Walking parallel with the captivating coastline, we savored the intense blue dome of sky overhead, the screaming soaring shorebirds and sinuous scuttling lizards while trudging happily on the dilapidated asphalt track that runs 3.6 miles between the two enchanting state beaches.
While ambling eastward from our vehicle parked outside Refugio State Beach and despite muttering about Omicron, we did not fail to imbibe the salubrious sea air or access deep time recesses within.
A few alluring spots appear on this trip, and at these moments hikers can easily break right down onto the strand, e.g. at Arroyo Quemada Beach.
Since there had been prodigious king tides the previous day, the slanting littoral had been swept “clean” and free of kelp piles, with just a narrow corridor of walkable sand available.
During most of this roundtrip, seven-mile stroll, hikers can observe the beach below.
While we could not discern any beach walkers, there were five or six humans surf fishing, and they had their beach chairs and a small ice chest with refreshments on the sand. It appeared very relaxing.
We saw a human-made shelter in wigwam form, but no one was home when we passed by the rickety structure.
My ruminations, interrupted only by the crashing of waves below, led me to this question: What was human existence like 40,000 years ago? How did we live as humans?
I’ve written about Yuval Harari’s books on this topic (Sapiens and Homo Deus), and now we have David Graeber and David Wengrow’s scintillating new opus The Dawn of Everything — A New History of Humanity, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
“40,000 years ago” — a preferred approximate number for many anthropologists — marks when we can definitively state that humans had evolved into creatures exactly like us, behaviorally and anatomically us.
Why should anyone even care about this primeval question, one asks? The social patterns and ways the earliest modern humans developed politically can supply insights about society and governance today.
Rousseau at one point felt that Stone Age humans in pre-civilized eras led a nobler and more egalitarian life than in his own time (his Noble Savage thought experiment); Hobbes famously contended life before European-style “civilization” was just nasty, dull, brutish, and above all, short.
Graeber and Wengrow’s 670-page tome is packed and written in a lively style. But Wild Peter eventually tired of my summarizations, asking the pertinent interrogative — how do these authors connect today’s massive social IN-equalities and violence to human conditions 40,000 years ago?
Did the marvelous changes in the Upper Paleolithic also include hardwiring for conflict, subjugation and social stratification? Were we always this way — hierarchical, authoritarian, argumentative and fixated on property?
The authors believe that there was a genuine “indigenous critique” of Western civilization, which Rousseau learned about via translation (into French) from the Huron statesman Kandiaronk.
Kandiaronk’s scathing criticisms of Western civilization focused on private property (capitalism) in particular.
Kandiaronk had been to France, and in the 1680s enunciated an analysis of the West quite familiar to us today. These so-called “civilized” European societies quarreled incessantly, especially the antagonistic sects within Christianity; they followed hierarchical leadership (kings); and they ignored cruel social inequalities.
Could it be that many of the wiser indigenous humans consciously rejected farm-domination and rigid hierarchies (and hence eschewed big government)?
These views force us to see the once-celebrated Agricultural Revolution in the Neolithic as more of a negative: an adaptation that degraded humans in Mesopotamia and Pharaonic Egypt into farm-serfs. Indentured to the soil, they lived with limited mobility, poor diets, rampant disease and almost no personal freedoms.
Are we heading to something like this with our 7.5 billion crammed onto planet Earth?
Graeber and Wengrow provocatively state that “The indigenous peoples of California were not pre-agricultural. If anything, they were anti-agricultural.”
Since some Stone Age peoples did travel long distances, the Yurok and other California societies (including the Chumash) would have easily observed all the problems the Northwest indigenous peoples had (e.g. the Kwakiutl) with their stored wealth, slave systems and rigid socio-political hierarchies.
Calling my attention to the golden-brown beaches and bright azure sky, Wild Pete pointed out the two oil platforms on the horizon as symbols of fossil fuel extraction.
He also noted the stands of rare “Indian tobacco” (nicotiana clevelandii), a wild tobacco plant, which was almost certainly propagated casually by indigenous Californians here, but never tilled or protected in the manner of European farmers.
Clearly, California indigenous cultural groups consciously chose to avoid bondage to the soil and preferred untilled subsistence crops such as acorns and pine nuts against reliance on fish and marine resources.
Graeber pointedly asks us if we’d rather fish or gather acorns? In terms of so-called optimal foraging theory, fish involve front-loaded labor (and major storage) while gathering acorns and nuts is back-loaded labor with minimal product storage.
I also firmly believe, as a fanatic hiker, that these California societies liked roaming about and eating a varied diet: they quite openly avoided European and Northwest American private property arrangements.
Stored wealth, rigid social classes and constant quarreling marked those colonizing Europeans Kandiaronk observed — and Rousseau (via Baron de Lahontan) followed him in squarely blaming private property and intense competition for most of the astounding social IN-equalities in late 18th century Europe. (The 1789 French Revolution was a convulsion of the sans-culottes and poor against the bloated ancien Régime.)
Peter noted that we have yawning economic and social inequalities today, and I riposted that this is why we get books like The Dawn of Everything.
Villagers from Syuxtun and Dos Pueblos would have happily wandered along these same clifftops Peter and I enjoyed rather than endure agricultural serfdom and imprisonment near the missions.
Yet those markets and free-market fundamentalists haven’t limited our 21st-century California beach experience with its salty air and wheeling birds, fragrant plant scents and yeah, the Highway 101 sounds.
On this beautiful Sunday, the odor of linear time fades like a weak mist in the face of exertion and immediate awareness. At 8 a.m. there were no other hikers, we found free parking, fine vistas and no hierarchies in sight at all!
This seven-miler would be an ideal stroll for a New Year’s Day jaunt with family, and perhaps dropping down onto the beach to take a dip into the surf or chat with lonely surf fishermen.
Directions: Take Highway 101 to the Refugio State Beach exit; we parked outside and didn’t pay since we never entered the state beach proper and didn’t use any amenities there.
Books: Graeber and Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything — A New History of Humanity (2021), they discuss Kandiaronk’s influence on Rousseau (the French philospher got his information from Lahontan’s 1703 Diaries).
Jan Timbrook’s book, Chumash Ethnobotany, discusses “Indian tobacco” — Nicotiana clevelandii — and stresses that an early botanist in 1878 “observed (Indian tobacco) growing only on former Indian village sites” Y. Harari, Sapiens (2015).
— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity and has written extensively about the local backcountry. His latest book, Autobiography in the Anthropocene, is available at Lulu.com. He serves as an archaeological site steward for the U.S. Forest Service in Los Padres National Forest. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at email@example.com. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.