Caveman Comeback

June 28th, 2000
By Naomi Klein

‘The entire premise of the show is antithetical to the hunter-gatherer principles. It’s a nightmare vision of primitive life! And the worst part of it is that now you hear people saying: ‘You are so off the island.’ " Like the rest of us, Richard B. Lee is talking about CBS’s new hit "reality" series, Survivor. Unlike the rest of us, he actually knows of what he speaks.

Co-editor of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers and a world-class anthropologist specializing in African Bushmen, Dr. Lee is a forager expert. And the folks on Survivor—while they may gnaw on beetle larvae, hunt rats, run around with torches, go to a pseudo-primitive "tribal council" and paint their faces with mud—just don’t cut it.

At his cramped office at the University of Toronto, Dr. Lee helps me sort out the differences between Survivor’s tribes and the real thing. "Hunter-gatherers believe in sharing, inclusivity, and in making it all work together," Dr. Lee explains. In traditional Iroquois cultures, if food was scarce, whoever had food would share it equally among other tribe members.

And then there is the fact that, in many primitive cultures, elders are the most respected members, although there are cases, Dr. Lee concedes, "of abandoning the aged—this is a tough issue for nomadic people." On Survivor,of course, it’s a no-brainer: Old people are the first to go.

Yet, despite Survivor’s incalculable anthropological blasphemies, the show is part of a larger trend: a widespread resurgence of interest in the ways of hunter-gatherers, stretching from politics to music to food. And Dr. Lee’s research is right at the centre of it.

Since the early ’60s, Richard Lee has been challenging the view that the lives of hunter-gathers were, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, "nasty, brutish, and short." On the contrary, Dr. Lee and others have argued, hunter-gatherer societies were—and still are—viable, alternative ways of life, rich in their own history, with much to teach us about health, ecology, leisure and non-hierarchical power relations.

In the past few years, this research has been embraced by a sect of anarchists called "anarcho-primitivists" who cite it to prove that most social and ecological problems would be eliminated if we adopted the nomadic, foraging lifestyle of our pre-agrarian ancestors. If may seem far-fetched, but it goes a long way toward explaining Survivor’s success.

The show takes a bunch of people who don’t know how to broil a chicken, let alone kill one, and forces them to subsist with primitive tools (give or take a pair of high-tech sneakers). By turning our collective alienation from nature into a spectator sport, Survivor explicitly asks the most pressing question of our time: "So you think you’re evolved, do you?"

And all we have to do is look at the fact of Survivor—and the "Don’t vote me off" T-shirts for sale at—to know the answer.

But the anarchists and TV executives aren’t the only ones getting in touch with their inner foragers. For the most compelling evidence of the caveman comeback, you have only to go to the diet section of your local bookstore. There, you will find shelves of titles such as The Zone, The Carbohydrate Addict’s Diet,and Protein Power. Look beyond the bestsellers and you will spot The Paleolithic Prescription and, my favourite, Neanderthin.

All these books promise rapid weight loss if we eat more meat, and cut out the carbohydrates and sweets. Sure, the advice flies in the face of every major diet trend of the past four decades—but what’s 40 years in the life of a species? The diet gurus repeatedly invoke the ancient spirit of the hunter-gatherers, arguing that human physiology has not yet adapted to the agricultural or industrial revolutions. So we live on grains and sugars, when our bodies crave the diet that was ours for 90 per cent of human history.

Put in caveman terms: If you can’t kill it or pick it, don’t eat it.

Now it’s true that the protein diet craze is driven by vanity (not a profound questioning of how we, as a species, measure progress), but who knows where this could lead? If we’re going paleolithic with something as fundamental as food, why not shelter? Why not sex? Is it a coincidence that on MuchMusic, the Bloodhound Gang are jumping around in monkey suits chanting, "You and me, baby, ain’t nothing but mammals/ So let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel?"

Forget the ’70s. This could be the most retro comeback of all time, a return to the original human condition, 12,000 years ago.

Nearing retirement, Dr. Lee seems slightly baffled by the sudden trendiness of his life’s work. He doesn’t watch Survivor (though he reads about it with great interest), he’s no anarchist (though, he says, "I’m sympathetic"), and he’s on a strict no-meat diet (doctor’s orders, after the bypass).

But he’s not arguing. Sales of his new encyclopedia, he admits shyly, have "exceeded my expectations."

This article first appeared in The Globe and Mail.