An aside on social complexity

I’ve been reading some of the powerpoint/pdfs from the recent Dynamique du Langage workshop. In his paper, Paul Heggarty makes the following comments about hunter-gatherer subsistence communities [quoted from the powerpoint].

  • Population densities per unit area: low.
  • Population sizes of social groups: very small (‘bands’).
  • No significant social complexity.
  • No one band likely to have significant relative demographic/sociocultural
    advantage over all its neighbours.

I think I disagree with all of these points, more or less.

  • Population densities per unit area: low.
    • They are VARIABLE. There is more than one type of hunter-gatherer community, and this seems to be systematically overlooked in the literature. For example, both Bardi people and Pitjantjatjara people were ‘hunter-gatherers’ but Sunday Island probably had at least 250 people on it (it’s about 6km2) whereas I bet the equivalent area of the Western Desert wasn’t nearly that densely settled. Nomadic h/g vs sedentary h/gs are  another point of difference. This is important because mobility obviously has an effect on language contact. 
  • Population sizes of social groups: very small (‘bands’).
    • Yes, h/g groups are much smaller than agricultural societies, but it’s also VARIABLE. Furthermore, pre-public sanitation agricultural/village societies also had a practical population upper bound. There’s work from epidemiology which shows that somewhere like Mediaeval Florence (pop 90,000 iirc) was about the maximum, since above that number epidemics, fires, etc cause periodic population collapse. You also have to be able to fit your population inside the city walls, and that also creates a de facto upper bound. 
  • No significant social complexity.
    • How are we measuring ‘complexity’ here? In terms of hierarchical structure and social class, sure, it’s ‘simpler’, but in terms of social networks, marriages, communities of practice, and most of the social indicators which have an effect on language, hunter-gatherer communities are VERY complex.
  • No one band likely to have significant relative demographic/sociocultural
    advantage over all its neighbours.
    • Maybe, but there’s more to it than that. For example, it’s clear that there are social prestige differences between groups which have linguistic effects.
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