Friday, January 15, 2010
289. Aftermath 4
In contrast to the rest of the world (or most of it), where we see very large-scale morphological and cultural differences, of the sort that anthropologists used to ascribe to "race,"* Africa south of the Sahara presents a very different picture. Where the rest of the world has for many years been clearly subdivided into discrete "racial" groups, on the basis of distinctions that most find "obvious," SubSaharan (SS) Africa has traditionally been regarded as the home of a single race. Which is easy to take for granted, but in fact seems very odd when we consider that SSAfrica too has a history, and that there have been many migrations of African peoples within that continent during the same period that non-Africans migrated through the rest of the world.
If these sorts of migrations automatically lead to large-scale, geographically defined "racial" divisions, then why hasn't that happened in SSAfrica? There has certainly been at least as much time for such differences to develop in Africa as everywhere else. And historically SS Africa has been largely self contained until very recently, with relatively little migration either in or out (aside from the slave trade) since the original Out of Africa exodus, which may well have been a one-time event.
Not that there aren't very striking morphological, cultural and even genetic differences within that continent. We see very small people (Pygmies and Bushmen), very tall people (Masai, Watutsi, etc.), lighter-skinned people (Bushmen and some Pygmies), very dark skinned people (many Bantu and Nilotic speakers), even people with epicanthic folds and other "mongoloid" characteristics (Bushmen), etc. But they are not divided into clearly differentiated regions as they are in places such as Europe (almost exclusively "caucasoid"), the Near and Middle East ("semitic"), East Asia (mostly "mongoloid"), Siberia (not usually regarded as a separate "race," but highly distinctive nevertheless), Australia ("australoid"), Amerindian (some "mongoloid" traits, but mostly a distinctive morphology nevertheless), and certain other, smaller morphologically and culturally distinctive groups as well.
While the rest of the world is more or less clearly grouped into different areas, based on "racial" difference, different types of Africans tend to share more or less the same general area. Witness the co-existence of the otherwise very different Watutsi and Hutu in Ruanda; Pygmy groups and more typically "negroid" Bantu farmers in Central Africa; and yellow-skinned, small statured Bushmen sharing roughly the same region (southern Africa) with a wide variety of other, "negroid," types.
My point is this: if the Out of Africa migration was simply a movement of a small group of Africans smoothly and continuously eastward into a new region, and then smoothly and continuously northward and from there moving out in all directions to inhabit the rest of the earth according to a smooth, continuous progression, then why doesn't the rest of the world look more like Africa, with its variety of different human types, looks, cultures, languages, etc., overlapping with one another, as would be expected from the sort of free form migration pattern usually assumed.
Bottlenecks are naturally to be expected among such groups, along with other forms of genetic drift and also contact of the sort that could produce peoples of varying morphologies, languages, musics, etc., in different places. But once the original migrants would have spread throughout a large enough area, with large enough population sizes, then the effects of any single bottleneck, genetic drift, contact, etc. would have been local and had strictly local effects, as we see for the most part in Africa.
Which is why I find the notion of a major bottleneck very early on, due to Toba or perhaps some other serious event, so compelling. Because only such an event at such an early stage could have had the sort of large-scale effect needed to produce the large-scale patterns of difference we now see. If such an event had not taken place, and there had been no bottleneck so early on (or simultaneous set of bottlenecks all produced by the same event), then it would be very difficult to explain why the world at large doesn't overlay its pattern of "racial" differences as does SS Africa.
As I see things, it is only when we pay attention to such large scale distributions of certain traits, characteristics, traditions, etc. that we can find clues potentially of real use for recreating historical events that might otherwise seem totally beyond our reach. I'm not saying that alternative interpretations are not possible, but only that this is a potentially fruitful path to follow.
*Because I subscribe quite strongly to the notion that the term "race," as applied to humans, is essentially a social construct, I prefer to speak in terms of morphological, cultural, and genetic differences, rather than "racial" differences. However, the old racial terminology can be useful, as long as we realize that it represents an insight into certain very broad, though crude, morphological distinctions, many of which could well be legitimate.
However, when an attempt is made to lump morphological and genetic difference, in an attempt to categorize everyone as belonging to one or the other biologically determined "race," the system breaks down. It is not a science, but some of the terminology does in fact prove useful in the attempt to make sense of certain large-scale human differences. And it is of course a perfectly legitimate term to use so long as we make clear that we are speaking of socially constructed "racial" differences, which can have an even greater impact on people's lives than scientifically determined ones.
Posted by DocG at 3:14 PM