Friday, July 20, 2007

64. The Power of Music -- 2. The Great Kalahari Debate

The bare essentials of the debate we'll be considering here have been summarized rather efficiently by archaeologist Andrew B. Smith:

The Ju/’hoansi have become central to what is known as the ‘Great Kalahari Debate,’ which revolves around the relations between the Bushmen and the outside world. . . There are two visions of the Ju/’hoansi Bushmen (and it must be recognised that the debate revolves around them alone):
1. That of Richard Lee and the Harvard Kalahari Group who say the Ju/’hoansi, studied between 1950 and 1965, give an idea of independent and relatively affluent hunter/gatherers;
2. That of Ed Wilmsen and others who regard the Bushmen in general, and the Ju/’hoansi in particular, as a dispossessed proletariat marginalised by outside economic interests.

The argument started with Schrire’s (1980) critique of Bushman studies, and elaborated by Wilmsen who attempted to show that the pristine vision of the Bushmen portrayed by Lee & DeVore in the first hunter-gatherer conference in 1966, and published as Man the Hunter in 1968, was not only misleading, but a
downright manipulation of the data. Instead, argues Wilmsen in his (1989) book Land Filled with Flies, the evidence shows that the Bushmen were in contact with the outside world, and worked as herdsmen, possibly for the last 1500 years. ("Ethnohistory and Archaeology of the Ju/’hoansi Bushmen," in African Study Monographs, Suppl.26: 15-25, March 2001, p. 16.)


Smith has softened the edge of what was to prove an extraordinarily sharp and highly acrimonious head to head dispute. In an essay entitled "Paradigmantic History of San Speaking Peoples and Current Attempts at Revision" (Current Anthropology v. 31, 5, 1990), Edwin Wilmsen and James Denbow make their position clear from the outset: ". . . a 'Kalahari San debate' has arisen around the question whether foragers are genuine or spurious. . . We consider the question itself spurious, arguing that 'Bushmen' and 'San' are invented categories and 'Kalahari foragers' an ethnographic reification drawn from one of several subsistence strategies engaged in by all of Botswana's rural poor" (p. 489).

While the dispute seems to have peaked in the 90's, its repercussions are still very much with us, as we learn from Alan Barnard's recent (2006)essay, "Kalahari revisionism, Vienna and the ‘indigenous peoples’ debate":

‘Traditionalists’ in the Kalahari debate regard the people called Bushmen, San or Basarwa as exponents of a hunting-and-gathering culture and essentially isolated until recent times, while ‘revisionists’ regard them as an underclass and historically part of larger social formations. The debate came to a head in the late 1980s with the publication of Wilmsen’s Land filled with flies (1989). This book shattered the prevailing ethnographic image of San society as ancient, relatively static, and at the same time adaptive. In Wilmsen’s view it was not so much adaptive as transformed by centuries of contact with Iron Age, Bantu speaking, agro-pastoralists: "Their appearance as foragers is a function of their relegation to an underclass in the playing out of historical processes that began before the current [second] millennium and culminated in the early decades of this [twentieth] century. The isolation in which they are said to be found is a creation of our view of them, not of their history as they lived it" (Social Anthropology (2006), 14, 1, p. 2).

As Barnard points out, this debate served as prologue to a broader controversy involving the supposedly ideological origin of certain notions too easily taken-for-granted, apparently, by too many anthropologists. The focus of his essay is on the position of the former editor of Current Anthropology, Adam Kuper, who, as recently as 2003, challenged "the idea of an ‘indigenous people’ as being ‘essentialist’ and relying ‘on obsolete anthropological notions and on a romantic and false ethnographic vision’" (p. 2).

More on all this fascinating stuff next time.

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