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.

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'Wateya are

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During the hungry time (tagwala), people eat

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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.

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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

Hunter-gatherers: The West’s noble/savage

Contradictory stereotypes of foragers

The West’s favorite prop for any debate about life

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