by Ria Montana
A prevailing civilization myth is that as we Homo sapiens modernized ourselves to become less animal, or even to the point that we have totally lost, or technologically stepped outside and above our animal selves. Yet some hold firm to the notion that no matter how hard we try to deny, we are and will forever remain animal. Is it not a fact that no amount or form of civilizing enculturation and domestication can remove our biology from our being? Does not our biology fundamentally bind us to our wildness? As example, our hands resemble our early ancestor 4.4-million-year-old Ardipithecus ramidus. To this day our hands remain more ‘primitive’ than hands of chimpanzees. Ardi did not use her relatively longer thumb and shorter fingers for tools, but long before the advent of tools for precision grasping in gathering a greater variety of food from her wild home.1 Our brains evolved to direct our still primordially functioning foraging fingers to perform other functions like shape and use tools of stone to grind vegetation, and much later to type on keys of plastic mainly in lonesome efforts to hold on to our less substantial social connections.
Beyond primitive features of our physiology, an obvious fact is that if you are reading this you are alive. As ridiculous as it seems to have to say it, some techno-humans seem to take this for granted, or somehow forget. Perhaps primitive humans living in the moment do too. Ironic similarity. Whether or not we think we are aware of it, our awareness of our aliveness exists, and to be alive is to be animal. How does thinking about, and awareness of our thinking about our aliveness, affect our primitiveness? Let’s set these questions aside, sidestep dialectics on cognition and metacognition of our heart beating and lungs breathing.
For now let’s focus on something tangible and quantifiable: behavior. If you kept and analyzed a daily activity log, most likely your most time consuming activity would be sleeping. While primitive humans’ sleep patterns are more fully social2, domesticated humans abandon primitive sleeping postures3 and bimodal sleep patterns4, and primitive humans sleep less than domesticated5, domesticated humans still retain the same stages of sleep and circadian rhythms no matter how much modern life interferes.6
During our waking hours a constant primary or secondary activity is using our animal senses. Investigating the exact nature of our basic senses can result in distinguishing the feral from the domesticated. The question becomes not do you see, but how do you see? How does how you see reveal your wildness?
With some wilderness awareness training I explored reawakening my wild, which began with my senses. In the beginning a civilized human needs to sit long and still repeatedly to manifest your wild animal self. Over time you extend your wild animal range by exploring moving your body as cat prowling, walking slyly with fox feet, seeing wide with owl eyes, hearing far and near with deer ears, sniffing out scents with coyote nose, feeling with sensitive raccoon fingers, balancing as squirrel frolicking, and sensing direction as bird migrating.
Even the most technocratic human remains a presence in Earth’s community. Any domesticated human motivated to do so can reengage wild awareness of primitive presence. As you enter nature you connect with Earth, and Earth connects with you. Other life forms sense you, respond to you, and know you. Wild humans sense, respond and know in return. They notice animals stalking for food, plants stretching toward sun, moss stirring in dew. You can make your entire being be humanimal, fully aware of Earth’s life energies and your own energy’s interaction.
I’d hypothesize that just as our recent pre-agriculture ancestors had many more primitive competences than us, our much older pre-language ancestors had more primitive competences than them. As our physical bodies grow increasingly accustomed to our technological advancements what happens with our animal abilities? Do they decompose slowly like a fallen tree, or quickly in a single season like leaves? Do they hibernate like a bear in den with potential to reawaken sluggish yet hungry? Can we techno-evolve them into external extensions of our beings, like binoculars and computers and compasses?
Some humans report being born with or reawakening a sense that seems to be growing dormant in humans: magnetoreception. Though scientifically inconclusive, it is theorized that many creatures have sense of direction for navigation with receptors often paired with another sensory organ.7 Where are the human magnetic receptor cells? Those who claim it say they sense it all over, magnetic sensors in every cell of their body. Humans report success reviving this inactive sense through training.
While authoritarian powers of the modern milieu expect and demand that civilized humans remain quietly and unthinkingly compliant, some rebel and make conscientious efforts to remain wild. Others notice their wild bubbling up from within. One common happening inherently challenging humans to face their wildness is having children. Reflecting back on how becoming a mother changed me I scratched this out:
from the day you were born
you were all instinct
kicking legs to signal ‘hold me’
snuggling with your whole being.
revived my dormant drives
transitioning my entire being
into your tiger mamma
eyes that study every detail of you
hands that know exactly how to hold you
brain in vigilant protection mode
heart that thrives on your tender lovability
sweet bliss playing with you
ferocity on hold, ready to fight to the end for you.
becoming tiger mamma
saved me from my civilized self
showed me the way of the hominid
if only we could have stayed
forever in the dance of instincts.8
Many ways civilized humans remain wild may be categorized as reflexes and instincts, such as infants suckling and grasping, or lifelong behaviors of sneezing yawning, rubbing pain, scratching itches, caretaking and fight-flight-or-freeze. Some actions we just do by our very nature, such as upright walking. But even these innate actions have choices embedded within them that may distinguish modern from wild, like motivations driving where and why we walk.
Other inescapably primitive acts revolve around food. The sensations of hunger and thirst seem to remain sound. Gathering food off the branch as part of a thriving ecosystem has shifted to picking contained foodstuff off grocery store shelves and out of drive thru windows within farming and distribution structures consuming Earth to death. Preparing food has shifted from simple to unsustainable. The physiology of the digestive process remains similar. At some unknown point we started wiping our poop, with the details of that adaptation remaining a mystery.
Especially when my son was young over and over he showed me the many ways we are wild. Contrary to mainstream thinking that humans are born fully dependent, I witnessed my son’s robust will to survive, his mutual aid in showing me how to care for him, and the many ways he took care of himself. In the first minutes of his life outside my womb his strong neck muscles propelled his heavy head, lining up his mouth into perfect suckle position, clasping my breast with his tiny fingers encouraging flow. There were times I awoke in the night to find he had wiggled his way in to feed.
At 18 months he wandered outside in a new place, spied ripe grapes on a vine, walked up to them for closer inspection, intuitively plucked one off with his primal foraging fingers, placed it in his mouth for an exploratory taste, decided it was good as he chewed it with pleasure and swallowed. He had never before seen a grape. This lead me to ponder if the ‘stage’ young humans go through of ‘putting everything in their mouth’ is not a stage at all, but the beginning of learning to gather and feed themselves from all the food around in wild habitat. After modern toddlers fail time and time again to gain food from this innate behavior, and are sometimes admonished for this ‘dirty’, ‘dangerous’ conduct, perhaps they don’t outgrow, but give up on this ‘stage’.
Surviving off gathered food is a complex matter in the wild, and it makes sense to start acquiring the skills and helping with the task early. Wild humans need to learn countless roots, tubers, nuts, seeds, fruits, mushrooms and greens in their habitat, when and how to harvest them efficiently, and in some cases how to process them to make them edible or more nutritious.9
Some primitive food behaviors may have been adapted for our modern milieu. It is likely our early hominid ancestors slowly over long periods of time expanded food acquiring behaviors from gathering to scavenging to hunting. 10, 11 So too humans have expanded scavenging and caching behaviors from food centered to material modern objects, from typical examples of shopping for sales and freebies and storing in cabinets and refrigerators, to extreme cases of hoarding.
One can envision the transition in social life from Ardi to today as a shift from pervasive group belonging to prevalent individualism. The beginnings of language, abstract thinking, creativity and domestication would mark points of revolts against group unity. Still, the vast majority of communication remains nonverbal as in Ardi’s time. Many meanings and emotions are exchanged the same as our earliest ancestors millions of years back.
However the diminishing quantity and quality of spontaneous face to face contact in today’s highly technocratic milieu clearly affects our opportunities for experiencing wild social connections. Science is yet to birth full understanding of the impact structured mass education, working parents, and the prevalence of electronic gadgets in a world of vanishing nature are having on communication and bonding dynamics.
If the globalized human culture continues toward technotopia, some deeply instilled bonding dynamics may be at risk of impairment, like mirroring, imprinting, nurturing and preening. One wonders if and how social behaviors like eye contact may change, being the nature and role of eye contact evolved with the human mind:
From an evolutionary perspective, gaze-following ability developed as a response to more complex social organizations and the increased need to understand the mental states of others. Based on the gaze behavior of primates, the ability to follow the gaze and understand its meaning appears to have evolved progressively: from prosimians, who do not follow the gaze, to monkeys, which follow it without understanding, then to great apes who can follow it and understand its meaning, and finally to humans, who follow the gaze from an early age, understanding its importance and even studying its relationship with social interactions. The evolution of the role of gaze parallels the evolution of a theory of mind, which suggests that gaze discrimination was an adaptation to gain access to essential information regarding the mental states of primates who are members of social groups. If an animal has the ability to control its own gaze while being perceptive to the gaze of others, it has privileged access to the mental states of others, which provides an advantage in understanding the motives behind their actions. Further understanding of the gaze, also provides valuable skills in establishing and maintaining effectively social interactions. Fully understanding eye gaze behavior promises to be the key to deciphering the evolutionary background to the development of a theory of mind and also to unravel the secret of how social interaction was the key to the evolution of primates.12
Deciphering the nature of the ancestral human mind is a game of guesswork based on artifacts. To understand adaptations and evolutions of the human mind is challenging within the narrow confines of modern human derived scientific methods.
One indication to the nature of the mind in the context of humans’ primitive relationship with nature may be found in play, which in complex forms stems from imagination, as well as from rituals such as for grief and trauma.
For modern humans the purpose of play has been obscured due to the milieu shifting from organic, lush nature to Anthropocenic, over-constructed civilization. The primal essence of child play is still evidenced in play’s contorted modern form with increasingly manufactured toys. In young animal play full beings are compelled by a deep innate pleasure to interact with the environment, intuitively facilitating the animal learning and becoming one with Earth. As the animal interacts with the environment in play, the environment interacts with the animal. Play transforms every element of the being’s body. Play immersed in creative imagination transforms particularly the brain chemistry, reworking the being’s entire emotional composition. While energy flows in all directions, with imaginative play incarnations in particular, inspiring energy flows from the world into the being. The player senses and experiences a dreamlike realm of reality manifesting the essence of her animal being. Youth play thereby is the birth of spiritual oneness through forging a connection of mutualistic alliance with nature within the mystic realms of mind and environment.
Mature animals play too though the distinct imagination nuance accessible to youth loses viability with age. However, mysticism can manifest in another primal way. Individuals and communities who experience significant existential injury from trauma can activate mystical incarnations as coping mechanisms. This ranges in form from planting a memorial tree or constructing a totem pole to delving into intricate enduring myths or rituals. As in youth play, being-nature interconnections evolve into stories, except the intuitive purpose of trauma stories is to understand and cope. These stories emphasize metaphorical elements that reconstruct the trauma both to soothe through retelling and to integrate into world view. In humans’ modern culture mysticism is often experienced as religious practice under deity; in primal beings mysticism is a spiritual connection with nature. With trauma-invoked mystic incarnations, healing energy flows from the world into the being while distress energy flows out. From the lens of systems theory, dispelling trauma energy through deeply meaningful interactions between nature and animals can be vital to restoring homeostasis. In this way nature is healer.13
Play is not exclusive to humans, which some would say qualifies play as a more primitive activity. Likewise, grieving is ritualized by many species.14 In Peter Gray’s study of play he begins with hunter-gatherers because “(g)enetically we are all hunter-gatherers. Natural selection shaped us, over hundreds of thousands of years, for that mode of existence.”15 To explore the meaning and value of play among hunter-gatherer children he surveyed researchers who reported that they “mimic many valued adult activities in their play… including caring for infants, climbing trees, building vine ladders, building huts, making tools, building rafts, making fires, cooking, defending against attacks from make-believe predators, imitating animals (a means of identifying animals and learning their habits), making music, dancing, storytelling, and arguing.”16 Though spontaneous play looks like an endangered species in this technocratic culture, especially outdoors, remnants of primitive play beyond simple fun and laughter are not quite artifacts yet: children exploring, stalking, sneaking, hiding and role playing are not yet a thing of the past.
Within the context of nonverbal primitive group bonds touch is vital. Skin persists in its role as a “social organ.”17 We still groom, snuggle, seek and give physical affection. Hugging seems to be an instinctive act that primitive and civilized humans share to express love, consolation and comfort. Hand holding and kissing vary more based on idiosyncratic group norms. While evidence on forms of primal human touch is wanting, touch is primordially vital and continues on as a basic humanimal need.
Evidence of sexual touch is amply displayed in human population abundance. After the drive to survive, perhaps the next most primitive drive is to procreate. Yet I wonder if primitive mating rituals have evolved into customs formalizing love with unnatural expectations that cause emotional pains of guilt and shame when primitive urges surface.
Other examples of civilized humans attaching unnecessary and/or complex social meanings to their primitive behavior involve hyper-focusing on civilization’s choices; like not only do you have enough nutritious food nearby to sustain you, but what do you desire to eat each time you hunger or are bored, lonely or sad. Though some physical cravings may be a being’s knowing what she needs, some may signal a sickness of modernity, like addiction to sugar masking underlying emotional pains from life outside wilderness.
The end brings us to the ultimate way we remain primitive – not only are we born and do we live, but we die. While differences may arise in our thinking about death, and our understandings of our mortality, our emotions around death and loss may be closer along not only the hominid spectrum but with many other species as well.
There remain many unknowns on the life of our earliest ancestors. We can only wonder which emotions we have now that we didn’t have, if any, and vice versa. Have there been shifts in their nature or frequency? Did ethnocentric dynamics originate with the nation state, or do the roots connect to something deeper to life in tribes or bands? There is evidence of primitive human sharing, cooperation and caretaking. For example, for hunter-gatherers, sharing is neither a generous act nor an implicit bargain as with many civilized humans, but a duty.18 But what is the exact nature of how human relations and motives in general adapted and evolved as we shifted from pre-language to pre-agriculture to modern? Is there an ethic of the primal not only primitive humans but other wild animals that domesticated beings can learn to access and engage?
If you tune in to your own body, your own emotions, your basic needs and drives, you will find many answers inside you, you can be your own wild subject of study. If you still doubt, Am I really an animal?; if you still wonder, At what point do we rise above our animals selves to become something ‘other’?; if you still believe there is some mystical animal threshold, that a species can evolve itself out of its natural form, I ask you: With the essence of who you are, and the bulk of how you live your life, how are you as a whole not more primitive than civilized?
Michael Balter, “Humans Have More Primitive Hands Than Chimpanzees” in Science (July 14, 2015): http://news.sciencemag.org/evolution/2015/07/humans-have-more-primitive-hands-chimpanzees.
Jeff Warren, The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness (New York: Random House, 2007)
Michael Tetley, “Instinctive sleeping and resting postures: an anthropological and zoological approach to treatment of low back and joint pain” (British Medical Journal v. 321, December 23, 2000) pp 1616–1618.
Roger Ekrich, At Days Close: Night in Times Past (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006)
Will Dunham, “Sleep No More Plentiful in Primitive Cultures”, Reuters (October 16, 2015): http://in.reuters.com/article/us-science-sleep-idINKC (N0S92EW20151015
Chronobiology, “A New Look Into the Sleep Patterns of Ancient Tribal Societies” (2014); https://www.chronobiology.com/a-new-look-into-the-sleep-patterns-of-ancient-tribal-societies/.
Jeremy Shaw, Alastair Boyd, Michael House, Robert Woodward, Falko Mathes, Gary Cowin, Martin Saunders, and Boris Baer, “Magnetic particle-mediated magnetoreception” (the Royal Society, September 6, 2015)
Ria, Hippie Paradise: A Vegan EcoFeminist’s Rant on Hawaii’s Kauai Island (self-published, 2015) p 75.
H. Kaplan, K. Hill, J. Lancaster and A.M Hurtado, “A Theory of Human Life History Evolution: Diet, Intelligence, and Longevity, Evolutionary Anthropology (2000) pp 156-185.
Brianna L. Pobiner, “New Actualistic Data on the Ecology and Energetics of Hominin Scavenging Opportunities” (Journal of Human Evolution, v. 80, March 2015) pp 1-16.
Daryl Worthington, “Important Questions Answered about Evolution of Hominin Diet” New Historian (October 11, 2015); http://www.newhistorian.com/important-questions-answered-about-evolution-of-hominin-diet/5044/.
“The Evolution of the Eye Gaze and its Role in Social Behavior”, in Santiago (2006) http://www.santiagosr.com/ensayos/eye_gaze)
Ria, p 88-9.
Marc Bekoff PhD, “Grief in Animals: It’s Arrogant to Think We’re the Only Animals Who Mourn”, in Psychology Today (October 29, 2009) https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/animal-emotions/200910/grief-in-animals-its-arrogant-think-were-the-only-animals-who-mourn
Peter Gray, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life (New York: Basic Books, 2013) p 22.
Peter Gray, p 33.
I. Morrison, LS Loken, H. Olausson, “The Skin as a Social Organ”, (Experimental Brain Research v 204, September 22, 2009) pp 305-14.
T. Ingold, “On the Social Relations of the Hunter-Gatherer Band, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers (Cambridge: University Press, 1999) pp 399-410.