Category Archives: Ethnoecology / ecosystem management / spiritualism

Zen Affluence of Hunter-gatherers

The traditional view of hunter-gatherer or “subsistence” cultures is that their life was generally “a precarious and arduous struggle for existence” (Lee 1968).

In Leviathan, Hobbes sums up this view of “primitive” man without government in a quote, of which the last part especially has become a famous reference to such cultures:

“No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”(Hobbes 1651)

However, empirical data on living hunter-gatherers (even though they tend to inhabit marginal, unproductive lands that agro-industrial cultures see as worthless) show a radically different picture (Lee 1968).

It should be obvious that our modern culture, though more connected than ever with the internet, is ironically the most lonely ever. The more “primitive” the culture, the less its “development,” the more socially connected it is.

As far as poor, a poor man is defined by not meeting his wants, and our insatiable wants are making us poor, rather than inherent lack of resources. Hunter-gatherers easily met all their wants and needs because they had so little to desire beyond food, family, community, and health.

Studies have clearly shown how little hunter-gatherers worked; such cultures spent more time dancing or socializing than working. And their “work” was hunting and gathering, activities which modern humans pursue (or vestiges of them such as hiking, camping, etc.) for entertainment.

“From July 6 to August 2, 1964, [anthropologist Richard B. Lee] recorded all the daily activities of the Bushmen living at the Dobe waterhole [in the Kalahari desert]… the camp population fluctuated… with a mean of 31.8 persons. Each day some of the adult members of the camp went out to hunt and/or gather while others stayed home or went visiting. … In all, the adults of the Dobe camp worked about two and a half days a week. Since the average working day was about six hours long, the fact emerges that the !Kung Bushmen of Dobe, despite their harsh environment, devote twelve to nineteen hours a week to getting food. Even the hardest working individual in that camp, a man named ≠oma who went out hunting on sixteen of the 28 days, spent a maximum of 32 hours a week in the food quest. … [This study was during] the mid-winter dry season, a period when food is neither at its most plentiful nor at its scarcest levels…” (Lee 1968)

“A woman gathers on one day enough food to feed her family for three days, and spends the rest of her time resting in camp, doing embroidery, visiting other camps, or entertaining visitors from other camps. For each day at home, kitchen routines, such as cooking, nut cracking, collecting firewood, and fetching water, occupy one to three hours of her time. This steady work and steady leisure is maintained throughout the year.” (Lee 1968)

“The hunters tend to work more frequently than the women, but their schedule is uneven. It is not unusual for a man to hunt avidly for a week and then do no hunting at all for two or three weeks. … During these periods, visiting, entertaining, and especially dancing are the primary activities of men.” (Lee 1968)

“…During the study period 410 pounds of meat were brought in by the hunters of the Dobe camp, for a daily share of nine ounces of meat per person. About 700 pounds of vegetable foods were gathered and consumed during the same period. … This output of 2,140 calories and 93.1 grams of protein per person per day may be compared with the Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA) for persons of small size and stature but vigorous activity regime of the !Kung Bushmen. …estimated ad 1,975 calories and 60 grams of protein per person per day. Thus it is apparent that food output exceeds energy requirements by 165 calories and 33 grams of protein… even a modest subsistence effort of two or three days’ work per week is enough to provide and adequate diet for the !Kung Bushmen.” (Lee 1968)

The Yanomamö from the Orinoco river watershed on the borders of Venezuela and Brazil were found to have similar productive efforts; making a living on only a few hours per day (Chagnon 1983). The Yanomamö spent more time blowing hallucinogens up their noses than obtaining food (Chagnon 1983).

A major key to this way of life is egalitarianism, sharing resources, lack of resource stockpiling, and lack of stealing (Gowdy 1998).

When hunter-gatherers come into contact with a market economy, they become as acquisitive as anyone else (Gowdy 1998). Why they do this may hold the key to a sustainable future (Gowdy 1998). The thesis of Flannery (1995) in his book The Future Eaters: an ecological history of the Australian lands and people is that “future eating,” or consuming resources needed for the future, is characteristic of humans, environmental factors such a periodic drought caused by El Niño limited Aborginal population size, and ecological coevolution created social customs that act to conserve scarce natural resources.

Affluence can be created in two ways; by producing much or desiring little. Hunter-gatherers were in the latter category, the “Zen road to affluence” (Sahlins 1972). The idea that their subsistence economy is a dismal, undesirable, and difficult lifeway is an ethnocentric prejudice, a bias of agro-industrial culture and economists not based on any anthropological research or empirical investigations (Stahlins 1972).

Yet this idea continues even to this day. We all learn in economics to compare economies against the “baseline” or rudimentary subsistence economy, a mere scraping for survival to compare against a more civilized economy based on stockpiling resources, getting more, spending and trading, with the ultimate ideal to possess and consume as much as possible per capita. The fundamental problem with economic theory is utterly ignoring natural resources and environmental degradation caused by “development.”

But where has this gotten us? Look around. In the US, the “standard” work-week is 40 hours. That’s two to three times the amount of work Bushmen perform. But 86% of males and 67% of females in the US work more than 40 hours per week. And while hunter-gatherers had healthy life satisfaction, community, and exercise inherent in their work, most of us are basically automatons in our jobs and must pursue our life satisfaction, community, and exercise in our spare time. Americans work more and take less vacation than any other country in the world. But the rest of the world, at least in agro-industrial cultures, work comparable hours, from around 20-50 hours per week, still all more than hunter-gatherers work.

Still satisfied with the “progress” of civilization? If not, ditch all your consumer needs you have been brainwashed into having by corporations and the governments they control. Live a simple life. Stop supporting the agro-industrial system that is killing you, your family, other humans, all living beings, and even the rocks, water, and atmosphere of our only planet. Reclaim your right to a healthy, happy, and satisfying life.

 

References:

 

Chagnon, N. A. 1983. Yanomamö: the fierce people. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., New York, NY.

Gowdy, J.M. (ed.) 1998. Limited wants, unlimited means: a reader on hunter-gatherer economics and the environment. Island Press, Covelo, CA.

Hobbes, T. 1651. Leviathan.

Lee, R. B. 1968. What hunters do for a living, or, how to make out on scarce resources. In Gowdy, J.M. (ed.) 1998. Limited wants, unlimited means: a reader on hunter-gatherer economics and the environment. Island Press, Covelo, CA.

Sahlins, M. 1972. The original affluent society. In Gowdy, J.M. (ed.) 1998. Limited wants, unlimited means: a reader on hunter-gatherer economics and the environment. Island Press, Covelo, CA.

 

Soap and Food from Soaproot

Soaproot (Clorogalum pomeridianum) gets its common name from its use as soap by the California Indians. The plant is also called amole or amole lily.

I collected soaproot  from a large patch this winter, as you can see I found it by its dried stalks and leaves, since only a few small young leaves were showing:

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I made sure to leave the lower part of the root to resprout, place any seeds from the dried stalk into the hole, and re-cover it with dirt and litter. That’s how the Indians assured sustainable harvest (Anderson 2005). In fact, such gathering techniques often enhanced the growth of the bulb populations, since they co-evolved with disturbance from humans, rodents, pigs, and other consumers, they reproduce vegetatively, so the tilling and breaking up of the root, and spreading seed all act to make the population expand in number and size (Anderson 2005).

This is one soaproot, I collected, showing the lower root left at the bottom of the hole, into which I placed the seeds left on the flower stalk, and filled the dirt and litter back over it:

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Indians gathered the fresh young shoots in March and roasted them to make them sweet and tasty (Chesnut 1902).

Raw, the saponins make it toxic, but the bulb is good to eat after being slowly roasted or boiled in its skin. The Indians would use an earth oven of course, but sometimes boiled them. You can boil them for 45 mins to an hour to fully cook them. Or bake them at 400 degrees for an hour or so. Before cooking, you need to remove the fibrous outer husk, first by peeling away the easily-separated outer parts, then bending back the still-attached fibers from the bulb leaf tips (it’s a lot like an onion, which is also in the Lily family (Liliaceae)), and snipping off the fibers with scissors, and finally washing to get a nice looking cream-colored, smooth bulb.

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To make soap, just mash up one or more of these bulbs in a bowl with a jar bottom (or mortar and pestle), add water, and beat into a froth. This soap is very moisturizing; great for dandruff, and leaves hair soft, silky, and shiny. This soap was preferred by Indians to soap made by settlers for cleaning baskets, washing silk and delicate fabrics, removing dandruff, and washing hair, which was left very soft and glossy (Chesnut 1902).

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Soaproot had lots of uses for the Indians besides soap and food.

The fibrous root cover was gathered into bunches and used to make brushes used for processing acorns, being used to sweep up bits of flour and nut pieces while grinding and sorting out the hulls (Parker and Ortiz 1991). These fibers were also occasionally used to make beds (Chesnut 1902). Roasted, the bulb was used as an antiseptic poultice for sores (Chesnut 1902).

Fresh, the bulb was rubbed on the body for cramps and rheumatism (Chesnut 1902).

A decoction of the bulb was used as a diuretic and laxative and for stomach ache characterized by excessive gas in the stomach (Chesnut 1902).

Juice of the fresh green leaves was used as green ink for tattooing (Chesnut 1902).

The leaves were highly esteemed in summer, when other leaves are dry, as the best succulent, flexible, and large leaf for baking acorn bread (Chesnut 1902). The dough is completely covered with the leaves, then placed on hot rocks and covered with other leaves and ashes (Chesnut 1902).

When the bulb is roasted, a viscid juice is exuded that served as a substitute for glue for for attaching feathers to arrows (Chesnut 1902). This glue diluted with water was applied to bow backs and soot upon the bow just after to turn it permanently black, making it appear old (Chesnut 1902). The reason the probably did this was to make it less conspicuous to their prey, a bright, shiny, whitish object being alarming and suspicious to any animal.

Another famous use of soaproot is as a fish poison. Crushed pulp of the root was thrown into small, low-water streams, or deep pools to stupify fish and eels, which were then collected in great quantity to eat (Chesnut 1902). One account tells of how after the last rains of June, a village would assemble and mash up many bushels of soaproot bulbs on rocks (Chesnut 1902). Meanwhile, a 6-7 ft high weir is built downstream by driving willow poles into the river bed and lashing them with redbut bark (Chesnut 1902). Indians stationed up the stream for 3 miles or so evenly spread out the crushed bulbs while constantly agitating the water (Chesnut 1902). Shortly the fish and eels, but not frogs, floated to the surface stupified and were captured by hand or in a shallow, coarse-meshed basket (Chesnut 1902). As much as 100 bushels of fish and eels were thus captured at one time, and this quantity evenly divided between everyone in the village (Chesnut 1902). No ill effects resulted from eating such “poisoned” fish Sometimes pther plants were used in combination, or alone, but only turkey mullein (Croton setigerus) was as effective as soaproot (Chesnut 1902).

Soaproot and yucca, (esp. twisted- leaf yucca) are very similar taxonomically, superficially, and in uses by Native Americans. Yucca has saponins, its roots were used as soap, to stupify fish, and was eaten after cooking.

References:

Anderson, M. K. 2005. Tending the wild: Native American knowledge and management of California’s natural resources. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Chesnut, V. K. 1902. Plants used by the Indians of Mendocino County, California. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.

Disclaimer: Always be 100% certain of the identity of any mushroom or plant before ingesting. Many mushrooms and plants superficially look very similar, and without expert identification, it is easy to mistake a poisonous and edible species. I assume no responsibility for any harm, injury, or death from information given in this post.

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On Ecology

Nice post (by my brother; former rocket scientist, current F-22 pilot) about the role of ecology (or rather, lack of,) in modern politics and concept of self.

Cyclic Paradox

Wisdom is knowing what you don’t know.

Why does time seem to flow in one direction? Is there some ocean where its rivers unite and an atmosphere for its evaporating and raining anew?

How hard it is to give up control, to forsake our hypertrophied forebrains, to trust the Great Spirit to provide. No, better to do it all ourselves. Reform the ecosphere. Turn land into equations of fertilizer, pesticides, runoff, waste, and yield. Turn life-born water into poison. Recode life.

If man knew his fate would he make the same choices? Try to defy the inevitable? Change his words, acts, songs, or religion? I don’t know if anything could’ve helped him. Power is his demise. From the pinnacle he falls.

Will he cough, sputter, give up his last dying gasp, then roll over? Will he moan and screech, beg for mercy, and curse the gods? Maybe he’ll peacefully smile and fade into serenity. Like the Inuit elder wordlessly walking off into the frozen midnight plain, toothless and strengthless, choosing her children over herself. Or maybe he’ll take the world with him in a frenzied rampaging orgy of violence, death, and destruction. Who knows? What’s best?

Death is life and life is death. There was never another way.

My notebook sketch of cycles of life and death, driven by the sun impulsing the land and water. Pen and colored pencil on paper.

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Historical Human Footprint on Modern Tree Species Composition in the Purus-Madeira Interfluve, Central Amazonia

Just as has/is still being discovered in the US, recent research in the Amazon supports the idea that forests worldwide are the product of mutualist interactions with human inhabitants.

Burning, selective harvest, tillage, seed propagation, etc. were skillfully employed by ancient peoples to make their environment an “edible forest.”

Such cultures were the original affluent societies, working only a few hours per day to harvest the forest burgeoning with ultra-healthy wild foods and resources for tools, usually spending more of their time dancing than working (see Chagnon 1983 and Gowdy 1998).

These findings suggest the idea of “preserving” nature, or cordoning off huge tracts of forest to keep it “wild” is nonsensical, and perpetuates the harmful idea that humans are separate from nature. To restore these ecosystems and have humans and other creatures flourish together, we must rediscover ways of living with the forest, becoming the wise stewards our ancestors once were.

Quoting from the abstract (my italics):

“Background

Native Amazonian populations managed forest resources in numerous ways, often creating oligarchic forests dominated by useful trees. The scale and spatial distribution of forest modification beyond pre-Columbian settlements is still unknown, although recent studies propose that human impact away from rivers was minimal. We tested the hypothesis that past human management of the useful tree community decreases with distance from rivers.

Conclusions/Significance

These results strongly suggest that past forest manipulation was not limited to the pre-Columbian settlements along major rivers, but extended over interfluvial areas considered to be primary forest today. The sustainable use of Amazonian forests will be most effective if it considers the degree of past landscape domestication, as human-modified landscapes concentrate useful plants for human sustainable use and management today.”

A good post about this: http://anthropogen.com/2013/10/18/is-amazonian-tree-biodiversity-species-distribution-a-product-of-past-landscape-domestication/

References:

Chagnon, N. A. 1983. Yanomamo: the fierce people (3rd ed.). Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, NY.

Gowdy, J. M. 1998. Limited wants, unlimited means: a reader on hunter-gatherer economics and the environment. Island Press, Washington, DC.

B. astutus

At first I thought it was another raccoon… then a cat. But as I slowed to pass the crushed body alongside the Capitol of Texas 360 Highway, I realized it was something in between: a ringtail cat. It was the first I’d ever seen. It was dead; blood oozing from crushed eyes, guts splayed on the asphalt.

By now other drivers honked and cursed and glared through their glass domes since I’d slowed to near halt in the busy traffic. I glanced around for pigs, and seeing none, I pulled over into the gravelly shoulder with my flashers on and ratched up my e-brake. For show I propped open my hood then set out back down the median amid knee-high bobbing flowerheads of indian blankets and mexican hats towards the mangled corpse.

My heart sank as my gullet flamed in stifled rage. Sure enough it was a ringtail cat. Sick bastard probably had to swerve to hit it there. Shaky, I knelt, tears welling despite awareness of my spectacle. It needs a proper burial I thought and started back to my car for a plastic grocery bag.

I looked to my right across the street into the thick forest from whence it must’ve crossed, cursing its stupid carelessness while simultaneously regretting the curse. I imagined its mate and brethren looking back from the forest’s edge at that spot. But this vision was real. I halted in vertigo and stared back, finally moving my head and eyes slightly side to side to look at them with my peripheral vision, as if it were night and I couldn’t make out my center view as well. They turned and tucked singlefile under the barbed wire, disappearing into the underbrush.

I nearly ran into traffic then thought of the 17 year old boy from my highschool killed near this same spot a few years back chasing his basketball unthinking into the street, a scene I always associated with a watermelon dropped onto pavement. After that they closed the de facto trailhead to a popular swimming hole here. I waved frantically, instinctively gesticulating my loss of some object from my car on the other side that I was trying to retrieve.

Finally cars slowed enough to let me sprint across towards where the ringtails ducked under. The brush was too thick for me there so I hopped the fence a few yards down and thrashed towards their path. This is crazy, people saw me, even if I did see that they’re long gone now I thought.

Still I kept scrambling low under the snapping dead juniper branches and hit a deer trail. Too dry for tracks. I followed it anyway, already envisioning pigs dismayfully sauntering about my car. Doubtfully I pressed on down the widening path as the junipers made way for live oaks.

Then I came upon an Oak Lord I knew, as always pausing to look upon its magnificence. And there they were. In the canopy, together, as if in conference, looking down upon me.

ringtail looks down

Two burst off in opposite directions, nimbly scampering through the treetips, then gone. The last warily climbed down and when it hopped to the ground it glanced in my eyes, then continued down the same deer trail at a gallop.

Wait, I breathed. Hands and knees I scampered after it through the low brush, just glimpsing the swish of its fine brush. The forest soon opened up into a small grotto with smooth-trunked sycamores and little black walnut treelets wading on thin sandbars amid limestone flags awash with clear springwater. On the other side was an overhang where under thick moss mats and dripping maidenhair boughs glassy black eyes just barely shone.

I crossed the waters with the ninja stealth of a juvenile delinquent with creaky floors in his parents house. It watched. As I neared, it silently turned into the blackness with that provocative tail swish. I pulled out my lighter and flicked it on. There was only one place it could’ve gone; a small hole at the far end of the overhang, where chalky dust caking the floor teemed with various tracks, including fresh ringtail tracks marching straight into the hole.

Even if I could fit through there its gonna bite me when I do I thought. Or something will. Cautiously I brought the flame closer while inspecting the darkness. It went deep, maybe even opened up back there. Thousands of harvestmen pulsed as one above me. It’s spring; it must have come back here worried about its kits or whatever you call baby ringtail cats.

Ringtail cat kit
Ringtail cat kit

I found myself seemingly pulled magnetically into the earth, only realizing my depth when almost fully swallowed. Claustrophobia gripped my heart and throat with cold panic. My head bashed against the hard, cold, wet rock and clay roof. My body length was fully enclosed in the narrow cold stone artery. I was afraid and urged to run but a faint chittering beckoned me irresistibly. My hands pulled me forward, arms straight out, feet and toes pushing.

Then the chamber suddenly widened and I pulled into a small domed room. There was no ringtail cat, or kits, or exit. Some dead juniper branches lay against one wall. Ringtail tracks and sign of other animals were everywhere. Surely somewhere is its flush hole or something, these caves don’t end like this I thought. I frantically scoured the walls, black dread gripping me anew.

Someone has graffitied even here I noticed. But the markings were in no script nor stylistic scribbling recognizable to my eye. Nor were they like those red ochre rock pictographs. Someone had faintly scratched symbols or perhaps diagrams into the soft wet limestone. They appeared fresh.

I stepped back and tried to make sense of the scene, flame flickering the roughness shadows as I traced it along the walls in a search pattern. It was a mural of sorts. A large circle about four feet diameter spanning the dome was punctuated with three smaller circles each about one foot diameter, which if connected with lines would form a triangle. Inside each of these smaller circles were a similar crude drawing of a man and woman. In one, the couple were inside a square, and the line forming the side of the square below their feet extended outward to connect with the edge of the circle. The next circle was the same, except the side of the square above their heads was missing. In the final (or first depending how you saw it) circle, the figures were surrounded by myriad fractal designs.

I stayed there until I had absorbed the design, then caterpillared my way out, barely squeezing through the narrow exit. I retraced my steps, returned to my car, got the plastic bag, and picked up the dead ringtail, I’m sure to the horror of passers-by. I took it to the Oak Lord, and buried it (without the plastic bag) at her feet, covering its grave with a choice limestone flag, whereupon I burned some dead leaves, inhaling it with the trees. Then I left, returned to my car, and drove off.

Ringtail

http://www.arkive.org/ringtail/bassariscus-astutus/

http://www.wtamu.edu/~rmatlack/Mammalogy/Species_accounts_2003/Bassariscus_astutus_account.htm

The Great Spirit Provides

“Brother, – As you have lived with the white people, you have not had the same advantage of knowing that the great Being above feeds his people, and gives them their meat in due season, as we Indians have, who are frequently out of provisions, and yet are wonderfully supplied, and that so frequently, that it is evidently the hand of the great Owaneeyo that doth this. Whereas the white people have commonly large stocks of tame cattle, that they can kill when they please, and also their barns and cribs filled with grain, and therefore have not the same opportunity of seeing and knowing that they are supported by the Ruler of heaven and earth.

Brother, – I know that you are now afraid that we will all perish with hunger, but you have no just reason to fear this.

Brother, – I have been young, but now am old; I have been frequently under the like circumstances that we are now, and that some time or other in almost every year of my life; yet I have hitherto been supported, and my wants supplied in time of need.

Brother, – Owaneeyo sometimes suffers us to be in want, in order to teach us our dependence upon him, and to let us know that we are to love and serve him; and likewise to know the worth of the favors that we receive, and to make us more thankful.

Brother, – Be assured that you will be supplied with food, and that just in the right time; but you must continue diligent in the use of means. Go to sleep, and rise early in the morning and go a-hunting; be strong, and exert yourself like a man, and the Great Spirit will direct your way.”

This quote was spoken by an Indian elder and later paraphrased by James Smith. At the time it was spoken, these two plus the young son of the Indian were going hungry during a harsh winter, being reduced to boil scavenged bones as their only nutriment. The rest of the Indians had been away for a long time owing to the ongoing war with the colonists. The Indian elder detects despair in Smith and gives this speech to comfort him. The next day, Smith decides to escape, leaving the elder and boy without an able hunter. In ten miles, he find buffalo tracks, which he pursues and succeeds in killing a large cow, of which he brings back the meat to the elder and boy at camp.

Source: Smith, J. Col. James Smith’s Life Among the Delawares, 1755-1759. In Kephar, H. (2005) The account of Mary Rowlandson and other Indian captivity narratives. Dover Publications, Mineola, NY.

great spirit

Religion and spiritual beliefs play an important role in how people treat their environment. Many may think that the American Indians were unable to achieve as high a degree of “civilization” as invading cultures because they somehow lacked the understanding, skills, or motivation. In fact, the Indians opposed the environmental destruction by colonists and refused to adopt agro-industrial practices on religious grounds. This is the thesis of the book In the Absence of the Sacred by Jerry Mander. It certainly seems that the animist religions of the Indians, which attribute souls to all living creatures plus rocks, mountains, and water bodies, would reject wanton destruction of the environment.

NativeAmericanGreatSpiritRedRoad

AniMandala

indian animal spirits