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Water holes and history
It’s a jungle out there
I recently watched a National Geographic show about a water hole in a drought-stricken part of Africa. A pack of wild dogs had colonized the water hole and used it as a base for hunting in the surrounding area. But the drought had elsewhere displaced a pride of lions which was searching for new headquarters. Under any circumstances the lions would have been more than the dogs could handle, and driven by hunger and thirst the lions quickly chased off the dogs.
The lions made the most of the water hole until some elephants came along. The elephants normally would leave the lions alone, given the threat the lions posed to the young elephants in the herd. But water was scarce and the elephants were thirsty. They stomped their way past the lions, who snarlingly stepped aside.
The elephants drank their fill and left. A second pride of lions appeared. The first pride, having regained its strategic position, didn’t fancy sharing. A fight ensued. The second pride, perhaps weakened by hunger, was mauled and driven off. The camera watched them depart for an unknown and unpromising future.
Anthropomorphism is a besetting temptation in natural history. It’s a temptation National Geographic producers rarely resist. In this case they named members of the first lion pride and imputed specific emotions to the different members.
Zoomorphism is the opposite of anthropomorphism. It’s the ascription of animal impulses and traits to humans. Near the end (one hopes) of a long hot summer in Texas, with wildfires having devastated Hawaii and still burning across Canada, I couldn’t help thinking of that water hole as akin to what humans are facing in many parts of the world. And of how the search for the necessities of life, and the serial displacements the search triggers, explain a great deal of human history.
Migration is an abiding element of the human condition. At some point in the distant past, early humans, perhaps driven by the same kind of drought that set the lions in motion, left that same part of Africa for what they hoped would be better conditions elsewhere. Some found them and colonized regions that hadn’t seen humans before. They probably drove out the existing residents, just as the lions drove out the dogs. Eventually they were challenged by other humans, as the second pride challenged the first.
Repeating this process over tens of thousands of years, humans reached most parts of the world. When their numbers were still small the displacements they caused and the inroads they made on existing species in any given area were modest. But as their populations grew, their herds of sheep and cattle displaced native ungulates, and their crops of wheat and corn displaced native grasses. They displaced one another, driving the displaced from the water holes and other favored spots the displaced had taken from previous residents.
The losers didn’t go quietly. Battles over resources have constituted the great majority of human conflicts. Invaders were sometimes desperate but often merely greedy. The Spanish conquistadores sought gold, not foodstuffs. But wants transmuted into necessities; in the twenty-first century an influential school of American strategic thought contends that ensuring access to semiconductors from Taiwan warrants the risk of nuclear conflict with China.
Humans devised various means to protect their water holes. They built fences, including such big ones as Hadrian’s Wall and the Great Wall of China. They built legal barriers: immigration laws.
Their efforts had varying degrees of success. Japan kept foreigners out for hundreds of years, complementing the protection provided by surrounding seas with a policy of capital punishment for those foolish or unlucky enough to land on Japanese shores. Other borders have been more easily breached. The Romans couldn’t keep out the Vandals; American Indians couldn’t hold back invaders from Europe; the United States can’t prevent migrants from crossing its border with Mexico. When the need is pressing and persistent enough—like the hunger and thirst at the water hole—animals and humans try and try until they get what they need or perish.
Quite possibly a changing climate will cause displacements on a larger scale than previously. Those of us who live in Austin hope this summer’s record heat will scare off newcomers and send recent arrivals back to where they came from. Less parochially: great swaths of the tropics might become lethally hot for humans. Those without access to air-conditioning will face the water hole choice: move or die. Drought and wildfires will cause other displacements. Rising oceans will push people back from seacoasts and off low islands.
It won’t much comfort the displaced to know that what they are experiencing has been part of humanity's lot since before we were humans. We’ve always been a species on the move. We probably always will be.