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The 10 Habits of Highly Successful Hunter-Gatherers
Posted By Mark Sisson On September 25, 2013 @ 9:00 am In Personal Improvement | 62 Comments
While the Challenge  centers on those critical basics of good Primal health – food , exercise , sun , sleep , and play  – there’s more to Primal life than just what I’d call the essentials (yes, play is an essential ). The essentials offer us the optimum chance at health and general contentment. In looking (and living) beyond these basics, however, I think we find something critical. It’s the key to the questions about how to further apply Primal principles in a world that is anything but. We think we have it all down. It’s easy. Got it! Then the rest of our surrounding civilization has its say, disturbs our Primal peace, intrudes upon our confidence, throws its chaos in our well-intentioned plans. The answer isn’t to scrap the whole project but to deepen the lesson.
Let me expand a bit by talking about a topic that might be familiar to many of you – the “habits of successful hunter-gatherers.” They’re the cornerstones of a larger vision for ancestrally inspired living, The Primal Connection . If we can learn from our forebears’ diets and activities, what wisdom can we garner or extrapolate from other elements of their living conditions – for example, their social structures and cultural patterns. Here are all ten habits – presented for the first time on MDA and repurposed for the Challenge.
Forget about whatever else you’re doing or surrounded by for a moment. Think. Imagine. What would it have taken to be a highly successful hunter-gatherer? Brawn? Speed? Good aim? Stamina? Carving skills? A sharp eye or memory? Of course. But what about those less obvious attributes like creativity, empathy, intuition, even-temper, mettle, compassion, cool-headedness? After all, all the strength in the world won’t match a good weapon in many situations. A lone wolf will always be more vulnerable on the savanna than his connected counterparts. An easygoing perspective can make living with others easier. Equanimity keeps emotional responses in check and critical focus on the present. Grit can mean the difference between life and death.
If the hard knocks of evolutionary history cultivated these types of pivotal traits in our ancestors, how do we reconnect with – and benefit from – them today? It’s an intriguing and productive question for life in general, but I think it has special significance for the Challenge. What better self-development project can there be than fostering the habits of highly successful hunter-gatherers? What could it mean, for example, for our daily lives? For our relationships? For our mental health, emotional resilience and general satisfaction? How could contemplating these habits – and applying them – affect your experience of the Challenge?
In addition to reconnecting with our natural environments, rhythms, and biomechanics, it’s impossible to discount the relevance of these more cognitive and cultural Primal “habits.” Sure, it’s the stuff that can’t be nailed down. When it comes to our ancestors’ neurological trajectories, we have the likes of skull proportions  and tool complexity to compare. Beyond that, the specifics get dicey. Grok  and his kin left no diaries or personal blogs. The more intimate details of their lives will never be known, as much as we might like to imagine their stories. Nonetheless, we can extrapolate from the conditions in which, we theorize, our ancestors lived and then target what skills and perspectives those environments would’ve favored for survival. (The observations of traditional societies living today add to this picture in their own partial way, but that’s fodder for another discussion.)
The idea here isn’t an academic model. Yet, it’s not tongue-in-cheek either. What we’re after, of course, is a practical point of reference for the everyday person who wants to enjoy life for all the fulfillment, happiness, and peace that he or she can find in it. There’s something to speculating about Grok’s angle on life and what we can safely assume was a striking contrast to the modern mindset that too often breeds stress, disengagement, and impatience. What’s to be gained from the perspective of Grok, our resident highly successful hunter-gatherer? Consider his evolutionary context a touchstone we can use to gauge our own sense of balance. The “10 Habits” are finally a reminder to question cultural scripts in pursuit of something more timeless and fundamental in our individual lives. The Habits challenge us to scrutinize how much we organize our lives around modern norms, which may be “normal” but not productive for us. Ultimately, perhaps, they give us license to imagine – design for ourselves, really – an ancestrally-informed point of homeostasis to thrive  within each day.
In the era of our Primal ancestors, there was little room for finger pointing after the fact, little patience for runaway blame, little chance to avoid the direct consequences of their choices. The stakes were higher. The potential ramifications more dire. In issues of life and death, belonging or banishment, you didn’t want to tempt fate with much carelessness, much thoughtlessness or much self-pity. The easier you were to get along with and the more accepting you were of basic accountability in the here and now, the more likely you were to see tomorrow.
Taking responsibility obliges us to scrutinize our own complicity in our life’s difficulties, in the bad decisions, in the less-than-ideal circumstances. When we think about our health, our professional lives, our relationships or any other area where grievances live, what have we done/are we doing to perpetuate a miserable pattern? How have we conspired with the negative influences to get us where we’re at? Why do we continue to accept situations that genuinely don’t work for us?
That said, it’s not about chastising ourselves. Taking responsibility for our lives doesn’t call us to emotionally beat ourselves up. It doesn’t oblige us to lash ourselves for past mistakes. I think that approach is in its own way a skirting of and distraction from real responsibility. Punishment (whether inflicted by oneself or another) doesn’t leave genuine room for responsibility; it holds the process hostage – and the people (or single person) caught in its distorting lair.
Maybe we really did get a raw deal – in childhood, in the job market, in our first marriage, in that bout with cancer. Taking responsibility doesn’t mean forgetting the past or turning over all awareness of the difficulties we’ve faced. I think it’s more a question of owning our lives – for all their mixed circumstances. We put ourselves in right orientation with our responsibility – taking what’s ours (and, importantly, giving back what’s not ours – letting others have the dignity as well as consequences of their own authority).
When you stop distracting yourself with what belongs to other people, you can focus on your own life. When you own where you’re at in said life, you’re empowered to move forward in it. When you place power in your life elsewhere (e.g. other people, a work place, etc.), however, you’ve chosen to relinquish that power. You’ve given it away.
True, we can’t control every medical event. We can’t legislate others’ actions or responses to our choices. Yet, we can accept the basic circumstances and commit to driving our lives forward from that point rather than staying stuck in a place of regret and longing.
The fact is, bitterness breeds inertia. Blaming allows us to languish in the comfort of bad habits . It encourages us, in fact, to stay stuck smack dab in that lulling space of woe-is-me martyrdom. In that way, blame will betray us every time. Victimhood blocks any chance at greater vision. Excuses  stand in for action. The result, we spend life in a stifling cul-de-sac.
In our ancestors’ day, there was certainly a sense of obligation to the group, an expectation of contribution to the joint welfare. That said, in an economy of ample free time, a social network of extended kin, a culture nearly devoid of material ambition, no one was likely required or motivated to drive themselves to exhaustion.
I believe the “pack mule” mentality is a thoroughly modern neurosis. Why would any single person in a band ever accept grossly inordinate proportions of responsibility in our Primal ancestors’ time? With all members free to leave at any time in the natural ebb and flow of band to band interchange, why would any of them lived a wretched life of literal or approximated servitude? If you ran yourself into the ground healthwise in evolutionary times, you put yourself at risk. You were a liability to the group. What was the possible benefit?
Yet, here we are in modern times making excuses for neglecting our health, giving away the chance (and true responsibility) for reasonable self-care and personal fulfillment. Part of the logic is the modern focus on the future. We’re planners, sacrificers for the sake of a presumed future security. It’s amazing what we’ll give up in the interest of a vision twenty years out. The result? We live in a kind of chronic self-debt. We’re seeking to serve ourselves, but we’re distorted in the extremeness of the terms.
This flies in the face of our ancestors’ culture of immediacy. There’s something to that living in the here and now  rather than for the sometime-down-the-road. I think it’s possible to balance the two for the benefit of both, but it’s a deal with the devil to think we can continually neglect ourselves for the people and projected future of our lives. Our sense of balance must demand current and continual well-being for ourselves. When we are nourished and sustained today, we have more to offer to those around us and to our futures.
Our ancestors depended upon a tight knit social circle. Their survival hinged upon it, in fact. The band community of 25-50 people  was forged within a sense of mutuality – action for the good of the group. It was more than simple transaction, larger than familial connection (not everyone was related). You became kin by being kin and sharing in the menial work, the ongoing stories, and the meaningful celebrations of the band.
In this day and age, we live in proximity to numbers that would’ve stunned our ancestors. We count our social media “friends” into the hundreds, but we often miss a sense of close, constant connection. Exposure doesn’t fill our social wells. Neither do status updates.
These days we can go through our adult lives with few, if any, intimate relationships – the kind of connections that feel like kin – our own tribe. You’ve seen each other through transitions, successes, and disappointments. You have history and your own stories. The fact is, we haven’t outgrown or out-evolved the need for kin. We live with the same genes that benefited from social connection and the same biochemistry that rewards it. With frequent relocations and busy lives, connecting gets complicated. Too many of us end up socially adrift.
If you find yourself at this point in your life without a core group, build one. Don’t make the excuse that you just missed the boat. It’s just too important. You’ll be glad you didn’t later. Feed this “highly successful” habit by first deepening the relationships you already have. When you begin seeing your partner, family members, kids, and closer friends as your tribe, you gain a whole new level of appreciation for the role they play in your life. Reconnect with old friends, and test the waters to see if there’s potential there to become close again. Get out into the world, meet people, and make an invitation. Invite a coworker for lunch. Join a book group or basketball league . Start a volunteer team at your house of worship or place of work. Create a Meetup group . Host an open house for the neighbors. Over time, cultivate the relationships that seem most genuine and promising. Cultivate that mutuality in small but significant ways. Bring your best to the friendship and expect the same in return.
We can all do a self-inventory now of the attention we give our phones or other technological devices . We can confess to ourselves how much we let residual work infiltrate our personal lives. Don’t forget what I think is one of our biggest trip-ups in modern living: the penchant for mental chatter. Truth be told, how much time do we spend caught up in replaying a conversation from the previous evening, imagining multiple stressful scenarios that might take place when we confront a certain person about x, y, and z, worrying about what other people think of our outfit or hair today? Let’s face it, our modern disconnect is rampant distraction.
Can you imagine if Grok walked across the savanna perpetually lost in thought about his latest wardrobe experiment? (As if he ever saw his reflection anyway…) He wouldn’t last long enough for it to matter. For our ancestors, life was an exercise in continual hyper-vigilance. Not every second, but close. It wasn’t just the risk of becoming another creature’s dinner either. Attentiveness also meant watching for weather, catching migratory patterns, and deciphering water sources – just to name a few examples.
The Primal Connection  is to be found in giving the moment your full attention. It’s about minding the difference between thoughtful deliberation or reflection and so-called monkey brain. It’s about throwing off the strangling self-absorption we trap ourselves in every day standing in line with our phones or with our mental chatter. See the people, places, and possibilities in front of you. Feed this “highly successful” habit by observing your loved ones – all the changes and uniqueness that’s right there to be appreciated. Go on a walk with the goal of finding at least a dozen things you’ve never noticed. Use mindfulness check-ins to remember to come down from the mental busyness and come back to center throughout the day.
The thing about us hominids, is this. We think. We imagine. We create. We explore. We experiment and extrapolate. We’re driven to go around yet another corner of the path. We’ll push the envelope continually because it feels good to do it. It’s how we got ahead in the evolutionary game, how we’re so vastly successful after all. The wheel didn’t invent itself. Neither did all the continents come knocking at the door of the African savannah. You get the point.
Fast forward to today, and we’re a tale of contradiction. As a species we’ve advanced to the outer edges of the solar system. As individuals, however, our daily lives might not appear so inspiring. The thing is, we’re so ungodly busy. We’ve got filled calendars, packed schedules, pocket-sized devices and big screen distractions to keep us occupied and then some.
In the midst of running errands, doing chores, working our hours and keeping up with Facebook, we’re pretty much spent. We’re caught in the day-to-day grind and can’t find a way out. We get stuck in the details. Life becomes a task rather than a discovery. We’re wasting our own hard-won evolutionary gifts in service of – what was it supposed to be?
It’s important to allow yourself your full humanity – to cultivate it, to give it air on a frequent basis. That’s exactly how it is with curiosity. It’s not so much another to-do. It’s more a force that will operate when you you let it. It’s necessary, however, to clear out the mental and logistical clutter that keep it buried, stagnant. The more spaciousness we allow in our lives, the more freely curiosity can operate in our lives.
So many of us have overloaded ourselves for so long, we’ve forgotten what even interests us, what we have a passion for, what piques our curiosity. I’m not talking spontaneous clicks on an Internet “best dressed” list for the latest awards ceremony or the (legitimately entertaining but fleeting) interest in what will happen in the final episode of Breaking Bad. I’m talking about the enriching hobbies, the life passions, the exploratory big questions that draw us in. I’m talking about the grand inquiries that help drive or define our lives. Stop for a minute: do you have any? There’s where to start.
Gut instinct, as modern science understands, is really an interworking within the neural network, a rapid reasoning that absorbs and processes both distinct and subtle cues in the environment. When we don’t feel right about a person or a decision or even the call to make a decision in the moment, we can trust the neuro-hormonal production and communication that are taking place. Our guts get the message before our brains can register the input. Modern culture, however, is often so fixated on extolling the virtues of civilized progress, we unconsciously disown the benefits of our basic humanity. Trusting our gut is part of reclaiming those.
It’s pretty easy to see how this ability would’ve been critically adaptive to our ancestors. In their worlds, it was the difference between life and death – whether in the middle of a hunt or in the middle of escaping being hunted or navigating the landscape for routes and water sources.
Tapping into the fine-drawn distinctions in our environments is kind of a lost skill. We live with overwhelment, even chaos compared to our ancestors. The noise, the crowds, the rush that runs past us visually in a day. We’re more skilled at the rather necessary survival strategy (for mental health at least) of tuning out rather than tuning in.
That said, we do carry the same genes, the same inherent abilities to tap into the telling but understated detail of our environment (and each other). When we feel this again, use it and strengthen it like a neglected muscle, we also become more in touch with our own gut sense. There’s something decidedly Primal about the philosophies that say we find self-awareness and “awake-ness” in true silence .
Sure, it helps to get out of the big, brash cacophony of our modern environments but even more so the rushing, jangling story lines and scenarios we have running like movie reels in our heads 24-7 instead of being in the moment we’re actually in. Turn off the projector and simply be, be aware, be of and in your environment (the more natural the better). Whether it’s extended time in wilderness  or even a mindfulness meditation practice, get in touch with that non-cerebral, pre-symbolic gut sense again. Let it become a guiding compass again.
This is just a basic conservation principle – essential to nature. To our ancestors, life was a continual process of cost-benefit analysis. Was there something substantial to be gained from an extra effort, risk or conflict? Was a particular endeavor worth upsetting the equilibrium? Forty thousand years ago, there was less room for error in most situations, after all.
The same lesson holds today. Ask yourself where your energy goes. Ask yourself what amount of risk you take, what amount of conflict you generate or accept in your life? Is it worth it? This doesn’t mean nothing is worth a risk or nothing is worth fighting for. It’s simply a recognition that your time, energy and other resources are limited. At a midlife inventory or, worse yet, the end of life, will you feel you pursued the right relationships and endeavors and let go at the right times? Were you the best person you could’ve been in those relationships? Is there a chance you’ll say to yourself, “I fought all the wrong battles”?
The larger question here is whether we have done the personal work to discern which battles are worth our time and resources. Without it, we could be wearing away the intimacy in our lives, sabotaging our professional opportunities and cutting off any chance at meaningful, enriching self-development.
As Michael E. McCullough, author of Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct , explains, the ability to forgive is as much a result of natural selection as the impulse for revenge. Forgiveness, he suggests, likely evolved as a means of social cooperation. For our ancestors, life was about conservation – of energy, of resources, of good will. In a cost-benefit analysis, nursing an unrelenting grudge would’ve been a major liability. If you couldn’t get along with the group, eventually you likely wouldn’t have been welcome anymore. Be upset, sure. But once it starts eroding the group dynamic, you’d better find yourself another band. The risk wasn’t worth the emotional indulgence.
Although stewing ad nauseum today usually doesn’t present the critical threat of banishment, we still wallow to our own detriment. How much of ourselves do we tie up in the binds of past offenses or travails? How long will we allow ourselves to be stuck, and what are we missing out on in that time? At what point is it not even about the original sin anymore but our own circuitous, self-sustaining grief? The fact is, each day we let a past hurt, disappointment, or mistake determine our wellbeing, is a day we miss living the full measure of our potential for happiness.
A highly successful Grok type can do the (albeit modern) cost-benefit analysis and learn to let it go. What are the annoyances and resentments that we can simply release for more peace of mind? Feed the “highly successful habit” by cleaning the slate of past negativity. Use some kind of ritual if you feel it would be helpful to create a more genuine emotional closure. Keep an uncluttered emotional canvas by avoiding the minor, inconsequential conflicts that can build up for no good reason at home, among friends and family, or in the office. Learn to stop yourself when you go down that road of downer self-chatter. Cut the impending hormonal cascade in its tracks, and redirect your thoughts.
“Modern” humans prevailed over their Neanderthal counterparts because they were simply more adaptable. In short, they had better tools and better skills. When the going got tough, Homo sapiens sapiens had more strategy at their disposal. The rest is history.
Today we earn a living with our individual skills. We get to, if we’re fortunate, have a job. We get to put food on the table and a roof over our head. For our ancestors, that was reason to be grateful and dance  around a fire. We can do the same.
That said, it’s natural to want more. After so many years (or decades) in the same line of work, our specialization  might offer stability and even accolades but not much inspiration anymore. For our ancestors’ part, they didn’t have the luxury of donning a single hat, limiting themselves to a specific function within the group. Everybody contributed something to just about every endeavor. In a band of 30-40 people, you wouldn’t want to turn over an essential function to a single person who at any time might be dragged away by a pack of wolves. A resistance to specializing probably has some ingrained wisdom and evolutionary merit.
Whatever stage of the game you’re at, make the investment in yourself. Pursue a new career that aligns more with your passion. Delve into a hobby  that gives you genuine pleasure. Resist the modern idea that life or professional success has to follow a linear track. Define your personal trajectory in terms of your own satisfaction and sense of self-development rather than an outside template. You decide what tools and skills you’ll hone and the value you’ll assign to them at varying points in your life.
We can estimate that their daily foraging and food preparation time added up to about six hours a day. To our ancestors, the concept of affluence, if it existed, was probably very different than what we think of today. For them, the ultimate commodities were time and leisure . Funny how those were so beneficial for evolutionary progress…
Compare time and leisure to what we’re encouraged to pursue and define our affluence from today – status and possessions. We often tether ourselves to them really. Even beyond the point at which our basic needs are met, the drive for accumulation and ascent takes over and can co-opt every other priority whether we even realize it or not. Sometimes we’re working so long and hard we don’t even see it creep into our consciousness. We don’t consider ourselves particularly materialistic people, let alone greedy, but somehow we get sucked into the common cultural grooves.
What does abundance mean to you? While we don’t need to swear off the blessings of modern conveniences and novelty, it’s important to define our most deep-seated priorities. What genuinely nourishes you at the physical level? What fills your intellectual, creative, social, emotional and spiritual dimensions, however you conceive of them? Too often we wind ourselves around a bloated and distorted sense of our basic needs (e.g. food, shelter and security, every knick-knack that Pottery Barn sells) all while depriving ourselves of the latter dimensions (e.g. genuine and close friends, time and outlets for self expression and development, etc.). The fact is, our basic needs are simpler than we often think. Our other, more nuanced needs, are more essential than we often think. How about embracing the idea that you get to have fulfillment on all levels? Seriously. It’s possible. What should it look like for you as an individual? That’s the real crux. Be bold enough to create a vision for your life, however counter it is to our culture’s version of success or linear progression. Think about experience and satisfaction, about playing hard and sleeping well. There’s where living abundantly begins.
The central premise of The Primal Connection  is that we can use the model of our ancestors to create not just a healthier physical existence but also a more balanced and fulfilling life. These are among the habits I call our inner dialogue – the assumptions, patterns, and narratives we can create or accept for ourselves. That dialogue has the power to limit or expand our lives. It will influence our potential to connect with the world and those around us. It will ultimately determine how successfully we live as modern hunter-gatherers but most importantly whether or not we will live the full measure of our Primal selves in this lifetime.
Let me know your thoughts on living as a successful hunter-gatherer and the ways these habits can affect your view of the Challenge experience. Thanks for reading, everyone!
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