Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

Which Primitives?

Robert L. Kelly, The Foraging Spectrum:  Diversity in Hunter-Gatherer Lifeways.  Washington:  Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.

John Bedell

Now that evolutionary psychology has become both one of the most serious intellectual pursuits in America and one of our favorite parlor games, everybody wants to know what human life was like while we were evolving into our present forms. Since archaeology tells us precious little of such distant times beyond what sort of tools people used, we naturally turn to the most primitive documented societies to learn what our ancestors might have been like. One thing we know is that our distant ancestors did not farm or raise animals; they were hunters and gatherers. We therefore look to modern hunting and gathering groups for insights into our own distant past. 

What are hunter-gatherers like? Are they peaceful or violent? Do they carefully tend the wild resources on which they depend or use whatever they can take? Are men and women equal in status among them? To ask these questions sets us trembling, as before the revelation of some great religious mystery: tell us about ourselves, O Anthropologist. What is our nature?

To ask these questions also assumes that they have answers. We can't say what hunter-gatherers are like unless they are like something in particular. But are they?  Not according to Robert Kelly. In The Foraging Spectrum Kelly argues that hunter-gatherers are so diverse in their behavior that the words do not even denote a meaningful category for analysis. Of course, Kelly managed to write a 446-page book about this non-category, so the words must mean something, but Kelly has a point. Hunter-gatherer societies differ from each other on every point of interest to moderns trying to understand their own origins: some are violent, some peaceful; some are egalitarian, some have chiefs and slaves; in some men and women are equal in most ways, but in others women are denigrated and oppressed.

Before even starting to investigate these matters, we must acknowledge some serious problems with the evidence. Everything we know about hunter-gatherer peoples concerns, by definition, hunter-gatherers who have come into contact with agricultural peoples. Much of our most detailed data has been collected since 1960, and in our age the groups we call hunter-gatherers are all connected in various ways to the New World Order. One very thoroughly studied Australian group actually gets up to half their food from government warehouses. The Ju/'hoansi (which is what we are supposed to call  the !Kung now), who long passed for the most perfectly preserved of ancient societies, have had trading relations with farmers for a thousand years and may in the past have lived as herders themselves. There are no pure, uncontaminated ancient societies for us to look at. No one knows quite to make of this, and except for some predictable political froth--for example, the a priori assertion that colonialism has made hunter-gatherers more violent and patriarchal--we have no theories and little data on how these contacts have changed the peoples we study.

Also, modern hunter-gatherers tend to live in places farmers did not want, which often means deserts and similarly impoverished environments. Those documented hunter-gatherers who lived in rich environments, like the Indians of the northwest coast of North America, tend to be considered "atypical" because they build villages, erect monumental art, fight wars, and do others things that "typical" hunter-gatherers generally do not; but who knows what was typical when hunter-gatherers occupied all the world's environments? Surely there is nothing "typical" about the Ice Age art of Europe, or the extraordinarily rich myths of the Australian aborigines, and there is really no reason to assume that our distant human ancestors were any less extraordinary than we are today.

These caveats taken on board, what are hunter-gatherers like? Let's start with something simple and measurable, like what they eat. We immediately enter contested terrain, because we have been treated to a long argument about whether men's hunting or women's gathering provides more of the food primitive peoples eat. Your traditional explorer of the Indiana Jones school favors men's hunting and writes books arguing that male hunting in groups is the key to human evolution, but the leftish, feminist sort of anthropologist tends to favor gathering by women. The data? Kelly prints a table showing that the percentage of calories provided by men's hunting and fishing varies from nearly 100 percent among some Arctic groups to 20 percent among some tropical forest dwellers. Of course, there are also groups among which men gather and women hunt, further complicating the picture. When women hunt they usually take small game, or else participate in large communal animal drives like those of the central African net hunters. Since we are discussing people, there is one group that completely violates the rule; among the Agta of the Philippines women hunt large game alone just as men do.

The main reason women do not hunt more, it seems, has nothing to do with physical strength. Hunting generally requires more stealth than strength, and, as Kelly points out, digging roots is often far more laborious. Hunting is men's work because it can't be done with a baby. This points to one of the few regularities in human society: women do most of the baby care, and their work is shaped around their parenting tasks much more than men's work is. But what are hunter-gatherer parents like? The famously kind and indulgent parenting of the Ju/'hoansi serves as a model for some, but Kelly cites other groups who force their offspring to forage for themselves at a very early age and are given to beating the slackers.

Child rearing practices among hunter-gatherers can be divided, in a rough way, into two patterns. In one, mothers generally do most of the care, supported by their husbands and other immediate family members. In the other, all the young children of a band are raised together and much of their care is provided by the older children. There is some evidence that the difference is very important, and that people raised by their own parents are more independent of thought, less violent, and less competitive than those raised in common. But which is the "natural" human way? We don't know, because both are common around the world.

Are hunter-gatherers territorial? Depends. How violent are they? Depends. How big is the group with which they identify? It varies, from the family to a tribal conglomeration big enough to encompass almost anyone with whom they might come into contact. How nomadic are they? Some move 50 or 100 times a year, some only twice. What is their attitude toward the natural world? Some worship nature and beg forgiveness for taking game, and some have little religion at all and do pretty much whatever they want. Magic? Some fill the world with spells and taboos, some are relatively indifferent. And so it goes.

Your sophisticated evolutionist, recognizing that hunter-gatherers do act differently from one another, falls back on a statistical approach. Thus one commonly comes across sentences like, "In a world-wide comparative study of hunter-gatherer societies, 80% of groups practice x...."  When I read these sentences I always think, but what about the other 20 percent? Why are they less important? Since modern hunter-gatherer groups live in a non-random subset of the earth's environments, and those that have been carefully studied represent a non-random sample of the non-random sample, and all the groups have been altered in unknown ways by contact with farmers and UN aid workers, what do the numbers mean? Precious little, it seems to me.

I don't mean to completely dismiss comparative ethnography as a way of studying humanity. It seems to me that we can learn some things about human nature from studying hunter-gatherers. We can learn that women care more for babies, that young men are everywhere the most violent group, that even in productive environments people regularly go through seasons where food is short and stored fat reserves can make the difference between life and death. We can also observe some regularities in the differences between groups; for example, groups that live in environments with highly variable productivity share their food more readily, probably because they know their next time it may be they who come home empty handed. In what may be one of the most important regularities, it seems that where men often travel far from women and children in all male hunting or war parties they think less of women and are more likely to actively oppress the ones around them.

The most important lesson of anthropology, though, is not what people have in common but how greatly they differ. The most striking and unique thing about humankind is our diversity; the number of different ways we have found to live sets us apart from every other species. We adapt ourselves to almost any environment and any situation, developing technology and social forms to ensure our survival. Hunter-gatherers include warlike Comanche buffalo hunters and peaceful Ju/'hoansi, status-crazed, potlatch-holding, slave-owning Kwakiutl and fiercely egalitarian bushmen.

The adaptive power of humanity sometimes overwhelms our attempts to understand ourselves, because our inventiveness makes it hard to categorize our behavior.  Consider one of the most central and important of human institutions, marriage. Most societies have ideas about who should marry whom, who should choose the mates, who should give whom property to seal the deal, and so on. But, as Kelly documents in some detail, the anthropologist who tries to find out whether these norms are actually practiced runs into a thicket of linguistic obstacles and other run-arounds. For example, many groups believe that the ideal marriage is between cousins. But "cousin" has the same metaphorical use to many hunter-gatherers that "sister" or "brother" has to us, and whether people are considered cousins may depend as much on how their parents get along as on how they are related. One particularly determined researcher figured out that among the G/wi bushmen only 11 percent of marriages actually conformed to the stated norm. Whether the anthropologist's numbers would have made any sense to the bushmen, and whether we should take his interpretation of the rules any more seriously than theirs, is open to question. To be human is to be free, to some extent, to name and define the world.

Yes, we are all human. We have the same bodies, the same minds. We all recognize greed and generosity, lust and restraint, pride and shame, hate and love. We all know both invention and respect for tradition. Yet we must also recognize that change and variation are not peripheral to human nature, but part of its core.

February 6, 2002


Note:  Although Robert Kelly's book is full of fascinating information, I am forced to report that it is dreadfully written and arranged and clogged with indigestible statistical trash.  The reviewer quoted on the back cover saying that this is an "ideal teaching tool" must have been getting a kickback from the publisher, because I can't imagine an undergraduate reading this dense, ugly thing.

From the 
Commonplace Book

Do not like sitting one place all the time like white men.

--Kaska man to John Honigman, 1940s

We hate the lions, leopards, and spotted hyenas because they will hurt us.  The antelope hate us because they see our fires at night and God has told them that these fires are to cook them.

--G/wi (bushman) man to 
George Silberbauer, 1970s



Commonplace Book
On the Dead
About us



Raymond Aron, Jean-Paul Sartre, and the Limits of Being Right

Wild Swans

Why We Fight


The Ghost Dance

Changing the World



What is Education?

René Guénon

Which Primitives?

Terrorism and Freedom

Indian Freedom

Susan Haack & Intellectual

Richard Lewontin


Humanism in the 1990s

The "Wilding"

How the Mind Works

Ba'al Hammon and the Unitarian List of Suggestions