The Coming of King Unas

The formerly accepted story of Easter Island, in the southern Pacific, saw the place as a cautionary fable of human delinquency. This remote territory was first peopled by Polynesians arriving in their canoes somewhere around the end of the first millennium AD. Over subsequent centuries, so the story went, they felled its forests in order to transport on tree-trunk rollers their strange and wonderful carved heads or moai to the chosen sites. Then, finding themselves in a created waste-land, they fought each other for what was left, even resorting to cannibalism, and were finally discovered by European explorers in the eighteenth century as a miserable remnant on an island scarcely habitable.

In his book Humankind: a Hopeful History, the historian and journalist Rutger Bregman shows how this story came about, and he corrects it from twenty-first century researches. There were no civil wars, no cannibalism. The inhabitants were found fit and well by their first visitors, but then succumbed to visitor-borne diseases and even, during the nineteenth century, to enslavement. Left to themselves, Bregman says, they would have got on perfectly well – without their trees, certainly, but even that wasn’t really their fault. It was probably the rats hitching that first ride with them centuries earlier who did the damage, as well as extirpating most of the native fauna. And anyway the space released from forest was used for successful agriculture. “The real story of Easter Island,” Bregman concludes, “is the story of a resourceful and resilient people, of persistence in the face of long odds. It’s not a tale of impending doom [i.e. a model of what we’ll soon have done to the whole planet], but a well-spring of hope.” [136]

Two aspects of that story in particular illustrate Bregman’s larger argument in the book. Humans in their original or natural condition (more about what that is later) are not delinquents and cut-throats, committed to what the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes called “war of all against all” [109]. The Lord of the Flies vision of human life on a desert island collapsing into savagery is a species-libel (which Bregman puts right in its turn). Rather, humans are by nature resourceful, mutually helpful, and adept at managing conflict before it becomes damaging. The trouble – aspect two – came with the change from a nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life (not that the Easter Island people ever quite practised that) to life lived in fixed and populous settlements, which happened progressively from about 15,000 years ago. Bregman calls it the “biggest mistake of all time” [246]. With settlement came cultivation, ownership of land, warfare to protect or enlarge property, diseases promoted by the proximity of humans and animals, and above all the pathology of rank:

The 1 per cent began oppressing the 99 per cent, and smooth talkers ascended from commanders to generals and from chieftains to kings. The days of liberty, equality and fraternity were over. [104]

Institutionally over, that is. But the ‘hopeful’ part of Bregman’s case is that if once we stop misrepresenting ourselves as a vandal species kept in precarious order by the artifices of civilization, those values will re-arise as the ones we trust and expect in our common life, and we’ll all be the better for it.

Still, Easter Island itself isn’t any better off for the revision of its story. It remains a denuded place, with a ruined flora and fauna, whose few survivors from pre-human days (mainly insects in the case of the fauna) are under threat from the newer scourge of tourism – for the island has an airport, of course. This doesn’t seem to enter as a problem into Bregman’s thinking. He’s a humanist in the restricted sense, for whom our vis-à-vis with other animals is just a mirror, helping us to look at ourselves, rather than a test and judgement, helping us to know what we’ve been worth to the planet. Hence his remark in an interview about most people being “pretty decent”: “it’s actually the reason why we have conquered the globe; you know, human beings are just incredibly good compared to other species at cooperating on a skill that other species just can’t.”

In Bregman’s vision of things, then, we’re essentially our own audience, and likewise the winners or losers by what we think and do as a species. Still, there is a complementary history of other species caught up in what we’ve done, and it’s detectable there in the book’s shadows. After all, the coming of ownership as a concept and practice included ownership of lives. It was a radical change, as Bregman notices: “It couldn’t have been easy to convince people that land or animals – or even other human beings – could now belong to someone.” [102] He suggests at one point that the Old Testament myth of expulsion from Eden may have been telling this story of change from free nomadism to settlement and agriculture (“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” Genesis 3.19). Certainly that change marked the primal fall in our relations with other forms of life in the world. It’s a catastrophe which we have only just started to undo; conceding ‘sentience’ to some animals (see previous post) is as far as we’ve officially got to date, even in the avant-garde countries.

Not that pre-historic humans left other animals alone; they were hunter-gatherers, after all. But they were taking their chance in the predation lottery, and it’s clear also, from the early cave-paintings, that they felt some respectful fascination for their prey and for other creatures. These animals generally appear both large and vividly present, warty pig 15 Jan 21 compared to the smallness and perfunctory representations of humans, if any. (Bregman’s point about these paintings is that there is no warfare in them.) But what exactly the human attitude was towards any of these animals (humans included) is a highly speculative subject of its own, because of course little else has been left behind by them.

It’s a point poignantly illustrated by the anthropological collections in Oxford University’s own Ashmolean Museum. There’s hardly anything to show about the lives of the hunter-gatherers: set against panoramas of open land, a few hunting weapons in a glass case or two. So lightly did they tread on the earth! Then come the civilizations, with ominous section titles like ‘New Technologies’, ‘Building an Empire’, and ‘Sumptuous Lifestyles’. A ‘pyramid text’ (tomb inscription for a pharaoh) says

King Unas comes, a spirit indestructible.
If he wishes you to die, you will die,
If he wishes you to live, you will live.

So you can see what Bregman means. Of course, he concedes that humans have now mostly freed themselves from civilization of this predatory kind. Over the last two hundred years, we’ve found that organized societies can work for the common benefit (he instances health, prosperity, human rights, even, relatively speaking, peace): “The curse of civilization can be lifted,” he says [114]. But meanwhile, as he doesn’t say, our species continues to play King Unas to all the others. That pyramid text is implicitly pinned up at every animal facility in the world – pinned on the world, in fact.

Humankind should be compared to another ambitious survey of the human career, Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature (2011, discussed in this blog on 25 May 2018). Bregman argues that we’re a fundamentally decent Humankind species (notice the way the title is divided on the front cover), corrupted by the pathologies of civilization; Pinker tells the story of civilization as a progressive putting right or at least mitigation of our natural savagery. But in fact these two very different interpretations produce the same net message. One reviewer of Pinker’s work called it the “glad tidings” that humans are much better than we thought and feared: it will now be “much harder for pessimists to cling to their gloomy vision of the future.” Or as another reviewer says of Humankind, it “will give you good reason to feel better about the human race.”

It’s pleasant to feel better, of course, but whether it’s an honest state of mind in this case, I doubt. Whatever we’ve been able to make of ourselves, we’ve certainly made a latter-day Easter Island of much of the planet, driving other lives out of it, or making of them dependents to our King Unas. Bregman approvingly quotes Jan Boersema, the professor who de-bunked the old Easter Island myth, saying “not only problems but also solutions can grow exponentially.” [136] We can fix it, in short. It’s what Pinker says too. But it may be that the self-distrust which these books have supposedly cured was a truer reflection both of our real merits in the world and of the type of solution that will work. Giving ground, morally and literally, is likely to be the only remedy that helps other species as well as our own, and it demands some measure of diffidence.

The great twentieth-century poet W.H.Auden grappled in his later writings with this question of what it is that spoils our species,

who, from the moment
we first are worlded,
lapse into disarray,

who seldom know exactly
what we are up to,
and, as a rule, don’t want to.

As these lines imply, he believed that humanity was inherently flawed, in fact the heir to original sin in the Old Testament sense. But I mention this not just because Auden was expressing a moral and spiritual diffidence on our behalf; he was also directing this confession to its proper audience, for the title of this poem written in the last year of his life was ‘Address to the Animals’. It’s true that they can’t know or profit from what we say to them (“very few of you / find us worth looking at”, is how Auden puts it), but we shall never understand ourselves, or hit upon our proper business in the world, unless we find a right relationship with the animals who were enjoying it so long before “we upstarts”, as Auden calls us, arrived figuratively in our canoes.

Notes and references:

Humankind was first published in the Netherlands in 2019; quotations are from the English edition of 2021, published by Bloomsbury. The Better Angels of our Nature was published by Penguin Books in 2011. The quoted reviews are from extracts given in the books’ own prelims. Although the two books are dealing with the same question, and cover some of the same material (in fact Bregman expressly rejects some of Pinker’s evidence and conclusions), they differ very much in form: Better Angels is a formidable and scholarly book, two or three times a long as the other; Humankind is well but selectively evidenced, chatty and engaging in style, distinctly the work of a journalist (though an excellent one, who frequently warns his readers against daily news as “a mental health hazard”).

The quoted interview was given by Bregman to npr (National Public Radio), on 30 May 2020, and can be read here:

W.H.Auden’s poem ‘Address to the Animals’ was first published in the New Yorker, 8 October 1973. Another poem, ‘The Sabbath’, is a briefer treatment of the same subject, where the animals agree in deploring the mistakes made on the sixth day of creation.

The detail of a cave painting shows a wild pig (the Sulawesi warty pig) and a hand-print. The whole painting, in a cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, is believed to be the oldest so far discovered, at least 45,000 years old. For a report on the discovery, see