Editor’s note: This article is the first in a three-part series investigating different ways of organising human life on earth. The second and third articles in the series can be read here and here, respectively. Happy reading!
On several occasions over the years I have encountered versions of this ancient African parable:
A band of nomads encounter a tree full of ripe fruit, and proceed to have a feast. In the morning, as they are about to set off, a young man has bundled up a package of the fruit to take on their journey, so they can have food for another day. An elder of the group stops him: “We don’t have many rules, but the most important one is: we give thanks, we enjoy, but we do not take with.” The young one asks: “But why not?” The elder answers: “Because the world is plentiful, and will provide for us. But if we take more than we need, it will be the beginning of the end of our care free lives, and lead the entire world to catastrophe.”
The story always ends there, with no explanation; and I used to dismiss it as some kind of folk nonsense. It was not until recently when I gained a little bit more understanding of the basic tenants of Marxism that I began to get a sense of the deep significance of this story, which contains perhaps the most crucial lesson for humanity. This tale has everything to do with the global crisis on multiple fronts we are experiencing in the 21st century, as well as with the future of humanity from this point on, if there is to be any. (If you can cite specific versions or know more about this, please leave a comment.)
One of the central and most important tenants of Marxist analysis of economics is the concept of surplus value, or the material resources which are left over after all the needs of members of a society are met. According to Karl Marx, the evil of capitalism is not the competition it allegedly fosters or its supposed lack of concern for the poor. Rather, it is the inevitable problem of surplus value and surplus labour, which is stolen from the workers who produced it by the capitalists who control the means of production. To simplify complex theories and make a long story short, Marx expressed roughly the same idea as the African fable: that surplus is basically the original source of inequality, hierarchy, class, injustice, subjugation, slavery, and war.
It is no coincidence that ancient, pre-“civilised” traditions in Africa understood economics, society, the exact nature of their precarious relationship and how it affects individual quality of life as well as our collective fate in such precise and profound ways, as did similar nomadic societies spread all over the world. These are societies that figured out ways to live peaceful, egalitarian lives for many hundreds of thousands of years prior to the onset of sedentism, pastoralism, and eventually so called “civilisation“. This has basically been the consensus within the field of anthropology since at least the 1960s, with the remaining dispute being similar in nature to the controversy around Climate Change. A simple Google search on the subject will reveal source and further reading materials to back up these claims, such as Wikipedia on gatherer-hunters, or this piece from Psychology Today, which makes it very clear:
Is it true that hunter-gatherers were peaceful egalitarians? The answer is yes. … If just one anthropologist had reported all this, we might assume that he or she was a starry-eyed romantic who was seeing things that weren’t really there, or was a liar. But many anthropologists, of all political stripes, regarding many different hunter-gatherer cultures, have told the same general story.
The rise of Homo Sapien Sapiens as the dominant and only surviving species of advanced hominids in the entire Homo genus may have involved inter-species competition and violence, as our distant ancestors faired better in the survival game than others such as Australopithecus, Homo Neanderthalensis, Homo Habilis, etc., that once all cohabited on this planet. But after this process, evolutionary biologists agree that our species has spent more than 90% of our time on earth in highly egalitarian, band-level Gatherer-Hunter societies that enjoyed peace and equality: our ancestors figured out a way to live sustainably for at least 200,000 to 500,000 years, but more probably 2 million years, and maybe even longer.
The correct term for the lifestyle that lasted at least many hundred times longer than any other is Gatherer-Hunter, not Hunter-Gatherer, because the vast majority of their sustenance came from gathering fruits, nuts, roots, etc., with most of the small amount of meat coming from finding dead animals and a small percentage from hunting. It makes sense that humans would choose to gather most of their food, because hunting is both comparatively dangerous and much more work intensive. This is especially probable considering that the Earth was surely much more vegetation-abundant prior to the last glacial period, known as Würm, which lasted from 70,000–10,000 years ago, than afterwards, and even more so than today, because further processes of environmental degradation continued unabated ever since.
The good life
There is no room in the nomadic lifestyle for the accumulation of property, and hence no great differences in material possessions. Nomads typically only possess what they can carry, and any minimal level of social inequality is temporary (i.e. not inherited) and merit-based. That is, people can gain respect based on only their own actions (not those of their ancestors) – and there are no serious material privileges as a consequence. As the American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins observed in his 1968 essay on the ‘original affluent society’:
Of the nomad it is truly said that his wealth is a burden. In his condition of life, goods can become ‘grievously oppressive’ … and the more so the longer they are carried around. Certain food collectors do have canoes and a few have dog sleds, but most must carry themselves all the comforts they possess, and so only possess what they can comfortably carry.
(Interestingly, this is the opposite of the situation in our modern society, where only wealth can buy freedom.)
Sahlins coined the term “Original Affluence” to describe gatherer-hunter lifestyle. This concept of affluence means “having enough of whatever is required to satisfy consumption needs, and plenty of free time to enjoy life”. Foragers achieve affluence by wanting little rather than producing a lot, thus free from greed. Nomads live in societies where the concept of material wealth is nearly non-existent, and have plenty of “real” wealth, which is free time for leisure and creativity. The general high level of contentedness, satisfaction, happiness, and love of art, music, dance, and social games in many primordial groups such as the forest people of Central Africa, the Aborigines of Australia, and various indigenous peoples of the Americas is well documented.
Even today, this original lifestyle enjoyed by our ancestors for the vast majority of humanity’s time on earth, although greatly diminished to near extinction, has nonetheless survived. In 2014, there are fully functioning nomadic, band level micro-societies – that live in much the same way as this “Original Affluence” – in Indonesia and other parts of S.E. Asia, the Amazon regions of South America, scattered throughout the land of Africa, among others places. Although there are differences among these remaining groups, they share many similarities. A very good example of today’s gatherer-hunters, and the most studied of such groups, is the Dobe Ju/’hoansi people of Southern Africa, who live in and around the Kalahari Desert. A brief summary of the main characteristics of Dobe society:
• gather 90+ percent of food
• zero starvation: 100% of population has enough food all the time (compared to 30% starving in our modern industrial societies)
• work (acquiring food) 15 – 20 hours/week
• no division of labour other than sometimes between sexes
• do not distinguish between work and play
• little trade between groups
• no hierarchy, no authority, only “temporary leaders” for specific projects
• no private property
• very little to no social inequality, except things like respect for elders
• superb health
The very few surviving groups of nomads today have been increasingly – during countless waves of marginalisation over the past 10,000 years – pushed by “civilised” peoples to the least abundant areas, the very edge of their former habitats. But even in such reduced and impoverished circumstances, studying some of them have led sociologists to conclude that “scarcity is a myth”, because people like the Dobe live without want 365 days a year.
Low Population density is obviously important to maintain these high living standards, and various methods are employed by different groups, such as celibacy for all members for periods of 1 or 2 years after every birth, and processes of birth control and birth spacing. One study of childcare among the Dobe found that women practiced an indirect form of birth control by extending infant breastfeeding periods for several years. The stresses of lactation substantially reduced pregnancy rates to produce average birth spacing of four years. The length of the period between births creates the direct benefit of avoiding the problem of having to carry more than one infant or toddler during seasonal movements, as well as the longer-term effect of keeping population sizes within limits that the resource base could comfortably support.
Very few rules exist in band level nomadic societies. In many such groups, besides the all-important rule of no-surplus, the most significant rule is against competitiveness and expressions of individual ego. If any member demonstrates selfishness or behaviour – which typically stems from egoism and pride – he or she is ostracised for a period as punishment. (This is of course also exactly the opposite of our modern capitalist world order, where competitiveness is a virtue, selfishness is rewarded, and individualism/egoism is praised, while discouraging social cohesion, punishing generosity, and repressing empathy.)
How everything changed
But paradise did not last, and the glacial period came, covering large parts of the earth in ice and snow, causing millions of plant and animal species to become extinct. It is likely that the humans that managed to survive and emerged after this 30,000-year cold “snap” began farming out of necessity, finding themselves in much more depleted and barren landscapes after the snow melted. Thus the turning point came in the history of our species, and our lifestyle drastically changed, as most of humanity transitioned from nomadic gatherer-hunters to sedentary agriculturalists, from band to tribe level societies, around 10,000 years ago.
Anthropologist Elman Service presented a system of classification for societies in all human cultures based on the evolution of social inequality and the role of the state, containing four categories:
• Band: Gatherer-hunters, up to 100 members, no permanent, formal leader, egalitarian.
• Tribe: 100 – 300 members – Farmers, limited hierarchy, centralised leadership.
• Chiefdom: roughly 300 – 1000 members, social stratification, strict hierarchy, centralised power.
• State: millions of members, complex social stratification and centralised political power.
A great number of accounts exist of the initial transition from nomadic bands to sedentary tribes. For instance, the San people of Southern Africa (of which the Dobe Ju/’hoansi is one ethnic group) lived peacefully and sustainably for hundreds of thousands of years, before the arrival of Bantu tribes from the north. The Bantus brought farming methods and technology, caused food surpluses and a sharp spike in population, after which massive and bloody wars between tribes began.
There are also numerous examples of the steady increase of levels of inequality and scale of violence after the rise of agriculture. The isolated Enga tribe of Papua New Guinea traditionally lived on taro, yam tubers, half-domesticated pigs, and some forest game. But the introduction of the sweet potato, a fast and easy growing crop from South America, caused a surge in food surplus. Left overs were fed to the pigs, whose population multiplied; and pigs came to be used as currency during trade. Thus a new political class emerged, who did not do any actual work, but began to control and manipulate trade for their own profit, becoming ultra wealthy compared to the poor farmers. With all of this any traces of egalitarianism vanished, and wars became ever bigger and more frequent.
This is how humanity traded quality for quantity, and gave up freedom and autonomy for hard work and security. Life was worse off in many other ways as well, such as the reduction of our diet from being based on thousands of different raw plants to a few kinds of cooked grains (carbohydrates), leading to the appearance of many new, modern diseases, such as cancer, which did not exist before and would plague us to this day. Agriculture indeed brought so many ills to human life that the scientist Jarred Diamond called it The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race, in which he writes:
Besides malnutrition, starvation, and epidemic diseases, farming helped bring another curse upon humanity: deep class divisions. … with the advent of agriculture the élite became better off, but most people became worse off. Instead of swallowing the progressivist party line that we chose agriculture because it was good for us, we must ask how we got trapped by it despite its pitfalls. One answer boils down to the adage “Might makes right.” Farming could support many more people than hunting, albeit with a poorer quality of life. … bands (which adopted agriculture) outbred and then drove off or killed the bands that chose to remain gatherer-hunters [my correction – Zhao], because a hundred malnourished farmers can still outfight one healthy hunter. It’s not that hunter-gatherers abandoned their life style, but that those sensible enough not to abandon it were forced out of all areas except the ones farmers didn’t want.
If the history of the human race began at midnight, then we would now be almost at the end of our first day. We lived as hunter-gatherers for nearly the whole of that day, from midnight through dawn, noon, and sunset. Finally, at 11:54 p. m. we adopted agriculture. Gatherer-hunters practiced the most successful and longest-lasting life style in human history. In contrast, we’re still struggling with the mess into which agriculture has tumbled us, and it’s unclear whether we can solve it.
My only contention with Diamond’s paper is his estimation of the short life span of pre-agricultural humans: is he talking about the period immediately before the transition? Or right after the glacial period? or before the glacial period? Depending on which period the answer is surely very different. With all the scientific conjectures we can make about environmental conditions and character of life before Würm, it is not a stretch to conclude that our ancestors during that long period might have lived longer than us. (But then there were other factors such as predatory animals, so at best it is difficult to say one way or another)
With the new lifestyle came new divisions of labour, as farmers worked much more than before to provide food for all, and others now concentrated on things like making leather or weapons. The accumulation of more possessions than others brought more bargaining power for the rich, leading to exponential increase of wealth, which meant the upper classes could increasingly exploit the labour of lower classes for their own profit (“It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.” – Gore Vidal). The transition also brought the advent of centralised power, in the form of the first priest-kings, or shamens, who claimed to have more direct access to the divine, which justified their dominion over other members of society. The rest, as they say, is history. Social inequality steadily increased as societies became ever larger and more complex. The advancement of technology enabled even more drastically uneven distribution of wealth. Until we arrive at the nations states of 2014, where 0.01% of the world’s population owns the vast majority of wealth and power.
I am not advocating that we return to what’s left of the forests or necessarily to a pre-“civilised” lifestyle. But what I am certain of is that self knowledge for our species, and a clearer picture of our history is important. If only to know what is possible: we need to realise that humans are indeed capable of living peacefully and sustainably together for long periods of time. Just as the African elder predicted in the ancient tale, today humanity faces crises on many fronts which together pose a great threat to our survival along with other forms of life on earth, with perhaps inequity at the heart of the problem. Unimaginable hard times lie ahead of us, but maybe also a chance at a new beginning, a chance to organise ourselves in better ways, guided by the wisdom of ancients.