What If The Hunter-Gatherers Had It Right?

Itaipu Dam

Imagine it is 2114 and you are an astronaut–or even a resident–on the moon, floating a few feet above the dusty, gray surface. With a pair of ultra-powered Google Glasses you zoom in on areas of the Earth to voyeuristically observe human beings What are they doing? How do their homes look? What are they eating? How are communities assembled? What present-day inequities have evaporated?

These are the galaxy-based perspectives that people working in humanitarian, public interest, and community design must consider. Although each individual action can at times appear to contribute only at a small-scale, the collective actions taken amount to a larger, grander vision that hasn’t been openly discussed. Each vision most likely varies from person to person based on our history lessons, cultural conditionings, and societal biases picked up over the years.

Peering through the history and evolution of human societies can reveal what is truly essential for humans on earth. But what if the history we know and accept is warped?


Psychologist Christopher Ryan and psychiatrist Cacilda Jethá co-authored the book, Sex at Dawn, on the evolution of monogamy in humans and human mating systems. Along with anatomical, psychological, and biological insights, they manage to poke holes in our widely accepted views of societal evolution. First up to bat is the widely accepted perspective that “cavemen” lived a dark, arduous life plagued by limited access to food, sickness, and a short life span and only when humans learned to cultivate food was humanity on the upswing. Well, unfortunately, that tale is wrong.

Skeletal remains taken from various regions of the world dating to the transition from foraging to farming all tell the same story: increased famine, vitamin deficiency, stunted growth, radical reduction in life span, increased violence… little cause for celebration. For most people, we’ll see that the shift from foraging to farming was less a giant leap forward than a dizzying fall from grace.

Further to the point:

Chronic food shortages and scarcity-based economies are artifacts of social systems that arose with farming. In his introduction to Limited Wants, Unlimited Means, [John] Gowdy points to the central irony: “Hunter-gatherers… spent their abundant leisure time eating, drinking, playing, socializing— in short, doing the very things we associate with affluence.”

This warrants a reconsideration of our baseline. Perhaps it’s time we look beyond the agrarian economy to the time of the hunter-gatherer to understand ‘civilization’ and inform our efforts for the future. “Rooted in the openness of resources, the simplicity of the tools of production, the lack of non-transportable property, and the labile structure of the band,” these societies achieved egalitarianism. There are even modern-day hunter-gatherer societies that continue to thrive under the radar in places like China, India, Botswana, and Ecuador.

Although our current conditions won’t change rapidly, we have the opportunity to reconfigure our thinking on how to alleviate the inequities in food, water, education, and shelter. To begin this shift, consider this quote from anthropologist Marshall Sahlins:

Poverty is the invention of civilization.

For more eye-opening insights on sex, drugs, and human reality, I cannot recommend Sex at Dawn enough. Read it and let’s continue the discussion.

Image sources: YannArthusBertrand2.org, Amazon.com.

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