Seasonality, resource stress, and food sharing in so-called "egalitarian" foraging societies

  • Speth J
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Most discussions of food sharing among so-called "egalitarian" hunters and gatherers implicitly assume that, because all adult members of a group participate in the network of sharing, all must therefore be receiving portions of more or less equivalent nutritional worth. This assumption is questioned and five basic points are raised: (1) because fat is not uniformly distributed over the carcass of an animal and because it is depleted sequentially when an animal is stressed, certain individuals may receive nutritionally inferior portions of meat, with potentially serious health consequences for the recipients during seasonal or interannual periods when other food resources are in short supply; (2) even when sharing is quantitatively and nutritionally equitable, food taboos may block certain individuals from access to meat and/or fat, particularly children, women at critical stages in their reproductive life, and the elderly (however, in the case of pregnant women, such food taboos and seemingly inequitable sharing practices may have positive as well as negative consequences for the health and survivorship of the fetus or newborn infant by keeping maternal protein consumption below about 20% of total calories and by reducing the mother's risk of exposure to potentially teratogenic substances that may accumulate in animal tissues); (3) skilled hunters may acquire nutritionally more valuable parts than do other males by "snacking" at kill sites and through differential sharing; (4) food-sharing practices and food taboos vary widely among foragers, and this diversity may contribute to observed differences among groups in fertility and infant mortality patterns; and (5) the focus of anthropologists on the sharing of food, especially meat, as opposed to the sharing of a broad spectrum of social, political, economic, and sexual rights and privileges, is an overly narrow and potentially misleading perspective. In closing, the paper briefly discusses the utility of the term "egalitarian," concluding that the concept, by conflating ideology with actual behavior, may obscure rather than enhance our understanding of the origins and adaptations of foraging societies. © 1990.

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  • John D. Speth

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