by Usha Alexander
[This is the third in a series of essays, On Climate Truth and Fiction, in which I raise questions about environmental distress, the human experience, and storytelling. All the articles in this series can be read here.]
At the beginning of our story—paraphrased from an origin story remembered by a Cree elder—two figures are walking along the clouds. They’ve been walking long and far. Looking down through the spaces between the clouds, they spy a beautiful, green landscape, rich and inviting. They long to go down to this land, but they don’t know how to get down from the clouds. So the two keep walking. When at last they see a speck on the horizon, in the far distance, they walk toward it. The speck grows, looming larger than they are as they get nearer. When the two look up at it, it looks back down at them—it’s Great Spider.
The people tell Great Spider how much they wish to climb down from the clouds and inhabit the land below, and they ask him for his help. So Great Spider begins to weave a web. He weaves and weaves and weaves, until he’s woven a boat. The two climb into the boat with Great Spider’s web still attached, and Great Spider lowers it down from the clouds. Despite his care, the boat rocks and sways precariously. After a long and harrowing downward journey, the boat ends up stuck in the top of a huge tree.
Now the Earth is almost within reach, but the people don’t know how to get down from the top of the tree. Below them they can see Caribou and other animals walking around. They call out for help, but none of the animals is able to help them. Finally, they ask Fisher-weasel, who scampers up the tree and carries each of them safely to the ground. Once they’re on the ground, Brother Bear befriends the people and teaches them everything they need to know as they make their way in this world.
I’m neither a member nor a student of the Cree people and I don’t know what this story means to a Cree person, nor what was left out or changed in this telling. But I’m struck by the tale as both alien and familiar and brimming with humility and kindness in a way that’s unlike many other ancient myths I’ve heard. Before Europeans invaded the Americas, the Cree people were nomadic foragers living in what today is Canada. They traveled in family bands of around ten people, give or take a few, related by blood or marriage; each of these family bands associated with other bands to form larger, more loosely related sociopolitical groupings. These larger groupings facilitated working and socializing together, while each family band maintained its independence. When larger group decisions were called for, every band had a vote; unresolvable disagreements could also be handled by fissioning the larger group associations, with dissenting bands going their own way—voting with their feet, as anthropologists are fond of saying.
This rough outline describes not only the pre-colonial Cree. It’s essentially the way all humans lived for most of our time on Earth, in small, nomadic bands, who made a living by foraging wild foods: gathering plant foods and shellfish, hunting game, fishing and trapping small animals. Our foraging ancestors didn’t linger at the same campsite for long, moving on as soon as the local food sources were picked bare or herds wandered off. They didn’t process or store plenty of food for the long term. In the Cree story, I imagine I hear a memory of that life once common to all of our ancestors—of wandering and exploring unknown lands through treacherous adventure, of being aware of your total dependence upon the living world for your survival, and realizing that it has much to teach you. This story finds friendship with the weasel, kinship with the bear, strength and skill and usefulness even in the speck of a spider. Not every story of nomadic foraging peoples will be the same, but some of these elements or themes will be common among them and different from the stories of settled societies, in which human-like heroes definitely dominate the world and the non-human world is relegated to a lesser position in the Grand Scheme of Things.
In the long stretch of the human past, as the climate ground ceaselessly through its temperaments, our ancestors had remained always on the move, exploring, discovering, learning from the life they encountered along the way. I don’t know if remembering our migratory past can help us adapt to the changing conditions of our planet, or provide insights for the future migrations of peoples away from drowning islands, burning forests, or their drought-stricken fields. I don’t know if examining our roots can lend us clues or spark ideas about how we might proceed as the world warms. But I am drawn to dwell upon it, nevertheless. We were wanderers and nomads for so long, looking back at those faces of our humanity at least shifts my perspective of our past. Perhaps revisiting the ways in which we understood ourselves then might cast a beam toward the future.
The First Stories
The earliest anatomically modern humans arose in Africa at least three-hundred thousand years ago. Their scant populations ranged widely across the continent in search of food, shelter, and distance from their rivals. At first, their bodies of knowledge may still have been shallow in time and narrow in scope, given that modern modes of human behavior, communication, and cognition may have been still arising concomitant with these same adventures.
As they traveled, dramatic reversals of the climate would have been a constant challenge, with the average global temperature repeatedly fluctuating by one or two degrees—and sometimes testing them on a cataclysmic scale, when global temperatures dropped by three or rose by five degrees over a few short millennia. Though ice in Africa was likely limited to mountaintops, climatic fluctuations would have been felt in changing rainfall patterns and the shrinking or expansion of forests, grasslands, and deserts. The sea might recede to expose new land, perhaps now connecting former islands—or rise, to inundate a river valley. Plants would shift their dispersal ranges, animals alter their migration patterns—or go extinct. New species of plants and animals would arise to cope with the new conditions. These changes might occur over hundreds or thousands of years, so that an individual never experienced a sense of a vividly changing world. But sometimes, in different locales, environmental shifts could also be abrupt, such that one might notice real differences on the land—in the changing size of a lake or river, in the increasing frequency of wildfires that ceded forestland to savannah—within the span of an individual’s long lifetime.
But they kept moving, orally cataloging the less transient features of the land—ravines and mountain ranges and the sea, which would have shifted but never absolutely disappeared—as well as the more persistent categories of plants and beasts. And they thrived on this one grand and variable continent, for two hundred thousand years. At some point—one can only imagine when, since no physical markers survive—they would’ve begun to recognize something like a kinship with the lion, friendship with the weasel, or wisdom and skill in the spider. They told stories of communion and learning from their fellow creatures. They spoke in gratitude to the spirit of the antelope, whose body nourished theirs. They made obeisance to the spirits of the sun and wind and rain, in whose mercy they dwelt. They danced wearing spirit masks and celebrated a cosmology which included all of these things and more.
Out of Africa and into the Cold
Scholars disagree about when people first ventured out of Africa and beyond the Levant. Many details remain uncertain and contested, but archaeological and genetic evidence together suggest that people dispersed in multiple waves, beginning before about ninety thousand thousand years ago. The world was in the grip of a glacial freeze. Much of the land where today millions of people live and farm in northern Eurasia, North America, and the southern reaches of South America was buried under mountains of ice. These enormous glaciers were bounded by tundra and boreal forest.
But at first, these out-of-Africa wanderers eschewed those most frigid climes, clinging instead to the warmest parts of Asia nearer to its southern contours. Even so, as they forged ever further into effectively unlimited terra incognita, they encountered new animals and plants, threats and unimagined treasures, every step of the way. Almost like starting over, they had to experiment with new foods and medicines. Learn to crack a new nut or recognize ripeness in new fruits. Some of what they tried was surely poisonous. They had to discover new materials from which to fashion temporary structures for shelter. Learn which of the new snakes were venomous and which were most delicious. Unravel the complex behaviors of new predators, prey, and other species who communicated useful signals, including about immanently changing weather and the presence or absence of threats or resources. Their survival depended upon paying attention to every sour or musty breath of the wind, every snorting silence of a grazing herd, every buzzing-whooping-shrieking jungle cacophony. They had to learn how to live inside of it.
Given the breadth of the unknown upon which these explorers continuously risked their wellbeing and survival, I’d judge they mastered their new environments amazingly quickly. They thrived well enough to press their sparse but rising numbers through southern and southeastern Asia and then island-hop by watercraft to New Guinea, which was then connected to Australia, where they arrived before sixty-five thousand years ago. Their adventures could—surely did—inspire epic tales, collected through hundreds of generations of human bands trekking blindly, haphazardly across a boundless and unknown wilderness of mountains, jungles, rivers, deserts, swamps, and oceanic straits never before seen by human eyes. They couldn’t have had any sense of a goal or of arrival as they meandered without direction or limit. And this isn’t even half the story.
All along the way, some bands remained behind, peopling southern Asia. For their descendants, broad regions of their landscape would no longer remain wholly unfamiliar, no longer untouched by human presence, but mapped into their folklore and mythology, invoked in their songs, and sampled through their trade networks. Only after southern Asia and Australia were inhabited did some people begin looking further northward for the next patch of terra incognita, in spite of the deepening cold. By fifty thousand years ago, bands living in southwestern Asia were venturing through Anatolia, then into southern Europe and eventually beyond. Peoples from eastern Asia were forging into the frigid tundra toward Siberia.
While many scattered peoples of the warmer latitudes were developing the vivid and durable pigments that survive in paintings of animals and people found in numerous caves from Spain to Australia, groups moving into Siberia and beyond were devising how to live on the tundra. They constructed large structures of stacked mammoth tusks and bones, covering these with hides—perhaps the first semi-permanent communal gathering halls ever built. In the snowiest regions, they might have been inventing igloos. Arriving in the forests of Beringia, the land that then connected Asia to North America, they found a barren, frozen desert further east. But even this did not stop their onward impulse. After a few millennia spent coming to know the Arctic and the secrets of its provident oceans, a first migration might have followed the western American coastline as it turned southward, probably navigating by watercraft along sea ice shelves to exploit the expansive and rich kelp forests for sustenance and artifact materials. Moving rapidly along this coastal route, the first people arrived in southern South America more than fifteen thousand years ago. They were later followed by waves of migrants traveling by inland routes, after the glacial age moderated into the Holocene. (The story of the peopling of the Americas still remains extremely uncertain in its details; some argue people arrived earlier or along different routes.)
Wanderlust and the Modern World
Compared to how we regard uprooting our settled lives, migration was easy for our ancestors. They were accustomed to movement, encumbered by nothing, except possibly fears of the unknown and attachments to the familiar. There were no passports or borders. The human population was small and there remained plenty of space for them to roam freely. Maybe many of them thought nothing of wandering into new territories, nor ever felt a disconnection from the lives of their ancestors, even when they left the land of their birth. After all, the eternally common thread that connected them to their forebears was that they were nomads: wherever they went, they always kept moving.
On the other hand, some might have found it difficult to alter their life patterns—especially if they’d found reliable seasonal routes that they could traverse repeatedly for many years—when the changing climate forced them to test new horizons. Perhaps they were compelled to move by hunger and hardship, as they tried to understand what had befallen them, why the game never returned this year, why their familiar foraging routes were growing barren of known foods. Perhaps they missed their bonds with kin and clan, with whom they’d once celebrated feasts and festivals and traded assistance in times of trouble, who now were scattered by want and uncertainty. This would have presented a destabilizing challenge to their social worlds. As they learned to forage new foods, develop new techniques to hunt, harvest, and prepare them, those who commanded knowledge of their old landscapes and lifeways might have lost their status and persuasive power to those better able to learn and innovate under the new circumstances.
These material and political changes might have rippled through their social worlds by altering their religious cosmologies, gendered or age-graded specialties of skills and labor, and other social conventions. Perhaps they argued about how best to respond; maybe they fought. As their world changed, they may have felt the disintegration of their beliefs and practices, causing some of them to lament the loss of tradition and the breakdown of society as they knew it. Eventually, their migrations and social adaptations would have driven the innovation of new lifeways, altered or expanded their traditional systems of knowledge, and fueled far-reaching changes to their belief systems and ideas about identity. They may have forged countless new origin stories too, stories of new discovery, no less enchanting than that of the Cree. Perhaps, even for the nomads, each territorial displacement caused by climatic change was revolutionary: they survived, never again to be the same as their ancestors.
We can’t know exactly how the earliest peoples coped with environmental upheavals, what made some groups more resilient, others perhaps less so, what stories they told about changes they observed in the land and sea, or in their lifeways, social structures, and value systems. We may never know what people thought about the social adaptations they made to climate instabilities a hundred or even thirty thousand years ago. But their mobility certainly gave them resilience to their changing environments. For all their pioneering explorations into new regions, foods, practices, material cultures, and belief systems, there is little sign that for nearly three-hundred thousand years, our nomadic forebears ever tried to settle down, build permanent structures, or otherwise alter their environment on a grand or enduring scale. Though their arrival into new lands no doubt had an effect on the local ecology, as they inadvertently over-hunted or outcompeted some animal species to extirpation—especially the megafauna of each newly colonized continent, who’d never before met a predator—they never intentionally and dramatically changed the mix and availability of plant or animal resources in the region where they lived by concentrating the distribution of their favorite edible plants or by taming and husbanding their prey species. And still, their numbers slowly grew, until they nearly covered the globe.
We were wanderers for hundreds of thousands of years and we’ve been settlers for hardly twelve thousand. Surely that longer heritage has left a mark in our genes, in our psychology, in our visceral notions of what constitutes a good life: movement, exploration, invention, adventure, the great outdoors. Maybe in other ways, too. Yet since the era of European Colonialism, all nomadic peoples have been or are being systematically forced to abandon their migratory ways through coercion and theft of their lands and resources. Collectively, we’ve fallen in thrall to notions of private property and borders. Our modern stories, so far from origin stories like that of the Cree, edify our values around nation-states and patriotism and ownership, as if these are unbendable traits of any society we might build. We have, of course, so overcrowded and despoiled the planet that we cannot willingly return to lives of nomadism—though millions among us will find ourselves unwillingly displaced migrants, due to ruinous weather and its follow-on effects. But equally interesting to me is the thought that most of us cannot even imagine it—cannot imagine the breadth of lifeways and values that we contain within us. Cannot imagine how we might accommodate those who perforce must migrate, recognizing their story as part of our own.
Instead, our belief that our modern notions of need and greed—our material consumerist culture—which drives the project of the modern world is among the most powerful forces enabling our planetary domination to the point of its own, self-reinforcing decline. Though our modern settled lives have allowed too many of us to believe that our independence from the natural world has saved us from this decline, this is a fiction, one of the false stories we propagate within our larger narratives of progress and prosperity. Now, as our planet changes around us again—this time, a direct result of the trammeling manner in which we’ve come to live upon it—we will have to invent a new mode of living with the uncertainties of the weather, and aiding the migration of those who have no choice.
Earlier Essays in this Series
2. Map of human dispersal out of Africa, from On the origin of modern humans: Asian perspectives, Bae, et. al, Science 08 Dec 2017: Vol. 358, Issue 6368, eaai9067.
3. Artists depiction of an early Paleolithic Asian man.
4. Bradshaw rock paintings from the Kimberly region in Australia. Creative Commons.
5. Reconstruction of a Paleolithic mammoth-tusk shelter from Siberia. Creative Commons.
6. Copper Inuit people in umiak at Port Epworth, circa 1915. Creative Commons.