Were Cavemen Hedonists?

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Darwin identified survival as the driving force behind evolution, but the pursuit of pleasure plays a huge role, too.

Until rather recently, it was widely believed that ancient hunter-gatherers were simply concerned with survival. They sought food for its calorific value, not its affect on the palate. They wore clothing to protect their bodies, not as fashion statements. And procreation wasn’t recreation, it was species preservation.

But perhaps that wasn’t the case at all. Maybe the Stone Age was a lot more fun than we’ve been giving our supposedly pragmatic ancestors credit for.

For example, evidence of spice being used in prehistoric cooking has been discovered in Europe, as have bird feathers used by cavemen to accessorize and attract the attention of cavewomen. And proof of Paleolithic homosexuality indicates that mating was not only about making babies.

To explain how human desires support our survival instincts, Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud developed a theory he called the “Pleasure Principle.” He said we are all motivated by an unconscious psychic energy called the “id” that works to satisfy our most basic and primitive urges, including hunger, thirst, anger and sex. Unmet needs result in a state of anxiety or tension.

No doubt early cavemen sought to avoid pain and tension and find relief in pleasurable activities much as we do today. From spicing up meals to dressing up and enjoying recreational sex, early humans were, in fact, acting as the world’s first hedonists.

Philosophers would later debate the nature of “hedonism,” which comes from the Greek word hedone meaning “pleasure.” Is the purpose of life to gain the most pleasure possible and avoid pain at any cost, or is it our solemn duty to ensure that all people are feeling the most pleasure possible at all times, foregoing immediate gratification, if need be, for the sake of the greater good?

The notion of ethical hedonism posited by Greek philosopher Epicurus (342-270 BCE) has fallen out of vogue since the rise of modern religion and philosophies like utilitarianism that promote social welfare and sacrifice over sensual pleasure. His view that life’s goal should be to minimize pain and maximize pleasure has become associated with gluttony, vanity, promiscuity and other ascribed evils.

But if cavemen were hedonic, they weren’t being demonic. They were simply being human—getting by and enjoying themselves as best they could, which just might be the basic formula for happiness even today.

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