“Winter is not a season, it’s an occupation” – Sinclair Lewis
Paleoanthropologists have long favored the hypothesis that the evolution of our ancestral tree, which ultimately left our particular brand of critter as the last erect hominid standing, is a history of successful adaptation to climate fluctuations. The reason we walk upright, make tools, engage in complex mental and social behavior, and increasingly rely on technology is these are optimal ways to adapt to environmental instability. It’s survival of the funkiest rather than survival of the fittest. Our ability to think outside the box and come up with novel solutions (like fire and clothes) gave us the opportunity to get fruitful and multiply. When the weather in your habitat starts getting gnarly, the average organism doesn’t have a lot of options. They can (1) hit the road and find a nice vacation spot, (2) find a way to adapt to the altered circumstances, or (3) die. Don’t choose door number three unless you have a deep desire to wind up glued together in a natural history museum. Since our species likely first swung down from the trees in sunny Africa and set up camp in the Fertile Crescent, with a relative abundance of free range meat and tasty plants, it’s always seemed reasonable to assume that civilization first emerged in a balmy climate where we could grow stuff and raise our sheep. What if instead of marshalling our adaptability and applying it to sunnier climes, civilization first emerged in polar regions, where such trickiness and ingenuity would be of even greater value? What if civilization first emerged in the ice and snow?
The hominid fossil record clearly demonstrates that we evolved into the stunningly handsome creatures we are today during a time of large scale environmental fluctuations that lasted for periods of tens of thousands of years, and we are what we are today because our adaptability allowed us to weather, well, the weather, more effectively. A posture that allows for walking erect and climbing allows us greater freedom of exploration in diverse habitats. The first advantage of toolmaking is that it affords us access to a greater diversity of foods and more effective redistribution of animal carcasses. Obviously, we had to share the planet with some close ancestors for a while. You can’t wipe out the competition overnight, unless you are the mafia and go to the mattresses. Roughly 60,000 years ago, when it looked like the new Homo sapiens on the block might have a future, we started migrating out of Africa only to find that Homo erectus and the Neanderthals were already occupying some choice real estate, and had been for some two million years. They were no slouches. Well, technically they tended to slouch for physiologically reasons, but they weren’t lazy or especially unadaptable themselves. About 1.7 million years ago, Homo Erectus was roaming the grasslands of central Asia, making tools from lava rocks, stomping about the forests of Yuanmou, China, and tanning on the tropical beaches and coastal estuaries of Java. Luckily, the world was not a heavily populated place, so those who could adapt could start moving north, if only they could find a way to cope with the cold.
There have been at least five significant Ice Ages in the Earth’s history, with nearly a dozen periods of glacial expansion in the last million years, the most recent being only 18,000 years ago. These ice ages had a few positive effects for us humans. For one, we learned how to sew. Second, newly formed land bridges allowed us to range a little wider across the globe. Third, all those pesky snarling megafauna likely to make a meal of us went extinct. Neanderthal fossils older than 48,000 years old in Asia show more genetic diversity that those found in Europe, suggesting a whole lot of them died when things started getting colder and genetic diversity plummeted. Human DNA in the same time period shows remarkable diversity, leading many scholars to speculate that as the planet cooled and the ice sheets advanced, our ancestors weathered the drastic climatic changes in “refuges” i.e. small regions, widely separated and without huge amounts of contact between population groups, leading to an explosion in genetic diversity during periods where the ice receded and these groups could once again come into contact.
Our archetype for civilization tends to revolve around settling down, digging some canals, practicing animal husbandry and agriculture, and building ourselves some monumental architecture. Writing doesn’t hurt. Hence the general view that non-nomadic civilization originated in the Middle East. Cool pyramids, god kings, and excellent cuneiform publicists. Yet among ancient cultures we run across a surprisingly common myth that civilization actually originated in polar regions and eventually made its way south, presumably looking for beachfront property or a spa holiday.
The Babylonians talked about a mysterious race of sages living in the “far north”. The ancient Greeks maintained that Apollo and Artemis were originally gods of an advanced and secret land to the far north (where the sun rarely set), called the Hyperboreans (for more details on the mythology of Hyberborea see my previous articles “Suburbs of the Soul” and “The High Kings of Siberia”). Even the comparatively recent Norse sagas mention Bjarmaland, a mighty kingdom north of Russia. Vedic literature similarly contains the suggestion that Indo-Aryan civilization originated in the polar north.
A fascinating 2011 article by futurist Anatoly Karlin entitled, “3000 AD: The Rise of Polar Civilizations” (http://akarlin.com/2011/10/polar-civilizations/), thoughtfully considers the implications of anthropogenic global warming, concluding that a world that was an average 11 degrees Celsius warmer would result in a belt of uninhabitability largely encircling the mid-latitude breadbaskets of the world, forcing migration towards the poles. Civilization would be re-centered on Alaska, northern Canada, Scandinavia, Siberia, northern China, and East Africa (as well as newly deglaciated Greenland and Antarctica). Perhaps civilization spread from the Poles, and maybe that’s where it will eventually return.