Sunday, November 8, 2009

237. The Baseline Scenarios -- part 13: Interlude -- A Brief Review

Before continuing, I'd like to clarify, for the benefit of newcomers or those who may have lost the thread of my argument, what it is I'm up to in this series of posts. What I've been writing about poison arrows, shamanism, kinship, even beehive huts, is the sort of thing that's been associated by a great many anthropologists with hunter-gatherers in general, in many parts of the world. I've been called to task on that, as though there's something misleading in placing so much emphasis on Pygmies and Bushmen only, when we already know the same practices are characteristic of all hunter-gatherers.

Well, first of all, we do not know that. It's an assumption. And second of all, it is wrong. Not all hunter-gatherers share all these traits. Thirdly, it's not always clear whether a certain practice is the same or not quite the same or completely different until we've had a chance to study that practice in some detail among all the groups under consideration. To my knowledge no one has ever done a comparative study of that kind for all hunter-gatherers, and for good reason, as it would be an enormous task.

So, fourthly, one virtue of concentrating only on Pygmies and Bushmen is that the task of systematic comparison, based on actual evidence rather than assumptions, is cut down to size. I'm not claiming I've already accomplished that task, though I do think I've done a pretty good job on the musical aspect. But at least I've highlighted very specific questions that can be adequately addressed within a reasonable time-frame, since only a relatively small number of already heavily studied groups would need to be considered.

But that's not the most important reason. Thanks to the truly revolutionary findings of modern population genetics, we now know, with a reasonable degree of certainty, that the DNA of the three groups I've been focusing on, WP, EP and Bu, contains haplotypes representing the deepest clades (i.e., branches) of the genetic tree of all living humans. Since these three branches can all be traced to a single ancestral "root" population, from which all diverged during the Paleolithic, we are in a position, for the first time, to consider a specific ancestral group that actually existed at some time in deep history. It is this group, ancestral to WP, EP and Bu, that I have been calling HBP, or Hypothetical Baseline Population. While this same group could be considered ancestral to all living humans, the fact that WP, EP and Bu have been isolated for so long that their DNA occupies the deepest clades suggests that this same isolation might have preserved aspects of the ancestral culture (HBC) as well.

While anthropologists have been forced to acknowledge that there might be something to the genetics findings after all, they have been reluctant to take the next logical step, toward consideration of the implications these same findings could have for culture. The accepted opinion is that it's impossible to even consider the survival of archaic traditions because 1. all human history is characterized by continual change, aka "cultural evolution" (an assumption); 2. pygmy culture and bushmen culture are "myths," since whatever culture they might have had prior to the last 500 years or so has been too strongly affected by interaction with other, nonforager, groups (another assumption).

What made the difference for me was the musical evidence, clearly demonstrating a close affinity among all three groups -- which could only be the result of a common heritage from a common ancestor: HBP. (For details of this argument, the reader is invited to go back and read this entire blog, or at least some of my published writings on this topic -- see the Table of Contents for specific links.) If the musical evidence points so strongly to the survival of an ancestral cultural heritage, then why not look at other cultural characteristics to see if there is any evidence that they too are ancestral survivals.

Only it's not enough to simply pick out some tradition found among one of these groups and assume it's a survival, even if it's a tradition shared by other hunter-gatherers elsewhere in the world -- because we have no way of judging when any such tradition might have begun. As with the music, it is only when we find essentially the same distinctive traditions among all three groups, isolated from one another and the rest of the world for most of their long history -- as attested by the genetic evidence -- that we can hypothesize with a reasonable degree of confidence that the same traditions may well have been part of HBC. My "triangulation" method is therefore based on the extreme unlikelihood of essentially the same distinctive traditions developing independently among representatives of all three of these very special populations.

I hope the above clarifies my reasons for focusing exclusively on these three particular groups. As for all the other hunter-gatherers, they too are of great importance, but we can't begin to consider the evidence pertaining to their cultures until we have a clearer picture of HBC -- because, if the genetic evidence is correct, it is with HBC that everything else began.

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