Before Priests, Kings & Bosses Part Three: Eleven Life Lessons From The Original Egalitarians
Artwork by Arrow Bow
I often wonder what it was like to have lived in the tribe that first painted the caves at Lascaux over 20,000 years ago. Was dancing around the fire with your kin in reverent gratitude for a successful hunt as nourishing as it sounds? Was Palaeolithic mating, mushrooms and drumming as much fun as modern day sex, drugs and rock and roll? And did we already have an intense obsession with the constant progression of our technology?
If you have a hard time imagining what it was like back then you’re not alone. As the anthropologist E.S Burch put it “immediate-return or generalized hunter-gather societies are so unlike all others that..it is difficult even for anthropologists who have not personally experienced one to conceive how they can exist; it is almost impossible for non-anthropologists to do so”. (1)
But if we’re up for the challenge then a good place to start is with the words of Kevin Duffy, an anthropologist who lived with the Mbuti in the Eastern Congo. ‘Try to imagine a way of life where land, shelter, and food are free, and where there are no leaders, bosses, politics, organized crime, taxes, or laws. Add to this the benefits of being part of a society where everything is shared, where there are no rich people and no poor people, and where happiness does not mean the accumulation of material possessions.’ (2) Most of us are so divorced from our own tribal lineage that Duffy's words sound more like science fiction than they do a description of our shared heritage as a species.
So what did a typical day in the life of the more egalitarian of our ancient tribal relatives really look like?
Based on the archeological record and studies of more recent tribal cultures the literature suggests it would’ve likely included foraging and hunting for food, preparing meals, taking care of and playing with children, repairing or making tools, moving camp and preparing for celebrations. With a large chunk of time spent relaxing, resting, socialising and enjoying each others company. As Hole & Flannery (1994) noted “no group on earth has more leisure time than hunters and gatherers, who spend it primarily on games, conversation and relaxing.” (3) Such reports tell the story of a lifestyle that appears to have a much healthier balance between time spent in what could be thought of as more receptive ‘states of being’ versus more preoccupied ‘states of doing’ which is in stark contrast to the frenetic rush many of us experience in the more fast paced, productivity fixated and ‘progress’ oriented modern world.
And while Palaeolithic diets and movement regimes have become popular in recent years I believe there is much wisdom to be found beyond the more easily commodified realms of nutrition and exercise. And so what follows is an exploratory but by no means comprehensive list of anthropological insights around the kinds of lessons we might be able to learn from cultures that still practice a hunter gatherer way of life.
Complexity Informed Culture
Sustained Ecological Equilibrium
Egalitarianism & Ego Checking
Mindfulness, Simplicity & Presence
Personal Autonomy & Interdependence
Playfulness & Joy
Sharing & Giving Economies
There are a number of child rearing techniques practiced in hunter gatherer societies that seem highly beneficial and perhaps even essential to the development of healthy individuals. Some of these methods of infant and child care are outlined by Jean Liedeloff in the book the Continuum Concept which she wrote after spending a number of years living with tribes in the Venezuelan amazon. The practices include not separating babies from their mothers directly after birth, close and constant contact between child and parent for the first several months of the babies life and immediate responses to the children’s needs without showing them undue concern or making them the constant centre of attention.
Perhaps one of the most important aspects is cultivating a deep sense of trust that the child is innately social and cooperative and already has strong self preservation instincts that can be depended upon. In the Panen tribe of Sarawak once children are over three years of age they are largely encouraged to go where they like which means they’re not confined to the limits of a nuclear household which may contain a tired or irritated parent. Naturally this instills the child with very high levels of freedom and autonomy from a young age.
A Different Kind Of Complexity
Tyson Yunkaporta’s book Sand Talk spells out just how deeply woven the concepts of Complexity Theory are throughout Indigenous culture. As Yunkaporta puts it ‘we don’t have a word for non-linear in our languages because nobody would consider travelling, thinking or talking in a straight path in the first place. The winding path is just how a path is, and therefore it needs no name’. (4) This kind of cognition represents a very different approach to the kind of cultural sense making seen in modern day institutions.
The indigenous comprehension of being a living part of a much larger complex adaptive system as a person that continually creates and is created by their landscapes and skies is in stark contrast to the hyper individualised and often reductionist mentality that tends to be the default mode across most of the modern world. While in the last couple of generations some of the more integrative and progressive thinkers in the West have begun deeply exploring the wisdom of complexity such domains of might be said to have been the embodied experience of tribal peoples for tens of thousands of years.
After conducting a meta analysis of the research into how hunter gatherer societies both teach and learn the psychology professor Peter Gray concluded that such cultures have a uniquely distinct approach to education. He surmised that:
Hunter Gatherers have much to learn and many skills to master before they mature into capable members of their tribe.
They learn it all without being formally taught.
They provide their young ones with a lot of time to play and explore.
The children learn through watching adults and then incorporating these activities into their play time.
There is a lot of free age mixing.
There is a less bullying.
There is a degree of immersion in the direct democratic processes of the wider group from a young age.
Humans come into the world with strong instincts designed to help us learn, and that hunter gatherer culture is an ideal context to let them naturally unfold.
Egalitarianism & Ego Checking
Most hunter gatherer societies experience a very high degree of social and political cohesion. As the author Murray Bookchin points out 'they provide compelling evidence of the malleability of human behaviour in contrast to the myth that competition and greed are innate human attributes’. (5) In many instances everyone is consistently provided with food no matter how much effort was put in by particular individuals, which reveals how such tribes live much closer in line with the maxim ‘to each according to their need, from each according to their ability’.
There are also a number of intricate cultural practices for ensuring certain individuals do not accumulate too much power. For example the Mbdjele women of the Congo assume power and then relinquish it in order to restore balance through a playful process of singing and dancing known as Masana. They have a special verb pronounced Sang-an-yenjo for the process of ‘mixing their bodies up’ during which they lay intermingled with others singing in overlapping harmonies. As one Mbjele woman put it ‘thats what love is, it’s joy for all, when you share and everyone is doing well it makes you happy’. (6)
These societies saw the more domineering and aggressive aspects of human nature as a serious threat to the health of their society. In moments when such elements were most likely to manifest they put into effect elaborate protocols in order to help deter the formation of any oppressive hierarchies. These are known as reverse dominance hierarchies and one example is that after a hunt often the person to have killed the animal is encouraged to stay quiet and humble rather than brag about their achievements. If they become too egoic and proud then they are often ridiculed or shunned by the group as a means of discipline.
The anthropologist Christopher Poem theorised that this 'egalitarianism does not result from the mere absence of hierarchy, as is commonly assumed. Rather egalitarianism involves a very special type of hierarchy, a curious type that is based on anti hierarchical feelings.' (7) In other words it's not just a kind of surface level social policy layered on top of a fundamentally inequitable system, but rather a philosophical and cultural commitment to equity from the ground up.
Hunter Gatherers tend to experience a much higher degree of gender equality than is found in many parts of the world today. A recent study published in the journal Science suggested ‘there is still this wider perception that hunter-gatherers are more macho or male-dominated. We’d argue it was only with the emergence of agriculture, when people could start to accumulate resources, that inequality emerged.’ (8)
This thesis was further reinforced in 2020 when archeologists in Peru unearthed the remains of a highly decorated and accomplished female hunter. This added weight to the idea that in such cultures the roles of hunting, gathering and child rearing were more evenly distributed across genders than we see in many present day cultures. And in more recent studies of immediate return hunter gather tribes it appears that while there is a loose division of labour along gender line this tends not to translate into a pervasive sense of domination due to the underlying cultural ethics of equity and egalitarianism.
In many Hunter Gatherer tribes rites of initiation play a pivotal role in the culture. They provide important psychological milestones for each individual and allow the wider community to witness and validate key transitions in each others lives. They also serve to reinforce the shared values of the culture, fostering a sense of inclusivity and encouraging younger members of the tribe to channel their more strident energies towards a higher ideal or greater cause such as the overall well being of the tribe. In his book the Rites & Symbols Of Initiation the historian Mircea Elidae outlines some other key psychological benefits of such rituals:
They serve the function of opening up the initiate to wider transpersonal values and provide an opportunity for them to have a direct experience of the Numinous.
They act as distinct moments of transformation between various stages of life.
They create liminal experiences that allow for the deeper wisdom of the culture to be transmitted to the individual.
They provide an opportunity for initiates to face up to their own mortality through the practice of ritual death.
Mindfulness, Simplicity & Presence
To survive as a hunter gatherer you must be fully attuned to your surrounding environment and this has the secondary effect of situating you well and truly in the present moment. So it’s no surprise that people living in these societies appear to spend a lot more of their time in the here and now as opposed to ruminating on the past or the future. The emerging field of psychoneuroimmunology has revealed to us that such states of mindfulness can help better regulate the human nervous system and tend to lead to greater levels of physical and mental wellbeing. What we now refer to as mindfulness practices appeared to have permeated almost every aspect of the hunter gatherer way of life.
Personal Autonomy & Interdependence
Most of us in the modern world no longer have the ability to directly feed, shelter, heal or protect ourselves as we tend to outsource these functions to designated experts or professionals. While we’ve created giant institutions that allow for unprecedented levels of mass coordination we’ve also given birth to gargantuan bureaucracies that can often leave us feeling powerless and even largely redundant. And for these reasons compared to our hunter gatherer ancestors I’d suggest most of us are sorely lacking in personal autonomy.
As the anthropologist Paul Radin notes ‘if I were asked to state briefly and succinctly what are the outstanding features of aboriginal civilisations, I, for one, would have no hesitation in answering that there are three: the respect for the individual, irrespective of age or sex, the amazing degree of social and political integration achieved by the group. And the existence of a concept of personal security which transcends all governmental forms and all tribal and group interested and conflicts.’ (9)
The Batek tribe from Malaysia also embody these same qualities. As the anthropologists Kirk and Karen Endicott point out they are of particular interest because ‘like Nietzsche, the Batek also have an image of the perfect human. For them, it is someone who is highly cooperative but also self-reliant and autonomous. A Batek-inspired exceptionalism, however, would be one where self-overcoming and self-constructed meaning recognize the necessity of human inter-dependence. Needing others in order to grow, achieve, and realize our full potential is not an extrinsic, socially-imposed dogma. It is simply a human fact. Recognizing that fact does not limit us. It frees us.’
What’s even more fascinating is that such cultures often also extend their sense of equity, inclusion and generosity far beyond their direct family clusters with ‘a large-scale assessment of contemporary hunter-gatherer societies establishing a consistent pattern of unrelated individuals living together.’ (10) Combining a well developed sense of personal autonomy, with a deeply cherished belief in power interdependence and then extending this far beyond familial relations is a recipe for a very different kind of societal structure than we see in much of the world today.
Playfulness & Joy
Hunter Gatherers create cultures that encourage the playful side of human nature. This not only makes life more fun but it's also one of the reasons such powerfully cooperative and egalitarian social structures can emerge in the first place. Such a mindset goes right to the heart of their philosophy and is reflected in the fact that often even their religious ceremonies and their relationships with their deities are imbued with a sense of frivolity and humour.
Psychologist and researcher Peter Gray surmises that ‘hunter-gatherer bands, with their fluid membership, are likened to social-play groups, which people could freely join or leave...[they] used humour, deliberately, to maintain equality and stop quarrels. Their means of sharing had game like qualities. They maintained playful attitudes in their hunting, gathering, and other sustenance activities, partly by allowing each person to choose when, how, and how much they would engage in such activities...Play, in other mammals as well as in humans, counteracts tendencies toward dominance, and hunter-gatherers appear to have promoted play quite deliberately for that purpose.' (11) .
Naturally such a sense of playfulness also results in feelings of lightness and ease. As Colin Turnbull writes of the Mbuti in the Congo ‘They were a people who had found in the forest something that made their life more than just worth living, something that made it, with all its hardships and problems and tragedies, a wonderful thing full of joy and happiness and free of care. (12)
Sharing & Giving Economies
Hunter gatherer economies are based primarily on sharing and giving and this produces a very different cultural substrate to the one we see underpinning modern day systems of capitalism. As the anthropologist Lorna Marshall writes ‘the custom of gift giving comes, in my opinion, second only to meat sharing in aiding the !Kung to avoid jealousy and ill will to develop in relationships. !Kung society puts considerable emphasis on gift-giving. Everything a person has may have been given to him and may be passed on to others in time..they last for generations and move in a slow eddy among the people.’ (13)
I find it difficult to imagine what it must be like to live in a world where everything we own had been gifted to us and would then be gifted on in turn. A tribeswoman that Lorna once interviewed shared that 'if people do not like each other but one gives a gift and the other must accept, this brings a peace between them. We give to one another always. We give what we have. This is the way we live together.’ (14)
Sustained Ecological Equilibrium
Perhaps one of the most important lessons we can learn from these cultures is the art of living in balance with our surrounding ecologies for tens of thousands of years. After a member of the Panen tribe visited modern society he reflected that ‘people say its good to travel by plane or by car, but as I see it if its not something I can guarantee for future generations, if it doesn’t last forever, I don’t want it. It’s not the same as the forest, that we can have until the end of time'. (15) This speaks to a deep wisdom and an innate understanding of what can be depended on and what may poison the lives of future ancestors. Such a way of thinking is also reflected in the Seventh Generation principle which is an Iriquois philosophy that suggests that every decision we make today should take into account the well being of the next seven generations.
While I’m yet to personally encounter a tribe of immediate return hunter gatherers I have been lucky enough to spend time with various native peoples around the world. And whenever I have I’ve always been left with the sense that they're in possession of a kind of wisdom that we are sorely missing in modern society. I remember watching the children of Tibetan yak herders running wild high up in the Himalayas and being amazed by both the freedom they were given to explore their surroundings and the quiet care they were shown once they returned home. It was as if they would seamlessly fit into the gathering of adults preparing for dinner and receive an almost unspoken stream of loving attention without becoming the sole focus of the group.
Likewise I’ll never forget the sense of stillness in the eyes of a goat herding Berber deep in the Saharan Desert. After sharing a simple yet sublimely delicious meal together I wondered if I would ever experience the same sense of serene belonging that emanated from him as he tended to his flock and built his fire under the sea of stars. Similarly etched into my memory is the lighthearted joy of a village of indigenous tribespeople who lived a few hours boat ride into the Peruvian Amazon. I can still vividly recall the laughter and screams of happiness that came howling out of the men, women and children of all ages as we kicked an ancient soccer ball around a swampy soup of mud that passed for a pitch. They were all so busy having fun that they didn’t seem to care who was winning the game, while all along I was quietly trying to keep score in my head.
Each of these experiences exposed me to a way of living that is difficult to put into words. The people from such cultures emanated a kind of grounded presence, a resounding trust and confidence in their own abilities and an unwavering belief in their surrounding ecologies to provide for them. Unsurprisingly this also appeared to bring with it a kind of deep existential relaxation and relief. What was particularly intriguing to me was that after spending time in their presence I always felt a kind of nascent awakening of similar aspects of my own psyche.
After just a few days of living along side these people I would gradually begin reverting back to a way of being that felt much more in tune with my deepest nature, a state of mind that felt in stark contrast to the default mode of intense forward thinking momentum typical of the 21st century urbanised mindset. These experiences always gave me a sense that such instincts and inclinations are still very much a part of our collective psychology and are waiting patiently for the right contexts to once again come to the fore.
I believe there are ways for us to integrate the wisdom of these more egalitarian cultures into our modern lives. In fact I see it as the overarching design challenge of our time. A kind of metamorphosis we will need to undergo as we synthesise these two streams of wisdom and transcend the cycles of destruction and domination that have underwritten the last few thousand years of civilisation. By continuing our education into our shared history as hunter gatherers we can stay cognisant of the fact that living in such deep connection to ourselves, each other and our surrounding environments isn't some kind of utopian pipe dream but is in fact our heritage and is very much still available to us as a way of life if we commit to cultivating it.
Creating our own regenerative micro cultures and localised social ecosystems will allow us to experiment with the kinds of practices explored in this article. Obviously we will need to be creative in how we adapt and apply such principles in a more technology focused and market driven modern context, but I feel weaving new forms of community is an essential first step as practically all of these approaches to living require a baseline sense of familiarity between a semi stable group of people that share a high degree of trust.
So now that we have an over view of our shared origins as egalitarian hunter gatherers we can take a birds eye of view of life in modern day civilisation and see how the two compare in the fourth part of the series Between Priests, Kings & Bosses: An Unflinching Exploration Of The Best & Worst Of Civilisation.
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.
The future of hunter-gatherer research. E.S Burch, pp. 441–503, Oxford: Berg Publishers, 1994
Children Of The Forest, Kevin Duffy, Waveland Pr, 1995
Limited Wants, Unlimited Means: A Reader on Hunter-Gatherer Economics, John M. Gowdy, pp. 265, Island Press, 1998
Sand Talk, Tyson Yunkaporta, Text Publishing, 2019
Social Anarchism Or Lifestyle Anarchism, Murray Bookchin, 1995, Link
Tawai, Documentary, Bruce Parry, 2017
P2P Foundation Wiki, Reverse Dominance Hierarchies, Link
Sex equality can explain the unique social structure of hunter-gatherer bands, M. Dyble, Science Journal, 2015, Link
The Ecology Of Freedom, Murray Bookchin, pp. 56 Chesire Books, 1982
Science Magazine (article page not longer active)
Play as a Foundation for Hunter-Gatherer Social Existence, Peter Gray American Journal of Play, Vol. 1 - No. 4, 2009
The Forest People, Turnbull, pp. 25–26, 1962
The Kung Of Nyae Nyae, Lorna Marshall, pp. 241, Harvard University Press, 1976
The Kung Of Nyae Nyae, Lorna Marshall, pp. 245, Harvard University Press, 1976
Tawai, Documentary, Bruce Parry, 2017