The Primeval Revelation

Chapter 2: Lifestyles of Hunter-Gatherers

Hunter-gatherers, depending on circumstances, usually live in small bands of one or several extended families. They form parts of larger groupings who intermarry, who also share their bounty during seasons of plenty, and celebrate their common ancestry and myths. The seasons of plenty are times for marriage, for feasting and dancing, for performing tribal rituals, and for chanting the ancient myths.

Until about 10,000 years ago all humans, so far as we know, were hunters and gatherers (see chapter 15). Our own ancestors must have been among them. These ancient social groups typically consist of men hunters and women gatherers, though there are areas of overlap. In the warmer climates many prefer to sleep outside, perhaps near low fires stoked up for the night. Others live in simple shelters of leaves and boughs that are set up quickly each evening. Still others live in permanent shelters. When following the seasonal food cycle that nature provides, they carry along their essential belongings, which are few. But they may leave a cache of supplies at a favorable camping spot to be used at the next time around.

Face-to-face contacts with people of other tribes or federations with whom there is no intermarriage is typically rare. From birth to death a person who reaches 60 years of age, who lived through three generations, may have had some contact with 2,000 people at most. Hunter-gatherers, then, typically know little about the rest of the world from first hand experience. Traditions and myths, however, are their window to peer into their origins and into the cosmos. They carry the culture somewhat as the Bible anchors our culture.

We leave these generalizations to focus on aborigines in Australia, to spend a day with the Kulins who once hunted and gathered in the area where Melbourne is today. It is thought that perhaps five hundred tribal groups occupied Australia before Englanders settled there in the 1830's. An average tribe would have 500-1500 people. Australia's total population would then have been about 300,000. With anthropologist Gary Presland (The Land of the Kulin) as our guide, we spend a few typical days with Kulin aborigines in the Melbourne area, experiencing life as they have done from time immemorial.

We start at a camp set up in the sand dunes close to the shore; the campers have chosen a spot sheltered from the cool breezes coming off the bay in the evening (Presland, 36). The group is composed of four or five adult men, their wives, a number of unmarried young men and women, adolescents, and seven or eight young children. They encamp near a source of fresh water. We join them for the next morning.

The first morning activity begins at sunrise. Someone stirs the fires that have been stoked through the night and rekindles them. They fetch water from the nearby stream and eat breakfast, mostly leftovers from the previous evening meal. During breakfast they discuss plans for the day.

Since food is abundant here they decide to stay for a few days. The men will hunt small game close to the camp today. On subsequent days they plan to catch birds along the shore, or go fishing, or hunt and collect gum found in acacia trees. The gum is delicious and may be stowed in stashes of up to twenty kilograms. Fish traps are planned for strategic bends in the stream, and setting them up will take time.

The men leaving for the hunt on this morning take along their spears, spear throwers, a stick or club, and possibly a boomerang. They may carry a stone hatchet fastened into a belt of hair or fiber. Off to the hunt they go.

The older youths, who are in training for adulthood, go with the men to learn and help with the hunting and fishing. During one day they will not travel too far - not beyond eight or ten kilometers - so that they can return before nightfall; sometimes, if they follow the game too far, they may set up a temporary night camp without returning to home base.

The women (Presland,40) leave the camp soon after the men have departed. They walk down to the beach and spend the first few hours collecting shellfish and plant foods that grow along the shore. Each woman has her own digging stick, usually ending with a sharp point hardened in the fire; they use it deftly to dig roots and to dislodge small animals from their burrows. They carry their harvest in bags woven of fiber or rushes, or in containers made of bark or wood.

The small children tag along with the women. Mothers nurse their offspring for three or four years, thus delaying the next pregnancy until the present child is fairly healthy and strong. This enables mothers to work productively, which they can manage quite well while caring for one small child; they would be greatly hindered if they had two or three babies to care for.

Adolescent unmarried women in the group will be promised in marriage to a member of a designated intermarriage population in accordance with an elaborate system of mutual arrangements. When the young brides or brides-to-be depart they will feel the pains of separation before they grow accustomed to the new family and surroundings. The women of the Kulin nation marry outside of their own local tribe. But today the women and girls are still together, a happy company gathering food and socializing.

The women search for roots and yams which they can roast as tasty morsels. They may do a bit of cultivating with their sharp sticks to turn over the soil around murnong (a tuber plant, an excellent source of food) to increase yields. They deftly catch small animals. Experienced mothers teach their daughters traditional skills. At noon they stop to cook, eat, and rest. By early afternoon they gather their shellfish, vegetables, small animals, and sundry, and head for home to prepare dinner. They kindle the cooking fires, fetch water, and start roasting, steaming, or broiling the evening meal.

The men arrive at camp later, perhaps with a captured kangaroo. Shellfish sizzle in hot ashes, but to cook the kangaroo they dig a pit to roast the prize meat in the pit fire. While the food is being prepared there is spare time to repair equipment or fashion new pieces. One chips stones, perhaps to make a new spear barb which he will fix to the wooden shaft with gum and kangaroo sinews. Every man has his favorite hammer stone to chip sharp pieces and flakes of stone. Another hollows out a wooden bowl, others harden digging sticks in the fire, still others prepare animal hides which they sew together for clothing and to make bags.

Children play their games in the meantime, throwing toy spears at rolling targets, or kicking around homemade little balls. Girls play at weaving strings, learning from the older women how to make useful and even artistic baskets and bags. Dinner is a great time for all to enjoy together. As the sun sets, the evening breeze brings on its chill. They stoke the fires before the shelter for a slow glowing burn during the ensuing hours and soon turn in for the night.

A few mornings later they decide at breakfast to move camp, because food gleanings have become scarce in the neighborhood, or because the call of the wild beckons them to exploit other areas of their traditional circuit. The men plan to follow a route separate from the women, where they can fish and hunt along the way. The women will gather vegetables, small animals and shellfish as they travel by a more direct path, planning to arrive at the agreed rendezvous before evening falls, to prepare the new camp.

All carry along their main tools for daily use, but they may leave at the abandoned camp some heavier materials for use at their next visit to the area. One of the party is commissioned to carry along a glowing fire stick to start the fire easily at the new camp. After reaching their destination that afternoon, and setting up camp, life settles down to its normal routine once again: women prepare the meal, men tend to their tools of the trade (see Presland, 49).

The fur from possum skins is spun into lengths of yarn which is then used for various purposes, including also the making of a rolled up ball with which all play games. Some of the seeds, such as those of the mangrove plant, are pounded or ground into flour, and then used to make into roasted cakes.

When members of other groups join the party, as for example in preparation for initiation ceremonies, there will be a corroboree, dancing to express joy and togetherness, and perhaps as part of the dramatization of myths. The men paint their bodies with decorative lines, dots, and circles consisting of white clay, which give a remarkable dramatic effect when they reflect the glow of the campfire. Women provide rhythm by chanting, beating drums, clapping, and clicking sticks or boomerangs. Favorite places for the corroboree were located at what are today Parliament Hill, Emerald Hill, and Xavier College in today's Melbourne area (Presland, 59).

Such, to a great extent, has been the lifestyle of the Kulin for many generations. And much like it, perhaps, was the life of our own ancestors during immemorial millennia of hunter-gatherer life. How Adam and Eve lived we can only conjecture, but if they were hunter-gatherers as we logically surmise, they probably also spent days and nights much like the Kulin Aborigines did until 150 years ago.

Joyous Evenings

The evenings among typical Australian aborigines are often times for song and dance and the chanting of traditions. Catherine Berndt, Ph.D. and Ronald Berndt, Ph.D. who lived with a traditional group, were delighted when after an evening meal a singer took up his clapping sticks and began the chant, while women came around to dance (Vanishing Peoples of the Earth, 122). At the great festivals everyone got into the act:

At night at the Ooldea camp (at the edge of the Great Victoria Desert in South Australia), the low, desert sandhills echoed with a vibrant pulse of boomerangs pounding on the sand, women slapping their thighs, and men's voices rising and falling. Ron sat with the singers, and I sat in the tightly packed cluster of women and children. The steady rhythm, combined with the sweet-smelling smoke of mulga and sandalwood from the flickering fires, had an almost hypnotic effect. If one of the mythical song-characters had suddenly appeared out of the shadows, no one would have batted an eye (Ibid. 128)

The traditions of the tribes were told and retold at public festivities, and these remain the basic rationale of their lifestyle. Religion undergirds society and holds it together:

These ceremonies retelling the sacred myths were the focus, the heart, of Aboriginal society. The stories explained everything - the workings of nature, the origin of the people and of every detail of the landscape. From the myths came patterns of family and community life (Ibid.)

Hunter-Gatherers - Who They Are, Where They Live

Hunter-gatherers are people who did not adopt agriculture or herding some ten thousand years ago when the mainstream of the race gradually did so. Instead they continued to live directly from the bounty of nature. Some of those whose materials we will study have become extinct in the meantime, but others survive and are found on five continents, Europe excepted. They live in the tropics and arctics, in rain forests and deserts, in both the northern and southern hemispheres. Most now inhabit marginal and barely accessible areas, but at one time the hunter-gatherer lifestyle must have been global. Some of their names and locations are as follows.

The pygmies and pygmoid groups of Asia occupy the extreme south and southeast regions, as well as islands off the coast, or mountains and forests off the beaten paths. In India some inhabit the Nindhya and Nilgiri Mountains. The Veddas live in mountains of Sri Lanka. The Andamanese inhabit islands of the Indian Ocean. The Semang and Semoi live in mountains of Malaya. The Negritos occupy remote mountain areas of the Philippines. The pygmies of New Guinea and the New Hebridies live in the deep interior, frequently favoring mountains.

The Chepara, Kulin, and Yuin were Australian Aborigines in the southeast part of Australia; Tasmanians, now practically extinct, were their neighbors on what is now an island but was formerly connected to Australia by a land corridor.

Nigrillo groups live in forests of central and the southern half of Africa. Pygmies have made their home in the tropical forests of the Ituri drainage system. Bantu and Hamaitics live at the forest's edge, and various ancient tribes wrest their living from meager resources in the Kalahari.

In north Asia the Samoyed, Kamtschaden, and Koryak peoples, as well as the Ainu, were apparently pushed into the severe climates by more vigorous herders and farmers of middle and east Asia. The Ainu, who survive today in Hokkaido, Japan, may once have populated much of the Asian land mass.

Asian hunter-gatherers at various times of the past could march to North America via a land corridor, Beringia, which was at one time a thousand miles wide. Glaciers had locked up enough ocean water to expose above sea level what is now ocean bottom below the Bering Strait. Asian peoples migrated, likely at successive intervals of favorable climates, in valleys between glaciers. Migrants from Asia thus eventually populated North America and Greenland, then Central and South America.

The Alakalus, the Yamana, and Selk'nam Indians who occupied Tierra del Fuego, must have come either by way of Beringia and Alaska, trekking southward until they neared the South Pole, or, as some believe, they crossed the Pacific by boat, stopping at various islands along the way.

Among American hunter-gatherers who cherish creation myths are the Lenape, the Wiyot, the Maidu, and Selish. I am not aware of such myths among ancient Amazon forest dwellers. That they have been isolated for a very long time from other peoples is shown by their vulnerability to infections for which we have, in the meantime, developed immunities (For the above, see Brandewie 175-177).

If our present assessment is correct, there was a time when hunter-gatherers inhabited much of our globe, north, south, east and west. But about 10,000 years ago progressive groups of people broke out of the mold of traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyles to engage in agriculture and herding; these more vigorous peoples then gradually took over the better lands. Hunter-gatherers withdrew into less hospitable mountains, islands, regions of ice and snow, deep tropical forests, challenging deserts, and rocky coast lands. They became islands of genetically and culturally isolated peoples.

These remarkable hunter-gatherers have preserved not only traditional ways of viable co-existence with nature which provides their daily needs; they have also harbored their ancient folklore from times immemorial, stories about the formation of the cosmos and of mankind. They typically celebrate their tribal origins with song and dance and story telling, rituals which carry the culture and educate the new generations into it. The concept that the core of the creation myths is a distant and faint echo of what Adam and Eve at one time related to their children invites our consideration.

Scholars and amateurs alike have written amply about traces in Genesis of the Enuma Elish cosmogonial poem and the Gilgamesh epic of ancient Babylon. The wealth of material already written about these connections enables me to by-pass them, and to concentrate in this writing on the more ancient myths of hunter-gatherers. These latter are of wider scope, closer to our Genesis in core content than the Enuma Elish and Gilgamesh. They also reflect the primeval revelation with greater depth and vigor, as we will suggest, and are free of the grotesque, horror and blood of the Babylonian myths.

The Pope Invites Hunter-Gatherers To Hear The Gospel Message

Pope John Paul II made a special stop at Alice Springs during his visit to Australia in 1986, to invite Aborigines there to accept faith in Christ the Redeemer. It is noteworthy that he advises them to be faithful to their received traditions insofar as they are "worthy" but to also adapt their cultures as their needs indicate, for their own personal good and that of their fellow citizens. The short message given here is remarkable for its clarity and wisdom. It provides guidelines for hunter-gatherers everywhere to join the present day world without abandoning the good things of their culture, and to accept evangelization. It is likewise an admonition that missionaries should not be deterred from evangelizing hunter-gatherers even though this may tend to gradually bring the ancient culture into obsolescence:

Dear Aboriginal people: The hour has come for you to take on new courage and new hope. You are called to remember the past, to be faithful to your worthy traditions, and to adapt your living culture whenever this is required by your own needs and those of your fellowmen. Above all you are called to open your hearts ever more to the consoling, purifying and uplifting message of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who died so that we might all have life, and have it to the full (cf. John 10:10). (Nov. 29, 1986).

With the Pope we welcome the hunter-gatherers to accept the Christian message, which does not subvert or contradict those truths about the Supreme Being and the afterlife which they already inherited. The Gospel, on the contrary, provides additional Good News, a new message which does not destroy their beliefs but fulfills them.

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