In "Lessons in Living from the Stone Age," the Arctic explore Stefansson watches the undermining of a co-operative form of society, with nothing to take its place. He wonders, as we may also, which is the "good" life: the primitive or the modern competitive form.- Harlow Shapley

Source: Stefnsson, Vilhjalmur (1939). "Lessons In Living from the Stone Age." In: Shapley, Harlow, Rapport. Samuel, Wright, Helen (editors. 1943). A Treasury of Science.


Lessons In Living from the Stone Age



Slightly less embarrassing than owning to a philosophy of life is confessing that you have some idea, though vague and changing, as to what constitutes the good life. My ideas of it come chiefly from a comparison between civilization and primitive culture.

I feel that when Shaw intentionally speculates in his Back to Methuselah on the good life in coming millenniums he describes unintentionally the lives of some groups of our ancestors during millenniums of the remote past. For Shaw pictures the nearly ideal condition of the future in a way that has little relation to civilization as we find it about us to-day but which is reminiscent of a great deal that we call the lowest savagery. . . .

My party of one white and three "Americanized" western Eskimos reached the Stone Age Eskimos of Coronation Gulf in late winter, traveling by sledge in a manner to which the local people were accustomed. We wore fur garments similar to their own, and gave the impression of being not foreign, though strangers. We were able to converse from the first day; for Eskimo is one language from Greenland to Bering Sea across the northern frontier of the New World.

In culture the Gulf Eskimos went back not thousands but tens of thousands of years; for they were just emerging from the age of wood and horn into the earliest period of stone. They knew that certain berries and roots could be eaten, although they did not consider them as real food, but only as a substitute for food in an emergency. Their proper diet was wholly animal tissues. Through two-thirds of the year it was chiefly seal, with an occasional polar bear. During the summer they lived mainly on caribou, with some fish. There was no clothing except from the skins of animals. The tents were of skin and so were the boats. There were kayaks, the small boats used for hunting; there were none of the large skin boats in which other groups of Eskimos travel. The only domestic beast was the dog, and he was mainly a hunting animal. There was usually not more than one dog for each hunter; so that, although the dogs were hitched to sledges in traveling, there were so few of them in comparison with the people that essentially the Eskimos themselves were the draft animals.

The Coronation Eskimos knew of the Bear Lake forest but did not like it as a country to live in and made journeys to it only to secure timber for sledges, tent poles, and for a few other uses. They considered the treeless prairie north of the forest the best possible land in summer, and they considered the ice of the gulf and strait a proper and desirable home in winter. They were satisfied, then, with both their country and their climate, believing that any change would be for the worse.

These Stone Age people considered not only that the one proper food is meat but also that the most delicious things in the world are the preferred parts of animals. They had the highest average of good health which I have ever found in any community of like size; most of the deaths among them came from accident or old age. They had a religion by which they believed themselves able to control their environment; but it was a religion neither of hope nor of fear. There was no permanent future life; there was nothing resembling heaven or hell. The spirits were powerful but they were not in themselves good or evil, though they might do the good or evil bidding of men or women who controlled them this Stone Age attitude toward spirits was something like the modern attitude toward explosives or steam power: things neutral in themselves but capable of being used for good or ill. They had as much desire to live as any of us but less fear of dying than most of us have.

Of the seven hundred or so Stone Age people about two hundred had been in contact with whaling ships for a few days each of two years, 1906-7 and 1907-8. Our visit to them was in 1910. There were a dozen or less who had seen David Hanbury when he passed along the southern edge of their district in 1902. Another dozen had seen for an hour or two at close range some Slavey Indians a few years before our visit, and of course they had seen groups of them frequently at a distance. But at least four hundred had never heard the noise which gunpowder makes when it explodes or seen the lighting of a match. They had seen pieces of cloth and believed them to be skins of animals. They had received many guns by tribe-to-tribe trade, but had secured them only when the neighbor groups had run out of ammunition. They hammered and cut up the guns to make things which they wanted, such as knives, spear points, and especially needles.

When we first lived with these people they envied us greatly just one thing we had with us, our sewing needles. Among themselves the most valuable single possession was a dog. I purchased a dog for a large knife, worth about three dollars at American wholesale prices. Later that day the man returned with the knife and with a second dog if I would take the knife back he would give me two dogs for one needle. They explained that, although they had seen the Eskimo woman member of our party sewing before we made the first trade of the knife for the dog, they had not then realized that she possessed two needles. Now they understood that she had not only two but several, and she had told them that, with my consent, she was willing to give up one.

We inquired and found that by local standards a No. i size sewing needle was worth much more than any knife and was well worth, in the common estimation, two good dogs. So we made the trade.

The point of the trading story is that these Stone Age Eskimos were as yet not discontented with their copper knives, although they had been familiar for decades with the better iron knives which they themselves had made through Stone Age technic from rifle barrels and other pieces of iron. But they were far from content with their copper needles, for the shafts were necessarily stout in comparison with the size of the eye, which made it difficult to sew a waterproof seam.

Waterproof sewing is apparently one of the early discoveries of man. There may not be any people on earth to-day except the Eskimos who still remember how to make, and do make, a really waterproof seam. For most or all other sewers rub grease into a seam to waterproof it, or use some trick of that sort; but the women of the Stone Age Eskimos considered it an insult if they saw anybody rubbing grease on the seam of a water boot which they had made. However, in spite of their skill, water- proof sewing was difficult with the use of a copper needle; but it was easy with one of our steel needles.

Perhaps we have gone too far already before saying that we have no thought of deriving the health, happiness, and other details of the good life of the Copper Eskimos from their backward state from their being still thousands of years behind us in technological development. We are merely trying to sketch briefly, and without any necessary causal relation, how these people lived who were to all appearances so much happier than any other people whom I have ever known.

We were the first of European civilization to live with these Eskimos, and we saw during the first year the gradual, and later rapid, increase of discontent which was a decrease of happiness. Discontent grew not always along lines that might have been expected. For instance, you would think that our matches would have been coveted, but this was not the case. Their method of lighting fires by knocking together two pieces of iron pyrite had advantages which to their minds (and even to mine later on) compensated for the disadvantages. Certainly a match is handier for a cigarette; also for lighting a fire in good weather our matches were better. The advantage of the pyrite we discovered when we had to kindle a fire in a gale or in a rainstorm. It came to be our practice when we traveled with the Stone Age people to light fires with matches in good weather and to borrow their technic when the weather was bad. Then another advantage of pyrite was of course that two pieces of it, each the size of a lemon, would last you for years, if not for a lifetime. Nor did you have to worry about keeping these lumps of rock dry.

The Stone Age people had been discontented with their needles before we came. The first discontent after that was connected with the insect pests. They had never conceived of a mosquito net that would protect your face during the day and that might be used to cover your bed at night. As first they considered our face nets and bed nets frivolous. But after a few weeks of association they began to say what a fine thing it would be if a white trader should come in with enough mosquito nets so that everybody could buy one.

There were also the black flies. Eskimo garments are loose, somewhat as if the coat were a Russian blouse and the trousers in the style of our pajamas. Besides, in the heat of the summer, with temperatures sometimes running above 90 in the shade, they practically had to have rents and holes in their skin clothing. Through these holes, up their sleeves and down their necks would crawl the black flies as if they were fleas, stinging so that the hurt was greater than the itch. Against these pests we wore knitted cotton shirts and drawers, with long arms and long legs, the elasticity making them tight and flyproof round the wrist and ankle. A longing for this kind of underwear to use in summer was perhaps the basis of the second of the new discontents.

There grew slowly through the first summer an appreciation that a cloth tent was better than one of skins lighter, less bulky, and less difficult to preserve from decay. It was not until perhaps the second or third year that there was any real discontent with the bow and arrow for caribou hunting and a desire for rifles. The appreciation of the value of fish nets, as compared with spears and hooks, developed somewhat more rapidly than the longing for guns. During the first few years of Copper Eskimo association with Europeans there was no discontent on the score of diet. The local conception was, as said, that meat is real food and that things like cereals and vegetables are makeshifts.

Perhaps the only thing with which the Coronation people are still con- tent is their climate. You cannot describe to them the weather of Hawaii or California in such terms as to get a more favorable reply than that no doubt Europeans like that sort of thing but they themselves would never like it. They still prefer boiled meat to any imported food; but they now feel ashamed if they do not have, especially for visitors, a few of the costly imports to offer, among them tea, coffee, sugar, salt, bread, and syrup.

They are as discontented now with the sewing machines which they own as they formerly were with the copper needles. They are less content with the best rifles they can get than they were with their bows and arrows. They still enjoy their own songs most, but they feel a social need of phonographs, and there is a developing need for the radio. They know that their skin clothes are best for the climate, but fashion has laid such hold upon them that they must have clothes of silk and other materials.

In 1910 they believed in keeping up with the Joneses. In this they used to be approximately successful; for under their communistic anarchy everyone shared the best of the foods and the best of all materials. There was scarcely any difference between garments except that one woman could make a more attractive dress than another out of a given material, or a man correspondingly could make a slightly superior bow or spear. To-day keeping up with the Joneses wears a different aspect. Formerly in that contest they had no problems which we classify as economic; now they compete, or want to compete, in things which are beyond their economic reach, some of them known through hearsay but not obtainable in their country.

 The breakdown in native economy, and thereby in self-respect, is more easily described, at least so far as my own experience goes, from the Mackenzie River district, several hundred miles to the west of the Copper Eskimos.

 Mackenzie habits of life began to change with the entrance of the New England whaling fleet in 1889. I arrived there in 1906. Between that year and 1918 I saw much change; the rest to date is known to me from dependable reports.

 Comparing the reports of Sir John Franklin with what I saw a hundred years later, I would conclude that two thousand delta people had decreased in a century to less than two hundred. The chief cause was measles, one epidemic of which, in the memory of those still living, had killed something like two out of three within a few weeks. Tuberculosis had been rare or absent; now it was prevalent. Digestive troubles had been few, but now they were common. Tooth decay had been unknown, but now their teeth were as bad as ours. There is no reasonable doubt that in 1820 the Mackenzie people, then in the Stone Age, were on the average as healthy as my Copper Eskimos were in 1910; but when I reached the Mackenzie district in 1906 the average Mackenzie health was probably not better than that of our worst slum districts.

The Mackenzie people, however, were not living under a slum level of poverty in 1906. They still had their economic independence and the respect which goes with it. How this later broke down can be shown by the story of Ovayuak, who still held to the old ways of life and who was still a heathen.

Steamers come down the Mackenzie River in midsummer, usually arriving at Macpherson during early July. The first steamer brought the Bishop. It was known among the converts in the Mackenzie district that the Bishop wanted to see them on his annual pastoral visits. The people liked the Bishop, they wanted to purchase goods that had been brought by the steamer, and they enjoyed the outing of the two-hundred-mile trip south to the Hudson's Bay post. So they streamed to Macpherson in late June.

But, said Ovayuak, the Bishop's visit came in a fishing season. Not being a convert, he stayed behind and fished all summer with his family and a few who still took their lead from him. Most of the others went to meet the Bishop and the traders. By the time the religious ceremonies, the feasting, and the trading were completed and the return journey made to the coast, the fishing was nearly over.

But that was only part of the difficulty. The trader had said to the Eskimo husbands that they ought to dress their wives in the best possible garments. When the reply was that the Eskimos had nothing with which to pay, tire trader said that he knew them well, that they were reliable, that he would be glad to trust them, and that they could take as much cloth as they wanted, paying him next year.  

However, when the cloth had been sold the trader would give these men a talking-to of another sort. He would remind them that now they were in honor bound to pay for the goods a year later. They must not, therefore, spend all their time down on the coast fishing and gorging themselves; they would now have to go up into the forest or to certain promontories on the coast so as to catch the mink of the woodland or the white foxes that frequent the shore floe. These would now have to be their chief concern; for they were pledged to see that the dealer should not suffer through having trusted them.  

Accordingly, said Ovayuak, when the people returned from their summer visit to Macpherson they would explain to him that they had made promises not to stay very long at the fishing but to go to the promontories or the forest in time to be ready for the trapping season. And, said Ovayuak, naturally he could not argue against this; for, like them, he believed that a promise ought to be kept. So most of the families would scatter for the trapping districts, leaving him and his few adherents still at the fishing.  

Ovayuak told me this just after the New Year. He forecast that when the midwinter days began to lengthen, visitors would begin to arrive. The trappers would now be running short of food and they would say to one another, "Let us go to Ovayuak; he has plenty of fish."  

Sure enough, they began to gather. At first we took them into our house, where twenty-three of us had been living in one room; but that accommodation could not be stretched for more than ten extras. So the others had to pitch tents or to build snowhouses in the eighborhood of our cabin. The stores of fish that seemed inexhaustible began to melt rapidly. There was not merely a steady increase of people; they all had their dog teams to feed, also.

Everybody went out fishing every day, we locals and the visitors, but we caught perhaps only one-tenth as much as was being consumed. This went on till the fish store was nearly gone. Thereupon everybody who had a sledge loaded it heavy with the last of the fish and then we scattered in all directions, to hunting and fishing districts. We went in small detachments, for it is a principle of the hunting life that you must not travel in large groups.  

The system which I watched breaking down under the combined influence of Christianity and the fur trade was on its economic side communism. Natural resources and raw materials were owned in common, but made articles were privately owned. The blubber of a seal that was needed for light and heat, or lean and fat that were needed for meals, belonged no more to the man who secured them than to anyone else. A pair of boots belonged to the woman who made them until she presented or sold them to somebody else. A meal that had been cooked was in a sense private property, but it was open to everyone under the laws of hospitality it was very bad form to start a meal in any village without at the least sending a youngster outdoors to shout at the top of his voice that the family were about to dine or breakfast. If the houses were scattered and the people indoors, then messengers, usually children, would be sent to every household. People would come and join the family at their meal, either because they wanted the food or else for sociability. If the house was too small to accommodate everybody, then portions of cooked food were sent out to the other houses.

It is a usual belief with us that this type of communism leads to shiftlessness. But that was certainly not the case in any Eskimo community known to me so long as they still followed the native economy.  

Among the Eskimos of northern Canada there was no law except public opinion. Although no one had authority, each person had influence according to the respect won from a community which had intimate knowledge of everybody. Nobody was supposed to work if he was sick; and still the permanently handicapped were expected to work, each according to his ability. Among the Copper Eskimos, for instance, I saw a man of about forty who had been blind since childhood. He was one of the most cheerful and constant workers, but naturally could do only a few special things.  

It has been a part of European ethics that a debt of honor should be paid before other debts. Thus a debt which could not be collected through legal machinery was a heavier obligation than one which had behind it the penalties of the state. With the Stone Age Eskimos every debt was a debt of honor; for there were no police, judges, prisons, or punishment.  

The same force which compelled the Eskimo to pay his debts compelled him to do his share of the work according to his recognized abilities. I never knew even one who didn't try his best, although there were of course the same differences of energy and aptitude which we find among ourselves. If there had been a shirker he would have received the same food; but even in a circle of punctilious courtesy he would have felt that he was not being fed gladly. It is nearly impossible, when you know how primitive society works under communistic anarchy, to conceive of any- one with the combination of indolence and strength of character which would make it possible for a healthy man to remain long a burden on the community.  

In the few cases where strength of character is enough for running against public opinion the issue is seldom or never on any such low plane as that of indolence. I have known one situation where a man was condemned to death. For there was no punishment among the Stone Age Eskimos except the disapproval of the community or death nothing in between.  

We may now summarize those things in the Stone Age life which we judge make for happiness more than do the corresponding elements of our own civilization:

The successful man stood above his fellows in nothing but their good opinion. Rank was determined by the things you secured and turned over to the common use. Your importance in the community depended on your judgment, your ability, and your character, but notably upon your unselfishness and kindness. Those who were useful to the community, who fitted well into the community pattern, were leaders. It was these men who were so often wrongly identified by the careless early civilized traveler and the usual trader as chiefs. They were not chiefs, for they had no authority; they had nothing but influence. People followed their advice because they believed it to be sound. They traveled with them because they liked to travel with them.  

There was of course the negative side. If you were selfish you were disliked. If you tried to keep more than your share you became unpopular. If you were persistently selfish, acquisitive, and careless of the general good you gradually became too unpopular. Realizing this, very likely you would try moving to another community and starting life there over again. If you persisted in your ways and stayed where you were there would come a period of unanimous disapproval. You might survive for a year or even a few years as an unwanted hanger-on; but the patience of the community might at any time find its limit, and there would be one more execution of a troublemaker.

Because few understand the workings of a communistic anarchy it is necessary to insist that most of the supposed difficulties which fill our theoretical discussions of communism and of anarchy do not arise in practice.  

Under the communism we are describing you don't have to accumulate food, apart from the community's store; for you are welcome to all you reasonably need of the best there is. You do not have to buy clothes; for they will be made for you either by some woman member of your family or by some woman friend who will feel about your wearing a coat of hers just the way any number of our women feel when they see their men friends wearing a garment they have knit or a tie they have sent as a Christmas gift. You do not have to accumulate wealth against your old age; for the community will support you as gladly when you arc too old to work as it would if you had never been able to work at all say because you had been blind from infancy.

One common arrangement of ours, however, is useful under communism, though not quite as necessary there as under rugged individualism. It is a good thing to have a family, for your children and grandchildren will look after you even more thoughtfully than mere friends.

The nearest thing to an investment among the Stone Age Eskimos, the one means of providing against old age, is children. For that reason a widow without a child would have to be loved for herself alone. A widow with one child would be a desirable match. To marry a widow with three or four children was, among the Stone Age people of Coronation Gulf, the New York equivalent to marrying the widow of a millionaire.

On the basis of my years with the Stone Age Eskimos I feel that the chief factor in their happiness was that they were living according to the Golden Rule.

It is easier to feel that you can understand than to prove that you do understand why it is man gets more happiness out of living unselfishly under a system which rewards unselfishness than from living selfishly where selfishness is rewarded. Man is more fundamentally a co-operative animal than a competitive animal. His survival as a species has been perhaps through mutual aid rather than through rugged individualism. And somehow it has been ground into us by the forces of evolution to be "instinctively" happiest over those things which in the long run yield the greatest good to the greatest number.

 My hope for the good life of the future, as I have seen it mirrored from the past by the Stone Age of northern America, does not rest wholly on a belief in cycles of history. It rests in part on the thought that a few more decades or centuries of preaching the Golden Rule may result in its becoming fashionable, even for the civilized, to live by the Golden Rule. Perhaps we could live as happily in a metropolis as in a fishing village if only we could substitute the ideals of co-operation for those of competition. For it does not seem to be inherent in "progress" that it shall be an enemy to the good life.

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