Monday, July 30, 2007

73. Finally -- Part Three

The real problem with the Kalahari debate, aside from some of the more dubious ideological claims, was/is the fragmentary and inconclusive nature of the evidence. The "revisionists" have interpreted the archaeology one way, the "traditionalists" another. All sorts of assumptions were made on both sides, but with little real basis in fact. The extraordinary evidence provided by the geneticists, far more extensive, complete and reliable than the archaeology, was largely ignored by both sides. When Alan Barnard belatedly acknowledges that evidence, he feels compelled to remind us that "the relation between [the] Urkultur [implied by the genetic research] and the cultures of today’s so-called ‘indigenous peoples’ is no greater than that between this Urkultur and the cultures of all peoples" (see post 69). But this is also an assumption, with no basis whatsoever in anything more than "reasonable" conjecture.

Similarly, when Richard Lee, weighing in for the traditionalists, writes that "common social patterns among a number of hunter-gatherer societies around the world, including egalitarian decision-making and communal religious practices, may shed light on behavior in earlier times, . . . although such analogies probably cannot extend beyond several thousand years," he too is whistling in the dark. In the absence of a comparative methodology that would permit such hypotheses to be tested, the traditionalist argument fares little better than that of the revisionists.

Thus, while the genetic evidence points unmistakeably to the Bushmen as true indigenes with a clearly defined genealogical identity, the cultural question has remained up in the air. From the standpoint of conventional ethnology, there is simply not enough evidence. The mantra goes something like this: since we can't go back in time to observe how people were living 100,000 years ago, we can't do more than speculate regarding any aspect of their culture. I strongly disagree. Because the musical evidence, hitherto all but completely ignored, can function like a time machine of sorts, and can in fact help us settle some of the
most contentious aspects of the Kalahari debate.

My argument can be briefly summarized via quotations from earlier posts. First, with respect to music in general:

1. music is, "like language, a . . . fundamental, if not elemental, cultural FORCE."

2. "we have very good reason to believe that music, or at least certain musical traditions, are far more conservative than just about any other aspect of culture, certainly more than language."

3. "there are certain musical style families whose distribution suggests that they have, indeed, remained essentially unchanged over extremely long periods of time, large geographical areas, and very different types of environment."

4. "Unlike language, in which original utterances are continually being produced, music tends to repeat the same utterances over and over, in the form of set pieces that have names and in many cases composers."

5. "Language may be seen, in fact, as a force for change, while music seems to operate as a conservative force, continually linking a society to its ancestors and its origins."

6. "It looks very much to me as though musical style (and possibly dance style as well) is in fact by far the most conservative cultural force in human society, persisting both as a "neutral marker," largely unaffected by environmental and social forces surrounding it (with important exceptions, of course), and, what is more, an actively conservative force, working to preserve the most precious and timeworn traditions of the society that treasures it."

Second, with respect to the cultural "pedigree" of the Kalahari Bushmen:

7. In 1956, Gilbert Rouget, then director of the Ethnomusicology program at the Musee de l'Homme, in Paris, wrote: "If, as it is traditional to do, one should consider the Pygmies and the Bushmen as belonging to two races entirely distinct, how can one explain the troubling relationship between their music and their dances? It cannot be a phenomenon of convergence, the resemblances constituting a system too complex and too coherent to allow for an explanation of this order. A reciprocal influence is also to be rejected, being given the distance as much geographic as climatic which separates the ones from the others. Is it necessary to believe, then, that the Pygmies and Bushmen are of common stock, and that their dance and music represent the remainder of a common cultural heritage?"

8. "We have two populations consisting of nomadic hunter-gatherers with the simplest of material cultures, no permanent residence, no iron or steel tools (until very recently), without domesticated animals, moving about on foot, and located in what amounts to three very distant parts of the African continent, the Pygmies in the forests of both West and Central Africa, the !Kung Bushmen in the desert of southern Africa. Yet they have musical traditions that, for most of the musicologists who have studied them, are so close as to be almost indistinguishable. Since the genetic evidence so strongly suggests that both groups stem from the same root, it would make a great deal of sense to conclude that the similarity of musical practice must stem from the time when their ancestors were part of the same population, a history that may go back at least 76,000 but possibly 102,000 years, according to Chen et al."

9. "We can only conclude that this particular musical tradition must have been passed down from generation to generation over a period of at least 76,000 years (assuming the genetic estimates are correct) essentially unchanged -- a conclusion that, if corroborated, would totally transform our notion of cultural evolution and the role of tradition in its history."

Never mind me, however. Next time I'll let you judge for yourself.

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