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James Suzman

James Suzman, Phd is an anthropologist specializing in the Khoisan peoples of southern Africa. A former Smuts Fellow in African Studies at the University of Cambridge, he is now the[…]

What do you imagine life was like for hunter-gatherers throughout human history? You might guess that daily life for them was a constant struggle between eating and being eaten in a world where surviving was a full-time job.

But anthropological research suggests that probably wasn’t the case. When anthropologist James Suzman went to the Kalahari Desert to study the Ju/’hoansi hunter-gathers, for example, he found that they worked only 15 hours per week, and that much of that time was spent on activities that many people in the modern West consider to be leisure, like hiking and fishing.

Of course, hunter-gatherers experienced plenty of hard times throughout world history. But a general theme has emerged from anthropological research on hunter-gathers both contemporary and ancient: Rather than being a constant battle for energy between people and their environment, life was more of a continuous flow of give and take between species, and leisure was part of the fabric of daily life.

As Suzman told Big Think, looking at the lives of hunter-gatherers can help us rethink the ways we conceptualize work and society.

JAMES SUZMAN: In many ways humans are kind of, evolutionary freaks. We are much more capable of learning skills than let's say, our Australopithecus ancestors a few million years ago. When I was 19, I bizarrely ended up getting an internship at a merchant bank. And in that bank, we had a manager, and he would pepper his talks with us with this kind of Darwinian language. "Banking is a survival of the fittest. You know, it's a dog eat dog world out there. Life is a continuous process of competition." The truth is, evolutionary history just isn't a constant competition. Actually, most animals spend as much time as they can relaxing, taking it easy or playing and enjoying themselves. This idea that everything is continuously battling for energy is nonsense. I spent most of the last 25 years documenting hunter-gatherers, as they took their worldview and tried to engage with our worldview in very uneven terms, and to try and make sense of their perceptions of work and our perceptions of work. And what it did was it revealed an entirely different way of thinking, an entirely different way of being. My name's James Suzman, I'm an anthropologist, and the title of my latest book is called "Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots." 

When one thinks about hunter-gatherer society, they have have imagined a world in which we endure this horrendous struggle for survival in an eat or be eaten world. Nature was red and tooth and claw, and life was hard, and we learned to accumulate and grab resources. It was a great competition for life. But it seems fairly clear, we enjoyed quite a lot of leisure time as hunter-gatherers. 20 years ago I went off to the Kalahari to start working with a group of people called the Ju/'hoansi. The Ju/'hoansi were the first hunter-gatherer society that were really studied to see how hard they actually worked, and it was revealed that they worked 15 hours in a week, and a very different work ethos to what we do here in the West. The idea of what constitutes work in the way we organize our lives can be very different, and very contextual-based: Hunting, gathering, fishing, hiking. In the Ju/'hoansi world, those are all considered work.  In the western world, where I come from at the moment, most of those things are considered leisure activities now. The Inuit and the Arctic, the Aboriginals in Australia, and then of course people like the Ju/'hoansi engage with the land with consummate skill and consummate, in some ways, ease. 

The Kalahari desert where the Ju/'hoansi live is an incredibly tough environment. It's the kind of place where, most of us, if we're dumped there without any prior knowledge of how to do things, we would be dead within several days. The Ju/'hoansi, on the other hand, are able somehow out of this seemingly desolate place to pluck out 130 or so different plant species. They're able to hunt 15 or 20 animal species. They are so skilled and so attuned to that environment that they're able to do so on the basis of, really, a marginal amount of effort. Even in the toughest times of year, you're looking at not spending more than four or five hours a day on the food quest. And you're looking at the best times of year, people are able to simply pluck things. It's almost a bit like a, a magical kind of 7/11. Now, of course it sounds a little bit idyllic, and hunter-gatherers went through intensely difficult times, periods of climatic change. But for the most part, living off the land seemed a very straightforward way of making a living, and we are supremely adapted to making a living as hunters and gatherers. Hunter-gatherer societies, they are typically highly egalitarian. 

Richard Lee, an anthropologist who worked with the Ju/'hoansi, he used the word "fiercely egalitarian," and I haven't found a better way to describe it. There are no hierarchies whatsoever. Age does not convey any authority to anybody. Gender does not convey any authority to anybody. It's incredibly open and tolerant. People don't force things on children but they also realize that there's an instinct. In particular, they say not among women, but among men. Young men who go out hunting and they bring in their first big animal, they'll strut in and show off, they'll say that potentially risks upsetting their egalitarian balance that makes the society function. Rather than praise a successful hunter, they mock them. Somebody shows up if they've killed a giraffe - which is something huge, and it's enough to feed everybody for ages, and the meat's growing from the branches - they'll say, "Ah, this giraffe, a bit of a scrawny giraffe, and it stinks a little bit." And there's this great ritual of humility and insult that goes on, and the hunter will be expected to behave with great humility and the way it was described by one man, he said, "We use it to gentle young mens' paths." 

To enable leadership to be based purely on context and competence. Voluntarily given and voluntarily accepted resources which are shared openly and evenly and done through a system of demand sharing. In the system of demand sharing, it is in the right of pretty much anybody to go and ask anybody else for a share of what they have. And it is considered extremely rude to turn that person down under any circumstances. Stops any kind of authority. This enabled food and resources to flow very evenly and very quickly through society. The truth is now, very few zoologists, in fact, no zoologist or ecologist will think of an ecosystem as governed by competition, instead it would be governed by webs of intricate engagements some of which are cooperative, some of which are less. 

This idea that nature is a constant competition for life is nonsense. Hunter-gatherers, like the Ju/'hoansi, described their environment as a kind of continuous flow of give and take between species and interactions. There's absolutely no denying that the extraordinary attitudes that evolved during the hunter-gatherer era have now brought us incredible benefits. We are both incredibly adaptable and culturally intransigent. When change is forced upon us, we're really good at adapting to it. We are amazingly good at doing it, but only when we have no choice. And I think what we might see is a restructuring and reorganization of our society. Identities now which are far more hybridized. We certainly have a work identity through our Zoom channel. But for many people, I think, there'll be an opportunity to reengage themselves in physical space that they are in, and I think it's going to profoundly reorganize the way we think about community, identity, belonging, and self. Economists say, 'We are all universally this kind of selfish beast.' Anthropologists, on the other hand, take the very starting point of their experience, is based on generally going up and living somewhere where all your most fundamental and basic ideas about how the world works are often turned on their heads. It's a fundamental transition. It upsets your sense of the world. Then anthropologists, I think, are based on having this double perspective of being in one world and from another, and then being able to look back in the world that they're from. And frankly, I think it would be good if we still lived in a world where people could experience another way of living and being to the point that it makes the strange familiar, and the familiar strange.