Ryan Schram's Anthrocyclopaedia

Anthropology presentations and learning resources

User Tools

Site Tools

View page as slide show

Environmental determinism and cultural determinism

Environmental determinism and cultural determinism

Ryan Schram

ANTH 1001: Introduction to anthropology

Monday, March 9, 2020 (Week 3)

Available at http://anthro.rschram.org/1001/2020/1.3.1

Required readings

Richard Borshay Lee “Eating Christmas in the Kalahari,” Natural History, December 1969.

Supplemental readings

Marshall Sahlins “The Original Affluent Society,” in Stone Age Economics (London: Routledge, 2017), 1–37, doi:10.4324/9781315184951.

A story of yams

Auhelawa is a society on the south coast of Duau (Normanby Island), off the eastern tip of Papua New Guinea.

People of Auhelawa produce most of their own food by raising crops in gardens, and most of the year they are thinking about one crop in particular, 'wateya (Dioscorea alata), a species of yam.

<html> <table width=“100%”

><tr><td width="50%">



'Wateya are

  • planted in the summer
  • tended carefully for seven months
  • harvested all at once
    • People eat as little as possible of the harvest
    • The best is reserved for gifts

<html> </td><td> </html>

During the hungry time (tagwala), people eat

  • sweet potato
  • cassava
  • banana
  • breadfruit
  • fish
  • greens
  • pineapples (especially around Christmas)
  • large boiled chestnuts
  • wild mushrooms
  • pumpkin
  • sometimes taro

<html> </td></tr></table> </html>

OK, a lot of food. But all the while they are looking forward to eating real food, 'wateya.

Natural causes?

Over history, a number of thinkers have tried to explain people’s differences by saying they are caused by climate, the environment, and the natural geography.

  • Hippocrates, Greek physician, writes that “Asians” are gentle and “Europeans” are bellicose because of the climate (Hippocrates 400BC, pt. 16).
  • Ibn Khaldun, Arab historian, argued that the most advanced civilizations lay in temperate climates and not in tropical ones (Siddiqi and Oliver 2005).
  • Montesquieu ([1748] 1777, 296–98) says that people of “southern” climates are indolent physically and mentally, and thus live by traditional rules that they never think about changing.
  • In Boas’s time, Ellen Churchill Semple and Ellsworth Huntington argued that all cultures were products of their environmental geography (see Wallis 1926).

Many of these arguments are sophisticated and appear to be bolstered by evidence, but they all sound the same.

Marx and people’s material existence

These claims sound silly now, but certainly there is an influence of environment on society. People need the environment in order to live.

Karl Marx, materialist, emphasized that all societies have a basis in physical nature.

Yet he also argues that the natural environment does not determine society. People use their environment as part of a definite mode of life (Marx and Engels [1844] 1972, 150).

Boasian cultural determinism and the environment

  • Culture determines how people adapt
  • Two cultures adapt to the same environment in different ways
    • Hopi and Navajo (Lowie 1917, 50–51)
  • Nature limits what people can do, but less than you might think
    • Tubetube island in Papua New Guinea (Macintyre 1980)

People need natural resources to live, but culture determines what parts of nature they need

  • Example: Yam cultivation in Auhelawa, Papua New Guinea
  • Technology is part of people’s cultures, too
    • One of the ways in which societies differ is the kinds of tools they have created.
    • Even when people can adopt new tools and technology, they may not do so. We should come back to this.

There are many different types of adaptation

Foraging or “hunting and gathering”

Based on the collection of wild foods and game (fish and meat).


Based on the tending of herds of domesticated animals, e.g. cows, reindeer, sheep, camels, yaks.


The cultivation of several different food crops in small plots and usually using simple hand tools.

And one more…


Agriculture is often distinguished from horticulture by the size and scale of production, thanks to the use of specialized steel tools and draught animals, if not machines.

  • Peasant agriculture is a mixed type in which families produce their own food, and sell surpluses of commodity crops.
  • Industrialized agriculture is the intensive production of commodity crops like rice, corn, wheat specifically for sale and usually for use in the industrial manufacture of food.
  • Peasants are partly integrated into a market economy and specialized division of labor. Industrial farms feed people in societies with a complex division of labor, and today, capitalist, market economies

See Eriksen Eriksen (2015, 255–56) for more information.

How do anthropologists use these kinds of categories to understand actual cultures?

Having a name for something is not the same as understanding it holistically.

At best, anthropologists use these terms descriptively. They are ideal types that help us see important elements in particular cases, but never perfectly apply to a single case.

Are these types of adaptation absolute?

No, most societies are a mix of all of them. We can say that one type dominates, but it does not mean it excludes other possibilities

All of these types have fuzzy boundaries anyway, so we can never be absolutely sure whether a society is primarily based on one type or not.

The difference between horticulture and agriculture is supposedly technological, but it really is marked by a change in the social system

Technology determines some things, but not everything

We must be wary of technological determinism too.

  • Consider that hunting in some form often exists in societies dominated by another type of adaptation. What is different is not the technology, but the position it occupies in the whole culture.
  • Consider the adoption of the technology of the horse and the snowmobile among indigenous societies of the Americas.

Is this diversity evidence of progress?

No, just because one kind of adaptation seems to involve more technology, it is not necessarily better or more modern.

  • Horticulture and foraging in the Sepik River region of Papua New Guinea

When we classify people in this way, there are risks and benefits

  • The benefits are that we can actually escape for simple judgments about primitive and civilized societies when we use precise terms.
    • Pastoralism isn’t necessarily more advanced than horticulture; both are different uses of the environment.
    • Something important happens when people become sedentary but sedentarism is not caused by a technological innovation.

Hunter-gatherers: The West’s noble/savage

Contradictory stereotypes of foragers

  • They’re starving; and they have a naturally healthy diet
  • They forage and hunt because they don’t know how to do anything else; and they are in harmony with nature

The West’s favorite prop for any debate about life

  • Hunter-gatherers are “our contemporary ancestors” (Some anthropologists say this about every indigenous society; e.g. Chagnon 1983 [214]).

Quiz: How can we describe environmental determinism?

Let’s compare these claims to ones we discussed last week.

Go to Canvas and answer the quiz question for today.

There is a “right” answer, but you can take this question multiple times if you need to.

The password will be announced in class.


Chagnon, Napolean. 1983. Ya̦nomamö: The Fierce People. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. https://books.google.com.au/books?id=MPArAAAAYAAJ.

Eriksen, Thomas Hylland. 2015. Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology. London: Pluto Press.

Hippocrates. 400BC. On Airs, Waters, and Places. Translated by Francis Adams. Internet Classics Archive. http://classics.mit.edu/Hippocrates/airwatpl.html.

Lee, Richard Borshay. 1969. “Eating Christmas in the Kalahari.” Natural History, December 1969.

Lowie, Robert Harry. 1917. Culture and Ethnology. New York: D. C. McMurtrie. http://archive.org/details/cultureethnology00lowiiala.

Macintyre, Martha. 1980. “Changing Paths : An Historical Ethnography of the Traders of Tubetube.” https://digitalcollections.anu.edu.au/handle/1885/7534.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. (1844) 1972. “The German Ideology.” In The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert C. Tucker, translated by S. Ryazanskaya, 146–202. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Montesquieu, Baron de. (1748) 1777. Complete Works, Vol. 1 (the Spirit of Laws). London: T. Evans & W. Davis. https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/montesquieu-complete-works-vol-1-the-spirit-of-laws#lf0171-01_label_1040.

Sahlins, Marshall. (1972) 2017. “The Original Affluent Society.” In Stone Age Economics, 1–37. London: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315184951.

Siddiqi, Akhtar H., and John E. Oliver. 2005. “Determinism, Climatic.” In Encyclopedia of World Climatology, edited by John E. Oliver, 333–36. Springer Netherlands. https://doi.org/10.1007/1-4020-3266-8_67.

Wallis, W. D. 1926. “Geographical Environment and Culture.” Social Forces 4 (4):702. https://doi.org/10.2307/3004448.

A guide to the unit

1001/2020/1.3.1.txt · Last modified: 2020/03/06 17:26 by Ryan Schram (admin)