Kalahari revisionism, Vienna and the ‘indigenous peoples’ debate

Kalahari revisionism, Vienna and the ‘indigenous peoples’ debate
ALAN BARNARD (School of Social and Political Studies, University of Edinburgh, Scotland)

The problem

In June 2003, Adam Kuper launched a powerful attack on the notion of ‘indigenous people’. His full paper was published in Current Anthropology (Kuper 2003a), with a shortened version in the New Humanist (2003b). Since then a defence of ‘indigenous rights’, by Justin Kenrick and Jerome Lewis (2004), has appeared in Anthropology Today, with further commentaries both there and in Current Anthropology. In this paper, I shall try to situate the debate on ‘indigenous peoples’ within wider comparative contexts of argument in anthropology, especially the anthropology of Africa. I shall focus on two other such contexts of argument, the Kalahari revisionist debate and the ‘Vienna School’ of anthropology, returning at the end to Kuper's problem, its complexity and its solution.

Who or what are ‘indigenous peoples’? Kuper begins his article (2003a: 389) with the saga of a delegation of South African Boers who tried to gatecrash a meeting of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations (not, as Kuper suggests, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues) in Geneva. Unlike those present at the meeting, I have no problem with Afrikaners being classified as an ‘indigenous people’ if they truly believe that they are, although the suggestion that other ‘indigenous peoples’ do not recognise them as such, according to some activists, might disqualify them. The fact that (most of) their pre-seventeenth-century ancestors came from Europe is beside the point, because as Kuper himself implies, being indigenous to a place is not in itself what makes a people an ‘indigenous people’.

The word ‘indigenous’ has many meanings, and being an ‘indigenous people’ bears relation only in a rather loose sense to most of these. We can speak of the human species, as a species, as indigenous to the African continent (since that is where Homo sapiens evolved), the population of Ghana as indigenous to Ghana, or fishermen from Scotland having indigenous Scottish fishing knowledge. But when we call a people ‘indigenous’ we imply much more. Sidsel Saugestad (2001a: 43) suggests four criteria: first-come, non-dominance, cultural difference, and self-ascription. As Kuper (2004: 266) says, all such criteria have their problems, in Africa perhaps especially ‘first-come’, defined by Saugestad (2001a: 43) as: ‘that the people in question are descendants of those inhabiting an area at the time of the arrival of other groups’. Yet quite rightly, what she actually emphasises tends to be the relational or processual aspect of ‘indigeneity’, by analogy with the Barthian notion of ‘ethnicity’ (e.g. Saugestad 2001b: 306). What most defines an ‘indigenous people’, according to this view, is the relation of dominance of one group over another, and especially the relation of different groups to the state, where the state is perceived as protecting the values of non-indigenous over indigenous peoples (cf. Barnard 1998: 72–4). Recent threats by the Botswana government to change the country's constitution if ‘indigenous people’ succeed in the courts in claiming land rights makes this point.

However, such an understanding will not do, according to Kuper (2003a: 395), who challenges the idea of an ‘indigenous people’ as being ‘essentialist’ and relying ‘on obsolete anthropological notions and on a romantic and false ethnographic vision’. In other words, ‘indigenous’ is simply a new word for ‘primitive’. I shall return to this aspect of the debate later, but first let me turn to the earlier ‘Kalahari debate’, which in a sense serves as a prologue to the present controversy.

‘Traditionalists’ in the Kalahari debate regard the people called Bushmen, San or Basarwa as exponents of a hunting-and-gathering culture and essentially isolated until recent times, while ‘revisionists’ regard them as an underclass and historically part of larger social formations. The debate came to a head in the late 1980s with the publication of Wilmsen's Land filled with flies (1989). This book shattered the prevailing ethnographic image of San society as ancient, relatively static, and at the same time adaptive. In Wilmsen's view it was not so much adaptive as transformed by centuries of contact with Iron Age, Bantu-speaking, agro-pastoralists:
Their appearance as foragers is a function of their relegation to an underclass in the playing out of historical processes that began before the current [second] millennium and culminated in the early decades of this [twentieth] century. The isolation in which they are said to be found is a creation of our view of them, not of their history as they lived it (Wilmsen 1989: 3).

The traditionalists countered (e.g. Solway and Lee 1990), bending some way in recognising the importance of historical contact, but rejecting the suggestion that this in itself should render San society non-existent in its own right. The revisionists retaliated (e.g. Wilmsen and Denbow 1990) with the suggestion that this was all too little, reiterating again and again their central thesis that the political economy of the Kalahari, and not ‘Bushman’ or ‘San’ society, is the relevant unit of analysis. The Kalahari debate takes diverse disciplinary forms: ethnographic, documentary and archaeological. To some extent these merge into one, as with the interpretation of the writings (and even the handwriting) of early travellers and ethnographers, or the reports of a thousand-year-old Bos taurus maxilla found at CaeCae, the main site of Wilmsen's ethnographic fieldwork. (This crucial piece of evidence for the longtime existence of cattle in what is now north-western Botswana was destroyed in an accidental fire in 1978.)

There are actually two main facets to the Kalahari debate: one concerns the historical details of interaction between San and others. The other concerns the interpretation of such details in terms of what we understand San society to be. Traditionalists emphasise cultural continuity and the cultural integrity of San peoples. They see them as the inheritors of ancient environmental knowledge, hunting techniques, kinship practices, religious beliefs, and so on: the kinds of things implicitly assumed by many of those involved in ‘indigenous peoples’ advocacy (cf. Brody 2001). Revisionists de-emphasise these aspects in favour of greater concern with centuries-old hegemonic social formations. However, as some ‘indigenous peoples’ representatives and their supporters have argued (e.g. Oma and Thoma 2002), the existence of these, or their contemporary projections through cultural tourism, need not necessarily deny the continuation of indigenous aspects of culture or of a claim to ‘indigeneity’.

The main battles of the Kalahari debate were fought in the pages of Current Anthropology during Kuper's editorship of the journal (Kuper 1992). But there is also a parallel battleground in History in Africa, a journal especially conducive to the increasing length at which each side seems to want to deal with the issues. Two major treatises have appeared there: Richard Lee and Mathias Guenther's 51-page ‘Problems in Kalahari historical ethnography and the tolerance of error’ (1993), and Wilmsen's 94-page ‘Further lessons in Kalahari ethnography and history’ (2003). The Kalahari debate was predicated on seemingly trivial issues expounded at great length, often concerning subtle turns of phrase, and sometimes really quite plain understandings of words. As the debate progressed, the details became more and more important, and the dominant style of argument became the showing of error in detail as a means of undermining the broader aspects of each position. The most famous example is Wilmsen's (1989: 112) mistaken reading of the word ‘onions’ in the handwritten diaries of nineteenth-century explorer Charles John Andersson. Wilmsen misread Andersson's word ‘onions’ as ‘oxen’, thereby suggesting that the Ju/’hoansi of nineteenth-century Nyae Nyae had cattle, whereas in reality they had only wild onions (Lee and Guenther 1991: 592–3).

The ‘indigenous peoples’ debate has elements of this too, if not on as grand a scale. Both sides make minor errors, often with subtle political implications, though Kuper's detractors focus more than Kuper on these. For example, Saugestad (2004a: 264) points out that Kuper in his opening paragraph about the ‘delegation of South African Boers’ confused the Working Group on Indigenous Populations with the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, inaugurated in May 2002 (several years after the incident Kuper describes). The moral of the story is that to write on such contentious issues, almost any error one makes, or almost any casual statement, leaves one open to having one's errors amplified and one's phrases deconstructed to create new meanings, or mis-meanings where none were intended. It is very easy to do, and as we shall see, at times in the history of the Vienna School also small points were used as ammunition in battles about rethinking larger theoretical constructions and deeper debates on the relations between those now called ‘indigenous peoples’.

The Kulturkreislehre developed major centres in museums and departments of ethnology in Leipzig, Berlin and Vienna. The leaders of the Vienna School, a branch of the ‘Culture-Circle School’, Wilhelm Schmidt (1868–1954) and Wilhelm Koppers (1886–1961), were Roman Catholic priests of the Society of the Divine Word (Societas Verbi Divini). Unlike their German counterparts, often based in museums, the Vienna scholars were not so much interested in material culture. They were interested, in Schmidt's case especially, in the origin of religion, which he believed was in pre-mythological, revealed monotheism.

Schmidt borrowed ideas on the ‘primitive high god’ from the Scottish writer, Andrew Lang, and developed them into a Kulturkreis framework (Schmidt 1931: 172–84). Schmidt explicitly rejected ‘evolutionism’, as he understood the term. In particular he rejected both the Darwinian belief in descent of man from the apes, and, equally, the theories of F. Max Müller, Sir John Lubbock, Herbert Spencer, Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, William Robertson Smith and any others who saw nature-myth, fetishism, ghost-worship, animism or totemism as the foundation of primal religion.

However, Schmidt's scheme was what might, in later terms, be thought of as a combination of diffusionist and evolutionist sentiment. Schmidt may have argued against evolutionist thinking, but his main criticisms (Schmidt 1934: 1–9) were directed quite specifically against those who dwelt on missing links, those who believed in simplistic unilinear models and those who failed to recognise a highly developed language or a high stage of reason in ‘primitive man’. In fact, just as there is much diffusionism among the evolutionists (particularly Tylor and Lewis Henry Morgan), so too there is much evolutionism among the diffusionists: none more so than Schmidt. He believed in putting together ethnology and prehistory in the service of understanding human social and cultural development. Or as Marvin Harris (1968: 388) put it: ‘The Kreise were not only “Circles” but they were “Strata” – a part of a universal chronological scheme, which rested entirely on the assumption that contemporary cultures could be arranged according to degree of primitiveness’.

Schmidt's spheres of culture were classified in four such strata or grades (1934: chart facing p. 36; see also Schmidt 1926): Primitive (or Urkultur), Primary, Secondary and Tertiary. The Primitive Grade contained four cultures, and all were essentially hunter-gatherers. The Central Primitive had exogamous groups and were monogamous. The Southern Primitive also had exogamous groups and sex totems. The Arctic Primitive had exogamous groups and egalitarian social organisation. And the ‘Youngest’ or ‘Boomerang Culture’, a transitional type, had a mixture of primitive and matriarchal features.

Each culture contained many peoples, and these were widely distributed. For example, the Central Primitive Culture was represented by so-called Pygmies of Southeast Asia, South Asia and Africa. The Southern Primitive Culture included African Bushmen, and also the Fuegians of South America, and southeastern Australian Aborigines and Tasmanians. The Northern Primitive Culture was similarly widespread across the Arctic and Subarctic. And Boomerang Culture included not only Australian Aborigines but also Asian groups, and within Africa, Nilotics and some of the hunter-gatherers of South Africa. Each culture in turn influenced others of different grades. Schmidt cites, for example, two-way influences between Pygmies and Proto-Hamito-Semites of the Secondary Culture Grade.

Schmidt and Koppers sent to Africa and other parts of the world several members of their religious order and of the loosely associated Institute of Ethnology at the University of Vienna (where both also taught). Among those sent to Africa were Martin Gusinde and Paul Schebesta, also both priests. Gusinde worked in Rwanda, with Twa hunter-gatherers, and briefly in what is now Namibia, with Khoisan groups (as well as, perhaps more famously, in Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America). He published a monograph (Gusinde 1966) as well as articles in both German and English on ‘black’ (Hukwe and Kanikwe) and the supposedly purer ‘yellow’ (!Khung) Bushmen.1 Schebesta worked in the Congo, among Mbuti, and in Mozambique where he served as a missionary, as well as with so-called ‘Pygmy’ peoples of the Philippines and modern Malaysia. These and other members of the Vienna School paid special attention to the supposedly most ‘primitive’ peoples, whether in Africa, Asia or South America. Schmidt's view was that the culture of those he called ‘Asian Pygmies’ was earlier and more primitive than that of Africa, and indeed it was commonly believed at the time (against both Darwin and biological anthropology today) that humankind originated in Asia rather than Africa. Nevertheless, much in African Pygmy culture was, in Schmidt's view, representative of the Urkultur, more specifically the Central Urkultur. He believed their culture to be earlier than the Tasmanian, whose primacy was championed by his counterparts in Germany, especially Fritz Graebner.

The Bushmen (today often called ‘San’, or in Botswana, ‘Basarwa’) were a more complex matter. While Schmidt (e.g. 1933: 537–787 passim) argued that much in their culture was part of the Primitive, he also suggested that they have elements of a later, more complex sphere of culture that they share with their neighbours. In a sense, his view was proto-revisionist, in Kalahari-debate terms. He already had a notion of Bushman culture as influenced by herding peoples, though his main comparisons here were with Khoekhoe and Damara, not with Bantu-speakers. Schmidt's views also had elements of regional structural comparison, the approach much later championed and developed so successfully by Kuper in his work on Southern Bantu kinship and symbolism (e.g. Kuper 1980). My own work on Khoisan kinship, settlement and religious belief (e.g. Barnard 1992), which began while I was a postgraduate student under Kuper's supervision, is in this tradition too. In the Vienna version, Schmidt systematically distinguishes in his search for ‘the ancient Bushman religion’, Eastern, Southern and Northwestern Bushmen, and suggests that to understand Bushman religion one must compare it to those of the Khoekhoe and the Damara (Schmidt 1929). These pastoralist groups, which in the manner of his time he refers to respectively as ‘Hottentot’ and ‘Bergdama’, together with the Bushmen or San, form a single cultural constellation known since that time (though with some historical ambiguity in the case of the Damara) as the Khoisan peoples (Schapera 1930: 5) or Khoe-San peoples (Saugestad 2004b: 23). The former spelling remains the more usual in anthropology, though the latter is now the preference among some Khoe-San themselves and among activists sympathetic to the idea that Khoekhoe and San have quite different political goals.

Schmidt ends the fourth volume of Der Ursprung der Gottesidee with a short comparative treatment of Bushman and Pygmy religion (Schmidt 1933: 696–707) and a lengthy comparison between what he calls ‘Asiatic Pygmies’ and ‘African Pygmies’ with regard to religious belief and practice (1933: 709–87). He returned to the question, with particular regard to the history of the Asiatic–African relation, along with other supposed historical relations between the peoples of Urkultur in his sixth volume (1935). For Schmidt, the mechanism of cultural transmission was more migration than diffusion, and through migration, he believed, the various forms of Urkultur had spread throughout the world. Schmidt, of course, did not use the phrase ‘indigenous peoples’, but his notion of the Urkultur was variously translated into English as ‘primitive culture’, ‘primal culture’, ‘primordial culture’ or ‘primeval culture’; and the peoples it covers tend to be much the same population groups as those now called ‘indigenous’.

It is noteworthy in the context of the current debate on ‘indigenous peoples’ that Schmidt's ideas on Urkultur attracted relatively little challenge from those within the Vienna School who came to doubt the culture-circle project as a whole. In particular, Bornemann (1938) wrote a short book (dedicated to Schmidt) on the notion of the Urkultur, which he sought to justify through an argument that it is not the first culture but the development of cultural ideas that had existed before the first ‘culture’ had formed. What is more, the form of the ancient cultures observed by the likes of ethnographers such as Gusinde or Schebesta was, according to Bornemann (or even according to Gusinde or Schebesta themselves), not quite the same thing as Schmidt imagined: migrations, culture contact and secondary primitivity had taken their toll. In the Post-War era, even Koppers came to doubt the culture-circle approach, but he retained his belief in the Urkultur, as did many others within the School (Zwenemann 1983: 114–6). In a study of Schmidt's theory of primitive monotheism, Henryk Zimo (1986: 251–6) examined the works of fifteen members of the Vienna School and came to the conclusion that most of them were critical of the culture-historical method. Most too rejected the notion of ‘primitive monotheism’, though not the idea of an awareness of spiritual truth on the part of the most ‘primitive’ of peoples.

The Urkultur, in other words, is an anthropological concept that would not die. More resilient than the Kulturkreislehre or the Kulturkreise themselves, Urkultur remained.2 To my mind it remains still in anthropology, and its significance would seem to be on the rise in recent decades, notably with the emergence of modern hunter-gatherer studies, the revisionist critique and the current political and anthropological concerns to which Kuper (2003a) refers. Certainly it is implicit in our present-day discourse in the idea of ‘indigenous peoples’. The ‘native’ has indeed returned.

If, as Kuper tells us, ‘indigenous peoples’ is a problematic term, then what term should we use? Actually, as Kuper suggests, no term will do because the concept is what is problematic. Yet if both the Vienna School with the notion of Urkultur and the ‘indigenous peoples’ lobby are in agreement, maybe there is something to their arguments? Two schools widely separated in time, space and broad anthropological interest come to the same conclusion: both say it is possible to identify ‘primal culture’. And we all know it when we see it. Kuper's argument rests precisely on the fact that no-one would seriously accept, say, ‘the English’ as an ‘indigenous people’. Being the ‘indigenous people’ of England is not the same thing as merely being indigenous to England. 

To reject ‘indigenous people’ as an anthropological concept is not the same thing as rejecting it as a legal concept, or rejecting it as a useful tool for political persuasion. If the United Nations and governments accept it, then it can have utility. Defined polythetically in law (which it is), and defined intuitively by ordinary people – indigenous and non-indigenous alike – around the world, it does have meaning. There is therefore no reason to reject it, at least in these contexts. As I noted earlier, Saugestad (2001a: 43) summarises the consensus in ‘international discourse in politics, law, and anthropology’ in terms of relations between peoples and modern nation states in terms of four criteria that hint at such a polythetic definition: first come (i.e. that ‘indigenous people’ are descended from people who were there before others); non-dominance (i.e. that they are under alien state structures); cultural difference (i.e. difference from the majority population, with the assumption that ‘indigenous people’ are in the minority); and self-ascription. I agree with Kuper that this kind of definition is messy, but with Saugestad that, in spite of such problems, it is useful (see also Barnard 2004). Its most important aspects are the second and fourth: non-dominance and self-ascription. Complexity breeds contradiction, and the recognition that definitions must at best be polythetic is part of the solution. Furthermore, simply because a community may be of recent invention does not mean that it is not real. Real ‘traditions’ can be invented, just as ‘imagined communities’ can be real communities – assuming we recognise social reality as a social construct (cf. Hobsbawm 1983). In a further irony, the notion of ‘indigeneity’ is itself a western construct, and claims to it follow a western social construction of ‘indigenous’ authenticity (Handler 1986; Thuen 2004: 279–82).

Nevertheless, ‘indigenous people’ is not really an anthropological concept, or at least not a very good one. Although close to the notion of Urkultur, ‘indigenous people’ is if anything less salient and certainly messier. It is an ideological and social construct recognised by those who claim the status, by anthropologists who support their cause and no doubt by the educated public at large. Kuper is quite right that ‘indigenous peoples’ is, in some respects, more like the racial categories of apartheid than it is like anthropological ideas on ‘race’, whether past or present. Yet, under apartheid, anthropologists sympathetic to the plight of individuals sometimes went to court as expert witnesses to challenge the government classification of those individuals. They did not accept the system, but could act within its confines to force changes for individuals. Similarly today, anthropologists in the United Kingdom (and elsewhere) have kinds of expertise to use in cases defining people as ‘refugees’ – a concept in some ways much like ‘indigenous peoples’.

‘Refugee’ is a relational concept defined by nation states, by the UN, and by other organisations (Good 2003; 2004). It has absolutely no meaning of substance, but does of course have meaning with reference to the relation between people and states. If ‘indigenous peoples’ had no meaning of substance, the notion might be less of a problem. If, in other words, we could free the idea from its association with the ‘primitive’ or ‘primal’, or remove the underlying Urkultur from it, the idea of ‘indigenous people’ might become acceptable. At that point ‘indigenous peoples’, we might think, could become simply the same as any other disadvantaged minorities. But there remain two differences. As with the idea of the ‘refugee’, the relation with the state or states is crucial. And as with ethnicity, so too with ‘indigenous peoples’: self-definition, not any substance of ‘race’ or ‘culture’, is the key.

Whether a people are or are not an ‘indigenous people’ is no more an anthropological question than who is or is not a ‘refugee’ in British law or a ‘coloured’ person under the apartheid classification system. However, whether indigenous notions of land ownership coincide with those of governments or their (culturally-naïve) legislation is an anthropological question. If we can provide an education for governments or arguments that might enable courts to rule sympathetically on ‘indigenous’ views, then we should, for these purposes, accept the notion just as we accept for similar purposes notions of ‘refugee’ or even ‘asylum seeker’. Kuper's argument on ‘indigenous peoples’ succeeds against substance, but it cannot succeed against what we might conceive of here as the form of indigeneity, the relational aspects entirely devoid of any appeal to notions of worldwide Urkultur. I do not mind if ‘indigenous peoples’ define their essence according to what some of us might regard as spurious anthropological theories because the legitimacy of the claims of ‘indigenous peoples’ actually rests on other grounds. Related points are contained in Ernest Gellner's (1983: 6–7) discussion of the problem of defining a ‘nation’. The idea of being a ‘refugee’ relates fundamentally to individuals, whereas ‘indigenous rights’ are claimed collectively for a ‘people’ (whose membership may be open to question) as a whole. The added collectivity of a world movement of ‘indigenous peoples’ makes this more problematic, but logically no more than accepting the notion of a stateless nation or a multi-nation state.

There is no, and can be no, theoretically-unproblematic anthropological definition of ‘indigenous’. It is a legal concept. But, of course, anthropology itself was founded in the nineteenth century on legal concepts, and such concepts remain important in many branches of the field, especially in kinship studies (Kuper 1988). Kuper is right: the classification is reminiscent of that of the former regime in South Africa. But it is not simply ‘apartheid’ as the term is loosely understood outside South Africa. So-called ‘racial’ classification under the National Party government was a complex affair, based not only on supposed biological features, but on presumed cultural history, and very much too on social identity and ascription by members of different communities. Indeed, it was in part constructed with the complicity of South African ethnologists (see Hammond-Tooke 1997: 119–39). Of course, there is a difference between this and the claims of indigenous peoples. Apartheid was an invidious system of domination and oppression, whereas indigenous people do not seek to dominate or oppress; they only seek to be regarded as different, albeit with special rights. As Kenrick and Lewis, and Saugestad, point out, it is those called ‘indigenous peoples’, not generally the majority populations of their states, who are the oppressed; such special rights (e.g. to land under traditional arrangements) therefore mark a move towards equality rather than away from it.

It is relatively easy to say who are ‘indigenous peoples’ in Australia or South America, but who is ‘indigenous’ in this sense in Africa? Some peoples whose representatives claim ‘indigenous’ status are not indigenous (in the perpetual residence sense) to the places they presently live in. This is especially true of pastoral peoples. Yet while the Maasai, the Himba or the Nama may not have lived a thousand years ago in the precise locations they now do, who are we to say they should not be considered ‘indigenous peoples’ in the political sense that phrase has acquired? The Gaia Atlas of First Peoples (Burger 1990: 183) even includes among African ‘indigenous peoples’ such dubious examples as Nuer, Dinka, Fipa and Eritreans. The criteria for inclusion comprise being ‘affected by civil war, nation-building by centralized states and inappropriate economic projects’. To my mind, this will not quite do, although it does hint at the looseness with which some are prepared to employ the concept. The looseness of definition seems to reflect something deeper, and it betokens the theoretical difficulty of defining the idea of ‘definition’ itself. ‘Indigenous peoples’ are not merely peoples who are indigenous to some place. There is an added, and almost impossible to define, even mystical, additional factor.

This aspect of the definition of ‘indigenous peoples’ reminds me of a centuries-long debate in the history of mathematics described by the philosopher Imre Lakatos (1976).3 Lakatos shows that although the geometry we learn in school proceeds entirely deductively, the process of deduction, that is of reasoning from definitions to see where they lead us, is an illusion. Mathematicians do not make definitions and then see where they lead; rather, they formulate and reformulate them to make them lead where they want them to lead. The history of mathematics is a history of debate between dogmatists and sceptics, just as is the ‘indigenous peoples’ debate. Yet it seems to me there is a third possible position in the latter case. Supposing one's definition of ‘indigenous people’ accidentally leads one to the conclusion, which Kuper raises, that the English might qualify as ‘indigenous people’, or that Maasai might not qualify? As a sceptic, Kuper would see this as an argument for getting rid of the concept of ‘indigenous people’. The dogmatists in the indigenous peoples’ lobby, however, would see it as a problem to be solved by redefinition. Each case becomes a special case, and the refinement of definition becomes endless. The third solution is the recognition that we do know an ‘indigenous people’ when we see one; and the English are not one! It is the idea of definition itself that is the problem. There can be no perfect, universally applicable definition. The logical solution then, is to reject the idea of a monothetic definition, and indeed of a nomothetic definition, and redefine ‘indigeneity’ according to local requirements for the achievement of legitimate political goals. There is no essence that unites Pygmies, Maasai, Hopi and Navaho (Navajo), no clear definition that unites them and excludes the English. The fact that diverse groups may see themselves as ‘indigenous peoples’ involves something other than definition.

We have seen this before in anthropology. The debates among scholars of the Vienna School on the notion of Urkultur were similar. There came a point, even by the 1930s, when it seemed problematic to some. The idea of grand culture circles in general was pushed to one side, while there remained a belief in this one great primitive culture circle, or more accurately set of culture circles: Northern, Southern, Eastern and Boomerang, which both underlay as substrata all cultures and at the same time existed with specific living representatives: Pygmies, Bushmen and so on.

Urkultur was a legitimate, if problematic, anthropological concept. Yet its usefulness in anthropological theory has long since passed. If the phrase ‘indigenous peoples’ is simply a postmodern way of saying Urkultur, then it may be best to let anthropology and the ‘indigenous peoples’ movement go their separate ways. If, however, we recognise the political nature of the phrase and jettison its old-fashioned anthropological associations with the ‘primitive’ and the ‘perpetual’, there is hope. Land rights and rights to utilise the resources passed down from the ancestors are human rights. If we want to call them ‘indigenous rights’, that is fine; but let us not take these ‘indigenous rights’ too literally. We no doubt all agree that every individual has a right to a claim of cultural identity, and many of us would simplify this to say that all peoples have cultural rights. There may be something in the spirit of our time that leads some peoples and their advocates alike to claim belonging to such a category as ‘indigenous’. Unlike Kuper, I have no problem with that, or even with the association of the individuals in the ‘indigenous peoples’ movement with primitivism, Green politics, anti-globalisation, fox-hunting or any other such cause, dubious or otherwise (see Kuper 2003a: 395).

Proponents of ‘indigenous rights’ seem to be looking for real ‘indigenous peoples’, in deserts and jungles, in Arctic wastelands and Subarctic steppes, just as Gusinde (1966), for example, was looking for ‘real’ Bushmen – in his case the ‘yellow’ Restvolk (remnant people) of the northern Kalahari, supposedly purer in race, culture and primal monotheistic religion than surrounding groups. Kuper is looking for ‘real’ or idealised ‘indigenous peoples’ too, in the writings of fellow anthropologists, ‘indigenous peoples’ organisations, the UN, the ILO and so on. More to the point, Kuper is looking for definitions of ‘indigenous peoples’, to discredit them by pointing out the inevitable fallacy of the equation of ‘indigenous’ status with ethnographic fact. The debate reminds me in this sense of the one over ‘elementary structures of kinship’ or ‘prescriptive systems’ in the 1960s and 1970s (cf. Kuper 1988: 226–9). Like ‘elementary structures’, ‘indigenous peoples’ are figments of the imagination. But figments of the imagination are real too. They are real to self-identification, in this case, identification as an ‘indigenous people’. And they are real, and legitimately so, to those who assist the political causes of rights to use and to own land according to ‘indigenous’ law, to practise ‘indigenous’ cultural pursuits, and so on, whether we take ‘indigenous’ here to mean specifically ‘of indigenous peoples’ or in its wider sense to mean simply indigenous to some place or other. Yet the category of an ‘indigenous people’ is not a meaningful category of ethnographic description. It identifies no useful conceptual framework for anthropological comparison or analysis. Kuper (2003a: 395) notes the association of ‘indigenous peoples’ activists with causes such as fox hunting in the United Kingdom. He also likens the idea of special rights for ‘indigenous peoples’ with apartheid in South Africa and with anti-immigrant feeling in parts of Europe. But in fact right-wing and left-wing are moveable and reversible concepts, weaving in and out of the discussion.

There is a sense in which the recent Kalahari debate, earlier discussions of Urkultur, and the present ‘indigenous peoples’ debate are all part of the same grand theme in the history of anthropology. Wilmsen often claims that the debate in which he takes vigorous part is not the Kalahari debate, but the second Kalahari debate. The first Kalahari debate was a squabble between ‘traditionalist’ Gustav Fritsch, who travelled in the Kalahari in the 1860s, and ‘revisionist’ Siegfried Passarge, who was there in the 1890s. Fritsch's ‘traditionalism’ is, certainly in our terms today, undeniably the right-wing tendency. He objected to monogenism, a single origin for humankind, and with it to the term Urrassen (primal races), precisely because it suggested that Europeans and Bushmen might have the same origin. Fritsch writes, in 1880: ‘The term “Urrassen”, which apparently offers itself naturally for [discussion of such a category of peoples], is unserviceable because authors have a habit of applying the same name to earlier periods of our own cultural ancestors’ (Fritsch 1880: 290; this translation Wilmsen 1997: 32). Twenty-five years later, Wilmsen's hero Passarge claimed that Bushmen and Pygmies were ‘the original African race . . .representing all the original character of humankind’ (Passarge 1905: 326; this translation Wilmsen 1997: 32), and the squabble continued.

So what happened next? Urrasse became Urkultur, just as present-day discussions of ‘culture’ reproduce old arguments about ‘race’. What is interesting to me is that it was the proto-revisionist Passarge, not the proto-traditionalist Fritch, who recognised the primal human way of being. It is not possible to make a simple equation of right-wing, traditionalist, ‘indigenous peoples’ movement, and so on, because the threads of ‘primal’ imagery run under and over, through both right-wing and left-wing ideology. Passarge was for a time associated with the Colonial Institute in Hamburg, while Fritsch moved in the more liberal circles of Rudolf Virchow's Berlin. I would not care to say who is more right-wing and who more left-wing among today's anthropologists, but it is worthy of note that at least in my observation those active in ‘indigenous peoples’ organisations include individuals as diverse as New Age hippies, human-rights activists and (as Kuper points out) fox-hunting enthusiasts. It is also worth recalling the famous quotation from the preface to Lee and DeVore's Man the Hunter: ‘We cannot avoid the suspicion that many of us were led to live and work among the hunters because of a feeling that the human condition was likely to be more clearly drawn here than among other kinds of societies’ (Lee and DeVore 1968: ix). For ‘hunters’ read ‘indigenous peoples’; the range of anthropologists who subscribe to this view may be just as diverse as the range of ‘indigenous peoples’ supporters.

Kuper is correct to question ‘indigenous peoples’ as a theoretical concept, and the problem is historically even more complex than he suggests in his Current Anthropology article. This is implied in the writings of his main supporter, the contemporary ethnographer of the Ju/’hoansi, James Suzman, whose published views on the matter actually pre-date Kuper's (e.g. Suzman 2001). Suzman's opposition to ‘indigenous rights’ discourse, stems from practical rather than academic concerns; he argues that the emphasis on San difference may in fact reinforce the structures of domination that he, Kuper and ‘indigenous rights’ activists alike so strongly contest (cf. Suzman 2002; 2003). Kuper and Suzman are keen to take cognisance of the anti-ethnic stance of governments, especially in southern Africa, over the views of the activists. Nor is the Suzman–Kuper line quite as recent as it may seem. There are hints of it, for example, in Nicholas Thomas's (1994: 30) reference over a decade ago to primitivist constructions with racist and colonialist roots. Thomas maintains:
that this essentialism has a negative side: the celebration of authentic Aborigines or Navajo fixes the proper identity of those peoples in their preservation and display of a folkloric and primitivised culture and denigrates and marginalizes urbanized or apparently acculturated members of these populations who speak English, lack ethnic dress, do not obviously conduct ceremonies and do not count as real natives to the same extent as those who continue to live in the bush and practise something closer to traditional subsistence (Thomas 1994: 30).

Nevertheless, the point Kuper makes in his final paragraph remains unproven. Kuper says: ‘The conventional lines of argument currently used to justify “indigenous” land claims rely on obsolete anthropological notions and on a romantic and false ethnographic vision. Fostering essentialist ideologies of culture and identity, they may have dangerous political consequences’ (Kuper 2003a: 395). While the first part of this statement may be true, the second part does not necessarily follow. We can, if we try, make use of such romantic, even obsolete, anthropological notions with our professional insight. It is our ethnographic knowledge and our ability to think anthropologically that gives us insights that can help solve problems for ‘indigenous peoples’. We do not need to have, and should not have, this phrase ‘indigenous peoples’ in our glossary of technical terms. But we can still battle along side those who call themselves ‘indigenous’, through organisations founded on the premise of ‘indigeneity’, ‘aboriginality’, ‘nativity’ or ‘firstness’, without necessarily espousing the theory of Urkultur that survives beyond all the definitions in the imagery of ‘indigenous peoples’. This is imagery that led some of us into anthropology in the first place, and for which we have no reason to apologise.

The three arenas of anthropological discourse examined here – the ‘indigenous peoples’ debate, the Kalahari debate, and the Vienna School – share transformable images of primitiveness and cultural purity embedded in theories of migration and historical domination. In a sense, then, they represent one great anthropological debate replayed. Peter Pels (1999) has drawn attention to the trend beginning in the 1830s in which the activism of the Anti-Slavery Society and the Aborigines Protection Society gradually gave way to the objectivity of the APS's scientific successor, the Ethnological Society of London (founded in 1843). He argues, with India as his example, that the rhetoric of the APS was an inversion of the colonial settler doctrine of terra nullius, and thus doomed. And so the presumed ‘aborigines’ of India came to be understood ‘more in terms of salvage ethnography . . .than in terms of a live population whose rights, interests and education were a source of concern’ (Pels 1999: 109).

Some 150 years later, in southern Africa, we see a double-inversion of that trend, where first Kalahari revisionism (associated in 1980s and early 1990s South Africa with anti-apartheid, anti-ethnic, class-based theories of society) replaces the salvage ethnography of the previous generation; and then the activism of post-apartheid, ethnicity-based ‘indigenous’ politics comes to the fore. The year 1989 marks both the publication of Wilmsen's Land filled with flies and the ILO Convention Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries (ILO 169); while 1993 marks the proclamation of the UN International Decade of the World's Indigenous People, and with it, a decade of intensive action-oriented research by anthropologists working alongside indigenous peoples’ organisations, culminating in the publication of Kuper's article and responses to it by that anthropological constituency. The liberation of anthropology to pursue ethnicity as a topic in the new South Africa (following the institution of democracy, coincident with the start of the International Decade of World's Indigenous People, in 1994), coupled with successful land claims there on the part of Khomani and other ‘indigenous’ groups, make a stark contrast with the eviction of the last remaining G|wi and G||ana from Botswana's Central Kalahari Game Reserve in the early 2000s, and cries of racism in that country. It is worth recalling that Botswana was once widely praised as Africa's shining example of democracy, anti-racism and the successful integration of minority and majority populations – if not of the original population of Basarwa (San) hunter-gatherers.

Recent interdisciplinary work among Darwinian anthropologists, evolutionary psychologists, archaeologists, linguists and geneticists hints that there really was an Urrasse, and there really was an Urkultur (Dunbar, Knight and Power 1999). Both are represented in the ‘anatomically modern’ Homo sapiens population that gave rise to the ‘Out of Africa’ migration about 80,000 years ago.4 This migration spread early symbolic culture; let us call it Urkultur. However, the relation between this Urkultur and the cultures of today's so-called ‘indigenous peoples’ is no greater that that between this Urkultur and the cultures of all peoples. Schmidt's idea of an Urkultur presupposed a subsequent spread of primary, secondary and tertiary culture circles, and de-emphasised any relation between the Urkultur and the cultures of what many now call ‘non-indigenous peoples’. That latter de-emphasis, and not the notion of an Urkultur in the abstract, is what I would reject. In other words, an Urkultur that belongs equally to all peoples, or even an Urkultur still belonging to all, but which is more reflected in the art, ritual or belief systems of some peoples than in those of others, is consistent with at least some contemporary anthropological and interdisciplinary scientific views. If the latter is what ‘indigenous peoples’ advocates see in ‘indigenous peoples’, I see it too. But it exists only at a level of high theory, and it is extremely difficult to justify its use in claims of special rights for some peoples (or individuals) over others.

Such claims must therefore be based on something else. The legitimate claims of ‘indigenous peoples’ appeal not to objective elements of anthropological theory, but to common identities objectified by participants, whether these participants be ‘indigenous’ claimants themselves or their advocates. Saugestad (2001b: 306) is right in her appeal, mentioned at the beginning of this paper, to Barthian notions: ‘indigeneity’ as a political concept is like ethnicity. And who are we to deny the ethnic identity, or the ‘indigenous’ identity, of others, however unscientific such a claim may seem to us? Indeed, whether ‘our’ definitions are more objective than ‘theirs’ is a matter worthy of debate, and this problem may yet emerge as the next phase of the current controversy. I agree with Kuper that an essentialist notion of ‘indigenous peoples’ is philosophically problematic, but I disagree on the implication of this for the political strategies of those seeking to regain the lands of their ancestors or to link their causes with the causes of others, on different continents, in similar positions.

For me, it is difficult too to separate the ‘indigenous peoples’ debate from the related debates (not least the Kalahari debate) which have preceded it, or from the broad convergence of understanding in the field of history of anthropology that sees the close relations between colonial and nation-state politics, the moral concerns of anthropologists, and the changing theoretical dispositions of the discipline. What is more, the idea of Urkultur as propagated by the Vienna School, although different in form from that of present-day high theorists of early symbolic culture, shares with the popular notion of ‘indigenous peoples’ an undeniable likeness. It is a popular notion which now too is grounded both in international law and in the practical politics of rights for oppressed minorities whose claims are fought under the guise, not simply of relations of oppression, but of presumed ‘indigeneity’. Thus, in yet another strange twist, the old science has become the new politics.


1 Although Gusinde, in 1950–1 and 1953, was the only ethnologist in the Vienna School proper to do significant work with Bushmen, he was preceded by the Viennese physical anthropologist Rudolf Pöch, who, between 1907 and 1909, made films and sound recordings of Nharo (Naro) and others in the Kalahari, and much less ethically, collected the remains of recently deceased Bushmen in the Cape Colony (Legassick and Rassool 2000: 9–19, 27–9).

2 It is a debateable point whether, in some sense, even the Wiener Schule itself did survive, albeit in a transformed state: in the culture-historical approach of Walter Hirschberg (1904–1996), in the continuing interest at Vienna in ethnohistory, and in current historiographical interests in the Vienna School proper. I am grateful to Werner Zips for this insight.

3 The debate concerned Euler's theorem about the relation between the numbers of sides, edges and vertices in a polyhedron. Although Lakatosians may prefer to see Lakatos's comments in terms of his larger theory of the structure of scientific research programmes, I have extracted only the relevant point for my analogy here.

4 The date is, of course, a matter of yet further debate, with some experts at least until recently claiming a somewhat later start for the global migration. The date suggested here is consistent with evidence presented by Stephen Oppenheimer (2003).

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