This is barely medical at all, but I need to say it in public. The question about whether low-technology people had “more free time than we do today” is completely unanswerable, in fact its formulated so badly it shouldn’t even be called a question.
If you google “hunter gatherer” and page past all the weight-loss diets, you eventually find people who both study cultures with less material technology and also envy them, and inevitably somebody is saying that “primitive” people (or “primitive tribes”) had more free time than modern humans. And, equally inevitably, you will find people passionately arguing that no they didn’t, they had to work all day or starve. Its time to put that question down.
Folks, “free time” is a culture-bound concept. You just can’t make comparisons. Its true that stone-age (or even bronze-age) hunter gatherers had no concept of grinding away hours in a cubicle, but neither did they have a concept of kicking back with a pouch of roasted crickets and catching up on their hero-goes-over-the-mountain-song. Many things I do in my “free time”- gardening, or foraging- would have seemed like work to a paleolithic band. Conversely, things I do as “work”- long conversations, learning healing techniques, formulating and expressing opinions on abstract concepts- were day’s-end activities once upon a time. You just can’t compare.
Furthermore, even if you look at work done so as not to starve, the comparisons become difficult, because humans worry as much about social prestige as they do about survival, often much more. I wrote here about JD Speth’s conclusion that paleolithic big game hunting (as opposed to the 4R-staples- rabbits, rodents, reptiles, arthropods, plus eggs, birds, fish and molluscs- which made up the bulk of the animal component of attested pre-metal-tool diets) was primarily a prestige activity, and hunters generally experienced a net caloric loss. Does big game hunting count as work, then? Even considering that the time would have been better spent- with a hit to one’s social status, of course- digging out marmots? On the modern side of the balance, Americans spend 9.8% of their income on food, does that mean that the other 38.786 hours per week should be figured differently? (that’s 90.2% of 43 hours by the way) Surely at least some of the income so generated goes to prestige activities, so the work done to obtain it is no more “for survival” than the time spent at home making yourself a really cool date hat. Furthermore, about half that food money goes to prepared food- if you could concievably survive on much cheaper bulk staples (and be healthier) are you working for food for survival? Or for prestige?
Basically it makes no sense to make that sort of comparison.
And while we’re disputing romantic primitivists and their detractors…
Yes, Christopher McCandless died. People say he was reckless and stupid, and argue about whether he actually starved to death, or whether he was poisoned by swainsonine in wild peas. Either way, he could have self-rescued, except that the Teklanika river that he crossed in dearth in April was in flood in July. Folks, if he had been truly reckless and stupid and tried to cross it, he’d have been one of the 136 Americans who drown every year in Alaska and you’d never have heard of him. Instead, he was the one guy who starved.
As much as it annoys me to see people romanticize “primitive” cultures (they’re fine, okay? they’re just more people!) it makes me more angry when fans of “Survivorman” or whatever try to make living in any way off the land seem incredibly dangerous, especially if you aren’t armed with 20 pounds of sharp metal and an ALICE belt. If you’ve ever wondered what are the most common causes of death in the wilderness they are as follows: number one, heart disease. Number two, drowning. Number three, falls. Number four, car crash. Sure, most people don’t drown in the suburbs, but the rest is familiar stuff. Stop making the woods look scary!
In general, people who die in the woods are people who came out for a short period of time. Why? Because that’s who’s in the woods. People who decide they’re going to live in the national parks, or whatever, generally get bored and lonely and walk out alive. For every Christopher McCandless there are probably thousands of people who went on a really long adventure and just lost a little weight. Talking up the danger level may make you feel tough and macho for your brand name axe and knife combo, or may help you rationalize spending your vacation playing Skyrim, but it also keeps people who would have a blast walking the PCT, say, from going out and trying something new. And who knows, maybe we will get some real low-tech refusenik nomads one of these days!
(And only a few mushrooms are seriously poisonous, and some of the really good ones look nothing like them- but learn from a person, not the internet)
(thanks to Ran for reflecting the “stop making the woods look scary” rant back to me in an intelligible way)