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Over the past 40 years, anthropologists who study hunter-gatherers, especially the Ju/’hoansi, have vigorously debated various theories about the nature of those societies. In a recent issue of the journal Anthropos, Mathias Guenther, a scholar who has done research on the San people of western Botswana, reviews the history and current theoretical issues relating to hunter-gatherer studies. Since the research and literature about the Ju/’hoansi so dominate the field, the author pays a lot of attention to that society in his analysis.

Guenther explains that the conference “Man the Hunter,” held in Chicago in 1966, and the 1968 book that Richard Lee and Irven DeVore edited as a result, focused a lot of scholarly attention on the Ju/’hoansi. The conference and book helped establish hunter-gatherer studies as a field based primarily on precise, measurable phenomena—an ecological approach, the author calls it. The anthropologists in the field emphasized property and gender topics, divisions of labor, caloric inputs, subsistence patterns, energy budgets, and other issues that seemed essential to understanding the foraging way of life.

About 150 different anthropologists and archaeologists have worked among the San societies over the past half century, according to the author. He maintains that the emphasis on that region, and particularly on the Ju/’hoansi, has overemphasized the issues of that one society over the broader group of hunters and gatherers worldwide.

The primary concern of many scholars in the 1970s and early 1980s was what Guenther calls “model-building,” the attempts by the scholars to establish patterns and typologies for issues such as food availability, ways of dealing with neighbors, and patterns of mobility. The immediate return, simple, egalitarian society—such as the Ju/’hoansi (then called the !Kung)—became the most often cited model for a foraging people. He refers to that era as the “tyranny of the !Kung,” a period when some scholars may have been inhibited from engaging in creative thinking due to the predominance of Ju/’hoansi research.

As time went on, some anthropologists became involved in the political and social plight of the foraging peoples they were studying. Scholars broadened their purview from the material and infrastructure analyses of previous decades to structural and social issues, such as political processes within and among hunter-gatherers groups. Guenther cites the 1976 Lee and DeVore volume on the Kalahari San societies as an example of that change. That work includes a broad range of studies on issues such as trance dancing, child care (Draper 1976 is a good example), and others.

While these issues have remained important in Ju/’hoansi studies, and more broadly in hunter-gatherer research, a revisionist debate began in the 1980s that has shifted the focus of many anthropologists increasingly onto historical investigations. With an increase of the interdisciplinary involvement of archaeologists, studies of societies such as the Ju/’hoansi have favored, as Guenther explains, “dynamic historical explanations over static ecological or structural ones” (p.375).

The revisionists have challenged the earlier views of the ecologists that the hunter-gatherers live in societies characterized by an egalitarianism and openness that differs from the conditions in other more complex societies. The revisionists dismiss these arguments as delusion and utopian fancies, the wishful thinking of Westerners produced by their counter-culture ideas formed in the 1960s and 1970s.

Instead, the revisionists view societies such as the Ju/’hoansi, and many others, simply as examples of people living on the margins of state societies. This deconstructionist approach has produced much debate in the pages of anthropology journals. But Guenther argues that the heated professional discussions have introduced a lot of revitalizing ideas into this sub-field of anthropology. The important point, to the author, is that the whole revisionist debate has emphasized a historical approach for understanding societies, an emphasis which he feels has been long needed.

The revisionists have also argued that the early studies of the Ju/’hoansi, and the other San societies, allowed discrepancies to occur in some scholarly publications. There were inherent ambiguities and contradictions in these societies: they were not as peaceful or as utopian as some writers had maintained. Some reports suggested that the Ju/’hoansi experienced high levels of violence, conditions that other scholars may not have observed.

Furthermore, the sharing that occurred may not have been as harmonious as portrayed—it may have been quite a contentious aspect of their lives. Sharing in the San societies may have precipitated tension rather than ameliorated it. But Guenther summarizes that “this less rosy side of hunter-gatherers” should be viewed as a complement to the earlier, perhaps overly romanticized, view of the Ju/’hoansi, not necessarily as an alternative to it.

One of the recent developments in the field of hunter-gatherer studies has been the involvement of the people themselves in the research. The anthropologist today may carry out research on the initiative of a political interest group of the people themselves or an NGO involved with them. Beyond that, the hunter-gatherers are becoming involved in the actual investigations. Many are no longer willing to be passive subjects of someone else’s research.

Thus, in many cases, research is no longer about them, it is for them and, increasingly, with them. The foraging peoples (or post-foragers as the case may be) are becoming politically tuned, educated, and quite aware of their roles in their broader societies and nation-states. They may be quite critical of the attitudes of some scholars that they are victims of power plays and of the vagaries of global capitalist enterprises. Many want their own perspectives and needs to prevail over those of outside scholars.

Some partisans of these anthropological culture wars may not agree with Guenther’s analysis, but for readers outside the field, he provides a useful overview of Ju/’hoansi and hunter-gather studies over the years. He pays little attention to the lesser-known, peaceful, foraging societies such as the Paliyans due to the fact that there is far less literature about them, but his review is quite useful in any case.

Guenther, Mathias. 2007. “Current Issues and Future Directions in Hunter-Gatherer Studies.” Anthropos 102: 371-388