Defining the Main Features of the Hunter-Gathering Society

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Nutrition, kinship and the sexual division of labour all act as separate salient features within foraging societies and are ultimately accounted for by the need for survival. These adaptive features which are required for their existence are however all underpinned by the necessity of having a large, stable social network. They act as the “basic determinants of the structure of any society”, as through creating social ties, they may benefit from trade, reproduction and the distribution of resources (Siskind, 1973). They are the most salient because they are crucial to maintaining the societies’ core values, including egalitarianism and reciprocity, both of which are seen in the Dobe Ju/’hoansi and the Mardu Aborigines in particular. (Lee, 2013). Despite the diffusion of modernisation, these features have maintained their traditional form, acting as a display of their significance in the adaptive survival of hunter-gatherer societies.

2/3 of the hunter-gatherer diet is comprised of the gathering aspect, primarily performed by women (Lee and Daly 1999). The varied diet of the Dobe Ju/’hoansi provides a well-balanced nutritional intake that satisfies the community, insofar that they show limited signs of illnesses common to the ‘Western World’. They appear suitably sustained in their environment, despite the perception that they live a strenuous lifestyle by the way in which they must attain food. It appears that environmental factors such as rainfall play a role in explaining the limitations to the Ju/’hoansi and Aborigines’ food choices. As a result, Mardu Aborigines ‘eat their way’ into camp by finding food resources from surrounding waterholes, so as to preserve their resources. The process of hunting and gathering does vary, however, as is seen by the Ju/’hoansi, who instead occupy camp and ‘eat their way out of it’ (Tonkinson, 2002). Although foraging societies show a difference in the way they organise their food collection, both show a successfully varied diet of meat, vegetables, seeds and nuts, which appears to be a result of the changing environmental conditions on food availability.

The influence of availability on their diet cannot be undermined, as meat is seen to have great social value in feasts due to its scarcity. However, their diet is also accounted for by their need to monitor their caloric intake. Pyke’s ‘Optimal Foraging Theory’ suitably applies to foraging societies, in that their choice of prioritising gathering over hunting provides a caloric intake higher than the energy spent collecting it (Pyke, 1984). The Dobe Ju/’hoansi have an intake of approximately 2355 calories per day, which sustains their weight throughout the year unlike most other African societies (Lee, 2013). Although hunting provides significant calories for a larger community, it requires much greater skill and a large proportion of energy due to the long unpredictable hours. As modern societies have greater availability and a larger radius of food within easy access, the way of attaining nourishment in foraging societies acts a salient feature in terms of its imperative link to survival.

Not only is the diet a crucial feature in hunter-gatherer societies, but their behaviour towards food within society is vital in the maintenance of their rigid social structure. Christopher Boehm’s theory of ‘The Reverse Dominance Hierarchy’ suggests that the act of a large group deflating the ego of someone dominating them makes it possible to maintain an egalitarian society (Boehm et al., 1993). This is demonstrated in the way in which the Ju/’hoansi show indifference to those who bring food home from a hunt, rather than show celebration (Lee, 2013). It appears not to be out of jealousy or ungratefulness, but the purpose of ‘insulting the meat’ creates the conditions in which no individual appears more powerful or significant, maintaining an egalitarian society with stronger social ties. These ties are then enhanced by the sharing of the food and the heavy importance placed on distribution. Although the process can bring with it the burden of organising it, Richard Lee puts forward how sharing as a collective is the ultimate reason for their system of sustenance (Lee, 2013). By distributing the food amongst others, this not only creates stronger social relations but allows for a distribution of time amongst the bands. In turn, it seems that it is not the hunting and gathering itself that is a salient feature, but the behaviour afterwards that creates an undisputed advantage for the survival of foraging societies. Hunting and gathering act as a side factor in promoting social networks; and thus, survival chances. Kinship is another salient factor, in that it also stabilises and ensures social organisation to benefit hunter-gatherers, insofar that they continuously have many others to rely on when conditions become more challenging.

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The system itself amongst both the Dobe Ju/’hoansi and the Mardu Aborigines follows the principle of alternating generations, where different individuals are seen as sharing a ‘joking’ or ‘avoidance’ relation to an individual (Lee, 2013). The Dobe Ju/’hoansi define marriage partners as those who are unrelated and treated as a ‘joking’ relation (known as being part of the !kun!a or tun category), whilst Mardu Aborigines are more than likely to marry cross-cousins (Tonkinson, 2002). From this, it is evident that according to Radcliffe-Brown, “the kinship system regulates marriage” (Berndt and Tonkinson, 1988: 80). Unlike Western societies in which a kinship system does not cover much more than the extended nuclear family, hunter-gatherers rely on the social organisation as a necessity due to their much smaller populations. By defining marriage rules by sections and moieties through commonly understood terms, the foraging communities can prevent the incest taboo and ensure that their smaller populations continue to thrive with healthy offspring.

The extension of kinship that is unlike our own is also accounted for by its ability to act as a further adaption for survival under hard situations. Heavy emphasis is placed on kinship, both affinal and genetic through a ‘classificatory system’, where kinship terms for consanguineous are the same as distant relatives and the unrelated (Lee, 2013). The Mardu Aborigines’ inclusion of ‘strangers’ and distant people means there is a greater chance of establishing a much wider network of relations. This benefits the distribution of resources, as automatic ties with distant groups mean foraging societies have a constant support system. Hill et al. found that affinal kinships are seen to be just as important as those that are genetic amongst hunter-gatherer societies, showing the significance of social network extension (Hill et al., 2014). Camp organisation consistently changes due to the semi-nomadic nature of the groups; potential lack of food; frequency of visitors and sometimes conflict. Amongst the Mardu Aborigines, kinship determines the food situation, both in times of difficulty and through everyday comeuppance with passing communities (Riches, 1995). In turn, by giving kinship terms to a wide range of people, this allows for greater movement of resources and people – vital for the survival of small populations.

The complex kinship system of name-giving also provides practical importance with a socio-economic benefit. The institution of kinship creates mutual obligation and a matter of responsibility to those who they call brother, sister, mother and so forth. The Ju/’hoansi have only 35 male names and 32 female names, so sharing a name makes them related and it is believed these ties of kinship are closer than that of distant relatives (Lee, 2013). A system such as this helps to “optimise networks of flow”, in such that trade and communication with separate bands is made easier by the common understanding of kinship, and in turn, it means that potential conflict is reduced (Hamilton et al., 2007). The system is explained by the fact that foraging societies only use face-to-face trade of resources and spouses, and through a complex but widespread understanding of kinship, they are able to maintain social and economic relations with those from afar.

The final prominent feature seen in hunter-gatherer societies is the way in which they established a sexual division of labour, which rather than causing a status divide, stabilises an egalitarian society. Despite the difference in roles, both genders appear “separate but equal” according to Eleanor Leacock, particularly for nutrition (D.N, G. K, 1995: 150). Whilst the male’s role to hunt is vital in achieving a higher caloric intake, women participate in the bulk of the nutritional intake through gathering whilst also completing facilitating tasks with the meat. The number of meat-related tasks performed by women, such as the preparation, cooking and storing, is much greater than that of the men’s (Waguespack, 2005). To say that the women’s role is purely foraging would be far from the truth. But the reason for this feature is perhaps a result of specialisation. Hunting as a skill takes dedication, requiring significant time and practice. Where the sexual division of labour is accounted for amongst foraging societies, is that women marry young and thus have children young, placing a burden on their chance to specialise. Maternal constraints are long-term, and the vulnerability of high-cost offspring means that this division is a result of a lack of time and their greater priority for the nuclear family. Additionally, it is a result of conflicts over reproductive ideas – with the women perhaps valuing the nuclear family more, and so must take on less specialised roles (Gurven and Hill, 2009). The labour division, when relating to nutrition, thus falls back on the idea that the continuation of the social order through the nuclear family is of continuous underlying essentialism to the community.

In addition to the strain on mothers, the division is also maintained by the male’s reliance on hunting as an assistance to mating. With hunting comes the development of such traits that increase the chance of finding a suitable mate, in which successful offspring would be produced. Despite kinship terms defining potential mates for individuals of hunter-gatherer societies, the ‘Signalling Theory’ developed by Bird suggests that hunting allows for men to ‘show off’ and presents the man as a status icon worthy of mating with (Gurven and Hill, 2009). From this angle, the sexual division is accounted for by the desire to produce the strongest and most successful offspring from the male’s point of view.

However, the argument mentioned by Gurven and Hill, that male-strength is an explanation for the sexual division of labour, does not seem plausible for a collection of reasons. Despite most hunter-gatherer societies following this division in labour, some show variation. Women in foraging tribes such as the Agta from the Philippines hunt in groups to capture small game for the community, whilst also continuing the ‘menial’ tasks in camp (D.N, G. K, 1995). It is not that the women are incapable in most communities, but it is that they lack the resources to additionally participate in hunting, and thus when acknowledging the additional reasons of reproduction and mating success, it is this that causes a sexual division of labour to provide the most efficient lifestyle.

The most prominent features of foraging societies are consistently all justified by the importance of creating a well-formed social organisation. It is this structure that benefits their survival, both economically, politically, socially and so-forth. However, when looking at the saliency, our ethnocentric tendencies play a role in putting some features into a negative light. The view that the foraging diet is limited by their environment is masked by our misunderstanding of their ‘working hours’ (Lee, 2013). We fail to recognise how so-called ‘menial tasks’ of maintenance are perhaps more important than food-gathering, and thus their ‘limiting’ diet is a result of the insufficient availability of time, not the environment. Additionally, comparison of the varied nutrition seen in foraging societies to the increasingly processed Western diet also counters the idea of the diet being ‘limited’ in the first place. Although it is debatable which features are the most salient, any aspect of their life that contributes to the social organisation proves significant to their existence. By recognising these, we can benefit from understanding our origins and put into perspective what we value in our own lives and whether they are significantly adaptive.

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