If you have undeveloped society, like hunters-gatherers living in a small village, but at the same time a highly developed social structure with division of labour and expertise, what would it look like?

One person might learn to make a bow and a knife and an axe from flint, go out hunting, kill an animal, bring it home, skin it, divide the carcass and hang the meat and process intestines for use as containers etc, then proceed to cook the meat. The same one person could collect herbs for seasoning or medicinal use. It is obvious that one single person can be resourceful enough to fill many different roles by themselves. But what if each person would only ever do one thing, that they would specialize in, and never touch any other activity?

From the above description, you would need 1 bowmaker, 1 knifemaker, 1 axemaker, or you might do 1 woodworker and 1 flintstoneworker. Those three (or two) people would then need to be provided for by other people. If there is one expert hunter, he would need to bring home food to provide for the weaponmakers but also for the butcher and the one preparing leather and the one producing containers. Someone needs to build houses. There would be an expert in medicine, but then a gatherer would be needed to get herbs etc for medicinal purpose, and another gatherer for food-herbs, etc.

How many hunters are needed to sustain a variety of other professions? And what professions would be needed to sustain the hunters? How would this society scale up, like if their village is growing, where would they put new members to maintain balance? In a real world setting I guess it would be quite natural, if there is not enough meat just add hunters, but I want to get some kind of model that starts with a minimal population and some formula for how it scales up so I can apply it do villages of different sizes.

Interested to hear if anyone already thought this through, as I am starting to sketch on a prehistoric village and I just started thinking about this topic. Would appreciate any feedback and ideas about problems you may have encountered during a process of working with this.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ In real world tribes the division was often that the men were hunters and the women stayed behind and performed many of the jobs listed above. (Preparing the food, tanning leather) $\endgroup$ – Braydon Sep 20 '17 at 2:25
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Right, but I want to build a highly specialized yet prehistoric society. So if the women were at home, only X of them would take care of babies and the others would specialize in something else, like making containers, etc $\endgroup$ – GaRyu Sep 20 '17 at 2:30
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ I think the issue is what you're asking for (a primitive society and specialization) are mutually exclusive. Specialization is probably the easiest way to judge how advanced a civilization is. Specialization only occurs when the most basic tasks like gathering food can be accomplished efficiently enough where only a small percentage of the population can produce enough food for everyone. Realistically, that percentage can only shrink with advanced technology (and therefore an advanced society). I think you should clarify, maybe by stating that food is easily accessible for whatever reason. $\endgroup$ – getfugu Sep 20 '17 at 3:29
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Following on getfugu, a reason why people don't specialise in a small primitive village is that there is not enough specialist work to do. If your bowmaker is only making bows for a village of one hundred, he'll have supplied every bowman with a bow in very short order. Unless everyone needs a new bow every year, that bowmaker will have nothing to do most of the time. $\endgroup$ – Kyyshak Sep 20 '17 at 7:08
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ There are several problems with your assumptions here. A "small village" means something completely different in the context of a prehistoric society. Could you define a size, e.g. number of people living there? Also you absolutely have to define prehistoric. There was specialization in prehistoric societies, but only very late during the copper stone age or later well past the point of hunter/gatherers. An answer absolutely depends on what you mean by "prehistoric" (which is a time span of several million years). Also consider that a village never is a closed system. $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Sep 20 '17 at 9:57

This is getting into a study of economics, but we can probably boil it down to some simple principles that you can turn into a formula.

First off, you need to 'know' your societies minimums. These are pretty easy to figure out, just say to yourself 'What are MY minimums?'

I need food I need water I need shelter I need heat

Give me all that, and I can 'survive'

So that's the stuff that society needs in order to exist.

Now work out how much of the above you need?

FOOD I need 2000Kcal of food a day. [So I looked at a chart][1] For beef there's an average 223.6 Cal's per 100 grams of meat. That means I need (rounded) 900 grams of meat a day. Cows weigh 700 ~ 900 Kilograms, but wild animals are probably a fair bit lower in weight than that, so lets just say that 1 animal is going to weigh 500 Kilograms. After Skinning, gutting a deboning you will be left with approximately 1/2 the weight of the animal as food. So your average wild cow is going to give you 250Kg of Meat.

That is 278 meals worth of meat.

That means you can support a society of 278 people with 1 hunter getting 1 kill every single day! (damn good hunter)

WATER Water, you need about 2 Litres a day if you're not a heavy labourer, and lets just say that your society works pretty hard, so everyone gets 3 litres of water a day.

Water is HEAVY. This is the number one reason why societies exist around tributaries and oceans. Water is going to require a lot of man power to get and distribute.

I can't remember the exact details of how much weight an average person can carry, and how much weight/time a person can work a day. But lets say that you can carry 40kg all day, 80kg for half a day, 160kg for 6 hours.

So I'm going to just stab in the dark, and say that your labourer can carry 160Kg of water a day. He's going to go fill water skins, then lug the water to the people in the village, and he's going to do that all day. (What a life).

160kg of water is 160 Litres, Lets trim that down to 140kg of water, and 40kg of water skins. 140kg of water 'waters' (rounded down) 46 people.

Lets use the food as the basis for your calculations here.

So 278 people, need 834 Litres of water. 834 Litres of water requires (rounded) 6 people to carry water all day, every day.

Your civ of 7 people, can support 278

SHELTER Shelter is pretty simple, it's something that takes a long time to 'build' And let's face it, no society of 200+ people is going to be living in caves (Yes I know History has plenty of societies that have lived in caves, but these were environments where caves were common features of the land.)

Log Cabins are going to be your easiest bet, (unless you want everyone living in tents.) A log cabin will take 4 people about 20 weeks to build. (Numbers vary, and it's pretty hard to pin this down to an exact number).

So you need 4 people, and 140 days to build a house. You build 2.6 houses a year, a house can have... 4 people?

*Your civ has 7+(4*x) people, can support 278 - You can build homes for 10*x people a year.*

Heating Primitive Tech = Fire!!!

You need to carry firewood (I'm totally pulling the below numbers out of thick air here, so take it with a pinch of salt). Lets use the same numbers as were used for water. Your wooders can collect 160Kg of wood a day. Pine is about 530Kg per cubic meter. You need about 10 pieces of wood to heat a house a day, so going off childhood memories, I'm guessing you need about 1/8th of a cubic meter, so (530/8) You need 67Kg of wood per home. Home has 4 people, 67/4 = 16.5Kg of wood per person. You have 278 people, you need 4587 Kg of wood, you need 29 people to carry wood.

*Your civ has 1+6+(4*x)+29 people, can support 278 - You can build homes for 10*x people a year.*

Now calculating tools is pretty esoteric, I think a tool should last at least 6 months on average, unless it's an axe which I expect should last 3 months? But how long does it take to make an axe? 4 hours? So you can make 2 axes a day. You need 29 axes every 3 months. You make 2 axes a day, 365 days a year, you need 116 axes a year, and you make 182 a year. That's 1 person making axes, and you have a surplus. (woohoo surplus).

*Your civ has 1(hunter)+6(water)+(4(builder)*x)+29(wooder)+1(axer) people, can support 278 - You can build homes for 10*x people a year.*

And I'm just going to throw the same numbers from above down for any other tool you need. Lets say you have 10 types of tools. Axes, Hammers, Bows, Spears, Fletchers, Plows, Baskets, Clothing, Leather works, blahhh... And each person in your society is going to get 8 tools a year... because why not.

*Your civ has 1(hunter)+6(water)+(4(builder)*x)+29(wooder)+1(axer)+9(other tools) people, can support 278 - You can build homes for 10*x people a year.*

So since this is getting really long, lets turn this into a formulae and you can plug in any other careers you want.

** UNIVERSAL FORMULAE ** (hyperbole)

*Your civ has 1(hunter)+6(water)+(4(builder)*x)+29(wooder)+1(axer)+9(other tools) people, can support 278 - You can build homes for 10*x people a year.*

People = X
Hunter = People / 278
Water = people / 46
Wooder = (People*16.5) / 160
Tools = (People * 8) / 182

And Builders are dependent on Population Growth and structure decay, so nerf the numbers to your liking.

With lets say 1685 people You will need.  (Rounding every job up)
People = 1685
Hunters = 1685 / 278 = 7 Hunters
Water = 1685 / 46 = 37 Waterers
Wooders = (1685*16.5) / 160 = 174 Wooders
Toolers = (1685 * 8) / 182 = 75 Tool Makers

You have used: 293 People, to support your society, and you have 1392 people with no job.

Do some Algebra, and I think you have something like this:

People = (x/278) + (x/46) + (x*16.5 / 160) + (x*8 / 182)

Solve for X

Hope this helps :)

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Thanks, this was a good approach! I will tag your answer as the "correct" one, but I guess the numbers will look slightly different. For example, what if the main game is hares or birds or something small, but I can figure that out easily. $\endgroup$ – GaRyu Sep 21 '17 at 5:20
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I wouldn't say that there are 1392 people without a job though, the idea I have is that every worker will only work a miniscule amount so that they spend most of their time sitting around talking and/or playing etc. So I would modify your formula to count work hours required or something such, and then figure out how many people are needed to do the work from the amount of hours required. $\endgroup$ – GaRyu Sep 21 '17 at 5:21
  • $\begingroup$ in a prehistoric village, 2000 calories will starve you. You will need a lot more, since you will have a lot of manual labour, and even more to keep your body temperature. Same about water: you don't have cozy indoor jobs in prehistoric times. And one hint: it seems safe to assume that communities in prehistoric times hardly ever exceeded 120 people. But overall it's a decent answer. $\endgroup$ – Burki Sep 21 '17 at 8:41
  • $\begingroup$ Glad you found the answer helpful :) Just to comment on the 1392 people without a job, It's reasonable to expect a fairly low 'age' overall, so expect that a number of those people are children (7 or under I would say) equally we have not counted a fair number of the other jobs, (cooking, healing et al) And we have everyone working 7 days a week. So you should be able to make a lot more people 'busy' by accounting for the 'other' jobs, and the fact that multiple people are needed to cover the week. $\endgroup$ – TolMera Sep 21 '17 at 8:46
  • $\begingroup$ 2000 Calories (or Kcal) is enough for a person doing manual labour. They will not starve, They would enjoy more food no doubt, but they will not starve. As for keeping yourself warm, no amount of food can compare with a jacket and people did make coverings for themselves, to keep warm. Just because we draw people with flat heads if we think they are 'early man' does not mean they actually had flat heads. Apply Hanlon's razor ("Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity"), in context "Don't attribute to stupidity that which can be explained by lack of evidence" $\endgroup$ – TolMera Sep 21 '17 at 8:53

As already stated in getfugu's comment, you cannot have both primitive society and specialized work division.

Considering the small size of a prehistoric village, you hardly need mass production, and will produce what needed almost always "on demand". You would most likely have 5 roles (regardless of gender):

  • Man: takes care of hunting and defense. Prepare weapons and tools by working on the spot when the right material is found.
  • Woman: takes care of harvesting fruits and more stationary tasks like preparing food, tanning hides, crafting pots or processing vegetable fibers, taking care that toddlers and infants do not kill themselves
  • Boy: small hunt (lizards, snakes), gathering woods for the fire
  • Girl: decoration works (pottery, body garments), gathering water and raw materials for the women
  • The old ones: provide guidance to the village by using their experience (if they managed to reach old age (somewhere around 40 or 50) alive, they must have some)
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I don't think this is necessary in this forum because fiction has its own rules, but this is a topic which I find highly interesting, so I'm asking nicely if you have any references for such a society in reality or if this is just established in and only in fiction? $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Sep 20 '17 at 9:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Raditz_35, I remember reading about these roles on a divulgation paper about 20 years ago. No reference to the paper. The roles were found by an anthropologist living and integrating in a tribe for long period of time. Funny note: he was a male, but he ended up being a girl (too stinky to be a good hunter, unable to harvest ripe fruits, unable to catch lizards) $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Sep 20 '17 at 10:07
  • $\begingroup$ I hope he made some nice pottery. I might go looking for that paper. I wonder how specific this is to one particular tribe. $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Sep 20 '17 at 10:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Raditz_35: by Geoff Bailey (Ed.), Hunter-Gatherer Economy in Prehistory: A European Perspective (link goes to Amazon). Marjorie and C. H. B. Quennell, Everyday life in Prehistoric Times (1921); Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics (1974); both are freely available at Archive.org. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Sep 20 '17 at 11:41
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP All 3 reference the model proposed by L.Dutch? $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Sep 20 '17 at 11:52

If you accept 19 century mountainous village in Eastern Europe as good approximation of undeveloped society, then you can see that even relatively undeveloped society still requires a set of specialist profession:

  1. peasants do most of the work themselves, even if quality of own work is not very high, the price of specialist services is usually unaffordable. Children learn from early age the multitude roles and skills that are necessary in homesteading. Only specialist work requiring high initial investment or access to highly limited resource, or high risk of non-specialist destroying pricy raw material could force them to go to specialist.
  2. usually no single village have all specialist available, so some form of local specialization is always present
  3. the list of specialists in those village includes: blacksmith, tanner/lethermaker, miller, horse harness maker, bee keeper, midwife, healer, kind of veterinary (someone who has some skills as how to make sure the cow will give safe birth to a calf), etc.
  • $\begingroup$ I was thinking more like 10'000 years ago, like I said using flint stone for tools etc. $\endgroup$ – GaRyu Sep 21 '17 at 5:23
  • $\begingroup$ I attempted to address specialist work in undeveloped society: the specialists are expensive, and practically everything except most complicated work can be done by regular member of community. Specialists, in other words, are expensive. What you would likely see, is that different people might preferencially do certain types of work they do better than others, without becoming true "specialists". To better illustrate how rare true specialists in undeveloped (from means of production point of view) communities are, here is excerpt from Odyssey where Odisseus (king) says how he himself built $\endgroup$ – user61244 Sep 21 '17 at 12:53
  • $\begingroup$ There was the bole of an olive tree with long leaves growing strongly in the courtyard, and it was thick, like a column. I laid down my chamber around this … Then I cut away the foliage of the long-leaved olive, and trimmed the trunk from the roots up, planning it with a brazen adze, well and expertly, and trued it straight to a chalkline, making a bedpost of it, and bored all hones with an auger. (23.190-288). $\endgroup$ – user61244 Sep 21 '17 at 12:54

You would never have just one person of any skill. If anything happened to them, the skill could be lost.

Specialization is a trait of modern society because knowledge can be stored and there are enough people to never have just one person capable of doing any skill.

Everyone in a primitive society would be a jack of all trades and just be better at one skill or another than others but everyone would have to know the basics of every skill should they get separated from the tribe.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.