Gatherers

I’ve been an armchair archeologist/anthropologist for most of my life. I’ve always had a fascination with deep history. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to tease out the Story of Us not mediated through the words of the privileged few; and deep history, pre-history, is where you find the story before it was broken. Further, when you live in the desert, reading the petroglyphs in the morning walk and treading on potsherds from a thousand years ago, of course you are going to develop an interest in the people who left behind all this wonder and beauty. Then as a geologist, I did quite a bit of data gathering for actual archeologists and anthropologists in the radiogenic isotopes lab which introduced me to current ideas. So I suppose I know as much as any armchair enthusiast and maybe as much as many professionals.

I’ve talked about my irritation with Man the Hunter, but I haven’t much discussed the other quasi-mythical being from the nearly two hundred thousand years of human existence before the narrative was hijacked by those with an agenda. I haven’t talked about this person directly, that is. I’ve written around her. She is central to my thinking. I believe in her story — her-story, not his- — largely because she makes sense; she fits within stories that don’t have that privileged agenda. She is Woman the Seeker, Woman the Gatherer. She is the half of the hunter-gatherer society that might truly have fed humanity — because she still does so today all over the world.

I first met her in the ideas of Nancy Makepeace Tanner whose book On Becoming Human was formative to my thinking. If I could have one book printed and distributed to everyone everywhere around the world, this would be it. It is one of fate’s cruelest twists that Tanner died of a sudden heart attack a few years after publishing this groundbreaking book, so whatever she might have done to build on her original ideas was lost. And being the 1980s — the nasty resurgence of the dominance agenda — I think this one book she did publish was largely lost to the world. I talk to people who know quite a lot about anthropology and primate research and yet have never read Tanner. I usually try to remedy that.

Tanner showed through meticulous research and exhaustive detail that primates are deeply social creatures. Because apparently that has been in question. Seriously, though, Tanner’s research among our primate cousins and studies of the anatomy of hominids — from distant australopithecines to modern homo sapiens — show conclusively that we evolved to work together to produce our food stuffs, that most of those food stuffs were plant-based, and that the female of the species was largely the provider. This remains true today — both in gatherer societies and in societies in which men are supposedly filling that provider role. Women still do most of the gathering and preparing of food. And it’s still mostly plants for most people. Woman the Gatherer still walks — and works — among us.

In fact, we can see her in ourselves. The body innovations in hominids are the legacy of our gathering ancestors. Our upright gait enabled gathering by freeing the hands to carry things. Our lithe and softened bodies reduced intra-species violence, allowing for greater freedom to range over territory and cooperate rather than compete. However, those same softened bodies, lacking speed, strength and sharp defenses — though great for endurance — made for rather ineffective hunters. We were fine with the small game that women trapped but no match for large beasts with horn, claw, and four fast legs.

Then there is our vaunted big brain. Going against the old narrative of how Man the Hunter developed this brain so he could develop increasingly lethal hunting tools (a theory that had already started to fail by the 1960s), Tanner showed that our expanding brain size and speech capacity, by allowing for memory storage and information transmission on a vastly greater scale than most other animals, enabled us to utilize a huge number of novel plant food sources. We could locate and process our favorite foods (mostly fruit), but we could also add new plants to our diet. Eating a wide variety of plants is complicated. Figuring out which plants to eat and how to prepare them is work only our big brains can tackle. And hunting is just not as stimulating to the brain.

Animal food sources were largely the same from region to region. If we could catch a beast, we knew how to eat it. Few of the birds and mammals we love to eat have defenses that survive the animal’s death — like a shrew’s poisonous flesh. (Though after death all the other things in a animal carcass soon render it inedible without a good deal of work.) But plants are not at all the same from region to region and they have deadly defenses. Being able to analyze, infer and draw comparisons meant the difference between a full belly and death. Being able to figure out what was edible in a new territory meant we could adapt to new environments — a necessary skill in the constantly fluctuating ice ages of the Pleistocene where your ecological niche could change around you in just a couple generations even if you never moved. Learning new ways to process potential foods was particularly important as most plants are not edible for humans in their raw state. Many are toxic until you learn how to neutralize the poisons, spines, shells and other plant defenses. Moreover, once we figured out how to turn these plants into edible foods, we could use our brain’s capacity for planning, for projecting our thoughts into the future, to develop ways to increase the supply — in other words, we could farm. 

Tanner showed that it is a rather short step from intensive gathering to cultivating favorite plants. Since she was writing in the 1980s other authors have picked up that idea. Most folks who study deep history today view the creation of agriculture as one of degrees, a process that had as many beginnings as there are foods and ecological niches. There was no one path from gathering to farming, nor was farming the “natural” successor to gathering. For most of our species’ existence we have engaged in both activities at the same time, depending on the climate and the potential food stuffs in a region. We still do. We farm our tomatoes and wheat. We still largely gather our mushrooms and berries. And there are some foods, like herbs and many nut trees, that exist on the boundaries. We encourage their growth; we may even plant them. But we don’t put much effort into managing them. (For the record, deer fall into this boundary state.)

Women have many traits that are highly adaptive to food gathering — both because we had helpful tendencies before we became gatherers and because we have had those traits selectively strengthened by gathering. Principally, women are relational in thinking. We map our observations into relationship — this goes with that, that hates this, this needs that for… that only works when this… — we place all these relationships in vast linked data sets. Lists and flow charts and iterated webs of relationship. In fact, some of us store this information in something very like a map image. (Sherlock’s memory palace is a girl thing…) We picture relationship. You probably have encountered this when asking a woman for directions somewhere. Street names and mileage are often notably lacking. We navigate by relationship to landmarks. “Go past the big red house with the crooked oak tree and turn toward the fenced side of the road when you see the water tower.” This is the Gatherer finding her way in the world and passing on that information to newcomers.

I would like to think that men see the world in the same way. I want to believe that there aren’t any real gender differences aside from those relating to procreation. Only… that doesn’t seem to be true. In any case, men are not gatherers. Not in emotional tendency and not in practical application. Men don’t make up a large proportion of those who engage in actual gathering in traditional cultures. In fact, they tend to strenuously and vociferously avoid such women’s work. But they also don’t carry bags around like women do (man-bag trends notwithstanding). They don’t go shopping just for investigative purposes (called “just looking”). They don’t remember exactly where they last saw something (and when and who they were with when it happened and what they were talking about at the time and the position of the sun and…). Oh yes. Woman the Gatherer is still alive and well in modern urban society. And she is generally not a man. Generally.

Woman the Gatherer is also a useful metaphor for other typically female traits. We are gatherers of more than food stuffs. We gather our loved ones together. We are the central pillars of families and other social groups. We are the nuclei, gathering people around us. We gather and store memories. We are the keepers of traditions and lore. We gather ideas. We seek out information. Have you ever noticed how many investigative reporters are women? In a field that is absolutely testosterone-soaked (like all the other professions… only more so). Similarly, in the US women now make up the majority of college graduates against rather a lot of impediments to success. But we are tireless gatherers and very good at our jobs. 

And our jobs are necessary. Gathering is how we have fed ourselves for longer than we’ve been human. It is also how we organize society, again, for longer than we’ve been human. We are not very good at hierarchy when all is said and done. We are adapted to living in smallish groups with work spread evenly — according to how much one can bear. Literally, in the case of actual food gathering. Your work is limited by what you can carry. Society, that smallish group — a tribe, a village, an intentional community, a small town, a place where relationship to those you live near is personal and generally strongly bonded — helps smooth the differences in ability for those who are unable to gather all they need. Children are cared for and also make up part of the shared burden. Adults who are less able to do physical work — the sick, the elderly, the differently abled — do what they can in other ways, especially tending to children and hearth. Everyone else gathers.

This is how we have lived for most of our existence. We have endured — barely and not with any measure of success — the centralized hierarchy of a parasitic leadership that does no work, with many people working to support and enrich those few, for only a few thousand years. And we’ve had an inescapable global centralized hierarchy for less than a couple hundred years. We haven’t had enough time to adapt to this way of thinking and working. No wonder we don’t do it well.

But it is maladaptive in general, not merely in the specifics of how bad we are at it. In general, this system can not be in balance with the earth. It can’t even be internally balanced. It is impossible to take more out of a closed system than you put in. And Earth is a closed system.

The worst of it is those in charge of driving this imbalanced system do not seem to be able to understand that they are destroying… well, everything. The system. The earth. The people. Everything is damaged when you take more than your share. And privileged people apparently can’t understand that. I think this is because they are not gatherers. They are not involved in the work. They are blind to the work. That privileged class is blinded by their privilege to two fundamental problems.

First, they do not see that there are limits to what they can take. They are not intimately involved with the gathering process. They are not out in the field, so to speak, and don’t know that the field is pretty empty. Indeed, we’ve been taking more than one “field’s” worth of harvest every year for a rather alarming length of time. Privileged folks believe that human ingenuity is making all this stuff because they can’t see that the Earth is providing for us — within the limits of its carrying capacity. When you don’t do your own carrying, you do not learn what carrying capacity means.

Women have done much of the carrying. We are generally better at understanding limits. To what any given part of the earth can provide, to what is needed by any given group to be healthy and whole, and the labor that can be done. Though recently, some of us, especially those in the privileged class ironically, have begun doing far more work than we can handle. Merely to maintain status. 

And that is the second blinder of privilege. The planet may be providing the raw materials — the fruits, the energy, the land — but the gatherers still have to process all that material into whatever we need. Earth does not provide much for free. Never has, even when our numbers were low, well within the carrying capacity for fruit-eaters of any given region. As long as we’ve been human, we’ve taken more than the available fruit and used work to make up the difference between what we can natively digest and the calories needed to feed ourselves. Put differently, we’ve had to work to turn plants and animals into food for as long as we’ve been human.

Turning raw materials into usable stuff is a lot of work. And the work is proportional to how many humans there are. So if there is a group of privileged people doing no work aside from directing others (which is no work), then the labor they need to do to maintain their own bodies — never mind building their wealth and status — falls on others. And there are limits to how much work other bodies can do. Privileged people, not having experience in this work, have no idea how much labor goes into their lifestyle. True, some of it is done by machines, but that is still labor and actually requires more labor (and resources) than if the work is done directly by humans — because you have to make, transport and maintain those machines. Privileged people are blind to the work done and seemingly do not understand that there are limits to how much can be done.

Because they are not gatherers, privileged people do not understand that there are limits to what can be gathered and to the work necessary to gathering. It comes down to resources and labor. Always. Gatherers know this. We are intimately acquainted with limits. We actually celebrate those limits. Because those limits are where the work stops. If we are living in balance with the world, the work stops when we have produced a sufficiency. Think about those harvest festivals. Harvest festivals are not about profits. They are a celebration of sufficiently full bellies — and no more work for a while. We can put down the bloody gathering baskets and sit down!

This is what it means to live in the moment. It does not mean to give no thought to the future, but to live today like there is a future sufficiency. It means to plan for that future. To make sure you have a sufficiency for that future. And then to live in the present, being happy with that sufficiency — and, with it, the end of labor. This is the way of the Gatherer.

As I said, this is how we function best. This is what we are evolved to do. This is, not coincidentally, how we function best within the world, within the limits of this Earth. We are seeing now that the hierarchical system of profit-seeking, not sufficiency-seeking, is breaking the world. Even some of the privileged folks are finally seeing this. Though maybe not enough of them, and certainly not enough of those wield the most control over resources and labor. (Though, I think I’ve shown that they do see; they do not admit to seeing and they lie about what they are doing.) We will probably fall into the collapse hole if these privileged people don’t give up their lifestyle in a very short time frame. It won’t be pretty. But it will be survivable. (Probably not by those privileged people though… even regular history shows that they won’t make it through collapse… maybe they should learn from this?)

But most of us, the Gatherers, will be more or less okay. We will be reduced in numbers. Because there are limits even to Gatherers. But we will innovate and adapt. It is what we have always done. Gatherers adapt. 

I find Woman the Gatherer a fascinating part of our history and of our ancestry. I love seeing her in us. But I also think she holds the keys to our future. Curiosity and inventiveness. Adaptability and innovation. Observation and analysis. Cooperation. Relationship. Interdependency. Coming together of disparate cultures, ideas, peoples. If she is who we are, if we are the children of Woman the Gatherer, then I have hope. We’ll work our way through disastrous change and over enormous obstacles just as she did. We’ll work together and adapt. We’ll learn new ways to meet our needs. We’ll figure out how to relate to the rest of the world. We’ll carry our children to safety, well out of this mess. We’ll provide for each other. And we’ll gather together. Nothing can elude a determined group of women after all. We’ll find the way. 

And when the work has produced a sufficiency, we will bloody well sit down and rest!


©Elizabeth Anker 2021

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