chapter  20
42 Pages

Hunter-gatherer societies

WithRobin Dennell

One consequence of the voyages of Columbus and subsequent navigators was that Europeans increasingly encountered hunter-gatherers in Africa, the Americas and, later, Australia. This contact prompted a number of questions: Who were they? Where had they come from? Were they descended from Adam, or had they been created separately? Did they have souls? Why didn’t they practise agriculture? Had Europeans once been hunter-gatherers? And what, if anything, could Europeans learn by observing these peoples? Before the nineteenth century, these questions were not answered by direct, historical and archaeological evidence, but by speculations and conjecture. Whereas Hobbes (1651) memorably dismissed their lives as ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’ because they lacked both the restraints and comforts of civilization, Rousseau (1722) idealized them as living in uncorrupted innocence. Increasingly, throughout the eighteenth century, contemporary hunter-gatherers were seen as representing a ‘primitive’ stage of human development, and one that Europeans had long escaped by developing first agriculture, and later, metallurgy, writing and civilization. Unsurprisingly, these views sat comfortably with suggestions that European ‘Caucasians’ —a term first coined in the 1780s-were more advanced than ‘inferior’ races, notably Negroids and Australian Aborigines, many of whom also happened to be hunter-gatherers. Notions of the racial, economic and social inferiority of non-European hunter-gatherers were also highly compatible with European involvement in slavery, and the establishment of European colonial settlements in hunter-gatherer territories.