Anthropology Friday: Pygmies and Papuans, pt 3/3

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

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

Tapiro Pygmies

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

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

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

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

A large village:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Semang man, Malaysia

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

Two Andamanese men

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

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

Young Aeta girl, Philippines, 1901

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Anthropology Friday: Pygmies and Papuans pt 2

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

An Amusing Mistake

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

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

Physical Features

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

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

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

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

The river at high tide


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


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


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

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

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


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

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

The case against “civilizing”

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

Anthropology Friday: Japan pt 4/4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More information about recent treatment of Japanese lepers.

Myōshin-ji garden


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

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

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

Atlas Cedar bonsai, Golden State Bonsai Federation Collection

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

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

Anthropology Friday: Japan pt 3


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


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

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

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

EvX: See: Hikikomori:

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

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

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

Work Ethic

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

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

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

Trust, suspicion, and change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

EvX: This, I gather, is still true.

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

Anthropology Friday: Japan part 2

Incense burns at the graves of the Forty-Seven Ronin at Sengaku-ji, Japan

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

Gulick’s account may not be accurate in every respect–perhaps no native can ever be accurate in every respect–but his affection for his adopted society and desire to explain it to his fellow Westerners is clear.


“If a clue to the character of a nation is gained by a study of the nature of the gods it worships, no less valuable an insight is gained by a study of its heroes. … Japan is a nation of hero-worshipers. This is no exaggeration. Not only is the primitive religion, Shintoism, systematic hero-worship, but every hero known to history is deified, and has a shrine or temple. These heroes, too, are all men of conspicuous valor or strength, famed for mighty deeds of daring. They are men of passion. The most popular story in Japanese literature is that of “The Forty-seven Ronin,” who avenged the death of their liege-lord after years of waiting and plotting. This revenge administered, they committed harakiri in accordance with the etiquette of the ethical code of feudal Japan. Their tombs are to this day among the most frequented shrines in the capital of the land, and one of the most popular dramas presented in the theaters is based on this same heroic tragedy.

Two of the Forty-Seven Rōnin: Horibe Yahei and his adopted son, Horibe Yasubei, by Utagawa Kunisada c1850

“The prominence of the emotional element may be seen in the popular description of national heroes. The picture of an ideal Japanese hero is to our eyes a caricature. His face is distorted by a fierce frenzy of passion, his eyeballs glaring, his hair flying, and his hands hold with a mighty grip the two-handed sword wherewith he is hewing to pieces an enemy. I am often amazed at the difference between the pictures of Japanese heroes and the living Japanese I see. This difference is manifestly due to the idealizing process; for they love to see their heroes in their passionate moods and tenses.

“The craving for heroes, even on the part of those who are familiar with Western thought and customs, is a feature of great interest. Well do I remember the enthusiasm with which educated, Christian young men awaited the coming to Japan of an eminent American scholar, from whose lectures impossible things were expected. So long as he was in America and only his books were known, he was a hero. But when he appeared in person, carrying himself like any courteous gentleman, he lost his exalted position.

What was Oda Nobunaga’s power level?

“Townsend Harris showed his insight into Oriental thought never more clearly than by maintaining his dignity according to Japanese standards and methods. On his first entry into Tokyo he states, in his journal, that although he would have preferred to ride on horseback, in order that he might see the city and the people, yet as the highest dignitaries never did so, but always rode in entirely closed “norimono” (a species of sedan chair carried by twenty or thirty bearers), he too would do the same; to have ridden into the limits of the city on horseback would have been construed by the Japanese as an admission that he held a far lower official rank than that of a plenipotentiary of a great nation. …

“there is nevertheless a class whose ideal heroes are not military, but moral. Their power arises not through self-assertion, but rather through humility; their influence is due entirely to learning coupled with insight into the great moral issues of life.”

Children’s Day kites


“An aspect of Japanese life widely remarked and praised by foreign writers is the love for children. Children’s holidays, as the third day of the third moon and the fifth day of the fifth moon, are general celebrations for boys and girls respectively, and are observed with much gayety all over the land. At these times the universal aim is to please the children; the girls have dolls and the exhibition of ancestral dolls; while the boys have toy paraphernalia of all the ancient and modern forms of warfare, and enormous wind-inflated paper fish, symbols of prosperity and success, fly from tall bamboos in the front yard. Contrary to the prevailing opinion among foreigners, these festivals have nothing whatever to do with birthday celebrations. In addition to special festivals, the children figure conspicuously in all holidays and merry-makings. To the famous flower-festival celebrations, families go in groups and make an all-day picnic of the joyous occasion.

“The Japanese fondness for children is seen not only at festival times. Parents seem always ready to provide their children with toys. As a consequence toy stores flourish. There is hardly a street without its store.”

Next time Japan invades…

EvX: Even though the Japanese have one of the world’s lowest birth rates, which would seem to make life difficult for toy stores, I still have the impression that the nation produces a great many high-quality, nice toys. Everything from Nintendo, for example. But back to Gulick, on the treatment of children more generally:

“A still further reason for the impression that the Japanese are especially fond of their children is the slight amount of punishment and reprimand which they administer. The children seem to have nearly everything their own way. Playing on the streets, they are always in evidence and are given the right of way. …

“A fair statement of the case, therefore, is somewhat as follows: The lower and laboring classes of Japan seem to have more visible affection for their children than the same classes in the Occident. Among the middle and upper classes, however, the balance is in favor of the West. In the East, while, without doubt, there always has been and is now a pure and natural affection, it is also true that this natural affection has been more mixed with utilitarian considerations than in the West. Christian Japanese, however, differ little from Christian Americans in this respect. The differences between the East and the West are largely due to the differing industrial and family conditions induced by the social order.”

EvX: Remember that Gulick is a missionary, and so apt to think that being Christian or not is a big deal. Interestingly, he sees “being Christian” as more than just a minimalist “believes Christ is God made man and died for your sins,” but also as a suite of cultural norms like “monogamy” and “universalism.” Of course, who chooses to become Christian is not random, but it’d be quite interesting to know whether belief in Christianity in a place like Japan actually does carry with it increased adoption of other social norms. But back to Gulick:

“The correctness of this general statement will perhaps be better appreciated if we consider in detail some of the facts of Japanese family life. Let us notice first the very loose ties, as they seem to us, holding the Japanese family together. It is one of the constant wonders to us Westerners how families can break up into fragments, as they constantly do. One third of the marriages end in divorce; and in case of divorce, the children all stay with the father’s family. It would seem as if the love of the mother for her children could not be very strong where divorce under such a condition is so common. Or, perhaps, it would be truer to say that divorce would be far more frequent than it is but for the mother’s love for her children. For I am assured that many a mother endures most distressing conditions rather than leave her children.

“Furthermore, the way in which parents allow their children to leave the home and then fail to write or communicate with them, for months or even years at a time, is incomprehensible if the parental love were really strong. And still further, the way in which concubines are brought into the home, causing confusion and discord, is a very striking evidence of the lack of a deep love on the part of the father for the mother of his children and even for his own legitimate children. One would expect a father who really loved his children to desire and plan for their legitimacy; but the children by his concubines are not “ipso facto” recognized as legal.

“One more evidence in this direction is the frequency of adoption and of separation. Adoption in Japan is largely, though by no means exclusively, the adoption of an adult; the cases where achild is adopted by a childless couple from love of children are rare, as compared with similar cases in the United States, so far, at least, as my observation goes.”

countries that adopt babies vs countries that send babies out for adoption–only European cultures adopt other countries’ babies

EvX: Adoption of non-kin is a very European/American phenomenon, almost unknown everywhere else in the world. Ever wonder why Americans adopted so many Korean babies? It’s because other Koreans didn’t want them.

Back to Gulick:

“Infanticide throws a rather lurid light on Japanese affection. First, in regard to the facts: Mr. Ishii’s attention was called to the need of an orphan asylum by hearing how a child, both of whose parents had died of cholera, was on the point of being buried alive with its dead mother by heartless neighbors when it was rescued by a fisherman. …

“In speaking of infanticide in Japan, let us not forget that every race and nation has been guilty of the same crime, and has continued to be guilty of it until delivered by Christianity.

“Widespread infanticide proves a wide lack of natural affection. Poverty is, of course, the common plea. Yet infanticide has been practiced not so much by the desperately poor as by small land-holders. The amount of farming land possessed by each family was strictly limited and could feed only a given number of mouths. Should the family exceed that number, all would be involved in poverty, for the members beyond that limit did not have the liberty to travel in search of new occupation. Infanticide, therefore, bore direct relation to the rigid economic nature of the old social order.”

Husbands and wives:

“Shortly after my first arrival in Japan, I was walking home from church one day with an English-speaking Japanese, who had had a good deal to do with foreigners. Suddenly, without any introduction, he remarked that he did not comprehend how the men of the West could endure such tyranny as was exercised over them by their wives. I, of course, asked what he meant. He then said that he had seen me buttoning my wife’s shoes.

“I should explain that on calling on the Japanese, in their homes, it is necessary that we leave our shoes at the door, as the Japanese invariably do; this is, of course, awkward for foreigners who wear shoes; especially so is the necessity of putting them on again. The difficulty is materially increased by the invariably high step at the front door. It is hard enough for a man to kneel down on the step and reach for his shoes and then put them on; much more so is it for a woman. And after the shoes are on, there is no suitable place on which to rest the foot for buttoning and tying. I used, therefore, very gladly to help my wife with hers.

“Yet, so contrary to Japanese precedent was this act of mine that this well-educated gentleman and Christian, who had had much intercourse with foreigners, could not see in it anything except the imperious command of the wife and the slavish obedience of the husband. His conception of the relation between the Occidental husband and wife is best described as tyranny on the part of the wife.”

EvX: I include this excerpt because, as an amusing misunderstanding, it warns against overconfidence in interpreting the actions of folks from another culture that may have perfectly mundane explanations, and because it casts light on the speaker’s own assumptions.


“Another evangelist, with whom I had much to do, was the adopted son of a scheming old man; it seems that in the earlier part of the present era the eldest son of a family was exempt from military draft. It often happened, therefore, that families who had no sons could obtain large sums of money from those who had younger sons whom they wished to have adopted for the purpose of escaping the draft. This evangelist, while still a boy, was adopted into such a family, and a certain sum was fixed upon to be paid at some time in the future. But the adopted son proved so pleasing to the adopting father that he did not ask for the money; by some piece of legerdemain, however, he succeeded in adopting a second son, who paid him the desired money. After some years the first adopted son became a Christian, and then an evangelist, both steps being taken against the wishes of the adopting father. The father finally said that he would forego all relations to the son, and give him back his original name, provided the son would pay the original sum that had been agreed on, plus the interest, which altogether would, at that time, amount to several hundred yen. This was, of course, impossible.

“The negotiations dragged on for three or four years. Meanwhile, the young man fell in love with a young girl, whom he finally married; as he was still the son of his adopting father, he could not have his wife registered as his wife, for the old man had another girl in view for him and would not consent to this arrangement. And so the matter dragged for several months more. Unless the matter could be arranged, any children born to them must be registered as illegitimate. At this point I was consulted and, for the first time, learned the details of the case. Further consultations resulted in an agreement as to the sum to be paid; the adopted son was released, and re-registered under his newly acquired name and for the first time his marriage became legal. The confusion and suffering brought into the family by this practice of adoption and of separation are almost endless. …

“In the first place, the affectionate relation existing between husbands and wives and between parents and children, in Western lands, is a product of relatively recent times. In his exhaustive work on “The History of Human Marriage,” Westermarck makes this very plain. Wherever the woman is counted a slave, is bought and sold, is considered as merely a means of bearing children to the family, or in any essential way is looked down upon, there high forms of affection are by the nature of the case impossible, though some affection doubtless exists; it necessarily attains only a rudimentary development. …

“We must remember, in the second place, what careful students of human evolution have pointed out, that those tribes and races in which the family was most completely consolidated, that is to say, those in which the power of the father was absolute, were the ones to gain the victory over their competitors. The reason for this is too obvious to require even a statement. Every conquering race has accordingly developed the “patria potestas” to a greater or less degree. Now one general peculiarity of the Orient is that that stage of development has remained to this day; it has not experienced those modifications and restrictions which have arisen in the West. The national government dealt with families and clans, not with individuals, as the final social unit. In the West, however, the individual has become the civil unit; the “patria potestas” has thus been all but lost.

Anthropology Friday: Numbers and the Making of Us, by Caleb Everett pt. 4

Yes, but which 25% of us is grape?

Welcome to our final post on Numbers and the Making of Us: Counting and the Course of Human Cultures, by Caleb Everett. Today I just want to highlight a few interesting passages.


For example, there is about 25% overlap between the human genome and that of grapes. (And we have fewer genes than grapes!) So some caution should be exercised before reading too much into percentages of genomic correspondence across species. I doubt, after all that you consider yourself one-quarter grape. … canine and bovine species generally exhibit about an 85% rate of genomic correspondence with humans. … small changes in genetic makeup can, among other influences, lead to large changes in brain size.

On the development of numbers:

Babylonian math homework

After all, for the vast majority of our species’ existence, we lived as hunters and gatherers in Africa … A reasonable interpretation of the contemporary distribution of cultural and number-system types, then, is that humans did not rely on complex number system for the bulk of their history. We can also reasonably conclude that transitions to larger, more sedentary, and more trade-based cultures helped pressure various groups to develop more involved numerical technologies. … Written numerals, and writing more generally, were developed first in the Fertile Crescent after the agricultural revolution began there. … These pressures ultimately resulted in numerals and other written symbols, such as the clay-token based numerals … The numerals then enabled new forms of agriculture and trade that required the exact discrimination and representation of quantities. The ancient Mesopotamian case is suggestive, then, of the motivation for the present-day correlation between subsistence and number types: larger agricultural and trade-based economies require numerical elaboration to function. …

Intriguingly, though, the same maybe true of Chinese writing, the earliest samples of which date to the Shang Dynasty and are 3,000 years old. The most ancient of these samples are oracle bones. These bones were inscribed with nuemerals quantifying such items as enemy prisoners, birds and animals hunted, and sacrificed animals. … Ancient writing around the world is numerically focused.

Changes in the Jungle as population growth makes competition for resources more intense and forces people out of their traditional livelihoods:

Consider the case of one of my good friends, a member of an indigenous group known as the Karitiana. … Paulo spent the majority of his childhood, in the 1980s and 1990s in the largest village of his people’s reservation. … While some Karitiana sought to make a living in nearby Porto Velho, many strived to maintain their traditional way of life on their reservation. At the time this was feasible, and their traditional subsistence strategies of hunting, gathering, and horticulture could be realistically practiced. Recently, however, maintaining their conventional way of life has become a less tenable proposition. … many Karitiana feel they have little choice but to seek employment in the local Brazilian economy… This is certainly true of Paulo. He has been enrolled in Brazilian schools for some time, has received some higher education, and is currently employed by a governmental organization. To do these things, of course, Paulo had to learn Portuguese grammar and writing. And he had to learn numbers and math, also. In short, the socioeconomic pressures he has felt to acquire the numbers of another culture are intense.

Everett cites a statistic that >90% of the world’s approximately 7,000 languages are endangered.

They are endangered primarily because people like Paulo are being conscripted into larger nation-states, gaining fluency in more economically viable languages. … From New Guinea to Australia to Amazonia and elsewhere, the mathematizing of people is happening.

On the advantages of different number systems:

Recent research also suggests that the complexity of some non-linguistic number systems have been under appreciated. Many counting boards and abaci that have been used, and are still in use across the world’s culture, present clear advantages to those using them … the abacus presents some cognitive advantages. That is because, research now suggests, children who are raised using the abacus develop a “mental abacus” with time. … According to recent cross-cultural findings, practitioners of abacus-based mathematical strategies outperform those unfamiliar with such strategies,a t least in some mathematical tasks. The use of the Soroban abacus has, not coincidentally, now been adopted in many schools throughout Asia.

The zero is a dot in the middle of the photo–earliest known zero, Cambodia

I suspect these higher math scores are more due to the mental abilities of the people using the abacus than the abacus itself. I have also just ordered an abacus.

… in 2015 the world’s oldest known unambiguous inscription of a circular zero was rediscovered in Cambodia. The zero in question, really a large dot, serves as a placeholder in the ancient Khmer numeral for 605. It is inscribed on a stone tablet, dating to 683 CE, that was found only kilometers from the faces of Bayon and other ruins of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. … the Maya also developed a written form for zero, and the Inca encoded the concept in their Quipu.

In 1202, Fibonacci wrote the Book of Calculation, which promoted the use of the superior Arabic (yes Hindu) numerals (zero included) over the old Roman ones. Just as the introduction of writing jump-started the Cherokee publishing industry, so the introduction of superior numerals probably helped jump-start the Renaissance.

Cities and the rise of organized religion:

…although creation myths, animistic practices, and other forms of spiritualism are universal or nearly universal, large-scale hierarchical religions are restricted to relatively few cultural lineages. Furthermore, these religions… developed only after people began living in larger groups and settlements because of their agricultural lifestyles. … A phalanx of scholars has recently suggested that the development of major hierarchical religions, like the development of hierarchical governments, resulted from the agglomeration of people in such places. …

Organized religious beliefs, with moral-enforcing deities and priest case, were a by-product of the need for large groups of people to cooperate via shared morals and altruism. As the populations of cultures grew after the advent of agricultural centers… individuals were forced to rely on shared trust with many more individuals, including non-kin, than was or is the case in smaller groups like bands or tribes. … Since natural selection is predicated on the protection of one’s genes, in-group altruism and sacrifice are easier to make sense of in bands and tribes. But why would humans in much larger populations–humans who have no discernible genetic relationship… cooperate with these other individuals in their own culture? … some social mechanism had to evolve so that larger cultures would not disintegrate due to competition among individuals and so that many people would not freeload off the work of others. One social mechanism that foster prosocial and cooperative behavior is an organized religion based on shared morals and omniscient deities capable of keeping track of the violation of such morals. …

When Moses descended from Mt. Sinai with his stone tablets, they were inscribed with ten divine moral imperatives. … Why ten? … Here is an eleventh commandment that could likely be uncontroversially adopted by many people: “thou shalt not torture.” … But then the list would appear to lose some of its rhetorical heft. “eleven commandments’ almost hints of a satirical deity.

Technically there are 613 commandments, but that’s not nearly as catchy as the Ten Commandments–inadvertently proving Everett’s point.

Overall, I found this book frustrating and repetitive, but there were some good parts. I’ve left out most of the discussion of the Piraha and similar cultures, and the rather fascinating case of Nicaraguan homesigners (“homesigners” are deaf people who were never taught a formal sign language but made up their own.) If you’d like to learn more about them, you might want to look up the book at your local library.

Anthropology Friday: Numbers and the Making of Us, part 2

Welcome to part 2 of my review of Caleb Everett’s Numbers and the Making of Us: Counting and the Course of Human Cultures.

I was really excited about this book when I picked it up at the library. It has the word “numbers” on the cover and a subtitle that implies a story about human cultural and cognitive evolution.

Regrettably, what could have been a great books has turned out to be kind of annoying. There’s some fascinating information in here–for example, there’s a really interesting part on pages 249-252–but you have to get through pages 1-248 to get there. (Unfortunately, sometimes authors put their most interesting bits at the end so that people looking to make trouble have gotten bored and wandered off by then.)

I shall try to discuss/quote some of the book’s more interesting bits, and leave aside my differences with the author (who keeps reiterating his position that mathematical ability is entirely dependent on the culture you’re raised in.) Everett nonetheless has a fascinating perspective, having actually spent much of his childhood in a remote Amazonian village belonging to the Piraha, who have no real words for numbers. (His parents were missionaries.)

Which languages contain number words? Which don’t? Everett gives a broad survey:

“…we can reach a few broad conclusions about numbers in speech. First, they are common to nearly all of the world’s languages. … this discussion has shown that number words, across unrelated language, tend to exhibit striking parallels, since most languages employ a biologically based body-part model evident in their number bases.”

That is, many languages have words that translate essentially to “One, Two, Three, Four, Hand, … Two hands, (10)… Two Feet, (20),” etc., and reflect this in their higher counting systems, which can end up containing a mix of base five, 10, and 20. (The Romans, for example, used both base five and ten in their written system.)

“Third, the linguistic evidence suggests not only that this body-part model has motivated the innovation of numebers throughout the world, but also that this body-part basis of number words stretches back historically as far as the linguistic data can take us. It is evident in reconstruction of ancestral languages, including Proto-Sino-Tibetan, Proto-Niger-Congo, Proto-Autronesian, and Proto-Indo-European, the languages whose descendant tongues are best represented in the world today.”

Note, though, that linguistics does not actually give us a very long time horizon. Proto-Indo-European was spoken about 4-6,000 years ago. Proto-Sino-Tibetan is not as well studied yet as PIE, but also appears to be at most 6,000 years old. Proto-Niger-Congo is probably about 5-6,000 years old. Proto-Austronesian (which, despite its name, is not associated with Australia,) is about 5,000 years old.

These ranges are not a coincidence: languages change as they age, and once they have changed too much, they become impossible to classify into language families. Older languages, like Basque or Ainu, are often simply described as isolates, because we can’t link them to their relatives. Since humanity itself is 200,000-300,000 years old, comparative linguistics only opens a very short window into the past. Various groups–like the Amazonian tribes Everett studies–split off from other groups of humans thousands 0r hundreds of thousands of years before anyone started speaking Proto-Indo-European. Even agriculture, which began about 10,000-15,000 years ago, is older than these proto-languages (and agriculture seems to have prompted the real development of math.)

I also note these language families are the world’s biggest because they successfully conquered speakers of the world’s other languages. Spanish, Portuguese, and English are now widely spoken in the Americas instead of Cherokee, Mayan, and Nheengatu because Indo-European language speakers conquered the speakers of those languages.

The guy with the better numbers doesn’t always conquer the guy with the worse numbers–the Mongol conquest of China is an obvious counter. But in these cases, the superior number system sticks around, because no one wants to replace good numbers with bad ones.

In general, though, better tech–which requires numbers–tends to conquer worse tech.

Which means that even though our most successful language families all have number words that appear to be about 4-6,000 years old, we shouldn’t assume this was the norm for most people throughout most of history. Current human numeracy may be a very recent phenomenon.

“The invention of number is attainable by the human mind but is attained through our fingers. Linguistic data, both historical and current, suggest that numbers in disparate cultures have arisen independently, on an indeterminate range of occasions, through the realization that hands can be used to name quantities like 5 and 10. … Words, our ultimate implements for abstract symbolization, can thankfully be enlisted to denote quantities. But they are usually enlisted only after people establish a more concrete embodied correspondence between their finger sand quantities.”

Some more on numbers in different languages:

“Rare number bases have been observed, for instance, in the quaternary (base-4) systems of Lainana languages of California, or in the senary (base-6) systems that are found in southern New Guinea. …

Several languages in Melanesia and Polynesia have or once had number system that vary in accordance with the type of object being counted. In the case of Old High Fijian, for instance, the word for 100 was Bola when people were counting canoes, but Kora when they were counting coconuts. …

some languages in northwest Amazonia base their numbers on kinship relationships. This is true of Daw and Hup two related language in the region. Speakers of the former languages use fingers complemented with words when counting from 4 to 10. The fingers signify the quantity of items being counted, but words are used to denote whether the quantity is odd or even. If the quantity is even, speakers say it “has a brother,” if it is odd they state it “has no brother.”

What about languages with no or very few words for numbers?

In one recent survey of limited number system, it was found that more than a dozen languages lack bases altogether, and several do not have words for exact quantities beyond 2 and, in some cases, beyond 1. Of course, such cases represent a miniscule fraction of the world’s languages, the bulk of which have number bases reflecting the body-part model. Furthermore, most of the extreme cases in question are restricted geographically to Amazonia. …

All of the extremely restricted languages, I believe, are used by people who are hunter-gatherers or horticulturalists, eg, the Munduruku. Hunter gatherers typically don’t have a lot of goods to keep track of or trade, fields to measure or taxes to pay, and so don’t need to use a lot of numbers. (Note, however, that the Inuit/Eskimo have a perfectly normal base-20 counting system. Their particularly harsh environment appears to have inspired both technological and cultural adaptations.) But why are Amazonian languages even less numeric than those of other hunter-gatherers from similar environments, like central African?

Famously, most of the languages of Australia have somewhat limited number system, and some linguists previously claimed that most Australian language slack precise terms for quantities beyond 2…. [however] many languages on that continent actually have native means of describing various quantities in precise ways, and their number words for small quantities can sometimes be combined to represent larger quantities via the additive and even multiplicative usage of bases. …

Of the nearly 200 Australian languages considered in the survey, all have words to denote 1 and 2. In about three-quarters of the languages, however, the highest number is 3 or 4. Still, may of the languages use a word for “two” as a base for other numbers. Several of the languages use a word for “five” as a base, an eight of the languages top out at a word for “ten.”

Everett then digresses into what initially seems like a tangent about grammatical number, but luckily I enjoy comparative linguistics.

In an incredibly comprehensive survey of 1,066 languages, linguist Matthew Dryer recently found that 98 of them are like Karitiana and lack a grammatical means of marking nouns of being plural. So it is not particularly rare to find languages in which numbers do not show plurality. … about 90% of them, have a grammatical means through which speakers can convey whether they are talking about one or more than one thing.

Mandarin is a major language that has limited expression of plurals. According to Wikipedia:

The grammar of Standard Chinese shares many features with other varieties of Chinese. The language almost entirely lacks inflection, so that words typically have only one grammatical form. Categories such as number (singular or plural) and verb tense are frequently not expressed by any grammatical means, although there are several particles that serve to express verbal aspect, and to some extent mood.

Some languages, such as modern Arabic and Proto-Indo-European also have a “dual” category distinct from singular or plural; an extremely small set of languages have a trial category.

Many languages also change their verbs depending on how many nouns are involved; in English we say “He runs; they run;” languages like Latin or Spanish have far more extensive systems.

In sum: the vast majority of languages distinguish between 1 and more than one; a few distinguish between one, two, and many, and a very few distinguish between one, two, three, and many.

From the endnotes:

… some controversial claims of quadral markers, used in restricted contexts, have been made for the Austronesian languages Tangga, Marshallese, and Sursurunga. .. As Corbett notes in his comprehensive survey, the forms are probably best considered quadral markers. In fact, his impressive survey did not uncover any cases of quadral marking in the world’s languages.

Everett tends to bury his point; his intention in this chapter is to marshal support for the idea that humans have an “innate number sense” that allows them to pretty much instantly realize if they are looking at 1, 2, or 3 objects, but does not allow for instant recognition of larger numbers, like 4. He posits a second, much vaguer number sense that lets us distinguish between “big” and “small” amounts of things, eg, 10 looks smaller than 100, even if you can’t count.

He does cite actual neuroscience on this point–he’s not just making it up. Even newborn humans appear to be able to distinguish between 1, 2, and 3 of something, but not larger numbers. They also seem to distinguish between some and a bunch of something. Anumeric peoples, like the Piraha, also appear to only distinguish between 1, 2, and 3 items with good accuracy, though they can tell “a little” “some” and “a lot” apart. Everett also cites data from animal studies that find, similarly, that animals can distinguish 1, 2, and 3, as well as “a little” and “a lot”. (I had been hoping for a discussion of cephalopod intelligence, but unfortunately, no.)

How then, Everett asks, do we wed our specific number sense (1, 2, and 3) with our general number sense (“some” vs “a lot”) to produce ideas like 6, 7, and a googol? He proposes that we have no innate idea of 6, nor ability to count to 10. Rather, we can count because we were taught to (just as some highly trained parrots and chimps can.) It is only the presence of number words in our languages that allows us to count past 3–after all, anumeric people cannot.

But I feel like Everett is railroading us to a particular conclusion. For example, he sites neurology studies that found one part of the brain does math–the intraparietal suclus (IPS)–but only one part? Surely there’s more than one part of the brain involved in math.

About 5 seconds of Googling got me “Neural Basis of Mathematical Cognition,” which states that:

The IPS turns out to be part of the extensive network of brain areas that support human arithmetic (Figure 1). Like all networks it is distributed, and it is clear that numerical cognition engages perceptual, motor, spatial and mnemonic functions, but the hub areas are the parietal lobes …

(By contrast, I’ve spent over half an hour searching and failing to figure out how high octopuses can count.)

Moreover, I question the idea that the specific and general number senses are actually separate. Rather, I suspect there is only one sense, but it is essentially logarithmic. For example, hearing is logarithmic (or perhaps exponential,) which is why decibels are also logarithmic. Vision is also logarithmic:

The eye senses brightness approximately logarithmically over a moderate range (but more like a power law over a wider range), and stellar magnitude is measured on a logarithmic scale.[14] This magnitude scale was invented by the ancient Greek astronomer Hipparchus in about 150 B.C. He ranked the stars he could see in terms of their brightness, with 1 representing the brightest down to 6 representing the faintest, though now the scale has been extended beyond these limits; an increase in 5 magnitudes corresponds to a decrease in brightness by a factor of 100.[14] Modern researchers have attempted to incorporate such perceptual effects into mathematical models of vision.[15][16]

So many experiments have revealed logarithmic responses to stimuli that someone has formulated a mathematical “law” on the matter:

Fechner’s law states that the subjective sensation is proportional to the logarithm of the stimulus intensity. According to this law, human perceptions of sight and sound work as follows: Perceived loudness/brightness is proportional to logarithm of the actual intensity measured with an accurate nonhuman instrument.[3]

p = k ln ⁡ S S 0 {\displaystyle p=k\ln {\frac {S}{S_{0}}}\,\!}

The relationship between stimulus and perception is logarithmic. This logarithmic relationship means that if a stimulus varies as a geometric progression (i.e., multiplied by a fixed factor), the corresponding perception is altered in an arithmetic progression (i.e., in additive constant amounts). For example, if a stimulus is tripled in strength (i.e., 3 x 1), the corresponding perception may be two times as strong as its original value (i.e., 1 + 1). If the stimulus is again tripled in strength (i.e., 3 x 3 x 3), the corresponding perception will be three times as strong as its original value (i.e., 1 + 1 + 1). Hence, for multiplications in stimulus strength, the strength of perception only adds. The mathematical derivations of the torques on a simple beam balance produce a description that is strictly compatible with Weber’s law.[6][7]

In any logarithmic scale, small quantities–like 1, 2, and 3–are easy to distinguish, while medium quantities–like 101, 102, and 103–get lumped together as “approximately the same.”

Of course, this still doesn’t answer the question of how people develop the ability to count past 3, but this is getting long, so we’ll continue our discussion next week.

Anthropology Friday: Original Gangster, by Frank Lucas pt. 3/3

Frank Lucas in his chinchilla skin coat, photo from Narcos Wiki.

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday, featuring Frank Lucas and Aliya King’s Original Gangster: the real life story of one of America’s most notorious drug lords. At his height, Lucas’s net worth was, by his account, around 52 million dollars, much of it stashed in off-shore bank accounts and American real estate. But at this point in our story, Lucas was still Bumpy Johnson’s driver.

One evening, Bumpy, Lucas and a few others were eating dinner:

At Well’s, I sat a few booths away from Bumpy. …

The chimes at the door rattled and in came a tall, lanky young man with a shock of red hair styled in a straightened conk. He made his way to Bumpy’s table and then stopped, waiting for permission from Bumpy before sitting down.

Bumpy smiled, just barely, and tilted his head to the side in a gesture that meant “have a seat.” …

The two of them spoke briefly. I wasn’t close enough to hear anything but I could tell it was a friendly, personal conversation. They didn’t look like they were in any kind of business together.

The guy took one sip of his coffee, looked at his watch, and stood up.

“Gotta go. Good to see you, Mr. Johnson.”

Always good to see you. Careful out there, Red,” said Bumpy…

Just like all of Bumpy’s associates, the guy called Detroit Red didn’t speak to me… But I knew him. I knew they called him Detroit Red and I always recognized the bright red hair he had. Years and years later, he would become Malcolm X.

I assume I don’t need to tell you about Malcolm X. He’s pretty famous–even I’ve seen the movie about him.

Bumpy decides to put Lucas in charge of a “numbers” spot, keeping track of gamblers. He explains to Lucas the different kinds of gamblers and how the operation works:

“[This guy] Can’t afford to play more than a quarter a day. But he plays it. He’d skip lunch before he missed playing his number. …

“This is a sensitive operation. It’s illegal–God only knows why–so you have to watch out for the police. Avoid the good cops. Pay off the crooked ones. …

“Spot like this one? Right next to the subway line. Brings in at least a hundred grand a week.”

Lucas’ January 1975 federal mug shot.

As crimes go, gambling is pretty mild and makes decent money, but Lucas finds it boring and itches to expand into something more exciting. While watching a news report about American servicemen in Vietnam getting hooked on the local heroin, described as purer and cheaper than the heroin available in the US. Those words stuck in his brain, but Bumpy nixed his idea to go to Thailand and buy drugs straight from the source, bypassing the Mafia. In the meanwhile:

[Frank’s third child] was born in the spring. And by the fall of 1960, I was in a situation that would make it much harder for me to go see him.

I got arrested for conspiracy to sell drugs and sentenced to thirty months in the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg… Doing jail time was no big deal to me. But what made it a little complicated was that they had blacks and whites desegregated. Around the time I went into Lewisburg, they’d passed some law that made it illegal to segregate prisoners. So, for the first time in the common areas and in the mess hall, black folks and white folk were together. I’m not so sue that was a good idea back then ’cause, for the most part, blacks and whites in jail were like the Bloods and Crips today.

And at Lewisburg, there were more white boys. We were outnumbered at least three to one, which just added to the tension when they started mixing us up.

I started this whole project hoping to find something on race and prison gangs (unfortunately, my local library didn’t have anything that looked promising on the subject.) Even within the genre of crime stories, it appears that most people aren’t very comfortable discussing racial conflict, but I doubt a stranger who started his memoir with a Klan slaying is any stranger to racial animosity.

With Bumpy’s passing, Lucas became one of the top gangsters in Harlem and could finally pursue his dream of importing heroin directly from Thailand. With military planes flying in and out of the area due to the Vietnam war, it wasn’t hard to arrange for a few more things to be shipped in their holds. The drugs arrive and Lucas arranges for a crew to unload it from the plane:

Doc and his boys moved everything out. They would take it to the second location to prevent the first crew from knowing too much about the operation. I always wanted to have more than one layer to my business proceedings. And with a project like this, it was even more important.

My work was now done. Doc and Glynn would make sure the product was prepared for the streets and sold. I didn’t touch any part of that process. … I was no longer a drug dealer. I didn’t deal with any junkies. I didn’t touch any drugs, and I was several layers removed from the streets. I was an entrepreneur; I simply dealt with supply and demand. Some folks import tea from China, art from Paris, or fabric from Italy. I imported heroin.

Both Mafia bosses and Frank Lucas used this technique of putting multiple layers of employees between themselves and the street-level handling, processing, and selling of the product (or street-level gambling operations, extortion, etc.) The Bosses call the shots, but with enough plausible deniability to make them difficult to prosecute (which is why they are often prosecuted on money-laundering charges, instead.)

With Frank Lucas managing the supply chain, the streets of New York were flooded with cheaper, more potent heroin–leading to thousands of deaths.

For years, I would use this to keep my mind off the guilt of what the heroin was doing to the people in my community. Joseph Seagram made sure the streets had beer, wine, and liquor. And I’m sure he didn’t feel bad about the winos and alcoholics in the street. Down in North Carolina, where I was from, R. J. Reynolds had tobacco fields everywhere. Made sure the streets were flooded with cigarettes… I know R. J. Reynolds didn’t feel bad about folks dying of lung cancer left and right.

I was Frank Lucas. I supplied the streets of Harlem with heroin. It was my profession. And, like war, it came with casualties.

Lucas goes to visit the poppy fields in Thailand:

I’m telling you, I felt like we crossed every river in Asia on our way. From the Ruak River to the Mekong, we trekked out on foot for miles and miles. ….

And across the land, there was nothing but poppies–everywhere. I was in complete shock.

Now, when I say there was nothing before me but poppy field, you really have to understand what I’m trying to tell you. I’m talking about land the size of all five boroughs in New York City combined. And there was nothing but the poppy seed plants–the plant that heroin is made from–stretching from one end to the other. I looked up and noticed that the entire field was covered with dark netting. The netting made it impossible to see the fields from the sky so that traveling military planes wouldn’t know what was going on there. But the sun could still shine through…

I asked my guide how the area had become the headquarters for heroin… In the 1960s, there was an anticommunist group of Chinese people who had settled near the border of China and Burma. They ended up getting support from the American CIA… The Hmong people traded in heroin, an with the CIA tuning a blind eye to their illegal activities, the region exploded. …

According to Wikipedia:

While the CIA was sponsoring a Secret War in Laos from 1961 to 1975, it was accused of trafficking in opium (an area known as the Golden Triangle). …

During its involvement, the CIA used the Meo (Hmong) population to fight Pathet Lao rebels. Because of the war against Pathet Lao rebels, the Hmong depended upon poppy cultivation for hard currency. The Hmong were very important to CIA operations and the CIA was very concerned with their well-being. The Plain of Jars had been captured by Pathet Lao rebels in 1964, which resulted in the Laotian Air Force not being able to land their C-47 transport aircraft on the Plain of Jars for opium transport. The Laotian Air Force had almost no light planes that could land on the dirt runways near the mountaintop poppy fields. Having no way to transport their opium, the Hmong were faced with economic ruin. Air America was the only airline available in northern Laos. “According to several unproven sources, Air America began flying opium from mountain villages north and east of the Plain of Jars to Gen Vang Pao’s headquarters at Long Tieng.”[2]

The CIA’s front company, Air America was alleged to have profited from transporting opium and heroin on behalf of Hmong leader Vang Pao,[3][4][5] or of “turning a blind eye” to the Laotian military doing it.[6][7] This allegation has been supported by former Laos CIA paramilitary Anthony Poshepny (aka Tony Poe), former Air America pilots, and other people involved in the war. … However, University of Georgia historian William M. Leary, writing on behalf of Air America, claims that this was done without the airline employees’ direct knowledge and that the airline did not trade in drugs.

Finally Lucas get a bit sloppy, shows off a bit too much wealth, and more than just crooked cops (who had long known about his business and been extorting him for money) come down on him. His house is raided and they find nearly $600,000 in cash (Lucas claims there was far more, but they stole it, including the key and subsequently contents of his safe deposit box in the Cayman Islands.) He was sentenced to 70 years in prison, but for providing evidence that lead to 100 other drug-related convictions, he was placed in the Witness Protection Program. His sentence was was soon reduced to five years plus lifetime parole.

After some more in-and-out with the legal system, he was released from prison in 1991.

Testimony during one of the trials from a grieving mother whose son overdosed on heroin began to make Lucas realize that he couldn’t just wash his hands of the results of his “business.” Tired of prison and the drug trade, Lucas was faced with the prospect of finding legal ways to make money:

As soon as I got out, my brother Larry asked me about working with him on an oil deal. He knew a man who was trying to import oil from Nigeria to Texas.

“He’s got a great connection,” said Larry. “He’s just trying to raise money.” … “Nothing illegal here, Frank. He just needs investors. Everything’s on the up and up.” …

I met with the guy and I was impressed with him right way. I agreed to start doing some fund-raising for him and try to get his oil business off the ground. Even though I wasn’t in the drug game anymore, I still knew people with money. I ended up raising close to a million dollars in three months… ‘The profits from the oil business started coming in quickly. It wasn’t big money. It was nothing like I’d experienced years before… But I did pull in about a hundred grand every few months. And I did it legally–for the very first time in my entire adult life.

Lucas soon found other ways to make money, like turning his life’s story into a book and then a movie.

At the memoir’s end, he approaches the premier of the movie about his own life, considers for a few minutes, and turns away:

In some small measure, my absence from the premier [of the movie about him] was out of respect to the many people, in Harlem and beyond, who suffered from the heroin industry that I helped to expand. …

Today, I write this book and outline all my successes and my failings in honor of every single person affected directly or indirectly by the evils of the heroin trade. … I’m seventy-eight years old today and I still have a lifetime of regret.

And every single word in this book is dedicated to those I impacted in any way.

Does he mean it? I suppose that is between him and God. Can a man of no conscience develop one? Can a man with psychopathic disregard for the lives of others (and his own) become a loving husband, father, and son? And can a man redeem himself for such crimes?

And from a societal perspective, what should be done with people like Lucas? Is there some alternative scenario where he didn’t enter a life of crime? Lucas certainly didn’t enter crime because he lacked the intelligence or talents necessary for other occupations, but because he was far too ambitious for the honest employment options open to him. Even if better jobs had been available, would he have wanted to pursue them, or would all of those years of school and training have been too tedious beside the allure of immediate money?


Anthropology Friday: Original Gangster, by Frank Lucas pt. 2

Welcome back to Frank Lucas and Aliya King’s Original Gangster: the real life story of one of America’s most notorious drug lords. (Given that I’d never heard of Frank Lucas before reading this book, I’m not sure how notorious he actually is, but I’ll grant that I can’t name a whole lot of drug lords off the top of my head.)

To recap: at the age of 14, Frank Lucas arrived–penniless and homeless–in NYC. He began stealing food and quickly progressed to drug dealing and armed robbery:

I was crazy. I didn’t care about anything except where my next dollar was coming from and how I was going to spend it… I heard through the grapevine that I had at least five contracts out on my life. From the grocery-store owner to the group of gangsters I’d robbed at the gambling spot,* people were straight up making deals and promising money to anyone who would kill em dead in the street.

*Not a good idea.

I should mention here that I was all of seventeen years old.

I wasn’t afraid to die. More than that, I just didn’t care about dying. I was young, tough, good-looking, and strong. I was prepared to do whatever I had to do to live. If that meant killing anyone who tried to kill me, so be it.

I have a friend who was homeless for many years. During that time, he never held up a liquor store or so much as picked a pocket. He ate at soup kitchens and slept in homeless shelters, and while the food was dull and the environs terrible, he didn’t starve and he is very much still alive. Of course, the charity situation in NYC in the 40s may have been different, but I have not heard of their homeless just starving to death. Theft is not necessary for survival.

On the other hand, Frank Lucas was homeless for a far shorter time than my friend, and ended up with far more money.

For several weeks, I was a wanted man. But if you’d run into me at one of my Harlem hangouts you’d never have known it by looking at me. I was calm, cool. and collected. I woke up every morning ready to kill on sight. …

I continued robbing whoever and wherever, getting my money up, and I was still dating any woman I wanted.

Lack of fear is one of the signs of psychopathy (especially since psychopaths experience low emotional affect in general.) As Wikipedia puts it:

People scoring 25 or higher in the PCL-R, with an associated history of violent behavior, appear on average to have significantly reduced microstructural integrity between the white matter connecting the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex (such as the uncinate fasciculus). The evidence suggested that the degree of abnormality was significantly related to the degree of psychopathy and may explain the offending behaviors. …

Additionally, the notion of psychopathy being characterized by low fear is consistent with findings of abnormalities in the amygdala, since deficits in aversive conditioning and instrumental learning are thought to result from amygdala dysfunction, potentially compounded by orbitofrontal cortex dysfunction, although the specific reasons are unknown.

Back to Lucas:

I think we need to recap right here before I go any further. I come up to Harlem in the mid-1940s, just barely a teenager. I start robbing and stealing, move on to selling heroin, and within a few years, I’d made and lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. … And I took it straight to the gambling and pool halls throughout my neighborhood and lost every penny.

Here are the 20 items from Robert Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist:

Glib and superficial charm
Grandiose self-estimation
Pathological lying
Cunning and manipulativeness

Need for stimulation
Impulsivity / Irresponsibility
Poor behavioral controls
Lack of (realistic) long-term goals
Many short-term marital relationships / Sexual promiscuity

Lack of remorse or guilt / Lack of empathy
Shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness)
Failure to accept responsibility for own actions

Parasitic lifestyle
Early behavioral problems / Juvenile delinquency
Revocation of conditional release
Criminal versatility

Lucas does eventually get married, love his wife, provide for a couple of his many children, and feel remorse for selling the heroin that killed many people. But that’s later. At 17, he was wondering if he could get in on the murder-for-hire business:

I wondered if Icepick needed a little help in the kill-for-hire business. I would have killed someone for twenty-five thousand dollars. … It’s the mind frame I was in at the time. … It was kill or be killed, as far as I was concerned.

Icepick Red was wanted by the police for walking up to people in the streets and sticking icepicks into their chests, presumably in exchange for money. Lucas tries to talk to Icepick, but Icepick (who does not come across as the sanest guy) won’t even acknowledge his presence. (Later in the book, one of Lucas’s wives–upon realizing that he was going to be a terrible father–has an abortion, and Lucas has the temerity to object that killing fetuses is immoral.)

I wanted to find a picture for you of Icepick–or even the original newspaper article about him–but so far nothing specific has come up. I did, however, find an article confirming that icepicks were a popular murder weapon about this time:

Just when it seemed the ice pick served no purpose, a Brooklyn organized-crime syndicate, known as Murder Incorporated, found a deliberately sinister use for the otherwise antiquated tool. Historians estimate that the gangster ring carried out 400 to 1,000 contract killings. In more than a few cases, the victim met with his death at the end of an ice pick.

According to newspaper accounts, two young Brooklyn “underworld characters” were found dead in a vacant lot in New Jersey in 1932. Their bodies, each stabbed at least 20 times with an ice pick, were stuffed into sewn sacks. One victim had only one cent in his pocket.

In 1944, a jury found Jacob Drucker guilty of the murder of Walter Sage, a Brooklyn moneylender whose body was found “riddled with ice-pick holes” and strapped to a slot machine frame.

“Let me put it to you this way,” said a former New York City police detective. “An ice pick stabbed through the temple and through the brains was not uncommon in homicides.”

Back then, mobsters used ice picks not only because the tool was easy to get and did the job … but also because an ice pick instilled fear. It was employed to send a message, said the detective, Thomas D. Nerney, 72, who joined the New York Police Department in 1966 and worked in virtually every homicide squad in the city before retiring in 2002.

“Murder is not only to take somebody’s life away, but to terrorize,” Mr. Nerney said. …”That was the message that went out to the people who didn’t comply with the rules of the Mafia.”

Ellsworth Raymond “Bumpy” Johnson (10/31/1905 – 7/7/1968)

A little later, Lucas and Icepick Red got into a tense situation over a game of pool, when Bumpy Johnson stepped in (and, according to Lucas, saved his life):

I’d never seen him before. But anyone living in Harlem knew the name Bumpy Johnson. I’d read his name in the paper a few time and I knew that if anyone in Harlem wanted to do any kind of big business, he had to come see Bumpy Johnson first. Or die. …

I only knew the basics about Bumpy stuff I’d heard in the streets. He was from South Carolina. And I’d heard that he wasn’t a typical gangster. He worked the streets but he wasn’t of the streets. He was refined and classy, more like a businessman with a legitimate career than most people in the underworld. I could tell by looking at him that he was a lot different than most people I saw in the streets. …

From that day until the day he died, my place was at the right side of Bumpy Johnson. I went where he went. I did whatever he told me to do. I listened, I observed, and I learned. I didn’t ask questions. I only followed commands and order. And I learned everything about how the King of Harlem ran his enterprises.

Stephanie St. Clair

There’s some debate over how much Lucas actually worked for Bumpy. Bumpy’s wife, Mayme, tells the story differently. (Here’s an interesting story about Bumpy from Mayme’s POV.)

I’m not sure if Icepick Red was a real person, or multiple people rolled into one character, but Bumpy was definitely real. He moved to Harlem in 1919, and became an enforcer for Stephanie St. Clair, herself, fascinating. St. Clair, born in 1886 in Martinique of French and African parentage, became one of Harlem’s only female mob bosses. According to Wikipedia:

After the end of Prohibition, Jewish and Italian-American crime families saw a decrease in profits and decided to move in on the Harlem gambling scene. Bronx-based mob boss Dutch Schultz was the first to move in, beating and killing numbers operators who would not pay him protection.

Saint-Clair and her chief enforcer Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson refused to pay protection to Schultz, despite the violence and intimidation by police they faced. St. Clair responded by attacking the storefronts of businesses that ran Dutch Schultz’s betting operations and tipping off the police about him. This resulted in the police raiding his house, arresting more than a dozen of his employees and seizing approximately $12 million (about $216 million in 2016 currency). Saint-Clair never submitted to Dutch Schultz like many others in Harlem eventually did.

After Saint-Clair’s struggles with Schultz, she had to keep clean and away from police, so she handed off her business to “Bumpy” Johnson. Eventually her former enforcer negotiated with Lucky Luciano, and Lucky took over Schultz’s spots, with a percentage going to “Bumpy”. The Italians then had to go to “Bumpy” first if they had any problems in Harlem.

Luciano realized that the struggle with the Five Families was hurting their business, so Schultz was assassinated in 1935 on the orders of The Commission. Saint-Clair sent an insulting telegram to his hospital bed as the gangster lay dying. By the 1940s, “Bumpy” Johnson had become the reigning king in Harlem, while Saint-Clair became less and less involved in the numbers game.

Let’s return to Lucas’s account:

If you wanted to do business in Harlem, you went through Bumpy. And you paid him a percentage of your profits for the benefits of being in business in the neighborhood. It was like property tax–hazard insurance. If you didn’t want your hardware store, beauty salon, or grocery to go up in flames in the dead of night, you collected your fee every month and passed it off to one of Bumpy’s associates…

I saw a variety of celebrities come into his brownstone to visit. I saw the actor Sidney Poitier in the sitting room one afternoon, talking with Bumpy. On other occasions, I saw people like Billy Daniels and Billy Eckstine in the formal dining room for dinner. Of course, I never had conversation with these people. That wasn’t my place…

years later, I’d hear about how Bumpy Johnson was supposedly a big time drug dealer. I put my life on this statement right here: I didn’t know nothing about Bumpy and drugs. He never whispered a word to me about it and I was with him from first thing in the morning till late at night. I’m not saying he wasn’t. I’m just saying that if he was, he did it all without me hearing a word about it. …

Bumpy didn’t just shake down businesses in Harlem. If anyone made any money doing anything illegal, Bumpy was owed a piece of that, too. Soon after I started working for him, some guys from Harlem pulled a job off out in the Midwest, robbed some diamonds from somewhere. And they sent Bumpy his share of the heist. That kind of thing happened quite often.

The story of Icepick Red comes to an end after Icepick murders one of Bumpy’s associates and rapes the deceased’s wife. Bumpy sends Lucas and some of his other men to do what the police couldn’t: bring Icepick in. Bumpy proceeds to chain Icepick to a pipe and sic a couple of jars of fire ants on him. Icepick is eaten alive.

(Despite Icepick’s crimes, Lucas expresses horror at the nature of his murder, noting that he wishes he had just shot Icepick when they cornered him.)

Whether Icepick was real or a composite, I still wonder it took someone like Bumpy–not the police–to bring him down. Was it only in the 90s that the police got serious about stopping criminals, instead of occasionally beating them up and then returning them to the streets?

I’m running low on time, so that’s all for today. See you next Friday!

AF: Original Gangster: The Real Life Story of one of America’s Most Notorious Drug Lords, by Frank Lucas

Welcome to the final volume in our exploration of the anthropology of crime, Frank Lucas and Aliya King’s Original Gangster. Unlike the other book in this series, this one is actually (co)authored by the criminal himself. This provides a unique perspective, but also introduces the question of whether the author is entirely honest–but since I have no way to independently verify his story, I’ll just be reporting matters as he tells them.

It’s been a month since I finished the book, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. It’s an interesting read, for sure, but I am ambivalent about giving criminals more attention–on the other hand, the book has already been made into a movie, so what’s one more reader?

Lucas’s story begins in 1936, when, at the age of six, he witnesses his cousin’s head blown off by the KKK. He soon began stealing food to help feed his impoverished family, and left home at the age of 14. I forget why, exactly, he decided to set off on his own, but he quickly ran into trouble, was arrested and put into a chain gang. With a little help he managed to escape and made his way to New York City, where a helpful bus driver got him to his final destination:

“Right here! Go. Get off! This is Harlem.”

I stood on 114th Street and 8th Avenue and looked to my right and to my left. There was nothing but black people as far as I cold see. And there were all kinds of black folks: men and women of all ages and sizes, some who looked dirt poor (but not as poor as me) and some who looked straight-up rich.

I threw out my hands and screamed out as loud as I could, “Hello, Harlem USA!”

Harlem, 1765

Harlem has an interesting history of its own. The British burned down the small, Dutch town during the Revolutionary War. New York City expanded into Harlem, and after the Civil War, the area became heavily Jewish and Italian. By the 30s, the Jews had been replaced by Puerto Ricans (the Italians lingered a little longer.)

In 1904, black real estate entrepreneur Phillip Payton, Jr., of the Afro-American Realty Company, began encouraging blacks to move from other New York neighborhoods to Harlem (which had particularly low rents then because of a housing crash.) According to Wikipedia:

The early 20th-century Great Migration of blacks to northern industrial cities was fueled by their desire to leave behind the Jim Crow South, seek better jobs and education for their children, and escape a culture of lynching violence. During World War I, expanding industries recruited black laborers to fill new jobs, thinly staffed after the draft began to take young men. … In 1910, Central Harlem was about 10% black. By 1920, central Harlem was 32.43% black. The 1930 census showed 70.18% of Central Harlem’s residents as black… As blacks moved in, white residents left. Between 1920 and 1930, 118,792 white people left the neighborhood and 87,417 blacks arrived.

Between 1907 and 1915 some white residents of Harlem resisted the neighborhood’s change, especially once the swelling black population pressed west of Lenox Avenue, which served as an informal color line until the early 1920s. Some made pacts not to sell to or rent to black Others tried to buy property and evict black tenants, but the Afro-American Realty Company retaliated by buying other property and evicting whites. …

Soon after blacks began to move into Harlem, the community became known as “the spiritual home of the Negro protest movement.” … The NAACP chapter there soon grew to be the largest in the country. Activist A. Philip Randolph lived in Harlem and published the radical magazine The Messenger starting in 1917. … W. E. B. Du Bois lived and published in Harlem in the 1920s, as did James Weldon Johnson and Marcus Garvey.

Mount Morris brownstones, Harlem

You know, some books are written in a way that lends themselves quoting, and some are not. This book had a great deal of interesting material about crime and particularly Lucas’s development as a criminal, but most of it went into too much depth to easily quote. (I do longer quotes for books out of copyright.) This passage works, though:

I never even thought about getting a regular job. That just wasn’t me. From the moment I saw my cousin’s head blown away in front of me by the Klan, I had no faith in doing things the “right” way. … I watched my parents break their backs for next to nothing because they tried to play by the unfair rule of the sharecropping system. Just seemed like trying to do things the so-called right way got you nowhere…

There were two Harlems back then. There were the high-society folks, the people who lived in the fancy brownstones overlooking Central Park or up on Mount Morris. … I didn’t notice these people. I knew they were there, but it was like they were in black and white. …Those people up on Mount Morris had solid educations, which gave them a hell of a lot more options than I had. …

The underworld was in full, living color. The prostitute and their pimps, the number runners and their clients, the drug dealers and, most especially, the gamblers, who always had lots of money. They spoke a language I could read, write, and understand fluently.

Just to recap, our author showed up in Harlem at the age of 14 or so with the clothes on his back and not enough money to ride the bus. He found a warm place to sleep with the other homeless and began stealing food. This progressed to stealing money, and as the author puts it:

A few months after I started stealing anything not nailed down in Harlem, I was introduced to the heroin trade.

On the history of Heroin ™:

Hoffmann, working at Bayer pharmaceutical company in Elberfeld, Germany, was instructed by his supervisor Heinrich Dreser to acetylate morphine with the objective of producing codeine, a constituent of the opium poppy… Instead, the experiment produced an acetylated form of morphine one and a half to two times more potent than morphine itself. The head of Bayer’s research department reputedly coined the drug’s new name, “heroin,” based on the German heroisch, which means “heroic, strong” (from the ancient Greek word “heros, ήρως”). …

In 1895, the German drug company Bayer marketed diacetylmorphine as an over-the-counter drug under the trademark name Heroin. It was developed chiefly as a morphine substitute for cough suppressants that did not have morphine’s addictive side-effects. Morphine at the time was a popular recreational drug, and Bayer wished to find a similar but non-addictive substitute to market. However, contrary to Bayer’s advertising as a “non-addictive morphine substitute,” heroin would soon have one of the highest rates of addiction among its users.

Like Frisbees and Kleenex, Heroin was once a brand name that has become synonymous with the product.

Lucas isn’t out to take heroin. He wants to sell it–probably a less risky and more profitable venture than robbing people at gunpoint. But by now he’s attracted some unwanted attention.

In the underworld environment, cops are the natural enemy of a drug dealer. It was my job to just stay out of their way, but that rule only applies to cops trying to do their job. Crooked cops have no rules and no ethics. And some of them get a badge just so they can have a license to beat people up and rob them.

If I ever turned a corner and saw Diggs and his partner, Pappo, my stomach sank and my temper jumped a few degrees. …

“You got a reason to have your hands on me?” I’d say.

“We can make one up if you don’t shut the fuck up,” they’d say.

An incident at 133rd Street and Seventh Avenue during the Harlem Riot of 1964.

Diggs and Pappo beat him up a lot, until one day Lucas went a little crazy and threatened to kill them, after which they left him alone.

If I recall correctly, Lucas was only about 17 at this time, so this was around 1947, maybe into the early 50s.

Obviously Lucas has interacted with a lot of police officers, since he’s been arrested a few times and spent many years in prison. He doesn’t have much negative to say about honest cops, but crooked cops–who not only beat him, like Diggs and Pappo, but also extorted money from him–earn his ire.

Of course, Lucas was actually a criminal, but why did he attract so much attention from police officers who were content to beat him up a bit and then let him back out on the streets? If the crooked cops knew he was dealing, why didn’t he attract the attention of honest police officers before becoming a multi-millionaire drug lord? Were the crooked cops just more attuned to criminal activity (being, essentially, criminals themselves)? Was there just not enough solid evidence to convict Lucas in a court of law, but more than plenty to randomly harass him? Does arresting people require a lot of paperwork?

Lucas was eventually arrested and sent to prison (in 1975, though his 70 year sentence was eventually reduced to 5 plus parole.) Throughout the period Lucas was operating–primarily the 1960s and early 70s–heroin, crack, and crime hit NYC like a sledgehammer. How much was Lucas’s fault is debatable (though it was surely a lot.) But the attitude of “let’s just beat up the criminals a bit and then put them back on the streets” couldn’t have helped.

It’s getting late, so let’s continue this next Friday.