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February 21, 2005

Hunter-gatherers might not be so ancient

Recent Origin and Cultural Reversion of a Hunter–Gatherer Group. The authors offer compelling genetic evidence that a particular "Hill Tribe" of Thailand which practices hunter-gathering might be descended from a very small founder population that originated among agriculturalists. Though Henry Harpending will know know more about this, I have read that the San of the deep Kalahari might have been adopted an exclusive hunter-gatherer lifestyle after being pushed out of more fertile lands where they might have engaged in some form of cattle herding like their cousins to the south and west. The take home message is that humans are not cockroaches, we shift lifestyles as the circumstances demand and the perception that marginal groups have been ever primitive and changeless is the result of a combination of natural temporal shortsightedness as well as modern man's inability to conceive of a cyclical, rather than linear progressive, model of history.

One point that the authors of the paper make is that "This example of cultural reversion from agriculture to a hunting–gathering lifestyle indicates that contemporary hunter–gatherer groups do not necessarily reflect a pre-agricultural lifestyle." This is relevant as far as evolutionary psychology goes because modern hunter-gathering folk are often used to test hypotheses about the EEA, because they are imagined to be a direct connection to the ur-eco-heimat of our species. Does this invalidate that method? I don't necessarily think so, it seems plausible that just as animal morphology tends to converge upon like forms via different phylogenetic paths (see the Tasmanian Tiger), a hunter-gatherer lifestyle might always be constrained by the cognitive predispositions of our species as well as more prosaic constraints of our biology and the natural environment and so canalized toward a particular mode which does resemble the EEA. Of course those who have analyzed the lifestyles of hunter-gatherer groups who have made it into the modern age will have more to say on this as cross-cultural comparison would be crucial to test a hypothesis of inevitable canalization. If most hunter-gatherer groups have gone through an "agricultural phase" but still exhibit the same broad range of habits and values it is strongly suggestive of canalization.

Related: Stumbling backward, racing forward and The Dusk of Human Culture.

Posted by razib at 04:29 PM