Threshold: The Crisis of Western Culture
Chapter 9 - The Maori: Eating Themselves Alive
The Maori: Eating Themselves Alive
The cooperative forces are biologically the more important and vital. The balance between the cooperative and altruistic tendencies and those which are disoperative and egoistic is relatively close. Under many conditions the cooperative forces lose, In the long run, however, the group centered, more altruistic drives are slightly stronger.
Human altruistic drives are as firmly based on an animal ancestry as is man himself. Our tendencies toward goodness … are as innate as our tendencies toward intelligence; we could do well with more of both.
—W. C. Allee, “Where Angels Fear to Tread: A Contribution from General Sociology to Human Ethics,” Science 97 (1943): 521
In the earlier centuries of European contact with North American aboriginals, the predominant theory was that they were simply too stupid or genetically (or technologically) inferior to “appropriately” exploit the massive resources of what seemed like a relatively untouched continent, a theory that justified taking their lands and resources, and even exterminating them. For most of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the dominant theory of Native Americans’ interaction with their environment was both documented and romanticized (sometimes accurately, sometimes not) as being highly ecological and sustainable.
The last half of the twentieth century has brought all of these theories into a jumble, as a variety of disciplines have joined forces to paint a very complex picture of life in the Americas, particularly North America, over the past thirty thousand years (and particularly the last fourteen thousand years).
The first large shot was fired in 1967 by University of Arizona archeologist Paul Martin, who put forth what has come to be called the Pleistocene overkill hypothesis. This suggested, in essence, that the sudden disappearance of a relatively large number of big animals from North America around eleven thousand years ago was the result of the appearance of the world’s top predator, man. More recently, John Alroy[xxxv] of the University of California at Santa Barbara claimed a highly robust computer modeling of the early North American extinctions, published in Science in 2001, that laid the entire blame on humans. Among the species driven into extinction by man, he suggested, were more than half of all the large mammals on the continent, including:
· woolly mammoths
· Columbian mammoths
· American mastodons
· three types of ground sloths
· giant armadillos
· several species of horses
· four species of pronghorn antelopes
· three species of camels
· giant deer
· several species of oxen
· giant bison
Additionally, a number of bird species went extinct at this time, ranging from those that were edible and easily caught (particularly during flightless molting periods) and those that were carrion eaters deprived of the large-animal carcasses they’d had for millennia as their primary food source.
But as certain as were scientists from Martin in 1967 to Alroy in 2001 (with hundreds of papers and several books, including The Ecological Indian, published in the intervening period), equally certain were other scientists who suggested this was a far too simplistic view of what had happened. Consider this sample of headlines and opening paragraphs of Science Daily articles about peer-reviewed scientific papers published in the first decade of the twenty-first century:
Climate Change Plus Human Pressure Caused Large Mammal Extinctions in Late Pleistocene [xxxvi]
ScienceDaily (Oct. 4, 2004)—Berkeley—A University of California, Berkeley, paleobiologist and his colleagues warn that the future of the Earth’s mammals could be as dire as it was between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago, when a combination of climate change and human pressure resulted in the extinction of two-thirds of all large mammals on the planet.
Paleobiologist Anthony D. Barnosky and his colleagues reached this conclusion after review of studies of the extensive large mammal, or megafauna, extinctions that occurred in the late Pleistocene, when animals such as mammoths and mastodons, the saber-toothed cat, ground sloths and native American horses and camels went extinct.
In the forensic quest for who done it, many have pointed fingers squarely at humans.
But in a review appearing in the Oct. 1 issue of Science, Barnosky and his colleagues conclude that climate change also played a big role in driving these extinctions.
Why the Big Animals Went Down in the Pleistocene: Was It Just the Climate? [xxxvii]
ScienceDaily (Nov. 8, 2001)—There wasn’t anything special about the climate changes that ended the Pleistocene. They were similar to previous climate changes as recorded in deep sea cores. So what tipped the scale and caused the extinction?
Russell Graham, who has been working on climate models for Pleistocene extinction for almost 30 years, looked for triggers in a threshold effect that did not require a unique climate change. Graham, Chief Curator at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, will present his research on Wednesday, November 7, at the Geological Society of America’s annual meeting in Boston, Massachusetts.
“The end Pleistocene climate change, especially the Younger Dryas [a sudden cold period], was a trigger that tipped the balance,” he explained. “Also, the climate model needed to answer the question of why big animals—mammoths, mastodons, ground sloths, etc., were the primary ones to go extinct and not the small ones. The answer to this question is the relationship between geographic range and body size. The larger an animal, the more real estate or geographic range it needs to support viable populations, especially in harsh environments like those of the Pleistocene. … Therefore, if the geographic range of animals decreased through time then their probability of extinction would increase with time.”
Early Americans Faced Rapid Late Pleistocene Climate Change and Chaotic Environments [xxxviii]
ScienceDaily (Feb. 21, 2006)—The environment encountered when the first people emigrated into the New World was variable and ever-changing, according to a Penn State geologist.
“The New World was not a nice quiet place when humans came,” says Dr. Russell Graham, associate professor of geology and director of the Earth & Mineral Sciences Museum. …
“We now realize that climate changes extremely rapidly,” Graham told attendees at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science today (Feb. 19) in St. Louis, Mo. “The Pleistocene to Holocene transition occurred in about 40 years.”
As a result, animals and plants shifted around and the people living in the New World had to adapt so that they could find the necessary resources to survive. …
During the Pleistocene large eastern coastal resources existed, including walruses, as far south as Virginia, seals and a variety of fish. Mammoth, caribou and mastodons, as well as smaller animals, were plentiful across the continent. The situation was not identical in all places across North America because, during segments of the Pleistocene, large portions of the Eastern North American continent were covered in ice, while western locations were ice-free much further north.
Evidence Acquits Clovis People of Ancient Killings, Archaeologists Say
ScienceDaily (Feb. 25, 2003)—Archaeologists have uncovered another piece of evidence that seems to exonerate some of the earliest humans in North America of charges of exterminating 35 genera of Pleistocene epoch mammals.
The Clovis people, who roamed large portions of North America 10,800 to 11,500 years ago and left behind highly distinctive and deadly fluted spear points, have been implicated in the exterminations by some scientists.
Now researchers from the University of Washington and Southern Methodist University who examined evidence from all suggested Clovis-age killing sites conclude that there is no proof that people played a significant role in causing the extinction of Pleistocene mammals in the New World. Climate change, not humans, was the culprit.
“Of the 76 localities with asserted associations between people and now-extinct Pleistocene mammals, we found only 14 (12 for mammoth, two for mastodon) with secure evidence linking the two in a way suggestive of predation,” write Donald Grayson of the UW and David Meltzer of SMU in the current issue of the Journal of World Prehistory. “This result provides little support for the assertion that big-game hunting was a significant element in Clovis-age subsistence strategies. This is not to say that such hunting never occurred: we have clear evidence that proboscideans (mammoths and mastodons) were taken by Clovis groups. It just did not occur very often.”
The survey produced no evidence that humans hunted the 33 other genera of extinct animals, which also include sloths, tapirs, bears and sabertooth cats. In fact, only 15 genera can be shown to have survived beyond 12,000 years ago and into Clovis times, said Grayson. …
“There is absolutely no evidence that Clovis people were involved with 33 of the extinct genera. Where’s the spear point sticking out of a camel or a ground sloth? If you can kill a mammoth you can kill a lumbering ground sloth. Clovis people absolutely did not chase these now-extinct animals relentlessly across the North American landscape,” he said.
“The bottom line is that we need to stop wasting our time looking at people as the cause of these extinctions. We suspect the extinctions were driven by climate change. We need to know what aspects of climate change were involved. We have to tackle this species by species, one at a time, and look at the interaction of each species with the climate and vegetation on the ground.”
The scientific debate is far from resolved, particularly as increasing evidence of human habitation of North America extending back to fifty thousand years comes forward.[xl] But in the context of the worldwide crisis we’re facing, all aspects of the “humanity versus climate” debate become poignantly relevant.
In our lifetimes, the planet is facing both a dramatic increase in the presence (and predation) of humans, and a change in climate that may make the end of the glacial period eleven thousand years ago seem tame. Both local and continent-wide extinctions of animals were accompanied by dramatic changes in the ways of life, governance, and presumably the religions of the people living in North America, and there’s plenty of evidence of similar changes in Northern Europe and Asia. Animals vanished, birds vanished, fish and aquatic mammals vanished, and many, many people—and cultures—vanished. We and the flora and fauna around us are the descendants of the survivors.
We’re facing human-caused extinctions, as well as climate change–caused extinctions. The question is: Will we survive?
You Want Stability? Try a Spear in the Face …
One of the primary tenets of the conservative worldview is to value stability above all else. The problem for those of us who value democracy and would like to see it evolve, is that antidemocratic cultures can be very stable, once they learn to live in balance with their environment, though it’s a painful and difficult stability for the humans in the culture. A marvelously well documented example of this is the Maori people of New Zealand, a “world in a bottle” illustration of the fate we face if we do not deal with the collision of our declining resources and expanding population.
Eight hundred years ago, a group of Melanesians set out from one of many nearby islands and sailed to the islands they called Aotearoa and we now call New Zealand. When they first arrived, around the year 1200, humans had never before inhabited the island paradise.
Food was everywhere for the taking, particularly a large flightless family of birds called the moa (similar to ostriches). There were so many of the birds, and they were so easily approached, that the archeological record shows that during the first few hundred years of occupation the islanders didn’t even need weapons. No bows and arrows, no spears, no specialized weapons of any sort can be found from those early times: the birds and many other large animals were so docile that people simply walked up and clubbed them to death with a stick, or broke their necks. A dozen different species of New Zealand moa birds, weighing from under fifty to over five hundred pounds each, provided meat and eggs well in excess of the food needs of the initial Melanesian explorers.
This abundance of food led to a golden age of peaceful human population expansion on New Zealand. The few dozen initial settlers became hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands, all feasting on the huge moa birds.
As their populations grew, the Maori killed the moa in huge numbers: in the Otago District, an ancient killing field was found at Waitaki containing more than ninety thousand moa skeletons. The bones suggest that the birds were clubbed or their necks were wrung. While this is the largest moa boneyard, several other similar ancient sites have been discovered around New Zealand in the past few decades: as many as a million moa birds, representing hundreds of millions of pounds of meat, were killed by the early settlers, now known as the Maori (or “moa-eating”) people.
The Maori population expanded, and over the next 300 years Maori people spread all across the 103,000 square miles of New Zealand. They lived in peace and harmony, convinced the gods had intentionally brought them to this island and thus showered them with its blessing of an unlimited supply of food.
But, as inevitably happens to cultures who think they can defy nature, the times of moa for the Maori came to an end. Their moa feast lasted for three hundred to four hundred years, but came to an abrupt end with the death of the last moa bird and thus the final and total extinction of all twelve Moa species.
The islanders then began eating other local animals, and in short order they exterminated or brought to the brink of extinction the huia, takahe, and the kakapo, all birds ranging from the size of modern chickens to the size of pigeons. Along the coast, Maori people hunted the three-ton elephant seal to extinction within those first four hundred years, exterminated the half-ton sea lion (Phocartos hookeri), and from all but the most remote regions wiped out the three-hundred-pound New Zealand fur seal (Arctocephalus forsteri). Turning to fish, the Maori soon endangered even the ubiquitous snappers, as the archeological record shows the fish skeletons and the hooks used to catch them declined in size rapidly over a hundred-year period following the extinction of the moa.
The easily killed large animals all exterminated, the Maori turned to what were considered famine foods by their seafaring ancestors: roots, tubers, frogs, ferns, rats, and small birds. Along with this change in their diet came a dramatic shift in Maori culture.
Around a.d. 1400—roughly four hundred years after their initial colonization of New Zealand—the Maori people began building fortresses and constructing tools for organized warfare. The forts, called pas in the Maori language, proliferated across the island. The primary cultural values of the Maori culture shifted from cooperation to fighting other humans for the scarce resources left on the island. The arts of war became elaborate, and each community spent enormous time and effort making their pa an impenetrable fortress. Shortly after birth, all Maori boys were dedicated to the god of war.
Over the next two hundred years, the Maori’s war-bent culture achieved an uneasy stability. They had moved from population explosion in the face of huge food resources, to near-famine conditions, to farming sweet potatoes in the lowland valleys and building standing armies.
Dutch explorer Abel Tasman was the first European to reach New Zealand and encounter the Maori people, just weeks after he had mapped nearby Tasmania. On December 16, 1642, he wrote in his journal about his one and only encounter with the Maori:
On the 19th day, early in the morning a boat of these people with thirteen heads in her came within a stone’s throw of our ship. They called out several times, which we did not understand. … As far as we could see these people were of average height but rough of voice and build, their color between brown and yellow. They had their hair tied back together right on top of their heads, in the way and fashion the Japanese have it, at the back of their head, but their hair was rather longer and thicker. On the tuft they had a large, thick white feather …
The skipper of the Zeehaen sent his quartermaster back to his ship with the cockboat, with six rowers, in order to instruct the junior officers not to let too many on, should the people want to come on board, but to be cautious and well on their guard. As the cockboat of the Zeehaen was rowing toward her, those in the canoe nearest us called out and waved their paddles to those lying behind the Zeehaen but we could not make out what they meant.
Just as the cockboat of the Zeehaen put off again, those who were lying in front of us, between the two ships, began to paddle towards it so furiously that when they were about half way, slightly more on our side of the ship, they struck the Zeehaen’s cockboat alongside with their stern, so that it lurched tremendously Thereupon the foremost one in the villain’s boat, with a long, blunt pike, thrust the quartermaster, Cornelis Joppen, in the neck several times, so violently that he could not fall overboard. Upon this the others attacked with short, thick, wooden clubs and their paddles, overwhelming the cockboat. In which fray three of the Zeehaen’s men were left dead and a fourth owing to the heavy blows mortally wounded. The quartermaster and two sailors swam towards our ship and we sent our shallop to meet them, into which they got alive. After this monstrous happening, and detestable affair, the murderers left the cockboat drift, having taken one of the dead in their canoe and drowned another.
What Tasman discovered was that among the Maori, protein was in such short supply that they had passed the last human cultural barrier to a food source: cannibalism. Tasman watched helplessly as his one crewman taken alive by the Maori was beheaded on the beach. The Maori recovered the bodies of the others and roasted them. Horrified, Tasman named the cove Murderer’s Bay and sailed away, never to return.
More than a hundred years later, things hadn’t changed much for the Maori people who lived under the brutal subjection of local warlords. The next European to visit New Zealand was Capt. James Cook, in 1768. Cook showed the local Maori tribe where he first landed that his weapons of war were superior to theirs by killing a few of them. This led to their enthusiastically embracing him, as he wrote: “I might have extirpated the whole race, for the people of each Hamlet or village by turns applied to me to destroy the other, a very striking proof of the divided state in which they live.” Touring a local pa fortress, he was so impressed he wrote, “… the best engineer in Europe could not have choose’d a better for a small number of men to defend themselves against a greater, it is strong by nature and made more so by Art.”[xli]
Cook witnessed elaborate preparations for war, as well as cannibalism. His accounts are given credibility by the writings in 1869 of a literate Maori, Tamihana, the son of Maori chief Te Rauparaha. In the biography he wrote of his father’s exploits, Tamihana made clear the importance of the flesh of one’s vanquished enemies as a food source, often even as a primary food source during long raiding trips. He proudly detailed the conquest and murder of communities of hundreds of men, women, and children, in a style reminiscent of the biblical Book of Joshua (although Joshua didn’t engage in cannibalism). He wrote of his father’s pride in ripping out and eating the hearts and livers of his enemies, and how successful he was at taking slaves from among those he vanquished.[xlii]
In the few hundred years since the extinction of the moa and sea lion, the Maori had developed a competitive, warlike, antidemocratic culture. Twenty-seven dialects of the original language are still spoken, and much cultural history is still remembered, and it appears that each of these groups was often at war with others over food, and over the land on which to grow food. At the same time, many contemporary Maori anthropologists suggest that at the time of first contact with Europeans, when their cultural (and resource) isolation ended, the Maori were semi-democratic at a tribal level or moving in that direction.[xliii]
People Inevitably Get It Right—If They Don’t Destroy Themselves First
History suggests that democracy always emerges with enough time. Virtually every history of civilization, and indeed our entire understanding of culture, turns out to be a forward-moving process toward democracy. Democracy is the ultimate cultural end point, and the only reason there are billions of people hungry and in poverty is because we haven’t sufficiently broadened its definition to include all people, or narrowed its definition to exclude all institutions such as the churches and corporations our Founders tried so hard to keep from corrupting government.
In September of 1774, Capt. James Cook discovered the island we now call New Caledonia. While the Maori had been living on New Zealand for about 700 years at that time, when Cook showed up, New Caledonia had been settled for 3,500 years.
The fossil record shows that about 3,000 years earlier, the Melanesian explorers who colonized the island of New Caledonia had repeated the feeding frenzy of New Zealand and Easter Island, and then, when they wiped out their own local moa birds and large local fish and mammals, they descended into a Maori-like warlike culture.
But after a few hundred years of living in armed camps, for reasons still undocumented but indisputable, the people of New Caledonia moved from their embrace of hierarchical and violence-based governance into peaceful democracy. Perhaps they simply got tired of the violence; perhaps—like the Iroquois—a prophet appeared among them to lay out the principles of democracy and nonviolence; perhaps they just figured out or remembered how democracy worked.
However it happened, by the time Cook arrived in 1774, the people of New Caledonia had developed a democratic, egalitarian culture.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The Hartmann Report to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.