Primitive Cultures are Simple, while Civilization is Complex: Part 1

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 belief, even if much of that belief is in fact true, can be a learning experience in which future thinking about the issue is transformed. If the examination of the falsehood is accomplished in a thoughtful manner and without too much sophistry, this can be a rewarding experience. (If not, it can be rather awaste oftime.)

In order for a falsehood to "work" as a learning opportunity it is important to define it 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 eventually 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 in a manner that can be quite harmful. 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 over the last several thousand years as being a shift from a hunting and gathering way of life, through various of agricultural stages, the development of cities, irrigation systems, state societies, etc. Somewhere along the line what humans are doing could start to be described as "civiliation" and most people think of this transition as in increase in complexity. Indeed, many definitions of "civilization" given in a college course on prehistory include "increasing complexity" as an important criterion.

Along with this belief comes another important concept: That the people who live in these developing civilizations required additional mental capacities in order to deal with 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 this assumption individuals may make: "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?

To examine this way of thinking, let's first 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 badly if in each of those comparisons held you as primitive relative to the other person.

Two of the most important areas where primitiveness is often assumed are morality 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, which may or may not correlate with IQ, is larger for hunter gatherer populations, both living and prehistorically. With respect to the moral/ethical side of things, that is 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 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 Ghraib anybody? Fraternities? Teabggers? Civilized? I don't think so. Just "Western," with its less explicit connotation, will do for now although it may not be the best term. Westerners are people who have lived over the last centuries in cities, states, industrially and technologically high energy consumption economies, exemplified for this discussion as you and me.

So Hunter-gatherer vs. Western.

Now consider a simple thought experiment in which we address the question of of how one might go about getting a typical meal on the table. What do you, a Western person, need to do to have dinner and all that entail, vs. what does a Hunter-gatherer 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.

(A simplified version would be to press the One-Minute button a bunch of times instead of setting the timer and pressing start.)

For a Hunter-Gatherer to get the same meal, the following has to happen:

First, the camp ("camp" is the term for a residential group of hunter-gatherers) divides up over the course of the day with different groups 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 skillfully 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. But really, any one man can do any of several difficult tasks requiring command of an impressive breadth and depth of knowledge and lengthy personal experience. They also have one or more properly trained dogs with them. Most likely the dogs were trained by a specialist in dog training. Training dogs to do the kind of hunting foragers engage in is actually rather difficult for a number of reasons I won't go into here.

Eventually, 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 1 through 64, or so.

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. Hunter Gatherers do it every day.

That was approximately steps 65 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 still starve if you lived long enough to do so. More likely the fact that you have not developed the social skills to live in this manner for an extended period means that some of you will throttle others of you long before starvation happens.

Indeed, most of the times that Westerners are known to have ended up in the wild on their own they have either a) starved to death or b) eaten each other or c) both. All those stories of people being stuck in the wild and eating each other, without exception, have happened in habitats where hunter-gatherers are known to have lived happily. I wonder if there were hunter-gatherers watching from the bushes while the last member of the Forbisher Expedition dug his own grave?

Some of you are thinking: "Oh, fine, but that knowledge that hunter gatherers have ... that's all manual skill and technical knowledge and stuff, not real knowledge, not the hard to learn knowledge I have like math and stuff!" Well, OK, foragers don't have math. And there are people who argue that only by knowing math can you have a truly advanced brain. I have doubts about those claims and, frankly, about the motivations and experiences of the people who make them. In any event, consider this: The last time I was standing around with a group of people in the woods and one of them was identifying virtually each and every species of plant and animal by Latin name, and indicating potential uses and dangers of each one, that person was a PhD scientist and every other person was totally impressed with the individual's intelligence. You see, when Westerners know scads of esoteric stuff, other Westerners are impressed. When foragers know scads of esoteric stuff, Westerns think it's cute. Not fair.

Eventually a group of Westerners might be able to learn how to do all 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 would 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. Even Jack Handy 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 multi-part post) 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.

For all the Falsehoods II posts, click here.


More like this

Falsehood: Most if not all westerners look down on hunter-gatherers.

Truth: Some do. On the other hand, some idolize them far beyond what they are. Some have lived in the third world (and in the field, desert, and mountains here in the U.S.) and know a lot of what's involved in survival as a hunter-gatherer (and how much harder it is if you don't start with at least a knife).

By Kirth Gersen (not verified) on 23 Jun 2010 #permalink

>Missionaries will tell you that the primitive people are morally inferior. Missionaries suck.

What I've read of missionary history suggests that while they were by definition not cultural relativists, and certainly not free from racism and cultural bigotry, they also had far more nice words for their host cultures than non-missionaries. Typically that would be along "noble savage" lines, less decadent etc. In many senses the opposite of morally inferior.

That's historical missionaries. Today, it's a rare missionary to "primitive" peoples who isn't passionately concerned with the protection of their language, ways of life and traditions (as long as they don't conflict with the missionary's religion ... in which they can be recorded and stored away like the Icelandic Eddas).

By Harald Korneliussen (not verified) on 11 Aug 2010 #permalink

Falsehood: Most if not all westerners look down on hunter-gatherers.

Truth: Some do. On the other hand, some idolize them far beyond what they are.

First, no. The numbers you have are reversed. Most westerners do not live in the humbling places, and most westerners assume that foragers are primitive forms of humans. Also, those who "idolize them" and see them through Rousseauian glasses are not failing to look down on them by doing so.

I can count on the number of fingers found in a typical group of foragers the number of people I know who have a realistic, reasonably accurate idea of forager lifeway, what it involved, and what the variation is. Others are not intentionally looking down (or up) at foragers, but most think that they know enough to have opinions. Which they don't and they shouldn't. What most people think of foragers is fantasy, one way or another. The people who are being concieved of deserve to be thought of as they are or have been, just like anyone else.

We are spending all our time on a permaculture gardening site UNLEARNING just about everything we thought we knew about gardening. HG is even harder, and if you fail the tests, you either starve, or poison yourself.

We aren't trying to be druids, or native americans, just trying to not poison ourselves, heal it when we do hurt ourselves, and not screw up the dirt. Turns out you aren't even supposed to dig it up and turn it over ! Ocean water is best for everything in small amounts. Worms destroy forests.

It's way harder than quantum chromodynamics.

By morganism (not verified) on 19 Dec 2012 #permalink