Big brains got us into trouble, can they get us out?

Indian artifacts are hidden all around Meadowcreek.  We’ve even found them after the spring rains near our favorite swimming holes.  Locations of cave paintings are not publicized, for obvious reasons.  When Meadowcreek was first established, one last native American lived in a cave on the property.

buffalo attackWhen European-Americans first arrived in the Ozarks, they met the Osage tribe.  The Osage empire covered portions of four states:  Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas.  According to a history of one Ozark county, “Due to their marriage customs, the Osage were tall, physically strong, and possessed unquestionable courage.  The smaller, weaker males often were denied marriage and the mightiest warriors got the girl plus all her sisters.  In this way they had a form of selective breeding, which undoubtedly accounts for most of the tribe being over six feet tall.”  Many Osage stayed after the white settlers came and intermarried with them.

The Osage had formed their empire by defeating other tribes who gained the territory by defeating still earlier tribes.

The most ancient people (known as paleo-Indians) camped and hunted along Ozark rivers, perhaps as long as 12,000 to 14,000 years ago.  These early inhabitants were big-game hunters.  The mastodon and the giant ground sloth among many other huge animals roamed the area.  The earliest Americans killed off all these species and then had to rely on smaller game and gathering and foraging.  They crafted fluted points for hunting, needles for making clothing, hand-woven nets for fishing, and mortars for crunching seeds. Fish and vegetables became an important part of their diet.

A more sophisticated people who knew how to cultivate crops and create ceramics invaded and took control of the Ozarks around 1,000 B.C.  The Hopewell people invaded the Ozarks as they expanded from their original homeland in what is now Ohio.  They knew how to fire clay pots and tools, engaged in trade, and created large ceremonial earthworks. They cultivated corn and hunted deer and wild turkey.

Between 500 and 900 A.D. an even more technologically advanced people invaded and took over.  The Mississippians (also referred to as the Temple Mound Builders) brought the advances of Mesoamerican tribes including building cities and mounds, diversified agriculture and more durable tools and pottery.  These tribes grew corn, beans, squash, sunflowers and gourds. These were the Native Americans that De Soto and his men encountered in 1541, when they crossed the Mississippi River.

Between De Soto’s forays and the arrival of permanent settlers in the 1800s, the Osage came from the North to take control of the Ozarks.  The Osage mastered the horses which escaped from the Spanish conquerors and hunted buffalo.  Their mastery of the horse enabled them to run out the otherwise more technologically advanced Mississippian tribes.

The history of the Ozarks is not exactly peaceful transfer of power.  The Ozarks have been inhabited by successive waves of people, each with better weapons than those who preceded them.  The European-Americans were just the most recent group to take the land.

Such is the way of the world and has been since the dawn of time.  Man’s big brain developed mainly to cope with his fellow man.  Every tribe needed to be smarter than their competitors.  The smartest one, with the biggest brain, won.

The big brain helped them to be better at both cooperation and competition.  We have a huge capacity to be altruistic and help our own people.  We also have huge capacity to destroy other tribes who are less developed with smaller brains.  The Neaderthal had a bigger brain than modern man, but it was bigger in the occipital lobe (the back side of the brain) which is concerned with mainly with vision.   They had less prefrontal cortex which gives modern humans their big forehead.  Some folks still have a lot of Neaderthal genes, as you can see from sloping foreheads walking down the street.

The prefrontal cortex gives man the ability for abstract thought.  For some this means getting lost in thought and neglecting basic activities like sleeping, eating, hoeing the garden.  Occasionally at Meadowcreek we have to prod people out of abstract thought and remind them to get back to work.

The capacity for abstract thought has enabled man to dominate the world, but at the expense of the destruction of ecosystems and extinction of species.  Including the megafauna destroyed at Meadowcreek by native Americans.

Our big brains have enabled us to dominate and destroy the world, but not increased our resilience.

Many people have a big brain fetish.  We believe we are superior to other animals because we have a bigger brain.  So far in the history of the planet, there is little evidence that the big brain has resulted in resilience.  We have bested all the other species, but many small brained species rank much higher on resilience then man.

The prefrontal cortex has exploded in size as man has tried to help his own group become more comfortable and competed within his group for mates and outside his group for territory.  This fierce competition has resulted in a system of take-make-dispose.  We have long ignored the basic concept of ecology that all products of a resilient system must be part of a circular system.  All products must be food for some other organism which eventually become resources we can use once again.

Africa provides a case study.  For millennia, African societies did not have the organization and technology to kill off their largest wild species, nor the medicine to enable their populations to expand exponentially.  Importation of European technology has caused the total destruction of African ecosystems and species within the last fifty years.  We have provided everything they need to destroy the ecosystems they once were integrated with.   Western food and medicine increase the population and Chinese companies mine all the minerals.  I’ve seen valley after valley totally destroyed by Chinese miners in the last few years in Africa.

Our intelligent minds got us into this mess, but can they get us out?  Can we escape from the take-make-dispose system which has worked so well for dominating other tribes, societies and civilizations?  Germany’s experience says maybe yes.  Partly by focusing on a life cycle analysis of all products approved for sale in the country, Germany has created the most vibrant economy in Europe with high productivity and low pollution.  But Germany’s reliance on migrants for labor means the system can only last as long as other systems continue to fail and send them excess labor.

Could this perspective shift take hold of other creative minds to design a future that can sustain life and an economy built on ecological resilience? Our intelligent minds got us into our current situation; will they guide us out?  Only if we realize our innovations must be conservative innovations, locally self-organized and working to enhance local ecological systems.  Or will our civilizations go the way of the mound-builders vanquished by the more primitive Osage?

There is no need to invent a resilient world; that’s been done already. Its all around us, until we destroy it or learn from it.


For more on creating a resilient world through resilient farms and communities, see our free online book available at this link.