Going Paleolithic

In his thoroughly enjoyable Science In The Capitol trilogy, Kim Stanley Robinson (who happens to be my favourite author) talks about a concept called “The Paleolithic Life”; something he also spoke about in a Google Tech Talk on Climate Change (at ~50min in).

The idea is that there are certain activities engraved in the mind of every human, which result in joy and happiness. These are the things the paleolithic man did during his waking hours, things nature rewarded him for by making him feel alive and capable and good, thus helping him evolve and aiding his development.

Mr. Robinson compiled a list of these activities:

  • Spending the day outdoors
  • Walking and running
  • Looking for things
  • Making things
  • Throwing rocks
  • Cooking and eating
  • Talking and listening
  • Singing and music
  • Dancing and sex
  • Finding a mate
  • Raising kids
  • Looking at fire
  • Seeing by moonlight
  • Killing animals
  • Being killed by animals
  • Making beds at night
  • Exploring new land
  • Feeling emotions, including terror, religion, right and wrong, etc.

Especially when you spend your waking hours in an office job, most of these activities are not part of your life anymore. We do not need to hunt for food anymore, we’re seldom being killed by animals1, we don’t throw rocks. But the engraved patterns, the subconcious memories of our ancestors life in the paleolithic, the biochemical reward mechanisms are still within us – just unused.

What a waste.

Having doubts about this? Here are some quick tests: If you have the chance, find a fireplace in the night and stare at the flames for a while. Or get out at night, take a walk by moonlight. Or meet with friends for self-made dinner. Or have good sex. (Or all of the above, at once.)

KSR’s proposal is picking up our old habits again, raking in the old rewards, in order to lead a happier life. In a slightly modernised form, of course. Throwing rocks is awesome – until someone is crying, that is. Which should be avoided. So, how about Frisbee or Baseball? You throw things at things, with less chance of killing people by accident! And think about walking, running, building things with your own hands

Intriguing, no?

(His theory doesn’t seem to be entirely fresh or new, tho; I think it has influenced some of the storylines in his wonderful Mars books, even though it was not specifically mentioned (it was in the aforementioned Science In The Capitol books). Some of the characters find some inner peace when doing more or less mundane tasks; Nirgal just wanted to run2, Nadia was happiest when she could build and make, John was at the top of his world when he could talk with and listen to people, etc.)

So, long story short, I’m trying to get a bit more paleolithic in my life.

As mentioned, I have started running in April, and it’s actually pretty cool. I feel really good after most of my runs (not during them, mind you) – my new-found ability to run 5km straight is nothing short of a miracle to me, really.

Since I don’t feel like hitting and paying for other peoples' stuff, but want to throw things at things, I bought some Frisbees and already took them out for some hilarious practice games with Dana, we had a blast, and I will try to make it a regular activity. I actually want to give casual Disc Golf a try; we’ll see.

Already I try to spend (a little bit) more time outdoors, mostly by walking instead of taking the bus, watching my surroundings, i.e. walking with open eyes. Good for the health, and sometimes you’ll see interesting things, really. And next week I’ll go kayaking. Gonna be interesting.

And I will try not to be eaten by wild animals.


  1. The feeling of successfully outrunning/outsmarting a predator was where the reward and joy lay, KSR mentioned in his Google Tech Talk. ↩︎

  2. Quite honestly, the figure of Nirgal, especially his recurring wish to “just run” deeply resonated with me. I’d even say he was one of the big influences that made me pick up running. Don’t laugh, please. Interestingly enough, Science In The Capitol’s Frank Vanderwal’s excursions into “running frisbee golf” read so good, it made me order two discs. :P ↩︎

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Carlo Zottmann @czottmann