Gene Expression

Hadza heaven turning to hell

National Geographic has an interesting piece of ethnographic travel writing up on the Hadza of Tanzania. The Hadza are one of the few remaining hunter-gather populations in the world, and their language is an isolate which has clicks. There’s a bit too much “noble savage” archetype loaded into the piece, but this portion is of note:

The chief reason the Hadza have been able to maintain their lifestyle so long is that their homeland has never been an inviting place. The soil is briny; fresh water is scarce; the bugs can be intolerable. For tens of thousands of years, it seems, no one else wanted to live here. So the Hadza were left alone. Recently, however, escalating population pressures have brought a flood of people into Hadza lands. The fact that the Hadza are such gentle stewards of the land has, in a way, hurt them–the region has generally been viewed by outsiders as empty and unused, a place sorely in need of development. The Hadza, who by nature are not a combative people, have almost always moved away rather than fight. But now there is nowhere to retreat.

Like all extant hunter-gatherer populations* the Hadza exist precisely because their territory is unappealing or unsuitable for agriculture. It follows that the simplicity of the Hadza may be a function of the spare and marginal nature of the ecology with they depend upon for their livelihood, not the style of their livelihood. I am willing to hazard that hunter-gatherers more fertile territory would still have less inequality and social complexity than equivalent agriculturalists, but the hard-scrabble hunter-gatherers who remain surely give us an extremely distorted view of that mode of life.

* Many which anthropologists were able to study in the 20th century are no longer hunter-gatherers, so the presently extant list is shrinking fast.

H/T Michael Blowhard

Comments

  1. #1 Thorfinn
    November 23, 2009

    Hunter-gatherers in Japan, Mesopotamia, and the Pacific NW, for instance, had settlements, capital accumulation, and social stratification.

    The Sentinelese would be a potential check. They’ve avoided contact arguably more due to their geographical isolation, and their island appears to be very fertile. They are clearly sedentary. Maybe throw in some nano-drones to see what kind of stratification they have; and turn it into a Discovery special to finance the tech?

  2. #2 Eric Johnson
    November 23, 2009

    What about the Yanomamo, their land is poor for farms yet its ecology is not at all spare or marginal. On the other hand, they have had light agriculture since before direct contact with europeans, and there is dispute about their hunter or agri status prior to Columbus. Are there any peoples who are like this, but with better hunter-gatherer cred? Maybe not.

    Even if they have long been doing light agri, Yanomamo do have the presumably primitive group size of ~50-150. But that might not count for anything in the present considerations.

    Just as a note, Yanomamo village territories are far larger than their gardens, and the site of the gardening is frequently altered. Thats why they do OK farming the Amazona soil, which is said to have few nutrients because most of them are in the rainforest vegetation.

  3. #3 Thorfinn
    November 24, 2009

    Eric, look up “terra petra.” Quite possibly, the Yanomamo are more like the descendants of the Maya (or have at least interacted with those who are) than a more representative hunter gatherer group. At the very least, by virtue of their agriculture, they look more like tribal New Guinea than aboriginal Australia.