Originally published in New Dawn, no.95, March-April 2006.
If you asked them what life was like in prehistoric times, most people would conjure up an image like the famous opening scenes of 2001: Space Odyssey – groups of hairy savages grunting and jumping around, foaming at the mouth with aggression as they bash each over the heads with sticks.
We take it for granted that life was much harder then, a battle to survive, with everyone competing to find food, struggling against the elements, men fighting over women, and everyone dying young from disease or malnutrition.
A whole branch of science has grown up around this view of the human race’s early history. This is relatively new discipline of evolutionary psychology, which tries to explain all of the negative sides of human nature as adaptations which early people developed because they had some survival value. Evolutionary psychologists explain traits like selfishness and aggression in these terms. Life was such a struggle that only the most selfish and aggressive people survived and passed on their genes. The people with gentle and peaceful genes would have died out, simply because they would have lost out in the survival battle. Evolutionary psychologists see racism and war as natural too. It’s inevitable that different human groups should be hostile to one another, because once upon a time we were all living on the edge of starvation and fighting over limited resources. Any tendency to show sympathy for other groups would have reduced our own group’s survival chances.
But fortunately we don’t have to believe any of this crude nonsense. There is now a massive amount of archaeological and anthropological evidence which suggests that this view of the human race’s past is completely false. Life for prehistoric human beings was far less bleak than we might imagine.
Take the view that life was a struggle to survive . The evidence suggests that the lives of prehistoric human beings were a lot easier than those of the agricultural peoples who came after them. Until around 8000 BCE, all human beings lived as hunter-gatherers. They survived by hunting wild animals (the man’s job) and foraging for wild plants, nuts, fruit and vegetables (the woman’s job). When anthropologists began to look at how contemporary hunter-gatherers use their time, they were surprised to find that they only spent 12 to 20 hours per week searching for food – between a third and a half of the average modern working week! Because of this, the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins called hunter-gatherers the original affluent society. As he noted in his famous paper of that name, for hunter-gatherers, The food quest is so successful that half the time the people do not seem to know what to do with themselves.
Strange though it may sound – the diet of hunter-gatherers was better than many modern peoples’. Apart from the small amount of meat they ate (10%-20% of their diet), their diet was practically identical to that of a modern day vegan – no dairy products and a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, roots and nuts, all eaten raw (which nutrition experts tell us is the healthiest way to eat.) This partly explains why skeletons of ancient hunter-gatherers are surprisingly large and robust, and show few signs of degenerative diseases and tooth decay. As the anthropologist Richard Rudgley writes, We know from what they ate and the condition of their skeletons that the hunting people were, on the whole, in pretty good shape. The hunter-gatherers of Greece and Turkey had an average height of five feet ten inches for men and five feet six for women. But after the advent of agriculture, these had declined to five feet three and five feet one. An archaeological site in the lower Illinois Valley in central USA shows that when people started cultivating maize and switched to a settled lifestyle, there was an increase in infant mortality, stunted growth in adults, and a massive increase in diseases related to malnutrition.
Hunter-gatherers were much less vulnerable to disease than later peoples. In fact, until the advances of modern medicine and hygiene of the 19th and 20th centuries, they may well have suffered less from disease than any other human beings in history. Many of the diseases which we’re now susceptible to only actually arrived when we domesticated animals and started living close to them. Animals transmitted a whole host of diseases to us which we’d never been exposed to before. Pigs and ducks passed the flu on, horses gave us colds, cows gave us the pox and dogs gave us the measles. And later, when dairy products became a part of our diet, we increased our exposure to disease even more through drinking milk, which transmits at least 30 different diseases. In view of this, it’s not surprising that with the coming of agriculture, people’s life spans became shorter.
The transition from a nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life to a settled agricultural one began in the Middle East at around 8000 BCE, spreading into Europe and Asia over the following millennia (and developing independently in some places). Many of the world’s cultures have myths that refer an earlier time when life was much easier, and human beings were less materialistic and lived in harmony with nature and each other. In ancient Greece and Rome this was known as the Golden Age; in China it was the Age of Perfect Virtue, in India it was the Krita Yuga (Perfect Age); while the Judeo-Christian tradition has the story of the garden of Eden. These myths tell us that, either as a result of a long degeneration or a sudden and dramatic Fall , something went wrong . Life became much more difficult and full of suffering, and human nature became more corrupt. In Taoist terms, whereas the earliest human beings followed the Way of Heaven and were a part of the natural harmony of the universe, later human beings became separated from the Tao, and became selfish and calculating.
Many of these myths make clear references to the hunter-gatherer way of life – for example, the Greek historian Hesiod states that during the Golden Age the fruitful earth bore [human beings] abundant fruit without stint, while the early Indian text the Vaya Purana states that early human beings frequented the mountains and seas, and did not dwell in houses (i.e. they lived a non-sedentary way of life). The garden of Eden story suggests this too. Originally Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge, until they were forced to leave the garden and forced to work hard and sweat to make the soil produce anything. It appears that, at least in part, these myths are a kind of folk memory of the pre-agricultural way of life. The agricultural peoples who worked harder and longer, had shorter life spans and suffered from a lot more health problems must have looked at the old hunter-gatherer way of life as a kind of paradise.
Warfare and Social Oppression
There are other significant reasons why these peoples would have seen earlier times as a Golden Age. There is a great deal of evidence suggesting that prehistoric human beings were much less war-like than later peoples. Archaeological studies throughout the world have found hardly any evidence of warfare during the whole of the hunter-gatherer phase of history. There are, in fact, just two indisputable cases of group violence during all of these tens of thousands of years. A cluster of sites around the Nile Valley show some signs of violence from around 12,000 BCE. The site of Jebel Sahaba, for instance, has a grave containing the bodies of over 50 people who apparently died a violent death. And in south-east Australia, there are some signs of inter-tribal fighting – as well as of other kinds of social violence such as the cranial deformation of children – at several different sites dating from 11,000 and 7,000 BCE.
Lawrence Keeley’s book War Before Civilisation suggests several other examples of prehistoric violence and warfare, but all of these are dubious, and have been dismissed by other scholars. For example, Keeley sees cut marks on human bones as evidence of cannibalism, when these are more likely to be the result of prehistoric funeral rituals of cleaning bones of their flesh. He also interprets highly abstract and stylised drawings in caves in Australia as depicting battles, when they are open to wide variety of other interpretations. In this way, as the anthropologist R. Brian Ferguson remarks, Keeley’s rhetoric exceeds his evidence in implying war is old as humanity.
The lack of evidence for warfare is striking. There are no signs of violent death, no signs of damage or disruption by warfare, and although many other artefacts have been found, including massive numbers of tools and pots, there is a complete absence of weapons. As Ferguson points out, it is difficult to understand how war could have been common earlier in each area and remain so invisible. Archaeologists have discovered over 300 cave prehistoric art galleries , not one of which contains depictions of warfare, weapons or warriors. In the words of the anthropologist Richard Gabriel, For the first ninety-five thousand years after the Homo sapiens Stone age began [until 4,000 BC], there is no evidence that man engaged in war on any level, let alone on a level requiring organized group violence. There is little evidence of any killing at all.
There seems to have been equality between the sexes in prehistoric times too. The fact that women provided so much of the tribe’s food strongly suggests that they had equal status, since it’s difficult to see how they could have low status while performing such an important economic role. The healthy, open attitude ancient hunter-gatherers had to the human body and to sex – shown by the massive numbers of sexually explicit images and objects archaeologists have discovered – suggests this too, since the oppression of women appears to be closely linked to a sense of alienation from the human body, and a negative attitude to instincts and bodily processes.
Contemporary indigenous peoples are sexually egalitarian too. Before European conquest and colonisation, many of them traced descent and ownership of property through the mother’s rather than the father’s side of the family. And as the anthropologist Tim Ingold notes, in immediate return hunter-gatherer societies (that is, societies which live by immediately using any food or other resources they collect, rather than storing them for later use), men have no authority over women. Women usually choose their own marriage partners, decide what work they want to do and work whenever they choose to, and if a marriage breaks down they have custody rights over their children.
In prehistoric societies there were no status differences between individuals either. There were no different classes or castes, with people who had more power and possessions than others. For archaeologists, the most obvious signs of social inequality are differences in graves, in terms of size, position and the goods which are placed inside them. Later agricultural societies have larger, more central graves for more important people, which also have a lot more possessions inside them. Men generally have more important graves than women. But the graves of the ancient hunter-gatherers are strikingly uniform, with little or no size differences and little or no grave wealth.
Almost all contemporary hunter-gatherers show a striking absence of any of the characteristics that we associate with social inequality. The anthropologist James Woodburn speaks of the profound egalitarianism of immediate-return foraging peoples and emphasises that no other way of human life permits so great an emphasis on equality. Foraging peoples are also strikingly democratic. Most societies do operate with a leader of some kind, but their power is usually very limited, and they can easily be deposed if the rest of the group aren’t happy with their leadership. People don’t seek to be leaders – in fact if anybody does show signs of a desire for power and wealth they are usually barred from consideration as leaders. And even when a person becomes a leader, they don’t have the right to make decisions on their own. Decisions are made in co-operation with other respected members of the group.
The Ego Explosion
All of this strongly argues against the idea that prehistoric human being were brutes whose only concern was survival, and whose lives were full of cruelty and conflict, as men competed against each other for status and food and sex.
Warfare, social oppression and male domination – and an existence that was nasty, brutish and short – belong to a later phase of human history. Evidence from artwork, cemeteries and battle sites suggests that there was an eruption of these social pathologies during the 4th millennium BCE, starting in the Middle East and central Asia. The root cause of this change seems to have been environmental. Around this time massive areas of land which had been fertile for thousands of years started to turn into desert. This happened all over the Middle East and central Asia, creating the massive belt of arid or desert land which runs across from the Steppes of southern Russia to the Arabian and Iranian deserts. The groups who lived in the area – including the original Indo-Europeans and Semites – were forced to flee and look for new fertile lands, causing massive waves of migrations.
This environmental disaster seems to have changed the psyche of these peoples. Whereas before they had been peaceful and egalitarian, now they became aggressive, hierarchical and patriarchal. Over the following centuries. they spread over the Europe, Middle East and Asia, killing and conquering the peaceful Old World peoples they came across, including the civilisation of Old Europe (which was reconstructed by the archaeologist Marija Gimbutas). By 500 BCE, these peoples had more or less completely conquered the whole of Eurasia, leaving only a few indigenous peoples such as the Laplanders of Scandinavia, the tribal peoples of Siberia, and the indigenous peoples of the forests and hills of India. In mainland Europe the only surviving non-Indo-European indigenous peoples were the Basque people of northern Spain (who amazingly still survive today) and the Etruscans of Italy, who were soon to be wiped out by the Romans.
In my book The Fall, I try to explain how these people were (and are) different from the peaceful peoples who came before them. My theory is that the environmental catastrophe (the drying up their fertile lands) caused an Ego Explosion . These peoples developed a stronger and sharper sense of identity, or of individuality, which made them feel more separate to nature and to other people, and more liable to be aggressive and to lust after power and status. We – modern day Eurasians – are the descendents of these peoples, and we have inherited their strong sense of ego. This is still the main difference between us and indigenous unfallen peoples such as the Native Americans, Australian Aborigines and the peoples of Oceania, and the reason why they have much more respectful attitude to nature than us, and a more spiritual vision of the universe. Our strong sense of ego walls us off from other people and nature, makes us unable to sense the alive-ness of the world around us, and may ultimately be responsible for our extinction as a species.
However, there are some signs that, as a culture, we are slowly transcending the fallen psyche, and going beyond our ego-separateness. Over the last three hundred years or so, there has been a new spirit of empathy growing, which has led to less cruel treatment of children and animals, less severe punishments for criminals, the women’s movement, the abolition of slavery, the socialist movement, a new respect for nature, a more open and healthy attitude to sex and the human body and so on. And there has been a new sense of the sacred and of the possibility of self-transcendence, which has led to a massive upsurge of interest in esoteric/spiritual philosophies and practices like paganism, shamanism, Buddhism, meditation and so on. There are signs that we are reconnecting with nature, regaining our sense of the aliveness of the world and of the hidden mysteries of the cosmos. The characteristics of the prehistoric golden age may be slowly re-emerging. The only question is whether there is enough time left for these characteristics to emerge fully, before the old fallen psyche leads us to self-destruction.
The idea that human history is a gradual but continual progression – starting from a state of savagery, with generations slowly making technological and social advances and passing these down, and leading to the pinnacle of western European civilisation – is a leftover from the Victorian era, part of the same colonial mentality which saw primitive indigenous peoples as subhumans who could be justifiably conquered and killed. Rather than a progression, the last 6000 years of war, oppression, misery and hardship are the result of a painful degeneration from an earlier, healthier state. We may finally be moving forward now – but only in the sense of turning a full circle, and rekindling glimmers of ancient harmony.
- Sahlins, M. (1972) Stone Age Economics. New York: Aldine de Gruyter,. p.36.
- Rudgley, R. (2000) Secrets of the Stone Age. London: Random House, p. 36.
- Ferguson, R.B. (2000) The Causes and Origins of Primitive Warfare. Anthropological Quarterly, 73.3, 159-164, p.159.
- Gabriel, R. (1990) The Culture of War: Invention and Early Development. New York: Greenwood Press, p. 21.
- Ingold, T., Riches, D. & Woodburn, J. (Eds.). (1988) Hunters and Gatherers, Volume 2: Property, Power and Ideology. Oxford: Berg.
- Woodburn, J. (1982) ‘Egalitarian Societies.’ Man, 17, 431-51, p.432.