Liberating Our Inner Hunter-Gatherer

In Affluence Without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen (2017), James Suzman says the Bushmen of southern Africa

are now the only people who still carry some of the distinct sequences of DNA associated with African “Adam,” the first small group of anatomically modern people who bind all of humankind into one family.

Susman reports that early Dutch settlers in southern Africa wrote that the native peoples there were “always gay, always dancing and singing” and appeared to enjoy a life “without occupation or toil.” A priest commented, “They are the happiest of men since they alone live in peace and freedom…. Their contempt for riches is in reality nothing but their hatred of work.” According to those settlers, the indigenous people there “seemed incapable of being pressed into labor.”

The Bushmen evolved in abundant wetlands. When those waters disappeared, they lived in an enormous desert that isolated them from modernization. New arrivals in the area chose not to cross the desert. For 200,000 years, until the mid-1960s or so, the lifestyle of the Bushmen remained largely intact.

That isolation enabled anthropologists to extensively study the Bushmen — as well as other hunter-gatherer societies in other parts of the world that retained their cultures. But the most compelling accounts have always come from non-scholars who made first contact with those societies.

In his book, The Ohlone Way: Indian Life in the San Francisco-Monterey Bay Area, Malcolm Margolin  relied on such reports, as well as anthropological studies. His book offers a vivid description of the culture of the Indian people who inhabited the Bay Area prior to the arrival of Europeans 250 years ago.

In “What Is Sustainable,” Richard Adrian Reese summarizes some of Margolin’s findings:

Occasional armed conflicts were usually low-intensity ritual warfare, good for blowing off steam…. There were no wooden palisades [walls] surrounding villages.  The men did not have shields, war clubs, tomahawks, or body armor.  The culture did not enshrine heroic war chiefs, nor did it create a sprawling empire.  They were really into dancing….

Margolin worked on this book for three years, and he often dreamed about the Ohlone.  “It produced in me a sense of victory to know that such a way of life is part of the human potential, part of the human history.”… our genes are not diseased, just our culture.  

The wikipedia says:

Hunter-gatherers tend to have an egalitarian social ethos…. it is widely argued by palaeoanthropologists that resistance to being dominated was a key factor driving the evolutionary emergence of human consciousness, language, kinship and social organization…..

According to Sahlins, ethnographic data indicated that hunter-gatherers worked far fewer hours and enjoyed more leisure than typical members of industrial society, and they still ate well. Their “affluence” came from the idea that they were satisfied with very little in the material sense….

Howard Zinn, the historian, concluded that indigenous people were peaceful when they lived in lush environments that were not overpopulated. And for most of our 200,000 years, our ancestors lived in lush environments.

Suzman writes: “…the fifteen-hour working week was probably the norm for most of the estimated two-hundred-thousand-year history of biologically modern Homo sapiens.”

In the draft booklet, “Transform the World with Holistic Communities,” I wrote:

For 200,000 years human beings were egalitarian, compassionate and cooperative hunter-gatherers who worked less than 20 hours a week and were peaceful, joyous and playful.

Several of the eighteen people who reviewed and commented on the draft objected to that statement.

On reflection, to be more precise, I should’ve said something like: “the typical human being probably.” Using qualifiers tends to render writing less punchy, so I try to avoid them. But in this case, I should have qualified my statement, as did Suzman.

Regardless, I stand by the main point:

Those characteristics are deeply embedded in our DNA — more so than the ego trips, power trips, meanness, and other traits instilled in us by the modern world. Engaging the whole person involves liberating that inner hunter-gatherer.

Humanity has made progress in many respects. Hardly anyone wants to forsake all modern comforts and advantages. But we can still recover some of the positive qualities we’ve lost. The survival of life as we know it may depend on it.

 

One Response to Liberating Our Inner Hunter-Gatherer

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