If you want to better understand who you are today, you need to understand where you came from. I am not talking about the story of your great-great-grandparents, but our ancestors who lived thousands of years ago. These hunter-gatherers lived in caves and wrestled with wild animals. Life was a constant battle for survival. A significant portion of this blog is inspired by Yuval Noah Harari’s bestselling book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. If you are generally curious and are interested in why we do the things we do, this book will provide you with loads of insights. Here is a list of the nine things we need to understand about our caveman past because they deeply affect our present and future.
1) Humans Are Pretty Pathetic
Humans rule the world. We have no natural predators and we sit on top of the food chain but this was not always the case. For 2 million years, humans were vulnerable and marginal creatures. We lived in constant fear of predators, rarely hunted large game, and subsisted by grouping into tribes and gathering plants, stalking small animals, and sucking the marrow of the bones left by larger predators. It is believed that the earliest implements were used to crack open bones to get to the marrow. When a lion took down a giraffe, it would take its time and feed off the best parts. Then came the hyenas and the jackals and the vultures. It is only after all these scavengers had finished that we got the green light to pick on the scraps.
For hundreds of thousands of years, we found ourselves in the middle of the food chain. It was only 100,000 years ago that we catapulted ourselves to the top. So how did we get there? Most creatures rose to the top of the food chain through millions of years of evolution and adaption. Humans however did so quickly that was no time for the ecosystem to adjust. Most creatures at the top of the food chain are majestic creatures. Humans on the other hand are like banana republic dictators- we are full of fears and anxiety which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous.
We rose to the top of the food chain by accident. We discovered fire. With fire, we were able to protect ourselves against large hungry animals. We could burn bushes and forests to produce grasslands and fields for growing shit. We could cook and this made food easier to digest. This was a big deal because it now meant we did not need such a long intestinal tract. Large brains and long intestinal tracts use large amounts of energy and it is difficult to have both. Now, with less energy needed to maintain a long tract, more energy could be channeled to the growth of our brains. Our bigger brains allowed us to control our environment - harness the winds, start a fire, build a protective shelter, and rise to the top of the food chain.
2) We are Storytellers
Sociologists believe that under normal circumstances a group of up to 150 people can exist in simple cohesion. There is no need for titles, boards, and strict social structures. You have a dominant alpha - normally male - and in order to depose this male, there needs to be an effective coalition of a group of betas. But once this threshold of 150 is passed, problems arise. How has it been possible for modern humans to band into cities of millions? The secret lies in the belief in common myths. This storytelling. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in getting people to believe them. When people believe these stories, the power is immense. It facilitates millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals. Imagine how difficult it would be to create states, churches, or legal systems if we could only talk about things that really exist such as rivers trees, and lions.
3) When it Comes to Food, We Have no Self Control
Have you ever wondered why, when you open a packet of cookies, you are inclined to wolf down the entire packet? This is natural and it does not mean you are a glutton. If a stone-age woman came across a tree full of figs, she would eat as many as possible on the spot before the local baboon stripped the tree bare. Refrigerators had not yet been invented and storage of food was primitive - hence the need to ingest it before it spoiled.
4) We Love Sweet Things
When we used to hunt and gather, there was always the risk that we came across a poisonous berry. Poison tends to be bitter. When we came across a sweet berry, the sweetness told our brains that it was good to eat and would not kill us. Sugar today elicits the same response of well-being, which begs the question, why does everyone tell us that sugar is bad and should be avoided at all costs? The modern man consumes too much sugar. It is readily available 24,7, 365. We now have an overabundance of this white poison and we have become addicts. Hunter-gatherers would only have sugar in the summer and only on the rare occasion, they stumbled upon a bush of sweetness. Another important biological response to sugar is how our bodies convert sugar into fat. This was super smart because our ancestors ate sugar in the summer which comes before the winter when sweet berries do not grow. Our bodies knew to store this sugar as fat and enable us to get through the winter. Today, we have access to sugar all year round which explains the global problem of obesity and diabetes. Incidentally, as you put on more weight, so too does your brain shrink - if that doesn't get you off sugar, then nothing will!
5) Industrialisation has Made us Stupid
The size of the hunter-gatherer brain of our ancestors started to decline as we grouped ourselves into larger communities. As hunter-gatherers, we need to be on the ball. We needed to know which plants they could eat, and generally how to survive. We had to map our territory, know how to set a rabbit trap, how to survive the winter, and how not to be engulfed by an avalanche. Industrial society allowed us to specialize and rely on other "specialists". This meant we used our brains less and became more stupid in the process.
6) Hunter-Gatherers had a Better Life - Most of the Time
On the whole, hunter-gatherers enjoyed a more comfortable and rewarding life than the factory and office workers that followed in their footsteps. They also worked a lot less. They hunted once every three days, gathered for 4 to 6 hours a day, ate a more varied diet, and were not bogged down by modern chores such as driving to the supermarket, vacuuming and washing dishes, and paying bills. Gatherers also suffered less infectious disease. Many modern maladies such as smallpox and measles and tuberculosis came from domesticated animals. The gatherers only domesticated dogs. In addition, industrialized communities were concentrated in dense unhygienic permanent settlements while the gatherers wandered the hills and the forests in small bands that could not sustain epidemics. One however should not be too quick to idolize this lifestyle. Life was often hard and short. Those that could not keep up would be killed or sacrificed. Unwanted babies were slain and you did not want to be someone who fell out of favor with the clan. Violence between adults however was rare. Women and men were free to change partners at will. They smiled and laughed constantly and were not obsessed with success and wealth. What they valued most were social interactions and high-quality friendships.
7) Wheat is One of our Worst “Inventions”
Wheat is one of the most successful plants in the history of the world. It went from being a wild grass limited to the plains of the middle east to something that was grown almost throughout the world. Presently wheat crops cover a surface area 12 times the size of Great Britain. But this move to wheat came at a cost. Less rich in minerals and vegetables, more difficult to digest, and bad for your teeth and gums.
Babies were weaned quicker because mothers need to tend to the crops. This saw a spike in child mortality rates because porridge is less rich in nutrients than mother’s milk. Diets became less balanced and more reliant on wheat. They also had to store the wheat, making the granaries vulnerable to theft. They, therefore, had to build walls and stand on guard duty.
Humans slowly realized that this farming exercise had not been so successful. Why did they not abandon it? The problem was that they were too committed to it. It is not unlike the scenario when young people opt for a well-paid corporate job with the idea of working hard and retiring early. It seldom works out like this. They get married, have kids buy a big mortgaged house, 2 cars, and frequent holidays abroad. Instead of easing into a simpler lifestyle, they double down and slave on. Luxuries tend to become necessities and spawn new obligations. This is known as the luxury trap.
8) Farming has made us More Anxious
One of the most controversial events in history is the wholesale abandonment of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and the concentration of people into farming communities which enabled the rapid growth of populations. Some say it set humanity on the road to prosperity while others focus on the greed and exploitation that ensued. Either way, after this revolution took place, it was the point of no return. The die had been cast and no longer possible to put the hunter-gatherer genie back in the bottle. In 10,000 BC the earth was home to 5-8 million nomadic foragers. By the first century AD, only a couple of million nomads remained and there were 250 million farmers.
Humans went from wandering vast distances over the plains and forests to be fixed down to tending a small plot of land and living in a small wooden or stone structure measuring a few meters to which they grew very attached. They spent lots of time warding off the encroachment of wild plants and animals. They also started to accumulate objects which served to tie them down even further.
Their time frames also changed. Instead of focusing on the next hunt, farmers had to think about seasons, cycles of planting and harvesting, storage of crops, and payment of debts, and with this, we enter the age of anxiety and worry. After a solid crop harvest, peasants could celebrate as if there was no tomorrow. But within a week or so the harsh realities of the next crop had to be confronted. Farming and anxiety go hand in hand.
There has also been a massive domestication of animals and they are also miserable. Today we have a billion sheep, a billion pigs, more than a billion cattle, and 25 billion chickens but the domestication of these animals came at the cost of their happiness - they are miserable beasts. Domestication is brutal and cruel - wild animal instincts are broken to serve the great good of mankind. Modern farming techniques are inhumane and cruel. Animal life expectancy has been cut from years and decades to weeks and months and growth hormones cut the time between birth and slaughter. Animals are crammed together and are filled with antibiotics that we ingest and fuck us up.
9) Our Caveman Brain Holds us Back
The human brain is a very powerful piece of hardware, but it is also dangerously flawed. To better understand the brain, we need to go back millions of years. The brain was first designed to alert our ancestors of physical threats - woolly mammoths, saber-tooth tigers, and invading tribes wanting to steal food and nubile women.
Fortunately, many of these threats no longer exist. Unfortunately, the brain has not been very successful in adjusting to the myriad of new challenges we face in our complex societies. Your brain is programmed to be paranoid. It is unable to differentiate between real and imaginary threats. This manifests in one of the biggest epidemics of the modern age - rampant anxieties!
Let's have a closer look at the THREE inherent defects we have in this hardware between our ears.
Defect 1: It Makes Stupid Assumptions
The brain processes information assuming it was obtained in rational and objective conditions. It does not consider the possibility of the body impacting the process. For example, we are not ourselves when we are hungry or tired. Your brain might tell you to quit your job because your boss is a narcissist dickhead, or leave your wife because she is a controlling bitch. In reality, the solution may be far simpler - you need a snack or take a nap. In moments of ambiguity, the brain can jump to crazy conclusions. The brain is designed to make quick instinctive decisions. These days, there is merit in taking your time before making important decisions. Before you lose your shit, stand back, count to one hundred, and try to approach the issue in the cold hard light of day.
Defect 2: It Comes With a Built-In Desire to be Liked
The threat of not being liked does not pose any immediate danger. It does, however, generate a potential future danger. We used to live in tribes/villages/small communities, If you acted like a dickhead, and pissed off most people in the community, you ran the risk of being expelled into the wilderness and devoured by rabid packs of wild dogs. You could also face less extreme consequences. Your status in the community could be downgraded. From deputy chief, you could be demoted to assistant water collector, and with that, curtailment of your access to the most nubile women. Instead of making sweet caveman love with the buxom young hottie in the kitchen, you would need to content yourself with the toothless widow two huts down. This potential loss of life, or sexual privileges, leads your brain to hardwire itself into understanding the need to ingratiate yourself with your fellow cave brethren. The brain also understood the importance of paying special attention to those with the most influence and authority.
Defect 3: It is Easily Manipulated
Given the strong desire to please others, that defective computer of yours can be hacked. This manifests in conformity and following the crowd because you do not want to stand out and be labeled as the village idiot. Social media preys on this burning desire to fit in and be accepted. The more time you spend on social media, the more you are being manipulated by algos that "tell" you what to buy and what to believe. Google and Facebook are not doing the manipulation – they are getting you addicted to their platforms. The manipulators are the corporations that use these platforms to sell you their stuff.
This is different from traditional advertising – TV, billboards, and magazines. The algos are observing you, tracking what you do, and then looking for ways to change your behaviour. They are pushing you to buy that new pair of shoes, to take that expensive vacation to the Maldives. Combine this blatant propaganda with Instagramers displaying how “perfect “ their lives are in these fancy shoes and exotic destinations, and you quickly believe that you “need” these things in your life. You whip out your credit card, make the purchase and then spend the next 12 months digging yourself out of debt.