Thursday, August 13, 2009

185. An Overwhelming Question -- Part 4

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument [my emphasis]
Of insidious intent [my emphasis]
To lead you to an overwhelming question

(. . . continued from previous post.)

And yes, in case you were wondering, pygmies from both regions of central Africa, East (Mbuti, etc.) and West (BaAka, etc.) also use poisoned arrows. It's worth dwelling on the significance of these arrows, because Ury's explanation hardly reflects what could be called an "idealistic" or "Romantic" view. No need to get sentimental over pygmy and bushmen altruism. With every adult male armed with an array of poisoned arrows, anyone who felt left out or cheated would be a potential threat to the entire group.

While such a motive for egalitarianism is hardly consistent with our usual notion of "Utopia," it would be a mistake to take too cynical a view. There is no evidence that either pygmies or bushmen live in fear of poisoned arrow ambush. On the contrary, everything we've learned about them speaks for the genuineness and spontaneity of their egalitarianism, generosity and mutual trust. On Darwinian grounds, one might hypothesize that, at some very early stage, those groups with violent tendencies -- and poisoned arrows -- may have simply killed themselves off; whereas the non-violent, egalitarian groups, better suited to manage conflict resolution, survived.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. There are many questions to be answered before we can meaningfully attempt to assess the lifestyle and value system of our earliest ancestors -- before we are, in fact, ready to ask the "overwhelming question" I've been so tediously -- and teasingly -- leading up to. For example: does the fact that today's pygmies and bushmen hunted (until recently) with poisoned arrows tell us that such arrows were used, tens of thousands of years ago, by their common ancestors? Did the bow and arrow even exist at that time? These are the sort of questions answered all too readily by our scholarly "ancestors" of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who had no problem drawing the most far-reaching conclusions on the shakiest of grounds -- a habit that finally led, as we've seen, to the cynical over-reaction of their "revisionist" descendants, who have certainly gone off too far in the opposite direction.

So. If three hunter-gatherer populations hunting big game in three very different parts of Africa, east, west and south, now use bows and arrows, which moreover are, in all three areas, doped with poison, what are the chances that their mutual ancestors, from whom they diverged, by the best estimates of the geneticists, anywhere from 40,000 to over 100,000 years ago, also had such weapons? The question is not as simple as it might seem, because all three groups are now in contact with "Bantu" farmers, generally thought to have expanded from West Africa two to four thousand years ago. Such weapons could have been developed relatively recently by some ancestral Bantu group, and spread with the Bantu expansion to many parts of Africa. To answer our question, we would need to know first whether the bow and arrow is commonly found in Africa; second whether poisoned tips are also commonly used; and finally whether there is any archaeological evidence of bows and arrows, with or without poison, anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 years ago.

While this issue takes me well beyond my own area of expertise, I think it safe to assume that bows and arrows are fairly widespread throughout Africa at the present time. As far as I've been able to determine, however, poisoned arrows appear to be exclusively associated with hunter-gatherers, not only pygmies and bushmen, but other African foraging groups as well. As far as archaeological evidence is concerned, I'll refer you to an online report on Early Modern Human Arrow Points, concerning an exciting recent discovery at a place called Sibudu Cave, "an extremely important Middle Stone Age archaeological site located in South Africa."
Among the collection from the Howiesons Poort levels (ca 61,000 years ago) is what researchers are interpreting as a bone arrow point--that is, a bone tool fitted to an arrow and shot from a bow. No bow fragments have been discovered at Sibudu or any other MSA site, but ethnographic comparisons of the bone tool, and a similar tool recovered from the MSA Peers Cave, are comparable to ethnographic bone arrow points collected from Bushman (Khoisan) groups in the early 20th century. If this interpretation is correct, this sets the invention of the bow and arrow tens of thousands of years earlier than was suspected in the past.
All in all, the evidence seems pretty compelling. But you know how archaeologists are. In contrast with the the ethnomusicologists, who always seem in blissful agreement on all matters, musical and otherwise, the archaeologists never seem to be in agreement about anything and are constantly attempting to undercut each others work. There will be endless controversy for years over this finding, you can be sure.

But as for us, we have bigger fish to fry. Because the really important question, the overwhelming question, does not concern arrow points but human nature; the nature -- i.e., culture -- of our earliest common ancestors, how they lived, what they lived for and what we might be able to learn from their example -- assuming we can learn anything at all.

(to be continued . . . )

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