How money brings hunter-gatherers new choices
Women working hard to earn cash income by harvesting tubers for pharmaceutical companies. Nyae Nyae, 2016. Credit: Polly Wiessner

Families that make a living from a mixture of government aid, selling crafts and other ventures can be seen if you visit the Ju/'hoansi people. Most people have some money that they use to buy things. Many people with government jobs have cars and furniture. Stone houses are next to mud huts. Debt is hidden behind wealth because wealth is distributed in a way that's unfair.

This wasn't always the case. In Ju/'hoansi society, money is a new thing. Their economy used to be based on wild plants and animals. The Ju/'hoansi have been engaged in a mixed economy since the late 70s. New choices with money.

The University of Utah and Arizona State University have collaborated on a study about how money changed the Ju/'hoansi society. Sharing meals and gift giving with family have not changed from the forager days. Extending kinship networks and need-based community giving have.

We don't know what will happen next. I've seen a change in the way things are done, from having to share most of what you have to be allowed to keep your cash income and fill your own needs, and then sharing what's left over, to being able to keep your cash income and fill your own needs

The study was published in the national academy of sciences

The history of the bushmen.

How does a society make ends meet? The economy was based on sharing and giving.

There's a lot of meat if someone kills a big animal. He can give that meat to himself because it's going to rot anyways. The receiver who might be in need of meat will see it as a benefit.

The hunter-gatherer society gave things to each other. The gifts served to give information about the status of the relationship, share necessities and strengthen social bonds, as each gift carried with it a connection between giver and receiver.

Each Ju/'hoansi was responsible for caring for a certain family in a system called hxaro. Ju/'hoansi could rely on their hxaro partners in other villages for months at a time in hard times. Most of the Ju/'hoansi possessions had been given as gifts.

Gradually cultural changes were set off by money entering their society. In the 70s, after the loss of Ju/'hoansi traditional lands, a homeland for the bushmen was established. Over the next few decades the Ju/'hoansi began raising animals and crops on a small scale and began receiving government assistance for children and elderly people. Since the loss of their lands, families have had difficulty providing basic necessities.

The Devil's Claw plant, which grows in the bush and can be sold to pharmaceutical companies as an antiseptic, is one of the sources of income for the residents of the village.

Let's take a moment and think about the concept of money. Sharing meat from a large kill is a transaction that costs the giver little, since they have too much to use, and the receiver much, since they are in need. Sharing money costs the same as it benefits the receiver since the value of the money is fixed. It is now more expensive to share.

It detaches the meaning of items acquired through social relationships like how a gift certificate to a bookstore doesn't mean the same as a book that someone chose from that store as a gift for you Almost all of the Ju/'hoansi's possessions had come from a gift they received.

The gift is never separated from the relationship. With money, you just go to the store and you've got it, and there's no social relationship.

Money changed the way people share and give.

The Ju/'hoansi were surveyed about their lifestyles and social networks over the course of two decades. She compared the data with the data she had collected in the 1970s when she first visited them. With the help of her Ju/'hoansi research assistants, she continued to gather and analyze data on how villagers spent their money.

The number of partnerships fell by half. The system was nothing more than a tale told by elders.

Why did it fall so quickly? In times of hardship, a band of Ju/'hoansi would leave their homes and live with their hosts. Sharing with visitors became more expensive because of permanent settlements and the food options on offer.

The social economy is changing because of money. Ju/'hoansi respect each other's freedom to use their money as they please and to take care of their own family. One villager said that when he gets paid, he gets a lot of requests. I tell my family and friends that I will pay off my store debts first and then buy food, school uniforms and other items for the family and myself. I will give them something if there isn't any money left. I have enough for myself but not my friends.

Sharing and gift giving have become more reflective of the new economy. Instead of sharing meat from large kills, communities share tea and sugar parties. Gifts are now purchased rather than made. In 1974 23% of gifts were with distant kin.

Money changes the social order.

Money created inequalities in wealth. Many Ju/'hoansi can't afford cars, houses, furniture and other possessions because of the high cost of living.

Money did not cause other forms of social inequality. Despite the fact that most of the highest-paying government jobs went to men, women still pursued income through other means. There was no noticeable difference in the number of possessions purchased by men and women in the same year.

Sometimes people think that because men have more jobs it will decrease, but that's not true.

She says that the Ju/'hoansi value egalitarianism because it means that each person respects their own independence. Social inequalities between different income brackets are prevented by that. She claims that stone houses are built next to mud huts.

bushman doesn't hire another bushman to do their dirty work People who want to gain political power are put down. I don't know how long this will last, but for the time being, very strong egalitarian principles are holding, even though the material differences are great.

What do you want and what do you need?

Money has made a difference in Ju/'hoansi society. The previous lifestyle was marked by poverty, anxiety and food insufficiency. Being able to purchase necessities is a benefit. When needs have been covered, what happens to things that used to be wanted?

She says that when more things are available, they move from being wants to being needs. That is what happens to the Ju/'hoansi. Material goods that make them comfortable become needs rather than just desires. Money does that. The society is changed by the fact that it continually has more and more needs.

She's been able to see it emerge from the beginning of money's entry into a society because she's learned from the Ju/'hoansi.

She doesn't see how money can be used to create social inequalities. The society will probably change. There aren't any social institutions that allow one Ju/'hoansi to employ another or enforce payment for services rendered, neither are there institutions that enforce payment of interpersonal loans.

If some new institutions develop to deal with money in the current situation, that's what I will have to look at.

More information: Polly Wiessner et al, A 44-y perspective on the influence of cash on Ju/'hoansi Bushman networks of sharing and gifting, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2022). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2213214119 Journal information: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences