The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology and Anthropology of Hunter-Gatherers (2014) – Notes


Hunter-gatherers: term defined by William Solas in 1911 in which he also recognizes for the first time this distinctive way of life.

Leslie White (location 536), neo-evolutionary thinking: Organize humans on continuum of evolution based on how much control they had over energy flows. Early humans relied on muscle, later humans harnessed fossil fuels and we’re starting to harness nuclear energy. –> Lewis Binford = “New Archeology” followed White in defining culture as human’s “extrasomatic means of adaptation” (1959) – all cultural change rooted in ecological factors. Goal of archeology is the study of “culture process” (1965).

Franz Boas championed “particularism” – each culture is unique and should be studied on its own terms. As contrast with unilinear evolutionary hierarchies popular initially like Morgan’s simple 3-stage evolutionary model: savagery, barbarism, civilized.

Julian Steward = “Cultural ecology”. What did bands do for a living? Culture as functional and enabling survival. Similar trend in Europe (e.g., Clark, 1939). Multi-linear patterns of evolution. Cultural ecology approach revealed similar cultural adaptations emerged in similar environments

Service blended White and Steward to try to come up with generalizable developmental sequences (e.g., from bands and chiefdoms to states)

Hawkes (1954) ladder of inference cautioned about what inferences can be drawn from the data. e.g., conclusions about particular behaviors might be fine but conclusions about spirituality and beliefs may not be sufficiently constrained by the material record to be accurate.

1960s – founding conferences around study of hunter-gatherer cultures, especially “Man the Hunter” conference in 1966. People wanted to understand the essential features of human existence. Lee & DeVore (1968): synthesis thoughts from conference = HGs live (1) in small bands and (2) move around a lot. Their economy revolves around a home base, men hunting & women gathering, pattern of sharing collected resources. Patterns that together characterize “nomadic style” (location 649): (1) Travel constrains personal property to low levels and therefore keeps weath differences low and egalitarianism high; (2) Nature of food supply keeps groups small (50 or less) b/c larger groups exhaust local resources causing members to split into smaller foraging groups; (3) Don’t maintain fixed rights to resources. Visiting and inter-group visiting and marriage; (4) Little stored food surplus; nature is the storehouse; people can monitor others so appropriation of resources not a worry; (5) Frequent visiting prevents people from getting too attached to specific territory; conflict easily handled by groups dividing and forming new groups.

Marshall Sahlins (1968) – HGs not struggling but flourishing; the “original affluent society”. Didn’t have to work hard or for many hours to meet their needs. Contributed to generalized view of nomadic = deep environmental confidence, lack of materialism, egalitarianism, lack of territoriality, minimum storage, flux in bands. As research continued, this “nomadic style” seems an accurate discription of African HGs and simple HG cultures, but other HG cultures, like those in the Pacific Northwest Coast are characterized as “complex” and have lots of material wealth, permanent settlements, high population densities, and competitive feasting to entrench existing social stratification.

Ethnographic analogies – judging past from analogous cultures we can study in the present. Binford foraging vs. collecting. Kalahari Debate — During 1980s and 90s, withering “revisionist” critiques of the idea that groups like the Kalihara San were relatively untouched and represented a relatively pristine version of prehistorical human existence but rather that they had existed on the fringes or more farming and pastoral populations and might be viewed as an underclass that had been pushed out by these activities. In fact, many forager societies have been in trade contact with farmers for 1000s of years, trading carbs for forest products (for example).

Bird-David (1990) began looking at how foragers/HGs look at the world and shared that their motivations were not to maximize leisure time but to nurture good and caring relationships with each other and the environment.

Part I: Theoretical Frameworks

Chapter 1: Analytical frames of reference in hunter-gatherer research

The usefulness of the term HG is debated. Barnard pro, Pluciannik con who views HG conversations as another example of “othering” conversations resulting from colonial world view used to anchor the lower rung of a social evolutionary ladder.

[Did not read p. 36-176]

Part II: The Earliest Hunter-Gatherers

Part III: Post-Glacial Colinizations and Transformations

Part IV: Prehistoric H-G Innovations

Chapter 29. Social Complexity by Brian Hayden (Archeologist, Professor Emeritus at Simon Fraser University, p. 643)

For 2.4 million years of cultural history, no indications of sig social complexity until 40,000 years ago, almost exclusively in Europe. Only with Mesolithic technology does this social complexity spread to other parts of the globe, esp in particularly productive environments. Increased complexity may be implicated in dynamics leading to domestication of animals and plants but occurred 1000s of years prior to any domestication of either.

Most technological and social advances attributed to agricuture actually occurred before in complex H-G communities, including: pottery, ground-edge axes, use of metals, sedentism, large communities, monumental architecture, socio-economic inequalities, slavery, craft specialization, ocean craft, cemeteries, etc.

Thus, Hayden argues that it is the emergence of societal complexity rather than domestication that is the major watershed in cultural development.

In contrast to many ethnographers, Hayden reserves the term “egalitarian” for H-Gs that lack private ownership, prestige goods, pronounced socio-economic diffs, and economically based competition, but who emphasize sharing and equality. “Trans-egalitarian” refers to groups lacking in stratification but having private property, surpluses, prestige objects, and sig socio-economic diffs.

Social complexity refers to the “development of hierarchical (and/or heterarchical) social, economic, and political structures…stemming from control over labour and produce beyond the immediate family” (p. 644).

Why only in the last 40,000 years?

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  1. Pingback: The Great Courses: Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations – Donal’s Notes | One Planet Thriving

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