This is yet another in a series of posts on falsehoods. To refresh your memory, a falsehood is a belief held by a number of people that is in some way incorrect. That incorrectness may be blatant, it may be subtle, it may be conditional, it may be simple, it may be complex. But, the unraveling of the falshoodosity of the belief is a learning experience, if it is accomplished in a thoughtful manner and without too much sophistry. In order for a falsehood to “work” as a learning opportunity it is important to define the statement in terms of the thoughts the falsehood invokes in the target audience, which may be very different than the logic intrinsic to the statement itself. For instance, with the present falsehood, I will argue that civilizations actually are complex and primitive cultures actually are simple, when looked at in a certain way. However, most people look at this issue a different way, and get it wrong. Yes, I will be deconstructing some of your cherished beliefs if you are a run of the mill Caucasoido-occidentalonormative middle class suburbanite. Which I’m sure you’re not, but if you were…
Many people think of cultural evolution, or historical change, over the last several thousand years as being a shift from a hunting and gathering way of life, through various stages of development of agricultural or pastoral systems (growing plants and animals), through development of cities, irrigation systems, state societies, etc. Somewhere along the line what humans are doing could be described as “civiliation” and most people think of this transition as in increase in complexity. Some definitions of “civilization” that you would learn if you took a course in “the rise of civilization” include “increasing complexity” as one of the criteria for this economic, social, and cultural change.
Along with this belief comes another important concept: That the people who live in these developing civilizations needed to be able to deal with all this increasing complexity. People needed to be smarter, perhaps more adaptable, more long-range thinking, and so on. And along with that belief often comes the very personal belief than an individual who is part of one of these civilizations today might have: “I am a civilized person. Therefore I face challenges that my primitive hunter gatherer fore-bearers did not face. I live in a more complex world than has ever existed before. Indeed, I am this complex world. I. Am. Complex.”
Admit it. You were thinking that just now, weren’t you?
I’d like to offer a way of thinking about the difference between what we call “civilization” and what some people call “primitive cultures” that will be more useful and less falsehood-prone than the above simplified model. But first, I want to problemetize the word “primitive.” The word has connotations that are almost always associated with negative things. If you were to be compared to another person, in terms of your taste in clothing, your mental capacity, your talents and skills, your understanding of the world around you, your ideas, and so on, you would feel bad if in each of those comparisons those doing the comparison decided that you were primitive relative to the other person. From this I’m sure you get the idea, and I don’t think I really need to explain in great detail why primitive is negative.
Two of the most important areas where primitiveness is often assumed are morality/ethics and intelligence. If we go along with the hunter-gatherer vs civilization = primitive vs. not primitive concept, then it falls apart immediately. We don’t have IQ data on hunter-gatherers, but we do have some brain size data. Absolute and relative brain size is larger for hunter gatherer populations, both living and prehistorically. With respect to the moral/ethical side of things, that’s hard to judge because of cultural differences, poor sample size, and a complete absence of a comparative methodology that is not either trite or bankrupt. (Missionaries will tell you that the primitive people are morally inferior. Missionaries suck.) All I can tell you is that Stalin was not a hunter gatherer. Hitler was not a hunter gatherer. Kirk Cameron is not a hunter gatherer. And so on. None of the great moral or ethical transgressions that have been written down in the history books have anything to do with hunter gatherers. Assuming that they are morally inferior is just made up. At worst, there is no evidence pertaining to the question.
So let’s dispense with the term “primitive” society vs. civilization and switch to saying HGs (for hunter-gatherers) vs Western. Why not “civilized”? I’m sorry you asked that. You don’t really think you’re “civilized” just because you say you are, do you? Abu grave anybody? Fraternities? Astroturfers? Civilized? I don’t think so. Just “Western” will do for now although it may not be the best term, and in this sense we mean people who have lived over the last centuries in cities, states, industrially and technologically high energy consumption and industrially based cultures and economies, with the comparative sample we will use for this discussion being you and me, people who live in “the west” or something like it, have electricity, grocery stores, etc. etc.
So HG vs. Western.
The way I suggest we should best think about this comparison can be illustrated by using the simple case study of how one might go about getting a meal on the table. What do you, a Western person, need to do to have dinner and what does that entail, vs. what does a HG have to do.
At first gloss, this is where the “primitive people are simple but civilized people are complex” thing completely disintegrates. To get a meal on a table, a meal that has a piece of meat, a starch, and a vegetable or fruit, here’s what you have to do:
Step one: Open the refrigerator or freezer and take out a prepared meal in a box.
Step two: Put the meal in the microwave and set the timer and press start.
Step three: (Careful not to burn yourself!) take out the meal and put it on the table.
For a HG to get the same meal, the following has to happen:
Step one: The camp (that is the usual word we use for residential groupings of most foragers) divides up over the course of the day with different groups of people, or individuals, seeking out different types of food. The product of these efforts will later be shared.
Some of the men hang out for an hour or two fashioning pieces of equipment that they will need in their toolkit. Eventually they do some magic and get up and go hunting, with spears, bows and arrows, knives, traps, and other implements that they have manufactured and maintained themselves with materials they have gathered, some quite rare some more common. They will use these tools in a manner that only a lifetime of experience and training will allow. Some of the men are well known for specific techniques they’ve developed or advanced, some are known for being especially skilled at a particular aspect of hunting. They also have one or more properly trained dogs with them. Most likely the dogs were trained by a specialist in dog training.
They do some hunting magic.
Hunting can be done in a lot of ways, in groups or singly, but I wont’ go into that now. Suffice it to day that you need to know a lot of different steps and you need to be quite skilled to carry them out. So let’s say that step one is actually steps one through ten, which is probably an underestimate.
Step eleven: Some of the women do some magic and then go, with their children, to a clearing where they know there will probably be roots. They find the small, almost impossible to see vines of various plants coming from the ground and trailing up into the canopy overhead. Some of these vines lead to a root that is used for fish poison, and if you even touch the root you may get sick, so when you are foraging for food, you don’t want to accidentally dig it up. Other vines indicate roots that are not ready to dig up yet. The women consult with each other, and the older women instruct the younger women on some of the nuances, and they decide which plants to dig. They sharpen their digging sticks using a knife that they had sharpened earlier that day (the day before, one of them replaced the handle on the same knife) and dig up the roots. They package the roots up in a container skillfully made on the spot, and leave a bit of the roots attached to the vines and replace them in the holes they dug in a certain way so that the roots will regrow in the future. They do some more magic. When they bring the roots back they will have to be processed properly and cooked in a special manner. Even though these particular roots do not have the fish poison in them, they are still highly toxic and the very young and the very old, or the sick, can die from eating them if they are not properly processed.
Another group of women and two men who are disabled go to a stream. The do some magic. They build a two dams on the stream to isolate a 200 foot long section, and empty that section out using ‘buckets’ they skillfully fashion on the spot. When the stream is half empty, they mush the leaves of a nearby plant into the water, and this causes most of the fish to come to the surface, where they are harvested and wrapped up in packages skillfully made on the spot. Then they start to probe under the partly exposed bank for crustaceans and more fish. Two of the younger women are less careful and are badly shocked by an electric eel, but an older woman administers medicinal aid and explains how to avoid that next time. The women who are shocked do not think this is funny but everyone else does. As the women are finishing up this job, the two disabled men and one of the women gather up and package fruit fallen on the ground from a nearby tree, selecting only the fruits that are fresh and not munched on by the forest antelopes. They note, however, that the forest antelopes have been here, and plan to come back the next morning to set up an ambush.
OK, so that’s steps 11 through 64.
Eventually, after a few hours out foraging, all of the people manage to get back at roughly the same time. Two of the women who stayed in the camp hear people returning and skilfully stoke up their fires. Some of the children, as they return, are sent out to get more firewood. Some of the women take burning firebrands from the women who had stayed in camp to make their own fires. Water is fetched, food processed, food put into pots of clay that had been manufactured by some of the women a few months back, and one of the children comes back without water but instead a bunch of peppercorns from a nearby vine.
Eventually all of the food is processed and cooked. Not counting messing with the hunting implements in the morning, the entire process took four hours. And it was a hoot. This was a series of social events, jokes and stories were told, songs sung, tricks were played, people laughed until their sides hurt, people reminisced about a recently dead relative who had always liked to fish this particular stream (but got shocked by the eel that time and swore up and down for an hour, remember???). This wasn’t just a trip to the grocery store. It was the expression of a lifeway. Westerners pay extra money to spend a few days every few years doing this.
That was approximately steps 64 through 92.
You! Civilized person! Switch places with the hunter gatherers and see if you can make their meal. You would starve. You would die in the bush. You just would not be able to do it. Well, of course, this is a group effort, so that is an unfair comparison.
So, you, and 16 of your best friends and their kids and grandparents! Let’s see you do it! Well, no, you’d all starve. Eventually a group of “Westerns” might be able to learn how to do this, but if you sent a hundred such groups out into the bush to see how well they did (and equip them with books and videos showing how to do all that they need to know) they still starve or die of mishap long before they got the hang of it. They just would not be smart enough. They just would not be good enough.
On the other hand, if you take a forager and try to teach him or her to open a fridge and operate a microwave, he or she would probably starve to death as well, right?
Keep kidding yourself about that. In part two of this falsehood (yes, this is a two parter) we’ll look at the other side of the equation. For now, the immediate point should be apparent: When it comes to the basic daily task of putting food on the table, and for that matter for virtually all other daily tasks, you the Westerner can have the capacities of a relatively smart cucumber and you’d be fine, but in the hunter-gather world, it takes a team of highly trained experts working hard and working together doing very complex things every day to survive.