Saturday, October 31, 2009

232. The Baseline Scenarios -- part 8:Conjure

From the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

transitive verb 1 : to charge or entreat earnestly or solemnly
2 a : to summon by or as if by invocation or incantation b (1) : to affect or effect by or as if by magic (2) : imagine, contrive —often used with up
(3) : to bring to mind —often used with up.

I am now ready to conjure! As you can see, I have nothing up my sleeve, and my hands are tied:

Before continuing however, there are a few important points I'd like to make:

1. It has been my intention in all my research to base all hypotheses on evidence, and logical inference directly based on evidence, rather than assumptions. Since so many anthropologists and archaeologists routinely make assumptions, the difference might not be obvious, but it is real and as far as I'm concerned it is all important. For example, I am not simply assuming that certain Pygmies and Bushmen share certain basic cultural attributes with their "Stone Age" ancestors. Assumptions of this kind about hunter-gatherers have been made many times in the past -- and they have also been attacked, and rightfully so, as "myths." I see it as my responsibility to ground all such hypotheses in real evidence, not just suppositions that might seem reasonable, but in fact cannot be supported by anything more than conjecture.

2. Since I've been challenged on this point by a regular commentator on this blog, German Dziebel, I am willing to concede that my acceptance of the mainstream population genetics research, and the associated Out of Africa model, can be seen as an assumption, because this model, though based on a considerable body of evidence, has not yet been fully verified, and there are in fact certain inconsistencies that have not yet been accounted for. Moreover, there are alternative theories, one of which, an Out of America theory, has been presented by Dziebel himself. Those who, like him, remain suspicious of the Out of Africa model, should feel free to regard HBP as the common ancestor of the Pygmies and Bushmen only, rather than all living humans, as implied by the mainstream research and the phylogenetic trees based on it. To put it another way, to the extent that we can regard Out of Africa and the genetic research behind it as having been established with a high degree of confidence, we can accept HBP as, in all likelihood, representing the common ancestor of all living humans; to the extent that this model remains in doubt, the status of HBP will also remain in doubt. As far as I am concerned, the evidence in support of Out of Africa is overwhelming, and I am going to proceed on that basis. If this is an assumption, then so be it. It will be my only assumption -- and if I violate my promise in this regard I have no doubt German will call that to my attention.

3. My primary intention is to open up possibilities for research and exploration rather than establish incontrovertible facts. The method I'll be using, based on what I've called "triangulation," should be seen primarily as a tool -- a kind of observatory if you will, for probing human history. In many cases there will be certain things that can be established and others that cannot. Where something cannot be established with certainty, that should be understood as a basis for future research. In any case, the "triangulation" method must always be balanced by a healthy dose of critical thinking.

For example:
As we've already learned, within the three populations under consideration, EP (Eastern Pygmies), WP (Western Pygmies) and Bu (Bushmen), some groups hunt primarily with poison-tipped arrows and others with nets. Interestingly, we find net hunters within both EP (Mbuti) and WP (Aka), while those that hunt primarily with bows and arrows can also be found in both tropical forest regions. No Bu group, to my knowledge, hunts with nets. Despite such discrepancies, however, further research reveals that poison arrows are in fact used for hunting by groups from all three populations, EP, WP and Bu. While the Aka and Mbuti use nets as their primary hunting tool, they use poison arrows from time to time as well. Therefore, regardless of the net evidence, the presence of bows and arrows equipped with poison in all three major populations completes our triangulation and thus makes hunting with poison-tipped arrows a very strong candidate indeed for inclusion in HBC. Note, by the way, that the discrepancy in the use of nets and bows for hunting, which for Hewlett amounts to an important cultural difference among Pygmy groups, has no bearing on our triangulation method, which depends only on the presence of certain traditions, not their relative degree of importance in recent times.

However: bows and arrows are commonly found among a great many peoples worldwide, including many of the Bantu groups that have had contact with Pygmies and Bushmen for a very long time. And there have been reports of the use of poisoned arrows among such groups. Our method is therefore not strong enough in itself to establish the use of such weapons among HBP, because the Pygmies and Bushmen might have learned this technology from their non-forager neighbors . Our method is strong enough, however, for us to zero in on the use of poisoned arrows as a very reasonable hypothesis, which can in fact be tested. What non-forager groups in Africa are known to have used poison arrows, and what historical evidence exists that might tell us whether this weaponry was taught to Bantus by foragers or to foragers by Bantus? Is there any archaeological evidence pointing strongly to the use of such weapons in either the forest or southern Africa prior to the Bantu expansion of ca. 3-4 thousand years ago? If convincing evidence can be found that the Bantu groups learned to use poison arrows from Pygmy and/or Bushmen groups, that would point very strongly to the use of such weapons by HBP and we could at least provisionally accept this technology as a part of HBC. If no such evidence can be found, or if it is determined that the Pygmies and Bushmen learned it from their neighbors, then either it was not a part of HBC or its status must remain indeterminate.

(to be continued . . . )

Monday, October 26, 2009

231. The Baseline Scenarios -- part 7: The Musical Picture

Now that you've had a chance to listen to some examples of Pygmy and Bushmen music, I'll regale you with some quotations from writings of mine on this same topic, beginning with a slightly edited list of distinctive features from my yet to be published paper, with the long title, "Some Notable Features of Pygmy and Bushmen Polyphonic Practice, with Special Reference to Survivals of Traditional Vocal Polyphony in Europe":
1. An underlying rhythmic cycle of from 4 to 16 “beats.” 2. A repeated melody or phrase that serves as a mental referent, sometimes expressed, but often only implied. 3. Continually interlocking parts, producing a “contrapuntal” effect. 4. Hocket. 5. Part-crossing, technically known by the German term, Stimmtauch. 6. Resultant effects. 7. Additive structure (with potentially as many independent voices as people present). 8. Pitch displacement. 9. Temporal displacement, resulting in echoic or canonic effects. 10. Repetition, often producing ostinato effects. 11. Improvisation, resulting in frequent variation from one cycle to the next. 12. Disjunct melodic lines. 13. Continuous flow of sound, with each section smoothly dovetailing into the next. 14. Vocal polyrhythm. 15. Polyrhythmic percussion, usually handclapping. (Certain Pygmy groups have adopted the use of membranophones from their Bantu neighbors). 16. Emphasis on meaningless vocables, mostly vowel sounds. 17. Little to no embellishment. 18. Open throated, relaxed voices. 19. Smooth and tight vocal and instrumental blend. 20. Precisely defined “tempo giusto” rhythms. 21. Yodeling. 22. Polyphony. 23. Heterophony. (Many voices typically draw pitch classes either from the theme or one another, with varying degrees of temporal displacement). 24. The conflation of polyphony and heterophony. 25. Little to no distinction between melodic and harmonic intervals. 26. Secundal dissonance. 27. The encoding of multiple parts in monodies, and, conversely, monodies derived from multipart models.
What we have here is not simply a list of stylistic and structural commonalities, but powerful evidence of a shared musical language, with a high degree of complexity and sophistication.

Some excerpts from "Concept, Style and Structure in the Music of the African Pygmies and Bushmen" (as recently published in Ethnomusicology, Fall 2009):
Studies by Gilbert Rouget (1956), Alan Lomax (1959, 1962, Lomax et al.
1968), and the present author (1965), dating from the mid-1950s through the 1960s, pointed to striking similarities in style and structure between the musical traditions of certain groups of African Pygmies living in the tropical forests of central Africa, and certain Bushmen groups based in the Kalahari desert far to the south. In 1971, ethnomusicologist-ethnologist Charlotte Frisbie, after a thoroughgoing review, concluded as follows: “The comparative analysis of Bushmen and Pygmy music shows overwhelming similarities . . . In view of the attributes of music which make it a valid tool in reconstructing culture history, these findings would present a serious problem to anyone who tried to deny an earlier historical connection between the two groups." [my emphasis]
When we add the very compelling genetic evidence to the long list of musical affinities among so many Pygmy and Bushmen groups, it is difficult not to conclude, with Rouget, Lomax, and Frisbie, et al., that both traditions might well stem from a common root, dating to a period deep into the Paleolithic, when the ancestors of both may have formed a single band. As such a conclusion strongly suggests, all the many shared stylistic, structural, conceptual, and cultural attributes enumerated above may well have been present in the ancestral model. [my emphasis.]
From "New Perspectives on the Kalahari Debate: A Tale of Two Genomes," published in Before Farming:
When we look at the relationships between musical styles and languages in various parts of the world, we see many instances where a language has changed, but a musical style persists, suggesting that music may indeed be far more conservative than language.
Since the genetic evidence so strongly suggests that both the Biaka Pygmies and !Kung (Ju/’hoansi) Bushmen stem from the same ancient ‘founder’ population, it is not difficult to infer that the almost indistinguishable musical practices of the two groups may well date to at least the time of their divergence from that same population – a period that could, according to the aforementioned genetic research, date to at least 76,000, but possibly as much as 102,000, years ago (Chen et al 2000:1371). Such a conclusion, if corroborated, would totally transform our notion of cultural evolution and the role of tradition in its history
From "Echoes of Our Forgotten Ancestors," published in The World of Music:
The narrative I have presented above is intended as more than simply history, as it raises questions of some consequence for our understanding of some of the most fundamental aspects of human existence. The notion that we might all be descended from a single band of “modern” humans who once lived in Africa has certainly had an enormous impact, especially on the media and the public, but does not seem, as yet, to have had much influence on students of culture. It should. Among other exciting possibilities, the new paradigm suggests that music—not as I have already argued, one particular style, but music itself—may also stem from a single source – associated with the invention/discovery of certain basic principles of communication/expression, dating from a particular time, stemming from a particular place, somewhere in Africa, between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago.
While it's not possible in the present context to get into the detailed analyses of both the note by note structures of particular songs and the Cantometric data representing them, I urge anyone with musical training to study the papers themselves and come to their own conclusions regarding the claims I've been making.

In addition to the many purely musical relationships, there are also compelling ethnographic relationships, very difficult to explain on any other basis than a common cultural heritage. An especially compelling example is the transmission of songs via dreams or during trance. From "Concept, Style and Structure . . . ":
[According to Emmanuelle Olivier,] [t]he “supernatural energy-songs” representing almost half of the Ju|’hoansi repertoire are given to healers in dreams or during trance, where the spirits of dead ancestors, sing “in the three tessituras” while the healer sings a melody along with them “in the principal tessitura” (1998:366). Upon awaking, "he/she sings this melody to his/her spouse without variations (repeating it identically) and the spouse follows the healer’s vocal line, but tries to avoid an identical reproduction of what he/she is singing. Once the principal vocal line has been memorized, the healer then elaborates two other melodies in the secondary tessituras. The principal vocal line is then transmitted to the other members of the village who try in turn to imitate it without exactly reproducing it . . . Once the melodies have been memorized in the three tessituras, each singer begins to elaborate variations."
Significantly, dreams through which spirits transmit songs to the living, as described above . . . are a part of Aka culture as well. Kisliuk recounts a story told by an Aka woman about the dream origin of an eboka (a performance combining song and dance), transmitted by a deceased man to his sister, who is expected to teach it to her husband, who will then teach it, in turn, to the young men of the group. According to Kisliuk, “an eboka can emerge as a mystical, dreamed gift within a family, transferred across genders and across the threshold of death” (Kisliuk 1998:177–78). In a personal communication, she has additionally called my attention to the striking resemblance between the Aka practice of cross-gender transmission, from male spirit to female dreamer to male spouse, and thence to the other males, and what happens among the Ju|’hoansi, where the (usually) male shaman will transmit the dreamed song to his wife, who then teaches it to the other women (personal communication, Kisliuk, 30 October 2007).
There are interesting differences between these musical cultures as well. Ju/'hoansi and Aka yodeling styles are remarkably similar, strongly emphasized and almost etheral in effect, but yodeling among the Mbuti tends to be less pronounced, more subtle, ephemeral and difficult to spot. The Bedzan Pygmies have a style essentially the same as that of the other groups in almost all respects, but they apparently do not yodel at all. According to Olivier and Furniss, the Ju/'hoansi appear to employ a wider variety of different types of rhythm than the Pygmy groups, and in other respects their music appears to be somewhat more complex as well. The ritual context in which many of the songs of both groups are performed appears to be somewhat different, with the Bushmen more heavily involved in formally defined shamanistic rituals involving healing, often by several shamans at once, while Pygmy rituals appear to be less formal and less shamanistic in nature, though trance and healing are important aspects of both cultures.

Clearly a good deal of additional research will be necessary before all the details can be sorted out, but the overall picture seems clear. If we employ our "triangulation" method, it's not very difficult at all to conclude that Pygmy/ Bushmen style, as practiced by so many EP, WP and Bu groups, must have been an essential element of HBC, because no other explanation could, as I see it, account for such an array of striking similarities. If the linguistic affinities were even half as strong, they would be almost universally accepted as clear evidence for common cultural ancestry.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

230. The Baseline Scenarios -- part 6: The Musical Picture

In the last two posts I focused on HBP as a particular population that arose in a particular place and time, concentrating on the genetic evidence and certain morphological characteristics, especially stature. While there is a good deal more to be said regarding such issues, I am neither a geneticist nor a physical anthropologist and my principal interest is not with genotypes and phenotypes but with culture. So from now on I'll be concentrating for the most part on the culture of HBP, i.e., HBC (the Hypothetical Baseline Culture).

If certain Pygmy groups had languages that could be related to Khoisan, or even if they only had the clicks so closely associated with that language, then you can be sure such a commonality would have been taken very seriously, as it would strongly suggest a common origin for all such groups in the culture of our remotest ancestors. Realistically, however, the linguistic association is simply not there -- and the fact that Pygmies and Bushmen speak totally different languages has contributed to the general tendency among anthropologists to treat these two populations as though they had no more in common than any other hunter-gatherer groups anywhere in the world.

While the genetic evidence clearly reveals a very close association indeed, going back all the way to the deepest roots of modern humans, the full impact of the genetic discoveries has yet to be felt among the great majority of today's anthropologists, who feel more comfortable with linguistic, archaeological and ethnographic evidence. What makes them especially uncomfortable, when they are forced to think about it at all, is the musical evidence. At least as compelling as the genetic evidence, it nevertheless causes most anthropologists to simply throw up their hands, as if to say, "what do you expect of us, we are not musicians and are therefore not in a position to comment one way or the other." The fact that most are not linguists either, or even archaeologists, doesn't discourage them from considering that sort of evidence. But linguistics and archaeology are part of the anthropological tradition, while music is not.

The situation was neatly encapsulated in an email I once received from Roger Blench, a noted linguist and ethnologist who's done significant musical research: "I think the musicological argument is a good one, but having presented this type of argument at prehistory conferences, people typically blank out on it and feel it is not the same sort of argument as one about pots or stone tools." This is very unfortunate, because music has a great deal in common with language, and can even be considered a kind of language in its own right. The relationship between the two has been expressed by a great many different thinkers, from ancient times to the present, in many different ways. The following, by a cognitive scientist, strikes me as especially clear and to the point: "Like language, music is a human universal in which perceptually discrete elements are organized into hierarchically structured sequences according to syntactic principles" (from Language, Music, Syntax and the Brain, 2003, by Anniruddh D. Patel).

I've never heard of anyone making such claims for pots or stone tools, though I suppose one could. Clearly a great many thinkers, from ancient Greek philosophers to modern cognitive scientists have attached considerable importance to music, as is evidenced by the enormous number and range of books and other writings devoted to this topic over thousands of years. The literature on pots and stone tools doesn't come close. So why are musical traditions neglected in favor of pots and stone tools? Why isn't music considered at least as important to the study of culture as language? Old habits die hard, I suppose, and old prejudices even harder.

Returning to the topic at hand: just as the various phylogenetic trees represent the clearest and most compelling physical evidence for a deep connection between WP, EP and Bu, the most compelling evidence of a cultural connection can be found in their music -- or, more precisely, the highly distinctive stylistic and structural qualities of what is clearly a shared musical tradition. I've already written a considerable amount on this matter, so need not repeat myself here. See the Table of Contents, above, for a guide to what I've written here -- most of my published writings on this topic can be accessed from the post Articles Now Available for Download. My latest treatment of this topic, in the form of a paper entitled "Concept, Style and Structure in the Music of the African Pygmies and Bushmen," has just been published in the latest issue of Ethnomusicology. You'll need a subscription to read it, but if you contact me privately I'll hopefully be able to supply you with an offprint at some point in the near future.

What I want to do now is simply offer a selection of relevant recorded clips that could serve as a useful guide for anyone with the patience to listen with an open mind and decide for her or him self whether such comparisons are meaningful or not. Most of these clips have already been posted elsewhere on this blog, but I'll link to them again here for your convenience:

From the CD "Chants de Bushmen Ju'hoansi," recorded by Emannuelle Olivier: The Eland -- Girl's Initiation

From the CD set "Musical Anthology of the Aka Pygmies," recorded by Simha Arom: Divining Music

A !Kung Bushmen Giraffe Medicine Song, recorded by the Marshall family, from Gilbert Rouget's 1956 LP, "Bushmen Music and Pygmy Music."

An Mbuti Elephant Hunting Song, recorded by Colin Turnbull and Francis S. Chapman, in an old LP, now available as a CD entitled "Music of the Ituri Pygmies."

From another Ju/’hoansi Bushmen group, in the village of Dobe, in northern Botswana: //Kaa (from the CD Mongongo, recorded by John Brearly).

Yet another Bushmen group, the Qwii, also from Botswana, but considerably farther south: Mantshwe (from the CD "Bushmen: Qwii – The First People").

Finally, a Song After Returning from the Hunt, with two pipes, from Africa: The Music of the BaBenzele Pygmies, recorded by Simha Arom.

As you can see, there are different sub-styles represented here, with different types of instruments accompanying the vocals. It would take a considerable amount of research to sort out all the details. But for me the fundamental stylistic unity is very clear, as I have gone to some trouble to explain, both in this blog and in several papers. And of course, I am not the first to have noticed the striking similarities in the music of so many Pygmy and Bushmen groups, scattered over such a vast territory in SubSaharan Africa.

(to be continued . . . )

Friday, October 23, 2009

229. The Baseline Scenarios -- part 5

The genetic evidence discussed in my previous post strongly suggests that the Hypothetical Baseline Population (HBP) was indeed a single group, possibly a small band, living somewhere in Africa, prior to the time of earliest divergence from HBP of either proto-Pygmies (PP) or proto-Bushmen (PB), with estimates ranging from Tishkoff's extremely conservative >35,000 years ago, to Chen's 77,600 - 102,000 spread. The same evidence also points to certain Pygmy and Bushmen groups of today as their most direct descendants, in that they carry the deepest mtDNA, Y chromosome and nuclear microsatellite clades. This is not fanciful conjecture, but very respectable science, supported by a growing consensus of specialists in both biology and anthropology.

We are now in a position to propose some very specific answers to the Overwhelming Question first raised in posts 182-194 (see Table of Contents, above): where do we come from? i.e, who were our ancestors and what were they like? or more precisely: what was HBP like? Prior to the advent of modern population genetics such a question would have seemed absurdly out of reach. But, amazingly enough, we now have more than sufficient evidence to formulate some very reasonable hypotheses.

Our method will be simple. Any attribute found to be shared by at least one group in each of the three populations with the deepest clades, i.e., Eastern Pygmies, Western Pygmies and Bushmen (EP, WP, Bu), should be taken seriously as a possible survival from the time the ancestors of all three groups were united as one -- the group I'm calling HBP. You could call this the "triangulation method."

Thus, for example, the short stature to be found in all three populations suggests that most or all HBP could also have been short. According to the Encyclopedia Britanicca, anthropologists define pygmies as any group whose adult males grow to less than 150 cm (4 feet 11 inches) in average height. Mbuti, according to the same source, average under 4 feet 6 inches in height. Some BaAka adults have been reported at exactly 4 feet in height. According to the 1911 edition of the Britanicca,
[t]he most striking feature of the Bushman's physique is shortness of stature. Gustav Fritsch in 1863-1866 found the average height of six grown men to be 4 ft. 9 in. Earlier, but less trustworthy, measurements make them still shorter. Among 150 measured by Sir John Barrow during the first British occupation of Cape Colony the tallest man was 4 ft. 9 in., the tallest woman 4 ft. 4 in.
While it's also been reported that other Bushmen populations average to more or less "normal" height, the remarkable shortness of at least some such groups cannot be ignored. If WP, EP and certain Bu groups can thus be considered "pygmies" as far as height is concerned, then it does seem likely that their common ancestors, HBP, were also of "pygmy" height. This makes considerable sense when we realize first, that there is no real evidence that pygmy stature is necessarily an adaptation to rainforest conditions (though it could be); second, that HBP could have originated in the Central African rainforest in any case; third, that tallness seems a more likely adaptation, in strictly Darwinian terms, than shortness, since a larger person has certain very clear advantages over one who is smaller. (We must also remember that HBP is not necessarily representative of either the earliest "modern" humans or all their contemporaries. Thus, fossil evidence of early humans of normal or greater height would have no bearing on the height of HBP, who would have been, in all likelihood, only one of a great many modern humans living in Africa at the time.)

Biological research, as reported in Patterns of Human Growth, 1999, by Barry Bogin, suggests that pgymy size may be due to unusual endrocrine levels, produced by a "genetic defect in the cellular mechanisms for the production, release or cellular reception of IGF -1" (p. 375). Since levels of IGF-1 have been found to be significantly lower in pygmies, this hypothesis seems likely.

A recent study of Andamanese pygmies, by Jay Stock and Andrea Migliano, offering a very different and imo highly unlikely, explanation, based on recent historical factors (ala classic revisionist dogma) has been criticized for several reasons, the most decisive offered by Anthropologist Brian Shea of Northwestern University, who
calls such evidence “interesting but irrelevant to the origin of small body size in human pygmy groups.” Stock and Migliano document short-term, environmentally induced changes in height that would affect the size of any population, Shea contends. This process can’t explain the origin of pygmies, he says.
I'm not sure whether the IGF-1 levels of Bushmen have been studied, but if they are also low, that would seem to settle the matter in favor of short stature as a trait inherited from a common ancestor by all three groups. Since HBP is the common ancestor, this means HBP would most likely have been of pygmy height as well. On the other hand, if Bushmen IGF-1 levels are found to be normal, then either the IGF-1 hypothesis is wrong, or Bushmen height is not inherited from HBP. If that were the case, then we would have no way of knowing whether HBP were short, tall or of medium height.

Turning to other phenotypical characteristics, steatopygia, an unusual degree of fat accumulation on the buttocks, has been noted in both Pygmies and Bushmen, making it likely that this condition was almost certainly inherited from HBP. In almost all other respects, however, Bushmen are morphologically very different from Pygmies, or indeed any other contemporary people. If HBP resembled today's Pygmies, then Bushmen morphology would represent a mutation or set of mutations from the HBP norm. On the other hand, if they resembled Bushmen, then the Pygmies would be the carriers of such mutations. It's possible they resembled neither, and as of now we seem to have no way of telling.*

A similar situation exists for language.

That the genetic evidence has significant meaning for the study of cultural history has been noted by several geneticists, though the possibilities have not yet been widely explored. Since the pioneering work of Cavalli-Sforza, there has been an effort to correlate the genetic findings with those of historical linguistics, but the results have not always been consistent, for obvious reasons, since languages can easily change in a very short time, due to historical factors. We know this to be the case in Africa, since the spread of Bantu languages is almost certainly due to the relatively recent (ca 3,000 ya) Bantu expansion.

Sarah Tishkoff et al. alluded to the linguistic evidence as follows, in their recent Science article on Africans and African Americans:
The shared ancestry, identified here, of Khoesan-speaking populations with the Pygmies of central Africa suggests the possibility that Pygmies, who lost their indigenous language, may have originally spoken a Khoesan-related language, consistent with shared music styles between the SAK (Southern African Khoesan) and Pygmies (p. 1041).
Since, as Tishkoff notes, all Pygmy groups lost their original languages (assuming they had any to begin with) and now speak languages related for the most part to those of their agriculturalist neighbors, we have no way of knowing what sort of language was spoken by HBP, or indeed if they had any language at all. As Tishkoff implies, the same is not true of music, since there are "shared music styles between the SAK (Southern African Khoesan) and Pygmies" (a specific reference to Lomax's work). If the lack of a shared verbal language can be seen as a serious drawback to any attempt to connect EP, WP and Bu culturally, the presence of shared musical styles easily makes up for it. Because music too is a language, though much neglected by anthropologists, for reasons already discussed at some length in earlier posts.

Much of my blog has been devoted to this very point, but in my next post I'll review the all important musical evidence, for the benefit of latecomers.

* [added at 2:32 PM, same day] I just had a bit of a brainstorm on the question of whether HBP would have been closest in morphology to Bushmen or Pygmies. If we take another look at the phylogenetic trees in the previous post, it's apparent, in all three cases, that the Bushmen occupy the deepest clades. Moreover, all these clades are dead ends. If the deepest clades are occupied by haplogroups found largely today among Bushmen, that strongly suggests that the ancestral group (HBP) could have resembled Bushmen. If that were the case, then the oldest ancestors of the Pygmies would have been the first group to diverge from the ancestral group, which is consistent with Chen's finding that the Biaka Pygmies were the first to diverge.

We would then have the following historic sequence: 1. A proto-HBP group either resembling today's Bushmen morphologically, or evolving in that direction, until we reach 2. HBP, resembling Bushmen; 3. the development and divergence of the first Pygmy or Proto-Pygmy (PP) population from HBP, due possibly to a population bottleneck or some other type of founder effect (due to banishment, accidental isolation, etc.); 4. the gradual expansion and migration of the original HBP population until it populates most or all of southern Africa with Bushmen-like people -- since all or most of the Bushmen clades are dead ends, the evidence suggests that HBP did not give rise to any other non-Bushmen populations, but remained relatively static (we are admittedly hampered here by a lack of Hottentot DNA, a serious gap since the Hottentots are generally thought to have been a Bushmen derivation); 5. the migration of the proto-Pygmy group (PP) into the Central African Forest, where it expands to eventually produce all the Pygmy groups we know today; 6. the development and divergence of a Proto-Bantu population from a Pygmy group, roughly 18,000 years ago, according to the genetic evidence.

If we assume, on the other hand, that HBP were more Pygmy-like, this would, first of all be inconsistent with current genetic evidence placing Bushmen at the deepest clades. If that were nevertheless the case, then we might have the following sequence, which would in fact be fully consistent with Chen's table: 1. A proto-Pygmy group, ancestral to the WP (Biaka), is the first to diverge, ca 70,000 to 100,000 years ago; 2. a proto-Bushmen group, ancestral to the !Kung, develops from HBP, due to some sort of founder effect or population bottleneck and diverges from the ancestral group between 41,000 and 54,000 years ago; 3. yet another Pygmy group, ancestral to the EP (Mbuti), diverges from HBP roughly between 14,000 and 19,000 years ago. If the ancestries of EP and WP are so completely separate from one another, by such a long time span, it's very hard to understand how both groups would have made their way separately into the Tropical Forest. Which tells us either that this second scenario is highly unlikely, or that HBP developed originally within the Tropical Forest, from which PB ultimately migrated.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

228. The Baseline Scenarios -- part 4

I've defined the Hypothetical Baseline Population (HBP) as "that population from which the ancestors of either the Pygmies or the Bushmen, or both, diverged, at some point during the Paleolithic era." I will now proceed to clarify this definition, being as specific as I can.

Let's begin by reviewing some of the phylogenetic trees we've already seen, gleaned from recently published papers by some of our leading population geneticists. First, a tree based on mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), representing the female lineages of selected African groups, as produced by Sarah Tishkoff et al, in their 2007 paper, History of Click-Speaking Populations of Africa Inferred from mtDNA and Y Chromosome Genetic Variation:

(For this and all other diagrams, I suggest right-clicking and selecting "Open link in new window," to get a larger, clearer view.)

The oldest, deepest clades (i.e., branches) are on the left, with the more derivative, thus later, clades toward the right, as suggested by the treelike structure of the diagram itself. Each letter-number combination at the tip of each branch (e.g., L0d, L0k, L0f, etc.) stands for what is called a "haplogroup," a term representing related sets of "haplotypes," i.e., genetic markers that have proven to be especially diagnostic for this type of research. The numbers stand for the percentages of each haplogroup found in the sample for each of the population groups listed (by language name) in the leftmost column.

Under L0d, the leftmost (thus deepest) clade, we see that the highest percentages by far are found among the !Xun/Khwe, !Xun and !Kung, three Bushmen groups. It is probably significant that the most isolated and thus least acculturated group, the !Kung, has the highest percentage of L0d: 96%. Moving to the right, we see that the next haplogroup with high percentages is L1c, under which we find Mbenzele (97%), Biaka (or Aka) (77%) and BaKola (100%), three Pygmy groups, all representing the Western Pygmy population. Moving farther to the right, we see another high percentage (55%) under haplogroup L2, representing the Mbuti, or Eastern Pygmies. We see that significant percentages for the Mbuti are also found to the left, under two deeper clades: L0a (30%) and L5 (15%).

Note further that no other high percentages are to be found until we reach L4g, where we find the Hadza and Sandawe, two other hunter-gatherer groups. Note that all the other African groups included in this survey are split among several different haplogroups, suggesting that their populations are the result of genetic admixture, reflecting thousands of years of interconnection with other groups. The two rightmost symbols, labeled simply M and N, represent the deepest clades of, believe it or not, literally all the remaining branches of the mitochondrial tree found thus far in the rest of the world. No non-African population is represented by any of the clades labeled "L," the very deepest clades worldwide, though the M and N clades are clearly branchings from L, as indicated in the diagram.

Moving from the female to the male line, as represented by the Y chromosome (found only in men), we see a phylogenetic tree produced by a group calling itself "The Y Chromosome Consortium," as published in a 2002 paper, A Nomenclature System for the Tree of Human Y-Chromosomal Binary Haplogroups:

While group names are not included in this diagram, the accompanying text informs us that the deepest clades (at the top) are occupied almost exclusively by either Bushmen or Pygmies, with Bushmen classified under either A or B and almost all Pygmies (Aka and Mbuti) under B. With the exception of one Zulu individual, none of the other groups included in the study belongs to either of the two deepest clades, A or B.

Finally, let's have a look at a phylogenetic tree based on nuclear markers, combining both male and female components, also produced by Sarah Tishkoff, with a somewhat different team, as part of a comprehensive study recently published in Science: The Genetic Structure and History of Africans and African Americans (2009):

(For simplicity sake, I've reproduced only the bottommost segment of a larger diagram.) This tree, based on a study of "1327 nuclear microsatellite and insertion/deletion markers," is especially easy to interpret as it's organized according to populations rather than haplogroups, with the population names printed on the right. Once again we find Bushmen (!XunXhoe and "San" -- actually !Kung) occupying the very deepest clades, with Pygmies following closely on their heels -- though this time the Eastern Pygmies (Mbuti) rather than the Western Pygmies (Bedzan, Bakola, Biaka and Baka) occupy the next deepest clade.

Reviewing all three diagrams, it's not difficult to see why I've attached so much importance to Bushmen and Pygmies in defining HBP. As should also be clear from the same diagrams, the ancestors of the Bushmen and Pygmies can also be regarded as the ancestors of every human now alive, which means that HBP represents the ancestry of not only Pygmies and Bushmen, but every single one of us as well. However, it's very important to understand what I mean in this case by "ancestry," because we have ancestors going back very far, not only to the earliest "modern" humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) but to the earliest archaic humans as well, the ancestors of Homo Erectus, Homo Neanderthalus and a host of other human and proto human groups, and beyond, to the ancestors (or more accurately ancestor) of every living thing that ever dwelt on Earth.

I have therefore defined HBP very specifically, as that population "from which the ancestors of either the Pygmies or the Bushmen, or both, diverged." We can see that founding, ancestral, population represented, however vaguely, in all three of the above phylogenetic trees, by looking in each case for the most fundamental clade, or "root," from which all the others stem. But in all cases this "root" is ambiguous, because it could represent the very earliest "modern" humans, or even some prior human group, closer to Homo Erectus; neither of which can really teach us very much, because, aside from some archaeological relics, we have no way, at present, of inferring very much at all about either them or their culture.

More useful in this respect is the following table, from Chen et al., mtDNA Variation in the South African Kung and Khwe—and Their Genetic Relationships to Other African Populations, 2000. (Again I'll remind you to expand this image by right clicking and selecting "Open link in new window".)

Though this study is somewhat outdated, the information in this table, based on estimates that still seem reasonable, is nevertheless useful. However, what I want to focus on is the basic idea, not particularly evident in the phylogenetic trees, that the various nodes on all the trees indicate points of divergence, i.e., "moments" in history (representing time spans from just a day or so to periods of many years) when the ancestors of one group separated from the group to which they had previously belonged, with which they had previously shared a common culture.

Thus, according to both the genetic evidence and common sense, there must have been a time when the first Pygmy group or the first Bushmen group separated off from a group that can now be considered, in retrospect, as the common ancestor of both. According to the genetics-based estimates offered by Chen et al, the earliest time of divergence may have, very roughly, been between 77,600 and 102,000 years ago, when, according to their best estimates, the Biaka (Aka) Pygmies diverged from the common ancestor. According to the same methods (admittedly very hypothetical), the !Kung Bushmen (aka the Ju'/hoansi) diverged from the same ancestral group 41,000 to 54,100 years ago, with the Mbuti and Senegalese diverging at a considerably later date, roughly 18 to 23 thousand years ago.

Since genetic evidence gleaned from so many different sources is not yet fully consistent in this respect, I hesitate to base HBP exclusively on such evidence, though the results are consistent enough to tell us a great deal. Nevertheless, the Chen table is useful as a point of departure because it encourages us to think not so much in terms of a common ancestor, but a very particular common ancestor, i.e., the very specific ancestral group from which the first of the Pygmy or Bushmen groups diverged, at some point during the Paleolithic, possibly 77,600 to 102,000 years ago, as estimated by Chen, possibly at some other date either earlier or later. The divergence would certainly show up in the genetic evidence -- though the methodologies are not yet at the point that they are producing fully consistent results. This doesn't really matter so much, however, because we also have considerable cultural evidence pointing in exactly the same direction, back in time to a moment of divergence from a common ancestral group. It is the cultural traditions practiced by the common ancestors at the moment of divergence that concern me here. This very specific ancestral group, as they were living at this particular time in history, at some particular place in Africa, is what I am referring to as the Hypothetical Baseline Population. And the culture of this group, at this particular time and place, is what I am referring to as the Hypothetical Baseline Culture.

(to be continued . . . )

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

227. The Baseline Scenarios -- part 3

Once upon a time, it was not unusual for anthropologists to see all hunter-gatherers as "primitive peoples," still living in the "stone-age," whose lifestyles were seen as more or less identical to those of our paleolithic ancestors. The field has changed drastically since that time, and today's anthropologists know better than to stick their gnarled fingers into that particular buzz saw. Nevertheless, "stone age hunters" are still with us as far as the popular mind is concerned, as is evident from the following, hot off the pages of the Worldwide Web (dated July, 2007): Face to face with Stone Age man: The Hadzabe tribe of Tanzania.
After a four-day quest covering thousands of miles by light aircraft, Land Rover and, finally, on foot, we knew we were on the brink of an unforgettable experience, the chance to reach back in time and meet our living human ancestors from countless millennia ago. . .

Here, in one of the world's last untouched wildernesses, the dense bush south of Africa's Rift Valley where the first humans emerged upright more than two million years ago, a group of men from the mysterious Stone Age tribe were ready to make their introductions.

Draped in animal skins and carrying arrows tipped with poison, two slim, wiry characters walked slowly towards us in the clearing. Time has stood still for these men, two of an estimated 400 remaining survivors of the Hadzabe tribe, whose way of life has scarcely changed since human evolution began.

These nomadic hunter-gatherers live as all humans once lived: wandering the plains with the changing seasons, killing game for survival, constantly avoiding aggressive wild beasts, and, finally, dying as they were born, under the sun and the stars.
This is exactly the sort of thing that will inevitably cause professional eyes to roll and heads to wag sagaciously. The "myth" of the "stone-age hunter-gatherer" is always fair game for even the most politically incorrect of social scientists, exactly the sort of thing everyone in the field feels duty bound to "deconstruct." But why, exactly? If we try to think impartially about a group such as the Hadzabe, then it does seem reasonable to assume that they are in fact living in more or less the same manner as all humans were living, back in the earliest stage of cultural evolution.

Political correctness considerations aside, the real problem with the previous sentence lies with two key words: "assume" -- and "stage." We can assume all sorts of things about the lifestyle of "early man," but such assumptions tend to be based only minimally on evidence, and maximally on something halfway between educated guessing and wishful thinking. It may certainly seem as though the Hadzabe are living in "the stone age," but what do we really know about the lifestyle of humans who existed tens of thousands of years ago -- and what do we really mean when we say "stone age"?

Almost everything we know, or think we know, has, until recently, been gleaned from extremely thin, notoriously disconnected, bits and pieces of evidence painfully cobbled together by archaeologists, a rare breed of humans prone to both the wildest of speculations and the bitterest of disputes. And the standard method of organizing all this hotly contested evidence into a coherent picture of "cultural evolution" is based, even today, on the vaguely Darwinian notion of the "stage." Even the most up-to-date, non-romantic, totally businesslike and objective anthropologists still think, in spite of themselves, in terms of such "stages" -- which is why, even today, we see so many references to hunting and gathering, horticulture, agriculture, pastoralism, industrialism, etc., as though the pursuit of a particular mode of subsistence were the most important and most characteristic clue to the "stage" any group represents in the grand panorama of "cultural evolution."

Please, please do not confuse what I am now attempting with any of the above. There are a great many very different kinds of "hunter-gatherers," each with their own distinctive characteristics, all of which cannot possibly represent the lifestyle of early humans. If "cultural evolution" actually progressed in stages, as implied by the term "evolution," then hunting and gathering would no longer be practiced by any human group -- and foragers, such as the Pygmies, Bushmen, Hadza, Inuit, etc. would have to pass through horticulture, plough agriculture and pastoralism before they were ready to participate in the industrial-financial economy of today. Modern anthropologists know this very well, yet they still organize their evidence in terms of evolutionary processes closely akin to the "stages" model, and they still think in terms of something called "cultural evolution."

"Cultural evolution" is a meaningful concept, and I can't complain too much about it because I've used it myself. But for my purposes now I want to drop all references to evolution of any kind. I am not concerned with how one practice might or might not have "evolved" from one "stage" to the other (though from time to time you might catch me using that term, for want of something better). I am concerned with something much simpler, more straightforward, and more in tune with the nature of the evidence at hand: history.

I am therefore going to define the "old-stone-age" or "paleolithic era" (both terms have exactly the same meaning, though one seems more politically correct than the other, for some reason) purely in historical terms, i.e., as very roughly covering a particular time span -- and not as a particular stage of cultural evolution. When it becomes necessary to account for certain changes that have without question taken place over time among certain groups, I will use the word "change," and not the word "evolved." Not that "evolved" might not actually turn out to be the most appropriate term in certain cases, but that it's usually a mistake to make such an assumption too soon. (I will also reserve to myself the right to use the phrase "cultural evolution" nonetheless, when it's necessary to talk about what I'm up to with the uninitiated.)

Finally, despite the fact that the Hadzabe, along with certain other foragers, both in and out of Africa, do indeed have much in common with the Pygmy and Bushmen groups I've been focusing on, I will not be referring to such groups when formulating "meaningful hypotheses about the culture, both material and non-material, of the population from which everyone in the world is descended," i.e., my Hypothetical Baseline Population (HBP). Because I am attempting to get beyond the vagueness and imprecision characteristic of so many previous attempts to deal with "cultural evolution," and because the loose thinking of so many past attempts has made this whole line of thought so out of favor today, it's important that I be as specific, as strict and as unambiguous as possible in gathering my evidence and formulating my argument. The Pygmies and Bushmen are crucial in this respect not simply because they are egalitarian hunter-gatherers with beehive huts and poison arrows, but because so much of the evidence from so many different domains points so strongly to all these groups as 1. stemming from the most archaic lineages and 2. carrying so many strikingly similar traditions, despite evidence that so many have been isolated from one another for so long.

The Hadza are especially problematic for two important reasons, neither of which might matter all that much eventually, but both of which matter a great deal at present: 1. their genetic signature is absolutely unique, with not even the slightest resemblance to that of any other group, either in Africa or elsewhere; 2. their musical style is not only completely different from that of the Pygmies and Bushmen, but also atypical for Africa generally. Thus, though the Hadza are certainly very interesting in terms of the model I'm developing, and I will want to eventually study both their culture and their music with some care in relation to this model, neither their genetic makeup nor their musical style makes them a convincing source for defining the Hypothetical Baseline Culture (HBC) I'll be attempting to define in coming posts. (Both the genetic and musical evidence suggests that they suffered a severe population bottleneck at some point in their history, possibly very early on.) There is, moreover, no need to include them, or any other group that might seem promising in this respect, since the Pygmy and Bushmen groups I've been focusing on are more than adequate for this purpose -- at least for now.

(to be continued . . . )

Sunday, October 18, 2009

226. The Baseline Scenarios -- part 2

The reason the revisionist counter-myth is a myth is not because the traditionalist myth is not a myth. Both are "myths." When Colin Turnbull wrote that the Pygmies "may well be the original inhabitants of the great tropical rain forest," or when Alan Lomax wrote of "[t]he Bushman and Pygmy peoples" as "living close to the source of man's known beginnings," they were speculating on the basis of vaguely understood notions generally accepted at the time for reasons that made a good deal of sense -- but there was little in the way of real evidence to either substantiate or falsify such claims. Not, strictly speaking, a myth. But not exactly science either.

On the other hand, when Roy Grinker tries to convince us that there was never any such thing as a Pygmy people, or a Pygmy culture, but only different groups of little people who had "always" been associated with Bantu farmers, and entered the Ituri forest along with them, as their servants or slaves; or when Edwin Wilmsen writes, of the Kalahari Bushmen, that "[t]heir appearance as foragers is a function of their relegation to an underclass in the playing out of historical processes that began before the current millennium and culminated in the early decades of this century," they too are weaving a "myth" -- the evidence they cite could be interpreted in many different ways, depending on what one would prefer to believe.

It was only with the advent of a radically new and indeed revolutionary approach, variously referred to as "population genetics," "anthropological genetics," "genetic anthropology," "genographics," etc., that reliable and consistent tools for the systematic investigation of the biological "deep history" of modern humans became available. On the basis of the genetic research, coupled with Cantometrics-based musical research, I was, I believe, able to demonstrate that the traditionalist position was consistent with the evidence, both genetic and musical -- and the revisionist position was not. (See my paper New Perspectives on the Kalahari Debate: A Tale of Two Genomes.) In retrospect, therefore, the so-called Pygmy or Bushmen or Hunter-Gatherer "myth" may not have been a myth at all, but an insight.

Moreover, as I have been attempting to demonstrate, lo these many posts, this new situation emboldens us to reconsider the various bits and pieces of ethnographic and archaeological evidence, already at our disposal for some time, from an entirely fresh perspective. If, indeed, certain Pygmy groups and certain Bushmen groups, from widely scattered regions within SubSaharan Africa, 1. share an ancestry occupying the deepest clades of the human family tree; 2. share a strikingly similar set of cultural values and behaviors -- as mirrored in strikingly similar musical traditions; and 3. share a strikingly similar material culture (characterized by, for example, bows and poison tipped arrows, "beehive" huts, foraging, nomadism, etc.); then it seems reasonable to assume that all of the above would almost have to be grounded in traditions long since established within the group ancestral to all. In other words, we are now in a position to develop meaningful hypotheses about the culture, both material and non-material, of the population from which everyone in the world is descended -- and on that basis propose additional hypotheses regarding the history of "modern" humans from that time to this.

There is an interesting problem, however, regarding the status of any biologically defined "ancestral group," due to certain discrepancies between the mitochondrial evidence, representing the female lineage, and the Y chromosome evidence, representing the male lineage. They "coalesce" at different points in time, with "mitochondrial Eve" thought to have lived between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago, and "Y Chromosome Adam" dating from roughly 60,000 years ago. Moreover, the differences between the mitochondrial and Y chromosome data also produce different estimates for time of divergence from the ancestral group for either the Pygmies or Bushmen.

Due to the this purely methodological but nevertheless confusing discrepancy, I am reluctant to use the term "ancestral group," since the genetic evidence necessarily produces two such groups and there doesn't seem to be any way of resolving this discrepancy in the near future. For that reason, I've decided to make use of the more technical, neutral, nonspecific term, employed by Lomax: "baseline."

Specifically: I will define Hypothetical Baseline Population (HBP) as that population from which the ancestors of either the Pygmies or the Bushmen, or both, diverged, at some point during the Paleolithic era. And I will define Hypothetical Baseline Culture (HBC) as the culture of that same population.

(to be continued . . .)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

225. The Baseline Scenarios

(With apologies to Simon Johnson and James Kwak.)

My great teacher, friend, father-figure, and role model, Alan Lomax, was once heard to declare: "the Pygmies are the baseline." And I was once asked, at a conference in his honor, to explain what that meant. I didn't recall Lomax ever using precisely that expression, but I immediately knew exactly what it meant. Only it wasn't easy to explain.

In an early report on our Cantometric results, after discussing the Mbuti Pygmies and their music at some length, Lomax writes as follows:
I have dwelt upon this extreme, rare and somehow utopian situation because it runs counter to most of the music we know and thus illuminates the rest of human musical activity in an extraordinary way. It points to the close bonds between forms of social and musical integration (Alan Lomax, "Song Structure and Social Structure." Ethnology, (1)4, 1962, p. 261 -- as reproduced in Alan Lomax: Selected Writings).
Equally important for Lomax was the close affinity between the music of the Mbuti and the !Kung Bushmen, first examined by Gilbert Rouget in the mid-50's, noted by Lomax a few years later, and confirmed by Cantometric analysis:
Perhaps no two peoples, so far separated in space (3,000 miles), living in such different environments (desert and jungle), and belonging to different racial and linguistic groups, share so many stylistic traits . . . as far as Cantometric analysis is concerned, the styles are, indeed, identical. Their hocketing, polyphonic, polyrhythmic, maximally blended style seems to mirror this system of closely integrated [social] relationships (ibid).
In my view, Lomax's early recognition of the importance of this musical style, it's social significance, and the significance of its highly unusual distribution, between two populations so similar in so many respects and yet so distant from one another, was a brilliant insight -- one of several remarkable breakthroughs on his part, initiating a radical departure for both ethnomusicology and anthropology that should have had lasting repercussions.

Lomax recognized very early on that these Pygmy and Bushmen foragers could indeed be seen as a baseline, in the sense that so much evidence, even at that time, pointed to both their culture and their music as possible survivals from the deepest levels of human history. But there was also another sense in which Lomax saw African foragers as a baseline, and this had to do with a related, but nevertheless far more complex and controversial idea, developed in collaboration with anthropologist Conrad Arensberg, that both their music and their cultures could be understood as the baseline of an evolutionary development grounded in subsistence type. Starting with what they called "Extractors" (hunter-gatherers), progressing to "Incipient Producers" (horticulture?), thence to "Animal Husbandry," leading to "Plow Agriculture," and finally reaching its culmination in "Irrigation," human history was conceived as an evolutionary progression from the simple to the complex, closely correlated with musical style at every stage (see Folk Song Style and Culture, 1968, pp. 117-169).

When Lomax first explained this theory to me, I must say, very frankly, that my heart sank. I didn't get it then and I never got it. I tried to explain that there was no one musical style for all foragers, that there were in fact huge differences between Pygmy/Bushmen style and, say, the music of the Australian Aborigines, Eskimos, Amerindian foragers, Siberian hunters, etc. I was also puzzled as to how they came up with such an unoriginal scheme, so close to the sort of evolutionary progression that had once been so popular -- and long since thoroughly disproven, in about a thousand different ways, and definitively rejected by literally every single anthropologist in the world.

Lomax's response was complex and mystifying and I wasn't able to follow it, I must admit. Maybe he had something, I don't know, but his argument was way over my head. I won't get into all the ins and outs of this theory here, you'll be relieved to learn. For more information, and a very thorough statistical analysis demonstrating why it doesn't work, I'll refer you to a remarkable and little known paper by Edwin Erickson, who collaborated very closely on the project with Lomax, as anthropologist and statistician: Tradition and Evolution in Song Style: A Reanalysis of Cantometric Data (in Cross-Cultural Research, 1976).

The almost complete rejection of the Lomax/Arensberg evolutionary scheme by so many colleagues was a terrible blow to Lomax -- and his insistence on aggressively promoting his theory at every opportunity he could find, year after year, in the face of almost total rejection, produced a situation that could only be called tragic. Partly as a result of certain misunderstandings regarding the nature of the coding system itself, but mostly because of Lomax's fierce attachment to the dubious evolutionary scheme he produced from it (more accurately, against it), Cantometrics was all but completely rejected, and worse, leaving a legacy of bitterness and incomprehension on both sides, that lasted for many years -- and still lingers, very unfortunately, and also, imo, unnecessarily.

I'm bringing all this history up now because I want to make it clear that Lomax was indeed the pioneer in the area that I am now exploring. What I'm doing now would not be possible if he hadn't conceived, and developed, his remarkable project, and hired me, as an inexperienced but eager 20 something, to work as collaborator and assistant -- but also, and very much so: student. My admiration for him is enormous, not only as a great collector, scholar and writer, but also as one of the most brilliant and original minds I have ever encountered. Not to mention my admiration for his fearless political stance and the responsibilities he took upon himself as an activist promoter of so many good and important causes. However, even the greatest minds can get sidetracked and spend years on futile endeavors. Isaac Newton, for example, spent far too much time and effort on pointless alchemical research. And, tragically, Lomax spent far too much time, and spiritual energy, on a deeply flawed theory that he could not let go of.

With that sad lesson in mind, I turn, not without some trepidation, to my own pet theory (actually I prefer to see it as more of an exploration), which I will continue to develop in coming posts, under the heading you see above. Following Lomax's inspired lead, I too see the Pygmies and Bushmen as a baseline -- not in the evolutionary sense he so stubbornly promoted, but, more simply and straightforwardly, in the historical sense he pioneered -- and then more or less forgot.

(to be continued . . . )

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

225. Deconstructing the Postmodern Condition 25 -- Tradition

As should be crystal clear to anyone following this blog with any degree of real attention, the revisionists were wrong. (I refer to them in the past tense because their day is done.) But there is a difference between demonstrating that they were wrong and deconstructing them, which is what I promised to do. And since deconstructing them is not the same as debunking them it's also important to understand in what sense they were wrong -- and also to what extent they were right. They were not completely wrong in exposing what they called the "myth" of pristine foragers living a timeless existence in the Ituri forest and Kalahari desert since the paleolithic era. Not because these people necessarily did not live in precisely that manner for precisely that long a period, with little or no fundamental changes in their lifestyle and/or value system -- but because the picture painted by people such as Schebesta, Turnbull, Lee and so many others was indeed a kind of wishful thinking -- based to some extent on solid evidence -- but to a greater extent on projecting their own world view and their own value system onto a society that they may or may not have been capable of understanding.

For all they or anyone else knew, our paleolithic ancestors might have been farming 100,000 years ago, or herding elephants, or perhaps making a living by gambling with homo erectus neighbors (dumb and easily conned); or possibly they'd even developed an advanced civilization back then, with automobiles, trolleys and subway systems, that could have been totally engulfed by a gigantic earthquake or volcanic eruption thousands of years ago, leaving behind not a single trace. Who could say for sure?

So the revisionists did us all a favor by reminding us that the traditionalist view was, to some extent at least, a construction, based on assumptions that couldn't completely be substantiated. But their "deconstruction" (actually only a debunking) of the "pygmy myth," or the "bushmen myth" or the "hunter-gatherer myth," was a projection of their own world view and value system, based on assumptions they too have never been able to substantiate. And the proliferation of ideologically-based rhetoric in their discourse, characterized by the continual repetition of dismissive terms such as "myth," "reification," "essentialization," etc., at the expense of reasoned argument, is a measure of how desperate they were to impose that view.

Where the traditionalists wanted to see foragers as representative of some ideal classless, egalitarian society that could serve as a model for some future utopia, the revisionists wanted to see the same people caught helplessly in the grips of a globally functioning, all-encompassing worldwide network dominated by the free flow of capital. Indeed, for Jacqueline Solway
these liberal theories give precedence to exchange and the market rather than to production and the ways in which surplus goods and labor are pumped out of society. They assume that all production is for exchange rather than use, and that capitalist social relations are natural. These theories locate the single motor for development -- exchange -- in the industrial capitalist countries rather than in the undeveloped periphery. . .

Thus the crux of Wilmsen's and Denbow's critique is that they do not like dialectical analyses that challenge the primacy of exchange relations, the dominance of the West, and the inevitability of capitalist expansion across the face of the globe. They imply that people have always been the way they are today and, since human nature is fixed, they cannot change (The Politics of Egalitarianism, 2006, pp. 61-62).
Hey, she said it, not me. (Quite well said too, I must say.)

[Added Oct. 17th: Sorry, but I got confused and attributed the above quotation to the wrong author. Jacqueline Solway is the editor of the volume, The Politics of Egalitarianism, but the quote is from a chapter in that volume, entitled "Subtle Matters of Theory and Emphasis: Richard Lee and Controversies About Foraging Peoples," by Thomas C. Patterson.]

There's one more item I'd like to cover, because it's important to understand that the revisionist position is actually worse than it might seem. It is not simply deconstructable -- which is, after all, no great sin. It is something far worse: an argument in bad faith. The clearest example of the bad faith of the revisionist position is in its treatment of the most compelling and indeed convincing aspect of the pygmy/bushmen value system: its very clear grounding in what could be called "radical egalitarianism." And on that score, the traditionalists have been able to make a very solid case indeed.

If all or almost all hunter-gatherer societies are essentially egalitarian in essentially the same ways, characterized not simply by gift exchange, but guided by values that promote (without always necessarily achieving) relatively equal distribution of resources with no expectation of repayment, then it's very difficult to challenge either the deep antiquity of such values or their ultimately "utopian" character. And in the face of overwhelming evidence that egalitarian values of this nature are in fact found among so many foraging societies in so many different parts of the world, the revisionists have had their work cut out for them.

We've already seen one example of their response in the theory repeated, and (tentatively) considered, by Michelle Kisliuk when she cites Chandra Jayawardena's argument
that egalitarianism is notably present among people who share a 'lower-class' status. He states that 'notions of human equality are dominant in a subgroup to the extent that it is denied social equality by the wider society or its dominant class.' If one were to view BaAka and Bagandou villagers [Bantu farmers who have established close ties with the BaAka] as subgroups of a single regional society . . . one might explain BaAka egalitarian values as having arisen in reaction to their oppression by their neighbors" (Seize the Dance, p. 28).
As Kisliuk notes, a similar argument is provided by Roy Grinker in his Houses in the Rainforest, where egalitarian sharing among the Efe pygmies is explained away as a response to their unequal status as an exploited servant class, dominated by their Lese masters. Since, for Grinker, both the Efe and Lese are indissoluble elements in a single social construct, no explanation based on any affinity they might have with any other groups living in other parts of the Ituri, or indeed the world, would be acceptable. I suspect that the source of such fanciful thinking can be found in the writings of Edwin Wilmsen, the arch revisionist whose cynical ideology has been so influential:
If, nonetheless, even to careful obeservers Zhu may superficially appear classless today, it is because they are incorporated as an underclass in a wider social formation that includes Botswana, Ovaherero, and others (Land Filled with Flies, p. 270).
In all three cases, we learn that egalitarian values, as expressed by the sharing of resources and the absence of class-based hierarchy, are not what they might seem to "idealists" infatuated with some "utopian" myth, but simply the result of some universal psychological trait shared by all humans when they find themselves dominated by a more powerful ruling class. Under conditions likely to promote either violently competitive behavior (e.g., so many "inner city" neighborhoods in the US and elsewhere) or an introverted, asocial passivity born of hopelessness (e.g., the starving masses of India), or a fierce resistance (e.g., the Russian, Chinese, Cuban, etc., revolutions), Wilmsen expects us to believe the downtrodden will respond by being extra nice to one another. A more tendentious theory would be difficult to find, but where all else fails, bad faith can always be counted on to muddy the waters.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

224. Deconstructing the Postmodern Condition 24 -- Tradition

The hidden assumptions of Schebesta and Turnbull are not fundamentally very different from those of their opposite number, the revisionists. By deconstructing anthropological revisionism I'll be completing my deconstruction of the Postmodern Condition from which the revisionists so painfully suffer, and will finally be in a position to move on to more fruitful territory.

Now pay attention, folks. And keep your eye on the ball:

I've already had a good deal to say about Kalahari revisionism, both on this blog (see posts 64 et seq.) and in my paper, "New Perspectives on the Kalahari Debate" (see table of contents for "Papers Available for Download"). Here's a quote (from post # 68) that seems worth repeating now:
As any good student of Derrida should realize, there is an important difference between deconstructing a concept and demystifying or debunking it. A deconstruction can be extremely revealing, even devastating, but is never definitive, never adversarial, never final. A demystification, on the other hand, in "exposing" a concept as simply false or deceptive, ends by reinforcing the fundamental opposition that gave rise to it in the first place. Thus, in attempting to "debunk" the "essentialism" behind notions such as authenticity and indigeneity, the Kalahari revisionists launched a puritanical crusade, a postmodern inquisition that only succeeded in re-establishing Western hegemony in another guise, with devastating consequences for some of the very people they were claiming to liberate.
I won't get into my old argument all over again, as there's no point. But I will refer you once again to an important book by an author who writes very eloquently on the damage done by some of the more over-zealous revisionists: Theory in an Uneven World (Blackwell, 2003), by Rajagopalan Radhakrishnan. In this context, I'll focus more on the issue of adaptation, rather than the more highly charged topics Radhakrishnan deals with, such as essentialization, authenticity, etc.

While revisionists display a healthy skepticism with respect to Turnbull-style idealizations of the natural environment, they focus with special intensity on the social environment, especially what we could call the socio-economic-political environment. Which, in terms of the argument I've been developing here, is not all that different, as we shall see. While traditionalists have tended to emphasize adaptation to that which is age-old, enduring, natural, primal and "pristine," revisionists focus on adaptation to that which is contrived, local, political, and "historical." And by "historical" I mean recorded history, not, God forbid, ancient or deep history, which they dismiss as the realm of myth. Nevertheless, as far as I am concerned, an environment is an environment -- and adaptation is adaptation. And the importance of both has been greatly exaggerated.

So. Rather than rehash all the complicated ins and outs of a complicated debate over whether or not some group herded cattle or goats five hundred years ago, or some other group was involved in a cash economy during the 1950's, or whether some group of bushmen or pygmies spent 80% or 40% of their time hunting, or whether some pygmy group was or was not dependent on some Bantu group at some point in the relatively recent past, I'll focus my analysis on the more fundamental issue of whether any of this really matters when considering (in the words of Cornelia van der Sluys, as quoted earlier) "the forces inside these cultures that tend to perpetuate their reproduction from generation to generation. . ."

For the revisionists, it matters greatly, because for them all African cultures have been largely determined by adaptation to political and economic forces that have swept through Africa from the Bantu expansion to the colonial era and beyond. And there is no problem with such a model, as far as it goes -- but clearly it does not go far enough. The real problem with the argument from socio-economic-political adaptation is fundamentally no different from the problem with the argument from environmental adaptation. Neither paradigm is capable of standing against the overwhelming evidence, both genetic and cultural, for a common ancestry and common cultural heritage, based on that ancestry, among so many different pygmy and bushmen groups scattered so widely over such a huge region. While insisting that anthropology must be historicized, their efforts in that direction don't go nearly far enough, because Africa has a very long history, dating to well before the forces that most concern them came into play.

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.

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 . . .