Food and the Status Quest: An Interdisciplinary Perspective

By Polly Wiessner; Wulf Schiefenhövel | Go to book overview

11. FOOD AND THE STATUS QUEST IN FIVE AFRICAN CULTURES

Igor de Garine

L ike other social mammals, humans generate status differences that are based, among other things, on access to food among individuals of the same group or the same society. Such discrepancies, which tend to become institutionalized, can, of course, be analyzed in terms of Darwinian adaptation and biological success, but they have other functions specific to human beings. Within a society, these discrepancies help to establish communication between individuals who would, if they were totally equivalent, have no reason to interact and might remain isolated monads. Status differences are linked to social structure and social dynamics. The quest for food and the quest for sex both correspond to the fulfillment of primary needs -- and humans spend more effort on the former. As Levi-Strauss ( 1949: 40) puts it, in human societies not only women but also food are part of the scarce commodities system (initiated by the incest taboo) through which society establishes its control over individuals.

Sharing systems, which are usually nonegalitarian, operate among some nonhuman primates, as demonstrated, for instance, among baboons, vervets, and purple-faced langurs ( Oates 1987: 205; Harding 1975: 249-50; Hladik 1975: 6). They also exist in human societies between males and females, young and old, but humans are the only creatures that purposely create discrepancies in access to food in order to achieve dominance. A couple of centuries ago the shogun Leyasu Tokukawa wrote of Japanese peasants: "So that they live, so that they die, feed them just enough so that they survive and are able to work

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