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Dec 18

Before the Fall: Evidence For a Golden Age

Flickr-Stonehenge1by Steve Taylor.

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 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 that 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.

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