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a bonobo world? 5

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Chapter 1 – Culture (continued)

It’s also worth noting that the damage done to the earlier inhabitants of Rapa Nui and Australia was more than merely inadvertent. Certainly very little was known about the epidemiology of smallpox at the time, but the lack of understanding of environmental conditions – largely due to bringing a European mindset to dealing with altogether different circumstances, was ruinous to the vegetation and wildlife of both the tiny Pacific island and the vast ‘Great Southern Land’. Mostly this involved deforestation for sheep and cattle grazing. In Rapa Nui also, an activity known as ‘blackbirding’, the kidnapping of Pacific island natives to work as slave labour in Peru and in Australia in the mid-nineteenth century, had a devastating effect, with about 1500 people being abducted (or killed), a sizeable proportion of the population, in only two years (1862-3). 

The purpose of detailing all this is to raise awareness of the complexity of culture, to guard against prejudging and dismissing cultures as inferior to our own, and to consider our own shortcomings as a culture. And this can extend to our relations with other species also, of course. Now consider the following quote:

“These frozen faces … mark a civilization which failed to take the first step on the ascent of rational knowledge.” Bronowski said, “I am fond of these ancient, ancestral faces, but in the end, all of them are not worth one child’s dimpled face”, for one human child—any child—has the potential to achieve more than that entire civilization did. Yet “for most of history, civilizations have crudely ignored that enormous potential … children have been asked simply to conform to the image of the adult.” And thus ascent has been sabotaged or frozen.

It is taken from David Deutsch’s admiring essay on Jacob Bronowski and his series The ascent of man, and it refers to the statues found on Rapa Nui and to the culture that created them. Deutsch highlights the ‘ascent’ element of Bronowski’s series, and he elaborates further on this in his book The beginning of infinity, the central thesis of which – that humans are capable of more or less infinite development and improvement – I’m quite sympathetic to. However, in dismissing ‘the customary condescending doublethink towards primitive cultures’, of many anthropologists, and supporting Bronowski’s apparently wholesale contempt for the Rapa Nui statue builders, Deutsch makes a fatal error, the same type of error, in fact that Robert O’Hara Burke made in rejecting the advice and help of ‘mere savages’ who had learned, no doubt by painful trial and error, to survive more or less comfortably for millennia on the meagre resources of the desert environment of Central Australia. This example of cultural arrogance led directly to Burke’s death.

Now, to be fair to Deutsch, he fully recognises that he himself wouldn’t survive for long in central Australia’s hostile environment, or that of Saharan Africa, Mongolia, Antarctica or any other forbidding place. But I think he fails to sufficiently recognise that particular cultures, like species, adapt to particular environments, some of which are more static than others – but none of which are entirely static. That’s why I think Bronowski’s statement, that Rapa Nui’s statues and the massive platforms created for them, ‘mark a civilisation which failed to take the first step on the ascent of rational knowledge’ is both dangerously arrogant and false.

In trying to show why this is so, I won’t be indulging in any romanticised view of indigenous cultures. I come from a diverse and dominating culture that has discovered only recently, thousands of exoplanets, gravitational waves that Einstein postulated but never thought could be discovered, and the Higgs boson, a particle that I’m excited by even without having much idea of its nature or vital role in the cosmic structure. I should also mention our ability to create entire human beings from a single somatic cell, through induced pluripotency – and it may be that these astonishing achievements may be overtaken by others more astonishing still, by the time I’ve finished writing this work. But of course when I say ‘our’ achievements, I’m well aware of my non-role in all this. I’m, in a sense, a mere particle caught up and swept along in the tide of momentous events. I had no choice in being a Europeanised human male. I could’ve been born as an Easter Islander, or an Aboriginal Australian. Or indeed, as a bonobo. My inheritance, and my place in the culture or species I belong to, is not a matter of free will. And being born in a different culture would make me think very differently, but no more or less ‘rationally’. 

As mentioned, there has been some important research on the experience of the early human inhabitants of Rapa Nui lately. Of course it’s difficult to get clear data on Rapa Nui culture, clouded as it is by the ideologies of different researchers, by the myths and legends of the islanders themselves, by the lack of written records and the difficulties of interpreting and dating remains, tools, ash-heaps and other artifacts, but it’s frankly hard to believe that these islanders, so attuned to their environment, would have engaged in the thoughtless or ‘irrational’ destruction of it that Bronowski et al accuse them of. The most recent analysis, published only a few months ago, paints a different picture:

During the last decade, several continuous (gap‐free) and chronologically coherent sediment cores encompassing the last millennia have been retrieved and analysed, providing a new picture of forest removal on Easter Island. According to these analyses, deforestation was not abrupt but gradual and occurred at different times and rates, depending on the site. Regarding the causes, humans were not the only factors responsible for forest clearing, as climatic droughts as well as climate–human–landscape feedbacks and synergies also played a role. In summary, the deforestation of Easter Island was a complex process that was spatially and temporally heterogeneous and took place under the actions and interactions of both natural and anthropogenic drivers. In addition, archaeological evidence shows that the Rapanui civilization was resilient to deforestation and remained healthy until European contact, which contradicts the occurrence of a cultural collapse. 

What is certain, as Diamond’s analysis has shown, is that the island was less hospitable than most for sustaining human life, and yet the Rapa Nui people endured, and, as the account left by Roggeveen and his men shows, they were hardly a starving, desperate remnant in 1722.

References

Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu

David Deutsch, The beginning of infinity

Jared Diamond, Collapse

http://nautil.us/issue/7/waste/not-merely-the-finest-tv-documentary-series-ever-made

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/brv.12556#:~:text=Easter%20Island%20deforestation%20has%20traditionally,precipitated%20its%20own%20cultural%20collapse.&text=According%20to%20these%20analyses%2C%20deforestation,rates%2C%20depending%20on%20the%20site.

a bonobo world? 4

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a group of Rapa Nui people, photographed in 1895

Chapter 1 – Culture (continued)

It isn’t known precisely when the Polynesians first settled on Rapa Nui, but there appears to have been regular habitation there from about 800 years ago. It’s clear from the numerous moai – we know of at least 900 – carved by the Rapa Nui people, and the great platforms, or ahu, upon which they were displayed, that they had developed a sophisticated, creative culture during the first few centuries after their arrival (building upon eastern Polynesian traditions found on other islands), but it seems this was very much in decline by the time of Roggeveen’s 1722 visit. It’s the causes of this decline that are very much the subject of modern debate.

Rapa Nui is a volcanic island, and was thickly forested in earlier times, as researchers have found through paleobotanical analysis. However, by the early eighteenth century, almost all of the trees were gone. The controversy revolves around whether and how much the Rapa Nui people engaged in self-destructive behaviour, in relation to their natural resources, resulting in population collapse. According to Deutsch, following Bronowski, the self-destructive behaviour of the natives was a counter-example to the ‘ascent of man’ or ‘the beginning of infinity’ that Deutsch admires in the form of the short-lived but brilliant ancient Athenian culture, and in modern scientific humanity. However, I feel that both Deutsch and Bronowski have over-simplified and thus seriously distorted Rapa Nui culture to make their case, and that these kinds of distortions can be generalised to show that many of us still treat other cultures in a dismissive and hubristic way, when a more open and sympathetic understanding can only improve our own culture, at a time when, arguably, our future isn’t quite as rosy as we would like it to be.   

In his account of the Rapa Nui cultural collapse – which certainly did occur – Jared Diamond is more sympathetic. With the help of scientific associates, he examined a number of variables affecting deforestation on Pacific islands. They found that deforestation is more severe on: 1) dry islands than wet islands, 2) cold high-latitude islands than warm equatorial islands, 3) old volcanic islands than young volcanic islands, 4) islands without aerial ash fallout than islands with it, 5) islands further from Central Asia’s dust plume, 6) islands without makatea (coral reef rock) than islands with it, 7) low islands than high islands, 8) remote islands than islands with near neighbours, and 9) small islands than big islands

Collapse, Jared Diamond, p116

Based on these criteria, and his finding that Rapa Nui ticked 8 out of 9 of the above boxes, Diamond came to this judgment:

In short, the reason for Easter’s unusually severe degree of deforestation isn’t that those seemingly nice people really were unusually bad or improvident. Instead, they had the misfortune to be living in one of the most fragile environments, at the highest risk for deforestation, of any Pacific people. For Easter Island, more than for or any other society discussed … we can specify in detail the factors underlying environmental fragility.

Of course, questions remain, Such as: Why would a culture destroy a resource (its trees) when it relied on that resource so heavily? How, exactly, was that resource destroyed? Was it actually the result of human activity, and if so, what kind of activity? And there are other questions about the Rapa Nui population itself. It seems to have imploded in the period between the building of ahu and moai, and the incursions of Europeans in the eighteenth century. However, there’s much disagreement about the population of Rapa Nui at its height, with some claiming it may have been as much as 15,000 – a large number for such a tiny island, when the inhabitants had to depend entirely on that island’s resources. But these numbers are very rubbery, as is the length of time that these Polynesian adventurers had been inhabiting the island – anywhere from 800 to 2700 years. I am reminded of similar uncertainties and debates about Australia’s first inhabitants; dates range from 45,000 to 80,000 years, and the populations are anybody’s guess, but that doesn’t stop researchers from guessing. Surely there would have been wide fluctuations in the populations over time, as the climate warmed and cooled. In any case, the Rapa Nui population was supposedly reduced to approximately 3000 by 1722, though how this figure was arrived at is a mystery. Clearly Roggeveen didn’t take a count, and the Rapa Nui people were not in a position to keep written records. Unfortunately everything about this island’s pre-European history is subject to ongoing debate.

Evidence clearly shows that some 21 species of trees and the island’s land birds had disappeared by the time of Roggeveen’s visit. The rats brought to the island may have been the cause of much but certainly not all of the plant devastation, and the loss of many of the biggest trees may have affected the inhabitants’ ability to build canoes for fishing expeditions. Research has shown that the Rapa Nui people’s diet contained far less fish and seafood than that of other Polynesian Islanders. However, claims by Diamond and others, of a breakdown within the culture leading to internecine warfare and even cannibalism, have been controversial. The obsidian blades found on the island may have been fashioned for farming rather than fighting. More importantly, for my own thesis of the superiority of co-operative societies, (bonobos as opposed to chimps), recent research seems to be converging on a view that contradicts Diamond’s story of increasing competition in the form of ever more monumental statue building in a heavily hierarchical society. We may never know for sure, but anthropologist Carl Lipo had this to say on the research in 2018:

Lipo explained that there is no archaeological evidence for the control of resources or any hierarchical distribution of resources, which is leading to a new narrative about the pre-contact Rapa Nui society: that the island was not dominated by massive chiefdoms, and rather, communities shared resources without any prehistoric warfare.

I cannot of course vouch for the truth of this new interpretation of Rapa Nui culture, despite hoping that it’s more accurate. What is definitely true and uncontroversial is that the arrival of Europeans, and the diseases they brought with them, was far more devastating for the Rapa Nui people – as well as Australia’s Aborigines – than anything they ever did to themselves. 

References

Collapse, Jared Diamond 2005

The beginning of infinity, by David Deutsch, 2011

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Easter_Island

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Indigenous_Australians#:~:text=A%20cumulative%20population%20of%201.6,currently%20the%20most%20heavily%20populated.

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-02/bu-eis020620.php

Written by stewart henderson

October 28, 2020 at 11:21 pm

The bonobo world: an outlier, but also a possibility 2

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Definitely one of the best introductions to the bonobo world is Frans De Waal’s 2006 essay for Scientific American, available online. It describes a species that branched off from its chimp cousin some two million years ago. Although genetic researchers have made it known that humans are equally related to chimps and bonobos, we’re beginning to realise that a basic bean-count of genes shared may be an overly simplistic approach to measuring our connectedness with other species. In any case we still have much to learn from both of our closest living relatives, especially in terms of our social relationships. We have of course developed a culture, or a range of cultures that are much more diverse and dynamic than our primate cousins, which is some cause for optimism. We are, I hope, always learning better how and what to learn.

I believe it is very much worth looking at chimps and bonobos, not as opposites, which of course they aren’t, nor quite as models for humans to compare themselves to, but as two of many possible forms of our species in an earlier stage of cultural development. The fact is, and I should think this is unarguable, early humans, in their territoriality, their aggression, their gender-based division of labour, and their ownership fetishism, have largely developed from the basic cultural outlook of chimps rather than bonobos. Our history is marred by mostly male violence and hubris, and the power of possession, formerly of land, latterly of resources and technological know-how, and their transformation into financial power and influence, leading to systemic inequalities and a cult of selfishness.

But of course human culture isn’t one thing, and it has been subject to dizzying developments in modern times. Most astonishing is the growth of knowledge and its availability and rapid dissemination in the internet age. I’ll be taking advantage of that growth and availability in what follows.

One of the most interesting questions about bonobos and their largely female-dominated society is how that society came about, considering that bonobo females, like chimps, gorillas and humans, are smaller than the males. Clearly, size and attendant strength is an advantage in the kinds of environments early humans and their primate cousins had to deal with. We have no clear answer to this question, though it’s noteworthy that the bonobo diet, being less meat-heavy than that of chimps, would require less aggressive hunting, and strength to overcome prey. This raises the question – did the rise of females lead to a less carnivorous diet or was it the other way around?

First, let’s look at the bonobo diet. They are very much tree-dwellers, and fruit always forms a large part of their diet, but also leaves, seeds and flowers. Animal foods include worms and some insects, and the occasional snake or flying squirrel. This suggests that they rarely go on hunting expeditions. The bonobo habitat is generally more forested than that of chimps, and they spend more time in the tree-tops, harvesting the food they find there. It could be that the physical habitat of chimps, which is relatively more savannah-like, actually led to a more spread-out, competitive culture, compared to the closer-knit bonobos in their denser, tighter environment. If this is true, it’s reasonable to infer that the strength advantage of the lager males might be diminished by habitat. Perhaps, given a few million more years, the size difference between males and females may reduce. I may look at sexual dimorphism more generally in a later post.

Using bonobos as a guide to potential human behaviour often meets with strong push-back. I’ve experienced this myself in a number of conversations, and usually the argument is that we are so far removed from our primate cousins, and so much more culturally evolved, and diverse, that comparisons are odious. However, I suspect much of this is due to an arrogance about our sophistication which prevents us from learning lessons, not only from other primates but from other cultures that we deem inferior, even without consciously acknowledging the fact. Yet we are learning those lessons, and benefitting from them. Generally speaking, we – I mean those from a WASP perspective, like myself – are recognising that indigenous or first nation cultures were far better adapted to their environments than the later white arrivals – and that this adaptation was hard-won over many generations, during which a collective bank of experience developed. In ‘The Teachable Ape’, a chapter of his book She has her mother’s laugh, Carl Zimmer tells the tale of the ‘ill-fated’ Burke and Wills expedition which attempted to cross Australia from south to north in the 1860s. The team was heavily but inappropriately provisioned, even carrying Victorian-era furniture to make their campsites comfortable, but more importantly they weren’t anywhere near culturally prepared for spending long months in the arid landscape of central Australia. A starving remnant of the group stumbled onto a settlement of the Yandruwandha people, who had been living more or less comfortably from the land, in what is now the northern region of South Australia, just south of Cooper Creek, for tens of thousands of years. The Yandruwandha helped the Europeans out, allowing them access to their watering holes and feeding them fish, nardoo bread or porridge, and whatever they might bring back from their hunting trips. But sadly, tensions rose due to the arrogance of at least one of the Europeans, apparently humiliated at being forced to rely on ‘savages’ for survival. The Yandruwandha walked off, leaving the newcomers to their fate. Zimmer ends his tale with these words:

Burke and Wills were celebrated with statues, coins and stamps. Yet their achievement was to have died in a place where others had thrived for thousands of years. The Yandruwandha got no honours for that.

C Zimmer, She has her mother’s laugh, p451

Zimmer, of course, is correct, but it’s doubtful that his words would’ve been written, thought or accepted in the early 20th century, say halfway between the Burke and Wills tragedy and today. We’ve made vital progress, especially in the past 50 years, in recognising the adaptive intelligence of human cultures very different from our own, and even of other species. We can learn from them as we too have to adapt to different human environments, such as the post-industrial, technology-heavy, rapidly-renovating society we associate with ‘the west’. The roles of men, women, children, families and other human types and configurations are up for re-evaluation as never before.

References

https://ielc.libguides.com/sdzg/factsheets/bonobo/diet#:~:text=Honey%2C%20eggs%2C%20soil%2C%20mushrooms,small%20mammals%20(young%20duiker).

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/bonobo-sex-and-society-2006-06/

https://www.britannica.com/animal/bonobo

Carl Zimmer, She has her mother’s laugh: the powers, perversions and potential of heredity, 2018.

Written by stewart henderson

July 20, 2020 at 3:05 pm

How did we get language?

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a most persuasive hypothesis

                                          a most persuasive hypothesis

According to National Geographic there are, or were, at least 7000 languages globally. That was a few years ago and they say the numbers are dwindling, so who knows. There may also be a lumpers v splitters issue here – are they all unique languages or are some just variants of the same language?
There are organisations out there dedicated to preserving rare and endangered languages via recordings and analyses, but is this such a vital project? After all, when a language dies out it’s not because their speakers have gone dumb, it’s because they’ve died and their offspring are speaking one of the more common, viable languages of their region. And this of course raises the question of whether language diversity is a good in itself, in the way that species diversity is seen to be, or whether we’d be better off speaking fewer languages globally. It’s actually quite a dangerous topic, since language is very much a cultural artefact, and cultural suppression, often of the most brutal kind, is currently going on in various benighted parts of the world.

The diversity of language also raises another fascinating question – did it evolve once or many times? Was there an ‘ur-language’ or proto-language from which all these diverse languages sprung? Take for example, the Australian Aboriginal languages. Anthropologists claim that there were some 250 of them around when Europeans arrived with their much smaller number of languages. And Aborigines arrived here about 50,000 years ago. But how many, and with how many different languages? These are perhaps the unanswerable questions that Milan Kundera liked so much. However, linguists have been studying surviving Aboriginal languages intensively for some time, and are mostly agreed that they can be ‘lumped together’ in a small number of dispersed family groups with distinctive features, which suggests that, on arrival, the number of languages was much smaller.

Added to this evidence (if you can call this evidence), is the recent understanding that our species, Homo sapiens, spread out from the African continent in separate waves, from 250,000 years ago to 70,000 years ago. So it seems to me more likely that there was a proto-language, developed in Africa and moving out with one of those waves, and taking over the world, through breeding or cultural exchange, and diversifying with those migrations and their growing cultural diversity. Then again, maybe not.

We used to to describe the world before the emergence of writing as ‘prehistoric’, which seems rather arrogant now, and the word has fallen out of favour. And yet, there is some sense in it. Writing (and drawing) always tells us a story. It provides a record. That’s its intention. It’s the beginning of the modern story, and so, history, in a sense. All of what comes before writing, in the story of humans, is unrecorded, accidental. Scraps of stuff that require a lot of interpretive work. That’s what makes the development of writing such a monumental breakthrough in human affairs. It happened in at least three separate places, only a few thousand years ago. Human language itself, of course has a much longer history. But how much longer? Eighty thousand years? A hundred thousand? Twice that long? Currently, we haven’t a clue. The origin of language is regarded by many authorities as one of the toughest problems in science. It isn’t just a question of when, but of how, where and why. Good luck with answering that lot.

Written by stewart henderson

December 17, 2019 at 11:37 pm

who really discovered this land?

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a chart of early human migrations – and discoveries – based on mitochondrial DNA

I recently heard some rather absurd but unsurprising remarks by the conservative commentator Georgina Downer, defending an inscription on a statue of Captain Cook which states that he was the discoverer of Australia. Downer claimed that this is patently, unarguably true, since he was the first person to map the country (or part of it).

But let me be quite precise about the issue. The statue has the inscription: “discovered this territory 1770”. Unfortunately I can’t find video online of Downer’s words, but I’m pretty sure I got the gist of it: to her it was obviously true that Cook was the country’s discoverer – because he mapped it.

As a teacher of English and a person interested in linguistics and the meanings of words, let me just take a look at the verb ‘discover’. A quick googling brings up these two most pertinent meanings: find unexpectedly or during a search; be the first to find or observe. Three other less relevant meanings are given, but of course none of them mention mapping or anything like it. It would certainly be a shocker if mapping was mentioned, in defining the discovery of a territory. Having said that, ‘discover’ is ambiguous in this context. We can be enticed by adverts to discover the Greek Islands, or the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef. This is in line with one of the other definitions, which now maybe seems more relevant: be the first to recognize the potential of (or in this case the more personal to recognise the potential (or beauty) of something for the first time. That’s my own definition, but I think it’s generally acceptable). In this sense it would be fair to say Cook discovered Australia in 1770, but then it would also be fair to say my parents discovered Australia in 1962, when they first arrived here, just as I discovered David Bowie as a sixteen-year-old in 1972. Clearly that’s not the sense of ‘discovered’ intended by the inscription, or by Downer.

But before I continue down that rabbit-hole, let’s look at the inscription’s other keyword. The word ‘territory’ is a little ambiguous here. The statue is in Sidney’s Hyde Park – does the discovery refer to the whole of Australia, the territory in the neighbourhood of the statue, or the part of Australia that Cook mapped (less than a quarter of the country’s coastline, and none of the interior)? Dictionaries won’t be of much help here, so I’ll just hope to be on safe territory in assuming the whole kit and caboodle is intended, i.e. the land now known as Australia.

Downer’s comments added a tiny wind to the storm of controversy raised by the respected Aboriginal journalist and commentator Stan Grant. I find his essays (linked below) on the subject of our history and monuments to be thought-provoking and valuable. What he writes about the hubris of colonising Europeans in earlier centuries is undoubtedly true, though we only see it in hindsight, for what would my attitude have been as a good citizen of Europe from the 16th through to the 19th century?

But I’m not, I’m a more or less global citizen of the 21st century, painfully aware of the thoughtless arrogance of the terra nullius idea and the white colonisation system of the past, not confined of course to this territory. That’s not to say that I can put myself into the minds of those whose ancestors have been in this land for tens of thousands of years, when they read the above-mentioned controversial inscription. I can, though, see clearly that what happened in 1788 was a land-grab, as I’ve already written here and here, and I well understand why two High Court justices have described the consequent dispossession as ‘a legacy of unutterable shame’. So it amazes me that people like Downer can be so cavalier in claiming that Cook’s ‘discovery’ was unarguable. Cook did not discover this territory. The human who did discover it, that first person, will never be known to us. That discovery was made long long before records were kept. It was certainly a momentous discovery, though, for it brought many people to this vast territory, which may then have been very different from the parched land we know today. They spread throughout its vast extent, adapted to and interpreted its varied and changing climate and landscapes, created homes and tools and songs and stories and rituals and languages and knowledge, and endured here – more than endured – for some 60,000 years.

Cook was a very important, indeed decisive figure in Australian history, and he should be remembered as such, but not as the discoverer of this territory. As the cliché goes, if we don’t know our history we’ll be doomed to repeat it.

References

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-08-25/stan-grant-captain-cook-indigenous-culture-statues-history/8843172

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-08-23/stan-grant:-damaging-myth-captain-cook-discovered-australia/8833536

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-08-18/america-tears-down-its-racist-history-we-ignore-ours-stan-grant/8821662

Written by stewart henderson

August 30, 2017 at 9:01 am