Why we are all Eskimos…

19 October 2011


I have been listening to Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans by Brian Fagan and am thoroughly enjoying the book. Professor Fagan has written a great many books about prehistory and climatology, and I have previously recommended his lectures for The Teaching Company, Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations. In fact, I was so enthusiastic about this set of lectures that I urged by mother to listen to them also, since she shares my interest in prehistory and anthropology. This led to an interesting coincidence. My mother was listening to these lectures before she took a cruise to Alaska with one of my sisters. A day later when she got on the cruise ship she heard the distinctive voice of the on-board naturalist for this cruise, and asked him, “Are you Brian Fagan?” And indeed it was Brian Fagan.

In any case, I have derived a lot of value (and a lot of enjoyment) from the works of Professor Fagan, and I heartily recommend them. In this recent (2011) book on Cro-Magnons, Fagan is in fine form, delivering both anecdote and research results that enliven the human condition in its earliest iteration. Fagan places particular emphasis on two events, although I hesitate to call them “events” since they have more to do with the longue durée than with any ephemeral or momentary event.

What is now Lake Toba was once Mount Toba, site of one of the most devastating volcanic eruptions during human prehistory.

He references the Mount Toba eruption, thought to have happened between 69,000 and 77,000 years ago, and which may have had a major impact upon our early ancestors. Although Fagan emphasizes (as do most anthropologists) that human beings were anatomically modern from the emergence of Homo sapiens (between 200,000 and 120,000 years ago), he implies without explicitly stating that a kind of cognitive modernity emerged during the period of privation following the Mount Toba eruption. I would suggest that the climatological winter following the eruption may have provided an opportunity for cognitive competition, and therefore triggered the emergence of cognitive modernity through evolutionary escalation. In short, only the cleverest of the at-that-time very small population of Homo sapiens in Africa would have survived.

The Mount Toba eruption compared to other volcanic eruptions.

Professor Fagan also places great emphasis upon the last glacial maximum (between 26,500 and 19,000–20,000 years ago) of the last ice age, when the human population, by that time having passed into Europe and Asia, was again under great climatological pressure, and came through a very difficult time. Most human beings alive today would possess neither the skills nor the knowledge to survive during the last glacial maximum, were they set down in Europe or Asia 25,000 years ago. And it is important to emphasize that it is skills and knowledge that make the difference: we are not talking about hulking, cold-weather-adapted Neanderthals, we are talking about fully anatomically modern human beings, indistinguishable from ourselves.

Both of these events — the Mount Toba eruption and the last glacial maximum — were cold weather events. Our ancestors survived and even thrived because of the skills that they developed to carry them through extreme cold weather conditions. Professor Fagan mentions winters lasting nine months of the year, and temperatures routinely colder that our relatively balmy inter-glacial temperatures. And they mastered these skills without the sort of high technology that we would imagine would be necessary to survive such conditions.

Professor Fagan emphasizes the importance of the eyed needle, which he compares to the domestication of fire as an event of the first importance in the history of human technology. It was the eyed needle, cut from bone or antler with a very fine flint blade, that made possible the sewing of close-fitting clothes, and it was close fitting clothes mostly made of reindeer hides that made survival through the past glacial maximum possible.

Eyed needles from the Solutrean (dating to MIS 2) at Grotte de Jouclas, France (redrawn from White 1986, p. 78).

We are all the descendents of these hearty ancestors who found ingenious ways to live in a hostile climate — and not only a hostile climate, but a climate that changed dramatically in the course of a lifetime, and even more dramatically over a few generations. And while these ice age ancestors were not Eskimos sensu stricto, the closest thing to their lives is preserved by the remnants of the peoples of the far northern polar regions who still survive in extreme cold, who still wear the skins of the animals they eat, and who still cling to the nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life, and who still have the migration of the reindeer at the center of their lives and their culture. The reindeer is perhaps the central animal in human experience taken over the longue durée.

The reindeer has been central to human life throughout the greater part of our history.

It is interesting to note in this connection that Toynbee, in his attempt at a systematic survey of civilizations, did identify an “Eskimo civilization,” but he identified it as an “arrested civilization” and in this capacity classed it with Polynesian civilization and with nomads generally speaking. These “arrested” civilizations are not to be confused with the “abortive” civilizations of Viking Scandinavia and Far Western Christendom (the “Celtic Fringe”).

Arnold Toynbee, author of A Study of History, called the Eskimos an arrested civilization, but I don't think that this is quite right.

The “arrested” civilizations actually play a central role in Toynbee’s “challenge and response” argument for the vitality of civilizations. Toynbee regarded Eskimo civilization as arrested because it confronted a challenge that was too great to overcome and thus to produce a civilization that would not be characterized as arrested. Here is how Toynbee puts it:

“In addition to the two classes already noticed, developed civilizations and abortive civilizations, there is a third, which we must call arrested civilizations. It is the existence of civilizations which have kept alive but failed to grow that compels us to study the problem of growth; and our first step will be to collect and study the available specimens of civilizations of this category.”

Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, Vol. 1., p. 164


“All these arrested civilizations have been immobilized in consequence of having achieved a tour de force. They are responses to challenges of an order of severity on the very borderline between the degree that affords stimulus to further development and the degree that entails defeat… we may add that four out of the five we have mentioned were in the end compelled to accept defeat. Only one of them, the Eskimo culture, is still maintaining itself.”

Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, Vol. 1., p. 164-165

I do not necessarily disagree with this, though I wouldn’t formulate the idea of arrested civilizations in exactly the same way, but it is instructive and interesting. Where Toynbee goes seriously wrong is a couple of paragraphs further along:

“As for the Eskimos, their culture was a development of the North American Indian way of life specifically adapted to the conditions of life round the shores of the Arctic Ocean.”

Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, Vol. 1., p. 165

Here Toynbee has gotten it exactly backward: it is not that the Eskimos were a development of North American Indian cultures, but that North American Indian cultures were a development of Eskimo culture — or, to be more precise, a development from a way of life that is the direct cultural ancestor of contemporary Eskimo life.

The order of derivation is important here because it refers to what is most fundamental in human experience over the longue durée, and this is largely the experience of Eskimo life, taking the latter in its broadest signification. For this reason I would not call Eskimo civilization “arrested” civilization but rather Proto-civilization.

Eskimo civilization is the ancestor of all human civilization, and in a world in which glaciation is the norm (as has been the case throughout the Quaternary Glaciation, which comprises the better part of the duration of human evolution) and brief, balmy inter-glacial periods have been the exception to the climatological rule, Eskimo life also represents the robust and sustainable way of human life to which homo sapiens can return time and again as the ice sheets advance and retreat.

Settled civilizations in an inter-glacial temperate zone — that climatological region most friendly to the growth of civilization that for Toynbee represents the norm for human society — would be fatally threatened by the arrival of a glacial maximum, but homo sapiens can always return to the ways of Eskimo life to weather the storm of severe climatological conditions. This makes of Eskimo civilization the source and the root of human life.

Had it not been for the game-changing emergence of industrial-technological civilization, this calculus would still hold good, but this unpredictable and unprecedented historical contingency has thrown everything into question, including verities that have shaped human life from its beginnings up until the Industrial Revolution only two hundred years ago.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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