The third part of “The Cognitive Revolution” is entitled Daily Life in the Stone Age. The syllabus tells us that we will explore what life was like for people who lived 30,000 years ago. We will look not just at what they did when they woke up in the morning but how they organized their societies, what sort of relationships and families they had, whether they had religions, revolutions, and wars.
These are my course notes taken from Dr. Yuval Noah Harari’s video lectures.
Who were our ancestors?
We looked at the world of our ancestors tens of thousands of years ago and try to understand what it was like and to also understand what was happening in the world inside people’s heads at their view of the world how they understood themselves and the world around them. This is very important in order to understand human nature, human history and human psychology even today. If you really want to understand as sapiens how we behave and think, you have to get inside the heads of Stone Age hunter-gatherers. Our species was shaped during the long millennia, in which we lived as hunter gatherers rather than as peasants, farmers, industry workers or office workers. Those lifestyles appeared relatively late in the history of Homo sapiens, only in the last 10,000 years were there any peasants and only in the last 200 or 300 years did people start to live in large industrial cities.
Are we still Hunter-Gatherers?
For the vast majority of our existence, people with the same basic mental and cognitive abilities as today lived as hunter gatherers. Their way of life shaped to a large extent the bodies and minds which we still have today. Many today’s problems are the result of the interaction between the minds and bodies of hunter-gatherers, and the environment of big cities. Subconsciously, we still live in the Stone Age. This is the premise, the basic argument of the field of study known as evolutionary psychology which will be important in this and the next section of the course.
Evolutionary psychology’s main insight is that it is not only the body that is shaped by evolutionary pressures, but also, the mind, and its psychology. In order to understand psychology today, we need to understand the pressures, the conditions that shaped this psychology.
Theory about our Eating Habits
Evolutionary psychologists argue that the way we eat today is shaped to a large extent by the conditions of our ancestors tens of thousands of years ago. The affluent world suffers from a plague of obesity. This results from the conditions under which our ancestors lived up to 50 thousand years ago and the complicated interaction between those conditions and the situation today. 50,000 years ago if a woman was walking along the Savannah, and suddenly saw a tree full of ripened fruit, the most sensible thing to do back then was to eat as many of these fruits as quickly as possible, for two reasons. First of all, sweet things were very rare. It was a great thing to find such a source of readily available sugar. Except for fruits there were hardly any sweet things in the Savannah. Secondly it was a good idea to eat as many of these fruits as quickly as possible because if the woman ate just one or two fruits and went away when she came back the next day she would have found that the local baboon group had finished everything. There would be nothing for her left to eat.
The right thing to do, 50,000 years ago, if you came across a big pile of sweet things was to eat as many of them as quickly as possible. People who did that had a better chance of surviving and passing their genes on to the next generation, including genes for eating a lot of sweet things quickly.
Today, I go and open the refrigerator door and I find inside a chocolate cake. My DNA and my basic urges and psychology, they don’t know that I’m living in affluent society, in the 21st century, with a refrigerator. As far as they are concerned I am still in the Savannah 50,000 years ago, and this is the only sweet thing around. My basic psychological urges tell me to react the same way that my great-great-great-great grandmother, from whom I inherited these genes reacted to the fruit tree in Africa 50,000 years ago, eat as much of it as quickly as possible for fear that if I just eat a little and close the door, when I come back tomorrow, maybe the local baboon group will eat everything and I have nothing left for me. We keep reacting to food according to the same basic logic that was good 40 or 50 thousand years ago but which is incompatible with conditions today. Our deep subconscious hasn’t had time to update to today’s society.
A theory about Relationships
Another example concerns a much more controversial issue than our eating habits, it concerns our sexual and romantic and family relations. What kind of family relations and sexual habits did our ancestors have? Some scholars believe that they did not live in monogamous relationships and nuclear families as is commonly believed. They think that people lived in communes. At any given time a woman could have had sexual and romantic relations with several men or women. Similarly, men could have either at the same time, or one after the other, relations with several women, and also maybe with several men. There was no concept of marriage for life or the nuclear family.
This does not mean that they were engaged in promiscuous sex and one-night stands all the time. They lived in very small, intimate communities in which everybody knew everybody else. It wasn’t like jumping from the bed of one stranger into the bed of another, but jumping from the bed of somebody you know very well into the bed of somebody else, that you know very well. People knew the other members of their band, much better, in some ways, than people today know their spouses. For example, if you lived in a group of people 50,000 years ago you had a chance to see how the other behaved in very extreme conditions which today few husbands and wives get the chance to see, how their spouse reacts during a mammoth hunt for example, or when being chased by a lion. In many, in many ways people knew each other much more deeply than even married couples today. The ancient communes weren’t like alienated promiscuous sex that happens in the modern world.
A certain group of scholars believe that people used to live together in communes also argue that parenthood was very different from parenthood today. Today, at least according to traditional family values, every child has or should have one father and one mother that raise them with their combined effort. This group of scholars argue that Stone-age children were not raised by couples but by the entire tribe. Of course, the mother was very important, and suckled them and took the best care of them, but at least some of the other adults in the commune would also help. The concept of fatherhood was actually non-existent in the original communes, because men could never be sure, whether a child was theirs. This is not just idle speculation; anthropologists have found some societies, some tribes today, who believe in, what is known as, collective fatherhood. This means according to the belief of such people, that a child could have more than one father. The belief of those tribes is that when a child is growing in the womb of a woman, it is nourished by the semen of men. It can be nourished by the sperm of many men. Until the 19th or 20th century, with modern medicine and modern embryology and genetics people did not have any fair evidence that a child is conceived from one sperm cell and one egg cell of one man and one woman. There was no clear evidence that this notion of collective fatherhood was impossible. Women in such societies believed in collective fatherhood. A pregnant woman would have sex during her pregnancy with many men so that the child would receive good qualities from all kinds of men, not just from the best hunter but also from the man who is best in communicating with the spirits, and from the man who is best in producing knives and spear points, and from the man who is the best lover.
Not all scientists believe this theory; it’s just one school of thought. If this is true then, many of the problems which we experience today in our romantic, sexual and family lives are the result of a mismatch between our biological program and the actual conditions of our life today. We have been programmed to live in these communes but now, everybody expects us to live in a nuclear family. Scholars argue that all the problems of high divorce rates, infidelity between couples and all kinds of psychological difficulties and traumas of children are the result of the fact that we are forcing ourselves to live in ways which are simply incompatible with our biological program.
Many scholars vehemently reject this entire idea of an original commune and collective fatherhood, and things like that. They insist that the nuclear family and monogamy were an integral part of sapiens society, tens of thousands of years ago. They argue that the bands of hunter gatherers were more communal than the way that we live today, but were composed of basic cells of a nuclear family composed of two parents raising their children together, perhaps with some help from the neighbours. The parents played the main roles.
Evidence or lack of it.
This argument about our sexuality, family relations and parental system is much more important and much bigger than the one about our food habits. In order to resolve the controversy between those two beliefs we would need to have some hard evidence about how ancestor. How, about how our ancestors lived. Unfortunately, there are few certainties regarding the living conditions of our ancestors. Much of this very interesting debate between the ancient communes school, and the eternal monogamy school, is based on very flimsy evidence. There are no written records telling us how people lived and what families and communities looked like. There is some archaeological record which consists mainly of fossilized bones and stone tools, hardly enough to reconstruct the rich life of people 20,000 to 40,000 years ago. We also have at our disposal some genetic evidence and we can learn all kinds of things about our ancestors and the ways that they lived by examining the genes in our bodies today.
The last main source of information we have is direct observation of modern hunter gatherers who survive in places such as Australia or the Kalahari Desert. This is a very important source of information, because we can observe the hunter-gatherer way of life directly. But it’s also quite problematic. It’s dangerous to assume that people who lived 40,000 years ago in another part of the world lived in the same way as hunter-gatherers do today in the Kalahari Desert.
What makes it even more problematic is that it was not a single unified world. The most noticeable characteristic of hunter-gatherer societies is how different they were from one another. There is and was an amazing variety of social cultures, beliefs, values and norms among different groups of hunter gatherers. Prior to the agricultural revolution, it is estimated that the world, the entire world was populated by about 5 to 8 million hunter-gatherers. They were probably divided into thousands of separate tribes and bands each with its own language, culture, religion and behaviour patterns. Groups that lived in completely different ecological zones and even those living in the same area, under similar, even identical, ecological conditions might have had very different societies, cultures and beliefs. This, after all, was one of the main legacies of the cognitive revolution. Thanks to the appearance of fictive language, the ability to create imagined realties, even people with the same genetic makeup who lived under similar ecological conditions were still able to create very different imagined realities. These manifested themselves in different norms, and values.
For example, there is every reason to believe that a forager group that lived 30,000 years ago, on the spot where Oxford is now spoke a different language than a group living where Cambridge is now situated. One group might have been very belligerent and violent whereas the other was more peaceful. Perhaps the group at Cambridge lived in a commune, whereas, the group at Oxford was based on nuclear families. One group might have spent long hours carving wooden statues of their guardian spirits and the other worshiped through dancing and singing. One believed in reincarnation, and souls, whereas the other thought this was nonsense. In Cambridge, same-sex, sexual relationships between men or between women, might have been normative and acceptable, whereas in Oxford, it might have been taboo. There are many differences of this kind, which might have existed between different human bands prior agricultural revolution, even in the same area. This implies that the heated debates about what was the natural way of life of Homo Sapiens missed the main point. The really important point is that ever since the creative revolution, there hasn’t been a single natural way of life only many cultural choices from among a very wide spectrum of possibilities.
There are however some generalizations which we can make about all forager societies. Despite all the differences, they probably did have some common characteristics.
It seems safe to assume that the vast majority of people back then, lived in small bands, each group numbering, at most, several hundred individuals, and that all these individuals were humans. That might sound obvious but it isn’t really. After the Agricultural Revolution, most members of human societies were not humans but were domesticated animals. The typical human society had an upper layer of humans but also many domesticated animals, like cattle, horses, sheep and pigs. Today, for example, the society called New Zealand is composed of about five million sapiens and 50 million sheep. If you don’t take the sheep into account, you can’t really understand how New Zealand’s society functions.
There was, however, just one exception to this general rule that all members of ancient human societies were humans. The dog was the first animal that homo sapiens domesticated. Dogs are descendants of wild wolves, and their domestication occurred long before the Agriculture Revolution. Experts disagree about the exact date, but all of them accept that by about 15,000 years ago domesticated dogs were already part of at least some human societies. The actual date of domestication might have been many thousands of years previously, but we have hard evidence for about 15,000 years ago of dogs being part of human bands.
You can see for example on the left, a picture from the site at Ain Mallaha. It is a tomb that archaeologists discovered from about 12,000 years ago. It contains the skeleton of a 50 year old woman next to the skeleton of a small puppy. The woman’s left hand is resting on the puppy.
There are other examples of dogs being buried individually in their own graves just in the same way that humans were buried back then, from all around the world but mostly from Asia and from the Middle East. It seems they were used mainly for hunting, fighting and as an alarm system against enemies and intruders, both human enemies and dangerous animals. When the group went to sleep at night, it could rely on the dogs to sound the alarm. Wolves hardly bark at all and dogs bark all the time. Scholars estimate that one of the selection pressures for dogs was whether they were serving as a good alarm system or not. If you had the raised some puppies and one puppy barked aloud and grew up to be a dog that barked the alarm all the time he would be given most of the food and most of the care. His genes would be passed on to the next generation of dogs. Over the years this created a huge difference between wolves, which hardly bark at all, and domestic dogs who bark a lot. This is a relic to their ancient role and still useful in their modern role. Over the generations, mutual bonds of understanding and affection developed between dogs and people. Dogs and humans co-evolved to communicate well and to understand one another. Dogs that were good at understanding what human want, at understanding human commands and emotions, had a better chance of surviving and passing their genes to the next generations. Dogs that were good at manipulating humans, like by being very cute and demanding attention and food also survived. So this is how over about 15,000 years, dogs and humans learned how to understand each other, how to communicate one with the other, and how to manipulate one another. Today, the dog is the animal that has the best connection with human beings, has the best understanding of a human communication, human signals, and human emotions.
Another thing that characterized the human bands was a high level of intimacy. Members of a group knew each other very intimately, and were surrounded throughout their lives by friends and relatives. Loneliness and privacy, which
are quite common and important today, were relatively rare in the world of 20 to 50,000 years ago. As for the relations between one group and another they probably included both hostile and friendly contacts. Neighbouring bands could sometimes compete for resources and even fight one another. But they also had friendly contact. For examples they exchanged members, one person may move from this group to another if he didn’t like the people or he wanted to change his environment. Several bands might combine efforts for a big hunt. Different bands traded some items especially luxury items like seashells. They might have formed political alliances against another group or against the Neanderthals. They might have come together a few times a year to celebrate common religious festivals. Such cooperation in the economy, politics, and religion was one of the most important trademarks of homo sapiens. This is what gave sapiens a crucial advantage over the other human species. This is exactly what sapiens could do, and Neanderthals couldn’t. Even though the contacts were not on a daily basis, even if it was just every few months, there was some cooperation for religious or political or economic purposes. It was enough to give sapiens a huge advantage over the other human species.
Most human bands lived in a particular territory but not in one place. They lived in constant movement in search of food. Their movements were influenced by the changing of the seasons and by the annual migration of animals. For instance, if a group hunted deer they would follow the migration of deer. The group moved all the time inside its territory, which could be quite a big territory between several dozen and several hundred square kilometres. They moved around their, home territories according to the cycles.
There were some exceptional cases when food sources were very plentiful in a particular area. Bands could settle down in seasonal and even multi-seasonal camps, maybe having one camp for two months, or even a year. Alongside seas, oceans, rivers and lakes which were rich in seafood humans could set up permanent fishing villages. These were the first permanent settlements in history long before the Agricultural Revolution. Fishing villages might have appeared on the coast of Indonesian islands as early as 45,000 years ago. This may have been the base from which homo sapiens launched their first transoceanic enterprise, the invasion of Australia.
In most areas human bands were moved from place to place feeding themselves from a very large variety of food sources. This is another
very important characteristic of almost all human bands. They did not live by eating just one thing. They ate insects and they picked berries and mushrooms and nuts, and they dug in the earth to look for edible roots. They trapped rabbits and turtles and frogs, and they hunted deer and bison and mammoth. In terms of calories, nourishment and getting raw materials for their tools, gathering was usually, more important that hunting. We are used to thinking about the ancient humans as great hunters and there is a lot of attention given to the issue of the hunt. But actually for most bands gathering was more important. Most of the food was obtained from gathering mainly vegetable foods and most of the raw materials came from gathering stones and sticks rather than bones or ivory or skin of the animals.
Physical and mental dexterity
Survival under such conditions was dependent on having superb physical and mental skills. Most ancient foragers were as fit as Olympic marathon runners. Constant usage of their bodies to climb trees, chase rabbits and escape from tigers, gave our ancestor the kind of physical dexterity that people today are unable to achieve even after years and years of practice. To survive they needed not only these physical abilities but also very good mental abilities and a lot of knowledge. First of all, a detailed mental map of home territory was needed. A home territory might be several hundred square kilometres and they needed to know it very well. They needed to know the location of each spring, walnut tree, where to find good stones to make sharp spear points and, knives. They needed to understand animals that they hunted and plants gathered. They needed technical skills, like, how to make a stone knife, how to mend a torn cloth, how to prepare a trap for a rabbit or for a mammoth, how to escape from avalanches, from snakes, what do if they encountered a lion. They needed to do all these things themselves as there were no shops or police to help out. Mastery of each of these skills required years of apprenticeship and practice. This means that in all probability, the average forager had wider, deeper, and more varied knowledge of their immediate surroundings and world than most people do today.
There is, in fact some evidence that the size of the average sapien’s brain has been decreasing gradually since the age of foraging that after the agricultural revolution, when people started to live as peasant and farmers and later, as workers and city dwellers, the size of the human brain began to shrink. Survival in the era of foraging required superb mental abilities from everybody. If you didn’t know all these things yourself, you didn’t survive. When agriculture and industry came along, and people started to live as peasants and city dwellers people could increasingly rely on the skills of others, of complete strangers, for their survival. Niches were even opened for imbeciles so that enable even people with a limited mental ability, smaller brains and less knowledge could survive in a big city just by working a machine in the factory. They didn’t need to know much else but you know how to work a machine for 12 hours a day making the same movement. They would receive a small salary and survive. In an agricultural village they could be the village idiot who survives by carrying water in buckets from the river. Their genes were passed to the next generation, and this is how over the centuries and the millennia, it seems that the human brain, in the last 10,000 years, has been growing smaller and smaller.
An easier life?
The hunter gatherers way of life varied significantly from region to region and from season to season. But on the whole they seem to have enjoyed a more comfortable lifestyle than most of the people who came after them. Not only were they more skilful, knowledgeable and had bigger brains, they also, in various ways, had a better life than the peasants, labourers and office clerks who followed in their footsteps.
People in the most affluent societies in the world today work on average about 40 to 45 hours a week. People in most of the developing countries todays work considerably more – up to even 80 hours each week. In contrast, hunter gatherers seem to have worked on average, just 35 to 45 hours each week. On average it was enough to go hunting one day out of every three and to gather nuts and mushrooms and things like that just three to six hours a day. This was enough in most areas in normal time to feed the whole band. Hunter gatherers actually worked fewer hours than most people in the world today. On top of that, foragers also enjoyed a lighter load of household jobs. Unlike us when ancient foragers went home they did not have to wash the dishes or vacuum the carpets, or wash and clean the floors, or change babies nappies. There were no bills to pay and no arrangements to make. After the working day foragers had an easier lifestyle than many people today.
Time for leisure
The forager economy was characterized not only by the fact that people had to work less, but also by the fact that most people had more interesting careers as hunters and gathers than later on as peasants or workers in industry. Take the daily life of a Chinese factory worker today for example. Our model factory worker lives in Shanghai and leaves home around seven in the morning, and takes one hour to make her way through all the polluted streets on buses and cars until she reaches her workplace. She work is dreary sweatshop, where they produce shoes she operates the same machine in the same way, day after day after day, for ten long hours. For many people today in the third world, the working day is ten hours long. After work she returns home through all the traffic and the pollution. She reaches home at seven in the evening, now she has to wash the dishes and do the laundry and take care of the baby and all these things.
Go back 30,000 years and see how a Chinese forager might have lived back then. She might have left camp with her companions at eight o’clock in the morning and they would move around the nearby forests and swamps to gather mushrooms, to dig up roots and collect fruit, catch frogs and fish, and run away from tigers and snakes. By early afternoon three or four o’clock, this group of gatherers would be back at camp to prepare and share the food that they gathered. That left them plenty of time afterwards to gossip and tell stories and to play with the children and just to hang out and do nothing in particular.
Quality of life
Of course it wasn’t all an ideal lifestyle. Tigers or snakes sometimes attacked but at least they didn’t have to deal with automobile accidents or industrial pollution, like people in today’s China. Most of the time it is estimated that foraging not only was more interesting than working in the factory but it also provided people with better nutrition than industry or agriculture. Evidence from fossilized skeletons that archaeologists have found indicate that ancient foragers were less likely to suffer from starvation or malnutrition and were generally taller and healthier than the peasants who came after them.
Average life expectancy was still not shorter than after the agricultural revolution at about 30 to 40 years, shorter than today but the same as life expectancy 200 years ago. It should be noted that this relatively short, life expectancy was due largely to the high incidence of child mortality. When people hear that 30,000 years ago the average life expectancy was maybe 35 or 40 they sometimes imagine that people at 40 were already very old. This is not the case; it’s just a classical misunderstanding of statistics. The child mortality was very high. Your chances of reaching the age of 15 or 20 were quite small. It is estimated at about a quarter to a third of babies, did not make it into their adult years, but if you managed to survive the dangerous years and reached the age of 20, you had a pretty good chance of living to be 60, 70, or even 80.
What was exactly the foragers secret of success which protected them from starvation and malnutrition? Why do we say that foragers had better diet than peasants who came after them? The main reason is that foragers enjoyed a very varied diet, whereas peasants, most of the people after the agricultural revolution weren’t kings and princes and priests. They were peasants, most of the population suffered from a very unbalanced diet, a very unbalanced nutrition, especially in pre-modern times. Most of the calories feeding most of the agricultural population, most of the peasants usually came from a single crop or just one or two crops, like wheat, potatoes or rice. If most of your food comes from a single source you’re in danger of not getting all the vitamins, minerals and other nutritional materials that the human body needs. In southern China for thousands of years peasants have been eating rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Meanwhile, in Mexico, peasants were eating maize. 70, 80, sometimes 90% of the calories came from this single source, of rice or maize. In contrast, the ancient foragers ate dozens of different food stuffs. It’s estimated that a typical forager group ate dozens, and even hundreds, of different foodstuffs, both animal and vegetable. This variety ensured that the foragers received all the necessary vitamins, minerals and other nutrients.
There was another big advantage for relying on the huge variety of food stuffs and not just, on just rice, potatoes or wheat. The foragers protected themselves from calamities which hit a particular source of food. In agricultural societies there is sometimes famine, drought or fire that destroys the annual crop. A society based a single crop starves because there’s nothing else, in a forager society they are much more protected against natural disasters. They did suffer from time to time from difficult periods, when there was not enough food, but usually, they were able to deal with such calamities more easily than peasants or farmers, because if the foragers lost some of their usual foodstuffs they could start gathering or hunting larger quantities of other sources. They could simply move to a less affected area if there was flooding in the river, for example which destroyed things that they used to eat, they would move to the mountains and eat whatever they found there. Peasants live in a very small place, like a village next to a river. If the river suddenly floods the rice, or wheat field everything is gone and the peasants died of starvation.
They also had another big advantage which is that they suffered less from infectious diseases. Many people don’t know it, but actually most of the infectious diseases that have, plagued human societies from the agricultural Revolution onwards, and which still harm us today, like smallpox or measles or tuberculosis originated in domesticated animals like cattle, horses and pigs. They were transferred to humans only after the Agricultural Revolution. Even today almost every year, you hear about new diseases that are being transferred from domesticated animals to humans, like flu. We have chicken flu and swine flu, which started with pigs and moved on to humans. Ancient foragers did not domesticate any animals except for dogs so they did not receive any of these infectious diseases. They suffered far, far less than their descendants, the peasants and the industrial workers.
Another reason the foragers were less effected by infectious diseases is that they lived in small communities, in small bands, roaming around the country. These were not ideal places for infectious diseases to take hold and spread. In later times people started to live in permanent cities with thousands of people living in the same city, in the same place, together with the garbage, human waste, pigs, horses and cattle. These were ideal hotbeds for infectious diseases to start spreading. People after the agricultural revolution died in huge numbers from these diseases. Hunter gatherers lived in small bands of 50 to 100 individuals moving all the time not staying close to human and animal waste so it was very unlikely that any infectious disease could take hold.
The wholesome and varied diet of the ancient foragers, the relatively short working week, and the rarity of infectious diseases have led many experts to define pre-agricultural forager societies as the original affluent society. We are used to thinking about our societies today at least the rich societies like the USA or Sweden or Japan, as affluent societies. Experts say that the original affluent societies, which enjoyed very good conditions, existed long before the Agricultural Revolution among these hunters and gatherers.
However, it would be a mistake to focus only on these good aspects and to idealize the lives of the ancient foragers. Though they lived better lives than most people in agricultural and industrial societies, the world of the ancient foragers could still be very harsh and unforgiving. There were periods of difficulties and hardship, child mortality was much higher than it is today. Accidents, such as, falling from a tree could easily become a death sentence because there was no good medical care. Most people probably enjoyed the close intimacy of the small band, but if the other people, for some reason, didn’t like you or objected to the way that you behave, they could make your life hell. It wasn’t like a big city or big country that you can move somewhere else easily. It is also likely that at least some bands suffered from high levels of violence. It is best neither to demonize nor to idealize the lives of the ancient foragers. Their societies, just like our societies, were very complex. They had good aspects and they had bad aspects. They had good days and they had bad days.
The professor focused more on the good aspects of the lives of the ancient hunter gatherers in order to counter common prejudice of many people today, who think that history is a process of on-going progress, improvement. People think that lives in previous eras, especially before the appearance of agriculture, villages and cities, must have been horrible, extremely difficult, and extremely poor. It was important for him to show that this is not the case that actually, life back then had many positive aspects, and that history is not always going from worse to better, from bad to good. There are good things that we have lost on the way. It is difficult for many people to appreciate it, because they compare it to their conditions today. Many of the people who watched his lectures or who are reading my blog will not necessarily be poor peasants or poor workers in industry, but belong to the middle class or to the more affluent layers of society. When you compare the life of the ancient foragers to your life then they still look pretty poor and disappointing. If you do belong to one of the better off classes in today’s society, you are not representative of the typical person. After the agricultural revolution, you are not even representative of the typical person today in the world. It is wrong to judge what happened in history from the perspective of this tiny elite minority of middle or upper class people today in the world. From the viewpoint of the more average person, like a simple peasant or like a simple factory worker, then you see that the agricultural revolution was not such wonderful thing. In many respects, people 20,000 or 50,000 years ago had better lives even than people today in the world.
Mental and spiritual lives.
It is far harder to know what people believe than what people eat when you don’t have any writing or much evidence. Most scholars nevertheless agree, that animistic beliefs were common among ancient foragers, and are the basis for most of their religions and world view.
The word, animism comes from the Latin word anima, which means soul, or spirit. Animism is the belief that the world is full of animated beings. All of whom can communicate with one another directly. Animists believe that almost every place, every animal, every plant, and every natural phenomenon has awareness, a mind, feelings and emotions. For example, animists may believe that the big rock at the top of the hill has feelings, desires, and needs. The rock might be angry about something that people did. Or rejoice over some other action and, and be very happy about it. The rock might ask people to do something. Or people might come to the rock and ask the rock to do something for them. Humans can not only address the rock, but make bargains with the rock. Animists consider all things as animated beings, trees, streams, bushes, all animals all have emotions and desires. In the animist world, objects and living things are not the only animated beings, there are also immaterial entities like fairies, demons, and angels that also inhabit the world. They believe that there is no barrier between humans and other beings.
Most of us believe that animals have, have emotions and minds, but we can’t talk with them directly. Animists believe that you can communicate directly in speech, or song, or dance, or ceremony with the wolves, clouds, rivers, rocks and everything else. A hunter that goes hunting deer may address the herd of deer and ask that one of them be willing to sacrifice itself and to be hunted. If the hunt succeeds, the hunter may ask the forgiveness of the dead animal so that the spirit of the dead animal won’t be angry. If somebody in the group falls sick the shaman may contact the spirit who caused the sickness and try to either pacify it, or scare it away.
What differentiates animism from all kinds of later religions is that the entities which you address, which you communicate with, are local beings. They are a particular tree, or rock, or wolf, or cloud, or demon not great gods. It’s not like later religions of the great gods where there is a big god who is responsible for many trees, rocks, and wolves. In the case of animism, the main communication is with particular entities in your own valley, in your own neighbourhood not with great gods who live somewhere above, above the clouds. Just as, according to animists, there is no barrier between humans and other beings, we can speak directly with trees, rocks, and elephants, so there is no strict hierarchy in the world. They do not exist simply to provide for our needs and desires. Humans are not above them they are in a similar position to them. Animists usually do not give much importance to all-powerful gods who run the entire world as they wish. The world of animists does not revolve around humans or great gods but around communication between a lot of entities with similar status’ in the system.
It should be emphasized that animism is not a specific religion. It is a generic or umbrella name for thousands of very different religions, cults, and beliefs with a common core approach to the world and man’s place in it – the idea, there is no hierarchy and there is direct communication with all the other entities. There could be very big differences between the religion of one animist group and another.
In the last thousands of years, there are many groups of people who shared common beliefs in great gods. Theists comes from theos, which is God, not in Latin, but in Greek. Theos is God so many different religions are theist religions, like Greek Pagan, Hindu, Islam, and Judaism are all theist religions. They all believe in great gods and approach the world with the basic understanding that there is a hierarchy in the world, in which the single god of the great gods are at the top, and humans and other entities are subject to them. It would be true to say that most cultures, after the agricultural revolution were theists. This does not tell us much about the particulars, about what they actually believed and practiced in their day to day lives. Under this general heading of believing in great Gods, you can find Jewish Rabbis from 18th century Poland, Protestants and Puritans from the 17th century, Aztec priests, from 15th century Mexico, Muslim Sufi mystics from 12th century Iran, Viking warriors from 10th century Scandinavia, Roman legionnaires, and Chinese bureaucrats, and Egyptian peasants, and they all believe in great gods. They are all theists. That doesn’t really tell us much about the more detailed aspects of their beliefs and practices. There are huge differences as everybody knows between these religions.
Differences between the beliefs and practices of different groups of animists might have been just as big as the differences between Islam and ancient Greek religion both believe in great gods (one or many gods), but we all know that there are huge differences. Similarly, 30,000 years ago, two foraging bands might both have been animists the differences between them could have been just as great as the differences between Islam and ancient Greek religion. As a religious experience, therefore, of the world, tens of thousands of years ago might have been very diverse. There might have been not only different religions, but also religious controversies, movements and revolutions. Like, for many years, people believed one thing and suddenly came a very charismatic leader, and convinced them to believe in a different kind of religion.
We can’t say anything more specific about the beliefs of particular bands. We have some pieces of evidence, like cave art, jewellery, and statues. But unfortunately, in almost all cases, this is not enough evidence to reconstruct from it the detailed world view of people who lived 20 or 30,000 years ago. Most of the evidence we have about their religions come from a very limited number of statues and paintings. We don’t have any written evidence so we can’t be sure how to interpret these statues and these cave paintings. There are scholars who give detailed accounts of what ancient foragers believed. You can find articles and books, will tell you in page after page, very many details about it. But most of these accounts are a good source for the prejudices of modern scholars who imposed their own prejudices on the evidence. They are, unfortunately, a poor source of information about what our ancestors actually believed.
Take, for example, the cave painting on the left. It was found in the Lascaux Cave in France, and it was made by people who lived there about 15 or 20,000 years ago. Some scholars argue that what you see in this painting is a man, with the head of a bird, and an erect penis being killed by a bison and under the man, you see another bird. They argue that the bird symbolizes the soul and that the people who painted this cave art 20,000 years ago believed in souls, and they represented the soul with the shape of a bird. What you’re seeing in the painting is actually the soul being released from the body at the moment of death the soul is emerging from the head and being released to its next incarnation. If so, according to these scholars, the picture that you see does not depict a prosaic hunting accident, but rather it depicts the passage from this world to the next world, or from this life to the next life. Now this is a very, very interesting and imaginative theory, but we have absolutely no way of knowing whether any of these speculations are true. We are not even sure what we see in the picture, let alone being sure about the meaning. There is absolutely no evidence that they believed the idea that the bird symbolizes the soul.
On the right is picture of a very famous statue called the Venus of Willendorf which was found near the village of Willendorf in Austria. It was made by people who lived in what is today Austria, about 20, 25 thousand years ago. Many similar statues were found all over Europe, Russia, and elsewhere made from all kinds of materials, like clay, stone, and ivory. Some scholars, when they look at these statues, say that what they are a depiction of some great mother goddess or some great earth goddess, and are proof that ancient foragers believed in the predominance of the maternal, feminine element, that they worshiped femininity and women, and lived in matriarchal societies headed by women, because we don’t find any similar statues of men. There are other explanations for these statues, which are exactly the opposite saying that these statues are actually proof of a very chauvinistic and patriarchal society, a relic to the male obsession with the female body and fertility. They represent an ancient attempt by men to control female sexuality in a society dominated by men. Still other scholars argue that this statute has nothing to do with religion, it’s simply ancient pornography. We don’t know who is right in this argument. We don’t have any records from 20,000 years ago of the people who made these statues.
On the left is a third example of a really amazing cave art. It’s not really a painting it’s a collection of hand prints, that hunter gatherers, who lived 9,000 years ago in Argentina made on the walls of the cave known today as the Cave of the Hands. It looks as if these long dead hands are reaching towards us from within the rock. This is, therefore, one of the most moving relics of ancient forager society, of the ancient forager world. We know it’s different people not one artist, because there are differences, and there are very interesting studies about the composition of this ancient society based on these hand prints. You can see if the hand prints were made by men or women, old people or young people, so it’s a very interesting and moving relic to this ancient world. We don’t know the meaning behind it or what kind of beliefs caused people to make all the effort. There are, again, all kinds of theories. But we have no hard evidence which enables us to say, this theory is correct and this theory is wrong. Instead of building all those big theories on the basis of very flimsy evidence, perhaps the best course of action is simply to be frank, and to admit that we have only a very hazy notion about the religions of ancient foragers. We assume that they had religions and we think that probably most of them were animists, but that’s about as much as we can be certain of. We don’t know what spirits in particular they, they worshiped.
Politics and Warfare
Again, we cannot say as much as we would like, because there is little firm evidence to support our theories. Scholars cannot even agree on the most basic stuff such as, whether people had private property, whether they had nuclear families and monogamous relationships. From time to time, archaeologists do come across some rich finding that can shed some more light on the world of the Stone Age. One of the most remarkable findings of the last few decades was made at Sungir in Russia. There, Russian archaeologists uncovered a 30,000 year old burial site belonging to a society of mammoth hunter, a society which subsisted mainly by hunting mammoth and other large animals in the Arctic. In one grave in this burial site, they discovered the skeleton of a 50 year old man which was covered in the grave with strings of
ivory beads. Beads made from the mammoth ivory. Altogether the grave contained about 3,000 such ivory beads. On his head was a hat decorated with the fox teeth. On his hands were 25 ivory bracelets. Other graves from the same site contained skeletons of people but with far fewer decorations and grave goods. Scholars deduced the Sungir mammoth hunters probably lived in a hierarchical society with the big chief, and that the dead man was probably the leader, not only of one band, but of an entire tribe comprising several different bands. It is unlikely that a few dozen members of a single group could’ve produced so many grave goods by themselves.
Later archaeologists discovered an even more interesting tomb at Sungir. It contained two skeletons buried head to head. One skeleton belonged to a boy of around 12 or 13, the belonged to a girl of about 9 or 10 years old. The girl apparently suffered from some kind of severe deformity in the hip and may have had difficulty walking. The boy was covered with about 5,000 ivory beads of the same kind like as the chief. He wore a hat, we didn’t find the hat, but we found the decoration of the hat. It was, again dozens of foxes’ teeth. The boy was also wearing a belt h was studded with 250 fox teeth, at least 60 foxes had to have their teeth pulled out in order to get so many teeth for this belt. The girl was covered with equally amazing and rich offerings. She was covered with about 5250 ivory beads and all kinds of other jewellery. Both children were surrounded by ivory statues and delicate and interesting objects. It took a skilled craftsman or craftswoman probably about 45 minutes to prepare each one of the thousands of ivory beads that covered the two children. Fashioning the 10,000 ivory beads that cover the two children, without counting all the other objects, required about 7,500 hours of delicate work from a very experienced craftsman, about three years labour. It is extremely unlikely that at such a young age, the children of Sungir had proved themselves as big chiefs or powerful hunters, and this is why they got all this respect. Only cultural beliefs can explain why they received such an extravagant burial.
One theory is that the children owed their rank to their parents. Perhaps these were the children of the chief, or the leader in a culture that believed in family charisma and in strict rules of succession. So even though the children themselves did not accomplish anything special during their life they were still buried with in a magnificent way, with huge investment. According to a second theory the children had been identified at birth as the reincarnation of some long dead spirit, and this is why they were given so much respect. A third theory of that was developed by other scholars argues that the children were buried in such a magnificent way not because of the way of the status they had while alive but because of the way that they died. These scholars argue that the children were ritually sacrificed perhaps as part of the burial rites of the leader and then were buried with all the jewellery and all the magnificent things. We have examples of such things of ordinary people being sacrificed during the funeral of a big chief, and then buried in huge magnificence. So it might have happened also 30,000 years ago. We don’t know for sure what is the correct answer, but whatever it is, the children of Sungir are among the best pieces of evidence we have that 30,000 years ago Sapiens could invent social political codes that went far beyond the dictate of our DNA and the behavioural patterns of other humans and other animals species. There is nothing like these burial sites of the children of Sungir, among Neanderthals, chimpanzees and elephants. The burial at Sungir is also a very clear indication that at least in some bands there were hierarchy’s and a lot of social inequality already 30,000 years ago.
Was warfare also an ancient institution among Sapiens or is it a relatively new phenomenon? Did ancient forager bands like the Sungir people fight their neighbours or not? As usual, nobody knows for sure. There are different schools of thought and many theories. Some scholars imagine that ancient forager societies were kind of peaceful paradise and they argue that war and violence between people on a large scale began only with the agricultural revolution when people started to accumulate private property and houses and fields and so forth. Before there was agriculture and there were no villages and cities and granaries and livestock, there was nothing to fight about. There were no wars before, before agriculture. This is one theory. Other scholars maintain that the world of the ancient foragers was actually exceptionally cruel and violent, and that warfare and large scale violence was not the result of agriculture. Both schools of thought have very little evidence to support their arguments. All we have to go by are some meagre archaeological remains and anthropological observations of present day foragers. Some scholars imagine the ancient proto-societies as peaceful paradises, and argue that war and violence begin only with the agricultural revolution, when people started to accumulate private property. Before there were agricultures, villages, cities, granaries, livestock, and fields and so forth there was simply nothing much to fight about. People like the Sungir people had little reason to get involved in deadly conflict with their neighbours or within themselves. This is one way of thinking of it. Other scholars maintain that large scale violence began long before the agricultural revolution, that it is somehow embedded in our genes as Sapiens, and that the lives of the ancient foragers, like the Sungir people were exceptionally cruel, and brutal, and violent already 30,000 or 50,000 years ago. Both schools of thought have very little evidence to support their arguments. All we have to go by, when we try to understand the history, the ancient history of warfare are some meagre archaeological remains and anthropological observations of present day hunter gatherers. The anthropological evidence is far richer and is very intriguing but it’s very problematic. Foragers today live mainly in isolated and inhospitable areas, such as, the Arctic or the Kalahari Desert, the population density is very low and the opportunities to find other people are limited. Scholars find that the people in the Kalahari Desert don’t fight a lot among themselves but this is maybe just because they live in the Kalahari Desert and they hardly meet anybody. It doesn’t mean that people who lived, say, in the fertile Ganges Valley 30,000 years ago did not have wars. Recent foragers, even in the Kalahari Desert, are increasingly subject to the authority of modern states which don’t like their subjects fighting with one another, so they prevent the eruption of large scale conflict. So if we don’t find a lot of large scale conflict between different bands in the Kalahari, maybe this is just the effect of, efficient, modern countries preventing it and it doesn’t tell us much about conditions before the Agricultural Revolution.
Anthropologists actually had only two main opportunities to observe large and relatively dense population of foragers who were independent of the control of modern states. One time was in North-western America which was Canada, and Alaska in the nineteenth century. The second time was in North Australia during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. In both cases, anthropologists have found that there was a relatively high frequency of armed conflict between the different bands. This supports the idea that warfare has been common among humans and among Sapiens long before agriculture. However, it’s not conclusive evidence because we can’t be sure that what is true of people in Western Canada in the 19th century was also true 40,000 years ago for people in Indonesia, or in China. The archaeological finding is, is more important because it gives us a picture of how things were back then, and not how they are today. Unfortunately, the archaeological evidence is meagre and ambivalent. First of all it should be stressed that we have absolutely no clear evidence for violence, large scale violence, between humans from more than about 20,000 years ago. For the period of the Sungir people, 30,000 years ago, there is no clear evidence for large scale violence. That doesn’t mean that there was no large scale violence because we have very little evidence of anything from that time. From the period after 20,000 years ago and until the outbreak of agricultural revolution, about 10,000 years of hunter gatherer life, we have much more evidence. The evidence from this period can go both ways. We have evidence for diff, for different patterns. For example, one famous study was a survey that scientists made of 400 skeletons found in Portugal that belonged to the period immediately before the agricultural revolution. They collected all kinds of specimens and evidence about that period. They found 400 different skeletons from that period and only two of these 400 skeletons showed clear marks of human violence like an arrowhead embedded in a human bone, which is clear evidence of human violence. A similar survey of 400 skeletons from the period immediately before the agricultural revolution in Israel discovered only a single crack in a single skull that could be attributed to human violence, that’s all. That doesn’t mean that other people did not die from violence it just means we didn’t find hard evidence. You can slit somebody’s throat and he will die from it without leaving any obvious marks for future archaeologists on his or her body. A third survey again of 400 skeletons from pre-agricultural sites in was made of the Danube Valley in central Europe. There, scientists clear evidence of violence on 18 skeletons out of 400 which may not sound like a lot, but it’s actually a very, very high percentage. If all these 18 people really died violently at human hands, it means that about 4.5% of death in the ancient Danube Valley was caused by human violence. Today the global average is only 1.5%. If you take all wars and all crime today in the world, in the early 21st Century together, then you find that just 1.5% of the death is caused by them. During the 20th Century, which was much more violent with all the genocide and world wars and so forth, we have evidence for just 5% of death being the result of human violence. If in the ancient Danube Valley, 4.5% of people died violently, this means that the ancient Danube Valley was as violent as the 20th Century. The rather depressing findings from the Danube valley are supported by a string of equally depressing findings from other areas. For example, at Jebel Sahaba, a site in Sudan archaeologists have found a cemetery from 12,000 years ago, just before the agricultural revolution, containing 59 skeletons. In some of these skeletons, they found arrowheads and spear points still embedded either in the skeleton itself or near it. 24 out of these 59 skeletons had such arrowheads or spear points stuck in them. That’s 40% of the people who were buried in this cemetery were probably killed violently by other Sapiens. The skeleton of one woman found in that cemetery, revealed twelve different injuries. In the Offnet Cave in Bavaria, archaeologists discovered the remains of 38 foragers, mainly women and children who were all thrown together into two burial pits. Half the skeletons, including those of children and even babies, bore clear signs of human weapons such as knives and clubs. The few skeletons which belonged to older males bore the worst marks of violence on them. So, in all probability this burial site shows an occasion in which an entire forager group was massacred at one time. The men may have tried to defend it by, but failed, and then everybody was massacred by some enemies, and thrown into these burial pits.
Neither the peaceful nor the violent is more representative. Just as foragers exhibited a very wide spectrum of religions and social structures, so too, they probably had a variety of violence rates. While some areas in some periods, like Portugal or Israel, may have enjoyed peace and tranquillity, others might have been torn by ferocious conflict like Bavaria or the Sudan.
It is vital to realize that people who lived 20 or 30,000 years ago may have had very rich, exciting and troublesome lives, just like people today. The world was as colourful, as dramatic, as exciting as it is today. They had their own revolutions, religious movements, profound philosophical theories, and artistic masterpieces, even if we haven’t found the remains. It is important to keep asking these questions about the lives and world of the ancient foragers even if we don’t have many answers and even if you will never have all the answers. It’s important to ask the questions first of all because by asking the questions we are inspiring ourselves to try and look more carefully for evidence. All the time, scholars develop new kinds of research methods and come up with new kinds of evidence. For example, in the recent 10, 15 years, there’s been a great revolution in the study of ancient foragers, with help of genetic evidence. 30 years ago, 40 years ago nobody used this because there was not the necessary technology. But today we begin to be able to extract DNA from ancient fossilized bones and from this evidence we gain all kinds of new insights about the world of the ancient foragers. For instance let’s take the question of whether they lived in nuclear families and, whether they were monogamous or they lived in communes, and practiced common fatherhood. Previously, it was thought that we will never be able to have the answer, but today, it seems that we might have pretty good answers in the next few years with the help of genetics. For example, you can go to the burial site at Sungir and extract DNA from all the people buried there. And you can go to Jebel Sahaba in Sudan and to Offnet Cave in Bavaria and extract DNA from the remains of the people there and start reconstructing the family trees.
Another reason it is important to keep asking questions is in order to remind ourselves of our ignorance. Science is built not only on knowledge, it is also built on ignorance. It’s very important to remember what we don’t know. We must remind ourselves how very little we actually know about the history of our species of Homo Sapiens. History has been going on for 70,000 years, the first 60,000 years we know very, very little. These 60,000 years were extremely important because during that time, the foragers shaped to a very large extent, not only the bodies and minds, which we still carry today, but also they shaped the world around us. There is hardly a place in the world, except perhaps Antarctica, which was not reshaped by the ancient foragers long before the agricultural revolution. When today we go to visit places like the Siberian Tundra, or the deserts of central Australia, or the rainforest of the Amazon, we often imagine to ourselves that we enter a pristine landscape virtually untouched by human hands, but, that’s an illusion, the foragers were there before us and they brought about dramatic changes. In the ecology, even of the most dense jungle, and even of the most remote and desolate desert.
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- Amazing Hunter-Gatherer Societies Still In Existence (huntercourse.com)
- Stone age hunters brought home the bacon: study (dailystar.com.lb)