Why Your Hunter-Gatherer Ancestors Lived Better Than You
Prehistoric man is an enigma to his modern progeny. We tend to think of life in the distant past as an unenviable thing; brutal, gloomy, and short. And, if we think of quality of life as simply the sum of material pleasures, then the hunter-gatherers undoubtedly had it rough. From the perspective of these prehistoric hunter-gatherers, however, material abundance meant nothing. Meaning was not derived from what things one owned, but what relationships one had and what contributions one could make. They needed not a thing in the world besides cohesion and community. And so, from the perspective of prehistoric hunter-gatherers, life was good.
How in the hell, then, did this contented mindset die out, and what does its dying mean for modern mankind? Before we delve into answering that, let us clear up the intention of this article. It is a bit of a provocative title, to be sure, but the ideas in here aren’t being put forward to promote any sort of ancestor worship or runaway nostalgia. Nor, to be absolutely certain, are they being put forward to promote any sort of ideology that advocates a return to the “glorious ways” of any of our “mighty forefathers”. They are being put forward to attempt to answer some of modernity’s most pressing questions. Why does everyone so fervently hate themselves and the world around them? And why does everything always seem to be getting worse?
The Way & Cyclical History
We must, of course, rewind to our beginnings for our answers. The prehistoric world was an unforgiving place; that much cannot be contested. And yet, we must remember that our ancestors were built precisely for the challenges of the age. Their minds were fortified; not by the revelations of science and the comforts of technology, like the modern man, but by concrete communities and solid doctrines. The communities provided the material needs for life. The doctrines provided immaterial needs for meaning in life. There was a Way in which men lived — synonymous with the Way of Nature oft-romanticized throughout time — and this Way guided them to satisfaction and resilience in everything they did. Their bodies, meanwhile — sculpted by the gradual hands of evolution — were adapted to deal with the exact environments they found themselves in. The lives they led were in no way easy, but their difficulties were neither new nor insurmountable. Winter. Drought. Disease. Conflict. All had been beaten countless thousands of times before, and the wisdom gained along the way ensured that hunter-gatherers, even if they never thrived, always survived.
Even our agricultural ancestors themselves, those who knew about the old hunter-gatherer way of life and yet refused to partake in it, seemed to recognize this. There is a theme, across world mythologies and philosophies, of history being two seemingly contradicting things simultaneously; cyclical and constantly decaying. Simply put, it’s the view that history moves in neverending cycles, with each successive cycle less impressive than the last. As Marx succinctly states in his Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
The Fall of Man & Comparative Mythology
We see such ideas coming up countless times over in world mythology. Hesiod, and later Ovid, had the Ages of Man. Ovid tells of the first age as the Golden Age of a pre-agricultural peace, the second as the Silver Age of early agriculture, the third as the Bronze Age of discontent and conflict, and the fourth as the ongoing Iron Age of total immorality. In the Norse tradition, the famed Ragnarök is not thought to be the permanent end of existence, as it so often portrayed. Instead, it is the end of one world — the collapse of one World Tree — and the subsequent sprouting of another, thus being an outing of the old and introduction of the new. The Hindus, too, have a take on this in their famed Yugas. In these, we find a very similar idea; the world goes through a four-age cycle, beginning with Satya Yuga and ending with Kali Yuga, in which mankind gradually degenerates until a reversal of fates with the renewal of the cycle. Even the Buddhists, in their Three Ages, and the Abrahamic faiths, in their Fall of Man, propagate similar ideas, so we may see that this philosophy of history is truly universal.
In the modern era, too, one of our most celebrated mythmakers — the father of fantasy himself, J. R. R. Tolkien — agreed with and expanded upon this assessment. If one reads The Lord of the Rings, and especially The Silmarillion, one finds themselves confronted by a strong sense of what most have deemed “nostalgia”, but what might better be described as “decay”. All around Middle-Earth, the great races of magic and majesty are retreating in favor of the mundanity of man. The cities and kingdoms are not nearly as great as in prior times. The villains and their armies are not nearly as terrible. Degradation is inescapable. Our theme of cyclical decay seems truly universal. But why? What’s so horrid about agriculture and industry that made it leave such a nasty scar on the body of man?
Agriculture and Industry on the Body
Physically speaking, farming gave people a brutal beating. The Agricultural Revolution and its consequences were a disaster for the human body. Average heights shrunk several inches. Diets drastically worsened, with an overbearing barrage of grains replacing a varied assortment of fruits, vegetables, and meats. Labor turned from the natural labor of the ever-active hunter-gatherer to the intensive and repetitive labor of the farmer. The human body was built for the forest, not the farm, and thus, the switch was crippling. And then, just as natural selection was starting to adjust to this radical shift, humanity went and did it again. Pollution. Processed foods. Constant sitting. Lack of exercise. The Industrial Revolution has yet to run its course in terms of impacting our health, but once the dust has settled, it is sure to do just as much damage (if not even more) than its revolutionary forefather.
All of these physical consequences are nothing, however, compared to the social consequences. Almost every single social structure and mental attitude we take for granted is a direct result of agriculture and industry. Thus, the lens of progress blinds us to the truth. But what a grand old thing progress is! What wonders it has bestowed upon the world! Until, that is, the cold hands of hierarchy grasp your shoulders. Followed by inequality. Slavery. Warfare. Greed. And, most terrible of all, mediocrity. The agricultural and industrial eras did, indeed, bring about innumerable innovations, but these innovations have always, first and foremost, been the benefits of wealth. The many, meanwhile, toil endlessly away, getting to enjoy evermore material toys but everless immaterial satisfaction and mental health.
Agriculture and Industry on the Mind
And, just as society degrades the body, it imprisons the mind. Stability and conformity to a society’s norms is crucial to said society’s survival. Thus, when someone inevitably does rock the boat, society reacts in one of two ways; they either adapt or destroy this new revolutionary. There’s a reason true revolutions are so few and far between in human history, and it’s because societies have complex power structures designed to keep the current system in place at all costs. Hunter-gatherer tribes treated their thinkers like they treated everybody else; appreciated when helpful and forgiven when not. Organized societies, meanwhile, have a nasty tendency to kill their thinkers. The philosophers. The prophets. The reformers and the revolutionaries. Slaughtered and plopped in a pile. In the pre-agricultural era, disruptive dissenters were simply severed from the tribe. In the post-agricultural era, they were (and are) totally destroyed for their dissent.
And so, society has bred two new breeds of man; first, the docile farmer, too busy surviving to run any risks, and second, the dependent laborer, too intertwined with the rest of the world to disobey its orders. The bold heroes of eons long gone have gradually been replaced with mediocre people. The agency of man has been diminished nearly into nothingness. Where liberty and ambition once ran free, regulation and complacency now reign supreme. The modern man is a slave to his own brothers and a prisoner in his own world. Happy and healthy individuals have turned into conflicted and sickened shells of themselves. Tight-knit communities with unambiguous beliefs have turned into dangerous nations with tumultuous cultures. Our open fields and sparkling waters have turned into guarded farms and polluted sludges. In short, society rewards a life of conformity and discourages the life we’re wired to live.
The Pull of Religion
So why, then, did humanity move from the forest to the farm in the first place? What could possibly justify such crushing suffering? A Neolithic complex in modern-day Turkey — as famous as it is mysterious — might provide the answer. This is, of course, Göbekli Tepe, a site containing a series of megaliths arranged in elaborate layouts and detailed with intricate depictions of pictograms, animals, and even human-animal hybrids. It was an unprecedented discovery when first found, predating Stonehenge by 7,000 years and the Great Pyramid of Giza by 7,500. Naturally, this has made it a source of mighty archaeological intrigue for decades. And, although a plethora of theories exist on the purpose behind the site, Klaus Schmidt, the discoverer of the site, formulated the most enduring. As is summed up by the Smithsonian, “to Schmidt and others, these new findings suggest a novel theory of civilization. Scholars have long believed that only after people learned to farm and live in settled communities did they have the time, organization and resources to construct temples and support complicated social structures. But Schmidt argues it was the other way around: the extensive, coordinated effort to build the monoliths literally laid the groundwork for the development of complex societies.”
It was, then, not agriculture that really kickstarted the Agricultural Revolution, but religion. The search for meaning, as it turns out, was itself the meaning behind the catapulting of man into modernity. It’s a startling thing to think about. Even in the distant days of 10,000 BC, people’s lives were driven by the very same search for meaning that drives their descendants today. Some things never change. Now, this obviously ignores the needs that drove the second revolution of our study. The monetary motives behind the Industrial Revolution aren’t half as poetic as the religious ones behind the Agricultural Revolution. The gorgeousness of gold is, after all, a disgusting thing. It is to be expected, however, that our second revolution was not as all-meaningful as the first. If the Agricultural Revolution was a tragedy, then the Industrial Revolution was its accompanying farce.
The Pull of Power
Still, if the Agricultural Revolution really was such a tumultuous booting from a preceding Garden of Eden, then why wasn’t it ever reversed? If the farm is so bad, then why didn’t man ever abandon it to return to the forest? As with all societal crimes, the perpetrator was power. Organized society, shockingly, requires organization. Somebody has to call the shots to ensure that everything gets done. And, so it would seem, the default mode of complex societal organization is top-down hierarchy. One man makes the rules. Everybody else obeys or dies. Now obviously, the esteemed seat at the top of the proverbial pyramid wasn’t just given to the person who asked for it with the prettiest puppy eyes. In fact, archaeology suggests that the ancients let their obsession with meaning drive their politics, as well. The power of the temple slowly turned into the power of said temple’s priest, and the power of the priest slowly turned into the power of the priest-king. Thus we see that hunter-gatherers’ permanent need for meaning directly led to farmers’ permanent entrapment by monarchy. Where power appears, rarely does it ever disappear. As Lord Acton so famously declared, “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Organized societies, despite their downsides, never disintegrated to return to the freedom of the forest, for those controlling them refused to ever let them do so. Progress is a one-way street.
And so we see that the most monumental issue of modernity is that humanity is now one big fish out of water, for we ourselves dried up the river in which we used to live. There is no going back. There is no reverting to the ways of the ancients. We can’t just dump more water on the cracking river bed and expect everything to be alright. But, perhaps, humanity has not yet wholly doomed itself. Perhaps, the primordial pursuit of meaning wasn’t fruitless after all.
The meaning sought by our ancestors as they made the change to agriculture might really be right around the corner. Maybe — just maybe — history is a tunnel — a transitionary period — between the primitive light of prehistory and the futuristic light of posthistory. The golden sun sits in the distance behind us, finding itself evermore outshined by the blinding colors of encroaching LEDs. The tide has already turned on our physical well-being. In the past few hundred years, we’ve gone from an age where diets were horrid and disease was rampant to one where our health and medicine are more formidable than ever. Perhaps the tide is soon to somehow turn on our mental well-being, as well; with the pressures of modernity wreaking such total havoc in the minds of the masses, surely we are soon to hit rock bottom. And, once one has hit rock bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up.
Thus, it seems your ancestors may, indeed, have been better than you. But that’s okay, because your descendants will be, too.
References & Further Learning
© 2020 JW Barlament