Our Prehistory, When Mankind Was Kinder

Scientists are increasingly revising the idea of human nature as inherently competitive and violent. A documentary explores the possibility of a prehistoric "utopia," when people lived without cruelty or war.

What a guy
What a guy
Nic Ulmi


LAUSANNE There was a time when there was no violence. It's not a dream, a fable or mere philosophical speculation. The sciences of archaeology, anthropology and evolutionary biology, along with studies of the brain and psyche, are increasingly reconstructing a profile of human nature characterized by empathy and cooperation. It's in sharp contrast to the more generalized perception of humans as inherently violent and competitive.

Knowledge of human nature is also allowing us to imagine a world without massacres, wars or brutality. Indeed, none of these are inevitable considering who and what we are. French physician, therapist and film director Michel Meignant has explored this in a documentary that is currently in production and seeking online funding. And we spoke with two scientists participating in the making of the documentary.

Archaeology suggests that violent death inflicted by one human on another was for a long time a highly rare phenomenon. National Center of Scientific Research (CNRS) scientist and prehistory expert Marylène Patou-Mathis explains that she wrote her book, Prehistory of Violence and War, because of her "irritation with always hearing the same thing — that we are violent, that human nature is thus and that this has always existed — when such affirmations are baseless. As a scientist, I thought, let's investigate the data."

What she found was that while violence was very rare in the paleolithic age — from about two million to 10,000 B.C. — it did exist in particular circumstances. "Its first traces relate to cannibalism," she says. "This could consist of a funerary rite or even rituals of human sacrifice where the victim is then eaten to unite the group. Everyone is made complicit, as it were, through the cannibalistic meal."

But why the sacrifice? "They sacrifice something very valuable, namely a member of the group, to try and find an answer to a problem — a major crisis like an epidemic or famine," she says.

This contradicts accepted ideas suggesting that competing for resources triggered primitive violence. "The generalized perception is that violence likely began with an attack on someone to take something from them," she says. "There are a lot of myths like this circulating without basis in any archeological or anthropological considerations. There is the abduction of women, for example, which is a projection of 19th century society."

Not that it was all champagne and roses

This is not about turning our ancestors into angels. "One mustn't confuse violence with aggressiveness," she warns. "The latter is a reflex, is bestial and allows us to survive." This natural aggression, a defense mechanism, has to do with being predators. "Hunter-gatherers kill animals to eat, but there are also rituals before, during and after the hunt. We know of no hunting people without such rituals. They need it to be able to kill an animal, which is their neighbor, so akin to themselves and like a brother."

Nor does absence of violence signify absence of conflict. Patou-Mathis says she has observed "there is very little violence" among the San people of the Kalahari region. "When there is a quarrel, everyone gathers. If they can't find a solution, there is a split: One group takes one of the disputing parties with them."

Archeology even allows us to retrace the prehistory of empathy, she says. "We see it when we find skeletons with debilitating injuries or congenital malformations. There are many cases, like the Neanderthal found in Iraq's Shanidar Cave. He was missing a forearm and had lived for more than 40 years, which means the group took care of him and had not rejected him or left him to die."

And though we don't have the archeological means of knowing how paleolithic children were raised, she says that it's clear at least that hunter-gatherer peoples didn't use violence to teach children. "There is no smacked bottom or slap on the face," she notes.

Photo: Humphrey King

How then did this early, peaceful humanity become brutal? Patou-Mathis says that it happened as humans became more sedentary. "That entails economic change and domestication of plants and animals," she says. "Hoarding and personal goods start to appear. In this time, we see how rock paintings depict some figures as bigger than others: elites."

The only sedentary groups without violence were small cultivator societies. "The issue of numbers is crucial," she says.

The "soft" brutality of education

There are two categories of violence against children, both transmitted between generations and creating links between individual violation and social harm. Cornelia Gauthier, a Swiss therapist and author of several books on child and family abuse, has studied both types of violence, but especially its most common forms.

"Mistreatment is to do with people who were once treated badly themselves," she says. "Practically everybody commits ordinary educational violence, more or less without knowing it, and thinking they are doing the right thing. It's the idea that the child needs it to become someone half-decent."

This type of violence consists of threats, shouting, ignoring a crying child and the odd smacking or face slap. "It is considered benign, even beneficial, when it could very well be the breeding ground of all other acts of violence," she says. "It damages the child's capacity to empathize, and could in time allow adult forms of violence to flourish." These little punishments, she says, are a "language you learn when you're little, considering that children learn by copying. The education model we implement determines what the child will later perceive as good and normal."

But in eliminating all the "soft" violence from the educational arsenal, are we not going to turn our children into little princes? That's another common misperception, Gauthier says. "Would you let your child do absolutely anything? Clearly not. The child needs limits, and actually seeks them."

When the adult says no, the child tests to see if the limit is real. Saying "don't touch the remote control" will prompt a 2-year-old to try and touch it — in an act of verification, she stresses, not disobedience. That's because his little brain registers "remote control," not the caution not to touch. To clarify such instructions she says, "repeat, "don't do it," calmly and firmly, without threats. That will have an appeasing effect on the child," and allow him to grow up without "the emotional blocks" chiding creates.

Gauthier believes educational violence appeared after humans became more sedentary. "Birth numbers increase from hunter-gatherer societies, and the older children were perhaps separated from their mothers so that the young ones could be breastfed. That must have prompted the older children to become aggressive and hit their siblings," she says. "The mother, whose suckling hormones ensure a hyper-aggressive response if her baby is touched, likely then began to hit the older child. It is a plausible hypothesis to explain the appearance of violence in the immediate family circle."

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Preparing a COVID-19 vaccine booster in Huzhou, China.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Ciao!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Brazil's senate backs "crimes against humanity" charges against Jair Bolsonaro, the UN has a grim new climate report and Dune gets a sequel. Meanwhile, German daily Die Welt explores "Xi Jinping Thought," which is now being made part of Chinese schools' curriculum.



• Senators back Bolsonaro criminal charges: A Brazilian Senate panel has backed a report that supports charging President Jair Bolsonaro with crimes against humanity, for his alleged responsibility in the country's 600,000-plus COVID-19 deaths.

• Gas crisis in Moldova following Russian retaliation: Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, has for the first time challenged Russia's Gazprom following a price increase and failed contract negotiations, purchasing instead from Poland. In response, Russia has threatened to halt sales to the Eastern European country, which has previously acquired all of its gas from Gazprom.

• New UN climate report finds planned emission cuts fall short: The Emissions Gap Report 2021 concludes that country pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions aren't large enough to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 °C degrees this century. The UN Environment Program predicts a 2.7 °C increase, with significant environmental impacts, but there is still hope that longer term net-zero goals will curtail some temperature rise.

• COVID update: As part of its long-awaited reopening, Australia will officially allow its citizens to travel abroad without a government waiver for the first time in more than 18 months. Bulgaria, meanwhile, hits record daily high COVID-19 cases as the Eastern European's hotel and restaurant association is planning protests over the implementation of the vaccination "green pass." In the U.S., a panel of government medical advisors backed the use of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for five to 11-year-olds.

• U.S. appeals decision to block Julian Assange extradition: The United States said it was "extremely disappointed" in a UK judge's ruling that Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, would be a suicide risk of he traveled across the Atlantic. In the U.S., he faces 18 charges related to the 2010 release of 500,000 secret files related to U.S. military activity.

• Deposed Sudan prime minister released: Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has been released from custody, though remains under heavy guard after Sudan's military coup. Protests against the coup have continued in the capital Khartoum, as Hamdok has called for the release of other detained governmental officials.

Dune Part 2 confirmed: The world will get to see Timothée Chalamet ride a sandworm: The second installment of the sci-fi epic and global box office hit has officially been greenlit, set to hit the screens in 2023.


Front page of the National Post's October 27 front page

Canadian daily National Post reports on the nomination of Steven Guilbeault, a former Greenpeace activist, as the country's new Environment minister. He had been arrested in 2001 for scaling Toronto's CN Tower to unfurl a banner for Greenpeace, which he left in 2008.


Chinese students now required to learn to think like Xi Jinping

"Xi Jinping Thought" ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university, reports Maximilian Kalkhof in German daily Die Welt.

🇨🇳 It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education. The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader. Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself.

📚 Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.

⚠️ But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation? The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com


"I'm a footballer and I'm gay."

— Australian soccer player Josh Cavallo said in a video accompanying a tweet in which he revealed his homosexuality, becoming the first top-flight male professional player in the world to do so. The 21-year-old said he was tired of living "this double life" and hoped his decision to come out would help other "players living in silence."


Why this Sudan coup d'état is different

Three days since the military coup was set in motion in Sudan, the situation on the ground continues to be fluid. Reuters reports this morning that workers at the state petroleum company Sudapet are joining a nationwide civil disobedience movement called by trade unions in response to the generals' overthrow of the government. Doctors have also announced a strike.

Generals in suits At the same time, the military appears firmly in control, with deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok allowed to return home today after being held by the coup leaders. How did we get here? That's the question that David E. Kiwuwa, a professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham, takes on in The Conversation:

"Since the revolution that deposed Omar el-Bashir in 2019, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

Economy as alibi For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council. This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy.

True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19. Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse."

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com


471 million euros

Rome's Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, better known as Villa Aurora, will be put up for auction in January for 471 million euros ($547 million). The over-the-top price tag is thanks to the villa having the only known ceiling painting by Renaissance master Caravaggio.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Who wants to start the bidding on the Caravaggio villa? Otherwise, let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com!

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