]> In Finland

In Finland

Part 6 of 11
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This is a blog of various impressions and experiences during the first of my settled life in Finland, home of my Finnish vaimo, in 2010-2011 and 2013-.


December 21, 2013

As I sit writing this in Koli, North Karelia, Finland, the temperature outside is minus 25 degrees Celsius, or around minus 10 Fahrenheit. Very difficult to survive in, one might think, let alone make a living in. For a quarter of the year it can reach these temperatures, and for another quarter it remains mostly below freezing. Yet people have been living here for hundreds of years. In fact at the turn of the century there were actually more people living here than there are now - despite the absence of indoor plumbing, electricity, or any other form of heat besides wood fires. How people do this is an interesting question that I've written about earlier, but the question I'd like to talk about now is why?

We humans come from Africa, where it is generally warm; although cool temperatures can be found in parts at times, they are not where our ancestors lived. In fact, we seem to have lost our fur partly as an adaptation to life on the open savannah, where the sun beat down fiercely away from the forests. Most animals remain in their areas of origin, where the climate and available foods suit their nature. How is it that humans spread, not just out of Africa, but to some of the coldest parts of the globe, where we must of necessity cover ourselves with skins and the furs we lost, merely to survive? And was this something that happened a little at a time, imperceptibly, or in great migratory movements?

Consider the first alternative. Perhaps as a given local tribe grew (assuming it was successful at finding food and increasing its numbers through fecundity), it was customary for the children to settle new lands adjacent to where their elders were living. This would occur through simple necessity of finding available game or empty lands to farm, and would result in the children dealing with similar lands and conditions to their fathers. All of their passed-on cultural knowledge would still apply and enable them to survive. Of course there might be minor differences, a few more rabbits perhaps, maybe a few less deer, but the general set of learned skills would still apply.

Of course there might come occasions when a natural boundary was reached, the edge of a forested area opening out onto a plain, or the beginning of a range of hills. These types of barriers could be surmounted gradually, the erstwhile forester continuing to draw part of his sustenance from the forest, for example, as he acquired new skills for finding food and surviving on the plain.

Likewise a gradual change in prevailing climate could be dealt with. As man moved northwards someone at some point must have had the idea of wrapping himself in skins from the animals killed for game. Perhaps it was only necessary to do this for a short part of the year, and only for greater comfort (maybe while sleeping at night), not really for survival. As his descendants expanded further north, the furs came in handy a little more often, started to be worn during the day for some parts of the year. And eventually these parts of the year expanded, and somewhat thicker or more extensively covering furs were required. But at no time was any great innovation needed, nor was any physical hardship really felt. Each new child merely did as his parents had before him, with only the merest of adjustments for any differences. Probably there was far more seasonal variation year to year than any due to the effects of geography.

Of course, sometimes more formidable and significant barriers were reached, such as a lakeshore, a mountain range, or a desert. In many such cases -- probably most -- the barriers were not so much crossed as diffused around, like an army of ants dividing and rejoining around a puddle of water. Here the same characteristics of gradual change held sway. But at least some -- the Sahara desert comes to mind -- required other means: migration.

There is little doubt that migrations have played a role in recorded history, for we have records of the European settling of the Americas, the coming of the Hungarians and then the Turks to Europe, for example, and we have archaeological evidence of earlier migrations as well, such as the first migrations to the Americas, and the Polynesian diffusion. In some cases what looks like a migration might have actually been a movement of language and cultural practices rather than people. The spread of Bantu farmers in Africa, Indo-European speech in Eurasia, and the westward movement of Uralic languages are examples. But clearly people movements have occurred, and so there is some basis for believing that they may have contributed to the spread of early humans across the continents.

What triggers a migration, and how is one carried out successfully? A plausible answer to the first question is pressure for resources. If mankind had first spread north to the edges of the Sahara desert, say, and the people there continued to be successful and increase their numbers, something would have to give eventually. For a migration to be successful, the journey must not be too long, or hospitable conditions must be found along the way, and on the other end conditions would have to be similar enough to those left behind that at least some skill transfer could occur. If hunting was the food source of choice, then the game must not be too scattered on the other end; if farming then the soils and climate must support the seeds taken along. Of course the likelihood that this is not the case seems very real, such that many migrations must fail, ending either in a return of the group to high resource pressure and therefore competition, or dying out of the entire force.

Has this actually happened? We know a couple examples of failure -- Easter Island, the Viking colonization of North America, for instance, but not many. This could be because failures tend to leave little evidence behind, but it could also be that migrations are not attempted very often. And indeed, gradual spreading seems sufficient to explain most of the expansion of man.

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