The Ju/ hoansi people of the Kalahari have always been ferociously egalitarian. They dislike inequality or showing off, and shun formal leadership institutions. Its what attained them part of the most successful, sustainable civilisation in human history

Barely a day goes by when supporters of greater taxation, universal revenues and other initiatives aimed at addressing systematic inequality are not accused of provoking the” politics of resentment “. 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 jeopardy. For the evidence of our hunting and assemble ancestors suggests we are hard-wired to respond viscerally to inequality.

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

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

A Ju /’ hoansi hunter improvises a burn; in the 1960 s it was calculated they worked for 15 hours each week. Photo: James Suzman

I started working with Ju /’ hoansi in the early 1990 s. By then, more than a half-century of land dispossession meant that, other than in a few remote fields, they formed a highly marginalised underclass eking out a living on the dismal peripheries of an ever-expanding global economy. I have been documenting their often traumatic encounters with modernity ever since.

The importance of understanding how hunter-gatherers induced such a good living has recently been come to illumination, thanks to a sequence of genomic surveys and archaeological discoveries. These been demonstrated that the broader Bushmen population( referred to collectively as Khoisan) are far older than we had ever imagined, and ought to have hunting and gathering endlessly in southern Africa for well over 150,000 years.

If the success of a civilisation is judged by its endurance over day, this entails the Khoisan are far and away the most successful, stable and sustainable civilisation in human history.

The speed of the Ju /’ hoansi’s metamorphosi from an isolated group of hunter-gatherers to a marginalised minority in a rapidly growing commonwealth country is without parallel in modern history. As bewildering as this process has been for them, it offers a unique, if ephemeral, double-perspective- of people who are part of a modern globalizing world economy yet be exempted from full participation in it, and who are engaging with modernity with the hands and thinkers of hunter-gatherers.

Taken along with new archaeological and genomic proof, this brings fascinating insights into how to answer some of the most pressing social , economic and environmental sustainability challenges we face today.

Simply in Namibia’s Nyae Nyae area, where the Ju /’ hoansi retain rights to their grounds, can they hunt and amass all time round. Photograph: James Suzman

Among the most important is the realisation that apparently selfish traits such as resentment- through which we carry our discontent with inequality- was a useful evolutionary characteristic for building the social cohesion that enabled hunter-gatherers such as the Ju /’ haonsi to thrive for as long as they did.

In part, the Ju /’ hoansi’s affluence was based on their unyielding confidence in the providence of their environments and their skills at exploiting this. Ju /’ hoansi still make use of well over 150 different plant species, and have the knowledge to hunting and trap pretty much any animal they choose to. As a ensue, they are ever worked to meet their immediate needs, did not storage surpluses, and never harvested more than they could eat in the short term.

For the Ju /’ hoansi, that fundamental axiom of modern economics,” the problem of dearth“, simply is not applicable. Where this holds that it is human nature to have infinite wants and limited means, the Ju /’ hoansi had few wants that were simply met.

This was possible because, above all, the latter are- and still are-” fiercely egalitarian”. They could not abide inequality or showing off, and “havent had” formalised leadership institutions. Men and women enjoyed equal decision making powers, children played largely non-competitive plays in mixed age groups, and the elderly, while treated with great affection, were not afforded any special privileges. This in turn meant that no-one bothered to amass wealth or influence, and never over-exploited their marginal environment.

Some Ju /’ hoansi now own mares, building travel to more remote villages much easier. Photograph: James Suzman

There is no question this dynamic is proven. Over and above their extraordinary longevity, genomic evidence reveals that not only were the Khoisan the most populous human population on the planet until a little over 20,000 years ago, they likewise remain the most genetically diverse. This tells us that over their long history, Khoisan populations have suffered far fewer of the catastrophic population bottlenecks that are the result of famine, war and illnes as other human populations elsewhere.

Crucially, their success was based not on their ability to expand and grow into new grounds or develop new productive engineerings, but on the fact they mastered the artwork of making a good living where they were. It is no accident that the continent with the evidence presented by the longest continuous human habitation is the one place unaffected by the extinction events that threw paid 75% of the megafauna species- including mammoths, cave endures and sabre-tooth cats- when Homo sapiens expanded into Europe, Asia and the Americas.

How did a society like the Ju /’ hoansi with no formalised leaders maintain this egalitarianism? Their answer is unequivocal: it was not carry of the ideological dogmatism we associate with 20 th-century Marxism, or the starry-eyed idealism of New Age ” communalism “. Nor was it maintained in spite of self-interest- but instead, because of it.

Insulting the meat

In Ju /’ hoan culture, resentment functioned like the” invisible hand” famously saw by the economist Adam Smith. In the case of small-scale hunter-gatherer cultures, the sum of individual self-interests ultimately ensured the most equitable” distribution of the necessaries of life”, and in doing so made the most sustainable economic simulate in modern Homo sapiens history.

How this worked is best exemplified in the customary “insulting” of a hunter’s meat. While a spectacular kill was always cause for festivity, the hunter responsible would not be praised- instead, he was insulted.

The meat of a kudu antelope is shared between Ju /’ hoan households. Photo: James Suzman

Regardless of the size or circumstance of the carcass, those due a share of the meat would complain that the kill was trifling, that it was scarcely worth the effort of carrying it back to camp, or that there wouldn’t be enough meat to go around. For his part, the hunter was expected to be almost apologetic when he presented the carcass.

Everyone knew discrepancies between a scrawny kill and a good one, of course, but nonetheless continued to pass insults even while they were busy filling their bellies with meat — the most highly prized of all meat. Half a century ago, a Ju /’ hoan human provided Lee with a particularly eloquent explanation of why they did this 😛 TAGEND

” When a young man kills much meat, he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big humankind- and thinks of the rest of us as his maids or inferiors. We can’t accept this … so we always speak of his meat as worthless. This style, we cool his heart and construct him gentle .”

This behaviour was not limited to hunting. Similar insults were meted out to anyone who assumed heirs and graces, encountered a windfall or got too big for their leather sandals. Everyone in Ju /’ hoan communities scrutinised everybody else all the time — something easily done when all social life was conducted in public spaces.

Ju /’ hoansi hunters are expected to be almost apologetic when presenting their kill. Photograph: James Suzman

They took careful note of what others feed, owned, received a total of endowments, and whether or not they were sufficiently generous in return. The net make was that everyone went to considerable durations to avoid being singled out for selfishness or self-importance- so much so, indeed, that good hunters typically hunted less often than poor ones, even if they enjoyed it.

Unsurprisingly, this created a climate that was generally harmonious, co-operative, and in which even those with the natural charisma and character to leading did so only with great circumspection.

In demonstrating why apparently corrosive evils such as bitternes was strong enough to survive the mill of natural selection, hunter-gatherer civilizations may also present why modern cultures take pleasure in tearing down tall poppies; why gaudy displays of wealth are capable of persuading ordinarily docile individuals to froth with rage, and why renegade politicians do so well when they position “elites”- real or imagined- as the architects of inequality.

The fact that hunter-gatherers such as the Ju /’ hoansi enjoyed lives of” primitive richnes” indicates our present preoccupation with productivity and growth is not an indelible part of our “natures”- a preoccupation which, as environmental economists constantly remind us, dangers cannibalising our species’ future.

As much as the Ju /’ hoansi’s fierce egalitarianism served them well for so long, it poses a challenge now. They are far and away the most severe and most marginalised of Namibia’s many distinct ethnic communities- yet they remain deeply uncomfortable elevating any of their peers to leadership positions.

Similarly, many Ju /’ hoansi are reluctant to take management roles or presume responsibilities that require making and imposing their decisions or authority on others. As a make, they are still desperately under-represented in state institutions, signifying their interests are often overlooked and dismissed.

Understanding how hunter-gatherers flourished for so long may help us identify the broad principles necessary to ensure a more sustainable future. Dealing with systemic inequality- not least, their own- would be a good place to start.

Read more: https :// inequality/ 2017/ oct/ 29/ why-bushman-banter-was-crucial-to-hunter-gatherers-evolutionary-success