22 August 2008

Paul Shepard

Some time ago I read a very interesting article written by Matteo Meschiari: Terra Sapiens. Per una preistoria del paesaggio (in Quaderni di Semantica, LVII, 1/2008). You can read the text in Italian here, and the English translation here. The topic of this article is the connection between landscape and prehistoric mind, in the context of Human Ecology. It was here that I first heard about the American ecologist Paul Shepard and his original ideas about the mentality and ideology of prehistoric humans. Needless to say, if we want to understand how human language emerged and evolved during the Paleolithic it is necessary to try to imagine the characteristics of human life and ideology at those early times. I have just read Paul Shepard's Coming Home to the Pleistocene, a book that he finished shortly before his death in 1996 and that was published posthumously in 1998 (you can find more information about the author’s life and works here). In this book, Paul Shepard summarizes some of his ideas about human ecology and the mind of hunter/gatherer societies. It is not only a book written by a scientist, but also the work of a thinker who is concerned with the ecological and social problems of our age, for which he provides interesting insights.

The central idea of this book is that our genetic endowment as humans, our genome, was formed in the Pleistocene, in the context of hunter/gatherer societies and the ecological environment of those times. Therefore, Paul Shepard argues, later developments such as the invention of agriculture and the rise of cities and urban life have detached us from the kind of life and environment that our species was designed for. The misadjustment between human genome and modern urban life can be seen, for example, in the emergence of all kinds of medical and psychological problems that affect our society, and also in the environmental crisis that we have caused throughout millennia of non-ecological existence. Paul Shepard gives many examples of this and insists once and again that the reason behind these phenomena is our detachment from the original adaptive niche of our species.

I find his ideas about human ecology really illuminating, in the sense that they help us understand prehistoric society in connection with our own. However, I also see some weak points in his analyses, which are sometimes a bit too speculative and philosophical. For example, I find his chapter about the emergence and expansion of pastoralist societies quite erroneous. He assumes the traditional theory that sees Indo-Europeans as a Late-Neolithic pastoralist group that expanded throughout Europe and Asia in the 3rd millennium BC, and draws many conclusions from it. Unfortunately, Shepard’s opinions are misled by this traditional (and basically wrong) corpus of theories about IE origins; on the other hand, he tries to explain something as complex as the emergence of pastoralist societies in a simplistic ways. In any case, however, it must be said that the weaknesses in the exposition of some of his ideas do not invalidate the main lines of Shepard’s proposals. Possibly, they are in need of further development, and there are some authors, such as Meschiari, who are presently researching in this direction.

Coming Home to the Pleistocene is, on the whole, an appealing book. It touches the heart of our own human existence. Let’s see an example from the text:

(p. 143): “Wildness, pushed to the perimeters of human settlement during most of the ten millennia since the Pleistocene, has now begun to disappear from the earth, taking the world’s otherness of free plants and animals with it. The loss is usually spoken of in terms of ecosystems or the beauty of the world, but for humans, spiritually and psychologically, the true loss is internal. It is our own otherness within.”

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