Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Recent research pertaining to the 'Kalahari Debate'

We were talking about the 'Kalahari Debate' and its unfolding over the past 20-25 years, yesterday in my hunter-gatherer seminar. Basically, it boils down to whether one considers some Kalahari Bushmen (I'm aware of the debate over the name here, just using this one for convenience) to be 'true' hunter-gatherers or to have been forced into a hunting-gathering subsistence by the geopolitics of the region as they unfolded over the past centuries.

There's an interesting paper by Alan Barnard (available as a freely downloadable pdf on the Social Anthropology journal web site) that summarizes the debate up to now, and inserts it in the broader debate over the notion of 'indigenous peoples,' as recently rekindled by Kuper (2003). The paper's pretty comprehensive in its historical coverage and does a nice job of situating the various debates in their intellectual contexts. Here's the abstract:
The debate on the notion of ‘indigenous peoples’ is one of the newest facing anthropology. Yet its theoretical foundation is not new. It is implicit in both Kalahari revisionism and its opposite, the ecological approach that treats hunter-gatherers as exemplars of primal culture. It is also reminiscent of the earlier views of Wilhelm Schmidt, whose vision of the earliest culture circle was represented by living hunter-gatherers. That said, the notion of ‘indigenous peoples’ is more complex than earlier models; and its opponents, such as Adam Kuper, must struggle against both philosophical premises (which are relatively easy to challenge) and practical arguments in favour of keeping the notion (which are more resilient). This paper focuses on the ‘indigenous peoples’ debate in Africanist anthropology, but its wider aspects include the interconnections of theoretical premises within diverse schools in the discipline and the general relation between anthropological theory and practical politics. (Barnard 2006)
Focusing more narrowly on recent research dealing specifically with the 'Kalahari Debate', there's also a paper by Victor Grauer in the latest issue of the online journal Before Farming. Therein, he argues that genetics and musicology, two lines of evidence that haven't been used much if at all so far in this debate, independently seem to favor the 'traditionalist' perspective. Here's the abstract of that paper:
While the ‘Great Kalahari Debate’ hinged almost exclusively on the interpretation of sparse and confusing archaeological and historical data, abundant and convincing genetic evidence from the realm of biological anthropology has been largely ignored, while equally compelling cultural evidence drawn from the musical traditions of the populations in question has been overlooked entirely. In this paper, I attempt to demonstrate how genetic and musicological research can be combined to provide a compelling case for the ‘traditionalist’ position in this ongoing controversy. To this end, I draw upon an important but little known musical ‘genome’, the Cantometric database, compiled under the direction of the late Alan Lomax, at the Columbia University Bureau of Applied Social Research. (Grauer 2007)
I'm all for multiple lines of evidence informing anthropological research, so this paper certainly seems to be an innovative contribution to this ongoing, long-standing debate.


Barnard, A. 2006. Kalahari revisionism, Vienna , and the “indigenous peoples” debate'. Social Anthropology / Anthropologie sociale 14: 1-16.

Grauer, V. A. 2007. New perspectives on the Kalahari debate: a tale of two 'genomes.' Before Farming 2007/2-4.

Kruper, A. The return of the native. Current Anthropology 44: 389–402.

1 comment:

matthew zarb-cousin said...

thanks you've been a great help for my dissertation on the Kalahari debate