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Anthropology/authoritarian attitudes in history


Addressing only specific circumstances: Mr. Jones gave the best part of his catch of the day to his neighbor whom he then expected to smoke the fish. The neighbor was versed in smoking fish. The other neighbor he had promised fish he gave a small portion. Has this always happened in tribal circumstances throughout the ages? I address the question of whether the concern for one's clan/group and the benefits of any kind shared with others in the "area" has always been transient? Today we can obtain varied solutions to anything meaningful; paying or trading value is transient. Was it always a matter of having a choice regarding who got the best part of the kill; who received the dregs? Is this an actual Hollywood representation? Thank You

Dear P.,
This is a tricky one to answer because we cannot know the answer to this issue (biased vs. non-biased sharing among non-kin) by direct investigation. What we have to do is to look at how sharing among non-kin varies among humans and non-human species and then extrapolate back into time. (I'm excepting sharing among kin from my response, because in kin-selection theory, that phenomenon has a fairly straightforward evolutionary explanation.)  
Unbiased sharing is very very rare among living human societies.  Nearly every society has rules of one kind or another to minimize or regulated the bias, but the very fact such rules exist suggest there is a powerful underlying drive towards biased sharing.  Biased sharing is very common among our nearest primate relatives.  When possible, Chimpanzees share meat from animals they kill with social allies and/or potential mates, and that's about it.
Unbiased sharing makes sense in some animal societies where all members of the group are very closely related to one another (ants, bees, vampire bats, naked mole rats, etc.), but other than this food-sharing with non-kin is really really rare.  When it is seen, it is really more a case of tolerated theft (or, if you will, non-defense of a resource), rather than outright sharing.
So, long story short, sharing was probably always a matter of choice, but as in life in general, choices have consequences. Someone who did not share generally or only did so for narrow self-interest might find themselves out of luck when they needed help from others.  Among several of the well-documented African hunter-gatherer societies, such as the Kalahari San, the worst insult is to call someone "stingy".
Best Wishes,
John Shea


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John Shea


Questions about Old World prehistoric archaeology (especially Stone Age) of Europe, Africa, and Western Asia, prehistoric human and hominid behavior, primitive technology, origin of modern humans, extinction of the Neandertals. IMPORTANT: Between February 14 and September 01, 2014, I will be on sabbatical leave. During this time I will have limited access to email. This means that there may be very long periods (i.e., weeks) between your posting a question and my having time to answer it.


>20 years as a professional anthropologist based at a research university.

Journal of Field Archaeology, Journal of Archaeological Science, Lithic Technology, Evolutionary Anthropology, Current Anthropology, Mitekufat HaEven (Journal of the Israel Prehistoric Society), Paléorient, Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan, American Anthropologist, Geoarchaeology.

Ph.D (Anthropology) Harvard University, 1991.
BA (Archaeology) Boston University, 1982.

Awards and Honors
Sigma Xi Distinguished Lecturer 2012-2014

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