George Walford: Looking Back

Social anthropology has developed as a science fairly recently, and many of its results have still to be incorporated into advanced political thinking. John E. Pfeiffer has studied the literature; he finds anthropology going far to demolish the conception of the first human communities, and their way of life, that has become almost standard in the green and socialist movements.

Humanity began to damage the environment long before capitalism or modern industry appeared; prehistoric hunters probably helped to eliminate a number of species. Foragers do not kill only animals; Joseph Birdsell of the University of California has made a quantitative study of infanticide; in the not very distant past Australian aborigines were killing something between 15 and 50 per cent of their children, not because of any racial characteristics but as a necessary part of the hunting life. An old assumption (shared by IC) had the foragers squeezed out into the near-deserts they now inhabit during fairly recent times, but campsites in the Kalahari go back at least 20,000 years and probably a lot farther. Over the past century children in many countries have been reaching puberty three to five years sooner than they did a century ago: This accounts for much of the increasing unrest ascribed to them, and it results from improvements in diet.

Pfeiffer stresses the tendency for early developments to persist: “Patterns of behaviour developed in prehistoric times and in the process of adapting to conditions that prevailed hundreds of thousands of years ago continue to influence current behaviour.” The old pattern of behaviour remains viable and available under the new conditions, and great numbers adhere to it rather than accept the fresh limitations that go with more recent opportunities.

Pfeiffer E. 1978 The Emergence of Man NY: Harper & Row.

from Ideological Commentary 53, Autumn 1991.