Dan Murphy: Cave Days Revisited

Are modern lifestyles better? ( NPS )

It’s a popular conceit to depict Stone Age people as little more than tribes of ignorant brutes. But a closer look at how they lived reveals that in some ways, their ‘lifestyles’ were superior to ours.

Let me pose a set of existential questions.

Are we actually advancing as a species? Is humanity really on a never-ending upward trajectory that leads inevitably to greater health and happiness? Are we really sure about that?

Obviously, those of us born in the 20th or 21st centuries prefer to consider ourselves far more advanced, far more enlightened and far more “civilized” than our ancestors who roamed the Earth back in the Stone Age.

But by every almost analysis, however, there’s a case to be made that what we now consider to have been a prohibitively brief and brutal existence was actually superior in terms of its impact on human health and well-being.

And I’m not talking about the development of farming and the emergence of the first settled civilizations that took place some 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East — and by the way, let’s stipulate that the very first human efforts at what’s broadly labeled “as “agriculture” focused on domesticating animals as livestock, not planting and harvesting crops.

I’m referring instead to the what anthropologists describe as “hunting and gathering,” a way of life dependent on killing or trapping wild game, catching fish in rivers and lakes and obtaining fruits, herbs and edible roots from the forests and grasslands that once covered all of the Earth.

The portion not blanketed in a glacial ice sheet that didn’t retreat until about 15,000 years ago, that is.

Of course, the typical depiction of the hunter-gather tribes in Europe and Asia —so-called “cavemen” — is based on a misconception that arose from the controversial analysis of an atypical Neandertal skeleton excavated in 1908 in France by paleontologist Marcellin Boule, who characterized it as belonging to a “dull-witted, brutish, ape-like creature who walked hunched over with a shuffling gait.”

Thus was born a misrepresentation of our Paleolithic ancestors that’s been perpetuated in movies and fiction for the last century: dumb, club-wielding, cave-dwelling creatures more closely related to animal primates than humans — leaving aside the fact that modern gorillas are considered to be highly intellectual, as evidenced by the late Koko, a lowland gorilla who learned American Sign Language and allegedly understood 2,000 words of spoken English, according to researchers who studied her during her years living at the San Francisco Zoo.

In fact, Neandertals had very similar, if not actually larger, than those of contemporary Homo sapiens. They fashioned tools, they organized tribal cooperation to enhance their survival and they endured the harsh conditions of the late Ice Age with remarkable skill and tenacity.

Is ‘modern’ really better?

Which brings me to the existential question previously posed: In terms of our well-being, has civilization left us better off, or worse off than the primitive peoples who preceded us?

I consider that a valid question, because the vast and existential shifts in lifestyles that characterize modern societies, versus our ancestors, matters much more substantively than as a mere historical curiosity.

Analyzed objectively, there can be little doubt that the fundamental alteration in how our lives now proceed — a development that has happened in the metaphorical blink of an eye in terms of human evolution — has serious health implications as a result of:

  • Our relentless efforts to ensure that we never depart from a comfort cocoon set at 72 degrees F, no matter the seasonal extremes associated with the climate in whatever latitude where we live.
  • Our day-to-day activity levels, and not just an absence of active exercise, but the reality of spending almost every waking moment virtually motionless while sitting on chairs, slumped on couches and lying prone on a thick, padded mattress.
  • Our entire lifetimes existing on a diet of processed factory foods manufactured from formulations containing ingredients never before consumed in the hundreds of thousands of years of previous human existence.

No doubt that the populations alive during the early Pleistocene Age and the final millennia before agriculture began in earnest had to struggle for survival: lifespans were markedly shorter, infectious disease (though rare) was often fatal and there was always he threat of being trampled by a mastodon or eaten by a saber-tooth tiger.

But hunting for food not only provides a diet of animal flesh and organs rich in the nutrients humans are best adapted absorb, but a life spent out in the open air, involving what personal trainers these days define as “extremely active lifestyle,” is what’s required for human physiology to operate optimally.

Not to mention that the stress of running from predators or chasing down prey was what we now recognize as “healthy” stress, the short-term kind that enhances well-being, not the chronic, low-grade variety sparked by traffic jams, work deadlines and relationship trials that plague us moderns and cause us to suffer from physical and mental health problems unknown 20,000 years ago.

I’m not suggesting we can — or should — try to recapture a way of life that parallels what early human existence was like.

But if we fail to recognize how dramatically our sedentary lifestyles and junk-filled diets affect our health, and at least try to balance the negatives of contemporary life with opportunities to choose healthier diets and prioritize active daily exercising, then we can’t claim to have advanced beyond the humans who left depictions of their lives scrawled on the walls of the caves where they sought shelter.

The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, an award-winning journalist and commentator.