“Primitive Permaculture” – Back to the Roots!

“Primitive Permaculture” – Back to the Roots!

Disclaimer: We use the word “primitive”, despite the negative associations many people have with this term (“backwards”, “not advanced”, “lacking sophistication”, etc.) because of its (ab)use by genocidal racists in recent history.

We use this term intentionally and with its original etymological meaning, from the Latin prīmitīvus (“first or earliest of its kind”), which in turn comes from prīmus (“first”).  Primitive therefore means “being first of a kind”, “original”, “not secondary”, and “in its natural state” to us. It follows that “primitive people” merely means “first people”, which they undoubtedly are. We do not think that this word is discriminating – quite the contrary. We think it is something to be proud of, to celebrate, and to strive for.

The ideas laid out in the following are based on the irrefutable premises that

1. The only really sustainable way to live is the primitive way of indigenous people and of the so-called “Stone Age” (and therefore dictated by the environment you inhabit, not by cultures and ideas that are disconnected from the land). Anything that involves clearing and tilling large swaths of land for agriculture, planting mainly grain crops as monocultures, mining and smelting metals, and building large, permanent settlements never was, can not, and will ultimatively never be sustainable.

2. We know that the primitive way was and is sustainable because of the 3,000,000-year history of several species of humans (where all life forms thrived, extinction rates were low, and the climate fluctuated – unrelated to human activity – but was overall relatively stable), as compared to the 8,000-year history of civilization (which wages war on Nature, causes an unfolding Mass Extinction Event, as well as a Climate Breakdown pushing the planet towards conditions unlike anything any “anatomically modern human” has ever experienced).

3. Homo sapiens (also called the “anatomically modern human”) has not changed notably over the last few hundred thousand years (300,000 years, to be exact), so we are evolutionary, socially, biologically, physiologically, and psychologically best adapted to a nomadic (or semi-nomadic) gatherer-hunter-horticulturalist-fisher lifestyle in relatively egalitarian tribal societies and small-scale societies of kin and close friends, as a part – not the dominator – of the landscape. We are basically still wild human animals, who nonetheless have to adapt to unnatural conditions and circumstances the dominant culture has created. The results of this denial of Nature are disastrous for the health of humans and the planet we inhabit.  The best example is that any child born to city people would become exactly like primitive people when raised among them – this shows that the only noteworthy difference is cultural.

What is Primitive Permaculture?

We are in the process of developing what we have named Primitive Permaculture, which is rooted in permaculture principles and techniques, but takes a more radical approach to topics like design (which is up to Nature whenever possible), advanced technogy (which should be limited to an absolute minimum, as in our case: off-grid, one phone, one computer, two motorbikes – and NO power tools like chainsaws, drills, etc., or mechanical garden tools such as tractors, electrical water pumps, etc.), culture (which should be inspired by and reinforce a connection with the immediate land base) and an organic material culture (plastic, metal, concrete, etc should be replaced with locally sourced resources whenever possible).

Of course we do not think of ourselves primitive people, and we won’t for many more decades – if ever. We know that there are still tremendous differences and we are wary of cultural appropriation.

Our life might seem rather primitive to our contemporaries in the so-called “developed world” – no electricity, no warm water, cooking over an open fire, running around barefoot a lot, eating wild foods – but we still do use a smartphone (obviously), a motorbike, steel tools, and books.

We might talk to plants and animals with absolute certainty that they understand us, and firmly believe in a variety of plant, animal, river, land, forest, and mountain spirits – but we are still far away from the deep spiritual connection to the environment that characterizes primitive people.

We might have our own cultural views, beliefs, traditions, rituals, celebrations, and taboos – but we are nowhere close to having developed anything as meaningful, rich and powerful as indigenous people’s cultures that have formed over many millennia.

We might not appear “primitive” superficially, but the biggest schism between us and “regular folks” is a subliminal ideological one. We don’t look like primitive people, but we identify more readily with them and their worldview than with any part of the disturbingly disconnected and alienated culture that surrounds us.

While us using the few gadgets and tools listed above might seem hypocritical at first, we do not actively support or perpetuate the system that produces those things, nor do we strive to preserve any part of it in case the chain of supply breaks or the grid goes down. We know we will be just fine without smartphones and motorbikes when global civilization finally collapses under its own weight.

Using the term “primitive” to describe the permacultural techniques we develop does not mean that we consider ourselves “primitive people”, nor does it mean that you have to be “primitive” to practice it.

“Primitive” describes the direction and the goal, not a requirement or precondition.

What to start with

The beginning stage of Primitive Permaculture is to research what people in your bioregion and climate zone did before civilization – and then to work towards something similar to that. For us here at Feun Foo, as inhabitants of the landscape that anthropologist James C. Scott has termed Zomia (the mountain range running from Eastern India down the backbone of southeast Asia), this means learning about hunter-gatherers (like the Mlabri, the Semang or the Penan), the native Chong people (whose ancestral hunting grounds we inhabit), and swiddening hillpeople (like the Lisu, the Lahu, the Karen, the Akha, the Hmong, the Mien, or the Palaung) – although we can learn a lot from other primitive societies in similar climates, like New Guinean highlanders or Melanesian/Polynesian Tikopians.

Primitive Permaculture is inspired by indigenous horticultural and hunter-gatherer societies from all over the world. We plant cassava, yams and bananas as staple food, as do the Yanomami, the Huaorani, the Kayapo, the Tsimane, and the Zo’é of the Amazon rainforest, several Highland societies of Papua New Guinea, and various Polynesian islanders.
The Kenyah of Malaysia are taking care of up to 125 tree species per hectare (!) in their forest orchards, and that’s the direction we’re taking, too. (click here for a full list of tree species in our garden)

Aims of Primitive Permaculture

While Permaculture includes Wilderness (optionally) as “Zone 5” (“Zone 1” being your house and kitchen garden), Primitive Permaculture encourages the expansion of Z5 into your own perimeter (first Z4, then Z3, etc.) by gradually decreasing control and doing only the necessary maintenance (tending, not toiling), and choosing (semi-)wild, resilient perenials and/or plants that self-seed over weak, labor-intensive, nutritionally poor domesticated annuals. This is inspired by Masanobu Fukuoka’s method of “do-nothing-farming” and Taoist gardening.

Primitive Permaculture has a large focus on semi-wild and wild plants, as well as on perennials – especially trees. Creating a Food Jungle is the long-term goal of Primitive Permaculture in bioregions where the rainfall allows it.
One reason is resilience, another is biodiversity, another beauty, and yet another is nutrition.
Wild plants are more drought-resistant (especially when grown in forest-like communities – when fruit trees in the village died by the hundreds during the El Nino of 2016, we found not a single dead tree in the jungle), grow faster and more vigorous, are less susceptible to insect attacks and injury, and require a lot less care than their domesticated cousins.
The weakest food plants are the highly domesticated crops that make up the westernized/globalized diet. Those plants are the first ones whose cultivation will become first difficult and then impossible as climate breakdown continues to unfold, leading to severe food shortages and societal breakdown.
As for nutritional value: ever since humans started domesticating plants, they have selected crops for sweet tastes, high sugar, starch and oil content, and soft texture; and against bitter, astringent and sour tastes and chewy consistency. Unfortunately, many of the most beneficial phytonutrients (plant nutrients that effectively combat the most common illnesses of modern humans – cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, dementia, etc.) have a bitter, sour or astringent taste.
The result is food that’s easy to eat but nutritionally empty, leading to an unhealthy population. The high phytonutrient content of wild foods is one of the main reasons why hunter-gatherers and horticultural societies are so much healthier than modern humans, despite all their pills, doctors and hospitals.
With plenty of soft, starchy food available, jaws shrink in a matter of a few generations (leading to dental problems), and babies can be weaned earlier (leading to a growth in population).

For example, instead of salad greens we eat the young shoots of dozens of wild tree species, which require no care at all, do not succumb to insect attacks, and are many times more nutritious than salad, which contains little else besides water.
As for the few annuals we grow: instead of growing regular cucumbers, for example, we grow cucamelons from Central America, which taste almost the same but are smaller, stronger, and much more drought- and pest-resistant than normal cucumbers.
We always prefer self-seeding or -propagating vegetables like fireweed, Vietnamese coriander, centella, culantro, yard-long bean, velvet bean, sword bean, bitter cucumber, moon flower, holy basil, bird’s eye chili, river hemp, lead tree, wild bananas, etc.

Like many indigenous cultures, Primitive Permaculture tries to use each and every part of a killed fellow being, whether animal or plant. Nothing goes to waste, and every being is treated with the appropriate respect. Every plant and animal is thanked for what he or she gives, and ritually asked for forgiveness.
For example, the Penan of Borneo say before cutting down a sago palm:

“Hopefully you can drive away all the bad spirits from this place. The truth is, dear sago tree, I hate to cut you down, but I don’t have anything left to eat and I’m hungry. I have no choice!”

Further, Primitive Permaculture includes a large focus on plant species that have no direct value to humans (apart from obvious ornamental value) but increase wildlife populations of other mammals, as well as various birds, pollinators and other insects, and reptiles through creating habitat and food sources. This way, domestication is (at least partly) replaced by hunting wild animals. While it is perfectly possible to keep healthy and happy pets and domesticated animals (which some primitive tribes do as well to some extend) we believe that every animal (and every plant as well) is the happiest when he/she enjoys complete freedom.

Concluding, it is important to note that ultimately Primitive Permaculture is a self-eliminating concept, pretty much like Taoism – when Yin and Yang are in harmony again and everything is allowed to follow the Tao, there is no need for a dogma to teach about it. Once the forest is restored and we (and our future children) have learned how to live with, in, and from the forest, and when we have achieved (re-)building a primitive permanent (meaning sustainable) culture, there is no need for either the term or most of its techniques. It will become our tradition, our culture, what we do, our life, without the need for a fancy word to describe it to outsiders.

Primitive Permaculture’s Ideology

As for the ideological part of Primitive Permaculture, anthropocentrism (human supremacism) is dismantled and humans are assigned a more humble and moderate role as one species among many, in a large interconnected cosmos of meaningful relationships between different but equal manifestations of life – not the Managers of Ecosystems and Saviors of Nature that traditional permaculturalists often think they are.

Furthermore, the Land (the health of the entire ecosystem) always comes first in all ideological and ethical considerations. Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic” serves as a rule of thumb:

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Derrick Jensen correctly stated that the only measure by which future generations will judge us is the health of their landbase. It will not matter the slightest bit to them how much money and merchandise we accumulated, how healthy or respected we were, how many books we read, how many countries we travelled, what job or position we held, or what religion we followed. What will matter to them is if they have fresh air to breathe, clean water to drink, enough food, and a liveable environment.

It follows that if we want to be “good ancestors”, our top priority has to be ensuring that the land remains healthy enough to support future generations of humans.

Thoughts on cultivation – Dominator vs Primitive

Some hardliner primitivist might argue that planting anything (cultivation) is already a step off the right track, and leads to domestication (of plants, non-human animals, and, ultimately ourselves in the process), sedentariness, and the rise of civilization, but we disagree. There are plenty of primitive hunter-gatherer-horticulturalists, like the Yanomami, the Huaorani, or the Zo’é mentioned above, who would never even dream of building civilizations. The difference lies in how you treat the plants. 

The Dominator’s Way

Concomitant with civilizations arose a new idea, previously rather uncommon, that spread like a virus due to the enormous benefits it brought to a small minority: hierarchy as the primary form of society (modeled on the patriarchal family). Virtually all past civilizations were slave-holding societies (with the possible exception of the Indus Valley guys – the exception that proves the rule), and it is no overstatement to say that wage-slavery has mostly replaced regular slavery in our global civilization (although “traditional” slavery still exists all over the world, think about where the cobalt for high-tech gadgets like your “smart”-phone/computer comes from) due to the profitability for the ruling class – no need to feed, clothe, and shelter your workers if you just give them a little bit of money that they have to spend themselves (read: give back to you or another member of your class) on those basic necessities, thinking that makes them free. They depend on the ruling class’ money, so the dependency is the same – and the use of violence mostly got replaced with the threat of violence – try stop paying your rent for a few months and see the violence coming right to your doorstep. Overseers are now called police, and they make sure the whole thing runs smoothly.

The point is, hierarchy and civilization are synonymous, basically interchangeable terms. There is very little you could call a strict “hierarchy” among primitive people, who are overwhelmingly egalitarian. Of course there’s leaders, but those are usually temporary and mostly don’t have the authority to give orders (and expect them to be followed).

Civilized cultivators of the soil interact with their crops in a strictly hierarchical manner – they are the dominant, God-like creators, and may do however they wish to their inferior subjects, the domesticated (Latin for “belonging to the house”) animals and plants. They control their subjects, and use force when necessary (for instance waging war on insects with pesticides, or indiscriminately exterminating wolves and other predators that might harm domesticated animals in ancient times). They don’t cater to their plants’ needs, but to their own financial gain (so that they in return can secure their place or even move up a notch in the hierarchy – or so they think).

They don’t tend the plants, they “manage” them.

The Primitive Way

Indigenous societies have always known that plants and other animals are kin. We all share the same ancestors, and are all related. Plants are just like us, only that they are rooted in the ground, and their lives unfold on a much slower timescale.  Science is slowly catching up, and evidence amassing that plants might be much more than modern people think they are, and much more like primitive people think they are. Popular books like “Brilliant Green: The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence” by Stefano Mancuso (Island Press, 2015), “A Critique of the Moral Defense of Vegetarianism” by Andrew F. Smith (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), or “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World” by Peter Wohlleben (Greystone Books, 2016) shine new light on ancient truths.

When we think of the plants we tend, we see them as individuals, as persons with needs, wishes, and thoughts. If our small seedlings who stood in the sun all day long are thirsty, it gives us great joy to think about how happy they must be about the relief that comes in form of a shower of cold, fresh water we bring them. Do they anticipate it? Do they look forward to it? Do they wait for it every afternoon, and do they get sad when we forget them for a day? If you ask us, definitely yes.

Trees can sense exactly what the weather will be like in the next few hours (or even longer than that) due to changes in air pressure, humidity, sunlight intensity etc.

So imagine how happy a young fruit tree must be when, at the height of dry season, with no rain in sight, suddenly someone empties a bucket of water around her base! What an unexpected but welcome refreshment! It is thoughts like those that give us great joy while doing tasks that others may consider strenuous. We always think about what it must feel like if we were those plants right now.

We see them, like indigenous horticulturists do, as equal beings just like us. We are tending, not managing, the plants we cultivate.

If you treat the plants as kin, as your children, and accept the responsibility for their well-being – not just so you can harvest their fruit, but so that they are happy and content – there is surely nothing wrong with cultivation.

Primitive Permaculture’s Spirituality

Another very important part of Primitive Permaculture (although a more private one) is the spiritual aspect. Primitive people have (widely differing) animistic belief systems, that undoubtedly arise naturally when you have an open mind and heart, and spend enough time in Wild Nature (or “undomesticated landscapes”). Their daily interactions with their environment are characterized and given depth and meaning by exchanges with spirits and animated parts of the landscape.

Animism (an oversimplified umbrella term for a broad spectrum of beliefs and practices) means seeing and respecting other beings and entities as persons, with all the concomitant attributes. It means thanking life when taking it (e.g. when killing a fellow being), seeing yourself as part of a wider family of living beings, and knowing that you’re never alone. We won’t go into any details, since spirituality should be a (more or less) private concern (and nothing to go on missionizing about) and because there is no such thing as the one and only animism – everyone has to figure something out for themselves according to the land they inhabit (while at the same time being very, very careful with possible cultural appropriation!).

Some examples for Primitive Permaculture Techniqes

We practice and experiment with the ancient art of “companion planting”, which means that you try to plant individual plants together that like – and benefit from – each other. One obvious example are legumes, whom every other plant loves for their ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen (through a symbiotic relationship with bacteria living in their roots) and make it available to the Soil Food Web and therefore all other surrounding plants as well. Other examples include growing coffee under the shade of durian trees (which for reasons not yet fully understood by us seems to benefit both enormously), or vetiver around the base of fruit trees. In the Amazon rainforest, Achuar (“people of the swamp palm”) women have perfected this technique over many millennia of careful observation and experimenting with wild food plants in their forest gardens. In Achuar culture gardening is an exclusively feminine affair, since the men are not allowed to do planting or even enter the garden.

Another important method of Primitive Permaculture is to respect the self-determination of plants’ lives. This means that if a given plant sprouts up in a certain place, the seed will have chosen this place as being good, and one should therefore not interfere with this decision. This process can be aided by scattering seeds over large areas and let the plants themselves decide where they want to grow. They can test the soil composition, humidity, nutrient availability and microfauna much better than us, so we leave the important decision of where to live their lives up to the experts whenever possible. This works especially well with plants that produce a large number of seeds, such as papaya, river hemp, tamarind, lead tree, some chili cultivars, and certain herbs.

We are also experimenting with a biochar/humanure/crushed seashell mixture to create our own version of ‘Terra Preta del Indio’, the only kind of soil known to regenerate itself without additional inputs (and grows corn stalks “as high as a man on a horse”, according to early conquistadores). Terra Preta was originally created by pre-Columbian cultures of the Amazon rainforest who developed this sustainable tropical farming system to feed relatively large settlements. While soils in the tropics are usually rather poor (most biomass in the jungle is stored in plants), those people intentionally created carbon-rich gardener’s-dream soil through mixing compost and manure (presumably their own and that of other animals) with charcoal, partially burned vegetation, ashes, bones, and shells. Probably first created after clearing swiddens and around toilet and composting sites, making Terra Preta soon became common throughout the region. Sadly all this knowledge was lost in the genocide that followed, and now it is up to us to rediscover the ancient techniques.

Part of the renouncing of regular farming methods in favor of a more primitive material culture involves the intentional abstinence from any protective measures such as gloves, steel-cap shoes, and the like. We go barefoot whenever possible, and wear boots only in rainy season (when there’s plenty of land leeches) and when we carry out tasks in an unfamiliar area of the jungle, where we are not yet familiar with the location of spiky palms whose dried leaves lay scattered on the forest floor. As for gloves, we didn’t use any in years (although we of course provide some for our volunteers who usually have softer hands), with the result that our hands got more robust in the process, so that the overall need for gloves is virtually eliminated by the formation of hard callus. Of course we still injure ourselves constantly, and our hands are covered in small cuts from bamboo or razor-sharp cogon grass, small puncture wounds from a variety of spiky plants, and the occasional blister. We hold the (rather irrational) belief that many small injuries prevent infrequent larger ones, and it seems only fair that we get injured, too, since we injure other living beings on a daily basis (through foraging, walking, weeding, digging, pruning, etc.). With time you get used to it, and the overly careful attitude towards minor injuries in the dominant culture seems increasingly ridiculous (like the practice of desinfecting even the smallest bruises with alcohol). You develop a stoic indifference towards pain, and an abhorrence of this culture’s practice of taking painkillers as soon as one feels the slightest discomfort. Every time a small but annoying wound (like from a thorn in the foot) heals, we rejoice with our regained abilities, and every time we feel like a part of us has been reborn. Every time an injury closes we regain a bit of trust in ourselves and our body’s healing abilities. Other animals injure themselves, so why shouldn’t the same happen to us? Bruno Manser wrote about the Penan of Borneo that it was a common thing to see men poking around in their feet with pointed tools to get rid of thorns after they came back from hunting. We can’t exclude ourselves from the negative sensations that every living being experiences and feel only sweet blissfullness all the time, and it is a form of denial that modern humans try to avoid any reminder of their vulnerability (and, by extension, mortality) by any means necessary.

How it’s going

What we did with the upper half of our land actually pretty closely resembles the swidden-making process of traditional shifting cultivators throughout Southeast Asia (with the difference that we didn’t plant rice). Compare the two images below:

A rough sketch of the succession of a hill swidden over the years (adapted from นิตยสารสารคดี/Sarakadee Magazine)

(Assisted) ecological succession in the upper part of our land

Paradise Gardening

We recently stumbled onto this excellent 1992 essay by Joe Hollis called “Paradise Gardening” – and in many respects Joe’s approach is very similar to ours. His worldview, ideology, techniques and methods are in complete alliance with the aims and goals of Primitive Permaculture.

From the essay:

“Ecology teaches that a ‘pioneer’ (disturbed) environment favors life forms that are fast growing but short- lived, wide-spreading, ‘greedy’- designed to capture the maximum of sunlight and unoccupied soil. But eventually they are succeeded by the trees, which, because they invest energy in making wood, grow more slowly at first, but are more stable, longer-lived, and finally faster growing, more influential, the ‘dominant species’, towering above.
We have spread ourselves over the earth, and used or burned just about everything that’s easy to get. The age of the greedy ones draws to a close (they don’t know it yet). At last, we may hope, the “competitive advantage” passes to the practitioners of permanence, rootedness, slow growth and steady accumulation, the vertical expansion of the human spirit into realms uncharted, or long forgotten. A tree derives its satisfaction from the view achieved.”

“Modern-day Hill People” 

One of the books that influenced us a lot is James C. Scott’s 2009 classic ‘The Art of Not Being Governed – An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia’ (Yale University Press)* – an alternative historical account (one not written by valley civilizations’ scribes) of various hill people.

This book-length anthropological and historical study is the first-ever examination of the huge literature on nation-building whose author evaluates why people would deliberately and reactively remain stateless – namely to flee the projects of the nation state societies that surround them: slavery, conscription, taxes, corvée, epidemics, and warfare.

Scott makes a convincing case for seeing the hill people of Southeast Asia not as ‘backwards’ savages yet to be civilized but rather as an assembly of people who, often as a conscious political choice, chose to avoid the valley states. Much of the attributed “backwardness” comes from the biased and self-congratulatory documents of early states who, despite viewing hill people as inferior and potential enemies, were keen to acquire highly valued trading goods from the mountains and jungles, and occasionally even paid tribute to certain groups to keep them from raiding the grainaries.

Early states (who were in virtually all cases also slave-holding societies) tend to present themselves as much more glorious than they actually were, and in the same way they talk about people outside of the reach of the state centers as much worse off than they were in reality. In fact, quite the opposite was true. Life in early agrarian states was characterized by hard work (to support not-working elites) and obedience to courts and rulers, while people outside of the grain cores enjoyed a great deal of autonomy and personal freedom, more free time and a better diet (and consequently better health). Especially in times of war, famine, epidemics, or high taxes it was fairly common for peasants to defect to the hills in search of a better life.

Although commonly called hill-“tribes” (a term that implies a certain shared ethnicity) they are – at least historically – better understood as a colorful assemblage of all sorts of different people, including runaway slaves and ex state subjects fleeing taxes, conscription or oppression. Being located well out of reach of the state centers of the lowland kingdoms, hill people used the friction of the terrain (that make it difficult to move armies) and alternative subsistence modes (that make appropriation by the state impossible) as ways to ensure their freedom and autonomy.

All this bears the obvious (but slightly ironic) question: do we at Feun Foo classify as modern-day hill people? Let’s go through the different criteria that led to people being called ‘hill people’ in the past:

  • Located in hills that are not easily accessible ✔️
  • Loving freedom and autonomy ✔️✔️✔️
  • Avoiding or fleeing the state (and concomitantly the tax collector) ✔️
  • Fleeing oppression ✔️
  • Alternative subsistence mode (other than wet rice cultivation) that prohibits appropriation ✔️
  • Animistic spiritual belief in local deities (in contrast to uniform “world” religions of valley states) ✔️
  • Flexible oral history (as opposed to fixed written accounts) ✔️
  • Value system that contradicts that of valley states ✔️
  • Egalitarian social structure ✔️
  • Mixed cultural and ethnic background ✔️
  • Diverse cultural influences ✔️

It most certainly seems like we qualify!


James C. Scott; The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (2009), Yale Agrarian Studies Series, Yale University Press

Graham Harvey, The Handbook of Contemporary Animism (2015), Acumen Handbooks, Routledge






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