Anthropology Friday: Tylor’s “Primitive Culture”

Today’s author is Edward B. Tylor, 1832 – 1917, father of modern anthropology. According to Wikipedia:

[Tylor] believed that there was a functional basis for the development of society and religion, which he determined was universal. … Tylor reintroduced the term animism (faith in the individual soul or anima of all things, and natural manifestations) into common use. He considered animism to be the first phase of development of religions. …

Tylor’s first publication was a result of his 1856 trip to Mexico with Christy. His notes on the beliefs and practices of the people he encountered were the basis of his work Anahuac: Or Mexico and the Mexicans, Ancient and Modern (1861). … Tylor continued to study the customs and beliefs of tribal communities, both existing and prehistoric (based on archaeological finds). He published his second work, Researches into the Early History of Mankind and the Development of Civilization, in 1865. Following this came his most influential work, Primitive Culture (1871). This was important not only for its thorough study of human civilisation and contributions to the emergent field of anthropology, but for its undeniable influence on a handful of young scholars, such as J. G. Frazer…

Tylor was an “evolutionist,” but not necessarily in the sense of having read Darwin’s Origins of the Species. Rather, the “evolution” of things–societies, philosophies, art styles, animals–from simpler to more complex forms over time was part of the zeitgeist of the age.

His methods were comparative and historical ethnography. He believed that a “uniformity” was manifest in culture, which was the result of “uniform action of uniform causes.” He regarded his instances of parallel ethnographic concepts and practices as indicative of “laws of human thought and action.” … The task of cultural anthropology therefore is to discover “stages of development or evolution.”

Evolutionism was distinguished from another creed, diffusionism, postulating the spread of items of culture from regions of innovation. A given apparent parallelism thus had at least two explanations: the instances descend from an evolutionary ancestor, or they are alike because one diffused into the culture from elsewhere. These two views are exactly parallel to the tree model and wave model of historical linguistics, which are instances of evolutionism and diffusionism, language features being instances of culture.

Also, things can arise independently, like echidnas and hedgehogs.

Anthropology basically abandoned this kind of thinking ages ago, partly because “evolution” as applied to human societies became a dirty word, partly because Marxist-Freudians took over the profession, and partly because cultures don’t always evolve uniformly and predictably from less to more complex.

That said, what I have read so far of Tylor’s work (one whole chapter!) is much better–and on a much more solid footing–than a great deal of what follows. He started from actual observations (most of which look pretty sound,) noticed a lot of parallels, and attempted to work out why. As a result, I think his work still interesting and valuable enough to be worth quoting.

For the sake of readability, I will be using “” marks, rather than blockquote-formatting.

So let’s begin!

Primitive Culture, ch. 11

“It is habitually found that the theory of Animism divides into two great dogmas, forming parts of one consistent doctrine; first, concerning souls of individual creatures, capable of continued existence after the death or destruction of the body ; second, concerning other spirits, upward to the rank of powerful deities. Spiritual beings are held to affect or control the events of the material world, and man’s life here and hereafter; and it being considered that they hold intercourse with men, and receive pleasure or displeasure from human actions, the belief in their existence leads naturally, and it might almost be said inevitably, sooner or later to active reverence and propitiation.”

“But a quaint and special group of beliefs will serve to display the thoroughness with which the soul is thus conceived as an image of the body. … Thus it was recorded of the Indians of Brazil by one of the early European visitors, that they ‘ believe that the dead arrive in the other world wounded or hacked to pieces, in fact just as they left this.’ Thus, too, the Australian who has slain his enemy will cut off the right thumb of the corpse, so that although the spirit will become a hostile ghost, it cannot
throw with its mutilated hand the shadowy spear, and may be safely left to wander, malignant but harmless.”

“Departing from the body at the time of death, the soul or spirit is considered set free to linger near the tomb, to wander on earth or flit in the air, or to travel to the proper region of spirits the world beyond the grave. …

“Men do not stop short at the persuasion that death releases the soul to a free and active existence, but they quite logically proceed to assist nature, by slaying men in order to liberate their souls for ghostly uses. [bold mine] Thus there arises one of the most widespread, distinct, and intelligible rites of animistic religion that of funeral human sacrifice for the service of the dead. When a man of rank dies and his soul departs to its own place, wherever and whatever that place may be, it is a rational inference of early philosophy that the souls of attendants, slaves, and wives, put to death at his funeral, will make the same journey and continue their service in the next life, and the argument is frequently stretched further, to include the souls of new victims sacrificed in order that they may enter upon the same ghostly servitude. It will appear from the ethnography of this rite that it is not strongly marked in the very lowest levels of culture, but that, arising in the lower barbaric stage, it develops itself in the higher, and thenceforth continues or dwindles in survival.

“Of the murderous practices to which this opinion leads, remarkably distinct accounts may be cited from among tribes of the Indian Archipelago. The following account is given of the funerals of great men among the rude Kayans of Borneo: ‘Slaves are killed in order that they may follow the deceased and attend upon him. Before they are killed the relations who surround them enjoin them to take
great care of their master when they join him, to watch and shampoo him when he is indisposed, to be always near him, and to obey all his behests. The female relatives of the deceased then take a spear and slightly wound the victims, after which the males spear them to death. Again, the opinion of the Idaan is ‘that all whom they kill in this world shall attend them as slaves after death.’

“This notion of future interest in the destruction of the human species is a great impediment to an intercourse with them, as murder goes farther than present advantage or resentment. From the same principle they will purchase a slave, guilty of any capital crime, at fourfold his value, that they may be his executioners.’

“With the same idea is connected the ferocious custom of ‘ head-hunting’ so prevalent among the Dayaks before Rajah Brooke’s time. They considered that the owner of every human head they could procure would serve them in the next world, where, indeed, a man’s rank would be according to his number of heads in this. They would continue the mourning for a dead man till a head was brought in, to provide him with a slave to accompany him to the ‘habitation of souls;’ a father who lost his child would go out and kill the first man he met, as a funeral ceremony ; a young man might not marry till he had procured a head, and some tribes would bury with a dead man the first head he had taken, together with spears, cloth, rice, and betel. Waylaying and murdering men for their heads became, in fact, the Dayaks’ national sport, and they remarked ‘ the white men read books, we hunt for heads instead.'”

EvX, here: Wikipedia confirms this report:

Interior of a Dayak house, decorated with skulls and weapons.
Interior of a Dayak house, decorated with skulls and weapons.

“There were various reasons for headhunting as listed below:

  • For soil fertility so Dayaks hunted fresh heads before paddy harvesting seasons after which head festival would be held in honour of the new heads.
  • To add supernatural strength which Dayaks believed to be centred in the soul and head of humans. Fresh heads can give magical powers for communinal protection, bountiful paddy harvesting and disease curing.
  • To avenge revenge for murders based on “blood credit” principle unless “adat pati nyawa” (customary compensation token) is paid.
Dayak headhunters
Dayak headhunters
  • To pay dowry for marriages e.g. “derian palit mata” (eye blocking dowry) for Ibans once blood has been splashed prior to agreeing to marriage and of course, new fresh heads show prowess, bravery, ability and capability to protect his family, community and land
  • For foundation of new buildings to be stronger and meaningful than the normal practice of not putting in human heads.
  • For protection against enemy attacks according to the principle of “attack first before being attacked”.
  • As a symbol of power and social status ranking where the more heads someone has, the respect and glory due to him. The warleader is called tuai serang (warleader) or raja berani (king of the brave) while kayau anak (small raid) leader is only called tuai kayau (raid leader) whereby adat tebalu (widower rule) after their death would be paid according to their ranking status in the community.

The Dutch eventually put an end to headhunting:

As the Dutch secured the islands they eliminated slavery, widow burning, head-hunting, cannibalism, piracy, and internecine wars.[21] Railways, steamships, postal and telegraph services, and various government agencies all served to introduce a degree of new uniformity across the colony. Immigration within the archipelago—particularly by ethnic Chinese, Bataks, Javanese, and Bugis—increased dramatically.

In 1901 the Dutch adopted what they called the Ethical Policy, under which the colonial government had a duty to further the welfare of the Indonesian people in health and education. Other new measures under the policy included irrigation programs, transmigration, communications, flood mitigation, industrialisation, and protection of native industry.[13] Industrialisation did not significantly affect the majority of Indonesians, and Indonesia remained an agricultural colony; by 1930, there were 17 cities with populations over 50,000 and their combined populations numbered 1.87 million of the colony’s 60 million.

See also: Pictures from Oceana / Indonesia / Polynesia etc.

Returning to Tylor:

“Of such rites in the Pacific islands, the most hideously purposeful accounts reach us from the Fiji group. Till lately, a main part of the ceremony of a great man’s funeral was the strangling of wives, friends, and slaves, for the distinct purpose of attending him into the world of spirits. Ordinarily the first victim was the wife of the deceased, and more than one if he had several, and their corpses, oiled as for a feast, clothed with new fringed girdles, with heads dressed and ornamented, and vermilion and turmeric powder spread on their faces and bosoms, were laid by the side of the dead warrior. Associates and inferior attendants were likewise slain, and these bodies were spoken of as ‘ grass for bedding the grave.’ When Ra Mbithi, the pride of Somosomo, was lost at sea, seventeen of his wives were killed; and after the news of the massacre of the Namena people, in 1839, eighty women were strangled to accompany the spirits of their murdered husbands. Such sacrifices took place under the same pressure of public opinion which kept up the widow-burning in modern India. The Fijian widow was worked upon by her relatives with all the pressure of persuasion and of menace; she understood well that life to her henceforth would mean a wretched existence of neglect, disgrace, and destitution;
and tyrannous custom, as hard to struggle against in the savage as in the civilized world, drove her to the grave.

“Thus, far from resisting, she became importunate for death, and the new life to come, and till public opinion reached a more enlightened state, the missionaries often used their influence in vain to save from the strangling-cord some wife whom they could have rescued, but who herself refused to live. So repugnant to the native mind was the idea of a chieftain going unattended into the other world, that
the missionaries’ prohibition of the cherished custom was one reason of the popular dislike to Christianity. Many of the nominal Christians, when once a chief of theirs was shot from an ambush, esteemed it most fortunate that a stray shot at the same time killed a young man at a distance from him, and thus provided a companion for the spirit of the slain chief.

“In America, the funeral human sacrifice makes its characteristic appearance. A good example may be taken from among the Osages, whose habit was sometimes to plant in the cairn raised over a corpse a pole with an enemy’s scalp hanging to the top. Their notion was that by taking an enemy and suspending his scalp over the grave of a deceased friend, the spirit of the victim became subjected to the spirit of the buried warrior in the land of spirits. Hence the last and best service that could be performed for a deceased relative was to take an enemy’s life, and thus transmit it by his scalp. The correspondence of this idea with that just mentioned among the Dayaks is very striking. With a similar intention, the Caribs would slay on the dead master’s grave any of his slaves they could lay hands on.

“Among the native peoples risen to considerably higher grades of social and political life, these practices were not suppressed but exaggerated, in the ghastly sacrifices of warriors, slaves, and wives, who departed to continue their duteous offices at the funeral of the chief or monarch in Central America and Mexico, in Bogota and Peru.”

EvX here:

400px-Magliabchanopage_73r 400px-Kodeks_tudela_21

The Aztecs were lovely folks.

Back to Tylor:

“Of such funeral rites, carried out to the death, graphic and horrid descriptions are recorded in the countries across Africa East, Central, and West. A headman of the Wadoe is buried sitting in a shallow pit, and with the corpse a male and female slave alive, he with a bill-hook in his hand to cut fuel for his lord in the death-world, she seated on a little stool with the dead chief’s head in her lap. A chief of Unyamwezi is entombed in a vaulted pit, sitting on a low stool with a bow in his right hand, and provided with a pot of native beer ; with him are shut in alive three women slaves, and the ceremony is concluded with a libation of beer on the earth heaped up above them all.

“The same idea which in Guinea makes it common for the living to send messages by the dying to the dead, is developed in Ashanti and Dahome into a monstrous system of massacre. The King of Dahome must enter Deadland with a ghostly court of hundreds of wives, eunuchs, singers, drummers,
and soldiers. Nor is this all. Captain Burton thus describes the yearly ‘Customs:’ ‘They periodically supply the departed monarch with fresh attendants in the shadowy world. For unhappily these murderous scenes are an expression, lamentably mistaken but perfectly sincere, of the liveliest filial piety.’ Even this annual slaughter must be supplemented by almost daily murder. Whatever action,
however trivial, is performed by the King, it must dutifully be reported to his sire in the shadowy realm. A victim, almost always a war-captive, is chosen ; the message is delivered to him, an intoxicating draught of rum follows it, and he is dispatched to Hades in the best of humours.'”

EvX, here. In 1859, the Macon Messenger published an obituary for King Gezo of Dahomey:

His majesty, the King of Dahomey, the great negro seller of Africa, has departed this life. He was in the habit of ransacking all the neighboring African kingdoms, for the purpose of making captives, whom he sold to the slavers. At his funeral obsequies, his loving subjects manifested their sorrow by sacrificing eight hundred negroes to his memory. He is succeeded by his son, King Gezo II.

 

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