Cover of NorthThis was first published on the now-retired polarcosmology.com website, a companion site for the book North: The Rise & Fall of the Polar Cosmos by Gyrus – an epic, animism-infused history of cosmology. Check out more information, or buy from Strange Attractor Press.

This is a beautiful and stirring short film from Erik Wernquist (who’s come a long way since Crazy Frog). The soundtrack finds Carl Sagan meditating on wandering as our natural inheritance, on the restlessness which sedentary living cannot tame. Accompanying this are finely-crafted CGI visuals based on real locations in the solar system, envisioning our future in space.

The project of leaving the planet is so momentous, I’m suspicious of any clear positions on it — including my own, when I end up feeling like I’m clear about the whole thing, for or against. In North I surprised myself by ending up with quite a positive position on the quest for space. At least, I painted the retreat from human space exploration after the Apollo missions as a kind of collective failure of nerve, and a retreat into the less compelling, but more comfortable unearthly escapes of hyper-mediated consumerism.

Recently, I was pleasantly not-disappointed by Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. At the same time, George Monbiot’s critique of the film’s ideological foundations rang true, very loudly. Compelling as the desire for other worlds can be, to what extent is it part of an inevitable, ‘natural’ historical sweep in which we find ourselves embedded, and to what extent is it fuelled by the turbo-charged acquisitiveness of industrial capitalism, and our unwillingness, in this specific historical moment, to face the music? To what extent do the fantasies of leaving the planet represent another collective failure of nerve, the failure to curb our greed-worshipping plutocrats?

There’s no simple answer to this, but the debate is certainly muddied by confused ideas about what is natural for humans. Without suggesting that our pre-agricultural days forever define our nature, we have to take account of the first 95% of our existence as humans, foraging, hunting, and gathering. In any case, it is precisely this vast epoch which Carl Sagan’s paean to wandering appeals to.

For all its material advantages, the sedentary life has left us… edgy, unfulfilled. Even after 400 generations in villages and cities, we haven’t forgotten. The open road still softly calls, like a nearly forgotten song of childhood. We invest far-off places with a certain romance. This appeal, I suspect, has been meticulously crafted by natural selection as an essential element in our survival.

It’s true that as foragers, we wandered widely. In fact, we colonised most of the planet before anyone thought of domesticating animals or planting crops. We were free-roving nomads, and surely Sagan is right to justify the romance of far-off places with an appeal to the world of the forager — a world which itself appears to us as a far-off place, invested with a romance which is far from unjustified.

However, even though most of our planet-colonising roving happened in a relatively short spurt, between about 60,000 years ago and 12,000 years ago, this is still a vast span of time — nearly 2000 generations, five times as long as the distance between us and the first farmers in the Middle East. The most notable dispersal of humans out of Africa was along the resource-rich south Asian coasts, which happened at a rate of about 4 kilometres a year.1 It’s hard to say if that was a gradual crawl or an average of sudden leaps. I mean, if you really wanted to go, even a band of people could easily cover many thousands of kilometres in a year. Maybe this dispersal was just a gentle shifting, natural curiosity and slight pushes against boundaries mounting up over the years…

The thing is, while we were ‘nomads’ back then, this word shouldn’t be taken simply. As anthropologist Hugh Brody has shown in his essential book The Other Side of Eden, hunter-gatherers are usually nomadic within a limited area. They tend to wander widely within this region, knowing it incredibly intimately. Speaking of the Inuit man who taught him to speak Inuktitut, he remarks: ‘Anaviapik would be astonished to think that his descendants were destined to go forth and occupy distant lands.’

On the other hand, farming cultures, which are in one sense sedentary, are also driven by far more wide-ranging imperatives to travel. The cheap calories that farming brings, and the amount of work that needs doing, both encourage ever-expanding populations — and thus the need for regular migrations as a population outgrows its home. On top of that, soil degradation and other factors also contribute to a recurring need for new pastures.

Brody reminds us that in the deeply resonant myths of the book of Genesis, Cain is a farmer, whose offering of crops fails to please God as much as the meat that his brother Abel offers. After Cain jealously murders Abel, God curses the land on which the killing took place, and condemns Cain to wander in search of new lands: ‘A fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be on the earth.’2

Thus we begin to see the human being as settled and unsettled – a person displaced from his home, roaming the harsh earth looking for land to till, for somewhere to live. He can settle in a restless way, building, inventing, shaping, and then, as need be, roam farther afield — repeating the pattern that is the farmer’s destiny.3

And so:

Farmers appear to be settled, and hunters to be wanderers. Yet a look at how ways of life take shape across many generations reveals that it is the agriculturalists, with their commitment to specific farms and large numbers of children, who are forced to keep moving, re-settling, colonising new lands. Hunter-gatherers, with their reliance on a single area, are profoundly settled. As a system, over time, it is farming, not hunting, that generates ‘nomadism.’ Agriculture evokes the curses of Genesis.4

There do seem to be examples of bold ventures into distant lands in the hunter-gatherer world. I wonder about the Eskimos and other cultures who have colonised the Arctic — although adaptation to this harsh climate may well have been very gradual, pushed further and further by the migrations of prey. Perhaps more striking is the colonisation, very soon after we left Africa, of the Australian continent. But then, this may have been across a now-vanished land bridge. We might also think of the amazing feats of the people who first colonised the Pacific islands. However, these amazing voyages took place in the last few thousand years, and were undertaken by farming cultures who carried with them staple crops and domesticated pigs, chickens, and dogs.

So it seems that while we’ve certainly never been shy of moving around, it’s been the very recent phenomenon of agriculture which has ramped up our wanderlust. Sagan goes on to quote from Melville’s Moby-Dick, saying he ‘spoke for wanderers in all epochs and meridians’ when he wrote: ‘I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas…’ But this torment is as much an artefact of our sedentism as anything else. It’s a torment which the cheap energy furnished by fossil fuels has turbo-charged, rapidly expanding populations and intensifying our sense of unrest.

This realisation does little to settle debates about space travel. After all, for the most part it’s the recent legacies of farming which we have to grapple with. However, as this debate continues, with broad claims about our supposedly inherent drive to explore new lands, it’s worth remembering that this drive is probably not inherent at all. Certainly, it has little to do with the hundreds of thousands of years we spent as hunter-gatherers – for the most part, intimately engaged with local ecology.