Sustainable lifestyle - What we can learn from our hunter-gatherer ancestors

1/10/2010 Guardian  The introduction of sheep in British brought to an end the more sustainable hunter-gatherer way of life.As an archaeologist my work is rooted in the past. As an inhabitant of the 21st century, I try to be
“green”. As an academic I am keen to re-awaken interest in the ancient
hunter-gatherer population who lived in Britain before the arrival of farming
6,000 years ago. In my recent research, I found that all three come together
and, what is more, they help me to show that archaeology has relevance – it is
not just old stones and bones.
There is a growing realisation that life, as we live it, is not sustainable. We
devote books, magazines, courses and thinktanks to the problem. But the existing
analysis is shallow; it focuses on the present and on the status quo. For this
reason, there is no quick fix for us today; to talk about climate change,
renewable energy or staycations is merely to scratch the surface of something
much deeper.
In reality, the roots of our situation go back 6,000 years to the radical
changes in lifestyle that came about with the introduction of farming. Why, and
how, the change took place is still an archaeological mystery. For my part, I am
interested in the consequences rather than the mechanism of this introduction.
Within a couple of hundred years of the arrival of the first sheep on British
shores, it seems that the hunter-gatherer way of life had all but disappeared
across the UK.
What is interesting are the long-term implications that resonate to the present
day. Fields had to be cleared, fertile ground had to be maintained; there is
evidence of sophisticated fertilisation from early on. Many common illnesses
began to appear as people settled down, lived in larger communities, in close
proximity to their animals, and dealt with waste and new foods. Our relationship
with the world began to change; we could practise control, but not on
everything. Increased stresses included a fear of the wild: unproductive wild
lands; wild animals; and vermin. There was also the fear of famine, of
uncontrollable weather. As we began to develop the power of control, so we
learned what it was like to lose control.
At this time, we see a marked change in attitudes to hunter-gatherers that has
resonated through the millennia. Whether considering the opposed attitudes of
Hobbes and Rousseau, the scholarship of Darwin, or recent coverage of the Roma,
the ambivalence in our relationship with those who lead a more nomadic way of
life is clear.
Farming underpins our society. Farming has permitted population growth, it
created stability for industrialisation and provides the economic basis for life
today. Even our language reflects the importance of cultivation and
domestication: through concepts of paradise, civilisation, culture (the word
“lady” has roots in the kneading of bread).
Farming bought benefits, but with a sting in the tail. More reliable food
production led to population increase; food surplus and a settled lifestyle
facilitated innovation: we can track an exponential increase in technological
development from the arrival of pottery to present day Tupperware. The
specialisation that first developed in the neolithic period has led to our
almost complete dissociation from the means of production on which we now rely.
Our addiction to energy took off: from hand-drawn prehistoric ploughs, to
oxen-led medieval ploughs, to water and then steam, the emerging dominance of
oil, and our current package of nuclear/wind/wave. We rely on energy and we no
longer produce it for ourselves.
Our current analyses offer an unreliable quick fix. We need to add the deeper
understanding of time for solutions to be long lasting. Sadly, however, the
lessons of archaeology are rarely direct. Of course we could solve the problems
of today if we reverted to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, but global populations
and changed circumstances make that impossible. There is no simple solution. The
answers offered by an analysis of the past are more general; they relate to
scale and they are actions that we can take on board, though we may not like
their message. We need, for example, to reduce our individual energy
consumption: we can do that; we need to become more self-sufficient: we can do
that; we need to see the world differently: no problem?
Over time, we have seen that economies of scale can be false economies;
increasing specialisation can be loss of wisdom; industry can reduce ability.
Deep archaeology is getting exciting. Only by employing it can we see that the
current issues – climate change, resource depletion, food scares – are symptoms,
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