While some hunting and gathering societies share food with the clear expectation of reciprocal exchanges, many others, such as the Inuit, share food for other reasons. In a recent article in the Journal of Anthropological Research, Nobuhiro Kishigami surveys the extensive anthropological literature about food sharing among hunter gatheres as an introduction to his proposal for a new typology for the sharing of foods. Kishigami takes a more nuanced approach to food sharing than some of the previous literature does.

Based on field research with the Inuit, Kishigami rejects the argument that food-sharing can be categorized as either generalized, balanced, or negative reciprocity. The reciprocity arguments imply that food sharing is random, so everyone at some point receives back in equal measure what they have given. That is not the case in Akulivik, an Inuit village in Quebec, where food sharing is clearly not random. The author has observed, after 20 years of fieldwork there, that some of the hunters are in fact more capable than others and yet they still share their game meat. In that community, there is probably little reason to expect much reciprocation of the shared game meat from the less successful hunters, but the highly competent hunters go on sharing.

A more effective typology for analyzing food sharing by hunting and gathering people is to set up a matrix for the sharing practices, Kishigami argues, with the flow of food on one axis and the manner of initiating the sharing on the other. The nine cells in the matrix are defined, on the horizontal axis, by three columns: (1) sharing based on rules, (2) voluntary sharing, and (3) demand sharing. On the vertical axis, the three rows represent three different ways of initiating sharing, namely (a) by giving, (b) by exchange, and (c) by redistribution. Redistribution represents foods that are given by the hunters to others to be shared with still others. Thus, on the first row, either the giving of food is based on rules, it is done voluntarily, or it happens on demand. The same is true with initiating sharing of food by exchanges on row two and by redistribution on row three.

With a basic typology proposed for analyzing food sharing in hunting and gathering societies, the author then examines the ways the Inuit of Akulivik and Clyde River, a community on the northern shore of Baffin Island, share foods. Various sharing practices in each society fall into a number of different cells, but clearly the most significant ones in both communities fall in the second column, voluntary sharing, on both the giving and the redistribution rows. To put that in simpler terms, the primary forms of food sharing in the two Inuit communities are voluntary giving and redistribution, not exchanges with the expectation of reciprocal gifting.

The author points out that there are significant differences between these two Inuit communities in the ways that food is actually shared by the two villages. These differences derive from their differing social structures, histories, symbolic exchange patterns, partnership relationships, and patterns of sharing nonfood items. Kishigami concludes, however, that the two Inuit examples support the need for the proposed typology, and they point up the weakness of analyzing food sharing primarily as reciprocal exchanges.

Kishigami presented an earlier version of this paper at the 9th International Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies in Edinburgh in 2002.

Kishigami, Nobuhiro. 2004. “A New Typology of Food-Sharing Practices among Hunter-Gatherers, with a Special Focus on Inuit Examples.” Journal of Anthropological Research 60(3): 341-358.