Are explorers the descendants of our past?
Originally posted on the University of Sussex Culture & Capitalism blog, 14 Nov 2016.
As a climber I am fascinated by the wilderness: great empty canyons or vast tundras worthy of expedition, steep tall cliff faces ready to climb. These hinterlands seem like they have always been like this, ever desolate. Given that we can hardly live here ourselves with all the insulation and technology to keep us alive, it is hard to image how past peoples had been able to. But hasn’t history shown us that people have throughout time survived the most extreme conditions? Should we, as explorers, wait before claiming we were the first to be somewhere?
It was around the year 2000 on the edge of an alpine meadow when, then 13-year-old, he had been looking for firewood on a weekend camping trip. He was at 11,500ft (3505m) and it was presumably a very cold night. Pondering how this arrowhead had got here, he grabbed the wood and returned to warm up. Stirn’s archaeological journey continued with a phone call in 2006 from Dr. Adams, a local archaeologist, asking Stirn to join a small team to examine High Rise Village – Adams’ recent discovery in Wyoming’s Wind River Range. Stirn is now heading three expeditions in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and is a photographer on other archaeological expeditions.
As Anthropologists we try to explain the similarities and differences of human society throughout its existence. Archaeology is indeed a method which we must utilise in order to understand societies past, and this is exactly what Stirn and his team of outdoorsmen are doing in order to understand the space they love to be in so much. Thousands upon thousands of artefacts have been found and with the aid of a computer modelling, ancient villages have been unearthed. The work is only just beginning and the next task is understanding the communities and their lives at over 10,000 feet. Stirn and his team have deciphered that the communities most likely lived in these alpine villages in the summer to harvest Whitebark pine nuts. But, is putting solely a utilitarian purpose on their being there a bit pragmatic? If their base was more likely to be at a lower altitude in the valley, how (& why) did they venture so high up? Could there be a link of these old explorers to Victorian explorers such as Alfred Wills and the modern day kind?
The evidence of leisure being prominent in ancient societies is evident: Ancient Egyptians had board games dating back to 3000 BC (Yvonne, 2014), we have dated cave drawings back 38,000 years and even artistic artefacts as old as 25,000 BC (Moffat, C. 2007). Ancient images are almost always of the inhabitants’ environment: maps, animals, handprints. This may seem naive to say, but there must have been an inherent interest with nature that was not purely utilitarian for the people of that time to lead them to draw such beautiful works. Could it be that since developing our sense of self we have thought of nature as separate from us?
By creating symbols of our surroundings, we are in fact giving higher meaning to the artefacts than to those that they are depicting. It is thus, through our created culture, that we attempt to control our surroundings – nature – and dominate it (Ortner, S. 1974). Ascendancy is also visible in the language we use as explorers, ‘conquering’ a mountain or ‘to peak’; it is clear that we are attempting to overcome and exceed our natural position. We Westerners have supposedly passed through ‘the passage from nature to culture’ (Levi-Strauss 1963: 99, cited in Jerolmack, C. 2012). As modernization and industrialization has developed, we have increasingly lived in urban environments, resulting in the demise of wild animals and nature from our daily lives (Jerolmack, C. 2012). Our culture has indeed shifted far from admiration of landscapes; now preferring ‘tweets’. Our past lives in the countryside reduced to mere nostalgia. The natural environment is now a place ‘that offers a refuge from contemporary social ills’ (Jerolmack, C. 2012: 502).
British roads in the summer are characteristically full with caravaners and campers travelling around the country in order to get away from urban life, many opt to get away from social life also – leaving the phones, tablets, internet, radios at home – and just get out there (OK, maybe have some radio for communication in emergency situations). May it be that we share a connection with those peoples past, one that compels us to explore and travel in the summer? One that induces us to rebuff modern living for a while? With such little anthropological research on modern outdoor lifestyle, are we missing a link between our past and present? Studying contemporary outdoor ‘tribes’ (Maffesoli, M 1996), those of us who choose a lifestyle connected with nature, could uncover a deeper link between (sub-)culture and nature? And may even challenge the presumption that contemporary culture is separate from nature; that so-called ‘primitive life’ is separate from so-called ‘modern life’.
Kevin Karaca completed studying at MA Anthropology at the University of Sussex in 2017. He is a keen climber and runs a separate blog at kevinkaraca.co.uk/blog.
Binford, L. R. (1962) ‘Archaeology as Anthropology’. American Antiquity. 28(2) pp. 217-225
Spaulding, A. C. (1987) ‘Distinguished Lecture: Archeology and Anthropology’. American Anthropologist. 90(2) pp. 263-271
Jerolmack, C. (2012) ‘Toward A Sociology of Nature’. The Sociological Quarterly. 53 pp. 501-505
Maffesoli, M (1996) The time of the tribes : the decline of individualism in mass society. London: SAGE
Moffat, C. (2007) ‘Anthropological Art’. arthistoryarchive.com [Online] Available from: http://www.arthistoryarchive.com/arthistory/prehistoricart/ [Accessed 26 Oct 2016]
Ortner, S. B. (1974) ‘Is female to male as nature is to culture?’ In M. Z. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere (eds), Woman, culture, and society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. pp. 68-87.
Yvonne (2014) ‘Leisure Time’. Michigan State University blog [Online] Available from: http://anthropology.msu.edu/anp455-fs14/2014/09/25/leisure-time/ [Accessed: 26 Oct 2016]
Feature Image: Christian Collins, Flickr
Inline Image: R@úl, Flickr