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Relaxing in Camp
Imagine being able to live a life of virtually total fulfillment. Each day, you are blessed with a variety of fresh food and a seemingly endless amount of free time. You do have to do some work, but this perhaps takes up as little as three or four hours of your day. The rest of your time is devoted to sleeping and resting as much as you want. You are never short of company, surrounded by your friends and family; you talk, laugh, share, dance and generally just have fun.
In this world, there is no such thing as money; so mortgages and debts are unheard of. You don’t have to worry about exams, qualifications or the pressures that are synonymous with a career, such as appraisals, targets, promotions and demotions. There’s no chance of you ever losing your job, there is no police force, so you can’t get into trouble with the law. If you are in desperate need of something; no problem, you simply ask your friends or neighbours if you can borrow or have whatever it is you want.
Sometimes you get ill, but nowhere near as commonly as you do in the modern world. Most of the diseases that we are familiar with do not exist. This is a world, where warfare is rare, on account of there being plenty of food and resources to go around; competition is minimal. It sounds like the best sort of life imaginable doesn't it? So why aren't we striving towards living this sort of lifestyle.
The fact of the matter is that in the modern world, this lifestyle is just not an option. However, this seemingly tranquil and idyllic lifestyle was the one practised by us humans for 99% of our history, it’s called hunting and gathering, and much of what we know of our prehistoric ancestors seems to suggest that they lived a mostly happy and peaceful life.
A Khoisan Hunter Gatherer
The First Hunter Gatherer of all?
Before the invention of agriculture, some 10,000 years ago, there were few, if any permanent homes or villages. People were nomadic, either moving with the seasons, or simply when they felt they had to. Contrary to popular belief, it was actually the women that supplied most of the food, gathering wild fruits and nuts, and occasionally indulging in hunting smaller animals. By and large, men concentrated on hunting larger animals, although the women would have assisted on occasion. Particularly when trying to catch a fleet footed animal like a Deer that needed to have all possible escape routes cut off.
The nomadic lifestyle demanded that people had few actual possessions. All they had was literally what they could carry. In the cool north, people wore tight fitting clothing made from animal skin and fur. In the tropics, people simply walked around virtually naked. Why burden yourself with things that you do not need? As well as the clothing they stood up in, the people would have carried essential items such as water carried in a bottle, made from a vegetable called a gourd that belongs to the same family as pumpkins. In Africa, the people utilised ostrich eggs, punching a small hole in the top, removing the yolk and filling them full of water. They also carried spears or bows and arrows for hunting, and also nodules of flint used for butchering dead animals and fire lighting.
For hunter gatherers, the idea of owning something exclusively was alien to them. Their culture was built on a foundation of sharing, because sharing meant that an individual wasn’t overburdened with items. There was no such thing as money or any sort of currency, everything a hunter gatherer required could be easily obtained from the surrounding environment. The relationship that hunter gatherers enjoyed with their environment was fundamentally different to the one we have today; they saw themselves as part of the landscape, the same way a tree was. The concept of owning a piece of land was entirely foreign to their way of thinking.
Humanity lived in this state of natural balance from the time of the first true humans, Homo habilis at least, so that’s around 2.5 million years. But it could well be, that hunting and gathering’s origins reach further back in time, to the age of Australopithecus, the first apes to stand and walk upright, a million years earlier. So hunting and gathering may well have been practised by humanity and their ancestors for an astonishing 3.5 million years. Hunter gatherers lived in a state of perpetual harmony both with each other and the environment. Like other animals, they hunted, only when they had to; they only slept when they had to. If resources began to dwindle, they would simply move elsewhere, thus giving nature a chance to restore the land left behind.
An Awesome Clip showing Hunter Gatherers in Action
Did You Know?
In 1940, Pablo Picasso paid a visit to the Lascaux caves to gaze upon the extraordinary works of art painted by hunter gatherers 17,000 years before. For a long while he stood in silence, awed by the skill of those prehistoric artists. The only comment he made was: 'We have discovered nothing.' You can't get much higher praise than that.
One of the finest cave paintings that can still be seen today were discovered one autumn morning in 1875, by an eight year old Spanish girl called Maria Sautuola. Maria, as you can imagine was no archaeologist, her incredible discovery occurred by chance. She was exploring some caves with her father, Marcelino near their home in Altamira, a small town close to the city of Santander. They entered one of the caves and proceeded to explore the gloom that lay before them. Maria suddenly gazed upwards and beheld a series of paintings that covered the ceiling. The paintings were of animals that closely resembled cows. Maria’s father was a keen amateur archaeologist and immediately identified that the creatures depicted were bison; with great enthusiasm he set to work to try to find out more. He spoke to a close friend who was an expert on cave art and together they declared that they were the oldest paintings in the world.
At the time however, the world wasn’t quite ready to believe that such wonderful works of art could be so ancient, or be the work of so called ‘primitive cavemen’. Experts widely denounced Sautuola’s claims, denouncing his character by suggesting that he had paid somebody to come in and paint the caves, in order to achieve fame through fraud. Sautuola’s character remained stained until 1902, when experts began finding more paintings deep inside caves. Unfortunately, Sautuola had died fourteen years before, and so had never been vindicated in life. Modern day dating techniques have revealed that the paintings are nearly 20,000 years old.
Most of the paintings found, have been of animals, mostly herbivores such as horses, bison, aurochs (the ancestor of the domestic cow) and mammoths. But why exactly were these sorts of animals painted? What materials did they use? They were certainly not meant for display, since the majority of paintings discovered lie in the deepest, darkest recesses of a cave; this includes the paintings found by Sautuola and the famous paintings at Lascaux in southern France. It seems strange to think that such great masterpieces were created in places where natural light was nonexistent.
Most historians think that the paintings were created by ancient holy men known as shamans. It’s thought that they would retreat into the depths of the cave carrying a torch and perform rituals, based on some sort of hunting magic. By painting herbivorous animals on the rocks of caves, the shamans hoped to summon their spirits to provide them with good food and good fortune. Shamans used various types of clay, sometimes mixed with iron oxide, to create different colours and pigments, which were blended with animal fat to create a sticky paint, every bit as effective as any modern paint that we use.
My Hub on the Sentinelese
- The Last Stone Age Tribe
The Last Stone Age Tribe, known as the Sentinelese that live in perfect isolation on a tranquil Island.
On the Hunt
Bushcraft Expert Ray Mears visits the Hadza in Africa. Filmed in 1997.
More on Ray Mears
A Recommended Book about the Hadza Tribe
Modern Hunter Gatherers
The only way to get a true insight into the hunter gatherer way of life is to study those hunter gatherers that have somehow survived into the modern age. Admittedly there are very few true hunter gatherers left, due to the advances of modern industry and agriculture. The few that do remain are confined to a few forgotten corners of the world, in Australia and Africa they cling on to areas of land deemed unsuitable for farming or any permanent settlement. There are perhaps, a few thousand hanging on by a thread.
I wrote a hub exploring one of the last tribes in the world to live in complete ignorance of civilisation, the Sentinelese live on a small island in the Indian Ocean, and have done so for 60,000 years quite successfully. But I want to talk about another tribe that have managed to maintain a traditional existence despite the presence of civilisation close by. They are the Hadza, an extraordinary tribe that live in Tanzania, East Africa; they are the last tribe to live a traditional existence in the area that served as our evolutionary cradle. Until quite recently, the Hadza thrived in the forest surrounding Lake Eyasi in the Rift Valley, where they happily hunted wild game, gathered fruit and berries and moving from one place to the next. By 2006 however, their numbers had dwindled to less than 2000 and they had gradually been squeezed into a tight corridor of wilderness surrounded by ever encroaching farmers and settlements. The Hadza have absolutely no history of aggression, so rather than fight their corner, they retreated deeper into their forest home, hiding from the modern world as best they can.
The Hadza own nothing, and share everything. Recently, a member of the tribe was given employment as a guide showing giddy, curious tourists around the bush. Normally, somebody with a job keeps the majority of their wages; but on this occasion the guide shared all of his wages with the entire tribe. The Hadza’s lifestyle and culture is in stark contrast to a modern society, which is governed by law, order, administrators and rulers. The Hadza, instead rely on intelligence and cooperation, organising themselves into small and flexible groups. Relying on cooperation and flexibility is the key to why the Hadza have survived for so long, by owning nothing and maintaining a great amount of mobility they avoid the trappings that blight modern society.
Their language is one of the strangest you’ll ever hear, relying mostly on clicking, the vowels and consonants so familiar to us seem entirely absent from their language. Indeed some experts have postulated that their language may be similar to the ‘original’ language first spoken tens of thousands of years ago. The clicks are extremely effective during a hunt, because they allow complex information to be transmitted over considerable distances without having to resort to shouting and giving away their position.
More evidence of these remarkable peoples’ heritage comes in the form of genetic studies which show that their DNA is the most diverse of any human population yet studied. This greater diversity means that their bloodlines are extremely ancient, because genes differ from one generation to another at a constant and predictable rate. It seems that the Hadza split off from the rest of humanity early on in the history of Homo sapiens, meaning that they are the most ancient humans still alive today. It seems strange to think that every newborn Hadza is one of the youngest people on the planet, but also one of the oldest. However, it is very likely that these remarkable people and their extraordinary lineage will soon be lost, becoming merged with the encroaching modern world.
By studying the Hadza way of life, we gain an insight into just how efficient the Stone Age way of life was. Everybody in the tribe is involved in food production, they are all extremely mobile. There are no rulers or class of people that sit around waiting to be fed. They live without money, banks, loans, wages, accountants, lawyers, taxmen and merchants. There is no need for writing, electricity or any transport apart from their own two feet.
The Hadza have a knowledge of their environment that we find difficult to understand. Each one is an expert in what is edible and what is poisonous. They all carry knowledge on how to treat illnesses and other health complaints using only what nature has provided them in their forest home. This encyclopaedic knowledge has been passed down orally through the generations. The unschooled Hadza is initially perceived as ignorant, due to the lack of a modern education, but their extensive knowledge of herbal and plant remedies is sometimes greater than even the best pharmaceutical scientist.
Was Agriculture our Biggest Mistake?
- The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race
Jared Diamond's interesting article that investigates whether inventing agriculture was our biggest mistake.
The Counter Argument
- Hunter-gatherers: Noble or savage? | The Economist
An interesting article from the Economist that challenges the belief that hunter gatherers lived a peaceful existence. It also challenges the belief that they lived in balance with nature.
Hunter Gatherers and Egalitarianism
- How Hunter-Gatherers Maintained Their Egalitarian Ways: Three Complementary Theories | Psychology To
A detailed article by Peter Gray, who tries to explain how hunter gatherers were able to maintain an egalitarian society.
Hunter gatherers both modern and prehistoric have a deep regard for all things natural, it helps form the basis of their mythology and religion. Their environment was not a place to be exploited and conquered, but rather a place full of magic and wonder, a place that contained the spirits of their ancestors; they believed that the ancestral spirits offered protection, guidance and comfort. For them, the environment was their life force, providing food, warmth, living space, medicine and shelter.
The biggest strength of the hunter gatherer lifestyle was that it provided an inbuilt control on the overall level of the human population. This is because the hunter gatherer society is highly mobile, travelling everywhere on foot, so it was imperative that the tribe not be overburdened with children, because of the difficulty of transporting them. Hunter gatherer women usually have a child every four of five years, to ensure that there aren’t too many very young children in the camp at once.
For tens of thousands of years, a stable population of around five million humans survived and thrived, whilst maintaining a balance with nature. There was virtually no significant increase in the population, because five million was around the natural limit for a sustainable, nomadic way of life. However, around 10,000 years ago in an area of South West Asia known as the Fertile Crescent, man embarked upon an extraordinary experiment, instead of foraging for food, mankind sought to produce their own food using high yielding plants and animals that were easy to domesticate. The Neolithic Revolution would bring about the dawn of agriculture, and ultimately civilisation. The Neolithic Revolution has undoubtedly blessed humanity with many positives; after all, if it had never occurred, I wouldn’t have been able to write this article. But at the same, it has also spawned a whole host of problems that we, and the environment are still struggling to recover from. Prominent scientist, Jared Diamond even went so far to describe agriculture, as ‘The Biggest Mistake in the History of the Human Race’. A part of me can’t help but think that he is correct.