Monthly Archives: October 2007

Voyage of the Beagle

(This post was started sometime in October, 2007. I’ve completed it in March, 2008, but altered the timestamp to indicate its approximate date of conception).

I’ve just finished reading Charles Darwin’s first major book, Voyage of the Beagle. This is an account of a 5 year surveying voyage aboard the HMS Beagle, circumnavigating the globe, which Darwin joined as an observer. I had been interested in reading Darwin’s evolutionary work – Origin of Species, Descent of Man – and had acquired a comprehensive volume of four of his books published recently as “From the Simplest of Beginnings”. It is one of my odd characteristics to insist on reading such things from cover to cover, and the first of the works in this collection was the Beagle.

I approached this book figuring it could be a very dry account of a naturalist on an exploring expedition, filled with descriptions of flora and fauna, using terminology with which I would be unfamiliar (not at all having an interest or education in biology), loaded with Latin categorization. I was very wrong in this prejudgement. Although there is plenty of description of flora and fauna, Latin species and genera are used, and familiarity assumed, Darwin focuses this work more on anthropology than biology. There is also a fair bit of geology – in fact, the only original theory stated in this work is on the formation of coral islands and barrier reefs, having to do with the rising and falling of land masses.

Another surprise was in the specific geographical focus on South America. The mission of the Beagle was to survey the coasts ofthis continent, and they spent about 3-1/2 years of the 5 year voyage sailing from point to point along its coasts. I had expected more coverage of areas farther from European influence – Pacific islands, southeast Asia, Africa – but indeed the Beagle visited no location that had not previously been explored, and Darwin’s account dwells upon the colonized areas much more than those predominantly aboriginal. There are no exciting discoveries revealed, no strange new species found (plenty of new species, but not particularly unusual), and little in the way of drama portrayed.

Nonetheless, it is in his descriptions of the people and societies that he encounters that I found the most thought-provoking material. One encounter in particular is worthy of discussion.

The Beagle visited Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America. The native inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego were the Yamana Indians, living in one of the least hospitable areas on Earth, in a stone age society. This area of South America has a high annual temmperature near 50 degrees (F), and only a handful of days without precipitation. The Yamanas were strictly a hunter/gatherer tribe, attempting no agriculture, and commonly went through periods of starvation, during which they resorted to cannibalism (of the older women in the tribe) to survive. It is to be noted that they remained in the Tierra del Fuego area, for apparently thousands of years, despite being only a few hundred miles south of the much more temperate areas supporting advanced civilization.

On a previous visit to the area, the Beagle had taken four of the natives on board and returned with them to England, where they became well-known “celebrities”, and visited with the King and Queen. The youngest of these captives, whom the British called Jemmy Button, was educated in Britain, and acquired a limited understanding of the English language. During Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, Jemmy and two other surviving captives were returned to Tierra del Fuego. The Beagle returned to the area after a few months, to find Jemmy reverted completely to his native condition – naked andemaciated. A small party of Europeans remained in the area while the Beagle continued its explorations. Upon the return of the Beagle after a couple more months, it was found that the Yamanas, led by Jemmy, had attacked the small campsite, stealing food and various other items. Twenty years later, a missionary group was similarly attacked and massacred, again by a party of Yamanas lead by Jemmy.

I find this story of interest in several ways. What struck Darwin was the fact that these were human beings of the same species as Europeans, and in his commentary he wonders if and how this can really be the case. What I find fascinating is that this stone age tribe, when exposed to civilizations providing modes of living clearly superior to their own, not only failed to acquire any of the advantages of that interaction, but clearly could not understand the advantages, and actively chose to ignore them. In this, I am not merely referencing the Jemmy Button story, but returning to the observation that Tierra del Fuego is close enough to Patagonia to expect that some Fuegians must have wandered into these regions and returned home to tell of this land of plenty located only a few hundred miles to the north. Recalling that the Yamanas had been in this region for perhaps as long as 10000 years prior to the Beagle’s visit, I find it fascinating that this pocket of stone age humans persisted for so long when the surrounding humans advanced into civilization.

There are other cases of stone age peoples surviving far into the 20th century, but the ones I recall have all been islanders, separated from civilization by thousands of miles of ocean, or Africans, in which the majority of the continent until very recently had been living in pre-historic conditions.

I further wonder about the mentality of the Tierra del Fuegians. Returning to a consideration of the bicameral mind theory of Jaynes (which I may not have discussed in this blog – I apologize, but will refer the reader elsewhere instead of going through this here), I wonder if these latter stone age peoples are not still bicameral. If so, there may be a case for declaring them to be of another species than human, in answer to Darwin’s contemplations.

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