top of page

Why Primitive | The critical need for ancestral skills in modern society

Why practise primitive skills in modern day society? A valid question, but easily answered. This article details some of the reasons why ancestral skills still play a critical role in our society.


Related content


Earth living and primitive survival encompasses a huge range of skills and knowledge. You’ve got everything from the basic survival skills of feeding ourselves and protection from the elements, all the way to the huge array of complex processes and techniques that allow our species to thrive in a natural environment.

Obviously they’re not essential in our society anymore. But this doesn’t mean they’re useless. These disciplines are not only very worthwhile, but arguably an essential component of human development and ability, both in terms of our own health, and the sustainability of our relationship with the natural world.

I’m sure by now many of you are at the point of dismissing it and moving on, but bear with me!

If you don’t agree that’s fair enough and I’d be interested to hear your reasons. But first read the post and see if my arguments make sense to you. What at first might seem a ridiculous notion - that primitive survival skills are worthwhile, or dare I say it, necessary, in today’s world - may in fact surprise you. At the very least I hope this post will open your eyes a little to this undervalued aspect of human potential.



Primitive is a bit of a controversial term – often with derogatory connotations in modern society. Survival International (who if you haven’t heard of them are a fantastic charity that supports the rights of indigenous people) condemned the word as a ‘racist’ term ‘no longer acceptable to describe any people'.

Just to justify my use, I’m not using it to describe people, only a range of skills, techniques and knowledge. When I use the word I simply mean ‘first’ (from the Latin root of the word: primus), and continue to use it since it is how these disciplines are best known. Personally I prefer the term ‘earth skills’.



The most obvious of the lot is that knowledge of survival skills can quite literally save your life. Probably the weakest argument as it’s pretty unlikely there’d ever be a need for in today’s society (at least for the time being…). But it’s an obvious and legitimate reason none the less.


There are many forms of relative freedom: political, social, etc. These are of course important, but also relative, and don’t address a true freedom - that concerning dependency. Unless you’re entirely capable of living sustainably in the wilderness, then you’re in some capacity dependant on society and its supply chains. As a result, you’re subject to its system.

Earth living skills allow freedom from this dependency. There’s of course no reason why not to engage in modern society (it has many benefits). But the capacity to be independent, and therefore not a slave to the system, leads to a freedom that’s absolute, beyond the context of society.

Just the process of learning and practicing the simplest of survival skills gives a taste of this freedom – it’s a visceral and empowering feeling.


Of the vast diversity of cultural histories across the globe, all human societies have one thing in common. 10,000 years ago (plus/minus a couple of thousand) we were all hunter-gatherers, relying on earth living skills and knowledge for survival. It was our means of life, our way of life.

There would’ve been considerable variation in the skills and cultures employed, but the basic principles were shared. The ability and knowledge of these skills are the only cultural heritage that we truly share as a species. Surely that’s a pretty good reason to keep them alive?

See also:

‘Primitive skills are our shared inheritance. It is the shared thread which links us to our prehistory and binds us together as human beings.’

Steve Watts



Each separate discipline has enough complexity and layers of mastery to last a lifetime. Take for example friction fire-lighting. After mastering the basic methods of handdrill and bowdrill (no small task in itself), there are tens of other methods to learn, plus the ability to perform them in the wet, the wind, the dark, and all other conditions and climatic regions. On top of that we need to master the processes with our non-dominant hand in the case of injury, and progress to make the kit from all-natural tools. And that’s before we even look at using different species of woods and tinder! Bear in mind this is also one of the simplest examples!


Earth skills includes a vast spectrum of disciplines that develop a balanced range of important qualities. From flintknapping and hide-tanning to animal tracking to herbal medicines, first aid and weather prediction - earth skills promote coordination, awareness, creativity, teamwork and many other attributes.


Earth skills also address the three fundamental psychological needs of sociality, exposure to the natural world and pushing our limits. You can feel this in the vitality and focus these skills give you – it’s the feeling of being fully present in what you’re doing. You won’t be thinking of anything else when you’re stalking a deer – it’s all encompassing!


Earth skills are innate to us as humans. The skills themselves are cultural, which means they’re learnt, not genetic. But the capacity for them is genetic: the result of millennia of dependence on them. It might sound strange, but practise of these skills fits with our genetic make-up in a way that much of today’s society does not. They provide a stimulus that’s both compatible and necessary to our psychological and physical needs.

It’s actually pretty obvious if you think about it. Consider how we’re drawn to watching a fire, or the contentment that comes from spending a few days in the woods. This is because of compatibility with our physiology: in this particular case, likely a brainwave shift from beta to alpha.

Unlike many modern sports, arts and other disciplines, there’s something about earth skills: almost everyone seems to be drawn to at least some aspect, and even those who’re initially reluctant to engage quickly find challenge and fulfilment in them. I'd be inclined to suggest that genetic compatibility is why.


Modern society is extremely insulated from the natural world. We live in climate controlled houses, cover the earth in tarmac and are entirely removed from our food and water acquisition. Our awareness is next to nothing. This insulation and detachment leads to a lack of understanding, lack of respect, and even fear. In turn this has led to unchecked destruction and overexploitation of the planet.

Earth skills reinstall an understanding of the natural world, our dependence and place within the ecosystem. They re-educate in us a higher level of awareness and instil the respect that we’ve lost.

Earth skills won’t themselves solve our sustainability issues (though they might help – think permaculture, sustainable hunting, etc.), but the attitude and understanding they cultivate leads to a better relationship with the natural world. This can be seen in indigenous groups that live close to the earth. They are caretakers and conservationists – the best there are. They understand, respect and exist sustainably within the natural world.

This reconnection that practise of earth skills brings is, I believe, the most important of all the reasons I’ve talked about.

‘Only if we understand, can we care. Only if we care, we will help.’

Jane Goodall


Finally, earth skills, in a similar way to physical disciplines, represent a gateway to a less obvious human potential. They promote a deeper understanding of both ourselves and the natural world: a deeper awareness, intuition and higher states of consciousness. They bestow an understanding of our dependence and place within the world around us: something that cannot be achieved in the insulated bubble of modern human society. A topic for a post in the future!


There are clearly many reasons why earth living and primitive survival skills are worth learning. Personally I think that the obvious life-saving potential is of far less importance than the attitude and mind-set shifts they promote.

In a world of chronic stress, mental health disorders and societal imprisonment, the freedom and empowerment of having the capacity to relinquish our dependence on the system is essential. Earth skills are perhaps the best teacher of our place in the ecosystem, and a critical attitude-changer towards our relationship with the natural world.

Training, expeditions, thoughts, articles, and miscellaneous misadventures...

bottom of page