Lessons from the Deep History of Work

In the fall of 1963, an enterprising young anthropologist named Richard Lee journeyed to the Dobe region of the northwest Kalahari Desert, in southern Africa. He was there to live among a community known as the Ju/’hoansi, which was made up of approximately four hundred and sixty individuals, split among fourteen independent camps. This area of the Kalahari was semi-arid and suffered from drought every two or three years, leading Lee to describe it as “a marginal environment for human habitation.” The demanding conditions made the territory of the Ju/’hoansi less desirable to farmers and herders, allowing the community to live in relative isolation well into the twentieth century.

As Lee would later explain, the Ju/’hoansi were not completely cut off from the world. When he arrived, for example, the Ju/’hoansi were trading with nearby Tswana cattle herders and encountered Europeans on colonial patrols. But the lack of extensive contact with the local economy meant that the Ju/’hoansi still relied primarily on hunting and gathering for their sustenance. It was commonly believed at the time that acquiring food without the stability and abundance of agriculture was perilous and gruelling. Lee wanted to find out whether this was true.

Nearly sixty years later, Tim Cook, the C.E.O. of Apple, faced a vexing labor issue of a different type. After months of plans and postponements, by the spring of 2022, Cook was ready to demand that Apple employees spend at least a few days each week at their desks in the company’s massive Cupertino, California, headquarters. The protest came swiftly. An employee group called AppleTogether wrote an open letter that expresses distinct displeasure with Cook’s plan: “Our vision of the future of work is growing further and further apart from that of the executive team.” The letter details, among other concerns, the time lost to commuting, the difficulty of achieving “deep thought” in distracting open offices, and the infantilizing nature of the rigid work schedules: “Stop treating us like school kids who need to be told when to be where and what homework to do.”

As I’ve studied and written about the awakening of knowledge workers spurred by the disruptions of the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve come to see how Lee’s mid-century study of the Ju/’hoansi and Apple’s current struggle over remote work inform each other in unexpected ways. The insights from the movement within anthropology that Lee’s work sets in motion, if applied with care, can help us understand the frustrations that grip not just the protesting Apple employees but the millions of other knowledge workers who are feeling exhausted by their jobs.

After fifteen months of field research, extending from the fall of 1963 into the early winter of 1965, Lee was ready to present his results to the world. Working with his longtime collaborator Irven DeVore, he organized a splashy conference in Chicago the following spring. It was called “Man the Hunter,” and it promised to provide anthropology with its “first intensive survey of a single, crucial stage of human development—man’s once universal hunting way of life.” The clamor around the event was such that the eminent French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss travelled to America to attend.

Lee stole the show with a paper that described the results of his time spent among the Ju/’hoansi. It opens by repeating the common assumption that hunter-gatherer life is “generally a precarious and arduous struggle for existence,” then methodically presents data to undermine that idea. The community that Lee studied turned out to be well fed, consuming more than two thousand calories a day, even during a historic drought in Botswana. As Lee summarizes:

Equally striking was the observation that the Ju/’hoansi appeared to work less than the farmers around them. According to Lee’s data, the adults he studied spent, on average, around twenty hours a week acquiring food, with an additional twenty hours or so dedicated to other chores–providing abundant leisure time. Lee concluded that Hobbes may have had it wrong: “[L]ife in the state of nature is not necessarily nasty, brutish, and short.”

The influence of “Man the Hunter” was profound. Mark Dyble, a lecturer in evolutionary anthropology at University College London, told me that the main conclusions of Lee’s work became “the dominant paradigm for a long time.” The South African anthropologist James Suzman, in his recent book, “Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time,” describes the gathering as “one of the most talked-about conferences in the history of modern anthropology.” It’s now common to hear someone quip, often with a dash of contrarian zeal, that our prehistoric ancestors had easier lives than we do.

Not surprisingly, reality turned out to be more complex than the portrayals of prehistoric easy living promoted by Lee’s biggest boosters. Critics pointed out that the effort expended to obtain food by hunter-gatherers varies significantly depending on the environment, and that the definition of “work” used by subsequent interpreters of Lee may have been biased toward activity away from home, leading to an undercount of other types of domestic labor. It’s also important to recognize the academic vogues of the time. Some of the most effective promoters of the vision of a relaxed Paleolithic—such as Marshall Sahlins, who wrote a classic 1966 paper titled “The Original Affluent Society”—were proud supporters of a theoretical position called substantivism, which argues that the principles of neoclassical economics are not fundamental to human nature. The implications of Lee’s careful calorie counts and detailed work diaries, gathered in the desert camps of the Kalahari, turned out to provide excellent fodder for the political radicalism of the nineteen-sixties.

Despite these important caveats, however, in the years since Lee’s splashy conference, more studies have been conducted and more nuance has been introduced into this literature, reinforcing the idea that there is some useful knowledge to be gained about the working lives of early humans from the study of extant hunter-gatherer communities. In the past couple of years alone, for example, three major books drew on anthropological research on modern hunter-gathers to make arguments about our prehistoric ancestors. These include, in addition to James Suzman’s “Work,” the social historian Jan Lucassen’s “The Story of Work” and the Times best-seller “The Dawn of Everything,” co-authored by David Wengrow and the late David Graeber.

To connect these developments in anthropology to the protesting employees at Apple, we must first take a close look at what their grievances are really about. At the moment, the employees who signed the letter are hoping to preserve the ability to work from home, but I believe that a more general principle is at stake. Knowledge workers were already exhausted by their jobs before the pandemic arrived: too much e-mail, too many meetings, too much to do—all being relentlessly delivered through ubiquitous glowing screens. We used to believe that these depredations were somehow fundamental to office work in the twenty-first century, but the pandemic called this assumption into question. If an activity as entrenched as coming to an office every day could be overturned essentially overnight, what other aspects of our professional lives could be reimagined?

This reasoning better explains the energy that propels groups such as AppleTogether to resist a return to pre-pandemic worklife. The battle for telecommuting is a proxy for a deeper unrest. If employees lose remote work, the last highly visible, virus-prompted workplace experiment, the window for future transformation might slam shut. The tragedy of this moment, however, is how this reform movement lacks good ideas about what else to demand. Shifting more work to teleconferencing eliminates commutes and provides schedule flexibility, but, as so many office refugees learned, remote work alone doesn’t really help alleviate most of what made their jobs frantic and exhausting. We need new ideas about how to reshape work, and anthropology may have something to offer.

Drawing from the subfield initiated by Lee’s research, we can reconstruct something like a deep history of the human relationship to work. We can then identify the points where modern office life clearly differs from the type of work styles that likely dominated for the vast majority of our species’ time on earth. It stands to reason that humans are well adapted to the efforts that occupied our time for the first several hundred thousand years of our existence. Therefore, we might find discomfort or stress at the points where our modern jobs most diverge from our Paleolithic experience.

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