Tuesday, July 7, 2009

164. The Pygmy/Bushmen Nexus -- Part 4

Much has been made recently of the discovery, in Germany, of a bone flute dated to approximately 35,000 years ago (see article in Science News, June 25: Paleolithic Bone Flute Discovered: Earliest Musical Tradition Documented In Southwestern Germany).
"These finds demonstrate the presence of a well-established musical tradition at the time when modern humans colonized Europe, more than 35,000 calendar years ago," the authors write in the journal Nature. "Other than the caves of the Swabian Jura, the earliest secure archaeological evidence for music comes from sites in France and Austria and post-date 30,000 years ago."
The archaeologists have no idea how the flute sounded, or what sort of music it made, though they found someone who figured out how to play the opening of the "Star Spangled Banner" on it. An important find, certainly. But hardly a time machine. Looking at a picture of this flute or listening to it play our national anthem will not take you back 35,000 years. But this should hardly be surprising. Time machines don't actually exist, do they?

Well, actually, they don't. There's no way to literally put yourself back into the past or forward into the future (though if you're patient you'll move into the future on your own, without needing a machine). But there is a way to listen in on sounds humans were making 35,000 years ago, 50,000 years ago, probably even 100,000 years ago -- and beyond.

Let's return to the words of ethnomusicologist Simha Arom: "Right from the beginning, I sensed that this music existed in us all, like some Jungian archetype.” I assume you've gathered by now that he's referring to the music of the African Pygmies. Of his first experience of hearing Pygmy music, from a hotel room in the capital of the Central African Republic, Arom wrote:
I felt that their music came from the back of time, but also, to a certain extent, from my own depths. Yet I could never have known it, never having heard anything like it before. It was insane. How did the musicians achieve this? I was dumbfounded.
So. Music "from the back of time." Music from "my own depths." Music that already "existed in us all." Music that functioned "like some Jungian archetype." Bold words. But what can they mean? (And what is a Jungian archetype anyhow?)

It's one thing to have a feeling about a musical experience, another thing entirely to demonstrate that your feeling could be more than just a feeling, that it might pertain to something real, something that can actually be investigated systematically, that can be researched and tested.

Let's begin with a simple observation. The music Colin Turnbull describes in his classic, The Forest People, is that of the Mbuti Pygmies, living in the Ituri Forest of the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). The strikingly similar music studied by Simha Arom is that of the Aka Pygmies, living far to the west, in the forests of the Central African Republic. The Mbuti and Aka are representative of two completely different Pygmy groups, usually referred to, respectively, as "Eastern" and "Western."

According to a recent study by Giovanni Destro-Bisol et al,
The two principal groups are represented by Eastern Pygmies (32,000 individuals; Murdock 1959), who settled in Zaire, and by Western Pygmies (27,000 individuals; Murdock 1959), who settled in the Cameroon, Congo, and CAR. The two groups differ both biologically and culturally. The Eastern Pygmies are even smaller in stature than Western Pygmies (144–145 cm vs. 152–155 cm in males, on average) and also have lighter skin and a narrower nose.("The Analysis of Variation of mtDNA Hypervariable Region 1 Suggests That Eastern and Western Pygmies Diverged before the Bantu Expansion," in The American Naturalist, February 2004.)
DNA analysis by this group led them to conclude as follows:
The comparisons of haplogroup frequencies among the Western Mbenzele Pygmies, Western Biaka [Aka] Pygmies, and Eastern Mbuti Pygmies indicate a lack of any particular affinity between Western and Eastern Pygmies . . .
The Western Mbenzele Pygmies and Western Biaka Pygmies completely lack the L2 haplogroup and the L1e haplogroup, which are both found at high frequencies among the Eastern Mbuti Pygmies (Vigilant et al. 1991; Watson et al. 1997). However, the haplogroup L1c, observed at high frequencies in the Western Pygmies, was undetected in the Eastern Mbuti Pygmies (pp. 217-218).
The investigators conclude that the most reasonable explanation for "the observed differences in haplogroup frequencies" is "[t]he long reciprocal isolation between the two Pygmy groups," an isolation dating, in their estimate, to at least 18,000 years ago (p. 224).

(to be continued . . . )

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