Chris Maser

The Commons Usufruct Law arose spontaneously among the nomadic hunters and gatherers who, having represented humanity for most of its existence, probably saw the world simply as habitat that fulfilled their life's requirements. This view allowed the people to understand themselves as part of the seamless biophysical system we call Nature.

Footprints in the Turkana Basin of northern Kenya demonstrate that our earliest ancestors were walking erect for at least 1.5 million years.1 Coming out of Africa into Asia and Europe, first between 420,000 to 840,000 years ago and again as recently as 80,000 to 150,000 years ago, we human beings, as a species, have far more experience living as wild nomadic and semi-nomadic creatures enveloped in a healthy ecosystem than any other way of life. As the various human populations expanded, they interbred, thereby strengthening the genetic ties among human populations worldwide—instead of engaging in violent, competitive replacement, as is often postulated.2

Africa, Asia, and Europe were a vast melting pot in those distant millennia, wherein groups of humans with different ancestry scattered, joined, scattered, and joined again, only to scatter once more. In so doing, they intermingle their inherited traits across thousands of generations and vast distances of space and time, like genetic paint on the human palette that today colors a marvelous portrait of the human family.3 This scenario illustrates that human evolution is about commonalities, traits, and similarities more than differences.

We humans were thus essentially wild for over 800,000 years because the taming influence of agriculture did not begin until a mere 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, and our reliance of fossil fuels dates back only about 150 years. As for computer-based technology, that has dominated society for perhaps 30 years.

The hunting-gathering peoples of the world—Eskimos, Indigenous Americans, Australian aborigines, African Bushman, and similar groups—represent not only the oldest but also perhaps the most successfully adapted human beings. Virtually all of humanity lived by hunting and gathering before about 12,000 years ago. Hunters and gatherers represent the opposite pole from the densely packed, harried urban life most people of today experience. Yet the life philosophy of those same hunter-gatherers may hold the answer to a central question plaguing humanity at it enters the twenty-first century: Can people live harmoniously with one another and Nature?

Until 1500 AD, hunter-gatherers occupied fully one-third of the world, including all of Australia, most of North America, and large tracts of land in South America, Africa, and northeast Asia, where they lived in small groups without the overarching, disciplinary umbrella of a state or other centralized authority. They lived without standing armies or bureaucratic systems, and they exchanged goods and services without recourse to economic markets or taxation.4

With relatively simple technology (such as wood, bone, stone, fibers, and fire), they were able to meet their material needs with a modest expenditure of energy and have the time to enjoy what they had materially, socially, and spiritually. Although their material wants may have been few and finite and their technical skills relatively simple and unchanging, their technology was, on the whole, adequate to fulfill their requirements, a circumstance that says the hunting-gathering peoples were the original affluent societies.

By way of example, indigenous American women were the gathers. Although not their only responsibility, it occupied most of their lives. Girls were taught at a young age to find the family's root-harvesting ground, when to pick various foods, how to care them, and what the proper method of preparation was so her family could enjoy them.5 Some of the foods used by the indigenous peoples of the Columbia River Basin in the northwestern part of the United States were lichens, which are composite, symbiotic organisms made up from members of two or three kingdoms. "Lichens" (Mycophycophyta), according to lichenologist Trevor Goward, "are fungi that have discovered agriculture."6 The fungi (kingdom Fungi) that composes the lichen's outer body is incapable of feeding itself and so it cultivates partners that manufacture food by photosynthesis. Sometimes the partners are algae (kingdom Protista), at other times the fungus partners with cyanobacteria (kingdom Monera), formerly called blue-green algae. Then again, some enterprising fungi exploit both simultaneously.7

The algae and cyanobacteria capture energy from the sun, absorbing it by light-particle-harvesting protein molecules, such as chlorophylls or carotenoids. These molecules are packed closely together in membranes inside the cells. The sun's energy is then tranferred to other membrane-bound molecules from which the energy ultimately reaches the reaction center. There, the energy drives chemical interactions that act as currency in the creation of carbohydrates.8

Lichens (Mycophycophyta), which were gathered with sticks, grow year-round on a variety of high-elevation trees, each of which produces lichens with its own distinctive flavor. Once collected, lichens were cooked in pits and eaten. Lichens could also be mixed with berries, some species of camas (Camassia spp.), and even be made into a flavorful pudding with proper preparation.

Mature puffball fungi (Basidiomycota) were used as a talcum powder on babies. Puffballs were mixed with alumroot (Geranium maculatum) for sever rashes and sores. Red ochre fungi were used to make paint powder to decoration of as person's body. As well, mushrooms were eaten both raw and cooked.

Horsetails (Equisetum spp.) and ferns (Pteridophyta) were used like sandpaper to polish bone implements and soapstone pipes. The roots of horsetails to imbricate—to overlap in layers and thereby created a decorative pattern on bags and baskets.

Sap from the larch tree (Larix spp.) was eaten like candy when it ran out of a tree and hardened. Larch stumps and fallen trees often yielded sap in the form of good chewing gum. In addition, larch sap was prepared as syrup.

The bulbs of death camas (Zigadenus venenosus) were dug up, mashed into pulp, and dampened. Hunters then dipped the tips of the arrows into the pulp, so the quick-acting poison would aid in dispatching game animals. While death camas was deadly to humans if eaten, the poison in game killed with a camas-tipped arrow had no detrimental effects on a person eating the meat. Although death camas grows among edible varieties, it can be distinguished by color.

Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia spp.), which is edible all year, even when gathered under a cover of snow, was cleaned of its spines and roasted. Its juice was made into soup. The cactus was also used as a medicine to help elderly men urinate.

Plants had other used as well. Morning glory vines (Convolvulaceae) were use like rope. The blooming of some plants would indicate the time was right to harvest and prepare certain edible plants. Still other plants had medicinal and spiritual uses. In effect, a healthy landscape supplied hunter-gatherers with a health livestyle.9

In addition, insects provided-and still provide-a wide range of healthy choices as the "original white meat."10 Although such fare may seem disgusting to many people living in the Western industrialized countries, as a young man wandering the high mountains of the Pacific Northwestern United States, I lived off the land and often ate fried or roasted grasshoppers, which I found quite delicious when crispy and lightly salted. Clearly, these people were free of the industrial shackles in which we find ourselves today as prisoners at hard labor caught seeming forever between the perpetual disparities of unlimited wants and insufficient means.

Evidence indicates that these peoples lived surprisingly well together, despite the lack of a rigid social structure, solving their problems among themselves, largely without courts and without a particular propensity for violence. They also demonstrated a remarkable ability to thrive for long periods, sometimes thousands of years, in harmony with their environment. They were environmentally and socially harmonious and thus sustainable because they were egalitarian, and they were egalitarian because they were socially and environmentally harmonious. They intuitively understood the reciprocal, indissoluble connection between their social life and the sustainability of their inseparable environment.

The basic social unit of most hunting-gathering peoples, based on studies of contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, was the band, a small-scale nomadic group of 15 to 50 people who were related through kinship. These bands were relatively egalitarian in that leadership was rather informal and subject to the constraints of popular opinion. Leadership tended to be by example instead of arbitrary order or decree because a leader could persuade, but not command. This form of leadership allowed for a degree of freedom unknown in more hierarchical societies, but at the same time put hunter-gatherers at a distinct disadvantage when they finally encountered centrally organized colonial authorities.11

Hunter-gatherers were by nature and necessity nomadic—a traditional form of wandering as a way of life wherein people move their encampment several times a year as they either searched for food or followed the known seasonal order of their food supply. "Home" was the journey in that belonging, dwelling, and livelihood were all components thereof. Home, in this sense, was "en route."

The nomadic way of life was essentially a response to prevailing circumstances, as opposed to a matter of conviction. Nevertheless, a nomadic journey is in many ways a more flexible and adaptive response to life than is living in a settlement.

This element of mobility was also an important component of their politics because they "voted with their feet" by moving away from an unpopular leader rather than submitting to that person's rule. Further, such mobility was a means of settling conflicts, something that proved increasingly difficult as people became more sedentary.

Nomads were in many ways more in harmony with the environment than a sedentary culture because the rigors and uncertainties of a wandering lifestyle controlled, in part, the size of the overall human population while allowing little technological development. In this sense, wandering groups of people tended to be small, versatile, and mobile.

Although a nomadic people may in some cases have altered a spring of water for their use, dug a well, or hid an ostrich egg filled with water for emergencies, they were largely controlled by when and where they found water. Put differently, water brought nomads to it. On the other hand, the human wastes were simply left to recycle in the environment as a reinvestment of biological capital each time the people moved on.

In addition, nomads, who carried their possession with them as they moved about, introduced little technology of lasting consequence into the landscape, other than fire and the eventual extinction of some species of prey. Even though they may, in the short term, have depleted populations of local game animals or seasonal plants, they gave the land a chance to heal and replenish itself between seasons of use. Finally, the sense of place for a nomadic people was likely associated with a familiar circuit dictated by the whereabouts of seasonal foods, and later pastures for their herds.

Another characteristic associated with mobility was the habit of hunter-gatherers to concentrate and disperse, which appears to represent the interplay of ecological necessity and social possibility. Rather than live in uniformly sized assemblages throughout the year, they tended to disperse into small groups, the aforementioned 15 to 30 people, that spent part of the year foraging, only to gather again into much larger aggregates of 100 to 200 people at other times of the year, where the supply of food, say an abundance of fish, made such a gathering possible.12

Although hunter-gatherers had the right of personal ownership, it applied only to mobile property, that which they could carry with them, such as their hunting knives or gathering baskets. On the other hand, things they could not carry with them, such as land, was to be shared equally through rights of use, but could not be personally controlled to the exclusion of others or abused to the detriment of future generations.

Thus, The Commons Usufruct Law arose as a natural outgrowth of various hunter-gatherer cultures because almost all hunter-gatherers, including nomadic herders and many village-based societies as well, shared a land-tenure system based on the rights of common usage that, until recently, were far more common than regimes based on the rights of private property. In traditional systems of common property, the land is held in a kinship-based collective, while individuals owned movable property. Rules of reciprocal accesses made it possible for an individual to satisfy life's necessities by drawing on the resources of several territories, such as the shared rights among the indigenous Cherokee peoples of eastern North America.

In the traditional Cherokee economic system, both the land and its abundance would be shared among clans. One clan could gather, another could camp, and yet a third could hunt on the same land. There was a fluid right of common usage rather than a rigid individual right to private property. The value was thus placed on sharing and reciprocity, on the widest distribution of wealth, and on limiting the inequalities within the economic system.13

Sharing was the core value of social interaction among hunter-gatherers, with a strong emphasis on the importance of generalized reciprocity—the unconditional giving of something without any expectation of immediate return. The combination of generalized reciprocity and an absence of private ownership of land has led many anthropologists to consider the hunter-gatherer way of life as a "primitive communism," in the true sense of "communism."

Hunter-gatherer peoples lived with few material possessions for hundreds of thousands of years and enjoyed lives that were in many ways richer, freer, and more fulfilling than ours. These peoples so structured their lives that they wanted little, needed little, and found what they required at their disposal in their immediate surroundings. They were comfortable precisely because they achieved a balance between necessities and wants, by being satisfied with little. There are, after all, two ways to wealth—working harder or wanting less.

The !Kung Bushmen of southern Africa, for example, spent only 12 to 19 hours a week getting food because their work was social and cooperative, which means they obtained their particular food items with the least possible expenditure of energy. Thus, they had abundant time for eating, drinking, playing, and general socializing. In addition, young people were not expected to work until well into their 20s and no one was expected to work after age 40 or so.

Hunter-gatherers also had much personal freedom. There were, among the !Kung Bushmen and the Hadza of Tanzania either no leaders or only temporary leaders with severely limited authority. These societies had personal equality in that everyone belonged to the same social class and had gender equality. Their technologies and social systems, including their economies of having enough or a sense of "enoughness," allowed them to live sustainably for tens of thousands of years. One of the reasons they were sustainable is that they made no connection between what an individual produced and their economic security, so acquisition of things to ensure personal survival and material comfort was not an issue.14


  1. Dana Hughes. Walk This Way: Man's First Footprints. ABC News, New York. (accessed February 27, 2009).

  2. (1) Alan R. Templeton. Out of Africa again and again. Nature 416 (2002):45-51 and (2) Tina Hesman Saey. Team Decodes Neanderthal DNA. Science News 175 (2009):5-6.

  3. Ibid.

  4. The foregoing discussion is based on: Richard B. Lee. Forward. Pp ix-xii. In: Limited wants, unlimited means. John Gowdy (editor). Island Press, Washington, D.C. 1998.

  5. Alanna Farrow. Forest Offerings: Food Uses of the Indigenous People of the Columbia Basin. Natural Resource News Fall 1988:5. Trevor Goward. (accessed February 15, 2009).

  6. Ibid.

  7. Yuan-Chug Cheng and Graham R. Fleming. Dynamics of Light Harvesting in Photosynthesis. Annual Review of Physical Chemistry 60 (2009):241-262.

  8. The discussion of plant uses is based on: (1) Nancy J. Turner, Randy Bouchard, and Dorothy I.D. Kennedy. 1980. Ethnobotany of the Okanagan-Colville Indians of British Columbia and Washington. British Columbia Provincial Museum Occasional Paper (1980) 21:1-179 pp. and (2) Alanna Farrow. Forest Offerings: Food Uses of the Indigenous People of the Columbia Basin. Natural Resource News Fall 1988:5

  9. (1) Janet Raloff. Insects: The Original White Meat. Science News 173 (2008):16-21 and (2) Dirk L. Christensen, Francis O. Orech, Michael N. Mungai, and others. Entomophagy among the Luo of Kenya: a potential mineral source? International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition 57 (2006):198-203.

  10. The foregoing discussion is based on: (1) Richard B. Lee. Forward. Pp ix-xii. In: Limited wants, unlimited means. John Gowdy (editor). Island Press, Washington, D.C. 1998 and (2) John Gowdy. Introduction. Pp. xv-xxix. In: Limited wants, unlimited means. John Gowdy (editor). Island Press, Washington, D.C. 1998.

  11. (1) John Gowdy. Introduction. Pp. xv-xxix. In: Limited wants, unlimited means. John Gowdy (editor). Island Press, Washington, D.C. 1998 and (2) Marshall Sahlins. The Original Affluent Society. Pp. 5-41.

  12. The foregoing two paragraphs are based on: Rebecca Adamson. People who are Indigenous to the Earth. YES! A Journal of Positive Futures Winter (1997):26-27.

  13. John Gowdy. Introduction. Pp. xv-xxix. In: Limited wants, unlimited means. John Gowdy (editor). Island Press, Washington, D.C. 1998.

  14. Cristobal Uauy, Assaf Distelfeld, Tzion Fahima, and others. A NAC Gene Regulating Senescence Improves Grain Protein, Zinc, and Iron Content in Wheat. Science 314 (2006):1298-1301.

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