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Whether it’s explicit or implicit, the working assumption of our movement goes like this:

Behaviors and environments that are consistent with our Paleolithic, evolutionary heritage are most likely to produce good health and performance.

To our ears, this proposition sounds right and we’re quick to build a wide variety of programs and products based on this belief. But success depends on knowing what we’re talking about. And that, I’m afraid, is much more difficult than it sounds.

Do any of us really “know Paleo?” Is it even possible? The problem is that the ancient past is long gone. Some evidence exists, but there are no written records, no photographs, no first-person accounts and very few artifacts. All we really have to go on are fossils, DNA, and the behavior of a few remaining hunter-gatherer tribes.

Working from this evidence, we have managed to sketch in the rough outlines. Radiocarbon dating gives us solid dates that we can rely on. We know, for example, that Lucy, the famed australopithecus, lived about 3 million years ago. Molecular biology tells us that the last common ancestor of chimps and humans lived some 6 million years ago. Stone tools, the definitive marker for the Paleolithic era, go back some 3 million years. Homo sapiens is roughly 250,000 years old.

But things get trickier when we try to understand the actual experience of the people who lived in the Paleo. Even if we understand the basic practices of hunting and gathering, things become very difficult when we attempt to understand primal world views and cosmologies. In fact, native peoples saw the world in a way that may well be incomprehensible to us. For them, the material and the spiritual were intimately related and inseparable. Everything had spiritual significance beyond itself. Dreams were real. Mother Earth and Father Sky weren’t just metaphor; rocks, sticks, clouds and water were very much alive. The world was throbbing with life.

The most obvious example of an “incomprehensible” native world view is Dreamtime, the animist cosmology of Australian Aboriginals. In Dreamtime, modern expectations of cause and effect are irrelevant and time as we know it today simply does not exist. The world is constantly being created in a continuous dance of land, spirit, song and story. When aboriginals talk about “singing the world into being,” they aren’t being poetic – they are being literal. For primal peoples, the natural and the supernatural were one in the same. Myth and stories were not entertainment but living expressions of the cosmos at work.

As moderns, we find this almost impossible to understand. The problem is that primal consciousness was profoundly participatory. People lived inside life, embedded in the flux and flow of natural events. The path to understanding nature was to become more involved in the rhythms of the land, plants, animals and weather. In contrast, our consciousness is non-participatory. We are children of Descartes, Francis Bacon, Newton, Copernicus and Galileo. We are raised to be skeptics. We are told to stand apart from nature. Participating consciousness is considered to be a grievous error of scholarship. If you want to get a Ph.D. in anything, you’ve got to stand apart from whatever it is you’re studying. If you participate in the process in any way, your paper will be rejected and your career will be toast.

Obviously, there are powerful benefits to non-participatory consciousness, but the costs are immense. Today, most of us see the natural world from an outsider’s perspective. Not only does this makes us feel alienated, it also makes us incapable of feeling and knowing the Paleolithic world view. We are ignorant of the Paleo because we live outside of it.

It’s a powerful conundrum. Unless we’re willing to give up everything and live as a hunter-gatherers in the outback of Australia, it’s simply the case that we can’t know Paleo. Our scientific, non-participatory orientation will never give us more than a superficial understanding of this fundamental human experience. It’s no wonder that so many of today’s “Paleo” practices are simply conventional health-and-fitness programs, marketed under a new name.

All is not lost however. The chasm between our modern minds and the Paleolithic experience is vast, but can be bridged with deep experiential engagement, especially outdoor movement. In this effort, it is essential that we give up the trappings of alienated consciousness: the sets and reps, the biomechanics, exercise science, mileage logs, FitBits, performance enhancers, cameras, competitions and ranking. Instead, we need to focus as completely as possible on the experience of being in the natural world, of participating in the continuous creation of life itself. We may not be able to enter Dreamtime, but we can get closer to the source of our lives. We may not truly “know Paleo” but our bodies and spirits will be a lot happier.