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Friday, June 10, 2011


In support of his critique, Wilmsen presents three sorts of detailed evidence. The details are quite formidable, and show Wilmsen to be an accomplished practitioner of the discipline that Lee et al. are engaged in, for all that he has contempt for it. It would be impossible to do more than suggest some of that detail here, so once again I urge those of you who are really interested to read his book. Only by assessing the evidence can you decide which of the competing stories, if either, is correct. Let us look at each of Wilmsen's evidentiary supports in turn.

Historical Evidence: Wilmsen begins by looking at standard historical materials drawn from government archives in Botswana and other sources that deal with the events of the past two to three centuries in Southern Africa. He draws from this, and other written historical evidence, two important conclusions:

First, the region of the Kalahari in which the Zhu are found is not an Outback or backwater, but in fact has historically been intersected by trade routes linking the Kalahari with the Indian and Atlantic Oceans and beyond. Six or seven hundred years ago [hundred, not thousand], trade travelled from the western and southwestern coasts of Africa eastward across southern and central Africa, and thence to the Indian Ocean coast. At the same time, merchants travelled south from the Mediterranean to West Africa, as well as from the northwest coast of Africa inland. [Recall that there is a sizeable Muslim presence in Nigeria, for example.] The area now inhabited by the Zhu was not a marginal region untouched by world trade. It was a crossroads for that trade for many hundreds of years!

Second, the Zhu were until relatively recent times herders of cattle and farmers, so that it is unjustified to construe their present foraging as the continuation, unbroken, of pre-historic modes of survival. In the century before Europeans arrived in Southern Africa, a series of wars were fought among competing peoples. The Zhu who now live in the Kalahari and were the objects of Lee's investigations are in actual fact an underclass who were driven off their cattle posts and lands, deprived of their lucrative trade activities, and consigned to a meager, marginal existence at the bottom of the class hierarchy. They were forced to engage in what anthropologists call a "hunter-gatherer" form of economic activity because they were deprived of their traditional means of production. If I may put the point in a way complimentary to Lee, it is as though Lee were to come to New York, observe homeless men and women living on the streets and grubbing in garbage cans, and were to fail to notice that they are the underclass of a capitalist economy, construing them instead as traditional hunter-gatherers. This is grotesquely unfair to Lee, of course, but I am trying to convey to a non-anthropological audience just how ferocious an ideological critique Wilmsen has mounted against Lee. Wilmsen is angry at Lee. Indeed, he is angry at Ethnography in general, and his aim is to unmask it, expose it as fraudulent, humiliate it, not merely to offer scholarly a disagreement with some of Lee's conclusions.

Archeological Evidence: Materials drawn published reports and from his own archeological digs enables Wilmsen to show that cattle herding, farming, and large-scale trade flourished in the Kalahari for at least two thousand years prior to the arrival of Europeans. One of his loveliest bits of reasoning relies on meticulous counts of animal bones found at campsites or in areas that clearly were occupied for extended periods of time. Wilmsen [and others] can tell from the bones whether the animals that were slaughtered there were young or old. Now, ordinary farmers do not slaughter cattle for food until they are well past the age when they might be expected to reproduce. So a settlement site occupied by relatively poor cattle herders could be expected to show a very high proportion of bones from old cattle, and very few from young cattle or calves. But some of the settlement sites show exactly the opposite proportions. From this fact, Wilmsen infers that there were some very wealthy people who could afford to slaughter young [and tastier] cattle for their food. And from this fact, Wilmsen infers that there was a class structure in the society represented by those settlement sites. This reinforces the written historical evidence, and tells us a familiar story of a people with a class structure, a history, and a politics. In short, not immemorial Late Pleistiocene Hunter-Gatherers.

Direct Observation and Interpretation of Present-Day Zhu: Wilmsen begins his own direct on-site observation by reporting that the Zhu do in fact have a clearly defined class structure [and hence, a history -- that is the point of proving this], based principally upon property rights in available water sources. It is incorrect to understand their various practices, such as the nomadic movement from water hole to water hole, purely as a species adaptation to the environment, unmediated by differential class interests. A number of quite practical debates, even court cases, have occurred in Australia, Botswana, and elsewhere concerning this issue of property rights. Since this is an especially interesting matter, in my judgment, it is worth pausing for a bit to explain it.

Briefly, what happens over and over again, in Southern Africa, in Australia, and elsewhere, is that when a colonial power moves in, it lays claim to certain property [typically, to land], ignoring the rights of the indigenous peoples. Complaints are brought by the local inhabitants, or in their name, in the law courts of the colonial power, and the question is raised whether the indigenous peoples have a system of property that is recognizable by the colonial legal code -- there being, usually, some provision in the colonial law for acknowledging property claims made in systems of law other than itself. At this point, it becomes a matter of very considerable moment whether what we recognize as property rights are part of the culture of the indigenous peoples. Anthropologists from the colonial power's society step in to argue for the rights of the indigenous peoples. And so forth. As you will easily imagine, very tricky and interesting conceptual problems arise concerning what does and what does not count as an indigenous system of property rights. The problem is that a nineteenth or early twentieth century Colonial occupying power is very likely to conceive of Real Property rights or Land rights as consisting essentially in the right to exclude others from a certain continuous plot of land, delineable by a boundary fence of some sort. But nomadic peoples have very different sorts of Real Property rights, which often consist in rights of differential access to such things as water holes. In their society, these rights are recognized, not by dint of their having the right to exclude everyone else from the water hole, but rather as a right of privileged access to the water. In French or English or American law, if the supposed owner of a plot of land allows others to grow crops on it without protest, that claim of ownership is weakened or perhaps even negated. But in a nomadic society, the claim of privileged access to a water hole will be undiminished regardless of how many times others use the water hole when the needs of the "owner" have been satisfied. Wilmsen has edited a very interesting book entitled We Are Here: Politics of Aboriginal Land Tenure [U. Cal. Press, 1989] that deals with these questions.

Wilmsen also shows, by first-hand accounts of his own observations and interactions with the Zhu, that for the Zhu, kinship relations are not a mechanically enacted system of rigid rules, but are rather a flexible structure within which individuals find political advantages and disadvantages, for example by construing kinship relations so as to favor or disfavor marriages that will in turn advance or frustrate their economic interests. I have already commented, in reference to the work of Lewis Namier and other historians, on the way in which "modern" people treat kinship relations as a matrix within which individuals pursue political ends by manipulating kinship ties in flexible ways. Ethnographers, Wilmsen is suggesting, tend to construe the complex kinship structures of "their tribes" as rigid constraints within which "primitive people" more or less by rote make marriage choices and such. The effect is to represent the people of Rome or England as having a politics, but to deny that the people of "primitive tribes" do. In this way, as in other ways, the Zhu are figured as not like us - perhaps superior, perhaps inferior, but inescapably other. Wilmsen seeks to alter this conception.

Finally, I simply report what is perhaps the most devastating, flagrantly hostile, astonishing argument in Wilmsen's entire book [I hope no one is going to try to tell me that Wilmsen is not angry at Lee], namely his claim that Lee et al. have not even been able to describe the gross physical characteristics of the Zhu correctly! Wilmsen actually argues that they are not genetically small; they are just hungry! Give them a substantial diet and they grow a lot taller. I hope you can appreciate just how insulting this is to Lee. It is as though a dissident historian were to say to one of the most prominent students of medieval Europe, "Did you perhaps fail to notice that the documents on which you base your research were written in Latin, and not English as you appear to have thought?" It is scarcely any wonder that Lee has not been amused.

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