the guardian | James Suzman

Why ‘Bushman banter’ was crucial to hunter-gatherers’ evolutionary success
The Ju/’hoansi people of the Kalahari have always been fiercely egalitarian. They hate inequality or showing off, and shun formal leadership institutions. It’s what made them part of the most successful, sustainable civilisation in human history.

Barely a day goes by when proponents of greater taxation, universal income and other initiatives aimed at addressing systematic inequality are not accused of inciting the “politics of envy”. Doing so is an effective way of closing down debate; envy is, after all, among the deadliest of the “deadly sins”. Yet politicians inclined to dismiss inequality in this way may do so at their peril. For the evidence of our hunting and gathering ancestors suggests we are hard-wired to respond viscerally to inequality.

In the 1960s, the Ju/’hoansi “Bushmen” of the Kalahari desert became famous for turning established views of social evolution on their head. But their contribution to our understanding of the human story is far more important than simply making us rethink our past.

Until then, it had been widely believed that hunter gatherers endured a near-constant battle against starvation. But when a young Canadian anthropologist, Richard B Lee, conducted a series of simple economic input-output analyses of the Ju/’hoansi as they went about their daily lives, he found not only did they make a good living from hunting and gathering, but they did so on the basis of only 15 hours’ work per week. On the strength of this, anthropologists redubbed hunter-gatherers “the original affluent society”…read more

Image: Old Man Jagger from the Ju/’hoansi; his ancestors have been hunting and gathering in southern Africa for well over 150,000 years. Photograph: James Suzman