Thursday, October 8, 2009

223. Deconstructing the Postmodern Condition 23 -- Tradition

(. . . continued from previous post)

What else is there? What is there left in either culture that actually reflects either the tropical forest or the desert? Bushmen use ostrich eggs as water containers, filling them when water is available, then burying them for future use during dry spells. This does seem definitely to be an adaptation to a desert environment. No pygmy group bothers to do that because there's plenty of water in the rainforest. What else? Pygmies collect honey in the forest during honey season and that's an important aspect of their culture. But bushmen manage to find honey in the desert as well, and it's equally important for them. Bushmen speak their own distinctive click languages and pygmies speak completely unrelated languages. But that has nothing to do with their environment. The two groups are morphologically distinct and have even been described as belonging to two separate "races." Are the narrow eyes of the bushmen an adaptation to desert dust? Possibly. It's hard to see any other aspect of their physiognomy as a reflection of their environment.

Sorry, I can't think of anything else. But if you can, by all means add a comment below.

Reflecting on the fact that the two cultures are so strikingly similar, in so many ways, we must ask ourselves: what is the basis for the widely held assumption that culture must be regarded as an adaptation to the environment? One might assume the bow and arrow reflects a forest enviroment, thanks to the ample wood supply -- but bushmen also find a way to make very similar weapons from a far more meagre supply. One might want to assume the "beehive" huts of the pygmies are optimally designed for forest life -- but essentially the same design fits the desert life of the bushmen equally well. One might assume nomadism is especially suited to the forest environment -- but the bushmen roam the desert as restlessly as the pygmies roam the forest. Even in the realm of the physical, we find no reason to attribute pygmy size to their forest environment. The short stature of the bushmen has never been a secret, but most anthropologists have preferred to look the other way. The short stature of the pygmies is still being solemnly explained as an adaptation to a tropical forest environment, while the short stature of the bushmen apparently requires no explanation.

At this point it's probably a good idea to pause, catch our breath, and reflect on some of the many questions that now arise:

1. If environmental adaptation can't explain the many striking similarities between the two cultures, what can? For many years, anthropologists have explained away all such long-distance affinities as "independent invention." But independent invention is credible only in the context of so-called "convergent evolution," and the notion of convergent evolution has always been tied to environmental adaptation. If the environments in question are totally different, then it's very hard to see any basis for either convergent evolution or independent invention, especially when the affinities are so many, so striking and so bound up with the most fundamental value systems and survival strategies of both societies. I've already proposed the only answer that makes sense to me: the similarities are due to the survival of traditions originating with the common ancestors of both groups, as reflected in the genetic findings. But if anyone reading here would like to propose another hypothesis, I'll be more than happy to consider it.

2. Have Turnbull and Schebesta therefore been proven wrong in their assumption that pygmy culture originated in the tropical rainforests of central Africa? Surprisingly enough, the answer is: not necessarily. Though there is no reason to assume that either their culture or their stature is necessarily an adaptation to a forest environment, we have no way of knowing where the ancestral pygmy-bushmen culture first arose, and are thus unable to rule out the possibility of a tropical forest origin after all. If that were the case, then we would need to consider the possibility that the short stature of both pygmies and bushmen might have originated as an ancestral adaptation to thousands of years of life in the tropical forest prior to divergence. By the same token, if the ancestral culture originally arose in the forest, then certain of their traditions may have also originated as adaptations to forest life. In other words, we can't rule out the possibility that certain aspects of culture might have originated as environmental adaptations after all -- but once they had originated they would then have persisted as traditions long after the environment had changed. Thus, the power of a tradition to persist once established would in any case be greater than the power of any new environment to change it.

On the other hand, certain fossil evidence suggests that modern humans may have originated in the savannas of East Africa. In which case we might want to propose an archaic split between proto-pygmies and proto-bushmen, with the first group gradually migrating westward, into the tropical forests, and making a home there, some time after the point of initial divergence (anywhere from 40,000 to well over 100,000 years ago); and the second group migrating south and southwest to eventually populate the whole of both east and south Africa during the paleolithic, and well into the neolithic, with certain groups later retreating into the desert as a response to the Bantu expansion of roughly 4,000 years ago -- and other groups assimilating with the Bantu and adopting farming and herding traditions. The persistence of the ancestral traditions in both forest and desert can be explained by the fact that both environments make ideal refuge areas -- so, in that sense, environmental conditions may have played a role after all.

3. Should we associate the ancestral group with the first homo sapiens and can we thereby assume the ancestral culture originated in the same place where "modern humans" first originated as a distinct species? They are not necessarily the same, because the first homo sapiens may have had a culture and place of origin very different from that of the ancestral group. Nor can we assume that the ancestral group was the only group of homo sapiens alive at the time of divergence, or that their cultural traditions were the only ones in play at that time. The genetic evidence strongly suggests that we are all descended from a single ancestral group that lived in Africa, but it tells us nothing about other groups that may have been contemporary with our ancestors, but whose lineages eventually died out. If their descendants didn't survive to the present day, then it's possible their traditions would have died out with them. On the other hand, certain traditions from such groups might have influenced the ancestral group or its descendants.

4. What bearing should the above have on our intepretation of the archaeological record? As should be clear by now, the archaeological record may not necessarily reflect the ancestral culture -- certain artefacts may have been produced by groups whose lineages didn't survive. This might help to explain discrepancies between the culture of contemporary hunter-gatherers and certain archaeological reconstructions.


Maju said...

It's hard to see any other aspect of their physiognomy as a reflection of their environment.

Bushmen are much lighter pygmented than any other Africans south of the Sahara, excepting creoles of European origin and surely their extinct Hottentot cousins. They are also lighter than some tropical Asian/Oceanian populations. That is probably an enviromental adaptation but not so much to the desert but to the relatively high (non-tropical) latitudes they live in, I guess.

German said...

Pygmies are darker than Khoisans but lighter than West or East Africans. And they are as tropical as it gets. If we use the conventional pop-genetic division of Sub-Saharan populations into Khoisans, Pygmies and the rest of black Africans, then older populations are lighter than younger populations. Although natural selection has played a part here, it's not the only factor (Arctic populations in America are dark, while Scandinavians are light, although the amount of surface UVL is the same in both areas), the other being sexual selection. There's a worldwide correlation between dark skin color and the frequency of polygyny (see the works of Peter Frost, among others). In Africa, Khoisans and Pygmies are the least polygynous, while polygyny in East and West Africa is exceptionally popular (40-50% of males are polygynous). In Papua New Guinea, polygyny is high, too. In the Americas, polygyny is rare.