The lesson indigenous peoples have to tell us is not that we should go back to the Paleolithic, but rather that there is more than one way to live. And that's an important lesson.
Primitive people are not stupid; they are naive, and not necessarily that ignorant. They are typically happier than their civilized counterparts, as they live a natural and relatively free life. They are, for the most part, somewhat like children, in a way. We would do well to disabuse ourselves of language like "savage" and so forth.
It is my impression that many if not most aboriginal peoples had at least some direct awareness of quantum non-locality, and that this manifested for them as an organic concomitance of their undivided existence -- ecologically, socially, culturally and individually.
The detribalization of humankind has represented a breaking apart and numbing of all of the senses, and moreover a diminishment in the ontological continuum itself -- a real stultification of the reality of being.
We are not humanity. We are one tribe, one that has driven almost all of the thousands of others to the margins if not to extinction.
Natural human awareness is buried quite deep in the modern, sedentary subconscious.
The horizontal, immanent, animist way of relating to the world was not so much a worldview or a religion as it was a psychology and a lived experience. It was really like a state of consciousness -- one that to us would probably seem heightened in comparison.
Hunter-gatherers' lack of a belief in romantic love, and all of its attendant manifestations, was probably wiser than we realize.
Hunter-gatherers are often associated with a period of grace on Earth before the Fall. This notion leads to implications which are not quite sound. Hg's were (and are) exactly like us, but existed in a different sociocultural framework. The majority of common behaviors were the same. The crucial point is that hg's were well-behaved and egalitarian because they had to be in order to survive. As soon as man was given the choice whether to sin or not, he did. Hg society was like a house of cards -- albeit a rather stable one, for a while. But as soon as factors entered the cultural picture that upset the balance and introduced alien variables, like delayed-returns and sedentism, the house typically toppled very quickly wherever the different systems met (usually involving a lot of violence). It is probably true that we were better off psychospiritually as hg's (at least in my opinion), but to associate a purported period of true grace with fundamental human nature is just a misunderstanding. Our behavior as civilized man is more indicative of our true nature than that in the cocoon of egalitarian tribal societies.
As Daniel Quinn pointed out brilliantly, there are really, fundamentally, only two types of human societies -- those which leave affairs in the hands of the gods, and those which take matters over and put them under human stewardship. In point of fact, the former group has fared better in almost all areas of life, historically.
That thing the Indians had that one can't quite put one's finger on is that they were spiritually superior to the white man while living in a fabulously more personally and collectively meaningful cultural and psychological space. Clearly, one can just feel it, on occasion.
In a tribal setting, of maybe ten to twelve in a camp and fifty or so in a band, the shaman was like a doctor/healer/psychonaut/priest all in one person. It is said that generally, schizophrenic or schizoid types were selected for this position -- which was lifelong -- and that, not only were they not denigrated and discriminated against as they are in modern society, they were in fact revered and treasured for their psychological abnormality. In the role I describe, it was one-on-one and intimate with all members of the smallish tribal band. Obviously, you could not make an institution out of this. And the tribal lore would have no life without the spiritual immediacy of the shaman. So it was a close, symbiotic relationship. And the rituals were honed over, in some cases, thousands of years, going back and having been passed down directly. So the spiritual wisdom and techniques cannot be passed off second hand, or reinvented in a cursory way, as a modern shaman, with no ties to the past, would have to do. So you can see, true shamanism is dying if not dead.
There are clear psychological needs that are not met by civilization; hunter-gatherers typify the role, sociologically and psychologically, into which humans evolved, and it is not surprising that, when people were taken out of that role, psychological aberration ensued.
We in the West tend to think of the story this way: we lived in "primitive" hunting-gathering and tribal societies until, 10-12,000 years ago we figured out agriculture and built civilization. Without going into all aspects of why that is an anthropologically inane belief, agriculture began much more recently in most parts of the world. Truly, there was a veritable cornucopia of cultures, all living in diverse ways, all over the planet until homogenization really got going. The picture is much more complicated and rich and diverse than our trite cultural story would have it.
For those societies that take matters into human hands, the cultural premise is the world belongs to man. For those societies that leave matters in the "hands of the gods," the cultural premise is man belongs to the world. This has relevance especially for the history of man on planet Earth for the last 10-12,000 years, and is a dichotomy that directly pertains to the massive debacle in which we find our sorry lot.
Once one becomes even a little aware of the reality of Indian affairs in this country, one becomes decidedly disillusioned with respect to the romantic, 'noble savage' Native American ideal that has become so ubiquitously established here. The perception is "Dances with Wolves"; the reality is, I am sorry to say, third world backwardness, corruption, petty bickering, racism, and stubbornness.
Hunter-gatherers were not and are not savages living in abject conditions. They were and are very successful -- some would argue, based on the raw numbers underlining work time, caloric return, etc., more successful than your typical domesticated/civilized individual or family. Moreover, they are not a rung below us on the biological evolutionary ladder. Our differences are purely cultural; they are anatomically modern, identical to us. One may say that many wonderful things have come out of the evolution of Mesopotamian civilization, and I would not disagree. There are very many negative consequences as well, obvious ones. I am optimistic about the future, and the way out is through. The solution to modern civilization will be created by modern civilization, not some return to simpler times, which would be impossible and not even desirable, really. But the anthropological perspective on this is very important to recognize and understand; an awful lot of people have a personal cosmology and philosophy that is rooted in basic errors which we have (fortuitously) been able to correct with modern scientific methods. It is not merely academic; it is the choice between delusion and truth.
It is not commonly appreciated that we still do not know why agriculture was adopted in the way that it was. What most don't realize is that full-scale agriculture is a much more difficult and brutal way to make a living than a mixture with foraging or foraging itself. We still do not understand the causation that would lead a people to make such a peculiar decision.
8,000 BCE is when intensive agriculture was adopted in the fertile crescent. The whole rest of the world at that time was hunter-gather, or mixed hg (with some small-scale agriculture). There were also some food storing hunter-gatherers, but very few. 10,000 years ago is not when the world switched overnight to agriculture. It has taken 10,000 years to get the point that now almost everyone uses it (but not quite everyone). The world was mostly nonagrarian in most places after the time of Christ. The adoption of agriculture in the fertile crescent was the history of our direct ancestors, NOT the history of all of humanity. A common and easy fallacy to adopt.
Even as far as we have apparently advanced, we're not much less "primitive" than we ever were. I personally regard this dichotomy as an ignorant mistake.
As a species, we've been smart enough to get ourselves into trouble, but not smart enough to get ourselves out.
Damn it if people weren't of a much higher quality 200, 100, 50 years ago. The integrity of the individual has, in every respect, declined sharply over time.
There is a continual flux in the collective over the centuries, and we are now at a decidedly low point.
The study of hunter-gatherers is very awkward for many branches of science and even of the humanities to deal with, because it topples virtually all of their conclusions on human nature. Hunter-gatherers were not territorial, and they enjoyed social and economic equality -- egalitarianism. Moreover, hunting and gathering represents over ninety percent of human existence on Earth, going back over 100,000 years. Only in the last ten thousand years has their house of cards fallen. And it was precisely that: a house of cards. Perhaps hunter-gatherers were egalitarian because they had to be, and hunter-gatherer society represented a kind of equilibrium keeping the grosser elements of human nature in check. Maybe "the evil was there waiting" as Burroughs suggested. Population pressure came to bear in certain ecologically important locales, intensive agriculture had to be adopted (even though it was a much more difficult and less pleasant way to make a living than hunting-gathering) in order to feed populations that could no longer afford the old ways, stratification occurred as a matter of course, and then you have division of labor, taxes, wealth and status inequality, standing armies, and all the rest, and the ancient equilibrium, in a way very durable but also so tragically fragile, evaporated. Human nature was laid bare by civilization. Anthropologists are fond of suggesting that civilization corrupted a human nature typified by the hunter-gatherer, when in fact it is the other way around. Civilization exposes humans for what they are, and that reality was simply masked in hunting-gathering societies because the particular framework in which humans, at that point in evolution, had to have was precisely what they did have: redistribution of hunting returns, sharing in general, social equality, and no economic stratification. Everyone was taken care of in an egalitarian society. Any deviation from that configuration would have been met with failure. When the checks and balances of such societies dissolved, humans showed themselves that they were definitely not the noble savages so many thought they were.
When we say that indigenous peoples regarded themselves as "one with nature," we tend to misinterpret the meaning. In fact, all that was happening was that they saw everything in nature as falling into the same basic pattern as humans and all animals -- rain, mountains, streams, etc. There was no boundary imposed -- as there is the obvious one with civilized peoples -- between themselves and the rest of the environment. The platitudinous concept did not refer to an individual consciousness in actuality being everything, not just oneself, which seems to me to be the popular and ridiculously egocentric interpretation.
The behavioral ecologists and optimal foraging theorists in academic anthropology like to scientize hunting and gathering peoples when, while there is indeed clearly an economic dichotomy, there is an important spiritual one as well. This spiritual dimension, it seems, does not get enough attention or is completely ignored by most researchers and writers on the subject.
It is no coincidence that Zen Buddhism has certain definite affinities with the hunter-gatherer psychology. Zen is the practice of discovering one's true self; before we were tied down by sedentary civilization and its attendant vertically-oriented psychology, every human, as pure or even mixed hunter-gatherer, experienced the true self of homo sapiens all the time. There are enough vestiges of the hunter-gatherer past to enable us to recognize a coherent psychology, rooted in horizontality, immanence, animism -- and they all directly correspond with what is known of the Zen experience.
One of the most important lessons we can draw from anthropology is that virtually every behavior or cultural trait of which one can think can be found among the various groups of people that have existed or still exist throughout time and space on Earth. Generalizations can almost always be proved wrong, which makes definitions of human nature so difficult to get really right. Everyone has a theory about what human nature is or isn't. I tell you, for every axiom you can create to define human nature, there is an exception to it in the ethnographic record. Variation and diversity are very well established on this planet.
The world was there for the taking, so sooner or later somebody took it.
The Romans were a very brutal people. It seems to me that their general character is largely overestimated. They were Philistines who enslaved and indentured millions of people, and saw gladiators fight to the death for their amusement. The ancient Greeks before them were more refined, more sophisticated, less bellicose and generally a much better model, it seems.
Ever since ancient Rome, and well before, geopolitical conquest has been considered one of the highest goods. This very Roman practice of perpetual growth, perpetual theft, has continued right down to the present since, after all, we are her heirs. The West is even still basically Roman.
I agree with Diego Rivera's contention that the white race has been the very worst disaster ever to befall planet Earth. One could chuck everything we've done and not lose much. The same advances would have been made in due course, and more than likely not in such a destructive fashion. Most white people would not understand what I have just written -- but just about everyone else would!
In the greater Roman empire, Greek was spoken widely and it is interesting that it was so strongly admired next to Latin, which is itself a truly admirable language. The tongues of antiquity are surely remarkable.
Humans have historically been chiefly focused on three central ideas: money, power and sex. These have, historically, been the essential drivers of most of human activity. If you control all three, well, you control a people.
Caesar keeps people happy and does good works. Does he ever really do it for their sake, or only for his? Has anyone with that much power ever in history done anything truly benevolent? Is it possible?
The Europeans were able to conquer the new world not because they were inherently smarter or "better," but because they were stronger.
Hereditary aristocracies seem ineffective. If an ideal of quality were to be maintained in any aristocracy, large segments of it would have to be replaced every generation or so, and offspring very often do not display the valued characteristics of their progenitors -- which completely nullifies the whole program of heredity. Humans went about affairs this way for a long time, thinking it was perfectly reasonable and effective. I fail to see how it could have been. Not all but most of the Roman emperors were terrible rulers, and they were all related to each other. Hereditary aristocracies usually work quite suboptimally.
Historically, people born into a certain class very rarely moved out of it. To a very large extent, particularly worldwide, this is still primarily the case.
Had the Indians not waited so long to band together, forgetting their tribal rivalries, they could have kept us out.
Maybe the Indians know enough in general about their heritage to make success in this system an appalling prospect.
In truth, history is mostly impossible to know -- i.e., the history of experience -- and the things we do know are mostly surface manifestations and are essentially incidental.
The only thing one can say for the Romans is that they were fabulously powerful. In most every way they were some of the most objectionable people in the history of the world -- bloodthirsty, imperial, brutal and tyrannical. If one wishes to look to an ancient people for a standard, one must look to the Greeks.
The Western view of history is so insular. We mistake our history for the history of the world. We tend to think of the Middle Ages as ubiquitous, when in fact it only took place in parts of Europe. Thousands of different and unrelated historical events were happening all over the world. Our common perception is biased and rather parochial.
Indigenous peoples were and are participants in the Great Spirit. Western man denies that such a thing can even exist. What a thoroughgoing tragedy this genocide has been.
Large-scale agriculture was a brutal, enslaving, intensely unpleasant change for those societies which took it up in a major way. After 10,000 years, has it paid off yet?
My principal intent in writing The Reality of Hunter-Gatherers was to illustrate the myth underlying Western culture and to attempt, in some small way, to make visible for people the water they've been swimming in unconsciously.
I think it may be somewhat safe to say that aboriginal and native peoples are closer to what is than just about anyone in the modern world. Whatever the case may be, there was an authenticity there that has been all but lost, very sadly. The typical response of the modern is to decry such notions as garbage. That's to be expected.
We tend to overlook our assumptions in our facile explanations of the conquest of the world by Europeans and their precursors. China, for example, had the world's most superior technology for thousands of years, and never felt the need to conquer anybody. Is there not some essential difference between civilizations like the Inca, Maya, Aztec, Chinese, etc., which do fight wars but never go very far, and Western civilization, which has consumed the globe? It may be hard for some to believe, but not every civilization in the world must exist in the image of Western man's.
I am of the opinion that most if not all domesticated creatures are neurotic to some degree. As soon as our species became sedentary, it shut off a crucial part of us, and nominal function of the system was the main casualty.