Monday, November 16, 2009

242. The Baseline Scenarios -- Part 18: More Huts

I outlined a pretty ambitious set of research projects in my previous post, but for now I'd like to concentrate on a very specific problem that should be more manageable: the "beehive" hut. Before I continue it's important to draw yet another distinction, similar to the one I made in the last post, between the way anthropologists used to do things and the approach I'm taking now. Once upon a time it was not unusual for anthropologists to get all worked up over certain parallels that came to their attention involving artifacts or practices widely scattered around the world that nevertheless seemed closely related. A whole school of anthropology was created to explore this terrain: the so-called Kulturkreis (or culture-circle) school.
Kulturkreis scholars brought history back into the study of allegedly timeless peoples. They relied on diffusionist principles, believing that similarities among cultures could be shown to be the result of cultural influence, rather than the result of a universal human nature, and that circles of interaction among various peoples could and should be delineated by the professional anthropologist.
The above is not quite accurate, since an important aspect of Kulturkreis thinking involved not only cultural diffusion but what would now be called "demic" diffusion, or diffusion resulting from the migrations of a particular population or lineage over thousands of years -- very similar to the sort of thing population geneticists are now doing. Regardless, there was a rather violent reaction against the Kulturkreis school and against anything resembling their ideas, and for good reason, because there was, at that time, far too little evidence and also no idea whatsoever as to where any particular aspect of culture might have come from or the paths it might have taken from its point of origin to its various destinations. And far too little in the way of historical information of the sort that could be used to test Kulturkreis theories, which could get pretty fanciful.

Times have changed, however. There is now far more evidence than ever before, and a huge literature based on intensive field work and historical research done by a great many scholars over many years, not to mention a vast store of recordings, photographs and films. We also have the Internet, which gives us Seven League Boots with which to stride through and sift endless reams of material, both relevant and irrelevant.

Over and above all of this, and of paramount importance as far as I'm concerned, the genetic evidence, supplemented by the long-neglected but imo crucial musical evidence, has given us a historical baseline from which we can view a very wide field of human activity in an organized, coherent and systematic manner. Or, to put it another way, from the standpoint of our (admittedly hypothetical) baseline, all "evolutionary" roads lead to the same point in time and very roughly the same place, somewhere in either east, south or central Africa.

In the past the comparison of similar artifacts and practices, though vaguely interesting in itself, told us little to nothing about their origin or their meaning, forcing researchers to speculate wildly regarding various clues that might or might not point to the desired "center." Now, however, our baseline can be regarded as a ready-made center from which all else can be seen to emanate. We no longer need to scratch our heads over all the various instances of a particular item and how each may be compared to each -- all we need do is compare each instance to what can be found in our baseline culture (HBC) and ask ourselves whether or not this is likely to be a survival from it. It's not so much a matter of proving that some particular instance is in fact such a survival, because that would be almost impossible to do, as opening the door on a fresh approach to comparative studies of the sort that could help us organize and systematize our search for history -- and meaning. As I said before, our baseline can be seen as a kind of observatory:

Which returns me to my topic for the day: the beehive hut. Here's a hut that might look familiar, since it's essentially the same sort of thing we've already seen among the pygmies and bushmen:

Only it's a Hadza hut. As I mentioned earlier, the Hadza, based in East Africa (Tanzania), are hunter-gatherers who have much in common with both pygmies and bushmen:
The Hadza still live in bands, hunting with bows and arrows, gathering roots, tubers and wild fruits, as man lived 10,000 years ago . . . The Hadza speak a click-language, they don't have chiefs, houses, or a political system, and they roam the land in small bands with little sense of tribe.
They are a bit of a mystery, however, because their genetic profile is unlike any other in the world and their music is also atypical, quite different from that of most other African groups. Is the very familiar look of this hut simply a coincidence? Could it have been independently invented? The Hadza live in a part of Africa extremely remote from either the Tropical Forest of the center, or the Kalahari desert of the south, so it seems unlikely that they could have learned to make such huts from pygmies or bushmen. Unless the lesson took place many thousands of years ago, when Khoisan peoples may have lived in East Africa. Or unless this type of hut is, as I suspect, a direct survival from HBC.

Here's a painting of some more beehive huts, very much like the pygmy, bushmen and Hadza ones:

Only these are from Australia. Australia might seem extremely remote, certainly very far from Africa. But you know what -- it is exactly the same distance from HBC as are the pygmies and bushmen, at least as far as time is concerned. If a particular method of making huts is a survival from HBC, then what does it matter how distant it might be from its place of origin? It's generally accepted that humans migrated all over the world from Africa, so does it really make a difference how far they wandered, so long as they were intent on maintaining their traditions? And if there is anything we know about indigenous peoples, it is their absolute fixation on their ancestors and the traditions associated with them.

Here are more beehive huts, from roughly the same part of the world, New Guinea:

Getting back to Africa, here are beehive huts from the Dorze people, of Southwest Ethiopia:

Dorze hut

The Dorze are not hunter-gatherers, and in fact have a culture considerably more complex than that of the pygmies or bushmen. Their music, however, has many striking points in common with P/B style, including rather elaborate interlocking counterpoint, and yodel as well. I don't know about those huts, though. They are definitely built to last, unlike the others we've seen. Was there some evolutionary process that began with HBC, or are these huts a completely independent invention? Would it be possible to find a string of huts in various places leading up to the Dorze type that might represent different "stages" in their evolution? Would it matter if we could find such intermediary "stages"? I'm not sure. One thing I do know, however: if the geneticists are on the right track, then the Dorze, like every other people now living in our world, are descended from HBP. If their ancestors had beehive huts, then why would it be surprising to find beehive huts among them now?

Similar speculations arise regarding huts by other, more "advanced" African groups, such as the Zulu and Swazi:

But who can say how far the reach of the beehive hut tradition may have extended? Is a modern observatory a survival from the same tradition?

The Wigglesworth Observatory, under construction.

Australia -- "Aboriginal hut without its turf covering."

I'll leave you with the following words of wisdom by anthropologist Edward Sapir:
For chronological purposes, cases of the interrupted distribution of a culture element are of particular importance. In a general way, a culture element whose area of distribution is a broken one must be considered as of older date, other things being equal, than a culture element diffused over an equivalent but continuous area. The reason for this is that in the former case we have to add to the lapse of time allowed for the diffusion of the element over its area of distribution the time taken to bring about the present isolation of the two areas, a time which may vary from a few years or a generation to a number of centuries. . . [T]he interrupted distribution of a culture element gives us a minimum relative date for the origin of the culture element itself. The element must have arisen prior to the event or series of events that resulted in the geographical isolation of the two areas ("Time Perspective in Aboriginal American Culture, a Study in Method." Geological Survey Memoir 90: No. 13, Anthropological Series. Ottawa: Government Printing Bureau (1916), p. 41).


German Dziebel said...

I can only add Nambiquara, Pemon, Alakaluf, Chipaya and a myriad of other South American foragers and primitive agriculturalists. There seems to be a great diversity in the types of foraging dwellings in America: beehive, dome, conical and round types are present.

Regarding similarities between Australian and Fuegian beehive huts, Davidson wrote: "The term beehive hut has been employed by many writers as a convenient catch-phrase for dome-like dwellings with variously constructed frame-works covered with grass, skins, bark, earth, or other materials. Although it seems obvious that such huts may have nothing in common other than a simple hemispherical form, the numerous differences in various parts of the world have been minimized or disregarded, and theories of historical relationship have been advanced solely on the similarity of shape. Assuming a unitary origin,it is an easy matter to argue that details of construction and the materials used have been changed to fit the needs of local conditions of climate, flora,and culture. Nevertheless,there seems to be no reasonable xplanation as to why the same general simplicity in form should persist nor has anyone offered satisfactory evidence why a simple hemispherical shape should be regarded as so unusual that it could not have been developed independently by various peoples. The writer makes no claim that the many appearances in the world of the so-called beehive huts represent the results of numerous independent developments but in view of no proof to the contrary,the possibility that some appearances may be independent attainments should be recognized.

The claim that the dome-shaped dwellings of Fuegia have been derived
from the "beehive-shaped" Australian huts is not supported by any tangible evidence. Aside from the general simplicity in form there is no satisfactory
basis for comparison. The Fuegians' dwellings are covered with skins, the Australians' with grass, bark, or earth. All these materials are available in both areas. In addition, it should be noted that if it is permissible to assume historical unity in spite of these differences, then it is equally reasonable to believe that the Fuegian huts are historically related to the other types of "beehive" huts in the Americas with which, if there is not
greater similarity, there are no greater differences. In this respect it is argued by Koppers, following the principles of identification of Graebner and Schmidt, that the beehive huts of Tierra del Fuego and Australia have been derived from a common source in Asia, and in support of this con- tention the various circum-Pacific appearances are cited. Although we still object to this conclusion as unsupported by reasonable proof based upon fairly comparable data, it would seem that if one insists upon historical unity based upon hemispherical form, it is much less unreasonable to posit such a contention upon the sporadic distribution in the circum-Pacific areas than upon a theory of trans-Pacific migration of Australians." (Davidson, The Question of Relationship between the Cultures of Australia and Tierra del Fuego, 1937).

No debate needed. Just food for thought.

DocG said...

Thanks, German, for quoting from this interesting article, which gives us a good idea of the thinking that was popular at that time (1930's). Graebner and Schmidt were leading proponents of the Kulturkreis school and speculations regarding a possible origin of the "Fuegians" from Australia (due to their "robust" features, no doubt) were the sort of thing they liked to do.

Trans-Pacific migration from Australia does seem highly unlikely. The Kulturkreis people wisely preferred "a common source in Asia" but clearly they had no real evidence for that theory either, though it's not as unlikely.

If one accepts the new "Out of Africa" model, along with all the genetic evidence pointing to Pygmies and Bushmen as representing the deepest lineages, then the picture becomes much clearer and it becomes much easier to claim a common source, not in Australia or Asia, but ultimately in Africa. I know you don't accept that model so obviously you will have problems accepting any theory based on it. But I'm sure that you can appreciate that, from my perspective, an African origin for this type of hut and in fact an origin from HBC does seem reasonable (though certainly far from being established).

Moreover, as I see it, the simple recourse of counting similarities and differences has only limited value precisely because, as the author states, certain differences could easily be due to environmental differences. And beyond that, it's important to understand that there are many different forms under which essentially the same tradition can be perpetuated, as we can clearly see from the many forms a tradition such as monotheism has taken over the millennia. It seems highly likely, from historical records that all forms of monotheism stem from a common source (NOT Pygmies and Bushmen by the way, though some have argued that), yet there are a great many differences between its various manifestations in the world of today.

As I proceed with my investigation I'll try to take account as best I can of all these various issues and problems.

German Dziebel said...

"But I'm sure that you can appreciate that, from my perspective, an African origin for this type of hut and in fact an origin from HBC does seem reasonable (though certainly far from being established)."

For me it's a matter of comparativist methodology, not the actual place of origin of modern humans. My disbelief in out of Africa comes not from a belief in out of America but from the dissatisfaction with the methodologies used to advance the out of Africa thoery and its spinoffs. Even if humans came out of Africa and Khoisan and Pygmies are the earliest branches the similarities in huts between them in the 19th century have no bearing on what kind of dwelling our (African) ancestors used 50,000-100,000 years ago. Even if we dismiss diffusion (although we may simply not have enough sources to entertain this idea; agricultural Bantu may have shifted away from beehive huts with sedentarization, so the original source of Pygmy huts is now lost), the easiest explanation is independent invention. Humans are intelligent beings who constantly use analogies to create new things out of old ones. There's nothing in the shape of the hut that ensures it's stability over time. If you could show that the human mind, from the point of view of evolutionary biology or behavioral ecology, is prewired to use beehive shape as a default design, it would make your argument stronger. Davidson's quote is just another cautionary reminder that appearances don't necessarily suggest a common source and that "similarities" may in fact be unrelated and subjectively perceived instances of a rather abstract type.

America shows that a great deal of diversity exists in the kinds of dwellings foragers/simple agriculturalists/pastoralists use. They can be round, elongated, dome-shaped, beehive-shaped, conical, long, tall, covered with animal skins or grass or bark or leaves, etc. Africa seems to be less diverse, which is consistent with the paucity of foraging traditions in Africa as compared to America.

It never ends...

Maju said...

A possible reason behind dome huts and tents, including modern "igloo" type tents can be that they are good to withstand the wind while being light.

However in cold areas of Eurasia it seems that tipi-like tents were used instead (and are still in use among the few remaining foragers). I can only imagine that the transition happened in order to be able to have a bonfire in the tent, as well as to allow for faster packing and mounting - but I'm not sure.

I would not compare dome huts with modern architectural domes. There was a whole creative process before domes could be made in hard materials. In the meantime other solutions like the false dome of tholoi were used instead. You are right that the construction concept is the same but as far as I can tell the concept was lost and only much later reinvented. However there are remains in many places of "oval" homes that might have got a design similar to the beehive hut and may have served as inspiration to Etruscan and later Roman architects.

I have no opinion on whether the domed hut style has or not been reinvented many times but I can well imagine that it was standard in the Paleolithic, except for some peoples of the steppes, where the chum (tipi) style was adopted - and later exported to America, maybe with the secondary Na-Dené (Clovis?) migration.

German Dziebel said...

"I have no opinion on whether the domed hut style has or not been reinvented many times but I can well imagine that it was standard in the Paleolithic, except for some peoples of the steppes, where the chum (tipi) style was adopted - and later exported to America, maybe with the secondary Na-Dené (Clovis?) migration."

There're indeed some very close matches between Siberian and North American Indian material culture, e.g, hand drum (including Mapuche but nobody else in South America) and the Navajo shamanic dress. On the other hand, steambath (in North America, dome-shaped constructions used for ritual purposes in societies that often have tipi-like main residences) is shared between North America and Northern Europe (Saami, Russians, etc.) but scarcely any Siberian group.

As far as the Clovis migration is concerned, all the dates for fluted projectile points show a smooth and steady northward movement into Alaska (Mesa culture) from the south. The Uptar site in Northeast Asia contains one fluted point (different from Clovis points, though) at about 1000 later than the onset of Clovis in North America.

DocG said...

Maju: "I would not compare dome huts with modern architectural domes."

Good. Neither would I. I displayed that example partly as a joke, partly because the resemblance of its substructure to the substructure of the Australian hut is really amazing. And partly because I want to use it to make a point about how we can proceed to determine whether some artifact is related or unrelated to something similar found elsewhere. In this case the observatory and the Australian hut are clearly unrelated, at least historically -- and yet they appear very similar structurally. So the game of similarity and difference can itself be deceptive.