If you asked them what life was like in prehistoric times, most people would conjure up an image like the famous opening scenes of 2001: Space Odyssey– groups of hairy savages grunting and jumping around, foaming at the mouth with aggression as they bash each over the heads with sticks. We take it for granted that life was much harder then, a battle to survive, with everyone competing to find food, struggling against the elements, men fighting over women, and everyone dying young from disease or malnutrition.
A whole branch of “science” has grown up around this view of the human race’s early history. This is a relatively new discipline of evolutionary psychology, which tries to explain all of the negative sides of human nature as “adaptations” which early people developed because they had some survival value. Evolutionary psychologists explain traits like selfishness and aggression in these terms. Life was such a struggle that only the most selfish and aggressive people survived and passed on their genes. The people with gentle and peaceful genes would have died out, simply because they would have lost out in the survival battle.
Evolutionary psychologists see racism and war as “natural” too. It’s inevitable that different human groups should be hostile to one another, because once upon a time we were all living on the edge of starvation and fighting over limited resources. Any tendency to show sympathy for other groups would have reduced our own group’s survival chances.
But fortunately we don’t have to believe any of this crude nonsense. There is now a massive amount of archaeological and anthropological evidence which suggests this view of the human race’s past is completely false. Life for prehistoric human beings was far less bleak than we might imagine.
Take the view that life was a “struggle to survive.” The evidence suggests that the lives of prehistoric human beings were a lot easier than those of the agricultural peoples who came after them. Until around 8000 BCE, all human beings lived as hunter-gatherers. They survived by hunting wild animals (the man’s job) and foraging for wild plants, nuts, fruit and vegetables (the woman’s job). When anthropologists began to look at how contemporary hunter-gatherers use their time, they were surprised to find that they only spent 12 to 20 hours per week searching for food – between a third and a half of the average modern working week! Because of this, the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins called hunter-gatherers “the original affluent society.” As he noted in his famous paper of that name, for hunter-gatherers, “The food quest is so successful that half the time the people do not seem to know what to do with themselves.”1
Strange though it may sound – the diet of hunter-gatherers was better than many modern peoples’. Apart from the small amount of meat they ate (10-20% of their diet), their diet was practically identical to that of a modern day vegan – no dairy products and a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, roots and nuts, all eaten raw (which nutrition experts tell us is the healthiest way to eat.) This partly explains why skeletons of ancient hunter-gatherers are surprisingly large and robust, and show few signs of degenerative diseases and tooth decay. As the anthropologist Richard Rudgley writes, “We know from what they ate and the condition of their skeletons that the hunting people were, on the whole, in pretty good shape.”2
The hunter-gatherers of Greece and Turkey had an average height of five feet ten inches for men and five feet six for women. But after the advent of agriculture, these had declined to five feet three and five feet one. An archaeological site in the lower Illinois Valley in central USA shows that when people started cultivating maize and switched to a settled lifestyle, there was an increase in infant mortality, stunted growth in adults, and a massive increase in diseases related to malnutrition.
Hunter-gatherers were much less vulnerable to disease than later peoples. In fact, until the advances of modern medicine and hygiene of the 19th and 20th centuries, they may well have suffered less from disease than any other human beings in history. Many of the diseases which we’re now susceptible to only actually arrived when we domesticated animals and started living close to them. Animals transmitted a whole host of diseases to us which we’d never been exposed to before. Pigs and ducks passed the flu on, horses gave us colds, cows gave us the pox and dogs gave us the measles. And later, when dairy products became a part of our diet, we increased our exposure to disease even more through drinking milk, which transmits at least 30 different diseases. In view of this, it’s not surprising that with the coming of agriculture, people’s life spans became shorter.
The transition from a nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life to a settled agricultural one began in the Middle East at around 8000 BCE, spreading into Europe and Asia over the following millennia (and developing independently in some places). Many of the world’s cultures have myths that refer to an earlier time when life was much easier, and human beings were less materialistic and lived in harmony with nature and each other. In ancient Greece and Rome this was known as the Golden Age; in China it was the Age of Perfect Virtue, in India it was the Krita Yuga (Perfect Age); while the Judeo-Christian tradition has the story of the garden of Eden. These myths tell us that, either as a result of a long degeneration or a sudden and dramatic “Fall,” something “went wrong.” Life became much more difficult and full of suffering, and human nature became more corrupt. In Taoist terms, whereas the earliest human beings followed the Way of Heaven and were a part of the natural harmony of the Universe, later human beings became separated from the Tao, and became selfish and calculating.
Many of these myths make clear references to the hunter-gatherer way of life – for example, the Greek historian Hesiod states that during the Golden Age “the fruitful earth bore [human beings] abundant fruit without stint,” while the early Indian text the Vaya Purana states that early human beings “frequented the mountains and seas, and did not dwell in houses” (i.e. they lived a non-sedentary way of life). The garden of Eden story suggests this too. Originally Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge, until they were forced to leave the garden and forced to “work hard and sweat to make the soil produce anything.” It appears that, at least in part, these myths are a kind of “folk memory” of the pre-agricultural way of life. The agricultural peoples who worked harder and longer, had shorter life spans and suffered from a lot more health problems must have looked at the old hunter-gatherer way of life as a kind of paradise.
Warfare and Social Oppression
There are other significant reasons why these peoples would have seen earlier times as a Golden Age. There is a great deal of evidence suggesting that prehistoric human beings were much less war-like than later peoples. Archaeological studies throughout the world have found hardly any evidence of warfare during the whole of the hunter-gatherer phase of history. There are, in fact, just two indisputable cases of group violence during all of these tens of thousands of years.
A cluster of sites around the Nile Valley show some signs of violence from around 12,000 BCE. The site ofJebel Sahaba, for instance, has a grave containing the bodies of over 50 people who apparently died a violent death. And in south-east Australia, there are some signs of inter-tribal fighting – as well as of other kinds of social violence such as the cranial deformation of children – at several different sites dating from 11,000 and 7000 BCE. Lawrence Keeley’s book War Before Civilisation suggests several other examples of prehistoric violence and warfare, but all of these are dubious, and have been dismissed by other scholars. For example, Keeley sees cut marks on human bones as evidence of cannibalism, when these are more likely to be the result of prehistoric funeral rituals of cleaning bones of their flesh. He also interprets highly abstract and stylised drawings in caves in Australia as depicting battles, when they are open to wide variety of other interpretations. In this way, as the anthropologist R. Brian Ferguson remarks, Keeley’s “rhetoric exceeds his evidence in implying war is old as humanity.”3
The lack of evidence for warfare is striking. There are no signs of violent death, no signs of damage or disruption by warfare, and although many other artefacts have been found, including massive numbers of tools and pots, there is a complete absence of weapons. As Ferguson points out, “it is difficult to understand how war could have been common earlier in each area and remain so invisible.” Archaeologists have discovered over 300 cave prehistoric “art galleries,” not one of which contains depictions of warfare, weapons or warriors. In the words of the anthropologist Richard Gabriel, “For the first ninety-five thousand years after the Homo sapiens Stone age began [until 4000 BCE], there is no evidence that man engaged in war on any level, let alone on a level requiring organised group violence. There is little evidence of any killing at all.”4