Inside Current Anthropology: India’s Hunter-Gatherers: Hidden in Plain Sight

Thanks to Rachel Wiseman at the University of Chicago Press for this press release from the latest issue of Current Anthropology! The latest issue, Volume 54 Number 4 (August 2013) is out now. 

Civilization flourished in India as early as 3000 BCE. With a history of advanced agricultural production going back more than five thousand years, it would seem unlikely that hunter-gatherers would have escaped displacement by farming or integration into the new way of life. However, new scholarship suggests that of the 5.2 million present-day and recent hunter-gatherers worldwide, fully 1.3 million live in mainland India, in addition to 600 Andaman islanders. This would account for 25% of the global population of hunter-gatherers—a much higher fraction than had previously been assumed.

To put this in perspective, the new estimates mean that India possesses five times the number of people living by this means of subsistence in North America and the Arctic region combined, four times as many as Australia, and nearly three times as many as Africa. This has led some to wonder: how could hunter-gathering cultures have persisted in India for so long with a complex agricultural society right next door?

A new article in Current Anthropology seeks to answer that question through a survey of ethnographic information about hunter-gatherers in India and their neighbors. The author of the article, Peter M. Gardner of the University of Missouri, argues that Hindu culture may have actually protected these foraging peoples from assimilation pressure up until the twentieth century.

When interviewing Tamil-speaking Hindus in the 1960s, Gardner found that his subjects considered the forager to be admirable and “one of us.” In the Current Anthropology article, Gardner outlines three elements of Hindu culture that may have accommodated the continuation of hunter-gathering on the Indian subcontinent.

First, Hinduism emphasizes a system of mutual dependence among occupational specialists in their society. Since hunter-gatherers collected and exchanged medicinal plants, wild honey, and other valuable forest products with their specialist neighbors, they were believed to serve an important economic function and were allowed to continue their way of life unmolested. Hindus considered these foragers to belong to the larger social system.

In addition, since they were not viewed as outsiders, Indian hunter-gatherers were not expected to prove their adherence to cultural norms. As long as contacts remained tangential, they merely had to provide lip-service to Hindu notions of propriety to avoid harassment from their neighbors but did not have to change their customs in any meaningful way.

Finally, in Hindu society hunter-gatherers were appreciated for their simple, hermitical lifestyle. Living quietly and peaceably in the forest, these foragers were ascribed by many the ritual purity afforded to Hindu ascetics.

With the encroachment of the modern state in the twentieth century, the protections traditional Hindu society provided hunter-gatherers began to erode. But the historical role of Hinduism in the preservation of hunter-gathering on the Indian subcontinent should not be understated. By creating an established place in the social order for hunter-gatherers, Hindu perspectives safeguarded this unique way of life for millennia.

Current Anthropology is a transnational journal devoted to research on humankind, encompassing the full range of anthropological scholarship on human cultures and on the human and other primate species. The journal is published by The University of Chicago Press and sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Jessica Robbins and “Beyond ‘Active’ Aging and Abandonment”

Another grantee returns from their Engaged Anthropology Grant, with a report from Jessica Robbins of the University of Michigan!

“Beyond ‘Active’ Aging and Abandonment: Relations of Suffering, Care, and Hope in Postsocialist Poland”

On May 15-16, 2013, the University of Lower Silesia in Wrocław hosted two workshops funded by the Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology Grant awarded to Jessica Robbins. The workshops were based on Robbins’s doctoral research on aging in Poland, which found that experiences and ideals of aging in Poland are characterized by discursive and institutional contrasts between modern, progressive, and “active” older adults, and supposedly “backwards,” suffering, and abandoned elders in institutional care. Based on ethnographic findings that processes of relatedness provide other possibilities for moral personhood in old age, the workshops tried to avoid common practical and scholarly binary distinctions of in/dependence, East/West, and socialism/capitalism, and instead to forge connections among practitioners and scholars.

In the first workshop, entitled “Beyond Old Age: Development, Change, and Support,” a diverse and energetic group of scholars, professionals, and older Poles themselves discussed experiential and structural dimensions of growing old in Poland. Among the seventy-two participants were scholars of pedagogy, gerontology, psychiatry, psychology, and sociology; professionals in medical, educational, social work, caregiving, policy, and artistic fields; and older people who participate in Universities of the Third Age and other organizations specifically for older adults. Co-organized by Professor Elżbieta Siarkiewicz and Dr. Joanna Minta, the workshop began with opening talks given by the President of the University of Lower Silesia, Professor Robert Kwaśnica, Professors Mirosława Nowak-Dziemianowicz and Adam Zych, and Jessica Robbins. The remainder of the day was divided into three panel presentations followed by open discussion. Panelists on each of the three panels – Development, Change, and Support – approached the topic from their own particular experiential and professional position, thereby creating a broader understanding of these topics than suggested by any one discipline or experience alone.

During the energetic discussions that followed each panel, common themes emerged: the importance of education in late life; the need for physical, mental, social, and spiritual development in old age; the need for better social, medical, and educational resources for older people in Poland; the value of intergenerational relations; and the marginalization of certain populations of older people from programs focusing on activity in old age. During the coffee breaks and lunch, panelists and workshop participants had the opportunity to meet people with shared professional and personal interests in aging. During follow-up conversations, Robbins found that people who met at the workshop are already planning future collaborations. Along with a confirmation of the desire for more such interdisciplinary and creatively-structured events, a major finding of this workshop is that continued efforts must be made to include the most marginalized groups of older people in such discussions. As one workshop participant noted, the many organizations and institutions that help older people to become more integrated into society are very good at hoping those who want to be helped; however, discussions of programs like intergenerational theater do not provide much help to people such as former prisoners or the homeless elderly, who continue to face social exclusion and discrimination.

In the second workshop, entitled “Beyond Socialism and Postsocialism: Contemporary Ethnographic Perspectives on Central/Eastern Europe,” eight scholars came together for a discussion of current topical and theoretical trends and debates in anthropological studies of central Europe. Co-organized by Hana Červinková, Director of the International Institute for the Study of Culture and Education, and Associate Dean for International Education and Research at the University of Lower Silesia, and faculty at the Institute of Ethnology of the Czech Academy of Sciences, and Michał Buchowski, Director of the Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology at Adam Mickiewicz University, the workshop brought together doctoral students and faculty from Polish and Czech universities—the University of Lower Silesia (Wrocław), the University of Wrocław, Adam Mickiewicz University (Poznań), the University of Łódź, Charles University (Prague), and the Institute of Ethnology of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic—who had lively discussions on the state of anthropological studies in the region based on their own ethnographic, anthropological, and historical research.

The interdisciplinary group included scholars of anthropology, education, and history who gave short presentations on a wide range of topics: gender, disability, kinship, medical anthropology, aging, nationalism, identity, ethnicity, education, and engaged anthropology. Despite these varying topics, the scholars found common ground in their discussions of personhood, memory, activism, inequality, orientalism, essentialism, phenomenology, methodology, and the anthropology of Eastern/Central Europe. Even though not all scholars found the categories of socialism and postsocialism useful, all felt the need to respond to these categories in some way, pointing to the ongoing role of these categories as disciplining structures for the region. As a result of this workshop, scholars will develop their presentations into articles to be published in a forthcoming issue of Cargo, the journal of the Czech Association for Social Anthropology.



Meet Our New Wadsworth International Fellows: Daniel Perera Bahamón

We continue to introduce this year’s recipients of The Wadsworth International Fellowship with DANIEL PERERA BAHAMÓN of Guatemala, currently pursuing a Doctorate in Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin!

Born on the Day of the Dead, 1980, I am a first-generation Guatemalan from a family of Catholic Colombians and Sephardic Jewish immigrants from Bulgaria and Palestine.  I grew up in Guatemala City during a time of great political violence, coming of age after the signing of the Peace Accords (1996).  I received my BA in International Studies and History (2003) from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA.  For several years, I was part of the coordinating council of Unitierra (2003-2008), a grassroots think- and do-tank in Oaxaca, Mexico inspired by the ideas of Ivan Illich and the autonomist political practices of the indigenous peoples of Oaxaca and Chiapas.

I recently received my MA in Latin American Studies (2013) from The University of Texas at Austin.  My thesis focuses on elite retrenchment in response to the political and symbolic gains of black and indigenous peoples in postwar Guatemala.  I characterize the emerging neoliberal governance project as “post-multicultural.”

My doctoral research interrogates the relation between whiteness, violence, securitization, affect, and evolving forms of social belonging in Guatemala.  I draw from visual anthropology in order to examine the production, circulation and uptake of media artifacts, aesthetic forms and practices that might alternatively reflect the ascendancy of whiteness and the affirmation of life projects otherwise.  As both a critical and an expressive component of my ethnography, I also seek to produce audiovisual artifacts in collaboration with my research subjects.

I have chosen UT-Austin for my graduate studies because it is one of the premier research institutions for investigating Guatemala and the broader Mesoamerican region.  As pioneers in Activist Anthropology, faculty at UT foster research that is critical, rigorous and epistemologically innovative while remaining committed to the struggles for social change that its subjects and stakeholders undertake.  The department also pushes the envelope in ethnographic writing, encouraging literary and audiovisual experimentation for more nuanced research-creation.

Upcoming August-September Conferences & Workshops

A list of late summer programs supported by WGF!

17th World Congress of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences

“Evolving Humanity, Emerging Worlds”

August 5-10, 2013

Manchester, United Kingdom

Our aim is a world congress that will be an intellectually memorable milestone in thie history of the IUAES and at the same time permit truly global participation by the world community of anthropologists. We aim to reflect on the state-of-the-art work across all the sub-fields and interdisciplinary interfaces of anthropology, and to foster expression of different regional and paradigmatic perspectives to promote constitutive debate and dialogue across the boundaries of sub-field specialization and nationality. We will encourage anthropologists applying their skills outside the academy to contribute, including workshops addressed to dialogue between practitioners and academics. By being both inclusive and integrative, the congress aims to contribute to the development of the IUAES, its specialist commissions, and world anthropology generally, and also to provide the basis for a range of landmark publications.


3rd International Congress of Amazonian Archaeology

September 8-14, 2013

Quito, Ecuador

The International Congress of Amazonian Archaeology or EIAA (Encuentro Internacional de Arqueología Amazoníca) is the only academic meeting on the ancient past of the largest tropical rainforest in the world. It brings together most of –if not all– the archaeologists working on this theme, but also other scientists of different fields (anthropologists, ecologists, historians, geographers, botanists, archaeobotanists, pedologists, etc.) concerned by Amazonia. Over the years, EIAA meetings have become the major venue for specialists of Amazonian precolonial past, where the current topics are discussed and the most recent data and results of current research are presented for this vast region. The 85 invited scholars are recognized authorities in the field. More than 300 participants are expected to attend this international Congress. The event will be organized in single sessions opened to the public during 6 days. There will be a keynote speech every morning followed by 3 symposia and another keynote speech at the end of the day. Parallel to the sessions, there will be scientific posters and two archaelogical exhibitions featuring research results from Ecuador’s Upper Amazon. Three books on the archaeology of the Ecuadorian Amazon will be presented during the Congress. Some of the papers will be published in a peer-review volume at the end of the Congress.


Paleobiology, Taxonomy, And Paleoecology Of Early Australopithecus: A Collaborative Approach To Synthesizing The Evidence (workshop)

September 20-21, 2013

Cleveland, Ohio, USA

The paleobiology, paleoecology, taxonomy and phylogenetic relationships of species known for the hominin genus Australopithecus have been subjects of great interest and research since the naming of the genus in 1925.  However, different paleoanthropologists have reached at different, sometimes contradicting, conclusions based on fossil specimens readily available for them to study. One of the major hurdles in the study of human origins and evolution is the fact that paleoanthropologists working on original fossil materials of early human ancestors rely entirely on the fossils that they recover from their own study area. This is a major problem in attempts to answer questions regarding early Australopithecus paleobiology, phylogeny, adaptation, habitat use and preferences. Inter- and Intra-regional comparisons are almost impossible. This is largely because paleoanthropologists don’t usually have access in a timely fashion to unpublished fossil materials collected by other researchers from other sites of similar age. As a result, they cannot effectively and comprehensively address the broader research questions mentioned above. It is arguable that most of the disagreements in interpretations of the fossil record are no doubt artefacts of the lack of common approach and collaboration toward tackling research questions. Thus, collaboration among paleoanthropologists would substantially improve knowledge of human origins and evolution and also help to standardize the methodology used in the discovery and interpretation of the fossil record. The main objective of the proposed symposium/workshop is to bring together many paleoanthropologists working at different African sites and create a consortium by which each participating project makes its fossil material available for the other project members on a timely manner and address the various outstanding research questions collectively. This symposium will definitely set new standards of collaboration in paleoanthropology.

Meet Our New Wadsworth International Fellows: Elisabeth Kago Nébié

The Wadsworth International Fellowship provides the opportunity for students in countries where anthropological education is underrepresented to receive world-class training at a university abroad. In the first of a series of posts introducing this year’s new cohort of fellows, we meet Elisabeth Kago Nébié of Burkina Faso, a cultural anthropologist working on the social aspects of scarcity in natural resource management. 

I was born on August 2, 1988 in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. I am interested by the cultural politics of natural resource management in Burkina Faso. In 2010, I received a BA in International Public Relations from Université Libre du Burkina where my ‘mémoire’ examined how Burkina Faso tackles climate change as a sociocultural issue in the international arena.

In 2011, I received a Fulbright Scholarship for a Master’s degree in International Development and Social Change at Clark University in Worcester, Massachussets where I graduated on May 19, 2013. My stay at Clark increased my interest in the cultural dimensions of natural resource management, especially water. Water is a resource that connects human beings, but how does water scarcity impact self-identification and relationships among people?

I have been accepted to the doctoral program in anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) in order to explore this question. Through its pan-campus theme “Water in Our World”, UNC-CH makes major breakthroughs in water research and establishes lasting initiatives. I am particularly interested in working with Dr. Colin Thor West, whose work has concentrated on household adaptations to climate change in Burkina Faso. I would like to build on his research and add ‘joking relationships’, power and gender relations to the debate.

Burkina Faso lacks well-trained anthropologists and, more importantly, female professors and researchers. The few anthropology courses use texts written by ‘outsiders’ about customs and practices in Burkina Faso. It is time for contemporary ethnographies by burkinabe anthropologists to be part of the curriculum. I am determined to motivate the creation of an anthropology department at the University of Ouagadougou and be part of a research unit to help write contemporary ethnographies of Burkinabe.

I am very honored to be a Wadsworth International Fellow and look forward to contributing to anthropological debates and research.

Congratulations, Elisabeth!