Mobility and Adaptive Strategies among African Hunter-Gatherers


Charlie Goodwin and Enid Guene are PhD students in Project E3 “Anthropological Models: A Reconstruction of the First African Frontier” of the CRC 806 at the Institutes of Cultural and Social Anthropology and African Studies at the University of Cologne.

Enid Guene

Enid Guene

Enid Guene read History and Archaeological & Classical Studies at the University of Kent in Canterbury and went on to study a Masters in African Studies at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. Her MA Thesis investigated transnational migrations between the copper-producing regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia, as well as their socio-political impact. As of January 2014, she is a PhD candidate as part of the E3 project.

Charlie Goodwin

Charlie Goodwin

Charlie Goodwin received an MA in Social Anthropology from the University of Edinburgh in 2012, writing his dissertation on the dynamics of space as they relate to interpretations of social class and morality in Northern India. Since January 2014, he has been a PhD candidate on the E3 project.

Since 1966, a highly evocative phrase has often been attached to hunter-gatherers: “the original affluent society”. This theory, first articulated by Marshall Sahlins at a symposium entitled “Man the Hunter”, challenged the notion that hunter-gatherer societies were continuously engaged in a struggle for survival, postulating that hunter-gatherers were in fact a society ‘in which all the people’s wants are easily satisfied (…) either by producing much or desiring little.’ Sahlins also contended that hunter-gatherers survive times of struggle, such as drought, better than neighbouring agricultural people.

This theory is significant, as it did much to end representations of hunter-gatherer societies as primitive and savage, highlighting many of the features of hunter-gatherer society glossed over or ignored beforehand. It is, however, somewhat misleading, conjuring an  image of hunter-gatherer societies as virtually static entities, so optimally adapted to any type of environment that they can survive, unchanged, through massive shifts in circumstance. As such, it overshadows setbacks and failures to ‘adapt’ on the part of hunter-gatherers, colouring study of contemporary hunter-gatherers with the image of the “optimal forager”.

This research contends that a recurrent feature of forager societies is the frequent failure or reluctance to expand spatially, as well as a tendency to merge with other social systems instead of displacing them. It also criticises the model of a seamless wave of migrations, constituting a mobile frontier, that eventually led to a successful settlement of the entire globe. Instead, this research suggests a model of a series of failed attempts at migration alongside the well-documented successes.

The E3 project combines complementary sources of information (ethnographic, historical, ethnoarchaeological) and complementary methods (case studies, simulation, comparisons) to analyse different types of failure (evasion, exclusion, extinction). It is divided into three complementary sub-projects:

– An ethnohistorical case study of foragers retreating from stretches of land and switching subsistence techniques among the “Dorobo” of Kenya (Enid Guene).

– An ethnographic small-scale case study examining the impact of environmental change upon the subsistence techniques of contemporary Hai||om hunter-gatherers in Northern Namibia (Charlie Goodwin).

– A continuation of the Netlogo simulation and cross-regional comparison started in the first  phase, focusing on scenarios of extinction and the lasting disappearance of foragers (Stephan Henn).

Event Information:

Date, Time: 07/07/2014, 16:00 h – 17:15 h

Location: Room S12, Seminargebäude (Building 106), Universitätsstraße 37 , Cologne

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