Many features of band societies result from the small size and scale of the basic social group. As the environment limits concentrations of people to under one per square mile and transportation is poorly developed, regular contact can only be made within a group of 20 to 100 people depending on the resource base and distribution. This limitation on group size also restricts social scale, the kinds of collective activities, and institutions that a fixed number of people and their accumulated resources can support.
The low density of population and small group size are to some extent
maintained by processes of birth control and birth spacing that have been
documented for foraging groups. One study of child care among the Dobe
!Kung found that women practiced an indirect form of birth control by extending
infant breast feeding periods for several years. The stresses of lactation
substantially reduced pregancy rates to produce average birth spacing of
four years. The length of the period between births produced an direct
benefit of avoiding the problem of having to carry more than one infant
or toddler during seasonal movements. It also had the longer-term effect
of keeping population sizes within the limits that the resource base could
The band itself is observable as a settlement group (usually of 20-100 members) composed of smaller constituent units, usually in the form of nuclear families or extended families related to one another by kinship and marriage ties. It is often associated with a fixed territory over which it may proclaim exclusive hunting and gathering rights but exercises substantial flexibility in extending membership rights and allowing other groups to use its resources.
The band will normally form a consolidated settlement unit during a limited period, but eventually divide into small family groups that separate to forage by themselves over the annual cycle. Thus the Dobe Kung gather in large bands at the sites of permanent water holes during the dry season, but break up into smaller family units and disperse over much wider areas of the desert during the rainy season. Similary, the Inuit traditionally congregated along the coast during the winter and dispersed during the summer inland migrations.
The regular alternation between band and family settlement is uniformly
incorporated into the nomadic cycles of most foragers and has been the
subject of some debate. Many anthropologists maintain that this pattern
is a simple adaptation to seasonal variations in resource availabilties
or labour requirements. Thus, limited supplies of permanent standing water
bring one group
together; the advantages of communal bison hunting may influence another.
A second interpretation focuses on social integration rather than
ecological determinants. Richard Lee, a major figure in San studies, observes
that congregation in large
groups is basically a counter-productive economic strategy for foragers.
Any lengthy population concentration will quickly exhaust immediately
available resources and require people to travel further and further from
their base camp to find food. In
fact, this problem of increased work effort regularly leads to the
seasonal dispersion of the settlement. Lee argues that band members
are willing to incur the extra labour cost of congregation because of the
social rather than the subsistence benefits. People might be materially
better off if individual families kept to themselves all year round, but
would not be able to arrange
marriages or establish contacts and exchanges with other families,
the main rationale for the band's existence.
The variable nature of the foraging resource base cannot support a constant population in any one locality from year to year. Because of this fluctuation, bands must continually adjust their numbers to respond to fortuitous abundance or scarcity. This condition encourages flexible patterns of band composition to allow individual families to change groups and locations to meet their subsistence needs. Accordingly, membership rules tend to be bilateral. People retain and activate membership rights in both their father's and mother's group. Constitutent families will form larger units through contacts with husband's or wife's kin and through patrilateral or matrilalteral ties of either spouse. (See an example of the the bilateral structure of basic San group organization)
The mobility of small family groups and flexibility of band membership
supports the formation of relatively independent nuclear family forms.
This core group is uniquely important in both foraging and industrial societies
for somewhat the same reasons. In modern Western contexts, pressures for
nuclear family individuation are imposed by the labour market, which constantly
requires people and their families to change locations in the process of
Relationships among families that join together to form bands are marked by strong pressures to share resources, food supplies, and possessions. This sharing ethos, formally termed reciprocity, is important for both the coherence and the survival of foraging groups.
The main subsistence function of the moral emphasis on sharing is to ensure that food resources do not go to waste in a situation where the maintenance of large stores is impractical. For example, if a small hunting party kills a large animal, the flesh cannot be perserved for a long enough period to supply the hunters' immediate families when they are not so successful. If, however, they give away a major portion of the meat to extended kin, they can rely upon a return of the favour at a later time. This process thus establishes a social storage system to compensate for the absence of a physical one.
Dobe Kung institutions expemplify many mechanisms for extending reciprocity.
Arrow exchanges are particularly noteworthy. The Dobe usually hunt by stalking
their prey and shooting it with iron-headed arrows. These items are frequently
given to kinsmen and friends as gifts, and most of the arrows a man uses
will belong to other people. When an animal is killed, a major share must
go to the original owner of the fatal arrow. Further divisions are made
to the affines of both the hunters and the arrow owner, effectively resulting
in a even distribution of meat throughout the band. Accordingly, a cycle
of reciprocity involving personal possesssions is integrated into a extensive
system of sharing subsistence resources. Gifts of possessions and food
items overlie a more basic sharing institution, that of collective band
ownership of the land and its natural resources.
Egalitarian Political and Economic Structures
The material conditions and social processes of foraging societies generally
limit their capacities to support substantial differences in wealth or
power and result in an egalitarian class structure. In this situation,
ownership of land or other productive resources is collectively managed
to the benefit of all the members of the band. Wealth differences are further
restricted by the difficulties in accumulating material goods and the strong
emphasis on sharing within the group. In the absence of significant class
divisions, leadership within the band is usually informally based on the
personal abilities of prominent members who have distinguished themselves
through their subsistence or social skills. Accordingly, leaders must govern
the group through consultation and consensus rather than coersion.
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