Monday, October 15, 2018

Hunter-Gatherer Labels Encompass More Than One Kind Of Society

[M]any people who use “hunter-gatherers” as a category are actually lumping things that are quite different from each other. If you want to use ethnographic studies of today’s people to say anything about prehistoric people, you need to understand that any living group may be like ancient people in some ways, and very different from ancient people in other ways. Lumping across the entire category of “hunter-gatherers” doesn’t work if some of those living hunter-gatherers have economies, subsistence patterns, and social organization that is unlike anything that archaeology tells us about prehistoric groups. 
Here’s a teaser from a box that discusses the work of Steven Pinker:  
Despite the apparent magnitude of the Ju/’hoan/!Kung homicide rate, these still represent only 1.0–1.6% of overall deaths, compared to the 8–58% figure referenced in Pinker’s TED Talk.
Via John Hawks.

While the term "hunter-gatherer" can be useful in anthropology to characterize cultures and populations, it is stretched too far when used not just to apply to terrestrial hunter-gatherers, but also to maritime food production from fishing and coastal seafood collection as staples (e.g. the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest, of the Baltic Sea area, and the Jomon of Japan prior to the arrival of farming and herding as leading means of food production).

This distinction is important, because, in pre-history, maritime food producers had relatively sedentary lifestyles, more permanent buildings and structures, and more staying power vis-a-vis farmers. The transition from terrestrial hunting and gathering to nomadic pastoralism also appears to be possible with less demographic replacement, than the transition from terrestrial hunting and gathering to farming. But, this doesn't hold true to the same extent for a transition from maritime food production to farming.

There is also a tendency to mischaracterize nomadic pastoralists as hunter-gatherers, and to fail to distinguish between terrestrial hunting and gathering society focused on big game hunting (e.g. the Neanderthals and the Clovis culture) and terrestrial hunting and gathering societies with more of a focus on small game and gathering (e.g. Cro-Magnons in Europe).

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