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Not Your Father’s World History Part 3:
“A force of 200 Niagaras”

20 October 2005

Aboriginal Agriculture
Engraving: Theodore de Bry

Curious Article No. 12:

By 8,000 bp the New World’s inhabitants had hunted most of their large mammals to extinction. The horses were also gone, but their ancestors had long since crossed Beringia into Asia and branched out into many species including tarpans and kertags, both of which the Old World inhabitants domesticated. The Sredni Stog people north of what would soon become the Black Sea appear to have been the first to do this, about 6300 bp. It’s unfortunate the Paleo-Indians couldn't forsee the animal’s potential. For beasts of burden they had to resort to their dogs in the northern hemisphere and llamas in the southern, neither of which can compare with the power of a horse (although a llama can carry a small child). North America’s camelids had also long since taken the Beringia route, where in Asia they diverged into dromedaries and Bactrian camels.

Between 10,000 and 8,000 bp temperatures warmed, the glaciers again retreated, and settlers moved back into Britain and Scandinavia. This period saw the beginning of agriculture throughout the world. The story of the Garden of Eden appears to be an allegory on this transition. Some of us, who some call the Kiffians, settled into the Sahara which was at this time a luxuriant grassland dotted by lakes and populated by giraffes, elephants, gazelles, and catfish. On the other side of the world, the famous Kennewick man lived during this period. By 8500 sea levels had risen sufficiently, probably aided by another ice dam failure at Hudson Bay, to make Britain and Ireland into islands. The heavily forested and inhabited area that sunk beneath the waves to make that possible, about 100,000 square miles, goes by the name of Doggerland.

Agriculture surely represented a watershed in human development, but it came with a heavy price. It’s true farming enabled the land to support a higher population density, afforded a more predictable food supply (as long as the weather held up and the bugs stayed away), and by providing a measure of stability encouraged pursuits that were not strictly necessary for survival but culturally and intellectually enriching. Written history itself would probably never have progressed beyond the rock painting stage had we all remained hunters and gatherers. On the other hand, agriculture fostered social inequality and, as a consequence, unrest. An idle elite could enjoy the finest of physical comforts, education, personal liberty, and societal prestige while their less-well-connected fellows labored tediously on their behalf and had very little to look forward to.

We also know that although populations grew, general health deteriorated significantly. There are marked differences between the skeletal remains of pre- and post-agricultural populations. Individuals from the latter group tend to be stunted and have more fragile bones, have thinner tooth enamel (which by itself costs a decade or so in lifespan), and have less resistance to infections. Nutrition suffers because agrarian diets are more monotonous and inclined to rely excessively on starchy staples like rice, wheat, or potatoes. Communicable disease is also a far greater threat for a sedentary culture, as we'll later see.

Gustave Dore
Engraving: Gustave Doré
In 5600 bce the Mediterranean suddenly crashed through a land bridge, with a force of 200 Niagaras, and flooded a small lake valley to create the Black Sea. Sixty thousand square miles of arable land vanished within months, triggering a diaspora. The strait that formed is now called the Bosphorus. Since the water at the floor of the Black Sea is both poor in oxygen and rich in hydrogen sulfide, human artifacts and even trees which predate the flood keep very well down there. Many people assume this disaster inspired the story of Noah and countless other flood legends, though I notice some of those traditions appear to predate it. A calamity of a different sort occurred about fifty years later when Mount Mazama erupted in Oregon and ejected 14 cubic miles (58 cubic km) of magma to create Crater Lake. The Klamath Indians in the area record this event in their legends as a battle between Mount Mazama and Mount Shasta; and excavations at Fort Rock Cave, about fifty-five miles northeast of the crater, have uncovered dozens of clothing items that were charred by Mazama’s ash.

At around this same time and about 1650 miles (2700 km) east, someone began to extract what would become stupendous quantities of copper from Upper Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula and Isle Royale in Lake Superior. Various goods made from this copper, identifiable by its trace element proportions, turn up in archaeological sites throughout North America. About fifteen years ago a journalist named Frank Joseph connected architectural evidence in nearby Wisconsin both with the mining and with the Guanches of the Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa. Provocative, to say the least. Now in Columbus’s time there was indeed such a stock living on those islands, famously tall and fair-skinned and closely related to North Africa’s Berbers. But I'm afraid the Guanches weren't ancient enough to have done the mining. We know this because Hanno the Navigator had explored the Canaries around 500 bce, when much of this copper removal was presumably still taking place, and he found them completely deserted. It’s now widely accepted that Berbers first migrated to the Canary Islands within relatively recent times — in the era of Hanno or shortly thereafter.

Clement VI
Clement VI
Now unlike Mr. Joseph and some other revisionists, trained archaeologists who specialize in the Great Lakes area see no particular mystery and wonder what the fuss is all about. They deny that Guanches, Phoenicians, Anatolians, or any other non-Indian exotics were ever involved or needed to be. They find plenty of artifacts throughout the area, extending over a very long period of time, pointing to the perfectly industrious Indian inhabitants of the region, the ancestors of the Chippewa. Sadly the Guanches are no more. With the blessing of Pope Clement VI, the Spanish helped themselves to the islands and their inhabitants and by 1600 the Guanches were extinct. Modern Canary Islanders do share some of the Guanches' physical traits, though, and celebrate their culture.

Next: More disasters but marvelous discoveries »
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Text © Peter Blinn 2006

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