Uncommon Sense

October 24, 2017

The Solitary, Poor, Nasty, Brutish, and Short Lives of Hunter-Gatherers (Not)

I was reading a NY Time’s Science Newsletter highlighted piece on eroding shell mounds in Maine. Here are a couple of quotes:

Middens like this one line Maine’s tortured shoreline. ‘We know that there are over 2,000 shell heaps on the coast of Maine, said Dr. Kelley.

From about 2,200 to 800 years ago, Native Americans visited this site in late winter and spring. The inhabitants discarded the shells in heaps that grew year after year, century after century. ‘They were eating oysters like crazy and catching alewives,’ Dr. Spiess said, referring to a type of herring.”

This reminded me of California, where the shell mounds around San Francisco Bay are as numerous and truly huge, some of them make actual hills that go unnoticed because of wind-blown soil covering the top couple of feet (then it is shells, all of the way down).

The Pomo tribes and others had migratory patterns. They would move to one location, set up camp, and then eat up all of the local produce and then move on, returning in months or years to repeat the process. These locations were linked to the migratory pathways of prey, like deer, and by the seasonal abundance of fish and shellfish. This pattern prevailed for so long, as it did in Maine, that they used the same spot to discard the shells of the shellfish they harvested, to the extent that those mounds are truly immense.

Many people do not realize that when people became “civilized,” that is accustomed to living in cities, this was not exactly a boon for ordinary people. The wandering hunter-gatherer tribes had, I am sure, status orders in which some were treated better than others, but all benefited from a diet that was varied and plentiful. They were relatively free of disease, including tooth decay, and had considerable amounts of leisure time.

When “civilization” came to people, their bodies became less tall, less muscular, and more disease ridden. Some benefits, eh? They had to work longer hours and had less leisure time, if any. Their diets became very restricted, unhealthily so, and the crowding of people and food attracted vermin, rodents, and disease organisms. The concentration of wealth attracted robbers.

Thomas Hobbes’ quote (see the title) was meant to refer to primitive man but is more aptly applied to the new “civilized man.” All of the benefits of civilization accrued to a small cadre of elites. Over time the benefits have been spread somewhat, but the basic structures of civilization do not seem to have changed. Primitive Americans worked a few hours per day, now we work many (certainly more than our parents). They didn’t have healthcare, but neither do many of us and we have many, many more diseases than they did. The wealth created by the extra labor of the many still ends up in the pockets of the few, and the religious are still spouting gibberish to justify the behavior of the elites.

Too many of us think of civilization as this great boon to mankind. We do not look at the consequences. Civilized Europeans became Americans who thought very little of killing off the bulk of this continent’s original inhabitants, nor of enslaving millions of people, considering them as “subhuman” to avoid any moral qualms. All of these things were brought along as part of “civilization.”

It remains to be seen whether we can fashion some kind of civilization that brings the benefits to all without lining the pockets of the so-called elites. It certainly isn’t in either the GOP’s or DP’s political platforms. (It is hard to get someone to do something they are being paid to not do.)


  1. I’ve read a number of books and seen more than a few documentary videos that show where the people way back did have more free time than we supposedly civilized people now have. When you see some of the details they put into their pottery and jewelry, well, that takes time, lots of time. It is all so very beautiful, exquisite.


    Comment by Walter Kronkat — October 24, 2017 @ 3:52 pm | Reply

    • If one considers decoration as a leisure time activity rather than as, say, protective religious symbolism, then a whole different slant is had. Too often, we glorify of wonderful past as exemplified by ruins and don’t reflect on the human misery used to erect the damned things. There is a current narrative that the Egyptian pyramids were not built by slave labor. If one applies a little critical thought one sees that they were. The Egyptian King was considered a god and when a god orders you to do something, one feels compelled don’t you think? Then consider the amount of brutally hard labor involved in that construction. Put that on one side of a balance and on the other side place the amount of labor need to feed and house one’s family. Is there any doubt as to which one would choose if one were free to choose?

      On Tue, Oct 24, 2017 at 3:52 PM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:



      Comment by Steve Ruis — October 25, 2017 @ 8:15 am | Reply

  2. I’m still not convinced that civilization was a bad choice: while we may have had a period where switching to agriculture may have worsened the health of humans, but I think by now we are past that stage. Let’s not forget that during the Stone Age, life expectancy was around 25-30 years, and today even in the least-developed countries it is 50 or more, with most countries in the 70-80 range. And considering that most hunter-gatherer humans wouldn’t have lived past age 40, I don’t find their being less disease-ridden an impressive achievement – most humans 40 or younger are probably more or less healthy today, too.


    Comment by List of X — October 25, 2017 @ 8:03 pm | Reply

    • So, 5500 years of oppression is a small price to pay?

      Actually, snark aside, my point is that it wasn’t a cakewalk and many of the coercions used by the elites are still in evidence. We aren’t exactly “free at last.”

      On Wed, Oct 25, 2017 at 8:03 PM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:



      Comment by Steve Ruis — October 25, 2017 @ 9:07 pm | Reply

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