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).
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.
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.