Reply to Singh

Jacqueline Solway: “… the article sensationalizes and sets up straw people at least at the outset. It is our problem, not ‘theirs’ that we see some others as less complex, lacking the full range of human emotion and capacity, and ‘timeless.’ I wish the author had mentioned Marshall Sahlins, ‘The Original, Affluent Society’ (1968) whose words were also taken out of context to concretize the ‘myth.’

Singh, in this article, challenges the idea of an egalitarian and mobile hunter-gatherer past. He writes:

“This is more than just a theory of prehistory. It’s the modern, scientific origin myth. Yes, we live in mega-societies with property and slavery and inequality but, at heart, we are mobile, egalitarian hunter-gatherers, wired for small groups and sharing.”

He then goes on to cite Peter Turchin who has suggested that this is the standard view, and others, including David Wengrow and David Graeber, who have questioned the idea of that humanity evolved, primarily, within small, highly mobile, and egalitarian groups.

He presents, as counter-examples, archaeological evidence of the Calusa, sedentary, larger-scale, hunter-gatherer society in Florida, and other such sedentary and ranked societies such as those of the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America. “….If hunter-gatherers can build large, sedentary societies, why do we assume that they lived in small bands for most of our species’ history? Surely our ancestors preferred lush spots over the dead-looking Kalahari.”   AND he goes on and on in this manner, implying that the mobile and egalitarian hunter-gatherer band level society is a myth, and that heirarchy, economic inequality, slavery, and violent city-states that ran protection rackets intimidating surround regions… was a more likely model. 

In short, he first erects the “mobile, egalitarian, band-society” as a STRAW MAN and then sets about demolishing it to make his point that anthropologists have been fools and romantics.

This is, essentially, the very same imaginary “Noble Savage” that Thomas Hobbes repudiated; the same fiction repeatedly resurrected and then demolished, with boring regularity, in the writings of other authors, such as Lawrence Keeley, Richard Wrangham, and Steven Pinker. 

Worse, Singh is taking liberties with the truth. He does this in two ways.


First, he misrepresents the goals of the research Richard Lee originally undertook. It was literally to test just how bad the lives of people in such economies truly were. Previous work had suggested that mobile hunter-gatherers tended to be small and short-lived people, because their lives were focused on a desperate and continuous search for food. 

The specific Kalahari research, undertaken by Richard Lee, and discussed in the Aeon article, was done to quantify the caloric shortfalls, gather data on the rates of hunger, violence, disease, injury, and reduced life expectancy. This all tested the Hobbesian hypothesis to destruction, and this was a revelation. If hunting and gathering, even in a semi-arid “dead-looking Kalahari“, was more than adequate in caloric returns to very low labour outlays, if such an economy was producing proportions of people over sixty that compared favourably with those in agricultural and industrial economies, and represented a relatively secure and leisurely way of life, then why did some people, in some regions, “invent” farming and domesticate plants and animals?

This research was not, moreover, undertaken to demonstrate that humans evolved in mobile “band-level” societies, nor was it undertaken to determine the origin of “human nature”. Singh’s whole point, however, was, apparently, to reiterate the second Hobbesian thesis: that human beings evolved to be selfish, competitive, aggressive, and prone to intergroup violence. Singh presents the Calusa as exemplars of an evolutionary environment of inequality and brutal hierarchy. This serves a “survival of the fittest” narrative, and invites the reader to imagine an evolutionary past dominated by competition and brutal inequality. This narrative has been kept on life-support in some schools of thought in the social sciences for over a century. Singh’s work, thus, is yet another desperate attempt to give oxygen to this dying story of a humanity forged by ruthless competition and aggression.

The second misrepresentation was even more serious. Singh pretends that ranked societies, based on delayed-return hunter-gatherer economies were previously excluded from models of the kind of society and economy archaeologists were using to reconstruct conditions of life during human evolution.

But James Woodburn wrote at length, decades ago, about the fact that there were hunter-gatherers with “delayed return” economies, based on food storage, as well as those with “immediate return” economies, where little food was kept in storage. This was already clear by the late 1800s when Boaz published accounts of such communities along the Northeast Coast of North America, that societies featuring permanent villages, and ranked tribal organization, could develop, among hunter-gatherers who seasonally relied on stored food (in this case, dried meat and fish) and on carefully managed and harvested shellfish.

Therefore, Singh may think he is making some sort of startling revelation here, but he isn’t.

The range of hunter-gatherer societies reported in the volume “Man the Hunter” never precluded such sedentary and ranked societies. Nor did anyone at the Man the Hunter conference suggest that semi-arid landscapes in Africa represented the main physical landscape where human evolution had taken place. The work of Richard Lee, studying the !Kung, did not create any “myth” about humans evolving as mobile and egalitarian hunter-gatherers, it merely solidified evidence that egalitarianism and high mobility WAS NOT HAPPENING BECAUSE OF FOOD SCARCITY.

In summary, research among modern day hunter-gatherers disproves the previous stereotypes about the lives of prehistoric people characterized by brevity, hardship, violence, and a constant struggle to find enough food. Furthermore, the work of Richard Lee and his assembled teams studying the !Kung did not create any “myth” that mobile “band-level” hunter-gatherers, or of a southern Africa semi-arid landscape, represented all human social organization and typical ecosystems during human evolution. That is a complete STRAW MAN fantasy, as Jacqueline Solway rightly points out. Nor were the studies of Kalahari peoples undertaken to determine the origin of”human nature”.

Today it is also acknowledged that such “delayed return” hunter-gatherer economies may well have existed, especially along coastlines, for as much as or more than – a hundred thousand years. This is suggested by 1) the early dates of the large shell mounds at many cave sites along the South African coast, and 2) similar mounds at earliest sites all around the Australian coast, as well as 3) the practice of shellfish “farming”, coupled with other practices to maintain abundant fish near coasts and in rivers, well documented by both archaeological sites and ethnography along the west coast of North America. The Florida shell mounds and other archaeological evidence, presented in Singh’s paper here, fits this pattern.

But that is all it does.

The mainstay of his further argument seems to be trying to prove that prehistoric hunter-gatherers could have been, not just sedentary and delayed-return foragers, but INEGALITARIAN. Look at the language he chooses to describe his example from Florida, that the Calusa: they “ruled” some “50 to 60 politically united villages” and even beyond, where they “collected tribute from client villages in the form of mats, hides, captives, feathers and breads made of roots. In return, they offered protection”… all supported, not on the basis of domestic crops, but on the basis of farmed shellfish.

Well, I am sorry to have to point this out, but the existence of political ranking, of “tribute”, and of large scale political organization need not indicate an inegalitarian access to food or any other necessity. I am not the only ethnographer who found, in both the Kalahari hunter-gatherer economies, and in the “ago-pastoral” economies of tribal societies, a dominant dynamic of leadership was to enforce a degree of equality of access to essential resources and assistance.

Among the horticulturalists and nomadic pastoralists I studied in West Africa, group actions to enforce punishment of transgressors appear to arrive through consultation and consensus-creation, even in those with more permanent leadership positions. This is perfectly articulated in the following: “…Roland Chrisjohn, a member of the Iroquois tribe and the author of The Circle Game, points out that for his people, it is deemed valuable to spend whatever time necessary to achieve consensus… By the standards of Western civilization, this is highly inefficient. “Achieving consensus could take forever!” exclaimed an attendee of a talk Chrisjohn gave. Chrisjohn responded, “What else is there more important to do?””

Ranking systems, when studied in real time, are not usually derived from intimidation and aggression. Rather, they are based on an acquired reputation for demonstrated virtues, often articulated as a consensus. Such people are valued by the community and thus listened to, because of a history of demonstrated integrity. Highly valued signs of good character are generosity, diplomacy, honesty, loyalty, diligence, and recognized proficiency at important skills. Thus, differences, in social rank, rarely result in leadership favouring inequality of access to vital goods and services, but instead, ensure such access to everyone. There is, furthermore, no reason to assume that more elaborate burials, indicating a person had high rank in life, indicate any material inequality was present in the society.

Singh also implies that the Calusa “extracted tribute” from surrounding villages and other groups as a form of protection racket. However, studies, not just of delayed return hunter-gatherers, but also of horticultural and nomadic pastoral societies, suggest that leadership positions are not about extracting material wealth from the lower ranks, or even from politically subordinated neighbours. Contributions to communal food and material surpluses are a normal part of the sharing ethos that operates in tribal societies, and people of high rank are the ones usually put in charge of such tribute. This is not personal wealth accumulation, it is risk insurance, and it is undertaken by trusted persons because they are willing to take on more responsibility, not because they personally want power or bigger granaries.

Finally, I would suggest that sedentism, and delay return economies, did not arise due to “richer” environments that made surplus “production” possible? Consider this… a society does not invest in the extra effort of building granaries and other food storage structures, permanent housing, and the arduous labour involved in mobilizing the people to harvest enough extra migrating fish or enough extra tonnage of stored wild grain, unless it has a good reason. The experience of regular seasonal food shortage is one such reason. So are the painful lessons drawn from experiences of occasional severe long-lasting droughts, or violent storms, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, wildfires, and even of epidemics of disease among people or in the plants or animals that are vital to their food supply.

Knowledge of such calamities – and how to survive them – can be passed down through many generations. Such stories justify even extreme measures to protect a community against such a risk in future. In contrast, in relatively stable environments, people can manage their whole ecosystem so as to make food relatively easy to find all year-round. In such environments, risks of seasonal shortages are few. Risks of occasional droughts can be countered by having diplomatic understandings with neighbouring groups, permitting mutually assured refuge. In normal times, they can spend the year moving from camping site to camping site, staying with a variety of other campers, and moving around the landscape for social reasons: to attend various ceremonies, to visit friends and relatives. In the Kalahari, during my fieldwork, interviews almost invariably indicated that people worried less about finding food, than about meeting various social obligations. They also, of course, today, worry about controlling wildfires and negotiating access to water points controlled by the politically dominant farmers and livestock owners. They were, for most part, still highly mobile “immediate return” hunter-gatherers. Aside from occasional bagged up caches of morama beans and dried meat, very little food was set aside for later consumption. 

I wonder if we can simply agree that, in environments with lower risks, not just risks of seasonal food scarcity, but also of lower risks of weather, fire, and disease, people can afford to have an “immediate return” economy. Even a semi-arid ecosystem can be managed for this kind of sustained subsistence. 

In other environments, seasonal wild food abundances may be followed by times of scarcity. In other environments, weather events are less predictable. Given a history of hurricanes, floods, or droughts, a cultural pattern emerges that prioritizes planning ahead to avoid food shortages. With these higher risks, “delayed return” makes more sense. Perhaps we might explore the possibility that higher environmental risks would be a powerful incentive for the intensification of ecosystem management; hence the development of shellfish “farms”. I suspect that the intensification of common hunter-gatherer practices, such as cultural burning to control wildfires, shellfish “farming”, and the deliberate replanting to increase the range of favoured wild plant species, might eventually have been what led to the domestication of a number of species favoured by people as food sources and ecosystem indicators. What is “slash and burn” horticulture, after all? And I wonder if we might consider that this occurred in response to increased risks, not to richer ecosystems. If so, more permanent ranking and the emergence of lineages (unilinear descent systems) might constitute a kind of risk insurance – social patterns that ensured survival through competent leadership.


Let me give an example to show what I mean:

I was interviewing households in an African village in Burkina Faso, on the subject of how much grain they had in store after harvest. Every one of them had cultivated more than they needed in order to contribute to the stores of the village chief.

I then interviewed this headman, and he proudly showed me granary after granary. He told me there was enough grain in store to feed the village through seven years of drought. This was a moment of revelation for me. I had been thinking of him as a powerful and greedy man, who was enriching himself through his political position.Suddenly I saw the man for what he was – an ethical, methodical, and diligent person striving to live up to the great responsibility entrusted to him.

He had to constantly monitor those granaries, checking for damage by rot or vermin, and carefully assess all withdrawals from this common fund.

I looked at his household, the largest in the village, and discovered that it was large because he had taken in people who were disabled or ill or vulnerable due to age or other misfortune.

It was from this chief’s stores that people got their safety net.

Could this explain the sources, possibly deep within human nature, which equate “moral” imperatives, courage, loyalty, compassion, justice, and generosity… with imperatives to resist inequality and violence?

When you see theories situating human evolution in a context of deadly competition and conflict between groups, a context of aggressive and stressful internal hierarchies, and contexts of individual motivations based on self-interest and “tribalism”, then you can be pretty sure that these theories seek to explain inegalitarian and violent politics as a result of INNATE human nature.

So consider the alternative: what if “politics” originated as an emergent property of something other than self-interest? What if humanity survived because we stood with, rather than against, one another? Perhaps that might better explain the helpfulness, and aversion to injustice, that we see in our young children?

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