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The Emergence of Inequality in a Former Hunter-Gatherer Society: A Baka Case Study

Townsend, CM; (2016) The Emergence of Inequality in a Former Hunter-Gatherer Society: A Baka Case Study. Doctoral thesis , UCL (University College London). Green open access

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The Baka people of the western Congo Basin are associated with an immediate-return hunter-gatherer lifeway. During the twentieth century they began to sedentarize and to adopt agriculture due to external pressures. The Baka community of Asoumondélé are a group of 200 people, today pursuing a mixed subsistence strategy. They live on the border of Cameroon and the Republic of the Congo in a permanent village alongside Njem farmers, with whom the Baka have patron-client styled relationships often characterized by discrimination. The Baka are also politically marginalized as an ethnic group within the Cameroonian state. In 2006 an Australian mining company began establishing an iron ore mine near Asoumondélé. By 2008 a rudimentary dirt road was built in order to facilitate mining activities. The advent of the mine and road has precipitated rapid transformation in this Baka society, which had already transitioned some way from the immediate-return form of egalitarianism. This thesis shows that there have been three main factors in this process, namely 1) adoption of bride wealth practices due to involvement in the ivory trade which may date back as far as the precolonial period; 2) sedentarization and the concomitant switch to delayed-return subsistence practices since the 1980s; and 3) exposure to the monetarized global economy due to the arrival of the mine. As a result of the third step, an ethnic identity crisis has caused experimental and risk-seeking attempts to level up to those higher up the social hierarchy on the part of the Baka. Examples of this are their experiments with individualistic economic activities, changes in kinship organization, agitated ritual performances, addiction to alcohol and frequent outbreaks of intra-group and domestic violence. These new patterns amount to a failure of levelling mechanisms and hence the emergence of inequality, in particular an already entrenched power difference between gender groups. The thesis supports the hypothesis that the foundations of inequality are inextricably linked with gender inequality, where the proximate mechanism of its emergence is the creation of private property (aided by storage) and the ultimate mechanism is the reproductive advantage bestowed on those men who are able to accumulate wealth. Paradoxically, an innate psychological aversion to inequity may accelerate the breakdown of egalitarian society in situations where inequalities already exist.

Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Title: The Emergence of Inequality in a Former Hunter-Gatherer Society: A Baka Case Study
Event: UCL
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
Language: English
Keywords: egalitarian, hunter-gatherer, inequality, Baka, Congo Basin, sedentarization, immediate return, delayed return, ethnic identity crisis, levelling mechanisms, gender inequality, private property, collective property, inequity aversion, counter-dominance, Palaeolithic, seasonality, social transformation, rituals of rebellion, mimesis, communitas, Fredrich Engels, Jerome Lewis, David Wengrow, Camilla Power
UCL classification: UCL
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH > Faculty of S&HS
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1476889
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