Hunter-Gatherer Structural Transformations

Article excerpt


The theoretical characterization of hunter-gatherer society has been considerably advanced during the past two decades, especially via notions of a unitary 'forager' or 'hunter-gatherer' mode of social life and through dichotomies and other schemata designed to construe the variety of hunter-gatherer social structures (e.g. Bird-David 1992a; 1992b; Gardner 1991; Ingold 1987; Leacock & Lee 1982: 7-13; Testart 1987; Woodburn 1980; 1982). Even if, as some suggest, 'hunter-gatherer' is not a meaningful category (Hunn & Williams 1982; Barnard 1983; Myers 1988; Bird-David 1992b), the study of peoples with foraging economies challenges the anthropologist to grasp a range of social structures on behalf of a better understanding of human social structure in general. This article, written in the spirit of such a perspective, is designed to address transformations of social structure invited by the hunter-gatherer 'laboratory'. In particular, it considers the transformations between three familiar 'types' of hunter-gatherer social structure, whose radical differences in terms of allocations of power (and associated differences in cosmology) are frequently discussed in the literature (e.g. Turner 1985; Layton 1986): the 'Eskimo/Bushman', the 'Northwest Coast Indian' and the 'Australian'.(1) I argue that to approach such transformations it is essential holistically to understand the relations among the distinctive institutional features of each respective type; and that this task may be in part achieved by acknowledging the variety of social structures within each type (for example, the variety of social structures among the various Northwest Coast Indian 'societies'). This is clearly a considerable undertaking and I can outline here only some broad directions, which I shall expose by engaging with existing literature. I am able to capitalize on findings from my main published research, on the subject of variation among Eskimo and interior northern North American Indian social structures (Riches 1982), and also from supplementary papers in which I examine social structure among the Northwest Coast Indian societies, taking in such anthropologically compelling elements as cognatic and matrilineal descent and different types of marriage alliance system (Riches 1979; 1984). Analysis pitched at the level of social structure makes it possible for novel interpretations of the various challenging social structures to be posited quite economically, even if, in order fully to substantiate these interpretations, supplementary accounts incorporating complementary perspectives may be necessary.

The aim of the present article is to demonstrate some of the pay-offs from this approach. First, with reference to the very considerable differences between the three hunter-gatherer 'types', I shall reveal that the transformations are focused on certain specific institutions within the respective total social structures. Second, I shall argue that between the Eskimo/Bushman type on the one hand and Northwest Coast Indian and Australian types on the other, there is, with respect to key social institutions, a profound difference in the very principles of social structuring, which the analysis of the transformations must take into account. Finally (and consequently), I am able to address the processes of the transformations. In sum, such a holistic perspective permits generative accounts of both Northwest Coast Indian and Australian social structures which stand as criticisms of implausible functionalist explanations, whereby (for example) quite complex sociocentric institutions, treated in isolation, are seen as existing because of rather simple economic needs.

I begin with two main sections, on the Northwest Coast Indians and on the Australians. As eponymous representatives of two 'types' of hunter-gatherer society, these peoples have social structures which are strikingly distinct - that is, distinct compared with the generality of contemporary hunter-gatherers (Leacock & Lee 1982: 7; Hunn & Williams 1982; Layton 1986). …