Jared Diamond (The World until Yesterday), and others as well, have argued as though current hunter-gatherer societies are all but direct examples of how our Stone Age ancestors had lived, as though their way of life has been unchanged for 10s of thousands of years. Writing in the London Review of Books, James Scott says he's wrong about that:
The inference of pristine isolation, however, is completely unwarranted for virtually all of the other 35 societies he canvasses. Those societies have, for the last five thousand years, been deeply involved in a world of trade, states and empires and are often now found in undesirable marginal areas to which they have been pushed by more powerful societies. The anthropologist Pierre Clastres argued that the Yanomamo and Siriono, two of Diamond’s prime examples, were originally sedentary cultivators who turned to foraging in order to escape the forced labour and disease associated with Spanish settlements. Like almost all the groups Diamond considers, they have been trading with outside kingdoms and states (and raiding them) for much of the past three thousand years; their beliefs and practices have been shaped by contact, trade goods, travel and intermarriage. So thoroughly have they come to live in a world of powerful kingdoms and states that one might call these societies themselves a ‘state effect’. That is, their location in the landscape is designed to help them evade or trade with larger societies. They forage forest and marine products desired by urban societies; many groups are ‘twinned’ with neighbouring societies, through which they manage their trade and relationship to the larger world.Contemporary foraging societies, far from being untouched examples of our deep past, are up to their necks in the ‘civilised world’. Those available for Diamond’s inspection are, one might argue, precisely the most successful examples, showing how some hunter-gatherer societies have avoided extinction and assimilation by creatively adapting to the changing world. Taken together, they might make for an interesting study of adaptation, but they are useless as a metric to tell us what our remote ancestors were like.