Totemism and Exogamy, pt. 3/3: Mundas, Khonds, and Herero

Welcome to our final installment of James Frazer’s Totemism and Exogamy, published in 1910. Here are some hopefully interesting excerpts (as usual, quotes are in “” instead of blocks):


Birsa Munda, 1875–1900, “Indian tribal freedom fighter, religious leader, and folk hero who belonged to the Munda tribe.”

“Another large Dravidian tribe of Chota Nagpur who retain totemism and exogamy are the Mundas. Physically they are among the finest of the aboriginal tribes of the plateau. The men are about five feet six in height, their bodies lithe and muscular, their skin of the darkest brown or almost black, their features coarse, with broad flat noses, low foreheads, and thick lips. Thus from the physical point of view the Mundas are pure Dravidians. Yet curiously  enough they speak a language which differs radically from the true Dravidian. … This interesting family of language is now known to be akin to the Mon-Khmer languages of Further India as well as to the Nicobarese and the dialects of certain wild tribes of Malacca. It is perhaps the language which has been longest spoken in India, and may well have been universally diffused over the whole of that country as well as Malacca before the tide of invasion swept it away from vast areas and left it outstanding only in a few places like islands or solitary towers rising from an ocean of alien tongues. …

“Another well-known Dravidian tribe of Bengal among whom totemism combined with exogamy has been discovered are the Khonds, Kondhs, or Kandhs, who inhabit a hilly tract called Kandhmals in Boad, one of the tributary states of Orissa in the extreme south of Bengal. …Their country is wild and mountainous, consisting of a labyrinth of ranges covered with dense forests of sal trees. They are a shy and timid folk, who love their wild mountain gorges and the stillness of jungle life, but eschew contact with the low-landers and flee to the most inaccessible recesses of their rugged highlands at the least alarm. They subsist by hunting and a primitive sort of agriculture, clearing patches of land for cultivation in the forest during the cold weather and firing it in the heat of summer. The seed is sown among the ashes of the burnt forest when the first rains have damped it. After the second year these rude tillers of the soil abandon the land and make a fresh clearing in the woods.

“The cruel human sacrifices which they used to offer to the Earth Goddess in order to ensure the fertility of their fields have earned for the Khonds an unenviable notoriety among the hill tribes of India. These sacrifices were at last put down by the efforts of British officers.”

The text says no more on the subject, but Wikipedia recounts:

Traditionally the Kondh religious beliefs were syncretic combining totemism, animism, Ancestor worship, shamanism and nature worship.The Kondhs gave highest importance to the Earth goddess, who is held to be the creator and sustainer of the world. Earlier Human Sacrifices called “Meriah” were offered by the Kondh to propitiate the Earth Goddess. In the Kondh society, a breach of accepted religious conduct by any member of their society invited the wrath of spirits in the form of lack of rain fall, soaking of streams, destruction of forest produce, and other natural calamities. Hence, the customary laws, norms, taboos, and values were greatly adhered to and enforced with high to heavy punishments, depending upon the seriousness of the crimes committed. The practise of traditional religion has almost become extinct today.

Meriah sacrifice post

Castes and Tribes of Southern India, (1909) assembled by K. Rangachari, recounts:

In another report, Colonel Campbell describes how the miserable victim is dragged along the fields, surrounded by a crowd of half intoxicated Khonds, who, shouting and screaming, rush upon him, and with their knives cut the flesh piecemeal from the bones, avoiding the head and bowels, till the living skeleton, dying from loss of blood, is relieved from torture, when its remains are burnt, and the ashes mixed with the new grain to preserve it from insects. Yet again, he describes a sacrifice which was peculiar to the Khonds of Jeypore. It is, he writes, always succeeded by the sacrifice of three human beings, two to the sun to the east and west of the village, and one in the centre, with the usual barbarities of the Meriah. A stout wooden post about six feet long is firmly fixed in the ground, at the foot of it a narrow grave is dug, and to the top of the post the victim is firmly fastened by the long hair of his head. Four assistants hold his out-stretched arms and legs, the body being suspended horizontally over the grave, with the face towards the earth. The officiating Junna or priest, standing on the right side, repeats the following invocation, at intervals hacking with his sacrificial knife the back part of the shrieking victims neck. O ! mighty Manicksoro, this is your festal day. To the Khonds the offering is Meriah, to kings Junna. On account of this sacrifice, you have given to kings kingdoms, guns and swords. The sacrifice we now offer you must eat, and we pray that our battle-axes may be converted into swords, our bows and arrows into gunpowder and balls ; and, if we have any quarrels with other tribes, give us the victory.

Let’s return to Frazer:

“While totemism combined with exogamy is widely spread among the aboriginal tribes of India, it is remarkable that no single indubitable case of it has been recorded, so far as I know, in all the rest of the vast continent of Asia. In the preceding chapters we have traced this curious system of society and superstition from Australia through the islands of Torres Straits, New Guinea, Melanesia, Polynesia, Indonesia, and India. On the eastern frontier of India totemism stops abruptly, and in our totemic survey of the world we shall not meet with any clear evidence of it again till we pass to Africa or America. If we leave India out of account, Asia, like Europe, is practically a blank in a totemic map of the world.”

EvX: Too bad there’s no MAP. A map would have been useful.

Herero woman


“When we pass from Asia to Africa the evidence for the existence of totemism and exogamy again becomes comparatively copious ; for the system is found in vogue among Bantu tribes both of Southern and of Central Africa as well as among some of the pure negroes of the West Coast. We begin with the Herero, Ovaherero, or Damaras as they used to be called, who inhabit German South-West Africa.

“The Herero are a tall finely-built race of nomadic herdsmen belonging to the Bantu stock, who seem to have migrated into their present country from the north and east some hundred and fifty or two hundred years ago. The desert character of the country and its seclusion from the world long combined to preserve the primitive manners of the inhabitants. A scanty and precarious rainfall compels them to shift their dwellings from place to place in order to find pasture for their cattle ; and an arid, absolutely rainless coast of dreary sandhills affords no allurement to the passing mariner to land on the inhospitable shore. … But when the first rains, accompanied by thunderstorms of tremendous violence, have fallen, the whole scene changes as by magic. The wastes are converted into meadows of living green, gay with a profusion of beautiful flowers and fragrant with a wealth of aromatic grasses and herbs … Now is the time when the cattle roam at large on the limitless prairies, and beasts of all kinds descend from their summer haunts in the mountains, bringing life and animation where the silence and solitude of death had reigned before. …

“In their native state the Herero are a purely pastoral people, though round about the mission stations some of them have learned to till the ground. They possess, or used to possess, immense herds of cattle and flocks of sheep and goats. These are the pride and joy of their hearts, almost their idols. Their riches are measured by their cattle ; he who has none is of no account in the tribe. Men of the highest standing count it an honour to tend the kine ; the sons of the most powerful chiefs are obliged to lead for a time the life of simple herdsmen. They subsist chiefly on the milk of their herds, which they commonly drink sour. From a motive of superstition they never wash the milk vessels, believing firmly that if they did so the cows would yield no
more milk. Of the flesh they make but little use, for they seldom kill any of their cattle, and never a cow, a calf, or a lamb. Even oxen and wethers are only slaughtered on solemn and festal occasions, such as visits, burials, and the like. Such slaughter is a great event in a village, and young and old flock from far and near to partake of the meat.

“Their huts are of a round beehive shape, about ten feet in diameter. …

“A special interest attaches to the Herero because they are the first people we have met with in our survey who undoubtedly combine totemism with a purely pastoral life ; hitherto the totemic tribes whom we have encountered have been for the most part either hunters or husbandmen…”

EvX: The text claims that the Herero do not wash the vessels they use for holding and storing milk, but if I recall correctly, they actually use urine to this effect, due to their area being quite dry. (Frazer may not have considered urine a cleaning agent, or may have simply been ignorant on this matter.)


Cathedral Round-Up: Should I read Nichols or Pinker?

Harvard Mag had interesting interviews/reviews of both Tom Nichols’s “Death of Expertise” and Steven Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now“.

From the article about Nichols:

Several years ago, Tom Nichols started writing a book about ignorance and unreason in American public discourse—and then he watched it come to life all around him, in ways starker than he had imagined. A political scientist who has taught for more than a decade in the Harvard Extension School, he had begun noticing what he perceived as a new and accelerating—and dangerous—hostility toward established knowledge. People were no longer merely uninformed, Nichols says, but “aggressively wrong” and unwilling to learn. They actively resisted facts that might alter their preexisting beliefs. They insisted that all opinions, however uninformed, be treated as equally serious. And they rejected professional know-how, he says, with such anger. That shook him.

Skepticism toward intellectual authority is bone-deep in the American character, as much a part of the nation’s origin story as the founders’ Enlightenment principles. Overall, that skepticism is a healthy impulse, Nichols believes. But what he was observing was something else, something malignant and deliberate, a collapse of functional citizenship.

What are people aggressively wrong about, and what does he think is causing the collapse of functional citizenship?

The Death of Expertise resonated deeply with readers. … Readers regularly approach Nichols with stories of their own disregarded expertise: doctors, lawyers, plumbers, electricians who’ve gotten used to being second-guessed by customers and clients and patients who know little or nothing about their work. “So many people over the past year have walked up to me and said, ‘You wrote what I was thinking,’” he says.

Sounds like everyone’s getting mansplained these days.

The Death of Expertise began as a cri de coeur on his now-defunct blog in late 2013. This was during the Edward Snowden revelations, which to Nichols’s eye, and that of other intelligence experts, looked unmistakably like a Russian operation. “I was trying to tell people, ‘Look, trust me, I’m a Russia guy; there’s a Russian hand behind this.’ ” But he found more arguments than takers. “Young people wanted to believe Snowden was a hero.”

I don’t have a particular opinion on Snowdon because I haven’t studied the issue, but let’s pretend you were in the USSR and one day a guy in the government spilled a bunch of secrets about how many people Stalin was having shot and how many millions were starving to death in Holodomor (the Ukrainian genocide.) (Suppose also that the media were sufficiently free to allow the stories to spread.)

Immediately you’d have two camps: the “This guy is a capitalist spy sent to discredit our dear leader with a hideous smear campaign” and “This guy is totally legit, the people need to know!”

Do you see why “Snowden is a Russian” sounds like the government desperately trying to cover its ass?

Now let’s suppose the guy who exposed Stalin actually was a capitalist spy. Maybe he really did hate communism and wanted to bring down the USSR. Would it matter? As long as the stuff he said was true, would you want to know anyway? I know that if I found out about Holodomor, I wouldn’t care about the identity of the guy who released the information besides calling him a hero.

I think a lot of Trump supporters feel similarly about Trump. They don’t actually care whether Russia helped Trump or not; they think Trump is helping them, and that’s what they care about.

In other words, it’s not so much “I don’t believe you” as “I have other priorities.”

In December, at a JFK Library event on reality and truth in public discourse, a moderator asked him a version of “How does this end?” … “In the longer term, I’m worried about the end of the republic,” he answered. Immense cynicism among the voting public—incited in part by the White House—combined with “staggering” ignorance, he said, is incredibly dangerous. In that environment, anything is possible. “When people have almost no political literacy, you cannot sustain the practices that sustain a democratic republic.” The next day, sitting in front of his fireplace in Rhode Island, where he lives with his wife, Lynn, and daughter, Hope, he added, “We’re in a very perilous place right now.”

Staggering ignorance about what, I wonder. Given our increased access to information, I suspect that the average person today both knows and can easily find the answers to far more questions than the average person of the 80s, 50s, or 1800s.

I mean, in the 80s, we still had significant numbers of people who believed in: faith healing; televangelists; six-day creationism; “pyramid power”; crop circles; ESP; UFOs; astrology; multiple personality disorder; a global Satanic daycare conspiracy; recovered memories; Freudianism; and the economic viability of the USSR. (People today still believe in the last one.)

One the one hand, I think part of what Nichols is feeling is just the old distrust of experts projected onto the internet. People used to harass their local school boards about teaching ‘evilution’; today they harass each other on Twitter over Ben Ghazi or birtherism or Russia collusion or whatever latest thing.

We could, of course, see a general decline in intellectual abilities as the population of the US itself is drawn increasingly from low-IQ backgrounds and low-IQ people (appear to) outbreed the high-IQ ones, but I have yet to see whether this has had time to manifest as a change in the amount of general knowledge people can use and display, especially given our manifestly easier time actually accessing knowledge. I am tempted to think that perhaps the internet forced Nichols outside of his Harvard bubble and he encountered dumb people for the first time in his life.

On the other hand, however, I do feel a definite since of malaise in America. It’s not about IQ, but how we feel about each other. We don’t seem to like each other very much. We don’t trust each other. Trust in government is low. Trust in each other is low. People have fewer close friends and confidants.

We have material prosperity, yes, despite our economic woes, but there is a spiritual rot.

Both sides are recognizing this, but the left doesn’t understand what is causing it.

They can point at Trump. They can point at angry hoards of Trump voters. “Something has changed,” they say. “The voters don’t trust us anymore.” But they don’t know why.

Here’s what I think happened:

The myth that is “America” got broken.

A country isn’t just a set of laws with a tract of land. It can be that, but if so, it won’t command a lot of sentimental feeling. You don’t die to defend a “set of laws.” A country needs a people.

“People” can be a lot of things. They don’t have to be racially homogenous. “Jews” are a people, and they are not racially homogenous. “Turks” are a people, and they are not genetically homogenous. But fundamentally, people have to see themselves as “a people” with a common culture and identity.

America has two main historical groups: whites and blacks. Before the mass immigration kicked off in 1965, whites were about 88% of the country and blacks were about 10%. Indians, Asians, Hispanics, and everyone else rounded out that last 2%. And say what you will, but whites thought of themselves as the American culture, because they were the majority.

America absorbed newcomers. People came, got married, had children: their children became Americans. The process takes time, but it works.

Today, though, “America” is fractured. It is ethnically fractured–California and Texas, for example, are now majority non-white. There is nothing particularly wrong with the folks who’ve moved in, they just aren’t from one of America’s two main historical ethnic groups. They are their own groups, with their own histories. England is a place with a people and a history; Turkey is a place with a people and a history. They are two different places with different people and different history. It is religiously fractured–far fewer people belong to one of America’s historically prominent religions. It is politically fractured–more people now report being uncomfortable with their child dating a member of the opposite political party than of a different race.

Now we see things like this: After final vote, city will remove racist Pioneer Monument Statue:

As anticipated, the San Francisco Arts Commission voted unanimously Monday to remove the “Early Days” statue from Civic Center’s Pioneer Monument, placing the century-plus old bronze figures in storage until a long-term decision about their fate can be made.

The decision caps off a six-month long debate, after some San Franciscans approached the commission in August 2017 to complain about the statue, which features a pious but patronizing scene of a Spanish missionary helping a beaten Indian to his feet and pointing him toward heaven.

In February the city’s Historic Preservation Commission voted unanimously to recommend removing “Early Days” despite some commissioners expressing reservations about whether the sculpture has additional value as an expose of 19th century racism.

Your statues are racist. Your history is racist. Your people is racist.

What do they think the reaction to this will look like?


But before we get too dark, let’s take a look at Pinker’s latest work, Enlightenment Now:

It is not intuitive that a case needs to be made for “Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress,” stable values that have long defined our modernity. And most expect any attack on those values to come from the far right: from foes of progressivism, from anti-science religious movements, from closed minds. Yet Steven Pinker argues there is a second, more profound assault on the Enlightenment’s legacy of progress, coming from within intellectual and artistic spheres: a crisis of confidence, as progress’s supporters see so many disasters, setbacks, emergencies, new wars re-opening old wounds, new structures replicating old iniquities, new destructive side-effects of progress’s best intentions. …

Pinker’s volume moves systematically through various metrics that reflect progress, charting improvements across the last half-century-plus in areas from racism, sexism, homophobia, and bullying, to car accidents, oil spills, poverty, leisure, female empowerment, and so on. …

the case Pinker seeks to make is at once so basic and so difficult that a firehose of evidence may be needed—optimism is a hard sell in this historical moment. … Pinker credits the surge in such sentiments since the 1960s to several factors. He points to certain religious trends, because a focus on the afterlife can be in tension with the project of improving this world, or caring deeply about it. He points to nationalism and other movements that subordinate goods of the individual or even goods of all to the goods of a particular group. He points to what he calls neo-Romantic forms of environmentalism, not all environmentalisms but specifically those that subordinate the human species to the ecosystem and seek a green future, not through technological advances, but through renouncing current technology and ways of living. He also points to a broader fascination with narratives of decline …

I like the way Pinker thinks and appreciate his use of actual data to support his points.

To these decades-old causes, one may add the fact that humankind’s flaws have never been so visible as in the twenty-first century. … our failures are more visible than ever through the digital media’s ceaseless and accelerating torrent of grim news and fervent calls to action, which have pushed many to emotional exhaustion. Within the last two years, though not before, numerous students have commented in my classroom that sexism/racism/inequality “is worse today than it’s ever been.” The historian’s answer, “No, it used to be much worse, let me tell you about life before 1950…,” can be disheartening, especially when students’ rage and pain are justified and real. In such situations, Pinker’s vast supply of clear, methodical data may be a better tool to reignite hope than my painful anecdotes of pre-modern life.

Maybe Nichols is on to something about people today being astoundingly ignorant…

Pinker’s celebration of science is no holds barred: he calls it an achievement surpassing the masterworks of art, music, and literature, a source of sublime beauty, health, wealth, and freedom.

I agree with Pinker on science, but Nichols’s worldview may be the one that needs plumbing.

Which book do you want me to read/review?

The Progressive Mind Virus Spreads to… India?

As ANI (Asian News International) reports on Twitter (h/t Rohit):

For those of you reading this in the future, after the 15 minutes of manufactured furor have subsided, #MarcyForOurLives is an anti-guns/pro-gun control movement in the US. Gun laws in India are notably much stricter than gun laws in the US, and yet–

The thing that looks like a mushroom is the internal part of a uterus; you can see the rest of the drawing faintly around it. As noted, this is completely backwards from the reality in India, where it is nearly impossible to buy a gun but abortions are extremely common and completely legal. So where did the marchers in Mumbai get this sign?

Well, it’s a meme, found on Twitter, instagram, t-shirts, and of course signs at pussyhat rallies in the US. It’s not even true in the US, but at least it kind of makes sense given our frequent debates over both guns and abortions. Certainly there are some people in the US who think abortions should be completely illegal. India, by contrast, is a nation where slowing the growth rate to prevent famine is a high priority and abortions are quite legal.

I am reminded of that time Michelle Obama tweeted #BringBackOurGirls in support of Nigerians kidnapped by Boko Haram:

This is the signature of a mind-virus: it makes you repeat things that make no sense in context. It makes you spread the virus even though it does not make logical sense for you, personally, to spread it. Michelle Obama is married to a man who controlled, at the time, the world’s largest military, including an enormous stockpile of nuclear weapons, and yet she was tweeting ineffective hashtags to be part of the #movement.

Likewise, the state of gun (and abortion) laws in India is nothing like their state in the US, yet Indians are getting sucked into spreading our viral memes.

Horizontal meme transfer–like social media–promotes the spread of memetic viruses.

Totemism and Exogamy pt 2/3: Plagues, Polyandry, and Infanticide

Welcome back to James Frazer’s Totemism and Exogamy, published in 1910. Here are some hopefully interesting excerpts (as usual, quotes are in “” instead of blocks):

“When an ox or a buffalo dies, the Madigas gather round it like vultures, strip off the skin and tan it, and batten on the loathsome carrion. Their habits are squalid in the extreme and the stench of their hamlets is revolting. They practice various forms of fervent but misguided piety, lying on beds of thorns, distending the mouth with a mass of mud as large as a cricket-ball, bunging up their eyes with the same stuff, and so forth, thereby rendering themselves perhaps well-pleasing to their gods but highly disgusting to all sensible and cleanly men.

“An unmarried, but not necessarily chaste, woman of the caste personifies the favourite goddess Matangi, whose name she bears and of whom she is supposed to be an incarnation. Drunk with toddy and enthusiasm, decked with leaves of the margosa tree {Melia Azadirachtd), her face reddened with turmeric, this female incarnation of the deity dances frantically, abuses her adorers in foul language, and bespatters them with her spittle, which is believed to purge them from all uncleanness of body and soul. Even high-class Reddis, purse-proud Komatis, and pious Brahmans receive the filthy eructations of this tipsy maniac with joy and gratitude as outpourings of the divine spirit.

“When an epidemic is raging, the Madigas behead a buffalo before the image of their village goddess Uramma and a man carries the blood-reeking head in procession on his own head round the village, his neck swathed in a new cloth which has been soaked in the buffalo’s blood. This is supposed to draw a cordon round the dwellings and to prevent the irruption of evil spirits. The villagers subscribe to defray the expense of the procession. If any man refuses to pay, the bloody head is not carried round his house, and the freethinker or niggard is left to the tender mercies of the devils.

“The office of bearer of the head is an ill-omened and dangerous one ; for huge demons perch on the tops of tall trees ready to swoop down on him and carry him and his bleeding burden away. To guard against this catastrophe ropes are tied to his body and arms, and men hang on like grim death to the ends of them.
… ”

15 So the Lord sent a pestilence upon Israel from the morning even to the time appointed: and there died of the people from Dan even to Beersheba seventy thousand men. …

18 And Gad came that day to David, and said unto him, Go up, rear an altar unto the Lord in the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. …

So David bought the threshingfloor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver.

25 And David built there an altar unto the Lord, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. So the Lord was intreated for the land, and the plague was stayed from Israel. –2 Samuel, 24

EvX: There’s not a whole lot of information on Wikipedia about the Madigas aside from the fact that they are one of India’s scheduled castes and were “historically marginalized and oppressed.” Since the tanning of leather is (or at least was) really rank, leather tanning communities have historically faced a fair amount of discrimination.

The use of sacrifice to end plagues is a fascinating part of older religions (and most unfortunate for the sacrificed.) I’ve long thought that Beowulf was really a story about a plague (personified as Grendel/Grendel’s mother) appeased by sacrificing a warrior by throwing his body into a lake or bog. Of course, the warrior isn’t supposed to “die” but travel to the spirit realm to slay the evil spirit causing the plague:

There came unhidden
tidings true to the tribes of men,
in sorrowful songs, how ceaselessly Grendel
harassed Hrothgar, what hate he bore him,
what murder and massacre, many a year,
feud unfading, — refused consent
to deal with any of Daneland’s earls,
make pact of peace, or compound for gold: …
But the evil one ambushed old and young
death-shadow dark, and dogged them still,
lured, or lurked in the livelong night
of misty moorlands: men may say not
where the haunts of these Hell-Runes   be. …
Many nobles
sat assembled, and searched out counsel
how it were best for bold-hearted men
against harassing terror to try their hand.
Whiles they vowed in their heathen fanes
altar-offerings, asked with words
that the slayer-of-souls would succor give them
for the pain of their people. …
Beowulf spoke: … with Hrunting [sword] I
seek doom of glory, or Death shall take me.”
After these words the Weder-Geat lord
boldly hastened, biding never
answer at all: the ocean floods
closed o’er the hero. Long while of the day
fled ere he felt the floor of the sea.
Soon found the fiend who the flood-domain
sword-hungry held these hundred winters,
greedy and grim, that some guest from above,
some man, was raiding her monster-realm.

In Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541-750, Stoclet quotes Sturluson’s Ynglinga saga:

Domald took the heritage after his father Visbur, and ruled over the land As in his time there was great famine and distress, the swedes made great offerings of sacrifice at Upsal. The first autumn they sacrificed oxen, but the succeeding season was not improved thereby. The following autumn they sacrificed men, but the succeeding year was rather worse. The third autumn, when the offer of sacrifice should begin, a great multitude of Swedes came to Upsal; and now the chiefs held consultations with each other, and all agreed that the time of scarcity were on account of their king Domald, and they resoled to offer him for good seasons, and to assault and kill him, and sprinkle the stalls of the god with this blood. And they did so.

Stoclet continues:

Anyone familiar with Arthur Maurice Hocart’s anthropologocial wiritings on kingship will know that the ancient Swedes of Snorri Sturluson’s Ynglinga saga were anything but unique in believing that a strong connection existed between king and cosmos. This connection underlies a recurring explanation for plague, namely, that i was a direct consequence of the king’s sexual misconduct, specifically in its most extreme form of incest.

In King David’s case, though, the plague was caused by his taking a census.

(Actually, since King David’s census required the movement of the army throughout his kingdom in order to force compliance with the census-takers, maybe the census actually did cause a plague–there’s no doubt the movement of troops during WWI contributed to the Influenza Epidemic of 1918, after all.)


Toda Village, 1837, by Richard Barron


“The Todas are a small tribe, now less than a thousand in number, who inhabit the lofty and isolated tableland of the Neilgherry Hills. They are a purely pastoral people tribe devoting themselves to the care of their herds of buffaloes and despising agriculture and nearly all manual labour as beneath their dignity. Their origin and affinities are unknown; little more than vague conjecture has been advanced to connect them with any other race of Southern India.

They are a tall, well-built, athletic people, with a rich brown complexion, a profusion of jet black hair, a large, full, speaking eye, a Roman nose, and fine teeth. The men are strong and very agile, with hairy bodies and thick beards. Their countenances are open and expressive ; their bearing bold and free ; their manners grave and dignified ; their disposition very cheerful and friendly. In intelligence they are said to be not inferior to any average body of educated Europeans. In temperament they are most pacific, never engaging in warfare and not even possessing weapons, except bows and arrows and clubs, which they use only for purposes of ceremony. Yet they are a proud race and hold their heads high above all their neighbours.

“The country which they inhabit has by its isolation sheltered them from the inroads of more turbulent and warlike peoples and has allowed them to lead their quiet dream-like lives in all the silence and rural simplicity of an Indian Arcadia. For the land which is their home stands six or seven thousand feet above the sea and falls away abruptly or even precipitously on every side to the hot plains beneath. …

A Toda temple in Muthunadu Mund near Ooty, India.

“Generally a village nestles in a beautiful wooded hollow near a running stream. It is composed of a few huts surrounded by a wall with two or three narrow openings in it wide enough to admit a man but not a buffalo. The huts are of a peculiar construction. Imagine a great barrel split lengthwise and half of it set lengthwise with the cut edges resting on the ground, and you will get a fair idea of a Toda hut. … Near the village is commonly a dairy with a pen for the buffaloes at night and a smaller pen for the calves.

“The daily life of the Toda men is spent chiefly in the tending the buffaloes and in doing the work of the dairy. … Women are entirely excluded from the work of the dairy ; they may neither milk the cows nor churn the butter. Besides the common buffaloes there are sacred buffaloes with their own sacred dairies, where the sacred milk is churned by sacred dairymen. These hallowed dairies are the temples and the holy dairymen are the priests, almost the gods, of the simple pastoral folk.

“The dairyman leads a dedicated life… If he is married he must leave his wife and not go near her or visit his home during the term of his incumbency, however many years it may last. No person may so much as touch him without reducing his holiness to the level of a common man. He may not cross a river by a bridge but must wade through the water at the ford, and only certain fords may be used by him. If a death occurs in the clan he may not attend the funeral unless he resigns his sacred office.

“However, there are different degrees of sanctity among the sacred dairymen. …

“The Todas have the institution of exogamy without the institution of totemism. The whole tribe is divided into two endogamous groups, the Tartharol and the Teivaliol.  Regular marriage is not allowed between these groups, though irregular unions are permitted… Each of these primary divisions is subdivided into a number of exogamous clans ; no man or woman may marry a woman of his or her own clan, but must marry into another clan. But while marriage is prohibited between members of the same clan, it would seem that sexual intercourse is not prohibited and indeed commonly takes place between them. …

Toda woman and two men (though the Wikipedia doesn’t claim that these are her husbands.)

“The Todas have a completely organised and definite system of polyandry, and in the vast majority of polyandrous marriages the husbands are own brothers. Indeed, when a woman marries, it is understood that she becomes the wife of his brothers at the same time. …

“When the joint husbands are not own brothers, they may either live with the wife in one family, or they may dwell in different villages. In the latter case the usual custom is for the wife to reside with each husband in turn for a month … When the joint husbands are own brothers they live together in amity ; in such a family quarrels are said to be unknown. The Todas scout as ridiculous the idea that there should ever be disputes or jealousies between the brother-husbands. When a child is born in a family of this sort, all the brothers are equally regarded as its fathers ; though if a man be asked the name of his father, he will generally mention one man of the group, probably the most prominent or important of them. …

“When the joint husbands are not brothers, they arrange among themselves who is to be the putative father of each child as it is born, and the chosen one accepts the responsibility by performing a certain ceremony …

“The ceremony takes place about the seventh month of the woman’s pregnancy and begins on the evening before the day of the new moon. Husband and wife repair to a wood, where he cuts a niche in a tree and places a lighted lamp in the niche. The two then search the wood till they find the wood called puv {Sophora glauca) and the grass called nark {Andropogon schoenanthus). A bow is made from the wood by stripping off the bark and stretching it across the bent stick so as to form the bowstring. The grass is fitted to the little bow to stand for an arrow. Husband and wife then return to the tree. … The wife then sits down under the tree in front of the lamp, which glimmers in the gloaming or the dark from its niche, on a level with her eyes as she is seated on the ground. The husband next gives her the bow and arrow, and she asks him what they are called. He mentions the name of the bow and arrow, which differs for each clan. …

If this were a Freudian blog, I’d tell you the arrow is a penis.

“On receiving the bow and arrow the woman raises them to her forehead, and then holding them in her right hand she gazes steadily at the burning lamp for an hour or until the light flickers and goes out. The man afterwards lights a fire under the tree and cooks jaggery and rice in a new pot. When the food is ready, husband and wife partake of it together. … Afterwards the relatives return from the village and all pass the night in the wood, the relatives keeping a little way off from the married pair. …

“This remarkable ceremony is always performed in or about the seventh month of a woman’s first pregnancy, whether her husbands are brothers or not. … When the joint husbands are brothers, it is the eldest brother who gives the little bow and arrow. The fatherhood of the child, or rather the social recognition of it, depends entirely on the performance of this ceremony, so much so that he who gives the bow and arrow is counted the father of the child even if he be known to have had no former connection with the woman ; and on the other hand if no living man has performed the ceremony, the child will be fathered on a dead man. An indelible disgrace attaches to a child for whom the ceremony has not been performed.”

EvX: Frazer goes on to describe a number of similar customs, including ones including beans (such as the throwing of beans and grains on a bride,) but seems to have missed Cupid’s use of the bow and arrow to induce love.

Lest you think that polyandry among the Todas and their lack of sexual jealousy means they live in some kind of free-love, feminist paradise:

“The custom of polyandry among the Todas is facilitated, if not caused, by a considerable excess of men over women, and that excess has been in turn to a great extent brought about by the practice of killing the female children at birth. It seems clear that female infanticide has always been and still is practised by the Todas, although in recent years under English influence it has become much less frequent.”


Nootropics and Gender

This is a quick post based on my impressions; I’d like to hear if your own, whether similar or different.

Men and women seem to take a different approach to food, medicine, supplements (eg vitamins) and various “chemicals.” Women seem to be–on average, overall–distrustful of “chemicals” and prefer “natural foods” (eg, “organic, free-range chicken”).

I use “”s on the word chemicals because it is not meant literally–water is a chemical, but most of us are okay with drinking water. People say they are opposed to chemicals in their food obviously are not opposed to anything whose molecular structure can be expressed in a formula, like the oxygen we breathe, (chemical formula O2) but opposed to the addition of novel ingredients synthesized in a laboratory or otherwise derived in some manner and then added to food.

Women seem more likely to be anti-vaxers but pro-prozac; men seem more likely to be anti-prozac but pro-nootropics. Men are more likely to order random chemicals they read about on the internet that promise to make them smarter, stronger, or give them better erections, while women are more likely to go to a psychiatrist and ask for medicines to help them concentrate and feel less anxious. Men drink whey protein shakes to help build muscle after working out and women drink detox superfruit smoothies.

A couple of overarching theories: women probably have a stronger instinctual avoidance of food contaminants/poisons, due to weaker bodies and fetuses that have to be protected from poisons. They therefore dislike “chemicals” and “food additives;” “organic” is really a code-word for “pure.”

Vaccines, which are a combination of two contaminants–“chemicals” and actual viruses–which are then administered in a horrifying way (injection), also trips up these purity instincts.

This makes their fondness of anti-depressants (which are also chemicals) rather odd, but I don’t think they have a literal fear of chemicals. (And, obviously, “women who like anti-depressants” and “women who dislike chemicals” aren’t necessarily the same women.) I think there is a mitigating factor though: psychiatric medications are immediately useful (unlike vaccines, which just make you statistically less likely to someday catch Mumps and the like.)

I don’t think most anti-vaxxers dislike doctors so much as vaccines, which weird them out; women use healthcare at a higher rate than men and overall seem to like doctors, including those who hand out psychiatric medications.

Men seem to think of it as good to use medications (alcohol, or random chemicals ordered off the internet) to make themselves stronger, but not as good to use medications (or random chemicals) to make up for weaknesses. They try to make up for weaknesses by just not being weak (pull yourself up by your bootstraps, bro!) By contrast, women don’t take random pills to “make themselves stronger” or better or smarter, but to make up for their weaknesses.

Both groups may be treating the same problems in similar ways, but thinking about them in different ways. EG, anxious women take anti-anxiety drugs, while anxious men drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes. Adult women actually take more concentration-enhancing ADD medication than men, but men seem massively much more likely to take “brain enhancing” nootropics they found on the internet.

So given, say, a stomach/digestion problem, women seem more likely to turn to elimination diets, organic this and that, and avoiding whatever the health mantra of the day says is best to avoid, while men seem more likely to try to route around the problem with digestive enzymes (overall I think very few people turn to digestive enzymes–food is just much more obvious–but the people who do like enzymes seem to be more male.)

Annecdotally, while I was musing about this post out loud, one of my daughters declared that she would “never order random chemicals off the internet and eat them! Ew!” Meanwhile, one of my sons has been throwing pennies into all the local fountains and wishing for “A drink that will make me think a million times faster.”

Further thoughts on the end of America

I do feel, quite deeply, that America is changing rapidly; a certain old essence is disappearing, even faster than when I was young.

In such cases I think of my father, an old-stock American, Vietnam vet, lover of God, Guns, and Glory–basically all your red state stereotypes.

While chatting with parents down at the local playground, one of the moms claimed to “love” her HOA. Why? I inquired, distressed, because all mine does is wreck the landscaping and eliminate parking. After a moment’s thought, she responded that the HOA prevents people from leaving their trash cans out overnight and stops them from painting their houses strange colors.

Goodnight! Who joins an organization just to meddle with their neighbors?

Of course there are corners of America where people still mind their own business, but we are increasingly squashed into corporate-molded cities where neighbors spend more time worrying about their property values than interacting.

Anyway, I tracked down the book I referenced in the previous post: Childcraft, Volume 11: Music for the Family, with copyrights from 1923-1954 (presumably the copy I hold hails from ’54, as its photos are that era, but the text may be somewhat older.)

Most of the book is children’s songs, but there is a section at the end with biographies of famous composers: Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert,Chopin, Verdi, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Humperdinck, MacDowell, Debussy, Sousa, and Gershwin. Here are a few excerpts:


“No!” said Father Handel sternly. My boy shall never be a musician!”

In that day in Germany, musicians were often treated like servants. Father Handel wanted his son to be an important man, not a servant. It was splendid to be a barber-surgeon–like Father Handel–and be called to the castle to trim the duke’s mustache or treat his indigestion. It was even more splendid to be a lawyer, and earn rich fees for giving advice to a prince or a king. But little George Frederick Handel wanted only to be a musician.


In the same year that George Washington was born, an Austrian peasant family named Haydn celebrated the birth of a fair-haired baby boy. They named him Joseph.

Joseph’s father made wheels for wagons and coaches. His mother was a cook for noble families. both parents loved music. In the evenings, by candlelight, the family often sang songs of the people, or folk melodies…

At one time Haydn played a joke on the powerful Prince Esterhazy, who had hired him as music director. The prince kept his musicians at a palace in the country. He seldom allowed them a vacation. Many of the musicians longed to visit their families. Haydn wished that he might  help them. But he did not see what he could do. He did not dare speak directly to the prince about it.

One day Haydn announced that he had written a new symphony. Prince Esterhazy and his court gathered in the great hall of the palace to listen. As the orchestra began the final movement, one by one the players blew out the candle on their music stands and left the hall. Finally only two violinists were playing. They they too departed, and only the director remained.

Haydn turned and bowed to the prince. “Your Grace,” he said, “I call this the Farewell Symphony.”

The prince looked perplexed, then began to smile at Haydn’s musical prank.

“I can take a hint from old Haydn,” he said “The musicians may start their vacation tomorrow.” As you may imagine, all the musicians were grateful to their beloved “Papa Haydn.”


By the time Wolfgang was twelve years old, he had played in many great cities of Europe. He was the favorite of queens and princesses. Princes and kings gave him money and jewels. Many musicians envied the young Mozart, because it was then the custom to teat musicians like servants.

It would seem that Mozart’s early life was just one gay adventure. But the boy grew very wise about kings and queens, princes and princesses. He learned that kings and noblemen were just like ordinary people. Some were wise and just. Others were stupid and cruel. Some princesses were gracious and kind. But others had very bad manners, and sometimes young Mozart told them so. He knew that many ordinary persons had better manners and were better people than some of the nobility.

Mozart began to believe that bad and stupid kings had no right to tell people what to do. These were dangerous thoughts, for king often punished person who had ideas about freedom. Mozart put hi ideas into music, rather than speech.

When Mozart grew to manhood, he wrote operas which poked fun at king and noblemen. One of these operas is the Marriage of Figaro, which had many lilting melodies. Another is Don Giovanni, in which we hear the lovely “Minuet.”


The music Beethoven wrote shows that he loved people, because it is written for all the people, and not merely for king and princes. But Beethoven also felt that cruel people had bought much evil into the world. he was happiest when he could be outdoors, in rain or sunshine, and listen to the songs of Nature.


The Patriot Composer of Poland

Father Chopin began a merry Polish folk tune on his flute. Little Frederic sat still and listened. Soon a tear rolled own his cheek and dropped on his blouse.

The music of the flute rose higher. It danced like a happy peasant girl. It trilled and shistled like the song of a bird. Little Frederic’s chin began to tremble. He opened his mouth wide and began to cry.

Father and Mother Chopin loved Frederic deeply. But they also loved music, and they were sad because their little son seemed to dislike it so. …

Upstairs, the boy who should have been asleep lay awake listening. He squeezed his pillow tight against his eyes to keep the tears back. How could they ay he he hated music! His tears were not tears of pain, but of joy. Frederic loved music so much that the sound of it made him weep. But he was so young that he could not find the words to tell his parents how he felt. …

Young Chopin began to compose his own music almost as soon as he could play the piano. His compositions were influenced by the kinds of music his parents loved best. His father had come from France, and often played the music of that country on his flute. Frederick liked the French music, but most of all he loved the  songs his mother sang–songs of his native Poland. It is the Polish music he wrote that is most popular.

Frederic’s mother told him that Poland had once been a proud and free country. Then neighbor nations had taken away its freedom. The Polish people remembered the days when their country was free, and sang songs about the land they loved. Frederic used these national songs in his compositions for the piano. …

Chopin’s love for his country speaks through his music, like a beautiful language which the people of all countries can understand. Chopin’s stirring music still has the power to make strong men and women of any country weep, just as a little boy wept over a Polish folk tune many years ago.


Now let’s take a look at Mathematicians are People, Too: Stories from the lives of the great mathematicians (copyright 1990). (I would like to note that this is not a bad book; I am just trying to highlight the change in political tone/emphasis over the decades.) It covers Thales, Pythagoras, Archimedes, Hypatia, Napier, Galileo, Pascal, Newton, Eurler, Lagrange, Sophie Germain, Gaus, Galois, Amalie (Emmy) Noether, and Ramanujan.

There is a sequel which I have not yet read, published in 1995, which covers Euclid, Omar Khayyam, Fibonacci, Descartes, Fermat, Cardano, Maria Agnesi, Benjamin Banneker, Mary Somerville, Ada Lovelace, Babbage, Sonya Kovalesky, Neils Abel, George Polya, and Einstein.


But Hypatia was not only a well-known scientist and mathematician’ she also became a highly respected philosopher. Her father had taught her to be open-minded about ideas. Like many Greeks, he believed people should keep questioning rather than settle on one version of truth as final. He introduced her to a variety of religions, and she learned to value the good in each. Because of this, he taught her students to ask lots of question, even about ideas that government or religious leaders said they should not question. Eventually, this caused trouble for Hypatia.

Hypatia got caught in the middle of a struggle between two leaders in Alexandria. Orestes, prefect or governor of Alexandria, was Hypatia’s friend. They enjoyed talking together and often wrote letters about the latest ideas. Cyril was the archbishop of Alexandria, the head of the Christian church in that city. He was suspicious of anyone who did not accept his religious views. Conflict developed between the two men and their followers, and Cyril became convinced that Hypatia was behind it. …

An angry mob of religious fanatics, fired up by false rumors of Hypatia’s teaching, kidnapped her one day as she rode through town on her chariot. They dragged her through the streets to the cathedral, where she was brutally murdered and he bones burned. Her death marks the end of the great age of Greek Mathematics. …

Although Hypatia made many important contributions to mathematics and science, few women have adopted her interests–until recently. Some historians believe that Hypatia’s horrible death may have discouraged other women from becoming mathematician. Still others believe that Hypatia’s life–not her death–is the perfect symbol of what women or men can achieve when they work hard and stand up for what they believe is right.

(A lot of mathematicians in this book, including Pythagoras, Hypatia, and Archimedes, were murdered. Apparently mathematician is a much more dangerous profession than composer.)


Lagrange’s influence was beginning to be felt throughout the scientific communities of Europe. King Frederick of Prussia had formed a prestigious college of mathematics in Berlin. Frederick sent this rather impressive invitation to Lagrange: “The greatest king in Europe must have the greatest mathematician in Europe in his court!”

Clearly, Frederick was not as modest as Lagrange, but he was an avid supporter of science and mathematics. …

Lagrange was quick to praise persons who had encouraged or influenced him. He applauded when Napoleon ordered a tribute to Lagrange’s father, still living in Italy. He acknowledged the greatness of Euler, He mourned with the chemist Lavoisier was sentenced to death by guillotine. And just as he recognized those who had affirmed him, he was quick to encourage younger mathematicians.

Once, while teaching at the Ecole Polytechnique, he received and impressive paper from Monsier LeBlanc. … After some research, he discovered that the mystery student was really a young woman named Sophie Germain. Only men were allowed at the Ecole, so Sophie had borrowed lecture notes from friends and asked them to smuggle her paper in among theirs. Lagrange went immediately to her home and made her feel like a true mathematician, helping launch her important career.

Sophie Germain:

When Sophie was very young, her parents had welcomed her interest. They allowed her to use her father’s library whenever she wished. But soon they decided that she was studying too much. They agreed with the popular notion that “brainwork” was not healthy–maybe even dangerous–for girls. They told Sophie that he could not study mathematics anymore.

But Sophie would not give up. Night after night she crawled out of bed and studied after everyone else had gone to sleep. …

“Oh, Father, I’m so sorry, but I just can’t stop,” Sophie cried. “These problems are so fascinating! When I work on them I feel like I’m really alive.”

“But, Sophie,” her mother said softly, “remember, you’re a girl. It isn’t good for you to fill your mind with numbers.” …

With that her parents gave up. Sophie was allowed to study to her heart’s content. Fortunately, her father had an excellent library. As wealthy citizens, the Germain family knew many educated people in Paris and throughout France.

When Sophie was young, however, traveling and visiting were restricted by the political turmoil in France. The French Revolution began in 1789 when she was thirteen, and Paris was an unstable and dangerous city… Sophie’s parents shielded her from the fighting and conflict. She eagerly filled her time reading and learning. …

In 1816 mathematicians and scientists around the world heard about Sophie Germain. In that year she won the grand prize from the French Academy for her work on the law of vibrating elastic surfaces…

Sophie Germain enjoyed only a brief moment of recognition for a lifetime of dedicated study. The barriers to women in mathematics certainly hampered Germain’s development–but they did not prevent her from following her quest.


Galois could have coped with normal disappointments, but so many setbacks took their toll on him. Bitterness filled him He began to distrust all teachers and all institutions. He tried starting his own school, but no one enrolled. Then, because he wanted to fight injustice, he got involved in politics. He joined the Republicans, a forbidden radical group. They spoke out for justice, especially for the poor, and for freedom of the press. They wanted a better standard of living for the common people, instead of for the wealthy few.

Galois ended up in prison for his political activities, then got killed in a duel at the age of 20.

My goal isn’t to dissect the truth of these stories (often children’s biographies are at least a bit fictionalized), but to examine what the authors chose to highlight. We are often don’t even notice the political beliefs of our own age (“Of course they did it that way. It’s only natural,”) but can easily see the politics of another age.

The cover of the Childcraft book on music features two children holding a book (on the book’s cover are two more children, holding a book…) Mathematicians are People, Too, features Amalie Noether happily studying math while her flustered mother (dressed like a maid) looks on in consternation. Volume two has African American Benjamin Banneker on its cover. (Silly me, I would have put Euclid and Newton on the covers and probably not had as many sales.)

It took a bit of digging to find the full list of mathematicians in Volume 2–the book’s blurb on Amazon only lists Omar Khayyam, Albert Einstein*, Ada Lovelace, and “others.” Clearly, during the production of Volume 1, the authors were thinking about how to emphasize women in mathematics; by Volume 2, they wanted to emphasize diversity. The publishers didn’t even think it worthwhile to list Euclid!

*I love Einstein as much as the next guy, but he’s not a mathematician.

To be fair, there are probably more people looking for biographies of Ada Lovelace or Einstein than of Euclid, though personally I spend a fair amount of time thinking “When do we start Euclid? Is there a children’s version of his Elements?” and not much time thinking, “When do we start Ada Lovelace?”

So one of the major difference between these two works lies not in the explicit phrasing of the stories, but in the frame of the particular people they chose to highlight. Why Benjamin Banneker? Unlike Omar Khayyam, he didn’t contribute very much to mathematics, and we have not exhausted our list of great mathematicians such that we need to go searching for obscure ones. Surely Turing, Erdos, von Neuman, al-Khwarizmi, or Aryabhata contributed far more–but perhaps that doesn’t matter, as the book’s target market can hardly understand advanced math in the first place. Banneker was chosen because the authors believe that it is important to have an African American character in order to appeal to African American readers.

The conclusion of Hypatia’s story is more explicitly political–Hypatia wasn’t killed because she was a female mathematician and her story certainly hasn’t discouraged women from doing math–if the authors thought it did, they wouldn’t have put it in the book!

Do the political messages in children’s books matter? Do they create culture, or are they created by culture? Chickens and eggs. Either way, culture has changed. Politics have changed. People have changed. Technology has changed.

1950s civics class didn’t happen in a vacuum–and I don’t think the political culture that created it is coming back.

Anthropology Friday: Totemism and Exogamy, part 1/3

Today’s post is on James Frazer’s Totemism and Exogamy, published in 1910. This book came highly recommended, but I found it disappointing–too similar to a variety of works we’ve already reviewed, including some of the works that kicked off Anthroplogy Friday in the first place. Nevertheless, I’ve been hoping to do something on India, which the book covers, so here are some hopefully interesting excerpts (as usual, quotes are in “” instead of blocks).

The Pagai Islands are part of the Mentawai chain, Indonesia

Marriage Customs of the Poggi [Pagai?] Islanders, Indonesia:

“The contracting of marriages, in the sense of the Malays, Javanese, and other indigenous peoples, is amongst the Poggians a thing unknown. They live in that respect entirely as they please among each other. The whole of the women are, as it were, the property of the men, and the men on the other hand are the property of the women.

“When a girl has conceived, the child is her whole and undivided property. The father, who indeed is generally unknown, has never any right over it. However, it happens  that when men are tattooed all over and are therefore between forty and fifty years old, they take to themselves a separate wife : that occurs as follows. When the parties have agreed to enter into marriage, they give notice of it to all the inhabitants of the village ; then they step into a canoe decked with leaves and flowers and put off to the fishing. Returning after three, four, or sometimes eight days they are deemed to be married, and the men have then respect for the woman even as the women have for the man. The children whom the woman in most cases brings with her into the marriage then become the property of the man, and so if these children (the girls) get children in turn. It generally happens that girls who have one or more children are thus taken in marriage.

“Sometimes also it occurs that younger men, when they imagine themselves the father of such and such a child, take the mother to be their separate and only wife ; but in such cases the man is careful to be completely tattooed as soon as possible, for so long as that is not done he may not marry, or rather his wife would not be respected. The women, who are marriageable very early, are in their youth, from the age of twelve to twenty, very pretty, some of them even charming ; but they age soon and are generally, while still in the heyday of life, quite withered.”

EvX: I’ve been trying to find more information about the Poggi, which has been hampered by “Poggi” being an Italian last name and not, as far as I can tell, the relevant ethnic group’s actual name. I think they’re the Pagai, named after a couple of islands in the Mentawai chain. Here’s a more recent ethnography on the Mentawai people I just found but haven’t read, yet.

Similar Cases:

” Another people,” says the late Professor G. A. Wilken, “among whom marriage is quite unknown are the Loeboes. They practice absolutely free love and unite indifferently with any one in according to the whim of the moment.

“Communal marriage also exists among the Orang Sakai of Malacca. A girl remains with every man of the tribe in turn till she has gone the round of all the men and has come back to the first one. The process then begins afresh.

“In Borneo, too, there are some tribes, such as the Olo Ot (those of Koetei), which contract no marriage. Lastly, we find the same thing reported of Peling or Poeloe Tinggi, one of the islands of the Banggaai Archipelago.”

Totemism in Central India:

“In those regions of India where high mountains and tablelands present natural barriers to the irruption of conquering races, there linger many indigenous tribes, who, in contrast to the more cultured peoples of the lowlands, have remained in a state of primitive savagery or barbarism down to modern times. Not a few of these aboriginal hill-tribes, especially of the Dravidian stock, retain a social system based on totemism and exogamy ; for they are divided into numerous exogamous clans or septs, each of which bears the name of an animal, tree, plant, or other material object, whether natural or artificial, which the members of the clan are forbidden to eat, cultivate, cut, burn, carry, or use in any other way.

“Amongst such tribes are the Bhils or Bheels, a people of the Dravidian stock in Central Indian, who inhabit the rough forests and jungles of the rocky Vindhya and Satpura mountains. Into these fastnesses it is believed that they, like many other aborigines of India, were driven by the tide of Hindoo invasion. They are a race of dark complexion and diminutive stature, but active and inured to fatigue.

“The Bhils of the Satpura mountains have been little affected by civilisation and lead an existence which has been described as most primitive. A mere report that a white man is coming often suffices to put these savages to flight. They have no fixed villages. The collection of huts which takes the place of a village is abandoned at the least alarm, and even in such a hamlet every man builds his hovel as far away as he can from his neighbours, whose treachery and lust he dreads. …

“The majority of the totems are trees or plants. All the Bhils revere and refrain from injuring or using their totems, and they make a formal obeisance to them in passing, while the women veil their faces. When women desire to have children they present an offering called mannat to their totem.

“One of the clans is named Gaolia-Chothania after its totem gaola, which is a creeper. Members of the clan worship the plant ; they never touch it with their feet if they can help it, and if they touch it accidentally they salaam to it by way of apology.

“The Maoli clan worships a goddess at a shrine which women may not approach. The shape of the shrine is like that of the grain-basket called kilya ; hence members of the clan may neither make nor use such baskets, and none of them may tattoo a pattern resembling the basket on his body.

“The Mori clan has the peacock for its totem. When they wish to worship the bird, they go into the jungle and look for its tracks. On finding the footprints they salaam to them, clean the ground round about, and spreading a piece of red cloth lay an offering of grain on it. They also describe a swastika in the earth beside the offering. If a member of the clan knowingly sets foot on the track of a peacock, he is sure to suffer from some disease afterwards.”…

“The Kapus or Reddis are the largest caste in the Madras Presidency, numbering more than two millions, and are the great caste of cultivators, farmers, and squireens in the Telugu country. …

“However, these fine, powerful, well-dressed men, these gentlemen farmers, these substantial steady-going yeomen, these leaders of society with their neat well-built houses and jewels of fine gold, nevertheless retain the primitive institutions of exogamy and to some extent of totemism. So false is the popular notion that these ancient customs are practised only by vagrant savages with no house over their heads and little or no clothing on their backs. …

“Indeed we are told that Telugu is the most mellifluous of all the Dravidian languages and sounds harmonious even in the lips of the vulgar and illiterate. It has been called the Italian of the East. …

“The Koravas or Yerukalas, as they are also called, are a tribe of vagabonds, thieves, quack doctors, and fortune-tellers, who are scattered throughout the length and breadth and their of India. When railways spread over the country, these gentry travelled on them with enthusiasm, partly for the purpose of robbing passengers in their sleep, partly in order to escape expeditiously from places which they had made too hot to hold them. They speak a gibberish compounded out of Tamil, Telugu, and Canarese. The Koravas are
divided into exogamous clans or septs, …”


“The The Maravars or Maravans are a Dravidian tribe in the extreme south of India. … In the old days they were a fierce and turbulent race, famous for their military prowess. Their subjugation gave the British much trouble at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century. Once marauders, they are now to some extent peaceful tillers of the ground, but in the Tinnevelly district they furnish nearly all the village police and likewise the thieves and robbers, often indeed combining the professions of thieving and catching thieves. … the Maravan is a power in the land. He levies blackmail according to a regular system, and in cattle-lifting he has no equal throughout the Presidency of Madras.”

EvX: There is a theme to almost all of the accounts: First, whatever the clan totem, it must not be killed or otherwise molested by clan members–could you imagine a member of the Chicago Bulls mistreating a bull, or a Florida Gator mistreating an alligator? And second, tribe members prefer not to marry members of their own totem-tribe. This can create interesting effects where, say, if you inherit your mother’s totem but not your father’s, your maternal cousins may have the same totem as you do and so be off-limits, but your paternal cousins may have different totems and so be acceptable mates. But the exact details of totemic inheritance vary.

That’s all for today; see you next Friday.


RIP Professor Hawking

Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking was one of the 20th century’s greatest scientists, not only because of his prodigious intellect, but also because he succeeded in the face of one of the most debilitating diseases possible. ALS normally kills people in 3 to 4 years; Hawking survived for decades.

So far there is no word on what finally killed him, only the description that he “died peacefully in his home.”

Given the horrible hand fate dealt him, it would have been understandable for Hawking to turn bitter and resentful. Instead he remained positive, never accepting defeat.

Hawking wanted his most famous formula, the equation for describing the entropy of a black hole, engraved on his tombstone. In this he joins other greats, like Boltzmann and Archimedes.

Rest in peace, Professor Hawking. I hope your spirit is finally free. You will be missed down here on Earth.


“Cultural Collapse”

Tablet recently had an interesting essay on the theme of “why did Trump win?”

The material-grievances theory and the cultural-resentments theory can fit together because, in both cases, they tell us that people voted for Trump out of a perceived self-interest, which was to improve their faltering economic and material conditions, or else to affirm their cultural standing vis-à-vis the non-whites and the bicoastal elites. Their votes were, from this standpoint, rationally cast. … which ultimately would suggest that 2016’s election was at least a semi-normal event, even if Trump has his oddities. But here is my reservation.

I do not think the election was normal. I think it was the strangest election in American history in at least one major particular, which has to do with the qualifications and demeanor of the winning candidate. American presidents over the centuries have always cultivated, after all, a style, which has been pretty much the style of George Washington, sartorially updated. … Now, it is possible that, over the centuries, appearances and reality have, on occasion, parted ways, and one or another president, in the privacy of his personal quarters, or in whispered instructions to his henchmen, has been, in fact, a lout, a demagogue, a thug, and a stinking cesspool of corruption. And yet, until just now, nobody running for the presidency, none of the serious candidates, would have wanted to look like that, and this was for a simple reason. The American project requires a rigorously republican culture, without which a democratic society cannot exist—a culture of honesty, logic, science, and open-minded debate, which requires, in turn, tolerance and mutual respect. Democracy demands decorum. And since the president is supposed to be democracy’s leader, the candidates for the office have always done their best to, at least, put on a good act.

The author (Paul Berman) then proposes Theory III: Broad Cultural Collapse:

 A Theory 3 ought to emphasize still another non-economic and non-industrial factor, apart from marriage, family structure, theology, bad doctors, evil pharmaceutical companies, and racist ideology. This is a broad cultural collapse. It is a collapse, at minimum, of civic knowledge—a collapse in the ability to identify political reality, a collapse in the ability to recall the nature of democracy and the American ideal. An intellectual collapse, ultimately. And the sign of this collapse is an inability to recognize that Donald Trump has the look of a foreign object within the American presidential tradition.

Berman is insightful until he blames cultural collapse on the educational system (those dastardly teachers just decided not to teach about George Washington, I guess.)

We can’t blame education. Very few people had many years of formal education of any sort back in 1776 or 1810–even in 1900, far fewer people completed highschool than do today. The idea that highschool civics class was more effectively teaching future voters what to look for in a president in 1815 than today therefore seems unlikely.

If anything, in my (admittedly limited, parental) interactions with the local schools, education seem to lag national sentiment. For example, the local schools still cover Columbus Day in a pro-Columbus manner (and I don’t even live in a particularly conservative area) and have special Veterans’ Day events. School curricula are, I think, fairly influenced by the desires of the Texas schools, because Texas is a big state that buys a lot of textbooks.

I know plenty of Boomers who voted for Trump, so if we’re looking at a change in school curricula, we’re looking at a shift that happened half a century ago (or more,) but only recently manifested.

That said, I definitely feel something coursing through society that I could call “Cultural Collapse.” I just don’t think the schools are to blame.

Yesterday I happened across children’s book about famous musicians from the 1920s. Interwoven with the biographies of Beethoven and Mozart were political comments about kings and queens, European social structure and how these musicians of course saw through all of this royalty business and wanted to make music for the common people. It was an articulated ideology of democracy.

Sure, people today still think democracy is important, but the framing (and phrasing) is different. The book we recently read of mathematicians’ biographies didn’t stop to tell us how highly the mathematicians thought of the idea of common people voting (rather, when it bothered with ideology, it focused on increasing representation of women in mathematics and emphasizing the historical obstacles they faced.)

Meanwhile, as the NY Times reports, the percent of Americans who think living in a Democracy is important is declining:

According to the Mounk-Foa early-warning system, signs of democratic deconsolidation in the United States and many other liberal democracies are now similar to those in Venezuela before its crisis.

Across numerous countries, including Australia, Britain, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and the United States, the percentage of people who say it is “essential” to live in a democracy has plummeted, and it is especially low among younger generations. …

Support for autocratic alternatives is rising, too. Drawing on data from the European and World Values Surveys, the researchers found that the share of Americans who say that army rule would be a “good” or “very good” thing had risen to 1 in 6 in 2014, compared with 1 in 16 in 1995.

That trend is particularly strong among young people. For instance, in a previously published paper, the researchers calculated that 43 percent of older Americans believed it was illegitimate for the military to take over if the government were incompetent or failing to do its job, but only 19 percent of millennials agreed. The same generational divide showed up in Europe, where 53 percent of older people thought a military takeover would be illegitimate, while only 36 percent of millennials agreed.

Note, though, that this is not a local phenomenon–any explanation that explains why support for democracy is down in the US needs to also explain why it’s down in Sweden, Australia, Britain, and the Netherlands (and maybe why it wasn’t so popular there in the first place.)

Here are a few different theories besides failing schools:

  1. Less common culture, due to integration and immigration
  2. More international culture, due to the internet, TV, and similar technologies
  3. Disney

Put yourself in your grandfather or great-grandfather’s shoes, growing up in the 1910s or 20s. Cars were not yet common; chances were if he wanted to go somewhere, he walked or rode a horse. Telephones and radios were still rare. TV barely existed.

If you wanted to talk to someone, you walked over to them and talked. If you wanted to talk to someone from another town, either you or they had to travel, often by horse or wagon. For long-distance news, you had newspapers and a few telegraph wires.

News traveled slowly. People traveled slowly (most people didn’t ride trains regularly.) Most of the people you talked to were folks who lived nearby, in your own community. Everyone not from your community was some kind of outsider.

There’s a story from Albion’s Seed:

During World War II, for example, three German submariners escaped from Camp Crossville, Tennessee. Their flight took them to an Appalachian cabin, where they stopped for a drink of water. The mountain granny told them to git.” When they ignored her, she promptly shot them dead. The sheriff came, and scolded her for shooting helpless prisoners. Granny burst into tears, and said that she wold not have done it if she had known the were Germans. The exasperated sheriff asked her what in “tarnation” she thought she was shooting at. “Why,” she replied, “I thought they was Yankees!”

And then your grandfather got shipped out to get shot at somewhere in Europe or the Pacific.

Today, technology has completely transformed our lives. When we want to talk to someone or hear their opinion, we can just pick up the phone, visit facebook, or flip on the TV. We have daily commutes that would have taken our ancestors a week to walk. People expect to travel thousands of miles for college and jobs.

The effect is a curious inversion: In a world where you can talk to anyone, why talk to your neighbors? Personally, I spend more time talking to people in Britain than the folks next door, (and I like my neighbors.)

Now, this blog was practically founded on the idea that this technological shift in the way ideas (memes) are transmitted has a profound effect on the kinds of ideas that are transmitted. When ideas must be propagated between relatives and neighbors, these ideas are likely to promote your own material well-being (as you must survive well enough to continue propagating the idea for it to go on existing,) whereas when ideas can be easily transmitted between strangers who don’t even live near each other, the ideas need not promote personal survival–they just need to sound good. (I went into more detail on this idea back in Viruses Want you to Spread Them, Mitochondrial Memes, and The Progressive Virus.)

How do these technological shifts affect how we form communities?

From Bowling Alone:

In a groundbreaking book based on vast data, Putnam shows how we have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and our democratic structures– and how we may reconnect.

Putnam warns that our stock of social capital – the very fabric of our connections with each other, has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and communities.

Putnam draws on evidence including nearly 500,000 interviews over the last quarter century to show that we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. We’re even bowling alone. More Americans are bowling than ever before, but they are not bowling in leagues. Putnam shows how changes in work, family structure, age, suburban life, television, computers, women’s roles and other factors have contributed to this decline.

to data on how many people don’t have any friends:

The National Science Foundation (NSF) reported in its General Social Survey (GSS) that unprecedented numbers of Americans are lonely. Published in the American Sociological Review (ASR) and authored by Miller McPhearson, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and Matthew Brashears, sociologists at Duke and the University of Arizona, the study featured 1,500 face-to-face interviews where more than a quarter of the respondents — one in four — said that they have no one with whom they can talk about their personal troubles or triumphs. If family members are not counted, the number doubles to more than half of Americans who have no one outside their immediate family with whom they can share confidences. Sadly, the researchers noted increases in “social isolation” and “a very significant decrease in social connection to close friends and family.”

Rarely has news from an academic paper struck such a responsive nerve with the general public. These dramatic statistics from ASR parallel similar trends reported by the Beverly LaHaye Institute — that over the 40 years from 1960 to 2000 the Census Bureau had expanded its analysis of what had been a minor category.  The Census Bureau categorizes the term “unrelated individuals” to designate someone who does not live in a “family group.” Sadly, we’ve seen the percentage of persons living as “unrelated individuals” almost triple, increasing from 6 to 16 percent of all people during the last 40 years. A huge majority of those classified as “unrelated individuals” (about 70 percent) lived alone.

it seems that interpersonal trust is deteriorating:

Long-run data from the US, where the General Social Survey (GSS) has been gathering information about trust attitudes since 1972, suggests that people trust each other less today than 40 years ago. This decline in interpersonal trust in the US has been coupled with a long-run reduction in public trust in government – according to estimates compiled by the Pew Research Center since 1958, today trust in the government in the US is at historically low levels.


Interpersonal trust attitudes correlate strongly with religious affiliation and upbringing. Some studies have shown that this strong positive relationship remains after controlling for several survey-respondent characteristics.1 This, in turn, has led researchers to use religion as a proxy for trust, in order to estimate the extent to which economic outcomes depend on trust attitudes. Estimates from these and other studies using an instrumental-variable approach, suggest that trust has a causal impact on economic outcomes.2 This suggests that the remarkable cross-country heterogeneity in trust that we observe today, can explain a significant part of the historical differences in cross-country income levels.


Measures of trust from attitudinal survey questions remain the most common source of data on trust. Yet academic studies have shown that these measures of trust are generally weak predictors of actual trusting behaviour. Interestingly, however, questions about trusting attitudes do seem to predict trustworthiness. In other words, people who say they trust other people tend to be trustworthy themselves.3

Just look at that horrible trend of migrants being kept out of Europe

Our technological shifts haven’t just affected ideas and conversations–with people able to travel thousands of miles in an afternoon, they’ve also affected the composition of communities. The US in 1920 was almost 90% white and 10% black, (with that black population concentrated in the segregated South). All other races together totaled only a couple percent. Today, the US is <65% white, 13% black, 16% Hispanic, 6% Asian and Native American, and 9% “other” or multi-racial.

Similar changes have happened in Europe, both with the creation of the Free Movement Zone and the discovery that the Mediterranean isn’t that hard to cross, though the composition of the newcomers obviously differs.

Diversity may have its benefits, but one of the things it isn’t is a common culture.

With all of these changes, do I really feel that there is anything particularly special about my local community and its norms over those of my British friends?

What about Disney?

Well, Disney’s most profitable product hasn’t exactly been pro-democracy, though I doubt a few princess movies can actually budge people’s political compasses or vote for Trump (or Hillary.) But what about the general content of children’s stories? It sure seems like there are a lot fewer stories focused on characters from American history than in the days when Davy Crockett was the biggest thing on TV.

Of course this loops back into technological changes, as American TV and movies are enjoyed by an increasingly non-American audience and media content is driven by advertisers’ desire to reach specific audiences (eg, the “rural purge” in TV programming, when popular TV shows aimed at more rural or older audiences were cancelled in favor of programs featuring urban characters, which advertisers believed would appeal to younger viewers with more cash to spend.)

If cultural collapse is happening, it’s not because we lack for civics classes, but because civics classes alone cannot create a civic culture where there is none.

Your Favorite Songs (or Bands)

I don’t want to be one of those people who just gets attached to whatever was on the radio when they were 14 years old (or 18, or whenever) and never learns to like anything else because that’s incredibly stupid.

But I don’t exactly have time to be involved in the club scene and I feel disconnected from whatever is going on in music these days (if anything, I have the distinct feeling that “music these days” is much less of a thing… Maybe because kids these days are more into doing SJW things on tumblr than going out or buying albums.)

I’m hard pressed to claim I have a favorite song, but here are some I enjoy:

The Cruxshadows: Singularities (Youtube doesn’t allow embedding for this one, but it is good so click on it anyway.)

Please share some of your favorites in the comments.

Bonus question: do you think different musical genres appeal to different kinds of people outside of habit or ethnic background? (IE, obviously I’d expect Mexican singers to be more popular in Mexico and Pakistani singers to be popular in Pakistan, but do particular sorts of tunes appeal to different personalities?)