John Zerzan

Being Human

Forget the glitter of tech: It’s time we got back to basics

Human, All Too Human is the somewhat haunting title of one of Friedrich Nietzsche’s books from 1878. What does it mean to be human today, in the Dataverse of technological mass society? Where the synthetic, the virtual, and the prosthetic seem more and more to displace, or even define life.

When we ponder Progress, what is it that we are progressing toward? What happens to our humanness as the Machine takes over more and more of our lives? One take on all this is to reverse the perspective, to look at humanness at a time when there was no technology. Tools, yes, but no systems of technology.

What were our Homo species up to many, many years before our vaunted Homo sapiens tribe came on the scene? At a site in Israel, it was recently found that people were cooking fish there 780,000 years ago. It is also pretty clear that scavenged or hunted game was cooked by fire in Africa about a million years ago.

In recent decades, anthropological literature has pushed the emergence of Homo sapiens back a bit. In much of the 20th century our species was thought to have begun about 50,000 years ago. The consensus starting point now is more like 200,000 years ago. And the standard for Homo sapiens is its resemblance to “behaviorally modern” humans, or symbolizing humans. You know… the presence of or capacity for art, number, time measurement, and the like.

But as I’ve already pointed out, human intelligence was capable of a lot, a very long time before any evidence of symbolic culture. Evidence of stone tool use 3.4 million years ago stands out. The superbly crafted Acheulean hand axes and scrapers had a million and a half year run, with their exquisite tear-drop shape and edges often sharper than steel surgical knives. There were sea-faring humans in the Pacific as of 800,000 years back. 

But cognitive ability is only a part of what it is to be human. In The Wisdom of the Bones, Alan Walker and Pat Shipman ponder the situation of a woman who lived 1.7 million years ago and suffered from vitaminosis A, a “completely immobilizing” condition. She lived for some months after its onset. “The implication stared me in the face,” wrote one of the authors. “Someone else took care of her, or she wouldn’t have lasted two days in the African bush.”

An almost unimaginable span of time ago, there were social bonds in band society of face-to-face equality. The evidence is there, of both intelligence and humanness. Are we not struggling for both, here in the technosphere, where the symbolic is all that’s left? We are progressively de-skilled and beleaguered in spirit, as the planet is ever more ruined. Can we reconnect with our aboriginal humanness?

John Zerzan is a local anarchist writer whose books include Elements of Refusal and Future Primitive. You can listen live to his “AnarchyRadio” at 7 pm Tuesdays on KWVA 88.1 FM or via audio streaming.