What explains the pervasiveness of sharing among hunter-gatherers? The most commonly offered explanation is that it is a rationally chosen strategy of variance reduction (Cashdan, 1985; Winterhalder, 1986a, 1986b; Kelly, 1995). Hunter-gatherers intimately depend on one another for survival. While resources are typically not highly scarce in a general sense, they are notoriously subject to marked fluctuations in availability. Thus a man may encounter a long run of bad luck in hunting. If others do not give meat to him during this time, he must go without. They give meat to him because they know that they too will eventually have their turn with bad hunting luck, during which time they will expect to receive meat from him. Therefore to give regularly to others is to help ensure one’s own well-being in the long run (Weissner, 1982; Cashdan, 1985). Generalized reciprocity is thus a special instance of what is known as enlightened self-interest – cooperating with or assisting others when it is to one’s own personal advantage to do so, not because one has natural altruistic feelings toward others. There can be nothing surprising in the fact that hunter-gatherers show great disdain for the occasional individual who is competitive, selfish, and boastful. Such a person is a serious threat to the economic well-being of others and must be subjected to strong pressure to change his or her ways.
Social Inequalities and Political Life
Because of their emphasis on sharing and the absence of true private property among most hunter-gatherer societies, they usually lack social stratification, or structured inequalities of power and privilege. Yet the absence of class divisions does not mean that perfect equality prevails among the members of these societies. Inequalities do