Thomas N. Headland
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Human Foragers in Tropical Rain Forests
Some Criticisms of the "Wild Yam Question"

By Thomas N. Headland (Compiled in February 1999)

The above is the title of a special issue of the journal Human Ecology (volume 19, published in 1991) titled Human Foragers in Tropical Rain Forests, and guest-edited by Robert Bailey and me. All seven chapters (authored by eleven people) focus on the food-scarcity hypothesis that Bailey and I developed independently of each other in the 1980s, and later refined together. Below are listed the titles, authors, and condensed abstracts of each of those seven chapters.

Introduction: Have Hunter-Gatherers Ever Lived in Tropical Rain Forest Independently of Agriculture?

Thomas N. Headland and Robert C. Bailey (pp. 115-122)

It has often been assumed that peoples living today as forages in tropical rain forests are remnants of paleolithic populations that have been subsisting in their forest habitats for millennia and have only recently come into contact with sources of domesticated plants and animals. Independently, the two of us have published articles that challenge this view and propose the hypothesis that hunter-gatherers could never have lived in tropical rain forest without direct or indirect access to cultivated foods. This article serves as an introduction to six articles in this issue of Human Ecology, all devoted to this hypothesis. To provide background for this journal's readers, we summarize here our original articles.

Foraging in Tropical Rain Forests: The Case of the Penan of Sarawak, East Malaysia (Borneo)

J. Peter Brosius (pp. 123-150)

Bailey et al. (1989) and Headland (1987) have recently proposed hypotheses stating that human foragers are unable to live in undisturbed tropical rain forests without some reliance on cultivated foods. The present discussion considers these hypotheses.... Four conceptual problems in the way these hypotheses have been formulated are identified.... I consider the case of Penan hunter-gatherers of Borneo, a population which, by virtue of their reliance on the sago palm Eugeissona utilis, contradicts the conclusions of Bailey et al. and Headland. .... This [Penan] case is seen to provide a challenge to the hypotheses of Bailey et al. and Headland, not only in the extent to which it contradicts their conclusions but, more significantly, in what it reveals about the assumptions upon which their hypotheses are based....

The Possibility of Independent Foraging in the Rain Forest of Peninsular Malaysia

Kirk Endicott and Peter Bellwood (pp. 151-185)

This paper examines the question of whether hunter-gatherers could live in the tropical rain forest of Peninsular Malaysia without access to cultivated foods. It considers the wild food sources used by the Batek De', a contemporary foraging-trading group of Kelantan state, historical and ethnohistorical evidence concerning the Batek economy in the past, and archeological evidence for independent foraging in the Pleistocene and early Holocene. The conclusion reached is that small nomadic groups of foragers can live off wild resources alone in that environment and have done so in the past....

Hunting in Lowland, Tropical Rain Forest: Towards a Model of Non-Agricultural Subsistence

Peter D. Dwyer and Monica Minnegal (pp. 187-212)

It has recently been argued that hunter-gatherers do not, did not, and could not live in tropical rain forest without some access to agricultural produce. This opinion challenges models of past non-agricultural subsistence patterns that are based in analogies derived from modern rain forest-dwelling groups. In this paper, the socio-ecological bases of the hunting system of the Kubo people of lowland Papua New Guinea are described. It is argued that this system lacks necessary dependence upon the agricultural system with which it co-occurs and, in fact, can be connected with a system of carbohydrate procurement that is not agricultural. The hypothesized connection provides the basis of a model of non-agricultural subsistence in lowland tropical rain forest.

Wild Yams Revisited: Is Independence from Agriculture Possible for Rain Forest Hunter-Gatherers?

Serge Bahuchet, Doyle McKey, and Igor de Garine (pp. 213-243)

The hypothesis that energy-rich wild plant foods are too scarce in rain forest to allow subsistence by foraging peoples independently of agriculture lacks a firm empirical basis.... We explore the alternative hypothesis that ... these [wild] foods are present in large enough quantities to support hunter-gatherers, but have become increasingly neglected with increasing availability of cultivated plant foods.... Drawing on data from ecology, archeology, ethnohistory, and linguistics, we argue that pygmy foraging peoples of the western Congo basin were present in rain forest environments before the advent of farming villagers.

Making a Living in the Tropical Forest: Yuqui Foragers in the Bolivian Amazon

Allyn MacLean Stearman (pp. 245-260)

Questions concerning the availability of resources in tropical rain forest have given rise to the current debate centering on whether human subsistence based solely on foraging is possible in these biomes without agricultural subsidies. This paper takes the position that changing perspectives on ecological pattern and process in tropical forests on a worldwide as well as regional scale must be taken into consideration. Human disturbance is also proposed as a cause of dependence on agriculture by modern human foragers rather than as a necessary precondition for successful exploitation of the tropical forest. These issues are discussed against the background of a case study of the Yuqui, who, until very recently, were true foragers in the Bolivian Amazon....

The Tropical Rain Forest: Is It a Productive Environment for Human Foragers?

Robert C. Bailey and Thomas N. Headland (pp. 261-285)

A recent debate in ecological anthropology concerns the availability of wild foods for human foragers in tropical forests. This article is a response to the five essays in this same issue of Human Ecology that examine the hypothesis that hunter-gatherers could never have lived in tropical rain forest without direct or indirect access to cultivated foods. We clarify the hypothesis and assess the evidence offered to date. Archeological evidence suggests foraging without cultivation in Malaysia. We propose a program of ecological studies and archeological research which, if undertaken, should provide the evidence necessary to falsify the hypothesis.

Reference Cited

Headland, Thomas N., and Robert C. Bailey, editors.
1991. Human Foragers in Tropical Rain Forests. New York: Plenum. [A special issue of the journal Human Ecology, vol. 19, no. 2, June.]