It may be hard for a modern, civilized person in the twenty-first century to get his head around it, but hunter-gatherers lived in socially and economically egalitarian societies. Everyone was essentially guaranteed a share in acquired food and no one had any kind of social rank above or below someone else; there was no hierarchy of any kind. Maintaining the status quo, however, did not happen automatically -- it had to be actively and constantly fostered in an intentional way. But it is true that no one was hungry, no one was poor; there were no bosses or managers or mayors, no leaders of any kind, really. When someone started to declare his superiority, or exhibited behavior that made it clear he felt that way, others would simply move to another camp and ignore him completely. It was the single greatest system of conflict resolution in the history of the world. But I digress. In this chapter I shall explore the nature of the egalitarian ethos, in order to shed some light on this remarkable and, for some, unbelievable virtual socioeconomic Eden in which our hunter-gatherer forbears lived.
The anthropological consensus on the subject of hunter-gatherers seems to be that there are a very small number of hgs alive on the planet today who do, or did, display a number of characteristics that appear quite enviable from the vantage point of modern civilization. These include egalitarian sharing patterns; anti-authoritarian tendencies; respect for individuality; an emphasis on cooperation; flexible living arrangements; permissive child-rearing practices; and a system of "generalized" reciprocity (Berman 2000). Hg societies do not, as a rule, accumulate much property, especially considering that their societies are based on "immediate-return" economies. There are no personal dependencies, and the emphasis on sharing works against the adoption of agriculture because it undermines the possibility of savings and investment, which agriculture requires. Furthermore, in such societies no individual has power over another (Leacock and Lee 1982). This account is not a matter of theorizing or wishful romantic thinking, but is based upon the ethnographic data gathered by many researchers. As I said before, it might seem rather unbelievable to many. The fact is, it's really true.
Some anthropologists have argued that the egalitarianism of hgs is a result of two major component factors: the very limited degree of sequestration of resources leading to a very small accumulation of private property; and the very high degree of value they ascribe to general reciprocity with a concomitant disdain for material routes to status and prestige. What prestige ambitious and disproportionately successful producers can hope to gain can only be done so by the dispersion of goods as widely as possible, making material accumulation virtually nonexistent (Winterhalder 2001).
Now, it is important to realize that the term egalitarian does not mean that everyone has the same amount of food, goods, or prestige. Not everyone is necessarily equal. The key fact is that everyone has equal access to food, the technology needed to acquire resources, and whatever paths may exist that could lead to a degree of prestige (Woodburn 1979, 1980, 1982). The critical element, then, of egalitarianism is individual autonomy (Gardner 1991).
Hgs very much emphasize their autonomy in their daily lives. Autonomy is explicitly asserted, with strong appeals in general to self-governance (Myers 1986). There may or may not be a headman, but the important fact is that each person "is headman over himself" (Lee 1979). Prestige may be gained, naturally, but it can never be used to gain power over another band member. Egalitarianism is emphatically not simply the absence of stratification and hierarchy. Hgs are fiercely egalitarian because the maintenance of an egalitarian society requires constant effort (Kelly 1995).
There are always situations in which one individual will try to exert power over another. Hgs have developed a variety of ways to combat this by creating "leveling mechanisms." The !Kung San bushmen say they are a way to "cool the hearts" of individuals both by preventing and addressing boastful behavior. Humor is used to belittle successful hunters; wives use sexual humor to keep a husband in line; and gambling, accusations of stinginess, or demands of sharing maintain a constant circulation of goods and prevent hoarding and accumulation (Kelly 1995). An egalitarian ethos exists among foragers largely as a response to a fluctuating and unpredictable environment, making sharing adaptive and necessary (Cashdan 1980). In this sense, sharing may be largely a response to variability in foraging returns, thereby ensuring future reciprocity. There are, of course, the problems of perceived tension and debts given differences in ability among different members of the band. The self-effacing, humorous behavior of foragers such as the !Kung enables sharing to go more smoothly. Therefore, assertively egalitarian behavior makes the hoarding of goods and the imposition of one's will upon another at odds with cultural norms.