Monday, November 9, 2009

238. The Baseline Scenarios -- part 14: Core Premises and Embedded Values

Significant differences among various groups of pygmies and bushmen, largely based on their responses to external pressures, have been noted (by, for example, Susan Kent, for bushmen, and Barry Hewlett, for pygmies -- see post 193 for details), to the point that certain revisionists have dismissed all attempts to define "pygmy culture" or "bushmen culture" as dangerous essentializations. A sensible corrective to this very narrowly focused view has been offered by anthropologist Cornelia M. I. van der Sluys:
During the last decades of hunter-gatherer studies, we witnessed the so-called "forager controversy debates," which center mainly on the genesis of the Bushman cultures. Both groups of protagonists focus almost exclusively on ecological-economic issues and pay little attention to the forces inside these cultures that tend to perpetuate their reproduction from generation to generation. . .

An instance demonstrating that long-time contacts with "outsiders" do not necessarily imply a profound change in a hunter-gatherer culture's core premises and embedded values can be found in Turnbull's (1965) description of the Mbutis, hunter-gatherers in Zaire. Despite relationships with their agriculturalist Bantu neighbors, the Mbutis safeguard the reproduction of the core of their own culture by adopting certain Bantu customs and taking part in Bantu rituals. Similar strategies are also used by other hunter-gatherers . . . ("Gifts from Immortal Ancestors," in Hunters and Gatherers in the Modern World, ed. Biesele and Hitchcock, 2000, p. 427-428 -- my emphases).
When we move from a consideration of such strategies of compromise to "the forces inside these cultures that tend to perpetuate their reproduction from generation to generation," based on "core premises and embedded values," we find that it is indeed possible to speak not only of "pygmy culture" and "bushman culture," but of a single set of core values held in common by almost all such groups. While, as van der Sluys implies, many other hunter-gatherer societies worldwide share many of the same values, I'll be limiting myself for now to evidence drawn from the study of WP, EP and Bu only. (My reasons for postponing consideration of other hunter-gatherers are discussed in the previous post.)

Considerable evidence for shared core values among representatives of WP and Bu has already been provided in a series of quotations presented earlier, in post 184, where specific references can be found. Aka Pygmies are described as having "an 'egalitarian' sensibility, coupled with individual autonomy"; "fiercely egalitarian and independent," with "no chief in the sense of a person commanding ultimate authority"; valuing "sharing, cooperation, and autonomy" and "intergenerational equality." "Aka infancy . . . lacks negation and violence"; "male-female relations are extremely egalitarian by cross-cultural standards"; "physical violence in general is infrequent"; "the Aka are probably as egalitarian as human societies get."

Bushmen are described in almost identical terms, as follows: "Traditionally the San were an egalitarian society. Although they did have hereditary chiefs, the chiefs' authority was limited and the bushmen instead made decisions among themselves, by consensus, and the status of women was relatively equal"; "Bushmen children are taught to fear and avoid violence. They are also taught to avoid disputes"; "Bushman society is fairly egalitarian, with power being evenly and widely dispersed"; "war is unknown."

From another source, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers we find a very similar description of Bushmen values:
Ju/'hoan political ethos abhorred wealth and status differences. No one should stand out from the rest of the group. If someone returned from a successful hunt showing excessive pride, he was put firmly in place, even if the kill was large. Emphasis on sharing and lack of status roles produced a high degree of egalitarianism. . . . Anger and resentment were low as each person's opinion was respected. Conflicts could be terminated by a disputant leaving to join another group (p. 208).
Anyone familiar with Colin Turnbull's The Forest People will recognize essentially the same values attributed to the Mbuti Pygmies, representing our third exemplary population, EP. For example,
Cooperation is the key to Pygmy society; you can expect it and you can demand it and you have to give it. . . As soon as the hunters return they deposit meat on the ground and the camp gathers to make sure the division is fair. Nobody acknowledges that it is but in the end everyone is satisfied.
Here are some relevant quotations from his more complete study, Wayward Servants:
All major [economic] decisions are taken by common consent, as in other realms of Mbuti life. Men and women have equal say . . . Any tendency toward charismatic leadership is countered by ridicule . . . (pp. 179-180). A woman is in no way the social inferior of a man, and there is little absolute division of labor along sex lines (p. 270).
Especially significant are his remarks regarding the role of music, equally applicable to many other Pygmy and also at least some Bushmen groups, such as the Ju/'hoansi:
An examination of Mbuti song form not only reveals areas of concern to the Mbuti, such as their food getting activities, life and death, but it also reveals the concern of the Mbuti for cooperative activity . . . The songs are most frequently in round or canon form, and the hunting songs, in order to heighten the need for the closest possible cooperation (the same need that is demanded by the hunt itself), are sometimes sung in hoquet (p. 256). It is certain that an acute analysis of Mbuti music would reveal much that parallels the structure of Mbuti society. The extraordinary level of polyphonic achievement is surely related to a highly developed individualism that would hardly tolerate the confines of unison (footnote 7, p. 257).
If it is remarkable that near-utopian core values such as egalitarianism, gender equality, group cooperation, the sharing of resources with no expectation of return, non-violence, individualism, etc., are so deeply embedded in the culture of societies isolated from one another for tens of thousands of years, equally remarkable are the many cases where individual behavior would appear to contradict the "utopian" image. I've already discussed such contradictory behavior in post 208, along with the contradictions displayed by so many of the anthropologists who have studied these groups -- and Turnbull is by no means alone in this respect.

Regardless of what one might think of the fact that the gender-equal, non-violent Mbuti often beat their wives and engage in frequent squabbles; or that the non-violent Bushmen have been determined to have unusually high homicide rates, there is, in fact, a difference between a culturally sanctioned ideal and the way in which the ideal is actually implemented in the day to day lives of actual people coping with personal and social pressures both internal and external. The fact that everyone doesn't always conform to the value system does not mean that the value system isn't a pervasive and important force for the society as a whole, which judges all behavior according to its standards. What is "reproduced from generation to generation" are not the many exceptions, but the cultural ideal, the "core values" through which society as a whole constructs its identity.

Especially telling with respect to these societies, in addition to the many positive values they hold in common (not to mention the many exceptions also found in common), are the many destructive practices found among many indigenous peoples, hunter-gatherers included, yet not found anywhere among any of these groups. What we do not see are evidences of: cannibalism, head-hunting, endemic warfare, female mutilation, prostitution, slavery, blood-feuds, raiding, etc.

12 comments:

Maju said...

Very insightful post this one in particular.

So can we speak of a hunter-gatherer ideology in the line of the Marxist concept of original communism?

Maju said...

FYI, I have made a longer comment at my blog inspired on this one. This is partly because I have found several times recently people who don't seem to grasp really how forager societies really are and I think you synthesize that pretty well here.

DocG said...

I'm very pleased to learn that you find my post insightful, Maju. And I'm also pleased that you've written about this on your own blog, thanks. However, it's important that we be as precise as possible regarding the difference between HBC, who were almost certainly foragers, and contemporary foragers in general.

To characterize all foragers as having essentially the same core values is, first of all, an assumption (since we have no way of knowing this without making a systematic study of all these groups, and there are actually a great many), and secondly it is, as much as I mistrust this term, reductive. Because we are reducing all aspects of culture to a single aspect: subsistence. This might fit well with orthodox communist ideology, which attaches so much importance to materialism and specifically production, but it is nevertheless a reductionist view.

Actually there do seem to be some forager groups that do not perpetuate so utopian a core culture. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunter Gatherers names the Inupiat, Warlpiri, Blackfoot, Ache, and Agta as examples of foragers who engage in blood feuds and/or raiding of neighboring groups. The point you make on your blog about violence among farmers (even simple gardeners) is certainly true, however, and from what I've read so far it would seem that violence is much more common among such groups than among foragers. But until we learn more about the history of these groups it would be premature to conclude that there is some clear line to be drawn between them in this respect or any other.

So once again I have to emphasize the importance of concentrating, for now at least, ONLY one the three groups I've been focusing on: WP, EP and Bu. Because they are the only ones that can give us a clue to the nature of their (and our) common ancestors. And it is the culture of the common ancestors, after all, that Marx and Engels were speculating about when they formulated the notion of "primitive communism." And in this, very limited, but very powerful sense, I agree that they may have been on the right track. However, I would like to leave ideological considerations aside for now, until we can establish the history on as firm a basis as possible.

Maju said...

Yes, you are correct probably. I was actually thinking also in the machismo that seems to prevail among Australian Aboriginals but there must be other cases and circumstances.

This is very interesting I must say. And I look forward to your exploration of these other groups who are somewhat like milestones of the human journey through the planet before Neolithic. I really don't know enough of all these peoples to judge properly but I bet you will produce some insights as you go on with your almost epic exploration of what could have been our remote past.

German said...

"An instance demonstrating that long-time contacts with "outsiders" do not necessarily imply a profound change in a hunter-gatherer culture's core premises and embedded values can be found in Turnbull's (1965) description of the Mbutis, hunter-gatherers in Zaire. Despite relationships with their agriculturalist Bantu neighbors, the Mbutis safeguard the reproduction of the core of their own culture by adopting certain Bantu customs and taking part in Bantu rituals."

This makes me again think that Pygmies never had their own language(s) but always spoke the languages of their agricultural and pastoral relatives. Language, most certainly, constitutes the core of a culture. The absence of a Pygmy tongue would undermine the antiquity of all those long genetic branches, as they're probably result from isolation and other demographic processes in the past 20,000 years.

As for the "egalitarian" nature of foragers, and other epithets suggestive of a "Garden of Eden," they are rather generic labels. The texture of social relations among foragers is fraught with tensions and contradictions. These tensions are different from the tensions found in agriculturalist, pastoralist and industrial societies (for instance, joking and avoidance behaviors are prominent in many foraging groups, including Khoisans, but not among Pygmies), but they do exist. They require a finer analysis, than the one you've offered, Victor.

Maju said...

This makes me again think that Pygmies never had their own language(s) but always spoke the languages of their agricultural and pastoral relatives.

That is simply impossible because there was no agriculture 100,000 or 50,000 or even 10,000 years ago over there. There were no farmers to imitate, no masters that exploited them.

As for the "egalitarian" nature of foragers, and other epithets suggestive of a "Garden of Eden," they are rather generic labels.

Your "Garden of Eden" is the only "generic label" here. All I know of the Garden of Eden is that it is a fairy tale about a perverse God that enjoyed torturing people with fancy magic trees and fire-armed angels.

I don't think the Yahvistic idea of Eden really represents anything good much less the hunter-gatherer way of life but is in fact a pastoralist invention based on distorted Sumerian stuff, like most early Hebraic mythology.

Victor makes an excellent point differentiating the ideology that drives society and the individual praxis, which is not always consistent with the ideals, neither among B/P peoples nor in any other society.

Tensions do exist, of course but these societies seem to know what works for them as group and even as individuals (ideology or morals) and what doesn't (breaches of the cooperative morals).

They require a finer analysis, than the one you've offered, Victor.

Victor has made a very fine and multifaceted analysis. He has clearly avoided seeing these peoples with rosy glasses but after comparing the two currents, he concludes and with good reason, that the social ideology is that way, even if the praxis occasionally is not.

German said...

"That is simply impossible because there was no agriculture 100,000 or 50,000 or even 10,000 years ago over there. There were no farmers to imitate, no masters that exploited them."

I was speaking about their current relatives/neighbors, who practice agriculture/pastoralism. Of course, there was no agriculture 20,000 years ago. But there's no evidence of a separate Pygmy tongue. Simply because Pygmies are the linguistic relatives of their Bantu, Ubangian and Nilo-Saharan neighbors. Their short stature and long genetic branches are relatively recent phenomena with demographic causes.

"Victor has made a very fine and multifaceted analysis. He has clearly avoided seeing these peoples with rosy glasses but after comparing the two currents, he concludes and with good reason, that the social ideology is that way, even if the praxis occasionally is not."

"Your "Garden of Eden" is the only "generic label" here."

Nonsense. It's a metaphor and an irony, not a generic label. The following are the generic labels: "egalitarianism, gender equality, group cooperation, the sharing of resources with no expectation of return." The existing literature on foragers portrays a highly complex picture, with gender-age inequalities (see Terrence Turner's work), intragroup hostilities resulting in fission and fusions (hence, foragers' population structure is different from that of agriculturalists), and sharing of resources (both human and material) with an expectation of immediate return. In addition, Western societies also have aspects of all of these behaviors, hence these are "generic labels" and not good differentiators.

Victor is not familiar with the existing literature on foraging societies. At least this blog doesn't show that he is. Neither are you.

I recommend the works by Testart, Ingold, David Riches, David Turner and others. Then we can return to this discussion.

Maju said...

Their short stature and long genetic branches are relatively recent phenomena with demographic causes.

It's absolutely impossible that their long genetic branches are a "recent phenomenon". They re long precisely because they are very very old.

German said...

"It's absolutely impossible that their long genetic branches are a "recent phenomenon". They re long precisely because they are very very old."

Not true. Long branches can be caused by genetic drift and/or differing mutation rates in lineages.

Maju said...

You're missing totally the point.

Genetic drift can, and often causes, fixation in one or few lineages (regardless of their length).

Different mutation rates (a very unlikely happening on statistical terms) would cause longer branchers but not branches closer to the root, as is the case here.

DocG said...

German: "The existing literature on foragers portrays a highly complex picture, with gender-age inequalities (see Terrence Turner's work), intragroup hostilities resulting in fission and fusions (hence, foragers' population structure is different from that of agriculturalists), and sharing of resources (both human and material) with an expectation of immediate return."

Again you make the fundamental error of equating African Pygmies and Bushmen with foragers-in-general. As I understand it, Terence Turner is a specialist in South American Indian culture and I'm not aware of anything he's written about Pygmies or Bushmen specifically. "Foragers" is also a generic term.

You are correct, however, in pointing out that categories such as egalitarianism and gender-equality, etc. are generic and cannot do justice to the complexity of day to day life among any population. (The same could be said, incidentally, of kinship categories.) I've emphasized those terms because they are the ones that come up time and again in the literature, not because they are fully descriptive. But I have also dug rather deeply into the details behind these categories and at least attempted to do justice to many of the complexities and contradictions. This should be evident from my lengthy discussions of Turnbull and Grinker, for example.

I may not be familiar with all the literature on existing forager societies (I wonder who is -- this is a vast topic), but I am familiar with much of the literature on Pygmies and Bushmen of Africa and these are the groups I've been focusing on thus far.
You may be convinced that generalizations based on the study of "foragers" are applicable to what I am doing here, but I am not so convinced, especially since so many of these generalizations are based on assumption rather than evidence.

German said...

"As I understand it, Terence Turner is a specialist in South American Indian culture and I'm not aware of anything he's written about Pygmies or Bushmen specifically. "Foragers" is also a generic term."

This is correct. However, different students of foraging societies used different theoretical lenses to identify meaningful categories to describe foraging societies worldwide. Turner looked closely at the patterns of inequality running within families, which is a super important dimension for all small-scale societies. He noticed several patterns of inequality between parents and children and between men and women. Conflict between different kin categories in small-scale societies results in the non-random fissioning of groups ("lineal effect"), which in turn affects genetic diversity. The latter point has been illustrated by the Brazilian school of genetics (Salzano just wrote a short article in Current Anthropology).

I haven't seen anything of that sort of cross-disciplinary research on African foragers. It'd be good to use these methodologies developed in and for South America to analyze African foragers.