George Walford: The Reason Why

Genesis set the first people in Paradise, Hesiod spoke of a Golden Age at the beginning of things, and the belief that life used to be better than it is has persisted down to our own time.

The people who really did follow an earlier way of life were known to the Greeks as Barbarians, and instead of dancing with the nymphs they swarmed over the walls of Rome to bring what were long known as the Dark Ages. In the 18th Century Arcadia reappeared in the vision of the noble savage living his (little was heard of savage women) free and open life in dose communion with nature, but increasing knowledge put a stop to that. The American Indians turned out not to rank at all high in the civilized scale of virtue and these exemplars of the good life were recycled as hindrances to the march of Progress.

Their place was taken by the foragers or hunter-gatherers. Lewis Henry Morgan, an anthropologist specialising on the Iroquois, provided Friedrich Engels with much of the material for The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), and now the golden light at the beginning of history radiated from the people who lived by collecting what grew naturally. They, it was believed, held their goods in common and managed their affairs jointly, with none of the class-division and oppression that ravaged industrial society. They were seen as primitive communists, providing a model (though a restricted one) of the society the modern communists sought to establish, but that aura also faded. It turned out that other tribal peoples behaved differently from the Iroquois; some of Morgan’s conclusions, and Engels’ work based on them, could not be supported.

In recent decades the foragers have been to some extent reinstated. Anthropologists like Richard Lee, Irven DeVore and Marshall Sahlins, Marxish if not Marxist, have shown with good and plentiful evidence that those thinking like Hobbes, regarding the first way of life as a poor, restricted and degrading affair constantly perched on the verge of extinction, have got it wrong. Such conditions are rare, and when they do occur are likely to be the result of civilized interference, whether purposeful like the European extermination of the Tasmanians and the American treatment of the Amerindians, or accidental like the starvation imposed on the a when conservationists turned their hunting-grounds into a game reserve. Anthropologists report modern foragers living in a way that many of our own people might envy, with minimal effort and maximal leisure, ample and varied food, an active social life, graphic and dramatic arts and, if not religion or refined spirituality, at least some conception of a supernatural world.

The foraging diet (which in any case varies from region to region, and sometimes from one community to the next) may not be to civilised taste, but by the 1840s Edward John Eyre and Sir Edward Grey had already dismissed the idea that shortages compelled Australian natives to live on food they disliked. Travellers lamenting that famine had reduced these people to eating grubs, or mimosa gum, were speaking from ignorance; enjoyable and nutritious, these were among the foods most favoured. [1]

In reading the accounts written by people who have lived with these folk a sense of enjoyment comes through, and the writers seldom seem eager to return to the armchairs, central heating and air-conditioning of their universities. Foragers go without much that is available in civilized life, but being also without need of it they suffer little material deprivation. I am indebted to Ike Benjamin for the remark that social development has consisted largely of turning luxuries into necessities, and Sahlins has phrased the same observation even more pungently: “Want not, lack not”; he speaks of the foragers having “the original affluent society.” [2]

Modern foragers enjoy this admirable life even though pushed out to the near-barren grounds around the edges of civilisation; we have good reason to believe that their forebears, with the fertile areas of the world open to them, had an even easier time, and this raises a question: Why did such a satisfying way of life disappear from most of the earth?

Everybody lived by hunting and gathering from the first appearance of the human race until about 8,000 BC, a period of at least forty thousand years and perhaps of two or even three million, depending on how you define humanity. During this time creatures who were at first hardly distinguishable from animals came to construct the first human communities, to create language that could handle conceptual thinking, and to use fire and tools in a way quite beyond any other species. While doing all this they continued to live by collecting what grew naturally, and although people with special aptitudes might take the lead on particular occasions they had nothing that can sensibly be called a ruler or a government. Then, about ten thousand years ago, most of the old-style communities began to turn into, or be displaced by, societies which had adopted government and agriculture (I use the term to include herding and horticulture) accompanied or closely followed by oppression, exploitation, organised warfare, institutional religion, slavery, taxes and the first population explosion. Gordon Childe christened the transition the Neolithic Revolution, [3] but in any one location the movement from old methods to reliance upon new seems to have taken much time, sometimes even thousands of years; [4] only by comparison with the immensely longer period of slower change that preceded it can such a leisurely shift be termed a revolution. But why did it happen at all?

It can hardly have been a response to changing climate, for it followed much the same course over most of the world, and in any case cultivation and natural growth require similar conditions. One suggestion sometimes made, that a minority who benefited from the new methods forced them on the others, cannot be right since it assumes what it sets out to explain; social divisions and coercive institutions only began to appear as the new system developed. A marked feature of foraging communities is communal enforcement of the common mode of behaviour, and would-be tyrants get brought back into line, or if necessary eliminated, like other deviants. We cannot say that the people intended all that was to follow from the transition, for they could hardly have known what they were getting into, but the beginnings of the change cannot have been forced on them since there were no means of doing so. A community making the transition may have been enabled by the new powers it brought to impose it on others but even so, even if the change occurred originally in only one place and spread from there that first change, the greatest single step in social development, has still to be accounted for. As knowledge about the foragers’ life increases it comes to seem more and more satisfying, yet there must have been something about it which made them, gradually and over a long period, give it up in favour of government, agriculture and sedentary living.

In modern anthropological reports the emphasis tends to be placed on the plenty enjoyed by hunter-gatherers. Lee, for example, says of the Mongomongo nut, the most important food of Bushmen in the Dobe area “although tens of thousands of pounds of these nuts are harvested each year, thousands more rot on the ground each year for want of picking.” [5] Few studies of foragers, from the Eskimo at one end of the earth to the Australian natives at the other, omit to mention their cheerful confidence that there is no need for thrift since more will always be available, if not tomorrow then the next day, or perhaps the day after, and their survival shows this faith to have been, on the whole, justified. There is, however, a condition to this affluence, one familiar to everybody who lives in an apple-growing area; in the harvest season you have difficulty giving the things away, for the rest of the year you have to buy them. In any one area the supply of natural food tends to vary between glut and dearth.

For modern city-dwellers this presents no great problem. They have sophisticated techniques of preservation and, for fresh foods, access to the world; if the fruit they want does not grow at home it comes in from California, Israel or South Africa. For the foragers, without these facilities, things are different; they have to follow the food, living as nomads for much of the year. A good diet, varied and ample, can be had, and usually without great effort, but rarely a continuing sufficiency in any one location. This applies even in areas where game abounds, for with regular stalking animals become more wary. 6 Foragers have no way of increasing the supply and (with a few exceptions, such as the Eskimo with their built-in cold storage) they do not preserve food; the reports speak regularly of their light-hearted improvidence, consuming or wasting whatever is at hand, leaving tomorrow to look after tomorrow. To survive they have to be mobile, following the game and the harvest; the traditional life even of the Polar Eskimo consists largely of travel. Pastoral nomads can journey in style, taking the yurt and household goods on their carts, but foragers, having neither vehicles nor domesticated animals, (the Eskimo dog-sled is a comparatively recent introduction) can afford to own only what they can carry, and it has been reported that the total possessions of a !Kung San of the Kalahari weigh no more than twenty-five pounds. Laurens Van der Post found that the Bushmen owned “nothing that they could not assemble in one minute, wrap up in their blankets and carry on their shoulders for a journey of a thousand miles.” [7] One can readily envisage life without bedding, furniture, carpets, crockery and most other household encumbrances; it may even have its attractions. But what of the children? On level city pavements a mother with even one infant can hardly do the local shopping without a pushchair. How were foragers, having neither wheels, dogs nor horses, to manage more than the most limited numbers of young children on long journeys over rough country?

For hunter-gatherers the conditions of life include reduction of necessary equipment to the minimum, and these same terms apply to people; their value also has to be balanced against the difficulty of transporting them and the outcome is, in Sahlins’ words: “infanticide, senilicide, sexual continence for the duration of the nursing period, etc., practices for which many food-collecting peoples are well known.” [8]

Accounts of hunter-gatherer communities rarely suggest the presence of anything like the large families common among peasants, and the implications of this find confirmation in a more general observation: over the immense span of time for which this way of life was universal, the population remained sparse. Only with the appearance of government and agriculture, making sedentary life possible, did human beings begin to multiply at all rapidly, and then their numbers rocketed, even the early agricultural societies growing to as much as a thousand times bigger than foraging communities. This rate of increase, once rapid increase became practical, indicates the intensity of the repression foragers had been obliged to exercise, and it seems at least probable that here we have the answer to our problem. After going all the way with the anthropologists who speak of the affluence, comfort and ease enjoyed by the foragers, we have to add that these advantages were obtained at the price of having to do without sex for extended periods, leave their parents to die and murder most of their children. It makes it easier to understand why they should have been willing to change.

[1] Sahlins M. 1974 Stone Age Economics London & NY: Routledge 7
[2] Ibid 1
[3] Childe V.G. 1936 Man Makes Himself London: Watts & Co. 80
[4] Service Elman R. 1975 Origin of the State and Civilization New York: W. W. Norton & Co. Inc. 16
[5] Quoted Sahlins 1974 50
[6] Sahlins 1974 15 footnote
[7] Quoted Sahlins 1974 12
[8] Sahlins 1974 34

from Ideological Commentary 46, July 1990.