Great Plains Indian Law: Background

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Map of Native American language families

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Comancheria, prior to 1850

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

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

According to Wikipedia:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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3 Kiowa men, hand colored photograph, 1898

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

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

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

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

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

The Wikipedia page for the Kiowa language says:

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

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

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

At any rate:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kiowa kept plenty busy:

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

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

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

The history of the Cheyenne is thankfully better documented:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you next week.

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

 

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Chinua Achebe, Author and Nobel Prize winner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Populationsize

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

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

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

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

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

Short page; fast read.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who were the Jomon?

 

700px-Historical_expanse_of_the_Ainu.svg

The modern people of Japan are descended from two main groups–the Yayoi, rice farmers who arrived in the archipelago around 800 BC, and the Jomon, hunter-gatherers who arrived thousands of years before.

The oldest known skeletons in Japan are about 30,000 years old. The first 20,000 years of Japanese history are the Paleolithic; the Jomon period, marked by distinct pottery, begins around 14,000 BC.

Despite being hunter-gatherers, the Jomon reached a relatively high level of cultural sophistication (Wikipedia has a nice collection of Jomon art and buildings,) probably because Japan is a naturally lush and pleasant place to live. (The popular perception of hunter-gatherers as poor and constantly on the brink of death is due to the best land having been conquered by farmers over the past few thousand years and enormous population growth over the past hundred. Neither of these factors affected the Jomon at their peak.)

Who were the Jomon? Were they descended directly from the paleolithic peoples of Japan, or were they (relative) newcomers? And what happened to them when the Yayoi arrived? Did they inter-marry? Are the Ainu their modern descendants?

An interesting new paper posted on BioRxiv, Jomon genome sheds light on East Asian population history, examines the DNA of a 2,500 year old individual:

After the major Out-of-Africa dispersal of Homo sapiens around 60 kya, modern humans rapidly expanded across the vast landscapes of Eurasia[1]. Both fossil and ancient genomic evidence suggest that groups ancestrally related to present-day East Asians were present in eastern China by as early as 40 kya[2]. Two major routes for these dispersals have been proposed, either from the northern or southern parts of the Himalaya mountains[1,35].

So far the genetic studies have suggested a southern migration route, but archaeological evidence suggests a northern route or at least significant northern trade routes.

Note: the paper claims that the Jomon invented the world’s first pottery, but this appears to be incorrect; according to Wikipedia, the oldest known pottery is from China. However, the Jomon are very close.

To identify the origin of the Jomon people, we sequenced a 1.85-fold genomic coverage of a 2,500-years old Jomon individual (IK002) excavated from the central part of the Japanese archipelago[15]. Comparing the Jomon whole-genome sequence with ancient Southeast Asians, we previously reported genetic affinity between IK002 and the 8,000-years old Hòabìnhian hunter-gatherer[15]. This direct evidence on the link between the Jomon and Southeast Asians, thus, confirms the southern route origin of East Asians.

Ideally, it would be nice to have a bunch of much older samples, but is difficult to get older DNA from Japanese skeletons because Japan is generally warm and humid, which interferes with preservation. It’s really amazing that we can get what little old DNA we can.

I’m going to call IK002 “Ikari” from here on.

Ikari’s mother hails from mitochondrial haplogroup N9b1, which previous studies have established as common in ancient Jomon people. It’s quite rare in modern Japan, however–which is somewhat unusual, since invading armies usually like to turn the local women into war brides rather than wipe them out entirely. The mitochondrial DNA of Latin American people, for example, hails primarily from native women, while their Y chromosomes hail primarily from Spanish conquistadors.

jomon
“Principal component analysis (PCA) of ancient and present-day individuals from worldwide populations after the out-of-Africa expansion. Grey labels represent population codes showing coordinates for individuals. Coloured circles indicate ancient individuals.”

Then we get to the exciting part.

The authors use numerous methods to compare Ikari’s DNA to that of other people, ancient and modern. The graph at right shows Ikari (the red diamod) closest to the Kusunda, a modern day people living in Nepal! According to Wikipedia, there are only 164 Kusunda left, with only one surviving speaker of their native language, itself an isolate. (Though the Wikipedia page on the Kusunda language claims that 7 or 8 more speakers were recently discovered.)

The other shapes close to Ikari on this graph are are Sherpas and another iron-age individual from Tibet.

The Ainu are not shown on this graph, but Ikari is closely related to them, as well.

Second, when using a smaller number of SNPs (41,264 SNPs) including the present-day Ainu[34] from Hokkaido (Fig.S1), IK002 clusters with the Hokkaido Ainu (Fig.S4), supporting previous findings that they are direct descendants of the Jomon people[14,3441].

200px-Mongoloid_Australoid_Negrito_Asia_Distribution_of_Asian_peoples_Sinodont_Sundadont(I have written previously about the Ainu, who are, of course, still alive:

Taken together, all of the evidence is still kind of scanty, but points to the possibility of a Melanesian-derived group that spread across south Asia, made it into Tibet and the Andaman Islands, walked into Indonesia, and then split up, with one branch heading up the coast to Taiwan, Okinawa, Japan, and perhaps across the Bering Strait and down to Brazil, while another group headed out to Australia.

Later, the ancestors of today’s east Asians moved into the area, largely displacing or wiping out the original population, except in the hardest places to reach, like Tibet, the Andaman Islands, Papua New Guinea, the Amazon Rainforest, and Hokkaido–the fringe.)

That was quite speculative, but an actual genetic link between Tibetans (broadly speaking, peoples of the Tibetan plateau) and the modern Ainu is pretty exciting.

Of course, the Jomon did not die out entirely when the Yayoi arrived–about 10% of the modern Japanese genome resembles Ikari’s, along with 6% of the nearby Siberian Ulchi people’s.

By contrast, the Yayoi are more closely related to the modern Han Chinese.

Further analysis reveals more fascinating details about the ancient peopling of Asia and the Americas: Ikari’s ancestors likely split off from the other Asians before the Native Americans headed to Alaska, giving us a rough time estimate for the Jomon’s arrival–older than the 26,000 year old split between East Asians vs Siberians & Native Americans, but younger than a particular 40,000 year old group that split off in China, found in Tianyuan.

This indicates that the Jomon are most likely descended from the Japanese Paleolithic people, who arrived around 30,000 years ago and simply developed pottery a few thousand years later, rather than more recent migrants.

220px-AinuManStilflied
Ainu Man showing off his beard

People have long speculated about whether the Ainu are related to Caucasians (whites, Europeans, Westerners, whatever you want to call them,) due to their abundantly bushy beards. There is some West-Eurasian admixture in the ancestors of East Siberians and Native Americans that pre-dates the peopling of the New World, but this admixture is not found in Ikari; the Ainu likely did not get their beards from wandering European hunter-gatherers.

As the tooth studies suggested, however, the Jomon and Ainu are related to the Taiwanese Aborigines, like the Ami and Atayal. (However, the final portion of the paper is a little confusing, so I may have misinterpreted something. Hopefully the authors can clarify a bit in their final form.) It is otherwise a fine paper, and I encourage you to read it.

Reminder: Hunter-Gatherers were not Peace Loving Pacifists

From Balancing Selection at the Prion Protein Gene Consistent with Prehistoric Kurulike Epidemics:

Kuru is an acquired prion disease largely restricted to the Fore linguistic group of the Papua New Guinea Highlands, which was transmitted during endocannibalistic feasts. Heterozygosity for a common polymorphism in the human prion protein gene (PRNP) confers relative resistance to prion diseases. Elderly survivors of the kuru epidemic, who had multiple exposures at mortuary feasts, are, in marked contrast to younger unexposed Fore, predominantly PRNP 129 heterozygotes. Kuru imposed strong balancing selection on the Fore, essentially eliminating PRNP 129 homozygotes. Worldwide PRNP haplotype diversity and coding allele frequencies suggest that strong balancing selection at this locus occurred during the evolution of modern humans.

Our ancestors–the ancestors of all humans–ate each other so often that they actually evolved resistance to prion diseases.

(H/T Littlefoot,)

Of course, they weren’t necessarily hunting each other for the calories (humans are not a very good source of calories compared to other common food sources.) They might have just had a habit of eating the dead from their own communities–which is still pretty gruesome.

Of course, cannibalism didn’t stop when people adopted agriculture. The Aztecs were cannibals“Indigenous Culture Day” celebrates genocidal cannibals who were even worse than Columbus. The Anasazi were cannibals. The word “cannibal” itself comes from the language of the Carib Indians. And of course, there are still-living folks in many other parts of the world who have cannibalized others.

But the idea that ancient humans were some kind of angels is absurd.

Re: Eurozine’s How to Change Human History

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

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

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

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

The final conclusion is pulled out of nowhere:

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

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

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

It’s a myth. Mostly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or as reported by Real Anthropology:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where the article goes wrong:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • 3. Production of material wealth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anthropology Friday: Numbers and the Making of Us, by Caleb Everett, pt 3

Welcome back to our discussion of Numbers and the Making of Us: Counting and the Course of Human Cultures, by Caleb Everett.

The Pirahã are a small tribe (about 420) of Amazonian hunter-gatherers whose language is nearly unique: it has no numbers, and you can whistle it. Everett spent much of his childhood among the Piraha because his parents were missionaries, which probably makes him one of the world’s foremost non-Piraha experts on the Piraha.

Occasionally as a child I would wake up in the jungle to the cacophony of people sharing their dreams with one another–impromptu monologues followed by spurts of intense feedback. The people in question, a fascinating (to me anyhow) group known as the Piraha, are known to wake up and speak to their immediate neighbors at all hours of the night. … the voices suggested the people in the village were relaxed and completely unconcerned with my own preoccupations. …

The Piraha village my family lived in was reachable via a one-week sinuous trip along a series of Amazonian tributaries, or alternatively by a one-or flight in a Cessna single-engine airplane.

Piraha culture is, to say the least, very different from ours. Everett cites studies of Piraha counting ability in support of his idea that our ability to count past 3 is a culturally acquired process–that is, we can only count because we grew up in a numeric society where people taught us numbers, and the Piraha can’t count because they grew up in an anumeric society that not only lacks numbers, but lacks various other abstractions necessary for helping make sense of numbers. Our innate, genetic numerical abilities, (the ability to count to three and distinguish between small and large amounts,) he insists, are the same.

You see, the Piraha really can’t count. Line up 3 spools of thread and ask them to make an identical line, and they can do it. Line up 4 spools of thread, and they start getting the wrong number of spools. Line up 10 spools of thread, and it’s obvious that they’re just guessing and you’re wasting your time. Put five nuts in a can, then take two out and ask how many nuts are left: you get a response on the order of “some.”*

And this is not for lack of trying. The Piraha know other people have these things called “numbers.” They once asked Everett’s parents, the missionaries, to teach them numbers so they wouldn’t get cheated in trade deals. The missionaries tried for 8 months to teach them to count to ten and add small sums like 1 + 1. It didn’t work and the Piraha gave up.

Despite these difficulties, Everett insists that the Piraha are not dumb. After all, they survive in a very complex and demanding environment. He grew up with them; many of the are his personal friends and he regards them as mentally normal people with the exact same genetic abilities as everyone else who just lack the culturally-acquired skill of counting.

After all, on a standard IQ scale, someone who cannot even count to 4 would be severely if not profoundly retarded, institutionalized and cared for by others. The Piraha obviously live independently, hunt, raise, and gather their own food, navigate through the rainforest, raise their own children, build houses, etc. They aren’t building aqueducts, but they are surviving perfectly well outside of an institution.

Everett neglects the possibility that the Piraha are otherwise normal people who are innately bad at math.

Normally, yes, different mental abilities correlate because they depend highly on things like “how fast is your brain overall” or “were you neglected as a child?” But people also vary in their mental abilities. I have a friend who is above average in reading and writing abilities, but is almost completely unable to do math. This is despite being raised in a completely numerate culture, going to school, etc.

This is a really obvious and life-impairing problem in a society like ours, where you have to use math to function; my friend has been marked since childhood as “not cognitively normal.” It would be a completely invisible non-problem in a society like the Piraha, who use no math at all; in Piraha society, my friend would be “a totally normal guy” (or at least close.)

Everett states, explicitly, that not only are the Piraha only constrained by culture, but other people’s abilities are also directly determined by their cultures:

What is probably more remarkable about the relevant studies, though, is that they suggest that climbing any rungs of the arithmetic ladder requires numbers. How high we climb the ladder is not the result of our own inherent intelligence, but a result of the language we speak and of the culture we are born into. (page 136)

This is an absurd claim. Even my own children, raised in identically numerate environments and possessing, on the global scale, nearly identical genetics, vary in math abilities. You are probably not identical in abilities to your relatives, childhood classmates, next door neighbors, spouse, or office mates. We observe variations in mathematical abilities within cultures, families, cities, towns, schools, and virtually any group you chose that isn’t selected for math abilities. We can’t all do calculus just because we happen to live in a culture with calculus textbooks.

In fact, there is an extensive literature (which Everett ignores) on the genetics of intelligence:

Various studies have found the heritability of IQ to be between 0.7 and 0.8 in adults and 0.45 in childhood in the United States.[6][18][19] It may seem reasonable to expect that genetic influences on traits like IQ should become less important as one gains experiences with age. However, that the opposite occurs is well documented. Heritability measures in infancy are as low as 0.2, around 0.4 in middle childhood, and as high as 0.8 in adulthood.[7] One proposed explanation is that people with different genes tend to seek out different environments that reinforce the effects of those genes.[6] The brain undergoes morphological changes in development which suggests that age-related physical changes could also contribute to this effect.[20]

A 1994 article in Behavior Genetics based on a study of Swedish monozygotic and dizygotic twins found the heritability of the sample to be as high as 0.80 in general cognitive ability; however, it also varies by trait, with 0.60 for verbal tests, 0.50 for spatial and speed-of-processing tests, and 0.40 for memory tests. In contrast, studies of other populations estimate an average heritability of 0.50 for general cognitive ability.[18]

In 2006, The New York Times Magazine listed about three quarters as a figure held by the majority of studies.[21]

Thanks to Jayman

In plain speak, this means that intelligence in healthy adults is about 70-80% genetic and the rest seems to be random chance (like whether you were dropped on your head as a child or had enough iodine). So far, no one has proven that things like whole language vs. phonics instruction or two parents vs. one in the household have any effect on IQ, though they might effect how happy you are.

(Childhood IQ is much more amenable to environmental changes like “good teachers,” but these effects wear off as soon as children aren’t being forced to go to school every day.)

A full discussion of the scientific literature is beyond our current scope, but if you aren’t convinced about the heritability of IQ–including math abilities–I urge you to go explore the literature yourself–you might want to start with some of Jayman’s relevant FAQs on the subject.

Everett uses experiments done with the Piraha to support his claim that mathematical ability is culturally dependent, but this is dependent on is claim that the Piraha are cognitively identical to the rest of us in innate mathematical ability. Given that normal people are not cognitively identical in innate mathematical abilities, and mathematical abilities vary, on average, between groups (this is why people buy “Singapore Math” books and not “Congolese Math,”) there is no particular reason to assume Piraha and non-Piraha are cognitively identical. Further, there’s no reason to assume that any two groups are cognitively identical.

Mathematics only really got started when people invented agriculture, as they needed to keep track of things like “How many goats do I have?” or “Have the peasants paid their taxes?” A world in which mathematical ability is useful will select for mathematical ability; a world where it is useless cannot select for it.

Everett may still be correct that you wouldn’t be able to count if you hadn’t been taught how, but the Piraha can’t prove that one way or another. He would first have to show that Piraha who are raised in numerate cultures (say, by adoption,) are just as good at calculus as people from Singapore or Japan, but he cites no adoption studies nor anything else to this end. (And adoption studies don’t even show that for the groups we have studied, like whites, blacks, or Asians.)

Let me offer a cognitive contrast:

The Piraha are an anumeric, illiterate culture. They have encountered both letters and numbers, but not adopted them.

The Cherokee were once illiterate: they had no written language. Around 1809, an illiterate Cherokee man, Sequoyah, observed whites reading and writing letters. In a flash of insight, Sequoyah understand the concept of “use a symbol to encode a sound” even without being taught to read English. He developed his own alphabet (really a syllabary) for writing Cherokee sounds and began teaching it to others. Within 5 years of the syllabary’s completion, a majority of the Cherokee were literate; they soon had their own publishing industry producing Cherokee-language books and newspapers.

The Cherokee, though illiterate, possessed the innate ability to be literate, if only exposed to the cultural idea of letters. Once exposed, literacy spread rapidly–instantly, in human cultural evolution terms.

By contrast, the Piraha, despite their desire to adopt numbers, have not been able to do so.

(Yet. With enough effort, the Piraha probably can learn to count–after all, there are trained parrots who can count to 8. It would be strange if they permanently underperformed parrots. But it’s a difficult journey.)

That all said, I would like to make an anthropological defense of anumeracy: numeracy, as in ascribing exact values to specific items, is more productive in some contexts than others.

Do you keep track of the exact values of things you give your spouse, children, or close friends? If you invite a neighbor over for a meal, do you mark down what it cost to feed them and then expect them to feed you the same amount in return? Do you count the exact value of gifts and give the same value in return?

In Kabloona, de Poncin discusses the quasi-communist nature of the Eskimo economic system. For the Eskimo, hunter-gatherers living in the world’s harshest environment, the unit of exchange isn’t the item, but survival. A man whom you keep alive by giving him fish today is a man who can keep you alive by giving you fish tomorrow. Declaring that you will only give a starving man five fish because he previously gave you five fish will do you no good at all if he starves from not enough fish and can no longer give you some of his fish when he has an excess. The fish have, in this context, no innate, immutable value–they are as valuable as the life they preserve. To think otherwise would kill them.

It’s only when people have goods to trade, regularly, with strangers, that they begin thinking of objects as having defined values that hold steady over different transactions. A chicken is more valuable if I am starving than if I am not, but it has an identical value whether I am trading it for nuts or cows.

So it is not surprising that most agricultural societies have more complicated number systems than most hunter-gatherer societies. As Everett explains:

Led by Patience Epps of the University of Texas, a team of linguists recently documented the complexity of the number systems in many of the world’s languages. In particular, the researchers were concerned with the languages’ upper numerical limit–the highest quantity with a specific name. …

We are fond of coining new names for numbers in English, but the largest commonly used number name is googol (googolplex I define as an operation,) though there are bigger one’s like Graham’s.

The linguistic team in question found the upper numerical limits in 193 languages of hunter-gatherer cultures in Australia, Amazonia, Africa, and North America. Additionally, they examined the upper limits of 204 languages spoken by agriculturalists and pastoralists in these regions. They discovered that the languages of hunter-gatherer groups generally have low upper limits. This is particularly true in Australia and Amazonia, the regions with so-called pure hunter-gatherer subsistence strategies.

In the case of the Australian languages, the study in question observed that more than 80 percent are limited numerically, with the highest quantity represetned in such cases being only 3 or 4. Only one Australian language, Gamilaraay, was found to have an upper limit above 10, an dits highest number is for 20. … The association [between hunter-gathering and limited numbers] is also robust in South America and Amazonia more specifically. The languages of hunter-gatherer cultures in this region generally have upper limits below ten. Only one surveyed language … Huaorani, has numbers for quantities greater than 20. Approximately two-thirds of the languages of such groups in the region have upper limits of five or less, while one-third have an upper limit of 10. Similarly, about two-thirds of African hunter-gatherer languages have upper limits of 10 or less.

There are a few exceptions–agricultural societies with very few numbers, and hunter-gatherers with relatively large numbers of numbers, but:

…there are no large agricultural states without elaborate number systems, now or in recorded history.

So how did the first people develop numbers? Of course we don’t know, but Everett suggests that at some point we began associating collections of things, like shells, with the cluster of fingers found on our hands. One finger, one shell; five fingers, five shells–easy correspondences. Once we mastered five, we skipped forward to 10 and 20 rather quickly.

Everett proposes that some numeracy was a necessary prerequisite for agriculture, as agricultural people would need to keep track of things like seasons and equinoxes in order to know when to plant and harvest. I question this on the grounds that I myself don’t look at the calendar and say, “Oh look, it’s the equinox, I’d better plant my garden!” but instead look outside and say, “Oh, it’s getting warm and the grass is growing again, I’d better get busy.” The harvest is even more obvious: I harvest when the plants are ripe.

Of course, I live in a society with calendars, so I can’t claim that I don’t look at the calendar. I look at the calendar almost every day to make sure I have the date correct. So perhaps I am using my calendrical knowledge to plan my planting schedule without even realizing it because I am just so used to looking at the calendar.

“What man among you, if he has 100 sheep and has lost 1 of them, does not leave the 99 in the open pasture and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.” Luke 15:3-5

Rather than develop numbers and then start planting barley and millet, I propose that humans first domesticated animals, like pigs and goats. At first people were content to have “a few,” “some,” or “many” animals, but soon they were inspired to keep better track of their flocks.

By the time we started planting millet and wheat (a couple thousand years later,) we were probably already pretty good at counting sheep.

Our fondness for tracking astronomical cycles, I suspect, began for less utilitarian reasons: they were there. The cycles of the sun, moon, and other planets were obvious and easy to track, and we wanted to figure out what they meant. We put a ton of work into tracking equinoxes and eclipses and the epicycles of Jupiter and Mars (before we figured out heliocentrism.) People ascribed all sorts of import to these cycles (“Communicator Mercury is retrograde in outspoken Sagittarius from December 3-22, mixing up messages and disrupting pre-holiday plans.”) that turned out to be completely wrong. Unless you’re a fisherman or sailor, the moon’s phases don’t make any difference in your life; the other planets’ cycles turned out to be completely useless unless you’re trying to send a space probe to visit them. Eclipses are interesting, but don’t have any real effects. For all of the effort we’ve put into astronomy, the most important results have been good calendars to keep track of dates and allow us to plan multiple years into the future.

Speaking of dates, let’s continue this discussion in a week–on the next Anthropology Friday.

*Footnote: Even though I don’t think the Piraha prove as much as Everett thinks they do, that doesn’t mean Everett is completely wrong. Maybe already having number words is (in the vast majority of cases) a necessary precondition for learning to count.

One potentially illuminating case Everett didn’t explore is how young children in numerate culture acquire numbers. Obviously they grow up in an environment with numbers, but below a certain age can’t really use them. Can children at these ages duplicate lines of objects or patterns? Or do they master that behavior only after learning to count?

Back in October I commented on Schiller and Peterson’s claim in Count on Math (a book of math curriculum ideas for toddlers and preschoolers) that young children must learn mathematical “foundation” concepts in a particular order, ie:

Developmental sequence is fundamental to children’s ability to build conceptual understanding. … The chapters in this book present math in a developmental sequence that provides children a natural transition from one concept to the next, preventing gaps in their understanding. …

When children are allowed to explore many objects, they begin to recognize similarities and differences of objects.

When children can determine similarities and differences, they can classify objects.

When children can classify objects, they can see similarities and difference well enough to recognize patterns.

When children can recognize, copy, extend and create patterns, they can arrange sets in a one-to-one relationship.

When children can match objects one to one, they can compare sets to determine which have more and which have less.

When children can compare sets, they can begin to look at the “manyness” of one set and develop number concepts.

This developmental sequence provides a conceptual framework that serves as a springboard to developing higher level math skills.

The Count on Math curriculum doesn’t even introduce the numbers 1-5 until week 39 for 4 year olds (3 year olds are never introduced to numbers) and numbers 6-10 aren’t introduced until week 37 for the 5 year olds!

Note that Schiller and Everett are arguing diametrical opposites–Everett says the ability to count to three and distinguish the “manyness” of sets is instinctual, present even in infants, but that the ability to copy patterns and match items one-to-one only comes after long acquaintance and practice with counting, specifically number words.

Schiller claims that children only develop the ability to distinguish manyness and count to three after learning to copy patterns and match items one-to-one.

As I said back in October, I think Count on Math’s claim is pure bollocks. If you miss the “comparing sets” day at preschool, you aren’t going to end up unable to multiply. The Piraha may not prove as much as Everett wants them to, but the neuroscience and animal studies he cites aren’t worthless. In general, I distrust anyone who claims that you must introduce this long a set of concepts in this strict an order just to develop a basic competency that the vast majority of people seem to acquire without difficulty.

Of course, Lynne Peterson is a real teacher with a real teacher’s certificate and a BA in … it doesn’t say, and Pam Schiller was Vice President of Professional Development for the Early childhood Division at McGraw Hill publishers and president of the Southern Early Childhood Association. She has a PhD in… it doesn’t say. Here’s some more on Dr. Schiller’s many awards. So maybe they know better than Everett, who’s just an anthropologist. But Everett has some actual evidence on his side.

But I’m a parent who has watched several children learn to count… and Schiller and Peterson are wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some more on numbers in different languages:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the endnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Exciting Papers on African Genetics

I loved that movie
Nǃxau ǂToma, (aka Gcao Tekene Coma,) Bushman star of “The Gods Must be Crazy,” roughly 1944-2003

An interesting article on Clues to Africa’s Mysterious Past appeared recently in the NY Times:

It was only two years ago that researchers found the first ancient human genome in Africa: a skeleton in a cave in Ethiopia yielded DNA that turned out to be 4,500 years old.

On Thursday, an international team of scientists reported that they had recovered far older genes from bone fragments in Malawi dating back 8,100 years. The researchers also retrieved DNA from 15 other ancient people in eastern and southern Africa, and compared the genes to those of living Africans.

Let’s skip to the article, Reconstructing Prehistoric African Population Structure by Skoglund et al:

We assembled genome-wide data from 16 prehistoric Africans. We show that the anciently divergent lineage that comprises the primary ancestry of the southern African San had a wider distribution in the past, contributing approximately two-thirds of the ancestry of Malawi hunter-gatherers ∼8,100–2,500 years ago and approximately one-third of the ancestry of Tanzanian hunter-gatherers ∼1,400 years ago.

Paths of the great Bantu Migration

The San are also known as the Bushmen, a famous group of recent hunter-gatherers from southern Africa.

We document how the spread of farmers from western Africa involved complete replacement of local hunter-gatherers in some regions…

This is most likely the Great Bantu Migration, which I wrote about in Into Africa: the Great Bantu Migration.

…and we track the spread of herders by showing that the population of a ∼3,100-year-old pastoralist from Tanzania contributed ancestry to people from northeastern to southern Africa, including a ∼1,200-year-old southern African pastoralist…

Whereas the two individuals buried in ∼2,000 BP hunter-gatherer contexts in South Africa share ancestry with southern African Khoe-San populations in the PCA, 11 of the 12 ancient individuals who lived in eastern and south-central Africa between ∼8,100 and ∼400 BP form a gradient of relatedness to the eastern African Hadza on the one hand and southern African Khoe-San on the other (Figure 1A).

The Hadza are a hunter-gatherer group from Tanzania who are not obviously related to any other people. Their language has traditionally been classed alongside the languages of the KhoiSan/Bushmen people because they all contain clicks, but the languages otherwise have very little in common and Hadza appears to be a language isolate, like Basque.

The genetic cline correlates to geography, running along a north-south axis with ancient individuals from Ethiopia (∼4,500 BP), Kenya (∼400 BP), Tanzania (both ∼1,400 BP), and Malawi (∼8,100–2,500 BP), showing increasing affinity to southern Africans (both ancient individuals and present-day Khoe-San). The seven individuals from Malawi show no clear heterogeneity, indicating a long-standing and distinctive population in ancient Malawi that persisted for at least ∼5,000 years (the minimum span of our radiocarbon dates) but which no longer exists today. …

We find that ancestry closely related to the ancient southern Africans was present much farther north and east in the past than is apparent today. This ancient southern African ancestry comprises up to 91% of the ancestry of Khoe-San groups today (Table S5), and also 31% ± 3% of the ancestry of Tanzania_Zanzibar_1400BP, 60% ± 6% of the ancestry of Malawi_Fingira_6100BP, and 65% ± 3% of the ancestry of Malawi_Fingira_2500BP (Figure 2A). …

Both unsupervised clustering (Figure 1B) and formal ancestry estimation (Figure 2B) suggest that individuals from the Hadza group in Tanzania can be modeled as deriving all their ancestry from a lineage related deeply to ancient eastern Africans such as the Ethiopia_4500BP individual …

So what’s up with the Tanzanian expansion mentioned in the summary?

Western-Eurasian-related ancestry is pervasive in eastern Africa today … and the timing of this admixture has been estimated to be ∼3,000 BP on average… We found that the ∼3,100 BP individual… associated with a Savanna Pastoral Neolithic archeological tradition, could be modeled as having 38% ± 1% of her ancestry related to the nearly 10,000-year-old pre-pottery farmers of the Levant These results could be explained by migration into Africa from descendants of pre-pottery Levantine farmers or alternatively by a scenario in which both pre-pottery Levantine farmers and Tanzania_Luxmanda_3100BP descend from a common ancestral population that lived thousands of years earlier in Africa or the Near East. We fit the remaining approximately two-thirds of Tanzania_Luxmanda_3100BP as most closely related to the Ethiopia_4500BP…

…present-day Cushitic speakers such as the Somali cannot be fit simply as having Tanzania_Luxmanda_3100BP ancestry. The best fitting model for the Somali includes Tanzania_Luxmanda_3100BP ancestry, Dinka-related ancestry, and 16% ± 3% Iranian-Neolithic-related ancestry (p = 0.015). This suggests that ancestry related to the Iranian Neolithic appeared in eastern Africa after earlier gene flow related to Levant Neolithic populations, a scenario that is made more plausible by the genetic evidence of admixture of Iranian-Neolithic-related ancestry throughout the Levant by the time of the Bronze Age …and in ancient Egypt by the Iron Age …

There is then a discussion of possible models of ancient African population splits (were the Bushmen the first? How long have they been isolated?) I suspect the more ancient African DNA we uncover, the more complicated the tree will become, just as in Europe and Asia we’ve discovered Neanderthal and Denisovan admixture.

They also compared genomes to look for genetic adaptations and found evidence for selection for taste receptors and “response to radiation” in the Bushmen, which the authors note “could be due to exposure to sunlight associated with the life of the ‡Khomani and Ju|’hoan North people in the Kalahari Basin, which has become a refuge for hunter-gatherer populations in the last millenia due to encroachment by pastoralist and agriculturalist groups.”

(The Bushmen are lighter than Bantus, with a more golden or tan skin tone.)

They also found evidence of selection for short stature among the Pygmies (which isn’t really surprising to anyone, unless you thought they had acquired their heights by admixture with another very short group of people.)

Overall, this is a great paper and I encourage you to RTWT, especially the pictures/graphs.

Now, if that’s not enough African DNA for you, we also have Loci Associated with Skin Pigmentation Identified in African Populations, by Crawford et al:

Examining ethnically diverse African genomes, we identify variants in or near SLC24A5, MFSD12, DDB1, TMEM138, OCA2 and HERC2 that are significantly associated with skin pigmentation. Genetic evidence indicates that the light pigmentation variant at SLC24A5 was introduced into East Africa by gene flow from non-Africans. At all other loci, variants associated with dark pigmentation in Africans are identical by descent in southern Asian and Australo-Melanesian populations. Functional analyses indicate that MFSD12 encodes a lysosomal protein that affects melanogenesis in zebrafish and mice, and that mutations in melanocyte-specific regulatory regions near DDB1/TMEM138 correlate with expression of UV response genes under selection in Eurasians.

I’ve had an essay on the evolution of African skin tones sitting in my draft folder for ages because this research hadn’t been done. There’s plenty of research on European and Asian skin tones (skin appears to have significantly lightened around 10,000 years ago in Europeans,) but much less on Africans. Luckily for me, this paper fixes that.

Looks like SLC24A5 is related to that Levantine/Iranian back-migration into Africa documented in the first paper.

Anthropology Friday: Indian Warriors and their Weapons (3/4) the Sioux

Chief Sitting Bull, Lakota Sioux, ca 1831 – 1890

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we’ll be looking at the Sioux Indians, from Hofsinde Gray-Wolf’s series about Native American culture with selections from Indian Warriors and their Weapons. According to Wikipedia, there are about 170,000 Sioux alive today, primarily the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota. (I’m going to hazard a guess that Da, La, and Na are prefixes that refer to directions or locations.)

Hofsinde Gray-Wolf begins the section on the Sioux with an entertaining (but too long to recount here) story about a Sioux scout who spots some Pawnee hunting on Sioux land. A band of Sioux warriors pursues and surprises the Pawnee, getting the upper hand on them. Wikipedia notes:

Author and historian Mark van de Logt wrote: “Although military historians tend to reserve the concept of “total war” for conflicts between modern industrial nations, the term nevertheless most closely approaches the state of affairs between the Pawnees and the Sioux and Cheyennes. Both sides directed their actions not solely against warrior-combatants but against the people as a whole. Noncombatants were legitimate targets. … It is within this context that the military service of the Pawnee Scouts must be viewed.”[16]

The battle of Massacre Canyon on August 5, 1873, was the last major battle between the Pawnee and the Sioux.[17]

Air burial of a Sioux chieftain

On Massacre Canyon:

The Massacre Canyon Battle took place on August 5, 1873, in Hitchcock County, Nebraska. It was one of the last battles between the Pawnee and the Sioux (or Lakota) and the last large-scale battle between Native American tribes in the area of the present-day United States of America.[2] The battle occurred when a combined Oglala/Brulé Sioux war party of over 1000 warriors attacked a party of Pawnee on their summer buffalo hunt. More than 60 Pawnees died, mostly women and children. Along with the assault on Pawnee chief Blue Coat’s village in 1843, this battle range among “the bloodiest attacks by the Sioux” in Pawnee history.[3] …

John Williamson (23), was assigned as the Pawnee trail-agent at the Genoa Agency, the Pawnee reservation, and accompanied the Pawnee on their hunt. He wrote his recollections of the battle decades after the incident.[24]

“On the fourth day of August we reached the north bank of the Republican River and went into camp. At 9 o’clock that evening, three white men came into camp and reported to me that a large band of Sioux warriors were camped 25 miles [40 km] northwest, waiting for an opportunity to attack the Pawnees for several days, anticipating that we would move up the river where buffaloes were feeding. Previous to this, white men visited us and warned us to be on our guard against Sioux attacks, and I was a trifle skeptical as to the truth of the story told by our white visitors. But one of the men, a young man about my age at the time, appeared to be so sincere in his efforts to impress upon me that the warning should be heeded, that I took him to Sky Chief who was in command that day, for a conference. Sky Chief said the men were liars; that they wanted to scare the Pawnees away from the hunting grounds so that white men could kill buffaloes for hides. He told me I was squaw and a coward. I took exception to his remarks, and retorted: ‘I will go as far as you dare go. Don’t forget that.’

Chief Bone Necklace an Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (1899)

“The following morning August 5, we broke camp and started north, up the divide between the Republican and the Frenchman Rivers. Soon after leaving camp, Sky Chief rode up to me and extending his hand said, ‘Shake, brother.’ He recalled our little unpleasantness the night previous and said he did not believe there was cause for alarm, and was so impressed with the belief that he had not taken the precaution to throw out scouts in the direction the Sioux were reported to be. A few minutes later a buffalo scout signaled that buffaloes had been sighted in the distance, and Sky Chief rode off to engage in the hunt. I never saw him again. He had killed a buffalo and was skinning it when the advance guard of the Sioux shot and wounded him. The Chief attempted to reach his horse, but before he was able to mount, several of the enemy surrounded him. He died fighting. A Pawnee, who was skinning a buffalo a short distance away, but managed to escape, told me how Sky Chief died.” …

The whites rode up the canyon in the afternoon. “The first body we came upon was that of a woman”, remembered Platt.[32] Army doctor David Franklin Powell described the march up the battleground, “We advanced from the mouth of the ravine to its head and found fifty-nine dead Pawnees …”.[33] A number of the killed women lay naked. “Although the Pawnees made a stand and fought through the day, over a hundred were wounded, killed, or raped and mutilated”.[34]

(So much for “Primitive people were peaceful and never made war.”)

The last week of August, Williamson was back in Massacre Canyon. He covered the dead with dirt broken down from the banks.[43] …

This incident, in particular, caused the government nationwide to intensify “its efforts to keep the Indians confined to their reservation” in an endeavor to curtail intertribal warfare.[49] On local level, Major General George Crook “dispatched a small force” to protect the Pawnee Agency. The presence of troops did not stop the Sioux Raids.[50]

It would take half a century, before the Pawnee and the Sioux smoked the pipe of peace during the Massacre Canyon Pow Wow in 1925.[51]

Note that there were also wars between whites and Sioux, EG the Dakota War.

Scalp dance of the Minitarres

But back to Hofsinde Gray-Wolf:

“On their return to the Sioux encampment the men rode around the village. They had lost only warrior and only one other was wounded, so there was great jubilation. …

“In the evening a victory dance was held. The victory dance was also called a scalp dance because during it the warriors displayed the scalps they had taken. Afterwards the scalps were burned. … Those men who had earned coups in the battle had prepared their coup feathers before the dance. Two of the warriors wore and eagle feather standing upright behind their head. To the tip of the feather they had tied a tuft of horsehair, dyed brilliant red. Those coup feathers were of the highest order and showed that the wearers had, without any weapons in their hands, ridden in among the enemy. … they had dared to ride close enough to strike warriors with their bare hands. … One warrior hand a notch cut into the edge of his feather, and by this sign everyone knew that he had cut an enemy throat. …

“When he had won thirty coup feathers, a Sioux had earned the right to wear a full war bonnet.”

Chief Mato-tope of the Sioux in his headdress

EvX: One of the men in the band is considered a coward, and publicly shamed:

“Suddenly three older women stepped out of the dark outer circle. Each had been widowed when her husband had been killed in battle. Each had been left crying when her son had followed his father to the land beyond. … the middle woman carried a full war bonnet before her. …they turned their steps directly toward the great boaster, the toucher of dead enemies, and to him they presented the bonnet. …

“Would the coward run out of the circle? If he did, he would be banned forever from the tribe and become an outcast. If he accepted the bonnet, he wold have to go on the war trail at once, not returning until he could bring back proof that he was a man and a warrior. …

“Very slowly, he reached for the bonnet, took it, and with bowed head left the circle.

“There was one other way in which a bonnet could be given as a challenge. from time to time, for various reason, two families within the tribe feud. Each family always tried to get the better of the other, especially in public. These feuds could last a long time before they came to a climax. On a night when the tribe had gathered for a dance, a member of one of the feuding families might step forward and present a bonnet to the young son of the other lodge.

“The challenge was a brutal one, for it offered no escape. The youth had to join the next war party that was formed. …

“War societies, which were somewhat like men’s club, existed among the various tribes. The members were warriors of proven merit, and they were usually grouped by age. Often the members of a war society carried shields bearing the same designs, and on the war trail they gave the same war cry. …

Pehriska-Ruhpa of the Dog Society of the Hidatsa tribe of Native Americans

“Among the Plains Indians the best bow makers were the Sioux and the Crow. …

“A lance bent at the top like a shepherd’s crook and wrapped in otter fur was the insignia of the Dog Soldiers, the Sioux tribal police. This society, made up of the bravest men of the village, ran the buffalo hunts, making sure no one started toward the herd until the proper signal was given. The members kept an eye on the sometimes hotheaded young men, to prevent hem from sneaking out of camp on horse-raiding expeditions. They kept order during ceremonies and, in general, acted to enforce the tribal laws.

“In battle the Dog Soldiers held the foremost position. …

“When the tied of battle turned against them, these great warriors dismounted and jabbed the sharp point of their lance through the trailing sash [that they wore.] Anchored to the ground by it, a Dog Soldier stood and fought to the end. Only a man of his own tribe could free him, and one who freed himself would be forever disgraced and dishonored. …

Sioux horse racing

EvX: Among Indians, the Sioux and tribes similar to them seem closest to our stereotypical idea of the “Wild West Indian.”

To be continued…

Anthropology Friday: Hofsinde Gray-Wolf’s Indian Series: Winter Camping

Robert Hofsinde Gray-Wolf

My apologies for the recent lack of a formal Anthropology Friday–I just haven’t found much worth sharing lately. Luckily my bad luck reversed with the discovery of Hofsinde Gray-Wolf’s series of books about Native American culture.

According to the University of Southern Mississippi’s de Grummond Children’s Literature Project:

Robert Hofsinde was born in Denmark in 1902 and came to the United States twenty years later… On a painting trip in the north woods of Minnesota, Hofsinde came upon a young Ojibwa (Chippewa) Indian boy who had fallen into a pit trap and severely broken his leg. Hofsinde rescued the boy, set his leg, and carried him back to his village on a sled. In gratitude, the boy’s family adopted Hofsinde and gave him the name Gray-Wolf.

Time spent with the Ojibwa Indians changed the direction of Hofsinde’s career. He began to sketch the Indians and became so interested in their culture that for three years he stayed with the Ojibwa people. Over the next decade Hofsinde visited and studied Indian villages throughout the West and Southwest, painting and writing magazine articles about Indian culture. In the 1940s he and his wife Geraldine (whose Indian name was Morning-Star) began performing an Indian lore program for school children around the nation.

In the mid-1940s Hofsinde took his drawings to Morrow Junior Books, hoping to become a book illustrator. An editor suggested he write a book to supplement his own illustrations. The result was the well-received The Indian’s Secret World (1955). Hofsinde followed up with Indian Sign Language, and eventually wrote and illustrated thirteen more books over the next twenty year… Hofsinde died in 1973.

I doubt Hofsinde ever thought of himself as an anthropologist, but this is obviously no strike against him. The 40s and 50s were the golden age of American interest in everything Indian, and Hofsinde’s books are a pleasant example of the genre. I only regret that I only purchased a few of the books from the set in the shop, and now the rest are gone.

These are children’s books, but still informative. Today we’ll be looking at his Indian Fishing and Camping. Amazon provides a useful summary:

Only in our wilderness areas can we still see the country as the Indian saw it. Most of us find romance in this idea, but few of us know how to carry it out. In this book Robert Hofsinde tells us how we can fish and camp as the Indians did and how we can make the gear that they used. The Indians learned to make their fishing equipment from the natural materials they found around them. They obtained cordage from roots, fibers, and the inner bark of trees. Mr. Hofsinde shows how the Pacific Coast Indians fashioned their fish traps out of this cordage and describes the many ways other Indian groups put it to use. He also includes a chapter on Eskimo ice fishing, clear directions for making such equipment as hooks, spears, and spinners, and instructions for cleaning and cooking one’s catch. Exact, lovely illustrations by the author increase the usefulness of this book. It will add to the pleasure and safety of the modern camper and to the knowledge of anyone interested in Indian lore.

As usual, I will be using “” instead of blockquotes for the parts quoted from Hofsinde.

Winter Fishing:

“In the treeless arctic the winters are long and the summers are so short that even the hardiest berries often fail to ripen fully. The rivers and inlets, even large portions of the sea, are frozen over during nine months of the year. Even so, fishing provided much of the Eskimo’s food. He caught trout, whitefish, and salmon through holes cut in the ice and through the natural cracks that formed int he ice close to shore. Such fishing called for a great deal of skill and patience. When the fish ran in plenty, it did not take a man long to catch more than he needed. On day when the fish had taken to deeper waters, the fisherman often tried one hole after another and, at the end of the day, arrived home with only one or two small fish, or even with none at all.”

EvX: I am reminded here of the descriptions in Ingold’s Hunters, Pastoralists, and Ranchers of the variability of reindeer hunting economies–some years the hunters can kill a whole herd of migrating deer and so in one day provide for their needs for for many months, and some years the hunters miss the herd by a few miles, resulting in famine.

“Fishing through the ice also had its elements of danger, especially when it was done far from shore. A sudden change of wind or a sudden rise in temperature might cause large ice floes to break away. If this happened while a fisherman was intent upon his work, it was not uncommon for him to drift out into open water, and no one ever saw him again. …

“To protect himself from [the icy winds] at his fishing hole, the Eskimo at times put up a shelter. Such a shelter was usually nothing more than a large animal hide hung over a tripod made from driftwood. In addition to sheltering him a little, it also gave him a dark interior, which helped him to see deeper into the water. …

Netsilik man fishing with spear in hand

“Sheltered or not, the ice fisherman still has a two-handed job. He must hold his line and lure in one hand and the spear in his other. At the moment the fish comes to the lure, he must strike fast and spear it. This is the thrill of the game.

“The Eskimo used an entirely different type of fishing gear from that of other Indians. …

“The Eskimo usually made his fishing rod from a piece of driftwood fourteen inches long. Whittled into a flat shape, it had a deep notch cut into each end. At one end the fishing line was fastened. When not in use, the line was wound around the rod lengthwise, with the notches holding it in place.

“The fishline was made of whale bone. This type of bone did not come from the skeleton of the whale, but from the flexible, comb-like baleen strip, which is the food strainer found in the mouth of the toothless blue whale and the right whale. The baleen was split into very fine strands, which never kinked. When ice formed on the wet line, a quick shake snapped it off.

“On the free end of the line the Eskimo tied a small jigger, or lure, crafted from a piece of bone or ivory. These pieces usually represented very small fish or, most often, shrimp. …

“The scoop net was very important. With it the Eskimo fisherman scooped loose pieces of ice out of his fishing hole. It was also used to keep the hole open, for in the cold air new ice formed rapidly over the open water. The net, too, was made from baleen strips. The hoop from which the net hung was formed from a sliver of moose antler that had been boiled in water until pliable and then bent into shape. …

“In the winter these scoops were carried everywhere by the villagers, and although they had been designed for one purpose originally, the Eskimo boys invented a new use for them. They became quite expert at picking up a scoopful of snow and throwing it with a great deal of force and accuracy at any a chosen target.

“An equally useful article was the spear… When a fish was attracted to the lure dangling just below the water line, the Eskimo struck down quickly with the poised spear. This quick thrust impaled the fish on the center prong. …

“The Eskimos ice fished with a single baited copper hook or with a four-pronged ivory jigger. These were the earliest, pre-European fishhooks, and they were made without barbs from copper found on the surface of the ground or in veins in the earth. An Eskimo bent up a thin piece of copper to form a hook, which was a little at the bottom than at the top. …

“A barbless hook was necessary in the arctic. In that cold climate a fish froze slid almost the instant it was brought out of the water. When an Eskimo caught a fish on his barbless hook, he could dislodge it with a deft jerk without removing his mittens, so his hands remained perfectly dry.

Here’s a good illustration of the two-handed line-reeling technique

“The Eskimo also never touched his wet fishline, even when he pulled it in. Holding the short fishing rod in one hand and his ice scoop in the other, he lifted part of the line with the scoop, the next part with the rod. He alternated between the scoop and the rod, cisscrossing, until he had wound up the entire line and had pulled the fish out of the hole onto the ice.

“One fish the Eskimos caught in warmer weather was the salmon. During the summer, when the salmon migration was on and they passed through the shallow arctic streams to spawn, the Eskimo fishermen blocked their way with large boulders. As the fish darted about in an effort to reach open water, they walked among them and speared them by the hundreds.”

On the more general subject of camping:

“The Indians were camping long before the Europeans came to America. Some of them had permanent villages. Others, such a the Plains Indians, moved their camps as they followed the buffalo The woodland Indians made their camps throughout the forest, as they gathered berries and maple sap or went fishing. These early camps were not like the vacation camps we know today, but were places where work had to be done constantly. Canoes needed patching, a new paddle was required, buckskin clothing had to be mended, and other seemingly endless tasks had to be performed.

Voyageurs at Dawn, by Frances Anne Hopkins, 1871

“Camping was still hard work when Lewis and Clark and the men of their expedition explored the West from 1804 to 1806. Night after night, wherever the end of of the day found them, they set up camp, checked over their equipment, cooked their rations, and slept–often in a pouring rain. Shelters and sleeping bags were unknown. They had no portable stoves or lanterns. In fact, each man’s gear was held to a minimum.

“The Canadian voyageurs also camped at night along their watery highways. We can be sure that they slept well, for according to some of their old journals, their day started at 2:30 in the morning and ended at 8:00 in the evening, with only a rest now and again for ‘a pipe.'”

EvX: According to Wikipedia:

The voyageurs were French Canadians who engaged in the transporting of furs by canoe during the fur trade years. Voyageur is a French word, meaning “traveler”. The emblematic meaning of the term applies to places (New France, including the Pays d’en Haut and the Pays des Illinois) and times (primarily in the 18th and early 19th centuries) where transportation of materials was mainly over long distances. This major and challenging task of the fur trading business was done by canoe and largely by French Canadians. The term in its fur trade context also applied, at a lesser extent, to other fur trading activities.[1] Being a voyageur also included being a part of a licensed, organized effort, one of the distinctions that set them apart from the coureurs des bois. …

The voyageurs were regarded as legendary, especially in French Canada.[5] They were heroes celebrated in folklore and music. For reasons of promised celebrity status and wealth, this position was very coveted. James H. Baker was once told by an unnamed retired voyageur:

“I could carry, paddle, walk and sing with any man I ever saw. I have been twenty-four years a canoe man, and forty-one years in service; no portage was ever too long for me, fifty songs could I sing. I have saved the lives of ten voyageurs, have had twelve wives and six running dogs. I spent all of my money in pleasure. Were I young again, I would spend my life the same way over. There is no life so happy as a voyageur’s life! [6][7]”

Despite the fame surrounding the voyageur, their life was one of toil and not nearly as glorious as folk tales make it out to be. For example, they had to be able to carry two 90-pound (41 kg) bundles of fur over portage. Some carried up to four or five, and there is a report of a voyageur carrying seven for half of a mile.[8] Hernias were common and frequently caused death.[7] Most voyageurs would start working when they were twenty two and they would continue working until they were in their sixties. They never made enough money to consider an early retirement from what was a physically grueling lifestyle.[9] …

Music was a part of everyday life for the voyageur. Voyageurs sang songs while paddling and working, as well as during other activities and festivities. Many who travelled with the voyageurs recorded their impressions from hearing the voyageurs sing, and that singing was a significant part of their routine. But few wrote down the words or the music. As a result, records of voyageur songs tend to be skewed towards those that were also popular elsewhere in Canada.[7] Examples of Voyageur songs include “À la claire fontaine” (a favorite), “Alouette“, “En roulant ma boule“, “J’ai trop grand peur des loups“, and “Frit à l’huile“. Another such song is titled “C’est l’aviron qui nous mène”. It goes as follows:

M’en revenant de la joli’Rochelle, J’ai rencontré trois jolies demoiselles, C’est l’aviron qui nous mèn’, qui nous mont’

C’est l’aviron qui nous monte en haut.[31]

To this day, school children learn this song as part of French Canadian culture. These songs served a dual purpose for the voyageurs. Not only would they be entertaining during long voyages but their rhythm would help synchronize their paddling.[32] One fur trader, Edward Ermatinger, had the forethought to record some of these songs. This is how eleven voyageurs songs came to be known today. Ermatinger travelled for the Hudson’s Bay Company from 1818 to 1828 as a clerk and learned these songs firsthand. These came to light only in 1943 when the Ermatinger family archives provided them to the Public Archives of Canada so that they may be copied.[33] …

La Chasse-galerie by Henri Julien

La Chasse-galerie, also known as “The Bewitched Canoe” or “The Flying Canoe,” is a popular French-Canadian tale of voyageurs who make a deal with the devil in order to visit their sweethearts during the night, who are located a long distance away. It is a variant of the Wild Hunt. Its most famous version was written by Honoré Beaugrand (1848–1906). It was published in The Century Magazine in August 1892. More recently, the Quebec brewery Unibroue has incorporated a version of the legend into the name and artwork of its highly respected strong ale, Maudite (“Damned”).[34]

EvX: It annoys me when people claim that back in the fifties, books/media about Indians were just a mish-mash of stereotypes without respect for the differences of individual tribes. They talk about fifties books/media as though it were all terrible and insulting, with no regard for the quality works nor the value of popular interest in Indian cultures. Today the whole idea of reading about and being interested in Indians is deprecated. I think this attitude does more harm than good, because people are much more likely to protect and care about people they’re interested in than people they hardly ever hear about.