Sunday, December 24, 2017

Myths about Hunter-Gatherers

The myths about hunter-gatherers are exposed in this excellent article:
William Buckner, “Romanticizing the Hunter-Gatherer,” Quillette, December 16, 2017
Buckner points out that many of these myths were first promulgated in a conference called “Man the Hunter” (held at the Center for Continuing Education, University of Chicago, from 6–9 April, 1966) in a paper by Richard B. Lee (Lee 1968) on the !Kung people of the Kalahari Desert (also called the Bushmen or the San people).

Lee’s (1968) work was taken up by the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins in his book Stone Age Economics (1974) (2nd edn. Sahlins 2004), in which he called Stone Age hunter-gatherers the “original affluent society.”

This idealised view of hunter-gatherer societies was based on the work of Lee (1968), and has recently been elaborated by James C. Scott’s Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (2017), and James Suzman’s Affluence without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen (2017).

The Cultural Leftist and Liberal media have pushed these books and their skewed view of hunter-gatherer societies.

Buckner, reviewing the scholarly literature, points out the lies and myths of these new romanticised views of hunter-gatherers
(1) subsequent work has shown that hunger and malnutrition are prevalent in modern hunter-gatherer societies, and the notion that ancient hunter-gatherer communities, which would have been similar to modern ones, were “affluent societies” absurd (Howell 1986; Harpending and Wandsnider 1982; Konner and Shostak 1986; Silberbauer 1981).

(2) modern hunter-gatherers have horrifically high infant mortality rates and low life expectancy at birth, which ranges from 21 to 36 years. (Lee 1993; Howell 1979; Headland 1988; Gurven and Kaplan 2007; Migliano et al. 2007), and we should expect that this was true of Stone Age hunter-gatherers.

(3) the mobile nature of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle means that hunter-gatherers are vulnerable to the pathogens of different regions, and have difficulty evolving resistance to such pathogens. This should be true of ancient hunter-gatherers too.

(4) the extent of equality in hunter-gatherer communities is exaggerated (Gurven 2004; Smith et al. 2011; Smith 2004), though it is less than in most agricultural societies. There is no compelling reason to think ancient hunter-gatherer communities were different.

(5) as Darwinian theory would predict, successful male hunters tend to be accorded high status and have much greater reproductive success in hunter-gatherer communities through polygamy, far more than in modern advanced societies (Brown et al. 2009; Binford 2001).

(6) hunter-gatherer communities are not some models of gender equality (Tonkinson 1978; Hill et al. 2007; Hurtado and Hill 1996; Divale et al. 1976; Hewlett 1991; Rasmussen 1931), but men seem to consistently have higher status, and women inferior status.

(7) Kelly (2013) finds that homicide rates of hunter-gatherer societies are far higher than most modern nation states.
So, all in all, hunter-gatherer quality of life is markedly inferior to that of modern industrialised societies, and the modern Left continue to promulgate myths about these societies.

Binford, Lewis R. 2001. Constructing Frames of Reference: An Analytical Method for Archaeological Theory Building using Hunter-Gatherer and Environmental Data Sets. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Brown, G. R., Laland, K. N. and M. B. Mulder. 2009. “Bateman’s Principles and Human Sex Roles,” Trends in Ecology and Evolution 24: 297–304.

Divale, William and Marvin Harris. 1976. “Population, Warfare and the Male Supremacist Complex,” American Anthropologist 78: 521–538.

Edgerton, Robert B. 1992. Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony. Free Press, New York and Oxford.

Gurven, M. 2004. “To give and to give not: The Behavioral Ecology of Human Food Transfers,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 27.4: 543–559.

Gurven, Michael and Hillard Kaplan. 2007. “Longevity among Hunter-Gatherers: A Cross-Cultural Examination,” Population and Development Review 33.2: 321–365.

Harpending, H. and L. Wandsnider. 1982. “Population Structure of Ghanzi and Ngamiland !Kung,” Current Developments in Anthropological Genetics 2: 29–50.

Headland, T. N. 1988. “Ecosystemic Change in a Philippine Tropical Rainforest and its Effect on a Negrito Foraging Society,” Tropical Ecology 29: 121–135.

Hewlett, Barry. 1991. “Demography and Childcare in Preindustrial Societies,” Journal of Anthropological Research 47.1: 1–38.

Hill, Kim and A. Magdalena Hurtado. 1996. Ache Life History: The Ecology and Demography of a Foraging People. Aldine de Gruyter, New York.

Howell, Nancy. 1979. Demography of the Dobe !Kung. Academic Press, New York and London.

Howell, N. 1986. “Feedback and Buffers in Relation to Scarcity and Abundance: Studies of Hunter-Gatherer Populations,” in D. Coleman and R. Schofield (eds.), The State of Population Theory. Basil Blackwell, New York. 156–187.

Hurtado A. M. and R. S. Walker. 2007. “High Adult Mortality among Hiwi Hunter-Gatherers: Implications for Human Evolution,” Journal of Human Evolution 52: 443–454.

Kaplan, David. 2000. “The Darker Side of the ‘Original Affluent Society,’” Journal of Anthropological Research 56.3: 301–324.

Keeley, Lawrence H. 1996. War before Civilization. Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford.

Kelly, Robert L. 2013. “From the Peaceful to the Warlike: Ethnographic and Archaeological Insights into Hunter-Gatherer Warfare and Homicide,” in Douglas P. Fry (ed.), War, Peace, and Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views. Oxford University Press, Oxford. 301–315.

Konner, M. and M. Shostak. 1986. “Ethnographic Romanticism and the Idea of Human Nature: Parallels between Samoa and !Kung San,” in M. Biesele, R. Gordon, and R. Lee (eds.), The Past and Future of !Kung Ethnography: Critical Reflections and Symbolic Perspectives: Essays in Honour of Lorna Marshall. Helmut Buske Verlag, Hamburg. 69– 76.

Lee, Richard. 1968. “What Hunters Do for a Living or How to Make Out on Scarce Resources,” in Richard B. Lee and Irven DeVore (eds.), Man the Hunter. Aldine Publishing Company, Chicago. 30–48.

Lee, Richard B. 1993. The Dobe Ju/’hoansi (2nd edn.). Harcourt Brace College, Fort Worth and London.

Lee, Richard B. 2013. The Dobe Ju/’hoansi (4th edn.). Wadsworth Cengage Learning, Belmont, CA. 294 p.

Migliano, A. B., Vinicius, L. and M. M. Lahr. 2007. “Life History Trade-Offs explain the Evolution of Human Pygmies,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 104: 20216–20219.

Pinker, Steven. 2011. The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. Viking, New York, NY.

Rasmussen, Knud. 1931. The Netsilik Eskimos: Social Life and Spiritual Culture. Gyldendalske Boghandel, Copenhagen.

Sahlins, Marshall. 1974. Stone Age Economics. Tavistock Publications, London.

Sahlins, Marshall David. 2004. Stone Age Economics (2nd edn.). Routledge, London.

Scott, James C. 2017. Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Silberbauer, George B. 1981. Hunter and Habitat in the central Kalahari Desert. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Smith, E. A. 2004. “Why do good Hunters have higher Reproductive Success?,” Human Nature 15: 343–364.

Smith, E. A., Hill, K., Marlowe, F. W., Wiessner, P., Gurven, M., Bowles, S., Borgerhoff Mulder, M., Hertz, T. and A. Bell. 2011. “Wealth Transmission and Inequality among Hunter-Gatherers,” Current Anthropology 51: 19–34.

Suzman, James. 2017. Affluence without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen. Bloomsbury, New York.

Tonkinson, R. 1978. The Mardudjara Aborigines: Living the Dream in Australia’s Desert. Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, New York.

Tacey, I. and D. Riboli. 2014. “Violence, Fear and Anti-Violence: The Batek of Peninsular Malaysia,” Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research 6: 203–215.


  1. "The modern left continue to promulgate these myths" do they? Maybe some, but marxists for example (which I certainly ain't) welcome industrialisation, while some paleo conservatives have almost primitivist views. All in all, I think its possible to meet half way between. Think of Galbraithian economics, which welcomes elements of capitalism, but never in excess.

    1. Ps. By half way in between, im not proposing for us to necessarily ape hunter gatherer societies (pun intended) but to remove the most alienating, sterilising aspects of neoliberalism.

  2. "So, all in all, hunter-gatherer quality of life is markedly inferior to that of modern industrialised societies, . . . "

    It appears to be the case.
    However, they did not produce the externalities associated with industrial societies.