Anthropology Friday: Appalachia, pt 3/4

Blue Ridge Mountains, Appalachia

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we are continuing with Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders, published in 1913, starting with homicide rates.

In my opinion, Homicide Rate data collected before 1930 or so is highly questionable, for reasons that will soon become clear:

“Mountaineers place a low valuation on human life. I need not go outside my own habitat for illustrations. In our judicial district, which comprises the westernmost seven counties of North Carolina, the present yearly toll of homicides varies, according to counties, from about one in 1,000 to one in 2,500 of the population. And ours is not a feud district, nor are there any negroes to speak of. Compare these figures with the rate of homicide in the United States at large, about one to 8,300 population; of Italy, one to 66,000; Great Britain, one to 111,000; Germany, one to 200,000.”

EvX: And yet there are very few convictions, as noted previously.

““The laws are insufficient for the Governor to apply a remedy.” One naturally asks, “How so?” The answer is that the Governor cannot send troops into a county except upon request of the civil authorities, and they must go as a posse to civil officers. In most feuds these officers are partisans (in fact, it is a favorite ruse for one clan to win or usurp the county offices before making war). Hence the State troops would only serve as a reinforcement to one of the contending factions. To show how this works out, we will sketch briefly the course of another feud.—

“In Rowan County, Kentucky, in 1884, there was an election quarrel between two members of the Martin and Toliver families. The Logans sided with the Martins and the Youngs with the Tolivers. The Logan-Martin faction elected their candidate for sheriff by a margin of twelve votes. Then there was an affray in which one Logan was killed and three were wounded.

“As usual, in feuds, no immediate redress was attempted, but the injured clan plotted its vengeance with deadly deliberation. After five months, Dick Martin killed Floyd Toliver. His own people worked the trick of arresting him themselves and sent him to Winchester for safe-keeping. The Tolivers succeeded in having him brought back on a forged order and killed him when he was bound and helpless.

“The leader of the Young-Toliver faction was a notorious bravo named Craig Toliver. To strengthen his power he became candidate for town marshal of Morehead, and he won the office by intimidation at the polls. Then, for two years, a bushwhacking war went on. Three times the Governor sent troops into Rowan County, but each time they found nothing but creeks and thickets to fight. Then he prevailed upon the clans to sign a truce and expatriate their chiefs for one year in distant States. Craig Toliver obeyed the order by going to Missouri, but returned several months before the expiration of his term, resumed office, and renewed his atrocities. In the warfare that ensued all the county officers were involved, from the judge down. …

“The posse here mentioned was organized by Daniel Boone Logan, a cousin of the two young men who had been murdered, a college graduate, and a lawyer of good standing. With the assent of the Governor, he gathered fifty to seventy-five picked men and armed them with the best modern rifles and revolvers. Some of the men were of his own clan; others he hired. His plan was to end the war by exterminating the Tolivers.

“The posse, led by Logan and the sheriff, suddenly surrounded the town of Morehead. Everybody gave in except Craig Toliver, Jay Toliver, Bud Toliver, and Hiram Cook, who barricaded themselves in the railroad station, where all of them were shot dead by the posse.

“Boone Logan was indicted for murder. At the trial he admitted the killings; but he showed that the feud had cost the lives of not less than twenty-three men, that not one person had been legally punished for these murders, and that he had acted for the good of the public in ending this infamous struggle. The court accepted this view of the case, the community sustained it, and the “war” was closed.”

EvX: older homicide stats are not trustworthy.

“It should be understood that national and state politics cut little or no figure in these “wars.” Local politics in most of the mountain counties is merely a factional fight, in which family matters and business interests are involved, and the contest becomes bitterly personal on that account. This explains most of the collusion or partisanship of county officers and their remissness in enforcing the law in murder cases. Family ties or political alliances override even the oath of office.”

On the Origins of “poor whites” and Appalachians:

“The unfortunate class known as poor whites in the South is descended mainly from the convicts and indentured servants with which England supplied labor to the southern plantations before slavery days. The Cavaliers who founded and dominated southern society came from the conservative, the feudal element of England. Their character and training were essentially aristocratic and military. They were not town-dwellers, but masters of plantations. Their chief crop and article of export was tobacco. The culture of tobacco required an abundance of cheap and servile labor.

“On the plantations there was little demand for skilled labor, small room anywhere for a middle class of manufacturers and merchants, no inducement for independent farmers who would till with their own hands. Outside of the planters and a small professional class there was little employment offered save what was menial and degrading. Consequently the South was shunned, from the beginning, by British[Pg 357] yeomanry and by the thrifty Teutons such as flocked into the northern provinces. The demand for menials on the plantations was met, then, by importing bond-servants from Great Britain. These were obtained in three ways.—

1. Convicted criminals were deported to serve out their terms on the plantations. Some of these had been charged only with political offenses, and had the making of good citizens; but the greater number were rogues of the shiftless and petty delinquent order, such as were too lazy to work but not desperate enough to have incurred capital sentences.

2. Boys and girls, chiefly from the slums of British seaports, were kidnapped and sold into temporary slavery on the plantations.

3. Impoverished people who wished to emigrate, but could not pay for their passage, voluntarily sold their services for a term of years in return for transportation. …

“Then came a vast social change. At a time when the laboring classes of Europe had achieved emancipation from serfdom, and feudalism was overthrown, African slavery in our own Southland laid the foundation for a new feudalism. Southern society reverted to a type that the rest of the civilized world had outgrown.

“The effect upon white labor was deplorable. The former bond-servants were now freedmen, it is true, but freedmen shorn of such opportunities as they were fitted to use. Sprung from a more or less degraded stock, still branded by caste, untrained to any career demanding skill and intelligence, devitalized by evil habits of life, densely ignorant of the world around them, these, the naturally shiftless, were now turned out into the backwoods to shift for themselves. It was inevitable that most of them should degenerate even below the level of their former estate, for they were no longer forced into steady industry.

“The white freedmen generally became squatters on such land as was unfit for tobacco, cotton, and other crops profitable to slave-owners. As the plantations expanded, these freedmen were pushed further and further back upon more and more sterile soil. They became “pine-landers” or “piney-woods-people,” “sand-hillers,” “knob-people,” “corn-crackers” or “crackers,” gaining a bare subsistence from corn planted and “tended” chiefly by the women and children, from hogs running wild in the forest, and from desultory hunting and fishing. As a class, such whites lapsed into sloth and apathy. Even the institution of slavery they regarded with cynical tolerance, doubtless realizing that if it were not for the blacks they would be slaves themselves.”

EvX: Note: the image of the lazy, apathetic Southern white was mostly caused by chronic anemia due to epidemic levels of hookworm infection. Hookworms came with the African slaves, who were at least somewhat adapted and thus resistant to their effects, and quickly infected the local whites (the poorest of whom had no shoes and worked barefoot in the fields, spreading, yes, human waste for fertilizer on the crops) who had much less evolved resistance to the worms…

“Now these poor whites had nothing to do with settling the mountains. …

“The first frontiersmen of the Appalachians were those Swiss and Palatine Germans who began flocking into Pennsylvania about 1682. They settled westward of the Quakers in the fertile limestone belts at the foot of the Blue Ridge and the Alleghanies. Here they formed the Quakers’ buffer against the Indians, and, for some time, theirs were the westernmost settlements of British subjects in America. These Germans were of the Reformed or Lutheran faith. They were strongly democratic in a social sense, and detested slavery. They were model farmers and many of them were skilled workmen at trades.

“Shortly after the tide of German immigration set into Pennsylvania, another and quite different class of foreigners began to arrive in this province, attracted hither by the same lodestones that drew the Germans, namely, democratic institutions and religious liberty. These newcomers were the Scotch-Irish, or Ulstermen of Ireland. …

“Being by tradition and habit a border people the Scotch-Irish pushed to the extreme western fringe of settlement amid the Alleghanies. They were not over-solicitous about the quality of soil. When Arthur Lee, of Virginia, was telling Doctor Samuel Johnson, in London, of a colony of Scotch who had settled upon a particularly sterile tract in western Virginia, and had expressed his wonder that they should do so, Johnson replied, “Why, sir, all barrenness is comparative: the Scotch will never know that it is barren.”

“West of the Susquehanna, however, the land was so rocky and poor that even the Scotch shied at it, and so, when eastern Pennsylvania became crowded, the overflow of settlers passed not westward but southwestward, along the Cumberland Valley, into western Maryland, and then into the Shenandoah and those other long, narrow, parallel valleys of western Virginia that we noted in our first chapter. This western region still lay unoccupied and scarcely known by the Virginians themselves. Its fertile lands were discovered by Pennsylvania Dutchmen. The first house in western Virginia was erected by one of them, Joist Hite, and he established a colony of his people near the future site of Winchester. A majority of those who settled in the eastern part of the Shenandoah Valley were Pennsylvania Dutch, while the Scotch-Irish, following in their train, pushed a little to the west of them and occupied more exposed positions. There were representatives of other races along the border: English, Irish, French Huguenots, and so on; but everywhere the Scotch-Irish and Germans predominated.”

Source

EvX: If you aren’t already familiar with the Appalachian chain, a god look at a topographic map reveals that the easiest area for introgression is around Pennsylvania, then southward through parallel mountain valleys, rather than westward over the tops of the mountains.

 

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Anthropology Friday: Appalachia, pt 2/4

Gutierrez map of 1562 showing Appalachia

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today were are continuing with Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders, published in 1913.

Physical appearance:

“Spartan diet does not put on flesh. Still, it should be noted that long legs, baggy clothing, and scantiness or lack of underwear make people seem thinner than they really are. Our highlanders are conspicuously a tall race. Out of seventy-six men that I have listed just as they occurred to me, but four are below average American height and only two are fat. About two-thirds of them are brawny or sinewy fellows of great endurance. The others generally are slab-sided, stoop-shouldered, but withey. The townsfolk and the valley farmers, being better nourished and more observant of the prime laws of wholesome living, are noticeably superior in appearance but not in stamina.”

EvX: I cannot help but think we have lost something of healthy stamina.

“There is a wealthy man known to everyone around Waynesville, who, being asked where he resided, as a witness in court, answered: “Three, four miles up and down Jonathan Creek.” The judge was about to fine him for contempt, when it developed that the witness spoke literal truth. He lives neither in house nor camp, but perambulates his large estate and when night comes lies down wherever he may happen to be. In winter he has been known to go where some of his pigs bedded in the woods, usurp the middle for himself, and borrow comfort from their bodily heat.”

EvX: I do not now about you, but I feel a kind of kinship with this man. Often I feel a restlessness, a sense that I am trapped by the walls of my house. It is not a dissatisfaction with the people in my house–toward them I feel no restlessness at all–but the house itself.

I am at peace again when I find myself in the woods, the trees towering over me; I am at peace in the snow, drifting through a blizzard. I am at peace in a fog, the world shut out by a faded haze. In the distance I see the mountains, and though I am walking to the playground or the shops they tug at me, and I am always tempted to turn my feet and just keep going until I arrive.

I do not want a large or fancy house; I just want to live in the woods among the plants and people I love.

But back to the man in the woods in the court:

“This man is worth over a hundred thousand dollars. He visited the world’s fairs at Chicago and St. Louis, wearing the old long coat that serves him also as blanket, and carrying his rations in a sack. Far from being demented, he is notoriously so shrewd on the stand and so learned in the law that he is formidable to every attorney who cross-questions him.”

Religion:

“The first settlers of Appalachia mainly were Presbyterians, as became Scotch-Irishmen, but they fell away from that faith, partly because the wilderness was too poor to support a regular ministry, and partly because it was too democratic for Calvinism with its supreme authority of the clergy. This much of seventeenth century Calvinism the mountaineer retains: a passion for hair-splitting argument over points of doctrine, and the cocksure intolerance of John Knox; but the ancestral creed itself has been forgotten.

“The circuit-rider, whether Methodist or Baptist, found here a field ripe for his harvest. Being himself self-supporting and unassuming, he won easily the confidence of the people. He preached a highly emotional religion that worked his audience into the ecstasy that all primitive people love. And he introduced a mighty agent of evangelization among outdoor folk when he started the camp-meeting.

“The season for camp-meetings is from mid-August to October. The festival may last a week in one place. It is a jubilee-week to the work-worn and home-chained women, their only diversion from a year of unspeakably monotonous toil. And for the young folks, it is their theater, their circus, their county fair. (I say this with no disrespect: “big-meetin’ time” is a gala week, if there be any such thing at all in the mountains—its attractiveness is full as much secular as spiritual to the great body of the people.)”

EvX: Vacation Bible Camp is still a thing, of course.

“It is a camp by day only, or up to closing time. No mountaineer owns a tent. Preachers  and exhorters are housed nearby, and visitors from all the country scatter about with their friends, or sleep in the open, cooking their meals by the wayside.

“In these backwoods revival meetings we can witness to-day the weird phenomena of ungovernable shouting, ecstasy, bodily contortions, trance, catalepsy, and other results of hypnotic suggestion and the contagious one-mindedness of an overwrought crowd. This is called “taking a big through,” and is regarded as the madness of supernatural joy. It is a mild form of that extraordinary frenzy which swept the Kentucky settlements in 1800, when thousands of men and women at the camp-meetings fell victims to “the jerks,” “barking exercises,” erotic vagaries, physical wreckage, or insanity, to which the frenzy led.

Christian snake handlers

“Many mountaineers are easily carried away by new doctrines extravagantly presented. Religious mania is taken for inspiration by the superstitious who are looking for “signs and wonders.” At one time Mormon prophets lured women from the backwoods of western Carolina and eastern Tennessee. Later there was a similar exodus of people to the Castellites, a sect of whom it was commonly remarked that “everybody who joins the Castellites goes crazy.” In our day the same may be said of the Holy Rollers and Holiness People.”

EvX: Wikipedia appears to have nothing on the Castellites, but Wiktionary says they were a religious group in North Carolina in the late 19th century.

Language:

“An editor who had made one or two short trips into the mountains once wrote me that he thought the average mountaineer’s vocabulary did not exceed three hundred words. This may be a natural inference if one spends but a few weeks among these people and sees them only under the prosaic conditions of workaday life. But gain their intimacy and you shall find that even the illiterates among them have a range of expression that is truly remarkable. I have myself taken down from the lips of Carolina mountaineers some eight hundred dialectical or obsolete words, to say nothing of the much greater number of standard English terms that they command. …

“Our highlander often speaks in Elizabethan or Chaucerian or even pre-Chaucerian terms. His pronoun hit antedates English itself, being the Anglo-Saxon neuter of he. Ey God, a favorite expletive, is the original of egad, and goes back of Chaucer. Ax for ask and kag for keg were the primitive and legitimate forms, which we trace as far as the time of Layamon. When the mountain boy challenges his mate: “I dar ye—I ain’t afeared!” his verb and participle are of the same ancient and sterling rank. Afore, atwixt, awar, heap o’ folks, peart, up and done it, usen for used, all these everyday expressions of the backwoods were contemporary with the Canterbury Tales.

“A man said to me of three of our acquaintances: “There’s been a fray on the river—I don’t know how the fraction begun, but Os feathered into Dan and Phil, feedin’ them lead.” He meant fray in its original sense of deadly combat, as was fitting where two men were killed. Fraction for rupture is an archaic word, rare in literature, though we find it in Troilus and Cressida. “Feathered into them!” Where else can we hear to-day a phrase that passed out of standard English when “villainous saltpetre” supplanted the long-bow? It means to bury an arrow up to the feather, as when the old chronicler Harrison says, “An other arrow should haue beene fethered in his bowels.”

Social Organization (or lack thereof):

“Bear in mind that in the mountains every person is accorded the consideration that his own qualities entitle him to, and no whit more. It has always been so. Our Highlanders have neither memory nor tradition of ever having been herded together, lorded over, persecuted or denied the privileges of free-men. So, even within their clans, there is no servility nor any headship by right of birth. Leaders arise, when needed, only by virtue of acknowledged ability and efficiency. In this respect there is no analogy whatever to the clan system of ancient Scotland, to which the loose social structure of our own highlanders has been compared.

“We might expect such fiery individualism to cool gradually as population grew denser; but, oddly enough, crowding only intensifies it in the shy backwoodsman. Neighborliness has not grown in the mountains—it is on the wane. There are to-day fewer log-rollings and house-raisings, fewer husking bees and quilting parties than in former times; and no new social gatherings have taken their place. Our mountain farmer, seeing all arable land taken up, and the free range ever narrowing, has grown jealous and distrustful, resenting the encroachment of too many sharers in what once he felt was his own unfenced domain. And so it has come about that the very quality that is his strength and charm as a man—his staunch individualism—is proving his weakness and reproach as a neighbor and citizen. The virtue of a time out-worn has become the vice of an age new-born.

The mountaineers are non-social. As they stand to-day, each man “fighting for his own hand, with his back against the wall,” they recognize no social compact. Each one is suspicious of the other. Except as kinsmen or partisans they cannot pull together. Speak to them of community of interests, try to show them the advantages of co-operation, and you might as well be proffering advice to the North Star. They will not work together zealously even to improve their neighborhood roads, each mistrusting that the other may gain some trifling advantage over himself or turn fewer shovelfuls of earth. Labor chiefs fail to organize unions or granges among them because they simply will not stick together.”

 

Anthropology Friday: Appalachia, pt 1/4

Jayman’s map of the American Nations

I have wanted to find a good book on some of our own American Nations for a long time, and Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders (published in 1913,) is just the volume.

The anthropologist, it may be said, is unfair: he looks only at others, and never turns the lens on himself. Appalachia might not be your people, fair reader, but it contains some of mine, thus my interest.

Kephart tries to paint a sympathetic picture, excusing a great deal of misbehavior on the ground that good roads do not exist in the area and so people are cut off from the civilizing effects of the outside world. This may be so, but it does little to blunt the sharper edges of the image he paints.

But let’s begin with dividing the spoils of the hunt (especially important in a world without refrigeration):

“The mountaineers have an odd way of sharing the spoils of the chase. They call it “stoking the meat,” a use of the word stoke that I have never heard elsewhere. The hide is sold, and the proceeds divided equally among the hunters, but the meat is cut up into as many pieces as there are partners in the chase; then one man goes indoors or behind a tree, and somebody at the carcass, laying his hand on a portion, calls out: “Whose piece is this?”

““Granville Calhoun’s,” cries the hidden man, who cannot see it.

““Whose is this?”

““Bill Cope’s.”

“And so on down the line. Everybody gets what chance determines for him, and there can be no charges of unfairness.”

Tracking Ability:

“Our mountaineers habitually notice every track they pass, whether of beast or man, and “read the sign” with Indian-like facility. Often one of my companions would stop, as though shot, and point with his toe to the fresh imprint of a human foot in the dust or mud of a public road, exclaiming: “Now, I wonder who that feller was! ’Twa’n’t (so-and-so), for he hain’t got no squar’-headed bob-nails; ’twa’n’t (such-a-one), ’cause he wouldn’t be hyar at this time o’ day”; and so he would go on, figuring by a process of elimination that is extremely cunning, until some such conclusion as this was reached, “That’s some stranger goin’ over to Little River [across the line in Tennessee], and he’s footin’ hit as if the devil was atter him—I’ll bet he’s stobbed somebody and is runnin’ from the sheriff!” Nor is the incident closed with that; our mountaineer will inquire of neighbors and passersby until he gets a description of the wayfarer, and then he will pass the word along.”

EvX: There is much in the book about alcohol, as Prohibition was a popular political movement of the day and moonshining was a popular backwoods activity.

The problem, as the author notes, is that it was very difficult to get anything in or out of the mountains (how far do you want to carry a load of corn on your back down a trail too steep and narrow for a horse, much less a wagon?) thus limiting the farmers’ ability to sell their corn at market, much less bring home glass bottles of alcohol, but it is relatively easy to brew up some moonshine right on site in the back of your cornfield. Then in comes the government, which hasn’t bothered to build you so much as a road, demanding that you pay taxes just because you transformed your own corn from a solid to a liquid right there on your own property.

This has led to the shooting of a lot of “revenuers.” But back to the book:

“As a rule, the mountain people have no compunctions about drinking, their ideas on this, as on other matters of conduct, being those current everywhere in the eighteenth century. Men, women and children drink whiskey in family concert. I have seen undiluted spirits drunk, a spoonful at a time, by a babe that was still at the breast, and she never batted an eye (when I protested that raw whiskey would ruin the infant’s stomach, the mother replied, with widened eyes: “Why, if there’s liquor about, and she don’t git none, she jist raars!”).

“In spite of this, taking the mountain people by and large, they are an abstemious race. In drinking, as in everything else, this is the Land of Do Without. Comparatively few highlanders see liquor oftener than once or twice a month. The lumberjacks and townspeople get most of the output; for they can pay the price.”

On the Origin of the Appalachians:

“Let it be noted closely, for it bears directly on a problem that has puzzled many of our own people, namely: What was the origin of our southern mountaineers?

“The north of Ireland, at the time of which we have been speaking, was not settled by Irishmen, but by Scotchmen, who had been imported by James I. to take the place of native Hibernians whom he had dispossessed from the three northern counties. These immigrants came to be known as the Scotch-Irish. They learned how to make poteen in little stills, after the Irish fashion, and to defend their stills from intrusive foreigners, also after the Irish fashion. By and by these Scotch-Irish fell out with the British Government, and large bodies of them emigrated to America, settling, for the most part, in western Pennsylvania.

“They were a fighting race. Accustomed to plenty of hard knocks at home, they took to the rough fare and Indian wars of our border as naturally as ducks take to water. They brought with them, too, an undying hatred of excise laws, and a spirit of unhesitating resistance to any authority that sought to enforce such laws.

“It was these Scotchmen, in the main, assisted by a good sprinkling of native Irish, and by the wilder blades among the Pennsylvania-Dutch, who drove out the Indians from the Alleghany border, formed our rear-guard in the Revolution, won that rough mountain region for civilization, left it when the game became scarce and neighbors’ houses too frequent, followed the mountains southward, settled western Virginia and Carolina, and formed the vanguard westward into Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, and so onward till there was no longer a West to conquer. Some of their descendants remained behind in the fastnesses of the Alleghanies, the Blue Ridge, and the Unakas, and became, in turn, the progenitors of that singular race which, by an absurd pleonasm, is now commonly known as the “mountain whites,” but properly southern highlanders.”

Source

Whiskey Taxes drive men into the Mountains:
“The law of 1791, although it imposed a tax on whiskey of only 9 to 11 cents per proof gallon, came near bringing on a civil war, which was only averted by the leniency of the Federal Government in granting wholesale amnesty. The most stubborn malcontents in the mountains moved southward along the Alleghanies into western Virginia and the Carolinas, where no serious attempt was made to collect the excise; so they could practice moonshining to their heart’s content, and there their descendants remain to-day. …

“As illustrating the extraordinary resistance which the officers have had on some occasions to encounter, I refer to occurrences in Overton County, Tennessee, in August last, where a posse of eleven internal revenue officers, who had stopped at a farmer’s house for the night, were attacked by a band of armed illicit distillers, who kept up a constant fusillade during the whole night, and whose force was augmented during the following day till it numbered nearly two hundred men. The officers took shelter in a log house, which served them as a fort, returning the fire as best they could, and were there besieged for forty-two hours, three of their party being shot—one through the body, one through the arm, and one in the face. I directed a strong force to go to their relief, but in the meantime, through the intervention of citizens, the besieged officers were permitted to retire, taking their wounded with them, and without surrendering their arms.”

The Mountain Code of Conduct:
“And here is another significant fact: as regards personal property I do not know any race in the world that is more honest than our backwoodsmen of the southern mountains. As soon as you leave the railroad you enter a land where sneak-thieves are rare and burglars almost unheard of. In my own county and all those adjoining it there has been only one case of highway robbery and only one of murder for money, so far as I can learn, in the past forty years.

“The mountain code of conduct is a curious mixture of savagery and civility. One man will kill another over a pig or a panel of fence (not for the property’s sake, but because of hot words ensuing) and he will “come clear” in court because every fellow on the jury feels he would have done the same thing himself under similar provocation; yet these very men, vengeful and cruel though they are, regard hospitality as a sacred duty toward wayfarers of any degree, and the bare idea of stealing from a stranger would excite their instant loathing or white-hot scorn.”

EvX: Where have I heard this before? The Middle East? Algeria?

“Anyone of tact and common sense can go as he pleases through the darkest corner of  Appalachia without being molested. Tact, however, implies the will and the insight to put yourself truly in the other man’s place. Imagine yourself born, bred, circumstanced like him. It implies, also, the courtesy of doing as you would be done by if you were in that fellow’s shoes. No arrogance, no condescension, but man to man on a footing of equal manliness.

“And there are “manners” in the rudest community: customs and rules of conduct that it is well to learn before one goes far afield. For example, when you stop at a mountain cabin, if no dogs sound an alarm, do not walk up to the door and knock. You are expected to call out Hello! until someone comes to inspect you. None but the most intimate neighbors neglect this usage and there is mighty good reason back of it in a land where the path to one’s door may be a warpath.

“If you are armed, as a hunter, do not fail to remove the cartridges from the gun, in your host’s presence, before you set foot on his porch. Then give him the weapon or stand it in a corner or hang it up in plain view. Even our sheriff, when he stopped with us, would lay his revolver on the mantel-shelf and leave it there until he went his way. If you think a moment you can see the courtesy of such an act. It proves that the guest puts implicit trust in the honor of his host and in his ability to protect all within his house. There never has been a case in which such trust was violated.

“I knew a traveler who, spending the night in a one-room cabin, was fool enough (I can use no milder term) to thrust a loaded revolver under his pillow when he went to bed. In the morning his weapon was still there, but empty, and its cartridges lay conspicuously on a table across the room. Nobody said a word about the incident: the hint was left to soak in.

“The only real danger that one may encounter from the native people, so long as he behaves himself, is when he comes upon a man who is wild with liquor and cannot sidestep him. In such case, give him the glad word and move on at once. I have had a drunken “ball-hooter” (log-roller) from the lumber camps fire five shots around my head as a feu-de-joie, and then stand tantalizingly, with hammer cocked over the sixth cartridge, to see what I would do about it. As it chanced, I did not mind his fireworks, for my head was a-swim with the rising fever of erysipelas and I had come dragging my heels many an irk mile down from the mountains to find a doctor. So I merely smiled at the fellow and asked if he was having a good time. He grinned sheepishly and let me pass unharmed.”

EvX: That’s all for today. See you next Friday!

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. ..

INTERESTING PEOPLE

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.

Continuing:

“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.

Anthropology Friday: Pygmies and Papuans pt 2

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

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we are reading A. F. R. Wollaston’s Pygmies and Papuans, published in 1912. Wollaston’s primary purpose in traveling to Papua New Guinea was to study the birds (as was Jared Diamond’s,) but he decided to also write about the people he met.

One of the parts of this book I found most amusing was Wollaston’s struggle to learn the language of the local Mimika Papuans:

“It has been stated in the previous chapters that the natives told us this or that, and that we asked them for information about one thing or another. From this the reader must not conclude that we acquired a very complete knowledge of the native language, for that, unfortunately, was not the case, and even at the end of the fifteen months that we spent in their country we were not able to converse with them. Lieutenant Cramer and I compiled a vocabulary of nearly three hundred words, and we talked a good deal with the people, but we never reached the position of being able to exchange ideas on any single subject. …

“It is unfortunate that there is no common language along the S. coast, nor even a language with words common to all the dialects in use. We were visited on one occasion by the Dutch Assistant Resident from Fak-fak; the native interpreter who came with him, and who knew all the native dialects of the Fak-fak district, could not understand one word of the Mimika language. On another occasion some natives from Mimika were taken down by steamer to Merauke, the Government post in S.W. New Guinea, not far from the boundary of British Papua, and there they found the language of the natives quite unintelligible to them.

“So we found ourselves confronted with the task of learning a language with neither grammar, dictionary nor interpreter. This may not seem to be an insuperable difficulty, nor is it perhaps where Europeans and educated people are concerned, but with Papuans it is a very different problem. The first thing to do—and very few of them would even grasp the idea—is to make them understand that you wish to learn their words. You may point at an object and look intelligent and expectant, but they are slow to take your meaning, and they soon tire of giving information. The facial expression, which amongst us conveys even to a deaf man an interrogation, means nothing to them, nor has the sideways shake of the head a negative meaning to Papuans.”

Numbers

“In trying to learn a new language of this kind most people (I imagine) would begin, as we did, with the numerals. But our researches in this direction did not take us very far, for we made the interesting discovery that they have words for one and two only; ínakwa (one), jamaní (two). This is not to say that they cannot reckon beyond two, for they can, by using the fingers and thumbs, and beginning always with the thumb of the right hand, reckon with tolerable accuracy up to ten. For numbers above ten they use the toes, never, so far as we observed, two or three toes, but always all the toes together to indicate a large but uncertain number. Sometimes they opened and closed the fingers of both hands two or three times and uttered the word takirí, which appeared to mean “many.” They did not, as some people do, use the word which means “hand” to indicate five or a quantity of about that number.”

EvX: For more on societies with very few words for numbers, see Caleb Everet’s Numbers and the Making of Us. It is interesting to note what a wide variety of numerical systems exist in the world–not only systems that employ unfamiliar bases like five, 20, 60, or twelve, or linguistic systems with a triplet form (just as we have a plural), but also systems in which numbers are highly constrained, like that of the Mimiko, who have only the numerals for one and two (plus use of their hands and toes,) or more extremely, like the Piraha, who have no numbers at all.

Continuing:

“With patience we learnt a great number of substantives, the names of animals, the parts of the body, the various possessions of the natives and so forth, and with more difficulty we learnt some of the active verbs. But when we came to abstract ideas, our researches ceased abruptly for lack of the question words, who, how, where, when, etc.; these we were never able to learn, and it is impossible to act them.

“Thus we were never able to find out what they thought of various things; we could point to the moon and be told its name, but we were never able to say, “What is the moon?” We learnt the names of lightning and thunder, but we never knew who they thought produced them. We could not find out where their stone axes came from, nor how old they were, nor who made them; and a hundred other questions, which we should have liked to put, remained unanswered.”

An Amusing Mistake

“Even the apparently simple matter of enquiring the names of places is not so easy as one would think. When the first party went up the Mimika to Parimau they pointed to the huts and asked what the village was called; the answer given was “Tupué,” meaning I believe, the name of the family who lived in the huts pointed at. For several months we called the place Tupué, and the name appeared in various disguises in the English newspapers.

When I was at Parimau in July, it occurred to me to doubt the name of Tupué, which we never heard the natives use, so I questioned a man elaborately. Pointing in the direction of Wakatimi, I said in his language: “Many houses, Wakatimi,” and he nodded assent; then pointing in the direction of another village that we had visited I said: “Many houses, Imah,” to which he agreed; then I said. “Many houses,” and pointed towards Parimau. This performance was repeated three times before he understood my intention and supplied the word “Parimau,” and then he shouted the whole story across the river to the people in the village who received it with shouts of laughter, and well they might. It was as if a foreigner, who had been living for six months in a place which he was accustomed to call Smith, enquired again one day what its name was and found that it was London. …

Physical Features

“The skin of the Mimika native is a very dark brown, almost rusty black, but a dark colour without any of the gloss seen in the skin of the African negro. Not infrequently we saw men of a lighter, nearly yellow, colour, and in the Wakatimi district there were three pure albinos, a man, a woman and a child. The man and woman were covered with blotches of a pinkish pigment and were peculiarly disagreeable to look at, the child, a sucking infant, and the offspring of black parents, was as white as any European baby, and was called, out of compliment to us, “Tuana.”

“The hair is black and thick and frizzly; it never, or seldom grows long, so you do not see the ornamental coiffures characteristic of the natives of some other parts of the island … The hair of young children is often quite fair, but it becomes dark as they grow up; some of the adults have the custom, common in other places, of dyeing the hair yellow with lime. …

“Tattooing, in the proper sense of the term, is unknown to the Mimika Papuans, but a great number of them practise cicatrisation or scarring. The usual places for these markings are the buttocks and the outer side of the upper (usually the left) arm. …

“The average height of men measured at Wakatimi and Parimau is 5 feet 6 inches. … Such a height is small compared with that of many races, but the first impression you get of the Papuans is that they are tall, for they hold themselves well, and all naked people look taller than those who go clothed. Their legs are thin and rather meagre, due in a great measure to the large proportion of their lives that is spent in canoes, but they walk with a good swinging gait and cover the ground easily.”

The river at high tide

Childhood

“Beyond question, the happiest time in the lives of the Papuans is their childhood, when they are free to play from morning to night and need not take part in the ceaseless search for food, which occupies so much of the time of their elders. As infants they are carried on the backs of their mothers and very often of their fathers, secured by a wide strap of bark cloth, the ends of which are tied across the carrier’s chest. It is very seldom that you hear them cry and they appear to give very little trouble; their mothers are very careful of the cleanliness of the infants. Very early in life they begin to walk and almost as soon they learn to swim. In fine weather they often spend the greater part of the day in the river and it is a very pretty sight to see a crowd of little Papuans playing together in the water. … They very soon become powerful swimmers, and I remember one day seeing a small boy, who cannot have been more than eight years old, swim across a river in tremendous flood, while the party of men who were with him had to seek a place where they could safely swim across half a mile lower down.

GAMES OF THE CHILDREN

“There are a number of games too that they play on dry land: they play the universal game of lying in wait for your enemy and suddenly pouncing out on him; they have great battles in which they are armed with miniature bows and arrows, and reed stems take the place of spears, and shrill yells make up for the lack of bloodshed. …

Society

“Generally speaking, one would say that the society of the Mimika Papuans is a group of small families. It cannot by any means be described as a socialistic community; with one exception there is no sign of community of property, but it is rather a case of every man for himself, or (more accurately) of every family for itself. A canoe belongs to the family of the man who made it; the coconut trees, which grow here and there along the lower Mimika, do not belong to the community but to individuals, presumably the men or some of the men who planted them. … The exception mentioned is seen when game is brought in by the hunters; the meat, as I observed on several occasions, is distributed to every house in the village. …

“From the description of them which has been given in this and the two preceding chapters it will be seen that the conditions of life of the Papuans are as primitive as those of any people now living in the world. There are very few other places, where you can find a people who neither make nor possess any metal and who have no knowledge of pottery. The only vessels that they have for holding water are scraped-out coconuts and simple pieces of bamboo. Water boiling they had never seen before we came among them. Their implements and weapons are, as I have shown, of the most primitive kind, and their ornaments are of the rudest possible description.

Cultivation of the soil is only practised by the people of one or two villages, and even then it produces but a very small proportion of their food, so it follows that most of their time and energies are devoted to procuring the necessaries of life.

STRUGGLE FOR EXISTENCE

“The struggle for existence is keen enough, the birth-rate is low and the rate of infant mortality is, I believe, very high. Nor do diseases spare them; syphilis is exceedingly prevalent, and was probably introduced by Chinese and Malay traders to the West end of the island, whence it has spread along the coast. Tuberculosis is happily absent, but two natives of Wakatimi were suffering from what appeared to be certainly leprosy. Skin diseases, notably tinea imbricata, are very common; and almost every person appears to suffer occasionally from fever of one sort or another.

“But in spite of all these drawbacks the Papuans of the Mimika are not such a very miserable people. They are strong, those of them that survive the ordeals of infancy and sickness; they have food in plenty to eat, if they choose to exert themselves sufficiently to obtain it; they have their amusements, songs and dances; and the manner of their lives is suited to the conditions of the country in which they live. It is this last consideration which ought ultimately to determine their fate: they live in a wretchedly poor country which is constantly liable to devastating floods, and their habit of wandering from one place to another, where food may be obtained, is the only way of life suitable to the physical and climatic conditions of the country.

The case against “civilizing”

“Any attempt to “civilise” them must inevitably destroy their primitive independence, and if it succeeded in establishing the people in settled communities it would reduce them at many seasons to absolute starvation. We were visited once by the Director of the Sacred Heart Mission at Toeal, which has done admirable work amongst the natives of the Ké Islands and at one or two places in New Guinea itself. When he had seen the people and the nature of the country and had been told something of their habits, he decided that the Mimika was not, at present at all events, a proper field for missionary enterprise. Setting aside all other considerations, one dares to hope that such an interesting people may for a long time be left undisturbed; they do no harm to their neighbours and the effects on them of civilising influences would be at the best uncertain.”

Anthropology Friday: Pygmies and Papuans, by Wollaston pt1

Tapiro Pygmy, Papua New Guinea, from Pygmies and Papuans

Welcome to Anthropology Friday. Today we are reading A. F. R. Wollaston’s Pygmies and Papuans, published in 1912. Wollaston’s primary purpose in traveling to Papua New Guinea was to study the birds (as was Jared Diamond’s,) but he decided to also write about the people he met.

He taught at King’s College, Cambridge, until he was murdered by an insane student in 1930. He was descended, it appears, from a distinguished line of Wollastons.

But enough about A.F.R; on with PNG (though first we’ll be stopping in Java):

“During the month of December, while stores were being accumulated, and the steamer was being prepared for our use, we had leisure to visit, and in the case of some of us to revisit, some of the most interesting places in Java. …

“Some idea of the progress which has been made may be learnt from the fact that, whereas at the beginning of the last century the population numbered about four millions, there are to-day nearly ten times that number. Wherever you go you see excellent roads, clean, and well-ordered villages and a swarming peasant population, quiet and industrious and apparently contented with their lot.

“There are between thirty and forty volcanoes in the island, many of them active, and the soil is extraordinarily rich and productive, three crops in the rice districts being harvested in rather less than two years. So fertile is the land that in many places the steepest slopes of the hills have been brought under cultivation by an ingenious system of terracing and irrigation in such a way that the higher valleys present the appearance of great amphitheatres rising tier above tier of brilliantly green young rice plants or of drooping yellow heads of ripening grain. …

“One of the features of life in the Dutch East Indies, which first strikes the attention of an English visitor, is the difference in the relation between Europeans and natives from those which usually obtain in British possessions as shown by the enormous number of half-castes. Whilst we were still at Batavia the feast of the Eve of St. Nicholas, which takes the place of our Christmas, occurred. In the evening the entire “white” population indulged in a sort of carnival; the main streets and restaurants were crowded, bands played and carriages laden with parents and their children drove slowly through the throng. The spectacle, a sort of “trooping of the colours,” was a most interesting one to the onlooker, for one saw often in the same family children showing every degree of colour from the fairest Dutch hair and complexion to the darkest Javanese. It is easy to understand how this strong mixture of races has come about, when one learns that Dutchmen who come out to the East Indies, whether as civilian or military officials or as business men, almost invariably stay for ten years without returning to Europe. They become in that time more firmly attached to the country than is the case in colonies where people go home at shorter intervals, and it is not uncommon to meet Dutchmen who have not returned to Holland for thirty or forty years. It is not the custom to send children back to Europe when they reach the school age; there are excellent government schools in all the larger towns, and it often happens that men and women grow up and marry who have never been to Europe in their lives. Thus it can be seen how a large half-caste population is likely to be formed. The half-castes do not, as in British India, form a separate caste, but are regarded as Europeans, and there are many instances of men having more or less of native blood in their veins reaching the highest civilian and military rank.”

Papua New Guinea

“Even among those Papuans who are pure-blooded—in so far as one may use that expression in describing any human race—there are very considerable varieties of appearance, but it is still possible to describe a type to which all of them conform in the more important particulars. The typical Papuan is rather tall and is usually well-built. The legs of the low country people are somewhat meagre, as is usually the case among people who spend much of their time in canoes, whilst those of the hill tribes are well developed. The hands and feet are large. The colour of the skin varies from a dark chocolate colour to a rusty black, but it seems to be never of the shining ebony blackness of the African negro. … Short hard hair is also found frequently on the chest and on the limbs, but on the face it is scanty and frequently altogether absent. …

“It may, however, be said without fear of contradiction that no person, who has had experience of Malays and of Papuans, could believe for a moment that they are anything but two very distinct races of men. The origin of the Papuans is not definitely known, and the existence in different parts of the island of small people, who are possibly of Negrito stock, suggests that the Papuans were not the original inhabitants of New Guinea.”

 

Wollaston’s boat approaches the island

“The shore was low and featureless, and it was impossible to identify the mouths of the rivers from the very inaccurate chart. It was not safe for the Nias to approach the land closely on account of the shoal water, so Capt. Van Herwerden dropped anchor … and sent the steam launch towards an inlet, where we could see huts, to gather information. … they hailed a canoe which ventured within speaking distance, and by repeating several times “Mimika,” the only word of their language that we knew at that time, learnt that we had overshot our destination by a few miles.

“That canoe, it should be noted, was remarkable on account of two of its crew. One of them held aloft an ancient Union Jack; the other was conspicuously different from the scores of men in the canoes about us, who were all frankly in a bare undress, by wearing an old white cotton jacket fastened by a brass button which was ornamented with the head of Queen Victoria. How the flag and the coat and the button came to that outlandish place will never be known, but it is certain that they must have passed through very many hands before they came there, for certainly no Englishman had ever been there before. …

“We were rather amused, when we came to the first bank of shingle, by the natives who were with us bringing us gifts of stones, as though they were something new and rare: probably they thought that as we came, for all they knew, from the sea, we had never seen such things before.”

An interesting observation on the habits/lifestyle of hunter-gatherers vs farmers:

“After spending a night on a sand bank from which we were very nearly washed away by a sudden flood, we paddled leisurely down the river and came in one day again to Obota. Though the two places are so close together and communication between them is very frequent, the inhabitants of Obota are a much better lot of people than those of Wakatimi. The Obota men, who came up the river with us, worked steadily for several days, a thing we never could persuade the Wakatimi men to do, and, a more striking sign of their superiority, the Obota people cultivate the soil, whereas the Wakatimi people never do anything of the kind.”

Tobacco

“The distribution of tobacco in New Guinea is rather a puzzling question. There are many places on the coast where its use was unknown until quite recently, while at the same time the mountain people, for example, in the Arfak Mountains and on the upper reaches of the Fly and Kaiserin Augusta Rivers, have been accustomed to cultivate it and to barter it with their neighbours in the lowlands. The Tapiro pygmy people, who live in the mountains, cultivate tobacco and exchange it with the Papuans of the upper Mimika who grow none themselves. These facts have led some people to suppose that the tobacco plant is indigenous in New Guinea.

“The people of Obota were rich in worldly possessions, for as we walked through the village we saw two Chinese brass gongs and a large porcelain pot, which they told us came from “Tarete.” It may be that at some time a Malay or Arab trader from Ternate came over to this part of the coast, but it is impossible to know; perhaps the things had been stolen and exchanged from one village to another, from the West end of the island, which is often visited by Ternate traders.”

Marginal Horticulture

“As well as coconuts the Mimika people have also bananas, papayas (Carica papaya), water-melons and pumpkins, all of them of a very inferior kind. It cannot be said that they cultivate these fruits; they occasionally get a banana shoot and plant it in the ground by the riverside, where it may or may not grow and produce fruit, but they make no clearings and take very little trouble to ensure the life of the plant. The papayas and the melons and pumpkins are sometimes seen growing about the native dwellings; but they, too, seem to be there more by accident than by any design on the part of the people. At Obota we found a few pineapples, which were probably the descendants of some that were brought to the Mimika by M. Dumas a few years earlier.”

EvX: As we discussed recently, humans likely did not transition directly from pure hunter gathering to pure agriculture within the space of a few years, but rather spent thousands of years developing a wide variety of different cultivation methods. Surely among the earliest was this haphazard variety in which fortuitously sprouted seeds are buried and then left to fend for themselves. Some clever ancient man might also have undertaken to bring water to an already established but thirsty plant.

But there’s a big difference between occasionally planting a seed and full-scale agriculture. The latter requires preparing plots of land, removing weeds, planting, watering, tilling, etc. Even a small garden requires a great deal of regular work.

Hunter-gatherers probably didn’t abandon their mobile lifestyles immediately after planting the first handful seeds they wanted to grow. It seems more likely they continued pursuing other ways of finding food while they waited for the plants to grow; it likely took centuries or millennia for the cultural and mental traits found in fully agricultural societies to develop.

 

 

Anthropology Friday: Japan pt 4/4

Ise Jingu, a Shinto shrine begun in the 7th century, surrounded by white gravel

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we are finishing up with Sidney L. Gulick’s Evolution of the Japanese, Social and Psychic, published in 1903. Gulick was a Puritan missionary who moved to Japan shortly after the “opening of Japan” and Meiji Restoration. He wrote at a time when very Japanese society was changing at break-neck speed and very few accounts of Japan existed at all in the West.

I find anthropology interesting on two levels. First, there is the pure information about another culture, and second, the meta-information about the author–what leads the author to highlight particular things or portray a culture a particular way?

As Gulick makes clear, his purposes in writing the book were two-fold: to introduce his audience to a little-known culture and to provide evidence against the theory that different races have particular temperaments by highlighting differences between the Japanese and Chinese. Gulick attributes attributes maters of national character to environmental or economic conditions.

(As usual, quotes will be in “” instead of blocks)

The Development of a sense of moral obligation to those outside one’s own group:

“Are Japanese cruel or humane? The general impression of the casual tourist doubtless is that they are humane. They are kind to children on the streets, to a marked degree; the jinrikisha runners turn out not only for men, women, and children, but even for dogs. The patience, too, of the ordinary Japanese under trying circumstances is marked; they show amazing tolerance for one another’s failings and defects, and their mutual helpfulness in seasons of distress is often striking. To one traveling through New Japan there is usually little that will strike the eye as cruel.

“But the longer one lives in the country, the more is he impressed with certain aspects of life which seem to evince an essentially unsympathetic and inhumane disposition. I well remember the shock I received when I discovered, not far from my home in Kumamoto, an insane man kept in a cage. He was given only a slight amount of clothing, even though heavy frost fell each night. Food was given him once or twice a day. He was treated like a wild animal, not even being provided with bedding. …

“The treatment accorded to lepers is another significant indication of the lack of sympathetic and humane sentiments among the people at large. For ages they have been turned from home and house and compelled to wander outcasts, living in the outskirt of the villages in rude booths of their own construction, and dependent on their daily begging, until a wretched death gives them relief from a more wretched life. So far as I have been able to learn, the opening of hospitals for lepers did not take place until begun by Christians in recent times.

“A history of Japan was prepared by Japanese scholars under appointment from the government and sent to the Columbian Exposition in 1893; it makes the following statement, already referred to on a previous page: “Despite the issue of several proclamations … people were governed by such strong aversion to the sight of sickness that travelers were often left to die by the roadside from thirst, hunger, or disease, and householders even went to the length of thrusting out of doors and abandoning to utter destitution servants who suffered from chronic maladies…. Whenever an epidemic occurred, the number of deaths that resulted was enormous.”[N]

“But we must not be too quick to jump to the conclusion that in this regard we have discovered an essential characteristic of the Japanese nature. …

“How long is it since the Inquisition was enforced in Europe? Who can read of the tortures there inflicted without shuddering with horror? … How long is it since witches were burned, not only in Europe by the thousand, but in enlightened and Christian New England? … How long is it since slaves were feeling the lash throughout the Southern States of our “land of freedom”?… The fact is that the highly developed humane sense which is now felt so strongly by the great majority of people in the West is a late development, and is not yet universal. It is not for us to boast, or even to feel superior to the Japanese, whose opportunities for developing this sentiment have been limited. …

“In the treatment of the sick, the first prerequisite for the development of tenderness is the introduction of correct ideas as to the nature of disease and its proper treatment. As soon as this has been effectually done, a great proportion of the apparent indifference to human suffering passes away. The cruelty which is to-day so universal in Africa needs but a changed social and industrial order to disappear. The needed change has come to Japan. Physicians trained in modern methods of medical practice are found all over the land. In 1894 there were 597 hospitals, 42,551 physicians, 33,921 nurses and midwives, 2869 pharmacists, and 16,106 druggists, besides excellent schools of pharmacy and medicine.[O]

EvX: This might feel a bit unfair to Japan, but Gulick was writing not long before Japan went on a rampage through east Asia and killed 10-14 million people.

Gulick is also correct that uncharitable attitudes toward folks not in one’s family or ingroup were fairly common in the West until fairly recently. The past 200 years or so have seen a remarkable change in ideas about one’s moral obligations toward strangers.

More information about recent treatment of Japanese lepers.

Myōshin-ji garden

Aesthetics

“In certain directions, the Japanese reveal a development of æsthetic taste which no other nation has reached. The general appreciation of landscape-views well illustrates this point. The home and garden of the average workman are far superior artistically to those of the same class in the West. There is hardly a home without at least a diminutive garden laid out in artistic style with miniature lake and hills and winding walks. …

“The general taste displayed in many little ways is a constant delight to the Western “barbarian” when he first comes to Japan. Nor does this delight vanish with time and familiarity, though it is tempered by a later perception of certain other features. Indeed, the more one knows of the details of their artistic taste, the more does he appreciate it. The “toko-no-ma,” for example, is a variety of alcove usually occupying half of one side of a room. It indicates the place of honor, and guests are always urged to sit in front of it. The floor of the “toko-no-ma” is raised four or five inches above the level of the room and should never be stepped upon. In this “toko-no-ma” is usually placed some work of art, or a vase with flowers, and on the wall is hung a picture or a few Chinese characters, written by some famous calligraphist, which are changed with the seasons. The woodwork and the coloring of this part of the room is of the choicest. The “toko-no-ma” of the main room of the house is always restful to the eye; this “honorable spot” is found in at least one room in every house…

“The Japanese show a refined taste in the coloring and decoration of rooms; natural woods, painted and polished, are common; every post and board standing erect must stand in the position in which it grew. A Japanese knows at once whether a board or post is upside down, though it would often puzzle a Westerner to decide the matter. The natural wood ceilings and the soft yellows and blues of the walls are all that the best trained Occidental eye could ask. Dainty decorations called the “ramma,” over the neat “fusuma,” consist of delicate shapes and quaint designs cut in thin boards, and serve at once as picture and ventilator. The drawings, too, on the “fusuma” (solid thick paper sliding doors separating adjacent rooms or shutting off the closet) are simple and neat, as is all Japanese pictorial art.

Atlas Cedar bonsai, Golden State Bonsai Federation Collection

“Japanese love for flowers reveals a high æsthetic development. Not only are there various flower festivals at which times the people flock to suburban gardens and parks, but sprays, budding branches, and even large boughs are invariably arranged in the homes and public halls. Every church has an immense vase for the purpose. The proper arrangement of flowers and of flowering sprays and boughs is a highly developed art. … An acquaintance of mine glories in 230 varieties of the plum tree, all in pots, some of them between two and three hundred years old. Shinto and Buddhist temples also reveal artistic qualities most pleasing to the eye.”

EvX: And on that pleasant note, let us end our Japanese journey. See you next Friday.

Anthropology Friday: Japan pt 3

 

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we are continuing with Sidney L. Gulick’s Evolution of the Japanese, Social and Psychic, published in 1903. Gulick was a Puritan missionary who moved to Japan shortly after the “opening of Japan” and Meiji Restoration. He wrote at a time when very Japanese society was changing at break-neck speed and very few accounts of Japan existed at all in the West. (As usual, quotes will be in “” instead of blocks)

Cheerfulness

“Many writers have dwelt with delight on the cheerful disposition that seems so common in Japan. Lightness of heart, freedom from all anxiety for the future, living chiefly in the present, these and kindred features are pictured in glowing terms. And, on the whole, these pictures are true to life. The many flower festivals are made occasions for family picnics when all care seems thrown to the wind. There is a simplicity and a freshness and a freedom from worry that is delightful to see. But it is also remarked that a change in this regard is beginning to be observed. The coming in of Western machinery, methods of government, of trade and of education, is introducing customs and cares, ambitions and activities, that militate against the older ways. Doubtless, this too is true. If so, it but serves to establish the general proposition of these pages that the more outstanding national characteristics are largely the result of special social conditions, rather than of inherent national character. …

“Yet the Japanese are by no means given up to a cheerful view of life. Many an individual is morose and dejected in the extreme. This disposition is ever stimulated by the religious teachings of Buddhism. Its great message has been the evanescent character of the present life. Life is not worth living, it urges; though life may have some pleasures, the total result is disappointment and sorrow. Buddhism has found a warm welcome in the hearts of many Japanese. For more than a thousand years it has been exercising a potent influence on their thoughts and lives. Yet how is this consistent with the cheerful disposition which seems so characteristic of Japan? The answer is not far to seek. Pessimism is by its very nature separative, isolating, silent. Those oppressed by it do not enter into public joys. They hide themselves in monasteries, or in the home. The result is that by its very nature the actual pessimism of Japan is not a conspicuous feature of national character.

“The judgment that all Japanese are cheerful rests on shallow grounds. Because, forsooth, millions on holidays bear that appearance, and because on ordinary occasions the average man and woman seem cheerful and happy, the conclusion is reached that all are so. No effort is made to learn of those whose lives are spent in sadness and isolation. I am convinced that the Japan of old, for all its apparent cheer, had likewise its side of deep tragedy. Conditions of life that struck down countless individuals, and mental conditions which made Buddhism so popular, both point to this conclusion.”

EvX: See: Hikikomori:

In Japan, hikikomori (Japanese: ひきこもり or 引き籠り, lit. “pulling inward, being confined”, i.e., “acute social withdrawal“) are reclusive adolescents or adults who withdraw from social life, often seeking extreme degrees of isolation and confinement. Hikikomori refers to both the phenomenon in general and the recluses themselves. Hikikomori have been described as loners or “modern-day hermits“.[1] Estimates reveal that nearly half a million Japanese youth have become social recluses.[2]...

According to government figures released in 2010, there are 700,000 individuals living as hikikomori with an average age of 31.[10] Still, the numbers vary widely among experts. These include the hikikomori who are now in their 40s and have spent 20 years in isolation. This group is generally referred to as the “first-generation hikikomori.” There is concern about their reintegration into society in what is known as “the 2030 Problem,” when they are in their 60s and their parents begin to die.[10] Additionally, the government estimates that 1.55 million people are on the verge of becoming hikikomori.[10] Tamaki Saitō, who first coined the phrase, originally estimated that there may be over one million hikikomori in Japan, although this was not based on national survey data. Nonetheless, considering that hikikomori adolescents are hidden away and their parents are often reluctant to talk about the problem, it is extremely difficult to gauge the number accurately.[11]

I suspect this is becoming a problem in the West, too. But back to Gulick:

Work Ethic

“The Japanese give the double impression of being industrious and diligent on the one hand, and, on the other, of being lazy and utterly indifferent to the lapse of time. The long hours during which they keep at work is a constant wonder to the Occidental. I have often been amazed in Fukuoka to find stores and workshops open, apparently in operation, after ten and sometimes even until eleven o’clock at night, while blacksmiths and carpenters and wheelwrights would be working away as if it were morning. Many of the factories recently started keep very long hours. Indeed most of the cotton mills run day and night, having two sets of workers, who shift their times of labor every week. Those who work during the night hours one week take the day hours the following week. In at least one such factory, with which I am acquainted, the fifteen hundred girls who work from six o’clock Saturday evening until six o’clock Sunday morning, are then supposed to have twenty-four hours of rest before they begin their day’s work Monday morning; but, as a matter of fact, they must spend three or four and sometimes five hours on Sunday morning cleaning up the factory. …

“But there are equally striking illustrations of an opposite nature. The farmers and mechanics and carpenters, among regular laborers, and the entire life of the common people in their homes, give an impression of indifference to the flight of time, if not of absolute laziness. The workers seem ready to sit down for a smoke and a chat at any hour of the day. In the home and in ordinary social life, the loss of time seems to be a matter of no consequence whatever. Polite palaver takes unstinted hours, and the sauntering of the people through the street emphasizes the impression that no business calls oppress them.”

EvX: This seems like an apt time to plug The Birth of Sake, a documentary available on Netlfix. Here’s the trailer:

Trust, suspicion, and change

“Two other strongly contrasted traits are found in the Japanese character, absolute confidence and trustfulness on the one hand, and suspicion on the other. It is the universal testimony that the former characteristic is rapidly passing away; in the cities it is well-nigh gone. But in the country places it is still common. The idea of making a bargain when two persons entered upon some particular piece of work, the one as employer, the other as employed, was entirely repugnant to the older generation, since it was assumed that their relations as inferior and superior should determine their financial relations; the superior would do what was right, and the inferior should accept what the superior might give without a question or a murmur. Among the samurai, where the arrangement is between equals, bargaining or making fixed and fast terms which will hold to the end, and which may be carried to the courts in case of differences, was a thing practically unknown in the older civilization. Everything of a business nature was left to honor, and was carried on in mutual confidence.

“A few illustrations of this spirit of confidence from my own experience may not be without interest. On first coming to Japan, I found it usual for a Japanese who wished to take a jinrikisha to call the runner and take the ride without making any bargain, giving him at the end what seemed right. And the men generally accepted the payment without question. I have found that recently, unless there is some definite understanding arrived at before the ride, there is apt to be some disagreement, the runner presuming on the hold he has, by virtue of work done, to get more than is customary. This is especially true in case the rider is a foreigner. Another set of examples in which astonishing simplicity and confidence were manifested was in the employment of evangelists. I have known several instances in which a full correspondence with an evangelist with regard to his employment was carried on, and the settlement finally concluded, and the man set to work without a word said about money matters. It need hardly be said that no foreigner took part in that correspondence. …

“This confidence and trustfulness were the product of a civilization resting on communalistic feudalism; the people were kept as children in dependence on their feudal lord; they had to accept what he said and did; they were accustomed to that order of things from the beginning and had no other thought; on the whole too, without doubt, they received regular and kindly treatment. Furthermore, there was no redress for the peasant in case of harshness; it was always the wise policy, therefore, for him to accept whatever was given without even the appearance of dissatisfaction. This spirit was connected with the dominance of the military class. Simple trustfulness was, therefore, chiefly that of the non-military classes. The trustfulness of the samurai sprang from their distinctive training. As already mentioned, when drawing up a bond in feudal times, in place of any tangible security, the document would read, “If I fail to do so and so, you may laugh at me in public.”

“Since the overthrow of communal feudalism and the establishment of an individualistic social order, necessitating personal ownership of property, and the universal use of money, trustful confidence is rapidly passing away. Everything is being more and more accurately reduced to a money basis. The old samurai scorn for money seems to be wholly gone, an astonishing transformation of character. Since the disestablishment of the samurai class many of them have gone into business. Not a few have made tremendous failures for lack of business instinct, being easily fleeced by more cunning and less honorable fellows who have played the “confidence” game most successfully; others have made equally great successes because of their superior mental ability and education. The government of Japan is to-day chiefly in the hands of the descendants of the samurai class. …

“Passing now from the character of trustful confidence, we take up its opposite, suspiciousness. The development of this quality is a natural result of a military feudalism such as ruled Japan for hundreds of years. Intrigue was in constant use when actual war was not being waged. In an age when conflicts were always hand to hand, and the man who could best deceive his enemy as to his next blow was the one to carry off his head, the development of suspicion, strategy, and deceit was inevitable. The most suspicious men, other things being equal, would be the victors; they, with their families, would survive and thus determine the nature of the social order. The more than two hundred and fifty clans and “kuni,” “clan territory,” into which the land was divided, kept up perpetual training in the arts of intrigue and subtlety which are inevitably accompanied by suspicion.”

EvX: You can almost hear the HBD argument being made…

“Modern manifestations of this characteristic are frequent. Not a cabinet is formed, but the question of its make-up is discussed from the clannish standpoint. Even though it is now thirty years since the centralizing policy was entered upon and clan distinctions were effectually broken down, yet clan suspicion and jealousy is not dead.”

Politeness

“The foreigner is impressed by the constant need of care in conversation, lest he be thought to mean something more or other than he says. When we have occasion to criticise anything in the Japanese, we have found by experience that much more is inferred than is said. Shortly after my arrival in Japan I was advised by one who had been in the land many years to be careful in correcting a domestic or any other person sustaining any relation to myself, to say not more than one-tenth of what I meant, for the other nine-tenths would be inferred. Direct and perfectly frank criticism and suggestion, such as prevail among Anglo-Americans at least, seem to be rare among the Japanese.”

EvX: This, I gather, is still true.

That’s enough for now. See you next Friday.

Thoughts on the Causes of Polyandry and Polygyny

Warning: speculation

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

While polygyny (the practice of having multiple wives) is fairly common throughout the world, its inverse, polyandry (multiple husbands) is quite rare. Off the top of my head, I’m familiar with only two polyandrous societies: the Inuit (Eskimo) of Canada and the Toda of India. (Note: while this article uses the present tense for ease of writing,we are actually discussing historical situations. Modern social norms in both of these groups are probably different.)

What inspires similar marriage customs in such dissimilar environments?

The Inuit live in one of the world’s most extreme environments, where death is little more than a blizzard or failed hunt away. It’s an environment where private property effectively doesn’t exist because no one can consistently secure enough food to survive–without sharing, your neighbors will die, and if your neighbors die, so will you.

When every family faces the strong and constant threat of starvation, excess children are killed; since women do not do the heavy work of hunting seals and caribou in Inuit society, female children are more likely to be killed than male

The result is a skewed sex ratio upon adulthood: more males than females. In a society with strong norms about sharing, men who cannot secure a wife of their own accept that they must share or go without.

Inuit man ice fishing, using two-handed line technique

While the Toda live in a much lusher environment than the Inuit, I have the impression that land scarcity (due to encroachment by their neighbors) was an issue. If a population is already eating all of the food produced by its land and cannot obtain new land or make the land more productive, then the population cannot grow; each couple can only afford to raise two children. A woman who marries young can have a dozen children; even if disease takes half of them, that’s still 4 more children than she and one husband can support. The result, again, is infanticide. But if a woman takes 3 husbands (typically brothers), the situation is ameliorated: she can now afford to raise 4 children.

So polyandry: limited resources=> infanticide=> not enough women to go around.

Polygyny, by contrast, seems to happen more often in cases where men (or at least some men) can afford to raise a great many children. Often they achieve this by taking resources from other men (eg, an emperor can afford a large harem because he taxes peasants, or a warlord may just take wealth directly,) but sometimes they luck into great abundance, like the early Mormons.

 

Of course, some men practicing polygyny can force other men to practice polyandry.

(Previous posts on the Inuit here, here, and here; Toda here.)

Re: Eurozine’s How to Change Human History

Some of you have asked  for my opinions on Davids Graeber and Wengrow’s recently published an article, How to change the course of human history (at least, the part that’s already happened):

The story we have been telling ourselves about our origins is wrong, and perpetuates the idea of inevitable social inequality. David Graeber and David Wengrow ask why the myth of ‘agricultural revolution’ remains so persistent, and argue that there is a whole lot more we can learn from our ancestors.

The article is long and difficult to excerpt, so I’m going to summarize:

The traditional tale of how our idyllic, peaceful, egalitarian, small-group hunter-gatherer past gave way to our warlike, sexist, racist, violent, large-city agrarian present gives people the impression that hierarchy and violence are inevitable parts of our economic system. However, the traditional tale is wrong–the past was actually a lot more complicated than you’ve been told. Therefore, there is no historical pattern and the real source of all bad things is actually the family.

The final conclusion is pulled out of nowhere:

Egalitarian cities, even regional confederacies, are historically quite commonplace. Egalitarian families and households are not. Once the historical verdict is in, we will see that the most painful loss of human freedoms began at the small scale – the level of gender relations, age groups, and domestic servitude – the kind of relationships that contain at once the greatest intimacy and the deepest forms of structural violence. If we really want to understand how it first became acceptable for some to turn wealth into power, and for others to end up being told their needs and lives don’t count, it is here that we should look. Here too, we predict, is where the most difficult work of creating a free society will have to take place.

Since “inequality begins in the family” is supported nowhere in the text, we will ignore it.

  1. What about the “traditional narrative”? Did hunter-gathers live in small, peaceful, egalitarian, idyllic communities? Or are the Davids correct that this is a myth?

It’s a myth. Mostly.

While we have almost no information about people’s opinions on anything before the advent of writing, there’s no evidence from any hunter-gatherer society we have actually been able to observe that hunter-gathering leads naturally to egalitarianism or peacefulness.

For example, among the Inuit (Eskimo), hunter-gatherers of the arctic, polyandry (the marriage of one woman to multiple men) didn’t exist because they had particularly enlightened views about women and marriage, but because they had a habit of killing female babies. Too much female infanticide => not enough adult women to go around => men making do.

Why do some groups have high rates of female infanticide? Among other reasons, because in the Arctic, the men do the hunting (seal, fish, caribou, etc.) and the women gather… not a whole lot. (Note: I’m pretty sure the modern Inuit do not practice sex-selective infanticide.)

Polyandry can also be caused by polygamy and simple lack of resources–men who cannot afford to support a wife and raise their own children may content themselves with sharing a wife and contributing what they can to the raising of offspring who might be theirs.

I have yet to encounter in all of my reading any hunter-gatherer or “primitive” society that has anything like our notion of “gender equality” in which women participate equally in the hunting and men do 50% of the child-rearing and gathering, (though some Pygmies are reported to be excellent fathers.) There are simple physical limits here: first, hunter-gatherers don’t have baby formula and men don’t lactate, so the duties of caring for small children fall heavily on their mothers. Many hunter-gatherers don’t even have good weaning foods, and so nurse their children for years longer than most Westerners. Second, hunting tends to require great physical strength, both in killing the animals (stronger arms will get better and more accurate draws on bows and spears) and in hauling the kills back to the tribe (you try carrying a caribou.)

In many horticultural societies, women do a large share of the physical labor of building houses and producing food, but the men do not make up for this by tending the babies. A similar division of labor exists in modern, lower-class African American society, where the women provide for their families and raise the children and then men are largely absent. Modern Rwanda, which suffers a dearth of men due to war and mass genocide, also has a “highly equitable” division of labor; not exactly an egalitarian paradise.

Hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, and other folks living outside formal states, have very high rates of violence. The Yanomami/o, for example, (who combine horticulture and hunting/foraging) are famous for their extremely high rates of murder and constant warfare. The Aborigines of Australia, when first encountered by outsiders, also had very high rates of interpersonal violence and warfare.

Graph from the Wikipedia
See also my post, “No, Hunter Gatherers were not Peaceful Paragons of Gender Egalitarianism.”

The Jivaro are an Amazonian group similar to the Yanomamo; the Mae Enga, Dugum Dani, Huli, and Gebusi are horticulturalists/hunters from PNG; Murngin are Australian hunter-gatherers.

I know, I know, horticulturalists are not pure hunter-gatherers, even if they do a lot of hunting and gathering. As we’ll discuss below, the transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture is complicated and these are groups that we might describe as “in between”. The real question isn’t whether they bury a few coconuts if they happen to sprout before getting eaten, but whether they have developed large-scale social organization, cities, and/or formal states.

The article protests against using data from any contemporary forager societies, because they are by definition not ancient hunter-gatherers and have been contaminated by contact with non-foraging neighbors (I propose that the Australian Aborigines, however, at first contact were pretty uncontaminated,) but then the article goes on to use data from contemporary forager societies to bolster its own points… so I feel perfectly entitled to do the same thing.

However, we do have some data on ancient violence, eg:

According to this article, 12-14% of skeletons from most (but not all) ancient, pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer groups show signs of violence. Here’s a case of a band of hunter-gatherers–including 6 small children–who were slaughtered by another band of hunter-gatherers 10,000 years ago.

Warfare appears to have been part of the human experience as far back as we look–even chimps wage war against each other, as Jane Goodall documented in her work in the Gombe.

Then there’s the cannibalism. Fijians, for example, who practiced a mixed horticulture/hunter-gathering lifestyle (fishing is a form hunting that looks a lot like gathering,) were notorious cannibals when first encountered by outsiders. (Though they did have something resembling a state at the time.)

Neanderthals butchered each other; 14,700 years ago, hunter-gatherers were butchering and eating each other in Cheddar Gorge, England. (This is the same Cheddar Gorge as the famous Cheddar Man hails from, but CM is 5,000 years younger than these cannibals and probably no relation, as an intervening glacier had forced everyone out of the area for a while. CM also died a violent death, though.)

Or as reported by Real Anthropology:

Increasing amount of archaeological evidence, such as fortifications of territories and pits containing dead humans blown by axes, indicates that warfare originated from prehistoric times, long before the establishment of state societies. Recently, researchers studying the animal bones in Mesolithic layer of Coves de Santa Maira accidentally discovered thirty human bone remains of the pre-Neolithic hunter-gatherer with anthropic marks, indicating behaviors of human cannibalism.

The article would like to emphasize, however, that we don’t really know why these people engaged in cannibalism. Starvation? Funeral rituals? Dismemberment of an enemy they really hated? Like I said, it’s hard to know what people were really thinking without written records.

There was a while in anthropology/archaeology when people were arguing that the spread of pots didn’t necessarily involve the spread of people, as a new pottery style could just spread because people liked it and decided to adopt it; it turns out that sometimes the spread is indeed of pots, and sometimes it’s of people. Similarly, certain anthropologists took to describing hunter-gatherers as “harmless“, but this didn’t involve any actual analysis of violence rates among hunter-gatherers (yes, I’ve read the book.)

In sum: The narrative that our ancestors were peaceful egalitarians is, in most cases, probably nonsense.

  • 2. The Davids also argue that the transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture was more complex than the “traditional narrative” claims.

This is also true. As we’ve already touched on above, there are many economic systems that fall somewhere in between exclusive hunter-gathering and pure agriculture. Nomadic hunters who followed and exploited herds of animals gradually began protecting them from other predators (like wolves) and guiding the animals to areas with food and shelter. The domestication of goats pre-dates the beginning of agriculture (and dogs pre-date goats;) the domestication of reindeer was much more recent, (I reviewed a book on reindeer economies here, here, here, and here.) Again, there is no absolute line between hunters like the Eskimo who annually exploit migrating wild caribou and Lapp (Sami) ranchers who occasionally round up their herds of “domestic” reindeer. The reindeer appreciate that we humans kill off their natural predators (ie wolves) and provide a source of valuable salts (ie urine.) The origin of domestic goats and sheep probably looked similar, though the domestication of cattle was probably a more conscious decision given the bovines’ size.

The hunting of fish also looks a lot more like gathering or even farming, as a single resource area (eg, a bend in the river or a comfortable ocean bay) may be regularly exploited via nets, traps, rakes, weirs, etc.

Horticulture is a form of low-intensity agriculture (literally, gardening.) Some horticulturalists get most of their food from their gardens; others plant a few sprouted coconuts and otherwise get most of their food by hunting and fishing. Horticulture doesn’t require much technology (no plows needed) and typically doesn’t produce that many calories.

It is likely that many “hunter gatherers” understood the principle of “seeds sprout and turn into plants” and strategically planted seeds or left them in places where they wanted plants to grow for centuries or millennia before they began actively tending the resulting plants.

Many hunter-gatherer groups also practice active land management techniques. For example, a group of Melanesians in PNG that hunts crocodiles periodically burns the swamp in which the crocodiles live in order to prevent woody trees from taking over and making the swamp less swampy. By preserving the crocodiles’ habitat, they ensure there are plenty of crocodiles around for them to hunt. (I apologize for the lack of a link to a description of the group, but I saw it in a documentary about hunter-gatherers available on Netflix.)

Large-scale environment management probably also predates the adoption of formal agriculture by thousands of years.

Where the article goes wrong:

  1. Just because something is more complicated than the “simplified” version you commonly hear doesn’t mean, “There is no pattern, all is unknowable, nihilism now.”

Any simplified version of things is, by definition, simplified.

The idea that hunter-gatherers were uniquely peaceful and egalitarian is nonsense; if anything, the opposite may be true. Once you leave behind your preconceptions, you realize that the pattern isn’t “random noise” but but actually that all forms of violence and oppression appear to be decreasing over time. Economies where you can get ahead by murdering your neighbors and stealing their wives have been largely replaced by economies where murdering your neighbors lands you in prison and women go to college. There’s still noise in the data–times we humans kill a lot of each other–but that doesn’t mean there is no pattern.

  • 2. Most hunter-gatherers did, in fact, spend most of their time in small communities

The Davids make a big deal out of the fact that hunter-gatherers who exploit seasonally migrating herds sometimes gather in large groups in order to exploit those herds.  They cite, for example:

Another example were the indigenous hunter-gatherers of Canada’s Northwest Coast, for whom winter – not summer – was the time when society crystallised into its most unequal form, and spectacularly so. Plank-built palaces sprang to life along the coastlines of British Columbia, with hereditary nobles holding court over commoners and slaves, and hosting the great banquets known as potlatch. Yet these aristocratic courts broke apart for the summer work of the fishing season, reverting to smaller clan formations, still ranked, but with an entirely different and less formal structure. In this case, people actually adopted different names in summer and winter, literally becoming someone else, depending on the time of year.

Aside from the fact that they are here citing a modern people as an argument about prehistoric ones (!), the Pacific North West is one of the world’s lushest environments with an amazing natural abundance of huntable (fishable) food. If I had to pick somewhere to ride out the end of civilization, the PNW (and New Zealand) would be high on my list. The material abundance available in the PNW is available almost nowhere else in the world–and wasn’t available to anyone before the First Nations arrived in the area around 13,000 years ago. Our stone-age ancestors 100,000 years ago in Africa certainly weren’t exploiting salmon in British Columbia.

Hunter-gatherers who exploit migrating resources sometimes get all of their year’s food in only 3 or 4 massive hunts. These hunts certainly can involve lots of people, as whole clans will want to work together to round up, kill, and process thousands of animals within the space of a few days.

Even the most massive of these gatherings, however, did not compare in size and scope to our modern cities. A few hundred Inuit might gather for the short arctic summer before scattering back to their igloos; the Mongol capital of Ulan Bator was oft described as nearly deserted as the nomadic herdsmen had little reason to remain in the capital when court was not in session.

(Also, the Davids’ description of Inuit life is completely backwards from the actual anthropology I have read; I’m wondering if he accidentally mixed up the Yupik Eskimo who don’t go by the term “Inuit” with the Canadian Eskimo who do go by “Inuit;” I have not read about the Yupik, but if their lifestyles are different from the Inuit, this would explain the confusion.)

The Davids also cite the behavior of the 19th century Plains Indians, but this is waaay disconnected from any “primitive” lifestyle. Most of the Plains Indians had formerly been farmers before disease, guns, and horses, brought by the Spaniards, disrupted their lives. Without horses (or plows) the great plains and their bison herds were difficult to exploit, and people preferred to live in towns along local riverbanks, growing corn, squash, and beans.

We might generously call these towns “cities,” but none of them were the size of modern cities.

  • 3. Production of material wealth

Hunter-gathering, horticulture, fishing, and herding–even at their best–do not produce that much extra wealth. They are basically subsistence strategies; most people in these societies are directly engaged in food production and so can’t spend their time producing other goods. Nomads, of course, have the additional constraint that they can’t carry much with them under any circumstances.

A society can only have as much hierarchy as it can support. A nomadic tribe can have one person who tells everyone when to pack up and move to the next pasture, but it won’t produce enough food to support an entire class of young adults who do things other than produce food.

By contrast, in our modern, industrial society, less than 2% of people are farmers/ranchers. The other 98% of us are employed in food processing of some sort, careers not related to food at all, or unemployed.

This is why our society can produce parking lots that are bigger and more complex than the most impressive buildings ever constructed by hunter-gatherers.

The fact that, on a few occasions, hunter-gatherers managed to construct large buildings (and Stonehenge was not built by hunter-gatherers but by farmers; the impressive, large stones of Stonehenge were not part of the original layout but erected by a later wave of invaders who killed off 90% of Stonehenge’s original builders) does not mean the average hunter-gatherer lived in complex societies most of the time. They did not, because hunter-gathering could not support complex society, massive building projects, nor aristocracies most of the time.

It is only with the advent of agriculture that people started accumulating enough food that there were enough leftover for any sort of formal, long-term state to start taxing. True, this doesn’t necessarily mean that agriculture has to result in formal states with taxes; it just means that it’s very hard to get that without agriculture. (The one exception is if a nomadic herding society like the Mongols conquers an agricultural state and takes their taxes.)

In sum, yes, the “traditional story” is wrong–but not completely. History was more complicated, violent, and unequal, than portrayed, but the broad outlines of “smaller, simpler” hunter gatherer societies to “bigger, more complex” agricultural societies is basically correct. If anything, the lesson is that civilization has the potential to be a great force for good.