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.