Big Brain, No Tools: Searching for Survival on the Winds of Antiquity

Words :: Jon Turk // illustration :: Dave Barnes.

I’m standing on a snowy ridge, with a gentle breeze dusting bits and balls of last night’s powder off the tree limbs. We’ve checked the avy forecast, dug a pit, and all seems good… but ‘seems’ isn’t the same as ‘is’. The couloir below snakes into that menacing (or beautiful) s-turn through the rocks. I jump in. Brain on hyper-speed: analyzing, judging, recording. Settlement? No. Snow? Excellent. Sluff? Yes. As I pull through the first turn, my eyes are focused behind me. Yup. I can outrun it. GO. GO. GO. I follow the white line through the rocks. Powder in my face, sluff billowing in the rearview mirror—free like the wind.

 

Big-Brain-No-Tools-Searching-for-Survival-snake-and-skier-Dave-Barnes-illustration
DAVE BARNES

 

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I am 75 years old. Until this year, I have chased snow for 40 consecutive seasons and skied—mainly backcountry but also on-resort if conditions dictate—in ranges all over the world (especially in Fernie, British Columbia). This year, I am not skiing. No, I am not laid up in hospital with a double knee replacement. Nor have I thrown in the towel and turned to TV and weekly bingo tournaments. My decision is based solely on the COVID-19 pandemic. For one, I am American, and the US/Canadian border is closed. My gear, my winter apartment and my ski buddies are north, while I am on the other side of the fence, peering in from the outside, like the kid who didn’t make the cut in Little League. In addition, my age puts me in a high-risk age group, and I’m fearful that lift lines and chair lifts could be the locus of super-spreader events, despite masks and other precautions.

So this year I’m being extra cautious, weathering the storm by hiding out in the desert isolated in my van with my wife Nina and our mountain bikes. I write this while camped in a sandy wash, surrounded by scrub oak and juniper, in the high desert near the Mexican border. Some days I feel on top of the world, no lawn to mow or driveway to shovel, instead we ride through prickly pear and saguaro forests, over and into the mountains that Apaches once roamed, free as the wind. Other days, I feel a bit blue, missing my ski buddies with whom I have shared adventures, meals, and gatherings aplenty. Missing the excitement of the morning lift line, the lazy coffee, and passing time with my tribe when the snow is not safe or fun to ski on.

Am I being too cautious? That is a question that cannot be answered. With any risk—COVID-19, avalanche terrain, rock climbing, kayaking, mountain biking, anything—we are a blind person walking toward the edge of the cliff. Each step forward lands on safe, comfortable, level ground. Until one doesn’t, and then you’re dead.

 

Big-Brain-No-Tools-Searching-for-Survival-couple-sitting-desert-Dave-Barnes-illustration
DAVE BARNES

 

So, I’m being extra cautious, because I can. Because I’ve lived a privileged life—never truly hungry and only ever in danger because I have put myself there intentionally, for those tastes of windy freedom. But COVID-19 brings up the thought that danger can arise out of nowhere, through no fault of our own. Look at history, at all the plagues, pogroms, famines, wars, persecutions, insurrections and deadly natural calamities—how does a person, how do people, how does humanity, handle and survive catastrophes that arise out of the ether?

Let’s go way back into prehistory, to a time 70,000 years ago. Homo sapiens were living on the African savannah, scratching together a perilous existence despite being slower than a cheetah, weaker than a chimpanzee, without the claws of a lion or the hyena’s sense of smell. Severe climate change was altering the landscape, stressing all the plants and animals out there on the Horn of Africa. And our ancestors weren’t doing very well. Slowly, inexorably, human population dwindled until there were only a few thousand of us left, fewer than would fill the sports arenas that all sit empty this winter. Homo sapiens was on the verge of extinction.

 

I’ve lived a privileged life—never truly hungry and only ever in danger because I have put myself there intentionally, for those tastes of windy freedom. But COVID-19 brings up the thought that danger can arise out of nowhere, through no fault of our own.

 

Then the tide turned and, somehow, we found the secret to survival as individuals and as a species. How did we bust through that deadly evolutionary bottleneck? When I was in grade school, my teachers and my textbooks taught me that our distant ancestors used their “big brains” to invent, develop and utilize tools. That our secret to success came from tool use. This hypothesis sounds logical enough to a 21st-century human who uses a toothbrush in the morning and a leaf blower after work—tools everywhere. But that hypothesis doesn’t match the evidence in the fossil record. The big breakthrough that occurred 70,000 years ago was not the sudden, widespread development of sophisticated weaponry such as the bow and arrow, but rather the sudden, widespread development of symbolic art and communal/religious gatherings.

 

 

The ancient archeological site that most fascinates me is a cave in the Kalahari Desert, Botswana, with a stone serpent carved in the main chamber. Presumably people congregated here, out of the sunlight, safe from predators, within the cool, dark bowels of the earth. Together. As a tribe.

A secret tunnel entered from the rear, where the religious leader, the shaman, could slither to an unseen vantage point behind the serpent and speak to the congregation as if the words were emanating from the snake’s mouth. And somehow, that serpent brought us closer together, giving us power beyond the feeble abilities of our arms and legs—or even our tools.

 

The big breakthrough that occurred 70,000 years ago was not the sudden, widespread development of sophisticated weaponry such as the bow and arrow, but rather the sudden, widespread development of symbolic art and communal/religious gatherings.

 

This was a turning point. The fossil evidence from this serpent cave and similarly aged locations supports the idea that our development of tribal bonds—through ceremony, through the joining of people and the co-operation that arose—became our ticket to survival. Tools and weapons were a result of, not the precursor to, co-operation, tribal cohesion and survival.

(A quick aside: today many of our “big brains” are being hijacked—by ruthless leaders, by ignorance, by greed, by fear—and we are creating tribalism that harms more than it helps… but that is another essay for another day.)

Back to our current civilization, 2021, COVID-19, and my escape to the desert. Nina and I are running away from our tribe, not toward it, but believe the message from our distant ancestors is that survival, throughout the ages, depends on the strength inside, our ability to persevere and adapt, and remain stronger than our bodies when chaos surrounds us.

Just this morning, I made an appointment to receive my first COVID-19 vaccination. Nina, who is younger, will be up next. I believe—and hope—that we will come out the other end of this lost ski season not just unscathed, but strengthened by our time in the desert, pedaling among its wild lands, talking with the cacti and rocks, dreaming of those and those who gathered in far off caves to hear the voice of the serpent, and of those who rode these same desert hills on horseback generations before us in unity with landscape and each other, free as the wind… until Europeans arrived with their tools.

Excerpted from the winter/spring issue of Mountain Life Coast Mountains.

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