Hierarchy and inequality are ubiquitous both throughout the modern world, our written history and the animal kingdom. A subset of hunter-gatherer populations, including the Tanzanian Hadza, the Malay Batek and several Kalahari groups are described by ethnographers as relatively ‘egalitarian’, populations among whom equalities of power, wealth and rank ‘are not merely sought but are, with certain… exceptions, genuinely realised’ (Woodburn, 1982). The question is, how do these populations manage to so effectively curtail despotism and self-aggrandisement? Scholars have variously explored the role of sanctions and ritual knowledge, as well as the causal impacts of storage, resource-use and residential mobility. One theory, entertained by several anthropologists including Woodburn, Boehm and, most recently, Gintis and van Schaik, posits that democratised access to hunting weapons and poisons may flatten hierarchies by increasing the risks of conflict and by rendering inequalities in strength unimportant. Although the logic is sound, and provides a powerful generalisable rule, there have been very few attempts to test the idea empirically. I explore how we might test this idea both in comparative ethnographic and in archaeological context. I also explore the pitfalls and explain why, despite the simplicity and logical appeal of the idea, it appears to hold only limited explanatory power.
Daryll Forde Seminar Room, Anthropology Building, 14 Taviton St, off Gordon Sq., London WC1H 0BW. Tube: Euston Square