Inside Current Anthropology: India’s Hunter-Gatherers: Hidden in Plain Sight

Thanks to Rachel Wiseman at the University of Chicago Press for this press release from the latest issue of Current Anthropology! The latest issue, Volume 54 Number 4 (August 2013) is out now. 

Civilization flourished in India as early as 3000 BCE. With a history of advanced agricultural production going back more than five thousand years, it would seem unlikely that hunter-gatherers would have escaped displacement by farming or integration into the new way of life. However, new scholarship suggests that of the 5.2 million present-day and recent hunter-gatherers worldwide, fully 1.3 million live in mainland India, in addition to 600 Andaman islanders. This would account for 25% of the global population of hunter-gatherers—a much higher fraction than had previously been assumed.

To put this in perspective, the new estimates mean that India possesses five times the number of people living by this means of subsistence in North America and the Arctic region combined, four times as many as Australia, and nearly three times as many as Africa. This has led some to wonder: how could hunter-gathering cultures have persisted in India for so long with a complex agricultural society right next door?

A new article in Current Anthropology seeks to answer that question through a survey of ethnographic information about hunter-gatherers in India and their neighbors. The author of the article, Peter M. Gardner of the University of Missouri, argues that Hindu culture may have actually protected these foraging peoples from assimilation pressure up until the twentieth century.

When interviewing Tamil-speaking Hindus in the 1960s, Gardner found that his subjects considered the forager to be admirable and “one of us.” In the Current Anthropology article, Gardner outlines three elements of Hindu culture that may have accommodated the continuation of hunter-gathering on the Indian subcontinent.

First, Hinduism emphasizes a system of mutual dependence among occupational specialists in their society. Since hunter-gatherers collected and exchanged medicinal plants, wild honey, and other valuable forest products with their specialist neighbors, they were believed to serve an important economic function and were allowed to continue their way of life unmolested. Hindus considered these foragers to belong to the larger social system.

In addition, since they were not viewed as outsiders, Indian hunter-gatherers were not expected to prove their adherence to cultural norms. As long as contacts remained tangential, they merely had to provide lip-service to Hindu notions of propriety to avoid harassment from their neighbors but did not have to change their customs in any meaningful way.

Finally, in Hindu society hunter-gatherers were appreciated for their simple, hermitical lifestyle. Living quietly and peaceably in the forest, these foragers were ascribed by many the ritual purity afforded to Hindu ascetics.

With the encroachment of the modern state in the twentieth century, the protections traditional Hindu society provided hunter-gatherers began to erode. But the historical role of Hinduism in the preservation of hunter-gathering on the Indian subcontinent should not be understated. By creating an established place in the social order for hunter-gatherers, Hindu perspectives safeguarded this unique way of life for millennia.

Current Anthropology is a transnational journal devoted to research on humankind, encompassing the full range of anthropological scholarship on human cultures and on the human and other primate species. The journal is published by The University of Chicago Press and sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.