Richard Gould: Learning From Ancient Human Cultures

Richard Gould is a Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Brown University (where I was his student) and one of the foremost experts on hunter-gatherer societies. In the 1960s, he and his wife spent years living with the aborigines in Australia's Western Desert, observing first-hand their way of life. Through study of these people and many others around the world, his work focused on understanding how human culture and behavior adapts to environmental stress, risk and uncertainty.

We've invited him to this week's podcast to discuss what insights ancient cultures may be able to offer in terms of "natural human behavior" that may fit well within our specie's blueprint. Humans lived sustainably, with their food systems and each other, for many millennia. And yet, in today's modern age, we have infinitely "more" than these primitive societies, but have much less general happiness (and are fast-exhausting our resource base, to boot). Are there best practices for being human that we can perhaps re-learn from our cultural predecessors?

One of the principal findings of Gould's work is that hunter-gatherer societies, while often rarely exceeding subsistence-level living standards, were quite successful at meeting their needs. Each day when they awoke, they knew what was expected of them, and why it was important. So their work had clear and obvious meaning -- to them and those in their tribe. This stands in stark contrast to modern society, where our base needs may be easily met, but we have an endless string of unfulfilled wants and manufactured "needs" that advertising and the media constantly bombard us with -- creating a chronic sense of lacking and insecurity in our society.

Gould also notes that our ancestral predecessors were much more connected to each other, which gave them great peace of mind in their outlook towards future risk:

What impressed me the most about the Aborigines -- and I know it to be true of many other hunter-gatherers, especially the ones living in stressed environments -- is the idea of social networking. 

That is, instead of the "money in the bank" approach to security, where we in our culture aggrandize and accumulate surpluses, whatever it may be -- money, goods, material wealth and so on -- and rely on those for our long-term security, these people essentially give away everything they have, mostly to their relatives, but sometimes these relatives are quite distant relatives. And when they do, they are not just giving them away. They are expecting something in return. A kind of delayed reciprocity, so that years later, if they are in need, they can call on these relatives for support and aid. 

And that system of social networks is very, very robust in hunter-gatherer cultures. You find it in other kinds of societies, too, very poor societies, for example, that have not much in the way of material possessions. But because of this type of sharing, they are able to meet whatever needs come along. This is a tremendously powerful mechanism that I think we have kind of lost in our own culture. We do not appreciate the importance of this kind of social network. We are much more into securing our future based on accumulation rather than on sharing. And I think if you are asking for a kind of 'take-home', I would say that is probably the lesson that we need to learn. We need to pay attention to this type of social order. 

Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Richard Gould (38m:14s):

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

The Tale of Gilgamesh and Enkidu

The Epic of Gilgamesh, the longest and greatest literary composition of Mesopotamia and the first great work of literature in world history, narrates a quest for fame and immortality lived by a dimly historical figure, Gilgamesh, the king of the city of Uruk. We say dimly historical figure because although Gigalmesh´s name appears in the Sumerian Kings List, indicating thus that there was an actual king bearing his name, in the epic he also interacts with gods, goddesses and mythical beings. For the purposes of this article, we will focus our attention on the friendship of Gilgamesh, the king, who can be very well described as the cvilized and arrogant city dweller, and Enkidu, the wild, natural man who is at ease in the open fields and deepest forests. As we will see, it is the bond between the two men and the early death of Enkidu that impels Gigalmesh to pursue a quest for immortality, to transform himself into a wholer being.
Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.”[d] While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.

Source (Some book or another)
We see here a progression from Hunter gatherer to Pastoralism to Agriculture.

The story of Gilgamesh's relationship with Enkidu is one of the deep love (yearning?) of the Urbane King for his Brother the hunter gatherer. He weeps bitterly when Enkidu is killed.

On a more prosaic note please be aware that if you do not eat meat you run a great risk of an silent epidemic, lack of vitamin B12. Here are the symptoms

Vitamin B12 deficiency can potentially cause severe and irreversible damage, especially to the brain and nervous system. At levels only slightly lower than normal, a range of symptoms such as fatigue, depression, and poor memory may be experienced.[2]

Vitamin B12 deficiency can also cause symptoms of mania and psychosis.[28][29]


How do I know? Guess. Bingo-every box ticked. Fortunately the psychosis is not so sever that I lack insight.

And when they say slightly lower, they mean slightly lower. Mine came in at 120, and the consequences are acute.(and permanent).

Vegetarians-You have been warned.

Endnote: The "Gods" that Gilgamesh encounters were probably induce by hallucinogens, possibly via Enkidu's knowledge of such things.

I have studied this "pre-historical" story many times and have enjoyed it immensely. Of course, if you want CONTEXT, try Zecharia's The 12th Planet, his foundational work on the Sumerian clay tablets with the first language ever recorded, the cuneform, along with his other 13 books (all of which I have digested). Sooooo–is this myth or real history?–quite a debate, methinks–but each, AFTER reading them, needs to form his/her own opinion and judg(e)ment. As an ex-Jesuit of 15 years I had to re-evaluate my overall perspective on history–what came BEFORE the GREEKS???
Along with these books, I've often wondered WHY GOLD became so important, and not something else, to our earth.  Sitchin spells out the reason and Michael Tellinger in his African Temples of the Anunnaki: The Lost Technologies of the GOLD Mines of Enki, CLEARLY presents EVIDENCE, with innumerable PHOTOS, of three lost cities (each of which being larger than Los Angeles), discovered in Zimbabwe. Why gold miners haven't cast their nets there is beyond me.

In my own search for "immortality," I have played with White Powder Gold, read voraciously many of the so-called "Enlightenment Studies" books (see a prior post)(many of which are on my website,, along with some attempts are writing Spiritual Poetry (the FOOTNOTES are crucial).  It seems that GOLD, yes, GOLD and its importance  triggered my ongoing search. So, like many of you, I buy physical gold but must admit that I have an hypothesis about why one needs it, much more than just for preserving wealth, related, of course, to Sitchin's research.


Thanks Ken,
I shall pursue your leads.

Consider the sequence Hunter/forager->Pastoralism-> Settled Agriculture -> Urbanite.

I added the Gilgamesh/Enkidu tale as a sort of Jungian Archetype in as much as the tale resonates strongly with us… Isn't it odd that the highly Urbane Gilgamesh should desire the attributes of the primitive Enkidu?

On the other hand the two brothers Cain and Abel, who were only one iteration apart in the series would resolve their differences violently.

The Zimbabwe gold thing of the Mwanamutapa is a bit overblown. It is true that the Mwanamutapa used to trade gold (Stuffed in porcupine quills) with the Portuguese in the 14th and 15th centuries in Mozambique, however it was primitive operation and Great Zimbabwe was no great shakes.

The couriers of the gold would run from one stone fortification to the next in fear of Lions. As a consequence there were small stone forts spaced at the distance of one days terrified sprint. I had the privilege as a young man of exploring these encampments- usually on the tops of granite rocks, and their shallow mines.

Here is a photo of the inner walls of Great Zimbabwe.


Too often, in my opinion, we endow early cultures with lifestyles characteristics that are unmerited.  From what I've read, the primary reason ancient civilizations were more sustainable was due to their small populations, rather than consumption characteristics.  There are numerous examples of civilizations that destroyed themselves and damaged the land they lived on due to unsustainable lifestyles.  The key difference was that it was localized, rather than global due to lower energy transportation systems.
I think we could draw a better example from the 60s counter culture, excluding the drugs.  

Personally, I'd like to see a society emerge that has high technology and science, yet lower population and individual consumption,.  Perhaps we could evolve a society where people with absurd yachts and personal castles are looked down on, rather than the homeless.  This would have to be a world where everyone clearly understands simple sustainability concepts like, having more than two children per couple on an already overcrowded planet, is a recipe for disaster.

How about the miles and miles of food terraces? For lions?  How could a small hunter-gathering population create all those miles of rock formations?  What are the ages of the CLOSED gold mines there?  How deep did they go? Why so many mines?  And what would the local population want with GOLD???  Tellinger is quite an interesting guy even if one cannot buy Sitchin's research.  When was the wall above carbon-dated? And the other structures?  AFTER reviewing Tellinger, I'd like your comments.  Best, Zen

this is a wonderful topic.  Thanks so much.  I point out that the sharing/giving-with-obligation is very much alive in modern society if you go to the countryside where the production of food dominates life.  In my opinion the Japanese have developed this to a higher art form maybe because they have lived with each other in stationary (non-exponential growth) culture for so long and are returning to stationary growth before the rest of the world.  I seem to experience much of what you are talking about here in  yugeshima island of Ehime, Shikoku which is a remote agricultural area of Japan.  Mots (

Ken, the Great Zimbabwe collapsed the usual way. They exceeded the carrying capacity of their environment which allowed the Rozvi to overrun them.
The environment of the Muwanamutapa was the distance that a woman could walk in half a day. Half a day out to fetch firewood or water or whatever and back before nightfall.

At 3 miles per hour and starting at 6 am till noon that makes 18 miles max radius. With a radius of 18 miles we arrive at a figure of 1017 sq miles to support the fortification. With a population growing exponentially we all know what happens.

There are revisionists who would like us to believe that great cities were built on the high veldt but if you went there and saw them yourself you would be sorely disappointed. I am never-the-less impressed by the industriousness of their womenfolk. (The men sat around discussing important matters).

Much to my delight I discovered on my last visit that a real live San walked right past me. I quickly baled him up and we discussed his circumstances. His daughter was a lawyer and his son a qualified doctor. He had sold off his cattle before the great drought and was doing very nicely, thank you.

Of cause the Englishmen who were observing could not comprehend my excitement- But I really thought that the San had all been exterminated by the aBantu. The San value the very small and are true masters of survival and camouflage. They are given the disparaging name of MuSarwu by the Buntu.

Thank you for exploring a wonderful subject!
One solution to balancing the old with the new is Permaculture. We've recently been greatly enjoying a series of short videos (free if you register) about how to develope one's property to establish "permanent agriculture" or food forests that provide all or much of a family's or small community's food, fuel, animal feed, shelter, etc., in ANY climate.  It's so inspiring and fabulous!  Check out Geoff Lawton's videos:


(One note, in many of the videos he discusses a permaculture course, but it is already over, so disregard all the talk of how important the course is, etc.)


Another resource is a classic, amazing book - manual really, for how to live in modern times with the food, fuel, etc. stability and security - Bill Mollison's "Permaculture, A Designers' Manual".  This is truly the most wonderful read, and reference book which covers topics from the concept of permaculture, how to design, water, soil, polycultures, home design, and even community growing.  Can't recommend this book enough - here are two places to purchase it.'s+"Permaculture%2C+A+Designers'+Manual"%3A



These are some great ways to balance the old and the new, and enjoy life while doing it!


All the best,

Can their wisdom be applied today?
Here's HOW, excuse the pun.

My estimation of Tellinger is that he is a classic schizophrenic Ken  I have a lot of experience with them and defend them vigorously. They are human WRIT LARGE.
When you encounter The Talented please treat them with respect for we owe them our civilization.

Here is his youtube channel. And here.

I too am open minded to what we consider factual in history.Check this out folks.
The Voyage of Zarah
Important Timings - Revealing Gaelic History to 583 BCE
This one is even more controversial.


I wonder:  Have you seen/read Tellinger's African Temples of the Anunnaki??  There are tons of photos of miles and miles of terraces, miles and miles of stone structures, of gold mines.  Once you say you have seen these photos and the interpretations, THEN I'll more readily believe what you write.  Before that, I suggest that your perspective might be a little biased, as, of course, mine is from SEEING the evidence.  Interpretations are a different story altogether–might lead to an interesting debate, no?
Enjoy, Zen

Thank you for the links

Great podcast, real food for thought.  Thanks Richard Gould. 
It does appear that the history of inequality and resource depletion go hand in hand with population numbers.  I think there was a whole subject there that might have been overlooked. 

I think its clear that if you put 20 people in a tribe to fend for themselves they tend to share resources equally.  Material inequality can't really exist when everyone works equally for everyone else.

However when you put 1000 people together there follows a loss of social cohesion.  It is no longer possible for people to work together on an equal basis, its no longer possible to know everyone (like family) and resources (food and water) become a major issue.  You can't just hunt for a single Bison anymore you need to slaughter a dozen, you can't just pick a single bag of almonds you needed several bushels.  That kind of supply isn't sustainable without some kind of farming.  Of course once you introduce farming you allow a select group of people to manage and control an industry that is essential to the society and subsequently a shift in power (and consequently wealth) is created and inequality and industry is born. 

The societal model that might work for humanity could require splitting people into groups of 20 or less where each group is its own farming enclave, maintains and manages its own limited resources and agrees to be independent of every other enclave.   This of course requires a lot more land over a much wider area and yes you guessed it, that means employing some kind of population control.

CM raised the essential point about Aboriginal Australians who survived for 40,000 years in relative harmony without over-populating themselves and without forming cities of people.  I suspect they essentially followed the model I suggest above, where huge parcels of land were managed by small groups. 

Someone needs to ask the question: HOW did Aboriginal Australians avoid overpopulating themselves? Was it abstinence from sex, infertility, self discipline (appreciation of resources) or harsh environment that kept them under control.   This is probably the most important question of all because humanity is plagued by over-population and it is the number one reason for the precariousness of man's current position and the cycle of self-destruction that seems to be written into mans' genes.

Actually it turns out aboriginals used to perform 'operations' on young men to control fertility but still allow them to "perform".  Its a grisly operation (google it) but obviously essential - survival depended on it.  Why modern humans aren't utilizing the fruits of modern technology (at birth) to control male fertility is a major dysfunction of our thinking and failing of our modern culture.Is it possible the reason modern civilizations failed frequently is simply because they didn't practice birth control !!!???