Monday, May 02, 2011

Things to kill when you're original, affluent and social...

I have to admit this made me laugh.


So, it's kind of a silly comic, definitely good for a few chuckles. Yet, when you take a second to think about it, there's a lot packed into it. In two little panels, the cartoonist manages to bring up two of the biggest misconceptions about prheistoric hunter-gatherers: 1) that hunter-gatherers spend only a small amount of time a day foraging for food and have an abundance of leisure time to devote to other pursuits; and 2) that modern humans actively killed off Neanderthals.

Now while some people still believe that confrontational, violent interactions occurred at least some of the time when modern humans and Neanderthals crossed paths (e.g., Mellars 2005), faithful AVRPI readers will know by now that this view not only glosses over a ton of inconvenient evidence, but also doesn't really jive with what we know about how groups of hunter-gatherers really compete with one another (cf. O'Connell 2006).

The first component, though - the 4-5 hours of work thing - is more interesting. It taps into a now outgrown view of hunter-gatherers as having comparatively easy lives, where only a few hours a day were spent procuring food. This idea derives from the notion of the "original affluent society" first promulgated by M. Sahlins during the Man the Hunter conference (Sahlins 1968). That conference was held in Chicago in 1966 and was published as an edited volume by the same name in 1968 (Lee and de Vore 1968). Using some of the data on foraging returns that Lee had collected, Sahlins argued that foragers like the Kalahari San groups only spent a few hours a day foraging for food, spending the rest of their time gossiping or involved in assorted leisure activities.

This was pretty revolutionary for the time. Up to that point, hunter-gatherers had been seen by most anthropologists as perpetually living difficult, physically demanding lives and as always living on the brink of starvation. Sahlins' perspective, on top of having a catchy name, was the perfect foil to that traditional view, on top of providing a view of 'people closer to nature' as living what was in many ways possibly a better life than 20th post-industrial Westerners that fit in well with some of the counter-culture ideas in vogue at the time.

However, in spite of its conceptual and socio-political sexiness, the 'original affluent society' was just as unrealistic a view as that of perpetually hungry foragers. For one thing, it was based on observations made on a handful of forager societies, and even if it had been true for them, it would have been unwarranted to transpose it to all hunter-gatherers in all times and places. Second, Sahlins ignored the fact that several hours were also employed processing the food resources gathered in the 2-4 hours he saw as a typical work day for hunter-gatherers. Thorough reviews and criticisms of the OAS model include those written by Bird-David (1992:26-28) and Kelly (1995:15-19).

Anyhoo, all of this to say that, in addition to being funny on the face of it, this little comic is doubly funny to the informed reader, since it also capitalizes (maybe unwittingly) on two anthropological idea that have very much outlived their original usefulness. 


Bird-David, N. (1992). Beyond "The Original Affluent Society": A Culturalist Reformulation Current Anthropology, 33 (1) DOI: 10.1086/204029

Lee, R.B., and I. DeVore. 1968. Man the Hunter. Aldine, Chicago.

Kelly, R.L. 1995 The Foraging Spectrum. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.

Mellars, P. (2005). The impossible coincidence. A single-species model for the origins of modern human behavior in Europe Evolutionary Anthropology, 14 (1), 12-27 DOI: 10.1002/evan.20037

O'Connell, J.F. 2006. How did modern humans displace Neaderthals? Insights from hunter-gatherer ethnography and archaeology. In When Neanderthals and modern humans met, (N. Conard, ed.), pp. 43-64. Tubingen: Kerns Verlag.

Sahlins, M. 1968. Notes on the Original Affluent Societies. In Man the Hunter, (R. Lee and I. DeVore, eds.), pp. 85-89. Aldine, Chicago.


ABK said...

I've heard that hunter-gatherer argument used to support certain diets, and have always wondered why people choose to believe the things they do. Interesting to see a root to it. Thanks.

Maju said...

Very interesting, specially O'Connell's paper. However I find kind of unwarranted to presume that a displacement of hunter-gatherers by farmers resemble at all what happened with the Neanderthals in West Eurasia. The almost infinite demographic growth potential of modern agriculturalists like the Datonga has nothing to do with whatever slight advantage Aurignacian-using Sapiens had over Chatelperronian-using Neanderthals.

The other examples are more accurate and interesting because both populations are equivalent hunter-gatherers.

Still, we also have the case of the Tuniit of the Arctic, replaced by the Inuit. We know little more than what archaeo-genetics and Inuit legends tell us, but the first speaks of apparent full replacement (surely aided by the low densities allowed in the Arctic) while the latter speak of some contact but also of violence and conquest.

Violence, such as the case in which O'Connor finds himself at the beginning of his article, is not absent and I would expect it to be at least part of the process of encroaching.

Critically, there is an assumption in that paper that only one population adopts a more intensive way of exploiting the ecology, while the rest (Neanderthals, for example) would ignore such critical survivalist strategies, costing them their lives and collective survival.

That sounds highly implausible and it's not uncommon when someone argues in that direction (fish, small prey...) that someone else comes and says: but Neanderthals also ate fish, etc.

So I'd say that, while the economic factors cannot be fully discarded, they may have been only part of the picture and that direct confrontation surely happened as one group encroached the other's land.

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

@ ABK: Glad you found this informative! Yeah, the various 'hunter-gatherer' diets have always struck me as reflecting more what people think hunter-gatherers did and ate than what they actually did eat (see another one of my recent posts for an additional example)

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

@Maju: agreed, the O'Connell paper is a very thoughtful piece on how to think about competition involving hunter-gatherer populations. The Datonga example, I think, is meant to underscore what happens in interaction settings characterized by uneven power positions.

There really isn't much in the way of hard evidence about the Tuniit, but you might be interested in a paper by S. Cachel (1997) that used the replacement of the Dorset by the Thule in the Arctic as a comparative framework to model some aspects of how Neanderthals might have been replaced by modern humans.

As for direct confrontation, until we have actual evidence for it in the paleoanthropological record, I continue to think it's not a very likely mechanism to explain the disappearance of Neanderthals, though your point about being wary about the primacy of 'economic' factors in these dynamics is well taken.

onix said...

no no no, the premise has been that you need to reject the element of competition as population pressure in contemporary groups is very much the result of the encroaching industrial civilisation, and has probably mostly been so.

whence the assumption became, to research the healthier groups. and guess what showed?
just what the anarchist liked so much about human evolution. (but that must have been a later research then the specific one you refer to perhaps)