My own dissertation is a bit haunted by hunters and gatherers, despite not actually being about them at all. I say ‘haunted’ because the hunter/gatherer as an imaginary signification – the ecologically wise, noble native – is present throughout the text and my thought as the ‘other’ of the people with whom I am primarily concerned: the Khmer, whose subsistence (such as it is) is defined by intensive wet-rice agriculture, rather than by hunting, gathering, or even by various forms of horticulture or shifting cultivation.
My sense about agriculture doesn’t fall terribly far from very well-established theories: it was a nightmare for almost all of humanity, and very likely the root cause of our current ecological problems. I fall off the boat when people start talking about determinism or proposing that the only solution to current problems is to abandon our history and immediately become hunters and gatherers.
When agriculture comes into a new realm, it establishes a sovreignty over land that is unprecedented in the region. Agriculture ruthlessly pulls produce from the land, through the sweat of Adam’s brow. But it also displaces – where it does not destroy – and modifies the subsistence styles of those who do not practice agriculture.
The Khmer, who are ethnically and linguistically related to a large family of Mon-Khmer speakers who must be considered indigenous to mainland Southeast Asia, became agriculturalists through a long historical process about which we know very little. We know that there was probably an early reliance on flood-retreat agriculture, due to the amazing flood patterns of the Tonle Sap and the regional river systems. We know that the control of water is a vital form of social and agricultural control. And we know that during the imperial periods, the Khmer kingdom ‘built itself up’ through the capture and enslavement of their highland cousins, who became fieldworkers.
The Khmer have historically enslaved their cousins and created them anew in their own image. But they themselves then, were also the product of a past which may ‘remember’ a different way of being. We know one other crucial thing about agriculture in the region – it was accompanied by the rise of Indic religious systems. Just as had happened in India itself, agriculture and its religious expressions went hand in hand, justifying the world as a place of suffering and misery, the role of kings as protectors of the surplus, and the stations of our lives.
If the Khmer world is so definitively marked by this disruption, as I believe it is, then it is only natural to see the non-agricultural other as an important specter, as it is.
However, and this is really the reason I began this meandering post, we still don’t really know what this means in terms of actual hunter-gatherer self-sufficiency, and when we mean by that.
Richard Lee and Marshall Sahlins are famous (among other things) for creating a now-traditional view of the hunter and gatherer as bearers of an ‘original affluence,’ in which their needs were met by the ecologies in which they lived. Others criticized this theory, claiming that it is useless to examine these peoples in terms of their relationship to the land, but instead we must analyze their relationships to the state and colonialism. And of course, they’re both right.
A new dissertation [via anthropologi.info] by Henry Chan, on the Punan Vuhang group in Sarawak, Malaysia, puts some of these discussions to rest, in my opinion. His research supports the Sahlins-Lee hypothesis of self-sustainability, but also points out that this is disrupted and destroyed once significant contact with the state happens. And this is the case in Cambodia as well, both today – and I would argue – in the past.
Chan has put the entire dissertation online for download. Check it out.