Wednesday, December 2, 2009

248. The Baseline Scenarios -- 24: Hunter-Gatherers

The old debate centered around whether certain "tribal" groups dubbed "hunter-gatherers" or "foragers" were or were not representative of our earliest fully human ancestors, who, it was assumed, must have also lived by hunting and gathering, way back when, in the depths of the "Stone Age." The "hopelessly naive" saw no problem with associating contemporary foragers with our oldest stone-wielding ancestors, but for the more "sophisticated," all living peoples must be seen as "fully modern" and thus as "fully evolved" as "we" are. What both schools had in common was a tendency to think in terms of assumptions -- about culture, about evolution and about change. And what both lacked is what we now have: a baseline that enables us to cast aside our assumptions and formulate hypotheses on the basis of: evidence.

If our common ancestors were hunter-gatherers, which apparently they were, they would have been a very particular group of hunter-gatherers, with a very specific set of cultural practices, artifacts and values. They would have had a very specific language, for example -- and also a very specific type, or types, of musical expression, which is also a form of language, as well as dance, which can also be regarded as a language. They would have lived in very specific types of dwelling, and would have had very specific types of bodily adornment. They would have preferred very specific types of food, and would have had very specific methods and conventions governing the preparation of food, the curing of illness, the conduct of rituals, kinship, mating, arranging "marriages," rearing children, and, of course, hunting and gathering. They would also, most likely, have shared a very specific set of "core values," with respect to fundamental socio-cultural issues such as political power and control, relative freedom and equality, individualism as opposed to subordination, cooperation as opposed to competition, sharing as opposed to hoarding, violence as opposed to non-violence, etc.

If all of today's hunters and gatherers spoke the same language, had the same sort of music and dance, lived in the same sort of dwellings, used the same sort of bodily adornment, ate the same sort of food, used the same methods of curing illness and conducting rituals, had the same conventions governing sexual relationships, marriage, and kinship, had the same methods of child rearing, used the same hunting and gathering techniques, and shared the same core values, then it might make some sense to assume that "hunter-gatherers" the world over were perpetuating the lifestyle and value system of their -- and our -- "stone-age" ancestors.

But there are a great many different types of hunter-gatherers living in the world today, with certain things in common and other things not in common, so in order to claim "hunter-gatherers" represent our earliest ancestors it is necessary to universalize them first, which means removing most reference to specifics and in effect more or less "essentializing" them out of any real existence and into some idealized fantasyland -- i.e., turning them into a myth. Which is exactly what offends our thoroughly "post-modern" Millies of perpetual revision -- who have gone off just as far in the opposite direction: pointless cynicism and denial.

If it might look as though I am doing more or less the same thing, i.e., "essentializing" today's Pygmies and Bushmen in order to promote their lifestyle and values into the perfect represenatation of "Stone-Age Man," I assure you that this is not the case. The Pygmies and Bushmen of today (or, to be more accurate, yesterday) live very different lifestyles in completely different environments, with different languages, hunting methods, marriage customs, healing techniques, types of adornment, and customs for the distribution of food and other goods. They may be no more similar to their common ancestors than any other hunter-gatherer groups. What makes them special is not the fact that they more closely resemble our ancestors than anyone else, but that there are certain clues to the nature of the ancestral culture that only they possess. And I'm sorry, but it would be pointless to go over all these clues here, since I have already covered this topic abundantly in many earlier posts. (See the Table of Contents to find the first post in this series.)

What I want to do now is consider certain specific hunter-gatherer groups in an attempt to determine, however tentatively, which aspects of their cultures could be survivals from HBC and which might represent a variant or divergence from the ancestral model.

Let's consider, for example, the Hadza, a group of "hunter-gatherer" bands, some of which are still living a more or less traditional lifestyle in what is now Tanzania (formerly Tanganyika and Zanzibar). I happen to have the latest issue of National Geographic handy, containing a very interesting article titled The Hadza, and subtitled as follows:
They grow no food, raise no livestock, and live without rules or calendars. They are living a hunter-gatherer existence that is little changed from 10,000 years ago. What do they know that we've forgotten?
(to be continued . . .)


Maju said...

Very interesting reading the NG article:

Loose marriage and communal paternity:

There are no wedding ceremonies. A couple that sleeps at the same fire for a while may eventually refer to themselves as married. Most of the Hadza I met, men and women alike, were serial monogamists, changing spouses every few years (...) Except for breast-feeding infants, it was hard to determine which kids belonged to which parents.

Gender "egalitarianism in difference":

Gender roles are distinct, but for women there is none of the forced subservience knit into many other cultures. A significant number of Hadza women who marry out of the group soon return, unwilling to accept bullying treatment.

20 interactive "bands" in a small area:

Onwas knows of about 20 Hadza groups roaming the bush in his area, constantly swapping members, like a giant square dance.

I could only find the area for the whole region of Arusha: 33,800 Km2, roughly the size of South Carolina, however the Hadza only inhabit a small area within this region, that nevertheless feeds 20 bands (of less than 30 people). It seems to me a rather high density for a hunter-gatherer nation.

I read at Wikipedia that the Hadza number just 1000 but only 300-400 are still true foragers.

Domed huts:

During the rainy season, they construct little domed shelters made of interwoven twigs and long grasses: basically, upside-down bird's nests. To build one takes no more than an hour.

I'm still reading...

Maju said...

The parts on religion and rituals (or lack of them in fact) are most telling. God is the Sun, optional dancing with the ancestors and leaving the dead to the hyenas and vultures (until recently) without ceremony.

Present oriented.

I laughed pretty much with this subjective urbanite comment:

But I could never live like the Hadza. Their entire life, it appears to me, is one insanely committed camping trip. It's incredibly risky. Medical help is far away. One bad fall from a tree, one bite from a black mamba snake, one lunge from a lion, and you're dead. Women give birth in the bush, squatting. About a fifth of all babies die within their first year, and nearly half of all children do not make it to age 15. They have to cope with extreme heat and frequent thirst and swarming tsetse flies and malaria-­laced mosquitoes.

But they are aware that there is no future for them in civilization either, so they'd like, it seems, to keep their lifestyle forever - logically.