A number of readers have scolded me for romanticizing gatherer-hunter cultures.
In response to that, I guess I would have to start by saying “romanticizing compared to what”? It would be hard to outdo modern, civilized humans for sheer, unbridled savagery. What kind of species could tolerate, and sometimes even celebrate:
Quite a piece of work we are, we ‘civilized’ humans. Do I think gatherer-hunter cultures were/are capable of this kind of atrocity? Most certainly. Do I think they actually committed such atrocities? I doubt it.
Those who rail against the depiction of gatherer-hunters as less savage than we will focus quickly on the fact that genetically, biologically, we are the same. And to the extent we are a product of our genes they are right. But humans, more than any other creature, are products not only of our genetic hardware but of our cultural software. Culture has allowed our behaviour to change much more quickly than our DNA, and that is a principal reason why we survived the many natural disasters, notably the ice ages that had much of Earth utterly uninhabitable as recently as 10,000 years ago (see chart above; see also this amazing site for a time-series of glaciation and plant cover in North America from deep ice age a mere 21,000 years ago to today). We have adapted to survive in unnaturally huge numbers in unnatural concentrations and in places our bodies were not meant to inhabit, by cultural rather than biological evolution. It is our culture, not our genetic makeup, that has enabled and allowed us to commit the litany of atrocities listed above.
So when I hear that tribal cultures performed animal blood sacrifices, mutilated the sexual organs of women, and enslaved and tortured their enemies, I am somewhat skeptical but willing to allow the possibility that their culture taught them this. But why? Gatherer-hunter humans lived in well-spaced-out communities, its women only had one child every five or six years so overpopulation and crowding into the neighbouring tribe’s homeland was rarely a problem, and they lived, for the most part, comfortable, leisurely lives (gathering and hunting an average of only an hour a day). So why, amid such abundance and ease, would they have cause to commit any of these heinous crimes? Out of boredom? I think not.
In A Language Older Than Words, Derrick Jensen writes:
What do you do, how tired do you get, when each day you struggle against an entire culture based on the normalization of trauma-inducing behaviour? There is no sanctuary.
And in Straw Dogs, John Gray writes:
For much of their history and all of prehistory, humans did not see themselves as being any different from the other animals among which they lived. Hunter-gatherers saw their prey as equals, if not superiors, and animals were worshipped as divinities in many traditional cultures. The humanist sense of a gulf between ourselves and other animals is an aberration. Feeble as it is today, the feeling of sharing a common destiny with other living things is embedded in the human psyche. Those who struggle to conserve what is left of the natural environment are moved by the love of living things, biophilia, the frail bond of feeling that ties humankind to the Earth.
The mass of mankind is ruled not by its own intermittent moral sensations, still less by self-interest, but by the needs of the moment. It seems fated to wreck the balance of life on Earth — and thereby to be the agent of its own destruction. What could be more hopeless than placing the Earth in the charge of this exceptionally destructive species? It is not of becoming the planet’s wise stewards that Earth-lovers dream, but of a time when humans have ceased to matter.
Humans use what they know to meet their most urgent needs — even if the result is ruin. When times are desperate they act to protect their offspring, to revenge themselves on enemies, or simply to give vent to their feelings. These are not flaws that can be remedied. Science cannot be used to reshape humankind in a more rational mould. The upshot of scientific inquiry is that humans cannot be other than irrational.
We commit the 17 types of atrocities catalogued above (and others even worse and more depressing I am not inclined to list) because it is in our nature and because our culture tolerates and even encourages it. That culture has overwritten our innate biophilia with an endless succession of new messages and imperatives. It has brainwashed us, or, more precisely, we have brainwashed ourselves to believe what we thought, with the best of intentions, we needed to believe to survive.
Unlike nature, we’re kind of new and inexperienced at programming behaviour, so in 30,000 years of this new civilization we somehow managed to brainwash most humans to believe that the whole planet was created by some guy who looks kinda like us, for our species’ exclusive use and benefit. And that there is only one correct way to behave and one set of valid beliefs and those that don’t accept them need to be conquered, suppressed, reprogrammed and/or exterminated. And that it is possible and advantageous to increase our human numbers and our per-capita consumption of resources indefinitely, because we’re so smart that by the time we run out of resources we’ll have invented new ones, that even defy our recently-discovered laws of thermodynamics, and that by the time we run out of space we’ll have invented ways to inhabit new worlds, by defying what we now know about gravity, time, and planetary habitability. And of course we’ll be immortal, like our imaginary deities, so we’ll have lots of time to figure all this out anyway, if those evil other guys will just stay in line and do what we tell them.
We all wanted to do the right thing. None of us is really happy about the 17 atrocities in the list above (though better they happen to those evil guys, who at least deserve what they get, than us good, righteous folks). Funny how they just don’t see it that way — they’ve really fooled themselves into thinking we’re evil and they’re good. We’d better bomb them some more and steal their weapons and their vital resources so they don’t get uppity. Besides, we need their cheap labour and cheap materials for our stuff.
Problem is, no one is really in control, and we don’t have the faintest idea what we’re doing. We’ve probably already exterminated the cures for most of the diseases that will ravage us in this century when we burned most of the rainforest down. The fact that species are disappearing and temperature is changing, thanks to us, at a rate much faster than any time period on the chart above is probably not a good sign. We’ve probably messed up the atmosphere enough that the incredibly long period of atmospheric and climatic stability we’ve benefited from over the last few thousand years, which is affected more by CO2 concentrations than any other factor, is likely to end quite suddenly and unpredictably in massive whipsaw swings that could make the time-series chart I referred to above look almost like it’s happening in real time.
Hey, why aren’t the guys in charge doing something about this? Whaddya mean there’s no one in charge? Why didn’t someone tell us about this? I bet it’s all those evil guys‘ fault. Good thing the Rapture is coming, huh?
So, yeah, there were no ‘noble savages’. The gatherer-hunters had it in themselves, when they had to to survive, to become us, and they did. In the process, they/we forgot how to live as part of the whole community of life on Earth, in balance, forgot that all-life-on-Earth is sacred for a reason that is rational, emotional, intuitive and evolutionary — it is our home, and until the day we know better than nature we cannot live without it, and cannot steward it ourselves. And that day will never come.
(to answer the frequent question from new or occasional readers: here’s what we should do about all this: technology needs, creating wilderness, creating a new economy, building communities, enabling communities, learning grace, other personal actions )