If you’re reading this, you probably take hot showers, clean your clothes in a washing machine, and own a smartphone.
Maybe you have always had these things, so you never had a reason to think about what life would be like without them.
But, as a thought experiment, take a second to imagine life without grocery stores, phones, email, cars, hospitals, suburban neighborhoods, apartment complexes, refrigerators, freezers, or HVAC.
This may sound like a sci-fi movie in reverse, but human beings actually lived this way for millions of years – way longer than the way we live now.
Appliances, technology, and life-saving medicine make our lives easier today, but convenience does not come without a cost.
The average American eats 152 pounds of sugar per year, is sedentary 60% of their day, and based on this poll, will spend the equivalent of 44 years of their life staring at screens. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, kids ages 8-18 spend 7.5 hours in front of a screen per day, not including school work. This equates to 114 days per year of screen time.
One-third of Americans get fewer than 6 hours of sleep per night and 50 million people (1 in 6) have an autoimmune disease.
Nearly 30% of American adults, 14% of children aged 2-5, 18% of children aged 6-11, and 20% of adolescents and teenagers aged 12-19 are obese. Reports suggest that one-third of people born in 2000 or later will develop diabetes in their lifetime.
Millions of people are anxious and depressed, and suicide rates are higher than ever.
This is not good.
How Did This Happen?
Modern technology developed (and is still developing) quickly, much faster than we probably saw coming. As a result of this, we have become dependent on quick fixes and returns. We are used to things being done for us, and fast.
We buy our food and supplies from central hubs that have a stock of whatever we want at any given time. The only work required of us is to hop in the car and drive there, but with delivery services and self-driving cars on the rise, this task may even become a distant memory. Machines wash our dishes, clean our clothes, heat and cool our homes, and communicate for us on demand. Cheap, processed, “fast” foods filled with chemicals and synthetic additives make up the bulk of our diets. If we are in pain or get sick, we can take medicine that resolves the suffering quickly. We can get almost anything – clothes, food, medication, toiletries, gadgets, and even automobiles – delivered to our door with a few clicks. Most businesses (that can) are moving away from brick-and-mortar locations and toward remote work. Practitioner visits that used to require face-to-face interaction – like doctors, psychologists, and coaches – are now also becoming virtual.
If you take advantage of the full experience of modern-day convenience, you rarely need to leave your home, go outside, or get up off of the couch.
You do not have to exert much energy to get what you need to stay alive.
Our Hunter-Gatherer Ancestors
Now, for a thought experiment, go back. Way back. Before processed foods and modern technology. Before machines, factories, and power grids. Before math, science, and philosophy. And before farming, food security, and settlement.
Think of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
They awoke in the morning with the sun, and their purpose was to find food. Men hunted large game, scavenged small game (when larger hunts were not successful), and fished. Women gathered wild plants to hold the tribe over during hunting lulls. Tribe members understood their place, purpose, and role in the tribe. They understood their jobs. If they did not work, the tribe would not eat. If the tribe did not eat for long enough, they would die. Their jobs were important.
They were always on the go, covering vast lands on foot. Some tribes settled seasonally, but they were rarely sedentary. They adapted to new environments and temperatures, building shelter by hand out of raw materials or settling in caves or other open-air natural structures. They made tools out of wood, stone, and bone for hunting and fishing, and baskets, clothing, and other necessities out of plants and other materials. Fire was a valuable resource. They used it to stay warm, extend the day, cook their food, sharpen their tools, burn fields of game, and starve off predators.
Children in hunter-gather communities had few chores and lots of time to play and explore. Boys learned to hunt with their fathers and girls gathered with their mothers. In the Hadza tribe (still around today), boys get their first bow and arrow at age 3 and begin to hunt small animals. At age 5, they get half of their food on their own, and by age 6, 75 percent. Children as young as 4 years old build fires and cook meals on their own in small groups.
Members of hunter-gatherer tribes did everything together – worked, feasted, told stories, and slept – and they had lots of leisure time. Mothers had help with childcare and were less stressed. Parents focused on teaching their children independence, self-reliance, and achievement. The short-term gains and losses of their volatile lifestyles allowed them to fail big, but adapt and recover quickly. Compare this to farmers, for example, where failure could cost an entire year’s worth of food, or modern-day people, where one stock market move can deplete a lifetime savings account in one day.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors did not have controlled environments. Their sleep-wake cycles were regulated by nature, not alarms or employers. They were forced to engage with nature’s elements – storms, poisonous insects, and predators – and learn how to coexist. Mass communication or information did not exist, so other tribes and new environments were a threat. Warfare and raids were possible at all times.
They faced real danger each day, and they either overcame it and adapted or they died.
Modern Day – Radically Different
Most people today have a stable supply of food, reliable shelter, and do not face daily threats to their survival.
Unlike our hunter-gatherer ancestors, our sole drive is no longer survival (or in the same way, at least). Today, humans are driven by innovation.
The modern environment is shaped by the growth of technology. First, computers. Then, smartphones and social media. Now, self-driving cars. Soon, space travel, hovering vehicles, and downloading consciousness into a computer. The race to the next big thing is on.
We are struggling to adapt at the same rate the modern environment is changing. Scientists call this evolutionary mismatch: when the environment changes faster than an organism can adapt.
The zoo is a metaphor that demonstrates this.
Animals in zoos are less healthy and don’t live as long as their wild cousins. Why? The zoo environment is radically different from the wild environment they evolved to live in.
Modern humans are not much different from animals in zoos.
Our modern lives are nearly unrecognizable compared to the lives of our ancestors. And this happened in the blink of an eye.
What Can We Do
The perceived slower-paced, purpose-filled lives of hunter-gatherers as they existed in harmony with nature’s rhythms, danced and talk story around the fire, and came together as a tribe may seem romantic and whimsical.
But nature is ruthless.
Our ancestors faced serious challenges that our modern, evolved brains are not equipped to handle (without a period of adaptation, at least).
I learned this the hard way when our electricity and water were unexpectedly pulled from us for 48 hours (with no warning) during a historical winter snowstorm. The temperature outside lingered in the teens and occasionally dropped to single digits. We had no heater, no appliances, no hot or clean water, and no artificial light. It was mentally challenging to live this way – to fill a cooler with snow to freeze our food, boil water to brush our teeth, be without our sink disposal (and unable to do dishes), cook with a camping stove indoors and open the windows to vent (think single-digit temps outside with no heater), light candles to see at night, and take cold showers. To attempt to fall asleep with a painfully cold face after seeing the white frosty air come from my husband’s mouth inside of our apartment rattled me.
It made me appreciate what I have. I saw how dependent I was (and still am) on comfort. I thought about our ancestors and how they lived without any of these things. This humbled me. I became motivated to learn about their way of life.
Why hunter-gatherers? I kept asking myself this question.
We come from them. They’re the earliest humans. They lived the way they did much longer than we have been living the way we do. That’s something.
The lifestyle they lived is the opposite of our modern lifestyle. If modern life is making us sick, maybe the antidote is learning about the opposite way of life – and integrating some of it to balance the scale.
- nurturing our bodies (movement, sun, the cold, good food, hydration, posture, grooming)
- setting boundaries on modern convenience (do what you can for yourself instead of letting someone else do it for you)
- challenging comfort (cold showers, fasting, strenuous exercise)
- staying in touch with our circadian rhythms and nature’s cycles (wake up with the sun, walk at sunrise, no screens or artificial light at night)
- practicing voluntary sacrifice (mimicking forced sacrifice in ancient days)
- avoiding danger (sitting, toxic people, social media, blame, pollution, mercury fillings, plastic, sugar, seed oils, toxic air, tyrannical to-do lists, news, distractions, medication, etc.)
- developing strong tribal bonds (having clear roles and responsibilities, mindful communication, sex, avoiding aimless interactions, limiting gossip, practicing negotiation and giving, bonding with pets)
- and nurturing spirit (earthing, journaling, meditation, dance, music, alone time, making a space orderly and beautiful, crying, burning herbs and wood, maintaining a routine, practicing grace, nurturing discipline and work ethic, developing a sense of self in the face of ridicule),
…maybe we have a shot at balancing the scale.