Are Hunter-gatherers lazy?

That is a great question and on occasion people have made the observation (only to regret it after talking with me) that the tribal people looked lazy. You know, just hanging around the village doing nothing. Now to be fair and not judgmental of any anyone, when a person goes to an unfamiliar culture the natural tendency is to observe behavior through their own cultural grid. Making assumptions is quite normal but can be inaccurate. I suggest the following: objectively keep a journal about all the observed behavior you come across and then as time allows seek to understand what is motivating the behavior. This will help mitigate against judgements, misunderstandings and culture stress or anxiety.

It’s important to understand that while cultures vary from place to place on this earth, each one has universal personality types within its scope. Cultures have industrious people that seem to be working all the time, they have followers, they have thinkers and they have lazy people. These types are not unique at all.

Let’s also understand our Western culture. We typically work 9 to 5, Monday to Friday in order to generate income to facilitate buying food, shelter, transportation and entertainment. We often live in cooler climates and have developed many helps for generating income like the light bulb, piston driven engine, airplanes, telecommunications and a plethora of other technologies. We are no longer hand to mouth, we are industrialized.

So back to the observation of tribal people looking lazy. Here’s how simple it is: if hunter-gathers are laying around the village it means one thing – the aren’t hungry! They have had enough to eat or have enough food on hand! I know from firsthand experience that hunter-gatherers can work me into the ground out hunting, gathering housing materials or carving a canoe. But if they aren’t hungry there is no need to work. They live to survive. They work for today. It is truly hand to mouth.

Now what about the actual lazy person in a tribal culture? We have distain for lazy people in our culture and the same is true of hunter-gatherer cultures. The lazy man in a hunter-gatherer culture is characterized by his unwillingness to build his family a house. He will stay with relatives, friends and move around from place to place. The consequence is that his wife becomes open game and will be taken advantage by other men in the village. Unfortunately, that is how they show disrespect for him.

To end on a positive note, the ideal man hunts, builds his own house, makes his own canoe and is generous with his food. His family and friends show him the utmost respect by contributing generously to his son when he needs to buy his bride.

I find it amazing how cultural ideals are pretty universal like in the case of a lazy person who are looked down upon, but the diligent, hard working person is looked at as being ideal. Our perception and assumption of what those ideals look like is what may need a little tweaking when we go into a cross cultural situation.

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