The Human Shore, Seacoasts in History by John R. Gillis


The Human Shore, by John Gillis University of Chicago Press, 2012
The Human Shore, University of Chicago Press, 2012


The interior section of Cape Ann, which includes Gloucester and Rockport, is called Dogtown. It was the earliest part of the Cape to be settled, and was later abandoned, so that its only occupants for many years were dogs, witches, and other assorted outcasts. It is still largely undeveloped. “Why here?” visitors ask,when I show off our Colonial cellar holes. “Why would people settle here when water is just a few miles away?”

Why? Because an ocean view was dangerous thing to have. Today, nothing says success like a front row seat to the sea, but this is a very modern development, and as the water continues to rise, it might turn out to be a passing fad. The place where water meets land has always been a treacherous spot, exposed not just to storms and tides, but to pirates as well. It wasn’t until there was strength in numbers, along with political stability, that folks ventured to the water’s edge and actually lived there. In The Human Shore, John Gillis documents the history of our relationship to the coast, going back 160,000 years or more, when a particularly cunning primate said ta-ta to the other hominids in the African savannas and wandered east towards the sea. When this early ancestor got to the water, she found seafood and shellfish, rich in the fatty acids necessary to develop large brains, and we were on our way to becoming the Homo sapiens we are today.


Gillis, bless his heart, embraces the aquatic ape theory, which posits that modern humans evolved in close association with the water. The evidence is that we are fat and naked, looking in some ways more like a dolphin than an ape. This theory was recently considered so far out that I handed it to a character in my novel Float to espouse, so I was thrilled to see it mentioned in The Human Shore, a largely academic book.


Whether aquatic apes or early hominids, they only lived near enough to the shore to forage seafood, but then, like the early Dogtown inhabitants, set up house-keeping in safety elsewhere. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th c. that the shore lost its association with danger to become a place of pleasure, so that today, half of all of earth’s population live within 100 miles of the sea. We are creatures of the edge, as unstable as it might be. The present sea levels were not even set until 6500 BC. Before that, Europe extended to Britain by means of a forested land called Doggerland, only just being explored by archeologists.


Gillis writes a great deal about coasting as the norm for travel for most of our history. We hugged the shore. When the Norse got to North America, they did not so much cross the ocean as skim along the Cold Coast of Greenland and the Faroe Islands, coasting and island hopping in the manner of ancient mariners everywhere. When Columbus hit North America, he did not understand that it was an impassable landmass, but thought it was one of a series of islands. Even as recently as the arrival of the Mayflower, Frances Billington, one of the passengers, climbed a tall tree to see if he could spot the Pacific. He did! The pond is still called the Billington Sea, in honor of optimists everywhere.


What the Europeans did find was natural abundance, but it was not all that natural, and it was not as wild as we imagine, according Gillis. The land had long been cultivated by burning, and the animals of land and sea heavily harvested. It was a delicate balance of humans and resources. When the Europeans arrived, they brought disease and slaughter, reducing the native population to less than 6 percent of its pre-contact level. Stocks rebounded, giving Europeans the impression of unlimited bounty, and began to fish and hunt North America to extinction.


Gillis writes movingly about the plight of the fishing industry in these days of global fishing and shipping, and I’m pleased to see him mention Gloucester as resisting the trend towards ye old fishing village. We still has a working harbor, such as it is, even though we have a red line to lead tourists around town to show them where the industry used to be. But at least we are not quaint, like Rockport and most other former fishing villages, who thrive on romantic notions of a coastal past that never was. Of all the statistics in Gillis’s excellent book, this one takes the cake: Maine’s working waterfront occupy 20 of 5300 miles of coastline. Today, many fishermen commute to work, since they can no longer afford to live where they work.


Read this book and understand the shore. We have evolved with it, and will continue to do so, sooner rather than later. From Float: “Slocum believed that fat was the secret to the success of the species. Humans were not just the fattest primates, they also had ten times as many fat cells as would be expected in any animal of its size, which, to Slocum, pointed to one obvious conclusion: Humans were descended from aquatic apes. And, he believed, they needed to maintain those fat deposits for when – perhaps not so far in the future – the rising tides of global warming forced Homo sapiens back to the sea.”


Book review originally published at Eco-Lit Books.

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