Anthropology Friday: The James-Younger Gang

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we’re continuing with Dago’s account from Outlaws on Horseback of the James-Younger gang. Wikipedia has some background on the gang:

The James–Younger Gang had its origins in a group of Confederatebushwhackers that participated in the bitter partisan fighting that wracked Missouri during the American Civil War. After the war, the men continued to plunder and murder, though the motive shifted to personal profit rather than for the glory of the Confederacy. ..

For nearly a decade following the Civil War, the James–Younger Gang was among the most feared, most publicized, and most wanted confederations of outlaws on the American frontier. Though their crimes were reckless and brutal, many members of the gang commanded a notoriety in the public eye that earned the gang significant popular support and sympathy. The gang’s activities spanned much of the central part of the country; they are suspected of having robbed banks, trains, and stagecoaches in at least ten states: Missouri, Kentucky, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, and West Virginia.

But back to Dago’s account. Here is some background on Cole Younger, and what prompted him to become an outlaw:

Cole Younger, 1889 (lived 1844 – 1916)

“A week after the battle at Lone Jack, Cole [Younger] risked coming to see his mother. He was caught in the house by Union militiamen… and escaped only through the connivance of Suse (short for Susan,) who had grown old as a Younger slave.

“Two months later, Union troops came to the house again in the middle of the night and searched it from cellar to garret for Cole. Infuriated by not finding him, they ordered Mrs. Younger to set fire to the place. She had her four youngest children with her. An early fall storm had put a few inches of snow on the ground. She pleaded that if the intruders were determined to make her burn her own home they wait until morning. …

“When she offered to cook them something to eat, they agreed to wait. At the crack of dawn, however, they hitched a horse to a wagon, tossed a mattress and some blankets into it. Some furniture having been gathered into a pile, they forced her to set it afire…

“In his autobiography, The story of Cole Younger, by Himself, published in 1903, he makes much of the burning of his old home and the treatment his mother and brothers and sisters received, though hundreds of other families were burned out in that fashion”

EvX: Dago quotes an excerpt from Kansas, a Guide to the Sunflower State about the state of things between Missouri and Kansas before the war:

For two years a state of open warfare existed. Armed bands of border ruffians from Missouri made forays into Kansas and were answered by retaliatory companies of Jayhawkers. Men were called out into the night and shot down for no other reason than they supported or were suspected of supporting the opposite cause…. Fields were laid waste and towns were sacked, all int he name of the cause, but more often to gratify personal revenge or avarice. …

Dago continues:

“While formal war was being waged between the North and the South, the old border warfare [between Kansas and Missouri] took on new dimensions, blazing up like a forest fire out of control as opposing bands of bushwhackers and guerrillas spread terror, death and destruction wherever they rode. As 1862 opened, a man could go to his door after nightfall only at the risk of being shot down. Every night in one direction or another, the sky was red as some farmer’s home went up in flames. It was murder, arson and robbery without hope of redress. The opposing factions pretended to have a quasi-military status. Actually, they had none. The flag under which they rode might be the stars and stripes of the North, or the stars and bars of the confederacy, but their real emblem would have been emblazoned with the skull and crossbones of piracy.

“Northern sympathizers were no safer from Red Legs and Jayhawkers than Southerners and vice versa. …

Jesse James:

Jesse and Frank James, 1872

“With the end of the war, families had begun streaming back to the Burnt District to begin life anew. … Dr. Samuel [Jesse James’s father] had the old home repaired and made livable… Between doctoring and farming, he was making a humble living, when Jesse catapulted the family into prominence by robbing the bank at nearby Liberty. After that, life was never the same for Zerelda [Jesse’s mother] and the doctor. Other robberies and train holdups followed, all attributed to the James-Younger Gang. The hunt for them was intensified, but dangerous as it was, they often slipped in out of the brush and spent the night at the Samuel house. It was not long before information to that effect was int he hand of the Pinkertons [a private detective agency.] What they did about it ended in stark tragedy. …

“For months, a score of the agency’s best operatives had been crisscrossing Missouri… the results were distinctly embarrassing… As the year of 1874 drew to a close, the score read: three detectives and only one outlaw, John Younger, killed… And trains continued to be held up and banks robbed with annoying frequency.

“However, on January 5, 1876, the agency got a break. Jack Lad, one of their best operatives, who had been working as a pseudo farmhand within several miles of the Samuel home, wired the Kansas City office that Frank and Jesse were visiting their mother…

The Pinkerton Detective Agency, founded in 1850, is still in operation

“There is some disagreement as to what followed, but it concerns only what one of the Pinkertons tossed through the window that he had opened. The only light within came from the fireplace. It was a bitter night, the temperature hovering around zero. The doctor, Zelda, their two young children–Archie, aged eight, and Fannie, aged five–and a Negro servant woman, who had come west from Kentucky with Zelda and her husband, had retired for the night. Whatever it was that came sailing into the room, it exploded, and the effect was ghastly. Zelda’s right arm was torn off at the elbow. Archie was disemboweled and died almost at once. Dr. Samuel and the Negro woman were seriously injured… The irony of it was that Frank and Jesse were a hundred miles away.

“A feeling of revulsion against the Pinkertons swept the state. …

“Wellman is one of the few [writers who do not think it was a grenade]… I can only ask: why not? I recall the part played by Pinkerton men in the bloody strike at the McCormick Reaper Company Works, in Chicago, and again in the revolt of the steelworkers at the Homestead Mills, in Pittsburgh. The Pinkertons of that era are not sacrosanct with me.”

EvX: Wikipedia gives an interesting account of this incident and its aftermath:

In 1874, the Adams Express Company turned to the Pinkerton National Detective Agency to stop the James–Younger Gang. The Chicago-based agency worked primarily against urban professional criminals, as well as providing industrial security, such as strike breaking. Because the gang received support by many former Confederate soldiers in Missouri, they eluded the Pinkertons. …

Allan Pinkerton, the agency’s founder and leader, took on the case as a personal vendetta. … On the night of January 25, 1875, he staged a raid on the homestead. Detectives threw an incendiary device into the house; it exploded …

Many residents were outraged by the raid on the family home. The Missouri state legislature narrowly defeated a bill that praised the James and Younger brothers and offered them amnesty.[10] Allowed to vote and hold office again, former Confederates in the legislature voted to limit the size of rewards which the governor could make for fugitives. This extended a measure of protection over the James–Younger gang by minimizing the incentive for attempting to capture them.

One man’s outlaw is another man’s, er, freedom fighter?

Interestingly, the Pinkerton Detective Agency is still around:

Pinkerton, founded … by Allan Pinkerton in 1850 and currently a subsidiary of Securitas AB.[1] Pinkerton became famous when he claimed to have foiled a plot to assassinate president-elect Abraham Lincoln, who later hired Pinkerton agents for his personal security during the Civil War.[2] … Pinkerton was the largest private law enforcement organization in the world at the height of its power.[3]

During the labor strikes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, businessmen hired the Pinkerton Agency to infiltrate unions, supply guards, keep strikers and suspected unionists out of factories, and recruit goon squads to intimidate workers. One such confrontation was the Homestead Strike of 1892, in which Pinkerton agents were called in to reinforce the strikebreaking measures of industrialist Henry Clay Frick, acting on behalf of Andrew Carnegie.[4] The ensuing battle between Pinkerton agents and striking workers led to the deaths of seven Pinkerton agents and nine steelworkers.[5] The Pinkertons were also used as guards in coal, iron, and lumber disputes in Illinois, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia as well as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921.

But let’s get back to Dago. How well did outlawry pay?

“After the robbery at Liberty, in February, the James-Younger Gang did not strike again until October 30, more than eight months later, when they looted the bank at Lexington, Missouri. …

“three, possibly four, stagecoach robberies can be rightly charged up to them over the decade and a half of their spectacular banditry. In all that time, however, they entered only a dozen banks (counting their misadventure at Northfield) and held up only seven trains. Add to that the Kansas City Fairgrounds robbery and you have the complete score of their major undertakings–twenty in all…

“Many estimates have been made of how much money they got away with. The popular reckoning is half a million dollars. Cole Younger, who was the only one of the bandits to say anything about it, claimed that they never got half of what they wee supposed to have taken. … The best answer as to what became of the money is that it was spent. A little simple arithmetic is all that is required to arrive at that conclusion. If in fifteen years the loot totaled half a million dollars,t he yearly take was less than $35,000. Divided among eight to ten men, all it amounted to was handsome wages. Cole Younger says they got nothing like half a million dollars. ..

“Turn back to the robbing of the bank at Liberty. Greenup Bird, the cashier, in a sworn statement, says the outlaws rode off with $57,072, of which $40,000 was in bonds, $15,000 in gold coin an the balance, scarcely more than $2,000, in silver and greenbacks. The bonds were nonnegotiable, hence worthless to the bandits. The gold was an even more tantalizing problem, since there was so little of it in circulation that to start spending it was certain to fasten suspicion on whoever possessed ti as a member of the robber gang. The only way out of the dilemma was to dispose of the gold to a “fence”…

“all commentators agree that they got $9,000 for their $15,000 in gold. …

“If, as claimed, twelve men took part in the Liberty bank robbery, a little more arithmetic reveals that each man netted only a little over a thousand dollars.”

EvX: I note that this is the exact same problem many pirates had. It’s one thing to capture a galleon, and quite another to walk into town and buy a farm using a chest full of stolen doubloons without getting noticed.

“Though the proceeds of the Gallatin robbery added up to very little, it unleashed a veritable hornet’ nest of trouble on the James-Younger Gang. … It was high time t get out of Missouri again. By twos and threes, they crossed the line into Indian Territory and holed up in old Tom Starr’s domain, east of Eufala. They knew old Tom from guerrilla days. He had ten brothers, several sons and daughters. With all of his progeny and kinsfolk, he was the head of perhaps the largest of all Cherokee clans, and he ruled it with a cruel, iron hand. The “Starr country” was wild, desolate, without roads, and no one attempted to cross it who was not known to be friendly with its overlord. Its limestone cave were a perfect refuge for men on the scout. Then, too, a man could turn a dollar by stealing horse and cattle for Tom Starr.

An Amusing Incident:

“On June 3, 1871, the world heard from the James-Younger Gang again. This time it was the prosperous town of Corydon, Iowa… Several blocks from the Ocobock Brothers Bank, their objective, a political rally was in full swing. … When they walked out, the grain sack was bulging with $45,000 in assorted bonds, gold and paper currency.

“It was one of the gang’ richest hauls. Jesse felt so good about it that as they passed the meeting on their way out of town, he stopped and interrupted the speaker.

“‘What is it?’ the Great Man demanded with understandable annoyance…

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” Jesse called back, “But there’s something wrong down at the bank. In fact, it’s just been robbed. Maybe you better look into it, sir.”

“With a mocking laugh, he and his fellow conspirators put spurs to their horses and dashed away.”

Jesse’s First Train Robbery:

“…on July 21, Jesse had his way about it and they did the “spectacular”–their first train robbery. … Securing a spike bar and a sledge hammer, they went east of town a short distance, to a curve, pried off a fishplate, removed the spike and attached a rope to the loosened rail so that it could be pulled out of alignment. Hiding behind an embankment, they had nothing to do but wait until the express came panting around the bend.

“It was after midnight when it hove into view. Years later, Cole Younger said that they expected the train would stop when the locomotive left the tracks. Instead it plowed ahead a few feet and toppled over… the engineer was caught in the cab and scalded t death. …

“The express car yielded less than $3,000. … “Railroad records show,” says Croy, “that $75,000 went through the following night.” The gang had missed the jackpot by only twenty-four hours. …

“In the four weeks following the Gads Hill holdup, the Pinkertons sent their best men into Missouri. But no arrests were made. They complained to their superiors that they could get no cooperation from the inhabitants of the border counties of western Missouri, where the outlaws had a number of hiding places, that the James-Younger Gang had friends in every crossroads village and on every farm. It is true that there were many who, for one reason or another, were sympathetic to Jesse and his men, but the overwhelming majority kept silent because they were afraid to inform on them.

“What was more to the point, Jesse had perfected a secret intelligence system that worked so well that whenever a stranger appeared in Clay County word of his presence was quickly conveyed to him by his hangers-on.”

Frank and Jesse’s Weddings:

Zerelda Mimms, wife (and cousin) of Jesse James, not to be confused with Jesse’s mom who was also named Zerelda

“Jesse and Frank were back in Missouri in April. It was marriage, not robbery, they had on their minds this time. Not too much is known about Frank’s marriage in 1874 to Annie Ralson, the daughter of a respectable Clay County family, other than that her people objected so strenuously to her marrying Frank that she had to elope with him. On April 24, 1874, Jesse married Zerelda Mimms, who had been waiting for him for eight years. No elopement for him. Dressed in the finest raiment money could buy, he boldly came into Kansas City and was married by a minister.

“What kind of women were these who married famous outlaws, men with a price on their heads, wanted dead or alive? They were a far cry from what today we call “gun molls.” They lived on “outlaw” money, but on no other count can they be faulted. They took no part in the lawless deeds of their husbands … They were loyal to the men they married, and Frank and Jesse were true and loyal to them. If there is one untarnished page in the life of the James brothers, it is to be found in their marital relation with Annie and Zerelda.”

 

EvX: Things went pretty well for the James-Younger Gang until they decided to head north to Minnesota. They thought the Swedes would be easily-robbed pushovers, but instead they fought back. Of the 8 outlaws who walked into town that day, only two escaped. The three Younger brothers, Jim, Cole, and Bob, were captured and sent to prison, and three other men were killed.

Jesse and Frank went into hiding. Frank appears to have adjusted to settled life, but Jesse soon attracted a new gang of followers.

Jesse’s downfall:

“…Tucker Basham, well-heeled with his share of the Glendale lot, did some foolish bragging that led to his arrest. William H. Wallace, the newly elected and vigorous prosecuting attorney of Jackson County, put the screws on young Basham and got a full confession from him. …

“[Outlaw] Bill Ryan was picked up near Nashville, Tennessee, in the course of a week-long carouse… The description of him that was sent out caught the eye of Deputy U.S. Marshal Whig Keshlaer. … Ryan was brought back to face trial in Missouri.

People shook their heads in consternation–not over the outcome, which they regarded as certain, but at the prosecutor’s audacity in pushing through an indictment of Ryan. Never before had a member of the gang been brought to trial in Jackson County. There was not a chance in a million, they said, that he could impanel a jury that would bring in a verdict of guilty.

“Wallace’s life was threatened. …

[Jesse James then robbed a train and killed its conductor, Westphal.]

“In Independence, Wallace proceeded with the trial of Bill Ryan. Basham’s confession was introduced, and it created a sensation. … That night Tucker Basham’s home was burned to the ground. And now, unexpectedly, a remarkable thing happened. A score of men who had fought for the Confederacy, many under Quantrill, and who in their hearts were still as “unreconstructed” as on the day Lee surrendered at Appomattox, rallied behind Wallace. … The wavering jury took courage and stood firm. The evidence against Ryan piled up and he was sentenced to twenty-five years in the Missouri Penitentiary. …

“Frank was the only one Jesse had left… Of the men who had ridden with him since Northfield, four were in prison… Two were dead–Ed Miller and Wood Hite. Why he didn’t call it a day and get out of Missouri, even out of the United States, no one will ever know. …

“It happened on the morning of April 3, in the modest house in St. Joe in which Jesse was living with his wife and children, under the alias of J.D. Howard. A single shot was heard by the neighbors. They ran in and found the bearded man, whom they knew as Mr. Howard, lying dead on the floor.

“Bob Ford says in his sworn statement:

Jesse and I had a talk yesterday about robbing the bank at Platte City, and which Charley and I both agreed to assist.

“Between eight and nine o’clock this morning while the three of us were in a room in Jesse’s house, Jesse pulled off his coat and also his pistols, two of which he constantly wore, and then got up onto a chair for the purpose of brushing dust off a picture. …

“So as quickly as possible, I drew my pistol and aiming at Jesse’s head, which was no more than four feet from the muzzle of my weapon, I firered, and Jesse tumbled headlong from the chair on which he was standing and fell on his face.

“Bob Ford’s moment of glory was brief. A wave of revulsion at the cowardly manner in which the treacherous asssassination had been accomplished swept over Missouri. In the outburst of feeling Jesse’s crimes were temporarily forgotten, and men and women spoke of him as “our Jesse” … Bob Ford fled the state, only to be reviled wherever he went. … Four years after the slaying of Jesse, Charly Ford, in ill health and worn down by the stigma attached to him, committed suicide with a pistol in a clump of underbrush near his home in Richmond, Missouri.”

EvX: After Jesse’s death, Frank James turned himself in to the authorities, was tried, and acquitted.

Cole Younger was later pardoned and released from prison–a fascinating story, but too long to recount here. I urge you to read the book if you want to hear it.

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Anthropology Friday: God of the Rodeo: Angola, Louisiana

Point Lookout Cemetery, Angola

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon’s blurb for the book reads:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That sounds like a bad idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The place was like a ghost town, still inhabited.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pac-Man: who knew?

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

“Con ass things?” Brooks laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anthropology Friday: Melanesia

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we’re visiting Melanesia., but first I’d like to direct your attention to a new study by Westaway et al, “An early modern human presence in Sumatra 73,000–63,000 years ago“:

Here we reinvestigate Lida Ajer [a fossil site] to identify the teeth confidently and establish a robust chronology using an integrated dating approach. Using enamel–dentine junction morphology, enamel thickness and comparative morphology, we show that the teeth are unequivocally AMH. Luminescence and uranium-series techniques applied to bone-bearing sediments and speleothems, and coupled uranium-series and electron spin resonance dating of mammalian teeth, place modern humans in Sumatra between 73 and 63 ka. This age is consistent with biostratigraphic estimations7, palaeoclimate and sea-level reconstructions, and genetic evidence for a pre-60 ka arrival of AMH into ISEA2. Lida Ajer represents, to our knowledge, the earliest evidence of rainforest occupation by AMH, and underscores the importance of reassessing the timing and environmental context of the dispersal of modern humans out of Africa.

Back to Melanesia:

Polynesians–who settled Hawaii, New Zealand, Easter Island, and Madagascar–are considerably more famous than their cousins over in Melanesia–chiefly Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and Fiji. (The Australian Aborigines are closely related to Melanesians.)

“Polynesia” means “many islands.” “Micronesia” means “tiny islands.” But “Melanesia” means dark islands, not because they are actually dark, but because the locals have dark, high-melanin skin.

Dr. Henry B. Guppy was a British surgeon and naturalist stationed in the Solomon Islands. Confusingly, there is a species of gecko named after Dr. Guppy–the Lepidodactylus guppyi, endemic to the Solomon Islands.

Dr. Guppy also wrote a book, the aptly titled “The Solomon Islands,”:

Amongst the Solomon Islands the student of nature may be compared to a man who, having found a mine of great wealth, is only allowed to carry away just so much of the precious ore as he can bear about his person. For there can be no region of the world where he experiences more tantalisation. Day after day he skirts the shores of islands of which science has no “ken.” Month after month, he may scan, as I have done, lofty mountain-masses never yet explored, whose peaks rise through the clouds to heights of from 7,000 to 10,000 feet above the sea. He may discern on the mountain-slopes the columns of blue smoke which mark the abodes of men who have never beheld the white man. But he cannot land except accompanied by a strong party; and he has therefore to be content usually with viewing such scenes from the deck of his vessel. …

A Melanesian is always careful to turn his toes in as he walks, and the narrowness of the bush track causes him no inconvenience, but the white man is not so careful how he plants his feet and is constantly striking the numerous objects which lie by the side of the track or on its surface. Moreover, a native person keeps his hands by his side as he walks, whereas the white man does not know the necessity for care in the matter and he frequently hits the numerous obstacles with his hands, and some of the leaves on the edge of the track are studded with sharp thorns! Every Melanesian carries a “scrub” knife, and with it he cuts away the limbs that fall over the path, but he cuts them at his own height and in an immediate line with the path; this suits him well, but proves awkward for any person who is taller or less careful about his method of progression.

Naural blond hair
Two Melanesian girls from Vanatu

There is a great deal of interest in Dr. Guppy’s account, but for now we are going to leave him and turn to the Dictionary and Grammar of the Language of Sa’a and Ulawa, Solomon Islands, by Walter G. Ivens, 1918:

Several external characteristics of the Melanesian peoples serve to distinguish them from the Polynesians: (1) Shortness of stature, the average height of the males being possibly 5 feet 4 inches and of the females 4 feet 10_ inches; (2) a chocolate-colored skin; (3) bushy hair, frizzled and tangled and standing erect, owing probably to the incessant teasing of it by the native combs.

The languages spoken in Melanesia vary considerably among themselves, but on examination they are shown to possess common features and to have a very large underlying sameness. The external resemblances, however, between the Melanesian languages are much less than those between the languages of Polynesia; e. g., the external resemblances between Maori and Samoan are far greater than those between Mota and Florida.

Two languages have been separated for a long time will have become more different from each other than two languages that have been separated for only a while. For example, all of the Romance languages are quite similar to each other, and have only been developing since the age of the Roman Empire–about 2,000 years or less. By contrast, English and Russian, while both Indo-European languages that therefore share many characteristics, have far fewer similarities than the Romance languages, because they have been separated for far less time.

If the Melanesian languages have more differences than the Polynesian, then they have likely been separated for longer–and indeed, this appears to be true. Melanesians appear to be descended from one of the first population waves to reach the area (along with their neighbors, the Australian Aborigines,) whereas Polynesians arrived in the area from Taiwan much more recently. (In fact, the Polynesian Maori people only arrived in New Zealand around 1250-1300 AD.)

Dr. Codrington has shown in “Melanesian Anthropology” that there is a large general resemblance in the religious beliefs and practices, the customs and ways of life, which prevail in Melanesia proper, and further research on the lines indicated by him will probably reveal the presence of similar beliefs and conditions of life among the Melanesian peoples of New Guinea and the neighbouring islands.

A distinguishing social condition of Melanesia is the complete absence of tribes, if the word tribe is to be applied as it is to the Maori people of New Zealand, or as used in Fiji. Descent in nearly every part of Melanesia is counted through the mother and the people are everywhere divided into two classes which are exogamous. This division of the people is the foundation on which the fabric of native society is built up. …

Animal food is but rarely partaken of by Melanesians. Pigs they all have, but they keep them for great events, for death feasts or for wedding banquets. Opossums (cuscus) and the large fruit-eating bats and wood pigeons and the monitor lizard are often eaten as relishes with vegetable food. The coast people get large quantities of shellfish at the low spring tides, and on an island like Ulawa a great deal of fishing is done both from the rocks and also out of canoes. The people make all their own fishing-lines out of home-made string or out of strong creepers found in the forest, and in old days their hooks were cut out of tortoise shell or out of black pearl-shell. Even to-day the hooks for the bonito fishing are of native manufacture and the tiny hooks for whiffing sardines are exquisitely made.

Fishing with nets is followed extensively by the Lau-speaking peoples who live on the artificial islets off the northeast coast of Malaita. These peoples and the people of the Reef Islands at Santa Cruz live almost entirely on a fish diet. The flesh of the porpoise is much prized by the peoples of Malaita and regular drives of porpoises are much held, the animals being surrounded and forced ashore into muddy creeks, where they are captured. The main value of the porpoise lies in the teeth, which form one of the native currencies. …

Tambu-House on the Island of Santa Anna, Solomon Islands

The men and boys in the Solomons have club-houses, both in the villages and also down at the beach. In the club-house at the beach the canoes for bonito fishing are kept. Strangers are entertained in these club houses; the relics of the dead are kept in them and religious rites are performed in them. Women are excluded from the club houses. …

Bark cloth (tapa) is made in Melanesia, but it never figured as an article of clothing and its main use was to form a kind of shawl in which the baby was slung when carried from the shoulder. Before the coming of the white man clothing of any sort was very little worn by Melanesians. The people of Santa Cruz, both men and women, were indeed clad sufficiently to satisfy our European notions of decency, and in the southern New Hebrides and in Florida and Ysabel the women wore petticoats made of mats or of grass, but in very many of the islands the women’s dress was of the scantiest, and the men wore nothing but a section of a leaf of a large pandanus. In the southeast Solomons the men commonly were quite naked and the women wore but a scanty fringe, while on Big Malaita not even the traditional fig leaf was worn.

In Santa Cruz, where all women and girls are swathed in mats and are kept in strict seclusion, there is more immorality, and that of a gross and shocking sort, than in the Lau-speaking districts of Malaita, where the women wear no clothing of any sort whatever. Once the mind gets over the shock experienced at the idea of the unclothed body, it will be obvious to the unprejudiced person that the absence of clothing does not necessarily imply immodesty either of thought or action. A Heathen woman on Malaita knows no shame at the fact that her body is unclothed.

Fijian mountain warrior

Another point as to which incorrect ideas exist is the question of cannibalism. Doubtless cases of anthropophagy occurred in many of the Melanesian islands, but it was never characteristic of the people as a whole, and the man-eating propensities of the Fijian people could never be predicated of the whole people of any single group in the sphere of the Mission. So local and confined is the practice that, while portions of one island regularly follow it, other portions of the same island hold it in abhorrence, as in the case of Malaita.

Joseph Wate, of Sa’a, a reliable witness, assured me that the Tolo peoples of Malaita were cannibals, but his own peoples were not, nor were the shore peoples of Big Malaita. The latter were fish-eaters, and those who lived on a fish diet did not practice as a regular thing the eating of human flesh. Cannibalism is the regular practice on San Cristoval, but is held in abhorrence on Ulawa. Yet the belief in cannibalism is so firmly fixed that one reads in the reports and books of the Mission that the two Reef Islanders who were held captive at Port Adam in Bishop Selwyn’s time were being fattened up and kept for eating, whereas in all probability they were regarded as “live heads” (lalamoa mori) and kept for killing, should any necessity arise when a victim would be demanded, as, e. g., at the death of any important person in the place, or they might be sold to anyone looking for a person to kill. The bodies after death would be buried. …

Great care is expended in bathing small children and shielding them from the rays of the sun. A young mother is excused from all work and she has the best time in all her life when her first baby is born. Her whole time is given up to the child, and it is seldom out of her arms. Owing to the lack of nourishing foods children are suckled till they are quite large. The Melanesian baby seems to have no natural liking for water and one often hears the shrill cries of small children being bathed in the streams or being washed in the houses. In the latter case water is poured from a bamboo into one of the wooden bowls and the child is then washed by hand.

The children at a very early stage of their existence are freed from the authority of their parents. They have no household duties to perform; there is no set time for meals; in the morning they may be given something cold left over from the night before, or the mother may roast a yam on the fire, but as a rule there is no cooking done till the late afternoon, when the women return from their gardens. During the day, if the children are hungry they can get a coconut or a breadfruit, or shell-fish, or they can roast a yam or a taro, and a fire can be made anywhere. The boys can get themselves an opossum or an iguana and in the hill districts they even find grasshoppers to eat. One and all they use large quantities of areca nut and pepper leaf and lime. These seem to be as necessary to the Melanesians of the northern islands as is a pipe to a confirmed smoker.

One would expect that children freed thus early from any dependence on their elders would run riot and learn licentious ways and habits, but such does not seem to be the case. There is but little individuality in Melanesians, and they are not “inventors of evil things.” They are bound by traditional customs, by the laws of the elders, by those social restrictions that the people have evolved for themselves as a safeguard against the breaking up of their society, and free agents though the children may be, and lacking parental control from our point of view, yet there is no such thing among them as the organized following of doing evil, and the ruling moral ideas of the people are found as the guide also of their children. …

they have no means of preserving the welfare of themselves as a whole. They have no tribes, no kingdoms, no laws beyond the unwritten social laws relating to marriage, etc.; life is insecure, accusations of witchcraft are easily made, and death follows as a matter of course; infanticide is a common practice, big families are almost unknown, polygamy is a recognized thing. So Christianity comes to them as a means of insuring both individual and social vigor and only in so far as they become Christian will they be saved from extinction. …

There can, however, be no question of leaving them alone now, whatever may have been the case in past years; civilization, i. e., trade, is coming in fast and the inevitable consequence will be that the white man’s view of life will alter the old style of things. Experience has taught us that wherever a people without a settled state and a kingdom and the external power of law is invaded by any of our western peoples, with their vigor and personality, the less-developed people lose all their pristine distinctiveness, all bonds are loosed, and inevitable decay sets in; in other words, the white man destroys the black….

There is very little that goes on in a native village that is not known to most of the people, and things are very well discussed before any action is taken, and generally the whole village knows the doings and the intentions of every inhabitant. If the teacher did know beforehand the chances are that he could not prevent the wrong. Individual action is rare among Melanesians. …

The isolation of the peoples in most of the Melanesian islands has in all probability been largely responsible for the lack of concerted action thitherto among the Christians. Social life as such was not known in Melanesia before the advent of Christianity. In their pre-Christian days these natives do not live in villages or hamlets, but in isolated groups with two or three houses or huts in a group. With the exception of certain places in Florida and also of the artificial islets off the northeast coast of Malaita, where hundreds of people live on tiny rookeries of stone just raised above the level of the tide, there was nothing that was worthy of the name of a village in the whole of the Mission’s area in the Solomons. …

Each subdistrict had its own petty chief with a following of half a dozen men in some cases. Every man knew who his own chief was and would support him when called upon. Each main district had also its head chief and to him tribute was paid whensoever he demanded it. Even these head chiefs had no state or surroundings. Thus at Roasi, on Little Malaita, Horohanue was the alaha paine, the main chief, but he had no immediate retinue and lived alone with his two wives, the guardian of his ancestral spirits, ‘akalo, and with the skulls of his dead in the house along with him. …

The Melanesian attitude with regards to presents is peculiar. A number of women would come with yams in baskets for sale; one special basket would be reported as “not for sale,” its contents (often inferior yams) were a gift–but it would have been the height of foolishness to accept such a gift without making a corresponding return. On being discharged from hospital a man would ask for a present in that he had been cured! Where there is no sense of debt there can be no showing of gratitude, gratitude being a spiritual and not a natural gift, a sense of the need to try to make a return for favors rendered. A Melanesian knows nothing of social duties; his life is lived apart from that of his fellows; he has no social sense, no dependence on his fellows, no common bonds of union such as spring up in community life; he asks nothing from his fellows nor they anything from him; he owes them nothing, and in consequence his circumstances have never been such as would be likely to encourage the growth of gratitude. …

The average Melanesian is a person of few worldy possessions; his house furniture consists of a few wooden bowls, a mortar for pounding yams or taro, a supply of vegetables smaller or larger according to his energy, an axe or a cane-knife; also a little stock of native money and perhaps a canoe. Of clothes he has practically none and the missionary’s simple wardrobe seems to him to be lavish in the extreme; he therefore has no compunction in asking of what he knows the white man to possess. If a person has practically never owned anything at all and if all his fellows are in the same condition too it is almost impossible to get him to understand that he should feel gratitude towards those who give him anything, since from his point of view they have so much in that they have anything at all.

EvX: That is one man’s view, of course. I am not in a position to judge the validity of Ivens’s observations, so I offer them with little comment.

Some Historical Photos of Negrito People

Young Negrito Girl from the Philippines

There’s this weird divide between physical anthropology (which talks about what people look like,) and cultural anthropology (which talks about what they do.) When I read about what people are doing, I always want to know what they look like, especially if they’re from obscure groups I’ve never met anyone from in real life.

But when talking about people whose lifestyles have changed radically over the past hundred years or so, you run into a sharp divide between historical photos,
(depicting nearly naked hunter-gatherers in a nearly Edenic environment,) and modern photos of young women at the mall. With few exceptions, the folks Anthropologists love to study still exist–they did remain in the 1800s–even if Wikipedia contains no updated information on their modern lives.

So with that caveat, this post is devoted to historical photos of Negritos, with the emphasis on historical. Outside of the Sentinelese, who have remained independent and preserved their historical lifestyle by killing anyone who gets too close to their island, most modern Negritos no longer live like the folks depicted in these photos.

But the past is still fascinating.

The Negrito couple on the left hails from the lovely Andaman Islands (of which North Sentinel Island is part,) off the west coast of Indo-China and today part of India; the remaining Andamanese are designated a Scheduled Tribe[1] under Indian law.

To the right: Two Great Andamanese men, circa. 1875.

The Andamanese are believed to have arrived in the area around 26,000 years ago, about the time of the last glacial maximum, when lower sea levels made getting to such isolated places much easier.

Unfortunately, contact with the outside world has devastated the population, estimated at 7,000 in the late 1700s and only 400-450 today (and the Jangil are completely gone,) despite access to at least some of the modern medicines and technologies that are allowing populations to explode elsewhere.

The following photo is one of my favorites:

Perhaps this Andamanese fellow–a young man or teen, I assume–was showing off for the camera, but that is quite the leap he made in pursuit of the turtle he is spearing.

The boat (as you can see in other pictures) is quite long and can hold several fishermen (or warriors) at once.

I don’t know the purpose of the enclosure in the background; perhaps it also served to catch fish?

This fellow is not carrying about the skull of his defeated enemy, but a memento of a loved relative. According to the Handbook to Ethnographical Collections, “The dead are buried within the encampment in a sitting posture and wrapped up in leaves. The encampment is then deserted forthree months, after which the body is exhumed, and washed in the sea. Necklaces are then made of the bones, which are worn as mementoes by relations and friends, and are thought to cure pain or disease. Thus a man afflicted with toothache ties such a necklace round his face… The skull of the deceased is also worn round the neck as a mark of affection.”

Here is a jawbone worn in similar style, and a necklace made of what look like finger bones.

Their villages looked something like this village from Car Nicobar Island, with a thatched roof raised well above the ground. Here is another village, which shows how the huts could come right over the water, and a view of the inside of a large hut.

Here is a view of the outside of a large hut; this one’s sides go all the way to the ground–perhaps it belonged to a different tribe than the folks with the elevated huts.

The huts of the Jangil Negritos of the Andaman islands were completely different and look more like temporary sun-shelters than houses. (Though I note they are very similar to this double-decker storage and lounging hut.) When the weather is warm all year long, you just don’t need much in the way of house.

This young woman to the right is wearing a “tail skirt,” a piece of traditional finery that Wikimedia speculates may have led to legends of “monkey-tailed people” inhabiting the Andaman Islands.

Here is a photograph of Riala, Age 35, Andamanese-English interpreter from the Aka-Kede tribe, showing a traditional Andaman hairstyle (1890s), and here is a photo showing a traditional Andaman Negrito scarification pattern.

The Negritos of the Philippines, of course, having long inter-married with the other Filipinos, look a great deal like their neighbors.

This illustration of two pre-Hispanic Filipino Negrito warriors comes from the Boxer Codex, created around 1590. The Boxer Codex is filled with lovely illustrations of the various ethnic groups of the Philippines at the time of first contact with the Spanish, including Tagalogs, Visayans, Zambals, Cagayanes or possibly Ibanags, as well as several non-Filipino groups like Chinese and Vietnamese who had also settled there.

The Codex is (probably intentionally) also a guide to relative social class, with wealthier folks wearing far more (and colorfully dyed) clothes than than poor folks like these nearly-naked warriors.

 

Some 300 years later (1899), the Smithsonian published a near-recreation of the illustration, featuring two Negritos from Luzon, demonstrating their skill with the bow:

Here is another photograph of the same men plus several of their fellow tribesfolk (including three women), showing off their extremely long bows and fine hats.

Sadly, Wikimedia doesn’t seem to have any photos of Malaysian or other mainland Negritos.

For the most part, the Philippine Negritos appear to have tightly curled hair similar to the Andamanese, Papulans, and Melanesians, but some have wavy hair, more similar to the Australian Aborigines (though the effect is probably due entirely to marrying a non-Negrito neighbor.

(I note as well that the lady on the right is a bit taller than her friend on the left, which also suggests intermarriage–leaving us with a different question: Why do Aborigines have wavy hair?)

I have also met Vietnamese women with wavy hair (though perhaps not as wavy as this woman’s.) It contrasts with the extremely straight hair associated with Chinese and Japanese people, and I also wonder where it came from, though perhaps it’s just within the range of totally normal human variation.

The Negritos of Sundaland, Sahul, and the Philippines

Ati (Negrito) woman from the Philippines

The Negritos are a fascinating group of short-statured, dark-skinned, frizzy-haired peoples from southeast Asia–chiefly the Andaman Islands, Malaysia, Philippines, and Thailand. (Spelling note: “Negritoes” is also an acceptable plural, and some sources use the Spanish Negrillos.)

Because of their appearance, they have long been associated with African peoples, especially the Pygmies. Pygmies are formally defined as any group where adult men are, on average 4’11” or less and is almost always used specifically to refer to African Pygmies; the term pygmoid is sometimes used for groups whose men average 5’1″ or below, including the Negritos. (Some of the Bushmen tribes, Bolivians, Amazonians, the remote Taron, and a variety of others may also be pygmoid, by this definition.)

However, genetic testing has long indicated that they, along with other Melanesians and Australian Aborigines, are more closely related to other east Asian peoples than any African groups. In other words, they’re part of the greater Asian race, albeit a distant branch of it.

But how distant? And are the various Negrito groups closely related to each other, or do there just happen to be a variety of short groups of people in the area, perhaps due to convergent evolution triggered by insular dwarfism?

From Wikimedia

In Discerning the origins of the Negritos, First Sundaland Peoples: deep divergence and archaic admixture, Jinam et al gathered genetic data from Filipino, Malaysian, and Andamanese Negrito populations, and compared them both to each other and other Asian, African, and European groups. (Be sure to download the supplementary materials to get all of the graphs and maps.)

They found that the Negrito groups they studied “are basal to other East and Southeast Asians,” (basal: forming the bottom layer or base. In this case, it means they split off first,) “and that they diverged from West Eurasians at least 38,000 years ago.” (West Eurasians: Caucasians, consisting of Europeans, Middle Easterners, North Africans, and people from India.) “We also found relatively high traces of Denisovan admixture in the Philippine Negritos, but not in the Malaysian and Andamanese groups.” (Denisovans are a group of extinct humans similar to Neanderthals, but we’ve yet to find many of their bones. Just as Neanderthal DNA shows up in non-Sub-Saharan-Africans, so Denisvoan shows up in Melanesians.)

Figure 1 (A) shows PC analysis of Andamanese, Malaysian, and Philippine Negritos, revealing three distinct clusters:

In the upper right-hand corner, the Aeta, Agta, Batak, and Mamanwa are Philippine Negritos. The Manobo are non-Negrito Filipinos.

In the lower right-hand corner are the Jehai, Kintak and Batek are Malaysian Negritos.

And in the upper left, we have the extremely isolated Andamanese Onge and Jarawa Negritos.

(Phil-NN and Mly-NN I believe are Filipino and Malaysian Non-Negritos.)

You can find the same chart, but flipped upside down, with Papuan and Melanesian DNA in the supplemental materials. Of the three groups, they cluster closest to the Philippine Negritos, along the same line with the Malaysians.

By excluding the Andamanese (and Kintak) Negritos, Figure 1 (B) allows a closer look at the structure of the Philippine Negritos.

The Agta, Aeta, and Batak form a horizontal “comet-like pattern,” which likely indicates admixture with non-Negrito Philipine groups like the Manobo. The Mamanawa, who hail from a different part of the Philippines, also show this comet-like patterns, but along a different axis–likely because they intermixed with the different Filipinos who lived in their area. As you can see, there’s a fair amount of overlap–several of the Manobo individuals clustered with the Mamanwa Negritos, and the Batak cluster near several non-Negrito groups (see supplemental chart S4 B)–suggesting high amounts of mixing between these groups.

ADMIXTURE analysis reveals a similar picture. The non-Negrito Filipino groups show up primarily as Orange. The Aeta, Agta, and Batak form a clear genetic cluster with each other and cline with the Orange Filipinos, with the Aeta the least admixed and Batak the most.

The white are on the chart isn’t a data error, but the unique signature of the geographically separated Mananwa, who are highly mixed with the Manobo–and the Manobo, in turn, are mixed with them.

But this alone doesn’t tell us how ancient these populations are, nor if they’re descended from one ancestral pop. For this, the authors constructed several phylogenetic trees, based on all of the data at hand and assuming from 0 – 5 admixture events. The one on the left assumes 5 events, but for clarity only shows three of them. The Denisovan DNA is fascinating and well-documented elsewhere in Melanesian populatons; that Malaysian and Philippine Negritos mixed with their neighbors is also known, supporting the choice of this tree as the most likely to be accurate.

Regardless of which you pick, all of the trees show very similar results, with the biggest difference being whether the Melanesians/Papuans split before or after the Andamanese/Malaysian Negritos.

In case you are unfamiliar with these trees, I’ll run down a quick explanation: This is a human family tree, with each split showing where one group of humans split off from the others and became an isolated group with its own unique genetic patterns. The orange and red lines mark places where formerly isolated groups met and interbred, producing children that are a mix of both. The first split in the tree, going back million of years, is between all Homo sapiens (our species) and the Denisovans, a sister species related to the Neanderthals.

All humans outside of sub-Saharan Africans have some Neanderthal DNA because their ancestors met and interbred with Neanderthals on their way Out of Africa. Melanesians, Papuans, and some Negritos also have some Denisovan DNA, because their ancestors met and made children with members of this obscure human species, but Denisovan DNA is quite rare outside these groups.

Here is a map of Denisovan DNA levels the authors found, with 4% of Papuan DNA hailing from Denisivan ancestors, and Aeta nearly as high. By contrast, the Andamanese Negritos appear to have zero Denisovan. Either the Andamanese split off before the ancestors of the Philippine Negritos and Papuans met the Denisovans, or all Denisovan DNA has been purged from their bloodlines, perhaps because it just wasn’t helpful for surviving on their islands.

Back to the Tree: The second node is where the Biaka, a group of Pygmies from the Congo Rainforest in central Africa. Pygmy lineages are among the most ancient on earth, potentially going back over 200,000 years, well before any Homo sapiens had left Africa.

The next group that splits off from the rest of humanity are the Yoruba, a single ethnic group chosen to stand in for the entirety of the Bantus. Bantus are the group that you most likely think of when you think of black Africans, because over the past three millennia they have expanded greatly and conquered most of sub-Saharan Africa.

Next we have the Out of Africa event and the split between Caucasians (here represented by the French) and the greater Asian clade, which includes Australian Aborigines, Melanesians, Polynesians, Chinese, Japanese, Siberians, Inuit, and Native Americans.

The first groups to split off from the greater Asian clade (aka race) were the Andamanese and Malaysian Negritos, followed by the Papuans/Melanesians Australian Aborigines are closely related to Papuans, as Australia and Papua New Guinea were connected in a single continent (called Sahul) back during the last Ice Age. Most of Indonesia and parts of the Philippines were also connected into a single landmass, called Sunda. Sensibly, people reached Sunda before Sahul, though (Perhaps at that time the Andaman islands, to the northwest of Sumatra, were also connected or at least closer to the mainland.)

Irrespective of the exact order in which Melanesians and individual Negrito groups split off, they all split well before all of the other Asian groups in the area.

This is supported by legends told by the Filipinos themselves:

Legends, such as those involving the Ten Bornean Datus and the Binirayan Festival, tell tales about how, at the beginning of the 12th century when Indonesia and Philippines were under the rule of Indianized native kingdoms, the ancestors of the Bisaya escaped from Borneo from the persecution of Rajah Makatunaw. Led by Datu Puti and Datu Sumakwel and sailing with boats called balangays, they landed near a river called Suaragan, on the southwest coast of Panay, (the place then known as Aninipay), and bartered the land from an Ati [Negrito] headman named Polpolan and his son Marikudo for the price of a necklace and one golden salakot. The hills were left to the Atis while the plains and rivers to the Malays. This meeting is commemorated through the Ati-atihan festival.[4]

The study’s authors estimate that the Negritos split from Europeans (Caucasians) around 30-38,000 years ago, and that the Malaysian and Philippine Negritos split around
13-15,000 years ago. (This all seems a bit tentative, IMO, especially since we have physical evidence of people in the area going back much further than that, and the authors themselves admit in the discussion that their time estimate may be too short.)

The authors also note:

Both our NJ (fig. 3A) and UPGMA (supplementary fig. S10) trees show that after divergence from Europeans, the ancestral Asians subsequently split into Papuans, Negritos and East Asians, implying a one-wave colonization of Asia. … This is in contrast to the study based on whole genome sequences that suggested Australian Aboriginal/Papuan first split from European/East Asians 60 kya, and later Europeans and East Asians diverged 40 kya (Malaspinas et al. 2016). This implies a two-wave migration into Asia…

The matter is still up for debate/more study.

Negrito couple from the Andaman Islands

In conclusion: All of the Negrito groups are likely descended from a common ancestor, (rather than having evolved from separate groups that happened to develop similar body types due to exposure to similar environments,) and were among the very first inhabitants of their regions. Despite their short stature, they are more closely related to other Asian groups (like the Chinese) than to African Pygmies. Significant mixing with their neighbors, however, is quickly obscuring their ancient lineages.

I wonder if all ancient human groups were originally short, and height a recently evolved trait in some groups?

In closing, I’d like to thank Jinam et al for their hard work in writing this article and making it available to the public, their sponsors, and the unique Negrito peoples themselves for surviving so long.

Anthropology Friday: Travels in Siberia: Tungus People

Puyi, final Manchu emperor of China

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday, featuring our final excerpts from Adolf Erman’s Travels in Siberia (vol. 2.) According to Wikipedia‘s undeservedly short article:

Georg Adolf Erman (12 May 1806 – 12 July 1877) was a German physicist. … He studied natural science at the universities of Berlin and Königsberg, spent from 1828 to 1830 in a journey round the world, an account of which he published in Reise um die Erde durch Nordasien und die beiden Ozeane (1833-1848). The magnetic observations he made during his travels were utilized by Carl Friedrich Gauss in his theory of terrestrial magnetism. He was appointed professor of physics at Berlin in 1839, and died there in 1877. From 1841 to 1865 he edited the Archiv für wissenschaftliche Kunde von Russland, and in 1874 he published, with H. J. R. Petersen, Die Grundlagen der Gauss’schen Theorie und die Erscheinungen des Erdmagnetismus im Jahre 1829.

Today our author is traveling among the Tungus people of north-east Asia. The most famous Tungusic people are the Manchus, who ruled over the Qing Dynasty of China from 1644 to 1912. The rest of the Tungusic-language speaking people were nomadic reindeer herders. According to Wikipedia:

Some linguists estimate the divergence of the Tungusic languages from a common ancestor spoken somewhere in Manchuria around 500 BC to 500 AD.(Janhunen 2012, Pevnov 2012)[3] Other theories favor a homeland closer to Lake Baikal. (Menges 1968, Khelimskii 1985)[4] While the general form of the protolanguage is clear from the similarities in the daughter languages, there is no consensus on detailed reconstructions. As of 2012, scholars are still trying to establish a shared vocabulary to do such a reconstruction.[3] …

Currently, Manchu proper is a dying language spoken by a dozen or so elderly people in Qiqihar province, China. However, the closely related Xibe language spoken in Xinjiang, which historically was treated as a divergent dialect of Jurchen-Manchu, maintains the literary tradition of the script, and has around 30,000 speakers. As the only language in the Tungustic family with a long written tradition, Jurchen-Manchu is a very important language for the reconstruction of Proto-Tungusic.

Tungus (Evenki) on reindeer crossing river, Nayachan, Siberia, 1901

Erman tries to ride a deer:

“[The reindeer] were feeding in the neighbourhood of the yurt, and their owner allowed me here to try to ride one of them. Of this experiment it is enough to state, that I was unable, without assistance, to mount on the back of a very patient animal, and then I fell, even at the first step, from the saddle down on the frozen snow. …

“The Tunguzes, in the country round the Lena, however, are under no necessity of procuring food from the Russians; for they eat besides, not only the flesh of the reindeer, but of all the other animals which they kill for the fur trade. I was told, also, that they come to this place mounted on reindeer, a single piece of voilok serving them for a saddle; and also that they hunt with gunpowder and rifles, which they procure for furs in summer, from the merchants going down the Lena. …

“The Russians at this place gave me to understand, that, for permission to hunt, they pay a tribute to the Shulengin or petty chief of the Tunguzes, whose district they visit: for the Tunguzes, as they added by way of explanation, are men of sense and enlightenment ; they stand firmly on their rights, and accost Russian hunters in their forests, with ” Who has invited you here?”

EvX: Our author also notes that the locals enjoy playing cards and chess:

“The Tunguzes, in the circle of Koluimsk, are passionately fond of chess. They carve the chessmen very elaborately out of mammoth’s teeth. These northern nomades probably received their acquaintance with this game, and taste for others, from Ohim at a very early period …

Yukaghir children (there are about 1,600 Yukaghir left in the world.)

“For supper I treated the whole company to black biscuit, which
was devoured as the greatest dainty, along with the usual soup
made of smoked rein-deer’s blood, with dried, sliced flesh of quadrupeds and fish. … I then turned the conversation to the account given me in Krasnoyarsk, of a peculiar Tunguzian custom, namely, that of concluding the dance, in which both sexes join, by stripping off the clothes. There can be no doubt that this statement is, in the main, true, for Ffedor, who had previously had intercourse with the Tunguzes of this quarter, but had never any communication with the Russians of Krasnoyarsk, confirmed to me, fully, what I had heard when I first asked him alone about it. My direct inquiries on this subject from the men here, were seized upon as if they suggested a well-known subject of joking; and the old woman heard me, with that awkward-looking merriment which is produced among us by a pleasant anecdote bordering on indecency.”

Actual Rape Culture:

“And here I must mention the remarkable difference which I soon observed, not only in the external appearance, but in behaviour, also, between the two unmarried girls in the yurt. The younger, and still unaffianced girl, was much fairer and slenderer than Daria, evidently because, in the course of their wanderings, she had not yet taken part in the drudgery of the nomadic housewife. … But that which chiefly distinguished her, was an extraordinary shyness or timidity, which I frequently afterwards witnessed in other Tunguzian young women, and sometimes in Kamchatka. If I happened by accident, and without thinking of it, to meet her alone before the yurt, she would scream, and run away in the greatest fright.

“I learned, subsequently, from Russians, of whom made inquiries, that this behaviour is founded on an ancient and general custom of the Tunguzes and Eamchadales. According to their view, a matrimonial engagement is not definitively arranged and concluded until the suitor has got the better of his beloved by force, and has torn her clothes. The maiden, however, must defend her liberty to the utmost, and consequently she dreads, as we had occasion to observe in Garnastakh and elsewhere, attacks of this kind, even where they are not previously threatened. I never saw an instance of such timidity in the interior of the yurts or tents; and it would appear, therefore, as if a law which is held to be one of the most important in the code of the Mongols and Buraets, prevailed also among the Tunguzes. This law allows offensive assaults on women to be avenged by shedding of blood, yet only in case they have been made inside the tent; on the other hand, the assaulted woman bears the whole blame if she ventures indiscreetly to leave her natural place, the sacred and protecting hearth. …

Women of the Even (Tungus) people

“The girls went out at day-break to fetch ice, and then they began to wash and adorn themselves with unusual care, as if it were worth while to be beautiful only in the open air and bright weather. They put on the new head-dress, having, plaited their tresses afresh, and their jet black hair hung somewhat less than usual over the forehead. The ladder to ‘the flat roof of the yurt was also much employed. The old women Sat there from morning till noon, and hummed their songs in the sunshine, as they did yesterday at the fire. …

“I understand thoroughly the curse of the Tunguzes, “Mayest thou be house-tied like the Russians,” and, also, their practical belief that “a dwelling grows rotten,” when people stay too long in one place. They are a lively and light-hearted people, and however the graces of outward appearance may gratify their cheerful humour, still they are not disposed to sacrifice their freedom or convenience for the sake of them. Frequent journeys seem to them, therefore, to be the most natural, and only applicable means of keeping their property in good order. …

“The reindeer were driven before the yurt early in the morning, and, as a good moss-field had been found for them at no great distance, this part of the business was very quickly despatched to-day. The women rendered especial assistance on the occasion, for they went along with the men into the wood, where they cautiously enclosed the herd on one side, and then suddenly, and with a yelling cry, ran after them. The deer immediately fled, always close together, and continued running s0 long as the cry lasted. To catch the deer singly, the people
had recourse to a long strap, as I had already seen practised among the Ostyaks. …

The riding furniture of the Tunguzes is far more simple, for it consists of nothing but a flat cushion, stuffed about two inches thick which is placed like the pack-saddle forwards on the reindeer’s shoulders. In front where the rider sits it is considerably wider than the animal’s back and projects beyond it, therefore, on both sides. … This saddle is fastened by only a single girth, which is not placed over the middle of the saddle… but on the back part of it, and is fastened underneath, just behind the reindeer’s fore-legs. They then gave me a staff about five feet long, and bid me mount by means of it a full-grown male reindeer, the back of which was not less than four feet high… I tried at first to mount by what appeared to be the simplest way, that is, by swinging myself up as …upon
a horse without stirrups; but the Tunguzes were immediately in a fright and cried out, dolefully, “You are breaking our reindeer’s back.” And this apprehension was well founded, for as soon as the animal’s spine is touched, but a few inches behind the saddle, it bends its knees, and sinks as if under an insupportable load; but it is impossible to mount by leaning on the deer’s shoulder, which is alone capable of bearing a weight, because the lateral jerk, which is unavoidable, is sure to displace the saddle.

Evenk (Tungus) people riding reindeer (source)

“There is no mode, therefore, of mounting the reindeer, but that which the Tunguzes have adopted; and however inconvenient this seamed to us at first, the practice of a few days made us sufficiently expert. The rider, holding the bridle, stands at the right side of the animal, and not on the left, as with us, his face turned forwards; he then raises his left foot to the saddle, which he never touches with his hands, and springing with the right leg, and aided also by the pole, which he holds in his right hand, he mounts into his seat. The women and girls are as expert in this jumping as the men, and I recollect to have seen but once a Tunguzian woman receiving assistance as she mounted. …

“We fell from the saddle six times, at least, in the first quarter of an hour, but improved rapidly as soon as we discovered that the rider must not attempt to attach himself to the body of the reindeer. He must, on the contrary, sit, or rather poise himself, in such a manner that his body may continually, and with facility, as required, lend itself to a swinging motion. …

“In the tent at Ancha, there was living at present, among others, the wife of a Tunguzian prince, with her son, a child about eight years of age. She was above the middle size, very slender, and beautifully formed, and, without regard to her rank, took part in all the housewife’s labours. She was at present making boots of the skin of the slaughtered reindeer. The young chief, on the other hand, was treated with particular attention by all. the men of the party. They introduced him immediately to my notice, and some time elapsed before I learned that his mother, also, was in the tent. He wore, like several of the men here, the state costume of the Tunguzes, which is covered with a number of metal ornaments, attached, some of them to the girdle which braces the clothes round the hips, and some by means of thin chains to a crescent-shaped plate, fixed on the breast for that purpose. I remarked among these appendages, besides the fire-steel and numerous pieces intended merely to rattle, little
tweezers, also, with which the Tunguzes are in the habit of plucking out the hairs of the scanty beard which grows on the upper lip. The caps, and many parts of their leathern dress, were adorned with silver plates, which had been beaten and cut out of coins. These must have descended by inheritance through many generations, for the introduction of silver money from Russia into Siberia has been long forbidden, perhaps because it was found that, owing to the love of the indigenous races for these ornaments, the coin was withdrawn from circulation. Between the pieces of silver were beads of different colours sewed on the leather. …

“The family of the kapitan of Ehoinya is one of the richest among the Tunguzes of the Aldan. They possess numerous herds of reindeer, which find good pasture here at all times of the year; there is also plenty of wild reindeer and other game in the forest round about. It is owing, perhaps, to this favourable situation, that the Tunguzes at this place seem more inclined to a settled and sedentary life than the rest of their countrymen, for I was questioned here, for the first time, respecting my home. I was also asked to give an account of my own yurt,
and to state how far it was from theirs.”

Camping in the Snow:

“We halted to-day, again, on the deep snow in an opening of the wood, so that we had the clouds for a roof. It snowed without intermission in the evening and during the night, yet every one felt satisfied and cheerful, owing to the clever management of the Tunguzes. The moment they alight at a halting-place they unload the reindeer, and lay the saddles and luggage together in good order; the bridles, too, are collected, and hung up on the bough of a tree. In a few minutes the hungry herd disappears in the forest, and a feeling of loneliness then takes possession of the traveller! The men who went out with the axe now drag two large stems of larch to the encampment. The small twigs are cut off, and gathered on the snow (which is cleared away roughly from the fire-place alone) to serve for straw. They then cut from the inside of the thick trunk, some resinous and dry chips, and soon light them with their tinder and sulphur. … The kettle is filled with snow, and hung from a strong branch, which, fixed in the ground on the windward side, leans obliquely over the fire. All this is done in a few minutes, for the Tunguzes proceed in exactly the same order every evening, and their habitual activity seems to
be increased on these occasions, and to be guided effectively by some involuntary impulse. …

“Our drivers then made seats and sleeping-places with the collected twigs and the reindeer saddles, and for me, with the Tuphyak, or Tatar curious, which each of us carried rolled up under his luggage. We then set ourselves close to the fire, and took no further notice of the falling snow, for the warm current of air melted it, or carried the flakes away. Thus we took our supper in the best possible humour, and amused ourselves with watching the flames, the gleam of which fell sometimes on gigantic logs, sometimes on dazzling heaps of snow. The Tunguzes showed themselves here, as elsewhere, extremely agreeable by their wit and sprightliness. Unlike the other Siberian races, they are always inclined to laugh, and, on every topic, seize readily the point of view that suits their humour. To-day, they admitted fully the advantages of the art of writing, as I read to them from my journal some Tunguzian words which I had learned on previous occasions.

“But they were particularly taken with a playful turn which accident gave to this occupation; for, as we read the word khodya^, which signifies to dance, it came into my head to connect it with a subject, making with it either a literal or figurative sense. It was remarkable how quickly and keenly the Tunguzes entered into my views. The first who divined my meaning explained it to the others with loud applause. They then amused themselves with giving different turns to the expression, and repeated with comic solemnity, and as if they were the words of a song, the phrases, “The Tunguzes dance, the reindeer dance, the stars, the snow, the fire, the fox, the squirrel, &c., dance!”

“After so auspicious an introduction, I took care to mention the ballad which we had learned in our encampment at Tungor, and it was to be seen immediately that this was known, and was a favourite here also. As I read it over, my hearers repeated each verse with joyful amazement, and it was not till I had finished that one of them said to the Eosak, in Yakutian, that a part of it required some change, and he furnished, at once, the necessary corrections. …

“Unfortunately, I was unable to get a literal translation of this ballad, for our attendant, after explabing the last line, added, “The rest cannot be translated into Yakutian;” which may possibly have been true enough, considering his imperfect acquaintance with this language. I obtained, however, in reply to numerous questions, the following information respecting its origin and general purport. It is now in the mouths of all the women,
but was sung, in the first instance, by a Tunguzian maid, who had fallen in love with a Koniora Kapitän, that is, an officer or clerk in the counting-house of the American Trading Company. He had, at first, responded to her attachment, but afterwards refused to take her with him, and both these circumstances are stated in the song. Probably the Russian who has thus acquired so unexpected and undeserved a celebrity, was the master of a
ship, and the girl one of the coast Tunguzes, for it is said in the song, ” Let me look once more at the compass.” The deserted damsel afterwards lived in the town, as my companions related, and married a gypsy who was banished from Russia to Okhotsk. To my question respecting the time when all this happened, one cried out, ” Very long ago,” while others maintained that the poetess might perhaps still be found in Okhotsk.* …

I ventured, here, to ask some questions respecting the religious opinions of the Tunguzes, but learned little more than that they have always, and, as well as the Russians, believed in it God, whom they name Hanki. Moreover, they have always “prayed in their own manner,” and they denote their prayers by the same term, nungdleriy which they apply to the Russian rite of making the sign of the cross. They were far more communicative, and better pleased, when I asked them to show me the Tunguzian dance, and for this treat I had been taught by my
former attendants to look forward to the yurt of the Yudoma. We went before the door, to a clear spot between the poplars. Then eight men took one another’s hands, made a ring, and kept moving in it, sometimes from left to right, sometimes in the opposite direction. They went, at first, by steps, then jumping, and at last squatting on their heels, and ejaculated, at the same time, very rapidly, and as if out of breath, the following dissyllables, which begin, collectively, with an aspiration: —Khodya, Hurya, Hknga, Honka, Hundi …

“The women’s dance was then exhibited to us by the two ladies of the yurt, and some men, who assumed the place of women; but they took care to inform us that this was never done when the dance was regularly performed. They formed, in like manner, a ring, but so that each laid her hands on the shoulders of her neighbour; they hung down their heads at the same time, and endeavoured to hide them completely in the middle of the ring. They then moved in the same manner as the men, only always by steps, and called out the word nurgen, alternately, with an inarticulate, extremely singular cry, resembling the squeaking of mice, or of a young pig.

Currency:

“I have not yet mentioned that here, with the Tunguzes of the Aldan mountains, as among the Kamchadales also, the paper money of the Russians is either unknown or quite valueless, instead of it, they demand, in payment of all the services which they rendered us with their, reindeer, sukhari (or biscuit bread,) and butter; and I had only to fear that the diminution of my stock of provisions might oblige me to be very economical in the use of this new kind of coin. …

“They are the last in the direction of Okhotsk who possess an entire herd of reindeer, and, therefore, we needed their assistance to enable us to continue the journey. I remarked on this occasion, as I had previously done in Ketanda, that the fishing Tunguzes, in consequence of the bartering trade, which the nature and position of their summer abodes lead them to engage in, and of their more frequent intercourse with the Russians, are more quick-witted, and, at the same time, less generous than their fellow-countrymen in the mountains. They take more pains, too, than the latter to learn Russian words, and I was able to make myself understood to some of them without an interpreter. …

Chukchi family by Louis Choris (1816)

“The men here, asked, also, much more urgently and eagerly after a number of European productions. … Then they demanded snuff, which, like the Russian Siberians, they call proskki, or dust; and they particularly wished to get hold of my brass pocket compass, which they supposed to be a snuff-box. They could not comprehend how, with such a quantity of things, I should yet be without any of the articles which the Russian merchants bring with them in summer. They asked for needles, for powder and lead, for tobacco, or for a looking-glass, at least. They begged hardest, however, for flints, and this they did even after (yielding to the all-powerful temptation,) they had unscrewed and appropriated, as I subsequently discovered, the three flints which were in my firearms. Although I was obliged to deny all their prayers, and to allege my poverty, we still continued the best friends, and the sprightly humour of the Tunguzes still shone more brilliantly than ever.”

EvX: Well, that’s the end of our adventure across Siberia. I’m thinking of reading something set somewhere warmer next; any recommendations?

Anthropology Friday: Yakuts part 2

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday: Travels in Siberia by Adolf Erman. Today we’re continuing with Erman’s observations of the Yakut people of northeast Russia.

Note: While we Americans tend to think of all of Russia east of Moscow as “Siberia,” apparently Siberia is also specific province in Russia as well as a general geographic region. The Yakuts live in a province known as Yakutia or Sakha, which is still in “Siberia the really cold part of the world” but directly to the east of “The Siberian Federal District of Russia.” I don’t know if this is a distinction people actually care about.

Back to Erman:

Church in Yakutsk

“April 8 to 22. — On the plain, north of the Lena, a churchyard marked the commencement of the town [Yakutsk]…The streets succeeding are the most singular that I have ever seen in Siberia, for between structures of European aspect stand the winter yurts of the northern nomades, with their walls of cow-dung, earthen roofs, doors covered with hairy hides, and windows of ice; and among these yurts again, are the frames of the conical summer tents. The bright snow only is spread uniformly over all this, and after a little time there is perceived one pervading design among the heterogeneous elements. The Russian houses are placed forwards to the street, often at considerable distances asunder, but connected in that case by boarded fences, which surround their yards. These extend back to a good distance from the street, and it is in them that the yurts of the Yakuts are seen intermingled with modern buildings, like remains of the original vegetation allowed to stand in cultivated grounds. …

“I was here assured on all sides that frozen earth is found near the surface at every season of the year, and that the same condition of the ground continues to the greatest depth hitherto reached. There was now before my eyes an experiment on a large scale, and quite conclusive, in confirmation of this statement. [An account follows of an attempted well dug into the permafrost]”

EvX: So the Yakut people live in the province of Yakutia whose capital is Yakutsk. According to Wikipedia:

“Its average winter temperature is −34 °C (−30 °F), which makes Yakutsk the coldest city of its size or greater in the world.[12]  … Yakutsk is the biggest city built on continuous permafrost, and most houses there are built on concrete piles. …

summers are warm (though rather short), with daily maximum temperatures occasionally exceeding +30 °C (86 °F),[7] making the seasonal temperature differences for the region the greatest in the world. The lowest temperature recorded in Yakutsk was −64.4 °C (−83.9 °F) on 5 February 1891 and the highest temperatures +38.4 °C (101.1 °F) on 17 July 2011 and +38.3 °C (100.9 °F) on 15 July 1943. The hottest month in records going back to 1834 has been July 1894 with a mean of +23.2 °C (73.8 °F)[14] and the coldest January 1900 which averaged −51.2 °C (−60.2 °F).[15]

Yakutsk is responsible for a fifth of the world’s production of diamonds,[7]

Modern Yakut people

“the Yakuts settled in the town are of essential importance to the general welfare. They receive from the merchants, on whose ground they erect their yurts and summer tents, flour, bread, and several other articles of Russian produce, and pay in return either by a certain stipulated service, or else they bind themselves to a kind of vassalage for a longer time. They are the merchants’ herdsmen and grooms, and are particularly expert in many little arts connected with the (here all-important) business of travelling. To effect the carriage of goods, or forward mercantile despatches, contracts are always made with some of the Yakuts of the town. These furnish the requisite number of horses and oxen from their own droves and herds, or with the help of their countrymen whom they meet on the way. They then go forth as carriers and servants; sometimes along with the traders who load the caravans, sometimes beforehand and alone, to the place of its destination. Russians are never sent from Yakutsk to the east or north. In the neighbourhood of the town, all loads are borne by Yakutian oxen, for greater distances by Yakutian horses; in certain quarters and seasons, reindeer also are employed to hear loads, and dogs to draw the nart.”

Chukchi:

Distribution of Chukotko-Kamchatkan languages in the 17th century (hatching,) and today (solid).

“The Yukagirs and Chukchi bring also to these markets the skins of the, wild reindeer, which they kill in summer. Great herds of these shy animals break forth every year, about the breeding time, out of the forests in the south, and migrate, with unrestrainable haste, in a straight line to the naked plains near the sea. …

“Many of the Chückchi, at the fair of Nijnei Eoluimsk, relate that they, with others of their tribe, have crossed from East Cape to America, by the Gvösdev rocks in Behring’s Straits, and have brought back furs with them from thence. They tell the names of many places on the shores of the other continent, and their intercourse with the Americans is the more credible, as the language of the Chückchi at East Cape is found to be connected with that of the Aleutes at Eadjak. The merchants of Yakutsk believe such expeditions across the Northern Sea to be quite easy, and customary, for they themselves personally undertake, or cause to be executed, every year numerous journeys of the same kind, and of much greater extent than a trip across Behring’s Straits.”

EvX: The Chukchi people live way out on the far tip of Russia and the Kamchatka Peninsula.  an According to Wikipedia:

In prehistoric times, the Chukchi engaged in nomadic hunter gatherer modes of existence. In current times, there continue to be some elements of subsistence hunting, including that of polar bears,[7] marine mammals and reindeer. Beginning in the 1920s, the Soviets organized the economic activities of both coastal and inland Chukchi and eventually established 28 collectively run, state-owned enterprises in Chukotka. All of these were based on reindeer herding, with the addition of sea mammal hunting and walrus ivory carving in the coastal areas. Chukchi were educated in Soviet schools and today are almost 100% literate and fluent in the Russian language. Only a portion of them today work directly in reindeer herding or sea mammal hunting, and continue to live a nomadic lifestyle in yaranga tents.[8]

Their language belongs to a very small family with few remaining speakers that is obviously speculated to be related to nearby Aleut and Eskimo (Inuit) languages, but nothing has been proven conclusively. There are several other speculated language groups, of which the strangest (and thus most interesting) is Indo-European:

In a 2015 paper, Gerhard Jäger reported “intriguing” and “controversial” findings regarding Chukotko-Kamchatkan. Using a variant of mass lexical comparison, augmented by computational linguistic techniques, such as large-scale statistical analysis, to investigate “deep genetic relations between languages”, Jäger found evidence that Chukotko-Kamchatkan and the Indo-European languages had statistically-significant similarities with each other. On the whole, the similarities between the two families were greater than either shared with any other language family. This was the case even though Jäger factored in the possibility of language contact. The results were unaffected by the removal of similarities in phonology that were likely random coincidences – such as a “surprisingly high number” of resemblances in vocabulary between Chukotko-Kamchatkan and two Goidelic languages (namely Scottish Gaelic and Manx): according to Jäger, the confidence value of a notional “Indo-European/Chukotko-Kamchatkan clade”, when these “rogue taxa” were removed, fell only slightly, from 0.969 to a still statistically-significant 0.964.[5]

I’m not in the position to judge the validity of this. Back to Erman:

“It cannot escape notice that, as we go nearer to the coast, the deposits of wood below the earth, and also the deposit of bones which accompanies the wood, increase in extent and frequency. Here, beneath the soil of Yakutsk, the trunks of birch trees lie scattered only singly; but, on the other hand, they form such great and well-stored strata, under the tundras between the Yana and the Indigirka, that the Yukagirs there never think of using any other fuel than fossil wood. They obtain it on the shores of lakes, which are continually throwing up trunks of trees from the bottom. In the same proportion the search for ivory grows continually more certain and productive, from the banks of the lakes in the interior to the hills along the coast of the Icy Sea. …

“The main object of the expedition was to make a new assessment of the yasak or fur tribute for the several families and tribes of the indigenous population; and we were told that they were instructed by the government to deal with the people in the mildest possible manner. Yet they had been able to increase the yasak every where throughout the tracts occupied by the Yakuts and Tunguzes along the Upper Lena, as the number of inhabitants had increased there considerably during the last fifty years. It is said that the same result is obtained for all Siberia taken together, and that exceptions are to be found only in localities where endemic diseases prevail, as in the case of the Verkhovian Ostyaks.

“I heard on this occasion of a particular kind of numerical notation, invented during the present intercourse with the aboriginal tribes, and in which the new assessments were expressed and enjoined to the several communities, and the old accounts settled. It consisted of only six different figures, which represented furs to the value of 5 and 10 kopeks, and of 1, 10, 100, and 1000 roobles respectively. When the amount of the assessment was agreed on, it was written in these runes on paper, and then cut on wooden staves as permanent memorials, as the Ostyaks and Votyaks are accustomed to do in their private transactions. To the inhabitants of remote and secluded yurts this was obviously an event of great importance, and worthy to form an epoch in their history. The Yakuts celebrated it in extemporaneous songs, of which a Russian interpreter preserved this fragment: “The commission erected its throne with us for the good of all; receive it well, ye other tribes, that ye also may be dealt with wisely,” …

“No less peculiar is the food of these people; they all prefer horse flesh to beef, but are so careful of their cattle that none but the richest slaughter any regularly, the rest only on festivals and special occasions. At wedding feasts all the guests are treated with beef, and the bride serves up to her future lord a boiled horse’s head, garnished with a kind of sausage made of horse flesh. Far more important to the majority of the Yakuts is the milk of their cows and mares. In summer they have the greatest abundance of it, and then they use it unmixed in making many dishes. For winter they keep a stock of milk in vessels of birch bark, and with a certain quantity of it, thinned with water, and some vegetable substances, they make their daily porridge. It is only in the neighbourhood of the Russians that they can procure flour for this purpose; in the remoter yurts, the under bark of the fir and larch supplies the ordinary material of bread. This is pounded in a mortar, made, like the walls of the yurts themselves, of cow-dung laid on basket work, and frozen hard.

“In June and July, when the mares foal, the Yakuts show themselves as skilful as the Bashkirs, Buraets, and other Siberian tribes, in the art of setting mare’s milk into the vinous fermentation. They then celebrate a religious thanksgiving and festival, at which the men empty off, at a single draught, immense wooden goblets of these intoxicating drinks. The women are, on these occasions, obliged to content themselves with the intoxication of tobacco fumes. There are some, also, who distil the sour milk, as is done by the Buraets, in an iron kettle; which, in order to collect the vapours driven off, is covered with a board, and provided with a wooden tube passing under water. The Yakutian name, aruiguiy designates both this national spirit and Russian brandy.”

EvX: The only problem with a diet based largely on mare’s milk is that Siberians aren’t particularly lactose tolerant, and mare’s milk has 40% more lactose than cow’s milk. (Ancient Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro recommended using mare’s milk as a laxative.) The obvious solution is fermentation, which removes the offending sugars and makes the milk mildly alcoholic. The resulting beverage is called kumis, and popular throughout the nomadic Asian world.

The website Discover Tuva: Traditional Cuisine provides an interesting description of kumis’s distillation into a stronger liquor:

Araka (araga) is a milk vodka. One of the national drinks which is worth trying at least once in lifetime. To make araka a hooch still is used – a unique invention of Tuvan mind, so called shuuruun: it is a poplar stem with removed pith, fixed with stones right in a vessel, on the top – a jar with cold water which condensates alcohol, tube cracks are wrapped around with felt. During boiling the drink called “shimi aragazy” comes out of the shuuruun by a special gutter. There is not a lot of alcohol there – about 20%. To get stronger vodka it is distilled second time until 70-80 degrees. Such vodka is called “dan” (“dawn”).

Back to Erman:

“Although the Yakuts are considerably inferior in civilization to the Buddhistic Buraets, yet they possess, in many respects, extraordinary cleverness and knowledge. They have the appearance, rather, of a people who have grown wild, than of a thoroughly and originally rude race. Their skilful management of the deer-skin, and their expertness in ornamental sewing, are conspicuous in every article of their clothing, and in many details of Yakutian house-keeping, to be mentioned hereafter. …  Some productions of Yakutian industry are purchased by the Russians, and sent into Europe, particularly floor-cloths of white and coloured felts, which are cut into narrow pieces, and then tastefully and symmetrically sewed together, like mosaic. It is a still weightier circumstance that these people have been able, from the earliest times, to procure themselves certain metals, and have known how to work them. …

“The Yakutian steel is easily distinguished from the Russian, by its being somewhat flexible; and yet blades made of it will cut copper and pewter as easily as the best European blades. The wooden handle of the knife is always ornamented, after the original fashion, with tin work; from which it is evident that they procured the materials from Nerchinsk, before the Russians knew any thing of the metals in that quarter. They cut figures in the wood, and cast the tin into the hollow; a large knob of the metal left at the top of the knife-handle, is then shaped with the chisel. The sheaths of these Yakutian daggers are made of birch bark, and covered with black leather, on which, again, are metal mountings, with straight-lined patterns engraved on them. …

“Their yellow complexion, the sharp lines of their faces, which express indolent and amiable gentleness rather than vigour and passion, their pitch-black hair, also, which the men wear cut close, all reminded me of the Tatars of Western Siberia. The Yakutian women look much more lively and cheerful than the men; they are often very beautifully formed, have regular features and sparkling black eyes…

“The teachers in the schools in Yakutsk, informed me that in their Yakutian scholars was to be remarked a singular aptitude for mechanical arts; but that, on the other hand, it was vain to think of teaching them arithmetic, or any such logical acquirements. Other Russians, who were as well acquainted with the language of the Yakuts as with their own, told me that the songs of those people often contain very remarkable passages of a character which we should call romantic. Thus, they assume that ”the trees of the forest hold discourse with one another; and other inanimate things with men.” These poetic fantasies pass away, for the most part, just as they arise, for whether on a journey, or in cheerful humour at home, every one sings the new impressions made on him at the moment, by the objects around him. They have for that purpose a kind of song consisting of only two notes; these are repeated frequently in such a way that the higher note follows the lower till towards the end of each part or verse, when their order is reversed. The whole air sounds so melancholy, that I often thought that I heard some one in the town wailing aloud, when, in fact, it was only the extemporaneous song of tbe Yakuts. It is not unlikely that my occupations have lived for the moment in Yakutian verses.

“The men inhabiting the yurts near our residence, used to come every night to the yard, to observe the use made of the transit instrument, [an astronomical measuring device] … They were of opinion that I was reckoning the stars, and wrote down each of them in the account; that, in fact, a star had been lost in St. Petersburg, and I had been sent to try whether it could be found again in any part of the earth. This story spread through the town, in the first instance, so generally, that even Russians asked me whether it was well founded; it then made its way over the country, even as far as the Tunguzes.”

Degeneracy:

“In the neighbourhood of the Russians, the original good nature of the Yakuts has been adulterated with a great deal of vanity, and some covetousness. Crimes, though still rare among them, are no longer quite unheard of. When I was staying in the town, a man was murdered in the street, while returning to a yurt in the neighbourhood. Another Yakut came forward to say that he had found the dead body, but the day after he confessed that he was the murderer, and that his sole object was to get the dead man’s money. …

Yakut summer house

“There, in a cleared spot of the wood, stand four winter yurts; close by are some paddocks fenced in, to keep the cattle together in summer, and a frame of a tent, which is likewise used only in the warm season. It is formed of a number of poles, about twenty feet
long, which are united at the top into a roomy cone. … Here the people were, in fact, repairing a roof of this kind. It was made of quadrangular pieces of bright yellow and perfectly flexible bark, which was not merely joined together, but was very handsomely worked along the seam with horsehair thread.

“From Talbuiyakhtatsk, we again went on through a hilly
country, covered with a thick forest of larch. … In hollows of this kind, lie the yurts of Tegulinsk and of Chasnigyisk, the former of
which we reached about seven in the evening, and the latter at midnight. Here, too, the winter habitations have ice windows, the log walls are caulked, as it were, with cow-dung, and flanked with walls of earth to the height of the windows. The flat roof is covered over with earth, and on the east side prolonged with boards over the door. …

“The winter cow-house is under the same roof with the yurt. It is always larger than this, but has much thinner walls. The life led in these yurts is very comfortable, although a stranger in them would suppose, from the smell, that he was in a cowhouse. There is at all times a blazing fire in the hearth, which is made of beaten earth, and upright logs of larch wood throw out, with a peculiar crackling, showers of sparks to the roof. There were always some calves in the yurt, tied to the posts near the fire, while the cows cast a contented look through the open cow-house door, at the back of the fire-place. There, too, are the sleeping-places of the people, which, in the poorer yurts, are made only by a continuation of the straw from the cowhouse. During the evening, all the inmates of the yurt, men and women, sit round the fire on low stools, and smoke, with their little pipes, a mixture of wood shavings and tobacco. …

“In the woods between these places, I remarked for the first time, a singular custom of the nomadic Yakuts. At different points on the road the trees were to be seen hung thick with horse-hair, and my driver assured me that every horseman who passed by was sure to add more or less to this strange store. … Our Yakut attendant said further, in reply to our inquiries—and, indeed, all his answers in similar matters were much to the same effect — that it was done in compliance with ancient custom, and that he knew no other reason for it. Yet the religious bearing of this custom appears at once from its name, which signifies a propitiation for the JAeshi or Spirit of the
Woods, as the Eosaks explain it. …

“One of the elder [Yakut] children, which was running about with the others, was afflicted with a remarkable and formidable-looking eruption. The left side of its body exhibited a wound about an inch wide, which had extended, herpetically, from the head perpendicularly down to the middle of the body. On the parts affected, the upper skin seemed totally destroyed, and instead of it there was only to be seen the blood-red flesh. The parents, when I asked them about this malady, seemed to lode upon it as a usual and ordinary matter; and in truth I subsequently saw many cases of it among the Yakuts, but chiefly in children.”

EvX: I’m glad I live in the age of modern medicine.  Our author also makes an account of goiters, which afflicted the Russians in the area around Lake Baikal rather severely:

Goiter:

“In the villages of Rijnaya and Turutskaya, (sixty and ninety- four versts, respectively from Sokninsk,) goitres were still more frequent than hitherto. I saw them today on several men also; in the valley higher up, the disease seemed to be confined almost exclusively to women. The sufferers here had also a bluish complexion, with projecting eyes, and a staring, imbecile look. In Turutsk I asked an exile, who was the only healthy-looking inhabitant of the place, how he had protected himself from goitre; and received for answer, that adults arriving from Europe were never attacked by the disease; that “the goitre was born with the children of the natives, and grew up with the man.” …

“When we find in the valley of the Lena, from Petrovsk to Dnbrova, goitres so far advanced that cretinism, in conformity with Fodera’s experience, must speedily ensue, — though inter-marriage with ‘newly-arrived convicts, or with the Tunguzes, may help to check the development of the disease… ”

That’s all for today; see you next Friday.

 

Anthropology Friday: Yakuts!

Yakut Sakha herder

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

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

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

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

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

Map of the Yakut Migration from lake Baikal to northern Russia

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

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

EvX: According to Wikipedia:

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

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

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

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

Martin Lewis writes in GeoCurrents:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yakut winter house

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

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

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

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

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

Adorably furry Yakutian cow

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

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

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

EvX: According to Wikipedia:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Erman:

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

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

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

No, Graecopithecus does not prove humans evolved in Europe

Hello! We’re in the midst of a series of posts on recent exciting news in the field of human evolution:

  • Ancient hominins in the US?
  • Homo naledi
  • Homo flores
  • Humans evolved in Europe?
  • In two days, first H Sap was pushed back to 260,000 years,
  • then to 300,000 years!
  • Bell beaker paper

Today we’re discussing the much-publicized claim that scientists have discovered that humans evolved in Europe. (If you haven’t read last week’s post on Homo naledi and flores, I encourage you to do so first.) The way reporters have framed their headlines about the recent Graecopithecus freybergi findings is itself a tale:

The Telegraph proclaimed, “Europe was the birthplace of mankind, not Africa, scientists find,” Newsweek similarly trumpeted, “First Human Ancestor Came from Europe Not Africa,” and CBS News stated, “Controversial study suggests earliest humans lived in Europe – not Africa.”

The Conversation more prudently inquired, “Did humans evolve in Europe rather than Africa? ” and NewScientist and the Washington Post, in a burst of knowing what a “human” is, stated, “Our common ancestor with chimps may be from Europe, not Africa” and “Ape that lived in Europe 7 million years ago could be human ancestor,” respectively.

This all occasioned some very annoying conversations along the lines of “White skin tone couldn’t possibly have evolved within the past 20,000 years because humans evolved in Europe! Don’t you know anything about science?”

Ohkay. Let’s step back a moment and take a look at what Graecopithecus is and what it isn’t.

This is Graecopithecus:

I think there is a second jawbone, but that’s basically it–and that’s not six teeth, that’s three teeth, shown from two different perspectives. There’s no skull, no shoulder blades, no pelvis, no legs.

Lucy
Naledi

By contrast, here are Lucy, the famous Australopithecus from Ethiopia, and a sample of the over 1,500 bones and pieces of Homo naledi recently recovered from a cave in South Africa.

Now, given what little scientists had to work with, the fact that they managed to figure out anything about Graecopithecus is quite impressive. The study, reasonably titled “Potential hominin affinities of Graecopithecus from the Late Miocene of Europe,” by
Jochen Fuss, Nikolai Spassov, David R. Begun, and Madelaine Böhm, used μCT and 3D reconstructions of the jawbones and teeth to compare Graecopithecus’s teeth to those of other apes. They decided the teeth were different enough to distinguish Graecopithecus from the nearby but older Ouranopithecus, while looking more like hominin teeth:

G. freybergi uniquely shares p4 partial root fusion and a possible canine root reduction with this tribe and therefore, provides intriguing evidence of what could be the oldest known hominin.

My hat’s off to the authors, but not to all of the reporters who dressed up “teeth look kind of like hominin teeth” as “Humans evolved in Europe!”

First of all, you cannot make that kind of jump based off of two jawbones and a handfull of teeth. Many of the hominin species we have recovered–such as Homo naledi and Homo floresiensis, as you know if you already read the previous post–possessed a mosaic of “ape like” and “human like” traits, ie:

The physical characteristics of H. naledi are described as having traits similar to the genus Australopithecus, mixed with traits more characteristic of the genus Homo, and traits not known in other hominin species. The skeletal anatomy displays plesiomorphic (“ancestral”) features found in the australopithecines and more apomorphic (“derived,” or traits arising separately from the ancestral state) features known from later hominins.[2]

Nebraska Man teeth compared to chimps, Homo erectus, and modern humans

If we only had six Homo naledi bones instead of 1,500 of them, we might be looking only at the part that looks like an Australopithecus instead of the parts that look like H. erectus or totally novel. You simply cannot make that kind of claim off a couple of jawbones. You’re far too likely to be wrong, and then not only will you end up with egg on your face, but you’ll only be giving more fuel to folks who like to proclaim that “Nebraska Man turned out to be a pig!”:

In February 1922, Harold Cook wrote to Dr. Henry Osborn to inform him of the tooth that he had had in his possession for some time. The tooth had been found years prior in the Upper Snake Creek beds of Nebraska along with other fossils typical of North America. … Osborn, along with Dr. William D. Matthew soon came to the conclusion that the tooth had belonged to an anthropoid ape. They then passed the tooth along to William K. Gregory and Dr. Milo Hellman who agreed that the tooth belonged to an anthropoid ape more closely related to humans than to other apes. Only a few months later, an article was published in Science announcing the discovery of a manlike ape in North America.[1] An illustration of H. haroldcookii was done by artist Amédée Forestier, who modeled the drawing on the proportions of “Pithecanthropus” (now Homo erectus), the “Java ape-man,” for the Illustrated London News. …

Examinations of the specimen continued, and the original describers continued to draw comparisons between Hesperopithecus and apes. Further field work on the site in the summers of 1925 and 1926 uncovered other parts of the skeleton. These discoveries revealed that the tooth was incorrectly identified. According to these discovered pieces, the tooth belonged neither to a man nor an ape, but to a fossil of an extinct species of peccary called Prosthennops serus.

That basically sums up everything I learned about human evolution in highschool.

Second, “HUMANS” DID NOT EVOLVE 7 MILLION YEARS AGO.

Scientists define “humans” as members of the genus Homo, which emerged around 3 million years ago. These are the guys with funny names like Homo habilis, Homo neanderthalensis, and the embarrassingly named Homo erectus. The genus also includes ourselves, Homo sapiens, who emerged around 200-300,000 years ago.

Homo habilis descended from an Australopithecus, perhaps Lucy herself. Australopithecines are not in the Homo genus; they are not “human,” though they are more like us than modern chimps and bonobos are. They evolved around 4 million years ago.

The Australopithecines evolved, in turn, from even older apes, such as–maybe–Ardipithecus (4-6 million years ago) or Sahelanthropus tchadensis.

Regardless, humans didn’t evolve 7 million years ago. Sahelanthropus and even Lucy do not look like anyone you would call “human.” Humans have only been around for about 3 million years, and our own specific species is only about 300,000 years old. Even if Graecopithecus turns out to be the missing link–the true ancestor of both modern chimps and modern humans–that still does not change where humans evolved, because Graecopithecus narrowly missed being a human by 4 million years.

If you want to challenge the Out of Africa narrative, I think you’d do far better arguing for a multi-regional model of human evolution that includes back-migration of H. erectus into Africa and interbreeding with hominins there as spurring the emergence of H. sapiens than arguing about a 7 million year old jawbone. (I just made that up, by the way. It has no basis in anything I have read. But it at least has the right characters, in the right time frame, in a reasonable situation.)

Sorry this was a bit of a rant; I am just rather passionate about the subject. Next time we’ll examine very exciting news about Bushmen and Pygmy DNA!

 

Recent Exciting Developments in Human Evolutionary History: Naledi and Flores

A reconstruction of Homo naledi’s head by paleoartist John Gurche, who spent some 700 hours recreating the head from bone scans. Image credit: John Gurche / Mark Thiessen / National Geographic. source:

Continuing with our series on recent exciting discoveries in human genetics/paleo anthropology:

  • Ancient hominins in the US?
  • Homo naledi
  • Homo flores
  • Humans evolved in Europe?
  • In two days, first H Sap was pushed back to 260,000 years,
  • then to 300,000 years!
  • Bell beaker paper

One of the most interesting things about our human family tree (the Homo genus and our near primate relatives, chimps, gorillas, orangs, gibbons, etc.) is that for most of our existence, “we” weren’t the only humans in town. We probably coexisted, mated with, killed, were killed by, and at times perhaps completely ignored 7 other human species–Homo erectus, floresiensis, Neanderthals, Denisovans, heidelbergensis, rhodesiensis, and now Naledi.

That said, these “species” are a bit controversial. Some scientists like to declare practically every jawbone and skull fragment they find a new species (“splitters”,) and some claim that lots of different bones actually just represent natural variation within a species (“lumpers.”)

Take the canine family: dogs and wolves can interbreed, but I doubt great danes and chihuahuas can. For practical purposes, though, the behavior of great danes and chihuahuas is similar enough to each other–and different enough from wolves’–that we class them as one species and wolves as another. Additionally, when we take a look at the complete variety of dogs in existence, it is obvious that there is actually a genetic gradient in size between the largest and smallest breeds, with few sharp breaks (maybe the basenji.) If we had a complete fossil record, and could reliably reconstruct ancient hominin behaviors and cultural patterns, then we could say with far more confidence whether we are looking at something like dogs vs. wolves or great danes vs. chihuahuas. For now, though, paleoanthropology and genetics remain exciting fields with constant new discoveries!

Homo naledi and homo Floresiensis may ultimately be small branches on the human tree, but each provides us with a little more insight into the whole.

Naledi’s story is particularly entertaining. Back in 2013, some spelunkers crawled through a tiny opening in a South African cave and found a chamber full of bones–hominin bones.

Anthropologists often have to content themselves with a handful of bones, sometimes just a fragment of a cranium or part of a jaw. (The recent claim that humans evolved in Europe is based entirely on a jaw fragment plus a few teeth.) But in the Rising Star Cave system, they found an incredible 1,500+ bones or bone fragments, the remains of at least 15 people, and they haven’t even finished excavating.

According to Wikipedia:

The physical characteristics of H. naledi are described as having traits similar to the genus Australopithecus, mixed with traits more characteristic of the genus Homo, and traits not known in other hominin species. The skeletal anatomy displays plesiomorphic (“ancestral”) features found in the australopithecines and more apomorphic (“derived,” or traits arising separately from the ancestral state) features known from later hominins.[2]

Adult males are estimated to have stood around 150 cm (5 ft) tall and weighed around 45 kg (100 lb), while females would likely have been a little shorter and weighed a little less. An analysis of H. naledi‘s skeleton suggests it stood upright and was bipedal.[2][22][23] Its hip mechanics, the flared shape of the pelvis are similar to australopithecines, but its legs, feet and ankles are more similar to the genus Homo.[2][24]

I note that the modern humans in South Africa are also kind of short–According to Time, the Bushmen average about 5 feet tall, (that’s probably supposed to be Bushmen men, not the group average,) and the men of nearby Pygmy peoples of central Africa average 4’11” or less.

The hands of H. naledi appear to have been better suited for object manipulation than those of australopithecines.[2][25] Some of the bones resemble modern human bones, but other bones are more primitive than Australopithecus, an early ancestor of humans. The thumb, wrist, and palm bones are modern-like while the fingers are curved, more australopithecine, and useful for climbing.[3] The shoulders are configured largely like those of australopithecines. The vertebrae are most similar to Pleistocene members of the genus Homo, whereas the ribcage is wide distally as is A. afarensis.[2] The arm has an Australopithecus-similar shoulder and fingers and a Homo-similar wrist and palm.[24] The structure of the upper body seems to have been more primitive than that of other members of the genus Homo, even apelike.[3] In evolutionary biology, such a mixture of features is known as an anatomical mosaic.

Four skulls were discovered in the Dinaledi chamber, thought to be two females and two males, with a cranial volume of 560 cm3 (34 cu in) for the males and 465 cm3 (28.4 cu in) for females, about 40% to 45% the volume of modern human skulls; average Homo erectus skulls are 900 cm3 (55 cu in). A fifth, male skull found in the Lesedi chamber has a larger estimated cranial volume of 610 cm3 (37 cu in) [6]. The H. naledi skulls are closer in cranial volume to australopithecine skulls.[3] Nonetheless, the cranial structure is described as more similar to those found in the genus Homo than to australopithecines, particularly in its slender features, and the presence of temporal and occipitalbossing, and the fact that the skulls do not narrow in behind the eye-sockets.[2] The brains of the species were markedly smaller than modern Homo sapiens, measuring between 450 and 610 cm3 (27–37 cu in). The teeth and mandiblemusculature are much smaller than those of most australopithecines, which suggests a diet that did not require heavy mastication.[2] The teeth are small, similar to modern humans, but the third molar is larger than the other molars, similar to australopithecines.[24] The teeth have both primitive and derived dental development.[26]

The overall anatomical structure of the species has prompted the investigating scientists to classify the species within the genus Homo, rather than within the genus Australopithecus. The H. naledi skeletons indicate that the origins of the genus Homo were complex and may be polyphyletic (hybrid), and that the species may have evolved separately in different parts of Africa.[27][28]

Because caves don’t have regular sediment layers like riverbeds or floodplains, scientists initially had trouble dating the bones. Because of their relative “primitiveness,” that is, their similarity to our older, more ape-like ancestors, they initially thought Homo naledi must have lived a long time ago–around 2 million years ago. But when they finally got the bones dated, they found they were much younger–only around 335,000 and 236,000 years old,[1][4] which means H naledi and Homo sapiens–whose age was also recently adjusted–actually lived at the same time, though not necessarily in the same place.

(On the techniques used for dating the bones:

Francis Thackeray, of the University of the Witwatersrand, suggested that H. naledi lived 2 ± 0.5 million years ago, based on the skulls’ similarities to H. rudolfensis, H. erectus, and H. habilis, species that existed around 1.5, 2.5, and 1.8 million years ago, respectively.[35][36] Early estimates derived from statistical analysis of cranial traits yielded a range of 2 million years to 912,000 years before present.[2][37][38]

Dirks et al. (2017) obtained a much more recent age range of between 335,000 and 236,000 years ago from dating fossil teeth, sediments encasing the fossils and overlying flowstone. They used a variety of dating techniques, including radiocarbon dating of teeth, optically stimulated luminescence of sediment, palaeomagnetic analysis of flowstone, and most conclusively, uranium-thorium dating of cave flowstone and teeth and electron spin resonance dating of teeth.[1][4] The latter two types of measurements of teeth were performed on blind duplicate samples by two different labs.[1])

H naledi is unlikely to be a major branch on the human family tree–much too recent to be one of our ancestors–but it still offers important information on the development of “human” traits and how human and ape-like traits can exist side-by-side in the same individual (a theme we will return to later.) (Perhaps, just as we modern Homo sapiens contain traits derived from ancestors who mated with Neanderthals, Denisovans, and others, H naledi owes some of its traits to hybridization between two very different hominins.) It’s also important because it is one more data point in favor of the recent existence of a great many different human varieties, not just a single group.

Flores Hobbit aka Homo floresiensis source

The Flores hominin, (aka the Hobbit,) tells a similar tale, but much further afield from humanity’s evolutionary cradle.

The island of Flores is part of the Indonesian archipelago, a surprisingly rich source of early hominin fossils. Homo erectus, the famous Java Man, arrived in the area around 1.7 million years ago, but to date no erectus remains have been discovered on the actual island of Flores. During the last Glacial Maximum, ocean levels were lower and most of Indonesia was connected in a single continent, called Sundaland. During one of these glacial periods, H erectus could have easily walked from China to Java, but Flores remained an island, cut off from the mainland by several miles of open ocean.

Stone tools appeared on Flores about 1 million years ago, though we don’t know yet who made them, nor how they developed the technology necessary to make the journey.

The diminutive Hobbits show up later, around 50,000 to 100,000 years ago, though stone tools recovered alongside their remains have been dated from 50,000 to 190,000 years ago. Homo erectus is generally believed to have lived between 2 million and 140,000 years ago, and Homo sapiens arrived in Indonesia around 50,000 years ago. This places Floresiensis neatly between the two–it could have interacted with either species–perhaps descended from erectus and wiped out, in turn, by sapiens. (Or perhaps floresiensis represents an altogether novel line of hominins who left Africa on a completely separate trek from erectus.)

Unlike H naledi, whose diminutive stature is still within the current human range (especially of humans in the area,) floresiensis is exceptionally small for a hominin. According to Wikipedia:

The first set of remains to have been found, LB1, was chosen as the type specimen for the proposed species. LB1 is a fairly complete skeleton, including a nearly complete cranium (skull), determined to be that of a 30-year-old female. LB1 has been nicknamed the Little Lady of Flores or “Flo”.[2]

LB1’s height has been estimated at about 1.06 m (3 ft 6 in). The height of a second skeleton, LB8, has been estimated at 1.09 m (3 ft 7 in) based on measurements of its tibia.[3] These estimates are outside the range of normal modern human height and considerably shorter than the average adult height of even the smallest modern humans, such as the Mbenga and Mbuti (< 1.5 m (4 ft 11 in)),[32] Twa, Semang (1.37 m (4 ft 6 in) for adult women) of the Malay Peninsula,[33] or the Andamanese (1.37 m (4 ft 6 in) for adult women).[34]

By body mass, differences between modern pygmies and Homo floresiensis are even greater. LB1’s body mass has been estimated at 25 kg (55 lb). This is smaller than that of not only modern H. sapiens, but also H. erectus, which Brown and colleagues have suggested is the immediate ancestor of H. floresiensis. LB1 and LB8 are also somewhat smaller than the australopithecines from three million years ago, not previously thought to have expanded beyond Africa. Thus, LB1 and LB8 may be the shortest and smallest members of the extended human family discovered thus far.[citation needed]

Aside from smaller body size, the specimens seem otherwise to resemble H. erectus, a species known to have been living in Southeast Asia at times coincident with earlier finds purported to be of H. floresiensis.[3]

There’s a lot of debate about whether floresiensis is a real species–perhaps affected by insular dwarfism–or just a hominin that had some severe problems. Interestingly, we have a find from about 700,000 years ago on Flores of another hominin, which we think was also a Hobbit, but is even smaller than Flo and her relatives.

Floresiensis, like Naledi, didn’t contribute to modern humans. Rather, it is interesting because it shows the breadth of our genus. We tend to assume that, ever since we split off from the rest of the great apes, some 7 or 8 million years ago, our path has been ever upward, more complex and successful. But these Hobbits, most likely descendants of one of the most successful human species, (Homo erectus, who mastered fire, was the first to leave Africa, spread across Asia and Indonesia, and lasted for over a million and half years, far longer than our puny 300,000 years,) went in the opposite direction from its ancestors. It became much smaller than even the smallest living human groups. Its brain shrank:

In addition to a small body size, H. floresiensis had a remarkably small brain size. The brain of the holotype LB1 is estimated to have had a volume of 380 cm3 (23 cu in), placing it at the range of chimpanzees or the extinct australopithecines.[2][40] LB1’s brain size is half that of its presumed immediate ancestor, H. erectus (980 cm3 (60 cu in)).[40] The brain-to-body mass ratio of LB1 lies between that of H. erectus and the great apes.[41]

Nevertheless, it still made tools, probably controlled fire, and hunted cooperatively.

Whatever it was, it was like us–and very much not like us.

 

More on Naledi: Another Awesome Twig on our Human Family Tree and Homo Naledi was Chipping its Teeth Amazingly Often.