Us, Relatives: Scaling and Plural Life in a Forager World

Us, Relatives: Scaling and Plural Life in a Forager World

by Nurit Bird-David

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Anthropologists have long looked to forager-cultivator cultures for insights into human lifeways. But they have often not been attentive enough to locals’ horizons of concern and to the enormous disparity in population size between these groups and other societies. Us, Relatives explores how scalar blindness skews our understanding of these cultures and the debates they inspire. Drawing on her long-term research with a community of South Asian foragers, Nurit Bird-David provides a scale-sensitive ethnography of these people as she encountered them in the late 1970s and reflects on the intellectual journey that led her to new understandings of their lifeways and horizons. She elaborates on indigenous modes of “being many” that have been eclipsed by scale-blind anthropology, which generally uses its large-scale conceptual language of persons, relations, and ethnic groups for even tiny communities. Through the idea of pluripresence, Bird-David reveals a mode of plural life that encompasses a diversity of humans and nonhumans through notions of kinship and shared life. She argues that this mode of belonging subverts the modern ontological touchstone of “imagined communities,” rooted not in sameness among dispersed strangers but in intimacy among relatives of infinite diversity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520293427
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 02/14/2017
Series: Ethnographic Studies in Subjectivity , #12
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Nurit Bird-David is Professor of Cultural Anthropology at the University of Haifa and the author of numerous articles on hunter-gatherer lifeways.

Read an Excerpt

Us, Relatives

Scaling and Plural Life in a Forager World

By Nurit Bird-David


Copyright © 2017 Nurit Bird-David
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96668-0


At Home

Setting and Mind Setting

Kungan awakens every day in the small forest clearing that overlooks the gorge, his eyes opening to the soft morning sunlight. The six closely spaced huts (which Mohandes has measured by pacing them off and then drawn to scale; see Downscale 1) surround him, standing on three small terraces extending down the hillside, the green of the forest stretching all around them. The huts are made of bamboo and grass. On their walls hang small sections of bamboo containing honey hives. Back carriers made of bamboo hang from the roof beams. Kungan is an early riser, and other people are still asleep, lying on the ground beside dying hearth fires, two, three, four, sometimes even five bodies cuddling together on mats made of forest grass or rough jute sack. Bamboo containers and carrying baskets and metal axes and pots are scattered around them. Dogs laze beside them. Kungan arises from the mat he shares with his wife and two younger children. Then they too rise, followed by all the others, to start another day.

This description could be taken as what in some ethnographies is called the "setting" or "background." It could be seen as a literary device to convey a sense of the research site, a static backdrop for the presumably more meaningful theoretical concerns to come. Although, for readers this scene may seem to merely set the analytical stage, for the hamlet's dwellers, who wake to it day after day, it is at once a physical setting and a mind setting. It is the focal site of what Tim Ingold (2000) would describe as their dwelling-in-the-world, even as he largely dwells on the world at large, that is, the environment. In this chapter, I delve into and exploit this scene to provide a sense of the local experience of plural life and its scalar context. I probe it for local dimensions of being-with others in a tiny hamlet.

* * *

Hunter-gatherer dwellings have previously drawn little interest from cultural anthropologists, with a few tangential exceptions. Their dwellings have hardly been seen as buildings: in popular views and in certain scholarly traditions, hunter-gatherers are distinctive precisely because they do not interfere with their environment and do not transform it into a "built" one. Peter Wilson (1988) went so far as to suggest that the significant turning point in human social evolution was when people began to live in houses. In doing so, he distinguished, in effect, between hunter-gatherers, who do not have architecture, and other societies, who do. Early twentieth-century descriptions, and even some today, help to perpetuate this impression, if only inadvertently, through the terms used to describe hunter-gatherer dwellings. For example, shelter (sometimes in specific combinations, such as leaf shelter, rock shelter, etc.) is a broad term that is also sometimes used in conjunction with animals, and hut and camp are words commonly associated today with outdoor recreation and the military, taking their meaning from the opposition between the interior of the house and the outdoors. This language obscures the fact that these dwellings are home for their dwellers and that, even though a structure is temporary, it embodies a permanent way of dwelling for those who occupy it.

Martin Heidegger's (1971) position on the relation between "dwelling" and "building" is helpful here. Building and then dwelling in a structure is a common practical experience. Broadly approaching dwelling as a way of being-in-the-world, Heidegger reverses that order (notably, shifting scales) and suggests that "we do not dwell because we build, but we build and have built because we are dwellers. ... Only if we are capable of dwelling, only then can we build" (146, 148). In a widely read essay, Ingold (2000: 172–88) applied this perspective to hunter-gatherer huts, working from a general ecological-anthropological approach and focusing on an archetypal hut as the object of reflection. With Ingold, I pay attention in my ethnographic analysis to Kungan and his relatives' forms of building as arising "within the current of their involved activity, in the specific relational contexts of their practical engagement with their surroundings" (186). I move on from Ingold by shifting the analytical gaze to the forager community and an actual hamlet comprising several huts. With Jean-Luc Nancy (2000: 3), I maintain that being cannot be anything but being-with, and so dwelling cannot be anything but dwelling-with others. For the foragers I know well, those others are close relatives with whom they share a hamlet. The title of Ingold's influential essay, "Building, Dwelling, Living: How Animals and People Make Themselves at Home in the World," expresses a common focus on "people" (in a generalized, large-scaled sense) as they make themselves at home in the world (again, generalized and large-scaled), and his analytical focus is the (generic, singularized) hunter-gatherer "hut." Downscaling Ingold's agenda, and opening it to plurirelational everyday life, in this chapter, I zoom in on the huts of a tiny hunter-gatherer community of relatives and look at, in Ingold's words, "building ... circumscribed within dwelling ... [rather than] dwelling circumscribed within building" (2000: 185).

My ethnographic study joins other studies that exploit the rich analytical potential of dwellings (though heretofore not of foragers' dwellings). Pierre Bourdieu's oft-cited study (1973 [1971], based on his 1960s work in Algeria) showing that the Kabyle house concretizes symbolic schemata and cultural values is a foundational example of this focus. In his later work, Bourdieu (1977) pointed to the house as part of the objective reality within which its dwellers grow up and acquire their taken-for-granted and often unconscious habits of acting in the world and thinking about it. This idea was amplified by, among others, Janet Carsten and Stephen Hugh-Jones, who suggested that "house, body, and mind are in continuous interaction, the physical structure, furnishings, social conventions and mental images of the house at once enabling, moulding, informing and constraining the activities and ideas which unfold within its bounds" (1995: 2).

Valentine Daniel (1984: chapter 3) conducted a detailed study of the construction of houses in rural Tamil Nadu villages as part of his ethnographic exploration of the Tamil sense of personhood. His study provides an instructive comparative case for my ethnography, which concerns foragers living at the forested edges of Tamil Nadu. The village Daniel worked in had a population of over two thousand persons (56) and so was nearly a hundred times the size of Kungan's hamlet, a relevant scalar disparity to bear in mind. The Tamil village house, he shows, is regarded as a person and, like a person, is perceived to be composed of various substances. Its construction involves a great deal of ritual and divination, the goal of which is to achieve the best fit between the house and its owner. A priest accompanies and supervises the building of a house in all its details. Horoscopes are consulted to ensure that key stages take place on auspicious days. Houses are conceived and born, and their formative years determine their kunam (quality, disposition). They have good and bad times. They are self-aware. They have feelings, for example, fearing to be alone. The Tamil house and person, Daniel argues, are in a metonymic relation. The house is not just metaphorically depicted as a person but tangibly presents the Tamil sense of person, not as individual but as dividual (in McKim Marriott's [1976] sense, elaborated by Marilyn Strathern [1988]). Kungan and his relatives'senses of dwelling(s), I show, stand in stark contrast to rural Tamil house culture, expressing the fundamental importance, for them, of pluripresent relatives living together.

In this chapter, I extend this general perspective to hunter-gatherer dwellings, not least to the huts glimpsed above, which Kungan and his relatives prefer, even though they have the know-how and skills to build more solid structures. The issue came into sharp focus for me in 2001, when I visited a school for tribal children in the region run by an internationally supported local development organization. A teacher proudly showed me a display that the children had made, a miniature model of huts built of twigs and grass, each with an outside fireplace marked by small stones. I assumed the display illustrated a traditional hamlet, like the one I had called home in 1978–79, but I was corrected by a sixth grader who, prompted by the teacher, explained to me in simple English that "this is how early man lived." Development organizations had, by then, demolished some of the bamboo and grass huts in the Gorge's hamlets and, in their stead, constructed brick and mortar "permanent" houses for the foragers (see Lavi and Bird-David 2014). The "permanent" houses, however, turned out to be temporary. They were unsuited to the weather and to local needs. Within a short time, some of them were abandoned, annexes made of traditional materials were added to others, and new huts were being built in the old style (see Bird-David 2009; Lavi and Bird-David 2014). Why did Kungan and his relatives continue to build their traditional huts? What did these dwellings reflect about their dwellers' senses of themselves and their world?

At the same time, can one say anything meaningful about dwellings that are small and simple? Huts that can be built in less than a day? Dwellings with no inner divisions, fixtures, or decorations? Huts that continually change? These questions invite further attention to taken-for-granted everyday activities such as sleeping (which, as Carol Worthman and Melissa Melby [2002] have noted, accounts for a third of a person's life and has remained largely overlooked by ethnographers, not least those who study hunter-gatherers). In this chapter, I examine dwelling(s) as process and architectural form. I examine a range of everyday activities and arrangements among Kungan and his relatives as they unfold and are manifested in and around their dwellings, including how huts are constructed, their lack of solidity and inner partitions, their constantly changing layout, where and how belongings are stored and the significance attributed to them, and above all, where, how, and, especially with whom Kungan and his relatives sleep, sit, eat, and share other quotidian activities in the home place. I turn, then, to the hamlet in which Kungan awakens. ...


They lived in a small hamlet of bamboo and grass huts (Take 1)

In the modern evolutionary script, small-scale societies are associated with homogeneity, while diversity and complexity are linked with growing scale (Strathern 1992a: 22). However, the diversity of the huts in Kungan's hamlet was striking, as it was in other hamlets I visited.

One could observe huts with roofs extending beyond the walls, creating large shaded spaces, and huts with grass and palm leaves thrown on a simple frame. Some huts were walled on all sides, others were partly walled lean-tos, and still others had no walls but only a thatched roof. One could discern huts erected on mud-beaten raised platforms, others directly on the ground, and still others on rocks. Diversity expressed itself not only in the overall structure but also in the tiny details. For instance, the bamboo used for walls could be split into thin strips or cut open and flattened, creating cracked sheets. In one hut, strips might be laid horizontally, and in another (right next to the first), sheets might be laid vertically. I looked for common patterns in the early days of my fieldwork, and whenever I thought I had identified one, I shared the thought with Kungan or someone else. I was inevitably told that whatever I was pointing to could be or was done in other ways. Often, my interlocutor would then conclude our conversation with words I hoped not to hear yet did time and again: Bere, bere (different, different). Once, exasperated, I provocatively asked whether incest was forbidden, and I was told, "It does not happen here but maybe it happens in other places." Kungan and his relatives, I gradually realized, assertively recognized diversity as given.

The huts' diversity, a concrete illustration of this, was apparent in both plan and construction and stood out because the structures were so few, thus vividly presenting to attention their idiosyncrasies. The conspicuousness of their diversity was reinforced for me when I learned that, in the late 1960s, Kungan and some of his relatives had built several solid houses, all to a standard plan, for plantation workers who engaged them to do so, using forest materials to the settlers' specifications (a dozen or so of the workers then moved into those houses, which were outside the plantation area in the forest). Had they wanted, then, Kungan and his relatives could have built similar houses for themselves. They did not do so because they did not build their huts. From Ingold's perspective, their huts evolved and changed form as part of the foragers' dwelling or, more correctly, dwelling together.

The huts in Kungan's hamlet, and in each of the other hamlets in the Gorge, were located close to one another, although there was sufficient space to accommodate far greater distances between them. One could argue that their proximity provided security. However, roaming elephants were the chief danger in this area, and such elephants are better left a clear path between huts, lest they trample one or another down on their passage through a hamlet. The proximity of the huts afforded the dwellers pluripresence and pluriparticipation in each other's lives. The small number of huts (six in Kungan's hamlet, including my own, one to three in the others) and their propinquity (five to ten meters between huts) allowed each dweller to remain in continuous contact with all of a hamlet's other dwellers. Kungan and his wife, for example, did not need to make any effort to see and hear what others in the hamlet were doing and saying as they pursued their own affairs. All the other hamlet's dwellers were continuously present within the couple's bodily zone of attention. They were vividly visible and audible to the couple, as they lived both close by and in huts that were often not walled or only partly so.

Huts were rebuilt (in the 1970s) every year to eighteen months, at a very leisurely pace. Sometimes, it took several months to build what could have been achieved within a few days. The wood frame was constructed, and thatch was placed on the roof; walls could remain unbuilt for months, if, indeed, they were ever added. In some cases, only one or two walls were built. In other cases, a lean-to with one or two walls was built resting on a rock face or as an extension to a hut. Four-walled huts had no doors closing their entries, and the walls constructed of split bamboo strips were porous and far from soundproof. The most solidly built huts had open verandas (the solid structure carried the extended roof creating the veranda), and their dwellers used the verandas both during the daytime and at night.

A hut constructed considerably farther away than easy speaking distance (e.g., the hut south of the stream in map 4, separated from the cluster of GR huts by about half a kilometer) counted as a different place. A single hut clearly could constitute a recognized settlement, as was the case for both BR and UP hamlets. The local issue was not that a hut feared to be alone, as Daniel (1984: 110) described for the Tamil house. Rather, the proximity of huts in Kungan's hamlet, and the flimsy partitions, spoke to the extent and importance of relatives' participation in each other's lives.

Much domestic life was carried on outside the huts, except during the monsoon periods, when heavy rains poured down relentlessly and the heavily trafficked area around the structures turned to squelchy mud. Relatives cooked, ate, bathed babies, idled, manufactured items, and frequently slept outside the huts, a few meters from one another, within easy communicative reach. To say, as Wilson (1988) does, that life in hunter-gatherer societies typically goes on outside the hut rather than in it is to take insufficient account of scale. When a few huts are built close to one another, outside a hut, in fact, means in between huts, effectively increasing pluripresence. The modern idea of the house as one's sovereign and secure castle is far removed from the local dwelling ideal. To the contrary, for Kungan and his relatives, withdrawal into a hut signified physical or social indisposition and could be contentious. Even ill persons spent as much time as they could lying on mats outside the huts. Kungan and his relatives did not look for privacy in the hamlet; if they desired it, they left the tiny cluster of huts and went into the forest. Though this behavior might seem peculiar to a middle-class homeowner with a master bedroom equipped with lock and key, it recurs in many ethnographic settings, among hunter-gatherers and others, as a response to the pervasive presence of relatives.


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