The centre at the edge

Todd Gitlin Anthony Barnett
Todd Gitlin Anthony Barnett David Hayes Tom Nairn Hugh Brody
17 July 2001

For thirty years, Hugh Brody has lived, worked with and reported on hunter-gatherers. His work is an attempt to communicate the profound difference of their way of life from urban and agricultural civilisations. He does not romanticise the tough and often tragic communities into which hunter-gatherers have been driven. Instead, calmly and scrupulously, Brody argues that to understand and respect them is to gain a perspective that will be vital for a sustainable future.

In his recent book,

The Other Side of Eden, Hugh Brody takes us through his work and experience, from his first encounters with the Inuit in Northern Canada (once commonly known as Eskimos), to the native Indian population in the North American West, to remote parts of the valleys of South Asia, and the bush people of the Kalahari.

It would be wrong to categorise Brody as simply an anthropologist. The term now has an abstract ring to it, and Brody has spent little time as an academic. Rather, he has worked to find out and teach the truth of hunter-gatherer societies, in all aspects.

He has done so in a series of beautifully written books as well as documentary films. He has also researched and helped draft reports on the land claims of native peoples, and presented careful evidence in court cases to establish their rights. A scholar-activist, his work is a practical witness to the validity of his argument that hunter-gatherers are our contemporaries: profoundly different, but sharing the planet as our equals.

The openDemocracy interview began with a question about the nature of his work and its reception.

Hugh Brody – Hunter-gatherers are often represented as exotic or doomed – not just in the popular literature and by the administrative consciousness of the countries that deal with them (Canada, Australia, southern Africa), but even by some anthropologists.

This is a double vision. On the one hand, a people or way of life that is wonderful, beautiful, wild. On the other, a people with no possible future. So you can go there – to the world of hunter-gatherers – and experience something strange at the very edge of things; the edge of what it means to be human; the edge of what an environment can sustain.

These are people who are barely able to live, yet do so, and are therefore rather fantastic. Yet partly for these very reasons, there is a sense that they are doomed. It is just too much of an edge, too minimal an existence, too hard, too primitive – so there is no place in the world for these people. These two ideas work together in the representation of many indigenous peoples, but especially hunter-gatherers. They’re exotic and they’re doomed.

Living on the edge

This leads on to how I see my own work. I’ve always had a sense of going to the edge in order to find the centre. It’s an idea that’s resonated in my mind for years.

As I think back, I realise how confusing it was when my friends got excited about my going off to exotic, remote places to endure extreme climates and the privations of living at cultural and geographical margins, with people who, they probably imagined, were somehow beautiful and poignantly doomed.

This is, after all, enormously romanticisable. I am ashamed to say I took pleasure and pride in being the object of others’ romantic enthusiasm. But I also remember feeling embarrassed, insofar as I allowed these views of me to go uncontested.

I certainly wasn’t going to places where people were perched precariously at the edge of possible human existence. On the contrary, I always had the sense of going to a centre of the world – literally. Every culture sees itself as at the centre of the world, often in extraordinary defiance of imperialist attitudes which they’ve been invited to adopt. So you go to a hunter-gatherer society in the high Arctic, for example, and you are in their centre.

There is another sense in which I thought I was finding the centre by going to the edge. It is at these margins of society that it is possible to see with surprising clarity our centre. On colonial frontiers, where different and often rival ways of living meet, the underlying elements of our society become more clearly visible, sadly in exaggerated form.

The exaggeration results from the inequalities and purposes so clear at colonial frontiers. Newcomers to native societies – usually a western country – have enormous power. They are there because they want things of great importance to them – land, trees, minerals, oil and gas and, as a means to getting these, administrative and ideological control. Hence you can see certain kinds of economic exploitation, aggressive greed, missionary zeal, and racism. All these are disclosed at the edge. What they disclose, of course, is not the edge but the nature of the centre.

These two elements – the idea of hunter-gatherers as exotic and doomed, and the idea that someone like me can go there and find the centre – clash in a stark way. They are not ultimately doomed, and have a noble, or what we would now call sustainable, contemporary way of life. When people write about my work they tend to write about the exotic, the remoteness, the margin. But what I try to do is identify the centres: of those people for whom it is home, not a frontier; and of our society, which so remarkably reveals itself at that edge.

Difference and doomedness

Anthony Barnett – But what about the doomedness? In Maps and Dreams you show with great eloquence that hunter-gatherer societies, despite being vulnerable and relatively poor, are both deeply and fundamentally different from our own, and as you say, contemporary. In what ways are they not doomed? Why aren’t they going to be victims of the behemoth of modernisation?

HB – There are some very different themes there! The first is about difference. It’s tricky because there is indeed a deep difference between hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists or urban industrial people – there just is. And every anthropologist - especially off the record, as it were – will talk about how startled they are by that experience of difference when they are there.

James Woodburn, perhaps the most remarkable of all British experts on hunter-gatherers, said to me recently: “there’s a chasm between hunter-gatherers and all other peoples – that’s the simple starting-point for all this work.”

It’s a huge difference, but it’s not as though they live in some ancient time and we live in some modern time. We are different but we live at the same time – we are contemporaries, hunter-gatherers and all the rest of us. Hunter-gatherers have a particular form of life that makes a special, complicated negotiation with the modern.

The ideology of imperialism

This brings me to the second theme. Imperialism, especially in its land-grabbing New World and Australian forms, needs to characterise hunter-gatherers as not quite human. This helps to ensure that the colonial frontier can advance unchallenged. This is a very important element in the ideology of the frontier, and hunter-gatherer peoples are its most extreme victims. To insist that they are so primitive as to be less than fully human has been very useful for a long time.

It is a thread running through European political economic and theological theories in the seventeenth century. It was inscribed in American jurisprudence in the eighteenth century. It is to be found in theories of race in many parts of southern Africa, from nineteenth century ethnography to the details of apartheid. And it lurks around in tests set up by Canadian courts for land claims cases in the twentieth century.

The underlying notion is that these are people who roam around the face of the earth, more or less like animals. They lack the hallmarks of civilisation – “real” languages, “proper” religions, material possessions, names and addresses, writing systems, horses and wagons or “organised society”(to give a few examples).

By identifying the supposed lack of some or all of these, a difference is set up in this ideology between them and us which is to do with position on some kind of evolutionary or developmental ladder – hence a difference between animal and human. As a result, they can be denied rights to their land and to their culture, they belong to a past. They are doomed and therefore we can get rid of them.

This way of seeing difference is a trick, of course. Hunter-gatherers have actually been in negotiation with “newcomers” in a modern way for as long as they and colonists have encountered one another. This applies to herders and farmers meeting hunting peoples over several millennia of human history as well as to relatively modern colonial frontiers.

Package deal modernity

Hunter-gatherers have always tried to select the useful things that others bring, while discarding that which is not useful. They will reason: herding sheep may be helpful for part of the year, but not all the year; working in return for food or wages may help now and then, but not all the time, and certainly not at the beck and call of others; saucepans and cooking pots are not much use to us, but modern medicine could be helpful; there are aspects of Christian ideas that could be powerful and valuable, but not all of them; as for education, it might be good to learn your language, but we don’t want our children to go full-time to a school, because that creates problems for us.

So there is a need, informed by experience and wisdom, to pick and choose, just as all human beings do. But people who have experienced direct and often dangerous forms of imperial oppression are least able to make the necessary choices. The newcomers expect them, and maybe force them to accept a package deal. You can have a rifle, but you have to take Christianity and boarding schools as well.

They may attempt to negotiate among what’s on offer, to work with or against the package. But they do so at some considerable risk – colonial authorities do not want to sort out a give-and-take. They do not accept rejection of things they are sure are “good for the natives.”

So they are forced to choose for or against modernity itself. This choosing derives from modern processes and circumstances. And there is a struggle, either beneath the surfaces of everyday life, or, increasingly, explicitly. A struggle to have the opportunity and the right to be the kind of person and society you want to be. In this sense, hunter-gatherers always have been and are now operating like modern peoples everywhere.

In Maps and Dreams I analyse the economic components of the Dunne-za, a hunting society in the eastern foothills of the Canadian Rockies. I separate the different components of the resource base and how each is used. And what emerges clearly is that the Dunne-za are emphatically not the ancient archaic creatures of stereotype. They are different from us, but as modern as us.

This is a difficult idea to get across. Because the idea of hunter-gatherers, and of tribal peoples generally, as belonging to some ancient time and therefore, by definition, excluded from modernity is deeply embedded in our consciousness.

It can be incredibly frustrating. There is no doubt that this is a source of deep dismay, for elders and others from hunting societies, who find themselves giving evidence in support of rights and claims. They want to be seen as equals, and as part of the story, as it were.

A court, a public hearing, a radio interviewer – people seem to listen and understand the point. And then, in a judgement or summary or subsequent question, the same old idea is affirmed: the hunters are survivors of some ancient, pre-historic time, aren’t they? And the evidence needs to be given all over again.

An academic said recently that it is easy enough to grant tribal peoples antiquity, but hard to let them have history. This can be widened to saying that we deny modernity by denying them history; so they are left with – trapped in – antiquity. It is all part of denying rights – real, living, modern rights to real lands and resources.

Beyond the noble savage

Tom Nairn – That is why The Other Side of Eden is to me such a vital book. It seems to represent an emancipation from the enlightenment myth of the ‘noble savage’. This degree of understanding enables us to free ourselves from romanticism and thus ethnocentrism – the curse of all dealings with native peoples in the past.

I’m interested in nationalism and contemporary conflicts and trying to understand their origins, and I’m dying to ask: why now? Anthropology has been around for a long time, after all. Yet this intellectual leap, I suspect, wouldn’t have been possible two or three decades ago.

HB – Yes. It is striking that from about 1967 onwards there were anthropologists like James Woodburn and Marshall Sahlins and Richard Lee who were making arguments of this kind. Sahlins wrote a wonderful essay called The Original Affluent Society (what a great title!), comparing hunter-gatherers to their contemporaries in the agricultural world. Sahlins and others identify the nature of their affluence: they had more food, more protein, better health, fewer problems with childbirth, higher life expectancy, and greater amounts of leisure than other kinds of society.

Yet these arguments failed to capture popular imagination. And, interestingly enough, they failed also to make an impression on aboriginal rights disputes in Australia and Canada. This bears out the point that these arguments of thirty years ago got no purchase outside the academic community.

So why now? Well, are there moments in history when our sense of the personal and of the political converge in interesting ways? I was struck by the response to the Eden book among the editors and publishing people who had a professional responsibility for it. Many saw in it an account of their own unease and discomfort, their inner conflict between wishing to lead lives that are free, creative and egalitarian, as against the compulsions they feel to lead lives that are unfree, oppressive, and unequal.

I think that there’s a striking link between a sense of personal discomfort and lack of confidence in the socio-economic system in which we live; a sense of a double crisis. Maybe it requires a double crisis of this kind for these ideas about the modernity and rights and relevance of hunter-gatherers (and other indigenous peoples) to have a place in our real thinking. A crisis in the self and a crisis in the socio-economic order.

Todd Gitlin – Could it be that one more thing is much more evident today than when Sahlins and the others were first writing about this: that today many more people in the so-called advanced world feel, well, doomed? That the way of life that we inhabit is self-limited and headed off a cliff?

HB – And the environmental movement of course has contributed hugely to this. As you say, there is a widespread and ever deeper sense that the systems and optimism of the North or the “first world” just can’t keep going. We are said to be at the limits, at the edge, or beyond.

Integral to the success with which this is being put forward by the environmental movement is the proposition that we are all implicated, and therefore we all have to look for alternatives.

A better way of living

TG – A friend with whom I was discussing your film The People’s Land and the Eden book, said: well, what’s wrong with the ‘noble savage’?

HB – It’s a good question. The problem may lie in the idea of the “savage” rather than the sense of seeing him (and her!) as noble.

TG – Why not believe, at least as a thought experiment, that there was, is or can be a way of life which has virtues which are perceived as better than ‘Edenic’. So whatever the origins of ‘noble savagery’ as an intellectual movement in the enlightenment, why not face our own limits and the possibility that some people on this earth really know how to live?

HB – I think this is of central importance. There are many things about hunter-gatherer societies, and perhaps other indigenous cultures, that are a challenge to us. They demonstrate and represent achievements that we can’t match.

We’ve already mentioned some of them – the equality, the nutrition, respect for children and elders. Actually the child-raising example alone is a good reason for thinking that there is nobility to these savages. They know how to love children, they know how to be secure adults without neurotic disorders – is this is not a nobility? Of course it is. And is it a challenge to what goes on in our society? Of course it is.

And I want to say something about the attacks that are launched on people like me for being romantics. On the one hand, there is a romanticisation of indigenous people, especially when you look at how many families and whole societies are experiencing breakdown and irreversible losses. To disregard these losses, to assert that all people with hunter-gatherer heritage are somehow embodiments of high human achievement and wisdom, is romantic.

But on the other hand, when someone like me returns after living for a long time in a hunter-gather community, and describes the quality of family life, respect for the elderly and the care for children, abundance of food, generous egalitarianism and the strength of individuals – and these are sociological facts not romanticised generalisations – people scream about ‘romanticising’.

Why are they screaming? The account is factual, and often consistent with other accounts. I think the protest often comes because the challenge is not quite bearable. Our society often needs a screen between the prevailing ideology of the nation-states we live in and the implied criticism that the facts of hunter-gatherer life present to this ideology.

So yes, I think that the nobility of the “savage” should be acknowledged, along with an explanation of why the real savages, the wild and dangerous peoples, might be us rather than them.

Eskimos in denim

David Hayes – Don’t the very warm responses of people to the lives of hunter-gatherers run the risk of becoming benignly colonial in attitude? Some of the depictions of native communities we are familiar with from advertising seem examples of what the anthropologist of the Gaelic world, Malcolm Chapman, called ‘symbolic appropriation’, where a less powerful culture can remain imaginatively confined by the dominant one, despite substantial social change.

HB – There is a problem when the purpose is to create a lovely picture of lovely people whom we look after and help. We incorporate them into our narrative without really acknowledging their rights to have their own narrative – thus trapping them.

For instance, the focus on ‘tradition’ in much commentary and descriptive work seems often a device for trapping people so that they don’t get in our way. But fundamental to my understanding is that this is itself part of a discourse of modernity.

This is also true of how hunter-gatherers are made to appear. The advertising images – insurance companies using snow-house buildings – are visually amazing, but they use images of people who don’t really exist. The people in the Kalahari I’ve worked with, the Khomani San, enjoy recreating their decorative ‘heritage’ for the cameras.

But what exists now in the Arctic are people with denim jackets and tatty jeans and rubber boots, and a rifle slung over the shoulder with telescopic sights, or, in the Kalahari, people in second-hand sandals, tatty shorts and shirts, looking for tourists to sell crafts to. These images don’t find their way into the narrative, and I’m saying they should.

Hunter-gatherers’ modernity needs to be acknowledged. We may not like it – it may be much more convenient and aesthetically appealing for us to keep them in snow houses and grass huts – but the reality is their modernity. That should frame the narrative. Their right to that should be accorded them.

Unfreezing minds

TN – Since 1989 there has been a kind of unfreezing of attitudes as a result of the end of the cold war and the apparent triumph of neo-liberal capitalist economics. These changes helped transform people’s political aspirations in a way that fed into wider geopolitical rearrangements. Behind them, however, a far deeper shift in people’s attitudes about human nature has been taking place, and it has taken some years to break to the surface.

All the fixity that was perpetuated by the old cold war contest, the clash of two forms of enlightenment, beat everyone’s brains into submission for a generation. Now it has ended. In the unfrozen global space, there is a fundamental questioning of who we are and how we relate to what went before. Your book has the good fortune to impact on this.

HB – It questions the dominant idea of human nature that has held sway throughout the capitalist era – that people are naturally belligerent, acquisitive, and hostile to one another. This idea is directly challenged by hunter-gathering societies. The post-enlightenment theory of human nature is a key point of contest.

TG – I don’t agree; I think Rousseau would love your book – his side of the enlightenment, anyway. After all, he invented the ‘noble savage’.

TN – This is a difference of perception. I see the Eden book as a realistic reapproaching of the question of human nature – who are we, and what we come from. And it’s the very fact that there are people wearing gumboots and torn denims who are learning to use tape recorders and rifles that changes our perception. They are in the old sense neither noble nor savage. They’re just us, and we’re them.

This form of understanding further helps us to understand ethnocentrism and the way it turns into nationalism. In this new context, where everything that was solid is melting, your approach actually makes it more possible to address these same questions that were posed in the enlightenment, but without that fatal sense of being different, in the sense of more advanced and accomplished, which had people enthralled for so long.

HB – Yes, that’s a very good point.

A sustainable world view

AB – One of the compelling elements of the argument is the reworking of the view of the farm and of agricultural life. You show that in generational terms, the life of ‘settlement’ is dynamic, aggressive, and expansive, whereas hunter-gatherers stay relatively on the same terrain. Hunter-gatherers need to understand and know a relatively large area of land, their essential interest is in sustainability; farmers by contrast keep transforming the land; unsettlement is at the core of what they do.

This reversal is relevant to the point that we cannot simply go on expanding at the present rate; and that forces us then to contemplate the possibility that other ways of life which don’t have this destabilising inner compulsion may have something we need. So aren’t you also arguing that we need to take up the challenge they pose and learn from what is good in their society?

HB – The agricultural or Neolithic revolution, understood as something that took place across thousands of years, has now reached its limits. Agriculture has pushed into very marginal areas. The devastation of forests has reached intolerable levels. The unsustainability of the system we have developed is bearing in more and more on people’s consciousness.

It may be connected to warfare as well. We now have an extraordinary high level of war, which seems to have the potential to pervade every corner of the world. By reaching the limits of agricultural and demographic possibility, and by devastating the natural environment, we have created circumstances in which war is ever more likely as a way to deal with competition over resources. As a result of this combination of crises, many people recognise that we need other ways of being in the world.

AB – Isn’t there an implication in what you’re saying that really these are superior societies to the Neolithic and urban societies of our age? If so, why have they ‘lost’, so to speak?

HB – The dynamism, the restlessness, the expansionism of agricultural society, are corollaries of its genius. The Neolithic revolution is a brilliant set of discoveries, to do with controlling the environment, rearing animals, creating surpluses.

Thanks to it you can sustain relatively large numbers of children for a while. The very success of the system means that in due course you’ve got to look for more land. That’s fine as long as there’s more land to be got, even though in the course of acquiring it you are probably driving out or murdering the hunter-gatherers whose land it may have been for a very long time.

After you acquire all the land where this system can work, there remain parts of the world beyond your frontier – the high Arctic, the Australian outback, parts of Amazonia and sub-Saharan Africa. These are the last places where this other way of life can go on. It is less efficient in generating surpluses, it’s less good at having large numbers of children.

But it has these ways of living, of managing interpersonal life, of being on the land, that excite us now because they are sustainable. They can live in one place for millennia in a relatively stable manner. But they are the victims of the success of the Neolithic.

Living by the bank

TG – Where do your arguments relate to institutions like the World Bank?

HB – This is a huge issue. The World Bank has operational directives setting out rules that govern the distribution of loans. The directives relating to indigenous peoples stipulate that no project should proceed if the peoples affected are placed in jeopardy. These directives, of 1989 and 1991, are at least alive to the historical and cultural rights of indigenous peoples.

But they have either not been implemented, or enforced only inadequately. Moreover, new operational directives are now being written that, some are saying, will weaken the statutory protections for affected peoples. Is there a sense that the anti-development lobby has gone far enough, and that the benefits of large-scale investment projects must be reasserted?

I was a member of the Morse Commission that wrote a report for the World Bank on the Sardar-Sarovar projects in western India, the biggest hydro-electric and irrigation scheme ever contemplated. The Bank’s response to our report was, eventually, not only to disengage from this project, but to initiate an investigation into all their projects. This exposed huge failings of implementation of their own rules entailing, for example, the displacement of 10m people in India alone, in situations where this often involves complete dispossession. The World Bank has sought to look hard at projects, and the processes by which loans are and are not made to help borrower countries fund these projects.

So there has been a self-examination process. But the very success of the critique of large-scale projects, in the world and to some extent within organisations like the World Bank, may have alarmed and threatened the huge interests which drive the projects.

Hunting – a remnant of the past?

AB – There is a dispute now in Britain about whether fox hunting should be made illegal, and one of the arguments is that hunting goes back to the hunter-gatherers, that it is an exercise in keeping alive a fundamental part of our history and being on the earth. I wondered what you think of that argument?

HB – There probably is some atavistic component in us, perhaps a kind of shadow of the hunter-gatherer, which responds to all forms of hunting in our own societies. To this extent the ideas of Roger Scruton about fox-hunting have some force and meaning.

However, hunting as we understand it in the English countryside is, so to speak, a profoundly Neolithic activity. It is highly organised, bound by all kinds of rules, capital intensive, it takes place on a landscape that is made of fields and fences and thus presupposes a system of control. It is also intimately linked to private property and social hierarchy. In these ways I think that it is far, far away from the hunter-gatherer world.

Another way of seeing the difference is by looking at the extent to which fox-hunting is co-ordinated from above. It is hierarchical individualism, whereas hunter-gathering is egalitarian individualism. A hunter-gatherer hunt with hounds would have forty-three people going in twenty-six directions, one taking one hound one way and one taking two hounds the other - probably ending up hundreds of miles apart, and killing an awful lot of foxes!

The idea that hunting with hounds should be defended because it represents the deep hunter-gatherer character and ethic in our society is, I think, both mythic and something of an obfuscation.

There are other ways of defending it, of course, to do with people’s rights to lead their own lives, and the extent to which customs in one part of the country should not necessarily be adjudicated by another part of the country. Reasons that are to do with democracy, not hunter-gatherer verities.

The lessons that we learn

TG – You earlier argued that what people always do is to disassemble what they come into contact with. Let’s turn that question upside down and ask whether the hunter-gatherer way of life can be unpacked by us and what can we extract?

HB – Well, the word that comes into my head is respect. The thing that is most inspiring about being in the hunter-gatherer world is the respect at every level of society, not only between people but between people and their land.

There is a great deal of attention to the well-being of the other. There is a sense that your well-being depends on their well-being. The way people have talked about respect for the environment over the last generation has been in a way an extraction of this other way of being.

Also, perhaps, we can look to hunter-gatherer cultures for a certain kind of tolerance and patience – a sense that things take time. Any developments should be pursued only with great caution; changing the environment is a serious matter; the construction of mega-projects is a matter for scepticism. These too are to do with respect – of the land that is going to be devastated by these things and for all the creatures, animal and human, that are at risk.

And I often come back to respect for children. Alice Miller, the psychoanalyst, writes of ‘poisonous pedagogy’, the system of teaching that imposes on children some grid of development, a theory of the pace at which things should happen in their lives. This, she argues, does enormous damage.

Hunter-gatherers have child-rearing systems that embody an entire, alternative way of being with children that doesn’t lay any such grid, but which does secure very successful development. The selecting of all that – respect for environment, patience and a cautious pace of life, psychological formations – these may seem obvious but they’re pretty important.

It’s the sort of thing people say, and then realise they can’t achieve. But it can be achieved, and we know this.

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