James C. Scott on Jared Diamond. Nothing new really but it sounds better when it comes from him.
He imagines he can triangulate his way to the deep past by assuming that contemporary hunter-gatherer societies are ‘our living ancestors’, that they show what we were like before we discovered crops, towns and government. This assumption rests on the indefensible premise that contemporary hunter-gatherer societies are survivals, museum exhibits of the way life was lived for the entirety of human history ‘until yesterday’ – preserved in amber for our examination.
In the unique case of Highland New Guinea, which was apparently isolated from coastal trade and the outside world until World War Two, Diamond might be forgiven for making this inference, though the people of New Guinea have had exactly the same amount of time to adapt and evolve as homo americanus and they managed somehow to get hold of the sweet potato, which originated in South America. The inference of pristine isolation, however, is completely unwarranted for virtually all of the other 35 societies he canvasses. Those societies have, for the last five thousand years, been deeply involved in a world of trade, states and empires and are often now found in undesirable marginal areas to which they have been pushed by more powerful societies. The anthropologist Pierre Clastres argued that the Yanomamo and Siriono, two of Diamond’s prime examples, were originally sedentary cultivators who turned to foraging in order to escape the forced labour and disease associated with Spanish settlements. Like almost all the groups Diamond considers, they have been trading with outside kingdoms and states (and raiding them) for much of the past three thousand years; their beliefs and practices have been shaped by contact, trade goods, travel and intermarriage. So thoroughly have they come to live in a world of powerful kingdoms and states that one might call these societies themselves a ‘state effect’. That is, their location in the landscape is designed to help them evade or trade with larger societies. They forage forest and marine products desired by urban societies; many groups are ‘twinned’ with neighbouring societies, through which they manage their trade and relationship to the larger world.
We have virtually no credible evidence about the world until yesterday and, until we do, the only defensible intellectual position is to shut up.