Saturday, November 28, 2009

National Geographic: the Hadza "live without rules"

So, a couple days ago I picked up the current National Geographic Magazine at our nearby Publix. There’s an article on the Hadza that begins with this cranky-inducing banner: 
They grow no food, raise no livestock, and live without rules or calendars. They are living a hunter-gatherer existence that is little changed from 10,000 years ago. What do they know that we’ve forgotten?
No rules? Really? The world’s only true anarchy?  This is the kind of subtle ethnocentrism that you always have to watch out for in the National Geographic's dealings with humans. Don't get me wrong, when they're giving us information about cocoa, or gold, or dinosaurs, they can be very, very good. And, of course, their maps are terrific. But with people, well, things sometimes go awry.

The Hadza, of course, have "rules." All human cultures hang together by virtue of the fact their members know how to behave appropriately in which situations, what obligations they have toward others, what others can demand of them, who they can and cannot joke around with, marry, and so on. In small-scale societies like that of the Hadza, who are foragers living along the Great Rift Valley in Tanzania, the rules are acquired in the process of becoming an adult. They are carried in people's heads, not written down in legal codes as they are in large-scale societies like ours, but they exist none the less.

Furthermore, the rules Hadza people need to know involve, almost exclusively, rules about interpersonal behaviors. In our culture, there are rules like that, but there are also rules that have to do with correct and incorrect behavior with regard to the State, the distinction between what we call torts and crimes. In Hadza, there is no state: any violation of the rules is personal.

In September 1979, the National Geographic carried an article* about the Caribbean states of Grenada and St. Vincent. In the article, the author, Ethel Starbird, referred to the way of speaking of the inhabitants of these islands as English with "a certain free-form style." It so happens that I was just back from a summer of linguistic fieldwork on Carriacou, one of the Grenadine islands. I was collecting data for a description of the variety of Caribbean English Creole that Carriacou people speak.

It turned out that Carriacou people's speech was not "free-form" at all. Its speakers, like all speakers of the Human Language, carry in their heads linguistic rules for putting sounds together into words, words into phrases, phrases into sentences. These rules had not been investigated before, and existed in no "grammar" book; they form part of what Noam Chomsky calls their "knowledge of language." but like the "rules" the Hadza know about keeping their society running smoothly, they existed before anyone studied them and they continued to exist even after they had been inscribed in a descriptive grammar.

Young and foolish, I wrote to the National Geographic author and explained her mistake: nobody, anywhere, speaks a "free-form" language. The answer I received was essentially Thank You Very Much, and Bug Off; We Are The National Geographic.

(For an in-depth look at how National Geographic has over the years treated the subject of non-European peoples, check out Reading National Geographic by and Lutz and Collins.)

*Starbird, E. 1979. Taking it as it comes: St. Vincent, the Grenadines, and Grenada. National Geographic 156, 399-425.


  1. . . . And then there was the time, some years back, when National Geographic did an article aboutearly "modern" humans. There was a picture of a cave artist. . . a male cave artist, nturally. Then it turned out that the "male" cave artist was originally drawn as female! They did a "sex change operation" on her, because somebody at National Geographic thought the readership wouldn't accept the ide3a of a female cave artist????
    I shake my head and rest my case.

  2. The new DVD collection of every National Geographic magazine is out. Go back 70 or more years and their writing about humans gets even more ethnocentric, bordering on racist.

  3. Not only National Geographic if you go back a few decades: physical anthropology textbooks reveled in illustrations (usually photos) of women (never white ones) in full nudity, whereas illustrations of males never went below the waist-- or, their genitalia were covered up.

  4. Many years ago NG threw some funds our way for our UW archaeology project in Florida- they then demanded total control of all our fotos- even from my own personal camera! Even though NG offers small grants to scientific endeavors, they are in the entertainment business starting with their origins in their European colonial past.

  5. The Hadza live by very definite rules of course, as we all do.
    What I object to is the pretty pictures of people in staged settings with clean clothes and shiny jewelry. These are real people living real lives in a harsh environment and any resemblance to most of the NG photos is coincidental! Wikipedia has a pretty good discussion of the Hadza.


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