In delayed-return systems, people hold rights over valued assets of some sort, "which either represent a yield, a return for labor applied over time or, if not, are held and managed in a way which resembles and has similar social implications to delayed yields on labour (Woodburn 1982)." In delayed-return hunting and gathering systems, these assets are of four main types, which may occur separately but are more commonly found in combination and which are mutually reinforcing:
1. Valuable technical facilities used in production: boats, nets, artificial weirs, stockades, pit traps, beehives and other such artefacts which are a product of considerable labour and from which a food yield is obtained gradually over a period of months or years.
2. Processed and stored food or materials usually in fixed dwellings.
3. Wild products which have themselves been improved or increased by human labour: wild herds which are culled selectively, wild food-producing plants which have been tended and so on.
4. Assets in the form of rights held by men over their female kin who are then bestowed in marriage on other men (Woodburn 1982).
All farming systems would be classed into the delayed-return category. The yield on the labor put into crop growing or the herding of domestic animals can only be obtained much later, months or in some cases years later. According to Woodburn, both immediate- and delayed-return economies can be found among hgs, and most systems (not all) can be appropriately classed into one category or the other (1982). Interestingly, transitions from immediate- to delayed return economies are very rare, and often reversed after some time when they do take place. This is mainly because political change and intensification of the economy are quite uncommon (Woodburn 1979, 1980).
In immediate-return societies, people obtain their food directly and eat it immediately. Woodburn writes, "Immediate-return systems have the following basic characteristics. People obtain a direct and immediate return from their labour. They go out hunting or gathering and eat the food obtained the same day or casually over the days that follow. Food is neither elaborately processed nor stored. They use relatively simple, portable, utilitarian, easily acquired, replaceable tools and weapons made with real skill but not involving a great deal of labour (1982)."
Woodburn related an interesting story about the Hadza, agriculture and the persistence of the hg ethos. The Hadza, it turns out, are particularly unsusceptible to the practice of agriculture. That is, almost everybody understands the basic agricultural techniques, and almost anybody can carry out at least some cultivation. But those few who have applied their labor to that end (going from immediate-return to delayed-return) have found their fields raided even before the grain could be harvested. When the harvest is over, the Hadza exert constant pressure on the farmers to share it rather than to ration its use so that it will last until the next harvest is obtained. Woodburn writes, "In the face of such obstacles, even the successful farmer is likely to give up. If it is so difficult for these egalitarian hunter-gatherers to take up agriculture nowadays with so many pressures on them to settle, it is even less likely that they would have been able to convert to agriculture in the past (1982)."
A key element in the ability to have an immediate-return economy in the first place is movement. Movement works heavily against the possibility of accumulating food surpluses or property, naturally suggesting that the phenomenon of sedentism is a major factor in the development of social inequality. Movement also acts as a "leveling mechanism," a defuser of social conflict which is epitomized in the term "fission-and-fusion." If there is trouble, one simply goes off with another band -- there is a fair amount of choice in whom one spends one's time with. Once permanent settlements have been created, this is foreclosed on as an option. Movement is truly fundamental to the hg lifeway. This works against the formation of hierarchy and social inequality, as well as the possibility of farming, as shown above. It is intimately tied into the framework of immediate-return egalitarianism. We shall look at the phenomenon of movement more closely in the next section.