Re: Foragers?

Tue, 19 Mar 1996 12:10:00 PST

Kavanagh writes:

"So what is it that distinguishes Lee's "band" foragers (!Kung, etc) from
other foragers such as the NWC foragers ...

Is Lee stacking the deck towards a particular view of foragers by
the comparison to only those foragers who live in particularly harsh

The implicit assumption made in the last statement is that small foraging
groups (populations around 1000 persons) are a consequence of harsh
environments. However, Birdsell's article (circa 1950) on the
relationship between foraging society densities and rainfall included
socities ranging across the spectrum with regard to rainfall, hence
across a wide range of environments. The societies in his sample were
all small scale societies (if memory serves me correctly). Thus, small
size does not map simply onto harsh environment. More problematical is
that we are using our emic notion of what constitutes a "harsh
enviroment." Let us construct a simple etic measure of "harshness,"
namely the distance between the stabilized population size for a group
and potential carrying capacity. (Simple consideration of demographic
parameters show that stabilized, or nearly stabilized, populations are
the norm for foraging socities when time scales of 100's -= 1,000's of
years are used, rather than the 1 - 10's of years that characterizes the
time scales of ethnographic research. Obviously there are significant
exceptions otherwise the transition to agriculture probably would not
have occurred.) What is the relationship between this distance and
potential carrying capacity? It can be shown that for groups such as the
!Kung San that have a feedback relationship between fertility rates and
population density driven by cost of resource procurement on the part of
women, this distance is GREATER (hence implying less risk) the LOWER the
carrying capacity. Thus "harsh environments" may pose the LEAST risk
from stochastic fluctuations in resource quantities.

This raises the question of when and under what conditions will there be
the potential for destabilization of a small scale society mode of
foraging. Or, to put it another way, what are the circumstances that led
to a change in the order of magnitude of the size of some foraging
societies? In addition to the NW coast groups, one also has groups such
as the Cahuilla of the San Jacinto mountains that had what, to all
intents and purposes, resembles a small scale agricultural society with
respect to political organizaaiton (villages organzided around lineages,
political offices, cross-cutting rituals, etc.). One can ask: Why was
there a single Cahuilla society of about 6000 persons rather than, say, 6
- 10 small scale foraging societies? A simple (and probably simplistic)
answer is that acorns provided them with a resource base comparable to
the dynamics of an agricultural crop, hence the kind of dynamics that
characterize agriculturally based groups.

>From this viewpoint, Lee is not"cheating;" rather, the problem is with
the category "foraging societies" with its implication that in some sense
the mode of resource procurement, rather than the dynamics of resource
procurement, gives them commonality and comparability. If the dynamics
are more critical, then the differences among groups may reflect the very
different dynamics that can ensue within the general mode of resource
procurement we call "foraging."