The Original Information Culture – Ice Age Hunter/Gatherers


Today we talk about living in an Information Age or becoming an Information Economy without having any model of what that means. And yet, for most of humankind’s time on earth we, humankind, have been hunter/gatherers and hunter/gatherers are I-adapted. They live in an information world.

In the introduction, we defined an Information Revolution as a change in the balance between I-adaptation (Information adaptation) and M-adaptation (material goods adaptation). The first Information Revolution was the move away from an I-adapted culture to an M-adapted culture in the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture. So it was a revolution away from information toward material goods.

The most I-adapted cultures are what James Woodburn calls immediate return hunter/gatherers.[1] Most hunter/gatherer cultures are immediate return.

A small minority of hunter/gatherer cultures (or societies) is M-adapted. Though they live in richer environments than the majority of hunter/gatherers, they gather, store and accumulate food and other material goods. They often also establish stratified social structures and other characteristics of M-adapted cultures. Woodburn calls these exceptions delayed-return hunter/gatherer societies. They use some kind of equipment in their hunting or gathering that takes time to make; a boat for fishing or seal hunting, or a dam with a fish weir, and they have a different orientation toward the environment. For these few exceptions the environment is not seen as a provider of all needs.

For now however, we will take the majority of immediate return hunter/gatherers as representative of hunter/gatherer culture and address the exceptions later.

To explore the shift between I-adaptation and M-adaptation and understand what an information culture might be like, we need to look at the most I-adapted cultures available (immediate return hunter/gatherers). Then perhaps we can see how they think about the world and if they perceive the world differently than people in more M-adapted cultures.

This presents several problems:

First, we live in an M-adapted culture, so we see our security based on what we own or what we can earn. We gauge our status by what kind of car we drive, what neighborhood we live in, what kind of job we have, what kind of schools our children attend. So it is hard for us to appreciate that others, who have far fewer material goods, might see their world as abundant.

Second, to understand the first information revolution, we have to understand the world as it was experienced before agriculture. This isn’t really possible, since all modern hunting and gathering cultures exist in small inaccessible pockets; deep rainforest, high arctic, extreme deserts, and high mountains. The people who lived by hunting and gathering before the beginning of agriculture lived in the more moderate environments that are now part of the dominant world. So it would be expected that they had a more abundant life than modern hunter/gatherers.

Third, studies of today’s hunter/gatherers are often presented as if the people are pristine – as if they haven’t had any history or any contact with the dominant world. However, both of these are false impressions. All peoples have a past and have evolved their social, political and economic systems in response to the changes they experience. and if we think about it a bit then we realize that once a group is studied they do have experience of the ‘outside world’, since they have contact with the anthropologist who has a tape recorder, flashlight, ball point pen, camera, possibly a laptop, a backpack, steel pocket knife, machete, and hatchet, a butane stove, nylon tent and all the other accoutrements of modern field work.

The consequence of these three problems is that there is no real way to know how our ancestors lived. Nevertheless, we have to try to extrapolate from what we can see. There is enough of a difference in World View between modern hunter/gatherers and gardening and farming people for it to be worth our while to understand the modern hunter/gatherer’s world.

I-adaptation – Hunter/gatherers

For many thousands of years people lived by hunting and gathering. In terms of long lived success, it is the most successful survival strategy people have ever developed. The security of hunting/gathering people is based on knowing where the animals would be and when the plants would be ready to gather, not on owning or controlling the animals and plants, the ground in which they grew, or the people who produced them. Thus they lived in an information or I-adapted culture.

If early hunter/gatherers were like the majority of modern hunter/gatherers, they worked little and lived well. The world as they saw it was a world of plenty — there was enough to go around and it was all there, ready to hand, like a perpetual cupboard that was continually restocked by their environment. People had ready access to all the resources of the environment. They could easily get enough food to satisfy their needs daily by hunting and gathering and with a small amount of cooperative effort or some trading with others, satisfy their wants as well.

The World View of Today’s Hunter/Gatherers is Plenty – Eden

So the World View of an I-adapted culture is one of abundance – plenty. With few exceptions, hunter/gatherers do not accumulate property, they consume it immediately or they give, gamble or throw it away. They know techniques for storing goods but use those techniques only to prevent spoiling rather than to keep things for the future. As one !Kung bushman put it “Why should we plant, when there are so many mongomongo[2] nuts in the world?[3]

O’Connell and Hawkes show that foraging peoples choose the most energetically advantageous food to gather or hunt in terms of both nutrition and processing effort. [4] Indicating that their strategy is thoughtful not haphazard so if they felt they needed to plant they would do so but they don’t feel the need.

Robert L. Kelly in his book the Foraging Spectrum explains that there is a broad range of subsistence strategies amongst hunter/gatherers or foragers. He reports that historically, some modern hunter/gatherers even switch back and forth between simple horticulture and hunting and gathering and that all foragers have had contact with agricultural people even if they have been isolated from western society. Therefore, we can presume that all hunter/gatherers have knowledge of agriculture, and make choices of their subsistence strategies based on their interactions with their environment. There is no ‘one’ way to be a hunter/gatherer or forager. [5] But one thing is clear, modern hunter/gatherers choose to be hunter/gatherers even though they know about agriculture.

Colin Turnbull [6]tells us about the Mbuti Pygmies living in the rainforest of Zaire in Africa:

    [T]he Pygmies have been in the forest for many thousands of years. It is their world and in return of their affection and trust it supplies them with all their needs. They do not have to cut the forest down to build plantations, for, they know how to hunt the game of the region and gather the wild fruits that grow in abundance there, though hidden to outsiders. They know how to distinguish the innocent-looking itaba vine from the many others it resembles so closely, and they know how to follow it until it leads them to a cache of nutritious, sweet-tasting roots. They know the tiny sounds that tell where the bees have hidden their honey; they recognize the kind of weather that brings a multitude of different kinds of mushrooms springing to the surface; and they know what kinds of wood and leaves often disguise this food. The exact moment when the termites swarm, at which they must be caught to provide an important delicacy, is a mystery to any but the people of the forest. They know the secret language that is denied all outsiders and without which life in the forest is an impossibility.[7]

The Pygmies have long term relationships with the people in the villages and plantations. They know about farming and see it as foolishness. The Pygmies trade hunted meat for metal for their spear points and are happy to stay in the villages and make use of the food and pots that the farming people give them. But soon they want to return to the forest and leave the material goods given to them with no regret.

Modern hunter/gatherers do experience scarcity, they have hard times, but since their World View is based on sharing they look to their network of friends and extended family to share. They know that, just as their environment shares its bounty with them, they must share with each other.

Hunting, Gathering, Eating, and Sharing

The popular image of early of hunter/gatherers is that they are violent people who are ruled by the proverbial dominant male “big game” hunter, but this is far from the case.

First, hunting is not an exclusively male activity it is a communal activity for many groups. And women in hunter/gatherer societies, from the Philippines to the Arctic, from Australia to Africa, hunt.

Next, the popular image is based on two plausible but incorrect beliefs: first, that meat is the most desirable food, and second that high status will ‘naturally’ be given to the finder. But for most hunter/gatherers meat is more plentiful than sugar. And, like us, hunter/gatherers love sugar. Researchers report that amongst the Mbuti from Africa, the Batek from Malaysia and the Nayaka from India honey is more valued than meat. A young child or an old grandmother is as likely to find a honey tree as anyone else, so status based on hunting big game simply doesn’t occur to hunting/gathering people.

Finally, the sharing ethic of hunting/gathering societies prevents the kind of dominance through force, wealth, or ownership that goes with our popular image. So, the finder/possessor of “most desirable food” interacts with her/his society not by controlling access or rewarding certain behaviors, but by sharing with everyone, which undercuts control.

This ethic results an egalitarian society where people are not encouraged to think of themselves or strive to be better than their neighbors.

Richard Lee tells us that amongst the !Kung a hunter who brags about his ability to kill big game will soon be put back in his place through kidding, insults or, in the most extreme cases, ignoring the person. The !Kung call this kidding, whether done by the hunter or by others in the village, ‘insulting the meat’: the hunter may say “I almost didn’t want to kill the animal because it was so small.” or one of the people who helped cook the meat may say, “This is a poor animal, it is hardly worth the cooking.” And all the time they are saying these things and laughing, the people are eating and enjoying the meat with great gusto. [8]

From our perspective we would assume that the hunter who killed the animal naturally owns the meat. However amongst the !Kung arrows, not hunters, are thought to be what kills the game and the owner of the arrow is then the owner of the meat. Arrows are exchanged, given away and generally circulate freely throughout the group. Therefore the owner of the meat is as likely to be an old woman as a man in his prime. Similarly, amongst the Batek the owner of the blowpipe is the owner of the meat and pipes are often borrowed. [9]

In both !Kung and Batek societies, the person who owns the meat gets to distribute it to the group. The hunter benefits from not having to take the responsibility of sharing out the meat if the arrow or blowpipe belongs to someone else and the owner of the meat is able to feed their family first and then distribute the meat according to the protocols the group has established governing animals of that size. The protocols ensure that, if the piece of meat is big enough, everyone gets some and nobody goes hungry.

Sharing food is an absolute obligation to the Batek, not something the owner has much discretion over. As one Batek hunter said: ‘If I didn’t take the meat back to camp, everyone would be angry at me’. A person with excess food is expected to share it, and if this is not done others do not hesitate to ask for some… Recipients treat the food they are given as a right; no expression of thanks is expected or forthcoming, presumably because that would imply that the donor had the right to withhold it. If someone were hoarding food, it would not be considered ‘stealing’ (maling) for others to help themselves to it… Their attitude seems to be that it is more immoral to withhold food from those who need it than to take it without permission. [10]

Lorna Marshall, an anthropologist who worked many years amongst the !Kung in the Kalahari Desert in Africa, asked what happens if someone kills an animal and eats it without sharing. They respond that it could never happen. She says of their reaction when she pushed them to imagine such a situation:

    “The idea of eating alone and not sharing is shocking to the !Kung. It makes them shriek with uneasy laughter. “Lions could do that,” they say, “not men.” [11]

Thus, for the !Kung, not sharing is an inhuman behavior – one which puts you in the category of the animals.

Similarly, Turnbull writes about food sharing amongst the Mbuti Pygmies:

    In a small and tightly knit hunting band, survival can be achieved only but the closest co-operation and by an elaborate system of reciprocal obligations which insures that everyone has some share in the day’s catch. Some days one gets more than others, but nobody ever goes without. There is, as often as not, a great deal of squabbling over the division of the game, but that is expected and nobody tries to take what is not his due. [12]

“Free-riders” and Trade

Because our world is very conscious of economic return, we might assume that hunter/gatherer sharing is reciprocal, like a trading relationship – that if I give you something, you are expected to give me something of more or less equal value, if you come and share the animal I have killed then you must provide a more or less equal share of your kills with me. But this is not the case among hunter/gatherers.

Colin Turnbull recounts a conversation with one of the Mbuti Pygmies about trading. He asks if it would be all right if one person gives a very big and valuable item and the other person then gives a small item in return. His informant says yes that is all right. Turnbull gives several examples until finally his informant says, “Ah I see, you trade with things, we trade with people.[13]

In hunter/gatherer societies, people use their “real goods” to form and acknowledge social relationships. The things that are exchanged are the visible tokens of a relationship rather than a way to have equal exchange of material goods. In some hunter/gatherer groups it is perfectly acceptable to ask for a share. One !Kung man who did this often explained that asking “formed a love” between the two people. [14] He would not have asked someone he did not care for.

From our perspective, when we look at the world of the hunter/gatherer we wonder about people who didn’t “pull their own weight” and there is some discussion about this amongst the people. In one instance the wife of a lazy man compensated by working harder at gathering food and sharing it. But for the most part, this is rarely a problem because people enjoy both hunting and gathering, especially since it is a major part of how they socialize. Those who choose to remain in camp watch children and are companions for those who are too old or not well enough to go out.[15] So everyone does something useful without any real pressure to perform. James Woodburn tells us that amongst the Hadza:

    …hunting success is unequal. Donors (of meat) often remain on balance donors and may not receive anything like an equivalent return. Entitlement does not depend in any way on donation. Some men are regular recipients but never themselves contribute. [16]

Marshal Sahlins writes that amongst the hunter/gatherers of Arnhem Land in Australia one group maintained a grown man of 35 or 40 years. He was something of a craftsman “whose true specialty however seems to have been loafing”. He quotes McCarthy and McArthur on the man’s (Wilira) activities:

    He did not go out hunting at all with the men, but one day he netted fish most vigorously. He occasionally went into the bush to get wild bees’ nests. Wilira was an expert craftsman who repaired the spears and spear-throwers, made smoking pipes and drone tubes, and hafted a stone axe (on request) in a skillful manner; apart from these occupations he spent most of his time talking, eating and sleeping [17] ]

Working for a Living

Understanding the World View of I-adapted hunter/gatherers makes it easier for us to accept that our notion of working for a living doesn’t apply.

First, they work far less than we – !Kung women work 2.7 hours per day and men work an average of 2.1 hours per day according to Richard Lee. [18] And our attitude of work being a burden is not the attitude of hunter/gatherers.

Karen Endicott [19] tells us that the Batek, hunter/gatherers of Malaysia, do not regard getting food as a burden. Batek women may go fishing with their children as a way of entertaining them. The Nayaka, hill people from southern India, take leisurely walks with their families. They pick up things that will be useful, notice what has bloomed, and remark on changes that have occurred since they passed that was before. [20] Their walks are ways of information gathering as much as they are food gathering.

Heart describes a net hunt with the Mbuti Pygmies of Zaire

    The overall pace of the hunt is so leisurely that old people and mothers with infants may join. Between casts of the nets, the hunters regroup… to share tobacco or snacks of fruit and nuts gathered along the way… to flirt and visit, to play with babies. [21]

Marshall Sahlins tells us “the first and decisive contingency of hunting-gathering: it requires movement to maintain production on advantageous terms.” [22] and groups are extremely flexible. People come and go at will and from day to day the composition of a group changes by a few individuals or a family or two. Most of us would assume that the reason hunter/gatherers move around is because they have exhausted the food supply in the place they are and to some extent this is true since complete sedentism would exhaust the local environment. But, as Woodburn tells us that this necessity for mobility is not seen as a problem:

    …neither the frequency not the spatial patterning of Hadza moves can be interpreted in terms of ecological factors alone, although it probably such flexible movement does, among other things, rapidly accomplish a rational distribution of people in relation to resources available at any particular time. What it also does is to allow people to segregate themselves easily from those they are in conflict, without economic penalty and without sacrificing any other vital interests. [23]

There are other benefits to mobility beyond avoiding conflict by getting away from people you want to avoid. Lewis Binford, tells us that Eskimos don’t move because they need to find food. They move because they want to know what is happening over the next hill. Their security lies in being able to read their environment and moving about in their world is their way of gathering information. [24]

Marshall Sahlins quotes Pere Pierre Biard who, in 1616, wrote of his experiences with the Micmac. First he notes that Biard says “Never had [King] Solomon his mansion better regulated and provided with food” indicating that the hunter/gatherers Biard met in 1616 were as well off as modern hunter/gatherers. Biard goes on to say of the attitude of the Micmac toward moving camp:

    In order to thoroughly enjoy this, their lot, our foresters [Native American hunter/gatherers] start off to their different places with as much pleasure as if they were going on a stroll or an excursion … for their days are all nothing but pastime. They are never in a hurry. Quite different from us, who can never do anything without hurry and worry.[25]

And again, quoting observers who first encountered Native American hunter/gatherers in North America on the Native American attitude toward moving camp he says:

    The aboriginals of Victoria, Smyth recounts, are as a rule “lazy travelers. They have no motive to induce them to hasten their journey, and there are many interruptions by the way [26]

So the picture we have of the attitude that hunter/gatherers have of the things they have to do to survive is one of leisure and ease based on their perception of plenty.

Land Use and Property

Amongst modern hunter/gatherers the perception of plenty, their ethic of sharing and their mobility shows a very different idea of land use then we have. It does not include exclusive use. They do not think of land as property at all. Property is limited to personal possessions – trinkets, clothing, tools and weapons, all small things that can be carried.

Autonomy, Gender, and Leadership

In a world where the thing that gives a person status is what they know, there is naturally a high premium placed on sharing because knowledge is visible only when shared. For a person to show off her knowledge she has to tell about it. This encourages a World View where to be “cool” is to know, and to know is to share. Therefore the notion of who is the ‘coolest person’, like other aspects of hunter/gatherer life, shifts from day to day and from camp to camp. If I have a good story today, you may have just as good a story tomorrow. And, if you go off to another camp, you can tell my story there. This works against headmen or chiefs arising amongst hunter/gatherers. In fact, much of what we have said thus far militates against any establishment of authority. As Woodburn says about the constant mobility and flexibility of hunter/gatherer groups:

    …such arrangements (flexibility and mobility) are subversive for the development of authority. Individuals are not bound to fixed areas, to fixed assets, or to fixed resources. They are able to move away without difficulty and at a moment’s notice from constraint which others may seek to impose on them and such possibility of movement is a powerful leveling mechanism, positively valued like other leveling mechanisms in these societies.[27]

Sometimes the outside world will ask who the leader is, and someone will be pointed to, but the next time it may well be someone else. For the people themselves there is no need for institutionalized leadership as Endicott writes of the Batek from Malaysia:

    … [W]here there are no institutionalized authority roles the only influence one person can have over another is that derived from personal qualities. Because there are personally persuasive women as well as men, women can have influence over others in such a system. [28]

Turnbull writes that, for the Mbuti Pygmies of Zaire,

    … [E]ach field of activity has its own leaders, drawn from a particular segment of the community. It is in this way that authority is dispersed throughout the band; every adult is accorded special respect in one field or another, but none can claim respect in all fields. Individual authority is unthinkable. [29]

We assume that if men and women have different activities and different roles that there must be some kind of gender discrimination. However, there is no gender discrimination amongst hunter/gathers, again Endicott writes:

    The fact that men and women in immediate-return societies* may perform different foraging activities in no way leads to an unequal structuring of male-female relationships or differential evaluations of the activities of each sex. [30]

In our culture we tend to think of similarity as related to egalitarianism. However, as Eleanor Leacock has pointed out that the measure of egalitarianism is actually autonomy, not similarity, even in our culture, we don’t want to be the same as our neighbor; we want to have the same opportunity to make our own decisions without for our own lives – we want autonomy. She writes:

    Hunter/gatherer women and men make their decisions about their lives with great autonomy and even children have far more autonomy than we would think is proper. [31]

The men who first encountered North American hunter/gatherers didn’t think that the degree of autonomy that native Americans had was proper at all. Le Jeune writing in Jesuit Relations in the 17th century took great pains to try to instruct the Montagnais-Naskapi of Labrador on the proper relations between men and women. Leacock writes about Le Jeune’s attitudes:

    Disputes and quarrels among spouses were virtually nonexistent, Le Jeune reported, since each sex carried out its own activities without “meddling” in those of the other… Noting that women had “great power,” he expressed his disapproval of the fact that men had no apparent inclination to make their wives “obey” them or to enjoin sexual fidelity upon them. He lectured the Indians on this failing, reporting in one instance, “I told him that he was the master, and that in France women do not rule their husbands.” [32]

Autonomy and egalitarianism amongst hunter/gatherers extends to children as well as men and women.

The story of Nisa, a !Kung woman from the Kalahari desert of Africa, illustrates how much autonomy a child has. Nisa was about 5 years old when her baby brother was born. She was stopped from nursing and cried because she wanted to nurse. One evening, Nisa snuck into bed with her mother, moved her baby brother away and nursed, for which she was punished. She lied to her parents about pushing her baby brother aside in order to nurse so they hit her, and she decided to go to live with her Grandmother. She apparently made this decision on her own and throughout her childhood she moved away fairly frequently. Marjorie Shostak recounts Nisa’s story:

    Another time when I went to my grandmother, we lived in another village, nearby. While I was there, my father said to my mother, “To, go bring Nisa back. Get her so she can be with me.”…When I was told they wanted me to come back I said, “No, I won’t go back. I’m not going to do what he said. I don’t want to live with Mother. I want to stay with Grandma; my skin still hurts. Today, yes this very day here, I’m going to just continue to sleep beside Grandma.”
    So, I stayed with her. [33]]

From our perspective this is an amazing amount of autonomy for a young child.

Hunter/gatherer children are generally indulged and are carried by their mothers and nursed when they are young often into their third and fourth year. Men hold, cuddle, and play with very young infants and take children, both boys and girls with them when they hunt or gather, as do women. Children are taught from a very young age about the value of sharing, there are no competitive games, and there is no value put on competition or on violence as a way of getting what one wants.

Amongst the Inuet of the High Arctic, violence is seen as childish and any kind of confrontation is avoided. Children who fight are laughed at, teased, and ridiculed for such silly behavior. When adults lose their tempers with children or with each other they are also teased and perceived as childish. [34]

Belief Systems – the Perception of God

We have been building a view of how hunter/gatherers perceive the world – as one of abundance, characterized by sharing, egalitarianism, little work and a value for people based on what they know rather than on what they own. This World View permeates the consciousness of modern hunter/gatherers and their view of god reflects it. Turnbull contrasts the Mbuti Pygmies’ view of god and that of the farmers with live in the village:

    Kind, quiet old Moke, all alone and without a wife to look after him, still working away at his bow, occasionally looking along the shank to make sure he was keeping the line true – he told me many things that evening. But, most important, he told me, or rather showed me how the Pygmies believe in the goodness of the forest.
    “The forest is father and mother to us,” he said, “and like a father or mother it gives us everything we need – food clothing, shelter, warmth…and affection. Normally everything goes well, because the forest is good to its children, but when things go wrong there must be a reason.”
    I wondered what he would say now, because I knew that the village people, [farmers] in times of crisis, believe that they have been cursed either by some evil spirit or by a witch or sorcerer. But not the Pygmies; their logic is simpler and their faith stronger, because their world is kinder.
    Moke showed me this when he said, “Normally everything goes well in our world. But at night when we are sleeping, sometimes things go wrong, because we are not awake to stop them from going wrong. Army ants invade the camp; leopards may come in and steal a hunting dog or even a child. If we were awake these things would not happen. So when something big goes wrong, like illness or bad hunting or death, it must be because the forest is sleeping and not looking after its children. So what do we do? We wake it up. We wake it up by singing to it, and we do this because we want it to awaken happy. Then everything will be well and good again. So when our world is going well then also we sing to the forest because we want it to share our happiness.” [35]

Leacock above talked about the importance of autonomy in gender relationships. We noted how much autonomy children have. Respect for the autonomy of each person’s beliefs is also reflected in the view of god held by the Pygmies and explained by Turnbull.

    He told me how all Pygmies have different names for their god, but how they all know that it is really the same one. Just what it is of course, they don’t know, and that is why the name really does not matter very much. “How can we know?” he asked. “We can’t see him; perhaps only when we die will we know and then we can’t tell anyone. So how can we say what he is like or what his name is? But he must be good to give us so many things. He must be of the forest. So when we sing, we sing to the forest.” [36]

Many hunter/gatherer groups believe they are children of the environment in which they live. Australian aborigines believe they are descended from their totem animals from the dream time. They reverence all the aspects of their surroundings because it is father and mother to them. As they move through the land they “sing up the land” because they are in a reciprocal relationship with the world. It creates them and they create the land. They sing as they move around so the land can be created as they go. [37]

Hunter/gatherers live in a world surrounded by the goodness of their god. There is little or no boundary between the spiritual and mundane world. God and spirit are intimate, immediate, real, gentle, and good.

War and Conflict

Not surprisingly, if you perceive that there is enough for everyone, and your social system is such that if you cannot help yourself others will share with you, there is no reason to fight. People who have studied hunter/gatherers have discovered that for the most part hunter/gatherers don’t have war and abhor violence.

Kirk Endicott writes of the Batek hunter/gathers of Malaysia

    …, the Batek abhor interpersonal violence and have generally fled from their enemies rather than fighting back. I once asked a Batek man why their ancestors had not shot the Malay slave-raiders, who plagued them until the 1920s with poisoned blowpipe darts. His shocked answer was: ‘Because it would kill them!’ [38]

Violence is not seen as a way to solve problems in part because the most valuable things in their lives are stories, songs, personal relationships, and their knowledge of how the animals and plants are in the world. In such a world you cannot take the most valuable thing away from someone else because you cannot force the sharing of information. Status is based on information not on what someone owns or controls. [39] [40]

The violence that does occur amongst hunter/gatherers is generally over sexual and marital relationships rather than over material goods.

Social Metaphor – Naming in Kinship Networks

For hunter/gatherers the significant social unit is the nuclear family. They understand their world as an extended family network based on kinship. They see all human beings as kin in some way or another and often see much of the natural world as kin as well. If a person doesn’t fit into the kinship then they don’t know how to relate to them or where their place is in the world.

Therefore, the social metaphor for hunter/gatherers is the extended family and all is ordered according to kinship networks.

Anthropologist Alison Brooks [41] tells how the !Kung group she was studying gave her a name so that they would be able to relate to her. Once she had a name, she had a place in the social order: she had a clan as well as family and all things in her social world worked around her name. When she met new people, they would know how she fit into the kin network by the name she had been given.

Even when she visited another group, she had a place. She would tell the people what her name was, and she would be introduced to the people in that group who had the names of her kin. So that in different groups the person who was identified as her mother or sister would be different, but they had the same name. It is if every woman named Jane would automatically be considered sister to all women named Mary and daughter to all women named Grace. If a woman named Jane moved from New York to Chicago, she would find a household with a woman named Grace and would live with her, gather and hunt with her, have rights and duties within that family and treat the Chicago Grace like her own mother.

Naming places a person where they belong and informs others how they relate to each person and to the kinship network as a whole.

This sense of kin relation is useful when people experience periodic shortages. The band is not a stable political or social unit. Only the nuclear family is a stable unit. Hunter/gatherers adjust their social group in response to the environment. During drought, a band that has been living together will break up and people go to visit kin members who may be using a richer environment.

The strategy for survival changes the group to fit the environment rather than changing the environment to fit the social group. This can be a harsh adjustment. It may be achieved by controlling births, or by dividing up the social group into larger or smaller units according to the availability of resources.

Characteristics of an Information Culture

Based on this survey of modern hunter/gatherers we can generalize some characteristics of an information culture. People living in an information culture have no sense of scarcity. They regard getting a living as an enjoyable social activity. They share everything. Their attitude is that if there is food, there is no reason for anyone to go hungry. Even those who do little work are useful, so there is little concern about the “free rider” problem. To be ‘cool’, in an information culture, is to have good stories, songs, and dances rather than to have material wealth or power. People move because they want to know what is happening in other places, not because they need more material goods. They value exploration for its own sake. People perceive their world and their god(s) to be benign and an intimate part of their environment.

Now we have to go on to see how well this model, based on modern hunter/gatherers, fits the people who lived before agriculture.

The Ice Age World

Imagine the last Ice Age. In North America, at the height of the Ice Age the ice covers the land as far south as the middle of New Jersey; it covers eastern and central Canada and much of the northern United States. The land not covered with ice, where we now have either closed canopy forest or prairie, is parkland with mixture of trees and grass

There are mammoths being killed by massive lions and sabertooth cats. Bison are almost as big as modern day elephants. Beavers are as big as modern day bears. The short faced bear stands more than five foot at the shoulder, almost twice the size of a modern grizzly bear. These big animals merit their name – megafauna.

This is the world the mammoth hunters found when they entered the New World from the Old. The animals hadn’t yet learned to fear people, so both carnivores and herbivores were easy to kill.

The people of the ice age, unlike modern hunter/gatherer cultures, lived in a continent-wide culture. Only our modern global culture has been more wide spread. Beautiful leaf shaped fluted points have been found from Alaska to Maine to Tierra del Fuego. Some of these points have been found far from their where the rock came from, but we don’t know if the people moved that far or if the rock or the point was traded. But because throughout the New World they are all the same style indicates that all the people had a similar culture. [42] [43] Archaeologists call them Paleo-Indians meaning stone age Indians.

If the mastodonts, mammoths bison and other animals of the ice age behaved like today’s herd caribou, they traveled vast distances in small groups, gathering together, at certain seasons, in large numbers, then breaking into small groups again.

Just as the animals gathered together seasonally, the small groups of hunter/Gatherers following particular animal bands would have gathered as well.

These large seasonal gatherings would have been good times for telling stories, singing songs, teaching new techniques and skills, and comparing experiences. For young people, it would have been a time to make new friends and find spouses. Taking spouses from other groups would be another way of spreading information. In short this was a vast information network.

Archaeologists have traditionally believed that the first Americans came from Siberia via the Bering land bridge. Now it is recognized that there were many “First Americans”. More recently Dennis Stanford and Bruce Bradley have noted that there are many technological traits shared between Paleo-Indian artifacts and the Paleolithic artifacts of Europe. The European Paleolithic people are the people of the famous and beautiful cave paintings. They were creative and innovative like the Paleo-Indians. They lived well and shared the same style technology over large a geographic area.[44]

If Stanford is correct then the information culture of the last ice age was not just continent wide it was global.


If we combine the notion of people before agriculture living in widespread cultures in the best ecological areas having contact with others to our picture of an egalitarian people living in a world of plenty then we have some notion of how people lived for many thousands of years. These taken together – modern hunter/gatherers and the Ice age world – also gives us a picture of what one kind of information culture looks like.

Now we must go on to find out what happened to this information rich “Eden”.

[1] Woodburn, J
1998. “Egalitarian Societies,” in Limited Wants, Unlimited Means: A Reader on Hunter Gatherer Economics and the Environment J. M. Gowdy (ed) Washington DC: Island Press 87-110

[2] Lee notes that mongomongo nuts are plentiful and more nutritious then any cultivated crop that would grow in the region. The !Kung gather them by the thousands and there are still tens of thousands left after they have taken all they need

Lee, R.
1998. “What Hunters Do for a Living, or How to Make Do on Scarce Resources,” in Limited Wants, Unlimited Means: A Reader on Hunter Gatherer Economics and the Environment, J. M. Gowdy (ed) Washington DC: Island Press p. 47

[3] Lee. 43-64

[4] O’Connell, J.F., and Hawkes, K.
1981. Alyawara Plant Use and Optimal Foraging Theory, In Hunter-Gatherer Foraging Strategies, B. Wihterhalder & E.A. Smith (eds) Chicago University Press, Chicago p 99-125

[5] Kelly, R.
1995. The Foraging Spectrum: Diversity in Hunter-Gatherer Lifeways, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington DC

[6] Turnbull C.
1972. The Mountain People, New York: Simon & Schuster p. 14

[7] Turnbull C.
1987 The Forest People (Paperback) Touchstone NY p.4

[8] Lee, R.
1990. “Primitive Communism and the Origins of Social Inequality,” in The Evolution of Political Systems: Sociopolitics in Small-Scale Sedentary Societies, S. Upham (ed) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press p 225-245.

[9] Marshall, L
1998. “Sharing, Talking, and Giving: Relief of Social Tensions Among the !Kung” in Limited Wants, Unlimited Means: A Reader on Hunter Gatherer Economics and the Environment, J. M. Gowdy (ed) Washington DC: Island Press p. 75

[10] Endicott, K.
1988. “Property, Power and Conflict among the Batek of Malaysia,” In Hunters and Gatherers 2: Property, Power and Ideology, T. Ingold, D. Riches, and J. Woodburn(eds) Oxford and New York: Berg p.117

[11] Marshall, L. p72

[12] Turnbull, C. M.
1961. The Forest People: A Study of the Pygmies of the Congo, New York: Simon and Schuster. p.107

[13] Turnbull 1972

[14] Marshall, L p.83

[15] Turnbull 1961

[16] Woodburn, J. p. 99

[17] Sahlins, M.
1998. “The Original Affluent Society” in Limited Wants, Unlimited Means: A Reader on Hunter Gatherer Economics and the Environment, J. M. Gowdy (ed) Washington DC: Island Press p. 19

[18] Lee What Hunters Do for a Living p.51

[19] Endicott, K. L.
1981. “The Conditions of Egalitarian Male-Female Relationships in Foraging Societies,” Canberra Anthropology 4(2): 1-10

[20] Bird-David, N.
1998. “Beyond “The Original Affluent Society”: A Culturalist Reformulation,” in Limited Wants, Unlimited Means: A Reader on Hunter Gatherer Economics and the Environment, J. M. Gowdy (ed) Washington DC: Island Press p. 124 – 125

[21] Heart, J. A.
1978. “From Subsistence to Market: A Case Study of the Mbuti Net Hunters,” Human Ecology 6:p.337

[22] Sahlins p. 31

[23] Woodburn p. 92

[24] Binford, L. R
1983. In Pursuit of the Past: Decoding the Archaeological Record, New York: Thames & Hudson

[25] Biard, P
1616 “Relation of New France, of First Lands, Nature of the Country and of Its Inhabitants quoted by Sahlins in The Original Affluent Society in Limited Wants, Unlimited Means: A Reader on Hunter Gatherer Economics and the Environment, J. M. Gowdy (ed) Washington DC: Island Press p. 28

[26] Smyth, R. B.
1878 The Aborigines of Victoria quoted by Sahlins in The Original Affluent Society in Limited Wants, Unlimited Means: A Reader on Hunter Gatherer Economics and the Environment, J. M. Gowdy (ed) Washington DC: Island Press p. 28

[27] Woodburn p. 92

[28] Endicott p.3

[29] Turnbull The Forest People p.181

[30] Endicott p.8

[31] Leacock, E.
1998. “Women’s Status in Egalitarian Society: Implications for Social Evolution” in Limited Wants, Unlimited Means: A Reader on Hunter Gatherer Economics and the Environment, J. M. Gowdy (ed) Washington DC: Island Press 139-164

[32] Leacoc, p.145

[33] Shostak, M.
2000. Nisa, the Life and Words of a !Kung Woman, Cambridge: Harvard p.55

[34] Briggs, J. L.
1994. “’Why Don’t You Kill Your Baby Brother?’ The Dynamics of Peace in Canadian Inuit Camps” In The Anthropology of Peace and Nonviolence, L. E. Sponsel and T. Gregor, (eds) Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, p.155-181

[35] Turnbull, C. M
1961. The Forest People: A Study of the Pygmies of the Congo NY: Simon and Schuster p. 91-92

[36] Turnbul. p.93

[37] Chatwin, B.
1987 The Songlines, New York: Penguin

[38] Endicott p. 122

[39] Turnbull The Forest People

[40] Lee, R & Devore
1982. Kalahari Hunter-Gatherers: Studies of the !Kung San and their Neighbors. Cambridge: Harvard University Press

[41] Brooks, A. Personal communication

[42] Martin, P.S. & Wright, Jr. H. E. (eds),
1967. Pleistocene Extinctions: The Search for a Cause, New Haven: Yale University Press

[43] Martin, P.S. & Klein, R.L.(eds)
1984. Quaternary Extinctions: A Prehistoric Revolution, Tucson: University of Arizona Press Reprinted in paperback 1989

[44] Stanford, D. and Bradley, B.
2005. “Constructing the Solutrean Solution,” presentation, Clovis In the Southeast Conference . abstract: