Could Someone with ADHD have Survived in a Primitive Hunting Society?
Someone asked me the question and said that if he’d been alive 10,000 years ago he would have been doomed because “I’d forget to take my spear with me when we left for the hunt!”
ADHDers are damaged by growing up in our society, but not in hunting cultures. Why?
Many thoughtful people on all sides of the ADHD issue have asked me this question. One of the most articulate put it quite succinctly when he said that if he’d been alive 10,000 years ago he would have been doomed because “I’d forget to take my spear with me when we left for the hunt!”
Others have taken pains to point out to me the necessity of organized cooperative action for most primitive hunting parties. The ideal of a hyperactive loner going through the woods looking for dinner doesn’t at all characterize how most anthropologists describe primitive (or today’s) hunter/gatherer methods.
At first glance, it would appear that these considerations blow a hole in the hypothesis that modern people with ADHD are carrying around a remnant of hunter/gatherer genetic material. It lends credibility to the notion that ADHD is, in fact, a “disease” or at least “not normal,” and may not have ever been “normal” in human history.
But that overlooks a critical issue: cultural context, the effect of what we learn to believe about ourselves as we’re growing up.
Cultural anthropologists are quick to point out that it’s extremely difficult for any one culture to clearly view another. We instinctively assume when observing their behaviors that they’re motivated in the same ways we are, that they behave the way they do for the same reasons we would if we were in their situation, and that they share our assumptions about how the world works and humanity’s role in the world.
This is a dangerous error, which even tripped up Margaret Mead when she was writing Coming of Age in Samoa. Since her well-intentioned but well-publicized error, few anthropologists would make this mistake. But it’s easy for somebody untrained in the field.
The problem, essentially, is that most people, when thinking of “primitive times,” imagine themselves running around in the woods wearing animal skins and carrying a spear. In their mind’s eye, they transport a twentieth century person back into a fantasy past.
But these “Connecticut Yankees in King Arthur’s Court” don’t represent what it was like to grow up in those times; they arrive in a different era complete with all our acculturation, carrying along all the damage done to them by our culture. They haul along the preparations we’ve received for a Farmers/Industrialists life, but utterly lacking preparation for a Hunters/Gatherers life.
The fact of the matter is that people in hunter/gatherer tribes live very different lives than we do, and therefore grow up to be very different persons from us.
ADHDers are damaged by growing up in our society, but not in hunting cultures
Cultural anthropologist Jay Fikes pointed this out to me when we first discussed the idea of hunters and farmers as an explanation for many modern psychological differences among people. His research showed that individuals living among the historically agricultural Native Americans, such as the Hopi and other Pueblo Indians, are relatively sedate and risk-averse.
On the other hand, Fikes said, members of the hunting tribes such as the Navajo are “constantly scanning their environment and are more immediately sensitive to nuances. They’re also the ultimate risk takers. They and the Apaches were great raiders and warriors.”
Navajo children grow up in a society of Navajo hunter and warrior adults (at least they did before we conquered them, destroyed their culture, shattered their religions, stole their land, and murdered most of their citizens). The Navajo raised their children as hunters and warriors. Until we arrived with horses and guns, they were extraordinarily successful, and had survived as an intact culture for thousands of years longer than we have.
But we today are not a society of hunters, raiders, and warriors. We are farmers, office- and factory-workers. Therefore, we punish and discourage hunter and warrior behavior in our children and adults.
When people grow up being punished for being the way they are, they become damaged.
They think of themselves as misfits and incompetents. They lose their own personal power, become shaken and fearful, and develop a variety of compensating behaviors—many of which are less than useful.
What you—the parent, teacher, counselor, or physician—what you tell the ADHD child about himself can have a decisive effect. Children respond very differently to being told “This is how you work” instead of “You just don’t work right.”
To think that these modern ADHD people — damaged, shaken, hurt, and weakened by growing up in the wrong time and culture — could somehow solve all their problems by simply transporting themselves back to some mythical prehistoric hunting era is a fantasy. It wouldn’t work.
They weren’t raised and trained to survive in that environment; they weren’t taught to channel their energies into being hunters and warriors.
Instead, they were spanked and slapped, told to shut up and given detention, and — the ultimate insult — told that they are damaged goods and have a brain disease worthy of the labels “deficit” and “disorder.”
Hunters are both born and made
Every type of culture puts enormous amounts of effort into educating and inculcating cultural values into their citizens. That’s how it becomes a culture.
In hundreds of ways, we are daily taught and reminded of what is expected of us, what the limits and boundaries are, and what are appropriate and inappropriate goals and behaviors. Most of this teaching is so subtle we’re totally unaware of it — a glance from a stranger when we talk too loud in a restaurant, for example — but our days are filled with it. It shapes us and molds our beliefs, our assumptions, and ultimately our reality.
We come face-to-face with these differences when we encounter other cultures. I remember my shock and dismay at discovering, the first time I was in Japan negotiating on behalf of my company in the 1970s, that I had committed dozens of major cultural blunders in my interactions.
Even more shocking confrontations occur when we meet people from far disparate tribes: I remember how odd I felt when, deep in the jungle of central Uganda, I stood in a village of people who were mostly naked. My jeans, shoes, shirt, and carried jacket seemed an oddity to them, and began to seem that way to me after a few hours.
And so we train our young. We reinforce and strengthen in them those behaviors, assumptions, and beliefs that we find useful as a society, and we discourage or crush in them those that are not useful or even counterproductive to the orderly flow of our culture and its work.
Farming societies teach their young how to be good farmers. Hunting societies train their children in the ways of the hunt. Industrial societies raise their children to be good factory workers. Warrior cultures teach warfare to their children.
By the time a young man in the Ugandan Ik hunter/gatherer tribe is ready to go out on a hunt with the men, he has been trained his entire life for that moment. He’s played at it virtually from birth. He’s had a personal mentor for half his lifetime, an adult who has taught him the lore of the jungle and the prey. He’s practiced for thousands of hours.
He may be high-energy, impulsive, distractible, and a risk-taker, but he is also a brilliant and proficient hunter, a master killing machine. He has been trained from his first steps to focus and concentrate that wild energy on this one task, and to exploit and use his scanning and quick-thinking and love of adventure to cooperate with the other men in the jungle to bring home dinner.
In this context, you can see how naïve it is to ask if a “person with ADHD” (which is, after all, a “disorder” defined only by, and unique to our culture) could succeed in a hunting/gathering society.
There’s little doubt that a child who’s had his ego bashed from thirty different directions since he was little, who’s spent his life being told “don’t be that way” and “sit down and shut up,” whose only well-honed hunting skill is finding entertainment with his remote control, would fail in the jungle. Anyone who’s always been told they’re no good will lack confidence and will fail to perform.
This was perfectly illustrated by a story in Newsweek a few decades ago. It was an account of an ongoing study of a group of now-adults with ADHD who were diagnosed as having ADHD in elementary school in the 1960s: some had significantly lower outcomes in life than people not diagnosed with ADHD.
But nowhere in the study, or the article, was it mentioned that only the ADHD subjects were told they were “disordered” and required to take drugs for their “mind sickness” while still children.
For the study to have statistical validity, a matching population of non-ADHD children would have to have been treated the same way, and their outcome would have to be compared against the ADHD population.
Of course no ethical researcher would dare take a perfectly ordinary child and tell him such things: too many past studies in the field of psychology have shown how destructive the outcome could be. But that’s exactly what we’ve been doing with our ADHD children.
If that same child with the bashed ego had been born into a hunting tribe, so that his traits were developed instead of being beaten out of him, he may well have turned out to be the mightiest of their warriors, the most brilliant of their hunters, the wisest of their elders.