Making Friends in the Rainforest: “Negrito” Adaptation to Risk and Uncertainty


The so-called negritos adapt not just to a tropical forest environment but also to an environment characterized by perturbations and fluctuations. As with other hunter-gatherers in the region and, indeed, throughout the world, they use both social and ecological methods to enhance their chances of survival in this changing environment: socially, they have developed networks of trading and marriage partners; ecologically, they maintain patches of key resources that are available for future harvesting. As evidenced in the case of the Batek (Orang Asli), patterns of forest structure and composition are sometimes direct outcomes of intentional resource concentration and enrichment strategies.

While little of the above is controversial anthropologically, what has drawn some debate is the nature of the relationship with partner societies. Conventional wisdom posits relations of inequality between foragers and “others”: foragers and farmers are often construed as hierarchical dyads where foragers supply products or labor to farmers in exchange for agricultural harvests and other trade goods. This kind of adaptation appears to be one of divergent specialization. However, there are cases, such as in the relationship between Batek and Semaq Beri, where both societies follow a roughly similar mode of adaptation, and specialization has not materialized. In sum, while not denying that hierarchy and inequality exist, I suggest that they have to be contextualized within a larger strand of relationships that includes both hierarchy and egality. Further, such relationships are part of the general portfolio of risk reduction strategies, following which access to widely scattered environmental resources, and passage from one location to another, is enhanced not by competing with and displacing neighbors but by maintaining a flexible regime of friendly exchange partners.