Subsistence, Ecology and Food
Purpose here to
discuss the material basis of human society and culture. That is, humans are obviously animals who have
a need for certain basic material wants -- food, some shelter perhaps, warmth,
health, etc-- which must be minimally met. The question here is basically to
identify the mode of production which necessarily lies at the foundation of any
Recent Advances in the Study of
has been recognizably man for a couple of million years at least, and during
most of this time we have been foragers - obtaining subsistence by gathering
various wild vegetable and fruits and hunting animals (both large and small,
although really big game hunting may be relatively recent in the last l00, 000
Systematic raising of domesticated
plants goes back perhaps 12,000 years ago, although rudiments go back far
earlier, and there is some evidence that crops such as bananas and certain
tubers may go back pretty far in SE Asia [maybe 25,000 BP]. The archaeology of
this is unknown because tropical rainforests are not very good for the
preservation of remains.
If you review the history of study
of human evolution in the last 100 years or so [since the idea of evolution
took root in the intellectual community] it is amazing HOW RAPID OUR UNDERSTANDING HAS BEEN IN THE LAST 50 YEARS OR SO.
Major change: the SHEER NUMBER OF
FOSSILS. If you looked at the state of human paleontology in the 1950’s and it is remarkable
how FEW FOSSILS THERE WERE and they were a very odd lot indeed [including a
couple of frauds].
By perhaps a million years ago the
basic pattern of the human adaptation to the natural world could be
- Basic human locomotor system
pretty much established: upright posture, freeing hands to make and use
tools (and hold babies). Changes have occurred since then, but mainly in
the face and the relative size of the brain.
- Probably the basic structure of human family established.
This was clearly based on the sharing of food (something other primates do
not generally do) and probably the establishment of the sentiment of
reciprocity (the universal idea that "a gift given must be
repaid" [however variable the definition of "repayment"]).
Extensive food sharing is very characteristic of humans, and is probably
hard-wired to some extent. It may have developed along with increased
hunting and use of meat in the diet, as we know that many carnivores share
food (for the practical reason that one animal may not be able to consume
an entire large kill). Chimpanzee males share food with each other and
with females and infants ----but usually only meat. The elimination of
estrus ("heat") in which female is "receptive" to sex
all the time. [ But do not take this too
literally -that human females are always receptive to sex is a view held
by males who are too young to have had much experience or too old to
remember!] Although the primary avoidance of incest (close mating: Mo-So, Fa-Da, Bro-Si) is probably
hard wired in humans and other mammals to some extent, the explicit cultural
prohibition of incest probably also emerged at this time, and
eventually has had enormous consequences for the construction of complex
systems of marriage exchange.
- Hunting and trapping of animals, and gathering of wild
foods. Hunting tended to be male specialty (particularly if larger game)
while gathering tended to be female (this can be done while carrying an
infant). Thus , the sexual division of labor
established. There was an increase in range of territory (most other
primates, but not all, will die within a few miles or so of where they
were born). Man, on the other hand, is a free ranging species, and
cultural traits like tool use, clothing, and fire eventually enabled man
to move out of the tropics.
Of the 80 billion or so people who
have lived on the earth since about 1/2 million years ago, 90% have been
foragers. Hunting and gathering is the most successful adaptation man has
developed. When humans become extinct (no doubt we will - but don’t sell all
your stock just yet), a future archaeologist from outer space would have to
conclude that the history of our species was a long period of successful
adaptation to a foraging way of life, followed by a quick florescence of
agriculture, and an explosion of industrialism which quickly burned itself out.
What is the larger importance of
this? Much of our basic social organization, almost all of our bodily
structure, the structure of our emotions and sentiments, and the general
capacities of our intellect, evolved in conjunction with this hunting and gathering
way of life. We are still hunters, for sure, although we do not do much of it
any more. And this fact has some interesting implications.
Foragers lived in bands of perhaps
25 people to as many as a couple hundred in favorable settings. It is not surprising
that the maximum number of people that humans can deal with as whole persons is
still limited to this number, rooted as it is in our evolutionary past. If
there is one principle of social organization that seems to me indisputable is
that if you increase the size of a group beyond a certain point you must
decrease the quality of the relationships.
We cannot deal with everybody we
work with in the factory or the office in the same way we deal with close
friends or family - we only have so much emotional energy as it were. We
evolved in small groups, and that is where our sentimental marbles still are.
Humans still find it much easier to conceive of social reality in terms of
small groups -- indeed to act as if those groups were the only social reality
at times. On a less happy note, we are also capable of using out sentimental
attachment to primary small groups as a vehicle for creating imagined
communities: nationalistic entities which we fantasize are like these
primary groups of our primary experience, but which sometimes turn out to be
monstrous political units.
Characteristics of Foraging Societies (there are
exceptions to all of these generalizations here and there)
- Populations scarce, with some sedentary groups in very
- People organized into groups by only two principles of
organization: locality and kinship. That is, there was the band, which is
basically a local or territorial group. And there was the family and
various extensions of the family to include perhaps lineages and other
kinds of kinship organizations in some instances.
- Many (but not all) foragers seem to be characterized by
what has been called the patrilocal band; men tend
to spend their lives hunting in the territory they were born in (and
therefore know well). Daughters tend to marry out into other bands (thus
having to learn new foraging territory, but it is less precarious than
having the young men move out. ) Hunting in
groups might be marginally more efficient among brothers or patrilineally related cousins.
- No formal specialization of work except by age and sex,
with the exception of a part time religious specialist. Of course, some individuals
are always better at some things than others.
- Gender relationships are often, though not invariably,
- There is no private property in land as we understand it,
although land is valuable as a site and bands may have vague right to
particular territories, water holes, etc. The foraging peoples of Eastern
Northern Canada had specific individual rights in hunting territories, but
there is a long standing unresolved debate as to whether this was an
indigenous institution, or developed because of the fur trade with
- There was leadership and political domination, but within
a framework of a very basic egalitarianism. That is, there were as many
positions of leadership available as there were men of ability to fill
them. (A bit like the leadership in a school yard). Although foragers in
relatively favorable habitats may have had some ranked political leadership. (Australian Aborigines on SE Coast) Warfare
among foragers tends to stem from personal grudges and feuds, with little or
no desire for booty or territory.
- Economic life is dominated by sharing and reciprocity.
Very often elaborate schemes for the distribution of meat based on
kinship. This is practical because if you have a large animal it must be
eaten before it rots -- Bushmen have elaborate system of sharing (hunter
gives share to his relatives, who give to their relatives) so that the
meat spreads throughout the band a bit like the ripples in a pond.
- Artistic creativity is mainly stuff you don’t have to
carry about: oral art, humor, poetry, dance, music, bodily decorations
etc. Some of the greatest (if unknown) poets have been foragers.
- Religion by and large stresses adjustment and harmony
with the natural world -- certain not overcoming it or fighting it. No
salvation religions -- where the inequalities of this world are overcome
in a later world.
BUT NOTE: It is very difficult to
generalize about foraging societies and particularly tricky to generalize from
existing or recent hunter- gathers to our pre-agriculture Paleolithic
- In foraging societies hunting may actually account for a
small amount of total caloric intake (about 20-40% for many recent
hunters). As man moved out of the tropics into temperate zones, rather
late in human history, meat probably became more important. Eskimos live
almost entirely on meat and fish, although they are quite exceptional. The
importance of hunting is that while gathering can be done by both men and
women, hunting (at least large animals) can be done much more efficiently
by men. Men can run faster than women on average, and have more capacity
for short bursts of tremendous energy. The human infant does not have an
automatic clinging response, and must be held by mother. Hunting larger game sometimes
required long periods away from camp and the care of infants. Although
many females are certainly capable of hunting large game, as a practical
matter under Paleolithic conditions it was not very efficient.
- Hunting requires cooperation (particularly among males)
of a different sort than found in other primates. In other primates males
may relate very much in terms of dominance hierarchies, but for humans a
great deal of cooperation and sharing is necessary. But note: at least some hints of
cooperative hunting can be seen in chimps.
century German ethnologist Heinrich Schurz (Alterklassen und Mannerbunde)
argued that while women can get primary social satisfactions in the
mother-child bond, men are necessarily somewhat excluded from this, and seek
social comfort from other males. Although he certainly overstated his case, we
know that men cross-culturally are much more likely to form restrictive secret
societies and clubs, although there are many variable cultural factors involved
in this fact.
example of a kind of functional equivalent of "hunting" in
contemporary urban society: firefighting. A bunch of men sitting around
together for long periods of time waiting for something to happen,
and when it does it is very dangerous and requires much cooperation and
coordination, and great physical exertion. This is basically very similar to
large game hunting. Perhaps (? - you may want to argue with this) the
dynamics here explain why firefighters have been very resistant to inclusion of
women [at least as equals].
- It is very difficult to extrapolate from recent surviving
hunting peoples to our Paleolithic ancestors. All living hunters, or those
who survived until quite recently, (Eskimo, Bushmen [Ju
Huansi] of Kalahari desert in S Africa, Australians, Shoshone Indians, Negritos of SE Asia, Punan
of Borneo, etc) inhabit marginal habitats which for one reason or another
were not suited from the intrusion of agricultural peoples. Existing
hunters may on the whole live in smaller groups than our Paleolithic
ancestors, but also tend to be more peaceful (Eskimos, as usual, are the
exception here). Hunters are very vulnerable to neighbors who want their
land for farming or horticulture, thus tend to concentrate in marginal
likely that Paleolithic hunters lived in larger groups, did not move around
quite as much, and probably had more warfare than contemporary hunters.
better idea of our Paleolithic ancestors is provided by the Indians of Central
and N. California up though British Columbia. Because of very favorable food supplies
(acorns in California, Salmon in NW Coast) there were permanent
villages with fairly high population densities, and in
general a very sedentary "good life" without agriculture being
our detailed knowledge of the native Australians is based on surviving groups
in the outback. There is evidence that the groups that lived in the SW coast of
Australia and Queensland on the E coast had much denser
populations, and had more elaborate political organization.
- Another reason why contemporary foragers are only very
indirect evidence of our Paleolithic ancestors is that during the last few
thousand years before agriculture (Mesolithic) all sorts of new
technologies were developed, particularly technologies which enable man to
efficiently exploit marine resources, and techniques for grinding and
preparing seeds and nuts (which may have laid the foundation for
- Most existing contemporary hunters have some relationship
with surrounding agricultural peoples. For example the Pygmies of Ituri Forest, and the so
called Negritos of Malaya supply forest products
to the agriculturists in exchange for some food or goods.
The so-called original
During the last phases of the Paleolithic
(the last 40,000 years before agriculture) there were a number of very
important cultural changes:
- advanced cooking and grinding techniques
- Specialization of stone working techniques and tool
types, very finely crafted blade tools of all types. (These were the
master stone workers of all time – many of these tools cannot be
- Increased use of water resources and fish.
- Expansion of man into parts of world never in before (Australia, possibly New World, Philippines and Borneo).
- Sewn clothing - great use of bone and needles
The popular view of hunters is
that they are rude people on the brink of starvation, living a life that was
"solitary, nasty, brutish, and short"( in
the words of Thomas Hobbes). Hence at the first opportunity man invented
agriculture -- some bright inventor dropped a seed in the ground and discovered
that you could plant food. So man settled down, lived in villages, became a
farmer, learned to produce agricultural surpluses, making it possible to live
in cities. Ultimately you end up with rulers, governments, taxes, standing
armies, priests, and having to wait in line at the supermarket to buy your
This is a just so story. Most
contemporary hunters actually know about growing food, but they also know that it
entails much more work than hunting and gathering does. Furthermore, we know
that in the New
World plants were
domesticated for a couple thousand years before people settled down, and in the
Old World there were villages of a sort before
domestication took hold.
There are two ways to achieve an
affluent society: by assuming (as we do) that human wants are infinite,
and then work as hard as one can to increase the means of satisfying them, or
2) by assuming that human wants are limited and that the existing means
to achieve these wants is sufficient. Modern economics is based on the
assumption of infinite wants and expanding methods of providing for them. You
might describe foragers as operating with a kind of "Zen economics"
which assume that wants and limited and existing methods sufficient.
Most of us live in the cultural
clutches of something which might be called the bourgeois mentality:
that humans have infinite desire for goods and infinite ingenuity to devise new
techniques for getting them. Through hard work anything is possible.
If we use this model, our
understanding of foraging societies will be distorted. The bourgeois
mentality assumes that poverty is simply a relationship of people to the
amount of goods they have. But Marx clearly pointed out that poverty is a
social relationship between people, not a relationship of people with things.
We are obsessed with the question
of scarcity, but this a feature of our economic system. Most hunters have
nothing approaching the modern idea of scarcity. They have great faith in the
ability of the habitat to provide for their wants.
There is a good bit of evidence
that hunting and gathering peoples do not work very hard.
- Bushmen (Ju huansi)
of Kalahari in Namibia in SW Africa worked on average at subsistence
related activities about 3 hours a day. Some S. American hunters have day
of work followed by day of rest. One hunter can on average support 5
people among Bushmen -- which makes it about as
efficient as French agriculture before WW II.
- More sleeping, resting, and goofing off, in foraging
society than in any other condition of mankind.
- Most hunters underachieve. When they have enough they
- Starvation occurs very infrequently -- about 1/2 of the
agricultural world goes to sleep hungry every night. Rare among existing
hunters and probably rarer still in the Paleolithic.
- Malnutrition very uncommon.
What is relationship of man to
tools? Although the skill required to use them as very
formidable, the tools of hunting peoples were rather simple items like digging
stick for roots, bow and arrow, spears and spear throwers, harpoons, needles,
axes, knives, snares, traps baskets, slings, fishhooks, etc. These tools were
largely an extension of capacities already in the human body (the spear is an
extension of the arm, needle an extension of the fingers, basket an extension
of the arms, digging stick an extension of the hands, etc. )
Modern tools are largely replacements for man and do tasks which man could not
do alone. As Thorstein Veblen
(an iconoclastic American economist in the early 20th century)
pointed out, modern man exists for the machine, rather than vice versa. [It is
interesting that the computer is actually a rather Paleolithic kind of tool --
in spite of all the nonsense about artificial intelligence and computers being
able to replace human brains, in fact all computers do are certain things the
human brain is itself capable of doing, only very much faster and efficiently
-- it is an extension of some of man’s mental capacities].
Result of this: among hunters
while the tool is simple, the skill required to operate it is very complex. All
labor until quite recent times was skilled labor. The are
hundreds of complex snares and traps in anthropology museums which nobody can
put back together again. Only with agriculture do to you get labor as drudge, and of course under the industrial system you have
the worker completely unskilled and alienated from his tools. The worker in a
capitalist system does not own or control the tools he needs for his own likelihood.
The good life among hunters can
only be sustained if population densities are kept pretty low. There is great
variability in the population that can be sustained by hunting and gathering in
different habitats (the carrying capacity of the land), but 1-2 person sq. mile
is very common. In all of France in the Upper Paleolithic there were
probably not more than about 20,000 people.
One problem here is that under
maximal conditions human populations will expand very fast. Hutterites
in Canada average 10.7 births per woman.
Foragers have both the techniques
and the motivation available to limit population, and there are natural methods
which operate as well.
- Disease. Certainly some bacterial and viral diseases operate
to cut population. TB, Colds, dysentery, etc. But with fairly good
nutrition, these did not take that much of a toll. The really dangerous
epidemic diseases (cholera, plague, small pox etc. )
all require high population densities to sustain them. (Measles requires a
minimum of about 50,000 concentrated people to sustain itself.)
- Health -- evidence that late Paleolithic people probably
as generally healthy or more so as we are today. At 30,000 BP (before
present) males averaged 5'11, females 5'6; by 3000 BP males averaged 5'6,
females 5'0. Only very recently has stature gone back to the Paleolithic
standard. Tooth loss at death adjusted for age: 2.2 @30000BP, 3.5 @8000
BP, 6.6 in Roman times (Tooth loss is very closely related to nutrition
and protein intake).
- Life expectancy - At birth Bushman has about 32.5 years.
(This is quite high) Most recent increases in life expectancy at birth due
to declining infant mortality. If take hunters at age l5, life expectancy
not too much lower than in modern populations. Death tends to be from
accidents rather than disease.
Although hunters lack chemical or
mechanical methods of contraception, they have various techniques of inducing
abortion, which is not uncommon. But, abortion may also terminate the life of
the mother as well as the infant, and most hunters rely rather on infanticide.
This runs gamut from violent killing (bashing kid against rocks, or burying alive etc) to simple neglect, which is the most common.
Women usually do not like to do this, Bushmen women very sorrowful at having to
kill their infants.
infanticide (intentional killing) vs. indirect infanticide (neglect).
most discussions of abortion in US today ignore the reality of indirect
infanticide in some poorer segments of the population. It may be that denying
abortion will merely push up the indirect infanticide rate.
Mobile hunters must space out
children, since they spend a lot of time lugging them about (Bushmen women
average trekking 4900 miles with child before it is fully on its own).
Best method of contraception is
prolonged nursing and lactation, which delays the resumption of ovulation.
Actually, ovulation seems to start up again when women achieve a certain ratio
of body fat to weight, which is delayed by the fact that a nursing infant
drains about 1000 extra calories a day. Augmented by fact
that in hunting societies there is high protein intake, low starch. In
agricultural societies where starch is a high percentage of food, women at best
can delay ovulation for perhaps a year after birth; among the Bushmen it can be
delayed several years.
Infanticide is mostly female
infanticide -- doubly effective because this eliminates the reproductive
potential of the dead infant as well. The number of women usually determines
the rate of fertility. Note: killing infants is seldom done
callously. Do not read our values into
Warfare and hunting deaths are the
other way of keeping populations down, although warfare among hunters is not
usually terribly lethal. It is mostly young males who get killed - - these are
the most expendable members of most societies,
- Food producing and foraging are not mutually exclusive
and there are plenty of people in the world who do a bit of both, in
- Food producing is sometimes just simply called agriculture,
although the term agriculture is sometimes distinguished from horticulture
-- horticulture is gardening with simple hand tools (digging stick, hoe,
rakes etc) while agriculture proper is restricted to systems which use the
plow or other more complex means of breaking up the soil, usually in
combination with draught animals (horses, cattle, water buffalo, even
goats and dogs). Agriculture often involves irrigation, while horticulture
usually does not, In industrial agriculture
(quite recent –last couple hundred years at best) – one finds the use of
tractors and other tools that use non-animal energy. [aside
– the major innovation in the last few hundred years was the discovery
that it is possible to get power from heat].
- Two major kinds of food producing, which are very
different: ( A) Vegetative -- using clippings,
tubers, root, leaves, etc to propagate. This is probably the oldest form
of food producing, probably from SE Asia
– may go back 25000 BP or so, but there is little archaeological support
(bananas, taro, breadfruit, yams, etc.) Later developments in the New World included cassava in the Amazon basin,
and potatoes in Peru This
vegetative type of propagation was mostly in tropical rain forests or
humid subtropics. (B) Seed propagation --- classic grains (rice and millet
in China, rye wheat and oats in Middle East, S Asia and Europe, corn, beans, pumpkins and other squash
in New World). Mostly associated with temperate
regions, although extending into subtropics.
- Tropical horticulture . One
distinctive development out of the earliest food producing technologies
was the adaptation to tropical rain forest and to smaller islands (like
the Trobriands) (which is not a lush paradise as
usually described – you have a thick canopy of trees reaching upwards,
little sun on the ground, low soil fertility, thin humus layers, few large
ground dwelling mammals (birds and moneys predominate in the trees) There
is a controversy in anthropology as to when humans were able to occupy
tropical forests -- whether it is possible to be a pure forager in the
rain forest or whether it was only possible after the domestication of
useful crops which could be grown there)
The usual solution worked out by
tropical horticulturists is a technique of horticulture called shifting
cultivation (or swidden, from the
German word for this technique)). Family or kin groups usually have
considerably more land than they need at any one time. Trees are felled (or
stripped), land may be burned over to allow nutrients to leach into soil, land
prepared with digging sticks or hoes. Then a variety of root and or seed crops
are introduced. Very complex micro-ecosystem. Hanunoo of Philippines have over 400 names for cultivated
plants (only a few are domesticated) and in any given acre plot you might find
up to 40-50.
Diet is often heavy in starch, and
supplemented by the keeping of usually small domesticated animals such as pigs,
goats, chickens etc).
Possibility for the production of
food surpluses occurs as some of these societies. Tropical foods (rice, yams)
can be stored , although others cannot (bananas,
taro). In New
much of the surplus is used to feed pigs, which serve as an important source of
wealth. The heavy work in felling gardens in done by men, but most of the
everyday care is done by women, thus you often find (particularly in New
Guinea) that control over the labor of women becomes an instrument of politics
among men, such as taking multiple wives or financing marriages. Although, as
Weiner points out in her book on the matrilineal Trobriands
that you are reading, it is also true that you may find men in effect working
Shifting cultivation is
potentially an ecological disaster – if you burn over the land a second time
before it has reverted to forest cover (this can take 20-30 years in some
areas) you end up with a parched infertile, and often concrete like soil (in
areas that have lateritic soils) A balanced shifting
cultivation system is possible only with very careful methods, and fairly low
Some peoples seem to achieve this,
but others have not. The Iban (iban
iban - "men-men") of Sarawak on the N
Coast of Borneo preferred to exploit swiddens two to
three times, meaning that eventually they had to move on to other territories.
The Iban thus were an expansive population, with a
warrior ethic buttressed by the religious need for human heads ( common in SE Asian tribal societies). Expansion was at the
expense of neighboring peoples. Iban attitude was
comparable in some ways at least to the Western idea of the exploitation of
nature. [ Sorry folks, not all tribal peoples
"live in harmony" with nature.]
Pastoralism : early
food producers in the near east had mixed economies of cultivation of seed
crops and herding of domesticated animals (sheep and goats, later cattle,
horses and camels). These domesticated animals eventually became the basis of a
unique adaptation called pastoralism, which was
practiced the semi-arid steppe regions and semi- arid mountains of SW Asia and
the near east, and even in semi-desert areas.
Understanding pastoral societies
requires that we remember that they are usually in a mutual but tense
relationship with surrounding agricultural peoples – often for trade and not
always friendly. Indeed, over the short run due to short run climatic shifts,
pastoralist could become agriculturists and vice versa, particularly on the
margins of areas where farming was possible, Pastoral peoples have at various time been the scourge of China, Europe,
S Asia, and the Near East.
Most pastoral societies outwardly
appear to be male dominated and many are patrilineal.
There are at least two reasons for this 1) herding large animals tends to a
male activity and men control the important wealth, and 2) unlike agricultural
surpluses, animals are easily raided and stolen - thus calling for a bit of a
militaristic orientation. The patrilineages, can
often been segmented (pyramided) and form the basis of vast networks of social
relationships, or even empires (as the Mongols, Huns, and others were able to
do). But these empires have usually proven to be quite unstable.
Question was asked here: Why does
this pyramiding of lineages not occur in matrilineal societies like the Trobriands?
Answer: Very good question and the
answer is very complicated and theoretical. Simply
put, matrilineality is not the opposite of patrilineality except in a superficial way. Males (usually
middle aged) predominate in the public political life of almost every society.
In a patrilineal society the principle of affiliation
and the allocation of authority coincide. In a matrilineal society the
prototypical authority figure is the MO-Bro, and this means that the authority
system and the system of affiliation are a bit more convoluted.
Two kinds of pastoralism
A: nomadic pastoralism . Nomads don’t really wander, but know exactly where they
are going There is usually a set pattern of movement
often in conjunction with other ethnic groups occupying the same territory:
e.g. movement of peoples in a systematic way in Afghanistan and Iran. B: transhumance -- alternation
between wet and dry seasons -- large
groups in wet season vs. smaller aggregations in dry season. Very
characteristic of Eastern Africa (cattle mostly – which
are used for milk and blood).
Cowboys in American West could be said to be practicing a kind of commercial
almost industrial transhumance.
- Peasants are rural cultivators with a special kind of
relationship to the outside world.
are rural cultivators whose surpluses are transferred to a dominant group of
rulers that use the surplus to underwrite its own standard of living and to
distribute the remainder to groups that must be fed for their specific goods
and services". This presupposes a state. A majority of humans today are
clearly definable as peasants of one sort or another: China, India, Ceylon., most of
Latin America, Russia and much of Eastern Europe and still in some parts of Western Europe such as Sicily and some other parts of Italy, and Greece. Africa
is a special case, since the state did not exist there in all parts.
- Problem here of course is how the peasants are induced
and controlled such that they are willing to transfer their surplus
without making a fuss.
- The term peasant is a kind of umbrella category. Peasants
in different systems various kinds of relationship to the land. They can
be owners in their own right, they can be serfs, working the
land of others who in turn are obligation by law and custom to give them
enough to subsist, they can be renters or sharecroppers, who may divide a
share of their crop with the landlord.
- Peasants always have to be considered in terms of their
relations with the outside world, although they can also be considered
self-contained communities, similar to other tribal societies studied by
- They are primarily subsistence cultivators, producing
much of what they need for their own subsistence, but also some surplus which is transferred to support the rulers who
usually live in cites and are capable of supporting specialized craft
- They usually live in villages, having land rights in
various tracts surrounding the village, although they can live in
dispersed settlements as well (Contrast this with the Midwestern farm in
- Peasants commonly (though not always) have a rather
conservative worldview; suspicious of outsiders, emphasize tradition,
resistant to economic change. Even though they may see themselves in
relation to the outside world on the edge of disaster, they are usually
willing to hold on to the little they have rather than risk losing it all.
- It is common (though not universal), particularly in
Latin America, to find some notion of a "image of limited good"
in which if all desired things in life (wealth, power, land, respect,
manliness, health, security, safety, friendship and love, etc) are in
short supply and if one person has more of these things than seems fitting,
it must be at the expense of someone else. The good things of life are in
short supply. Many peasant societies have leveling mechanisms
which function to reduce everybody to the same level at the end (e.g.
Mayan Indian peasants where everybody as they grow older participates in
an ever increasing series of religious offices, which are very expensive
to keep up, so as a man goes up in religious and political prestige, he is
also slipping down to the level of his fellows economically).
- Paradoxically, although peasants are often conservative,
they are often prone to rebellion. Since they live on the edge of disaster
(and usually know it), they are very edgy about perceived violations of
their just due. A rebellion
is where people rise up against perceived injustices but do not wish to
change the system. A revolution is
where there is some attempt to change the system as a whole.
- Peasant struggles against perceived oppression have
occurred in very disparate parts of the world. Often such revolts or
rebellions are led not by the poorest and most landless (who have the most
to lose) but by middle level peasants who have the resources to challenge
their overlords. Peasant revolts are usually unsuccessful in the long run
because they usually lack the political skill to run the state. ( There is
a wonderful scene in the film Viva Zapata in which Marlon Brando, playing the peasant rebel Emiliano
Zapata, finds himself in Mexico City sitting in the presidents chair and
then realizing that he hasn’t the foggiest idea what to do there.).
- In contemporary world peasants are often caught up in the
global economy in part of their lives, yet still living within the
confines of their own peasant world and village on the other. There is no
necessary contradiction between a Turkish peasant
working in a BMW plant for a couple months, then tending his flock for a
couple months. Or an S Korean peasant assembling TV sets a couple days a
week, and rice farming the other days. Becoming economically incorporated
into the so-called "modern global economy" does not always mean
giving up tradition. It may be the only way that a traditional Mexican
peasant can continue to do so (given the chaos and rampant inflation of
the Mexican economy) is by working a few days a week stitching tee shirts
for the American market.