Monday, August 31, 2009

197. Utopia, Then and Now -- part 2

"Though to speak plainly my real sentiments, I must freely own that as long as there is any property, and while money is the standard of all other things, I cannot think that a nation can be governed either justly or happily . . . Therefore when I reflect on the wise and good constitution of the Utopians--among whom all things are so well governed, and with so few laws; where virtue hath its due reward, and yet there is such an equality, that every man lives in plenty . . . I grow more favorable to Plato, and do not wonder that he resolved not to make any laws for such as would not submit to a community of all things: for so wise a man could not but foresee that the setting all upon a level was the only way to make a nation happy, which cannot be obtained so long as there is property: for when every man draws to himself all that he can compass, by one title or another, it must needs follow, that how plentiful soever a nation may be, yet a few dividing the wealth of it among themselves, the rest must fall into indigence. . ." [emphasis mine]

"On the contrary," answered I, "it seems to me that men cannot live conveniently where all things are common: how can there be any plenty, where every man will excuse himself from labor? For as the hope of gain doth not excite him, so the confidence that he has in other men's industry may make him slothful: if people come to be pinched with want, and yet cannot dispose of anything as their own; what can follow upon this but perpetual sedition and bloodshed, especially when the reverence and authority due to magistrates fall to the ground? For I cannot imagine how that can be kept up among those that are in all things equal to one another."

"I do not wonder," said he, "that it appears so to you, since you have no notion, or at least no right one, of such a constitution: but if you had been in Utopia with me, and had seen their laws and rules, as I did, for the space of five years, in which I lived among them; and during which time I was so delighted with them, that indeed I should never have left them, if it had not been to make the discovery of that new world to the Europeans; you would then confess that you had never seen a people so well constituted as they."
St. Thomas More, Utopia

In their book, Demonic Males, evolutionary biologists Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson ask the question, "Where does human violence come from, and why?" Their answer? It is imprinted in us as part of our pre-human heritage. How do they know this? From studying chimpanzees:
The social world of chimpanzees is a set of individuals who share a communal range; males live forever in the groups where they are born, while females move to neighboring groups at adolescence; and the range is defended, and sometimes extended with aggressive and potentially lethal violence, by groups of males related in a genetically patrilineal kin group.

What makes this social world so extraordinary is comparison. Very few animals live in patrilineal, male-bonded communities wherein females routinely reduce the risks of inbreeding by moving to neighboring groups to mate. And only two animal species are known to do so with a system of intense, male-initiated territorial aggression, including lethal raiding into neighboring communities in search of vulnerable enemies to attack and kill. Out of four thousand mammals and ten million or more other animal species, this suite of behaviors is known only among chimpanzees and humans. . .

. . . [A]re the similarities there, as we believe, because in spite of first appearances, similar evolutionary forces continue to be at work in chimpanzee and human lineages, maintaining and refining a system of intergroup hostility and personal violence that has existed since even before the ancestors of chimpanzees and humans mated for the last time in a drying forest of eastern Africa around 5 million years ago? If so, one must ask, what forces are they: What bred male bonding and lethal raiding in our forebears and keeps it now in chimpanzees and humans? What marks have those ancient evolutionary forces forged onto our twentieth-century psyches? And what do they say about our hopes and fears for the future?
The message encapsulated in the above excerpt has been widely disseminated and its premise widely accepted (though it's hardly the first of its kind -- viz. Robert Ardrey's equally influential The Territorial Imperative). Witness the response of Washington Post literary critic Daniel Pinchbeck, who is clearly convinced:
Such male aggression has structured the lives of humans as well as chimpanzees for thousands of generations. Every human society has been patriarchal, with men retaining most of the dominant spots in the hierarchy and using their power to control women and annihilate their enemies.
Actually, there are matriarchal as well as patriarchal societies, but you get the point. He continues, echoing an all too familiar refrain:
The authors regretfully dismiss the possibility of some paradisiacal society that existed in a Golden Era or on a South Seas island, whether matriarchal or truly non-hierarchical and peaceful. Yet they do not believe that this means the future is a closed book. Evolution means continual adaptation and change, and the authors hold a rational faith that "to find a better world we must look not to a romanticized and dishonest dream forever receding into the primitive past, but to a future that rests on a proper understanding of ourselves."
Hope for humankind can be found, however, since there exists a close cousin of the Chimp whose social behavior does indeed suggest "some paradisiacal society that existed in a Golden Era or on a South Seas island, whether matriarchal or truly non-hierarchical and peaceful": the Bonobo. According to the authors, "Chimpanzees and bonobos both evolved from the same ancestor that gave rise to humans, and yet the bonobo is one of the most peaceful, unaggressive species of mammals living on the earth today." On that point, we can agree.

As far as chimps and humans are concerned, however, thanks to the tedious argument I've been developing on this blog, over a great many hopefully not too boring posts, we know that Wrangham and Peterson are almost certainly wrong. As evolutionary biologists, they have done their job, granted. Their assumptions regarding chimp behavior may well be accurate. And their conclusions regarding human behavior would appear to follow quite logically from the evidence they present. Only they don't know what we know.

Almost all the Pygmy and at least some of the Bushmen groups whose music and culture we've been considering have time after time been described as non-hierarchical, egalitarian, (roughly) gender-equal, individualistic, non-violent, non-aggressive, socially integrated, with a socio-economic system characterized by lack of permanent leaders and the equal sharing of most property, including food. Their music can be understood, and has been enthusiastically described as, a perfect reflection of their social structure. And, for all the many reasons I've provided here and elsewhere (I won't bore you by repeating them), it's possible to conclude that the same musical and core-cultural traditions were most likely being practiced by their common ancestors, tens of thousands of years ago, prior to the branching that produced everyone else.

Does that mean our ancestors once practiced exactly the same social, cultural and musical traditions as the Pygmies and Bushmen of today? Musically, as it seems to me, the answer must be yes. Because all the groups I've studied share essentially the same highly distinctive musical style and their singing and accompanying percussion (clapping, beating on sticks or other simple idiophones) are organized according to essentially the same remarkably intricate musical structures, which makes it all but impossible to believe such striking commonalities could have been produced independently by each group -- they must be survivals from prior to the time of earliest divergence. As for the social and cultural aspect, the picture is more complex, because, as both Barry Hewlett and George Silberbauer have reminded us, there are significant cultural differences between the various Pygmy and Bushmen groups.

Did our ancestors hunt with bows and arrows, spears, or nets -- or something else entirely, maybe just by tossing stones? We have no way of knowing, because there is no uniform hunting method among all the Pygmies and Bushmen of today, so we have no way of extrapolating backward to a common practice. (My best guess would be poisoned arrows, but it's not much more than an educated guess.) Did our ancestors speak using click consonants? We don't know, because the Pygmies now speak the languages of their Bantu neighbors, not the click language of the Bushmen. What sort of kinship system did our ancestors have? We can't tell, because Pygmies have kinship systems very different from those of the Bushmen. Were our male ancestors especially devoted fathers, as are the Aka Pygmies, as described by Hewlett? We can't be sure, because, as Hewlett informs us, Efe Pygmy males tend to be indifferent fathers.

If such questions provide no basis for comparison, then doesn't that tell us that such comparisons are futile? In relatively superficial terms, the answer must be yes. However, when we move away from relatively surface issues to consider what Cornelia van der Sluys refers to as a culture's "core premises and embedded values," then, despite the protestations of Hewlett and Silberbauer, reinforced by armies of determined revisionists, we must insist that the answer is no. Such comparisons are not futile, because when it comes to the very aspects of Pygmy and Bushmen culture corresponding most closely with Pygmy and Bushmen music, we find, in the many commonalities already noted, what can only be considered "core premises and embedded values." Here indeed, in those traditions shared among almost all Pygmy and Bushmen groups, traditions promoting close cooperation and free interaction, sharing, equal treatment for all, relative indifference to property rights, individual autonomy and freedom, non-violence, the independence of women and the loving indulgence of children, we approach a social structure remarkably similar to the one described above -- not in Demonic Males -- above that, in the excerpt I've quoted from Thomas More's noted volume.

It looks, in fact, as though our ancestors were closer to bonobos than chimps. And if so, then maybe it isn't so easy to "dismiss the possibility of some paradisiacal society that existed in a Golden Era." Nor should we be so quick to dismiss the possibility that our dreams of "utopian human potentials" could themselves be rooted in the enduring, but too often belittled and denigrated, traditions of our forgotten ancestors.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

196. Parenthetical Post: On the "Digital" Transmission of Culture

Most anthropologists see the perpetuation of a tradition from one generation to the next as something like the reproduction of a tape recording, which loses a certain amount of information each time it's dubbed. From one generation to the next, hardly anything appears to have been lost. But over the course of several dubbings, the original may no longer be recognizable. A favorite analogy is with the well known game of "Rumor," where someone whispers something to his nearest neighbor, who repeats the message to the next in line, until, after several repetitions of the same process, the original message has usually been distorted beyond recognition.

Both the dubbing of an analogue recording and the "Rumor" game are linear processes, based on the transmission of a signal from a sender to a receiver through an “analogue” process. But cultural transmission operates in a very different manner. For one thing it is not linear. Culture is not simply passed on from a sender to a receiver, because culture is not so much a message as a multivalent field, a complex web of social constructs determining the nature of reality itself. Each new generation is immersed in this field, this "reality," from birth, and its effects accumulate very rapidly to the point that most children are thoroughly conditioned by the time their first words are spoken -- or their first tune sung.

Nor can tradition be compared to the dubbing of an analogue recording, but more closely resembles the replication of digitally encoded information. Unlike analogue recordings (or archaeological artifacts), culturally transmitted information won't diminish or get distorted over time, because, as with digital recordings, what is preserved is not only the information itself, but the process by which the information is stored and retrieved. Transmission errors can certainly occur during digital encoding, but most can be caught and corrected through the use of a process called a checksum, which I won't bother to describe here as you can easily enough look it up on the Internet. The cultural equivalent of the checksum is the process by which the entire community is continually available to assist and correct the novice whenever a "transmission error" occurs. What we have, therefore, is not a simple communication from generation to generation but an integrated and continually reinforced network, not a chain held together link by link, but a chain-mail web of tightly interwoven connections.

In light of the above, it's not that difficult to understand how a particular tradition can be "handed down" from "generation to generation" over thousands, or tens of thousands, of years. Because, for one thing, it is not really "handed down," but established as part of a cultural field that permeates the awareness of everyone in it. And secondly, the generational aspect is almost irrrelevant, since there is never a point in time separating one generation from another, but, again, a temporal field within which individuals of all ages are engulfed. Consequently, there is never a moment of transmission when something is "handed down" but a continual process of cultural imprinting, enforcement and re-enforcement.

And if such a process can suffice to maintain a certain tradition for a hundred, or two hundred, or five hundred, or a thousand years, there is no reason to assume the same process can't continue for two thousand, five thousand, ten thousand or, indeed, one hundred thousand years, or more. Once such a process gets going there is no intrinsic reason for it to stop or even change. There is in fact no provision for significant change in such systems, which are designed in such a way as to make such changes all but impossible.

This is not to say that a certain amount of "cultural drift" is out of the question. We know very well that variants can be and are being produced on a regular basis. But such variants are almost always produced through localized linear transmissions that are always subsumed within the overall field. Thus the innumerable variants of particular folk songs have no effect on the overall form and style of all such songs, which remain essentially fixed.

Traditions change only when confronted by powerful forces capable of altering or destroying the cultural fields that maintain them. If such forces are never encountered, then both the fields and the traditions will persist.

Friday, August 28, 2009

195. Utopia, Then and Now

Utopia? Really? I'm not sure. The whole point of my "tedious argument, of insidious intent" (pace, T. S. Eliot) was to establish myself as a hard-nosed realist, bent on distilling the most rigorous possible inferences from careful and critical examination of the evidence, NOT a romantic idealist with fantasies based on outmoded notions of (to coin a phrase) "utopian human potentials" and "quintessential origins," not to mention "Noble Savages" or "Living Fossils." So, if the word "Utopia" is up there in the heading of this post, and if we really have to have a reason for doing what we do, then what I'd give as my reason for using that word is to insert a bit of irony into the proceedings. Nothing more. Well, almost nothing.

If we are now in a position to say something specific about the culture of our most distant ancestors, and I believe that to be the case, then what can we say? The word "egalitarian" keeps coming up. Just about every pygmy and bushmen group has been so described -- and not only egalitarian in some general sense, but specifically characterized by both generational and gender equality. Which is truly remarkable. If it could be demonstrated beyond a doubt that most pygmy and bushmen societies in Africa were truly and completely egalitarian, does that mean their common ancestors, of say 70,000 years ago, would have been egalitarian as well? That seems like a reasonable inference, yes, but the opposition to that sort of thinking has been fierce. Without actually being able to return to that period in a time machine, the skeptics insist, we have no way of knowing for sure.

But we do have a time machine, remember?

It is very hard for me to believe that, listening to a typical performance of Pygmy or Bushmen vocal polyphony, I am not, in an almost terrifyingly literal way, hearing "echoes of our forgotten ancestors." And believe me, I am no Romantic. Faithful transmission of this remarkably joyous and beautiful musical tradition down countless generations from their world to ours is the only logical explanation I can imagine that accounts for its distribution in the world of today, among three different populations (Eastern Pygmies, Western Pygmies, Bushmen), in three completely separate parts of Africa, whose lineages just happen to occupy the three deepest branches of the human family tree.

Transported tens of thousands of years into the past by the distinctive, unmistakable sound of this music, we can take its hand, so to speak, to be led inexorably from the aesthetic to the social, from musical style to cultural style, from the distinctive organization of sound to the equally distinctive social structure appropriate to the production of that sound.

Does a non-hierarchic, highly integrated, group-oriented, harmonious music, characterized by an equal interplay among all parts, with any participant free to vary his or her part at will, or enter or drop out at will, necessarily reflect a non-hierarchic, highly integrated, group-oriented, harmonious, egalitarian, non-violent society, characterized by individual autonomy? There is no way to tell for sure. Can such a music be produced only by such a society and no other? There is no way to tell for sure.

But when we exercise our own autonomy to step back and think objectively and independently about the matter, with no cynical, neo-puritanical, post-modern ideologue breathing down our neck to warn us of the dire consequences of even considering such outrageously outdated possibilities, then, it seems to me, it becomes very hard to deny the persuasiveness of such a remarkable conjunction of mutually reinforcing evidence.

If the Pygmies and Bushmen of today do indeed consist of non-hierarchical, highly integrated, group- oriented yet unregimented, bands, living harmoniously with one another on an equal basis, with a high degree of individual autonomy, no leaders to coerce and control, sharing all their possessions on an equal basis, with no expectation of reimbursement, then everything we know about their music reinforces what we know about their culture, making it especially difficult to deny that their, and our, ancestors also shared the same values, the same ethos, when the ancestral traditions were being established.

Was the world of the Pygmies and Bushmen indeed a Utopia? Was the world of our ancestors? If not, then what was it? And what can our newly discovered understanding of their world mean for us?

194. An Overwhelming Question -- Part 13

Just about all Pygmy groups (until recently at least) are situated "geopolitically" in very similar ways, as forest dwellers who have for many years spent varying amounts of time in symbiotic association with farming people whose villages are typically based at the forest edge. The situation with Bushmen (or if you prefer, Basarwa, San, Khoisan, etc.) is much more complicated. The various so-called "Bushmen" groups are thought to have once dominated the entirety of southern Africa, surviving as hunter-gatherers (aka "foragers") and possibly also as herders, prior to the Bantu expansion. As a result of encroachments on their territory, first on the part of Bantu farmers and then much later with the coming of the European colonialists, certain Bushmen groups were displaced, dominated and/or exploited, forced to become farm laborers or herders, or induced to take up farming or herding on their own, while others retreated into the Kalahari desert, where they were able to take refuge and maintain their traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Complicating the picture was the presence of a closely related herding people, also khoisan speakers, known popularly as the "Hottentots," almost all of whom were tragically either wiped out or almost totally assimilated, along with many Bushmen, into a "racially" mixed group now known as the "Cape Coloreds."

It's no wonder, in view of the complexity of the above history, that anthropologists have had difficulty characterizing "Bushmen," and that disputes have arisen in that regard. What does seem strange, and even -- to an outsider -- almost comical, are the extreme nature of these disputes and the excessive degree of personal animosity they have generated.

To get a better handle on the similarities and differences among the various Bushmen groups from a reasonably balanced perspective, I'll return once more to the very useful volume, Cultural Diversity Among African Foragers, beginning with a chapter entitled "Neither are your ways my ways," by George Silberbauer. Silberbauer defines "cultural diversity" as follows: "the variation in time, space, and ethnicity of patterns of social and cultural behavior, and the products and meanings of that behavior. What is selected as significant variation depends on the purpose of the analysis" (p. 26 -- my emphasis).

To judge by much in the literature these days, the purpose of many anthropologists is to "debunk" the "romantic" views of the past by emphasizing the effects of "modernity," minimizing or even ignoring the more fundamental issue of long-term forager traditions and identity. What is often forgotten, and this is a theme especially important as far as I am concerned, is the highly significant difference between groups that allowed themselves, or were coerced, to compromise with or accept the forces of modernity and those who refused to be assimilated, retreating to the relative safety of refuge areas, such as, in the case of the Bushmen, the Kalahari desert.

Silberbauer notes that
Ample archaeological evidence links ancient cultural and physical remains in the southern third of Africa to modern Basarwa sufficiently closely to suggest their ancestry. Combined with the genetic evidence this appears to justify formation of a category of people whose ancestors, or who themselves, lived as hunters and gatherers in the southern third of Africa, including the Kalahari in what is now Botswana. There is a long history of the use of bows and arrows; of digging sticks; ostrich eggs . . . ; game hides for blankets, skirts and breechclouts; and of brush windbreaks and roughly thatched huts for shelter by all groups (p. 51).
Even in the Kalahari, however, what Silberbauer mostly sees is diversity:
That is about the extent of shared characteristics beyond which cultural generalizations about Kalahari Basarwa are of dubious or no validity. As Barry Hewlett shows in his chapter, the extent of characteristics common to forest foragers is comparably narrow (ibid.).
Comparing two groups of Kalahari Bushmen, the !Kung (or Ju/'hoansi) and the G/wi (who also vocalize in P/B style), he finds that "!Kung beliefs differed in many respects" from those of the G/wi. For example,
Both peoples had trance dances which were medicinally and socially therapeutic but G/wi dancers gathered their power from the other participants. . . . Outwardly both peoples' dance performances were alike -- women sat in a circle, singing and clapping, while men danced round them until one or more fell into trance. !Kung dancers did their curing while in trance; G/wi men fell into trance once they had gathered the ill from others and then had to be revived by their fellows, an act which dispelled it harmlessly into the night (p. 54).
There are clearly many points of similarity in the above, especially with respect to behavior, but for Silberbauer what counts most appear to be relatively minor differences reflecting nuances of interpretation. With respect to the handling of conflict he finds that "antagonistic sentiments were more freely and intensely expressed [among the !Kung] than within G/wi bands. . . !Kung also had devices for resolving conflicts, but appear as well to have been fairly ready to come to blows" (p. 55), a conclusion that contrasts strongly with just about every other characterization of !Kung attitudes toward violence I've ever read. As far as kinship is concerned, both had "universalistic" kinship systems, but there were significant differences, since !Kung terminology was of an "Eskimo" type and G/wi terminology was "Iroquois."

For Silberbauer, overall, "The social, ideational, and mystical contents of G/wi and !Kung life were clearly very different, allowing very limited direct generalizations from one people to the other" (p. 57). He continues, however, with a long digression regarding the dangers involved in any attempt by an outsider to compare these two groups in this manner. Responding to the extreme skepticism of the Kalahari revisionists in his conclusion, he states:
It is clear that hunting and gathering did not persist because foragers were forced into it by their inability to do anything else. [For a great many] their customary social, political, and economic arrangements that constituted independent band life were more attractive and rewarding than were the alternatives that ranch or cattle-post offered (p. 64).
In the following chapter, "Diversity and Flexibility:The Case of the Bushmen of Southern Africa," Mathias Guenther approaches the same problem in a very different manner. Acknowledging that "diversity is evident in all systems of Bushmen society and culture, from subsistence patterns to religious beliefs," his explanation for that diversity is in sharp contrast to that of Silberbauer:
The diversity of Bushman society and culture is a function, I would argue, of two basic dynamic factors, one internal, pertaining to social organization, the other external, pertaining to the ecological and historical settings within which the diverse Bushmen groups have been situated and to which they have had to adapt. The first factor is the institutional, structural, and personal flexibility of the Bushman society, culture and individual; the second is the variability of the . . . contexts in which Bushmen have lived . . . However, within these ecologically or politically engendered changes, Bushman society appears generally to have retained its cultural integrity and its capacity for social reproduction. . . .

Flexibility is all-pervasive within Bushman social organization. . . It is loosely corporate with respect to ownership of land or other resources . . ; it is slack in its political organization . . . Interpersonal and gender relations are not structured by any hierarchical order but are egalitarian . . . and there is a virtual absence of craft specialization, except for a basic division of labor by sex. . .

Individual men and women enjoy a high degree of personal autonomy within Bushman society . . . Each individual in this small-scale egalitarian society is self-assured and self-directing . . .

Thus we see Bushman men and women living their lives within a culture that contains beliefs and values that are variable, flexible, and undogmatic. . .

The supremely flexible and adaptable quality of Bushman band society, ethos, and personality explains, I suggest, the rich diversity of such societies and, at the same time, why so many of these people have basically retained their cultural integrity and their social autonomy throughout centuries and even millennia of contact with encroaching and encircling settler groups (pp. 77-82 -- emphases mine).
While Silberbauer produces an inventory of very real, but relatively superficial practices and beliefs that are, indeed, different, Guenther insists on commonalities and continuities that appear more fundamental with respect to the most basic values, indeed the ethos, of the Bushmen understood "as a regional totality, over space and time" (p. 86). Significantly, many of the characteristics he emphasizes might best be understood as aspects of cultural style, as opposed to so many of the content-oriented descriptions we find in the literature.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

193. An Overwhelming Question -- Part 12

Barry Hewlett's essay, Cultural Diversity Among African Pygmies, was published in 1996, in the book Cultural Diversity Among Twentieth Century Foragers (ed. Susan Kent, Cambridge U. Press). If my theory is going to be put to the test, this book will be a good place to begin, as chapter after chapter is devoted to the search for cultural differences within and among various hunter-gatherer groups worldwide, differences that, according to the editor and most of the contributors, have been for too long overlooked or minimized. Although the Great Kalahari Debate looms in the background, and cannot be completely ignored, all the articles appear grounded in solid evidence rather than ideology.

As Susan Kent's Introduction makes clear, past assumptions that all hunter-gatherer groups must share a common culture pattern cannot be maintained. Pointing specifically to superficial comparisons between, for example, Northwest Coast Indians and African "Basarwa" (her preferred term for Bushmen), she points out that "though they have similar food procurement strategies . . . these two groups differ in almost every other way possible -- from the environment they occupy to their stratification, hierarchies, and gender relations, as well as the organization of their economics" (p. 1). As I can attest, her position on this matter is fully consistent with the musical evidence. Despite past efforts to treat musical evolution as somehow moving in parallel with sociocultural "development," there is no evidence whatsoever for a typically hunter-gatherer musical style. I must add that I part company in this respect with Alan Lomax, who devoted a great deal of time and energy to promoting an evolutionary scheme of this sort, focused primarily on production type -- a theory that, in my view, makes little sense, in part because it assumes similarities in the music of hunter-gatherers worldwide that do not exist.

Narrowing her focus to Africa, Kent points with disapproval to the common tendency to treat all "Basarwa" groups as though they were identical with the much-studied Ju/'hoansi (aka !Kung). She strongly objects to the common tendency to lump all such groups "together as 'Bushmen' or 'Basarwa,' as if there were only one typical group that such a designation appropriately describes" (p. 3). Since my theory is not dependent on the uniformity of such groups, but focuses primarily on the Ju/'hoansi (the bushmen group whose culture and music I've been most consistently referencing in my discussions of this topic), and also because I have already dealt at length with some of the same issues elsewhere in this blog (see the Kalahari link, above), as well as in my paper, "New Perspectives on the Kalahari Debate," I won't get into this matter here.

Hewlett's chapter does require my attention, however, as he directly compares four pygmy groups, three of which have played an important role in my own research, and all four of which vocalize in Pygmy/Bushmen style: the Aka (aka BaAka) and Baka, representing the Western pygmies, and the Mbuti and Efe of the Eastern group. According to Hewlett, the cultural differences he has found, not only among these four, but the various pygmy groups generally, "are dramatic and striking" (p. 216).

He proceeds to discuss the various differences he's found under the following headings: Linguistic Diversity; Diversity in Subsistence and Settlement Patterns; Kinship, Marriage and Descent; Infant Care and Demography.
While I can't do justice to the full extent of his argument in this blog, I'll quote some of the points under each heading that seem most important, and respond briefly to each:

Linguistic Diversity:
The Efe are the most distinct linguistically as their language comes from a totally different language phylum than the other three. The Aka and Mbuti are the most similar, even though they are hundreds of miles apart, in that they both speak Bantu languages. . . The Baka, who live just across the Sangha River from the Bantu-speaking Aka, speak a language from a completely different linguistic family (i.e., Oubanguian) (pp. 217-219).
The linguistic differences among all pygmy groups reflect relatively recent contacts with various farming groups, with whom all pygmies have, since the Bantu expansion of roughly 3,000 years ago, formed more or less close bonds without losing their own cultural identity.

Diversity in Subsistence and Settlement Patterns:
The primary hunting techniques reflect important distinctions in the sexual division of labor between the foraging groups: men, women and children participate in the Mbuti and Aka net hunts, whereas generally only men participate in the Efe bow and Baka spear hunts.
It's difficult to assess the cultural significance of the different hunting methods employed by different pygmy groups, especially since the role of women is influenced by the hunting method employed, and the variation in hunting methods is probably due to outside influence. It is generally believed that Mbuti net hunting was introduced by Bantu neighbors. Given the universality of the use of poisoned arrows and spear tips among almost all pygmy groups, and bushmen groups as well, plus the discovery alluded to in an earlier blog post, of what appears to be a very similar type of bone arrow, dated ca. 60,000 years ago, it seems reasonable to assume that, despite present differences, the ancestral group also hunted with poisoned arrows and spears, and not nets. While this implies that women and children did not originally participate in hunting, as is now the case with net hunting, it has no bearing on the notion of a complementary relationship across sexual and generational borders, based on a fundamentally egalitarian outlook, as has been reported for all pygmy groups.

Efe and Baka camp closer to villages, spend more time in the village and eat more village food than Mbuti and Aka, but does this mean that they are more 'dependent' on villagers? . . . This propinquity and 'dependence' has lead to similarities between the villagers and Efe social-political organization: a lineage system, greater hierarchy, less egalitarianism and more formalized exchange relations (p. 223).
Hewlett himself recognizes that the differences he's found due to different settlement and dependency patterns are relatively superficial:
However, outward appearances of similarity [between pygmies and villagers] can be misleading and some confusion may have been compounded by a lack of data; . . . Actually, there is currently no evidence to suggest that Efe or Baka social life (e.g., egalitarianism, autonomy, leadership, dispute resolution, child rearing), forest life, or ethnic identity is closer to that of farmers than that of Mbuti or Aka. Efe and Baka have simply developed different strategies for dealing with their farming neighbors (p. 225 -- my emphasis).
During the course of this discussion, Hewlett makes a point well worth quoting here -- and emphasizing: "If cultural traits are not under selective pressures then they persist" (230). While Hewlett is referring in this instance to hunting practices, I'd like to think he'd agree that the same could be said of musical traditions, which, unlike hunting, don't seem to offer much in the way of selective advantage.

Kinship, Marriage and Descent: "These four groups are remarkably similar; all have Hawaiian kin terms, patrilineal descent and patrilocal post-marital residence." This is not as helpful to my cause as it might seem, since the Ju/'hoansi and other bushmen groups appear, at least on the surface, to have very different kinship systems. Moreover, Hewlett points out that the same general kinship terminology is common to most of their non-pygmy neighbors. However,
beyond the surface patterns the difference between foragers and farmers are striking. Foragers' versions of Hawaiian kinship terminologies are more classificatory or generalized than are farmers; adult foragers ideology about patrilineages is not strong and utilization of patrilineages is more flexible (e.g, mother's relatives are important often recognized with a specific term) and less precise than that of farmers (e.g., adult farmers often identify 5-6 generations of patrilineal links while foragers generally identify only 2-3 generations of patrilineal links); post-marital residence is more flexible among foragers than farmers as foragers frequently visit in-laws and distant relatives for long periods (pp. 231-232).
The above may be compared with the description of Bushmen kinship offered by Mathias Guenther in the same volume:
A number of social institutions are flexible sui generis, a result of . . . the 'organizational lability' of society. Neo-locality and highly classificatory (indeed universalistic) kinship systems are both social patterns that obscure genealogical detail . . . Absence of status differentiation and vaguely defined leadership and ritual specialization, unstable, tenuous marriages in early to mid-adulthood, and loose and informal child-rearing practices . . . allow for a wide margin of individual action as none is an institution or practice based on cut-and-dried jural rules but, instead, all are tentative and open-ended (p. 78).
The following from Hewlett in the same section is also worth quoting here, despite the mixed message conveyed, if we pay special attention to the passage I've highlighted:
The comparative data also indicate that several of the earlier characterizations (Turnbull 1965b) of forest forager descent as bilateral and post-marital pattern as bilocal are incorrect. The African forest forager bands are not organized for warfare nor do they have a strong patrilinal ideology as Service suggests. Nonetheless, though patterns are flexible, they do tend to practice patrilocal residence where related men hunt together (pp. 232-233).
Infant Care and Demography: While "Aka fathers do more infant caregiving than fathers in any known culture . . . Efe fathers do significantly less caregiving than Aka fathers . . . [and] Efe fathers do not appear to be intimately familiar or affectionate with their infants or be especially attached to them" (pp. 236 and 241). On the other hand, "While Efe multiple care is distinctive in some ways, multiple caregiving does appear to be a common feature of tropical forest forager socialization" (p. 238).

In sum, while Hewlett presents both similarities and differences, the differences he seems particularly interested in, and goes to the most trouble to analyze, are in almost every case due to interaction between the various pygmy groups and the Bantu villagers with whom they have formed relatively recent symbiotic relationships (and by "recent" I mean within no more than 3 or 4 thousand years). The similarities, on the other hand, in almost every case, appear to reflect deeper affinities associated with the sort of values he emphasized in the study of Aka pygmy culture I've already quoted in post 184:
no chief in the sense of a person commanding ultimate authority; fiercely egalitarian and independent; high value placed on sharing, cooperation, and autonomy; intergenerational equality; infancy lacking negation and violence; male-female relations extremely egalitarian by cross-cultural standards; physical violence in general infrequent and violence against women especially rare; probably as egalitarian as human societies get.
While not every single one of the above characteristics necessarily appears on the "similarity" side of Hewlett's ledger, none appears on the "difference" side either. Which makes it difficult to accept his rather extreme conclusion:
While there are commonalities between African tropical forest foragers, this chapter has emphasized the patterns of diversity. In doing so, it has perhaps contributed to a better understanding of those diversities and also made it clear that it is difficult if not impossible to refer to an African "Pygmy" culture (p. 244 -- my emphasis).
Due perhaps to the prevailing "revisionist" ideology of the 90's (which in many ways continues to this day), Hewlett has concentrated almost exclusively on the current state of pygmy life, characterized by varying degrees of external influence, dependency and change, with little or no attention paid to those aspects of pygmy culture most likely to be survivals from a common past. Since any attempt to speculate on the forbidden topic of "survivals" or the hypothetical recreation of deep history, prior to the Bantu expansion, would certainly be met with howls of indignant derision, Hewlett's narrow focus is not necessarily surprising.

I'd like to conclude with some excerpts from another study, centering on the Jahai indigenes of Malaysia, published a few years later, "Gifts from Immortal Ancestors," by Cornelia M. I. van der Sluys:
During the last decades of hunter-gatherer studies, we witnessed the so-called "forager controversy debates," which center mainly on the genesis of the Bushman cultures. Both groups of protagonists focus almost exclusively on ecological-economic issues and pay little attention to the forces inside these cultures that tend to perpetuate their reproduction from generation to generation. . .

An instance demonstrating that long-time contacts with "outsiders" do not necessarily imply a profound change in a hunter-gatherer culture's core premises and embedded values can be found in Turnbull's (1965) description of the Mbutis, hunter-gatherers in Zaire. Despite relationships with their agriculturalist Bantu neighbors, the Mbutis safeguard the reproduction of the core of their own culture by adopting certain Bantu customs and taking part in Bantu rituals. Similar strategies are also used by other hunter-gatherers . . . (in Hunters and Gatherers in the Modern World, ed. Biesele and Hitchcock, Berghahn Books, 2000, p. 427-428 -- my emphases).
Der Sluys continues, describing characteristics of the Jahai "observed also to be present in other 'non-complex society' hunter-gatherer cultures":
generalized sharing, trust in the environment, egalitarianism, individual autonomy, and dynamics that preserve peacefulness, such as the prevention of conflict escalation through processes of fission and fusion . . . (p. 429).
What der Sluys refers to as "core premises and embedded values," as exemplified in the above list (remarkably close to the list I've distilled from Hewlett's Aka article) are what we should be focusing on, as I see it, rather than the changes wrought by "long-time contacts with 'outsiders," as she puts it. In this light I do think it possible, despite Hewlett's verdict, to refer not only to "an African 'pygmy' culture," but an ancestral culture still alive in the core values of the pygmies and bushmen (and perhaps also the Jahai) of today.

Monday, August 24, 2009

192. An Overwhelming Question -- Part 11

“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”
T. S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

So, finally. On the basis of all the genetic and cultural evidence covered since post 163, plus all the musical evidence I've already covered, throughout this blog and in various publications, it would seem reasonable to conclude that both a musical style and a nexus of sociocultural attributes strongly associated with that style can be traced, as astonishing as that may seem, to the common ancestors, not only of the pygmies and bushmen, but the entire human race -- at a time prior to that of the split we see in the following phylogenetic map, between the two earliest branches of the homo sapiens mtDNA tree, Lo and L1:

And the most compelling version, for me personally, of the "overwhelming question" I've been returning to so tediously can be stated thus: is this actually possible -- can we actually know something that specific, not only about the music, but also the culture of our earliest ancestors?

My answer: I don't really know, but I believe that I have clearly formulated a reasonably convincing hypothesis that can -- and should -- be more fully explored and, of course, subject to rigorous testing.

With this in mind, I think it important to deal as soon as possible with two very different interpretations of the evidence, one musical and the other cultural, since both come from authoritative sources and either one, if taken at face value, might well cause many to reject my hypothesis out of hand.

I've already referred on this blog to an interpretation by two leading authorities, on pygmy and bushmen music respectively, Susanne Fürniss and Emmanuelle Olivier, which has unfortunately been widely quoted: “although many musical and extramusical features converge and though the acoustic results are very close, the conception that the Ju|’hoansi [a bushmen group] have of their music is radically opposite to the Aka’s [a pygmy group].” In other words, the strong similarities that so many have found between the music of certain pygmy and bushmen groups are, in their view, some sort of illusion based on a misunderstanding of the "basic concepts" behind two completely different traditions.

The gist of their thinking is that Aka pygmy music is basically polyphonic while that of the Ju|’hoansi bushmen is basically melodic. As far as I've been able to determine, however, they never actually present an argument in support of this theory, which is simply stated as a fact; nor do they ever, anywhere in the course of their treatment of the subject, present the comparative musical analysis promised at the outset of their essay. The distinction they raise is based on a genuine insight, but one that is, in my view, misapplied -- because, as can easily be demonstrated through the analysis of specific examples, both polyphonic and linear characteristics are conflated, and in very similar ways, in the music of both groups.

I cannot, of course, formulate a fully adequate response in a necessarily brief blog post. But I can refer you to my upcoming paper, written, at least in part, as a response to the challenge posed by their ideas, and scheduled for publication in the forthcoming issue of the journal, Ethnomusicology: "Concept, Style and Structure in the Music of the African Pygmies and Bushmen: A Study in Cross-Cultural Analysis." Since so many have been influenced by Fürniss and Olivier on this matter (I recently, to my horror, noticed their views quoted uncritically in the new Grove's Dictionary of Music), I am hoping my paper is not appearing too late to serve as a necessary corrective.

A research report that might appear to challenge my view of the cultural evidence has been presented by Professor Barry Hewlett, of the University of Washington in Vancouver, in the form of an essay titled Cultural Diversity Among African Pygmies. I am especially interested in Hewlett's views, first, because I have already quoted him on the Aka pygmies, and secondly because he's done research on the topic of cultural transmission that I find quite sensible and interesting. I've been corresponding with him on these matters recently, and am hoping he'll be reading here and offering his comments on what I'll be saying about his work. Unfortunately, I'm running out of time, so will have to continue with my discussion of his essay in the following post.

(to be continued . . .)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

191. An Overwhelming Question -- Part 10

" . . . the conditions described above could not exist unless both the musical style and the cultural characteristics we've been considering, as evidenced so clearly among so many groups of contemporary pygmies and bushmen, were not also present in the culture of their (and our) mutual ancestors." Since this statement is both so succinct and so extreme that it may not yet seem fully justified to most reading here, I want to back up a bit to review the gist of my argument as clearly as I can.

First, as far as the musical evidence is concerned, I believe it has been amply demonstrated that P/B is a style that can indeed be traced back to the common ancestors of both the pygmies and bushmen. I am not the first to make such a claim. Gilbert Rouget and Alan Lomax preceded me, and ethnologist/ethnomusicologist Charlotte Frisbie, after an independent review, concluded that "[I]n 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" ("Anthropological and Ethnomusicological Implications of a Comparative Analysis of Bushmen and African Pygmy Music." Ethnology 10 (3), 1971, p. 287).

What I have done, both here and in a series of essays devoted to various aspects of this issue, is to more fully develop the argument, subject the evidence to a more complete review, expand on its various implications, respond to various objections, and relate the musical evidence to recent findings in the fields of both archaeology and genetics pointing so strongly to the Out of Africa model. As a result of my research, I am confident that all objections to the hypothesis in question have been adequately refuted, and believe it reasonable to assume that their common ancestors did, in fact, vocalize in the same highly distinctive manner as so many pygmies and bushmen of our own time.

Second, since the great bulk of the genetic evidence points to the lineages of certain Pygmy and Bushmen groups as rooted in the most ancient branches of the human family tree, with an estimated date of divergence running well into the Old Stone Age,* it seems reasonable to conclude that 1. P/B is at least that old, and 2. that the ancestors of all humans now living may well have vocalized in essentially the same manner (which tells us that P/B may well represent the foundational musical style, from which all others are derived).

By far the greatest part of my own research with respect to the pygmies and bushmen, as reflected in all my published papers and almost everything written in this blog, has been limited to the musical implications of the above. Upon further reflection, however, based on the insights and research of people such as Alan Lomax, Colin Turnbull, Michelle Kisliuk and Simha Arom, I realized that

Third, P/B has certain truly remarkable characteristics that can take us from the realm of music to that of culture. It can indeed function, as I now see it, with a growing sense of wonder and possibility, as a kind of musical/cultural Rosetta Stone. There are two aspects to this association: 1. P/B is organized in such a way that it reflects certain important aspects of the way in which both pygmy and bushmen societies are organized; and 2. pygmy and bushmen societies are organized in such a way as to make some of the most remarkable and distinctive characteristics of P/B possible.

It's important to understand, at this juncture, that demonstrating a common origin for pygmy and bushmen music in a common ancestor does not, in itself, necessarily establish that any other cultural features certain groups of pygmies or bushmen might have in common were also shared by the same ancestor. There are, in fact, several differences among the various groups. Nor, in itself, does the list of cultural similarities I presented in post 184, with respect to egalitarianism, sharing, cooperation, precise coordination, individual autonomy, absence of coercion (i.e., violence avoidance), etc., even though the list in fact describes a great many pygmy and bushmen groups of today, establish that the same attributes were necessarily characteristic of their common ancestor, however suggestive that possibility might seem.

And here we must pause to think a bit about the profound difference between a musical style, especially one as intricate and distinctive as P/B, and a cultural attribute, such as egalitarian social structure or individual autonomy. A musical performance is a particular type of human behavior, with distinctive features that are explicit, precisely defined, easily demonstrated and easily represented (via recordings or music notation, for example), whereas a cultural attribute is fundamentally an abstraction, often vague, and easily misperceived and/or misunderstood. Since a typical P/B performance is so distinctive, the common presence of this style among so many different pygmy and bushmen groups is unmistakable -- thus in the words of Charlotte Frisbie, presenting "a serious problem to anyone who tried to deny an earlier historical connection." The presence of a common cultural attribute, on the other hand, however interesting and suggestive the similarity might seem, cannot in itself present anywhere near so convincing a case. However,

Fourth, the intimate association between the way the social structure of pygmy and bushmen groups are organized, in terms of precisely the set of shared traits already mentioned (egalitarianism, sharing, cooperation, precise coordination, individual autonomy, absence of coercion (i.e., violence avoidance), etc.), and the manner in which a typical P/B performance is constructed (as, in the words of Arom, "the image of all their social activities") strongly suggests that, if the ancestral group did indeed vocalize in P/B style (as I'm convinced I have been able to establish), such a mode of musical performance would have reflected their social structure in precisely the same manner. And if there should be any lingering doubts in that respect, then

Fifth, since the likelihood that a musical style so strongly characterized by all the aforementioned features could have developed in a cultural setting devoid of them would appear to be nil, it seems highly likely that the socio-cultural setting in which our common ancestors lived could not have been very different, with respect to that same set of features, from that of the pygmy and bushmen groups we've been considering.

(to be continued . . . )

*For reasons I don't completely understand, most Archaeologists have adopted the phrase "Old Stone Age" as the African equivalent to the European "Paleolithic."

Friday, August 21, 2009

190. An Overwhelming Question -- Part 9

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
T. S. Eliot, "Little Gidding"

Where do we come from?

We come from our ancestors.

Who were they?

Well, our ancestry goes all the way back to the beginning, I'd suppose, billions of years ago, to the first glimmers of life on Earth -- which might have gotten its start on some comet.

But the overwhelming question I have in mind doesn't take us back that far. The ancestors I'm concerned with aren't even the earliest humans or even the earliest "modern" humans, because as far as I can tell these ancestors will always remain a mystery. What interests me is the founding group from which the ancestors of the pygmies and bushmen diverged, anywhere from 40,000 to well over 100,000 years ago. Because, if the geneticists are right, the members of this group, which might well have been only a tiny band, are the common ancestors, not only of the pygmies and bushmen, but of everyone now living on this planet.

Were they the only "modern" humans alive in their day? Probably not, but the genetic evidence strongly suggests that they were the only such group whose lineage survived to the present era. Did all other humans alive at that time resemble them, sharing the same culture, the same traditions, the same music? We have no way of knowing, because whatever traditions they might have practiced probably died out with their lineage. Because their descendants would not have survived until the present, then, aside from very fragmentary and often misleading archaeological evidence, we have no basis for drawing inferences about what they were like. That is not necessarily the case, however, for those whose descendants have survived. (I realize, by the way, that for almost all contemporary anthropologists and archaeologists, the previous sentence would ordinarily be regarded as utter heresy. Which is why I've been taking so much time and trouble to deploy my evidence and develop my argument.)

I must emphasize that I'm speaking not only of the very deep musical heritage that has already, and, in my opinion, conclusively, been established for the pygmies and bushmen, but of the process I've been describing in the last several posts, through which the musical evidence can lead us, step by step, to certain insights regarding an equally deep cultural heritage. What are these steps? Let's review:

If we can accept that . . .

First, the mainstream population-genetic view is correct and that the lineage of certain pygmy and bushmen groups can be traced to the deepest clades of human ancestry, dating well into the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) . . .

Second, as I've argued so many times in this blog and elsewhere, the musical tradition (P/B) apparently linking contemporary* pygmies and bushmen is very likely to have already been established in the culture of their (and our) common ancestors . . .

Third, the social organization of most (though possibly not all) contemporary pygmy and bushmen groups is indeed, as has been generally attested: egalitarian; acephalous (no permanent leaders); non-hierarchical (i.e., collective); highly cooperative; non-authoritarian (autonomous with respect to individual freedom of action); roughly gender and generation-equal; strongly motivated to share; highly organized, with respect to implicit (but rarely explicit) rules; essentially pacifist, with, to quote Alan Lomax, "men and women, old and young, . . . linked in close interdependence by preference and not by force" . . . .

Fourth, the musical style in question, in the words of Simha Arom, "reflects perfectly the social organization of the pygmies," as described above.

Finally, and in my view the most telling point of all: it's very difficult to understand how a musical practice combining such a high degree of both group integration and individual freedom, could function with the degree of fluency and authority we find in so many pygmy and bushmen performances, unless it had been developed in a society so unusual as to actively foster both qualities . . .

To recapitulate and conclude:

If we can indeed, even provisionally, accept the argument that I've been presenting in so many of these posts, as summarized above, then we are forced to confront a question that is indeed overwhelming, because the conditions described above could not exist unless both the musical style and the cultural characteristics we've been considering, as evidenced so clearly among so many groups of contemporary pygmies and bushmen, were not also present in the culture of their (and our) mutual ancestors. The music has indeed led us to a point where we can, for the first time, seriously consider the question that has eluded so many for so long: what were our ancestors like? In other words: "where do we come from?"

* Since the culture of most pygmy and bushmen groups has changed drastically in recent years, the term "contemporary" must be understood with reference to conditions that prevailed throughout most of the Twentieth Century, but not necessarily persisting to the present time.

(to be continued . . . )

Thursday, August 20, 2009

189. An Overwhelming Question -- Part 8

In the extensive notes accompanying his two-CD set, Musical Anthology of the Aka Pygmies, Simha Arom has more to say regarding the cultural relevance of pygmy music -- and is less tentative in drawing conclusions:
The social activity of a Pygmy encampment has no apparent hierarchy. Each person appears to enjoy total liberty; however, life is rigorously organized according to implicit plans, imperceptible to the uninitiated observer. As we shall see, Pygmy music, in the image of all their social activities, presents very similar characteristics, that is to say, relative autonomy of each participant within implied but strict structures [my emphases].
Having made the point (thanks to Kisliuk and Arom) that the musical tradition under consideration here (what I have been calling "Pygmy/Bushmen style" or P/B) can be understood as the "image" (to use Arom's term) of a particular type of culture -- or perhaps more accurately, cultural style -- I must call attention to yet another aspect of this very unusual musical-cultural association, even more telling with respect to the argument I've been so patiently developing over the last several posts. Not only does the music mirror some of the most basic elements of the culture, but a musical practice of this degree of complexity and precision requires a degree of highly synchronized interpersonal coordination and musical skill that only a certain type of culture can provide. Comparable results can be achieved in the Western classical tradition only through a significant period of preparation on the part of especially trained ensembles. Yet, according to Arom, his recordings
bear witness not only to the extraordinary variety of the musical patrimony common to all the Aka, but, also -- and this is particularly notable -- to the perfect knowledge of this patrimony by each of the members of the community.
Arom continues, describing in some detail the many aspects of musical invention, coordination and interaction that all members of the Pygmy community must master. The "highly elaborated vocal polyphony" is a "collective affair," in which the voice of the initiating leader "dissolves into the mass; and, unless there are precisely defined ritual reasons, all members of the community -- men, women and children -- take an equal part. . ."

Pygmy polyphonies can be understood formally "as ostinati with variations: cyclic music founded on a principle close to that of our passacaglia . . . [E]ach piece of music is based on the repetition of periods of constant duration, indefinitely repeated, but outfitted with multiple variations" in a manner that "calls to mind certain principles of composition of medieval art music, more precisely those of Ars Nova, of the 14th to 15th centuries. . ." and, like so much of the music of that period, is based on "a melodic line comparable to the medieval cantus firmus. . ."

"In this profusion in which the most complete liberty seems to reign there is thus a rigorous organization. . ." As Arom points out, "this technique is the fruit of long apprenticeship. As soon as they are able to walk, the children take part in the life of the community and thus in one of its principal manifestations, music."

(to be continued . . . )

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

188. An Overwhelming Question -- Part 7

I'd like to return to Michelle Kisliuk at this point, because it is now necessary to focus our attention on an aspect of her research that I've passed over too quickly. Toward the beginning of her essay, Performance and Modernity Among BaAka Pygmies, Kisliuk both acknowledges and questions "a seductive vision of pygmy song as an 'emblem' for utopian human potentials . . ." that she sees in much of the literature on pygmy music. What especially intrigues her in this respect, and what she is determined to test, is the notion that the way in which their music is organized might indeed, as her quotation from Simha Arom suggests, reflect the organization of pygmy society generally. Thus, "[p]art of what attracted me to study among pygmies was the very suggestion that the structure and performance style of their singing might be consistent with an overall egalitarian lifestyle" [my emphasis]. As I've already noted, this is an issue that becomes especially problematic for Kisliuk, who seems eager to establish "revisionist" credentials, yet time after time, in spite of herself, bears witness to events and behavior consistent with the "seductive vision" of pygmy music and culture she is trying so earnestly to resist.

I've already pointed to Kisliuk's almost grudging assertion, made in passing, that the BaAka are, in fact, egalitarian, despite her earlier skepticism in this regard. What interests me now is an even more significant, though also somewhat offhand, observation that takes things one step further:
Like other BaAka songs, the texture of interlocked voices and rhythms in "Dumana" might also be seen as a performed example of BaAka egalitarianism [my emphasis] -- or at least nonauthoritarianism -- wherein each voice and body acts in semiautonomous interrelationship with the others ("Performance and Modernity . . .," p. 35).
If such songs are indeed performances of egalitarianism, then one of the principal questions motivating her research, ("Part of what attracted me to study among pygmies was the very suggestion that the structure and performance style of their singing might be consistent with an overall egalitarian lifestyle") has been answered. But this matter, apparently so important at the outset of her investigation, no longer seems to interest her, and she does not pursue it.

Let's return, at this point, to the extremely interesting statement by Simha Arom quoted at the outset of both her book and her essay:
the beauty of the songs, the characteristic timbre of pygmy voices, at once rough and warm. . . . this music is collective and everyone participates; there is no apparent hierarchy in the distribution of parts; each person seems to enjoy complete liberty; the voices swell out in all directions; solo lines alternate in the same piece without any preset order, while overall the piece remains in strict precision! It is this which is perhaps the most striking thing about this music, if one had to sum it up in a few words: a simultaneous dialectic between rigor and freedom, between a musical framework and a margin within which individuals can maneuver. This moreover reflects perfectly the social organization of the pygmies -- if only mentioned in passing -- and it does so perhaps not by chance [my emphases] (as quoted in "Performance and Modernity," p. 25).
Permit me to dwell on the passages I've highlighted, which I find particularly telling. In each case we find terminology that can equally be applied to both music and culture. "The music is collective," i.e., it is an expression of a group consciousness, which appears also to be the case with BaAka culture generally, where important decisions are made collectively. "Everyone participates" requires a bit of clarification, because this is true only of certain songs but not all. Some songs (and dances) are for women only, some for men, some for young boys or girls, etc., but there are, indeed, many cases where everyone, male and female, young and old, participates. And in all cases, there are no social distinctions, so every woman is equally welcome to participate in any women's performance, etc. Similarly, during the hunt, and in many other socially important occasions, the men may perform one function, the women another, but everyone has a role to play, including the children.

"There is no apparent hierarchy in the distribution of parts." This is an extremely important aspect of P/B style that is often overlooked. Whereas much Bantu music is based on solo-chorus interaction ("call and response") with the soloist choosing the song, setting the tempo, improvising, and generally playing a leadership role, solo-chorus antiphony among pygmies is relatively rare (and probably the result of Bantu influence). Most pygmy music is built around the interlocking or interweaving of essentially equal parts, and anyone can choose to sing any part at will, entering or dropping out as he or she pleases. While much Bantu singing is accompanied (and often dominated) by drumming, a highly specialized skill mastered by a relatively small number of specialists, pygmy music is traditionally* accompanied by an especially intricate type of polyrhythmic handclapping, with everyone participating according to his or her degree of skill. Non-hierarchical organization, both vocal and percussive, is the aspect of pygmy music most consistent with the egalitarian nature of pygmy society generally.

"Each person seems to enjoy complete liberty." In other words, there do not appear to be explicit rules that anyone has to follow when participating in any song (though dancing is another matter). While there are certainly implicit rules, these are so ingrained from childhood that they don't have the psychological effect of rules, just as the rules of grammar are not felt as conscious restraints when we speak. And, as I've already mentioned, anyone may choose to join in or drop out of the singing at will. From what we've already learned about pygmy society (see especially the remarks by Hewlett in post 184), this atmosphere of complete individual autonomy is instilled in BaAka children from an early age: "Seldom does one hear a parent tell an infant not to touch this or that or not to do something" (Hewlett, op. cit.).

"a simultaneous dialectic between rigor and freedom, between a musical framework and a margin within which individuals can maneuver." While such a dialectic can be found in many types of music, P/B style music-making tends to be simultaneously more highly organized, in a more intricate manner, than just about any other traditional music anywhere in the world, yet, almost paradoxically, far less regimented, with an astonishing degree of individual autonomy. Combining intricately coordinated group interaction and synchronization with a remarkably fluid social context, within which anyone can improvise his or her own part at will, at any time, pygmy music does indeed appear to reflect a social situation characterized on the one hand by "sharing and cooperation" and on the other by individual "autonomy" (see also Hewlett, op. cit.). Little wonder Arom can conclude that such music "reflects perfectly the social organization of the pygmies."

But he seems a bit uncertain: ". . . and it does so perhaps not by chance."

Are such striking parallels indeed meaningful? Could they be coincidental?

To learn more, please stay tuned.

(to be continued . . . )

*Drumming is now often heard in pygmy performances, with instruments introduced from farmer groups with whom the pygmies interact, but the drum is not generally considered a native pygmy instrument.

Monday, August 17, 2009

187. An Overwhelming Question -- Part 6

A three-part question:
Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?

Pretty basic. But overwhelming? We all ask ourselves more or less the same question, don't we? Isn't it one of those metaphysical questions that can't ever really be answered? And wasn't Gauguin one of those typically Western, colonialist romantics, whose idea of the "noble savage" stemmed more from his own romantic fantasies than the realities of Tahitian life?

I'd like to think we can give Gauguin credit for getting beyond such cliches. As I see it, his words should not be taken as the typical metaphysical questionings of Western philosophy -- as should be clear from his writings, he'd gotten far beyond that -- but as a reflection of the much more down to earth mode of thought we find, time and again, in the words of indigenous people. A typically idealistic Westerner might respond, for example, that we come from God; a typically scientific Westerner might be more matter of fact: we come from our mother's womb; but for literally all indigenous people, there is only one answer: we come from the ancestors. As for "who are we"? what the ancestors want us to be. "Where are we going?" Back to join the ancestors. (What suggests to me that this was Gauguin's intention, is the mysterious bird we see on the lower left, next to the old woman contemplating her death.)

So. Our question should not be understood as the usual Western, "metaphysical" question to which we have for so long become accustomed, but the fundamental historical question of the greatest interest to all humans: who were our ancestors and what were they like? And what makes this an overwhelming question is that, astonishingly enough, for the first time, thanks to recently developed research of a totally surprising and unexpected kind, we are actually in a position to meaningfully propose some likely answers.

But, again, I am getting ahead of myself. Despite all the many arguments, there may still be room for doubt. Is it really reasonable to assume that certain pygmy and bushmen groups of today are perpetuating age-old traditions going all the way back to those of their (and our) earliest common ancestors? Or is this some sort of illusion, based on wishful thinking backed up by the selective cherry-picking of data?

While it might seem unlikely that three different groups in three distant regions of Africa could have independently arrived at such similar lifestyles, convergent evolution has been known to occur and will always remain a possibility. The persistence of essentially the same lifestyle over tens of thousands of years might seem even more unlikely, so on what basis should we prefer one unlikely interpretation over another?

Moreover, while most anthropologists are willing to accept, or at least consider, the implications of the genetic evidence, this in itself does not necessarily imply cultural continuity, a position neatly summarized in the words of bushman specialist Alan Barnard, as quoted in my article on the Kalahari debate:
Recent interdisciplinary work among Darwinian anthropologists, evolutionary psychologists, archaeologists, linguists and geneticists hints that there really was an Urrasse, and there really was an Urkultur . . . Both are represented in the ‘anatomically modern’ Homo sapiens population that gave rise to the ‘Out of Africa’ migration about 80,000 years ago. This migration spread early symbolic culture; let us call it Urkultur. However, the relation between this Urkultur and the cultures of today’s so-called ‘indigenous peoples’ is no greater that that between this Urkultur and the cultures of all peoples ("Kalahari revisionism, Vienna and the ‘indigenous peoples’ debate." Social Anthropology 14 (1), p. 13).
As I argued in my paper, it is the musical evidence that finally, and decisively, tips the balance in favor of the "traditionalist" position in the Kalahari debate. But what I've been proposing here goes beyond the premises of that controversy, which was more about the status of the bushmen as legitimately indigenous than anything else. What I'll be discussing in subsequent posts is another aspect of the musical evidence that I haven't fully explored before, but which, as it seems to me, offers the most conclusive evidence yet that the culture of today's pygmies and bushmen is likely to be a survival from the deepest reaches of the past.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

186. An Overwhelming Question -- Part 5

So, leaving aside the question of bows and arrows, let's ask a few questions that go more deeply into the nature of the human psyche. And let's start with something very simple: is it reasonable to characterize BaAka pygmy society as, in the words of Alan Lomax, "[sexually] complementary, chiefless, egalitarian, and pacifist, [with] men and women, old and young, . . . linked in close interdependence by preference and not by force. . . "? All the evidence, including the testimony of Kisliuk herself, in the face of her own deep-seated skepticism, as well as Barry Hewlett, who can hardly be dismissed as a "romantic," would seem to indicate that indeed they are. Next question: can the same be said of the Mbuti pygmies? Given Kisliuk's corroboration, in spite of herself, on almost every point, of Colin Turnbull's supposedly "romantic" view of Mbuti culture, our answer would, once again, have to be: yes.

Next question: can the same be said of the bushmen groups described by Richard Lee, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, and William L. Ury, as referenced in my earlier post? While the history of such groups, and their identity as "authentic" indigenes, has been bitterly disputed by the revisionists of the "Great Kalahari Debate," there is no reason to dispute the testimony of so many independent observers who have thoroughly studied contemporary bushmen groups at first hand over a great many years. While their history and their identity may be in dispute, there is no dispute regarding their behavior over the last one hundred years or so. The answer, in this case too, must also be: yes.

So, therefore: on the basis of what we know about the striking commonalities in behavior and values of representatives of the three groups carrying what appear to be the oldest and deepest lineages of any contemporary populations, is it reasonable to conclude that their common ancestors (which, according to the Out of Africa model, would have been the common ancestors of every human now living) shared essentially the same culture? If the answer is yes, then, finally, we would be in a position to seek, with some degree of confidence, an answer to the most overwhelming question of all:

(to be continued . . .)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

185. An Overwhelming Question -- Part 4

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument [my emphasis]
Of insidious intent [my emphasis]
To lead you to an overwhelming question

(. . . continued from previous post.)

And yes, in case you were wondering, pygmies from both regions of central Africa, East (Mbuti, etc.) and West (BaAka, etc.) also use poisoned arrows. It's worth dwelling on the significance of these arrows, because Ury's explanation hardly reflects what could be called an "idealistic" or "Romantic" view. No need to get sentimental over pygmy and bushmen altruism. With every adult male armed with an array of poisoned arrows, anyone who felt left out or cheated would be a potential threat to the entire group.

While such a motive for egalitarianism is hardly consistent with our usual notion of "Utopia," it would be a mistake to take too cynical a view. There is no evidence that either pygmies or bushmen live in fear of poisoned arrow ambush. On the contrary, everything we've learned about them speaks for the genuineness and spontaneity of their egalitarianism, generosity and mutual trust. On Darwinian grounds, one might hypothesize that, at some very early stage, those groups with violent tendencies -- and poisoned arrows -- may have simply killed themselves off; whereas the non-violent, egalitarian groups, better suited to manage conflict resolution, survived.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. There are many questions to be answered before we can meaningfully attempt to assess the lifestyle and value system of our earliest ancestors -- before we are, in fact, ready to ask the "overwhelming question" I've been so tediously -- and teasingly -- leading up to. For example: does the fact that today's pygmies and bushmen hunted (until recently) with poisoned arrows tell us that such arrows were used, tens of thousands of years ago, by their common ancestors? Did the bow and arrow even exist at that time? These are the sort of questions answered all too readily by our scholarly "ancestors" of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who had no problem drawing the most far-reaching conclusions on the shakiest of grounds -- a habit that finally led, as we've seen, to the cynical over-reaction of their "revisionist" descendants, who have certainly gone off too far in the opposite direction.

So. If three hunter-gatherer populations hunting big game in three very different parts of Africa, east, west and south, now use bows and arrows, which moreover are, in all three areas, doped with poison, what are the chances that their mutual ancestors, from whom they diverged, by the best estimates of the geneticists, anywhere from 40,000 to over 100,000 years ago, also had such weapons? The question is not as simple as it might seem, because all three groups are now in contact with "Bantu" farmers, generally thought to have expanded from West Africa two to four thousand years ago. Such weapons could have been developed relatively recently by some ancestral Bantu group, and spread with the Bantu expansion to many parts of Africa. To answer our question, we would need to know first whether the bow and arrow is commonly found in Africa; second whether poisoned tips are also commonly used; and finally whether there is any archaeological evidence of bows and arrows, with or without poison, anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 years ago.

While this issue takes me well beyond my own area of expertise, I think it safe to assume that bows and arrows are fairly widespread throughout Africa at the present time. As far as I've been able to determine, however, poisoned arrows appear to be exclusively associated with hunter-gatherers, not only pygmies and bushmen, but other African foraging groups as well. As far as archaeological evidence is concerned, I'll refer you to an online report on Early Modern Human Arrow Points, concerning an exciting recent discovery at a place called Sibudu Cave, "an extremely important Middle Stone Age archaeological site located in South Africa."
Among the collection from the Howiesons Poort levels (ca 61,000 years ago) is what researchers are interpreting as a bone arrow point--that is, a bone tool fitted to an arrow and shot from a bow. No bow fragments have been discovered at Sibudu or any other MSA site, but ethnographic comparisons of the bone tool, and a similar tool recovered from the MSA Peers Cave, are comparable to ethnographic bone arrow points collected from Bushman (Khoisan) groups in the early 20th century. If this interpretation is correct, this sets the invention of the bow and arrow tens of thousands of years earlier than was suspected in the past.
All in all, the evidence seems pretty compelling. But you know how archaeologists are. In contrast with the the ethnomusicologists, who always seem in blissful agreement on all matters, musical and otherwise, the archaeologists never seem to be in agreement about anything and are constantly attempting to undercut each others work. There will be endless controversy for years over this finding, you can be sure.

But as for us, we have bigger fish to fry. Because the really important question, the overwhelming question, does not concern arrow points but human nature; the nature -- i.e., culture -- of our earliest common ancestors, how they lived, what they lived for and what we might be able to learn from their example -- assuming we can learn anything at all.

(to be continued . . . )

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

184. An Overwhelming Question -- Part 3

Just in case the point has not been made with sufficient force, I'd like to toss some direct quotes into the stew (with particularly apt passages highlighted in bold lettering). First, from Kisliuk's Performance and Modernity among BaAka Pygmies: A Closer Look at the Mystique of Egalitarian Foragers in the Rain Forest:
Ongoing, informal negotiation and disputed expectations are part of BaAka social dynamics and are highlighted in performance. An "egalitarian" sensibility, coupled with individual autonomy, makes for a cultural climate of constant negotiation (p. 30).

Like other BaAka songs, the texture of interlocked voices and rhythms in "Dumana" might also be seen as a performed example of BaAka egalitarianism -- or at least nonauthoritarianism -- wherein each voice and body acts in semiautonomous interrelationship with the others (p. 35).

Coming from a relatively competetive and sexist culture, I did not see that Motindo, a man, had good-naturedly made himself look silly so that a woman -- in this case me -- could follow and look good (pp. 39-40).

Dingboku and Elamba could be seen as subversive insofar as women performatively define and assert their gendered experience within a relatively egalitarian but still male-dominated environment. Nevertheless, BaAka also show a flexibility and malleability of gender roles and gender relationships . . . in response to changing circumstances . . . (p. 43).
From Kisliuk's book, Seize the Dance:
I was learning the hard way that the idea that a leader can "stand for" a group is in fact counter to the individualistic egalitarian social life that BaAka usually maintain (p. 73).

Hewlett . . . has observed that BaAka men participate in child rearing to an extent far greater than men in most societies (p. 141).

On another occasion I brought a tomato to the Bagandou camp . . . I gave a wedge to Bandit sitting beside me, expecting him to pop it in his mouth. Instead, he proceeded to call for a knife and cut the wedge into about sixteen tiny pieces, sharing it with everybody in sight (p. 132).
Barry Hewlett, a professor of anthropology at Washington State University in Vancouver, has made extensive studies of the various forest peoples of Central Africa. Here are some quotations from the second chapter of his book, Intimate Fathers:The Nature and Context of Aka Pygmy Paternal Infant Care:
There are few Aka status positions. There is no chief in the sense of a person commanding ultimate authority, yet there is the kombeti, who is generally more influential in subsistence and camp movement discussions. He is often a liaison between Aka and Ngandu. The farmers show deference to the Aka kombeti (e.g., saying hello to him first, giving him more cigarettes) yet the Aka themselves do not show any such behavior toward him (intergenerational inequality is minimal).

The Aka are fiercely egalitarian and independent. No individual has the right to coerce or order another individual to perform an
activity against his/her will. Even when parents give instructions to their children to collect water or firewood, there are no sanctions if they do not do so. Aka have a number of informal noninstitutional methods for maintaining their egalitarianism. First, they practice prestige avoidance; one does not draw attention to his or her activities.
There are certainly exceptional hunters, dancers and drummers, but individuals do not brag to others about their abilities. Second, they practice the rough joking described by Lee (1986) among the !Kung San. For instance, if a man boasts about the amount of honey he collected, others will joke about the size and shape of his genitals. And third, they practice demand sharing. This simply means that whatever one has will be given up if requested.

Sharing, cooperation, and autonomy are but a few other of the Aka core values. The community cooperates daily in the net hunt, food hunted is shared with members of the camp, and decision making is the reserved prerogative of the individual; if one is not content with living conditions, for instance, one moves to another camp. As a result, camp composition changes daily.

. . . similar to Turnbull's (1961) portrayal of the Mbuti, the Aka view the village (mboka) as a dangerous place, whereas the forest (ndima) is perceived as comforting and protecting. Aka express their fears about bad spirits and aggressive farmers in the village, and their demeanor in the village clearly communicates this fear. In the forest, Aka sing, dance, play, and are very active and conversant. In the village, their demeanor changes dramatically-they walk slowly, say little, seldom smile, and try to avoid eye contact with others.

The great respect for autonomy is consistent with another Aka value -- intergenerational equality. This is a positive description of what villagers would call a lack of respect for elders.

Besides being indulgent and intimate, Aka infancy also lacksnegation and violence, which are relatively common in American infancy. Seldom does one hear a parent tell an infant not to touch this or that or not to do something. As already mentioned if an infant hits another child a parent will get up and move the infant to another area; the infant is not told no no! Violence or corporal punishmentfor an infant that misbehaves seldom occurs. In fact, if one parent hits an infant, this is reason enough for the other parent to ask for a divorce.

In summary, Aka infancy has the following characteristics: constant holding and skin-to-skin contact, high father involvement,
multiple caregiving, indulgent care, lack of negation, early training for autonomy and subsistence skills, parents as primary transmitters of culture, and precocious motor and cognitive development.

Aka male-female relations are extremely egalitarian by cross-culturalstandards. There is little agreement on how to determine gender equality/inequality (Mukhopadhay and Higgins 1988), but in all domains that are consistently mentioned in the literature, the Aka fall on the egalitarian side.

Physical violence in general is infrequent and violence againstwomen is especially rare. The lack of violence enhances female autonomy and encourages husband-wife cooperation and trust. It is rather remarkable that after working on and off for fifteen years with the Aka I have yet to witness a violent act against a woman. I have asked colleagues who have spent considerable time with Aka, and they are also unable to report a case of violence against a
woman. Husband-wife conflicts do of course occur but they are usually resolved through talking, rough joking, leaving camp for a while, or mediated assistance from other camp members.

In summary, Aka male-female relations have commonalities with male-female relations cross- culturally, but the Aka are probably as egalitarian
as human societies get.
For comparison with African Bushmen groups, I'd recommend the writings of anthropologist Richard Lee, or the well known book by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, The Harmless People. Somewhat less authoritative, but more readily accessible via the Internet, are the following observations, via Wikipedia:
Traditionally the San were an egalitarian society. Although they did have hereditary chiefs, the chiefs' authority was limited and the bushmen instead made decisions among themselves, by consensus, and the status of women was relatively equal.

In addition, the San economy was a gift economy, based on giving each other gifts on a regular basis rather than on trading or purchasing goods and services.
I'll add another set of quotations, also readily accessible via the Internet, from a summary of an article by William L. Ury, Conflict Resolution among the Bushmen: Lessons in Dispute Systems Design, as published in Negotiation Journal vol. 11, no. 4 (October 1995):
Bushmen children are taught to fear and avoid violence. They are also taught to avoid disputes. For instance, parents and elders emphasize sharing good fortune as a way of showing appreciation for that good fortune. Adults continue this practice of sharing through hxaro--the systematic practice of gift exchange.

The above techniques attempt to avert the use of power-based strategies for resolving disputes.

Bushman society is fairly egalitarian, with power being evenly and widely dispersed. This makes coercive bilateral power-plays (such as war) less likely to be effective, and so less appealing. A common unilateral power play is to simply walk away from a dispute which resists resolution. Travel among groups and extended visits to distant relatives are common. As Ury explains, Bushmen have a good unilateral BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement). It is difficult to wage war on someone who can simply walk away. Trilateral power plays draw on the power of the community to force a settlement. The emphasis on consensual conflict resolution and egalitarian ethos means that Bushmen communities will not force a solution on disputing parties. However the community will employ social pressure, by for instance ostracizing an offender, to encourage dispute resolution.

All adult male Bushmen have a bow and poisoned arrows. The poison is deadly and agonizing, but is slow acting and so allows its victim time for retaliation. The Bushmen then have very good reason to contain violence, since it can easily escalate to deadly levels. . . War is unknown.

(to be continued . . . )