James Woodburn (1934–2022)
by Camilla Power
James Woodburn, one of the outstanding figures of hunter-gatherer research, died in June aged 88. Fittingly it was Richard B Lee who announced James’ death to the 13th Conference of Hunting and Gathering Societies in Dublin. James had taken part in CHAGS in Penang, 2018. He was of course an original participant of the ‘Man the Hunter’ conference in Chicago, 1966, contributing two key chapters to the published volume edited by Lee and Irven DeVore.
Drafted for National Service at 18, James hated military discipline, and escaped to do an intensive course in Russian as a military interpreter. A chance meeting with Meyer Fortes in the Cambridge Dept of Archaeology and Anthropology gave him the idea of doing anthropology. James had loved childhood holidays in Ireland when he explored Neolithic sites with his Irish grandfather.
Little reliable research had been done to that time on African hunter-gatherers, so James was drawn to working on East African savannah hunters. In summer 1957 he had met Henry Fosbrooke, a colonial official in Tanganyika who had trained in anthropology at Cambridge. Fosbrooke confirmed the Hadza remained nomadic bow-and-arrow hunters, but warned that they would prove very elusive. James gained sources of funding for the project, but had virtually no preparation for research, not even being required to produce a research proposal.
By autumn 1957, James was at the East African Institute of Social Research at Makerere University in Uganda (then the only university in East Africa), preparing to leave for the field hundreds of miles away in Tanganyika. By November, he reached Mbulu, the government post within 20 miles of Hadza country. While anthropologists like Fortes, Edmund Leach at Cambridge and Aidan Southall at Makerere were very supportive of research on hunter-gatherer social organization, the local District Commissioner had little patience with work on untaxable and virtually unadministered inhabitants. James’ first difficulty was to find and learn to communicate with Hadza people. He had naively imagined he might meet somebody who spoke both English and Hadza, but as he soon realized: ‘no such person existed’! To establish good relations with the Hadza, it was vital that he developed knowledge of the phonologically and grammatically complex click language Hadzane. He always felt the time invested in this language learning of greatest importance for understanding Hadza culture. Only one or two other people of European background today can speak reasonable Hadzane.
His intention had been to study Hadza economy, politics and social organization. He realized quickly that Hadza life was not dominated by foraging alone. For Hadza hunters in particular, there was the gambling game lukochuko, actually an important mechanism for circulating valuables. Camp movements, often decided by women, were not only about access to food and water but had social motivations: both avoiding conflict, and keeping in touch with friends. James focused more on ideas of property and control of goods and services, collecting data on kinship and politics, but had difficulty of interpretation because the Hadza often gave only terse responses.
After almost three years of fieldwork, just as James was becoming adapted to a mobile life, the Cambridge department insisted James return if he was to complete his PhD. Titled ‘The social organization of the Hadza of North Tanganyika’ the Ph.D was awarded in 1964. His emphasis on the flexible kinship and residential structure of Hadza society with a lack of ‘binding commitment’ to kin went against expectations. But his breakthrough came two years later at the ‘Man the Hunter’ conference, where his Hadza analysis was placed in context of other ongoing hunter-gatherer research. A model that derived from Australian hunting societies of exogamous, patrilocal territorial bands was now challenged by new work in Africa from Richard Lee and Colin Turnbull. While kinship mattered it was far less constraining for people in these societies, with no dependency on specific others for access to resources. People were free to decide where they lived.
James Woodburn’s most influential and widely cited paper is ‘Egalitarian societies’ (1982) where he laid out his distinction between ‘immediate return’ (IR) and ‘delayed return’ (DR) societies, analyzing the mechanisms that underpinned ‘assertive egalitarianism’. In a little known paper ‘Hunters and gatherers today and reconstruction of the past’ (1980), he had looked at social evolution and transition from IR to DR, arguing this was bound up with male control over women’s destination at marriage, mediated by ritual knowledge. The Hadza in fact offered an intermediate case with an element of ritual privilege in men’s epeme society, but no actual control over women.
James further developed these ideas in relation to evolutionary models in ‘Egalitarian societies revisited’ (2005). He rejected the notion IR societies were simply a product of ‘encapsulation’ and held that, since they were very stable, materially and ideologically, they were liable to have been prevalent in early human societies. In his thesis, James produced astute analysis of gender relations and gender conflict among the Hadza, some of which was never adequately published. There was also more for him to say in the arena of Hadza religion and cosmology, building on his other important 1982 paper ‘Social dimensions of death in four African hunting and gathering societies’ with its description of Epeme ceremony. It is probable James was reticent as a matter of respect for Hadza secret knowledge.
James spent his career as a teacher and researcher in the London School of Economics department, where he supervised numerous doctoral students, including Brian Morris, Roy Ellen, Jerome Lewis and Thomas Widlok, and was mentor for several African students, including Bwire Kaare and Wolde Gossa Tadesse.
Camilla, James and Jerome
James maintained strong links with Hadza country, Tanzania and Tanzanian friends till very late in his life, as well as hosting many Hadza guests. While recovering from a heart bypass in 2007, he dedicated several weeks work to helping Elena Mouriki and Susana Zengu in the transcription and translation of Hadza myths. In 2009, aged 75, he travelled with Jerome Lewis to investigate rumours of remnant hunter-gatherer societies in Ethiopia. He returned to Tanzania in 2010 to participate in Hadza efforts to represent themselves to the wider world, coordinated by Daudi Peterson and Richard Baalow in the beautiful Tanzanian publication ‘Hadzabe: by the light of a million fires’.
--1968a. `An introduction to Hadza ecology', in R.B. Lee and I. DeVore (eds) Man the Hunter, Chicago: Aldine, pp.49-55.
--1968b. `Stability and flexibility in Hadza residential groupings', in R.B. Lee and I. DeVore (eds) Man the Hunter. Chicago: Aldine, pp.103-110.
– 1979. ‘Minimal politics: the political organisation of the Hadza of north Tanzania’, in W.A.Shack and P.S. Cohen (eds) Politics in leadership: a comparative perspective, Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 244-266.
--1980. `Hunters and Gatherers Today and Reconstruction of the Past', in E. Gellner (ed.) Soviet and Western Anthropology. New York and Chichester: Columbia University, pp.95-118.
--1982. `Egalitarian societies', Man (N.S.) 17: 431-51. (Malinowski Memorial Lecture delivered at the London School of Economics, 5 May 1981).
–1982b. ‘Social dimensions of death in four African hunting and gathering.
societies’, In M. Bloch and J. Parry (eds) Death and the Regeneration of Life, pp.187–210. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
--1998 "`Sharing is not a form of exchange": An analysis of property sharing in immediate-return hunter-gatherer societies', in C.M. Hann (ed.) Property Relations: Renewing the Anthropological Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
–- 2005. ‘Egalitarian societies revisited’, in T. Widlok and W. G. Tadesse (eds) Property and Equality (vol 1). New York & Oxford: Berghahn Press:18-31.