Wallace G. Mills Hist. 316 2 Types of Economy

Types of Economy

- this is a very important topic because the economy and technology do affect the social and political possibilities; e.g., hunting and food gathering does not allow the development of large state structures or complex social institutions. The scale of the economy (and this is influenced greatly by the technology available) sets parameters within which people, and thus societies, operate.

- however, those who argue that these aspects determine the social and political systems or the development of individuals go too far. Thus, there can be considerable differences in societies and cultures which have similar technologies and economies.

1. Hunting and food-gathering

- exploitation (in the economic sense) consists in harvesting and using animals & plants produced by the environment (hunting animals and collecting fruits, berries, roots etc.). Humans do not manipulate, control or enhance what is produced.

- this approach produces a living which is meagre and precarious; in this economy there are few means to build up reserves of food, and the people are vulnerable to natural phenomena (droughts, fire, disappearance of game, etc.). Life is often characterised by sharp fluctuations— scarcity and windfalls. If a large animal is killed, then people gorge themselves until it is gone as they can’t keep meat.

- because the land is not exploited intensively, people need relatively large areas of land and population densities are low.

- groups tend to be small (often just families); made worse by the fact that in recent times such people—San (Bushmen) and Mbuti pygmies—have been pushed into inhospitable areas and were even more spread out.

- political systems are simple—actual or analogous head of family;

- the groups do have relations with other similar groups (need to arrange marriages) but these relations are not too extensive or continuous;

- while the technology they employ is very limited (stone age—i.e., nonmetallic), these people, the San in particular, have very extensive and sophisticated botanical and zoological knowledge of everything in their environment. This knowledge is not categorised according to ‘scientific’ norms, but more according to use and value in survival. While they did not have metal weapons, their knowledge of poisons and use of bows and arrows meant that the San could provide significant resistance.

- the San were the producers of the cave paintings in South Africa.

2. Pastoralism

- pastoralism, with its use of domesticated animals, involves somewhat more intensive exploitation; with domesticated animals there is greater control over food supply; there may be extensive uses of animals without killing (e.g., milk and wool).

- it allows denser population and larger-scale, more complex social & political systems; e.g., peoples may have some sort of chief to settle disputes etc.

- usually pastoralists need to move periodically to change pasture; they are often called nomads but they usually move around in particular areas in defined patterns (i.e., back and forth between summer and winter pastures); this may weaken political structures because all the people may not move together and have different arrangements for each area. As a result, ‘chiefs’ may be more arbitrators and mediators rather than rulers.

- thus, political systems are often loose and in some cases, there is no institutionalised political authority at all (stateless societies).

- such societies cannot build up material culture too much as the people have to restrict themselves to what can be carried and moved.

- pastoralists often need to defend pastures and water holes and they can be quite warlike (e.g., the Maasai).

- pastoralist peoples were still quite widespread in Africa in modern times: Khoikhoi (Hottentots) in S. Africa; Maasai and some Nilotic peoples in east Africa; all along the sudan south of the Sahara & in the Sahara.

3. Agrarianism

- agriculture involves more intensive exploitation of land; now people control the plants that grow and choose those which produce the largest amount of food; also, because some of this (grain) can be stored, agriculturalists can build up reserves to tide themselves over the lean times.

- greater productivity and production allows denser population and may allow more complex social & political organisation as there may be surpluses which allow some people to devote time to organisational and governing tasks. Thus, all ‘civilisations’ arose in the context of agrarian economies because only then were there sufficient surpluses to allow it; however, not all agrarian societies developed the large-scale social and political institutions to qualify as ‘civilisations’.

- agricultural people are more settled and they can spend time on extensive, permanent buildings and material culture.

- some African peoples are entirely or primarily agrarians or agriculturalists: in the forests of West Africa and some people in the interlacustrine area.

4. Combined agrarian and pastoral

- the combination is probably the most common model, especially in central and southern Africa.

- in many of these societies, the different aspects more or less conform to the sexual division of labour; males look after the cattle & livestock while females have the primary responsibility for agricultural work (however, men have the responsibility for clearing new land and making it ready for cultivation).

- there is tremendous variability in the political and social structures; political structures range from those which have little formal political structure, or are very small-scale (not much more than a village to very large kingdoms.

Non-metal culture

- often called ‘stone age’; however, this may give the wrong impression as their ability to make tools and weapons from non-metal materials may be very sophisticated as in the case of the San. A number of early civilisations were non-metal yet accomplished amazing feats of engineering.

- in our era, only the San and Mbuti pygmies are in this category.

Copper (Bronze Age) culture

- copper and copper alloy products were widely used in Africa, especially being smelted in the very extensive deposits in central Africa and thence dispersed widely; there are very old mining/smelting workings in south-western Africa; ancient bronze castings from west Africa show this was true there also.

- Khoikhoi (Hottentots) in the Cape of Good Hope area were without iron.

Iron age culture

- iron working and smelting were widely spread in Africa; although archeological investigations have been a bit slow in Africa south of the Sahara, those that have been done have elucidated some aspects.

- sometime about the beginning of the Christian era, iron-working found its way south of the Sahara, perhaps a century or so earlier in the upper Nile—certainly there are slag heaps and other remains. (It is not known exactly when iron working began in west Africa, but it goes back a long time).

- it seems clear that in east, central and southern Africa, there was fairly rapid diffusion as iron-age sites form a pattern.

- in fact, some iron-age archeological sites in the Transvaal have been carbon-dated to the 6th-7th centuries AD (This is important in disproving the myth that Africans were recent migrants to South Africa.)

- this long had considerable interest and political impact; the National Party Government for many years claimed that Bantu-speaking Africans were recent migrants to South Africa, in fact that they had arrived at almost the same time as whites were founding Cape Town in 1652. While it cannot be proven positively that the iron-age societies were of Bantu-speaking people, neither of the other peoples in S. Africa—the San and the Khoikhoi—had iron. Thus, the existence of iron-age sites seems to indicate that Bantu-speakers arrived hundreds of years earlier.

- iron was not usually plentiful and therefore it was used only for priority items: sometimes as blades for axes or hoes (although the latter were often fire-hardened wood) or spear heads.

- the dividing line between these technology/economies is not always hard and fast; there is much debate recently about the traditional clear-cut distinction between San and Khoikhoi. Many scholars now argue that there was in recent times some passing back and forth. Khoikhoi who lost cattle might be reduced to hunting and food gathering. San, with their knowledge of animals, seem to have been excellent cattle herds and San wives were sought after by both Khoikhoi and Xhosa. Certainly, there has been mixing of these different peoples in the 19th & 20th Cs and this process may well have been going on much earlier as well.

Physiological features

- the San and Khoikhoi are quite similar physiologically; both have light brown skin with peppercorn hair. The San are usually described as shorter, but that may be a result of diet and economy (as we know changed and/or improved diet can produce dramatic changes in height of 2 or 3 generations). Both have ‘clicks’ in their languages which they passed on to the Bantu-speaking Xhosa (the latter were absorbing large numbers of Khoikhoi as well as some San in the 18th and early 19th C—perhaps earlier as well).

- the main differences were economic—hunting & food gathering vs pastoralism—and technological—stone age vs copper/bronze age; as we noted, there is some evidence that there were individuals and small groups who may have passed back and forth.

- the hypothesis is that the Khoikhoi and San are the remnants of people who had inhabited far larger areas of Africa, perhaps most of Africa (cave paintings in the Sahara dating back some 10,000-20,000 BCE use similar materials and similar themes to those made by the San in South Africa; however, this is true of cave paintings dating to the same era in Europe). It is speculated that these peoples had subsequently been absorbed or displaced by agrarian or combination economy peoples with iron-age technology; this was especially true in east, central and southern Africa where Bantu-speaking negro peoples have taken over. Certainly, the Xhosa did this.

- the origins of people of negroid features is not known for certain. Some speculate that they originated in West Africa, and after some difficulty went through or around the rain forest into the Congo River basin and then spread rapidly throughout east, central and southern Africa. These people speak one of the Bantu languages; we shall return to this language issue shortly because the origins of the Bantu language peoples has been a matter of considerable academic debate. It is also part of the hypothesis that it was the possession of iron-age technology and agriculture that enabled them to spread so rapidly over such vast areas.

- in any case, people of negroid features were described from a fairly early period in Egyptian records, usually in connection with Nubia and the south. The connections between Egypt and Africa is another hotly debated issue to which we shall return.

- however, what I want to stress at this point is that, although the Sahara provided a significant barrier, sub-Saharan Africa has had a continuing, if limited, flow of contacts and people with the outside world, especially the Mediterranean. The Nile River was one route; after the conquest of Egypt (first by the Hittites, then by Greeks under Alexander, and finally by the Romans), the flows were more limited. But remnants of Egyptian culture were kept alive in Nubia on the upper Nile for almost a 1000 years, long after it had been replaced by Hellenic culture in lower Egypt. However, Herodotus (c484-425 BCE) got information about Nubia and Africa and we know that trade in slaves and gold were more or less continuous. Other trade routes across the Sahara also existed because this was a major source of gold for the Mediterranean area, especially in the period following the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west. However, it is only much later in the period of the Middle Ages in Europe that Moslems traveled south.

- certainly, Islam was taken and established in the sudan regions south of the Sahara. Clearly, in west Africa, there is a blending of peoples over long periods of time across the Sahara.

 Return to

 Return to

 Mills home page

 History 316 lecture list