Limited Wants, Unlimited Means: An Intro to Hunter-Gatherer Economics

By Richard B. Lee /
Aug 20, 2012
Limited Wants, Unlimited Means: An Intro to Hunter-Gatherer Economics

Films For Action's Note: Limited Wants, Unlimited Means is a collection of essays that challenges much of our culture's invisible assumptions about tribal societies, which also allows us to see the assumptions we have about our own culture in a new light. This book was an inspiration to the Films For Action project, and it comes highly recommended as a source of inspiration for ideas and perspectives that may well be essential to creating a sustainable culture.

Culture has always been about remixing the best ideas of the past, accumulating knowledge and passing on wisdom to the next generation. And of course, when you're looking for ways to solve any problem, the best place to start is with people that have already solved it.

It's true "we can't go back," as some falsely accuse us of implying. But we can move forward. We can learn from our past and apply this knowledge to the world we have.

Following is Richard B. Lee's forward to the book, and I highly recommend people look for this book if they would like to really dive in deep. - Tim Hjersted


The world's hunting and gathering peoples the Eskimo, Australian aborigines, African Bushmen, and similar groups represent the oldest and perhaps most successful human adaptation. Until 12,000 years ago, virtually all of humanity lived this way. In recent centuries, hunters have retreated precipitously in the face of the steamroller of modernity. Fascination, however, with hunting peoples and their ways of life remains strong. Hunters and gatherers stand at the opposite pole from the dense urban life experienced by most people; yet those same hunters may have the key answers to some of the central questions about the human condition: Can people live without the state or the market? Can people live without accumulated wealth or "advanced" technology? Can people live in nature without destroying it?

Working in highly diverse cultures, anthropologists have long been familiar with such questions. Yet what is daily fare for anthropologists may provide serious challenges to the orthodoxy of other disciplines. For most economists, the supremacy of the market, the sanctity of property, and the centrality of the doctrine of economic man are the sacred tenets of their craft. Orthodoxies of any kind deserve careful scrutiny, and for economic orthodoxy, with its grip on the lives of billions, this is especially true. Are there alternatives to the economic arrangements that are deemed natural and inevitable in the contemporary world? John Gowdy answers with a resounding yes. This intriguing collection of essays is a welcome sign that within the temple of economic thought the monolith may be breaking up. Gowdy, a respected economist with training in anthropology, has assembled a lively and irreverent collection to address two questions: Are there alternate ways of managing human economic affairs, and do the world's hunting and gathering peoples have something to teach us?

Now a wider readership can be exposed to what anthropologists have known for some time: there are peoples who lived, until quite recently, without the overarching discipline of the state: they lived in small groups without centralized authority, standing armies, or bureaucratic systems, and exchanged goods and services without recourse to markets. Yet the evidence indicates that they lived together surprisingly well, solving problems among themselves largely without courts or prisons and without a particular propensity for violence. It was not the situation that Thomas Hobbes, described as "the war of all against all." By all accounts, life was not "nasty, brutish, and short." With relatively simple technology wood, bone, stone, fibres they were able to meet their material needs with a modest expenditure of energy, leading American anthropologist and social critic Marshall Sahlins to call them, in an essay reproduced here, "the original affluent society" Most striking, the hunter-gatherers demonstrated a remarkable ability to survive and thrive for long periods, in some cases thousands of years, without destroying their environment.

The contemporary industrial world exists in highly structured societies at immensely high densities and enjoys luxuries of technology that foragers could hardly imagine. Yet that world is sharply divided into the haves and the have-nots, and after only a few millennia of stewardship by agricultural and industrial civilizations the environments of large portions of the planet lie in ruins. Therefore the hunter-gatherers may well be able to teach us something, not only about past ways of life but about long-term human futures as well. If technological society is to survive it may have to learn the keys to longevity from fellow humans whose way of life has lasted at least one hundred times longer than industrial commercial "civilization."

Led off by in chapter 1 by Sahlins' classic "The Original Affluent Society" (1972), the essays collected here represent a cross section of thirty years of anthropological writing. To the economists' view of homo economicus, stategizing to maximize and minimize, Sahlins proposes hunter-gatherers are best seen as in business for their health. Their means may be limited but so are their ends, offering a Zen alternative to the unlimited wants of a consumer economy. Other essays found in this book critically develop this theme by offering empirical evidence from such peoples as the Innu, !Kung, Hadza, and Nayaka.

In defining and understanding foraging peoples, their hunting and gathering subsistence is only one part of a three-part definition. A distinctive social and economic organization and a characteristic cosmology and worldview sets foragers apart from farmers and herders. All three sets of criteria have to be taken into account in understanding hunting and gathering peoples today.

The basic unit of social organization of most, but not all, hunting and gathering peoples is the band, a small-scale nomadic group of 15 to 50 people related by kinship. Band societies are found throughout the Old and New Worlds and have a number of features in common.

First, they are relatively egalitarian. Leadership here is less formal and more subject to constraints of popular opinion than in village societies governed by headmen and chiefs. Leadership in band societies tends to be by example, not by fiat. The leader can persuade but not command. This important aspect of their way of life allowed for a degree of freedom unheard of in more hierarchical societies, but put them at a distinct disadvantage in their encounters with centrally organized colonial authorities.

Mobility is another characteristic of band societies. People tend to move their settlements frequently, several times a year or more, in search of food, and this mobility is an important element of their politics. People in band societies tend to "vote with their feet," by moving away rather than submitting to the will of an unpopular leader. Mobility is also a means of resolving conflicts that would be more difficult for settled peoples.

A third characteristic is the remarkable fact that all band-organized peoples exhibit a pattern of concentration and dispersion. Rather than live in uniformly sized groupings throughout the year, band societies tend to spend part of the year dispersed into small foraging units and another part of the year aggregated into much larger units. The Innu (Naskapi) discussed by Leacock would spend the winter dispersed in small foraging groups of 10 to 30 people, while in the summer they would aggregate in groups of 200 to 300 at fishing sites on lakes or rivers. It seems clear that the concentration dispersion patterns of hunter-gatherers represents a dialectical interplay of social and eco-logical factors.

A fourth characteristic common to almost all band societies (and hundreds of village-based societies as well) is a land tenure system based on common property regimes. These regimes were, until recently, far more common worldwide than regimes based on private property. In traditional common property regimes, while movable property is held by individuals, land is held by a kinship-based collective. Rules of reciprocal access make it possible for each individual to draw on the resources of several territories. Rarer is the scenario where the whole society has unrestricted access to all the land controlled by the group.

Sharing is the central rule of social interaction among hunters and gatherers. There are strong injunctions on the importance of reciprocity. Generalized reciprocity, the giving of something without an immediate expectation of return is the dominant form within face-to-face groups. Its presence in hunting and gathering societies is almost universal. This, combined with an absence of private ownership of land, has led many observers from Lewis Henry Morgan on to attribute to hunter-gatherers a way of life based on "primitive communism." Nurit Bird-David in an essay reproduced here notes, that many, but not all, hunter-gatherers have a notion of the giving environment, the idea that the land around them is their spiritual home and the source of all good  things. This view is the direct antithesis of the Judeo-Christian perspective of the natural environment as a "wilderness," a hostile space to be subdued and brought to heel by the sheer force of human will. This latter outlook is seen by many  ecological humanists as the source of both the environmental crisis and the  spiritual malaise afflicting contemporary society.

Hunter-gatherers in recent history have been surprisingly persistent. As recently as 1500 AD, hunters occupied fully one-third of the globe, including all of Australia and most of North America, as well as large tracts of South America, Africa, and northeast Asia. The twentieth century has seen particularly dramatic changes in their life circumstances. The century began with dozens of hunting and gathering peoples still pursuing ancient, though not isolated, ways of life in small communities, as foragers with systems of local meaning centered on kin, plants, animals, and the spirit world. As the century proceeded, a wave of self-appointed civilizers washed over the world's foragers, bringing schools, clinics, administrative structures, and, not incidentally, taking their land and resources in the process.

The year 2000 will have seen the vast majority of former foragers settled and encapsulated in the administrative structures of one state or another. And given the tragic history of the forced acculturation of hunter-gatherers, one can imagine that the millennium might bring to a close a long chapter in human history. But will it? I believe not. Hunter-gatherers live on, not only in the pages of anthropological and historical texts, but in an estimated forty countries worldwide. Their hundreds of thousands of descendants, only a generation or two removed from a foraging way of life, have created a strong international voice for indigenous peoples and their human rights. What makes the contemporary hunters and gatherers so intriguing is that, far from simply being victims of history, in many parts of the world they have become political actors in their own right, mounting land claims cases, participating in the environmental movement, lobbying for their rights with governments and the United Nations, addressing wider audiences through the media, and finally being increasingly sought out by spiritual pilgrims from urban industrial societies.

As we approach the millennium, there is an increasing preoccupation with where we have come from and where we are going. The accelerating pace of change and the ceaseless transformations brought about by market forces have had the effect of obfuscating history and creating a deepening spiritual malaise. For centuries philosophers have sought the answers to humanity's multiple problems in the search for the holy grail of "natural man." At the same time, other more powerful forces have been appropriating in the name of "progress" the lands and resources of the world's hunting and gathering societies. These same forces have branded the search for economic alternatives a futile exercise driven by myth and romanticism. Thus we are doubly indebted to John Gowdy, first for rekindling economic imagination in an age of sharply reduced expectations and second for bringing to a broader readership the evidence from ethnographic research that, out there, beyond the baleful light shed by capitalism, other ways of life are possible.

Trending Videos
Documentaries about Living the Change
Documentaries that Inspire Ecological Consciousness
Emotional Literacy
Featured Documentaries

Films For Action is a library for people who want to change the world.


Our mission is to provide citizens with the knowledge and perspectives essential to creating a more beautiful, just, sustainable, and democratic society.

Films For Action was founded in 2006 by a few friends in Lawrence, Kansas, after realizing how essential healthy media is to a healthy democracy.

Over the last 15 years, we've reviewed and curated over 1,000 free documentaries and 4,000 short films, plus over 150 pay-per-view documentaries, spanning 34 topics related to changing the world.

During this time we've been able to reach tens of millions of people - not by owning a TV network or spending truckloads of cash on advertising, but because millions of awesome people keep sharing 'films for action' with their friends on social media - in particular, our 850,000 supporters on Facebook and 70,000 site members. 

One of the coolest things is, thanks to our patrons, our library is ad-free and 100% supported by member donations, while 99% of our library is free to access and always will be. The pay-per-view films on our site, of course, help support the filmmakers, and 90-100% of the revenue for PPV films hosted by us goes to the filmmakers. 

To thank our $5/mo patrons, we partner with filmmakers and distributors to provide access to a growing number of films that are normally pay-per-view. With just 23 highly curated films at the moment, it's basically a mini "Netflix for world changers," but its main function is to support the library as a whole.

If you'd like to know more, want to help out, or you're a filmmaker or distributor looking to collaborate, feel free to get in touch!

Tim Hjersted
Co-Founder & Director
Lawrence, KS