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Production in Primitive Societies

The exploitation of the natural resources of the environment constitutes the productive system of any people, and the organization of this system in primitive society differs in several important respects from our own. The first point which must be mentioned is the character of work. As we have said, most economic effort in primitive society is devoted to the production of food. The activities involved in this have, quite apart from the stimulus of real or potential hunger, a spontaneous interest lacking in the ordinary work of an office or factory in contemporary civilization. This will become clear when we reflect that most of the food-getting activities of primitive peoples, such as fishing, hunting and gardening, are recreations among ourselves. It does not follow that primitive man takes an undiluted pleasure in such activities-much of the labour connected with them is heavy, monotonous or hazardous. But they do possess an inherent interest lacking in most of the economic labour in modern civilization, and much the same applies to primitive technology, in which the craftsman himself creates an artefact, rather than being merely a human cog in the machinery of production.

The spontaneous interest of work under primitive conditions is reinforced by a number of social values attached to it. Skill and industry are honoured and laziness condemned, a principle exemplified in the folk songs and proverbs of the Maori. From childhood onwards the virtues of industry are extolled, as in the term ihu puku, literally 'dirty nose', applied as a compliment to an industrious man because it implies that he is continually occupied in cultivation with his face to the ground; on the other hand, the twin vices of greed and laziness are condemned in the saying: 'Deep throat, shallow muscles'. Such social evaluations as these give pride in successful and energetic work, and stimulate potential laggards to play their part in productive effort.

The interest of primitive work is increased, and its drudgery mitigated, by the fact that it is often co-operative. Major undertakings, such as house-building or the construction of large canoes, usually require the labour of more than one person. And even when the task concerned could be done individually, primitive peoples often prefer collective labour. Thus in Hehe agriculture much of the cultivation is done individually or by small family groups. But at the time of the annual hoeing of the ground, it is customary for a man to announce that on a certain day his wife will brew beer. His relatives and neighbours attend, help with the hoeing, and are rewarded with beer in the middle of the day and in the evening. This is not to be regarded as payment, since casual visitors who have not helped with the hoeing may also take part in the beer drink. Under this system, each man helps others and is helped by them in turn. From the purely economic point of view, the system has no advantage, since each man could quite well hoe his own ground and the preparation of beer adds substantially to the work involved. But the system does possess psychological advantages. The task of hoeing might well appear endless if undertaken by each individual separately. Collective labour, and the collateral activity of beer-drinking, changes a dreary task into a social occasion. The same principle applies to collective labour in general in primitive society, and to the social activities of feasting, dancing and other forms of collective enjoyment which frequently accompany it or mark its conclusion.

(From An Introduction to Social Anthropology, by Ralph Piddington.)