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Romanticizing the Hunter-Gatherer

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Quillette

 William Buckner

Dec. 16 2017

 

In 1966, at the ‘Man the Hunter’ symposium held at the University of Chicago, anthropologist Richard B. Lee presented a paper that would radically rewrite how academics and the public at large interpret life in hunter-gatherer societies. Questioning the notion that the hunter-gatherer way of life is a “precarious and arduous struggle for existence,” Lee instead described a society of relative comfort and abundance. Lee studied the !Kung of the Dobe area in the Kalahari Desert (also known variously as Bushmen, the San people, or the Ju/’hoansi) and noted that they required only 12 to 19 hours a week to collect all the food they needed. Lee further criticized the notion that hunter-gatherers have a low life expectancy, arguing that the proportion of individuals older than 60 among the !Kung, “compares favorably to the percentage of elderly in industrialized populations.”1 On the basis of Lee’s work, and other material presented at the symposium, anthropologist Marshall Sahlins coined the phrase “original affluent society” to describe the hunter-gatherer way of life.

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At this year’s annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, President Alisse Waterston said that the “responsibility now for anthropologists is to participate in envisioning an alternative world.” Wanting to help shape a better world is a worthy goal. I do not doubt the good intentions of President Waterston or many of the other anthropologists who see flaws in their own societies and feel a deep responsibility to help make the world a better place. But envisioning a better world cannot come at the expense of accurately describing the existing one. If academics and journalists are unwilling to report uncomfortable facts, then they have no one but themselves to blame if they suffer a consequent loss of public trust.

For as long as humans have been around, people the world over have faced similar struggles: getting enough to eat, navigating social relationships, dealing with parasites and disease, raising their young. It’s a nice idea to believe that somewhere deep in the past, or still today in a more remote part of the world, there existed or exists a society that has figured it all out; where everyone is healthy and happy and equal, untouched by the difficulties of modern living. But even if violence, inequality, discrimination, and other social problems are universal and part of human nature, that doesn’t mean their prevalence can’t be reduced. They can and recent trends make this abundantly clear. Denying the scope of the problem, pretending that these social issues are uniquely modern or uniquely Western, or the product of agriculture or capitalism, does not help to fix our contemporary social ills. Instead it leaves us more confused about the causes of these problems, and, consequently, less equipped to solve them.

 

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