The Hunters Are the Hunted

Article excerpt

For 99 per cent of its history, humanity survived by hunting the available fauna and gathering what it could from the land. Today, fewer than 300 hunter-gatherer groups remain. Dr Daniel Stiles, who has studied hunter-gatherer societies for more than 25 years, examines the status of the existing communities around the world

IN APRIL 1966, THE FIRST INTERNATIONAL Conference on Hunting and Gathering, or CHAGS, dubbed 'Man the Hunter', was held in Chicago. The 75 anthropologists and archaeologists who attended looked at 20th-century hunter-gatherers as relicts of the past; people who still behaved like our prehistoric ancestors. The more 'untouched' a group, the more value it had to social science because its behaviour was thought to be closer to our evolutionary precursors. Discussions centred on questions of ecology, demography, social and territorial organisation, marriage and kinship, and how hunter-gatherer groups could act as models or analogues in explaining questions of archaeological interpretation or behavioural and cultural evolution. The people themselves had no part to play.

Speaking for themselves

Since that time, hunter-gatherer studies have developed considerably. The ninth CHAGS conference convened last year to review the status of hunting and gathering communities the world over. Among the 250-300 participants were many hunter-gatherers, who were given the opportunity to speak for themselves.

The preoccupation with ecological and human evolutionary issues took a back seat to questions of human and natural-resource rights, gender and child roles in their societies, knowledge systems, myths, dreams, cosmology and rituals, questions of egalitarianism and sharing and problems of discrimination, assimilation and relations with the nation-state. An important new area of study is hunter-gatherer perceptions of the environment and how this relates to biodiversity conservation and conflicts with indigenous rights.

Foragers, once 'primitive' objects of study, are now participants in our attempts to understand and appreciate the diversity, complexity, ingenuity and imagination of hunter-gatherer communities. Many can now talk about the serious problems of state abuse that continue to plague them.

The one issue that concerns all hunter-gatherers was described by members Kenya's Ogiek community: "There is no other item but land. Land, as the minority knows it, is their everything ... Land is a source of physical life, food and existence. It also brings social life, marriage, status, security and politics. In short, it is our world."

Hunter-gatherer groups must, by definition, live where there is an abundance of wild animals and plants. These areas are usually remote, but since the mid-20th century, governments and businesses interested in exploiting the natural wealth of wild tracts of land have embarked on a natural-resource bonanza. As hardwood timbers, oil and gas, diamonds, gold, potential farmlands and other valuable commodities have been plundered, hunter-gatherers have been dispossessed--often intimidated and beaten, and sometimes killed, in the process. Even when land has been worth little, they have been chased away in favour of landless peasants or cattle and sheep. The hunter-gatherers end up wards of the state in makeshift resettlement camps or, worse, squatters living anywhere they can find.

The outlook for hunter-gatherer peoples is not good. Sub. Saharan Africa has about 300,000 nominal hunter-gatherers, but only around 118,000 of them actually practise the lifestyle. Madagascar holds one of the most 'pure' hunter-gatherer groups still alive--the Mikea, who inhabit the dry forests of the southwest.

In Southeast Asia, Negrito tribes live a similarly isolated life, only emerging from the forests to buy rice. Some anthropologists speculate that they are remnants of an African migration of early Homo sapiens that began as long as 100,000 years ago. …