Monday, October 5, 2009

222. Deconstructing the Postmodern Condition 22 -- Tradition

(. . . continued from previous post.)

The hidden assumption of both Schebesta and Turnbull is the assumption that culture is intimately tied to the environment -- leading to the taken-for-granted notion that pygmy culture must be an expression of the environment provided by the Ituri forest. There is nothing unusual about such an assumption, so it's easy to miss. Culture as an adaptation to the environment, based on Darwin's insight regarding "natural selection," was, and still to a great extent is, in fact, one of the central dogmas of anthropology. Here are some examples, culled from various corners of the Internet:

From Wikibooks, Cultural Anthropology/The Nature of Culture/Adaptation:
Culture provides humans with the knowledge of how to survive in their environment. Methods for food-getting and creating shelter are purely cultural traits- humans are not born with this knowledge.
From Wikepedia, Cultural Anthropology :
Since humans acquire culture through the learning processes of enculturation and socialization, people living in different places or different circumstances develop different cultures. Anthropologists have also pointed out that through culture people can adapt to their environment in non-genetic ways, so people living in different environments will often have different cultures.
From The Cambridge encyclopedia of hunters and gatherers:
The world's hunting and gathering peoples . . . represent the oldest and perhaps most successful human adaptation (p. 1).
From Wikipedia, Sociocultural Evolution:
[Julian] Steward . . . rejected the 19th-century notion of progress, and instead called attention to the Darwinian notion of "adaptation", arguing that all societies had to adapt to their environment in some way. . .
Today most anthropologists reject 19th-century notions of progress and the three assumptions of unilineal evolution. Following Steward, they take seriously the relationship between a culture and its environment to explain different aspects of a culture.
There's more to it, to be sure, and over time the notion of "environment" has been expanded to include
the whole social environment, which includes political and economic relations among cultures. . . historical contingencies, contacts with other cultures, and the operation of cultural symbol systems. As a result, the simplistic notion of "cultural evolution" has grown less useful and given way to an entire series of more nuanced approaches to the relationship of culture and environment.
The notion of culture as an adaptation to the immediate requirements of the environment, whether "natural," or "social," or both, is so ingrained in our thinking that it's difficult for most of us to imagine any other possibility. While Turnbull goes a bit overboard in this respect, to the point of almost fetishizing the Ituri forest, those who've criticized his "romantic" view of pygmy life have tended to concentrate their attention elsewhere, since they, like so many others, have fallen victim to the same assumption.

It's easy to see how both Turnbull and Schebesta, along with so many others who've spent time among various pygmy groups, could so strongly associate their remarkable lifestyle with the equally remarkable characteristics of the African rainforest, to which they seem so perfectly adapted. As Schebesta noted,
the entire stretch of the central African virgin forest from Lake Albert to the Atlantic Ocean is inhabited by pygmies, and that they are in their element in the virgin forest only and nowhere outside its boundaries.
And, yes, as far as the various pygmy groups are concerned, both east and west, they are all at home in the great tropical forests of Central Africa and they do seem perfectly adapted to that environment. And if we were to limit ourselves to the pygmies, as did Schebesta and Turnbull, and not look any farther, we might well convince ourselves that there is no more to be said on this matter.

However, we have already gone well beyond this region of Africa to consider another population living well to the south, in an environment as different from a tropical rainforest as one could imagine: the Kalahari desert. And we have already considered many aspects of Kalahari bushmen culture that would appear to be strikingly similar in a great many ways to the culture of the various pygmy groups. We've concentrated our attention on their musical style, of course, which is, in almost every respect, identical to that of the pygmies. But there are also, as we have seen, a great many other similarities as well, especially when we consider core cultural values, such as egalitarianism, the equal sharing of resources, the (relatively) equal status of women, the value placed on non-violence, the absence of permanent leaders, etc., etc.

We've even noted striking similarities in the ways in which certain of the above core values are violated. For example, despite the value placed on sharing, considerable amounts of squabbling over the division of food have been noted for both pygmy and bushmen groups, along with examples of individuals who will hide certain items for fear they might be expected to share, or even refuse to accept too many gifts for the same reason. We've also seen how violence, though traditionally proscribed and apparently avoided at all costs, can still break out among both populations, sometimes in extreme forms, even leading to murder.

In the realm of material culture, we find certain other striking similarities, often assumed to be environmental adaptations, but apparently not -- for example:
  • Bows and arrows with poisoned tips are used for hunting in literally all pygmy groups, including those who, like the Mbuti and Aka, hunt principally with nets. Very similar types of bow and arrow, also with poisoned tips, are the principal hunting tools of many bushmen groups as well. As far as I've been able to determine, non-foragers such as the Bantu farmers and herders do not use poison tips on their arrows. Moreover, both populations can be characterized as, in the words of Turnbull, "pre-stone age," since arrow points are either made of fire-hardened wood or bone, not stone. [Added Oct. 7: After Googling around a bit, I discovered I was wrong about non-foragers not using poison-tipped arrows. Apparently some Bantu groups have used them in the past and may possibly still be using them. While it's possible this was a technique they learned from foragers, it's also possible the Pygmies and Bushmen learned it from them, so all I can now say regarding this issue is that more research is needed.]
  • Both pygmies and bushmen are nomadic, remaining in one place only for relatively short periods, then moving on when game in the immediate area has been exhausted.
  • Both populations hunt big game, including elephants.

  • [Added Oct. 7: Many bushmen are almost as short as pygmies: (from The Wild Source.) Is short stature really an adaptation to forest life?]
  • Even their huts are strikingly similar:

[Added Oct. 10:

[Added Oct. 10: from Patterns of settlement and subsistence in southwestern Angola,
By Alvin W. Urquhart (quoting Vedder):
The poverty of the Bushman existence is very clearly indicated by their huts. It is the women's task to erect them. At a distance of from six to eight feet apart, two strong poles are planted in the ground in such a way that the points meet at the height of about five feet. The tops are tied together with the soft bark of a tree. This archway forms the door to the Bushman hut and it is never closed. Further poles are now planted in an irregular semicircle and joined at the top to form a sort of domed roof. This framework is covered with branches with leaves on and dry grass, and the Bushman hut is complete (p. 17 -- my emphasis).
From The Baka Pygmies of Cameroon:
They live in huts they call mongulu which are one-family houses made of branches and leaves and nearly always built by the women. After a frame of very flexible, thin branches is prepared, recently-gathered leaves are fit in the structure. After the work is complete, other vegetable materials is sometimes added to the dome in order to make the structure more compact and waterproof. (My emphasis)]

NB: If some of the pictures don't display on this screen, click on the empty space where they would normally appear, and each should come up on a separate screen. This seems to be a problem only with Mozilla Firefox -- not sure why.

To be continued . . .


Maju said...

Just to comment that, AFAIK, Bushmen huts are also built by the women. That's what my memory from TV documentaries tells me at least.

As for size, I can only shrug when asked why short size is typical of some populations and not others. Papuans live in the forest since long ago but are rather tall, while Bushmen's Neolithic "cousins" the now extinct (or rather heavily admixed and assimilated into "Cape Coulored") Hottentots, were also rather high. I have never read anywhere that the other African surviving huntergatherers, the Hadza, are short either, while some Bantu groups, like the Hutu, are rather short (admixture with Pygmies?)

Some American Native groups are also very very short. I was terribly surprised some years ago when some Mayans from Guatemala arrived to the community radio station I used to work at and they were all standing well under my shoulders.

DocG said...

I think a lot depends on the stature of the ancestral group from which we all descend. It's looking more and more to me as though this group must have resembled the pygmies in this respect. If that's the case, then, all things being equal, their descendants would have inherited short stature, and that would explain the short stature of so many indigenous people today. (And not all Papuans are tall, there are Papuan pygmies as well.)

This is just a guess at the moment: but in an egalitarian, essentially non-violent society, there would probably be no advantage to being taller and stronger than everyone else -- but in a more stratified society, especially one that valued and/or rewarded more violent, aggressive behavior, larger size would be a distinct advantage, especially as far as mating is concerned, which could explain why most contemporary peoples are much taller than pygmies and bushmen and other groups, such as the Mayans and Andeans, who, if my guess is correct, would have retained the ancestral morphology.

Maju said...

Well, again from memor,y some old humans and hominins, were apparently tall. I think I read recently on some H. erectus being quite tall and I recall clearly that early Indians were also very tall (while contemporary Europeans were rather short, guess in the Magdalenian).

This seems to have varied a lot and is also changing right now, with new generations being in many places significantly taller than their parents. For instance, in a quite striking case, Galicians used to be considered (on real data) the shortest population of Spain and are now the tallest ones (younger generations only). Nutrition obviously plays a role too.

Maju said...

Also in my experience, some Andeans are rather short but has no comparison with the Mayans I told you, who were clearly well in the Pygmy range.

DocG said...

Yes, there is evidence that certain hominins and also possibly "modern" paleolithic humans were tall. Which is why I distinguish between the earliest homo sapiens and what I've been calling "the ancestral group." I don't see any compelling reason why early humans had to be either short or tall, but if the two populations with the deepest lineages are short, then the chances are that their common ancestors were also short.

This is what I call the "ancestral group," or, more technically, the "baseline" population, which must be defined in very specific terms. NOT simply as "early humans" but as our common ancestors.

The ancestors of the baseline group may have been short or they may have been tall. And similarly there may have been other groups contemporary with them that were tall. We have no way of knowing about those groups -- except through fossil evidence, which is very sketchy, as you know. However, we CAN speculate meaningfully about the ancestral group -- and this is the message I am trying to convey. The key is the restoration of broad-based comparative research to anthropology, after many years of neglect.

Maju said...

I don't see any compelling reason why early humans had to be either short or tall, but if the two populations with the deepest lineages are short, then the chances are that their common ancestors were also short.

But their common ancestor is the same as ours. Generally speaking, we are closer to Pygmies (and they are to us) than Bushmen are. Bushmen did diverge surely very early on but Pygmies's divergence is more recent, not too long before the out of Africa.

Some other very deep lineages (and quite a lot of diversity) anyhow are found in Sudan for example, where some of the tallest humans are found instead. Hard to say but I am not convinced that early humans had to be so short.

DocG said...

"But their common ancestor is the same as ours."

Yes, of course. Why is that a problem?

"Some other very deep lineages (and quite a lot of diversity) anyhow are found in Sudan for example, where some of the tallest humans are found instead. Hard to say but I am not convinced that early humans had to be so short."

First of all, I'm not talking about "early humans," I'm talking about the "baseline population," i.e., the population that is ancestral to all humans now living: pygmies, bushmen, Europeans, Africans, Asians, tall people and short people.

And yes, there are very tall humans in many parts of the world, including some with very deep lineages. But the baseline population is ancestral to all. And it was either tall or short -- or of medium height. Though it could have been a mix as well. However, if the two earliest offshoots from this population are now short, and their shortness is not likely to be an environmental adaptation (since they live in two totally different environments), then it seems likely that the baseline population was also short. Which means that tallness is more likely to be an adaptation than shortness, no?
Not necessarily environmental, however, since as I've already said, it could be due to a shift in cultural values, from egalitarian to competitive. So I guess the next question to ask is: are these very tall Sudanic people egalitarian or competitive? Are they peaceful or warlike?

I'm not saying that our ancestors had to be either short or tall or whatever, but simply trying to interpret the evidence in a manner that makes sense. With additional evidence, it's possible that some other interpretation might make more sense.

Maju said...

They are (essentially) offshots of two different moments in an evolving "baseline" population that was never static nor probably as uniform as you seem to imagine.

MtDNA-wise, I think it's quite safe to say that L0 is originally Khoisan and nothing else, L1c is safely described as Pygmy and L1b might have belonged originally to an absorbed Pygmy-related population of West Africa of whose ancestral size we know nothing (but today's carriers are average AFAIK). L2-6 is everybody else. But even if we take the Khoikhoi and Hadza peoples as examples they are not as short as Pygmies or Bushmen, are they?

Y-DNA-wise the oldest offshot branch, A, is found not just among the Khoisan but, as I said before also very specially in Sudan and other East African peoples, most of whom are average or rather tall.

Then you have rather large archaic skulls like H. sapiens idaltu of Harar, what surely implies a relatively large body as well.

So I could take that "the baseline population" of East and South Africa, if we can easily speak of such simplified unit, as maybe somewhat short on average (for modern standards) but I think that the extremes we see in Pygmies, Bushmen and some other cases through the world are not a signature of the ancestral height but a specific evolution of certain peoples, surely helped by isolation and maybe ecological conditions.

So instead of 150 cm., I'd think more in the line of 160 to maybe as much as 180 cm. height for archaic human males. My speculation anyhow.

DocG said...

Maju, I think the issues you're raising will be easier to deal with once I have a chance explain more fully what I mean by "baseline" population and "baseline" culture. Which I plan to do soon.

Meanwhile, might I suggest that you stop thinking so much like an archaeologist -- and more like a sleuth. Like Sherlock Holmes, for example -- or Darwin.

The murder took place in a room locked from the inside and there are no windows or doors. So how did the murder(s) get out? Was there one murderer or more than one? How many clues can we find? How reliable are they? Is our case solid, or will we have to build a case based on circumstantial evidence?

One thing we need to remember: the event in question DID take place. And if we are smart enough, or lucky enough, or both, we ought to be able to figure out who dunnit. And why.
Just because the door was locked from the inside doesn't mean we can never know what happened. It just means we have to use our imagination -- and never give up.

Maju said...

Meanwhile, might I suggest that you stop thinking so much like an archaeologist -- and more like a sleuth. Like Sherlock Holmes, for example -- or Darwin.

I take this as a compliment because I have been accused of doing the opposite sometimes.

For instance take a look at my theory on Atlantis (and do it quick because Geocities, where it's hosted, goes off the 26th!), which is the kind of sleuth work you might be asking for (though it has also been praised for being serious and consistent and not the usual rant).

However I still think that your claims about ancestral height are too speculative and that they are not relevant for the case anyhow.

Maju said...

Just a quick heads up, Victor: Dienekes posted today on Andamanese height precisely, as a paper on that subject seems to have appeared. There seems to be a correlation between colonial caused mortality and height: when mortality was high, size decreased (and vice versa).

DocG said...

Thanks for the heads up, Maju. I went to the blog and read the abstract. Unfortunately the article isn't freely available and I can't afford to purchase everything that comes out that looks interesting.

While it's unfair to pronounce judgement without reading the entire piece, it smells strongly of Galton's problem. If they've recognized the problem and corrected for it, then that's another story. But I have a feeling they probably didn't.

In any case, as I see it, the problem of pygmy and bushmen and Andaman, etc. size can only be properly approached within a broadly comparative context. I don't see much point in studies involving only one or two related groups.

There are many reasons why size can vary over time and many reasons why one group of Andamanese might be taller or shorter than another. Tying any theory involving foragers to relatively recent political events smells strongly of a revisionist program, so I'm skeptical on that score as well.

It doesn't really matter all that much as far as my project is concerned whether the pygmies and bushmen were always small or their small size is only recent. There is too much additional evidence for that to be a major issue. However, as you might have guessed I am NOT inclined to be sympathetic toward any approach that smells of typically revisionist dogma -- and I also am just naturally offended by any form of tendentious reasoning, especially where a hidden agenda could be involved.

Maju said...

Unfortunately the article isn't freely available and I can't afford to purchase everything that comes out that looks interesting.

Me neither. Just wanted you to know because it seems relevant to our previous discussion here, as you mentioned specifically the Andamanese.

As for the actual value, I don't know what to say, because without even knowing the size range involved it's hard to recognize its significance.

But I'm not sure that it'd be a Galton's problem or "revisionism". The correlation appears to be there and may have some significance. I also hate to judge only on "ideological" tags: different approaches may have each its own merits, as you well point out (or I understand you do) when analyzing Turnbull's issue. They may be complementary if they are not just mere bad science.

I just had a long discussion on Migrationism vs Cultural Difussionism and my whole point was that it depends: sometimes there are migrations, sometimes cultural diffussion and sometimes a mix of both and that taking sides in such absolutist categories may actually confuse the matter instead of clarify it (for both factions).

Similarly there may be different reasons why human size varies, the same that there are different genes involved in (de-)pigmentation or farming was developed independently in at least two places.

My two cents.

DocG said...

It's not enough to establish a correlation. One must also establish a cause-effect relation, which is far more difficult. And I'm sorry, but when something as purely physical as short stature is explained as some sort of response to relatively recent historical conditions, I become very suspicious, because this is exactly the sort of point the revisionists were trying to make, in their efforts to deny the legitimacy of indigenous peoples worldwide -- along with their land claims, by the way.

If native people were made shorter due to colonial contact with outsiders, then the same syndrome would be found worldwide, among people such as the Watutsi and Masai, not only pymgies. This wouldn't be difficult to research, you'd simply need to compare average height of 19th and early 20th century skeletons with average height of the same people today. But I doubt that anyone would be willing to fund such research because if you think about it, it sounds pretty off the wall. If normal sized people are turned into pygmies due to outside contact, then all native people would be pygmies today.

There IS evidence that improved nutrition has an effect on size, but that is NOT what is being claimed in this paper.

Maju said...

Well, I don't probably understand fully this revisionist-essentialist debate but Australian Aboriginals are not short at all and even Bushmen are clearly less shorter than Pygmies, AFAIK.

I was just watching yesterday the documentary on Ardipithecus ramidus and the person they used to digitalize Ardi's possible moves was a short "Asian" woman because she had exactly Ardi's height. But even if Ardi (a forest dweller) was short, she was not in the pygmy/negrito extreme short size range.

I'm really not persuaded. If you'd say that the early humankind had frizzy hair I'd be much more likely to agree, sincerely.

And "revisionists" have some point when they argue that modern foragers only live in extreme marginal environments, because elsewhere they have either become something else or have been replaced. That's a hardly questionable fact (except maybe for the Hazabe) and that's what I mean when I say that both viewpoints may have some truth to them after all.

It's not mere relativism, it's more like synthesis-ism: what is valid stands, what is wrong gets dropped, whatever the origin. Factionalizing science doesn't sound like a good idea, even if I know we all have our biases.

Maju said...

If native people were made shorter due to colonial contact with outsiders, then the same syndrome would be found worldwide, among people such as the Watutsi and Masai, not only pymgies.

I don't think anyone is trying to extend these circumstances of Andaman to anywhere else, not to Pygmies either. Andamanese were and still are a very isolated people with very low defenses against mainstream diseases, so the bacterial shock when colonial activity was at its high, was for real. What the paper seems to say is that this bacterial shock caused a decrease of size and that the re-isolation of the people (the Onge in particular) favored their recovery of some height.

Pygmies and Watusis are not isolated island groups and have never been. They have always lived in the Afroasiatic landmass and have been therefore "always" exposed to regular diseases like influenza or whatever. I don't mean to extrapolate Andamanese results to Pygmies, just to consider that Andamanese (and only they) have historically gained and lost height as response to epidemics.

Surely Pygmy size is not caused by that. I would not dare to claim such thing but rather it seems a peculiar genetic factor, at one of the extremes of human variability.