We take an empirical approach and do not a priori exclude anyone based on "fit" with a founding definition of the field. There may not be a definition of "hunter-gatherer" that fits all groups for all time. Research on Southeast Asian groups has shown that hunter-gatherers do an amazing diversity of things, sustained by a production base that variously combines hunting, gathering, and trading practices, on land and water (yes, we include maritime groups too). Not just in Southeast Asia, everywhere we find examples of groups that don't fit normative definitions. Historically hunter-gatherers may also be honey collectors, blacksmiths, farmers, craftspeople, guides, bodyguards, and so on. In the contemporary context, they may be wildlife rangers and trackers, tourist guides, welfare recipients, etc., so subsistence activities don't work as a labelling category.
For a sense of the diversity that obtains among hunter-gatherer societies, have a look at these publications that resulted from previous CHAGS conferences. What matters are the particular forms of sociality and the social spaces engendered by hunter-gatherer practices, and the conditions that reproduce, enable, limit, or suppress them. And we need to clarify what those practices are.
This sounds very ethnographic.
Yes, because CHAGS first arose in the context of new fieldwork with existing communities and ethnography primes us to pay close attention to what's going on. But from the very beginning, hunter-gatherer researchers took a long-term view and included archaeologists and paleoanthropologists. If you take Semang research in Peninsular Malaysia (which includes research on Maniq in Thailand) as an example, we also have a lot of knowledge-sharing among anthropologists, linguists, and historians. It would be nice to have more historical linguistics, environmental history, historical ecology, and (early) modern history at CHAGS: in short, history. As we go further back in time, you start to see how the conditions we take for granted today just don't apply for all time. For example, some Orang Laut ("sea people") fought, patrolled sea lanes, and exacted taxation on behalf of local rulers (among many roles they played in state formation). They certainly had some measure of power. Other Orang Laut groups hid from the onerous demands of the rulers, much like Semang in the Peninsula hid from slave raiders.
Then there are processes of change and reversion. Some groups go from hunting to farming and back again. Others bypass agriculture altogether. The long-term investment in landscape alteration that agriculture demands just doesn't appeal to a lot of people, and hunter-gatherers may take up wage-earning, or combine hunting and gathering with trade and wage labour along with a shifting portfolio of ancillary activities. A long-term view helps us to sharpen our analyses, resist grand interpretations of "human nature," pay more attention to the conditions why hunting and gathering thrives in some contexts and not in others, and improve responses to state policies.
But more than just adding to participant numbers at CHAGS, what would be really nice is to have more synergistic research across disciplines.
Back to that ethnographic thingy—why call them hunter-gatherers if they're so diverse?
It's a concept, an organising device. It honours history: the long-term history of humanity, and the very recent history of many groups. And, hunter-gatherer societies are still here, demanding to be heard. There are culturally important ways of relating to place and time, of knowing and relating to the land, which we find articulated across the world. There is diversity, and there are also commonalities. "Hunter-gatherer" forces us to remember that.
I work in urban settings.
Lots of hunter-gatherers researchers do. Hunter-gatherer practices are pretty resilient, and may survive through the most awful changes of circumstances.
Hunter-gatherers being kicked out of their historical territories for conservation and other state-sponsored projects, being displaced and resettled, caught up in other people's wars, etc.
I'm not an anthropologist. Can I participate?
Absolutely. CHAGS has an open door policy. Beyond the people mentioned earlier, CHAGS participants have included geneticists, (ethno)ecologists, ethnomusicologists, gender specialists, activists, development professionals, applied studies people, and hunter-gatherers. For CHAGS XII, we hope anyone who works actively with hunter-gatherers past and present, anyone who attends to broader situations affecting the lives and times of hunter-gatherer communities, will come, whether they have attended CHAGS before, regardless of whether they consider themselves to be hunter-gatherer specialists.
How do I participate?
For the moment, you can propose a session using our online form here. Once the panels are selected, we'll open the Call for Papers—possibly in early October. Conference registration will start in January. You can attend the conference just to observe, of course, but we do need you to pay the registration fee.
I'll start calling myself a hunter-gatherer specialist then.
It might improve your social life. But then again, it might not. It depends on the situation, time, and place.
One last question: who do I call?
— A personal view of CHAGS from Lye Tuck-Po