A Really Long View of American History

Tim Flannery is an Australian paleontologist specializing in mammals and an environmental activist. I wasn't really aware of Flannery, until a reader of my blog reviews asked if I had read anything by him. So I read his 2001 book, The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and its Peoples. Although I liked the entire book quite a bit, I think the title is a bit misleading. Flannery's story of pre-human America, brilliantly described in the first half of the book, is much more comprehensive than his story of humans in the Americas.

Most of the reading I've done about prehistory, recently, has focused on the rise of humans. Flannery offers a detailed view of the story leading up to humans. Beginning with the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, Flannery traces the re-population of the planet by the plants and animals that survived the disaster. This material really made up the meat of the book, and I learned quite a bit about the evolution and migration of mammals across the planet. I had not known, for example, that "North America can be thought of as having given rise, at an early stage, to virtually all of the larger herbivorous mammal lineages inhabiting the planet today" (53). Hadn't really thought about America as a "climatic trumpet" whose geography amplifies climate changes and even seasonal weather extremes. And it was interesting to watch Flannery apply the rules of his specialty, and explain how "Centripetal evolution constantly generates new species at the centre of a group's range," but leaves peripheral species unchanged (78). I was a little more skeptical when Flannery started applying the rules of his specialty to American society.

In the introduction, Flannery says he is seeking "the quintessential determinants of life in North America" (6). In the concluding chapter, he sums these factors up as "the founder effect, ecological (and social) release, and adaptation" (394). Although I'm fascinated by idea that adaptation really doesn't begin until we begin to hit environmental limits, I thought the way Flannery equated ecological and social release was a little too casual.

I also had a problem with Flannery's casual dismissal of Tim Dillehay's discoveries in Monte Verde. I tried to remind myself that Flannery was writing in 2000, and a lot has changed in the field since then. But even so, I had a bit of a negative reaction to his rejection of anything pre-Clovis and then his immediate embrace of a "Nadene" migration at a time when Beringia was again submerged by rising post-Glacial sea-levels. Flannery says it is hard to believe people sailed all the way from Beringia to southern Chile, as if they never stopped along the way. They may in fact have stopped all along the way, and left remains that were then erased as the coastlines of the glacial era disappeared under the rising ocean. Flannery also seems to suggest that human migration (like animal migration?) had to be an all or nothing affair, when more recent evidence suggests there were several waves of migration from Beringia/Alaska into America. So maybe there's something a bit more variable happening in "social release" than there would have been in ecological release?

Flannery's interest in Frederick Jackson Turner is evident from the book's title, and he returns to Turner in his conclusion. Flannery suggests that academic historians' rejection of Turner might be a bit faddish and premature, which is probably a fair assessment. But the portion of his story dealing with the historic period might have benefited from a bit more engagement with the work historians have done in the field. Flannery leans heavily on Jared Diamond's
Guns, Germs and Steel, and Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert. While I think one of those sources was an excellent choice, Flannery should probably have read a few more books before writing these chapters outside his own specialty.

But these later chapters still have a lot of interesting material in them. Flannery's description of bison changing in response to Indian hunting is fascinating, and seems to occupy an interesting middle ground between evolution and selective breeding that probably deserves more study--especially for people interested in the beginnings of agriculture and animal husbandry. The way western society often made "ruthless exploitation, greed and senseless environmental destruction...an honored tradition" is also described clearly and Flannery connects this with "breakdown of authority" in an interesting way. Finally, Flannery's suggestion that "a society genuinely adapted to North American conditions" won't emerge until we confront the end of the growth economy is interesting and appropriately ominous.