Sally and Alvin V. Shoemaker Chair

Department of Anthropology

University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

University of Pennsylvania

Teaching: Courses

Forager-Traders is a collection of essays that compares a series of cases of forager-traders (hunter-gatherers engaged in long-term and close relationships with agriculturalists, states, and empires) from South and Southeast Asia.   The volume is explicitly comparative, historical, and interdisciplinary, aiming for a tight integration of papers and introductory essays that bring substantive information from archaeology, history, biology, and ethnography to bear on several key theoretical debates in anthropology, Asian studies, and the social sciences. 

Contributors to this volume both address and move beyond the so-called “revisionist debate” in hunter-gatherer studies that has galvanized and divided anthropology for the last fifteen years. The revisionist debate, originally formulated as a critique of the “Harvard Kalahari” school of scholarship on southern African hunter-gatherers, played itself out in the 1980s and 1990s.  In brief, the “revisionists” suggested that even iconic hunter-gatherers such as the !Kung San have had long histories of interaction with agriculturalists and others and, as such, could not be taken as exemplars of an (unchanging) human antiquity.  At its most extreme, this critique led to assertions that the study of contemporary foragers was of no utility for understanding the past.  The debate became highly polarized and polemicized and little substantive work has emerged as a consequence. 

            The general introduction to this volume provides some context on the debate and suggests how we might build on the positive contributions of participants on both sides of the issue to build a nuanced, historical (as opposed to typological) view of gathering and hunting in human history.  With few exceptions, most of the revisionist debate centered around hunter-gatherers outside of South and Southeast Asia, notwithstanding the long histories of engagement foragers in this area have had with differently organized others.  We suggest that South and Southeast Asia constitute important proving grounds for engaging and reformulating the terms of this important but unnecessarily acrimonious debate.  At stake are issues of typology and classification (do “hunter-gatherers” constitute a sociocultural form, a subsistence mode, an evolutionary stage?), ethnographic analogy (can studies of contemporary peoples inform on studies of the past, and if so, how?), and substantive history (what are the long-term patterns of human subsistence organization, interaction, exchange, and social organization in this area? How have some people maintained foraging lifeways? How and why have other adopted or left these lifeways?).  These issues speak to foundational concerns of the social sciences.

This volume breaks significant new theoretical and historical ground.  Rather than simply rehashing the revisionist debate, we present constructive analytical and comparative perspectives on specific long-term histories, from the Mesolithic to the present.  We chose to focus the volume on South and Southeast Asia for several reasons, both analytical and historical.  First, although neither area is very well known outside of specialist circles, both have large numbers of specialized forager-traders with long histories of interaction with outside groups and even engagement with international markets.  As noted, the revisionist debate largely ignored this important set of cases.  Second, there are both structural similarities (patterns of upland forager-traders exploiting comparable kinds of forest products for exchange with lowland agriculturalists) and historical connections (common exchange networks and later, common experiences of European colonialism) between the two regions that, to our knowledge, have never been systematically explored.  Thus, our comparative project is two-fold; we contrast South and Southeast Asia with the larger world and to compare the two regions with one another in order to discern regularities and disjunctions in the long-term historical experiences of forager-traders.