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.
There is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot: man is his own worst enemy.
Most adults find resonance with that statement and often strive to avoid that trap.
With this inaugural article in two parts, I offer my reflections on why that may be the case and whether we are condemned to that fate or whether we can make peace with our nature and become our best allies, coming into the true power and privilege of belonging to our species today, in the age of information and travel.
To do this I will look at the way we are today compared to the way we were at the dawn of our prehistory, in our evolutionary cradle.
In the wild we developed certain hardware and software that always has and always will condition the way we experience life.
If we don’t face up to that reality and navigate it, we become victims of determinism.
If we do face up to it, we can become masters of our own destiny and benefit from a freedom of choice and movement rarely seen among living creatures and even within our own species.
We must thank the palaeontologists for everything we know about our earliest ancestors’ way of life, which in itself is not a lot, but we are privileged enough to live at a time when fragments of a hunter gatherer world still exist, amongst which the San bushmen of the Kalahari, whom I had the opportunity to visit.
A glut of literature has been written about them, including seminal works by a host of phenomenal authors such as James Suzman, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Laurens Van Der Post, Louis Liebenberg and many more.
The San have been around for an estimated 100,000 years, they are the authors of some of the most ancient rock art known, with notable examples at several locations such as Twyfelfontain in Namibia, Blombos Cave in South Africa and the Tsodillo Hills in Botswana and are believed to be the first Homo Sapiens.
A treasure like no other, available today.
They are currently threatened by a thousand different problems, many of which are extremely urgent and are a great source of worry for me, but again, I will write about them extensively throughout the life of this blog.
Once upon a time, man was a hunter gatherer. His hardware and software developed features that were meant to give him an edge in the competitive environment of the bush.
As a result, the same traits that are advantages in that environment, can become side effects once outside of that environment.
We embarked on an epic existential journey out of our evolutionary nest, but we did so instinctively and without the necessary “patch”/toolkit.
It is fascinating to be a character and get to comment on this saga of the bushmen lost out of context, the saga of us modern people, but my motivation for writing comes from the malaise that has arisen in urbanised humanity, with damaging repercussions at the inner, social and environmental level.
The story of man begins even before the emergence of the Homo genus (1), at a time when a savannah was opening up around us, gradually replacing the forest that was there previously and we became bipeds who spent a lot more time on the ground.
At that time, our physical capabilities, our hardware platform, had many more limitations.
Initially, we had a mostly vegetarian diet, plus the odd termite, we didn’t use a great deal of tools, we had an ape sized brain and we would climb on trees to shelter from predators, to which we were much more vulnerable, since we probably weren’t very good at fighting, except for the odd romantic quarrel (2).
The evolutionary path that we took, went in the direction of solving the shortcomings that we had at the time.
Later on, we developed three characteristics that set us apart from other animals and eventually got us a large brain and turned us into a force to be reckoned with, ultimately allowing us the unique ability to break free from environmental niche constraints.
Of course, as Spider Man’s uncle Ben always said, with great power comes great responsibility and big problems arise when those aren’t fulfilled, but that’s another story, for another article.
Those three characteristics, were of course the power to run, to sweat and the power of tools.
When you combine running and tools, you get a phenomenon that is peculiar to humans and one of extreme significance for them: persistence hunting(3).
I learned about persistence hunting when I went to Namibia to learn about the San Bushmen of the Kalahari, or how they call themselves, the Ju/’huansi (/’ being a palatal click).
Early persistence hunting leveraged on our ability to run and sweat (later, with further anatomical developments we will be able to do much more with the spear and eventually the bow and arrow will make their legendary entrance into our story.
Other animals don’t sweat anywhere near as effectively as we do. As a result they overheat before we do.
At this point I’d like to pause for a moment, to reflect on the sort of shoulders we are standing on.
We think of ourselves as the pinnacle of civilization because of our nuclear weapons, our electronics and our luxury goods and we’ve been calling hunter gatherers savages and primitives for centuries.
Yet, few among us possess the resilience needed to live fully off the often inhospitable land like our ancestors did.
This is worth bearing in mind when we feel overwhelmed by the challenges of our own environment.
The foundations of science and technology
We could say that humanity is a project sponsored by the wild.
Without the water contained in it, the foods, fibres, resins, clays, medicines, poisons and all other materials contained in its soil, plants and animals, man really wouldn’t have got as far as he did.
Unlike other animals, man’s capabilities go far beyond those of his body.
As a technological animal, it’s easy to see how most of man’s progress, took place thanks to the resources provided by nature.
These became available because early man made the effort to understand the world around him and was also able to leverage the capabilities of other animals.
During his scavenging days, he would eat prey killed by other animals and locate it thanks to birds such as vultures, buzzards and crows.
This is an interesting insight into the environmental niche that we first occupied.
Basically, we’d evolved as daylight robbers, going out in the middle of the day, when only we could withstand the heat, observing scavenging birds, to locate kills made by lions during the night and make off with them as fast as possible.
Maybe that’s why we love Capture the Flag, who knows.
With the power of our sophisticated brains and hands, natural resources became technology, the hallmark of all human species.
Nature provides its resources willingly, as when in balance, an animal benefiting from a food source will help it to thrive, but that’s another story for another article.
But how to recognise useful materials from useless ones? Medicine from poison?
Early humans didn’t have spectrometers and chromatographs other than their mouths and noses, nor did they have any other lab equipment other than their senses.
The process of discriminating materials into high value, low value and hazardous was long and difficult.
The scientific mentality, present in us in my opinion, since at least the days of Homo Ergaster, begins with taxonomy, the identification and classification of phenomena, materials and organisms.
Bushman taxonomy is particularly fascinating because it makes screenplay characters out of the taxa, with defined personalities which sometimes star in fireside stories and myths, so that new recipients of the knowledge heritage could gain a deeper understanding of the nature and capabilities of each.(4)
What a shame that modern science doesn’t retain that most interesting and useful way of describing things.
That taxonomical knowledge was hard gained, developed and tested over many generations.
The individuals most devoted to plant knowledge would finely hone their sense of taste, sight and smell, to perform the best chemical analysis available before the arrival of lab equipment hundreds of thousands of years later.
Of course early man was a scavenger and had the ability to eat meat that was considerably past its best, an ability that they bequeathed to our species and that is carried on to this day by the bushmen, so their analysis of taste, colour, texture and smell must have been excellent in order to feed on scavenged meat without getting poisoned.
That application of their senses must have been their greatest testing ground and probably the heyday of their acumen.
A great testament to the early natural philosophers in my opinion is the discovery of the poisonous Diamphidia grub and its second rate vegetable substitutes.
These poisons are effective when they enter the bloodstream but are not harmful when eaten.
Did early humans discover their properties by accidentally getting poisoned? Perhaps, but since we lack knowledge on how these were discovered and I haven’t yet asked the bushmen if they know how they did, I prefer to attribute the discoveries to their ingenuity rather than their clumsiness.
Similarly, in the making of tools early humans would select materials after having observed and field tested their physical properties.
The tools required to fell trees, hunt large animals and snare small ones, must not fail during operation and they require the best blades, fibres and resins as well as the finest engineering methods, even by modern standards. Then as now, only reliable and repeatable outcomes could set acceptable standards.
I had the opportunity to witness some of this highly developed bush engineering when I was in Namibia.
I was struck very deeply by its refinement, especially since technology has been my speciality for many years, having a degree in film production technology and having worked in the industrial engineering industry for ten years.
I was particularly impressed by their snares for ground birds as well as their arrows, two incredible pieces of engineering which unfortunately I can’t delve too much into but would definitely deserve a technical geek-out.
In his book “The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science“, Louis Liebenberg, a South African scientist who specialises in this subject, draws parallels between the rigorous processes and procedures involved in tracking and those of research in physics and mathematics, suggesting that tracking may represent the origin of science itself.
Bird Language and our role in the environment
The fine understanding of what is going on in the surrounding environment (+/- 1Km) has always been a key capability of the homo genus, at least until we lived in the wild.
We needed to move through the environment either for stalking, tracking, ambushing, gathering or simply on ordinary daily business. We needed to be aware of our surroundings much more than we do today.
Our senses were much more accustomed to subtle sounds and sights, hence much sharper.
They needed to be, so that we could be aware of whether a prey or a dangerous animal was nearby.
Picking up faint noises through the grass or vegetation, picking up on ground prints and shapes, minor disturbances in the vegetation, traces of hair and blood, all require a receptive attitude and sharpened senses far beyond what we need in our modern urbanised lives.
Another crucial factor in understanding what is going on in the wild is bird language.
I was introduced to bird language on the Old Way course by Robin Bowman, who is incredibly knowledgeable in it.
Previous to that, I had no idea it played such a significant role for all the dwellers of the wild.
Now as in antiquity, the people of the wild understood bird language as one of the main means of keeping up with what’s going on in the surrounding 1Km radius or thereabouts.
Now, the interesting thing is that birds’ language affects and involves all inhabitants of the bush.
- Birds check in with one another, spar and also sing when everything is ok.
- They will signal alarms to one another when a ground, tree or aerial predator is approaching.
- They will often help out other prey species such as deer, by grassing out any predator coming after them.
- They will harass a resting predator with an unpleasant racket when stationary in their patch.
- They can “gossip” about whoever roams the bush, because they can make particular sounds that identify an individual passer by.
Birds are the news reporters of the wild and understanding their language is essential to keep up with what’s going on at any given time.
Of course, it takes a habit of extreme receptivity to keep up with avian news updates, a habit that has been lost along the way with urbanisation.
When I was in Namibia, I noticed that the San had the habit of talking all at the same time, but seemed perfectly able to keep up with the whole conversation regardless.
My friend Robin Bowman, who has been there more times than I have, told me once that at one time, this kind of conversation was going on but somewhere in the distance, a number of birds on a tree, were sounding an alarm call.
It turned out later, that far from being completely absorbed in their own chaotic conversation, the bushmen had picked up that the birds had spotted a hyena and were harassing it to make it leave.
There’s two important insights to gain from this.
- Human senses are designed for a type of environment that is as data rich, but much quieter than the modern urbanised world.
- In today’s man-made environments humans are at the centre of the picture.
For the inhabitants of the wild, the centre of the picture is occupied by a live landscape full of resources, unseen opportunities and threats.
Each is aware that the environment is shared with the others and birds are very much relied upon to provide extra information.
We have no way of knowing what other animals do to stay on the good side of birds, but we know that bushmen consider it important to stay on their good side so that they don’t sabotage their hunts.
Prehistoric job satisfaction
Just like people today, I believe that early Homo Sapiens rated job satisfaction very highly, were resourceful and able to experiment new solutions to satisfy their needs.
Just like ours today, I believe that their job satisfaction ebbed and flowed along with the outcomes of their daily endeavours.
Similarly, I think it is possible that the very birth of the concept of wealth is linked to acquiring whatever factor (material or intellectual) that brought about abundance and protected the keeper from scarcity and struggle.
Today the idea of wealth is linked to accumulation and surplus, but I believe that wealth in prehistory was more about skills, courage and few portable tools as the land provides the rest and of course prehistoric people were nomadic.
Modern economy vs bushman economy
When we look at the enterprise map of the modern global economy, we see millions of organizations engaged in all sorts of activities, supplying one another with all sort of services and interconnected into a complex web, relentlessly seeking to fulfil the needs and desires of a myriad of different target customers.
Inside, these organizations are full of qualified individuals, selling their time in exchange for money and perks, each occupying a specific role, for the benefit of the overall organization and its shareholders.
On the other hand, the global economy looks like a monumental pack of dogs, who directly or indirectly, are all going after the same one bone: the disposable income of individuals.
I’m not suggesting any economic philosophy by this, but by contrast, the “jobs market” in the San economy seems (or seemed, until the 1950s) to provide all necessary opportunities for survival and self actualization that they require, in a much more elegant and straightforward system.
Crucially, it’s an easy to understand economy.
Try as I might, I cannot think of any underlying drivers of modern economy that vary from those of an hunter gatherer economy.
Just like in a modern economy, a hunter gatherer economy is driven by individuals who seek:
- The satisfaction to excel in comparison with a role model.
- To undertake work that not only provides for oneself and one’s family, but that is also a thrill.
- To gain a skillset that allows one to thrive economically and emotionally.
- To follow a path of growth one is passioned about.
- To gain social validation and the reasonable satisfaction of the ego.
- To possess all property required to avoid scarcity and struggle.
- To feel safe, physically and economically.
Yet the system has spent thousands of years getting more complicated but, as far as I can see, not intrinsically more rewarding.
Of course, since the 1950s the bushmen have suffered the unstoppable encroachment of the outside world, which has unfortunately eroded much of their traditional way of life.
After decades of attack from the outside world, the San today are experiencing a crisis of confidence in their traditional ways.
They have to raise a supplementary cash income by working in wildlife parks and by collecting plant ingredients for the cosmetic industry.
In recent years, some have signed up to the notion that their traditional shamanism is devil worship.
A notion imposed upon them by American missionaries with conversions targets, in exchange for a piece of bread.
I am actually getting really sad as I write this. It was important for me to give a nod to the present situation but it’s not the point I want to delve into.
(1) With earlier forms of Hominin, such as Australopithecus. Richard G. Klein – The Human Career – (University of Chicago Press 2009) ch. 4
(2) At the time of Australopithecus and Paranthopus spp. Everything changes with the arrival of Homo ergaster, when we develop a lot of cool traits, including a real nose! Richard G. Klein – The Human Career – (University of Chicago Press 2009) ch. 4
(3)As Louis Liebenberg explains in his book “The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science“, Persistence hunting consists in stalking a suitable quarry around dawn, chasing it at speed for up to twelve hours until the animal overheats, then spearing it and taking it back to camp.
(4)Despite its best efforts to the contrary, an interesting book on this subject is The Golden Bough by Sir James George Frazer.