Lawrie McFarlane: New World is actually the Old World


Europe, as we often hear, is supposed to be the Old World. On this telling of the story, North America, with our much briefer history, represents the New World. Antonin Dvorák’s New World Symphony, composed during a visit to the U.S., memorialized the notion. (Ironically, Dvorák’s ode to life is now played at funerals. The first man to land on the moon, Neil Armstrong, took a recording with him, perhaps as his own requiem if things went wrong.)

I think we should reverse this line of thinking. North America, and in particular Canada, is actually the Old World.

Two reasons. First, there is an emerging body of evidence that our continent was settled far earlier than had long been thought.

Archeologists originally believed the first humans to arrive here crossed a land bridge from Siberia about 13,000 years ago.

(I can’t resist noting that this bridge later disappeared because of climate change. Giant mastodons and lions roamed a grassy steppe that was subsequently buried deep beneath the Bering Sea when global warming melted glaciers. Maybe a carbon tax was needed.)

But then some finds in Texas pushed the initial influx of humans much further back. And more recently still, artifacts have been unearthed in northern Yukon that are 40,000 years old. The evidence is fragmentary, and therefore controversial — a few chunks of mammoth bone that appear to have been sharpened as a weapon.

But if this latest discovery stands up, it places the colonization of Canada on a similar timeline with northern Europe. Britain and Germany are both thought to have been occupied about 42,000 years ago. So maybe we’re not so new after all.

However, the second reason for claiming Old World status is more compelling. There’s no question that Europe’s population expanded more rapidly, and developed technologies more extensively, than Canada’s aboriginal peoples.

But with that came a price. A fair chunk of northern Europe is now either parking lots or autobahns. Historic sites have been paved over, forests have been felled, cities have sprawled across the countryside.

Yes, you can still see some remnants of how things were — Greek ruins, ancient fortresses and the like. But this is postcard reality.

The Europe that actually existed 40,000 years ago is almost entirely gone. With a few exceptions, such as the Outer Hebrides in Scotland and some mountain ranges, the continent has undergone a massive facelift. The past has largely been eradicated.

Now let’s return to our own land. I’ll concentrate on Western Canada, where I lived most of my life, but the same things can be said of any region in our country.

You can still hike the route that Alexander Mackenzie took in his epic journey across the continent, ending at ocean’s edge in Bella Coola. And little along the way has changed. The lakes, rivers and forests are as they always were.

If you tramp across southwest Saskatchewan, you are literally walking in the footsteps of countless Cree and Blackfoot hunters who lived there down the ages. Except you wouldn’t know it.

Other than a few tepee rings and a handful of cliff drawings, the southern prairies bear hardly a sign of aboriginal occupation. Neither do the arboreal forests of the north.

My point is that although our country might have been populated as long as Europe, vast tracts of it remain the way they always were, wild, unaltered and pristine. We are not just the true north, we are the north our earliest predecessors saw.

In my book, that makes us the Old World, not the New.

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