In hg societies before the evolution of the state, individuals enjoyed economic and political freedoms which only a privileged few enjoy even today. Men decided how much they would work on a particular day, or whether to work at all, and women were free to set up their daily schedules as they wished. Everyone did what they had to do, but there was no one there who told them what to do or how to do it. As I said, this was a freedom that few humans enjoy these days. There were no bosses or executives; they simply didn't exist yet. Wood, leaves, feathers, fiber -- all were freely available in unlimited quantities. Earth, water, plants and game were owned by everyone and no one. Every man and woman owned an equal share in nature, without rent, taxes or tribute (Harris 1977).
The rise of the state swept all of this away. For the last six millennia or so, nine tenths of everyone who lived did so as a peasant or in an otherwise servile class. Ordinary people who wanted access to nature's bounty had to secure it through taxes, tribute or labor. It was owned by someone higher up. Weapons and techniques of battle were taken away and turned over to soldiers and policemen, who were controlled by military, civil and religious bureaucrats. Harris writes, "for the first time there appeared on earth kings, dictators, high priests, emperors, prime ministers, presidents, governors, mayors, generals, admirals, police chiefs, judges, lawyers, and jailers, along with dungeons, jails, penitentiaries, and concentration camps. Under the tutelage of the state, human beings learned for the first time how to bow, grovel, kneel, and kowtow. In many ways the rise of the state was the descent of the world from freedom to slavery (1977)."
With the state we see massive inequalities of wealth and status that produce abundance for a few and misery for the majority. Perhaps anthropologists look to hgs as a way of seeing a vision of and a possibility for human life without the misery and inequity of state and class society. Lee tells us, "I am convinced that hunter-gatherer studies, far from being the fantasy projection of uncritical romantics, have a role to play: in the movement for justice for indigenous peoples, and as part of a larger movement to recapture wholeness from an increasingly fragmented and alienating modernity (1992)."
The facts seem to indicate that statehood was very rarely gained. That is, it failed over and over because people simply weren't "buying it." Chiefdoms rarely made it through the transition. Rather than obey commands to work and pay taxes, people simply fled to outer frontiers and no-man's-lands. Fights often broke out, giving an opportunity for other chiefs to swoop in and destabilize the regime and take over. Harris writes, "Whatever the precise course of rebellion, the great majority of chiefdoms that attempted to impose crop quotas, taxation, labor conscription, and other coercive and asymmetrical forms of redistribution on a commoner class either fell back to more egalitarian forms of redistribution or were destroyed entirely (1989)."
One can see that the pictures of both the transition to agriculture and the transition to statehood are much more complex and nuanced than is commonly realized. Hunting and gathering kept man in a check that has unfortunately come apart almost totally, but while he was constrained by it he lived better than he knew. I would like to close this chapter with a quotation by two eminent anthropologists, who place a more fitting cap on it than I could.
Lee and DeVore put it beautifully in Man the Hunter:
"Cultural man has been on earth for some 2,000,000 years; for over 99 per cent of this period he has lived as a hunter-gatherer. Only in the last 10,000 years has man begun to domesticate plants and animals, to use metals, and to harness energy sources other than the human body. Homo sapiens assumed an essentially modern form at least 50,000 years before he managed to do anything about improving his means of production. Of the estimated 150 billion men who have ever lived on earth, over 60 per cent have lived as hunters and gatherers; about 35 per cent have lived by agriculture and the remaining few per cent have lived in industrial societies.
To date, the hunting way of life has been the most successful and persistent adaptation man has ever achieved. Nor does this evaluation exclude the present precarious existence under the threat of nuclear annihilation and the population explosion. It is still an open question whether man will be able to survive the exceedingly complex and unstable ecological conditions he has created for himself. If he fails in this task, interplanetary archaeologists of the future will classify our planet as one in which a very long and stable period of small-scale hunting and gathering was followed by an apparently instantaneous efflorescence of technology and society leading rapidly to extinction. 'Stratigraphically,' the origin of agriculture and thermonuclear destruction will appear as essentially simultaneous.
On the other hand, if we succeed in establishing a sane and workable world order, the long evolution of man as a hunter in the past and the (hopefully) much longer era of technical civilization in the future will bracket an incredibly brief transitional phase of human history -- a phase which included the rise of agriculture, animal domestication, tribes, states, cities, empires, nations, and the industrial revolution (1968)."