Episode 263. An Ice Age Species, Holocene Tech and An Anthropocene Future

This is The ChangeUnderground for the 5th of July 2021.

I’m your host, Jon Moore

Decarbonise the Air, Recarbonise the Soil!

The Pleistocene

Our species, Homo sapiens, came into existence during the period known as the Pleistocene, the Ice Ages. The Pleistocene lasted from about 2.5 million years ago to around 12,000 years ago. In that time many other species of humans evolved too. Since I finished my degree in archaeology back in ’95 the situation has become far more convoluted. There was a nice neat chronology: The Australopithecines, of which there were many but out of this lineage came Homo habilis, Homo erectus and then Homo sapiens. And Neaderthals were slotted in somewhere.

We now know the Neanderthals and our species interbred to an extent, as did the Denisovns and our ancestors. Then there’s the very different Homo floresiensis, the so-called hobbit species from Indonesia. I suspect attempts to mate with these occurred too. The point I’m getting to, eventually, is that all this happened, well from H. habilis onwards, in the Pleistocene. We, at some point, eventually became the only naked, bipedal ape on the planet. We were and still are a product of the environment in which we evolved: the Pleistocene as lived in Africa, where we originated. There is a barely supported, these days, suggestion that H. sapiens evolved in Asia but the genetic studies have virtually ruled that out.

So what? Well the environment determines the patterns of living for species. Not many, perhaps one mammal, the mountain pygmy possum, hibernates in Australia. In places where snow is thicker on the ground through winter and the places where glaciers were more numerous, many more species hibernate. 

This period, the Pleistocene, laid down many of our distinctive traits as a species. The three foodstuffs in short supply during this period were: sugar, salt and fat. For sugar, think honey and fruits, salt was a problem in direct opposition to its current position. No salt meant low blood pressure. Fat was available in animals, obviously, but wild animals do not have the fat deposits of domesticates and there weren’t any domesticates for 99% of the Pleistocene. Nuts and, odd to modern ears, things like moths were a great source of this. There was a huge gathering of First Nations people in the south east of Australia, in the snowy mountains to take advantage of the annual bogong moth migration. I suspect the salmon runs of the northern hemisphere served similar purposes.

Apart from the food supply, the Pleistocene varied wildly in climatic conditions. Waves of glaciers forming and melting and reforming for the entire period. The climate was not conducive to any form of food production other than fishing-gathering-hunting. The idea of gardening, let alone agriculture, was just not on the minds of people.

The climate, the food and the relatively large numbers of predators, compared to nowadays, shaped our species and, it would appear, hard wired our thinking. Long term planning was pointless, the seasons were highly changeable, we needed shortcuts in our thinking processes to avoid predators. See a sign, react immediately. The fight or flight response built into our adrenal systems. Those individuals without a sufficiently developed fight or flight response were unlikely to live long enough to reproduce, tigers and such like doing what they do. 

Underpinning all this was our ability to walk, for long distances and to run also. We developed a particular energy economy for want of a better expression. We also developed culture. So that in dearth years we could call upon about six loosely connected groups for help. Unless the dearth was more general and then people died.

Quickness of reactions, a sharing economy and a body driven to consume the three things in short supply, sugar, salt and fat had us as the human species best able to handle the conditions of the Pleistocene, especially as it came to an end. 

The Holocene

What followed was the Holocene. Generally warmer, more stable and more predictable. That’s not to say change never happened, it did with some returns to cooler, drier conditions but on the whole things were as they had been within living memory. Remember this epoch began about 12,000 years ago. In that time we, as a species, developed agriculture and this has underpinned  much of the changes in human society since then. Some cultures, First Nations here in Australia and in North America developed different responses to this lack of change. Unfortunately much of that knowledge is now lost but sufficient may have survived and I’ll come to that later.

As discussed in Episode 260. Small Scale Grain Growing, the technology of the domesticators influenced the way things were domesticated but once domestication began there are a very few examples of cultures choosing to revert to fishing-gathering-hunting. A few not many.

Agriculture is the key technological, cultural change we developed during the Holocene. Everything else, from socks to iPads to motorcycles is predicated upon this technology.

The Anthropocene

And it is this technology that’s created the Anthropocene. There’s a line in the stones  across the world that make that point. There’s a few actually but the one I think most defines where we are now is the radioactive one from all the above ground nuclear tests we carried out as a species. This marker is underpinned by the fossil fuels which now wreck our planetary systems. The CO2 and the methane are bad enough but these support the global food system supplying the sugar, salt and fat our Pleistocene bodies crave. We have solved the shortages of that epoch and in so doing our hubris has ended the Holocene and introduced our epoch. The epoch of a human altered planet and human altered planetary systems. From the carbon and nitrogen cycles to the weather patterns, the lost topsoil, the plastics filled oceans and ocean life, the livestock in cages to the lunacy of billionaires racing to be the first into space whilst people starve in engineered famines we have done a great job overcoming the food shortages of the Pleistocene.

We have amongst us, those who’s thinking can save us and this huge but fragile lump of rock spinning through time/space. The First Nations of this world, as they have survived the onslaught of societies driven by the Holocene’s greatest technological jump, agriculture, may just be our one last chance. A mindset that sees everything as an interconnected whole is more likely, I think, to find our way out of this mess than a machine for pumping excess CO2 into underground reservoirs. A technology and a mindset of kindness towards all living and inanimate things offers us great hope. We are all part of this system we call the biosphere. We have but a half generation to pull our heads from the sand, a half generation that we are already part way through. If we are to survive the wild fires, the storms, the droughts and the plagues of mice, locusts, viruses and “herd stupidity”, we must realign our actions with the cycles of the planet. The First Nations have known this, still know this and a few voices in the wilderness, getting louder now, the Fukuoka’s and the Mollisons have and more urgently now, point us to that one very great truth: We are Nature and Nature is us.

What less can I do? Fukuoka

Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple. Mollison

If you’d like to start your gardening adventure and life time of astonishing insights go to the website: https://worldorganicnews.com/freeebook/ and you can obtain a free copy of the eBook outlining The ChangeUnderground No-Dig Gardening System.

If you have any questions, thoughts or suggestions, I opened a Facebook group. I’ve called it, imaginatively, ChangeUnderground Podcast Group. You can search on the Book of Faces or there’s a link in the show notes and in the transcript over at WorldOrganicNews.com/episode263. 

Following the crash a month or so ago, I’m slowly adding the transcripts for the back catalog so thank you for your patience.

Decarbonise the air and Recarbonise the soil.

Thank you all for listening and I’ll be back next week.




The ChangeUnderground Academy No-Dig Gardening Course:


FREE eBook: https://worldorganicnews.com/freeebook/

email: jon@worldorganicnews.com

Episode 260. Small Scale Grain Growing


Bubugo Conservation Trust



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