Article — From the June 2009 issue

Let Them Eat Cash

Can Bill Gates turn hunger into profit?

( 2 of 7 )

Although food and coin made a nice pair, there was a certain irony to the betrothal, considering that years before the debut of shekels and bullion, there were plenty of bananas and coconuts. Indeed, many anthropologists who study pre-industrial societies have asserted that instead of slogging through a short, brutish life of paleolithic poverty, so-called savage hunter-gatherers ate better than we eat, worked less than we work, slept a lot more than we sleep, and spent a great deal of their time hanging out, doing nothing. “The amount of hunger,” Marshall Sahlins wrote three decades ago in his book Stone Age Economics, “increases relatively and absolutely with the evolution of culture.” Indigent or not, peckish primitives found ready supplies of mollusks, moths, and caterpillars. “Hunters,” concluded Sahlins, “keep banker’s hours.”

Perhaps there really was a golden age of plenty, a time and place removed from everything we know of the world, a time without money, a time without hunger: the ever fruiting plains of Ava lon and Eden, the big rock-candy mountain, and Cockaigne, where fish and fowl begged to be eaten and the rivers flowed with wine. Explorers who have sought such lands of primal satiation have more often than not found themselves floating around the South Pacific. Here they discovered Tikopia, an island where the natives feast all visitors with roi, upupu, and oka, rich and fragrant dishes concocted from great piles of almonds, cassava, breadfruit, sago, taro, and yams—all pounded together and slow-cooked over hot rocks until the ingredients have coagulated into a thick, sweet pudding. There’s plenty for everybody.

Tikopia was living, breathing, ethnological proof of prelapsarian satiation. Then, half a century ago, the island hit a spot of bad luck. Back-to-back cyclones laid waste to huts, trees, and tubers. The almonds, cassava, sago, taro, and yams disappeared into the sea, along with every last betelnut and breadfruit. The big rock-candy mountain transformed into a wasteland, and the emaciated natives, once renowned for their generosity and kindness, turned kinsman against kinsman, tribesman against chief. “Nearly everyone was stealing,” reported the anthropologist James Spillius, “and nearly everyone was robbed.”

Indeed, even the most bucolic of the loinclothed set don’t always like to share, particularly around dinnertime. “Broil your rat with its fur on,” goes the Maori proverb, “lest you be disturbed by someone.” And the Bemba have a special name for the person who sits in your house and says: “I expect you are going to cook soon. What a fine lot of meat you have today!” That person is called a witch.

Of course, as Stone Age economies progress toward cash economies, warlocks and devils become poor people—which may be a step in the right direction. Perhaps the radical anthropologists of the 1960s had let politics slip into their fieldwork, and had been wrong to vilify modern markets. Perhaps the Congolese Pygmies, the Komu-Konda, and the Wugukani worked harder than we do, for much less. Not to mention the various and sundry other savages of Africa and Melanesia, whose famished gullets drove them to sorcery, senilicide, and cannibalism.

But what about all those other golden ages, particularly the ones that featured money? When classical Athens descended into one of its periodic food shortages, long-forgotten celebrities like Xenokles and Archestratos would bestow hundreds of thousands of medimnoi of grain upon the suffering city-state and make things right. Like their modern equivalents, the ancient celebrities were rewarded with prime-time bronze statues, names carved in marble, and front-row seats at the games.

Of course, there was plenty of grain hoarding and price gouging, too. A couple thousand years ago, a Greek shipping merchant named Dionysodorus was hauled into court for promising to deliver grain to Athens but instead selling it to Rhodes, where buyers had offered more drachmas. In 323 b.c. the penalty for breaking grain contracts during a hunger crisis was death, but Dionysodorus, like many an ancient merchant, almost certainly managed to evade his mug of hemlock.

The standard reaction of the Roman plebeian in times of food shortage was to rush the Palatine and threaten to burn the grain-rich senators alive. “It is most unjust that the hunger of one’s own fellow-citizens should be a source of profiteering for anyone,” lamented the Roman consul Antistius Rusticus—but nobody listened to him. When severe food shortages struck during the Middle Ages, merchants set up stalls in the open market and purveyed chops and steaks of human meat. During Eastern Europe’s great hunger of 1032, parents sold their children.

is the author of A Short History of the American Stomach. His last article for Harper’s Magazine “Wasteland,” appeared in the February 2008 issue.

More from Frederick Kaufman:

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

June 2019

Downstream

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Stonewall at Fifty

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Maid’s Story

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Is Poverty Necessary?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content