Thomas N. Headland
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The Hunter-Gatherer Revisionist Debate

By Thomas N. Headland (written January 1999)

Beginning in the 1960s, the idea grew in popularity that modern hunter-gatherers were representative of ancient Stone Age peoples. They were seen as living fossils with lifestyles that must represent how our earliest "cave men" ancestors lived. This was the predominant view held in anthropology until the 1980s. Beginning in the 1980s, however, critics began to question this "isolationist" view of today’s foragers: the assumption that such peoples lived until very recently in isolation from food-producing peoples, eating only wild foods, without trade, and practicing neither cultivation or pastoralism.

Lawrence Reid and I helped bring the issue to the forefront with our article published in February 1989 in Current Anthropology (Headland and Reid 1989). We proposed a very different model for middle to late Holocene hunter-gatherers. We argued that such foraging groups were heavily dependent upon both trade with farming or herding peoples, and practiced part-time cultivation themselves. We attempted to prove that the trade and simple food production observed among hunter-gatherers today are neither recent nor anomalous but represent an economy practiced by most hunter-gatherers for many hundreds, and often thousands, of years.

The "Great Forager Debate" reached a bitter crescendo in the early 1990s, as polemical revisionists like Ed Wilmsen (1989) and others attacked the earlier leaders in hunter-gatherer studies, and especially Richard Lee. I remained involved in the arguments then, both at the Sixth International Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies in Fairbanks, Alaska. in 1990, and as a panelist at the controversial symposium on the debate organized by Lee at the 1989 Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, and more recently after the controversy died down at the Seventh and Eighth international hunter-gatherer conferences in Moscow in 1993 and Osaka in 1998. While I was never comfortable with the extreme revisionist views of Wilmsen and others (Headland 1990), I continue to argue today, as in my recent article (Headland 1997), that Holocene hunter-gatherer societies lived in interdependence with rather than independence of surrounding state societies. Such peoples exist not in spite of but because of their contacts with the outside world, with long histories of trade and interaction with the dominant societies around them.

The hunter-gatherer revisionist controversy is not limited to southern Africa, of course. The argument extends to forager groups around the world. Revisionist Carl Hoffman (1986) has disputed the idea that the Punan in the interior of Borneo are primitive "wild people of the woods," arguing rather that they moved from being farmers to forest collectors hundreds of years ago in order to collect forest products for Chinese traders. Robert Bailey et al. (1989) and Jan Vansina (1986) have argued that the African Pygmies have long relied on trade with neighboring farmers for most of their food, and Bailey proposes that they have never lived independently of agriculture in the rainforest. I have made a similar argument for the Philippines. We do not object to calling these people hunter-gatherers, as long as it is made clear that they are modern-day hunter-gatherers, people who have evolved right along with the rest of us into the 20th century.

Concise reviews of the controversy appear in Bower 1989, Brownlee 1990, Guenther 1996, Headland 1990, Harpending 1991, Kottak 1994, Kuper 1993, Spielmann and Eder 1994:312-15, and Stiles 1992.

References Cited

Bailey, Robert C., Genevieve Head, Mark Jenike, Bruce Owen, Robert Rechtman, and Elzbieta Zechenter.
1989. Hunting and Gathering In Tropical Rain Forest: Is It Possible? American Anthropologist 91:59-82.
Bower, Bruce.
1989. A World That Never Existed: Reassessing Hunter-Gatherers. Science News 135 (17)264-266. April 29.
Brownlee, Shannon.
1990. If Only Life Were So Simple. U.S. News & World Report, February 19, pp. 54-56.
Guenther, Mathias.
1996. Hunter Gatherer Revisionism. In Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology, Volume 2. David Levinson and Melvin Ember, eds. Pp. 622-624. New York: Henry Holt.
Harpending, Henry C.
1991. Review of Wilmsen 1989. Anthropos 86:313-315.
Headland, Thomas N.
1990. Paradise Revised. The Sciences 30(5):45-50 (Sept/Oct).
1997. Revisionism in Ecological Anthropology. Current Anthropology 38:605-630.
Headland, Thomas N., and Lawrence A. Reid.
1989. Hunter-Gatherers and Their Neighbors from Prehistory to the Present. Current Anthropology 30:43-66.
Hoffman, Carl L.
1986. The Punan: Hunters and gatherers of Borneo. UMI Research Press, Ann Arbor.
Kottak, Conrad P.
1994. The Great Forager Debate. In Cultural Anthropology, 6th ed. Conrad Kottak, author. Pp. 100-101. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Kuper, Adam.
1993. Post-Modernism, Cambridge and the Great Kalahari Debate. Social Anthropology 1:57-71.
Spielmann, Katherine A., and James F. Eder.
1994. Hunters and Farmers: Then and Now. Annual Review of Anthropology 23:303-323.
Stiles, Daniel.
1992. The Hunter-Gatherer Revisionist Debate. Anthropology Today 8(2):13-17.
Vansina, Jan.
1986. Do Pygmies Have a History? Sprache und Geschichte in Afrika 7:431-45.
Wilmsen, Edwin N.
1989. Land Filled With Flies: A Political Economy of the Kalahari. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.