Flashback: Eating Bidodiversity

In this article, I describe a typical armadillo-hunting expedition and some of my personal reflections around what it means to eat “exotic” animals. It is an excerpt from my blog in 2005 when I was living in Costa Rica.

 

November 2005
Eating Biodiversity

After several weeks of telling them that I was interested,  I went last night with the neighbors to go cusuceando, or armadillo hunting(cusuco is the name for armadillo here)

I went over to their house around seven o’clock, a couple of hours after nightfall. After getting everything ready we started out across the cattle pasture on the other side of the road. I went with Jader and Milton, two of the young guys from the Nicaraguan family renting the house bordering our farm. Me and Milton were carrying flashlights and machetes and Jader had a homemade light strapped on his head that was wired up to a motorcycle battery that he carried on his belt. I was really impressed by this homemade light that looked like something a coal miner would have.

We crossed the damp grass, heading towards the edge of the river, the four dogs ran out ahead of us, tails wagging excitedly. An erratic light rain had fallen earlier that evening, but the layer of clouds had already been replaced by the usual, clear, starry sky of the dry season.

Cusuco hunting has been one of those symbolic activities for me, that has really come to represent my time down here. I had my first experiences cusuceando when I used to come down here as a little kid during my summer vacation. I was always hanging out with the kids that lived next door when it was Doña Tomasa’s family that was renting the house there. So, not only did I go with them to keep the pericos out of the milpa, but I also went a bunch of times to look for armadillos.

A lot of the things that we used to do as kids, I think of as “hunter gatherer games.” We were always climbing in trees eating guavas, jocotes, mangos, and nancites or looking for other kinds of fruit or fishing, catching crawdads and crabs, or getting shellfish from the ocean.
These were the activities that took up the time that I spent down here, and for the rest of the year in California I would continue to think about these. In my mind they came to be especially symbolic of the things that I enjoyed here in Guanacaste. ( I think that there is nothing better for a kid than to pass hours climbing in trees and eating fruit or sitting on a river bank fishing, I am very grateful that I was able to do this so much.)

All of the kids my age in Doña Tomasa’s family that I used  to play with have moved to Alajuela to work, so I have not been cusuceando in a really long time. I knew that the current neighbors went often, so I told them that I wanted to go next time they went. When I came down to Guanacaste this year, on my list of things to do I was hoping to get in  at least one armadillo-hunting excursion.

The majority of the day armadillos spend underground in their tunnels, so cusuceando is best done at night when they come out to root for food. What you do is you get the dogs all riled up and excited, running around following their noses through the grass. When they scare a foraging cusuco it starts running through the grass and brush. The dogs also scare out other animals, including skunks and opossums.
I can still remember the first time I went cusuceando how surprised I was by the distinctive ‘buzzing’ sound that the armadillos make as they run. This sound and the exciting chase that follows are the most memorable and also the part most resembling a “real hunt,” the majority of time actually being spent slogging through monte and digging in the mud.

The cattle pasture was  about a hundred yards wide where we crossed. Within 10 yards of the river we came under the canopy of the tall trees that grow on the banks. Like the beaches here, the river can not be privately owned, and the trees along the edges are supposed to be left. Unfortunately, what often happens is that the river carves away at the banks and the forested margin falls into the river little by little. Eventually, there is no barrier of vegetation left, and the cattle pasture extends all the way to the river edge. This erosion continues, with more and more of the cattle pasture being washed away in the river every year. This process results in the loss of the forested buffer that protects the edge of the river and provides vital riparian habitat.

It seems to me that it is exactly this riparian habitat that the cusucos are very fond of. Almost all of the times that I have gone cusuco hunting has been in the corridor of tall trees along the river. During the day you can see the many dens in the tangle of roots on the river banks; you can also see where they have been rooting for food in the leaf litter.

After walking through the open pasture, the transition to tall trees and vining undergrowth was dramatic. I no longer felt the cooling dry breeze, and the light of only a few stars made it through the swaying leaves and branches above. Jader and Milton suggested that we cross the river and continue the search on the other side so we waded across a part that was about knee deep. We walked through slowly, shining our flashlights down and scanning the water. Many tiny, pink, shrimp eyes reflected back at us from the sandy bottom and silvery minnows darted in and out of the light.

We sloshed out on the other side, Milton and Jaders rubber boots squeaked comically as we climbed up the steep bank. The forested margin was wider on this side of the river. We continued walking along the river edge, following the dogs. At one point we stumbled upon a bunch of cows, hanging out under the trees chewing cud.

Less than ten minutes after crossing the river, one  of the dogs started barking loudly, it sounded as if he already had something trapped. We hurried over to where the sound was coming from. When we got there, we saw the dog with the front half of its body stuck down a hole and its butt sticking in the air, tail wagging wildly. The other dogs were circling around barking and sniffing.

Jader pulled the dog away, and we all got on the ground with our lights straining to see into the hole…and listening for the sound of armadillo claws digging. There was no sign of anything but Jader assured me that the dog, called capitán, never lied. Milton started digging away at the hole as I held the flashlights and Jader went off and started chopping a tree branch. He came back and quickly fashioned the branch into the handle for the shovel that we were carrying. I was really impressed by this logical ingenuity because I would have probably hauled along a shovel with the heavy, long, awkward handle instead of just making it on the spot when we needed it.

After a couple of minutes of digging with the shovel we could see the armored tail of the cusuco. Everyone was glad because we had just been telling stories of other trips in which the digging race with the armadillo has lasted for hours. Milton noticed that there were a couple of nearby holes that might be escape routes, so he covered these up as Jader slowly started to dig away the top of the tunnel where he calculated the cusuco’s shell would be.
The dry dirt gave way sooner than he was expecting, crumbling down around the many-sectioned shell of the armadillo. Uncovered suddenly in its hiding spot, the cusuco shuddered its armored body, turning around and pushing quickly through the pile of loose dirt in a final attempt at escape. Milton, predicting the manuvuere, shouted a warning to Jader, who hurriedly pinned the armadillo with the shovel.  He reached down, grabbed it by the tail and lifted it into the air, holding it away from his body. The cusuco went into its furious “escape shake,” where they thrash back and forth violently trying to get free. You have to be careful when picking them up because of their strong legs and sharp digging claws, it is hard to hold on as they shake.

Jader stunned the armadillo hitting it sharply on the head with the dull side of the machete. He then slit its throat and we waited for the blood to drain before starting to walk back.

As usual, I felt a tinge of remorse in the last minute, or maybe that is not the right way to describe it. Not exactly remorse, but a thoughtful moment in which my mind grapples with meaning, the meaning of the whole thing. What this animal means and what it means to be killing it. Sitting at the computer, removed from the situation, I reflect on the different, often conflicting perspectives that I use in my attempts to make meaning out of the cusuco hunting that I participate in.

One of the foremost reactions that I can identify is the almost automatic association of hunting as something ‘bad.’ Combined with this is a sort of built-in, not necessarily well-founded tendency to think that “eating wild animals is just not right. (especially ‘exotic’ animals that seem more like something you would see in a zoo.)” Surely, a lot of people reading this have a similar first reaction. This is not only a semi-automatic tendency, I also have been trained to question the sustainability of what humans do, and I believe strongly that this is something important to question.

I always wonder about the ecology of cusucos and the impact that human hunting has on their local populations. I start to think: “should I really be eating these things?” But then I can also wonder about how much forest is cut down and turned into pasture, planted with non-native grasses, and permanently dedicated to cattle; what kind of impact does that have on cusuco populations?.  So…I can also ask myself: “should I really be eating and drinking milk products and beef?”

Why would it be so easy for me to label armadillo hunting as ecologically damaging even without all the research necessary to show that this is actually the case? I could probably pass it off as destructive while drinking a glass of milk and eating cheese, and the guy I was talking to would probably agree that the cusuco populations need a break while he eats his hamburger. The point I am trying to make is this: even in myself, I notice that I am likely to first be critical of the ecological impact of eating wild animals and only afterward reflect on the ecological impact of eating domestic animals.
I think that the reason for this sort of double standard has a lot to do with culturally built-in ideas of what is food and what is not food. The result is that we are likely to say “Looks delicious!” when offered a steak, but when offered a steaming plate of fried armadillo we are more likely to say “are you sure these things aren’t endangered?”

A lot of the questions that come up in my mind are equally applicable in other instances of eating biodiversity, such as fishing and crawdad hunting in the river, collecting shellfish from the rocks and tidepools.

If anyone knows anything more about armadillo ecology, or has something to contribute about the relative sustainability of eating domestic meat or eating bushmeat please contact me, I am very interested in the topic.

For all those still lamenting the death of the armadillo, don’t worry nature will get its revenge. please read my next entry, when biodiversity bites back!

 

 

I plan on sharing some more of these old articles and I will come back to this particular subject in a future post. I’m still thinking about the ethics of eating biodiversity twelve years later.

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The cranium of a cooked monkey I was served in Amazonian Ecuador in January. Primates are not at the top of my most-want-to-eat mammals list but they are also no longer on my never-eaten mammals list now either. In some rain forests monkeys are an important source of food.

The Most Powerful Learning Technology

Journaling is the most powerful toolkit for dynamic human learning. It is affordable, accessible, democratic, and it can be modified and specialized in almost infinite ways. All you need is a pad of paper and a pencil.

Whether your learning is emotional, scientific, or artistic, journaling should be an essential part of your toolkit. Some of the greatest minds of history relied heavily on diaries, journals, and sketchbooks as a substrate for their thought process. Notable examples include Mark Twain, Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, Frida Kahlo, and of course Leonardo Da Vinci.

marie-curie-notebookPages from the journal of Marie Curie

How it works: I have done my best to break down journaling into what I see are the 7 major benefits.

Commitment and Attention : When you sit down to draw a flower in your journal or write about an idea you make a commitment to focus on that thing. This is very different from daydreaming where your brain might briefly consider something in passing. By writing about something or sketching it in your journal you show your brain that this is something important and you give your brain a chance to actually work on this subject. You will notice more about your subject, be more creative, and have better problem solving ideas when you attend to something by working it out on paper.

Visual-Verbal-Manual: Words are abstract and language is a recent innovation that uses a limited part of our brain. Many problems can not be solved in this part of the brain. However, when we put words on paper, when we write by hand, and especially when we combine images with words, more and more of our brain is engaged in the task. Even off-topic doodling during a lecture has been shown to improve retention of information (doodling).Visual thinking in general is a very powerful tool and incorporating graphic facilitation or sketch-noting into your work can be very beneficial. Sketch-noting

Externalizing your thinking For Objectivity: Another huge benefit of journaling or keeping a diary is that it allows you to get ideas, feelings, and emotions out of your head and down on paper. This is a powerful way to break cyclical thinking, unproductive rumination, and downward depressive thought spirals. If you are feeling super frustrated about a team that you work with and you start to write down how you feel on paper you immediately put some distance between yourself and the emotions. Now you can be more objective. Even if your only goal is to record your feelings you will find creative solutions start to bubble up on their own. For more artistic projects or group projects, externalizing your thinking is essential for feedback. And you know how I feel about feedback! Put your logo idea, business model, or permaculture design on a piece of paper where you can stand back and evaluate it. Now, it is not so personal, now, you can see the strengths and weaknesses, now, you can learn, now, you can move forward. Your journal can document these feedback loops and revision cycles.

Externalizing your thinking For Mental Space: Another benefit of getting your ideas out of your brain and onto paper is that it frees up mental space for higher level thinking. One of the main weaknesses of the human brain is our inability to simultaneously hold many pieces of information in mind. The more you are trying to hold the less freedom you have to make connections between the pieces or solve problems in a creative way. Get that stuff out of your brain and you will find new energy and inspiration to take your ideas to the next level.

Venting: People have used pen and paper to vent their emotions for a long time. This is another form of externalizing your thinking and your emotions. Just by expressing the emotions onto paper you get more relief than cycling it through your mind. The paper won’t get exhausted, judge you, complain, or resent you (some of the common drawbacks when venting to friends or family.) Venting in your journal or diary is healthy and can be emotional or intellectual. For example, when I am nature journaling at an aquarium and I am trying to accurately draw the subtle profile of a salmon I might get frustrated at my inability to quite capture the look. In my notes next to my sketches I will often write something such as: “This curve is tricky! Gah!” Or I might write a funny expletive next to an indelible mistake that I made. This helps me  get over it fast, not take myself too seriously, and not get to precious about the appearance of the page.

Chronology and Trajectory: The human brain is weak when it comes to remembering precise dates, times, and chronologies. It is also weak at noticing (or caring about) long trajectories and big patterns. Journals and diaries by their very nature become valuable sources of chronological information. When a journal keeper looks back at a journal from 3 years ago they are often able to see connections and recognize patterns. Is the snow on the mountains melting earlier this year then it has for the last 10 years that I have been keeping a journal? Am I noticing a pattern in my romantic relationships over the last decade since I have been journaling? These are the types of insights that by themselves make journal-keeping infinitely valuable because they are precisely the things that our human brain would often miss.

Record: Last of all, a journal provides a record. Do you need to double check how you conducted an experiment last year? Do you want to remember the name of someone you met or a secret waterfall you found? What about once you are dead? The world would be a much poorer place if Leonardo DaVinci and Frida Kahlo did not leave a piece of their brain behind on paper.

If you are already keeping a journal I commend you. If you are thinking about starting a journaling practice then I remind you: all of the great geniuses had a journal.

darwin-journal Pages from the journal of Darwin.

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Paralysis by Analysis…(rant)

There is a terrible affliction among humans past and present, it does not kill but it cruelly cripples, and it wastes many lives of those who otherwise have all of their physical needs well met. Many of the greatest minds, the most intelligent people, and the most creative types have been ravaged by this disease. And humanity has been robbed of much great art, great literature, and the greatest of inventions by the actions of this horrible disease.

What do I speak of?

I speak of Paralysis by Analysis!

It is a terrible disorder and it seems to become an epidemic especially among populations that have their basic survival needs met but are overstimulated, over-educated, over-developed, and in general have too much of everything they need. The chief irony here is that those with the most free time, the most opportunity, and the most means to achieve great new things fall into this disease by which they fritter away their time pondering what best to do and how best to do it. So much time do they spend on this analysis that they never quite get around to the execution of their overthought ideas and overwrought works.

Image result for renaissance drawing despair

While I am a big fan of “protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor” there is something to be said for “just doing it.” Unfortunately, the people who spend so much time perfecting their ideas and creating the best designs often lose and are preempted by the people with the bad, half-baked ideas who actually have the cojones to get out there and produce their ideas. Perhaps this is why we are being inundated by piss-poor ideas and terrible designs.

This then is a call to arms. If you are one of those who thinks a lot but diddles away your time trying to decide how exactly to do that thing you really love and that might actually help the world but you are not sure if you have the time or the resources or the will to actually do it…this is for you. There are plenty of people on the planet with bad ideas and the grit and the gumption to produce those bad ideas and push them.

Break free of the self-imposed shackle of analysis paralysis and start producing something! Putting yourself and your ideas out there will create feedback loops that accelerate your learning and improve your product faster than your solitary pondering.

I hate to quote corporations but the most fitting rallying cry is “just do it.”

 


 

“protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor” is paraphrased from a Bill Mollison quote.

The ink drawing at the top is by Tiepolo.

 

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Eating Babies

Spring and early summer are surely one of the most delightful times of year to be outside. In this vibrant phase of the yearly cycle nature is overflowing with tender new growth, fresh life, and amazing vitality. It is the perfect time of year to enjoy the bountiful blooming of wildflowers, to watch the lazy flight of newly emerged butterflies, and to eat the succulent flesh of babies.

“What did you say!? That is horrible! I would never eat babies.”

Most people will be surprised by one element from that list of spring delights. Some will be disgusted and offended. Nevertheless, I would argue that eating babies is as much a part of the spring season as wildflowers, bird song, and the verdant carpet of green that covers the hills.

Why is it that we romanticize the unfurling of flower petals, the prodigious buzzing of pollinators, and the chorus of frogs while feeling revolted and indignant when we see opportunivores swooping in to eat vulnerable babies? This is one of those instances where many scientifically-minded, and usually objective naturalists feel an uncontrollable urge to step in and “interfere” with the natural processes. The same person who professes a “leave no trace” backcountry ethic and a hands-off conservationist approach to wildlife management suddenly finds themselves chasing a hungry predator away from a fragile baby animal.

Is this just another example of our imposition of arbitrary and misguided ethics onto the natural world? Is this a product of the Disneyfication of nature in our modern Western society? Or is it perhaps a deeper human instinct, an innate and adaptive desire to protect our own babies that is easily triggered by the young of other species? A deeper look at the logic behind our diet and a cross-cultural survey might provide some semblance of an answer.

If you are adamantly anti-baby-eating, I suggest we take a look in your fridge. Do you have any baby broccoli, baby carrots, or baby corn in there? “But that is different,” you might protest, “those are just plants.” What about sprouts, the quintessence of tender babiness, that the health-conscious human might ingest by the thousands in a single meal? You might argue,“Those are still plants. They are not really babies.”

If eating baby plants is morally acceptable because they are more distant from us on the tree of life that might make some kind of sense. We won’t delve into the controversy of whether or not plants have feelings here, nor will we look at baby mushrooms which are phylogenetically more similar to animals like us than they are to plants. Instead, let’s take another look into the fridge of the anti-baby-eater to see if we can find any other ethical contradictions.

What’s that in the cardboard carton in the door? “Those are just, well, uh, you know, eggs…” you respond someone guiltily as if realizing the logical inconsistency mid-sentence. “ But they aren’t really babies yet and, uh, everyone eats them.” If an egg is not the best example of a helpless, tender, succulent, vulnerable, under-developed baby then I’m a mountain gorilla. Yet in our society we scarf chicken eggs in astronomical quantities without thinking twice about their nature.

It is a delicate ethical tight-rope walk that we navigate with egg-eating. We eat eggs by the dozen and incorporate them into more recipes than almost any other ingredient. Yet many people in our society get squeamish if they see a speck of blood in the yoke or think too much about the biological meaning of an egg as they eat their omelette. While we Westerners hard-boil eggs and put the whites in our desserts we are revolted by the mere mention of some of the Asian uses of eggs. The partly developed “balut” eggs prized in the Philippines are particularly difficult for most Westerners to stomach. This embryonic delicacy is but one example that shows the ethical ambiguity of eating eggs and babies when a cross-cultural perspective is taken.

In the case that you argue, “But I don’t eat Balut eggs, that is just weird and wrong!” let me bring up some other examples that are more appealing to the Western palate. As we continue our perusal of the fridge of the anti-baby-eater we might have to look in the freezer. Are those lamb chops? And is that veal? These examples of baby eating require less explanation to the average American and despite growing concerns about the ethic of veal production both of these meats are still commonly consumed in the US.

I think that baby-eating is a perfect example of where the ethics of humans and the ethics of nature converge in an ambiguous gray area that we must examine further. The simple fact that such topics incite powerful and conflicting emotions in most people means they deserve more thought. There is a tendency to do the opposite, to assume that something is either right or wrong, to make an unconscious value judgement based on one’s instinctual reaction or the majority opinion of one’s mother culture. This is a perfect time to slow down and observe our own thought process, our emotional responses, our social programming, and the realities of the natural world. It is at this frayed edge of our comfort zone where deep learning takes place.

Culture: Definition and Function

“Culture refers to the learned, socially acquired traditions of thought and behavior found in human societies. It is a socially acquire lifestyle that includes patterned, repetitive ways of thinking, feeling, and acting.”  –Marvin Harris and Orna Johnson 2003

If you were to take a person and peel away their clothes, food, tools, language, ideas, beliefs, and worldview, what would you have left? Would that naked body and empty mind still be a person? Would they be able to survive?

Humans are the only animal that depends more on culture than biology. Our bodies are weak and unimpressive compared to most animals. We are ill-protected from the elements in our thin skin, our senses seem mediocre compared to most, and we seem to have few physical adaptations for self-defense or harvesting of food. Nevertheless, we have colonized more of the planet than any other species and have developed strategies for surviving in some of the harshest bioregions.

Since the emergence of anatomically modern humans, 200,000 years ago, culture has been our main way of adapting and evolving. Unlike biological evolution, cultural evolution allows for much faster change. In many cases, cultural evolution allows for adaptations and novelties that would not be possible with biological evolution. Human populations that migrated to the arctic did not have to evolve thick layers of blubber, dense fur, or other physiological adaptations to the cold. Such evolution would have taken thousands and thousands of generations if possible at all.

Cultural characteristics, whether they be material culture or worldview, can be analyzed from a sort of evolutionary perspective. The basic assumption is that if culture is our way of adapting to the environment then there should be a rationale to cultural characteristics. While this view can be criticized as overly simplistic and deterministic I feel that it often provides useful insight and is capable of explaining many things. This way of seeing culture can also be helpful to get away from the idea that some cultures are superior to others or that there is a progression of cultural stages from lesser to greater. All cultures came about as an adaptation to a particular environment over time. Cultures that have been in the same region for thousands of years must adapt to fit that environment. From this perspective, the aboriginal culture of a region is likely to be the best-suited culture for that region.

This essay outlines the basics of the anthropological definition of culture. Whenever I refer to culture it is this anthropological definition that I am referring to.

Why learn primitive skills?

Stretching goat hides - 1
Your ancestors did not hop into their GPS-guided, climate controlled SUV’s and drive (while texting) to the nearest Wal-Mart to take care of their survival needs. They did not have heat, light, and water at the flick of a switch next to the refrigerator full of food. Your ancestors depended directly on their skills and in-depth knowledge of their surroundings to survive.

“Why do primitive skills still matter today? Aren’t we beyond that?” Some people might ask, implying that modern technology negates the importance of such ancestral ways. There are several major reasons why these skills are worthy of study and appreciation. First, I would point out the fact that for 99.9% of our existence humans have lived in small, non-hierarchical, minimally-specialized bands of foragers. That means that individuals understood, owned, and practiced the skills necessary for their survival. That is the context in which our species evolved; that is who we are.

When you begin to learn some of the basic skills that your ancestors used to survive you will develop a new understanding and connection with what it means to be human. You will be humbled by the level of sophistication, strength, dexterity, coordination, and creativity required for “primitive technologies.” Failure, frustration, exhaustion, and blisters will teach you to appreciate ancestral skills and hopefully you will stop taking for granted the luxuries of more modern technologies.

While humbling, primitive skills offer endless rewards for those who take time to practice and learn. In addition to a newfound sense of connection and respect, you will develop an empowering sense of self-sufficiency and a new way of seeing the world. Knowing your survival priorities and how to take care of them from materials found around you is a powerful and extremely basic set of skills. In today’s society the average person knows more about video games and celebrity pregnancies then they know about what their body needs to survive! Ask them to list their survival needs in order of priority and they will fail. No, Wi-Fi and caramel macchiatos are not survival priorities!

Studying ancestral skills will make you feel more confident, more connected, and more self sufficient. It will also put your life in perspective and help you deal with many modern issues. When you understand the basics that have provided for our species for the majority of our existence it will be easy for you to detect bullshit in the modern world. You will have a better grasp on what matters and what does not matter; you will see which modern technologies are indispensably useful and which are worthless trash.

Some primitive skills, such as tracking and nature awareness, have the potential to entirely change how you see the world! You will notice things and recognize patterns that other people will be clueless about. Not only is this perceptual shift fun and intriguing it is also utilitarian. Noticing things and being aware of subtle clues comes in handy in the modern city world just as much as in the woods. It could give you new insights at work, help you find your keys, or save your life.

There are also ecological benefits to learning and practicing Ancestral Skills. Basic human survival skills are the most fundamental way in which we relate to our surroundings. When you spend more dirt time practicing you get more connected to your environment and better understand your relationship with it. This should lead to a sort of environmental ethic that is not naive, city-born, or blinded by the human-nature dichotomy. Such an ethic and understanding can inform wiser daily choices. In general, our pre-industrial ancestors had a much deeper and culturally codified understanding of sustainability, resilience, and ecological responsibility.

Other benefits of practicing Ancestral Skills can come to our social lives, and our mental and physical health. Getting outdoors and cooperatively working with other people on tasks that we evolved to do has a powerful way of inspiring and satisfying. Communication, teamwork, and conflict resolution are also survival skills that served us in the past and are necessary in the modern world. This social aspect combined with the nature of many of the Ancestral Skills provides great exercise for the brain and the body. Many of the skills require new perceptual training, sensory development, and cognitive functions that we don’t engage sufficiently in modern life. Working on the type of tasks that our bodies and brains evolved to do has a powerful effect.

“Now I see why these skills matter, and they sound fun and interesting, but how am I supposed to learn about them? They don’t teach those things at my school!”
Ironically, now is the best time in history to learn these skills. There is a resurgence in the US and other countries to teach and practice primitive skills and technologies from different cultures and time periods. Below are links to several events and organizations that are good places to start.

Buckeye

Acorn

The Sharpening Stone

Saskatoon Circle

Wintercount

Rabbit Stick

Bulletin of Primitive Technology

 

 

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Diversity and Adaptation: Pastoral Nomads

Since the origins of pastoralism, different pastoral groups have used different strategies to survive. The economies, subsistence systems, and cultural identities of pastoralists are adaptive strategies that exist because of there ability to provide a livelihood for the people who practice them. Taking a cultural ecological perspective we will consider the culture of pastoralists as a survival strategy. These strategies are adaptive, and have “evolved” in response to the ecology of the region where the pastoralists live. They are also responsive to the economic and political context in which the pastoralists find themselves. However, as ecologies, economies, and political climates change, pastoral strategies that were once successful may cease to be so.

Some pastoralists have developed survival strategies that combine multiple subsistence systems, multiple economic strategies, or multiple cultural identities. Many pastoral groups are diversified in more than one of these ways. Other pastoralists have evolved strategies that focus almost exclusively on one sector of production or one economic pursuit. These pastoral groups are the opposite of diversified, they have specialized economic or ecological niches.

Some pastoral societies have been much more successful than others at adapting to changing circumstances. This has been especially obvious in the last century with the combined effects of government policies, conflicts, introduced diseases, and naturally occurring droughts. These rapid changes and crises have hit some pastoral people much harder than others, causing large-scale sedentarization, loss of herds, loss of independence, and death.

Looking at this differential success we must ask: why have some pastoralists been better at adapting to rapid changes in the ecology, economy, and politics of the modern world? Have those pastoral groups with diversified survival strategies fared better in some way than more specialized pastoralists?

Examining those pastoral groups that have been most successful in coping with change and disaster we can see that indeed, diversification is a key factor in adapting to change and recovering from crises. This diversity can be manifested in any aspect of a group’s cultural survival strategy:  in their religious or ethnic identity, in the makeup of the herds, or in the environments exploited. Those pastoral people that are diversified in one or more of these ways have multiple options with which to approach change, and they have multiple sources of livelihood in case of disaster in one area.

Here, we can use a metaphor that is helpful in understanding the differences between a specialized pastoral group and a more diversified one. We can equate a pastoral cultural survival strategy with a toolbox, and specific cultural traits we will equate with different tools. A pastoral people, such as the Bedouin camel-specialists, only have a few tools in their relatively small tool box. In comparison, the Baluchi shepherds of Southern Iran, and the Ariaal herders of Kenya, have large toolboxes with many different tools; both of these pastoral groups have diversified survival strategies.

The exclusive, camel pastoralism of the Bedouin only evolved in parts of Arabia and North Africa. In The Nomadic Alternative, Barfield explains the specialization of this cultural survival strategy. “By making themselves at home in an environment where no other nomads could survive, they were able to exploit not only a unique ecological niche, but in time a unique political and economic position[…](1993:60)” All of the Bedouin’s tools revolved around the camel and included: raiding, military power, control of trade routes, and political negotiations or extortion of sedentary centers. These tools were specific to the ecological, political and economic particularities of the region at the time. Barfield notes the modern results of this specialization, “Bedouin camel raising has been on the decline for at least seventy years. This is a product both of the profound economic changes in the region and a changing balance of political power which has given sedentary states much more control over formerly autonomous tribes (1993:87).” Barfield attributes the decline of the Bedouin’s economy to its specialization.

Even a diversified cultural identity can give pastoralists an adaptive advantage. The Ariaal people of Marsabit district in Kenya are a perfect example of this phenomenon. The Ariaal are a bridge culture between a Nilotic culture, the Samburu, and a Cushitic culture, the Rendille. The Samburu are related culturally to the Maa speaking cattle keepers such as the Maasai. They herd their cattle in the wetter highlands and plains in Samburu district. The Rendille belong to the Cushitic speaking cultures such as the Gabra and Somali (Fratkin 2004).

In his ethnographic study, Ariaal Pastoralists of Kenya, Elliot Fratkin describes the origins of the Ariaal as a mixed culture. “During the last decade of the nineteenth century, poor Samburu migrated toward Rendille and formed mixed Samburu/Rendille communities of impoverished herders attempting to build up small stock, camels and cattle near the mountain bases. These groups were alternatively called Masagera (meaning roughly “those Rendille who follow the Maasai” in Samburu), Turia (Samburu for “mixture”), or Ariaal ( 2004:48).

The Ariaal have also combined the subsistence strategies that are at the cultural core of the Rendille and Samburu groups. They practice the camel and small stock herding of the Rendille and the cattle-dominated pastoralism of the Samburu. This mixed herding system of the Ariaal has several advantages. Because they rely on different animals with different grazing requirements and capabilities, the Ariaal can exploit different environmental zones.

With camels they can convert the irregular and widely dispersed leafy vegetation of more arid environments into camel milk, meat and transport potential. At the most, camels require water every four days; this, combined with their long distance walking makes it possible for them to be herded in areas with sparse vegetation. About 30% of Ariaal grazing territory is represented by arid brush from 700 to 100 meters. This area is used for camel grazing in the dry season. Another, even more marginal environment that  the Ariaal are able to exploit through their camels is the Kaisut desert lowlands. This area makes up 55% of the Ariaal grazing territories. The desert provides an opportunistic resource when seasonal rains produce extensive pastures in the short wet season; this pasture is grazed by Ariaal camels and small stock (Fratkin 2004).

In contrast to camels, cattle are the most productive at converting the grassy vegetation of wetter environments into milk and meat. The Ariaal are able to utilize the resources of the savanna between 1000 and 1400 meters altitude through their cows. At this altitude there is much more rainfall to provide for the needs of the cattle herds. These highland environments of Marsabit and the Ndoto Mountains are the most important grazing area for Ariaal cattle even though in terms of area, these highland pastures only comprise 10% of their total herding territory (Fratkin 2004).

It is obvious then, that the Ariaal exploit a diverse environment, comprising at least four distinct ecological zones. They are able to utilize these different ecologies because of their diversified herds. The different diets, mobility, and water requirements of their different animals allows them to convert the vegetative products of several ecosystems into human food and animal labor.

The Ariaal’s ability to use these environments is also a factor of their mixed identity and ability to relate to both the Samburu and the Rendille. “[…] the Ariaal have greater access to grazing lands than the Rendille, as they utilize their broad ties of intermarriage, descent, and friendship with both Samburu and Rendille clans and can herd in their areas (Fratkin 2004:3).” The Ariaal speak the languages of both the Samburu and the Rendille. They belong to Samburu clan-names and practice Samburu age-set rituals. They also practice the Rendille customs of annual blessings of camels and evening group prayers led by elders. These cultural traits allow the Ariaal to associate with and get help from both the Samburu and the Rendille. These traits are also valuable resources that the Ariaal rely on as much as they rely on the different environments that they utilize. In a new situation or new economic opportunity, the Ariaal have twice as many cultural options to choose from in approaching the circumstances.

Fratkin shows how the Ariaal have benefited from their mixed identity and their exploitation of a mixed environment. In many cases they have faired better than the neighboring groups of pastoralists with less diversification. When bovine pleuro-pneumonia swept through East African cattle herds in 1882, camels and small stock were unaffected. Those pastoralists, such as the Samburu, who were heavily dependent on cattle were hit the hardest. The same thing happened when the rinderpest epidemic decimated cattle in 1891 and 1898. However, when smallpox spread through the human population at the end of the nineteenth century, the Rendille, who were more isolated and had no resistance, lost many lives. The resulting lack of herders to care for the large camel herds was one of the historical events leading to the emergence of the Ariaal.
The appearance of the Ariaal as a mixed culture around the time of these disasters is extremely significant. The diversified survival strategy that defines the Ariaal evolved as a response to the problems faced by the Samburu and the Rendille. Therefore, it is not surprising when Fratkin notes that the Ariaal, with their big toolbox, have been more able to maintain a successful pastoral way of life then many of the neighboring pastoralists. By not putting all their eggs in one basket, the Ariaal are less susceptible to disaster.

Another group of pastoralists that have met changing circumstances with diversification are the Baluchi. In his studies of the Baluchi shepherds of Iran, Philp Salzman has come up with the idea of a “multi-resource economy” to describe their diversified strategies of production. Most Baluchi households pursue sheep and goat pastoralism, agriculture, date farming, raiding/trading, and even some hunting and gathering. This history of supplementing the pastoral economy has made it possible for the Baluchi to remain pastoralists or return to pastoralism despite losses in the herding sector. The Baluchi have also been better at incorporating the opportunities offered by global capitalism into their multi-resource economy than those Irani pastoralists with more specialized economies.

Salzman describes how the Baluchi have benefited from their diversification. “The plurality of skills and abilities needed for prosecuting the Sarhadi multi-resource economy has proved to be invaluable for the Baluchi in adapting to changing conditions. The audacity and mobility developed in raiding was adapted to migrant labor, smuggling, and trading. And the flexibility of residence group nomadism was used to accommodate irrigation cultivation as part of the multi-resource economy (Salzman:352).” In other words Salzman is saying that the Baluchi have a big toolbox.

The opposite of a diversified economy is a specialized one. A specialized economy is usually the most productive adaptation to a specialized ecological or economic niche. Rendille camel pastoralism is the most productive system in the driest parts of Marsabit district. The economy of the Basseri is also more specialized (Salzman 2000: 357). Intensive sheep production in the high quality pastures of the Zagros Mountains is so productive that Basseri culture has evolved to focus almost exclusively on that sector, putting little energy into other sectors such as grain cultivation. Specialization limits a culture’s options when confronting change and does not provide much of a backup plan in case of failure in the sector of specialization.

Salzman notes that unlike the diversified economies of the Balcuhi “[…] the economies of the Basseri (Barth 1961) and Qashqai (Beck 1991) were more specialized. Pastoral sheep production predominated, with only a limited amount of supplementary grain cultivation. Similarly specialized were nomadic pastoral peasants such as the Yoruk (Bates 1973), the Sarakatsani (Campbell 1964), the Komachi (Bradburd 1990, 1994), and the peasant pastoralists of India (Salzman 1986, 1988).” Notice  that Salzman has defined  many of these pastoral groups as “peasant pastoralists.” These specialists have lost much of their political and economic autonomy in recent times. Many households have become permanently removed from the pastoral economy and alienated from their respective pastoral cultures.

It is apparent that pastoralists whose survival strategies are already diversified are better at adapting to change; this does not mean however, that specialized pastoralists are doomed in the face of change. Those pastoralists whose small toolboxes and specialized tools have not been successful in adapting to change have not just rolled over and died; they have not just disappeared or sedentarized. In many instances they have discarded their old tools and diversified their toolboxes. While the Bedouin have seen the decline of their specialized camel pastoralism, they have responded by developing new sectors of their economy by becoming sheep herders, smugglers, traders, and mercenaries (Barfield 1993).

The collapse of particular cultural traits and economic sectors should not be seen as the failure of pastoral people to adapt; it is a vital part of the cultural survival strategy. The sloughing off of cultural mechanisms that are not beneficial is as important to adaptation as the development of new mechanisms, or the exploitation of new economic opportunities. As the Bedouin have exemplified, even specialized pastoralists, whose old techniques are no longer adaptive, are more than capable of adjusting their survival strategies to meet new circumstances. The key for policy makers and development organizations is to realize this, and make the economic and subsistence opportunities available for pastoralists, who will diversify, and who will adapt, if only given the chance.