Apologies for being late in posting this. Writing code has been going so smoothly for the last week that I didn't want to interrupt it. I've made a lot of progress and resolved some niggling questions about how the main website would work.
This post is part of a series on tribal gift economics.
The original research and writing on gift economics was by Marcel Mauss and his book The Gift. When most people talk about gift economics it is his work that they are referencing. However Mauss' research concentrated on reciprocal gift economics, a system that I will write about in the next post. In this post we are going to step back even further to what is known as egalitarian gift economics. It is only found in some of the most 'primitive' tribal cultures. I put primitive in quotes for good reason, for whilst their use of technology and the sophistication of their social structure are the simplest to be found in human culture, they have a beneficial relationship with the ecosystem they depend upon which we have lost.
A good example of a tribe with a egalitarian gift economy is the Pirahã, researched by Daniel Everett in his book Don't Sleep There Are Snakes. The book is very well written and as much as it is about the Pirahã, it is also the story of Daniel's life and how living with the Pirahã changed him.
The Pirahã are different not only from modern society, but also from most other tribal cultures. They have no creation myths, very little concern for time outside of the now, no tribal leaders or other hierarchy and very little costume or other forms of decoration. Also, in relevance to a later post when I discuss the reasons for the change from egalitarian to reciprocal gift economy, they have no concept of numbers, not even numbers for one and two. The closest they come are expressions for 'a smaller amount' and 'a larger amount'.
The Pirahã are a hunter gatherer Amazonian tribe, whose diet consists largely of fish and some meat that is hunted by the men, and manioc, which is a starchy root farmed by the women along with various foods gathered from the jungle. Each group of Pirahã lives in a small settlement that moves twice a year with the seasonal changes of the local river. Food is essentially shared amongst everyone in the group. Everyone is expected to help in the process of gathering food, as much as they are able to. Children, once weaned at about two and half years old, are essentially treated as adults and are expected to pull their weight as much as they are able to.
The Pirahã have very little concern for other material possessions – they are all seen as temporary. By the time that the Pirahã were studied, they already had contact with the modern world and had started trading for some tools, such as metal machetes in exchange for jungle products such as brazil nuts. However, they do not look after these tools and are not possessive of them, they also have very little comprehension of the value of the things they trade for them, being quite happy to trade hours of work for items that are just temporary curiosities with no practical value. (Actually, on reflection, that is not all that different from modern consumerism.)
If you have heard the saying that “tribal people only work a three day week”, it is this kind of tribe that is being talked about. An egalitarian gift economy allows the tribe to work as little as possible in order to gather the food they need, this combined with a lack of desire for material possessions results in a culture that is very focused on the needs of the present moment.
This lack of concern for material possessions and a tendency not to store food, but eat it fresh when it is gathered or hunted lead to a culture that is ecologically stable, simply because the people have not yet developed the tools that are necessary for them to cause environmental destruction. If there is not enough food for the day then the Pirahã go hungry, and can ultimately starve if the eco system they live in can not support them. This is in contrast to today, when ecological destruction is so widespread. I will come back to this later in this series of posts on gift economics, so that we can explore it's relevance to a new economy; don't worry, I'm not going to suggest that we all starve.
Capitalist economic theory cannot explain the stability of egalitarian economic systems. It would question why the strongest in the tribe do not take advantage of the situation. An example from another tribe demonstrates why this social system is stable.
Professor Richard Lee lived with the Kalahari bushmen whilst studying them. He wanted to get a gift for the tribe to show his gratitude and so he searched the local villages for a cow that he could get as a gift. He choose the fattest, healthiest cow he could find and returned to the tribe to tell them of his gift. He was in for a surprise; when he explained that he had found a really good cow and that the meat would be very tasty, the tribesmen would respond by saying that they knew that cow, and it was old and wiry. They continued to play down the generosity of Richard's gift whenever the topic arose. When the cow was slaughtered, they had a feast and Richard finally managed to get one the of tribesmen to explain why they were so insistent on criticising his generosity. Essentially, a part of the bushman's culture is to play down the achievements of those who are more skilled so that group is equalised. “We refuse one who boasts, someday his pride will make him kill somebody, so we speak of his meat as worthless. This way we cool his heart and make him gentle.” (Marvin Harris Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches)
Next week, I'll be writing about a reciprocal gift economy which demonstrates how the development of the 'big man' leads to a new kind of social structure. The week after that I'll be writing about why these different social systems developed, including the importance numbers and counting.