People of the forest

Before humans beings took up agriculture, some 12,000 years ago, we gathered our food or we hunted it. There are small groups of hunters and gatherers throughout the world to this day — and many of them live in Africa. This includes some 900,000 Pygmies of the jungles of Central Africa but also groups such as the San people of the Kalahari desert and the Hadza of Tanzania.

No prejudice is as persistent as the prejudice against foragers. All farmers think they live vastly superior lives. In the case of Africa this prejudice is often strongly expressed by Bantu peoples. [Read more:The Bantu migration“] Only farming communities have states, they argue, and only societies with states are “civilized.” Since hunters and gatherers are on the move, they rarely build permanent structures and there is consequently little for historians to study. In stateless societies, we are told, there is no “progress.”

Anthropological studies of hunters and gatherers reveal quite a different picture. These are egalitarian societies with few social distinctions or divisions between men and women. They eat better and more varied food, have fewer diseases and live longer. And life is actually quite abundant. Instead of constantly working, like their Bantu neighbors, the foragers spend much of their day socializing. When they want to find something to eat they go out into the jungle to find it much as a city-dweller might look for something in a refrigerator. Hunters and gatherers are rich because they have few desires and know how to live within their means. They have no history since they have a very small carbon footprint and do little damage to their environment.

This is a romanticized picture, no doubt, but it has given rise to a brand of political activists known as “anarcho-primitivists.” Their ideal is a society organized as those of hunters and gatherers. Civilization, they argue, was a mistake, and so was the idea of the state and the very notion of history. Since a modern way of life is unsustainable, a catastrophe of some kind will one day occur. After that we must go back to the jungles of Africa and live like we did for over 95 percent of human history. The societies of hunters and gatherers who live there today are thus not remnants of some distant past as much as models of our future.

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