Ideology, 'History of Religions' and Hunter-Gatherer Studies

Article excerpt

The work of time must be undone, the auroral moment immediately preceding the Creation must be reintegrated; on the human plane, this is as much as to restore the 'blank page' of existence, the absolute beginning, when nothing was yet sullied, nothing spoiled

(Eliade 1959b: 195).

The major intellectual and moral tasks of anthropology flow together in the debunking of dangerous contemporary myths, more so if it has played a role in creating such myths

(Gordon 1992: 9).

Although hunter-gatherer studies have a much longer history, their recognition as a distinct anthropological subdiscipline can fairly be said to commence with the 1966 'Man the Hunter' conference (Lee & DeVore 1968a). Since then the prestige of this subdiscipline has been sustained by a decided reliance on materialist and scientistic imagery: Lee's famous study of Bushman work schedules (Lee 1968), his exclusion from the Man the Hunter volume of the more 'ideological' aspects of Aboriginal Australian life (Lee & DeVore 1968b: 10), and his more recent employment of C.E Snow's dichotomous science/humanism hierarchy (Lee 1992a) are exemplary.(1) I take it as self-evident (but nonetheless noteworthy) that materialism is itself an 'ideology' - Harris (1979: 1-114) expressly calls his 'cultural materialism' a 'research strategy' - in which the emphasis on people's behaviour and the de-emphasis on their minds is part of a hegemonic plan, however small-scale: Lenin's well-known contempt for Russian peasant mentality is a considerably more salient example historically. But I hope to show that much of hunter-gatherer studies is far more profoundly embedded in 'ideology' than this, and that it subscribes to a structure of metaphor unearthed by scholars of comparative religion - most penetratingly by Mircea Eliade. Eliade understates the brilliance of his analysis by the prosaic label 'history of religions' (Masuzawa 1993), which, in deference to him, I use in my title. I would argue that hunter-gatherer studies have achieved their present high esteem, especially in the visual media and various 'introductory' and popular writings, through a combination of explicit materialist ideology and a metaphorical structure which has been mostly unanalysed. My primary goal is to make good this analytical omission and, accordingly, the present article continues my examination of mythic thought (Shapiro 1988; 1989b; 1990; 1996a; 1996b).

A secondary goal here is to relate my argument to the work of Franz Boas and his first generation of students, hereafter rendered as 'Boasian anthropology'.(2) This too signals a continuation of some of my earlier efforts (Shapiro 1982; 1985; 1991; 1992). I shall be especially concerned with the Boasian confrontation with Victorian anthropology and with the 'social evolutionism' of Lewis Henry Morgan. This seems especially apt in the present context, because Morgan's thought is held in high esteem by some hunter-gatherer specialists (see, for instance, Bettinger 1991: 35-6; Ingold 1988: 86-9; Leacock 1981: 85-132; Lee 1988; Wilmsen 1989b: 46). I shall try to show that it displays many of the same meta-empirical characteristics as one finds in certain quarters of hunter-gatherer research.


Part of the metaphorical structure alluded to above is shared with most other subfields of anthropology and is probably the discipline's most characteristic distortion of the world. This involves the notion of 'a society' ('societies') and 'a culture' ('cultures') in their established senses - as if the earth's population can be divided into an aliquot number of discrete ethnic classes, each with objective existence. Proceeding from this premiss, one can then speak of 'hunting-gathering societies' (or 'hunting-gathering cultures') - with such cautions as noting the existence of 'hunter-horticulturalists' in Amazonia, Papua New Guinea and elsewhere (Guddemi 1992; Hames n.d.; Kent 1989), of 'mounted hunters' who seem more like pastoralists on the. …