Journeying Home

Latent within each of us lies a knowledge of what home feels like.

Of being at home on this planet. Within a human culture. Inside a body.

To build a viable human future on earth, we need to remember how to become at home in it again.

Part 1: How to Tell a Story [Prehistory - 1850]

This is the first post in a four-part series, entitled Cultural Evolution as a Praxis of Public Health.

The Chiefs of the Shuswap, Okanagan and Couteau Tribes of British Columbia. "Memorial Letter for Sir Wilfrid Laurier," 1910. Excerpted.[1]

"When they first came among us there were only Indians here. They found the people of each tribe supreme in their own territory, and having tribal boundaries known and recognized by all. The country of each tribe was just the same as a very large farm or ranch (belonging to all the people of the tribe) from which they gathered their food, grass and vegetation on which their horses grazed and the game lived, and much of which furnished materials for manufactures, etc…. Thus, fire, water, food, clothing and all the necessaries of life were obtained in abundance from the lands of each tribe, and all the people had equal rights of access to everything they required. You will see the ranch of each tribe was the same as its life, and without it the people could not have lived.

Just 52 years ago the other whites [the British] came to this country. They found us just the same as the first or “real whites” [the French] had found us, only we had larger bands of horses, had some cattle, and in many places we cultivated the land. They found us happy, healthy, strong and numerous.... We were friendly and helped these whites also, for had we not learned the first whites had done us no harm? ... Some of our Chiefs said, “These people wish to be partners with us in our country. We must, therefore, be the same as brothers to them, and live as one family. We will share equally in everything – half and half – in land, water and timber, etc. What is ours will be theirs, and what is theirs will be ours. We will help each other to be great and good.”

Grand Chief John Kelly. "We Are All in the Ojibway Circle." Testimony before the Royal Commission on the Northern Environment, Kenora, Ontario, 1977. Excerpted.[2]

"Mr. Commissioner, it seems to me that the stranger from the sunrise beyond the lakes just keeps coming back. Each time he promises us perpetual repose and gluttony, and leaves us with famine and disease. It also appears that, as the years go by, the circle of the Ojibway gets bigger and bigger. Canadians of all colours and religion are entering that circle. You might feel that you have roots somewhere else, but in reality, you are right here with us. I do not know if you feel the throbbing of the land in your chest, and if you feel the bear is your brother with a spirit purer and stronger than yours, or if the elk is on a higher level of life than is man. You may not share the spiritual anguish as I see the earth ravaged by the stranger, but you can no longer escape my fate as the soil turns barren and the rivers poison. Much against my will, and probably yours, time and circumstance have put us together in the same circle. And so I come not to plead with you to save me from the monstrous stranger of capitalist greed and technology. I come to inform you that my danger is your danger too. My genocide is your genocide."

 John Ralston Saul, The Comeback, 2014.[3]

“Why did so few people see how horrible all of this was? One explanation is that it was woven seamlessly into our concepts of progress and democracy."


At first glance such overwhelming imperial power did indeed seem to be justified by Western nations' technological leadership, military prowess and cultural sophistication. But the key intellectual tool -- and the central mythological tool -- was the conviction of racial superiority. Racism. It was all about white people, pink people, at the top. This was God's team, with Darwinian determinism and the machinery of modernism on its side.

In only a few years these intellectually and politically argued myths, laid out with detail and with great self-confidence, would lead the European peoples to massacre themselves in first one world war and then a second.


Because myth sets the form of power. It gives the force of legitimacy that allows a society to function.”

Human cultures are based on myths. Myths are stories of how a culture is born, what it's done since, where it's going. They bind peoples together, and they increase their chances of survival and success. We have evolved to tell them. They exert a deep, emotional hold on us, directing and shaping our identities, outlooks, and actions, mostly unseen. In John Ralston Saul's phrase, they are what allows a society to function. We tell these stories, and then we become them. We are the music makers, wrote the British poet, Arthur O'Shaughnessey. We are the dreamers of dreams.

We may not think that Western culture has myths and stories like these. We have only histories, we say. Our stories are true. The building of the railroad. Democracy in ancient Athens. The birth of agriculture. But the founding stories of a culture are never just histories. They serve a different purpose than histories do. A history tries to tell you what happened, while a myth's job is to tell you who you are and what you should do. Once a story of the past is pressed into the service of identity-making, it has risen to the level of myth. It gains a new power, but you can no longer count on it for truth.[4]

A myth might be a beautiful creation. But it is a creation still. And so when it seems that your myth is leading you to do horrible things, you can change it. And you should.

The story that lies at the root of Western culture is a story about something we've called civilization, that forward march of discovery and technology and organization. We believe we are good because we are civilized. And so we believe that more civilization will be a good thing, even if it carries high costs.

When we stand up tall with pride in our civilizational achievements, we don't always see the long, dark shadow stretching out behind us. The whole sordid history of Western imperialism lives there. The shadow is cast, I believe, by this article of faith at the heart of our story: we do not believe that we are subject to limits.

We have believed, for example, that no ecological limits should stop us. When Europeans went abroad to colonize the rest of the world, they were driven to do so, argued Marx and Lenin, because they had over-consumed their own resources and produced beyond their needs. They went looking for new resources for their mills and new markets for their goods.[5,6] And they didn't believe that social limits should stop them from taking what they found: they soon fashioned the concept of racial superiority to justify colonial theft and control.

The First Nations Chiefs quoted above tell how this story unfolded when it arrived onto North American shores. Our forebears who settled here reduced what were, by almost any historical account, a diverse group of ostensibly healthy and successful nations to one of the lowest life expectancy rates on the planet, meanwhile building up one of the richest societies in history from their land. 

Why did so few people see how horrible this was? asks John Ralston Saul. His answer is that underneath this sense of entitlement was a story -- the story of civilization -- telling us that progress, as we defined it, was the ultimate good. We could legitimize all sorts of atrocities in its name, because our story told us that everything, in the end, would be improved by our ingenuity. More civilization -- more discovery, technology, and organization -- was our cure for any ill.

But now, as the planet warms, the logic of this story is twisting into knots so tight that it might break. We might finally decide that we are not above planetary limits; not above others. That we cannot invent ourselves out of the web of life. We may see that we are, to the end, dependent upon it. There are some high-tech schemes around for engineering the planet's climate to forestall warming. They follow the usual story of inventing our way past limits. But the general consensus on these plans is that they're bat-shit insane, and we should really (finally) find another way. [7]

What do you do when you find that your story of who you are in the world is leading you astray? That your culture's identity no longer seems to guide you toward health, toward wellness, toward good relationships with the rest of life around you, toward a sane and stable future? What to do when you doubt that your story of the world is still working?

What you do, is you recall that your story was only ever a useful fiction. You double back. You return to the facts of experience your story was built from -- the history your narrative narrates. You expose your myth for the particular and partial re-telling of your past it always was. You get humble, you get curious. You take the first steps toward narrating another way.

You look back and ask what other kinds of lessons you might be able to take from your past instead. You ask what you might have gotten wrong; you look for lessons that might respond to the world you face in a healthier and more enlivening way. This work is something we could call conscious cultural evolution. It’s something that my friend and co-conspirator Matthew Remski might call deconstruction without cynicism.[8] And it's something that, wellawshucks, let's just take a crack at it here today. It seems to me that it's about time.

It can be hard to let go of a story once well-loved -- that worked well, or seemed to. It's traumatic to release a treasured fiction. But once we loosen our grip a little, we can start to see not only that our story has started to fail us, but that it wasn't even all that true to begin with. Because it's just a story, that we created, to serve a particular goal. So we allow it to slip a little from our fingers. Little by little. And then, little by little again, there arrives the sweet, salvational succour that we really are free -- free, together, to tell another. We are storytellers. We are music-makers. We can become whomever we want to be.

Let's tell another.

The Story of Civilization

The story we have been telling ourselves goes something like this: human culture began in small tribes of hunter-gatherers. Then we discovered fire. We invented farming. From farming came surplus; from surplus, stability and wealth. From stability came more intelligent social organization; from wealth came support for dedicated craftspersons, and later, artists, doctors, philosophers, astronomers. Each innovation made us less reliant on the whims and vagaries of nature: better fed, more leisured, less violent, more resistant to disease. 

We have called this the history of civilization, and by civilization, we have meant the development of larger and more complex societies, with more complex economies, becoming less and less dependent upon the rhythms of the natural world. The history of civilization we tell looks like a linear and uninterrupted rise from primordial muck to science. Civilization's opposites -- the more nature-dependent ways of life that have lived before and beside it -- are called primitive.  In this telling, the primitive past was, in Thomas Hobbes' well-worn phrase, "poor, nasty, brutish and short,” and while we may look back with sympathy, pity, or even romance at those beginnings, so goes the story, we are better off for having left it behind.[9,10]

This familiar story is a lullaby we have sung ourselves for a long time. This is the story that has been leading us astray. I want to look back at our history afresh, without the romantic lens of the familiar story. We need to ask what other lessons might be hidden in that past, how else we might be able to define ourselves. It's time we rouse ourselves a little, and sing the song anew.

How to Tell

Let's meet Mark Nathan Cohen, an American archaeologist. He has devoted most of his career to the question of whether the Western mythology of civilization is true. Here is what he's come to:

Our perception of human progress relies heavily on stereotypes we have created about the ‘primitive’ and the ‘civilized.’ We build our ideas of history out of images that we have projected on our past.... If the evidence confirms some of our proud image of ourselves and our civilization, it also suggests that our progress has been bought at a higher cost than we like to believe.
— [11]

Cohen has doubts about our  common mythology: he believes we have magnified its real benefits and downplayed its costs. The evidence he consults to determine this comes from paleopathology, or the skeletal record of human health. In the past few decades, archaeologists have developed methods of learning the health status of ancient peoples from the bones they left behind. [12] There's a surprising amount of information they can glean. [13]

The skeletal record is a tool we can use to re-examine the history that our myths are based upon, and to look for new insights into how we should live. Here's how: if civilization really has been making life better, safer and healthier, then that ought to show up in the long history of our illness and health. The health archaeologists tell us that sooner or later, social issues -- problems in a way of living -- show up in the body. When bodies are unsatisfied or underserviced, they say so. Was civilization, on balance, beneficial for its members? Says Cohen: “[t]hat is an empirical question that I will address with medical evidence.” [14]

Simply put, some kinds of societies produce well-being, while others produce disease. This pattern emerges and holds when we look across all regions of the world and across long stretches of time. Cohen tells us that "most threats to health do not occur randomly, nor are they dictated solely by natural forces: most are correlated with patterns of human activity."[15] What has civilization wrought? The real story is recorded in flesh, and stored for posterity in our bones.

The Data

The evidence that Cohen delivers is striking. As we progress through the history of civilization – from our large-game-hunting days, through hunting and gathering, to early farming, to the first great cities and to the later industrial cities; from the earliest discernible reaches of our cultural past, right up very nearly until our present, and in all corners of the world – there is a downward trend in human health on average, on nearly every measure.

Nutritional quality and quantity, the frequency and severity of famines, the hours and the strenuousness of labour, susceptibility to disease, infant mortality and life expectancy – each of these metrics of wellness shows a general decline as civilization develops, new technologies arrive, and society grows more complex. On the historical journey that we presumed to have lifted us from misery to ease, it turns out we have grown less healthy instead. To give but one example, European cities may not have even matched the life expectancy rates of pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers until the mid-19th or even the 20th century.[16] Civilization, to put it plainly, has not been good for us.

Most marked of all is a universal drop-off in well-being following right upon one of our culture's proudest achievements – the advent of agriculture.[17]

Our story tells us that civilization was an intelligent improvement over hardscrabble hunting and gathering, Cohen tells us that the opposite is true. Hunting and gathering was a highly successful economic structure, delivering reliably good health in exchange for little labour. Only when rising populations made wild foraging unviable was agriculture adopted. In all likelihood, the early developments of civilization were attempts to recover some of the quality of life we had lost, rather than to create it anew. [18-20]

How and why did this new way of life hurt us? For one, the nutrient profiles of the cereals and starchy crops that became agricultural staples paled in comparison to the varied, wild selections of hunter-gatherer fare, and they took more time and effort to produce. [21] The sedentary life, meanwhile, made agriculturalists much more susceptible to disease. Permanent settlements create piles of refuse and human waste, breeding grounds for disease-carrying vermin. Nomadic populations, by contrast, spread it around.

In fact, a number of the major infectious diseases that have plagued us may not have even existed as diseases until civilization began.[22] According to the data, that list likely comprises: measles, mumps, rubella, smallpox, the severe form of polio, two strains of streptococcus, diptheria, whooping cough, and cholera. Wild. Those organisms require large, dense, stable populations in order to establish themselves, and can rarely find a foothold in the small and mobile groups typical of hunter-gatherer. [23] Though sedentary peoples can develop resistance to local bugs, the data tells us that any such immunity advantage is more than offset by the effects of the breeding grounds civilization creates. [24]

Cohen points to some cases that contradict the downward health trend. It is only downward, of course, on average: some people, in some places, started doing better, some long while after the advent of farming. We might hope that these are the winning experiments -- the ones who figured out how to live farming well. We might presume these to be the ancestors of our own powerful present. 

When Cohen looks at these cases more closely, he finds that in each instance, right near these groups of well-faring humans lived others whose health was abysmal. This wasn't evidence of successful societies: it was pernicious inequality. Cohen argues that rank inequality is not only common in civilized societies, but a logical outcome of their very structure. [25] 

When populations grow larger and more dense, society becomes more complex. Divisions of labour develop, and a managerial class emerges to organize and oversee production. Members of society no longer know everyone else personally; norms and peer pressure no longer suffice to settle disputes. Formal authority develops, to be backed up by force. [26]

As the managerial and administrative class grows, it makes claims on resources to support its existence. Food producers are coerced into labour. The surplus they produce is extracted to feed, house, clothe, and often eventually to glorify the political elites. It pays for public works or public monuments or foreign wars. Cohen claims that most anthropologists might actually define  civilization as a society in which elites own the basic resources and lower classes must trade their labour in order to eat.[27] 

In hunter-gatherer society, by contrast, population size is limited by the number of people that can be fed from what's available at a reasonable distance on foot. On average, that's 50-100 folks. At this size, there's little division of labour. Every person or family shares in most of the productive tasks. Everyone knows one another, and disputes and decisions are handled through consensus and informal norms.[28]

Once agriculture begins, though, there's no limit to how many people can turn over an adjoining plot of land and join the group. And so, Cohen finds, "the very process that creates the potential of civilization simultaneously guaranteed that the potential is unlikely to be aimed equally at the welfare of all its citizens." [29] In many ways, the history of civilization is the history of criminal inequality, and cannot be told without it.

Well. This is heady stuff. Is he careful? He is patient, and careful. Each finding presented in the book is cross-referenced and checked against other methods and measures, against other places and times. He compares findings from ancient archaeology against ethnographic data of hunter-gatherers alive today. He regularly points out the holes and uncertainties in his data. He is clear about the challenges and stresses of the hunting-gathering life. He feels confident about his conclusions, he tells us, not because any one methodology that he uses is perfectly reliable, but because the findings of so many imperfect ones seem to point in the same direction. His data represents a broad synthesis of opinion, integrating the work of dozens of leading scholars in various fields. [30]

After all of his scholarly caution, the good archaeologist concludes that there just isn't evidence to support our cultural narrative that life grew vastly better, easier, or safer over the history of human civilization. The benefits we commonly associate with civilization, he determines, are offset or even superseded by the existing risks it exacerbates, and the brand new ones it creates. [31] 

How could we have told our cultural story so exactly wrong? This is the question we'll take up in our next post in this series. Answering that question will help us understand how to start imagining ourselves in a brand new way.

After that, we'll keep digging deeper: we'll try to make sense of the modern era, when it seems like civilization might have finally paid off. We'll next explore the last 40 years, when modern-era gains have slowed and reversed. Throughout, we'll keep tugging away at the big knot that hangs above us: if the story we tell ourselves is leading us toward collapse, how do we change it and replace it with something life-giving instead?

Re-telling that story of who we are is something we must find a way to do if we want to survive here, and to live with dignity and justice for everyone. Because, as John Ralston Saul told us above, "myth sets the form of power." 

And it is something we can find a way to do, because that is who we are. We tell stories, and then we become them. We are storytellers. We are meaning-makers. We are dreamers of dreams.

Everything is changing. The old models are not working: the new have not yet appeared. In fact, it is we who are even now shaping the new in the shaping of our lives. And that is the whole sense (in mythological terms) of the present challenge: we are the “ancestors” of an age to come, the unwitting generators of its supporting myths, the mythic models that will inspire its lives. In a very real sense, this is a moment of creation.
— Joseph Campbell [32]

Audio Credits:

    1    Space Maker - AIR  (4:03)

    2    Once Upon a Time - AIR  (5:02)

    3    Love - AIR  (2:43)

    4    0078h - M83  (4:02)  


[1] Qtd. in Saul, John Ralston. The Comeback. Toronto: Penguin Canada Books, 2014., pp. 201-201.

[2] Qtd. in ibid., pp. 220-221.

[3] Ibid., pp.10-11, 160.

[4] Throughout this series, I will refer to 'us' and 'our culture,' indicating Western culture. I will make a rough equation between Western culture and civilization. This is inaccurate. Other cultures have civilizations of a very similar kind. India, China, Incas, Mayas, and Haida, to name a few, all had large, complex social organization. By limiting my analysis to Western culture, I'm restricting the broad claims that I make about what 'we' should do to a group of people with which I identify. I am not interested in pronouncing upon what other cultures should think about their own histories, whether or not they share characteristics with the image of Western cultural history I describe.

[5] Marx, Karl. The Communist Manifesto. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 6.

[6] Austin, Andrew. "Lenin's Theory of Imperialism." Accessed 15 February 2015. Link.

[7] Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Canada: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014, pp. 256-290. 

[8] Remski, Matthew. "Seeking the Gita." matthew remski: writing, yoga, ayurveda. 1 January 2015. Accessed 13 August 2016.

[9] Cohen, Mark Nathan. Health and the Rise of Civilization. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989, p. 141.

[10] Civilized and primitive are loaded and fraught terms. They carry the baggage of imperialism and racism. For good reason, they are rarely used anymore. I have chosen to use them here, because I am specifically analyzing the Western ideas that gave rise to that imperialism and racism. We are right to have left those terms behind, but I want to dredge up that notion in order to critique it: I think there is more to be learned from what odious ideas are in our past. I continue to use the term civilization throughout this series, but avoid the term primitive beyond this point. I think it's worth resurrecting the nauseating smugness of civilization in order to deconstruct it further, but I don't think it's necessary or worth invoking the insult that lives in the term primitive.

[11] Ibid., pp. 1-6.

[12] Diamond, Jared. "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race." Discover Magazine, May 1987, pp. 64-66.

[13] Cohen, Health and the Rise, pp. 107-110.

[14] Ibid., p. 30.

[15] Ibid., p. 7.

[16] Ibid., p. 140.

[17] Ibid., pp. 16-142, passim.

[18] Cohen, Mark Nathan. The Food Crisis in Prehistory: Overpopulation and the Origins of Agriculture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977, pp. 18-70.

[19] Lee and DeVore 1968:3, qtd. in Cohen, Food Crisis.

[20] Armelagos, George J. and Mark Nathan Cohen. "Preface to the 2013 Edition." Paleopathology at the Origins of Agriculture. Eds. George J. Armelagos and Mark Nathan Cohen. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2013, pp. xvii-xxxi.

[21] Cohen, Health and the Rise, pp. 58-62.

[22] Ibid., pp. 40-48.

[23] Ibid., p. 50.

[24] Ibid., pp. 38-39.

[25] Ibid., pp. 126-7, 130-42.

[26] Ibid., pp. 26-30.

[27] Ibid., pp. 28-30.

[28] Ibid., pp. 17-20.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid., pp. vii-ix, 4-5.

[31] Ibid., p. 6.

[32] Goddesses: Mysteries of the Feminine Divine. Ed. Safron Rossi. San Francisco: New World Library, 2013, p. xiv.