The myth of the “Noble Savage”
primitives who lived in peaceful harmony with each other and Nature

Some peoples have undoubtedly lived more gently on the earth than others, but our species has yet to demonstrate an ability to live in communal symbiosis within an ecosystem. It’s a noble goal to aspire to, and we still might achieve it, but not with seven billion of us.

Constant Battles: the Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage
By Steven A. LeBlanc 2003
Book review by Les U. Knight

Steven LeBlanc thoroughly documents how our protohuman ancestors consistently over populated and exceeded their local carrying capacity. Violence to get other groups’ resources soon followed.

When we evolved into Homo sapiens, our troupes grew into tribes, then chieftains, where the battles continued on larger scales. Complex societies grew and created empires. Each one exceeded its carrying capacity until it was unable to expand further, and suffered the collapse Jared Diamond documented. [more]

Whence the “Noble Savage”
by Patrick Frank
November 2001
If Neolithic peoples didn’t treat one another with kindness, perhaps they were environmentally gentle. Perhaps not.

According to Jared Diamond the Easter Islanders, Anasazi, Creeks, Middle Easterners, Hawai’ians, and sundry Polynesian societies wreaked large-scale and irreversible damage on their environments by destruction of forest, fauna, and flora.

He recounts how when Polynesians arrived around 400 CE, Easter Island was covered with palms, trees and shrubs. By 1500 CE the entire forest was extinct and the population, grown past the carrying capacity, resorted to warfare, tyranny, slavery and cannibalism.

Similarly, the Hawaiians drove to extinction at least 50 species of birds including sea eagles and several kinds of large flightless ibises, and completely wrecked the ecologies of the drier lowlands of the islands. In similar fashion, between 1000 CE and 1200 CE, the Anasazi at Chaco Canyon irreversibly deforested their surroundings to a distance of more than 75 km, contributing to the collapse of their society. So much for 30,000 years of eco-bliss.

In his book The Ecological Indian, Shepard Krech shows that the relationship between indigenous North Americans and the environment was ambiguous at best. For example, the Hohokam of southern Arizona powerfully modified the ecology of the Gila and Salt River valleys by way of huge irrigation works leading to the salinization and exhaustion of the soils, and the eventual collapse of their urban society.

To read the rest of this in-depth article, go to Skeptic Magazine and order a copy of Volume 9 Number 1 $6US.

Indigenous populations deforested New World rainforests before European contact
Rhett A. Butler,
February 28, 2007

Indigenous populations used fire to clear large areas of tropical forest well before the arrival of Europeans reports a new study published in Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden. The research has important implications for understanding the impact of present forest development on biodiversity and forest regeneration in the tropics.

Using pollen, phytolith, and charcoal records to identify the distribution and composition of tropical vegetation and fire patterns over the past 11,000 years, Dolores R. Piperno of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama and National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, found evidence of widespread fire use for land-clearing by pre-Colombian populations in Latin America. Her work confirms earlier research suggesting the substantial impact native populations had on tropical forests long before European arrival in the New World.

Reforestation helped trigger Little Ice Age, researchers say
Stanford Report, December 17, 2008

The power of viruses is well documented in human history. Swarms of little viral Davids have repeatedly laid low the great Goliaths of human civilization, most famously in the devastating pandemics that swept the New World during European conquest and settlement.

In recent years, there has been growing evidence for the hypothesis that the effect of the pandemics in the Americas wasn’t confined to killing indigenous peoples. Global climate appears to have been altered as well.

Stanford University researchers have conducted a comprehensive analysis of data detailing the amount of charcoal contained in soils and lake sediments at the sites of both pre-Columbian population centers in the Americas and in sparsely populated surrounding regions. They concluded that reforestation of agricultural lands—abandoned as the population collapsed—pulled so much carbon out of the atmosphere that it helped trigger a period of global cooling, at its most intense from approximately 1500 to 1750, known as the Little Ice Age.

“We estimate that the amount of carbon sequestered in the growing forests was about 10 to 50 percent of the total carbon that would have needed to come out of the atmosphere and oceans at that time to account for the observed changes in carbon dioxide concentrations,” said Richard Nevle, visiting scholar in the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences at Stanford. [more]

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