Evading Sharing Rules

I’ve argued that although human language allowed egalitarian rules whose uniform enforcement would have greatly reduced the advantages to big-brain conniving, humans had the biggest brains of all to unequally evade such rules. Since rules to share food and other material goods are among the most important egalitarian rules, I find it fascinating to see the details of how modern foragers evade such rules:

Below the melody line in praise of generosity … a grumbling about their stinginess, neglect, and ingratitude also was evident. Public pressure on individual Anbara to share was virtually irresistible, so various counterstrategies were adopted by the diligent to prevent exploitation by the lazy or manipulative. The most effective of these, in Hiatt’s view, was eating during food collection so that the greater part of a person’s produce was in an advanced state of digestion by the time he or she returned to camp. …

Among adult men, demands for spears and other items of material culture were frequent, and two interesting strategies were used to avoid having to meet them. Valued spears or guns could be given to elderly women by their sons or other male relatives or purchased by such women with their pension checks, although the women never used the weapons for hunting. … It … allowed the person who was using the gun or spear, and who normally had it in their possession all the time, to refuse demands for it because it was not his to give. The other strategy relates most frequently to pipes and tobacco, but can be extended to almost anything. Old men, by carving sacred designs on their pipes and then covering them with strips of cloth or paperback, render them taboo to all women and any men who has not had the design revealed to him in a religious context. …

When a child cries out for food from someone nearby, he or she will be given it; but then others nearby will in turn start asking the child for some of it, often taking it from the child’s hand, explaining their relationship as they take the food: “Oh, I’m your big sister/big brother; you’ve got to give food to me.” …

[Sharing] demands can be refused. This can usually be done only by hiding, secretive behavior, and lying. … Such hiding is widespread and is a fully self-conscious strategy. … It is not only potential givers who hide resources, but also potential receivers, who hide what they have so that they may ask others because they are seen to have a need. Myers records how, after reacting angrily to a demand for cigarettes from a Pintupi man, he was surprised by the man not taking offense at his anger, but instead sympathizing with the fact that Myers had been taken advantage of. He told Myers that he should not give things away so easily and instructed him on how to hide a packet of cigarettes in his socks so that he could tell people he had none. Also, he gave Myers a packet of cigarettes and told him he had several others buried near his camp. …

This is, then, a society with collective appropriation of game, … true primitive communalism. Despite this communalism, evidence for the distribution of meat by age and sex … shows that distribution practices advantage senior men and disadvantage elderly women. … Formal [meat] sharing rules there allocate only about half the maximum number of basic cuts, leaving up to 50 percent by weight unallocated, and that where a capable hunter was not pulling his weight, meat was withheld from him, occasioning a dispute. …

“One of the least pleasing features of savage life is the quarrelling that results from dissatisfactions over food sharing”. … Over 60 percent of the topics in a sample of everyday !Kung conversations related to food and complaints about people’s generosity. Game sharing is nowhere near as rule-bound as many accounts suggest. …

Myers recounts a case where the male leader … hid cooked meat in a flour drum on hearing of the arrival of his close and generous relatives from a nearby community. One of them came across and asked whether he had any meat, to which he replied that he was empty-handed. The visitor clearly did not believe him in light of the evidence of cooking strewn about, and he proceeded – without rancor – to open various flour drums lying around until he found the meat. … [This] did not lead to a repudiation of relatedness nor create conflict, because he had been generous enough in the past. …

The stresses of having too many social relationships to negotiate leads people to try to reduce demands by retreating into smaller groups, being passive in sharing, and keeping production to a minimum. … Interviewing informants about their practices … tends to put them on their best behavior and leads them to present a normative account. Such accounts are often neat and tidy and can mesh with romanticized views of other ways of life, thus reinforcing them, as in the case of game-sharing rules. …

Demand sharing is a complex behavior that is not predicated simply on need. Depending on the particular social context, it may incorporate one, some, or all of the following elements. It may in part be a testing behavior to establish the state of a relationship in social systems where relationships have to be constantly produced and maintained by social action and cannot be taken for granted. It may in part be assertive behavior, coercing a person into making a response. It may in part be a substantiating behavior to make people recognize the demander’s rights. And, paradoxically, a demand in the context of an egalitarian society can also be a gift: it freely creates a status asymmetry, albeit of varying duration and significance. (more; HT Rob Wiblin)

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  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    I long thought this was the case. Maybe I read it somewhere else, but damned if I can remember where.

  • richard silliker

    A good example of maintaining a tension in the society which in turn helps identify the bullies; read here psychopaths. From this resulting tension bullies learn to control their behaviour or suffer retaliation. This could extend to their untimely deaths.

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