Before Priests, Kings & Bosses Part One: 59,804 Reasons To Think Again
Artwork by Arrow Bow
How should we measure the health of our societies? Are a sense of belonging, meaning, egalitarianism and symbiosis with our surrounding ecologies what matters most?
Because if so then I'd suggest our modern cultures are a long way from the high water mark of human flourishing. While Steven Pinker, Bill Gates & Hans Rosling (AKA The New Optimists) all confidently proclaim that now is clearly the best time to be alive, personally I'm not so sure. In fact I’d go as far to say that on balance as a species we may have been better off during our long history as nomadic hunter gatherers when we experienced a variety of different life styles that we'd become highly adapted to over 240,000 years and which were clearly the bio-psycho-social context in which we evolved to thrive.
It can be a little challenging to zoom out and meaningfully consider such massive time scales so let’s break it down a little bit. If genealogists place the maximum span between each generation at thirty three years then there's only been around two hundred generations of humans since civilisation first emerged over 7000 years ago. This is in contrast to the seven thousand generations of Homo Sapiens that experienced a hunter gatherer way of life and according to my calculations the roughly 52,804 generations of human-esque tool makers that experienced something similar before then.
Reflecting on these numbers leads me to wonder just how many layers of intricate and nourishing cultural substrate were washed away when the large majority of us permanently transitioned from roaming the land to tilling the soil. The author Yuval Harari suggests it only took a few generations for us to almost completely lose touch with our nomadic way of life and become essentially trapped in an increasingly agrarian cycle of disease, domination and physical hardship. Archaeologists Wengrow and Graeber paint a more nuanced picture of early egalitarian cities and potentially hierarchical tribal structures. And yet which ever interpretation you prefer if you zoom out far enough it seems that hundreds of thousands of years of hunter gatherer human wisdom was largely cast aside once we became cemented in the civilisational mode. And such wisdom may very well contain the precise panacea for many of our current societal ills, namely our deep sense of alienation and our seeming inability to live in tune with the rest of the natural world.
Now this isn’t to suggest that life before civilisation was all smooth sailing. After all the prospect of being eaten alive by oversized house cats, the intermittent periods of starvation and the high risk of losing your loved ones during childbirth can't have been easy. The Anarcho-Primitivist John Zerzan sums it up well in saying 'it's right to suggest we should avoid idealizing pre-history and refrain from positing it as a state of perfection. On the other hand, hunter-gatherer life seems to have been marked, in general, by the longest and most successful adaptation to nature ever achieved by humans, a high degree of gender equality, an absence of organized violence, significant leisure time, an egalitarian ethos of sharing, and a disease-free robusticity. Thus it seems to me instructive and inspiring, even if imperfect and and perhaps never fully known to us.' (1)
In essence what Zerzan is saying is that there's much to be learned from this time tested way of life. And he's not the only one, the cosmologist Carl Sagan also points out that ‘most of human society was spent in hunter gatherer communities. And in these communities today - there aren’t many of them- you find a degree of cooperativeness, an absence of alienation that is unheard of in todays modern society. To ignore our social heredity is a serious mistake. There is human capacity for good natured cooperation that is simply not encouraged in modern society. That must change.’ (2)
And yet in many if not most educational institutions it appears the whole of prehistory is brushed over incredibly quickly. In my own schooling it was covered in a matter of days with the entire period being essentially reduced to the one dimensional stereotype of brutish cave people hurling rocks at each other. Whereas when it came to the Roman Empire we spent months carefully examining their roads, their military formations and their penchant for getting hammered while watching minority groups get even alive by lions. We took even more time exploring the stories of whatever nationalistic folk heroes best embodied the desired values of our incumbent politicians. In my case this involved learning all about eccentric and zealous European colonists who went on epic journeys through the Australian outback often before running out of supplies and killing one another.
Admittedly there is a much larger body of evidence from more recent historical periods which provides an increased level of granularity for us to study, but even taking this into account there is clearly a strong bias in most Western curriculums away from learning about our extensive prehistory and towards studying the relatively small period of time that we've lived in civilisation. If it's true that the winners write history and more importantly teach it why do they so often choose to present our species wide origins story and the few contemporary tribal cultures that remain as a mostly brutal and largely unimportant phase of our development? Might our curricula in the secular West be much more politicised than we care to admit? Might it somehow serve those dictating our current cultural narrative to avoid focussing in on a way of life where we lived in a much more egalitarian fashion?
Perhaps those in authority aren't quite ready to let go of seeing themselves and their national heroes as our saviours from such imagined 'barbarism'. Perhaps they aren't ready to face up to the fact that most of civilised history is the story of a select few using the levers of power (religion, economics and politics) to subjugate, control and profit from the vast majority of those at the bottom of the pyramid. They might not be ready to admit that imperial powers have continually violated, exploited and marginalised indigenous peoples. After three decades of studying hunter gatherer cultures the British anthropologist Hugh Brody aptly surmised in his book The Other Side Of Eden that ‘colonialism constitutes them [indigenous peoples] as ignoramuses – vessels to be filled with the truth.’
Thankfully a number of anthropologists have offered up a comprehensive understanding of the hunter gatherer lifestyle that is much more nuanced than the stereotype I was served up in school. And we are extremely fortunate that there is still a very small number of people living this way today, although their populations are rapidly dwindling. One estimate by conservationists places the number of minimally contacted tribes left in the world at around one hundred (3) with the large majority of them found in the Amazon rainforest and across parts of New Guinea. I think of these peoples as potential teachers and as a profoundly important link to a time when the entirety of our species was in a much deeper state of communion with themselves and their surrounding environment.
But such tribes haven't always been seen as sources of inspiration. Throughout the nineteenth and even into the twentieth century a large majority of Western scholars appeared to harbour simplistic and racist views of indigenous peoples and their societies. For example in the earliest forms of anthropology there was a commonly held belief that human societies developed through a natural progression from 'savagery' (the quality of being fierce or cruel) to 'barbarism' (an absence of culture, extreme cruelty and barbarism) before finally reaching the ultimate stage of 'civilisation'. Such loaded terminology speaks to the fact that indigenous peoples have long been viewed as inferior and framed as violent and brutish creatures void of culture and compassion. My own experience and much of the anthropology suggests that the exact opposite is true.
It took the ground breaking work of pioneers such as Franz Boas and Margaret Mead to prepare the soil for a whole new wave of anthropological insight that would emerge from the 1960’s onwards. Researchers began shedding light on the fact that many tribespeople work only two to three hours a day and spend most of their time relaxing and playing with their loved ones. As Marshall Sahlins wrote in his seminal essay The Original Affluent Society ‘Hunter-gatherers consume less energy per capita per year than any other group of human beings. Yet when you come to examine it the original affluent society was none other than the hunter’s - in which all the people’s material wants were easily satisfied. To accept that hunters are affluent is therefore to recognise that the present human condition of man slaving to bridge the gap between his unlimited wants and his insufficient means is a tragedy of modern times.’ (4)
For me the experience of first encountering this body of work was like discovering direct evidence of a real life utopia. As John Zerzan writes in his essay Future Primitive ‘a near complete reversal in anthropological orthodoxy has come about, with important implications. Now we can see that life before domestication/agriculture was in fact largely one of leisure, intimacy with nature, sensual wisdom, sexual equality, and health. This was our human nature, for a couple of million years, prior to enslavement by priests, kings, and bosses.’ (5) More recent accounts have continued to add nuance to our understanding of hunter gatherer societies. As Hugh Brody writes of his time in the Arctic ‘the thing about being with the Inuit is that you have a sense of being with the most gracious, most generous, most sophisticated of human beings. So far from being simple, they are very, very rich and complex.’ (6)
And remarkably such findings are not limited to just a few politically left leaning researchers. As the professor Peter Gray points out ‘if just one anthropologist had reported all this, we might assume that he or she was a starry-eyed romantic who was seeing things that weren’t really there, or was a liar. But many anthropologists, of all political stripes, regarding many different hunter-gatherer cultures, have told the same general story. There are some variations from culture to culture, of course, and not all of the cultures are quite as peaceful and fully egalitarian as others, but the generalities are the same. One anthropologist after another has been amazed by the degree of equality, individual autonomy, generous treatment of children, cooperation, and sharing in the hunter-gatherer culture that he or she studied. When you read about “warlike primitive tribes,” or about indigenous people who held slaves, or about tribal cultures with gross inequalities between men and women, you are not reading about band hunter-gatherers.’ (7)
When Peter Grey mentions ‘band hunter-gatherers’ he is referring to the fact that there are many different variants of hunter gatherer society and each has their own unique set of customs and cultures. However according to one interpretation they can all be broadly classified as either immediate return or delayed return hunter gatherer cultures. There is a significant difference in the way each of these two types of societies function that has profound implications for the level of egalitarianism experienced by each group.
I feel that if each of us in the modern world were to really sit with the implications of such findings we’d become increasingly inspired to radically evolve our current societal models. After all it turns out we don't need to engineer some as yet unexperienced techno-utopia, we just need to remember where we came from and return a little closer to our roots. Perhaps in the end, less really is more.
In Before Priests, Kings & Bosses Part Two I unpack the all important and little known difference between these two types of tribes.
Joe Lightfoot is a writer, podcaster and apprentice community weaver. He is the author of A Collective Blooming: The Rise Of The Mutual Aid Community and the host of The Lightfoot Podcast. You can sign up to his newsletter The Lightfoot Letter and find him on Facebook & Twitter.
1. http://www.primitivism.com/zerzan.html (Website now defunct)
2. Conversations with Carl Sagan, Edited by Tom Head, Pg 65, 2005
4. The Original Affluent Society, Marshall Sahlins, 1966, Link To The Essay
5. Future Primitive, John Zerzan, 2009, Link To The Essay
6. The Other Side Of Eden, Hugh Brody, 1999
7. How Hunter Gatherers Maintained Their Egalitarian Ways, Peter Gray, 2011, Link