The work week in hunter-gatherer societies

I picked up a copy of the Cartoon History of the Universe which mentioned that it is believed that hunter-gatherer societies at the end of the last Ice Age only spent about four or five hours a day working. It stated that this was based on anthropological studies of modern hunter-gatherers. Is this true?

That is what was taught in my university classes back in the 80’s. The number might have been even smaller. They went on to say that the invention of farming increased the number of hours worked and then the industrial revolution increased it again. What are we up to now in the ‘Information’ age? 50 or 60 hours a week?

Larry Gonick’s pretty good about footnotiong his work (although some of his interpretations are definitely his own). His are the only comics I know of that have bibliographies.

Look in the back pages of that book and you can find his sources that you can then check out for further info.

By the way, Gonick actualy goes through and redoes his work to keep it corrected and updated. I have a copy of “Volume 1” of his Cartoon History of the Universe (the first dozen or so comics collected into a Fireside Press edition) from 1982. I also have the somewhat enlarged Volume I from circa 1988. It’s interesting to compare the two, because there are places where he took out one or more panels, or even an entire page and redrew it to incorporate change (like the idea that protolife began as an “open-faced sandwich”, probably near hot vents in the ocean, whereas the original had it beginning as floating assemblies probably near the surface of the ocean).Again, Gonick’s the only one I know of who revised his comics to reflect changing knowledge.

Depends on the H/G. I’m going from memory here, so I can’t cite, but I believe the San (bushmen) have been clocked at about 40 hrs/wk while the Yanomamo of South American (not technically H/G/s, but close) put in only about 3 hrs/day-- leaving them plenty of time to wage war, which they do with rgreat proclivity. I’m not sure what the number is for the Inuit/Eskimo, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t a lot higher since hunting often is more time consuming that gathering and they mostly hunt.

But, if you live in a lush tropical rainforest with lots of food you don’t have to work nearly as hard as someone trying to eke out a living on the tundra.

Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins put forth that estimate in his treatise, The Original Affluent Society

The relatively low amount of work in hunter-gatherer societies is something I recall being mentioned in the anthropology class I took in the fall. I believe that the professor was discussing one of the well-known studies of the San. Sounds like a good deal, to me!

implies 28 hrs/week just for food.

That is probably more than I expend earning money to buy FOOD. H-G also need shelter, cooking fuel, clothing, weapons or traps (for hunting), packing and travel time if they are nomadic, etc. So the total work needed to survive is probably about what we consider a normal work week.

The San also practice(d) infantide, killing infants that were “defective”. It would also be expected that the mother would kill one twin, whenever multiple births occured. Still sound like a good deal? You can live a subsistance lifestyel in a modern Western style country if you like and work even less than the San-- you just won’t have an automobile or health insurace. :slight_smile:

I’m sure there are many good things that can be said of San society, but let’s not over-romanicize their lives. There are lots of trade-offs, and few of us would be able to live that lifestyle even if we really wanted to.

From Jared Diamond’s The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race:

But John Mace makes an excellent point.


Not that I have any reason to dispute it, but how would they know?

Wouldn’t the increase be due to economic competition, rather than anything intrinsic to technology? A hunter didn’t have to outhunt the next guy just to keep his business solvent.

Well, he kinda did. He had to compete with other tribes as well as other predators for the same game. He (or she) also had to compete with other herbavores for non-meat food. Rather, the increase in work by “civilized” folk is more about creating a surplus and luxury goods-- somnething H/G societies do not have.

Observation of surviving HG society’s.

I’m having trouble making out your point. But I think the answer to your first question is yes. The link in Sailboat’s post expains it better. As a society, we seem driven to work harder so we can sustain the ability to be cruel to one another.

It’s been argued by Martin Harris and others that “Potlatch”-type feasts, with their emphasis on production of goods and lavish gifting (sometimes ending in the downright destruction of goods, as the “Big Man” proves how great his assets are) arose essentially as a way of provoking people in such societies to create a surplus that ultimately proved good as emergency supplies and the like.

Interesting hypothesis, but it could well be just standard, run-of-the-mill primate status seeking behavior. Still, there is a lot to be said about cultural practices that convey survival value on the populations that employ them, so maybe it’s a little of both, or a positive feedback loop between the two.

They needed more “leisure time” in which to sit around their campsites nursing their festering, untreatable wounds and toothaches. And picking insects off each other. Them were the good ol’ days.