Work in the Old Stone Age: the Zen Road to Affluence

What would you think if someone suggested that you spend one day in the Old Stone Age? You would be more likely to decline the offer since many of us hold the view that hunter-gatherers spent all the time looking for food and had a tough life, fighting for survival.
There is a tendency to assume, that only in the New Stone Age, as people began domesticating plants and animals, the number of suffering from hunger dropped due to ability to produce surpluses of food. But what if vital resources in the Paleolithic Age were not so scarce as we think and considered by anthropologists as ‘original affluent society’?

The Original Affluent Society

Examining the modern palaeolithic communities, such as Khoisan of the African Kalahari Desert or the Arand people in the central regions of Australia, anthropologists concluded that the Old Stone Age economy was “a kind of material plenty”. An American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins stated the theory of the “original affluent society” at a symposium entitled “Man the Hunter” in 1966. According to the theory, hunter-gatherers were able to achieve much for their societies and satisfy their own material needs.

Such “material plenty” depends partly upon the simplicity of technology and democracy of property. Products are homespun: of stone, bone, wood, skin-materials such as “lay in abundance around them”. – Marshall Sahlins

People of the Paleolithic Age had free access to natural resources, tools of general use, and widely practised the liberal customs of sharing.
From a modern economist’s view, hunter-gatherers society is a subsistence economy with unreliable access to insufficient natural resources. Our economic beliefs are based upon scarcity. Resources always turn out not to be sufficient with human limitless wants. Scarcity means we have to decide how to produce as much as we can from these limited resources.

In the Old Stone Age people’s needs and desires are finite, few and easily satisfied. Sahlins called it the “Zen road to affluence”. The affluence of the local flora and fauna provided hunters with a balanced diet, as soon as the collectable resources were about to dwindle they would leave for new abundant places. As Paleolithic humans were always on the move, they preferred carrying lightweight stuff they could easily wrap up and transport on their shoulders. Thus, people had no sense of possession and showed no interest in wealth accumulation.

Of course, hunters leave the camp, because the resources in the area are depleted fast. But it would be misleading to consider this “nomadism” only as an escape from hunger. When moving to the next camp, hunter-gatherers knew for sure that they would find new sources of food.

“Consequently, their wanderings rather than anxious take on all the qualities of a picnic outing on the Thames”.- Marshall Sahlins

Working in the Paleolithic Period

Another property of hunter-gatherers economy is the failure to put by food surpluses, to develop food storage. It turns out that for many groups of hunters and gatherers, food storage is by no means technically impossible and unnecessary. According to anthropologists’ observations, when having an excess of food, members of the community are more likely to stay in the camp and consume the food produced by more productive hunters, rather than continue their search for food. Storing food thus becomes economically undesirable and disadvantageous.

The time spent by a person to obtain and prepare food averaged 4-5 hours per day. The work was not continuous and would stop in case the group had procured enough. This means the Old Stone Age people had plenty of spare time when they could sleep, rest and do nothing. “In the tropical habitats occupied by many of these existing hunters, plant collecting is more reliable than hunting itself. Therefore, the women, who do the collecting, work rather more regularly than the men, and provide the greater part of the food supply”.

In his book, Sahlins concluded that common beliefs about hunters and gatherers’ lack of leisure might be reversed: the amount of work (per capita) grows with the evolution of culture, and the amount of leisure declines.

The world’s most primitive people have few possessions, but they are not poor. Poverty is an invention of civilisation and emerged as a contrast between classes. We tend to think Paleolithic people were poor, but what if they were free? Free from materialistic values that took over humanity much later? These and other questions leave room for doubt and further thought about the correlations between labor, leisure and civilisation.


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