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  • Writer's pictureJoe Lightfoot

Before Priests, Kings & Bosses Part Two: The Two Types Of Tribes

Artwork by Arrow Bow

The way we structure our societies tends to determine whether we end up dominating or empowering our fellow humans. And while the more common modes of civilisational structure such as democracy, communism, autocracy and monarchy are familiar to us the different kinds of hunter gatherer society are much less well known. But there are fascinating differences in how the hierarchies of various tribal structures directly impact the level of egalitarianism experienced in each of these cultures. And by studying them we are provided with a clearer perspective on the rampant inequality present in our own economies which can hopefully empower us to start engineering more equitable and just social systems.

Central to any such exploration is the work of James Woodburn an anthropologist who after years in the field arrived at the conclusion that there are in fact two very different types of hunter gatherer tribes. The distinction he made was between what he called Immediate Return Cultures and Delayed Return Cultures. He observed that the first group tends to distribute and consume their food soon after acquiring it and thus receive an immediate return on their effort. Their tools and weapons tend to be more simple, quick to produce, highly portable, replaceable and made from easily sourced materials. As Woodburn put it these are cultures that 'value consumption over accumulation and will share their food with all present on the day they acquire it. Without the authority and power derived from the ability to withhold vital resources, hierarchy has great difficulty establishing itself. Thus societies whose economies are based on immediate returns tend to be egalitarian societies.' (1) He explains that such equality is achieved through:

  • Direct and individual access to resources, means of coercion and means of mobility which limit the imposition of control.

  • Procedures which prevent personal saving and accumulation and impose group sharing.

  • Mechanisms which allow goods to circulate without making people dependent upon one another.

All this has the effect of systematically disengaging people from property and therefore from the potentiality for property to create dependency. It’s very difficult for those of us weaned on the teat of late stage capitalism to even imagine what such a society might look and feel like.

In contrast to this there are the Delayed Return hunter gatherer cultures that are characterised by placing a much greater emphasis on the ownership rights of valued assets such as boats, nets, artificial weirs (small dams), beehives, traps and any other items that are a product of considerable labour. These are tools that have had a lot of energy invested in them and that are designed to produce yields over a long period of time, hence the name delayed return. Such societies often make use of horticultural and agricultural practices as the primary means of acquiring food and they tend to be much less egalitarian in nature. We can extend this category beyond hunter gatherer societies to also include all kinds of agricultural and industrial cultures.

While there is much we can learn from all forms of hunter gatherer society it appears that those of us in 21st century could particularly benefit from the wisdom of Immediate Return cultures. Specifically in relation to how they craft such deeply egalitarian societal structures and avoid the kind of rampant inequality we see in the world today. Thankfully some of these cultures are still with us and include but are not limited too:

  • The San (!Kung) Bushmen of Zaire & Botswana

  • The Mbuti & Bayaka (Mbendjele) of the Central African Republic & Democratic Republic Of Congo

  • The Hadza of Tanzania

  • The Penan of Sarawak(Malaysian part of Borneo)

  • The Batek of Malaysia

  • The Atga Of The Phillipines

  • The Pandaram and Paliyan of Southern India

  • The Piraha of the Brazilian Amazon

After spending time with some of these groups of people the explorer and documentarian Bruce Parry summed things up perfectly 'I sometimes wonder whether such an egalitarian way of being is only possible in an environment where everyone has equal access to abundant resources, as the Penan do. But this thought somehow feels like it’s doing us all a disservice. It may be true that egalitarianism ended when our ancestors left the abundant tropical belt and entered into seasonal areas - when immediate return hunter gatherers became delayed return agriculturalists - when we needed to hoard stores to get through the dry or cold seasons, and the distributors of these stores began to manipulate this power to their own ends. But to say we can’t share more fairly once again is to overlook both the longing of so many of us, and the technological advances of today, which hold the potential for complete transparency and collective trust (e.g. blockchain technology). This, mixed with the story of our egalitarian past, and the checks and balances needed to maintain such a way, allows a whole new set of possibilities to emerge. It is my belief that bringing the wisdom of the past to bear on the advances of today, could improve much for us all.' (2)

If each of our biological, psychological and relational instincts were forged over thousands and thousands of years in the crucible of fiercely egalitarian cultural contexts how can we begin to rediscover some this ancestral wisdom and apply it today?

This is the central question I explore in part three of the series Before Priests, Kings & Bosses: Lessons From The Original Egalitarians.


Joe Lightfoot is a writer, podcaster and apprentice community weaver. He is the author of A Collective Blooming: The Rise Of The Mutual Aid Community and the host of The Lightfoot Podcast. You can sign up to his newsletter The Lightfoot Letter and find him on Facebook.



  1. Egalitarian Societies, James Woodburn, 1982, Link

  2. Tawai Featured Extras, Essay On Power & Healing, Bruce Parry, 2019 Link



2021 Joe Lightfoot

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