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.