Food Sharing and Ownership among the Central African Hunter-gatherers: An Evolutionary Perspective

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In book: Property and Equality, Chapter: Food Sharing and Ownership among the Central African Hunter-gatherers: An Evolutionary Perspective, Publisher: Oxford: Berghahn, Editors: Widlok, T. and W. Tadasse, pp.151-164
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Paper printed in Widlok, T. and W. Tadasse eds.,
Property and Equality,
Oxford: Berghahn, 151-164 (2005)
Food Sharing and Ownership among Central African Hunter-gatherers:
an Evolutionary Perspective
Mitsuo Ichikawa
Introduction
Recent advances in primatology require us to reconsider the uniqueness of human
culture. In terms of subsistence-related activities, for example, it has long been thought
that tool making and tool using, food sharing and cooperative hunting are unique to
humans, and that higher cultural systems have developed through these behaviours.
These behaviours are, however, also found in a rudimentary form among chimpanzees
and other higher primate species. The chimpanzees of the Gombe Stream in Tanzania,
for example, are well known for making a tool for termite fishing out of a small twig
(Goodall 1986). Among the chimpanzees in Guinea, a combined use of two or more
shends stone were reported for cracking a hard oil-palm nut; one stone is used as a
hammer, another for placing a nut on, which is sometimes supported by a third small
stone for stability (Matsuzawa 1991). Bonobos in Congo-Kinshasa share valued food
with other individuals, sometimes following a sexual contact (Kuroda 1982). Other
groups of chimpanzees in Côte d’Ivoire even cooperate in hunting; some individuals
chase the target animal, while others wait for it, anticipating the direction of the chase.
In this group of chimpanzees, meat sharing occurs when the prey is successfully killed
(Boesch and Boesch 1989; Boesch 1994). These examples suggest a similarity of
nonhuman primate behaviour to that of humans. The similarity seems to be much
greater than it was assumed to be.
We are taught in introductory anthropology courses that human culture is of a
different order (or dimension) from that of nonhuman animal species. However, this
does not mean that there is no similarity at all. It is misleading to suppose human
culture has no relationship with that of its nearest nonhuman relatives. It is not,
however, fruitful to try to reduce human culture to primate behaviour. In the course of
evolution, humans added some important inventions, through which they transformed
existing behaviour into a cultural practice of a higher level. If we look at
hunter-gatherer societies from the viewpoint of more complicated agricultural or
industrial societies, they appear to be characterised by the lack, the denial, of
regulatory institutions and structures (Ingold 1999). However, if we compare these
societies with nonhuman primate societies, they exhibit a variety of unique institutional
inventions. Or, it may even be said that hunter-gatherers seem to negate the
development of institutions by using institutional means (of other kinds). It is, therefore,
an important task in understanding the relationship between human and other
primates properly, to delineate what humans took with them from their primate
heritage and what they added to this heritage as their unique invention. It is an
evolutionary enquiry and as such it will help us to restore the continuity between
human and nonhuman species. It may also lead us to reconsideration of the modern
view of human-nature relationship, which has long been dominated by discontinuity
and opposition, and has produced a variety of problems in our age.
As stated above, chimpanzees are reported to make and use tools, cooperate in
hunting and share the hunted meat with others. This behaviour, however, occurs as
separate events, and is not integrated into a system, unlike those found among human
hunter-gatherers. Hunter-gatherers, for example, distribute the meat according to the
roles they have played in the hunt, as will be described later. Likewise, while both tool
use and ‘possession’ do exist among chimpanzees and other nonhuman primates, they
are not combined to establish a human form of ‘ownership,’ which involves indirect or
‘remote control’ of ownership through the tool used for procuring the food.
If we extend this discussion to other aspects of life, a variety of such examples can be
found. For example, both long-term consort relationships (primate form of conjugal
bond) and blood relationships (primate form of kin) are found in nonhuman primate
societies (see for example Kawamura 1958; Kummer 1968). Humans are unique in that
they have affines, or brothers-in-law in particular, who embody in themselves a
combination of consanguineous and conjugal ties. Affinal relationship is important to
the evolution of human societies, because it enables them to utilise a reproductive bond
for making an alliance relationship with other groups. Another example is the
formation of a household, which represents a combination of food sharing and sexual
division of labour. Again, both food sharing and differentiation in subsistence-related
activities by sex are found in primate societies, but they appear only as a separate form.
Thus, as Robin Fox (1972; 1980) pointed out thirty years ago, the elements (or
materials) necessary for constructing human culture are found in the primate baseline,
and humans are unique only in combining these elements to construct cultural systems
of a higher level. Such a viewpoint is fruitful for comparing the primate behaviour with
that of humans, as it provides us with empirical, observable criteria for comparison. In
this paper, I will first discuss some of these human inventions, human forms of
‘ownership’ and food sharing in particular, and try to show how humans differ from
other primates on an observable level. Then I will examine the ecological and
evolutionary basis for human food sharing and analyse its social significances. I will
finally discuss different forms of these developments among contemporary
hunter-gatherers in central Africa.
Human form of possession: remote control of ownership
Nonhuman primate societies are generally characterised by dominant-subordinate
relationships. In such ‘unequal’ primate societies, there is certainly a form of
‘possession’. This is obvious from the fact that even a higher-ranking individual cannot
snatch away the food in the hand of a lower-ranking one. For the recognition of
‘possession’ by other primate individuals, it is necessary for an individual to hold an
object in its hand, or keep it in its immediate proximity. The distance at which an
individual can safely keep the object differs depending on the relationship between the
‘possessor’ and other individuals. We may even measure the effects of such ‘possession’
and of rank difference by the distance at which others stretch their arms to seize the
object. Whether we call it ‘possession’ or ‘proximity effect’, it is confined to the object
literally in its hands, or in its immediate proximity. Once shifted into another’s hands,
an object can no longer be regarded as the ‘possession’ of the previous holder in any
sense.
The notion of ‘possession’ was first applied to primate societies by Hans
Kummer (1968, 1971) in his study of the social life of hamadryas baboons. The society of
hamadryas baboons is comprised of two types of groups; one is a one-male group
consisting of one mature male, several females and their offspring; the other is a group
of males, who are excluded from the one-male groups. According to Kummer, the males
outside the one-male group seem to be ‘inhibited’ from seducing the females ‘possessed’
by the harem male; they do not usually approach close to the harem when the male is
present. The male in a one-male group, on the other hand, makes enormous efforts to
maintain his harem. When his group is moving, he must look back every few metres to
see if his harem females are still following him. If he finds a female likely to leave the
group, he rushes up to her and bites her on the neck (known as neck-bite behaviour). A
hamadryas male cannot maintain his harem in any other way. We see in this example
the limitation of a primate form of ‘possession’.
Man as a tool user, however, established a new form of material possession: the
indirect ownership established by the use of tools. A tool enables a man to exert control
over an object that is not in his hand, nor in the immediate area. I call this ‘remote
control of ownership’, which is based on the separation of an individual who owns an
object from the one who actually uses or carries it about.
The primary function of a tool in subsistence activities was to extract natural
resources more efficiently than with the bare hands. Tools are particularly effective in
hunting. It was, of course, necessary for a hunter to have the skill to use a tool and the
knowledge about the animals to be hunted. But without a tool humans, as weak,
powerless predators, could not have killed animals larger than medium-sized mammals.
Humans invented a number of hunting tools as they depended increasingly on hunting
for subsistence. Contemporary hunter-gatherers also have a variety of hunting tools
and use them depending on the environmental conditions and habits of target animals.
The Mbuti hunters in the Ituri forest, for example, use nets, spears, bows and spring
traps for hunting. They can obviously improve hunting efficiency by using these tools.
The point is, however, that tools are often used for social purposes. Simple hand-held
tools such as those used by hunter-gatherers may be considered an extension of the
body when they are used for manipulating the environment, as Leroi-Gourhan (1965)
pointed out. Tools are, however, detachable from the body, and actually detached from
an individual when exchanged with another individual. In this context, they are no
longer just an extension of the body, but become socially manipulable objects.
The Mbuti hunters in the Ituri forest, for example, use hunting tools for
generating and maintaining social relationships. The Mbuti youth, who have no nets of
their own, often borrow nets from old men, who remain in the camp and make nets. In
this way, a role differentiation and interdependence are maintained between the youth
who actively hunt and the old who provide them with hunting tools. They also lend their
nets to visitors as a sign of hospitality. Visitors are usually given food, but a more
intimate welcome is to provide them with nets and a chance to hunt together. We were
treated in this way while visiting their forest camps with a Mbuti man, who joined in
the net hunting and received a share. Bows, arrows and spears are also lent and
borrowed in a similar way, though less frequently, among the Mbuti.
Another important social aspect of tool use is ownership. Even among
egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies in central Africa, the owner of the game is clearly
defined, although ‘owner’ in their language often conveys different but related
meanings depending on the context, such as ‘host’, ‘guardian’, ‘master’, as well as ‘owner’
in the Western sense. In most cases, the owner of the animal is the owner of the hunting
tool with which the animal is killed. For an animal killed with a spear, the owner of
the animal is the owner of the spear that gave the first fatal blow to the animal. For net
hunting, it is the owner of the net in which the animal is entangled. For a trapped
animal, the owner of the steel wire used for capturing the animal is its owner. Unlike
hunted animals, a termite mound or the honey in a natural beehive is owned by the
individual who first finds and puts a mark on it. In this way, an owner is clearly defined,
at least in principle, when the resource is extracted from or located in the forest.
The actual situation is more complicated, however, since there is sometimes no
fixed rule for determining the owner of a tool. Various people are often involved at
different stages in the process of making a tool. For example, several steps are
necessary for making a hunting net: collecting the bark of kusa (Manniophyton fulvum)
in the forest; separating the inner bark (bast) from the outer bark and drying it; making
it into a cord, which is then woven into a net. At each stage of this process, different
people may be involved and it is usually difficult to know, by observation alone, who will
be the ultimate owner of the net being made. However, a net, or a part of it, is always
owned by a single person and this is enough to make clear the ownership of the animal
captured with the net. When two or more nets owned by different persons are combined,
they put a mark at the joint to show clearly in which part of the net the animal is
entangled.
The important point about such a definition of ownership is that an owner is
not necessarily the hunter who uses the tool and kills the animal; it may even be a
person who does not participate in the actual hunt. In fact, Mbuti frequently lend and
borrow tools for hunting, through which the distribution of the meat is facilitated, or
even manipulated. Through such a manipulation, or ‘remote control’ of ownership, social
relationships can also be manipulated to some extent.
Human form of food sharing: hunting-sharing complex as a unique human
invention
While food sharing is important to hunter-gatherer social life, food is not randomly
distributed. Valued food like meat is always shared carefully. Even if the meat from
hunting is eventually distributed quite extensively in a camp, not everyone in the camp
has equal access to the meat brought by a particular person. While some people demand
a share more easily, others find it difficult and may leave the place where meat is being
shared out. However, they may also get a portion afterwards from those who have
received a share. In many cases, sharing is closely linked with existing and/or potential
social or interpersonal relationships.
Among the Mbuti hunter-gatherers in the Ituri forest, meat is first distributed
to those who either directly or indirectly participate in the hunt. This is called ‘first
distribution’, which is obligatory and clearly defined (Harako 1976; Tanno 1976;
Ichikawa 1982). The meat is then distributed in an informal way to others from those
who have received it in the first distribution (this we call ‘second distribution’, which is
similar to ‘sharing’ discussed by Woodburn 1998). The meat thus distributed to
individuals is concentrated to each household, where it is cooked by women; then, it is
distributed again, with vegetable foods, to the members of their households and others
(‘third distribution’). The men gathering at the central place called tele share the meal
brought from their households. In this way, they eventually distribute the meat
extensively to other members of a camp, unless there is not enough to do so.
Particularly interesting in this chain of food distribution is the first
distribution, in which certain parts of the meat are obligatorily distributed to others,
depending on the roles they have performed in the hunt. In Mbuti net hunting, the first
distribution is made in the following way: the hunter who actually uses another’s net
takes a hind leg (kipe); the one who helps the hunter kill the animal takes the chest
(esosi), the woman who carries the carcass back to the camp takes a front leg (mbombo);
the one who makes a hunting fire (kungya) in the morning before the hunt takes a lower
part of the rib cage (three ribs from the lowest, called seka) of a medium-sized duiker or
the head (mo’o) of a blue duiker.
Among the Aka in northern Congo-Brazzaville, such a distribution is called
mo.bando, and is made in a following way: the head (mo.soko) is for the net user; the
rump (ngondo) for the one who first seizes the animal in the net, the belly (lombo) for
the one who assists in the seizure; the meat around the pelvis (e.kango) for the one
called mo.so who leads the day’s hunt; and front (mo.pela) or hind (e.belo) leg for the one
who carries the carcass to the campsite (Takeuchi 1995). The basic roles in net hunting
and the obligatory distribution of meat to each of the role players are recognised in a
similar way among the Mbuti and the Aka, although the slaughtering of a carcass and
the parts allocated to each individual differs from one society to the other.
The obligatory first distribution described above demonstrates that there is a
system in which cooperation in hunting is closely linked with sharing of the game. In
other words, they together form a hunting-sharing complex. An interesting point about
this first distribution is that the owner of the animal is not necessarily the hunter who
captures it, but the owner of the net in which it is entangled, as stated above. However,
if we consider that a net owner also indirectly participates in the hunt, through making
his net, in a preparatory stage of hunting, ownership in this case is also defined in
relation to the hunt. Or it may be said that the ‘owner’ receives his share like other role
players in the first distribution, although his portion is determined after other role
players take their portions. Cooperation in hunting and in its preparatory activities
thus determines the manner of distribution of the meat obtained from the hunt. To put
it another way, cooperation in production on the one hand and cooperation in
consumption on the other represent the two phases of a hunting-sharing complex.
Now we can understand the gap between human and nonhuman forms of
cooperation and food sharing. As stated above, chimpanzees also cooperate in hunting
and share the food they possess with others. The chimpanzees of the Tai National Park
in the Côte d’Ivoire hunt in a fairly organised, cooperative manner; some chase the prey
animal while others wait for it (Boesch and Boesch 1989; Boesch 1994). They also share
the meat with other individuals, although rather reluctantly. The question is, however,
whether chimpanzees combine these two behaviours. Cooperative hunting and meat
sharing among chimpanzees seem to occur as separate and independent events.
According to Boesch (1994), both the bystanders (those present for the hunt site but not
participating in it) and latecomers (those absent from the hunt, but coming after the
prey is killed) are granted access to the meat by the hunters (those actively
participating in the cooperative hunt). Moreover, the hunters do not always eat
significantly more meat than the bystanders, although they eat more than the
latecomers. We do not know in this chimpanzee case, if the participation in the hunt
implies more than just being close to the killing site, which enables them to reach the
sharing site quickly. The chimpanzees rather seem to share the meat with others
regardless of participation in the preceding hunt. When other individuals hear the
screams, which are often emitted on killing an animal, they rush to the site and beg the
individuals possessing the meat for a share.
In human hunting, at least among the Mbuti, who are relatively modest in
demanding meat from one another, it is rare for an individual who has not participated
in the hunt in any sense to go to the butchering site and overtly demand a share, unless
he/she has a special social relationship with the meat owner. There is an atmosphere
that prevents nonrelevant individuals from approaching the butchering and sharing
site. Those at the butchering site turn their eyes away from those who are not expected
to participate in the distribution. This is expressed as ‘they refuse by the eyes’ (‘bakumi
na eso’ in the Mbuti language, or ‘wananyima na macho’ in KiNgwana, a Swahili
dialect). Such a slight sign is enough to inform the intention of the owner, and no one in
the Mbuti society wants to be blamed for shameless or covetous behaviour.
In the chimpanzee case, all the individuals who even by chance witness the
killing probably rush to the killing site, whether or not they have participated in the
preceding hunt. This suggests that cooperation in hunting is not internally linked to the
sharing which follows hunting. In other words, they do not establish a hunting-sharing
complex, unlike human hunter-gatherers. While both food sharing and cooperative
hunting are observed among nonhuman primates, it seems to be a unique human
invention to integrate these two practices into a single system.
Ecological and evolutionary basis for food sharing
Food sharing among African hunter-gatherers is more than just a give-and-take
exchange. It is also supported by the ethic that those who have food should give it to
others. Such an extensive sharing practice may have derived from the human innate
propensity for reciprocity. However, there may also have been some practical or
ecological basis for the food-sharing practice to be firmly established and maintained for
a long period of time. I will, in what follows, examine the ecological or evolutionary basis
for extensive food- sharing practice among hunter-gatherers.
Chimpanzees also share the food among themselves, in particular meat and
large-sized fruit, but the food thus shared comprises only a tiny proportion in their
subsistence. While social significance is often emphasised for food sharing among
chimpanzees, its ecological significance is thought to be minimal. In other words,
non-human primate (adult) individuals normally practise a self-sustaining subsistence
in that they acquire most of the food they need by themselves. Humans, by contrast,
depend heavily and systematically on one another for their subsistence. In a
quantitative analysis of food distribution among the Aka, Kitanishi (1998) revealed that
75 percent of the food consumed by a household came from other households, and 80
percent of the food produced by a household was distributed to other households. It
seems ironical that, in these cases, ecological rather than social significance makes
human food sharing unique and different from that of other primates.
Evolutionary ecologists point out that food sharing among hunter-gatherers
serves as a buffer against instability in the food supply (there are a number of articles
on this issue, but see, for example, Cashdan 1985). If a man with more food than he
requires immediately shares it with others, he may be given food some day when he is
short of it. Sharing in this case performs an insurance function; it reduces the
fluctuation in an individual’s food supply on the group level. Frequent exchange of
hunting tools and resulting food distribution often has such a function, as will be
pointed out later.
As the major targets of the Mbuti’s net hunting are small to medium-sized
duikers, the yield is more stable than that in other types of hunting which aim at larger
game. There is still a considerable difference and fluctuation in the individual’s catch.
Of the ten net owners observed in a Mbuti camp, the most successful one caught 140 kg
of prey during four weeks of hunting, whereas the least successful one had only 24 kg.
Even a successful hunter had no luck for more than a week, whereas some had no
animals for almost two weeks (Ichikawa 1983). They could hardly have survived, if they
had not shared the meat with others, since they depended for their subsistence on the
meat and the vegetable foods obtained in exchange for the meat during the survey
period.
Among the Kalahari hunter-gatherers, daily fluctuation and individual
difference in the catch are much more pronounced. During twenty-eight observation
days, there were four days with more than 100 kg of meat, whereas no prey was caught
for as many as sixteen days. Of the 412 kg of prey (206 kg of edible meat) hunted during
this period, nearly three-quarters were supplied by a single hunter (Lee 1979). If there
had been no sharing during this period, most of the San in the camp could not have
eaten the meat, whereas a few would have had much more than they needed. These
data show that there is certainly a considerable daily fluctuation and individual
difference in the catch, and that sharing actually reduces the fluctuation and difference,
among both the Mbuti and the San.
One of the reasons for such fluctuation in the catch derives from the
characteristics of the animals hunted as human food. The major targets of San hunting
are kudus, gemsboks, wildebeests and other larger mammals weighing 200 to 300 kg
each, and warthogs, which are smaller, but still have a body weight of 80 kg. A
large-sized antelope contains in its edible parts about 180,000 to 270,000 kcal, which is
equivalent to the food energy required for 90 to 135 adult consumption days. Even a
medium-sized duiker, one of the major targets of the Mbuti net hunting, weighs 20 kg
(which contains the energy for nine adult days). While a successful hunt supplies such a
huge amount of food, hunting more often fails without yielding any meat. Hunting is
thus an activity aiming at a large package of food energy and as such it is essentially
unstable.
The prey animals of other carnivores share the same characteristics.
Larger-sized carnivores, therefore, cope with this problem by eating a large quantity of
meat at a time. Lions in the wild, for example, eat 20 to 30 kg of meat -enough for five
days of consumption- at a time and can remain without food for more than a week
(Schaller 1972). The most striking example are hyenas. They can eat almost a quarter
(15 to 20 kg) of their body weight at a time. One female hyena ate 14 to 15 kg of meat in
45 minutes and another consumed an infant Thompson’s gazelle in only two minutes
(Kruuk 1972). These examples clearly demonstrate that gluttony is the characteristic
feeding habit of carnivores. Their basic feeding strategy (rhythm) is to eat as much as
they can when there is food and live with hunger when there is no food. In addition,
co-feeding is often found among carnivorous species, which also moderates the
instability in the food supply.
Primates generally depend on vegetable food, which is abundant and obtained
with less effort than animal food. But it contains less energy per unit weight. Primates
therefore have a feeding rhythm like other herbivores; they feed frequently and over a
long period of time. While humans are omnivorous and eat less frequently than other
primate species, they also belong to the group of frequent eaters. This is clearly
expressed in the frequency of meals or other food taken between meals. Humans, unlike
carnivores, do not have the capacity for digesting a large quantity of food at a time. An
ecological and evolutionary basis of food sharing may thus be found in the discrepancy
between the need for stable food supply, which is based on the primate herbivorous
heritage, and irregular supply of meat, which is the food of carnivores. As they depend
more on hunting for their subsistence, inter-individual dependence on food sharing
increases accordingly.
While food sharing among contemporary hunter-gatherers is not always
influenced by ecological factors (they share food even when ecologically unnecessary),
there may once have been an ecological basis for it, otherwise it may not have been
reinforced, nor established as a social norm and as a ‘sharing way of life’. Social aspects
of food sharing have also developed along with the development of its material aspects,
since most human practices are polysemic (the same practice having multiple
meanings).
There is another way to cope with such a fluctuation in the food supply: food
preservation and storage. It is well known that most of the present-day
hunter-gatherers know how to preserve meat and other food, although equatorial
hunter-gatherers seldom do so for their own consumption. From an evolutionary
perspective, this does not make much sense, however. Food sharing already existed in
the primate baseline. While most higher primate species do share food, no primate
species except humans has been reported to store food. It is therefore quite natural that,
at least in the context of human evolution, early humans first utilised what was already
there, i.e., what they had inherited from their primate ancestors, rather than inventing
a totally new practice of food storing.
Different effects of remote control of ownership
The indirect, remote control of ownership works differently in different societies, or in
different situations even in the same society. Among the !Kung San (Ju‘/hoansi) in the
Kalahari, the owner of the meat is defined as the owner of the arrows with which the
animal is shot, as in the Mbuti case. However, they have an exchange relationship
called hxaro (Wiessner 1981, 1982), in which arrows are frequently exchanged.
According to Lee (1979), two out of four hunters surveyed had in their quivers eighteen
and nineteen arrows respectively, all of which were obtained from several different men.
A third hunter had thirteen arrows, of which only two were his own.
One reason for such a high rate of arrow sharing may be ecological; that is, low
and unstable success rate in hunting with bows and arrows. Lee (1979) calculated the
average success rate (days with a kill compared to the total hunting days) at 0.23, which
means hunting is successful only in every four to five hunts on the average. When a
hunter kills an animal he brings a large quantity of meat, but he more often returns
empty-handed. The exchange of arrows with other hunters has thus the effect of
increasing the chance of acquiring meat, since the meat always goes to the owners of the
arrows. They may also change the arrows for hunting luck, particularly when they are
not blessed with success for many days.
Another important reason is social; the exchange of arrows diffuses the
ownership of the meat to others than a few skilful hunters. As Lee (1979) pointed out,
meat distribution brings prestige to its owner; or, it may result in accusations by others
if the distribution is not to everybody’s liking, which is almost impossible. Through
exchange of arrows, the San diffuse the responsibility for meat distribution, thereby
relieving potential tension in their egalitarian society.
A similar practice is found among the Aka Pygmies in Congo-Brazzaville, who
frequently exchange hunting nets among themselves. While hunting nets are owned by
adult men, it is mainly the young men who actually use the nets in hunting. According
to Takeuchi (1995), Aka men frequently lend their nets to other men, more often to
those of other households. This practice is called ‘njambi’. Of a total of 178 net users
recorded, as many as 113 (63 percent) belonged to a household other than that of the net
owner (only 65 belonged to the same household as the owner). Moreover, Aka hunters
often change the nets they use, even on the same day. Frequent exchange of hunting
tools seems to be a common practice among African hunter-gatherers.
In these cases, the ‘institution’ that defines indirect, remote control of
ownership contributes to maintaining their egalitarian social relationships. We should
note, however, the same ‘institution’ is used for an opposite purpose, for accumulating
wealth, in other societies, or in other situations. In the Ituri forest, the agricultural
patrons of the Mbuti formerly owned hunting tools of their own, lent them to the Mbuti
and Efe and claimed the ownership of the animals killed with them. This was a
conventional way of acquiring the tusks of elephants, as large spearheads used for
elephant hunting were one of the scarce items in the Ituri forest. It is still a common
practice among the Efe, who need the neighbouring Lese villagers as mediators with the
outside world. The Lese villagers know how to sell the tusks secretly to the merchants
and control their circulation. In the mid-1970s, when I did my first research in the Ituri
forest, there were some Bira villagers who had hunting nets of their own and lent them
to the Mbuti in the hunting season.
While most of the Mbuti and Efe today have their own hunting tools, such as
spears, bows and nets, firearms (shotguns) are owned exclusively by the villagers. In
the northern part of Congo-Brazzaville, an animal killed with a gun belongs to the
villager who owns the gun and the Aka are given only the head of the animal and a few
tobacco sticks for each killed duiker. As the demand for bush meat increased, largely
due to the logging industry operating in the area, some villagers entered into a new
business of organising long-term hunting expeditions, manned mainly by Aka hunters,
providing them with guns, cartridges and food during the expedition. The benefits in
such a new business also derive from the same ‘institution’, remote control of ownership,
which separates the owner from the hunter who actually kills an animal. The
potential of this ‘institution’ can easily be understood if we see its most developed form
in the modern capitalist system, where wage labour is systematically separated from
the capital and the means of production.
Why owners exist: ownership and social order
Let us now return to the issue of ownership. As stated above, the owner cannot
monopolise the food, nor distribute it only to his own household. The ownership of food
among African hunter-gatherers is rather nominal; the food is extensively distributed
through first, second and third distributions (mentioned above), and the owner is not
necessarily the one who consumes the largest amount. According to Kitanishi (1998), 80
percent of the food was distributed to households other than that of the owner, with only
20 percent consumed by the owner’s household. In the distribution of an elephant killed
by a Mbuti hunter, the owner-hunter took 44 kg of meat, whereas others took as much
as the owner, and some even took more than 50 kg (Ichikawa 1982). Althouge at least
some share is usually reserved for the owner, he is not necessarily the person who
consumes the largest portion. And although an owner may be thanked for his generosity
to some extent, he is not better respected because of it. There is an egalitarian
sentiment that prevents him from earning much prestige, as many anthropologists have
pointed out.
The question arises, then, of why there is an owner for almost every kind of
food, despite the fact that it is, after all, shared quite extensively with other members of
a camp, without obvious benefit to the owner. The social factor seems to be more
important than the ecological factor. Namely, ownership enables them to recognise, or
even manipulate to some extent, inter-individual relationships, which would otherwise
be obscured in a joint meal like that observed in the co-feeding of other carnivorous
animals. In other words, the owner has a potential to use sharing for achieving other,
often social, goals through a material transfer. Such a social function is well
acknowledged by the hunter-gatherers themselves who share the meat through the
frequent exchange of hunting tools.
However, the social implication of ownership in food distribution can be better
understood by examining the situation in which there is no owner responsible for the
distribution. Kitanishi’s report (1998, 2001) on the Aka case eloquently demonstrates a
chaotic situation on such an occasion.
Among the Aka, food is usually distributed by its owner, or by his wife. When
they are absent from the camp, one of their close relatives acts in their place. While the
first (obligatory) distribution may take place in the absence of the owner and his
representative, the remaining portion is reserved for second distribution until the
owner or his representative returns to the camp.
In the rather rare case where there is no owner nor a representative, the food is
treated as if it had been found in the forest without a recognisable owner. Kitanishi
(2001) gave two examples of such a case. The first example took place when a villager
gave a large quantity of cooked food to the Aka men, who helped him carry a dugout
canoe out of the forest. The villager, however, left the place without appointing a person
to take responsibility for the distribution. When the villager left, they immediately
rushed in to take as much food as they could and nothing was left for those who were
left behind. Another example was the case in which Kitanishi was offered cooked yams
by an Aka woman in a forest camp. He could not take the yams, as it was during a
period of food shortage in the camp, and he had his own food but not enough to
reciprocate the offer from the woman. The woman seemed embarrassed by his response,
but children playing nearby immediately scrambled to take the yams. This is an
unusual event, since we know that in Aka society, even a child of ten years of age will
normally share with others the food he/she possesses. If one of the children had been
given all the food, he/she would have taken the responsibility for distributing it to
others.
The Aka and the Mbuti are usually modest in demanding food. They seldom
demand in a loud voice, and even pretend to be uninterested in the distribution (see
endnote 4). However, chaotic food consumption described above shows the importance of
the owner to orderly distribution. In other words, an owner, as the one responsible for
distribution, is indispensable to maintaining the order of Aka social life. This seems to
be obvious, but its significance is not always fully understood. In Aka society, it is
sometimes more important that an owner exists than knowing who the actual owner is.
NOTES
1.‘ Owner’ in English is roughly translated into ‘kumisi’ (meaning a host) or ‘apa-’ (a prefix
deriving from ‘father ’, but also meaning ‘owner’, equivalent to ‘mwenye’ in KiNgwana, a
Swahili dialect) in the Mbuti language, and ‘konja’ in Aka (Kitanishi 1998). The actual
meaning differs depending on the context, sometimes overlapping the concept of ‘owner’ in
English, but conveying different but related meanings of ‘host’, ‘master or ‘guardian’ in
other contexts. Barnard and Woodburn (1988) and Riches (1995) argue that the term
‘ownership’ should be used only in cases where people deny others the right to use particular
resources. According to such a view, the ‘apa-’ or ‘konja’ may in most cases not be the ‘owner
in the same sense as in English. However, we should also note that ‘apa’ or ‘konja’ may
convey a meaning closer to a private owner, for example in a commercial context, in that
they have the right to sell their meat to traders without sharing it with others. ‘Kumisi’,
‘apa- or ‘konja’ may be better understood to mean more general association between a
person and a thing, and private ownership in modern societies may be a specialised form of
this association.
2. As will be disussed later, this ownership applies only to the part that remains after the
first distribution.
3. Boesch (1994) emphasises that there is a difference between the hunters and bystanders
in the amount of meat eaten and shared. This may not make much sense, however, because
the first possessor of the prey, who has the largest amount to share, is most probably one of
the hunters.
4. However, if they were overtly demanded a share, they would find difficulty in refusing it.
Hence, they have a special ‘medicine’ of plant material, though seldom used, for preventing
others from approaching them while eating valued food. Demanding loudly for a share is
occasionally made from a distant quarter of a camp, without overtly specifying the person
addressed, but in most cases it takes place when sharing is unlikely, for example, when
there is little or nothing left to share. When there is an expectation and probability of an
actual share, they usually sit and wait, casting glances now and then at the butchering and
distribution site.
5. Indirect ownership might first have been established in the context of external
relationships with other dominant groups, who tried to control or exploit neighbouring
hunter-gatherers through controlling hunting tools. Hunter-gatherers themselves might
then have adopted this ownership of external origin into their society. I was once inclined to
think this way. But from an evolutionary perspective, it seems more attractive to suppose
that such indirect ownership among hunter-gatherers, which had originally been meant for
something else, for maintaining egalitarian relationships, provided other dominant groups
with a chance to use them for the opposite purpose, i.e. to exploit the products of
hunter-gatherers’ labour.
6. There is little dissension about the owner of the animal among the Mbuti, as Marshall
(1976) pointed out for the !Kung San. Even when a discussion takes place about the
ownership, it may be better understood as a process of recalling the social relationship
originated or maintained by the preceding exchange of hunting tools, since in most cases
dissension arises from the ambiguity of the ownership of the hunting tools. In some cases, it
is not clear even to themselves whether the tool is given, or simply lent.
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