When explorers in the 17th century came upon the huge Cahokia ceremonial mounds near St. Louis Missouri, they asked the local natives who had built them. The natives could offer no answers.
This is a rare instance of a society so diminished that 8 generations after their culture collapsed, they had no knowledge of the origin of the ruins they still inhabited. Nothing of the customs, their origins, heroes, laws or institutions. No written, symbolic or verbal clue was transmitted down through the generations
Many highly developed societies, despite their surges and declines, pass on their history in one form or another. Whether through writing, pictographs, aural traditions, songs or plays, major events down through history are generally recorded in some form.
Using various techniques, Western societies have maintained memories going back over 3500 years. We know of the great heroes, the critical battles, the social strife and triumphs as well as the literature and art which defined earlier cultures.
Very often the memories revolve around strife and conflict – the artifacts of decline and rebuilding. Which generals won what battle and which revolutionary overthrew which tyrant to institute which declaration of rights and social improvements.
In terms of demography, these historical threads are interwoven with the history of migration and the growth and decline of populations. But while we remember specific events and who was involved, we rarely pay attention to why history unfolded the way it did.
Did peaceful, stable societies suddenly erupt into warfare and revolution? Did peoples decide to undertake enormously risky migrations into unknown lands filled with hostile inhabitants on a whim?
Which mechanisms drove the events we remember so far back into history?
How bad to conditions have to be to make a group pull up stakes in their homeland and journey to an unfamiliar land where the annual mortality rate is 50%? (Virginia settlement) How desperate do you have to be to load your families and cattle into open boats and cross the North Atlantic to settle a land with no previous exploration? (Vikings from Iceland to Newfoundland). Have conditions deteriorated so much in your homeland that sailing to a new land in the fall with virtually no supplies for winter seems like your best option? (Mayflower)
What were conditions like in the homelands leading up to large scale migrations?
In 17th century Britain, malnutrition was widespread and the physical heights of English men and women were the shortest measured in history – about 12 cm less than today. Population growth had been very strong in the previous century and the weather had declined along with agricultural output. Marginal lands had to be abandoned and cities and towns filled up with landless and starving poor.
By the 11th century, Iceland was overpopulated and the difficulties of maintaining food production on Iceland’s extremely delicate soils were becoming frighteningly apparent. Migrations are caused by declines in the resource per capita ratio. If the resource base comes under severe consumption pressure from the human population, people migrate. In Iceland’s case, first to Greenland. In 1001 Leif Erikson and his extended family sailed west from Greenland for Newfoundland as the very low resource limits of Greenland had already been reached.
In 1620 Myles Standish and his followers set sail from England in the Mayflower for the New World late in the season with no supplies to overwinter in the new and harsh land. Simple bad planning or bad planning with a heavy dose of desperation?
In 1607 John Smith and his followers set sail for Virginia and established Jamestown. The mortality ratre was over 50% in the first year and the settlement only survived and grew because more colonists arrived every year from England. Migrating to an area with an annual death rate of 50% speaks volumes about conditions in which people currently exist and their low expectations for future prospects there.
In the late 1840s, a wave of Irish immigrants fled their homeland for North America, Australia and South Africa. The potato initially offered a tripling of food calories per hectare and had supported 100 years of rapid Irish population growth but was struck by blight. With the decline in the food supply, people could either migrate or die. Due to rapid population growth, the hectares of farmland per capita had fallen to an unsustainable low and any additional stress would cause a reduction in the number of people. The last straw came in the form of the potato blight which produced famine and opened the door for disease. The only option for many was migration.
On July 14, 1789, the day the Bastille was stormed, setting off the French Revolution, grain reached its highest price per bushel. Starving peasants couldn’t afford food and preferred rebellion to continued starvation.
These many seminal events in human history are currently held in the light of huge steps in human progress. In reality, they were driven by poor and deteriorating conditions which could only end in some sort of social cataclysm. We have always kept who, what, where and when clearly in our societal memory. What we really need to focus on is why events unfolded as they did.
“Why” is the question the desperate migrants should have had on their minds during their journey. And when they got to their greener fields, they should have been resolving that “This will never happen again.” “We won’t make the same mistake, we’ll preserve our environmental assets and live sustainably.”
But they didn’t make those resolutions and the environmental history of the new world is one of resource overexploitation and environmental decline. Just like the old world. The old saying is that those who don’t remember history are doomed to relive it. We have to start to remember the history that counts.
The vast majority of the history our society remembers is driven by resource, environmental and population dynamics which we never bother to record. A sustainable society is one that not only remembers why history happened the way it did but also is able to pass forward critical information for future generations to utilize.