How neurodiverse people are like hunter-gatherers V: hunting, tracking and intuitive cognition

Louis Liebenberg’s book The Origin of Science (2021, available for free here) does a fantastic job of explaining how the origins of scientific investigation can be found in hunter-gatherer tracking and persistence hunt. Liebenberg concludes that these skills are the origin of scientific thinking.

The evolution of persistence hunting would have involved the evolution of Homo erectus, shifted to a hunting and gathering lifestyle, with morphological evidence showing adaptations for increased long-distance trekking and the adoption of endurance running. […] The evolution of persistence hunting would have involved the evolution of tracking skills. The evolution of tracking would have involved the evolution of the cognitive abilities to engage in scientific reasoning.

I have come to a similar conclusion when researching neurodiversity (ASD, gifted, ADHD and intuitives), i.e. that they have hunter(-gatherer) minds vs farmer-herder minds (majority of people). Many people on the spectrum gave me incredulous replies, pointing out they would have hardly survived in our hunter-gatherer past when they struggle in our modern world.

To begin with, the skills involved in hunting are very different from what we often imagine when we think of Native Americans, for example, hunting buffalo on horseback with bow and arrow. Both very recent innovations in human history, in throughout most of history hunters just ran down the animal until it was so exhausted that it was an easy kill (persistence hunt).

Hunting does not require exceptional physical fitness, and during the course of their normal activities hunters get enough regular walking exercise for any of them to be fit enough to hunt. Although one cannot track with poor eyesight, a tracker does not need exceptional eyesight. It is more important to know what to look for and where to look for it. Excellent eyesight may help in systematic tracking, but it will make no difference in speculative tracking .

Liebenberg distinguishes between two types of tracking: systematic and speculative . Systematic trekking is inductive-deductive (like most of science) and requires systematic learning, which is perhaps very similar to what autistic children do when they make repetitive experiments or take their toys apart. Systematic tracking works best in familiar and easy terrain. When the terrain becomes increasingly harder to read, hunters switch to speculative tracking:

For speculative tracking, however, the creation of imaginary visual images of the animal is essential. The non-arbitrary connection between the visual perception of signs and imaginary visual images of animals may well suggest that the evolution of visual imagination was a prerequisite for speculative tracking. The interplay between perceived visual images of tracks and imagined visual images of the animal allow the tracker to predict the movements of an animal by means of hypothetico-deductive reasoning. […] The art of tracking involves a process of creative problem-solving in which hypotheses are continually tested against track evidence, rejecting those which do not stand up and replacing them with better hypotheses. Intuition is important in dealing with complex variables, such as in estimating the age of tracks or interpreting tracks in loose sand.

This speculative tracking often requires bold hypotheses (similar to what we see in scientific revolutions, e.g., in Newton or Einstein, both were almost certainly on the spectrum). Of course, the risk of arriving at the wrong conclusions is also higher in speculative tracking:

I discovered that even the most experienced trackers sometimes make surprising mistakes when they identify a track at a glance. But when two or three of them then have the opportunity to discuss the tracks, they invariably self-correct themselves and come up with the correct answer. [… ] Of the four hunters, !Nahm!abe was the most imaginative tracker, so his original ideas were often not accepted by the others. The other three often mocked him for “telling stories.” Yet on the one hunt, after the other three had already given up hope, it was his insight and determination that resulted in the successful tracking down of a wildebeest. Scientists, contrary to the belief that they never knowingly depart from the truth, are always “telling stories”

Liebenberg implies that this is very similar to scientists discussing the latest theories, but it’s also very similar to neurodiverse people talking about their special interests. What sets apart hunter-gatherers from earl food producers (farmer-herders) is not only their egalitarian organisation, but also the different cognitive requirements. Especially sedentary farmers lived in a world that was repetitive and changed very little over a lifetime. This changed their cognition and learning, which has been described as “packing” (vs hunter-gatherer mapping). Sedentary farmers also had less curiosity towards their environment (trait conscientiousness includes being hard-working, avoiding pathogens, loving routing, and reduced openness to experience) and focused mostly on the practical aspects of daily life. Hunter-gatherers are much more open to learning:

Apart from their critical attitude, Kalahari trackers also show extensive curiosity. Direct observations are often embellished with an immense amount of detail. The evident delight with which they describe their observations suggests that hunters find such observations interesting for their own sake. They have a greater interest in animal behavior than is required for the practicalities of any specific hunt. They explore problems and acquire knowledge.

Hunter knowledge of fauna and flora goes far beyond of what is practically necessary and can be describe as encyclopaedic. Anyone who has ever been close to a neurodiverse child, ASD or gifted, knows that their knowledge is often encyclopaedic and can surpass that of a high school teacher. Hunters need much more imagination than farmer-herders as being able to empathize with the animal can be crucial for success.

Here are the most important points about hunter cognition I have found:

  • Encyclopaedic knowledge of fauna and flora
  • Higher sensitivity towards physical stimuli
  • High distractibility (Thom Hartman)
  • Highly intuitive (seeing multiple possibilities, updating on the fly on the basis of new evidence)
  • Better peripheral perception/vision
  • Visual thinking
  • Arriving at flow states more easily (“runner’s high”)
  • Endurance (hyperfocus)
  • Mapping (vs packing) mind
  • Patterns-seeking
  • Empathy with the animal (getting into the mind of the animal)

My hypothesis of neurodiverse/intuitives having hunter-gatherer minds can therefore be empirically verified if it can be shown that these people are higher in the above traits. One person who comes to mind is Temple Grandin, who checks off at couple of these traits, including the ability to get into an animal’s mind and visual thinking. My hunch is that neurodiverse/intuitive people are found more frequently among animal whisperers. Many researchers have noted the special relationship between autistic children and animals, some even pointing out that their problems can’t be due to a general lack of empathy as they tend to easily empathize with animals (less so with farmer-herder type people, especially when authority is involved). Ironically, hunter types are the ones least likely to hunt animals (foragers don’t kill beyond immediate necessity) and most likely to be found among animal activists). Where hunter types follow their instincts most is when playing video games. Not only do hunter types hyperfocus longer in videogaming, but they are also typically among the top players in e-sports. The reasons may be the very hunter traits listed above.

Baron-Cohen tells a very impressive story about an autistic man that illustrates how a pattern-seeking mind is helpful to hunters. Jonah is a young man, who loves observing patterns on the surface of the ocean. He is so good at “reading” these patterns that he can predict where the fishermen can find fish:

Often he says nothing and simply points. The fishermen have learned to trust him, and they throw their nets where he points. They still marvel at how easily Jonah spots patterns they miss. And they say his predictions are always right.

Neurodiverse people often have typical ectomorph hunter bodies that are better adapted to endurance running than mesomorph herder (speed) and endomorph farmer (strength). Especially people with ADHD are often found among marathon runners:

Our data show that excessive exercising is significantly overrepresented in individuals in which ADHD symptoms in childhood have not persisted into adulthood. We thus hypothesize that a subgroup of individuals might suppress ADHD symptoms by excessive sporting activities ().

Exercise also helps mitigate the symptoms of ASD. Of course, there is a lot more evidence required to corroborate my hypothesis scientifically. However, I am quite sure that the lives of neurodiverse people can be made easier when they are properly understood, especially in school and at work.

Originally published at on October 10, 2021.