Wealth Distribution and Population Numbers
Acquiring wealth to meet group survival needs is a daily activity for hunter-gatherers. Every tribal member knows he or she must work to ensure that natural resources are gathered and processed to meet survival needs. In terms of distributing wealth, each member lives about as well as other members. Equality of sharing wealth is critical in that work efforts are required by each member to create the wealth. But this is only true of members that are physically and mentally able to work and contribute to the wealth.
Compared with groups that support larger populations through agriculture or animal husbandry, hunter-gatherer groups are relatively small. For example, the Powhatans, that John Smith encountered along the eastern coastal plain between North Carolina and Washington D.C., could only support about 15,000 people. And the Powhatans had some agriculture. If they did not have some agriculture their population would have been smaller. Today millions live on the same land.
Hunter-gatherer groups limit their populations so that there is a balance between the number of people and the wealth they can create wealth based on their knowledge and skills, and the plenty found on the land they can control. Several factors are involved in achieving this balance, including:
Ø As already mentioned, the adult population is out of balance with a larger number of females because males are killed at a higher rate because of their dangerous activities such as hunting, training for war, and battle against enemies.
Ø Birth control approaches are ancient from abstinence to various contraceptive drugs and devices. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_birth_control)
Ø Imperfect babies are killed through different infanticide approaches. For example, although the militaristic Spartans had agriculture, they killed or allowed to die through neglect both male and female babies not considered to have the potential to become productive adults. (See https://www.historywiz.com/didyouknow/spartanfamily.htm)
Ø In some artic cultures where resources are extremely limited, if a mother dies her living baby is buried with her body. (See https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidnikel/2019/10/02/these-haunting-ice-mummies-are-on-display-in-greenland-national-museum/#69f71defe494
Ø Male initiation ceremonies can result in the death of weaker teenagers. For example, to become a warrior, a male Powhatan had to survive a “huskanaw” ritual that lasted nine months. In the beginning, the village conducted a dance that resembled a funeral. Later the initiate was imprisoned in a huskanaw pen and fed a hallucinogenic drug designed to erase memories of the weaknesses and fears of childhood. He had to be kept in the pen because the drug drove him out of his mind. If a huskanaw “graduate” revealed he still remembered his parents and his childhood, he was put through the huskanaw again during which he would most likely die. (See https://sariko0510.wordpress.com/2016/06/10/erasing-childhood-memories/)
Ø Elderly people that can no longer be productive commit suicide. For example, in the artic spring grandparents sometimes allowed themselves to be floated off on an ice sheet fragment so that more food is available for the younger generation. Among Native American tribes, suicide of healthy adults was rare, but many cultures encouraged suicide among elderly, unproductive adults. (See https://ethicsofsuicide.lib.utah.edu/region/americas/north-american-native-cultures/)
© Joseph L. Bass, EdD, June 2020