Thursday, December 10, 2009

251. The Baseline Scenarios -- 27: Hunter-Gatherers

The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers covers North and South America, Africa, North Eurasia, South Asia, Southeast Asia and Australia -- but not New Guinea or Island Melanesia. These areas are a problem for hunter-gatherer studies because the great majority of the many, many indigenous groups therein are not, strictly speaking, foragers, but usually described as "horticulturalists" -- which boils down, in many cases, to hunter-gatherers who also do a bit of simple gardening.

What makes this a problem is that it isn't always so easy to distinguish the two. For example, the Encyclopedia includes a chapter on the Batak, in the Philippines, despite the fact that "they have long produced some rice by shifting cultivation, together with smaller amounts of maize, cassava and sweet potato, but cultivation is a far less important activity for them than it is for their lowland neighbors" (p. 295). I have a feeling that much the same could be said of a great many Melanesian "horticulturalists" as well.

In an online article, The Hunter-Gatherer Spectrum in New Guinea, Paul Roscoe informs us that some New Guinean populations are -- or were -- hunter-gatherers after all:
It has long been supposed that New Guinea is a land of cultivators. New Guineans were among the first peoples on Earth to cultivate crops, and at contact a majority were either horticulturalists, cultivating root crops such as taro and yam under long-fallow regimes, or agriculturalists cropping sweet potato under intensive cultivation regimes. However, a close examination of the ethnographic record – in particular, of unpublished and non-English language sources – has revealed numerous references to the presence of “hunters and gatherers.”

Roscoe distinguishes two principal types of New Guinea foragers:
Groups that procured limited amounts of meat protein or that relied primarily on terrestrial and arboreal game markedly resembled the classic hunter-gatherer societies typified by the Kung, Inuit, Mbuti, and many Australian Aboriginal groups. At contact, their population densities were usually below 1/; their settlements were small, typically between 10 and 40 inhabitants; and they were mostly semi- or fully-nomadic, shifting residence every few weeks or months. Political life was relatively egalitarian: inequities in power and influence
were uncommon, though fighting prowess, hunting ability, ritual expertise (including sorcery), and/or economic generosity brought prestige. Mobility was an important conflict resolution mechanism. Ritual life was comparatively unelaborated, and there was little visual art - though other aesthetic pursuits
such as dance and song were sometimes highly developed.

However: "Contradicting a common stereotype that war is attenuated or absent among hunters and gatherers, fighting was endemic." [my emphasis]

The other type of forager group concentrated on "aquatic resources" rather than terrestrial hunting and, interestingly enough, had a very different type of culture:
Groups that depended on aquatic resources rather than terrestrial and arboreal game typically exhibited a cultural complexity rivaling that of agriculturalists in New Guinea and they strongly resembled other aquatically adapted, hunter-gatherer societies such as the Native American communities of the Northwest Coast. . .
Most of these groups also had developed highly elaborate ceremonial and visual art. Some, such as the Asmat, Karawari, Kwoma, and Purari are among the most famous of New Guinea’s ritual artists.

And once again, as with the terrestrial foragers, violence is an important theme: "Warfare was generally intense, and most of these groups were head-hunters."

The importance of violence among New Guinea's hunter-gatherers, and in Melanesia generally, even among the simpler, more egalitarian societies, certainly does go against the stereotype, an "inconvenient truth" that must be accounted for by anyone seeking to characterize hunter-gatherers in general according to the "core values" we've been discussing.

The contradiction is not lost on Roscoe:
Hunter-gatherer scholarship has largely overlooked the importance of war, partly because of long-standing assumptions that warfare is a relatively recent emergence in human history and that hunter-gatherers lead a peaceful life. There is increasing evidence, however, that these assumptions are misplaced and that New Guinea’s foragers may more accurately represent the hunter-gatherer past. Recent primate research finds that chimpanzees practice a form of lethal aggression against neighbors that has striking similarities to ambush in human
society. This suggests that organized deadly violence may antedate the human-chimpanzee split, some 5 to 7 million years ago, and therefore may have characterized the whole of human prehistory. This conclusion is corroborated by historical research on reputedly peaceful hunter-gatherer groups such as the
!Kung, Inuit, and Australian Aborigines, which suggests that war was considerably more prevalent among these peoples than previously supposed.

Looks like deja vu all over again. I've already examined some of these issues in earlier posts, specifically the questionable comparison of humans with chimps (see Post 197), Steven Pinker's claim that early humans must have been "naturally" violent, based on all the "new" evidence of violence among hunter-gatherers (see Post 199), and the "revelation" that the so-called "Harmless People," i.e., the !Kung Bushmen, were at some point discovered to have an unusually high homicide rate (see Post 209).

Another complication posed by Melanesia, not mentioned by Roscoe, but of equal relevance, is the importance in just about every Melanesian society of the so-called "Big Man." According to Marshall Sahlins, who made an intensive study of Melanesian social structure,
Politics is in the main personal politicking in these Melanesian societies, and the size of a leader's faction as well as the extent of his renown are normally set by competition with other ambitious men. . .

[A Big Man] must be prepared to demonstrate that he possesses the kind of skills that command respect . . . Typically decisive is the deployment of one's skills and efforts in a certain direction: towards amassing goods, most often pigs, shell monies and vegetable foods, and distributing them in ways which build a name for cavalier generosity, if not for compassion (Poor Man, Rich Man, Big Man, Chief, pp. 290-291).
While Melanesian social structure is still often referred to as "relatively egalitarian" or "more-or-less egalitarian" (see for example "Irian Jaya - Anthropological and Historical Perspective," by Waruno Mahdi, part 2), the notion of a "Big-Man" in the above sense would be pure anathema to any of the Pygmy or Bushmen groups whose cultures we've been examining. These cultures are more than simply "egalitarian," they perpetuate social mechanisms that actively discourage any attempt on the part of any individual to stand out from the group. While certain individuals do emerge as what could be called "natural leaders" due to certain outstanding abilities, personal ambition is strongly frowned upon, and overt competition of any kind is almost unheard of.

It's important to understand that neither violence nor "Big-Man" politics among hunter-gatherers, or horticulturalists with otherwise very similar cultures, is by no means confined to Melanesia, though both are particularly common in this region. In fact there are many such groups that have exhibited highly competitive and violent behavior, in many parts of the world.

So what gives? Does this mean that "deadly violence" in fact "characterized the whole of human prehistory," as Roscoe, and so many others, have alleged (see above)? Does it mean that the spirit of competition is ingrained into the human spirit, in the now widely accepted "liberal" view dominating "free" market economics? Only if we are willing to accept the commonly held view of "hunter-gatherers" as represenative, for better (the traditionalist view) or worse (the revisionist view), of some sort of universalized essence of "Stone-Age Man."

As I made clear in the previous post, I cannot accept such a view, from either perspective (i.e., "naturally" egalitarian and non-violent or "naturally" competitive and warlike), because neither makes sense and both are based on assumptions rather than evidence. As now seems clear, from both the genetic and the cultural evidence, all such groups, along with all other human societies now sharing our planet, are descended from a single ancestral group that could only have had a very particular culture, which I've been calling HBC.

And if the ancestral culture can be modeled, as I believe it can, on the "fiercely egalitarian" (Barry Hewlett, Intimate Fathers), non-competetive, and essentially non-violent* ("War is unknown," William L. Ury, Conflict Resolution among the Bushmen) ethos of Pygmy and Bushmen hunter-gatherers, then I'm sorry but no: neither "deadly violence" nor the competitive spirit "characterized the whole of human prehistory." While some "hunter-gatherers" can undoubtedly be described in such terms, the ancestral group from which they emerged was, in all likelihood, relatively egalitarian and peaceful.

What could have happened among so many of their descendants that turned them so disastrously in the direction of both competiveness and war?

*See Post 209 for an in-depth discussion of Bushmen violence. While acts of violence, including murder, have been reported among both Pygmies and Bushmen, the core values reported over and over again for all these groups strongly discourage violent behavior, there is no glorification of war or warriors, and in fact no warrior class at all -- nor are there any weapons of war, nor any sign of the blood feuds, raids and out and out warfare so common among the groups discussed above.


Maju said...

I'm with you in this. For the following reasons:

1. Even if there are some Papuan groups that can be considered hunter-gatherers or mostly so, the whole social and economic structure of the island has been (catastrophically?) altered by an old presence of farming. This may have culturally affected hunter-gatherers in a very defensive way.

2. I'd rather sin of conservatism (or radicalism, not sure what adjective fits best) and simply exclude all peoples for whom farming in an autonomous way is part of their economy (has been for long before modern times). I'd even exclude Potlach (or Big Man) societies, even if purely predatory, because they seem a peculiarity of high-productivity econiches/economies, typically fishing societies.

3. I'm bored of being presented with Papuan and Yanomamo warrior societies as "examples of hunter-gatherers", which seems to me not just misleading and untrue but also ideological_: trying to justify a mythology of "homo homini lupus". The emphasis on chimpanzee violence, ignoring bonobo pacifism, is typical of these ideologues posing as erudites.

However it must also be acknowledged that there is a twilight zone between pure foraging and pure (or dominant) farming. Some or most early agricultural societies were this kind of transitional type. Some forager societies anyhow may have developed different social models, like the Potlatch style or the head hunter attitude (defensive?) but, at this moment, I'd rather suspect this happened at the edge of agrarian economies most often (or in said hyper-productive econiches that allow for more complex economies).

I am in parallel holding a discussion/exchange on Neolithic Europe and signs of violence among certain groups (and areas, timeframes). While we can't totally exclude forager warfare, this trait seems to me more proper of more complex and dense societies, specially agricultural ones.

Anyhow, what I have read on possible primitive warfare (based on Papuans or some other groups from nearby islands) is that they make much noise but eventually a band retreats after the first person (typically an elderly one, as they have less agility and are the ones taking more risks) is injured (sometimes killed). People is normally more important than land for these types of groups and they can't afford having plural casualties. Even if they go to war, they have to be very cautious about its human cost.

In a sense it would be no worse than a typical street gangs or inter-villages fight of some decades or rather centuries ago. First band having a casualty (mortal or not) yields.

DocG said...

Maju, I'm glad you're with me in my effort to counter the counter-myth of original human "sin" (i.e., competitiveness and violence). But it seems as though we disagree on the status of hunter-gatherers in general, which you tend to see, as far as I can tell, as some sort of universal.

While it does make sense to assume that competition and violence must have originated with farming, which may well have triggered competition for land and the desire to either conquer or defend it, the fact that certain non-farming groups can also be competitive and warlike tells us that more could be involved. I'll be exploring the question of the origins of competition and violence in future posts, and I'm curious to learn whether or not you'll agree with my ideas -- probably not. :-)

German Dziebel said...

"People is normally more important than land for these types of groups and they can't afford having plural casualties."

There're two types of foragers: those for whom land is important (Australian aborigines) and those for whom people are important (say, Athabascans in the Subarctic).