Too Hungry to Enslave

/ by Ted O'Callahan /

Unstable food supply resulted in absence of slavery in early Australian hunter-gatherer societies.

Indigenous cultures in northwestern and southeastern America developed marked social hierarchies. Oddly, this sort of class stratification did not appear in Australian indigenous societies of the same period.

In a study published in the January issue of Current Anthropology, Ian Keen, a visiting fellow in anthropology at Australian National University, surmises that enduring inequalities—such as hereditary chiefdoms and slavery—did not develop in Australia because aboriginal societies lacked access to reliable food resources.

“Conditions posited as making the development of enduring inequality possible among hunter-gatherers of certain other regions appear not to have prevailed in Australia,” Keen said via e-mail.

American societies had access to local resources, such as salmon, that were plentiful, reliable and could be stored for some length of time. “These resources made lower mobility possible and led to the defense of territories and their resources,” said Keen. “Ranking developed as certain individuals and groups gained control of these resources.”

Early cultures developed hierarchies, such as ranked lineage, a system in which each person in society is given a rank that passes through the generations (the highest rank being chief). These social groupings prevented in-fighting and ensured a group could retain control of a reliable food resource after the death, or fall from power, of any particular individual.

The unpredictability of resources in Australia constrained the development of complex social hierarchies. However, transient inequalities—based on polygyny, the practice of having multiple wives—did develop within aboriginal societies, in areas where there was a relatively rich store of resources. 

“A key difference between systems of transient inequality and enduring inequality is the presence or absence of ‘chiefly’ office,” said Keen.

In situations of enduring inequality, the position of chief is of greater importance than the individual acting in the role. A chief is entitled to powers and prerogatives because of the office he holds, not because of their personal traits.

In patrilineal societies, a child becomes a member of their father’s group. The more wives a man has, the more children he can have. The more people in a man’s family group, the more influence he wields. Yet, the power a man gains due to a large family group is relatively temporary.

Groups may break up due to internal rivalries when there is no formalized hierarchical system to hold them together. Also, where there is heredity through the male line, a generation that is mostly female reduces the size and influence of the group.

Brian Hayden, an archaeologist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, suggested via e-mail that while Keen has raised relevant questions in his study, he did not answer them adequately.

Keen’s analysis implies that enduring inequalities did not develop in a vacuum. However, he puts the primary onus on creating social hierarchies within groups of people on the characteristics of their environment.

“He does not put enough weight on the ecological and economic aspects of complexity that develop among some hunter-gatherers in Australia,” Hayden said in his critique of the work. He also singled out Keen’s lack of focus on the development of marriage systems within distinct aboriginal populations.

Keen says that the historical trajectories of marriage systems are beyond the scope of his article, but that his comparative study does show that transient inequalities developed in different cultures in similar ways and for similar reasons.

Still, Keen acknowledged that more work needed to be done pooling both he and Hayden’s fields of study. “In my view the evidence in this case needs careful reassessment by archaeologists and anthropologists working in cooperation.”

Originally published January 5, 2006

Tags demographics food growth research resilience

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