Romanticizing the Hunter-Gatherer

Romanticizing the Hunter-Gatherer, by William Buckner.

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.” …

It’s not often that you see a 50-year-old paper repeatedly referenced in mainstream publications, but you can find mentions of Lee’s work pretty much everywhere today. … An article in the September 18 issue of the New Yorker by John Lanchester heavily cites each of these books in order to make “The Case Against Civilization.”

So, are Lee and  … and Lanchester correct? Is the hunter-gatherer lifestyle a more optimal way to live, and have the benefits of civilization been drastically overstated?

Well it turns out that Lee’s work is romantic and inaccurate. Wrong, basically, but it played to the prejudices of the PC crew.

[Lee’s] original estimate of 12-19 hours worked per week did not include food processing, tool making, or general housework, and when such activities were included he estimated that the !Kung worked about 40-44 hours per week. Lee noted that this number still compares quite favorably to the average North American wage earner, who spends over 40 hours a week above their wage labor doing housework or shopping. … However, it is important to note that this does not take into account the difficulty or danger involved in the types of tasks undertaken by hunter-gatherers. It is when you look into the data on mortality rates, and dig through diverse ethnographic accounts, that you realize how badly mistaken claims about an “original affluent society” really are. …

Anthropologists Henry Harpending and LuAnn Wandsnider wrote, “Lee’s (1968, 1969, 1979) studies of !Kung diet and caloric intake have generated a misleading belief among anthropologists and others that !Kung are well fed and under little or no nutritional stress.” They note that “1964 may have been an unusually productive year for bush food,” and compare it with work describing the severe effects of the 1973 environment, “…people were starving, and weight loss and widespread social disruption occurred.” In 1986, Nancy Howell wrote that “…the !Kung are very thin and complain often of hunger, at all times of the year.” …

In a study on the life histories of the !Kung Nancy Howell found that the number of infants who died before the age of 1 was roughly 20 percent. …  Life expectancy for the !Kung is 36 years of age. …

Much is made of the increased risk of infectious disease in large, concentrated, sedentary populations, but comparatively little attention has been given to the risk of ‘traveler’s diarrhea’ common among hunter-gatherers. For mobile groups, infants, the elderly, and other vulnerable individuals have little opportunity to develop resistance to local pathogens. This may help explain why infant and child mortality among hunter-gatherers tends to be so high. Across hunter-gatherer societies, only about 57% of children born survive to the age of 15. Sedentary populations of forager-horticulturalists, and acculturated hunter-gatherers, have a greater number of children surviving into adulthood, with 64% and 67%, respectively, surviving to the age of 15. …

In the realm of reproductive success, hunter-gatherers are even more unequal than modern industrialized populations, exhibiting what is called “greater reproductive skew,” with males having significantly larger variance in reproductive success than females. Among the Ache of Paraguay, males have over 4 times the variance in reproductive success that females do, which is one of the highest ratios recorded. This means some males end up having lots of children with different women, while a significant number of males end up having none at all. This is reflected in the fact that polygynous marriage is practiced in the majority of hunter-gatherer societies for which there are data. … Rather than defending what would be considered child marriage in contemporary Western societies, anthropologists often omit mentioning this information entirely. …

So what’s in it for the PC crew?

So, what explains the popularity of this notion of an “original affluent society”? Why do people in societies with substantially greater life expectancy, reduced infant mortality, greater equality in reproductive success, and reduced rates of violence, romanticize a way of life filled with hardships they have never experienced? …

To look across human cultures and notice that even the smallest and most ‘egalitarian’ societies are still plagued by problems of violence, sexism, xenophobia, and inequality may be disheartening for many political progressives and anthropologists dedicated to social justice.