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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 Civilta" ("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.
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11. memory.loss


13. LOVE




AS I WRITE THIS INTRODUCTION 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 modern Western civilization (now global in scope) may be reaching its senescence. Efforts to save civ; ilization become increasingly desperate and far-fetched (consider the Zeitgeist movies” Venus Project 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, and species? Such questions are, obviously, non-sensical to anyone who is already fully committed to the project 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 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 turn, 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, anything humans do must, ipso facto, be natural. Yet so much of convention seems designed to restrain what is natural in humans, to redirect natural desire and postpone satisfaction in the pursuit of an objective 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 modern 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 modern 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 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 modern 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 anarcho-primitivists of 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 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 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 (let alone terraced agriculture, pyramids or the steel plow) is 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 objectlessness 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 extraordinary survey of 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 12 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 majority 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, 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.

For the 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 1850, 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 joke 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 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 modern humans, our 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. Modern 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 trajectory: 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 modern 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 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 infrastructure and let everyone die. Anyway it debases humans to 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 physis, 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 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, Aric McBay, and Lierre Keith write, “Ninety-eight percent of the population will do nothing unless they are led, cajoled or forced. If the structural determinants are in place for them to live their lives without doing damage…then that’s what happens.”17 It is down to 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 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


1. In this context it is worth pointing out briefly some of the intellectual forebears of anarcho-primitivism. Diogenes 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 Diggers 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 Benjamin Jowett (New York: Anchor Books, 1973), 57. 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). 23.

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), 17–18.

5 Paul Shepherd, The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973).

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), 97.

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 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), 120–127.

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 neo-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), 18.

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

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

13 Stanley Diamond, In Search of the Primitive (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Books, 1974).

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, (1997).

16 One of the less noted parts of 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.








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 (1990) surely errs on the side of understatement in allowing that anthropology is today “in danger of serious and damaging fragmentation.” Shanks and Tilley (1987b) 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 modern life have long been explained as necessary concomitants of “human nature.” After all, our pre-civilized existence of deprivation, brutality, and ignorance 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 (1961, 1976) 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 sharing has for some time been considered an integral part of earliest human society (e.g. Washburn and DeVore, 1961). Jane Goodall (1971) and Richard Leakey (1978), 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 ‘70s 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 1981, Tanner 1981).

Division of labor between the sexes is another key area in 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 (Johansen and Shreeve 1989). Since females were not significantly dependent on males for food (Hamilton 1984), it seems likely that rather than division of labor, flexibility and joint activity would have been central (Bender 1989). As Zihlman (1981) points out, an overall behavioral flexibility may have been the primary ingredient in early human existence. Joan Gero (1991) has demonstrated that stone tools were as likely to have been made by women as by men, and indeed Poirier (1987) 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 1975) and probably that sexual specialization came quite late in human evolution (Zihlman 1981, Crader and Isaac 1981).

So if the adaptation that began our species centered on 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 modern humans. Electron microscope studies of fossil teeth found in East Africa (Walker 1984) 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 1981) 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 modern high-fat and animal protein diet with its attendant chronic disorders (Mendeloff 1977). Though our early forebears employed their “detailed knowledge of the environment and cognitive mapping” (Zihlman 1981) 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?” (1989) 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 (1981) 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 1986, Trinkhaus 1986) 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 1989). 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 1989). 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 1990). Our ancestors at this stage had smaller brains and bodies than we do, but Poirier (1987) notes that “their postcranial anatomy was rather like modern humans,” and Holloway (1972, 1974) allows that his studies of cranial endocasts from this period indicate a basically modern 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 moderns with such distinctly human features as pronounced lateralization of the brain and marked functional separation of the cerebral hemispheres (Holloway 1981a). Klein (1989) 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 1.75 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 moderns such that this species “must have been capable of many of the same behaviors” (Ciochon, Olsen and Tames 1990). As Johanson and Edey (1981) 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 1985, Holloway 1985, Donald 1991). 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 1991).

Recently, however, the whole species framework has become a doubtful proposition (Day 1987, Rightmire 1990). 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 1979, Tobias 1982). Fagan (1989), 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 modern Homo sapiens on the other.” Likewise, Foley (1989): “the anatomical distinctions between Homo erectus and Homo sapiens are not great.” Jelinek (1978) flatly declares that “there is no good reason, anatomical or cultural” for separating erectus and sapiens into two species, and has concluded (1980a) that people from at least the Middle Paleolithic onward “may be viewed as Homo sapiens” (as does Hublin 1986). 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, 1978). 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 (1986) 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 1984). Further evidence suggests furs for cave wall coverings and seats, and seaweed beds for sleeping (Butzer 1970).

The use of fire goes back almost two million years (Kempe 1988) 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 1975, Lumley 1976), amenities that show up very early in the Paleolithic.

As John Gowlett (1986) 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 “modern” 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 (1985) judged manufacture of the Acheulian handaxe to have required “a stage of intelligence that is typical of fully modern adults.” Gowlett, like Wynn, examines the required “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 1990). Innovation, “over 2 1/2 million years measured in stone tool development was practically nil,” according to Gerhard Kraus (1990). 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 (1989). 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.” Division 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 object 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 (1990) that “the hidden dimension in the construction of the symbolic world is time.” And as Norman O. 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 (1974) has discussed symbols as “essential for the development and maintenance of 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, Lévi-Strauss (1953) 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-à-vis nature. In the later Upper Paleolithic, “15,000 years ago, we begin to observe specialized collection of plants in the Middle East, and specialized hunting,” observed Gowlett (1984). 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 1972b), given the absence of such behaviors in the Middle Paleolithic (Foster 1990, Kozlowski 1990). 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 (1990) 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 1976) 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 1984, 1989). It seems to have acted as an “inhibiting agent,” a way of bringing life under “greater control” (Mumford 1972), stemming the flood of images and sensations to which the pre-modern 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 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 1980, 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 1991).

In terms of symbolization in 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 (Johnson 1982, Conkey 1985); 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 25,000 years ago, and seem to be an example of earliest symbolic likeness of women for the purpose of representation and control (Hodder 1990). 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 1974, Frison 1986).

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 1972). 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 joys. This theme of ritual points to an absence that it falsely claims to fill, as does symbolic culture in general.

Ritual as a means of organizing emotions, a method of cultural direction and restraint, introduces art, a facet of ritual expressiveness (Bender 1989). “There can be little doubt,” to Gans (1985), “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 (1972), 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 1981). Similarly, Pfeiffer (1982) 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 1982, Jochim 1983). And art may have contributed to the control of nature, as part of development of the earliest territorialism, for example (Straus 1990).

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 1977). 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 immediate specific consequences (Ehrenberg 1986b, Wymer 1981, Festinger 1983). Whereas Paleolithic peoples enjoyed a highly varied diet, using several thousand species of plants for food, with farming these sources were vastly reduced (White 1959, Gouldie 1986).

Given the intelligence and the very great practical knowledge of Stone 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 (1968) 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 1981, Harris and Ross 1981), and introduced tooth decay, nutritional deficiencies, and most infectious diseases (Larsen 1982, Buikstra 1976a, Cohen 1981). “Taken as a whole…an overall decline in the quality—and probably the length—of human life,” concluded Cohen and Armelagos (1981).

Another outcome was the invention of 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 1988). Lévi-Strauss has argued persuasively that the primary function of written communication was to facilitate exploitation and subjugation (1955); 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 (1979) 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 yet unwanted by agriculture. And surviving gatherer-hunters, who have somehow managed to evade civilization’s tremendous pressures to turn them into slaves (i.e. farmers, political subjects, wage laborers), have all been influenced by contact with outside peoples (Lee 1976, Mithen 1990).

Duffy (1984) 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 (1976) 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 (1980), while others (e.g. Marshall 1976, Guenther 1976) 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 (1976) has pointed to the abundant and stable plant foods in the society of early humanity, just as “they exist in every modern gatherer society.” Likewise, Festinger (1983) 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 (1963) 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, adds Binford (1968), “than do modern industrial or farm workers, or even professors of archaeology.”

The non-domesticated know that, as Vaneigem (1975) 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 1976) 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 1966). 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 1968a, 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 1980). The !Kung branch of the San search for more than a hundred different kinds of plants (Thomas 1968) and exhibit no nutritional deficiency (Truswell and Hansen 1976). This is similar to the healthful, varied diet of Australian foragers (Fisher 1982, Flood 1983). 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 1968a, Ackerman 1990).

Lauren van der Post (1958) 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 (1976) 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 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 (1966) reported seeing children of 10 to 15 years crush nails with them. He also testified to 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 (1952) 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 (1983) observed Aborigines who were renowned for their ability to live through bitterly cold desert nights “without any form of clothing.” Lévi-Strauss (1979) 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 1976). In this vein, Boyden (1970) recounted the Bushman ability to see four of the moons of Jupiter with the naked eye.

In The Harmless People (1959), 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 (1958) meditated upon San/Bushman communion with nature, a level of experience that “could almost be called mystical. For instance, 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 1979).

Rohrlich-Leavitt (1976) 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 1961 and 1976, Sahlins 1968, Pilbeam 1972, Damas 1972, Diamond 1974, Lafitau 1974, Tanaka 1976 and 1980, Wiessner 1977, Morris 1982, Riches 1982, Smith 1988, Mithen 1990). Lee (1982) referred to the “universality among foragers” of sharing, while Marshall’s classic 1961 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 (1986) listed “egalitarianism, democracy, personalism, individuation, nurturance” as key virtues of the non-civilized, and Lee (1988) cited “an absolute aversion to rank distinctions” among “simple foraging peoples around the world.” Leacock and Lee (1982) 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 1962), the Hazda (Woodburn 1980) and the Montagnais-Naskapi (Thwaites 1906), 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 (1972) 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 (1988) 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.”

Turnbull (1976) looked on the structure of Mbuti social life as “an apparent vacuum, a lack of internal system that is almost anarchical.” According to Duffy (1984), “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 1989), 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 1981). 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 1976). Turnbull (1965) observed Mbuti hunting as quite without any aggressive spirit, even carried out with a sort of regret. Hewitt (1986) 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 (1988) found that “the !Kung hate fighting, and think anybody who fought would be stupid.” The Mbuti, by Duffy’s account (1984), “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 (1976), 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 1973).

The development of symbolic culture, which rapidly led to agriculture, is linked through ritual to alienated social life among extant foraging groups. Bloch (1977) found a correlation between levels of ritual and hierarchy. Put negatively, Woodburn (1968) 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 (1957) 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 1985). Ritual fosters the concept of control or domination, and has been seen to tend toward leadership roles (Hitchcock 1982) and centralized political structures (Lourandos 1985). A monopoly of ceremonial institutions clearly extends the concept of authority (Bender 1978), 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 1977, Modjeska 1982). In the role of shamans we see a concrete practice of ritual as it contributes to domination in human society.

Radin (1937) 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 (1967) 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 1988). Specialists of this type in “magically controlling nature…would naturally come to control men, too,” in the opinion of Muller (1961). In fact, the shaman is often the most powerful individual in pre-agricultural societies (e.g. Sheehan 1985); he is in a position to institute change. Johannessen (1987) 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 (1985) 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 1987) saw an important connection between shamans” role in mastering wildness in nature and an emerging subordination of women.

Berndt (1974a) has discussed the importance among Aborigines of ritual sexual division of labor in the development of negative sex roles, while Randolph (1988) 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 (1989). “They have to be created by proscription and taboo, they have to be “naturalized” through ideology and ritual.”

But gatherer-hunter societies, by 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 1978, Friedl 1975). 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 1989b). Many anthropologists, in fact, have found the status of women in forager groups to be higher than in any other type of society (e.g. Fluer-Lobban 1979, Rohrlich-Leavitt, Sykes and Weatherford 1975, Leacock 1978).

In all major decisions, observed Turnbull (1970) of the Mbuti, “men and women have equal say, hunting and gathering being equally important.” He made it clear (1981) that there is sexual differentiation—probably a good deal more than was the case with their distant forebears—“but without any sense of superordination or subordination.” Men actually work more hours than women among the !Kung, according to Post and Taylor (1984).

It should be added, in terms of the division of labor common among contemporary gatherer-hunters, that this differentiation of roles is by no means universal. Nor was it when the Roman historian Tacitus wrote, of the Fenni of the Baltic region, that “the women support themselves by hunting, exactly like the men…and count their lot happier than that of others who groan over field labor.” Or when Procopius found, in the sixth century A.D., that the Serithifinni of what is now Finland “neither till the land themselves, nor do their women work it for them, but the women regularly join the men in hunting.”

The Tiwi women of Melville Island regularly hunt (Martin and Voorhies 1975) as do the Agta women in the Philippines (Estioko-Griffen and Griffen 1981). In Mbuti society, “there is little specialization according to sex. Even the hunt is a joint effort,” reports Turnbull (1962), and Cotlow (1971) testifies that “among the traditional Eskimos it is (or was) a cooperative enterprise for the whole family group.”

Darwin (1871) found another aspect of sexual equality: “…in utterly barbarous tribes the women have more power in choosing, rejecting, and tempting their lovers, or of afterwards changing their husbands, than might have been expected.” The !Kung Bushmen and Mbuti exemplify this female autonomy, as reported by Marshall (1959) and Thomas (1965); “Women apparently leave a man whenever they are unhappy with their marriage,” concluded Begler (1978). Marshall (1970) also found that rape was extremely rare or absent among the !Kung.

An intriguing phenomenon concerning gatherer-hunter women is their ability to prevent pregnancy in the absence of any contraception (Silberbauer 1981). Many hypotheses have been put forth and debunked, e.g. conception somehow related to levels of body fat (Frisch 1974, Leibowitz 1986). What seems a very plausible explanation is based on the fact that undomesticated people are very much more in tune with their physical selves. Foraging women’s senses and processes are not alienated from themselves or dulled; control over childbearing is probably less than mysterious to those whose bodies are not foreign objects to be acted upon.

The Pygmies of Zaire celebrate the first menstrual period of every girl with a great festival of gratitude and rejoicing (Turnbull 1962). The young woman feels pride and pleasure, and the entire band expresses its happiness. Among agricultural villagers, however, a menstruating woman is regarded as unclean and dangerous, to be quarantined by taboo (Duffy 1984). The relaxed, egalitarian relationship between San men and women, with its flexibility