Nature Always Bats Last

Cliff dwellings at Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico   Photo: Craig Miller

Cliff dwellings at Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico Photo: Craig Miller

Mike Newland is an archeologist at Sonoma State University’s Anthropological Studies Center. A version of this essay was originally broadcast as part of KQED’s Perspectives series.

Nature Always Bats Last

By Mike Newland

I’ve been pondering a 3,000 year old mystery that makes me uneasy about our current plight. Starting around 2,000 B.C., people in the Great Basin and Mojave Desert really got into big-game hunting.  We see this in the archaeological record—all of this big-horn sheep and antelope bone shows up in larger quantities.  Up in the mountains, great panels of rock art are chock full of hunters chasing sheep, and evidence of their hunting camps is tucked in shelters and around springs.

Big-game hunting isn’t that efficient.  You’re better off going for a wide range of edibles close by.  You get more food for less work.  This is an important point, because after 3,000 years of this big game hunting, this culture died out, and was replaced by folks that hunted and collected a broader range of food.

Bill Hildebrandt and Kelly McGuire, two archaeologists from Far Western Anthropological Research Group in Davis, have made a compelling argument about why people were so obsessed with hunting—they did it for status.

Good hunters were revered for their abilities to provide food and hunting trips could serve political and social functions.  But big game hunting was eventually done at the expense of the rest of the population: archaeologists still discuss whether the bow and arrow, probably introduced to California by groups coming out of Oregon, was such an effective hunting tool that the hunters wiped-out most of the big game, or whether the devastating effects of the Medieval Climatic Anomaly, which caused major droughts throughout the Great Basin and desert areas, pushed these people over the edge.  But it is clear that serious changes took place, and big game hunting became unsustainable.  By the time the next group of folks came along, the big-game hunters were on the verge of collapse.

This is one of the reasons why archaeology is important—we can look at past cultures and see how we, as a species, have dealt with big problems.

This research makes me uneasy because archaeology has shown repeatedly that cultures not in balance with nature die out.  For millennia, people have sat around campfires debating whether to make the changes necessary to adapt to a shifting climate or depleted resource base, and invariably they said no. As a result, the graveyards of history are full of the corpses of cultures that failed to change when they needed to.

Now it’s our turn. History shows that nature won’t hesitate to take us out.  We’re lucky in that we have probably one of the most adaptive cultures in history: we’ve made major changes—abolition of slavery, passing of environmental legislation, the Equal Rights Amendment—when we thought it was in our collective best interest. Even still, these landmark changes required decades of hard work and dedication to educate the broader population.  We have our work cut out for us.  We can either rise to the occasion, and make the investments necessary to stem climate change, or we can take our place with the rest of the dead in the graveyard.

  • Russ Steele

    I would certainly agree, we need to adapt to climate change.

    “We can either rise to the occasion, and make the investments necessary to stem climate change, or we can take our place with the rest of the dead in the graveyard.”

    But, what if we invest our time energy and money in trying to stop a warming climate, when in fact we should have been preparing for a coming ice age, be it a mini or a major. If we continue down the road to reducing CO2, only to discover that the climate change was a natural cycle, and the current warming cycle has ended and we are entering a long term cooling cycle unprepared for the consequences, I will be willing to offer more will die from the cold, than the warming. Climate change has been with us since the earth was born billions of year ago and the notion that man can change the climate is a fools mission. We humanoids have proven to be highly adaptive to change, it is time to put away our global warming computer models and prepare for the next cooling cycle.

  • Dixon Cruickshank

    Since these people 3000 yrs ago have been gone for 3000 yrs the place should be over run with big game now, I don’t know is it ??

  • Michael Newland

    I thought I would respond since it looks like there will be a repeat broadcast of my Perspective on this. @ Russ, I offer the following from NOAA’s Climate Watch website http://globalchange.gov/publications/reports/scientific-assessments/us-impacts (accessed 22 January 2010): “It is clear that impacts in the United States are already occurring and are projected to increase in the future, particularly if the concentration of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continues to rise. So, choices about how we manage greenhouse gas emissions will have far-reaching consequences for climate change impacts. Similarly, there are choices to be made about adaptation strategies that can help to reduce or avoid some of the undesirable impacts of climate change.” But let’s set aside for a minute whether the climate is heating or cooling. Basic infrastructure overhauls–better insulation, diversity of energy sources, more stable delivery systems– will assist us in either event. My point is that, as a species, we’ve been responsive (or not, as the case may be) rather than proactive. The cultures that made it had attributes that selected their survival PRIOR to climatic changes. I’m hoping we can get out in front of it rather than try to make the changes when it’s too late.

  • Michael Newland

    @ Dixon, what archaeologists have found is that there is a large drop in big game animal bone between the big game hunters and the people that follow, and a wide increase in just about everything else edible. The folks that came later hunted and collected a wider range of food resources. There’s not just a difference in food, there’s differences in the styles of hunting tools and other artifacts to indicate there’s a new cultural group moving in–and linguists have also traced back a spread of language family called Numic (Shoshone, Paiute, and many other languages are part of the Numic family) into this area about this same time. I can’t answer whether the big game bounced back–if they did, folks weren’t hunting them in the same numbers as they did before, so the bones don’t show up on archaeological sites. Looking at it now, with massive changes to the landscape as a result of mining, logging, 19th and early 20th century hunting practices, and the critical locations of surface water being tapped for private use, I think it’d be tough to make a correlation between what we see today in terms of big game population vs. 500, or 1000, or 5,000 years ago.

  • Craig Miller

    Mike, thanks for taking the time to respond!

  • Steve Bloom

    Although, Michael, don’t we have early-nineteenth century accounts describing large big-game populations, e.g. of tule elk in the central valley?

  • Craig Miller

    I can answer that, Steve, as I once did a documentary on California, pre-European settlement. And yes, tule elk populations at that time are estimated to be somewhere around a half-million. Hard to believe they were hunted almost to extinction during the Gold Rush.

  • Michael Newland

    … and to follow up on Craig’s comments, my discussion was focused on desert habitats, not Central Valley. To my knowledge, the work done to date has only been identifying the big-game hunting cultures in the Great Basin and Mojave Desert regions. Things get a little trickier once you move over the Sierras–entirely different food resources, water supply, greater access to the ocean etc. That isn’t to say it didn’t exist in the Central Valley, it just may not have crossed the max-out point that the Great Basin populations did(though big changes are taking place all around California at this time). The subsequent Numic-speaking folks spread east and south, not west–Central Valley around this time is seeing waves of groups coming down out of Oregon focused on river and wetland resources. Again, different things going on in the Central Valley…