Saturday, September 26, 2009

212. Deconstructing the Postmodern Condition 12 -- Myth and Counter-Myth

Turnbull contends that the Mbuti of the 1950's remain "pure hunter-gatherers" despite their relationship with the Mbira farmers, a relationship that involves their spending some of their time in the village, when they work for the villagers and consume village farm produce. The logic behind his theory is remarkably simple: if it can be shown that the Mbuti are capable of living independently in the forest, consuming only meat, fruit and vegetable products gleaned from the forest, then it cannot be true that they are dependent upon the villagers. Whether this would make them "pure hunter-gatherers" in a literal sense is another matter, open to debate, but it would certainly demonstrate that they are capable of functioning as such if they choose to, which is the gist of Turnbull's argument.

Whether Turnbull is right or wrong, there is no way such a hypothesis can be dismissed as an idealized "projection into the past." First of all, he makes it clear that he has no interest in exploring the question of whether the culture of the Mbuti he's currently studying is comparable to that of Pygmy groups in the distant past; secondly, the hypothesis he presents is not only testable, but supported by a considerable amount of evidence, making it a legitimate scientific hypothesis. While it is true that many others have speculated regarding Pygmy culture as representative of primordial "stone age" peoples, and that such speculation is indeed based on an idealization, possibly grounded in a "romantic" outlook, this is clearly not the case with Turnbull, whose approach is based on evidence, not speculation.

In Chapter 5 of his book, Liazos attempts to draw conclusions, based on Turnbull's field notes, regarding the relative length of time the Mbuti spend in either the forest or the village. Poring over the notes, he finds many instances where trips to the forest are interrupted by return trips to the village for provisions, where individuals take off on their own to the village, returning with ample supplies of village produce, and finds references to relatively long periods where both Turnbull and many of the Mbuti are based in the village rather than the forest.

He also finds, however, that, according to the field notes, "[o]n Dec. 28, the group returns to the village, after having lived in two forest camps since Nov. 18." This would constitute a total of 40 days spent in the forest, not a negligible period by any means -- but Liazos is more interested in recording the instances where certain dissatisfied individuals or groups leave the forest during that time to return to the village. He also records a great many comings and goings generally between village and forest, which, as far as the notes are concerned, produces a confusing, and inconclusive picture of who is where at any given time, and for how long.

[Added on Sept. 27: I just found two passages from Wayward Servants that might clear up some of the confusion over the various comings and goings recorded in Turnbull's field notes:
Within [an Mbuti] band each individual will also have personal exchange relationships with his villager kare brother, with his kpara, and with any other individual villager in the local village if neither his kare nor his kpara are there. . .

If his partner is within a day's walk or two he may visit him briefly, bringing a suitable gift of meat with him (pp. 176-177).
This would explain the numerous references in Turnbull's notes to individuals who leave the forest camp for the village from time to time. It also tells us that Turnbull is not attempting to hide such information, as implied by Liazos. Whether such comings and goings negate or weaken Turnbull's principal thesis is certainly a matter for debate. However, as it seems clear that such visits are voluntary and not enforced (how could they be?) I see no serious conflict with Turnbull's theory that the Mbuti are fundamentally independent.]

He adds, however, a parenthetic "reflection and warning":
(A reflection and warning. Unless one spends years and years on this project, it is impossible to be precise on how many days the whole group, or subgroups, or even individuals spend in each setting, the village and the forest. The information about individual and groups movements, for each day, is simply not in the field notes. A more complete account than I offer here may be possible with some sophisticated coding and computer programming of the information that is in the field notes.)
In other words, the field notes per se provide an inconclusive picture of how much time the Mbuti spend in the forest as opposed to the village. He makes the more telling point that Turnbull never actually presents in either his books or his notes a clear accounting of how much time the Mbuti are spending in either place, and as far as I've been able to tell, that is correct. Turnbull does, however, make the following significant observation, in Wayward Servants, which may or may not be an exaggeration:
[I]n the heart of the forest I have come across many bands that are too many days away from the nearest village to maintain any kind of supply line, and that have existed solely on forest foods for from three to six months, with ease (p. 149).
This would appear to be the only statement of this sort he makes in either book, and given the lack of more precise documentation regarding the specific Mbuti band he is studying, it is not completely conclusive -- though in my view it does come pretty close. As I've argued earlier, however, Turnbull's argument is essentially qualitative rather than quantitative, and it's not fair to evaluate it by attempting to count the exact amount of time the Mbuti spend in the forest or in the village. His argument hinges not on whether they are in fact living as independent hunter-gatherers, which they clearly are not, but whether 1. they could do so if they chose, which, if we are to accept the multitude of evidence he presents, they apparently could, and 2. whether they do in fact spend significant amounts of time living independently as hunter-gatherers, which they apparently do -- assuming 40 days can be considered sufficiently significant.

Is his argument completely convincing in all respects? That's hard to say. As Liazos demonstrates, Turnbull's reporting in his books is not always consistent with his field notes and there are certain statements in The Forest People that could be seen as misleading. Whether Turnbull's hypothesis is in fact correct may still be an open question, requiring a much more thorough examination of both his notes and the reports of others who also had an opportunity to observe the Mbuti at that time. It is very clear, however, that he is not presenting an idealized picture, of either the present or the past, nor is it acceptable, as I see it, to dismiss his carefully and critically considered view of Mbuti culture as a myth.

*It's necessary to point out a serious error in this chapter, where Liazos misquotes Turnbull:
Numbering about 40,000, the Mbuti "have taken to a specialized form of forest cultivation, growing both plantains and manioc as staples, some dry rice, beans and groundnuts." To grow their crops, they cut down the forest to create plantations, which are surrounded by the forest (Wayward Servants, pp. 19-21).
Turnbull is referring to the Bira farmers, not the Mbuti. This error is clearly an oversight, as it's obvious from the context that the Mbuti are not farmers, but it could lead some to draw totally false conclusions and should be corrected as soon as possible.


Maju said...

Hi Victor. Do you know when the Pygmies took up farming?

You say it's not important but I do think it is: for example I have since long ago considered that Papuans are a bad example of foragers because they have been agriculturalists since many milennia ago, what is not the case of, for instance, Australian Aborigines, who have only acquired such "vices" in recent history (if at all).

Similarly Amazonian tribals are a bad example, while Inuits are a good one.

I used to think that Pygmies were essentially foragers but you mention that they do farm. My question is for how long? Is it a "recent" Bantu influence with not more than some centuries/a couple of millennia? Or have been actually farming in their jungle since soon after farming arrived to Africa south of the Sahara?

In contrast, I think that we can safely say that Bushmen are genuine foragers, even if some have been recently pushed into modern Neolithic, almost by force. Another example of genuine foragers that survived till recently (a few still exist) are the Ngnanasan of Siberia, who never really herded reindeer but just hunted them.

DocG said...

Glad to see you posting here again, Maju. I think you misunderstood my correction of Liazos' error. Turnbull was referring to the farming activities of the Bira, who are a Bantu group, and NOT the Mbuti pygmies. But Liazos inadvertantly wrote "Mbuti" where he should have put "Bira."

There has been a great deal of pressure on the pygmies to adopt farming and in recent years I'm sure that many have done so. However, during the period when Turnbull was doing his research, especially the earlier period, during the 50's, I don't think any pygmies living in the tropical forest areas could be characterized as farmers. Many knew how to do certain farming tasks, because that was expected of them by their village "masters." But they were not really farmers and certainly did not have farms of their own.

As far as primitive horticulture is concerned, which is the dominant type of "farming" to be found in New Guinea and Amazonia, my impression is that this activity goes back a very long time and has nothing to do with what anthropologists call the "neolithic." It seems to me that it should be a completely separate category from "agriculture," with a completely different meaning both culturally and historically. Whether some pygmy or bushmen group in the past figured out how to plant some seeds and harvest some crops from time to time is an interesting question, but not, imo, a major factor in either their history or their cultural identity as, essentially, "hunter-gatherers."

Certain types of very simple horticulture and certain types of very simple pastoralism are, imo, not very far removed from hunting and gathering and may have been practiced well back into the paleolithic, for all we know.

Maju said...

Glad to see you posting here again, Maju.

I've been reading intermittently but did not have much to say I guess. You ponder things so well that it's really hard to add anything.

But they were not really farmers and certainly did not have farms of their own.

That's crucial, I think. This fits well with the overall idea I had of Pygmies fitting well within the, maybe simpler (though very elaborate in other aspects, such as music) social structure I'd expect from foragers.

As far as primitive horticulture is concerned, which is the dominant type of "farming" to be found in New Guinea and Amazonia, my impression is that this activity goes back a very long time and has nothing to do with what anthropologists call the "neolithic." It seems to me that it should be a completely separate category from "agriculture," with a completely different meaning both culturally and historically.

AFAIK farming arrived to Papua early on in the Neolithic timeframe and conicidently with the polished stone adzes (that they still work and value in many tribes). I read somewhere, years ago, that their farmer activities caused widespread deforestation leading to an ecological cul-de-sac, what pushed them to reforest with their beloved sago tree, tree whose extension is largely a product of farming.

This kind of Neolithic is called silviculture but, even if it's different in some aspects, it is still clearly within Neolithic. That's why I consider Papuans and Amazonians not true foragers and not a valid example when speculating on how Paleolithic peoples' societies might have been.

They can still be valid examples for transitional or early Neolithic cultures though.