How can “primitivism” be practical?

Because you and I are savages.

OK now, I understand you might not like being called a “savage”, but before you do something rash (like stop reading), let me explain.

You see, deep down, you and I are “savages” because our human lineage goes deep down.  And no matter where we were born, or what the color of our skin, 99% of our ancestors through the ages have been traditional hunting and gathering people.  Regardless of what our frontal lobes might forget, we remember this in the deepest core of our mammalian and reptilian brains, in our flesh, and in our bones

Now some folks might feel a tinge of fear while reading this.  After all, most of us have been taught from an early age that our “savage nature” is our dark side.  I’ll be blunt: that’s hogwash.  One doesn’t have to read terribly deep into anthropology, or talk to very many old-school indigenous people, for one to realize that the fact that we carry hunter-gatherer ancestors inside of us is nothing to be afraid of.

It is a myth that the people who have been defined as “savages” by our culture are any more savage (in the bad sense) than you or I.  Civilized savagery has always been able to out-savage what civilization calls “savagery”.  And if you have doubts about that, here are some good sources to consider:

A Lesson in Earth Civics by Chellis Glendinning, is a nice summary of what you’ll find in any of the following books:

The Forest People by Colin Turnbull, The Harmless People by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes by Daniel Everett, Original Wisdom by Robert Wolff, Never in Anger: Portrait of an Eskimo Family by Jean Briggs, The Mardu Aboriginies: Living the Dream in Australia’s Desert by Robert Tonkinson, Tiwi Wives by Jane Goodale, The Dobe !Kung by Richard B. Lee, Grand Valley Dani: Peaceful Warriors by Karl Heider, or Nunamuit: Among Alaska’s Inland Eskimos by Helge Ingstad (a personal favorite).

These sources are just the beginning, by the way — there are hundreds more.  And every one is a first-hand account by an individual who lived with the people in question.

Personally, I would tend to define primitivism as a way of seeing the world that takes seriously the perspective, wisdom, and example of these indigenous hunting and gathering peoples — especially those who were/are actively living, and/or fighting for their traditional way of life.  Other primitivists have their own definitions, but I like this one.

And while I’m against the commodification and appropriation of indigenous culture and symbols, I would suggest people pursue core aspects of hunter-gatherer living and thinking, to see if they enhance the quality of their lives, here and now.

Additionally, I would say folks might want to look at the best scientific research in the fields of anthropology, archeology, evolutionary biology, and evolutionary psychology, if they want to understand human nature and the human condition.  Finally, I suggest researching one’s own roots and getting in touch with one’s own indigenous heritage, however far back one might have to go.  For instance, my own studies have revealed “Viking” and Sami ancestral connections from Northern Germany and Scandinavia, and as a “white boy” who once thought he had no ethnic heritage, this makes me feel more a part of the rich diversity of the human family.

As I see it, applying such primal perspectives can be practical on at least two levels:

One level is using traditional wisdom to enhance modern life. For instance, even if one works a job and lives in a city, his or her health could improve by adopting a more paleolithic diet and exercise regimen. Or one might take up traditional bow-hunting as a hobby, go berry picking on the weekends, or learn some tracking skills and bird language to enhance the experience of their next weekend hike.  Nearly all primitive skills make great hobbies, in fact — I’ve never met a person who didn’t experience joy the first time they attempted fire by friction and blew a coal into flame.  Nevermind the quiet pride that comes after weaving one’s first basket or carving one’s first bowl.

Heck, even just trying out a pair of five-finger shoes can be a fairly life-changing move for some folks (not that I especially want to advertise for Vibram shoe company, but hey, this is America).

The next level is for those who desire a true lifetime challenge — those who are up to the holistic task of completely re-imagining and re-immersing their lives in the natural world.  The challenge of re-connecting with what Chellis Glendinning calls the “primal matrix”: “the state of a healthy, wholly functioning psyche in full-bodied participation with a wholly functioning Earth…” (My Name Is Chellis and I’m in Recovery From Western Civilization, p. 5).  What some like to call “rewilding”, and what I like to call “getting to the root of what it means to be human”.

Taking “practical primitivism” to the next level means shifting our core dependencies — our basic subsistence needs for food, water, shelter, tools, clothing, etc., away from money and back to the wild earth.  In this process, we also shift away from impersonal institutions back to family and friends.  It’s not a path for everyone, I realize.  And it may take multiple generations.  But there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s a path for some of us.

Not practical, you might say?  Well, my hypothesis is that it is practical — that it may even turn out to be more practical than our “modern” industrial way of life.  Because our industrial way is clearly unsustainable, whereas the ways of our indigenous hunter-gatherer ancestors have withstood the test of time (but rarely the test of war).  They have proven themselves sustainable over countless millennia — literally tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years.

And I think, they can withstand the test of my life.  Maybe even yours.

But whether you agree with me or not, hopefully it will make for interesting reading.

And if you just want a little taste of primitivism — a little primal spice to add to the feast of modern life — well, you’ll find that here as well.

Wild peace,


Categories: MusingsTags: , , , , , ,


  1. “Well, my hypothesis is that it is practical — that it is in fact more practical than our “modern” industrial way of life. Because our industrial way of life is clearly unsustainable, whereas the ways of our indigenous hunter-gatherer ancestors have withstood the test of time (but have rarely withstood the test of war). They have proven themselves sustainable over countless millennia — literally tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years.”

    I think ‘path’ is a key-word insofar as sustainability can be talked about. I can’t quite explain why, but my feeling is that what is sustainable for me personally isn’t a ‘hunter-gatherer lifestyle’ but remolding my life according to what works for me and my closest relations. That’s why I’m pretty touchy about this whole ‘primitivism’ thing…there seem to be (in the word or at least in the people espousing it) that having a sustainable and connected lifestyle means certain components of that lifestyle are supposed to be in this or that way, to certain amounts. Like the straight-edge primimtivists, or the ones that get up in arms about claiming you can combine rewilding with using modern techniques.

    Also, it looks like the path of our hunter gatherer ancestors hasn’t stood the test of time…we (civilization) are part of that test. I read something on Ran Prieur’s blog about civilization – the mentality of complex depersonalized systems – could keep building up and crashing back to ‘primitive’ conditions, sort of like how there’s always a new person discovering the power of addiction or governmental tyranny. My guess is that the new breed would be able to handle operating within conditions of depersonalized systems (including addiction and governmental tyranny) while still strengthening roots to our animal natures and our ‘local’ economies of relationships.

    Sustainability is just a pretty loaded word to begin with, I think. I can’t look at it in any other way than on a per-person level of I get skeptical really fast because it almost always becomes slanted to what’s sustainable for the person trying to sell me the idea of sustainibility (hardcore straightedge primitivists, ‘sustainable’ technology companies) which just goes back to what I think is at the root of the concept: humans are really good at figuring out how to change our world to be how we want it to be (the kind of food we want when we want it, the kind of weather we want when we want it, the kind of women we want when we want them..) but this takes enormous amounts of energy (physically, in relationships, and from us in the addictive cycles). In order to meet that call for energy we trade our lives to other people who think we would be better suited cleaning their toilets, managing their outdoor school, or learning their higher education. In return we get the means (often money, but other currencies allow us the power to change others) to reshape the world around us in the image we like. So there obviously needs to be some acceptance and adaptation to the conditions that exist in the circles we live in since we’re already talking about the wisdom of hunter-gatherer peoples. But I think its up to each person to find how to reclaim energy for themselves and their relationships by finding a path to do this that works for them. Since I can’t say any technology is bad, I can’t say adopting someone else’s ideas of how to do this won’t work, but as I pointed out before, it’s really easy to get carried away with the power that technology gives us (in the form of reshaping our world).

    I think there’s something to be said with identifying where and with who we are trading off our ability to adapt for some level of that power to reshape our world. It’s like the people that quit facebook to immerse themselves in their surroundings. I’m not saying quit facebook, just be honest with yourself about what the trade-off is and see if you can continue to choose it in your job, your relationships, your lifestyle, diet, ect.

  2. Thanks for your interesting thoughts, cybrmark. You are right about the need for each of us to adapt the, what I call, authentic human approach into our present lives. Sometimes it doesn’t take real much of an effort to adapt. For example, someone may live in an area where there aren’t a lot of wild food plants. By having a garden, we can forage in it for our fresh foods, even though the plants are of European origin.

    One thing I love to do is observe young children who have been raised in an atmosphere of freedom. In addition to their behavior, I like to watch the myriad of expressions on their faces. For some reason, adults have a sparse repretoire of expressions. I guess it’s a way of keeping people from knowing how we feel. The kids also are fearless. After falling down the stairs, they are at it again in no time. A child will also spend lots of time outside just watching butterflies and other wildlife, if he hasn’t been hooked to a T. V.

    As for me, starting out as a child of nature and then becoming obsessively educated, I can still pick up where I left off – learning the wild foods of the new area where I live. This year on my 2 mile walks to the post office, I noticed how the plants looked as they were just poking out of the ground. By walking daily, I could see how they changed into their different stages, and when the fruit trees blossomed (chokecherry, juneberry, black cherry) at the same time, I was able to distinguish them from their blossoms.

    Also, going for “walk abouts”, or just plain wandering around the home base must be something our ancestors did, yet today most of us want a destination, time table and marked trail. Children will just wander away, unafraid.

    If there is something we love to do that does not require technology, chances are it’s something our distant ancestors did.

    The question is, how can we get back as a society or even as a human race to our original state of living without constant fear and the attitude that we all started with a legacy of original sin?

    TO GLENN: Thanks for your work in setting up this website and making it available to Teaching Drum readers.
    Regards, Dawn from the U. P.

  3. Hey Cybermarc, while I’m a big fan of Ran Prier, I guess the “test of time” thing would maybe be an area where we part ways. Though, to be fair to Ran, I haven’t read the article where he talks about that, so I don’t know the whole context around what he meant, other than just what you’re expressing here.

    To me, on its face value, saying that hunter-gatherers “didn’t pass the test of time, because we are part of the test” is roughly analogous to someone shooting me in the head and then saying I “died of natural causes”. Or maybe if a dealer slipped me some heroin or meth without telling me it was a dangerous drug, and then, if I died a junkie 10 years later, saying “well, Glenn just didn’t have what it takes to survive”. This is why I distinguished between the “test of time” and the “test of war” in the article up above. The “test of time” would be the test of sustainability (the relationship between a people and the land/relations/”resources” upon which they depend). As I see it, the “test of war” is something else.

    So this gets me to the issue of the much abused word “sustainable”. Richard Heinberg once said that word has now come to mean “anything someone thinks is kinda eco-cool”. But that’s not how I use the term. I use it in its common sense, dictionary defined way, and I’m not willing to concede it’s meaning to the bullshit artists, sloppy thinkers, and corporate advertisers of the world.

    When analyzing the survival strategies of traditional hunter-gatherers, one finds no internal flaws that would have inherently led to their eventual demise. Whereas it doesn’t take much analysis of industrial farming cultures to see that their own internal dynamics actively undermine their subsistence basis (i.e. fossil fuels don’t “grow back” on a time scale anywhere even remotely close to the time scale on which they are being used up – hence the name “non-renewable” resources).

    It doesn’t really take a rocket scientist to realize the difference between a renewable resource and a non-renewable one, and to see the different implications for “sustainability” in basing one’s subsistence on one vs. the other.

    As I see it, the global expansion of the use of fossil fuels is a fluke – a onetime event in a hundred million years – likely to be over within a mere six human generations. To say that the fact that such an event overwhelmed the traditional subsistence basis of (for instance) the Athabascans of the Tanana River Valley (where I now live) is a sign that the traditional life-way of the Athabascans “didn’t withstand the test of time” obscures more than it illuminates, I think.

  4. The other thing I’d like to respond to Cybermarc, is that the reason I’ve named my personal brand of primitivism “practical primitivism” or “lifestyle primitivism” is precisely to differentiate it from the various forms of “primitivism” (i.e. “straightedge primitivism” or whatever) you’ve been put-off by.

    There are a lot of primitivist authors out there who extend their critiques of civilization into calls for hardcore personal purity and/or calls to “take down civilization”. I’m just not interested in that stuff, since in my experience, such calls usually come from the same basic impulse that drives fundamentalist forms of Christianity or Islam – the desire to judge others and gain a sense of self-righteousness by separating one’s self from them and making war (either ideological or physical) on them.

    Having grown up with and abandoned fundamentalist Christianity in favor of a more open and liberating religious attitude, I definitely don’t want to re-create a judgmental, self-righteous, and combative tone in my approach to the “old ways” (though it may still happen from time to time…old habits can die hard).

    While I realize my personal perspective on life may be hard for some folks to stomach, I want to invite people to taste the primal experience for themselves and see if they like it (and feel free to spit out whatever doesn’t suit their tastes).

    When it comes to the folks who want to “bring down civ”, I just have this to say: as a student of history and a veteran, I think such calls are pretty absurd.

    Historically speaking, hunter-gatherers lost the “test of war”, and for good reason – their ways of life did not lend themselves very well to war.

    My analysis is that the globalized industrial way-of-life is bringing itself down (i.e. that’s what I mean by “unsustainable”), and my intent is to create more life-affirming options for folks, so that such an unsustainable way-of-life maybe doesn’t bring all of humanity down with it.

    In that vein, I’m also not interested in the misanthropic (human hating) tendencies of certain forms of hardcore environmentalism.

    My stance as a “primitivist” is human-life affirming. I think that humans are inherently good for the earth, so I’d like to see humans endure on the earth. I think we’ve just gotten ourselves into trouble with fossil fuels and agriculture in much the same way an addict might get him or herself into trouble with alcohol and cocaine. The “problem” there isn’t the person, the “problem” is the relationship to the drugs, and so as I see it, the solution isn’t judging the person (or even the drugs, really), its finding and offering the person more healthy options for relating to the world. And that’s what this blog is about – healthy options for people who want them.

    So thanks for bringing this stuff up Cybermarc, it’s offered me the chance to clarify a bit what I’m trying to do here. Critical voices are always welcome. 🙂

  5. Hey Dawn, great to see you here, by the way!

  6. I’ve enjoyed reading your blog, Glenn.

    In reply to Ran Prieur’s perspective on civilized versus primitive peoples surviving the “test of time:” You might want to check out his essay Beyond Civilized and Primitive. Right before he published it on his website I asked him about his thoughts on The Law of Limited Competition that Daniel Quinn talked about in Ishmael and other books. He said to me that reading Charles Mann’s 1491 changed his perspective, and I would guess that it partly inspired him to write the essay.

  7. That’s a pretty good article by Ran, thanks Curt. I think Ran and I have more in common than we disagree, really. I just figure (like most of us, including me) Ran tends to overstate some things and maybe globalize his experience a bit too much at times (i.e. “I don’t think there’s any escape from complex high-energy societies”). Also, I’ve read Charles Mann’s 1491 — It’s a good book as far as it goes, but it leaves a fair bit out of the equation, and oversimplifies it’s dichotomies as well.

    Anyway, here are a few more general thoughts on this topic:

    To me “Civilized” and “Primitive” are not separate boxes, they’re more like overlapping and interwoven areas of a continuum. It’s not always clear where one starts and the other stops, for sure.

    Nonetheless, I’m not willing to just throw the words out either — it can be hard to tell where coyotes and wolves and huskies start and stop (red-wolves can breed with all three), but that doesn’t mean there is no use-value in distinguishing between coyotes and wolves and huskies…or that there would be no difference between a world with all three v.s a world with only one of them.

    I’m not one of these primitivists who wants to forcibly “bring down” much of anything (though like most Americans I sometimes get annoyed in traffic). I just don’t think it’s helpful or wise to have agriculture (via industry) dominating the whole earth — even areas where agriculture is basically impossible — as it does now.

    The future world I envision will likely include agricultural (and perhaps even small-scale industrial) civilizations in some local regions, with horticultural and pastoral tribes and hunter-gatherer bands in others. I would rather see a world where there continues to be room for each of these ways of life (i.e. in areas where each of them is the most ecologically appropriate way for humans to live), rather than a world where one way overwhelms all others.

    Fossil fuels is the issue there, and even still, I don’t think fossil fuel use is morally wrong, per-se (obviously I find myself in traffic sometimes). It’s just very dangerous, in my estimation, for humanity to try and put all it’s eggs in this one petroleum-fueled basket. And not very wise for our species to attempt to become completely dependent on a “resource” that is going to go away within a few generations (i.e just enough generations to maybe loose the old ways to experience unless they are actively preserved). Thankfully, even to this day, those on the vanguard of civilization haven’t succeeded in doing this. Personally (especially since it seems global peak oil was reached in 2006ish), I don’t think they ever will.

    Can solar panels continue to create a globalized complex high-energy way of life? I don’t think so…but the reason I differ from Ran on this point may have more to do with the fact that I grew up in Alaska — a place where the global agricultural-industrial way is much more precariously situated than on the west coast of the “Lower 48”. We have solar panels and CSA farms up here, sure, but the solar panels don’t work half the year and the CSAs have just as much problem with mother-nature as they do with big brother.

    What I hope will become obvious as I continue to write this blog, is that I’m not interested in utopian ideological wars (not even “primitivist” ones). I’m interested in having and expressing a worldview that works because it deals pretty well with reality. To me, that’s “primitivism” — a worldview that values and integrates (rather than forgets or marginalizes) what is primal to the varieties of human experience (over whatever the latest globalized techno-fad-ideologies might be). I think such an orientation to life is pretty fair and reasonable, and I think it deserves at least one label pointing to it (even if Ran and others like to avoid such labels).

    Anyway, glad you’re liking the blog Curt. And thanks for the comment, for sure.

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