Woodburn describes hg societies as being what he calls "immediate-return" societies. (More on this later). In such societies, there is a short time between the acquisition and consumption of food, individuals have equal access to resources and methods of resource extraction, and people use mobility, or "fission-fusion," as a method of dispute resolution. Woodburn writes:
"[Egalitarian] societies are nomadic and positively value movement. They do not accumulate property but consume it, give it away, gamble it away or throw it away. Most of them have knowledge of techniques for storing food but use them only occasionally to prevent food from going rotten rather than to save it for some future occasion. They tend to use portable, utilitarian, easily acquired, replaceable artefacts -- made with real skill but without hours of labour -- and avoid those which are fixed in one place, heavy, elaborately decorated, require prolonged manufacture, regular maintenance, joint work by several people or any combination of these. The system is one in which people travel light, unencumbered, as they see it, by possessions and by commitments (1980)."
Woodburn (1982) offers an interesting analogy about the nature of reciprocity and the fact that hunting success is unequal. Donors may often remain donors and not receive anything like an equivalent return in the long term. Some men who are regular recipients of hunting returns may never contribute themselves. Perhaps rather than look at it as being in the interest of the donor, one might say that this system is imposed on the donor by the community. Woodburn argues that, rather than see the process as one of reciprocal exchange, perhaps it would be constructive to analogize it to the taxations on incomes in our own modern day society. The successful pay more than the less successful, but are not able to establish greater claims on future returns. Nor do they derive much prestige for the trouble. Of course, a hunter will derive more prestige than any taxpayer, but the point is that both cases are examples of leveling mechanisms imposed by the community, which a rich taxpayer or a hunter of particular prowess is powerless to challenge.
Clearly, egalitarianism was precious, most especially to those participating in it. The equal sharing of food and leveling mechanisms, fission and fusion of groupings, resistance to any form of authority, the free use of resources without any suggestion of ownership or property, and a lack of dependencies in any form are what characterize this form of society and true self-government. It can be hard for us to believe that such a type of society ever existed, but the evidence is overwhelming that it did. Not only that, but anatomically modern humans had been living that way for 50-100,000 years before civilization virtually wiped them off the map. If we can learn one thing from these people it might be this: ours is not the only way to live, nor is it necessarily the best. But we cannot have hg society back. I would like to close with some words from James Woodburn (1982) to that effect:
"...I think I have said enough to show that we have here the application of a rigorously systematic principle: in these societies the ability of individuals to attach and detach themselves at will from groupings and from relationships, to resist the imposition of authority by force, to use resources freely without reference to other people, to share as equals in game meat brought into camp, to obtain personal possessions without entering into dependent relationships -- all these bring about one central aspect of this specific form of egalitarianism. What it above all does is to disengage people from property, from the potentiality in property rights for creating dependency. I think it is probable that this specialised development can only be realised without impoverishment in societies with a simple hunting and gathering economy because elsewhere this degree of disengagement from property would damage the operation of the economy. Indeed the indications are that this development is intrinsic, a necessary component of immediate-return economies which occurs only in such economies."