The original affluent society

30th December 2018

The ‘original affluent society’ is a term coined by the American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, who first introduced it at the Man the Hunter symposium in Chicago in 1966.

The symposium was of great importance. A breakthrough occurred in the way that the lives of primitive hunter-gatherers were perceived. Until then, they were associated with poverty, hunger, and primitivism. Then they became associated with a sort of ideal of a ‘golden age’, because apparently they didn’t go hungry, and their spiritual culture was often very elaborate (as were the less visible aspects of their material culture).

Sahlins called the economy of hunter-gatherer societies a ‘Zen economy’. Sahlins argues that hunter-gatherers can achieve a sense of affluence by not needing much and by satisfying these basic needs in any way possible.

Sahlins quotes Lorna Marshall, who spent years living among the Basarwa of Botswana:

They all had what they needed or could make what they needed (…) They lived in a kind of material plenty because they adapted the tools of their living to materials which lay in abundance around them and which were free for anyone to take (…) They borrow what they do not own. With this ease, they have not hoarded, and the accumulation of objects has not become associated with status.

Sahlins pays special attention to the large amount of free time at the hunter-gatherers’ disposal. Based on works by McCarthy and McArthur on Arnhem Land and by Richard Lee on the South African !Kung tribe, his view is that hunter-gatherers work for only around twenty hours per week, that is, half the time people work nowadays.

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