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Being a Hunter-Gatherer in the Office and the Shopping Mall

Discovering your Pleistocene identity.

Key points

  • There have been far more hunter-gatherer than non-hunter-gatherer generations.
  • Our bodies and our psyches were shaped by and for the Upper Paleolithic world.
  • Much of our personal, political, and societal malaise comes from behaving in ways inconsistent with our real hunter-gatherer nature.

We're worried that we're not 'authentic'. A Google search for 'authenticity' has over 6,000,000,000 hits. That denotes real neurosis.

It's not a new concern. 'Know Thyself', urged the Delphic Oracle. 'To thine own self be true', Polonius advised, as does every other popular song.

But what is your 'own self'? If you don't know that, how can you be 'authentic'?

Go to a good museum, walk through the human evolution gallery. Much of it will be pretty boring, to be honest. You'll see some vaguely familiar bones and some rather dowdy, unimaginative artifacts. And then you come to the Upper Palaeolithic (which started around 50,000 years ago, though chronologies are contentious and vary with geography). The exhibit is suddenly thrilling. You'll see a massive explosion of symbolism. Bone and stone are made to stand for things like wolves and caribou.

Personal pronouns are plainly implicit in the finds. The carvings shout 'I,' and hence 'you'. And they mean 'I' and 'you' in recognisably modern ways—though they defined self, as decent people still do, in terms of relationships. Ask an Upper Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer what they were, and they'd reply that they were part of a nexus of relationships, including relationships with the non-human world. They were, in other words, ecological and communitarian, joyously entangled with the non-human world. We are belatedly rediscovering that our survival and thriving depend on that entanglement.

Their world was infused with agency. Animals, plants, and possibly rocks were ensouled, which was tricky if you had to kill animals and plants and smash up rocks to eat. Eating, therefore, demanded a strenuous choreography of request, oblation and satisfaction. They'd be horrified to see us sink our teeth casually into a burger made from the buttocks of a close and ensouled cousin. Agency increased after death; you had to be very careful you'd got the ritual right.

Their superb cave paintings suggest that they knew, as modern mathematicians do, that there are many dimensions other than the quotidian four (three spatial dimensions and time), through which we usually plod. They were adept at navigating to, from, and around those dimensions using physiological stressors and psychedelic substances.

They used abstractions where abstractions were useful—for instance in testing out hunting strategies in the comfort and safety of their own heads rather than in the dangerous school of experience— where you'd often only get one chance. But they didn't live, as we do, in virtual worlds. Abstraction and language were, for them, tools not tyrants. Most of what I call 'reality' is self-generated, self-referential and self-reverential. They lived in real communities, in real forests.

As you look at the Upper Palaeolithic exhibit you'll think 'That's us!' You're right.

Let's suppose that behavioural modernity began 40,000 years ago, and that the Neolithic began 10,000 years ago. Suppose too (and very generously) that we've been 'modern' for 1000 years, and that each generation is 25 years. There have then been 1600 behaviourally modern generations, 1200 (75 percent) of them Upper Palaeolithic or Mesolithic, and 40 modern generations, 2.5 percent of the total. If we start the calculation 200,000 years ago, when anatomically modern humans emerge, 95 percent of our history has been as hunter-gatherers.

We were shaped psychologically in and by the Upper Palaeolithic. We have retained the shape the Upper Palaeolithic gave us. Our personal, political and sociological crises are caused by failing to act in the ways made natural, easy and satisfying by that shape. We have wide feet, built for walking 30 miles a day after migrating caribou. We've shoved them into teetering stilettos and wonder why we have terrible corns and crippled knees. Same with our psyches and our politics.

What's being authentic? It's being an Upper Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer.

It's easier than you might think to live as an Upper Palaeolithic human in the 21st century.