Original Affluent Society

The following materials were compiled by Rodney Frey to reiterate, enhance and supplement instructional materials presented during class presentations.

What is the physical health and well-being of those who carve for Sedna and dance to Karora, those who painted images in Les Trois Freres and tell of Burnt Face? What is the quality of life in gatherer-hunter society, for those living in ancient times as well as the more recent? The social philosopher Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan (1651) had characterized it as a life with "no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

Archaeological and ethnographic studies over the last thirty years have re-written our images of the gatherer-hunter Dream Animal of the past and the contemporary, and have helped dispel many commonly held stereotypes. Certainly variations occur and exceptions abound, but a coherent imagery is emerging. What, indeed, is the quality of life in gatherer-hunter society?

Let me offer a brief comparison of the differing levels of resources needed to sustain gatherer-hunter and Euro-American societies (see Cook 1971). The comparison will focus on the daily consumption of energy per capita in each of six types of societies and will be measured in terms of equivalent kilocalories.

In paleolithic society, the primary source of energy is derived from the food stuffs that are individually consumed and is the equivalent to approximately 2,000 kilocalories needed per day per capita.

In historic and contemporary gatherer-hunter society, energy is derived from food consumed and from firewood used for heating and cooking. The equivalent of 5,000 kilocalories are needed daily per capita (2,000 kilo. food energy and 3,000 kilo. firewood energy).

In horticultural society, domesticated plants harvested by hand from gardens supplanted the gathering of wild plants. Domesticated animals also contribute to the energy source. The equivalent of 12,000 kilocalories are required (4,000 kilo. food, 4,000 kilo. firewood and 4,000 kilo. domesticated animals).

In agricultural society, the plow, draft animal and field replace the garden. Coal is often used as a fuel source along with wind and/or water. Transportation is aided by animals. The equivalent of 26,000 kilocalories are needed daily (7,000 kilo. food, 6,000 kilo. firewood, 12,000 kilo. domesticated animal and 1,000 kilo. coal).

In industrial society, the steam and gas engine are the backbone of energy production and consumption. The equivalent of 77,000 kilocalories are required per capita per day (24,000 kilo. food, 7,000 kilo. firewood, 32,000 kilo. domesticated animals, and 14,000 kilo. coal).

In technological society, electricity via coal, water and nuclear energy resources is the cornerstone of energy production and consumption. The equivalent of from 230,000 to 273,000 kilocalories are needed per individual each day (91,000 kilo. food, 10,000 kilo. firewood, 33,000 kilo. domesticated animals, 63,000 kilo. coal and 33,000 kilo. electricity). Our Euro-American society is comprised of elements of both the industrial and technological societal orientations. The comparison of a contemporary gatherer-hunter 5,000 kilocalorie consumption level with an industrial-technological 77,000-273,000 kilocalorie consumption level offers a most remarkable contrast.

It is often perceived that with the advent of technological society there has been a significant reduction in the number of hours of human labor needed for production and an increase in leisure time. This perception is not the case. The amount of work output directed at food gathering, preparation and related subsistence activities in gatherer-hunter society is typically the equivalent of 20-25 hours per week. Much more time is engaged in ritual, social and recreational activities. There is, in fact, far greater leisure time in gatherer-hunter societies than there is in our own industrial society. In technological society, a 40-hour work week has become necessary for minimal subsistence. Three weeks of vacation plus holidays is a norm. With all the labor-saving appliances, the urban American homemaker puts in an average of 55 hours per week in household-related activities. In the 1920s, without the benefits of these devices, an average of 52 hours of housework was expended. Even the medieval serf of Europe had 115 days off for festivals.

The quality of gatherer-hunter diet is also most revealing (see Eaton and Konner 1985 for a discussion on paleolithic diet, and Lee 1968 and Sahlins 1972 for a discussion on historic and contemporary gatherer-hunter diet). With societal exceptions such as the Eskimo, wild plant foods typically account for 60-70% of the diet. Because of the gender role dichotomy of "man the hunter" and "woman the gatherer," women actually contributed more food stuffs to the family than did their counterparts, though often without receiving the glory and recognition. This ratio of a 30-40% meat contribution thus existed throughout a million-year history of humanity. The ratio was only altered with the domestication of plants and reliance on various crop foods. Meat consumption was thereafter significantly reduced. Then came the modern American diet, with the introduction of a newly constituted meat form, rich in fats.

For the historic and contemporary gatherer-hunter, typically 2,150 calories are consumed daily. In the paleolithic diet, an estimated 3,000 calories were consumed on a daily basis. These levels of calorie consumption are comparable with the United States Department of Agriculture recommended minimum of 1,975 calories.

In gatherer-hunter society protein amounts around 90 grams per day are achieved while the paleolithic diet was at 250 grams. These levels are comparable or exceed the actual U.S. average consumption which ranges from 50-125 grams. Of interest, early Homo sapiens and Neanderthals of 75,000 years ago averaged 6 inches taller than agricultural peoples of 8,000 years ago, and remained so up to a 100 years ago. Today, we are now as tall as we once were.

Paleolithic fat consumption was at 71 grams per day (30 g. animal and 41 g. plant), representing 21% of the total daily dietary energy source. The U.S. average consumption represents 42% of the diet, with 30% a U.S.D.A. recommended. A significant portion of the U.S. fat consumption is of saturated fats.

Sodium levels in the paleolithic diet were at 690 milligrams, compared with the U.S. average consumption of 2,300-6,900 mg. per day.

Calcium intake levels in the paleolithic were at 1,580 milligrams, compared with an average 740 mg. per day in the U.S. Of note, this calcium level was reached without dairy products, e.g., cheese or milk, but was a result of the way animal foods are prepared and consumed, i.e., inclusion of animal bone.

Remarkably, ascorbic acid was at 392 milligrams per day, compared with an average U.S. consumption of 88 mg.

Paleolithic fiber intake was at 46 grams per day, compared with an average U.S. of 20 grams.

As with the quality of the diet, the quality of historic and contemporary gatherer-hunter health is rather revealing. Typically, there are fewer diseases compared with industrial society. Prior to European contact, there was no diabetes, no stroke or heart disease, most varieties of cancer were absent, no hypertension or senility. There was also an absence of many of the infectious diseases characteristic of industrial society. There were higher infant mortality rates, however. But if infancy was survived, over 10% of the population lived over 60 years, which is comparable to many industrial societies.

Given the social equality and the kinship sharing characteristic of gatherer-hunter society, hunger is not "institutionalized." Gatherer-hunter society is typically an equalitarian society. No group and seldom an individual goes without, unless a local disaster causes all to go without. Poverty, a creation of class distinction and an unequal distribution of resources, is to be found in agricultural and industrial societies.

Keep in mind that the gatherer-hunter orientation has represented over ninety-nine percent of all of Dream Animal history. Plant and animal domestication and our technologically-oriented society is a relatively new experiment in the human experience. Also keep in mind that the quality of diet and health found among gatherer-hunter peoples is achieved with relatively minimal resource demands and a "simple" technology. It is a technology that provides an efficient means of utilizing the available resources.

An argument can be made, as Marshal Sahlins has made, that there is affluence in gatherer-hunter society, the "original affluent society" (see Sahlins 1972). I would suggest that the affluence is, in fact, greater than that found in industrial society. Such is the case if affluence is a measure of the ratio of the means and products available, i.e., the technological knowledge and goods produced, relative to the desired wants, i.e., the expectations. We are, of course, speaking of the material affluence relating to food, health and physical comfort. In gatherer-hunter society, we find that the material expectations of the people closely match their means to obtain those expectations. What people desire is obtained. It is acknowledged that what is desired in gatherer-hunter society may not be even remotely similar to that desired in industrial society. Nevertheless, in gatherer-hunter society, the desires of food, health and physical comfort are fundamentally secured. What is not as easily obtainable are desires relating to social, aesthetic and spiritual fulfillments. Here the quests continue. In contrast, the quest for material affluence has become a driving force in industrial society; while the quests for social, aesthetic and spiritual fulfillments continue but are apparently less overtly emphasized. All things considered, given the quality of diet and of health, and the relative affluence, life in gatherer-hunter society is anything but "nasty, brutish and short."

These comments are not presented to suggest a call for a "return to the primitive." We must avoid romanticizing the gatherer-hunter as our "noble savage." After all, the gatherer-hunter seldom has had an opportunity to "tax" the "carrying capacity" of their landscapes. Their "simple" technology more than met their physical needs and expectations. By comparison, the vastly expanded population of our contemporary world necessitates a resource base and technology infrastructure of a magnitude incomprehensible to the gatherer-hunter.

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