Thursday, February 13, 2014


I ended my previous post titled "Culture Decay" by arguing that there is really no such thing as culture as the history of humankind is just one big story. Here's what I wrote:

Friends, there is no culture. I mean, there is really no such thing as culture.  I guess it depends on the way you look at it but to me, humankind is always in transition. It's one story and it's one big party that we all got invited to. There was no beginning to Indian culture or any other culture and there won't be an end - at least not until the polar bears regroup their armies to come back and take revenge on us for destroying their habitat. It's one big party and we either move around or we pick our corner, hang out with our favorite kind of people for a while and SWOOSH, off we go.

But, hey, let's be a little honest. Isn't the party getting more and more interesting with all the mingling going on ?

Allow me to admit that, on one level, it sounds like one of those bland self-evident truisms that people keep throwing out there like "Everything happens for a reason" or "What's in a name?" etc. etc. No worries, I have never been the guy who generally gets stuff right the first time. So in the interest of being fair, let me acknowledge that while it can be (technically) a single, long story of humanity, it's nonetheless, a very interesting story with lot of fascinating sub-plots  that make great individual episodes that are totally worth paying attention to.  Just as important it is to embrace our common origins, I very well recognize that it's also equally important to appreciate the marvelous cultural diversity in our species. Let me level that for you, dear intelligent reader.  


Now, to reiterate the core point of the previous post which is:  it is only people in the present who think that the past was any good. If you thought that the 15th century was a great time in history to live and you boarded a time-machine to land in 1500s, you would very likely find a bunch of guys settled under a road-side banyan tree, smoking whatever is in vogue those days and rambling about how the system is all broken … the economy is going to dogs ... people are becoming more and more materialistic ... a once-great civilization is on it's way to a steep descent  and … the real glorious time to live is actually the 12th century and those days are never going to come back !!! Every point in history, people always thought that their grandmothers and grandfathers were happier and productive. And I think there is some truth to this which is why everyone has a favorite time in history when we think things were just perfect and unsurprisingly, people tend to pick the period when the community they belong to was calling the shots and held all the power. Alas! Needless to say, culture and economy walk hand-in-hand and we can't have an outdated culture with the present economy. 

Hold on ... Today, I am in a good mood to indulge you. 

So, if you still insist on picking a time in history to go back where things worked, then pick my favorite -  the stone age hunter-gatherer period about tens of thousands of years ago in the bright and sunny open skies of the African savannah. Yes, I believe that our stone-age friends had it all, had it plenty and had it good. No two ways about it. I know we are taught by our institutionalized education curricula that stone age people are this horny, unenlightened bunch of boors who try to dry hump anything that moves and unwittingly stare at a jack-fruit (1) tree scratching their heads but the reality couldn't be farther from truth. Stone-age hunter-gatherers, on the contrary, are the smartest and physically fittest humans that ever lived. Forget everything you know and just for a second, imagine how it would have been to be a stone-age person. You lived in a small band where everyone knew everybody very well. You would get up in the morning and you had one thing on your calendar:  FIND FOOD. Now, searching for food in the savannah is not like grabbing a plate at a all-you-can-eat weekend buffet. You have to physically walk into the wild and look for every bite you are going to chew. That meant being open-minded about food-choices. If you were a fussy kid who complains "I hate green peas", you're dead.  The best strategy was that you try to grab anything that looks timid enough to become your food - insects, berries, mushrooms, rabbits, turtles, frogs etc.

Hunting and earning every calorie you are going to consume is not a joke. It requires fabulous physical and mental skills. You are spending your day climbing trees, chasing rabbits, escaping away from tigers and so on. That alone will make you as fit as a Olympic marathon runner and no gym membership required, thank you very much. Not just fit, they had to be sharp and alert all the time. For starters, you have to know a detailed map of your entire home territory (which is at least a few dozen to a hundred square kilometers) very, very well. You need to know every landmark tree is what's the path to the river and back etc. You need to know the spot where you can find stones to make sharp spears and knives and come home safely. There were no maps or GPS and no cheating - you had to carry it all in your head. Add to that, an extensive knowledge of botany and zoology to identify bird sounds, edible plants and what animals come from behind and bite you in the ass. On top of that, wandering alone in the jungle demands an array of technical skills like how to make a stone knife, how to mend a torn cloth, how to prepare a trap for rabbit and a basic training in emergency management because you can't call the forest service or police if you encounter a lion or because your buddy fell off the tree branch after leaping at a squirrel. Imagine all this is a fundamental necessity in order to simply get through the day. In summary, these guys can kick both our literal and metaphorical asses in every department of skill and strength.

At the end of it all, they had at most 3-5 hours of work a day, came back home in the 3 or 4 in the afternoon, shared their food with their friends, watched the sun go down, sat around a circle and beat a drum with a stick, played with kids and listened to a wise grandmother weave stories about animal spirits and dozed off into the night. Perhaps, the rules of romantic engagements would have been comparatively liberal but before we jump into any judgments about how they lacked proper values and were promiscuous half the time, remember that they lived in a close commune where everyone knew everyone and everyone needed everyone else. In a set up like that, its hard to be an asshole and get away. Since they had no concept of prisons to lock away problematic characters from civil society, they must have had a more humane way of settling disputes like "hey, don't shamelessly eat my frogs. Those are mine. I caught them" or more serious versions of the kind.

All in all, it can be argued that the stone age guys

  1. were healthier
  1. were more knowledgeable and smarter (2)
  1. were more skillful
  2. worked less
  3. had more free time for friends and family
  4. lived in sync with nature.

That's hunter-gatherer lifestyle, my dear friends.  Most people even today would choose this list up in a heartbeat over any great philosophical truth or a Netflix account to watch episodes of "Breaking Bad" on demand. Isn't this the "model life" that the entire self-help motivation industry is trying to help us get to? Isn't that how the happiest lot among us even today are ? That pattern is still valid. Give or take, stone age people didn't lead miserable, ignorant lives as we are taught to think. They might have lived a shorter life (3) than us but heck, they carried more fulfilling life-stories to tell. Beat that …

I REST MY CASE. One last point though. From my experience, I am sure some of you will likely assume that I am arguing that ALL hunter-gatherers had this kind of life. That is not the case. I am sure hunter-gatherer life must have had it's load of pain and hurt. Some days were just bad-luck days and you had to bed hungry. Some knuckle-head cousin whom you don't even like comes home with an infection after being bitten by God-knows-what while wandering aimlessly in the northern forests and now half the family is sick. Therefore, I would like to gently remind that we must judge these things on a statistical basis. My argument is that, on average, a higher percentage of people in the stone age economy were closer to the "model life" than any succeeding civilizations in human history.


And of course, we gave it all up. Why? Because someone figured out how to domesticate animals and plants which paved way for the agricultural economy. And we started thinking, "eh, all that hunter gatherer life is too much risk, too much adventure ... what I need in life is some surety and stability". We fell for the sucker promises about how this new revolutionary idea of agriculture would promise endless supply of food and predictability in lifestyle over risk-taking and uncertainty on what the next meal could be. And what did we give up in exchange? Our freedoms (4). People were no longer free to move around anymore or lead interesting lives. You had to stay at one place and take care of the land. Since, the practice of farming is tied to the local geography and climate, fertile lands naturally became more valuable. The irreversible notions of property/wealth in form of "this is mine, that is yours" emerged and it was only a matter of time before our society permanently became class-conscious and hierarchical with lowly peasants having to break their backs working in fields from dawn to dusk and pay taxes in grain to the political elite who enjoyed all the wealth and promised protection from enemies. It was a choice that continues to have consequences today even after 10000 years.

Continued in Part 3 ...


(1) On a totally different subject, God, How I wish I could have some panasupottu koora (Jack-fruit curry) right now.

(3) Even though, the average life expectancy in stone age was 40 years, it is because of high infant mortality. Fossil records reveal that people who made it to their 20s typically lived easily into their 60s.

(4) Jared Diamond argues that adopting agriculture is one of the dumbest decisions in our history but that's a subject for a later day.

Thanks to :

  1. A Brief History of Humankind with Dr. Yuval Noah Harari
  2. The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond


smanu said...

Mr!!! Err, @Sash: Your "superscript" that must read (2) reads (3) and is linked to that link on we getting dumb! How? How, of all, could you err this way? :)

(3) -> I'm surprised to know that the life expectancy was as short as 40 in stone age, I thought it was way more than that. Any link? Too lazy to google now! Remember you promised that you will give(write) all the cool ideas for me?

I liked the post in a sense that I agree with almost everything written there, but I did not get what conclusions/messages are being sent across home, Part 3 coming? I could summarize that "We have bargained culture or lets say freedom for economy", is that what u r concluding from ur end? Are you saying culture and economy can't co-exist?

Let me know what u think on my questions here, then perhaps I can then write down what my ideas on these questions are...

Twilight Musings said...

LOL. Actually, ROFL (metaphorically). That guys had 'humane' way of settling disputes? Seriously? There is so much warfare and killing from current and old stories about hunter-gatherer life. How can we forget "hunter" part of hunter-gatherer - the cruelty is in-built about being unflinching to hack somebody off (not that we lost those genes completely even after all these years).

It is interesting series about culture and history. I think Jared Diamond can write whatever he want about dumber things about agriculture society, but pregnant ladies find it too hard to walk long distances in nomadic life and too dependent after child birth to get on with daily agenda of "FIND FOOD" within a day. (the walking upright was singularly bad decision for all womankind).

They had fewer children and those children died frequently (bringing down at-birth life expectancy). So, most of the loss was on females what with spending enormous physical energy in bearing them and losing them added to the food insecurity regarding raising them.

Like someone joked, all civilization is to impress ladies...
I take contraception and epidural over any paleo life style any day. (even herbal ones)

Rohan said...

Things stone age elders would have told about the good old days.
"In the good old days we could walk on all four. . Such a convenience it was"
"In the good old days we had so much body hair we never had to wear anything"
"In the old days we could stay all day and night in the tree. . It was a big mistake we came down. . Should have stayed there only. ."
You see every generation will have a bunch of people who happily spend all their life looking back not bothered to see where are we right now and where can we go. .

Sash! said...

@all : I am not arguing to go back to hunter-gatherer life. That would be a clear contradiction to what I was saying before :) ... I am merely presenting an option that doesn't usually come up when people try to look backward in time.

There is a part 3 coming up ... if you didnt guess it already ...

Sash! said...

@smanu : thanks for the corrections. I have changed well, if you can wait ... don't conclude anything for now ... wait till part 3 may be?

@twilight: yeah, I wouldnt think that we are somehow decidedly more humane than they were in any sense ... look how we treat our chickens or our ecology or for that matter, the hapless worker in china that is forced to a 16-hr work day just to make ends meet ... yeah, nothing changed in our genes. so ... we can keep arguing about it :)

but, seriously, thank you for raising that point about pregnant women. I was gonna write that perspective of women and civilization in part 3 but this example makes the argument richer. I guess the same argument holds for people who broke a limb or otherwise in anyway physically encumbered ...

also, please dont say anything to jared diamond, he is incredibly cool and wise and may be its my fault I am misrepresenting or misunderstanding him ...

again, its not about picking an age that i am debating here ... so we will hold that one off ...

@rohan: haha ... good one ... dont spoil the (obvious) ending ... :)

smanu said...

No no, though it did sound like that, I was trying to see the point of the post. But more than the conclusions itself(presence or absence of them), I really liked the way u creatively assumed their life and wrote it down for us...Yes argument, I think we can always argue about almost everything in as contentious a topic such as this - IMO the good-old days would seem sweet only because they are old and need not be experienced anymore, just coz we don't have any "liability" towards them, if there was, they wouldn't seem that good anymore...

smanu said...

And that said, when I asked "Part 3 coming?", I was expecting just the opposite. I don't see much need for an "explicit" Part 3 coz with few lil additions or this discussion, as it is going on, Part II might be made complete, that is what I thought...

smanu said...

And if you allow me to summarize it all through my fav musing on the PAST:
The past "seems" good only because it is OVER.

Twilight Musings said...

O dear G-d, now don't tell me I am gonna ruin Jared Diamond too for you. :p
I read "Guns, Germs and Steel" and had to plough through it with sheer persistence. The repetition of his hypothesis is never ending, although I agree he has some valid points. I will pay attention to him but may not always agree.

Here is my summary of civilization: People with the best things from civilization are way better than the best of nomadic people. People with the worst things from civilization are way worse than the worst of nomadic people.

So, civilization increased the sample points and variance. I don't know if a Uniform distribution was ever a stable state in nature when everything wants to follow a Normal distribution. All we do now is to travel along the tails farther, the longer we have accumulated history.

Anyways, keep 'em coming.

Sash! said...

@smanu : yeah, the past is a known devil ... better than the unknown angels ... :)

@ twilight: I like diamond's ideas ... I dont find him being unreasonable anywhere ... I do agree with his writing style being boring. I never completed any of his book and I have all 4 of them wih me ... the point is I get his ideas through his elaborately constructed introductions and then, the rest of the book is details .. and for a "pattern" guy like me , it's hard to patient ... same thing happened with TALEB's books too ... I got what he is saying in half a chapter ... and then the rest of the book became dreary and dreary and I simply look for nice anecdotal examples that make me look smart in coffee shop conversations ...

Sash! said...

@twilight : oh come on, you think our society is gaussian ? I think its a vulgarly skewed distribution ... nature could be gaussian like our distribution of heights or skills or talents as decided by DNA ...

that way, hunter gatherer is more gaussian and closer to natural distributions while cultural evolution and civilizations kept on skewing that ... it seems to me like that !!!

smanu said...

@Sash: U still say the past is better after having known the truth that its a devil? Still clinging to past, not looking forward to things in future?

Twilight Musings said...

I am gonna invoke Central Limit Theorem and say, even if there are many many locally skewed distributions (societies), since there are so many of them with their own skews, global distribution ought to be Gaussian, no? :)

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