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Again and again it comes to this, the
questions that we have not answered and always seem
inadequately to address. How should we relate to one
another as humans? How should we humans relate to
the whole living and physical world and the
biosphere? The word ‘should’ is necessary, for these
are and always have been the great ethical
questions. They cannot be answered, or even
addressed, by modern material science.
In this second issue of
some aspects of these questions are addressed by
Association founder member Harriet Kuhnlein. In
turn, responses come from the networks of people she
and her colleagues at the Centre for Indigenous
Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment (CINE) at McGill
University in Québec, Canada, joyously work with,
all over the world. Her commentary is entitled ‘Here
is the good news’. To hear this, we need first to
consider strange thoughts and hard stories. Those
below are from what is now ‘the Americas’. Such
histories have been played out in the rest of the
world, in different forms, at some time or another.
Here we are on earth
In the 1960s, one of the bibles carried by those who
perceived the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, was a
book of photographs by Eliot Porter (1), with
quotations from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. The
book’s title is also a Thoreau quote: In Wildness is
the Preservation of the World. Looking at it now,
what’s curious is that apart from one shot of a
mother bird feeding her chicks in a nest by a
clapboard wall, and another of a mossy stone wall,
there seems to be no imprint of humans. The book
seems to be saying that the world would be better
without us, which is no doubt why it was carried in
many hippie rucksacks along with other new-age
But here is a drafter of this editorial here, who is
a human looking at pictures taken by another human,
printed in a book made by many other humans and by
human-made machines. In a sense the impression given
by the book is a fraud. Here we are, on earth. What
shall we do? Besides, any book on ‘nature’, however
charming, is no more realistic than a book that
seems to imply that ‘the world’ is epitomised by Los
Angeles or Mumbai. Most pictures of ‘the natural
world’ are of scenes shaped or created by humans.
True, this is less so of mountains and oceans. But
most ‘wild’ trees and plants and flowers are
cultivated, or have been at some time, much
‘wilderness’ is the site of eradicated forests, and
much desert was once gardens – or cities. A profound
observation concerning the origin of the human
species is that we did not, as generally supposed,
rise up as a species almost in isolation out of a
semi-arid savannah of the rift valley of Africa. The
location is no doubt correct, but at the time when
advanced primates evolved, what is now almost a
moon-like surface was made fertile by mighty lakes
and rivers. It was an Eden (2).
The implications for our understanding of our place
on earth are also profound. We arose up by water,
interdependent with ecosystems teeming with fish and
abundant in all sorts of animals, birds, and other
living creatures and things. The lament of
Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, or Black Hawk, Chief
of the Sauk and Fox, is of a truly primaeval way of
life: ‘We always had plenty. Our children never
cried from hunger, neither were our people in want.
.. The rapids of Rock River furnished us with an
abundance of excellent fish, and the land being very
fertile never failed to produce good crops of corn,
beans, pumpkins, and squashes’. And then he adds, of
the consequences of the ‘Indian wars’: ‘If a prophet
had come to our village in those days and told us
that the things were to take place which have since
come to pass, none of our people would have believed
Among the original North Americans, as far as we can
tell, chronic diet-related diseases were practically
unknown, and all societies were dedicated to
ensuring that their children were well nourished.
Most of the infections incubated by crowding arrived
with the Europeans, who habitually remarked on the
strength, stamina and physique of the natives. Their
life was dangerous compared with ours, deaths caused
by accidents, injury and animal attacks were common,
and their overall average lifespan was probably
quite a lot shorter than ours. Elderly people
frequently died in good health of old age.
The false notion of the ‘primitive’
We – here meaning those of us who have grown up
within industrial societies, and in particular
within countries that once had empires – have been
given the impression, at school and afterwards, that
original peoples were ‘primitive’. The underlying
meaning is that we, and our ancestors who massacred
and displaced them, knew more and were wiser than
them. Such beliefs were a strange excuse for
exterminating them as if vermin, in the name of
This notion of ‘the primitive’, used to label
pre-literate societies, is generally mistaken. Many
pre-literate, pre-industrial communities led
wretched and squalid lives, as do around a billion
people now who survive in slums and shanty-towns.
Many previous cultures were brutal and stupid. But
concerning the understanding by humans of other
species, here is Claude Lévi-Strauss, quoting RB
Fox, an observer of the Filipino pygmy tribes:
‘Another characteristic of Negrito life… which
strikingly demarcates them from the surrounding
Christian lowlanders, is their inexhaustible
knowledge of the plant and animal kingdoms. This
lore includes not only a specific recognition of a
phenomenal number of plants, animals and insects,
but also includes a knowledge of the habits and
behaviour of each’ (4,5). And further, of their
medicinal, nutritional and culinary value.
Lévi-Strauss adds: ‘Their extreme familiarity with
their biological environment, the passionate
attention which they pay to it, and their precise
knowledge of it, has often struck inquirers as an
indication of attitudes and preoccupations which
distinguish the natives from their white visitors’.
In their books 1491(6), and Stolen
Charles C Mann and Ronald Wright show how the
original people of what is now the Americas lived,
before the Europeans came. We may have the
impression that the typical original North American
people were gatherer-hunters and pastoralists living
in tents, and that the land was essentially
untouched by humans. Not so. There were cities in
what are now the Southern states of the USA. In the
13th century Cahokia, near what is now St Louis,
Missouri, is reckoned to have had 40,000
inhabitants, then comparable with London and Paris.
The system of governance known as the
Haudenosaunee, of the Iroquois Confederacy
formed by the Seneca, Cayoga, Onondaga, Oneida,
Mohawk and Tuscarora nations of what is now New
England and South-Western Canada, was probably
originally set out and agreed around 1150 CE, and is the
second oldest continuous system of representative
democracy. This system included what the Confederacy
termed ‘The Great Law of Peace’, which Benjamin
Franklin admired, and which influenced him and
others as they framed the US Constitution.
Nor is it true that the native North Americans
always refused to accommodate to the ‘white man’s
ways’. The Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw and
Seminole voted for ‘civilisation’. The Cherokee of
what is now Tennessee and Alabama, encouraged by
President Jefferson, built their capital city of
Echota in what is now Georgia, built houses in the
European style, farmed with then modern methods,
developed a written language, schools and
newspapers, and had their own constitution, until
driven away 30 years later by President Jackson’s
Indian Removal Bill.
The false notion of the ‘savage’
A reason why early European records give the
impression that much of the northern Americas were
sparsely inhabited, was that the germs of European
infections advanced faster than the European
conquerors, killing most of many native populations
and destroying their social fabric. Another reason
was that news of the behaviour of the invaders
towards the native people also spread ahead of the
soldiers, so those that could, ‘disappeared’ into
the mountains and forests, where they were harder to
find, enslave or massacre.
In this way another myth sprang up, of the ‘noble
savage’. Yes, many native societies, such as some of
those who lived east of the Andes in what is now
Latin America, were still paleolithic and mesolithic,
although their pottery and other artefacts were
beautiful. But not long after the arrival of the
Europeans, many others were from more advanced
cultures who had become fugitives.
Amazonia is an example. The first Europeans to
navigate the Amazon from its headwaters in Perú to
the ocean, in 1541, were led by Francesco Orellana.
Gaspar de Carvajal, a companion of Orellana and the
chronicler of this epic, recorded ‘numerous and very
large settlements and very pretty country and very
fruitful land’ and, within one constantly inhabited
stretch or more than a hundred miles ‘there could be
seen some very large cities’. Carvajal also said
that at one point the Spaniards were attacked by
tall bare-breasted women who lived without men –
hence the name ‘Amazon’ – so all his stories were
However, cross-disciplinary research now shows that
people of the lower Amazon were growing crops more
than 4,000 years ago. Charles Clement of the
Brazilian National Institute for Amazon Research (INPA)
in Manaus, is sure that Orellana recorded a
sophisticated farming culture that was really was
then there (though the women warriors may have been
a flight of fancy). These civilisations were based
on fishing and farming by the river banks, and also
on cultivation of the forest – not just
slash-and-burn clearance, but methodical replacement
of the original forest with cultivated trees. The
‘wild’ fruits of Amazonia, such as pineapple, Brazil
nut, pupunya, açai, babaçu, cupuaçu, tucumá,
and many other palm, tree and bush fruits, some
intensely rich in nutrients such as carotenoids and
vitamin C, some good sources of protein, have been
cultivated for millennia, for food and medicine and
also as material for clothes, dyes, tools, building,
and other purposes.
This has only recently been understood, because the
farmers that Orellana saw died quickly from disease
and also massacre, or else vanished into the deep
forest, where some of their descendants still live,
although now in much more primitive conditions.
‘Visitors are always amazed that you can walk in the
forest here and constantly pick fruit from trees’
says Charles Clement. ‘That’s because people planted
them. They’re walking through old orchards’.
The question of ‘the Other’
The Europeans in the Americas did not want to
respect or even recognise such things, because
conscience is eased by the belief that other humans
who are being extirpated are inferior. An
alternative sentimental rationale, is that ‘simple’
people are like animals, needing to be ‘protected’
by being put into zoos, otherwise known as
‘reservations’. Such notions have shaped the world
in which we all live now.
Another terrible attitude that has shaped our world
is that other civilisations must be destroyed not
because they are inferior, but because they are
superior. Not in all respects, of course, because a
civilisation that is superior in every way cannot be
destroyed by other humans, as long as it remains
integrated with its living and physical resources.
But all societies are vulnerable in some ways.
A prime example we live with, is the annihilation of
the Aztec, Maya and Inka empires of what is now
Mexico, Central America, and Andean South America.
Here is Bernal Díaz, who was one of the band
commanded by Hernan Cortez. Entering Itzapalapa and
approaching Tenochtitlan (the site of Mexico City)
in 1519, Díaz records (8): ‘The sight of the palaces
in which they lodged us! They were very spacious and
well-built, of magnificent stone, cedar wood… with
great rooms and courts… [Then] we went to the
orchard and garden… the paths choked with roses and
other flowers, and the many local fruit-trees… I
stood looking at it, and I thought that no land like
it would ever be discovered in the whole world, for
at that time Perú was neither known nor thought of.
But today all that I then saw is overthrown and
destroyed: nothing is left standing’.
The French philosopher Tzvetan Todorov proposes a
theory of ‘The Other’, which fits with the facts of
the horrific and rationally completely purposeless
atrocities perpetrated on the original peoples of
Mexico, Central America, Peru and the Andean region
by the Spanish conquerors. These attempted
genocides, using systematic mutilation and torture,
were recorded in dreadful detail by Bartolomé de las
Casas in the 1540s (9). The reason was because the
original civilisations were more than different
value systems, they were ‘The Other’, which jealous,
ignorant, and brutal Europeans could not bear to
acknowledge, or even let live.
What we can learn now
What does all this tell us about our place in this
world? There is a warm and hopeful message in all
the very many strange stories of the ascendancy of
the type of civilisation in which almost all of us
live now. It is that in some ways we are strong,
rich, wise and fortunate, and that in other ways we
are weak, poor, foolish and wretched, and that it is
not yet quite too late for us to learn. For
fortunately, there remain populations in many parts
of the world who in different ways, according to
history, choice and circumstance, have largely kept
what we have mostly lost. They have made a better
job of preserving the world than we have. They
generally have a better idea of what is good for
them, including their food systems and diets, than
we do. They also may have a better idea of what is
good for us than we do. We now need to listen to
Among these are the peoples whose ways of life are
being respected and recorded by Harriet Kuhnlein and
her colleagues at CINE at McGill, and of course by
the peoples themselves. Their food systems and
supplies and nutrition are integrated within their
whole ways of living and being. This is part of
their good news for us.
Their view of life is perhaps well represented by a
statement made by representatives of the
Haudenosaunee, together with the Diné (Navajo)
and Lakota (Sioux) in 1978 (11). ‘In the beginning,
we were told that the human beings who walk upon the
Earth have been provided with all things necessary
for life. We were instructed to carry a love for one
another, and to show a great respect for all beings
of this Earth. We were shown that our life exists
with the tree life, that our well-being depends on
the well-being of the vegetable life, that we are
close relatives of the four-leggeds. In our way,
Spiritual consciousness is the highest form of
So, in cultivation is the preservation of the world.
What ways are best?
We have much to learn.
Special thanks to TC McLuhan, Michael Crawford,
and Charles Clement.
- Porter E. In Wildness is the
Preservation of the World. New York:
Sierra Club, 1962.
- Trauth M, Maslin M. Deino A, Strecker M.
Late Cenozoic moisture history of East
Africa. Science 2005; 309: 2051-2053.
- McLuhan TC. The morning sun, the new
sweet earth and the great silence. [Chapter
l]. In: Touch the Earth. A Self-Portrait
of Indian Existence. New York:
Outerbridge and Dienstfrey, 1971.
- Fox R. The Pinatubo Negritos: their
useful plants and material culture.
Philippine Journal of Science 1952;
81, nos 3,4.
- Lévi-Strauss C. The science of the
concrete. [Chapter 1]. The Savage Mind.
London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1966.
- Mann C. 1491. New Revelations of the
Americas Before Columbus. New York:
- Wright R. Stolen Continents. Conquest
and Resistance in the Americas. London:
Phoenix Press, 1992.
- Días H. The Conquest of New Spain.
London: Penguin, 1963. Originally published
in Spanish, after being found unpublished in
Madrid in 1632.
- Todorov T. The Conquest of the
Americas. The Question of the Other.
University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.
Originally published in French, 1982.
- de las Casas B. A Short Account of
the Destruction of the Indies. London:
Penguin, 1992. Originally published in
- McLuhan TC. Native North America.
[Chapter VI] The Way of the Earth.
Encounters with Nature in Ancient and
Contemporary Thought. New York: Simon
and Schuster, 1994.
Readers are invited please to respond. Please use
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Please cite as: Anon. The preservation of the
World Nutrition, June 2010, 1, 2:
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