While the nation performs a fecal analysis of the Iowa Caucuses, we here in this backwater of the blogosphere have been preoccupied with grander things, though poignant and tinged with loss. Ghost Dancing and chasing buffalo.
And we have scouts out there who know the territory — and they send us hieing off down strange and winding scholarly paths.
Thom Eley bird-dogged this study titled Aboriginal Overkill, from the journal Human Nature by Charles E. Kay. I haven’t downloaded the PDF — the price tag is a bit stout for the book budget at the moment. But the abstract gets the point across.
Prior to European influence, predation by Native Americans was the major factor limiting the numbers and distribution of ungulates in the Intermountain West. This hypothesis is based on analyses of (1) the efficiency of Native American predation, including cooperative hunting, use of dogs, food storage, use of nonungulate foods, and hunting methods; (2) optimal-foraging studies; (3) tribal territory boundary zones as prey reservoirs; (4) species ratios, and sex and age of aboriginal ungulate kills; (5) impact of European diseases on aboriginal populations; and (6) synergism between aboriginal and carnivore predation. Native Americans had no effective conservation practices, and the manner in which they harvested ungulates was the exact opposite of any predicted conservation strategy. Native Americans acted in ways that maximized their individual fitness regardless of the impact on the environment. For humans, conservation is seldom an evolutionarily stable strategy. By limiting ungulate numbers and purposefully modifying the vegetation with fire, Native Americans structured entire plant and animal communities. Because ecosystems with native peoples are entirely different than those lacking aboriginal populations, a “hands-off” or “natural regulation” approach by today’s land managers will not duplicate the ecological conditions under which those ecosystems developed. The modern concept of wilderness as areas without human influence is a myth. North America was not a “wilderness” waiting to be discovered, instead it was home to tens of millions of aboriginal peoples before European-introduced diseases decimated their numbers.
This is in Deuce Richardson’s wheelhouse. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the current scholarship on pre-contact conditions in North America — albeit primarily focused on the eastern third of North America.
Pre-contact North America — or Africa for that matter, or anywhere else — was not “pristine.” Nor, as the Crow Creek Massacre demonstrates, was the land free of deliberate, exterminationist warfare. No Eden. Or, perhaps, better stated: Et In Arcadia Ego.
Of course, such studies can be corrupted into arrows in the quivers of Culture Warriors. “See, the aboriginal peoples manipulated their environment — ergo, making the world safe for WalMart is the highest endeavor of mankind.” No. Hell no!
What these studies do — in addition to moving us closer to understanding of our ancient reality — is more fully humanize peoples who often exist to us as abstractions and symbols. The native peoples had economies; they manipulated their environment; they had raid-and-trade networks of astonishing reach and complexity.
For the native peoples, the world was not “wilderness” — it was just their world.
Somewhere in there lies the key to understanding — if not resolving — the frontiersman’s paradox. Most of the men I have studied and profiled loved the world they found on the frontier — the wildness, the opportunity for exploration, discovery (and personal profit).
And in their drive to discover, explore and profit, they changed and enabled the destruction of the thing they loved. The tragic theme of every A.B. Guthrie novel. It’s the story of Lonesome Dove — Gus and Call who ran down the wild Comanche and quelled the border bandits, then were rendered bored and restless by the tameness they wrought.
Maybe I’ll tease it out and explain it to myself someday; maybe it will elude me. Doesn’t matter. It’s all just chasing buffalo, in the end, I guess.