Mon, 27-04-2015   

Egalitarianism: the doctrine of the equality of mankind; asserting, resulting from, or characterized by belief in the equality of all people, especially in political, economic and social life; a classless society. Egalitarian societies are those in which each person is headman over himself1, where each person can achieve prestige, but where prestige should not be used to gain power over another band member.2

A common misconception is that nearly all foraging societies are egalitarian. However egalitarianism, as Susan Kent puts it, "is a continuum, not an absolute entity; societies are only more or less egalitarian".[5] This continuum of egalitarian societies runs between two different archetypes: simple (prototype of Ju/'hoansi) and complex (prototype of Northwest Coasts' Kwakiutl).

The following is a chart of simple and complex societies:

  Simple Complex
Environment Unpredictable or variable Highly predictable or less variable
Diet Terrestrial game Marine or plant foods
Settlement size Small Large
Residential mobility Medium to high Low to none
Demography Low population density relative to food High population density relative to food resources
Food storage Little to no dependence Medium to high dependence
Social organization No corporate groups Corporate descent groups (lineages)
Political organization Egalitarian Hierarchical; classes based on wealth or descent
Occupational specialization Only for older persons Common
Territoriality Social-boundary defense Perimeter defense
Warfare Rare Common
Slavery Absent Frequent
Ethic of competition Not tolerated Encouraged
Resource ownership Diffuse Tightly controlled
Exchange Generalized reciprocity Wealth objects, competitive feasts

Kelly, Robert L.
2007 The foraging spectrum: diversity in hunter-gatherer lifeways. Clinton Corners (NY): Eliot Werner Publications/Percheron Press. page 294


A common assumption held in the past and still prevalent today is that egalitarian hunter-gatherers represent the primitive or "natural" state of social organization, meaning that egalitarianism is simply the absence of class structure. This is in error as egalitarian foraging groups must work hard to keep their individual autonomy intact. Woodburn even called such societies "assertedly egalitarian".[6]

Egalitarian does not imply equality among all members, or equal amounts of food are distributed among all. It does mean that everyone has equal access to resources, that is they maintain individual autonomy. Egalitarianism is not the "default" of society; those that remain egalitarian have a number of norms and social structures for support. For example, the Ju/'hoansi have a technique of 'insulting the meat' to keep successful hunters from becoming too prideful. This serves as a social control by enforcing humility and removing arrogance from the group in hopes of preventing violence. Individual autonomy can range from extreme individualism to egalitarianism to social flexibility. Subsistence is a factor to why a society strives for individual autonomy. Another reason some foraging societies practice this kind of social organization is their level of mobility. A nomadic lifestyle has a definite impact on whether a society can accumulate possesions, and it has been demonstrated among the San that decreased mobility leads to increased possessions.[5]

Prior to the “Man the Hunter” conference it was understood that women in hunter-gatherer societies were subjugated by men and treated as slaves in the realms of subsistence, marriage, religion, and sex. This assumption was based on the nature and role of hunting in the development of culture and its relative significance to every day life, and the inherent biological makeup of the sexes. It was argued that hunting, especially large game fostered the development of male leadership and social organization due to cooperative efforts. In fact, it was believed that hunting was far more important to the subsistence in a society than gathering; thus leading to inequality between sexes and innate male leadership.


Recent ethnographic studies show variability in the social organizations of hunter-gatherer societies. Until recently, archaeologists had thought these groups to be categorically egalitarian with biological inequalities; non-biologically defined division of work, wealth and political power that produce inegalitarian social structures were revealed through the recent discoveries.

But this did not answer the question of Upper Paleolithic societies; we know that modern societies have variable social structures, what about these past groups of people? Through study of the 1936 excavation of an Upper Paleolithic grave, archaeologists sought answers to their question. They reviewed literature of Mesolithic inequality, analyzing cross-cultural studies of 163 burials, comparing sex, age, mortuary treatment and location in the cemetery; however, Upper Paleolithic is more difficult for this type of analysis considering the lack of burial sites. Therefore, they used the personal ornamentation and faunal assemblages of a number of burials in lieu of multiple burial sites. What they determined through the study of certain attributes of ornamentation and assemblages traded from other regions was confirmation of Mesolithic social inequality, with possible emergence 9,000 years earlier in the Upper Paleolithic times.[7]

Collaborative Flow Chart

The following chart is the product from an in class discussion on the roots of inequality. The next chart shown is from the example given by Kelly in his chapter on Egalitarianism in The Foraging Spectrum. It acted as a model for us to consider while making our own. These models are an attempt to understand the complexity of egalitarianism/inegalitarianism.


Kelly, Robert L.
2007 The foraging spectrum: diversity in hunter-gatherer lifeways. Clinton Corners (NY): Eliot Werner Publications/Percheron Press. page 309


James Woodburn has categorized egalitarian societies into an immediate-return system and delayed-return system.

Immediate-Return Societies

Immediate-return systems have the following basic characteristics. People obtain a direct and immediate return from their labor. They go out hunting or gathering and eat the food obtained the same day or casually over the days that follow. Food is neither elaborately processed nor stored. They use relatively simple, portable, utilitarian, easily acquired, replaceable tools and weapons made with real skill but not involving a great deal of labor.[6]

Characteristics Social Organization
Immediate consumption Flexible camp composition
No storage Individual Autonomy
Simple tools Mobility - "vote with your feet" conflict resolution
Little ownership No distinctions between wealth and power

Delayed-Return Societies

Delayed-return systems, in contrast, have the following characteristics. People hold rights over valued assets of some sort, which either represent a yield, a return for labor applied over time or, if not, are held and managed in a way which resembles and has similar social implications to delayed yields on labor. In delayed-return hunting and gathering systems these assets are of four main types which may occur separately bur are more commonly found in combination with one another and are mutually reinforcing: (1) Valuable technical facilities used in production: boats, nets, artificial weirs, stockades, pit-traps, beehives and other such artifacts which are a product of considerable labor and from which a food yield is obtained gradually over a period of months or years. (2) Processed and stored food or materials usually in fixed dwellings. (3) Wild products which have themselves been improved or increased by human labor: wild herds which are culled selectively, wild food-producing plants which have been tended and so on. (4) Assets in the form of rights held by men over their female kin who are then bestowed in marriage on other men.[6]

Characteristics Social Organization
Stored food Camps organized by kinship
Technology investment Corporate groups
Improvement in environment Betrothal marriages
Ownership of assets  

Adapted from Woodburn 1982

Review of 12 theories on foraging societies

Peter Gardner successfully reviews 12 theories that deal with the characteristics of foraging societies to develop his own theory. His analysis leads him to his theory of complementation and his theory of individual autonomy. Gardner explains theory complementation as brief descriptions of anthropologists' theories summed up to a simple idea. In doing so, Gardner critiques why some theories are inaccurate; the exclusion of the percentage of natives actually being studied instead of generalizing an entire group and then no form of standardized testing which the theorist draws his or her conclusions. He also believes that many anthropologists ignore the work of other anthropologists' finding and thus this lack of consideration can weaken their argument. So Gardner points out how these anthropologist's theories overlap, complement, with one another. Many anthropologist have noticed several reoccurring traits in those societies which practice individual autonomy. Gardner is careful with the language he uses to analysis a foraging society. He notes that the Western idea of egalitarianism is not the same meaning viewed in a foraging society. The goal Gardner is trying to accomplish is avoiding stereotyping foraging societies, therefore he does not feel the term egalitarian suits this group. Instead he uses individual autonomy.

The following is a table of the characteristics of foraging societies dealt with in the 12 theories reviewed:

adaptive-child-training i
nomadic-food-quest i,e,f
foraging-mode-of-production i,e,f
resource-depletion ef
storage e
collective hunting f
avoidance of social disrupt f
marketing i,f
depopulation-displacement i,f
composite i
subordinate-dependence i,e,f
domination resistance e,f

i,individualism; e,egalitarianism; f,flexibility

Pure-Egalitarian Societies versus Semi-Egalitarian Societies

Elsie Begler theorizes that egalitarianism occurs within sexual boundaries in all foraging societies. However, she states the importance of understanding the quality of interactions across sexual boundaries. Through a cross cultural comparison she utilizes the terms “pure-egalitarian” and “semi-egalitarian” to compare foraging societies through a political analysis of behavioral data. However, Begler suggests avoiding the concept of status to determine equality in favor of authority. Authority allows for a more straightforward approach since it identifies who controls whom and ultimately measures autonomy. Status, as a concept, is ambiguous and difficult to measure cross-culturally due to the lack of consistency in roles. Also, it is difficult to measure economic importance across sexual boundaries especially through the collection of behavioral data which is sparse and usually male-biased. If men and women do different things, does that mean they are unequal? Bellow are examples of the different egalitarian societies. First, the Australian Aborigines who are characterized as "Semi-Egalitarian" and the Mbuti Pygmies who are characterized as "Pure-Egalitarian".

The Australian Aborigines

Australian Aborigines’ economic base and settlement patterns have radically changed, so that hunting and gathering are now mixed with wage labor and welfare handouts resulting in the lessening of nomadic life. However, this society functions at an egalitarian level among internal relationships. It is clear that Aborigine women have more independence than has generally been attributed to them. These women play a vitally important economic role. Among the Tiwi of Melville Island “the women not only could but did provide the major daily supply of a variety of foods to the members of their camps”.3 Other sources also point to the autonomy between sexes. For example, in the East Kimberley’s, a wife is under no obligation to ask her husband’s permission in distributing the food she has collected; it is hers to allocate as she wishes. Also, women are entitled to promise a daughter for marriage, quite often before they are married themselves.4 Also, there are records of women who do not passively accept matrimonial decisions and run away to prevent sexual relations. Often the women are brought back but some women persist and eventually the marriage is terminated. Although there is evidence of authority which a husband has over his wife it does not threaten the above definition for egalitarianism because the authority is vested in an egocentric rather than a sociocentric category. The Australian Aborigines are viewed as “semi-egalitarian societies” because a man is a husband only to one or a few number of individuals and his authority does not extend beyond his wives. However, the egalitarian mode of social interaction is obtained only within the boundaries of each sex where as the relations between the sexes are characterized by a sociocentric inequality which is why they are recognized by Besler as a semi-egalitarian society.

The Mbuti Pygmies

The Mbuti Pygmies of the Ituri Forest much like the Australian Aborigines” have shifted in their political and economic structure due to their involvement in a trade-labor relationship with the Bira. However, they too are internally egalitarian. The social organization of the Mbuti is similar to that of most hunters and gatherers; with the exception of communal net hunters, where women serve as beaters driving game into nets.5 Women are often just as involved as men in the general uproar that accompanies a public dispute. Also, quarrels between husband and wife are common; however “one gets the overall impression that the relationship between husband and wife is much more at parity among the Pygmies than among the Australians. However, women have control over an extremely piece of property that may sway the argument in the woman’s favor, the hut. “This is one of the strongest points a woman has in arguments with her husband. I have seen a woman who had failed to get anywhere in a matrimonial disagreement simply turn around and start methodically pulling all the leaves off the hut”.6 This usually results in the compromise of the husband in order to spare the destruction of his home. The Mbuti Pygmies are characterized as “Pure-Egalitarian” due to the apparent control a woman has in a marriage. For example, if a woman is unhappy with her marriage she may pack up and leave, refuse to cook, or refuse to collect firewood without repercussions, beyond verbal complaints. The Pygmies share equal responsibility when choosing a mate for their child. It is clear that the Pygmies differ from the Australians because there are no sociocentric statuses. Among adults, the ability to fill a position of leadership which is non-sex-related, which relates to the community as a whole, appears to be determined largely by persuasion rather than sex.


Theories Tested

Environmental Variability and Buffering amongst the Gana

Many ecological approaches to the study of foraging societies agree that a high degree of variability in the climate and available resources is a catalyst of egalitarian organization. Reciprocal sharing and giving is considered to be an important investment and safeguard against starvation and poverty. It is thought that if one shares what ego has with everyone, especially at the others' times of need, then others will help them when ego is in need. Elizabeth Cashdan argues that cultural buffers can be created which alleviate some of the stress caused by variability, and allow populations to grow more inegalitarian. She does help remove the myth and stereotype of foragers and stresses that there is nothing inherently natural or simple about egalitarian societies.


The cultural buffers, which Cashdan wrote about included storage technology, the replacement of mobility for survival with sedentary behavior, and the acquired knowledge to cultivate specific plants and raise animals, which can act as buffers. She gives the example of the marotsi melons, which are cultivated by the // Gana of the northeastern Kalahari. They are valuable for their natural water storage capacity. Goats are also herded by the //Gana as an environmental buffer.

Cashdan measured the degree inegalitarian organization through counting how many individuals owned different numbers of wealth items. The wealth items included donkeys, horses, cattle, and drums. 73 people owned no wealth items of around 100 people in all, while only four people owned 6 or more wealth items. She proposed that this table measured the variability in wealth between individuals. Cashdan also measured the variability amongst groups. [1]

References cited

1. Cashdan, Elizabeth A. 1980 Egalitarianism among Hunters and Gatherers. American Anthropologist, New Series 82(1):116-120.
2. Fried, Morton. 1967. The Evolution of Political Society. New York: Random House.
3. Gardner, Peter G. 1991. Foragers' Pursuit of Individual Autonomy. Current Anthropology. 32:543-572
4. Kelly, Robert L. 2007. The foraging spectrum: diversity in hunter-gatherer lifeways. Clinton Corners (NY): Eliot Werner Publications/Percheron Press.
5. Kent, Susan. 1993. Sharing in an Egalitarian Kalahari Community. Man. 28(3):479-514
6. Woodburn, James. 1982. Egalitarian Societies. Man. 17(3):431-451
7. Vanhaeren, Marian and Francesco d’Errico. 2005 Grave goods from the Saint-Germain-la-Rivière burial: Evidence for social inequality in the Upper Palaeolithic. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 24:116-134

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