May 31, 2012

Everything is connected

Posted in Hunter-gatherers tagged , , , , , at 4:17 pm by Jeremy

This section of my book on the hunter-gatherer worldview discusses its most important underlying assumption: that everything is connected.  At the end of the section, I speculate that the connectivity of this worldview and the intrinsic connectivity of language (through recursion) is not coincidental, but arises from the fact that both conceptual systems emerge from the unique connectivity and patterning instinct of the human prefrontal cortex (pfc).

Everything is connected

Of all the underlying patterns of the hunter-gatherer worldview, there is probably none so pervasive as the implicit belief that all aspects of the world – humans, animals, ancestors, spirits, trees, rocks and rivers – are interrelated parts of a dynamic, integrated whole.  In the words of one anthropologist, “hunter-gatherers think about the world in a highly integrated fashion, with an interpenetration of the natural and social in a single integrated environment, and an ideology encompassing humans, animals, and plants in a living nature.”[1]  The natural environment is, for hunter-gatherers, most definitely alive.  Anthropologist Richard Nelson writes evocatively about the sentient natural world perceived by the Koyukon people of Alaska’s boreal forest:

Traditional Koyukon people live in a world that watches, in a forest of eyes.  A person moving through nature – however wild, remote, even desolate the place may be – is never truly alone.  The surroundings are aware, sensate, personified.  They feel.  They can be offended.  And they must, at every moment, be treated with proper respect.  All things in nature have a special kind of life… All that exists in nature is imbued with awareness and power; all events in nature are potentially manifestations of this power; all actions toward nature are mediated by consideration of its consciousness and sensitivity.[2]

This sentience of nature is frequently manifested in the spirits that are perceived to exist all around.  To call these spirits “supernatural” would be a serious misconception, applying another modern viewpoint anachronistically to the hunter-gatherer cosmology.

To hunter-gatherers, spirits were an integral part of the natural world

These spirits are an integral part of the natural world just as much as humans and other animals.  As Canadian anthropologist Diamond Jenness wrote about the spirits of the Ojibwa (Chippewa) Indians, “they are a part of the natural order of the universe no less than man himself, whom they resemble in the possession of intelligence and emotions.  Like man, too, they are male or female, and in some cases at least may even have families of their own.  Some are tied down to definite localities, some move from place to place at will; some are friendly to Indians, other hostile.”[3]

Just as the spirits are integrally connected to the natural world, so those aspects of life that we define as “religion” permeate all the normal, daily activities of the hunter-gatherer.  As Wright puts it, “one of the more ironic properties of hunter-gatherer religion: it doesn’t exist.  That is, if you asked hunter-gatherers what their religion is, they wouldn’t know what you were talking about.  The kinds of beliefs and rituals we label ‘religious’ are so tightly interwoven into their everyday thought and action that they don’t have a word for them.”[4]

One forager tradition that powerfully demonstrates the interconnectedness of each of the dimensions of life that we tend to keep separate is the Aboriginal Dreamtime.    As described by researcher Deborah Bird Rose, “in Aboriginal Australia, the living world is a created world, brought into being as a world of form, difference, and connection by creative beings called Dreamings.”[5]  Rose goes on to describe the Aboriginal creation myth of the Dreamtime:

The Australian continent is crisscrossed with the tracks of the Dreamings: walking, slithering, crawling, flying, chasing, hunting, weeping, dying, birthing.  They were performing rituals, distributing the plants, making the landforms and water, establishing things in their own places, making the relationships between one place and another.  They left parts of themselves, looked back and looked ahead, and still traveled, changing languages, changing songs, changing skin.  They were changing shape from animal to human and back to animal and human again, becoming ancestral to particular animals and humans.  Through their creative actions they demarcated a world of difference and of relationships that crosscut difference.[6]

Through the Dreamtime, Australian Aboriginals integrate not only the human, natural and spiritual domains, but also the past, present and future.  We are used to creation myths describing events that occurred long ago, but for the Aboriginals the Dreamtime exists in the present as much as in the past.

For the Australian aboriginals, the Dreamtime exists as much in the present as the past

In the words of one observer, “it exists as a kind of metaphysical now, … a spiritual yet nonetheless real dimension of time and space somehow interpenetrating and concurrent with our own.”[7]  The creative ancestors may connect with humans in dreams, but also in other ways.  For example, in a phenomenon known as “conception Dreaming,” it’s believed that the spirit of the place where a woman initially conceives a baby enters the fetus there, and remains a part of the infant when she’s born.[8] As Rose describes it, there is “thus a web of relatedness in which everything is connected to something that is connected to something, and so forth.”[9]  Here is the same idea expressed in the more concrete words of an elderly aboriginal lady, Daisy Utemorrah:

All these things, the plants and the trees, the mountains and the hills and the stars and the clouds, we represent them.  You see these trees over there?  We represent them.  I might represent that tree there.  Might be my name there, in that tree.  Yes, and the reeds, too, in the waters… the frogs and the tadpoles and the fish… even the crickets… all kinds of things… we represent them.[10]

This integration of meaning, where “nothing is without connection,”[11] is intriguingly reminiscent of the inherent structure of language as described earlier.[12]  In language, the power of recursion can be viewed as a “magical weave,” permitting the connection of previously separate modules of the brain in order to create new meaning.  Just as in language a symbolic network permits emergent meaning to arise from its connectivity, so in the hunter-gatherer worldview, all aspects of life participate in a conceptual system which “links species, places, and regions, and leaves no region, place, species, or individual standing outside creation, life processes, and responsibilities.”[13]  I suggest that this similarity between the structure of language and the forager worldview is not coincidental, but rather arises from the fact that both conceptual systems are created by the innate connectivity and patterning instinct of the pfc.


[1] Winkelman, M. (2002). “Shamanism and Cognitive Evolution.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 12(1), 71-101.

[2] Nelson, R. K. (2002). “The watchful world”, in G. Harvey, (ed.), Readings in Indigenous Religions. New York: Continuum, pp. 343-364.

[3] Cited in Lévi-Strauss, C. (1966). The Savage Mind, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

[4] Wright (2009) op. cit., 19-20.

[5] Rose, D. B. (2002). “Sacred site, ancestral clearing, and environmental ethics”, in G. Harvey, (ed.), Readings in Indigenous Religions. New York: Continuum, pp. 319-342.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Arden, H. (1994). Dreamkeepers: A Spirit-Journey into Aboriginal Australia, New York: HarperCollins, 3-4.

[8] Rose, D. B. (1996). Nourishing Terrains: Australian Aboriginal Views of Landscape and Wilderness, Canberra: Australian Heritage Commission, 39-40.

[9] Rose (2002) op. cit.

[10] Arden (1994) op. cit., 23.

[11] Rose (2002) op. cit.

[12] See Chapter 3, “What’s special about language?”, page 29.

[13] Ibid.

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May 22, 2012

“Where am I? Among what do I move?”

Posted in Hunter-gatherers tagged , at 4:11 pm by Jeremy

I’m going to resume posting on this blog sections of the book I’m writing entitled Liology: Towards an Integration of Science and Meaning.  Last year, I posted in this blog the first four chapters of the book.  Today, I’m beginning with the first section of my chapter on the world of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, entitled “The Giving Environment: The World of the Hunter-Gatherers.”  It will examine their lifestyle and cosmology, and identify their values which are in many ways so fundamentally different from our own.

The first section, below, is called “Where am I?  Among what do I move?” is about some of the conceptual issues arising from any serious study of hunter-gatherer cosmology:

  • the common error of applying anachronistic viewpoints and values to hunter-gatherers;
  • the question whether any universal values can actually be applied to such a diverse group;
  • how valid is it to use observations about contemporary hunter-gatherer groups to understand those from our distant past.

As always, please feel free to leave me any constructive comments or thoughts.

‘Where am I?  Among what do I move?”

Modern political commentators frequently like to use the example of hunter-gatherers to make their point about our underlying human nature, as if to show that their position is unassailably correct.  It’s a tradition that goes back hundreds of years.  The seventeenth century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, famously wrote that “the state of men without civil society (which state may be called the state of nature) is nothing but a war of all against all,” leading to “continual fear, and danger of violent death,” as a result of which the life of man was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”[1]

For Thomas Hobbes, the lives of hunter-gatherers were “nasty, brutish and short.”

In the turning intellectual tides of the following century, the diametrically opposed romantic myth of the “noble savage,” associated with the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, took hold of the European imagination.[2]*  Nowadays, the references are more sophisticated but the underlying themes remain.  Liberal commentators like to emphasize the group-oriented, sharing mentality of our hunter-gatherer ancestors (also sometimes referred to as “foragers”), while their conservative opponents continue the Hobbesian line, pointing to the endemic warfare of many pre-civilized cultures.

For Rousseau, hunter-gatherers were “noble savages.”

In reality, any attempt to understand the hunter-gatherer worldview through the lens of our modern value system is doomed to draw a distorted and inaccurate picture.  Such perspectives are by their very nature anachronistic, using conceptual structures that developed many thousands of years after the patterns of thought evolved that infuse hunter-gatherer cognition.  Therefore, this chapter attempts the daunting challenge of painting an impression of the hunter-gatherer worldview without applying modern values to the picture.  The approach is first to identify the underpinnings of how foragers made sense of their world, then to relate this to the mythic consciousness described in the previous chapter, and finally to trace how certain core values characteristic to hunter-gatherers arose from this worldview.

But first, another potential conceptual stumbling block has to be resolved.  A chapter on the “hunter-gatherer worldview” implicitly assumes that there is, in fact, a unitary worldview of hunter-gatherers that can be described.  How can that be?  How can a group of forest-dwellers deep in the heart of the Amazon see the world in the same way as a community of Inuit up in the Arctic circle?  For that matter, since hunter-gatherers have been around since time immemorial, who’s to say if their worldview today has any similarity to that of their ancestors in past millennia?  There is some truth in these objections.  The languages and the specific attributes of the environment differ drastically for different hunter-gatherer cultures.  One culture may be oriented around a river, another around the migration of a particular animal.  In fact, the differences between various cultures are some of the marvels of our world and are justifiably celebrated as such.  But over many decades of anthropological research, there has been an increasing realization of what the prominent anthropologist Bruce Trigger calls “certain cross-cultural uniformities in human behavior.”[3]  These uniformities tend to exist under the surface of the specific beliefs and practices of different forager groups, leading to underlying patterns of thought that are remarkably similar across cultures even while the manifestations of those patterns are delightfully unique for each culture. These underlying patterns relate to what’s been described as “that organization of ideas which answers to a man the questions: Where am I?  Among what do I move?  What are my relations to these things?”[4]  They are the underlying structures of the hunter-gatherer’s “cognitive orientation in a cosmos.”[5] In the words of anthropologist A. Irving Hallowell, “there are basic premises and principles implied, even if these do not happen to be consciously formulated and articulated by the people themselves.”[6]  In short, they form the infrastructure of the hunter-gatherer worldview, and it’s this chapter’s mission to try to describe them.

Given the earlier warning about anachronisms, it’s important to spend a moment on another potential source of controversy in understanding hunter-gatherer cultures: whether or not it’s valid to use contemporary observations made by anthropologists to impute the primordial hunter-gatherer worldview all the way back to Upper Paleolithic days.

Kalahari Bushmen: is it valid to use modern hunter-gatherers as a model of earlier pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer societies?

The 19th century archaeologist Sir John Lubbock, who first coined the terms Paleolithic and Neolithic, kicked off this tradition, writing a bestseller called Pre-historic Times in which he considered the foragers of his era as “the living representatives of the hunter-gatherers of the Upper Paleolithic.”[7]  We’ve come a long way since then, and modern theorists warn that it’s “unreliable to generalize from the ethnographic present to the paleolithic past without explicit supporting evidence.”[8]  After all, not only is there the question of how hunter-gatherer cosmology may have evolved on its own accord, but there’s also the inevitable influence from agricultural communities surrounding those few hunter-gatherer societies that still remain.  Nevertheless, in the words of modern scholar Robert Wright, “they’re the best clues we’ll ever have to generic religious beliefs circa 12,000 BCE, before the invention of agriculture.  Cave paintings are attractive, but they don’t talk.”[9]*  Given our search for underlying uniformities in the hunter-gatherer worldview, it seems reasonable to apply the general principle that the more you see a structural pattern in different contemporary hunter-gatherer cultures, the more confidently you can apply this pattern to the past.

[Next post: Everything is connected]


[1] Hobbes, T. (1651).  Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, London: Andrew Crooke, Chapter XIII.

[2] See Keeley, L. H. (1996). War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage, New York: Oxford University Press, 5-8, for a detailed summary of the Hobbes versus Rousseau debate.  However, it should be noted that Rousseau, although an ardent critic of Hobbes, in fact never used the “noble savage” phrase, which was coined by the English poet John Dryden in 1672 in the poem “The Conquest of Granada.”

[3] Trigger, B. G. (2003). Understanding Early Civilizations, New York: Cambridge University Press, 683.

[4] Redfield, R. (1952).  “The Primitive World View”, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 96, 30-36.

[5] Hallowell, A. I. (1960/2002). “Ojibwa ontology, behavior, and world view”, in G. Harvey, (ed.), Readings in Indigenous Religions. New York: Continuum, 19-20.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Renfrew, C. (2007). Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind, New York: Modern Library: Random House, 152.

[8] Ibid., 118-19.

[9] Wright, R. (2009). The Evolution of God, New York: Hachette Book Group, 17.  His view is echoed by renowned archaeologist Graeme Barker who writes “… although there is today, and has been in the recent past, considerable variability in forager societies, much more striking are the similarities that can be discerned in the economic, organizational, and ideational or cognitive solutions that most of them have developed for living as they do.  For all the difficulties of using ethnographic material, the behaviours of recent and present-day foragers remain an invaluable resource for helping us reflect on the likely characteristics of forager behaviours before farming.”  See Barker, G. (2009). The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory: Why did Foragers become Farmers?, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 44.

November 28, 2010

The patterning instinct

Posted in Hunter-gatherers, Language and Myth tagged , , , , at 12:11 am by Jeremy

The human prefrontal cortex (pfc) instills in us a patterning instinct that shapes patterns of meaning to make sense of our world.  This section from my book Finding the Li: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness explains how this patterning instinct forms the essence of our mythic consciousness that is the source of religious thought.  It then begins to explore the question of how an infant’s pfc first begins to lock into the patterns of meaning of its specific culture.

[PREVIOUS POST]

The patterning instinct

The !Kung Bushmen possess one of the most ancient unbroken cultural traditions in the world.  As noted earlier, they belong genetically to one of the earliest lineages of the human race, dating back to before the takeover by the L3 lineage which now dominates the globe.  Their technology, “if uncovered by an archeologist and taken in isolation, would place them in the late Stone Age.”  Not surprisingly, anthropologists have been drawn to study them to gain insights into the earliest forms of human cognition.  Merlin Donald describes how “myth and religion permeate every activity” of their daily lives from the way they hunt wild animals to the celebration of a girl’s first menstruation.  The !Kung take their beliefs so seriously that they will rarely even discuss them; when they do, it’s only with hushed voices, and they’re afraid even to utter the names of their gods.  Donald summarizes their mythical thought  as “a unified, collectively held system of explanatory and regulatory metaphors.” He sees their sophisticated and complex ritual and myth as a paradigmatic example of how the human mind “has expanded its reach … to a comprehensive modeling of the entire human universe.”[1]

!Kung Bushmen: their mythic consciousness arises from the patterning instinct of the pfc

This is the essence of the mythic consciousness that arose with the Upper Paleolithic revolution, and it’s one that Donald relates closely to the development of fully modern language.  Modern language was first used, he proposes, “to construct conceptual models of the human universe.  Its function was evidently tied to the development of integrative thought – to the grand unifying synthesis of formerly disconnected, time-bound snippets of information.”  The pre-eminence of myth in early human society, Donald argues, is “testimony that humans were using language for a totally new kind of integrative thought,” which involved the “first attempts at symbolic models of the human universe.”[2] This is why, as Boyer has put it, “religion as we know it probably appeared with the modern mind.”[3]

In the previous chapter, we discussed how the pfc’s patterning instinct works to mold the young infant’s brain by picking up patterns in the voices she hears around her until she locks into those sounds that match her particular language, ignoring those that don’t fit.[4] Similarly, we now see the pfc honing into patterns of meaning to make sense of the everyday world, to create Donald’s “comprehensive modeling of the entire human universe.”  Crucially, the way the pfc applies meaning is to use the same symbolic behavior that it had developed for its social and linguistic capabilities.  As Deacon describes it, “the symbolic capacity seems to have brought with it a predisposition to project itself into what it models.”  Deacon compares the pfc’s symbolic predisposition to the relentlessly focused perceptions of an autistic savant.  The savant, he writes, “instead of seeing a field of wildflowers, sees 247 flowers.  Similarly, we don’t just see a world of physical processes, accidents, reproducing organisms, and biological information processors churning out complex plans, desires, and needs.  Instead, we see the handiwork of an infinite wisdom, the working out of a divine plan, the children of a creator, and a conflict between those on the side of good and those on the side of evil.”  This is the inevitable and all-embracing power of the mythic consciousness.  “Wherever we look, we expect to find purpose.  All things can be seen as signs and symbols of an all-knowing consciousness at work… We are not just applying symbolic interpretations to human words and events; all the universe has become a symbol.”[5]

It’s only in recent years that advances in cognitive neuroscience have enabled the linkage of our symbolic drive for meaning with the physiology of the pfc.  However, earlier observers have at times noticed the same unyielding drive for meaning in the human condition without the explicit attribution to the pfc.  The father of evolutionary theory, Charles Darwin, saw this “craving to understand” as a natural consequence of human cognition, writing that “as soon as the important faculties of the imagination, wonder, and curiosity, together with some power of reasoning, had become partially developed, man would naturally crave to understand what was passing around him, and would have vaguely speculated on his own existence.”[6] The influential 20th century anthropologist Clifford Geertz saw something similar, describing a human as a “symbolizing, conceptualizing, meaning-seeking animal,” whose “drive to make sense out of experience, to give it form and order, is evidently as real and as pressing as the more familiar biological needs.”  Geertz sees religion, art and ideology – the products of mythic consciousness – as “attempts to provide orientation for an organism which cannot live in a world it is unable to understand.”[7] More recently, other observers have arrived at similar conceptions to the pfc’s patterning instinct, one group describing a “cognitive imperative” for humans to “construct myths to explain their world,” and another researcher summarizing it as a “narrative drive” to “create meaning to our world.”[8]

Clifford Geertz: saw a human as a "symbolizing, conceptualizing, meaning-seeking animal"

Powerful as this patterning instinct of the pfc appears to be, we would severely understate the overwhelming force of its influence in molding our human consciousness unless we look more closely at the process of how the molding and patterning takes place in an infant’s developing mind.  Just as language “warps the perception” of an infant as she listens to the patterns of sounds around her, to the extent that a grown Japanese person can’t distinguish between the sounds /r/ and /l/, so the mythic patterns of thought informing the culture a child is born into will literally shape how that child’s pfc constructs meaning in her world.  It’s as though there is an external pfc created by the cumulative symbolic constructions of generations of minds gone before, which has already assembled the comprehensive mythological structures of thought that will be inherited by the new generation.  How this “external pfc” molds each individual’s own pfc as they grow up in their culture is what we’ll now examine.


[1] Donald, M. (1991). Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 213-16, 267.  Donald cites an earlier study of the !Kung Bushmen in his evaluation of their cultural traditions: Lee, R.B. and De Vore, I. (1976).  Kalahari hunter-gatherers: Studies of the !Kung Sang and their neighbors. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Boyer (2001) op. cit., 323.

[4] Chapter 3, page 39.

[5] Deacon (1997) op. cit., 435.

[6] Cited from Darwin, C. (1871)The Descent of Man by Sjöblom (2007) op. cit.

[7] Cited by Guthrie (1993) op. cit., 32.

[8] d’Aquili, E., and Newberg, A. B. (1999). The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 86; Sjöblom (2007) op. cit.

May 19, 2010

Giving and taking: an exploration of hunter-gatherer values

Posted in Hunter-gatherers, Values and the pfc tagged , at 4:30 pm by Jeremy

Christopher Columbus couldn’t believe his luck.  He’d finally landed in the New World on the island of Hispaniola and was ready to do battle to get what he could for himself and the King of Spain.

Columbus in Hispaniola: he couldn't believe his luck

But instead, there was no battle to be fought.  Anything he or his crew wanted, the natives would just give to them with a smile.  Here’s how he described it in his journal:

[T]hey are so artless and free with all they possess, that no one would believe it without having seen it.  Of anything they have, if you ask them for it, they never say no; rather they invite the person to share it, and show as much love as if they were giving their hearts; and whether the thing be of value or of small price, at once they are content with whatever little thing of whatever kind may be given to them.[1]

And it wasn’t just like this in the New World.  Three hundred years later, on the other side of the world, Captain James Cook arrived in what would become New South Wales in Australia, and was equally flabbergasted by the natives’ lack of attachment to possessions, writing:

They live in a Tranquillity which is not disturb’d by the Inequality of Condition: The Earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life, they covet not Magnificent Houses, Household-stuff etc… In short they seem’d to set no value upon any thing we gave them… this in my opinion argues that they think themselves provided with all the necessarys of Life and that they have no superfluities.[2]

The myth of the Noble Savage was inspired by real experience of hunter-gatherers.

No wonder the romantic myth of the Noble Savage grew up in Europe in the age of colonialism.  In both cases, the indigenous people discovered by Columbus and Cook (and soon to be devastated by violence and disease) were hunter-gatherers, people who still lived their lives using an approach that had served humans well for hundreds of thousands of years, or about 99% of our history.  In fact, as evolutionary psychologists explain, our minds evolved in the hunter-gatherer environment, as “generation after generation… natural selection slowly sculpted the human brain, favoring circuitry that was good at solving the day-to-day problems of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.”  The result being that “our modern skulls house a stone age mind.”[3]

But wait a minute… If we all have hunter-gatherer minds, how come none of us are “artless and free” with what we possess, and as for living in “Tranquillity”… well, if only!  My “layered values” hypothesis argues that, in fact, our modern values are formed through several layers of “value constellations” that have evolved culturally over thousands of years.  In this hypothesis, the hunter-gatherer values form the core of everything that follows.  So those values may be very different from the way we live our lives today, but they’re fundamental to understanding how we choose right from wrong even in our modern world.

Warfare has been a constant throughout human history.

And sad to say, it wasn’t all artless tranquility.  Far from it.  As hunter-gatherers, we humans were continually fighting each other, in the form of one clan against the other.  In an influential book published in 1996, Lawrence Keeley systematically showed how warfare has been a human constant since well before the beginning of recorded history.[4] But controversy still rages over whether we should view that prehistoric aggression as warfare or merely skirmishes, feuds between two closely-knit groups fighting over a woman or a breach of honor.  Regardless of how we characterize it, though, most people nowadays agree that your chances of meeting a violent death were far higher as a hunter-gatherer than any time since, even during the ghastly world wars of the 20th century.

Which leads back to that question that’s been asked over and over about human nature: are we fundamentally warlike or peace-loving?  This is a theme that has frequently been hijacked by political agendas: liberals may claim that fundamentally we’re all a brotherhood of man, while conservatives may argue that we need strong values imposed on us to prevent us from falling back to a state of nature.  But what are we really?

In a series of recent papers, Santa Fe Institute economist Samuel Bowles offers a convincing answer to this question, arguing that our hunter-gatherer ancestors evolved as “parochial altruists.”[5] The “parochial” refers to the fact that they identified only with their particular group. Within that group, they would share generously, to the point of sacrificing their own lives to defend their community.  But when it came to fighting against another community, there would be no holds barred.  Bowles’ argument is that in a battle between two groups, a group of “parochial altruists” ready to sacrifice their own lives for their compatriots is more likely to prevail than a selfish group where every man is just looking out for himself or his direct family.

In fact, in modeling these scenarios, Bowles has shown a “markedly higher reproductive success of predominantly parochial altruist groups when interacting with groups with fewer parochial altruists,” resulting in the possibility of very rapid evolution of these traits, “occurring in less than 200 generations, or about 5,000 years.”[6]

Hunter-gatherers have no hesitation demanding your generosity.

Interestingly, even within the group, the kind of altruism that evolved was different from the good-natured charity that we idealize in our modern era.  Rather, there was generally an assertive egalitarianism, an intense social pressure towards sharing that would have made modern philanthropists mighty uncomfortable.  Anthropologist Nicholas Peterson describes what he calls “demand sharing,” where in a typical hunter-gatherer group, someone might come up to you and announce what they want from you, expecting you to give it to them without hesitation.

A related phenomenon to this is the scorn that might be heaped on someone who gives a big gift to the community.  We would normally expect a sizable gift to be met with gratitude, but anthropologist Elizabeth Cashdan explains this response as part of the intense social pressure towards egalitarianism:

Bushman groups… are … typified by strong and continual socialization against hoarding (i.e., toward economic equality) and against displays of arrogance and authority (i.e., toward social and political equality)… [Richard] Lee has eloquently described how his attempts to provide a large ox for a Christmas feast were met with scorn by the !Kung recipients, the scorn succeeding as a mechanism that prevents any tendency on the part of a good hunter or provider to become arrogant and think of himself as a “big man.” The proper behavior of a !Kung hunter who has made a big kill is to speak of it in passing and in a deprecating manner; if an individual does not minimize or speak lightly of his own accomplishments, his friends and relatives will not hesitate to do it for him.[7]

Once again, our economic theorists have explanations for this type of behavior.  For decades, it’s been known that the “reciprocal altruism” or tit-for-tat strategy – otherwise known as “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” – is a powerful force in evolution, not just for humans but for other species interacting with each other.  But recently, using lab experiments and game-theory models, Fehr & Fischbacher have shown that people have a natural tendency for something that goes beyond reciprocal altruism, which they refer to “altruistic punishment,” or “a propensity to impose sanctions on others for norm violations.”  In other words, people are generally willing to “bear the cost of rewarding or punishing” someone who breaks the rules “even if they gain no individual economic benefit whatsoever from their acts.”[8]

Fehr and Fischbacher have modeled this trait and shown that groups with members committed to altruistic punishment are more likely to be successful over the long-term than groups without a punishment mechanism.  And interestingly, groups that go further and punish the non-punishers (those laissez-faire types who don’t do anything wrong but let others do what they want) are the most successful of all.

With all this intense social pressure on you, is it any wonder that you’d want to give anything you had to the group, rather than risk some kind of social punishment?  Anthropologist Woodburn describes what this means in real life to a member of the Hadza hunter-gatherer group:

The unremitting demands Hadza make on one another are highly conspicuous and often go beyond asking for things for which the owner has no immediate need. A man who obtains a ball of tobacco, a shirt or a cloth by trading with or begging from non-Hadza is unlikely to keep it for long unless he is very determined and willing to make himself unpopular. He will be asked for it endlessly.[9]

A Hadza man: won't keep his own tobacco for very long.

As a result of this, Woodburn believes that “greater equality of wealth, of power and of prestige has been achieved in certain hunting and gathering societies than in any other human societies.”  Woodburn explains that these kind of “assertively egalitarian” groups have economies based on “immediate return,” rather than delayed return.  That is, in these societies, people go out hunting or gathering, and eat whatever they obtain that same day or the over the next few days.  They don’t process or store their food.  The tools and weapons they use are fairly simple, portable and easy to replace.  These were the “easy come, easy go” kind of people that Columbus and Cook came across hundreds of years ago.

And they generally extended that “easy come, easy go” attitude to the natural world around them.  There was, after all, no need to store things if Nature did the storing for you.  Depending on the season, it might be the best time for berries or grubs, pigs or deer, root vegetables or nuts.  But there was always something around.  And for this reason, hunter-gatherers tend to view the natural world as what anthropologist Bird-David calls a “giving environment.”  Here’s how she describes the worldview of the hunter-gatherers of South India, called the Nayaka:

Nayaka look on the forest as they do on a mother or father.  For them, it is not something ‘out there’ that responds mechanically or passively but like a parent, it provides food unconditionally to its children.  Nayaka refer, for example, to the spirits that inhabit hills, rivers, and rocks in the forest and to the spirits of their immediate forefathers alike as dod appa (‘big father’) and dod awa (‘big mother’)…  They believe that dod appa and dod awa look after them and provide for their needs.  If Nayaka misbehave, as parents do these spirits inflict upon them aches and pains, removing them when they express regret and promise to mend their ways; they never punish by withholding food.[10]

The Nayaka look on Nature as their mother-and-father.

So maybe Captain James Cook wasn’t so far off when he observed that the indigenous people “live in a Tranquillity which is not disturb’d by the Inequality of Condition,” and “think themselves provided with all the necessarys of Life.”  But the clichés that have developed since then – whether it’s the “noble savage” or the “warlike savage” –  tend to reflect the modern moral values being applied to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle rather than telling us about the people themselves.  Liberal thinkers who view hunter-gatherers as ideals of egalitarianism, and conservative thinkers who view them as warlike brutes, are really just creating anachronisms, since the values they’re using to judge early hunter-gatherers hadn’t even come into existence at that time.

Here’s what we really can say, in general terms, about the hunter-gatherer value constellation:

  • They tend to be fiercely generous, altruistic and egalitarian within their group;
  • They may sometimes be fiercely aggressive towards other groups;
  • They place minimal value (or even negative value) on possessions; and
  • They view the natural world as a giving environment, intimately connected to them.

So, when we look at this set of values, similar in some ways to our own but also so different in other ways, it’s reasonable to ask ourselves how did we ever get from there to here?  What happened to the human race?  The answer, in one word… agriculture.  And in my next post, we’ll explore the layer of values that the rise of agriculture placed over these core hunter-gatherer values.[11]


[1] Quoted by Stannard, D. E. (1992). American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World, New York: Oxford University Press.

[2] Quoted by Bellwood, P. (2005). First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

[3] Cosmides, L., and Tooby, J. (2006). “Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer.” Center for Evolutionary Psychology, UCSB. City: Santa Barbara.

[4] Keeley, L. ((1996).  War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage, New York: Oxford University Press.

[5] Bowles, S. (2008). “Conflict: Altruism’s midwife.” Nature, 456, 326-327; Bowles, S. (2009). “Did Warfare Among Ancestral Hunter-Gatherers Affect the Evolution of Human Social Behaviors?” Science, 324, 1293-1298.

[6] Choi, J.K., and Bowles, S. (2007). “The Coevolution of Parochial Altruism and War.” Science, 318, 636-640.

[7] Cashdan, E. A. (1980). “Egalitarianism among Hunters and Gatherers.” American Anthropologist, 82(1), 116-120.

[8] Fehr, E., and Fischbacher, U. (2003). “The nature of human altruism.” Nature, 425, 785-791.

[9] Woodburn, J. (1982). “Egalitarian Societies.” Man, 17(3), 431-451.

[10] Bird-David, N. (1990). “The Giving Environment: Another Perspective on the Economic System of Gatherer-Hunters.” Current Anthropology, 31(2), 189-196.

[11] Although agriculture is the major driver of the next value constellation, there is a strong line of argument that sees “sedentism” – hunting and gathering within an increasingly settled and fixed location – as an intermediary stage between true hunter-gatherer and agricultural lifestyles.