Monday, July 23, 2007

66. More on the Kalahari Debate

The "Great Kalahari Debate" was focused, ostensibly, on archaeological evidence and the interpretation of same. On that score, an independent review by archaeologist Karim Sadr was conducted, as reported in the pages of the journal Current Anthropology ("Kalahari Archaeology and the Bushman Debate," vol. 38, 1, Feb. 1997, pp. 104-112). Sadr states his conclusions at the outset: first, "it will be shown that Wilmsen and Denbow's [revisionist] reconstruction of Bushman-Bantu relations is based on insufficient evidence"; second, "it is concluded that much basic archaeological work remains to be done" (p. 105). As becomes clear from Sadr's detailed review, the archaeological evidence is often scant and always difficult, if not impossible, to interpret. Sadr writes as follows in his concluding paragraph: "What emerges most clearly from this review is that Late Stone Age and Early Iron Age archaeology in Botswana are still in their infancy. . . Perhaps all the energy that has gone into debating the Kalahari's past would have been better spent in gathering evidence" (p. 111).

From reading Sadr, one might conclude that the "Great Kalahari Debate" would end either in defeat for the revisionists or, at best, a stalemate. As now seems clear, however, the debate was never really about evidence at all, as should have been apparent at the outset from so much of the language in which the revisionist position was couched. Terms like "reification," "essentialist" and "romantic" belong to the realm of ideological, not archaeological, debate -- at least not in the traditional sense of archaeology, which has now, like so much else in the academic world, been transformed by the extraordinary triumph of "postmodern" revisionism-in-general.

The progression from (traditional) archaeology to ideology is traced by Alan Barnard, in the article I've already quoted (see post 64), who goes all the way back to the "Vienna School" of the early Twentieth Century and the associated Kulturkreis (culture-circle) thinking that had such a strong, and, in the opinion of subsequent generations of ethnomusicologists, baleful, influence on so many of the pioneers of "comparative musicology." A key concept for this group was the notion of Urkultur, variously translatable as "primal culture," "primordial culture," or "original culture." For Wilhelm Schmidt (1868-1954), one of the leaders of the "Culture-Circle" school, "the mechanism of cultural transmission was more migration than diffusion, and through migration, he believed, the various forms of Urkultur had spread throughout the world" (p. 6). Such notions were rejected some time ago by literally all archaeologists, ethnologists, ethnomusicologists, etc., as hopelessly romantic and naive. For Barnard, however, the Urkultur

is an anthropological concept that would not die. More resilient than the Kulturkreislehre or the Kulturkreise themselves, Urkultur remained. To my mind it remains still in anthropology, and its significance would seem to be on the rise in recent decades, notably with the emergence of modern huntergatherer studies, the revisionist critique and the current political and anthropological concerns to which Kuper . . . refers. Certainly it is implicit in our present-day discourse in the idea of ‘indigenous peoples’. The ‘native’ has indeed returned" (p. 6).

There follows a long and sometimes confusing discussion, where Barnard appears to vacillate among different construals of the term "indigenous," depending on whether one is speaking anthropologically or legally -- or from the standpoint of a "western" academic or the standpoint of a -- well, an "indigenous" person. As his thoughts are, for me, especially interesting and relevant, I'd like to present some particularly interesting quotations here:

To reject ‘indigenous people’ as an anthropological concept is not the same thing as rejecting it as a legal concept, or rejecting it as a useful tool for political persuasion. . .
Nevertheless, ‘indigenous people’ is not really an anthropological concept, or at least not a very good one. Although close to the notion of Urkultur, ‘indigenous people’ is if anything less salient and certainly messier. It is an ideological and social construct recognised by those who claim the status, by anthropologists who support their cause and no doubt by the educated public at large. Kuper is quite right that ‘indigenous peoples’ is, in some respects, more like the racial categories of apartheid than it is like anthropological ideas on ‘race’, whether past or present. Yet, under apartheid, anthropologists sympathetic to the plight of individuals sometimes went to court as expert witnesses to challenge the government classification of those individuals. . .
Urkultur was a legitimate, if problematic, anthropological concept. Yet its usefulness in anthropological theory has long since passed. If the phrase ‘indigenous peoples’ is simply a postmodern way of saying Urkultur, then it may be best to let anthropology and the ‘indigenous peoples’ movement go their separate ways. If, however, we recognise the political nature of the phrase and jettison its old-fashioned anthropological associations with the ‘primitive’ and the ‘perpetual’, there is hope.

Barnard begins the last section of his essay, labeled "Conclusions," with a review of some of the most important historical issues he's covered and soon appears ready to wrap things up. Suddenly, however, out of nowhere, he introduces new, completely unexpected, and indeed astonishing material, as follows:

Recent interdisciplinary work among Darwinian anthropologists, evolutionary psychologists, archaeologists, linguists and geneticists hints that there really was an Urrasse, and there really was an Urkultur . . . Both are represented in the ‘anatomically modern’ Homo sapiens population that gave rise to the ‘Out of Africa’ migration about 80,000 years ago. This migration spread early symbolic culture; let us call it Urkultur. However, the relation between this Urkultur and the cultures of today’s so-called ‘indigenous peoples’ is no greater that that between this Urkultur and the cultures of all peoples.

One has the impression that someone, at the last minute, must have reminded Barnard of a simple fact of Twentyfirst Century anthropological life essentially ignored throughout the entire length and breadth of the "Great Kalahari Debate" and all the subsequent brouhaha over "essentialism," "indigeneity," etc.: the revolutionary work of the genetic anthropologists, which now threatens to bring not only revisionism but postmodernism itself to a screaming halt.

That's all for now, folks. I'll be back soon with more to amuse and astonish you. :-)

No comments: