When a 200,000-year-old culture encountered the modern economy

The Ju/’hoansi shared their food with one another according to a set of social prescriptions that ensured pretty much everyone, including the young, old, or disabled, got a share. As a result the Ju/’hoansi were also thoroughly egalitarian, mercilessly ribbing anyone that developed delusions of grandeur and seeing no point in accumulating wealth or formalizing systems of exchange. They also enjoyed giving friends ritualistic gifts called hxaro, but in these cases it was the implied affection in the act of giving that was important—the gift itself was more often than not soon re-gifted to someone else.

All this changed very suddenly, when larger political and economic forces that rattled southern Africa in the 1960s and ‘70s brought an end to the Ju/’hoansi’s isolation, and with it their freedom to live as hunter-gatherers.


Quick summary:

Fifty years ago, Ju/’hoansi in Nyae Nyae still hunted and gathered for a living, just as their ancestors had done since the first expansion of modern Homo sapiens across southern Africa around 200,000 years ago. Their isolated community came to global attention in 1966 when a young Canadian anthropologist, Richard Lee, conducted a series of simple economic input-output analyses to get a better idea of how hard hunter-gatherers like Ju/’hoansi had to work to get by.

To his surprise, Lee established that the Ju/’hoansi not only managed to feed themselves better than many in the industrialized world, but that they did so on the basis of only around two hours foraging a day, and cheerfully spent the rest of their time on more leisurely pursuits such as napping, playing games, and making art.

The Ju/’hoansi, like other hunter-gatherers, focused almost myopically on the short term—if the environment always supplied food and materials and the seasons were broadly predictable, what point was there in worrying about the future?

All this changed very suddenly, when larger political and economic forces that rattled southern Africa in the 1960s and ‘70s brought an end to the Ju/’hoansi’s isolation, and with it their freedom to live as hunter-gatherers.

Over time, as military cash became part of Ju/’hoan lives, their attitudes to money inevitably began to change. When money was scarce, nobody cared much for it, but the more money that flowed in, the more valuable it became. The sudden influx of cash raised a number of questions.

In an echo of the left-right divide that shapes political affiliation in many larger economies, most Ju/’hoansi in Nyae Nyae with little or no income came to consider it an obvious obligation that those with money should share it widely and evenly, while most of those that earned military money increasingly took the view that it was a reward for their work and that they deserved the bulk of it.

Before the Ju/’hoansi were dragged into an economy based on monetary value, gift-giving was their primary form of exchange, and it didn’t happen between just anyone.

Accusations of selfishness and greed flew everywhere, and in this poisonous atmosphere the alcohol many purchased—ironically enough, to help them to forget these same problems—ignited sometimes-vicious brawls that generated far more work for the Tsumkwe military infirmary than the actual warfare.

But then in 1990, Namibia achieved its independence, the Ju/’hoan soldiers were demobilized, and the South African Defense Force and its bags of cash left as suddenly as they had arrived.

And while new nature-conservation regulations and the fact that they had lost so much land under apartheid meant it was no longer possible for all of the growing Ju/’hoan population to survive by hunting and gathering alone, they were now able to accumulate enough to participate selectively in the expanding cash economy. The pensions are only worth around $70 per month, so they do not cause nearly as much chaos as the military salaries did; nonetheless, few in Nyae Nyae can imagine life without money.

In this sense the Ju/’hoansi are not so different from most people in industrialized economies who may consider themselves competent users of money or even competent in the art of making money: Only a handful of such people can produce cogent answers to questions about where money comes from, what determines its value, or what economic growth actually is.

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