book The Other Side of Eden

reviewed by Emily Banner

Published in Issue No. 53 ~ October, 2001

The Other Side of Eden is a puzzle of a book, by turns
engrossing and dull, insightful and preachy. In it, Hugh Brody
examines hunter-gatherer cultures, individually and in general, and
looks at how these societies coexist — and, more often, clash
— with the rest of the world, which can be generally summed up
as agriculturalist. Both an exploration of the condition of
contemporary hunter-gatherer groups, and an historical look at how
agriculturalists came to dominate the world (usually destroying or
assimilating — or at best marginalizing — hunter-gatherers
who stood in their way), the book draws on everything from individual
anecdotes to linguistic theory to make its case.

Brody’s most significant achievement here is to upend the
traditional understanding of farmers and nomads. Conventional wisdom
has it that farmers stay in one place and cultivate their lands, while
hunter-gatherers roam over a large territory, taking what they need
without establishing a home-base. Farmers are the stable ones,
according to this theory; they take care of their homes and each
other, while hunter-gatherers are less responsible and more primitive.
But taking a longer view, Brody argues that conventional wisdom has
got it backwards. Hunter-gatherer tribes may roam, but they do so
within a clearly defined area that they know intimately, and they have
a vested interest in seeing that their territory goes undamaged.
Moreover, since food can be scarce, hunter-gatherers tend to have
small families and to foster values of cooperation and generosity, for
the good of the tribe. Farmers, by contrast, have large families for
the sake of dividing labor. The offspring of farmers need their own
land to farm, which leads to a constant cycle of exploring and
developing frontiers — as seen most recently in the westward
expansion of European societies across North and South America. And as
seen in the Americas, when farmers need more land, they have little
compunction about using violence to take it from anyone who got there
first, and then razing and reshaping the earth to suit their needs. As
Brody explains,

Farmers appear to be settled, and hunters to be wanderers. Yet a look
at how ways of life take shape across many generations reveals that it
is the agriculturalists, with their commitment to specific farms and
large numbers of children, who are forced to keep moving, resettling,
colonizing new lands. Hunter-gatherers, with their reliance on a
single area, are profoundly settled.

He backs up his assertion about the long-term nomadism of
agriculturalists with a fascinating bit of linguistic archaeology. After
giving a brief explanation of the Indo-European language family, Brody
examines a list of words that widely scattered Indo-European languages
have in common, pointing out that languages as diverse as Celtic,
Sanskrit, and Tocharian (a central Asian language) have a shared
vocabulary that includes words like ox, sheep, cattle, cheese, butter,
grain, bread,
and plow . While no one has yet answered the
question of where this language family — which covers almost all of
Europe, Scandinavia, the Middle East, Asia, and the Indian subcontinent
— originated, Brody asks a different question and finds a telling

Instead of asking where the starting point of the Indo-European story
might be, we can speculate instead about the nature of the story. We
can set aside the puzzle of where the people came from and consider,
instead, how the original speakers of a single Indo-European language
lived. What was their economic system? [The shared vocabulary] list
suggests the answer. They were farmers.

Looking to the archaeological record to discover where the earliest
farmers came from (findings suggest they were between the Mediterranean
and Caspian Seas), Brody posits that the spread of Indo-European
languages across such a vast territory was a side product of the spread
of agriculture. The agriculturalists needed more and more land; they
sought new frontiers; with their numbers and their aggression they
overran anyone who stood in their way, and they left their language as

These are among the highlights of a work as diverse as the language
family described above. The Other Side of Eden, at different
times, presents an explication of the Inuktitut language, an
anthropological study of both the Inuit and Dunne-za cultures, a
survey of hunger-gatherer/agriculturalist clashes throughout history,
an examination of Canada’s treatment of indigenous peoples, a
linguistic history of the western world, and an overview of
late-twentieth-century approaches to anthropology — and this is
by no means a comprehensive list. At least half the book draws
extensively from Brody’s own fieldwork with the Inuit and
Dunne-za peoples of northern Canada to depict the life and values of
modern hunter-gatherer societies, while also taking in the historic
view of how these peoples have fared at the hands of agriculturalists.
Much of this material is well laid out, but for whole chapters Brody
does what can only be called preaching to the choir. Detailing the
ways in which the American and Canadian governments stripped
indigenous peoples of their lands, their customs, and their language,
he argues on page after page that these actions were unforgivably
wrong. I wouldn’t even consider arguing this point, but I think
it’s safe to assume that nobody who might consider arguing it is
going to read this book.

One gets the sense that Hugh Brody is among the world’s best
people to meet at a dinner party. He’s smart, he’s
compassionate, he’s an able storyteller, and he knows a great
deal about a great many obscure topics. I expect he’d make a
fine conversationalist. These same qualities, however, make for a
frustrating book. At its best, The Other Side of Eden offers
insightful glimpses into individual cultures, or else presents an
impressively comprehensive view of world history as filtered through
linguistics. But taken as a whole, the book is disjointed, often
preachy, and occasionally self-contradictory — as when, after
three hundred pages of laying out and investigating the
hunter-gatherer vs. agriculturalist dichotomy, Brody then argues that
all dichotomies are essentially useless as a means of understanding
the world. Ultimately, Brody can’t tie all the many aspects of
his work together, and his attempts to do so — including
passages that wax metaphysical about the meaning of it all — are
the book’s weakest points. He might have done better to present
this material as a collection of related essays, rather than a unified

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Emily Banner is a co-founder of Inkberry, a nonprofit literary center in the Berkshires. She lives in western Massachusetts.