Lessons from the foragers

Hunter-gatherers don’t live in an economic idyll but their deep appreciation of rest puts industrialised work to shame

Vivek V Venkataraman

In the seminar I teach about hunter-gatherers, I often ask my students whether they think life was better in the past or today. There are, of course, always a few people who insist they couldn’t live without a flushing toilet. But more and more I’m seeing students who opt for a life of prehistoric hunting and gathering. To them, the advantages of modern life – of safety and smartphones – do not outweigh its tangled web of chronic indignities: loneliness, poor mental health, bureaucracy, lack of connection with nature, and overwork. Learning about the lives of hunter-gatherers confirms a suspicion that our modern lives are fundamentally at odds with human nature, that we have lost some kind of primordial freedom. For a generation who came of age with Instagram and TikTok, this is a striking – albeit theoretical – rejection of modernity.

The idea that life in the past was better is, of course, not new, extending at least as far back as Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s noble savage. But the 20th-century version of the primitivist thesis can be traced back to ‘The Original Affluent Society’, an essay by the late anthropologist Marshall Sahlins. It is one of the most famous, and controversial, essays in all of anthropology, assigned in virtually every class in the discipline. It is the essay that redefined how we think about hunter-gatherers – and ourselves.

‘The Original Affluent Society’ came about in 1966, when anthropologists gathered at the University of Chicago for ‘Man the Hunter’, the conference that would give birth to modern hunter-gatherer studies. Up to that point, the popular view of hunter-gatherers was rather dim. Foragers were thought to be perpetually teetering on the edge of starvation, incapable of advancing themselves through technology, their lives embodying the phrase ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ from Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651). To the anthropologist R J Braidwood writing in Prehistoric Men (1957), the foraging life was one of animalistic struggle: ‘A man who spends his whole life following animals just to kill them to eat, or moving from one berry patch to another, is really living just like an animal himself.’….