Other Side of Eden

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Book: The Other Side of Eden. Hugh Brody.

On indigenous cultures as "profoundly complex-adaptive to their environment".


Chris Knight:

"In 2000, a quite extraordinary book, The Other Side of Eden, was published by the social anthropologist and renowned hunter-gatherer specialist Hugh Brody.9 His gripping book is a masterpiece of narrative and scholarship, gathering together in one volume both the diversity of hunter-gatherer cultures and the core features they have in common.

Tens of millennia ago, Brody wrote, the world’s hunter-gatherer systems would have displayed an immense range of languages and cultural forms. Hints of this diversity come from the hunter-gatherer populations we know today. The indigenous peoples of the Americas speak hundreds of different languages, and all are clear about the many features that allow them to identify themselves as distinct nations or societies. In the forests and tundra of the North American Subarctic and Arctic, where the environment is extreme and landscapes are vast and relatively uniform, hunter-gatherer societies speak a large number of mutually unintelligible dialects that fall into four language families, as distinct from one another as the Romance languages of Western Europe are from the Bantu languages of southern Africa. Linguists estimate that in California alone aboriginal populations spoke some 80 different languages. The variety of hunter-gatherer ways of speaking, comments Brody, is itself a sign of the vast spans of time during which these social systems have been alive. Language, the author continues, creates the potential for an immense panoply of social and family arrangements, an apparent infinity of ways in which people can codify and convey knowledge, beliefs and ideals. Despite this diversity, however, there are some characteristics that all hunter-gatherers have shared. These are grounded in the kind of relationship hunter-gatherers establish with the world in which they live.

Material well-being depends on knowing, as opposed to endlessly changing, the environment. Many strategies of both hunting and gathering rely on management of the land, from the selective burning of brush and undergrowth to prevent uncontrollable forest fires to the replanting of roots to ensure abundant growth in the following year. Population densities are too low and foraging ranges too immense for anything to be gained by patrolling boundaries or attempting military attacks against neighbouring groups.

Many hunters say that wild animals will agree to be killed only if they are shown respect in both life and death. The rituals and habits of respect are therefore important ways in which hunters and gatherers are not passive harvesters, but are engaged in the complicated business of maintaining the world around them to ensure that its produce is bountiful. In short, the central preoccupation of hunter-gatherer economic and spiritual systems is the maintenance of the natural world as it is. The assumption held deep within this point of view is that the place where a people live is ideal: therefore change is for the worse. If your way of life gives joy and abundance, why seek to change it?

It is only when hunting and gathering gives way to cattle herding, farming, property accumulation, and the state that there is constant dissatisfaction with the way things are, leading to social breakdowns and wars. From that point on, society is riddled with contradictions and endlessly unstable. Widespread frustration now generates never-ending attempts to exploit nature more intensively. We have become so accustomed to this that we forget how it all began. Only when a social system is constantly failing will people keep thirsting for social change.

Another characteristic of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle is a deep respect for individual decisions. Communities have experts rather than leaders, men or women whose skills are revered; but decisions about whether to follow their lead or take their advice are matters of individual choice. A hunt leader does not instruct others to follow or to take any particular direction. The expert makes his or her decision known, others then make their decisions, following or not as each prefers. Social and ethical norms are powerful, but they are enforced by a minimum of instruction or organised retribution. Beliefs about the effects of human actions on the spirit world contain implied threats; failure to show the necessary respect for animals can result in hunger and sickness. But rules and the consequences of breaking them are embedded in the stories and advice of elders or in the diagnosis of shamans after things have gone wrong. The individual hunter-gatherer’s links and routes to the spirit world, through dreams or other private forms of insight and intuition, are paramount. Choice and freedom are centred on each person, unconstrained by social hierarchy. This is anarchism—and it works."


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