Adaptability: The Essence of Primitive Cultures
The Essence of Primitive Cultures
By Thomas J. Elpel
Primitive peoples had no choice about whether they were going to
practice their skills or not. It wasn’t a sport for them; it was survival.
Today we do have choice. We choose to go; we choose where to go, and how
long to stay. We choose what to bring, and what not to bring. Each of us
sets the parameters according to our goals and beliefs about what we are
doing. In effect, we all make up our own rules of the game.
Like many of my peers, I was originally attracted to primitive
living out of an ideal of “living in harmony” with nature. It seemed that
in nature the plants and animals and primitive peoples all lived is some
kind of balance, and I wanted to be part of that. With this ideal in mind,
I began my journey into primitive skills more as a poet and philosopher
than as a pragmatist. I went out with almost nothing, to become “one with
nature”, but instead just got cold and hungry.
I started out, and still am, a “purist”. I want to do everything
“authentically” as primitive. Yet, while I still consider myself to be a
“purist”, I have redefined what that word means to me.
In the conventional sense a purist is generally one who seeks to
achieve primitive living only by replicating the techniques that have been
used and documented from past cultures. This might mean, for example, to
make a bow and arrows using only tools that were available in the
stone-age. Subsequently, it also means to make those tools using other
The objective of the purist approach is sometimes archaeological, but
often ideological. That is, sometimes the goal is in the physical
techniques and technologies themselves, but at other times the physical
skills are used as a means to achieve a particular ideal or mood, perhaps
to create or recreate a sense of “living with the earth”.
Our ancestors however, did not need a mood or philosophy for living
with the earth. For them, living with the earth was normal life. Like
true creatures of nature, they just lived their lives day-to-day. They
needed no philosophy for that.
If you observe animals in nature you will find that they too just
seem to live their lives. They eat, sleep, play, and raise young. As far
as we can tell, however, they do not philosophize. A deer may seem curious
about a shiny aluminum can, but it does not apparently have any beliefs
about it. To the deer a can is neither good nor bad, natural or
artificial, just shiny. Animals apparently just accept all elements of
their world at face-value. They do not seem to judge their environment in
any way, except as threatening, or non-threatening. Mice and bugs often
inhabit old rubbish. Deer often bed down in abandoned houses. To them it
is useful habitat and nothing more.
Like true creatures of nature, our ancestors often had a
non-judgmental view of the world. The bottle, for instance, was not
rejected as “unnatural” or “wrong” by Native Americans, but was often
utilized as a source of glass for knapping points. They did not disdain
European products as being “unnatural”, but eagerly sought them through
economic trade-so much so, that the horse, the canvas tipi, and glass beads
became the symbols of “Native American culture”. In short, the essence of
the primitive approach to life is adaptability.
Primitive cultures survived by adapting to their environments.
They used the best resources at hand to meet their needs. They were not
blocked by an artificial set of rules or beliefs about what is right or
wrong to use. They simply used the best of what was available. Primitive
foot-wear for instance, was always limited by the short life-expectancy of
the soles. (I read in once case where a mountain climbing expedition in
Colorado wore out three pairs of moccasins in a single day.) When tires
became available in more recent times they were quickly converted into
footwear by the remaining “backwards” cultures, notably in Mexico. In
essence, being a purist is not a matter of replicating the past, but of
successfully adapting to the present.
Anthropologist Richard B. Lee learned this first-hand in 1963 when
he traveled to the Kalahari desert in southern Africa to study the Dobe
!Kung, a modern hunter-gatherer culture. The day after his arrival, the
!Kung told him there was no food around and that they were hungry. They
talked him into taking them in his truck to a mongongo grove ten miles away
where there was some food. In two hours the !Kung filled the pickup bed
with a large pile of mongongo nuts. In that time the men picked enough to
sustain themselves for five days, while the women picked enough for ten
days sustenance. All the way there the !Kung sang songs about getting fat
while the truck did all the work, and that people who worked for a living,
that was their problem! Lee commented that the !Kung were making
intelligent use of their resources. Instead of walking a long distance in
the heat for a small meal, they adapted, and took advantage of the truck
(and a gullible anthropologist), to get ten large meals.
In primitive cultures the driving force of belief is and was
economics. To survive and prosper, primitive peoples had to harvest more
calories of energy than they expended. They had to adapt and make
economical decisions to enable them to harvest more calories with less
effort, just as we do today. They would not resist using a rubber tire for
a shoe sole any more than you or I would pass up a $20 bill laying on the
sidewalk. We practicing primitives today may attempt to replicate the
past, but we fail in our endeavor, because the essence of primitive culture
is to successfully adapt to the present!
The !Kung were also the actors in the movies “The Gods Must be
Crazy” (I & II). The director, interviewed on television, said that the
!Kung had absolutely no inhibitions about acting for the cameras. In fact,
the star in these films later went on a world tour. In Japan alone he rode
on subways and trains, mingled with people on city streets, and humbly
waved to thousands of fans. (The movie was apparently a big hit in Japan).
You might expect all this hoopla to send a naive hunter-gather into total
shock, but he was reportedly rather unfazed by it. He returned home, wore
his sneakers for a few weeks, and finally pitched them to go barefoot.
These simple peoples had no apparent fear or inhibitions about our
fantastic technologies, while us modern primitives are comparatively
schizophrenic with our hang-ups about what is the right and wrong way to be
“primitive”. We fret over whether we made our arrowheads with genuine
antler, or if we “cheated” and used a copper tips. We debate whether or
not we should make use of a wild plant because it is an introduced species,
and is not “natural” here in America. But these kinds of worries are the
essence of our culture, not of cultures past.
The purest flint-knapping experience I ever had, in the spirit of
ages past, was sitting in a century-old garbage dump, flaking bottle
bottoms with a rusty nail, and using the sole of a boot for a pad! That
after all, is what a true hunter-gather would likely do, if suddenly
transported to our time.
We modern primitives may think we want to recreate the past, but
that is simply not an option. We have to make concessions to our time.
For example, we cannot use campfires in the forest when the fire-danger is
too high. Primitive peoples routinely walked away from their fires and let
them burn out of control. They did not care-it did not impact other
people. But today we have to make shared management decisions. We cannot
torch the forest either out of carelessness, or intentionally for the
purpose of “driving out game”.
We cannot hunt the buffalo, because the buffalo are gone, and the
“white man’s buffalo” is off limits. We cannot make camp in all the places
where native peoples once made their camps, because most of those choice
sites are now our cities and towns.
Many historical resources are unavailable to us primitives today,
but new opportunities abound. The invasion of European weeds has given us
hundreds of new and useful plants to work with. Wildlife management and
hunting regulations have helped to rebuild the once decimated populations
of many game animals, and new game species have been introduced from
abroad, like the pheasant. New resources abound in nature, like bottles
and cans, tires, and baling twine, that truly primitive peoples would have
Ultimately, the purist philosophy of primitive peoples is no
philosophy. It is a practical approach to life, like the creatures of
nature, accepting all things equally at face value, without judging. Each
element of this new world is considered for it’s own merits. Adapt and
utilize that which seems useful. It is not a way of thinking, but a way
Thomas J. Elpel is one of the most interesting people you will ever meet. His life story is amazing. He is a builder, primitive/survival skills expert and publisher. He has done a lot to promote this craft of primitive skills. His involvement with the Society of Primitive Technology and the many books he has published as well as leading many classes is well known. Check out his web portal and click on the links there to find out what all he does. Of particular interest to me is the directory of primitive skills teachers he keeps up to date.