The primary reason for the malaise, despair, and loneliness of the modern age appears to be a consequence of a basic split with our evolutionary heritage. For most of our time on this planet, humanity has not suffered from all of the dysfunctions of the modern age, such as the proliferation of murder, rape, crime, suffering, want, insular ideologies, shabby institutions, and many other tragic social and cultural failures. Our ideologies and institutions can be quite stifling and often constitute an almost total malfunction, and this coupled with a sedentism that goes wholly against our heritage of millions of years has led to a break with the genetic necessities specific to our species. This leads to a marked loneliness that, while not often talked about, is a symptom of a cultural bankruptcy and lack of sufficiency to provide for all members of the community of life which, until very recently in geological/evolutionary time, was being done more or less out of necessity, which preserved diversity, and which of course is a fundamental attribute of a healthy ecosystem.
It is not that hunter-gatherers were saints. The truth is that that elemental selfishness which defines human nature was, as already suggested, put into check by the necessities of living as our evolutionary heritage dictated. The good of the group was more important than the good of the individual -- at least on an economic basis -- because such a behavior/meme was more conducive to continued sustenance and success. I would add that these cultures have been around for much, much longer than ours.
From Gowdy's introduction (1998): "Nurit Bird-David... notes that many, but not all, hunter-gatherers have a notion of the giving environment, the idea that the land around them is their spiritual home and the source of all good things. This view is the direct antithesis of the Judeo-Christian perspective of the natural environment as a "wilderness," a hostile space to be subdued and brought to heel by the sheer force of human will. This latter outlook is seen by many ecological humanists as the source of both the environmental crisis and the spiritual malaise afflicting contemporary society."
Berman (2000) gives an excellent summary of the anthropological consensus on the subject of hunting and gathering: "The anthropological consensus on the subject seems to be something like this: there are a (very small) number of HGs alive on the planet today who do, or did until recently, display a number of characteristics that, from the vantage point of modern civilization, appear quite enviable. These include egalitarian sharing patterns; anti-authoritarian tendencies; respect for individuality combined with an emphasis on cooperation; flexible living arrangements; permissive child-rearing practices; and a system of "generalized" (as opposed to "balanced") reciprocity. These societies have achieved a greater degree of equality of wealth, power, and prestige than any other societies we know of. They are based on immediate-return economies and the discouragement of accumulation. They do not create dependencies on specific persons, and their emphasis on sharing works against the development of agriculture because it undermines the possibility of savings and investment, which agriculture requires. Finally, in such societies individuals do not have power over one another. This material is not a matter of political theorizing or wishful romantic thinking, but is based on the ethnographic experience of many researchers, as well as on correlations of ethnographic data."
I intend to explore precisely these points in the sections that follow. In Part I (Hunter-Gatherer Anthropology), I begin by debunking the Hobbesian view of the life of man being "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." In point of fact, hunter-gatherer life was anything but that. I continue to discuss agriculture and the rise of the state, two phenomena that developed en masse when the balance of hunter-gatherer societies had become compromised. In the next section I examine the very foundation of hunter-gatherer societies, egalitarianism -- social and economic equality. Next I review the dichotomy suggested by anthropologist James Woodburn -- immediate-return and delayed-return economies -- and their attendant dynamics. Moving on I turn to the subjects of territoriality, property and mobility -- three key hunter-gatherer concepts. Following that I discuss economics and subsistence. In section six, I explore rather a variety of topics that did not merit their own sections but needed to be discussed. In the final section of Part I, I talk about infanticide. Part II (Hunter-Gatherer Psychology) has two sections. The first is on the nature of hunter-gatherer consciousness, and the second on hunter-gatherer general psychology, especially pertaining to infancy and its effects on the ego.
I would like to close the introduction with a comment by anthropologist Marvin Harris (1989):
Then let me hear no more of our kind's natural necessity to form hierarchical groups. An observer viewing human life shortly after cultural takeoff would easily have concluded that our species was destined to be irredeemably egalitarian except for distinctions of sex and age. That someday the world would be divided into aristocrats and commoners, masters and slaves, billionaires and homeless beggars would have seemed wholly contrary to human nature as evidenced in the affairs of every human society then on earth.