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.”

 

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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!

Review: Numbers and the Making of Us, by Caleb Everett

I’m about halfway through Caleb Everett’s Numbers and the Making of Us: Counting and the Course of Human Cultures. Everett begins the book with a lengthy clarification that he thinks everyone in the world has equal math abilities, some of us just happen to have been exposed to more number ideas than others. Once that’s out of the way, the book gets interesting.

When did humans invent numbers? It’s hard to say. We have notched sticks from the Paleolithic, but no way to tell if these notches were meant to signify numbers or were just decorated.

The slightly more recent Ishango, Lebombo, and Wolf bones (30,000 YA, Czech Republic) seem more likely to indicate that someone was at least counting–if not keeping track–of something.

The Ishango bone (estimated 20,000 years old, found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo near the headwaters of the Nile,) has three sets of notches–two sets total to 60, the third to 48. Interestingly, the notches are grouped, with both sets of sixty composed of primes: 19 + 17 + 13 + 11 and 9 + 19 + 21 + 11. The set of 48 contains groups of 3, 6, 4, 8, 10, 5, 5, and 7. Aside from the stray seven, the sequence tantalizingly suggests that someone was doubling numbers.

Ishango Bone

The Ishango bone also has a quartz point set into the end, which perhaps allowed it to be used for scraping, drawing, or etching–or perhaps it just looked nice atop someone’s decorated bone.

The Lebombo bone, (estimated 43-44,2000 years old, found near the border between South Africa and Swaziland,) is quite similar to the Ishango bone, but only contains 29 notches (as far as we can tell–it’s broken.)

I’ve seen a lot of people proclaiming “Scientists think it was used to keep track of menstrual cycles. Menstruating African women were the first mathematicians!” so I’m just going to let you in on a little secret: scientists have no idea what it was for. Maybe someone was just having fun putting notches on a bone. Maybe someone was trying to count all of their relatives. Maybe someone was counting days between new and full moons, or counting down to an important date.

Without a far richer archaeological assembly than one bone, we have no idea what this particular person might have wanted to count or keep track of. (Also, why would anyone want to keep track of menstrual cycles? You’ll know when they happen.)

The Wolf bone (30,000 years old, Czech Republic,) has received far less interest from folks interested in proclaiming that menstruating African women were the first mathematicians, but is a nice looking artifact with 60 notches–notches 30 and 31 are significantly longer than the others, as though marking a significant place in the counting (or perhaps just the middle of the pattern.)

Everett cites another, more satisfying tally stick: a 10,000 year old piece of antler found in the anoxic waters of Little Salt Spring, Florida. The antler contains two sets of marks: 28 (or possibly 29–the top is broken in a way that suggests another notch might have been a weak point contributing to the break) large, regular, evenly spaced notches running up the antler, and a much smaller set of notches set beside and just slightly beneath the first. It definitely looks like someone was ticking off quantities of something they wanted to keep track of.

Here’s an article with more information on Little Salt Spring and a good photograph of the antler.

I consider the bones “maybes” and the Little Salt Spring antler a definite for counting/keeping track of quantities.

Inca Quipu

Everett also mentions a much more recent and highly inventive tally system: the Incan quipu.

A quipu is made of knotted strings attached to one central string. A series of knots along the length of each string denotes numbers–one knot for 1, two for 2, etc. The knots are grouped in clusters, allowing place value–first cluster for the ones, second for the tens, third for hundreds, etc. (And a blank space for a zero.)

Thus a sequence of 2 knots, 4 knots, a space, and 5 knots = 5,402

The Incas, you see, had an empire to administer, no paper, but plenty of lovely alpaca wool. So being inventive people, they made do.

Everett then discusses the construction of names for numbers/base systems in different languages. Many languages use a combination of different bases, eg, “two twos” for four, (base 2,) “two hands” to signify 10 (base 5,) and from there, words for multiples of 10 or 20, (base 10 or 20,) can all appear in the same language. He argues convincingly that most languages derived their counting words from our original tally sticks: fingers and toes, found in quantities of 5, 10, and 20. So the number for 5 in a language might be “one hand”, the number for 10, “Two hands,” and the number for 20 “one person” (two hands + two feet.) We could express the number 200 in such a language by saying “two hands of one person”= 10 x 20.

(If you’re wondering how anyone could come up with a base 60 system, such as we inherited from the Babylonians for telling time, try using the knuckles of the four fingers on one hand [12] times the fingers of the other hand [5] to get 60.)

Which begs the question of what counts as a “number” word (numeral). Some languages, it is claimed, don’t have words for numbers higher than 3–but put out an array of 6 objects, and their speakers can construct numbers like “three twos.” Is this a number? What about the number in English that comes after twelve: four-teen, really just a longstanding mispronunciation of four and ten?

Perhaps a better question than “Do they have a word for it,” is “Do they have a common, easy to use word for it?” English contains the world nonillion, but you probably don’t use it very often (and according to the dictionary, a nonillion is much bigger in Britain than in the US, which makes it especially useless.) By contrast, you probably use quantities like a hundred or a thousand all the time, especially when thinking about household budgets.

Roman Numerals are really just an advanced tally system with two bases: 5 and 10. IIII are clearly regular tally marks. V (5) is similar to our practice of crossing through four tally marks. X (10) is two Vs set together. L (50) is a rotated V. C (100) is an abbreviation for the Roman word Centum, hundred. (I, V, X, and L are not abbreviations.) I’m not sure why 500 is D; maybe just because D follows C and it looks like a C with an extra line. M is short for Mille, or thousand. Roman numerals are also fairly unique in their use of subtraction in writing numbers, which few people do because it makes addition horrible. Eg, IV and VI are not the same number, nor do they equal 15 and 51. No, they equal 4 (v-1) and 6 (v+1,) respectively. Adding or multiplying large Roman numerals quickly becomes cumbersome; if you don’t believe me, try XLVII times XVIII with only a pencil and paper.

Now imagine you’re trying to run an empire this way.

You’re probably thinking, “At least those quipus had a zero and were reliably base ten,” about now.

Interestingly, the Mayans (and possibly the Olmecs) already had a proper symbol that they used for zero in their combination base-5/base-20 system with pretty functional place value at a time when the Greeks and Romans did not (the ancient Greeks were philosophically unsure about this concept of a “number that isn’t there.”)

(Note: given the level of sophistication of Native American civilizations like the Inca, Aztec, and Maya, and the fact that these developed in near total isolation, they must have been pretty smart. Their current populations appear to be under-performing relative to their ancestors.)

But let’s let Everett have a chance to speak:

Our increasingly refined means of survival and adaptation are the result of a cultural ratchet. This term, popularized by Duke University psychologist and primatologist Michael Tomasello, refers to the fact that humans cooperatively lock in knowledge from one generation to the next, like the clicking of a ratchet. In other word, our species’ success is due in large measure to individual members’ ability to learn from and emulate the advantageous behavior of their predecessors and contemporaries in their community. What makes humans special is not simply that we are so smart, it is that we do not have to continually come up with new solutions to the same old problems. …

Now this is imminently reasonable; I did not invent the calculus, nor could I have done so had it not already existed. Luckily for me, Newton and Leibniz already invented it and I live in a society that goes to great lengths to encode math in textbooks and teach it to students.

I call this “cultural knowledge” or “cultural memory,” and without it we’d still be monkeys with rocks.

The importance of gradually acquired knowledge stored in the community, culturally reified but not housed in the mind of any one individual, crystallizes when we consider cases in which entire cultures have nearly gone extinct because some of their stored knowledge dissipated due to the death of individuals who served as crucial nodes in their community’s knowledge network. In the case of the Polar Inuit of Northwest Greenland, population declined in the mid-nineteenth century after an epidemic killed several elders of the community. These elders were buried along with their tool sand weapons, in accordance with local tradition, and the Inuits’ ability to manufacture the tools and weapons in question was severely compromised. … As a result, their population did not recover until about 40 years later, when contact with another Inuit group allowed for the restoration of the communal knowledge base.

The first big advance, the one that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom, was language itself. Yes, other animals can communicate–whales and birds sing; bees do their waggle dance–but only humans have full-fledged, generative language which allows us to both encode and decode new ideas with relative ease. Language lets different people in a tribe learn different things and then pool their ideas far more efficiently than mere imitation.

The next big leap was the development of visual symbols we could record–and read–on wood, clay, wax, bones, cloth, cave walls, etc. Everett suggests that the first of these symbols were likely tally marks such us those found on the Lebombo bone, though of course the ability to encode a buffalo on the wall of the Lascaux cave, France, was also significant. From these first symbols we developed both numbers and letters, which eventually evolved into books.

Books are incredible. Books are like external hard drives for your brain, letting you store, access, and transfer information to other people well beyond your own limits of memorization and well beyond a human lifetime. Books reach across the ages, allowing us to read what philosophers, poets, priests and sages were thinking about a thousand years ago.

Recently we invented an even more incredible information storage/transfer device: computers/the internet. To be fair, they aren’t as sturdy as clay tablets, (fired clay is practically immortal,) but they can handle immense quantities of data–and make it searchable, an incredibly important task.

But Everett tries to claim that cultural ratchet is all there is to human mathematical ability. If you live in a society with calculus textbooks, then you can learn calculus, and if you don’t, you can’t. Everett does not want to imply that Amazonian tribesmen with no words for numbers bigger than three are in any way less able to do math than the Mayans with their place value system and fancy zero.

But this seems unlikely for two reasons. First, we know very well that even in societies with calculus textbooks, not everyone can make use of them. Even among my own children, who have been raised with about as similar an environment as a human can make and have very similar genetics, there’s a striking difference in intellectual strengths and weaknesses. Humans are not identical in their abilities.

Moreover, we know that different mental tasks are performed in different, specialized parts of the brain. For example, we decode letters in the “visual word form area” of the brain; people whose VWAs have been damaged can still read, but they have to use different parts of their brains to work out the letters and they end up reading more slowly than they did before.

Memorably, before he died, the late Henry Harpending (of West Hunter) had a stroke while in Germany. He initially didn’t notice the stroke because it was located in the part of the brain that decodes letters into words, but since he was in Germany, he didn’t expect to read the words, anyway. It was only when he looked at something written in English later that day that he realized he couldn’t read it, and soon after I believe he passed out and was taken to the hospital.

Why should our brains have a VWA at all? It’s not like our primate ancestors did a whole lot of reading. It turns out that the VWA is repurposed from the part of our brain that recognizes faces :)

Likewise, there are specific regions of the brain that handle mathematical tasks. People who are better at math not only have more gray matter in these regions, but they also have stronger connections between them, letting the work together in harmony to solve different problems. We don’t do math by just throwing all of our mental power at a problem, but by routing it through specific regions of our brain.

Interestingly, humans and chimps differ in their ability to recognize faces and perceive emotions. (For anatomical reasons, chimps are more inclined to identify each other’s bottoms than each other’s faces.) We evolved the ability to recognize faces–the region of our brain we use to decode letters–when we began walking upright and interacting to each other face to face, though we do have some vestigial interest in butts and butt-like regions (“My eyes are up here.”) Our brains have evolved over the millenia to get better at specific tasks–in this case, face reading, a precursor to decoding symbolic language.

And there is a tremendous quantity of evidence that intelligence is at least partly genetic–estimates for the heritablity of intelligence range between 60 and 80%. The rest of the variation–the environmental part–looks to be essentially random chance, such as accidents, nutrition, or perhaps your third grade teacher.

So, yes, we absolutely can breed people for mathematical or linguistic ability, if that’s what the environment is selecting for. By contrast, if there have been no particular mathematical or linguistic section pressures in an environment (a culture with no written language, mathematical notation, and very few words for numbers clearly is not experiencing much pressure to use them), then you won’t select for such abilities. The question is not whether we can all be Newtons, (or Leibnizes,) but how many Newtons a society produces and how many people in that society have the potential to understand calculus, given the chance.

I do wonder why he made the graph so much bigger than the relevant part
Lifted gratefully from La Griffe Du Lion’s Smart Fraction II article

Just looking at the state of different societies around the world (including many indigenous groups that live within and have access to modern industrial or post-industrial technologies), there is clear variation in the average abilities of different groups to build and maintain complex societies. Japanese cities are technologically advanced, clean, and violence-free. Brazil, (which hasn’t even been nuked,) is full of incredibly violent, unsanitary, poorly-constructed favelas. Some of this variation is cultural, (Venezuela is doing particularly badly because communism doesn’t work,) or random chance, (Saudi Arabia has oil,) but some of it, by necessity, is genetic.

But if you find that a depressing thought, take heart: selective pressures can be changed. Start selecting for mathematical and verbal ability (and let everyone have a shot at developing those abilities) and you’ll get more mathematical and verbal abilities.

But this is getting long, so let’s continue our discussion next week.

Anthropology Friday: No Angel by Jay Dobyns, pt 3/3

Welcome to our final post on Jay Dobyns and Nils Johnson-Shelton‘s No Angel: My Harrowing Undercover Journey to the Inner Circle of the Hells Angels. (The subtitle is a bit of an overstatement–while Dobyns does meet Sonny Barger, he’s never part of Sonny’s circle. The authors may not have had any control over the book’s title, though.) This has been an interesting, often intense book. I’ve not quoted as much as I usually do because the book is new, under copyright, and obviously the authors would like for you to buy a copy and read it yourself.

One of the themes running through the book is the intersection of crime, drugs, poverty, and innocents (children) caught in the middle. It’s a part of America where meth is rampant and lives are broken.

And how do the Hells Angels (and other motorcycle clubs) fit into this? Are they spontaneous order or disorder? For people who grew up neglected, abused, or merely on the outside of society, does the “brotherhood” of bikers provide an essential, tribal sense of belonging?

Indeed, one of the mysteries the book touches on repeatedly is that this “criminal” organization receives nigh unwavering support from the general public. When they go to clubs, they’re given an introduction over the loudspeaker (“Everyone, the Hells Angels are partying with us tonight!”) Women are thrown at them. (Dobyns, who is married, has to get another undercover police officer to fake being his girlfriend to explain why he isn’t having sex with any of the women throwing themselves at him.) All of the motorcycle clubs in the area, even the totally mundane ones, respect the HAs; there are HA “support” clubs scattered around the nation.

(In any area where the HA aren’t dominant and some other club is, people look up to and respect that club.) People buy Hells Angels t-shirts and as Dobyns notes, even some police officers form their own motorcycle clubs, at least somewhat modeled on the Outlaw clubs.

By contrast, while people do look out for and respect their local Mafia bosses and drug dealers, they don’t form gang fan clubs or wear Mafia-themed t-shirts.

Meanwhile, job demands were wearing on Dobyns (as usual, I’m using “” instead of blockquotes for readability):

“I was running ragged. The life of an undercover cop is not one of leisure. I was up every morning at seven, going over notes from the night before or transcribing audio from one of my recorders. the notes couldn’t be half-assed or glossed over, they had to be dead-nuts on. Then I’d do my expenditures, and those had to be to the penny… Then I’d contact the suspects–some of whom were occasionally crashed out in the living room while I did reports behind my bedroom’s locked door–and set up meetings and deals for the day or week. Then I’d call Slats and go over everything with him. Then I’d meet a task force agent to exchange notes and evidence. Then I’d start making my runs, seeing the boys, hitting the spots–just being seen is a job in itself. Then I’d make my scheduled meetings, do the buys I’d set up, Hit the club houses, and have conversations.

“Some days I’d ride from Phoenix to Bullhead and back … The sun would set, the heat would dissipate, and the nights would begin. I’d go out and, despite drinking, would try to stay lucid enough to be able to defend myself, JJ, Timmy, or Pop if any of us got made. The stress of being in near-constant mortal danger is what we were trained to endure, but undertaking it day after day is enough to fry anyone. I’d get home, cross myself, smoke cigarettes, down coffee, jot down notes and reminders, and then try to get a few hours sleep before doing t all over again the next day.”

EvX: According to Donnie Brasco, (The Way of the Wiseguy,) he didn’t set foot in an FBI office for the whole 6 years of his undercover operation. Obviously his phone and house were bugged, but it sounds like he didn’t have to check in with his supervisors or get most of his moves approved by anyone. Of course, that was in the 70s (and New York.) The FBI’s standard procedures have likely changed a bit since then (from the sounds of it, toward “more bureaucratic control and less liability” but ironically, “more likely to die from exhaustion while trying to ride a motorcycle at night.”)

Assassination of Sonny’s Successor?

“Daniel “Hoover” Seybert had been shot through the forehead on March 22. He’d been killed in the parking lot of Bridgette’s Last Laugh, a Phoenix bar, surrounded by his brothers, who conveniently–and ludicrously–didn’t see a thing. According to the Hells Angels witnesses, Hoover had just started his bike when he suddenly slumped over the bars. there was no exit wound. they didn’t hear a discharge. Some claimed that until they saw the wound in his forehead they thought he’d had a heart attack. … they were all convinced the shooter must have been a Mongol.

“We weren’t so sure. The medical examiner concluded that the wound was from a small-caliber, close-range shot. … Hoover was revered and respected nationally and internationally by friend and foes–he’d been groomed as Sonny’s replacement… His death devastated the club and drove their paranoia to new heights. …

“There was plenty of internal tension among the Angels in those days, centering on which way the club was headed, what they’d symbolize as they continued their wild ride through American cultural history. … Generally, younger members felt as though they’d joined the Hells Angels to raise hell, to do what they wanted to, when they wanted to, and not be told otherwise. Older members–members, it should be said, who’d lived this freer, hell0-raising lifestyle in decades past,–preferred to rest on their laurels, doing whatever they could not to attract attention from the law. These Angels were content with being old-time kings of the hill and selling T-shirts at motorcycle rallies.

EvX: Again, this gets back to the question of what the organization is. The HAs got their reputation by being violent, but once you’ve got that reputation, why not sit back and enjoy it? Crime is dangerous and can lead to getting arrested; partying is fun. But the younger members have different ideas of fun. They don’t want to avoid trouble; they want to go out and raise hell.

Back to Dobyns:

“Time passed in a blur. Back in Phoenix, on the eight, I worked out with Dan… the crazy musclehead Angel I’d met when our Solo Angeles crew came to town back in January. He pumped his iron, vein in his neck bulging, and waxed hopeful about the end of his parole… JJ and I went with Bobby on the ninth to set up a T-shirt booth at a run. He intimidated the guy in charge into giving us free passes and the best booth location. Bobby said he was going to run the Americans Motorcycle Club out of there if he saw them. He and Teddy bitched about how they hadn’t been giving the Angels their due respect and that they were going to force the Americans out of the area, maybe even the state…

[They get news of a possible conflict with another club and get called in:]

“He addressed us. ‘Expect to kill tonight. Expect to shoot. Expect to die, go to jail, or skip country.’ …

“Teddy and Bobby looked on as Joby loaded the Jeep with the shotgun a box of shells, a sap, an ax handle and three or four knives. Teddy looked distraught. …

“He spoke, contemplating the ground. ‘I”m not happy about this, but this is what we do. I’m proud of ya and I’m proud of the Hells Angels. Ya be there for them, and they’ll be there for ya. Do what ya gotta do, but I want y’all to come back alive.’ He gave each of us a big hug.

WWII Soldiers on Harley Davidsons

“Bobby hugged us too. As he finished with me he grabbed my shoulders and said, ‘Remember, Bird–a Hells Angel may not always be right, but he is always you bother.’

“Teddy spoke again. ‘Half of what’s mine is yours. Don’t forget that either.’

“Their words made sense. Even though I’d sworn an oath to fight guy like these, I’d bought into some of their credo. I knew that any of these guys, and more than a few others across the state, wold gladly take a bullet for me. In that instant I believed in some of what the Hell Angels stood for. I was genuinely touched.”

EvX: Luckily, based on Dobyns’ and the other undercover cops’ information, the police intercept the guys they were going to potentially fight and no violence occurs.

The Wild Pigs:

“The Williams run was easy. … I wandered around with Bobby, acting as his bodyguard.

“We came across a group of bikers who called themselves the Wild Pigs. One of their guys walked up to us, his hand extended to Bobby. He wore a big shit-eating smile. He said, ‘Hey, pleasure to meet you.’

“Bobby raised his sunglasses and looked at him intently. He did not offer his hand in return. ‘Get fucked.’ …

“The Wild Pigs were cops, guys with badges who paraded around on weekends like a One Percenter club. In my mind, as in Bobby’s, they were a fucking abomination.”

EvX: Dobyns is running into a problem. He has documented plenty of illegal gun and drug sales, but nothing really new or incriminating for the organization as a whole. He’s still on the outside, a member of the “Solo Angeles” club that just rides a lot with the Hells Angels. He wants to become a full member, but prospecting for a club takes time. There are rules, they’re strict, and they don’t let a lot of people in. Meanwhile, his bosses are getting tired of the operation; it’s a lot of expense, hassle, and stress to pay him to go drinking and riding motorcycles if he’s not getting any information they don’t already have.

So Dobyns tries to expedite the prospecting process by proposing a hit job. He’ll show his devotion to the HAs by going down to Mexico and killing one of the Mongols, the HA’s rivals. He is essentially given the club’s blessings to do this, but I note that it was Dobyns‘s idea, not the club’s.

So, if you’re ever in a club that the FBI might be infiltrating, and some guy is proposing something violent or illegal, it’s best to say no.

The Hit:

“He handed me the pistol, I checked the safety and stuck it in my back pocket. I said I had to go, that I’d be in touch, and that I’d be back in a few days.

“He grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled me close, hugging me tight, slapping my back hard. He pushed me back, looked into my eyes, and said, ‘I want you to come home. All of you.’

“Don’t worry, bro, we will. We will.”

[Obviously, Dobyns does not actually kill anyone. They stage a photograph to make it look like they killed the dude.]

“But I was no Angel. The Mongol murder was not as simple as it appeared. …

“The fire at Joby’s camp had smelled like lamb chops for a good reason. The blood, skin, and brain that spattered out of the Mongol’s clothes had belonged to a lamb, not a man.”

It almost works, but the Hells Angels, they’ve got rules:

“On the thirtieth, Timmy, JJ, and I went to Skull Valley to talk things over. … We were told that we weren’t going to get patched [that is, receive their Hells Angels patches], even though the local shot-callers had sided with us. The problem went back to Laughlin… when some Angels had been fast-patched after the riot. This pissed off the European Angels. Those guys were over there fighting their rivals with RPGs, blowing up entire clubhouses, and none them got patched early. We were told that Europe simply outnumbered the United States and none of our guys wanted to step on their European counterparts’ toes.”

EvX: Two interesting things here. One, people did get fast-patched after the Laughlin (River Run) Riot. So violence on behalf of the club is definitely rewarded. The other interesting thing is that the European Angels sound like they are getting into a lot more violence than the American ones.

But this leaves Dobyns in the lurch. With no fast patch, the FBI decides to stop the operation. Dobyns has come far–he’s apparently considered a member of his local club even if the HA international says he needs more time–but not far enough. He’s pulled out and essentially disappears.

The case’s search warrants get executed on July 8:

“Staci, Bobby’s girlfriend, called after we started knocking the Angels down and left a frantic message, saying, ‘Bird [Dobyns’s alias], it’s Staci. I don’t know where you are, but wherever it is, stay there. They’re coming for the guys. It looks like they’re coming for all the guys. I don’t know what the fuck is going on Hopefully I’ll see you soon…’

“She wouldn’t.

“What was going on was predawn SRT and SWAT raids, conducted in Arizona, Nevada, California, Washington, and Colorado. The total haul was impressive. More than 1,600 pieces of evidence were collected: over 650 guns, eight of which were machine guns, sawed-off shotguns, and other prohibited weapons; dozens of silencers; explosives, including pipe-bombs, napalm, blasting caps, dynamite, and grenades; and over 30,000 rounds of live ammunition. …

“Owing to lack of evidence, Ralph “Sonny” Barger was left untouched. …

“By the summer of 2004 the Hells Angels had issued two death threats against my family and me. Over the following years they would issue three more. …

“ATF didn’t take the threats seriously. … My paranoia grew, and was only made worse by ATF’s refusal to recognize what I knew was a mortal situation. They belittled my concerns and downplayed my accomplishments… It was a dreary business, but heart-breaking and eye-opening. I’d expected to be betrayed by the Hells Angels, but not by the people I’d worked so incredibly hard for.”

EvX: Obviously we’re reading this through Dobyns’ POV. Maybe his superiors have a completely different version of things.

But there’s a lot of betrayal here. Dobyns betrayed men he’d called “brother” and had called him “brother.” Yes, many of these men were criminals, but they also would have taken a bullet for him. Even after Dobyns completely disappeared without warning or goodbye, people in the midst of life-destroying SWAT raids (raids Dobyns caused) tried to warn and protect him.

And in the meanwhile, the organization that was supposed to have Dobyns’s back and protect him didn’t.

Operation Black Biscuit [the codename for the case] ultimately failed:

“Sadly, disputes over evidence and tensions between ATF and the U.S. attorneys killed our case. Most of the serious charges were dismissed in early 2006, and as a result, hardly any of the guys who were charged with RICO violations saw the inside of a courtroom. …

“Those were dark days. The press and the defense attorneys, not privy to the turf battles fought between the case agents and the prosecutors, hung the blame on the undercover operation. We were called rogue actors, reckless and impulsive, and the Hells Angels’ legal representation publicly yoked us, confident the case would never go before a jury…

“In the beginning I thought of the Black Biscuit case as a classic Good-versus-Evil struggle. I knew the brutality and intimidation brought by the Hells Angels was real. Violence was their way of life. … Our team of elite investigators was an ideal adversary to the Hells Angels, and everyone on the task force was proud to throw themselves into taking down such an evil organization.

“But as we’ve seen, things aren’t always so cut-and-dried. I went in deep and realized that the Hells Angels weren’t all bad–and I wasn’t all good.”

“When we do right, nobody remembers. When we do wrong, nobody forgets.” — HA motto

Anthropology Friday: God of the Rodeo: Angola, Louisiana

Point Lookout Cemetery, Angola

Angola, also known as the Louisiana State Penitentiary, is the largest maximum-security prison in the US. It holds 6,300 inmates, most of them for life–and for those who have no families or friends to bury them, death.

Before it became a prison, Angola was a slave plantation, named for the country most of its residents came from. With 18,000 acres and a working farm (complete with cotton fields) run by inmates, many people call it the nation’s last plantation.

I wanted to move away from traditional anthropology–focused primarily on “primitive,” non-industrialized peoples–and focus instead on the economic, political, and social lives of people on the margins of our own societies, such as pirates; criminals; prisoners; and the completely innocent, ordinary poor.

Alas, not many anthropologists have infiltrated criminal organizations and written books about them, (I can’t imagine why,) and my selection among the books that do exist is limited by what I can actually get my hands on. With that in mind, I selected Bergner’s God of the Rodeo: The Quest for Redemption in Louisiana’s Angola Prison (1999.)

Spoiler alert: This is not an upbeat book. I mean, the author tries. He really does. But we are still talking about criminals who’ve been sent to prison for life. If you’re looking for something cheerful, go look at funny cat pictures.

Amazon’s blurb for the book reads:

Never before had Daniel Bergner seen a spectacle as bizarre as the one he had come to watch that Sunday in October. Murderers, rapists, and armed robbers were competing in the annual rodeo at Angola, the grim maximum-security penitentiary in Louisiana. The convicts, sentenced to life without parole, were thrown, trampled, and gored by bucking bulls and broncos before thousands of cheering spectators. But amid the brutality of this gladiatorial spectacle Bergner caught surprising glimpses of exaltation, hints of triumphant skill.

The incongruity of seeing hope where one would expect only hopelessness, self-control in men who were there because they’d had none, sparked an urgent quest in him. Having gained unlimited and unmonitored access, Bergner spent an unflinching year inside the harsh world of Angola. He forged relationships with seven prisoners who left an indelible impression on him. There’s Johnny Brooks, seemingly a latter-day Stepin Fetchit, who, while washing the warden’s car, longs to be a cowboy and to marry a woman he meets on the rodeo grounds. Then there’s Danny Fabre, locked up for viciously beating a woman to death, now struggling to bring his reading skills up to a sixth-grade level. And Terry Hawkins, haunted nightly by the ghost of his victim, a ghost he tries in vain to exorcise in a prison church that echoes with the cries of convicts talking in tongues. …

According to Bergner, in Angola’s early days in the late 1800s (post-Civil War,) conditions were extremely bad. Convicts were basically worked to death in Louisiana’s swamps; average life expectancy for a long-term prisoner was only 6 years.

The state took over the prison in 1901, which hopefully ended the working-to-death-era, but as Wikipedia notes:

Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell, authors of The Life and Legend of Leadbelly, said that Angola was “probably as close to slavery as any person could come in 1930.” Hardened criminals broke down upon being notified that they were being sent to Angola. White-black racial tensions in the society were expressed at the prison, adding to the violence: each year one in every ten inmates received stab wounds.

In 1952, 31 inmates cut their own Achilles’ tendons in protest against prison conditions, (which are reported as pretty horrible,) but things didn’t really improve until the 70s, when Judge Polozola decided the prison was so bad that if the legislature find funds to clean things up, he’d start releasing prisoners. According to Bergner, this led to an initial improvement in conditions, but subsequently a liberal warden with a kumbaya-approach to running the place was appointed and matters degenerated again. The lax approach to managing the prisoners led to men sleeping in cafeteria-tray armor in hopes of not being murdered by their neighbors in the middle of the night.

A more conservative warden replaced the liberal one, marched in military style, re-established order, and got the shivving rate back down. Angola appears to have found a workable middle-ground between getting worked to death in the swamps and getting stabbed to death during candle-lit kumbaya sessions.

But since Louisiana is poor and people tend not to want to spend money on criminals, Wikipedia notes:

In 2009, the prison reduced its budget by $12 million by “double bunking” (installing bunk beds to increase the capacity of dormitories), reducing overtime, and replacing officers with security cameras.[36]

That sounds like a bad idea.

Unfortunately for me, Bergner doesn’t explore the prisoners’ economy beyond the occasional reference to trade in cheese, cigarettes, or marijuana. (Cigarettes as prison currency appears confirmed.) He also doesn’t go into much detail about how the 6,300 prisoners (many of whom sleep in a large, open dormitory) regulate social relations among themselves. Rather, he focuses on describing the lives of a handful of inmates. Bergner’s mission is to humanize them–to portray them as people who, potentially, could be redeemed–without forgetting their crimes.

The biggest thing that stood out to me while reading was the gulf between these men’s lives and the world of middle and upper-class people who like to say high-minded things about criminals. The common vogue for blaming bad life outcomes on environmental effects–as though a few changes in early childhood could have radically changed the course of these men’s lives (and their victims’,) sending them to university instead of prison.

But this is not the story the mens’ biographies tell.

Obviously some people end up in prison by accident–unfortunate folks who actually were wrongly convicted. Then there are folks who did make a bad decision–or whose parents made bad decisions–that led to a much-regretted action. But this does not describe most of the Bergner’s criminals.

Rather, they share a combination of impulsiveness (high time preference,) aggression, and low-IQ.

In isolation, each of these traits is not so bad. People with Down’s Syndrome aren’t very bright, but they’re friendly and don’t murder others. An aggressive but smart person can understand the consequences of their actions and direct their aggression to socially-acceptable activities. But taken together, even people who later greatly regret their actions can, in a fit of rage, put a meat-cleaver into someone’s skull.

And even once they are in prison–a place where the average person might reflect that violence was a bad life choice–many criminals commit yet more violence–beating, raping, stabbing, and occasionally killing each other. Despite Angola being more peaceful than it was in the past (a peace imposed by marching guards in full riot gear,) it still requires constant, armed surveillance and daily searches to prevent the prisoners from shivving each other.

Bergner also visits a former Angola inmate in his home, where he now lives with his mother. As they survey the landscape surveying his childhood home–burned down buildings, crack houses on every corner, childhood friends consumed by drug use–it is clear that the traits that lead many men to Angola are not abnormalities, but more extreme forms of the traits responsible for the degradation around them.

This is an extremely difficult problem to solve, or even think up potential solutions for. It’s easy to say, “get the crack out of the cities,” but there were people dealing drugs even inside Angola. If people can smuggle and sell drugs in a maximum security prison, I don’t think anything short of heads on pikes will stop them from smuggling drugs into cities.

And even well-intentioned, drug-free people struggle with basics like picking up trash from their yards and preventing their homes from falling apart. As Bergner writes:

We stepped away from the house, a shabby box of pale green wood, the house Littell had been born in, that his mother still lived in, that he had returned to. A corroded swing set stood in front, then a low, wilting cyclone fence, then a stack of four torn tires like a welcoming statue beside the fence gate. … He never invited me inside, and I have always wondered what level of decrepitude or disarray he preferred not to show me…

Across from his house a vacant lot occupied half the block, a reminder of the property facing O’Brien, except that there the grass was cut low, while here saplings crowded one another amid shoulder-high reeds. An abandoned nightclub buckled behind the saplings. Within the tall grass were the charred boards of two houses leveled by arson while Littell had been at Angola. A pair of tremendous oak trees, draped with Spanish moss, had once shaded those houses. The trees still thrived, though now the effect was different, the dangling webs of moss no longer gentle but looking like an onslaught of chaotic growth spilling from the sky.

“This neighborhood was no Fifth Avenue,” Littell said as we passed between the lot on one side and homes like his mother’s on the other. “But it looked good. Fifteen years ago, a lot of these houses were still pretty new. Now it’s like nature’s taking over. When people move into a community they build up on nature, and now it’s like nature’s coming back and the will of man is losing out.” …

But he felt more threatened than I did, walking me around the neighborhood. Up ahead, three or four teenagers sat on the unrailed porch of a shack with boarded up windows. “They think you’re here to buy drugs,” he said, their eyes tracking us past the house. “They think I’m bringing the white dude around.” …

It was no joke to him. …. He had nothing to show the police if they stopped him for questioning. …

“Every evening, I try to be back inside by eight o’clock,” he said, “‘Cause all I need is to be in the wrong place at the time. They ask me for some ID, they see I got none, they run a check, see I’ve been to Angola, that’s it. Any unsolved robbery, they can pin it on me. You see, Dan, the new thing is that crack. And that’s everybody. It’s seldom you see anyone around here who’s straight. Sometimes it makes me thankful for Angola–all the guys I grew up with are wasted on it.”…

Then I listened to the neighborhood. At six-thirty in the evening it was silent, almost motionless. The dealers on their porch weren’t speaking. Nor were the women in their dingy yellow or powder blue knee-length shorts, sitting on a stoop propped up on cinder blocks. They only stared. No cars drove by…. A few rickety bicycles difted past,w ith grown men riding them. The supermarket where we went to buy sodas had seel mesh ove every window and, inside, scarecely any light… The grocery seemed to be the only operating business around. …

The place was like a ghost town, still inhabited.

I’ve often wondered: what is the difference between poverty and merely being poor or living at a lower socio-economic level? We don’t normally think of nomadic hunter-gatherers or pastoralists as “homeless.” A homeless guy sleeping under a bridge is poor, an aberration in a society where most people can afford homes; a hunter-gatherer sleeping in the bush is just living like his ancestors have always lived.

We might say that poverty is a departure from a community’s average–that is, a man is poor in comparison with his neighbors, not some global, a-historical ranking. But it seems a little dishonest to lump together people who live simply on purpose with people who struggle hard but still can’t get ahead.

So I propose a second definition: the inability to maintain the level of civilization you’re in. The Amish, for example, have a relatively low standard of living, low incomes, etc. But they are more than up to the task of maintaining their infrastructure, building their homes and barns, taking care of their horses, raising crops, etc. Amish society isn’t falling apart.

By contrast, Littell’s neighborhood has fallen apart over the fifteen years he spent at Angola. Nature is reclaiming the houses and burned-out businesses. We can blame crack, but that’s just kicking it back a level: why was this neighborhood blighted by crack while others went unscathed?

Many of the prisoners Bergner follows are functionally illiterate–one struggles (and fails) to pass a quiz intended for younger elementary school children. His struggle cannot be blamed on “lack of opportunity to learn,” as he is enrolled in a prison-based literacy programed whose entire purpose is to help inmates learn to read, and if there’s one thing people have lots of in Angola, it’s time.

Again, just as with impulsivity and aggression, the prisoners’ low-IQ mirrors that of their neighbors and peers back in the free population.

To be fair, this does not describe all of the prisoners. Some (like editors of the Angolite, Angola’s award-winning prison magazine) seem bright; some come across not as impulsively aggressive, but truly sociopathic.

Bergner wants us to consider redemption–the possibility, at least, that some of the men who have served 20, 30, or 40 years in prison may not be dangerous anymore, might have repented, might deserve a second chance at life. (One of the men he follows does seem truly sorry:

“Please take him off,” Terry prayed late at night, in Walnut [one of the dorms.] “He’s hunting me down again.”

His bedtime ritual had been performed hours earlier. On his cot, he had read the verses he’d highlighted months ago during his Bible group back at D. He turned the thin pages to find the neat orange markings

Lord, I cry unto Thee:
make haste unto me;
Give ear unto my voice…
Incline not my heart to any evil thing.

Then, twenty feet from whee the man had lost his sneakers and gained a long, scythe-shaped scar on the left side of his face, Terry knelt beside his own cot and closed his eyes and lowered his head to his folded head.

“Lord Jesus,” Terry went on, with a persistent hope that he was heard though he had failed to be saved,”thank you for looking over me… please keep an eye on my, Lord; can You take some of this away, Lord? Can you forgive me, Lord? …”

But after midnight something had woken him, and now Mr. Denver Tarter wouldn’t let him return to sleep. So Terry knelt again. …

“Please take him off. Please just this one thing.”

Religion plays a prominent role in the narrative, from the warden’s blustering claims of saving souls to the prison’s Pentecostal, “holy roller” church service; from quiet Bible study to the chaplain’s rounds:

Chaplain Holloway was assigned to Camp J. … Holloway pushed a grocery cart full of inspirational literature. … “What’s up, bro?” the chaplain asked at each set of bars. “What can I get for you, bro?” Built thick, a football player in college, he was a white hipster in a golfing shirt in the middle of the Inferno. I don’t know what he was, but he was tireless. And kind.

“How’d you end up back on One, bro?” he asked an emaciated man, referring to the worst of J’s levels, where you were let out of your cell–int a solitary dogrun–only two hours each week.

“I just told hello to a nurse on hospital call and told her she looked beautiful this morning.”

“Well, you know, babe,’ the chaplain said, understanding what had probably happened, that the man had told her hello and started jerking off, “next time just say hi and skip the rest of the verbology.”

He asked the man if he wanted to pray. They held hands and, leaning together, their foreheads almost touched. “In nine months you could be out of here, back in population,’ he encouraged afterward. … “You want some reading?”

“All right.”

He slipped through the bars a paperback of big-print advice and biblical quotations called You were born a Champion, Don’t Die a Loser. They held hand once more, and the chaplain moved on to the next convict. This was his day, this was his life, cell after cell after cell.

Those of us whose lives are so good that we have time for this voyeurism of peering into prisoners’ lives often approach religion with a disdainful, scornful attitude. Who needs a bunch of rules set down by an invisible sky fairy? Do you really need someone telling you not to steal? Don’t you already know how to behave?

But for many people at the bottom of society–not just criminals, but also the poor, the suffering, folks struggling with addictions, loss, disabilities or life-threatening diseases–religion really does seem to be a comfort, a guide, a way of working toward a better life. As I’ve documented before, in some of the world’s poorest and most isolated places, religious folks are often the only people willing to go to these awful places to try to help people.

It’s easy to look at statistics and say, “religious people are, on average, poor/less educated/more likely to be in prison/etc than atheists” but maybe this is like saying that people who buy hammers have a lot more nails that need pounding in than people who don’t.

The last thing that stands out in this narrative is the women who date and marry convicted murderers. Two of the men whose lives Bergner follows begin dating while in prison (for life). One meets a woman while performing in the annual Angola rodeo; she is impressed by his amateur bull-riding performance and they begin writing letters back and forth. Soon they were planning marriage, hoping for a pardon or an overturned conviction:

Pretty soon, he’d have it going in the courts. Pretty soon, he’d be working for Gerry Lane [just a guy he hopes to work for] himself, raising Belva’ kids like a regular father, straightening out her daughter and making sure the rest of them stayed on the right road Pretty soon, he’d have a son of his own. Pretty soon he’d be lying in bed next to Belva with all their letters piled up between them, all their letters from when he was in Angola, to read over how they got started.

They would be a family. They were already. He hadn’t met the two daughters, but the two boys had been to visit once, when there had been room in Sandra’s car. [Belva doesn’t have her own car but gets a ride with another woman visiting someone at the prison.] He played Pac-Man with the boys. …

Pac-Man: who knew?

The little Pac-Man munches snapped their jaws, and Brooks urged, “Gobble ’em, son, gobble ’em, move that stick,” and Marcus squealed, “Coon ass things! Coon ass things!” He seemed to think the Pac-Man prey were Cajun rednecks.

“Con ass things?” Brooks laughed.

And Marcus aw that it was funny. “Coon ass things! Coon ass things!” He cracked himself up, and Brooks put his cheek next to Marcus’s jittery, giggling head.

The boys had sent Brooks a Father’s Day card, and after his phone call with Belva he took the card from his box …:

“No one chooses a Dad
From a magazine ad
Or a paper with classifieds in it….

But if we’d had the chance
For a choice in advance
You’re the Dad we’d have picked in a minute.”

Tight to the top of the inside page, the thirteen-year-old, Kenny, had drawn a smiley face and written, “You are the father we did not have.”

He and Belva do get married, in a ceremony in one of the prison chapels. I rather doubt the relationship will last for the long-haul, however. Dating a guy in prison may seem fun at first, but as year after year of a life sentence pass by (and the author gives us no real reason to expect the men will receive the pardons they hope for,) the problems inherent in any long-distance relationship begin to manifest.

Bergner describes another relationship, begun when the prison’s band performed a show off prison grounds and the guitarist met a fan. She, too, already had a child (in this case, only one,) who quickly bonded with her “new father.” They were also married, but as the years passed, she stopped calling, stopped visiting. I suspect she has just grown bored, found someone else who is physically present in her own neighborhood.

Bergner doesn’t explore these women’s lives, what motivates them to date criminals serving life sentences for murder, nor the effects on their children. Chances are there is something deeply wrong in these women’s lives. Whether it is merely that love sometimes blooms in even unusual places, or something deeper, I can’t say and Bergner makes no comment. His focus is the criminals.

Race is obviously ever-present in the book–Angola’s population is about 90% African American, (according to Bergner,) in a state that’s only 30% black–but he never addresses it in any systematic way, nor does he discuss how (if at all) race impacts relationships between the prisoners.

Disclaimer: my copy of the book was missing a few pages, so there might have been something on those pages that I missed.

Ultimately, this isn’t exactly the book I’d have chosen for Anthropology Friday if I’d had more options, but it was still a good read and probably deserves more attention than it’s garnered.

Anthropology Friday: Yakuts!

Yakut Sakha herder

We started this adventure Into Siberia at the request of one of you fine readers for more information on the Yakuts, a Turkic-speaking people who live primarily in Russia. Erman writes:

“In Kantinsk, seventy-seven versts from Peskovsk, and in the following stages, the Russian population is mixed with more than an equal proportion of Yakuts. These are far more successful fishers and hunters than the Russians, and we were always sure of finding in their yurts a good stock of carp and other fish. Many of them have grown rich by barter, while the Russians here, by their own confession, find a miserable subsistence. …

“[The fish] are taken in the lakes belonging to the Yakuts on the northern side of the Lena, and, consequently, the Russians on the river have only as many of these fish, as those original and more practised lords of the soil allow
to escape to them. The latter, however, carry many hundred poods of this fish for sale into the upper part of the valley. …

“Sunduki and Nyuis are likewise Yakutian villages, with a small share of Russian population. The dwellings here are extremely neat, and both the food and clothing of the people bear witness to their comfortable circumstances. The women, generally, wear in the house, a gown of some coloured web; the men wear short over-coats of reindeer skin, with the hair turned in, and the outside leather-coloured … in fact, the envy which the opulence of the Asiatic has usually awakened in the minds of the European invaders, takes here the deceitful appearance of esteem. …

“An old Russian, from the vicinity of Murom, who had been banished to Yerbinsk some fifty years before for homicide, complained to me, with laughable impudence, of the progressive improvement of the Yakuts. Formerly, these people paid for every pound of flour, with the finest furs, but now they hardly paid as much for a pood; and so it sometimes happened that they laid up a stock of flour, and then, in the winter, retailed it to the Russians. Indeed, when he first came here, every Russian passed with the Yakuts for a superior being, — they have even stood to salute him at a respectful distance; but matters were at last nearly come to that pass that he would have to bow to the Yakuts. …

Map of the Yakut Migration from lake Baikal to northern Russia

“We came in the evening to the yurts of Nokhtuisk, fifty-five versts from Kamenovsk, which are inhabited by very thriving and intelligent Yakuts. Several of the men whom we met in the post-hut spoke Russian fluently, and were proud of this advantage. One of them, who had travelled several times to Irkutsk, entered into an argument with Mitltyev respecting the age of Yakutsk and Irkutsk. The Yakut maintained, and with reason, that the former of these capitals was first founded; but it was not till he said to the Eosak, “Siberia was conquered 250 years ago, umler the Tsar, Ivan Yasilevich,” that his learning was formally eulogized with the words, “Now I see that you have read the history of Siberia.”* The same Yakut said, in reply to a question of mine respecting the relationship existing between his nation and the Buraets, that they were both of one descent, and that their languages were still very much alike. In saying this, he referred only to the present inhabitants of the sources of the Lena, whom he had seen himself; and in confirmation of his statement, we find that in the beginning of the seventeenth century, (1630,) when the Yakuts were just beginning
to make the acquaintance of the Russians, they preserved the tradition, that they had dwelt at one time in the upper valley, close to the Buraets and Mongols, and were at length separated, in consequence of a war, from those neighbours and kinsmen, and driven back into their present abodes.

* This man had probably received instruction in the public school of Yakutsk.”

EvX: According to Wikipedia:

The ancestors of Yakuts were Kurykans who migrated from Yenisey river to Baikal Lake.[9][10][11] in the 7th century. The Yakuts originally lived around Olkhon and the region of Lake Baikal. Beginning in the 13th century they migrated to the basins of the Middle Lena, the Aldan and Vilyuy rivers under the pressure of the rising Mongols.

The northern Yakuts were largely hunters, fishermen and reindeer herders, while the southern Yakuts raised cattle and horses.[12][13]

In the 1620s the Tsardom of Muscovy began to move into their territory and annexed or settled down on it, imposed a fur tax and managed to suppress several Yakut rebellions between 1634 and 1642. The tsarist brutality in collection of the pelt tax (yasak) sparked a rebellion and aggression among the Yakuts and also Tungusic-speaking tribes along the River Lena in 1642. … The Yakut population alone is estimated to have fallen by 70 percent between 1642 and 1682 because of the Grand Duchy of Muscovy expeditions.[14]

In the 18th century the Russians reduced the pressure, gave Yakut chiefs some privileges, granted freedom for all habitats, gave them all their lands, sent Orthodox missions, and educated the Yakut people regarding agriculture. The discovery of gold and, later, the building of the Trans-Siberian Railway, brought ever-increasing numbers of Russians into the region.

Martin Lewis writes in GeoCurrents:

As explained in the previous post, the Yakut (Sakha) people have adapted more easily to the demands of the Russian state, and of modernity more generally, than most other indigenous peoples on Siberia. The relative success of the Yakut is best understood historically. Relative newcomers from the south, the Yakut moved into central Siberia with a more advanced technology and a more complex social order than those of the earlier indigenes of the region. …

Yakut legends put their homeland near Lake Baikal in south-central Siberia, an area now occupied by the Mongolian-speaking Buryats. The two people must have interacted extensively, as roughly one-third of the Sakha vocabulary is of Mongolian origin. Relations were not always cordial; the Yakuts tell stories of their ancestors being driven into the northern forests by the Buryats. Scholars have suggested dates for the migration ranging from the early 11th to the 13th centuries. Their exodus was no doubt traumatic; before their displacement, the Yakut raised horses, cattle, sheep, goats, and camels, but only horses and cattle survived the transition. They originally seem to have had knowledge of the Old Turkic script (“Turkic runes”), but literacy was not maintained. Sophisticated metallurgy, however, was, giving the Yakut an advantage over other Siberian peoples (groups such as the Evenks could work iron, but could not smelt it from raw ore). Military knowledge was also retained. The armored Yakut cavalry met by the first Russian interlopers were said by some to resemble the knights of medieval Europe. …

But pines also provided basic sustenance … The crucial pine resource is the inner layer of bark, or phloem. Although many peoples have traditionally eaten phloem, the Yakuts took the resource much farther than most. As Jordan-Bychkov and Bychkova Jordan explain:

In June, the “month of the pine”, women went into the woods and cut down young trees, peeled off the layers of new growth, dried it, and ground the sapwood into  powder. They then mixed it into the milk products as a kind of flour, and the chemical action of the lactic acid broke down the cellulose fibers.  (p. 54).

A variety of wild roots gathered from the alas meadows were another important source of food. They too were often ground and then dissolved in sour milk. Even fish and other animal product—including bones—were sometime dissolved in the mixture. The resulting product, called tar, formed a staple of the traditional Yakut diet. Large blocks of milk tar would be stored as simple frozen slabs immediately outside of the winter dwellings. Russian prisoners exiled to Yakut villages had a difficult time adapting to such fare.

The GeoCurrents article is very interesting and I encourage you to read it all. Continuing with Erman’s account:

“[Yakutian horses] must stand temperatures that can drop far below -60 they have an incredible fur coat and find their own food under the snow”
“At Delgeisky the next stage, an old Yakut told me many particulars respecting the present manners and customs of his people. Here in the neighbourhood of the Russians, every one contents himself with one wife; but, among the families of the northern tracts, polygamy is as prevalent as ever. The old custom is kept up … for which every Yakut buys his wife. This is usually a number of cattle, to the value of 200 or 800 roobles; but as the family of the man are not always in a condition to pay the stipulated amount at once, it is customary to affiance the boys already in their twelfth year. The betrothed girls may be visited in their parents’ yurts by their intended husbands, but cannot be taken home by the latter till the payment of the koluina is completed. The sum thus paid goes wholly to the father of the bride, who carries only a few presents with her to her new home. Match-makers, male and female … are indispensable as witnesses in settling the price of the bride.

“Many of the Yakutian words, written from the lips of this man, showed no essential agreement with the equivalent
terms of the Sabaikalian Buraets … On the other hand, I remarked in the yurts here many remarkable resemblances to the manners of the Ostyaks on the Obi. Thus the fire-place, the most important part of all northern dwellings, is constructed by both tribes after the same idea, for it consists here, as on the Obi, of a wicker frame plastered over with clay. The only difference is in the position of the apparatus … This deviation from the Ostyak mode of construction is evidently advantageous, for here, the moment the fire is kindled, a strong and audible draught is perceptible, with a bright flame; but in the yurts on the Obi there is more frequently pungent smoke with a dull fire. …

Yakut winter house

“The tract of country which follows is well peopled with Yakuts, whose winter dwellings always stand alone, in wide grassy lawns, in the midst of the prevailing pine woods. Here, too, the rectangular wooden huts are flat-roofed and plastered with cow dung; and the doors, for want of planking, are covered over with hairy ox hides. Flakes of ice fill the windows, yet in some of the yurts, bladder is used instead of these. The Yakutian sledges, which we met with continually, were, like those of the Buraets, drawn by oxen, on one of which the driver rode. At the same time horses have been used here for riding from early times, as is proved indeed by the peculiarities of the Yakutiain horse furniture. Their saddles have unusually thick stuffing, on-which the rider sits, squeezed in between two high and perpendicular boards…

“I felt the most violent longings awakened as I listened to the accounts of the practical roads, by which the Tunguzes of the Lena may, in one and the same year, receive information from China, then meet in Turukhansk with Samoyedes who have seen Obdorsk, and there learned from eye witnesses what was going on in Archangel. …

“The Yakuts in Namana, and along the road onward for 110 versts… live still quite in their ancient, original fashion. … The thick flakes of ice, which serve as window panes, were here also held against the wall from the outside, by a slanting pole, the lower end of which was fixed in the ground. In the night, when the fire goes out, this ice is covered, like glass, with an opaque and snow-like hoar-frost, which, in the daytime melts away, as well as a considerable portion of the ice itself, from the heat of the yurt, and the flakes, which are, at first, a foot thick, require to be renewed four or five times in the course of the winter; a provision of suitable ice always lying before the yurt.

“The parts of these dwellings which are directly heated by the fire, attain a temperature of [20 to 25 degrees C or 65 to 77 degrees F] We found the children in them, of both sexes, quite naked ; they were, nevertheless, running about in this state to-day, when the thermometer was as low as [- 13C or -10F], and even in the open air. In the clothing of adults, there is manifested a strong predilection for bright colours, for the women in the house, as among the Buraets, wore clothes of green or other bright Chinese stuffs; while the men had on tight-fitting, short frocks, which closely resembled the esquires’ tabards in the middle ages. They were almost always made of white linen, with blue borders. At the lower end, behind, was a perpendicular slit, to prevent their incommoding on horseback. Even the fur caps of these people were covered with white linen, and adorned with squirrels’ tails, and other black furs.”

EvX: The Exp.No.Where article, Yakut People and their Customs, has several photos of Yakuts in their strikingly white garments during a Summer Solstice celebration.

Adorably furry Yakutian cow

“Here on the lowlands were again seen, in great numbers, the separate yurts of the Yakuts; and seemed to be in great abundance. All the sledges are drawn by oxen, the driver always riding on one of them; but they can dispense with the vehicle, and we now met with many men and women riding on oxen. The trot of these animals was so lively and constant, that one could not help soon forgetting the European prejudice
against the use of horned cattle for such purposes. …

“The Yakuts living in the 62d degree of latitude, have far more trouble in keeping their cattle, than any other people devoted to the same kind of husbandry. They make long journeys to collect hay for the winter, yet they do not always find enough of it, but are often obliged to feed their oxen, from March to May, only on the willow and birch twigs, which they procure on the islands in the Lena. The further we examine into particulars, the greater must be our surprise, when we behold here for the first time, a thriving cattle-husbandry in the midst of deep snow and under terrible frosts ; we involuntarily ask ourselves, how it came to pass that the Yakuts attached their existence to a domestic animal which is found nowhere else in Asia, under the same circumstances of climate. They have themselves a tradition, that they once brought their herds down the Lena, in boats from the sources of the river : but this is assuredly no explanation; it is only a proof that they are themselves sensible of the contrast between the climate they dwell under, and the nature of their domestic animal.

“I might more reasonably hold the cattle here to be a bequest from a preceding period ; that is to say the remnant of a “wild breed, which, in earlier periods of the earth’s history, occupied this region in particular. The skulls of wild
cattle are found very often in the Lena, and the lakes in the neighbourhood. Living and untamed individuals are to be seen beyond Behring Straits, on the coasts of Hudson’s Bay; and  doubtless, those dead cattle, as well as these living remnants, all belong to an age of the world, when the northern parts of the earth had a much milder winter than at present. There remained here, instead of the long-haired American bison, the scattered bones of that original breed, and, thanks to the care of the Yakuts, their degenerated herds.”

EvX: According to Wikipedia:

Yakutian cattle are of a relatively small size. These cows stand between 110 and 112 cm high at the withers and reach a live weight of 350 to 400 kg, bulls reach a height of 115 to 127 cm and weigh 500 to 600 kg. They have short, strong legs and a deep but relatively narrow chest. The dewlap is well-developed.[1][2] …

A number of further traits, such as a thick winter coat, a small, fur-covered udder or scrotum, efficient thermoregulation, and low metabolic rates at low temperatures, lead to the Yakutian cattle’s extreme tolerance towards freezing temperatures.[2][3][4] A compelling example of this is the case of several cows which survived on their own in the taiga forest for three months in late 2011 in deep snows and temperatures reaching as low as –40 °C (–40 °F).[5]..

Yakutian cattle belong to the East Asian Turano-Mongolian group of taurine cattle.[4][7] This group of cattle may represent a fourth Aurochs domestication event (and a third event among Bos taurus–type aurochs) and may have diverged from the Near East group some 35,000 years ago.[8] Yakutian cattle are the last remaining native Turano-Mongolian cattle breed in Siberia,[4] and one of only a few pure Turano-Mongolian breeds remaining worldwide.[7]

… Studies of autosomal DNA markers show a high genetic distinctiveness and point to a long-term genetic isolation from other breeds; geographic isolation beyond the normal northern limit of the species range can be assumed to be the cause.[1][9] …

The Yakutian cattle is descended from the indigenous Siberian cattle breeds. The Sakha (i.e. Yakuts) brought it from the southern Baikal region to the lower reaches of the Lena, the Yana, the Indigirka and the Kolyma rivers when they migrated northward in the 13th century.[4] Together with the Yakutian horse, it was the basis of the Sakha culture of meat and dairy livestock in the harsh conditions of the Russian Far North.

Yakutian cattle were purebred until 1929, but then an extensive crossbreeding with the more productive Simmental cattle and Kholmogory cattle began.[2][4] While many other landraces were lost in this era, the Yakutian cattle was saved by traditional cattle breeders and individual scientists.[1][5] …

Currently there are approximately 1200 purebred Yakutian cattle, all of them in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) of the Russian Federation. The breeding population consists of only 525 breeding cows and 28 breeding bulls, the rest are mostly dairy cows.[1][4] Consequently, the Yakutian cattle are classified as an endangered breed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).[4]

Back to Erman:

In Ulakhansk, sixty-one versts from Toyon aruin, I met in the yard where we alighted a noble chieftain of the Yakuts, who was on his way to a judicial inquiry. … I admired this man’s frock, made of blue cloth with red facings and white metal buttons) it had an old-fashioned European look, and was, doubtless, made in imitation of some suit of honour presented to one of his predecessors by the Tsar. He gave me to understand, however, with national pride, that his genuine Yakutian cap was better worth looking at and more valuable also. It was lined with squirrelskins, and outside was very artificially made up of sable, otter, and black fox furs; it had, moreover, very odd-looking appendages made of the fur of the glutton, which hung down over his back.

“This chief’s feelings respecting the dignity of his nation, and above all, of his own dignity, displayed themselves throughout all his conversation, which he carried on in broken Russian. — Thus, he always named Yakutsk “the city of the Yakuts;” and he congratulated me on my prospect of soon visiting its rich yurts. He told me that the administration of justice, and the general internal management of society among the Yakuts, are still left in their hands. Their immediate chiefs and magistrates are still of their own nation, just as I have already related of the Bashkirs. The whole race has been divided, from time immemorial, into certain tribes; each of which is again distributed into Ulusi, or communes. The heads of the latter are chosen by the Yakuts, from the chief families, for life. They are called Toyoni; which the Russians very properly translate by … prince. But it is extremely unbecoming, on the other hand, to put these nobles and other heads of tribes on an equal footing with the mayor of a Russian village, and so entitle them merely gölova! These principal dignitaries remain in office only three years; the Yakuts always choose them from the number of their acknowledged princes, and they are therefore not inferior, certainly, to a Russian governor; and, particularly, because the charge of public administration among the Yakuts is defrayed by that people themselves.”

EvX: I am growing tired, so we shall quit for today. Please join us next week for more on the Yakuts.