excerpted from Kelly, Robert L. The Foraging Spectrum: Diversity in Hunter-Gatherer Lifeways, pp. 6-9. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.


As the study of human diversity, anthropology began as soon as the first hominids wondered why the people in the next valley were different. But more conservatively, anthropology appeared as a formal discipline in the late nineteenth century. Like much of Western thought, it was intellectually rooted in Enlightenment philosophy, in which ideas about so-called primitive societies, including hunter-gatherers, played a key role.

          Enlightenment philosophy revolved around the notion of progress. In a world thought to be created by a perfect God, diversity in humanity was related to differences in the degree of perfection. Progress was movement toward moral perfection. Just as God could be ranked above the whole of humanity, so could cultures and ethnic groups be ranked in their respective degrees of perfection. The history of humanity was seen as operating according to universal, natural laws that led to the moral development of people, and that was evidenced by the increasing subjugation of nature by people. Progress in this view was affected by environmental and technological factors, but it arose primarily from increasingly rational thought. Allegedly unable to think rationally, members of less advanced societies were controlled by nature; thinking rationally, members of advanced societies controlled nature.

          During the nineteenth century, the pageant of technological advancements uncovered by archaeologists and enshrined in the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages made clear to intellectuals of the time that Europeans had passed through earlier stages in their progress to modernity. Anthropology developed as part of late-nineteenth-century efforts to reconstruct these past stages. These efforts included Lewis Henry Morgan's Ancient Society (1877), Henry Maine's Ancient Law (1861), John Lubbock's Prehistoric Times (1865), and Edward Tylor's Primitive Culture (1871). These early evolutionists, however, faced a problem. Reconstructing prehistory requires archaeological evidence, the physical record of the human past. Although sufficient archaeological research had been conducted in the late nineteenth century to discern a past, this past was difficult to interpret. It revealed technological advances and a cumulative domination of nature, but had nothing to say about kinship, or politics, or social organization. To reconstruct prehistory where archaeological data were lacking or insufficient, the evolutionists fell back on ethnography and the comparative method.

          The comparative method was formally developed by Auguste Comte, although its intellectual pedigree can be traced back at least to the Greek philosophers (for a history and critique see Bock 1956). In linguistics, it was a method of reconstructing dead languages; in biology, a way to reconstruct extinct species; and in anthropology, it was a way to reconstruct the European past. Stated simply, the comparative method took existing cultural (and biological) diversity in the world and turned it into an evolutionary sequence. Different peoples represented different stages in humanity's march to perfection.

          The theoretical paradigm of the evolutionists provided the justification for this methodology. Couched within Enlightenment notions of progress, early evolutionist thinking also included themes of a "struggle for existence" and "survival of the fittest," themes that students of anthropology know best from the writings of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer. But Darwin's notion of natural selection played no role in the work of early evolutionists. Instead of a selective process, evolutionists saw change as transformative along a more or less single scale of progress. Evolution resulted from the accumulation of ideas over time that improved peoples’ minds and morals. The struggle was humanity's upward movement toward the perfection of God. Evolutionists such as Morgan saw that some societies moved along different pathways due to the effects of diffusion and their environments. Nonetheless, they were primarily intrigued by the general tempo of this process. Thus, Morgan could describe world history in terms of seven periods, the lower, middle, and upper status of Savagery, the lower, middle, and upper status of Barbarism, and the status of civilization, each with its critical discovery or invention that improved humanity's condition and insured its progress.

          This of course raised the question of why everyone was not the same. The Enlightenment paradigm provided the answer: variability among the world's peoples was attributed to variability in the tempo of mental improvement; some peoples moved ("progressed") up the evolutionary ladder more quickly than others. Handily enough for the evolutionists, less advanced societies could therefore be seen as relics of an earlier age, "monuments of the past" (Morgan [1877] 1963: 41). By putting the world's peoples into a ranked sequence, human prehistory could be reconstructed.

          The criteria for constructing evolutionary sequences were various, and included technological, social, political, intellectual, and moral factors. The ethnocentrism of the comparative method was shown in these criteria, for invariably European society was the standard against which all other societies were judged. Monogamy was superior to polygamy, patrilineal descent was better than matrilineal descent, monotheism was morally superior to ancestor worship, science was the successor to religion. Rankings often had a strongly racialist bias, with people of color at the bottom and Europeans (and especially northwestern Europeans) at the top of the sequence. "Few would dispute," Tylor asserted, "that the following races are arranged rightly in order of culture: -- Australian [Aborigines], Tahitian, Aztec, Chinese, Italian (Tylor 1871: 27)." To be fair, some authors, such as Morgan, attributed some differences to environment or technology, but ultimately cultural progression was linked to biological affinity (see Harris 1968: 137-41 on the racial determinism of Morgan and Tylor).

Two other related factors helped place hunter-gatherers near the bottom of the evolutionary scale in these nineteenth-century schemes. First, they had few belongings. Of course, it is obvious that material goods could only be a hindrance to nomadic peoples, but in the minds of nineteenth-century European scholars the causal arrow was reversed. Hunter-gatherers were nomadic because they were intellectually incapable of developing the technology needed to permit a sedentary existence -- agricultural implements, storage facilities, houses, ceramics, and the like. Were their moral and intellectual character to be raised, hunter-gatherers could settle down and reap the material rewards of progress.

          Second, because many were nomadic, hunter-gatherer peoples had concepts of private property quite different from those of Europeans. While we shall see in chapter 5 that it is incorrect to say that there are no territorial boundaries among hunter-gatherers, the subtlety of the ways in which hunter-gatherers relate people to geography was lost on European explorers and colonizers. To them, hunter-gatherers had no concept of private property, a sure sign of arrested moral and intellectual development.