What hunter-gatherers can teach us about crime and punishment – Ian Johnston

In hunter-gatherer societies, there are no police, courts, judges or codified laws. And yet life in such communities is often portrayed as peaceful, harmonious, egalitarian and even democratic. According to some commentators, it’s just about as close to Eden as it’s possible for humans to get.

Before police, courts and prisons, exile was as powerful as incarceration in punishing wrongdoing. Picture: Ian Georgeson

There is probably a risk of over-romanticising this simpler way of life, but if we all lived in groups of about 50 to 100 people who were relatives and friends we had grown up with, it is likely that there would be significantly less crime.

However, such societies, like any other, will occasionally have their problems. A fight between quarrelling brothers gets out of hand, a store of food is raided after a bit too much home-brew and so on.

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So what happens? How are the guilty punished?

A mild form of punishment is, wonderfully, humour. Someone who gets a bit above themselves, starts ordering people about in an abusive way, committing what could be regarded as a breach of the peace, might face a barrage of mockery, impressions and general mickey-taking. There is nothing like laughter to deflate pomposity.

For more serious offences – although not the most – the offender could face a highly effective and natural form of punishment and rehabilitation, one that almost certainly evolved as a means of maintaining social cohesion.

Shame and its effects are poorly understood in our society, far removed from our hunter-gatherer origins.

For someone who genuinely feels shame, it produces a physical response. The individual concerned is likely to blush, to find it difficult to look the person they have wronged in the eye, let alone have a conversation with them.

In the small communities of hunter-gatherers, this inner turmoil can become so difficult that the shamed person feels they have no option but to leave the village. Once outside, they come face to face with a terrible prospect: permanent exile. They are staring into the abyss of a life without their family and friends who are as close as family. It is a horrifying prospect, the end of their life as they know it.

Meanwhile, back in the village, their absence means that people’s anger can subside. Eventually, they start to feel sorry for the offender because they understand how terrible it must feel to be suddenly all alone. This is, after all, a person whom they are likely to have considerable affection for in normal circumstances.

So, eventually, someone goes to find them. They chat, an arm is put around a shoulder. The offender is convinced to return. Facing the village once again, they may well burst into tears of regret and distress. They are forgiven, everyone hugs, perhaps a joke is made, people laugh. Crime, punishment and rehabilitation in the space of a few hours or maybe a few days.

It’s no surprise that shame is an emotion that can be felt by almost every human all over the world. A group of people with no sense of shame would quickly fall to pieces. We are the ultimate social animals and owe most of our success as a species to that quality; social cohesion – and mechanisms to preserve it – is absolutely vital.

So could we in the modern world develop a penal system based upon shame? Possibly: shaming an offender is relatively simple, if unpleasant. The tricky bit is forgiveness and rehabilitation. If you shame someone to the point where they feel cast out of society, leaving them in that condition is dangerous.

It’s as if no-one from the hunter-gatherer village went to bring the offender back, so they are left to fend for themselves as a permanent outsider. And, in that situation, it’s hardly a surprise if they decide to become a permanent outlaw.

There is a flavour of shame in restorative justice. A thug who assaulted someone on a night out may feel ashamed on coming face to face with their victim in the cold light of day, to hear about the effects of the attack. The victim might be willing to forgive and their attacker relieved as a result.

But it’s not quite the same: the offender doesn’t face losing their whole way of life and then experience the massive relief of its return. It’s hard to see how shame can be scaled up from small, close-knit social groups to a nation- state of millions of people – at least for me as someone who has no expertise whatsoever in criminal justice.

But it’s still important to recognise that shame is a significant force.

If you publicly shame someone, it is as if you are punishing them for a crime. And, if they haven’t actually done anything wrong or even if they think they have not, that can create a powerful and potentially lasting sense of injustice.

In our society, there is a whole group of people who are regularly shamed by politicians with words like “scroungers” and “skivers”, by normally polite members of the middle-class with words like “chavs” and even “scum”, and by an alarmingly large number of television programmes known as “poverty porn”. Sometimes the attacks on the inhabitants of the most deprived parts of the country seem unrelenting.

It’s as if society as a whole has decided, consciously or not, to cast some people out in order to use them as a way to control the rest – adhere to our laws and social norms or become one of “them”; we are the village, they are the inhabitants of the abyss.

It’s one reason why poverty will always be relative. Almost everyone in modern Britain has more material possessions than any hunter-gatherer, but that doesn’t mean they have a true “place” in the society we have created.

And that’s another lesson we could learn from our time in “Eden”. In hunter-gatherer societies, no-one is left behind or cast out – not for long, anyway.