at the Apostle Islands off the north coast of Wisconsin, and at the settlements at the base of Keweenaw Bay, in northern Michigan.

Kohl’s book, Kitchi-Gami, was published in 1860.  It presents a different perspective from John Tanner’s 1830 book, The Falcon.  Tanner was a white man, kidnapped as a boy, who spent 30 years among the Ojibway, had a hard life, and described his many struggles.  Kohl was a visitor from outer space who was fascinated by the Ojibway.  He interviewed many, learned a lot about their culture, and discussed numerous subjects not mentioned by Tanner.

Kohl was eager to record as much as possible about the Ojibway, because it looked like Native Americans were rapidly dying off, and would soon be gone.  At the same time, the brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm were working to preserve remnants of the traditional culture of Germany, because the rustic folks who still remembered bits of it were also dying off.

Both the Ojibway and wild Germans were cultures that inhabited vast ancient forests, sacred places of magic, mystery, hungry wolves, and mystical little people (fairies).  Kohl noted that the folktales of both had similar themes and lessons.  Ojibway birch bark wigwams were of comparable quality to the huts of poor peasants in Lithuania, Ireland, or Polish Jews.  Like Scandinavians, the Ojibway fished at night using torches.  Germany had witches or sorcerers who could cause others harm by curses, charms, or spells.  The Ojibway had Windigos, men or women possessed by evil spirits who were terribly common.

Kohl’s gift to us is a remembrance of the closing days of the wild frontier, when Ojibway country was relatively unmolested, except for its furbearing animals.  The St. Mary’s River was the eastern outlet for Kitchi-Gami.  Bears crossed it during seasonal migrations.  In 1811, the migration lasted all summer, and 6,000 bears were killed, as many as 100 per night.  Before Kohl arrived, the greedy fur mining industry in the region had peaked, sharply declined, and moved westward.

Near the St. Mary’s River was a settlement named Rivière au Désert, because it was a ghastly, hideous eyesore in the wilderness — scruffy patches of oats or barley planted amidst stumps.  “Nature is here, at the outset, a pleasing wild forest garden; but when civilized man breaks into it, his axe and his fire produce a desert of half-carbonized tree stumps and skeletons.”  French Canadians call these patches of cultivation “un désert.”

Kohl was fascinated by the spiritual life of the Ojibway.  In Germany, the black robes commonly taught that the world is a hellish nightmare of demons, wickedness, and abominations.  The Ojibway, on the other hand, loved their sacred land, and cared for it.  Their culture was not fixated on the soul’s path in the afterlife.  They had a vibrant spiritual connection to life in the here and now.

Unfortunately, the here and now was sharply different from the good old days.  Kohl chatted with an old woman whose name meant “dawn.”  He called her Aurora.  The blitzkrieg of civilization had pushed the Sioux out of their forest homeland, and westward onto the prairie.  Tribal warfare intensified.  People no longer felt safe.  Aurora had lost three brothers, and ten other close relatives.  She said that the Ojibway were far weaker since the Long-knives arrived.  They used to be healthier and stronger, able to go ten days without food and not complain.  Their traditional culture was withering.

He was amazed to learn about the Ojibway vision quests, which were part of their rites of passage into adulthood.  Nowhere in Europe did young boys or girls courageously “fast for days on behalf of a higher motive, retire to the most remote forests, defy all the claims of nature, and fix their minds so exclusively on celestial matters, that they fell into convulsions, and attained an increased power of perception, which they did not possess in ordinary life.”  Sometimes it took ten days of fasting to have important dreams.

In Germany, Christian preachers taught their flocks to give away their wealth, and live a life of unconditional love.  Native Americans were perplexed to observe that the teachings of the black robes often had no association with their behaviors.  The aliens seemed to be possessed with a frantic desire to seize and hoard as much wealth as possible.  They were arrogant, domineering, and impressively dishonest — the opposite of loving.

The Ojibway actually practiced what the Christians preached.  “As a universal rule, next to the liar, no one is so despised by the Indians as the narrow-hearted egotist and greedy miser.”  Voyageurs and traders regularly travelled through Indian country with valuable goods and full purses.  There were no police or soldiers in the wilderness, but it was very rare for a trader to be attacked for the sole purpose of robbery.  But the two big fur trading companies “often plundered each other’s posts, and employed the Indians for that purpose.”

Kohl was impressed by the charity of the Ojibway.  “There are no rich men among them.”  An Indian will not hesitate to share his last meal with a hungry stranger.  The principle is “that a man must first share with others and then think of himself.”  He was also impressed by their egalitarian society.  No man, not even a cripple, considered another Indian to be his superior.

Kohl was not a hunter-gatherer in Germany, and he was not raised in an egalitarian society.  He did not understand that hunting abilities varied greatly.  In The Art of Tracking, Louis Liebenberg noted that among the San hunters aged 15 to 38, “70 percent of all the kudu kills were made by only 17 percent of the hunters, while almost half the hunters made no kudu kills at all.”

The “communist” Ojibway annoyed him with their absolute commitment to generosity.  The poor hunter “is forced to give all his spoil away, industry is never rewarded, and the hard-working man toils for the lazy.  A man often has to support others, without complaining.  So, all are fed, and none ever get prosperous.”  The heathens were more Christian than the Christians.

Liebenberg wrote a lot about persistence hunting — running after game until they collapsed from exhaustion (a practice that led to our ancestors becoming bipedal).  Kohl noted that the Ojibway also did this.  Horses were not ideal for hunting in a forest.  Running down elk was easiest in the deep snows of winter, when the hunter travelled on snowshoes.  Sometimes bears were chased down.

One day, when Kohl was in the Apostle Islands, “A warlike maiden suddenly appeared, who boasted of having taken a Sioux scalp, and she was led in triumph from lodge to lodge.  I was told that a supernatural female had appeared to this girl, who was now nineteen, during the period of her great fasts and dreams of life, who prophesied to her that she would become the greatest runner of her tribe, and thus gain the mightiest warrior for husband.”

Women were healers, prophets, and enchanters.  “It may be easily supposed that these squaws, owing to their performing all the work of joiners, carpenters, and masons, have corned and blistered hands. In fact, their hands are much harder to the touch than those of the men; and, indeed, their entire muscular system is far more developed, and they are proportionately stronger in the arm, for the men do not do much to bring out the muscle.”

Raised in rigidly strict Germany, Kohl was amazed by how loving Ojibway parents were.  “Indians have an ape-like affection for their children.  Even fathers are very kind to their sons, and never treat them with severity.”  Europeans often exposed (abandoned) unwanted children, but the Ojibway never did.  But when the elderly could no longer keep up with the band, they were left behind.

In Kitchi-Gami country, there were numerous locations named Lac du Flambeau (Torch Lake).  In summer, when vast clouds of mosquitoes made life miserable, the deer waded into lakes and ponds, just keeping their heads above water.  Hunters in canoes quietly moved toward them from downwind, with birch bark torches burning.  The deer calmly stared at the light, and were easily killed.

So, dearest reader, there’s a sampler.  Kohl also described their wigwams, canoes, diet, food preservation, sugar making, fishing, clothing, revenge killing, warfare, spells and magic, medicine, vision quests, dreams, ceremonies, stories, reverence for copper, symbolic drawings on birch bark paper, and on and on.

Kohl, Johann Georg, Kitchi-Gami: Life Among the Lake Superior Ojibway, 1860, Reprint, Minnesota Historical Society Press, St. Paul, 1985.

NOTE: Early editions of this book refer to the Ojibway as Ojibbeway.  These people are also known as the Chippewa and Anishinabe, in a variety of spellings.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Northern Antiquities

Paul Henri Mallet (1730-1807) was a Swiss historian who had a fondness for the Teutonic (Germanic and Scandinavian) tribes of northern Europe.  Their strength, ferocity, and devotion to total liberty eventually enabled them to reduce the Roman Empire into a bloody blotch of road kill.  Mallet had no fondness whatsoever for the corpulent, decadent, oppressive Romans <spit!> and their legions of slaves.  The Teutonic tribes enjoyed a life of magnificent freedom.  Listen:

“They were free because they inhabited an uncultivated country, rude forests and mountains; and liberty is the sole treasure of an indigent people; …and he who possesses little defends it easily.  They were free because they were ignorant of those pleasures, often so dearly bought, which render the protection of a powerful master necessary.  They were free because hunters and shepherds, who wander about in woods through inclination or necessity, are not so easily oppressed as the timorous inhabitants of enclosed towns… and because a wandering people, if deprived of their liberty in one place, easily find it in another, as well as their sustenance.  Lastly, they were free because, knowing not the use of money, there could not be employed against them that instrument of slavery and corruption, which enables the ambitious to collect and distribute at will the signs of riches.”

The second great achievement of the Teutonic tribes, according to Mallet, was eventually abandoning their demonic indigenous spirituality and converting to the one, and only, non-demonic religion, that was dedicated to the worship of a volatile Middle Eastern sky deity.  In Northern Antiquities, Mallet tried to sum up what was known about these tribes prior to conversion.  It provided a window between the early Roman observers, Julius Caesar (51 B.C.) and Caius Cornelius Tacitus (A.D. 98), and the later Christian historians, like Adam of Bremen (1076), Saxo Grammaticus (born about 1150), and Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241).  He also cited a number of less famous sources, now obscure, which help make his book unique, but not flawless.

Twenty centuries ago, Tacitus described the wholesome, old fashioned animism of the German tribes.  “They conceive it unworthy of the grandeur of celestial beings to confine their deities within walls, or to represent them under a human similitude: woods and groves are their temples; and they affix names of divinity to that secret power, which they behold with the eye of adoration alone.”  In the pagan era, northern Europe was still largely covered with a vast primordial forest.  If you wanted to travel, you used a boat.

Unlike modern multinational religions, in Teutonic spirituality, female deities played prominent roles, and the living natural world was sacred.  Odin’s companions were ravens and wolves.  Mallet wrote, “The earth, the water, the fire, the air, the sun, moon, and stars had each their respective divinity.  The trees, forests, rivers, mountains, rocks, winds, thunder and tempests had the same; and merited on that score a religious worship, which, at first, could not be directed to the visible object, but to the intelligence with which it was animated.”

A thousand years later, near the end of the pagan era, their deities had become humanized — wise, crazy, loving, gullible, brutal, lusty, fickle, and so on.  The pantheon of deities was patriarchal, headed by Odin, the All Father.  By now, the Indo-European influences were unmistakable.  Indo-Europeans were a culture from eastern lands that spread across the west, leaving a pattern of closely related patriarchal pantheons.  They spread from Greece (Zeus), to Rome (Jupiter), Germany (Wotan), and Scandinavia (Odin).  Half of humankind today speaks Indo-European languages, including almost all modern European languages.

Tuesday is Tyr’s day, honoring the war god.  Wednesday is Odin’s day (Wotan’s day), dedicated to the shaman, poet, magician, singer, and chief war god.  His wife Frigga was Mother Earth; the Saxons called her Ostara (Easter).  Thursday is Thor’s day, for the red haired, skull crushing thunder god.  Friday is the day of Freyja, the goddess of love.  The winter solstice was the shortest day of the year, Mother Night.  This was the time of the Jul feast (Yule), a celebration of Frey, the sun, with hope that the coming year would be bountiful.  Today Yule time has become a surreal marketing holiday.

In Denmark, every nine years, a ceremony was held in January.  “The Danes flock together in crowds, and offer to their gods ninety-nine men, as many horses, dogs, and cocks, with the certain hope of appeasing the gods by these victims.”  A similar ceremony was held in Uppsala, Sweden.  After the sacrificial humans and animals were killed, and their blood drained, their bodies were hung from trees in a nearby sacred grove dedicated to Odin.

From the perspective of ecological sustainability, the humanization of deities activates flashing red warning lights – it is not a characteristic of sustainable cultures.  Human supremacy is a standard symptom of self-destructive societies (see Jensen and Livingston).  Notions of superiority were also inspired by the domestication of plants and animals, which radically reconfigured ecosystems solely for the benefit of humans (see Scott and Diamond).  Finally, the northern tribes waged war with iron weapons and, as every school child knows, metal-making consumes nonrenewable resources, a habit that often leads to addiction and overdose.

In what is now France, the Gauls were farmers living in permanent villages and towns.  They were heavily dependent on domesticated plants.  To the east, across the Rhine, were the Germanic tribes, who were primarily hunters and nomadic herders, raising domesticated cattle and sheep in a wilderness of forests and wetlands.  When threats approached, they packed up and moved.  Their livestock was self-propelled, and capable of feeding themselves.  The Gauls were helpless sitting ducks who could not move their stuff away from danger.  Their granaries were not mobile, and their towns were quite flammable.

Throughout the centuries nomads have enjoyed being parasites on hard working farmers.  The Berber proverb is: “Raiding is our agriculture.”  Tacitus said this about the Germans: “They will much easier be persuaded to attack and reap wounds from an enemy, than to till the ground and wait the produce.  They consider it as an indication of effeminacy and want of courage to gain by the sweat of the brow, what they may acquire at the price of their blood.”

Mallet added the master key to understanding all human history — “The weak had no right to what they could not defend.”  Today, liberals piss and moan about the horrors of capitalism, but capitalists are merely recycling the ancient tactics of nomadic herders, like the Mongols and Huns.  Consumers are their weak and vulnerable prey.

Thus, the Teutonic tribes were warriors, and war was their source of honor, riches, and safety.  It was essential that warriors die a violent death, with their arms in their hands, ideally laughing with their final breath.  Folks who died of disease or old age were sent to a low class afterlife in Niflheim.  Courageous fighters were sent to the premier afterlife in Valhalla, where they would spend eternity in bloody battle.  Every day, they would delight in cutting each other to pieces, and then magically recover, mount their horses, and ride back to the hall of Odin for a night of feasting and oblivion drinking.  Yippee!

Dying in bed was totally shameful.  Iceland and Sweden had ancestral cliffs (ättestup), where the sick and aged plunged to a violent death, to end their lives honorably.  Those too weak to jump were sent to Valhalla by a caring friend smashing their skull with an ancestral club (ätteklubbor).  Stafva Hall in Sweden had annual festivals, with singing and dancing, after which the wobbly geezers, beyond their expiration dates, leaped into the lake far below.

In the Teutonic tribes, women were considered to be equals and companions.  Society could not survive without their hard work.  Germans admitted them to their councils, and consulted with them on the business of the state.  In the north, it was common to meet women who delivered oracular information, cured the worst maladies, assumed whatever shape they wished, raised storms, chained the winds, travelled through the air, and performed every function of the fairy art.  There were ten prophetesses for each prophet.

The book concludes with a happy ending.  Once the freedom loving Teutonic people had finished rubbishing Rome, liberty was restored to Europe, and the victors leaped on the escalator to modernity.  As Mallet was writing in 1750, life was grand.  People and their belongings were now safe and secure.  Fields were filled with laborers.  Numerous cities flourished in peace and prosperity.  Paganism went extinct, and everyone flocked to the new religion, in which believers were promised an eternity in paradise as long as they did not kill, or lie, or steal, or fornicate, or judge others, or hate their enemies, or think blasphemous thoughts, or accumulate wealth.

Mallet, Paul Henri, Northern Antiquities, 1770, Reprint, AMS Press, New York, 1968.

Other sources:

Adam of Bremen, History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, 1076, Reprint, Columbia University Press, New York, 1959.

Anderson, Rasmus Björn, Norse Mythology: Or the Religion of Our Forefathers..., 1875, Reprint, S. C. Griggs and Company, Chicago, 1884.

Caesar, Julius, The Gallic Wars, London MacMillan, London, 1908.  DOWNLOAD

Grammaticus, Saxo, The First Nine Books of Danish History, 1514, Reprint, David Nutt, London, 1894.  DOWNLOAD

Grimm, Jakob, Teutonic Mythology, 4 vols, 1883, Reprint, Peter Smith, Gloucester, Massachusetts, 1976.  This book provides the most information on Teutonic myth and folklore, but it is difficult to read.  All four volumes can be read at Google Books.

Metzner, Ralph, The Well of Remembrance, Shambhala Publications, Boston, 1994. 

Tacitus, Caius Cornelius, edited by Hadas, Moses, Complete Works of Tacitus, The Modern Library, New York, 1942.  This volume includes Germania.  DOWNLOAD

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Mountain People

Anthropologist Colin Turnbull was born London in 1924, and raised in a surreal upper class family, which he described in his important book, The Human Cycle.  World War Two jolted the pampered lad into the bloody real world.  In the 1950s, he spent lots of time in the Congo, with the Mbuti Pygmies, who inspired his masterpiece, The Forest People.  It was a beautiful life-changing experience to live with healthy, happy humans who were profoundly in love with their sacred forest — nothing like the zombies of England.

When war in the Congo zapped his plans for another visit, he accepted an assignment to learn about the Ik tribe in northeastern Uganda.  The government wanted a plan for transforming them into law-abiding taxpaying farmers.  For unknown thousands of years, they had been hunter-gatherers in the Kidepo Valley, an arid mountainous savannah.

In 1962, their traditional lands became a 540 square mile (1,399 sq km) wildlife preserve, the Kidepo Valley National Park.  Hunting was banned, and the Ik were moved into the mountains.  They were expected to magically shape shift into farmers in a region that experienced droughts about one in every four years.  Turnbull’s study ran from 1965 to 1967, and the first two years were back-to-back droughts.  Crops withered in the fields, the granaries were empty, and about 2,000 people began to starve.  Turnbull described the cultural meltdown in The Mountain People. 

Turnbull wrote, “The hunter and gatherer gives little thought for the morrow, getting his feed fresh, from day to day, with the ready assurance of someone who has come to terms with the world around him.  He knows the world he lives in as few others do, and he lives in sympathy with it, rather than trying to dominate it.”  A farmer can lose a year’s work in one night.  A hunter can only lose a day’s work.

When he first got there, the famine was just beginning.  Two months later, the horror began.  People became totally self-centered.  Their two interests in life were now food and water.  Most became habitual liars, and most took every opportunity steal Turnbull’s stuff.  They pulled many juvenile pranks on him, hoping for him to get hurt or die.  “The people were as unfriendly, uncharitable, inhospitable, and generally mean as any people can be.”  They laughed hard at anyone’s misfortunes.  It was amusing to steal food from the feeble, and push them down.

Upon being weaned at age three, youngsters were thrown out of their parents’ house.  Evicted children formed bands and wandered the countryside looking for something to eat.  Lucky ones found some figs, the unlucky ate dirt and pebbles, and soon died.  Feeding children and elders, who couldn’t take care of themselves, was a foolish waste of precious nutrients.

Turnbull was often scolded for his idiotic generosity.  He was feeding folks who were soon to be dead, cruelly prolonging their misery.  Adults refused to feed their starving parents, or let them into their house.  When they died, most were quickly buried in the family compound, in secrecy.  If the villagers found out, they would expect a funeral ceremony, which required a feast.

Famines were a crappy time to be born.  Nobody was happy to see you, nobody cared.  When out foraging, mothers put their babies down roughly, and didn’t watch them carefully.  Maybe a hungry leopard would relieve her of her little bummer.  One time, a leopard ate a baby.  Sleepy from a delicious meal, the cat laid down for nice nap.  Men found it, killed it, and ate it, baby and all.

Turnbull once took pity on an old woman who was close to death.  He wanted to create a new village, where the abandoned people could be properly cared for.  She was not interested.  She wanted to die near her son, who would not take care of her.  Turnbull fed her, and gave her some food.  She burst into tears, because this triggered memories of “a time when people had helped each other, when people had been kind and good.”  She was the last survivor who remembered the good old days.

Stuff like this fills most of the book.  Turnbull spent 18 months eating by himself in his Range Rover.  For some reason, he got the blues.  He hoped “that we who have been civilized into such empty beliefs as the essential beauty and goodness of humanity may discover ourselves before it is too late.”  “Most of us are unlikely to admit readily that we can sink as low as the Ik, but many of us do, and with far less cause.”  Whoa!

I first read The Mountain People in 2001, and it snapped my mind.  It was an unforgettable book that you wished you could forget.  I was blindsided by the misery, cruelty, and horror, and this was the impression that I took away from the book.  In 2017, I read the book a second time, and it blew me away again, for another reason.  Near the end of the book, Turnbull shared some troubling conclusions that I was too dazed to grasp in my first reading.  He held up a mirror, so his well-fed readers could see their own deformities, and get their noses rubbed in them.

Having spent years with the Mbuti, he had directly experienced a healthy functional society.  Before that, he had grown to adulthood in twentieth century Western society, a world of atomic bombs, concentration camps, and the brutal extermination of tens of millions.  It was the opposite of a functional society.  It had become pathologically individualized and de-socialized — similar to the Ik, and in many ways worse.  The Ik give us a taste of our days to come.

“We pursue those trivial, idiotic technological encumbrances and imagine them to be the luxuries that make life worth living, and all the time we are losing our potential for social rather than individual survival, for hating as well as loving, losing perhaps our last chance to enjoy life with all the passion that is our nature and being.”  Today, Americans speed down the highways in their motorized wheelchairs while the polar ice melts, and monster hurricanes obliterate societies.  Sorry kids!

Here is a comment, from 45 years ago, that could have been written today.  “The state itself, is resting ever more on both intellectual and physical violence to assert itself.”  Heads of state and their assistants fill the air with “loud-mouthed anti-intellectual blabberings.”  The populace learns not to believe, trust, love, hope, or think.

The Mbuti enjoyed a society harmonized by a common set of beliefs, values, and lifestyles.  Everyone was on the same channel.  Our society is a cranky boisterous mob of numerous competing cultures, classes, and religious beliefs.  “In larger-scale societies we are accustomed to diversity of belief, we even applaud ourselves for our tolerance, not recognizing that a society not bound together by a single powerful belief is not a society at all, but a political association of individuals held together only by the presence of law and force — the existence of which is a violence.” 

Love is not a hardwired function, like breathing.  It has to be learned.  When love is not reciprocated, it dies.  The Ik demonstrated that love can go extinct.  When lonely consumers are starving for love in modern society, many choose to purchase companions. “The keeping of pets, which is one of the characteristics special to civilization, indicates a deterioration in human relationships.”

The Ik were excessively individualistic, spending their days in solitude and boredom, rarely forming significant relationships.  Each one was alone, and content to be alone.  Turnbull often sat with Ik men on a ridge overlooking the valley, gazing into space.  Day after day, all day long, not a word was ever spoken.  This reminds me of the spooky smart phone cult in my town today.  People gather around tables in a café, each silently gazing at their glowing screens.

The Ik expelled their children from home at age three.  Westerners wait until kindergarten, when the kids begin their decades of institutionalization.  The state now oversees health, education, and welfare.  We are indoctrinated with an “individualism that is preached with a curious fanaticism.”  This radical individualism “is reflected in our cutthroat economics, where almost anything is justified in terms of an expanding economy and the consequent confinement of the world’s riches in the pockets of the few.”

When it was released in 1972, The Mountain People got a lot of attention.  Immediately, hordes of dignified scholars explosively soiled their britches.  Heresy!  The Ik were nothing but an extreme exception, a bizarre mutation!  Civilized humans are moral and virtuous!  We are the greatest!

Turnbull, Colin M., The Mountain People, Touchstone, New York, 1972.

HERE is a 5-minute video about Colin Turnbull and the Mbuti.  The narrator says, “His advisor at Oxford wrote that Colin Turnbull is tall, fair, handsome, impulsive, and elusive.  All his screws are loose, real communication with him seems impossible.  Perhaps one has to belong to one of the backwards races in order to get his wavelength.”

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Nutrition and Physical Degeneration

My mother, who was born in 1916, had a “sweet tooth.”  When I was born, she had dentures, no teeth.  White flour and sugar were common ingredients in many meals I consumed between childhood and into my 40s.  She got diabetes, and I did too.  My first dentist said I had teeth like a horse.  They are crowded and crooked.  All four of my wisdom teeth were surgically removed, because they were growing sideways, toward the molar next door.  I brushed my teeth, but still got cavities.
Back in the sixteenth century, Queen Elizabeth also had a sweet tooth.  Sidney Mintz told an amusing story about her meeting with a German gentleman, who was deeply impressed when her smile revealed a mouthful of black teeth.  The peasants looked much healthier than the royalty, because they couldn’t afford sugar, which was an expensive luxury in those days.
In 1893, Weston Price became a dentist in Cleveland, Ohio.  As the years passed, Price became aware of a highly unusual trend — the amount of tooth decay that he observed was growing sharply.  Something strange was happening.  He was watching a serious health crisis emerge right before his eyes, and he didn’t understand the cause.  Price suspected that the problem was related to dietary changes.
His curiosity grew.  Finally, he decided to do some travelling, in search of healthy people, to see how they lived differently.  He spent much of the 1930s visiting many lands, examining the teeth of the residents, taking photographs of them, and studying their diets.  He went to remote places where people continued to live in their traditional manner, in regions including Switzerland, Ireland, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, the Arctic, and Peru.  He found many people with beautiful perfect teeth, and he found many with serious dental problems, like his patients in Cleveland.  Importantly, he discovered a clear difference in the diets of the two groups.
The people with happy teeth ate the traditional diet of their region, never used a toothbrush, and never saw a dentist.  The people with crappy teeth ate a “modernized” diet, including white flour, refined sugar, canned vegetables, jams, and marmalades.  Those who lived in remote villages in the hills were fine, but those who lived by the shore, and ate imported modern foods, suffered for it.  If one brother stayed in the hills, and the other brother moved to the city by the sea, the difference in their dental health was often striking.  Among those eating the modernized diet, the incidence of problems varied from place to place.  In some locations, only 25 percent of them had problems, but in other locations up to 75 percent were affected.
The children of those who ate modernized diets had even worse problems.  In addition to tooth decay, their dental arches were deformed, so their teeth were crowded and crooked (like mine).  Their nostrils were narrower, forcing some to be mouth breathers.  Their skulls formed in unusual shapes and sizes, often narrower than normal.  Their hips and pelvic bones formed abnormally, making childbirth more difficult.  They suffered from far higher rates of chronic and degenerative disease, including cancer, heart disease, and tuberculosis.  Their overall health was often weak or sickly.  Some were mentally deficient.
Price finally went home and wrote a book to document his findings.  Nutrition and Physical Degeneration was published in 1939.  The book is loaded with stunning photos.  Readers will never forget the powerful pictures.  Most of the book’s contents, including the pictures, are available HERE.  Click through the pages.  His writing includes some racist language that was common in that era.
For the first 200 pages, the chapters proceed, region by region, comparing the health of the people, based on their diet.  His descriptions get repetitive, because wherever he goes, he reports the same findings — people who ate their traditional diet had healthy teeth, and people who ate the modern diet more often had lousy teeth and other problems.  
All of those enjoying good health included some animal-based foods in their diet.  He noted, “It is significant that I have as yet found no group that was building and maintaining good bodies exclusively on plant foods.  A number of groups are endeavoring to do so with marked evidence of failure.”
I did some research to see if white flour and sugar were newer foods for the working class and poor.  Yes, they were.  By the late nineteenth century, both products had become widely available and inexpensive.  The primary reason for this was new technology, steam-powered steel roller mills, which appeared around 1890.  Melissa Smith and Steven Gundry wrote about the unintended consequences of roller mills.
Previously, grain had been milled between stones, which ground together all parts of the wheat berry, resulting in whole wheat flour.  White flour had been made by bolting — sieving whole wheat flour through fine cloth.  This was a time-consuming process, so white flour was expensive.  White bread was a luxury that only the rich could afford.  The waste byproduct of the bolting process was the super-nutritious bran and germ, which was usually fed to livestock.
The new roller mills crushed the grain, rather than finely pulverizing it.  This made it much easier to separate the bran and germ from the powdered endosperm (white flour).  Because of this, white flour could now be cheaply mass produced.  Since people perceived white flour to be a desirable luxury food, they eagerly consumed it.
Gundry noted that the new process eliminated both the fiber-rich bran, and the germ, which was rich in oil and vitamins.  White flour was little more than highly refined carbs, which rapidly enter the bloodstream — empty calories.  White flour had a much longer shelf life than whole wheat, because it had no oil which would go rancid over time.  White flour could be shipped to the ends of the Earth, and stored indefinitely.
By the 1920s, folks realized that white flour was crap.  New regulations required that white flour be “enriched” with nutrients, including thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and iron.  Despite enrichment, white flour remains nutritionally inferior to whole wheat.
With regard to sugar, the steel roller mill was a big improvement.  It could extract up to 85 percent of the juice from the cane.  The previous technology could extract only 20 percent.  So, each ton of cane could produce much more sugar, which lowered the price, and enabled mass production.
Sugar became a major component of the working class diet.  By 1900, 20 percent of the calories in the English diet were provided by sugar.  Many factory workers started their day with a slice of white bread spread with sugar-packed jam, marmalade, or treacle — many calories, few nutrients.  According to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, the average annual consumption of caloric sweeteners per person in the U.S. peaked in 1999 at 151.6 pounds (68.7 kg).  In 2016, it was down to a mere 128.1 pounds (58 kg).
Sugar consumption nearly doubled in the U.S. between 1890 and the early 1920s — an era of rapid growth in the candy and soft drink industries.  In some U.S. cities, diabetes deaths quadrupled between 1900 and 1920.  By the 1930s, the cancer rates in the U.S. were clearly on the rise.  Diabetes and cancer are far less common in societies that do not eat a Western diet.
Smith discussed Dr. Thomas Cleave’s “Rule of 20 Years.”  The old doctor noted a spooky pattern.  In numerous locations, 20 years after the arrival of white flour and white sugar, primitive people started to suffer from heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, gallbladder disease, and colitis.
You are what you eat!
Price, Weston, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, 1939, Reprint, Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation, La Mesa, California, 2008.  LINK
Mintz, Sidney W., Sweetness and Power — The Place of Sugar in Modern History, Penguin Books, New York, 1985.
Gundry, Steven R., Dr. Gundry’s Diet Evolution, Crown Publishers, New York, 2008.
Smith, Melissa Diane, Going Against the Grain, Contemporary Books, Chicago, 2002.
Weston Price Foundation — info on nutrition and health.