We think of the dawn of man as having come somewhere around the end of the last Ice Age, between fifteen and ten thousand years ago. That seems to be the time when people really started paying attention, you know, paying attention to the seasons and the stars, counting the days, figuring out that they could influence the characteristics of the plants and animals that they liked to eat. We had long since become the people that we are today; for tens of thousands of years already by then we had looked and thought much as we do today. We were finally getting good at it, that’s all.
How old are the oldest cave paintings? What are they saying now? Thirty thousand years? Maybe they’ve pushed it back, but let’s just say thirty for the sake of this post. The cave paintings prove that we were thinking symbolically. We would have had dogs by then, dogs that could be trusted around children, I mean. Domesticated. We were pretty domesticated ourselves. Tools were getting better. Fire had been mastered. If we were painting on cave walls, I would say that language must also have been developing into something more useful. My hunch is that language had remained very basic for a very long time, because life was straightforward (if not simple) and people didn’t live very long. The use of language requires the same kind of symbolic abilities as the cave paintings, so I am sure that we had bigger vocabularies by that time and were speaking together more effectively.
So, thirty thousand years ago, small bands of hunter-gatherers following crops and game around a tract of land that they were familiar with, communicating better with each other, passing along more information, becoming more successful, and accelerating into what by the year 10,000 BCE was a rush to modernity. What were people like thirty thousand years ago?
I would guess that empathy and cooperation were well established already in human society. I say that with confidence because for a small band of hunter-gatherers, every baby is monumentally important. Infant mortality must have been staggering, so living babies were a matter of survival. Constant attrition in members of the band of all ages would have made every person important. And as for the elderly members of the band, you know, the thirty-seven-year olds, they were slowing down by then but they were precious themselves. Old Og had fallen out of a tree and couldn’t really run anymore, and Uma had had that sloth step on his leg that time, and it didn’t heal right. They had valuable experience, however, and there were plenty of things that they could still do.
In such a small, delicate group, people must have learned to get along, and learned to value every member of the band. The loss of any one of them impoverished them and reduced their security. They must have learned to look out for each other and help each other as much as possible. Or else they would have died off.
I’m also convinced that every band had a group of hunters who were specialists in that trade, and it is likely that the hunter who was a bit smarter and faster and stronger than the others was some kind of chieftain, if only for ceremonial purposes. I believe that the caveman movies and stories that we are familiar with are comically wrong in portraying a constant round of envy and contention, often culminating in violence. A scene like that would be counterproductive, although, being humans, problems must have arisen.
One thing is for sure, any kind of leadership group or individual would have needed to put the well-being and security of the entire band first, or else. If there were a chieftain who was just plain mean, and left old people to die because they couldn’t keep up, someone who was cruel in any way and allowed to band to be reduced because of his character flaws, well the band would just get rid of him, wouldn’t they? Why wait until the fool gets us all killed? Who wants to starve to death because this mean-spirited numbskull wants to go kill a mountain goat and refuses to take us to the place where we all know there will be plenty of fish in about a month? I’m sure that our distant but doubtlessly recognizable ancestors would simply do away with such a chieftain.
Lest we forget, this guy is fast and strong, so my guess is that the second-best hunter would get the job of smacking old chiefie in the head with a huge rock while he was sleeping. The new chieftain would then get a talking to from the circle of elder females, and the band would have fish again that year and make it through another winter.
They couldn’t afford to fool around back then. Every single thing that happened every day was a matter of life and death. We’ve got it a lot easier now, and to prove it we do nothing but fool around. Right now we have a whole ruling class that does not give one good Goddamn about the security and prosperity of our band, our tribe, our nation-state, our people. They do nothing to help us, they allow the least of us to die from neglect, and they care only about lining their own pockets and hoarding wealth. And it’s all a big yawn to most people, as though there were nothing to be done about it.
Our primitive ancestors would be ashamed of us. They would never have stood still for such a failure to care about the future of the group. We have lost some of our essential humanity in the interim. I only hope that we can regain our will to live before it is too late.