Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

The Long Walk IV-Hunter-Gatherers and Anthropology: An Interview with James Woodburn

Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

The Long Walk IV-Hunter-Gatherers and Anthropology: An Interview with James Woodburn

Article excerpt

This interview took place at James Woodburn's home in Cambridge, England, on 30 March 2001, where James has now retired from teaching at the London School of Economics and Political Science. However, on the same day as the interview James drove down to Brighton to attend the ASA conference on `Rights, Claims and Entitlements' held at the University of Sussex. In June 2001 a symposium on `Property and Equality' was held in his honour at the new Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle (Germany), and James is also a member of the organising committee for the 19th Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies (CHAGS 9) held in Edinburgh in September 2002. It is clear that he has no intention of resigning from anthropology or more specifically from hunter-gatherer studies, which he has influenced since conducting field research with the Hadza of Tanzania (then Tanganyika) in the late 1950s and since his appearance at the `Man the Hunter' conference in 1966 and many more hunter-gatherer conferences since then. At the LSE, where he spent most of his professional career, he supervised numerous research projects on hunter-gatherers all over the world but also other projects, including work on pastoral and agricultural peoples in East Africa, the region that he knows best.

JW--How many questions do you have, Thomas?

TW--I have not counted them. They form a conglomerate, a set of shared questions by some of your colleagues and students whom I have contacted, plus some of my own. I start with your personal ancestry, then your academic ancestry, then move on to the Hadza, then on to questions of methods and theories, to the current and future situation of hunter-gatherers and the study of hunter-gatherers.

JW--Goodness me!

TW--Shall we start with some genealogical questions, first on personal ancestors and then on to academic ancestors? You studied here in Cambridge, you taught at the LSE and everybody thinks of you as being English, but you told me once that you thought of yourself as being Irish, Northern Irish. Now, to what extent do you think that this Irish ancestry does make a difference, given that you yourself have spent very little time living there?

JW--Yes, I think it does make a difference. I value my mixed identity as both English and Irish. And, rather curiously, it has a bearing on how I became an anthropologist. In September 1954 I arrived in Cambridge to take a degree in history. I had spent the previous two years in the army doing my compulsory military service, during which I was trained as a military interpreter in Russian. I greatly disliked the army but liked the language work and wondered whether to give up the idea of taking history and instead to take a degree in Russian language and literature. But all this changed when by chance I wandered into the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology and happened to meet Professor Meyer Fortes. He invited me into his room and I explained my uncertainty about which degree to take--whether I should do history, or Russian or even archaeology which had greatly interested my Irish grandfather who, in my childhood, had shown me wonderful Irish archaeological sites and treasured neolithic arrowheads. At that stage I had almost no idea of what anthropology was.

Fortes encouraged me to take archaeology and anthropology. He latched onto two themes, both of which were, as I later came to understand, very important to him. He talked about the significance of grandparent/grandchild relations. He also seized on the fact that I saw myself as being a kind of outsider and assured me that a sense of being an outsider was an important qualification for the study of anthropology. I was entranced by all of this and most of all by the fact that a Cambridge professor was willing to spend an hour of his time talking to me with such enthusiasm about his subject. Although all this happened more than forty years ago, I can remember it with great clarity. I immediately enrolled in the department and from the very beginning had no doubt that anthropology was the right choice for me.

TW--So who were your Irish ancestors? Did they or any of your other kin have any interest in hunting?

JW--No, my interest in hunting and hunters has no connection with my family background. My Irish grandfather was a professor of philosophy and theology with a passionate interest in archaeology and fishing. He was descended from generations of relatively poor tenant farmers. Both my parents had come to live in England before they married and they stayed on. So I was brought up in England but every year we spent a month in Ireland on holiday. It was, for me and my brothers and sister, a kind of wondrous ancestral homeland. I have always thought of myself as having a dual identity, which I greatly value.

TW--On the academic ancestry, you have mentioned Meyer Fortes and how he encouraged you into the subject. Who were the people who most influenced you during your undergraduate and postgraduate career in Cambridge?

JW--Meyer Fortes and Edmund Leach were the dominant influences. The Cambridge department at that time was quite small and seemed to me to be bursting with energy and academic activity. Academic staff and postgraduates had much personal contact with undergraduates and particularly with those who were most confident. I remember constant stimulating vistas of new ideas and a stream of academic visitors who talked about their work in lectures and seminars to which even undergraduates, if they were persistent, could get access. Meyer Fortes' work on descent theory was the main focus but Edmund Leach, who had just published Political Systems of Highland Burma (1954), was beginning to challenge the relevance of Fortes' work to his Asian material. For us students Meyer Fortes was a wise, benevolent, paternal figure with established, carefully formulated views. Leach was a more charismatic figure, a brilliant lecturer delighting in controversy. I wrote weekly essays for Edmund Leach in my second year and he would respond by writing detailed polemical comments, often pages long, on every essay. His responses tended to be very positive and flattering or very negative and I can well remember the agonies of waiting for his weekly evaluations. Among the research students in the department at that time I particularly remember Fredrik Barth, Nur Yalman, Grace and Al Harris and Jean La Fontaine--all of whom taught me and other undergraduates and all of whom were strong personalities with views of their own and much to say about the implications of their own recent field research.

TW--How did your interest in hunter-gatherers develop?

JW--Already as an undergraduate I was keen to become a professional anthropologist if I could. From the end of my second year I was buying maps and reading widely in a search for some unstudied or little studied group which might yield data that would be new and significant. I was always an outdoor person and amacted by the idea of working in difficult terrain. I became aware early on about how little recent research had been carried out among nomadic hunter-gatherers, especially African hunter-gatherers. Schapera's The Khoisan Peoples of South Africa (1930) had critically reviewed the limited available data on the Bushmen. Work on the Pygmies was still dominated by the outdated and theoretically inadequate publications of Schebesta. Hardly anything was known about East African savannah hunter-gatherers and these, in particular, attracted my attention. But I wasn't interested in hunter-gatherers alone and in my final undergraduate year I submitted applications for grants to carry out field research in three places: among a New Guinea people then known as the Kukukuku but now known as the Baruya; among the Venezuelan people who have since become known as the Yanomamo; and among the East African savannah hunter-gatherers then called the Hadzapi, Tindiga or Kindiga and now known as the Hadza. It would be intriguing to look at these ancient applications if I can find my copies of them. My Yanomamo application failed but I was offered funds for both the Baruya and the Hadza. Funding for the Baruya (offered by the Australian National University) seemed generous but I was more interested in and committed to the Hadza project. I had put much more work into developing the Hadza project and had succeeded in obtaining funds from four different sources for it. So this was the project that I chose.

Surprisingly, no preparation for field research was provided in Cambridge at that time. I enrolled for graduate work in September 1957 and by November I was at the East African Institute of Social Research at Makerere University in Uganda (then the only university in East Africa), preparing to leave for the field hundreds of miles away in Tanganyika. Fortes believed that graduate research training for anthropological field research was counter-productive. It produced conformity and limited the capacity for personal initiative and innovation. Without research training, some would, of course, fail to cope in the field but those who were good enough would come through. I have never agreed with this. Lack of training made field research much more difficult and produced unnecessary casualties. To build the subject it is essential to learn from the productive research techniques or, one's predecessors and to reject the unproductive ones.

TW--How were you able to find out enough about the Hadza to decide that you would want to work with them?

JW--I was keen to work among nomadic hunter-gatherers, not sedentarised ones and two sources indicated that the Hadza still had much land of their own and still were very active nomadic bow-and-arrow hunters. The first was a then recent article (1949) by a game ranger, B. Cooper. The second, and much more important, source was Henry Fosbrooke, a colonial official in Tanganyika who had been trained in anthropology at Cambridge in the 1930s. I was fortunate to meet him during the summer of 1957 when he came on a visit to Cambridge. He had worked in Mbulu, the nearest government post to Hadza country, and had published a short article on Hadza material culture (1956). He was able to assure me that the Hadza were, indeed, nomadic hunter-gatherers. But, he said, they were so elusive and moved camp so frequently that it would be impracticable to live continuously with them. I should live in Mbulu and bring them there to be interviewed. Needless to say, I wasn't prepared to accept this advice. Fortes, and Leach too, shared this anxiety about the practical problems of working with nomadic hunter-gatherers but were, nevertheless, prepared to give me theft active support. Leach told me about the very great practical difficulties that Rodney Needham had had in his recently completed study of Penan hunter-gatherers in Sarawak.

The literature on the Hadza at that time--around a dozen publications in German and in English--although in some ways mutually contradictory did provide me with an excellent starting-point. I knew that the language, a click language then supposed to have distant links with Khoisan languages in Southern Africa, would be a major problem. Ernst Westphal, an expert on Khoisan languages, gave me a few hours of training on the varieties of clicks in Southern Africa before I left England. This brief training turned out to be extraordinarily useful in my later marathon struggle to learn the Hadza language.

TW--But did people think that this kind of research was worthwhile?

JW--Oh, they certainly saw the value of it. They welcomed the idea of modern research on African hunter-gatherers if the practical difficulties could be overcome. Fortes and Evans-Pritchard had suggested in a brief remark in the introduction to African Political Systems (1940: 6-7) how such societies might order themselves politically and Fortes often spoke to me about how important it was that these ideas should be tested and developed through modern research. When I arrived in East Africa, Aidan Southall, the then Director of the East African Institute of Social Research (EAISR), was also enthusiastic and supportive. He and other East Africanists saw the absence of modern anthropological research on East African savannah hunters as a major deficiency in the ethnographic coverage of the area. Linguists were also rather anxious to know whether Hadza was or was not a Khoisan language. (1)

TW--Once in East Africa, how did you set about doing your research?

JW--When I arrived at the EAISR Aidan Southall arranged for me and Gehan Wijeyawardena, another recently arrived researcher, to go with him to carry out research for a few days in Bukedi, an ethnically mixed area in Eastern Uganda. Here, using interpreted interviews, we were able to gather, long accounts of local history, local customary practice and local perceptions of ethnic difference. Local officials helped us to find particularly relevant informants. Of course, informal work and discussion on sensitive topics wasn't possible during such a short visit, but it brought home to me how much valuable initial information could be obtained using the existing administrative structure. The contrast with the situation I later found when I reached the area where the Hadza lived could hardly have been greater.

Back at the EAISR, Gehan and I went with others to daily lessons in Swahili. Naively, I believed that I didn't need to take these very seriously and that in Tanganyika I would find a local African who could speak both English and Hadza who would help me to learn the Hadza language and that I wouldn't have to learn the Swahili lingua franca.

I managed to buy a Land Rover, borrowed camping equipment from the EAISR and set off for Tanganyika. After a few days I arrived in Mbulu, the nearest government post to the area where the Hadza lived. The local District Commissioner, a military man, knew nothing about the Hadza and didn't welcome the idea of research in what amounted to an unadministered part of his district where the inhabitants paid no taxes and were not in practice subject to government chiefs. I was far from sympathetic to the colonial regime and least of all to its more authoritarian officials, so this was not a very propitious situation. But I set about trying to make contact with Hadza or with someone who knew the Hadza. Two or three officials who went hunting in Hadza country had occasionally encountered Hadza but there was no one--African, Asian or European--in Mbulu who was in contact with the Hadza or was easily able to establish contact. I went with one of the officials who had met Hadza when out hunting up to the edge of the vast expanse of dry, rocky thorn bush in which the Hadza were supposed to be wandering about. He told me that they were out there somewhere. I didn't know what to do. Should I put up my tent and see if anybody turned up? If anybody did come, I wouldn't be able to communicate with them and I wouldn't even know whether they were Hadza or not. So I returned to Mbulu, obtained a hunting licence, bought a hunting rifle from the official who had helped me and recruited an agropastoral Iraqw helper who could speak Swahili and who remains my friend today, forty-five years later. We set off together to visit an American missionary two days' journey away by Land Rover to the south of Hadza country. He again had encountered Hadza when hunting. By the most remarkable good fortune two Italian brothers, long resident in Tanganyika and fluent in Swahili, arrived. They wanted to hunt elephant in Hadza country. We set off together into the thorn bush in my Land Rover. During the following dramatic week we shot three elephants and groups of Hadza appeared to eat the meat and to help with the tracking. The two Italians were very experienced at living in the bush and taught me a great deal. I had been very proud of my walking skills and thought that I could walk other people off their feet, but the two brothers, and especially the Hadza trackers, rapidly showed me how much I had to learn.

At the end of the week the two brothers set off to sell the ivory and to buy tickets to emigrate to the USA with the proceeds. One of them, Marco Bicchieri, subsequently trained as an anthropologist and edited an excellent book called Hunters and Gatherers Today (1972). I always hoped that Marco would come back to East Africa to do research among one of the other hunter-gatherer groups. He tells me that he did apply at one stage but that he wasn't able to obtain the necessary permissions. After the Bicchieris departed I settled down to work among the Hadza. Initially it was immensely difficult, mainly because I had no effective means of communication and because I was living in trackless thorn bush country a day's drive away from the nearest road and the nearest administered area.

TW--Did you continue shooting animals for them?

JW--Yes, and this turned out to be both an advantage and a disadvantage. I had a hunting rifle and no Hadza had any kind of firearm. The small nomadic group of Hadza with whom I was living was very keen that I should become their tame hunter shooting animals for them which, in spite of my inexperience, they rightly considered was much easier than killing animals with bow and arrow. The rifle was also a source of security for me. There were dangers in Hadza country at that time, which partly accounts for the District Commissioner's reluctance about my research. For powerful neighbouring tribal groups Hadza country was a kind of no-man's-land within which they occasionally came into violent conflict. But having a rifle meant that I was from morning to nightfall endlessly besieged by Hadza wanting me to go hunting with them and for them. Before I arrived there I had never shot any living creature though I did, of course, know how to use a firearm from my time in the army. All my present knowledge of hunting was learnt from the Hadza. More importantly, this hunting helped to establish good relations with the Hadza and helped me to begin to work on the language by building up a vocabulary of hunting terms. But too much of my time was spent hunting initially and this diverted me from my research and diverted some of the Hadza from their hunting and gathering activities. It did, however, provide me with much of my food. After some months I found a solution to the problem. I sold my hunting rifle and bought instead a low-calibre rifle suitable only for hunting birds. With this I shot guinea fowl and other birds for my own food. People no longer expected me to provide them with meat and I was able to observe the normal operation of the hunting and gathering economy. I also bought an old elephant rifle made in 1907 but I hunted elephant only on a few special occasions when we would feast on elephant meat for a few days. I did occasionally hunt smaller animals with the elephant gun but the Hadza could see that it wasn't really suitable and no longer pressurised me as they had earlier.

Supplies, especially petrol, were a constant problem. Water, too, was often difficult. Muddy water I could cope with but some Hadza water sources were very salty and made me very thirsty. The Hadza were able to tolerate higher levels of salt than I could. But the greatest difficulty, by far, was the language problem.

At that time nobody who could speak Hadza could speak English. Locally Hadza was a very low-status language and people other than the Hadza themselves didn't learn it. Hardly anybody who could speak Hadza then knew more than a few words of Swahili. I managed to recruit a half-Hadza man of my own age who had spent a year or two in primary school and could speak Swahili and write it a little. I have remained in contact with him and, indeed, received a letter from him only a few days ago. Over the following year he and others taught me first Swahili and then, increasingly, the Hadza language. Learning the language was, for me, the major challenge of my research and I spent a very high proportion of my time working out-its phonological and grammatical complexities. I have no doubt that this investment of time was worthwhile. I believe that, whatever insight into Hadza culture and social organization I may now have, derives to a large extent from the fact that I am able to talk freely and directly, though far from perfectly, with Hadza in their own language. As it turned out, the practical difficulties of working with the Hadza were not so much the ecological ones that Fosbrooke, Fortes and Leach had forecast (difficult though these were) but rather the fact that I had to learn two languages, first Swahili and then Hadza, which is an unusually complex language. For anyone wanting to work with African hunter-gatherers and former hunter-gatherers, I have two simple suggestions. Firstly, learn the language. Using a lingua franca or interpreters is not enough. Secondly, give yourself time. Almost any project among hunter-gatherers or former hunter-gatherers takes at least twice as long as it would among other African communities.

TW--Did you find the Hadza intimidating? Did you have a sense of insecurity during those early months?

JW--Oh, I was intimidated, but not by the Hadza themselves. I was intimidated by the thought that the small Hadza group with whom I was camping might move camp at night leaving me alone in my tent. I knew that if this were to happen I would not find it easy to find my way out of Hadza country either in the Land Rover or on foot. In spite of the fact that I was hunting for them, I was clearly a nuisance and some people, especially in the first camp in which I stayed, were uneasy about my presence. For the first few weeks, I was constantly waking up at night, trying to see if people were still there. Months later I asked about this and was told `Yes, we did think of moving out, but didn't get round to it.' The agropastoralist Iraqw man whom I had recruited in Mbulu wouldn't stay and soon set off home. He was intimidated both by the Hadza and by the bush, especially by the sound of lions roaring at night. I never again employed anyone but Hadza. The Hadza were often uneasy about the presence in camp of people from neighbouring tribal groups, who tended to have a rather visible sense of their own superiority in their dealings with Hadza.

TW--Did you stay continuously with the Hadza for long periods? Or did you move?

JW--I was constantly on the move but with the Hadza. I followed them in their nomadic movements. Usually about every two or three weeks the camp community would move to a new site. I would then struggle to make a Land Rover route to the new site, which would sometimes take days of work. Periodically, often also about every two or three weeks, I would set off with Hadza companions to Mbulu or to other places just outside Hadza country where I could collect my mail, buy petrol and other supplies and speak English for a day or two. In Mbulu Hadza were at that time regarded by the local Iraqw people as very strange and exotic and my Land Rover would often be surrounded by large crowds of people eager to catch a glimpse of them.

TW--Did you return to the East African Institute of Social Research in Uganda?

JW--Yes, I did and this was important to me. Every six months they held a conference at which anthropologists and other social researchers converged from all over East Africa. We presented the results of our research in a context which was both stimulating and competitive. My work was, though, usually rather peripheral because no one else was working on hunter-gatherers. But I relished the academic stimulation of these short interludes. The Institute was also important as a refuge when I got ill, once with pericarditis and once with hepatitis. On both occasions I recovered in the supportive atmosphere of the Institute after coming out of hospital. When I got pericarditis, the Mbulu district administrators tried to prevent me from continuing my research, accusing me of self-neglect. I had to produce medical evidence that my illness was nothing to do with self-neglect before they would allow me to return.

TW--Having overcome the initial difficulties, what became the focus of your research?

JW--My anthropological work was poorly focused for the first year or so of field work, partly because I was working hard on the two languages I had to learn, but also partly because of the absence of anthropological research training in Cambridge at that time. I hadn't been asked to write a full-scale research proposal before I embarked on my research and I hadn't been encouraged to read and evaluate the various theoretical perspectives on hunter-gatherer societies which were then current. I had read quite a lot on hunter-gatherers but in an uncoordinated way with insufficient direction and focus. I was clear that I was in the field to study Hadza economy, politics and social organisation but I didn't come with clear research objectives, with a set of hypotheses to test and a set of techniques to test them with. Early on at times I felt lost, not knowing quite what I was supposed to be doing. Although this was painful, unnecessarily painful, at the time, it did have advantages as well as disadvantages. I had to think things out from first principles.

Quite early on it gradually became clear to me from my observations that Hadza life was not dominated by the necessities of the food quest. People were, of course, concerned to feed themselves adequately but they had very many other preoccupations which were very important to them. Huge amounts of time were spent gambling for arrows, a pleasurable activity in which all the men, including me, participated for much of most days in dry-season camps. People moved camp far more often than could possibly be explained in terms of simply maximising access to food and water. People moved to avoid conflict, to maintain contacts with friends, to improve access to gambling, to avoid illness and for very many other reasons. An ecologically focused approach in which camp size, composition and frequency of nomadic movement were to be treated as a direct product of the maximisation of access to food and other material resources was clearly inadequate and I spent much time studying the wider economy--especially notions of property and the control of goods and services. I worked hard on kinship and politics and collected much data which at the time I found difficult to interpret. Interviewing Hadza was always a real problem. I thought for a long time that this was to do with difficulties resulting from the insufficiency of my language skills but it turned out to be more than this. The Hadza at that time did not normally assemble in groups to discuss issues and to take joint decisions. They did not arbitrate over disputes. There was no cultural emphasis on oratory or argument, on the presentation of cases, as there was and is among neighbouring pastoral and agricultural peoples. Most Hadza when interviewed gave very brief responses and were not very interested in elaborating them. There were no experts, no people whose job it was to explain things. The kind of rich interview material that we had obtained during a few days' visit to Bukedi was unobtainable among the Hadza. Nowadays, as increasingly the Hadza are expected to justify themselves to government and to their neighbours, people are gradually becoming more articulate about their own customs but still today they are at a great disadvantage in any context in which sustained presentation of an issue or oratorical performance is required.

TW--What is the total mount of time you spent in the field? More than a year?

JW--I arrived in November 1957 and I came back nearly three years later in September 1960 to write my Ph.D. thesis. But I lost about six months through illness. I could never have obtained adequate data in a shorter period. Long-term fieldwork is, I believe, essential when working among hunter-gatherers. And I have, of course, been back many, many times since.

TW--They had to drag you out of the field?

JW--Yes, they did. I kept getting letters from Cambridge saying that if I was going to continue with my Ph.D. I must return to the university. My research funding had long since run out, so I had sold my Land Rover and continued my research first in a Ford Model A from 1930 and then on foot. I was conscious of gathering better and better data every day and I had also become very well adapted to the way of life. I was at times seriously tempted to stay on and to live there. I even took out a prospector's licence to see if I could somehow raise enough money to meet my then rather modest needs. But finally, at the last possible moment, I did decide to return to Cambridge to write up my material.

TW--So, after returning to Cambridge, how did the writing go?

JW--Writing up was a rather solitary business. I knew nobody who was working among hunter-gatherers in Africa or, indeed, anywhere else, though I did meet Richard Lee in London on his way to begin his field research in Botswana. I gave a series of papers at anthropological seminars in Cambridge, attended by the academic staff and my fellow postgraduates, which gave rise to vigorous discussion, but I did have a lot of difficulty in persuading people that my data and my interpretations were correct. I think that the fundamental problem was that the highly flexible kinship and residential structure of Hadza society, in which people displayed a striking lack of binding commitment to their kin, breached the anthropological paradigms and expectations of that time. The real breakthrough came in April 1966, two years after I had obtained my Ph.D., when I attended and participated actively in the Man the Hunter conference in Chicago. I had by that time clarified my initial analysis. I was delighted to find that many other hunter-gatherer researchers who participated in the conference had data which fled in with my own. My analysis was well received. From that time the Hadza data were no longer regarded as aberrant or anomalous but instead as a significant contribution to a new paradigm.

TW--Why didn't you write a monograph?

JW--This is a good question. Yes, I certainly planned to write a monograph based on my thesis, or rather on the better parts of my thesis. I even said this in the first of my two papers in the Man the Hunter volume (1968a: 49). I think that the real problem was that I was still thinking about and developing my analysis and I wanted to go further than I was ready to go at that time. I have, of course, gradually elaborated my analysis in a long series of papers published over the years.

TW--So what would you recommend people to read? What are your most important contributions?

JW--The paper that has had much the most influence is Egalitarian Societies (1982). I think that probably this is my most significant piece of work. Equality is an issue that interests almost everyone and it does seem important to try to explain the operation of those human societies which manifest a greater degree of human equality than any others. Incidentally, since the present interview is to be published in Nomadic Peoples, I should perhaps say that I am constantly surprised how pastoral societies are still so often described as egalitarian when, unlike the hunter-gatherers that I write about, the equality that is asserted is usually only between adult male household heads. In pastoral societies relations between the sexes and intergenerational ties between males, particularly between father and son, are, of course, typically profoundly unequal. It does seem to me to be not just politically incorrect but also academically blind to describe such societies as egalitarian!

Two of my more recent papers, one on sharing in hunter-gatherer societies (1998) and another on the basis for the severe discrimination to which African hunter-gatherers are subjected by their agricultural and pastoral neighbours (1997), are ones that I would like more people to read and assess. More feedback might stimulate me to try to go further with the analyses.

My paper on whether the social organisation of so-called encapsulated hunter-gatherers is generated primarily by their external relations with neighbouring agricultural or pastoral societies or instead is generated primarily by more strictly internal priorities (1988) deals with what I believe to be a particularly important topic. But it is rather a complex paper suitable, perhaps, for the committed. One of my papers with the title Hunters and Gatherers Today and Reconstruction of the Past, which was written mainly for archaeologists has, I think, been surprisingly little used given the nature of the topic. The reason is, I think, that it was published in a volume with the unpropitious title Soviet and Western Anthropology (Gellner 1980).

TW--You are probably most cited for the distinction between immediate-return and delayed-return systems. Are you happy about being associated so clearly with this distinction?

JW--Yes, I think I am. The analysis of which the distinction between immediate return and delayed return is a component part has so far stood the test of time reasonably well. For a start it allows us to make sense of some ethnography that might otherwise be treated simply as anomalous. Why, for example, do Okiek hunter-gatherers in Kenya, unlike almost all other African hunter-gatherers, have clans, lineages and binding kinship ties? It is not difficult to show that this is because their hunter-gatherer economy was a specialised, delayed-return one based on investment in honey production in honey territories.

More generally analysis based on the immediate-return/delayed-return distinction provides a framework for cross-cultural research on hunter-gatherers and, at the very least, a starting-point for explanation of their social relations and social groups. I am a strong advocate of cross-cultural research. This type of research is difficult and controversial but essential if anthropology is going to move beyond the narrow particularism which is an unfortunate by-product of the great emphasis that we put on individual field research in a single locality.

Of course, as with any analysis which depends on a binary distinction, problems arise with societies which appear not to fit neatly into one category or the other. Australian Aboriginal systems are such a case. But for me these Australian systems are particularly interesting precisely because they don't at first sight fit neatly into either category. They allow us to understand better the mechanisms which give rise to and sustain immediate return and delayed return. In particular, what they show is that in Australian systems intellectual property rights--over myths, songs, ceremonies and religious knowledge more generally--act socially to sustain social relations (and social groups) in ways that are similar to property rights over material means of production--boats, traps, weirs and so on.

TW--But in your scheme, aren't Australian Aboriginal systems important for understanding transformations of immediate-return systems into delayed-return ones?

JW--Yes, they certainly are. They show splendidly clearly that considerable control over the marriages and the labour of younger men by more senior men can be based largely on control of intellectual property by the senior men. This is an indication of one crucial route, possibly the crucial route, in the development of delayed-return systems out of immediate-return systems.

TW--You still talk of systems. Is the notion of system crucial to your analysis or could you do without it?

JW--The notion of system is absolutely crucial for my analysis. In both immediate-return systems and delayed-return systems we have a number of institutions which are interlinked but not just interlinked. They are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. The form the institutions take varies to some degree from one society to another, but what we find everywhere are systematic institutional interdependencies.

TW--But doesn't this make it more difficult to explain transitions between immediate return and delayed return?

JW--It does. The transition, the transformation, of immediate return into delayed return and vice versa is difficult to explain specifically because the transition from one system to another is difficult to accomplish and happens relatively rarely, though it must have happened repeatedly in human history. We can get an indication of how difficult the transition is by looking at a wide range of African hunter-gatherer societies, the Bushmen or San of Southern Africa, the many different so-called Pygmy societies in the Congo Democratic Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, Cameroon, Gabon and the Central African Republic and then the East African hunter-gatherers. What we find is that about the only people who seem to be making a relatively successful transition from hunting and gathering to an agropastoral lifestyle are the Okiek, who already had a delayed-return system as hunter-gatherers. Bushmen, Pygmies and Hadza, most of whom know and have long known the technology of agropastoralism, have not, in general, so far been able to make themselves effectively serf-sufficient by agropastoralism or by agriculture, even in those cases where a significant number of people apparently wish to do so. There are a number of reasons for this but one of the major ones is certainly the fact that the systematic nature of their immediate-return institutions makes such a transition very difficult for them to accomplish whatever their wishes.

TW--So you attribute this difficulty more to internal than to external factors?

JW w External factors are also relevant. The gross discrimination against African hunter-gatherers by neighbouring agricultural and pastoral peoples is certainly a factor and so is the fact that hunter-gatherers in Africa are everywhere politically weak and haven't easily been able to secure and maintain effective land rights for themselves. These factors are important but, in my opinion, not as important as internal factors. There are plenty of cases in which local farmers are not opposed to hunter-gatherers taking up farming. But even in these cases and in cases where support and encouragement have been provided by NGOs, hunter-gatherers with immediate-return systems do not normally make a successful transition to self-sufficient agriculture or agropastoralism. Of course, this is often partly to do with continuing commitment to hunting and gathering, but, in my opinion, the more important reason is the continuing systematic institutional framework of immediate return with its emphasis on sharing, on equality (especially intergenerational equality), on autonomy and the right of every individual to work in a relatively unconstrained way when he or she chooses and so on. The fact that up to the present there still are immediate-return systems among hunter-gatherers and recognised former hunter-gatherers is directly to do with the institutional resilience of immediate-return systems.

TW--Are hunter-gatherer studies on the way out, now that so few people are still living by hunting and gathering?

JW--There is, of course, some danger that this might happen. Hunter-gatherer studies could become an unimportant backwater within anthropology. But I don't think that this is likely. Interest in hunter-gatherers is at an all-time high and, judging by attendance at conferences, is still increasing. The focus, of course, has shifted. Research is now concentrated on characterising the dramatic changes in societies which, whatever their present way of life, still identify themselves as hunter-gatherers. Human rights issues are becoming increasingly important, especially in relation to loss of land. The outrageous discrimination against hunter-gatherers and former hunter-gatherers by other Africans in many African countries is, at last, beginning to be acknowledged and investigated by researchers.

As with any other branch of anthropology, interest in hunter-gatherer studies is bound over time to ebb and flow and to change its focus. The enthusiasms of one generation of anthropologists are typically rejected or much modified by the succeeding generation. There are many directions in which hunter-gatherer studies might go. I personally would welcome a revival of interest in the evolution of social forms but only if this could be approached in an academically rigorous way. It would also be good to see more work on such intractable issues as the histories of African hunter-gatherer populations which would, of course, involve elaborate cooperation between anthropologists, linguists, archaeologists, geneticists, historians and others. So long as we can maintain and improve scholarly standards, I'm on the whole optimistic about the future of our subject. Our findings are, I think, likely to continue to be valued not just by other anthropologists but also by people in a wide range of other disciplines.

TW--How do you see the future for the hunter-gatherers and former hunter-gatherers themselves? In Africa is increasing impoverishment inevitable?

JW--The situation at present is very alarming. Almost everywhere in Africa hunter-gatherers, and recognised former hunter-gatherers, are so politically weak in their dealings with neighbouring agricultural and pastoral peoples that theft of their land by these neighbours is not merely continuing but is accelerating. As more land is lost, more people become impoverished and discrimination increases. Some of the worst discrimination today against recognised former hunter-gatherers is in Rwanda and Burundi, where a high proportion of the former hunter-gatherers had lost most of their land and ceased to live by hunting and gathering more than a century ago. It is a delusion to imagine that, in general, recognised former hunter-gatherers in Africa are merging seamlessly on more or less equal terms with their pastoral or agricultural neighbours. What instead tends to happen is that spatial separation when hunter-gatherers hold land of their own is, when they lose this land, replaced by hierarchical separation maintained by increased discrimination.

But, alarming though it is, I don't think that the situation is hopeless. In every African country in which they live, hunter-gatherers constitute very small minorities. They are never a serious political threat. The allocation of enforceable land rights to land that they at present hold and some restitution of land that has been stolen from them could, if the political will was there, be accomplished by the governments of most of the countries in which they live. I believe that it is the obligation of anthropologists and other researchers and commentators who are aware of the situation to publicise the theft of land and other human rights violations that they encounter in an effort to change policies. To keep quiet is, I think, irresponsible. I have written about possible policies in a recent paper (2001).

TW--How do you see the future of the Hadza? Will they remain a distinctive community within Tanzania with their own land and language?

JW--For the reasons that I have already outlined, I think that they will remain distinctive. Most Hadza have no wish to lose their distinctive identity and way of life. Their language is flourishing and is still spoken by all Hadza. But their links with other Tanzanians are increasing all the time. Forty-five years ago hardly any Hadza knew more than a few words of Swahili. Now almost everyone can communicate quite well in Swahili.

The most crucial issue is land. They have lost a very high proportion of their land and theft of their land continues. In spite of great efforts by the Hadza themselves, by NGOs and other supporters, the unauthorised and unacceptable flow of other Tanzanians onto land owned by the Hadza has not, in most areas, been checked. The threat is that in the near future Hadza in some areas will be landless and will be living as impoverished landless labourers subject to severe discrimination on the land that has been taken from them. If they retain enough land, they should be able to work out their own future for themselves and to develop an economy based, according to each individual's choice, on some combination of hunting and gathering, craft production, acting as tourist guides and agriculture. But for this to happen changes of attitude and of policy will be needed at both local and national levels.

Incidentally, the incursions that the Hadza complain about most are those by the Barabaig (Tatoga), a pastoralist group speaking a Kalenjin language. In the 1950s there were just two small communities of Barabaig in Hadza country, one near Yaida and the other near Mangola. Erich Obst, who spent some weeks in Hadza country in 1911 and was the first European to establish contact with them, told me in 1978 when I met him in an old people's home in Gottingen that he encountered no pastoralists in Hadza country at that time. But now there are many thousands of Barabaig spread throughout Hadza country. They were displaced from their own areas by the expansion of the agropastoral Iraqw and chose to move in very large numbers onto the land of the Hadza, the only people in the area who are politically weaker than they are. The Hadza complain particularly about how wells, which the Barabaig have dug next to water sources used by game animals, have drained the water from these water sources and made them inaccessible to the game. This, the Hadza say, was a major cause of the dramatic decline in game populations in the area.

TW--I gather that you have kept a Land Rover in East Africa for decades. Is this a symbolic way of maintaining a presence while you are away and a reassurance that you will be returning again and again?

JW--I bought my present Land Rover second-hand in 1967 and have used it during my frequent visits to East Africa ever since. While I am away, I keep it in store full up with camping equipment, petrol containers, spare parts and all the other things I need in Africa. I know every nut and bolt on it and for me it remains more than a symbol. It's a very practical means of getting around. I intend to keep it and to use it for many years to come.

TW--James Woodburn, thank you very much for the interview.


(1) Bleek (1931) and Greenberg (1950) had claimed that Hadza was a Khoisan language. James Woodburn has never found any evidence for such a link. In a major new study Sands has recently confirmed that there is no demonstrable linkage (1998).


Bicchieri, M.G. 1972. ed. Hunters and Gatherers Today. New York.

Bleek, D.F. 1931. `Traces of Former Bushman Occupation in Tanganyika Territory', South African Journal of Science XXVII: 423-29.

Cooper, B. 1949. `The Kindiga', Tanganyika Notes and Records 27.

Fortes, M. and E.E. Evans-Pritchard 1940. African Political Systems. London.

Fosbrooke, H.A. 1956. `A Stone Age Tribe in Tanganyika', The South African Archaeological Bulletin II: 41.

Greenberg, J.H. 1950. `Studies in African Linguistic Classification: VI The Click Languages', Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 6(3).

Leach, E.R. 1954. Political Systems of Highland Burma: A Study of Kachin Social Structure. London.

Lee, R.B. and I. DeVore 1968. Man the Hunter. Chicago.

Sands, B. 1998. Eastern and Southern African Khoisan: Evaluating Claims of Distant Linguistic Relationships. Cologne: Koppe.

Schapera, I. 1930. The Khoisan Peoples of South Africa: Bushmen and Hottentots. London.

Woodburn, J. 1968a. `An Introduction to Hadza Ecology', in Man the Hunter, eds. R.B. Lee and I. DeVore. Chicago.

--1968b. `Stability and Flexibility in Hadza Residential Groupings', in Man the Hunter, eds. R.B. Lee and I. DeVote. Chicago.

--1980. `Hunters and Gatherers Today and Reconstruction of the Past', in Soviet and Western Anthropology, ed. E. Gellner. London.

--1982. `Egalitarian Societies', Man, the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 17(3): 431-51. (Malinowski Memorial Lecture delivered at the London School of Economics, 5 May 1981).

--1988. `African Hunter-Gatherer Social Organization: Is it best Understood as a Product of Encapsulation?' in Hunters and Gatherers I: History, Evolution and Social Change, eds. T. Ingold, D. Riches and J. Woodburn. Oxford.

--1997. `Indigenous Discrimination: the Ideological Basis for Local Discrimination against Hunter-Gatherer Minorities in Sub-Saharan Africa', Ethnic and Racial Studies 20(2): 345-61.

--1998 "`Sharing is not a Form of Exchange": An Analysis of Property Sharing in Immediate-Return Hunter-Gatherer Societies', in Property Relations: Renewing the Anthropological Tradition, ed. C.M. Hann. Cambridge.

2001. `The Political Status of Hunter-Gatherers in Present-Day and Future Africa', in Africa's Indigenous Peoples: `First Peoples 'or `Marginalised Minorities'? eds. A. Barnard and J. Kenrick. Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh.

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