A World That Never Existed: Researchers Debate the Pervasive View of Modern Hunter-Gatherers as a Window to Humanity's Past

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A World That Never Existed

When anthropologist Thomas N. Headland and his wife first encountered the Agta, a group of hunter-gatherers living in the rain forest on the Philippine island of Luzon, it seemed they had stumbled upon a people living in splendid isolation from the intrusions of modern society.

"We thought we were at the end of the world," he recalls. "The Agta wore little G-strings, hunted with bows and arrows and lived a primitive lifestyle."

Two weeks after setting up camp with these "primitives" in 1962, however, Headland heard someone singing in English outside his tent. He peered out and saw an Agta woman, a grass skirt around her waist and a small child in her arms, crooning a religious song he had heard back in the United States. So much for the people at "the end of the world."

Although Headland did not immediately grasp the full significance of his observation, the Agta woman's performance symbolizes a shift in scientific thinking about hunter-gatherer societies over the past decade. Such groups are often envisioned as "living fossils" who exist much as people did 10,000 years ago or more, before the advent of agriculture. But many researchers now say this notion depicts a world of pristine isolation that never existed.

"Most if not all, tribal people have typically been in more or less continuous interaction with neighboring groups, often including states societies, for thousands of years," write Headland of the Summer Institute of Linguistics in Dallas and Lawrence A. Reid of the University of Hawaii in Honolulu in the February CURRENT ANTHROPOLOGY.

In many cases, they contend, hunter-gatherer groups have cultivated foods and raised livestock part-time for thousands of years and were avid traders long before their first contacts with Europeans in the 16th century. Today they are best described as "commercial foragers" who adjust their hunting and gathering strategies to meet the trading requirements of more powerful neighbors.

This view contrasts with an influential statement made in a 1968 book, Man the Hunter (Aldine, Chicago), by Harvard University anthropologists Richard B. Lee and Irven DeVore. Lee and DeVore claimed the hunter-gatherer lifestyle -- including division of labor between the sexes, food sharing and use of stone tools for hunting -- characterized 99 percent of human cultural history over the past 2 million years.

Few anthropologists now believe there are hunter-gatherers who have lived totally isolated from outside influences. But critics of traditional ethnographic studies, such as Headland and Reid, contend these groups provide at best a limited view of prehistoric behavior patterns. Others, such as Lee, say hunter-gatherers often hang on to their basic social organization through long periods of contact with outsiders and can provide important information about the evolution of human culture.

Criticisms of evolutionary theories based on modern hunter-gatherers provoke strong objections from some investigators, who see the basic enterprise of anthropology under attack.

"It's obvious there are no pristine hunter-gatherers," says Lewis R. Binford of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. "But to say you cannot generalize in any way to the past because modern behavior is unique is, in essence, an attack on science."

For much of the past 25 years, the !Kung, a group of African Bushmen, have epitomized a life of isolated hunting and gathering thought representative of prehistoric behavior. (The "!" before Kung represents a click sound in the !Kung language.) Harvard University researchers went to the northwest Kalahari Desert in southern Africa in the early 1960s to begin a long-term study of daily life among the !Kung.

At a pivotal 1966 conference, the Harvard anthropologists described !Kung society as relatively isolated, peaceful and sharing; for a few hours each day, men hunted and women gathered edible plants, after which they returned to their camps and pooled their resources. …