Hunter-Gatherers’ Egalitarianism

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Contextual Quote

"The reason that we create subsistence categories in anthropology – like foragers, pastoralists, horticulturalists – immediate return vs delayed return foragers – is because those subsistence practices tend to create conditions which have important and specific consequences on culture and political structure and ideology etc.

For example, as I’ve mentioned before, immediate return hunter gatherers are almost always hyper egalitarian – while hunter gatherers who focus primarily on fishing are usually very hierarchical.

And crucially to the authors’ thesis questions about how do we get stuck in hierarchy – having these kinds of categories helps you isolate the causes of patterns and similarities that you find within those categories.

What is it about nomadic pastoralism that always results in male dominance and cultures with lots of blood feuds and honour codes? Why are people in horticultural societies so often obsessed with accusing each other of witchcraft? Why is it that immediate return foragers never seem to care very much about witchcraft or to get caught up in blood feuds? "

- Daniel Bitton [1]


Hunter-Gatherers’ Egalitarianism

Robert Bellah:

"The earliest humans, hunter-gatherers, were often remarkably egalitarian. But our history as a species did not begin with this “Eden” (we will see how we need to qualify that analogy in a minute), but with primate ancestors who were anything but egalitarian: our nearest primate relatives, the chimpanzees, live in strongly hierarchal bands dominated by alpha males who attempt to maintain sole sexual access to the females of the group and keep both other males and females in subservience to them.

What accounts for the difference between primate bands and hunter-gatherer egalitarians? The absence of a disposition for dominance? Not likely. In Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior, anthropologist Christopher Boehm argues that we share with chimpanzees and bonobos a tendency toward despotism. Yet nomadic hunter-gatherers have nevertheless been uniformly egalitarian, seemingly for thousands if not millions of years. Boehm explains this seeming contradiction with the claim that hunter-gatherers have “reverse dominance hierarchies”: the adult males in the society form a general coalition to prevent any one of their number, alone or with a few allies, from dominating the others. Male egalitarianism is not necessarily extended to females—the degree to which females are subject to male despotism varies, even among hunter-gatherers. But the reverse dominance hierarchy prevents the monopolization of females by dominant males. This makes possible the heterosexual nuclear family as we know it, based on (relatively) stable cross-gender pair bonding and mutual nurturance of children by parents, precisely what is missing in our closest primate relatives.

Egalitarianism is thus itself a form of dominance, the dominance of what Rousseau would have called the general will over the will of each. The hunter-gatherer band is not, then, the family enlarged; rather it is the precondition for the family as we know it.

Boehm identifies “moral community” and “the deliberate use of social sanctioning to enforce political equality among fully adult males” as the two components of egalitarian social control. I would add ritual as the common expression of the moral community without which the process of sanctioning would make no sense."


Chris Knight on the Assertive Egalitarianism of Hunter-Gatherers

Chris Knight:

"For many years, my colleague Jerome Lewis has been working among the Mbendjele BaYaka, egalitarian forest-dwelling hunter-gatherers in the Congo. He describes their politics as an assertive, dynamic process that depends on a complex of interdependent practices that constantly resist the emergence of hierarchy, dependency, and inequality. In a manner typical of assertively egalitarian hunter-gatherers, any hint of individual pride or personal dominance is dealt with using rough humour.

One communal form this takes among the BaYaka is moadjo, a kind of mimicry or pantomime which may be used particularly to quell behaviour deemed unacceptable or absurd. It would be risky for a young person to make fun of an elder, no matter how foolish they were being. But senior women exercise a special privilege, seeing it as their enjoyable role to use moadjo to bring down anyone who seems to be getting too boastful or assertive. A widow or grandmother may start the ball rolling by silently imitating some mannerism of her target—usually a man—in a way which accentuates its absurdity. One or two companions immediately grasp the identity of her target. The sounds of their unconstrained laughter are so contagious that before long, everyone is rolling around while pantomiming the behavior being mocked. Eventually, the only person still straight-faced is the man himself. But the laughter continues mercilessly until, ideally, even he gets the joke, seeing himself as the foolish person he was being. The chorus then subsides as he finally joins in, now laughing at his own expense. A good moadjo performance will succeed in calming the atmosphere by allowing everyone to have a good laugh and forget their anger.

James Woodburn’s fieldwork among the Hadza in Tanzania during the 1960s in many ways inaugurated the modern era of hunter-gatherer research. Woodburn divided hunter-gatherer societies across the world into two fundamental types according to whether they consume their food resources within hours or days (“immediate-return” hunter-gatherers) or practice longer term storage (“delayed-return” societies). Where storage techniques are in use, certain sections of society typically claim responsibility for guarding and distributing the accumulated wealth, monopolizing this organizing power in their own economic and political interests. It is only in “delayed return” contexts, when wealth begins to be stored and accumulated, that privileged elites and social stratification begin to emerge.

For tens of thousands of years, hunter-gatherer societies were everywhere of the “immediate return” type, as are the bow-and-arrow hunting Hadza today. In these societies, no one owns a fruiting tree or an area where you can dig yams. No hunter can claim rights in the animal he has killed; all meat has to be brought back to camp. Under these conditions, no one can claim to possess property or give it to selected others in return for their labour or allegiance. Instead, all resources brought into the camp are immediately distributed through what is termed “demand sharing.” This simply means that anyone with more than they personally need will face irresistible collective pressure to let others have their share."


More information


Provided by Daniel Bitton :

Robert Kelly 1995/2014 – The Foraging Spectrum

James Woodburn 1982 – Egalitarian Societies [2]

James Woodburn 2005 – Egalitarian Societies Revisited, in Widlock & Gossa (eds) – Property and equality, Volume 1: ritualisation, sharing, egalitarianism

Richard Lee 2004 – Power and Property in Twenty-first Century Foragers: A Critical Examination [3]

Richard Lee & Irving Devore (Eds.) 1968 – Man the Hunter

Richard Lee & Eleanor Leacock (eds) 1983 – Politics and History in Band Societies


Alan Barnard 1992 – The Kalahari Debate, a Bibliographical Essay [4]

Edwin Wilmsen 1989 – Land Filled With Flies

Roy Richard Grinkger 1991 – Houses in the Rainforest

Richard Lee & Mathias Guenther 1991 – Oxen or Onions? The Search for Trade (and Truth) in the Kalahari [5]

Ted Kaczynski 2008 – The Truth About Primitive Life: A Critique of Anarchoprimitivism [6]