Universal parameters of hunter-gatherer community

V. Kabo, Universal parameters of hunter-gatherer community. Unpublished paper

The problem of the homogeneity or otherwise of the forms of forager society, its evolution and its relatedness to natural and historic conditions, is far from solved. This problem is important, because hunter-gatherer society is the foundation on which the entire edifice of human civilisation is based. In my book "The Primeval Community of Pre-Agricultural Society" (Moscow, Nauka, 1986) I show that hunter-gatherer society does possess some sort of basic universal socio-economic structure. I name this structure "community", end suggest that it is the key to an overall understanding of such societies in general in both their synchronic and diachronic aspects. My book is devoted to the delineation and analysis of this structure, and to comparative inquiries.

Numerous ethnographic data pertaining to all hunter-gatherer regions of the world – Australia and Tasmania, South-East and South Asia, South and Central Africa, South and North America, and the Polar zone – show that the organisational principles of the social structures usual amongst peoples at this level of socio-economic development are identical, irrespective of the natural, geographic and other conditions of life. In other words, these principles do have a universal character. These structures exhibit plasticity and adaptability to changing conditions. They are dependent on the primary universal adaptive dynamic system, whose core is formed by the hunter-gatherer community. The dynamism of this system is expressed in its ability for development and transformation. It serves as base for transition to higher levels of socio-economic development. Finally, it is possible to distinguish surface and deep structures. The latter are based on predominantly socio-economic relations, necessary for the very existence of society.

The components of primitive cultures fail into two large blocks. One of these shows an infinite variability of elements manifested in unique combinations, which have arisen in the course of the active adaptation of a society to the specific conditions of its life. The other, on the contrary, manifests but a single type. It is rooted in the basic production unit of primitive society – the community, a relatively stable social form, which reacts sensitively to all changes in the natural environment. In combination these two blocks explain both the unity and the diversity of primitive society as a social and cultural entity. Traditional hunter-gatherer societies, whose historical development took place in different geographical and historical conditions, are alike in practically everything which is part of the social and economic conditions of their existence, but some of these societies display profound differences in many other aspects. However much the conditions of traditional primitive society of life may have varied, its social and economic structure preserved its basic structural unity.

As a universal phenomenon, containing the regular features of social and historical development, this second block makes it possible to reconstruct, with great reliability, the social life of ancient hunters and gatherers as studied by archaeology. The approach proposed helps to lay bare the internal, deep mechanisms, the tendencies and regularities which lie at the heart of social life. The limits imposed on the original ethnographic data by some specific parameters can make the procedure for reconstruction of ancient society still more meaningful. For instance, the caribou hunters – the Nuna-miut Eskimos and the Nabesna, Montagnais-Naskapie and the northern Athapascan-Chipewyan Indians as a whole constitute a certain economic-cum-cultural and social-cum-historical type. Grouped together with the Nganasans, who are akin to them in their circumstances, and in their economic activity, they can provide the basis for the construction of a certain ethnographic model. In its turn, this latter will serve as basis for the reconstruction of a certain stage of primitive history in certain ecological conditions, such as those prevalent the Late Palaeolithic and Mesolithic hunters of Europe.

Our Soviet tradition used to consider the gens as the basic social unit of primitive society and the development of gentile organisation from matrilineality to patrilineality as the dominant line of social evolution. On the contrary, I consider the community as the fundamental socio-economic unit of primitive society. I believe that it was the community that determined the development of primitive society. The social structure of hunters and gatherers offers ample evidence showing that the community is the main cell of primitive society and defines the functioning and development of the whole social structure.

I characterise the primitive community as a group of families leading a common economic life on their own territory. The existence of a community is cyclic: it disintegrates into smaller groups, which I name economic groups, then reintegrates again (cycles of fission and fusion). The question of the gens and the correlation of gentile organisation with the community I shall consider later.

But first of all I would like to discuss the main universal parameters of a community in any given geographical region:

  1. the existence of structural units as family, economic group and temporary task group
  2. territoriality
  3. the dependence of the size and stability of the community on the ecological conditions of production
  4. the connectedness of the community to a defined ecosystem
  5. predominance of collective ownership of land and natural resources
  6. predominance of collectivism in social life and in food obtaining alongside with individual food obtaining and intra-familial distribution
  7. adequate food distribution (nobody is left out)
  8. division of labour according to age, gender and emerging individual specialisation
  9. intercommunity economic exchange
  10. community self-awareness of its members.

I shall discuss some of these parameters in more detail. The form of existence of a primitive hunting and gathering community is a combination of temporary economic groups, consisting of single families. Moreover, a community distinguishes within itself various temporary task groups, differing in gender and age, and each serving clearly defined economic and other tasks.

The main elements of primitive social structure can already be found among the Tasmanians, the most archaic of the societies known to ethnography. These include a community, a family, an economic group and a task group. A more complex communal structure incorporates two levels, constituted by a lower and a higher community (for instance among certain Australian tribes, among the Veddas and some other peoples). Communal mobility, the balance between a settled and a nomadic life-style is in fact an adaptation to changing external conditions, to cyclic natural patterns.

The community is first of all a leading production collective, one endeavouring to adjust its structure, composition and relative numbers according to productive requirements. A universal feature of a primitive community is its territoriality, i.e., more or less persistent attachment to a certain territory, which is economically exploited by it, and the upper and the lower social formations (families, aggregates of communities, tribes) also tend towards territoriality. The flexible socio-territorial organisation of hunters and gatherers is well adapted, to the conditions governing its economic activities. The community is one of the most important structures, created by a primitive society to adapt itself socially to a changing ecological environment. It is linked to a certain ecological niche, and is a part of a certain ecosystem. In accordance with local conditions, this system takes on diverse forms even in a single and comparatively small ethnic group, such as, for example, the Tasmanians or the Andamanese.

Though in various forms, territoriality is characteristic of all hunting and food-gathering peoples, its actual practice realisation differs. Generally, under communalism, all lands are clearly delineated and safeguarded. However, in ecologically complex conditions, the borders of communal territories are not fully clear, and the territories of neighbouring communities may overlap in part. Land and other resources are distributed so as to provide favourable conditions for all the neighbouring communities throughout the year. This is facilitated by the exchange of resources on a mutually advantageous basis. When a drought spells hunger to a community it may find means of subsistence on the land of neighbours with whom they maintain friendly and reciprocal ties, as well as relations of kinship and matrimony. Mutual assistance is a remarkable feature of communalism, applying both to its economic and non-economic spheres.

In the last analysis, the size and relative stability of communities depend on the conditions of production, i.e., on the natural environment and on hunting technology (for example the difference between the bow-hunting Pygmies and the net-hunting Pygmies), as well as on the level of territoriality, and the nature of relations inside a community.

Under conditions of pre-agricultural communal is in, all land and its resources, being the principal means of production, belong to a community. Communal land ownership, in combination with personal ownership of items for individual and family use, forms the basis for primitive socio-economic structure. In some cases we come across pieces of communal land being conditionally owned by a family. Tribes and two-level communities have a similar hierarchal land ownership. Sometimes, the members of a community who comprise its core are the landowners. The Australians recognise kinship groups, or a kinship nucleus of a community, as land owner; Bushmen have a consanguineal land ownership, according to which land belongs to a group of blood kinsmen, or a kin nucleus of a community. However, we should distinguish between the land being factual economic property of a whole community, and land being property of a group of people recognised as such by themselves and by the society to which they belong.

The demand for food and its distribution predominantly require a collective effort, supplemented by procurement of food by individuals and by infra-family distribution. Distribution depends on the outcome of individual and collective efforts and on certain other factors – mainly the dominant relations inside a community and between communities. It reflects the total of intracommunal and intercommunal relations and links.

Adequate food distribution offers certain advantages only to elderly people and specialists, bringing about certain social differentiation inherent in primitive society. It can be discerned, among the Tasmanians and reaches a relatively well developed state among the Californian Indians. However, primitive society knows no proprietal and social stratification, though some of its pre-conditions were emerging among the Californian Indians. The leading position of males in a primitive society cannot in any way be seen as an element of social inequality. Cooperation and collectivism are the strong points of a primitive society. The social status of its members varies slightly, depending mainly on gender, age, experience and personal abilities. Primordial democracy, which does not exclude social specialisation and resultant differences in the position of groups and individuals, is a characteristic feature of a primitive community.

In a primitive pre-agricultural society, two types of social division of labour should be distinguished; that arising within a community, based on gender and age differences, and that arising between communities, based on the differences in ecological conditions and in cultural traditions. Exchange between individuals (within a community), and between communities or tribes, blend economic and social elements. Among the Australians, the Bushmen and some other peoples, there is a recurrent and systematic exchange of resources between contiguous communities.

A relatively stable internal structure, autonomy and economic autarchy of a community, and concentration of communicative links within it, produce a number of distinctive features: these are the presence of a language for infra-group communication, specific phenomena in the field of material and spiritual culture, and finally the differentiation between ones own and other collectives and communities (self-awareness and self-designation). These phenomena create a distinctive border-line between communities, and are evident among the Australians, the Bushmen, and other peoples. The tribe at this stage of development is an emerging ethno-social entity, which is mainly a territorial unit of communities having common ancestors and cultural heritage. Normally, it does not form a single whole, either politically or economically. The boundaries of a language and of a tribe do not always coincide. At the same time, the communities forming a tribe constitute autonomous economic and political units. That is why the community is the main socio-economic cell of society, and is decisive for the development of self-awareness of its members. Other forms of self-idenditication (tribal etc.) are believed to be secondary. Man's self-determination in such a society has a clear-cut localised and communal nature. The community being an ethno-social entity, and bearing the main ethnic properties, historically precedes the tribe in this particular function. Cultural and linguistic traditions of a community are maintained by a stable nucleus, consisting of people born in the community – a nucleus of the lineage among the Australians, and a nucleus of bilaterally related kinsmen among the Bushmen. Being the main socio-economic unit, the hunting and gathering community is historically the earliest ethnic entity. The ethnogenetic factors of a social entity are therefore formed on a solid and stable social basis.

The peoples mentioned, so far represent various economic and cultural types, and are very diversified, as far as their cultural adaptation and social development and communal evolution are concerned. This has the remarkable consequence that, whatever the geographic and historical environment, traditional pre-agricultural communities as instruments of social adaptation share common structural and functional principles. This is the basis for the variations developed by the hunting and gathering community in the course of several millennia of adaptation to a changing world. This foundation enables a poorly equipped society to survive in a harsh "threshold" environment. Primitive society compensates for inadequate technology by using a reliable and functionally flexible social organisation centred around a community.

A flexible communal organisation, periodic changes of population and composition, are very advantageous under the conditions of hunting and gathering. It accounts for seasonal changes and for the specifics of the deployment of available resources and, moreover, it mitigates social stress. Both economic groups and communities are endowed with a wide variety of sizes. However, their variability has its limits. A very small group is incapable of solving its economic and social problems, while an excessively large groups requires more labour to maintain itself, and is often the cause of s ode-psychological tension which develop into open conflicts. The size and composition of a community often depends on the number of adult hunters. However, introvert and extrovert phases, resulting from changing ecology, have both a social and an economic significance. This is clearly visible in the big group phase among the Eskimo peoples, which is devoted to seal hunting and to intensive social life. The same is true of the Australians, the Bushmen and other hunting and gathering peoples.

I distinguish between two basic structures of the primitive pre-agricultural society, namely the community and the kinship group. The community is the main unit of production, and at the same time the owner of land because, in primitive pre-class society, land is the property of the group which works on the land and appropriates the products of its work. This group consists not only of the members of one gens (if gens-organisation exists at all), but also of the members of other communities and therefore of other gentes – for example, the wives of the male members of the community. In the history of primitive society the community, as the fundamental social institution, engenders such institutions as kinship groups, and the latter sometimes regard themselves as owners of the land. But even in such cases the community remain the owner of land in the economic sense of the word.

Kin relationships play a great role in the formation of the primitive communities. The core of the community members trace descend ties through them. Ties of blood relationship are the universal (though not the only) structural factors of the community organisation. The gens organisation is based on ties of blood relationship, and in the end on the basis of the community. The structural-formative importance of blood ties within the society and between societies is obvious from the system of fictive kinship (for example in Australia, or the system of name-relationships among the Bushmen).

There are two main types of the correlation between community and kinship organisation, two types of communities

  1. the local clan community, based on a localised clan, and
  2. the heterogeneous community, consisting of representatives of some unlocalised kinship groups.

There is a tendency to erase the boundary between societies based on acquisition and on productive types of economy. The process took place unevenly in various parts of the world and was very protracted. Nevertheless, in historical perspective, it was only the transition to an economy based on the production of means of production, jointly with the establishment of permanent settlements, rapid increases in population (demographic surges), accumulation of a surplus product, etc., which laid the foundation of a fully-formed class-endowed society, and of the state and urban civilisation. This is why it is entirely proper to call the transition from acquisition-type to productive economy a "revolution", for revolution is the transition to something qualitatively different from that which had existed previously. This remains true even if this revolution stretched over millennia, and has still not been completed in many parts of the world.