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Health, psychology & science stories


Hunter-gatherers and Lewis Binford

25 May 2002

Published in The Age


The world’s dwindling hunter-gatherer peoples are fascinating enough in their own right, but they’re interesting also because in profound ways they are “us”. Our genes are all but identical to those of humans of 12,000 BC - an evolutionary eye-blink ago - when all seven million of us were hunter-gatherers.

So whilst our diet, dress and dwellings are shaped by the modern age, our bodies and brains were fashioned by a vastly different era which had lasted hundreds of thousands of years - where societies were tiny, carbohydrate scarce, predators rampant, hard exercise compulsory for all, and stress episodic rather than chronic.

Becaue they are the last representatives of humanity’s collective past, it’s momentous that one of the world’s most distinguished anthropologists, Lewis Binford, has now published his “bible” of the Earth’s hunter-gatherers - those still with us, and those who vanished recently enough to have been studied.

Binford is Professor of Anthropology at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. His book, published by University of California Press and costing a hefty $US75, is called Constructing Frames of Reference - because it provides professionals with long-awaited methodologies for studying hunter-gatherers. Though this makes the book dense and technical, it’s a gift for which future generations of anthropologists and archaeologists will thank him.

But for the non-specialist, the book’s real value lies in its massive global pooling of data on hunter-gatherers. Between its ten-page tables and its many charts, graphs and illustrations, a picture emerges which has implications for Westerners too.

For instance, Binford finds that most hunter-gatherer groups eat more meat and/or fish than plant-based foods. Not one tribe is vegetarian; grains and dairy are also off the menu. Though he cautions against extrapolations, this may lend weight to the present global trend away from high-carbohydrate diets.

There’s plenty in Binford’s book for Australian readers: after all, ours was the last hunter-gatherer continent. Australia had 601 “distinct ethnic groups” at the time of the British invasion. Most were not even documented before they were exterminated, deliberately or incidentally. Today, 56 groups remain - meaning that the majority of Aboriginal tribes,  representing 40,000 years of human presence on our continent, have disappeared leaving few if any traces.

Binford estimates the worldwide hunter-gatherer population has fallen to 52% of what it was at the start of the colonial era. The greatest “attrition” has been in Australia and South America. So has the greatest loss of information.

Sizes of hunter-gatherer groups vary with circumstance. The basic unit - somewhere between a dozen and 20 - will sometimes double or triple or more, and periodically blow out into the hundreds for “regional gatherings”. Given our long, shared evolutionary history with hunter-gatherers, this may make us wonder at our practice of crowding into cities containing millions.

The physical work of hunter-gatherer groups may tell us something of the activity levels the human body is “designed” for. The Aka people in the Central African Republic have a foraging area of 250 square kilometers, and work physically for six hours a day. The Efe in Zaire have spear hunts involving about ten men, lasting an average of nine hours - and three-hour monkey hunts with bows. The Mbuti net hunters in Zaire hunt an average of seven hours per day.

Women are highly active by Western standards too. A gathering trip by Australia’s Pitjandjara women took 6.6 hours, and covered nearly 17 kilometers.

More than 20 percent of hunter-gatherer marriages are polygynous (men with multiple wives). Polyandry (women with multiple husbands) is somewhat less common.

Age at marriage is shockingly low by Western standards. It’s nearly always teen-age for girls - often early teen-age - and seldom more for boys. Archaeological evidence suggests our own ancestors were the same.

Hunter-gatherers seem to be at once more left-wing and right-wing than we are - more socialistic, yet more ruthless with non-contributors. In sharp distinction to developed and developing worlds alike, all group members have good access to resources. On the other hand there are no guaranteed “equal rights” for those who have not built up “trustworthiness” over many years - indeed such people may find themselves out on their ear.

Hunter-gatherers are now disappearing because they’re blending into invading cultures, or because those cultures have simply wiped them out. But most of all they’re disappearing because of the destruction of their terrritories, by local and colonial “agents of change”.

Binford occasionally focuses on individual groups, such as the unusually protean Eskimos. He quotes an early source describing them spending their winters “in a state of continuous religious exhaltation”, whereas, rather startlingly, “there is no religion during the summer”. Eskimos also have summer families and winter families - the former being nuclear, the latter “a much wider group”.

Eskimo property rights change greatly from summer to winter too. In summer the hunter must bring his whole catch back to his family, whereas in winter - where the collective spirit reigns - the whole community owns it.

Such gems as these have to be patiently mined out of Binford’s often leaden prose. However if one focuses on its content rather than its difficult style, his book affords a broad, deep and ultimately rather melancholy insight into what he calls “the final act of the hunter-gatherer play in the ecological theatre”.

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