Losing Kin: The Wise Men & the Wildlife | Priyanka Singh

“What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, man would die from a great loneliness of spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man. All things are connected.”

Chief Seattle

It wasn’t that long ago that humans shared a common ancestor with our relatives still residing in the wild. From Homo erectus to Homo sapiens–which means the ‘wise man’ in Latin–it’s been quite a journey leaving nature behind and finally building a new landscape where we can find everything we need in our own comfort zone.

I cannot seem to recall how it would have been to live in the midst of a green tree canopy. But I’m sure there is a part of my consciousness, my DNA, and my very existence that still has this memory of my ancestors who lived in the vastness of the natural landscape. Their struggles would have been different; from finding one meal to the next, their days would have been guided by the sun’s movement across the sky and night through the moon’s shape shifting.

It seems suddenly we have gone too far; we live in the blocks that we have made, and there is a wider gap between wild and tamed, native and foreign, indigenous and non-indigenous, and sadly, human and nature. Even with these differences, we can never take ourselves out of nature because nature is the basis of our very creation.

We are living in an era where we have created substances that don’t exist in the natural world. As man-made substances enter the ecosystem, further defining the realities of the anthropocene and stressing our fellow earthlings, extinction has become a frequent aspect of our shared existence.

In the 4.5 billion years of Earth’s history, extinction has been a natural process along with speciation (the creation of new species). Some species perish over time, and their function in the ecosystem is replaced by a new, evolved species. ‘’There’s a natural background rate to the timing and frequency of extinctions: 10% of species are lost every million years; 30% every 10 million years; and 65% every 100 million years”. Raup DM (1991) A kill curve for Phanerozoic marine species. Paleobiology. 

The current rate of extinction is escalated by human activities; according to American biologist E.O. Wilson, 30.000 species are disappearing every year, or over three species an hour. For many of us, it’s difficult to imagine that human existence is the cause of this extinction.

The human connection to the wild world is ancient and woven deep into our collective consciousness. The sighting of certain species is considered an omen, bringing messages from beyond. For people like us who have moved far away from the dwellings of these wild inhabitants of Earth, we can find them lingering in our dreams. In a dream state, we can connect to our own primal animal instincts.

[- ‘What is a myth?’] – If you were to ask an American Indian it is extremely likely that he would answer: it is a story from the time when humans and animals did not distinguish themselves from one another. This definition seems to me to be very profound

(Lévi-Strauss & Eribon 1988: 193).

There is a strong belief amongst Amazonian indigenous communities in creation stories where people and animals had no separation and were regarded as equals. Eventually, the separation materialized, creating this otherness between us and them. There are spirits of the “animal world,” such as vai-mahs (animal people), that guard local fauna.  (Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff) 

However, this primal period of no separation is evident because early humans lived amongst other ‘‘wild’’ beings. Since indigenous communities still survive in remote areas of the world, they understand this interconnectedness and hunt or harvest in a way that doesn’t lead to the endangerment and extinction of fellow earthlings.

One of the most devastating examples of human-led extinction is that of passenger pigeons. In the 1800s, the bird had a population of 3 billion, and by 1914, these birds were declared extinct. Passenger pigeons were considered game birds for indigenous communities; they targeted only a specific population, always leaving nesting and hatching birds to maintain a healthy population. However, when European settlers moved to these native lands, they began to hunt these birds in massive numbers. With their population being so dense, it was hard to imagine that they would go extinct within a human lifetime.

Introduction of invasive species is also another reason why the balance in the ecosystem is often challenged. When another species is introduced into an ecosystem, the wildlife is harmed as the new intruding species begin to compete for the resources without an obvious predator. Sadly, we humans are also an invasive species, as we are continuously threatening the biodiversity of the planet. Our actions are having a major impact on life on Earth.

No species occurs in isolation. All living organisms live and interact with other species and are integral members of an ecological community: an assemblage of sympatric, synchronic species. Both long-term (evolutionary time scale) and short-term (ecological time scale) processes influence the composition of species within a community and the interactions among them.

(Morin 1999, Verhoef & Morin 2010). 

While early humans worshiped the natural world, it seems strange how we have forgotten our connection to our kin. Plants, animals, and even us are part of an integral community where change or action from one shapes the others and nature collectively. Perhaps it could be a reason why early humans were devoted to nature worship.

Johannes Weißenborn (German ethnologist) suggested that animal worship resulted from humans’ fascination with the natural world. Primitive man would observe an animal that had a unique trait and the inexplicability would engender curiosity (Weissenborn, 1906b, p. 282).

Animal and plant worship is an ancient practice that continues to exist in some cultures. There are many ways in which we can practice “ancient sustainability” by understanding these rituals that balance human connection to the natural world. For example, in Vietnamese fishermen’s communities in Cá Ông, the whale spirit is honored in temples, and there are also ancient and present-day stories where fishermen were saved by the whales. Worshiping Cá Ông is also practiced for plentiful harvest and abundance in the sea. Whales are at the top of the marine food chain; their survival plays an essential role in maintaining the health of our oceans. They also capture carbon from the atmosphere and could be considered a great ally against climate change. These ancient practices that were cultivated over time are a sign of a deep understanding of the ecosystems, and hence, returning to the ancient practices could be a beneficial step for conservation practices.

The human-animal hybrids are revered all across the world; their appearance in myths and stories is symbolic of our interspecies friendship and connection. Their personas can indicate either divine or monstrous behaviors, but they still carry a profound sense of mysticism.

Extinction and endangerment are occurring due to human activities; we are the only primates that are creating havoc, either intentionally or unintentionally. On the other hand, non-human primates disperse the seeds, maintaining the regeneration of forests. They play an important function in the food chain and maintaining ecosystems.

Though the ‘purpose of humanity’ cannot be defined, I’m sure it’s not the destruction of wildlife and our kin. Every species on Earth has evolved to play a vital role in the continuation and nurturing of life, just by existing. Maybe we can find salvation in the stories of our ancestors (spiritual practices to preserve the earth) or look towards the advancement of the scientific community to find solutions that will tackle the current climate crisis. It could be both or either because, in the very end, it’s not about facts or fables, science or spirituality, nonbelief or belief, but choosing what favors the whole ecosystem; where we can find Oneness. We must be able to make these choices because we have called ourselves Homo sapiens, the wise men.

Words by Priyanka Singh @priyanka.parihar16