On the success and intelligence of prehistoric humans

The following is an excerpt from the book ‘A people’s history of science: miners, midwives, and “low mechanicks”‘ by Clifford D. Conner, 2005. It’s been somewhat edited and paraphrased to make it simpler.

Nasty, brutish, and short

Thomas Hobbes, writing in the seventeenth century, had a low opinion of the knowledge possessed by prehistoric humans. In his eyes, their condition was scarcely different from that of animals. His estimation was not based on evidence; it was simply commonsense conjecture. He imagined what life had been like in the distant past without such benefits of civilization as the rule of law and assumed that it must have been, in his oft-quoted phrase, “nasty, brutish, and short”.

Noble savages

In the following century, an opposite but no less abstract appreciation of human prehistory was advanced by another social theorist, Jean-Jaques Rousseau. According to Rousseau, prehistoric humans were noble savages. In that original primitive state, Rousseau maintained, people “were as free, healthy, good, and happy as their nature permitted them to be.” The rise of civilization, however, “brought the downfall of the human race” by creating property, inequality, slavery, and poverty. But noble though they may have been, early humans were still essentially savages who, to borrow the biblical metaphor, had not yet tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge. They were no more knowledgable or intelligent than Hobbes’ nasty brutes.

On the success and intelligence of prehistoric humans

Precisely what prehistoric humans knew and did not know is not easily determined, but it is certain that Hobbes, Rousseau, and the Bible all seriously underestimated their intellectual capacity and accomplishments. Unlike other species, early humans did not simply survive in limited ecological niches to which they were able to adapt, but spread throughout the globe, shaping their surroundings wherever they went to meet their own needs. It is reasonable to assume that they could have done so only because of their uniquely human ability to gain and apply an immense body of knowledge of nature.

Close members of our own “human family” have inhabited the earth for many tens of thousands of years. Until the end of the last Ice Age, about 13,000 years ago, they all depended for their subsistence entirely on foraging, fishing, hunting, and gathering. Today this foraging lifestyle is carried out by only a tiny fraction of the world’s population. Nonetheless, it is a safe estimate that more than 99% of the people who have ever lived were foragers.

A 20th century view of the Neolithic revolution

During the 19th century and most of the 20th, the way our foraging forebears were perceived owed more to Hobbes than to Rousseau. Their lifestyle was almost universally assumed – by scholars and laypeople alike – to have been one of unrelieved poverty, endless labor, and abysmal ignorance. Small wonder, then, that the “Neolithic revolution” that initiated agriculture and the domestication of animals was thought of as liberating humans from the miserable existence of hunting and gathering. In accord with the heroic view of the history of science, that great act of liberation was assumed to be the innovation of a few superior humans whose intelligence allowed them to perceive the advantages of settling down to produce a regular food supply.

Another view of the Neolithic Revolution

In 1966 anthropologists R. B. Lee and I. DeVore made a startling proclamation: “To date,” they said, “the hunting way of life has been the most successful and persistent adaptation man has ever achieved” and Marshall Sahlins contended that the hunters and gatherers typically needed only a few hours of work a day to satisfy their material needs, leaving them with plenty of leisure time and a relatively relaxed existence. Some critics charged that he overstated the case for a prehistoric paradise, but he succeeded in fundamentally altering the way anthropologists and archeologists interpret the cultures and artifacts they study.

It had traditionally been assumed that “primitive” people failed to advance technologically because their desperate struggle for survival left them no time for deep thoughts and innovative experimentation. However Sahlin’s claim that foragers did not lack free time has been amply confirmed by subsequent studies. If foragers “failed” to make “progress” it was not because they were too busy or too stupid, but because “progress” simply held little attraction for them.

Whereas scholars considered the transformation to agriculture a liberating event, the foragers themselves may well have perceived it as expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Instead of being able to pick up their means of sustenance in the course of a leisurely day, the obligations of agriculture would henceforth sentence them to hard labor from sunup to sundown. They would make that change only as a last resort, when, under the relentless pressure of population growth, they would be forced to wrest their means of survival from ever-diminishing areas of land. Furthermore, it does not stand to reason that the “pioneers” of the Neolithic revolution were necessarily the most intelligent of the foragers; they were simply those who were first confronted with the choice between producing food or going hungry.

The above is an excerpt from the book ‘A people’s history of science: miners, midwives, and “low mechanicks”‘ by Clifford D. Conner, 2005. It’s been somewhat edited and paraphrased to make it simpler.