Friday, April 08, 2016


I’m not very interested in names and dates of history, and openly suspicious of accounts of the past that congratulate the people recounting the tale.  But there are some points of history that are more than just “counts.”  The numbers actually point to forces almost geological in their size and impact.  But numbers lie, so all of this is provisional until we know more.  Still, sometimes they account for things in the present.  The task of sorting all that into meaning belongs to all of us, but esp. writers.

One set of demographics is that of the evolution, accompanied by migration, through the land masses as they shifted, erupted, sank, or dried out. The actual “demos” (the people) are by now nothing but fragments of bone which yield scrapings big enough and whole enough to create a bricolage genome.  Since genes mutate at a known rate, we can figure out (very blurry) beginnings and endings of populations.

“We”, meaning white people, have been very intrigued by the populating of Eurasia.  Those who want to have a hero military father-figure were delighted to know that Genghis Khan sowed his seed everywhere.  They were less pleased by the proof that Homo Erectus and the earlier Neandertals interbred when the “Erectus” fellows came north.  In fact, the estimates of the variations over millennia on the theme of hominin are suspected to number in the hundreds.

Europeans and their great wave of emigrants to the empires have so dominated our terms and imaginations that we see everything through their eyes.  Now they are forced to look at everything with new eyes and readjust their assumptions.  Not only are we reclassifying the former planet “Pluto” into something not quite defined yet, the idea that Europe is a continent has been challenged.  The inhabitants are also being scrutinized.  Three waves of incoming populations have been suggested.  About 45,000 years ago the African hunter-gathers moved in.  You must imagine “filtering in” rather than a great march north, and they continued to evolve as they met new conditions.

About 8,000 years ago, farmers from the Near East moved in.  Remember that new people bring in new cultural memes along with their genes.  This one has persisted for a long time, even in America.  Family-based, dependent on hoarding to survive hard times, the high values were loyalty and defence.  

4500 years ago, the pastoral people who included Genghis Kahn, swooped in on horseback. They were nomadic sheepherders from Western Russia and their type also persists.  Consult “Game of Thrones.”

Compare this to the proposed pattern of people in the Americas.  People with Siberian genes “paused” in Beringia from 21,000 BCE to 27,000 BCE which at the time was continentally attached at both ends.  The American end was blocked by huge glaciers, so they became boat builders and populated the Pacific Coast because there is always food where water meets land.  The Monte Verde Paleo-Indians had arrived in Chile by 14,000-15,000 BCE.  When the glaciers withdrew, about 10,000 years ago or a little more, they followed the melting edge towards the east and came south along the Old North Trail.  Of course, since the Inuit travel around on the ice now, presumably they could travel on glaciers then. 

In the meantime science and technology had exploded in Europe and arrived in 1492 in ships with compasses, riding down the pre-existing people with sails and microbes.  “All of the 84 mDNA lineages that the researchers sequenced are now extinct.  In 1610 the CO2 level, the one that gives us the greenhouse effect, sank abruptly because the Native Americans died in such numbers that carbon-fixing forests replaced farms and towns.”  90% of the population died off, not because the Euros were capable of killing that many people, but because their microbes did.

Holy Family Mission on the Blackfeet Rez

So far I haven’t seen any articles about what WWI and the “Spanish Flu” did to depopulate Europe and lower carbon dioxide, but the Cistercian monastic movement began as an effort to repopulate the land emptied by the Black Plague in 1347 when 12 Genoese trading ships docked at the Sicillian port of Messina.  It’s estimated that 60% of the population perished.  The Cistercians were part of complex: Berdardines, Franciscans, White Monks, Benedictines, and then Trappists, who represented a return to strictness and manual labor.  The men who came to the Blackfeet were mostly from one of these orders and brought with them the preoccupation with growing crops.  The Holy Family Mission on Two Medicine River was one of the places where a fertile broad valley with nearby water made crops practical and successful.

Aeon is one of the websites I value and visit often, even contributing to comments.  Today this article — about a place sometimes called “Anatolia” struck me.  It was hard to read because it references so many places that have no clear pattern in my mind.  Here’s the formula for access in case the link doesn't work:


It is highly relevant now because that’s where the Syrian refugees are coming across water on a place called the Hellespont, the same as Cubans tried to get to Florida.  It’s where the little boy called Alan washed up on the sand along with many other bodies.  It’s only about a mile across.

The region is bounded by the Black Sea to the north, the Mediterranean Sea to the south, and the Aegean Sea to the west. The Sea of Marmara forms a connection between the Black and Aegean Seas through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits and separates Anatolia from Thrace on the European mainland.

“As with so many parts of the ancient world, then, Anatolia’s historical role shifted over time. During some periods it was the buffer zone between regional powers; but at other times it was the regional power, and the margins of empire were located elsewhere.”

Swerve.  Today it was excellent weather and I was happy to drive to Cut Bank to do the wash at “Washaway,” one of the more pleasant laundromats.  Ben, who with his wife owns and operates the place, is always eager to offer coffee and talk about politics and history and war — he is a WWII veteran.  And he worries about the rez issues, partly because Larry Reevis, constantly full of ideas, comes in many mornings to visit.

One thing that preoccupies all of us is the issues (multiple) of Sovereignty — that is, the right of the reservation to govern itself.  The area, mostly defined by economic forces (the oil is gerrymandered to Cut Bank as much as possible), political forces (Canada is the northern border) and geological features (the Rockies on the West, Birch Creek on the south), it ignores the once important tribal boundaries — Edmonton to Yellowstone, Rockies to Black Hills.  The confusion and competing powers of these elements have created a kind of Beringia or Hellespont, a place of passage that will disappear in the future because everything will disappear in the future and much already has, including many kinds of humans, rough drafts that didn’t make it.  (We'll keep trying.)

The rez was originally created partly as a refuge for a people who were culturally very different and partly as a confinement so they wouldn’t resist the Euros (descendants of Genghis Khan) invading everything.  It has been a resource and an irritant, an anomaly and an ethical dilemma since the Euros came.  But now we question everything.  Like, whether Europe is even a continent.  (We've already decided Pluto is not a planet.)

When I was little, one of my favorite books was “Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch.”  It’s been re-issued and now reads a little like “Stay Away, Joe” for kids with Irish instead of Indians.   “A national bestseller when first published in 1901, Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch endures today as one of the most memorable literary creations by a Kentucky author.. . .“Alice Hegan Rice spins the memorable tale of a family struggling against all odds in the Cabbage Patch, an old Louisville slum "where ramshackle cottages played hop-scotch over the railroad tracks." This hopeful story follows the Wiggs as they face eviction from their dilapidated house and take in two orphanage fugitives.”

What makes me think of Mrs. Wiggs was that she named her children for the continents:  Asia, America North and South (twins), Australia, Europe — I don’t remember any of them being named Arctic or Antarctic.  But maybe I’ll write a story about kids on Moccasin Flats (which doesn’t really exist anymore) named Beringia, Siberia, Yukon, et al.  And maybe they could argue sovereignty and the shadowy but persisting sovereign nations on the high prairie that don’t just cross the official rez borders, but also international borders.  Kids’ clear eyes might be just what’s needed.

In the meantime, I’ll pray (well, something like that) for the Syrian kids wearing flotation jackets while trying to cross the Hellespont in rubber boats.  There IS a culture problem, as always.  But we evolve.

In the meantime, I'd better see what this book is about!


Anonymous said...

"They were less pleased by the proof that Homo Erectus and the earlier Neandertals interbred when the “Erectus” fellows came north. " Homo erectus is much earlier than Neanderthal.
I think you mean Cromagnon, who came north after the earlier Neanderthal.

Neanderthal (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis OR Homo neanderthalensis, depending on which authority you use)
Homo sapiens (European version was known as Cromagnon) came north out of Africa, then to the Middle East, then to Europe, where the older Neanderthal was waiting.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

My bad. I'd meant to go back and check it, but didn't. Thanks for putting it right.
Prairie Mary