I think it helpful to consider our social, moral and physical challenges in light of our ancestral lifestyle (determined to be small-band hunter-gatherer for more than 90% of human genus history). Some contemporary problems appear to stem from violations of what we evolved to need and prefer.


Band life is fiercely egalitarian. Equality is demonstrated in several practices.

"Food-sharing is just one aspect of the total process by which persons are "grown" in a context of immediate sociality, through incorporating the substance, knowledge, and experience of others within a field of nurturance." (Ingold, 1999, 408). In other blogs, I describe the nurturing environment for young children in these contexts (e.g., this one).

Sharing is the "dominant mode of economic allocation (whereas in tribal societies it is reciprocity) (see Price, 1975). In fact "demand sharing" or "mutual taking" is a practice in which someone can demand a share and expect to receive it without complaint (Myers, 1988; Peterson, 1993). This is a different view of generosity than the Western notion of giving willingly. Generosity in the band is responding positively to a request. So the boundaries of "mine" and "ours" are more permeable.

In fact, in the small-band hunter gatherer context, there is no "us versus them." As a group, they don't take up a name for themselves (other than persons or people)--no branding. There is no domination of an individual's will, no rigid social structures.

Power is present but it is not coercive power, nor power over another, but attractive power of skill or wisdom. Power can be exercised by anyone who has the power to do so (from Morton Fried, 1967).

Trusting relationships are commonplace and involve more than humans. Band members have a much larger set of intimate relationships than Westerners typically do. The following quotes are from Ingold (1999).

 "In the conduct of their mutual relations, hunters and gatherers demonstrate the possibility of a perceptual orientation toward the social environment that is direct, rather than mediated by structures of control....[which] also extends to nonhuman components of the environment; to animals and plants, even to features of the landscape that we might regard as inanimate. Hunters maintain relations of trust with their animal prey, as they do with human persons, assuming that animals present themselves with hunters in mind, allowing themselves to be taken so long as hunters treat them with respect and do nothing to curb their autonomy of action (Ingold, 1993). The powerful hunter attracts animals as he attracts followers."

Nature is considered generous, like parents are.

"For gatherers, the forest nurtures humans like the adults do children-comprising together what Bird-David 1998) calls "the giving environment." Generally, human relations with the nonhuman environment are modeled on the same principle of sharing that applies within the human community (Bird-David 1992)."

Humans are not separate from nature but intricately related with all of its manifestations.

"In short, the rigid division that Western thought and science draw between the worlds of society and nature, of persons and things, does not exist for hunters and gatherers. For them there are not two worlds but one, embracing all the manifold beings that dwell therein (Ingold 1995, 128). Far from seeking control over nature, their aim is to maintain proper relationships with these beings (Ridington, 1982, 471)."

Think how far modern societies have moved away from these views! We don't think of Nature as nurturing parent but as an enemy.  We don't think of other life forms as "subjects"-equally important as human beings-but as objects we can manipulate as we wish. We don't think about 'proper' relationships with anything in the natural world. We are anthropocentric and assume our God is too.

Our views are abnormal in the history of human societies. Could our views have something to do with the ecological destruction underway?

Does this mean that band members are more moral than we are? They took many more relationships into account than we do and were much more conserving.

Here is a precautionary note. One characteristic of band members is particularly striking to me because of my interest in mature moral functioning and how today moral maturity requires postconventional thinking, good executive brain functions, and moral imagination (thinking of possible outcomes and consequences). Ingold (1999) reports that anthropologists consistently remark on the "lack of foresight" among band communities, especially in terms of food. They are not planful, nor are they neurotic. It's as if they are practicing what Jesus recommended- not to worry about tomorrow, like birds, "they neither sow nor reap."

Band members are focused on the present, not the future. This is where what I call the Engagement ethic takes place. I think we evolved primarily for this type of ethic. But it is the ethic that Western childrearing practices tend to eradicate, making us uncertain about morality and needy for external guidelines. Going back to Turnbull's comparison of his British upbringing with that of the Mbuti he studied, we can see that Western childrearing makes people require external rules because their independence, confidence and competence are bred out of them.

Band life was filled with intimacy and conviviality within familiar face-to-face relationships of mostly extended family members and the natural world. We are far from that today. Our ideologies hem us in, for example: (1) a good person works for a living and is not 'lazy'-you work for those vacations by the lake or sea rather than relaxing with minimal needs as a lifestyle in itself. (2) You don't want to be too close to people or they will 'cramp your style.' Even though humanity's largest craving is intimacy with others, our child-damaging makes their adulthoods a set of frustrations in unskilled social seeking and unfulfilled craving for love (filled instead by other distractions). (3) Nature is for human consumption and has no other purpose.

Band life was a happy, satisfying life. In contrast, many Westerners spend their days unhappy, dissatisfied and lonely. Westerners typically are isolated from the very things that may be necessary for fulfilling human needs--emotional communion with Nature and with others in egalitarian relation. If this sounds like a foreign concept to us, then all the more reason to reexamine our beliefs and practices and see how we might recapture the freedom, trust and support our ancestors experienced.

Link to Part 1


David-Bird, N. (1998). The giving environment: Another perspective on the economic system of gatherer-hunters. Current Anthropology, 31, 183-196.

Bird-David, N. (1992). Beyond "the original affluent society": A culturalist formulation. Current Anthropology, 33, 25-47.

Bird-David, N. (1994). Sociality and immediacy or past and present conversations on bands. Man, n.s., 29, 583-603.

Ingold, T. (1986). The appropriation of nature: Essays on human ecology and social relations. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Ingold, T. (1999). On the social relations of the hunter-gatherer band. In R.B. Lee & R. Daly (Eds.), The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Leacock, E., & Lee, R.B. (1982). Introduction. In E.B. Leacock & R.B. Lee (Eds.), Politics and history in band societies (pp. 1-20). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Myers, F. (1986). Pintupi country, Pintupi self, sentiment, place and politics among Western Desert Aborigines. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.

Myers, F. (1988). Burning the truck and holding the country: Property, time and the negotiation of identity among Pintupi Aborigines. In T. Ingold, D. Riches, and J. Woodburn (Eds.), Hunters and gatherers, Vol. II, Property, power and ideology (pp. 52-74). Oxford: Berg.

Price, J.A. (1975). Sharing: The integration of intimate economics. Anthropologica, 17, 3-27.

Peterson, N. (1993). Demand sharing: Reciprocity and the pressure for generosity among foragers. American Anthropologist, 95, 860-874.

Peter Wilson, (1975). The promising primate, Man, n.s., 19, 5-20.

Woodburn, J. (1982). Egalitarian societies. Man, n.s., 17, 431-51.

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