The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Comparing the Primitives?

Several years back, I was at a panel discussion on Native American involvement in cultural resources management at the Society for California Archaeology's annual meeting. During the meeting, a woman on the panel, who was herself a member of a Native Californian group, said that she was offended at the tendency that anthropologists had to compare hunter-gatherer and early farmer groups. As she put it "I see what you guys are saying - you're saying 'let's compare the primitive people!'"

Did she have a point?

Well, yes and no.

During the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, there was a tendency for many anthropologists to view all human society as being on a linear path from the most "primitive" (mobile foragers) to the most "advanced" (usually considered to be the society of one of the European nations, sometimes conceived of European culture as a whole). In this sort of framework, comparison of two groups of people who made and used stone tools, who engaged in hunting and gathering as a resource base, and who spoke a non-written language would have been viewed as a comparison of two primitive cultures. And, it must be said, some of the writing produced during this era reflects the chauvinistic attitudes of the European and European-descended anthropologists.

However, even during this time, groups were not compared to each other because they were viewed as primitive, per se. They were compared based on similarities of resource base, tool production technology, and social organization. So, groups were not being compared because anthropologists wanted to "compare the primitives*, however arrogant the anthropologist might be. They were being compared because it was (and still is) thought that comparison of groups of people who live in similar ways might yield information about humanity in general.

If there are four different groups of people who all live in temperate zones, are mobile foragers, use similar tools, but some are matrilocal (men go to live with their wive's families/bands) while some are patrilocal (women go to live with their husband's families/bands), then this differences stands out in stark relief when compared to the similarities. Once you find this difference, you can begin looking for the source of the difference: is it essentially random chance? Is there some social or ecological factor at work favoring one pattern over another? Is there evidence for any of the groups as to the age of the practice?

Once one finds some answers (or, more likely, possible answers) as to why there are differences in patrilocality vs. matrilocality, it is then reasonable to look to other cultures which also share many of the similarities, and examine the reasons (or, again, possible reasons) for their practices regarding how couples and families organize. This may then provide information regarding basic human organization which can be applied more broadly.

So, in this sense, no, she was wrong, it wasn't just a case of "let's compare the primitives." Most of us who do this sort of comparative work don't even think of these people as "primitive", we usually think of groups of people as being adapted to different environments, and issues such as the alleged sophistication of a group of people don't even come into play. There are utilitarian reasons for comparing groups of people that have nothing to do with passing judgement on them.

At the same time, there is a reluctance to compare peoples who are quite different from each other, even though this might yield interesting results. Comparing the role of a chief within a community of eastern Native Californian farmers with the role of a senator in ancient Rome, for example, yields some interesting similarities: in both cases, there is someone who yields influence more often than outright power; both are reliant on the support of the people over whom they have power or influence in the way that a king, for example, is not; both need to exercise eloquence and patience in using their power in a way that a dictator does not; and both are likely to come from a lineage that produces people of their rank and often have been groomed for their position since childhood. Yet it is rare - not unheard of, but rare - to see someone who is researching complex chiefdoms in the American West look to Republican Rome for examples of the development and maintenance of power and authority. There are many reasons for this, but the fact remains that comparing two such vastly different cultures and finding the similarities can often reveal important information about common aspects of human behavior and culture that seem to be true across time and cultures, and might be hard-wired into us as a species.

In this sense, she sort-of has a point. The lack of comparisons across such vastly different cultures is due, in part, to the fact that anthropological archaeologists and ethnographers often have only the most limited understanding of the peoples who are usually treated by the field of history rather than anthropology. But another reason is that we are often so attached to our own narrow focus that we fail to see that there are lessons to be drawn from outside of our own sphere. In this sense, while we don't tend to think that we are "comparing the primitives" that is the effect of so much of what we do.

It should be noted, though, that this is not an absolute. Jean Arnold of UCLA has studied modern North American households with the intention of trying to apply information from them to prehistoric peoples the world over. Stuart Smith has drawn from the interaction of the Native Americans and the Russian outposts in North America in developing his ideas for how Egypt interacted with their neighbor Kush (I take issue with how Smith makes his comparisons, and with the material that he often cites from the Americas, but at least he's trying to do something interesting and worthwhile). As early as the 1960s, James Dietz argued for the study of historic Europeans and their descendants in the Americas as a way of generating theoretical models that could be applied to prehistoric archaeology.

Nonetheless, whatever the intention, I can understand why she would feel that there was an attitude that her ancestors were "primitive". I think that the situation is more complicated than that, but I can understand the feeling.

*Well, most anthropologists weren't doing it for this reason. There were, of course, some who were acting out of a desire to promote their own culture or nation by belittling others.

No comments: