Shifting baselines of the ancient world

By Paul Greenberg, Safina Center Fellow

Minoan fisherman with dolphin fish, Akrotiri, Greece. Photo: Creative Commons

Every once in a while as a science writer you come across a piece of observation from a deep thinker that changes your whole perspective – indeed warps your reality into a new one that reflects that mind’s profound understanding of the natural world. For me that seminal piece of literature was an essay by the marine scientist Daniel Pauly called “Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries” published in the journal TREE in 1995. In that short and eloquent treatise Pauly brought forth something so fundamental that it affects everything in conservation and how we approach trying to protect the natural world. In brief Pauly’s thesis was that the very terms of reality, our perceived notion of abundance and normality in nature is relative. That with each passing generation and with each successive diminution of wildness, humans adjust and shrink their vision of what constitutes “normal.” In the fisheries context that shrinkage would be perceived through a normal day’s catch of codfish. A man fishing the Gulf of Maine in the 1800s might think that a catch of 1000 cod in a day be normal. A fisherman in 1950s might think 500 would be perfectly great while someone fishing today in the Gulf of Maine would describe a haul of 10 cod as a banner day. The natural world shrinks, we adjust and we are all the poorer because of it.

This month I am in Crete and mainland Greece with a group of students from Northeastern University studying the Mediterranean Diet. For two weeks we are visiting archaeological sites, meeting with historians and physicians and trying to understand how Greece in general and Crete in particular managed to formulate a diet that has been strongly associated with low rates of cardiovascular disease and cancer and high rates of longevity. Where did this diet come from? What were the historical and ecological components that made it possible? These are things on my mind this month.

One of the things one immediately notices in about Crete is, with a few exceptions in the higher mountains, how spare the landscape is. There are groves of olive trees to be sure as well as agriculture of all kind. But forests are few and far between.            

And yet, 3000 years ago, a civilization arose that long before the Romans developed a complex social system that had among other things indoor plumbing, advanced gold and bronze work, art of all kinds and even board games.

Minoan draughts game, c. 1800 B.C. (the rules have long ago been lost). Photo: Paul Greenberg

What all this suggests is a society immersed in natural abundance. A society that grew out of nature’s bounty, though that same bounty is difficult to find in the contemporary landscape.

But as one goes hunting through Minoan society clues to that shifted baseline abound. One that in particular caught my eye was at the most famous Minoan site, the palace of Minos just outside the City of Heraklion in Crete. There the palace that is believed to be the source of the Theseus/Minotaur myth lies spread out over dozens of acres. Some of it has been reconstructed by one of its earlier archaeologists, an Englishman named Sir Arthur Evans.

Most notable of his reconstructions was his tendency to insert concrete replications of columns that once supported the many Frank Loyd Wright-esque terraced buildings of the Palace.

A concrete re-rendering of a wooden column at the Palace of Minos, Crete. Photo: Paul Greenberg

And where did these massive wooden columns come from? Vast cedar forests, it turned out that once carpeted the island. Suddenly Daniel Pauly’s concept came alive before me. The parched brown landscape in my mind’s eye was suddenly wooded and the harsh heat cooled by the forgiving shade and moisture retention granted by such a forest. And its then that I started to delve more deeply into what pre-human Crete must have looked like. It was then that I learned that a pygmy elephant once walked in the shade of those vanished trees and that Hippopotamus creutzburgi a similarly compact version of a hippopotamus once lingered in the ponds and watercourses those forests helped maintain. This in turn leads you to look at the Minoan frescos replete with scenes of both dolphins and dolphinfish. All, abundant, resplendent worth of some of the very first advanced human art forms.

It is both stunning and sad to gaze on these ancient glimpses of the abundance that was. But contained within the sadness is a glimmer of hope. Long after the Minoan civilization rose and fell, the Hellenic society that came in future centuries knew that memory was a key to our humanity and a key to inspiration. They enshrined the very concept of memory in a muse called Mnemosyne. A muse of equal standing with all the other creative forces that inspire humanity.

You cannot restore what you cannot remember. You cannot unshift the baseline of the desecration of the natural world without researching and restoring markers from the past that tell the story of a very different place. Maybe, just maybe we can use the creative force of memory to bring us all back to a place where nature becomes as central to us as it was to the Minoans.

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