Tuesday, September 28, 2021
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The next civilisation

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IT MAY come dancing in on the breeze, sweet with summer’s fragrance. It may blot out the sky before slamming down to earth like an immense grand piano. It may flip the poles, sending everything arsy-versy. No time to kiss your elbow goodbye. It’s all the movies foretold, only worse. It’s the Apocalypse.

The most credible catastrophe, given the recent unpleasantness, is a lethal pandemic that kills more than 99 per cent of the earth’s population. Could civilisation rise again, phoenix-like, from the ashes of such a cataclysm? Or might a tried and tested system of more modest ambition be the more likely outcome?

There are bound to be a few survivors from a plague of greatly increased pathogenesis with only a minimal incubation period. It has been suggested that civilisation could be rebooted by a population of only 10,000, leapfrogging intermediate stages of development. However this may be a tall order for a number of reasons – not least, perversely, the possibility that survivors would be granted a breathing space in which to enjoy something like their present lifestyle.

Occupying abandoned houses, survivors would have their pick from mountains of tinned food and other supplies from supermarkets and stores. Vacant allotments and huge herds of deer would be ready sources of fresh food. Electric generators and vehicles, fuelled by lakes of petrol and diesel beneath service stations, could supply light, heat and transport.

Eventually, though, buildings and roads would crumble, supplies would dry up and the last cannibalised tractor would expire. If the survivors have not already squandered their brief period of grace, they would have had to make a concerted effort to become proficient in a range of complex manufacturing processes necessary to rebuild civilisation– an enterprise more challenging than Nasa’s moon landing programme.

A less optimistic scenario seems more likely. Countless unburied bodies, inviting the interest of rats, foxes and packs of ravenous dogs, would cause fresh waves of pestilence to which survivors had no immunity. All urban habitation would be off-limits. The future of western civilisation would rest on the shoulders of a few traumatised individuals, many of whom could not build a chicken coop to save their lives.

The worst may never happen, at least not for a while. But if it does, a forgotten army stands ready in the wings to carry forward the torch of humanity. They register so faintly on our radar as to be virtually invisible, yet they represent the most successful social organisation in human history. They stretch back 350,000 years, during which the empires of Rome, Egypt and Greece register as mere blips.

In his take on the nuclear arms race, the satirist Tom Lehrer sang: ‘We will all go together when we go/Every Hottentot and every Eskimo.’ In fact the Khoisan and Inuit, as they are now known, stand a better chance than most of surviving a lethal global pandemic due to their remoteness and self-sufficiency. The same goes for Pygmies, Amazonian Indians and the Asian hill tribes, to name a few.

There are reckoned to be 150million hunter-gatherers and self-sufficient tribal people dispersed across 60 countries. Once the mainstream of humanity, they now linger as cultural rock pools in some of the planet’s most inhospitable places. Civilisation sentenced them to death long ago for the crime of standing in the way of progress. A depressing litany of genocide, dispossession, torture and rape characterises the ongoing drive to chase them from their land or exterminate them. It is something of a miracle that they still exist.

Some 100 uncontacted groups of nomads are still on the run, obsessed with the idea that people are out to get them. They are not wrong. The pandemic has imperilled settled groups, but the most isolated remain unaffected. So hunter-gatherers might have the last laugh. The meek would truly inherit the earth. Although some are not so meek.

Who are these heirs to the planet? It is natural to think of hunter-gatherers as living fossils, throw-backs to prehistory, but they are our contemporaries who have evolved at the same rate and share our DNA. They are as intelligent as us – in some cases more so as urban IQ rates decline – but crucially they are resourceful, adaptable and self-sufficient. Often in small groups, living in deserts, jungle, tundra or swampy northern forests, their ways of life represent the most diverse sector on our increasingly homogeneous planet.

Leaving no carbon footprint, devoid for the most part of crime, they act as curators of their land in the quaint belief that the Creator might want it back. One thing they all share is the virtue of not desiring more than they already have.

But let us not get ahead of ourselves. Do we really want to entrust the planet’s future to people untutored in the proper use of a knife and fork? It is perhaps churlish to mention that until the 18th century most Britons ate with their hands – still the preferred method for consuming a Big Mac.

However, it is true that hunter-gatherer societies meet none of the criteria of civilisation, namely a system of hierarchical classes, topped by a ruling elite, which engages in intensive agriculture, manufacture and control over nature. Civilised notions concerning sexuality, social control, private ownership and laws enforced by police are alien to most hunting societies.

They are given little credit for handing us a pharmacopeia of vital drugs and the prototypes of modern weaponry. Their greatest contribution to the advance of mankind, some anthropologists claim, was the shopping bag: the deerskin carrier enabled gatherers to bring back their harvest of nuts and berries. Their social mechanisms discourage the accumulation of power and promote consensus.

It is civilisation, but not as we know it.

It is as if the two wings of mankind occupy parallel dimensions, each viewing the other with incomprehension and distrust through a distorting membrane. We look at a bunch of healthy tribesmen in tune with nature and see desperately impoverished savages in need of rescue from their wretchedness.

Hunters’ impressions of industrialised society are equally unflattering. ‘They are like a cloud of fruit-fly sucking the juice from an orange,’ remarked a Wapisiana Indian from Guyana. On visiting Sao Paulo a young Waura tribesman from the Amazon inquired: ‘How can you breathe this foul air or sleep with these terrible noises? How can you eat this food made to have tastes that are not its own?’

Yet at a human level the two estranged parties have much in common. Hunters have long been in fear of the kind of pandemic we are currently experiencing. Measles, influenza and smallpox, sometimes deliberately administered, have accounted for more tribal extinctions than invaders’ bullets. If you want to kill an Indian, went the saying, shake his hand.

 As a consequence, the traditional greeting of a stranger in the Amazon was a chest-full of arrows; clubs remain the weapon of choice for some tribes, but bows preserved a proper social distance. In merry England, not long ago on the hunter-gatherer timescale, carrying a bow or quarter-staff was a sensible precaution for wayfarers.

Hunters have nothing against technology, appreciating modern inventions useful to them – though not always for their designated purpose. Bushmen find that donated solar panels make good fencing. The Comanche, although illiterate, were avid collectors of books: the pages rendered their shields bullet-resistant. Dene hunters in the sub-Arctic use perfume as an irresistible lure in their traps. An Inuit solution to fixing a torn snowmobile ski is to punch a new rivet hole with a rifle bullet.

How will this Braves’ New World reshape things? What will their agenda be? Hunters would be puzzled by such questions. The Earth is beautiful, is it not? Why would anyone wish to change it?

Time will effectively cease to exist in the post-pandemic world contemplated here. Hunters live in the moment; past and future have little importance. The idea of linear time, which governs our lives, is replaced by a sense of cyclical time – the predictability of the seasons and the metronomic movements of the heavens. Meat is generally not stored, suggesting a faith in the providence of nature and the ability to access food when they need it.

The capricious nature of animal migrations and weather – both serious risks for tribal groups on extended hunting trips – is mitigated by their access to a database more durable and sensitive than any computer: the elders. Old folk can call up valuable information passed down from by their parents and grandparents.

I remember waiting with five anxious Inuit families for the seasonal arrival of narwhal – small whales that constitute the Inuit’smain source of vitamin C – on a beach in the High Arctic. The Inuit had made the perilous journey in boats during a ferocious storm, but after four days their supplies were running low, the storm still lashed their tents and the narwhal were nowhere to be seen. There was talk of returning home to Arctic Bay. Patience, counselled an old man who sat outside his tent, studying the weather; all would be well. He was right: the storm abated and the narwhal arrived in their hundreds.

There are no free lunches for hunters. To take an animal’s life is no small thing. Showing respect to one’s prey sounds sanctimonious to our ears, if not hypocritical. But failing to do so courts two frightening possibilities. The dead animal’s angry spirit can turn your wits, or nature can withhold her bounty, leaving you to starve. There is nothing recreational about subsistence hunting: no equivalents of hunting horns or stirrup cups. ‘We don’t play with the animals,’ said Shooyook, an Inuk from Arctic Bay. ‘We kill them, butcher them and eat them.’

It is not always clear who is the prey: men hunt animals and animals hunt humans. So the Bushmen of Namibia have forged a non-aggression pact with lions, they claim. Once, accompanying elderly Bushmen across Etosha National Park, we were charged by an elephant which feared we had designs on her calf. It was no display charge: we ran for our lives until a ranger’s gunshot in the air brought the elephant up short. ‘You can’t talk to an elephant,’ Kadisan grumbled, ‘not like a lion.’ What would he say to a lion? ‘Take your ugly face out of here,’ he replied with a grin.

No one is impartial enough to say which of the two lifestyles is best. Neither side would swap their lives for the other’s. But during the recent lockdowns, furloughed workers had a taste of hunter-gatherers’ leisurely existence. This consists of putting in on average four hours a day for hunting, gathering and cultivation, the rest of the time devoted to song and dance, eating, sex, stories and games.

Office workers may have seriously wondered for the first time why commuting, hard work and paying off a mortgage should be the pre-ordained route to happiness. The answer might come as a surprise: the world today with its spiralling costs and materialistic values is a direct result of an experiment by hunter-gatherers that rebounded on them.

About 10,000 years ago – less than 250 lifetimes –a few Neolithic tribes in different parts of the world began to farm intensively, creating a new mindset and a radically different set of values. From the traditional hunters’ perspective, it all went downhill with the plough.

The myths recounted by hunter-gatherers are replete with warnings that ecological disaster is the consequence of upsetting the natural order. Many of these stories feature a mighty tree, the universal symbol of nature. One Amazonian version is that the sky is held up by a tree and when it falls the world will end. It makes sense: we now know that forests are the planet’s lungs. The tree is certainly creaking.

A sobering tale for our times is recounted by Pygmies of the Ituri Forest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As they tell it, the world once teemed with technically advanced humans who, after abusing nature, were virtually wiped out on three occasions by cataclysms. The Pygmies, the only survivors, thereupon renounced material riches and set about repopulating the planet.

Perhaps their time will come again.

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Stuart Wavell
Stuart Wavell is a former Paris correspondent of the Sunday Times.

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