Annals of the Fondazione Luigi Einaudi

An Interdisciplinary Journal of Economics, History and Political Science

The Annals is a forum for the free exchange of ideas
among scholars working in the field of social sciences
Volume LV 1 - 2021

Hunter Gatherers and the Crisis of Civilization

John M. Gowdy,
pp. 35-54
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Stone Age Economics initiated a lively debate about the quality of hunter-gatherer life that has now lasted fifty years. Since the initial debates a large body of ethnographic evidence, and modern techniques such as DNA analysis, has confirmed Marshall Sahlins’ basic insights. Prior to the widespread adoption of agriculture human societies were characterized by egalitarian social structures and economies based on the sustainable use of environmental resources. Only after agriculture and state societies did hierarchical caste systems and exploitation of nature become the norm. Today, inequality has reached staggering levels and exploitation of the natural world has decimated non-human nature and undermined the climatic stability that made modern agriculture and civilization possible. Homo sapiens existed for some 300,000 years without these human-caused existential threats. Hunter-gatherers tell us that (1) it is not “human nature” to be greedy and exploitative, and (2) hierarchical and repressive societies are not “natural” to the human condition. Pogo was wrong. The enemy is not “us” but rather the peculiar economic system we stumbled into 10,000 years ago. Understanding how hunter-gatherer economies functioned as social systems has direct relevance for today’s environmental and social policies.