Paleo Grift

The myth of a golden, prehistoric age of ease and leisure before the toil of agriculture is an idea that pops up often in the urban homesteading and permaculture scene. While I’m sympathetic to complaints about modern agriculture, I’ve long thought that this Golden Age narrative sounds too simple, too much like the “noble savage” archetype, the idea that if we can somehow just get back to “nature” all will be okay.

This notion of a idyllic distant past was the subject of an excellent episode of the Trillbilly Worker’s Party podcast. Their guest was Daniel Immerwahr, a history professor at Northwestern University who was on to discuss his review of James Suzman’s book Work: A Deep History, From the Stone Age to the Age of Robots.

Suzman’s book, popular with the tech bro set, focuses on the Bushmen or San people of the Kalahari Desert, made famous by the 1980s movie The Gods Must Be Crazy (which I’ve never understood the appeal of, frankly). Suzman, relying on bad research, makes the claim that the San work 15 hours a week. In reality that 15 hours is the time spent just gathering food and the total doesn’t take into account processing food, building shelter, childcare etc. Other anthropologists peg the total at around 42 hours a week. And the San don’t live an idyllic life. In reality they are malnourished, don’t forage much anymore and were forced into resettlement areas by the South African government. The Gods Must Be Crazy, it turns out, was more propaganda than comedy.

Which brings us to Immerwahr main point, that a more careful reading of history might lead us to different conclusions. As he says in his review of Suzman’s book,

A 300,000-year history of work, done well, could ask probing questions about gender, slavery, inequality, the wage system, ideology, and workers’ political power. It might yield conclusions that would be more uncomfortable than encouraging to our ascendant elite. It might, indeed, offer insights as to how to dismantle that elite.

I’d add that the rosy view of hunter gatherer cultures contains a kind of racism that assumes that this way of living is easy, that it doesn’t involve skill or, as in the case of California native peoples what looks to westerners like hunting and gathering is actually a form of agriculture, just not a form that looks like European farming (See Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild for more on that thesis).

I guess it’s not surprising that our tech bros executives would embrace short work weeks and fictitious pre-historic diets while somehow forgetting about little humdrum things like the rights and dignity of workers, child care, shelter and food preparation.

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  1. Do the hours worked include what women and children do? Or is this just a treatise about the work of men, no matter how flawed or incorrect the study?

    • The funny thing is that the anthropologist who came up with those bad numbers had a wife who was also an anthropologist. She pointed out to him that he had neglected to include all the hours women contributed.

  2. It seems rather obvious that a population (of anything) is going to expand to the limits of its resource constraints; unless of course there is another constraint (predation, intra species violence, pandemic).

    Putting aside violent constraints: if they didn’t spend all their time gathering food, there would be other constraints (clothing comes to mind) that would be taking up a bunch of their time. Weather fluctuations would cause booms and busts in population.

    It is interesting to note that there has been recent evidence that the first farmers in Europe (hardly a densely packed bunch by our standards) were at least partly done in by the proto-version of the black death. To the point where their death toll was so high that they appeared to be supplanted by herdsman from Asia.

    I am sure when times were good, they good be very good. But when they were bad…

  3. the aquatic ape dot org blog is about the Badjaos of the Celebes Sea (Philippines/Indonesia/Malaysia).

    Similar to the Kalahari bushmen but in water. They seem to clock in more time for culture like story telling, singing songs, being with family. working together.

    I remember reading an article about forcing the bushmen into agriculture as progress, and many left to get back to hunting/gathering. they weren’t buying it. So that tells us something.

    And remember the shit knife story by Wade Davis of an old eskimo man, same condition to bring him in from the cold give him some progress, and he escaped back into the cold with nothing but his self made (self made) knife— because they confiscated all his tools.

    The best US military school on jungle training was in the Philippines run by Aetas (called negritos also), and they were hunter gatherer, same preference to live in the wild.

    • Meh, just because I prefer something, doesn’t mean it’s easier. I prefer to grow tomatoes rather than buy them–even though it’s easier to just go to the store–because I think the quality is better (and also it gives me joy). People may have all sorts of reasons for prefering their tradicional lifestyle, other than “it’s easier”.

  4. Using extant tribal peoples as guides for all our ancestors’ behavior seems misguided. I mean, most of our ancestors decided to get on the agriculture bandwagon. Those who didn’t had powerful reasons, and we need to respect those reasons.
    And it’s not like time stopped passing just because the tech a people used is similar to that of their ancestors. Just like so-called “fossil species” outwardly look similar to their ancestors, doesn’t mean that they’re identical (as recent genetic analysis reveals).

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