Saturday, August 28, 2010

Family Tree

(Right click to open in new tab this lovely version of Mark O'Connor's Appalachia Waltz)

That song reminds me of home.  Though, oddly enough, it was a home where I never lived, though we visited the family land in the mountains of western North Carolina every other summer.

There's something you say when you meet someone new in the southern U.S.  "Who are your people?"  Most of the time, if you go back far enough, you find that your new acquaintance is some sort of cousin so many times removed.  Our family trees expand exponentially as we trace our ancestors back, yet there were far fewer people then, so we are all pretty closely related.

My great (times eight) uncle is Daniel Boone.  He's a famous American frontiersman, known best for leading settlers through the Cumberland Gap and founding one of the first towns west of the Appalachian mountains.  If you've ever been hiking in the southern Appalachians, you will know how impenetrable the "rhodadendron hell" is.  Daniel Boone was a hunter and trapper, leaving his family on long treks for years at a time.  He was the inspiration for James Fenimore Cooper's hero "Hawkeye" Natty Bumppo in The Last of the Mohicans.  One can assume he ate a lot of red meat along the way.  He lived until 1820, and was 85 when he died.  His niece, Anna Boone, my direct ancestor, lived to be nearly 100.

In the accounts of Lewis and Clark, they describe batting wild game out of the way just so they could get through the woods of the Pacific Northwest.  Some stories of frontiersmen on the northern U.S. rivers describe their boats being lifted by the huge schools of fish.  For most of human history when our population was small, food was probably plentiful for much of the year.  And if it wasn't, humans just moved to where it was.  I like The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey by Spencer Wells, and how he traces human migration out of Africa, mostly along the coastlines, until we finally reached the New World.  The only modern remaining hunter-gatherers are peoples pushed to fringe environments, and they don't make a likely template for what the majority of our ancestors experienced, though they do tell us just how ingenious and adaptable the human race is.

We are too many, now, but I still have hope for my children.  We swung from trees and ate fruit.  We walked the savanna and ran down game.  We built mighty ships and make war, and created fertilizer from the bones of dinosaurs, and we who are too many eat those bones.

We are ingenious and adaptable, but we must listen to history.  The story of human health, of depression and psychosis, of agriculture gives us clues all along the way.  But we must listen.

(Daniel Boone image courtesy Wikipedia)


  1. Very nice post. It's great to ask the question "Who are your people?" There are so many myths surrounding paleolithic humans, such as "they were always half-starved and led a tough existence", or "they only lived to 30 years old or so" (and presumably dropped dead on the spot on their 31st birthday), or a combo of the above: "life was nasty, brutish, and short." Of course, the Rousseau-type romanticizing of hunter-gatherer existence is just as cartoonish. I am looking forward to reading Spencer Well's book Pandora's Seed which just arrived from Amazon.

  2. I have it, but haven't had the chance to read it yet!


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