Anthropological Models: A Reconstruction of the First African Frontier

Principal Investigators: M. Bollig, T. Widlok

This project explores anthropological models of hunter-gatherer social dynamics and seeks to relate these models to the theoretical idea of a frontier, which means explaining forms of social organisation as the outcome of a condition of gradual expansion, and conversely this expansion as the result of specific social dynamics. Existing anthropological models for the reconstruction of hunter-gatherer migrations and expansions are synthesised and critically assessed on the basis of

  1. new data collected in an ethnographic field research study,
  2. cross-cultural comparisons and
  3. a simulation component.

The frontier concept of understanding social forms through processes of expansion and migration seeks to bring together anthropological models based on the ethnography of contemporary and historically documented hunter-gatherer societies as a way of reconstructing the economic and socio-political dimension for past migrations and expansions. The objective of the project is thus not to reconstruct a specific time frame, but rather to provide research tools for understanding processes of expansion and migration across periods and across regions through a systematic review of the available models. The ultimate objective is to combine available models of key domains, such as resource use and allocation, of social dynamics of group formation and mobility into an integrated approach of a first frontier condition that could help us to understand the movement and the social organisation of the people carrying this movement inside and out of Africa.

The first phase of the project seeks to take stock of the present anthropological models that are diverse both with regard to the dependent and independent variables that are included and with regard to the questions that deal with the following:

  • Models of mobility: optimal foraging model, patch-choice model, diet breadth model, return-rate expectations,
  • Models of transfer/exchange: risk reduction model, altruism vs. game theory models, sharing models, reciprocity models,
  • Models of land use: economic-defensibility model, foraging radius models,
  • Models of group size: population growth models, birth spacing models, mortality rate models,
  • Models of internal social organisation: models of egalitarian relations and of growing inequalities (“sugarscape” models), gender complementarity models, immediate vs. delayed return models.

Since these models have been developed largely independently of one another with a variety of regional (and temporal) limitations in mind, stocktaking in the proposed project will seek to create a systematic framework that identifies and compares the variables and arranges them into a frame of scaffolding for the work in the proposed CRC. The venues for testing the available models will be

  1. field research in ethnographic case studies,
  2. cross-cultural comparisons and
  3. multi-agent simulations.

Through this threefold strategy, a dynamic model of the “first African frontier” is envisaged that will not only give a better picture of social processes in hunter-gatherer societies, but also show how these social processes have effected long-term migration to Europe and conversely how social forms have been shaped by movement and expansion.


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