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Possession of few things does not necessarily amount to 'poverty'. (On Hunter gatherer societies)

Updated on May 10, 2012

Poverty can be defined as “the condition of being without adequate food, money, etc” (Dictionary.com, 2011) and though examples of modern day hunter-gatherer societies we will see that Far from having inadequate sources of food and other necessities in many cases they have an abundance of them. In reality even in cases of hunter-gatherer societies living in what would first appear as difficult environments an adequate livelihood can be made and in fact many have a “marvelously varied diet” (Sahlins, 1972) as well as a large amount of leisure time and economic safety. The common view that hunter-gatherer societies struggled to survive and had to work long hours to produce sufficient food is “barely tenable” (Ellen, 1994) and it is now believed that our ancestors lived quite comfortable and enjoyable lives. In societies experiencing poverty the common factors of lack of food, lack of variety of food and lack of fresh water are normally found. People also often have to work long hours - for a very low wage - to gain enough simply to survive and so have very little leisure time. By showing that these issues do not generally appear in hunter-gatherer societies - who have very few physical possessions - we can show that lack of material wealth does not amount to poverty. In fact the exact opposite is common place in these native and often nomadic peoples.

An abundance of material wealth is highly valued in western culture and even things such as computers are often seen as neccesaties. In contrast many hunter-gatherer societies hold completely contrasting cultural views. In modern anthropology it is argued that “a people can enjoy an unparalleled material plenty - with a low standard of living” (Sahlins, 1972). This is due to the fact they have very few material wants or needs and are content simply with adequate food, water and social contact. For example a modern westerner would be seen as lacking to not own a phone of some sort, while a hunter-gatherer never has a need for one as everyone he knows lives within walking distance. This means that a form of wealth can be attained by “desiring little” (Sahlins, 1972). While modern societies hold material wealth in high regard hunter-gatherers “are in business for their health” (Sahlins, 1972) and in this area they prosper. In reality ownership of many tools or other items can make life far more difficult - as Laurens van der Post observed in the case of the bushmen - because “the less they own, the more comfortably they can travel” (Sahlins, 1972). Because of the nomadic nature of many hunter-gatherer societies this is a recurring theme. Possessions become a burden rather than of any benefit. For this reason “portability is a decisive value” (Sahlins, 1972) in the small amount of owned items. The small amount of tools they do use can also be constructed very quickly and so it is often easier to construct another than carry one large distances (Sahlins, 1972).

Societies such as the bushmen enjoy an extremely varied diet and relative good health. In the Dobe area where a group of bushmen reside there is a “surprising abundance of vegetation” (Sahlins, 1972). It is predicted that the Dobe population requites “only 1,975 calories per capita” while there actual subsistence yield was “2,140” (Sahlins 1972) showing that they gather more than required relatively easily. Native Americans were also previously thought to live on the edge of hunger and Mal-nourishment but it is now understood that they are neither deficient in “flavour nor nutritious qualities” (Sahlins 1972). This also means that these societies experience a certain level of health and well being due to good diets and so are certainly not deficient of lacking in terms of diet - which we would generally associate with occurring in societies experiencing poverty.

The preconception that these cultures have very little access to food and water is also far from the truth. The aboriginals of southeastern Australia - for example - are “favoured with a supply of fish so abundant and easily procured” that it was wondered how they amused themselves during there abundant free time before anthropologists taught them how to smoke. Sources of food like this are common throughout similar native groups. This ease of production of necessities also seems to contrast with societies experiencing poverty. In New Holland the natives also “have no difficulty whatever in procuring food in abundance all the year round” (Sahlins, 1972). Although these modern day examples cannot be taken to be exact replicas of previous hunter-gatherer societies they do give evidence to the premise that our ancestors lived comfortable and content lives with abundant food and water. even in the case of “storms or accidents” the society will generally only be deprived of food for a few days (Sahlins, 1972). This can be contrasted with our modern societies where accidents and natural disasters can cause wide spread starvation and often death. In the world today it is thought that “one-third to one-half” of humanity - of which the majority live in pastorialist societies - goes to bed hungry every night. this would suggest that hunter-gatherers actually have a more reliable and effective method of food production than us today. It would seem that a smaller percentage of hunter-gatherers go hungry on a regular basis than in agriculturalist or pastorialist communities. because of the relative plenty they experience hunter-gatherer societies are generally known for not storing food - even during times of difficulty. This is despite the fact that many of these native peoples have the knowledge of how to store food for long periods (Sahlins, 1972). The reason that agriculture is not practiced in these societies is not a lack of knowledge but rather a kind of comfort with the status quo. The Hadza have been quoted as saying “Why should we plant, when there are so many mongomongo nuts in the world?” (Sahlins 1972). If it were the case that they live in poverty it would seem that if another supposedly better option was available it would be attempted.

In terms of the actually time spend gathering and producing food many nomadic hunter societies actually work far fewer hours than agricultural or even modern pastorialist societies. Leisure time is “abundant” in these native people (Sahlins, 1972) and they spend more time sleeping “per capita per year than in any other condition of society.” (Sahlins, 1972) again in contrast to societies in poverty who work long hours. The “Arnhem Land” date shows that the average time a person would put into the gathering and production of food was only an intermittent four or five hours (Sahlins, 1972). This is far below the modern 9-5 routine found in western culture. They also do not seem to dislike the labour that must be completed such as hunting (Sahlins, 1972) which again can be compared against the common modern dislike of one job. economic cares are therefore far less prolific as effort almost guarantees a wealth of produce (Sahlins, 1972). This means the majority of time is spend socialising, visiting other camps and resting. This is true to such an extent that they have even been referred to as “lazy” (Sahlins, 1972). People in poverty obviously cannot spend as much of there time socialising or sleeping.

The evidence points to the conclusion that nomadic hunter-gatherer societies enjoy relative plenty in terms of food, water, health and leisure as well as generally enjoying the small amount of work they do have to complete. This lifestyle can not be equated with poverty and there lack of material wealth is in fact a choice to improve there ability to travel lightly and there quality of life. The possession of few things therefore does not amount to poverty and in fact often seems counter-intuitive to a content life and the abundance of necessities. The poverty in the world today may not exist at all if cultures had not moved from hunting and gathering to agriculturalism and pastorialism and there are arguments that it is a direct result of this progression. It could well be that the modern world can be more accurately described as in poverty than the native peoples mentioned above.

Works Cited


Arnason, Arnar. "Anthropology, AT1502." At1502. University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen. 2011. Lecture.

Bird-David, Nurit. The Giving Environment: Another Perspective on the Economic System of Gatherer-hunters. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1990. Print.

Ellen, Roy. Modes of Subsistence: Hunting and Gathering to Agriculture and Pastorialism. London: Routledge, 1994. Print.

"Poverty." Dictionary.com | Free Online Dictionary for English Definitions. Web. 24 Apr. 2011. <http://dictionary.reference.com/>.

Sahlins, Marshall. "The Original Affluent Society." Stone Age Economics. London: Tavistock, 1976. 1-39. Print.


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