I, Caveman

Robb Wolf, the author of The Paleo Solution and host of the podcast of the same name participated in a show titled “I, Caveman” which ran on the Discovery Channel in October, 2011. Robb postsed about his participation on the show in I-Caveman: After Party-Part 1 and I-Caveman: After Party-Part 2, after an initial link here to inform people about the show.

Since I live in Japan, it took a while before I could track down a way to watch it, and of course it took much longer to get enough time to do a proper write-up on it. It was an interesting program, but I had some problems with the way the show producers approached the idea and how they exaggerated the difficulties people would face in living in those conditions.

The participants didn’t know the food sources.

No one was informed of where they were going to be until about 3 weeks before the show started. Even the most assiduous study over that short time doesn’t begin to equal a lifetime of practical experience and learning how to find and prepare wild foods. Plus, it was in May, in Colorado. Spring is actually one of the most difficult seasons for finding food, because plant sources are just starting to grow, animals are lean from the winter and haven’t started to put on fat, and travel is harder due to mud.

They didn’t have many tools or experience in making tools.

Putting modern people out in the wild without good tools is like dropping a third-world farmer in the middle of New York with no money. While “cavemen” probably could bootstrap their own tools from raw materials, they’d had years of practice making those tools, and before that years of exposure to adults making tools. Even the most experienced of them is probably not expert in flaking flint blades, much less in making all of the other bits of kit that we know our ancestors were capable of making even 100,000 years back, much less the more sophisticated tools from the high paleolithic.

It’s no surprise that giving the show participants an atlatl made an enormous difference in their quality of life. While you can take large game without projectile weapons, with traps, or by herding and exhausting it, it’s very difficult and chancy, and requires skill and practice. It also helps to have some food on hand to support you over the few days it might take to succeed in taking a large animal. Most groups would have some food stored except in the most severe famine conditions.

Their survival skills were child level.

Your average twelve year old hunter-gatherer would probably be capable of surviving for a few weeks or longer without their group. Humans cannot survive indefinitely by themselves. That’s why we lived in groups. But a group of modern adults has — collectively — fewer survival skills than that solitary twelve year old. That was demonstrated over and over again as even the most practiced of the show participants showed awkwardness in performing tasks that, to a paleolithic person, would have been as routine as making breakfast, driving a car, or checking email is to us.

More harmful were the non-survival attitudes of some of the participants. Their modern sensibilities were potentially deadly to themselves, and harmful to the group as a whole. A lot of energy was wasted over debating decisions that probably would have been obvious to everyone in a hunting-gathering group. Everyone would have had much more practice at both getting along with each other (these people met for the first time for the show) and in the division of labor.

The cold was a problem for the first couple of days, but would have been far less of a problem for people used to living in those conditions because, again, modern attitudes got in the way of survival. In military training, you learn to huddle up in a group to deal with hypothermia. The participants didn’t do this until one woman damn near got pulled out to keep her from dying. No one seemed to realize that insulation works both ways. When you’re near a heat source, the best way to get warm is to open up your clothes to expose yourself to the heat. Also, insulation under you is more important than insulation over you. The ground will suck heat out of you much faster than the air. If you have one blanket, it’s better to sleep on top of it than put it over you. Most of them seemed to have piled the furs on top of themselves.

A two day long survival course does not prepare you for gathering or hunting all of your food from a standing start. Someone who had been living in the wild for their whole lives would have an encyclopedic knowledge of what plants were useful or edible, which were poisonous, and what would be in season. Even dropping that person in an unfamiliar area, they would have at least better memorization skills and an advanced starting point for acquiring specific knowledge of the area compared to a modern person. Academics have been repeatedly impressed by the breadth and depth of knowledge modern hunter-gatherers have of their environment. PhDs in botany and zoology have learned new things from native guides. There’s no reason to believe that paleolithic people were significantly less knowledgable than modern hunting and gathering people.

Hunting with paleolithic weapons requires highly developed skills, and detailed empirical knowledge of animal behavior. Modern bowhunters and knife hunters are the closest analog to paleolithic hunters. You have to know how to stalk to even get close enough to have a chance at hitting the animal, and you have to know how to use your weapons very well because you’ll usually only get one shot. Successfully taking so much as a rabbit with a throwing stick means that you have to be able to hit a rapidly moving target, and you also have to be able to anticipate the animal’s movement.

Knowledge is no substitute for experience. Paleolithic kids would have grown up watching their elders gather and hunt. They would have been helping with both from the time they were old enough to start carrying things. They would have started hunting when still very young. While women are often said to take the role of “gatherers” there is strong evidence from modern hunter-gatherers that women would take small game while gathering, often bringing in more calories than the men going after big game on an average day. The children would eventually work up to more advanced game using skills and knowledge gained with small game, and later from tagging along on hunts. By the time they were 12–14, they probably would have most of the skills and knowledge of an adult.

The provided clothes were cruder than probable.

Evidence of sewing has been found in paleolithic sites as far back as 40,000 years ago. All modern parkas and most extreme cold-weather clothing is based on Eskimo/Inuit designs, which are sophisticated, tailored and well-fitted, and even decorated. There’s no reason to think that the clothes paleolithic people wore were anything as crude and heavy as shown on the show.

Paleolithic people probably didn’t purify water that way.

If they did boil water, they’d use an animal bladder or stomach, which would be water tight and much less likely to impart the foul taste they got from boiling water in the raw hides that the people used on the show. The remnants of fat and collagen from the inside of the roughly scraped skins would make a seriously nasty broth; it’s basically diffuse glue. It’s no surprise the water was almost undrinkable.

But most likely, they wouldn’t have bothered to purify water by boiling it. They would have drunk from swift-running sections of a river, a seep well, or from an aquifer spring, all of which are reasonably safe even for people who aren’t used to fighting off gastrointestinal infections.

This incident reminded me of a film from the 60s I saw in a university anthropology course. The researchers asked Australian aborigines to make bread, and showed how difficult it was to make this “common” food. The researchers then spent some time talking about how labor-intense the hunting-gathering lifestyle was, based on the time and effort spent making bread. As my professor pointed out, the pre-conceptions of the researchers caused the problem. The aborigines very rarely made bread because it is difficult and takes a lot of time. It’s at most an occasional seasonal treat, not a staple. This water boiling strikes me as the same kind of artificial difficulty created by imposing modern ideas on a stone-age setting.