Saturday 20 July 2013

Less stuff

There is a pretty broad consensus among palaeo-anthropologists that human beings have been around for about two million years and for 95% of the intervening time they were "hunter-gatherers".  The average life time for recognised species of mammal in the fossil record is about one million years, so we've perhaps already exceeded our sell-by date.  Two million years, 75,000 generations, is certainly time enough to have evolved genetic adaptations to the ecosystem and life-style that humans pursued for so long.  So current anthropologists are very interested in studying the few remaining societies that practice a hunter-gathering lifestyle, because that may give us clues about the details of what (if anything) we are genetically adapted for or psychologically predisposed towards.  Just maybe this will help us answer the great imponderable "what makes us happy".

The !Xun san (previously know as Kung Bushmen) of the Kalahari desert are perhaps the most intensively studied group of hunter-gatherers both academically and in pop.sci books including Nisa by Marjorie Shostak, The Harmless People by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas and The Lost World of the Kalahari, A Story Like the Wind, and A Far-Off Place by guru-to-royalty St Laurens van der Post.  I've written before about biologists changing the objects of their study by their very presence, as Heisenberg's observations of electrons altered their busy trajectories.  This is clearly to be watched for by anthropologists studying other human beings who are, in general, very quick on the uptake and willing to seize the main chance.

Nevertheless, it is well documented that !Xun families can (or used to be able to before their culture was corrupted and then destroyed by contact with 'civilisation'). survive indefinitely in a desperately unforgiving world on the very edge of the Kalahari with a very small set of artifacts.
  • a loin-cloth
  • another hank of leather fashioned as a baby-sling
  • another hank of leather sewn into a bag for mongongo nuts, witchety-grubs or roots
  • two or three emptied ostrich-shells for carrying water
  • a favorite digging stick
  • a bow and 5 or 6 arrows
  • a stone hand-axe for cutting
  • another stone hand-axe for pounding bones open for marrow or pulping roots
  • some tinder for making a cooking fire
  • a couple of really gorgeous feathers
  • a flute, a drum or a dried gourd shaker 
you may add a couple of things which I've forgotten and still be less than 20 objects (and that's for a family of four). Objects 2 and 3 in Neil MacGregor's History of the World in 100 Objects, are two different stone hand axes separated in age by about half a million years.  The first is a lump of rock with a convenient heft, the later one is more obviously an artifact fashioned by the human hand for use by that same hand.  From that miracle of recursion all human development has sprung. Those chapters in that book seem to imply that this is the only tool/artifact/object required for a man to be a man but a moment's reflection will show rather that a stone axe is the only tool that will survive for 2 million years to finish up in the collection of the British Museum while the other items on my bulleted list, no less essential, are all organic and have long long ago been recycled into witchety-grubs.

If this is the baseline, you can see how far from being a real challenge the 100thingchallenge really is.  You see arguments worthy of the Talmud about whether a pair of shoes is one object or two and whether the laces are part of or separate from; incredibly some lists exclude underwear (or treat 8 pr of Calvin Klein boxers as a single thing) to get their inventory under the mystical 100.  Life gets a little less difficult if you list your car and your iPhone as two of your owned objects.  Go on: Google up  "100 thing(s) list" and see what you make of it all.  It would be invidious of me to single out any particular list for derision.  But I suggest that a list of .le.100 objects that includes "my cerise Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirt" hasn't quite stepped down from the consumerism plate to embrace a life nearer the grass in the outfield, let alone one entirely outside the effing stadium.

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