June 29, 2012

The worldwide reach of shamanism

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 5:46 pm by Jeremy

This section of my book begins an examination of shamanism.  It kicks off by defining it, looking at its worldwide reach and asking why shamanism got to be so global…

[Previous section: The hunter-gatherer view of the natural world]

The worldwide reach of shamanism

Shamanism is one of those controversial terms that can spark innumerable debates among both academics and spiritual seekers, such as whether it should be identified with a specific region, how old it is, and even how it should be defined.  For our purposes, a shaman can be understood as a particular person within a hunter-gatherer society who is believed to have the ability to mediate between the everyday world and the spirit worlds (of which there are frequently two: an upper world in the sky and a lower world beneath the earth).[1]*

A shaman is someone who mediates between the everyday world and the spirit worlds

This mediation generally takes the form of a journey, in which the shaman’s spirit leaves his regular body to visit the other worlds.  In order to embark on this journey, the shaman needs to get himself into a kind of ecstatic trance, something he does through a combination of different kinds of activities: chanting, fasting, hyperventilating, prolonged rhythmic dancing, and frequently ingesting intoxicating or hallucinogenic substances.  Often, this initiation of the journey is a community event, in which others join in the chanting or dancing, but it can also be a solitary experience for the shaman.  While he’s on the journey, the shaman’s body will sometimes be seen to be shaking and “talking in tongues,” while the shaman’s spirit may be taking the form of another animal.  Once he’s in one of the spirit worlds, the shaman will engage in the (oftentimes terrifying) experience of communicating with the spirits, usually with the goal of accomplishing a specific need of the community, which might include healing, controlling the activities of the wild animals or possibly influencing the weather.[2]

Shamanism was first by observed by Western travelers in Siberia and Central Asia and the word originated from the Tungusic tribes of Eastern Siberia where the central figure of the community was called the saman.[3]  Because of this, some purists have insisted that the term should be reserved only for the specific kind of shamanism practiced in Siberia and Central Asia.

Shamanism was first observed by Western travelers in the Tungusic tribe of Siberia

At the other extreme, various post-modernists have argued that although something like shamanism may exist around the world, no meaningful generalizations can be made about its different forms, and each variety should be understood separately, within its own context.[4]  However, other studies of shamanism around the world have produced overwhelmingly convincing evidence showing a pattern of the type of shamanistic practices described above in the vast majority of forager cultures worldwide, leading to the reasonable conclusion that shamanism is in fact a universal hunter-gatherer practice and there is “every reason to study them together with Siberian shamanism.”[5]

Just as important as the worldwide reach of shamanism is its continued influence on major cultural traditions that evolved well beyond shamanism’s hunter-gatherer origins.  For example, significant shamanistic influences have been identified in the practices of traditional Indian Yoga, in some of the underlying practices of ancient Chinese culture, and in the Aztec and Mayan civilizations of Mesoamerica.[6]*

Shamanic practices have been identified as the original source of modern yoga

Why would shamanism be so prevalent all around the world?  There are two possible explanations for this.  One theory postulates shamanism as a tradition practiced in the earliest days of modern humans, back in the time when the first epic journey was being taken out of Africa.  Under this “diffusion” hypothesis, the original Upper Paleolithic immigrants to Europe brought shamanistic beliefs with them, as did their fellow travelers who migrated throughout Asia.  Some of those Asian settlers then crossed the Bering Straits around thirteen thousand years ago, making it all the way down to the southern part of South America within a couple of thousand years, along with their shamanistic practices.  This theory thus sees shamanism as “a very ancient mythological base that was shared by Asia and America on a Paleolithic level.”[7]  The other theory asserts that shamanism is “the consequence of independent inventions, or derivations, from a common neuropsychology” of human beings, and would therefore be expected to emerge in different hunter-gatherer societies worldwide independent of any diffusion.[8]  Importantly, these two theories are not mutually exclusive: shamanism could be an expected result of the underlying hunter-gatherer worldview as described earlier, as well as having diffused historically from the original “out of Africa” migration.[9]*  In this case, shamanism should have been an integral part of the early human “mythic consciousness” discussed in the previous chapter, and its reliance on altered states of consciousness might tell us something about the evolving role of the pfc in the human mind.


[1] See Eliade, M. (1964/2004). Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Princeton: Princeton University Press, chapter 8, “Shamanism and Cosmology”, 259-287.  While shamanism is sometimes viewed as existing in both hunter-gatherer and agricultural societies, Winkelman has argued convincingly that the socio-cognitive shifts caused by agriculture lead to a “transformation of the shaman into other types of magico-religious healing practitioners,” and that true shamanism is in fact limited to forager societies.  This issue, however, does not affect the discussion of shamanism as a hunter-gatherer phenomenon presented here.  See Winkelman, M. J. (1990). “Shamans and Other “Magico-Religious” Healers: A Cross-Cultural Study of Their Origins, Nature, and Social Transformations.” Ethos, 18(3), 308-352.

[2] For summary descriptions and definitions of shaman practices, see Lewis-Williams, D. (2002). The Mind In the Cave, London: Thames & Hudson, 133; Winkelman, M. (2002). “Shamanism and Cognitive Evolution.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 12(1), 71-101; Winkelman, M. (1990) op. cit.; Grosman, L., Munro, N. D., and Belfer-Cohen, A. (2008). “A 12,000-year-old Shaman burial from the southern Levant (Israel).” PNAS, 105(46), 17665-17669; Eliade (1964/2004) op. cit., passim.

[3] Eliade (1964/2004) op. cit., 4.

[4] See discussions of this issue in Winkelman (1990) op. cit.; Wright (2009) op. cit., 490-91n; D.S. Whitley in Winkelman (2002) op. cit.

[5] Eliade (1964/2004) op. cit., 4.  Also, see Winkelman (1990) op. cit. and Lewis-Williams (2002) op. cit.

[6] In the case of Yoga, Feuerstein describes “many aspects and motifs of Shamanism” including the “yogin’s ecstatic introversion and mystical ascent,” a number of the yogic postures including the cross-legged sitting and the tradition of tapas or asceticism.  See Feuerstein, G. (1998). The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice, Prescott, Arizona: Hohm Press, 94-5.  In the case of Chinese culture, Chang describes the “close relationship with shamanism” of ancient Chinese civilization in Chang, K.-C. (2000). “Ancient China and Its Anthropological Significance”, in M. Lamberg-Karlovsky, (ed.), The Breakout: The Origins of Civilization. Cambridge, Mass.: Peabody Museum, pp. 1-11; Creel describes the early Chinese tradition of “wu, often called ‘shamans,’ who held séances with spirits and were believed able to heal the sick” in Creel, H. G. (1970). What Is Taoism? and Other Studies in Chinese Cultural History, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 11-12; and Eliade notes the “presence of a considerable number of shamanic techniques throughout the course of Chinese history,” in Eliade (1964/2004) op. cit., 456-7.  Chang (2000) op. cit. notes the shamanistic sources of Mayan and Aztec practices, referring to the research of Peter T. Furst.

[7] Willey, G. R. (2000). “Ancient Chinese, New World, and Near Eastern Ideological Traditions: Some Observations”, in M. Lamberg-Karlovsky, (ed.), The Breakout: The Origins of Civilization. Cambridge, Mass.: Peabody Museum Monographs, pp. 25-36.  See also Jean Clottes in Winkelman (2002) op. cit.; Winkelman (1990) op. cit.; Eliade (1964/2004) op. cit., 333.

[8] Winkelman (2002) op. cit.

[9] In his argument for a “common neuropsychology,” Winkelman points out that “one must ask why shamanic practices should maintain such similarity across time and societies,  while the language and other social variables such as marriage patterns, family organization, marital residence, and kinship terminology should acquire such divergent patterns.”  He concludes that “even if the present distribution of shamanism can be attributed to diffusion from an original common source, it would not have persisted if it were based merely upon a diffused system of belief and not also upon some other objective features that made it an adaptive response.” – Winkelman (1990) op. cit.

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June 8, 2012

The hunter-gatherer view of the natural world

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 6:08 pm by Jeremy

In this section of my book, I explore some of the core hunter-gatherer perceptions of the natural world.  To the early hunter-gatherers, which is how our ancestors lived for 99% of our human history, the earth was a giving environment.  It was also in a state of continual transformation…

[Previous section: Everything is connected]

The giving earth

If everything is connected in the hunter-gatherer worldview, it seems to be the earth that forms the hub of this web of connectivity.  As the aboriginal man Hobbles Danaiyarri describes it, “Everything come up out of ground – language, people, emu, kangaroo, grass.”[1]  In the aboriginal Dreamtime, certain places have a special connection to one or another manifestation of the creative ancestors.  “Our country,” explains Nganyintja Ilyatjari, “is full of sacred places. The kangaroo Dreaming has been there since the beginning, the wild fig Dreaming has been there since the beginning, many other women’s Dreamings are also there.”[2]  The earth is seen as not only where we come from, but also where we go back to when we die.  “Variously known as spirits, dead bodies, the old people, or the ancestors, the people who belonged to country in life continue to belong to it in death.”[3]

Aboriginals sing out loud to the country when they go into the bush

This idea has a far more tangible and immediate presence to it than the modern version of “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”  For example, many aboriginal groups in Australia speak directly to the “old people” when they go out into the bush.  They call or sing out loud to the country, the Dreamings, the other living beings and the ancestors, treating them as though they’re fully living members of an extended family.  Sometimes, they will use a visit to “country” (as they call their ancestral land) as an opportunity to introduce new arrivals such as youngsters or newly married spouses to the “old people”.[4]  This intimate connection of the earth to the ancestors also informs aboriginal land management practices.  The Yanyuwa, for example, see the burning of country as “an important way of demonstrating a continuity with the people who have died, their ancestors.”  Until quite recently, after burning a section of “country,” they would leave it for several days “so the spirits of the deceased could hunt first.”[5]

The close linkage of earth, spirits and family is shared by hunter-gatherer societies across the world.  In the forested Gir Valley in the Nilgiri region of South India, the Nayaka foragers “periodically invite local devaru [spirits] to visit them and share with them.”  The Nayaka “appreciate that they share the local environment with some of these beings” and view them as an integral part of the family.  In fact, they call them nama sonta, “our relatives,” and refer to specific devaru as “grandmother,” or “grandfather,” and even sometimes “big mother and father.”[6]  Similarly, on the other side of the world, the Ojibwa Indians refer to the natural spirits as “our grandfathers.”[7]

The Nayaka look on nature as their mother-and-father

Nurit Bird-David, an anthropologist who has studied the Nayaka extensively, has proposed that this linkage of nature and family is a manifestation of what she calls a “root metaphor” of FOREST AS PARENT.   Referring to George Lakoff’s ground-breaking insights into our pervasive use of metaphor to build abstract meaning from the scaffolding of the tangible world,[8] she argues that such a root metaphor not only offers a “means of ‘seeing’ the world” but also governs “everyday functioning down to the most mundane details.”  She explains that the “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.”  This root metaphor leads to a relationship of trust with the natural environment rather than one characterized primarily by anxiety or fear.  Bird-David explains that, just as a Nayaka parent may punish a misbehaving child with a spanking but would never dream of withholding food, so the spirits of the forest may inflict aches and pains on an errant Nayaka, but would still provide them with their means of nourishment.  Following on from this metaphor of FOREST AS PARENT, the Nayaka  refer to all social groupings outside of the immediate family unit as sonta, which means “something like an aggregate of relatives as close as siblings.”  It is on account of this root metaphor, Bird-David believes, that the Nayaka view their world as a “giving environment.”[9]  This would also account for the respectful but intimate way that hunter-gatherers tend to communicate with their spirits.  “Hunters don’t worship gods,” writes one observer, “they converse with local, earth- and sea-bound spirit persons without adoring them.”[10]*

Continual transformation

An important characteristic of a root metaphor, such as the one described by Bird-David, is that it can become so embedded in the collective consciousness of a culture that it’s not even viewed as a metaphor but as reality.  Generally, when we hear a metaphor, our capability for counterfactual thought reminds us that it’s not the real thing.  When we hear that “stocks are falling,” we don’t listen out for the sound of them hitting the floor.  But for most hunter-gatherer cultures, as anthropologist Graeme Barker points out, “non-human animals are not just like humans, they are persons.” As a result, “their environment is a treasure house of ‘personages’, each with language, reason, intellect, moral conscience, and knowledge, regardless of whether the outer shape is human, animal, reptile, or plant.  Thus the Jivaroan people of eastern Ecuador and Peru consider humans, animals, and plants as ‘person’ (aents), linked by blood ties and common ancestry.”[11]

This view is understandable in light of the evolutionary development of mythic consciousness described in the previous chapter.  Recall the observation of Pascal Boyer that “the only feature of humans that is always projected onto supernatural beings is the mind,” a phenomenon that derives from the central importance of theory of mind in the evolution of human consciousness.[12]  The attribution of mind to all other natural entities leads to a dynamic where an entity’s spirit or mind might remain stable but its outward bodily manifestations are capable of total transformation.  For example, as Barker explains, “as the whole world is self, killing a plant or animal is not murder but transformation.”  This is the reason why many hunter-gatherers have detailed sacred rituals around hunting animals, believing that although the flesh of the animal has been made available to them, the spirit of the animal remains sentient and needs to be treated with due respect and appreciation.[13]

The ability for sentience to shift from one form to another leads to a world without the sharp dividing lines between categories that we’re used to in our modern consciousness.  Rather, everything has the potential for transformation.  Hallowell, describing the Ojibwa worldview, notes that “the world of myth is not categorically distinct from the world as experienced by human beings in everyday life.  In the latter, as well as the former, no sharp lines can be drawn dividing living beings of the animate class because metamorphosis is possible.”[14]  Here’s how an Inuit woman living in the early 20th century, Nalungiaq, described her people’s beliefs in the original transformative capabilities of both humans and animals:

In the very earliest time when both people and animals lived on earth, a person could become an animal if he wanted to and an animal could become a human being. Sometimes they were people and sometimes animals and there was no difference.[15]

The Inuit creation myth is remarkably similar to that of the Aboriginal dreamtime

Nalungiaq seems to be narrating some version of a creation myth, remarkably similar in essence to the Aboriginal Dreamtime.  But virtually every hunter-gatherer culture also sees such transformations as something happening, not just in the past, but within its own society.  Most people are not considered capable of managing this metamorphosis of themselves at will, but in each society, specific individuals are believed to have the power to journey to a world where direct communication with the spirits is possible.  These individuals are generally known as shamans and the set of beliefs and practices around their spirit journeys goes by the name of shamanism.

[Next post: The worldwide reach of shamanism]


[1] Rose (1996) op. cit., 9.

[2] Ibid., 27-8.

[3] Ibid., 71.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Bradley, J. (1995) “Fire: emotion and politics; A Yanyuwa case study”, Country in Flames; Proceedings of the 1994 symposium on biodiversity and fire in North Australia, D Rose (ed.), pp 25-31.  Cited by Rose (1996).

[6] Bird-David, N. (2002). “‘Animism’ revisited: Personhood, environment, and relational epistemology”, in G. Harvey, (ed.), Readings in Indigenous Religions. New York: Continuum, pp. 72-105.

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

[8] See Chapter 3, page 41, “The metaphoric threshold.”

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

[10] Calvin Luther Martin, quoted in Barker (2009) op. cit., 409.  See also Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, New York: Basic Books, 69, for a description of the African Ituri pygmies’ perception that the forest “looks after” them.

[11] Barker (2009) op. cit.

[12] See Chapter 4, “Religion as a spandrel”, page 51.

[13] Barker (2009), op. cit., 59.

[14] Hallowell (1960/2002) op. cit., 34.

[15] Reported by ethnologist Knud Rasmussen, quoted by Abram, D. (1996). The Spell of the Sensuous, New York: Random House, 87.

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.

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.

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.

March 2, 2010

So What Really Makes Us Human?

Posted in Language and Myth tagged , , , , , , , at 2:38 pm by Jeremy

What is the human version of the elephant’s trunk?

Elephants have trunks; giraffes have necks; anteaters have tongues.  What do we humans have that makes us unique?  At first blush, it seems that answering that should be pretty easy, since we do so much that no other animal does: we build cities, write books, send rockets into space, create art and play music.  But these are all the results of our uniqueness, not the cause.  OK, how about language?  That seems to be something universal to all human beings, which no other animal possesses.[1] Language definitely is a major element in human uniqueness.  But what if we try to go back even further, before language as we know it fully developed?  What was it about our early ancestors that caused them to even begin the process that ended in language?

The influential cognitive neuroscientist Merlin Donald has suggested that, beginning as far back as two million years ago, there was a long and crucial period of human development that he calls the “mimetic phase.”  Here’s how he describes it:

a layer of cultural interaction that is based entirely on a collective web of conventional, expressive nonverbal actions.  Mimetic culture is the murky realm of eye contact, facial expressions, poses, attitude, body language, self-decoration, gesticulation, and tones of voice.[2]

What’s fascinating about the mimetic phase is that we modern humans never left it behind.  We’ve added language on top of it, but our mimetic communication is still, in Donald’s words, “the primary dimension that defines our personal identity.”  You can get a feeling for the power of mimetic expression when you think of communications we make that are non-verbal: prayer rituals, chanting and cheering in a sports stadium, expressions of contempt or praise, intimacy or hostility.  It’s amazing how much we can communicate without using a single word.

A cheering crowd reflects the continued power of mimetic communication.

So before we talked, we chanted, grunted, cheered and even sang.[3] But that still doesn’t explain how we started doing these things that no other creature had done over billions of years of evolution.  Over the past twenty years, a powerful theory, called the Social Brain Hypothesis, has gained increasing acceptance as an explanation for the development of our unique human cognition.  This hypothesis states that “intelligence evolved not to solve physical problems, but to process and use social information, such as who is allied with whom and who is related to whom.”[4]

The underlying logic of this approach is that, when hominids first began adapting themselves to a less wooded environment, they didn’t have a lot of physical advantages: they couldn’t compete well with other predators for food, and were pretty vulnerable themselves to hungry carnivores.  So, more than ever before, they banded together.  As they did so, they faced ever-increasing cognitive demands from being in bigger social groups.  And it wasn’t just the size of the group, but the complexity of the lifestyle that increased.  If you were going out with your buddies on a long hunting trip, how could you know for sure that nobody else was going to jump into bed with your partner while you were gone?

With dilemmas like this to face, early hominids got involved in “an ‘arms race’ of increasing social skill”, learning to use “manipulative tactics” to their best advantage.[5] But a newly emerging implication of this line of research is that cooperation may have played just as large a part as competition in contributing to our human uniqueness.  Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga summarizes this viewpoint as follows:

although cognition in general was driven mainly by social competition, the unique aspects of human cognition – the cognitive skills of shared goals, joint attention, joint intentions, and cooperative communication needed to create such things as complex technologies, cultural institutions, and systems of symbols – were driven, even constituted, not by social competition, but social cooperation.[6]

In fact, some prominent anthropologists go farther and suggest that it was “the particular demands” of our unusually “intense forms of pairbonding that was the critical factor that triggered” the evolution of our large brains.[7]

Whether it was competition, cooperation or love, all these new forms of social complexity required a radical breakthrough in the human brain: the ability to look at others and realize that they had a mind that functioned somewhat like your own; to realize that when they did something, they were most likely being motivated by the same sort of things that motivated you.  This realization has been called “theory of mind,” and in the past thirty years, has come to be recognized as fundamental to human development. [8]

Once you become aware that other people seem to have minds like yours, you will naturally start speculating on what goals, beliefs and intentions they might be holding in those minds.  And at that point, it takes only a small step to turn the gaze inward and start asking the same questions about your own mind.  A small step, but a gigantic leap for mankind.  Because that inward gaze, that application of “theory of mind” to one’s own mind, was what led to the dramatic emergence of self-awareness, the consciousness of oneself as an autonomously existing entity.[9]

It was in this momentous evolutionary transformation that the human prefrontal cortex (pfc) first initiated what Terrence Deacon calls “the translation of social behavior into symbolic form,” which I refer to as its “stirrings of power.” Neuroscientists have identified that the unique pfc-mediated attributes known as “executive function” – self-awareness, inhibition, symbolization, etc. – are the same skills required for theory of mind and other aspects of social interaction.[10] In particular, a part of the pfc called the medial frontal cortex has been identified as having “a special role in social cognition,” including knowledge about the self and perceptions of the motivations of others.[11]

Identifying hoofprints: an early adaptive advantage of the pfc.

In terms of daily survival, this meant that our early ancestors could take the same cognitive tools they were using to figure out the motivations of others, and apply them to the external world.  This would have opened up an enormous set of possibilities for better foraging.  Archaeologist Steve Mithen gives a great example of identifying hoofprints.  “Footprints,” he points out, “just like symbols, must be placed into an appropriate category if correct meaning is to be attributed.”[12] A deer’s hoofprint looks nothing like the deer itself, so only a human mind, equipped with its symbolizing pfc, is capable of imputing the meaning of the one from the other.

Another powerful capability arising from this new cognitive toolkit was a sense of past and future.  Research in neuroscience has shown that “thinking about the future, remembering the past, and taking another person’s perspective activate a common brain network involving the prefrontal cortex.”[13] As has been noted by psychiatrist Russell Barkley, without a sense of the future, it would be “nearly impossible” to exercise self-control.[14] After all, you’re not going to stop yourself from instant gratification unless you can convince yourself that the same “you” will still be existing in some future period.  This is the reason why little children, with undeveloped pfcs, have such difficulty deferring immediate rewards.

The cognitive toolbox of the pfc, in Deacon’s words, “provides a means of representing features of a world that no other creature experiences, the world of the abstract.”[15] But these great leaps in human capability didn’t come without some dire costs.  Perhaps the greatest of them all is awareness of our own eventual deaths.  As psychologist Gordon Gallup points out, “to be aware of your own existence raises the possibility of confronting the inevitability of your eventual demise… Death awareness is a unique price that we pay for self-awareness.”[16]

We humans, alone among the animals of this world, know that we’re going to die.  We’re also alone, as far as we know, in asking the question “Why?”  The “social intelligence”-driven question of “Why did my partner do what she did?” eventually leads to: “Why does the sun rise in the morning?”  “Why did my loved one have to die?” and ultimately: “Why are we here?”

Other animals, to varying degrees and in different forms, ask the other major questions in life: “What?” “Who?” “Where?” and even to a limited extent “When?”  But only we humans seem to have the capability to ask “Why?”

So the next time someone asks you what’s really unique about humans, I suggest that the best way to respond to them is with this very simple, profound and memorable verse:

Fish gotta swim
Bird gotta fly
Man gotta sit and say
Why why why.[17]

[1] Other animals such as chimpanzees, parrots and dolphins, have been shown to have the rudimentary capabilities of language; but no other animals appear able to communicate with each other using the complex, recursive web of symbols characteristic of human language.

[2] Donald, M. (2001). A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness, New York: Norton, 265.

[3] A number of recent theories of language suggest that we sang long before we spoke, and raise the possibility that language evolved from a form of song.  See, for example, Mithen, S. (2006). The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

[4] Emery, N. J., and Clayton, N. S. (2004). “The Mentality of Crows: Convergent Evolution of Intelligence in Corvids and Apes.” Science, 306(December 10, 2004), 1903-1907, summarizing the original hypothesis published by Byrne & Whiten in Machiavellian Intelligence: Social Evolution in Monkeys, Apes and Humans.

[5] Byrne & Whiten quoted by Gazzaniga, M. S. (2009). “Humans: the party animal.” Dædalus(Summer 2009), 21-34.

[6] Gazzaniga, op. cit. describing the so-called “Vygotskian Intelligence Hypothesis” of Henrike Moll and Michael Tomasello.

[7] Dunbar, R. I. M., and Shultz, S. (2007). “Evolution in the Social Brain.” Science, 317(7 September 2007).

[8] See Povinelli, D. J., and Preuss, T. M. (1995). “Theory of mind: evolutionary history of a cognitive specialization.” Trends in Neurosciences, 18(9:November 9, 1995), 418-424; also Singer, T. (2006). “The neuronal basis and ontogeny of empathy and mind reading: Review of literature and implications for future research.” Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews(30 (2006)), 855-863.

[9] See Povinelli & Preuss; Singer op. cit.  Note that some theorists (e.g. Gallup, G. G. Jr. (1998). “Self-awareness and the evolution of social intelligence.” Behavioural Processes, 42, 239-247) propose a different direction of development than my description, from self-awareness to theory of mind.

[10] See Barkley, R. A. (2001). “The Executive Functions and Self-Regulation: An Evolutionary Neuropsychological Perspective.” Neuropsychology Review, 11(1), 1-29; also Roth, G., and Dicke, U. (2005). “Evolution of the brain and intelligence.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9(5: May 2005), 250-253.

[11] Amodio, D. M., and Frith, C. D. (2006). “Meeting of minds: the medial frontal cortex and social cognition.” Nature Reviews: Neuroscience, 7(April 2006), 268-277.

[12] Mithen, S. (1996). The Prehistory of the Mind, London: Thames & Hudson, 161-2.

[13] Liberman, N., and Trope, Y. (2008). “The Psychology of Transcending the Here and Now.” Science, 322(21 November 2008), 1201-1205.

[14] Barkley, op. cit.

[15] Deacon, T. W. (1997). The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain, New York: Norton, 423.

[16] Gallup, op. cit.

[17] Quoted by McEvilley, T. (2002). The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, New York: Allworth Press.

February 22, 2010

Stages in the tyranny of the prefrontal cortex: an overview

Posted in Ascendancy to Power: Agriculture, Language and Myth, Monotheism, Pfc tyranny: overview, Scientific Revolution tagged , , , , , , , , , at 6:26 pm by Jeremy

[Click here to open pdf file: “Stages in the Tyranny of the Pfc” and view the table that accompanies this post.]

In this blog, I propose that the prefrontal cortex has created an imbalance within our human consciousness, gaining power over other aspects of our cognition.  I’ve called this situation a “tyranny.”  That’s a pretty dramatic word, and I’ve offered a detailed review of why I think it’s appropriate.

In this post, I’m going to trace a high-level overview of the historical stages I see in the pfc’s rise to power.  It will be much easier to follow this post if you click here to open a pdf file in another window, containing a table that summarizes what I’m describing.  If you can keep both windows open, you can follow what I’m describing more easily.

For each stage of the pfc’s rise to power, I’ll briefly describe the main human accomplishments and primary new values arising from that stage.  Also, I’ll touch on the changing view of the natural world.   Whenever you want to drill a little deeper, click on the section’s title (or the links in the pdf file) to get you to a blog post that describes the pfc-stage in some more detail.  I’ll be continually adding more detail on this blog, so keep posted.

Pfc1: Stirrings of Power

Stirrings of symbolic expression: female figurine from over 30,000 years ago

The pfc’s stirrings of power began with the emergence of modern Homo sapiens, around 200,000 years ago.  These ancestors of ours were all hunter-gatherers.  Basic tools and fire had already been mastered by previous Homo species (such as Homo erectus).  But Homo sapiens began a symbolic revolution which erupted around 30,000 years ago in Europe, comprising symbolic communication in the forms of art, myth, and fully developed language.[1] The prevailing metaphor of Nature was probably something like a “generous parent.”  Uniquely human values began developing, such as “parochial altruism” (defend your own tribe but fight others), “reciprocal generosity” and fairness.[2]

Pfc2: Ascendancy to Power

Specialization of skills: writing tablet from Mesopotamia, c. 3000 BCE

Roughly ten thousand years ago, in the Near East, some foragers stumbled on a new way of getting sustenance from the natural world and occasionally began to settle in one place.  Animals and plants began to be domesticated, evolving into forms that were more advantageous for humans and relied on human management for their survival.  Notions of property and land ownership arose.  Hierarchies and inequalities developed within a society, along with specialization of skills (including writing).  Massive organized projects, such as irrigation, began to take place.  Cities and empires soon followed.

New sets of values arose with these sweeping changes in human behavior.  Property ownership and hierarchies elevated the social values of wealth and power.  Patriarchy became a driving force, leading to increased gender inequality and the commoditization of women.  People’s identity began expanding beyond kin and tribe, to incorporate national identity.

The natural world was increasingly seen through the metaphor of an ancestor/divinity that needed to be worshipped and propitiated.  Nature could cause devastation as well as benefits to society.  Human activity was seen as integral to maintaining the order of the natural world.

Pfc3: The Coup

Saint Paul: Early Christianity merged Platonic and Judaic themes

In the Eastern Mediterranean, about 2,500 years ago, a unique notion first appeared: the idea of a completely abstract and eternal dimension in the universe and in each human psyche, which was utterly separate from the material world of normal experience.  Humans had always posited other-worldly spirits and gods with different physical dynamics than the mundane world.  But these spirits were conceived along a continuum of materiality.  Now, for the first time, the idea of a universal, eternal God with infinite powers arose, along with the parallel idea of an immaterial human soul existing utterly apart from the body.

Christianity merged the Platonic ideal of a soul with the Judaic notion of an infinite God to create the first coherent dualistic cosmology.  Islam absorbed both of these ideas into its doctrines.  Together, Christianity and Islam conquered large portions of the world and brought their dualism along with their military power.

For the first time, people identified themselves with universal values (such as salvation of the soul), which were seen as applying even to other groups who had no notion of these values.  Increasingly, mankind was viewed as separate from the natural world.  Following Genesis, Man was seen as having a God-given dominion over the rest of creation.

Pfc4: The Tyranny

Descartes: the natural world was increasingly seen as a soulless machine

In the 17th century, a Scientific Revolution erupted in Europe, leading to a closely linked Industrial Revolution, beginning a cycle of exponentially increasing technological change that continues to the present day.  Although the seeds of scientific thinking could be traced back to the 12th century (and even to ancient Greece), a radically different view of mankind’s relationship to the natural world caused a uniquely powerful positive feedback cycle in social and technological change.

Nature was increasingly seen as a soulless, material resource available for humanity’s consumption.  The natural world and the human being were both seen through the prism of a “machine” metaphor.

Multiple new values arose, that were seen to be universally applicable, derived from newly developed intellectual constructs, such as: liberty, reason, democracy, fascism, communism, capitalism.  These values all shared the underlying assumption that natural resources were freely available for human consumption, and differed in their proposed division of power and resources within human society.


[1] The precise timing of these developments continues to be fiercely debated.  The biggest open issue of all is the timing of language (anywhere from one million to one hundred thousand years ago), and whether a proto-language existed for a long time before modern language developed.

[2] Some of these values have been seen in modern chimpanzees and bonobos, but they are far more developed in humans.

December 24, 2009

Rooting for the Rhizome

Posted in Ascendancy to Power: Agriculture, Book/article Reviews tagged , , , , , at 6:18 pm by Jeremy

Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality

By Morris Berman

Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000

In four years of research, I’ve rarely come across a book with a thesis so similar to my theory of the “tyranny of the prefrontal cortex (pfc)” than Morris Berman’s Wandering God.  So why did I find the book so difficult to read at times?  Maybe it’s because I’m in such strong agreement with much of what Berman writes that the disagreements become all the more painful.

Let me begin with the points of agreement.   Berman’s main thesis is that in our transition from hunter-gatherers to agriculture and beyond, humanity has entered into a mode of thinking that he calls the “sacred authority complex” (SAC).  This mode emphasizes transcendence – rising above the here-and-now to a realm of spiritual heights, immortality, wealth and authority – and in doing so, it leaves behind the quality of existing fully in the present, material world.  This matches closely with my own view of the pfc’s rise to power in our consciousness manifested in the agricultural-based values which then developed into Platonic dualism.

When Berman contrasts the hunter-gatherer (HG) mode of consciousness favorably with our SAC mode, it sounds a lot like the “democracy of consciousness” that I believe we need to move towards, as in the following:

HG life was more congruent with the multiple aspects of human Being – spiritual, political, somatic, environmental, and sexual (and perhaps even intellectual) – than the civilized form of life that followed it.  The irony of civilization is that the SAC promises a better life yet delivers one that is probably worse.

Much of Berman’s book is spent tracing the steps in which the SAC took over from HG consciousness, and again I find myself in agreement with many of his interpretations.  He emphasizes, for example, that it was the shift from nomadic to sedentary hunter-gatherer culture that was the most significant step, even more than the shift to agriculture.  That’s because, once you’re sedentary, you begin to accumulate possessions, stake out land, and initiate the cycle of ownership, desire and power that leads inevitably to the SAC culture.

Berman shows how early civilizations merged notions of power, fertility and agriculture into a gigantic thought constellation, quoting powerfully from the Mesopotamian poem, The Marriage of Inanna and Dumuzi, where the bride, Inanna astonishingly asks:

As for me, my vulva, …
Me – the maid, who will plow it for me?
My vulva, the watered ground – for me,
Me the Queen, who will station the ox there?

Also, I’m in complete agreement with Berman when he sees Zoroaster as an important source in the universalization of concepts of good and evil, describing how “the moral dualism of the Gathas is in fact the universalization of a concrete political and social situation… The entire cosmos is now seen as defined by the conflict between the True and the False.”

I part company with Berman in a couple of interpretive areas, such as his attacks on Mircea Eliade (see my recent review of Eliade’s The Myth of the Eternal Return) and on the “Kurgan hypothesis” for the source of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language.  But my problem with Berman in these areas is not just a difference in interpretation, but rather the vehemence with which he goes after his prey, calling Eliade’s methodology “flawed to the core.”  Here’s another example:

To my mind, writers such as Jung, Campbell, and Eliade are themselves exemplars of Neolithic distortion, in which what is simply naturalistic and secular has to be inflated with vertical sacrality so that they can feel life is meaningful.  That life might be meaningful without all of this symbolic hoopla appears to have escaped their understanding.

I think that Berman, in his sarcasm, rides roughshod over a subtle, but important, point.  I’m sure it’s true that early humans felt life was meaningful without making a fuss about it.  I’m certain that no early tribesman said to himself “It’s time to act out the myth of the eternal return now.”  But we modern humans no longer have access to that way of thinking, and at times it may take some “symbolic hoopla” to try to re-conceive in modern language what an early human perceived without a moment’s self-consciousness.  Even though Berman may be correct in pointing out some factual errors in Eliade’s scholarship, that doesn’t invalidate the attempts by him and his co-thinkers to try to recreate some of the underlying constructs of thought in bygone cultures.

Similarly, on the controversial issue of the source of PIE language, I think Berman does a disservice to the subject by claiming that the “Kurgan hypothesis”, with which he disagrees, “has fallen apart under closer scrutiny”, and calling the respected PIE scholar J.P. Mallory a “disciple” of Marija Gimbutas.   Personally, I support the “Kurgan hypothesis” (see my review of Mallory’s book), but the point is, well-respected scholars support both viewpoints, both of which have difficulties, but neither of which has been invalidated.  It wouldn’t hurt Berman’s arguments to allow some respect to his opponents’ positions.

These are, for the most part, technical or tonal issues.  But I have a much bigger problem with Berman’s position when he comes out swinging against the modern systems approach to science:

That branch of holistic thinking known as systems theory … is really an attempt to dress up what Aldous Huxley called the ‘perennial philosophy’ in a kind of scientific garb, to sneak religion (or self-transcendence) in through the back door, as it were, which is why its proponents are typically zealots and why the theory … is heavily caught up in a game of smoke and mirrors.

Systems theory is a very big field, spanning decades of research and thousands of books.  To dismiss it in this way is especially unfortunate since I believe, if Berman were to open up to some of the best writers in this area, he might find that his own views are well represented.[1] For example, I think he’s utterly wrong to link systems theory with self-transcendence.  I do agree with him that Huxley’s “perennial philosophy” is all about self-transcendence, but I believe that systems theory leads one inexorably to a realization of immanence rather than transcendence.

Berman comes close to this place himself when he offers the metaphor of the rhizome for “nomadic thinking”, contrasting it with the SAC “oak tree” metaphor:

The oak tree, of course, conjures up grand images; it is heroic.  Rhizomes, with their lateral and circular taproot systems, are a lot less romantic: potatoes, weeds, crabgrass.  But their power lies precisely in being anti-Platonic, anti-Jungian, nontranscendent, for the heart of rhizomatic patterning is immediate interconnection and heterogeneity…  And whereas the tree, which has dominated Western thought, is about transcendence, the rhizome, the steppe, is about immanence.

Just like the rhizome metaphor, systems theory at its best offers a worldview composed of patterns, interconnections and dynamic relationships, eschewing the hierarchical, dualistic approaches provided by traditional Western thought.

Assuming you follow Berman’s arguments to the very end, I’m afraid he leaves you hanging there.  Yes, I agree that the HG, nomadic thought pattern was desirable in many ways.  But we’re not hunter-gatherers, and we can’t simply shed our SAC thought constructs and become nomadic thinkers again.

There are, however, paths we can follow to undo what I call the “tyranny” that the pfc-mediated thought traditions have imposed on our consciousness.  In my view, the traditions of Taoism and Buddhism offer us productive avenues, which naturally link up with some of the thought patterns arising from the systems theories that Berman dismisses.[2] Berman is rightly suspicious of faddish “Big Ideas” to fix the problems of our civilization, writing:

As long as political hierarchy or ‘religious’ tendencies are present… we move within the orbit of power, and this will perpetuate the same mindset and structures of agricultural civilization.  There also has to be an avoidance of large-scale organization, the sort of bureaucratization that encourages vertical outlooks.

I agree with him entirely, but so do many other people who have chosen, for example, to explore Buddhist practices in response to the hierarchies of consciousness that are instilled into our Western minds.  Berman does offer a partial solution to our current mindset, writing:

On the individual level, there are two things that strike me as integral to HG civilization that we moderns can adopt, though the process of making these things a part of our lives would be a slow and difficult one.  The first is the cultivation of silent spaces; the second, the radical acceptance of death.

He then describes a beautiful epiphany he experienced while snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef.  But how many of us in the modern world have the luxury to spend more than a moment in that place, even if we’re lucky enough ever to get there?

On the other hand, meditation practices offer anyone the opportunity to cultivate the most important silent space that exists: the one that’s within you.  Which is why, I guess, I found Berman’s book so difficult to read at times, even while I profoundly agree with so much of it.  I felt that it arrives at a dead end, leaving the reader with an unnecessarily negative outlook on our modern predicament.

Berman has spent decades offering unique and radical insights into our Western ways of thinking, and has clearly explored many different paths to arrive at his own assessment of our human condition.  His book ends with a challenge: “Somebody has to live the message; maybe – you?” Perhaps Berman believes the only valid way for someone to reach the “nomadic” mindset is to arrive there yourself, rather than being told how to get there.  And perhaps he’s right.  But I do think there are thought traditions available to us that can make these explorations easier, and I guess that’s what I found missing from Berman’s otherwise brilliant book.


[1] For an excellent exploration of some of the philosophical implications of systems theory, see Evan Thompson’s Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind.

[2] Please see my sister blog, Finding the Li, for my exploration of some of these avenues.

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