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Life as Our Ancestors Lived It

life of our ancestors

Life of Our Ancestors

Reflections on Life in New Guinea

Finding the Universal

In most of the time human beings have lived on Earth, it was in circumstances very different from those we encounter now. I learned about how people might have lived in Stone Age cultures when I lived in one fifty years ago. I chose to do so in order to examine facial expressions and gestures that could not have been influenced by contact with outsiders or the media. Would they be the same as I had observed in many literate cultures, or would there be new expressions I had never seen before? (They were the same.) Even if I saw familiar facial expressions and gestures, might they signal entirely different emotions than they did in literate cultures? (They did not.)

I knew that time was running out; soon there would be no more isolated cultures uninfluenced by outsiders and the media. The culture within which I lived, the South Fore in the highlands of New Guinea, was overtaken by the media and material culture just two years after my second visit in 1968. The people I studied traveled less than ten miles from the villages into which they were born during their lifetimes. They lived in a series of small villages, each of less than two-hundred persons. There wasn’t much privacy, as we know it today.

The South Fore

The South Fore people were cannibals eating only people they had cared about. From a public health viewpoint it would have been safer if they had eaten their enemies who died in battle. Battle victims should pass on less lethal germs to those who ate them than loved ones who died of some disease. But that is not what was practiced.

Since I never learned their language, I had to rely on what I observed, and the answers to my questions provided by a few boys who had learned Pidgin (a lingua franca), which I also learned.  My knowledge of their motivations is very limited, but since most of their lives were lived out in the open, not behind closed doors, I could see most of their actions.  

The small huts in which they lived had no doors. Assignations occurred in the bushes, where intimate acts could be hidden from sight. I was told that violence occurred when a man unexpectedly came upon his presumably exclusive mate in the midst of intimacy with another man. The inability to completely hide sexual activity is one of the biggest differences from urban life in industrialized societies today when private rooms can be rented by the hour.

Houses, or more precisely huts, were circled around a large open space where children played and food was cooked and consumed. In Wanitabe, the village where I lived, the men lived together in a men’s house, with each woman and her children in a separate hut.

The village was surrounded by fences which kept the pigs inside the central area, as the pigs lived with their female owner and her children. Pigs had multiple roles: they were treasured pets, money, and on special occasions slaughtered for food. Once or twice a month more than one village would meet together for dancing, singing, communally cooking and killing a few pigs which were eaten barely cooked.

Daily, everyone cooked their food in the common fire. Jointly eating what was cooked did not occur every day, but often within a given week or two. Men appeared to engage in two activities: maintaining and repairing the fences that surrounded a village, and hunting. Birds were the prey, a bow and arrow the weapon. I didn’t observe a high level of success, but it must have been sufficient to maintain their predatory attempts. Women were the tractors who tilled the land adjacent to but outside the village, providing the vegetables that made up most of what daily was consumed. A wealthy man had more than one wife.

There did not appear to be a ruler or king. There appeared to be a joint concern for the welfare of young children, who acted and were treated as if they were in the care of all adults. Vegetables were abundant, seeming to be in sufficient supply to avoid ownership conflicts.

Different Lifestyles

The most apparent differences in how they and urban dwellers today live are:

  • Privacy; we have much more than they had.
  • Shared responsibility for child rearing; they had more than we have.
  • Conflict over resources; they appeared to have few, while some of us have many.
  • Sexual segregation of where adults resided; they did, we don’t.
  • Authority or status differentiations; we have it explicitly, they didn’t.
  • Acknowledged ruler (by inheritance, election, or force) we have, they didn’t.

We don’t have the choice to live as the South Fore did or, presumably, as many of our Stone Age ancestors did. Are the ways most of us live our lives today in urban settings better than how our preliterate ancestors lived? I think better in some ways, worse in others.

Thinking through the answer is enlightening, so I leave it for each reader to do.



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