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There is a great myth that primitive man was some sort of “noble savage”, perfectly attuned to the natural environment and disposed to an egalitarian principle. All that, of course, is balderdash. A related myth is that primitive societies were essentially collectivist and that private property was largely an unrecognized institution. This is something I’ve heard too often from individuals wishing to characterize leftist ideals as natural and wholesome. So I welcomed a recent piece in Aeon called “Primitive Communism”, by Manvir Singh, which reviews evidence on a number of hunter-gatherer societies and cites several scholars on the subject of ownership and the distribution of goods among those peoples. A preponderance of the evidence suggests that private property and private rewards were (and are) quite common in primitive societies, and those practices predated agriculture.

The assertion that the advent of private property and trade was somehow unnatural for mankind, or even unjust, might owe its widespread acceptance to Friedrich Engels’ “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”. Singh summarizes one of the book’s primary arguments thusly:

Once upon a time, private property was unknown. Food went to those in need. Everyone was cared for. Then agriculture arose and, with it, ownership over land, labour and wild resources. The organic community splintered under the weight of competition.

While there were a few primitive societies in which economic output was shared, it is not clear whether any central authority was relied upon for determining the distribution of output. Instead, in those cases, sharing seems to have been a matter of social convention. Singh posits that interdependence played a major role in motivating output sharing, but mechanisms for dealing with interdependence differed in societies with stronger property rights, including voluntary sharing, which was often but not always based on reciprocity. Volunteerism still has a strong role in modern, developed economies, but for better or worse, social insurance is increasingly viewed as a function of the state, with its monopoly on legal coercion.

And how “natural” is social insurance? Not very in a world of extreme scarcity. One of the more interesting passages in Singh’s article has to do with the brutality of subsistence-level societies. The weak were often abandoned or killed, which Singh discusses in the context of the collectivist Aché people of Paraguay. This “culling” applied variously to orphans, the disabled, the unsightly, and the aged. It’s unclear whether these decisions were collective or left up to individual families. Noble savages indeed!

It’s astonishing how often Engels’ faulty premise is accepted as historical fact. The argument, however, often serves as a subtext for collectivist rationales in the modern era. As Singh says:

For anyone hoping to critique existing institutions, primitive communism conveniently casts modern society as a perversion of a more prosocial human nature.

I’m not sure whether it’s possible to marshall evidence that primitive societies with strong property rights were more successful than their collectivist counterparts. That would be a good topic of further research, but it would be tough to control for the difficulties posed by varying natural conditions faced by these societies.

On the other hand, suppose we stipulate that property rights developed as a consequence of, or in tandem with, organized production, as Engels would have had it. We’d have to categorize that development as a kind of technological breakthrough in its own right. By aligning incentives with production, property rights were critical to the phenomenal growth in prosperity the world has enjoyed over the past several centuries. Nevertheless, the evidence on primitive societies suggests that the alignment came more “naturally”.

It’s about time to put the fiction of “primitive communism” to rest. Private property was sensible for the denizens of most primitive societies. Even the most collectivist of the those societies made certain concessions to that reality. These facts comport with a view of property ownership as a natural right.