Why have hunting and gathering societies been described as ‘affluent’ and ‘egalitarian’? Are they?
To start with a rather polemic answer to the explicit question whether hunter-gatherers are affluent, it seems to be the case that many of them nowadays are suffering from poverty. A few, on the other hand, accumulate riches that are impressive – even judged with a Western standard. This is what Gell (1988) shows for the Muria in India. Those people are predominantly not hunting and gathering anymore, however, but under the influence of a modern economy. They are capitalists without capitalist notions of boastful and lavish consumption.
It is not this contemporary form that constitutes the focus of this essay, however. Rather, emphasise will rest on the first part of the question. In the starting paragraphs, I will address the topics of affluence and egalitarianism in hunter-gatherer societies. The argument will be based on the assumption that those societies were indeed what is described as hunter-gatherer societies, i.e. basing their subsistence almost exclusively on those two activities. We assume that the change that non-indigenous influence brought about (Sahlins, 2004:8f) can be abstracted from and what is described is the ‘original’ hunter-gatherer society. Taken this for granted, I will show that evidence is not clear-cut but on average supportive of a certain degree of affluence and egalitarianism. However, this evidence is very much dependent on the definition of those key terms as will be argued. Let me start with a discussion of how it is possible to describe hunter-gatherer societies as a peoples that are – or more precisely in most cases – were affluent and egalitarian.
The original stereotype of hunter-gatherer societies did indeed not paint them in rosy colours with regards to affluence. Rather, they were perceived as barely able to meet the minimum subsistence needs, living in poverty and suffering from hunger and physical hardship (see for examples Steward & Faron, 1959:60). This perspective was reversed in the 1960s, especially with the ‘Man, the Hunter’-conference in 1966. Marshal Sahlins (2004) can be seen as the most prominent scholar claiming that the hunter-gatherer society was essentially affluent. Absolute hunter-gatherers are indeed living in conditions of poverty – according to Western standards. But affluence is a two-sided relationship. For Sahlins, a society is affluent when “all people’s material wants are easily satisfied” (ibid.: 1). This implies that either wants have to be kept relatively low in relation to the resources at hand or the means have to increase to the level of (seemingly) indefinite desires. Sahlins and with him Woodburn (1982) or Lee (1993) in this way depict hunter-gatherer societies as living in material plenty in relation to their context. This is what Sahlins (2004:2) calls the ‘zen-way’: "human material wants are finite and few, and technical means unchanging but on the whole adequate." In contrast to this, the Western economy works with the notion of scarcity – and in this way looks at the other side of the means-ends relationship (see also Bataille, 1991).
- Quote paper
- Johannes Lenhard (Author), 2012, Hunter-Gatherer: Why have hunting and gathering societies been described as ‘affluent’ and ‘egalitarian’? Are they?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/205565