Collecting Food, Cultivating Persons: Wild Resource Use in Central African Political Culture, c. 1000 B.C.E. to c. 1900 C.E.

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This dissertation traces the influence of Botatwe farmers' hunting, fishing, and foraging activities on economic, political, and social life over the course of three millennia by weaving together evidence from historical linguistics, archaeology, and palaeoclimatology. While the spread and intensification of farming and trade are often used to explain political change in the ancient world, the histories of farming, trade, and politics in central Africa were contingent on developments in hunting, fishing, and foraging--the very activities farming supposedly replaced. In early periods of Botatwe history, the distinction between farming and using wild resources was not particularly clear and building successful communities required broad knowledge about food procurement. Indeed, a diverse food system remained an important strategy for settlement well into the second millennium among communities in the Kalahari Sands of the western Botatwe region. However, by the middle of the first millennium, some Botatwe peoples in the east worked hard to create a distinction between work undertaken in the fields and in the bush through an elaborate series of innovations around communal spear hunting. At the turn of the first millennium, as the long experiment with farming transformed into a predictable food system, eastern Botatwe people diffused political power by inventing a new politics that focused on reputation-building based on knowledge about bushcraft. Throughout the second millennium, the centralization of some neighboring societies and the intensification of long-distance trade routes supported new means to acquire reputations in bushcraft, transforming the moral visions and material underpinnings of older kinds of reputations; celebrated hunters were redefined as friends, elders, and companions while new entrepreneurial elephant hunters built great wealth and repute. Most scholars approach the precolonial African past by historicizing institutions developed to consolidate or contest relationships of power: chieftaincies, kingships, healing cults, and specialist clans. The vocabulary Botatwe farmers used to talk about people with reputations for great skill in bushcraft foregrounds historically contingent modes of being recognized as a skilled individual in the precolonial past. Historicizing the dialectical relationship between ideas about individuality and the institutions to which individuals belong holds great potential for understanding the history of decentralized societies.

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  • 10/01/2018
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