Why you want to be a hunter-gatherer

At some period we were all taught that there was an orderly progression from the amoeba to the amphibian to the anthropoid to the agnostic.  Every stage was better than the last, and life was nasty, brutish and short up till the reign of Victoria, not to mention outside her domain.

This framework started to be questioned at about the same time the “primitives” were studied in detail, by researchers such as Max Muller in linguistics, and Frank Boas in anthropology.  We’ve made great strides in repudiating the racism of the earlier view– the idea that some ethnicities are Just Better– but the chronological snobbery doesn’t look so good these days either.

A lot of people never got the memo, however.  I was rather surprised to get into a discussion recently with someone who was convinced that the life of “savages” was “awful”, to use his terms.  So for conworlding purposes if nothing else, I thought it’d be useful to review the case for the hunter/gatherer lifestyle.  (Also see the Planet Construction Kit, p 92.)

I should add that these are by no means my own cranky observations; they’re pretty much standard among modern anthropologists.  Here’s the way Tim Flannery puts it:

And therein lies a paradox– one which is shared with the ants– that while agricultural societies are powerful, they are composed almost entirely of incompetent individuals.

To gain the meaning of this in full measure, just compare a day in your life with that of a hunter-gatherer such as an Australian Aborigine.  On rising each morning Aborigines must find and catch their own food, make or repair their tools and shelter, and defend and educate their families.  They are thus their own provider, manufacturer and protector.  Put in an Aborigine’s place, we’d be as lost as white rabbits in the wilderness; our tenure in the world most likely counted in days rather than months.

The reverse, however, is not true.  History shows that hunter-gatherers can learn to do any of the jobs our society offers.  I’ve flown in a helicopter piloted by a  New Guinean who was born into a traditional society all but innocent of metal.  And history is replete with examples of acaemically gifted Native Americans and Aborigines– like John Bungaree, who topped the class in mathematics, geography and writing in early-nineteenth-century Sydney.  There are even a few examples of hunter-gatherers giving farming a try.  But regardless of their accomplishments, almost all of these went back to their own culture.  The truth is that hunter-gatherers find the loss of liberty we routinely endure to be insufferable.

Some of the advantages of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle:

  • It’s far healhier than farming.  People live longer and eat better than people in any premodern agricultural civilization.
  • It’s almost absurdly egalitarian.  Leaders can’t tyrannize people who can easily wander off on their own.  You don’t have social classes, there is generally an ethic of sharing, and the status of women is better than among agriculturalists.
  • Women were not overburdened with children.  Agriculturalist women have children every year or two; children are spaced out by about 4 years among hunter-gatherers.
  • Most of our most virulent disesases come from our animals, so hunter-gatherers have less disease.
  • The work week was short.  Daniel Everett reports that the Piraha work only 15 to 20 hours a week. 
  • They enjoyed a physical fitness most of us can only envy, not only because they got plenty of exercise, but because their diet was precisely what we’ve evolved to thrive on.
  • Their lifestyle is sustainable over enormous time periods.  We or similar species have been hunting for two million years, without coming near destroying the planet or running out of key resources.  The modern world, with its world wars and oil addiction and global warming, might be a giddy, enormously destructive bubble.
  • Civilization may make us dumber.  Maciej Henneberg reports that humans seem to have lost 10% of their brain mass since the Ice Age.

Of course hunter-gatherers don’t have Shakespeare, Team Fortress 2, calculus, candy corn, or the Beatles.   So I’d hate to switch places with them, and probably you would too.  But this preference is largely parochialism.  Of course we’re used to the things we have, the people we know, everything that goes with our lifestyle.  Hunter-gatherers often understand agriculture quite well, but don’t see the point of living like that.

Once agriculture took over, it wasn’t possible to go back– the hunter-gatherer lifestyle can’t support a high-density population.  But the simple truth is that till roughly 1800, the lifestyle of the majority didn’t improve and was measurably worse in many ways than that of the hunter-gatherers.  The nicer bits of preindustrial civilizations were largely restricted to the top 10 or 20%.  (And even the elite lived really unhealthily.  Premodern cities were mortality sinks: more people died in them than were born; they only increased in size because of immigration.)

Now, industrialization changed everything.  Living standards have gone up for everyone, and the benefits of civilization can be widely enjoyed.  We’re almost as healthy as hunter-gatherers, though we have only a fraction of the leisure time.  But to borrow a line from Zhou Enlai, it’s too early to tell if civilization is a good idea.  There’s no technical reason we can’t extend this bubble of prosperity and productivity, but there’s little political will.  “Had a nice run for 300 years, RIP” would be a pathetic epitaph for civilization, and the two million years of hunting/gathering would look pretty good in comparison.

The hunter-gatherer era wasn’t utopia, of course– especially if you import modern standards.  It’s been suggested that there was a lot of violence– though we really don’t have much evidence.  But, well, there’s a lot of violence in agricultural states and their cities; there’s a lot of violence in industrial states; there’s a lot of violence in the animal kingdom.  As Gregory Clark points out, violence was an important check on population growth.  It’s usually a bad idea to take some aspect of a ‘primitive’ lifestyle that offends us and try to eliminate it.  Cultures live in a balance with their environment, and sometimes those offensive bits are key parts of the system. 

Now, what do you do with this information?  Well, for one thing, knowledge is good.  It’s good to learn the facts in place of the smug pieties we learned in school.  For another, getting past our parochialism is also good.  There’s nothing with preferring our own environment, but it’s all too easy to construct ideologies or conworlds that are simply projections of our own surroundings. 

Sometimes we might actually imitate others.  The all-around fitness of the hunter-gatherer is admirable and can inspire athleticism today– parkour is partly inspired by African societies.  Some people try diets inspired by those of hunter-gatherers.  Maybe you just need to walk more.

In my sf future, the Incatena, there are planets which try to incorporate some of the best features of the ancestral environment: small settlements, the use of materials from the ecosphere, a structured reliance on frequent and varied physical exercise.  (Of course, others say the hell with it and adapt their bodies and minds to live in deep space habitats.)