For women, there was only one time and place better than here and now to be alive—and that was 10,000 to 20,000 years ago on the Pacific north-west coast of what is now America, or anywhere else that was nice and fertile.
Men and women in these hunter-gatherer tribes were the most equal they have ever been. Rich and poor were pretty equal too. With no property, there was no question of feeling hard done by when you failed to keep up with the Paleolithic Joneses. There was no unemployment, no horrible bosses.
Everyone was self-employed, with women toiling away at one of life’s nicest pastimes: digging up roots and picking berries. The great thing about foraging was that it didn’t take all day, and so left more time for enjoyment than humans have had at any time since. In the absence of iPads and PlayStations, people frittered away their time on three pleasures that the modern age does not encourage: chatting, playing with children and having sex with more than one person. When Larkin said that sexual intercourse began in 1963, it was a good line, just several thousand years out.
Hunter-gatherers were taller and healthier than the farmers who followed them. They had more varied diets and so weren’t at risk of famine. They also had great teeth. While the more recent past was ruined by toothache, these earlier people achieved American teeth without the tedium of flossing and pricey visits to the hygienist.
There were a few disadvantages to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Your chances of being ripped limb from limb by a wild animal were greater than if you live in, say, Toronto in 2011. And when you got fed up with chatting to fellow tribesfolk (or having sex with them), you couldn’t watch “Downton Abbey”. On the other hand, you were most unlikely to die from obesity-related diseases or get blown up by terrorists. And you wouldn’t have felt obliged to employ a therapist to help with low self-esteem brought on by the fact that your back view isn’t as trim as Pippa Middleton’s.
Lucy Kellaway is a columnist and associate editor on the Financial Times. She is a former Columnist of the Year at the British Press Awards.
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, November/December 2011