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. . .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.)
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).
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.