Book Reviews - Winter 2021

Earning Our Daily Bread

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Did early humans really have it easier than we do?

By Ellen Ruppel Shell | December 7, 2020
Michael Lokner (Flickr/lokner)
Michael Lokner (Flickr/lokner)

Work: A Deep History, From the Stone Age to the Age of Robots by James Suzman; Penguin Press, 464 pp., $30

Anthropologist James Suzman spent 20 years studying the Khoisan, specifically the Ju/’hoansi, a nomadic tribe whose territory spans the borderlands of Namibia and Botswana. In his 2017 book, Affluence Without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushman, he noted that the Ju/’hoansi sustain an “unyielding confidence” that nature will provide for them, a confidence so sturdy that they have no need to store or preserve food, let alone prepare for scarcity. Far from being nasty, brutish, and short, their well-lived lives of simplicity and generosity offer evidence that the self-imposed rat race of “civilized” humans was made necessary not by our actual needs but by our endless wants. While pleasant to imagine, this notion—known among anthropologists as the “original affluent society” theory—has rightly come under fire by critics who complain that it relies on a definition of work that is far too narrow and ignores the high incidence of mass starvation and early mortality in tribal societies.

In his latest book, Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time, Suzman offers a beautifully written argument in defense of this preindustrial utopia that nevertheless rests on an inherently shaky foundation. He traces our relationship with work down two pathways, the first “our relationship with energy,” and the second that of “human evolution and culture.” These avenues converge at four points in time: when humans mastered fire (roughly a million years ago), learned to grow and store food (roughly 12,000 years ago), began gathering in cities and towns (roughly 8,000 years ago), and fired up the first factories (early 18th century).

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