The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History

The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History

by John R. Gillis

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Since before recorded history, people have congregated near water. But as growing populations around the globe continue to flow toward the coasts on an unprecedented scale and climate change raises water levels, our relationship to the sea has begun to take on new and potentially catastrophic dimensions. The latest generation of coastal dwellers lives largely in ignorance of the history of those who came before them, the natural environment, and the need to live sustainably on the world’s shores. Humanity has forgotten how to live with the oceans.

  In The Human Shore, a magisterial account of 100,000 years of seaside civilization, John R. Gillis recovers the coastal experience from its origins among the people who dwelled along the African shore to the bustle and glitz of today’s megacities and beach resorts. He takes readers from discussion of the possible coastal location of the Garden of Eden to the ancient communities that have existed along beaches, bays, and bayous since the beginning of human society to the crucial role played by coasts during the age of discovery and empire. An account of the mass movement of whole populations to the coasts in the last half-century brings the story of coastal life into the present.   Along the way, Gillis addresses humankind’s changing relationship to the sea from an environmental perspective, laying out the history of the making and remaking of coastal landscapes—the creation of ports, the draining of wetlands, the introduction and extinction of marine animals, and the invention of the beach—while giving us a global understanding of our relationship to the water. Learned and deeply personal, The Human Shore is more than a history: it is the story of a space that has been central to the attitudes, plans, and existence of those who live and dream at land’s end.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226922256
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/17/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 18 MB
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About the Author

John R. Gillis is the author of Islands of the Mind; A World of Their Own Making: Myth Ritual, and the Quest for Family Values; and Commemorations. A professor of history emeritus at Rutgers University, he now divides his time between two coasts: Northern California and Maine.

Read an Excerpt

The Human Shore


The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 John R. Gillis
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-92223-2

Chapter One


The seashore is an edge ... and it defies the usual idea of borders by being unfixed, fluctuant, and infinitely permeable. REBECCA SOLNIT

Western civilization is landlocked, mentally if not physically. While it has a long history of aquatic accomplishments, these do not constitute its primary identity. In the Western world we imagine human history as beginning and ending on terra firma. Our understandings of our origins, both religious and scientific, are decidedly terrestrial, and we have had great difficulty in finding a place for water in either our histories or our geographies. We remember Lucy, whose three-million-year-old remains were found in 1974 in the bone-dry Olduvai Gorge, but forget that when she was alive the gorge was a lake and she was most likely a shore dweller. Only recently has underwater archaeology challenged assumptions based on terrestrial excavations, showing the extent to which humankind has been semiaquatic, foraging not just in freshwater but also, perhaps more important, at the edge of the sea.

"The inability to regard place as anything but terrestrial, the eternal assumption that societies are boundaried, centered, contained, and enduring structures, is a distortion of retrospect," writes Eric Leed: it is "a view of history filtered through the results of history." Sustained by religious as well as secular traditions, terracentricity has assumed the status of myth in Western culture. The oldest of the Greek gods was Gaia, Mother Earth: "Mother of us all, the oldest of all, hard, splendid like a rock." The peoples we have come to know as the ancient Hebrews had just begun to settle down to an semiagrarian existence when they seized upon the idea of Eden. This terracentricity was passed on to Christianity, and, reinforced by Greek and Roman understandings of earth and water, became foundational to Western civilization. As long as the mass of humankind was tied to the land, it made sense, but now that this is no longer true, it must be called into question.

In the Western tradition, the sea has always been an alien environment. Other societies have felt much more at home with its waters, although, as far as I know, no people entirely deny their terrestrial connections. Even the Moken and other so-called sea gypsies of Southeast Asia do not live entirely at sea. Fijians believe their island was brought into being by Rokomautu, who dove into the sea to bring soil to surface. The earth-diver story is common among people who live by or from the sea. The Haida people of the Queen Charlotte Islands of the Canadian Northwest tell a story of Raven, flying above the sea, who sees a small island and turns it into earth. Later, as Raven explores this new world, he hears a sound coming from a small clamshell and discovers five tiny humans, who became what the Haida people refer to as the "earth surface people."

For coastal and island peoples, it has been the edge of the sea that has been their perpetual Eden, for them not the margin but the center of their world. Unlike the Hebrews, for whom history was a long series of exiles, the coastal-dwelling Haida have no memory of coming from somewhere else. In the stories they tell themselves, the shores of the Pacific Northwest had always been their home. They live in a capacious environment of abundance, in an unchanging present, which produces no yearning for a lost past nor dreams of a redemptive future. It was not until Christian Europeans arrived and told them that all humankind had dispersed from a single landlocked place called the Garden of Eden, making them one of the Lost Tribes of Israel, that they even considered the possibility that they were strangers in their own land or that the sea constituted a danger. And even then they refused this tragic view of history as implausible, at odds with their sense of always having been the people of the xhaaydla, their term for the coast, belonging wholly neither to land or to sea, a different kind of place living on a different kind of time, somewhere not normally found on the surveyor's map or the historian's page.

For the most part, coasts are still an unmarked category in both history and geography. Even today we barely acknowledge the 95 percent of human history that took place before the rise of agricultural civilizations. In this postindustrial era, our image of paradise is still the Garden of Eden and our model human the gardener. The book of Genesis would have us believe that our beginnings were wholly landlocked, but it was written at the time that the Hebrews were settling down to an agrarian existence. The story of Eden served admirably as the foundational myth for agricultural society, but it bears no relationship to the history and geography of humankind, including that of the Jews, that took place before it was written some ,000 years ago. The story of modern humankind, Homo sapiens, that which I am concerned with here, begins 164,000 years ago. For most of our existence we have been foragers, and much of human evolution has taken place not in landlocked locations but where land and water meet. Not only does the idea of Eden misrepresent our past, but, now, when for the first time more humans live in cities than on the land, it is wholly misleading about our future.

We need to rediscover xhaaydla and find a narrative that is less terra-centric, one that recognizes humanity's long relationship with the sea as an edge species, occupying the ecotones where land and water meet. We need to know ourselves as aquatic foragers, as gamekeepers as well as gardeners. Gardeners attempt to control nature, gamekeepers accept it and adapt to its conditions. As we shall see, on coasts gardening was often combined with hunting and gathering. And now that the limits of human beings' control over nature are becoming so evident, it is all the more urgent that we recover that element of adaptability that was present when humans had a working relationship with the sea as well as with the land. In short, we require a new narrative, one with, as Steve Mentz suggests, "fewer gardens, and more shipwrecks," one more in tune with the fluctuant nature of coasts in this age of massive climate change.

Myth of the Garden

It is said that the Hebrews were "the first people to conceive of themselves as living a life whose meaning was defined apart from nature." Their god was a gardener who provided Adam and Eve with a ready-made abundance that precluded any need to work and promised everlasting life. In the beginning, there was no wild nature. Wilderness was the product of the disobedience of Adam and Eve, which destroyed the original paradise and condemned humankind to toil and mortality. This was the origins story the Hebrews shared with other agrarian civilizations of the ancient Middle East, one that would have been utterly incomprehensible to hunter-gatherer peoples, whose gods were gamekeepers rather than gardeners, and who were at home in what Jews and Christians came to regard as wilderness.

The biblical creation myth begins with the declaration that "the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God's breath hovering over the waters." One of his first acts was to tame the unruly waters. He created the heavens, saying, " 'Let the waters under the heavens be gathered in one place so that the dry land will appear,' and so it was. And God called the dry land Earth and the gathering of waters He called Seas, and God saw that it was good." Earth produced grass and trees, while the waters were filled with fish and the air with birds. "And God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that crawls ..." Only then did he create man and woman "in our image, by our likeness, to hold sway over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the heavens," commanding them to "be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and conquer it."

Land is the central player in biblical geography. As Alain Corbin has noted, there is "no sea in the Garden of Eden." After the fall, the sea appears as an alien environment, a perpetual threat to humankind. It was from soil that God created man, giving him the name Adam, which comes from the Hebrew word adama, for earth. In this story, man gives birth to woman. Nowhere in Genesis is there any notion of Mother Earth, for land is itself a paternal rather than a maternal force. It is a creation of God the Father, who uses it to make Adam and from Adam's rib to create Eve. Thus in this rendering of creation the biological norm is reversed. Earth is birthed by a patriarchical god.

God the gardener created a world of limitless plentitude, promising an everlasting life without toil, disease, or death. Adam and Even might have lived forever in peaceful coexistence with other creatures had they not disobeyed God's will. Their punishment for eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge was not only the forfeiture of everlasting life but the transformation of the earth itself into a wilderness of "thorn and thistle," where daily bread could be won only through painful toil.

At the moment of the fall, the whole earth ceased to be paradise and the Garden of Eden was removed to the east, where it would remain inaccessible until the end of time. Everlasting life gave way to the everlasting ordeal of production and reproduction, for God burdened Eve and all the women who followed her with the pain of birth. Her firstborn, Cain, the first farmer, and Abel, the first shepherd, were also cursed. Cain was angered when God slighted his offering of the fruits of the soil in favor of his brother's animal tribute. He killed Abel, and this led to a second exile to the even more barren lands of Nod east of Eden, where he began a family that was ultimately to become the people of Israel, who mixed sedentary farming with pastoral pursuits. Their fate was henceforth tightly bound to the vicissitudes of agriculture. Indeed, the story of expulsion from the Garden of Eden and the subsequent famine-related exiles narrated in the Old Testament were clearly related to the ecological disasters that we now know punctuated the history of agriculture in the ancient Middle East. The story of paradise lost was a product of the neolithic revolution and was the way that the Jews rationalized their own tragic history, their enslavement to the tragedies of landed existence.

The descendants of Adam wandered in lands repeatedly visited by both drought and flood. The commandment to "go forth and multiply" proved to be a further burden, because, in contrast to hunter-gatherers whose mobility keeps fertility relatively low, settled agricultural production favored large families, leading to overpopulation of the arid, fragile environments of the Middle East. It was farmers, not hunter-gatherers, who were forced to take up nomadic, diasporic strategies of survival. As the anthropologist Hugh Brody puts it: "Genesis is the creation story in which aggressive, restless agriculture is explained, is rendered an inevitability." Foraging cultures also encounter periodic suffering at the hands of nature, but the story they tell is marked not by catastrophic events but by cycles of challenge and response in which continuity outweighs change. The Haida were also visited by floods, but their stories tell of how canoes repeatedly came to their rescue.

Genesis provided the ancient Hebrews, and later, equally restless Christians, with an explanation of their expansionist history and an excuse for the conquest of lands once shared with neighboring hunter-gatherers. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it was not foragers but agriculturists who were most burdened by scarcity. The neolithic agricultural revolution had not lightened the toil of subsistence but intensified it. Hunter-gatherers remained the healthiest, least stressed part of humanity. They had no need to tell themselves tragic stories of loss and recovery, for as far as they were concerned, the world had never ceased to be an Eden.

When the Hebrew God's chosen people again displeased him, water would come into play as an instrument of divine publishment. He would send a great deluge, taking care that this act be witnessed by Noah and his family as a lesson to future generations. As torrents gushed from below the earth and rains began to fall, dry land disappeared for 150 days. Here water again plays a destructive role, with land being the ultimate giver of life. Once again it is the male who is the creator. Noah is a second Adam, only this time he will not be born into a paradise. When the waters receded and the ark came to rest on solid ground, Noah and his sons would find themselves occupying an even more inhospitable world. The once smooth earth was now a ruin, internally divided by high mountains and raging rivers, surrounded on all sides by seas that threatened to invade land along every coast. As the Old Testament story unfolds, the sea becomes an ever more dangerous force.

Agrarian peoples were not the only ones to fear the sea. To the coastal Greeks and Romans the sea was a void, something to cross as quickly as possible to return home to humans' only true home: land. Christianity, following on Judaic traditions, would also endow the ocean with negativity. It is not Noah the seafarer but Noah the farmer who is the central character in the story of the Flood. Once back on dry land, he becomes the world's first vintner, but his own product leads him to disgrace himself and his children. Once again, the land fails the Hebrews and they are again forced into exile, "and from them the nations branched out on the earth after the Flood." Noah's progeny are dispersed to the African, Asian, and European parts of a great earth island that was subsequently called Orbis Terrarum, surrounded by an impassable river known as Oceanus. Somewhere deep inland, far to the east, the Garden of Eden still existed, but it was now walled off, inaccessible to humankind until the end of time.

What makes the Old and New Testaments together such a compelling narrative is not only its plausible account of the failings of an agrarian civilization but also the hope for future redemption that it engenders. In the Old Testament, the Jews are assured their Promised Land. In the New Testament, Christ is the new Adam, but his death is not the end of the story: there will be a new beginning in which the promised land encompasses the whole earth and is extended to all humanity. Once all peoples are converted to Christianity, the world will again become a paradise. As foretold in the book of Revelation, upon the second coming of Christ, earth will again become a garden, and, significantly, there will be "no more sea."

Until the eighteenth century, the biblical version of geography and history portrayed the postdeluvian earth as a ruin, subject to an endless series of divinely initiated disasters meant to punish its wayward inhabitants. The plant and animal world was equally cursed and degenerate. Only gradually was this declension narrative replaced by a more optimistic view of change. Beginning in the sixteenth century, the discovery that Earth was not an island surrounded by an impassable river but a series of islands and continents connected rather than divided by water caused the sea to lose its satanic properties. But it would take another two centuries before islands came to be perceived as stepping stones to progress, and coasts, which had previously been seen as barriers, became passages, assets rather than liabilities. By the eighteenth century, the new earth sciences began to question the biblical chronology that had set the beginnings of the world at a mere six thousand years earlier. Evidence of changes occurring over millions of years not only demanded a new story of origins but suggested alternative endings that did not involve apocalyptic divine intervention but steady evolutionary progress.

Yet both Europe and North America clung to their agrarian mythology well into the nineteenth century. The sea remained, as it had been in Genesis, a void to be traversed rather than investigated, a nonplace alien to humankind. It constituted its own realm, existing beyond human control. The catch of the sea was regarded as a "gift" to humans, over which they had little control. And nothing could stop the sea from taking human life. As a placeless, timeless space, the ocean was outside both human geography and history. Oceanography was the last-born of the earth sciences, and geographers paid little attention to the seven-tenths of the planet's surface covered by water. Historians also ignored the waters that joined the world together: as far as they were concerned, time began and ended at the edge of the land. The story of nations continued to be told in terms of loss and recovery of land, so that even as Europe and North America became more industrialized and urbanized, anthropology and archaeology, as well as history, remained landlocked, concentrating on interiors at the expense of edges.


Excerpted from The Human Shore by JOHN R. GILLIS Copyright © 2012 by John R. Gillis. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Acknowledgments Introduction

1 An Alternative to Eden
2 Coasts of the Ancient Mariner
3 Sea Frontiers of the Early Modern Atlantic
4 Settling the Shores
5 Second Discovery of the Sea
6 Coastal Dreams and Nightmares
Conclusion  Learning to Live with Coasts

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