Skip to content

The Myth of Harmonious Indigenous Conservationism

By 2014, Homo sapiens had, by the reckoning of the World Wildlife Fund, destroyed an incredible 60 percent of the wild mammal, bird, reptile, and fish populations that were in existence as recently as 1970.

· 10 min read
The Myth of Harmonious Indigenous Conservationism
Buffalo Hunt, 1844, by George Catlin.

It seems like a long time ago. But only six months ago, pundits had convinced themselves that the great morality tale of our time was playing out in an obscure part of British Columbia. Following on an internal political fight within the Wet’suwet’en First Nation over a local pipeline project, one columnist wrote that “the Indigenous people of Earth have become the conscience of humanity. In this dire season, it is time to listen to them.”

In fact, the elected leadership of the Wet’suwet’en had chosen to participate in the controverted pipeline project. The nationwide protests against the pipeline that followed were, in fact, sparked by unelected “hereditary” chiefs who long have received government signing bonuses. It’s unclear how this qualifies them for the exalted status of humanity’s conscience.

Yet the whole weeks-long saga, which featured urban protestors appearing alongside their Indigenous counterparts at road and rail barricades throughout Canada, tapped into a strongly held noble-savage belief system within progressive circles. Various formulations of this mythology have become encoded in public land acknowledgments, college courses, and even journalism. The overall theme is that Indigenous peoples traditionally lived their lives in harmony with the land and its creatures, and so their land-use demands transcend the realm of politics, and represent quasi-oracular revealed truths. As has been pointed out by others, this mythology now has a severe, and likely negative, distorting effect on public policy, one that hurts Indigenous peoples themselves. In recent years, Indigenous groups have finally gotten a fair cut of the proceeds of industrial-development and commodity-extraction revenues originating on their lands. And increasingly, they are telling white policy makers to stop listening to those activists who seek to portray them as perpetual children of the forest. It is for their benefit, as much as anyone else’s, to explore the truth about the myth of harmonious Indigenous conservationism.

* * *

When the ancestors of North America’s Indigenous peoples entered the New World some 16,000 years ago via Siberia, they hunted many of the mammals, reptiles, and birds, from the Arctic down to Tierra del Fuego. Mammoths, mastodons, and enormous ground-dwelling sloths, as well as giant bears, giant tortoises, and enormous teratorn birds with 16-foot wingspans—animals that had never had a chance to evolve in the presence of humans—were among the many species that disappeared from the Americas. Some medium-sized animals—such as horse, peccary, and antelope species—were also wiped out. But others survived: Bison and deer species, tree sloths, tapirs, jaguars, bear species, alligators, and big birds such as rheas and condors are, at least for the time being, still with us. The existence of these survivors, along with the relatively unspoiled forests, grasslands, and rivers seen by the first Europeans to enter the Americas, served to support the illusion that America’s first peoples had been maintaining what popular environmentalist David Suzuki calls a “sacred balance” with the natural world. Throughout history, however, humans killed animals that were tasty, numerous, and huntable. For kin-groups, staying alive meant making life-and-death cost-benefit calculations about where to send your berry-pickers and hunters. “Sacredness” had nothing to do with it.

This is not to say that the Indigenous peoples who migrated from Asia to the Americas were especially bloodthirsty (though Europeans typically reported that their hunting and fishing skills were excellent). In every known case where humans entered continents formerly uninhabited by our species, the bigger animals tended to disappear, since they provided the most sustenance per kill. The first humans to enter Australia some 70,000 years ago wiped out giant kangaroo species, rhino-sized marsupial herbivores, jaguar-sized marsupial carnivores, big flightless birds, and many other megafauna. The same thing would happen in Europe: After sapiens completed its occupation of that sub-continent some 30,000 years ago, the mammoths, woolly rhinos, giant deer, and lions they recorded in their cave paintings and carvings also disappeared.

After our species completed its settlement of Australia, Eurasia, and the Americas, further human-caused extinctions took place as we discovered and settled islands in the world’s seas and oceans. The last big die-off started as recently as the 13th century AD, when Polynesian seafarers started settling one of the Earth’s most isolated land masses, New Zealand. Within little more than a century of their arrival, over 60 bird species, including 500-pound, 12-foot-tall, flightless moas, and the world’s largest eagle, had disappeared.

A painting by Heinrich Harder (1958–1935), depicting Indigenous peoples hunting moas

Little of this is controversial among mainstream scientists. Yet it is now considered taboo to discuss it, and fashionable to replace these historical facts with what are, in effect, modern fairy tales. A common meme, which now has found its way into newspaper articles, is that “worldwide, there is no evidence of Indigenous peoples systematically hunting nor over-killing megafauna.” The Australian Museum’s website informs us that “for social, spiritual and economic reasons, First Nations peoples harvested game in a sustainable manner.” Wade Davis, a professor of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, presents the killing of animals by Indigenous peoples as a gentle, almost consensual act: The Indigenous bushmen of Africa “do not simply kill game. They engage in a dance with the prey, a ritual exchange that ends with the creature literally making of itself an offering, a sacrifice.”

Such depictions of the benign and gentle ways of Indigenous peoples are perhaps well-intentioned, an antidote to the racist depictions of so-called “savages” that have been common currency in the West for generations. But they have been cynically leveraged by activists and politicians acting on their own principles and parochial concerns. In many cases, the above-described mythology has become a subset of a larger anti-capitalist discourse that presents Indigenous lands as a secular Eden, and greed as a form of original sin. This worldview, in turn, leads to false hopes that we may return our lands and society to some fictional state of grace.

This is profoundly anti-scientific, and serves to erase the real process that causes human ecological destructiveness—i.e., the entry, by our species, into what John Tooby and Irven DeVore, pioneers in the field of evolutionary psychology, describe as “the cognitive niche.”

The Myth of Pervasive Misogyny
Sydney. London. Toronto.

Before hominins entered that niche, which features the coevolution of inventive intelligence, sociality, and language, competition between all the Earth’s organisms took the form of relatively slow, genetic arms races. A shrub might defend itself, for instance, against being browsed by black rhinoceroses by evolving toxic chemicals in its shoots and leaves, to which the rhinoceroses would respond by evolving liver functions that could detoxify those chemicals. Move and countermove in an evolutionary game of this kind would be made over hundreds of thousands or even millions of years. An enormous network of such competitive relationships, directly or indirectly linking each member of the biosphere to all the others—a network that Ernst Haeckel termed der Ökologie in 1866—had the effect of sustaining (and, after each of the Earth’s mass extinctions, restoring) the planet’s biodiversity.

Beginning in the Pliocene Epoch, however, long before the emergence of Homo sapiens itself, members of the human family evolved the ability to think up—to invent—advantageous moves in real time, instead of having to wait millennia for serendipitous genetic mutations. Lacking, for instance, the kind of teeth that could cut through the skin, tendons, and ligaments of larger animals, or through tough vegetable matter, hominins became able to mentally conceive of, and then manufacture, cutters, by striking sharp flakes off the right kinds of stone. As Tooby and Leda Cosmides described, these new technologies were “too rapid with respect to evolutionary time, for their antagonists to evolve defenses by natural selection.”

One might expect a contest as unequal as this one to come to a speedy end, but the hominin faculty of invention did not diminish or degrade biodiversity overnight, because that faculty did not itself come into being overnight. The oldest evidence of hominin-made stone tools found so far dates to around the middle of the Pliocene, some 3.3 million years ago, and it took nearly a million years after that innovation for Africa to lose its giant tortoise species. (As Terry Harrison, Director of the Center for the Study of Human Origins Center at New York University, put it, “during the Miocene and early Pliocene, large size in tortoises would have been an effective strategy to counter predation by carnivores, but with the appearance of early Homo and the use of lithic technologies, natural selection would operate against large size in favor of smaller, wider ranging, faster reproducing and more cryptic species of tortoises.”)

A continued increase in the power of our family’s technological ingenuity, which included, by the middle of the Pleistocene, the ability to control fire, was followed, around 1.4 million years ago, by further extinctions in Africa, this time involving big mammals including elephant-like species, sabertooth cats, giant hyenas, giant baboons, and others. This early extinction episode wasn’t an abrupt process: Because Africa’s megafauna had co-evolved with the human family, it had been able to evolve behavioral and other defences against the relatively slow emergence of human inventive power. (The South Asian megafauna, which still includes elephants, rhinoceroses, and tigers, was also partially protected from the end-Pleistocene extinction wave by early exposure to our family.) The extinction of megafauna in the Americas and Australia, by contrast, was much faster, because Asian migrants were suddenly set loose in a land mass full of animals with absolutely no evolutionary conditioning to a human presence.

The human power to invent new ways to survive and thrive did not, of course, come to an end after we had taken possession of the Earth’s habitable continents and islands, but has, on the contrary, continued to increase. “How did you go bankrupt?” one of Ernest Hemingway’s characters asks another. “Two ways,” the other replies. “Gradually and then suddenly.” That’s the schedule on which our family’s inventive ingenuity, and the power of its technological products, have grown. Homo sapiens, whose population would only reach the one billion mark in the early 19th century, had, by the end of the 20th century, become, in the words of E. O. Wilson, “a hundred times more numerous than any other land animal of comparable size in the history of life.”

A species undergoing population growth as enormous and rapid as this must inevitably expand into and degrade previously wild and biodiverse areas. By 2014, Homo sapiens had, by the reckoning of the World Wildlife Fund, destroyed an incredible 60 percent of the wild mammal, bird, reptile, and fish populations that were in existence as recently as 1970. There is also another side to this story, however. We humans do a great many things that fall inside our own conceptions of “cruelty” and “greed.” But the exceptional intelligence that makes our species so much more destructive than other animals, also allows us to experience something that is literally inconceivable for other species: concern for the survival of other life forms.

In 1998, while Jonathan Kathrein, a student, was surfing at Stinson Beach near San Francisco, a great white shark seized him by the thigh and dragged him under the water, thrashing him back and forth. When Kathrein somehow got a hold of the edge of one of the shark’s gill slits and pulled on it, the animal let him go, and he managed to get back on his board and make it to shore. He had bite wounds from his buttock to his knee, deep enough to reach the femur. The main muscles in his upper leg were severed. More than 600 stitches were needed to reattach them and close up the wound, but he eventually recovered full use of the leg after years of physical therapy. It would be understandable if this experience left Kathrein with a hostile and even vengeful attitude toward sharks. Instead, it has impelled him to work for their conservation. It’s inconceivable, of course, that a baboon that has survived an attack by a leopard could be motivated by that attack to make efforts to benefit leopards. It is only man—“with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends… to the humblest living creature,” as Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man—that could react in such an inspiring, but anomalous way.

In order to survive on the Pliocene veld three-million years ago, our ancestors had to compete with a formidable suite of big carnivores and herbivores. The outcome of that struggle was by no means assured: The only weapon those hominins possessed to counter superior speed and strength, not to mention teeth, claws, hoofs, and horns, was an abstract and still-rudimentary ability to think up useful new devices and behaviors. There is no shame in the fact that Indigenous peoples in the Americas, or anywhere else, exercised those powers to survive.

Today, we’re involved in another struggle: the struggle to prevent our staggering success from making the Earth unlivable for other organisms, and, perhaps, for ourselves. The only weapon available to us is, ironically, the same one that unleashed our destructiveness in the first place: the analytical and creative power of the human intellect. But if we are to succeed, we can’t rely on myths about how we got here. While parrying the efforts of open anti-environmentalists such as Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, we must also reject the equally false, if more kindly-seeming, narratives of progressive fabulists. It is nice to think that humans always lived in “harmony” with the natural world. But had our ancestors all taken on a “harmonious” approach, hominids would have died out long ago, devoured on the savanna as they attempted to preach their pacifistic creed to some bemused predator in the instant before it pounced.

Latest Podcast

Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.


On Instagram @quillette