Lecture 8

Subsistence, Ecology and Food production


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 society.


Recent Advances in the Study of Human Evolution

Man 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 years)

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 clearly seen:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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)


  1. Populations scarce, with some sedentary groups in very favorable habitats.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Gender relationships are often, though not invariably, egalitarian.
  6. 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 Europeans.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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 ancestors.

  1. 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.


  1. 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.  

A 19th 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.

An 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].


  1. 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 habitats.

It is likely that Paleolithic hunters lived in larger groups, did not move around quite as much, and probably had more warfare than contemporary hunters.


Perhaps a 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 practiced.

Most of 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.

  1. 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 agriculture).


  1. 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 "Affluent Society"

During the last phases of the Paleolithic (the last 40,000 years before agriculture) there were a number of very important cultural changes:

  1. dog
  2. advanced cooking and grinding techniques
  3. 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 reproduced).
  4. Increased use of water resources and fish.
  5. Expansion of man into parts of world never in before (Australia, possibly New World, Philippines and Borneo).
  6. 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 food.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. More sleeping, resting, and goofing off, in foraging society than in any other condition of mankind.
  3. Most hunters underachieve. When they have enough they stop.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Population Density

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.

  1. 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.)
  2. 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).
  3. 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.

Direct infanticide (intentional killing) vs. indirect infanticide (neglect).

          Aside: 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 this.

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 

  1. Food producing and foraging are not mutually exclusive and there are plenty of people in the world who do a bit of both, in varying degrees.
  2. 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].  
  3. 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.
  4. 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 Guinea 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 for women.

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 population densities.

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.


  1. Peasants are rural cultivators with a special kind of relationship to the outside world.

Peasants 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 anthropologists.
  4. 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 traditions.
  5. 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 the US).
  6. 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.
  7. 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).
  8. 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.
  9. 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.).
  10. 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.