Sunday, December 11, 2011

Migration 8: Bites Too Big

Several months ago, when I picked up on the migration angle, the Grand Canyon connection was very clear. I was reading books (by Chris Stringer, e.g.) that laid out humanity's history over the past 100 millennia as one in which migration was an essential component. Originating in a corner of Africa, we spread over that continent; we spread eastward along south Asia and to Australia; we spread north and west into Europe; north east into Asia; then with the right conditions, into the Americas; and, astonishingly, across the Pacific.

Into such a story, we can comfortably fit the migrations of the Paiutes to the Canyon's north side in the last millennium or so and the Pai to the south side, then, more lately, the Navajo coming south and west. And long before, the Hopi, carrying on the Puebloan traditions of settlement and villages that reach back more millennia, reinforce this view of humanity's multiple moves. In that scheme, the arrival of whitefolk -- Spanish, English & French -- is just another wave, one of many with sources in Europe and Asia, which continue from all over. 

What I thought of as a strand of human history that would support, in a fundamental way, the largest view of Grand Canyon history, got away from me. The books piled up; my need to make sense of them intensified. I set aside Grand Canyon matters while I tried to absorb, even haphazardly, items that contribute to a more general framework. Most especially was understanding the invention of domestication and the subsequent agriculture-based Neolithic Revolution ~10 millennia ago. Revolution, indeed, for out of what I was reading came a  pre-farming picture of us, humans, as, yes, hunters and gatherers, but with all manner of  the sophisticated characteristics of human culture we think of as civilized. And primarily, that most important, and genetically based, ability, language. 

With language, our tremendous capacity to migrate into so many unknown spaces becomes almost a corollary. For migration is an aspect of spreading, which in our case involves imagining, discussing, story-telling. But language is not just an aid to figuring out whether we should move and if so where, it also undergirds another kind of spreading: that of ideas and technologies; we almost compulsively seek out, try out, share or steal, acquire and modify stuff and uses. On-line commerce may be new, humans shopping around goes back to the beginning, 100+ millennia ago. 

Language has this central element: it is social. One person, nor even a couple, could not have done language. Whatever the genetic components of language in our brains and head structure, language only works between us; it only blossoms as a shared tool. (Censorship is not just stupid, it is fundamentally anti-human.) Indeed, it could only blossom, it seems to me, in groups of humans organized to be mutually supportive, i.e. to cooperate in sharing and transmitting (i.e. education) the knowledge needed for successful hunting and gathering, migrating and spreading. 

It was this mutually supportive, language-based, culture that made the relatively small bands of humans so successful for all those millennia of living off the land as they moved across it. And that is what made the Neolithic Revolution such a massively disruptive, change-full event, with its need for land and labor to make farming succeed. Land then became property; labor went from joint work to bondage, and even slavery. Cultural evolution brought settlements, villages, aggressive accumulation, trading centers, violence, cities, religion, states, war, empire; all we now think of as Civilization. (Ursula LeGuin re-imagined all this in her "Always Coming Home".)

Developing this framework does seem a digression, but I found it was necessary to cope with what I fear could be a flood of books, tempting and intriguing in themselves. Stringer, for instance, has a new one that sets forth a substantial change in the out-of-Africa picture; and in any case, i know already that his view of humanity seems more influenced than mine by ideas arising out of our recent cultural evolution. I need also to deal with Richard Dawkins and his more Darwinian selfish-gene view, as well as Tim Flannery's fractured presentation at once despairing and hopeful, with its grand sweep of earth history, and a bagful of good intentions. And then there is Steven Pinker, whose contributions now range from language to violence and so are unavoidable if the framework I offer is to continue to make sense. 

And what about the Canyon's history? Well, there is the next installment dealing with rim development, yes, and I do think that delayed though it is, someday, the NPS decision about the Park boundary description will be available and have to be reported on. It will then be time, if I am to be responsible, to deal with that epic, the 1965-8 battle to keep the Canyon free of dams. So there is entirely too much to do; my reach exceeds my grasp. Just as it should.

No comments:

Post a Comment