Learning From Ancient Human Cultures

October 20, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Richard Gould is a Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Brown University (where I was his student) and one of the foremost experts on hunter-gatherer societies. In the 1960s, he and his wife spent years living with the aborigines in Australia’s Western Desert, observing first-hand their way of life. Through study of these people and many others around the world, his work focused on understanding how human culture and behavior adapts to environmental stress, risk and uncertainty.

We’ve invited him to this week’s podcast to discuss what insights ancient cultures may be able to offer in terms of "quot;natural human behavior" that may fit well within our specie’s blueprint. Humans lived sustainably, with their food systems and each other, for many millennia. And yet, in today’s modern age, we have infinitely "more" than these primitive societies, but have much less general happiness (and are fast-exhausting our resource base, to boot). Are there best practices for being human that we can perhaps re-learn from our cultural predecessors?

One of the principal findings of Gould’s work is that hunter-gatherer societies, while often rarely exceeding subsistence-level living standards, were quite successful at meeting their needs. Each day when they awoke, they knew what was expected of them, and why it was important. So their work had clear and obvious meaning — to them and those in their tribe. This stands in stark contrast to modern society, where our base needs may be easily met, but we have an endless string of unfulfilled wants and manufactured "needs" that advertising and the media constantly bombard us with — creating a chronic sense of lacking and insecurity in our society.

Gould also notes that our ancestral predecessors were much more connected to each other, which gave them great peace of mind in their outlook towards future risk:

What impressed me the most about the Aborigines — and I know it to be true of many other hunter-gatherers, especially the ones living in stressed environments — is the idea of social networking. 

That is, instead of the "money in the bank" approach to security, where we in our culture aggrandize and accumulate surpluses, whatever it may be — money, goods, material wealth and so on — and rely on those for our long-term security, these people essentially give away everything they have, mostly to their relatives, but sometimes these relatives are quite distant relatives. And when they do, they are not just giving them away. They are expecting something in return. A kind of delayed reciprocity, so that years later, if they are in need, they can call on these relatives for support and aid. 

And that system of social networks is very, very robust in hunter-gatherer cultures. You find it in other kinds of societies, too, very poor societies, for example, that have not much in the way of material possessions. But because of this type of sharing, they are able to meet whatever needs come along. This is a tremendously powerful mechanism that I think we have kind of lost in our own culture. We do not appreciate the importance of this kind of social network. We are much more into securing our future based on accumulation rather than on sharing. And I think if you are asking for a kind of ‘take-home’, I would say that is probably the lesson that we need to learn. We need to pay attention to this type of social order. 

Click the play button below to listen to Chris’ interview with Richard Gould (38m:14s):


Chris Martenson: Welcome to this Peak Prosperity Podcast. I am your host, of course, Chris Martenson. You know, these are interesting times and for many these are difficult times. We are surrounded by paradoxes, broadly speaking. We arguably have the easiest lives with the best medical care ever known in human history. And yet, too many cultural markers point to a profound lack of fulfillment and happiness, whether we are looking at obesity rates, the growth in prison population, school shootings, legal and illegal drug use. The statistics point to the same thing. A whole lot of us are unhappy.

Now consider that in the 2012 CDC report on drug use, they reported that 17 percent of youths age 12 to 17 were on regular prescription medication, which means for at least three months – 17 percent, while 14 percent of children between the ages of five and eleven were medicated. Now this means that one in seven children were considered ill enough to require pharmaceutical intervention. And when looking across the whole population age 12 and over, 11 percent of Americans currently take an antidepressant, which means that nearly one in eight of us are unhappy enough to seek a pill to help cope with life. Is this a reasonable baseline or would we perhaps maybe ask if there is not something here that could stand with a bit of introspection and maybe improvement?

As I often say, in order to know where you are, you have to know the past. And today we are going to explore the role of our culture in fostering this baseline of unhealthy and unhappiness by examining different cultures. We have evolved over a very long period of time to be social creatures wired to experience and receive stimuli in certain ways. We have a DNA blueprint, if you will, and that blueprint calls out to us to seek and experience certain things. Things like love and belonging, learning, an intimate connection with each other.

Now to help us learn more about ourselves and perhaps shed some light on the roots of our disease or "dis-ease" is Richard Gould, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Brown University. Dr. Gould studied human cultural and behavioral adaptations to stress and risk and uncertainty, and initially, these studies looked at living societies, specifically in Northwest California, in Australia’s Western Desert and in subarctic Finland, and related the findings to archaeological remains. That is the part about knowing where we have come from. And he has also worked on victim identifications and recoveries as part of the Disaster Mortuary Operations Recovery Team or DMORT, which included some time at the World Trade Center site. Now we probably will not have time to get into that interesting part of his life, but I will note it here for interest and possible future reference. Welcome, Dr. Gould.

Richard Gould: Well, welcome. Thank you, Chris. You have covered a pretty big topic there but I will do my best to do justice to it.

Chris Martenson: Well, thank you. Bless you for that [laughs].

Richard Gould: I think the point you are getting at is what can we learn from other cultures, especially people who were experiencing the same kinds of lifestyles and hazards that our Paleolithic ancestors did. That is when we look back over well over two and a half to three million years of human evolution involving cultural development. These people were primarily hunter-gatherers right up until the last 10,000 years or so of human prehistory. Virtually every culture in the world was based on some sort of wild food products. They depended on wild food procurement of some kind or another. And so one of the things that I have been very interested in is looking at hunter-gatherers, modern day hunter-gatherers, and then seeing if there are lessons we can learn that would apply, especially when we try to account for the past behavior as we see it in the archaeological record.

And this is difficult because the archaeological record is incomplete. It is very sketchy. It is like a jigsaw puzzle where most of the pieces are missing and so you cannot necessarily get the kind of rich, thick picture. And I know you are asking questions about the past that may not be easy to answer because we do not have preserved—for example, languages, oral languages, did not preserve in the archaeological records. So we do not have a clear picture of the meaning or the symbolism of all of these things that we find. If we see rock art or cave paintings or other things like this, it is very hard to understand what they would have meant to the people who made them and then used them. Nevertheless, there were some important things that we have learned in all of this.

My wife and I spent two and a half years in the Australian desert living with a group of Aborigines called the Nattydatty. Wonderful people, and at that time, many of them were still living directly off the land, which was a golden opportunity to see all of these traditional behaviors. Things like stone tool making, rock art and cave painting, the whole repertoire of camp behavior, including food procurement, processing, butchering, and social interaction. It was an incredible experience and one that would be very hard to do today, because some of these cultures have changed so much just in the intervening years.

Now this was all back – it started back in the ’60s. Most of our fieldwork was done with these living groups from 1966 to ’70. And at that time, the big question, the one that we were all looking at, and other scholars were working in places like the Kalahari and in the subarctic and arctic. They were looking at some of the same questions, this whole idea, the so-called Man the Hunter myth, which was very prevalent at that time, which assumed that, in our culture—assumed that, these sorts of people were totally dependent on hunting, particularly big game hunting. And you have this image of the mighty hunter setting forth from camp and returning later in the day with the kill draped over his arm or shoulders, and the camp rejoices. As someone said once, “And they were glad.” I did not just make that up. There was a film that is called The Hunters that was made about the bushmen at that time, actually a little earlier. I think sometime around 1960. And this is exactly the image portrayed, this incredible hunt. Eventually they brought down a giraffe. We suspect it was done with a rifle off camera, not with the traditional weapons. But in any case, they brought all the pieces of meat back to the camp and indeed, they were glad. That was the narration. And the whole image, you see, gave you this sense that these people were mainly hunters.

Now since then, we have learned a great deal from empirical studies in places like the Kalahari and the Australian desert, and we know better. We know that they were primarily foragers and that their predominant diet consisted of plant foods. And it was the women who harvested these on a day-to-day basis. The men hunted and they spent a lot of time doing it, but they were not very successful. They just did not get that much for their efforts. And so we are seeing now a very different picture. It is much more complex. You had mentioned earlier a kind of mosaic of behaviors. Well, when you look across the spectrum of hunter-gatherers, you see a little of everything, including some real hunters. I mean people like the Inuit, or Eskimo, who depend on sea mammals, or the Great Plains Indians, both before and after they got the horse from the Spaniards, were bison hunters, big game buffalo hunters. And they depended very heavily on meat and they, perhaps, fit the stereotype a little better. But most hunter-gatherers, it is not like that, and what you generally find is a kind of a mix in the diet and in the behavior associated with the diet. And foraging comes right to the top. So we were pretty much dispelling that myth.

Chris Martenson: Well, let us talk about – I am really interested in your experience. Because to have spent time in the ’60s, you were probably there to witness something that, as you mentioned, with baseline shifting in those cultures, that was really, it is not available now. So you were able to see it at a period of time, these cultures back then. Let us go back to – this is going to, we are going to wander off of hard science, but I am going to ask for your impression on things. But I started with this idea that about one in eight of us today here in America are on an antidepressant. Would you just, remembering your time with the people there, would you say one in eight of the people in that tribe you were with were in need of an antidepressant?

Richard Gould: Well, if they were, I certainly could not tell. I did not have the clinical expertise to diagnose depression. And I cannot say that I ever saw it, but that does not mean anything because I would not have known what to look for. But what I can tell you is that out of this whole Man the Hunter debate, there came another line of argument, one that is directly relevant to this. And that was actually, it has been in the literature for a long time, but it was an anthropologist named Marshall Sahlins that brought this up. And it is essentially the classic difference between needs and wants. The hunter-gatherer people we studied and others had no difficulty in evaluating the important of what they were doing, because they had to go out and do it every day. They had to depend on wild food products and establish reliable means of doing so and there was never the slightest doubt in anybody’s mind about the importance of what they were doing. Whether it be gathering or hunting, either way. And that also relates to other skills that had to do with living under these conditions out in a remote, marginal area. So I think that the idea of looking for someone who is depressed because their life somehow lacks meaning or that they just have clinical depression, it is kind of a difficult thing to respond to.

But I can say that when we look at the wants that our society has developed – I will put it this way. Someone once argued that these hunter-gatherers were very, very good at meeting their relative needs. In other words, they did not work terribly hard but they got everything they felt they needed, which produced a level of satisfaction that he contrasted with other societies where a lot of sort of artificially constructed wants, whole areas of technology and symbolism and so forth, evolved.

And one could say that this became especially true after agriculture. But the fact is, we find plenty of more complex hunter-gatherers doing the same thing; that is, engaged in enormously complicated symbolic activities, and rituals, and status differentiations. You start to see different groups developing degrees of status with different almost class-like structures. In other words, inequalities. And that indicates some degree of emphasis on wants rather than needs.

In other words, dissatisfaction. The idea that some people were dissatisfied because they were not at the top of the heap. Now, you know, that is an argument we can bat back and forth. I know that there are hunter-gatherers who were, in fact, involving a sort of class structure and huge inequalities in their consumption, their patterns of consumption. The Northwest Coast Indians, including Northwest California, would be a good case in point and they are famous for this. So they were hunter-gatherers. They were pure hunter-gatherers. They had no domesticated crops. They depended totally on wild crops of all kinds, heavy on the fishing, of course. So I think that has been a major interest for us anthropologists all along. Is there a sort of characteristic way in which hunter-gatherers adapt socially as well as in terms of diet and technology? And Sahlins argued that there was. He claimed that this was a universal trait of all hunter-gatherers, and I do not accept that. I think it is a trait of certain hunter-gatherers, including the ones we studied. That is a kind of egalitarian way of arranging their social order and eliminating the kinds of wants that evolved in other groups, but there were hunter-gatherers were that was not the case, where you have inequalities and you have degrees of want accompanied by levels of frustration by the have-nots, the ones that want but cannot get.

Chris Martenson: So if the collective needs are being met and organized in such a fashion that that is the cultural understanding, you have a good shot at having satisfaction result from that. But you are saying it is around this idea of these unfulfilled wants. This wanting creates some sort of unfulfilled longing or some way of being unmet that then creates that tension within a culture or within an individual.

Richard Gould: Well, that is my story and I am sticking to it [laughter], more or less. I did not invent this idea. This has actually been in the literature and discussed a lot, as there is there a characteristically egalitarian social order, which depends heavily on sharing, networks of kin who support each other, especially when times of stress arise. And it does certainly seem as if a great many of the hunter-gatherers we studied, especially in the marginal areas like the Kalahari and the Australian desert, do in fact behave that way. I would say that other hunter-gatherers that we know about through various sources did not always behave that way. There were other groups that present us with serious inequalities and this is long before or without in the absence of agriculture. So the idea that farming societies were the ones that – you see, Jared Diamond, for example has argued that this is one of the worst things that ever happened. That domestication essentially set off a whole chain of events that prompted this kind of inequality. Well, maybe it did, but the point is there were already indications of that sort of inequality in both the ethnographic and cultural records.

One of the most interesting things about hunter-gatherers is that time and again when we studied them, both ethnographically and archaeology, we find out that — we think they are poor. They lack this. They do not have that. They are always characterized by some sort of negative stereotype, and we are thinking" gee, these people are living terrible lives." But you know, when they come in contact with agricultural people, farmers, as they did in many parts of the world, they persist in their hunting and gathering. They reject the farming, or they may trade occasionally for farm products, but they are not going to abandon their hunting and gathering way of life. That is very tenacious. The most famous example is the pygmies in tropical Africa, who had a long, long period of interaction with the Bantu farmers next door, but never adopted farming and never bought into it. And we find archaeological evidence of this – the American Southwest, for example, the Puebloan cultures. You have the famous Anasazi and other Pueblo and prehistoric Pueblo cultures. But right next door, you have evidence of hunter-gatherer people, like the Paiute, who lived side by side for hundreds, maybe even thousands of years with these groups, yet never abandoned that way of life. So that tells me that there was something internally satisfying about living that way, even though we might call them poor or impoverished by our standards. They did not see it that way. They were quite good at meeting their relative wants and needs and did not need that extra stuff that the others were offering them.

Chris Martenson: Now I am really fascinated with this wants and needs idea, because I have a hypothesis, a little bit of a projection. I think that our current culture here does some things very well and it does other things a lot less well, but I believe now, because I have matured enough, that there are certain human needs that exist in us all unless we are born with our wiring really crossed up. And those needs are things around really being seen by our tribe, as it were. Whether that is our nuclear family or the professors we meet or the people around us. Like to really be seen, to really belong, and looking across these cultures, regardless of what continent they grew up on or what sort of hunting gathering or farming practices, we find some really common elements in there. Right? We find things like ritual and regalia and various spiritual practices. All of these, there is enough commonality across these things that we say "okay. These are kind of common elements of being human, regardless of how you culturally arranged yourself, regardless of whether you live in a snowy landscape or a jungle, these are some things that seem to be common."

What I am really angling for here, Dr. Gould, is around this idea that we see increasing signs in our current life that people feel fairly isolated. That there are a variety of cultural markers of let us say less than optimal sort of functioning for a lot of people. And the question becomes listen, if we were just—Martians dropped down and we looked at our culture currently. And we said okay, here are the markers. Here is how we would sort of do a postmortem on it. And if the question is would we reassemble it in the same way, we might say well, no. There are some things here we would tweak and improve. And what I am really fascinated by is the degree to which we do not have to reinvent the wheel. Have other cultures found and been living in ways that are particularly resilient?

And so, you would know this far better than I, but I have heard the number that the Aborigines had potentially been living there for 40,000 years. And let us say that is highly sustainable. They had managed to live that way for a very long time and arguably could have continued to live that way for a very long time barring a big shift from an outside influence. So as we look at where we are in this, and we start to note the larger markers in the world, where the wildlife is dropping off, and the oceans are being stripped, and the aquifers are being run down. And we say "ah, oh, there are some things here we would love to shift and so maybe some things we would want to start to improve upon." But that really becomes a cultural issue. So what I am really interested in understanding is from the cultural side, how is it that you can go about maneuvering towards something and potentially away from some other behaviors. How do you go towards those? Here is the theory. The theory is that it is easier to move towards these sorts of behaviors if those are what I will call natural sort of human behaviors that fit well within our blueprint. So humans have lived sustainably in some areas of the world for very long periods of time, maybe less so in other areas, at this juncture of human history. So that is where I am really trying to get at with this, is to understand what your studies of, and let us say the Aborigines. What can we learn from that?

Richard Gould: Well, you have asked several questions here at once. So I will kind of try to take them a bit at a time. Break it down a little bit. First off, studying the Aborigines, when we did that, it became apparent that their effects on the landscape were limited. They had the use of fire and they burned areas, so that changed the ecology in ways that were quite important. And their hunting and gathering probably had some effect on it, but on the whole, their impact on the natural environment in which they were living was not that great. And that is partly because they were a small-scale society with a sort of modest technology. They were not in the position of being able to completely transform the way modern cultures do. And there has been, again, a big debate among hunter-gatherer scholars about this; for example, the idea of wilderness, which has been another stereotype that our culture has. As if there were such a thing. Well, in fact, there is no such thing as wilderness, because virtually every habitat on Earth has been affected in some way. Maybe not hugely, but sort of affected, by thousands and thousands of years of human activity, going back well before agriculture. And so this idea of sustainability hinges on what it is exactly we are trying to sustain. The habitats that we see today, in many cases, are not pristine habitats. They were already altered to a degree by our ancestors, and we do not often recognize that. And so the question is what exactly are we sustaining here? Are we sustaining a pristine environment that predates human activity or is it an environment that has been altered to varying degrees by human activity? And there is certainly a school of thought that says that there is no such thing as wilderness and that this concept is just like the Man the Hunter hypothesis. It never happened.

Chris Martenson: Wilderness is a concept I am not sure about either, whether it exists, but the idea of living in a sustainable fashion is certainly something that I am much more familiar with. One of the stories that I had read about was that when Captain Cook comes and he sails and he interacts with Aborigines a long time ago, 1700s, and they were very welcoming and very open. And then some of the men off the sailing ships started doing things that really upset them. For example, just gathering tortoises and chucking them in the holds of the ship so that they could use those as food as they continued on. And, in fact, the offense was that there was somebody who was responsible for understanding and managing the overall ecology of the tortoises, which are very slow growing, long-lived creatures. And that there was a relationship around the life cycle of those turtles that the humans were in relationship with, so there was a very complex dynamic, whereas, to the westerners coming off the ship, they were like "hey, look, turtles everywhere, or tortoises," and off they go. So there is this idea of living in a sustainable fashion, even if it obviously has impacts. We are a part of, not apart from, nature, with all of that. So the question is if the Aborigines had embedded within their culture an understanding of the mesh of ecology that they lived within and their place within it, that is something that I would say is pretty well missing from a lot of our dialogue currently in our culture. And is that something that is important to us? Is that a fulfilling sort of a relationship? Is that part of our dis-ease for some people, this disconnect from those larger webs that are actually fascinating, fulfilling and, for some, spiritual in nature, in terms of the ineluctable nature of that connection people can have with things outside of themselves that may or may not be humans. So I am wondering about that as the notion of sustainable. It is not no impact. It is living within the framework of what your local region can support in a sustainable way.

Richard Gould: Well, just speaking about the Aborigines, the idea of separating nature and human activity is almost unthinkable. There was, as you say, a kind of a ground level ecological perspective, even if it were not in the terms that ecological science would present, which saw individual people and groups as completely related to the wild species of their area and the landmarks of their area. And there is a whole huge body of literature about this. It usually is under the heading of Totemism or the nature of the sacred life. The Aborigines have their own word for this. And you are right, of course. There were all sorts of connections like that. Individuals would have a kinship, a relationship with a natural species and landmarks bearing on that, and this involved repeated visits. It involved reenactments. That was what the ceremonies and songs and dances were all about. And the idea behind this was that these species required this as a part of their well-being. The Aborigines, for example, would have the term gopedinta [PH], just like rain, meaning you had to go to one of these places and perform a certain ritual in order to sustain it. So your idea of sustainability was very much built into their view of things. And their idea of performing rituals as corporate groups was essential. They took this very seriously. So yes, of course, they had that. But that is very specific to that particular kind of culture. The Aboriginal cultures of Australia, to varying degrees, had this same approach, this same outlook. And we know other societies did, too. It is particularly common among hunter-gatherers. But you will find it among farmers as well.

Chris Martenson: I was just going to mention farmers.

Richard Gould: Oh, yes, and they have that too. I mean, again, to varying degrees, and in different ways, but yeah, you will find the same thing. The ones I think of that come to mind first are the tropical forest hunter-gatherers and farmers in places like the Philippians and Borneo and New Guinea, where their mode of agriculture is a very shifting kind. It is almost like nomadic in the sense that they have to move periodically. They cut down stretches of forest. They cultivate them, but when the soil starts to fail, lose its nutrients, they just move on and cut down a new patch. And this might seem like a not very sustainable way of doing things, but given the population levels of these groups, it works pretty well. If they were to exceed those population levels, it would not work at all. So in this case, sustainability is partly their activities but it is also partly what the land will allow, given that kind of technology.

Chris Martenson: So as we look back at what we will call the typical hunter-gatherer society, regardless, I think, of where it lived or whether it was more gatherer, or hunter, or all of that. There certainly is a case to be made that the pace of their life, the rhythm of their life was very different than the rhythm of the lives we have today. So the pacing being more seasonal if you are in a northerly or southerly latitude. There is certainly the moon pacing and rhythm to all of that. There is also, even in Hawaii, where things vary relatively little, there is a breeding season and a non-breeding season for everything. And so there is that rhythm. Those rhythms are very different than our current cultural rhythms at this point in time, certainly as technology increases to the point where our next entertainment and amusement is one finger tap away now, which is a huge change in my lifetime. And as I look on this, I am wondering if you have any observations about maybe the importance of pacing, maybe even boredom, if you will, in a person’s development.

Richard Gould: The question you are raising is a good one. Again, it has been a major theme in hunter-gatherer studies, which is leisure time. And the idea was that these hunter-gatherers, even the ones that in very marginal environments, had a lot of time off. They did not go out and just hunt and gather constantly. They were pretty efficient and they did not spend a great deal of time doing it. I think that is, by and large, true. But I would also say that a lot of that was enforced leisure. That is, there was only so much of the wild food product out there or that they could actually transport back to camp. So they were limited and, therefore, it did not do any good. Working harder would get you nowhere. Absolutely. And you are right, of course. That changes the rhythm or the pace of life. It is also means that when you find yourself in a farming situation, it could change dramatically. Then working harder does pay off. And it is interesting that you mentioned that, because there is some very good evidence from one of the earliest agricultural communities in the world, a site in Syria called Tilla Aburara [PH]. Beautifully excavated, and the thing that is interesting about it is that the early occupations were much more dependent on hunting and gathering. The later occupation, which was much bigger, was almost pure farming. And one of the things they are seeing in this is skeletal evidence of extreme stress by particularly the women, who were called upon to process all of these grains that they started growing. And in the process of doing this, developed all sorts of changes in their structure. They were squatting or kneeling in very uncomfortable positions for long periods, and it actually changed the character of some of the skeletal elements. This is something that the physical anthropologists could see. And so we are thinking "hey, wait a minute. What happens when people have to work constantly, especially the women who have to process all of these grains and things." Does this change – first off, it means they are working much harder, but also does this actually improve their lives or hurt their lives? Now that is a question. We have a limited amount of evidence that suggests these are almost self-imposed stresses, you might say. That pursuing the goal of more food through agriculture means working harder and that changes things. It changes the rhythm, but it also imposes its own stresses.

Chris Martenson: So that was across—in that site you see that shift from hunter-gatherer into this agricultural life and you started by talking about how in agriculture, there is an incentive to work harder because potentially you get more out of it. As well, there is more opportunities for hierarchy to develop, which may end up developing –

Richard Gould: That is right. That often accompanies it, yes.

Chris Martenson: Yeah, you would have a class of people who are on the bottom processing all the grains.

Richard Gould: No, I am saying that with agriculture. But there were hunter-gatherers who were pretty much the same. I mentioned the Northwest Coast Indians. Well, again, they could aggrandize food products and other things by working harder, and they, too, developed status, hierarchies, but they never had agriculture. You do not have to have agriculture for this to happen. We know there are hunter-gatherers, depending on what resources are available to them. And so that kind of thing, the Northern California Indians that I studied were like that. They definitely were developing a status hierarchy and they were also called upon to work extremely hard. Much harder than the Aborigines were, because they could actually process the foods and store them in large quantities and have them available for status-related activities, like ceremonies.

Chris Martenson: All right. So let me close it like this. I want to ask you a question. This is going to be a hard one. And the question is this. Based on what you have seen in what we are going to call the hunter-gatherer cultures, what if there was one thing you could bring and wave a magic wand and bring it into our current culture that you think would be helpful to us at this stage, what would that be?

Richard Gould: Okay. I think that is actually a fairly easy question. What impressed me the most about the Aborigines, and I know it to be true of many other hunter-gatherers, especially the ones living in stressed environments, is the idea of social networking. That is instead of the money in the bank approach to security, where we in our culture aggrandize and accumulate surpluses, whatever it may be. Money, goods, material wealth and so on, and rely on those for our long-term security. These people essentially give away everything they have, mostly to their relatives, but sometimes these relatives are quite distant relatives. And when they do, they are not just giving them away, they are expecting something in return. A kind of delayed reciprocity, so that years later, if they are in need, they can call on these relatives for support and aide. And that system of social networks is very, very robust in hunter-gatherer cultures.

You find it in other kinds of societies, too, very poor societies, for example, that have not much in the way of material possessions. But because of this type of sharing, they are able to meet whatever needs come along. This is a tremendously powerful mechanism that I think we have kind of lost in our own culture. We do not appreciate the importance of this kind of social network. We are much more into securing our future based on accumulation rather than on sharing. And I think if you are asking for a kind of take home, I would say that is probably the lesson that we need to learn. We need to pay attention to this type of social order.

Chris Martenson: Fascinating. I completely agree with that, and there are elements of that arising. People are experimenting, trying out their hand at gift economies and giving without an expectation of an immediate receipt with the idea that that accrues in some way and that we are wired for that. But there is also a cultural aspect of how does that really get – "enforced" is the wrong word, but how do you trust that culturally when you give, it will come back. There is probably a little bit of repair there to be done and all that, so yeah.

Richard Gould: Well, it is something that has to be sustained. One thing about Aborigines is that every chance a person gets to demonstrate that they are a good kinsman, they will do it, even though it may seem absurd at the time. For instance, two men meet and each exchange spears and spear throwers. They are exchanging the same thing. Nobody gets a profit. There is no gain in this. What are they doing? What they are doing is they are demonstrating their willingness to share whatever they have with anyone who is related to them whenever they ask or even need to ask. They just do it. And the idea is to build that social relationship for future reference. Not so much, just to show that it is still going, it is still working. As you said, it has to be maintained. It is not something that you just do once and just rest on it. If an opportunity comes along, you are expected to do that and they will.

I mention this because there has been a lot of discussion about inequality lately. And people, I think, are sometimes uneasy with the idea of huge gaps between the haves and the have-nots of the world. And I think they are right to feel that way. I think my own experience with Aborigines and also just in general, suggests to me that there is something very dangerous about any society that allows this kind of chasm or gulf to develop between the haves and the have-nots, and that is why I find the idea of social networking very appealing. It is one way of overcoming that problem. But there is no simple solution, obviously. We are in a society where we have these incredible differences, and sometimes they become really obscene. I think of things like the Faberge eggs that were made by the czars of Russia and how outrageous these were in terms of the way they aggrandized the resources and used them to support their status. And eventually what happened was the Soviet Revolution. The Russian Revolution took care of that, at least for a while. And I think any time you make those kinds of differences more and more apparent, you are getting into some dangerous ground here.

Chris Martenson: It has been well noted through history. So with that, if I run into somebody who is listening to this who wants to exchange in the gift economy, and I paddle up in my kayak and you are in a yacht, I expect a fair trade. And that will help –

Richard Gould: Well, you may not get it. That is the problem right now is that not everybody is wired into that expectation. The guy with the yacht may feel that it is his due and get lost. He will tell you to go away. We do not have that kind of sharing and, of course, he will just think that people coming up and asking are just a bunch of – as the Australians call them – a bunch of bludgers. They just want something for nothing. They cannot understand that notion of reciprocity. So it is something that has to really be built in solidly to the, as you called it earlier, the cultural fabric. And with the Aborigines, it most certainly was. And the Kung, I think, the same way. There were plenty of good examples in the studies that were done there, and we find this to be very widespread among hunter-gatherers.

Chris Martenson: So somehow we are wired for that and it sounds like a good strategy and, as well, it probably has other benefits as well. So with that, Dr. Gould, thank you so much for your time today.

Richard Gould: Well, I appreciate your interest. You are asking good questions. Let us keep it up.

Chris Martenson: Thank you.


Photo credit: Wikipedia/Ian Sewell/CC By-SA 2.5

Chris Martenson

Chris Martenson, PhD (Duke), MBA (Cornell) is an economic researcher and futurist specializing in energy and resource depletion, and co-founder of PeakProsperity.com (along with Adam Taggart). As one of the early econobloggers who forecasted the housing market collapse and stock market correction years in advance, Chris rose to prominence with the launch of his seminal video seminar: The Crash Course which has also been published in book form (Wiley, March 2011). It's a popular and extremely well-regarded distillation of the interconnected forces in the Economy, Energy and the Environment (the "Three Es" as Chris calls them) that are shaping the future, one that will be defined by increasing challenges to growth as we have known it. In addition to the analysis and commentary he writes for his site PeakProsperity.com, Chris' insights are in high demand by the media as well as academic, civic and private organizations around the world, including institutions such as the UN, the UK House of Commons and US State Legislatures.

Tags: building resilient communities, social cohesion