Competition over rights to communal land and natural resources are key issues in the great majority of conflicts involving foragers, pastoralists and shifting cultivators. This paper argues that a better understanding of the conflicts of Northeast India can be gained from studying the region’s hill-valley dynamics historically, as well as reinvestigating the contemporary challenges confronting shifting cultivators in the region’s hills, particularly those related to ‘development’ challenges. In suggesting a framework for this reinvestigation it draws on some classical sociology, including James C. Scott’s work on peasant resistance in Southeast Asia, cultural materialism as developed by Marvin Harris, and finally World Systems theory. As a comparative case the paper describes relations between Tibetan pastoralist and farming communities in eastern Tibet (Kham) and the current interface between Tibetan pastoralists and the Chinese state. This paper does not present research findings, but aims to develop a research agenda for studying the dynamics or ‘frontiers’ between the state and ‘stateless’ societies based on communal property and resource management regimes.