Aspects of a Pleistocene Paradigm
An excerpt from the book, "Coming Home To The Pleistocene" by Paul Shepard
A journey to our primal world may bring answers to our ecological dilemmas. Such a journey will lead, not to an impulsive or thoughtless way of life, but to a reciprocity with origins declared by history to be out of reach. When Ortega y Gasset speaks of hunting as "a deep and permanent yearning in the human condition," our "generic way of being," he refers to the whole of the foraging way of life, which we can shape in detail to our own time.
We live with the possibility of a primal closure. All around us aspects of the modern world-diet, exercise, medicine, art, work, family, philosophy, economics, ecology, psychology -- have begun a long circle back toward their former coherence. Whether they can arrive before the natural world is damaged beyond repair and madness destroys humanity we cannot tell.
What the West has going for it is the tradition of self-scrutiny, self-criticism, and access historically and scientifically to other cultures. The human psyche makes unremitting demands for physical and spiritual (or symbolic) otherness, and the modern West has the information if not the wisdom for escaping the trap of industrial productivity, corporate blight, and demographic insanity.
We can go back to nature, as I wrote in 1973, because we never left it. To illustrate this I have formulated some seventy-odd themes of cultural recovery selected from the record of primal cultural traits as played out over thousands of years (see below). It is time to abandon the fantasy that we are above the past and alienated from the rest of life on earth. We truly are a successful species in our own right that lived in harmony with the earth and its other forms for millions of years-a species that has not changed intrinsically. The genome is our Pleistocene treasure that transcends short-term and short-sighted goals. Possibilities lie within us. Our culture must express what the past calls forth in us but leaves us the freedom to shape.
To reenvision "going back," we look with our mind's eye at time as a spiral rather than a reversal. We "go back" with each day along an ellipse with the rising and setting of the sun, each turning of the globe. Every new generation "goes back" to forms of earlier generations, from which the individual comes forward in his singular ontogeny. We cannot run the life cycle backwards, but we cannot avoid the inherent and essential demands of an ancient, repetitive pattern as surely as human embryology follows a design derived from an ancestral fish. Most of the "new" events in each individual life are like a different pianist playing a familiar piece.
White European/Americans cannot become Hopis or Kalahari Bushmen or Magdalenian bison hunters, but elements in those cultures can be recovered or re-created because they fit the heritage and predilection of the human genome everywhere, a genome tracing back to a common ancestor that Anglos share with Hopis and Bushmen and all -- the rest of Homo sapiens. The social, ecological, and ideological characteristics natural to our humanity are to be found in the lives of foragers. As I have suggested, they are our human nature because . they characterized the human way of life during our evolution.
Must we build a new twenty-first-century society corresponding to a hunting/gathering culture? Of course not; humans do not consciously make cultures. What we can do is single out those many things, large and small, that characterized the social and cultural life of our ancestors-the terms under which our genome itself was shaped-and incorporate them as best we can by creating a modern life around them. We take our cues from primal cultures, the best wisdom of the deep desires of the genome. We humans are instinctive culture makers; given the pieces, the culture will reshape itself.
1. Formal recognition of stages in the whole life cycle
2. The progressive dynamics of bonding and separation
3. Earth-crawling freedom by 18 months
4. Richly textures play space
5. No reading prior to "symbolic" age (about 12 years)
6. All-age access to butchering scenes
7. All-age access to birth, copulation, death scenes
8. Few toys
9. Early access via speech to rich species taxonomy
10. Formal celebration of life-stage passages such as initiation
11. Rich animal-mimic play and other introjective processes
12. Non-peer-group play
13. Parturition and neonate "soft" environment
14. Access to named places in connection with mythology
15. Extended family or dense social structure
16. Extended lactation
17. Play as the internal prediction of the living world
18. Little storage, accumulation, or provision
19. Diversity of "work"
20. Handmade tools and other objects
21. No monoculture
22. Independent family subsistence plus customary sharing
23. Ecotypic economy - keyed to place
24. No landownership in the sense of "fee simple"
25. Little absolute territoriality
26. No fossil fuel use
27. Minimal housekeeping
28. No domestic plants or animals
29. Prestige based on demonstrated integrity
30. Little or no heritable rank
31. Size of genetic/marriage/linguistic group or tribe: 500-3000
32. Clan and other membership giving progressive identity with age
33. Limited exposure to strangers
34. Hospitality to outsiders ,
35. Functional roles of aunts and uncles
36. Postreproductive advisory functions such grandparental roles
37. Size of fire-circle group: 10 adults (council of the whole)
38. Occasional larger congregations
39. Emphasis on mneumonics with its generational repository
40. Participant politics vs. representational or authoritarian
41. Vernacular gender and age functions
42. Totemic analogical thought of eco-predicated logos
43. Dynamic, emergent, and dispersed leadership
44. Decentralized power
45. Intertribal tension-reduction rites (song duels, peacepipe)
46. Cosmologically rather than sociohierarchically focused ritual
47. Periodic mobility, no sedentism
48. Conceptual notion of spirit in all life, numinous otherness
49. Centrality of narrative, routine recall and story
50. Dietary omnivory
51. Rare-species demography
52. Subordination of art to cosmology
53. Participatory rather than audience-focused music
54. Sensual science ("science of the concrete") vs. intangible science
55. Celebration of social and cosmological function of meat eating
56. Religious regulation of the special effects of plant substances
57. Extensive foot travel
58. Only organic medicine
59. Regular dialogue on dream experience
6o. The "game" approach -- to love, not hate, the opponent
61. Attention to listening, to the sound environment as voice
63. Attention to kinship and the "presence" of ancestors
64. Attunement to the daily cycle and seasonality
65. No radical intervention on fetal genetic malformations
66. Immediate access to the wild, wilderness, solitude
67. Nonlinear time and space-no history, progress, or destiny
68. Sacramental (not sacrificial) trophism
69. Formal recognition of a gifted subsistence
70. Participation in hunting and gathering
71. Freedom -- to come and go, to choose skills, to marry or not, etc.
Ontogeny: the process of biological growth and development of a particular living organism.
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