For those of you who’ve just found your way here, this is the second post in what will be a multi-part whole. To read the Introduction, scroll down to the previous post. Then you will be ready to proceed with Chapter 1.
Birth, Growth, and DIspersal
The word human shares the same root, “hum-,” as the words humus and humility, and means ‘of the earth, soil-born, grounded.’ The Earthly birth of modern-form Homo sapiens may have occurred only about 200,000 years ago (a relative geologic blink), but the insights offered by the deepest human wisdom traditions in conjunction with the paleontological, archaeological and ecological sciences reveal that the roots of humanity extend unbroken to a common ancestor shared by every form of Earthly life, a being who was born some 3.8 billion years ago.
Even though this being no longer exists, it never went extinct, but rather branched forth into a family tree with billions of limbs. And through this being, all the lives of Earth are kin. Children of the soil, fed by the Sun, the ultimate energy source for the gift of Life.
The flourishing of the family of Life in all its wondrous diversity throughout that 3.8 billion year span — roughly four-fifths of the Earth’s existence to date — has depended on every form honoring one imperative, an imperative that might be called the Law of Limits. Put simply, the Law of Limits states that the rate at which Life may draw energy from the sunbathed biosphere must not exceed the rate at which the energy is given. In other words, the viability of every form of life depends on living well within the annual planetary solar budget.
No, I haven’t forgotten about the forms life who derive their energy from sources other than the Sun, such as the organisms who depend on the hydrothermal energy available along deep ocean faults. This energy has driven whole ecosystems in total darkness, likely since the dawn of life itself. But even so, the Law of Limits still applies. No form of life anywhere, living from any energy source, can last long if it comes to live in excess of what the source provides.
In the earliest stages of Life’s unfolding, no other option existed. The biological processes by which energy (solar or otherwise) is sequestered had not yet stored up sufficient amounts to make possible any alternative. All forms of life either lived well within their annual energy budgets and thus contributed to sequestration (for example, soil build-up) or they quickly died out.
As a consequence, the habit of giving back and thus living in ways that contribute positively to the health of the biosphere as a whole — of living with ecological integrity — is the deepest tradition of all forms of life, including humans; it is an inherent part of being hominid, an inherent part being mammalian, an inherent part of being vertebrate, an inherent part being animal, an inherent part of simply being alive (all five of which we are, simultaneously, here and now).
Living with ecological integrity is the glue that has held the whole biosphere together since time immemorial. Living with ecological integrity cannot be outgrown. It cannot be improved upon. It is the most inviolate instinct, the deepest habit of Life.
And the imperative to hold to this habit has never changed. Not one of the countless forms into which Life has diversified since coming into being has ever been exempt. Should a form discover a way to act as if it is exempt by exploiting the long-sequestered energy and thereby initiating a reverse energy flow — i.e. by mining the Earth’s resilience at rates in excess of renewal rates — the result can only be degradation of the whole community of Life. Such an existence can only be temporary. The end result will be the same. The exploiter will either regain ecological integrity or die out. This is the Law.
Yet, in no way has the Law against drawing down Earth’s sequestered energy hindered Life. In truth, it has done the opposite. The green riot of the Amazon and the thriving rainbow of the Great Barrier Reef, to name two of the countless places where life is bountiful in the extreme, show what is possible. In fact, such profligate abundance paradoxically requires all the forms of life who compose Earth’s myriad ecosystems to live well within the limit of the annual energy budgets of those places; living in excess of the limit is what brings about a condition of scarcity and devastation.
From this solid behavioral base — this inherent moral core — the diversity of living expressions capable of not only existing, but thriving within Earth’s annual energy budget has, over the sweep of geologic time, been almost boundless. Included are millions of different aquatic and terrestrial species, past and present, from carboniferous fern forests to dinosaurs, hydrothermal vent tube worms to Neanderthals, penguins to fresh water dolphins, dung beetles to phantom orchids.
No matter how different in shape, no matter how unique in behavior and habitat, all forms of life have not only lived well within the annual planetary energy budget, but their net energetic demands have fallen far below the level of the energy gathered in via the primary producers, most notably the oceanic phytoplankton and terrestrial plants, whose chloroplasts, like biological solar panels, energize not only themselves, but the whole community of Life.
The entire food web, from the lichens clinging to the highest mountain peaks to the sulfur-based islands of extremophile organisms found along fault lines on the abyssal ocean floor, depends on every member contributing more to Life than they draw from Life.
That is why the deepest tradition inherent in every living form compels each to act in a contributory manner in relation to the greater body they all compose: the body of the Earth. No other relationship could have endured for 3.8 billion years without laying waste to the world. No other relationship could have brought into being with its unfolding an ever richer, more diverse, complex, beautiful, free and resilient world. This is the legacy inherited by modern-form Homo sapiens. It is a legacy of wild integrity that encompasses the 3.8 billion year span of Earthly life, and by extension, the 13.8 billion year life of the all-inclusive Cosmos as well. The human species would not exist otherwise. And it’s all still a part of us, here and now. Part of our story.
As with all stories, the beginning of the one offered here is somewhat arbitrary. The possibility of choosing a different opening is always an option. Some moments may be more suited to beginnings than others, but that doesn’t make the chosen moment the beginning in any absolute sense.
The chosen point of entry into this version of the human story is two hundred millennia ago in the Great Rift Valley of Africa, which was at that time a rich landscape of mixed forests and grasslands.
Just like stories themselves, the human species didn’t begin in this time and place in any absolute sense either. By 200,000 ago, the vast majority of biologically modern humanity’s most definitive characteristics were thoroughly time-tested and life-honed. They had been so tested and honed for millions of years by humanity’s hominid forebears.
Thus, the members of this new species did not spontaneously appear out of nothing. They inherited the knowledge of fire, gestural if not spoken language, and the shaping of stones into points and other tools. They carried forward the ability to love, grieve, laugh and cry; to feel and express the full spectrum of human emotional potential. They lived as beneficiaries of an original integrity that derived from their continuation of a tradition of integrity as old as the birth of Life itself.
Once born, young Homo sapiens enjoyed an ecologically sound way of life to which they adhered for some 120 to 125 millennia. This duration alone is evidence enough to support the assertion of soundness. No ecologically unsound way of life could have persisted in one place for so long. And it very well could have continued another 125 millennia or more had circumstances been different.
However, around 80,000 to 75,000 years ago, climatic challenges began to make life increasingly precarious for our ancestors. The eruption of Mount Toba in Sumatra about 74,000 years ago1 appears to have taken them to the breaking point. The story has been passed down in geologic strata as well as in the script of our genes. It is a story in which human numbers dropped to a few thousand individuals2.
Whether or not Toba precipitated this drop, humanity around that time was a bottlenecking populace funneling toward quiet extinction. Their survival required the use of the human social trait of culture (with its capacity to facilitate the rapid dissemination of novel learned behaviors across a whole population) to do something unprecedented.
In order to pass through the bottleneck, our ancestors had to use culture not merely to assist instinct as had been the case thus far, but to override instinct, specifically the typically-quite-sensible instinct to hold to traditional, habitual norms at all costs. The override involved imagining and acting in uniquely experimental ways. Prior the bottleneck, for example, an ostrich egg was seen as a nutritious meal. Nothing more. Passage through the bottleneck required ostrich eggs to be seen and used as water storage containers, capable of being filled in the wet season and buried until needed in the otherwise potentially lethal dry season3. The capacity to conceive of such a secondary use combined with the foresight necessary to connect that use to a distant time when it might mean the difference between life and death (which provided the necessary incentive to give it a try) was nothing short of transformational.
After all, our ancestors didn’t restrict their new-found vision to ostrich eggs, but turned it on everything around them. And with it, they saw hidden spirits everywhere, spirits with whom they wanted to communicate, to earn favor, to give thanks, to have influence. This desire to interface with a heretofore hidden other-world may even have given rise to the artistic impulse. Indeed, the ability to see and symbolically contact the previously-invisible spirits in all things represents our species crossing of the threshold from childhood into adolescence. And with the corresponding capacity for conceptual/technological innovation we obtained, we not only passed through the bottleneck, but gained entry into the previously impenetrable world outside the equatorial biome of our origin.
Dispersal out of Africa into the more extreme latitudes was the hallmark event of our species’ adolescence. Consequently, it was a period of overall population growth. There was nothing unusual or anomalous about this growth or the upheaval it caused to the well-established ecological order in the places into which humans dispersed. Humans were doing what any species would do when faced with a habitat vacuum. Their numbers were growing to fill it.
And so, generation by generation, populations repeatedly exceeded local carrying capacities. In response, groups budded off, moved into unpeopled lands and established new cultures. The process repeated again and again all along the expanding boundary where peopled and unpeopled landscapes abutted.
This boundary might be called the Periphery (so as not to be confused with the Frontier, which would arise much later). By expanding the Periphery, population growth was externalized relative to any given culture. In that way, the people of every culture, whether growing or not, could continue to live with ecological integrity relative to their homelands, homelands which continued to offer untold abundance.
In some places, like Africa itself, the period of human dispersal was relatively brief. Soon after dispersal began, the many African cultures into which the original population budded came to optimally fill the home continent from shore to shore. For these cultures, adolescence lasted only a few millennia before their time of maturation arrived.
Maturation involved modifying cultural practices so as to curtail the surplus populace that had been produced to foster expansion into the habitat vacuum. Cultural norms of reproductive and technological self-restraint in response to the new reality of ecological limits became essential. These new norms were born of inadvertent engagement in excess and the hard-won knowledge of consequences and the foresight it engendered.
The Australian Aboriginals offer a telling example. They’ve inhabited the land down under some 50,000 years. According to Tim Flannery, their spread across the island continent precipitated the extinction of the vast majority of the megafauna species present when they arrived4. However, this relative plunge did not end with complete ecological devastation and human self-elimination as we might expect. It ended roughly twelve thousand years ago when the human populace finally fully internalized the limits of their ocean-bounded homeland and translated those limits into one of the richest spiritual traditions on the planet (the Dreamtime) and its associated code of Law, which made the protection of the earth in all her many forms the guiding ethic of their every act.
By redefining their relationship with the land, these ancestral aboriginals lived on without causing further degradation and diversified into hundreds of distinct cultures, each intimately integrated into the ecological rounds of very specific territories where unique traditions emerged and were then passed down for generations beyond count. The underlying characteristic common to every one of these traditions was cultural maturity. And overkill may have been essential to the maturation process.
The implications of overkill make it a controversial subject, yet the idea of cultural maturation itself allows us to frame overkill in a way that accepts likely human involvement in mass megafaunal extinction without leading to the unsavory conclusion that we, as a species, are therefore innately destructive, shortsighted and narcissistic. Yes, these traits are all human potentials, but if we think of them in terms of an individual, a healthy person largely leaves them behind at the conclusion of adolescence. The same goes for healthy cultures.
In this light, the people responsible for Pleistocene overkill in Australia and elsewhere were members of adolescent cultures, newly arrived in landscapes full of prey species unfamiliar with bipedal hominids capable of killing from a distance (unlike the other species of humans like Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis and Homo neanderthalensis who already lived outside of Africa, but didn’t use projectile weapons).
By taking advantage of this situation and lacking the contrasting foresight and wisdom that can only be gained by experience, these ancient hunters crossed a boundary (as do all adolescents who must make such crossings in order to find them). They then suffered the consequences (a shrinking menu), and pulled back before it was too late thus having gained the very experience necessary for their maturation.
This dynamic is by no means unique to humans. Peter Wohlleben discusses the arboreal analog in his book The Hidden Life of Trees5 where he writes:
After a couple of weeks of high temperatures and no rain, forests usually begin to suffer. The most severely affected trees are those that grow in soils where moisture is usually particularly abundant. These trees don’t know the meaning of restraint and are lavish in their water use, and it is usually the largest and most vigorous trees that pay the price for this behavior.
. . . Splits in wood, in its bark, in its extremely sensitive cambium (the life-giving layer under the bark); it doesn’t get any worse than that for a tree. It has to react, and it does this not only by attempting to seal the wound. From then on, it will also do a better job of rationing water instead of pumping whatever is available out of the ground as soon as spring hits without giving a second thought to waste. The tree takes the lesson to heart, and from then on it will stick with this new, thrifty behavior, even when the ground has plenty of moisture
. . .
This is the same lesson culturally adolescent humans also had to learn and take to heart as they dispersed into new lands — thrift even in the face of plenty: the cornerstone of maturation. And learn they did, culture by culture, throughout the age of dispersal.
In essence, dispersal-era sapiens the world over were engaged in a process of substitution, of substituting themselves for all the forms of life that fell to make way for them as they wedged into the many new lands where they spread. And with each replacement, the burden of responsibility they would bear at maturation grew. Thus, the act of disruption associated with coming into a previously-unpeopled area bound the new arrivals to that area.
In fact, it shaped their very identities, lending credence to the common indigenous view found throughout Asia, Europe, the Americas and Australia of origination not in Africa, but in local homelands. The Kalapuya people of the of the Willamette Valley serve as a telling example. The humans who first migrated to the Willamette Valley between nine and twelve thousand years ago were not Kalapuya. They became Kalapuya by integrating into that landscape, coming to embody that specific place and carrying on the tradition of that embodiment across generations for nine to twelve thousand years. As Kalapuya, theirs was truly a spontaneous emergence that occurred at the very moment the possibility arose for that particular landscape to express itself through humans.
Thus, it is absolutely right to say the Kalapuya people originated in the Willamette Valley, not Africa. Before that, the Kalapuya literally did not exist, anywhere. So, it is also absolutely right to say the Kalapuya have always lived in the Willamette Valley. The same can be said for Australian Aboriginals in relation to their outback homeland or any indigenous culture with a multi-generational tradition of integration into a place.
In addition to this core identity, every instance of dispersal and integration into new ecosystems also gave the dispersers the role they would have to play to compensate for, and counter-balance, the consequences of their arrival. They would, by their actions, have to replace the landscape integrity and resilience lost when they eliminated the previous sources of landscape integrity and resilience — the many species they very likely drove, or, in concert with post-glacial climate change, helped drive, to extinction.
In short, humans couldn’t help modifying every landscape where they came to live. Like any form of life, they altered their surroundings by simply being there and, in our case, many of the alterations resulted from a conscious effort to increase the desirable characteristics of those surroundings.
There is nothing inherently unsustainable about this behavior. Consider the North American beaver, a species who shares with us an innate propensity to build. Beavers profoundly alter landscapes to produce favorable conditions for themselves. Yet, they do so in a way that also produces favorable conditions for countless other forms of life and so bolsters rather than degrades the ecological integrity of the places where they do their work. Human landscape modifications must function the same way.
But rather than relying on the guidance of instincts honed by natural selection over millions of years, the human driver must be conscious conviction and the intention it engenders, the intentional desire to care for the land through intimate attention and celebration.
In a word, love is the most important factor in determining human relationships with the places where we live. And this love comes out though consciously relating to the land, and all the myriad forms of life it supports, as kindred spirits.
The imperative to apply our cultural imagination to the task of loving the kindred spirits of the land rose to the fore at the end of the age of dispersal when the only means by which humans could go on living from the gifts of Sun and Earth was to give back. Those who did so gained the sense of vital belonging essential not only to their long term viability, but to their long term happiness and health, and also to the long term health and happiness of the lands they now called home.
This was, and still is, humanity’s sacred trust, the debt we owe and the price we must pay for the gift of cultural imagination that allowed us to spread across the Earth. And as has been demonstrated by numerous mature cultures, the potential increase in integrity and resilience that humans might offer the Earth through the many expressions of our love, has the capacity to more than make up for the disruption and upheaval caused to the pre-existing order as a result of our spread out of Africa.
Along with love and reciprocity, other definitive characteristics of a mature culture include the recognition of such social imperatives as gratitude, generosity, humility, justice, honesty, vulnerability and trust. Combined with an ecological self-identity and an unquestioned/unquestionable ethic of conservation and responsibility, all of these were conveyed through the mutually-reinforcing language, music, stories, metaphors, rituals, ceremonies and celebrations that informed the day to day living of life.
One additional aspect of cultural maturity also deserves special attention: the technological aspect. Technological maturity is the antithesis of technological advancement for the simple reason that advancing technologies are, by definition, new, untested, immature. No matter how complex and sophisticated advancing technologies may be, they can only become mature by lasting, unchanged, for a very long time. Seen in this light, fire, stone hand axes and bird-bone flutes represent three of the most mature human technologies whereas nuclear reactors, chainsaws and cell phones represent three of the most infantile.
Given the need for cultures as a whole to adapt to every technological introduction (whether gained via invention or adoption), an advancing culture can only be as mature as its newest technology. Thus, the more rapidly a culture advances, the more immature it is. Conversely, the longest-lasting, tried-and-true techno-cultural traditions are the most mature. Such traditions are not hypothetical potentialities on the human horizon, but rather they enjoy a deep precedent. And there have been many of them.
Even though each instance of cultural maturation has been unique in its details due to the uniqueness of the particular bioregion of its occurrence, the overall pattern has been the same all across the round, finite Earth: one by one, every human culture faced the imperative to pass through the stages of childhood and adolescent growth and enter a stage of stable maturity.
Of particular significance is the essential role the arts have played in the maturation process by offering a means for the creative energy that had gone into imagining innovative methods for bottleneck survival and intercontinental dispersal to be redirected toward integration into the ecological rounds of new homelands. By turning the exploratory impulse — now hard-wired into the human psyche — to the task of spiritual exploration aimed at making even the most mundane cultural artifacts beautiful celebrations of human integration into local landscapes, the members of mature cultures found meaning, purpose and inter-generational connectivity sufficient to bring happiness, fulfillment and belonging in place. Thus, when the need for restraint became far more important than it had been during the era of dispersal, art became the vehicle of that restraint and the measure of cultural maturity.
Art also represents one of the most important ways humans reciprocate for the beauty they must destroy in order to simply exist. Artistic attention honors the spirits of the plants and animals whose deaths give humans life as food and medicine as well as the building materials with which shelters, clothing, tools and almost all the other indispensible physical artifacts are constructed. Art helps preserve the balance between the creative and destructive forces inherent in every act. For this reason, art is a vital aspect of cultural maturation.
And by ten thousand years ago, there were thousands of mature cultures with their own unique artistic traditions spread all across the habitable Earth, from Africa to Australia, Eurasia to Oceania, and North to South America. In short, almost everywhere.
(Coming soon: Beyond the Longest Childhood, Chapter 2 — Pathological Adolescence)