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by Gustav Milne
It is now fifty years since the musical “Hair” announced the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius, with the introduction of aspects of New Age thinking to a mainstream audience. But was the new thinking just tapping into a cultural Zeitgeist, or was it part of an instinctive response to something genuinely deeper? This article suggests that, now we have a much better understanding of our long human evolution, there is arguably a solid rationale underpinning at least some of those key concepts. Diverse themes, including aspects of spiritualism, holistic health, environmentalism and social interconnectedness providing a balance of body, mind and spirit can now all be viewed objectively from a human evolutionary perspective.
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A Long Journey
But to start at the very beginning: towns are NOT our natural habitat. For at least the last 3 million years of our long human evolution, we lived off the land, in tribally-based societies, developing ‘hunter-gatherer-style’ regimes. Without recourse to modern medicine, towns or technology, these cultures nevertheless colonised the world, in jungles, mountains, open grasslands, from the Artic to the equator. This dramatic global cultural expansion is not appreciated today, since the histories of these peoples were not written down. Even as late as c.AD 1500 one third of the global land mass was still occupied by these un-urbanised but highly successful ‘hunter-gatherers’, before ‘westernisation’ dramatically changed everything. By the 20th century, such communities were all too often dismissed as social curiosities, fit only for anthropological study, with little relevance for the modern world.
But those long-lived cultures do have valuable lessons for us, for that protracted period in our human evolution is stamped deep into our DNA, tried and tested by the unyielding demands of natural selection. Our teeth and digestive system still reflect a need for fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and fish, rather than the abnormal pre-packaged, over-processed products currently on sale. Our lungs still only operate effectively with fresh air, not toxic fumes, tobacco or diesel particulates. Our two-legged upright physiology still demands a daily workout, based on the ancestral foraging needs of regular walking, carrying, climbing, rather than abnormally sedentary lives with their sofas, cars and offices.
Then there was the great outdoors, where our ancestors lived, naturally maintaining their vital vitamin D levels. Today, we still react positively to ‘nature’ a response that UCL’s microbiologist Professor Graham Rook provides a crucial explanation for. It concerns our immune system, which gradually evolved with us during the millennia we lived as hunter-gatherers. We’re not born with the beneficent microbiota that now live on our skin and in the gut: initially, we derive them from our mother’s birth canal and subsequently from the external environment, from soil, plants, trees and animals. Without them, we are increasingly susceptibility to allergies, autoimmunity and inflammatory bowel disease. Consequently, reduced contact with nature is bad for our physical health: we still need the microorganisms that only the natural environment can provide. Alas, living in towns decreases our exposure to nature but increases our exposure to crowd infections.
Culturally, society is evolving at remarkable speeds, with its new towns and technologies. But biologically, significant evolution has been much slower: our bodies are still broadly Palaeolithic, much as we were before extensive agriculture or the first towns developed 5,000 to 10,000 years ago. Consequently there’s a real mismatch between modern urban living and our Palaeolithic genome, that ancient part of our DNA that successfully supported ‘hunter-gatherer’ lifestyles for so long. Because of that, we still need fresh air, fresh foods and an active lifestyle: without such basics, we simply fall ill. Indeed, as urbanisation advances across the globe to accommodate a population of 9.6bn by 2050, so too does the prevalence of obesity, coronary-related problems, Type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s and various types of cancer. The World Health Organisation lists them as the most common causes of death in modern, urbanised societies. But here’s the important bit: there’s plenty of archaeological evidence from ancient cemeteries to show that it was the advent of widespread agriculture followed by the development of urban life- which began just 5,000 to 10,000 years ago- that introduced these killers into our lives. All were virtually non-existent in the long, pre-urban era. This is also confirmed by Staffan Lindeberg’s pioneering work in Kitava, New Guinea, where, in non-urbanised communities that still practice ancestral dietary and activity regimes, none of the top ten causes of death in modern cities were present. Thus it seems that current urban lifestyles are killing us, since they are at odds with our basic biology and biophilia.
The answer is of course to reconfigure our diets, daily lives and townscapes to better fit our ‘hunter-gatherer’ biology. We need to adopt proxy ancestral diets and robust daily activity regimes, and green our cities and our homes. But first a cautionary word on the term ‘hunter-gatherer’.- it’s used here as a convenient short-hand term for any culture that lives directly off the land through foraging or hunting: given the range of environments they colonised from the Artic to the Amazon, from Africa to the Americas- their regimes differed as dramatically as the composition of their diets. Some were hunter-fishers; some fisher-gatherers, some gatherer-hunters, some hunter-gatherers. So for those seeking a proxy Palaeo-diet, there is no one-size-fits-all solution: it depends on the location, the season and on your acquired food intolerances.
An Ancestral Spirit or an Unconscious Mind?
Our Palaeolithic genome blindly assumes we are still tribally-based ‘hunter-gatherers’ foraging in the wild. This not only underpins our physical wellbeing but also many of our instinctive, emotional responses, serving as the engine of our unconscious mind. It provides, for example, the necessary fight-flight mechanisms essential for our survival, needs to be challenged, dictates the tribal-sized group of friends we can cope with, underpins our innate violence, our capacity to love, even our obsessions with sport and shopping. It could be argued that our Palaeolithic genome could be seen as our ancestral spirit. It instils within us a continuous anticipation of and demand for fresh air, fresh food, active lives, collaborative tribal occupations and close engagement with nature. If these and other ‘normal’ everyday demands (for a hunter-gatherer) are met, we are rewarded with good health, physically and mentally. But if we choose to ignore those ancestral messages….
Ancestral Origins for the New Age?
In summary, its not just our physiology that’s still resolutely Palaeolithic, so too is much of our surprisingly ancestral mindset. It’s the nature/nuture debate again: our immutable Palaeolithic genome versus modern, urbanised reason; our conscious versus our unconscious mind. Modern lives are thus a fusion (or confusion?) of the two. But don’t ever underestimate the influence and impact that the Palaeolithic genome can still have on seemingly civilised naked apes. If we really want to change the world for the better, the New Age must respect the very much older one we were all born with.
About the author:
Gustav Milne, M Phil FSA is an archaeologist with over 40 years experience, mainly with the Museum of London, and currently leads the CITiZAN community-based coastal archaeology project (which features in a new TV series on Channel 4 in the UK). He also teaches at University College London, where he co-ordinates the Evolutionary Determinants of Health programme, aspects of which are discussed in his latest book Uncivilised Genes: Human Evolution and the Urban Paradox, which has just been published in the US. It concerns human evolution and its relationship to our modern urban condition.
Related Recent Publications:
Marshall, S., Milne, G., Rook, G. & Tinnerman, R. 2015 ‘Walking: a step-change towards healthy cities’, Town and Country Planning Journal, 125-129
Milne, G. 2015 ‘The Evolutionary Determinants of Health Programme: urban living in the 21st century from a human evolutionary perspective’ Archaeology International 18, 84-96 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5334/ai.1809
Milne, G. 2017 Uncivilised Genes: human evolution and the urban paradox. Crown House Publications https://www.amazon.co.uk/Uncivilised-Genes-Human-evolution…/dp/1781352658