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Humanity’s oldest story is written in the stars. It’s there in the summer night sky, welcome and cool. For most of us, it’s there in the northwest. Find the big dipper, then find the Great Bear, lately known as Ursa Major for its links to humanity’s Cosmic Hunt story.

The ancestral reconstruction is a story of an antlered herbivore (likely a moose) pursued by a human hunter. The pursuit moves into the sky and the quarry steps free of the physical and becomes the constellation. We know that constellation as Ursa Major because in a proto-Greek retelling, the story mutated, and the moose became a bear.

Science enables peering over the cultural horizons we left in our wake more than 15 millennia ago. Before writing. Before language any of us would recognize. Back minimally to the last ice age – a thread connecting indigenous cultures on every continent.

We know our species’ deep biological roots trace to a single ancestral African mother because genetic mutations produce genetic variation and geographic patterns in gene frequencies are ripples in time that we can run in reverse using statistical models. If you and I share a specific gene, we know that we have a common ancestor somewhere in our past. With observations on enough people and enough genes, we can project where and when that common ancestor likely lived.

Anthropologist Julien d’Huy used the same techniques applied to geographic patterns in indigenous stories. He and his collaborators collected Cosmic Hunt stories from around the world and broke them down into discrete, identifiable, “mythemes” or story elements (e.g. “the quarry is a bear”). Mythemes are then analogues of genes. Cultures whose stories share common mythemes indicate stories derived from earlier ancestral stories.

The Cosmic Hunt mutated in the near east with the moose becoming a bear. It’s the reason the Bible’s putative oldest book knows of a bear in the heavens (Job 9:9), why the ancient Greeks told stories of Juno’s jealousy of Calista and Jupiter, why we moderns know of Ursa Minor as the constellation of the North Star.

The story, “reverse-migrated” back to Africa against the tide of biological human migrations. Africa has no deer or bears, hence the deer mutated into a camel for the Tuareg people of North Africa. The story evidently crossed Beringia several times leaving differing traces in the diverse cultures of North America’s indigenous peoples including a parallel (the bear) linking the proto-Greek telling to the stories of our Ojibwe neighbors.

It’s an analogue of convergent evolution or, tantalizingly, the ghost of a cultural connection emerging from the mists of deep time. Even more tantalizing, there is evidence of a unique but rare gene found in Europeans and some native Americans (including the Ojibwe) but not yet found in Asian/Siberian populations suggesting a biological migration of European genes across Beringia roughly coincident the timing of a potential cultural migration 12,000-36,000 years ago. Might this be our paleolithic storyteller carrying the bear in their imagination?

We moderns understand hunting as a recreational phenomenon connected to the chill of November and armies of orange-clad nimrods who need to be back at work on Monday. We forget that for most of our history, especially for our ancestors in higher latitudes, hunting was deadly business. We either killed the big herbivore (or bear) or we and our kin starved during bleak winter. They cared for us and we venerated that care. Ceremony and veneration show reciprocity, but the tables have turned given damage we’ve done recently. It’s our turn to care for them.

It’s satisfying to the wildlife biologist in me that moose and bears and other large herbivores have circumboreal distributions. Most of our various ancestral cultures were born and grew to maturity in the presence of these magnificent and life-giving animals. Is it any wonder that the boundaries of the physical and metaphysical dissolve in time? That we placed them in our essential stories? That we archive those stories in the night sky?

My discipline of ecology is a science of bio-physical connections. d’Huy’s work adds another dimension enabling my imagination to peer back into the distant wisdom of humanity through stories of transcendent interactions with more than the human world. We should recover a bit of that. We are more connected than we know and we should resist the impulse for trivial division.

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 

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