Friday, August 21, 2009

190. An Overwhelming Question -- Part 9

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
T. S. Eliot, "Little Gidding"

Where do we come from?

We come from our ancestors.

Who were they?

Well, our ancestry goes all the way back to the beginning, I'd suppose, billions of years ago, to the first glimmers of life on Earth -- which might have gotten its start on some comet.

But the overwhelming question I have in mind doesn't take us back that far. The ancestors I'm concerned with aren't even the earliest humans or even the earliest "modern" humans, because as far as I can tell these ancestors will always remain a mystery. What interests me is the founding group from which the ancestors of the pygmies and bushmen diverged, anywhere from 40,000 to well over 100,000 years ago. Because, if the geneticists are right, the members of this group, which might well have been only a tiny band, are the common ancestors, not only of the pygmies and bushmen, but of everyone now living on this planet.

Were they the only "modern" humans alive in their day? Probably not, but the genetic evidence strongly suggests that they were the only such group whose lineage survived to the present era. Did all other humans alive at that time resemble them, sharing the same culture, the same traditions, the same music? We have no way of knowing, because whatever traditions they might have practiced probably died out with their lineage. Because their descendants would not have survived until the present, then, aside from very fragmentary and often misleading archaeological evidence, we have no basis for drawing inferences about what they were like. That is not necessarily the case, however, for those whose descendants have survived. (I realize, by the way, that for almost all contemporary anthropologists and archaeologists, the previous sentence would ordinarily be regarded as utter heresy. Which is why I've been taking so much time and trouble to deploy my evidence and develop my argument.)

I must emphasize that I'm speaking not only of the very deep musical heritage that has already, and, in my opinion, conclusively, been established for the pygmies and bushmen, but of the process I've been describing in the last several posts, through which the musical evidence can lead us, step by step, to certain insights regarding an equally deep cultural heritage. What are these steps? Let's review:

If we can accept that . . .

First, the mainstream population-genetic view is correct and that the lineage of certain pygmy and bushmen groups can be traced to the deepest clades of human ancestry, dating well into the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) . . .

Second, as I've argued so many times in this blog and elsewhere, the musical tradition (P/B) apparently linking contemporary* pygmies and bushmen is very likely to have already been established in the culture of their (and our) common ancestors . . .

Third, the social organization of most (though possibly not all) contemporary pygmy and bushmen groups is indeed, as has been generally attested: egalitarian; acephalous (no permanent leaders); non-hierarchical (i.e., collective); highly cooperative; non-authoritarian (autonomous with respect to individual freedom of action); roughly gender and generation-equal; strongly motivated to share; highly organized, with respect to implicit (but rarely explicit) rules; essentially pacifist, with, to quote Alan Lomax, "men and women, old and young, . . . linked in close interdependence by preference and not by force" . . . .

Fourth, the musical style in question, in the words of Simha Arom, "reflects perfectly the social organization of the pygmies," as described above.

Finally, and in my view the most telling point of all: it's very difficult to understand how a musical practice combining such a high degree of both group integration and individual freedom, could function with the degree of fluency and authority we find in so many pygmy and bushmen performances, unless it had been developed in a society so unusual as to actively foster both qualities . . .

To recapitulate and conclude:

If we can indeed, even provisionally, accept the argument that I've been presenting in so many of these posts, as summarized above, then we are forced to confront a question that is indeed overwhelming, because the conditions described above could not exist unless both the musical style and the cultural characteristics we've been considering, as evidenced so clearly among so many groups of contemporary pygmies and bushmen, were not also present in the culture of their (and our) mutual ancestors. The music has indeed led us to a point where we can, for the first time, seriously consider the question that has eluded so many for so long: what were our ancestors like? In other words: "where do we come from?"

* Since the culture of most pygmy and bushmen groups has changed drastically in recent years, the term "contemporary" must be understood with reference to conditions that prevailed throughout most of the Twentieth Century, but not necessarily persisting to the present time.

(to be continued . . . )

No comments: