Several years ago, I read about an African hunting/gathering community that had virtually no prior contact with “civilization.[i]” For two years an anthropologist recorded daily conversations, coded them, and analyzed them. Some key findings:
- Almost all the daytime conversations involved work, with approximately 37% consisting of people complaining others weren’t doing their fair share.
- Tribal elders did not have much to say or contribute during the day.
- At night, everyone gathered around the fire. The focus changed from work to spiritual topics, tribal history, and “subtle psychological insights.” Elders became central to these conversations. The conversations could last for hours, and the old ones might nod off. But after a rest, they would often rejoin the circle.
At the time I read the article, I was leading a nonprofit with 30 employees, and these themes resonated with what I was experiencing:
- The hardest part of the job was dealing with “HR Issues” – people’s work performance and how people would fret about the performance of others (probably close to 37%).
- Younger employees often had more energy and could work longer. They also had more skill and less anxiety dealing with IT issues and were invaluable for pointing out cultural changes that were occurring and how we might adapt.
- While everyone might have insights into our work, it was the older ones who held the “tribal memory” of both the organization and the profession and were particularly helpful in offering long-range perspective.
Later I saw an article about how our evolutionary past might explain the way memory changes over time.[ii] As we know, older people begin having difficulty with short-term memory (“Where are my glasses?” “What’s my password?”) But even seniors with dementia can have remarkable recall of past events. When our ancestors were hunting or gathering during the day to survive, they had to rely on mental alertness and physical abilities. But as they became slow, creaky, and sore, their value to the community shifted – they were the ones who carried the valuable stories; short-term memory was less important.
Maybe evolution also explains our sleep patterns. During COVID, I read Why We Sleep[iii]. The author notes that some adults go to bed early and wake up early while a roughly equal number of people go to bed late and sleep late. He theorizes this may be an inheritance from our past: it would be advantageous to have people awake at different times of the night to act as sentries for the tribe. So maybe this is one reason older folks wake up more often at odd hours — they’re wired for sentry duty. (Of course, the seriousness of the danger has changed; instead of “Is that a lion I hear in the forest”? it might be, “Does the dog need to go out?”)
These ideas comfort me. I like to think some of the changes we experience as we age aren’t because there’s “something wrong” with us, but because of deeply engrained behaviors that were advantageous for our ancestors.
I’ve always been fascinated by how Rembrandt was able to document his aging process. He portrayed himself close to 100 times, 40 of which are complete paintings. Here is one from 1632:
This 26-year-old guy is on top of his game – no doubt staying up late, full of energy and confidence, and successfully adapting to the latest trends and techniques.
And here he is 31 years later at age 57:
He may not be not going out as much…probably frustrated with aches and pains…going to bed earlier than he used to and waking up at odd times during the night. Maybe you wouldn’t ask him to help you move furniture across town. But look into his eyes: wouldn’t you like to hear some of his stories?
[i] I wish had the citation for the article, but I can’t seem to find it.
[ii] I can’t find this article either. Do you remember where I put it? Did you move it? You didn’t throw it away, did you?
[iii] I found this one! Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams, by Matthew Walker.
Top image: “White Mountains Moonlit Campfire,” Getty Images