Are hunter-gatherers our living past?

That's what's implied by a recent story on children's moral development, reporting

a relationship between child rearing practices common in foraging hunter-gatherer societies (how we humans have spent about 99 percent of our history) and better mental health, greater empathy and conscience development, and higher intelligence in children.

The research promises that parents can raise empathetic, cooperative children if they ensure that infants have close physical contact (from sleeping with them to being cuddled and held, to being breastfed) and arrange for their toddlers to "play outdoors with other children".

Some of the research reported on is by Darcia Narvaez, who blogs about morality here on Psychology Today. I don't doubt the importance of promoting studies of real communities that focus on how the human propensity of cooperation and sociality is encouraged.

But I have mixed feelings about how this very interesting research on contemporary people is presented, not just as a good model for present-day parenting, but as the way we used to be, as the article says, in 99% of our history.

How can we use present-day people as proxies for people in the past? This is a question emerging anthropology grappled with in the 19th century, and learned to be wary about.

In early anthropology, human societies were explicitly classified according to a theory of evolutionary stages. Some living people were understood to have stopped their development at an earlier stage.

Today, the term may be hunter-gatherer societies; but in the 19th century, it was savagery. Understood as particularly free of cultural elaboration, so-called savages lived in a simpler state of nature. They served as models of what man had been like before he developed to the stage of civilization.

Unlike today, when hunter-gatherer practices are presented to us as better (think of the promotion of the so-called Cave Man Diet, in the news recently as well) these simpler folk were understood in the 19th century as limited by their simpler brains, lulled by the easier environments in which they lived, doomed never to advance as their European brethren had.

Some of the legacies of social evolutionary thought included eugenics and ideologies of racial superiority that married the first half of the twentieth century, and that lurk in waiting, emerging in the characterization of our first African-American president as a "Luo tribesman".

And truth be told, the idea that contemporary peoples living by gathering a significant proportion of their subsistence needs are just like our ancestors is not even accurate. Anthropologists long ago closed the debate on whether modern hunter-gatherers are models for how we once lived. Even the hunter-gatherers who provide our most pristine images, the San peoples of the Kalahari, have engaged for generations in significant economic and social exchanges with people living by farming, town and city dwellers.

We can't simply subtract those relationships as if they are superficial. Every human society alive today has a history as long as our own. Any human society today may furnish us exemplary models for social practices like parenting. But there is nothing to say that these are the natural heritage of our deep past.

Falling into that trap takes the real complexity of the present, with humans living in more different ways than every before in our history, and allows us to once again turn that into a story of (usually inevitable) progress to urban industrialism. Whether we are gaze longingly at a simpler past, or view it as something better left behind by people uniquely equipped to face the future, we are simply wrong.

Our ancestors are not among us. And how they lived may well be different than anything we can see in the world today.

About the Author

Rosemary Joyce

Rosemary Joyce, Ph.D., is a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley.

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