Saturday, October 6, 2012

The History of New Mexico - Part 1

Part 1 -- The Beginning

For a very long time, New Mexico just was.  It was kind of boring.  Actually, it is still rather like that--most of New Mexico is still kind of empty.  There is very little difference between the way the state used to look and the way it looks now, except we used to have grass and more trees.

The state had grass, even though there were a lot of animals that ate our grass--I guess they were on a diet, because they never seemed to eat all of it.  There were a whole lot of camels, horses, giant buffalo, and wooly mammoths.  It is amazing that with all these rather large animals, there still seemed to be lots of grass.

The grass is gone now.  What seemed to be an endless supply of feed for giant elephants was not nearly enough grass for cattle.  The strange thing is that New Mexico is not really even much of a ranching state.  We don't really raise cattle for food--they are more like pets for men who like big hats and even bigger pickups.

And some of the trees are gone.  Many of our mountains used to have trees, but a few of those peaks are bare now.  Lots of trees got cut down by settlers, and as the trees went, so did the thin layer of topsoil.  If we wait long enough, they might come back, (say a couple of thousand years from now).

Yes, most of what New Mexico has now has been here a very long time:  Sand, sun, and a wind that has always seemed to come from the west.  New Mexico is dotted with old volcanoes, and if you look at them, the east, or downwind side always seems to be the bigger side.

Then, all of a sudden, there were little groups of people.  Somewhere about 15-25,000 years ago (unless you ask Dr. Unleashed, anyway) Hunter Gatherer groups began wandering through the state.  During the Wisconsin Glacier Age, so much water was tied up in the form of ice that the level of the oceans dropped dramatically, exposing the land between Siberia and Alaska.  We know this for certain because Sarah Palin saw it from her house.

Anthropologists called this a land bridge, which is a particularly poor choice, since the "bridge" was about 1200 miles wide.  That ain't a bridge, it's just land.  And those Hunter Gatherers never knew they were making a journey to anyplace new, they were just following those wooly mammoths.   The elephants probably knew they were going someplace new, since each of them took a trunk.

Hunter Gatherers had a perfect lifestyle--they hunted when they were hungry, gathered nuts and berries when they found them, and did positively no discernible work when they didn't have to.  Most of the time they sat under a tree and scratched.  Occasionally, more than one kind of itch got scratched.

No houses, no mortgages, no fields to tend--what a life!  When you ran out of food, you grabbed your spear and went hunting for elephant--AND when you killed one it was a giant barbecue!  I'm not sure how long a group of 25--the optimum number for hunter gatherer groups throughout history--could live off an elephant, but I'm sure such a kill dramatically increased the amount of quality scratching time.

We know this happened in New Mexico, because we have found the remains of the hunts, in places like Clovis and Folsom, where spear points have been found.  And the dried bleached bones of a few barbecued elephants have been found, too--a few still bearing the markings of the  stone tools used in the butchering.

This sounds pretty close to perfection to me--my goal in life is to be a hunter gatherer.  According to my wife, I've been one for years.   She may be right, because I have noticed a marked difference in the way we go about acquiring possessions.  Say my wife needs a pair of shoes (evidently, someone has been saying that a lot!).  She goes to  the mall (think of that as a forest) and will try on shoes at every store in the mall before going back to the first store she entered and buying the first pair of shoes she tried on.  Chances are, a week later, she will return to this resource site and acquire another pair of the exact same shoes, only in a different color.  This is a classic example of gathering.

On the other hand, I do things differently.  When I need something, I call ahead to the store to check availability.  This is a scouting report.  Then I drive to the mall, go into the store, locate the item, kill it with a credit card, take it outside and tie it onto my pickup truck, and drive home.   Total time round trip--15 minutes.  This is called hunting.

Almost everything about hunter gatherers is perfect.  A varied diet, plenty of leisure time, and lots of outdoor exercise.  The only small drawback was the piddling little problem that by the time they got to be my age, they had been dead for a quarter century.

Well, there were a few other problems: about 11,000 years ago, the weather changed again.  Even though Al Gore wasn't there to make money out of it, the weather got warmer, the ice melted, the seas rose, and a long dry spell began.   Either the weather or over-hunting meant the end of many species, including the giant wooly mammoth, the saber-toothed non-house cat, and the giant bison.  (Spear Control!  Spear Control!)

With the loss of large game, our tribe had to adapt, find new methods, and think a little outside the ...cave?  They needed a new approach.  They could hunt smaller game, learn to use snares, perfect fishing, and even depend a little more on gathering.  Probably hunter gatherer groups all over the world were dropping like flies, but a few, (quite a few) figured it out and survived.   For a while, hunter gatherers ate damn near anything in a desperate gamble to survive.  To them, five miles of highway road kill would have looked like a gourmet drive up restaurant.

And a few of them began to engage in proto-agriculture, which is just a fancy way of saying they maximized their resource sites.  Someone might remember that cattails grew along the bank ten miles upstream, so they might want to transplant a few plants downstream.

Let me give you a little proto-agriculture homework.  This fall, go to your local feed store and ask to buy about two pounds of seed corn.  You may have to repeat that request a few times before they believe you, since feed stores are used to selling that commodity by the hundred-weight.   They probably lose more than two pounds a day to crows and rats, so they might just sweep up a couple of handfuls and give it to you.  Thank them politely, and tell them you are working on a science project.  Actually, it won't matter what you say--they're going to think you're a loon.

Divide up your seed corn into 7 piles and start driving around your county.  Stay within 20 miles of your home and find 7 out-of-the-way places to plant your seed corn.  The edge of a golf course, a hundred yards away from the interstate, or the garden of the local library.  Pick seven spots at random for your impromptu farm, then forget they are there until spring.  Then go inspect your crops.  Chances are that at least one of your sites has somehow, miraculously, grown corn.  The other six are probably as dead as that wooly mammoth.

Our hunter gatherers did not want to become farmers.  Farming is hard work, and hunter gatherers had the kind of aversion to hard work that you normally associate with preachers and senators.  But they were going to be forced into it, screaming and fighting all the way.  And it was not their fault, it was population pressure.  Remember all that non-scratching activity under the trees?  Even though it took a long time, one day, our hunter gatherers climbed to the top of the next hill, looked down into the valley and saw a large group of hairy men down there.  Prudence demanded a change of course.

Unfortunately, no matter which way our band went, they found a group blocking their path.  Whatever valley they happened to be in, there was where they had to stay.

Of course, they are going to develop agriculture, but I will talk about that again in two weeks, when we continue with the History of New Mexico.

By the way, there may be hope yet for that furry 'phanty: after a ten thousand year absence, the Wooly Mammoth is considering a come back tour.  Having discovered enough frozen carcasses to provide adequate DNA material, scientists around the world are working on cloning the animals.  And if they are successful, the critters are going to need a whole lot of big empty to live in.  I think I may know a place that might suit them.  Besides, I may want to hunt them.

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