The hunter-gatherer homecoming

Imagine the following scenario: you are the leader of an expedition and in a remote corner of the world you find a friendly stone-age forager people that has never been in contact with civilization before. Proudly you show them some of the stuff that civilization has invented in recent times, like your smartphone and canned food. You want to do them a favour and bring all the achievements of the modern world to these backward people. To your surprise, they don’t want them, not even a Netflix subscription. You live with them for a while and think that it’s probably the way that these people grew up and the lifestyle they are used to that does not make them want all the beautiful things we have got. While you are still musing if they would appreciate your kind of lifestyle if they only got used to it, you experience something strange: rather than any of the foragers showing interest in your lifestyle, some of your own people decide to give up civilization and decide to live with those hunter-gatherers instead. Doesn’t sound very realistic, does it?

And yet, all this happened repeatedly during the colonization of America. Sebastian Junger writes in his book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (2016):

By the end of the nineteenth century, factories were being built in Chicago and slums were taking root in New York while Indians fought with spears and tomahawks a thousand miles away. It may say something about human nature that a surprising number of Americans-mostly men-wound up joining Indian society rather than staying in their own. They emulated Indians, married them, were adopted by them, and on some occasions even fought alongside them. And the opposite almost never happened : Indians almost never ran away to join white society. Emigration always seemed to go from the civilized to the tribal, and it left Western thinkers flummoxed about how to explain such an apparent rejection of their society. “When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs,” Benjamin Franklin wrote to a friend in 1753, “[yet] if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return.”

So, here you got a refutation of your hypothesis that these people would prefer to live in civilisation once they got used to the comforts of our lifestyle. Why did those Native Americans growing up in civilization so easily give up all its perks? The answer is their evolved nature. Imagine an animal from a zoo that is set free into its natural habitat. At first the animal might feel insecure, but in most cases the animal would also prefer its natural habitat over all the amenities it had in captivity. It would feel at home. The same thing happened to those hunter-gatherer people who grew up in civilization as children. They followed their natural instincts. On the other hand, Franklin continued, white captives who were liberated from the Indians were almost impossible to keep at home: “Tho’ ransomed by their friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a short time they become disgusted with our manner of life… and take the first good opportunity of escaping again into the woods.”

But what about those white people who preferred to live with the Native Americans rather than in an industrialized society? The same thing: those were hunter-gatherer type people whose ancestors were integrated into a farmer society at some stage in history, having their genes largely preserved through assortative mating over the centuries. As I have argued before, people have four different temperaments according to our ancestral modes of subsistence: hunting, gathering, farming and herding. It was the hunter-type men who most longed for a different kind of lifestyle and joined the Native Americans.

What happens to such men in our society? Well, in order to find out we have to take a look at what happens to hunter-gatherer people who are forced to live in a civilized world: it’s anything but a blessing to them: depression, alcoholism, suicide and sickness are rife. As Junger notes, traditional foraging societies hardly know depression and suicide, but this becomes common once hunter-gatherers are forced to live in a reservation. As is alcoholism as a form of self-medication. Hunter-gatherer type people often don’t have a feeling of belonging in our modern world, they feel alienated and struggle with addiction.

What was it that made living among the Native Americans so much more attractive to those white hunter-types? The answer lies in hunter-gatherer values:

  • freedom — no conformism required
  • egalitarian lifestyle and lack of status distinctions
  • universal care for all members of the band

To put it in the words of the motto of the French Revolution: liberté, égalité, fraternité — values that are universal among the world’s hunter-gatherers. This was the “homecoming” that those white hunter-type settlers experienced among the American Native tribes and that is why they felt — perhaps for the first times in their lives — that they belonged.

Originally published at on December 23, 2020.