Why hunter-gatherers matter

October 5, 2010

Last time around we noted that Steven Pinker had not constructed an airtight argument that prehistoric hunter-gatherers were more likely to die in war than people living today. In subsequent posts we’ll take up the question of what that prehistoric hunting and foraging life may have been like, with considerable help from the authors of Sex at Dawn. But first a digression on why any of this matters.

A year or two ago I had occasion to speak to an anthropology PhD student about prehistoric hunter-gatherers. We’re talking here about humans who lived before the advent of agriculture some 10,000 years ago and after the birth of anatomically modern humans some 200,000 years ago. Anyway, she made the simple statement that these prehistoric people had lived long, healthy lives. Now, my immediate reaction was not, “hmm, this person is an expert in her chosen field whereas I am not, and I should therefore defer to her and perhaps ask her to tell me more”; no, it was, “pff, that can’t possibly be correct.”

Let’s unpack that “pff,” shall we?

I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but modern life is a sham. Like Ralph Nader said,

The corporate state … leave[s] wide areas of personal freedom so that people can confuse personal freedom with civic freedom—the freedom to go where you want, eat where you want, associate with who you want, buy what you want, work where you want, sleep when you want, play when you want. If people have given up on any civic or political role for themselves there is a sufficient amount of elbow room to get through the day. They do not have the freedom to participate in the decisions about war, foreign policy, domestic health and safety issues, taxes or transportation.

Down is up. Black is white. Freedom is tyranny. You know what I’m saying? And the great thing about us slaves is we will find ways to justify our own slavery. Like by pretending that men are men and women are women, or that having an iPhone matters. So of course we don’t want to hear anything that might shake our faith in the system that benefits us at the expense of others less fortunate. Because then we might be compelled to fight for change.

The stories we tell about prehistoric peoples feed into our discourse of modern life. If hunter-gatherers lived short lives punctuated by violent deaths, then the status quo is implicitly justified. It has saved us from the same fate, after all. But if prehistoric hunter-gatherers lived good lives, then I’m forced to ask myself how they did it, and how modern life might be rearranged along equivalent lines. But that would entail a change of thought and action, which I want nothing to do with. So “pff.”

That’s all Steven Pinker was really saying when he claimed that we were living in the most peaceful time of our species’ 200,000-year history: “pff.” And of course it would be Steven Pinker arguing this point. The guy has never met a scientific justification for the status quo he didn’t like.

Me, I am ready to move beyond “pff.”


2 Responses to “Why hunter-gatherers matter”

  1. John Feeney Says:

    “If hunter-gatherers lived short lives punctuated by violent deaths, then the status quo is implicitly justified.”


    Here is a blog post and an article (the latter my own) which deal with this topic.



  2. John Feeney Says:

    I need to correct one of those links as it has just recently changed. It should be:


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