Let me ask you something.
Do you ever ruminate on the nature of existence until you enter a never-ending loop of abstract thoughts, questions, and realizations?
In fact, I do way more often than I should.
Rumination equals mindlessness (here used as the opposite of mindfulness) and mindlessness can sometimes be a self-destructive habit – especially when you don’t get the answers you expect.
For instance, last week my friend Quan sent me a very insightful text about how the unknown provokes creativity. In his words:
That seemingly innocent array of messages led me to another insane spiral of rumination.
I started exploring deep existential issues and after some intense thinking I ended up contemplating the idea of evolution.
Apropos, no scientifically literate person any longer questions the validity of the so-called theory of evolution, which we now know to be a simple fact.
Evolution is an integral part of our existence and managing to look deep enough into it can lead us to tremendous revelations. One, and probably the most important of those, is that evolution takes time.
To put things in perspective, researchers find that lasting evolutionary change takes about 100,000 – 10 million years for minor lasting changes in existing structures. Carl Sagan, in “The Dragons of Eden,” put it this way:
“An example of recent evolution of organ systems in humans is our toes. The big toe plays an important function in balance while walking; the other toes have much less obvious utility. They are clearly evolved from fingerlike appendages for grasping and swinging, like those of arboreal apes and monkeys. This evolution constitutes a respecialization— the adaptation of an organ system originally evolved for one function to another and quite different function — which required about ten million years to emerge.”
In case you didn’t know, Homo sapiens, the current version of humans, has been around for 200,000 years.
Here is a rough timeline of what happened during those 200,000 years.
Especially our modern way of life hasn’t been around for long. Being inactive, living isolated and having access to a plethora of goods and services are all a result of the industrial and technological revolution, which occurred during the last 200 years. Technology has offered us the chance to enjoy luxuries and possibilities that were unfathomable in the past.
The problem is that we weren’t really ready to maturely embrace those luxuries and possibilities. We greedily started to devour all those incredible offerings and became addicted to them while ignoring our old habits.
That attitude creates a clear antithesis to our ancestral practices, for our primal ancestors were pretty simple and straightforward with their life choices. Primal lifestyle was an amalgamation of tribal living, hunting and gathering, being in tune with nature and having a relatively strict diet. Anything beyond that was considered unreal and was usually ostracized as strange and dangerous.
Obviously, not all lifestyle choices exhibited by our primordial forefathers were sane and healthy. However, most of them were quite strategic and undeniably essential for their mental and physical well-being.
This article is an attempt from my side to find a way to ingrain the healthy elements of primal living into our modern life. I will help you understand why specific behaviors in our present can be traced back to our primitive past and I will prove how small changes in your lifestyle can have a huge impact on your overall life satisfaction levels.
For the sake of practicality and specificity I will divide the analysis of this topic in the following sections:
- The forager’s DNA in a nutshell
- The modern equivalent
- Tribal feeling
- Substitutes/Hustle/Work/life balance
The forager’s DNA in a nutshell
In order to understand our nature, psychology and habits we need to go back in time and take a deeper look into how the primal societies were structured. For nearly the entire history of our species – that is before the agricultural revolution – humans lived as foragers.
Societies were formed by tribes of several dozen or at most several hundred individuals. Members knew each other quite intimately and were surrounded for the majority of their lives by “friends and family.”
Privacy and loneliness were a rare phenomenon. Within the tribes, people had very strong bonds and depended heavily on each other for survival and replication. In those environments, humans learned to coexist and cooperate in such a level that drastically affected their social nature. The feeling of satisfaction that you get after a successful social interaction today is nothing more than a reminder of what it means to be part of a strong tribe. More on that in a bit.
With regards to organization and hierarchy, primal tribes were quite egalitarian. Their constant exposure to arduous natural environments didn’t allow them a lot of flexibility in their structure anyway. Survival was based on cooperation and the ability to stay fit and sharp.
Anthropologists argue that the size of the average Sapiens brain has actually decreased since the age of foraging. Staying alive and taming the forces of nature required superb mental and physical abilities.
Take a look at that video of a guy building a hut:
Imagine that the average forager possessed equally and probably even more superb abilities than that. He had to master not only the surrounding world of animals, plants, and territories but also his internal world of his own body, mind, and senses.
That, however, implied that the main axiom espoused by people of the time was “survival of the fittest.” If you didn’t own the necessary skills to become fit for the tribe, you would unavoidably be left behind, get ostracized or even killed. Especially men, who were responsible for hunting and protecting the tribe, should epitomize the idea of vitality and strength. Those attributes were essential for their competition with men from rival tribes and also for generating attraction in their women.
Women, on the other hand, were responsible for raising children and, oftentimes, gathering resources. That, however, did not under any circumstances reduce their value. The reason for that limitation was mainly practical. The human child needs constant support and care during its development and since the man, because of his physical advantage, was more apt for hunting, women’s responsibilities were different. Humans of that period were completely aware of that fact and established an egalitarian mindset within their groups to help support the different roles. Women also had strong relationships with each other since they collectively raised children and gathered resources.
Relationships were quite complicated since polygamy was the dominant trend of the era. However, sexual interactions were rarely imposed upon women. Women were quite free to choose the man of their choice based on their attraction towards him. Attraction was triggered by the value the man was bringing to the tribe and also by his physical appearance. Monogamous affairs were rarely the case, but modern hunter-gatherer communities and former Indian tribes can showcase marriages within a tribe that were respected and celebrated by other members.
Finally, foragers didn’t spend their whole day hunting, gathering, fighting and raising offsprings. In fact, they valued their free time tremendously. Hunting occurred only one day out of three, gathering takes up three to six hours daily and they had fewer household chores compared to the modern household. That left them enough leisure time to socialize, get in touch with nature and of course sleep.
The modern equivalent
Proper argumentation is the basis of every hypothesis. Today, I endeavor to draw information from the above facts and reveal modern parallels, which can shed some light on contemporary conundrums we all face.
In particular, I will highlight modern habits and behaviors of men and women and attempt to justify them according to habits and behaviors exhibited in primal times.
As a side note, I want to mention that you should take those justifications with a grain of salt. I truly believe that there shouldn’t be a singular approach to explaining such complex concepts.
Nonetheless, evolutionary theory can work as the foundation in advancing those ideas even further.
My proposals will focus on major areas of our everyday life, including work, relationships, substitutes, habits, urges and I will try to discriminate between the two genders in as much detail as possible.
If you take a step back and assume the role of the observer, you will unavoidably realize that you are a conscious or unconscious member of many tribes. Be it your country, your company, your football team or your family, your need to belong is manifested in a plurality of forms.
Tribal living is the most important part of our reality, and we are constantly in the search for the tribe that will offer us a feeling equivalent to one experienced by the primal human. Despite the attractiveness that this task entails, it is definitely a problematic one.
Our primitive ancestors had a very homogenous organizational structure and a very standardized set of rules and activities to follow. In a modern tribe, you can’t expect to experience that degree of homogeneity.
The multiculturalism and the multiple ideologies we encounter in a modern country are creating a huge disparity gap that needs to be bridged somehow.
Inevitably, people will form tribes within tribes. The most prevalent examples are sports teams, companies, political parties, and families. Those four are the most fundamental examples of tribal mentality in the modern world. They are all constitutions based on performance, unity, and competition. Their members will fanatically support their cause and go above and beyond in order to promote them. Obviously, the stronger the bonding within the tribe, the bigger the power of the tribe.
Tribal mentality is also the main cause of friction and conflict in our world. We are not wired to embrace a multitude of views. Multiculturalism isn’t in our DNA. If it was, phenomena like racism, xenophobia, homophobia and every form of discrimination wouldn’t be so frequent.
Even if we don’t want to admit it, we are all a bit racist deep inside. Even the most liberal individuals demonstrate racist tendencies from time to time.
To be honest, although this is something every single individual needs to work on, it shouldn’t be suppressed. Realizing the reasons behind our inherent racist tendencies is the first step towards eliminating them.
By discussing those things openly, we bring more awareness to our life and we can have more power over our future decisions. Knowledge is power.
Achievement = Hunting
Hunting, apart from an important method used for feeding your tribe, was also a way of demonstrating achievement. This achievement was rewarded in the form of validation, admiration and sexual gratification.
If you ask every single man you know, I am sure that most of them will acknowledge that all three rewards are probably more important than money to them.
The modern equivalent of hunting is work or any activity that includes competition. Working for your company/tribe will reward you with money, which will allow you to buy food and be admired and validated.
Evidently, the difficulty of the job and its prestige is affecting the reward. Killing a mammoth is more difficult than killing a rabbit and consequently the admiration and validation differs.
Same accounts for sports. Sports are the modern equivalent of hunt and resources competition. Football demonstrates that perfectly. Eleven men on each side hunting a ball that needs to be put into a net. They all represent their tribe. If they win, they are glorified. If they lose, they are doomed.
In that respect, a modern man has way more performance and status anxiety than a modern woman. A woman will be admired and validated for her work, but this is not the number one priority for her. She works mainly for security reasons. If she manages to find a man provider that she can admire, this will be way more satisfying for her.
Despite the constant debate going on lately about gender dynamics, women’s rights and feminism, I think that looking for answers in our primal past is all we need.
As mentioned above, the ideal state within the tribe is egalitarianism with a properly defined set of roles and responsibilities. Everything that tries to oppose this idea creates confusion and conflict in modern relationships.
The period from the agricultural evolution till the modern day was full of imbalances and power struggles due to the transition from collectivism to territorialism. We became owners of properties and some individuals gathered more resources than others, thus getting infected by the urge for power and dominance.
This transition affected detrimentally our relationships and created a stain on the prevailing patriarchal model. Men lost respect for women, became abusive and we realized that the model needs to be revisited.
This gave ground to different movements, which in the beginning tried to empower women, but later on created a greater imbalance by trying to emasculate and create guilt within men. Nowadays, we experience a tremendous confusion among couples with regards to their roles inside their household. This is caused partially because of our inability to embrace monogamy totally and also because we don’t understand our roles within the relationship.
When a man isn’t allowed to demonstrate healthy masculine characteristics that will allow him to be admired by his wife and community, he will become unattractive and depressed.
When a woman is force-fed that she needs to put her career over her family, be independent, be “masculine,” and constantly victimize herself, she will become confused and depressed.
Those are very subtle role transitions that we are not ready to embrace in order to sustain stability in our society.
I truly believe that individuals should work hard both personally and professionally. I really believe that both genders should respect each other and mutually strive for the best. I really believe that effective role definition and support can help a couple thrive. All that, without ignorance, though. Awareness is our ally and by understanding our past we can create a more viable future.
The patriarchal model, despite some negative connotations that it still carries, was always the most effective model for a tribe in the size of a family. Big polygamous communities are not a viable solution anymore and since a family is the most acceptable notion and arguably the most effective tribal model, it needs to be nourished.
Substitutes – Hustling – Work/life balance
In this last section I want to comment on some specific cultural norms we have adopted lately and how they affect our reality.
Consumerism – Consumerism is a substitute. Nothing more. It is a substitute for the prey that you got whilst hunting. The thing is that consumerism is the substitute for the easy prey. You just pay for it and that’s it. The fulfillment you get from consuming can’t really be compared to the fulfillment you get from the hunt.
Hustling – Hustling is the popularized definition of accomplishment nowadays. And that’s not by accident. Life satisfaction among people who hustle is extremely higher than in that of those who don’t. That is because those who hustle are simulating the hunt in a greater degree. When you have a business, for instance, and you know that you need to wake up every day and “do shit” you are more stimulated than the person who is occupied only with menial tasks.
Work/life balance – Work/life balance and its management comes in as an extension to the hustle argument. I mentioned before that foragers valued their time tremendously. They hunted 1 out of 3 days and they gathered 3-6 hours per day. A great modern parallel is the amount of deep work accomplished naturally by an individual. You can’t really work productively and “in flow” more than 3-6 hours per day. Additionally, you can’t really perform exceptionally the whole week without burnout. Even in very demanding institutions like Google, it is suggested to work on their most demanding tasks Tuesday to Thursday. Some very successful startups like Basecamp have introduced a 4-day workweek. The success of those models is, again, not accidental. They are the modern manifestation of how a forager was using his time productively.
I can vividly recall that the times I felt happier in my life was when I could balance perfectly my free time, my “hunt time” and my relationships time.
I felt complete and fulfilled like all the missing pieces of the puzzle were in place. My body was eliciting a feeling of abundance, congruence, and unity.
And I am quite certain that a similar sensation is evoked in you as well when you think of such experiences.
That is not by accident. That is by design. Your body perceptivity is the best way to evaluate whether or not something is good for you.
Primal foragers knew that well.
They combined senses, body, and mind to properly absorb everything positive and reject everything toxic.
You should do that too.
Comment: This is undoubtedly one of my favorite articles. It is not just that I feel that I developed a coherent and intense piece, but also I immensely enjoyed the process of writing it.
Share in the comments some of your own experiences dealing with primal living in the modern world and how you feel about the parallels I just described.
If you are feeling quite ambitious this month and you want to embark on a new adventure full of primal aspects I strongly suggest “30 Challenges-30 Days-Zero excuses.”
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Sources and further reading: “Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari, “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging” by Sebastian Junger.
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