Anth102 pt2

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As Americans with our vast wealth and technology, we often stereotype hunter-gatherers like the Bushmen as ‘primitive.’  But how long could you do it?  No running water, no automobiles, and (gasp!) no cell phones!  Most of the skills and things you currently have would be utterly useless living off the land.  How do the Bushmen do it? What skills would you have learn to survive by hunting and gathering? 


Nina Brown, Thomas McIlwraith, Laura Tubelle de González

2020 American Anthropological Association
2300 Clarendon Blvd, Suite 1301
Arlington, VA 22201

ISBN Print: 978-1-931303-67-5
ISBN Digital: 978-1-931303-66-8

This book is a project of the Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges (SACC) and our parent organization, the American Anthropological Association
(AAA). Please refer to the website for a complete table of contents and more information about the


Perspectives: An Open Introduction to Cultural Anthropology by Nina Brown, Thomas McIlwraith, Laura Tubelle de

González is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where

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5 5

Isaac Shearn, Community College of Baltimore County
[email protected]

Learning Objectives Learning Objectives

• Identify the four modes of subsistence and describe the major activities associated with obtaining food in each system.

• Explain the difference between wild and domesticated resources and how plants and animals are domesticated.

• Explain the relationship between the subsistence system used in a society and the amount of private property or wealth differ-
ences that develop.

• Assess the ways in which subsistence systems are linked to expectations about gender roles.

• Categorize the social and economic characteristics associated with agriculture and describe the benefits and drawbacks of the
agricultural subsistence system.

• Analyze the ways in which the global agricultural system separates producers from consumers and contributes to wealth differ-

• Appraise the ways in which human intervention in the environment has made it difficult to separate the “natural” from the
human-influenced environment.

Think about the last meal you ate. Where did the ingredients come from? If it was a cheeseburger,

where did the cow live and die? Now think about all the food you consume in a normal week. Can you

identify the geographic origin of all the ingredients? In other words, how much do you know about the

trip your food took to arrive at your plate? How much you know about where your food comes from

would tell an anthropologist something about the subsistence system used in your community. A sub-

sistence system is the set of practices used by members of a society to acquire food. If you are like me


Figure 1: Carrying Capacity: The area in the orange box, which is not under cultivation,
might provide enough resources for a family of four to survive for a year. An equivalent
area, marked by the blue box, could provide enough resources for a significantly larger
population under intensive agricultural cultivation.

and you cannot say much about where your food comes from, then you are part of an agricultural soci-

ety that separates food production from consumption, a recent development in the history of humans.

People who come from non-agricultural societies have a more direct connection to their food and are

likely to know where 100 percent of their food comes from.

Finding food each day is a necessity for every person no matter where that person lives, but food is

not just a matter of basic survival. Humans assign symbolic meaning to food, observing cultural norms

about what is considered “good” to eat and applying taboos against the consumption of other foods.

Catholics may avoid meat during Lent, for instance, while Jewish and Islamic communities forbid the

consumption of certain foods such as pork. In addition to these attitudes and preferences, every society

has preferred methods for preparing food and for consuming it with others. The cultural norms and

attitudes surrounding food and eating are known as foodways. By studying both the subsistence system

used by a society to acquire food and the foodway associated with consuming it, anthropologists gain

insight into the most important daily tasks in every society.


Since the need to eat is one of the few true human universals, anthropologists have studied subsis-

tence systems from a variety of perspectives. One way to think about the importance of food for human

populations is to consider the number of calories an individual must obtain every day in order to sur-

vive. Anthropologists use the term carrying capacity to quantify the number of calories that can be

extracted from a particular unit of land to support a human population. In his 1798 publication An Essay

on the Principle of Population, Thomas Malthus argued, “the power of population is indefinitely greater

than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.”1 He suggested that human populations

grow at an exponential rate, meaning the population climbs at a rate that is constantly increasing. How-

ever, the availability of resources in the environment increases at only an arithmetic rate, which means

that left unchecked human populations would soon outstrip the environment’s ability to provide sus-

tenance. Malthus famously argued that war, famine, and disease were “good” or at least “functional” in

the sense that they kept populations from growing too large.

While Malthus presented a grim view of

humanity’s future, research suggests that the

rate of human population growth, currently

about one percent per year, is actually slowing.

It is also not necessarily true that population

growth has an entirely negative impact on

human communities. The Danish economist

Ester Boserup, for example, argued that human

history reveals a connection between popula-

tion growth and cultural innovation, particu-

larly innovation in farming techniques.

Because necessity is the mother of invention,

she reasoned, the pressure of having more

mouths to feed could be the dynamic that dri-

ves societies to develop new solutions.2

Modern anthropological studies of subsistence systems draw on insights and perspectives from sev-


eral different fields, including biology, chemistry, and ecology, as well as a range of ethnographic

techniques. This interdisciplinary perspective allows for cross-cultural comparison of human diets. In

several decades of anthropological research on subsistence systems, anthropologists have observed that

the quest for food affects almost every aspect of daily life. For instance, every person plays a role in soci-

ety as a producer, distributor, or consumer of food. In the journey of a fish from the sea to the plate, for

instance, we can see that in some societies, the same person can fill more than one of those roles, while

in other societies there is more specialization. In a small fishing village, the same person might catch the

fish, distribute some extra to friends and family, and then consume the bounty that same day. In a city,

the consumer of the fish at a fancy restaurant is not the same person who caught the fish. In fact, that

person almost certainly has no knowledge who caught, cleaned, distributed, and prepared the fish he or

she is consuming. The web of social connections that we can trace through subsistence provide a very

particular kind of anthropological insight into how societies function at their most basic level.

Figure 2: These images show how fish are harvested in two different subsistence systems. Consider the amount of investment and labor that went into
the development of technologies that make mass fish farming, or aquaculture, possible compared to fishing with simple nets.


Like all human systems, a society’s subsistence system is intricately linked to other aspects of culture

such as kinship, politics, and religion. Although we can study these systems in isolation, it is important

to remember that in the real world all aspects of culture overlap in complex ways. Consider harvest rit-

uals, for example, which are religious ceremonies focused on improving the food supply. These rituals

are shaped by religious beliefs as well as the demands and challenges of obtaining food. Likewise, sub-

sistence systems are the economic base of every society. Working to put food on the table is the essential

task of every family or household, and this work is the basis of a domestic economy that interacts with

the modes of production and modes of exchange described in the Economics chapter.

When anthropologists first began to examine subsistence systems, they started like all scientists do,

with classification. Early on, anthropologists saw the benefit of grouping similar societies into types, or

categories, based on the range of practices they used in the quest for food. These groupings allowed for

comparisons between cultures. At a basic level, societies can be divided into those that have an imme-

diate return system for finding food and those that use a delayed return system. The residents of a

small fishing village who eat the fish they catch each day have an immediate return on their labor. Farm-


ers who must wait several months between the time they plant seeds and the time they harvest have a

delayed return system.

Beyond this basic division, anthropologists recognize four general types of food system known as

modes of subsistence. The four modes of subsistence are foraging, pastoralism, horticulture, and agri-

culture. Each mode is defined by the tasks involved in obtaining food as well as the way members of

the society are organized socially to accomplish these tasks. Because each mode of subsistence is tai-

lored to particular ecological conditions, we can think of each culture’s subsistence system as an adapta-

tion, or a set of survival strategies uniquely developed to suit a particular environment. Because culture

shapes the way we view and interact with the environment, different societies can adapt to similar

environments in different ways. Foraging, sometimes known as hunting and gathering, describes soci-

eties that rely primarily on “wild” plant and animal food resources. Pastoralism is a subsistence sys-

tem in which people raise herds of domesticated livestock. Horticulture is the small-scale cultivation of

crops intended primarily for subsistence. Agriculture, the subsistence system used in the United States,

involves the cultivation of domesticated plants and animals using technologies that allow for intensive

use of the land. Can all societies be categorized neatly into one of these modes? No. In fact, almost every

society combines one or more of these strategies into their subsistence practices. For example, in the

United States there are individuals who participate in all of these subsistence modes, including foraging.

When anthropologists analyze a subsistence system, they look for the dominant mode of subsistence,

or the most typical way that members of a society procure food. So, while some people in the United

States grow their own food or hunt wild animals, the dominant mode of subsistence is agriculture, and

people obtain food primarily by purchasing it.


“Why should we plant, when there are so many mongongos in the world?”

-/Xashe, !Kung forager3

Foraging is a mode of subsistence defined by its reliance on wild plant and animal food resources

already available in the environment rather than on domesticated species that have been altered by

human intervention. Foragers use a remarkable variety of practices to procure meals. Hunting for ani-

mal protein is central to the foraging lifestyle and foragers capture and consume a wide variety of ani-

mals, from squirrels caught with a bow and arrow or blow dart to buffalo once killed by the dozens in

communal hunts. Fishing for marine resources forms the basis for acquiring protein in many foraging

communities and includes a range of practices from exploiting coastal shellfish and crab, to harvesting

offshore resources such as deep sea fish and marine mammals such as whales and seals. Augmenting

the protein from hunting or fishing, gathered wild plant resources, such as fruits, nuts, roots, tubers,

and berries typically provide a large percentage of the calories that go into any meal. Gathering requires

expert knowledge of where plant resource can be found, when they will be best to harvest, and how to

prepare them for consumption. Foraging is the only immediate return subsistence system.

Foraging societies tend to have what is called a broad spectrum diet: a diet based on a wide range

of resources. Many of the foods regularly eaten by foragers, such as insects and worms, would not nec-

essarily be considered edible by many people in the United States. For example, many people do not

know that earthworms are a good source of iron and high-quality protein, roughly equivalent to eggs,

but that is exactly what anthropologists learned by studying the diet of foraging societies in Venezuela.4

Foragers are scientists of their own ecosystems, having acquired extensive knowledge of the natural


world through experience that allows them to exploit many kinds of food resources. The Aché, a forag-

ing group living in the subtropical rainforest in Paraguay, eat 33 different kinds of mammals, more than

15 species of fish, the adult forms of 5 insects, 10 types of larvae, and at least 14 kinds of honey. This is

in addition to finding and collecting 40 species of plants.5 The !Kung foragers, who live in the Kalahari

Desert in southern Africa, treasure the mongongo nut, which is tasty, high in protein, and abundant for

most of the year, but they also hunt giraffes, six species of antelope, and many kinds of smaller game

like porcupine.6

In general, foraging societies are small, with low population densities of less than 5 people per square

mile. Large families and communities are not necessarily desirable since more mouths to feed can

equate to increased pressure to find food. Another factor that contributes to a lower population den-

sity is the fact that it is more difficult for the young and the elderly to participate in food procurement.

Children only gradually acquire the skills necessary to successfully find food and generally do not make

significant contributions to the group until their teenage years. Likewise, elders who can no longer pro-

duce enough food themselves expect to be cared for by others.7

One important hallmark of foraging societies is their egalitarian social structure. Stark differences in

wealth, which characterize many societies, are rare in foraging communities. One reason for this is that

foragers have a different perspective on private property. Foraging societies tend to move their camps

frequently to exploit various resources, so holding on to a lot of personal possessions or “wealth” is

impractical. Foragers also place a high cultural value on generosity. Sharing of food and other resources

is a social norm and a measure of a person’s goodness. Those who resist sharing what they have with

others will be ridiculed, or could even become social outcasts.8 Over the long term, daily habits of giv-

ing and receiving reinforce social equality. This practice is also an important survival strategy that helps

groups get through times of food scarcity.

Though foragers have high levels of social equality, not everyone is treated exactly the same. Gender

inequality exists in many communities and develops from the fact that work among foragers is often

divided along gender lines. Some jobs, such as hunting large animals, belong to men whose success in

hunting gives them high levels of respect and prestige. While women do hunt in many communities

and often contribute the majority of the group’s food through gathering, their work tends not to be as

socially prestigious.9 Likewise, elders in foraging communities tend to command respect and enjoy a

higher social status, particularly if they have skills in healing or ritual activities.

Rule-Breaking Foragers

Nomadic lifestyles are the norm for most foragers, but there have been some societies that have bro-

ken this rule and developed large-scale sedentary societies. This was possible in areas with abundant

natural resources, most often fish. Historically, fishing formed the foundation of large-scale foraging

societies in Peru, the Pacific Northwest (the Kwakwa ̱ka ̱’wakw), and Florida (the Calusa). These societies

all developed advanced fishing technologies that provided enough food surplus that some people could

stop participating in food procurement activities.

The Kwakwa ̱ka ̱’wakw of the Pacific Northwest provide an excellent example. In that region, the

salmon that spawn in the rivers are so abundant that they could support sedentary populations of a size

that would normally be associated with intensive agriculture. Because there was a surplus of food, some

members of society were able to pursue other full-time occupations or specializations such as working

as artisans or even becoming “chiefs.” This led to wealth differences and social inequality that would

not normally be found in a foraging community. Conscious of the corrosive effect of wealth and sta-


tus differences on their community, the Kwakwa ̱ka ̱’wakw developed a tradition of potlatch, a kind of

“extreme gift-giving” to neutralize some of these tensions.

Assessing the Foraging Lifestyle

In 1651, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes became one of the first scholars to comment on

foragers, describing their lifestyle as “nasty, brutish, and short.” We now realize that his viewpoint was

colored by ethnocentrism and, more specifically, Eurocentrism. Hobbes, as well as many scholars that

came after him, viewed Western societies as the pinnacle of social evolution and viewed less technolog-

ically advanced societies as deficient, antiquated, or primitive, a perspective that persisted well into the

twentieth century.

In the 1960s, the anthropological perspective on foragers changed when Marshall Sahlins suggested

that these communities were “the original affluent society.” He argued that foragers had an idyllic life,

in which only a small percentage of the day was spent “working,” or acquiring resources, and most of

the day was spent in leisure and socializing, leading to stronger community and family bonds:

Hunter-gatherers consume less energy per capita per year than any other group of human beings. Yet

when you come to examine it the original affluent society was none other than the hunter’s—in which

all the people’s material wants were easily satisfied. To accept that hunters are affluent is therefore to

recognize that the present human condition of man slaving to bridge the gap between his unlimited

wants and his insufficient means is a tragedy of modern times.10

Today anthropologists recognize that foraging, far from being primitive, is one of the most effective

and dynamic subsistence systems humans have ever developed, yet Sahlins’ conception of the original

affluent society is overly romantic. Foraging is a challenging lifestyle; some groups spend up to 70 hours

per week collecting food. The amount of leisure time and relative comfort of the foraging lifestyle vary

significantly based on differences in the availability of food and environmental conditions.11

Contemporary studies of foraging also recognize that foragers have rarely lived in isolation.

Throughout the world, foragers have lived near farming populations for hundreds or even thousands

of years. Conflicts and competition for resources with non-foraging societies have characterized the

foraging experience and foragers, with their relatively small population size and limited technology,

have often been on the losing end of these confrontations. Government policies containing foragers to

small “reservation” areas or forcing them to settle in towns have had catastrophic effects on foragers, as

has the destruction through agricultural and industrial development of the ecosystems on which many

groups once depended. A sad worldwide pattern of exploitation and marginalization is the reason that

many foragers today live in dwindling communities in marginal ecological zones.12

The Built Environment and Domesticated Landscapes

None of us live in a natural environment. Current research on the causes of global climate change

have demonstrated that humans are having a profound effect on the Earth and its ecosystems, but

it would be a mistake to conclude that human effects on the environment are a recent development.

Humans have been making environmental alterations for a long time and we have been engaged in a

process of domesticating the planet for several thousand years. For this reason, no part of the planet can

really be considered 100 percent “natural.” When anthropologists study subsistence, they gain a win-

dow into the ways in which cultures have co-evolved with their environments, a field of study known as


historical ecology. Analysis of the ways in which cultures and the environment are mutually intercon-

nected, demonstrates that there is no way to separate the “natural” world from the human-influenced

world, or what anthropologists refer to as the built environment.

This can be seen by considering the historical ecology of the Nukak, a group of foragers who live

in the Amazon rainforest near the headwaters of the Rio Negro along the southern border between

Colombia and Venezuela and whose subsistence demonstrates the blurry line between foraging and

agriculture and “natural” and “domesticated.” The Nukak are a small linguistic and ethnic group who

are part of the larger culture known as Makú. The Nukak were the last among the Makú to be contacted

by the outside world and perhaps owing to this fact, they practice the most “traditional” way of life. The

Nukak were not known to the public at large until 1988, when a group of 41 individuals came in con-

tact with a school in the rural town of Calamar, in southeastern Colombia.

The Nukak are a highly mobile group of foragers who make an average of between 70 and 80 residen-

tial moves a year. The frequency of their moves changes seasonally: infrequent short-distance moves

in the wet season, and more frequent long-distance moves occurring in the dry season. Anthropologist

Gustavo Politis, who spent years living with the Nukak, observed that the Nukak will never occupy the

same camp twice, even if they are moving to an area where an old camp is still in good shape. When

they establish a camp, they remove all the light brush and some of the medium-sized trees, leaving a few

medium-sized trees and all the large trees intact.

Due to the selective nature of the forest clearing, a habitat, which can most readily be described as

a “wild orchard,” is produced. This wild orchard offers nearly perfect conditions for the germination

and growth of seeds because the large trees provide enough shade to prevent the invasion of vines and

shrubs. As the Nukak use the camp and consume fruit they have gathered, they discard the uneaten por-

tions, including the seeds. Significantly, the kinds of fruit the Nukak tend to eat in their camps are the

ones that have hard outer seed cases. Once discarded in a Nukak campsite, these seeds have a higher

chance of germinating and growing in the abandoned camp than they do in other parts of the rainforest.

The result is that Nukak territory is peppered with wild orchards that have high concentrations of edi-

ble plants, and the forest reflects a pattern of human intervention long after the Nukak have departed.13

The Nukak are an important case study in the Amazon for a number of reasons. They are a testament

to the ability of small foraging groups to domesticate landscapes in active ways that greatly increase the

productivity of the environment. They do this even though they are not “farmers” and will not always

utilize the resources they help create. In addition, the Nukak demonstrate that no place in the Amazon

can be considered pristine if a group such as the Nukak have ever lived there. The same can be said for

the rest of the planet.

The Domestication of the Dog and Cooperative Hunting The Domestication of the Dog and Cooperative Hunting
Although the transition from foraging to agriculture is often described as the Agricultural Revolution, archaeological evidence suggests this

change took a long time. The earliest species humans chose to domesticate were often not staple crops such as wheat, corn, rice, or cows, but
utilitarian species. For instance, bottle gourds were domesticated for use as water containers before the invention of pottery. Dogs were domes-
ticated as early as 15,000 years ago in eastern Asia from their wild ancestor the wolf. Although it is unlikely that dogs were an important source
of food, they did play a role in subsistence by aiding humans who relied on hunting the Ice Age megafauna such as wooly mammoths. Dogs
played such a critical role in hunting that some archaeologists believe they may have contributed to the eventual extinction of the woolly mam-
moths.14 Dogs were also valued for their role as watchdogs capable of protecting the community from predators and invaders.


Figure 3: The woolly mammoth was hunted to extinction in North America at the end of the last ice age. It is likely that dogs played a critical role in hunting these
and other large game animals.


“To us, a co-wife is something very good, because there is much work to do. When it rains … the village gets mucky.

And it’s you who clears it out. It’s you who … looks after the cows. You do the milking … and your husband may

have very many cows. That’s a lot of work… So Maasai aren’t jealous because of all this work.”

– Maiyani, Maasai woman 15

Pastoralism is a subsistence system that relies on herds of domesticated livestock. Over half of the

world’s pastoralists reside in Africa, but there are also large pastoralist populations in Central Asia,

Tibet, and arctic Scandinavia and Siberia. The need to supply grazing fields and water for the livestock

requires moving several times a year. For that reason, this subsistence system is sometimes referred to

as nomadic pastoralism. In Africa, for instance, a nomadic lifestyle is an adaptation to the frequent peri-

ods of drought that characterize the region and put stress on the grazing pastures. Pastoralists may also

follow a nomadic lifestyle for other reasons such as avoiding competition and conflict with neighbors

or avoiding government restrictions.

Pastoralists can raise a range of different animals, although most often they raise herd animals such

as cows, goats, sheep, and pigs. In some parts of South America, alpaca and llama have been domesti-

cated for centuries to act as beasts of burden, much like camels, horses, and donkeys are used in Asia

and Africa. Pastoralists who raise alpacas, donkeys, or camels, animals not typically considered food,

demonstrate an important point about the pastoralist subsistence system. The goal of many pastoral-

ists is not to produce animals to slaughter for meat, but instead to use other resources such as milk,

which can be transformed into butter, yogurt, and cheese, or products like fur or wool, which can be

sold. Even animal dung is useful as an alternate source of fuel and can be used as an architectural prod-

uct to seal the roofs of houses. In some pastoral societies, milk and milk products comprise between 60

and 65 percent of the total caloric intake. However, very few, if any, pastoralist groups survive by eating

only animal products. Trade with neighboring farming communities helps pastoralists obtain a more

balanced diet and gives them access to grain and other items they do not produce on their own.


Figure 4: A Typical Maasai Herd: Although women do most of the work of tending the herd, only men are allowed to own cattle

A community of animal herders has different labor requirements compared to a foraging community.

Caring for large numbers of animals and processing their products requires a tremendous amount of

work, chores that are nonexistent in foraging societies. For pastoralists, daily chores related to caring

for livestock translate into a social world structured as much around the lives of animals as around the

lives of people.

The Maasai, a society of east African pastoralists whose livelihood depends on cows, have been stud-

ied extensively by anthropologists. Among the Maasai, domestic life is focused almost entirely around

tasks and challenges associated with managing the cattle herds. Like many pastoralist communities, the

Maasai measure wealth and social status according to the number of animals a person owns. However,

raising cattle requires so much work that no one has the ability to do these jobs entirely on his or her

own. For the Maasai, the solution is to work together in family units organized around polygynous

marriages. A household with multiple wives and large numbers of children will have more labor power

available for raising animals.

Pastoralism and Gender Dynamics

The example of the Maasai demonstrates the extent to which a subsistence system can structure

gender roles and the division of labor between the sexes. In Maasai society, women do almost all of

the work with the cows, from milking several times each day to clearing the muck the cows produce.

Despite doing much of the daily work with cattle, Maasai women are not permitted to own cattle.

Instead, the cattle belong to the men, and women are given only “milking rights” that allow them to use

the products of the female animals and to assign these animals to their sons. Men make all decisions


about slaughtering, selling, and raising the cattle. Lack of cattle ownership means that women do not

have the same opportunities as men to build wealth or gain social status and the woman’s role in Maasai

society is subordinate to man’s. This same pattern is repeated in many pastoralist societies, with women

valued primarily for the daily labor they can provide and for their role as mothers.

While women lack the political and economic power enjoyed by Maasai men, they do exercise some

forms of power within their own households and among other women. They support each other in the

daily hard work of managing both cattle and domestic responsibilities, for instance sharing in childcare,

a practice based on the belief that “men care about cattle while women care about children.”16 Because

most marriages are arranged by elders, it is common for women to engage in love affairs with other

men, but women keep each other’s secrets; telling anyone about another woman’s adultery would be

considered an absolute betrayal of solidarity. Women who resist their husband’s authority by having

love affairs are also resisting larger claims of male authority and ownership over them.17

Pastoralism and Private Property

As discussed previously, foragers tend to have little private property. Obtaining food from the natural

environment and living a highly mobile lifestyle does not provide the right conditions for hoarding

wealth, while the strong value on sharing present in foraging communities also limits wealth differ-

ences. Pastoralists, in contrast, have a great deal of personal property: most of it in the form of animals,

a kind of “money on legs,” but also in the form of household objects and personal items like clothing or

jewelry that pastoralists can keep more easily than foragers because they do not move as frequently.

Ownership of the grazing land, water supply, and other resources required for livestock is a trickier

matter. Generally, these natural resources are treated as communal property shared by everyone in

the society. Pastoralists may range over hundreds of miles throughout the year, so it would be highly

impractical to “own” any particular plot of land or to try fencing it to exclude outsiders as is commonly

done by agriculturalists. Sharing resources can lead to conflict, however, both within pastoralist soci-

eties and between pastoralists and their neighbors. In an influential essay, Tragedy of the Commons (1968),

Garrett Hardin pointed out that people tend not to respect resources they do not own. For instance,

pastoralists who have a personal interest in raising as many cattle of their own as possible may not be

particularly motivated to preserve grass or water resources in the long term. Do pastoralists destroy

the environments in which they live? Evidence from anthropological studies of pastoralist communi-

ties suggests that pastoralists do have rules that regulate use of land and other resources and that these

restrictions are effective in conserving environmental resources.

The Maasai, for instance, have a complex land-management system that involves rotating pastures

seasonally and geographically to preserve both grass and water. Research conducted in Kenya and Tan-

zania suggests that these grazing practices improve the health and biodiversity of the ecosystem because

grazing cattle cut down the tall grasses and make habitats for warthogs, Thomson’s gazelle, and other

species. In addition, the large swaths of community land managed by the Maasai stabilize and support

the vast Serengeti ecosystem. Ecologists estimate that if this land were privately owned and its usage

restricted, the population of wildebeest would be reduced by one-third. Since thousands of tourists visit

the Serengeti each year to view wildlife, particularly the migration of the wildebeest, which is the largest

mammal migration in the world, the Maasai’s communal land management is worth an estimated $83.5

million to the tourist economies of Kenya and Tanzania.18

Despite the sophistication of their land and animal management techniques, pastoralists today face

many pressures. The growth of the tourism industry in many countries has led to increased demand for


private land ownership to support safari centers, wild game parks, and ecolodges. The steady growth

of human populations and intensive agriculture has also led to the widespread encroachment of cities

and farms into traditional pastoralist territories. Persistent drought, famine, and even civil war threaten

some pastoralist groups, particularly in central Africa. Meanwhile, pastoralists continue to experience

tense relationships with their agricultural neighbors as both groups compete for resources, disputes

that are intensifying as global warming leads to more intense heat and drought in many world regions.


“Yams are persons with ears. If we charm they hear.”

– Alo, Trobriand Island farmer19

Have you ever grown a garden in your backyard? How much time did you put into your garden?

How much of your diet did the garden yield? People whose gardens supply the majority of their food

are known as horticulturalists. Horticulture differs in three ways from other kinds of farming. First,

horticulturalists move their farm fields periodically to use locations with the best growing conditions.

For this reason, horticulture is sometimes known as shifting cultivation. Second, horticultural societies

use limited mechanical technologies to farm, relying on physical labor from people and animals, like

oxen that may be used to pull a plow, instead of mechanical farm equipment. Finally, horticulture dif-

fers from other kinds of farming in its scale and purpose. Most farmers in the United States sell their

crops as a source of income, but in horticultural societies crops are consumed by those who grow them

or are shared with others in the community rather than sold for profit.

Horticultural societies are common around the world; this subsistence system feeds hundreds of

thousands of people, primarily in tropical areas of south and central America, Southeast Asia, and Ocea-

nia. A vast array of horticultural crops may be grown by horticulturalists, and farmers use their spe-

cialized knowledge to select crops that have high yield compared to the amount of labor that must be

invested to grow them. A good example is manioc, also known as cassava. Manioc can grow in a variety

of tropical environments and has the distinct advantage of being able to remain in the ground for long

periods without rotting. Compared to corn or wheat, which must be harvested within a particular win-

dow of time to avoid spoiling, manioc is flexible and easier to grow as well as to store or distribute to

others. Bananas, plantains, rice, and yams are additional examples of popular horticultural crops. One

thing all these plants have in common, though, is that they lack protein and other important nutrients.

Horticultural societies must supplement their diets by raising animals such as pigs and chickens or by

hunting and fishing.


Figure 5: Bean plants grow up the stalk of a corn plant, while
squash vines grow along the ground between corn stalks,
inhibiting weed growth, an innovative technique developed by
indigenous farmers in the Americas thousands of years ago.

Growing crops in the same location for several seasons

leads to depletion of the nutrients in the soil as well as a

concentration of insects and other pests and plant diseases.

In agricultural systems like the one used in the United

States, these problems are addressed through the use of fer-

tilizers, pesticides, irrigation, and other technologies that

can increase crop yields even in bad conditions. Horticul-

turalists respond to these problems by moving their farm

fields to new locations. Often this means clearing a section

of the forest to make room for a new garden, a task many

horticulturalists accomplish by cutting down trees and set-

ting controlled fires to burn away the undergrowth. This

approach, sometimes referred to as “slash-and-burn,”

sounds destructive and has often been criticized, but the

ecological impact is complex. Once abandoned, farm fields

immediately begin to return to a forested state; over time,

the quality of the soil is renewed. Farmers often return after

several years to reuse a former field, and this recycling of

farmland reduces the amount of forest that is disturbed.

While they may relocate their farm fields with regularity,

horticulturalists tend not to move their residences, so they

rotate through gardens located within walking distance of

their homes.

Horticulturalists practice multi-cropping, growing a variety of different plants in gardens that are

biodiverse. Growing several different crops reduces the risk of relying on one kind of food and allows

for intercropping, mixing plants in ways that are advantageous. A well-known and ingenious example

of intercropping is the practice of growing beans, corns, and squash together. Native American farm-

ers in the pre-colonial period knew that together these plants, sometimes called “the three sisters,” were

healthier than they were if grown separately. Rather than completely clearing farmland, horticultural-

ists often maintain some trees and even weeds around the garden as a habitat for predators that prey on

garden pests. These practices, in addition to skillful rotation of the farmland itself, make horticultural

gardens particularly resilient.

Food as Politics Food as Politics

Because daily life for horticulturalists revolves around care for crops, plants are not simply regarded

as food but also become the basis for social relationships. In the Trobriand Islands, which are located

in the Solomon Sea north of Papua New Guinea, yams are the staple crop. Just as a Maasai pastoralist

gains respect by raising a large herd of animals, Trobriand Island farmers earn their reputations by hav-

ing large numbers of yams. However, this is not as easy as it might seem. In Trobriand Island society

every man maintains a yam garden, but he is not permitted to keep his entire crop. Women “own” the

yams and men must share what they grow with their daughters, their sisters, and even with their wives’

family members. Other yams must be given to the chief or saved to exchange on special occasions such

as weddings, funerals, or festivals. With so many obligations, it is not surprising that the average man

would have trouble building an impressive yam pile on his own. Fortunately, just as men have obliga-


tions to others, so too can they expect gifts from their sisters’ husbands and their friends in the commu-


A large pile of yams, displayed proudly in a man’s specially constructed yam house, is an indication

of how well he is respected by his family and friends. Maintaining these positive relationships requires

constant work, and men must reciprocate gifts of yams received from others or risk losing those rela-

tionships. Men who are stingy or mean spirited will not receive many yams, and their lack of social

approval will be obvious to everyone who glances at their empty yam houses. The chief has the largest

yam house of all, but also the most obligations. To maintain the goodwill of the people, he is expected

to sponsor feasts with his yam wealth and to support members of the community who may need yams

throughout the year.

So central are yams to Trobriand Island life that yams have traditionally been regarded not as mere

plants, but as living beings with minds of their own. Farmers talk to their yams, using a special tone

and soft voice so as not to alarm the vegetables. Men who have been initiated into the secret practices

of yam magic use incantations or magical charms to affect the growth of the plants, or alternatively to

discourage the growth of a rival’s crop. Yams are believed to have the ability to wander away from their

fields at night unless magic is used to keep them in place. These practices show the close social and spir-

itual association between farmers and their crops.

Civilizing Beans Civilizing Beans

Beans are often associated with gastrointestinal problems, namely flatulence. It turns out that this is related to the history of the domestica-
tion of the bean. Beans, along with maize and squash, were one of the most important crops domesticated by Native Americans in the New
World. The benefits of eating beans are best understood when viewed in relation to maize cultivation. From a purely nutritional point of view,
beans are a good source of protein while corn is not. Corn is also deficient in the essential amino acids lysine and tryptophan. Eating maize and
beans together provides more protein for hardworking farmers. In addition, maize and beans have a mutually beneficial relationship in the gar-
den. Thanks to a symbiotic relationship with a bacteria known as Rhizobium, beans and almost all legumes fix usable nitrogen in the soil,
increasing fertility for other plants grown nearby. When intercropped, maize benefits from this nitrogen fixing, and beans benefit from being
able to attach their vines to the strong stalks of the maize. Squash, which grows large leaves that spread widely across the ground, are also
beneficial to intercrop with maize and beans because the leaves reduce pest and weed invasion by providing ground cover.

Despite being nutritious and useful in the garden, beans were domesticated relatively late. In Mexico, there is evidence of bean domestication
around 1000 BC, a thousand years later than the domestication of corn.20 This is probably because of the gastrointestinal problems that come
with eating beans. The flatulence is the result of certain chemicals found in the wild beans that were ancestral to today’s domesticated species.
The lack of digestibility surely made beans an unappetizing food in early human communities. However, soaking beans before cooking them
and then boiling them over direct heat for several hours reduces these chemicals and makes beans much easier to stomach. The ability to boil
water was the key to bringing beans to the table.


Figure 6: A Culinary Shoe Pot from Oaxaca, Mexico. Courtesy of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture,
Catalog Number 2009-117/536

Archaeological studies in Central America have revealed that the invention of a particular type of pottery known as the “culinary shoe pot”

may have been the technological breakthrough needed to boil beans. The pots are used by placing the “foot” of the pot in the coals of a fire so
heat can be transmitted through the vessel for long periods of time. Pots of this design have been found in the archaeological record through-
out Central America in sites dating to the same period as the beginning of bean domestication and pots of similar design continue to be used
throughout that region today. This example demonstrates the extent to which the expansion of the human diet has been linked to innovations in
other areas of culture.

Clay Cooking Pots in the Republic of Suriname. Courtesy of Karina Noriega. All rights reserved



“The adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastro-

phe from which we have never recovered.”

– Jared Diamond 21

Agriculture is defined as the cultivation of domesticated plants and animals using technologies such

as irrigation, draft animals, mechanization, and inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides that allow for

intensive and continuous use of land resources. About 10,000 years ago, human societies entered a

period of rapid innovation in subsistence technologies that paved the way for the emergence of agri-

culture. The transition from foraging to farming has been described as the Neolithic Revolution.

Neolithic means “new stone age,” a name referring to the very different looking stone tools produced

during this time period. The Neolithic was characterized by an explosion of new technologies, not all

of them made from stone, which were geared toward agricultural tasks, rather than hunting or pro-

cessing gathered plant foods. These new tools included scythes for harvesting plants, and adzes or hoes

for tilling the soil. These technological developments began to dramatically improve yields and allow

human communities to support larger and larger numbers of people on food produced in less space.

It is important to remember that the invention of agriculture was not necessarily an advance in effi-

ciency, because more work had to go in to producing more food. Instead, it was an intensification of hor-

ticultural strategies. As a subsistence system, agriculture is quite different from other ways of making a

living, and the invention of agriculture had far-ranging effects on the development of human commu-

nities. In analyzing agriculture and its impacts, anthropologists focus on four important characteristics

shared by agricultural communities.

The first characteristic of agriculture is reliance on a few staple crops, foods that form the backbone

of the subsistence system. An example of a staple crop would be rice in China, or potatoes in Ireland. In

agricultural societies, farmers generally grow a surplus of these staple crops, more than they need for

their own tables, which are then sold for profit. The reliance on a single plant species, or mono-crop-

ping, can lead to decreased dietary diversity and carries the risk of malnutrition compared to a more

diverse diet. Other risks include crop failure associated with bad weather conditions or blight, leading

to famine and malnutrition, conditions that are common in agricultural communities.

A second hallmark of agriculture is the link between intensive farming and a rapid increase in human

population density. The archaeological record shows that human communities grew quickly around

the time agriculture was developing, but this raises an interesting question. Did the availability of more

food lead to increases in human population? Or, did pressure to provide for a growing population

spur humans to develop better farming techniques? This question has been debated for many years.

Ester Boserup, who studied the emergence of agriculture, concluded that growth in human populations

preceded the development of agriculture, forcing communities to develop innovations in technology.

However, the improved productive capabilities of agriculture came at a cost. People were able to pro-

duce more food with agriculture, but only by working harder and investing more in the maintenance

of the land. The life of a farmer involved more daily hours of work compared to the lifestyle of a for-

ager, so agricultural communities had an incentive to have larger families so that children could help

with farm labor. However, the presence of more children also meant more mouths to feed, increasing

the pressure to further expand agricultural production. In this way, agriculture and population growth

became a cycle.

A third characteristic of agriculture is the development of a division of labor, a system in which indi-

viduals in a society begin to specialize in certain roles or tasks. Building houses, for instance, becomes


a full-time job separate from farming. The division of labor was possible because higher yields from

agriculture meant that the quest for food no longer required everyone’s participation. This feature

of agriculture is what has allowed nonagricultural occupations such as scientists, religious specialists,

politicians, lawyers, and academics to emerge and flourish.

The emergence of specialized occupations and an agricultural system geared toward producing sur-

plus rather than subsistence changed the economics of human communities. The final characteristic

of agriculture is its tendency to create wealth differences. For anthropologists, agriculture is a critical

factor explaining the origins of social class and wealth inequality. The more complex an economic sys-

tem becomes, the more opportunities individuals or factions within the society have to manipulate the

economy for their own benefit. Who do you suppose provided the bulk of the labor power needed in

early agricultural communities? Elites found ways to pass this burden to others. Agricultural societies

were among the first to utilize enslaved and indentured labor.

Although the development of agriculture is generally regarded as a significant technological achieve-

ment that made our contemporary way of life possible, agriculture can also be viewed as a more omi-

nous development that forced us to invest more time and labor in our food supply while yielding a

lower quality of life.22 Agriculture created conditions that led to the expansion of social inequality, vio-

lent conflict between communities, and environmental degradation. For these reasons, some scientists

like Jared Diamond have argued that the invention of agriculture was humanity’s worst mistake.

The Origins of Agriculture The Origins of Agriculture

Some of the most contested and exciting questions in anthropology center on the origins of agriculture. How did humans come to adopt an
agricultural way of life? What came first, permanent settlements or agriculture? Did agriculture develop first in places with rich natural
resources, or in places where making a living from the land was more difficult? Why did agriculture arise nearly simultaneously in so many world
regions? These questions are primarily investigated by archaeologists, anthropologists who study cultures of the past by recovering the mater-
ial remains of their settlements. Archaeological evidence suggests that the transition to agriculture occurred over a long period of time, across
many generations.

Lewis Binford, an archaeologist who studied the origins of agriculture, observed that humans were living in permanent settlements before the
end of the last ice age 10,000–12,000 years ago. He believed that as human populations grew, some communities were forced into marginal
natural environments where it was difficult to get food from foraging, pastoralism, or horticulture. He argued that the pressure of living in these
“tension zones” led to agricultural innovation.23 Although inventing agriculture might seem like a challenge for humanity, the cultural anthropol-
ogist Leslie White pointed out that by this time in human history all communities had substantial practical knowledge of the natural world and
the plant and animal species they depended on for survival. “The cultivation of plants required no new facts or knowledge. Agriculture was sim-
ply a new kind of relationship between man—or more properly, woman—and plants.”24 By moving plants into new environments and controlling
their growth, people were able to ensure a better food supply.

This may explain why domestication arose, but why did it take so long for humans to develop agriculture? Why did many societies all over the
world develop agriculture nearly simultaneously? One possible answer is found in the climate change that followed the end of the last ice age.
Warming temperatures and shifting environmental zones led to the extinction of the megafauna human hunters had been relying upon such as
musk ox, woolly mammoth and woolly rhinoceros, and giant deer. Many animals once preyed on these species, such as the cave lion and spot-
ted hyena, but humans may have adapted culturally by reorienting their diets toward domesticated plant and animal species.

There are some other interesting theories about how and why agriculture developed. Brian Hayden, an archaeologist specializing in political
ecology, the use of resources to achieve political goals, has suggested that agriculture arose as some members of society began to accumulate
resources in order to sponsor feasts and give gifts designed to influence others. This “feasting theory” suggests that agriculture was not a
response to the necessities of survival, but part of a quest for power among some members of society.25 This model is intriguing because it
explains why some of the earliest domesticates such as chili peppers and avocados are not staple foods and are not even particularly nutritious.
In fact, many of the earliest plants cultivated were not intended to produce food for meals, but rather to produce ingredients for alcoholic bever-

For example, the wild ancestor of corn, a plant called teosinte, has an edible “ear” so small that it would have cost more calories to chew than
the nutrition it provided. This led some archaeologists to theorize that it was in fact the sweetness in the stalk of the plant that farmers wanted
to utilize to ferment a corn-based alcoholic beverage still consumed in many parts of Central America called chicha. It might have been that only


after years of cultivating the crop for its stalk that farmers found uses for the ear, which later was selectively bred to grow to the sizes we are
familiar with today.

Figure 8: Domestication involves the manipulation of plant and animal species to promote characteristics that are useful to the gardeners, such as the size. The evolution of the modern
corn from the ancestral teosinte followed selective breeding practices of farmers in the Americas.


“We can indeed eliminate the scourge of hunger in our lifetime. We must be the Zero Hunger generation.”

– José Graziano da Silva, Director General of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United

Nations 26

Despite agriculture’s tremendous productivity, food shortages, malnutrition, and famines are com-

mon around the world. How can this be? Many people assume that the world’s agricultural systems are

not capable of producing enough food for everyone, but this is incorrect. Evidence from agricultural

research demonstrates that there is enough worldwide agricultural capacity to feed everyone on the

planet.27 The problem is that this capacity is unevenly distributed. Some countries produce much more

food than they need, and others much less. In addition, distribution systems are inefficient and much

food is lost to waste or spoilage. It is also true that in an agricultural economy food costs money, and

worldwide many people who are starving or undernourished lack food because they cannot pay for it,

not because food itself is unavailable.

Let’s return for a moment to the concept of meals and where our food actually comes from. Walking

down the aisles of our local grocery store, we are surrounded by products that come from far away:

apples from Chile, coffee from Guatemala, beans from India. This is evidence that our economy is orga-

nized around what anthropologists refer to as a world system, a complex web through which goods


circulate around the globe. In the world system, complex chains of distribution separate the producers

of goods from the consumers. Agricultural products travel long distances from their points of origin to

reach consumers in the grocery store, passing through many hands along the way. The series of steps a

food like apples or coffee takes from the field to the store is known as a commodity chain.

Figure 9: Links in the Commodity Chain for Coffee: As the coffee changes hands from the growers, to
the exporters, to the importers, and then to the retail distributors, the value of the coffee increases.
Consider the differences in wage between these workers.

The commodity chain for agricultural products begins in the farms where plant and animal foods are

produced. Farmers generally do not sell their produce directly to consumers, but instead sell to large

food processors that refine the food into a more usable form. Coffee beans, for instance, must be roasted

before they can be sold. Following processing, food moves to wholesalers who will package it for sale

to retail establishments like grocery stores. As foods move through the commodity chain, they become

more valuable. Coffee beans harvested fresh from the field are worth $1.40 per pound to the farmer, but

sell for $10–$20 at Starbucks.28

The fact that food is more valuable at the end of the commodity chain than at the beginning has sev-

eral consequences for human communities. The most obvious of these is the reality that farming is not a

particularly lucrative occupation, particularly for small-scale farmers in developing countries. Though

their labor makes profit for others, these farmers see the lowest financial returns. Another effect of

global commodity chains is that food moves very far from its point of origin. For wealthy people, this

means having access to a variety of foods in the grocery store, including things like strawberries or

mangos in the middle of winter, but in order to serve markets in wealthy countries, food is diverted

away from the locales where it is grown. When quinoa, a high-protein grain grown in Bolivia, became

popular with health enthusiasts in wealthy countries, the price of this food more than tripled. Local

populations began to export their quinoa crop rather than eating it, replacing this nutritious traditional

food with white bread and Coca-Cola, which were much cheaper, but contributed to increased rates

of obesity and diabetes.29 The global travels of the food supply have also affected social relations that


were once strengthened by participation in food growing and sharing. Distance and competition have

replaced these communal experiences. Many people yearn for more connection with their food, a sen-

timent that fuels things like “foodie culture,” farm-to-table restaurants, and farmer’s markets.


This chapter began with a consideration of meals, but revealed that each individual meal is part of a

diet generated through a particular subsistence system. Many of our daily experiences, including our

attitudes, skills, and relationships with others, are influenced by our subsistence system. Knowing that

the Earth has been transformed for thousands of years by human subsistence activities, we must also

consider the ways in which our future will be shaped by the present. Are we managing our resources in

a sustainable way? How will we continue to feed growing populations in the future? Think about it next

time you sit down to eat a meal.

Discussion Questions Discussion Questions

1. A hallmark of agriculture is the separation of food production from food consumption; many people know almost nothing about
where their food has come from. How does this lack of knowledge affect the food choices people make? How useful are efforts
to change food labels to notify shoppers about the use of farming techniques such as genetic modification or organic growing for
consumers? What other steps could be taken to make people more knowledgeable about the journey that food takes from farm to

2. The global commodity chains that bring food from many countries to grocery stores in the United States give wealthy consumers
a great variety of food choices, but the farmers at the beginning of the commodity chain earn very little money. What kinds of
solutions might help reduce the concentration of wealth at the end of the commodity chain?

3. Mono-cropping is a feature of industrial food production and has the benefit of producing staple foods like wheat and corn in vast
quantities, but mono-cropping makes our diet less diverse. Are the effects of agricultural mono-cropping reflected in your own
everyday diet? How many different plant foods do you eat on a regular basis? How difficult would it be for you to obtain a more
diverse diet by shopping in the same places you shop now?


Agriculture: the cultivation of domesticated plants and animals using technologies that allow for inten-

sive use of the land.

Broad spectrum diet: a diet based on a wide range of food resources.

Built environment: spaces that are human-made, including cultivated land as well as buildings.

Carrying capacity: a measurement of the number of calories that can be extracted from a particular

unit of land in order to support a human population.

Commodity chain: the series of steps a food takes from location where it is produced to the store where

it is sold to consumers.

Delayed return system: techniques for obtaining food that require an investment of work over a period

of time before the food becomes available for consumption. Farming is a delayed return system due

to the passage of time between planting and harvest. The opposite is an immediate return system in

which the food acquired can be immediately consumed. Foraging is an immediate return system.


Domestic economy: the work associated with obtaining food for a family or household.

Foodways: the cultural norms and attitudes surrounding food and eating.

Foraging: a subsistence system that relies on wild plant and animal food resources. This system is some-

times called “hunting and gathering.”

Historical ecology: the study of how human cultures have developed over time as a result of interac-

tions with the environment.

Horticulture: a subsistence system based on the small-scale cultivation of crops intended primarily for

the direct consumption of the household or immediate community.

Modes of subsistence: the techniques used by the members of a society to obtain food. Anthropologists

classify subsistence into four broad categories: foraging, pastoralism, horticulture, and agriculture.

Mono-cropping: the reliance on a single plant species as a food source. Mono-cropping leads to

decreased dietary diversity and carries the risk of malnutrition compared to a more diverse diet.

Neolithic Revolution: a period of rapid innovation in subsistence technologies that began 10,000 years

ago and led to the emergence of agriculture. Neolithic means “new stone age,” a name referring to the

stone tools produced during this time period.

Pastoralism: a subsistence system in which people raise herds of domesticated livestock.

Staple crops: foods that form the backbone of the subsistence system by providing the majority of the

calories a society consumes.

Subsistence system: the set of skills, practices, and technologies used by members of a society to

acquire and distribute food.

World system: a complex economic system through which goods circulate around the globe. The world

system for food is characterized by a separation of the producers of goods from the consumers.


Isaac Shearn earned his PhD in 2014 at the University of Florida and is an

adjunct professor at the Community College of Baltimore County. His work focuses on the archaeology

and ethnohistory of the Caribbean and South America, with a focus on public archaeology, developing

inclusive and participatory methods. His ongoing research in Dominica allows him to pursue his second

major passion in life besides archaeology: music. He has played drums for a Dominican reggae band

since 2010.


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1. Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population (London: J. Johnson, 1798), 4.

2. Ester Boserup, The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change Under Population Pressure

(Rutgers, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2005).

3. Richard B. Lee, “What Hunters Do for a Living, or, How to Make Out on Scarce Resources,” in Man the Hunter,

ed. Richard Lee and Irven DeVore (Chicago: Aldine, 1968), 33.

4. Maurizio G.Paoletti, E. Buscardo, DJ Vanderjagt, A Pastuszyn, L Pizzoferrato, YS Huang, et al., “Nutrient Con-

tent of Earthworms Consumed by Ye’Kuana Amerindians of the Alto Orinoco of Venezuela,” Proceedings of the

Royal Society: Biological Sciences 270 (2003): 249-257.

5. Kristen Hawkes, Kim Hill and James F. O’Connell, “Why Hunters Gather: Optimal Foraging and the Aché of

Eastern Paraguay,” American Ethnologist 9 (1982):379-398.

6. Richard Lee, The !Kung San: Men, Women, and Work in a Foraging Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,


7. For more information about intergenerational dynamics among foragers see Kathryn Keith “Childhood Learn-

ing and the Distribution of Knowledge in Foraging Societies,” Archaeological Papers of the American Anthropological

Association 15 (2005): 27-40 and Harriet G. Rosenberg, “Complaint Discourse, Aging, and Caregiving among the

!Kung San of Botswana,” in The Cultural Context of Aging, ed. Jay Sokolovsky (New York: Bergin and Garvey,

1990)19-41. The quotation is from Rosenberg page 29.

8. For a discussion of generosity and sharing in foraging communities see Lorna Marshall, “Sharing, Talking, and

Giving: Relief of Social Tensions among ǃKung Bushmen,” Africa: Journal of the International African Insti-

tute31(1961):231-249 and Lester Hiatt, “Traditional Attitudes to Land Resources,” in Aboriginal Sites, Rites and

Resource Development, ed. R. M. Berndt (Perth: University of Western Australia Press. 1982) 13-26.

9. Richard B. Lee and Irven DeVore, eds. Man the Hunter (New York: Aldine, 1968).

10. Marshall Sahlins, “The Original Affluent Society,” in Stone Age Economics, ed. Marshall Sahlins (London: Tavis-

tock, 1972) 1-39.

11. Kristen Hawkes and James F. O’Connell, “Affluent Hunters? Some Comments in Light of the Alyawara Case,”

American Anthropologist 83(1981): 622-626.

12. See for example Robert J. Gordon, The Bushman Myth: The Making of a Namibian Underclass (Boulder, CO: West-

view Press, 2000).

13. Gustavo Politis, Nukak: Ethnoarchaeology of an Amazonian People (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2007).

14. Stuart J. Fiedel, “Man’s Best Friend — Mammoth’s Worst Enemy? A Speculative Essay on the Role of Dogs in

Paleoindian Colonization and Megafaunal Extinction,” World Archaeology 37 (2005): 11-25.

15. Melanie Wallace and Sanford Low, Maasai Women, Film, Produced by Michael Ambrosino (1980, Watertown:

CT: Documentary Educational Resources).

16. Melissa Llewellyn-Davies, “Two Contexts of Solidarity,” in Women United, Women Divided: Comparative Studies of

Ten Contemporary Cultures, ed. Patricia Caplan and Janet M. Bujra (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press

1979), 208.

17. Ibid., 234.

18. Fred Nelson, “Natural Conservationists? Evaluating the Impact of Pastoralist Land Use Practices on Tanzania’s

Wildlife Economy,” Pastoralism: Research, Policy and Practice 2012.

19. R. F. Fortune, Sorcerers of Dobu: The Social Anthropology of the Dobu Islanders of the Western Pacific (London: G.

Routledge and Sons, 1963 [1932]),107-109.

20. For more information about the archaeological evidence for the timing of bean domestication, see Michael

Blake, John E. Clark, Barbara Voorhies, George Michaels, Michael W. Love, Mary E. Pye, Arthur A. Demarest,

and Barbara Arroyo, “Radiocarbon Chronology for the Late Archaic and Formative Periods on the Pacific Coast

of Southeastern Mesoamerica,” Ancient Mesoamerica 6 (1995):161–183. Another useful source is Lawrence

Kaplan and Thomas F. Lynch, “Phaseolus (Fabaceae) in Archaeology: AMS Radiocarbon Dates and their Signifi-

cance for Pre-Columbian Agriculture,” Economic Botany 53 no. 3(1999): 261-272. There is also interesting lin-

guistic evidence that the word for bean entered the Mayan language around 3400 BC. For more information, see

Cecil H Brown, “Prehistoric Chronology of the Common Bean in the New World: The Linguistic Evidence.”


American Anthropologist 108 no.3 (2006): 507-516

21. Jared Diamond, “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” Discover, May 1987, http://discover-

22. See for example Marshall Sahlins’ argument in Stone Age Economics (Chicago: Aldine Atherton, 1972).

23. Lewis Binford, “Post-Pleistocene Adaptations,” in New Perspectives in Archeology, ed. Sally and Lewis Binford,

313-41 (New York: Aldine, 1968).

24. Leslie White, The Evolution of Culture: The Development of Civilization to the Fall of Rome (New York: McGraw Hill,

1959), 284.

25. Brian Hayden, “The Proof is in the Pudding: Feasting and the Origins of Domestication,” Current Anthropology 50

(2009):597–601, 708–9.

26. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “World Hunger Falls to Under 800 Million, Eradica-

tion Possible,” May 27, 2015, accessed May 10, 2015,


27. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, The State of Food Insecurity in the World (Rome: FAO,


28. Information about the current prices paid to coffee farmers is available from the International Coffee Organiza-


29. This phenomenon has been observed in many countries. For an ethnographic analysis of the health effects of the

decline of traditional foods in Guatemala, see Emily Yates-Doerr, The Weight of Obesity: Hunger and Global Health

in Postwar Guatemala (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015).


    • Foraging
    • Horticulture
    • Pastoralism
    • Agriculture


Nina Brown, Thomas McIlwraith, Laura Tubelle de González

2020 American Anthropological Association
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ISBN Print: 978-1-931303-67-5
ISBN Digital: 978-1-931303-66-8

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(AAA). Please refer to the website for a complete table of contents and more information about the


Perspectives: An Open Introduction to Cultural Anthropology by Nina Brown, Thomas McIlwraith, Laura Tubelle de

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Learning Objectives Learning Objectives

• Define economic anthropology and identify ways in which economic anthropology differs from the field of Economics

• Describe the characteristics of the three modes of production: domestic production, tributary production, and capitalist

• Compare reciprocity, redistribution, and market modes of exchange.

• Assess the significance of general purpose money for economic exchange.

• Evaluate the ways in which commodities become personally and socially meaningful.

• Use a political economy perspective to assess examples of global economic inequality and structural violence.

One of the hallmarks of the human species is our flexibility: culture enables humans to thrive in

extreme artic and desert environments, to make our homes in cities and rural settings alike. Yet amidst

this great diversity there are also universals. For example, all humans, like all organisms, must eat. We all

must make our living in the world, whether we do so through foraging, farming, or factory work. At its

heart, economic anthropology is a study of livelihoods: how humans work to obtain the material neces-

sities such as food, clothing, and shelter that sustain our lives. Across time and space, different societies

have organized their economic lives in radically different ways. Economic anthropologists explore this

diversity, focusing on how people produce, exchange, and consume material objects and the role that

immaterial things such as labor, services, and knowledge play in our efforts to secure our livelihood.1

As humans, we all have the same basic needs, but understanding how and why we meet those needs—in

often shared but sometimes unique ways—is what shapes the field of economic anthropology.


Economic anthropology is always in dialogue (whether implicitly or explicitly) with the dis-

cipline of economics.2 However, there are several important differences between the two disciplines.

Perhaps most importantly, economic anthropology encompasses the production, exchange, consump-

tion, meaning, and uses of both material objects and immaterial services, whereas contemporary eco-

nomics focuses primarily on market exchanges. In addition, economic anthropologists dispute the idea

that all individual thoughts, choices, and behaviors can be understood through a narrow lens of ratio-

nal, self-interested decision-making. When asking why people choose to buy a new shirt rather than

shoes, anthropologists, and increasingly economists, look beyond the motives of Homo economicus to

determine how social, cultural, political, and institutional forces shape humans’ everyday decisions.3

As a discipline, economics studies the decisions made by people and businesses and how these deci-

sions interact in the marketplace. Economists’ models generally rest on several assumptions: that people

know what they want, that their economic choices express these wants, and that their wants are defined

by their culture. Economics is a normative theory because it specifies how people should act if they want

to make efficient economic decisions. In contrast, anthropology is a largely descriptive social science;

we analyze what people actually do and why they do it. Economic anthropologists do not necessarily

assume that people know what they want (or why they want it) or that they are free to act on their own

individual desires.

Rather than simply focusing on market exchanges and individual decision-making, anthropologists

consider three distinct phases of economic activity: production, exchange, and consumption. Produc-

tion involves transforming nature and raw materials into the material goods that are useful and/or

necessary for humans. Exchange involves how these goods are distributed among people. Finally, con-

sumption refers to how we use these material goods: for example, by eating food or constructing homes

out of bricks. This chapter explores each of these dimensions of economic life in detail, concluding with

an overview of how anthropologists understand and challenge the economic inequalities that structure

everyday life in the twenty-first century.


A key concept in anthropological studies of economic life is the mode of production, or the social

relations through which human labor is used to transform energy from nature using tools, skills, orga-

nization, and knowledge. This concept originated with anthropologist Eric Wolf, who was strongly

influenced by the social theorist Karl Marx. Marx argued that human consciousness is not determined

by our cosmologies or beliefs but instead by our most basic human activity: work. Wolf identified

three distinct modes of production in human history: domestic (kin-ordered), tributary, and capitalist.4

Domestic or kin-ordered production organizes work on the basis of family relations and does not nec-

essarily involve formal social domination, or the control of and power over other people. However,

power and authority may be exerted on specific groups based on age and gender. In the tributary mode

of production, the primary producer pays tribute in the form of material goods or labor to another indi-

vidual or group of individuals who controls production through political, religious, or military force.

The third mode, capitalism, is the one most familiar to us. The capitalist mode of production has three

central features: (1) private property is owned by members of the capitalist class; (2) workers sell their

labor power to the capitalists in order to survive; and (3) surpluses of wealth are produced, and these

surpluses are either kept as profit or reinvested in production in order to generate further surplus. As


we will see in the next section, Modes of Exchange, capitalism also links markets to trade and money in

very unique ways. First, though, we will take a closer look at each of the three modes of production

Domestic Production

The domestic, or kin-ordered, mode of production characterizes the lives of foragers and small-

scale subsistence farmers with social structures that are more egalitarian than those characterizing the

other modes of production (though these structures are still shaped by age- and gender-based forms

of inequality). In the domestic mode of production, labor is organized on the basis of kinship relations

(which is why this form of production is also known as kin-ordered). In southern Mexico and parts of

Central America, many indigenous people primarily make their living through small-scale subsistence

maize farming. Subsistence farmers produce food for their family’s own consumption (rather than to

sell). In this family production system, the men generally clear the fields and the whole family works

together to plant the seeds. Until the plants sprout, the children spend their days in the fields protect-

ing the newly planted crops. The men then weed the crops and harvest the corn cobs, and, finally, the

women work to dry the corn and remove the kernels from the cobs for storage. Over the course of the

year mothers and daughters typically grind the corn by hand using a metate, or grinding stone (or, if

they are lucky, they might have access to a mechanical grinder). Ultimately, the corn is used to make the

daily tortillas the family consumes at each meal. This example demonstrates how the domestic mode of

production organizes labor and daily activities within families according to age and gender.


Figure 1: Woman Grinding Corn with a Metate

Foraging societies are also characterized by (1) the collective ownership of the primary means of

production, (2) lower rates of social domination, and (3) sharing. For example, the Dobe Ju/’hoansi

(also known as the !Kung), a society of approximately 45,000 people living in the Kalahari Desert of

Botswana and Namibia, typically live in small groups consisting of siblings of both sexes, their spouses,

and children. They all live in a single camp and move together for part of the year. Typically women

collect plant foods and men hunt for meat. These resources are pooled within family groups and dis-

tributed within wider kin networks when necessary. However, women will also kill animals when the

opportunity presents itself, and men spend time collecting plant foods, even when hunting.

As discussed in the Marriage and Family chapter, kinship relations are determined by culture, not

biology. Interestingly, in addition to genealogical kinship, the Dobe Ju/’hoansi recognize kinship rela-

tions on the basis of gender-linked names; there are relatively few names, and in this society the pos-

session of common names trumps genealogical ties. This means that an individual would call anyone

with his father’s name “father.” The Dobe Ju/’hoansi have a third kinship system that is based on the

principle that an older person determines the kinship terms that will be used in relation with another

individual (so, for example, an elderly woman may refer to a young male as her nephew or grandson,

thus creating a kin relationship). The effect of these three simultaneous kinship systems is that virtually

everyone is kin in Ju/’hoansi society—those who are biologically related and those who are not. This

successfully expands the range of individuals with whom products of labor, such as meat from a kill,

must be shared.5 These beliefs and the behaviors they inspire reinforce key elements of the domestic

mode of production: collective ownership, low levels of social domination, and sharing.


Tributary Production

The tributary mode of production is found in social systems divided into classes of rulers and sub-

jects. Subjects, typically farmers and/or herders, produce for themselves and their families, but they also

give a proportion of their goods or labor to their rulers as tribute. The tributary mode of production

characterizes a variety of precapitalist, state-level societies found in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Amer-

icas. These societies share several common features: (1) the dominant units of production are commu-

nities organized around kinship relations; (2) the state’s society depends on the local communities, and

the tribute collected is used by the ruling class rather than exchanged or reinvested; (3) relationships

between producers and rulers are often conflictual; and (4) production is controlled politically rather

than through the direct control of the means of production. Some historic tributary systems, such as

those found in feudal Europe and medieval Japan, were loosely organized, whereas others, such as the

pre-contact Inca Empire and imperial China, were tightly managed.

In the Chinese imperial system, rulers not only demanded tribute in the form of material goods

but also organized large-scale production and state-organized projects such as irrigation, roads, and

flood control. In addition to accumulating agricultural surpluses, imperial officials also controlled

large industrial and commercial enterprises, acquiring necessary products, such as salt, porcelain, or

bricks, through nonmarket mechanisms. The rulers of most tributary systems were determined through

descent and/or military and political service. However, the 1,000-year imperial Chinese system (CE

960–1911) was unique in that new members were accepted based on their performance in examina-

tions that any male could take, even males of low status.6 Despite this exception, the Chinese imperial

system exhibits many hallmarks of the tributary mode of production, including the political control of

production and the collection of tribute to support state projects and the ruling classes.

Capitalist Production

The capitalist mode of production is the most recent. While many of us may find it difficult to con-

ceive of an alternative to capitalism, it has in fact only existed for a mere fraction of human history,

first originating with the North American and western European industrial revolution during the sev-

enteenth and eighteenth centuries. Capitalism is distinguished from the other two modes of production

as an economic system based on private property owned by a capitalist class. In the domestic and tribu-

tary modes of production, workers typically own their means of production (for example, the land they

farm). However, in the capitalist mode of production, workers typically do not own the factories they

work in or the businesses they work for, and so they sell their labor power to other people, the capi-

talists, in order to survive. By keeping wages low, capitalists are able to sell the products of the work-

ers’ labor for more than it costs to produce the products. This enables capitalists, or those who own

the means of production, to generate a surplus that is either kept as profit or reinvested in production

with the goal of generating additional surplus. Therefore, an important distinguishing feature of the

capitalist mode of production is that workers are separated from the means of production (for example,

from the factories they work in or the businesses they work for), whereas in the domestic and tribu-

tary modes workers are not separated from the means of production (they own their own land or they

have free access to hunting and foraging grounds). In the domestic and tributary modes of production,

workers also retain control over the goods they produce (or a portion of them), and they control their

own labor, deciding when and when not to work.7 However, this is not true within capitalism. A fac-


tory worker does not own the widget that she helps build in a factory, and she cannot decide when she

would like to show up at work each day.

Economic anthropologists stress that people and communities are differentially integrated into the

capitalist mode of production. For example, some subsistence farmers may also produce a small crop

of agricultural commodities in order to earn cash income to pay for necessities, such as machetes or

farm tools, that they cannot make themselves. Many of us have had “informal” jobs tending a neighbor’s

children or mowing someone’s lawn. Informal work such as this, where one does not work on a full-

time, contracted basis, is especially important in developing countries around the world where informal

employment comprises one-half to three-quarters of nonagricultural employment.8

Even in our own capitalist society, many of us regularly produce and exchange goods and services

outside of the so-called formal marketplace: baking zucchini bread for a cousin who shares her veg-

etable garden’s produce, for example, or buying fair-trade chocolate from a cooperative grocery store.

We might spend Sundays volunteering in a church’s nursery, or perhaps moonlighting as a server for

a friend’s catering business, working “under the table” for cash. Each of these examples highlights how

even in advanced capitalist societies, we engage in diverse economic practices every day. If, as some sug-

gest, economic anthropology is at its heart a search for alternatives to capitalism, it is useful to explore

the many diverse economies that are thriving alongside capitalist modes of production and exchange.9

Fair-Trade Coffee Farmers: 21st Century Peasants

Small-scale, semi-subsistence farmers make up the largest single group of people on the planet today.

Once known as peasants, these people pose an interesting conundrum to economic anthropologists

because they live their lives both inside and outside of global capitalism and state societies. These farm-

ers primarily use their own labor to grow the food their families eat. They might also produce some

type of commodity for sale. For example, many of the indigenous corn farmers in southern Mexico and

Central America discussed earlier also produce small amounts of coffee that they sell in order to earn

money to buy school supplies for their children, building supplies for their homes, clothing, and other

things that they cannot produce themselves.

There are between 20 and 25 million small farmers growing coffee in more than 50 countries around

the world. A portion of these small coffee farmers are organized into cooperatives in order to col-

lectively sell their coffee as fair-trade certified. Fair trade is a trading partnership, based on dialogue,

transparency, and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. According to Fairtrade Inter-

national, fair trade supports farmers and workers to combat poverty and strengthen their livelihoods

by establishing a minimum price for as many fair-trade products as possible; providing, on top of stable

prices, a fair-trade premium; improving the terms of trade for farmers by providing access to informa-

tion, clear contracts with pre-payments, access to markets and financing; and promoting better living

wages and working conditions.10 In order to certify their coffee, small farmers must belong to democ-

ratically run producers’ associations in which participation is open to all eligible growers, regardless of

ethnicity, gender, religion, or political affiliation.

To better understand how indigenous farmers practice kin-organized subsistence maize production

while simultaneously producing an agricultural commodity for global markets, I conducted long-term

research in a highland Guatemala community.11 In 1977 a small number of Tz’utujil Maya coffee farm-

ers formed a cooperative, La Voz Que Clama en el Desierto (A Voice Crying Out in the Wilderness), with

the goal of securing higher prices for their agricultural products and escaping the severe poverty they


struggled against on a daily basis. Since the early 1990s the group has produced high-quality organic

and fair-trade certified coffee for the U.S. market.

The farmers work tirelessly to ensure that their families have sufficient corn to eat and that their cof-

fee meets the cooperative’s high standards of quality. The members of La Voz refer to their coffee trees

as their “children” who they have lovingly tended for decades. High-quality, organic coffee production

is time consuming and arduous—it requires almost daily attention. During the coffee harvest between

December and March, wives, husbands, and children work together to pick the coffee cherries by hand

as they ripen and carry them to the wet mill each afternoon.

Figure 2: Sorting Coffee Beans

While these farmers are producing a product for the global market, it is not strictly a capitalist mode

of production. They own their own land and they sell the fruits of their labor for guaranteed prices.

They also work cooperatively with one another, pooling and exchanging their labor, in order to guar-

antee the smooth functioning of their organization. This cooperation, while essential, is hard work.

Because the fair-trade system does not rely on anonymous market exchanges, members of La Voz must

also dedicate time to nurturing their relationships with the coffee importers, roasters, advocates, and

consumers who support all their hard work through promotion and purchases. This means attending

receptions when buyers visit, dressing up in traditional clothing to pick coffee on film for marketing

materials, and putting up with questions from nosy anthropologists.

Because the coffee farmers also produce much of the food their families consume, they enjoy a great

deal of flexibility. In times of hardship, they can redirect their labor to other activities by intensify-

ing corn production, migrating in search of wage labor, or planting other crops. Their ultimate goal

is to maintain the family’s economic autonomy, which is rooted in ownership of the means of pro-

duction—in this case, their land. A close examination of these farmers’ lives reveals that they are not


relics of a precapitalist system. Instead, their economic activity is uniquely adapted to the contemporary

global economy in order to ensure their long-term survival.

Salaula in Zambia: The Informal Economy

The informal economy includes a diverse range of activities that are unregulated (and untaxed) by

the state: rickshaw pullers in Calcutta, street vendors in Mexico City, and scrap-metal recyclers in Lex-

ington, Kentucky, are all considered informal workers. Informal economies include people who are

informally self-employed and those working informally for other people’s enterprises. In some parts of

the world the informal economy is a significant source of income and revenue. In Sub-Saharan Africa,

for example, the informal economy generates nearly 40 percent as much revenue as that included in

the “official” gross domestic product.12 Consequently, the informal economy is of great interest to

economic anthropologists. However, the term “informal economy” is critiqued by some scholars since

often what we refer to as informal economies are actually quite formal and organized, even though this

organization is not regulated by the state and may be based on an internal logic that makes the most

sense to those who participate in the exchanges.

Karen Hansen provides an in-depth look at the lives of vendors in the salaula, the secondhand cloth-

ing markets in Zambia in southern Africa.13 Salaula, a term that literally means “to rummage through

a pile,” is an unusual industry that begins in many of our own homes. In today’s era of fast fashion in

which Americans buy more than 20 billion garments each year (that’s 68 garments per person!), many of

us regularly bag up our gently used, unfashionable clothing and drop it off at a nearby Goodwill shop.14

Only about half of these donated clothes actually end up in charity thrift stores. The rest are sold to

one of the nearly 300 firms that specialize in the global clothing recycling business. The textile recy-

cling firms sort the clothing by grades; the higher-quality items are sent to Central America, and the

lowest grades go to African and Asian countries. In Sub-Saharan Africa an estimated 50 percent of pur-

chased clothing consists of these secondhand imports, referred to by some consumers as “dead man’s

clothes” because of the belief that they come from the deceased.15 In Zambia the secondhand clothes

are imported in bulk by 40 wholesale firms that, in turn, sell the clothes to salaula traders. The traders

sell the clothes out of their homes and in large public markets.

Typically the people working as salaula traders have either never had formal-sector jobs or have lost

their jobs in the public or private sector. Often they start selling in order to accumulate money for

other activities or as a sideline business. Hansen found that there were slightly more female sellers and

that women were more likely to be single heads of households. Successful salaula trading requires busi-

ness acumen and practical skills. Flourishing traders cultivate their consumer knowledge, develop sales

strategies, and experiment with display and pricing. While salaula trading has relatively low barriers to

entry (one simply has to purchase a bale of clothing from a wholesale importer in order to get started),

in this informal market scale is important: salaula moves best when traders have a lot of it on offer.

Traders also have to understand the local cultural politics in order to successfully earn a living in this

sector. For example, salaula is different from used clothing from people someone knows. In fact, sec-

ondhand clothing with folds and wrinkles from the bale is often the most desirable because it is easily

identifiable as “genuine” salaula.16


Figure 3: Roadside Salaula Trader, Zambia

The global salaula commodity chain presents

an interesting example of how material goods

can flow in and out of capitalist modes of pro-

duction and exchange. For example, I might

buy a dress that was produced in a factory to

give (not sell!) to my young niece. After wear-

ing the dress for several months, Maddie will

probably outgrow it, and her Mom will drop it

off at the nearby Goodwill shop. There is a 50

percent chance that the dress will be sold by the

charity to a clothing recycler who will export it

to Zambia or a nearby country. From there the

dress will end up in a bale of clothing that is

purchased by a salaula trader in Lusaka. At this

point the dress enters the informal economy as

the salaula markets are unregulated and untaxed. A consumer might buy the dress and realize that it

does not quite fit her own daughter. She might then take it to her neighbor, who works informally as a

tailor, for alternations. Rather than paying her neighbor for the work on the dress, the consumer might

instead arrange to reciprocate at a later date by cleaning the tailor’s home. This single item of clothing

that has traveled the globe and moved in and out of formal and informal markets highlights how diverse

our economic lives really are, a theme that we will return to at the end of this chapter.


There are three distinct ways to integrate economic and social relations and distribute material

goods. Contemporary economics only studies the first, market exchange. Most economic models are

unable to explain the second two, reciprocity and redistribution, because they have different underlying

logics. Economic anthropology, on the other hand, provides rich and nuanced perspective into how

diverse modes of exchange shape, and are shaped by, everyday life across space and time. Anthropol-

ogists understand market exchange to be a form of trade that today most commonly involves general

purpose money, bargaining, and supply and demand price mechanisms. In contrast, reciprocity involves

the exchange of goods and services and is rooted in a mutual sense of obligation and identity. Anthro-

pologists have identified three distinct types of reciprocity, which we will explore shortly: generalized,

balanced, and negative.17 Finally, redistribution occurs when an authority of some type (a temple priest,

a chief, or even an institution such as the Internal Revenue Service) collects economic contributions

from all community members and then redistributes these back in the form of goods and services.

Redistribution requires centralized social organization, even if at a small scale (for example, within the

foraging societies discussed above). As we will see, various modes of exchange can and do coexist, even

within capitalism.


While early economic anthropology often seemed focused on detailed investigations of seemingly

exotic economic practices, anthropologists such as Bronislaw Malinowski and Marcel Mauss used


ethnographic research and findings to critique Western, capitalist economic systems. Today, many fol-

low in this tradition and some would agree with Keith Hart’s statement that economic anthropology “at

its best has always been a search for an alternative to capitalism.”18 Mauss, a French anthropologist, was

one of the first scholars to provide an in-depth exploration of reciprocity and the role that gifts play in

cultural systems around the world.19 Mauss asked why humans feel obliged to reciprocate when they

receive a gift. His answer was that giving and reciprocating gifts, whether these are material objects or

our time, creates links between the people involved.20

Over the past century, anthropologists have devoted considerable attention to the topic of reciproc-

ity. It is an attractive one because of the seemingly moral nature of gifts: many of us hope that humans

are not solely self-interested, antisocial economic actors. Gifts are about social relations, not just about

the gifts themselves; as we will see, giving a gift that contains a bit of oneself builds a social relationship

with the person who receives it.21 Studying reciprocity gives anthropologists unique insights into the

moral economy, or the processes through which customs, cultural values, beliefs, and social coercion

influence our economic behavior. The economy can be understood as a symbolic reflection of the cul-

tural order and the sense of right and wrong that people adhere to within that cultural order.22 This

means that economic behavior is a unique cultural practice, one that varies across time and space.

Generalized Reciprocity

Consider a young child. Friends and family members probably purchase numerous gifts for the child,

small and large. People give freely of their time: changing diapers, cooking meals, driving the child to

soccer practice, and tucking the child in at night. These myriad gifts of toys and time are not written

down; we do not keep a running tally of everything we give our children. However, as children grow

older they begin to reciprocate these gifts: mowing an elderly grandmother’s yard, cooking dinner for

a parent who has to work late, or buying an expensive gift for an older sibling. When we gift without

reckoning the exact value of the gift or expecting a specific thing in return we are practicing general-

ized reciprocity. This form of reciprocity occurs within the closest social relationships where exchange

happens so frequently that monitoring the value of each item or service given and received would be

impossible, and to do so would lead to tension and quite possibly the eventual dissolution of the rela-


However, generalized reciprocity is not necessarily limited to households. In my own suburban Ken-

tucky neighborhood we engage in many forms of generalized reciprocity. For example, we regularly

cook and deliver meals for our neighbors who have a new baby, a sick parent, or recently deceased rel-

ative. Similarly, at Halloween we give out handfuls of candy (sometimes spending $50 or more in the

process). I do not keep a close tally of which kid received which candy bar, nor do my young daugh-

ters pay close attention to which houses gave more or less desirable candy this year. In other cultures,

generalized reciprocity is the norm rather than the exception. Recall the Dobe Ju/’hoansi foragers who

live in the Kalahari Desert: they have a flexible and overlapping kinship system which ensures that the

products of their hunting and gathering are shared widely across the entire community. This general-

ized reciprocity reinforces the solidarity of the group; however, it also means that Dobe Ju/’hoansi have

very few individual possessions and generosity is a prized personality trait.

Balanced Reciprocity


Figure 4: Mwali from the Kula Exchange

Unlike generalized reciprocity, balanced reciprocity is more of a direct exchange in which some-

thing is traded or given with the expectation that something of equal value will be returned within a

specific time period. This form of reciprocity involves three distinct stages: the gift must be given, it has

to be received, and a reciprocal gift has to be returned. A key aspect of balanced reciprocity is that with-

out reciprocation within an appropriate time frame, the exchange system will falter and the social rela-

tionship might end. Balanced reciprocity generally occurs at a social level more distant than the family,

but it usually occurs among people who know each other. In other words, complete strangers would be

unlikely to engage in balanced reciprocity because they would not be able to trust the person to recip-

rocate within an acceptable period of time.

The Kula ring system of exchange found in the

Trobriand Islands in the South Pacific is one exam-

ple of balanced reciprocity. A Kula ring involves

the ceremonial exchange of shell and bead neck-

laces (soulava) for shell arm bands (mwali) between

trading partners living on different islands. The

arm bands and necklaces constantly circulate and

only have symbolic value, meaning they bring the

temporary owner honor and prestige but cannot

be bought or sold for money. Malinowski was the

first anthropologist to study the Kula ring, and he

found that although participants did not profit

materially from the exchange, it served several

important functions in Trobriand society.23

Because participants formed relationships with

trading participants on other islands, the Kula ring helped solidify alliances among tribes, and overseas

partners became allies in a land of danger and insecurity. Along with arm bands and necklaces, Kula

participants were also engaging in more mundane forms of trade, bartering from one island to another.

Additionally, songs, customs, and cultural influences also traveled along the Kula route. Finally,

although ownership of the arm bands and necklaces was always temporary (for eventually participants

are expected to gift the items to other partners in the ring), Kula participants took great pride and plea-

sure in the items they received. The Kula ring exhibits all the hallmarks of balanced reciprocity: neck-

laces are traded for armbands with the expectation that objects of equal value will be returned within a

specific time period.

The Work of Reciprocity at Christmas

How many of us give and receive gifts during the holiday season? Christmas is undeniably a religious

celebration, yet while nine in ten Americans say they celebrate Christmas, about half view it to be more

of a secular holiday. Perhaps this is why eight in ten non-Christians in the United States now celebrate

Christmas.24 How and why has this one date in the liturgical calendar come to be so central to U.S. cul-

ture and what does gift giving have to do with it? In 1865, Christmas was declared a national holiday;

just 25 years later, Ladies’ Home Journal was already complaining that the holiday had become overly

commercialized.25 A recent survey of U.S. citizens found that we continue to be frustrated with the

commercialization of the season: one-third say they dislike the materialism of the holidays, one-fifth


are unhappy with the expenses of the season, and one in ten dislikes holiday shopping in crowded malls

and stores.26

When asked what they like most about the holiday season, 70 percent of U.S. residents say spending

time with family and friends. This raises the question of how and why reciprocal gift giving has become

so central to the social relationships we hope to nurture at Christmas. The anthropologist James Car-

rier argues that the affectionate giving at the heart of modern Christmas is in fact a celebration of per-

sonal social relations. 27 Among our family members and closest friends this gift giving is generalized

and more about the expression of sentiment. When we exchange gifts with those outside this small cir-

cle it tends to be more balanced, and we expect some form of equivalent reciprocation. If I spend $50 on

a lavish gift for a friend, my feelings will undoubtedly be hurt when she reciprocates with a $5 gift card

to Starbucks.

Christmas shopping is arduous–we probably all know someone who heads to the stores at midnight

on Black Friday to get a jumpstart on their consumption. Throughout the month of December we com-

plain about how crowded the stores are and how tired we are of wrapping presents. Let’s face it: Christ-

mas is a lot of work! Recall how the reciprocity of the Kula ring served many functions in addition to

the simple exchange of symbolic arm bands and shell necklaces. Similarly, Christmas gift giving is about

more than exchanging commodities. In order to cement our social relationships we buy and wrap gifts

(even figuratively by placing a giant red bow on oversize items like a new bicycle) in order to symbol-

ically transform the impersonal commodities that populate our everyday lives into meaningful gifts.

The ritual of shopping, wrapping, giving, and receiving proves to us that we can create a sphere of love

and intimacy alongside the world of anonymous, monetary exchange. The ritualistic exchange of gifts

is accompanied by other traditions, such as the circulation of holiday cards that have no economic or

practical value, but instead are used to reinforce social relationships. When we view Christmas through

a moral economy lens, we come to understand how our economic behavior is shaped by our historical

customs, cultural values, beliefs, and even our need to maintain appearances. Christmas is hard work,

but with any luck we will reap the rewards of strong relational bonds.28

Negative Reciprocity

Unlike balanced and generalized reciprocity, negative reciprocity is an attempt to get something for

nothing. It is the most impersonal of the three forms of reciprocity and it commonly exists among peo-

ple who do not know each other well because close relationships are incompatible with attempts to take

advantage of other people. Gambling is a good example of negative reciprocity, and some would argue

that market exchange, in which one participant aims to buy low while the other aims to sell high, can

also be a form of negative reciprocity.

The emails always begin with a friendly salutation: “Dear Beloved Friend, I know this message will

come to you as surprised but permit me of my desire to go into business relationship with you.” The

introduction is often followed by a long involved story of deaths and unexpected inheritances: “I am

Miss Naomi Surugaba, a daughter to late Al-badari Surugaba of Libya whom was murdered during the

recent civil war in Libya in March 2011….my late Father came to Cotonou Benin republic with USD

4,200,000.00 (US$4.2M) which he deposited in a Bank here…for safe keeping. I am here seeking for an

avenue to transfer the fund to you….Please I will offer you 20% of the total sum for your assistance…..”29

The emails are crafted to invoke a sense of balanced reciprocity: the authors tell us how trustworthy

and esteemed we are and offer to give us a percentage of the money in exchange for our assistance.

However, most savvy recipients immediately recognize that these scams are in fact a form of negative


reciprocity since they know they will never actually receive the promised money and, in fact, will prob-

ably lose money if they give their bank account information to their correspondent.

The anthropologist Daniel Smith studied the motives and practices of Nigerian email scammers who

are responsible for approximately one-fifth of these types of emails that flood Western inboxes.30 He

found that 419 scams, as they are known in Nigeria (after the section of the criminal code outlawing

fraud), emerged in the largest African state (Nigeria has more than 130 million residents, nearly 70 per-

cent of whom live below the poverty line) in the late 1990s when there were few legitimate economic

opportunities for the large number of educated young people who had the English skills and techno-

logical expertise necessary for successful scams. Smith spoke with some of the Nigerians sending these

emails and found that they dreamed of a big payoff someday. They reportedly felt bad for people who

were duped, but said that if Americans were greedy enough to fall for it they got what they deserved.

The typical email correspondence always emphasizes the urgency, confidentiality, and reciprocity of

the proposed arrangement. Smith argues that the 419 scams mimic long-standing cultural practices

around kinship and patronage relations. While clearly 419 scammers are practicing negative reciprocity

by trying to get something for nothing (unfortunately we will never receive the 20 percent of the $4.2

million that Miss Naomi Surugaba promised us), many in the United States continue to be lured in by

the veneer of balanced reciprocity. The FBI receives an estimated 4,000 complaints about advance fee

scams each year, and annual victim losses total over $55 million.31


Redistribution is the accumulation of goods or labor by a particular person or institution for the

purpose of dispersal at a later date. Redistribution is found in all societies. For example, within house-

holds we pool our labor and resources, yet we rarely distribute these outside of our family. For redis-

tribution to become a central economic process, a society must have a centralized political apparatus to

coordinate and enforce the practice.

Redistribution can occur alongside other forms of exchange. For example, in the United States every-

one who works in the formal sector pays federal taxes to the Internal Revenue Service. During the 2015

fiscal year the IRS collected $3.3 trillion in federal revenue. It processed 243 million returns, and 119

million of these resulted in a tax refund. In total, $403.3 billion tax dollars were redistributed by this

central political apparatus.32 Even if I did not receive a cash refund from the IRS, I still benefited from

the redistribution in the form of federal services and infrastructure.

Sometimes economic practices that appear to be merely reciprocal gift exchanges are revealed to be

forms of redistribution after closer inspection. The potlatch system of the Native American groups liv-

ing in the United States and Canadian northwestern coastal area was long understood as an example

of functional gift giving. Traditionally, two groups of clans would perform highly ritualized exchanges

of food, blankets, and ritual objects. The system produced status and prestige among participants: by

giving away more goods than another person, a chief could build his reputation and gain new respect

within the community. After contact with settlers, the excessive gift giving during potlatches escalated

to the point that early anthropologists described it as a “war of property.”33

Later anthropological studies of the potlatch revealed that rather than wasting, burning, or giving

away their property to display their wealth, the groups were actually giving away goods that other

groups could use and then waiting for a later potlatch when they would receive things not available in

their own region. This was important because the availability of food hunted, fished, and foraged by

native communities could be highly variable. The anthropologist Stuart Piddocke found that the pot-


latch primarily served a livelihood function by ensuring the redistribution of goods between groups

with surpluses and those with deficits.34


The third way that societies distribute goods and services is through market exchange. Markets are

social institutions with prices or exchange equivalencies. Markets do not necessarily have to be local-

ized in a geographic place (e.g., a marketplace), but they cannot exist without institutions to govern the

exchanges. Market and reciprocal exchange appear to share similar features: one person gives some-

thing and the other receives something. A key distinction between the two is that market exchanges

are regulated by supply and demand mechanisms. The forces of supply and demand can create risk for

people living in societies that largely distribute goods through market exchange. If we lose our jobs, we

may not be able to buy food for our families. In contrast, if a member of a Dobe Ju/’hoansi community

is hurt and unable to gather foods today, she will continue to eat as a result of generalized reciprocal


Market exchanges are based on transactions, or changes in the status of a good or service between

people, such as a sale. While market exchange is generally less personal than reciprocal exchange, per-

sonalized transactions between people who have a relationship that endures beyond a single exchange

do exist. Atomized transactions are impersonal ones between people who have no relationship with

each other beyond the short term of the exchange. These are generally short-run, closed-ended transac-

tions with few implications for the future. In contrast, personalized transactions occur between people

who have a relationship that endures past the exchange and might include both social and economic ele-

ments. The transactors are embedded in networks of social relations and might even have knowledge of

the other’s personality, family, or personal circumstances that helps them trust that the exchange will be

satisfactory. Economic exchanges within families, for example when a child begins to work for a family

business, are extreme examples of personalized market exchange.

To better understand the differences between transactions between relative strangers and those that

are more personalized, consider the different options one has for a haircut: a person can stop by a chain

salon such as Great Clips and leave twenty minutes later after spending $15 to have his hair trimmed

by someone he has never met before, or he can develop an ongoing relationship with a hair stylist or

barber he regularly visits. These appointments may last an hour or even longer, and he and his stylist

probably chat about each other’s lives, the weather, or politics. At Christmas he may even bring a small

gift or give an extra tip. He trusts his stylist to cut his hair the way he likes it because of their long his-

tory of personalized transactions.

Maine Lobster Markets

To better understand the nature of market transactions, anthropologist James Acheson studied the

economic lives of Maine fishermen and lobster dealers.35 The lobster market is highly sensitive to sup-

ply and demand: catch volumes and prices change radically over the course of the year. For example,

during the winter months, lobster catches are typically low because the animals are inactive and fisher-

men are reluctant to go out into the cold and stormy seas for small catches. Beginning in April, lobsters

become more active and, as the water warms, they migrate toward shore and catch volumes increase. In

May prices fall dramatically; supply is high but there are relatively few tourists and demand is low. In


June and July catch volume decreases again when lobsters molt and are difficult to catch, but demand

increases due to the large influx of tourists, which, in turn, leads to higher prices. In the fall, after the

tourists have left, catch volume increases again as a new class of recently molted lobsters become avail-

able to the fishermen. In other words, catch and price are inversely related: when the catch is lowest,

the price is highest, and when the catch is highest, the price is lowest.

The fishermen generally sell their lobsters to wholesalers and have very little idea where the lobsters

go, how many hands they pass through on their way to the consumer, how prices are set, or why they

vary over the course of the year. In other words, from the fisherman’s point of view the process is

shrouded in fog, mystery, and rumor. Acheson found that in order to manage the inherent risk posed by

this variable market, fishermen form long-term, personalized economic relationships with particular

dealers. The dealers’ goal is to ensure a large, steady supply of lobsters for as low a price as possible. In

order to do so, they make contracts with fishermen to always buy all of the lobster they have to sell no

matter how glutted the market might be. In exchange, the fishermen agree to sell their catches for the

going rate and forfeit the right to bargain over price. The dealers provide added incentives to the fisher-

men: for example, they will allow fishermen to use their dock at no cost and supply them with gasoline,

diesel fuel, paint, buoys, and gloves at cost or with only a small markup. They also often provide inter-

est-free loans to their fishermen for boats, equipment, and traps. In sum, the Maine fishermen and the

dealers have, over time, developed highly personalized exchange relations in order to manage the risky

lobster market. While these market exchanges last over many seasons and rely on a certain degree of

trust, neither the fishermen nor the dealers would characterize the relationship as reciprocal—they are

buying and selling lobster, not exchanging gifts.


While general purpose money is not a prerequisite for market exchanges, most commercial transac-

tions today do involve the exchange of money. In our own society, and in most parts of the world, gen-

eral purpose money can be exchanged for all manner of goods and services. General purpose money

serves as a medium of exchange, a tool for storing wealth, and as a way to assign interchangeable val-

ues. It reflects our ideas about the generalized interchangeability of all things—it makes products and

services from all over the world commensurable in terms of a single metric. In so doing, it increases

opportunities for unequal exchange.36 As we will see, different societies have attempted to challenge

this notion of interchangeability and the inequalities it can foster in different ways.

Tiv Spheres of Exchange

Prior to colonialism, the Tiv people in Nigeria had an economic system governed by a moral hier-

archy of values that challenged the idea that all objects can be made commensurable through general

purpose money. The anthropologists Paul and Laura Bohannan developed the theory of spheres of

exchange after recognizing that the Tiv had three distinct economic arenas and that each arena had its

own form of money.37 The subsistence sphere included locally produced foods (yams, grains, and veg-

etables), chickens, goats, and household utensils. The second sphere encompassed slaves, cattle, white

cloth, and metal bars. Finally, the third, most prestigious sphere was limited to marriageable females.

Excluded completely from the Tiv spheres of exchange were labor (because it was always reciprocally

exchanged) and land (which was not owned per se, but rather communally held within families).


The Tiv were able to convert their wealth upwards through the spheres of exchange. For example, a

Tiv man could trade a portion of his yam harvest for slaves that, in turn, could be given as bridewealth

for a marriageable female. However, it was considered immoral to convert wealth downwards: no hon-

orable man would exchange slaves or brass rods for food.38 The Bohannans found that this moral

economy quickly collapsed when it was incorporated into the contemporary realm of general purpose

money. When items in any of the three spheres could be exchanged for general purpose money, the Tiv

could no longer maintain separate categories of exchangeable items. The Bohannans concluded that the

moral meanings of money—in other words, how exchange is culturally conceived—can have very sig-

nificant material implications for people’s everyday lives.39

Local Currency Systems: Ithaca HOURS

While we may take our general purpose currency for granted, as the Tiv example demonstrates,

money is profoundly symbolic and political. Money is not only the measure of value but also the pur-

pose of much of our activity, and money shapes economic relations by creating inequalities and oblit-

erating qualitative differences.40 In other words, I might pay a babysitter $50 to watch my children for

the evening, and I might spend $50 on a new sweater the next day. While these two expenses are com-

mensurable through general purpose money, qualitatively they are in fact radically different in terms of

the sentiment I attach to each (and I would not ever try to pay my babysitter in sweaters).

Some communities explicitly acknowledge the political and symbolic components of money and

develop complementary currency systems with the goal of maximizing transactions in a geographically

bounded area, such as within a single city. The goal is to encourage people to connect more directly with

each other than they might do when shopping in corporate stores using general purpose money.41 For

example, the city of Ithaca, New York, promotes its local economy and community self-reliance through

the use of Ithaca HOURS.42 More than 900 participants accept Ithaca HOURS for goods and services,

and some local employers and employees even pay or receive partial wages in the complementary cur-

rency. The currency has been in circulation since 1991, and the system was incorporated as a nonprofit

organization in 1998. Today it is administered by a board of elected volunteers. Ithaca HOURS circulate

in denominations of two, one, one-half, one-fourth, one-eighth, and one-tenth HOURS ($20, $10, $5,

$2.50, $1.25, and $1, respectively). The HOURS are put into circulation through “disbursements” given

to registered organization members, through small interest-free loans to local businesses, and through

grants to community organizations. The name “HOURS” evokes the principle of labor exchange and

the idea that a unit of time is equal for everyone.43


Figure 5: An Ithaca Hour Note

The anthropologist Faidra Papavasiliou studied the impact of the Ithaca HOURS currency system.

She found that while the complementary currency does not necessarily create full economic equality, it

does create deeper connections among community members and local businesses, helping to demystify

and personalize exchange (much as we saw with the lobstermen and dealers).44 The Ithaca HOURS sys-

tem also offers important networking opportunities for locally owned businesses and, because it pro-

vides zero interest business loans, it serves as a form of security against economic crisis.45 Finally, the

Ithaca HOURS complementary currency system encourages community members to shop at locally

owned businesses. As we will see in the next section, where we choose to shop and what we choose to

buy forms a large part of our lives and cultural identity. The HOURS system demonstrates a relatively

successful approach to challenging the inequalities fostered by general purpose money.


Consumption refers to the process of buying, eating, or using a resource, food, commodity, or ser-

vice. Anthropologists understand consumption more specifically as the forms of behavior that connect

our economic activity with the cultural symbols that give our lives meaning.46 People’s consumption

patterns are a large part of their lives, and economic anthropologists explore why, how, and when peo-

ple consume what they do. The answers to these questions lie in people’s ideologies and identities as

members of a social group; each culture is different and each consumes in its own way. Consumption

is always social even when it addresses physical needs. For example, all humans need to eat, but people

around the world have radically different ideas of what foods and flavors are most desirable and appro-


We use our material possessions to meet our needs (for example, we wear clothing to protect us

from the environment), regulate our social lives, and affirm the rightful order of things.47 Anthropol-

ogists understand that the commodities we buy are not just good for eating or shelter, they are good

for thinking: in acquiring and possessing particular goods, people make visible and stable the categories

of culture.48 For example, consumption helps us establish and defend differences among people and

occasions: I might wear a specific t-shirt and cap to a baseball game with friends in order to distinguish

myself as a fan of a particular team. In the process, I make myself easily identifiable within the larger fan


community. However, I probably would not wear this same outfit to a job interview because it would

be inappropriate for the occasion.

Economic anthropologists are also interested in why objects become status symbols and how these

come to be experienced as an aspect of the self.49 Objects have a “social life” during which they may pass

through various statuses: a silver cake server begins its life as a commodity for sale in a store. 50 How-

ever, imagine that someone’s great-grandmother used that server to cut the cake at her wedding, and it

became a cherished family heirloom passed down from one generation to the next. Unfortunately, the

server ended up in the hands of a cousin who did not feel a sentimental attachment to this object. She

sold it to a gold and silver broker for currency and it was transformed into an anonymous commodity.

That broker in turn sold it to a dealer who melted it down, turning the once cherished cake server back

into a raw material.

Transforming Barbie Dolls

We have already learned about the hard work that Americans devote to converting impersonal com-

modities into sentimental gifts at Christmastime with the goal of nourishing their closest social bonds.

Consumers in capitalist systems continuously attempt to reshape the meaning of the commodities that

businesses brand, package, and market to us.51 The anthropologist Elizabeth Chin conducted ethno-

graphic research among young African American children in a poor neighborhood of New Haven, Con-

necticut, exploring the intersection of consumption, inequality, and cultural identity.

Chin specifically looked at “ethnically correct” Barbie dolls, arguing that while they may represent

some progress in comparison to the past when only white Barbies were sold, they also reinforce out-

dated understandings of biological race and ethnicity. Rather than dismantling race and class bound-

aries, the “ethnic” dolls create segregated toy shelves that in fact mirror the segregation that young black

children experience in their schools and neighborhoods.

The young black girls that Chin researched were unable to afford these $20 brand-name dolls and

typically played with less expensive, generic Barbie dolls that were white.52 The girls used their imagi-

nations and worked to transform their dolls by giving them hairstyles like their own, braiding and curl-

ing the dolls’ long straight hair in order to integrate the dolls into their own worlds.53 A quick perusal

of the Internet reveals numerous tutorials and blogs devoted to black Barbie hairstyling, demonstrating

that the young New Haven girls are not the only ones working to transform these store-bought com-

modities in socially meaningful ways.54

Consumption in the Developing World

Consumption provides us with a window into globalization, which we will learn more about in

the Globalization chapter. Over the past several decades, as global capitalism expanded its reach into

developing countries around the world, many people fretted that the growing influx of Western prod-

ucts would lead to cultural homogeneity and even cultural imperialism. Some argued that with every

McDonald’s constructed, the values and beliefs of the West were being imposed on non-Western

societies. However, anthropologists have systematically challenged this thesis by providing a more

sophisticated understanding of local cultural contexts. They demonstrate that people do not become

Westernized simply by buying Western commodities, any more than I become somehow more Japanese

after eating at my favorite neighborhood hibachi restaurant. In fact, anthropological research shows


that Western commodities can sometimes lead to a resurgence of local identities and an affirmation of

local processes over global patterns.

The Children Cry for Bread

The anthropologist Mary Wesimantel researched how families adapt to changing economic circum-

stances, including the introduction of Western products into their indigenous community of Zum-

bagua, Ecuador. Once subsistence barley farmers, men from Zumbagua began to migrate to cities in

search of work while the women stayed home to care for the children and continue to farm barley

for home consumption. The men periodically returned home, bringing cash earnings and urban luxu-

ries such as bread. The children associated this bread with modernity and city life, and they preferred

to eat it rather than the traditional staple food of toasted ground barley, grown and cooked by their

mothers. The children “cried” for the bread their fathers brought home. Yet, their mothers resisted their

pleas and continued to feed them grains from their own fields because barley consumption was consid-

ered a core component of indigenous identity.55 This example illustrates the complex negotiations that

emerge within families and communities when they are increasingly integrated into a global economy

and exposed to Western goods.

Consumption, Status, and Recognition among the Elite in China

In other parts of the world, the consumption of Western goods can be used to cement social and eco-

nomic status within local networks. John Osburg studied the “new elite” in China, the class of entre-

preneurs who have successfully navigated the recent transitions in the Chinese economy since the early

1990s when private businesses and foreign investment began to steadily expand their reach in this com-

munist country.56 Osburg found that the new elite do not constitute a coherent class defined by income

level or occupation. Instead, they occupy an unstable and contested category and consequently rely on

the consumption of Western-style goods and services in order to stabilize their identities.

Osburg argues that the whole point of elite consumption in Chengdu, China, is to make one’s eco-

nomic, social, and cultural capital as transparent and legible as possible to the widest audience in order

to let everyone know one is wealthy and well connected. Consequently, the Chengdu elite favor easily

recognizable and pricey brand names. However, consumption is not simply an arena of status display.

Instead, Osburg shows how it is a form of social practice through which relationships with other elites

are forged: the shared consumption of conventional luxury objects like liquor and tobacco solidifies

relationships among the privileged.57

Commodities and Global Capitalism

In his 1967 speech “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded

us that all life is interrelated:

We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. . . Did

you ever stop to think that you can’t leave for your job in the morning without being dependent on most

of the world? You get up in the morning and reach over for the sponge, and that’s handed to you by a

Pacific Islander. You reach for a bar of soap, given to you at the hands of a Frenchman. And then you


go into the kitchen to drink your coffee for the morning, and that’s poured into your cup by a South

American. . . And before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half

the world.58

King’s words are even truer today than they were in the late 1960s. Due to the intensification of global

capitalism, the vast majority of the commodities we buy and the food we consume come to us from dis-

tant places; while such global supply chains are not new, they have become increasingly dense in an age

of container shipping and overnight air deliveries.

Recall that a commodity is any good that is produced for sale or exchange for other goods. However,

commodities are more than just a means to acquire general purpose money. They also embody social

relations of production, the identities of businesses, and particular geographic locales. Many economic

anthropologists today study global flows through the lens of a concrete substance that makes a circuit

through various locales, exploring the social lives of agrifood commodities such as mutton, coffee, sushi,

and sugar.59 In following these commodities along their supply chains, anthropologists highlight not

only relations of production but also the power of ideas, images, and noneconomic actors. These studies

of specific commodities are a powerful method to show how capitalism has grown, spread, and pene-

trated agrarian societies around the world.60

Darjeeling Tea

The anthropologist Sarah Besky researched Darjeeling tea production in India to better understand

how consumer desires are mapped onto distant locations.61 In India, tea plantation owners are attempt-

ing to reinvent their product for 21st century markets through the use of fair-trade certification

(discussed earlier in this chapter) and Geographical Indication Status (GI). GI is an international prop-

erty-rights system, regulated by the World Trade Organization, that legally protects the rights of people

in certain places to produce certain commodities. For example, bourbon must come from Kentucky,

Mezcal can only be produced in certain parts of Mexico, and sparkling wine can only be called cham-

pagne if it originated in France. Similarly, in order to legally be sold as “Darjeeling tea,” the tea leaves

must come from the Darjeeling district of the Indian state of West Bengal.

Figure 6: Tea Workers in Darjeeling, India

Besky explores how the meaning of Darjeeling tea is created through three interrelated processes: (1)

extensive marketing campaigns aimed at educating consumers about the unique Darjeeling taste, (2) the


application of international law to define the geographic borders within which Darjeeling tea can be

produced, and (3) the introduction of tea plantation-based tourism. What the Darjeeling label hides is

the fact that tea plantations are highly unequal systems with economic relationships that date back to

the colonial era: workers depend upon plantation owners not just for money but also for food, medical

care, schools, and housing. Even when we pay more for Darjeeling tea, the premium price is not always

returned to the workers in the form of higher wages. Besky’s research shows how capitalism and market

exchange shapes the daily lives of people around the world. The final section of this chapter explores the

ways in which economic anthropologists understand and question structural inequalities in the world



Humans are fundamentally social, and our culture is always shared and patterned: we live our lives in

groups. However, not all groups serve the needs of their members, and some people have more power

than others, meaning they can make the weak consent through threats and coercion. Within all societies

there are classes of people defined by the kinds of property they own and/or the kinds of work they

engage in.62 Beginning in the 1960s, an increasing number of anthropologists began to study the world

around them through the lens of political economy. This approach recognizes that the economy is cen-

tral to everyday life but contextualizes economic relations within state structures, political processes,

social structures, and cultural values.63 Some political economic anthropologists focus on how societies

and markets have historically evolved while others ask how individuals deal with the forces that oppress

them, focusing on historical legacies of social domination and marginalization. 64

Karl Marx famously wrote, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they

do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and

transmitted from the past.”65 In other words, while humans are inherently creative, our possibilities are

limited by the structural realities of our everyday lives.

Consider a typical college student. Is this student happy with the courses her department or college

is offering? Are there courses that she needs to graduate that are not being offered yet? She is free to

choose among the listed courses, but she cannot choose which courses are available. This depends on

factors beyond her control as a student: who is available to teach which topics or what the administra-

tion has decided is important enough to offer. So, her agency and ability to choose is highly constrained

by the structures in place. In the same way, political economies constrain people’s choices and define

the terms by which we must live. Importantly, it is not simply structures that determine our choices and

actions; these are also shaped by our community.

Just as our college student may come to think of the requirements she has to fulfill for her degree as

just the way it is (even if she does not want to take that theory course!), people come to think of their

available choices in everyday life as simply the natural order of things. However, the degree of agency

one has depends on the amount of power one has and the degree to which one understands the struc-

tural dimensions of one’s life. This focus on power and structural relations parallels an anthropological

understanding of culture as a holistic system: economic relations never exist by themselves, apart from

social and political institutions.

Structural Violence and the Politics of Aid in Haiti


Anthropologists interested in understanding economic inequalities often research forms of structural

violence present in the communities where they work.66 Structural violence is a form of violence in

which a social structure or institution harms people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs.

In other words, how political and economic forces structure risk for various forms of suffering within a

population. Structural violence can include things like infectious disease, hunger, and violence (torture,

rape, crime, etc.).

In the United States we tend to focus on individuals and personal experiences. A popular narrative

holds that if you work hard enough you can “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” in this country of

immigrants and economic opportunity. The converse of this ideology is victim blaming: the logic is that

if people are poor it is their own fault.67 However, studying structural violence helps us understand that

for some people there simply is no getting ahead and all one can hope for is survival.

The conditions of everyday life in Haiti, which only worsened after the 2010 earthquake, are a good

example of how structural violence limits individual opportunities. Haiti is the most unequal country

in Latin America and the Caribbean: the richest 20 percent of its population holds more than 64 per-

cent of its total wealth, while the poorest 20 percent hold barely one percent. The starkest contrast is

between the urban and rural areas: almost 70 percent of Haiti’s rural households are chronically poor

(vs. 20 percent in cities), meaning they survive on less than $2 a day and lack access to basic goods and

services.68 Haiti suffers from widespread unemployment and underemployment, and more than two-

thirds of people in the labor force do not have formal jobs. The population is not well educated, and

more than 40 percent of the population over the age of 15 is illiterate.69 According to the World Food

Programme, more than 100,000 Haitian children under the age of five suffer from acute malnutrition

and one in three children is stunted (or irreversibly short for their age). Only 50 percent of households

have access to safe water, and only 25 percent have adequate sanitation.70

On January 12, 2010, a devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck this highly unequal and impov-

erished nation, killing more than 160,000 people and displacing close to 1.5 million more. Because the

earthquake’s epicenter was near the capital city, the National Palace and the majority of Haiti’s govern-

mental offices were almost completely destroyed. The government lost an estimated 17 percent of its

workforce. Other vital infrastructure, such as hospitals, communication systems, and roads, was also

damaged, making it harder to respond to immediate needs after the quake.71

The world responded with one of its most generous outpourings of aid in recent history. By March

1, 2010, half of all U.S. citizens had donated a combined total of $1 billion for the relief effort (world-

wide $2.2 billion was raised), and on March 31, 2010 international agencies pledged $5.3 billion over

the next 18 months.72 The anthropologist Mark Schuller studied the aftermath of the earthquake and

the politics of humanitarianism in Haiti. He found that little of this aid ever reached Haiti’s most vul-

nerable people, the 1.5 million people living in the IDP (internally displaced persons) camps. Less than

one percent of the aid actually was given to the Haitian government. The largest single recipient was the

U.S. military (33 percent), and the majority of the aid was dispersed to foreign-run non-governmental

organizations (NGOs) working in Haiti.

Because so little of this aid reached the people on the ground who needed it most, seven months fol-

lowing the disaster 40 percent of the IDP camps did not have access to water, and 30 percent did not

have toilets of any kind. Only ten percent of families in the camps had a tent and the rest slept under

tarps or bedsheets. Only 20 percent of the camps had education, health care, or mental health facilities

on-site.73 Schuller argues that this failure constitutes a violation of the Haitian IDP’s human rights, and

it is linked to a long history of exploitative relations between Haiti and the rest of the world.

Haiti is the second oldest republic in the Western Hemisphere (after the United States), having

declared its independence from France in 1804. Years later, in order to earn diplomatic recognition


from the French government, Haiti agreed to pay financial reparations to the powerful nation from

1825 to 1947. In order to do so, Haiti was forced to take out large loans from U.S. and European banks

at high interest rates. During the twentieth century, the country suffered at the hands of brutal dicta-

torships, and its foreign debts continued to increase. Schuller argues that the world system continually

applied pressure to Haiti, draining its resources and forcing it into the debt bondage that kept it from

developing. In the process, this system contributed to the very surplus that allowed powerful Western

nations to develop.74

When the earthquake struck, Haiti’s economy already revolved around international aid and foreign

remittances sent by migrants (which represented approximately 25 percent of the gross domestic prod-

uct).75 Haiti had become a republic of NGOs that attract the nation’s most educated, talented workers

(because they can pay significantly higher wages than the national government, for example). Schuller

argues that the NGOs constitute a form of “trickle-down imperialism” as they reproduce the world sys-

tem.76 The relief money funneled through these organizations ended up supporting a new elite class

rather than the impoverished multitudes that so desperately need the assistance.


Anthropologists have identified forms of structural inequality in countless places around the world.

As we will learn in the Public Anthropology chapter, anthropology can be a powerful tool for addressing

the pressing social issues of our times. When anthropological research is presented in an accessible and

easily understood form, it can effectively encourage meaningful public conversations about questions

such as how to best disperse relief aid after natural disasters.

One of economic anthropology’s most important lessons is that multiple forms of economic produc-

tion and exchange structure our daily lives and social relationships. As we have seen throughout this

chapter, people simultaneously participate in both market and reciprocal exchanges on a regular basis.

For example, I may buy lunch for a friend today with the idea that she will return the favor next week

when she cooks me supper. Building on this anthropological idea of economic diversity, some scholars

argue that in order to address the economic inequalities surrounding us we should collectively work to

construct a community economy, or a space for economic decision-making that recognizes and nego-

tiates our interdependence with other humans, other species, and our environment. J. K. Gibson-Gra-

ham, Jenny Cameron, and Stephen Healy argue that in the process of recognizing and negotiating this

interdependence, we become a community.77

At the heart of the community economies framework is an understanding of economic diversity that

parallels anthropological perspectives. The economic iceberg is a visual that nicely illustrates this diver-

sity.78 Above the waterline are economic activities that are visible in mainstream economic accounts,

things like formal wage labor and shopping for groceries in a supermarket. Below the waterline we

find the wide range of people, places, and activities that contribute to our well-being. This conceptual

tool helps us to explore interrelationships that cannot be captured through mechanical market feedback


The most prevalent form of labor around the world is the unpaid work that is conducted within the

household, the family, and the neighborhood or wider community. When we include these activities in

our understanding of the diverse economy, we also reposition many people who may see themselves

(or are labeled by others) as unemployed or economically inactive subjects.80 When we highlight these

different kinds of labor and forms of compensation we expand the scope of economic identities that fall


outside the narrow range valued by market production and exchange (employer, employee, or entre-

preneur).81 Recognizing our mutual connections and the surplus possibilities in our own community is

an important first step toward building an alternative economy, one that privileges community spheres

rather than market spheres and supports equality over inequality. This also resonates with one of eco-

nomic anthropology’s central goals: searching for alternatives to the exploitative capitalist relations that

structure the daily lives of so many people around the world today. 82

Discussion Questions Discussion Questions

1. Why are the economic activities of people like the fair trade coffee farmers described in this chapter challenging to characterize?
What benefits do the coffee farmers hope to achieve by participating in a fair trade cooperative? Why would participating in the
global economy actually make these farming families more independent?

2. This chapter includes several examples of the ways in which economic production, consumption, and exchange link our lives to
those of people in other parts of the world. Thinking about your own daily economic activities, how is your lifestyle dependent on
people in other places? In what ways might your consumption choices be connected to global economic inequality?

3. General purpose money is used for most transactions in our society. How is the act of purchasing an object with money different
from trading or gift-giving in terms of the social and personal connections involved? Would an alternative like the Ithaca HOURS
system be beneficial to your community?

4. The Barbie doll is a product that represents rigid cultural ideas about race, but Elizabeth Chin discovered in her research that girls
who play with these dolls transform the dolls’ appearance and racial identity. What are some other examples of products that
people purchase and modify as a form of personal expression or social commentary?


Balanced reciprocity: the exchange of something with the expectation that something of equal value

will be returned within a specific time period.

Consumption: the process of buying, eating, or using a resource, food, commodity, or service.

Generalized reciprocity: giving without expecting a specific thing in return.

General purpose money: a medium of exchange that can be used in all economic transactions.

Homo economicus: a term used to describe a person who would make rational decisions in ways pre-

dicted by economic theories.

Means of production: the resources used to produce goods in a society such as land for farming or


Mode of production: the social relations through which human labor is used to transform energy from

nature using tools, skills, organization, and knowledge.

Negative reciprocity: an attempt to get something for nothing; exchange in which both parties try to

take advantage of the other.

Political economy: an approach in anthropology that investigates the historical evolution of economic

relationships as well as the contemporary political processes and social structures that contribute to

differences in income and wealth.

Redistribution: the accumulation of goods or labor by a particular person or institution for the pur-

pose of dispersal at a later date.

Structural violence: a form of violence in which a social structure or institution harms people by pre-


venting them from meeting their basic needs.

Subsistence farmers: people who raise plants and animals for their own consumption, but not for sale

to others.


Sarah Lyon is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of

Kentucky. Her work is situated at the juncture of development studies, economic anthropology and

food studies. She is particularly interested in how alternative food networks such as fair trade work to

create and sustain diverse economies in the United States and Latin America.


Acheson, James. The Lobster Gangs of Maine. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 1988.

Besky, Sarah. The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India. Berkeley:

University of California Press, 2014.

Bohannan, Paul and Laura Bohannan. Tiv Economy. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1968.

Carrier, James. Gifts and Commodities: Exchange and Western Capitalism Since 1700. New York: Routledge,


Chin, Elizabeth. Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture. Minneapolis: University

of Minnesota Press, 2001.

Gibson-Graham, J. K., Jenny Cameron, and Stephen Healy. Take Back the Economy: An Ethical Guide for

Transforming Our Communities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

Hansen, Karen. Salaula: The World of Secondhand Clothing and Zambia. Chicago: University of Chicago

Press, 2000.

Hart, Keith. “Money in Twentieth Century Anthropology.” In A Handbook of Economic Anthropology,

edited by James Carrier. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2012.

King, Martin Luther Jr. “A Christmas Sermon on Peace, December 24, 1967,”


Lyon, Sarah. Coffee and Community: Maya Farmers and Fair Trade Markets. Boulder: University Press of

Colorado, 2011.

Marx, Karl. “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.” In The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert

C. Tucker. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978[1852].

Mauss, Marcel. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. London: Routledge,



Osburg, John. Anxious Wealth: Money and Morality Among China’s New Rich. Stanford, CA: Stanford Uni-

versity Press, 2013.

Papavasiliou, Faidra. “Fair Money, Fair Trade: Tracing Alternative Consumption in a Local Currency

Economy.” In Fair Trade and Social Justice: Global Ethnographies, edited by Sarah Lyon and Mark

Moberg. New York: New York University Press, 2010.

Piddocke, Stuart. “The Potlatch System of the Southern Kwakiutl: A New Perspective,” Southwestern

Journal of Anthropology 21 (1965).

Schuller, Mark. “Haiti’s Disaster after the Disaster: the IDP Camps and Cholera,” Journal of Humanitarian

Assistance, December 10, 2013.

______. Killing with Kindness: Haiti, International Aid, and NGOs. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University

Press, 2012.

Smith, Daniel. A Culture of Corruption: Everyday Deception and Popular Discontent in Nigeria. Princeton,

NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.

Wesimantel, Mary. Food, Gender, and Poverty in the Ecuadorian Andes. Philadelphia: University of Penn-

sylvania Press, 1988.

Wolf, Eric. Europe and the People without History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.


1. James Carrier, “Introduction,” in A Handbook of Economic Anthropology, ed. James Carrier (Northampton, MA:

Edward Elgar, 2012), 4.

2. Richard Wilk and Lisa Cliggett, Economies and Cultures: Foundations of Economic Anthropology (Boulder, CO: West-

view Press, 2007), 37.

3. Carol Tarvis,“How Homo Economicus Went Extinct,” Wall Street Journal, May 15, 2015,


4. Eric Wolf, Europe and the People without History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982).

5. Richard Lee, The Dobe Ju/’hoansi (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 2013). See also, Thomas Patterson, “Dis-

tribution and Redistribution,” in A Handbook of Economic Anthropology, ed. James Carrier (Northampton, MA:

Edward Elgar, 2012).

6. Hill Gates, China’s Motor: A Thousand Years of Petty Capitalism (New York: Cornell University Press, 1996).

7. Thomas Patterson, “Distribution and Redistribution,” in A Handbook of Economic Anthropology, ed. James Carrier

(Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2012), 204.

8. Martha Alter Chen, “The Informal Economy in Comparative Perspective,” in A Handbook of Economic Anthropol-

ogy, ed. James Carrier (Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2012), 493.

9. Keith Hart, “Money in Twentieth Century Anthropology,” in A Handbook of Economic Anthropology, ed. James Car-

rier (Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2012).

10. See for more information.

11. Sarah Lyon, Coffee and Community: Maya Farmers and Fair Trade Markets (Boulder: University Press of Colorado,


12. Friedrich Schneider, Andreas Buehn, and Claudio E. Montenegro, “Shadow Economies from All Over the

World: New Estimates for 162 Countries from 1999 to 2007,” World Bank Policy Research Working Paper No. 5356,

July 2010.

13. Karen Hansen, Salaula: The World of Secondhand Clothing and Zambia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,


14. Elizabeth Cline, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion (New York: Portfolio, 2013).

15. Robyn Curnow and Teo Kermeliotis, “Is Your Old T-Shirt Hurting African Economies?” CNN, April 12, 2013,


16. Karen Hansen, Salaula.

17. Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics (Chicago: Aldine, 1972).

18. Keith Hart, “Money in Twentieth Century Anthropology,” 179.

19. Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies (London: Routledge, 1990[1925]).

20. Richard Wilk and Lisa Cliggett, Economies and Cultures: Foundations of Economic Anthropology, 158.

21. Ibid.,162.

22. Ibid.,120.

23. Bronislaw Malinowski, Argonauts of the Western Pacific (New York: Dutton, 1961[1922]).

24. Pew Research Center, “Celebrating Christmas and the Holidays Then and Now,” December 18, 2013.

25. James Carrier, Gifts and Commodities: Exchange and Western Capitalism since 1700 (New York: Routledge, 1995),


26. Pew Research Center, “Celebrating Christmas and the Holidays Then and Now.”

27. James Carrier, Gifts and Commodities.

28. Ibid., 178.

29. Erika Eichelberger, “What I Learned Hanging out with Nigerian Email Scammers,” Mother Jones, March 20, 2014.

30. Daniel Smith, A Culture of Corruption: Everyday Deception and Popular Discontent in Nigeria (Princeton, NJ: Prince-

ton University Press, 2007).

31. Erika Eichelberger, “What I Learned Hanging out with Nigerian Email Scammers.”

32. Internal Revenue Service, 2015 Data Book (Washington D.C. Internal Revenue Service, 2016).

33. Richard Wilk and Lisa Cliggett, Economies and Cultures,156.

34. Stuart Piddocke, “The Potlatch System of the Southern Kwakiutl: A New Perspective,” Southwestern Journal of

Anthropology 21 (1965).

35. James Acheson, The Lobster Gangs of Maine (Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 1988).

36. Alf Hornborg, “Learning from the Tiv: Why a Sustainable Economy Would Have to Be ‘Multicentric,’” Culture

and Agriculture 29 (2007): 64.

37. Paul Bohannan and Laura Bohannan, Tiv Economy (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1968).

38. Paul Bohannan, “Some Principles of Exchange and Investment among the Tiv,” American Anthropologist 57 (1955):


39. Ibid., 64.

40. Faidra Papavasiliou, “Fair Money, Fair Trade: Tracing Alternative Consumption in a Local Currency Economy,”

in Fair Trade and Social Justice: Global Ethnographies, ed. Sarah Lyon and Mark Moberg (New York: New York

University Press, 2010).

41. J. K. Gibson-Graham, Jenny Cameron, and Stephen Healy, Take Back the Economy: An Ethical Guide for Transform-

ing Our Communities (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

42. For more information, see

43. Faidra Papavasiliou, “Fair Money, Fair Trade: Tracing Alternative Consumption in a Local Currency Economy.”

44. Ibid.

45. Ibid., 216.

46. Rudi Colloredo-Mansfeld, “Consumption: From Cultural Theory to the Ethnography of Capitalism,” in Hand-

book of Sociocultural Anthropology, ed. James Carrier and Deborah Gewertz (New York: Berg Publishers, 2013),


47. Ibid.

48. Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood, A World of Goods: Toward an Anthropology of Consumption (New York: Basic

Books, 1979).

49. Colloredo-Mansfeld, “Consumption: From Cultural Theory to the Ethnography of Capitalism.”

50. Arjun Appadurai, The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University


Press, 1986).

51. Colloredo-Mansfeld, “Consumption: From Cultural Theory to the Ethnography of Capitalism,” 329.

52. See for instance,

53. Elizabeth Chin, Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture (Minneapolis: University of Min-

nesota Press, 2001).

54. For example,

55. Mary Wesimantel, Food, Gender, and Poverty in the Ecuadorian Andes (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania

Press, 1988).

56. John Osburg, Anxious Wealth: Money and Morality among China’s New Rich (Stanford, CA: Stanford University

Press, 2013).

57. Ibid., 121.

58. Martin Luther King, Jr., A Christmas Sermon on Peace, December 24, 1967,


59. Some examples of this literature include Deborah Gewertz and Frederick Errington, Cheap Meat: Flap Food

Nations in the Pacific Islands (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010); Sarah Lyon, Coffee and Community:

Maya Farmers and Fair Trade Markets (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2011); Theodore Bestor, Tsukiji: The

Fish Market at the Center of the World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004) and Sidney Mintz, Sweetness

and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin, 1985).

60. Colloredo-Mansfeld, “Consumption: From Cultural Theory to the Ethnography of Capitalism,” 326.

61. Sarah Besky, The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India (Berkeley: University

of California Press, 2014).

62. Wilk and Cliggett, Economies and Cultures: Foundations of Economic Anthropology, 84, 95.

63. Josiah Heyman, “Political Economy,” in Handbook of Sociocultural Anthropology, ed. James Carrier and Deborah

Gewertz (New York: Berg Publishers, 2013), 89.

64. The historical evolution of societies and markets is explored by Eric Wolf in Europe and the People without History

(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982). The legacies of social domination and marginalization are dis-

cussed by Philippe Bourgois in In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio (Cambridge: Cambridge University

Press, 1995).

65. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, in The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd Edition, ed. Robert C.

Tucker (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978[1852]).

66. Johan Galtung, “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research,” Journal of Peace Research 6 no. 3(1969): 167–191.

67. See Max Weber’s work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism available at http://xroads.vir-

68. “Living Conditions in Haiti’s Capital Improve, but Rural Communities Remain Very Poor,” World Bank, July 11,



69. “CIA Factbook: Haiti,”

70. “Ten Facts about Hunger in Haiti,”

71. Mark Schuller, “Haiti’s Disaster after the Disaster: the IDP Camps and Cholera,” Journal of Humanitarian Assis-

tance, December 10, 2013.

72. Ibid.

73. Ibid.

74. Mark Schuller, Killing with Kindness: Haiti, International Aid, and NGOs (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University

Press, 2012).

75. Terry Buss, Haiti in the Balance: Why Foreign Aid has Failed and What We Can Do about It (Washington D.C.: The

Brookings Institute, 2008).

76. Mark Schuller, Killing with Kindness.

77. J. K. Gibson-Graham, Jenny Cameron, and Stephen Healy, Take Back the Economy: An Ethical Guide for Transform-

ing Our Communities (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), xix.

78. Byrne, Ken, “Iceberg Image,”


79. Gibson-Graham, Cameron, and Healy, Take Back the Economy, 11.

80. J. K. Gibson-Graham, A Postcapitalist Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 62–63.

81. Ibid., 65.

82. Keith Hart, “Money in Twentieth Century Anthropology.”


    • Reciprocity
    • Generalized Reciprocity
    • Balanced Reciprocity
    • Redistribution
    • Markets
    • Money

1 Reprinted with permission from Man the Hunter, edited by Richard B. Lee and Irven
DeVore. Copyright © 1968 Aldine Publishing.


Article 5
The Hunters: Scarce Resources in the Kalahari1

Richard B. Lee

In this classic article Lee corrects the traditional view that hunting and
gathering people live on the edge of survival. His careful study of the
!Kung Bushmen (San) of the South African Kalahari Desert shows that
these people, though existing in a harsh environment, do not live short
and brutish lives. In fact, in the range of resources available to them, in
their diet and caloric intake, in their age distribution, in their amount of
leisure versus work time and in their overall security the !Kung compare
favorably with other, supposedly more advanced peoples.

[Until recently the] anthropological view of hunter-gatherer subsistence rest[ed] on two
questionable assumptions. First is the notion that these people are primarily dependent on the
hunting of game animals, and second is the assumption that their way of life is generally a
precarious and arduous struggle for existence….

Data on living hunter-gatherers show a radically different picture. We have learned that in
many societies, plant and marine resources are far more important than are game animals in the
diet. More important, it is becoming clear that, with a few conspicuous exceptions, the
hunter-gatherer subsistence base is at least routine and reliable and at best surprisingly abundant.
Anthropologists have consistently tended to underestimate the viability of even those “marginal
isolates” of hunting peoples that have been available to ethnographers.

The purpose of this paper is to analyze the food getting activities of one such “marginal”
people, the !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert. Three related questions are posed: How do the
Bushmen make a living? How easy or difficult is it for them to do this? What kinds of evidence are
necessary to measure and evaluate the precariousness or security of a way of life? And after the
relevant data are presented, two further questions are asked: What makes this security of life
possible? To what extent are the Bushmen typical of hunter-gatherers in general?

Bushman Subsistence

The !Kung Bushmen of Botswana are an apt case for analysis. They inhabit the semi-arid
northwest region of the Kalahari Desert. With only six to nine inches of rainfall per year, this is, by
any account, a marginal environment for human habitation. In fact, it is precisely the
unattractiveness of their homeland that has kept the !Kung isolated from extensive contact with
their agricultural and pastoral neighbors.

The Hunters: Scarce Resources in the Kalahari 31

Field work was carried out in the Dobe area, a line of eight permanent waterholes near the
South-West Africa border and 125 miles south of the Okavango River. The population of the Dobe
area consists of 466 Bushmen, including 379 permanent residents living in independent camps or
associated with Bantu cattle posts, as well as 87 seasonal visitors. The Bushmen share the area with
some 340 Bantu pastoralists largely of the Herero and Tswana tribes. The ethnographic present
refers to the period of field work: October, 1963 – January, 1965.

The Bushmen living in independent camps lack firearms, livestock, and agriculture. Apart
from occasional visits to the Herero for milk, these !Kung are entirely dependent upon hunting and
gathering for their subsistence. Politically they are under the nominal authority of the Tswana
headman, although they pay no taxes and receive very few government services. European
presence amounts to one overnight government patrol every six to eight weeks. Although
Dobe-area !Kung have had some contact with outsiders since the 1880s, the majority of them
continue to hunt and gather because there is no viable alternative locally available to them.

Each of the fourteen independent camps is associated with one of the permanent waterholes.
During the dry season (May-October) the entire population is clustered around these wells…. Two
wells had no camp resident and one large well supported five camps. The number of camps at each
well and the size of each camp changed frequently during the course of the year. The “camp” is
an open aggregate of cooperating persons which changes in size and composition from day to day.
Therefore, I have avoided the term “band” in describing the !Kung Bushman living groups.

Each waterhole has a hinterland lying within a six-mile radius which is regularly exploited for
vegetable and animal foods. These areas are not territories in the zoological sense, since they are
not defended against outsiders. Rather they constitute the resources that lie within a convenient
walking distance of a waterhole. The camp is a self-sufficient subsistence unit. The members move
out each day to hunt and gather, and return in the evening to pool the collected foods in such a
way that every person present receives an equitable share. Trade in foodstuffs between camps is
minimal; personnel do move freely from camp to camp, however. The net effect is of a population
constantly in motion. On the average, an individual spends a third of his time living only with
close relatives, a third visiting other camps, and a third entertaining visitors from other camps.

Because of the strong emphasis on sharing, and the frequency of movement, surplus
accumulation of storable plant foods and dried meat is kept to a minimum. There is rarely more
than two or three days’ supply of food on hand in a camp at any time. The result of this lack of
surplus is that a constant subsistence effort must be maintained throughout the year. Unlike
agriculturalists who work hard during the planting and harvesting seasons and undergo “seasonal
unemployment” for several months, the Bushmen hunter-gatherers collect food every third or
fourth day throughout the year….

Vegetable foods comprise from 60-80 per cent of the total diet by weight, and collecting
involves two or three days of work per woman per week. The men also collect plants and small
animals but their major contribution to the diet is the hunting of medium and large game. The men
are conscientious but not particularly successful hunters; although men’s and women’s work input
is roughly equivalent in terms of man-day of effort, the women provide two to three times as much
food by weight as the men….

For the greater part of the year, food is locally abundant and easily collected. It is only during
the end of the dry season in September and October, when desirable foods have been eaten out in

32 Richard B. Lee

the immediate vicinity of the waterholes that the people have to plan longer hikes of 10-15 miles
and carry their own water to those areas where the mongongo nut is still available. The important
point is that food is a constant, but distance required to reach food is a variable; it is short in the
summer, fall, and early winter, and reaches its maximum in the spring.

This analysis attempts to provide quantitative measures of subsistence status including data
on the following topics: abundance and variety of resources, diet selectivity, range size and
population density, the composition of the work force, the ratio of work to leisure time, and the
caloric and protein levels in the diet. The value of quantitative data is that they can be used
comparatively and also may be useful in archeological reconstruction. In addition, one can avoid
the pitfalls of subjective and qualitative impressions; for example, statements about food “anxiety”
have proven to be difficult to generalize across cultures.

Abundance and variety of resources. It is impossible to define “abundance” of resources
absolutely. However, one index of relative abundance is whether or not a population exhausts all
the food available from a given area. By this criterion, the habitat of the Dobe-area Bushmen is
abundant in naturally occurring foods. By far the most important food is the mongongo (mangetti)
nut (Ricinodendron rautanenii Schinz). Although tens of thousands of pounds of these nuts are
harvested and eaten each year, thousands more rot on the ground each year for want of picking.

The mongongo nut, because of its abundance and reliability, alone accounts for 50 per cent of
the vegetable diet by weight. In this respect it resembles a cultivated staple crop such as maize or
rice. Nutritionally it is even more remarkable, for it contains five times the calories and ten times
the proteins per cooked unit of the cereal crops. The average daily per-capita consumption of 300
nuts yields about 1,260 calories and 56 grams of protein. This modest portion, weighing only about
7.5 ounces, contains the caloric equivalent of 2.5 pounds of cooked rice and the protein equivalent
of 14 ounces of lean beef.

Furthermore the mongongo nut is drought resistant and it will still be abundant in the dry
years when cultivated crops may fail. The extremely hard outer shell protects the inner kernel from
rot and allows the nuts to be harvested for up to twelve months after they have fallen to the
ground. A diet based on mongongo nuts is in fact more reliable than one based on cultivated foods,
and it is not surprising, therefore, that when a Bushman was asked why he hadn’t taken to
agriculture he replied: “Why should we plant, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the

Apart from the mongongo, the Bushmen have available 84 other species of edible food plants,
including 29 species of fruits, berries, and melons and 30 species of roots and bulbs. The existence
of this variety allows for a wide range of alternatives in subsistence strategy. During the summer
months the Bushmen have no problem other than to choose among the tastiest and most easily
collected foods. Many species, which are quite edible but less attractive, are bypassed, so that
gathering never exhausts all the available plant foods of an area. During the dry season the diet
becomes much more eclectic and the many species of roots, bulbs, and edible resins make an
important contribution. It is this broad base that provides an essential margin of safety during the
end of the dry season when the mongongo nut forests are difficult to reach. In addition, it is likely
that these rarely utilized species provide important nutritional and mineral trace elements that may
be lacking in the more popular foods.

Diet selectivity. If the Bushmen were living close to the “starvation” level, then one would
expect them to exploit every available source of nutrition. That their life is well above this level is

The Hunters: Scarce Resources in the Kalahari 33

indicated by the data. [If] all the edible plant species are arranged in classes according to the
frequency with which they were observed to be eaten…there are some 85 species available, about
90 percent of the vegetable diet by weight is drawn from only 23 species. In other words, 75 percent
of the listed species provide only 10 percent of the food value.

In their meat-eating habits, the Bushmen show a similar selectivity. Of the 223 local species of
animals known and named by the Bushmen, 54 species are classified as edible, and of these only
17 species were hunted on a regular basis. Only a handful of the dozens of edible species of small
mammals, bird, reptiles, and insects that occur locally are regarded as food. Such animals as
rodents, snakes, lizards, termites, and grasshoppers, which in the literature are included in the
Bushman dietary, are despised by the Bushmen of the Dobe area.

Range size and population density. The necessity to travel long distances, the high frequency of
moves, and the maintenance of populations at low densities are also features commonly associated
with the hunting and gathering way of life. Density estimates for hunters in western North
America and Australia have ranged from 3 persons/square mile to as low as 1 person/100 square
miles. In 1963-65, the resident and visiting Bushmen were observed to utilize an area of about 1,000
square miles during the course of the annual round for an effective population density of 41
persons/100 square miles. Within this area, however, the amount of ground covered by members
of an individual camp was surprisingly small. A day’s round-trip of twelve miles serves to define
a “core” area six miles in radius surrounding each water point. By fanning out in all directions
from their well, the members of a camp can gain access to the food resources of well over 100
square miles of territory within a two-hour hike. Except for a few weeks each year, areas lying
beyond this six-mile radius are rarely utilized, even though they are no less rich in plants and game
than are the core areas.

Although the Bushmen move their camps frequently (five or six times a year) they do not move
them very far. A rainy season camp in the nut forests is rarely more than ten or twelve miles from
the home waterhole, and often new campsites are occupied only a few hundred yards away from
the previous one. By these criteria, the Bushmen do not lead a free-ranging nomadic way of life.
For example, they do not undertake long marches of 30 to 100 miles to get food, since this task can
be readily fulfilled within a day’s walk of home base. When such long marches do occur they are
invariably for visiting, trading, and marriage arrangements, and should not be confused with the
normal routine of subsistence.

Demographic factors. Another indicator of the harshness of a way of life is the age at which
people die. Ever since Hobbes characterized life in the state of nature as “nasty, brutish and short,”
the assumption has been that hunting and gathering is so rigorous that members of such societies
are rapidly worn out and meet an early death. Silberbauer, for example, says of the Gwi Bushmen
of the central Kalahari that “life expectancy…is difficult to calculate, but I do not believe that many
live beyond 45.” And Coon has said of hunters in general:

The practice of abandoning the hopelessly ill and aged has been observed in many parts
of the world. It is always done by people living in poor environments where it is necessary
to move about frequently to obtain food, where food is scarce, and transportation
difficult…. Among peoples who are forced to live in this way the oldest generation, the
generation of individuals who have passed their physical peak is reduced in numbers and

34 Richard B. Lee

influence. There is no body of elders to hand on tradition and control the affairs of younger
men and women, and no formal system of age grading.

The !Kung Bushmen of the Dobe area flatly contradict this view. In a total population of 466,
no fewer than 46 individuals (17 men and 29 women) were determined to be over 60 years of age,
a proportion that compares favorably to the percentage of elderly in industrialized populations.

The aged hold a respected position in Bushman society and are the effective leaders of the
camps. Senilicide is extremely rare. Long after their productive years have passed, the old people
are fed and cared for by their children and grandchildren. The blind, the senile, and the crippled
are respected for the special ritual and technical skills they possess….

Another significant feature of the composition of the work force is the late assumption of adult
responsibility by the adolescents. Young people are not expected to provide food regularly until
they are married. Girls typically marry between the ages of 15 and 20, and boys about five years
later, so that it is not unusual to find healthy, active teenagers visiting from camp to camp while
their older relatives provide food for them.

As a result, the people in the age group 20-60 support a surprisingly large percentage of
non-productive young and old people. About 40 per cent of the population in camps contribute
little to the food supplies. This allocation of work to young and middle-aged adults allows for a
relatively carefree childhood and adolescence and a relatively unstrenuous old age.

Leisure and work. Another important index of ease or difficulty of subsistence is the amount of
time devoted to the food quest. Hunting has usually been regarded by social scientists as a way of
life in which merely keeping alive is so formidable a task that members of such societies lack the
leisure time necessary to “build culture.” The !Kung Bushmen would appear to conform to the rule,
for as Lorna Marshall says:

It is vividly apparent that among the !Kung Bushmen, ethos, or “the spirit which actuates
manners and customs,” is survival. Their time and energies are almost wholly given to this
task, for life in their environment requires that they spend their days mainly in procuring

It is certainly true that getting food is the most important single activity in Bushman life.
However, this statement would apply equally well to small-scale agricultural and pastoral societies
too. How much time is actually devoted to the food quest is fortunately an empirical question. And
an analysis of the work effort of the Dobe Bushmen shows some unexpected results. From July 6
to August 2, 1964, I recorded all the daily activities of the Bushmen living at the Dobe waterhole.
Because of the coming and going of visitors, the camp population fluctuated in size day by day,
from a low of 23 to a high of 40, with a mean of 31.8 persons. Each day some of the adult members
of the camp went out to hunt and/or gather while others stayed home or went visiting. The daily
recording of all personnel on hand made it possible to calculate the number of man-days of work
as a percentage of total number of man-days of consumption.

Although the Bushmen do not organize their activities on the basis of a seven-day week, I have
divided the data this way to make them more intelligible. The work-week was calculated to show
how many days out of seven each adult spent in subsistence activities. Week II has been eliminated
from the totals since the investigator contributed food. In week I, the people spent an average of

The Hunters: Scarce Resources in the Kalahari 35

2.3 days in subsistence activities, in week III, 1.9 days, and in week IV, 3.2 days. In all, the adults
of the Dobe camp worked about two and a half days a week. Since the average working day was
about six hours long, the fact emerges that !Kung Bushmen of Dobe, despite their harsh
environment, devote from twelve to nineteen hours a week to getting food. Even the hardest
working individual in the camp, a man named …oma who went out hunting on sixteen of the 28
days, spent a maximum of 32 hours a week in the food quest.

Because the Bushmen do not amass a surplus of foods, there are no seasons of exceptionally
intensive activities such as planting and harvesting, and no seasons of unemployment. The level
of work observed is an accurate reflection of the effort required to meet the immediate caloric
needs of the group. This work diary covers the midwinter dry season, a period when food is
neither at its most plentiful nor at its scarcest levels, and the diary documents the transition from
better to worse conditions. During the fourth week the gatherers were making overnight trips to
camps in the mongongo nut forests seven to ten miles distant from the waterhole. These longer
trips account for the rise in the level of work, from twelve or thirteen to nineteen hours per week.

If food getting occupies such a small proportion of a Bushman’s waking hours, then how do
people allocate their time? A woman gathers on one day enough food to feed her family for three
days, and spends the rest of her time resting in camp, doing embroidery, visiting other camps, or
entertaining visitors from other camps. For each day at home, kitchen routines, such as cooking,
nut cracking, collecting firewood, and fetching water, occupy one to three hours of her time. This
rhythm of steady work and steady leisure is maintained throughout the year.

The hunters tend to work more frequently than the women, but their schedule is uneven. It is
not unusual for a man to hunt avidly for a week and then do nothing at all for two or three weeks.
Since hunting is an unpredictable business and subject to magical control, hunters sometimes
experience a run of bad luck and stop hunting for a month or longer. During these periods, visiting,
entertaining, and especially dancing are the primary activities of men. (Unlike the Hadza, gambling
is only a minor leisure activity.)

The trance-dance is the focus of Bushman ritual life; over 50 per cent of the men have trained
as trance-performers and regularly enter trance during the course of the all-night dances. At some
camps, trance-dances occur as frequently as two or three times a week and those who have entered
trances the night before rarely go out hunting the following day…. In a camp with five or more
hunters, there are usually two or three who are actively hunting and several others who are
inactive. The net effect is to phase the hunting and non-hunting so that a fairly steady supply of
meat is brought into camp.

Caloric returns. Is the modest work effort of the Bushmen sufficient to provide the calories
necessary to maintain the health of the population? Or have the !Kung, in common with some
agricultural peoples, adjusted to a permanently substandard nutritional level?

During my field work I did not encounter any cases of kwashiorkor, the most common
nutritional disease in the children of African agricultural societies. However, without medical
examinations, it is impossible to exclude the possibility that subclinical signs of malnutrition

Another measure of nutritional adequacy is the average consumption of calories and proteins
per person per day. The estimate for the Bushmen is based on observations of the weights of foods
of known composition that were brought into Dobe camp on each day of the study period. The
per-capita figure is obtained by dividing the total weight of foodstuffs by the total number of

36 Richard B. Lee

persons in the camp. These results are set out in detail elsewhere and can only be summarized
here. During the study period 410 pounds of meat were brought in by the hunters of the Dobe
camp, for a daily share of nine ounces of meat per person. About 700 pounds of vegetables were
gathered and consumed during the same period. Table 1 sets out the calories and proteins available
per capita in the !Kung Bushman dietary from meat, mongongo nuts, and other vegetable sources.

This output of 2,140 calories and 93.1 grams of protein per person per day may be compared
with the Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA) for persons of the small size and stature but
vigorous activity regime of the !Kung Bushmen. The RDA for Bushmen can be estimated at 1,975
calories and 60 grams of protein per person per day. Thus it is apparent that food output exceeds
energy requirements by 165 calories and 33 grams of protein. One can tentatively conclude that
even a modest subsistence effort of two or three days work per week is enough to provide an
adequate diet for the !Kung Bushmen.

The Security of Bushman Life

I have attempted to evaluate the subsistence base of one contemporary hunter-gatherer society
living in a marginal environment. The !Kung Bushmen have available to them some relatively
abundant high-quality foods, and they do not have to walk very far or work very hard to get them.
Furthermore this modest work effort provides sufficient calories to support not only active adults,
but also a large number of middle-aged and elderly people. The Bushmen do not have to press
their youngsters into the service of the food quest, nor do they have to dispose of the oldsters after
they have ceased to be productive.

Table 1. Caloric and protein levels in the !Kung Bushman dietary, July August, 1964

Class of Food

to Diet by


Per Capita

per person

per day


of Meat and


in Grams

in Grams

Meat 37 230 34.5 690 33

Mongongo nuts 33 210 56.7 1,260

67Other vegetable

30 190 1.9 190

Total all sources 100 630 93.1 2,140 100

The Hunters: Scarce Resources in the Kalahari 37

The evidence presented assumes an added significance because this security of life was
observed during the third year of one of the most severe droughts in South Africa’s history. Most
of the 576,000 people of Botswana are pastoralists and agriculturalists. After the crops had failed
three years in succession and over 100,000 head of cattle had died on the range for lack of water,
the World Food Program of the United Nations instituted a famine relief program which has
grown to include 180,000 people, over 30 per cent of the population. This program did not touch
the Dobe area in the isolated northwest corner of the country and the Herero and Tswana women
there were able to feed their families only by joining the Bushman women to forage for wild foods.
Thus the natural plant resources of the Dobe area were carrying a higher proportion of population
than would be the case in years when the Bantu harvested crops. Yet this added pressure on the
land did not seem to adversely affect the Bushmen.

In one sense it was unfortunate that the period of my field work happened to coincide with the
drought, since I was unable to witness a “typical” annual subsistence cycle. However, in another
sense, the coincidence was a lucky one, for the drought put the Bushmen and their subsistence
system to the acid test and, in terms of adaptation to scarce resources, they passed with flying
colors. One can postulate that their subsistence base would be even more substantial during years
of higher rainfall.

What are the crucial factors that make this way of life possible? I suggest that the primary
factor is the Bushmen’s strong emphasis on vegetable food sources. Although hunting involves a
great deal of effort and prestige, plant foods provide from 60-80 per cent of the annual diet by
weight. Meat has come to be regarded as a special treat; when available, it is welcomed as a break
from the routine of vegetable foods, but it is never depended upon as a staple. No one ever goes
hungry when hunting fails.

The reason for this emphasis is not hard to find. Vegetable foods are abundant, sedentary, and
predictable. They grow in the same place year after year, and the gatherer is guaranteed a day’s
return of food for a day’s expenditure of energy. Game animals, by contrast, are scarce, mobile,
unpredictable, and difficult to catch. A hunter has no guarantee of success and may in fact go for
days or weeks without killing a large mammal. During the study period, there were eleven men
in the Dobe camp, of whom four did no hunting at all. The seven active men spent a total of 78
man-days hunting, and this work input yielded eighteen animals killed, or one kill for every four
man-days of hunting. The probability of any one hunter making a kill on a given day was 0.23. By
contrast, the probability of a woman finding plant food on a given day was 1.00. In other words,
hunting and gathering are not equally felicitous subsistence alternatives.

Consider the productivity per man-hour of the two kinds of subsistence activities. One
man-hour of hunting produces about 100 edible calories, and of gathering, 240 calories. Gathering
is thus seen to be 2.4 times more productive than hunting. In short, hunting is a high-risk, low-return
subsistence activity, while gathering is a low-risk, high-return subsistence activity.

It is not at all contradictory that the hunting complex holds a central place in the Bushmen
ethos and that meat is valued more highly than vegetable foods. Analogously, steak is valued more
highly than potatoes in the food preferences of our own society. In both situations the meat is more
“costly” than the vegetable food. In the Bushman case, the cost of food can be measured in terms
of time and energy expended. By this standard, 1,000 calories of meat “costs” ten man-hours, while
the “cost” of 1,000 calories of vegetable foods is only four man-hours. Further, it is to be expected

38 Richard B. Lee

that the less predictable, more expensive food source would have a greater accretion of myth and
ritual built up around it than would the routine staples of life, which rarely if ever fail.


Three points ought to be stressed. First, life in the state of nature is not necessarily nasty,
brutish, and short. The Dobe-area Bushmen live well today on wild plants and meat, in spite of the
fact that they are confined to the least productive portion of the range in which Bushman peoples
were formerly found. It is likely that an even more substantial subsistence would have been
characteristic of these hunters and gatherers in the past, when they had the pick of African-habitats
to choose from.

Second, the basis of Bushman diet is derived from sources other than meat. This emphasis
makes good ecological sense to the !Kung Bushmen and appears to be a common feature among
hunters and gatherers in general. Since a 30 to 40 per cent input of meat is such a consistent target
for modern hunters in a variety of habitats, is it not reasonable to postulate a similar percentage
for prehistoric hunters? Certainly the absence of plant remains on archeological sites is by itself not
sufficient evidence for the absence of gathering. Recently abandoned Bushman campsites show a
similar absence of vegetable remains, although this paper has clearly shown that plant foods com-
prise over 60 per cent of the actual diet.

Finally, one gets the impression that hunting societies have been chosen by ethnologists to
illustrate a dominant theme, such as the extreme importance of environment in the molding of
certain cultures. Such a theme can best be exemplified by cases in which the technology is simple
and/or the environment is harsh. This emphasis on the dramatic may have been pedagogically
useful, but unfortunately it has led to the assumption that a precarious hunting subsistence base
was characteristic of all cultures in the Pleistocene. This view of both modern and ancient hunters
ought to be reconsidered. Specifically I am suggesting a shift in focus away from the dramatic and
unusual cases, and toward a consideration of hunting and gathering as a persistent and
well-adapted way of life.

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