Skip to content

1. Early Economics

 

Hunter-gatherer human groups lived as far back as 1.8 million years ago. By about 80,000 years ago, tools of all kinds were in use and, according to recent discoveries, by about 27,000 years ago basketry was developed in some groups.1“The conventional wisdom [was] that a time-consuming task like weaving would only be practiced by sedentary, agrarian cultures. The people of Pavlov [today’s Czech Republic] were hunter-gatherers, but technologically sophisticated ones – the world’s oldest known ceramics were also discovered at the site” (http://discovermagazine.com/1996/jan/thebasketage619).

What happened?

Imagine a small hunter-gatherer group living in a sparsely forested area2A. Gavashelishvili and D. Tarkhnishvili, “Biomes and human distribution during the last ice age,” Global Ecology and Biogeography, 25 (5) (2016): 563, doi:10.1111/geb.12437. See also Emma Groeneveld, “Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherer Societies,” Ancient History Encyclopedia, December 9, 2016, https://www.ancient.eu/article/991/prehistoric-hunter-gatherer-societies.. Several families are living together in a small family-clan. The group lives on berries, nuts, eggs from birds’ nests, and from what can be foraged along streams and shores of a nearby body of fresh water.

They have their routines of living. It happens to be a time for gathering berries in the forest. They pick and gather berries in piles and bring them back to their camp. It usually takes several trips to bring back the day’s pickings. They eat some berries as they go, but collect more than needed for a day. That way they will have berries later, in the evening and also for a few days to come.

A female, Leuk3Proto Indo European for “light,” “brightness.” senses a need. To collect enough berries and bring them back to camp, it takes many trips. And, along the way, they drop some of what they have picked. On one of their outings the group is resting in the shade of a tree. But, Leuk is wide awake, wondering, “Is there a better way to get berries to our camp?”4The wording is not to suggest that early groups had modern language. It is our expression for what would have been a focused state of wonder. She finds herself remembering birds’ nests. She also thinks about those narrow reeds by the lake and wonders: Might those reeds be a “berry-nest”?

After their rest, the group goes back to gathering berries. But the idea stays with Leuk. Before heading back to camp, she gathers an armful of reeds. Her family-clan is mildly curious about what she is doing. Once back to camp, she sits on the ground, and surrounds herself with reeds. She tries cutting and working with them in various ways. She is trying to tie them together like a bird’s nest. Finally, she manages to put something together that holds. She has invented a berry-nest, a primitive basket.

The next day she brings her basket to the forest. Using it, she is able to take all of her day’s berries to camp in one trip. Her family-clan is now taking more interest and she shows them what she has done. It doesn’t take long for everyone to want a basket for berry picking and, before long, for carrying other things as well.

How will they get enough baskets? They agree that for a time, instead of foraging, Leuk will stay behind to make more baskets. There are some older members of the family-clan who have not been able to hunt and gather. She shows them what she is doing. It is light work and some of them help.

We have a primitive economy5The etymology of the word ‘economy’ is from Greek, oikonomia, oikos house + nemein to manage; which also goes back to PIE roots weik “clan” + nem “assign, allot; take.”.

This story is not entirely fictional. There was a time in pre-history when baskets were not in use. Eventually, however, basket making (of many different kinds) was discovered by individuals around the world and eventually spread to almost all human groups.

References   [ + ]

1 Comment

  1. hugh williams on February 17, 2019 at 11:31 am

    so far so good !
    you are to be commended on an accessible presentation/communication
    I’ll continue on with the series …

Leave a Comment