Hunter-Gatherer Economics

In January 1488, Bartolomeu Dias, a Portuguese explorer, rounded Africa’s southern cape and put to shore to take on food and water. There he found a group, smaller and lighter-skinned than the other Africans he had encountered, who, mystified by the odd men appearing out of the infinity of the sea, chased them back to their boat under a hail of arrows.

The exchange, notes James Suzman in his new book “Affluence Without Abundance”, was a meeting of two distant branches of the human family tree: Europeans descended from ancient tribes that migrated out of Africa, and people commonly known as the San, who had called southern Africa home for at least 150,000 years. Just as important, the meeting represented the collision of humanity’s most ancient and durable form of economic organisation with its most powerful. The latter, wielded by Europeans, has dominated the half millennium since that scrape on the beach. But modern capitalist societies may have something to learn from the ways of their ancient forebears.

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Life spent hunting and gathering, while occasionally trying, was not a tale of constant toil and privation. Food could run short during droughts or annual lean periods, but reliance on a broad range of food sources typically afforded such tribes a reliable, well-balanced diet. Even around the arid Kalahari food is plentiful (at least when the tribes are not forced to share the land with farmers and ranchers)—so much so that the typical adult need work less than 20 hours per week.

Living off the land: Hunter-gatherer economics

Affluence Without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen,” by James Suzman

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