Psychology: Infancy, Ego and Death

Hunter-gatherer psychology is quite hard to know, but significant strides have been made. Inspired by the work of Morris Berman (2000), I shall explore three elements of hg psychology about which we can make some very appropriate educated guesses: infancy and prolonged birth spacing (and the suppression of ovulation that makes it possible), what this does in shaping the hg ego (and, comparatively, what the converse does to the civilized ego), and the impacts of the whole psychology on attitudes about death. There is a synergy and a mutual reinforcement of all of these factors, and they are deeply tied to the dichotomy of mobility versus sedentism.

          It is well-known that, after weaning, there is a tear for the human infant -- a disconnection with a primal unity. It is in the search to mend that rupture, to fill in the gap, that much of our longing for union, for transcendence, lies. A "lived distance" divides us from the rest of the world, and to varying degrees we find it painful.

          There are various ways of dealing with that pain -- the most universal is the breast. In some hg societies, breast-feeding can go on up to age four, and this undoubtedly has a lot to do with the healthy psychological outlook that we see in individuals in undisturbed forager societies. Of course, weaning of any sort means that something has to fill the gap, and this is where the possibility for paradox or addictive attachment opens up.

          This split between self and world creates a need for "mending," and this gives rise to the phenomenon of attachment. Attachment, in turn, takes various forms; paradox was probably the most common (and also the least "attached"). With the nursing of infants running to upwards of four years in length, hgs did not develop attachments to objects but invested mental and emotional energy in the whole environment instead, giving a kind of subjective radiance. This may have contributed to the fact that hg awareness was probably "heightened." In vertical civilization, we have a very different sort of energy than the one we have in hg societies. The newer scenario arose under different circumstances -- ones that accentuated the self/other split.

          There is an explicit link between vertical, authority-driven civilization, in particular the phenomenon of unitive trance, and the bond between mother and infant (Erikson 1968). Erikson argues that there are connections between phenomena as distant as human infancy and man's institutions, and that ritual behavior "seems to be grounded in the preverbal experience of infants," in particular in the mutual recognition that gets reenacted over and over between mother and infant. This first, dimmest affirmative experience is one of a "hallowed presence," which contributes to man's ritual-making which seeks to restore or reacquire the "Numinous." Erikson explains that it is this first dyadic, numinous experience that the individual will try, later in life, to capture repeatedly, through fusion experiences such as romantic love, immersion in a leader's charisma, or religious practice. The result is a sense of "separateness transcended." It is thus in infancy that our spiritual destiny is set, and our relationship to God largely determined. In the hg societies we have been describing, romantic love, religion, war, vertical spiritual experience and charisma seem to be absent, aberrant or muted -- in such societies infants are not the object of such exclusive (and, one may add, narcissistic) intensity. In the vertical, Neolithic societies, however, the natural spiritual life gives way to shamanism, ecstasy, myth, ritual, charisma and in general, vertical religious experience. Along with this comes a marked fear of death and altered, degraded child-rearing practices which simply reinforce the whole system and make transcendent solutions and explanations increasingly attractive. While agriculturalists seek transformation, hgs are interested in balance.

          Studies of world cultures show that in general degree of bodily contact is higher among hgs than among agricultural peoples (Hamilton 1981, Barry and Paxson 1971). Berman writes, "What emerges from all of this, as a kind of biocultural constant, is (a) the primacy of females as caregivers (there are a few contemporary rare exceptions to this) and, again, (b) the primacy of physical contact in non-Western cultures (especially HG cultures)." If one gets essentially punished for being human, pervasive anxiety, confusion, false independence and overdependence will be the natural result. If you miss the early phase of holding, or if it is attenuated, you will likely remain caught in dependency needs forever. In such a world, domination and hierarchy become very attractive, "natural" -- the "human condition." (Konner 1977, Hamilton1981, Liedloff 1977)

          According to Berman, "...the training for transcendent (i.e., vertical, power-based) solutions, as opposed to paradoxical tension (which is a dynamic "nonsolution"), begins in early infancy. Child rearing can teach you that Self and Other can remain in balance; or it can teach you that there is room for only one ego in any relationship. In the latter case, one dissolves the Self, ecstatically, into the power of the Other; on the macrolevel, vertical politics is a foregone conclusion."