Foragers vs Hunter-Gatherers

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* Article: Wiessner, Polly. Hunter-gatherers: perspectives from the starting point. Cliodynamics: The Journal of Quantitative History and Cultural Evolution, 3, 1–6, 2022. Special Issue: Leading Scholars of the Past Comment on Dawn of Everything.



Polly Wiessner:


David Graeber and David Wengrow Do Not Understand Equality vs Hierarchy

Polly Wiessner:

"Graeber and Wengrow struggle with the concept of egalitarianism, which they see as “sameness” in some specific ways that are agreed upon to be important (p. 126).However, egalitarian relations are not about sameness in small-scale societies, but rather about respect and appreciation of different skills offered by group members to build complementarity and dependency. As a group of Ju/’hoansi put it during a firelit conversation about what constitutes the core of their culture: “It is not the trance dance, hunting techniques, apparel or songs that are the essential elements of our culture but rather relations of respect and appreciation for what others have to offer. We walk/talk softly, unlike the Bantu who are big penises” (an expression for relations of dominance). This fits with what is probably the best anthropological definition of egalitarian societies, that proposed by Fried (1967): in egalitarian societies there are as many positions as there are qualified individuals to fill them. The respect for the abilities of different individuals creates tolerance for the variation on which cultural developments draw. It is this respect that lies at the heart of the testimony by the Huron-Wendat chief Kandiaronk about the dynamics of his own society, mentioned frequently by Graeber and Wengrow. Egalitarian and hierarchical elements co-exist in all human societies. Though both appear to have roots in our simian heritage, why were both maintained through social selection and cultural means? Institutionalized hierarchy reduces internal competition and the often-destructive race to the top, allows for efficient organization of collective action, and coordinates responses to intergroup competition which benefit many group members. Egalitarian institutions reduce the transaction costs of social and economic exchange in a number of respects. As equals, it is not necessary to work out relative social standing with every interaction. Women and men can help each other knowing that as equals they can give, ask, take and receive help when in need. With egalitarian institutions people do not fear that assistance given will be used to dominate, fostering the conditions and trust for delayed exchange. Finally, equality facilitates the mobility necessary for intergroup interaction, as hierarchies do not mesh easily."