Category Archives: Indigenous People before Contact

What is the greatest Culture of all Time?

What is the greatest human culture ever created? Most westerners would likely say European civilization. What would you say?

Wade Davis, Canada’s preeminent anthropologist believes that the greatest contribution to  culture  was produced in Polynesia.   I was shocked when I heard that. Davis has studied many societies. I had never thought of Polynesia with that much respect. I was wrong. I am not saying Davis was right. It really doesn’t matter; they all have great achievements. What does matter is that we respect them all.

To my surprise Davis, in a talk on CBC Radio, called Polynesia “the greatest culture sphere ever to be brought into being by the human imagination.” When he talked about the ethnospherehe described it this way in his glorious book, The Wayfarers:

“Together the myriad of cultures makes up an intellectual and spiritual web of life that envelopes the planet and is every bit as important to the well being of the planet as the biological web of life that we know as the biosphere. You might think of this social web of life as an ethnosphere.”

I learned a lot from Davis’s radio talks as well as from his book The Wayfarers.    Polynesia, he said,  consists of “tens of thousands of islands flung like jewels upon the southern sea.” Davis learned a lot from the Polynesian voyaging society that set out on a voyage on the vast Pacific Ocean in a sacred canoe known as a hokule’a.   This vessel has been used to circumnavigate the world. This was a catamaran modeled on the drawings of Joseph Banks who had drawn sketches of these canoes based on his voyages with Cook in the 18th  century.  Even today these Polynesians sailors can name 350 stars in the southern sky.

As Davis said, “They can sense the presence of distant atoll islands beyond the visible horizon simply by watching the reverberation of waves across the hull of the canoe knowing full well that every island group in the Pacific has its own unique refractive pattern that can be read with the same perspicacity with which a forensic scientist would read a finger print. These are sailors who in the hull in the darkness can sense 5 different sea swells moving through the canoe at any one point in time, distinguishing those caused by local weather disturbances and from the deep currents that pulsate across the ocean and can be followed with the same ease with which a terrestrial explorer would follow a river to the sea. Indeed if you took all of the genius that allowed us to put a man on the moon and applied it to an understanding of the ocean what you would get is Polynesia.”

What right to we have to feel superior to such a culture?  As Davis said,

“The most astonishing thing about this tradition is that it is based on dead reckoning. And dead reckoning means that you only know where you are by remembering precisely how you got there. And what this implied was that in a tradition that lacked the written word every shift of the wind, every change of course, every sign of the star, the sun, the moon, and the ocean itself embraced over the course of a multi-week voyage had to be remembered and calibrated in the mind of the wayfinder.”

The practitioners of this art based their advice on where they had come from, not from where they were going. Societies that did not have this skill resorted to hugging the shores of continents, until the British solved the problem of longitude with the invention of the chronometer in the 18th century.

Yet 10 centuries before Christ an ancient civilization called Lapita on the shores of Caledonia and New Guinea, the ancestors of the Polynesians set sail into the rising son. In a thousand years they reached Tonga and Samoa and Fiji but then mysteriously stopped for 10 centuries before resuming their quest.  They travelled a further 4,000 km. across the Pacific Ocean until they reached the Marquesas. Eventually they discovered many of the islands in the South Pacific.

During this time they lost their written word, but the Wayfinder who could be a man or a woman, and who sat Monk-like at the stern of the vessel for a journey of several weeks had to remember every shift of the wind, every sign of the moon, every sign of the stars, every sign of the sun, plus a plethora of other indicators of location and weather. If the knowledge of the chronology was broken the journey could easily end in disaster.

According to the Polynesian myths the vessel does not move. Rather the imagination of the Wayfinder pulls the island out of the sea towards the vessel. To reach Rap Nui the vessel had to travel 9,000 km. (6,000 mi.) across the doldrums, tacking in the wind for about 3500 km. to reach an island less than 25 km. across. This was less than 1º on the compass but of course they had no compass. But they sure had traditional skills and knowledge, knowledge that westerners did not appreciate.

These techniques were used to colonize the greatest thing on the planet—the Pacific Ocean. As Davis pointed out, “Five centuries before Columbus, the Polynesians had over the course of only 80 generations settled virtually every island group in the Pacific , establishing a single sphere of cultural life encompassing some 25 million square kilometers of the earth’s surface.” That is surely one of the greatest achievements of Homo sapiens, 500 years before Columbus “discovered” the western hemisphere! And they did this all without a compass or any physical instruments of navigation. Of course this amazing achievement was never recognized by the Europeans who assumed no one was better than them at navigation.

Davis asked a profound question:

“How can you not be bedazzled by the achievements of humanity when you discover what actually lies beneath the veneer of culture throughout the world. You know, Polynesian navigators who can sense the presence of distant atolls of islands beyond the horizon simply by watching the reverberation of waves across the hull of a vessel. Whenever I go somewhere I try to think of a phrase that kind of distils everything and when I did work with the hokule’a and the Polynesian voyaging society the phrase that came to mind was that if you took all of the genius that allowed us to put a man on the moon and applied it to the understanding of the ocean what you would get is Polynesia.”

The real point of all this is not to brag about one society. The real point to avoid unnecessary  feelings of superiority. There is nothing more ignorant than feelings of superiority. There is nothing more wise than humility.


Wayfarers of the South Pacific

European explorers invariably believed they were superior to every group they encountered. This is well known. Some of the examples of the ignorance of feelings of superiority include European encounters with the Wayfarers of the South Pacific.

The first European to see the Pacific Ocean was the 16th century Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa who had crossed the isthmus of Panama in 1513.

When the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan made his epic journey round the horn at the southern tip of South America he missed some important things.  The voyage was indeed impressive, but it was also impressive in the things that ideological blinkers prevented the explorers from noticing or seriously considering.

When Magellan turned around the corner of the Horn and began to head north he feared he was entering a void. That was how ignorant Europeans were about what could be found in the South Pacific. By that time half his men were already dead from the hazards of the voyage. He sailed for another 4 months in the southern Pacific and astonishingly he managed to miss every populated island group in the Pacific. Finally, on April 7, 1521 he landed on the island of Cebu.  Now we call the island group the Philippines.

Magellan was a brave explorer. It took guts to venture forth into the Pacific, because it was an ocean of the unknown in 1521. Yet he plunged on bravely. He named it “Pacific” because when he saw it the ocean was very calm. Nonetheless, although we acknowledge the bravery we also notice the blindness. As Wade Davis said, in his magnificent book, The Wayfarers,  “In his desperation and blindness he had by circumstance bypassed an entire civilization that might have taught him a great deal about the open water.”

There was an entire civilization that could have taught him how to survive and thrive in the Pacific. Yet, as so often happened with the European explorers, he failed to take advantage of what could be learned from indigenous people. That is exactly what Davis’ book is about. That is what has inspired me to consider what could be learned from indigenous people. Like my friends who suggested we could go to  an Indian Reserve in Canada and build a house for people there and solve their problems for them. If only they would listen to us. Over and over again, Europeans, thinking they were the finest and best at everything neglected to learn from indigenous people and that failure has made all the difference. Europeans were not stupid. The achievements of European explorers were remarkable, but sometimes they also possessed remarkable arrogance that did not help their cause.

The South Pacific was an astounding place. Davis said that it was “the largest sphere ever brought into being by the human imagination. Polynesia: 25 million square kilometres, nearly a fifth of the surface of the planet, tens of thousands of islands flung like jewels upon the southern sea.” Davis described the “discovery” of Polynesia by the Europeans as encountering “a new planet.” It really was that strange.

We have to remember how vast the Pacific was. It is the largest thing on the planet. It dwarfed everything—absolutely everything—the Europeans had ever seen.

The first sustained contact between Polynesia and the Spanish occurred later in 1595, some 74 years later. This was when Alvaro de Mendaña de Neira reached the islands he called the Marquesas after his patron. This was the most isolated island group in the world. There were probably as many as 300,000 people living there at the time. Davis was right: “It was an extraordinary meeting of civilizations.” It was one of the most extraordinary such encounters of all times. It was every bit as amazing as the meeting between Europeans and North Americans.

The Marquesans considered their islands to be the end of the earth, much like the Europeans had believed about their own continent before Columbus sailed to the “New World.”  That is what it was to the Europeans when Columbus sailed. This was another New World. It was nothing less than that. The Marquesans considered it the last stop on a mythical journey made by their ancestors from the west.  They believed that every human being was a descendant from Tiki, the first human. Sounds a lot like Adam doesn’t it?

The Marquesans were not in awe of the Spaniards. Far from it.  They felt they were vastly superior to these ruffians from the east.  Davis described their attitudes to this historic encounter this way,

“Thus, to the Marquesans, the Spaniards were as demons, embodiments of depravity born beyond the reaches of the eastern sky. Carnal and deceitful, cruel beyond reason, the Spaniards offered nothing. They had no skills, no food or women, no knowledge of even the most elemental elements of the natural world. Their wealth lay only in what they possessed, curious metal objects that were not without interest. But they had no understanding that true wealth was found in prestige, and that status could only be conferred upon one capable of acquiring social debts and distributing surplus food to those in need, thus guaranteeing freedom from want. The white Atua—these strangers who came from beyond all shores—had no place in the order of life.  Such was their barbaric state that sorcery did not affect them, or even the power of the priests. So complete was their ignorance that they did not distinguish commoners from chiefs, even as they treated both with murderous disdain.”

The people of the South Seas of Polynesia believed that the people with real prestige were those who helped others. Those were people who should be honoured. Yet the Europeans were puzzled by the ignorance and barbarity of the Marquesans. They wondered how such ignorant people could have accomplished so much. These were two solitudes staring each other down. A little less superiority on both sides would have been a boon to both. Arrogance is seldom a helpful attitude.

There were serious things for the Spaniards to puzzle over. They wondered how had these people come to these islands that were more than 3 months sailing distant from the most western Spanish outpost.  They noticed that women were not allowed in canoes. That was taboo.  So the women swam towards the Spanish vessels. The Spanish also noticed that the Marquesans had no magnetic compass like the Spaniards did. As a result it seemed impossible that these people could have peopled these distant islands. It was a serious puzzle.

Remember at the time European sailors had not yet solved the problem of how to measure longitude. That meant that they had to hug shores when they explored. This was a serious deficiency. That was why the English government offered a reward of 20,000 pounds to the person who solved this puzzle. At a time when a mansion in London could be furnished for about 100 pounds, this reward was magnificent. Until the invention of the chronometer European navigators had to rely on dead reckoning. As a result sailing too far from land was extremely dangerous. Yet here in the Pacific Ocean, much more vast than the Atlantic Ocean the Europeans were more accustomed with dealing, the Spaniards found these strange people. How had they got here? How had they colonized these islands? How did they get their women there so they could bear children for their men?  These were deep mysteries to the Europeans.

Captain James Cook was to some the greatest navigator in the history of England’s Royal Navy the greatest Navy in the world. At least so the English thought. Cook was the first person to pay serious attention to this puzzle. When he arrived in Hawaii his ship was met by a flotilla of 3,000 natives. Cook had noticed at Tonga that local catamarans could travel 3 leagues in the time that his ship could only cover 2 leagues. He was also surprised that people from the Marquesas could understand the language of the Tahitians even though nearly 1,600 km of the Pacific Ocean separated the two.  How was this possible?

On Cook’s very first voyage in 1769 he met in Tahiti a navigator and priest who went by the name Tupaia who drew from memory a fairly accurate map of every major island group in Polynesia except for Hawaii and Aotearoa. He placed more than 120 stones in the sand each representing an island. The map spanned 4,000 km.  That is about the distance across North America . Who in Europe could draw such a map? Could these people not teach some things of value to Cook? The answer was obvious. But not to Cook.

Later Tupaia astonished Cook even more than that. As Davis described a future trip the two took together,

“Tupaia later sailed with Cook from Tahiti to New Zealand, a circuitous journey of nearly 13,000 kilometres that ranged between 48 degrees south latitude and 4 degrees north.  To his astonishment, Cook reported, the Polynesian navigator was able to indicate, at every moment of the voyage the precise direction back to Tahiti, though he had neither benefit of sextant nor knowledge of charts.”

Imagine what would have happened if both sides had more respect for the other. How much could they have learned?

Voyage to the Americas

Ancient Human travellers were not satisfied when they ventured as far into the Pacific Ocean that they discovered Easter Island. From Easter Island there is no land between it and South America. As Niobe Thompson said in his television series the Human Odyssey, “the island is so remote its settlement was almost a boast, an extravagant statement of ocean mastery.” Easter Island is about the most isolated speck of land on the planet, yet these ancient mariners found it and settled it. How amazing is that?

Easter Island (Rapa Nui) is famous for its 887 extant monumental statues called moai. It is now a World Heritage Site. Polynesian people settled it between 700 and 1100 CE and created a thriving society. However humans brought with them passengers—rats. Together with their ever-growing population and destruction of forests for the creation of the statues led to gradual deforestation and extinction of much of their natural resources.  In time this severely weakened their society. At one time 15,000 people lived there, but when Europeans found them there their numbers had declined to 2 or 3 thousand people. After contact, European diseases and Peruvian slave trading further reduced their numbers. In 1877 their numbers had been reduced to 111 residents.

The nearest land is Pitcairn Island some 2,075 km. away. South America (Chile) is 3,512 km. away. Jared Diamond mentioned how when he arrived by jet it took 5 hours to cross the Pacific to get there and he saw no land at all in the wide ocean beneath the aircraft.

After settling the most remote island in the world, these ancient explorers transformed the landscape into an astonishing one, filled with the most surprising images of their ancestors. They built  enormously impressive statues each of which depicted the person that was buried beneath it. These tombstones became expressions of the power, prestige, and individuality of the deceased and his family. They became even taller in death than they were in life.

Of course, as is by now well known, these huge statues consumed huge resources on an island with severely limited resources.  Once the people consumed the resources they needed to survive on these remote islands things started to get nasty. As statues covered the landscape of the island the trees began to disappear, until they were all gone. What was the person who cut down the last tree thinking? People thought their religion demanded they build these statues for their leaders. This was certainly a case of an unfortunate interpretation of religious obligations leading people astray. Not for the first time or the last time.

After trees disappeared the capacity of the inhabitants of Easter Island lost their  capacity to embark on great voyages also disappeared with them.    After making these remarkable voyages, “on Easter Island, ocean voyaging died away.” At least this is what scientists believed until recently.

Recently an archaeologist in Chile, Jose Miguel Ramirez Aliaga from the University of Valparaiso, was not convinced by the traditional story. He did not believe ocean voyaging ended in Easter Island. He believed that they went 4,000 km farther east to Chile.  In Chile, Aliaga found something that only a Polynesian could have left behind—a chicken.  Based on convincing DNA evidence he proved that chickens came to South America long before Columbus did. When Columbus “discovered” the western hemisphere, chickens preceded him. Aliaga is convinced they came from the west. In other words from Asia!

In addition Aliaga found sweet potatoes of South American origin farther west in the South Pacific that are 1,000 years old.  These potatoes came to the South Pacific from South America long before European explorers like Cook came to the South Pacific.  As Aliaga has asked, if this not enough evidence to convince us that Polynesian explorers came all the way to South America what evidence would convince us? Yet there is more evidence.

Recently scientists have analyzed skulls from Easter Island and have found genetic members of native South Americans in their DNA. According to Thompson, “This is proof beyond doubt. Far earlier than Columbus there was an ocean voyaging culture that stretched all the way to the Americas.”

Master Navigators

The thought of those stupendous ocean voyages from the east coast of the Pacific Ocean, bring up the critical question which Niobe Thompson asked, “Are those skills of the master navigators still alive today?” When settlers reached Hawaii they were 4,000 miles from the nearest land. What could be more remote than that? According to Niobe Thompson, “it may have been the most dangerous voyage of discovery Polynesians ever took. Find land or die at sea. When Europeans arrived that incredible story was almost forgotten.” It may have been the most dangerous voyage anyone ever took anywhere anytime! That is a story that should never be forgotten.  It was truly an epic voyage—perhaps like none other the world has ever seen.

By the 20th century traditional sailing was dying in the Pacific. Of course, why sail when you have found paradise? I know I would have been tempted to stay put. Things don’t get much better anywhere than they do in the South Pacific.

In 1975 Hawaiians discovered a man living on one of the most remote islands of Micronesia. He was the last of the master navigators who could sail across the Pacific without modern instruments or maps. He was “living proof that Polynesia was discovered by master navigators.” It was no accident. How did he do it? He relied on watching the location of the moon, planets, and stars at different times. They paid particular attention to the rising of the sun and moon and used this valuable information to navigate across thousands of miles of oceans without charts, books, records, or instruments. He relied on what he had memorized.

Oceanic people know that they did not discover the islands of the Pacific by accident. As anthropologist Sam Low said, “for oceanic people to set out on the Pacific like that required almost ‘super heroic’ people. It was one of the greatest migrations of humans in the history of humankind.” We have a lot to learn from people like that. That is what is important in this story.

For many people it is very natural to go to the sea.  It took a 1,000 years for humans at the end of Asia to decipher star maps and learn to sail the open ocean.  Thompson said, “Once they did, the South Pacific was theirs.” Yet, the human odyssey was far from over.  What about the second half of the planet?  What about the Americas?

The Big Pacific


Countless islands can be found around Papua New Guinea. From these islands our ancestors perfected the art of sailing. They honed skills that were of vital importance for the human journey.

The Pacific Ocean is vast. It is the largest feature on the planet.  It is 19,800 km wide from east to west at 5º N.  This is halfway around the world or 5 times the diameter of the moon. It is also 15,500 km long from north to south and covers 1/3 of the earth.

The Pacific Ocean contains the lowest point on the planet—the Mariana Trench, which is the deepest part of the ocean and the deepest location on Earth. It is 11,034 meters (36,201 feet) deep, which is almost 7 miles. If you placed Mount Everest at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the peak would still be 2,133 meters (7,000 feet) below sea level. The average depth of the Pacific ocean is 4,280 metres  putting the total water volume at 710,000,000 cubic kilometres.

Of course the Pacific Ocean was bigger when the Polynesians first crossed it. That is because of plate tectonics, which are causing the Pacific Ocean is to shrink at roughly 2.5 cm (0.98 in) per year on 3 sides roughly averaging 0.52 square km a year. The Atlantic Ocean is increasing in size.

The Pacific Ocean covers more than 30% of the earth’s surface. It is clearly the largest water mass on the planet with a surface area of 60 million sq. miles (155 million sq. km). The Pacific Ocean basin is larger than the landmass of all the continents combined. It has almost twice as much water as the Atlantic Ocean. It holds more than half the Earth’s open water supply. The conclusion is clear: the Pacific Ocean is BIG! It was a very big obstacle for ancient humans to cross, but somehow they did it.

As Niobe Thompson said in his television series, “its islands are like grains of sand scattered across a vast blue void.  They are impossibly remote. Yet eventually, humans reached every one. Yet how we came to settle the islands of our greatest ocean is a mystery that puzzled European sailors for centuries.” After all, they considered themselves the master sailors. How could these people have done it?

Around Papua New Guinea there are countless islands from which our ancestors—our wise ancestors—perfected the art of sailing. Those skills would prove invaluable on some amazing journeys. Journeys that astound us to this day. It is possible that we discovered those islands by accident. For a long time this is what Europeans believed. They could not comprehend the possibility that perhaps some people—well before them—had greater navigational skills than they did. This was another example of the familiar hubris.

In 1947 Thor Heyerdahl and his crew set themselves adrift on the Pacific Ocean on their raft Kon-tiki to establish the theory of accidental drift.  Ocean currents pushed them 7,000 miles from South America to Polynesia. He believed that natives gradually peopled the islands across the ocean island by island. On the other hand, Wulf Schiefenhövel said this is nothing but Eurocentric vision.   New research indicates a much different vision.

Geoff Irwin of New Zealand spent a lifetime trying to prove that the first explorers of the Pacific Islands were not drifting aimlessly, but were instead master sailors.

In the South Pacific, the trade winds blow from the east to the west.  Most people, like Thor Heyerdahl, thought that this was also the direction of human migration. It made sense didn’t it?  Well not completely.

Irwin believed people did not come with the prevailing winds. He believed that people set out in a direction that would most likely make it easy for them to return.  After all, who wants to set out with no chance of ever coming home? Sort of like these people who have signed up for space journeys with no hope of returning. Some people are this adventurous, but not many. Most people are too sensible to be that brave.

As a result of this analysis it actually makes more sense for people to migrate to the South Pacific Islands from the west so they can set off against the prevailing winds and come home with those winds. It is not easy to set off into prevailing winds, but sailors know how to do that. They were incredibly smart sailors.

Yet we need some hard evidence for this interesting theory. Where is that evidence?  At a wind tunnel at the University of Auckland they changed sailing in 1995 when New Zealand took the Americas Cup for the first time with a boat designed there. Even at 40º into the wind a canoe can still drive forward. Their experiments showed that upwind exploration was possible. This is still not proof, but it is evidence that it is possible for Irwin’s explanation to be right.

The next question was if people from Papua New Guinea used their boats to sail across the ocean how they did they navigate? Lisa Mattisoo-Smith used genetics to reconstruct the settlement of the South Pacific. She is Professor of Biological Anthropology at the University of Otago focusing on identifying the origins of Pacific peoples and their plants and animals in order to better understand the settlement, history, and prehistory of the Pacific and New Zealand.

As a result of her investigations she concluded, “the navigational skills and knowledge of course are not preservedarchaeologically, but it is indicated archeologically.” The fact that their exploration was almost instant is good evidence that they possessed the skills and had an exploration strategy. There was almost instantaneous dispersal from Papua New Guinea. Not only that, but they were continually successful at their settlements and that tells us “these people knew what they were doing. These people were prepared. They knew where they were going, and they knew what they needed to survive when they got there.” In other words, their explorations were far from accidental. They knew exactly what they were up to.

These ancient travellers crossed the islands near Oceania to remote Oceania about 3,000 years ago.  That was about 2,500 years before Columbus “discovered” North America or about 1,500 years before Vikings came here. We have to remember how far the Polynesians  traveled over the vast Pacific Ocean. These were astonishing voyages all made without western navigational instruments and with just tiny islands in the vast Pacific to be discovered.  As a result the Eurocentric view has been exploded. Within 300 years they did it.

Lisa Mattisoo-Smith makes it clear: “the whole settlement of the Pacific is under-celebrated and under-valued in terms of representing the capabilities of people thousands of years ago. They did amazing things.” These ancient people demonstrated clearly that ancient people were wise. We have to respect that wisdom.

As Schiefenhövel said, “Homo sapiens is a crazy animal. They do things which you don’t believe are possible and the migration into the Pacific is one of those things.” They traveled against strong prevailing winds, yet that is exactly what they did. It seemed impossible, yet they did it.

Other Hominins

The other Hominid species were not as lucky as Homo sapiens.  About 200,000 years ago, at the time of the evolution of hominids, Africa was chock full with many different kinds of walking apes/primates. They were all much like us. We were kin—close kin. There were, for example, Neanderthals, Denisovans, and Homo erectus of whom we know very little.

There is some confusion about terminology here that I would like to dispel, but I am not sure I can. The two words “hominid” and “hominin” are similar and definitions have varied over time. Hominids were originally only humans (homo) and their closest extinct relatives. Those are now usually called hominins. Other than humans, all hominins are extinct.          The 21st century meaning of the word “hominid” includes all the great apes (including those that are still around) and humans.

Denisovans or Denisova hominins are a recently discovered species of human in the genusHomo. In March 2010 scientists announced that they had discovered a finger bone fragment of a juvenile female who lived 41,000 years ago in a remote Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains of Siberia. She has been called “X woman.”  I wish they had given her a better name. That was a cave that had been inhabited by Neanderthals and modern humans. Since then 2 teeth from different members of the same population have been found.

Analysis of the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) of the finger showed to the scientists that it was genetically distinct from the mtDNAs of Neanderthals and modern humans. Subsequent evidence has showed that the genome from this specimen suggests that this group shares a common origin with Neanderthals and modern humans. Apparently they ranged from Siberia to South East Asia. They lived with and even interbred with some ancestors of modern humans. DNA evidence discovered in Spain suggests that Denisovans at one time resided in Western Europe. Previously it was believed that only Neanderthals lived there. A comparison with the genome of Neanderthals from the same cave in Spain revealed significant interbreeding. The evidence also strongly suggests that the Denisovans also interbred with an as yet unidentified ancient human lineage. Other pieces of bones are now being analyzed.

Later mtDNA analysis revealed that this new hominin species was a product of an earlier migration out of Africa and was distinct from later out-of-Africa migrations associated with modern humans. It was also distinct from Homo erectus. The addition of this new hominin species makes the history of humans much more complex than it was earlier. It also creates a more complex picture of the Late Pleistocene. This research suggests that the Denisovans were a sister group to the Neanderthals, branching off from the human lineage about 600,000 years ago and diverging from Neanderthals, probably in the Middle East about 400,000 years ago.

Anthropologist Niobe Thompson visited a number of recognized experts on human origins and the African world of our ancestors. These experts, shown on the television show I watched, included Rick Potts the Director of the Smithsonian’s human origins program. As well he visited archeologist Curtis Marean, whose South African excavations are telling us how humans escaped the threat of extinction, and Chris Henshilwood, whose discovery of the earliest symbolic thought and art-making is revolutionizing our understanding of the beginnings of the “modern human.”  Along with other scientists they are changing how we think about our origins. These new views are fascinating.

A lot of recent archaeological evidence has been gathered in southern Africa in recent years. I saw some of those sites in 2013 during my visit to Africa with Christiane. Now scientists say that they have found evidence that southern Africa was “the cradle of the human mind.” This is where there is evidence that the Homo sapiens were reduced to pitifully small numbers. Yet miraculous they survived while the other hominins perished.

According to Thompson “some of our cousins were so like us that we ‘married’ into their lines, or they ‘married’ into ours. Our DNA carries the signals of those meetings”

All other species of hominins disappeared. That was because life during and after the last Ice Age was tough—very tough.  All died out, except Homo sapiens. Some of these species were bigger than us. Some had larger brains! Yet Homo sapiens survived. Their story is remarkable. It is worth thinking about that story. Our ancestors, like all indigenous people, were remarkable.

It does seem strange that Homo sapiens now occupy a “lonely branch of the evolutionary tree.” Why did Homo sapiens manage to do what all other species of hominins were unable to do?  That is a very important question well worth contemplating.  If the unexamined life is not worth living, as Socrates said, and as I believe, this is a question worth pursuing. Why were Homo sapiens special enough to survive while all of their cousins went extinct?

         I like to think that Homo sapiens survived because they learned to cooperate with each other, better than other species. Of course, liking to believe something does not necessarily make it so.


Children of Extremes


I watched a fascinating show on CBC television The Nature of Things. It was called The Great Human Odyssey: A World of Extremes.  This was the first of a series of 3 shows. The first show was the story of the evolution—the deeply interesting story—of human evolution.

The story was written, produced, narrated and directed by Niobe Thompson, anthropologist. He asked many important questions: Where did we come from? How did we survive near extinction? And why did we become one of the world’s very few global species? This is the human story. It is an indigenous story.

The makers of the series benefited from recent scientific research that has led scientists to revise nearly every chapter of human story. On the show, Thompson talked to some of the worlds’ leading researchers into the origins of humans. Thompson actually participated in the lives of some the world’s few remaining nomads and hunter/gatherers in Africa.

One of the interesting things about the evolution of humans is that humans are the only form of life, according to Thompson “unhitched from the natural limits of an ecological niche.” I am not sure I agree with that statement. Is anyone or any creature actually delinked from its ecological niche? I don’t really believe that.  Yet it is clear that humans have been able to adapt to new environments and even change those environments when it suited their needs. To that extent they were unhitched from that niche. Yet every one and every creature is intimately tied to our environment. We are a part—a vital part—of that environment.

Humans as a species evolved in  very harsh environments. That is why it was necessary for our species to adapt. If humans could not have adapted they would have failed like all the other species of hominids disappeared. As Thompson said, “ ‘evolution of adaptability’ is our inheritance from our difficult past.” It may be our most important trait.

In fact recent scientific research has confirmed that at one time Homo sapiens literally stood on the brink of extinction numbering only a few thousand individuals somewhere in Africa.  According to Thompson, there was such a population bottleneck that there might have been only 600 breeding pairs of Homo sapiens left on the planet. All of them were in Africa at that time. We are all descendants of that small group of humans.  We are all Africans. Imagine that: Homo sapiens were an endangered species.

Yet somehow the early humans managed to survive. They found a way to regroup and rebuild. From that small group Homo sapiens colonized the entire world, becoming the most dominant species on the planet in a virtual geological blink of an eye. How did they do it?

Climate change had created very difficult conditions in much of Africa where Homo sapiens could be found. Africa, in some places, experienced a serious drought for 40,000 years. That was the mother of all droughts.

There was only one way Homo sapiens could have survived such severe conditions with such small numbers.  Homo sapiens had to learn to work together.  They could have some rugged individuals. Some bright geniuses. They were important. But even more important, were the people who worked together to solve problems and then to pass on what they learned to the next generation of Homo sapiens. Both individuals and co-operators are crucially important to our success. This was a vital insight I gained from watching this television show.

Homo sapiens were at the time hunter/gatherers who needed to work together, co-operatively—to hunt their prey and gather food such as nuts, berries and other edible products. Without co-operation, I unreservedly believe, our species would have run out of gas and gone extinct like all the other hominids.

Because we could adapt we could survive. It is important to think about this now that we face an existential crisis. We can change, adapt and survive. But continuing on as we have done is not the right approach.

Evolving Economies on the Plains

The Eastern woodlands of North America was home to Indigenous people for at least 10,000 years and maybe more. Although the first North Americans, eastern Paleo-Indians, who lived there used stone tools  they were not by and large hunters of big game.  They stuck close to the “river roads,” by which was meant the amazing rivers of North America.  They were nomadic, but usually travelled along those major rivers and systematically took advantage of the seasonal availability of grasses, fruits, nuts, fish, and game. Meandering you might say. This was wise. As Hurst Thomas said, “Their broad spectrum adaptation spread out the risk and buffered people against the failure of any particular plant or animal species. This generalized ecological adaptation was to gain them a head start toward the more intensive gathering economies evident in later periods. As their population increased, Eastern Woodland people became more efficient, intensifying their economic exchanges with others, and improving their ability to store food for the future. They learned to protect themselves against year-to-year fluctuations in resources.”

Unlike European farmers, they knew enough to avoid monocultures like they avoided plagues, at least until they came across a plague they could not stop.

According to David Hurst Thomas, “The earliest true pottery in North America appears about 2500 B.C. in coastal and riverine Georgia, unassociated with any archaeologically visible trace of agriculture.”

As always happens, some people are better at producing food in their environments than others. When this happened, inevitably, as if following the rules of Adam Smith, trade followed. With time it was noticed that in some North American indigenous societies that were often very egalitarian moved away from that to more rigid and unequal societies. Archaeologists have discovered this from examining graves. Status was reflected in the disparity of the goods kept in graves. Perfection is as hard to maintain as it is to achieve.

There was one famous archaeological site which I would love to visit. This is Poverty Point in northeastern Louisiana. I think I drove past it a couple of years ago without knowing what I was missing. As I keep saying, life is hard when you are stupid.

Around about 1300 B.C. Indigenous people there began to construct some spectacular earthworks. One in particular was very large and bird-shaped. It was about 75 feet high. Nearby were 6 huge concentric ridges that were likely used as dwelling sites. The outer perimeter extended about 2/3 of a mile. It was necessary for the people to move millions of cubic feet of earth to build the structures.

The people who lived there participated in far flung exchanges that were used to trade copper and other stones. Even though they lacked the stones that Indigenous people in California could use to heat up and drop into baskets for heating up the water,  they cleverly  “manufactured” artificial stones out of clay balls.

Although the people there probably cultivated small gardens, the site was eventually abandoned, like so many other sites in North America, and it took another 1,000 years before North America would again see such elaborate ceremonial spaces.

We have a lot to learn from Indigenous people.  It is very unfair to call them savages, as Canadians at one time routinely did.

The Bread Basket of the World is not quite what you think

After decades of working with famers there is one thing I have learned: farmers are smart.  There is no denying that. On our way home from British Columbia this past summer, we naturally had to cross the Great Plains. This of course is my home. I’m a prairie guy. And the prairies now are the home of farming. The breadbasket of the world they like to say. And, of course, Canadian and American farmers take the credit for this and they certainly deserve some of the credit (and blame) for this. But this history of farming on the plains is not as simple as I was always thought. This is what David Hurst Thomas said in the book The Native Americans,


“Pick up any traditional textbook on “Western Civilization,” and it will tell you that agriculture originated independently in three places: wheat farming in the Fertile Crescent of the Near East, rice cultivation in Southeast Asia, and domestication of maize in highland Mexico. It would be remarkable, indeed, if farming had been invented independently at three different times, in three different places.

However, the textbooks have it wrong. Archaeologists have just discovered a fourth localized centre of plant domestication, entirely separate from the others. It is in northeastern America.  Although early explorers recorded extensive maize agriculture through the Eastern Woodlands, full-blown maize agriculture developed there only five centuries before the Europeans arrived.

The agricultural roots of native American society runs much deeper. We now understand that over the past four thousand years, the transition from foraging to farming along the rivers of the Eastern woodlands involved three key steps. First came the domestication of native North American seed plants about 2,000 B.C. Then, between 250 B.C. and A.D. 100, food production economies emerged based on these local crops. Finally, maize was introduced, and, between about A.D. 800 and 1,100, the role of maize changed from minor to major crop.

This still-unfolding story is yet another example of Native American ingenuity and enterprise.”


We have a lot to learn from Indigenous people of North America. Its time we started to appreciate that.


In the year 2001 our son Patrick was involved in the Katimavik program. As a result he spent about 3 to 4  months in 3 different parts of Canada. One was Newfoundland, one was Quebec, and the last was British Columbia. The way it operated was that he was part of a group of young people who worked usually for a non-profit company of some sort living together in a house where they lived communally with minimal adult supervision, but strict rules, and then a couple of weeks or so with a local family. This was repeated in each of the 3 towns. Specifically, he stayed in St. John’s Newfoundland, a small town in Quebec not far from Montreal, and New Hazelton in northern British Columbia.

One day Pat phoned up Chris and I and said we should come up to see him and beautiful northern B.C. I had never thought about going to northern BC, but it did not take long for us to agree. Being travel sluts we were soon eager to go. This trip opened us up to experiences we had never had before.


One of the first places we saw was Kispiox where they had some fine totem poles.

I must admit that one    One of the things I had never considered or thought about before to any significant extent was indigenous people. It seems unbelievable now, but after 7 years of university, I had never really thought much about Canada’s indigenous people, until, in Hazelton, we visited Ksan an historical village and museum just outside of the town at the confluence of the Skeena and Bulkley rivers


‘Ksan Historical Village and Museum (‘Ksan) is located near the ancient village of Gitanmaax,  at the confluence of the Bulkley and Skeena Rivers in the community of Hazelton, British Columbia.

As a replicated ancient village, ‘Ksan illustrates many features of a Gitxsan village from the distant past. For example, like its predecessors, ‘Ksan’s houses form a single line with each building facing the river. From this position, the large decorated house fronts and totem poles of the village are visible from the water. In conjunction with other features, such as the smoke house and food cache, ‘Ksan illustrates characteristics typical of a past Gitxsan village.

Found within Gitxsan Territory, Ksan Historical Village stands where the village of Gitanmaax has existed for centuries. It is the desire of Ksan to preserve and truthfully portray the lifestyle of the people who have always lived here.

This is not a great photo but there is an Indigenous fisherman fishing it the traditional manner on the rock to the left. For centuries and possibly millennia, Gitxsan’s have maintained communities at important canyons and junctions on the Skeena River. This location was an important fishing site and transportation hub.



On the way we saw some lovely mountains. Pat had convinced us to come here by telling us it was as beautiful as Banff and Jasper without all the people. He was not lying.


We also drove from Hazelton to Alaska only about 3 hours away. Near Hyder in Alaska we saw a glacier from above it. I will never forget that day.

Many years later when I actually started to read a little about our Indigenous people in Canada, I was surprised, very surprised to read in the history book I was reading, that this First Nation was mentioned on the very first page of their book, A Concise History of Canada’s First Nations.  According to Olive Patricia Dickason and William Newbigging, “The west coast Gitksan people maintain that the Upper Skeena River Valley, in the northwest part of the land that came to be called the Americas, is their Garden of Eden.” From my experience of this area nearly 20 years ago I can’t say that they exaggerated.

Years later I also realized that this area we visited with our son was the location of some historic cases on Aboriginal rights and titles and a modern treaty that has been a landmark precedent for relations between the Crown and Indigenous people, that I want to comment about in this blog at a later date. First I want to set the background for first contact with Europeans.

It is easy to see why Indigenous people loved the land and maintained a strong connection to it. This glacier was right beside the highway. I have Pat to thank for opening my eyes. I am grateful.