Saturday, November 14, 2009

The good life we have lost

When we try to think of a way our forefathers, the hunter gatherers lived, we look to anthropology. What anthropology has described about the lives of current hunter gatherer peoples, it is assumed, gives an indication as how our ancestors went through life. In the early human history course MMW1 at UCSD, by Tara Carter, the hunter gatherers that are taken as an example are the Bambuti, or Mbuti, or as the not so political correct term is, pygmies of the Congo.

We sort of naturally expect, or at least I do, that any earlier moment in our history, people lived a much tougher life. Without necessarily being Hegelian we are, or at least I am, almost automatically drawn into thinking of our history as progression. And so, especially when thinking of prehistoric man, the pictures in the mind are that of hardship. Primitive man must have lived a life, as Hobbes put in, that was nasty, brutish and short. Solitary and poor, Hobbes also says, although that tends to be less cited. Even if solitary doesn't seem applicable, poor certainly does.

Listen then to Carter's 11th lecture in the series and pay attention to the answer when she asks how nasty the lives of the foragers, in this case the Bambuti, are. They never go hungry. Their diet is extremely varied. They are generally healthy. They have relatively few children and they work 20 hours a week. They travel light in tightly knit bands. Does that sound poor, nasty and solitary? Is that brutish or short? That sounds like the good life. The Congo rain forest may not be Manhattan, but who in Manhattan is healthy, works 20 hours a week and is not lonely? Rousseau may have been on to something.

More MMW1:
Human Evolution and Prehistory.