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Rankin: Out of Eden; a Multi-Millennial Story

Out of Eden; a Multi-Millennial Story
13 January 2001

While the millennium year didn't exactly feature a surfeit of historical reflection or futurist speculation, history is nevertheless making a bit of a comeback, in particular through biographies that are as much about past times as they are about their subjects. Longitude and Gallileo's Daughter are two such books that spring to mind.

While that pattern has hardly extended to multi-millennial history, I've had a number of spurs to reflect on the bigger picture. First, in 1999, when considering the Y2K bug, I wondered whether the software rewrites would also be able to cope with Y10K. Someone suggested to me that we might all have electronic brains in 8,000 years time. All the more reason, I said, to fix the Y10K bug now. Certainly the Y10K bug is as good an excuse as any to reflect on decamillennial time. If we go back 8,000 years, it takes us to the time of Noah and the last Great Flood. Was there an Atlantean catastrophe then, or earlier, that helped to make us what we are today?

Last year I wrote a review of the fifth book (Global Transition) of ANU Professor Graeme Snooks' quintilogy (it that's the word) beginning with The Dynamic Society. (Snooks starts his account earlier than most economic historians, by considering a world ruled by blue-green algae.) Snooks is an economic macro-historian, who interprets the whole of human history - and some pre-human history - in terms of a "dynamic" economic model of "strategic demand" that he synthesised as a by-product of his research.

While I am not a Snooksian, and am wary of parts of Snooks' agenda, I believe that economic theories - especially realist dynamic ones in contrast to the static equilibrium models of neoclassical economics - can open up radical new perspectives on very-long-run human history.

In November, I wrote a piece called Autistic Economics? which reports on a student rebellion re the teaching of economics in particular and the relevance of neoclassical economic theory in general. The "post-autistic economics" movement suggests that economics should become more like other disciplines (such as archaeology, linguistics and genetics): more inductive, less deductive, more in tune with the world that it purports to explain. The point is partially misplaced. While it is true that investment in the abstract edifice we call neoclassical economic theory is subject to diminishing returns, there is a key role in science for premise-based, or even - dare I say it - speculative approaches to the big questions that arouse us. Speculation is fully consistent with the scientific method, though it is credible only when it does not contradict known factual evidence. While we can never prove scientific theories, be they bold or cautious, we can usually disprove them, in time, if they are wrong. In the meantime, they open up new avenues of inquiry, and encourage us to interpret old evidence in new ways. Bold speculations are frowned on mainly because they usually come from outsiders who threaten the received wisdoms that bond the various academic disciplines. Economists are outsiders on archaeological and anthropological issues, much as engineers are despised as uninitiated outsiders by defensive economists.

In June last year I wrote a column called Villagers and Voyagers through which I sought to understand the political problems in Fiji and the Solomon Islands as cultural/racial issues that have festered through multi-millennial time, rather than being simply a result of the British introduction of Indian indentured labourers over the last couple of centuries.

Following from this theme, I read Steven Openheimer's Eden in the East watched the Horizon documentary Out of Asia. Another BBC report (Reporters, 2000) claimed that recent evidence from Northeast Brazil suggests a population related to native Australians predates today's native Americans by up to 60 thousand years. This comes hot on the heals of reports linking a skull from Southeast Brazil (Luzia) to native Australians (ref. Sunday Times' Aborigines were the First Americans). Last Wednesday I read in the NZ Herald a Telegraph piece about a 60,000 year old Australian find (Mungo Man), DNA from which suggested the first Australians were not descended from African homo sapiens. (Two Herald cartoons misconstrued the article as suggesting we are all descended from Australians.) A month ago there was a report that the modern male (Adam?) was an African who lived about 60,000 years ago, at least 60,000 years after Eve (see Genetic 'Adam never met Eve').

I don't believe that human beings (homo sapiens) evolved in Africa (although homo erectus almost certainly did, and the modern homo sapiens sapiens is probably predominantly descended from an African branch of homo sapiens). Nor do I believe that Polynesians came out of Taiwan five to six thousand years ago (although I do suspect there is an indirect connection - eg common origins - between the colonies of Fujian, the part of China nearest to Taiwan, and Fiji). These two prevailing orthodoxies (out of Africa; out of China/Taiwan) seem to me to be as constricting as does the neoclassical theory of economic man.

The speculations that follow about the origins of modern mankind tell a story that balances archaeological, linguistic, folkloric and genetic evidence with theories of economic development and evolution. (My academic speciality, like that of Graeme Snooks, is economic history.) Hopefully I have avoided any fatal clashes with the evidence that is being uncovered more rapidly than ever by archaeologists and geneticists.

Economic history is, in many cases, an exercise in story-telling; abstract, explanative stories (stylised facts), rather than 100%-accurate narratives. The best stories are creative yet credible exercises in iconoclasm.

I believe that the answers to questions about the genetic origins of homo sapiens and the techno/cultural evolution of very modern mankind can be illuminated by considering the origins of two groups of people - the indigenous populations of Australia and of Fiji - while thinking through the wider implications of any answers that may appear.

What economic theories are most useful? Two economic historians from Melbourne's La Trobe University (Eric Jones and Colin White) in books such as The European Miracle, Mastering Risk, and Coming Full Circle developed a model that emphasises environmental risk, and the problem-solving challenges that risky environments bring. Related are the theories of unbalanced growth, and the application of modern evolutionary theory to invention and entrepreneurship, themes central to the writings of Albert Hirschman, Joseph Schumpeter and Joel Mokyr. Another important economic insight is the 'tragedy of the commons', which explains the process of self-inflicted catastrophe. The common theme is that human development is problem-driven. The alternative economic viewpoint, that I reject as a driver of socio-economic change, is that of balance and equilibrium growth.

Other insights from economic history that lead to useful generalisations include the patterns of economic and cultural development that predominate in continents vis-à-vis those that evolve in island nations close to continents, and about the relationships that develop between such cultures. Obvious examples include the relationships between the British Isles and continental Europe, and between Japan and China. In particular, island cultures tend to develop voyaging habits - predatory voyaging and voyaging for trade (Snooks' conquest-cum-commerce strategy) - whereas continental populations tended to follow a hierarchical agricultural ('super-feudal') system of social organisation where the emperor or king was really more of an overlord than a governor.


Around a million years ago, homo erectus moved out of Africa as far as the extremities of tropical Asia. For the large proportion of the last million years that were part of one or other ice age, East Africa to Bali represented a continuum on the rim of the Indian Ocean, the natural habitat of homo erectus.

Quite frequently, however, that habitat was disrupted by rising sea levels, as global warming took place and ice sheets melted. In particular, it was the eastern Southeast Asian portion of that habitat that periodically shifted from being the sub-continent of Sundaland to being the Sunda continental shelf, the islands of Singapore, Sumatra, Java, Borneo and Bali, and the peninsula of Malaya.

Nearly a million years ago homo erectus found her way beyond Java and Bali to some parts of the East Indies that were never joined to the Asian mainland during the ice ages; in particular the Spice Island of Flores. It is I believe on Flores, now known to have been settled by homo erectus nearly a million years ago, where conditions were most favourable for modern humans to have evolved. (Some believe that homo erectus made it as far east as Halmahera in the northern Moluccan Islands.) Africa, on the other hand, the most geographically stable part of homo erectus' habitat - and the least susceptible to sea level change - must have held the least likely conditions for evolution of the homo species from erectus to sapiens sapiens. The fact that erectus probably evolved in Africa is no evidence that all other hominids with surviving descendants also evolved there.

Homo erectus almost certainly spread to the eastern extremities of her habitat during ice age peaks, when sea levels were lowest. Nevertheless there were still two sea crossings to be made - Bali to Lombok and Sumbawa to Komodo - possibly on rafts by hominids of above average preparedness escaping volcanic eruptions. Tambora, the site of the biggest eruption (1815 - the year of no summer in Europe) of the last millennium or so is on Sumbawa.

The conditions for human evolution were best at the eastern end of homo erectus' habitat. The critical agents of evolution are death, selection and mutation. Environments that periodically generate catastrophic non-random death are ideal for evolution to take place. Islands are not only more susceptible to exogenous or self-inflicted catastrophe; they were also good sites for evolution on account of their isolation.

The Sunda region, the most volcanically active on the planet, is subject also to earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons, Pacific Ocean asteroid impacts as well as having been the most susceptible subcontinent to fluctuating sea levels. Yet despite all that, Java - an integral part of that drowned subcontinent - is now the most densely populated part of the world. The region has been and still is an attractive human habitat, despite its dangers.

The unstable geology of the Sundaland region makes it a much harder place than Africa to gather archaeological evidence. My feeling is that we have more evidence of ancient humans in Africa both because we have spent much more time looking in Africa, for reasons of theory and of convenience, and because a greater proportion of the evidence of human habitation is capable of being gathered in Africa. Having said that, the volcanic nature of Southeast Asia does mean that some of the evidence that now lies under water may have been preserved in ash - Pompeii-like - for future generations to find ways of accessing.

The three most important catastrophes in Southeast Asia in the last 150,000 years have been: (i) the post-glacial floodings of the vast coastal plains (of which the Sunda shelf is a large part) around 130,000 years BP (before present); (ii) similar floodings between 14,000 and 8,000 years BP; and the massive eruption of Lake Toba in Sumatra 71-74000 years ago, said to have been the biggest explosion on the planet in over two million years.

In my story, modern humans evolved genetically and technologically on Flores (alias Eden!) and the islands to its immediate east, as far as Alor. Danger was ever present from volcanoes, earthquakes, the sea, the wildlife (including dragons which now only survive on Komodo), and, perhaps, from Malthusian crises of population growth outstripping the habitat. The survivors would have generally been those most prepared for these mostly manageable catastrophes. In particular, given that the region from Lombok to Alor was for most of the time a chain of between three (four if you add Timor) and many islands, the ability to escape with one's family to a neighbouring island will have given certain individuals a selective advantage. On greater Flores (now the Nusa Senggara province of Indonesia) both the motive and the opportunity to learn to sail and to build boats were present.

Given that scenario, then I believe that the re-acquaintance of the highly evolved Flores-man (homo sapiens) with homo erectus on Java will have occurred as the sea levels rose rapidly around 130,000 years ago. Homo sapiens will generally have been able to outmanoeuvre homo erectus over the whole of erectus' range. Erectus probably migrated into the colder climes of northern Asia and Europe at that time. In this story, the appearance of homo sapiens in Africa circa 125,000 years ago does not constitute evidence that homo sapiens evolved in Africa. (We need to compare extracted DNA from the earliest African homo sapiens with DNA from much earlier African homo erectus.)

With sailing skills sufficient to get from Lombok to Bali, Flores-man would have also sailed to Timor, perhaps also displacing a hominid population that had left Flores 100 or more thousand years earlier. The skills necessary to sail to Timor would have been sufficient to get them to Australia, perhaps also 125,000 years ago. Likewise, at some stage they probably made it to Maluku (the Moluccan Islands) and New Guinea. Sailing techniques may have evolved sufficiently in Maluku to enable a trans-Pacific crossing to America. As now appears to be the case, the first Americans would have come from the same immediate stock as the first Australians (see Luzia, the surprising " ancestor " of the Americans and, from the New York Times, An Ancient Skull Challenges Long-Held Theories) or, possibly, the first Fijians ("Luzia's facial characteristics are similar to those of the people of the islands of Southeast Asia, Australia and Melanesia" Aborigines were the First Americans).

I believe that homo sapiens lived a relatively stable existence in the former habitat of homo erectus - South Africa, South Asia, through to Nusa Senggara - from around 130,000 until 74,000 years ago. Then Mount Toba erupted (ref Supervolcanoes, BBC Horizon). There may have been only a few thousand survivors worldwide, most of whom lived in Africa. Other groups of homo sapiens survivors will have been in Australia, and perhaps in America and China. My impression is that continental Asia suffered most.

The result of the genetic bottleneck following the Toba eruption will have been homo sapiens sapiens. So there would have been a wave of these most modern of hominids leaving Africa about 60,000 years ago. They probably interbred with the female descendants of surviving non-African homo sapiens in Asia and, around 25,000 years ago, in Australia.

For a second time, Sundaland and the islands of Eastern Southeast Asia must have played a significant role in the human story. During the great ice age from 25,000 to 14,000 years ago, Sundaland was the ideal location for an agricultural revolution. Further, genetic, linguistic and folkloric evidence (ref East of Eden ibid) from especially the islands of Nusa Senggara and Maluku reveals important links to modern Asian, Pacific and, to a lesser extent, European populations. The storylines of the Book of Genesis are at their richest and most complete in this region. Of particular interest are flood stories - many of which in this region involved 'arks' of various kinds, dragons - and what appears to be the prototype Cain and Abel story.

The most important group of people to emerge in Sundaland, according to Oppenheimer's convincing story, were the Austronesians, direct ancestor's of Maori and many other modern peoples. (Fijians appear to be culturally Austronesian, but genetically, a mixture of Papuan and Austronesian.) Oppenheimer believes that Austronesian languages separated from mainland Asiatic languages after the separation by flooding of Borneo from Java. We can think of the Austronesians as the first nation of sea-peoples, much as we think of the Vikings and later the British as sea-going imperialists, colonists and traders.

The received wisdom is still that Austronesians emerged 6,000 years ago from the descendants of Fujianese (Chinese) boat people who settled in Taiwan. Stephen Oppenheimer shows however, that Austronesians settled the northern and eastern fringes of Melanesia (presumably as far as Fiji) about 6,000 years ago. The more probable alternative is that the Austronesian homeland was Eastern Sundaland, much of which disappeared after the last great ice age. Oppenheimer links the emergence of Austronesian culture to the three great floods that inundated much of their homeland, much as parts of Bangla Desh are inundated today. The central locus of the post Sundaland Austronesian "Nusantao" sea peoples, according to University of Hawaii anthropologist Wilhelm Solheim's Island Origin Hypothesis, became eastern Borneo, Sulawesi, and the southern Philippines.

The civilisation of the Sunda plains must have developed agriculture between the two great floods - ie between 14,000 and 11,700 years ago. A loss of huge swathes of land constitute a good motive to adopt more intensive means of using the land; ie agriculture. The development of agriculture on the eastern Sunda plain almost certainly will have been followed by the emergence of predator neighbours - pirates, sea people - who would prey on the agricultural surpluses.

The global warming around 11,700BP saw sea levels rise at about 1 metre per year for 40 years. (This is a scenario that many climatologists fear will repeat this century.) Sundaland was no more. In the process, driven by the melting of vast ice sheets in Canada and Scandinavia, seismic activity was much greater than usual, leading to many large tsunamis. The sea people will have had to change their life-style, from one of plunder to one of commerce.

The Greek Philosopher Plato, c.360 BC, described a sunken island/continent known as Atlantis, from where, 9,000 years before his time, advanced people departed, invading Europe and other places, bringing their agricultural knowledge with them. (Much Atlantean literature is of the New Age variety that is off-putting to academics. But see this checklist of all of the suggested sites of Atlantis.) A recent genetic study of Europe suggests that 20% of European men show a chromosome pattern that differs from the other 80%, and reveals a final migration into Europe of advanced Neolithic people about 8,000 years ago; the people who brought agriculture to Europe. 8,000 years ago coincides with the third great flood, following which sea levels rose 25 metres. However, given that dating is an imperfect art, these intruders may have been the same wave of invaders that Plato described.

Stephen Oppenheimer however dates the ubiquitous flood myths of Asia and Europe to this more recent period. More specifically, he suggests that it was these people from the east who invaded modern Iraq 6000 years ago to found the Sumerian civilisation.

We know, without question, that if the success of an empire is to be measured by the area that it covers, then the Austronesian empire, which to this day extends from Hawaii and Easter Island through Aotearoa, Melanesia, the Marianas, the Philippines and Indonesia through to Madagascar is the most successful ever. From that point of view, we must expect the Austronesian influence to have encompassed much of the rest of the world as well.

There may have been a number of parallels between the British and Austronesian maritime empires. Just as the British colonised temperate lands which were, to them, relatively unpopulated, the British had a powerful but different kind of impact on the more densely settled regions of Asia and Africa. Likewise Austronesian intruders will have impacted on the peoples of East Asia, Southwest Asia, and Northeast Africa in a different but no less important way than they impacted on the Pacific Islands. The folk stories of Austronesian versus Papuan cultural clashes on the north coast of New Guinea give an important insight to how Austronesian voyagers may have impacted on other parts of the settled world.

It is not credible that the Austronesian people are not in some way a product of the rising sea levels that dominated the geography of Southeast Asia over the last decamillennium and a half. Further, it is not credible that a people in Taiwan with no reason to become ocean mariners could sail to the Philippines, let alone to Guam in western Micronesia and the other Marianas Islands. The prehistory of Guam is an important clue to this Austronesian maritime culture. Genetic studies link Guam to the whole range of what is now Island Southeast Asia.

In my story, the 'post-Atlantean' culture (including writing) of the Austronesian peoples evolved in the southern or central Philippines (where a few large islands split into smaller islands as sea levels rose). From there, they discovered and opened for settlement the distant Marianas Islands, colonised Taiwan and Fujian (China), formed a region-wide maritime trading network that certainly reached to Japan and may have extended across the whole Asian/African zone of early human habitation well before the discovery of Madagascar. Finally, about 3,500 years ago, migrants rather than traders picking up some genes from the women of Maluku and the New Guinea coast on the way, populated the unpopulated islands of Polynesia and Eastern Micronesia.

It is likely that, 12,000 years ago, the island peoples from the Philippines preyed on the agricultural wealth of Sundaland, much as the British (an opportunistic island people) preyed on the Spanish in the 16th century, and as nomadic 'voyaging' people generally preyed on the agricultural regions of Eurasia. The underlying culture that made the British Empire what it was, was one of piracy. Interestingly, the far-flung Austronesian colony of Madagascar became a notorious pirate haven in the 16th to 18th centuries AD.

The Vikings, another sea people (the ancestors of the northern English), gave birth to the myths of rape and plunder. Interestingly, the most vivid Cain/Abel stories from Maluku and northern New Guinea express the same themes of sexual predation and profiteering by Austronesian sea people upon settled the village people of Papuan/Australian origin. Despite the dubious morality of voyaging culture, the dynamic environments that they helped to create were highly conducive to the cultural and technological evolution that were the sine qua non of modern civilisation. Among other things, they prevented stasis - equilibrium - from setting in.

Hawaiiki, for all New Zealanders and not just Maori, may lie in the islands and sunken continent of Southeast Asia. After all, England's national myth is that of St George and the Dragon. Man-eating dragons still live in one of the islands - Komodo - off the southern 'coast' of the sunken subcontinent of Sundaland. Further the "Sea Peoples" who arrived at various times and places in classical and preclassical Europe may have been Austronesian. These include the 'Beaker People' (Oppenheimer suggests) who came to the British Isles, and, it is believed, built stone monuments including Stonehenge.

I believe that an understanding of the origins of the Australian people is necessary to understand the origins of homo sapiens. And that an understanding of the settlement of Fiji, with its combined Melanesian (Papuan) and Austronesian ancestry may give us many clues to a voyaging people who played a critical role in both filling the last uninhabited parts of the world with humans, and directly or indirectly transmitting civilisation (meaning dynamic economic development) to China, India, the Middle East and Europe.

The driving force for both genetic and techno/cultural evolution was ever present in bountiful yet always dangerous environment of Southeast Asia: a fertile continent prone to drowning and supervolcanic eruptions, bountiful volcanic islands exposed to the biggest seismic waves that earthquakes and asteroids can bring. It was a region of problems galore that, more than once, begat a people capable of solving them, and, as a by-product of that problem-solving capacity, capable of discovering the rest of the world.

(c) Keith Rankin 2001

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