User account

The yoke of being, noteworthy dis-position

Andreas L. Hofbauer


Translated by Michael Turnbull

Published: 26.10.2018


In October 1968 Marshall Sahlins published an article in Les Temps Modernes entitled “La première société d’abondance.” An extended English version followed in 1972 in his book Stone Age Economics. What does he mean by the “original affluent society”? He outlines observations from field research on hunter-gatherer collectives, which stand in contradiction to middle-class ideas about “economic” man. These findings are extended back to beyond the Neolithic revolution to the late Paleolithic, where they are confirmed. If it had been said that hunters and gatherers lived a life of constant fear, need, and poverty, and were entirely at the mercy of the forces of nature, a picture now emerges of mobile groups (property is a burden) wandering through territories, their working hours reduced to a minimum (three to four hours per day), using everything that “comes to hand”, for whom what they communally “skim” from their rich natural assets is enough to secure all their material needs. For these groups, friendly cohabitation and the sharing of all resources determines social cohesion. They form a roving assemblage of animals, plants, and people, and though their “economy” is familiar with sharing (nemein), they go without house (oikos), shelter, and sedentariness. Anyone inclined to describe hunters and gatherers as poor, would be advised to understand them as free, as Sahlins notes. Their perambulations are accordingly not driven by fear and lack, but meander, sometimes even having the “quality of a picnic by the Thames.” “It was not until culture neared the height of its material achievements that it erected the shrine to the Unattainable: Infinite Needs.” We have to imagine the hunter-gatherers as happy people. Not a single valid objection has yet to be made to this theory, and Sahlins’ student David Graeber has extended it in his own way. The images on the rock faces of the Sahara from the 11th century BC, beginning with the earliest Bubalus Period—named after the extinct aurochs, urus, or ure (Bos taurus primigenius), the ancestor of today’s cattle, whose curved horns reached a span of up to three meters—show the hunting people in a scenery full of animals in which, as an additional zoon, they play a small role, which the size of their initial depiction reflects. Archaeological finds of recent decades, exact dating by the C14 method, paleobotanical and paleozoological research, and new anthropological and philosophical considerations now put the start of that Neolithic revolution, that is, the end of the migratory state and the beginning of sedentariness, agriculture, and the domestication and breeding of animals, in increasingly distant periods.

12,000 years ago, in the so-called fertile crescent, in Göbekli Tepe, on what is now the Turkish-Syrian border, hunter-gatherers like these erected a cult site with huge stone columns covered with pictorial symbols, some of them seven meters high and weighing fifty tons. Historically speaking around 6,000 years before the Uruk culture. To the west of this site, but within its reach, lay one of the first “towns” we know about, Çatalhöyük, which at various times accommodated two to eight thousand inhabitants. There is impressive evidence here of the first domestic life of larger groups of people, though we need to imagine this house (domus) in a differentiated way. Buildings of unfired clay were constructed very close together. They were entered from above, and there were no alleyways between them. The living quarters contain hearths and graves. These graves were repeatedly reopened, and human bones, primarily skulls, were exchanged between the households, tinted with ochre, and afterwards rearranged. The graves weren’t resting places for the ancestors of a family clan; the remains circulated, and were continually being reassembled and recombined, regardless of “lineage” and “sex”. While the bones of already domesticated cattle were also found beneath the floors, the wall decoration featured tremendous bucrania in the form of the skulls and horns of the hunted wild aurochs; the skulls themselves were embedded in the walls, only the horns visible. The walls also exhibited numerous breast-like forms containing bear claws or the jaws of animals. Human skulls were placed in baskets in front of the horns. The honeycombed buildings formed a composite and collective arrangement between house and grave (oikos), cult site and dwelling place, an entanglement of human and non-human actants, surrounded by large agricultural enclosures, smaller gardens, and stone corrals for the herds.

It wasn’t nature and its dangers that forced domestication and enabled the economic shrine. Temple and funerary cult, sacrifice and distribution of the meat—for Homer all sacrificial animals were still hieria, holy creatures—and the containment of wildness led to symbolic and socio-cultural change, which became the vector and motor of sedentary, food-producing communities. It wasn’t sheep, goats, or cattle that were domesticated first; it was the zoon logon echon itself that bowed to the self-created yoke of the cult. Why, we don’t know. Beyond this it’s important that unlike plants only very few species of animal can be domesticated, and that this shouldn’t be confused with taming. Economic significance develops as an epiphenomenon. It transforms from possible human sacrifice to animal sacrifice to the distribution of meat in early “Greek” antiquity, then to the obeloi (skewers with varying amounts of meat, as tokens for the priests’ or judges’ portion; even the word drachmé still literally means a “handful of skewers”, which were finally replaced by nomisma (minted coins and currency).

There is a greater distance in time between the first clay tablets with writing (3rd century BC) and Göbekli Tepe than between these tablets and the present day. The simplification to twenty-five phonemic and phonetic symbols dates to approximately the 12th century BC, and appears for the first time with certainty in the Syrian-Palestinian region. In this alphabet every phoneme was given a name as an aide memoire. Unsurprisingly it begins with ox (that is, alpu) and continues with house (that is, betu). א (alef), ב (bet) in ancient Hebrew. This “comic strip” (Walter Burkert) was adopted as α and β in Greek, which no longer knows the meaning of the words, but notates vowels for song (the alef was a glottal sound that Moses first heard on Mount Sinai, when Elohim uttered ‘anochi—“I am that I am”—while down below people were dancing and singing around the Golden Calf). Horn and “bosom” are graphically retained. At first „ was impressed in the wet clay (horizontal line and head of the ox clearly recognisable), but after a considerable time this rotated 45 degrees to the right (matching the ancient Hebrew sign for plough) and then a further 45 to end up as A (the horizontal stroke now clearly referring to the yoke of domestication). The ox at the beginning of the alphabet, and currency signs like £, ¥, $, €, ₱, Ƀ—to chalk up only a few—are abiding sacral-graphic markings in the fields of both writing and money.

If money is a form of speech, as the Supreme Court of the United States confirmed in its judgment in the case of Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, then access to the best form of monetary communication will sooner or later be considered a basic right and will have to be free. In such cases the enthusiasts are never far away … and now at least want to liberate money itself. To free it from the bone, its material repositories, gods, governments, PayPal, JPMorgan Chase & Co., or whatever. The blockchains of the digital P2P cryptocurrencies promise nothing less than abundantly increasing monetary value to the exclusion of any symbolic third party. Roger Ver, who was later given the nickname of Bitcoin Jesus, was one of the first decisive players in this game. On the Lawrence Expressway in Santa Clara he rented a billboard for $1,200 per month. It showed a gigantic gleaming gold coin boasting the bitcoin B, with the two bars of the yoke running right through it.

While mining is devoted to a new dream of effortless hunting and gathering, interest on capital (Ger. Kapitalzins) chimes darker, announcing a new birth: Zins derives from the much older lending of tools or seed, Kapital from the capita, the counted head of cattle; all this is rooted in a domesticated, nurtured, vegetative proliferation—for the Greek tokos (interest, Zins) belongs to tiktein (to give birth).

So it almost looks as if infinite needs and happy hunting grounds have become two sides of the same coin. The yoke of being, noteworthy dis-position, and gapless sárko-phagos.

  • anthropology
  • economization
  • money
  • ethnology

My language

Selected content

Andreas L. Hofbauer

is a philosopher, author, psycho-historian, and translator. In various books and numerous published essays he has recurrently addressed the economic and social aspects of cognitive science. Together with Walter Seitter and Ivo Gurschler he is the editor-in-chief of Schriften zur Verkehrswissenschaft. Books currently published: HER (together with René Luckhardt) and Bleibende Steinzeit. He lives and works in Berlin.
Other texts by Andreas L. Hofbauer for DIAPHANES