The last hunter-gatherers of China and Africa: a life amongst pastoralists and farmers

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Abstract

The transition to farming is often written in the language of progress. The search has been for the oldest sedentary farming settlements, the processes of plant and animals domestication and the profound societal alterations that accompanied the choice to change lifeway. Perhaps because most of us come from long-standing farmer ancestry, we tend to assume that farming is a superior and more secure way of life. Is there any data to support this? Evidence from southern Africa since the 1970s has shown that the Kalahari hunter-gatherers living in what is a comparatively harsh environment have/had a relatively easier life, with considerably more leisure time and a longer life expectancy than those living in early farmer groups (Lee and DeVore, 1976). Many hunter-gatherers in East Asia will have had even more comfortable and leisure filled lives than those of the Kalahari Bushmen. It is therefore important to ask the question as to why East Asian hunter-gatherers took up farming and whether all hunter-gatherer groups made this choice swiftly and willingly. I use evidence from studies into hunter-gatherer interactions with farmers in sub-saharan Africa to consider this question. It was originally hoped that groups such as the Bushmen of southern Africa, the Pygmies of central Africa and the Hadza/Sandawe of East Africa could give us glimpses into a universal hunter-gatherer past. Revisionist studies since the 1970s have sought to undermine this hope and have emphasised that early research recorded the end product of at least two millennia of interaction, influence and change from being amongst pastoralists and farmers. Archaeology has made significant contributions to this debate, providing evidence for the nature and extent of interaction, continuity and change. Today we are therefore well-positioned to consider the specifics of how hunter-gatherer groups responded to the coming of livestock keepers and farmers in different parts of Africa. This paper will review African interaction models so as to consider their implications for East Asia. I do not provide a general model for interaction, indeed I would be ideologically opposed to any attempt at this kind of universalism, but I seek to provide a convincing glimpse of the kinds of real-world complexity and contextuality in the choices made by East Asian hunter-gatherers in their responses to the presence and influence of farmers.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)121-129
JournalQuaternary International
Volume489
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 30 Sep 2018

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