In the opening to The Other Side of Eden, Hugh Brody, anthropologist-filmmaker-author-narrator, introduces three pivotal ideas which guide the themes and stories explored in the book. First, hunter-gatherers live in marginal areas (e.g., the artic north) that have not become "developed," that is, places where profitable farming and concentrations of population that depend on farming exist. Consequently, profound differences
between two distinct ways of life continue to co-exist. Second, the differences
hunter-gatherers and farmers, or between hunter-gatherers and any other
living peoples, have nothing to do with evolution, or with differences in supposed inequality
or unequal levels of "civilization." We are all human contemporaries whatever our
heritage and wherever we live. Third, contrary to white western European biases, stereotypical and ethnocentric thinking, over time agricultural societies are more
restless, mobile, expansive and nomadic than hunter-gatherer societies, which tend
to stay more securely grounded in one home territory.
In chapter one, Inuktitut (in the manner of an Inuk, person, or human being; a term
which replaced Eskimo in the Canadian Central and East Artic in the 1970s), the
author describes the life of hunter-gatherer families, some of the intricacies of their language, child-rearing practices, survival skills and kinship relationships. He is
most impressed by their outstanding individual equalitarianism, mutual respect and
caring for each other, and their reverence for ancestors, dreams, animals and homelands. In chapter two, Creation, Brody aims to demonstrate that the biblical story of Genesis, the loss of Eden and consequent curses on humankind follow the paths of farmers and herders who assume rights to enter wild areas, tame, exploit, reshape, farm, populate, expropriate, dominate and control hunter-gatherers' lands. These cursed, forced occupations are disguised and become rationalized under the names of progress: colonial power, Christianity, capitalism, western expansion, contrived "land claims" and accelerated human diaspora worldwide (c.f. maps inside of front and back book covers). The
author uses journal notes and personal experiences from over three decades to document
the collective lives and individual stories of hunter-gatherers. He empathizes with
their tragedies, social "put-downs," physical abuse, forced education, failed resettlement programs, loss of language, community, cultural identity (e.g, ethnocide) and sometimes lives lost at the hands of dominant agricultural societies surrounding and invading them.
He admires hunter-gatherer efforts to survive and be left alone to repair and preserve
a way of life against succeeding waves of white agriculturists, alcohol, diseases, political/ military incursions, land grabs and disruptions in home-based territory.
Brody lauds hunter-gatherers' values, generosity, mutual respect, and use of
language. For example, Inuktitut people make no distinctions according to gender
and have grammars in which male or female is irrelevant. Brody, and this reviewer,
are fascinated by the hunter-gatherers' ability to live for and in present time and their
apparent "porosity," that is, the ability to traverse mentally between natural and supernatural realms (e.g., shamanism) while hunting game, gathering plants, and telling stories with a purpose (e.g. creation myth). These peoples seek not to change the world,
but to know the signs, cycles, transformations, and implicit rules in their world.
By chapter six, On Mind, the author has critiqued most prejudicial views of hunter-gatherer
societies including anthropological schemes and simplistic dichotomies spawned from former linguistic theorist Noam Chomsky's "deep structural" model of language. Brody espouses some universal structure in human language, but takes a post-modern view that emergent symbolic meanings derived from Homo sapiens and common to subsequent hunter-gatherer languages, minds and cultures should be acknowledged as no more or
less complex, but equally appreciated. Always the social scientist who denounces simplistic dichotomies, Brody demonstrates intellectual honesty by including an additional 49 pages
of notes by chapter that fully acknowledge supportive contributions and some materials in opposition to his stated position. He gives a few examples that do not easily fit into the hunter-gatherer and farming dichotomy presented in the text (e.g., the potlatch ceremonies of some Northwest coastal societies include hierarchical/unequal statuses, competition for status honors by giving away more resources than others, special record-keeping, more extensive counting systems, and oral history traditions not typically found in hunter-gatherer societies.).
If you can tolerate some repetition and an occasional tendency to jump to different time frames, examples and settings while focusing on a major theme or story, you can learn
a great deal from this book. I highly recommend it. The author's search for a more balanced view of humanity, and the readers depth of understanding, can be enhanced
by this book's rounding out and filling in more equally all sides of Eden.