How Egalitarian Are Hunter-Gatherers?
Hunter-gatherers have long been anthropology’s favorite exemplar—of whatever social, political, or moral principle an analyst wishes to support. The twists and turns in this intellectual history have been ably reviewed elsewhere (e.g., Winterhalder 1993; Kelly 1995;Marlowe 2005). We wish to avoid any suggestion of endorsing a new stereotype for what is inherently a diverse set of societies. However, we do think our findings support a reassessment of the view that hunter-gatherers (with a few obvious exceptions) are characterized by pervasive equality in wealth and life chances.
The intergenerational wealth transmission coefficients estimated here range from values that are very low and statistically indistinguishable from zero to ones near or above 0.4. Let us focus on intermediate values of β≈0.25, close to several measures (Table 5). While far below a perfect transmission rate of 1.0, this measure indicates a fairly high bias in the life chances according to the parent’s wealth. Indeed, as detailed in the introductory paper in this forum by Bowles et al., β=0.25 implies that a child born into the top wealth decile of the population is 5 times more likely to remain in the top wealth decile than a child whose parents were in the bottom decile. Even a β of 0.1 implies that a child born into the top wealth decile is twice as likely to remain there as is one born into the bottom decile. These results suggest that in hunter-gatherer populations, even those with extensive food-sharing and other leveling devices (Cashdan 1982), the offspring of those better off will tend to remain so, and conversely.
But how much wealth inequality actually exists in these populations? The Gini coefficients listed in Table 5 are low compared to contemporary societies, and even to agricultural and pastoral populations (see other papers in this forum); but they are far from negligible. Excluding the low coefficients for weight, the Ginis range from 0.2 to 0.5, and even including weight the α-weighted average is 0.25 (Table 5). This value is the same as the income inequality in contemporary Denmark (0.25), the country with lowest such value in 2007 (UNDP 2007). Thus, to the extent that our measures for this set of foragers are representative, wealth inequality is moderate—that is to say, very low by current world standards, but far from a state of “primitive communism” (cf. Lee 1988).
The combined picture from the intergenerational transmission (β) and inequality (Gini) estimates suggests we may need to rethink the conventional portrayal of foragers as highly egalitarian and unconcerned with wealth. Even classic examples of hunter-gatherer society display more inequality than is widely appreciated. For example, evidence indicates that leadership was much stronger among the Ju/’hoansi in the past before the Bantu arrived, with the best foraging areas (n!ore) held by strong families (Wiessner 2002), and the language has distinct words for poor, ordinary and rich.