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The Myth of Harmonious Indigenous Conservationism

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.”

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.

 

Baz Edmeades is the author of Megafauna, First Victims of the Human-Caused Extinction, to be published early in 2021.

Featured image: Buffalo Hunt, 1844, by George Catlin.

Comments

  1. It is my belief that if Native Americans had independently developed the chain saw, the first European visitors would have found a continent completely denuded of trees.

    Rather like Easter Island.

  2. How to go green.

    From 1990 to 2017 the U.S. gained 8 million hectares of forest.

    From 1990 to 2017 the China gained 51 million hectares of forest.

    As countries industrialize their forest area first shrinks then grows.

    Countries become wealthy enough to transition from a net forest loss to a net forest gain because of the following:

    1. Spontaneous regeneration as people move to cities.
    2. Active planting of forest as people become more concerned about the environment.
    3. Spontaneous regeneration as agricultural advances allow for less land use.

    How Much Do You Know About Deforestation and Reforestation?

    But a new book, “Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know,” reveals that since 1982, forestation has expanded across the Earth by 865,000 square miles.

  3. In the U.S. black bear, brown bear, wolf and big horned sheep are all on the rebound due to wildlife management. Wildlife management involves controlled hunting. Without apex predators, wildlife populations spiral out of control. Hunters may kill animals but they save populations.

  4. Here in California I wish someone would re-invent chainsaws and lighters for clearing and controlled burns rather than let the entire State go up in flames every so many years because we’re not smart about these things.

  5. The title of this meandering essay is: “The Myth of Harmonious Indigenous Conservationism” … yet the author, Baz Edmeades states:

    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.

    Seafarers … clearly, not indigenous by definition.

    And then an obvious Regressive unsupported eco-barb against President Bolsonaro and POTUS DJT,

    While parrying the efforts of open anti-environmentalists such as Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro…

    Rejection of the UN scientivism and virtue signalling Paris Climatism Discord, one of the four UN Trojan horses of the Apocalypse, with its green fund whose questionable and corrupt misuse of money that is as blatant as is the repulsive socialist redistributive policy, which anchors developing nations in low energy poverty, is indeed the most rational act a nation may take. It seem it is an absolute must for freedom, prosperity, happiness, clean water and air.

    The author might pause for thought and review two books by Bjørn Lomborg, “The Skeptical Environmentalist” and the more recent, “False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor and Fails to Fix the Planet.”

  6. A couple of nits to pick. First, there is no such thing as an “indigenous” person. Africa is about as close as you can get without losing the meaning. Everyone else are migrants. EVERYONE. The most accurate meaning indigenous can have when talking about humans is “migrated there first”.

    Second, this is a poor understanding of evolution.

    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.

    But the rest of the article was pretty interesting. People, probably through poor education, think of ancient humans as being very different from us. But genetically and physiologically, we are almost identical. The Aztecs were sacrificing people and rolling their heads down pyramids for centuries before Europeans arrived. The only thing different now, is we have invented a few more tools.

  7. The most worrying thing about this tendency towards eco-romanticism, is the desire to see us back farming the land in a pastoral settings. I wonder how many of these activists have ever spent a summer farm labouring. There is a reason why younger Africans are leaving the land en masse for the cities. It’s because they desperately want to escape the very subsistence farming, the dark green environmental movement would see us returned to. Living off the land is by no means idyllic, even though the setting might appear pastoral on a postcard.

  8. Fully agree, G. I spent my first 20 years in a small town north of Bucharest where my family owned some low ten of acres of land. We had all the conceivable animals (chicken, ducks, geese, pigeons, rabbits, nutria, goat, sheep, cows, horses and pigs; at some point we got even some beehives) and grew corn, wheat, rye, clover, soy, beans, pumpkins, plus some fruit trees (mostly plum and apples). Who ever thinks this life has any idyllic quality to it is so damn wrong. The constant pressure to feed the animals, to work the land (most of the activities overlap throughout the year and never cease) properly makes agriculture in small farms insanely demanding and I think most of the naive people that want us to return to this would quit after cleaning a pig sty or mowing weeds. It’s incessant work, day after day, work that starts in the dead of the night and stops long after sunset.
    On top of that, it’s awfully unproductive. The smaller the farm, the wasteful it is - whatever the resource you’re talking about (labour, fuel, seeds, etc) and promoting this life as the solution for the quest of a cleaner, greener Earth is dumb. Now, I’m not claiming that the ones working the land this shouldn’t have this choice, it’s just that this is not the solution and I know this is anecdotal, but I can’t help myself from smiling whenever I hear some of the Green types promoting it.

  9. Before posting a reply to this article I want to acknowledge that I am reading this on a borrowed computer, in borrowed land, sitting on a borrowed couch. My computer is a gift of mother earth and her many precious rare-earth metals that have been extracted from the ground by evil non-white-men. And I now live in a nation-state that has displaced the original peoples of this land with hordes of other people who build highways, roads, bridges and other things that disrupt the natural balance of things and violate the sacred “feng-shui” with life denying “electricity, plumbing and natural gas heating”. And my couch was made from the tanned-ass of the sacred buffalo or cow, or some other massive mammal that was sacrificed by men in an effort to increase their luxury at the expense of the cow-spirit. This is my acknowledgement. And I am thankful for the forest, the trees, the life-giving water, the spirit clouds and all the other living beings that sacrifice their lives under the boot-heel of my own ruthless exploitation. This is my acknowledgement before I comment on this article with the guidance of the great and sacred rabbit spirit thusly:

    Good article. I liked it.

  10. When visiting the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, Colorado, years ago (a marvelous place!), the park ranger explained that the residents abruptly abandoned the site around 1200 AD. When I pressed him for a reason why, he reluctantly admitted that evidence pointed toward the fact they had cut down every tree in a 20 mile radius and were forced to move on to a location with fuel and building materials. Anecdotal, I know, but it’s like ignoring that North American Indians fought, enslaved, and displaced one another long before Europeans arrived.

    This was a good article, but what purpose did the parting shot on Trump and Bolsonaro serve? Virtue signaling? Serious question: what has Trump done that is anti-environmentalist?

  11. I agree with you, but I would ask, is that the game changer? In terms of technology, that really isn’t. One of the things that was a huge Game Changer in Europe, as well as the Middle East and Africa, was the plow. It caused a huge disruption and, not only the way people lived, but the way they thought about the world.

    The Americas did not have the plow, and part of the reason for not having the plow the way Europeans and the Middle East et cetera did was that they didn’t have the necessary beasts to draw it. Try plowing with a llama, if you want. They’re not well built for it, compared to cows and horses. It would be like trying to plow with a goat or a sheep.

    So, not only did this provide a massive increase in food from digging stick farming, but it also changed the culture in a really dramatic way over time. Plows gave us patriarchy, not as in the modern feminist sense, but is in the practical sense that women’s place was in the home.

    Pre-plough
    Digging stick agriculture was something that could easily be done by a pregnant woman, and was, which meant that a large percentage of the food that was eaten came from the women. They could stick close to home and do this very easily, while the men herded and hunted and fished and did all those risky things that took some very far from home, like combat with other tribes and the like as well. This affected their theology. This is the time where those huge breasted, huge buttocked fertility idols were extremely popular, and women and a mother earth were hugely important. This was also a time when 80% of the deities were female. Ereshkigal and Inanna, for example. Hestia is another great example. She used to be the head of the Greek pantheon as opposed to Zeus. Demeter and the number of the other female goddesses, who lost prominence to the three great males of the Greek pantheon.

    Post-plough
    With plows, consequences, and one of them was fairly serious. Women could not easily participate in plowing. It causes a very high rate of miscarriages, because of the massive upper body strength it requires. Men had to do it. Women could do other things involved, but they could not do plowing. As a result, they had to step back and stop farming, which did not mean that they were not doing important jobs, but men started doing the majority of that work, and therefore bringing in almost all of the food other than that which showed up in kitchen Gardens and that sort of planting. At which point, dominance in the pantheon started to shift as well, and so you have what you now think of as classical Antiquity, with male-dominated pantheons. Women were in the home, not because they were not valuable, but because they could no longer do the majority of food production, because it would have severe physical tolls on their bodies. Repeated miscarriages can kill you, after all, and they are absolute wreckers for your body even if they don’t, as well as your emotions. So they started doing the tasks which would allow them to be pregnant, in an era where birth control was rare, could be highly dangerous, and highly prized. So women started doing a lot more of the behind-the-scenes management stuff, as well as production of clothes and feeding of people. This was no light job, I should point out, as every piece of clothing had to be made from scratch, with the woman hand spinning, hand looming, hand dying, and they had to do so for each individual person. Cooking was likewise a chore, and had to be carefully watched and managed lest you burn the place down.

    While retting was a job that both men and women could do, which would help you produce flax, Wool was a job that the men were going to do. Don’t believe me, go wrestle a sheep. It takes a lot of upper body strength, and with those dang kicking Hooves, there is a risk of miscarriage again. So the same deal applied there. Men did the raising of them, the slaughtering of them, and the shearing of them, as well as the protecting of them. Women took the products and made them into food and clothing, as well as raise the many children they needed, considering how many of them would die of disease even absent miscarriage.

    Still, life was far better than before the plow, because they could get far more food from the same patch of land.

    So my point here is not that you have an ideology about living off the land or not, it’s that if you develop certain Technologies, especially disruptive ones like the plow and the gun, it changes the way you think over the generations, and as you change, and societal Rules start to change, mythology tends to change to match it and justify it.

    If the American Indians had had, for example, cattle useful for plowing, which bison are not, we might have gotten to America and found a huge agrarian society which resembled medieval Europe.

    Heaven knows that when horses were reintroduced to the Americas, having gone extinct tens of thousands of years before, the American Indians were perfectly happy to make use of them. They immediately appreciated that technology, and the gun, as well as Steel, and a number of other improvements that we had made.

    Also, really good Steel was something that Europe had an advantage in over a lot of other parts of the world. Japan, home of the legendary Katana, actually had terrible sword steel. The highly intricate forging techniques were an attempt to make up for the fact that most of their steel was god-awful for Swords. The average Western longsword could have taken on the average Katana and bent or chipped it really easily. Chinese iron had a similar problem, in that some of the trace elements in it in both China and Japan were terrible for what people wanted to use them for. Since they had no idea at the time how to purify the iron to get rid of those elements so that you could make high quality Steel, it was a problem. They too adopted the gun really quickly when it came to them.

  12. 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.”

    Sounds like woke white people at BLM struggle sessions.

  13. Environmentalists are almost always progressives from big cities. They see nature in much the same way the French aristocracy saw it during the ancien regime: as a place to go on vacation occasionally. They see those who live there as peasants whose job is to make sure the place looks good when their highnesses visit.

    “When I was there ten years ago, it was pristine forest! Now it has farms and people!” The insulted aristocrat is obvious in these whines - who gave those peasants the right to go poaching, let alone farm, on the lords’ land?

  14. Archeology major here, and what you wrote was mostly correct. But men doing the plowing didn’t have to do with miscarriages. It is because to get maximum crop yields you need to plow straight furrows. in order to do that you have to use a lot of upper body strength to force the plow to drive straight. This naturally became the province of men because males have about 50% more upper body strength than women.

    Women did do much of the sheep care until the Iron Age. Have you ever read the Bible story of Issac meeting Rebecca? This is because prior to then, sheep did not require wrangling because they did not need to be sheared. They would shed their wool in easily gathered clumps like wild sheep still do today. People developed sheep that did not naturally shed their fleece because it’s much more economical to harvest all your wool at once without losing any. After that sheep care became a mostly male job.

  15. You must be old if you remember when people talked about the truth, lol!

    I’m a millennial, I was taught growing up that men and women were essentially interchangeable. The only differences were because of socialization. I remember being surprised and confused in high school during P.E. because the boys seemed so much stronger, they could all do multiple pull ups and us girls could hardly do one. Once I was in college and had access to scientific journals I realized I’d been lied to by my teachers and even my well meaning family.

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