Inhabitants of a world on the wane

The Other Side of Eden
August 3, 2001

The Other Side of Eden begins with language, a poetic rendering of the Arctic night and an encouragement to "imagine" the world of the Inuit - to place ourselves in another's imaginative universe. Hugh Brody treads a similar literary path to Levi-Strauss and Philippe Descola - not in terms of anthropological perspective or conclusions but literary skill and accessibility. He is able, in the tradition of Tristes Tropiques and The Spears of Twilight , to transcend genres and appeal to dual audiences.

As an anthropologist, documentary film-maker and policy adviser, Brody has spent much of the past three decades working with hunter-gatherers. He argues that "anthropologists are often skilful at crossing divides between peoples in their field work, but clumsy when it comes to writing up the 'findings'". By restricting himself to everyday language, avoiding jargon and relegating theoretical intricacies to a chapter of endnotes, Brody crosses the divides and opens his work to a wider audience.

The book is based on three premises: first, that modern-day hunter-gatherers live in marginal zones - the "fourth world"; second, that the differences between hunter-gatherers and farmers (the two sides of Brody's structural opposition) have nothing to do with notions of progress or civilisation, modernity or the lack of it; and third, contrary to popular wisdom, it is farmers who are nomadic and hunter-gatherers who tend to be settled.

It is this last assertion, of the nomadic nature of agriculturists, that is radical. Brody deconstructs the Creation story told in Genesis - "not a myth but the myth" of European culture. He shows how humans became "exiles bound to move over the earth, struggling to survive on harsh land, aided by dominance over all other creatures". They father many children to help work the land, and then those children seek new lands to cultivate for themselves, giving rise to the agriculturists' nomadic tendency. The continual expansion has meant a shifting border that has swept across the earth over the past 12,000 years. Beyond this agri-colonial frontier, farmers see wilderness - terra nullius , devoid of people - which it is their right to exploit, tame, change and cultivate. But this wilderness is lived on, known and owned by hunter-gatherers.

Brody outlines the theoretical and historical causes for the culture clash of farmers and hunter-gatherers but he also reveals the human tragedy of this meeting. It is found in the alcoholic Indians of Edmonton's skid row, in the abuses of Inuit children at residential schools, in the appropriation of aboriginal lands by outsiders, in the resettlement of indigenous groups in prefabric-ated towns, and in the murder of Brody's friend and guide Jimmy Field.

The conflict manifests itself most clearly in land claims that Brody has been involved with since 1971. The indigenous people's claim to ownership of their land is based on knowledge. For hunter-gatherers with an oral culture, ownership is rooted in knowledge about the land expressed in stories. The story is proof as surely as a title deed in our own paper-bound culture.

This is the other side of Brody's opposition: hunter-gatherers are the more settled as they know the land intimately and only through that intimate knowledge can survival be guaranteed and ownership claimed. Brody emphasises the importance of language and stories. He argues that the world is shaped by human activity but "the world is also shaped by stories". These are shared among and passed between generations of hunter-gatherers who "depend on the spoken word for almost all forms of history, spirituality and practical knowledge".

The Other Side of Eden reveals another side of humanity, one that exists in a world threatened by the hegemony of a single mode of living - farming. Brody's depiction of this world is vivid and sympathetic, liberating his arguments from the constraints and often limited audiences of academic texts. His book shows us different ways of being and tells the stories of some of the hunter-gatherers of the Arctic. But it is also an act of redress and an acknowledgement of a world on the wane. Brody is an advocate for the survival of these endangered languages and the ways of knowing that they embody. He argues that "the cumulative loss of language constitutes a diminution in the range of what it means to be human" and that with the death of a language comes the death of a way of life.

Tristan McConnell is a journalist and freelance anthropologist.

The Other Side of Eden: Hunter Gatherers, Farmers and the Shaping of the World

Author - Hugh Brody
ISBN - 0 571 20596 8
Publisher - Faber
Price - £20.00
Pages - 374

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