It is unlikely that the humans who used and gradually changed technologies throughout the ages were aware of all of the functions of their cultural package - any more than we are aware of all of the functions of our cultural package today. A cultural package would reproduce itself by working well enough to be passed down to another generation of humans. Conservatism among simple societies prevented dangerous innovations from destroying the carefully evolved cultural package, but rare successful innovations would occasionally become part of the cultural package.
Over the past several thousand years, civilization has independently occurred many times. The complexities of civilization have repeatedly added a snowballing load of cultural innovations to human groups, usually resulting in a population explosion and subsequent crash. We are currently likely near a population peak resulting from the greatest innovation snowball the world has ever known.
The cultural packages that were stable at past times did not evolve to maximize human happiness, but rather, like organisms, to maximize their own reproductive capabilities. A small band of happy foragers could expect to be overwhelmed by a cranky but fecund settlement of farmers; hence, in this example, the farmer cultural package would be reproduced more successfully than the forager package. That said, humans themselves evolved in the presence of past successful stable cultural packages (just as we evolved in the presence of prey species and parasites). Cultural packages that were stable for centuries appear to have done a decent job of providing humans with a sense of meaning and a decent level of wellbeing.
Should we go back to the old ways? This is both impossible and undesirable. The further back in time we go, the lower the population density norms evolved to support. It is unlikely that the world's present population could be supported in foraging tribes or even simple farming societies. Not only that, but the evolved cultural packages have largely been interrupted; even if we wanted to instantiate them, we would have a hard time finding out exactly what they were.
Given the search function that past humans used to "find" their cultural packages, it is likely that the cultural packages are local maxima for cultural reproductive success. They are hard-won solutions to complex problems, worked out in the computer of time and human lives; but they are not absolute maxima of anything, and they are not necessarily even local maxima of human wellbeing. Even if we were to go back in time to a pre-civilized society, it is not clear that maintaining existing traditions would be the best way to maximize human wellbeing. It is likely that there are many dimensions along which we could increase human wellbeing at the expense of environment-specific cultural reproduceability.
Fast forward, however, to the present day, in which existing cultures have moved very far away from evolved cultural packages. In what direction have they moved away, and how has this affected human wellbeing?
There are two major directions in which cultural packages have changed: toward those norms and institutions that support greater population density (agriculture, Green Revolution, cities), and toward short-term individual preference as dictated by market economies.
Rich industrialized countries are particularly high in serving short-term individual preference. While these countries have experienced a major reduction in violence over hundreds of years, they also experience new, widespread problems that undermine the very desirability of human life itself. Suicide, for instance, is more prevalent in industrialized countries than homicide. Obesity and depression have both reached epidemic proportions unheard of before the present century. More people live in slums than lived on the entire planet two hundred years ago.
The old ways (evolved cultural patterns) probably did a decent job of meeting the needs of ancestral populations. These old ways would not meet our needs today. But moving away from ancestral norms based on individual short-term preference is not turning out to be a good way to meet our needs. The invisible hand, it seems, is strangling us.
We have indulged our short-term preferences at the expense of healthy bodies, meaningful lives, and stable relationships. This is not an indictment of human willpower: we simply did not evolve the capabilities to resist the temptations provided by modern life.
The old ways are not the answer. Moment-to-moment individual preference is not the answer. Is there an answer?