Monday, June 7, 2010

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.

Themes of Cultural Recovery

(The process of biological growth and development)

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

62. Running

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.

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