4. There is a problem involved in any attempt to draw conclusions about original, “pure” hunter-gatherer cultures from reported observations of living hunter gatherer societies. If we have a description of a primitive culture, it ordinarily will have been written by some civilized person.
If the description is detailed, then, by the time it was written, the primitive people described very likely will have had significant contact, direct or indirect, with civilization, and such contact can bring about dramatic changes in a primitive culture.
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, in the epilogue to the 1989 edition of her book The Harmless People,describes the catastrophically destructive effect of civilization on the Bushmen she knew. Harold B. Barclay has pointed out that (for example) modern Eskimos “are quite pleased with their high powered rifles, motorboats and so forth.”“So forth” would include snowmobiles. Hence, Barclay says, “hunter gatherers today are in no sense identical to hunter gatherers of a thousand or ten thousand year ago.”
According to Cashdan, writing in 1989, “all hunter-gatherers in the world today are in contact, directly or indirectly, with the world economy. This fact should caution us against viewing today’s hunter-gatherers as ‘snapshots’ of the past.”
Of course, in seeking evidence of the way human beings lived prior to the advent of civilization, no one in his right mind would turn to peoples who used motorboats, snowmobiles, and high-powered rifles,113 or to peoples whose cultures had obviously been grossly disrupted by the intrusion of civilized societies. We look for accounts of hunter-gatherers written (at least) several decades ago and at a time when — as far as we can tell — their cultures had not been seriously altered by contact with civilization. But it’s not always easy to tell whether contact with civilization has altered a primitive culture. Coon is clearly aware of this problem, and in his excellent survey of hunter-gatherer cultures he gives the following example of how seemingly slight interference from civilization can have a dramatic effect on a primitive culture: When “well-meaning missionaries handed out steel axes” to the Yir Yoront aborigines of Australia, the “Yir Yoront world almost came to an end. The men lost their authority over their wives, a generation gap appeared,” and a system of trade stretching over hundreds of miles was disrupted.
Richard Lee’s Bushmen are perhaps the favorite example for anarchoprimitivists and leftish anthropologists who want to present a politically-correct image of hunter-gatherers, and Lee’s Bushmen were among the least “pure” of the hunter gatherers we’ve mentioned here. They may not even have always been hunter gatherers. In any case they had probably been trading with agricultural and pastoral peoples for a couple of thousand years.The Kung Bushmen whom Mrs.
Thomas knew had metal acquired through trade,and the same apparently was true of Lee’s Bushmen.Mrs. Thomas writes: “In the ten to twenty years after we started our work, many academics [this presumably includes Richard Lee] developed an enormous interest in the Bushmen. Many of them went to Botswana to visit groups of Kung Bushmen, and for a time in Botswana, the anthropologists/ Bushmen ratio seemed almost one to one.”
Obviously, the presence of so many anthropologists may itself have affected the behavior of the Bushmen. In the 1950’s,120 when Turnbull studied them, still more in the 1920’s and 1930’s121 when Schebesta studied them, the Mbuti apparently had not had much direct contactwith civilization, so that Schebesta went so far as to claim that “the Mbuti not only racially, but also psychologically and in terms of cultural history, are a primeval phenomenon (Urphanomen) among the races and peoples of the Earth.”Yet the Mbuti had already begun to be somewhat affected by civilization a few years before Schebesta’s first visit to them.
And for centuries before that, the Mbuti had lived in close contact (which included extensive trade relations) with noncivilized, village-dwelling cultivators of crops.124 As Schebesta wrote, “The belief that the Mbuti have been hermetically sealed off from the outer world has been laid to rest once and for all.”
Turnbull goes farther: “’This is in no way to say that the [social] structure to be found among the Mbuti is representative of an original pygmy hunting and gathering structure; in fact probably far from it, for the repercussions of the invasion of the forest by the village cultivators have been enormous.”
Though some of Gontran de Poncins’s Eskimos were “purer” than others,it appears that all of them had at least some trade goods from the whites. If any reader cares to take the trouble to track down the earliest primary sources — perhaps some of Vilhjalmur Stefansson’s work — so as to approach as closely as possible to an original and “pure” Eskimo culture, I would be interested to hear of his or her findings. But it is possible that even long before European contact the Eskimos’ culture may have been affected by something that they received from a non-hunting society; for their sled dogs may not have originated with huntergatherers.
With the Siriono we come closer to purity than we do with the Bushmen, the Mbuti, or Poncins’s Eskimos. The Siriono did not even have dogs, and even though they cultivated crops to a limited extent anthropologists regarded their culture as Paleolithic (Old Stone Age).Some of the Siriono studied by Holmberg had had little or no contact with whites prior to Holmberg’s arrival and, among those Siriono, European tools were rarely encountered until Holmberg himself introduced them.
Instead, the Siriono made their tools of naturally-occurringlocal materials.The Siriono moreover were so primitive that they could not count beyond three.Nevertheless, Siriono culture might have been affectedby contact with more “advanced” societies, since Holmberg thought the Siriono were “probably a remnant of an ancient population that was exterminated, absorbed, or engulfed by more civilized invaders.” Lauriston Sharp even suggested that the Siriono might have “degenerated” [sic] “from a more advanced technical condition,” though Holmberg rejected this view and Sharp himself considered it “irrelevant.”
In addition, the Siriono might have been affected indirectly by European civilization, since probably at least some of the diseases from which they suffered, e.g., malaria, had been brought to the Americas by Europeans. It’s not surprising that most of the hunter-gatherers I’ve mentioned here — like those cited by the anarchoprimitivists and the politically-correct anthropologists — were affected by direct or indirect contact with agricultural or pastoral peoples even long before their first contact with Europeans, because outside of Australia, Tasmania, and the far west and north of North America “populations which remained faithful to the old hunter-gatherer way of live were small and scattered.”
Consequently, with the possible exception of some who lived on small islands, they necessarily had some form of contact with surrounding non-hunter-gatherer populations.
Probably the Australian Aborigines and the Tasmanians were the hunter-gatherers who were purest when Europeans first found them. Australia was the only continent that was inhabited exclusively by hunter-gatherers until the white man’s arrival, and Tasmania, an island just to the south of Australia, was even more isolated. But Tasmania may have been visited by Polynesians, and in the north of Australia there was some limited contact with people from Indonesia and New Guinea prior to the arrival of Europeans.Still earlier contact with outsiders, who mayor may not have been hunter-gatherers, is probable.Thus we have no conclusive proof that hunter-gatherer cultures that survived into recent times had not been seriously affected by contact with non-hunter-gatherers by the time thefirst descriptions of them were written.
Consequently, more or less uncertainty is involved in using reports on recent hunter-gatherer societies to draw conclusions about gender relations among prehistoric hunter-gatherers. And any conclusions drawn from archaeological remains about the social relationships between men and women can only be highly speculative. So, if you like, you can reject all evidence from descriptions of recent hunter-gatherer cultures, and in that case we know almost nothing about the gender relations of prehistoric hunter-gatherers.
Or (with the necessary reservations) you can accept the evidence from recent hunter-gatherer societies, and in that case the evidence clearly points to a significant degree of male dominance. In either case, there is no evidence to support the anarchoprimitivists’ belief that all or most human societies had full gender equality prior to the advent of agriculture and animal husbandry some ten thousand years ago.