Monday, November 30, 2009

247. The Baseline Scenarios -- Part 23: The Sucking Cure

One of the most common techniques in the repertoire of shamans, healers, "medicine men," etc. is the method of curing the sick by literally sucking the sickness out of their bodies. Often it emerges in the form of a small stone, bone or "dart." Among the Aka Pygmies,

witches or sorcerers (the Aka make no distinction) practice secretly and are unknown to the general population, although ngangas (healers) are highly suspect. The witches send poison darts (ndoki) into the body of their victim, and the person eventually dies from the poison unless the nganga can extract the dart, usually by sucking it out ("Aka Pygmies of the Western Congo Basin" in Intimate Fathers, Barry Hewlett).
Similar cures performed by Bushmen healers have been described by Richard Katz and Elizabeth Marshall (as quoted in the Wikipedia article, Bushmen Healing and Rock Art):

Katz . . . states that the people can only heal when they learn to control their boiling n/um, or energy. The healer learns to “pull out sickness” from the people. When they do this, they use !kia, or enhanced consciousness, to see the things they need to pull out, like “the death things God has put into the people”, and they get them out.

According to Elizabeth Marshall, to cure people and get the evil out of them the medicine man, or healer, will begin by washing his hands in the fire. He then will place one hand on the person’s
chest, and one on their back, and will “suck” the evil from them. The medicine man often shudders and groans as he does this, and then will suddenly “shriek the evil into the air.”
Though I haven't been able to find any reference to the "sucking cure" among Mbuti healers, the importance of this method among both the Aka Pygmies and Ju/'hoansi Bushmen seems consistent with a tradition dating all the way back to HBC. It's also possible that sucking could have been introduced relatively recently by neighboring Bantu healers, though the centrality among the Ju/'hoansi of both the method and the belief system associated with it makes such a hypothesis unlikely, in my view.

Suction as a healing method is referenced several times in Mircea Eliade's comprehensive, though now somewhat outdated (1964), Shamanism. The following was written with reference to North American Indian practice, but its similarity with Hewlett's description of Aka healing (see above) is striking:

Injurious objects are usually projected by sorcerers. They are pebbles, small animals, insects; the magician does not introduce them in concreto, but creates them by the power of his thoughts. They may also be sent by spirits, who sometimes themselves take up residence in the patient's body. Once he has discovered the cause of the illness, the shaman extracts the magical objects by suction. (p.301).
Similar practices are reported by Eliade, along with many others, among traditional peoples in many parts of the world. Here, for example, is a description of shamanic practices among Nepalese Buddhists:

Both Wangchuk and Lhamo Dolkar are reputed to be able to cure both physical and complex psychosomatic or supernaturally caused complaints. Their main healing technique is sucking . . . Lhamo, who is in trance . . . when she heals, sucks any afflicted part of the body . . . extracting in the process either a dark liquid or a dark sticky substance . . . and in the event of a more serious
affliction, she may even extract stones, which are either white, brown or black (Buddhist
Healers in Nepal: Some Observations
, Angela Dietrich, p. 474).
Of special interest is the following observation, from Eliade's book:
By suction, the shaman draws out with his teeth a small object "like a bit of black or white thread, sometimes like a nail paring." An Achomawi told De Angulo: "I don't believe those things come out of the sick man's body. The shaman always has them in his mouth before he starts the treatment. But he draws the sickness into them, he uses them to catch the poison. Otherwise how could he catch it" (Shamanism, p. 307).
The skepticism of the Achomawi informant makes sense. In fact there is very good evidence that the healer's performance in a great many instances -- if not all -- is a clever sham. I remember a story I read somewhere concerning a healer disturbed at his inability to produce the necessary object -- until he learned the trick from an older colleague. He persisted with his investigations of the healer's "art" until he learned to produce an impressive display of blood along with the sucked out object -- by biting his tongue!

If the history of religion begins with shamanism, as many now believe, then a clever bit of deceit may lie at its heart.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

246. The Baseline Scenarios -- Part 22: Scarification, Body Painting, Tatooing

The inscription of symbols on the body, in the form of scarification, painting or tatooing, is a practice found among indigenous peoples in just about every corner of the world. And, as one might expect, such practices are an important aspect of both Pygmy and Bushmen culture:
The principal element in the [first kill] rite is the scarification of the boy. The purpose of this is to put into the boy's body, through little cuts in his skin, substances that, in !Kung belief, will make him a successful hunter. The scarifications remain visible on the skin for a lifetime; they show that the man has been "cut with meat". (Lorna Marshall, Nyae Nyae !Kung Beliefs and Rites 1999: 154).
The evening before I left, before the singing started, three of the great hunters took me off into the forest. They said they wanted to be sure that I would come back again, so they thought they would make me "of the forest." There was Njoho, the killer of elephants; his close friend and distant relative, Kolongo; and Moke, an elderly Pygmy who never raised his voice, and to whom everyone listened with respect. Kolongo held my head and Njobo casually took a rusty arrow blade and cut tiny but deep vertical flits in the center of my forehead and above each eye. He then gauged out a little flesh from each slit and asked Kolongo for the medicine to put in. . . [He rubbed the black ash-paste hard into the cuts until it filled them and congealed the blood that still flowed. And there it is today, ash made from the plants of the forest, a part of the forest that is a part of the flesh, carried by every self-respecting Pygmy male. And as long as it is with me it will always call me back (Colin Turnbull, The Forest People).
Pygmy and Bushmen bodies are also painted for various reasons, including, of course, magic:
[Anjo] is a paste made from the heart, brain and eyes, sometimes from other parts as well, of some highly prized game. . . The paste is put on the body, most often the forehead, of the hunter and of members of his family (Turnbull, Wayward Servants, p. 155).
As at birth, there is a certain amount of decoration of the body with what might be considered as forest charms, and toward the end of the [Elima] festival the girls paint each other with a white forest clay (ibid., p. 135).

Pigment is still used for body painting among the few remaining Bushmen of the Kalahari in the context of rites of passage and other ceremonies central to the well being of the group (New perspectives on prehistoric art, by Günter Berghaus, p. 115).

While the line between scarification and tatooing is not always clear, one has the impression that tattooing in the sense that's usually understood, i.e., incising the body with specific pigments, is not practiced by either Pygmies or Bushmen, though it's not difficult to see how tattooing could have developed from a combination of body painting and scarification.

In any case, examples of all three practices can be found in many different parts of the world:

Man with scarification marks -- Africa

Tembu Girls, early stages of scarification --Africa

Maori Facial Tatoo

Pygmy Woman with body painting and scarification.

Tasmanian Woman

Great Andamanese -- Scarification.

The great question has always been whether or not all or most of these traditions are related and, if so, how. If scarification and body painting were already established as traditions among HBP, can we assume all traditions of bodily decoration stem from the same source? As I see it: why not? What exactly would be the alternative explanation? Any thoughts?

Monday, November 23, 2009

245. The Baseline Scenarios -- Part 21: Tooth Filing/Dental Mutilation

Did HBP file their teeth? There is abundant evidence of tooth filing among both of our pygmy groups, EP and WP:

Ngalla, a [Pygmy] farmer/hunter underwent the not-too-pleasant exercise of teeth filing at the age of 12. Now, he boasts, his teeth have remained intact and still effective at tearing and chewing meat.

"Teeth filing is part of our tradition. We are identified as Bakas through it," explains Ngalla. "We inherited this practice from our ancestors and nobody can stop us from continuing with it," he insists (Teeth Filing: Painfully Pleasant For Baka Pygmies).

The sad and disturbing story of Ota Benga, an Mbuti Pygmy who wound up on exhibit in the Bronx Zoo, is told on this Wikipedia website. Might as well put him on exhibit here too, since this picture is a fine example of what Mbuti style tooth filing looks like.

Bushmen also file their teeth, apparently (see van Reenen JF, 1978, "Tooth Mutilation amongst the Peoples of Kavango and Bushmanland, South West Africa (Namibia)." J. Dent. Assoc. S. Afr. 33:205-218 and van Reenen JF, 1978, "Tooth Mutilating Practices amongst the Ovambo and the West Caprivi Bushmen of South West Africa (Namibia)." J. Dent. Assoc. S. Afr. 33:665-671).

Many other African tribal groups also have tooth filing traditions:

Dental mutilation, also known as intentional dental modification, is an interesting cultural practice that has enjoyed a long and diverse history in many populations around the globe. There are many explanations for groups to artificially alter the morphology of their teeth. For instance, some researchers believe dental modifications are indicative of beautification (Fastlicht 1976; Romero 1958; Rubín de la Borbolla 1940), ethnic markers or tribal identification (Handler 1994; van Reenen 1978a, 1978b, 1986), and social status (Fastlicht 1948, 1976).

From Maya Dental Mutilation, by Dr. Herman Smith:
The ancient Maya practiced dental mutilation over a very long span of time, beginning centuries ago and carried out right up until the European intrusions of the sixteenth century. Teeth were filed into points, ground into rectangles and drilled with small holes to permit the insertion of small round pieces of jade or polished iron pyrite (fool's gold). In all, over a hundred different patterns of cross-hatching, circular holes and shape alteration are found among the ancient Maya.

From Balinese Religion:

This important life-cycle event usually occurs when a Balinese boy or girl reaches puberty-at a girl's first menstruation, when a boy's voice changes. If not then, it must definitely take place before marriage; sometimes filing is incorporated into the marriage ceremony. After filing, a father's duties to his female children are generally regarded as complete.

[Added 11-26: I neglected to mention that Balinese tooth filing does not involve pointing but on the contrary blunting of the canines to remove their natural points. Whether this is a completely independent tradition or a derivation from an older practice remains unclear.]

[Added 11-23, 6:15 PM: Here is an interesting video I just found depicting tooth filing among the Mentawi on Sumatra, an island in Indonesia:

Note the remarkable similarity to the pointed teeth of the Africans depicted above.]

Since tooth filing is a kind of rite-de-passage among all three of our baseline "feeder" groups, EP, WP and Bu, it looks very much as though it was a part of HBC -- which means that HBC is probably the source of so many of the other tooth filing traditions spread so widely among tribal peoples in so many places. It's possible, however, that this could have been a tradition originating with Bantu peoples and if so, it might have spread to the various pygmy and bushmen groups via the Bantu expansion, ca 3,000 ya. If that's the case, however, then all the other instances, in so many other parts of the world, would have to be regarded as "independent inventions" -- and it's difficult to understand why such a painful -- and essentially non-functional -- custom would have caught on so successfully among so many different groups.

[I probably won't be posting again till after the holidays. Happy Thanksgiving to all my American readers. And to the rest: be happy anyhow.]

Saturday, November 21, 2009

244. The Baseline Scenarios -- Part 20: Still More Huts

There are many types of "beehive" hut in various parts of the world -- and the question is: are they related or is their shape simply a coincidence. When the designs and methods of construction are extremely similar, and they are found among hunter-gatherers or horticulturalists with traditions similar to those of HBC, then it would be difficult, I think, to argue that they all don't stem from the same ancestral source. When found in more "advanced" societies, in more elaborate forms, or built from different construction materials, then the relationship is not so clear -- but further research is certainly indicated, because the shape itself may have been passed on traditionally, even if other aspects of construction have changed. Once a baseline has been established, it's much easier to trace origins, since each example we find need be compared only with its hypothetical prototype in the baseline culture. For me, the ultimate baseline is HBC, but in many cases it might be necessary to establish intermediate baselines, from which certain "secondary" or "tertiary" traditions might have arisen. If no backward link can be established, and only then, it would be reasonable to consider the possibility of "independent invention."

This hut is clearly more elaborate than the huts we've seen from Pygmy, Bushmen and Hadza sources:

Zulu hut

But when we compare it with a more traditional type of hut from the same culture, it seems reasonable to assume that the more complex design may well have evolved from the simpler*:

Traditional Zulu Hut

This "beehive" hut is from a completely different part of the world, and made of stone rather than wood and grass or leaves:

Stone "Beehive" Hut -- Bronze Age Ireland

It's beehive shape might well be a coincidence. Or it might have evolved from an earlier type much closer to the traditional African design:

"Celtic" Hut (reconstruction) -- Wales

I'm wondering how the stone hut was constructed. If a wooden framework, similar to the framework of the traditional African huts, were constructed first, it would have been easy to position the stones against the wood, which could be easily removed once the stone structure was complete. In this way it might be possible to imagine a single line of evolution from the wood and grass hut pictured above to the stone one. On the other hand, if some other method of placing the stones had been used, then the connection wouldn't be so clear.

The same thinking could be applied to these mud huts, from the Near East:

"Beehive" Mud Huts -- Harran, Turkey

How were they constructed? If built over a wooden framework similar to that of the traditional African huts, that would establish a clear connection with HBC. If not, then one would have to consider independent invention.

[Added 11-22, 5:15 PM:
Speaking of independent invention, the Igloo certainly looks like a good example, despite its beehive shape.

On the other hand, not all Igloos are made of ice. This one appears to be covered with skins and probably had a wooden frame:

Did the ice Igloo evolve from a hut like this one? If so, it too could be traceable to HBC, why not? Skins are a natural subsitute for leaves or grass in an environment without much vegetation. And when there's no wood around to built a framework, then ice might be the only recourse. Nevertheless, the Igloo is definitely one of the more brilliant inventions of the human mind, no question. It's also an excellent example of cultural adaptation to environmental conditions. But where there is adaptation, there must also be something that's been adapted.]

*You'll notice, by the way, that for the first time I am making an assumption, something I've avoided during the entire course of this thread. Once our (hypothetical) baseline is established, on the basis of evidence and not assumptions, we are then in a much better position to make meaningful assumptions regarding associations for which solid evidence may be lacking, at least for now. Indeed, such assumptions are useful as the basis for future research.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

243. The Baseline Scenarios -- Part 19: More Huts

The remarkable similarities between the framework of the Wigglesworth Observatory and that of the Australian aborigine hut (see previous post) are truly fascinating. Nevertheless, as should be clear, an historical connection between them is highly unlikely. I presented the two images partly to test your sense of humor, but also because a comparison between these two structures can be very instructive when assessing whether common origin or independent invention is most likely. The first lesson to be learned is that looks can be deceiving -- two designs can be strikingly similar and yet historically unrelated. For one thing, the observatory, unlike the Australian hut, is not a dwelling. For another, it is not at all typical for the culture in which it is a part, where almost all buildings are rectangular in shape. Moreover, it was designed to serve a very specific, very specialized function, characteristic of the technological orientation of its culture, which has no equivalent in the culture of the Australian aborigines or indeed any hunting and gathering people. Finally, there is no historical record of any connection between the design of an observatory and the design of a dwelling, nor any record of any intermediate types between the two ever having existed.

The similarity could be explained in cognitive terms, I suppose, as evidence of a universal human aptitude for solving tricky structural problems in similar ways. Levi-Strauss might well have been intrigued by the structuralist possibilities, also indicative of a universal logical capacity at work even in the most "savage" of Pensée Sauvage. I won't pursue such pathways here, but I must admit I find the possibilities intriguing.

When we turn to a comparison between Hadza huts and those of Bushmen the situation is radically different. Here too, we find a very strong similarity:

But in this case the circumstances are also similar, in fact just about identical. Both huts are dwellings, they are typical for both groups, and they serve identical functions, despite the fact that they were constructed in totally different environments. Moreover, the two groups share a very similar hunting-gathering lifestyle, along with a very similar, essentially egalitarian, value system. And since the Hadza also live in Africa, suggesting at least the possibility of an historical association at some point in the past, it might not be all that difficult to persuade even the most dedicated anthropological "splitter" that there just might be a connection of some sort between them.

Next, let's consider a cluster of huts from a totally different part of the world:

In this case, all the above similarities apply (roughly), except for one. These huts are not from Africa, but Australia. Because of the vast distance between the two continents, no possible historical connection can be inferred -- unless we are willing to consider common origin, i.e., survival from an ancestral culture common to the ancestry of both groups prior to a divergence that could only have taken place tens of thousands of years ago. And here just about anyone with any anthropological or archaeological training will balk. No one wants to return to the bad old days of Kulturkreis thinking. Hardly anyone is prepared to accept even the possibility that any tradition could be perpetuated unchanged over such a vast expanse of both space and time. And as a result, the characteristic fallback position regarding similarities of this kind, even the most striking, has become: independent invention.

It's very difficult to argue with such people regarding this issue (as will be evident to anyone who reads what German Dziebel has to say in the comments sections of this blog), because independent invention appeals so strongly to common sense. After all, what seems more likely, the survival of the same tradition over many thousands of years among hundreds of different groups in remote parts of the world, or independent inventions of something similar in many different places, due simply to coincidence?

To dispel the myth of independent invention it's important to realize, first, that inventions of any kind, in any society, are very rarely independent. They are almost always variants of cultural elements already in play, or else borrowings from some other group. The automobile is based on the horse and buggy, which is in turn based on the simple horse-drawn cart, which already takes us back many thousands of years. The computer is based on the electronic calculator, which is based on the adding machine, based on calculating machines developed in the early 1800's, based on 17th century prototypes by Leibnitz and Pascal, all of which are preceded by the Abacus, which takes us well into the BC era.

Second, it's important to realize that indigenous societies value the passing on of ancestral traditions far more than they do innovation. In fact innovation is actively discouraged in such societies. I would challenge anyone reading here to find an instance of truly independent invention of any kind recorded in the ethnographic or historical literature over the last 2,000 years for any such group. When we see change it is almost invariably based on outside influence of some sort, or else gradual modifications or improvements of cultural elements already long established.

Moreover, if we want to assume that some group of this kind invented the beehive hut at some point in their history, we need to ask ourselves what sort of dwellings might have preceded it, and what their motivation would have been to change to some new design despite their otherwise strictly traditional lifestyle, and why that new design would just happen to resemble a beehive hut. And why so many other groups in so many other parts of the world, and in so many different environments, would make a similar change from a traditionally established dwelling, to essentially that same type of beehive design, each with reasons stemming from a different cause, with the similarities to all the other designs purely due to coincidence. (Remember that beehive huts are found in a great many different environments, so convergent evolution due to environmental adaptation won't hold much water.)

While it might seem as though a design as "simple" as the beehive hut could have been invented many times in the past, as a convenient means for hunter-gatherers to put together a handy, temporary dwelling, beehive huts are by no means all that simple and in fact a considerable amount of careful planning and effort goes into their construction. I challenge skeptics to design an experiment along the following lines. Hire several teams made up of people from many different backgrounds and cultures, with the sole proviso that none come from cultures where beehive huts are found. Drop each into a different environment where beehive huts are known to have been commonly used in the past. Inform them that they are to live in this environment for at least a week and instruct them to build temporary shelters for themselves, solely from materials normally available to hunter-gatherers, that will hold up decently during that period. If even a single instance of a beehive hut is produced I would be extremely surprised. What one would expect to see would be various types of lean-to shelters, or crude rectangular designs of various sorts. The closest thing to a beehive hut that such a group might come up with might look something like this, for example:

Here we have a photo of a crude teepee-like framework, covered by skins. A shelter of this kind would be far simpler to design and construct than a beehive hut, and yet serve its purpose equally well, I would think. Why would anyone interested only in cobbling together something simple and practical, with minimal effort, want to go to the extra trouble of building a shelter that required all the following steps (from the website Home Home on the Ridge, based on Poverty Point culture):

Eight willow branches, each 10 feet tall, for the uprights
About eight willow branches for the crosspieces
Bark from the willow branches or string
Lots of palmetto leaves
Indoor hut: a large piece of cardboard for the base, cardboard corner scraps to secure the framework, hot glue gun, and exacto knife
Outdoor hut: post hole digger or a digging stick to dig holes for the framework


1. Use a string and a pencil as a large compass. Draw a circle on either the cardboard (inside) or the dirt (outside.) The diameter of the hut can be as big as you like. Experiment with the different diameters because a larger diameter will result in a shorter hut. All of your willow poles will need to be the same length.

2. Divide your circle into eight equal parts by marking halves, fourths, and eighths.
Marks for Post Holes

3. Dig eight holes for your upright poles along the circumference of the circle.
Outside: Use a digging stick just like the Poverty Point people may have done or use a post hole digger to make your holes.
Inside: Hot glue a cardboard corner square scrap along the diameter of the circle where you want the "hole." Ask an adult to use an exacto knife to "dig" the hole by cutting into the scrap piece of cardboard.

4. Build the upright section of your hut by placing two willow branches in the holes on opposite sides of the circle.
Outside: Stomp dirt back into the hole around the pole.
Inside: Squirt hot glue in the hole before you place the branch in it.

5. Bend the two opposing branches so that they form an arch. Overlap the branches and tie them together at the top with a strip of willow bark or string. Continue with steps 4 and 5 until you have connected all four pairs. Tie the pairs together at the top of the house.

6. Add horizontal crosspieces around the sides of the hut by tying branches to your uprights. The distance between the crosspieces will be determined by the size of your palmetto leaves. The palmetto leaves should overlap each other, so the distance between the layers of crosspieces should be slightly less than the measurement of the palmetto leaves from the stem to the tip. This will probably be about one foot.

7. Leave room between two of the uprights for a door into your hut.

8. Tie a palmetto leaf to the bottom crosspiece. Use the end spikes on the palmetto as string by tearing them all the way to the stem (if they break off, just use the next spike.) Put both palmetto spikes over the crosspiece and then bring them back to the front of the palmetto leaf. Tie the spikes together in a square knot (right over left, then left over right) on top of the palmetto leaf.

9. Continue tying palmetto leaves on the crosspieces, overlapping them so the rain won't get in your house. Each palmetto leaf acts like a little umbrella. When you get all around the bottom level of the house, begin tying leaves on the next level up, making sure that the top leaves overlap the ones on the lower level. Continue adding levels of crosspieces and palmetto leaves until you get to the top!

10. Leave a smoke hole at the top of your house, but DO NOT build a fire in your hut! Remember that the real huts were 12 to 14 feet in diameter.

Framework for hut described above.

Monday, November 16, 2009

242. The Baseline Scenarios -- Part 18: More Huts

I outlined a pretty ambitious set of research projects in my previous post, but for now I'd like to concentrate on a very specific problem that should be more manageable: the "beehive" hut. Before I continue it's important to draw yet another distinction, similar to the one I made in the last post, between the way anthropologists used to do things and the approach I'm taking now. Once upon a time it was not unusual for anthropologists to get all worked up over certain parallels that came to their attention involving artifacts or practices widely scattered around the world that nevertheless seemed closely related. A whole school of anthropology was created to explore this terrain: the so-called Kulturkreis (or culture-circle) school.
Kulturkreis scholars brought history back into the study of allegedly timeless peoples. They relied on diffusionist principles, believing that similarities among cultures could be shown to be the result of cultural influence, rather than the result of a universal human nature, and that circles of interaction among various peoples could and should be delineated by the professional anthropologist.
The above is not quite accurate, since an important aspect of Kulturkreis thinking involved not only cultural diffusion but what would now be called "demic" diffusion, or diffusion resulting from the migrations of a particular population or lineage over thousands of years -- very similar to the sort of thing population geneticists are now doing. Regardless, there was a rather violent reaction against the Kulturkreis school and against anything resembling their ideas, and for good reason, because there was, at that time, far too little evidence and also no idea whatsoever as to where any particular aspect of culture might have come from or the paths it might have taken from its point of origin to its various destinations. And far too little in the way of historical information of the sort that could be used to test Kulturkreis theories, which could get pretty fanciful.

Times have changed, however. There is now far more evidence than ever before, and a huge literature based on intensive field work and historical research done by a great many scholars over many years, not to mention a vast store of recordings, photographs and films. We also have the Internet, which gives us Seven League Boots with which to stride through and sift endless reams of material, both relevant and irrelevant.

Over and above all of this, and of paramount importance as far as I'm concerned, the genetic evidence, supplemented by the long-neglected but imo crucial musical evidence, has given us a historical baseline from which we can view a very wide field of human activity in an organized, coherent and systematic manner. Or, to put it another way, from the standpoint of our (admittedly hypothetical) baseline, all "evolutionary" roads lead to the same point in time and very roughly the same place, somewhere in either east, south or central Africa.

In the past the comparison of similar artifacts and practices, though vaguely interesting in itself, told us little to nothing about their origin or their meaning, forcing researchers to speculate wildly regarding various clues that might or might not point to the desired "center." Now, however, our baseline can be regarded as a ready-made center from which all else can be seen to emanate. We no longer need to scratch our heads over all the various instances of a particular item and how each may be compared to each -- all we need do is compare each instance to what can be found in our baseline culture (HBC) and ask ourselves whether or not this is likely to be a survival from it. It's not so much a matter of proving that some particular instance is in fact such a survival, because that would be almost impossible to do, as opening the door on a fresh approach to comparative studies of the sort that could help us organize and systematize our search for history -- and meaning. As I said before, our baseline can be seen as a kind of observatory:

Which returns me to my topic for the day: the beehive hut. Here's a hut that might look familiar, since it's essentially the same sort of thing we've already seen among the pygmies and bushmen:

Only it's a Hadza hut. As I mentioned earlier, the Hadza, based in East Africa (Tanzania), are hunter-gatherers who have much in common with both pygmies and bushmen:
The Hadza still live in bands, hunting with bows and arrows, gathering roots, tubers and wild fruits, as man lived 10,000 years ago . . . The Hadza speak a click-language, they don't have chiefs, houses, or a political system, and they roam the land in small bands with little sense of tribe.
They are a bit of a mystery, however, because their genetic profile is unlike any other in the world and their music is also atypical, quite different from that of most other African groups. Is the very familiar look of this hut simply a coincidence? Could it have been independently invented? The Hadza live in a part of Africa extremely remote from either the Tropical Forest of the center, or the Kalahari desert of the south, so it seems unlikely that they could have learned to make such huts from pygmies or bushmen. Unless the lesson took place many thousands of years ago, when Khoisan peoples may have lived in East Africa. Or unless this type of hut is, as I suspect, a direct survival from HBC.

Here's a painting of some more beehive huts, very much like the pygmy, bushmen and Hadza ones:

Only these are from Australia. Australia might seem extremely remote, certainly very far from Africa. But you know what -- it is exactly the same distance from HBC as are the pygmies and bushmen, at least as far as time is concerned. If a particular method of making huts is a survival from HBC, then what does it matter how distant it might be from its place of origin? It's generally accepted that humans migrated all over the world from Africa, so does it really make a difference how far they wandered, so long as they were intent on maintaining their traditions? And if there is anything we know about indigenous peoples, it is their absolute fixation on their ancestors and the traditions associated with them.

Here are more beehive huts, from roughly the same part of the world, New Guinea:

Getting back to Africa, here are beehive huts from the Dorze people, of Southwest Ethiopia:

Dorze hut

The Dorze are not hunter-gatherers, and in fact have a culture considerably more complex than that of the pygmies or bushmen. Their music, however, has many striking points in common with P/B style, including rather elaborate interlocking counterpoint, and yodel as well. I don't know about those huts, though. They are definitely built to last, unlike the others we've seen. Was there some evolutionary process that began with HBC, or are these huts a completely independent invention? Would it be possible to find a string of huts in various places leading up to the Dorze type that might represent different "stages" in their evolution? Would it matter if we could find such intermediary "stages"? I'm not sure. One thing I do know, however: if the geneticists are on the right track, then the Dorze, like every other people now living in our world, are descended from HBP. If their ancestors had beehive huts, then why would it be surprising to find beehive huts among them now?

Similar speculations arise regarding huts by other, more "advanced" African groups, such as the Zulu and Swazi:

But who can say how far the reach of the beehive hut tradition may have extended? Is a modern observatory a survival from the same tradition?

The Wigglesworth Observatory, under construction.

Australia -- "Aboriginal hut without its turf covering."

I'll leave you with the following words of wisdom by anthropologist Edward Sapir:
For chronological purposes, cases of the interrupted distribution of a culture element are of particular importance. In a general way, a culture element whose area of distribution is a broken one must be considered as of older date, other things being equal, than a culture element diffused over an equivalent but continuous area. The reason for this is that in the former case we have to add to the lapse of time allowed for the diffusion of the element over its area of distribution the time taken to bring about the present isolation of the two areas, a time which may vary from a few years or a generation to a number of centuries. . . [T]he interrupted distribution of a culture element gives us a minimum relative date for the origin of the culture element itself. The element must have arisen prior to the event or series of events that resulted in the geographical isolation of the two areas ("Time Perspective in Aboriginal American Culture, a Study in Method." Geological Survey Memoir 90: No. 13, Anthropological Series. Ottawa: Government Printing Bureau (1916), p. 41).

Saturday, November 14, 2009

241. The Baseline Scenarios -- Part 17: On a Clear Day

Many of the attributes I've associated with HBC are regarded as typical for hunter-gatherer groups in various parts of the world. The question I'd now like to consider is: why. Traditionally, anthropologists have tended to assume that there are certain people out there who can be grouped together as "hunter-gatherers" or "foragers," and that many of them have certain things in common, and as a result they tend to treat them as though they are the way they are due to some universal characteristic that we could call, I suppose, "hunter-gatherer-ivity." If they hunt and gather, and have no other visible means of support, that means they must belong to some mysterious cultural sub-species of the human race that for some reason shares all sorts of interesting beliefs, attitudes, methodologies, etc., due, no doubt, to similar "adaptations" to "the environment," that function purely functionally in order to reinforce "functionalist" theories of how and why they are to be found in so many different parts of the world (and so many different environments, as well).

Once upon a time it was fashionable to explain the many similarities as "survivals" from some vaguely defined "prehistoric" or "stone age" era, but no one had the slightest idea of where these survivals came from, or how they could be so widespread, or why these particular groups were still clinging to them after all these many years. Now, of course, all talk of survivals has been banished -- because that would make them "living fossils," and we can't have that. So at this point what we have are "hunter-gatherers," in and of themselves, take them or leave them. The world contains all sorts of people, short people, tall people, capitalists, socialists, democrats, republicans, farmers, bankers, lawyers, politicians, and: hunter-gatherers. How did the get the way they are? Maybe they "jes growed"???

Well, the view from HBP -- our common ancestor -- is very illuminating I must say. From this great height of roughly 40,000 to over 100,000 years ago, straight up, we can look down for miles and miles through millennia after millennia of history. The view is admittedly a bit foggy -- due to hypothetical conditions beyond our control. But with a little more research we might be able to see forever. Or at least as far into the future as now. :-)

And what I see, through a glass darkly, is the likelihood that what they all have in common is their connection with HBC. In other words, if today's hunter-gatherers have so much in common it is not because they all share hunter-gatherer-ivity, but because they all share a common heritage, passed down from generation to generation from a common ancestor. And if you want to contest that theory, fine. It's a hypothesis, so by all means let's test it.

Meanwhile, we can do some very interesting exploring by looking for those hunter-gatherer societies that appear to share most if not all the characteristics of HBC. And I'm wondering whether there are indeed any that share all of them.

There are many other things we can explore as well. For example, we can work our way backward from HBC to see if we can figure out how it got that way. Here, for example, is a description of a Bonobo nest, from Citizendium:
When it comes to building the nest, Bonobos prefer certain trees. . . In order for Bonobos to make a nest, the tree's branches must be strong and flexible enough to be bent over considerably without snapping in half. But they must also have a certain amount of rigidity to them in order for the branch to slightly split. . . To build the nest itself, Bonobos bend larger branches in towards the center and stamp them down. The nest is then filled in with leaves and twigs for padding.
I'll bet the nests are made by females too.

And here is a video clip I've shown before, of Siamang Baboons "duetting" in a manner very much like certain types of P/B style "shouted hocket."

Another interesting project might be an attempt to use HBP and HBC to help reconstruct the physiognomy and culture of the original "Out of Africa" migrants, the band that supposedly crossed the "Gulf of Grief" at the Horn of Africa anywhere from 60,000 to 90,000 yeas ago to enter what is now Yemen and ultimately populate all of Asia, Australia, Europe, the Americas and Oceania with their descendants.

We might also want to take a look a all the other societies in the world, hunter-gatherers, farmers, herders, even modern "developed" societies such as our own, that seem so devoted to warlike, violent behavior. If it wasn't part of HBC, then how did it get started? How and why did head-hunting, cannibalism, witchcraft, torture, war, terrorism, etc., etc., get started if our common ancestors were such peaceful folk? On a clear day we just might be able to spot the point at which all this mayhem got its start. Or maybe it got started in many different ways. No harm in taking a peek . . .

to be continued . . .

Thursday, November 12, 2009

240. The Baseline Scenarios -- part 16: The Baseline

Let's put together a little table representing what we've come up with so far.

Height: possibly short, but more evidence needed.
Morphology: indeterminate, since Pygmy morphology is so different from Bushmen morphology.
Place of origin: indeterminate; possibly tropical forest, but East or Southern Africa also possible.

  • Material culture
Dwellings: probably beehive huts.
Weapons: very possibly poison-tipped arrows, but more evidence is needed.
Tools: almost certainly stone tools were used, though not commonly used today.*
  • Subsistence
almost certainly hunting and gathering; horticulture and/or herding possible but unlikely.
  • Immaterial culture

Language: unknown. Possibly not fully developed.

[Added 11-15: Thanks to a very logical observation by Glen (see comments, below), I must admit that, as he states, there is a contradiction between the existence of initiation rituals and the absence of language -- and of course there could be no awareness of ancestors, or communication with "spirits," without language. So I have removed the phrase "Possibly none" from the above line and substituted "Possibly not fully developed." For my reasons for believing that the Pygmies may not have had a fully developed language of their own, see post # 98.]

Music: almost certainly P/B style (polyphony, interlock, yodel, etc.)
Ritual/Spiritual Life/Religion: supernatural healing, trance, possession, contact with spirits via dreams, initiation rituals, funerary rituals, strong orientation toward ancestors.
Kinship: most likely flexible and loosely applied; possibly "universal" or even nonexistent.
Economics: "communistic."
Political structure: acephalous.
Core values: strong emphasis placed on egalitarianism, gender-equality, cooperation, non-violence, conflict avoidance, individualism, sharing of vital resources.
Behavior: often contentious, sometimes violent in spite of strong social sanctions against violent behavior.
Warfare: nonexistent.
Cannibalism: nonexistent.
Blood feuds: nonexistent.
Raiding: nonexistent.
Slavery: nonexistent.
Prostitution: nonexistent.
Sexual mutilation: nonexistent.
[Added 11-14:
Witchcraft: nonexistent.
Sorcery: nonexistent.
(Mathias Guenther: "Witchcraft and sorcery are either absent or inchoate." from Diversity and Flexibility -- The Case of the Bushmen of Southern Africa, p. 73. See Turnbull, The Forest People and Wayward Servants for similar comments on Mbuti attitudes toward witchcraft.)]

The above can be regarded as some of the most interesting characteristics of our Hypothetical Baseline Population and its Hypothetical Baseline Culture, models representing the common ancestry of everyone now alive, that we can now use as tools for investigating human society, past and present. It's important to remember that this is a hypothetical baseline, subject to testing, and that nothing about it (with the exception, I'd like to think, of its music) has, of yet, been fully investigated, leastwise proven.

This isn't just any model. Our baseline represents, in technical terms, the most recent common ancestor of all living humans, a very real, very specific society that existed prior to the earliest divergence of the modern human family tree, as inferred from both the genetic and the cultural evidence. Any physical or cultural attributes that can be associated with HBP should be understood as in some sense, and of course provisionally, ancestral to all subsequent populations and societies -- or, to be more accurate, all such groups that have survived to the present time. (Our baseline may or may not be ancestral to societies that haven't survived to the present, known only from historical or archaeological remains, since at least some of these groups might be traceable to a different ancestral group whose lineage has become extinct.) Each and every attribute that can be attributed to our baseline group must be understood therefore as a potential forerunner of any similar human attribute found anywhere in the world, since every extant population can be understood as deriving, however remotely, from HBP.

We can therefore use our baseline almost like a kind of telescope, to scan various societies in various parts of the world, as though we were astronomers scanning the heavens for evidence of how the various planets, stars, galaxies -- and the universe itself -- were formed. To do this effectively we need a new basic principle: any attribute found to be shared between any society now in existence, or represented by historical and/or archaeological records, and HBP is open to investigation as a possible survival from HBP. Where shall we begin?

*Turnbull has described the Mbuti as "pre-Stone Age" because none of their tools are made of stone. He was referring principally to their arrow tips, which are and probably always were, made of fire-hardened wood. Bushmen tips are made of bone. However, since iron and steel tools such as the machete and hand axe, acquired largely from neighboring farmers, are currently being used for tasks that could certainly have been done with stone tools in the past, it's highly likely that both populations were using stone tools prior to contact with outside groups. Such tools have been found by archaeologists in the Ituri Forest and, of course, elsewhere in Africa.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

239. The Baseline Scenarios -- part 15: The Baseline

We've arrived at a point where the various pieces of evidence can be assembled to establish some sort of meaningful baseline, however provisionally. Please remember that I am basing my hypotheses on evidence and not conjecture or assumption. This doesn't mean anything has been proven, but it does mean that certain possibilities cannot easily be dismissed.

Before continuing, let me repeat the basic principle behind the method I'm employing here:
Our method will be simple. Any attribute found to be shared by at least one group in each of the three populations with the deepest clades, i.e., Eastern Pygmies, Western Pygmies and Bushmen (EP, WP, Bu), should be taken seriously as a possible survival from the time the ancestors of all three groups were united as one -- the group I'm calling HBP. You could call this the "triangulation method."
Our common ancestors (Hypothetical Baseline Population or HBP) may have been short, because all Pygmies, and some of the most traditional Bushmen groups are also short. Their shortness may be due to an adaptation to tropical forest life, but there is no reason to assume this was necessarily the case, since we have no way of knowing where this phenotype originated. If the shortness of the Pygmies is due to some hormonal factor not shared by Bushmen then the similarity in size can most likely not be attributed to their common ancestor. If, on the other hand, they do share such a factor, it seems likely that it can. This can certainly be tested.

Since poison arrows are commonly used by EP, WP and Bu (Eastern Pygmies, Western Pygmies and Bushmen), then our triangulation method suggests that poison arrows are likely to have been used by HBP, which would mean that the bow and arrow itself is part of the same archaic heritage. A recent finding at Sibudu Cave in Southern Africa of an arrowhead very similar to those used by Bushmen, dating to possibly 61,000 years ago, reinforces this theory. On the other hand, poison arrows are also used by other groups in Africa who may possibly have passed this technology on to both Pygmies and Bushmen, so more research is needed.

We are on much more solid ground with respect to the musical evidence, at least as far as I'm concerned, since my own research over a period of many years has convinced me that the striking similarities in this respect among so many Pygmy and Bushmen groups, representing all three regions of my "triangle," can be explained only on the basis of a common heritage from a common ancestor. The considerable evidence in support of my theory can be found throughout this blog. If I am right, then what I have called Pygmy/Bushmen style (P/B) played an important role in our ancestral culture (HBC).

On the basis of the remarkable photographic and ethnographic evidence I've presented, it seems clear that beehive huts of a type found among all three populations must have been a part of HBC. It also seems likely that HBP were hunter-gatherers, hunting with either bows and arrows or spears, but probably not nets, which appears to be a more recent technology. Interestingly, however, we have no solid evidence that they could not have also done some farming or even had some domesticated herds. Hunting and gathering traditions are strong among all three populations, making it extremely likely that HBP hunted and gathered their food, but that does not mean other subsistence technologies might not have also been present that were subsequently lost or minimized. It's only when we cling to outworn notions of evolutionary "stages" that such possibilities can be dismissed out of hand.

It's hard to say whether shamanism in the strictest sense was a part of HBC, but certain practices central to shamanism almost certainly were, since trance, possession, transmission of important information via dreams, transformation into animals, and supernatural healing are found among almost all Pygmy and Bushmen groups.

As far as kinship is concerned, it seems likely that HBP either had no kinship system at all or a very loosely defined kinship system, since by all reports, kinship terminology among most Pygmy and Bushmen groups is often borrowed from neighboring tribes and is in any case consistently flexible and loosely applied. This raises the question of whether HBP had a fully developed language at the time of earliest divergence. I won't get into this very difficult and controversial issue here, but will refer you to an earlier post in which this possibility is discussed: Did the Pygmies Ever Have a Language of Their Own?

One of the most meaningful and interesting questions we can ask about any society concerns its "core values," the fundamental ideology, passed down from generation to generation, that controls the way people think about themselves, their traditions, and the world at large, shaping both their sense of identity, and, ideally at least, their behavior. And, as we have discovered, there does seem to be something almost "Utopian" about the core values that could be attributed to HBC. Time and again, in one report after the other, from almost every possible source, historical, ethnographic, anecdotal, mythological, we find Pygmies and Bushmen described in very similar, almost glowing terms, as: egalitarian, gender-equal, mutually cooperative, non-violent, individualistic, and almost "communistic" in their obsession with the equal sharing of vital resources.

It is certainly true that there are a great many exceptions in day to day behavior that call such an ideal picture into question, and many anthropologists have been dismissed as hopelessly "romantic" for idealizing such societies. As Alex Liazos has reminded us in his remarkable book on Colin Turnbull, there are indeed a great many troubling aspects of Mbuti Pygmy life that have all too often been glossed over because their traditional value system appears so attractive. It is also true that the many portraits of "Utopian" societies found in Western literature stress the profound difference between the professed ideal and the horrific reality that all too often lurks behind the facade. We know all too well of Twentieth Century attempts to impose Utopian societies that have invariably resulted in completely unrealistic social monstrosities that became hopelessly unsustainable and ultimately collapsed.

Should the Pygmies and Bushmen of today therefore be judged according to their "Utopian" core values or their day to day behavior, which often seems in conflict with their values? Or, to put it another way, can "Utopia" actually exist as a real, sustainable possibility, or is it always at heart a sham. I can't provide an easy answer to such a question, but if the triangulation method can be relied upon, and HBC was indeed, as it would seem, a society equally torn between a Utopian ideal and an all-too-human reality determined to test the limits of that ideal, then such a society could most certainly be regarded as sustainable, since essentially the same mix of "Utopian" values and fractious behavior appears to have persisted over tens of thousands of years.

There is of course a great deal more that could be said regarding all of the above, and a great deal more evidence to add to the picture we have thus far painted, but the point I would like to leave you with for now is that we do indeed appear to have arrived at a baseline of human cultural history, a point zero from which we can consider everything we now see in literally every human society in the world around us, from the most "primitive" to the most "advanced." Think of our baseline as a kind of observatory.

Monday, November 9, 2009

238. The Baseline Scenarios -- part 14: Core Premises and Embedded Values

Significant differences among various groups of pygmies and bushmen, largely based on their responses to external pressures, have been noted (by, for example, Susan Kent, for bushmen, and Barry Hewlett, for pygmies -- see post 193 for details), to the point that certain revisionists have dismissed all attempts to define "pygmy culture" or "bushmen culture" as dangerous essentializations. A sensible corrective to this very narrowly focused view has been offered by anthropologist 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 . . . ("Gifts from Immortal Ancestors," in Hunters and Gatherers in the Modern World, ed. Biesele and Hitchcock, 2000, p. 427-428 -- my emphases).
When we move from a consideration of such strategies of compromise to "the forces inside these cultures that tend to perpetuate their reproduction from generation to generation," based on "core premises and embedded values," we find that it is indeed possible to speak not only of "pygmy culture" and "bushman culture," but of a single set of core values held in common by almost all such groups. While, as van der Sluys implies, many other hunter-gatherer societies worldwide share many of the same values, I'll be limiting myself for now to evidence drawn from the study of WP, EP and Bu only. (My reasons for postponing consideration of other hunter-gatherers are discussed in the previous post.)

Considerable evidence for shared core values among representatives of WP and Bu has already been provided in a series of quotations presented earlier, in post 184, where specific references can be found. Aka Pygmies are described as having "an 'egalitarian' sensibility, coupled with individual autonomy"; "fiercely egalitarian and independent," with "no chief in the sense of a person commanding ultimate authority"; valuing "sharing, cooperation, and autonomy" and "intergenerational equality." "Aka infancy . . . lacks negation and violence"; "male-female relations are extremely egalitarian by cross-cultural standards"; "physical violence in general is infrequent"; "the Aka are probably as egalitarian as human societies get."

Bushmen are described in almost identical terms, as follows: "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"; "Bushmen children are taught to fear and avoid violence. They are also taught to avoid disputes"; "Bushman society is fairly egalitarian, with power being evenly and widely dispersed"; "war is unknown."

From another source, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers we find a very similar description of Bushmen values:
Ju/'hoan political ethos abhorred wealth and status differences. No one should stand out from the rest of the group. If someone returned from a successful hunt showing excessive pride, he was put firmly in place, even if the kill was large. Emphasis on sharing and lack of status roles produced a high degree of egalitarianism. . . . Anger and resentment were low as each person's opinion was respected. Conflicts could be terminated by a disputant leaving to join another group (p. 208).
Anyone familiar with Colin Turnbull's The Forest People will recognize essentially the same values attributed to the Mbuti Pygmies, representing our third exemplary population, EP. For example,
Cooperation is the key to Pygmy society; you can expect it and you can demand it and you have to give it. . . As soon as the hunters return they deposit meat on the ground and the camp gathers to make sure the division is fair. Nobody acknowledges that it is but in the end everyone is satisfied.
Here are some relevant quotations from his more complete study, Wayward Servants:
All major [economic] decisions are taken by common consent, as in other realms of Mbuti life. Men and women have equal say . . . Any tendency toward charismatic leadership is countered by ridicule . . . (pp. 179-180). A woman is in no way the social inferior of a man, and there is little absolute division of labor along sex lines (p. 270).
Especially significant are his remarks regarding the role of music, equally applicable to many other Pygmy and also at least some Bushmen groups, such as the Ju/'hoansi:
An examination of Mbuti song form not only reveals areas of concern to the Mbuti, such as their food getting activities, life and death, but it also reveals the concern of the Mbuti for cooperative activity . . . The songs are most frequently in round or canon form, and the hunting songs, in order to heighten the need for the closest possible cooperation (the same need that is demanded by the hunt itself), are sometimes sung in hoquet (p. 256). It is certain that an acute analysis of Mbuti music would reveal much that parallels the structure of Mbuti society. The extraordinary level of polyphonic achievement is surely related to a highly developed individualism that would hardly tolerate the confines of unison (footnote 7, p. 257).
If it is remarkable that near-utopian core values such as egalitarianism, gender equality, group cooperation, the sharing of resources with no expectation of return, non-violence, individualism, etc., are so deeply embedded in the culture of societies isolated from one another for tens of thousands of years, equally remarkable are the many cases where individual behavior would appear to contradict the "utopian" image. I've already discussed such contradictory behavior in post 208, along with the contradictions displayed by so many of the anthropologists who have studied these groups -- and Turnbull is by no means alone in this respect.

Regardless of what one might think of the fact that the gender-equal, non-violent Mbuti often beat their wives and engage in frequent squabbles; or that the non-violent Bushmen have been determined to have unusually high homicide rates, there is, in fact, a difference between a culturally sanctioned ideal and the way in which the ideal is actually implemented in the day to day lives of actual people coping with personal and social pressures both internal and external. The fact that everyone doesn't always conform to the value system does not mean that the value system isn't a pervasive and important force for the society as a whole, which judges all behavior according to its standards. What is "reproduced from generation to generation" are not the many exceptions, but the cultural ideal, the "core values" through which society as a whole constructs its identity.

Especially telling with respect to these societies, in addition to the many positive values they hold in common (not to mention the many exceptions also found in common), are the many destructive practices found among many indigenous peoples, hunter-gatherers included, yet not found anywhere among any of these groups. What we do not see are evidences of: cannibalism, head-hunting, endemic warfare, female mutilation, prostitution, slavery, blood-feuds, raiding, etc.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

237. The Baseline Scenarios -- part 13: Interlude -- A Brief Review

Before continuing, I'd like to clarify, for the benefit of newcomers or those who may have lost the thread of my argument, what it is I'm up to in this series of posts. What I've been writing about poison arrows, shamanism, kinship, even beehive huts, is the sort of thing that's been associated by a great many anthropologists with hunter-gatherers in general, in many parts of the world. I've been called to task on that, as though there's something misleading in placing so much emphasis on Pygmies and Bushmen only, when we already know the same practices are characteristic of all hunter-gatherers.

Well, first of all, we do not know that. It's an assumption. And second of all, it is wrong. Not all hunter-gatherers share all these traits. Thirdly, it's not always clear whether a certain practice is the same or not quite the same or completely different until we've had a chance to study that practice in some detail among all the groups under consideration. To my knowledge no one has ever done a comparative study of that kind for all hunter-gatherers, and for good reason, as it would be an enormous task.

So, fourthly, one virtue of concentrating only on Pygmies and Bushmen is that the task of systematic comparison, based on actual evidence rather than assumptions, is cut down to size. I'm not claiming I've already accomplished that task, though I do think I've done a pretty good job on the musical aspect. But at least I've highlighted very specific questions that can be adequately addressed within a reasonable time-frame, since only a relatively small number of already heavily studied groups would need to be considered.

But that's not the most important reason. Thanks to the truly revolutionary findings of modern population genetics, we now know, with a reasonable degree of certainty, that the DNA of the three groups I've been focusing on, WP, EP and Bu, contains haplotypes representing the deepest clades (i.e., branches) of the genetic tree of all living humans. Since these three branches can all be traced to a single ancestral "root" population, from which all diverged during the Paleolithic, we are in a position, for the first time, to consider a specific ancestral group that actually existed at some time in deep history. It is this group, ancestral to WP, EP and Bu, that I have been calling HBP, or Hypothetical Baseline Population. While this same group could be considered ancestral to all living humans, the fact that WP, EP and Bu have been isolated for so long that their DNA occupies the deepest clades suggests that this same isolation might have preserved aspects of the ancestral culture (HBC) as well.

While anthropologists have been forced to acknowledge that there might be something to the genetics findings after all, they have been reluctant to take the next logical step, toward consideration of the implications these same findings could have for culture. The accepted opinion is that it's impossible to even consider the survival of archaic traditions because 1. all human history is characterized by continual change, aka "cultural evolution" (an assumption); 2. pygmy culture and bushmen culture are "myths," since whatever culture they might have had prior to the last 500 years or so has been too strongly affected by interaction with other, nonforager, groups (another assumption).

What made the difference for me was the musical evidence, clearly demonstrating a close affinity among all three groups -- which could only be the result of a common heritage from a common ancestor: HBP. (For details of this argument, the reader is invited to go back and read this entire blog, or at least some of my published writings on this topic -- see the Table of Contents for specific links.) If the musical evidence points so strongly to the survival of an ancestral cultural heritage, then why not look at other cultural characteristics to see if there is any evidence that they too are ancestral survivals.

Only it's not enough to simply pick out some tradition found among one of these groups and assume it's a survival, even if it's a tradition shared by other hunter-gatherers elsewhere in the world -- because we have no way of judging when any such tradition might have begun. As with the music, it is only when we find essentially the same distinctive traditions among all three groups, isolated from one another and the rest of the world for most of their long history -- as attested by the genetic evidence -- that we can hypothesize with a reasonable degree of confidence that the same traditions may well have been part of HBC. My "triangulation" method is therefore based on the extreme unlikelihood of essentially the same distinctive traditions developing independently among representatives of all three of these very special populations.

I hope the above clarifies my reasons for focusing exclusively on these three particular groups. As for all the other hunter-gatherers, they too are of great importance, but we can't begin to consider the evidence pertaining to their cultures until we have a clearer picture of HBC -- because, if the genetic evidence is correct, it is with HBC that everything else began.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

236. The Baseline Scenarios -- part 12: Kinship

Kinship has traditionally been one of the major preoccupations of anthropology, and for good reason, as it reflects some of the most fundamental aspects of human relationship in a manner that appears, at least on the surface, to be systematic, consistent and logical, thus particularly amenable to scientific study. Unfortunately, the promise that kinship studies would tell us something important about cultural history has been largely unfulfilled. Various kinship "types" appear to be scattered almost randomly among a great many different regions, with seemingly very little in the way of meaningful pattern.

A bold effort to make sense out of the complex web of kinship terminologies has recently been made by German Dziebel, who very generously sent me a copy of his remarkable book, The Genius of Kinship. Dziebel's database of kinship terminologies, along with several links to various aspects of his work can be found on his blog, Kinship Studies, and a very interesting summary of his ideas on this topic can be found on the blog, I don't pretend to understand kinship well enough to evaluate all Dziebel's ideas, but I must confess that the most original aspect of his work, the theory, based on his kinship research, that homo sapiens first arose in the Americas rather than Africa, is for me both confusing and unconvincing. I nevertheless recommend his book since German clearly has a comprehensive knowledge of kinship, writes in a very engaging manner, and has many interesting and original things to say.

In view of the complexity of kinship terminology, coupled with my own ignorance of all but the most basic aspects of kinship, plus German's presence on this blog as an alert and often highly critical commentator (whose presence is nevertheless welcome), I hesitate to even raise the issue here. However, judging from the literature generally, there are some very interesting aspects of Pygmy and Bushmen attitudes toward kinship that could serve as useful clues to the kinship traditions, if any, of HBC.

Here is what Barry Hewlett has to say about kinship among the four pygmy groups he's compared, Aka, Baka, Mbuti and Efe:
These four groups are remarkably similar; all have Hawaiian kin terms, patrilineal descent and patrilocal post-marital residence. These characteristics resemble the patterns of most farmers with whom foragers associate so it is unclear whether the patterns existed before relations were established with farmers or whether foragers adopted these patterns from farmers and modified them in their own ways. 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 . . . ; post-marital residence is more flexible among foragers than farmers as foragers frequently visit in-laws and distant relatives for long periods. (Cultural Diversity Among African Pygmies -- my emphasis).
Here is what Colin Turnbull has to say about kinship among the Mbuti:
It would of course, be ridiculous to deny that there is any system of kinship, but it is certain that the kinship system does not have the same importance as a focal point of social control as it may in other African societies. To my mind this is undeniably linked to the ad hoc nature of the society, with its almost complete lack of concern for the past, as for the future.
From later in the same section:
Together with this lack of emphasis on the biological aspects of kinship, and the accompanying generational system of terminology goes a lack of formal restrictions on behavior between different kin categories, and a marked unwillingness to clearly define kin relationships between individuals (Wayward Servants, pp. 109, 112 -- my emphasis).
Compare with what Mathias Guenther has to say about Bushmen kinship:
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 (in Cultural Diversity Among Twentieth Century Foragers, p. 78 -- my emphasis).
Moreover, from The Evolution of Culture, 1999, by Dunbar, Knight and Power:
Hunting and gathering societies are usually based on a universal system of kinship classification (Barnard, 1978). In other words, they classify all members of society as 'relatives,' some being 'husbands' or 'wives,' some being 'parents' or 'children' . . .(my emphasis).
Or this, from a leading authority on Bushmen culture, Alan Barnard:
In studying Khoisan kinship, I have found that the rigid application of traditional models drawn from other parts of the world or from anthropological, rather than indigenous, discourse, obscures interesting features. An approach which takes into account similar features across society boundaries can reveal underlying structures which add much more to our understanding of kinship than the surface structures which are the subject of conventional methods of formal analysis (Hunters and Herders of Southern Africa, p. 6 -- my emphasis).
While it's possible to categorize pygmies and bushmen within formally defined, traditional kinship models that are, in fact, different from one another (i.e., "Hawaiian" among the pygmies and "Eskimo" among Bushmen), the "underlying structures" they have in common may be of greater significance, at least for our purposes. For our purposes, the very real differences in kinship terminology, naming and marriage customs, etc. among these groups can be put aside, at least for now, in favor of the underlying commonalities, because it's what they all have in common that is most likely to stem from HBC. And what they all appear to have in common is not so much a single, "underlying" or "surface" kinship system, as very little system at all.

What we get from the authorities quoted above is a picture of societies best described as "ad hoc" and "unconcerned with the past," with a "flexible" attitude toward kinship, marital customs, residence, etc., and an "unwillingness to clearly define kin relationships"; societies in which individual actions are not "jural" but "tentative and open ended." All the above suggests that HBC may have had either a very flexible and loosely defined kinship system, akin to the "universal" system described above -- or no kinship system at all.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

235. The Baseline Scenarios -- part 11: Shamanism

The term "shaman" originated in Siberia, and there has been ongoing controversy regarding the appropriateness of that term when similar practices from other regions are being discussed. Nevertheless, most researchers agree that very similar practices are found among indigenous peoples in many parts of the world. According to Mathias Guenther,
While in a strict ethnographic sense the shaman's cultural province is Siberia, the term and category are used in a generic sense by most writers. . . Shamans everywhere enter altered states of consciousness, in order to gain spiritual inspiration or divinatory guidance, or to effect their mystical cures. . . A classic example is the Kalahari Ju/'hoansi Bushmen . . . (The Cambridge Encycopedia of Hunters and Gatherers, p. 427).
Rituals of a shamanistic nature have indeed been frequently reported for various Bushmen groups where, according to some reports, more than half the males, and also some females, are "shamans." According to Megan Biesele and her Ju/'hoansi Bushmen collaborator, Kxao Royal-/O/OO,
Ju healers have access to supernatural powers such as n/om, magical energy/potency with which Ju/'hoansi can counter malevolent ghosts, heal the sick, and resolve conflicts. When one sings special songs, Ju say, n/om comes out. Ju/'hoan ceremonies feature intense, exhilarating, all-night healing dances, where the power of n/om heals, protects and gives well being (The Cambridge Encycopedia of Hunters and Gatherers, p. 208).
As I already reported (in post # 231),
The “supernatural energy-songs” representing almost half of the Ju|’hoansi repertoire are [according to Emmanuelle Olivier] given to healers in dreams or during trance, where the spirits of dead ancestors, sing “in the three tessituras” while the healer sings a melody along with them “in the principal tessitura” (1998:366). Upon awaking, "he/she sings this melody to his/her spouse without variations (repeating it identically) and the spouse follows the healer’s vocal line, but tries to avoid an identical reproduction of what he/she is singing."
And, as we learned in the same post, a very similar practice has been reported among the BaAka Pygmies:
Significantly, dreams through which spirits transmit songs to the living, as described above . . . are a part of Aka culture as well. [Michelle] Kisliuk recounts a story told by an Aka woman about the dream origin of an eboka (a performance combining song and dance), transmitted by a deceased man to his sister, who is expected to teach it to her husband, who will then teach it, in turn, to the young men of the group. According to Kisliuk, “an eboka can emerge as a mystical, dreamed gift within a family, transferred across genders and across the threshold of death” (Seize the Dance:177–78).
Specialized healers known as Nganga are also reported among the BaAka, though it's not clear to what extent their activities could be characterized as "shamanistic" in the strictest sense -- see Barry Hewlett, Aka Pygmies of the Western Congo Basin. In Seize the Dance, Kisliuk describes a ritual dance called Njengi, where the dancer, who becomes possessed by the Njengi spirit, is completely covered by a mask made of leaves. The mask itself is strictly "off limits to women," who are expected to believe the leaves are inhabited by a spirit.

Spirit possession of a similar sort is an essential aspect of the Mbuti Molimo ceremony, as described by Turnbull in The Forest People (see especially Chapter Four). The molimo is understood to be both a musical instrument and an animal and, again, the women are expected to believe that it is in fact a spirit-animal. As with the Njengi mask of the BaAka, they are forbidden to see the instrument itself. Though Turnbull never refers specifically to shamans, shamanism or even healers among the Mbuti, there are instances where individuals fall into trance, which is, as I understand it, not unusual among pygmy groups generally.

Mauro Campagnoli refers to spirits which dance along with the Baka Pygmies and dances which are healing rituals led by Baka healers. Again it's hard to say whether these healers are in fact bona fide "shamans," though they would seem to perform at least some of the same functions.

[Added Nov. 6: From the Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Tropical Forest Foragers, by Barry Hewlett:
Religious Practitioners. All the forager groups have traditional healers, and several of them (e.g., the Aka, Baka, and Mbuti) recognize the supernatural abilities of great hunters, who can communicate with the supernatural world, make themselves invisible, and take the forms of various animals.]
While I would not be so bold as to assert that such evidence proves that shamanism was practiced by HBP, the fact that we find instances of supernatural healing, trance, and spirit possession among representatives of EP, WP and Bu, does strongly suggest that practices very close to shamanism in certain respects were part of HBC. The evidence also suggests that the ancestors of the Bushmen subsequently went farther in this direction than the ancestors of the Pygmies, since rituals of a shamanistic nature would appear to play a much greater role among the former than the latter. Possession, trance and healing appear to be treated much more casually and informally among Pygmies than among Bushmen. The roots of shamanism are of course a very complex and difficult topic which requires much more knowledge than I have at the moment. All I'll say at present is that it looks like some form of shamanism or proto-shamanism was part of HBC, but to what extent or what this might mean is hard for me to say.