Sunday, June 7, 2009

Follow the Bottle Gourd

The Web is aptly named; the strands are infinite and one can get lost in there. Things appear and disappear; move or are gone forever. I recently ran across a Dec. 14, 2005 article from Science Daily, “Ancient Humans Brought Bottle Gourds To The Americas From Asia.” Thank God, because it’s the only work I’ve seen on the subject since Charles B. Heiser’s 1979 seminal tome, “The Gourd Book.” Heiser’s book doesn’t touch on the subject of human evolution (at least I don’t remember it doing so), focusing instead on the use of gourds in human history. Undoubtedly, the most fun part of the book is the stuff on gourds as penis display extensions, but the statement that caught my eye was that gourds were most likely the first domesticated plant, predating any foodstuffs.


I was already convinced of the aquatic side of human evolution, but a finding like this, if true, was a powerful piece of evidence in its favor. Now, a quarter of a century later I find a confirmation of Heiser’s statement. The Science Daily article purports that “This lightweight ‘container crop’ would have been particularly useful to human societies before the advent of pottery and settled village life, and was apparently domesticated thousands of years before any plant was domesticated for food purposes.” (Emphasis mine.)


But let me back up a second. This is, after all, post No. 1 for Ape Shit. An introduction is in order.

Simply put, I advocate a demographic approach to the question of human evolution. I believe that a study of the demographics of known human populations can allow us to reconstruct the primal habitat in which we evolved. To my knowledge, this approach is unique and hasn’t been posited elsewhere. There are too many ramifications and elements of the theory to cover it thoroughly in one post, so it will all have to come out in the wash, so to speak.

The guiding principle of the demographic theory is Occam’s Razor. The demographic theory is quantum leaps simpler than anything else proposed, which allows it the luxury of not having to prove aberrations. The various complexities proposed by the savanna school and its offspring, such as standing up to be in the cooling breezes or to carry food to ones mate, verge on the absurd and would generate ridicule were they not proposed by stalwarts of the academic community. That they continue to be put forth makes one shake ones head in amazement.

The only way the academic community has avoided capitulation to a variant of the AAT is by refusing to engage in a discussion with AAT supporters. If you don’t debate them, you can’t lose the debate. Duh!

Because there’s no way anyone can stand in front of an audience and claim that our ancestors’ response to the savanna was go out and behave in ways that no other animal in the history of the world ever behaved and in ways that would surely have gotten them killed, had they done so. You can only pull stuff like that for so long before some fresh-faced kid yells, “Hey, that penguin’s got no clothes.”

But I promised…

Back to the gourds.

Why gourds? Why domesticate gourds thousands of years before foodstuffs? In fact, some people question why start farming, at all? Apparently, if the record of gourds is correct, we knew how to farm thousands of years before we chose to farm something to eat. Why raise gourds and not food?

The demographic theory says, everyone lives by the water hole. We do now; we always have. We know that we all live by the water hole now; it is part of the human condition to have access to water wherever we are and at all times (more or less). To not have that access is to risk death. This is not necessarily true of other animals, and certainly not true of any other primate. We are unique in that regard. The water hole, bar, coffee klutch, is still, along with the hearth, the center of human socialization. Chimps don’t go hang out down at the water hole, but we always do. We consume far more water than any similar animal or other primate and likewise evacuate a unique and very dilute urine stream. The demographic theory assumes that the human condition as such is primordial. Nothing has changed since the beginning. We have always lived at the water hole.

Which means that for millions of years — well, ever since time began, really — we were stuck at the water hole, as much as a kingfisher is. We couldn’t leave; we had to have too much water too much of the time to get away from a freshwater source for any length of time.

Which was, truth to tell, not as bad as it sounds. For one thing, all the best food is down at the water’s edge, if not in the water itself. It seems, for instance, that we’ve always been fond of turtles and frogs and clams, as well as roots and nuts and berries; and they’re a lot easier to catch than squirrels or rabbits, not to mention monkeys.

Furthermore, being slow of foot, not good climbers, and plodding swimmers, we were safest down where the brush was thickest and the trees easiest to climb; or, if need be, we could jump in the water to avoid some predators. We weren’t great swimmers, but we were better than lions.

Good food, safe environment. Where do you think the smartest monkey on the block would set up camp? Don’t forget, for millions of years we were bipedal, small, slow, and completely unarmed, but clever. Not to mention that for those millions of early years there weren’t many savannas, anyway, but if we were caught out in the open, we were known as “lunch.” Given that food and safety were down on the bank and that we were a prime entrĂ©e out in the open, little wonder we stayed down by the water.

Or so the theory goes.

Living down by the water meant that food was rarely our great concern. We’ve always lived in the lush part of the environment. Which is why we could know about farming for thousands of years without being pressured into adopting it: we didn’t have to. We always lived among (relative) abundance.

But for good or ill, we were stuck there, as well, until…

Until we figured out how to carry water with us.

Bingo! Gourds!

Once we had gourds, we could escape the banks. We could travel. We could stay overnight somewhere. We could survive. Food we could find anywhere, but water was, and still is, precious. It makes perfect sense that the bottle gourd was the first domesticated plant, if everyone was stuck at the fountain. If we were living on the savanna, of course, raising bottle gourds wouldn’t make much sense, at all. Why drag around something you don’t need? And surely, if you’re a savanna resident, you don’t need a water bottle. You don’t see lions or gazelles with water bottles, do you? But if you didn’t really live on the savanna but rather lived down by the water hole and only hunted the savanna once you’d acquired weapons, then a water carrying device would have been a huge technological advance. You could see where people right away would start growing bottle gourds, the hell with rice and wheat and corn. You want to get up and get out of there, not sit down and grind grain for the rest of your life.

You can, by the way, think of bottle gourds at the gateway plant, much as marijuana was the gateway plant to the modern organic farming movement. It’s not well known outside the organic farming community, but many of them began their farming careers back in the 1960s and 70s as pot farmers; and only after they’d spent the effort learning how to grow quality marijuana did they turn their attention to the larder. Likewise, evidently, people grew bottle gourds for thousands of years before finally deciding that, if they were going to all that effort, they might as well try growing something else, at the same time. Indeed, it’s been known for some time that people were knowledgeable about food farming long before they took it up; which has generated the nagging question of why? What took people so long? If they’d known how to grow crops for thousands of years yet didn’t, what made them change their mind?

There is another side to the Science Daily article, though, that expands considerably on Heiser’s hypothesis. The gourd was brought to America from Asia, the researchers contend, “some 10,000 years ago.” Bruce Smith, co-author of the research paper says the these early immigrants “did not arrive here empty-handed; they brought a domesticated plant and dogs with them.” He doesn’t say “plants,” plural. Just “a domesticated plant.” The review article doesn’t cover cultivation requirements for the bottle gourd, but a University of Florida Web site does and adds the information that the bottle gourd “is the only crop known to have been cultivated in pre-Columbian times in both the Old and New World.” (A conclusion that is open to debate.) What I was interested in, though, was what kind of climate was required for growing bottle gourds, and the same site says they’re grown “from warm parts of the temperate zone throughout the dry and wet tropics.” The importance of that information is that implies that the gourd didn’t slowly travel up the Siberian and down the Alaskan coasts as people pushed into the Americas, but rather that it was most likely transported from one temperate zone to another an ocean away in one fell swoop. Quite what all that implies, boggles the mind. Essentially, what they’re saying is that 10,000 years ago someone deliberately schlepped some bottle gourd seeds from China to California (or thereabouts) for the purpose of planting them. Hmm? At the very least, it means that by 10,000 BPE the immigrants to the Americas were not just hunters and gatherers, but were already farmers. That’s a pretty big “at the very least.”

Furthermore, you can bet the farm that the 10,000 year old date is by no means a record of the earliest bottle gourd cultivation. That’s only the earliest date we currently have for its cultivation in the Americas. God only knows how long before that it was first cultivated in Africa before spreading to Asia and only then on to the Americas.

Well anyway, that’s how the demographic theory sees it. You have any better guesses? The savannistas won’t touch the issue with a ten-foot pipe. Why do you think the bottle gourd was so important?

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