Animist People Hunting

In 1978 former Rutgers historian Calvin Martin published Keepers of the Game: Indian-Animal Relationships and the Fur Trade. A year later, at the annual meeting of the American Society for Ethnohistory, a panel convened to consider Martin’s book. In 1981 the panel members published their collected response papers in Indians, Animals, and the Fur Trade: A Critique of “Keepers of the Game.” By any measure, this was a strange sequence of events. Panels don’t usually convene to critically assess a book within a year of publication. And panels don’t usually feel compelled to publish a response book.

Keepers of the Game obviously struck an academic nerve. And after the initial strike, the panel’s pain apparently didn’t go away. Martin’s book had to be countered with another. Why?

Before getting to the issue that caused so much consternation, let’s consider Martin’s argument. In Keepers of the Game, Martin contends that pre-contact Native Americans had an unusual (he calls it “spiritual”) relationship with animals. They considered animals to be non-human people; animals, in other words, are just like people. The only difference between humans and animals is in outer appearance. But on the inside, animals are no different from people. Everything that humans do and think, animals also do and think. This means that humans and animals can communicate with one another. There are various “spiritual” ways in which this can be done, including through dances, dreams, sweats, visions, rituals, taboos, etc.

In terms of ethnohistory and ethnography, this is all clearly correct. Martin is describing what has come to be known as the “animist worldview.” While there is today a substantial scholarship on that worldview, entering it can be a daunting task. There are few, if any, concise statements of the animist worldview. It’s not something that is easily discovered or explained. Because an understanding of this worldview usually develops only after years of reading or fieldwork, treatments of it tend toward the expert and esoteric. Martin avoids all this because establishing the fact of this worldview is not his primary purpose. He simply needs to sketch it as a premise. And this Martin does. In fact, I would argue that anyone who wants to understand animist worldviews should begin with Martin’s book.

In this passage, Martin quotes Murray Wax (an anthropologist who did fieldwork among the Oglala Lakota):

To those who inhabit it, the animist world is a “society,” not a “mechanism,” that is, it is composed of “beings” rather than “objects.” Whether human or nonhuman, these beings are associated with and related to one another socially and sociably, that is, in the same ways as human beings to one another. These patterns of association and relationship may be structured in terms of kinship, empathy, sympathy, reciprocity, sexuality, dependency, or any other of the ways that human beings interact with and affect or afflict one another. Plants, animals, rocks, and stars are thus seen not as “objects” governed by laws of nature, but as “fellows” with whom the individual or band may have a more or less advantageous relationship.

This “profoundly animistic view of the universe,” Martin explains, means that “animals are psychologically identical to humans” (pp. 76-77). Because humans depend on these animal-people for food and life, killing them is fraught and shot through with all manner of social considerations. These considerations entail rituals and taboos. Hunting, therefore, is not simply hunting in the sense that we understand it. Because killing is profoundly anti-social, rules must be observed and amends must be made.

For Martin, this “spiritual” conception of animals and approach to hunting is a matter of ecology and conservation. By obeying the rules and observing the taboos, hunter-gatherers limited their kills and conserved game. The overall effect was to maintain ecological balance and ensure a future food supply. This sort of edenic equilibrium, Martin claims, was the general rule before European contact. While this may have been the case (there is certainly ample evidence in the archaeological record to suggest that hunters in many places overkilled to the point of local and even global extinction), Martin claims that the spiritual-social relationships between hunters and animals was profoundly disrupted by European diseases.

These diseases, he persuasively argues, devastated aboriginal America long before European colonizers actually lived on the continent or had a chance to observe anything like a pre-contact society. By the time Europeans actually settled and began moving inland from the eastern coast, they were encountering Native American societies that had, during the previous 50-100 years, experienced disease-mortality rates on the estimated order of 60-90% of the population. Microbes, of course, travel further and faster than people, and Martin argues that coastal trading and fishing exchanges during the 1500s initially exposed Natives with no immunity. The first contact, therefore, was with European microbes rather than people. The second contact, between Natives and colonists, occurred only after several rounds of decimating epidemics. These were not pristine societies: in many cases, they were feeble remnants, and in others they were newly constituted or hybrids.

So far so good: Martin’s first premise, that Native Americans adhered to an animist worldview and hunted in accord with this social conception, is correct. His second premise, that Native Americans had been devastated by European diseases before settlement and observation, is both sobering and plausible. It certainly sheds an entirely different light on societies that many have assumed were frozen in time and relatively static.

Martin’s next move, however, is on less solid ground. He argues that Native Americans, bewildered by the disease devastation and no longer confident in their worldview, searched for explanations. Because they had not yet encountered Europeans who could shoulder the blame, it had to fall elsewhere. This elsewhere was on the only others in the vicinity: the animal-people. As humans were dying in droves, the corresponding effect was to increase the numbers of animals (who were no longer being hunted by healthy Natives living in social-ecological equilibrium with them). So the hunters blamed the animal people. Because the hunting rules and taboos had failed, they were no longer observed or were modified in ways that led to devastation and overkill. This, Martin claims, explains how and why Natives had little or no compunction about slaughtering huge numbers of animals (beavers in particular) for the fur trade. This overkill eventually led to the destruction of several other species on whom the Natives were dependent for food.

This is the part of Martin’s argument that generated so much controversy. Most scholars have argued or assumed that Natives engaged in the fur trade for material or economic reasons: they greatly desired European trade goods such as knives, kettles, cloth, guns, and powder. Martin’s alternative argument is, for scholars of this stripe, far too idealist and “spiritual.” He was, as a result, roundly attacked for it.

While I think there are several problems with this last part of Martin’s argument, I don’t think it is insufficiently “material.” Its premise, after all, is that all this was brought on by biological-disease factors that had devastating material and social effects. In the aftermath and continuing presence of such effects, it would be hard to imagine Native worldviews not changing and being modified to accommodate, explain, and negotiate the new post-contact realities.

But all that is, for my purposes, neither here nor there. Keepers of the Game clearly describes animist worldviews and succinctly explains how those worldviews manifest in hunting cultures. Martin calls this worldview “spiritual” and accounts for it, as an academic outsider (i.e., from an etic perspective), in ecological terms. My own etic perspective accounts for this worldview in cognitive-evolutionary terms, but that is for a different post. Actually, it’s for a forthcoming book.

But until then, it’s interesting to note that Martin eventually came round to this worldview, resigned his faculty position at Rutgers, and is now apparently living in animist ways. He has written some good books along the way, including The Way of the Human Being and In the Spirit of the Earth: Rethinking History and Time. While some may find his current views overly romantic or nostalgic or pained, he is still an academic in mind (if not heart) and has some keen insights into animist worldviews vis-a-vis agricultural worldviews. I find them valuable.


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8 thoughts on “Animist People Hunting

  1. Joe Miller

    I have no doubts about Martin’s thesis with regard to American populations. However, it doesn’t explain the attitudes of African foragers. For instance, James Woodburn and Frank Marlowe have it that the Hadza view animals not as lesser entities that exist solely to satisfy human needs or as people in another guise but merely as competitors vying for the same resources.

  2. Cris Post author

    My reading of San or Bushmen ethnography and ethnohistory suggests they are quite in line with animist-foragers elsewhere in the world on this issue. I’ve always had the Hadza bracketed, so to speak, because they are so unusual and perhaps even outliers. They have long been an island surrounded by all manner of potential influences, and Marlowe’s studies of them are so oriented towards quantitative data, evolutionary theory, diet, physiology, optimal foraging, mating, demography, and ecology, that I’ve never felt like I’ve gotten a good sense for them, especially their cognitive and symbolic worlds.

    In this paper on Hadza linguistics by Blench, he makes some comments which indicate that Marlowe, et al. may not be paying close attention to these issues:

    “Hadza take advantage of this to seek out honey, but their beliefs about the interaction have taken on a ritualised character. Hadza say that the honey-guide ‘talks’ to the honey-badger and shows the way to the nest. The language of the honey-guide is now used to engage in a dialogue with the bird. These dialogues are conducted in whistles but no one-to-one translation is possible, as the whistle partly imitates the singing of the honey-guide. This is acted out in a sort of traditional drama, with two performers whistling the dialogue. Hadza also have a ritual whistle-speech, imitating tonal contours of ordinary speech, but this is not the same as that used in the dialogue with the honey-guide.”

  3. Joe Miller

    The reason Marlowe doesn’t touch upon these issues himself is because he defers to Woodburn’s account, which he deems still accurate 50+ years on. Woodburn notes the same practices as Blench in his own publications, so I’d comb his bibliography if I were you. Camilla Power has written a lot about their initiation rituals and the cosmetics associated with them as well. Their worldview is (for me) refreshingly simple – they seem almost completely indifferent to cosmological/theological speculation. That said, their symbolic complex shares many features with those of the San and hundreds of other populations as well, as Chris Knight has exhaustively documented in his stunning “Blood Relations”. That text would prove invaluable to someone with interests like yours.

    While the various forager groups who dwell in the Ituri Forest do personify it as a benevolent parental figure, they don’t seem to anthropomorphize animals the way that South American horticulturalists and Southeast Asian hunter-gatherers do. Their attitude towards other species more closely resembles that of the Hadza than the Jivaro or the Batek.

  4. Joe Miller

    I don’t think the passage from Blench is enough to show that the Hadza attribute human-like cognitive and social capacities to the honey-guide as animists would. They could be speaking metaphorically when they say that they ‘speak’ to the birds.

  5. Cris Post author

    I’ve read most or all of Woodburn’s published work and haven’t found much there that directly or comprehensively addresses these issues; he had his own set of research interests that differed from Marlowe’s but which aren’t especially probative on worldviews. The apparent “simplicity” and “indifference” to which he attests may be an ethnographic artifact or something like selection bias. I’m not sure what to make of it.

    I agree that the Blench comment isn’t sufficient to prove anything; it’s just suggestive along the lines of something I’ve long suspected about Hadza ethnography. And as I’ve also said, I think there are some decent reasons to think the Hadza themselves may be a bit peculiar. Determining worldviews based on tiny relict populations may be a problem, if only for the fact that the sample is so small and in the process of becoming small, much may have changed. I’ve thought this also about the Chewong, but am less concerned about it with them because of their relative isolation.

    With the Hadza, there has been no such isolation. Very small oral-tradition groups probably have greater difficulty preserving their worldviews and transmitting them from generation to generation. There may be a demography effect at work, which is why I tend to bracket the Hadza and perhaps even the Chewong.

    I’ll get the Knight book, despite my misgivings about utterly ingenious (and non-parsimonious) umbrella hypotheses, especially those written from political perspectives.

  6. Joe Miller

    I don’t understand why demographics is an issue with the Hadza and not the Ju/’honsai. The ethnographic record suggests that the former have higher birthrates and lower infant and adult mortality rates than the latter did even in the 50’s, and their population is larger. What’s more, the Ju/’honsai have been in contact with agropastoralists for longer than the Hadza. They also took up agropastoralism in earnest at least a few decades before the Hadza did. If anything, the Hadza seem to be the more reliable case study if demographics is the determining factor.

    How is the Cosmetic Female Coalition *Theory* somehow non-parsimonious?

  7. Cris Post author

    I was referring specifically to population sizes over the course of the time periods during which ethnohistoric and ethographic information is available for both groups. The San are a larger and more diverse group for these periods, and the information available regarding the various San groups covers longer time periods. In addition, some of the San sources deal with worldviews at length and in depth (primarily because some of the people studying them take that as their major interest). David Lewis-Williams and others have made entire careers of these issues and they’ve seemingly just scratched the surface.

    I’ve yet to find a Hadza source that delves deeply into these broader cognitive-symbolic-worldview issues, and this seems primarily because the main sources (Woodburn et al and then Marlowe et al) aren’t especially interested in these subjects, or perhaps they aren’t sensitive to them. I’ve also yet to see a good historical assessment of the Hadza and the ways in which they have been affected by contact. I don’t fault the Hadza researchers for having their own (scientifically soluble) interests and narrowing their research foci, but it makes me wonder what may have been missed. Again, I don’t know but it’s well worth asking these kinds of questions.

    Though I’ve yet to read Knight’s book, I’ve read your descriptions of it, several reviews, summaries, and have discussed it with others who have. From what I’ve gathered so far, it didn’t strike me as something I needed to read right away (or may be even at all). It’s an umbrella hypothesis and I always have difficulties with those. Moreover, it reminds me of Owen Lovejoy’s canine-reduction and male provisioning-pair bonding argument, which while quite enjoyable, complex, and ingenious, is really an amalgam of several things that are plausible in isolation, but aren’t testable and may or may not be true. If one adds some Marx and Levi-Strauss to that argument, along with cherry-picked ethnography, the result could be something like Knight’s thesis. But I’ll bracket this entire [provisional] assessment until after I’ve read the book. I will say, however, that I’m more than a bit wary.

  8. Joe Miller

    Sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you on this. I’ve been grappling with a severe depression all summer and thus haven’t felt the motivation to respond until recently.

    The Chewong are typical South Asian foragers in many respects, so I would advise against bracketing them.

    I’ll agree with you that the region around Lake Eyasi could use much more extensive historical analysis. Its proximity to the Olduvai Gorge makes it ripe for that kind of thing. That being said, the data available on the Hadza’s worldview isn’t as sparse as you make it out to be. We know quite a good deal about the epeme ritual, and Ludwig Kohl-Larsen has recorded many of their myths. What’s more, the information that we do possess shows quite a few striking parallels with the belief systems of many other small scale societies. For instance, we also know that the moon (Haine) is gendered male and the sun (Ishoye) female, just as it is in the cosmologies of the San peoples. We also know that avoiding sex with a menstruating woman is considered crucial for hunting success, just as it is with other peoples the world over. So while there hasn’t been a book length examination of their worldviews in a long time, there’s still more to work with than you imply.

    “It’s an umbrella hypothesis”
    Except it’s not.

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