Some economic concepts in modern Western culture do not correspond closely with conceptions and customs in many preliterate societies. Ownership is a case in point. Complete possession of an exclusive right to use something in an economic context, such as land, a dwelling, or a boat, is rare, if not wholly lacking, in preliterate societies (although one might have exclusive rights to a dream, spell, or charm). In general, one has merely the right to use or occupy a tract of land or a house; when its use has terminated, anyone can take it over. In some societies it might be said that a boat “belonged” to the men who made it or even to the individual who initiated its construction. But anyone else in the community would have the right to use it when the “owners” (the men who made it) were not using it. It is the right to use, rather than exclusive and absolute possession, that is significant; there is no such thing as absentee ownership in primitive society.
A band or tribe “holds” the land it occupies; here again, it is tenure rather than ownership that is significant; the land “belongs” to Nature, or Mother Earth; people merely hold and use it. There is usually an intimate relationship between the people and “their” land. Navajo Indians fell on their knees and kissed the earth when they were returned to their former territory after forcible detention in an alien land. Land is defended against outsiders, except when they are accepted as guests, but the significant thing is not that the outsiders do not own the land but that they pose a threat to those who occupy it.
In some tribes there is a distinct conception that the land held “belongs” to the tribe, the chief of which allots plots or tracts to individuals or households for their use. But when use terminates, the land reverts to the tribal domain.
During the latter part of the 19th century there was considerable discussion of “primitive communism”. This doctrine came to be interpreted as meaning that private properly, the private right to hold or use, was nonexistent in primitive society. It was extended also to communism in wives and children in some tribes; this was interpreted to be a vestige of a former stage of “primordial promiscuity.” Many ethnologists, however, launched a vigorous attack upon “the doctrine of primitive communism.” Some of the conceptions of earlier anthropologists such as group marriage were shown to be unwarranted in the light of later research.
Today, with these polemics well in the past, the situation with regard to property rights in tribal societies may be summarized as follows. Tenure and use, rather than ownership in fee simple, were tie significant concepts and practices. Private, or personal, possession of goods and use of land were recognized. But possession and right were qualified by the rights and obligations of Vamp: one tad an obligation both to give and to receive foe batty of YJSVdared, according to specific rules. In a de facto sense, things belonged to the body of kindred; rights of possession and use were regulated by customs of kinship. In some cultures a borrower was not obliged to return an object borrowed, on the theory that if a person could afford to lend something, he relinquished his right to its possession. The mode of life in preliterate society based upon kinship and functioning in accordance with the principles of cooperation and mutual aid, did indeed justify the adjective communal; it was the noun communism that was resented if not feared because of its Marxist connotation.
One of the most important, as well as characteristic, features of the economic life of preliterate societies, as contrasted with modern civilizations, is this: no individual and no class or group in tribal society was denied access to the resources of nature; all were free to exploit them. This is, of course, in sharp contrast to civil society in which private ownership by some, or a class, is the means of excluding others slaves, serf, a proletariat from the exploitation and enjoyment of the resources of nature. It is this freedom of access, the freedom to exploit and to enjoy the resources of nature that has given primitive society its characteristics of freedom and equality. And, being based upon kinship ties, it had fraternity as well.