The World until Yesterday vs The Foraging Spectrum

In all of the discussion lately about Jared Diamond’s new book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies, I haven’t heard anyone bring up the book that keeps coming to my mind, so I figured I should write a blog post about it.

Last night I pulled out my copy of The Foraging Spectrum: Diversity in Hunter-Gatherer Lifeways (1995), by Robert Kelly, and started re-reading it.  I’m still in the first chapter, but as always, the book engages me.  I’m wondering if others have read it, and what they think of it?  What I love about this book is that it takes all of the assumptions you’ve heard about forager homogeneity and tests them, rather than accept them.  By showing the variety of lifeways of hunter-gatherers around the world in the past 100 years, Kelly shows how extremely DIFFERENT they are from one another, leading the reader to recognize the problems with using modern hunter-gatherers as cultural correlates for the vast cultures of our human past.  If we can have so many diverse lifeways today, think of all the potential variability in social organization, religion, economic systems, and family structure we may have had over the course of the history of our species.

Indeed, I think Kelly explains the potential pitfalls of Diamond’s book quite well in his first chapter, while discussing the history of anthropologists and their own research on hunter-gatherer communities:

“But for many years the objective of hunter-gatherer research has been to seek out the essential core of the hunter-gatherer lifeway and consequently to ignore or explain away variability as the product of extraordinary natural environments or particular historical circumstances…For each model proposed, variation is recognized, but eventually winnowed out, leaving behind a unitary description of the essential hunter-gatherer'” (Kelly 1995:2-3)

Kelly then goes on to discuss how engagement with nation-states, large-scale farmers and forced removal to marginalized areas may all lead to variations which are modern anomalies, rather than anything related to the act of gathering wild foods. He then states one of the most important lines of the book:

“Whatever is commonly associated with ethnographically known hunter-gatherer economies cannot be causally linked with hunting and gathering because hunter-gatherer is a category we impose on human diversity – it is not itself a causal variable.” (Kelly 1995:3, emphasis mine)

Distinguishing people because of the way they get their food is an anthropological creation – it is not inherently ‘natural’ or in fact relevant.  We have assumed that there is some relevance to it – that it indicates some sort of shared behaviors.  We as anthropologists have then sought out those shared behaviors, based on a faulty premise, so that when we find anomalies we consider them outliers, rather than an indication of possible breadth of lifeways.  Diamond, along with many others, links this idea of hunting and gathering with ‘primitive’ or ‘simple’ societies, as did many early anthropologists.

This line of thinking leads to another fault in analysis that Kelly brings up: we find what we expect to see in the past because we know what we expect to find in the past. Early anthropologists believe in unilinear cultural evolution – ‘Civilization (aka Western European society)’ was the highest rung on a ladder of progress, and other societies represented lower rungs on that ladder.  As such, they believed that modern societies that were less-materially-complex were lower on the ladder, and could be correlated to past societies that had been on the same rungs.

“To [William] Sollas, Bushmen were Aurignacians, and Eskimos were descendants of the Magdalenians, genetic relics of Upper Paleolithic peoples.” (Kelly 1995:9)

Sollas also correlated Neanderthals with Australian Aborigines.

“If Australian Aborigines, for example, matched Neanderthal “culture” so well, it was because Europeans had already presumed what Neanderthal culture was like. This was hardly a demonstration that the Aborigines were a relic population. The comparative method seemed to work so well because it conveniently began by assuming the past it claimed to discover.” (Kelly 1995:9)

Kelly’s book is geared towards archaeologists, and he readily admits that there are many aspects of social life and organization that he does not examine, while emphasizing ecological data.  The book has chapters on subsistence practices, mobility, economics, group size/fertility, gender, and inequality, culminating in a very brief chapter that discusses the links and limitations of this data to prehistory.  I love the book for the detailed amount of quantitative data it makes available to the reader.  Rather than assuming homogeneity or diversity among foraging communities around the globe, Kelly presents data table after chart of information about dozens, sometimes well over a hundred, communities: rates of mobility, % of food from fishing, gathering, hunting, cultivation and trade, rates of food sharing with spouses and siblings, demographics, “effective temperature and division of labor”, etc…

I find Kelly’s work to be very accessible and engaging (though I’m obviously biased) – for each topic he discusses he lays out the historical anthropological framework of research on the issue, so that the reader gets a sense of both WHY we are interested in this topic and how we’ve thought about it in the past.

At this point in my re-read, I’m only part way through chapter 1: Hunter-Gatherers and Anthropology.  As I re-read this history of how Anthropologists have thought about and worked with foraging communities, and how they have used/mis-used data on contemporary foragers to interpret past societies, I kept thinking about how and why Diamond has created his book at this point in time.  As Kelly frames it (and I agree with his assessment) – every phase of forager studies has stemmed out of the cultural currents that anthropologists themselves were living in.  When the ‘Man the Hunter’ conference was held in 1966, researchers latched onto Marshal Sahlins’ research which suggested that foragers have a lot of leisure time, what he called ‘The Original Affluent Society’.  Kelly suggests this became popular in part because of the decline that was going on in western society in the 1960s – people were now doubting their place as the ‘greatest’ civilizations on the top of the ladder (Kelly 1995:16). In fact there were faults in Sahlins’ data as well, which became apparent upon further research. So where does Diamond fit into that? Does his book and the focus of his research question reflect something of our own current global crises? I suspect so.  And like we’ve seen from others, I think this should cause al readers to pause and ask themselves ‘What assumptions does Diamond have, and are they valid?’

Update 2/3/13 – I just got an e-mail from Robert Kelly. He’s got a new edition of the book coming out this summer (Cambridge University Press) with updated data and some expanded chapters – including a section on technology and a section on violence.  So keep your eye out!

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3 Responses to The World until Yesterday vs The Foraging Spectrum

  1. Good discussion. I tried to direct Horgan and other Diamond champions to a similar post on my blog

  2. Pingback: The Foraging Spectrum - and a spectrum of anthropology blogs | Anthropology Report

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