History, Science / Tech

Romanticizing the Hunter-Gatherer

O Man, to whatever country you belong and whatever your opinions, listen: here is your history as I believe I have read it, not in the books of your fellow men who are liars but in Nature which never lies.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, A Discourse on Inequality

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.”1 On the basis of Lee’s work, and other material presented at the symposium, anthropologist Marshall Sahlins coined the phrase “original affluent society” to describe the hunter-gatherer way of life.

Affluence without Abundance by James Suzman

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. In the Guardian, the New York Times, the London Review of Books, the Financial Times, and Salon, among others. Much of this attention has to do with two recently published books, Against the Grain by James C. Scott and Affluence without Abundance by James Suzman, both of which are informed by Lee and Sahlins’s conception of hunter-gatherer affluence. 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 Sahlins, and Scott and Suzman, and Lanchester correct? Is the hunter-gatherer lifestyle a more optimal way to live, and have the benefits of civilization been drastically overstated?

Let us first revisit the !Kung themselves. As Lee himself would later mention in his 1984 book on the Dobe !Kung, his 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.2 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. Even with the revised figures, this seems to indeed point to a life of greater leisure among hunter-gatherers (or, at least, among the !Kung) than industrialized populations. 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.

While you’ll read much about Lee’s work in the popular press, you’ll find little on his critics. 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.”3 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.”4  In Hunter and Habitat in the Central Kalahari DesertGeorge B. Silberbauer states that, “Undoubtedly Bushmen do succumb in years of very serious drought,” and describes how 37 individuals of another San population, the G/wi, died of dehydration during the drought of 1939.5 And in a 1986 article entitled “Ethnographic Romanticism and the Idea of Human Nature,” Melvin Konner & Marjorie Shostak summed it up well, stating that, “Data on morbidity and mortality, though not necessarily relevant to abundance, certainly made use of the term “affluent” seem inappropriate.”6

Two Hadzabe men in Tanzania returning from a hunt.

In his later work, Lee would acknowledge that, “Historically, the Ju/’hoansi have had a high infant mortality rate…”7 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.8 (As high as this number is, it compares favorably with estimates from some other hunter-gatherer societies, such as among the Casiguran Agta of the Phillipines, where the rate is 34 percent.)9  Life expectancy for the !Kung is 36 years of age.10 Again, while this number is only about half the average life expectancy found among contemporary nation states, this number still compares favorably with several other hunter-gatherer populations, such as the Hiwi (27 years) and the Agta (21 years). Life expectancy across pygmy hunter-gatherer societies is even lower, ranging from about 16-24 years, although this may have as much to do with pygmy physiology as with the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.11

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.

But what about egalitarianism? In a 2004 study, Michael Gurven marshals an impressive amount of cross-cultural data and notes that hunters tend to keep more of their kill for themselves and their families than they share with others.12 While there is undeniably a great deal of sharing across hunter-gatherer societies, common notions of generalized equality are greatly overstated. Even in circumstances where hunters give away more of their meat than they end up receiving from others in return, good hunters tend to be accorded high status, and rewarded with more opportunities to reproduce everywhere the relationship has been studied.13 When taking into account ‘embodied wealth’ such as hunting returns and reproductive success, and ‘relational wealth’ such as the number of exchange and sharing partners, Alden Smith et al. calculated that hunter-gatherer societies have a ‘moderate’ level of inequality, roughly comparable to that of Denmark.14 While this is less inequality than most agricultural societies and nation states, it’s not quite the level of egalitarianism many have come to expect from hunter-gatherers.

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.15 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. Across these societies, the average age at marriage for females is only 13.8, while the average age at marriage for males is 20.7.16 Rather than defending what would be considered child marriage in contemporary Western societies, anthropologists often omit mentioning this information entirely.

According to anthropologists Douglas Fry and Geneviève Souillac, “Nomadic forager data suggest a human predilection toward equality, including gender equality, in ethos and action,”17 yet the available data do not support this notion in the slightest. On the contrary, in 1978 Robert Tonkinson had found that, among the Mardu hunter-gatherers of Australia, “Mardu men accord themselves greater ritual responsibility, higher status, more power, and more rights than women. It is a society in which male interests generally prevail when rights are contested and in the centrally important arena of religious life.”18 Among the Hiwi of Venezuela, and the Ache of Paraguay, female infants and children are disproportionately victims of infanticide, neglect, and child homicide.19 20 It is in fact quite common in hunter-gatherer societies that are at war, or heavily reliant on male hunting for subsistence, for female infants to be habitually neglected or killed.21 22 In 1931, Knud Rasmussen recorded that, among the Netsilik Inuit, who were almost wholly reliant on male hunting and fishing, out of 96 births from parents he interviewed, 38 girls were killed (nearly 40 percent).23

It is also instructive to compare the homicide rates of hunter-gatherer societies with those of contemporary nation states. In a 2013 paper entitled “From the Peaceful to the Warlike,” anthropologist Robert Kelly provides homicide data for 15 hunter-gatherer societies.24

Kelly’s table is published in ‘War, Peace and Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views’ edited by Douglas P. Fry, p 153.

11 of these 15 societies have homicide rates higher than that of the most violent modern nation, and 14 out of the 15 have homicide rates higher than that of the United States in 2016. The one exception, the Batek of Malaysia, have a long history of being violently attacked and enslaved by neighboring groups, and developed a survival tactic of running away and studiously avoiding conflict. Yet even they recount tales of wars in the past, where their shamans would shoot enemies with blowpipes.25 Interestingly, Ivan Tacey & Diana Riboli have noted that “…the Batek frequently recount their nostalgic memories of British doctors, administrators and army personnel visiting their communities in helicopters to deliver medicines and other supplies,” which conflicts with the idea that hunter-gatherer societies would have no want or need of anything nation states have to offer. From 1920-1955 the !Kung had a homicide rate of 42/100,000 (about 8 times that of the US rate in 2016), however Kelly mentions that, “murders ceased after 1955 due to the presence of an outside police force.”

Many of the recent articles in the popular media on hunter-gatherer societies have failed to represent these societies accurately. The picture you get from reading articles in publications like the New Yorker and the Guardian, or from anthropologists like Douglas Fry and James Suzman, is often quite different from what a deep dive into the ethnographic record reveals. The excessive reliance on a single paper published 50 years ago has contributed to some severe misconceptions about hunter-gatherer ‘affluence,’ and their relative freedom from scarcity and disease. There is a tendency to downplay the benefits of modern medicine, institutions, and infrastructure – as well as the very real costs of not having access to them – in these discussions.  And, despite what some may wish to believe, the hunter-gatherer way of life is not a solution to the social problems found in modern nation states.

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,26 27 romanticize a way of life filled with hardships they have never experienced? In wealthy, industrialized populations oriented around consumerism and occupational status, the idea that there are people out there living free of greed, in natural equality and harmony, provides an attractive alternative way of life. To quote anthropologist David Kaplan, “The original affluent society thesis then may be as much a commentary on our own society as it is a depiction of the life of hunter-gatherers. And that may be its powerful draw and lasting appeal.”28 One might think that if avarice, status hierarchies, and inequality are peculiarly modern phenomena, then maybe they aren’t part of human nature, and with the right kind of activism, and enough forward-thinking individuals, such problems can be readily solved by changing the culture.

Conversely, 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. These problems are not new–in fact they are very old indeed–and they cannot simply be wished away or made to disappear with misleading commentary. But there is a concern that acknowledging the deep roots of many human social ills is to excuse them, or to concede that they can never be mitigated or overcome. This is not only defeatist, it is completely misguided. Recent human history is undeniably a story of enormous progress. If global declines in child mortality, hunger, violence, and poverty, and increases in life expectancy do not represent progress, then the word simply has no meaning.

Additionally, progressives and many anthropologists understandably do not wish to denigrate other cultures, or to give the appearance of doing so. In his book Sick Societies, anthropologist Robert Edgerton writes, “…certain practices, all anthropologists know, are sometimes not reported because doing so would offend the people being described or discredit them in the eyes of others.”29 Anthropologists often show an admirable concern for the well-being of people in the societies they study, and exercise great care in considering how their work will be interpreted by outsiders. But academics and media figures have a responsibility to report the truth as accurately as possible, and when their values prevent them from doing so they do a disservice to the public, and risk damaging their own credibility.

At this year’s annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, President Alisse Waterston said that the “responsibility now for anthropologists is to participate in envisioning an alternative world.” Wanting to help shape a better world is a worthy goal. I do not doubt the good intentions of President Waterston or many of the other anthropologists who see flaws in their own societies and feel a deep responsibility to help make the world a better place. But envisioning a better world cannot come at the expense of accurately describing the existing one. If academics and journalists are unwilling to report uncomfortable facts, then they have no one but themselves to blame if they suffer a consequent loss of public trust.

For as long as humans have been around, people the world over have faced similar struggles: getting enough to eat, navigating social relationships, dealing with parasites and disease, raising their young. It’s a nice idea to believe that somewhere deep in the past, or still today in a more remote part of the world, there existed or exists a society that has figured it all out; where everyone is healthy and happy and equal, untouched by the difficulties of modern living. But even if violence, inequality, discrimination, and other social problems are universal and part of human nature, that doesn’t mean their prevalence can’t be reduced. They can and recent trends make this abundantly clear. Denying the scope of the problem, pretending that these social issues are uniquely modern or uniquely Western, or the product of agriculture or capitalism, does not help to fix our contemporary social ills. Instead it leaves us more confused about the causes of these problems, and, consequently, less equipped to solve them.

 

William Buckner is a student of Evolutionary Anthropology at UC Davis. He is interested in cultural evolution and understanding human conflict patterns across cultures. He can be followed on Twitter @Evolving_Moloch

References:

1 Lee, R., 1966, What Hunters Do for a Living, or, How to Make Out on Scarce Resources. In Man the Hunter (ed. by R. Lee & I. Devore). Chicago: Aldine Publishing.

2 Lee, R., 1984, 2013 The Dobe Ju/’hoansi, Belmont: Cengage Learning.

3 Harpending, H., & Wandsnider, L., 1982, Population Structure of Ghanzi and Ngamiland !Kung. Current Developments in Anthropological Genetics

4 Howell, N., 1986, Feedback and buffers in Relation to Scarcity and Abundance: Studies of Hunter-Gatherer Populations. in The State of Population Theory (ed. by D. Coleman and R. Schofield). New York: Basil Blackwell.

5 Silberbauer, G., 1981, Hunter and Habitat in the Central Kalahari Desert. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

6 Konner, M., & Shostak, M., 1986, Ethnographic Romanticism and the Idea of Human Nature: Parallels Between Samoa and !Kung San. in The Past and Future of !Kung Ethnography: Critical Reflections and Symbolic Perspectives. Essays in Honour of Lorna Marshall (ed. by M. Biesele). Netherlands: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

7 Lee, R., 1984, 2013 The Dobe Ju/’hoansi, Belmont: Cengage Learning.

8 Howell, N., 1979, Demography of the Dobe !Kung. New York: Academic Press.

9 Headland, T., 1988, Ecosystemic change in a Philippine tropical rainforest and its effect on a Negrito foraging society, Tropical Ecology

10 Gurven, M., & Kaplan, H., 2007 Longevity Among Hunter-Gatherers: A Cross-Cultural Examination, Population and Development Review

11 Migliano, A.B., et al., 2007, Life History Trade-Offs Explain the Evolution of Human Pygmies, PNAS

12 Gurven, M., 2004, To Give and to Give Not: The Behavioral Ecology of Human Food Transfers, Behavioral and Brain Sciences

13 Alden Smith, E., 2004 Why do good hunters have higher reproductive success? Human Nature

14 Alden Smith, E., et al., 2010, Wealth Transmission and Inequality Among Hunter-Gatherers, Current Anthropology

15 Brown, G., et al., 2009, Bateman’s principles and human sex roles, Cell Press

16 Binford, L., 2001, Constructing Frames of Reference, An Analytical Method for Archaeological Theory Building Using Ethnographic and Environmental Data Sets. Berkeley: University of California Press.

17 Fry, D., & Souillac, G., 2017, The Original Partnership Societies: Evolved Propensities for Equality, Prosociality, and Peace, Interdisciplinary Journal of Partnership Societies

18 Tonkinson, R., 1978, The Mardudjara Aborigines: Living the dream in Australia’s desert. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

19 Hill, K., et al., 2007 High adult mortality among Hiwi hunter-gatherers: Implications for human evolution, Journal of Human Evolution

20 Hurtado, A.M., & Hill, K., 1996, Ache Life History: The Ecology and Demography of Foraging People. New York. Routledge

21 Divale, W.T., & Harris, M., 1976, Population, Warfare, and the Male Supremacist Complex, American Anthropologist

22 Hewlett, B.S., 1991, Demography and Childcare in Preindustrial Societies, Journal of Anthropological Research

23 Rasmussen, K., 1931, The Netsilik Eskimos, Social Life and Spiritual Culture. Copenhagen: Gyldendal.

24 Kelly, R., 2013, From the Peaceful to the Warlike: Ethnographic and Archaeological Insights into Hunter-Gatherer-Warfare and Homicide. in War, Peace, and Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views (ed. by Douglas P. Fry). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

25 Tacey, I., & Fiboli, D., 2014, Violence, fear and anti-violence: the Batek of Peninsular Malaysia, Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research

26 Keeley, L., 1996, War Before Civilization. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

27 Pinker, S., 2011, The Better Angles of Our Nature. London: Penguin Books.

28 Kaplan, D., 2000, The Darker Side of the “Original Affluent Society”, Journal of Anthropological Research

29 Edgerton, R.B., 1992, 2010, Sick Societies. New York: Simon & Schuster.

 

81 Comments

  1. This is a useful corrective to the modern-day version of the “noble savage”, but I wonder if the author might have included a caveat about his data. Existing groups of hunter-gatherers are without exception located in marginal environments at the margins of states and agricultural societies: deserts, boreal forests, dense jungles. These environments lack the natural abundance that would have characterized other hunter-gatherer societies before the Neolithic revolution, and consequently require people to work harder and suffer greater deprivation than might have been the case 10,000+ years ago in more temperate environments. So the fact that one might find certain patterns in hunter-gatherer societies today, does not necessarily mean that these same patterns would have applied in the past.

    • William Buckner says

      Hi David, you make a very fair point regarding how the environments that contemporary hunter-gatherers live in may be quite different from those that hunter-gatherers occupied before the Neolithic.

      It seems likely that before the extinctions of many large mammal populations during the Pleistocene, many hunter-gatherer societies had greater reliance on, and more options for, hunting meat. The paper ‘Why hunters gather…’ (1982) by Hawkes et al. and chapter 10 of ‘Constructing frames of reference’ (2001) by Lewis Binford each discuss this. Binford notes that many contemporary hunter-gatherer societies still tend to live in environments that are often fairly rich in available plant foods, but they have reduced access to ungulates, which are often attractive hunting prey, due to being pushed out the regions that have them by agriculturalist and pastoralist societies. So this supports your point.

      On the other hand, the archaeological data I’ve seen supports the notion that life expectancy was even lower among populations during the Middle and Upper Paleolithic than it is today among contemporary hunter-gatherer populations. See the paper ‘Late Pleistocene adult mortality patterns and modern human establishment’ (2010) by Eric Trinkaus. Older individuals are highly underrepresented in fossil material from those time periods compared to contemporary populations, which probably indicates that very few individuals lived past 40+ years old, and significant less than among modern hunter-gatherers.

      Thanks for the comment.

      • polmki says

        What could be the reason modern hunter-gatherers live longer, even though they tend to live in degraded habitats? Less disease or violence?

        Or could there be a preservation bias or something that makes it seem palaeolithic people had shorter lifespans?

    • demigord says

      Think your post through, David. Well, I’ll do it for you. They’d have an easier time. They’d have more food. They would do what then? Yes, they would have more surviving children. Their population would grow. And what then? Well, they’re hunter-gatherers. They’re not improving the productivity of the land, so they’re capped by the land they can inhabit. So they’re in the same place as people in more marginal land, except more densely populated

      • @demigord. Please do some research. Hunter gatherers did and do improve the productivity of the land. They conducted controlled burns to encourage the growth of certain plants, which in turn, would lure certain favored game animals. They built mounds, irrigation ditches, and spread seeds. They killed mostly adult male animals to preserve breeding stock. They built fish weirs and traps, and moved around seasonally to conserve the food resources in abandoned areas.

        • demigord says

          “Please do some research. Hunter gatherers did and do improve the productivity of the land”

          Really, year over year they did that! Amazing. After half a million years of compound interest their productivity must be positively super-human!

          Of course, that’s not actually true. They improved their environment a little. But they didn’t do what we’re talking about when we talk about improving agricultural productivity (improving yields per acre by hundreds or thousands of times)

          • @demigord You didn’t say that, you said “they’re not improving the productivity of the land”. That is false. I corrected you. Now you tack on a qualifier, “by hundreds or thousands of times”. Please cite any literature that quantifies modern industrial agriculture has having improving yields per acre by ‘hundreds’ or ‘thousands’ of times.

          • “For example, the average amount of milk produced per cow increased from 5,314 pounds to 18,201 pounds per year (+242%), the average yield of corn rose from 39 bushels to 153 bushels per acre (+292%), and each farmer in 2000 produced on average 12 times as much farm output per hour worked as a farmer did in 1950.”

            The quote is from the USDA and is meant mainly for Brad, so hundreds is correct, but thousands is a stretch.

            The H-G societies by their nature lived off the land, thus never cultivating it and never increasing the land’s productivity.

          • Here’s a quick back of the envelope calculation.

            The calorific output of various different agricultural uses ranges from about 1-3 million to 6-17 million calories per acre. Low end for animal, high end for plant. So let’s say 2 for animal, 10 for plant

            http://www.waldeneffect.org/blog/Calories_per_acre_for_various_foods/

            A human requires about 2500 x 365 = say a million calories a year.
            If we assume that food is half animal and half plant, you can feed 100 people from the output of 30 acres of agricultural land (25 animal, 5 plant.) Now not all land is suitable for agriculture, So let’s allow a 50% discount for unproductive land, so 100 modern humans living off the output of modern farms require a 60 acre “home range” (rather than 30.)

            A band of 100 hunter gatherers, meanwhile uses (apparently) about 31.6 square kilometers as its home range :

            https://persquaremile.com/2011/08/17/hunter-gatherer-populations-show-humans-are-hardwired-for-density/

            31.6 square kilometers is about 7,600 acres. Presumably if the home range could support a bigger population it would. So the hunter gatherer food output of 7,600 acres seems to be enough to keep 100 people alive.

            And that’s about a hundred times as much land as our modern farming humans need to keep 100 humans alive. So a hundred fold productivity improvement, over and above whatever improvement hunter gatherers have managed) doesn’t seem far fetched.

        • demigord says

          But the point that you somehow haven’t grasped is that their productivity met a ceiling. For many tens of thousands of years, with little growth. Meanwhile, a population with enough food can double in 20 years. Any productivity growth in a population too low to have significant endemic disease will be overwhelmed by population growth. And then you’re back to low living standards.

      • “Think your post through, David. Well, I’ll do it for you”

        That reads kind of bitchy,but I’m probably interpreting it wrong.

        • demigord says

          Well, bitchy or not, I did it for him and he STILL didn’t get it. I knew he was going to blow it and preemptively tried to help him and that still happened

    • Tom Billings says

      “These environments lack the natural abundance that would have characterized other hunter-gatherer societies before the Neolithic revolution,…”

      Actually, with less plant food in the air, and less warmth in both air and ground before the Holocene, the environment was far worse in many places, even though the flatlands were available to hunter-gatherers. For the brief period after the last glaciation retreated decisively, and before the Younger Dryas, when the the cold returned for 1300 years, there might have been hunter-gatherers untroubled by exclusion from flatland by farmers, but the longer that lasts, the more competition for land within hunter-gatherer ranks. By the time the Holocene Optimum made the flatland valleys paradise again, the farmers were already benefiting from being able to push hunter-gatherer groups out, and use of the land by farmers *did* then exclude hunter-gatherers.

      Homo Sapiens are children of the ice age that has shaped us into a species of large obstreperously violent primates over the last 2+ million years. Expecting that it is industrial society that has made us so is a romantic turning away from history and physical anthropology. It is notable that this turning away has happened during the dominance of social anthropology *over* physical anthropology in the last 100 years. Humans, especially our would-be hierarchs in academia, should be more humble about what can be done with human behavior.

  2. Great post. I had been hoping that you would write an article that draws together many of the threads that you tweet on these subjects.

    Don’t underestimate the desire for a progressive liberal ‘fall narrative’, in which hierarchical social relations, patriarchy, an exploitative relationship with nature, private property, wealth disparities, repressive sexuality, warfare, marriage and monogamy, gluten, sugar, and dairy, monotheism, and other evil forces intruded upon and destroyed an original paradisiacal state. The Rousseauian primitivism of the ‘noble savage’ is the under-studied obverse of the progressive narratives that give progressives their name and a very important part of the progressive imaginary.

    • DiscoveredJoys says

      I expect there is *some* truth in the idea of the Noble Savage, just as there is *some* truth in the idea of the Savage Noble. But this is too nuanced to be useful for those who are determined to achieve (their version of) utopia, no matter what the costs.

      • Right, so let’s romanticize modern society instead, with all its wars, violence, disease, famine, pollution, and extinction events.

        • markbul says

          Spoken like a true urbanite. And somehow, spoken without irony.

  3. Finally a decent, informed, factual piece on this website. About time.
    Especially appreciated is the invitation for non-specialists to take part in discussing basic human traits without being an ethnologist (and providing all adequate references for the hard-to-convince)

    Can we have more? Does this gentleman have friends you could lure into writing about down to earth stuff about AI, transgenesis, urban farming, religion?

  4. Bouncing on “responsibility now for anthropologists is to participate in envisioning an alternative world.”

    When saying “The purpose of literature is to create alternate realities’, Philip Roth did not necessarily specified fictional realities, but also plausible ones, that is ‘had facts followed a different course’.

    Can the author comment on the mix between the art of creation – an imperative of human character – and the science of studying human behavior/structures? Why is this line so easily crossed?

    I’ve noticed such approach is often purported by women, and men follow suit. Are there ethnological reasons for that? (The Delphic Oracle, the witches, Virgin Mary, nuns’ transes)

  5. A good article. I wonder if the author has read anything Mr Kaczynski on this topic. He has written extensively to debunk leftist anthropologists and their politicized romanticist ideas of hunter-gatherer societies.

  6. Lee Moore says

    Since the author seems to be glancing at the comments, I wonder if I might ask a question. I’ve read in a couple of places that :

    (a) Bushmen do, on average, very poorly in IQ tests, and
    (b) prowess as a hunter appears not to be correlated with IQ

    the latter seems a bit odd as hunting would seem to be a highly skilled mental as well as physical activity. But when you think about it, you wouldn’t expect wolves or lions to do that well in IQ tests and they’re quite good at hunting. So maybe the mental gymnastics required for effective hunting is either instinctive, or if learned, is converted to automatic quite efficiently.

    In any event if what I have read is accurate it does imply that the human brain is capable of doing some quite complex tasks which are not captured well by IQ tests. And if so, low IQ scores among Bushmen might reflect mental bandwidth being used up on such tasks.

    • I am mildly embarrassed to see that I forgot to ask my question. Which is – particularly noting the “greater reproductive skew” – do better Bushmen hunters get more mates and more children, and is it right that that isn’t correlated with IQ ?

      • Robinson says

        I think you’re missing the cultural, group aspect of evolution here. Any more intelligent hunter who creates a new technique or tool, will transmit that knowledge across the group. Even if average IQ of the group remains low it will still improve its hunting skills in this example.

    • Please cite which IQ tests Bushman have taken, and please specify what kinds of questions were asked on the test.

    • IQ tests are very limited tools for getting an understanding of someones mental abilities. The two major factors that leap to mind are –
      1) IQ tests are heavily influenced by the society/language of the people who make the tests. That won’t be a Bushman society/language.
      2) Studies indicate that how interested you are in doing such a test can modify your results by up 15 pts. I wonder how interested the Bushmen were in doing the IQ tests.

      • >Please cite which IQ tests Bushman have taken, and please specify what kinds of questions were asked on the test.

        Negroes and Amerindians score no highter than their 80s with Mestizos being in the early 90s at best. Among their higher crime, lack of accomplishment, welfare eating…

        >IQ tests are very limited tools for getting an understanding of someones mental abilities. The two major factors that leap to mind are –

        https://archive.org/details/5S0MD

        IQ is to a significant extent accepted in psychology and psychometrics as a way to determine intelligence.

        >1) IQ tests are heavily influenced by the society/language of the people who make the tests. That won’t be a Bushman society/language.

        And yet select East Asians, select Jews, and select South Asians score around the same level as or higher than Whites. For East Asians this holds even when accounting for nationality.

        >2) Studies indicate that how interested you are in doing such a test can modify your results by up 15 pts. I wonder how interested the Bushmen were in doing the IQ tests.

        Tell us more on how Negroes and other non-Whites just refuse to perform as well as Whites when it comes to IQ, (lack of) violent criminality, not doing so much welfare eating, etc.

    • whatever says

      This MRA crap is just so utterly obnoxious. So, I guess since men are responsible for the glorious successes of western civilization, it must be the women to blame for all the serious failings?

  7. Steve Sailer says

    I have a vague hunch that the most famous anthropologists, with their strong, distinctive personalities, sometimes elicit idiosyncratic, emulative behavior and talk from their subjects. Thus the most memorable anthropologists tend to find what they are looking for.

    For example, while popular anthropology referred to the Bushmen as the “the harmless people,” Napoleon Chagnon famously dubbed the Yanomamo as “the fierce people.” But I imagine that Chagnon also would have been an excellent football coach, with his teams famous for their fierceness. Whether the Yanomamo were fiercer than other tribes, or Chagnon fiercer than other anthropologists remains a mystery.

  8. Fabulously interesting, provocative and well-written article. Congratulations!

    One little quibble. The jury is still out on what one might term equilibrium population pressure and life expectancy within modern civilization. Currently, we of course live in a sort of temporary paradise of abundance that has enabled a period of seemingly limitless, exponential global population growth based on innovations in agriculture and, above all, on the temporary exploitation of fossil fuels and a viable CO2 emission envelope. But, unless population comes to level off based on voluntary choice (as in contemporary western societies) at a level that’s consistent with long term reliance on renewable energy and zero to negative CO2 emissions, modern civilization will also eventually experience very grim and broad population pressures and associated mortality.

    This article is important in reminding us that pre-agrarian society was no picnic. Mel Gibson, who has been somewhat of a Hollywood pariah for harping on the same themes, might well feel justly vindicated. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and other purveyors of romanticism and primitivism porn have clearly been out to lunch.

    What still hangs very much in the balance and will depend on the effectiveness of our efforts and those of subsequent generations is the extent to which modern technological society will prove capable of besting hunter-gatherer (and early agrarian) societies over a comparable time scale of millennia.

    • DiscoveredJoys says

      The agrarian society, with the overwhelming proportion of people working on the land as farmers or labourers was no picnic either. There was a ‘self sufficiency’ love affair back in the sixties and seventies; I looked into it and concluded that such a lifestyle needed far too much labour to make it a viable proposition if you still wanted to retain potable water and effective sewerage, electricity and so on.

      If people are not attracted by an agrarian lifestyle why should they believe that a more heavily constrained hunter/gatherer (or scavenger/gatherer) lifestyle would be any better?

      • Tom Billings says

        “If people are not attracted by an agrarian lifestyle why should they believe that a more heavily constrained hunter/gatherer (or scavenger/gatherer) lifestyle would be any better?”

        Because it seems another alternative that is not industrial. A huge amount of the last 50 years of back-to-the-land has been reaction against *other*people’s*freedoms*of*action*, in industrial society. The reactions against industrial society vary in their excuse, but always end up espousing constraints on those who *are* standout participants in the networks of industrial society around the world. The key to multiculturalism that has dead ended in “affluence without abundance” is that “all cultures are equal”, …*except* worldwide industrial culture, which is to be despised.

    • Taupe Pope says

      “unless population comes to level off based on voluntary choice (as in contemporary western societies) at a level that’s consistent with long term reliance on renewable energy and zero to negative CO2 emissions, modern civilization will also eventually experience very grim and broad population pressures and associated mortality.”

      Did you forget the part of your paragraph that said that the exponential growth of the global population was enabled by innovation?

      What’s the basis for assuming that future renewable tech would require a smaller population? I mean apart from the Malthusian, anti-human mind-virus that has infected environmentalism.

      • With respect to there being a finite global potential for renewable energy, and that presenting a reasonably foreseeable constraint to global population growth see, for example,

        “What is the global potential for renewable energy?,” Patrick Moriarty and Damon Honnery, published 2012 in Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews and available as a PDF. (Plus various popular press articles that were based on that study.)

        Based on the constraints to renewable energy production, they conclude, “Overall energy reductions… will be needed.” That leaves open two assumptions for how the overall energy balance will ultimately be achieved (by future generations): a reduction in energy use per individual; and/or, an eventual halt in human global population growth. At the moment, with energy use per individual still wildly increasing, it is difficult to foresee changes in that as sufficient in and of themselves.

        With respect to industrial innovation underwriting population growth in the modern world, clearly one could add many categories of industrial innovation, especially underlying modern sanitation systems and the materials and machines that have enabled that, pharmaceuticals, especially antibiotics, and the modern supply chain that increases the availability of high quality foodstuffs. Beyond industrial innovation, one could also point to capitalism as an essential organizing force in enabling population growth. One only needs to look at Venezuela today or the broad famines induced by various communist experiments to see the difference.

  9. This is more of an opinion essay than a rigorous empirical analysis. You typically take a general statement about hunter-gatherer societies that you disagree with, and then counter it with a couple of ethnographic case studies. This kind of argumentation is only valid if all cases are pretty much the same, and thus one contrary example disproves a claim. I guess this form of argument is ok for a magazine article, but you can’t expect scholars to be convinced by it.

    I don’t have a strong opinion about this issue. I suspect you are correct in your general assessment, although I am not a H/G specialist and I only know some of the literature (although I was definitely taught the “original affluent society” view as an undergrad in the 1970s!). But it would be great to see a strong empirical study of the issue; that is, a balanced assessment of the evidence, both pro and con, so that we end up with a scientific result, not a popular argument.

    • I agree. Citing the Mardu of Australia, for instance, as a stand in for the gender equality of all H-Gs everywhere and for all times is pretty bad reasoning.

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  11. jukkaaakula says

    Nice article. Thank you.

    One “discussion” which was typical for the romanticizing of hunter-gatherers was how the Survival International organization – fighting for the rights for the surviving hunter-gatherer tribes – were claiming Jared Diamonds book “The World Until Yesterday” was Completely Wrong when claiming there were a lot of wars between the New Guinean tribes before colonization.

    https://www.thedailybeast.com/savaging-primitives-why-jared-diamonds-the-world-until-yesterday-is-completely-wrong

    Hunter-gatherers are to me a highly fascinating thing – I hope people would not do politics by corrupting science.

  12. Carl Sageman says

    @jukkaaakula

    When I saw daily beast link, I was highly dubious but not dissuaded from reading. They have a history of unreliable journalism. However, I found this article worthy as a challenge to some of the article presented at Quillette. I recommend we have a “sticky” for articles which challenge some of the content of an article at Quillette.

    A close and reliable friend of mine worked in PNG and lived among the locals in villages. He saw instances where two tribes would confront each other to resolve a dispute. One side would kill somebody from the other side and the dispute was over. He also mentioned seeing two groups kill each other enmasse for no apparent reason. While this doesn’t support or contradict the daily beast article, it paints a more complex picture than the daily beast does.

    I’d love to hear from the author about this daily beast article.

    @alex
    Re: most articles at Quillette are unsubstantiated

    I’ve read your comments several times and have not seen credible evidence to support your views. Can you please include evidence because if you can challenge the articles with evidence, please do so. It helps everyone here.

    @roybarzilai

    I enjoyed the linked article. Not easy to digest. However, it presents interesting theories. Is transgenderism really increasing? If so, is it another bandwagon? Jordan Peterson describes the transgender community as extremely small (when he said most of the transgender community wrote to him with letters of support). Media coverage and truth frequently do not correlate.

  13. Chris Martin says

    I was of the understanding that Scott’s book was a rebuke of early statism and I look forward to reading it because of that. Am I wrong? Does it promote an incorrect narrative?

    • Jonathan Conning says

      I do think that Bruckner is taking aim at a strawman, at least as far as James Scott is concerned. I did not read Scott as romanticizing hunter-gatherer society as much as simply pointing out that that life in early states was often pretty rough for non-elites and people therefore adapted by resisting or running away.. For every great civilization we know of hundreds of could-have been proto-states rose but then faded away. All this helps make sense of evidence suggesting that peoples moved in and out of agriculture, that many early agglomerations that arose later fell away and that in fact most of humanity lived outside of the power of states until relatively recent times.. To say that states are hard to form and keep going, and that they often rest on coercion and resource extraction is not to romanticize hunter-gatherers. Bruckner would have you believe that that is what Scott is doing, but to romanticize is neither central nor important to Scott’s arguments.

      • Jonathan Conning says

        That said… I do find Bruckner’s arguments against the romanticization of Hunter gatherer society compelling… My point is just that I didn’t read Scott as romanticizing such societies as much as pointing out that life in EARLY states wasn’t so much better

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  15. TBlakely says

    Anyone with just two functioning brain cells and even the most basic knowledge of living in the wilderness knew that the ‘Noble Savage’ was pure propaganda myth making.

    • I suggest you actually look up the history of the term Noble Savage. Start with Ter Ellingson’s book The Myth of the Noble Savage. I don’t think it means what you think it means.

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  17. “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.”

    Oh come on. There are many more dangerous occupations within civilization, e.g. logging, mining, meat packing, fishing, farm work, truck driving, etc. And your “deep dive ” into the ethnographic record consists of cherry picking case studies and generalizing to all hunter gatherers across all times.

    With all the horrible, no good, terrible, bad things about hunter gatherers that are supposed to have made their lives ‘nasty, brutish and short’ i.e., the high infant mortality, the sickness, starvation, malnutrition, and chronic warfare laying waste to H-G bands–if all these are true–then statistically no hunter gatherer band could possibly have survived more than a few generations, and humanity would have died out a long time ago.

    This ridiculous caricature of hunter gatherers may suit the civilizers and corporate justice warriors, but it’s pretty weak science.

    • There are many more dangerous occupations within civilization, e.g. logging, mining, meat packing, fishing, farm work, truck driving, etc.

      This :

      http://www.businesspundit.com/5-jobs-with-the-highest-fatality-rates/

      gives fatality rates of between 40 and 116 fatalities per 100,000 workers for fishing, logging, pilot, flight engineer, iron and steel working, farming and ranching. So in a 30 year career, say a 2% chance of death. Which is pretty high, compared to sitting at a desk. Moreover the total fatalities in the year (2010) from all of these jobs comes to 527. Total work related fatalities (in 2015) were 4,836. Out of a total of about 2.5 million total deaths.

      So while it is true that advanced societies still have some fairly dangerous jobs, the fatality effect of these jobs – indeed the fatality effect of all jobs – on the death rate is, to the nearest decimal place, zero.

      Secondly, I don’t know what the fatality rate for San people engaged in hunting in the Kalahari is, but is it really likely to be less than 0.1% per annum – roughly the rate for the five most dangerous US jobs ?

      • I presume the deaths in your link are for the US only. The problem with your argument is that it does not take into account work fatalities in all other countries, as well as work fatalities across time. At the beginning of the industrial revolution, for example, there was a much higher fatality and mortality rate, industrial disease was rampant, physical stature decreased for several generations, and longevity decreased. Ditto for when agriculture began. see: Health and the Rise of Civilization by Mark Nathan Cohen. To compare hunting and gathering to western civilization, a much wider and longer data set is needed for each, rather than the few isolated cases cherry-picked by Buckner.

        • Sure. I’m just pointing out that the comparison you drew between “the difficulty or danger involved in the types of tasks undertaken by hunter-gatherers” with the corresponding dangers in modern Western civilisation :

          “There are many more dangerous occupations within civilization, e.g. logging, mining, meat packing, fishing, farm work, truck driving, etc.”

          turns out to be a lemon.

          If you want to argue that a hunter gathering lifestyle is no more difficult or dangerous than early farming, then fine. Clearly however early farming was more efficient in terms of the balance between risks and rewards, since the farmer population grew and the hunter gatherer population didn’t.

          If you have figures for earlier versions of Western civilisation then by all means cough them up. Up till 1700 or so, you’re going to be looking at farming, because that pretty much counts as the whole economy. After then you’ll certainly be able to find jobs with terrifying fatality rates – eg sailor on a sailing ship – but that’s not going to tell you the answer across the whole economy. The dark satanic mills of 18th century England undoubtedly had harsh fatality rates, but since people flocked off the land to work in them, they probably thought that farming was even less fun.

          • @Lee Moore. “Secondly, I don’t know what the fatality rate for San people engaged in hunting in the Kalahari is, but is it really likely to be less than 0.1% per annum”

            Says who? You? Since you don’t know the fatality rate from hunting and gathering, then you don’t have an argument at all. Period. End of story.

          • Brad : Since you don’t know the fatality rate from hunting and gathering, then you don’t have an argument at all. Period. End of story.

            I must bow to the superior set of numbers you have deployed.

            ….oh wait !

  18. jack stephens says

    A possible factor that should be considered is that present day hunter-gatherers have been pushed to the most marginal regions of the earth so their economic conditions may not reflect those of the time when they ranged into much wider areas.

  19. Dan Chomistek says

    Proof enough most of us don’t want to live like the Bushmen, is that the closest 99.9999999% will ever get to actually living like that is camping.

    And even then, nobody actually lives like the Bushmen. Every one of us packs every bit of civilization we can, into the best mobile habitat we can afford, when we go.

    In short?

    Nature’s a nice place to visit, but I sure wouldn’t want to live there.

  20. Steve P says

    Thanks for the essay, I found it useful and informative. I’d like to push a bit in the direction of why people are particularly attracted to the idea of these hunter-gatherer societies at this current point in time. For many I think the appeal is in the sense of belonging and community perceived within these cultures. Egalitarianism would thus be (or not be) a symptom of the underlying appeal, but it’s possible to imagine hunter-gatherer tribes with high levels of (reproductional inequality, sexism, etc.) that still had this intrinsic appeal.

    It makes sense, in general, to use these proxy measures for communal bonds since the real thing is hard to measure, but it’s worth minding the distinction between the metrics and what we’re really after. There’s been more written on how our brains construct meaning and the ideal structures to facilitate this than I can do justice to, but it seems likely that hunter-gatherer tribes are much nearer optimal than our modern competitive, highly-atomized society.

    Cribbing an remembered half-argument from Slate Star Codex here, but: when Native American and Western society mixed, the Native Americans thrown into Western culture hated it; the Westerners who happened into a tribe never wanted to go back.

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  22. Dragan Babovic says

    If the population density remains constant over a time interval spanning generations, then there is no abundance. In abundance of resources, the population grows until it reaches a plateau. The plateau is maintained until new tools or methods are invented or the permanent climate change takes place. Therefore technological progress predates and leads to social progress. Once could argue that without abundance there is no progress, as wee see from those primitive societies. The term “progress” may not always be positive from modern standards, but a mere progression from one social model to another, driven by changed circumstances. Social activism is successful only if all other preconditions are met including technology and science.
    This article is great in pointing out that ignoring scientific facts in an attempt to deny human nature is futile, and the progress can better be achieved when the human nature is understood and guided, rather than denied.
    What it did not point out is the fact that in the absence of birth control, having mortality rate equal to birth rate is certainly not affluence. No cultural bias can minimize the tragedy and pain of losing a child which routinely happens in those societies. Neglecting that, for any agenda, is incomprehensible to me.

    • @Dragan Babovic “This article is great in pointing out that ignoring scientific facts in an attempt to deny human nature is futile, and the progress can better be achieved when the human nature is understood and guided, rather than denied.”

      The article cherry picks data from the same old discredited sources (Pinker, Chagnon, Edgerton, Kaplan, and Keeley). Nobody is “ignoring scientific facts” except Buckner, who, in attempting to tear down one supposed ‘myth’, has revitalized another myth, namely, the one by Thomas Hobbes of primitive peoples living lives that were “nasty, brutish, and short”. The 1966 Man the Hunter conference corrected that. But some people, like Buckner, haven’t accepted it, because feelings. The myth of progress also lives on, despite evidence to the contrary all around us.

      • William Buckner says

        Hi Brad,

        In my view none the people you just mentioned are ‘discredited’ at all, but even if they were, you may have noticed that none of the data I discuss in this piece actually comes from them. I cited Kaplan and Edgerton each for a quote to bolster my conclusion, I cited Pinker and Keeley once largely in the interests of being thorough, and I did not cite Chagnon at all because I restricted my discussion to mobile Hunter-gather societies, which the Yanomami he studied are not. You could remove the references to the above scholars and the piece would remain materially unchanged.

        Despite what you may think, my goal in writing this article was to get the evidence right, and to be as accurate and thorough as possible while keeping it to a readable length. If you think there is some scholarship I should have cited that would lead to a different conclusion from what I laid out in the article, please post it.

        • Hi William, except your conclusion doesn’t follow from your argument. Your main thesis is that hunter gatherers have been ‘romanticized’. Yet you don’t define exactly what you mean by ‘romanticize’. Do you mean exaggerated positively? Or that ‘romanticize’ is just anything positive said about H-G life? Nor do you address any of the claims made by the authors you claim are doing the romanticizing. You appear to simply take issue with the word ‘affluence’, then take a few cherry picked examples of H-Gs starving or going hungry at certain times in history. Then you throw in examples of infant mortality, war, inequality, and homicide–yet these aren’t relevant to ‘affluence’, which is an economic term. Incidentally, Kelly’s homicide table includes infanticide, suicide and external murders. In fact, Kelly himself says most of the data is from warfare. No industrial western society includes these as part of their national adult homicide rate. When those are removed from the table, most of the H-Gs have a lower homicide rate than the US. Kelly’s table is a mess. Also, the Netsilik Inuit infanticide numbers of nearly 40% female means that 60% of male infants were being killed. This is somehow supposed to show a bias against female children? Makes no sense.
          Most of the groups used as examples of prehistoric warfare by Keeley are not hunter gatherers, but horticulturalists. So yes, he’s discredited. Pinkers numbers have been debunked by Brian Ferguson (see: Pinker’s List). I could go on.
          I can see why you submitted this essay to an online blog rather than a peer reviewed journal.

      • Remind me how is it that your beloved Noble Savages have by large failed to successfully thwart the foul Farmers and Herders?

  23. Of greater interest to me is the loss of rigor in anthropology as an extreme leftist ideology has come to dominate the field. The author says: “but envisioning a better world cannot come at the expense of accurately describing the existing one”. Perhaps it should not, but you can’t say it cannot, because that is precisely the situation we have now.

    My own field of interest, physical anthropology, has been savagely attacked, and denigrated, simply because an accurate description of the physical facts of bone structure, musculature, and physiognomy among human subgroups tends to support traditional racial classifications.

    This ideology leads to absurd statements such as “race does not exist”. When anthropologists make claims that any 2 year old can see are not true, why should we have any respect for the field?

    Honestly, given how “professional anthropologists” twist and warp observations to match their prejudices, why should we ever believe anything they say?

    • sj, your own right wing extremist ideology is showing through. What we classify as ‘race’ is arbitrary. At the turn of the century, most anthropologists were teaching that Jews were actually negros. And Italians were considered non-caucasian. So which ‘traditional racial classifications’ should we go by? The 18th century? The 20th century? Or the future 22nd century?

      It’s not “absurd” to say ‘race does not exist’ if we mean by race some essential underlying ontological separate natural category. Of course, the category of race exists, but we invented it to explain physical appearances, not to explain fundamental biological taxonomy.

      Anthropologists have been fighting your kind of BS for decades.

      • This

        http://joelvelasco.net/teaching/3334/spencer15-phil_race_pop_genetics.pdf

        is an excellent, and very well written, paper on the philosophical aspects of whether races are biologically real. For those whose interest in philosophy is modest, I will summarise – it basically boils down to : what do you mean by “race” and what do you men by “biologically real” ?

        The data however (omitting the difficult semantics of “race”) is in. Human populations exhibiting unmistakable genetic clustering exist, and correspond to populations which inhabited areas which were largely reproductively separated before the modern era. These areas are – Sub Saharan Africa, Eurasia west of the Himalayas, East Asia, the Americas and Oceania. The groups have fuzzy edges, the gene clustering is (obviously) statistical and the populations don’t correspond exactly to old fashioned “line of sight” races (though they correspond toleraby well.) There are also sub populations within the populations, ie identifiable sub clusters.

        All of which registers as “crashingly banal” on the what-do-we-expect-evolution-to-do meter.

        But for political / philosophical purposes, this means there definitely isn’t such a thing a race as a biological reality. Or there is. Pick your semantics, retreat three paces, turn and fire.

      • Joe Passaglio says

        Can you give us some published material where anthropologists declared that jews were negroes?

      • >sj, your own right wing extremist ideology is showing through.

        Yeah, albinos in Africa look totally like your European walking the streets of Athens.

  24. Caleb says

    Is it fair to compare modern hunter gather societies with ancient ones? It seems that the modern world has had to have some significant effects on today’s Hunter gatherers that did not exist for the great majority of human history. Was more resources available in the past and has modern society limited the resources for these tribes? For example, several tribes in Africa have been forcibly removed from their land for the creation of national parks. This seems like it could have long and extensive effects on the culture of the tribe.

    Is there a wide variance of Hunter gatherer societies just like there is a wide variance of modern societies? Are some tribes better when it comes to what we call human rights than others? Just like some countries in modern society are better than others? Does the lack of resources in this modern era affect that just like it affects nation states?

  25. Bob Redman says

    “and with the right kind of activism, and enough forward-thinking individuals,”

    Individuals with whom it comes down to the desire for arbitrary power over others. The “right kind of activism” is communism, and the “forward-thinking individuals” are sick.

  26. William Buckner says

    Brad, you are mistaken on pretty much every point. Among the Netsilik 38 *girls* were killed out of a total of 96 children of both sexes born. Only 1 boy was killed. Further, only the Hiwi and Ache data include all violent deaths, and Hill et al note that homicide deaths were higher precontact. There is a debate about how to disaggregate homicide vs warfare for some of the data (ex. Whether blood feuds between local groups within a society should be considered homicide or war) but your claim that these societies would have a lower homicide rate than the US if not for war deaths is simply a fabrication. Despite my previous request for you to cite some work you refuse to do so, other than mentioning Ferguson’s article critiquing Pinker’s work, which has no bearing on this article

  27. Lee Moore says

    You need to cut Brad some slack on the fact thing. He’s in a different business :

    “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.

    • I just read that line from an execrable book called “The Philosopher: A History in Six Types.”. The perversion of every profession by political activists seeking power and using each profession to justify it is something Dostoevsky foresaw in The Devils.

  28. Jonas says

    how about this:
    http://science.sciencemag.org/content/348/6236/796

    Sex equality can explain the unique social structure of hunter-gatherer bands:
    “We present an agent-based model suggesting that, even if all individuals in a community seek to live with as many kin as possible, within-camp relatedness is reduced if men and women have equal influence in selecting camp members. Our model closely approximates observed patterns of co-residence among Agta and Mbendjele BaYaka hunter-gatherers. Our results suggest that pair-bonding and increased sex egalitarianism in human evolutionary history may have had a transformative effect on human social organization.”

  29. nicky says

    I think the idea of hunter gather societies as pristine Edens and good for health has several reasons :
    – They do not suffer much from modern affluent societies ill health causes: they do not die of Diabetes 2, hypertension or metabolic syndrome. (They die from warfare, murder, infections and infectious disease).
    – A tribe with 30 people not having a murder over a 10 year period, may appear peaceful, but may still have a high murder rate. If they had a single one during that period, it would mean an annual murder rate of 300 per 100.000/year (excessively high). Even the most murderous tribe, the Jivaro’s had ‘only’ 60/100.000, and that was possibly driven up by the ‘western’ demand for ‘shrunken heads’.
    – They have a very high infant mortality rate, but infants are somehow slightly dismissed.
    – If they survive young age, and warfare, they are probably quite resilient, and living on a diet of veggies ant proteins will grow up to be strong, healthy, long-lived people. (Cf the first point)
    And I’m sure there are more reasons I do not think of right now.

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  31. demigord says

    Honestly, Brad, if you’re too stupid to know that human agricultural output has increased by hundreds of times since HG times, you just need to shut up, go away, and read some books until you’re not hopelessly clueless.

    And that’s not even reaching your reading comprehension problems. Let me scream this at you: ONE TIME PRODUCTIVITY IMPROVEMENTS DO NOT RESULT IN CONSTANTLY INCREASING POPULATIONS!

    How the hell is Malthus so obscure today?

  32. Joe Passaglio says

    A modern parallel to the hunter gatherer society would be the inner city ghetto. Taking out the basic support provided by welfare, one steals what one wants, kills those that get your way and the strong survive and the weak perish.

  33. Knowing Brad’s ilk, waycism. Apparently, it can stop Negroes from having any respectable and/or notable civvilization for a long time (Egypt doesn’t count).

  34. Besides correcting the errors, there needs to be an accounting of the premises for judging a good or bad culture. For instance, leisure time does not necessarily indicate a superior culture. What about meaningful work? What about work undertaken for your progeny rather than subsistence? What about higher cognitive functions and activities that require a stretching and growing of human potential?

    Another fact rarely if ever mentioned. Since all we have is given by nature, we are all, in a sense, hunters and gatherers. The difference between an advanced civilization and a moribund paralyzed one is the question how much value is added to those things hunted and gathered. One example, an automobile, should suffice. How much is gathered and how much is value added by human ingenuity? Is that ingenuity, its exercise, not also a means to measure a good life? Do we not take satisfaction from that? We build up our understanding of ourselves as human beings and take just pride in it. That’s a satisfying life.

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