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Review of "Myth of the Hunter-Gatherer" by Kenneth Ames

Analysis

In his article, Ames deconstructs the various stereotypes and assumptions made about hunter-gatherer societies, both popular and in historical anthropology, such as the common image of small, highly nomadic groups struggling to survive at an often sub-human level, and the less pejorative but equally universal assumption that all hunter-gatherer societies were egalitarian with no permanent social inequalities. Drawing from my own limited experience in anthropology, I can confirm Ame’s point about the pejorative stereotypes associated with hunter-gatherers. The image of the cave-man existence and the idea that agriculture is necessary to form complex society, that non-complex societies are inferior, and therefore non-agrarian societies are inferior is burned into our modern global consciousness.

While many hunter-gatherer societies past and present did maintain very small, nomadic and egalitarian populations, Ames puts forth examples from the accumulated history and research of the ancient Natufian culture of the Middle East, the Calusa of Florida, the indigenous peoples of the American Northwest Coast, and Jomon people of Japan, all of whom fall under the category of “complex hunter-gatherers.” Ames describes throughout his article how the term complex hunter-gatherer entails either a rich natural environment or an intense subsistence economy that can support a sedentary rather than nomadic lifestyle, and therefore more complex technological developments. All of these societies, Ames points out, developed complex tools and art forms, intense subsistence systems including horticulture, and permanent structures. Previous to reading this article I only knew about the American Northwest Coast and Jomon societies, but based on those examples I could confirm much of Ames’ data, and I follow his line of reasoning that these cultures do not fit the once traditional hunter-gatherer paradigm. Along that line of reasoning, I understand Ames’ point that neither can these societies be considered transition cultures between foraging and agriculture, indeed, Ames points out that many complex hunter-gatherers never made the transition to farming, even when trading with agricultural societies.

The key to societal complexity, Ames argues, is political organization, something that mobile hunter-gatherer units could not have maintained. The Calusa remained a hunter-gatherer society even when they developed a “multi-village political unit” under a single leader (the only known hunter-gatherer group to have ever done so). The people of the American Northwest Coast had classes of chieftains, other elites, commoners, and slaves. It is unconfirmed that the Natufian people had a permanent elite, but there exists no evidence that other complex Hunter-Gatherer groups such as the Jomon people ever had an elite. While not all of these societies developed an elite class, compared to the previous idea that all hunter-gatherer societies were egalitarian, a disproportionate number of them did.

The pervasive idea that less complex societies (non-agrarian) are backwards and not viable social systems is ingrained in the public mind, and even, one could argue, in the anthropological and archeological mentality of many of Japan’s experts in those fields, leading to their often willful disregard of evidence regarding the complexity of the Jomon people. Faulty and simplistic ideas about what define hunter-gatherers are at the root of much of the world’s temporal discrimination, which I believe makes Ames’ thesis far more relevant to the modern world than the average reader might realize. I found Ame’s essay both informative, serious, and very accessible, but I wish he would have gone into further depth on the subject.

Citation

Ames, Kenneth. “Myth of the Hunter-Gatherer” Mesa Community College. Sept. 2007. 14 March 2007

http://www.mc.maricopa.edu/dept/d10/asb/anthro2003/lifeways/hg_myth.html.

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