Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Winter Song

Indian Nativity

In 1642 the Jesuit Missionary Jean de Brebeuf at St. Marie Among the Hurons. Brebeuf had been a missionary among the Hurons for a few years by then and had mastered the language so he wrote a hymn in Huron for his new converts. The music he used was an old French folk tune Une Jeune Pucelle.1

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Side of “Progress”
Deutscher and Trotsky

Leon Trotsky

Perhaps the most telling indication of someone’s ideological bent is how they face up to what would happen if their ideas were fundamentally wrong.

Here I will briefly discuss thought experiment played out by Trotsky. In it Trotsky considered what would be the case if his ideas of “History” were wrong; and Deutscher’s consideration of Trotsky’s thoughts on the matter.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Freedom and Doublethink
A Note

Athenian Voting Machine

Freedom is possibly the most important political value we have in contemporary Western society and by definition one would think that the opposite of “freedom” is “despotism” and “slavery”. Sadly that is not the case for it is possible to “Doublethink” “Freedom” into its opposite and in fact that was done long before George Orwell.  Just how that was done is the subject of this essay.1

Thursday, December 19, 2013


Movie Poster


What would be your worst nightmare upon sleeping? What would be the worst thing that could happen to you that you could think about upon waking up? I suppose not waking up at all would be the worst, but perhaps almost has bad would be waking up and finding out that you had been ripped away from family and friends and imprisoned. And that imprisonment is intended to last the rest of your life.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Child Killers?

The Trophet of Carthage

One of the most notorious of “facts” concerning the ancient Carthaginians is that they indulged in mass sacrifice of children.

This is because of mass burials of very young children found at the so-called ‘Trophet” or sacred enclosures at various Carthaginian sites, including the site of Carthage itself.1 Because of the sheer mass of children’s cremated bones found in this “Trophet” many have been inclined to think that the practice of infant sacrifice was widespread in ancient Carthage. This seems to be a mistake.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Love Story?

Jonathan and David

Anachronistic readings of ancient texts is one of the most annoying facets of reading such documents, for the fact is we lack the information required to make a determination about whether or not we are reading into the text what was not there to begin with.

An excellent example of this is the story of David and Jonathan from the First Book of Samuel. It has been read anachronistically for decades if not centuries. In this case was there a “love affair” between David and Jonathan? Or are we moderns reading more into the text than is warranted by the documents?

Friday, December 13, 2013

Maya Writing Tools
A Brief Note

Mayan Scribe at work

The Maya had a sophisticated system of writing. They also created some very beautiful books so what were the tools that they used in writing those books?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Eccentric and the Asshole
 A note on the Freeman / Mead controversy

Margaret Mead and Derek Freeman

One of the “joys” of our media saturated culture is that it both manufactures controversies and creates opportunities for media junkies to get a fix. The Mead / Freeman “controversy” is one such manufactured controversy and both of the participants can be described as “media pushers”.

Of course in this case one of the participants in the “controversy” was dead so that it was basically one sided. The other participant thoughtfully waited until his victim was dead before shall we say going public with his hatchet job.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Arab Warriors
20th – 21st Century Military

Map Middle East / North Africa, 1995

In the aftermath of World War II the Arab nations of the Middle East became independent and acquired their own military establishments, and further they have been involved in wars with outside powers and with each other. The results have been less than impressive. Despite up to date training, equipment etc., Arab armies have been repeatedly thrashed.1

Saturday, December 07, 2013

History as Myth
Early Rome

The Wolf Suckling Romulus and Remus

One of the great works of literature is Livy’s History of Rome1 and the most popular section was indisputably the first section describing the early history of Rome. Livy was a very good writer and his retelling of the early history of Rome was exciting and full of stories of heroism and courage and winning against long odds. It was a history of heroism, courage a virtue and has stuck onto the Western tradition. The sheer vividness of the stories has led to them being accepted as history proper by many people. So that people talk about the early history of Rome in Livy’s account has if it was “real” history. Sadly it all too dubious has history, and this is particularly true of the history of the Roman Kings before the establishment of the Republic.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Long Distance Voyageurs

Polynesian Double Canoe

Probably the most extraordinary voyages ever accomplished by man on Earth were not the voyages of the early European explorers of the age of exploration but the voyages of the Polynesians after 1 C.E. Sadly we do not have the details of the voyages themselves; we merely have the indisputable results, that when Europeans explored the Pacific they found Polynesians from Easter Island to Hawaii to New Zealand.1 Obviously the Polynesians had got there, for otherwise they would not be there to begin with. The obvious question is how did they do this? The facile answer is that they sailed there; which is obviously true and frankly rather trite. The real question is how did they actually sail there?

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Brick Wall 

Brick Wall - Duh!

The following is a revised version of a comment I posted at a website concerning the 2006 movie The History Boys1 with added references.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Going Nowhere
Ktesias - Conman

Conmen and fraudsters have been the bane of human existence for thousands of years but perhaps one of the most blatant is the explorer as a Conman. This is so because a faker who says he has been to place X who has not been to place X risks being found out by someone who does in fact get to place X and therefore exposed.

The reason is that if you’ve never been to a place you are almost certainly going to get something wrong and if the place is made up someone may find out that the place is in fact made up by not finding it where it is supposed to be.

Thus we get past historical accounts of places that turn out to be spectacularly wrong.

Perhaps the place to start in terms of Con Men talking about places that don’t exist is the fantasies of some early ethnographers. In some cases their accounts are so distorted that wilful distortion is obviously the case.

Thus we can start with the Greek Historian Ktesias, who should be some sort of patron deity to fraudsters and tellers of lying tales. Ktesias lived in the 4th century B.C.E., and lived for a time at the court of the Persian King, as Royal Physician. This gave him an unparallelled opportunity see things from from the point of view of the Persians and of course access to a vast number of reliable informants concerning Persian history and affairs. Well Ktesias muffed it, it seems. It appears that his Persica is unreliable and too a large extent a series of melodramatic stories of harem intrigue and frankly extremely unreliable.1

Friday, November 15, 2013

E. H. Carr and Prophetic History
Moral Cretinism Part XI

E. H. Carr

The late writer and Historian Irving Howe wrote concerning the Historian and political ideologue Isaac Deutscher that: 
He never learned that unpredictable as human history may be, History is a bitch.1 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Danse Macabre
The Russian – German War 1941 – 1945, Part 3
Hitler’s “Fatal Error”

Operation Barbarossa
June 22 - December 1, 1941

In two previous postings I discussed aspects of what was probably the greatest war ever fought; The Russian German war on the Eastern Front. The huge size of the armies the horrific scale of the casualties and the almost unbelievable scale and wickedness of the atrocities. Certainly in terms of the scope of the battlefront and sheer scale no war in history could match it and very few wars could match it in terms of atrocity and horror.1

Monday, November 11, 2013

The “Dog-Marriage”

Crates and Hipparchia

In a previous posting I talked about the Greek thinker Diogenes, the founder of Cynicism.1 Here I will discuss an altogether different person or should I say persons. Has mentioned in the previous posting Diogenes was a dour, sullen, misanthropic unpleasant individual, and on top of that he practiced a very difficult, severe and hard way of life. This would of course make it rather difficult to attract followers, but Diogenes did indeed attract followers. This included the remarkable Crates and his wife Hipparchia.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Wrong Note

Title Card

The recent death of James Gandolfini1 reminded me of The Sopranos, 1999-2007;2 one of the best shows ever to appear on TV. Certainly in the wasteland that was and still is TV it was a gem.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Velikovsky Who?

The Surface of Venus

The following is a very brief review of the book Carl Sagan and Immanuel Velikovsky by Charles Ginenthal. This very brief review was originally at Amazon. I have only changed it very slightly here.1

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Sistine Chapel

The ceiling Frescoes of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo  are among the greatest works of art ever conceived of by anyone. Here are some pictures of the Frescoes.

Plan of Frescoes in the Sistine Chapel

Sunday, November 03, 2013

The English Civil War
The Money Background

Battle of Naseby 1645

The English Civil War (1642-1646) is perhaps one of the most discussed and debated subjects in the historiography of English history; it is also one of the areas most afflicted, yes that is the word, with myth. This includes myths of origin. Here I will discuss some of the background to the English Civil War.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Garden June 2013

Just some Garden pics of my garden from the late spring / early summer as we head into winter.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Italy’s Fiasco
The Ethiopian war as a Tar baby
Part II
The Cost of the War
Mountains of Ethiopia

In a previous essay I discussed the Italian-Ethiopian war of 1935-1941 and further discussed the question of whether or not the negative reaction of Britain and France drove Mussolini into Hitler’s arms. This is so because many modern commentators state that the economic boycott along with other measures destroyed Mussolini’s willingness to be part of alliance aimed at thwarting Hitler and in fact forced him to be Hitler’s ally. This is quite simply nonsense. Mussolini was not “forced” to be Hitler’s ally by any stretch of reality or imagination. He became Hitler’s ally because of his own ambitions were blocked by France and Britain.1

Here I will discuss the cost of the Ethiopian war for Italy. For the bottom line is that the Ethiopian war cost far more than Mussolini anticipated and played a very large role in preventing Italy from becoming a true great power.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Consummate Hypocrite
Thomas Jefferson
A Very Brief Note

Thomas Jefferson

One of the best books I have ever read about Thomas Jefferson is The Wolf By the Ears.1 The book however contains some of the most risible and absurd statements regarding Thomas Jefferson. This is because our author is an abject worshipper at the shrine of St. Thomas of Jefferson. That so many Americans and others fall down on their knees and grovel before the images of the “Founding Fathers” is of course a well-known fact. But in the case of Thomas Jefferson this idolatry is past the point of rationality into the stratosphere of groveling worship.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Surge

English Lee Family c. 1800 C.E.

Population history is one of the most interesting and yet unexplored aspect of human history. Although demographic information is often provided in standard text books; little use is made of such things in terms of explaining historical phenomena.

A classic example is the remarkable surge in the population of England that began in the late 17th century, and that proceeded with only a few hiccups for a little over 2 centuries. In fact it can be argued that the population surge in fact began earlier at around 1600 C.E. This is in fact debatable given that the English population experienced significant setbacks during this time.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

“Witch Hunters” Manual

Book Cover

More than 500 years ago Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger wrote and published the Malleus Maleficarum which became the most popular manual for the ferreting out and prosecution of witches during Europe’s Witchcraze. During the Witchcraze in Europe at least 100,000 and possibly more than 200,000 alleged witches were killed. The craze possessed most of Europe and brought in its wake untold misery.1

Monday, October 07, 2013

The Stoned Nailmaker’s
“Jump the Shark Page” Post Part IV 
Cast of Full House

31,       Full House.  Michelle has played by the Olson Twins was a crime against humanity for which the parents deserve to be tied up and forced to watch episodes until their brains leak out  through their ears.  After Michele was no longer so “cute” (another word for vomitus and vile) they introduced “cute” twins to further torture the audience of this “entertainment”.  People involved in Full House went on to do America’s Funniest Home Videos, and other abominations.  This show didn’t just jump the shark from day one it was a maggot ridden, fungi infested Hollywood bowel movement product from the moment it was conceived of.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

The Empire of “Corruption”
A Note

The Late Byzantine Empire
c. 1280 C.E.

The Byzantine Empire is one of those historical oddities that defy easy explanation and in the end refute simplistic notions about how societies work. Traditionally portrayed in much of literature has hopelessly corrupt, weak and ineffectual its very longevity refutes indeed confounds the naysayers.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Over-Rated Military “Geniuses”
Part II
Chief Joseph

Chief Joseph (Hinmatóowyalahtq’it) (1840 – 1905 C.E.) is best known for being the leader of the Nez-Perce Indians during their war with the U.S. in 1877.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

An Historical Screw Up

Map of Mesopotamia

In the early part of the third century B.C.E., two priests of local long established civilizations attempted to introduce to the Greeks the culture and history of their respective civilizations. They were the Egyptian Priest Manetho and the Babylonian Priest Berossus. Both wrote short books giving an outline of the histories of their respective cultures going back to mythological times. In the case of Manetho, who I have discussed in an earlier posting,1 despite the apparent lack of interest by most Greco-Romans in his book enough survived, mainly because Christian writers preserved large sections of Manetho’s chronology. This gave to modern Egyptologists the familiar outline Egyptian history has a series of dynasties and it turned out to be reasonably accurate.2 Despite the fact that Manetho’s account used Ancient Egyptian records his short book was generally ignored by the Greco-Romans and in fact what was preserved by the later Christian writers, i.e., Manetho’s dynastic list was from summaries. It appears that the actual book had swiftly become a rarity and disappeared fairly rapidly. It appears for their history of Ancient Egypt the Greeks and the Romans preferred the mess of Herodotus or the fantasies preserved by Diodorus. So what the pagan writers preserved were cute stories and interesting anecdotes; only later Christian writers with a different mindset preserved much of the dynastic list provided by Manetho.3

With Berossus it is much, much worst. What we have is summaries of summaries of summaries etc., and the information is even more garbled than that of Manetho.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Mythical Victory
Relief of Rameses II at Kadesh

In c. 1274 B.C.E., Rameses II, Pharaoh of Egypt engaged in battle with the Hittite King Muwatallis II at the city of Kadesh in modern day Syria. The resulting battle can only be described as a serious defeat for the Egyptian forces. But in an example of propaganda and the use of the big lie Rameses managed to largely successfully portray his defeat has a victory and to throw such dust into people’s critical faculties that still to this day people think of the battle has a tie or a draw at worst.1

What it was, was a serious, indeed disastrous defeat.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Dark Side


The Roman Empire is too this day greatly admired, but a lot of that admiration is based on the fact that it occurred so long ago so that the bruises of everyday knowledge of Roman power are softened by the nostalgia of distance in time. It is also helped by the fact that Greco-Roman culture was and is so widely admired as the foundation of Western Civilization.

The result is a tendency to whitewash the regime of the Emperors and to represent it as a benign institution except of course when “bad” Emperor’s ruled. Of course it is a common shibboleth in classic scholarship that a “bad” Emperor was one disliked by the Senate. The bottom line is that if the institution of Emperorship was so open to be so easily being “misused” then of course the problem wasn’t just with the individual but the institution as well.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Lost Civilization

Great Bath at Mohenjo-daro 

Generally the first great civilizations are considered to be Mesopotamia and Egypt. Mesopotamia is considered to be earlier but Egypt was civilized by 3000 B.C.E. In Mesopotamia the process by which civilization developed seems to have been, from the archaeological data both long and “slow”. And it is a process that we can chart through archaeological digs. The process by which farmers settled in the alluvial plains of southern Mesopotamia, congregated in villages that later coalesced into towns that became city states is a process that took many centuries.1

Monday, September 09, 2013

Ironed Out
Movie Poster
Iron Man 1

One of the most interesting phenomena’s of the last decade has been the truly astounding success of the Iron Man franchise. The movies have been incredibly successful earning in excess of two billion dollars.1 Also to a surprising extent the films work as movies even though they are basically popcorn action flicks.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

More is the Pity
Book Cover

Years ago I did a brief review of Niall Ferguson’s book The Pity of War for the Amazon website.1 I have decided to put it up here. This version is an expanded version of the original with references.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Kissing Cousins

Kanzi, his Language Board and Susan

One of the most interesting relationships that humans have with the world they live in is the one we have with our nearest biological kin. In this case our Chimpanzee and Bonobo relatives. What is particularly interesting is the human desire to deny, downplay and frankly ignore the relationship. It appears that Bonobos and Chimpanzees are the embarrassing cousins that we don’t want to be reminded exist.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

The Ruling Ptolemaic Queens
A Brief Overview

Egyptian Base Relief
Of Cleopatra

In a previous posting I discussed briefly the few ruling Queens of Ancient Egypt. Here I will discuss the ruling Queens of the last dynasty to rule Egypt; the Ptolemaic dynasty.1

Sunday, September 01, 2013

A Tantalising Figure

Vortigern being presented-
 with his Saxon Bride

The period after the Roman’s abandoned, or were driven out of England is perhaps the most obscure period in English history we know virtually nothing about this time period. In fact historical knowledge of any reliability only really begins again in the late 6th century and not coincidentally at the same time the Christianity was reintroduced to England.1

During this early part of this time period two sources refer to a King named Vortigern who supposedly invited the Anglo-Saxons to settle in exchange for service as military units. Supposedly the Saxons had then risen in revolt and took control over much of England until they were halted by the Britons lead by Arthur. I have previously discussed why it is likely that Arthur is a mythological character but it appears that Vortigern is actually a real person.2

Thursday, August 15, 2013

A Snap Shot
The British Aristocracy c. 1880

Hush by James Tissot
British Aristocrats at Play

In 1880 the wealthiest, most politically powerful Aristocracy on Earth was the British Aristocracy. It Politically and Economically dominated Britain and through their domination of Britain, the British Empire. What follows is a brief snap shot, so to speak, of the British Aristocracy at its height c. 1880.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
A Note on Three Myths

Sack of Rome 410 C.E.

The Decline of the Roman Empire is one of the great, artistic, literary, historical, philosophical, sociological, scientific tropes, and clichés of the western and now world tradition. It is also a rather annoying bugbear in terms of exercising an inadvertently malign influence on all the above.1

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Guilty Pleasure

Book Cover 

Spoilers Galore

Sidney Sheldon was one of the most successful English language Novelists of the last fifty years and who wrote eighteen novels about the lives of the “fictional” rich and famous. His novels also have the distinction of being some of the most monumental drek ever. Here I will briefly review one of Sidney’s “Masterpieces” A Stranger in the Mirror.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Sylvia Browne
And other Vampires

Sylvia Browne and Montel Williams
on The Montel Williams Show

In May of 2013 we had the case of Amanda Berry, who disappeared April 21, 2003, resurface with the discovery that Amanda missing for ten years had been locked in a home and imprisoned for a decade with two other women has sex slaves.

Aside from the relief of family and friends that someone, most of them by now had thought of as dead was in fact alive and has a 6 year old child, there are other less savoury aspects of the case aside from the repulsive and evil sex slavery aspect. That aspect is the paranormal connection.1

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Rosenberg Code

The Rosenbergs

On June 19th 1953 the Rosenberg’s, Julius and Ethel were executed. Still to the last claiming that they were innocent. We now know that those protests were hollow and false yet how and why the Rosenberg’s to the last proclaimed their innocence and convinced so many that they were so is a continuing mystery in many respects.

Monday, August 05, 2013

New Guinea
Growth within Limits

Farms: Highlands New Guinea

In the 1920’s when people began to explore the interior of the island of New Guinea what they found surprised them immensely. Beforehand the dense jungles and swamps of the coast and the fact that these areas were chock full of fevers, disease and parasites aside from being a stunningly forbidden landscape of primeval jungle had prevented European explorers from getting far into the interior. The coastlines were generally not that thickly populated with a Neolithic tribal people divided into numerous small tribes that spoke numerous diverse languages. The expectation was that they would find that the interior was similarly populated with scattered tribes separated by thick jungle in a thinly populated landscape.

The actuality was a surprise instead of thick jungle with a thin tribal population; they found a thick population of Neolithic farmers living in mile after mile of villages and gardens numbering in the millions. The population of Highland New Guinea was dense; where one village and its gardens ended another began. Jungle was confined to high steep areas and swamps and was scattered about in isolated spots.

To say no one expected this is an underestimate. It was the last thing that westerners expected to find. Further these were a Neolithic people with stone tools and virtually no use of metal for any purpose whatsoever. Further they were divided into hundreds of small tribal groups speaking hundreds of mutually unintelligible languages. In fact their culture was so Stone Age that they didn’t even have “Chiefs”, what they had were what Anthropologists call “Big Men”. The difference being that “Chiefs” had some sort of coercive authority and prestige and the position had hereditary aspects and further that chiefs acquired products for redistribution that further cemented their authority by setting up networks of obligation. In the case of “Big Men”, the coercive authority was non-existent, networks of obligation minimal to non-existent. “Big Men” were simply men who had acquired more influence than others in local affairs.

In fact the societies were pretty egalitarian and the only truly significant difference in status was a rather sharp sexual division of labour. The other common characteristic of the various societies was a rather chronic state of war between the various tribal groups. The result was a fairly significant level of deaths in males through inter-tribal conflict. In fact it was the very loose way in which authority was structured that prevented conflicts from being settled in any permanent fashion so that disputes become conflicts that created a situation of feud and counter feud. The resulting violence was endemic and persistent. The lack of the authority of "Chiefs" or the equivalent meant that conflicts could never be settled securely.

What did emerge was the codification and ritualization of violence and dispute settlement that helped to keep the violence within bounds and to at least some of the time settle disputes. Thus war between tribes in New Guinea tended to be highly ritualized and refined. Although this presumably helped to keep the violence from wreaking the societies involved it didn’t particularly help end it. That would have required an exterior authority imposing peace and since no such authority existed, peace was at best intermittent.

The intrusion of Western influence did bring that outside authority and it was able to impose peace of a kind. Something that the older generation of New Guineans are perfectly happy with. Other changes not so much.

And aside from being linguistically so different from each other. The cultural variety among the New Guineans was and is amazing. Not surprisingly it has provided much grist for the anthropological mill since then. And for being the source of a great many stories of headhunting and cannibalism.

When Westerners first saw these societies they thought that they were seeing a fossilized series of Neolithic societies that had little changed in thousands of years. Thus New Guinea 1000 or 2000 etc., years ago would be little different from what is now and that New Guinea society provided a glimpse into the past of human societies during the Neolithic period.

The argument was that basically New Guinean societies had little “real” history and that things stayed the same. Further that New Guinean society and people “must” be highly conservative and fearful of change so that their societies would change so little over the years. Added to this it was thought that agriculture in New Guinea at most c. 3,000 years ago where it was adopted by the hunter gatherers of the island who swiftly adopted it and then basically stagnated shortly after the adoption.

All of the above is simply wrong.

New Guinea seems to have been originally settled more than 45,000 years ago by hunter gatherers who lived in and off the dense jungles with their abundant plant and animal life. For almost 37,000 years New Guineans lived has hunter gathers in New Guinea. Then agriculture came. And remarkably it was far older than anyone expected. It was thought that agriculture had entered New Guinea from outside that proved not to be the case.

Firstly agriculture was established in New Guinea not 2,000 - 3,000 years ago but more than 7,000 years ago and further the New Guineans had developed agriculture on their own.

The New Guineans cultivated taro, bananas, yams and sugarcane, which they appear to have domesticated entirely on their own. Thus making New Guinea one of the small number of places on Earth in which agriculture originated independently. The New Guineans added to the list of items they cultivated and domesticated, pigs, chickens and most importantly the sweet potato. Those three items came from outside New Guinea. And they also had the dog. They of course continued to exploit jungle and rivers and creeks for their natural resources.

After the adoption of agriculture the population of the New Guinea highlands slowly increased and the jungle decreased. This was because as the population expanded the areas under cultivation grew. Further the woods were increasingly mined out for wood. The resulting deforestation was gradually apparent and by 1,200 years ago it appears a crisis was reached. Now often the effects of deforestation are cataclysmic in this case the New Guineans adopted a solution. They, if the pollen, records are anything to go by, fairly quickly took up silviculture, the planting and cultivation of trees. They started growing en-mass and deliberately the Casuarina tree, (“Ironwood”). For both fuel and for buildings material and tools. The tree also grows fairly quickly and has a positive effect on the soil. The wood is also very hard, hence the name “Ironwood”, although it is also brittle. This enabled the New Guineans to stop the continuous encroaching on what was left of the native forests in the highlands and so preserved them for future generations to exploit for their natural resources.

In the meantime several volcanic eruptions significantly increased soil fertility and thus led to an expanding population. But far more important in leading to an expanding population was the arrival of the sweet potato c. 400 years ago. The sweet potato from the Americas wasn’t just a supplement to the previously domesticated plants and animals it was a earth shaking arrival. That was because the yields of sweet potato per acre of cultivated land were several time that of the other New Guinea domesticated plants. The result was a population explosion. Yet it appears the New Guineans adapted. By intensification of their cultivation techniques.

Thus the New Guineans used intensively natural fertilizers, such as weeds and, grass etc., pig and chicken manure, even ash from fires. They practiced irrigation to both get water to where it was needed and to carry it away. They practiced crop rotation, built terraces on steep slopes. And so on and so forth. The Casuarina tree proved to be a perfect tree in that it could be grown in amidst their gardens. It had a large leaf fall that added nutrients to the soil and further its roots helped to fix nitrogen into the soil.

Agricultural fields
Highlands New Guinea

The New Guineans were thus able to avoid a collapse caused by too much pressure on the ecological system. In fact the only serious problem New Guinean’s faced traditionally was getting enough protein in their diets hence the importance of chickens and pigs.

However it is also clear that the New Guinean’s do have a history. They developed agriculture by domesticating their own plants then their population expanded has agriculture spread throughout highland New Guinea. They then adopted from outside both the Chicken and the pig, with the ecological and social changes that brought. Later still they coped with, successfully volcanic eruptions and with the population growth brought by the adoption of the sweet potato. Thus these Neolithic / stone age people did in fact have a history. It was however a history with limits. Instead of stagnation we have change over time within the matrix of Neolithic, hoe agriculture societies. In fact the fragmentation and variety of New Guinea traditional societies was a the product of vigorous growth both in population and changes in technology and social relations brought on by both.

Thus instead of being a picture of the past New Guinea when first encountered in the early part of the 20th century were the end product of thousands of years of change and adaption. And pretty successful adaption at that.  

For it appears to be the very fact that traditional New Guinea societies were so fragmented that helped them to adapt. Has said above traditional New Guinea societies do not even have chiefs. The result is that things are decided by endless discussion and debate until a decision is reached. This is important because it means that decisions once made are implemented locally in these small scale societies. So how did this help them to adapt?

Well the very fact that societies were small scale made moving very difficult. You try to move and you run into angry neighbours who won’t let you move. So just moving away was not much of a solution. Also there were too many societies to make dispossession of your neighbours a realistic option to begin with. The highly ritualized nature of warfare also didn’t help. Further the democratic ethos of the societies inhibited the emergence of war chiefs who could have created or tried to create a militaristic society. Well if moving and conquering was not an option than adaptions had to be local.

Everyone could see that deforestation, poor yields from gardens, lack of wood was a problem. Since moving was not an option other solutions had to be tried. The democratic ethos ensured that decisions had the approval of the majority and so were carried out by consensus and peer pressure. Since everyone could see the problem and new solutions had to be found and that moving was not an option, solutions were found, adopted and carried through to completion.

Thus within the limits imposed by the geography and culture of New Guinea societies growth happened and change happened. This was no world outside of history but a world of growth and change within limits.

I wonder if this as any lessons for us? I suppose what it means is that growth does not necessarily have to involve endless qualitative growth to greater and greater accelerating growth and development. Growth can involve the steady improvement of technique within limits. The limits being that the structure of society and even certain basic technologies change surprisingly little. It is possible that human technology does indeed have growth limits. I suppose that the continued growth of output of human power sources does have a limit. After all on current trends the growth of such energy sources would turn cause the earth surface to radiate temperatures of 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit in a few centuries. Or that in a few thousand years the number of humans would weigh as much as all the mass in the Universe. So I suppose there are real limits.

Of course the New Guinean’s didn’t live in paradise. The area had lots of tropical diseases, there were certain dietary problems that occurred and of course the chronic state of inter-tribal warfare didn’t help things. Still over all the New Guineans adapted and adapted successfully to various challenges over the past couple of thousands years. And so can we.

New Guinea Man


Practically all the stuff about New Guinea and adaption to change is taken from:

Diamond, Jared, Collapse, Penguin Books, London, 2005, pp. 277-286.

Other material

Diamond, Jared, Guns, Germs and Steel, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1998, pp. 147-150, 303-304, 306-307, 317-319, 346-347.

Neumann, Katharina, New Guinea: A Cradle of Agriculture, Science Express, June 19, 2003.

Denham, Ted, Envisaging early agriculture in the Highlands of New Guinea: landscapes, plants and practices, World Archaeology, v. 37, no. 2, 2005, pp. 290-306.

Denham, T. P., Haberle, S. G, Lentfer, C, Fullagar, R, Field, J, Therin, M, Porch, N, Winsborough, B, Origins of Agriculture at Kuk Swamp in the Highlands of New Guinea, Science Express, June 19, 2003.

For a view of how agriculture, ecology and culture interact in a traditional New Guinea society along with warfare see:

Rappaport, Roy A., Pigs for the Ancestors, Yale University Press, New Haven CONN, New, enlarged Edition, 1984.

For an interesting if exaggerated gloom and doom prediction of man’s future and limits to growth see:

Meadows, Donella H., Randers, Jorgen, Meadows, Dennis L., Behrens, William W., The Limits to Growth, Universe Books, New York, 1972.

Pierre Cloutier