Were We Better off as Hunter-Gatherers?


Humanity has come a long way. Since agriculture revolutionised life 10,000 years ago we have traded our tents and caves for high rise apartments and megacities. We have subjected the elements to our will and multiplied to the billions. Yet despite all mankind’s accomplishments, our neurology remains very much hunter-gatherer and ill-suited to the modern world. Is civilization worth it? Were we better off in our natural state?

Our ancestors worked less. Today’s hunter-gatherers in the Arctic Circle and Kalahari Desert ‘work’ an average of forty hours a week. They only live in such hostile climates, however, because more numerous farmers forced them from choicer lands thousands of years ago.  Ancient hunter-gatherers living in bountiful forests or river valleys laboured far less.  The work our foraging ancestors did perform, whether a day’s hunt, exploring new lands or sharpening spearheads around the campfire, was more exciting and fulfilling than sitting all day at an office or factory.

119 best images about Evolution on PinterestHunter-gatherers enjoyed nutritious diets. Instead of dairy and grain, products of the Agricultural Revolution, they lived off wild fruit, fish, and meat, free from excess calories, sugar or saturated fat.  They were fit too; in contrast to our sedentary lifestyles where we get by with minimal physical exertion and pass on our ‘unremarkable genes’, hunter-gatherers were constantly on the move and used all parts of their body. The average Stone Age human was as fit as an Olympic athlete. As foragers were not reliant on a single food source like wheat, rice or potatoes, famine was almost unheard of.

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were disease-free. Epidemics proliferate when dense numbers of humans concentrate in one place.  Sure, isolated forager bands lack immunity to modern diseases but before the Agricultural Revolution, said diseases did not exist. Hunter-gatherers do not require sewerage because there are so few of them while a lack of inter-connectivity impedes the spread of epidemics. 

Life expectancy of today’s hunter-gatherers is 30-40 years, 60 if discounting infant mortality. Though far healthier than a medieval peasant, our ancestors still lacked modern medicine. Serious injury could be a death sentence.

Early Civilizations : Paleolithic Hunter Gatherers

Like modern hunter-gatherers, our ancestors lived in tight-knit groups of 40-50 people (bands). Some bands were monogamous, others practised free love and collective parenting. All shared intense bonds within their community, however. Contact with other groups was minimal, and bands could go years without meeting outsiders. In contrast, we meet thousands of people in a lifetime. Ancient foragers valued strong social bonds more than possessions or ‘success’. As hunter-gatherers owned only what they could carry, there was noticeably less hierarchy or inequality.

I have previously discussed on this blog that hunter-gatherers are generally more violent than settled, industrial societies. Ancient foragers could easily flee from violent neighbours to new and uninhabited lands, however, a luxury not afforded to their modern counterparts. Intra-band violence depends on social customs and the temperament of its members. Without states to govern them, foragers lacked codified laws to restrict human behaviour and protect the needy. The tradeoff? They were free.

According to Genesis, Adam and Eve lived in ignorant bliss. According to Thomas Hobbes, life in the state of nature was ‘nasty, brutish and short.’ Our ancestors lived in a more violent and dangerous world than modern affluent societies, if not previous centuries, and few of their babies survived. Those that did, however, grew to be fitter, healthier and better-connected adults.

The Last Nomadic Hunters-Gatherers of the Himalayas

Conversely, we have far more possessions, knowledge and opportunities at our disposal. Life may be safer, easier and more comfortable than it has ever been but advertising and mass media constantly remind us how it could be better. What is happiness other than subjective well-being measured against expectations? Some scholars suggest nothing could surpass ‘the wild excitement and sheer joy experienced by a forager band on a successful mammoth hunt’. Ignorance is bliss. Given our psychological makeup has yet to catch up with the rapid change in life over the past 10,000 years, they could be right. ‘Happier’ and ‘better off’, however, are difficult concepts to define – it all depends on what you value.

Sources: Yuval Noah Harari – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Phys.org

See Also:

Wim Hof the Iceman

Image result for wim hof

Wim ‘the Iceman’ Hof (born 1959) is a real-life superman and fitness guru from the Netherlands who can withstand disease and extreme conditions using a mind over matter approach.

His achievements include:

  • swimming 57.5 metres under ice
  • running 22,000 KM up Mount Everest in shorts (2007)
  • running a full marathon in the Namib Desert without water (2009)
  • scaling Mount Kilimanjaro in shorts and bare feet in two days (2009)
  • running a half marathon in the Arctic circle in shorts and bare feet with a time of two hours, 16 minutes and 34 seconds (2009)
  • standing in a bucket of ice for one hour and 53 minutes (2013)

The Wim Hof method: Hof claims anyone can gain mastery over their body and mind using a mixture of controlled breathing, meditation and gradual exposure to cold.  Cold therapy pushes the human body to the edge and forces it to work at full capacity which, because of our comfortable modern lifestyles, it seldom does. His breathing technique stimulates the nervous system and manually produces adrenaline.

One cycle:

  1. Sit in a comfortable position and close your eyes.
  2. Take 30 consecutive breaths. Breathe in deep but do not forcibly exhale, just let the air out gently.
  3. Take a single deep breath, hold it for 20 seconds then exhale. You should feel relaxed and/or lightheaded afterward.
  4. Repeat up to six times

It sounds like bollocks yet Hof’s record speaks for itself. Scientists were initially sceptical, claiming he was uniquely gifted. Yet he does not owe his success to genetics:  Hof’s identical twin brother, who lives a conventional sedentary life, cannot do what he does.

In 2011 investigative journalist Scott Carney enlisted in Hof’s programme with the aim of debunking it. Within two days not only was Carney convinced Hof’s methods worked but was able to climb Kilimanjaro in only shorts! Carney documented the experience in his bestselling book What Doesn’t Kill Us (2017).

The method draws on tummo and pranayama meditation. By emptying the mind the body redirects energy from the brain to the body. Hof’s techniques of controlled hyperventilation increases the oxygen in our blood and kindles the anti-inflammatory and nervous systems. He claims his techniques can not only regulate one’s physiology but can mitigate stress, anxiety and depression. Since his teachings gained traction Hof has worked with doctors, psychiatrists, athletes and Navy SEALs.

In 2015 scientists injected Hof and 12 of his students with an E-coli endotoxin as a controlled experiment. By consciously controlling his immune system they were able to resist the endotoxin and leave the experiment unharmed and without inflammation in their blood cells.

Hof lost his wife to suicide in 1995. She had schizophrenia and Hof claimed the  medications she was prescribed only worsened her state.  To console his grief Hof turned to ‘nature’ and the esoteric disciplines of yoga, Sufiism, kung fu and Tibetan Buddhism.  Eventually he claimed the cold was the best teacher. In 2000 he broke his first world record.

Sources: 2019 Russel Brand Interview, Vice, Wimhofmethod

See Also:

  • Fuegians – Like Hof, the Yaghan tribe could dive unclothed in freezing waters