Anthropology: The Original Affluent Society

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Imagine a society in which the work week seldom exceeds 19 hours, material wealth is considered a burden, and no one is much richer than anyone else. The trespasser is unknown, there are no clear-cut property lines, merely undefined boundaries that stand open to visitors—who are welcomed with refreshment. Unemployment is high there, sometimes reaching 40%—not because the society is shiftless, but because it believes that only the able-bodied should work, and then no more than necessary. Food is abundant and easily gathered. The people are comfortable, peaceable, happy and secure.

This elysian community actually exists. Its habitat is Africa's Kalahari Desert, a region so harsh and inhospitable that Western man would be hard put to eke out a living. But in that unforgiving neighborhood, the Bushmen, a golden-skinned, short-statured and cheerful people, have been living contentedly for thousands of years as hunter-gatherers subsisting on what nature provides without resort to agriculture. In Man the Hunter (Aldine Publishing Co., $6.95), a recent symposium of studies on primitive societies, Harvard Anthropologists Irven DeVore and Richard B. Lee note that "cultural Man has been on earth for some 2,000,000 years. For over 99% of this period he has lived as a hunter-gatherer. To date, the hunting way of life has been the most successful and persistent adaptation man has ever achieved."

Noble Savages. Until recently, anthropology accepted the myopic judgment of Philosopher Thomas Hobbes that life in a state of nature was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." Primitive peoples were construed as somewhat stupid living fossils, stalled in the path of progress. Today, though, experts seem more inclined to endorse Jean Jacques Rousseau's vision of the noble savage living in a Golden Age. And they go so far as to suggest that present civilization, despite its vast artistic and material advances, is in some ways no real improvement on the past. "It is still an open question whether man will be able to survive the exceedingly complex and unstable ecological conditions he has created for himself," write Lee and DeVore. "If he fails in this task, interplanetary archaeologists of the future will classify our planet as one in which a very long and stable period of small-scale hunting and gathering was followed by an apparently instantaneous efflorescence of technology and society leading rapidly to extinction."

During the period that ended about 10,000 years ago with the discovery of agriculture, all of the seeds of civilization were sown. Out of the sharing and reciprocity demanded by the hunt, and out of the division of labor between male and female, arose the human family. The hunter's first symmetrical weapons were the antecedents of technology. By domesticating the dog for the chase, the hunter may have opened his eyes to the possibility of domesticating the prey. "Grinding and boiling may have been the necessary preconditions to the discovery of agriculture," write Anthropologists Sherwood L. Washburn and C. S. Lancaster of the University of California's Berkeley campus. "One can easily imagine that people who were grinding seeds would see repeated examples of seeds sprouting or being planted by accident."

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