Why is it that when the fire is alight we sit staring, transfixed into the dancing flames? Why are we drawn to the sun? To the ocean or the mountains? Why are some people drawn to watching wildlife shows or adventure shows on television?
I believe the answer is simple yet complex. We have not yet evolved to meet the demands of modern life. Our lives as primitive humans revolved around hunting and gathering. This way of life was the way of our ancestors and is still sustained by certain tribes to this day. Hunter gathering has existed for around 2 million years.
When you think that we as humans in the Western world have only been farming around 10,000 years, in comparison to Hunter Gathering, this is only a fraction of time. It makes sense that we haven’t evolved much in this short space of time. Josef Uyeda from Oregon State University believes that long term evolution is a slow process; “What’s interesting is not that we have so much biological diversity and evolutionary change, but that we have so little. It’s a paradox as to why evolution should be so slow.” It is now believed that long term, lasting evolution takes around 1 million years.
Humans are highly adaptive animals able to mould the environment to meet our needs. Our ability to wield fire and our developed brains that allow us to empathise and imagine sets us apart from other animals. In manipulating our world I believe we have created a state of limbo, we have removed ourselves from the natural world but haven’t fully adapted to our modern lifestyle. There are elements of the wild we still crave, but all of us still need our creature comforts. Natural stresses like threat from predators, threat of starvation and having to constantly be sourcing food have been removed, but our mental systems for protecting us like the ‘fight or flight’ reactions and heightened stress responses still exist. Our ancestors survived in tribes, close communities which supported each other in everyday tasks. In comparison many of us now live very solitary lives. Our sweet tooth that was an adaptation in our ancestors when food was limited still exists to this day, even though, for most of us, food is not in short supply.
As Hunter Gatherers life would have been taken up with sourcing food, looking after children, patching up shelters or building shelters when on the move. There would have been less time for contemplation. Everyone would have to pull their weight to ensure the survival of their tribe. I would imagine that anxiety, stress, unrest and depression existed in various forms. In hierarchal societies there will always be feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. I personally can’t believe they are fully modern emotions. I do, however, believe we have exacerbated these emotions and have amplified them by removing fully absorbing physical and mental tasks which would have taken up a huge chunk of our time each day. In our Hunter Gatherer societies we would have spent very little time alone. Most activities would have been carried out as a group providing constant social stimulation. Steve Ilardi, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Kansas believes “We’re designed to be interdependent. We’re designed to have lots of face time with those closest to us.”
Our ancestors would have spent hours a day in physical activity, walking around 10 miles a day, the majority of adults in modern society carry out little regular physical activity. Clinical trials have identified exercise as an effective treatment for depression. One study found just 90 minutes of aerobic exercise a week was effective.
Obesity, a growing problem in our modern society, can be linked to an adaptation of a sweet tooth in our ancestors. At times during food scarcity where we needed to be active to hunt and forage, sugar from fruits and berries would have been a quick energy hit and easily converted to reserve fat stores. Excessive sugar in the blood stream is toxic and our bodies have previously evolved to rapidly convert digested sugar in the bloodstream into fat. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors needed plenty of fat not just for activity, but to power our large brains. Most of us no longer need as much energy, but yet this ancestral adaptation is killing people in the hundreds as it is so hard, mentally, to override the cravings.
If you start thinking this way, problems like obesity, depression anxiety and so on are our modern responses to our evolved survival mechanisms and occur because we cannot, and no longer need to, live as hunter gathers. It also becomes easier to understand why your body or mind reacts in a certain way to certain situations and rather than thinking ‘what’s wrong with me?’ it is possible to start thinking of yourself as a human being which is having to adapt evolved skills to the modern world and learn how to control your primitive needs and even turn them to your advantage.
Our minds are capable of analysing and rationalising problems and if we can contemplate ourselves this way then should it not be easier to heal ourselves?
We hear over and over that exercise in moderation releases endorphins and happy chemicals into our brains. Deeper than this I truly believe regular forays out into nature, to breathe and look around, to light a fire, to walk in the woods or fields is something fundamental that we all need. After all, we evolved to be outside and have been manipulating and creating fire for almost 2 million years so how can this not be part of our very nature? Social interaction with friends and family is also important as it is part of this. I don’t think it is feasible for many of us to be out every day or necessary to aim to live like our ancestors, but incorporating some of their traits into our lives; exploring the woods at the weekend with your family, a night camping and sitting around the fire with friends, a moment of sitting in a park during your lunch break; all these things must help keep the primeval you in check and happy.