Abstract and Keywords
This general introductory chapter examines the history of hunter-gatherer researchand outlines the general goals of the handbook. It starts by tracing the early origins of the concept of hunter-gatherers, and investigates its increasing role in the emerging disciplines of archaeology and anthropology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Factors leading to the emergence of modern hunter-gatherer studies in the mid-twentieth century are examined, and some of the foundational debates and overarching theoretical frameworks are reviewed. The increasing intellectual diversification of the field is explored, and a summary overview of the main contemporary research directions is provided. Having critically examined these earlier developments, the chapter concludes by outlining the rationale for a new handbook on the archaeology and anthropology of hunter-gatherers, and sumarizes its structure and thematic content.
The study of hunting and gathering populations remains a vibrant interdisciplinary research field situated at the intellectual heart of both archaeology and anthropology. Early considerations of hunting and gathering societies can be found among the work of eighteenth-century intellectuals, and a more detailed treatment of the foraging way of life was central to the founding and development of both archaeology and anthropology as closely related academic disciplines in the nineteenth century.
Over the past hundred years or so, hunter-gatherer research has undergone cumulative expansion and diversification, and has also weathered a range of internal and external critiques. Today, the study of hunter-gatherers remains as important as ever, but grappling with the immense and increasingly specialized research literature can be a daunting challenge. This handbook makes a detailed review of the field both timely and also a valuable exercise for researchers, scholars, teachers, and students. The topics, materials, and ongoing debates examined throughout this handbook demonstrate that interest in hunter-gatherers is alive and well, and that the research field is flourishing, with several important themes requiring future research.
Why Study Hunter-Gatherers?
The investigation of hunter-gatherers is central to the disciplines of archaeology and anthropology, both of which attempt to document and explain the immense diversity in human cultures (Ames 2004, 364). Until around 12,000 years ago, virtually all humanity lived as foragers (Lee and Daly 1999, 1). Therefore, the hunter-gatherer lifestyle represents the conditions in which key periods of human evolution occurred prior to the emergence and subsequent spread of agro-pastoral farming in the Holocene (Barnard 2004, 1). While living as foragers humanity developed the definitive physical traits and mental capacities that are shared by all people to this day (e.g. Mithen 1996). Due to this important historical legacy, the study of hunting and gathering societies has come to serve as a testing ground for general theories about human evolution, as well as to speculate about the ‘original’ social, ideological, and political condition of all humanity.
(p. 2) The study of forager societies may also hold the key to some of the central questions about human social life, politics, and gender, as well as diet, nutrition, sustainable human–environment relations, and perhaps also ‘long-term human futures’ (Lee and Daly 1999, 1). For this reason, ‘ideas observed, tested, or refined with the study of hunter-gatherers have been among the most important areas of anthropological research’ (Hitchcock and Biesele 2000, 3).
Early Research on Hunter-Gatherer Societies
The communities who eventually became labelled as ‘hunter-gatherers’ saw increasing attention in European political and social thought from the sixteenth century onwards (Lee and Daly 1999, 7; see Barnard, Pluciennik, Part I). Speculations about these societies drew on the accounts of ‘savages’ that were being collected by European travellers and explorers in newly discovered areas of the globe, all of which made the subsequent intellectual treatment and classification of these diverse populations a highly contingent and subjective exercise (Pluciennik, Part I). However, the more formal intellectual development of hunter-gatherer studies closely parallels the disciplinary history of North American anthropology (covering all four sub-fields: cultural, physical, and linguistic anthropology, and also archaeology), and in Europe, the history of social anthropology (i.e. the ethnographic study of contemporary societies) and archaeology (the study of past societies through their surviving material remains).
With rapid nineteenth-century growth in European imperialism, colonial settlement, and increasing general knowledge about the ‘exotic’ peoples living in other parts of the world, as well as growing archaeological appreciation of the extended antiquity of humanity, contemporary thinkers tried to rationalize this new information, and attempted to find ways of classifying human cultural diversity into logical schema. Scholars also began to theorize about early human origins, as well as the later developments that had generated the contemporary conditions of cultural diversity: anthropology focused on the study of ‘traditional’ non-European societies; archaeology emerged as a discipline tasked with making sense of past societies. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, scholars began to erect complex social evolutionary schemes that mapped out different general stages in the progression of humanity towards higher levels of cultural, moral, and intellectual achievement. Specific stages such as savagery, barbarism, and civilization were defined by differences in economy, social forms, and technological attributes. Hunting societies were essential elements in these progressive evolutionary schema, because they were used to illustrate some of the lower sub-stages, thereby forming a base-line against which subsequent developments and achievements could be measured and contrasted (e.g. Morgan 1877). However, these ideas were closely associated with a unique perspective on the world that was developing among Western educated elites at this time (see Pluciennik, Part I).
More generally, many founding researchers in anthropology either undertook extended ethnographic fieldwork, or completed detailed analytical treatments of (p. 3) hunter-gatherer societies. Fieldworkers included Franz Boas (1966), who visited the Canadian Arctic (1888) and the Pacific Northwest Coast, followed by Kroeber’s extensive research in California (Kroeber 1925), and Robert Lowie’s work among the Crow Indians (Lowie 1935). Other important research traditions included Danish studies in Greenland and Arctic Canada, early ethnographic fieldwork in Australia (Keen, Part VI), and also major international projects, including the Jesup North Pacific Expedition (Lee and Daly 1999, 7–8).
Working in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Boas’s experience of fieldwork led him to attack classical evolutionary schemes on both empirical and moral grounds—he argued they were inherently racist and based largely on armchair speculation, rather than direct and detailed knowledge gathered first hand through extended ethnographic field research with specific groups. In Race, language and culture (Boas 1911), he examined how these three attributes varied independently: some cultures could have a simple technology but a very complex world view; all languages were equally complex and suitable for abstract thought; and there was also important variations in cultural achievements within one and the same ‘race’.
Boas went on to develop a contrasting perspective on human cultural diversity. In rejecting uniform patterns or discrete cultural stages, he argued that all local cultures are essentially unique formations, which needed to be understood on their own terms (‘cultural relativism’), and that their traits and attributes were historically contingent constellations produced through highly specific cultural histories or via contacts and diffusion. As a result, these distinctive cultural patterns should always be studied on an individual case-by-case basis (‘historical particularism’), and could never be lumped together into universal stages, as social evolutionary thinkers had suggested.
As the founder of American anthropology, Boas also argued for conducting extended ethnographic field research, generating a discipline with a distinctive emphasis on understanding the unique features of local cultures via sustained fieldwork (Lee and Daly 1999, 7). He also argued that ethnographic museum collections were better ordered according to tribes living in different geographical areas, rather than the kinds of typological categories or hypothetical evolutionary schemes that were influential, especially in late nineteenth-century Europe (Trigger 2006, 180–1). Later, Boasian thinking also fed into some of the first detailed ethnographic treatments of North American culture areas (e.g. Wissler 1917; and see Garvey and Bettinger, Part I, this volume).
A focus on hunter-gatherers can be identified in the work of other early European anthropologists. For example, in France early library-based research was conducted by Emile Durkheim, writing on Australian Aborigine religion in The elementary forms of the religious life (French = 1912; English version 1915 which is the one cited here), and Marcel Mauss (Mauss and Beauchat 1979 ) on the seasonal life of the Eskimo. Two decades later, Claude Lévi-Strauss started with hunter-gatherers and fieldwork in Brazil, before looking at the origins of kinship and mythology (Lévi-Strauss 1969 ). Important early work by British anthropologists included Malinowski on Australian Aborigines (1913) and Radcliffe-Brown (1922) among the Andaman Islanders. Radcliffe-Brown (1931) later produced a classic work on Australian Aborigine social organization and helped to establish a focus on studies of kinship as a definitive feature of British social anthropology.
(p. 4) Hunter-gatherer research was also central to the later intellectual growth of archaeology as it outgrew its early Antiquarian origins. With the main bulk of human evolutionary history spent as hunters and gatherers, those studying human origins and the earlier prehistoric past also came to focus on understanding early forager societies. In fact, the study of hunter-gatherers can be linked directly to the emergence of prehistoric archaeology. In Scandinavia, early treatments of long-term human cultural development had used general changes in material culture to define successive technological stages or eras, each reflecting discrete temporal segments (Thomson’s three-age system of Stone, Bronze, and Iron: see Rowley-Conwy 2007). Meanwhile, studies in France and England began to focus on understanding the very earliest ages of mankind, which triggered an increasing interest in early hunting societies, and the realization that the Stone Age of Europe needed to be divided into the Old Stone Age (Palaeolithic) and New Stone Age (Neolithic: Trigger 2006, 121–38).
In the later nineteenth century, it is also possible to identify a growing mutual engagement between the archaeological and anthropological study of hunter-gatherers, a trend that persists through to the present. Early prehistorians started to draw on ethnographic parallels to speculate about the kinds of human existence that defined earlier stages of prehistory (Trigger 2006, 138–55). For example, Lubbock, in Prehistoric times: as illustrated by ancient remains, and the manners and customs of modern savages (Lubbock 1865) drew on general ethnographic sketches of modern tribal societies. He reasoned that, just as modern elephants provide information about the anatomy of extinct mammoths, so ‘modern primitive societies’ could shed some light on the behaviour of prehistoric humans. However, most of the ethnographic descriptions were used to draw only very general analogies between ‘primitive’ and ‘prehistoric’ peoples. Only in a few specific cases did Lubbock identify more specific parallels, for example, noting similarities in the tool-kits of the modern Inuit and the societies of the Upper Palaeolithic (Trigger 2006, 171–3).
This early archaeological use of ethnographic information also implicitly reflected contemporary social evolutionary thinking. Modern hunter-gatherers were assumed to have become trapped in an earlier mode of human existence, and as prehistoric archaeologists struggled to make sense of the artefacts they were finding, they looked to detailed ethnographic studies to provide relatively direct insights into what was assumed to be a distinctive general stage of human development. In this way, the study of hunter-gatherer ethnography formed a way for archaeologists to understand an earlier stage of prehistoric existence that almost all other humanity was assumed to have progressed away from. The increasing use of ethnography in archaeology continued with William Sollas (1911), who was the first to define ‘hunter-gatherers’ as a specific way of life in Ancient hunters and their modern representatives. Again, he used ethnographic descriptions of contemporary hunter-gatherer groups such as the modern Eskimo, who were argued to represent prehistoric Magdelanian people, and African Bushmen, who were used as parallels for Aurignacian hunters.
Thus, by the end of the nineteenth century, and into the early part of the twentieth century, it is possible to identify the emergence of the concept of ‘hunter-gatherers’ as representing a distinct kind of society, as well as several influential research traditions, including progressive social evolutionary thinking and the Boasian school of ‘historical particularism’. Finally, it is possible to identify the increasing use of ethnographic parallels from modern hunter-gatherer societies to help understand and illustrate the archaeological record.
(p. 5) The Emergence of Modern Hunter-Gatherer Studies
In the early part of the twentieth century, and particularly in the 1930s, anthropological analysis of hunter-gatherers was starting to move towards two overarching themes: the structuring role of kinship in band societies, and the role of ecology and adaptation. The growing interest in kinship in hunter-gatherer ‘band’ societies was led by Radcliffe-Brown (1931), and helped to establish the distinctive functionalist focus of British social anthropology. Growing interest in exploring the role of ecology and adaptation emerged in North America. Boas’s historical particularism still formed the mainstream of anthropological thinking, but there was growing interest in revisiting and updating some of the concepts surrounding cultural evolution, a trend closely associated with the Neo-evolutionary thinking of Leslie White and Julian Steward (Trigger 2006, 387).
White regarded himself as the intellectual heir of L. H. Morgan (Trigger 2006, 387) and engaged in an explicit rejection of Boasian historical particularism, offering instead the concept of ‘general evolution’. However, White ignored the influence of the environment on culture, and focused instead on what he saw as main lines of cultural development (Trigger 2006, 388)—cultures were best regarded as elaborate thermo-dynamic systems that gained increasing control of energy flows, and functioned to make human life more secure and enduring. With reliance only on human muscle, energy capture by hunter-gatherers was rather limited, placing them at the lower end of this spectrum. In contrast, industrialists and urban civilizations had harnessed control of fossil fuels and were in the process of mastering nuclear power, placing them at higher levels of these general sequences of development.
In contrast, the new framework of ‘cultural ecology’ emerged through the fieldwork of Julian Steward in the Great Basin (see Garvey and Bettinger, Part I, and Robinson, Part VI). This research examined the distinctive social organization of hunter-gatherer bands (Steward 1936; 1938; and see 1955), but also sought general explanatory factors for these patterns by examining the historical dynamics of human–environment adaptations. Steward’s key contribution to the study of hunter-gatherers was therefore to focus on what bands actually did for a living. This led to a more empirical and ecologically orientated approach to the study of cultural evolution, with historically contingent patterns of adaptation regarded as being crucial in determining potentially different lines of cultural development, as well as the general limits of variation in different cultural systems. Steward’s cultural ecology went on to generate a contrasting multilinear approach to the study of cultural evolution (Trigger 2006, 389). Steward also argued that hunter-gatherer societies were ideal for this kind of approach because the details of these kinds of ‘simpler cultures’ are much more directly conditioned by the characteristics of the local environment than more complex ones. For example, the timing and characteristics of important food sources such as fish runs and game migrations would effectively determine the social organization and other habits of forager tribes exploiting those resources (Steward 1955).
Many now regard Steward as the ‘founder of modern hunter-gatherer studies’ (Lee and DeVore 1968, 5). His cultural ecology was particularly attractive to a new generation (p. 6) of anthropologists because it overcame the cautious Boasian paradigm by proposing a ‘materialist’ and natural science perspective on human behaviour, especially among ‘simpler’ band-scale societies (Schweitzer 2000, 35). Cultural ecology had a dramatic impact on American anthropology in the 1950s and 1960s. However, it was never a nomothetic approach, and sought initially to understand only the particular details of local cultural patterns on a case-by-case basis, rather than to derive general principles that could be applicable to any culture–environmental situation (Kelly 1995, 42–3; see Garvey and Bettinger, Part I).
Slightly later, Service (1962; 1966; 1975) blended the work of White and Steward in an attempt to reconcile the two, and used ethnographic data to illustrate highly general developmental sequences, for example, from bands and chiefdoms through to states. This generated renewed interest in understanding hunter-gatherers as quintessential examples of ‘band-scale’ societies, and also reinforced the importance of Radcliffe-Brown’s (1931) model of patrilocal band organization in Australia, to which Steward had added other kinds of band. Service later went on to argue that the patrilocal band was typical for all hunter-gatherers in the present and also the past, though this generated heated debate (Lee and DeVore 1968, 7). More generally, these developments were positive because they focused attention on the extent to which potential regularities might actually unite different hunter-gatherer societies, encouraging further cross-cultural research into the general features of hunter-gatherer societies and their adaptive dynamics.
It is important to note, however, that the growing interest in hunter-gatherers and their functional ecological and social relations with local environments was not a development limited to North American anthropology. In Europe, there had been earlier interests in applying ecological-functionalist frameworks to the hunter-gatherer archaeological record, as illustrated by Grahame Clark’s work on the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers of Britain and continental Europe (e.g. Clark 1954). Clark had been influenced by several antecedent developments, including new interest in exploring prehistoric cultures in their ecological settings, an approach that first emerged in Scandinavia. He was also exposed to the functionalist approaches of Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown, and was developing an interest in exploring how people actually lived in the past; that is, a focus on the people, not just the details of their tools and artefacts.
This raised new questions about how and why specific items of material culture were produced and used. These different strands of thinking eventually coalesced into an archaeological approach that was not dissimilar to the cultural ecology developed by American anthropologists; that is, that culture is functional and enabled survival, and that all aspects of human culture are influenced to a greater or lesser extent by ecology, such that culture and environment are factors within a single system (Clark 1939). Clark also used ethnographic analogies, but in different ways to his predecessors, looking at specific tool assemblages and not entire cultures, as had hitherto been the practice.
On a more empirical level, Clark also undertook major fieldwork at the Mesolithic site of Star Carr just after the Second World War (1949–52), which set a new standard for the archaeological investigation of hunter-gatherer wetland sites and palaeoeconomic reconstruction. At this time, Hawkes (1954) was arguing that without written records to rely on, prehistoric archaeologists should concentrate on studying lower-level behavioural inferences, such as the details of economic activities and perhaps broader details of social relations, as these were the easiest to identify in the material record. Evidence pertaining to the spirituality, (p. 7) religion, and beliefs of prehistoric societies was likely to remain so ambiguous that attempts to understand these facets of prehistoric life were best regarded as exercises in controlled speculation (Hawkes’s ladder of inference). This kind of thinking about what archaeological analysis could—and could not—reconstruct in the way of details about prehistoric societies and their behaviour tended to reinforce existing trends. Understanding prehistoric hunter-gatherers was therefore regarded as being an exercise in the reconstruction of palaeoeconomy; that is, past subsistence activities.
By the mid-twentieth century, there was also growing interest among American archaeologists in exploring evidence for adaptive human–environment relations, especially in relation to the continent’s rich archaeological record of prehistoric hunter-gatherers. These ideas and interests eventually crystallized into the ‘New Archaeology’ paradigm led by Lewis Binford, who had been a student of Leslie White. Binford followed White (1959) in defining culture as man’s ‘extrasomatic means of adaptation’; that is, that culture serves primarily as a means of adapting to local environments (Binford 1962). These arguments led Binford to start to explore, isolate, and examine the functional dimensions of particular cultural systems.
If culture can be generally regarded as serving some kind of adaptive function, then the specific details of particular cultural systems can be regarded as human responses to the demands of local environments. Moreover, if the environment changes over time, then culture will also need to adjust. Although there may be additional changes in population, leading to demographic pressures, Binford argued that all culture change was ultimately rooted in ecological factors (Trigger 2006, 395–6). It was on the basis of these assumptions that he was led to argue that archaeology had a unique contribution to make—it could address the same kinds of research problems as Steward’s cultural ecology, but importantly, could do so over much longer time-scales. This defined the goal of archaeology as the study of ‘culture process’ (Binford 1965).
These emerging interests in the study of long-term adaptation are often presented as a rather clean break with earlier scholarship, but addressing these new topics only became feasible after the development of radiocarbon dating methods. Prior to the 1950s, archaeologists had faced the primary problem of how best to date archaeological materials, and had used artefact-focused analysis methods such as seriation to reconstruct relative chronologies and broad culture historical sequences (Binford and Johnson 2002, viii; Lyman et al. 1997). With new methods to reconstruct absolute chronologies, archaeologists could shift their research goals towards understanding how adaptive pressures had generated cultural variability and change at different spatial and temporal scales. More generally, however, these renewed concerns with understanding prehistoric adaptation built on and directly complemented an earlier generation of functional-ecological research in both America and in Europe, e.g. in the work of Graham Clark, as noted above (Trigger 2006, 393).
New Archaeologists also emphasized that the reconstruction of culture change was best undertaken by analysing those aspects of behaviour that were most closely associated with adaptation, such as the details of economy and technology. This was a challenging endeavour, and so many early efforts sought to understand adaptation and change in smaller-scale societies, whose relationships with the environment were more direct and empirically measurable—these hunting and gathering cultures also formed a major part of the archaeological record, especially in North America. As with Steward’s cultural (p. 8) ecology, Binford’s parallel concerns with understanding long-term processes of adaptation ensured that hunter-gatherers remained in central focus. Moreover, this renewed interest in identifying and explaining cross-cultural regularities in hunter-gatherer technology, subsistence, and other behavioural attributes now united archaeologists and anthropologists around a common goal.
The Founding Conferences: ‘Man the Hunter’
After the Second World War, anthropological research into hunter-gatherers had coalesced around the two primary themes of kinship and ecological relations, while archaeologists were also becoming increasingly interested in acquiring cross-cultural ethnographic data on forager societies in order to help them better understand the archaeological record. Ethnographic field research conducted within a cultural ecology framework was also generating large bodies of new empirical data on hunter-gatherer subsistence and social relationships, and this required critical synthesis in relation to some of the new theoretical concerns that emerged at the same time (Burch 1994, 2).
In the mid-1960s, a series of summary meetings was held to review progress on key issues. These included the Conference on band organisation in 1965, and the Conference on cultural ecology in 1966. However, the Man the hunter meeting in 1966 is now widely regarded as the consolidation of a new phase in hunter-gatherer studies (Lee and DeVore 1968). In the following decades, these foundational conferences ‘had tremendous impact on the anthropological view of hunter-gatherers…and defined what was germane to know about them’ (Binford 2001, 21).
The main goal of Man the hunter was to present new data and clarify conceptual issues; moreover, this endeavour had a strongly multi-disciplinary nature from the very outset (Lee and DeVore 1968, vii). The aim was to examine new ethnographic field data and look more closely at kinship, social dynamics, and ecological relations, in order to understand the long-term evolution of hunter-gatherer adaptations. In the end, the conference boasted a remarkably diverse array of speakers, including archaeologists, anthropologists, and demographers, whose theoretical approaches spanned ecological and structuralist schools. Papers examined ecology, social and territorial organization, marriage and kinship, demography and population ecology, as well as prehistoric archaeology and the use of ethnographic analogies. The conference title suggests only a narrow concern with ‘man’ and the dynamics of ‘hunting’, but female gender and the utilization of plant resources was an important secondary theme as it became clear that only in Arctic and subarctic regions did populations rely almost entirely on meat (Lee and DeVore 1968, 7). Analysis of gender roles in hunter-gatherer societies has been a central theme ever since (see Sterling, Part I; Jarvenpa and Brumbach, Part VII).
Discussions at Man the hunter were also flavoured by a touch of romanticism: many who attended wanted to understand the essential features of human existence, and were evidently drawn to the study of hunter-gatherers because it was thought that the ‘human condition was likely to be more clearly drawn here than among other kinds of societies’ (Lee and DeVore 1968, x).
(p. 9) Early Formulations of Hunter-Gatherers: ‘Nomadic Style’
By the close of the meeting it was clear that the conference had ‘raised more questions than it answered, [and] there seemed to be a widespread feeling among participants that a useful beginning had been made in understanding the hunters better’ (Lee and DeVore 1968, 11). Nevertheless, Lee and DeVore in their introductory chapter also attempted some sense of synthesis, and made two basic assumptions about hunter-gatherers: 1. they live in small groups; 2. they move around a lot. In addition, it was argued—derived largely on materials gathered from southern Africa—that the hunter-gatherer economic system was based on several core features, including a home base or camp, a gendered division of labour, with males hunting and females gathering, and perhaps most importantly, a central pattern of sharing out the collected food resources. This, they argued, provides a kind of organizational base-line from which subsequent developments can be derived (Lee and DeVore 1968, 12). The behavioural implications of this basic hunter-gatherer economic system were simple but important:
1. If hunter-gatherers do move around a lot to get food, the amount of personal property has to be kept low, and this constraint on property ownership also keeps wealth differentials low, ensuring an egalitarian social order.
2. The nature of the food supply keeps hunter-gatherer groups small in size—normally under 50 persons—as larger concentrations rapidly exhaust local resources and cause members to disperse into smaller foraging units.
3. Hunter-gatherer groups do not maintain exclusive rights to resources: fluid and flexible situations are the norm due to the waxing and waning of inter-group obligations, and widespread visiting and guesting. This ensures reciprocal access to food resources, with this open-access system underpinned by inter-group marriage.
4. Production of food surpluses is not common. Everybody knows where food resources are located and so the environment itself is the store house. Also, each person can monitor the movement of others, so there is no fear that these resources will be secretly appropriated.
5. Frequent visiting prevents particular groups from becoming too attached to specific territories, and a lack of personal and collective property means that mobility is not impeded. Conflict is easily resolved by group fissioning and reformation into new social units.
Lee and DeVore argued that these patterns equated to ‘nomadic style’, and were best exemplified by the forager groups documented by anthropologists in southern Africa, who eventually came to serve as paradigmatic examples of hunter-gatherer band societies.
Man the hunter was also important on another level because it started to overturn lingering assumptions that all foragers were typically people clinging on the brink of starvation, with an inadequate and unreliable food supply forcing them to move around frequently to find scarce resources. The earlier consensus propagated by many nineteenth-century social (p. 10) evolutionary thinkers was that the hunting and gathering lifestyle was, by its very essence, dictated by the economics of scarcity.
These lingering assumptions were confronted by Marshall Sahlins, who outlined an alternative perspective on the ideology of foraging (Sahlins 1968; and see 1972). He presented limited ethnographic data from Africa and Australia that appeared to demonstrate that foragers actually work very few hours to meet their basic economic needs, which Sahlins interpreted as a reflection of deeper cultural confidence in being able to procure resources in even the most extreme environment (Lee and DeVore 1968, 6).
On the basis on these insights, Sahlins branded hunter-gatherers the ‘original affluent society’, but it is important to note that these reinterpretations of foraging societies emerged at the same time as a growing Western unease with the contemporary world. A sense of moral decay was reflected in growing concerns about the escalation of the Vietnam War, and in growing awareness of the environmental impacts of relentless industrialization (Kelly 1995, 15–16). In contrast, anthropologists found that foragers presented an alternative and perhaps more desirable way in which human societies could operate. Ethnographers were able to portray the forager lifestyle as one that consisted primarily of lounging about and socializing, rather than working long and hard just to secure a basic living. These hunter-gatherers did not have a less complex culture because they had no time; rather, the simplicity of their lives stemmed from a zen philosophy that, because they wanted little, they effectively had all they needed.
Sahlins’s influential arguments added further detail to Lee and DeVore’s initial formulations of ‘nomadic style’, and led to the creation of a generalized foraging model that combined deep environmental confidence, a lack of materialism, low population density, egalitarianism, lack of territoriality, minimum storage, and an easy flux in band composition (Kelly 1995, 14–15).
Debating Hunter-Gatherer Variability
The Man the hunter conference ‘set the tone for discussion up through to the present time’ (Binford 2001, 21), and crucially, stimulated further ethnographic fieldwork to collect the empirical data required to test and refine these early models. But even at the original conference there had been preliminary discussions about documented aspects of forager behaviour that did not equate with the predictions of ‘nomadic style’. A good example is Suttles’s (1968) chapter, which focused on the Pacific Northwest Coast (see O’Neill, Part VI). He started to speculate that many definitive features of ‘nomadic style’ would eventually break down due to the inevitable logistical challenges associated with managing variability in the kind of salmon-based fishing economy that characterized the region. According to his analysis, small nomadic bands would eventually be replaced by surplus-producing, and wealth-accumulating, groups who had developed the kinds of essential technological facilities that were required to bank up resources, providing a means of coping with seasonal vagaries in the salmon supply.
The key insight from Suttles’s study is that if maintaining a secure food supply requires increasing territorial control of resources and associated mass-capture facilities, then the ‘loose non-corporate nature of the small-scale society cannot be maintained’ (Lee and (p. 11) DeVore 1968, 12). Crucially, as earlier small-scale egalitarian bands start to be replaced by new forms of social and economic organization, this process opens out long-term developmental trajectories that could eventually lead to major transformations in social relations and technologies. In time, these could also establish the foundations for new kinds of political institution, such as clan organizations, governments, and even the state, all of which ultimately find their origins in the breakdown of nomadic style and the coeval shifts in the internal dynamics of hunter-gatherer societies (Lee and DeVore 1968, 12; and see Hayden, Part IV for a similar argument).
Early formulations of nomadic style had provided a useful starting point, but by the 1970s and earlier 1980s, however, it was becoming increasingly clear that variability extended well beyond these early attempts to summarize typical features of hunter-gatherer society. Researchers attempted to reclassify the forms, causes, and constraints of this diversity, and in the process, variability within as well as between hunter-gatherer groups was increasingly recognized (Kent 1996, 16).
Several early attempts at formulating higher-resolution taxonomic systems became particularly influential, including Woodburn’s (1980; 1982) distinction between immediate return and delayed return hunter-gatherers. Additional contrasts were also drawn between ‘simple’ and ‘complex’ hunter-gatherer societies. Simple hunter-gatherers were best exemplified by nomadic style, which was argued to represent a broadly accurate portrayal of many African and some Australian groups. In contrast, many other hunter-gatherer societies exhibited a wide range of strikingly different attributes and behaviours. The societies of the Pacific Northwest Coast are generally deployed as the definitive ethnographic example of ‘complex’ hunter-gatherers: they exhibit high population densities, accumulate enormous material wealth, live in permanent settlements, and engage in competitive feasting to maintain entrenched social stratification (Arnold 1996; Hayden 1981; Price 1981; Price and Brown 1985; Testart 1982; Woodburn 1980; Yesner 1980; and see Zvelebil 1998, 7; also O’Neill, Part VI).
The distinction between simple and complex hunter-gatherers was initially regarded as an important conceptual breakthrough, and provided a useful way of thinking through some of the more extreme ethnographic contrasts in hunter-gatherer variability. More recently, this kind of binary thinking has been criticized for reducing the inherent flexibility and variability of forager behaviour, social structure, and ideology into rather simplistic oppositional categories such as simple/complex, immediate return/delayed return, mobile/sedentary. In archaeology, these typologies also became problematic because they went on to serve as rigid conceptual frameworks into which disparate evidence was often fitted, with interpretations often illustrated through reference to standard sets of ethnographic examples, such as the Kalahari San and Northwest Coast groups (Kelly 1995, 34; Schweitzer 2000, 45).
New Archaeology, Ethnoarchaeology, and Hunter-Gatherers
From Lubbock (1865), through to Sollas (1911) and Clark (1939), archaeologists studying prehistoric hunter-gatherers had made frequent use of ethnographic analogues to understand (p. 12) and illustrate the lifeways of prehistoric hunter-gatherers. These parallels tended to be rather descriptive, and generally drew on social evolutionary frameworks in order to justify making links between societies living in such different time periods—if all foraging cultures formed a single uniform stage of human development, then ethnography could provide a rather direct entry route into understanding the hunting societies of the more distant past.
Renewed interest in the use of ethnographic analogy emerged within the New Archaeology of the 1960s and 1970s. With increasing interest in developing more robust and explicitly scientific approaches to the study of long-term culture change, archaeologists were seeking to identify general cross-cultural patterning in human behaviour. Anthropologists could generate this kind of insight through close scrutiny of ethnographic datasets, but archaeologists faced an additional challenge in that they had to study prehistoric objects, artefacts, and other material residues in order to indirectly infer these kinds of behaviours among past societies.
Archaeologists eventually realized that they could not understand the archaeological record in isolation, but needed to develop a series of low-level inferences about how different kinds of behaviour generated distinctive archaeological signatures (‘Middle Range Theory’). Moreover, they could not rely on ethnographers to provide these insights, but needed to undertake their own field studies. These concerns eventually promoted the development of hunter-gatherer ‘ethnoarchaeology’, which saw archaeologists engaging in long-term fieldwork with living populations (see Lane, Part I; David and Kramer 2001). Seminal work included Binford’s 1978 study of the Nunamiut in Alaska, Gould’s work in Australia (Gould 1969), and John Yellen’s 1977 study of the Kung (David and Kramer 2001; and see Lane, Part I for a full discussion of hunter-gatherer ethnoarchaeology).
As part of these wider methodological developments, the use of ethnographic parallels was also subjected to much closer scrutiny. In time, a more explicitly theorized treatment of ethnographic analogies became one of the core methodological achievements of New Archaeology and its processual offspring. In seeking to make more systematic use of existing ethnographic datasets—as well as to generate new findings through ethnoarchaeology—archaeologists went on to become both the greatest producers, and also the most eager and enthusiastic consumers, of information pertaining to hunter-gatherer behavioural and socio-political diversity (Ames 2004).
A good example of this kind of interdisciplinary research trend is Binford’s influential forager-collector model, which is presented in ‘Willow smoke and dogs’ tails’ (1980). As noted above, archaeologists had earlier assumed that all hunter-gatherers formed a single kind of society, and this justified the general use of modern ethnographic analogies in archaeological interpretations, irrespective of specific environmental settings, and fundamental differences in subsistence, mobility strategies, and other aspects of behaviour. This kind of logic enabled modern San forager groups from the Kalahari Desert to be readily used as rather direct analogues for a wide range of prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies.
Fresh from ethnoarchaeological fieldwork in Alaska (Binford 1978), Binford wanted to demonstrate that there were many hunting and gathering societies whose behavioural attributes were fundamentally different to those of the San, who were still being regarded as the paradigmatic examples of the nomadic style thought to typify all hunter-gatherers (Binford 1980). Having worked closely with the Nunamiut in Alaska, Binford wanted to highlight that there were potentially very different ways of positioning people relative to resources, and that these contrasting strategies (foraging versus collecting) tended to co-vary in a (p. 13) rather predictable way with both latitude and the seasonal availability of local resources. Establishing these broad distinctions in adaptive strategies provided a way of summarizing this recognized ethnographic variability in ways that could be useful to archaeologists seeking to make sense of prehistoric data. In fact, Binford went on to devote most of his career to ‘accounting for patterns of variability in hunter-gatherer adaptation’ (Trigger 2006, 394). In turn, his work made fundamental contributions to hunter-gatherer studies more generally, and also served to maintain the inherently interdisciplinary character of this endeavour.
In Britain, another version of New Archaeology was developing with the work of David Clarke (1968), which attempted to systematize the analysis of material culture traditions. Prior to this, the main concern had been development of artefact typologies, rather than reconstruction of human behaviour (Trigger 2006, 431). Clarke wanted to develop a fuller understanding of material culture, and a substantial part of his research involved quantitative analysis of the Western North American Indian (WNAI) datasets. The WNAI were argued by Clarke to constitute some of the most detailed hunter-gatherer ethnographic records in the world, and had been assembled under the direction of Alfred Kroeber, a student of Boas. They recorded the lifeways and cultural traditions of scores of different hunter-gatherers in the most minute detail, and provided Clarke with a factual basis for developing more resolutely anthropological (or behavioural) perspective on spatial distribution patterns in material culture, generating deeper, cross-cultural insights that would eventually have utility for archaeologists (Clarke 1968, 368–88).
Revisionist Approaches and Culture-Contact
In the immediate post-Man the hunter era, the paradigmatic goal for modern hunter-gatherer studies was to reveal definitive socio-economic and cultural patterns, so that once these common attributes had been identified, higher-level generalizations could eventually be drawn from the confusion and ‘noise’ of particularistic ethnographic detail. Such systematic behavioural insights would also be useful for making archaeological inferences. In seeking cross-cultural regularities—rather than variations—between hunter-gatherer groups (Bird-David 1996), the general quest was to identify and understand archetypal forager societies. Eventually, hunter-gatherers from the Kalahari Desert of South Africa came to be understood as typical not just of all contemporary foragers, but also to personify the original human condition (Kelly 1995, 15).
Moreover, the cultural ecology framework developed by Julian Steward and used in many of these interpretations tended to implicitly replicate the nineteenth-century view that modern hunter-gatherers were largely timeless populations, at stable equilibrium with their respective environments, having had little motivation to change over the millennia (Kelly 1995, 47). The Kalahari San, for example, were widely assumed to constitute exemplars of an older form of human life, that prevailed everywhere on earth until pastoralism and agriculture began to expand some 12,000 years ago (Suzman 2004). Indeed, Suzman (2004) argues that the 1960s and 1970s was the last stage in ‘lost world anthropology’, when researchers still hoped to find the last remaining populations of these kinds of authentic hunter-gatherers.
(p. 14) However, those scholars who continued to advocate a strongly ecological approach to the study of human culture left themselves increasingly exposed to criticism from more mainstream anthropology. Beyond the sub-field of hunter-gatherer studies, there were renewed interests in the dynamics of culture-contact, and in acknowledging the enormous impacts that colonialism and imperialism had had on all indigenous cultures. Particularly problematic was the implicit choice within hunter-gatherer studies to portray modern forager groups as relatively pristine, isolated, and self-sufficient units, whose internal dynamics were stripped of both history, as well as the effects of participating in wider spheres of interaction (Kelly 1995, 47). These older assumptions were subjected to withering critique in the 1980s and early 1990s, which eventually called into question the very empirical and epistemological basis of modern hunter-gatherer studies (see, for example, Lee 1992).
Initially, this critique focused on ethnographic portrayals of forager groups in southern Africa, and went on to become known as the Kalahari Debate (see Hitchcock, Part VI). These groups had been presented as hunters and gatherers living under changing circumstances, but still exemplars of a long-standing kind of original human adaptation. This ‘traditionalist’ perspective was increasing challenged by ‘revisionist’ arguments, which took into account the complex history of the wider region. These alternative insights emphasized that all the Kalahari foraging groups had been in long-term culture-contact with surrounding farmers and pastoralists, and rather than epitomizing some kind of original human condition, were perhaps better understood as a kind of impoverished rural underclass, which had been pushed into marginal areas through the impacts of wider economic and political developments that had played out across the region, including the more recent effects of European colonialism (Wilmsen 1983; 1989).
While focusing on forager groups in Africa, the revisionist position in the Kalahari Debate had implications for all hunter-gatherer studies. If culture-contact had been a defining feature of all modern hunter-gatherer groups, then could they still be understood as a timeless, self-contained, and relatively distinctive kind of society, or were many aspects of their behaviour a product of more recent historical developments such as colonialism (Bender and Morris 1988; Kent 1992; Lee 1992; Solway and Lee 1990; Wilmsen and Denbow 1990)?
As debates intensified, it became increasingly clear that hunter-gatherers had also been in different kinds of culture-contact for many millennia, rather than a few decades or a couple of centuries. Spielman and Eder (1994), for example, review the immense literature on forager–farmer contacts amongst some of the ‘classic’ foraging societies, including the Kalahari San, the Efe of north-east Zaire, the Kenyan Okiek, as well as the Agta of the Phillipines and some South Asian groups, including the Hill Pandaram. Common dynamics in these relationships include the acquisition of carbohydrate-rich foods produced by farmers in exchange for forest products such as honey, resins, and medicinal plants, and for labour procured by foragers.
These insights cast further doubt on the assumption that any modern hunter-gatherer groups can be regarded as survivals of an older and relatively unchanged kind of human existence—all are products of complex local transformations, and so their present-day behaviours and attributes must be explained through reference to these wider processes. Headland and Reid (1989, 52) concluded that until the misconception of hunter-gatherers as primitive and isolated was corrected, ‘our image of hunter-gatherer culture and ecology will remain incomplete and distorted’.
(p. 15) More generally, these debates about the role of history and culture-contact formed part of wider moves in anthropology to address the deep impacts of Western colonialism on societies that ethnographers had hitherto regarded as being exotic, timeless, and traditional (Asad 1991). In turn, however, revisionist portrayals of hunter-gatherers were critiqued for generating negative new stereotypes—foragers were presented as powerless colonial victims, or as a rural proletariat that was defined by a culture of poverty (Kelly 1995, 29).
Perhaps the major outcome of wider revisionist critique is that hunter-gatherer societies are now considered within their wider ecological and historical setting, rather than as direct analogies for the social organization and behaviour of ancient humans and early hominins (Ames 2004, 366). As the importance of culture-contact among hunter-gatherers became more widely acknowledged, anthropologists actually embraced this theme as a major new research direction focused on understanding the inherent flexibility and dynamism of foraging societies within particular historical and ecological settings (see chapters in Part VI). Paradoxically, these new anthropological insights into forager–farmer contacts, and the historical contingency of much hunter-gatherer behaviour became of increasing interest to archaeologists in the 1990s, as they sought new ways to understand potentially analogous encounters in prehistory, such as the transition to farming in Europe (see below and Part V).
Historical and Humanist Research Traditions
Anthropology of Hunter-Gatherers
Even directly after Man the hunter, many researchers were moving away from ecological and adaptive approaches, and were starting to explore other themes and topics (Lee and Daly 1999, 9). Hunter-gatherer studies had initially grown from a subsistence definition, and rest on the implicit assumption that populations that rely entirely on wild resources for their subsistence will have similar kinds of social organization and follow similar patterns of behaviour. Even with the development of broader hunter-gatherer typologies (see above), this generated a number of tensions within the wider anthropological endeavour, which in North America still traced its roots back to the work of Boas. For example, Kent (1996, 1) notes that ‘while understanding diversity has been a hallmark of anthropological enquiries since the inception of the discipline hunter-gatherer (or forager) studies tend to stress similarities’. Kent also argued that these dominant theoretical orientations had emphasized economics, particularly subsistence, at the expense of other realms of culture (Kent 1996, 17; and see Barnard 2004; Schweitzer 2000, 46).
In response, some hunter-gatherer researchers increasingly employed historical frameworks and went on to examine the fate of foragers as they became encapsulated minorities within empires and nation states in both Africa and beyond. But even as the traditionalist/revisionist Kalahari Debate raged back and forth, neither side actually examined the Bushman’s own perception of the world (Barnard 2004, 7). In response, Bird-David (1996, 302) argued that the diverse ways in which hunter-gatherers (p. 16) understand their worlds have long been overlooked and that ‘more attention should be given to symbolic worlds and world views of these peoples’. In a series of seminal papers (1990; 1992; 1996) she explored forager relationships with the environment, arguing persuasively that what lies at the core of local concerns is not maximization of leisure time (cf. Sahlins 1968; 1972), but an aim to maintain good and caring relationships with others and with the environment (Bird-David 1990). This increasing concern with investigating hunter-gatherer ‘world views’ has led to renewed interest in engaging with older anthropological constructs such as shamanism and animism, as well as more general research in hunter-gatherer perceptions of the environment (e.g. Ingold 2000; Layton and Ucko 1999; Whitley 2000; 2001).
Ironically, much of this work on traditional world views tended to be rather ahistorical, highlighting ‘traditional’ bonds with the land, rather than the historical dynamics of culture-contact. Other research has actually bridged these different concerns, and highlights the enduring cosmological significance of foraging within a rapidly changing world. Many modern foragers continue to regard hunting and gathering as an expression of cultural identity and as means of fulfilling the kinds of moral obligations to ancestors and to the land that are implicit to a sense of belonging. These bonds provide the emotional and spiritual resources that underpin cultural resilience, although the challenges to indigenous cultures raised by encroaching settlement, deforestation, and other environmental impacts remain profound (see chapters in Part VI).
Archaeology of Hunter-Gatherers
These debates eventually fed through to archaeological research into prehistoric hunter- gatherers, and it is worth tracing some of these impacts here. Two new and interlocking streams of research can be identified: (a) ‘complex’ hunter-gatherers and (b) forager–farmer contacts.
In the 1980s, archaeologists started to (re-) ‘discover’ a range of traits and behaviours among ethnographically documented hunter-gatherers that did not fit with the early nomadic style model of Lee and DeVore (1968). As new typologies were formulated, ‘complex’ hunter-gathers were added to the range of potential social forms, with Northwest Coast groups serving as the definitive ethnographic examples (see O’Neill, Part VI). In European archaeology, the emergence of these new typologies coincided with the discovery of elaborate Mesolithic hunter-gatherer mortuary sites in the Baltic region, which seemed to point to the existence of similarly ‘complex’ hunter-gatherer societies in prehistory, especially in areas with rich aquatic ecosystems, which provided a resource base for relatively sedentary and socially stratified societies prior to the transition to farming (see Nilsson Stutz, Part IV).
Prior to this, it had been assumed that all prehistoric hunter-gatherers were mobile bands with an egalitarian social order who would inevitably be replaced by the expansion of agricultural societies with the onset of the Neolithic—this kind of scenario had been predicted by nineteenth-century social evolutionary thinking, and was still implicit in understandings of the Mesolithic–Neolithic transition. For the first time, archaeologists started to acknowledge the existence of well-established and economically viable hunter-fisher-gatherer populations along many of Europe’s coastal regions and major waterways. Moreover, there were increasing indications that the expansion of the agricultural frontier had stalled for long (p. 17) periods—in some cases, for millennia—at the margins of these complex hunter-gatherer societies, for example, in northern Europe. Although agricultural expansion had ended for a time, it was also clear from the archaeological evidence that there was a lively network of interaction and exchange across these enduring forager–farmer frontiers.
At this point, insights from the Kalahari Debate (see above)—and about culture-contact more generally—became increasingly important, serving as ethnographic parallels for investigating the dynamic settings that characterized similar kinds of contact zones in prehistory (Trigger 2006, 440–1). It was argued, for example, that exchange of partners across these frontiers can eventually destabilize hunter-gatherer societies, but in earlier contact phases, these new encounters provided structured opportunities for foragers to select which attributes they chose to adopt or reject. What eventually emerged from these ethnographically informed archaeological debates was a greater appreciation of the agency of hunter-gatherers, and also the potential for economic intensification within wider hunter-gatherer adaptations, rather than the rapid replacement of foraging by farming (Zvelebil 1986; 2008; Zvelebil and Rowley-Conwy 1984; and see Fewster 2001 and Part V).
Foragers could also actively select which attributes they adopted from farmers, ranging from domesticates, through to prestige goods, new technologies, or even new ways of perceiving the world, all of which could also be adopted in different sequences—economic transformations did not necessarily precede ideological transformation (see below; e.g. Thomas 1988; and see Cummings, Part V). Over time, the Neolithic came to be understood as a long-term process of Neolithization, and the agency of local foragers also meant that it was not a uniform and monolithic phenomenon, but was characterized by enormous regional variability and historical contingency (Zvelebil 1998; 2005; also see Part V introduction by Cummings).
Post-Processual and Interpretive Archaeologies
As anthropologists began to move away from the core themes of Man the hunter and undertake more historically-oriented and humanistic studies of hunting and gathering, broadly similar intellectual shifts eventually started to take place among some British and Scandinavian archaeologists (see Cannon, Part I, this volume). Much of this new post-processual movement was a deliberate reaction to the unique intellectual history of New Archaeology and its processual descendants, which had drawn heavily on the Neo-evolutionary approaches of White and Steward—this had been especially pronounced in hunter-gatherer studies (see above). These adaptive and ecological approaches had never dominated in mainstream anthropology, and actually had been a rather minority viewpoint, just as they were adopted readily into archaeology, and even dominated the discipline for a time. Many archaeologists had adopted a commitment to seeking cross-cultural understanding of ecological and adaptive relationships between prehistoric hunter-gatherers and their environments, and also rigorous construction of analogies and development of Middle Range Theory (see Lane, Part I). At the core of this approach was the argument that behaviour and technology basically served an adaptive function, especially among small-scale societies like hunter-gatherers.
In contrast, post-processual archaeologists asserted that all material culture and social action were meaningfully constituted, and in seeking to counterbalance the earlier (p. 18) emphasis on adaptation and economic factors, became increasingly interested in exploring the higher rungs of Hawkes’s ladder of inference, for example, in relation to ideology and world view (see above; Trigger 2006, 442–3). Also rejected was an emphasis on seeking cross-cultural regularities—much of this reflected the inevitable rediscovery of the long-standing anthropological concept of culture as a source of the cross-cultural idiosyncratic variation in human beliefs and behaviours (Trigger 2006, 444). As a result, post-processual archaeology championed relativistic and particularistic readings of the archaeological record, an approach that can be broadly traced back to the anthropology of Boas, and later to the new cultural anthropology of Clifford Geertz (1965; 1973; and see Clifford 1988; Turner 1967). Thus, the argument was that all cultures are unique and all sequences of change are historically contingent.
Emphasizing historical contingency and cultural relativism also fed into critiques of the ways in which New Archaeology had employed ethnographic analogies, at least in a rigorous scientific and uniformitarian sense that Binford had originally envisaged. In addition to the argument that all cultures need to be understood on their own terms, a further problem was that even the earliest ethnographic or historical records of indigenous cultures were produced long after sustained contact with European populations. These made it difficult to justify the drawing of analogies between modern and prehistoric hunter-gatherers, as the recent colonial histories of the latter had generated very different kinds of attributes and behaviours that would not have been present in earlier periods.
Paradoxically, even though post-processual archaeology rejected the attempt to use ethnoarchaeological research to build Middle Range Theory it still drew readily but often implicitly on ethnographic insights. These were often deployed in an illustrative and rather eclectic way (e.g. Tilley 1994), and only if they supported a desired interpretation or particular perspective, an approach that can lack analytical rigour and intellectual transparency. In the end, however, post-processual archaeology—like processual archaeology—went on to become a heavy consumer of anthropological theory, but in reacting to New Archaeology, opted to borrow from the cultural and idealist side of the anthropology spectrum, rather than from the materialist, adaptive, and functional side that Binford had advocated (Trigger 2006, 480–3).
More generally, however, the broader post-processual critique has been much more muted in hunter-gatherer archaeology than in the archaeology of later periods such as the Neolithic (see Cannon 2011; see also Cannon, Part I). In part, this may be due to the coarse-grained nature of much of the hunter-gatherer archaeological record, which often lends itself to reconstructing little more than artefact typologies and broader patterns in settlement and subsistence behaviour. In contrast, European Neolithic archaeologists have long been confronted by dramatic monumental architecture, which demands a wider range of interpretations. On other levels, the struggle to develop more resolutely social and symbolic insights into prehistoric foragers may reflect the deeper legacy of ecological and adaptive approaches, which have been absolutely central to the emergence of hunter-gatherer studies. It was also compounded by the early post-processual rejection of the ethnoarchaeology project on ideological and empirical grounds—additional field research among contemporary foraging populations could have generated new ways of thinking about the symbolic and social dimensions to hunter-gatherer landscapes and material culture, and there are now growing signs that this kind of broader research agenda is eventually starting to gather pace (see, for example, Lane, Part I; Jarvenpa and Brumbach, Part VII; David and Kramer 2001).
(p. 19) Current Challenges
Contemporary research into the archaeology and anthropology of hunters and gatherers has now become extremely diverse, though the specialist field appears to have remained distinctive and intellectually vibrant enough to have generated and accommodated many different approaches and a diversity of theoretical interests. These equip hunter-gatherer studies with the capacity to investigate, among other things, variability in technology and the use of habitats, gender roles and their relationship to diet, nutrition, health, and demography, as well as the use and spread of languages, local world views and cosmologies, the dynamics of social organization, and long-term responses to environmental change (Panter Brick et al. 2001b, 6–7).
Despite the apparent intellectual resilience of hunter-gatherer studies, several recent milestone reviews have raised major concerns, some even predicting the imminent demise of the field as a distinct arena of enquiry (e.g. Ames 2004, 371; Burch 1994, 454). First, one basic concern, especially for field anthropologists, is that opportunities to collect new ethnographic data are rapidly disappearing due to relentless assimilation and the wider transformations generated by the acceleration of globalization and associated environmental degradation. In contrast, this is not the case for the archaeology of hunter-gatherers, and much important research remains to be done, from building basic cultural and chronological sequences in many remoter regions, through to developing new research directions in some of the better-studied areas. And in more recent periods, much more research could be directed at analysis of colonial era archives to improve current understandings of hunter-gatherer ethnohistory, an opportunity highlighted by several chapters in Part VI.
Second, in the decades since Man the hunter, hunter-gatherer studies have become ever more interdisciplinary, but as specialization has increased, lines of communication between many different research areas have broken down (Panter-Brick et al. 2001a). Some certainly lament the increasing ‘balkanization’ of the subject into a series of distinct and highly focused branches, whose leading proponents rarely communicate with one another (Panter-Brick et al. 2001b, 1). This situation has left hunter-gatherer studies without a coherent paradigm (or even common assumptions) with which to explain behavioural variability, or to set common research priorities (Ames 2004, 370). At present there are certainly multiple, occasionally overlapping approaches, which range from strongly materialist to the strongest post-modernist approaches. Some scholars are particularly critical of a growing focus on generating particularistic histories; that is, research conducted without any overarching theory to bind it all together (Ames 2004, 371).
Third, some even go far as to argue that hunter-gatherer studies are based on an unfruitful concept in the first place, as revealed by the initial internal critiques of ‘nomadic style’, as well as external revisionist critiques such as the Kalahari Debate. At a deeper level, the very concept of a hunter-gatherer has also been recast as a unique, historically contingent, and now outdated reflection of earlier modes of Western intellectual thinking; many other approaches to understanding cultural diversity appear to offer more fruitful research directions and require greater exploration (see Pluciennik, Part I). Even if it is agreed that ‘hunters and gatherers’ do actually exist at some conceptual and empirical level, almost everything else about them is a matter for relentless contestation (Lee 1992). In exploring (p. 20) some of these debates, Kelly argues, however, that the term ‘hunter-gatherer’ remains a useful heuristic device and a good point of analytical departure (Kelly 1995, 34–5).
Looking across current research into the archaeology and anthropology of hunter-gatherers, several broad directions of current enquiry can be identified:
First, these include what might generally be termed ‘purists’, who tend to trace their intellectual inheritance back to the ecological and adaptive approaches of Julian Steward (1936; 1938; 1955), maintaining a rigorous commitment to a scientific, cross-cultural and comparative analysis of human behaviours. A good recent example is the work of Binford (2001), who combines analysis of ethnographic datasets from 390 groups of modern foragers with detailed information on environments (world climates, plants, animals) to develop global scale ‘pattern recognition’ in hunter-gatherer behavioural variability. Earlier forms of cultural ecology have now been replaced by a new generation of approaches, including human behavioural ecology, and genes-culture co-evolutionary theory (Durham 1991) or the ‘dual inheritance theory’ of Boyd and Richerson (1985; 2005), which examines the role of social learning and decision-making processes in the replication of cultural traditions (see Garvey and Bettinger, Part I). Advocates argue that together the different elements of this broad Neo-Darwinian perspective generate a coherent framework for integrating insights from optimal foraging theory, demography, health, nutritional status, technology, cultural diversification, territoriality, and mobility, but in ways that emphasize the capacity for human decision-making processes, the dynamics of social learning, and the specific costs and benefits of different lines of activity (Kelly 1995; Shennan 2002; 2004; 2009).
In archaeology, much research into hunter-gatherers, particularly in North America, tends to follow this kind of ecologically orientated and broadly Neo-Darwinian approach, but there are also important exceptions. When applied in ethnoarchaeological field studies, the approach tends to follow older concerns with generating robust models that are testable, and generalizable, e.g. via faunal studies (David and Kramer 2001, 116–37).
Second, it is possible to identify a more loosely defined group of researchers interested in exploring historically contingent, humanist, interpretive, or ‘multi-vocalist’ perspectives on hunter-gatherers (see Cannon, Part I, this volume). The concern here is exploring forager flexibility and diversity, the uniqueness of local cultures, as well as the significance, lived experience, identities, and personhoods caught up in the practices of hunting and gathering. These different anthropological approaches and research themes are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and divergent sets of insights can be creatively combined, as the goal is to create a more holistic understanding of different cultures (Kent 1996). In archaeology, a similar trend can be identified in the recent post-processual or interpretive streams of hunter-gatherer research, but development of these alternative approaches has tended to remain rather limited to date, and often characterizes scholarship in northern Europe. The more general goal is to assert the meaningful nature of material culture and the subjectivity of human experience and social action, rather than deploy more rigorous cross-cultural analogies to explain human behavioural responses to environmental constraints (Cunningham 2003).
More generally, the archaeological investigation of hunter-gatherers is now being revolutionized by new methodologies that enable the ‘biographic’ life-histories of individuals (p. 21) to be reconstructed in an unprecedented degree of detail, for example, in relation to scientific analysis of diet, health, activity patterns, and mobility (see Schulting, Part VII), but also in relation to interpretations of personhood, social identities, and the performance of mortuary rituals (see Nilsson Stutz, Part IV). These studies of individual life-histories across cemetery populations, regions, and periods transcend any simplistic distinction between the kinds of adaptive and symbolic perspectives noted above, and represent one arena where perhaps the most detailed and exciting hunter-gatherer archaeology remains to be done (see Jordan and Cummings, Part VII).
Finally, looking back over the past century-and-a-half, one further development of fundamental importance in hunter-gatherer studies—and in anthropology more generally—has also been a growing engagement between the societies being studied, and those conducting the research. If in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there was a massive gulf, with scholars objectifying hunters and treating them as objects of scrutiny, then by the start of Boasian field anthropology, the boundaries were starting to break down through the experiences of undertaking sustained fieldwork (Lee and Daly 1999, 7). These developments eventually promoted a general moral and ethical concern among anthropologists to make their research more meaningful and relevant to local peoples, as well as to include members of these communities into professional research activities. This greater engagement with indigenous peoples has not been a smooth or easy process, and demands balancing the roles of scholar as well as advocate, and also the need to liaise closely with members of local indigenous groups, a point emphasized by several chapters in Part VI (Lee and Daly 1999, 7).
The New Archaeology also fundamentally changed older perceptions of hunter-gatherers by emphasizing their cultural variability and long-term dynamism, albeit in terms of sophisticated adaptive responses to the local environment. Hitherto it had been assumed that since the nineteenth century many first nation populations in North America had changed little over time and were relatively backward and culturally static (Trigger 2006, 409). Importantly, greater global engagement between archaeologists and local indigenous communities is now becoming an essential component of all contemporary archaeological research and fieldwork.
In more recent periods then, the long-term trend in both anthropology and archaeology has been towards building better and more inclusive working relationships with indigenous peoples. The production of knowledge has increasingly become a two-way process. It is no longer possible to be a detached observer, and the role of field researcher has now become merged with the role of public communicator, and occasionally legal advocate. More generally, research into hunter-gatherer populations both past and present has been increasingly influenced by agendas set by local communities and interest groups. However, the practice of an ethically responsible scholarship remains challenging on many levels (Trigger 1996, 11–12; and see chapters in Part VI).
Why an Oxford Handbook of Hunter-Gatherers?
These different research streams have generated an enormous and ever-expanding interdisciplinary literature on hunter-gatherers. Even as ‘hunter-gatherer studies’ began to regard itself as a distinctive sub-discipline in the late 1960s, there has never been much (p. 22) consensus, and vibrant debate was an important trend from the outset (Lee and DeVore 1968). Grappling with the breadth and intellectual diversity of this scholarship has now become a daunting task, even for established researchers seeking to explore new themes, approaches, (pre)historic periods, and/or geographic regions.
After Man the hunter was published in 1968, scholars interested in the archaeology and anthropology of hunter-gatherers began to meet on a more regular basis at the CHAGS meetings (Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies). These conferences served to provide a common forum for debate, ensuring that the field—as far as possible— maintained a sense of collective focus and identity, often around exploration of new themes and overarching debates (see Sterling, Chapter 7, this volume, for a summary; and Lee and Daly 1999, 10–11). Most of these meetings also generated critical syntheses in the form of books and edited volumes, as well as debates that were played out in different specialist journals. Together, these milestone meetings and associated publications can be used to chart the development and growing diversification of the field from the late 1960s onwards.
Over recent decades additional ‘flagship’ publications in hunter-gatherer research have included the Smithsonian Institution’s multi-volume Handbook of North American Indians, which includes basic ethnographic and some archaeological and environmental information pertaining to a wide range of cultures, many of whom were traditionally hunter-gatherers. Similar series exist for other world regions. Lee and Daly’s (1999) Cambridge encyclopaedia of hunters and gatherers provides short regional archaeological summaries and basic ethnographic descriptions of global hunter-gatherer populations, as well as short essays on general themes. Other important recently edited books have included Panter-Brick et al.’s Hunter-gatherers: an interdisciplinary perspective (2001a), and Barnard’s Hunter-gatherers in history, archaeology and anthropology (2004); the field also now has its own online journal: Before farming: the archaeology and anthropology of hunter-gatherers.
More generally, however, the archaeologists studying prehistoric hunter-gatherers have tended to publish on more regionally focused periods and topics, though some major recent volumes include the regular proceedings of the Mesolithic in Europe conference (MESO) which is held every five years (Bonsall 1990; Larsson et al. 2000; McCartan et al. 2008). Large-scale international and interdisciplinary collaborative research projects such as the Baikal Hokkaido Archaeology Project are now starting to make important contributions to the literature on prehistoric hunter-gatherers, for example, Weber et al.’s Prehistoric hunter-gatherers of the Baikal Region, Siberia (2010). Other recent comparative archaeological studies include Eren’s Hunter-gatherer behavior: human response during the Younger Dryas (2012), which explores how forager populations adapted behaviourally and technologically in the face of major climatic change. In addition, regional and specialist journals continue to publish a steady flow of papers on prehistoric hunter-gatherers and their adaptive dynamics, culture-contacts, and general lifeways.
On some levels, the growing intellectual diversity in hunter-gatherer studies is a sign of a healthy research field that is engaging with new themes and approaches, but it also courts the danger of intellectual fragmentation (Panter-Brick et al. 2001b, 1). After several years of delay, a new CHAGS meeting was held in Liverpool, UK, in June 2013, with its organizers promising to generate reflection on the current state of hunter-gatherer research in relation to the overarching theme of cultural resilience and vulnerability. Individual conference sessions spanned such diverse topics as population genetics of hunter-gatherers, analysis of craft traditions and social learning, through to the language of perception, and the study of forager (p. 23) ritual and dance. It is interesting that all these topics can still happily find a common intellectual ‘home’ under the banner of hunter-gatherer studies, which remain at the very heart of anthropological enquiry, and serving to illuminate and illustrate many of the basic theoretical problems and their practical solutions (Myers 2004, 175). And looking further ahead, the next CHAGS has already been scheduled for Vienna, Austria, in 2015. Despite these positive developments, it has been some time since there has been an attempt to publish an extended critical overview of hunter-gatherer studies, especially one that combines research into both the archaeology and anthropology of hunter-gatherers, and also integrates theoretical perspectives with regional and thematic case studies.
The Oxford handbook on the archaeology and anthropology of hunter-gatherers aims to fill this important gap in the current academic literature. It seeks to critically review past developments, but more importantly, to outline some of the most important new directions for future research. In order to meet these goals, the handbook’s structure and content is aimed at three overlapping readerships: undergraduate and postgraduate students; early-career researchers requiring detailed introductions to central themes and long-standing debates; and established scholars seeking fresh perspectives and new directions for future research. Finally, it aims to provide a detailed resource for those with a more general interest in hunter-gatherer societies of the past and present.
Handbook: Summary of Contents
The handbook is organized into seven thematic parts, each containing chapters with more detailed case studies. Each part opens with an extended introductory essay, which situates the content of individual chapters within a general intellectual framework, and identifies emerging directions for future research and debate.
Part I establishes a general conceptual framework for the handbook. It undertakes a critical engagement with the underlying theoretical trends that have shaped and informed the development of hunter-gatherer research over recent centuries, and explores the main analytical frames of reference, including ecological and adaptive approaches, historical and particularistic perspectives, as well as key research methodologies such as ethnoarchaeology, and also cross-cutting themes such as hunter-gatherer gender relations.
Part II explores hunting and gathering as a distinctive way of life that formed the general behavioural context for early human evolution. In placing these developments within a long-term global context, it critically engages with evidence for foraging activities among Neanderthal and early modern human societies, and focuses on understanding local developments, extinctions, and transformations, as well as wider population dispersals within several key regions, including Africa, Europe, Asia, and Australia.
Part III investigates the accelerating global transformations that were affecting hunter-gatherer societies in Europe, Africa, and Asia in the terminal Pleistocene and earlier Holocene. It details the enormous climatic and biogeographic shifts that were taking place at this time, and tracks some of the human responses to the local and regional opportunities and constraints that this environmental change generated, including colonization of new regions and continents and the emergence of new kinds of subsistence strategies.
Part IV highlights the innovative characteristics of many prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies, and aims to overturn the lingering assumption that most pre-agricultural societies (p. 24) tended to lack an internal capacity for cultural change. Specifically, it investigates how earlier hunter-gatherers were caught up in the processes that led to humans becoming a fully technological species, highly reliant on the use of material culture, and capable of uniquely artistic expression. Other chapters explore how many of the innovations and cultural developments that tend to be associated with early farming societies actually emerged first in preceding hunter-gatherer societies. These include social complexity, the world’s earliest pottery technologies, as well as initial steps towards plant and animal domestications. It was these latter two innovations that eventually generated the potential for full reliance on new agro-pastoral economies, albeit at the expense of earlier foraging traditions. Other chapters explore how hunter-gatherers were responsible for cumulative elaborations in mortuary behaviour, and also for new kinds of coastal adaptation that provided the setting for new forms of symbolic, social, and political elaboration.
Focus then shifts towards understanding the eventual fate—but also the remarkable cultural resilience and behavioural dynamism—of hunter-gatherer societies living in a world increasingly characterized by the relentless expansion of agro-pastoral farming, as well as the challenges and opportunities associated with coeval developments such as the rise of urbanism, nation states, and global empires. Part V explores how some of these earlier developments triggered the emergence of complex and historically contingent forager–farmer interactions in a range of dynamic frontier settings; it also explores how these changes led in some areas to the eventual demise and/or assimilation of older patterns of hunting and gathering, but in others to the rise of increasingly ‘commercialized’ foraging practices. In many world regions, the rise of exchange-orientated hunter-gatherer societies reflected opportunities for close interaction and balanced coexistence with adjacent farmers, pastoralists, and in more recent periods, with the commercial demands of states and empires.
Part VI builds on these themes, and explores some of the ethnographically documented forager societies of more recent historical periods. Chapters present detailed critical reviews of the ethnohistoric and anthropological understandings of ‘modern’ hunter-gatherers (after 1500 ad) in several key world regions, including ‘classic’ study regions like Australia and Africa, which have figured prominently in general discussions about hunter-gatherers and their cultural dynamics, as well as other groups or regions that are relatively new to these international debates. Rather than present general ethnographic descriptions of local populations (see, e.g. Lee and Daly 1999), chapters aim primarily to understand regional research traditions, examining why certain perspectives and approaches have tended to characterize discussion of specific hunter-gatherer societies, and also exploring the range of future work that remains to be done in many of these regions.
Part VII concludes the handbook by tracing out new avenues for the long-term development of hunter-gatherer research. Chapters in this part affirm the diversity and vibrancy in current hunter-gatherer research, methodologically, empirically, and theoretically. Together, authors contributing to this part outline a sense of long-range strategic vision for how the integration of new methods, approaches, and study regions can ensure that the field of hunter-gatherer research continues to generate penetrating insights into the factors underlying human cultural and behavioural diversity, and also how the academic study of hunter-gatherer populations and their archaeological and cultural heritage now increasingly involves active participation by, and engagement with, indigenous peoples and descendant communities right across the globe.
(p. 25) Conclusion
The study of hunter-gatherers has been central to the development of archaeology and anthropology, and has also had increasing relevance for indigenous peoples and ‘descendant’ communities. Whatever the inherent problems with defining hunter-gatherers, and despite the occasional doom-laden predictions that hunter-gatherer studies would eventually fragment due to intellectual diversification, or simply implode due to lack of new field data, the myriad regions, time periods, and general themes and topics considered throughout the handbook indicate that the research field remains alive and well. Much more important research and critical synthesis lies ahead, and this task will form an important challenge for future generations of archaeologists and anthropologists.
Older images of hunter-gatherers as being a timeless and essentially uniform category of society lacking capacity for development and innovation are now long gone, and the notion of ‘hunter-gatherer’ perhaps now best serves as a point of analytical departure into the analysis of a remarkably dynamic way of life that expresses a deep and enduring cultural significance, but one that also exhibits enormous diversity, flexibility, and resilience across time and space. Together then, all contributors to the handbook engage with far-reaching questions about the fundamental nature of human subsistence, spirituality, and social life. Their chapters investigate many of the common underpinnings of all human cultural diversity, including the topics of diet, health, and demography, as well as human understandings and perceptions of ecology, materiality, and landscape. All of these are overarching themes that continue to have a pressing contemporary relevance for global humanity.
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