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Stone Age Economics

3.91  ·  Rating details ·  421 ratings  ·  42 reviews
Ambitiously tackling the nature of economic life and how to study it comparatively, Stone Age Economics includes six studies that reflect the author's ideas on revising traditional views of hunter-gatherer and so-called primitive societies, revealing them to be the original affluent society. When it was originally published in 1974, E. Evans-Pritchard of the Times Literary ...more
Paperback, 348 pages
Published December 31st 1974 by Routledge (first published February 1st 1974)
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I do not know what weird wanderings led me to this book. I was going to say that I'm not an anthropologist, but that seemed more than usually stupid, degree or no who doesn't study and learn about our fellows, who isn't taught something by them everyday?

So what's it about? The stone age appears to be pretty much over (apart from here and there) and so it's economics can hardly be relevant. But in a way the economics of the stone-age turn out to be oddly central and still inescapable in our prese
Aug 13, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
So this is uh, not a book on Stone Age economics. For the most part anyway. What it is though, is a gauntlet thrown down at the feet of contemporary economics. An effort, among other things, to dislodge its - at this point - utterly obstinate and totally ahistorical vision of the human, one whose basic behavior is everywhere the same, across time, space, and context (i.e. efficiency maximizing, rationally calculating beings). It's tempting to say 'yet another' gauntlet, were it not for the fact ...more
Jul 15, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Combines anthropology with economic theory, showing in passing how modern the supposed universals of economics actually are. Much of the book focuses on exploding the myth of the unhappy, overworked people of the Paleolithic. They were happy, took lots of naps, worked about 3-5 hours a day, had few (if any) wants or unmet needs. Spent much of their time dancing, eating, and chatting. Sounds like Eden . . .
Kirk Sinclair
Sep 16, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Stone Age Economics was a revolutionary work in cultural anthropology, debunking commonly held myths about "natural man" held at least since Thomas Hobbes and probably since the dawn of civilization. No informed anthropologists now question its basic thesis regarding the early economic expressions of our inherently social nature; some actually suggest it does not go far enough in viewing the life of nomadic cultures on their own terms. That may be so, but Stone Age Economics is to cultural anthr ...more
Sep 11, 2019 rated it really liked it
I came to this book having read Marshall Sahlins was a libertarian anthropologist known for holding the view that human nature is a Western concept, and that the book was pioneering work.

Here's some contextualization that would have been useful: There are two stone ages, the old and the new, Paleo- and Neo- lithic, nomadic and sendentary, for short "primitive" taken together. The first, one to two hundred thousand years, is that over which the human genome stabilized. The second came about due
Randall Wallace
Dec 18, 2020 rated it really liked it
Marshall published “the Original Affluent Society” back in Paris in 1968, so he’s been an influencer on the anti-civ scene for decades. Back then he was pondering publicly whether economic progress existed, stating “life in the Paleolithic was in no sense a struggle for existence”. Sahlins’ work led to new movements like Primitivism, and Degrowth. Even the Unabomber wrote a critique on Sahlins. Fellow worker Karl Polanyi’s work at Columbia was also on studying “how sharing, gift, and redistribut ...more
Nov 15, 2021 rated it really liked it
i think this book has a horrible title to be honest. bad ring to it but also it's really not about the paleolithic or neolithic but about present-day hunter-gatherer and small-scale horticultural societies and their internal relations. admittedly this does provide some insight into the historical development of the 'stone age' and the theoretical problems of e.g. the hobbesian state of nature and 'primitive communism'. anyway it's a really good and penetrating series of essays about things rangi ...more
Aug 12, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
Starts out fascinating with a chapter/essay on primitive tribes as the "original affluent society." In this best section of the book, Sahlins reframes the entire notion of affluence, turning from our modern ability to obtain whatever material good we want to the primitive flip side: simply not wanting much, and thus easily having all of your desires fulfilled (in less than 3 hours a day, on average, taboot!). Talk about leisure.

Unfortunately, the rest of the book gets way too academic, talking
Gary Bruff
I had wanted to read this book for a long time, and when the price dropped for the e-reader version I decided to buy it. I was in no way disappointed. Even though the book can be taken as a polemic against all economic and philosophical myths of human nature, Stone Age Economics has a charming grace to it. Having culled through a massive assortment of ethnographic texts, most of which dealing with the material conditions of 'primitive' peoples, Sahlins provides an astute empirical analysis on th ...more
Jan 02, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This was an utterly life-changing and paradigm-shifting book for me--on par with Jared Diamond's Gun's Germs and Steel, but more rigorous and scholarly in its execution. For the light reader, I recommend the first two chapters. The work delves into more technical scientific detail in subsequent chapters. I'm not sure why Sahlin's work has not changed the world yet. It certainly changed me. ...more
Apr 04, 2012 rated it really liked it
'…on evidence largely from these two groups [the Bushmen and the native Australians]. A good case can be made that hunters and gatherers work less than we do; and, rather than a continuous travail, the food quest is intermittent, leisure abundant, and there is a greater amount of sleep in the daytime per capita per year than in any other condition of society. ' [one study showed ~26 hrs/wk, another ~35/wk, a 3rd 15 but excluding cooking and preparation time; dependents are part of the calculatio ...more
Aug 12, 2009 rated it it was amazing
HI Kirk,

Yes, this was a transforming book for me. I think you nailed it when you say Sahlins really highlights the social basis of economic work in stone age societies. What we are really always doing first is being Social, he says. Economy is a by-product of a primary need then? But then he follows with what i think of as, 'And that as moderns we work so much more than we 'used to' in a sense despite our advances in technology.' THIS leaves a reader with the concomitant question, with more work
Mar 04, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Not only an interesting read about the economy and trade of different tribes all over the world, but also a great insight into the mind of ancient people. It is often easy to think that an average stone-age man or woman had to do a lot of hard work in order to obtain all the necessities but Sahlins' essays really show the ingenuity, logic and rationalism of these stone age people. Of all the many fine examples the author has described, my favourite has to be the trading system of the New Guinea ...more
Marjorie Elwood
If not the first, then one of the first books to suggest that hunter/gatherer societies enjoy more leisure time than other cultures, and are not subsisting hand-to-mouth. Unfortunately, I got bogged down in the terminology and equations about a third of the way through the book, but what I did read related directly to our mass consumption of goods these days: when you're a mobile society (hunter-gatherer), you can take few possessions with you and so you don't accumulate goods. The more settled ...more
Özgür Takmaz
Jul 25, 2021 rated it really liked it
Evolutionary anthropology. Most successful species are those which remain most generalized.

In relation to their needs, most hunter gatherers are rich.
There is something wrong with our desires, or at least, what we believe our desires to be.

Human proclivity to prefer leisure to greater wealth lasted a very long time. What then led many of us to change our mind.

All societies made up of there pieces of exchange: of goods (economics), of women (kinship), and words (language). (Levi Strauss)

To Fue
This is a very technical and old book. Probably only really of use to specialists in Anthropology. I read it selectively and found it very interesting for its comments on economics and hunters and gatherers, mostly for what it reveals about us.

Basically our entire economic system (in capitalism) is based on the idea of scarcity and how that influences behaviour, wants, needs, and prices. The entire classic course on economics is centred around this premise -- limited resources to satisfy unlimit
Dec 24, 2021 rated it it was ok
I do not remember how I came across this book but surely the tittle caught my attention. Stone Age Economics is an old academic book and its feels that way, for someone who is studying economics or anthropology in colleague will be a 5 starts; but for an amateur like me in this field was difficult to go through and sometimes I had to selectively read the topics that interested me.

The first 2 essays are very interesting but the rest was difficult to follow; at the end I found some interesting co
Apr 15, 2021 rated it it was amazing
The 2017 edition with foreword by David Graeber is the copy I have. I highly recommend this book for anyone wanting to learn more about economics. The concepts Sahlins developed have been discussed and debated since it was first published in the 1970s. Most of these concepts I teach in my introduction to Anthropology courses, even if Sahlins is not given mention. For a full discussion of this book, and some context about it, check out this episode of the podcast "From the Archives": https://anch ...more
Jul 10, 2022 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Eh a big meh, probably too advanced for me, though the pitch was interesting I prefer to have the ideas and premises of the book explained to me by another source than to read them directly, the writing was boring, nothing more than functionally dry, the more I read the less engaged I was and often the quotes are doubled as the author gives them and explains them again before or after which makes you read twice the same idea... Eh I guess it's a good scientific book nothing more and still we're ...more
Oct 21, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A book about possibilities. A scheme of reciprocities alone, which is well elaborated in here, is enough to open my mind for a world where alternatives to economic and monetary exchange are possible. Sahlins shows an endless and elegant detail of how we should rethink the notion of affluence.
Aug 24, 2018 rated it really liked it
This book is about the stone age and how people lived during that time.
May 09, 2020 rated it liked it
A difficult read but a seminal work.
Feb 17, 2017 rated it it was ok
Filled with interesting and radical ideas. It's too bad Sahlins writes like everyone is a graduate student in anthropology with a strong hold on statistics. ...more
Roger Lohmann
Nov 02, 2013 rated it it was amazing
A study of 'primitive' hunter gatherer societies outlining the case for them as the first affluent societies.

Sahlins wrote in the first (1972) edition: "It has been inspired by the possibility of 'anthropological economics,' a perspective indebted rather to the nature of the primitive economies than to the categories of a bourgeois science." The book has had a major impact on the economic thinking of anthropologists, influenced a variety of other social scientists (including me) and has had min
Jun 05, 2013 rated it did not like it
The first essay, about hunter gatherer societies feeding themselves was actually really good. The rest of the book got into boring discussions of primitive capital and were of no interest to me. Basically it's another scientist trying to use the language of death to talk about things alive and failing miserably. The cultural supremacy and scientific arrogance got to be too much to bear so I just skimmed the rest of the book to see if there was any other value in it and put it away. ...more
May 27, 2012 rated it liked it
The first half was interesting, but the second half turned into a bit of a slog. Nevertheless, it has information I hadn't found elsewhere. In addition, the author is very matter-of-fact about when he's got good data vs. when he's just making an educated supposition. Unlike most books written today, it's not a "sales-y" book, which I appreciate. ...more
Jan 31, 2014 rated it liked it
This was... well, fairly boring. Perhaps why I'm not an anthropologist. It's largely putting Polanyi's "Substantive" economics into work in a few key areas. At least the author is occasionally spicy with his writing. I've got such a long review for myself and I cared so little about this book that I'll just leave it here. 2.5 stars for interest; 3.5 for content. ...more
Andrew Tang
May 15, 2016 rated it really liked it
Okay sahlins, 'primitive society' was good and you have a fairly straight forward idea about a theory of primitive exchange value, one that contrasts with bourgeois economics as you put it, but your writing is damn dense. Some of these paragraphs are so horrifically wordy, it felt like some class war in my head. ...more
Kirk Kittell
Apr 23, 2010 marked it as to-read
Recommended by Seth Godin in Linchpin . ...more
Mar 05, 2013 rated it really liked it
Though the intervening years have dimmed some of the initial enthusiasm about this book, it remains a seminal work of economic anthropology. Sahlins writing is lucid and relatively easy for even the general reader to follow, but has great impact and persuasiveness.
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Marshall David Sahlins (/ˈsɑːlɪnz/ SAH-linz; born December 27, 1930) was an American anthropologist best known for his ethnographic work in the Pacific and for his contributions to anthropological theory. He was Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and of Social Sciences at the University of Chicago.

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“One-third to one-half of humanity are said to go to bed hungry every night. In the Old Stone Age the fraction must have been much smaller. This is the era of hunger unprecedented. Now, in the time of the greatest technical power, is starvation an institution. Reverse another venerable formula: the amount of hunger increases relatively and absolutely with the evolution of culture.” 26 likes
“The world's most primitive people have few possessions, but they are not poor. Poverty is not a certain small amount of goods, nor is it just a relation between means and ends; above all it is a relation between people. Poverty is a social status. As such it is the invention of civilization.” 15 likes
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