The intuition of the hunter-gatherer

When I identified my “hunter-gatherer” temperament or personality type in highly sensitive intuitives (Myers-Briggs) and neurodiverse (ADHD, ASD, gifted) people one of the biggest problems was linking intuition to foraging subsistence and many people criticized that hunter-gatherers have to be more “sensing” than intuitives generally are in order to be successful hunter-gatherers. No, doubt that an absent-minded Einstein type professor wouldn’t be very successful when it comes to foraging. However, the sensing side often shows up in neurodiverse/intuitives being highly sensitive people and intuition is probably more important in hunting and gathering than one might initially assume.

Highly intuitive people can see things in patterns that simply aren’t there for other people and they love discovering patterns. What’s more, intuitives are at their best when they are self-taught, they often do poorly in school when it comes to rote learning. I have described this difference as “forager” vs “farmer” learning (rote learning to perfect skills that are required in rote tasks). In many ways, early farmers had to learn much less than foragers, who have encyclopedic knowledge about fauna and flora and in contrast to early farmers, they do not necessarily need a lot of repetition. If you have ever experienced how quickly neurodiverse children can learn everything about, say insects, in a short period of time, you know what I am talking about.

James Suzman describes in Affluence Without Abundance (2017) why it is impossible to teach hunting skills:

/I!ae was right about tracking not being something that could be taught. My efforts to become a competent tracker under his and, later, several others’ guidance over the next two decades never came to much. To be a good tracker requires engaging in a constant physical dialogue with the environment and ultimately an ability to project oneself into the animals that left the tracks. Like poetry, tracks have a grammar, a meter, and a vocabulary.

Reading those tracks is a highly intuitive task that seems like magic to us.

Even though many of the resettled Ju/’hoan families at Skoonheid had not known one another previously when I arrived there, it wasn’t long before almost everyone there recognized everyone else’s footprints so well that unfamiliar ones would be immediately remarked on and inquired about. Illicit liaisons between lovers had to be carefully planned and stock thieves to steal others’ shoes to try to disguise their identities.

Imagine one of those foragers growing up in our society, they would certainly make great Sherlock Holmes (a famous fictitious intuitive) type detectives. By noticing some patterns in the sand a hunter-gatherer may be able to infer a whole story:

But unlike the gossips who liked to keep tabs on their human neighbors, /I!ae far preferred the stories he read in the sand some distance away from Skoonheid’s busy center […] He once showed me the small crescent arcs that marked the path taken by a large black mamba and the scuff marks left by few meters away, where the shrew had been struck, died, and consumed by the mamba, which he warned was concealed somewhere nearby. He also showed me where a honey badger and jackal played a game of wits with one another as they clashed over the rotting bones of a goat and where a cheetah had hidden its young when some people were nearby.

Contrast this story with a story about an autistic man told by Siman Baron-Cohen in The Pattern Seekers (2020). 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.

Intuition may thus lead from a few patterns to the discovery of a whole hidden world. This was certainly the case with Albert Einstein. It wasn’t logic that made him discover the laws of relativity, but his intuition. The math (legend has it his wife had to help him) came only post-hoc to check the theory for its logical consistency.

Hunter-gatherer types, like Einstein, are generally not too happy in our school system, which is more designed to teach farmer types. Like Einstein, many neurodiverse people struggle with rote and seemingly irrelevant learning. It’s amazing how good these neurodiverse children are at teaching themselves when they are passionate, however. The same principle may explain the phenomenon of the many twice-exceptional (2e) gifted children.

Check out my latest book for more on the hunter-gatherer hypothesis of intuitive origin.

Originally published at on April 23, 2021.