Many thanks to Michael Wachter for consulting with me on this article and lending his expertise on hunter gatherer cultures to help me write the best article I could hope for.
Prehistoric ambition and the search for wealth in the wild
San children have no shortage of role models to look up to, who fire up their inspiration and ambition for future life.
Notwithstanding recent changes, up until the 1950s career paths took shape predictably among hunter gatherers.
Boys would witness the wisdom of their male elders on a daily basis, their skill as hunters, trekkers, botanists, medicine men, makers and storytellers and their gravitas as tribe members.
They would be inspired by their ability to provide for the community and by the respect they commanded, growing up with a strong desire to follow in their footsteps which began very early in life.
Girls would too and in addition would receive the same sort of inspiration from the female side of the community.
I initially intended to delve a lot deeper into the different roles played out in hunter gatherer society, but after getting a word count shock, I decided to leave it for another time. After all, this is the first article of my publication and I do not wish to drown its central theme which is the reason why I decided to become a writer.
The San are deeply egalitarian and the only people who are put on a bit of a pedestal are the elders and the (very egalitarian) chiefs.
Their concept of personal wealth is different from ours and the currency they value the most is bushman skills and humble valour.
In those, mature adults and elders are supremely wealthy, so children grow up alongside their role models and the elders are paid back in respect the value that they have brought to the community.
For clarification, bushmen are particularly avid of metals, tooling and other “riches” but practicality is still very ingrained in them as traditionally they were nomadic until not long ago.
Having to carry all possessions all the time, a sharing culture and the ability to live off the land make for a very different idea of wealth to ours.
The sharing nature of life in the bush has deep effects on the culture.
For example, when a hunter comes back with an antelope (unless it’s an Eland) he is duly mocked by the whole village. This is an extremely sophisticated way to keep egos in check.
Sharing is compulsory and selfishness is not tolerated. If it was, it could undermine the sharing culture and therefore put the survival of the tribe at risk.
In modern life, we struggle to understand why envy and jealousy are part of our emotional makeup and we may be left wondering why we are wired that way, but seeing this trait in tightly knit ancestral societies, it’s easy to see how rejecting social imbalances is a justified self defence mechanism which we probably carry within us since the dawn of our species.
The Ju/’hoansi revel in life but their pleasure is attainable, concrete and within reach.
They don’t condemn the present to misery, chasing disposable wealth, and luxury goods in order to live better tomorrow like we do.
Rather, they spend their formative years gaining the skills they need to provide for the community on a daily basis and enjoy the process.
Of course they relish entertainment, but this consists of amazing games (for kids and adults), songs and dances to the most incredible rhythms, fireside storytelling and they love making and maintaining their tools and weapons.
I have seen male bushmen gathering around someone making arrows or snares as if it were a bunch of men watching maker programmes on Quest.
They enjoy sitting on a good stash, but we’re not talking about excess cash and empty luxury goods or useless status symbols, I am referring to stashes of raw materials and tools that ensure the smooth running of their operations.
They relish time with their kids, who have a great time playing, imitating the adults and learning through play.
They enjoy the thrill of a successful hunt.
Gathering water roots is a refreshing treasure hunt which everybody loves.
Above all, I think, they value their knowledge and their experiences.
Bushmen can spend hours talking about hunts they’ve been on and sharing insights on animal behaviour, clues, and other hunter talk.
They love analysing animal tracks in front of peers or an audience like doctors analyse CAT scans in a lecture hall.
A compelling storyteller is the envy of the whole village.
A social nature
In modern society we are often torn in our feelings towards the rest of society.
On the one hand, we often struggle with the hassle of being around other humans and on the other, we yearn for tribe and companionship and many of us are plagued by loneliness.
To rub salt in the wound, we often feel overcrowded and lonely at the same time.
Where did we acquire this mindset?
There is a common understanding that division of labour arose with farming. Before that, hunter gatherers all did the same job and had the same skillset.
The truth is more nuanced than that.
When I stayed with the San, who have lived in the same way for thousands of years, I was able to see how they operate and they follow a model that could be described as division of labour, or more to the point, communal effort.
It’s true that in the course of a lifetime, most tribe members will have mastered all relevant jobs, but on any given day there is division of labour.
To be successful in such a hostile environment such as the Kalahari desert, collaboration is necessary.
When the hunters go out in the morning, the gatherers forage for plant foods, medicine and water.
I want to pause for a moment to share with you a fact: the average westerner in the Kalahari is constantly drinking and it never seems to be enough. My pee never went clearer than dark yellow during my time there.
The Ju/’hoansi are not better equipped but they are used to it. If my trip had taken place before the sixties when there were no water boreholes, I am not sure I would have had enough water to survive.
Human adaptability is an extremely powerful force to witness.
Every bushman will have to learn everything but each will have a passion that they will follow throughout their lives.
In order to specialise in it, they must invest many years of dedication.
When a bushman is sick, he is looked after by others, what is hunted and gathered is shared among the village, the village children are looked after by everybody.
In my experience, meals are also a communal affair.
However what really epitomises for me the communal nature of people is the night encampment.
Sleeping in the bush is no joke. The village may be raided by lions, hyenas, leopards and even trampled on by elephants, who roam the landscape at night, creating “roman roads” that connect waterholes.
To sleep in the bush, the camp must be surrounded by a fence of dry shrubs and a minimum of 3 fires, each facing a different direction, must be tended all night.
If this is done diligently, wild animals will keep their distance, otherwise they’ll take their chances.
There are many shining eyes in the night of the Kalahari and unlike other animals, people cannot survive on their own in the environment in which they evolved.
We developed a hardware and a software that began its evolutionary journey when the newly formed savannah became our new home(5). What we are today is an upgrade on what we were then.
We have lost track of the origins of those psychological, behavioural, emotional and societal traits and as a result they have turned against us.
We evolved a psyche that had spaces reserved for non human bush dwellers.
Environmental and animal phenomena had a daily and tangible presence in both body and spirit.
Allies, threats and competitors that we dealt with daily in the bush are no longer part of our daily lives and sometimes they surface as symbols and archetypes.
Those niches are still part of our design, but as we live in an artificial world they cannot be occupied by the original inhabitants and are liable to be occupied by superstitions, prejudices and other dangerous fantasies, symbols and archetypes instead.
Sensory stimulation has changed for us since urbanisation. We evolved the acute senses we needed to tune in to the dangers and opportunities of the bush, we tended to listen in at that time.
Then we built ourselves a safe but noisy world, so we stopped tuning in and in came the need to zone out the noise.
This imposes a fine balancing act which we simply don’t adhere to, between zoning out the noise and cultivating receptiveness at the same time.
Gradually this may result in being unreceptive and insensitive.
As life got safer, we gained a new enemy: boredom. A byproduct of having awareness capabilities but no need to use them. Modern pastimes are especially good at dulling the mind and with a dull mind our mojo is lost.
Our psyche began to evolve as that of a creature who is not the centre of its environment.
Since creating a man made world detached from nature, an invisible paradox snuck up on us: we are now at the centre of the picture but we are not psychologically ready to be.
As that centre space no longer fills itself with the majestic reality of the wild, we instinctively seek to fill it with abstract notions of something bigger than ourselves but we tend to fill it with all sort of dangerous fantasies and fears that often throughout history have brought us trouble.
I’m thinking especially of the countless wars started by politicians and fought by ordinary people who bought into a myth where they are the heroes and the poor bastards on the other side are demons.
Tribal societies have long put in place effective measures against egotisms.
Modern societies on the other hand are dispersive and individualistic, so egotisms run amok, giving rise to hollow role models.
We evolved a model of ambition that hardwired us to follow in the footsteps of our role models and keep the tribe thriving.
Once we became accomplished bushmen, that skillset translated into concrete daily rewards.
In our man-made environment, we remain wired for ambition, but we often aim to fulfil it through far away goals, the accumulation of excess cash and status symbols.
If we do attain them, we quickly tire of them and fall into depression as our brain cannot understand why the ambition to attainment path no longer produces tangible rewards.
We evolved with a clear and tangible understanding of the importance of society.
Its members were often related to us and we’d know each of them personally.
Every day we’d work as a team to live off the land.
Since urbanising, the brain wiring has remained but conditions have changed drastically.
The tribe is no more and in the urbe we ended up living as isolated individuals, especially in the last few decades, thus society ends up looking like a farm of battery caged turkeys, where each individual is overburdened with all of life’s practical needs without any space left at all for the pursuits that bring fulfilment which are so deeply woven in the way of life of the hunter gatherer.
The point is that we are threatened by a cultural problem that manipulates us from the inside, unseen.
Though many people are affluent, the rest of us are scraping a living at the cost of damaging the environment, being in constant conflict with others and making ourselves sick in the process.
Far from being inevitable as many think, this means failing at all 3 layers of human experience: the inner, the social and the environmental.
At the centre of that multi layered problem is the fact that we moved away from the context in which we evolved without maintaining a link to it and without making the necessary allowances to exit that context.
We have lost track of what made us tick because we never suspected we’d need to know on our journey.
As humans we have a past, we have a story which we carry in our DNA, our anatomy and our inherited behaviour.
We have to accept it into our lives if we want to make good choices about our present and positively inform our future.
This will affect us whether we are aware of it or not, but only if we’re aware of it can it affect us positively.
We are a species living out of context without the necessary toolkit.
To have moved out is part of our story and part of our nature, I don’t advocate a return to the origins.
It is obviously a very important journey that we embarked on and we must see that through.
However it’s just as plain to see that we won’t go much further without the awareness of who we are and where we come from, if nothing else, to be deliberate about where we are heading.
The byword that we often used to justify the destruction of the ancestral heritage is progress.
If progress means to go forward, then we must rekindle a strong link with that ancestral identity, our starting point. Otherwise there will be no progress, we are going around in circles already. Both as individuals and as societies.
I began writing about this not because I want to change the world, but because I was myself trapped in a dead end of social conditioning that brought me to anxiety, depression, social ineptitude, conflict with family, IBS, substance abuse and a host of other symptoms that are nothing other than different manifestations of the same problem.
I see that the same pattern is repeated throughout society and the more time passes, the more its effects extend, as society becomes more artificial, new generations lose links with reality that existed previously.
Some people cannot deal with the sheer madness of the situation and sometimes they take their own lives or decide to take it out on others.
I am not here to sell a cure for the ills of the world or any sort of snake oil.
I simply developed a toolkit to enable myself to exist outside of my ancestral context and found myself in a situation conducive to share that with the world.
This toolkit mirrors the menu of my website: Meditation, Mental Detox, Rewilding, Physical Health, Ancestral Wisdom, Ancestral Medicine, Symbols and Archetypes, Right Livelihood, Poetry.
I can offer words, images, courses and experiences and I hope some will find inspiration, the way I found inspiration left by others on my path.
(5) The “Savannah Hypothesis” in its developed form seems to be the consensus amongst scientists, suggesting that forests began to disappear and we gradually became more adapted at living on the ground, although it took a while before we left the arboreal lifestyle completely behind.