Tuesday, October 20, 2009

227. The Baseline Scenarios -- part 3

Once upon a time, it was not unusual for anthropologists to see all hunter-gatherers as "primitive peoples," still living in the "stone-age," whose lifestyles were seen as more or less identical to those of our paleolithic ancestors. The field has changed drastically since that time, and today's anthropologists know better than to stick their gnarled fingers into that particular buzz saw. Nevertheless, "stone age hunters" are still with us as far as the popular mind is concerned, as is evident from the following, hot off the pages of the Worldwide Web (dated July, 2007): Face to face with Stone Age man: The Hadzabe tribe of Tanzania.
After a four-day quest covering thousands of miles by light aircraft, Land Rover and, finally, on foot, we knew we were on the brink of an unforgettable experience, the chance to reach back in time and meet our living human ancestors from countless millennia ago. . .

Here, in one of the world's last untouched wildernesses, the dense bush south of Africa's Rift Valley where the first humans emerged upright more than two million years ago, a group of men from the mysterious Stone Age tribe were ready to make their introductions.

Draped in animal skins and carrying arrows tipped with poison, two slim, wiry characters walked slowly towards us in the clearing. Time has stood still for these men, two of an estimated 400 remaining survivors of the Hadzabe tribe, whose way of life has scarcely changed since human evolution began.

These nomadic hunter-gatherers live as all humans once lived: wandering the plains with the changing seasons, killing game for survival, constantly avoiding aggressive wild beasts, and, finally, dying as they were born, under the sun and the stars.
This is exactly the sort of thing that will inevitably cause professional eyes to roll and heads to wag sagaciously. The "myth" of the "stone-age hunter-gatherer" is always fair game for even the most politically incorrect of social scientists, exactly the sort of thing everyone in the field feels duty bound to "deconstruct." But why, exactly? If we try to think impartially about a group such as the Hadzabe, then it does seem reasonable to assume that they are in fact living in more or less the same manner as all humans were living, back in the earliest stage of cultural evolution.

Political correctness considerations aside, the real problem with the previous sentence lies with two key words: "assume" -- and "stage." We can assume all sorts of things about the lifestyle of "early man," but such assumptions tend to be based only minimally on evidence, and maximally on something halfway between educated guessing and wishful thinking. It may certainly seem as though the Hadzabe are living in "the stone age," but what do we really know about the lifestyle of humans who existed tens of thousands of years ago -- and what do we really mean when we say "stone age"?

Almost everything we know, or think we know, has, until recently, been gleaned from extremely thin, notoriously disconnected, bits and pieces of evidence painfully cobbled together by archaeologists, a rare breed of humans prone to both the wildest of speculations and the bitterest of disputes. And the standard method of organizing all this hotly contested evidence into a coherent picture of "cultural evolution" is based, even today, on the vaguely Darwinian notion of the "stage." Even the most up-to-date, non-romantic, totally businesslike and objective anthropologists still think, in spite of themselves, in terms of such "stages" -- which is why, even today, we see so many references to hunting and gathering, horticulture, agriculture, pastoralism, industrialism, etc., as though the pursuit of a particular mode of subsistence were the most important and most characteristic clue to the "stage" any group represents in the grand panorama of "cultural evolution."

Please, please do not confuse what I am now attempting with any of the above. There are a great many very different kinds of "hunter-gatherers," each with their own distinctive characteristics, all of which cannot possibly represent the lifestyle of early humans. If "cultural evolution" actually progressed in stages, as implied by the term "evolution," then hunting and gathering would no longer be practiced by any human group -- and foragers, such as the Pygmies, Bushmen, Hadza, Inuit, etc. would have to pass through horticulture, plough agriculture and pastoralism before they were ready to participate in the industrial-financial economy of today. Modern anthropologists know this very well, yet they still organize their evidence in terms of evolutionary processes closely akin to the "stages" model, and they still think in terms of something called "cultural evolution."

"Cultural evolution" is a meaningful concept, and I can't complain too much about it because I've used it myself. But for my purposes now I want to drop all references to evolution of any kind. I am not concerned with how one practice might or might not have "evolved" from one "stage" to the other (though from time to time you might catch me using that term, for want of something better). I am concerned with something much simpler, more straightforward, and more in tune with the nature of the evidence at hand: history.

I am therefore going to define the "old-stone-age" or "paleolithic era" (both terms have exactly the same meaning, though one seems more politically correct than the other, for some reason) purely in historical terms, i.e., as very roughly covering a particular time span -- and not as a particular stage of cultural evolution. When it becomes necessary to account for certain changes that have without question taken place over time among certain groups, I will use the word "change," and not the word "evolved." Not that "evolved" might not actually turn out to be the most appropriate term in certain cases, but that it's usually a mistake to make such an assumption too soon. (I will also reserve to myself the right to use the phrase "cultural evolution" nonetheless, when it's necessary to talk about what I'm up to with the uninitiated.)

Finally, despite the fact that the Hadzabe, along with certain other foragers, both in and out of Africa, do indeed have much in common with the Pygmy and Bushmen groups I've been focusing on, I will not be referring to such groups when formulating "meaningful hypotheses about the culture, both material and non-material, of the population from which everyone in the world is descended," i.e., my Hypothetical Baseline Population (HBP). Because I am attempting to get beyond the vagueness and imprecision characteristic of so many previous attempts to deal with "cultural evolution," and because the loose thinking of so many past attempts has made this whole line of thought so out of favor today, it's important that I be as specific, as strict and as unambiguous as possible in gathering my evidence and formulating my argument. The Pygmies and Bushmen are crucial in this respect not simply because they are egalitarian hunter-gatherers with beehive huts and poison arrows, but because so much of the evidence from so many different domains points so strongly to all these groups as 1. stemming from the most archaic lineages and 2. carrying so many strikingly similar traditions, despite evidence that so many have been isolated from one another for so long.

The Hadza are especially problematic for two important reasons, neither of which might matter all that much eventually, but both of which matter a great deal at present: 1. their genetic signature is absolutely unique, with not even the slightest resemblance to that of any other group, either in Africa or elsewhere; 2. their musical style is not only completely different from that of the Pygmies and Bushmen, but also atypical for Africa generally. Thus, though the Hadza are certainly very interesting in terms of the model I'm developing, and I will want to eventually study both their culture and their music with some care in relation to this model, neither their genetic makeup nor their musical style makes them a convincing source for defining the Hypothetical Baseline Culture (HBC) I'll be attempting to define in coming posts. (Both the genetic and musical evidence suggests that they suffered a severe population bottleneck at some point in their history, possibly very early on.) There is, moreover, no need to include them, or any other group that might seem promising in this respect, since the Pygmy and Bushmen groups I've been focusing on are more than adequate for this purpose -- at least for now.

(to be continued . . . )


onix said...

unless you are familiar with african lore, wich perhaps i am privvy to, since i met so many different african refugees, you would not know that the african oral tradition has allways been well aware of it's long past. it is conceivable eg. the hadza would thus have been 'conserved ' culturally and morphically (perhaps also genetically to an extend) to remain a similar afar populace, i looked at picture's of them on google, they have facial characteristics that reoccur elsewhere in africa, quite all the way from rsa to westafrica, and ethiopia in between, (wich is less surpising), so my first guess would be they are genetically more mixed then it culturally seems. or, quite the other way around, that (some of) these attributes in their looks, would be purportedly or coincedentually, cultured in other nations. i think it matters for you to know this about african culture.

DocG said...

Yes, the African oral tradition is very rich and should be taken very seriously as a historical source, I agree.

I don't know what you mean by "a similar afar populace." And pictures can be very misleading. Their genetic profile is very strange, and NOT consistent simply with genetic mixture from other groups. Many of the Bantu tribes show strong signs of such intermixture in their genetic profiles, but the Hadza profile is dramatically different.

It's hard to assess what this might mean, but for now, since I don't have any idea what it means, I will want to wait until more research becomes available before speculating.