Tuesday, August 25, 2009

193. An Overwhelming Question -- Part 12

Barry Hewlett's essay, Cultural Diversity Among African Pygmies, was published in 1996, in the book Cultural Diversity Among Twentieth Century Foragers (ed. Susan Kent, Cambridge U. Press). If my theory is going to be put to the test, this book will be a good place to begin, as chapter after chapter is devoted to the search for cultural differences within and among various hunter-gatherer groups worldwide, differences that, according to the editor and most of the contributors, have been for too long overlooked or minimized. Although the Great Kalahari Debate looms in the background, and cannot be completely ignored, all the articles appear grounded in solid evidence rather than ideology.

As Susan Kent's Introduction makes clear, past assumptions that all hunter-gatherer groups must share a common culture pattern cannot be maintained. Pointing specifically to superficial comparisons between, for example, Northwest Coast Indians and African "Basarwa" (her preferred term for Bushmen), she points out that "though they have similar food procurement strategies . . . these two groups differ in almost every other way possible -- from the environment they occupy to their stratification, hierarchies, and gender relations, as well as the organization of their economics" (p. 1). As I can attest, her position on this matter is fully consistent with the musical evidence. Despite past efforts to treat musical evolution as somehow moving in parallel with sociocultural "development," there is no evidence whatsoever for a typically hunter-gatherer musical style. I must add that I part company in this respect with Alan Lomax, who devoted a great deal of time and energy to promoting an evolutionary scheme of this sort, focused primarily on production type -- a theory that, in my view, makes little sense, in part because it assumes similarities in the music of hunter-gatherers worldwide that do not exist.

Narrowing her focus to Africa, Kent points with disapproval to the common tendency to treat all "Basarwa" groups as though they were identical with the much-studied Ju/'hoansi (aka !Kung). She strongly objects to the common tendency to lump all such groups "together as 'Bushmen' or 'Basarwa,' as if there were only one typical group that such a designation appropriately describes" (p. 3). Since my theory is not dependent on the uniformity of such groups, but focuses primarily on the Ju/'hoansi (the bushmen group whose culture and music I've been most consistently referencing in my discussions of this topic), and also because I have already dealt at length with some of the same issues elsewhere in this blog (see the Kalahari link, above), as well as in my paper, "New Perspectives on the Kalahari Debate," I won't get into this matter here.

Hewlett's chapter does require my attention, however, as he directly compares four pygmy groups, three of which have played an important role in my own research, and all four of which vocalize in Pygmy/Bushmen style: the Aka (aka BaAka) and Baka, representing the Western pygmies, and the Mbuti and Efe of the Eastern group. According to Hewlett, the cultural differences he has found, not only among these four, but the various pygmy groups generally, "are dramatic and striking" (p. 216).

He proceeds to discuss the various differences he's found under the following headings: Linguistic Diversity; Diversity in Subsistence and Settlement Patterns; Kinship, Marriage and Descent; Infant Care and Demography.
While I can't do justice to the full extent of his argument in this blog, I'll quote some of the points under each heading that seem most important, and respond briefly to each:

Linguistic Diversity:
The Efe are the most distinct linguistically as their language comes from a totally different language phylum than the other three. The Aka and Mbuti are the most similar, even though they are hundreds of miles apart, in that they both speak Bantu languages. . . The Baka, who live just across the Sangha River from the Bantu-speaking Aka, speak a language from a completely different linguistic family (i.e., Oubanguian) (pp. 217-219).
The linguistic differences among all pygmy groups reflect relatively recent contacts with various farming groups, with whom all pygmies have, since the Bantu expansion of roughly 3,000 years ago, formed more or less close bonds without losing their own cultural identity.

Diversity in Subsistence and Settlement Patterns:
The primary hunting techniques reflect important distinctions in the sexual division of labor between the foraging groups: men, women and children participate in the Mbuti and Aka net hunts, whereas generally only men participate in the Efe bow and Baka spear hunts.
It's difficult to assess the cultural significance of the different hunting methods employed by different pygmy groups, especially since the role of women is influenced by the hunting method employed, and the variation in hunting methods is probably due to outside influence. It is generally believed that Mbuti net hunting was introduced by Bantu neighbors. Given the universality of the use of poisoned arrows and spear tips among almost all pygmy groups, and bushmen groups as well, plus the discovery alluded to in an earlier blog post, of what appears to be a very similar type of bone arrow, dated ca. 60,000 years ago, it seems reasonable to assume that, despite present differences, the ancestral group also hunted with poisoned arrows and spears, and not nets. While this implies that women and children did not originally participate in hunting, as is now the case with net hunting, it has no bearing on the notion of a complementary relationship across sexual and generational borders, based on a fundamentally egalitarian outlook, as has been reported for all pygmy groups.

Efe and Baka camp closer to villages, spend more time in the village and eat more village food than Mbuti and Aka, but does this mean that they are more 'dependent' on villagers? . . . This propinquity and 'dependence' has lead to similarities between the villagers and Efe social-political organization: a lineage system, greater hierarchy, less egalitarianism and more formalized exchange relations (p. 223).
Hewlett himself recognizes that the differences he's found due to different settlement and dependency patterns are relatively superficial:
However, outward appearances of similarity [between pygmies and villagers] can be misleading and some confusion may have been compounded by a lack of data; . . . Actually, there is currently no evidence to suggest that Efe or Baka social life (e.g., egalitarianism, autonomy, leadership, dispute resolution, child rearing), forest life, or ethnic identity is closer to that of farmers than that of Mbuti or Aka. Efe and Baka have simply developed different strategies for dealing with their farming neighbors (p. 225 -- my emphasis).
During the course of this discussion, Hewlett makes a point well worth quoting here -- and emphasizing: "If cultural traits are not under selective pressures then they persist" (230). While Hewlett is referring in this instance to hunting practices, I'd like to think he'd agree that the same could be said of musical traditions, which, unlike hunting, don't seem to offer much in the way of selective advantage.

Kinship, Marriage and Descent: "These four groups are remarkably similar; all have Hawaiian kin terms, patrilineal descent and patrilocal post-marital residence." This is not as helpful to my cause as it might seem, since the Ju/'hoansi and other bushmen groups appear, at least on the surface, to have very different kinship systems. Moreover, Hewlett points out that the same general kinship terminology is common to most of their non-pygmy neighbors. However,
beyond the surface patterns the difference between foragers and farmers are striking. Foragers' versions of Hawaiian kinship terminologies are more classificatory or generalized than are farmers; adult foragers ideology about patrilineages is not strong and utilization of patrilineages is more flexible (e.g, mother's relatives are important often recognized with a specific term) and less precise than that of farmers (e.g., adult farmers often identify 5-6 generations of patrilineal links while foragers generally identify only 2-3 generations of patrilineal links); post-marital residence is more flexible among foragers than farmers as foragers frequently visit in-laws and distant relatives for long periods (pp. 231-232).
The above may be compared with the description of Bushmen kinship offered by Mathias Guenther in the same volume:
A number of social institutions are flexible sui generis, a result of . . . the 'organizational lability' of society. Neo-locality and highly classificatory (indeed universalistic) kinship systems are both social patterns that obscure genealogical detail . . . Absence of status differentiation and vaguely defined leadership and ritual specialization, unstable, tenuous marriages in early to mid-adulthood, and loose and informal child-rearing practices . . . allow for a wide margin of individual action as none is an institution or practice based on cut-and-dried jural rules but, instead, all are tentative and open-ended (p. 78).
The following from Hewlett in the same section is also worth quoting here, despite the mixed message conveyed, if we pay special attention to the passage I've highlighted:
The comparative data also indicate that several of the earlier characterizations (Turnbull 1965b) of forest forager descent as bilateral and post-marital pattern as bilocal are incorrect. The African forest forager bands are not organized for warfare nor do they have a strong patrilinal ideology as Service suggests. Nonetheless, though patterns are flexible, they do tend to practice patrilocal residence where related men hunt together (pp. 232-233).
Infant Care and Demography: While "Aka fathers do more infant caregiving than fathers in any known culture . . . Efe fathers do significantly less caregiving than Aka fathers . . . [and] Efe fathers do not appear to be intimately familiar or affectionate with their infants or be especially attached to them" (pp. 236 and 241). On the other hand, "While Efe multiple care is distinctive in some ways, multiple caregiving does appear to be a common feature of tropical forest forager socialization" (p. 238).

In sum, while Hewlett presents both similarities and differences, the differences he seems particularly interested in, and goes to the most trouble to analyze, are in almost every case due to interaction between the various pygmy groups and the Bantu villagers with whom they have formed relatively recent symbiotic relationships (and by "recent" I mean within no more than 3 or 4 thousand years). The similarities, on the other hand, in almost every case, appear to reflect deeper affinities associated with the sort of values he emphasized in the study of Aka pygmy culture I've already quoted in post 184:
no chief in the sense of a person commanding ultimate authority; fiercely egalitarian and independent; high value placed on sharing, cooperation, and autonomy; intergenerational equality; infancy lacking negation and violence; male-female relations extremely egalitarian by cross-cultural standards; physical violence in general infrequent and violence against women especially rare; probably as egalitarian as human societies get.
While not every single one of the above characteristics necessarily appears on the "similarity" side of Hewlett's ledger, none appears on the "difference" side either. Which makes it difficult to accept his rather extreme conclusion:
While there are commonalities between African tropical forest foragers, this chapter has emphasized the patterns of diversity. In doing so, it has perhaps contributed to a better understanding of those diversities and also made it clear that it is difficult if not impossible to refer to an African "Pygmy" culture (p. 244 -- my emphasis).
Due perhaps to the prevailing "revisionist" ideology of the 90's (which in many ways continues to this day), Hewlett has concentrated almost exclusively on the current state of pygmy life, characterized by varying degrees of external influence, dependency and change, with little or no attention paid to those aspects of pygmy culture most likely to be survivals from a common past. Since any attempt to speculate on the forbidden topic of "survivals" or the hypothetical recreation of deep history, prior to the Bantu expansion, would certainly be met with howls of indignant derision, Hewlett's narrow focus is not necessarily surprising.

I'd like to conclude with some excerpts from another study, centering on the Jahai indigenes of Malaysia, published a few years later, "Gifts from Immortal Ancestors," by Cornelia M. I. van der Sluys:
During the last decades of hunter-gatherer studies, we witnessed the so-called "forager controversy debates," which center mainly on the genesis of the Bushman cultures. Both groups of protagonists focus almost exclusively on ecological-economic issues and pay little attention to the forces inside these cultures that tend to perpetuate their reproduction from generation to generation. . .

An instance demonstrating that long-time contacts with "outsiders" do not necessarily imply a profound change in a hunter-gatherer culture's core premises and embedded values can be found in Turnbull's (1965) description of the Mbutis, hunter-gatherers in Zaire. Despite relationships with their agriculturalist Bantu neighbors, the Mbutis safeguard the reproduction of the core of their own culture by adopting certain Bantu customs and taking part in Bantu rituals. Similar strategies are also used by other hunter-gatherers . . . (in Hunters and Gatherers in the Modern World, ed. Biesele and Hitchcock, Berghahn Books, 2000, p. 427-428 -- my emphases).
Der Sluys continues, describing characteristics of the Jahai "observed also to be present in other 'non-complex society' hunter-gatherer cultures":
generalized sharing, trust in the environment, egalitarianism, individual autonomy, and dynamics that preserve peacefulness, such as the prevention of conflict escalation through processes of fission and fusion . . . (p. 429).
What der Sluys refers to as "core premises and embedded values," as exemplified in the above list (remarkably close to the list I've distilled from Hewlett's Aka article) are what we should be focusing on, as I see it, rather than the changes wrought by "long-time contacts with 'outsiders," as she puts it. In this light I do think it possible, despite Hewlett's verdict, to refer not only to "an African 'pygmy' culture," but an ancestral culture still alive in the core values of the pygmies and bushmen (and perhaps also the Jahai) of today.


German said...


Hewlett is accurate in his characterization of Pygmy kinship systems. There's a strong worldwide correlation between bilateral kinship and hunter-gatherer economony. Agriculturalists and pastoralists tend to be either patrilineal or matrilineal. Aside from this general correlation, hunter-gatherer kinship systems are vastly different. Although the foraging lifestyle apparently influenced Pygmy kinship and made it less "unilineal" and more egalitarian and flexible than agriculturalists' kinship, the similarities between Khoisan and Pygmy kinship that you bring up are of a very top-level, generic kind. Pygmy kinship terminologies are virtually identical with the kinship terminologies of their respective Bantu, Ubangian or Nilo-Saharan neighbors. The "Hawaiian" (or "generational") nomenclature mentioned by Hewlett is one of the most derived kin classifications. (Incidentally, the founder of kinship studies, L. H. Morgan, thought that "Hawaiian" was ancestral because of its simplicity. Subsequent research, from 1910s onward, demonstrated that this simplicity is a derived state.)

Pygmy kinship is devoid of all those highly salient, marked and easily trackable traces of other hunter-gatherer kinship structures around the world, namely the merging of alternate generations, symmetric prescriptive alliance, Bifurcate Merging uncle and cousin terminology, etc. Most importantly, Khoisan kinship (as described by Alan Barnard in the 1970-1990s) has a few of those plus a couple of rare classificational principles such as "cross-descent" reckoning (otherwise found in Papua New Guinea and South America) and a peculiar naming structure tied to kinship in a way recorded among the Inuits and in South America.
Alan Barnard wrote an article with a characteristic title " Australian models in the South West African highlands." African Studies 14 (1975). Since in genetic publications Khoisans consistently appear as a more ancient outlier in Africa, the many interesting parallels between their kinship structures and the kinship structures found in the key diagnostic areas outside of Africa attest to the antiquity of both. Pygmies show none of these archaic kinship structures.

In Africa, besides Khoisan, some traces of ancestral kinship structures, similar to those more widely ditributed outside of Africa, are found in the Chadic group of the Afroasiatic family (Cushitic and South Semitic are less well-known), in the Koman branch of Nilo-Saharan and in Mande languages.

Of course, under the hypothesis of language loss, Pygmies lost their kin terminology as well. Nevertheless, one would expect some kind of survivals of pre-Niger-Congo and pre-Nilo-Saharan organizational principles (say, bilateral cross-cousin marriage) that, in all societies, go beyond the linguistic form of their expression. Plus th idea of both language and kinship structures getting phased out independently in all Pygmy groups in different times and under different circumstances seems to be a stretch.

DocG said...

German: "the similarities between Khoisan and Pygmy kinship that you bring up are of a very top-level, generic kind. Pygmy kinship terminologies are virtually identical with the kinship terminologies of their respective Bantu, Ubangian or Nilo-Saharan neighbors."

If the pygmies have lost their original language and borrowed those of their neighbors, doesn't it stand to reason that they would also have borrowed their neighbor's kinship terminologies as well? As I see it, what Guenther says suggests that, while they have copied the forms of kinship employed by their "masters," they don't really take them all that seriously and behave in a more, as he says, "flexible" manner, bending the rules to suit themselves.

As I've already suggested on this blog (see post # 98), it's possible that the Pygmies never had a language of their own. Which means it's possible they never had a kinship system either, at least not one that could be verbalized. This whole issue of determining an "ancestral" kinship type is, as far as I can see, fraught with many difficulties and this possibility is only one example. In other cases there may have been more archaic kinship systems that simply did not survive, so we have no way of knowing about their existence. For such reasons, I very much doubt that anyone could point to one particular kinship type or logical scheme as necessarily a sign that the population employing it represents the oldest cultural strata. Another problem is that truly archaic kinship systems may have survived among some people rather than others simply by chance, which again means that they can't necessarily be used to determine that one culture or part of the world is "ancestral."

German: "Plus th idea of both language and kinship structures getting phased out independently in all Pygmy groups in different times and under different circumstances seems to be a stretch."

Agreed. This is why I suspect that they never had their own language (or kinship system) to begin with. There is evidence that they did have a rudimentary vocabulary of hunting terms, which has to some extent been reconstructed by Bahuchet, but no evidence of a corresponding syntax for formulating complete statements. If they diverged from the ancestral group as early as the mtDNA evidence suggests, it's entirely possible that this event occurred prior to the full development of language. So it would have only been relatively recently, upon contact with Bantu and Ubangian speaking farmers, that they learned both how to speak in sentences AND how to think in terms of kinship relationships. Does this make sense?