Prehistory is commonly regarded as the relatively unimportant period of time before written history. That unfortunate era before civilization, when humans had to live more closely with nature, hunting and collecting their sustenance more like the other animals. The political philosophies of Western society which hold such reverence for things like authority, order, property, individual rights, and equality would have us believe that our social contract with Leviathan is far superior to that “nasty, brutish, and short” existence of our ancestors, as Thomas Hobbes put it so aptly.
But how do we know whether or not life was more difficult before the organization of city-states, governmental authorities, agriculture, and civilization as we know it? We’ve known nothing else really, since the invention of written language and the beginning of recorded history. Before humans began using the written word to record events and stories, all of our narratives were communicated orally by tradition. So, we can only guess at whether or not the spread of agriculture and governmental institutions offered any improvement over the living conditions of the nomadic lifestyle of early humans.
The lifeways of hunter gatherers were certainly not easy, nor do they continue to be, even in the modern age. However, there once was a time when all of humankind subsisted by foraging and hunting for food, and though it wasn’t necessarily peaceful (and it certainly wasn’t perfect), there are many things that we could learn from this ancient way of living. While it wouldn’t be possible for the seven billion people that currently live on our planet to return to the hunter gatherer lifestyle, we could all stand to gain more knowledge of the natural state of human beings. Even many thousands of years later, we are still just as reliant on the rest of nature, regardless of whether or not we recognize it or even desire to accept it.
Aside from all the challenges we face today, with the threat of environmental catastrophe brought on by climate change, political upheaval, social unrest, racial tensions and police brutality, and social injustices of all kinds caused by failed economic policies, mass incarceration, and powerful corporate interests, we still have an opportunity to return to the land of the living. When we begin to wake up and remember who we are and where we came from, and consider where we’re going, we’ll gain a clearer picture of what we must do, as inhabitants of this magical place we call earth.
There is a concept involving the story of human history that is referred to as the Great Forgetting. What it involves is a sort of collective amnesia regarding the ancient past and the roots of humanity. As the theory goes:
“Paleontology made untenable the idea that humanity, agriculture, and civilization all began at roughly the same time. History and archaeology had put it beyond doubt that agriculture and civilization were just a few thousand years old, but paleontology put it beyond doubt that humanity was millions of years old. Paleontology made it impossible to believe that Man had been born an agriculturalist and a civilization-builder. Paleontology forced us to conclude that Man had been born something else entirely – a forager and a homeless nomad – and this is what had been forgotten in the Great Forgetting.”
What we need now is a Great Remembering, a revival, or an awakening that will bring us back into consciousness of who we were and what we are now, and will help us better understand what we need to become. Modern humans seem to have become completely detached from our natural surroundings. We can more easily identify with our machines and our technologies than we can with trees and other plants that sustain us and ceaselessly give us everything we need. But when we consider what was forgotten when we invented commerce and trade, cities and states and technologies for improving what was already perfect in the first place, then we’ll finally be able to reimagine what it means to be human again…
“We can hardly be surprised that the forgetting took place. On the contrary, it’s hard to imagine how it could have been avoided. It would have been necessary to hold on to the memory of our hunting/gathering past for five thousand years before anyone would have been capable of making a written record of it.
By the time anyone was ready to write the human story, the foundation events of our culture were ancient, ancient developments – but this didn’t make them unimaginable. On the contrary, they were quite easy to imagine, simply by extrapolating backward. It was obvious that the kingdoms and empires of the present were bigger and more populous than those of the past. It was obvious that the artisans of the present were more knowledgeable and skilled than artisans of the past. It was obvious that items available for sale and trade were more numerous in the present than in the past. No great feat of intellect was required to understand that, as one went further and further back in time, the population (and therefore the towns) would become smaller and smaller, crafts more and more primitive, and commerce more and more rudimentary. In fact, it was obvious that, if you went back far enough, you would come to a beginning in which there were no towns, no crafts, and no commerce.”