The Technology of our Ancestors

Another recumbent rider who also blogs on WordPress recently wrote about the pros and cons of using ancient technology in preference to modern.  He makes a good point, and he was careful to moderate it with the phrase “a rule of thumb.”  He wrote, “I have developed a rule of thumb when evaluating if a health claim is true or not; If early humans did it, then it is good, otherwise it is bad.”

I didn’t want to instigate a long, drawn-out argument on his blog about this – mostly because I have no real argument – but I believe the subject does beg discussion, and this blog has been cooking in my mind for a couple of days now.

I have some of the same philosophies about life, though the rules are more complex.  I make every effort to buy local organic produce, for instance, and there are lots of farms here about, but coffee doesn’t grow in northern California, so there’s an exception right there.  And we aren’t giving up our computers.

Some of you know that I’m active in the Society for Creative Anachronisms, and that I have long studied the arts of the sword and the bow.  However, if a crazed rapist were to break into the house, you know I’d reach for the Smith & Wesson.  Even the most enthusiastic SCA-er will remind you that it’s “The middle ages as they should have been.”  Like, no Plague, we wear eye-glasses, and if you try to take away women’s suffrage, we’ll kill you with your own sword.

And, of course, there are some of us who simply wouldn’t be alive today if it wasn’t for 21st Century medicine.

So, can we agree that some modern solutions are better than bronze age ones?

Let’s take a closer look at some ancestral solutions, though.   The first question we have to ask is, “Which ancestors?”  The ones from pre-electric 19th century, or shall we go back as far as Australopithecus?  I’m not running around naked on the African savannah for anybody.  The original blog was about shoes, and the earliest known shoes are from bronze-age Mesopotamia.  That’s still a long ways to go back.

Difficult to pick, huh?

There is a popular television show on NBC called Revolution, and the major premise is that the entire world has been plunged into a permanent black out because all of the electricity has been turned off.  Remember that scene from The Day the Earth Stood Still? (The superb 1951 version, not the bastardized 2008 one.)  Well, it’s not 1951 anymore, and the consequences are even more dire.  Suddenly, we’re back to 19th Century agrarian communities.

Revolution is escapist post-apocalypse fantasy, though certainly not as much so as the book Dies the Fire (one of my absolute fave books, by the way!) Have you ever worked a farm using 19th Century technology?  I have.  It’s fun for about a week.  After that it’s just hard work, and lots of it.  And quite frankly, I don’t believe the current world’s population could be fed that way.

So, where do I stand on this issue?  Well, like almost everything else, it depends on the details.

More musings on this at another time.


5 Responses

  1. That crazy blogger must have just been referring to health issues because actually wanting to give this life up to live back then would be insane.

    • Hi Charles. This is why I was careful to quote the blogger’s exact words. I didn’t want anybody to think he was some luddite.

      On the other hand, I’m not sure that an easy distinction can be made regarding health issues and culture. So many health choices are made based on culture and how we perceive the universe.

      An example of how the blogger is absolutely dead on correct is smoking. This has got to be the most stupid, life-wasting health decision that anybody can make. Followed closely by a sedate life-style and drug abuse.

      However, people in our parents’ and grandparents’ generations were actually told that smoking is good for you, and everybody smoked, so one was a non-conformist for not smoking.

      An example of where the blogger was perhaps not so correct is the practice of swaddling babies. The wikipage on this would have you believe that this practice, perhaps started in the paleolithic, is controversial, but a pediatric nurse would slap you upside the head for doing that to your baby.

      It wasn’t so long ago that people believed that disease was a punishment for sin. For me, to believe that babies are born with crooked backs because they are being punished by God is a sure sign of insanity. (It was only about 20 years ago when someone insisted to me, with an absolute straight face, that a baby was born with AIDS because somebody engaged in immoral activities.)

      It’s thought that George Washington bled to death as a treatment for a cold.

      To be fair, the blogger said “rule of thumb” indicating that it was not a hard and fast belief. But how do you choose? We’d have to choose based on our own current understanding of health and our perception of how the universe works, no?

      • It is a complicated issue. I remember when they came out with baby formula and so many people stopped nursing because it was easier and people trusted in science, but mother nature sets the rules and it is tough to beat her. Believe me, I love the comforts of the 21st century but one must be mindful of the costs and a good balance must be found.

        I, for example, still enjoy pizza or ice cream now and then. Is it unhealthy? Sure, but I am willing to pay the price for the pleasure as long as I don’t let that price get too high.

  2. We need to learn from our mistakes, although first we must recognize the mistakes we make. I don’t care to go back to life before germ theory and antibiotics, thank you. Is society in general making mistakes with antibiotics and anti-infectives these days? (think triclosan) Yes. It is, and I’m not sure the mistakes are being recognized and remedied quickly enough. Society is complicated and large and overpopulated. Misinformation is easier to acquire than balance.

    I agree that Mother Nature sets the rules. We silly humans may bend those rules up to a point, after which they break. And after that what will we do? If we destroy our food system with chemicals and GMO’s and feeding antibiotics to livestock (don’t get me started on factory farming!) Mama Nature is not going to be happy.

  3. I just realized what I said earlier is incorrect. I don’t actually remember them coming out with baby formula. I’m old but not that old. I just remember that nursing a baby was not common when I was younger, at least, the people I knew with babies all used formula.

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