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Author Charles Foster: ‘Unless we rediscover our stories we’re finished’

The author took a trip through the ages to find the answer to a fundamental question – the result is his book Being a Human.

I had no idea what sort of creature I was.

That was a problem. How could I know how to behave, or what would make me thrive? How could I be a proper friend or father?

When I said this worried me, I was bombarded with suggestions. Everyone seemed to know what they were.

“I’m a husband and father,” declared one admirable man. “I’m a lawyer,” a rather shrivelled woman announced. “And I’m made in the image of God, and just a little lower than the angels,” an earnest Christian assured me. “I’m English,” said an angry man on a train, “and that says it all.” It did.

I was inclined to believe the Christian, but her description begged a lot of questions.

I agreed with the admirable man and the lawyer that what we do is connected with what we are. But, most of all, I agreed with the angry man that to decide what we are we need to decide where we’re from.

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Where am I from? Certainly not from England, as that angry man meant it. No-one is. Humans are far too grand and old to be described by something as tawdry and modern as a flag or a passport. No-one who really understands and loves England flies an English flag.

Like everyone, I’m from Africa, and from deep time. To find out what I am, I thought that I should retrace my steps from there.

I (grandiosely) presume that human history is like my own. I experience and feel first, and only then conjure ideas, trying to make intellectual sense of what I’ve sensed. I intuit, then rationalise.

My ideas are creatures of my gut. To know me you’d have to know where I’ve been and what I’ve felt.

So I thought that to know where I was from I had to feel what it was like to walk the human journey. This is not how history is usually reconstructed.

I had to live in the pivotal moments of human history and see what that kind of living did to me and must have done to the ancestors whose fears and joys and tendencies rule me now.

‘We built those walls and erected fences to keep animals in and the wild out, and slowly found that we had built prisons for ourselves’

I couldn’t inhabit all human history. I can’t even inhabit my own few decades. So I picked three crucial times and, with my long-suffering family, went to them.

First I caught a train to Derbyshire, and to the Upper Palaeolithic. And there I lived as a wandering hunter-gatherer, on roadkill and berries rather than on the caribou that would have streamed up the dale between the pub and the chapel.

The early Upper Palaeolithic, around 40,000 years ago, was when we – quite unmistakably we – appear in the archaeological record.

Before then there had been animals who looked just like us – but they didn’t behave like us. The archaeologists talk about the birth of ‘behavioural modernity’ in the Upper Palaeolithic.

It was a time when we saw ourselves as part of the natural world – not divided from it by fences, walls, central heating or colonial prejudice.

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Everything – from humans to grass stems – had a soul, and that made the business of living and eating profoundly morally serious. To de-soul and eat the body of a hedgehog demands strenuous justification. We tried to be serious in Derbyshire.

Almost all of our history was spent in this phase – intimately connected with the non-human world. All other ages were mere moments.

The second period I visited was the Neolithic. We began then to think that we were distinct from nature. We built those walls and erected fences to keep animals in and the wild out, and slowly found that we had built prisons for ourselves, and walls across our own minds, and were tyrannised by the laws of supply and demand.

I went to farms, abattoirs and housing estates to find out what we lost when we stopped walking and started to settle.

And the third time – a mere blink – was the ironically named Enlightenment. We still live there. The world – previously throbbing and alive – was reconceived as a machine.

It was desouled. That matters. It’s not obviously wrong to smash up a machine: it’s morally dubious to kill an ensouled thing. This was a time of disenchantment, for machines don’t sing. Nor do they have stories.

I don’t think we’re just machines. We are stories and so we desperately need stories – and stories worthy of the glorious creatures I discovered we were.

The main story of the moment – the dreary, literally demeaning story of Homo economicus and the free market – isn’t remotely worthy of us. There are far better stories. They are all very old. Unless we rediscover them we’re finished.

I wrote a book about my journey through the aeons. It’s called Being a Human. I don’t know if it’s any good, but it’s the best I can do, and it seemed important to try to find out what I am while I’m still on the planet.

Being a Human by Charles Foster is out now (Profile Books, £16.99).

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