Friday, July 17, 2009

170. The Pygmy/Bushmen Nexus -- Part 10 -- African Offshoots

My friend Maju makes an interesting request in a comment to post #167: "So I am already anticipating the next epysode: which I presume will deal with how this ancestral style or components of it were lost or transformed into other musical styles as the human journey progressed through the world."

Point well taken. If the genetic evidence points to the Pygmies and Bushmen occupying the deepest clades in the homo sapiens family tree, and their common ancestors, who would therefore have been our ancestors as well, were making music in P/B style anywhere from 70,000 to 150,000 years ago, then why do we find this style today only among Pygmies and Bushmen, why don't we find it practiced among a great many people throughout the world? In other words, why did music evolve in such a way that there are so many different styles of music making in different parts of the world? And why did the original style survive only among African Pygmies and Bushmen?

As I see it, the answer may be much simpler than anyone might suspect. If the presence of this very distinctive style is so strongly correlated with the genetic evidence, as certainly appears to be the case, then it would make sense to assume that its survival among certain populations, but not others, could have essentially the same cause as the survival of the ancient genetic markers among the same populations, but not others. And, by the same token, whatever changes took place in the musical stylistic markers over the millennia, among so many different populations, could stem either directly or indirectly from the same causes responsible for the changes in the genetic markers among the same populations. This makes more sense than it might seem when we realize that in both cases we are dealing with neutral markers, i.e., distinctive features (of music or genetics) that appear unrelated to evolution in the Darwinian sense, i.e., natural selection based on adaptation to the environment.

The above statement might be too abstract or technical for anyone to easily accept or even fully grasp at this point, but I'll toss it out here anyhow, as it might come in handy for future reference.

Another clue comes from the realm of linguistics, a basic principle of which I was unaware, until reading the following, from the Supporting Online Materials published with the Tishkoff group's latest paper:
Our observation that the Pygmies appear to share common ancestry with several Khoesan-speaking populations raises the possibility that the indigenous Pygmy language may have contained click consonants. A recent examination of the skeletal evidence for the development of the human vocal tract indicates that full human language capacity evolved before 50 kya but after 100 kya (S119). Considering that the normative directions of phonological evolution are from greater to lesser markedness, and that clicks are among the most marked of all sounds, the fact that click consonants exist at all in present day languages favors their existence back to the earliest human languages of 100-50 kya (p. 20).
What interests me here is the notion that the characteristic clicks of Khoesan, of which there are several distinct types, may well have been present in the earliest languages and subsequently lost -- because "the normative directions of phonological evolution are from greater to lesser markedness, and . . . clicks are among the most marked of all sounds." I was not aware of that phonological principle, but it interests me, because I see an analogy between Khoesan markedness and P/B musical style, which can also be understood as heavily "marked," in the sense that it would appear to contain far more distinctive features than any other type of music to be found in any other indigenous or "folk" repertoire. Could there be an "evolutionary" tendency, based on the same principle, for both languages and musical styles to lose "markedness," i.e., complexity and/or nuance, over time? This would correspond to what appears to have happened to P/B over time -- contradicting earlier notions of musical evolution based on the opposite view, that music begins with the simplest utterances and gradually evolves in the direction of increasing complexity.

Again, I think maybe I'm being too technical in the above, and also getting ahead of myself, so please allow me to start over once again:

The place to start is, obviously, Africa. And what I'd like to do next, rather than speculate further about basic principles, is to, more concretely, consider the distribution of P/B style, or musical styles similar to P/B in certain respects, on that continent. And yes, there are many groups in Africa that sing and/or play instruments in a manner resembling P/B -- though rarely in all respects. Here again we might want to pay close attention to "loss of markedness" since I think it might help us understand what can happen to a musical tradition over time.

(to be continued . . . )


German Dziebel said...

Hi Victor,

Just reviewed your recent posts. As we discussed last year on, kinship systems also show signs of evolution from complexity (markedness) to simplicity. Exactly like you're writing about music, in the past some kinship theorists imagined kinship systems evolving from the simplest (which are, incidentally, found among the Pygmies) to more complex. This thinking is now abandoned, and those simplest kinship systems (described, for example, by Turnbull) are thought of as a result of secondary evolution.

A good compaartive paper to read is Irish, Joel. Dental morphological affinities of Late Pleistocene through recent Sub-Saharan and notth African people // Bulletins et Mémoires de la Société d'anthropologie de Paris, Année 1998, Volume 10, Numéro 3, p. 237 - 272. Dental evidence is very important as an additional source of information about human origins and dispersals. The paper describes how world dental variation is essentially distributed between two poles of "markedness" or "complexity": Sinodonty, which is America and East Asia) and Sub-Saharan Africans. Both groups have complex dentition and are very much unlike European and Southeast Asian teeth. This contrast reminds me of the pricipal musical divsion identifed by Lomax in 1980 between Circumpolar (the "Siberian" root) and P/B (the "Sub-Saharan root") styles.

In the end, for all data, some forms of "complexity" are derived, while others are inherited. In The Genius of Kinship (Dziebel 2007) I attmpted to show that some of the seemingly complex attributes of American Indian kinship terminologies are prototypical to those found in the Old World, while others, especially those, found in Africa are derived.

I can see parallels across all systems of evidence including your music and my kinship. The main contrast is between highly specialized forms of biology and culture found in Africa vs. the New World, with all others in between. But for some reason we disagree on the directionality.

One of my anti-OOAf arguments revolve precisely around the Khoisan clicks. Phonologists such as Julliette Blevins believe clicks are not organic language sounds, which means they're unlikely to recur as other sound patterns do. They must have evolved only once in human evolution. However, the consensus now seems to be that clicks were purposefully created by the ancestors of Khoisans (compare clicks in an artificial secret language of the Lardils in Australia), and do not represent a phonetic relic lost in all other languages.

Alternatively, there's an interesting constellation of biological evidence suggesting affinity between Khoisans and Mongoloids (epicanthic fold, Mongolian spot, lighter skin apparently controled by a derived allele and gracial skull morphology). I'm wondering again, like I did last year, if Khoisans could have borrowed P/B style from other African groups?

DocG said...

Well, German, as you might imagine, what most interests me is what you have to say about the relative simplicity of Pygmy kinship systems. And I'm wondering where Bushmen systems fall according to the same measure?

Just because music appears to "evolve" from complex to simple, with respect to certain criteria (not all, by the way), does NOT mean that all other aspects of culture also evolve in the same direction.

And as far as the dental evidence is concerned, I tend to suspect that this evidence has been given inordinate importance simply because it tends to support a certain agenda. One has to be very careful about putting too much emphasis on differences involving a single trait, such as sinodont, sundadont, etc. P/B is characterized by several traits, many of them highly distinctive, and also quite sophisticated (imo) and complex.

The dental evidence you mention is very interesting, but in the light of the genetic evidence, looks more and more like a simple coincidence. As I see it, the genetic evidence is far more abundant and also more fundamental and as a result must be given precedence. It's not enough to treat it as some sort of conspiracy, ala Wolpoff et al., one has to present a solid alternative case that meaningfully re-interprets the same genetic evidence and I've never seen anything that's come close.

As far as Lomax's old double-rooted theory (Siberian and sub-Saharan), I contributed to that and must admit it was the best thing we could come up with at the time. I am now convinced, however, that one cannot re-create the evolution of music solely from the musical evidence itself. It's only when we combine the musical evidence with the genetic evidence that we can proceed with some degree of confidence. Or, to put it another way, the presence of the genetic evidence enables us to formulate testable hypotheses with respect to the musical picture.

Putting the two together, it becomes clear to me that P/B is most likely fundamental and Paleosiberian style is most likely a derivation from it. If you do a search on "phylogenetic tree" in this blog, you'll see the musical tree I developed that shows what I think the true relationship might be.

Nevertheless, as I've informed you in the past, your kinship research interests me enormously and I have a feeling it's of real importance (even if you are wrong about it), especially if you've developed a database that can be queried. However, your book is too expensive for me to purchase and it isn't yet available through any of our local libraries. Do you have a blog where you discuss your ideas in some detail?