Thursday, May 17, 2007

6. Year One Part Two

OK, where was I? There were for many years all sorts of speculations regarding the possible significance of Pygmy/Bushmen (P/B) style, which due to its very distinctive nature and unusual distribution, among so many indigenous peoples in so many very different parts of the world, looked very much like a survival of truly ancient or even archaic provenance. However, it was only recently, with the advent of the "Out of Africa" theory, based on new and very exciting types of genetic research, that the real significance of this tradition became evident. Because over and over again it was the Pygmies and Bushmen of Africa whose DNA was being referenced as representative of some of the oldest populations in the world. In the words of a recent (2000) study by Yu-Sheng Chen et al., "these data showed that the Biaka Pygmies have one of the most ancient RFLP sublineages observed in African mtDNA and, thus, that they could represent one of the oldest human populations. In addition, the Kung [Bushmen] exhibited a set of related haplotypes that were positioned closest to the root of the human mtDNA phylogeny, suggesting that they, too, represent one of the most ancient African populations." This is only one of several such studies, pointing over and over again to certain Pygmy and Bushmen groups whose DNA is suggestive of great age.

Interestingly, the Bushmen group closest to the human mitochondrial root was the group Rouget initially studied, the !Kung, who clearly exhibit all the characteristics of P/B style, from interlock to yodel. Another Bushmen group, the Khwe, also studied by Chen, had mtDNA characteristics that were different, closer, in fact, to the African mainstream: "Comparison
of Kung and Khwe CR sequences with those from other African populations confirmed the genetic association of the Kung with other Khoisan-speaking peoples, whereas the Khwe were more closely linked to non–Khoisan speaking
(Bantu) populations." The Khwe would seem to be closer to the African mainstream musically as well. I have not, thus far, been able to identify any of the more distinctive characteristics of P/B style in any of the recordings of their music I have heard to date.

For Chen et al., therefore, just as for Rouget and Lomax, the genetic research suggested that the Biaka Pygmies and !Kung Bushmen stemmed from "a common root." The geneticists went on to estimate that the ancestors of the Biaka Pygmies diverged from the hypothetical founder population between 76,200 and 102,000 years ago, with a divergence time for the Kung Bushmen between 41,000 and 54,100 years ago.

To understand the full, and indeed rather staggering significance of the above, let us once again focus on the musical evidence. We have two populations consisting of nomadic hunter-gatherers with the simplest of material cultures, no permanent residence, no iron or steel tools (until very recently), without domesticated animals, moving about on foot, and located in what amounts to three very distant parts of the African continent, the Pygmies in the forests of both West and Central Africa, the !Kung Bushmen in the desert of southern Africa. Yet they have musical traditions that, for most of the musicologists who have studied them, are so close as to be almost indistinguishable. Since the genetic evidence so strongly suggests that both groups stem from the same root, it would make a great deal of sense to conclude that the similarity of musical practice must stem from the time when their ancestors were part of the same population, a history that may go back at least 76,000 but possibly 102,000 years, according to Chen et al.

So what could the ancestors of the Pygmies and Bushmen have been singing 76,000 to 102,000 years ago? Would it have been something roughly similar, but perhaps more "primitive," maybe less intricately contrapuntal or not contrapuntal at all -- or perhaps not as well organized, less precise rhythmically, more loosely structured? Astonishingly enough, if the Pygmies and Bushmen of today indeed sing in a manner that even the experts find it difficult to distinguish, then it's hard to imagine how their common ancestors of 76,000 years ago could have been vocalizing much differently -- in any respect. Why do I feel so sure of this? Well, let's assume that the ancestral population had a different, or at least somewhat different, musical tradition at the time when the first group of Biaka Pygmy ancestors broke away from the "founder population," 76,000 to 102,000 years ago. Once the two groups had separated, then, in order for them to be so musically similar today, their music would have had to evolve in more or less exactly the same way despite the fact that they were no longer in contact with one another. And for the life of me I can think of no "sufficient reason" (to quote Liebnitz, whose "principle of sufficient reason" is one of the backbones of science) to explain such parallel evolution, or what evolutionists call "convergence." The only explanation that makes sense to ME is that the ancestral group must have been making music in a manner that would also be indistinguishable from "modern" musical practice, among their descendents, to the same experts, if they had had an opportunity to hear it.

We can only conclude that this particular musical tradition must have been passed down from generation to generation over a period of at least 76,000 years (assuming the genetic estimates are correct) essentially unchanged -- a conclusion that, if corroborated, would totally transform our notion of cultural evolution and the role of tradition in its history.

By the way, there are other, closely related, aspects of culture that do NOT seem to have been passed down in the same way. For example, today's Bushmen have a very strong tradition of what has been called "shamanism," where many if not most of the men participate in certain very long and arduous rituals where they can go into trance and then operate as healers. The Pygmies, on the other hand, do not have shamans at all -- and while they do have initiation rituals, these are thought to have been due to the influence of the Bantu groups with whom they have developed symbiotic relationships. Therefore, unlike the situation with music, we are unable to conclude that the original "founding" group already had either shamanism or initiation rituals -- in fact such practices may well have developed after the two groups became separated.