2.1.1 General Principles
In some societies, it might make sense to understand behavior in terms of profit or surplus (i. e., maximizing energy output), but most anthropologists now believe that for HG societies maximizing security (i. e., minimizing risk) makes more sense. Security is increased when the risks of food shortage are successfully managed. From her studies of the San in southern Africa, Polly Wiessner identified four general ways in which risk is reduced: (1) prevention of energy deficit, (2) transfer of deficit, (3) pooling of resources, and (4) storage strategies. To prevent deficits on a daily basis, hunter-gatherers need appropriate tools for killing prey or gathering plants; expert knowledge of the probabilities of success and how it can be achieved; and intragroup cooperation in tracking, processing, and transporting foods. The transfer of deficit is achieved by sharing within the
group and by exchange relationships, whereas the pooling of resources is another social strategy that provides for an individual some insurance against failure in food energy acquisition.
Storage strategies for food and water are also potentially useful, but except in the short term these are difficult to achieve in hot and humid climates. Fuel storage is essential only for HG societies coping with extreme winter conditions. Unless food storage can be achieved effectively, for the hunter or gatherer to maximize short-term gain by producing as much energy as possible is not a sensible strategy. Where energy storage is problematic, the social strategies of sharing, cooperation, and exchange are more effective, but all require some form of investment. Investing in friendships and exchange, activities that require leisure time, might prove to be a better strategy for risk reduction, compared to killing more and more animals.
2.1.2 Example: Anbarra Gidjingali Aborigines
The ways in which risk and productivity can interact are well demonstrated by the example of the Anbarra, a subgroup of about 40 people that are part of the Gidjingali (population 350) of Arnhem Land, northern Australia. The economy of the Anbarra was studied by Rhys Jones and Betty Meehan at a time (early 1970s) when a large part of the Anbarra diet still derived from HG resources. Anbarra territory is at the mouth of the Blyth river, in the subhumid tropical savanna zone. There is seasonal access to the rich resources of open woodlands, grassy plains, freshwater swamps and lagoons,
sand dunes, and mangroves, as well as the open sea, using a semisedentary pattern of settlement. In the wet season, people live by the coast and depend largely on fish and shellfish. Later in the year, they range inland to take advantage of cycad fruits, wild yams, and small game, and they move further inland across the grassy plains for wallaby hunting in the latter part of the dry season. The seasonal availability of foods is one obvious constraint over their pattern of energy consumption.
Another important factor, however, is the probability of success in the food-gaining quest. There is an inverse relationship between the productivity of labor and the probability of a successful trip. Activities such as wallaby hunting provide on average a high yield of food energy per unit of time invested, but are also the most risky activities, with a 75% chance of complete failure of a hunting trip. At the other end of the spectrum are plant-gathering activities, for which success is virtually guaranteed but the returns to labor are considerably less attractive. The Anbarra’s overall strategy is to combine high-yield, high-risk activities (e. g., wallaby hunting or spear fishing) with low-yield, low-risk tasks (e. g., collecting shellfish and gathering of plant foods such as yams and cycads). Table II shows data for risk and yield for four of the major Anbarra food resources.
A viable long-term strategy for energy acquisition therefore requires a blend of different activities. Hunting is men’s work, and to ensure against their failure the women must engage in less rewarding but more secure tasks such as gathering cycads and other plants and collecting shellfish. In this way, Anbarra
society maximizes utility in terms of risk avoidance, secures a balanced diet, and maintains social solidarity and mutual aid between the sexes.