Re: Hunter-gatherers on the NW Pacific C

Sat, 15 Oct 1994 11:57:00 PDT

Stuart writes:

"It seems to me that what is equally as important to consider is not just
whether there were comparable deciduous forests on the Northwest Coast and
Mesolithic Scotland, but also a key constituent of that forest: cedar.
Ethnographically known populations along the NW Coast made extensive use
of cedar."

Both his, and other comments, are indirectly raising the issue of when is one
situation comparable to another, which seems to reflect, in part, theoretical
positions. Presumbably, the idea of comparing early populations in Scotland
with the Northwest coast stemmed from the assumption that if the general
climatic/vegetation conditions were similar, then hunting/gathering
populations in each area would have many similarities in social organization,
food procurement practises, and perhaps even culture. Underlying this
presumption is (at a minimum) a presumption of something like environmental
determinism--what the folks in an area are doing can be predicted from
knowing their environmental conditions.

Some commentators seem to implicitly accept this theoretical position and
have questioned the seeming similarity of environmental conditions; e.g.,
the NW coast had salmon; did Scotland have a comparable resource, with the
associated argument that the fact of salmon on the Northwest coast had much
to do (as undoubtedly was/is the case) with the nature of societies on the NW
coast. Stuart has expanded on this thread by suggesting that even if the
forest cover is comparable, in a general sense, the presence of cedar on the
NW coast was also important in understanding the nature of societies on the
NW coast and if there was no cedar in Scotland this particular difference
may make the analogy weak.

I would like to introduce another dimension to this discussion. While I do
not reject the importance of considering the impact of environmental
conditions on shaping on the organization, etc. of a group living under those
conditions, and while I do not reject the idea that groups living in
comparable environmental conditions which have similar constraints may be
lead into comparable societal configurations, I think it is more complex
and there may well be aspects, even central aspects, of e.g. NW coast
societies that cannot be accounted for merely by reference to their
environmental conditions. If so, then it becomes of interest to pursue this
kind of argument by analogy further and ask if their are aspects of social
organization, etc. that are likely to be comparable. It would seem that as
one goes from strong environmental constraints (e.g., the artic conditions
faced by the Netsilik eskimo, for example, as these conditions acted as a
constraining environment that probably left them with little in the
way of alternative forms of organization if one were to survive in that
region) to constraints that allow for a variety of forms of organizations,
any one of which is "effective enough."

This line of argument would suggest that one might want to consider what were
the constraints on early populations in Scotland and then consider if there
are ethnographically reported populations that have faced similar
constaints and thereby can serve as analogues at least for those aspects of
social organization, etc. driven in its form by those constraints.
This line of argument also suggests that analogue populations need not be in
comparable environments.

D. Read