Climate change and migrations

With fires raging and people fleeing to the sea in Australia, and evacuations in the Philippines in the face of volcanoes, I think about all the instances of weather and climate that have changed the shape of world populations. The few that I know about are certainly samples of many.

I started thinking about this when I read that half of the European immigrants to North America from Plymouth to the formation of the U.S. were indentured servants. Europe was caught in the throes of the Little Ice Age. It was cold and crops failed or yielded little. Fathers would take their sons and daughters to the dock and turn them over to a ship’s captain. The captain would sail them to the “new” world and recover their passage with their sale to waiting farmers and settled and prosperous families.

In my research, I read Brian Fagan’s The Great Warming, a history of population ebbs and flows with planet warming circa 800-1400. The Vikings went across the seas, colonizing Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland. European populations swelled as farmers grew wheat in Norway and wine grapes in England. The moldboard plow was invented to turn up new ground with the exploding populations.

But in the Americas at that time, indigenous populations were decimated by heat and drought. Half the people of the California coast died as their acorn-based diet died. The Mayan cities, reliant on sophisticated irrigation systems, collapsed with drought and the people scattered and survivors scratched livings in small villages. And I think this was the time that the very sophisticated society at Chaco Canyon collapsed. People dispersed; we have no record of where they went, and how many died in getting there.

The mound cities, including Cahokia, near present day city of St. Louis, and circa 1100 c.e., larger and more sophisticated than London with 10,000-40,000 people, grew and collapsed during the Warming—overuse of resources? Floods? Climate? Not sure.

The planet cooled, populations in Europe shrunk rapidly with the plague, and the generations of survivors literally shrunk in size. Charlemagne, King of the Franks in the late 700s and early 800s—the very beginning of that Great Warming period, commanded an army of six-footers. Napoleon, who ruled, fought, and lost with an army of soldiers of five-footers, had his run towards the end of what is called the Little Ice Age, the period from roughly 1300-1850.

Which is of course a period that encompasses the colonization of the Americas by Europeans (and the demise of the Vikings settlements in Newfoundland and Greenland). North America apparently recovered with the cooling. Population, including that of the Mound cities and the Pacific coast, might have fallen rapidly, but corn and agriculture had moved from Central America north; agriculture, and very sophisticated hunting, fishing, and gathering, served populations well. As crops and agriculture moved, so did people. And until modern genetics, we best traced that with linguistics. John Wesley Powell commissioned a language study in the late 1800s at the Smithsonian, and came up with 45 or 48 language families in North America. Alvin Josephy started with languages in The Indian Heritage of America, published in 1968, long before modern genetics. The language maps show Athabaskan—or dene—languages in present day Canada, the North Pacific Coast, and in the Southwest, with Navajo and Apache among others. It would be interesting to correlate Athabaskan languages and peoples from north to the south, and the Algonquins from the Northeast to the Pacific coast with climate and weather events.

There were of course conflicts and wars too. But even wars can own to climate. There is now good evidence that the turmoil of the Arab Spring and upheavals and eventually war in Syria had to do with drought. Drought chased farming rural people into cities, where jobs and food were scarce for many and created a swelling population ready for any radical change that might mean bread.

Now the people of Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and Central America scurry north, to milder climates where agriculture and industry still thrive. We can blame mass migrations on corruption, mismanagement, overpopulation, and wars, but somewhere in the mix is drought and hunger.

With heat and drought come fire and sporadic flooding of vulnerable lands. With rising tides, more dramatic shifts of rains, snows, and temperatures; with winds, hurricanes, typhoons, fire and flood (add earthquakes and volcanoes), the populations of the world are probably in the beginning of rapid transformations. What parts of Australia will survive—and where will its populations go? How many islands in the Philippines will go under? How long can New Orleans stay above water? How much air conditioning can Phoenix afford? Where will Phoenix—and much of California—get its water as the Colorado gets overtaxed and evaporation sucks its waters? And where will all the people go?

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Happy Thanksgiving–and pass the cranberries

“Wild” cranberries

“America was until this last generation a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation and it belongs to us.”

That’s a quote from Richard Spencer, self-appointed spokesman for the “alt-right” in a gathering of some sort in Washington D. C. last week.

Right now, I am reading A Land So Strange: the Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, an explorer-adventurer in the New World whose party of hundreds was put off course, shipwrecked, stranded, and lost somewhere near present day Florida in 1527. He, along with three others, were the sole survivors of an ordeal on the North American mainland that lasted over seven years and involved starvation, cannibalism, enslavement, and the first detailed descriptions of Indian societies along the Gulf of Mexico. Most likely, few early European arrivals were literate; fewer still had the gift and took the time to describe the New World. De Vaca remarked, for instance, on the size and physical prowess of the Indians–something that startled many Little Ice Age Europeans.

I jump from Spencer to Cabeza de Vaca not because the one is an avowed racist and the other not, or because Spencer speaks from a life of ease and privilege while de Vaca lived through excruciating hardship, but because of the total irony of Spencer’s “America was until this last generation a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity.”

America was, for the first 12,000 or 14,000 or 16,000 years—the dates keep getting pushed back—a land of Asian immigrants who had populated it from Arctic to near Antarctic and grown in numbers to some 60 or 70 or 80 million by the time the cycles of life and cultures in the place were interrupted by European diseases and culture with Columbus in 1492. This half of the world had developed over 2,500 languages, diverse religions and political systems; had domesticated corn, tobacco, rubber, squash, potato, chocolate, llamas and alpacas. Some of its societies developed writing, systems of mathematics and astronomy. There were skilled sailors, boat builders, whale hunters, fishermen, weavers, potters, wood carvers, artists and artisans.

Societies, cities, and empires had risen and fallen—pre-Inka to Inka, Mayan, Mississippi Mound-builders, plainsmen, coastal tribes—in a kind of dance with far-off and invisible partners in Europe, Asia, and Africa that were doing the same.

The conceit of Europeans in 1492 is that they were the true ones, had the true civilization, culture(s), and religion(s) that deserved to rule everything they found and surveyed. The parentheses are because Europeans ultimately could not agree on what was true, which caused different European nations and religions to war with each other in this new world.

De Vaca and the Spaniards believed that they were designated by God to colonize this new world and plunder its riches for themselves, their European sponsors, and their Church. Their misunderstandings and misdeeds preceded Mr. Spencer’s probable northern European ancestors by decades. But de Vaca in particular gained some appreciation for the marvelous ways that native peoples across hundreds of miles of Gulf Coast and the interior of what is now the Mexican-American border country had learned to manage their environment and carve out lives. And surely some of the northern Europeans, whose visitations on Virginia and New England resulted in similar hardship and eventual displacement, gained the same appreciation.

One wonders at the role of epidemic diseases in both cases, diseases that wiped out indigenous communities without immunities and convinced some of the conquerors—and undoubtedly some of the victims—that God was on their side.

From this distance it appears that some white Americans believe that still, believe that they are the true and only lawful heirs to the work of God and the hard labor of European settlers and later white immigrants.  They are ignorant of or choose to ignore the thousands of years and millions of brown immigrants who preceded them and developed the two continents through their acts of discovery and adaptation, and to ignore the millions of black, brown, and yellow skinned people who, often enduring slavery, scorn, and even death, brought the North American Continent (we’ll assume Spencer is not speaking for the many South American countries and cultures) and these United States to where we are today.

Cranberries, like the squash, the wild turkey that is father to your domestic variety, the potatoes and beans and other accouterments that are on your Thanksgiving table today, were here before Spencer’s forbearers knew there was an America. Maybe he and his white purists should start by stripping their Thanksgiving tables, and everyday tables, of the gifts of others.

The rest of us can give thanks to ALL who have contributed-even some of those like de Vaca who were often wrongheaded about it–to our tables.

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Living inside “the warming”

In my last blog I wrote about an interview I came across with Alfred Crosby, historian and author of “The Columbian Exchange.” Crosby said that he had tired of teaching the standard American history of Washington and Jefferson, and, looking for deeper stories of early America, kept running into smallpox. Smallpox led him to an examination of the immense amount of biology that had been left out of the standard historical narrative.
“Why,” the interviewer asked, and Crosby opined that it was probably a matter of habit, that “history” had traditionally been a matter of wars and politics, presidents and kings—and sometimes queens—and the social and political machinations that transfer power from one group, one generation, to the next. Biology—and all that stuff about diseases, plants, animals, bugs and birds going from one half of the world to the other was/is dealt with in another building, another discipline.
Which ties back to our friend Alvin Josephy in a couple of ways. First, in his research on the Nez Perce, Alvin Josephy “ran into” the fur trade; in researching other Patriot Chiefs, he discovered a different American history than he had been taught; and in preparation for The Indian Heritage of America, he found that linguists had much to say about migration patterns and populations.
In my own catching up with Alvin’s ideas on American history and Euro-Indian relations, Europe’s “Little Ice Age” pops up like the fur trade and Crosby’s smallpox. Many of the indentured servants who came to Jamestown and the early colonies were running from (or being sent by worried parents away from ) European droughts and famines. The Norse presence in Greenland and Baffin Bay reversed with the Little Ice Age. The earliest European painters of American Indians seemed so impressed with the size and grandeur of the Indians that Rousseau’s noble savage seems a natural next step. Etc. etc.
So Al Josephy suggested I look up a book by a guy named Brian Fagan that his dad had do some work at American Heritage in the 70s, and that he took a class from at UC Santa Barbara about the same time. I checked it out, and it must have been Mysteries of the Past, a book Fagan co-authored for American Heritage in 1977, that Al was referring to. But I wanted The Little Ice Age, and, as I was in Portland last weekend, ran to Powell’s to find it. It wasn’t on the shelf, but a later Fagan title, The Great Warming, was, and so here I am, inside climate change, following the earth’s warming BEFORE the Little Ice Age.
Norse in Greenland
“Roughly,” between 800 and 1200 A.D., the earth warmed and we got the moldboard plow and agricultural and population expansion in Europe; the Norse sailed to Iceland and Greenland (and sent back huge quantities of walrus ivory); and there were killing droughts on the California coast and in Chaco Canyon. And much more! The striking thing about it all is that the people living “inside” the warming were adapting—and thriving and perishing—decade by decade and year by year. The name—The Medieval Warm Period—was coined less than a century ago.
Within the “warming,” there were wet and dry periods and places. There were enough California acorns stored for two or three years of drought, but a decade or more and oak trees died, and people died or moved inland. Elaborate Mayan reservoirs could handle a few years of drought, but with prolonged warming and drying they failed, and the population dispersed to smaller villages and farms as the great cities died. In Europe warm was accompanied by moisture—often but not always—and grain was grown at ever higher elevations and north latitudes. But not every year!!
 (As a side note, the explorations of ancient climate are incredible and incredibly complex: tree rings, ice cores, vineyard and church records, cemeteries, and on and on.)
The key elements, it seems to me, are how many local populations adapted—by relying on old kinship ties, by moving, by learning new tricks of agriculture and husbandry, and how wildly populations fluctuated during these turbulent times. And, finally, how living inside a long 400 year “trend” provided little opportunity for looking at the whole, and incredible, immediate, demands to find water, food, and shelter “now.”
Do tsunamis and hurricanes and eroding ocean beaches have us—or at least the people immediately involved—doing the same things?  And how difficult is it to be a prophet or forecaster from inside “the warming”?
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Class discussion: Charlemagne Napoleon, protein and white bread

I’m stretching my Josephy Library legs, offering a class—“Introduction to Indian Studies and the Nez Perce Story”—at the new Josephy Center. It’s based on Alvin materials—chapters from books, speeches, and journal articles he wrote over 50 years—and has become a lively weekly conversation for the dozen of us who gather in the Library on Wednesday mornings. Our text this week was the first chapter of 500 Nations, and the discussion revolved around similarities and differences of the North American tribes, and, inevitably, the rise and fall of cultures.  Culture led to economy, and economy led to—diet.
Barrie Qualle grew up in Saskatchewan ranching country, with Cree, Assiniboine, and Gros Ventre Indians all around, and remembered how tall and stout they were. “Six two and six four not unusual,” he said. Barrie thought that their diet must have been heavy in protein and that they lived in a place and at a time when meat and fish were abundant. In lean years, he surmised, their bodies grew even more efficient at converting the foods they had.
We talked about hunter gatherers of the Plains and the agricultural Indians of Mississippian and Mesoamerican cultures, and how food abundance had created wealth and economic specialization—but left those cultures more susceptible to drought and torrent. And historians have indeed laid the failures of the Mississippian Mound and Mayan cultures to dry spell and drought.
 Which all reminded me of a long ago doctor’s office visit where I picked up a medical magazine and read about a study of the height of soldiers in Charlemagne’s and Napoleon’s armies.  The author was trying to establish the impacts of diet and climate on human health, and finding old records of soldiers’ heights gave him something to compare. It was a stark comparison. Charlemagne’s army, in the late 700s, was made up of six footers; Napoleon and his troops, a thousand years later, were five footers. 
At least two hundred of those thousand intervening years are known as “Europe’s Little Ice Age,” a time when cold and starvation, though not in every year or every decade, were substantial and frequent. The period coincides almost exactly with the rise of European colonialism and the white settlement of America. 

So the scrawny white guys, armed with guns and diseases and a sense that they were God’s chosen, came to the New World and pushed south from the Caribbean and West from the Atlantic Coast. And as they pushed and “removed” indigenous people with their guns and diseases and notions of cultural and religious superiority, they took Indians from their food and food from Indians—in North America, slaughtered the buffalo and pinched tribes onto smaller and smaller reservations—and then wrote return payment with commodities into their treaties. In other words, they took away the protein and gave them sugar, flour, and salt (skimming as they went, so the Indians were robbed of protein and then even of the white commodities).
That is the pattern that Alvin describes in Civil War in the American West—whites protected trails, settled land, fought or wrote treaties, promised cash and food, reneged and/or skimmed, fought and wrote more treaties, pinched more land…
It occurs to me that there is a direct line from those actions and treaties to the commodity foods of today, and that good and bad, fat and thin, protein and white flour, good nutrition and the lack of it, running from starvation and causing it, are all part of the big historical landscape and North America today.  
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