What are the most important prerequisites for egalitarian living? Ethnographically illustrate your answer.

All existing egalitarian societies are hunter-gatherers. The absence of resource scarcity characterizes the physical characteristics and geographical locations of their societies (Bird-David,1990). This,however, is not what makes those societies egalitarian. Such societies have cultural standards of egalitarianism which must be actively enforced. This creates a meta-social structure which asserts egalitarian
lifestyles. In this essay I will be examining the pre-requisites for egalitarianl iving, specifically the environmental factors behind immediate return economics, and the cultural constructions of freedom of movement and resource sharing. I will argue that the social mechanisms asserting egalitarianism are more important than any one of these prerequisites. I shall argue this through the analysis of various hunter- gatherer societies, especially the !Kung, the Hadza, and the Mbengele pygmies.

A key aspect egalitarian society is ensuring everybody has equal access to resources such as food. For this to be realized, it is vital that no one is dependent on any particular person for their survival. No one is. It has even occasionally been observed that Hadza persons will spend extended periods in isolation, living entirely off what they can forage themselves (Woodburn, 1982). In part as a mechanism to ensure a lack of dependence, and partly to prevent wealth accumulation, and partly to ensure everyone has what they require, members of egalitarian societies participate in “demand sharing”, whereby people with more resources than they require are expected to share, without expectation of return, with anyone who asks for it (Lewis, 2000). More than this, no camp in a hunter-gatherer society is dependent on another group. It has been observed that many hunter-gatherers, such as the !Kung, lack strong borders between the territories of various camps. James Woodburn (1982) argues that borders are not merely in absence, but actively discouraged. This serves as a levelling mechanism to prevent inequality between camps, which may vary in the richness of their resources seasonally.

It is not only territorial borders that are absent, but individual ones. !Kung can move at will between camps, without explanation being accepted by their peers. Newcomers to camps must be accepted into the new environment (provided they maintain the basic tenets of politeness) (ibid). Allowing movement into camps where different resources are abundant protects individuals from scarcity, and provides a means to rivals who would do potentially do them harm. This “avoidance strategy” is a primary method of revolving conflict (Lewis, 2000). When taken in conjunction with the Hobbesian levelling mechanism of everyone being able to kill every other, it is a powerful enforcer of equality(Hobbes,1651;Woodburn,1982). The ability of hunter gatherers to move to whichever territory they like, and to move between camps, ensures that there is equality between camps as no camp can grow wealthy because the resources of their camp are plentiful and others are poor. The ability for camps to move outside of defined territories is not only a cultural levelling mechanism, but an environmental one. When the resources of one area are depleted, people may move to another area. This also allows their previous territory to recover and regrow (Sahlins, 1972).

Economic explanations of egalitarian societies have focused on “immediate-
return economics” a phrase coined by James Woodburn (1982) to explain a phenomenon described by Michael Sahlins (1978). Whereas western societies save resources as investments for times of scarcity (a delayed-return system), modern egalitarian societies consume all resources upon receipt; nothing is saved. Immediate-return societies are rare. Their ability to function only when environmental conditions are viable may explain this; a year long temperate climate is required. The !Kung are an example of an immediate return society. Prior to Sahlins (1978), anthropologists mistook this for a lack of foresight, but this represents a vital aspect of !Kung survival. Collecting more food than one can carry is a tie to the land, preventing movement from a location of scarcity to one of plenty (Sahlins, 1972). The dependence on unrefined, naturally available resources, suggests an environmental cause for immediate return societies. There are those however who argue against environmental factors for egalitarianism. Ron Brunton (1989) argues against ideas that it is “harsh seasonality” which encourages delayed-return economics (in climates where food is not available year round, storage, and hence “delayed-return” becomes necessary), instead making the case for the economics being inexorably tied to culture, through the assertive denial of property rights. I would argue this misses the point and that environmental factors and culture are not necessarily separable. Hunter-gatherers own cosmologies support this argument. Such evidence is cited by Bird-David (1992) who describes the “cosmic-economy of sharing”. Bird-David observed that the cosmologies of several hunter-gatherer groups including the Nayaka, Mbuti, and Batek, view the acquisition of resources as an interaction between humanity and nature. They view the world not in terms of a human-nature dichotomy, but as an integrated entity, and that food comes as gifts from natural agencies. Bird-David (ibid) claims that this is a feature prevalent among many egalitarian societies. Arguments between cultural versus environmental factors explaining the establishment of egalitarian societies are therefore moot as it denies there is necessarily a difference between the two.

While freedom of movement, the sharing of resources, and immediate return economics are vital for ensuring equality, egalitarian societies demand that everyone remains equal, without affording any leadership roles to enforce this, lest an Animal Farm esq. society develop. Occasionally, cases of individuals attempting to take advantage of the system, or obtain special treatment, are observed. In these cases, assertive social levelling mechanisms stymy these efforts. In this sense, social levelling mechanisms are meta-social structures, cultural institutions which prevent the exploitation of other aspects of egalitarian culture. An example of such mechanism comes from the mosambo (camp organizational structure) of Mbenjele BaYaka in the Congo basin. Jerome Lewis (2014) describes his observations witnessing a Kombetti “X” declare himself a chief to a Bilo outsider. Kombetti implies nothing more than “elder” (and there is an elder for each group in any given camp, i.e. the men, women, young men, young women etc.). Attempting to demand alcohol as tribute to his status ‘Chief’, X was heckled by a group of children, who shouted to the Bilo man in Lingla “X a di djoba!” (X is an idiot!) and “a di faux mokondji!” (He’s a fake chief!) (ibid). These children, decrying the Kombetti posing as a chief show that despite Mbenjele recognizing specialization (the role of Kombetti in this case), no privilege is attached to specialization. The instinct of the Mbenjele is to ridicule anyone attempting to claim such privilege. The same applies to hunters claiming special status due to their hunting prowess. Among Mbuti men in particular, this does not afford them special benefits. Additionally, those perceived to be hunting more than is required are mocked until embarrassment forces them to stop (Woodburn, 1982).

Social levelling mechanisms can also take subtler forms. Hadza men spend lots of time gambling and this too is a social levelling mechanism. Objects are staked in a game that is effectively one of chance. Hadza men are socially encouraged to stake any object of value, for example, poisoned arrows. Poisoned arrows are not available in all areas of Hadza territory. Gambling ensures their proliferation to areas lacking this resource. Winnings are taken to other camps and gambled there as well. This results in the circulation of valuable objects throughout Hadza territory. Objects which are not staked include personal hunting bows, and non-poisoned arrows. The Hadza argue these are not valuable enough to stake. Perhaps not coincidentally, they are also the objects needed for individual survival (Woodburn, 1982). By not staking objects necessary for survival, Hadza men are certain never to be in a position of dependence on another. Being encouraged to gamble in a game of chance ensures the even spreading of resources. It also prevents the accumulation of valuable objects, and hence wealth. It is levelling mechanisms such as these, rigorously enforced without any top-down power structure, that is key to all other elements of ensuring equality amongst hunter-gatherer societies.

In conclusion, it is the assertion of equality more than any individual factors which ensure that equality is maintained amongst hunter-gatherer societies. Hunter-gatherer societies are not egalitarian wholly because of cultural developments or environmental factors; their environment enables an egalitarian lifestyle, which they decide to live by. Immediate return economies are made possible due to environmental factors, and social conventions around possessions and territory are also conducive to egalitarian living, but neither the social structure nor environmental social factors would be enough were it not for the meta-social practices of the levelling mechanisms which are in place. This is not the entire story however. This essay makes little mention of equalities between men and women, nor of how group decisions are made. Furthermore, the extent to which egalitarian societies are robust and resistant to stress is contested by anthropologists such as Ron Brunton. Finally, modern hunter-gatherer societies are under great stress from forces involved with globalization. How they will deal with these challenges remains to be seen.


BIRD-DAVID, N., (1992) ‘Beyond the Original Affluent Society’. Current Anthropology 33 (1): 25-47.

– (1990) ‘The Giving Environment: Another Perspective on the Economic System of Gatherer Hunters’. Current Anthropology 31 (2): 189 – 196.

BRUNTON (1989). ‘The Cultural Instability of Egalitarian Societies.’ Man, New Series, 24: 4, 673-681.

LEWIS, J., (2000) The Batwa Pygmies of the Great Lakes Region. Minority Rights Group International

– (2014). Pygmy hunter-gatherer egalitarian social organization: the case of the Mbendjele BaYaka. In Hewlett, B., (ed) Congo Basin Hunter-Gatherers. Pp. 219-244.

SAHLINS, M. (1972) ‘The Original Affluent Society.’ In Stone Age Economics http://www.primitivism.com/original-affluent.htm

WOODBURN, J., (1982). ‘Egalitarian Societies.’ Man, the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 17, no. 3: 431-51.

HOBBES, T. (1651). Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. Retrieved November 8, 2016, from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3207/3207-h/3207-h.htm



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