- Capitalism and Alternatives -

'Short, brutish existences' during the hunter-gatherer period....so many myths......

Posted by: Robert Dunn ( -, Grenada ) on April 01, 1999 at 18:45:55:

In Reply to: The Myth of the Commons and Other Tragedies posted by Joel Jacobson on March 30, 1999 at 12:20:13:

In reference to the following comments by Joel Jacobson:

"while one person did not own property, regardless of the label we use, one hundred specific people (or whatever the size of the particular tribe) still owned any property we might examine. And so, given the particular "commons" references made by the self-titled "socialists" here simply bear no relation to anything in history. Specific people have always owned property; yes, the numbers and structures have changed, but there has never been any such idea of universal ownership. Such tribal units, additionally, jealously guarded their property with spears, swords, and bow and arrows and contstantly engaged in conflict with each other. This dream bears no relation to any situation in the history of mankind and any claims of such is not only idealist, in my opinion it is intellectually dishonest, given the evidence. And, make no mistake, ancient tribalism was not this idealized panacea some, especially Rousseau, have pictured them as. They were horrid and nasty, by our standards, where the sole purpose of the individual was of a utilitarian survival and propagation of the group. (A utilitarianism which was alleviated by the advent of generalized sets of rules and customs that allowed individual to separate themselves from the tribe and its customs.) Babies with small "defects" or even bearing a superficial mark considered "unlucky" were cast out to die. If a person was considered to have broken some tribal taboo, no matter how minor, their life was often considered forfeit. Property and the means of production were communal precisely because there was solidarity and a cohesive concrete set of rules and customs taht defined the in-group. This same solidarity was undermined and eventually destroyed by the generalization of rules and customs across a broad scope of people and geography. But at the same time such breakdown of communalism ended the repressive and grotesque practices of the ancient tribe. Generalization of custom and acknowledgement of individual spheres of influence, such as personal property, provided those with massive different value systems and beliefs to interact without resorting to violence and force."

You accuse Deathy and his ilk of being 'intellectually dishonest, given the evidence'. What evidence do you present to back-up YOUR thesis for your comments above? Not a single reference. Hardly rigourous...

Where is your 'intellectually honest' proof of your own myths about the way hunter-gatherers lived for the majority of human existence. You say that all property was owned by groups, that this property was agressively defended with weapons in 'constant battles', that those with defects were cast out to die, that they were all 'horrid and nasty' (did you ever meet any of them...smacks of the worst type of predudice), also that there were sets of 'concrete rules and customs'.

Might it be possible that these might be your own beliefs and are possible just as large a myth as anything you are trying to counter? Should we not look to the anthropological experts to guide us with their lifetimes of research and debate on these important matters.

I strongly recommend that you read 'Limited wants, Unlimited means: A reader on hunter gatherer economics' edited by John Gowdy and printed by Island Press in 1998. ISBN No.: 1-55963-555-X
343 pages.

It is a compendium of some of the best research that has been undertaken on this matter during the last century or so. To quote the back cover:

'For roughly 99% of their existance on earth, Homo sapiens lived as small bands of hunter-gatherers in societies that appear to have solved problems of production, distribution, social equity and environmental sustainability that our own system seems incapable of addressing. This book examines the hunter-gatherer society and lifestyle, providing a brief introduction to the rich literature on non-agricultural societies. It examines the economics of traditional socities and presents a multi-faceted investigation of how such societies function and what that can teach us in our own quest for sustainability and equality.'

The editor is a professor and chair of the Department of Economics at Rensselar Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.

joel, if you take the trouble to read this or investigate anthropology more thoroughly you might find many of your unreferenced and frankly, primitive, criticisms ('horrid and nasty'.....please...). I feel that a better understanding of how we survived for the majority of our existance is necessary in such a debate and

Research appears to indicate that, contrary to your statements, these people formed the original 'affluent societies'.

Within anthropological circles the idea that the hunter-gatherer life was 'nasty, brutish and short' appears to have been largely discarded since the early 70s but the findings and consensus are rather dangerous.

To quote the editor:

'The view of hunter-gatherers that dominated before the 1960s reflected notions of cultural evolution and progress embedded in the Western worldview. In spite of modern technology and science and the extraordinary powers of production they make possible, modern life is a struggle with scarsity, a battle to make ends meet. The life of the hunter-gatherer, then, with none of today's technological advances in the battle to survive, must have been, in the words of thomas Hobbes '"nasty, brutish and short". As Marshall Sahlins puts it, 'Having equipped the hunter with bourgeois impulses and paleolithic tools, we judge his situation to be hopeless in advance'. This view was reflected in the pre-1960s athropological literature. A quote by Robert Braidwood (1957) is typical: ' A man who spends his whole life following animals just to kill them to eat, or moving from one berry patch to another, is really living just like an animal himself'. The general view of hunter-gatherers as backward, brutish and uncivilised was shattered with the publication in 1968 of the book 'Man the Hunter', a collection of field studies of surviving hunter-gatherer societies. They were shown to be generally well fed, egalitarian, ecologically sustainable, and socially and intellectually complex and to have an abundance of leisure time.

The descriptions of various hunter-gather societies in the twelve chapters, by different writers, collected together in this book, explode virtually every myth and assumption that Joel appears to have concerning the lives of our ancestors. the more you read this book the more one comes to realise that we have a great deal to learn from them and that moving into settled agriculture was a painful and difficult process that had to be adopted because the hunter-gatherer societies had become to efficient and food production had to be increased.

Anyway, Joel, read the book (or at least reference your views better) and let us know if your views on humanity's past have undergone something of a transformation.

Follow Ups:

The Debating Room Post a Followup