Anthropology Friday: Pygmies and Papuans, pt 3/3

Welcome to Anthropology Friday. Today we are finishing A. F. R. Wollaston’s Pygmies and Papuans, published in 1912, with a focus primarily on the Pygmies of New Guinea and nearby areas (also known as Negritos.)

As usual, quotes will be in “” instead of blockquotes for readability.

Tapiro Pygmies

“At one time or another we took measurements of 40 adult men [of the Tapiro Pygmies], most of them men in the prime of life, and their average height was found to be 144·9 cm. (4 ft. 9 in.). … The height of the smallest man measured was 132·6 cm. By contrast with the Papuans they looked extremely small and, what was rather a curious thing, though many of our Malay coolies were no taller than they, the coolies looked merely under-sized and somewhat stunted men, while the Tapiro looked emphatically little men. They are cleanly-built, active-looking little fellows …

“In consequence of our entire lack of knowledge of their language we were not able to form a very reasonable estimate of their intelligence. …

“A rough test of an uncivilised man’s intelligence is the extent to which he is able to count, but in the case of the Tapiro there is an unfortunate difference of evidence in this respect. Capt. Rawling (Geograph. Journal, Vol. xxxviii., page 246) affirms that they are able to count up to ten. If this is so, it is a very interesting and remarkable fact. On several occasions I tried to make these people count, with a view to learning their numeral words, and I found that like the Papuans they only had words for one and two, and that those two words were the same as the Papuan words; but it appeared that, unlike the Papuans, they had not the custom of using their fingers and toes for the higher numbers.

“On the credit side of their intelligence must be placed their admirably constructed houses, their decorated arrows and ingeniously woven bags, and their cultivation.”

A large village:

“A few miles further down the river we came to another large village of yet a different character. The houses there were all built on piles, but while a few of them were of the usual small size, the majority were quite unlike anything else we had seen in that part of New Guinea. They were huge barn-like structures raised on piles ten or more feet above the ground, and the length of some of them must have been from one hundred and fifty to two hundred feet. It was quite evident that these were communal dwellings, indicating a social system entirely different from that of the surrounding districts, and it was very tantalising to pass them within a few yards and not to be able to visit them. The village extended for about a mile along the East bank and the natives that we saw must have numbered at least a thousand. ..


Crowds of people lined the river bank and some of them, holding short bamboos in their hands, jerked them in our direction and from the end came out a white cloud of powdered lime, which looked like smoke. …The suggestion that it is a means of imitating the appearance of fire-arms is ingenious, but it can hardly be seriously considered.”

EvX: I think this amusing explanation may well be correct, given the habits of people in many parts of the world to construct replica versions of technology they have seen mainly at a distance.

Here the author quotes a text by Dr. Haddon on the characteristics and cultural traits of local pygmy/negrito groups, “The Pygmy Question“:

“Pygmies, as their name implies, are very short men, and the first question to decide is whether this short stature is normal or merely a dwarfing due to unfavourable environment. … The average human stature appears to be about 1·675 m. (5 ft. 6 ins.). Those peoples who are 1·725 (5 ft. 8 ins.) or more in height are said to be tall, those below 1·625 m. (5 ft. 4 ins.) are short, while those who fall below 1·5 m. (4 ft. 11 ins.) are now usually termed pygmies. One has only to turn to the investigations of the Dordogne district by Collignon and others to see how profoundly la misère can affect the stature of a population living under adverse conditions, for example in the canton of Saint Mathieu there are 8·8 per cent. with a stature below 1·5 m. But when one finds within one area, as in the East Indian region, distinct peoples of medium, short and pygmy stature, living under conditions which appear to be very similar, one is inclined to suspect a racial difference between them, and the suspicion becomes confirmed if we find other characters associated with pygmy stature. …

“Asiatic pygmies have long been known, but it is only comparatively recently that they have been studied seriously, and even now there remains much to be discovered about them. There are two main stocks on the eastern border of the Indian Ocean, who have a very short stature and are respectively characterised by curly or wavy hair and by hair that grows in close small spirals—the so-called woolly hair.

“(i.) The Sakai or Senoi of the southern portion of the Malay Peninsula are typical examples of the former stock, their average stature is slightly above the pygmy limit … All these peoples together with the Vedda and some jungle tribes of the Deccan are now regarded as remnants of a once widely distributed race to which the term Pre-Dravidian has been applied; it is also believed by many students that the chief element in the Australians is of similar origin.

Semang man, Malaysia

“(ii.) For a long time it has been known that there are three groups of ulotrichous (woolly-haired), brachycephalic (broad-headed), dark-skinned, pygmy peoples inhabiting respectively the Andaman Islands, the Malay Peninsula and the Philippines; to this race the name Negrito is universally applied. We can now include in it a fourth element from New Guinea. The physical characters of these several groups may be summarised as follows:

Two Andamanese men

“1. The Andamanese, who are sometimes erroneously called Mincopies, inhabit the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. Their head hair is extremely frizzly (woolly), fine in texture, lustreless and seldom more than two or three inches long … Hair only occasionally grows on the face and then but scantily. There is little or no hair over the surface of the body. The skin has several shades of colour between bronze or dark copper, sooty, and black, … The average stature of 48 males is 1·492 m. (4 ft. 10-3/4 ins.), the extremes being 1·365 m. (4 ft. 5-3/4 ins.) and 1·632 m. (5 ft. 4-1/4 ins.). …

“2. The Semang live in the central region of the Malay Peninsula, some of them are known under the names of Udai, Pangan, Hami and Semán. The hair of the head is short, universally woolly, and black. Skeat says it is of a brownish black, not a bluish black like that of the Malays, and Martin alludes to a reddish shimmer when light falls on it … Hair is rare and scanty on face and body. Skeat describes the skin colour as dark chocolate brown approximating in some Kedah Negritos to glossy black… The data for the stature are not very satisfactory, the best are a series of 17 males by Annandale and Robinson, the average being 1·528 m. (5 ft. 0-1/4 in.), with extreme, of 1·372 m. (4 ft. 6 ins.) and 1·604 (5 ft. 3 ins.). …

Young Aeta girl, Philippines, 1901

“3. The Aeta live in the mountainous districts of the larger islands and in some of the smaller islands of the Philippines. It is convenient to retain this name for the variously named groups of Philippine Negritos, many of whom show admixture with other peoples. The hair of the head is universally woolly except when mixture may be suspected or is known … Reed says that the beard is very scanty but all adult males have some and that there is very little body hair, but Worcester states that the men often have abundant beards and a thick growth of hair on the arms, chest and legs. The skin is described as being of a dark chocolate brown, rather than black, with a yellowish tinge on the exposed parts (Reed), sooty black (Sawyer), or dark, sooty brown (Worcester). The average stature of 48 men is 1·463 m. (4 ft. 9-1/2 ins.), ranging from 1·282 m. (4 ft. 2-1/2 ins.) to 1·6 m. (5 ft. 3 ins.), but some of these were not pure breeds (Reed); other observations also show a considerable range in height. …

Papuan man accompanied by two Tapiro Pygmies, from Wollaston’s Pygmies and Papuans

“4. The discovery of pygmies in Netherlands New Guinea by the Expedition has drawn public attention to a problem of perennial interest to ethnologists. …

“The racial history of New Guinea has proved to be unexpectedly complicated. We are now justified in recognising at least two indigenous elements, the Negrito and Papuan; the effect of the island populations to the east has not yet been determined, but in the south-west two immigrations at least from Melanesia have taken place, which, with Seligmann, we may term Papuo-Melanesian. … It is, however, almost certain that future researches will reveal that the problem is not so simple as that just indicated.”

EvX: Just as my favorite map is the one where large tracts of Antarctica are marked “Unexplored,” so I find interesting the experience of simply discovering new groups of humans who had previously been unknown to outsiders.

New Guinea was, for mostly geographic reasons, one of the last places on Earth to be competently explored by outsiders, and thus held some of the last ‘undiscovered’ peoples.


“Finally Guppy, Ribbe and Rascher report the occurrence of very short people in the interior of the larger islands of the Bismarck Archipelago and of the Solomon Islands; recently Thurnwald refers to very small people in the mountainous interior of Bougainville who speak a non-Melanesian language, one man from Mari mountain had a stature of 1·39 m. (4 ft. 6-1/2 ins.). In the mountains the mixed population consists of types recalling the Solomon Islanders and “representatives of a small short-legged, broad-faced, short-skulled, very hairy, wide-nosed people.” …

“Discussing the pygmies of Melanesia von Luschan referred in 1910 (Zs. f. Ethnol. XLII., p. 939) to bones brought a century ago from the Admiralty Islands which must have belonged to individuals 1·32-1·35 m. (4 ft. 4 ins.-4 ft. 5 ins.) in stature; it is unlikely that the type persists, though Moseley mentions an unusually short man, a little over 5 ft. (Journ. Anth. Inst. 1877, p. 384). In the collection made by the German Marine Expedition there are a number of extremely small skulls from New Ireland, which von Luschan is convinced belong to pygmies. Finsch brought from New Britain over thirty years ago the smallest known skull of a normal adult person; it came from the S.W. coast of Gazelle Peninsula. …

“At the same time that the Expedition discovered pygmies in Netherlands New Guinea, Mr. R. W. Williamson was investigating the Mafulu, a mountain people on the upper waters of the Angabunga river in the Mekeo District. … The average stature is 1·551 m. (5 ft. 1 in.) ranging from 1·47 m. (4 ft. 10 ins.) to 1·63 m. (5 ft. 4 ins.). They are fairly strong and muscular, but rather slender and slight in development. …

“It is worth noting that Pöch had in 1906 measured two Fergusson Island men with statures 1·403 and 1·425 m. (4 ft. 7-1/4 ins., 4 ft. 8 ins.), who told him that “all the people in that tribe were as small or smaller.” …

“On reading through the brief synopses which I have given it is apparent that, with the possible exception of the Andamanese, each of the Negrito peoples shows considerable diversity in its physical characters and this is more evident when more detailed accounts and photographs are studied…

“The Negritos have certain cultural characters more or less in common, some of which differentiate them from their neighbours. There is very little artificial deformation of the person. … The Semang women possess numerous bamboo combs which are engraved with curious designs of a magical import, similar combs are possessed by nearly every Aeta man and woman. The Andamanese have no combs.

“The Andamanese make three kinds of simple huts on the ground and large communal huts are sometimes built. The Semang construct “bee-hive” and long communal huts and weather screens similar to those of the Andamanese. They also erect tree shelters, but direct evidence is very scanty that pure Semang inhabit huts with a flooring raised on piles; they sleep on bamboo platforms. The Aeta usually make very simple huts sometimes with a raised bamboo sleeping platform inside. …

“All the Negritos have the bow and arrow. The Great Andamanese bow is peculiar while that of the Little Andamanese appears to resemble that of the Semang. The Great Andamanese and the Tapiro have very long bows. Harpoon arrows with iron points are used by the Andamanese and Aeta, the arrows of the Andamanese, Semang and Aeta are nocked, but only those of the two latter are feathered.  …

“So far as is known the social structure of the Negritos is very simple. … Our knowledge concerning the Semang and Aeta is extremely imperfect but they probably resemble the Andamanese in these points. The Andamanese and Semang are strictly monogamous, polygyny is allowed among the Aeta, but monogamy prevails. The only restriction at all on marriage appears to be the prohibition of marriage between near kindred, and divorce is very rare. All bury their dead, but it is considered by the Andamanese more complimentary to place the dead on a platform which is generally built in a large tree, and the more honourable practice of the Semang is to expose the dead in trees. The Mafulu bury ordinary people, but the corpses of chiefs are placed in an open box either on a platform or in the fork of a kind of fig tree.”

EvX: That’s all for today. Next week, I have a book from Appalachia planned.

4 thoughts on “Anthropology Friday: Pygmies and Papuans, pt 3/3

  1. Is there something like a map anywhere (or at least a list) of the predominant practice for different groups when people die? I suppose it would mostly be burial and cremation, but variations on exposure (as with Zoroastrians, I think?) are something I’ve always had a morning curiosity about…


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