Review: Why Warriors Lie Down and Die

51uvfeh9d2lI read an interview once in which Napoleon Chagnon was asked what the Yanomamo thought of him–why did they think he had come to live with them?

“To learn how to be human,” he replied.

I didn’t read Trudgen’s Why Warriors Lie Down and Die because I have any hope of helping the Yolngu people, (I don’t live in Australia, for starters) but in hopes of learning something universal. People like to play the blame game–it’s all whites’ fault, it’s all Aborigines’ fault–but there are broken communities and dying people everywhere, and understanding one community may give us insight into the others.

For example, US life expectancy has been declining:

A baby born in 2017 is expected to live to be 78.6 years old, which is down from 78.7 the year before, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics.

The last three years represent the longest consecutive decline in the American lifespan at birth since the period between 1915 and 1918, which included World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic, events that killed many millions worldwide.

Declining? In the developed world?

While there’s no single cause for the decline in the U.S., a report by the CDC highlights three factors contributing to the decline:

Drug overdoses…

Liver disease…

Suicide…

Not to mention heart disease, stroke, and all of the usual suspects.

Most causes of death can be divided roughly into the diseases of poverty (infection, malnutrition, parasites, etc,) and the diseases of abundance (heart attacks, strokes, type 2 diabetes, etc). In developing countries, people tend to die of the former; in developed countries, the latter. There are a few exceptions–Costa Ricans enjoy good health because they have beaten back the diseases of poverty without becoming rich enough to die of obesity; Japan enjoys high standards of living, but has retained enough of its traditional eating habits to also not develop too many modern diseases (so far). 

The poor of many developed countries, however, often don’t get to enjoy much of the wealth, but still get hammered with the diseases. This is true in Australia and the US, and is the cause of much consternation–the average Aborigine or poor white would probably be healthier if they moved to poor country like Costa Rica and ate like the locals.

When Trudgen first moved to Arnhem Land (the traditional Yolngu area) in the 70s, the situation wasn’t great, but it wasn’t terrible. People were going to school, graduating, and getting jobs. Communities had elders and hope for the future.

He left for eight years, then returned in the 80s to find a community that had been destroyed, with skyrocketing unemployment, hopelessness, drug use, disease, and death:

So my return to work with the Yolngu after eight years away was marked by the stark reality of what had become “normal” life in Arnhem Land. The people were dying at a horrific rate, more than five times the national average. And they were dying of disease that they had not seen before, disease that were considered to be those of affluent society: heart attack, strokes, diabetes, cancer.

What went wrong?

Trudgen points out that the variety of normal explanations offered for the abysmal state of Aboriginal communities in the 80s don’t make sense in light of their relatively good condition a mere decade before. People didn’t suddenly get dumb, lazy, or violent. Rather:

… I discovered that the communities in Arnhem Land had changed. The people’s freedom to direct their own lives had been almost completely eroded.

How do people end up out of control of their own lives? The author discusses several things affecting the Yolngu in particular.

The biggest of these is language–English is not their first language, and for some not even their 4th or 5th. (According to Wikipedia, even today, most Yolngu do not speak English as their first language.) Trudgen explains that since Yolngu is a small, obscure language, at least as of when he was writing, no English-to-Yolngu dictionaries existed to help speakers look up the meaning of unfamiliar words like “tumor” or “mortgage.” (And this was before the widespread adoption of the internet.)

Imagine trying to conduct your affairs when every interaction with someone more powerful than yourself, from the bureaucrats at the DMV to the doctors at the hospital, was conducted in a language you didn’t speak very well, without the benefit of a dictionary or a translator. Trudgen writes that the Aborigines would actually like to learn how to protect their health, avoid dying from cancer and heart disease, etc, but the information on how to do these things doesn’t exist in their language. (He reminds us that it took a couple hundred years for the knowledge of things like “germs” to travel from scientists to regular people in our culture, and we all speak the same language.)

Both in Arnhem Land and without, people often overestimate how much other people know. For example, in a case Trudgen facilitated as a translator, a doctor thought his patient understood his explanation that due to diabetes, only 2% of his kidneys were functioning, but the patient didn’t actually understand enough English to make sense of the diagnosis–not to mention, as the author points out, that Yolngu culture doesn’t have the concept of “percents.” After translation, the man (who’d been seeing doctors for his kidneys for years without understanding what they were saying) finally understood and started treating his problems.

Those of us outside of Yolngu Land don’t have quite this level of difficulty interacting with medical professionals, but language still influences our lives in many ways. We have high and low class accents and dialects, not to mention an absurd quantity of verbal signaling and flexing, like sharing one’s pronouns in a presidential debate.

People everywhere also suffer from the condition of knowing a lot less than others assume they know. Every survey of common knowledge shocks us, yet again, with how dumb the common man is–and then we forget that we have ever seen such a survey and are equally shocked all over again when the next one comes out. (I think about this a lot while teaching.)

I think most people tend to remember information if they either use it regularly (like the code I use for formatting these posts) or if it’s valued/used in their culture (I know about the Kardashians despite never having tried to learn about them simply because people talk about them all of the time). If people talked about quantum physics the way we talk about superheroes, a lot more people would have posters of Niels Bohr.

For the Yolngu, there’s a problem that a lot of information simply isn’t available in their language. They were literally stone-age hunter-gatherers less than a century ago and are trying to catch up on a couple thousand years of learning. For us, the difficulty is more of access–I have a couple of relatives who are doctors, so if someone in my family gets sick, I call a relative first for advice before heading to the more expensive options. But if you don’t have any doctors among your friends/family, then you don’t have this option.

There are probably a lot of cases where people are stymied because they don’t know how to even begin to solve their problems.

Trudgen wants to solve this problem by having much more extensive language training for everyone in the area, white and Yolngu, and also by extending educational programs to the adults, so that the entire culture can be infused with knowledge.

After language difficulties, the other biggest impediment to living the good life, in Trudgen’s view, is… the welfare state:

Welfare and the dependency it creates is the worst form of violence. It has created a living hell.

Before the arrival of the white people, he notes, Aborigines survived perfectly fine on their own. The locals fished, hunted, gathered, and probably did some yam-based horticulture. They farmed pearls and traded them with Macassans from modern-day Indonesia for rice, and traded with tribes in the interior of Australia for other products. They even had their own legal system, similar to many of the others we have read about. Their lives were simple, yes. Their huts were not very tall, and they certainly didn’t have cellphones or penicillin, but they ran their own lives and those who made it out of infancy survived just fine.

Today, their lives are dominated at every turn by government institutions, welfare included. Children were once educated by their parents and the tribe at large. Now they are educated by white teachers at government run schools. People used to hunt and gather their own food, now they buy food at the supermarket with their welfare cheques. A man once built his own house; now such a house would be demolished because it doesn’t meet the building code requirements. Even Aborigine men trained as skilled housebuilders have been replaced by white builders, because the state decided that it needed to build houses faster.

Every program designed to “help” the Yolngu risks taking away yet one more piece of their sovereignty and ability to run their own lives. Trudgen complains of plans to build preschools in the area–to quote roughly, “they say the schools will be staffed with local Yolngu, but Yolngu don’t have the right credentials to qualify for such jobs. In a few years, Yolngu mothers will have even been pushed out of the role of caring for their own little children. What purpose will they have left in life?”

I just checked, and 88% of indigenous Australian children are now enrolled in preschool.

Or as the author puts it:

In fact, every attempt to solve the [malnutrition] problem with outside ideas has sent the malnutrition rates higher. Welfare-type programs simply send the people into greater depths of dependency, which increases feelings of confusion and hopelessness. Old people as well as children are not being cared for.

During 1999 the children received a free breakfast at the school and some people were talking about giving them free lunches as well. So now the government feeds the people’s children, as well as build their houses and provides all levels of welfare for them. What is there left for them to do but go ff and drink kava or gamble?

And ultimately:

… where the people have lost control, the men are dead or dying.

Incidentally, here is an article on loneliness in American suburbia.

Everything here is compounded by the habit of modern governments to make everything illegal; complicated; or require three permits, two environmental impact studies, and 17 licenses before you can break ground. As Joel Salatin pens, “Everything I want to do is Illegal.”

Aborigines used to build their own houses, and whether they were good or not, they lived in them. (In fact, all groups of people are competent at building their own shelters.)

Then government came and declared that these houses were no good, they weren’t up to code, and the Aborigines had to be trained to build houses the white way. So the Aborigines learned, and began building “modern” houses.

Whether they were good at it or not, they had jobs and people had houses.

Then the government decided that the Aborigine builders weren’t building houses fast enough, so they brought in the army and threw up a bunch of pre-fab houses.

Now the taxpayers pay for whites to go to Yolngu land and build houses for the Aborigines. The aborigines who used to build the houses are out of a job and on welfare, while the money for the houses goes into the pockets of outsiders.

Yes, the houses get built faster, but it’s hard to say that this is “better” than just letting the locals build their own houses.

The same process has happened in other industries. Even trash collection in Yolngu areas is now done by newcomers. At every turn, it seems, the Yolngu are either pushed out of jobs because they weren’t as fast or efficient or had the right certificates and credentials, or because they just didn’t speak enough English.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Langston Hughes, Harlem

The story of the fishing industry was also and adventure in bad decision-making.

Originally, simplifying a bit for the sake of time, each fisherman (or perhaps a small group of fishermen) had his own boat, and caught as many fish as he wanted and sold the rest to a fishing organization run by the local mission. This was clear and straightforward: men owned their own catches and could do what they wanted with them. The area was a net exporter of fish and the locals made a decent living.

Then the government decided the mission system was no good, and turned everything over to “communal councils.” This was a great big mess.

Trudgen points out that the councils aren’t consistent with existing Yolngu laws/governing norms. They already had elders and governing bodies which the government didn’t recognize, so the government effectively created an illegitimate government and set it in conflict with the existing one, in the name of democracy, with shades of every failed attempt to impose democracy on a foreign country.

The councils didn’t work because 1. they didn’t have real authority, and 2. communism always fails.

In this case, the council decided to get a loan to “develop” the fishing industry, but before they could get a loan, the bank sent out an efficiency expert who looked at all of the little boats and declared that it would be much more efficient if they just used one big boat.

So the council bought a big boat and burned the little boats in the middle of the night so no one could use them anymore.

Now “ownership” of the boat was all confused. Men were not clearly working to catch their own fish on their own boat, they were part of a big crew on a big boat with a boss. The boss had to be someone with the correct licenses and whatnot to be allowed to run a big boat, and of course he had to pay his employees, which probably gets you into Australian tax law, liability law, insurance law, etc. In short, the boss wasn’t a local Yolngu because the Yolngu didn’t have the right credentials to run the boat, so the fishermen now had to work for an outsider, and it was no longer clear which part of their catch was “theirs” and which part was the boss’s.

The fishing industry quickly fell apart and the area became a net importer of fish.

These councils set up by the government to run local affairs failed repeatedly, much to the distress of the locals–but Trudgen notes that collectivism didn’t work for the USSR, either.

One constant impression I got from the book is that multiculturalism is hard. Even without language issues, people from different cultures have different ideas about what it means to be respectful, polite, honest, or timely. Different ideas about what causes disease, or whether Coca Cola ads are a trustworthy source of nutrition advice. (If they aren’t, then why does the government allow them to be on the air?) 

Which gets me to one of my recurrent themes, which Trudgen touches on: society lies. All the time. Those of us who know society lies and all of the rules and meta-rules surrounding the lying are reasonably well equipped to deal with it, but those of us who don’t know the rules usually get screwed by them.

As Wesley Yang puts it in The Souls of Yellow Folk:

“Someone told me not long after I moved to New York that in order to succeed, you have to understand which rules you’re supposed to break. If you break the wrong rules, you’re finished. And so the easiest thing to do is follow all the rules. But then you consign yourself to a lower status. The real trick is understanding what rules are not meant for you.”

The idea of a kind of rule-governed rule-breaking–where the rule book was unwritten but passed along in an innate cultural sense–is perhaps the best explanation I have heard of how the Bamboo Ceiling functions in practice.

It’s not just Asians. Poor people, rural people, nerds, outsiders in general know only the explicitly taught rules, not the rules about breaking rules–and suffer for it.

And I think society lies in part because it serves the powerful. People lie about their age, their looks, their intelligence, how they got ahead and how they think you should apply for a job. Coca Cola lies about the healthiness of its product because it wants to sell more Coke, and the Aborigines believe it because they have very little experience with foods that taste good but aren’t good for you. Out in nature, in the traditional Aboriginal diet, sweet foods like fruits and berries were always good for you.

And these little lies are usually portrayed as “in your best interest,” but I’m far from convinced that they are.

People have been talking about UBI lately, at least the Yang Gang types. And I like Yang, at least as presidential candidates go. But we should be careful about whether more welfare is really the panacea we think it is.

The Yolngu have welfare already, and it doesn’t seem to be helping. At least, it doesn’t seem to make them happy. My conclusion from reading the book obviously isn’t that the Yolngu need more welfare or more programs. It’s that they need control over their own lives and communities. For that, they need something like Amish–a system of internal organization sufficient to feed themselves, deal with the outside world, and get it to back off.

Of course, I don’t know if that would actually work for the Yolngu in particular, but the Amish seem a reasonable model for solving many of modernity’s current problems.

Man the Wanderer

One of the most distinctive things about humans is how widely spread our species is. Few species that have not hitched a ride with us have managed to spread so far and wide.  Men armed with stone tools built boats and settled the furthest islands, from Hawaii to New Zealand; men sewed hides of mammoth skin and built shelters out of snow to survive in the arctic. We live in deserts and swamps, mountains and valleys, and have thrived nearly everywhere we’ve gone.

And–until recently–our ability to travel far and wide resulted in a plethora of human species. Homo Erectus, Neanderthals, and Denisovans all lived around the same time, alongside Homo naledi (South Africa), Homo heidelbergensis (Africa), H. Floresiensis (Island of Flores, Indonesia), and H. luzonensis (from the island of Luzon, Philippines.)

Those aren’t even all the varieties of human that have existed, people who looked and behaved much like us. There were others, some older, some whose bones we haven’t found, yet, but whose DNA shows up in modern humans.

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Map of the distribution of Middle Pleistocene (Acheulean) cleaver finds (Wikipedia)

The first out of Africa event occurred about 1.8 million years ago, when Homo erectus hefted his achulean handaxe and headed north. He seems to have thrived in Asia, arriving in China a mere 100,000 years later, and Indonesia 50,000 years after that. It took a fair bit longer–another 250,000 years–for erectus to arrive in Spain, and he had trouble crossing the mountains into the rest of Europe (it was probably too cold for him.)

This was before widespread use of fire (about one million years ago) and clothes (about 170,000 years ago) allowed humans to spread much further–one of the oldest known sewing needles was wielded not by Homo sapiens, but by our cousins the Denisovans, in Siberia.

But what motivated us? Why did we spread so far?

Before the invention of agriculture, most humans must have been nomadic, at least part of the year. Our stone tools let us be hunters–despite our puny size–and we probably followed our prey, and when we ran out or couldn’t find the animals we sought, we moved on in search of more.

Did being smart let us expand our initial range out of Africa, or did expanding our range as we followed game make us smarter? Probably both; early Homo erectuses skulls had volumes around 850 cubic centimeters, but by the time erectus reached Indonesia, his skull had grown to 1,100 CCs. But erectus did not persist–he was replaced by later waves of humans who emerged from Africa with much more advanced tools.

Settling down must have been quite the change–we moderns find moving stressful, but our ancestors probably found staying put strange and difficult. Perhaps they planted, then wandered off for a few months until their crops ripened.

Even today, I think there’s still some urge to wander left in us. Somewhere between 15 and 25 we get the urge to get out of Dodge, to seek our fortunes (and spouses) somewhere far from home.

We gotta roam.

Great Plains Indian Law: Background

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Map of Native American language families

Welcome back to our discussion of Friedman, Leeson, and Skarbek’s Legal Systems Very Different from Ours. Today we’ll be looking at the legal systems of three plains Indian tribes: the Comanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne.

(Take note of the map. We’re going to need it.)

I had previously been under the impression that these groups had started as farmers who adopted the horse when the Spanish arrived. This is the account given by the authors:

Faced with a sudden opportunity for progress, the chance to stop scratching in the dirt as primitive agriculturalists and turn into noble savages hunting buffalo… the Indian tribes living on or near the Great Plains seized the opportunity.

So the Comanche hail from the Uto-Aztecan language group–these folks included, as you can tell from the name, both the Aztecs of Mexico and the Utes of the Great Basin. (Utah is named for the Utes.) The Comanche themselves appear to have hailed from the Great Basin, an arid region that’s mostly too dry for agriculture. As Wikipedia notes: 

Different ethnic groups of Great Basin tribes share certain common cultural elements that distinguish them from surrounding groups. All but the Washoe traditionally speak Numic languages, and tribal groups, who historically lived peacefully and often shared common territories, have intermingled considerably. Prior to the 20th century, Great Basin peoples were predominantly hunters and gatherers.

“Desert Archaic” or more simply “The Desert Culture” refers to the culture of the Great Basin tribes. This culture is characterized by the need for mobility to take advantage of seasonally available food supplies. The use of pottery was rare due to its weight, but intricate baskets were woven for containing water, cooking food, winnowing grass seeds and storage—including the storage of pine nuts, a Paiute-Shoshone staple. Heavy items such as metates would be cached rather than carried from foraging area to foraging area. Agriculture was not practiced within the Great Basin itself, although it was practiced in adjacent areas (modern agriculture in the Great Basin requires either large mountain reservoirs or deep artesian wells). Likewise, the Great Basin tribes had no permanent settlements, although winter villages might be revisited winter after winter by the same group of families. In the summer, the largest group was usually the nuclear family due to the low density of food supplies.

In between the Great Basin and the Aztec empire lie the Pueblos, built by the various Pueblo peoples. Interestingly, most of them do not speak an Uto-Aztecan language; some of the Pueblo languages are quite isolated. The Navajo language, likewise, is related to languages spoken way up in Canada, rather than other local languages.

The history of this region of the country post-1492 follows the Spanish, not English colonists. The Spanish conquered the Aztecs, as is rather famously known, then moved north into the Pueblos of Arizona and New Mexico in the 1540s. The Pueblos were the biggest settlements in the southwestern US in those days–California was inhabited primarily by hunter-gatherers and didn’t attract much settlement until the Spaniards developed better routes across the Pacific ocean (the need for which partially drove the Opening of Japan in the late 1800s), the Great Basin of Utah and nearby states was too dry for many permanent settlements before irrigation and wells were dug, and without horses, the Great Plains were nearly uninhabited.  The first Spaniards who crossed them found them horrifyingly vast and empty.

On the other side of the Great Plains lay the Mississippian people, who, like the Puebloans, built towns and cities, as well as monuments like Serpent Mound in Ohio–but these folks were beyond the normal reach of the Spanish empire. To the far north were other peoples, like the totem-pole carving denizens of the lush Pacific northwest but this was Russian territory at most, and generally left to its own devices.

In those days, the peoples of the Great Basin were mostly nomadic hunter gatherers, occasionally trading with farmers and pastoralists from the south and moving with the seasons. Their only “draft animal” was the dog, which pulled sleds (travois) laden with their belongings over the ground; this is not a terribly effective way to move.

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Comancheria, prior to 1850

The Pueblos revolted against Spanish rule in 1680. The revolt was successful, and about 2,000 Spaniards and their slaves were driven from the territory and their domesticated animals–including horses–were variously slaughtered, captured, or lost to the wilds. The horses took easily to what had formerly been their native habitat, and by the mid-1700s, the Comanches had them.

Gone were the days of puttering around with puny, dog-drawn sleds; for the next hundred years these fearsome warriors were the lords of the southern plains, the quintessential horseback riding, tipi-dwelling, buffalo hunting anarchists of American lore.

According to Wikipedia:

Their original migration took them to the southern Great Plains, into a sweep of territory extending from the Arkansas River to central Texas. The earliest references to them in the Spanish records date from 1706, when reports reached Santa Fe that Utes and Comanches were about to attack [16]. In the Comanche advance, the Apaches were driven off the Plains. By the end of the eighteenth century the struggle between Comanches and Apaches had assumed legendary proportions: in 1784, in recounting the history of the southern Plains, Texas governor Domingo Cabello recorded that some sixty years earlier (i.e., ca. 1724) the Apaches had been routed from the southern Plains in a nine-day battle at El Gran Cierra del Fierro ‘The Great Mountain of Iron’, somewhere northwest of Texas. There is, however, no other record, documentary or legendary, of such a fight [17].

They were formidable opponents who developed strategies for using traditional weapons for fighting on horseback. Warfare was a major part of Comanche life. Comanche raids into Mexico traditionally took place during the full moon, when the Comanche could see to ride at night. This led to the term “Comanche Moon”, during which the Comanche raided for horses, captives, and weapons.[18] The majority of Comanche raids into Mexico were in the state of Chihuahua and neighboring northern states.[19]

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Comanche–Osage Fight by George Catlin, 1854 (Comanche on the right.)

The Comanche were such effective warriors that they nearly turned the tide against Spanish colonization:

The Comanche–Mexico Wars was the Mexican theater of the Comanche Wars, a series of conflicts from 1821 until 1870 which consisted of large-scale raids into northern Mexico by Comanches and their Kiowa and Kiowa Apache allies which left thousands of people dead.[1] The Comanche raids were sparked by the declining military capability of Mexico in the turbulent years after it gained independence in 1821, plus a large and growing market in the United States for stolen Mexican horses and cattle.[2]

By the time the United States army invaded northern Mexico in 1846 during the Mexican–American War the region was devastated. The largest Comanche raids into Mexico took place from 1840 until the mid-1850s, thereafter declining in size and intensity. The Comanche were finally defeated by the U.S. in 1875 and forced onto a reservation.

(Their defeat was due in large part due to the decimating effects of disease; their population appears to have dropped from about 20,000 people to just a few thousand. Today, they number about 17,000 people.

So that’s where the Comanche came from. How about the Kiowa?

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3 Kiowa men, hand colored photograph, 1898

The Kiowa speak a Tanoan language, not an Uto-Aztecan language like the Comanche. Most of the other Tanoan speakers are Pueblo peoples, who built permanent towns and raised corn in New Mexico, but the Kiowa were hunter gatherers from around the Black Hills of western Montana/South Dakota. They were driven from their homelands by the Sioux and other tribes, migrated south, obtained horses, and moved into the flat parts of Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, northern Texas, and parts of New Mexico. According to Wikipedia, they numbered about 3,000 people in those days and 12,000 today.

This leaves us with a mystery: the historic geographic spread of the Uto-Axtecan language family was split by the Pueblos; the historic geographic spread of the Pueblo-based Tanoan family was split by the Great Basin-dwelling Utes and their linguistic cousins. In other words, each language family was split by the other.

How did the Kiowa begin their journey so far from the other members of their language family? Wikipedia frustratingly notes:

There is apparently no oral tradition of any ancient connection between the peoples. Scholars have not determined when the peoples were connected so that the common linguistic elements could have developed.

Archaeology offers many tantalizing clues, but I wish we had more genetic data (many American Indian tribes are officially disdainful of genetics and see nothing to be gained by participating in genetics research, which may be true for them but is frustrating to me.)

The Wikipedia page for the Kiowa language says:

Although Kiowa is most closely related to the other Tanoan languages of the Pueblos, the earliest historic location of its speakers is western Montana around 1700. Prior to the historic record, oral histories, archaeology, and linguistics suggest that pre-Kiowa was the northernmost dialect of Proto-Kiowa-Tanoan, spoken at Basketmaker II Era sites. Around AD 450, they migrated northward through the territory of the Anasazi and Great Basin, occupying the eastern Fremont culture region of the Colorado Plateau until sometime before 1300. Speakers then drifted northward to the northwestern Plains, arriving no later than the mid-16th century in the Yellowstone area where the Kiowa were first encountered. The Kiowa then later migrated to the Black Hills and the southern Plains, where the language was recorded in historic times.[3]

(Basketmaker II is from roughly 50-500 AD.)

The full history is likely to be complicated. Corn was domesticated in southern Mexico around 9,000 years ago and soon spread to both South America and the Mississippian cultures of the eastern US. The ancestors of the early Pueblo peoples adopted it, but the Aztecs were still hunter-gatherers when they conquered the Valley of Mexico around 1250 AD. Perhaps the same pressures that sent the Aztecs into the Valley of Mexico also drove the Kiowa north–or perhaps the events were entirely unrelated, separated by hundreds of years. History is frustratingly silent.

At any rate:

The introduction of the horse to Kiowa society revolutionized their [hunter-gatherer] way of life. They acquired horses by raiding rancheros south of the Rio Grande into Mexico, as well as by raiding other Indian peoples who already had horses, such as the Navajo and the various Pueblo people. With the horse, they could transport larger loads, hunt more game over a wider range and more easily, and travel longer and farther. The Kiowa became powerful and skilled mounted warriors who conducted long-distance raids against enemies. The Kiowa were considered among the finest horsemen on the Plains. A man’s wealth was measured primarily by the size of his horse herd, with particularly wealthy individuals having herds numbering in the hundreds. … The Kiowa considered it an honor to steal horses from enemies, and such raids often served as a rite of passage for young warriors. …

In the early spring of 1790 at the place that would become Las Vegas, New Mexico, a Kiowa party led by war leader Guikate, made an offer of peace to a Comanche party while both were visiting the home of a mutual friend of both tribes. … The two groups made an alliance to share the same hunting grounds and entered into a mutual defense pact and became the dominant inhabitants of the Southern Plains. …  In addition to the Comanche, the Kiowa formed a very close alliance with the Plains Apache (Kiowa-Apache), with the two nations sharing much of the same culture and participating in each other’s annual council meetings and events.

Note: the Plains Apache do not speak a language related to Kiowa or Comanche–their language is from the Athabaskan family, which is spoken primarily in Canada and by the Navajo. The Plains Apache were apparently never very numerous–only about 400 people at the time.

The strong alliance of southern plains nations kept the invading Spanish from gaining a strong colonial hold on the southern plains and eventually forced them completely out of the area, pushing them eastward and south past the Rio Grande into present day Mexico. …

The Kiowa were notable even among plains Indians for their long-distance raids, including raids far south into Mexico and north onto the northern plains. Almost all warfare took place while mounted on horses.

These “raids” involved not just stealing horses, but also raping, torturing, and murdering people. The fact that the area was full of extremely hostile Indians who liked to torture people for fun was why the Mexican government thought it was a good idea to let a bunch of Americans come settle in their Texas territory and deal with the Indians for them.

The Kiowa kept plenty busy:

Enemies of the Kiowa include the CheyenneArapahoNavajoUte, and occasionally Lakota to the north and west of Kiowa territory. East of Kiowa territory they fought with the PawneeOsageKickapooKawCaddoWichita, and Sac and Fox. To the south they fought with the Lipan ApacheMescalero Apache, and Tonkawa. The Kiowa also came into conflict with Indian nations from the American south and east displaced to Indian Territory during the Indian Removal period including the CherokeeChoctawMuskogee, and Chickasaw. Eastern tribes found that Indian Territory, the place they were sent, was already occupied by plains Indians, most notably the Kiowa and Comanche. 

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Cheyenne Woman, 1930, from the Edward S. Curtis collection

The Cheyenne speak a tongue from yet another language family, the Algonquian (which is part of the broader Algic family), found across most of eastern Canada and the north eastern American coast along the Atlantic. The famous Squanto of the Wampanoag spoke an Algonquin language.

The history of the Cheyenne is thankfully better documented:

The earliest known written historical record of the Cheyenne comes from the mid-17th century, when a group of Cheyenne visited the French Fort Crevecoeur, near present-day Peoria, Illinois. The Cheyenne at this time lived between the Mississippi River and Mille Lacs Lake in present-day Minnesota. The Cheyenne economy was based on the collection of wild rice and hunting, especially of bison, which lived in the prairies 70–80 miles west of the Cheyenne villages.[11]

According to tribal history, during the 17th century, the Cheyenne had been driven by the Assiniboine … from the Great Lakes region to present-day Minnesota and North Dakota, where they established villages. The most prominent of the ancient Cheyenne villages is Biesterfeldt Village, in eastern North Dakota along the Sheyenne River. The tribal history also relates that they first reached the Missouri River in 1676.[12] A more recent analysis of early records posits that at least some of the Cheyenne remained in the Mille Lac region of Minnesota until about 1765, when the Ojibwe defeated the Dakota with firearms — pushing the Cheyenne, in turn, to the Minnesota River, where they were reported in 1766.[13]  …

By 1776, the Lakota had overwhelmed the Cheyenne and taken over much of their territory near the Black Hills. In 1804, Lewis and Clark visited a surviving Cheyenne village in North Dakota.

According to what I believe is oral history recorded in Wikipedia, a Cheyenne prophet named Tomȯsévėséhe (“Erect Horns”) received a vision which convinced the tribe to abandon their agricultural was and become plains nomads.

The Cheyenne occupied the plains north of the Comanche and Kiowa, though they sometimes came south. Their lifestyle was similar to the others’ and they fought with/raided from pretty much everyone around, though they eventually allied with their neighbors against the US.

Okay, guys, I’ve been working on this for hours and I haven’t even gotten to the actual legal systems yet, so we’re going to have to call it quits until I get some more time. (To be fair, the authors covered three different groups in this chapter, which makes for triple the background work.) For now, a quick summary:

The Comanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne (and Plains Apache) hail from four different language families. It is rare in the modern world to find so many different language families in such close proximity to each other.

Native American history is complex, with many population movements that are not well understood or documented.

The Comanche are descended from primarily hunter-gatherers, the Kiowa were related to agricultural peoples and might have done agriculture at some point in their past, and the Cheyenne were directly descended from agriculturalists who purposefully decided to adopt a nomadic lifestyle.

These differences in their origins might account for some of the differences in governance of their societies, despite the similarities they developed due to leading similar lifestyles dependent on hunting buffalo and stealing horses.

See you next week.

A few meandering thoughts on Native Americans, Domestication, and Potatoes

While researching last week’s post on “stupid things people do,” I came across a post on weird flute customs found in both Melanesia and a few little tribes in the Amazon rainforest: Gender Ideology Reflected in Flute Symbology of Various New Guinea and South American Cultures:

Specifically, throughout New Guinea and three Central Brazilian cultures, (Mundurucus, Kalapalo, and Kamayura), the flute is endowed with very similar powers and meaning. Each region considers their flutes sacred. They are stored in the men’s homes and females are forbidden to see or play them. In the event that women disobey this order, they can be subject to gang rape or other punishment. Spiritual associations with this instrument are present in all but the culture of the Kalapalo Indians. Ancestral communication is often achieved through the music of flutes as well. However, most importantly, a gender power struggle is represented by the flute, the rituals, and the ceremonies in which the instrument is used.

Of course, sometimes people make claims about parallels that do not exist, and we should be careful about believing claims about other cultures without reading the relevant source material, but assuming it’s true, it’s interesting.

There is a small trace of Melanesian DNA that shows up in the genomes of certain hunter-gatherers in the Amazon; perhaps there is a real cultural link–or perhaps it’s just random.

IMO, the peopling of the Americas will ultimately turn out to have been more complicated than we currently think of it, but unfortunately, we don’t have many DNA samples from Native Americans (because they think geneticists are out to get them). Until that changes, our coverage of Native American genomes is scanty and drawn largely from ancient burials (most of which are controlled by local tribes that don’t allow DNA testing) and from non-American Indians from places like Canada or Mexico.

Even this view, in the Tweet, is probably wrong–if people entered via the Bering Strait, why is the oldest archaeological site at the extreme other end of both continents? Did people run straight to Tierra del Fuego, then turn around and head back up to Montana?

At any rate, I’m not sure how this is “deep roots.” This is their only roots, since they’re from here. Of course, while Native Americans who’ve been here for 12,000 years have “deep” roots, Science would like you to know that “There’s no such thing as a pure European“:

In fact, the German people have no unique genetic heritage to protect. They—and all other Europeans—are already a mishmash, the children of repeated ancient migrations, according to scientists who study ancient human origins. New studies show that almost all indigenous Europeans descend from at least three major migrations in the past 15,000 years, including two from the Middle East. Those migrants swept across Europe, mingled with previous immigrants, and then remixed to create the peoples of today.

Imagine telling the Cheyenne that they aren’t a distinct people with a heritage to protect just because their ancestors got conquered by another Native American tribe 15,000 years ago. Just imagine the sheer, idiotic audacity of it.

But pomo griping about newspaper headlines aside, it seems to me that the level of technological civilization in the Americas was actually pretty high prior to Columbus’s arrival. For example, the civilizations of Mesoamerica, like the Olmecs, were literate and had developed writing and counting systems over two thousand years ago. The cities of the Inca, Maya, and Aztecs, were of course large and impressive. The Natives of America, now oddly more obscure, also had impressive settlements and built large structures like Serpent Mound, Ohio. We tend not to think of them as particularly settled and civilized because by the time white settlers encountered them, their towns had already been destroyed by disease and predation by other tribes who’d gotten horses from the Spaniards.

(The stereotypical horse-riding, tipi-dwelling Indian following herds of buffalo across the Great Plains only emerged after Columbus’s arrival, because horses came from Europe.)

Since the Americas were actually settled pretty late in the scheme of human evolution, I suspect that most Indian groups were actually pretty smart (relatively speaking,) but their technological progress was retarded by a lack of good draft animals. Not because, as some have suggested, domesticable animals simply didn’t exist in the Americas–they do–but because they didn’t have them. Domestication takes time; sneaking up on animals you want to eat is tricky. Cochran has suggested that parasites might have been involved in getting aurochs to be more docile around humans, allowing us to domesticate them and turn them into cattle; the Native Americans hadn’t had the time yet to develop similar parasitic relationships with the local bison. Given another 10 or 40,000 years, though, they might have had time enough to domesticate more of the local fauna.

If the Indians could have adopted old world beasts of burden without losing 90% of their population to epidemic and plague and then getting conquered, there could have been some interesting results a few thousand years down the line.

There’s a similar case in Russia, but more successful.

One of the mysteries (to me, at least, and maybe it’s just ignorance) of European history is why Russia enters so late onto the international. The whole country was apparently founded by the Vikings, the Kievan Rus, which is just one of the weirder bits of historical trivia, and then doesn’t do much of interest until Napoleon invades; then they become important in European politics.

Russians aren’t stupid; Russia has produced plenty of works of art, literature, architecture, etc.

Of course, part of the answer lies in the fact that Russia has an enormous frontier to its east that occasionally spawned barbarian tribes, and so before Russia could do anything on the west, needed to secure the east–and frankly, conquering a bunch of nomadic tribes in Siberia was probably easier than trying to conquer Germany, so Siberia it was. Once Russia had Siberia, then it moved on to conquering Europe.

But my other thought was more mundane: potatoes.

Wheat evolved in the Fertile Crescent–Iraq. It does well in warm climates. It does not do well in cold climates.

Russia is cold.

But potatoes grow really well in central and eastern Europe.

awumsv6
map of potato production

Sure, they aren’t always immune to the local fungi, but when they aren’t blighted, they do really well.

The introduction of a crop that grew well provided the population with more calories more easily, allowing more people to dedicate themselves to non-farming jobs, allowing eastern European countries to become more internationally significant.

Sometimes, a low state of development is just that–the locals just aren’t very good at things like building cities or writing books–and sometimes its due to a lack of local resources, easily changed by the introduction of something new, like horses or potatoes.

Why do people claim that whites “have no culture”?

A lot of culture–aside from that time your parents dragged you to the ballet–is what we would, in honest moments, classify as “stupid things people used to do/believe.”

Now, yes, I know, it’s a bit outre for an anthropologist to declare that large swathes of culture are “stupid,” but I could easily assemble a list of hundreds of stupid things, eg:

The Aztecs practiced human sacrifice because they believed that if they didn’t, the world would come to an end.

In Britain, people used to believe that you could literally eat the sins of a recently deceased person, speeding their entry into Heaven. There were professional sin eaters, the last of whom, Richard Munslow, died in 1906.

Americans started eating breakfast cereal as part of an anti-masturbation campaign, and in Africa, many girls have their clitorises cut off and vaginas sewn nearly shut in a much more vigorous anti-masturbation campaign.

The Etoro of Papua New Guinea believed that young boys between the ages of 7 and 17 must “ingest” the semen of older men daily in order to mature into men.

In Mozambique, there are people who kill bald men to get the gold they supposedly have inside their heads; in the DRC, there’s a belief that eating Pygmy people will give you magic powers.

People in Salem, Massachusetts, believed that teenage girls were a good source of information on which older women in the community were witches and needed to be hanged.

Flutes assume all sorts of strange roles in various Papuan and a few Brazilian cultures–only men are allowed to see, play, or listen to the flutes, and any women who violate the flute taboo are gang raped or executed. Additionally, “…the Keraki perform flute music when a boy has been sodomized and they fear he is pregnant. This summons spirits who will protect him from such humiliation.”

Spirit possession–the belief that a god or deity can take control of and speak/dance/act through a worshiper–is found in many traditions, including West African and Haitian Voodoo. If you read Things Fall Apart, then you remember the egwugwu, villagers dressed in masks who were believed to become the spirits of gods and ancestors. Things “fall apart” after a Christian convert “kills” one of the gods by unmasking him, leading other villagers to retaliate against the local Christian mission by burning it down.

In India, people traditionally murdered their moms by pushing them into their father’s funeral pyres (and those were the guys who didn’t go around randomly strangling people because a goddess told them to).

People in ancient [pretty much everywhere] believed that the gods and the deceased could receive offerings (burnt or otherwise,) of meat, chairs, clothes, games, slaves, etc. The sheer quantity of grave goods buried with the deceased sometimes overwhelmed the local economy, like in ancient Egypt.

Then there’s sympathetic magic, by which things with similar properties (say, yellow sap and yellow fever, or walnuts that look like brains and actual brains) are believed to have an effect on each other.

Madagascar has a problem with bubonic plague because of a local custom of digging up dead bodies and dancing around with them.

People all over the world–including our own culture–turn down perfectly good food because it violates some food taboo they hold.

All of these customs are either stupid or terrible ideas. Of course the dead do not really come back, Zeus does not receive your burnt offering, you can’t cure yellow fever by painting someone yellow and washing off the paint or by lying in a room full of snakes, and the evil eye isn’t real, despite the fact that progressives are convinced it is. A rabbit’s foot won’t make you lucky and neither will a 4-leaf clover, and your horoscope is meaningless twaddle.

Obviously NOT ALL culture is stupid. Most of the stuff people do is sensible, because if it weren’t, they’d die out. Good ideas have a habit of spreading, though, making them less unique to any particular culture.

Many of the bad ideas people formerly held have been discarded over the years as science and literacy have given people the ability to figure out whether a claim is true or not. Superstitions about using pendulums to tell if a baby is going to be a boy or a girl have been replaced with ultrasounds, which are far more reliable. Bleeding sick patients has been replaced with antibiotics and vaccinations; sacrifices to the gods to ensure good weather have been replaced with irrigation systems.

In effect, science and technology have replaced much of the stuff that used to count as “culture.” This is why I say “science is my culture.” This works for me, because I’m a nerd, but most people aren’t all that emotionally enthralled by science. They feel a void where all of the fun parts of culture have been replaced.

Yes, the fun parts.

I like that I’m no longer dependent on the whims of the rain gods to water my crops and prevent starvation, but this also means I don’t get together with all of my family and friends for the annual rain dance. It means no more sewing costumes and practicing steps; no more cooking a big meal for everyone to enjoy. Culture involves all of the stuff we invest with symbolic meaning about the course of our lives, from birth to coming of age to marriage, birth of our own children, to old age and death. It carries meaning for families, love, and friendship. And it gives us a framework for enjoyable activities, from a day of rest from our labors to the annual “give children candy” festival.

So when people say, “Whites have no culture,” they mean four things:

  1. A fish does not notice the water it swims in–whites have a culture, but don’t notice it because they are so accustomed to it
  2. Most of the stupid/wrong things whites used to do that we call “culture” have been replaced by science/technology
  3. That science/technology has spread to other cultures because it is useful, rendering white culture no longer unique
  4. Technology/science/literacy have rendered many of the fun or emotionally satisfying parts of ritual and culture obsolete.

Too often people denigrate the scientific way of doing things on the grounds that it isn’t “cultural.” This comes up when people say things like “Indigenous ways of knowing are equally valid as Western ways of knowing.” This is a fancy way of saying that “beliefs that are ineffective at predicting the weather, growing crops, curing diseases, etc, are just as correct as beliefs that are effective at doing these things,” or [not 1]=[1].

We shouldn’t denigrate doing things in ways that actually work; science must be respected as valid. We should, however, find new ways to give people an excuse to do the fun things that used to be tied up in cultural rituals.

 

Apidima Sapiens?

Two fossil skulls from Apidima, Greece, tell an intriguing story. The first, more than 210,000 years old, appears to be an early Homo sapiens. The second, a younger 170,000 years old, looks like a Neanderthal.

If so, then Homo sapiens moved to Greece, were replaced by Neanderthals, then thousands of years later moved back and replaced the Neanderthals (“replaced” is generally a polite word for “killed.”)

This is consistent with a fair amount of other evidence that Homo sapiens had (at least) two out-of-Africa events, of which the one that killed the Neanderthals was only the most recent. It could also represent the population wave that interbred with Neanderthals, contributing Sapiens DNA to the Neanderthal genome, well before the more famous interbreeding event when Neanderthal DNA entered our modern Homo sapiens genome.

On the other hand, there’s not a whole lot to these fossils. One is just the back of a skull. The back of a skull is more informative than it sounds on first glance because neanderthals have a bump (referred to as a “bun”) on the backs of their skulls that we don’t, but still, we’re not talking about complete skulls. So it could turn out that this was just a funny looking Neanderthal, or a piece that got pressed weirdly by a rock (the first Neanderthal skeleton people found had arthritis, which threw all of the illustrations off for decades, so these things can happen).

But throwing caution to the wind, let’s assume the skulls are correct, and so is the rough timeline I sketched out: Neanderthals inhabit Europe, Sapiens leave Africa, Sapiens push into the Middle East and Greece, Sapiens fail, Neanderthals retake the region, years pass, Sapiens try again and this time succeed, wiping out the Neanderthals.

What changed? What made the first attempt a failure and the second successful?

Aside from Sapiens generally getting smarter, I suggest a humble invention: the sewing needle.

We know from studies of lice (ew, I know) that humans began wearing clothes around 80-170,000 years ago. How do we know? Because the lice that live on our heads and the lice that infect our clothes are different species, and genetics claims that’s when they split.

The earliest known “looks like a needle” comes from Sibudu Cave, South Africa, and dates from about 61,000 years ago, but needles are small and easily broken, so I suspect that plenty were used that we haven’t found.

Neanderthals did not wear clothes–quoting Wikipedia, quoting archaeologist John F. Hoffecker:[102]

Neanderthal sites show no evidence of tools for making tailored clothing. There are only hide scrapers, which might have been used to make blankets or ponchos. This is in contrast to Upper Paleolithic (modern human) sites, which have an abundance of eyed bone needles and bone awls. Moreover, microwear analysis of Neanderthal hide scrapers shows that they were used only for the initial phases of hide preparation, and not for the more advanced phases of clothing production.

— John F. Hoffecker, The Spread of Modern Humans in Europe

Bodyhair_map_according_to_American_Journal_of_Physical_Anthropology_and_other_sourcesIf the Neanderthals did not have clothes, then they had to adapt to the European climate in other ways–probably fur.

(Incidentally, according to the only data I have on the matter, Mediterranean and Nordic peoples are oddly hairy, while Siberian people are weirdly not-hairy. If anyone has any idea why this is I’d love to hear it.)

If the first wave of Sapiens to leave Africa also did not have clothes (or had only very rudimentary clothes) and they lacked the Neanderthals’ fur, then they would have had a very difficult time surviving in the harsh European winters.

Like the Roanoke colony, the survivors may have happily gone over to the Neanderthal side.

By the time the second wave of Sapiens showed up, however, they had invented clothes–and had other elements of a more advanced cultural/technological toolkit that let them conquer the elements–and the ‘Thals.

Sunken Lands and lost Paradises: Beringia

caribou_feed_on_lichens_and_moss-_the_bird_is_an_alaskan_raven_-_nara_-_550384Beringia is the now-lost land between Alaska and Russia that was, during the last ice age, a vast grassland. It is believed that humans lived here for thousands of years, hunting mammoths, woolly rhinos, bison, and equines. The probably fished as well, just like modern humans in the area.

It was a land of frigid abundance, of herds of giant beasts that probably put the buffalo to shame.

Here is a nice podcast by Razib and Spencer on the lost paradises of Beringia, Sundaland, and Doggerland.

800px-jefferys_-_the_russian_discoveries
Old map of a mysterious, non-existent blob-land

Humans lived in Beringia for thousands of years before they made it into the rest of North America, because the rest of the continent was blocked off, then, by a giant impenetrable ice sheet. This period is therefore referred to as the “Beringia pause” because humans “paused” here during their migration from Siberia to the Americas, but this name obscures the lives and purposes of the people who lived here. They weren’t consciously trying to get to North America and pausing for thousands of years because their way was blocked; they were happily living their lives in a land of abundant resources. We could equally say that Europeans “paused” in Europe for thousands of years before some of them migrated to the Americas, or that anyone on Earth has “paused” in the place they are now.

eskimodna
DNA of the Eskimo/Inuit and related peoples, from Haak et al

According to an article published recently in Nature, The Population History of Siberia since the Pleistocine, by Martin Sikora et 53 other people, these folks in Beringia have their own interesting and complex population history, full of migration and back-migration, conquering, splitting, and joining:

Northeastern Siberia has been inhabited by humans for more than 40,000 years but its deep population history remains poorly understood. Here we investigate the late Pleistocene population history of northeastern Siberia through analyses of 34 newly recovered ancient genomes that date to between 31,000 and 600 years ago. We document complex population dynamics during this period, including at least three major migration events: an initial peopling by a previously unknown Palaeolithic population of ‘Ancient North Siberians’ who are distantly related to early West Eurasian hunter-gatherers; the arrival of East Asian-related peoples, which gave rise to ‘Ancient Palaeo-Siberians’ who are closely related to contemporary communities from far-northeastern Siberia (such as the Koryaks), as well as Native Americans; and a Holocene migration of other East Asian-related peoples, who we name ‘Neo-Siberians’, and from whom many contemporary Siberians are descended. Each of these population expansions largely replaced the earlier inhabitants, and ultimately generated the mosaic genetic make-up of contemporary peoples who inhabit a vast area across northern Eurasia and the Americas.

There is a lot of interesting material in this paper (and some nice maps and graphs), but I’m too tired to summarize it all and not lose accuracy, so I encourage you to read it yourself; perhaps the most interesting part involves migration from Alaska to Siberia, across the now-Bering Strait, of people like the Ekven (are these the same as the awkwardly named Evens?)

The polar world is a fascinating circle.

“Argumentum ab Papuan”

I propose the naming of a fallacy: argumentum ab Papuan.

Argumentum ab Papuan happens when someone tries to construct an argument about human nature based off a handful (or fewer) ethnographic accounts of tiny, obscure tribes (or chimps).

These arguments are questionable because:

  1. Ethnographers sometimes get things wrong. Sometimes they lie; sometimes people lie to them; sometimes mistakes are made.

For example, ethnographers have been fond of calling the Bushmen of the Kalahari the “harmless people” while castigating westerners for their high rates of violence, but if you actually count up the dead bodies, the Bushmen have much higher murder rates than Westerners.

Margaret Mead famously wrote a book titled “Coming of Age in Samoa” about the free-love sex lives of Samoan teens that turned out to be, apparently, a bunch of lies told to her by giggling 14 year olds.

I recently saw someone misinterpret something in the ethnographic literature as implying that the men in a particular tribe carried on life-long, mutually enjoyable homosexual relationships with each other, when actually they occasionally kidnapped boys from neighboring tribes and raped them.

2. Sometimes people do stupid things. Overall, on the grand scale of the arc of humanity, most of the stupid ideas get weeded out and good ideas stick around. Usually. But on the short term, people make plenty of mistakes.

We can look at our own society and identify plenty of stupid things people do that we would never take as indicative of society as a whole, much less humanity as a whole. Small, isolated tribes are not immune to bad ideas, either. When we’re talking about a group whose entire membership is smaller than your average furry convention, (eg, Midwest FurFest drew nearly 11,000 people last year, while the Hadza number only 1,300,) we should be cautious about over-extrapolating from a few reported behaviors or activities. We might just be looking at the opinions of a handful of people whom the rest of the tribe disagrees with, or a practice that is soon abandoned because people decided it was a bad idea. The Papuans with the pedophile rape gangs, for example, actually abandoned the practice because they decided it was really kind of mean.

3. Different strokes for different folks: what works great in one place or culture may not be useful at all in another.

The Inuit/Eskimo build houses out of snow; this does not mean you should build houses out of snow. Bonobos do their bonobo thing; you are not a bonobo and bonobo social hierarchies are not your social hierarchies. The meaning of an act may change over time, too. Headcoverings were more common back when people washed their hair less often and lice were a problem; with the adoption of modern hygiene, headcoverings have taken on symbolic meanings related to modesty and religion. Social norms that were useful for people who had no technological means of long-distance communication may not be useful for people who have telephones, and vice versa.

And I don’t know about you, but there are many cultures in this world that I am not willing to live in and do not have any desire to imitate. No running water? No penicillin? No epidurals? No refrigeration? No general norm against raping women and children? Forgive me if I am not eager to imitate this culture.

This is not to say that we cannot learn anything from each other. I absolutely believe there is a lot we can learn by studying other groups of people, whether small or large, stone age or space age. But we should be careful about making overly broad arguments from too little data or missing the big picture because we were overly focused on small exceptions. There will always be some weird group of people that does some weird thing; without some broader context, this doesn’t necessarily say anything about the rest of us.

Pygmy-pocalypse?

I just want to highlight this graph I came across yesterday while trying to research archaic introgression in the Igbo:

Populationsize
source

From Whole-genome sequence analysis of a Pan African set of samples reveals archaic gene flow from an extinct basal population of modern humans into sub-Saharan populations, by Lorente-Galdos et al.

There are three versions of this graph in the paper (check the supplemental materials for two of them), all showing about the same thing. It is supposed to be a graph of population size at different times in the past, and the most incredible thing is that for the past 100,000 years or so, the most numerically dominant populations in Africa were the Baka Pygmies, followed by various Bushmen (San) groups. The authors write:

To unravel the ancient demographic history of the African populations that are present in our data set, we used the Pairwise Sequentially Markovian Coalescent (PSMC) model that analyzes the dynamics of the effective population size over time [60]. We included at least one representative of each of the 15 African populations and two Eurasian samples in the analysis (Additional file 1: Figure S7.1) and considered both the classical mutation rate of 2.5 × 10−8 [61] and the 1.2 × 10−8 mutations per bp per generation reported in other analyses [6263]. The demographic trajectories of the sub-Saharan agriculturalist populations are very similar to each other; and only South African Bantu and Toubou individuals differ partly from the rest of sub-Saharan farmer samples; however, their considerable levels of admixture with other North African or hunter-gatherer populations (Fig. 2b) might explain this trend. Therefore, in order to ease visualization, we plotted a Yoruba individual (Yoruba_HGDP00936) and two Ju|‘hoansi individuals as representatives of the sub-Saharan agriculturalist and Khoisan populations, respectively (Fig. 3 and Additional file 1: Figure S7.2 considering a mutation rate of 1.2 × 10−8).

The authors note that the apparent large size of the pygmy groups could have been due to groups splitting and merging and thus getting more DNA variety than they would normally. It’s all very speculative. But still, the Baka Pygmies could have been the absolutely dominant group over central Africa for centuries.

What happened?

 

Book Club: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, pt 3/3

 

Chinua_Achebe_-_Buffalo_25Sep2008_crop
Chinua Achebe, Author and Nobel Prize winner

Welcome back to our discussion of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Today I wanted to take a closer look at some of the aspects of traditional Igbo society mentioned in the book.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know by now that just as early modern humans (Homo sapiens) mated with Neanderthals and Denisovans somewhere over in Eurasia, some sapiens mated with archaic humans in Africa.

Unfortunately, the state of knowledge about African genomes and especially archaic African genomes is very primitive. Not only does ancient DNA not preserve terribly well in many parts of Africa, but the continent is also rather poor and so people there don’t send their spit to 23 and Me very often to get DNA tested. Thus, sadly, I do not have archaic DNA percents for the Igbo.

WAfricaAdmixture
“Approximate Bayesian computation estimates for the introgressing population across four African populations (Yoruba from Ibadan (YRI), Esan in Nigeria [ESN], Gambian in Western Divisions in the Gambia [GWD], and Mende in Sierra Leone [MSL]),” from Recovering Signals of Ghost Archaic Introgression in African Populations
However, we do have data for their neighbors, the Yoruba, Esan, Mende, and Gambians.

Keep in mind that so far, Eurasians measure about 1-4% Neanderthal and Melanesians about 6% Denisovan, so 10% Ghost in west Africans is a pretty big deal (if you’re into archaic DNA.) The authors of the study estimate that the admixture occurred about 50,000 years ago, which is coincidentally about the same time as the admixture in non-Africans–suggesting that whatever triggered the Out of Africa migration may have also simultaneously triggered an Into Africa migration. 

If you’re not familiar with some of these groups (I only know a little about the Yoruba,) the Esan, Mende, Gambians, and Yoruba are all speakers of languages from the Niger-Congo family (of which the Bantu languages are a sub-set.) The Niger-Congo family is one of the world’s largest, with 1,540 languages and 700 million speakers. It spread within the past 3,000 years from a homeland somewhere in west Africa (possibly Nigeria) to dominate sub-Saharan Africa. As far as I can tell, the Igbo are quite similar genetically to the Yoruba, and the admixture event happened tens of thousands of years before these groups spread and split, so there’s a good chance that the Igbo have similarly high levels of ghost-pop admixture.

Interestingly, a population related to the Bushmen and Pygmies used to dominate central and southern Africa, before the Bantu expansion. While the Bantu expansion and the admixture event are separated by a good 40 or 50 thousand years, this still suggests the possibility of human hybrid vigor.

Edit: A new paper just came out! Whole-genome sequence analysis of a Pan African set of samples reveals archaic gene flow from an extinct basal population of modern humans into sub-Saharan populations:

Here, we examine 15 African populations covering all major continental linguistic groups, ecosystems, and lifestyles within Africa through analysis of whole-genome sequence data of 21 individuals sequenced at deep coverage. We observe a remarkable correlation among genetic diversity and geographic distance, with the hunter-gatherer groups being more genetically differentiated and having larger effective population sizes throughout most modern-human history. Admixture signals are found between neighbor populations from both hunter-gatherer and agriculturalists groups, whereas North African individuals are closely related to Eurasian populations. Regarding archaic gene flow, we test six complex demographic models that consider recent admixture as well as archaic introgression. We identify the fingerprint of an archaic introgression event in the sub-Saharan populations included in the models (~ 4.0% in Khoisan, ~ 4.3% in Mbuti Pygmies, and ~ 5.8% in Mandenka) from an early divergent and currently extinct ghost modern human lineage.

So the ghost population that shows up in the Pygmies the same ghost population as shows up in the Mende? Looks like it.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff in this paper, but I’d just like to highlight this one graph:

Populationsize

I don’t really understand how they compute these things, much less if this is accurate (though their present estimate for the size of the Han looks pretty good,) but assuming it is, we can say a few things: One, before 100,000 years ago, all of the groups–except the Laal of Chad–tracked closely together in size because they were one group. Most of the groups then got smaller simply because they split up. But there seems to have been some kind of really big population bottleneck a bit over a million years ago.

The other really interesting thing is the absolute Pygmy dominance of the mid-10,000-100,000 year range. The authors note:

It is noteworthy that we observed by PSMC a sudden Ne increase in Baka Pygmy around 30 kya. A similar increase was observed in another study that analyzed several Baka and Biaka samples [25]. In addition, this individual presents the highest average genome-wide heterozygosity compared to the rest of samples (Fig. 1b). Nevertheless, such abrupt Ne increase can be attributed to either a population expansion or episodes of separation and admixture [60]. Further analyses at population level are needed to distinguish between these two scenarios.

Until we get more information on the possible Pygmy-cide, let’s get back to Things Fall Apart, for the Igbo of 1890 aren’t their ancestors of 50,000 BC nor the conquerors of central Africa. Here’s an interesting page with information about some of the rituals Achebe wrote about, like the Feast of the New Yams and the Egwugwu ceremony:

 The egwugwu ceremony takes place in order to dispute the guilty side of a crime taken place, similar to our court trials… Nine egwugwu represented a village of the clan, their leader known as Evil Forest; exit the huts with their masks on.

Short page; fast read.

The egwugwu ceremony I found particularly interesting. Of course everyone knows the guys in masks are just guys in masks (well, I assume everyone knows that. It seems obvious,) yet in taking on the masks, they adopt a kind of veil of anonymity. In real life, they are people, with all of the biases of ordinary people; under the mask, they take on the identity of a spirit, free from the biases of ordinary people. It is similar to the official garb worn by judges in other countries, which often look quite silly (wigs on English barristers, for example,) but effectively demarcate a line between normal life and official pronouncements. By putting on the costume of the office, the judge becomes more than an individual.

I have long been fascinated by masks, masquerades, and the power of anonymity. Many famous writers, from Benjamin Franklin to Samuel Clemens, published under pseudonyms. The mask implies falseness–on Halloween, we dress up as things that we are not–but it also allows honesty by freeing us from the threat of retribution.

It is interesting that a small, tightly-knit society where everyone knows everyone and social relations are of paramount importance, like the Igbo, developed a norm of anonymizing judges in order to remove judicial decisions from normal social relations and obligations (as much as possible, anyway). Since most Igbo villages did not have kings or other aristocrats to dictate laws, rule was conducted by notable community members who had effectively purchased or earned noble titles. These nobles got to wear the masks and costumes of the egwgwu.

Ok, so it’s getting late and I need to wrap this up. This moment comes in every post.

I know I haven’t said much about the book itself. The plot, narrative, pacing, structure, writing style, etc. To be honest, that’s because I didn’t enjoy it very much. It was interesting for its content, along with a sense of “I’ve been trying to tell people this and I could have saved myself a lot of time by just pointing them to the book. And if this is a book taught in schools (we didn’t read it in my highschool, but I have heard that many people did,) then why aren’t people more aware of the contents?

What was tribal life like before the Europeans got there? Well, women got beaten a lot. Children were murdered to avenge tribal conflicts. Infant mortality was high. In other words, many things were pretty unpleasant.

And yet, interestingly, much of what we think was unpleasant about them was, in its own way, keeping the peace. As Will (Evolving Moloch) quotes from The Social Structure of Right and Wrong on Twitter:

“Much of the conduct described by anthropologists as conflict management, social control, or even law in tribal and other traditional societies is regarded as crime in modern [nation state] societies.” This is especially clear in the case of violent modes of redress such as assassination, feuding, fighting, maiming, and beating, but it also applies to the confiscation and destruction of property and to other forms of deprivation and humiliation. Such actions typically express a grievance by one person or group against another.

See, for example, when the village burned down Okonkwo’s house for accidentally killing a villager, when they burned down the church for “killing” a deity, or when they took a little girl and killed a little boy in revenge for someone in another village killing one of their women. To the villagers, these were all legal punishments, and the logic of burning down a person’s house if they have killed someone is rather similar to the logic of charging someone a fine for committing manslaughter. Even though Okonkwo didn’t mean to kill anyone, he should have been more careful with his gun, which he knew was dangerous and could kill someone.

Unlike penalties imposed by the state, however, private executions of this kind often result in revenge or even a feud—Moreover, the person killed in retaliation may not be himself or herself a killer, for in these societies violent conflicts between nonkin are virtually always handled in a framework of collective responsibility–or more precisely, collective liability–whereby all members of a social category (such as a family or lineage) are held accountable for the conduct of their fellows.

And, of course, penalties so meted out can be incredibly violent, arbitrary, and selfish, but ignoring that, there’s clearly a conflict when traditional, tribal ways of dealing with problems clash with state-based ways of dealing with problems. Even if everyone eventually agrees that the state-based system is more effective (and I don’t expect everyone to agree) the transition is liable to be difficult for some people, especially if, as in the book, they are punished by the state for enforcing punishments prescribed by their own traditional laws. The state is effectively punishing them for punishing law-breakers, creating what must seem to them a state of anarcho-tyranny.

As for polygamy, Achebe seems to gloss over some of its downsides. From Christakis’s Blueprint: The Origins of a Good Society (h/t Rob Henderson), we have:

Co-wife conflict is ubiquitous in polygynous households… Because the Turkana often choose wives from different families in order to broaden their safety net, they typically do not practice sororal [sister-wives] polygyny… When co-wives are relatives, they can more easily share a household and cooperate… But while sororal polygyny is especially common in cultures in the Americas, general polygyny tends to be the usual pattern in Africa. An examination of ethnographic data from 69 nonsororal polygynous cultures fails to turn up a single society where co-wife relations could be described as harmonious. Detailed ethnographic studies highlight the stresses and fears present in polygynous families, including, for example, wives’ concern that other wives might try to poison their children so that their own children might inherit land or property.

Anyway, let’s wrap this up with a little article on human pacification:

There is a well-entrenched schism on the frequency (how often), intensity (deaths per 100,000/year), and evolutionary significance of warfare among hunter-gatherers compared with large-scale societies. To simplify, Rousseauians argue that warfare among prehistoric and contemporary hunter-gatherers was nearly absent and, if present, was a late cultural invention. In contrast, so-called Hobbesians argue that violence was relatively common but variable among hunter-gatherers. … Furthermore, Hobbesians with empirical data have already established that the frequency and intensity of hunter-gatherer warfare is greater compared with large-scale societies even though horticultural societies engage in warfare more intensively than hunter-gatherers. In the end I argue that although war is a primitive trait we may share with chimpanzees and/or our last common ancestor, the ability of hunter-gatherer bands to live peaceably with their neighbors, even though war may occur, is a derived trait that fundamentally distinguishes us socially and politically from chimpanzee societies. It is a point often lost in these debates.

I think we should read Legal Systems Very Different from Ours for our next book. Any other ideas?