Hunter-gatherers are the original exotica of anthropology. Stereotypically stalking or picking their foods, ignoring (or rejecting) agriculture, they seem irreducibly Other.
To some anthropologists, they are prehistoric survivals, privileged windows into the way our ancestors lived. To others, they are as contemporary, as caught up in historical processes, as any other human population.
For these anthropologists, hunter-gatherers do not passively maintain their way of life out of inertia but actively assert it against outsiders' threatening pressures. Indeed, it has emerged that some groups have not foraged since time immemorial but have only taken up the practice in recent historical periods, to escape the encroachment of more powerful invaders.
Either way, whether seen as neo-Stone Agers, the primordial still extant in our time, or as modern practitioners of the longest-established but now rapidly dwindling mode of production, hunter-gatherers have captured, and continue to hold, both the anthropological and the popular imagination. For this reason alone, a hefty new encyclopedia devoted exclusively to them, published under the imprimatur of Cambridge University Press, is welcome.
The editors have divided the book into two sections. The first is a worldwide collection of 55 brief chapters (four to seven pages each) on particular populations. These "ethnographettes" are geographically grouped, each sub-section opening with a general introduction and an archaeological survey of the area.
The second, much shorter section is a collection of essays on special topics, ranging from gender relations to hunter-gatherers' art, from images of them in European social thought to the infamous Tasaday controversy (the attempt by a Filipino minister to present a group of coerced peasants as a hitherto unknown tribe of pristine foragers).
No single anthropologist can be an expert on such a broad range. So I sent an ethnographette apiece to five generous colleagues (four anthropologists and one indigenous rights activist), each well versed in the ethnography of the chapter they received. The readers for the chapters on the Western Penan of Borneo and the Bihor of India thought their authors had done a perfectly acceptable job. The reader for the essay on the Innu of northeastern Canada thought it factually accurate but overly backward-looking, giving insufficient emphasis to the dire predicament faced by the Innu today. The reader of the ethnographette on the Toba of northern Argentina pointed out that its author refers only to his own work, though a lot of good work has been done by his predecessors. Also, the author refers to the Toba as an "underclass", though this is an outsiders' (ie, whites') view. Most Toba see themselves as resisting being drawn further into the capitalist economy.
The author of the chapter on the Australian Aboriginals of the Cape York peninsula portrays their economy in almost entirely pre-contact terms. My colleague writes: "While many of the practices described have certainly persisted to the present day, this has not been 'the economy' of Aboriginal people in Cape York for over 100 years."
Integral parts of these Australians' "real" economy include long-established work on cattle stations and small-scale agriculture and, since the 1950s, employment in the service industries in the then-emerging townships. The author also makes no reference to the massive development boom that has been taking place in the area for the past 20 years, bringing mass tourism and other relevant changes.
My own perusal of the ethnographettes confirmed my five colleagues' comments: the chapters of the first section are a mixed bag, from the interesting to the uninspired. Also, it is a pity, given the encyclopedic aims, that there is no ethnographette on any of the foraging groups who live as sea nomads.
A better job has been done by the contributors to the second section, of special topic essays. Here authors, forced to be more general, can underline the diverse reasons for the relevance of hunter-gatherers to any broad understanding of human society and its potential varieties.
For instance, hunter-gatherers are here highlighted as the prime exemplars of Homo non-economicus . Challenging western economic orthodoxy, they do not divide themselves into social classes, do not create markets and bestow very little authority on any individual. Ralf Dahrendorf, for instance, based his universal (and still well-regarded) view of humankind on the essential nature of inequality. The leaders of hunter-gatherer bands do not lead through domination, but on the basis of trust. After all, since you have no permanent year-round abode, if you do not like your present leader, you and your family can vote with your feet and join another band. Unlike so many sedentary others, hunter-gatherers do not wallow in a passive acceptance of tiresome hierarchy, but energetically assert equality.
Tim Ingold, UK doyen of hunter-gatherer studies, emphasises in an insightful, polemical essay their vision of "the giving environment", where people share with one another and with the environment. In these cultures, there is none of those rigid western divisions between society and nature, nor even between persons and things. Rather than attempting to control nature, they seek to maintain proper relations with animals. Of course they have to hunt, but they often seek the animals' pardon when they do so. Ingold then argues that commonplace notions of "society" are irrelevant here and even questions whether we need a concept of the social at all.
It is difficult not to feel that Ingold's provocative thesis indulges in some special pleading as he, like most of the other contributors, fails to emphasise sufficiently how environmentally destructive some hunter-gatherers have been both in the past and the present. The list of species of larger animals exterminated by these peoples is long.
Other chapters continue the catalogue of hunter-gatherers' legacy to the world. One discusses the use of their music in pop, within the fast-rising global market for "cultural products", and the ways they can assist in the cultural regeneration of former hunter-gatherers, some of whom now form their own, highly successful bands.
Another describes how the concepts of totemism (originally Aboriginal) and shamanism (Siberian) have entered the western mainstream, to feed Freudian theories and the imagination of contemporary New Agers. A third explodes the myth that hunter-gatherers practise gender equality. Though women have a prominent say in most matters, it is, in the end, men who come out on top.
A fourth chapter lists "the paleolithic prescription". Since hunter-gatherers are so healthy and fit for so long, only being laid waste by infections for which we have medicines, their diet may hold useful clues for us. The list: limit fat intake, do not worry too much about cholesterol, reduce salt consumption drastically, take multi-vitamins and essential fatty-acid supplements and (of course) do lots and lots of exercise.
The encyclopedia has 128 photos, many of good size. But this collection of black and white plates is a mixed bag. Some are clearly historical and of poor quality, as though more modern shots could not be found. The largest pair of photos, over half a page each, appear in the chapter on the Timbisha Shoshone of California. Both are shots of Death Valley, yet neither includes an identifiable human being, and these are the only illustrations to that chapter. But what is most surprising is that the captions to almost half the photos include no date. And this in a book whose editors are keen to revise the ahistorical view of hunter-gatherers so often promoted.
The indigenous rights activist who read a chapter for me thought it "perhaps illustrative of quite a lot of contemporary writing on hunter-gatherer societies, which tends to describe them as they were 20 or 30 years ago". It is hard not to sympathise, especially when, for example, the author of the chapter on the Bihor candidly admits his account is based on fieldwork from the early 1970s and, other than two of his own publications from the 1980s, does not include any references after 1968. As the editor of four edited books myself, I understand and fully accept that it can be very difficult to find contributors whose ethnographic knowledge is right up to the minute. But it does take me aback that, in the ethnographettes, the editors did not require that more space be given to the contemporary plight of so many hunter-gathering groups, especially given the emphasis in the closing chapters of the second section to the struggles these embattled peoples are having to fight today. After all, this is the subject of most contemporary research into hunter-gatherers. For it is these legal battles that to a great extent will decide whether hunter-gatherer groups will survive this new century in a recognisable form.
As the final contributor urges, what is needed is a greater commitment to implement international and culturally sensitive standards of human and planetary rights. For what will benefit hunter-gatherers will ultimately be good for us - the sedentary, "five billion ex-foragers who make up the rest of humanity".
Jeremy MacClancy lectures in social anthropology, Oxford Brookes University.
The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Hunters and Gatherers
Editor - Richard B. Lee and Richard Heywood Daly
ISBN - 0 521 57109 X
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £75.00
Pages - 511