[Note: This is the eleventh sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy. I don’t plan on reviewing more books for a while. My blog is home to reviews of 199 books, and you are very welcome to explore them. The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews, if you are interested in specific authors, titles, or subjects.]
You and I are tropical primates, and our family tree originated in Mother Africa. Africa played a primary role in the evolution of our bodies and minds. Our ancestors were hunter-gatherers for at least two million years. Because they were predators on the savannah, they could not live in large herds. Too many hunters spoil the ecosystem. Their ability to function as high level predators was heavily dependent on powerful technological crutches. At the same time, they were pitifully slow, plump, juicy, walking meatballs. They were far too vulnerable to survive as solitary predators, like tigers or bears.
The key to success was to live in small groups of maybe 15 to 30, work as a team, and move elsewhere when food got scarce. The normal daily experience of wild hominins included constant exposure to a wide variety of other species. In the family of life, we were a wee minority group, not the dominant animal. Ancestors spent every day of their lives in a healthy natural habitat, not an ugly noisy stinky industrial gulag of concrete and steel.
Joe Kane spent time in the Amazon rainforest. He noted that, prior to contact with outsiders, most Huaorani never encountered more than seventy or eighty people during their entire lives, most of whom they knew by name. Imagine that. Mentally, we are far more comfortable being in small groups where we are known and respected. It’s not groovy being a stranger in a vast mob of strangers, day after day, year after year. You might feel like a zoo animal, serving a life sentence for being born in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Functioning as a wild hunting and foraging team was very different from civilized life. Sharing was essential. Nobody went hungry unless everyone did. Louis Liebenberg mentioned a study of San hunters. Of those aged 15 to 38, just 17 percent of the hunters were responsible for 70 percent of the kills, while half of the hunters killed nothing at all. If meat was not shared, many would starve, and the community would blink out. Cultures had different methods for distributing portions of the meat, but this task was never a job for the day’s lucky hunter, and his portion was never the largest.
It was essential for effective teamwork to avoid personal conflicts, and to promptly resolve the ones that occurred. Clans typically had time-proven strategies for nurturing good interpersonal relationships. A humble and respectful demeanor encouraged warm drama-free relationships. Self-deprecating discourse (the opposite of boasting) was common among wild people. Peter Freuchen wrote that when an Eskimo hunter brought home a primo feast, he would shamefully apologize to the others for bringing back crappy meat that was unfit for dogs. The people nodded and smiled.
Bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers had no tolerance for bigheads. Whenever someone displayed the first symptoms of pride, they were mocked, teased, or shunned — whatever was needed to restore the swollen head to normal size. Then came reconciliation and forgiveness. Uppity males who could not be reformed might be deported to other clans. Incurable jerks sometimes had to be euthanized.
Christopher Boehm described how an American anthropologist created an ugly scene while staying with the Utku Eskimos of northern Canada. She behaved in an ordinary American manner, sometimes a bit moody, occasionally displaying a flash of anger when irritated. This was totally uncool in a culture where folks spent long, dark, frigid winters in close company. Folks were expected to smile, laugh, and joke — to display good manners.
Everyone’s highest responsibility was to maintain the stability of the group. In the Utku culture, except for childish outbursts, it was rude to show your emotions, because strong thoughts can kill or cause illness. Anger was dangerous juju, highly toxic. Eventually, the natives ran out of patience with the American drama queen, and she became a nonperson.
A primary benefit of nomadic life was that you couldn’t have more belongings than you could carry in both hands. This avoided all of the bad juju of hoarding, inequality, and hierarchy — the core curse of modern society. In regions having abundant wild food, like the Pacific Northwest, tribes became sedentary, lived in permanent dwellings, and became able to hoard stuff. Those with lots of stuff tended to look down on folks who don’t. Inequality was a reliable cause of resentment and conflict.
Vine Deloria noted that everyone is a descendant of tribal ancestors. In each tribal homeland, unique spiritual traditions emerged, fine-tuned to its landscape, ecology, and climate. Every homeland had sacred places where the community participated in special ceremonies. All members of the tribe had deep roots in the homeland, and all shared the same worldview. A tribal person “does not live in a tribe, the tribe lives in him.”
In modern society, neighborhoods are constantly-changing swarms of occupants having highly diverse incomes, ethnicities, religious beliefs, and political views. People may live side by side for years, yet have nothing in common, and sometimes intense differences. Many do not know the names or faces of most folks in their neighborhood. This is not a coherent community sharing a profound sense of responsibility for the wellbeing of their ecosystem.
Colin Turnbull wrote that in the Pygmy world, it’s hard to see a clear boundary between work and play. The vital task of maintaining social harmony required generous amounts of singing and dancing, followed by gathering ripe fruit, or hunting, or fireside chats, or teaching the children. They enjoyed a society harmonized by a common set of beliefs, values, and lifestyles. Everyone was on the same channel.
Modern society is a cranky boisterous mob of numerous cultures, classes, ideologies, and religious beliefs. We are expected to accept diversity, and even take pride in our tolerance of those who are different. Turnbull realized that “a society that was not bound together by a single powerful belief is not a society at all.” It was just a mob of folks kept under control by law and force.
Turnbull spoke fondly of Father Longo, a Catholic missionary. Pygmies had no word for evil. “In order to convert them, then, he would first have to teach them the concept of evil, and that he was not prepared to do.” He left them unmolested.
John Gunther saw that folks in the wild animist tribes of Africa were of one mind. When missionaries taught them Christianity, it was highly disruptive, because it taught the importance of the individual, a foreign idea. While you might have a salvation experience, your friends and family might not. The unity of the group could be rubbished by spiritual discord.
In modern society, everyone is an individual, and we spend our lives competing with everyone else to climb the organizational ladders, and proudly display our glittering status trinkets. Self-centeredness is the norm. Jay Griffiths wrote that missionaries in South America often provided the natives with mirrors, to heighten their sense of individuality. She learned that in Peru, four Christian groups used helicopters and speedboats in their fierce competition to locate uncontacted tribes. They fully understood that they would inevitably be sharing the diseases of civilization, but they didn’t care. In some places, half of the natives died within two years.
Daniel Everett was sent to the Amazon to translate the Bible into the language of the illiterate Pirahã hunter-gatherers. Eventually, overwhelmed by the absurdity, he became an atheist, abandoned the project, and lost his family. “I would go so far as to suggest that the Pirahãs are happier, fitter, and better adjusted to their environment than any Christian or other religious person I have ever known.”
Jean Liedloff described the natives she met in South America. The Tauripan people of Venezuela were the happiest people she had ever met. All of their children were relaxed, joyful, cooperative, and rarely cried — they were never bored, lonely, or argumentative. The Yequana people seemed unreal to Liedloff, because of their lack of unhappiness. As an expedition was moving up a challenging jungle stream, she noticed that the Italians would get completely enraged at the slightest mishap, while the Yequana just laughed the struggles away. Their daily life had a party mood to it.
Colin Turnbull spent years with the Mbuti Pygmies. He was amazed by their joyful way of living. They would laugh until they could no longer stand, and then sit down and laugh. We tend to regard our childhood as a golden age of innocence and joy — before we’re shipped off to dreary schools, jobs, and nursing homes. The Pygmies did not idolize childhood, because they spent their lives in a place of wonder, and with each passing year, the wonder of it all kept growing.
Robert Wolff described the Sng’oi people of Malaysia. They knew each other’s unspoken thoughts, communicating telepathically. “They had an immense inner dignity, were happy, and content, and did not want anything.” They loved to laugh and joke. They were often singing and smiling. Angry voices were never heard.
Lewis Cotlow visited Eskimos in arctic Canada. One night, he spent several hours talking to local officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. They kept repeating one idea in different ways: “The Eskimos are the happiest people in the world.”
Knud Rasmussen traveled across the arctic, from Greenland to Siberia, from 1921 to 1924. He enjoyed the Eskimo people. “A notable feature was their lively good humor and careless, high-spirited manner.” The women worked very hard, but “they were always happy and contended, with a ready laugh in return for any jest or kindly word.” Eskimos perceived whites to be uptight and coldly impersonal.
Peter Freuchen spent a lot of time with the Eskimos, and married into their culture. He wrote that “they always enjoy life with an enviable intensity, and they believe themselves to be the happiest people on earth living in the most beautiful country there is.” Inuit women had “perpetual smiles,” and “they seem to have more natural grace, more zest for life than their white sisters.”
Joe Kane was impressed by the fact that Huaorani men and women enjoy equal status. It was always unacceptable to give orders, or to raise a hand against a woman or child. Family harmony was important.
Richard Lee spent time with the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert. He noted that the women were quite independent from their parents and husbands. “The many forms of sexual oppression that women experience in other societies, such as rape, wife battering, purdah, enforced chastity, and sexual double standards are absent in !Kung society.”