British Archaeology, no 13, April 1996: Essay


Why is there nothing like a real fire?

It's because we are all still hunter-gatherers in body and soul. Gustav Milne thinks so, at any rate

Archaeology has taught us that the human race is much older than civilisation. Homo sapiens survived for millennia as hunter-gatherers; and in evolutionary terms, it is only in the very recent past that humans have adopted a more sedentary lifestyle.

Alas, the human frame has not yet developed sufficiently to cope with this sudden change. We still have the bodies and the physiology of hunter-gatherers, designed to take regular exercise and fresh air, and to eat a varied diet of fresh food. Our digestive system, designed to cope with unprocessed fresh foods, has not yet caught up with the Neolithic `farming' revolution, and as a result we become ill if we indulge in junk food, insufficient exercise and not enough fresh air. Public health officials can tell us what is good for us; archaeologists can tell us why it is so.

But as with our bodies, so too with our minds. They are also still languishing, in some respects, in the Palaeolithic - even though our hunter-gatherer emotional demands have been channelled through a series of substituted responses which mask their true nature.

No longer do men go hunting, and women go gathering. Instead they play football or go shopping. Such activities are an attempt to compensate for the terrible psychological vacuum felt by hunter- gatherers lost in the 20th century. Football is a substitute for the hunt, combining the elements of male bonding, adrenalin and the prospect of reward. And when we shop, we sublimate our need to comb the hedgerows for ripe and interesting food-stuffs. We all retain the Stone Age need to acquire, collect and store, although food-stuffs have been replaced by stamps, sea-shells or antiquities.

Many other emotional responses are Palaeolithic at root. Why is there nothing like a real fire? Why do we like eating al fresco, and why does sitting next to water feel calming? Why do we need plants or flowers in the house or office? And why is keeping pets or looking after animals so emotionally satisfying?

Moreover, many people respond to soap operas, while the great tragedies of the world often leave us unmoved. Why? Because we have a Palaeolithic need to identify with a small extended family or tribal unit, and find it difficult to respond emotionally to over-large groups. We may manage it intellectually, but only at the expense of dehumanising the over-large group. Market forces and the economies of scale might dictate that we live in large towns and work in large corporations; but the hunter-gatherers within us would prefer to associate with smaller communities. Small is beautiful because small is Palaeolithic.

There is some evidence that, before spoken language evolved, Palaeolithic people had for some time used music and rhythm as one means of communication - just as birds have a series of songs denoting alarm, territory and recognition. Music still underpins much of our interactive social life, with national anthems, hymns, football chants, advertising jingles and lullabies. It does so because it reminds us of that long period of our evolution when, unencumbered by the complexities of formal language, we communicated with the deeper subtleties of music.

There is a commonly-held theory that if psychiatric analysis can reveal to a patient the true nature of events that happened in a half-forgotten past, the patient is better able to face the future, understanding why his or her emotions developed as they did. Could this provide a clue to solving today s diseases of anxiety, depression, and ill health? If we understood that we are all hunter-gatherers in body and spirit, we could design more appropriate lifestyles for ourselves - say, in our treatment of the countryside, in our town planning, and in our patterns of work. And by so doing we would build a Palaeolithically Correct future.

Dr Gustav Milne teaches archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, London


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