It's Earth Day, in case you can't tell by our swanky green Earth logo in the header, and that means people will be thinking about Nature (the bitch, not the magazine) and our impact on her.   I didn't say people would be thinking clearly, but they will be thinking.

So instead of shocking and awing you with my dark humor and divine genius, I will instead ask a question; what kind of science could you do if you got sent back to 10,000 BC?

I ask because a whole lot of people who are interested in Earth Day are also interested in making us more primitive.   There was once an America where cranky old conservatives wanted society to stay frozen in time or even go backwards.  Progress was the enemy.   More recently, some progressives think progress is the enemy and want to stay frozen in time or even go back.   I am older than most here yet as a young guy in Florida the term 'conservationist' already meant 'someone who wants things to stay the same as the week they moved here' so making fun of the wrong sort of pop environmentalism was popular even then.

Unfortunately, most people who regard themselves as environmentalists don't know much about actually living in the environment.    They regard environmentalism as some kind of Thoreau-inspired bucolic paradise, a big happy love fest where every writes a sequel to "Walden; or, Life in the Woods".  As our resident Big Thinker, Howard Bloom, so aptly put it:
Thoreau never chucked technology at all. He pretended it didn’t exist.
Mother nature didn’t build the cabin in which Thoreau lived. 125,000 generations of human ingenuity made the axes, saws, and mills that allowed men to fell trees and to slice their trunks into boards inexpensively. A thousand generations of even more techno-lust and techno-innovation went into inventing the wall, the floor, the roof, and the frame of beams and joists that holds a cabin upright.
And that's the downside to retro- environmental thinking.   Those people have no idea what they are talking about.  Starving and freezing and dying were messy business.    They're instead living in a world where they don't realize Thoreau had a rich family to support him and all the conveniences of modern life keeping him alive while he wrote his famous book.

So I decided in honor of Earth Day to go back in time and see what scientists and environmentalists would really have been tackling in an all-natural world.  I picked 10,000 B.C. for two reasons; first, it's a nice round number and we were solidly coming out of the last Ice Age so there were advancements being made.   Second, I literally just watched a movie called "10,000 B.C.", directed by Roland Emmerich, which was better than I thought it would be, science mistakes aside.

Who Were We In 10,000 BC?

In movies, primitive people were always chasing some huge animal or another.    I have news for you.   In 10,000 BC (the Neolithic period, not the movie) we spent our days grubbing around for snails and sessile nuts.   In "10,000 BC" (the movie, not the Neolithic period)  they were doing all kinds of fun things; hunting big game and rescuing attractive women from God-Emperor despots.    Maybe those were the Lapps who migrated north as the reindeer herds escaped global warming but I know my people, the Indo-Europeans, at most 50,000 of us total, instead settled into the world we had, being bereft of politicans talking about 'mitigation' and capping how much we consume.

All the cavegirls in 10,000 BC looked like Camilia Belle.

That meant cold winters, but it left us time to do other things, like paint on rock walls.  Yes, archeologists have gone out of their way to incorporate magic and religion and symbolism into all that but it's more likely 6 months of winter trapped in a cave made us bored.(1)

Le Portel cave painting, 10,000 BC.   Courtesy: Bradshaw Foundation.

But the world is changing a lot during that time.   The Scandinavian ice-cap disappears, giving us Scotland, where my folks will last for many a generation, inventing head-butting and then kicking opponents when they're on the ground.   The  sea level will rise by 50 meters (take that, "Day After Tomorrow" screenwriters - real life is a lot more devastating than anything you made up) but vegetation also spreads northward quite a bit, giving us more land to live in.

Scientifically, the advancement seems inconsequential now but, if you were trapped in the wilderness, it would make your jaw drop with its difficulty; wooden saws that used chipped flint for teeth, increasingly ubiquitous bows and arrows and canoes.  Someone invents pressure flaking, which revolutionizes the utility of tools.  

A Clovis point, made via pressure flaking.  Credit: Government of the Commonwealth of Virginia

How could it happen?    Human ingenuity and necessity, that's how.

As our tribe grows from perhaps 50,000 people in the entire culture to  hundreds of thousands among many competing tibes, game becomes scarce.   Do we have leaders start rationing resources and deciding who gets to eat?    No, prehistoric scientists will instead invent agriculture.   When that happens, families won't need to move, so we can settle down and have more kids and grow more food and create a community and then a culture.

Without the science, and then the technology, of 10,000 BC (the Neolithic period, not the movie) we wouldn't have the culture of today, including the people who don't much like it.   Back to "10,000 B.C." (the movie, not the Neolithic period) - it's better than you might expect, mostly because the special effects are spectacular.

It has its flaws, sure, just like stone spears and anthropology and environmentalism but, like all those, it has its good points too.   Environmentalism, for all its zealotry, is still way over in the good category when it comes to improving society; our economy did not evaporate because we eliminated CFCs or cleaned up our rivers.    And the movie has some interesting action sequences.  

So ignore the nets (didn't exist for thousands of years), the  domesticated horses (5000 years later), the metal tools and weapons (4000 years later), sabre-toothed tigers (dead for 500,000 years but what movie can be made without them?) and no slavery to be forced into.  Okay, ignore everything scientific about the movie but just you try and build your own hut some time.

So I'll answer my own question.  Who would I be?  I'd like to say D'leh, but I was probably TicTic.


(1) That's just us.  Our cousins of the Russian steppes lived life a little more like we expect, building houses out of mammoth bones - no caves to live in.    The villain in The Highlander was called The Kurgan because they had to be pretty tough to hunt the big game.   How many smelly activists want to give that a try?

Mammoth bones used for the construction of houses during the last ice age at Kostenki.   Photo: Vladimir Gorodnjanski, 2006