Wilbur Norman



         As a child Rosa Stonaker was taken to see Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World show. She was mightily impressed by the parade and spectacle. It was unlike anything she had ever experienced: a combination of the circus, a trip to the far corners of the world, and the fantasia of the American West all in one. Horseback riding and shooting were familiar activities but the colorful foreigners and bedaubed, feathered Indians — that was another matter altogether!

Rosa was my grandmother. She was born into a pre-electric 19th century and died in the fourth quarter of the 20th, her life bridging the jump from steam train to Maglev. It was a long, full life but she never forgot her excitement at seeing the ‘wild’ Indians all eastern Americans grew up reading about; a world that evolved and morphed, as all worlds must, with both winners and losers in the struggle for survival.

            The more scientific amongst us may think of human populations as being part of the process of adaption and evolution but rarely do most of us consider ourselves as vulnerable to the process of extinction. We are, after all, the pinnacle of living organisms; not for nothing are we “king of the hill, top of the list, head of the heap!” There are hundreds of examples, however, where specific, discrete human populations have declined in numbers to the point where they, inexorably, floated over the abyss and into the void we call extinction. As Paul Ehrlich wrote, “it is not always necessary to kill the last pair of a species to force it to extinction.” (Ehrlich, Dobkin, Wheye. The Passenger Pigeon, 1988.)

            If we find our human origins, that ‘first cause’, to be a somewhat vague and unknown terra incognita, rife with speculation and subject to mutating scientific theories, we are sure to be discomfited by the brute force of evidence concerning the terminal ‘endings’ of many of our kind. As we move through our galaxy, gliding on the slick principles of celestial mechanics whose properties, if not wholly described, are at least glimpsed, we have come to learn that species extinction is, in fact, a wholly natural and, pardon the expression, rather common event in the story of the earth; more than 99% of all creatures that ever existed are now extinct. It is a fact of life — or death, shall I say, whether we like it or not.

Central to our attitude is that when we look into the mirror of extinction the face we see is our own — both as cause and consequence. We are, to borrow words from the educational theorist Paulo Freire, subjects as well as objects, that is, those who know and act and those who are known and acted upon.

            Despite the horrors of the 20th century, it is possible to write that warfare, in the case of tribal peoples, is not today the predominant engine of their obliteration. Cultural erosion has been, for a long time, a ‘by-product’ of modernization, assimilation, societal values (and their loss), habitat change and destruction and other types of activities whose focus is not the eradication of a people, per se, but reflects the contemporary world at work and the multi-various ways we do business. In most instances it is a hash of selective blindness coupled with a benign neglect of the consequences of our actions. It penetrates almost every culture on earth; all global roads are now cul-de-sacs.

            There have been and still are well-intentioned attempts to assist endangered populations. These efforts are themselves fraught with peril for those populations no matter how well-meaning the aid or the giver. Just as the ‘observer effect’ may alter an outcome in science, the observation and injection of foreigners into societies transforms those societies; the act of observation and involvement changes the people observed. I am not writing here about something as esoteric or New Age as the old idea that a butterfly beating its wings in the Himalaya affects me here in the western hemisphere. I am thinking more along the lines of events as important as the introduction of epidemic/epizootic diseases and other actions as seemingly insignificant as the introduction of Chicago Bulls t-shirts. Introduction of ideas, objects and principles into societies is anything but deterministic. It is, instead, a stochastic process of the highest order, a system in which a collection of random variables lack pre-determined outcomes; there are only probabilities, and not always defined ones at that. You may well know where you start but where you end is anything but certain.

            Extinction of a tribe does not measurably threaten the survival of homo sapiens as a species (unless, perhaps, they had a plant they used to cure cancer.) Rather, as a bookman, I think of it as a large and beautiful library in a quaint alpine inn. An old, dog-eared brochure on the mantel tells us there are about 10,000 volumes in the library, assembled over the span of 500 years by a family that valued learning and the quality of rarity for its own sake. The brochure also says that 6000 of the volumes are unique to this library with the remainder being books one might find in libraries elsewhere. Imagine the innkeeper using those book’s pages to kindle the library’s fireplace. About every two weeks a body of knowledge would disappear, much of it not replicated elsewhere. If a scenario like this does not make you shudder substitute something else close to your heart; imagine Indian baskets or varieties of fruit trees.

            There are significant instances where a named population is, or has been, described as extinct when, in fact, they have simply assimilated into other cultures. They may be extinct as an historical unit but their genetic code is still there, living on in the bodies of ‘others.’ Two examples of this can be found in my home state.

            At one time the largest pueblo in New Mexico was near the modern-day town of Pecos. The people lived in a forty-mile stretch of land along the upper Pecos River and encountered Spanish conquistadors only fifty years after Columbus. Beginning in the early 17th century Franciscan monks set up shop, bringing European manners, foods and, of course, Catholicism. The PecoseĖos eventually began to suffer a steady decline in numbers and were further decimated by enemy Indian raids, first from the Apache, then from the Comanche. The pueblo had the great fortune — and then misfortune, to be one of the front lines between northern New Mexico’s agricultural pueblo peoples and the nomadic tribes of the Great Plains. Enriched by trade they then became targets. By 1793, after a Comanche raid killed most of the men, the Pecos pueblo population numbered 152 people. In 1838 the remaining men, women and children of Pecos Pueblo, a culturally unsustainable seventeen people, moved to live with their Keresan Tiwa-speaking cousins at Jemez Pueblo. Over time they have been absorbed into that pueblo and are no longer a wholly separate peoples.

            And where did the PecoseĖos come from? Their forebears may be seen in the ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) culture at Chaco Canyon and its hinterlands. In the first half of the 12th century the people at Chaco left in droves. In school we learned they disappeared, vanished essentially, leaving no trace other than, in many cases, their possessions in situ. In truth, probably facing increasingly tough environmental pressure, they moved elsewhere, to places where there was water and defensible habitation. The present day Pueblo peoples of New Mexico owe their existence to their genetic and cultural forebears, the Anasazi.

            These sorts of examples hold true for the animal kingdom as well. The dinosaurs are extinct but some of their genetic offspring are to be seen flying all around us. The birds we admire are direct lineal descendants. The current proof is from recent paleontological discoveries of dinosaurs with feathers, survivors of the massive die-off from what is called the K-T extinction at the end of the Cretaceous Period 65 million years ago. The instigating event is believed to have been an asteroid impacting the earth in what is now Mexico. The Chicxulub astrobleme, a crater with ginormous dimensions is the evidence.

            With regard to animals, amidst the dismal record of human-caused plant and animal extinctions there are a few bright spots where species in dire straights have been brought back from the brink. Whether they will prosper remains another matter. In 2003 I trekked with two companions up a mountain in the Hustai National Park in Mongolia to get a glimpse of, and photograph, the Przewalski, or Takhi, horse, of which 300 survive in the wild. But 300 is great progress!

            In 1960 the species was down to only twelve of these magnificent horses, all in zoos. Through the diligence and hard work of a Dutch couple these twelve horses were exchanged among the zoos for breeding, allowing horses to be reintroduced into Mongolia. There are now around 1200 animals in zoos in addition to the wild stock. In light of the fact that no one has ever successfully domesticated the Tahki horse, it is wonderful to be able to write that of the world’s three subspecies of horse, we still have two with us, the domesticated and the Takhi. The third, the tarpan, lost the battle in 1909 and there exists only one taken-in-the-wild photograph and one drawn-in-the-wild print of a living, probable tarpan. (The horses we call wild in the western U.S. and in Australia are really domesticated animals gone feral.)

            There is something to be said for at least knowing what species exist — and are going extinct. The Smithsonian Institution houses the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) making so-called gray literature less, well… gray (difficult to find written material.) They describe their operation as, “a consortium of…libraries that cooperate to digitize and make accessible the legacy literature of biodiversity… and to make that literature available for open access and responsible use as a part of a global “biodiversity commons.” BHL also serves as the foundational literature component of the Encyclopedia of Life.” (— BHL website)

            The Encyclopedia of Life is an on-line cataloging effort seeking to document the 1.9 million living species known to science. Like astronomy, it is one of the few technical areas where non-scientist experts can make a contribution. I was fortunate to be present at the National Geographic Society book party for E.O. Wilson’s new one-volume edition of Darwin where he enthusiastically described the plans for what eventually become EOL. The site’s popularity very quickly required a total reworking to accommodate its vast readership.

Language devastation is on the agenda, too. We have lost one-half of all historical languages in the last 500 years and are on the path to losing thousands more. There are about 6700 current languages (UNESCO) with around 2500 of those in danger of extinction. Five hundred are spoken by fewer than ten people. Aside from past colonial policies, language hegemony is a contributing factor; 25% of the world’s peoples speak Mandarin, Spanish or English in countries where, it must be remembered, there are many other rich language traditions. “There are now more students of English in China than there are people in the United States.” (Alex Rose, Lost in Translation, 2010.) One of the instructive and surprising facts is that since 1950 the United States has lost 53 languages, a greater number than any other country. We have lost a total of 115 since our ‘discovery’ by Columbus.

            The Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages reported several years ago, “every 14 days [now closer to ten days] a language dies. By 2100, more than half of the… 7,000 languages spoken on Earth… will likely disappear.” In partnership with the National Geographic Society they have identified five ‘hotspots’ where languages are vanishing faster than in other regions.


            Northern Australia

            Central South America

            North America’s upper Pacific coastal zone

            Eastern Siberia

            Oklahoma and the southwestern United States


            Why, one may ask, should we care about the loss of a language? My answer is that language is the ligature between thought and action, between one’s own mind and the mind of a neighbor. Languages are a mental picture, the flesh and blood manifestation of human adaption to the wide variety of ecosystems on our planet, adaptations that may have taken millennia to develop. Languages are road maps to the workings of the human brain, repositories of history and culture, libraries of a people’s existence. Like an outdoor art commission, languages are site specific. The loss of any one of the world’s languages, many of which have no written vocabulary, is a loss that cannot be made right. There are people who believe we may one day take the genetic material from a frozen mastodon and clone a living, breathing animal, that, with back-crossing, will yield a pachyderm 95% similar to the mastodons of ancient times. No such magic is available in the realm of human languages. Language is the product of group cognition and mind in a living culture, the wisdom, if you will, of a world entire. Dictionaries, as important as they are, cannot impart the full feel and nuance of the verbal interactions represented between their pages.

            The current edition of Ethnologue: Languages of the World (2009, 16th edition) provides a sobering list of 473 of the world’s most endangered languages. Each of these languages have only a handful of native, almost always elderly, fluent speakers. Here is the roster by continent:


            Africa (46 total)

            The Americas (182 total)

            Asia (84 total)

            Europe (9 total)

            The Pacific (152 total)


            It is a sad inventory, especially as the languages on this list are almost certainly beyond recovery. At an attrition rate of two to three per month, 72 to 108 languages have been lost since Ethnologue’s 16th edition was first published three years ago. When I took the time to read the actual list of languages, pondering the expiring populations that speak, think, act, play and worship in them, it made me appreciate how my grandmother Rosa must have felt in the first decade of the 20th century when she viewed the still-living Martha, the sole surviving American passenger pigeon. Martha, the last of her kind, spent her final years in the Cincinnati Zoo. The sadness on that occasion must have been palpable. Extinction is a one-way street.



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Winter 2013