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"Zerzan's writing is sharp, uncompromising, and tenacious." — Derrick Jensen

"John Zerzan's importance does not only consist in his brilliant intelligence, his absolute clearness of analysis and his unequalled dialectical synthesis that clarifies even the most complicated questions, but also in the humanity that fills his thoughts of resistance. Future Primitive Revisited is one more precious gift for us all."—Enrico Manicardi, author of Liberi dalla Civiltá (Free from Civilization)

"Anyone who travels with his eyes open understands the sense of much of what you have written, and the longer I live the greater my contempt for the opportunists who run governments and dictate our lives with technology."—Paul Theroux

"Of course we should go primitive. This doesn't mean abandoning material needs, tools, or skills, but ending our obsession with such concerns. Declaring for community, our true origin: personal autonomy, trust, mutual support in pursuit of all the joys and troubles of life. Society was a trap—massive, demanding, impersonal and debilitating from day one. So hurry back to the community, friends, and welcome all the consequences of such an orientation. The reasons for fear and despair will only multiply if we remain in this brutal and dangerous state of civilization."—Blok 45 publishing, Belgrade

As our society is stricken with repeated technological disasters, and the apocalyptic problems that go with them, the "neo-primitivist" essays of John Zerzan seem more relevant than ever.

"Future Primitive," the core innovative essay of Future Primitive Revisited, has been out of print for years. This new edition is updated with never-before-printed essays that speak to a youthful political movement and influential writers such as Derrick Jensen and Paul Theroux.

An active participant in the contemporary anarchist resurgence, John Zerzan has been an invited speaker at both radical and conventional events on several continents. His weekly Anarchy Radio broadcast streams live on KWVA radio.

Year:
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Language:
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Pages:
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ISBN 13:
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"Anyone who travels with his eyes open understands the sense of
much of what John Zerzan has written and the longer I live the
greater my contempt for the opportunists who run governments
and dictate our lives with technology." -Paul Theroux

FUTURE
PRIMITIVE
REVISITED
BY JOHN

ZERZAN

�

FERAL HOUSE

Anti-Copyright 2012 by John Zerzan

109 87654321

Design by Sean Tejaratchi

Other titles by John Zerzan availab le from Feral House

Against Civilization
Running on Emptiness
Twilight of the Machines

Feral House

1240 W. Sims Way Ste.124
Port Townsend, WA 98368
Send S.A.S.E. for free catalogue of publications

info@feralhouse.com
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TABLE OF

CO NTE NTS
INTRODUCTION BY MICHAEL BECKER ......................................................... IX

PART ONE: FUTURE PRIMITIVE
1. FUTURE PRIMITIVE

............................................................................................

2. THE MASS PSYCHOLOGY OF MISERY
3. TONALITY AND THE TOTALITY

........................................................

....................................................................

4. THE CATASTROPHE OF POSTMODERNISM
5. THE NIHILIST'S DICTIONARY

.

....... ........................................

......................................................................

1

25
45
65
91

PART TWO : THE WAY WE USED TO BE
6. THE WAY WE USED TO BE .........................................................................111
7. ORIGINS AND THE TRICKSTER...................................................................127
8. COMPLEXITY ...................................................................................................143
g. REVOLT AND HERESY IN THE LATE MIDDLE AGES ............................151

10. DENYING THE UNAVOIDABLE

....................................................................

159

PART THREE: THE WAY WE ARE NOW
11. memory.loss
12. SILENCE
13. LOVE

.

. .

.. .

..................... ................ .... ......

......................

.. .

. ..............; ..............................

.

.. ........... .....................................................................

..................................................................................................................

14. HAPPINESS

......................................................................................................

173
179
187
193

INTRODUCTION
BY MICHAEL BECKER

AS I WRITE THI S I NTRODUCTION to John Zerzan's latest collection
of essays, three of the six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear
complex in northeastern Japan are in varying states of collapse. Radiation
is cascading into the atmosphere, and the frontline workers trying to fix the
problem are the first of millions, human and non-human, who will suffer
fatal radiation sickness as a result.
The deadly particles irradiating my body as I write these words, and
yours, as you read them, only exist through the ingenious work of civilized
human hands. Civilization creates complexity and pits it against nature.
The more civilized a culture, the more complexity it entails; the more
complexity, the greater the danger. In the end, civilization always loses
because civilizations run up against natural limits, and "nature bats last."
We can say that civilizations have have life spans, and various indicators
suggest that modem Western civilization (now global in scope) may be
reaching its senescence. Efforts to save civilization become increasingly
desperate and far-fetched (consider the Zeitgeist movies" Venus Proj ect
or Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Discipline). An entire social movement to
escape seemingly inevitable collapse masquerades as "environmentalism."
On shopping bags and light bulb packages we are exhorted to "save the
Earth." A raft of texts on the ecological crisis similarly speak of saving nature
or preserving ecosystems. Really these texts are about saving civilization.
Ecosystems, like individual species, have only instrumental value for the
"greater good."
But is civilization worth saving? In saving civilization do we sacrifice
ourselves in the same way we have sacrificed Earth, nature, ecosystems,
IX

F UTURE P R I M ITIVE REVIS ITED

and species? Such questions are, obviously, non-sensical t o anyone who
is already fully committed to the proj ect of civilization. Unfortunately,
this comprises nearly all academics in the social and natural sciences, the
academy, especially in its current corporatized form, being the epitome
of civilization. Thus they continue to neglect Zerzan's writings and the
emerging body of work that has come to be known as anarcho-primitivism.
This they do at their peril. In this new collection of essays, Zerzan
once again reminds us that we are the ones who must be saved by the Earth.
Humans living in civilization have already lost their health, their freedom,
their natural sense of social solidarity and, most of all, a primordial kinship
and identification with the natural world. In evolutionary terms it has been
demonstrated time and again that civilization is a mistake. Civilization is
inherently unsustainable. Only primitive cultures are sustainable over the
long term. Today, in its most advanced form, civilization is precipitating
the Earth's sixth great extinction crisis. Ultimately our species is also in the
balance. But civilization has already, for the most part, eradicated our essence
as natural beings thriving in a natural lifeworld. Were this civilization
to survive in its current form and direction, humans would be further
transformed into automatons entirely integrated within an exclusively
artifactual environment. Whether by catastrophe or design, what is needed
instead is a "future primitive" that restores the nature of humans and the
nature of the lifeworld simultaneously. Anarcho-primitivism and Zerzan
in particular steadfastly assert that only a return to primitive culture can
restore authentic human dignity.
My background is in political theory, and what I would like to try
to do in this introduction is read some basic motifs of Western political
thought against Zerzan's anarcho-primitivism. This is by way of homage to
Zerzan's impressive body of work and influence in the development of green
anarchy. But it is also as an attempt to show his place in social theory, a
matter that I think has been woefully neglected.
We think of civilization as a type of society emerging some five
thousand years ago and consisting of a number of interconnected
features: domestication of plants and animals and increasingly large-scale
agriculture; food surplus and population growth; writing, specifically the
development of records concerning measured space (agricultural fields),
measured time (the calendar and official history), and economic output
(accounting); continually intensifying division of labor and specialization
x

I N T R O D U CT I O N
and an emerging class structure; increasingly sophisticated technical means
of production; urbanization and a demand for luxuries, especially among
the wealthy, powerful classes; complex trade and the expansion of territory;
a professional military; and centralized political and religious authority
which oversees an administrative bureaucracy, directs the military, and
controls the population. Civilizations collapse under their own weight
within a relatively short period of time due to population "overshoot"
and exhaustion of resources, climate change, the disruption of increasing
sophisticated trade and alliance networks, and social disorder from within.
One important factor missing from an "objective" definition of
civilization is any sense of the influence of ideas. The particular practices of
any civilization are informed by the way people living in those civilizations
make sense of their lives, especially in regards to religion, politics, philosophy,
and a more or less mythical account of their origins. My contention, via
Zerzan's significant influence, is that founding, fundamental ideas in various
stages of Western civilization have involved a basic, distorted tension or
dialectic between the city and nature. In this false dialectic, the depiction
of primitive peoples has always been imbued with what are actually
tendencies of civilization. The latter, in tum, has always been presented
as a fulfillment or completion of the allegedly primitive characteristics
and elevated above the primitive. The very retention of the idea of nature,
especially in various stories of a lost "golden age," is not actually so much
about what has been lost. Rather, especially because these stories have
always distorted the nature of the primitive and thus provided a kind of
fun-house mirror to civilization, they provide a psychologically powerful
reinforcement of what civilization has allegedly gained by compensation.
Still, these stories served to restrain certain practices and provided (even in
their tendentious form) an intellectual and spiritual lifeline for citizens to
retain a sense of belonging to the primordial world of creation.1
It is not surprising, then, that the nature of the relationship between
that which humans create and that which is natural has always been
a central theme in social theory. Philosophers have been particularly
concerned with the tension between social conventions-norms, mores,
laws, and institutions, what the Greeks called nomos-and that which
comes about independently of human action, nature or phusis. The paradox
is that humans are a part of nature; the distinction between nomos and

physis would thus seem irrelevant or even impossible. As natural creatures,
XI

F UT U R E P R I M I T I V E R E V I S I T E D
anything humans d o must, ipso facto, b e natural. Yet s o much o f convention
seems designed to restrain what is natural in humans, to redirect natural
desire and postpone satisfaction in the pursuit of an obj ective which the
mass of humans have had no say in determining as ends-worthy. "Man is
born free," as Rousseau so eloquently put it, "and everywhere is in chains."
Yet, like nearly all Western social theorists, Rousseau makes the
move back toward civilization by raising two important claims. The first
is that a return to primitive existence is impossible. The long development
of civilization, especially in the way property has corrupted innate self­
concern, has allegedly so altered the nature of man that the option of a
return to simplicity is off the table. Second, Rousseau claims that rational
man can invent social institutions (the General Will) that reclaim and
surpass the original, unconscious freedom and social solidarity of savages.
There is no going back, and who would want to? These are the two basic
catechisms of life under the Law; they show up almost without exception
in the history of political ideas.
Rousseau's false dialectic between civilization and nature is typical.
An authentic dialectic can exist only where two contradictory possibilities
are each instances of reality. But Rousseau and other leading Western
social theorists implant in their conception of the primitive, natural man
certain conventions which are actually facets of civilization. They falsify
the natural side of the dialectic. In Rousseau's case, he posits two allegedly
innate traits that are, in fact, paradigmatic of modem civilization: "a faculty
of improvement" and an isolated, egoistic conception of the individual.
In the formation of the General Will, each participant must express his
own views in an entirely direct and unmitigated fashion and then accept
without question the determinations of the public vote. The primitive
is allegedly surmounted, then, by raising up and completing a trait­
atomistic individualism-that is not primitive at all. Plato does this in his
Republic by asserting that division of labor and complex, monetized trade
relations are part and parcel of every social group, including the simplest
precursor of the modem city. They are not. The schemes Plato develops
for locking individuals into immutable social classes do not refine and lift
up original, unconscious harmony among separate classes. Class division
is instead integral to the extreme social stratification in civilized society.
In The Second Treatise, Locke does this by insisting that the labor theory
of property acquisition is natural. It is not. The conception of one's body
XII

I N T R O D U CT I O N
as owned by oneself and the idea that intermingling one's own labor with
nature creates an exclusive, individual entitlement to private property are
quite at odds with primitive communalism. It is, instead, a necessary facet
of a labor commodity market under capitalism.
The falsehood of the dialectic between civilization and nature in
Western political theory is reinforced by sanctifying the move to civilization.
Thus, the other side of the dialectic is similarly distorted. In cases like those
of Plato, Locke, and Rousseau, there is a contrived sense of a fall from
primitive grace. In Book II of The Republic, in discussing the formation of
communities, Glaucon chastises Socrates for his depiction of humans in
primitive villages, communities "fit for pigs." They lack luxuries; civilized
people are "accustomed to lie on sofas, dine off tables, and they should have
sweets and sauces in the modem style." "Yes," says Socrates,

now I understand: the question you would have me consider is,
not only how a State, but how a luxurious State is created; and
possibly there is no harm in this, for in such a State we shall
be more likely to see how justice and injustice originate. In my
opinion the true and healthy condition of the State is the one
which I have described. But if you wish also to see a State at
fever-heat, I have no objection. For I suspect that many will not
be satisfied with the simpler way of Life [emphasis added].2
It is Plato's "opinion" that the primitive village is the "true and healthy"
community. His use of the word doxa here cannot be accidental when
the entire purpose of his dialectic is to move from the uncertain ground
of opinion to absolute knowledge. It is only through civilization that the
possibility of coming to know the form of Justice and the ultimate Form of
the Good can be realized. Since coming to know the Form of the Good is the
pinnacle of human existence, civilization must be a natural prerequisite.
It seems obvious that Plato cannot regret that which he depicts in a priori
terms. Besides, Plato makes the demand for luxury into a sort of secondary,
inevitable cause of the transition to civilization, that which spurs along
those "naturally" devoid of sufficient reason.
Perhaps Plato's mock-tragic sense of civilization as a fall from grace
is for those benighted enough to believe that the primitive is actually
preferable to civilization. This would almost certainly be targeted at the
XIII

F UT U R E P R I M I T I V E R E V I S IT E D
anarcho-primitivists o f his own day, the Cynics (especially Diogenes who
allegedly tramped muddy footprints across Plato's carpets). But humans
are not designed by nature to fit a preordained system of division of labor;
the shift to civilization is not inevitable; and Plato's theory of forms, not to
mention his theory of Justice and the ideal state, does not even remotely
recuperate the inherent social solidarity of the original, "true and healthy"
community.
The dialectical tension between the civitas and nature is deepened
and strengthened though the depiction of a fall from natural grace. That
the depiction of primitive human life in the rendering of this dialectic is
false serves to privilege civilized humans" alleged transcendence of the
primitive. In Locke this occurs in his account of property in The Second

Treatise. Locke's analysis, like that of his predecessor, Hobbes, proceeds
from an allegedly original, primitive state of nature, one devoid of social
and political institutions. Private property-the mixing of one's self-owned
labor with nature-is only limited by the degree of labor one can perform,
the spoilage of that which is removed from nature, and the sufficiency of land
and natural resources for others. The invention of money, Locke contends,
is rational and natural inasmuch as it facilitates trade and thus access to
the conveniences of life. Yet, inasmuch as it allows for the acquisition of
unlimited amounts of property, money is simultaneously depicted by Locke
in Biblical terms of original sin. "This is certain, that in the beginning, before
the desire of having more than one needed had altered the intrinsic value of
things, which depends only on their usefulness to the life of man ... each one
of himself [had] as much of the things of nature as he could use [with] the
same plenty.. .left to those who would use the same industry."3 Life in a state
of nature is initially marked by "peace, good will, mutual assistance and
preservation." With money, greed and property inequality create conflict
and the need for a state to adjudicate property disputes.
As with Plato, though, remorse at the fall amounts to crocodile
tears. The achievements of civilization more than make up for the loss
of primitive innocence. In Locke's case the fall is compensated for by the
superabundance which investment of money in land allows. Money does
not spoil, allows for wage contracts to purchase others" labor, and increases
productivity indefinitely. Whereas primitive life entails a zero-sum game,
moneyed capitalism enables a constantly expanding array of luxuries.
References to a transcendent Law of Nature help to cover the gap between
XIV

INTRODUCTION

the primitive and those rights still retained under the state. Moreover, they
are useful in combating the primitivists of his time, the radical Levellers and
Diggers of the English revolution who proclaimed the retaking of private
landholdings as their natural birthright. But in reality Locke's political
thought is straightforwardly materialistic: for those who work hard, "the
rational and industrious," the abundance and variety of material pleasures
in civilization more than make up for the loss of primitive equality and
freedom. The world is theirs by legal right, founded in social contract
among property holders; state coercion and disqualification from political
participation exist for the "covetous and quarrelsome."
While Rousseau sees Locke's social contract as morally bankrupt,
he does not propose a return to the primitive. The healthy self-love of the
savage is irrevocably lost. Vainglorious self-love, amour propre, develops in
tandem with civilization and especially with property. But Rousseau too
sanctifies civilization by arguing that reason is sufficient to "find a form
of association which may defend and protect with the whole force of the
community the person and property of every associate and by means of
which each, coalescing with all, may nevertheless obey only himself, and
remain as free as before."4 Rousseau's revised social contract allegedly
achieves this self-conscious act of redemption. Traditional anarchism has
always insisted on the plausibility of such a social arrangement, without
considering that it is the very socioeconomic and political practices of
civilization along with the fake dialectics supporting them that seem to
make such an arrangement impossible.
In spite of their portrayal of the transition to civilization in terms of
loss, each of the theorists mentioned actually presents a definite continuity
between nature and the city. Civilization compensates for loss by refining
and perfecting tendencies allegedly at the heart of primitive humankind. In
reality there is a radical rupture or break between primitive and civilized
life. In known historical instances, the shift from one to the other involved
violent conquest, not consent. The move resulted from coercion on pain
of death, dislocation and cultural destruction, not the inevitable working
out of allegedly intrinsic human characteristics. Archeological evidence
makes clear that the precursors of civilization emerged over a long period,
certainly not through the consent of any particular group. But there is
an unmistakable disjuncture between the earliest megamachines of the
Tigris-Euphrates river valley and the gatherer-hunter and horticulturalist
xv

F UTURE P R I M ITIVE REVIS ITED
communities that preceded civilization for a hundred millennia.
With few, partial exceptions, Paul Shepard among them, social
theorists have returned to the false dialectics of the tradition rather than
look this rupture square in the face.5 Even in the emerging academic
field of environmental political theory, where sustainability is a leading
theme, theorists consistently fail to make more than passing mention of
the only cultures that are sustainable for extended periods-primitive
cultures. Where primitive lifeways receive any notice, a variety of caveats
are always included: the author is in no way suggesting that a return to
stone-age technologies is either possible or desirable; similarly, that no one
would prefer such a life to modernity; and that, at any rate, these previous
cultures also damaged their environments. 6 In Devall and Sessions"
groundbreaking work Deep Ecology, a full two pages is devoted to primitive
peoples, concluding with the statement that "Supporters of deep ecology
do not advocate 'going back to the stone age," but seek inspiration from
primal traditions."7 Most notable in this regard, perhaps, is Joel Kovel's The

Enemy of Nature. An otherwise excellent critique of the disastrous impact
of capitalism on the natural environment, Kovel, in the space of a few
pages, manages to alternately uphold primitive lifeways as exemplary of
care for the Earth and condemn them for bringing on the most fundamental
elements of capitalist exploitation.8
There has been a failure to come to grips with the tension between
primitive culture and civilization, reflective of a long tradition in Western
political thought. But now the stakes are considerably greater. Today, the
radical break between nature and the city is paralleled by a similar radical
discontinuity between previous modes of civilization and contemporary
technological civilization, both in practice and in ideology. The traditional
dialectic is broken. Cybernetic existence retains no sense of either nature
or a primitive state. The fall from grace, even as metaphor, slips into the
oblivion of the spectacle. The "end of nature" is boldly proclaimed across
the board, from ethicists to environmental moderates to geo-engineers to
postmodernists to neo-Marxists and neo-Stalinists.9 Hyper-technological
feats never before even possibly dreamed of, let alone engaged in, help
give rise to and are reinforced by the idea that nature is dead and only
civilization exists. What need is there for myths of emergence from a
pristine, natural social order when the future promises limitless energy,
endless technological fantasy and human immortality? Nuclear power
XVI

I N T R O D U CT I O N

(let alone terraced agriculture, pyramids or the steel plow) i s child's play
compared to the synthesizing of consciousness; new engineering at the
genetic, geo, and nano scale; the singularity; and the indefinite extension
of human life span. These "hyper-technologies" both help to constitute and
reinforce the idea that humans, entirely by their own technological design,
will live totally outside of nature. In fact, there is not and has never been
any such thing as nature. Perhaps the mythic idea of nature will continue
for some time as a relic, a basis for destroying any possibility of myth. The
point is technological utopia: we have no place in existence other than the
technosphere.
This unprecedented notion of civilization detached from nature
creates an altogether new danger. Now, nothing, not even exalted human
nature, is distinctly recognizable. Every thing becomes materiel or "standing
reserve"10 for integration into vast self-regulating systems. As Heidegger
put it, "man in the midst of obj ectlessness is nothing but the orderer of
the standing-reserve .... he comes to the very brink of a precipitous fall;
that is, he comes to the point where he himself will have to be taken as
standing-reserve." This fall into the machine world goes as unnoticed as
the disappearance of myths, stories, and ideas that reminded us of another,
original home for human beings. Thus, in the cybernetic age, the concept
of "personnel" or "human resource management" shocks no one; it is banal.
And the managers have no more recourse than the managed to traditional

civilizational stories (let alone primitive myths). There is no history or
mythic origin to be fulfilled, no lost, original state of nature to be redeemed.
The nihilism inherent in this epoch is reflected in the steadily rotating
recurrence of the technicized will to power.
The idea of an entirely engineered world broke the traditional dialectic.
In this dialectic the image of an original state of nature was always distorted
and de-privileged to serve the purposes of an equally distorted and exalted
civilized order; now one side of the dialectic, nature, is obliterated; the other
becomes a monstrosity. From out of this unprecedented danger arises the
possibility for a more clear-eyed understanding of exactly what civilization
is and what it left behind. Now that technique has been proclaimed the
totality, it is possible for both sides of the dialectic to be grasped in a more
essential light. No writer, living or dead, has undertaken this task in a more
thorough and unflinching manner as John Zerzan.
In this and previous collections of essays Zerzan offers us an
XVII

F UT U R E P R I M I T I V E R E V I S I T E D

extraordinary survey o f texts in philosophy, archeology and anthropology,
social psychology, and arts and literature. Zerzan demonstrates that
civilization threatens us, not just in terms of its technological gigantism
and the global effects of technical failure, but more so in the way that it
robs us, daily and ever more intensively, of a fundamental kinship with
the natural world and with one another. Evolution is generally thought of
in terms of a species adaptation to the environment. Civilization develops
by fundamentally altering the environment. If this is to be called an
adaptation then human beings (though agents of civilization) must adapt
to the adaptation. Becoming civilized is a matter of compulsion. It entails
the loss, not the attainment of freedom. It denies life; it does not fulfill it.
Civilization alters the environment mainly through the acquisition
of energy resources, in earlier phases through deforestation, and now
through the use of fossil fuels. But intensive energy use is necessitated
by large-scale agriculture and the development of cities. Agriculture rests
on the domestication of plants and animals, a process that developed only
very gradually and probably in the context of climate change occurring 1 2
thousand years ago. Zerzan merely notes the obvious: humans, too, become
domesticated, ruthlessly. Now the experience of being human must be
subjected to the total control of a system bent on the total control of being
itself. In this sense contemporary civilization is a difference in degree but
of such an extent that it becomes a difference in kind.
We miss the whole point if we say merely that civilization is
marked by agriculture and turns the vast maj ority of the population into
agricultural and, later, wage-debtor slaves. Agriculture requires precise
and rigid measurement systems for demarcating space (the field), time
(the agricultural calendar) , and the volume of production (accounting) .
Measurement requires the use of number, and number requires symbolic
thought. More fundamentally still, these procedures require representational
language. Zerzan contends that all of these elements are artifacts of
civilization. Rendering them part and parcel of our cognitive orientation in
the world is the source of our profound entrapment in the "iron cage." They
are the psychological and intellectual determinants of our alienation from
the authentic world of free, primitive human existence. Recent innovations
like surveillance cameras and supermax prisons are obvious outward signs
of control. But the most fundamental factors of our imprisonment in what
is now becoming a total matrix of technological control are time, number,
XVIII

I N T R O D U CT I O N
symbol, and representation.

One might say that these are the "micro­

microphysics" of institutionalized power relations.
The traditional, false nature-civilization dialectic reenters at this
point. Aristotle distinguishes the social nature of human beings by our
complex capacity for language. This is true as far as it goes. But this line
of reasoning fails to distinguish between language that culminates in an
abstract search for first principles and that form of intuitive language that
involves a direct communication between human animals and our plant
and non-human animal companions on Mother Earth. Stories of this type of
"language older than words" are universal among primitive peoples.
Forthe Pythagoreans and other pre-Socratic philosophers, and for Plato,
number or numerical ratio is not only a means of expressing the harmony
of the universe, but is its essence. Numeracy, especially in geometry, is basic
to being human and is a hallmark of advanced civilization. What then are
we to make of accounts such as that of Thomas Jefferson Mayfield who,
in 1 8 50, at age seven, on the death of his mother, was left by his father to
grow up with the Choinumni band of Yokuts Indians? Mayfield recalled an
easily learned Yokuts number system that could be used to do calculations
in an indefinitely large number of digits.11 Why develop such a system in
the absence of the need for a calendar or the astronomical calculations on
which the calendar is designed? It is possible that the detailed familiarity
with an extraordinary array of species of plants and animals and the means
of maintaining an environment in which all species, including humans,
could flourish negated the need to use numbers as a means of control. Given
a way of life that M. Kat Anderson has so aptly described as "tending the
wild," complex numeracy was perhaps a plaything or maybe a j oke on how
poorly a strict use of numbers could approximate a deeply practical and
mythologically informed spiritual connection to Life.12
A detailed measurement of time is often pointed to as representing
a higher order of civilized, human existence. A linear sense of time is,
apparently, of a higher, more civilized sort. Tracing evolutionary progress
depends upon it. It can be used both cosmologically to trace the age of
the universe and, historically, to survey major human events and how they
relate to one another. Now, time is measured by such extremes as light
years and nanoseconds. But at what point do these measurements, defying
as they do all human experience, slip over into a more primordial dream
time of aboriginal peoples?13 And if they never do, are we not cut off from
XIX

FUTURE PRIMITIVE REVISITED

a more fundamental sense of time that allows us to integrate with, rather
than be cut off from reality? On this other "scale" of time great events and
the spirits of ancestors apparently can be experienced simultaneously
as past and as present. For some primitive peoples the future is thought
of as "behind" oneself, having already occurred. It is not that primitive
people have no language, obviously, or no conceptions of number and
time. Rather, they may have experiences of language, number and time
that do not undercut the identity of human consciousness and the natural
lifeworld in which humans are co-participants. Zerzan's focus is exactly
here, on the radical continuity between human perception, consciousness
and nature. This continuity seems so evident in primitive cultures and so
abandoned today. It is precisely in such abandonment that we experience
the "disenchantment of the world."
In this sense, the ultimate bankruptcy of the traditional dialectic
lies in Plato's separation of body and perception, on the one hand, and the
mind or soul and consciousness, on the other. The debasement of the body
as the source of ignorance and its association with the primitive, and the
elevation of the mind and its association with enlightenment are, of course,
the basis for the political dialectic of nature and the city. In Plato, the
Form of the Good, the epistemological and ontological source of truth and
reality, is represented metaphorically by the sun. The latter is alternately
described as Lord, Father, and King of all light and seeing, physical and
intellectual. By contrast "the body is the prison of the soul," the dungeon,
a place of entrapment and darkness. The resonance of this metaphor
points backwards to earlier civilizations" association of the sun god with
the divine king and forward to the enlightenment. Even if it is only via
negation, the figures of the body, Earth, mother, and fertility remain a part
of the dialectic. Primitive peoples never divorced any of these realms and
thus never separated themselves from the reality of which they (and we)
and everything are a part, always, all of us, as both mind/spirit and body.
But what is once divided must be repaired. As this would actually require
the forbidden return to primitive consciousness and practice, civilization
attempts substitutes.
For Zerzan, the remedy civilization unconsciously prescribes for our
separation from nature and holds up as its greatest achievement is art,
especially visual art. Not infrequently the 20,000-year-old cave paintings in
Lascaux, France are pointed to as evidence of the first modem humans, our
xx

INTRODUCTION

first actual human relations. There is truth to this, in that they may have
been the first to express their anxiety at being cut off from reality and the
first to try to repair the breach through art. The vividness of aesthetic work,
the sense of presence, of a world revealing itself in the very act of creative
power, for Zerzan, is a pale imitation of the lived, immediate sense of daily
reality for primitive peoples. The cave paintings mark the initial demise
of a way of life that predated them by scores of thousands of years. Art
is shorthand for civilization; it is a psychological compensation for loss of
identity and never actually fills the void. Only a return to the primitive can
allay the anxiety that suffuses art.
Zerzan's uniqueness lies in his unrelenting rejection not only of all
civilized norms and institutions, but even of the roots of such ideas and
institutions-"objective" language, abstract notions of space and measured
time, symbolic expression, especially art-basically any representational
forms of consciousness. Modem forms of alienation, and they are obviously
rampant, have their roots in a deep angst that is co-constituted with the
basic premises and prerequisites of civilization. Civilization has its own
traj ectory: from the earliest cave paintings, humans have tried to repair
the breach with nature by further control of nature. Each step away
from immediate identification with our primordial, natural lifeworld
merely deepens the crisis. Now, in the hyper-technological, an original
state of nature is falling into oblivion. (A sun metaphor for

knowledge

is unnecessary in age of cyclotrons and an environment of compact
fluorescent light.) Zerzan measures its disappearance, in part, by the sheer
scale of psychopathology in modem existence-parents killing their own
children, school shootings, workplace shootings, the mass addiction of
young children to legal psychotropic drugs for the treatment of all manner
of new social and psychological dysfunction, the mass addiction of children
and adults to illegal drugs, and so on.
Many critics of industrial civilization use the metaphor of a
speeding train heading for a wreck. By Zerzan's account we might say that
civilization is like a vast hole, with the living participants being consigned,
collectively, to the inescapable role of "digger.• The rule is that salvation can
be found only through more efficient and relentless means of digging; the
participants experience the mute horror of watching natural light recede
while engineers design artificial lighting and air conditioning systems. An
increasingly powerful legal-bureaucratic-managerial authority promises
XX!

FUTURE PRIMITIVE REVISITED

a vast array of material pleasure as the reward for digging, poverty and
insecurity for those who refuse to dig, and severe repression for those who
sabotage the digging apparatus. When the workers dig deeply enough they
will discover an underground river called Styx (hatred) and its confluence
with other rivers, including Lethe (forgetfulness and oblivion), and these
will mark their crossing over from life to death. And the shovels will be
taken from their hands and replaced with oars, and their training in digging
will suit them perfectly for rowing with metronomic precision. And they
will pull endlessly along this dark river, forgetting there was ever even a
world of sun, green earth, and air. And with these metaphors civilization
will think that it is indicting the dark, prehistoric world. But really it is only
indicting its own efforts at constructing an entirely man-made environment
where "misery is the river of the world" and everybody rows.
To the civilization that would intentionally design such a present and
future, Zerzan has always said, unequivocally, "Bring it down! Sabotage it!
Don't merely visualize industrial collapse, collapse it!" His condemnation
of civilization and his support for its saboteurs has won him, in general,
silence from academic and popular environmentalist writers. For those
detractors who have taken note of Zerzan's views, every kind of charge has

been leveled at him including genocide (ad populum arguments being the
better part of intellectual valor). Chomsky and Murray Bookchin, among
others, contend that advocating the destruction of civilization amounts to
a call for mass killing, inasmuch as it is only vast technological systems
that can keep billions alive. It is, in my view, a shortcoming of his work
that Zerzan has not written more about what a total frontal assault on
civilization would entail. Where he has (for instance in "Postscript to Future
Primitive, Re: The Transition") he points to current or potential practices
that can bridge the gap between a de-commissioned civilization and a
future primitive existence. These include growing food in cities, especially
by employing permaculture techniques, treating cities like museums and
using them as "moveable celebration sites,· intentionally and radically
reducing population as a cultural practice associated with recognizing
natural limits, reducing population in colder climes where energy use is
currently so intensive, increasing use of traditional health and healing
practices, and the immersion of people in a whole array of spontaneous and
communal activities from skill sharing to construction of simpler, more
organically designed shelter. Needless to say, Zerzan's point is not to attack
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I N T R O D U CT I O N

infrastructure and let everyone die. Anyway it debases humans t o say that
we can only live as appendages to vast systems.
Zerzan and others have pointed out, in rejoinder to Chomsky, that
it is certain that when civilizations crash, sudden and abrupt population
decreases occur.

It is virtually certain that seven billion people and

counting will not be able to be kept alive at the current increasing rate
of resource use and climate change, especially as millions more each year
adopt consumerist lifestyles. So the burden is on them to show that what
they advocate can actually avert the real threat of a total, sudden collapse.
Moreover, it is up to them to show how, if current technological civilization
is to be maintained, its colossal degree of hierarchy and alienation can be
addressed. Zerzan's betting that it can't, and the history of civilization tends
to reinforce that view.
This gets to the real heart of the matter. The malignant reactions to
Zerzan's work derive, I think, from his refusal to cop out on his own analysis.
He promises no technological or social engineering magic that will lift us from
the morass. He will not double down on the fake promises of civilization in
order to extract another half-century of alienation. This constitutes a betrayal
of 2500 years of social theory; the official voices of the left and right will not
tolerate it. But a growing minority of anarchists-primitivists or not-and
others will not keep digging; what we retain of our original condition, and it
is much as Zerzan points out in the third section of this collection, rebels at
further indoctrination and conformity. When the very concept of the living,
natural world and human beings" fundamental belonging together with it
is under attack from many quarters, not the least of which is an array of
mainstream writers calling themselves "environmentalists," primitivism is
a natural, necessary, and urgent response. Civilization versus primitivism
mirrors the question of nomos versus phys is, but in a new and raw way given
the urgency of this latest crisis of civilization. With some notable exceptions,
Zerzan's critics are devoted to saving civilization, not saving the earth.
But civilization wars against Earth. In their own bias toward civilization,
Zerzan's detractors fail to recognize that the actual roots of ecological crisis
fundamentally threaten our own inner nature, not just the outer natural
world of which we are part.
This failure of constructive dialogue is unfortunate. It undercuts the
basis of social theory. And herein lies a great paradox regarding Zerzan:
he is engaging in a quintessentially civilized practice, critical theory. It
XXIII

FUTURE PRIMITIVE REVISITED

is a paradox, not a contradiction, any more so than his using a computer
or publishing books.14 But the danger in engaging in social theory, and
this too is a legacy of civilization, is that it tends toward the discovery
of absolute truths, which, once attained, close off discussion, critique and
questioning. That is to say, it closes off freedom. If the threat of a "green
fascism" exists it is not because of a need for totalitarian control to totally
revolutionize society. Rather, total authority rests in the discovery of alleged
universal truths, themselves reduced to useable ideologies; thus the way
is opened for totalitarianism. Something very much like that exists and
goes unchallenged in technological-industrial civilization with its right of
property and technological inevitability. But what one of Zerzan's former
colleagues at Fifth Estate pointed out more than a decade ago is, perhaps,
only more accurate now.
Much of anarcho-primitivism today, however small the milieu may be,
seems to falling into the thrall of a simplistic ideology that pretends to have
a global response to an unprecedented crisis in what it means to be human ....
It is a kind of "clash of civilizations" idea that compresses a multiplicity of
human experience into a binary opposition ... a reductionist legend in which
primordial paradise is

undermined by an ur-act of domestication.15

At its best anarcho-primitivists continue a rich anti-tradition by
seeking to use the tools of civilization, including social theory, to smash
institutions and return to nature. In doing so anti-civ theory would serve as
a provisional basis for attack and might be maintained in a future primitive
culture as a constant warning against the disastrous results of hubris,
technical innovation, and centralized authority much in the way of coyote
stories or iktome stories among many native peoples in North America. But
across the millennia of civilization the tendency has nearly always been in
the opposite direction, and we already see this in contemporary anarcho­
primitivist thought and action.16 This reverse movement includes the two
most important elements of civilization itself: the discovery of "absolute
truth" and its imposition on a mass level. Anti-civ would become a new,
unquestioned "meta-narrative" that explains extraordinarily complex
matters of civilization and primitive culture in a few sound bites.
This tendency can be seen in the Deep Green Resistance movement. In
a recent article Derrick Jensen, Arie McBay, and Lierre Keith write, "Ninety­
eight percent of the population will do nothing unless they are led, caj oled
or forced. If the structural determinants are in place for them to live their
XXIV

I N T R O D U CTI O N
lives without doing damage ...then that's what happens."17 I t is down t o the
other two percent, who presumably have grasped the truth and know the
solutions, to shift the society toward the "proper structural determinants."
I think Zerzan's theoretical insights into the real character of
civilization are keen enough to detect the authoritarianism inherent in this
perspective. The authors leave open the question of concrete steps to be
taken. But anarchism is already foreclosed on as an option if a vanguard
fighting force is oriented toward creating proper structural determinants
for the masses.
Where Zerzan is more open to Watson's critique is in his wholesale
denunciations of civilization. Zerzan's analysis runs the risk of becoming,
simply, a reversal of the traditional false dialectic. Now it is civilization
that is repugnant and irredeemable, while the primitive promises absolute
fulfillment. One problem with this is that by succumbing to traditional
logic, elements of civilization will always be retained because the primitive
will necessarily derive its meaning from the negation of civilization. More
problematic is that it assumes a universal standpoint: all civilization is
evil. Obviously no one can say with certainty that every possible future
civilization will retain the destructive elements of past civilizations or
that no civilization can ever possibly be created that reconciles itself with
primitive culture. Historical evidence suggests this to be sure. But the
point of anarcho-primitivist critical theory is precisely to be another of the
bridges to the future primitive.
In that respect, if it is to remain anarchistic it is bound to remain
open to at least the possibility of retaining some features of civilization.
At its best what it provides is the basis for rejecting ideas and practices
that will reintroduce what we are only now coming to sense and know as
the structural determinants that breed alienation in many wide-ranging
forms. So types of technology or modes of practice might be retained but
only if they can be reconciled with human freedom and identification with
Earth as the place of all Life. As a bridge to the future anarcho-primitivism
might begin, to lay out some basic, interrelated questions that can be used
to appropriately judge human actions, given the knowledge of civilization's
typical deep threats: Does the idea or practice in question create hierarchy,
either between humans or between humans and non-human life? Asked
another way, does it establish a realm of knowledge and technical
sophistication that preclude others from making intelligent decisions about
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F UT U R E P R I M I T I V E R E V I S I TE D

its effects? Does it introduce a dependency on abstract notions such as
space and time that distort our relation to given natural reality? Does it
involve the need for expansion of territory or use of resources in a way that
systemically deprives other beings of life? For all of its problems otherwise,
it would involve the maxim of Leopold's land ethic: "A thing is right when it
tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.
It is wrong when it tends otherwise."
This is a high and probably impossible standard for civilization to
meet. But to assume that it is impossible is going too far. We find something
like the possible reconciliation of civilization and the primitive in non-fiction
(as in Paul Shepard's work, mentioned above) and in fiction, for example in
Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time. Neither this novel nor anything
else should be held up as a platform; but they remind us to keep open the
possibility that some of the advantages of civilization could be integrated
into a culture that is guided by the deeper insights of primitive life.
All of this probably overstates the role of choice. No one ever chose
to be primitive or civilized. We can only choose how to respond to the
conditions we confront. Primitive culture and civilization developed over
long periods of time and always in the context of evolving ecological

and social conditions. In their twilight and decline previous civilizations
suffered from ecological decline and internal revolt. Choices regarding how
to go forward emerged under conditions of serious strife. It would seem
that this civilization is the first to take full empirical measure of its own
impending decline. But in typical fashion its leading cultural figures refuse
to hear the voices of those most certain to war against civilized order. These
essays comprise another opportunity to listen, to respond, and, in the midst
of gathering peril, to continue the search for a dignified, natural, and free
human existence.

-Michael Becker

XXVI

I N T R O D U CTI O N

ENDNOTES
1.

In this context i t i s worth pointing out briefly some o f the intellectual
forebears of anarcho-primitivism. D iogenes and the adherents of his
primitivist philosophy consistently expressed utter contempt for the laws,
institutions, customs, and manners that comprised ancient Athens and
ancient Rome. They ate, shit, slept, and had sex openly; they accosted people
in the marketplace and theatre and berated them for their pretension and
hypocrisy. Condemned by their opponents as living a life fit for dogs, they
adopted the label Cynics (dogs) and proceeded to bark at, urinate on and bite
their opponents. Zerzan provides us a nice historical overview of anarchists
with at least a primitivist bent, especially the Brothers and Sisters of the Free
Spirit, in the fourteenth century: see "Revolt and Heresy in the Late Middle
Ages" below. Radical Levellers and D iggers during the English Revolution
similarly reflected a determination to live in accord with an earlier, simpler,
free and egalitarian existence. And two centuries later the Luddites wrecked
machines right across England.

2

Plato, The Republic, translated by Benj amin Jowett (New York: Anchor Books,
1 9 7 3 ) , 5 7 . A state at "fever heat" is among the most honest depictions of
civilization you will find in the Western canon; it conveys the delirious
intensity and sickening pace of modernity. Only a student of Socrates could
present such an ironic portrait of the polis.

3

John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government, edited with an introduction
by C.B. McPherson (Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Co., 1980). 2 3 .

4

Jean Jacques Tousseau,

The Social Contract and Discourse on the Origin
of Inequality, edited with an introduction by Lester G. Crocker (New York:

Washington Square Press, 1976), 1 7-18.
5

Paul Shepherd, The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game (New York: Charles
Scribner's Sons, 1 9 73).

6

For various formulations of these arguments see articles by Milbrath, Pirages,
and, especially, McLaughlin and Zimmerman in Explorations in Environmental
Political Theory, ed. Joel Jay Kassiola (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2003).

7

Bill Devall and George Sessions, Deep Ecology (Salt Lake City: Gibbs M. Smith
Inc., 1985), 9 7 .

8

In our "original condition" human intelligence and consciousness learned to
take an ecocentric form, creating a "people who differentiate nature and know
the individual plant species one by one, who live in the small, collectively
managed communities that provide an immense range of opportunities for
allopatric speciation, and who develop [an] existentially alive culture." Kovel
necessarily claims that the "original" humans only learned individual plant
species because hunting is said to be the cause of the earliest transition
away from primitive innocence. Though he provides virtually no actual
anthropological or archeological evidence for this and claims that it is
"shrouded in an impenetrably distant past," he attributes the growth of

XXVII

FUTURE PRIMITIVE REVISITED

civilization, and ultimately its most exploitative form, capitalism, to the
"death-dealing tools of the hunt, " alleged sex-differentiation which hunting
brought on, and the extension of hunting from animals to women and
children captives from rival tribes. Joel Kovel, The Enemy of Nature (London:
Zed Books, 2007), 120- 1 2 7 .
9

Paul Taylor's Respect for Nature is rather typical in defining nature as a
place entirely untouched by human action. This amounts to an end to nature
in that humans have no place or role in nature save to protect whatever
wild nature remains. High civilization, by contrast, is precisely the ethical
standard for determining when nature can be sacrificed. Obviously the more
specific claim that nature has been eclipsed is found in McKibben's well­
known text, The End of Nature. Another popular text, Stewart Brand's Whole
Earth Discipline, opens with the caption ·we are as gods and HAVE to get
good at it [emphasis original]." Compared with Hawken and Lovins" Natural
Capitalism, where salvation will be achieved through "higher efficiency
in everything" and "biology- inspired industrial processes," Brand takes
the step of reversing terms; he prefers to think of "ecosystems services as
infrastructure." Timothy Morton, in Ecology Without Nature, seems to be on
an interesting track in his claim that dispensing with the idea of nature is
a prerequisite for rediscovering the sublime. But he seems to end up mainly
with deconstructionist word games. In nee-Marxian thought, Steven Vogel
has made the case for dropping the word "nature" with all its metaphysical
ambiguities and instead focusing on the term "environment." Regarding the
latter, we find, first, that the entire environment has, in fact, been altered
by human activity. Secondly, our alienation stems not from separation from
"nature• but from our lack of control over the built environment, the one and
only environment that remains and, in any case, that in which we actually
live, work, and breathe. Finally, in Living in the End Times the pop-philosopher
Slovej Zizek asks us to accept that "nature no longer exists" and, further, to
accept "our full alienation from nature." Science and technology are "the only
solution ... not to feel more organic with Mother Earth ... we are already within
technology. " What we should do is "remain open and just patiently work;
work how? Also with much stronger social discipline." He calls for a new sort
of solidarity, proletarian discipline as a means of confronting ecological crisis.

10

Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, translated with an
introduction by William Lovitt (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1982), 1 8 .

11

Frank Latta, Tailholt Tales (New York: Brewer's Historical Press, 1976).

12

M. Kat Anderson, Tending the Wild (Berkeley, California: University o f
California Press, 2005).

13

Stanley D iamond, In Search of the Primitive (New Brunswick, New Jersey:
Transaction Books, 1 9 74).

14

There are many, apparently, who can't see the difference, that is, who dismiss
Zerzan because he does not live in a cave and hunt with a stone knife. For
them I can only recommend Bukowski's "Dinosauria, We."

15

David Watson, "Swamp Fever, Primitivism and the ' Ideological Vortex':
Farewell to All That," in the Anarchist Library, theanarchistlibrary.org/HTMU
David_Watson_Swamp_Fever_Primitivism_the_Ideological_Vortex_

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I N T R O D U CT I O N

Farewell_to_All_That.html ( 1 9 9 7 ) .
16

One o f the less noted parts o f Freddy Perlman's classic work Against History,

Against Leviathan is his observation that "barbarians" in each so-called
dark age ultimately failed to dismantle sovereign institutions and ideas
and, instead, ultimately embraced the very cultural and political forms of
sovereignty they originally fought against. They "re-caged" themselves rather
than "re-wilding" themselves.
17

Derrick Jensen et al., ·An Excerpt from Deep Green Resistance,· in Earth First!
the Radical Environmental Journal, 30th Anniversary Edition, vol. 1 (Samhain/
Yule, 2010): 10.

XXIX

PART
ONE
F UTU RE
P RI M ITIVE

CHAPTER O N E

F UTU R E
P R I M ITI V E
DIVISION OF LABOR. which has had so much to do with bringing
us to the present global crisis, works daily to prevent our understanding
the origins of this horrendous present. Mary Lecron Foster ( 1 990) surely
errs on the side of understatement in allowing that anthropology is today
"in danger of serious and damaging fragmentation." Shanks and Tilley
( 1 9 8 7b) voice a rare, related challenge: "The point of archaeology is not
merely to interpret the past but to change the manner in which the past
is interpreted in the service of social reconstruction in the present." Of
course, the social sciences themselves work against the breadth and depth
of vision necessary to such a reconstruction. In terms of human origins and
development, the array of splintered fields and sub-fields-anthropology,
archaeology, paleontology, ethnology, paleobotany, ethnoanthropology, etc.,
etc.-mirrors the narrowing, crippling effect that civilization has embodied
from its very beginning.
Nonetheless, the literature can provide highly useful assistance, if
approached with an appropriate method and awareness and the desire to
proceed past its limitations. In fact, the weakness of more or less orthodox
modes of thinking can and does yield to the demands of an increasingly
dissatisfied society. Unhappiness with contemporary life becomes distrust
with the official lies that are told to legitimate that life, and a truer picture
of human development emerges. Renunciation and subjugation in modem
life have long been explained as necessary concomitants of "human nature."
After all, our pre-civilized existence of deprivation, brutality, and ignorance

F UT U R E P R I M I T I V E R E V I S I T E D

made authority a benevolent gift that rescued us from savagery. "Cave
man· and "Neanderthal" are still invoked to remind us where we would be
without religion, government, and toil.
This ideological view of our past has been radically overturned in
recent decades, through the work of academics like Richard Lee and
Marshall Sahlins. A nearly complete reversal in anthropological orthodoxy
has come about, with important implications. Now we can see that life
before domestication/agriculture was in fact largely one of leisure, intimacy
with nature, sensual wisdom, sexual equality, and health. This was our
human nature, for a couple of million years, prior to enslavement by priests,
kings, and bosses.
And lately another stunning revelation has appeared, a related one
that deepens the first and may be telling us something equally important
about who we were and what we might again become. The main line
of attack against new descriptions of gatherer-hunter life has been,
though often indirect or not explicitly stated, to characterize that life,
condescendingly, as the most an evolving species could achieve at an early
stage. Thus, the argument allows that there was a long period of apparent
grace and pacific existence, but says that humans simply didn't have the
mental capacity to leave simple ways behind in favor of complex social and
technological achievement.
In another fundamental blow to civilization, we now learn that
not only was human life once, and for so long, a state that did not know
alienation or domination, but as the investigations since the '80s by
archaeologists John Fowlett, Thomas Wynn, and others have shown, those
humans possessed an intelligence at least equal to our own. At a stroke, as
it were, the "ignorance" thesis is disposed of, and we contemplate where we
came from in a new light.
To put the issue of mental capacity in context, it is useful to review the
various (and again, ideologically loaded) interpretations of human origins
and development. Robert Ardrey ( 1 9 6 1 , 1 9 7 6) served up a bloodthirsty,
macho version of prehistory, as have, to slightly lesser degrees, Desmond
Morris and Lionel Tiger. Similarly, Freud and Konrad Lorenz wrote of the
innate depravity of the species, thereby providing their contributions to
hierarchy and power in the present.
Fortunately, a far more plausible outlook has emerged, one that
corresponds to the overall version of Paleolithic life in general. Food
2

F UT U R E P R I M IT I V E
sharing has for some time been considered an integral part o f earliest
human society (e.g. Washburn and Devore, 1 9 6 1 ) . Jane Goodall ( 1 9 7 1 ) and
Richard Leakey ( 1 9 7 8), among others, have concluded that it was the key
element in establishing our uniquely Homo development at least as early
as two million years ago. This emphasis, carried forward since the early
' 7 0s by Linton, Zihlman, Tanner, and Isaac, has become ascendant. One of
the telling arguments in favor of the cooperation thesis, as against that of
generalized violence and male domination, involves a diminishing, during
early evolution, of the difference in size and strength between males and
females. Sexual dimorphism, as it is called, was originally very pronounced,
including such features as prominent canines or "fighting teeth" in males
and much smaller canines for the female. The disappearance of large
male canines strongly suggests that the female of the species exercised
a selection for sociable, sharing males. Most apes today have significantly
longer and larger canines, male to female, in the absence of this female
choice capacity (Zihlman 1 9 8 1 , Tanner 1 9 8 1 ) .
Division o f labor between the sexes i s another key area i n human
beginnings, a condition once simply taken for granted and expressed by
the term hunter-gatherer. Now it is widely accepted that gathering of
plant foods, once thought to be the exclusive domain of women and of
secondary importance to hunting by males, constituted the main food
source Oohansen and Shreeve 1989). Since females were not significantly
dependent on males for food (Hamilton 1 984), it seems likely that rather
than division of labor, flexibility and j oint activity would have been central
(Bender 1989). As Zihlman ( 1 9 8 1 ) points out, an overall behavioral flexibility
may have been the primary ingredient in early human existence. Joan Gero
( 1 9 9 1 ) has demonstrated that stone tools were as likely to have been made
by women as by men, and indeed Poirier ( 1 98 7 ) reminds us that there is
"no archaeological evidence supporting the contention that early humans
exhibited a sexual division of labor." It is unlikely that food collecting
involved much, if any, division of labor (Slocum 1 9 7 5) and probably that
sexual specialization came quite late in human evolution (Zihlman 1 9 8 1 ,
Crader and Isaac 1 9 8 1 ) .
So i f the adaptation that began our species centered o n gathering,
when did hunting come in? Binford ( 1984) has argued that there is no
indication of use of animal products (i.e. evidence of butchery practices)
until the appearance, relatively quite recent, of anatomically modem
3

FUTURE PRIMITIVE REVISITED

humans. Electron microscope studies of fossil teeth found in East Africa
(Walker 1 984) suggest a diet composed primarily of fruit, while a similar
examination of stone tools from a 1.5 million-year-old site at Koobi Fora
in Kenya (Keeley and Toth 1 9 8 1 ) shows that they were used on plant
materials. The small amount of meat in the early Paleolithic diet was
probably scavenged, rather than hunted (Ehrenberg 1989b).
The "natural" condition of the species was evidently a diet made
up largely of vegetables rich in fiber, as opposed to the modem high-fat
and animal protein diet with its attendant chronic disorders (Mendeloff
1 9 7 7). Though our early forebears employed their "detailed knowledge of
the environment and cognitive mapping" (Zihlman 1 9 8 1 ) in the service
of a plant-gathering subsistence, the archaeological evidence for hunting
appears to slowly increase with time (Hodder 1991).
Much evidence,

however, has overturned assumptions as to

widespread prehistoric hunting. Collections of bones seen earlier as
evidence of large kills of mammals, for example, have turned out to be, upon
closer examination, the results of movement by flowing water or caches
by animals. Lewis Binford's ·were There Elephant Hunters at Tooralba?"
( 1 989) is a good instance of such a closer look, in which he doubts there was
significant hunting until 200,000 years ago or sooner. Adrienne Zihlman
( 1 9 8 1 ) has concluded that "hunting arose relatively late in evolution," and
"may not extend beyond the last one hundred thousand years.· And there
are many (e.g. Straus 1 986, Trinkhaus 1 986) who do not see evidence for
serious hunting of large mammals until even later, viz. the later Upper
Paleolithic, just before the emergence of agriculture.
The oldest known surviving artifacts are stone tools from Hadar in
eastern Africa. With more refined dating methods, they may prove to be
3 . 1 million years old (Klein 1 989). Perhaps the main reason these may be
classified as representing human effort is that they involve the crafting of
one tool by using another, a uniquely human attribute so far as we know.
Homo habilis, or "handy man,· designates what has been thought of as the
first known human species, its name reflecting association with the earliest
stone tools (Coppens 1 989). Basic wooden and bone implements, though
more perishable and thus scantily represented in the archaeological record,
were also used by Homo habilis as part of a "remarkably simple and effective"
adaptation in Africa and Asia (Fagan 1 990). Our ancestors at this stage had
smaller brains and bodies than we do, but Poirier (1987) notes that "their
4

FUTURE PRIMITIVE

postcranial anatomy was rather like modem humans," and Holloway ( 1 9 72,
1 9 7 4) allows that his studies of cranial endocasts from this period indicate a
basically modem brain organization. Similarly, tools older than two million
years have been found to exhibit a consistent right-handed orientation in
the ways stone has been flaked off in their formation. Right-handedness as
a tendency is correlated in modems with such distinctly human features
as pronounced lateralization of the brain and marked functional separation
of the cerebral hemispheres (Holloway 1 9 8 1 a). Klein ( 1 989) concludes that
"basic human cognitive and communicational abilities are almost certainly
implied."
Homo erectus is the other main predecessor to Homo sapiens, according
to longstanding usage, appearing about 1 . 7 5 million years ago as humans
moved out of forests into drier, more open African grasslands. Although
brain size alone does not necessarily correlate with mental capacity, the
cranial capacity of Homo erectus overlaps with that of modems such that
this species "must have been capable of many of the same behaviors"
(Ciochon, Olsen and Tames 1 990). As Johanson and Edey ( 1 9 8 1 ) put it, "If
the largest-brained erectus were to be rated against the smallest-brained
sapiens-all their other characteristics ignored-their species names would
have to be reversed." Homo Neanderthalus, which immediately preceded us,
possessed brains somewhat larger than our own (Delson 1 985, Holloway
1 985, Donald 1 99 1 ) . Though of course the much-maligned Neanderthal
has been pictured as a primitive, brutish creature-in keeping with the
prevailing Hobbesian ideology-despite manifest intelligence as well as
enormous physical strength (Shreeve 1 9 9 1 ) .
Recently, however, the whole species framework has become a
doubtful proposition (Day 1987, Rightmire 1 990). Attention has been
drawn to the fact that fossil specimens from various Homo species "all show
intermediate morphological traits," leading to suspicion of an arbitrary
division of humanity into separate taxa (Gingerich 1 9 7 9 , Tobias 1 982).
Fagan ( 1 989), for example, tells us that "it is very hard to draw a clear
taxonomic boundary between Homo erectus and archaic Homo sapiens on
the one hand, and between archaic and anatomically modem Homo sapiens
on the other." Likewise, Foley ( 1 989): "the anatomical distinctions between
Homo erectus and Homo sapiens are not great." Jelinek ( 1 978) flatly declares
that "there is no good reason, anatomical or cultural" for separating erectus
and sapiens into two species, and has concluded ( 1 9 80a) that people from
5

F U T URE PRIMITIVE REVIS I TED

at least the Middle Paleolithic onward "may be viewed as Homo sapiens" (as
does Hublin 1 986). The tremendous upward revision of early intelligence,
discussed below, must be seen as connected to the present confusion over
species, as the once-prevailing overall evolutionary model gives way.
But the controversy over species categorization is only interesting in
the context of how our earliest forebears lived. Despite the minimal nature
of what could be expected to survive so many millennia, we can glimpse
some of the texture of that life, with its often elegant, pre-division of labor
approaches. The "tool kit" from the Olduvai Gorge area made famous by
the Leakeys contains "at least six clearly recognizable tool types" dating
from about 1 . 7 million years ago (M. Leakey, 1 9 78). There soon appeared
the Acheulian handaxe, with its symmetrical beauty, in use for about a
million years. Teardrop-shaped, and possessed of a remarkable balance, it
exudes grace and utility from an era much prior to symbolization. Isaac
( 1 986) noted that "the basic needs for sharp edges that humans have can
be met from the varied range of forms generated from "Oldowan" patterns
of stone flaking," wondering how it came to be thought that "more complex
equals better adapted." In this distant early time, according to cut-marks
found on surviving bones, humans were using scavenged animal sinews
and skins for such things as cord, bags, and rugs (Gowlett 1 984). Further
evidence suggests furs for cave wall coverings and seats, and seaweed beds
for sleeping (Butzer 1 9 70).
The use of fire goes back almost two million years (Kempe 1 988)
and might have appeared even earlier but for the tropical conditions of
humanity's original African homeland, as Poirier (1987) implies. Perfected
fire-making included the firing of caves to eliminate insects and heated
pebble floors (Perles 1 9 7 5 , Lumley 1 9 7 6) , amenities that show up very early
in the Paleolithic.
As John Gowlett ( 1 986) notes, there are still some archaeologists
who consider anything earlier than Homo sapiens, a mere 30,000 years
ago, as greatly more primitive than we "fully human" types. But along with
the documentation, referred to above, of fundamentally "modem" brain
anatomy even in early humans, this minority must now contend with recent
work depicting complete human intelligence as present virtually with the
birth of the Homo species. Thomas Wynn ( 1 985) judged manufacture of
the Acheulian handaxe to have required "a stage of intelligence that is
typical of fully modem adults." Gowlett, like Wynn, examines the required
6

F UT U R E P R I M I T I V E
"operational thinking" involved in the right hammer, the right force and the
right striking angle, in an ordered sequence and with flexibility needed for
modifying the procedure. He contends that manipulation, concentration,
visualization of form in three dimensions, and planning were needed, and
that these requirements "were the common property of early human beings
as much as two million years ago, and this," he adds, "is hard knowledge,
not speculation."
During the vast time-span of the Paleolithic, there were remarkably
few changes in technology (Rolland 1 990). Innovation, "over 2 1/2 million
years measured in stone tool development was practically nil," according to
Gerhard Kraus ( 1 990). Seen in the light of what we now know of prehistoric
intelligence, such "stagnation" is especially vexing to many social scientists.
"It is difficult to comprehend such slow development," in the judgment of
Wymer ( 1 989). It strikes me as very plausible that intelligence, informed
by the success and satisfaction of a gatherer-hunter existence, is the
very reason for the pronounced absence of "progress." D ivision of labor,
domestication, symbolic culture-these were evidently refused until very
recently.
Contemporary thought, in its postmodern incarnation, would like to
rule out the reality of a divide between nature and culture; given the abilities
present among people before civilization, however, it may be more accurate
to say that basically, they long chose nature over culture. It is also popular
to see almost every human act or obj ect as symbolic (e.g. Botscharow 1989),
a position which is, generally speaking, part of the denial of a nature versus
culture distinction. But it is culture as the manipulation of basic symbolic
forms that is involved here. It also seems clear that reified time, language
(written, certainly, and probably spoken language for all or most of this
period), number, and art had no place, despite an intelligence fully capable
of them.
I would like to interject, in passing, my agreement with Goldschmidt
( 1 990) that "the hidden dimension in the construction of the symbolic
world is time." And as Norman

0.

Brown put it, "life not repressed is not

in historical time," which I take as a reminder that time as a materiality
is not inherent in reality, but a cultural imposition, perhaps the first
cultural imposition, on it. As this elemental dimension of symbolic culture
progresses, so does, by equal steps, alienation from the natural.
Cohen ( 1 9 7 4) has discussed symbols as "essential for the development
7

F UT U R E P R I M IT I V E R E V I S I T E D

and maintenance o f social order." Which implies-as does, more forcefully, a
great deal of positive evidence-that before the emergence of symbols there
was no condition of disorder requiring them. In a similar vein, Levi-Strauss
( 1 953) pointed out that "mythical thought always progresses from the
awareness of oppositions toward their resolution." So whence the absence
of order, the conflicts or "oppositions?" The literature on the Paleolithic
contains almost nothing that deals with this essential question, among
thousands of monographs on specific features. A reasonable hypothesis,
in my opinion, is that division of labor, unnoticed because of its glacially
slow pace, and not sufficiently understood because of its newness, began to
cause small fissures in the human community and unhealthy practices vis­
a-vis nature. In the later Upper Paleolithic, "1 5,000 years ago, we begin to
observe specialized collection of plants in the Middle East, and specialized
hunting." observed Gowlett ( 1 984). The sudden appearance of symbolic
activities (e.g. ritual and art) in the Upper Paleolithic has definitely seemed to
archaeologists one of prehistory's "big surprises" (Binford 1 9 72b). given the
absence of such behaviors in the Middle Paleolithic (Foster 1 990, Kozlowski
1 990). But signs of division of labor and specialization were making their
presence felt as a breakdown of wholeness and natural order, a lack that
needed redressing. What is surprising is that this transition to civilization
can still be seen as benign. Foster ( 1 990) seems to celebrate it by concluding
that the "symbolic mode ... has proved extraordinarily adaptive, else why
has Homo sapiens become material master of the world?" He is certainly
correct, as he is to recognize "the manipulation of symbols [to be] the very
stuff of culture," but he appears oblivious to the fact that this successful
adaptation has brought alienation and destruction of nature along to their
present horrifying prominence.
It is reasonable to assume that the symbolic world originated in
the formulation of language, which somehow appeared from a "matrix of
extensive nonverbal communication" (Tanner and Zihlman 1 9 7 6) and face­
to-face contact. There is no agreement as to when language began, but no
evidence exists of speech before the cultural "explosion" of the later Upper
Paleolithic (Dibble 1 984, 1 989). It seems to have acted as an "inhibiting
agent." a way of bringing life under "greater control" (Mumford 1 9 72).
stemming the flood of images and sensations to which the pre-modem
individual was open. In this sense it would have likely marked an early
turning away from a life of openness and communion with nature, toward
8

FUTURE PRIMIT IVE

one more oriented to the overlordship and domestication that followed
symbolic culture's inauguration. It is probably a mistake, by the way, to
assume that thought is advanced (if there were such a thing as "neutral"
thought, whose advance could be universally appreciated) because we
actually think in language; there is no conclusive evidence that we must do
so (Allport 1983). There are many cases (Lecours and Joanette 1 980, Levine
et al. 1982), involving stroke and like impairments, of patients who have
lost speech, including the ability to talk silently to themselves, who were
fully capable of coherent thought of all kinds. These data strongly suggest
that "human intellectual skill is uniquely powerful, even in the absence of
language" (Donald 1 9 9 1 ) .
In terms o f symbolization i n action, Goldschmidt ( 1990) seems correct
in judging that "the Upper Paleolithic invention of ritual may well have
been the keystone in the structure of culture that gave it its great impetus
for expansion.· Ritual has played a number of pivotal roles in what Hodder
( 1990) termed "the relentless unfolding of symbolic and social structures"
accompanying the arrival of cultural mediation. It was as a means of achieving
and consolidating social cohesion that ritual was essential Oohnson 1 982,
Conkey 1 985); totemic rituals, for example, reinforce clan unity.
The start of an appreciation of domestication, or taming of nature,
is seen in a cultural ordering of the wild, through ritual. Evidently, the
female as a cultural category, viz. seen as wild or dangerous, dates from
this period. The ritual "Venus" figurines appear as of 2 5,000 years ago,
and seem to be an example of earliest symbolic likeness of women for the
purpose of representation and control (Hodder 1 990). Even more concretely,
subjugation of the wild occurs at this time in the first systematic hunting
of large mammals; ritual was an integral part of this activity (Hammond
1 9 74, Frison 1 986).
Ritual, as shamanic practice, may also be considered as a regression
from that state in which all shared a consciousness we would now classify
as extrasensory (Leonard 1 9 72). When specialists alone claim access to such
perceptual heights as may have once been communal, further backward
moves in division of labor are facilitated or enhanced. The way back to
bliss through ritual is a virtually universal mythic theme, promising the
dissolution of measurable time, among other j oys. This theme of ritual
points to an absence that it falsely claims to fill, as does symbolic culture
in general.
9

FUTURE PRIMITIVE REVISITED

Ritual as a means of organizing emotions, a method of cultural
direction and restraint, introduces art, a facet of ritual expressiveness
(Bender 1 989). "There can be little doubt," to Gans ( 1 985), "that the
various forms of secular art derive originally from ritual." We can detect
the beginning of an unease, a feeling that an earlier, direct authenticity
is departing. La Barre ( 1 9 72), I believe, is correct in judging that "art and
religion alike arise from unsatisfied desire." At first, more abstractly as
language, then more purposively as ritual and art, culture steps in to deal
artificially with spiritual and social anxiety.
Ritual and magic must have dominated early (Upper Paleolithic) art
and were probably essential, along with an increasing division of labor,
for the coordination and direction of community (Wymer 1 9 8 1 ) . Similarly,
Pfeiffer ( 1 982) has depicted the famous Upper Paleolithic European cave
paintings as the original form of initiating youth into now complex social
systems; as necessary for order and discipline (see also Gamble 1 9 8 2 ,
Jochim 1 98 3 ) . And art may have contributed t o the control of nature, as
part of development of the earliest territorialism, for example (Straus
1 990).
The emergence of symbolic culture, with its inherent will to
manipulate and control, soon opened the door to domestication of nature.
After two million years of human life within the bounds of nature, in
balance with other wild species, agriculture changed our lifestyle, our way
of adapting, in an unprecedented way. Never before has such a radical
change occurred in a species so utterly and so swiftly (Pfeiffer 1 9 7 7). Self­
domestication through language, ritual, and art inspired the taming of
plants and animals that followed. Appearing only 10,000 years ago, farming
quickly triumphed; for control, by its very nature, invites intensification.
Once the will to production broke through, it became more productive the
more efficiently it was exercised, and hence more ascendant and adaptive.
Agriculture enables greatly increased division of labor, establishes
the material foundations of social hierarchy, and initiates environmental
destruction. Priests, kings, drudgery, sexual inequality, warfare are a few
of its fairly imm e diate specific consequences (Ehrenberg 1 986b, Wymer
1 9 8 1 , Festinger 1 983). Whereas Paleolithic peoples enj oyed a highly varied
diet, using several thousand species of plants for food, with farming these
sources were vastly reduced (White 1 959, Gouldie 1 986).
Given the intelligence and the very great practical knowledge of Stone
IO

FUTURE PR I M I T IVE

Age humanity, the question has often been asked, "Why didn't agriculture
begin, at say, 1 ,000,000 B.C. rather than about 8,000 B.C.?" I have provided
a brief answer in terms of slowly accelerating alienation in the form of
division of labor and symbolization, but given how negative the results were,
it is still a bewildering phenomenon. Thus, as Binford ( 1 9 68) put it, "The
question to be asked is not why agriculture ... was not developed everywhere,
but why it was developed at all." The end of gatherer-hunter life brought a
decline in size, stature, and skeletal robusticity (Cohen and Armelagos 1 9 8 1 ,
Harris and Ross 1 9 8 1 ) , and introduced tooth decay, nutritional deficiencies,
and most infectious diseases (Larsen 1 982, Buikstra 1 9 7 6a, Cohen 1981).
"Taken as a whole ...an overall decline in the quality-and probably the
length-of human life," concluded Cohen and Armelagos ( 1 9 8 1 ) .
Another outcome was the invention o f number, unnecessary before
the ownership of crops, animals, and land that is one of agriculture's
hallmarks. The development of number further impelled the urge to
treat nature as something to be dominated. Writing was also required
by domestication, for the earliest business transactions and political
administration (Larsen 1 988). Levi-Strauss has argued persuasively
that the primary function of written communication was to facilitate
exploitation and subjugation ( 1 955); cities and empires, for example, would
be impossible without it. Here we see clearly the joining of the logic of
symbolization and the growth of capital.
Conformity, repetition, and regularity were the keys to civilization
upon its triumph, replacing the spontaneity, enchantment, and discovery
of the pre-agricultural human state that survived so very long. Clark ( 1 979)
cites a gatherer-hunter "amplitude of leisure," deciding "it was this and
the pleasurable way of life that went with it, rather than penury and a
day-long grind, that explains why social life remained so static." One of the
most enduring and widespread myths is that there was once a Golden Age,
characterized by peace and innocence, and that something happened to
destroy this idyll and consign us to misery and suffering. Eden, or whatever
name it goes by, was the home of our primeval forager ancestors, and
expresses the yearning of disillusioned tillers of the soil for a lost life of
freedom and relative ease.
The once rich environs people inhabited prior to domestication
and agriculture are now virtually nonexistent. For the few remaining
foragers there exist only the most marginal lands, those isolated places as
11

F U T URE PRIMITIVE REVI S ITED

yet unwanted by agriculture. And surviving gatherer-hunters, who have
somehow managed to evade civilization's tremendous pressures to tum
them into slaves (Le. farmers, political subjects, wage laborers), have all
been influenced by contact with outside peoples (Lee 1 9 76, Mithen 1 990).
Duffy ( 1 984) points out that the present-day gatherer-hunters
he studied, the Mbuti Pygmies of central Africa, have been acculturated
by surrounding villager-agriculturalists for hundreds of years, and to
some extent, by generations of contact with government authorities and
missionaries. And yet it seems that an impulse toward authentic life can
survive down through the ages: "Try to imagine," he counsels, "a way of
life where land, shelter, and food are free, and where there are no leaders,
bosses, politics, organized crime, taxes, or laws. Add to this the benefits
of being part of a society where everything is shared, where there are no
rich people and no poor people, and where happiness does not mean the
accumulation of material possessions." The Mbuti have never domesticated
animals or planted crops.
Among the members of non-agriculturalist bands resides a highly
sane combination of little work and material abundance. Bodley ( 1 9 76)
discovered that the San (a.k.a. Bushmen) of the harsh Kalahari Desert of
southern Africa work fewer hours, and fewer of their number work, than do
the neighboring cultivators. In times of drought, moreover, it has been the
San to whom the farmers have turned for their survival (Lee 1968). They
spend "strikingly little time laboring and much time at rest and leisure,"
according to Tanaka (1 980), while others (e.g. Marshall 1 9 76, Guenther
1 9 76) have commented on San vitality and freedom compared with
sedentary farmers, their relatively secure and easygoing life.
Flood (1983) noted that to Australian aborigines "the labour involved
in tilling and planting outweighed the possible advantages." Speaking
more generally, Tanaka ( 1 9 7 6) has pointed to the abundant and stable
plant foods in the society of early humanity, just as "they exist in every
modem gatherer society." Likewise, Festinger { 1 983) referred to Paleolithic
access to "considerable food without a great deal of effort," adding that
"contemporary groups that still live on hunting and gathering do very well,
even though they have been pushed into very marginal habitats."
As Hole and Flannery ( 1 963) summarized: "No group on earth has
more leisure time than hunters and gatherers, who spend it primarily
on games, conversation and relaxing." They have much more free time,
12

FUTURE PRIMITIVE

adds Binford ( 1 968), "than do modem industrial or farm workers, or even
professors of archaeology.·
The non-domesticated know that, as Vaneigem ( 1 9 7 5) put it, only
the present can be total. This by itself means that they live life with
incomparably greater immediacy, density and passion than we do. It has
been said that some revolutionary days are worth centuries; until then "We
look before and after," as Shelley wrote, "And sigh for what is not...."
The Mbuti believe (Turnbull 1 9 7 6) that "by a correct fulfillment of
the present, the past and the future will take care of themselves." Primitive
peoples do not live through memories, and generally have no interest in
birthdays or measuring their ages (Cipriani 1 966). As for the future, they
have little desire to control what does not yet exist, just as they have
little desire to control nature. Their moment-by-moment joining with the
flux and flow of the natural world does not preclude an awareness of the
seasons, but this does not constitute an alienated time consciousness that
robs them of the present.
Though contemporary gatherer-hunters eat more meat than their
pre-historic forebears, vegetable foods still constitute the mainstay of their
diet in tropical and subtropical regions (Lee 1 968a, Yellen and Lee 1976).
Both the Kalahari San and the Hazda of East Africa, where game is more
abundant than in the Kalahari, rely on gathering for 80 percent of their
sustenance (Tanaka 1 980). The !Kung branch of the San search for more
than a hundred different kinds of plants (Thomas 1 968) and exhibit no
nutritional deficiency (Truswell and Hansen 1 9 76). This is similar to the
healthful, varied diet of Australian foragers (Fisher 1 982, Flood 1 983). The
overall diet of gatherers is better than that of cultivators, starvation is very
rare, and their health status generally superior, with much less chronic
disease (Lee and Devore 1 9 68a, Ackerman 1 990).
Lauren van der Post ( 1 958) expressed wonder at the exuberant San
laugh, which rises "sheer from the stomach, a laugh you never hear among
civilized people." He found this emblematic of a great vigor and clarity of
senses that yet manages to withstand and elude the onslaught of civilization.
Truswell and Hansen ( 1 9 76) may have encountered it in the person of a San
who had survived an unarmed fight with a leopard; although injured, he
had killed the animal with his bare hands.
The Andaman Islanders, west of Thailand, have no leaders, no idea
of symbolic representation, and no domesticated animals. There is also
13

FUTURE PRIMITIVE REVISIT ED

an absence of aggression, violence, and disease; wounds heal surprisingly
quickly, and their sight and hearing are particularly acute. They are said
to have declined since European intrusion in the mid-nineteenth century,
but exhibit other such remarkable physical traits as a natural immunity to
malaria, skin with sufficient elasticity to rule out post-childbirth stretch
marks and the wrinkling we associate with aging, and an "unbelievable"
strength of teeth: Cipriani ( 1 966) reported seeing children of 10 to 1 5
years crush nails with them. He also testified t o the Andamese practice
of collecting honey with no protective clothing at all; "yet they are never
stung, and watching them one felt in the presence of some age-old mystery,
lost by the civilized world."
DeVries {1 952) has cited a wide range of contrasts by which the
superior health of gatherer-hunters can be established, including an
absence of degenerative diseases and mental disabilities, and childbirth
without difficulty or pain. He also points out that this begins to erode from
the moment of contact with civilization.
Relatedly, there is a great deal of evidence not only for physical and
emotional vigor among primitives but also concerning their heightened
sensory abilities. Darwin described people at the southernmost tip of South
America who went about almost naked in frigid conditions, while Peasley
( 1 983) observed Aborigines who were renowned for their ability to live
through bitterly cold desert nights "without any form of clothing." Levi­
Strauss ( 1 9 79) was astounded to learn of a particular [South American]
tribe which was able to "see the planet Venus in full daylight," a feat
comparable to that of the North African Dogon who consider Sirius B the
most important star; somehow aware, without instruments, of a star that
can only be found with the most powerful of telescopes (Temple 1 9 7 6). In
this vein, Boyden ( 1 9 70) recounted the Bushman ability to see four of the
moons of Jupiter with the naked eye.
In The Harmless People ( 1 959). Marshall told how one Bushman
walked unerringly to a spot in a vast plain, "with no bush or tree to mark
place," and pointed out a blade of grass with an almost invisible filament
of vine around it. He had encountered it months before in the rainy season
when it was green. Now, in parched weather, he dug there to expose a
succulent root and quenched his thirst. Also in the Kalahari Desert, van
der Post (1 958) meditated upon San/Bushman communion with nature,
a level of experience that "could almost be called mystical. For instance,
14

FUTURE PRIMITIVE

they seemed to know what it actually felt like to be an elephant, a lion,
an antelope, a steenbuck, a lizard, a striped mouse, mantis, baobab tree,
yellow-crested cobra or starry-eyed amaryllis, to mention only a few of the
brilliant multitudes through which they moved." It seems almost pedestrian
to add that gatherer-hunters have often been remarked to possess tracking
skills that virtually defy rational explanation (e.g. Lee 1 9 79).
Rohrlich-Leavitt ( 1 9 76) noted, "The data show that gatherer­
hunters are generally nonterritorial and bilocal; reject group aggression
and competition; share their resources freely; value egalitarianism and
personal autonomy in the context of group cooperation; and are indulgent
and loving with children." Dozens of studies stress communal sharing and
egalitarianism as perhaps the defining traits of such groups (e.g. Marshall
1 96 1 and 1 9 7 6, Sahlins 1 968, Pilbeam 1 9 7 2 , Damas 1 9 7 2 , Diamond 1 9 7 4,
Lafitau 1 9 74, Tanaka 1 9 7 6 and 1 980, Wiessner 1 9 7 7 , Morris 1982, Riches
1 982, Smith 1 988, Mithen 1990). Lee ( 1 982) referred to the "universality
among foragers" of sharing, while Marshall's classic 1 9 6 1 work spoke of
the "ethic of generosity and humility" informing a "strongly egalitarian"
gatherer-hunter orientation. Tanaka provides a typical example: "The most
admired character trait is generosity, and the most despised and disliked
are stinginess and selfishness."
Baer ( 1 986) listed "egalitarianism, democracy, personalism, individ­
uation, nurturance" as key virtues of the non-civilized, and Lee ( 1 988) cited
"an absolute aversion to rank distinctions" among "simple foraging peoples
around the world." Leacock and Lee ( 1 982) specified that "any assumption
of authority" within the group "leads to ridicule or anger among the !Kung,
as has been recorded for the Mbuti (Turnbull 1 962), the Hazda (Woodburn
1 980) and the Montagnais-Naskapi (Thwaites 1 906), among others."
"Not even the father of an extended family can tell his sons and
daughters what to do. Most people appear to operate on their own internal
schedules," reported Lee ( 1 9 72) of the !Kung of Botswana. Ingold (1987)
judged that "in most hunting and gathering societies, a supreme value
is placed upon the principle of individual autonomy," similar to Wilson's
finding ( 1 988) of "an ethic of independence" that is "common to the focused
open societies." The esteemed field anthropologist Radin (1953) went so far
as to say: "Free scope is allowed for every conceivable kind of personality
outlet or expression in primitive society. No moral judgment is passed on
any aspect of human personality as such."
15

FUTURE PRIMITIVE REVISITED

Turnbull ( 1 9 7 6) looked on the structure of Mbuti social life as "an
apparent vacuum, a lack of internal system that is almost anarchical."
According to Duffy ( 1 984), "the Mbuti are naturally acephalous-they do
not have leaders or rulers, and decisions concerning the band are made by
consensus." There is an enormous qualitative difference between foragers
and farmers in this regard, as in so many others. For instance, agricultural
Bantu tribes (e.g. the Saga) surround the San, and are organized by kingship,
hierarchy and work; the San exhibit egalitarianism, autonomy, and sharing.
Domestication is the principle which accounts for this drastic distinction.
Domination within a society is not unrelated to domination of nature.
In gatherer-hunter societies, on the other hand, no strict hierarchy exists
between the human and the non-human species (Noske 1 989), and relations
among foragers are likewise non-hierarchical. The non-domesticated
typically view the animals they hunt as equals; this essentially egalitarian
relationship is ended by the advent of domestication.
When progressive estrangement from nature became outright social
control (agriculture), more than just social attitudes changed. Descriptions
by sailors and explorers who arrived in "newly discovered" regions tell how
wild mammals and birds originally showed no fear at all of the human
invaders (Brock 1 9 8 1 ) . A few contemporary gatherers practiced no hunting
before outside contact, but while the majority certainly do hunt, "it is
not normally an aggressive act" (Rohrlich-Leavitt 1 9 76). Turnbull ( 1 965)
observed Mbuti hunting as quite without any aggressive spirit, even
carried out with a sort of regret. Hewitt (1 986) reported a sympathy bond
between hunter and hunted among the Xan Bushmen he encountered in
the nineteenth century.
As regards violence among gatherer-hunters, Lee ( 1 988) found that
"the !Kung hate fighting, and think anybody who fought would be stupid. "
The Mbuti, by Duffy's account ( 1 984), "look on any form of violence between
one person and another with great abhorrence and distaste, and never
represent it in their dancing or playacting.· Homicide and suicide, concluded
Bodley ( 1 9 76), are both "decidedly uncommon" among undisturbed gatherer­
hunters. The "warlike" nature of Native American peoples was often
fabricated to add legitimacy to European aims of conquest (Kroeber 1961);
the foraging Comanche maintained their nonviolent ways for centuries
before the European invasion, becoming violent only upon contact with
marauding civilization (Fried 1 9 73).
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FUTURE PRIMITIVE

The development of symbolic culture, which rapidly led to
agriculture, is linked through ritual to alienated social life among extant
foraging groups. Bloch ( 1 9 7 7 ) found a correlation between levels of ritual
and hierarchy. Put negatively, Woodburn ( 1 968) could see the connection
between an absence of ritual and the absence of specialized roles and
hierarchy among the Hazda of Tanzania. Turner's study of the west African
Ndembu ( 1 9 5 7 ) revealed a profusion of ritual structures and ceremonies
intended to redress the conflicts arising from the breakdown of an earlier,
more seamless society. These ceremonies and structures function in a
politically integrative way. Ritual is a repetitive activity for which outcomes
and responses are essentially assured by social contract; it conveys the
message that symbolic practice, via group membership and social rules,
provides control (Cohen 1 985). Ritual fosters the concept of control or
domination, and has been seen to tend toward leadership roles (Hitchcock
1 982) and centralized political structures (Lourandos 1 985). A monopoly
of ceremonial institutions clearly extends the concept of authority (Bender
1 9 78), and may itself be the original formal authority.
Among agricultural tribes of New Guinea, leadership and the
inequality it implies are based upon participation in hierarchies of ritual
initiation or upon shamanistic spirit-mediumship (Kelly 1 9 7 7 , Modjeska
1 982). In the role of shamans we see a concrete practice of ritual as it
contributes to domination in human society.

Radin ( 1 9 3 7 ) discussed "the same marked tendency" among Asian
and North American tribal peoples for shamans or medicine men "to
organize and develop the theory that they alone are in communication
with the supernatural. · This exclusive access seems to empower them at
the expense of the rest; Lommel ( 1 9 6 7 ) saw "an increase in the shaman's
psychic potency... counterbalanced by a weakening of potency in other
members of the group." This practice has fairly obvious implications for
power relationships in other areas of life, and contrasts with earlier periods
devoid of religious leadership.
The Batuque of Brazil are host to shamans who each claim control
over certain spirits and attempt to sell supernatural services to clients,
rather like priests of competing sects (S. Leacock 1 988). Specialists of this
type in "magically controlling nature .. .would naturally come to control
men, too," in the opinion of Muller ( 1 9 6 1 ) . In fact, the shaman is often the
most powerful individual in pre-agricultural societies (e.g. Sheehan 1985);
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F U T U R E P R I M IT I V E R E V I S I T E D
h e i s in a position t o institute change. Johannessen ( 1 9 8 7 ) offers the thesis
that resistance to the innovation of planting was overcome by the influence
of shamans, among the Indians of the American Southwest, for instance.
Similarly, Marquardt (1 985) has suggested that ritual authority structures
have played an important role in the initiation and organization of
production in North America. Another student of American groups (Ingold
1 9 8 7 ) saw an important connection between shamans" role in mastering
wildness in nature and an emerging subordination of women.
Berndt ( 1 9 74a) has discussed the importance among Aborigines of
ritual sexual division of labor in the development of negative sex roles, while
Randolph ( 1 988) comes straight to the point: "Ritual activity is needed to
create "proper" men and women." There is "no reason in nature" for gender
divisions, argues Bender ( 1 989). "They have to be created by proscription
and taboo, they have to be "naturalized" through ideology and ritual. "
But gatherer-hunter societies, b y their very nature, deny ritual
its potential to domesticate women. The structure (non-structure?) of
egalitarian bands, even those most oriented toward hunting, includes a
guarantee of autonomy to both sexes. This guarantee is the fact that the
materials of subsistence are equally available to women and men and

that, further, the success of the band is dependent on cooperation based
on that autonomy (Leacock 1 9 78, Friedl 1 9 75). The spheres of the sexes
are often somewhat separate, but inasmuch as the contribution of women
is generally at least equal to that of men, social equality of the sexes is "a
key feature of forager societies" (Ehrenberg 1 989b). Many anthropologists,
in fact, have found the stat