It would seem, when all is said and done, that Sahlins’s original affluent society thesis holds up reasonably well. This appears to be especially true when we realize that most of what we know about the standard of living and the work patterns of hunter-
gatherers is based on contemporary groups. Since nearly all of these groups live in marginal environments, prehistoric hunter-gatherers, most of whom would have existed in much more favorable environments, would have been even better off. It is crucial that we avoid romanticizing the hunting and gathering lifestyle as being some sort of
primitive paradise. Clearly that would be a gross oversimplification. Nonetheless, hunter-gatherers have fared much better than we used to imagine. As Elizabeth Cashdan (1989:26) has concluded, it is now possible to “demolish with confidence the old stereotype that hunter-gatherers had to work all the time simply to get enough food to eat.” And it is also possible to demolish with confidence the old stereotype that hunter-gatherers did not eat well.
When considering how goods are produced in all societies, a vital question concerns who owns the forces of production – that is, who owns those resources that are of greatest significance in carrying out productive activities. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Karl Marx speculated that the earliest mode of economic life in human history was what he termed primitive communism. By primitive communism, Marx meant a type of society in which people subsisted by hunting and gathering or by simple forms of agriculture or animal herding, and in which all of the vital resources of nature were held in common. Private ownership of resources by individuals or small groups was not found, he thought, in this type of society.