On the Attractions of Our Hunter-Gatherer Past – And Future

Sila urged Shadow on, the horse’s hooves thundering over the sloping grassland. The wounded bison was almost within bowshot, the Howling Forest just ahead. Behind her, Jun shouted for her to stop. But he was far back, and her prey was right in front of her, its massive hump looming above her as she came within range. Just a few strides closer now. She let go of the horse’s mane and pulled her bowstring taut, sighting down the arrow.

That’s how the first chapter of my novel, Ada’s Children, opens. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? (At least I hope so!) The thrill of galloping across the prairie with the wind in her hair. A chance to demonstrate her skill, and the glory that comes with it. Most of all, the anticipation of the kill, and a good meal after.

pic of shopper and empty shelves
For this modern hunter-gatherer, the game has grown scarce. Perhaps a prayer to the goddess is in order.

It sure beats staring at grocery shelves bereft of toilet paper and canned goods, wondering how bad the hoarding and the shortages might get. To be that self-sufficient — it seems in many ways superior to our overly complex society, which no individual can either fully grasp or survive without. In contrast, there’s the story of an Eskimo, stranded on a remote, deserted island, who was able to survive indefinitely by recreating his entire physical culture from what was at hand. As Jordan Hall writes, “The operating logic of our current civilization has been to trade resilience for efficiency (creating fragility).”

But, oops!

Then the horse was gone from under her and she was in the air. In that frozen moment, she knew Shadow must have stumbled into a prairie dog hole. She hoped the horse was all right.

Every rose must have its thorns, and every romanticized idyll its practical drawbacks. Especially so if you’re writing about an imagined post-post-apocalyptic future, and you want to give your characters something to struggle against.

At first, I thought I might be making that future sound too idyllic. The near-future timeline of my novel is grim enough, so I wanted to create a more pleasant world for my far-future characters to inhabit. And hunter-gatherer societies do have their advantages: less time spent getting a living than most of us spend today; fewer diseases, both infectious and chronic, than modern societies (surely a plus at the moment!); lifespans equivalent to our own for those who survive their first year or two; and less social isolation and alienation, due to living in extended family groups. All of which sounds pretty good.

There’s even a growing body of research showing that hunter-gatherers didn’t immediately take up intensive agriculture, division of labor, and all the rest simply because these were an obviously superior way of organizing society. No, they had to be dragged into it kicking and screaming, often through slavery. James C. Scott, author of Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, writes,

Agriculture, it was assumed, was a great step forward in human well-being, nutrition, and leisure. Something like the opposite was initially the case. … In fact, the early states had to capture and hold much of their population by forms of bondage and were plagued by the epidemics of crowding. The early states were fragile and liable to collapse, but the ensuing “dark ages” may often have marked an actual improvement in human welfare.

A benevolent dark age — that’s certainly something to look forward to! Who wouldn’t want to flee the constant drudgery of settled agriculture, especially if you performed that labor as a slave, for a lifestyle requiring a few hours of varied activities with plenty of leisure time in between?*

So I thought I was on the right track by giving my future humans a mostly attractive society to inhabit. Then I read this Psychology Today blog post, which celebrates hunter-gatherer societies from around the world and from past to present. I realized I might not have made it idyllic enough.

Warfare was unknown to most of these societies, and where it was known it was the result of interactions with warlike groups of people who were not hunter-gatherers. In each of these societies, the dominant cultural ethos was one that emphasized individual autonomy, non-directive childrearing methods, nonviolence, sharing, cooperation, and consensual decision-making. Their core value, which underlay all of the rest, was that of the equality of individuals.

But maybe this is too idyllic after all, especially for a hunter-gatherer society that develops out of our own. These societies do have some well-known drawbacks. One is a high mortality rate from common injuries incurred while hunting. (Sila survives her fall, or there would be no novel.) While those who survive to adulthood have a good chance of living to a ripe old age, they face higher rates of death in childbirth and infant mortality. And if they aren’t dying from those causes, they still have to keep their population well below the carrying capacity of the land. Depending on the environment, that could be through starvation (think of what the indigenous peoples of eastern North America called the Starving Time, December through April), or through infanticide and warfare.

All of that sounds terribly grim to anyone used to the comforts of modern life (though perhaps less so to those who have been barred from full access to those comforts). In Ada’s Children, I came up with more humane ways around those drawbacks. Those solutions still don’t sit well with my two main characters. Their resulting rebellion against their goddess’s rules sends them off on a great adventure.

Our society may be headed for a similar adventure. If this article is to be believed, we (or perhaps Gen Z’s children) better get used to the idea of a return to hunting and gathering.

Climate models indicate that the Earth could warm by 3°C-4 °C by the year 2100 and eventually by as much as 8 °C or more. This would return the planet to the unstable climate conditions of the Pleistocene when agriculture was impossible…Human society will once again be characterized by hunting and gathering.

pic of lascaux caves
Think of all the time we’ll have for artistic endeavors when we return to hunting and gathering

The question isn’t if we’ll return to that way of life, but when and how.
Will the transition inevitably involve chaos and conflict, as all those currently stocking up on guns and ammo surely believe? Or can we do it in some more peaceful and orderly way? The article recommends immediate extreme efforts (none of them very likely, in my estimation) to mitigate climate change, rewild our remaining natural areas, protect remaining indigenous cultures, and drastically reduce our population.

Or maybe there’s a third way, which I explore in Ada’s Children. Saying any more would spoil it, so you’ll just have to read it when it comes out. But in the meantime, please enjoy the rest of this scene from Chapter One, “The Hunt.”


*Scott’s argument is more subtle  than “hunter-gatherer good/settled agriculture bad.” He points out that there were intermediate stages in which people developed proto-agriculture and lived in a sedentary fashion in villages of as many as a few thousand, while still not experiencing the drudgery or stratification of the more fully developed states that came later. He concentrates on the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, but the same seems to apply in North America as well, the Cahuilla of southern California being one example.

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