A blast from the past: A look at the hunter-gatherer lifestyle

No matter our age, we’ve certainly heard from people older than ourselves how much better everything was in the past. I will tell my children how great the 90s were while my parents roll their eyes. Older readers probably think nothing compared to the hippie days or disco nights of the 60s or 70s. Or maybe nothing compared to young slender Elvis in the 50s.

But go too far back and we all hit the brakes. Certainly our lives are better now than they were 250 years ago. The comforts of the Middle Ages can’t beat iPads and air conditioning. We often view history, and especially the human race, as progressive. We are getting better year after year. Our advancements are thought of as improvements. Tractors drive themselves and soon cars will too. The new iPhone 7 just came out and it’s most definitely better than iPhone 6. My house is 72 degrees all the time—no matter how hot or cold it is outside! But with all of the problems of the modern world we so often discuss, why are we so dismissive of the ways of the past?

A couple of books that I’ve read recently have touched on the subject of the lifestyle of the hunter-gatherer, which takes us back thousands of years, before agriculture. In Tribe, war journalist Sebastian Junger centers his focus on American soldiers’ experience with PTSD, and how social structures from hunter-gatherer tribes may help.

Junger’s thesis focuses on PTSD occurring as a result of soldiers’ disconnection from the society they serve. While overseas, soldiers live, work, and fight in smaller bands. They know each other, eat together, sleep in close proximity, and are accountable for one another. These living conditions are vastly different than modern American society, which has increasingly become centered on self. Neighbors often do not know each other, as we all focus on our work, our kids, our lives. High school students are encouraged to be thinking about their college choice, their career choice, their this and that. This focus on self creates a difficult transition for people coming from war. They lose that feeling of tribalism that is prevalent in the war zone, the feeling that was at the core of hunter-gatherer societies.

These groups were typically small and close-knit. In Sapiens (which aims to provide the arc of human history, which seems like a rather daunting task), Yuval Noah Harari writes that a person can only trust and know up to 150 people. Beyond that (and maybe below) we need structures, such as government or a managerial hierarchy. Tribes often shared in the raising of children (“it takes a village…”). They hunted together and shared the food (and their women). They provided for the sick and elderly (sometimes—other times, they were left tied to a tree to await their death). There was no need for government as the tribe members held each other accountable. A slacking member or mooch would be punished. Someone who would not share was ostracized. Today, people complain about the poor getting handouts and the rich hording money. But Junger points out that these acts were rare in a small tribe. Today in America, people break tax laws or commit Medicaid fraud because the victim—a group of over 300 million people—seems so impersonal.

Both Harari, from an evolutionary viewpoint, and Junger, from a social one, believe that we all yearn to some extent for the connectedness found in these bands. An interesting anecdote that Junger uses to illustrate this natural attraction comes from one of our own founding fathers. Benjamin Franklin noted that European settlers were leaving “civilized” life to live with Indians, but rarely did Indians join the settlers’ society.

We often have misperceptions of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle being burdened with a heavy workload because they could not depend upon machines or computers. But that was often not the case. In both books, the writers discuss the amount of leisure time afforded members of these tribes. While we are working 40+ hours per week to provide shelter and the “essentials” for a small family, hunter-gatherers often worked between 15 and 30 hours per week and spent the rest of the time playing and laughing. Even today, anthropologists studying the few hunter-gatherer tribes left on the planet remark at how much these people laugh. Their lives revolved (and still do) around relationships. Not success. Not possessions. But people.

Harari writes that contentedness is not the only benefit of such a lifestyle. While we are more intelligent as a collective society today, Harari claims that the breadth of knowledge, attention to detail, and fine motor skills possessed by individuals in hunter-gatherer bands were higher. Today, we are all so specialized, the entire labor force seemingly built like a Henry Ford factory.

While there was a high rate of infant mortality and life expectancy was not as long for these bands, they lived healthier lives. Studies of such cultures today show lower rates of obesity, heart disease, and cancer.

Not to gloss over all the problems with people who have or do live this way, I must point out that the incidence of being attacked by a lion and having your bones picked clean by a group of hyenas (and that’s before the vultures find your body) is/was higher in that form of society. They may not have dealt with chronic health issues but without the type of medical care we enjoy, minor infections or illnesses could send them to their graves. They often killed their young, either because they were a burden or as part of a religious ceremony. In addition, Harari points out that if one were to be ostracized, it was probably difficult to ever re-join or join another group. Life was far from perfect.

So these uncivilized, backward humans do have something to offer us. Despite my instruction, my kids will probably still remember the current time as the best time to have been alive. They’ll tell their kids about Playstations and Fitbits, mp3s and iPads.

And I’ll tell my grandkids about the great days of the 1990s—the 1990s B.C.

  1. Junger, S. (n.d.). Tribe: On homecoming and belonging
  2. Harari, Y. N. (n.d.). Sapiens: A brief history of humankind.
  3. Facts and Theories. Retrieved September 09, 2016, from http://hunter-gatherers.org/facts-and-theories.html
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