Friday, July 27, 2007

71. Finally (part one)

The "Great Kalahari Debate" revolved around two basic issues: 1. whether or not certain Kalahari "Bushmen" groups can be regarded as genuine foragers who remained largely isolated for most of their history and adapted to outside pressures without losing their identity; 2. whether or not certain aspects of primordial hunter-gatherer culture could have survived into the Twentieth Century among such groups. The genetic research appears to have resolved the first question -- in the affirmative (see previous post). But no amount of genetic research can, in itself, resolve the second.

Barnard's assertion that "the relation between [the 'Urkultur' of the earliest "modern" humans] and the cultures of today’s so-called ‘indigenous peoples’ is no greater than that between this Urkultur and the cultures of all peoples" is widely held today among many anthropologists. Indeed, it only stands to reason that all sorts of changes must have taken place among all human lineages over the last 150,000 years, even the most isolated. And there is no lack of evidence for that. If the ancestors of the Bushmen were the original inhabitants of southern Africa, their lifestyle would have been quite different in a great many ways from that of their Kalahari descendants, marginalized to the desert by the "Bantu expansion," and thus forced to adapt to one of the most difficult environments on Earth. An important question remains, however: did they alter their lifestyle entirely at this point, or make only those changes absolutely necessary for survival?

A balanced treatment of the entire issue was presented in the journal Science News, back in 1989, at the height of the Kalahari debate: "A World That Never Existed: researchers debate the pervasive view of hunter-gatherers as a window to humanity's past." Here are some relevant quotations:
Few anthropologists now believe there are hunter-gatherers who have lived totally isolated from outside influences. But critics of traditional ethnographic studies, such as [Thomas] Headland and [Lawrence] Reid, contend these groups provide at best a limited view of prehistoric behavior patterns. Others, such as [Richard] Lee, say hunter-gatherers often hang on to their basic social organization through long periods of contact with outsiders and can provide important information about the evolution of human culture. . .
"It's obvious there are no pristine hunter-gatherers," says Lewis R. Binford of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. "But to say you cannot generalize in any way to the past because modern behavior is unique is, in essence, an attack on science." . . .
The usefulness of the !Kung [the most studied Bushmen group] as evolutionary models is now under attack by a member of the original Harvard team. At the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology last year, Nancy Howell, now of the University of Toronto, said the researchers neglected and avoided evidence that the !Kung are not Stone Age survivors.
. . . [C]ommon social patterns among a number of hunter-gatherer societies around the world, including egalitarian decision-making and communal religious practices, may shed light on behavior in earlier times, Lee says, although such analogies probably cannot extend beyond several thousand years.
Lee thinks critics such as Howell and Schrire mistakenly portray "all science as myth-making" by assuming that scientists' cultural preconceptions inevitably overwhelm careful empirical efforts to reconstruct prehistoric behavior.
Responds Schrire, "Such assertions are based more on an act of faith than on elegant research."
What emerges from such discussions generally is, first, the many reasons for assuming that people such as the !Kung Bushmen have preserved ancient traditions despite their many adaptations; and, second, the lack of solid evidence that such is in fact the case. Even Richard Lee, the Harvard professor most strongly associated with the "window to the past" viewpoint, acknowledges that "such analogies probably cannot extend beyond several thousand years" [see above].

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