Capitalism’s Last Frontier#19 The Gift of Food


The proto-economy of the pre-neolithic was predominantly an economy of sharing without the concepts of personal property in the manner we understand the concept of property today. The term ‘gift economy’ has become an emotive one.  Critics of capitalism, whether communists, anarchists, or feminist counterpose the propriatorial and acquisitive nature of modern capitalism to the virtues of the gift economy.  This can easily become romanticised in a manner akin to the writings of Rousseae, a time when man was ‘born free’, and rather than being one where life was ‘nasty brutish and short’ in the famous Hobbes phrase.  Or rather than being a time of scarcity was the original affluent society in the words of  Marshall Sahlins – allthough one where affluence is achieved by desiring little rather than by producing and consuming much.

Concepts of the gift economy often transpose unwittingly modern concepts of ownership.  For example to gift property assumes a concept of property and individual ownership.  Such concepts are by no means universal.  The same problem occurs with assumptions of obligation and reciprocation from ‘giving’, concepts of exchange creep in through the back door. Where food sharing is a matter of survival, as it is in hunting and foraging bands it is better to talk of a sharing economy than a gift economy.  In some socities concepts of a gifting economy arose later with concepts of mutual obligation and assertion of status, such as in the ritual of conspicuous food gifting known as potlach.

Humankind seems to have developed an early ability to share. Micheal Tomasello, codirector of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Why We Cooperate. MIT Press (2009) suggests that the evolution of copoeration is a defining characteristic of our species. Tomasello has studied the cooperative behavior of preverbal children, generally 12 months to 24 months in age, and compared their behavior to of apes in similar experiments. The results demonstrate that even children have a natural predilection to cooperate and help others. Chimpanzees, on the other hand, especially where food is concerned, tend to act in ways that increase their own individual gain.


Where do they get this idea of group rules, the sense of “we who do it this way”? Dr. Tomasello believes children develop what he calls “shared intentionality,” a notion of what others expect to happen and hence a sense of a group “we.” It is from this shared intentionality that children derive their sense of norms and of expecting others to obey them.

Shared intentionality, in Dr. Tomasello’s view, is close to the essence of what distinguishes people from chimpanzees. A group of human children will use all kinds of words and gestures to form goals and coordinate activities, but young chimps seem to have little interest in what may be their companions’ minds.

The shared intentionality lies at the basis of human society, Dr. Tomasello argues. From it flow ideas of norms, of punishing those who violate the norms and of shame and guilt for punishing oneself. Shared intentionality evolved very early in the human lineage, he believes, and its probable purpose was for cooperation in gathering food. Anthropologists report that when men cooperate in hunting, they can take down large game, which single hunters generally cannot do. Chimpanzees gather to hunt colobus monkeys, but Dr. Tomasello argues this is far less of a cooperative endeavor because the participants act on an ad hoc basis and do not really share their catch

The gift of food requires a surplus of food, beyond immediate subsistence to give.


This could have happened at some point early in human evolution, when in order to survive, people were forced to cooperate in hunting game or gathering fruit. The path to obligatory cooperation — one that other primates did not take — led to social rules and their enforcement, to human altruism and to language.

“Humans putting their heads together in shared cooperative activities are thus the originators of human culture,” Dr. Tomasello writes.

Independently Hillard S. Kaplan, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico has reached similar conclusions.

The structure of early human societies, including their “high levels of cooperation between kin and nonkin,” was thus an adaptation to the “specialized foraging niche” of food resources that were too difficult for other primates to capture, (The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.) We evolved to be nice to each other, in other words, because there was no alternative.

We have seen how certain technological advantages, such as the invention of cooking and agriculture, and advances in hunting, enabled a much higher yield for a given area of human habitation, enabling the support of a greater population in any given area of land.  Setting aside for one moment any population increase from an advance in food technology, such an advance can generate a food surplus, more food than is needed to sustain immediate subsistence,  The kinship group will then make a decsion, a true economic decision, about what to do with that surplus.

There are many options.  Seeds can be sown rather than consumed, or dry stored.  Food can be shared within a kinship group, or traded.

Imagine two bands. one in that year with a surplus of food and the other with a failed harvest.  The failed harvest group might raid its neighbour or trade for food.  It is essential for a group to develop one or more survival strategies for times of poor food production.  With a surplus some members of a group can afford not to work solely on food production. They can be mining or making, creating non-pershiable goods to trade, so that in harder times these goods can be traded for food.

In a kinship or family group there will be net exchange in the production of food.  Adults will be net givers, the old and infants, the sick and heavily pregnant women will be net receivers. Loss of a member of that group who is a net giver could lead to starvation from one of the net receivers. This surely is the origin of the concept of the ‘bride price’ .

Concepts of sharing and exchange cannot be counterposed as mutually exclusive in human society.  Indeed all societies seem to have concepts of sharing and exchange running side by side.  This critically relates to the evolution of the concepts of property and money.


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