Hunter-gatherers versus Capitalism

Hunter-gatherers are most often thought of as living thousands of years ago; an extinct lifeway that our ancestors engaged in before discovering the joys of pastoralism and agriculture.

Some people might think of ‘lost’ or ‘uncontacted’ Indians in the Amazon in relation to hunting and gathering, but such groups are neither lost, uncontacted, or hunter-gatherers: horticulturalism has a long history here.

The truth is hunter-gatherers are with us today, and the largest population is in the Central African rainforests. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the last stronghold of hunter-gatherers share the beautiful Congo Basin with the three other African great ape species – chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas. These forests are a sanctuary of abundant resources and act as protection from outside forces.

A common view amongst most agriculturalists is that hunter-gatherers are bound to go extinct. They are living an idealistic, nonviable, and unsustainable lifestyle, they argue. Let’s put this in perspective;  since 1970 the planet has lost almost two-thirds of mammal, bird, fish, amphibian, and reptile populations. Climate change, caused by ‘advanced’ societies has resulted in heightened droughts, famine, infectious diseases, resource wars, extreme weather, and caused increased poverty and refugees. The very air we breathe is so polluted in parts of China that residents are importing canned air from the Canadian Rockies. We’re living in an age with an impending threat of nuclear attack, prevalent gun and knife crime, human rights violations, depression, suicide, and record inequality whereby eight men have as much money as half of the world’s population.

And what is behind all of this? The answer lies with an ideology – capitalism, making as much money as possible. As a result of this economic system invented a mere 500 years ago in Europe, where environmental and social values are disregarded in favour of maximising profit, a mentality of endless exponential economic growth has been adopted – ‘faith-based economics’. A ‘first world’ lifestyle is only viable through environmental and social abuse.


In the words of a Plains Sioux Native American chief:

“Only when the last tree has been cut down, the last river has been poisoned, and the last fish has been caught, will we realise that we cannot eat money”

Those that get in the way are removed by the capitalist system – nearly four environmental defenders were killed a week last year. For many, the introduction of capitalism has led to nothing but branding as ‘poor’, and placed at the bottom of the economic and social hierarchy. The fact is that hunter-gatherers and Amazonian hunter-horticulturalists are extraordinarily wealthy: their environments contain the most biodiversity on Earth – biological wealth; their kinship and community relationships are uniquely strong – social wealth; and, if we venture into capitalist terms, their land often nurtures vast reserves of minerals, metals, oil, and other commodities – economic wealth. Those owning such resources for so long are tricked and exploited by foreign extractors with foreign interests, in order to fuel the capitalist machine and degrade biodiversity and social rights in the process.

And if you’re not convinced that perhaps capitalism is not so sensible, and that perhaps advanced societies are not so advanced after all, get stuck in to the literature on those predicting the future of humanity as it stands, starting with Prof Martin Rees’ ‘Our Final Century‘.

Contrast all this with a hunter-gatherer economy. An economy which modern humans have utilised since our species appearance ~300,000 years ago, and though adapting and adjusting, still ongoing today.

Which do you think is more sustainable?

 

Further reading: ‘Our life has turned upside down! And nobody cares’ by Jerome Lewis (2016)
Image of BaYaka: Survival International

 

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Forest hunter-gatherers and baby chimpanzees

It’s been a year since we first visited five communities in the rainforest in south-east Cameroon.

Two of these are indigenous Baka hunter-gatherer villages, the other three being Bantu farmers. Almost no-one in these villages had used a smartphone before, indeed many of the community members had never even seen one (they don’t come around often in the rainforest). It’s quite amazing that after a handful of meetings, training sessions, and field-trials, all of these communities are not only successfully and independently reporting wildlife crime using smartphones, but taking photos, audio clips, and GPS points!

There is a considerable amount of skepticism from scientists and organisations on the ability of local and indigenous communities to contribute valuable data and act as collaborators, rather than recipients (or obstructions), of conservation programs. For the most part, this is based on a perceived lack of technological capabilities and ecological and holistic knowledge. To say this is a misinformed approach is an understatement; such communities are proving their technological abilities time and time again, their ecological knowledge directly inherited from generations of accumulated environmental interactions. If you’re a quantitative person, the data says it all: 144 reports have been independently taken since June 2017, including 71 photos and 31 audio recordings, directly contributing to anti-poaching efforts.

 

Re-visiting the communities again on this trip has been as enjoyable as ever. They are clearly both delighted and shocked by our commitment to them, exclaiming “Simon! You’ve come back! How is London?!”, followed by a long series of hugs. Despite several people’s fears that the phones would get stolen or mistreated, every phone and solar panel is in perfect condition – quite remarkable considering they’ve been taken around the rainforest for three months.

Three new communities have began the process of joining the project, after introductory meetings with six. Only those who mention outsiders hunting and trafficking animals in their forest are considered; the project is not to be forced upon any community or initiated where it is irrelevant. One of these new communities is far along a small mud track, quite isolated from town- and city-dwellers, yet they told us of outsiders coming in with lanterns and stealing their resources from the forest. This Baka community has clearly maintained a strong connection to the forest, repeating how the forest is “our father and mother” and telling stories of visiting chimps and gorillas. They expressed their anger and outrage over the designation of a ‘community forest’ for them to utilise; “This does not make sense to us” they said. Cameroon’s 1994 Plan de Zonage, fencing off chunks of land to be allocated to forest and mining concessions, agriculture, protected areas, and community forests, has resulted in forced relocations for Baka hunter-gatherers to the roadsides.

Designing new icons

Technologically-speaking, an interesting event occurred. Whilst re-training a couple of guys in one village as to which icon category to press in order to find specific icons, I asked them “What is this category for?”. They were confused by this and answered incorrectly for almost all of the categories. I found this bizarre as these guys had already sent accurate reports on their own. I rephrased the question, “Where would you go if you wanted to report a poacher’s cabin, for example?”. They immediately pressed the correct icon category and found the icon in question.

Jerome Lewis, my supervisor at UCL, told me of the difficulty for such forest hunter-gatherer groups to recognise the idea of things within things invisible at first (folders, files, categories). Most things in the forest are either there or they’re not. The experience shows that those two guys remember where the icons they want are; the icons for each icon category, though often the same as those for icons inside, are considered almost a meaningless entry point.

With law enforcement currently the bottleneck to action taking place based on community reports, an insight into the mind of a Ministry Chef de Poste was very welcome. This came in the form of a baby chimpanzee. His mother had been shot and he was chained up in a trafficker’s house, up for sale in the illegal pet trade. We received information about the baby chimp from a local businessman who had been made an offer to buy the chimp. After various phone calls, texts, and group talks, we approached the local ministry officer, responsible for illegal wildlife crime. Corruption is the primary issue to effective wildlife law enforcement in Central Africa, and the official had a ‘what’s in it for me?’ attitude. Most interestingly, his primary reservation was fear of reprisal from the community holding the chimp – he would be seen to be at war with local people, despite this being his job. He called a colleague down the road to deal with it. After several days of no updates, we decided to contact the Last Great Ape Organisation (LAGA), a law enforcement NGO in Cameroon with a reputation of getting things done. I wasn’t sure at this point whether the baby chimp had been sold off, or even killed, but finally we received a message: “Thank you for your information. The trafficker has been taken away. The baby chimp is enroute to a sanctuary”. A shame that it took an Israeli NGO to take action, rather than the Ministry’s own wildlife crime officers, but an incredible and rare success story none the less. The baby chimp has been named Farah, and is now in the excellent Mefou Primate Sanctuary, run by Ape Action Africa. You can see a video of his arrival below, and donate to the sanctuary here.

Human evolution: the discipline that can save the biosphere

orangutan

Understanding where we fit into the natural world and how, rather than rising above it, we depend on it like every other species, is a sobering realisation achieved through archaeological and anthropological research.

I recently wrote two articles for the Nature blog ‘Eyes on Environment’ arguing that this psychological revolution could be the only way to save the biosphere and ultimately, ourselves:

Part I

http://www.nature.com/scitable/blog/eyes-on-environment/human_evolution_the_discipline_that

Part II

http://www.nature.com/scitable/blog/eyes-on-environment/human_evolution_the_discipline_that_228236

Comments encouraged

South Africa: a home more ancient than anyone thought

To an archaeologist, anthropologist or geneticist, South Africa is irresistible

And to tantalise the scientific tastebuds even further, two studies which came out this week and last have found that South Africa holds an even more ancient human history than anyone thought.

1. Little Foot

Australopithecus prometheus

In case you didn’t know, it is this country which has yielded some of the oldest and most significant fossil humans (hominins) found to date. The majority of these human relatives have been unearthed from the cave systems in Sterkfontein, Malapa, Taung and Swartkrans in Gauteng – including the famous ‘Mrs Ples’ and ‘Taung Child’ (Australopithecus africanus), Paranthropus robustus, and Australopithecus sediba.  These extinct South African human species date back to early days in human evolution; from ~3 to ~1.2 million years ago, though were unlikely our direct ancestors (as indicated by the recent find of a 2.8myo jaw bone in Ethiopia belonging to our genus Homo).

In the 1990’s, a new Australopithecus specimen was dug up in Sterkfontein which didn’t fit into any of the Australopithecus species already described. ‘Little Foot’ (Australopithecus prometheus) as it’s been affectionately known, was dated to ~2.2myo (million years old) based on the flowstones in which the fossil lay, though this dating was controversial. 9 years later, a team has re-dated Little Foot to 3.67mya, indicating that this species of hominin lived 1.47 million years earlier than thought, and at the same time as the famous East African species Australopithecus afarensis (‘Lucy’). Clearly the early players in human evolution (the early australopiths) were far more wide-ranging and diverse than we thought. Though the oldest of the oldest hominins belong to east and central Africa, the South African hominin record gets pushed back further in time.

2. The San

The San, or bushmen, are thought to be one of the oldest human lineages, still practising a hunter-gatherer existence in the Kalahari desert of Botswana and Namibia (though they’re being horribly repressed by the Botswanan government).

Mitochondrial DNA is an amazing piece of wizardry that evolutionary geneticists can use to track past population movements. Using mtDNA, previous studies have found that the San lineage broke off from that of every other human around 150,000 years ago, however a new study has re-analysed this date finding that the distinct San haplogroup (the unique mitochondrial DNA group that the San belong to) ‘L0d’ diverged from the main human line ~172,000 years ago. That’s incredibly old! Considering that our species (Homo sapiens) only evolved ~200,000 years ago, you can see how ancient the San lineage is. It is, in fact, the oldest offshoot from the main human lineage (of those analysed in this study).

And so although South Africa may not be the ancestral land of all modern humans, it has sure been a hospitable host to evolving hominins for at least 3,670,000 years