December 16, 2010

Maoris burnt New Zealand forests.

I mentioned some days ago that now it seems that early Australians did not cause widespread fires (against what was typically believed so far). On the contrary, now it seems that early New Zealanders (Maoris) did cause them. 

At least in the Southern Island, where much of the lowland forest was destroyed to make room for farming upon colonization (slash and burn farming). 

Full story at Science Daily (no study link provided).


Update: Terry suggests (see comments) that no farming proper was done in the South Island because tropical crops (taro, sweet potato) could not be grown. Instead Maoris there used the land to grow a local fern with an edible rhizome that made up for the crops and grew spontaneously in the burnt land.
 
However all I can find in regard to Maori use of this fern is that they treated it as a crop: preparing the land by slash-and-burn, because the best rhizomes grow only in rich soils. It's not any mere gathering of foodstuff spontaneously growing. 

24 comments:

  1. "At least in the Southern Island, where much of the lowland forest was destroyed to make room for farming upon colonization (slash and burn farming)".

    Not quite the case. Not much 'farming' was carried out in the South Island. From the link:

    "Wilmshurst said archaeological evidence suggests that successful cultivation of introduced food crops, such as kumara and taro, was only possible in warmer northern coastal areas"

    The burning was used to encourage:

    "the starch-rich rhizomes of bracken fern, which replaced the burnt forests, provided an essential part of Māori diets in colder regions".

    But even that is not the full story. It's long been accepted that Maori fires changed the NZ Vegetation considerably. The eastern side of the South Island is the driest part of NZ because it is in a rain-shadow formed by the Southern Alps.

    "This study shows the extent to which a small number of settlers can transform a vast and topographically complex landscape through land-use change alone, and highlights how exceptionally vulnerable New Zealand forests were to fire in the past".

    Implies the Australian study you posted could have the wrong end of the stick.

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  2. Ok. No "farming" but growing fern rhizomes, in a sort of farming anew.

    That's interesting because it reminds me of the "hunter-gatherer" strategies of Neolithic peoples at the Baltic (then confused with Paleolithic peoples by ignorant geneticists).

    I'd say that there are climatic barriers that condition, if not stop completely the expansion, of farmers.

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  3. Look at what Wikipedia says: "The Māori of New Zealand used the rhizomes of P. esculentum (aruhe) as a staple food, (...) much of the widespread distribution of this species in present-day New Zealand is in fact a consequence of prehistoric deforestation and subsequent tending of aruhe stands on rich soils (which produced the best rhizomes).

    I'd call this farming, really.

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  4. But note the 'rich soils', so that doesn't account for the widespread destruction of forest on the east coast of SI. The South Island was nowhere near as heavily populated when Europeans arrived as was the North Island, probably as a result of lack of imported food crops (and the cold). However the SI had been more heavily populated in earlier times, before the moa became extinct. It was more common in the SI, probably because there was more open country there even before the Polynesians arrived.

    Here's a link you may find interesting. Deals a bit with the religious aspect:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haumia-tiketike

    It mentions:

    "Bracken became abundant after the arrival of Māori, 'mainly a result of burning to create open landscapes for access and ease of travel' (McGlone et al., 2005:1). Aruhe was dug in early summer and dried for use in the winter. Although it was not liked as much as kūmara, it was appreciated for its ready availability and the ease with which it could be stored (Orbell 1998:29)".

    It's actually poisonous, to cattle and horses especially:

    http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/poisonous-plants-and-fungi/2/3

    "The creeping rhizome (underground stem) was an important food for Māori, who harvested it in late winter. They pounded roasted rhizomes to extract a starchy flour. The young shoots were also eaten. It is now known that bracken contains chemicals that cause cancer, and should not be eaten at all".

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  5. "But note the 'rich soils', so that doesn't account for the widespread destruction of forest"...

    Precisely: the burnt n' slashed forests are the richest soils. That's why this type of agriculture. After some seasons people clear another patch of forest, etc.

    If population pressure is low and forest regenerates fast (as happens with typical tropical jungle) then the system is sustainable. Austronesians practiced this kind of agriculture a lot and it is in fact at the root of the ecological problems of modern Madagascar, whose forest does not recover well.

    "burning to create open landscapes for access and ease of travel"

    This is faulty logic. People can well travel through forests and the NZ temperate forests are not so closed that they need much clearing.

    They burnt to tend the fern.

    "It is now known that bracken contains chemicals that cause cancer"...

    I doubt that diffuse cancer risk has ever stopped people. Cancer is (mostly) an illness of the old ones (after 40) and it's difficult to discern what helps cancer or does not.

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  6. "Precisely: the burnt n' slashed forests are the richest soils".

    So why did the burning include depleted soils and mountainous regions?

    "This is faulty logic. People can well travel through forests and the NZ temperate forests are not so closed that they need much clearing".

    Not so Maju. The NZ forest is notable because it has the appearance of tropical forest. That's presumably because most of its genera are tropical in origin, apart from the Gondwana-derived Nothofagus beeches. In fact Maori seldom ventured into the deep forest. Early Europeans commented often on the impassable nature of the unbrowsed forest. Since Europeans arrived deer, pigs, goats and possums have opened the forest considerably.

    http://www.kcc.org.nz/forest

    "Particularly in the north, New Zealand's podocarp/broadleaf forest has similarities to tropical rainforests. They both have lots of different species, many hanging vines and perching plants and many layers of vegetation".

    http://www.natureandco.com/travel_and_adventure/sightsee/natfor/idx-natfor.php3

    "The native forests of New Zealand are among the closest living relatives of the ancient forests of Gondwana. The ancestry of some tree species such as kauri, kahikatea and southern beech has been traced back without discontinuity to the Jurassic period, 100 million or more years ago".

    And:

    "In their undisturbed state they are luxuriant, dense, rich in undergrowth, ferns and tree-ferns, lianas and epiphytes. They can present a distinctively tropical character".

    And a comment here is relevant:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deforestation_in_New_Zealand

    "Since New Zealand was the last major landmass to be settled by humans, anthropological changes are easier to study than in countries with a longer human history".

    Some of the restored forest (browsing mammals eradicated) is back to being nearly impassable except along cut tracks.

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  7. "So why did the burning include depleted soils and mountainous regions?"

    The article does not say that.

    "the impassable nature of the unbrowsed forest"...

    There's something called machete. I'm sure that Maoris had something like that, even if made of stone.

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  8. "The article does not say that".

    You wrote:

    "At least in the Southern Island, where much of the lowland forest was destroyed to make room for farming upon colonization (slash and burn farming)".

    Much of the region where the South Island forest was destroyed was not very productive for fern, either mountainous or too dry. So the forest was destroyed for some other reason. Here's a link about Maori fire in NZ. It seems to be an early version of the study you've just posted:

    http://sites.google.com/site/msupaleoecologylab/Home/projects/maori-use-of-fire-in-new-zealand

    Quote:

    "Paradoxically, the extent to which forest was removed shows no broad-scale relationship with human population density. While densely settled areas invariably had associated forest clearance for gardening, dwellings, tracks, etc., virtually unoccupied areas often suffered even greater forest loss. For instance, densely populated, garden-suitable Northland and Bay of Plenty districts lost much less forest than the thinly settled, eastern South Island where gardening was marginal".

    So basic farming is an inadequate explanation.

    "There's something called machete. I'm sure that Maoris had something like that, even if made of stone".

    No. Not really. As far as I'm aware they used to clear forest only by burning. They were able to cut down individual trees using hafted stone axes though. But such implements are inadequate to clear large areas. A little bit on Maori tools:

    http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/kohatu-maori-use-of-stone/1

    Specifically axes:

    http://www.nzetc.org/tm/scholarly/tei-TreRace-t1-body-d15-d3.html

    Here's a media release from within NZ by Landcare Research. Not surprisingly there has been no mention of the study in any of the NZ media:

    http://www.landcareresearch.co.nz/news/release.asp?Ne_ID=301

    Quote:

    "'Because initial Māori populations were small, we can only conclude that forests were highly vulnerable to burning,' Dr McWethy said".

    And:

    "Before human arrival in New Zealand, fire was naturally rare in most forests, with lightning-started fires occurring perhaps only once every one to two thousand years".

    So if the NZ forests were 'highly vulnerable to burning' yet were not burnt until humans arrived isn't it vey likely that the same would be true of Australia?

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  9. Can you specify the sentence where your link says that mountain areas were cleared? I can only see that the South Island was more affected by fires than the North Island:

    "For instance, densely populated, garden-suitable Northland and Bay of Plenty districts lost much less forest than the thinly settled, eastern South Island where gardening was marginal".

    This is consistent with the press release and what I have been saying.

    As for "machetes", I meant to use them to open paths, not to destroy forest. In jungles it is not so much trees but shrubs and vines what make walking difficult (and there's where machetes come handy). You do not need to use fire, unless you mean to destroy the forest in certain areas.

    "So if the NZ forests were 'highly vulnerable to burning' yet were not burnt until humans arrived isn't it vey likely that the same would be true of Australia?"

    C'mon!

    1. NZ forests were not "highly vulnerable to burning", the fact that natural fires only happened every 2000 years or so, clearly indicates that they were not the tinderbox we find in Australia.

    2. Australian and NZ early colonizations are totally unrelated. Australian Aborigines were never agriculturalists, while Maoris were so all the time. You resort again to invalid comparisons across technological and cultural barriers in order to "prove" your preconception (cheat!)

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  10. "Can you specify the sentence where your link says that mountain areas were cleared? I can only see that the South Island was more affected by fires than the North Island"

    From the link:

    "by the time Europeans settled in the mid-19th century, grass and shrubs had replaced over 40% of the South Island’s forests".

    Less than 40% of the South Island can be called lowland:

    http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/mountains/1

    Quote:

    "About 60% of the South Island is covered by ranges with peaks over 1,500 metres high".

    That's just the 'peaks over 1,500 metres high'. Much of the remainder would also be describes as 'mountainous'. So presumably the clearing consisted of fairly mountainous regions as well.

    "As for 'machetes', I meant to use them to open paths, not to destroy forest. In jungles it is not so much trees but shrubs and vines what make walking difficult (and there's where machetes come handy)".

    But thge Maori people had nothing remotely resembling a machete. They did make tracks but by consistently walking particular routes. Presumably after they had been initially opened by fire.

    " the fact that natural fires only happened every 2000 years or so, clearly indicates that they were not the tinderbox we find in Australia".

    I doubt that the wildfires in Australia occurred more than once every two thousand years before humans arrived either. In fact the Landcare release says, 'and highlights how exceptionally vulnerable New Zealand forests were to fire in the past'.

    "Australian Aborigines were never agriculturalists, while Maoris were so all the time".

    Maoris were not particularly agriculturalists. Most of their sustenance came from wild resources. By the way. You have a closely related fern in Spain, Pteridium aquilimum. From photographs it seems to be less robust than NZ bracken but I presume it tastes much the same. You might like to dig some up and look at the rhizome. You'd hardly call the rhizome 'starch-rich'.

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  11. ""About 60% of the South Island is covered by ranges with peaks over 1,500 metres high".

    That's just the 'peaks over 1,500 metres high'".

    No, that's the mountain ranges ("About 60% of the South Island is covered by ranges"...), which have peaks over 1500 m. high. Get your facts straight, please. Or at least try to read properly and not interestedly. A quick look at the map shows that 40% is lowland, specially in the East and the South.

    "But thge Maori people had nothing remotely resembling a machete".

    Are you sure? They were Neolithic peoples with advanced stone tech. I do not know the particulars but I'm sure they could produce something like a machete, a broad axe or that fancy "sword" of peoples with microliths (which were typically assembled along a stick creating the stone age equivalent of a sword or big knife).

    "I doubt that the wildfires in Australia occurred more than once every two thousand years before humans arrived either".

    Nonsense. That's precisely what the other post and referenced article on Australian fires documented. Also in any pine or eucalyptus area (or surely other ecosystems as the African savanna), specially in dry weather (summer), fires ignite very easily: you only need lightning and lightning happens often.

    "Maoris were not particularly agriculturalists".

    They farmed: they were agriculturalists. I really hate when people do not understand this fundamental distinction and lumps "primitive" farmers like Maoris, Yanomamo and Papuans with genuine hunter-gatherers like Pygmies, Bushmen or Australian Aborigines without further thought. It's a fundamental mistake.

    "You have a closely related fern in Spain, Pteridium aquilimum. From photographs it seems to be less robust than NZ bracken but I presume it tastes much the same. You might like to dig some up and look at the rhizome. You'd hardly call the rhizome 'starch-rich'".

    The rhizome has never been consumed as far as I know here (no need either) but the tender new "leaves" yes. I have not tried them but I know they are edible.

    Rich or not rich, the case is that Maoris did make extensive use of this fern, prepared the land for its growth (fires) and tended the crop.

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  12. "Are you sure? They were Neolithic peoples with advanced stone tech. I do not know the particulars but I'm sure they could produce something like a machete, a broad axe or that fancy 'sword' of peoples with microliths"

    They may have had the technology to make such an implement, but they didn't do so.

    "They farmed: they were agriculturalists. I really hate when people do not understand this fundamental distinction and lumps 'primitive' farmers like Maoris, Yanomamo and Papuans with genuine hunter-gatherers like Pygmies, Bushmen or Australian Aborigines without further thought".

    And you have a completely unrealistic idea of how 'Neolithic' Maori actually were and, what's more, an exaggerated idea of the level of separation between 'hunter-gather' and 'primitive farmer'. The way the pre-European Maori people used fire as a tool to promote the growth of bracken is exactly comparable to the way the Aborigines used fire as a tool to promote the growth of fresh grass for their herbivore prey. Maori in the north are the only ones who could be called 'primitive farmers' in any meaningful use of the term.

    "Maoris did make extensive use of this fern, prepared the land for its growth (fires) and tended the crop".

    They didn't tend the crop at all. Simply set fire to the forest to promote its growth. Then harvested it as necessary.

    "in any pine or eucalyptus area (or surely other ecosystems as the African savanna), specially in dry weather (summer), fires ignite very easily: you only need lightning and lightning happens often".

    But, and it's a big but, eucalyptus only became dominant in the Australian landscape after humans arrived. Before that time rainforest was much more widespread.

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  13. I understand that there is a substantial, almost radical, difference between a real hunter-gatherer, who does not grow anything and a farmer who also hunts.

    For me (and many others) this is a fundamental element in understanding human cultural, social and economic evolution.

    Typically when a hunter-gatherer society such as Bushmen transitions towards agriculture or pastoralism, with their concepts of property, investment, planned work... everything changes. Your forager cousins will ask you to kill your goats for feasting, as is natural for foragers, where everything is solved almost on the day, property does not exist and sharing is critical for survival. But you cannot do that because then you lose your subsistence - but if you don't, you become a pariah egoist for your relatives who still live on the hunt.

    Another change that typically happens is the loss of male-female equality, because for women is harder to make a living, specially in pastoralist economies. In farmer societies sometimes (for example among some Papuans) women are instead enslaved to tend the crops while the men live on their work and do symbolic hunt now and then and other "aristocratic" men occupations like mask huts and polishing ritual adzes.

    A lot changes with this economic transition. Different societies may be different before and after adoption of agriculture but they all suffer changes in the general sense that I outlined with a couple of examples.

    Typically farmers are more bellicose, more organized, more hierarchical... Particulars vary, of course.

    "They didn't tend the crop at all".

    Wikipedia says: "prehistoric deforestation and subsequent tending of aruhe stands on rich soils". I have quoted that above.

    "... eucalyptus only became dominant in the Australian landscape after humans arrived. Before that time rainforest was much more widespread".

    Evidence?

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  14. "I understand that there is a substantial, almost radical, difference between a real hunter-gatherer, who does not grow anything and a farmer who also hunts".

    Can we call ancient Maori 'farmers'? The only crops they grew at all were the sweet potato, gourd, taro and yam. Taro and yam were confined the the very far north, so that leaves the gourd and the sweet potato. The gourd was grown as a container, not for food. That leaves the sweet potato, more widely grown than the first two but still mainly in warmer regions in the north.

    "Wikipedia says: 'prehistoric deforestation and subsequent tending of aruhe stands on rich soils'. I have quoted that above".

    No 'tending' was actually involved.

    http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/fire-and-agriculture/1

    Quote:

    "In some parts of the North Island the fern country needed to be burnt every three to five years".

    The only 'tending' needed. Another interesting comment there though:

    "In the South Island, cultivated fern country was less extensive, because the root that grew there was seldom edible".

    "Evidence?"

    Can't find any reference on the net yet. The information I have is in books. I'll keep looking.

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  15. "Can we call ancient Maori 'farmers'? The only crops they grew at all were the sweet potato, gourd, taro and yam".

    The question is replied by yourself: yes, absolutely.

    And add fern to the list, it seems.

    From your link:

    "The staple vegetable was aruhe (fern root), and the fernlands were maintained by regular burning. This suppressed the regrowth of other plants, allowing the fern to regenerate."

    Sounds to me like farming but whatever.

    "Can't find any reference on the net yet. The information I have is in books. I'll keep looking".

    Fair enough but you can at least quote the author, date of research, and maybe provide some details in quotes.

    Not all the info you provide is accurate, so I'd like to know why do you claim that human arrival produced changes that others are essentially rejecting.

    I would say that the rainforest would have been more extended if anything because of climate changes. But I'm sure you'll bend the evidence to your side somehow.

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  16. "Sounds to me like farming but whatever".

    In the same way that the Aborigines farmed the grassland of Australia.

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  17. Australians did not eat grass...

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  18. Very clever, but what has it got to do with the subject?

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  19. Farming: crops you eat, not farming: grass you do not eat (and that you speculatively blame on hunter-gatherers' preventive fire practices).

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  20. Maju. Are you really not able to see that the motivation, the process and the objective is exactly the same in both cases. The trees and scrub are burnt to increase the food supply. In one case it's slightly indirect, in that the new growth is to feed the food, so to speak. I presume this indirect motivation for burning is ancient in human culture, but the more direct result is probably just as ancient. Humans have long used fire as a method of increasing their food supply. I realise you buy all your food at the supermarket, but it has not always been so for humans, and for many it is still not so.

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  21. I do not have too clear that controlled burning by Aborigines is/was done to alter the habitat. In fact, the other article suggests that there was no real increase in fires since the arrival of H. sapiens to Australia, that it is a myth, a misunderstanding.

    So I imagine that the do the burnings preventively in order to avoid large uncontrolled natural fires, so they help if anything with keeping diversity and stability high in Nature. Sure, it is an intervention and, sure, there are other Paleolithic behaviors that anticipate Neolithic in several forms (domestication of the dog, processing of certain foods so they are better conserved...) but there is still a very radical change in sociology and economy with the advent of real farming/pastoralism.

    The only economies of Paleolithic nature that might resemble somewhat Neolithic ones are those heavily based on fishing in the context of very rich fishing areas, for example in NW North America, Lepenski-Vir or the Ainu/Jomon of Japan. AFAIK these are the only really super-productive economies that provide a somewhat equivalent context of relaxed semi-planned economy before Neolithic happens locally. In this sense, Maori partial reliance on Sea resources is not really contradictory with a Neolithic economy. Hunting would not be either anyhow, as all early Neolithic economies practiced hunting as complement and in some cases even reverted largely to hunting (but remained sociologically Neolithic, as is the case of the Pitted Ware complex of the Baltic, wrongly described often as "hunter-gatherer", even with some instances of actual pastoralism or farming and other Neolithic elements surviving in them, such as pottery).

    "Humans have long used fire as a method of increasing their food supply".

    As mentioned elsewhere this practice (if at all) would be restricted to Australia. There's no evidence of artificial fires in Europe, for instance, not even in when forests took over after the Ice Age.

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  22. "I do not have too clear that controlled burning by Aborigines is/was done to alter the habitat".

    They certainly did so when the Europeans reach Oz. A couple of links:

    http://www.pnas.org/content/105/39/14796.full

    Concerns the many reasons why Aborigines burn the vegetation, and the effect of that burning. And this precise summary from good old Wiki:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fire-stick_farming

    "but there is still a very radical change in sociology and economy with the advent of real farming/pastoralism".

    You certainly do like to see biology, and especially human biology, as a bunch of completely separate compartments. Does it spring from your being a member of a minority group? As well as the complete separation between Neolithic and earlier cultures you were, until very recently, totally convinced that modern humans and Neanderthals were separate species. You see a complete separation between humans and all other species. Clines of differentiation don't enter your conciousness at all.

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  23. Your linked paper basically says that anthropogenic fires have two purposes: increasing nutrient availability and specially preventing larger, uncontrolled fires. Sometimes they are also used as hunting baits (and in Africa I know they are also used to corner slow animals like snakes).

    Fires are controlled ("We prefer to burn a small patch of old spinifex, if it is surrounded by younger growth that won't burn").

    More interesting is that the authors later describe the changes caused by this kind of tactical burning (all typical of Epipaleolithic: lesser mobility, smaller prey, greater human densities) and they conclude it is something only happening since the mid-Holocene onwards (i.e. since c. 5,000 years ago):

    "Only after the mid-Holocene, and only after ≈1.5 kya in the arid zone, do archaeological patterns indicate a dramatic increase in human populations and longer-term occupation of sites by larger, less wide-ranging groups with intensified use of a broad spectrum of lower-ranked resources such as grass-seeds".

    Explicitly contradicting your favored hypothesis:

    "This throws considerable doubt on the hypothesis that immediately after the arrival of humans, continent-wide habitat modification caused a rapid trophic collapse and the extinction of Pleistocene fauna (...) anthropogenic landscape differs from a natural one in scale, but not in kind, and supports the assertion (23) that anthropogenic fire is protective of diversity".

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  24. "You certainly do like to see biology, and especially human biology, as a bunch of completely separate compartments".

    I said "sociology and economy". Where is the "biology" in my sentence? Of course all is connected but you are pushing things around quite capriciously.

    "Does it spring from your being a member of a minority group?"

    I am a rather mixed person in the "biological" department. As far as I can tell (last century or so) I have ancestry from two different states and at least three different nations, probably more.

    "As well as the complete separation between Neolithic and earlier cultures"...

    I do not see a "complete" separation but I do see a very radical change with Neolithic, only comparable, if anything to the advent of Industrialization. Neolithic really changes things a lot_: property appears, densities increase quickly, societies become complex eventually giving birth to states and classes/castes and a division of labor that did not exist (except maybe to a very limited extent, mostly along gender lines) in the hunter-gatherer basic state.

    A tribal society with farming, pastoralism (or in some cases highly productive fishing economy) is not the same as your usual hunter-gatherer bunch.

    "... you were, until very recently, totally convinced that modern humans and Neanderthals were separate species".

    I still think so but I do not think that species cannot be inter-fertile, in some cases. Polar bears and brown bears for example are inter-fertile and are still clearly two different species.

    "You see a complete separation between humans and all other species".

    Absolutely not: awaken the bonobo inside you, please. I feel great sympathy and identification for certain species like bonobos, dolphins or elephants. This is admittedly more "mystical" than biological but I do see connections anyhow, much as a hunter-gatherer could.

    I also like other animals, in varied degrees, sometimes with preference to humans, who are too often disappointing, to be honest. In my youth friends group calling someone "damn human" was some sort of an insult (hope you get the idea). I am pretty much "primitivist" and here may be where the problem lays:

    "According to anarcho-primitivism, the shift from hunter-gatherer to agricultural subsistence gave rise to social stratification, coercion, and alienation".

    I am even more radical some days, and I sustain that we should have never get out of the tropics, where our biology belongs.

    But I am also eclectic and pragmatic and I look for ways to solve modern issues in parameters that make sense. Returning to hunter-gathering, sadly, is not a viable option. Yet hunter-gathering lifestyle is the only reference for genuine humanity and should not be ignored but rather studied with interest.

    "Clines of differentiation don't enter your consciousness at all".

    I think you are very wrong. But I do reject the concept that "tribal" means the same regardless of socio-economy. A farmer is definitively different from a hunter-gatherer, even if they are all people.

    Do clines exist between these two categories? Maybe, they surely existed in the past (Mesolithic transition) but all historical/extant peoples I know fall in one or the other (with the said exception of high production fishing economies, which may approach Neolithic in some aspects in spite of bing forager economies technically).

    But there is also a quite radical difference that you always try to dismiss. And is this dismissal what I consider not acceptable at all.

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