Friday, July 29, 2011

We interrupt this program to bring you ...

Yes, this is a blog about the Grand Canyon's political history and how it might be projected into the future. But enthusiasms are sometimes overwhelming.*

I have for a long time been preoccupied by the element of humanity that I think of as our tendency to spread. Spread as in migration, wandering, touring, restlessness in literature; as in the spread of ideas, knowledge, experience; as in trade, economic activity over distance & peoples; as in conquest, imperialism, occupation, colonization.** Recently a couple of books, along with current political debates and actions, have particularly stirred me up. And this past week, the Grand Canyon connection was brought into focus by my reading about the 1990's-2000's story of unauthorized DNA sampling of the Havasupai. So I have decided to see if this internal ferment can be made coherent, and maybe even connected to Grand Canyon futures.  

Sometime in the 1990's, I read Bruce Chatwin's 1987 The Songlines, with its rhapsodic paean to "wandering" as an essential human quality. What came before that to lead me on this path of thought, I do not recall. However, I live in a country where a trip of 4000 kilometers is totally ordinary, and have done it many times on the ground and by airplane. Yet only a few of these journeys would be considered "migrations". I dont know that I thought of them that way, even though had I done comparable moves on most other continents, that is just what they would have been as I crossed multiple national borders. One of the enduring questions in discussing migration is why a journey by a third-generation American (grandparents from Italy) from Boston to San Francisco, or Chicago to Houston, evokes not a whisper, but a villager looking for work going from Oaxaca to Phoenix or Cairo to Rome is a criminal.

Even more than Chatwin's raptures, the breath-taking sweep of Jared Diamond's 1997 Guns, Germs, and Steel provided me with the revelation of what an integrated history of humanity starts to look like. He wrote in terms of millennia and half-millennia, and has us inexorably sweeping from a bit of Africa all across the Earth, land and sea. Yet when he wrote, it was still possible to conceive of multiple centers of human development. In the past decade, recency and speed have won out enough so that Homo sapiens's story can be seen as arising out of Africa perhaps only 50-60 millennia ago, to reach every nook & niche of the globe. 

That spread has left us with an enduring problem: If we moved so fast and so far, why do we look so different? Enough different that we murder and enslave each other while chanting about how superior we ourselves are. Were we always so bloody-minded that we moved to get away from neighbors who were trying to slaughter us because we had blue eyes? Could our superficial appearance and our languages have evolved so rapidly, as we moved to a new patch of ground? Or did the changes happen after a group settled down? But what does "settling down" mean for a creature so obviously evolved to move, and move on, and move on again? 

And what does it mean today when in the same country, some move, and some stay put; -- much less those places where clans and tribes and nations have cultivated the same plots, they say, from time immemorial? Or at least a thousand years? Which is, after all, quite a long time -- enough for a language, even written down, to become unrecognizable to general speakers. 

Is it also long enough for a group of people to become unrecognizable? True it is that a human Thousand-Year-Third-Reich can arise and vanish just in a single short generation; what would be identifiable to a "fourth-Reicher" transported back to the first one a millennium ago, much less to the tribes the Romans confronted along the Rhine a millennium before that? And while that is all in the recent (last 15 millennia) time, what of change, the rate of change, genetic and cultural, in the 35 millennia before that?

I am hardly alone in reflecting on and/or being puzzled by the conundrum of humanity's mix of  change and stasis. An exciting, positive-perspective new book also confronts them. But Exceptional People  How Migration Shaped Our World and Will Define Our Future (2011) by Ian Goldin, Geoffrey Cameron, & Meera Balarajan sweeps the darker questions of prejudice, paranoia, slavery, etc. aside.***

Yet, if I have the current dogma correct, groups of us (genetically near-identical; in appearance and language and tool-using and survival activity and culture-- more or less the same too?) did spread over and settle the Earth, and undergo change. And all in 35 millennia (say 1500 generations, counting 20 years each, 5 a century, 50 a millennium). So, is that a long time, or a short? What is the standard for rapid change, or for stasis? 

I have been reading about these developing researches and ideas over the past decade, but my thought was sharpened when I read Christopher Stringer and Robin McKie, African exodus: the origins of modern humanity, 1997; it makes the case for the single African origin very fiercely. Which felt to me very much like I felt on watching as the theory of plate tectonics developed out of Wegener's supposition about the Atlantic-bordering continents: it has to be true. Yes: A single gene pool walking out of Africa 2500 or so generations ago; way more than enough time for the spread and diversification that would have been noticeable to any world traveller 17,000 years ago, when we had overrun, if thinly, most places.

Yet, although there would have been superficial genetic differences, until about 15 millennia years ago, we went about this expansion with a culture, social arrangements, and economy of broad similarity, which must have changed some, but not drastically. And what would those changes have been in? Language, stories, the tool kit, styles of art and music and dance, clothes? And to what degree would there have been trade and travel to ameliorate change?

We lived for all those millennia of spread in relatively small groups, and consumed a variety of vegetative matter and animals, using tools made from stone. No leg-ups because your hair had become curly or your language gained a consonant or two. We all had clothes (the glaciers were close, after all, for some of us), art, music, dreams and nightmares, fire and cooked food. We were us, and yet it seems reasonable to me that our biology and our environment suggest our social organization differed fundamentally from today's, so fundamentally that it took a world-sweeping revolution to bring us into what is now being called the Anthropocene.

Simply put, I suggest that the groups we lived in, traveling and not, did not have hierarchies, big chiefs (or chieftesses), monogamy & paternity, but had evolved successfully a sense that supporting each other was good for all and for each. Searching out food, remembering where the sources were, securing, preparing, and distributing it--all done jointly for mutual benefit--would have obvious survival value compared to an individual or a couple seeking to secure sustenance for themselves alone. After all, there was not strong gender bodily dimorphism, and in such a life, it would be advantageous if food & other economic concerns were the responsibility of any and all, working together, mutually supportive. 

Most important for evolutionary success, sex was enjoyed by all, whenever, given our biology of sexual equivalency tied to erotic capabilities and concealed ovulation. Women sought out attractive men, men sought out attractive women. Babies were born. Then borne amongst and by all, for child-rearing would be of high joint importance in such a close-knit group. In such a mutually supportive group, paternity would hardly matter (and even perhaps interfere), however it was understood. Women and men both participated in food collection and preparation. Monogamy and the nuclear family would have seemed impediments to a healthy group spirit and participation. Paring down support to 2 or 3 of a band, instead of relying on the entire several dozen, would surely be disadvantageous in the sense of natural selection. Children would have been equally treasured; all band members equally fierce in their protectiveness, and solicitous in rearing and education. Our binge/starve biology surely indicates the times were rarely a utopia, an Eden. Surely no child would be allowed to suffer or to fail to grow up to become a useful band member just because a mother was lazy or handicapped or died. 

To me, the picture of small bands of mutually supportive members makes sense in terms of resource use, but also against two other possibilities. Working in the group stimulates and may even be required for all the basic human activities: language, technology, art, music, dance, narrative, education. Compare the group to, first, the impossible idea of lone, naked, nasty, brutish, short-lived individuals wandering about full only of  fear or flight. And secondly, would not such a tight-knit group be a better economic machine and defense in natural selection terms in the environments of 30,000 years ago, compared to a pack of alpha-male-led monogamists? 

We run here into one of our strongest historicisms; We are so used to maie dominance, hierarchy, the pair bond that NEEDS a male protector. We can culturally no longer credit a social organization that does not have male entitlement as the key to relationships. We even scoff at cooperation, assigning it to being a minor element in society's success. We can no longer easily judge correctly the likely social organization of 30,000 years ago now because of the intervening revolutionary change brought by the invention of domestication about 15 millennia ago. 

However, before shelling that nut I want to end here on another, Grand Canyon related, contrarian note. Last month, I was reading about the lawsuit the Havasupai carried through against some ASU researchers in the past decade. The evil act was that research involving Havasupai was performed without informed consent. In particular, DNA studies on blood samples were carried out without the Havasupai knowing study purposes, which were, among others, trying to trace Havasupai origins. 

Now they have a story or two about that (see my entries of 26 Sep 2009 and 8 Jun 2011), including their arising in this area uniquely or perhaps related to the Hopi et al. The idea of an African origin, followed some millennia later by a crossing from northern Asia into America and the south, is not one their origin stories favor. They are not alone in liking a creation narrative that is special to themselves. Chinese archeologists have also favored the multi-centered-origin theory for Homo sapiens, arguing that the Han evolved in place, instead of migrating from Africa, eventually to displace others or to discover an unpeopled place. But if Stringer et al. are correct, that multi-centered-origin theory seems to be harder and harder to square with accumulating evidence. And to me, to want to isolate one's band or tribe or nation or people as some unique occurrence seems paltry and tendentious, compared to the alternative of being connected into the great sweep of homo sapiens', humanity's, story. Being the subjects of experimentation without full informed consent is inexcusable. But I would hope that the Havasupai, as well as the Chinese, will be able someday to embrace whole-heartedly that they are part of us all, even as their particular culture is as unique and valuable as any other.

*Second draft

**It is the glory & perversity of our wonderful language that 'spread' is also used to label a middle-age tendency to increased waist size, not to mention its physical connection to obesity; both of which are almost antithetical to the picture of humans in their genetic make-up spreading in all the above senses.

***At least early in the book. I have just started it, and will be commenting here as I read. So far it is wonderfully uplifting, but the troubling questions are not to be waved away.

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