May 22, 2012

“Where am I? Among what do I move?”

Posted in Hunter-gatherers tagged , at 4:11 pm by Jeremy

I’m going to resume posting on this blog sections of the book I’m writing entitled Liology: Towards an Integration of Science and Meaning.  Last year, I posted in this blog the first four chapters of the book.  Today, I’m beginning with the first section of my chapter on the world of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, entitled “The Giving Environment: The World of the Hunter-Gatherers.”  It will examine their lifestyle and cosmology, and identify their values which are in many ways so fundamentally different from our own.

The first section, below, is called “Where am I?  Among what do I move?” is about some of the conceptual issues arising from any serious study of hunter-gatherer cosmology:

  • the common error of applying anachronistic viewpoints and values to hunter-gatherers;
  • the question whether any universal values can actually be applied to such a diverse group;
  • how valid is it to use observations about contemporary hunter-gatherer groups to understand those from our distant past.

As always, please feel free to leave me any constructive comments or thoughts.

‘Where am I?  Among what do I move?”

Modern political commentators frequently like to use the example of hunter-gatherers to make their point about our underlying human nature, as if to show that their position is unassailably correct.  It’s a tradition that goes back hundreds of years.  The seventeenth century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, famously wrote that “the state of men without civil society (which state may be called the state of nature) is nothing but a war of all against all,” leading to “continual fear, and danger of violent death,” as a result of which the life of man was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”[1]

For Thomas Hobbes, the lives of hunter-gatherers were “nasty, brutish and short.”

In the turning intellectual tides of the following century, the diametrically opposed romantic myth of the “noble savage,” associated with the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, took hold of the European imagination.[2]*  Nowadays, the references are more sophisticated but the underlying themes remain.  Liberal commentators like to emphasize the group-oriented, sharing mentality of our hunter-gatherer ancestors (also sometimes referred to as “foragers”), while their conservative opponents continue the Hobbesian line, pointing to the endemic warfare of many pre-civilized cultures.

For Rousseau, hunter-gatherers were “noble savages.”

In reality, any attempt to understand the hunter-gatherer worldview through the lens of our modern value system is doomed to draw a distorted and inaccurate picture.  Such perspectives are by their very nature anachronistic, using conceptual structures that developed many thousands of years after the patterns of thought evolved that infuse hunter-gatherer cognition.  Therefore, this chapter attempts the daunting challenge of painting an impression of the hunter-gatherer worldview without applying modern values to the picture.  The approach is first to identify the underpinnings of how foragers made sense of their world, then to relate this to the mythic consciousness described in the previous chapter, and finally to trace how certain core values characteristic to hunter-gatherers arose from this worldview.

But first, another potential conceptual stumbling block has to be resolved.  A chapter on the “hunter-gatherer worldview” implicitly assumes that there is, in fact, a unitary worldview of hunter-gatherers that can be described.  How can that be?  How can a group of forest-dwellers deep in the heart of the Amazon see the world in the same way as a community of Inuit up in the Arctic circle?  For that matter, since hunter-gatherers have been around since time immemorial, who’s to say if their worldview today has any similarity to that of their ancestors in past millennia?  There is some truth in these objections.  The languages and the specific attributes of the environment differ drastically for different hunter-gatherer cultures.  One culture may be oriented around a river, another around the migration of a particular animal.  In fact, the differences between various cultures are some of the marvels of our world and are justifiably celebrated as such.  But over many decades of anthropological research, there has been an increasing realization of what the prominent anthropologist Bruce Trigger calls “certain cross-cultural uniformities in human behavior.”[3]  These uniformities tend to exist under the surface of the specific beliefs and practices of different forager groups, leading to underlying patterns of thought that are remarkably similar across cultures even while the manifestations of those patterns are delightfully unique for each culture. These underlying patterns relate to what’s been described as “that organization of ideas which answers to a man the questions: Where am I?  Among what do I move?  What are my relations to these things?”[4]  They are the underlying structures of the hunter-gatherer’s “cognitive orientation in a cosmos.”[5] In the words of anthropologist A. Irving Hallowell, “there are basic premises and principles implied, even if these do not happen to be consciously formulated and articulated by the people themselves.”[6]  In short, they form the infrastructure of the hunter-gatherer worldview, and it’s this chapter’s mission to try to describe them.

Given the earlier warning about anachronisms, it’s important to spend a moment on another potential source of controversy in understanding hunter-gatherer cultures: whether or not it’s valid to use contemporary observations made by anthropologists to impute the primordial hunter-gatherer worldview all the way back to Upper Paleolithic days.

Kalahari Bushmen: is it valid to use modern hunter-gatherers as a model of earlier pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer societies?

The 19th century archaeologist Sir John Lubbock, who first coined the terms Paleolithic and Neolithic, kicked off this tradition, writing a bestseller called Pre-historic Times in which he considered the foragers of his era as “the living representatives of the hunter-gatherers of the Upper Paleolithic.”[7]  We’ve come a long way since then, and modern theorists warn that it’s “unreliable to generalize from the ethnographic present to the paleolithic past without explicit supporting evidence.”[8]  After all, not only is there the question of how hunter-gatherer cosmology may have evolved on its own accord, but there’s also the inevitable influence from agricultural communities surrounding those few hunter-gatherer societies that still remain.  Nevertheless, in the words of modern scholar Robert Wright, “they’re the best clues we’ll ever have to generic religious beliefs circa 12,000 BCE, before the invention of agriculture.  Cave paintings are attractive, but they don’t talk.”[9]*  Given our search for underlying uniformities in the hunter-gatherer worldview, it seems reasonable to apply the general principle that the more you see a structural pattern in different contemporary hunter-gatherer cultures, the more confidently you can apply this pattern to the past.

[Next post: Everything is connected]


[1] Hobbes, T. (1651).  Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, London: Andrew Crooke, Chapter XIII.

[2] See Keeley, L. H. (1996). War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage, New York: Oxford University Press, 5-8, for a detailed summary of the Hobbes versus Rousseau debate.  However, it should be noted that Rousseau, although an ardent critic of Hobbes, in fact never used the “noble savage” phrase, which was coined by the English poet John Dryden in 1672 in the poem “The Conquest of Granada.”

[3] Trigger, B. G. (2003). Understanding Early Civilizations, New York: Cambridge University Press, 683.

[4] Redfield, R. (1952).  “The Primitive World View”, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 96, 30-36.

[5] Hallowell, A. I. (1960/2002). “Ojibwa ontology, behavior, and world view”, in G. Harvey, (ed.), Readings in Indigenous Religions. New York: Continuum, 19-20.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Renfrew, C. (2007). Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind, New York: Modern Library: Random House, 152.

[8] Ibid., 118-19.

[9] Wright, R. (2009). The Evolution of God, New York: Hachette Book Group, 17.  His view is echoed by renowned archaeologist Graeme Barker who writes “… although there is today, and has been in the recent past, considerable variability in forager societies, much more striking are the similarities that can be discerned in the economic, organizational, and ideational or cognitive solutions that most of them have developed for living as they do.  For all the difficulties of using ethnographic material, the behaviours of recent and present-day foragers remain an invaluable resource for helping us reflect on the likely characteristics of forager behaviours before farming.”  See Barker, G. (2009). The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory: Why did Foragers become Farmers?, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 44.

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