|Friday 16 February, 2001
Life As A Hunter-Gatherer
Hugh Brody is a writer, anthropologist and filmmaker. From his experiences of hunter-gatherer culture gleaned from years of living and hunting with the Inuits of the Arctic and the salmon-fishing tribes in the Canadian Northwest, Brody reaches through everyday realities to reflect on the human condition.
Speaking to Outlook about his latest book, The Other Side Of Eden, Brody introduces us to the hunter-gatherer way of life and explores the misunderstandings and the historic division between hunter-gatherers and farmers.
Hunter-gatherers have always had a bad press. We think of them as primitive, whilst farmers are perceived as a definite step forward in human progress.
Having spent a great deal of his life living with hunter-gatherers Brody has not only observed, but he has attempted to absorb and truly understand people's relationship with the land and is quick to dispel the myth that hunter-gatherers are uncivilised. He comments:
'The thing about being with the Inuit is that you have a sense of being with the most gracious, most generous, most sophisticated of human beings. So far from being simple, they are very, very rich and complex.'
Having spent time with the Inuit in the early 1970s and '80s, Brody was privy to great opportunities. He travelled with dog teams, ventured in the snow and even lived in snow houses. Living and working with the Inuit people he reversed the colonial relationship whereby the Inuit's way of life is considered ignorant, and instead he asked the Inuit to teach him about their ways.
Already fluent in French, German and Hebrew, Brody has also learnt two Inuktitut dialects, and considers language to be the key to understanding cultures. Language he claims 'reveals different ways of knowing the world.' He elaborates:
'Colonialism constitutes them as ignoramuses – vessels to be filled with the truth. But if you ask them to teach you their language you give them a chance to reverse this – you are the one who doesn't know anything. Instead of saying 'seal' you say 'penis' and they all laugh at you.'
The much-quoted fact that Inuit language has 347 words for snow would however surely be a hindrance to learning the language? Not according to Brody:
'Hunter-gatherer language doesn't have categories, they don't have conceptual terms like snow – they have very specific words such as “snow that has recently fallen” or “snow that is falling through the air”, “snow that has been driven in the wind” and it goes on and on. But they are all very specific pieces of information about the environment; they are all translatable and learnable (sic). There is nothing terribly difficult or mysterious about it.'
Settlers and Nomads
To Brody the hunter-gatherer culture is one, which is both respectful of the planet and of its people. He discusses the Inuits relaxed attitude towards child discipline and marvels at their subsistence existence.
|'We took a route that got hit by bad weather and we ran out of food. I remember that we had been gone for about three or four days and we were scraping the bits of grease and fat that had congealed in the stove. We boiled it up and made soup.' |
Hugh Brody recalls a journey with the Inuit.
However he is aware that these can also be the very qualities that have led others to be dismissive of the hunter-gatherer way of life. Believing the popular conception of farmers as the settlers and hunter-gatherers as nomads to be untrue, he comments:
'We have this idea that farmers are deeply settled in their places, whereas hunter-gatherers are roaming around like the beast of the fields …Integral to the story of farming is people going out on the land and colonising it.'
'Colonising, frontiers and new settlements are absolutely at the heart of the story of agriculture. Whereas in fact hunter-gatherers are completely committed to one place because their success depends on their knowledge of the one place and their knowledge is not transferable.'
The Demise of the Hunter-Gatherer
The idea that farming is associated with a quest for more land has led Brody to theorise the demise of the hunter-gatherer. Central to the Inuit culture is a conviction that their land is 'Eden and exile must be avoided', if this is the case why do they struggle to control their traditional territories? Brody explains:
|'It has been driven out by the aggression and the very success of farming. Farming is a very brilliant device for accumulating surplus food and for having lots of children.' |
'More farms lead to more people, and more people lead to more farms and so you get a cycle which causes drastic population expansion and these people go to the land of the hunter-gatherers. On the whole history shows that the hunter-gatherer was driven out or completely absorbed into the farming world.'
Where farming is not possible, hunter-gathering communities continue to exist. Those who survive struggle to maintain their identity and, with more and more children attending English speaking schools, they fear that they will lose their language. Brody explains:
'Hunter-gatherers around the world talk most intently about loss of language. To know the language is to have the stories about the place and have the detailed knowledge …To lose it is to lose your own claim to the land. To lose your connection and therefore to lose your links to the past and your links to the future.'
| Who is Hugh Brody?
4th October 1943.
Has two sons with wife Miranda Tuffnell. Currently lives with actress Juliet Stevenson and their two children.
On Skid Row, 1971;
The People's Land, 1975;
Maps And Dream, 1981;
Living Arctic, 1987;
The Other Side Of Eden, 2001.
Nineteen Nineteen, 1985;
Means of Escape, 1991.
The Eskimos Of Pond Inlet, 1975;
A Conemara Family, 1980;
People Of The Islands, 1982;
Nineteen Nineteen, 1985;
On Indian Land, 1986;
Time Immemorial, 1991.