Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Egalitarian Hunter-Gatherers

James has a recent post linking to an article from Aeon rethinking the prevailing narrative among not only popular anthropologists and social science writers, but the underlying serious academic work those are based on. He extracts a couple of quotes that illustrate the weakness of the argument, so you can get the sense of the article if you don't want to click in for the whole piece.  It is an area of current fascination for me, and it even discusses the type of seasonality of survival strategies that the commenters and I discussed under my post on Transhumance

Within the Aeon article, underlying much of its argument, is a link to an article by anthropologists Wengrow and Graeber in Eurozine that I liked even better if you really want to get down to myths being exploded. I had thought the myth had mostly started unraveling with Lawrence Keeley's War Before Civilisation: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage in 1996 - though Keeley also points out that much of the evidence has been in plain sight throughout his career - but the newer article hits that point even harder, that the cat is long since out of the bag, but no one wants to admit that to the popularisers (or even each other that much) because everyone is having so much fun with it. Also, it fits their politics. Not that the newer narrative fits a conservative or libertarian or neoliberal or Marxist framing especially well either.  Reality tends to be more complicated than that. Many things are overthrown here.

The Eurozine article included a few quotes you might like.

 But the remarkable thing is that, despite the smug tone, such pronouncements are not actually based on any kind of scientific evidence.


The Hadza or Nambikwara are not living fossils. They have been in contact with agrarian states and empires, raiders and traders, for millennia, and their social institutions were decisively shaped through attempts to engage with, or avoid them.

and consonant with my ongoing shaking my fist at the clouds that TV and movies are powerful media that hack into our understandings and cause us to believe stupid things,

A hundred years ago, most anthropologists understood that those who live mainly from wild resources were not, normally, restricted to tiny ‘bands.’ That idea is really a product of the 1960s, when Kalahari Bushmen and Mbuti Pygmies became the preferred image of primordial humanity for TV audiences and researchers alike. 
I have not been able to find the reference, but it was from CS Lewis decades ago that I first encountered the idea that modern hunter-gatherer societies might not, in fact, be representative of what earlier versions of ourselves were.  I believe he got the idea from Chesterton before that, but I can't find any reference for that either.  Modern primitive societies have all had some contact with other groups that are agriculturalist, settled, and even industrial. Sometimes they have been banished to less-productive environments; sometimes their current economies are interactive with their neighbors; they may be improvements or deteriorations from what their own ancestors were two centuries or two millennia ago - we have no way of knowing. 

We have long believed that civilisation came as a package, that there must be agriculture, fortifications, hierarchies, and eventually writing. Because the near-Eastern cultures showed these, we assumed that must be true of Peru, of China both inland and coastal, of the Jomon in Japan, of Mexico.  The problem is that all of these display significant exceptions to that model.  We have tried to keep them stuffed in the categories, perceiving the differences as individual partial exceptions but preserving the whole. The data keeps leaking out the sides of the theory, and we are coming to accept that there is more than one way to become advanced.

A few intriguing ideas here are that inequality is as common in smaller societies and may be even more so, down to the individual family unit - the reverse of what we have been taught; the myth of primitive inequality drives modern economists and social thinkers to have their own Garden of Eden myth; that myth in turn drives a politics of top-down tinkering with economies and social structures to "fix" the horrible inequalities we have visited upon ourselves.



Grim said...

Here, I think, is the Chesterton reference.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Excellent. I had not seen that essay, but I have every confidence Lewis did, and the sentiment is there.