The Cracker Barrel: 'Stone Age Economics'

Michael Sahlins book may just teach us a lesson or two.

Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Some years ago, at the recommendation of a friend, I sent for a book titled “Stone Age Economics,” written by a fellow named Michael Sahlins.

I didn’t know what to expect, other than an examination of what making a living was like a long time ago. Like most modern folk, I expected to find that life back then was a rather grim business of alternating feasts and famines, with the latter outnumbering the former.

Everything I’d read about the Stone Age made it sound like an era of relentless stress and insecurity, thankfully outmoded by the invention of agriculture and the start of true civilization.

Not so, writes Mr. Sahlins. Not even remotely so.

Based on the observations of anthropologists who have taken the time to actually live with tribes whose way of life is essentially unchanged from the Stone Age, Sahlins claims our view of primitive ways is, in the main, erroneous. Because most of us look at the past through the prism of our own contemporary values, our view is automatically distorted.


“We are inclined to think of hunters and gatherers as poor because they don’t have anything,” he writes, adding that it’s “perhaps better to think of them for that reason as free.”

Sahlins points out that, in a hunting and gathering society, the ultimate value is freedom of movement, and that limiting your possessions to a modest number is critical for success. The more objects you have to lug around, the less time and energy you’d have for finding and securing food.

“The pure nomad is the poor nomad,” he says. “Mobility and property are in contradiction.”

Given our modern habit of surrounding ourselves with things, many of which we use occasionally or not at all, we’ve come to equate success with accumulation. As the T-shirt slogan has it, “He who dies with the most toys wins.”

The flip side of this is that the fewer things you have, the poorer you must be. But Sahlins - and others - have come to question the wisdom of such views.

“The world’s most primitive people,” he writes, “have few possessions, but they are not poor. Poverty is not a certain small amount of goods. Poverty is a social status. As such it is the invention of civilization.”

He goes on to quote the late anthropologist Martin Gusinde, who lived with the primitive people of Tierra del Fuego in Chile and concluded, “Their extremely limited material possessions relieve them of all cares with regard to daily necessities and permit them instead to enjoy life.”

Might there be a lesson for us here?


What, in fact, do we ultimately value?

As Sahlins describes our gradual adoption of an agricultural way of life, he makes clear that, in leaving behind simpler, more direct ways of gleaning a living, we also surrendered much of our free time. For hunters and gatherers, the average time needed to procure plenty of food for the day was three to four hours, depending on the season and the climate. The rest of the day was spent talking, sleeping, playing and generally hanging out.

All of that changed with the switch to agriculture, which required us to stop roaming around in search of food, and instead stay home with our crops and animals. This had the (generally) beneficial effect of assuring that we’d have plenty to eat - but it also reduced the range and variety of our lives, and turned us gradually into custodians of our properties and possessions, and somehow doubled or tripled the amount of time we’re forced to work.

Reading Sahlins made me wonder if we’ve actually progressed at all.

Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at

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Craig Nagel, Columnist

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