Monday, June 22, 2009

Ignoble savages?

I’ve appreciated many of the posts on Louis Proyect’s blog, because Proyect is one of the relatively few contemporary Marxists who has taken a strong interest in the situation of indigenous peoples in First World nations like the United States. I agree with Proyect’s criticisms of some of Marx’s early, ‘imperiocentric’ works, and I share his enthusiasm for some of Marx’s late and still little- known writings, like his studies of agrarian reform in Russia.

I can’t entirely agree with Proyect’s new blog post, though, because I don’t recognise the assumptions he brings to it. Proyect considers the theory that the first settlers of North America were the ‘Clovis’ people, who crossed the Bering Strait over ten thousand years ago and began hunting woolly mammoths and the other huge beasts that roamed across what is now Canada and the United States. Advocates of the Clovis theory have argued that the pioneers were such successful hunters that they wiped out most of the megafauna of North America in only a few centuries, and that their descendants were therefore forced to develop an agricultural society.

Proyect thinks that the Clovis theory tells us more about Western prejudice than the facts of prehistory. He believes that the advocates of the theory are projecting some of the more brutal realities of industrial capitalist society into the distant past. Proyect has been a long-time critic of Jared Diamond, and he finds the author of Guns, Germs and Steel guilty of misusing the Clovis theory:

perhaps no other evolutionary psychologist has embraced the Pleistocene overkill scenario with more relish than Jared Diamond who wrote an entire book—The Third Chimpanzee—making the case that we are nothing much different than these marauding apes... his interest in these matters is highly ideological and this is the way to understand it. Like many of his co-thinkers, there is a need to establish primitive man as primitive in the sense of brutal... Proyect argues that the extinction of much of the ancient megafauna of North America was probably caused by a comet strike or some other natural cataclysm, rather than by indiscriminate hunting. He believes that, far from being evidence of the irredeemably evil nature of humanity, prehistoric societies can actually be models for a future society:

a hunting and gathering society had little need to kill animals except to satisfy such needs as food, clothing and shelter—all of which a bison could supply. Even in cases where there was “overkill”, like driving animals over a cliff, the main goal was to satisfy an immediate need. Once that was accomplished, the community could devote its time to singing, dancing and other forms of recreation that Marshall Sahlins described in terms of Stone Age affluence.

On the other hand, capitalism sees all flora and fauna as input to the commodity production process. Bison were killed initially in order to supply hides for the European clothing market and later on they were exterminated in order to free up land for cattle ranching. Today vast trawlers scour the ocean to turn the last bluefin tuna into the last sushi special. Meanwhile, American Indians struggle to defend their right to fish for Salmon and whales as part of their traditional way of life. Some ecologists can’t distinguish between the trawler and the Makah motorboat, but that would not be the first time in history that an Indian gets a raw deal.

As socialists, our goal should be to create a world in which the production of what Marx called use values prevails. This means adopting the communal structures of Clovis peoples and their successors but combining it with modern technology. This finally is the only way in which the remaining megafauna can survive, including homo sapiens.


I share Proyect’s antipathy for Jared Diamond, and agree with his criticisms of the tendency to ‘eternalise’ our modern industrial capitalist society by proclaiming that it is merely an instantiation of some fictional ‘human nature’. I can’t agree, though, that the Clovis thesis was an attempt by archaeologists and other scholars of the past to tarnish Palaeoindian society.

The Clovis thesis is very much a creature of the middle decades of the twentieth century, when a series of mysterious discoveries were made in remote areas of North America. After being confronted by simple flintheads embedded in the excavated remains of the mammoth and other long-extinct animals, archaeologists decided that North America had been settled for much longer than they had hitherto suspected, and that the earliest settlers of the continent must have hunted the megafauna they found there to extinction.

In recent decades, though, evidence has been gathered which suggests that humans were living in South as well as North America even earlier than the Clovis hunter-people, and that creatures like the woolly mammoth might have been wiped out by a comet or some other natural disaster.

The Clovis thesis may have been mistaken, but it seems to me that Louis Proyect’s interpretation of the ideological motivations for the thesis is also mistaken. Proyect believes that the image of vast numbers of massive beasts being slaughtered by fearless but reckless Indian hunters makes the indigenous people of North America seem like ‘the Wehrmacht’. But horror at the mass slaughter of huge animals like the mammoth was not a common sentiment when the Clovis thesis was being coined and developed in the middle of the twentieth century. It is a sentiment which has only become truly widespread in our own, more environmentally sensitive era. Jared Diamond may be tut tutting the Clovis hunters for their alleged exploits, but he is very much a latecomer to the Clovis theory.

Fifty or sixty years ago, the denigration of indigenous peoples very often took the form of the belief that they were ‘outside history’, and that their societies therefore never made any ‘progress’. Hunter gatherer societies, in particular, were often considered almost immoral because they did not seem to alter their natural environment in any ‘progressive’ way, and because they never seemed to produce technological innovations. The Australian Aboriginals are a classic example of a group (or groups) of people whose supposed lack of impact upon their environment was used as a justification for their dispossession and oppression.

It is only in relatively recent times that the denigration of ‘timeless’ societies has become less widespread. In place of this denigration, we are often now treated to a sentimental celebration of peoples who are able to ‘live in harmony’ with their environment and avoid the ills of the modern world.

At the time it was created, the Clovis thesis probably owed a great deal to the most powerful paradigm for the study of American history, the so-called Turner thesis. According to Frederick Jackson Turner, the outlines of American history and society have been shaped by the frontier which the early European settlers of the continent crossed and ‘tamed’. In the era when the United States was becoming the world’s pre-eminent imperial power, Turner and his many disciples presented the country’s history as an epic, largely admirable story of conquest and adaption.

I’m hardly the first person to suggest that the Clovis thesis, which imagined Palaeoindians bravely confronting and overcoming massive beasts then having to innovate in response to the changing demands of the environment they had ‘tamed’, seems like an adaption of Turner’s theories to prehistory.

The Clovis thesis may well reflect the tendency of its creators to imagine the past in terms of the present, but it can hardly be considered to have been an attempt to besmirch Palaeoindians as environmental vandals. Of course, those like Jared Diamond who recycle the theory now, when it has not only been discredited but has very different connotations, may well have the malign motives Louis Proyect detects.

9 Comments:

Anonymous alison said...

Interesting post - thank you. Just on the 'comet strike' thing - meteorite impacts tend to leave reasonably characteristic signs behind, & something large enough to clear out the North American megafauna would surely have been detected?

8:11 pm  
Blogger maps said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

8:44 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Hi Alison,

I'm an interested layperson rather than an expert, but I personally think Louis goes too far in trying to deny a connection between megafauna extinctions and prehistoric humans. He makes a sceptical comment about the Maori connection to the extinction of the moa in the blog post I discussed which also seems a bridge too far (another Kiwi has dealt with this in the comments under his post).

I note, though, that specialists do seem inclined to credit the 'Younger Dryas Impact Event' with creating conditions that might have led to the extinction of megafauna about 12,500 years ago by suddenly cooling large parts of the planet, including North America. Here's a BBC report on the idea:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7808171.stm

8:48 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Btw Alison, thanks for letting us know in another thread about your post on the Pye 'starchild' skull at:
http://sci.waikato.ac.nz/bioblog/2009/04/an-alien-starchild.shtml

I must admit that, though I am remorseless foe of some types of pseudo-scholarship, I have a soft spot for cryptozoology. I don't really believe in undiscovered hominids, but I'd fascinated to read your expert opinion as a biologist on the hoary old 'Patty' film, which I blogged briefly but plangently about here (bear in my mind that I was in the final stage of my PhD thesis and thus partially deranged):
http://readingthemaps.blogspot.com/2008/03/perils-of-youtube.html

9:12 pm  
Blogger Edward said...

Nice post maps. I agree with much of what you've said. I think the author has suffered slightly from taking Jared Diamond seriously and representational of scholarly work. While the clovis thesis is largely discredited, I also think Louis swings too far the other way and focuses too much on the noble vs 'ignoble' dichotomy despite trying to negate it. His subsequent use of the mode of production model falters where he doesn't take into account cost-benefit or subsistence patterns in relation to social organization - this is one of the models archaeologists have used for decades now. While I could appreciate what he was trying to say, I think, like maps suggests, that the Clovis thesis was more a sign of the times in which it was created rather than a quasi-concerted effort by scholars to undermine Indigenous Americans. Understanding prehistory is often a case of cumulative self-correction just like many other kinds of science.

9:36 am  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

The Americas were peopled probably about 40,000 years ago from Asia by those crossing the Bering straight (as I reacall somewhat fargmentedly from Anthro I at Auck UNI about 1991 or so) - I dont know the Clovis theory - but that they came via the ice bridges during various of the Ice Ages seems plausible - also large numbers of large animals were slaughtered - not out of "primitiveness" but for food as conditions there (North America during the Ice Ages etc) were or are harsh - I doubt that that caused extinction, or a comet (that sounds more like something from Jules Verne or E A Poe!) - that is a complex question - the Moa was killed off by Maori as they possibly didn't realise there was a limit to them as such, or, remember Maori worked as smaller units or tribes, not as one nation, and so on - so they failed in that case to "farm" them - but they certainly made sure that other aspects of fauna and fishing were "farmed" - or at least more so.

It hasn't got much do do directly with Capitalism* - there is indeed a tendency for "progessives" of various kinds to either romanticise or sink in to gloom about Mankind based on historical knowledge (and in particular of primitive peoples) - the picture overall doesn't look good - but we don't have to look back to the Americas - we have probably proved our hopelessly barbaric nature last century with two horrific wars followed by the Vietnam, Korean and other wars**, and so on - and things are not looking good - but I still buy Tuna!

We are predators and we have this dichotomy - we can "murder and crete" - we seem to do more murdering and more destruction. Of destruction Partick White in the 'The Tree of Man' : "Destruction is always more convincing than Condstruction"

There are no guarantees - the cockroaches await to inherit Beethoven's 5th, the cities, the farms, the power stations, Macdonalds and Kentucky Fried, The Internet, the poems and love songs, the love stories, the heroism, the novels, the tea cups, the trailing dresses, the conversations, the memories, David Letterman and Dr Phil, napalm, the huge Libraries, the pornography, the pathetic beliefs in things, the pollution, the murders, the brutality, and the stories of love and childhood...all turned to ash and the odd bits of bone.

Talk to me on a bad day. Prove me wrong!

But the obvious point is that we are not the pinnacle of evolution or "God's Plan" we are only one more branch and can become extinct as easily ourselves - insects are more "succesful" number wise and also birds are more numerous by species and probably by numbers than Mammals. If we do die out or destroy ourselves by Nuclear war or greed and stupidity - well there will be heard a huge dark Hughesian cackle as of a Great Dark Crow or the deep fundamantal and resonant recycled Fart of a hugely and iredeemably dead Pig....but only the cockroaches (and maybe some '1984' rats) willl possibly register any slight notice of this last Joke played by God.


*I recall reading Marx and Engels on US Indians and their relatively socialistic societies - very interesting.

**There is one hope - it seems that the huge wars such as WWI & II etc are unlikely to recurr. Chronic "small wars" such as that in Afghanistan seem to be all the rage...but whether Mankind is inherently evil? - well the jury is out...

1:14 am  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

Erratum -"Murder and create."

1:16 am  
Anonymous alison said...

ooh, expert opinion? :-) I don't know that I know enough large mammal anatomy (I was a bird person) to comment on those aspects of the 'Patty' clips. But I'd have to say that I seriously doubt that there's an undiscovered large hominoid wandering around in the American backwoods. OK, people are still discovering new species, but they tend to be on the small size. In addition, there are things like the population size necessary to keep the species going for such a long time (you'd think the things would be seen on a more regular basis; poor old Nessie suffered from the same problem) - & the fact that AFAIK hominoids evolved in Africa/Asia & not in the US.
I used to quite like the idea of Nessie, when I was a kid... :-)

4:45 pm  
Anonymous Heated Jacket | Heated Gloves | Heated Clothes said...

Hello, nice article full of useful and informative topics, I note, though, that specialists do seem inclined to credit the 'Younger Dryas Impact Event' with creating conditions that might have led to the extinction of megafauna about 12,500 years ago by suddenly cooling large parts of the planet, including North America.

7:51 pm  

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