Eternal Subjugation

[T]he strongest on earth will be the most influential in the spirit world, and…the ghost of a slaughtered enemy must serve the ghost of him who has taken the head – A. J. N. Tremearne, The Tailed Head-Hunters of Nigeria, 1912.

If you are lucky, you have a significant degree of choice in determining your place in the world. More fortunate still, perhaps, to be able to attain a position of status in the world that follows. Yet many domains of power are zero-sum, and can only be obtained at considerable cost to others. Thus, there is a calculus to be made by those whose status is contingent on force, where the acquisition and maintenance of power in the afterlife requires the control and physical destruction of people in this one.

Anthropologist Edward Tylor writes that during the funerals of great men among the Kayan people of Borneo, “Slaves are killed in order that they may follow the deceased and attend upon him.” Similar beliefs and practices are well documented in the ethnographic record. Anthropologist William MacLeod discusses the reasons for killing slaves across Pacific Northwest Coast societies, writing that, “In the Americas, generally, slaves were slain at times in order that their souls might render service in the spiritual world to those of the dear departed.” Putting it more directly later, MacLeod adds that, “Ordinarily slaves were killed merely that the deceased might have slave labor to wait on him in the other world,” and provides explicit descriptions of many of the methods used for killing slaves;

In the Puget Sound area and below on the Columbia river slaves were sometimes starved to death; sometimes tied to the corpse and left thus to starve—in which case if the slave as not dead within three days he was ordered strangled to death by another slave. On the Columbia also a slave's arms might be tied behind him and another slave ordered to stab the victim. Sometimes slave mortuary victims were merely thrown into the river and drowned. Among the Chinook and the Makah the slain slave was sometimes interred. Among the Shuswap and the Thompsons of the plateau it seems that slaves were usually buried alive under the corpse. With the northern Tlingit a slave might be cremated along with the corpse of his master.

We have one vivid description of an actual Chinook funeral with mortuary immolations. A chief's twenty-year old daughter had died. The corpse was wrapped in a mat and placed in a canoe-coffin. The father of the dead girl ordered a slave bound hand and foot and tied to the corpse; then both bodies, living and dead, were enfolded in a second mat, the slave's head being allowed to protrude in order that he might be able to breathe. It was then ordered that if within three days the slave as still alive in the coffin that another slave should strangle him, using a cord for the strangling.

Sociologist Maurice R. Davie notes how the pursuit of obtaining slaves to command in the afterworld is a fairly common motive for war across societies, writing in the The Evolution of War (1929) that, “Religion…conduces to warlike prowess among primitive peoples by assuring them that all whom they kill in this world will serve them as slaves in the next.” Similarly, the 10th century Islamic scholar Ibn Fadlan described the funeral practices of Oghuz Turk warriors, writing that, “If he has killed a man and been a warrior of note, they make as many wooden statues as he killed men and set them up on his tomb, saying: ‘These are his attendants and they will serve him in Paradise.’”

The belief that the hated enemies you kill wait at your command in the afterworld offers a powerful incentive to engage in violence. As I also discussed in a previous post on headhunting,

The reputational effect of being a successful headhunter is often connected to religious notions of warriors capturing the souls of defeated enemies by extracting their heads. Davie notes that, “Another religious motive leading to head-hunting is the belief that the slain become slaves to the victor in the next world. This notion is an incentive to warlike prowess among the Nigerian head-hunters.”

In some cases, these captured souls provide the warrior with protection or spiritual power. For example, among the Jivaro of Peru, anthropologist Michael Harner wrote that, “A man who has killed repeatedly, called kakuram or “powerful one,” is rarely attacked because his enemies feel that the protection provided him by his constantly replaced souls would make any assassination attempt against him fruitless.”

Killing can be used strategically, not only to obtain servants in the afterworld but to capture the identities of powerful or influential figures in this world. Anthropologist Franz Boas writes of the Kwakiutl fisher-foragers of the Pacific Northwest Coast that, “Names and all the privileges connected with them may be obtained, also, by killing the owner of the name, either in war or by murder. The slayer has then the right to put his own successor in the place of his killed enemy. In this manner names and customs have often spread from tribe to tribe.” Among the Asmat foragers of New Guinea, when a young man is initiated into the men’s cult, he assumes the name of a killed enemy from a rival community after being smeared with the “ash of the burnt hair and with the blood of the victim.”

And, as I discussed previously, revenge is a common motive to kill, even when it is associated with larger religious meaning and ritual practices. Ethnologist Leo Frobenius writes that,

A Walonga native of the Mongala district [Congo, Africa] wore suspended from a thong three heads, carved in wood, in memory of his three murdered brothers. This pendant was to keep him constantly in mind that he had still to avenge his brothers' death. Such is the custom in the Walonga village. Each of such wooden heads demands an expiation, the death of a man belonging to the tribe that killed his relatives. When the victim is slain, a great feast is held in the Walonga village. The murdered man is eaten, and his wooden head burnt.


Even where human sacrifice is presented as something of a privilege for the victim, the demographics of those killed often tells a different story. Archaeologist Bruce Trigger writes that, “While, especially in Mesoamerica, human sacrifice was represented as an honour for the victim, upper-class adults rarely if ever freely volunteered themselves. Human victims were mostly prisoners of war, criminals, strangers, and children.”

Archaeologist Laerke Recht writes that, “The Royal Tombs at Ur [in Mesopotamia] present some of the earliest secure evidence of human sacrifice,” and notes that “The deposition of offerings in conjunction with the construction of buildings is a well-known practice in the ancient Near East.” Recht describes some of the archaeological evidence,

From early periods [~5000BC] at the sites of Nuzi and Tepe Gawra [in Mesopotamia], children were placed under floors and in association with walls, suggesting that they could also qualify as building deposits. For example, infants were found in walls, below floors, and in a doorway at Nuzi; in a later phase, 11 infants had been placed under the wall in the corner of a room, with a vessel inverted over the remains.”

Notably, MacLeod also describes the sacrifice of slaves in conjunction with the construction of building new houses among some Pacific Northwest Coast societies.

Recht discusses examples of retainer sacrifice—“human sacrificial victims, killed at the funeral of their master,”—at Ur, writing that,

The largest number of retainers comes from the aptly named ‘Great Death Pit’, PG 1237 (Woolley 1934: 113 – 124). The main tomb of this pit was not identified. The individuals in the pit were all adults, six male and 68 female (Figure 4). The six men were all in a row against the northeastern wall and five were associated with an axe or knife. Below them, four women were associated with four lyres. The remaining part of the southwestern end of the pit contained the rest of the women in mostly neat rows, each in fine dress, with silver or gold hair decorations and jewellery. Some of the body parts were overlapping, proving that their deposition was simultaneous.

‘Great Death Pit’

‘Great Death Pit’

Recht also refers to a broader cross-cultural pattern of human sacrifice across early states, writing that,

The most common type of sacrifice is that of mortuary and retainer sacrifices. Found in Mesoamerica, China, Egypt, and the Near East, it is characterised by relatively large numbers of victims, an incredible wealth of goods, and larger sized tombs. The entire assemblages are such that they and ritual enactments at or near the tomb. Generally speaking, retainer sacrifice appears to be an elite, if not entirely royal prerogative.

Kings and their allies who built ladders of bodies to climb to their place amongst the Gods. Costly displays of power demonstrating the strength of the lineage and the state in this world, enacted in part so the great kings will have servants at their command in the next. This is a form of power that cannot grow from mutually beneficial cooperation, it can only be seized by force. Taken from the miserable victims, whose role in this world and the next is restricted to the unceasing bondage of tyrants, forever.


Sexual Selection Through Mate Choice Does Not Explain the Evolution of Art and Music

With respect to the opposite form of selection, namely, of the more attractive men by the women, although in civilised nations women have free or almost free choice, which is not the case with barbarous races, yet their choice is largely influenced by the social position and wealth of the men – Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, 1871.

In his book The Mating Mind, evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller argues that many complex human behaviors originated via sexual selection through mutual mate choice. Miller claims that, “The human mind’s most impressive abilities are like the peacock’s tail: they are courtship tools, evolved to attract and entertain sexual partners,” and he makes clear that “our capacities for language, art, music, ideology, humor, and creative intelligence,” in particular are the abilities he has in mind.

As the book is about sexual selection, Miller gives appropriate credit to Darwin for the idea of female choice, though he paints Alfred Russel Wallace as—not simply wrong for being skeptical—but motivated by sexism, arguing that “If Darwin had found that male animals choose female mates selectively and that many females are highly ornamented to attract male attention, would Wallace and his contemporaries have been so skeptical about sexual choice? I think not.”

Perhaps Miller is aware of some information I am not (he doesn’t cite anything to directly support his imputation), but Wallace’s own stated remarks on women’s suffrage offer an interesting contrast. In an 1893 interview with the Daily Chronicle, Wallace was questioned, “I should like to ask your opinion, Dr. Wallace, upon the rapid change, amounting almost to a social revolution, which is taking place in the education and general development of women; what effect will it have upon human progress?” In response, Wallace said,

I reply without hesitation that the effect will be entirely beneficial to the race. Women at the present time, in all civilised countries, are showing a determination to secure their personal, social, and political freedom. The great part which they are destined to play in the future of humanity has begun to force itself upon their attention. They have within the last twenty years proceeded by leaps and bounds towards the attainment of that perfect freedom without which no human being can arrive at his or her highest development. When men and women are alike free to follow their best impulses, when both receive the best and most thorough education that the knowledge at the time will admit; when there are no false restrictions placed upon any human being because of the accident of sex, and when the standard of public opinion is set by the wisest and the best, and that standard is systematically inculcated upon the young, then we shall find that a system of human selection will come spontaneously into action which will bring about a reformed humanity.

Miller also gives this gratuitous jibe directed at Wallace,

Where Darwin was of the landed gentry and fell into an easy marriage to a rich cousin, the working-class Wallace struggled throughout his early adulthood to secure a position sufficiently reputable that he could attract a wife. One might think that Wallace would have been more sensitive to the importance of sexual competition and female choice in human affairs. One might have expected Wallace to use those insights into human sexuality to appreciate the importance of female choice in shaping animal ornamentation. Yet Wallace was utterly hostile to Darwin’s theory of sexual selection through mate choice.

There’s an irony here in Miller failing to recognize the significance of his own reference to Darwin’s inherited social status and marriage to his cousin in a paragraph where he chides someone else for supposedly missing something obvious. Call me crazy, but I am skeptical that female choice played much of a role in promoting cousin marriage among some high-status families in Victorian England.

At any rate, if we restrict our consideration of the question of mate choice (particularly female mate choice) to humans alone, we can find some very good reasons why Wallace may have been skeptical of the idea, particularly if we’re considering the evolution of art and music.

For one, Wallace conducted fieldwork in the Amazon and provided a great deal of ethnographic information on the societies he encountered there. Wallace described some important beliefs and practices associated with musical instruments among populations living near the Uaupés River, writing that,

One of their most singular superstitions is about the musical instruments they use at their festivals, which they call the Jurupari music. These consist of eight or sometimes twelve pipes, or trumpets, made of bamboos or palm-stems hollowed out, some with trumpet-shaped mouths of bark and with mouth-holes of clay and leaf. Each pair of instruments gives a distinct note, and they produce a rather agreeable concert, something resembling clarionets and bassoons. These instruments, however, are with them such a mystery that no woman must ever see them, on pain of death. They are always kept in sone igaripe, at a distance from the maloca [house], whence they are brought on particular occasions: when the sound of them is heard approaching, every woman retires into the woods, or into some adjoining shed, which they generally have near, and remains invisible till after the ceremony is over, when the instruments are taken away to their hiding-place, and the women come out of their concealment. Should any female be supposed to have seen them, either by accident or design, she is invariably executed, generally by poison, and a father will not hesitate to sacrifice his daughter, or a husband his wife, on such an occasion.

You’d be hard pressed to come up with a mate choice explanation for a practice such as this that makes any sense at all, I think.

This is a pattern I have discussed previously (many times), noting numerous male cults where many of the most elaborate musical instruments and works of art are made by men in private and kept secret entirely from the women and other uninitiated individuals.

Artwork from the New Guinea Ilahita Arapesh’s men house. Left: “Nggwal Bunafunei statue, showing a piglet drinking from the penis of a cult spirit while the mother pig looks on from above (1971)” and Right: “The door to inner sanctum of the Nggwal Bunafunei spirit house stands open, due to the temporary removal of the sacred pipes and drums (1971)”. From  The Cassowary’s Revenge  (1997) by Donald Tuzin.

Artwork from the New Guinea Ilahita Arapesh’s men house. Left: “Nggwal Bunafunei statue, showing a piglet drinking from the penis of a cult spirit while the mother pig looks on from above (1971)” and Right: “The door to inner sanctum of the Nggwal Bunafunei spirit house stands open, due to the temporary removal of the sacred pipes and drums (1971)”. From The Cassowary’s Revenge (1997) by Donald Tuzin.

Anthropologist Herbert Basedow writes that across a number of Australian Aboriginal societies,

When some of the most sacred ceremonies are performed, the oldest “relatives” of the presiding Knaninja [ceremony leader] often construct a coloured drawing upon the consecrated ground…Once constructed, this drawing, which is known as “Etominja” is zealously guarded by one of the old men. If, peradventure, an unauthorized person happens upon the sanctified place, he is killed and buried immediately beneath the spot occupied by the design; thereupon the ground is smoothed again and the Etominja re-constructed. Nobody in camp ever hears what became of the person, and should any relative track him in the direction of the area known to be tabooed, he is horror-stricken and runs away.

“If, peradventure, an unauthorized person happens upon the sanctified place, he is killed and buried immediately beneath the spot occupied by the design…” from  The Australian aboriginal  (1925) by Herbert Basedow.

“If, peradventure, an unauthorized person happens upon the sanctified place, he is killed and buried immediately beneath the spot occupied by the design…” from The Australian aboriginal (1925) by Herbert Basedow.

Basedow adds that across Australia, “One thing is always essential and that is that a native performs frequent, prolonged, and reverential ceremonies, remote from the women and children, and in the presence of his tjuringa [sacred objects].”

Hutton Webster’s Primitive Secret Societies (1908) provides an exhaustive ethnographic survey of similar practices from all over the world. Webster writes that, “Everywhere the belief is general among the women and uninitiated children that the elders, the directors of the puberty institution, are in possession of certain mysterious and magical objects, the revelation of which to the novices forms the central and most impressive feature of initiation.”

From  The Australian aboriginal  (1925) by Herbert Basedow.

From The Australian aboriginal (1925) by Herbert Basedow.

Miller, however, criticizes the idea that “art conveys cultural values and socializes the young,” writing that,

The view that art conveys cultural values and socializes the young seems plausible at first glance. It could be called the propaganda theory of art. The trouble with propaganda is that it is usually produced only by large institutions that can pay propagandists. In small prehistoric bands, who would have any incentive to spend the time and energy producing group propaganda? It would be an altruistic act in the technical biological sense: a behavior with high costs to the individual and diffuse benefits to the group. Such altruism is not usually favored by evolution.

The answer to Miller’s question—who produces the propaganda?—is quite clear in the ethnographic data: the old men do. The men’s cult examples show how art and music can be used as tools of social control. However, I would agree with Miller that exhibiting skills in domains such as art and music can be effective signals—sometimes perhaps for choosing a mate—but more often I think they act as signals or focal points for coalition partners to coordinate, or allow one to gain status within social hierarchies.

For a semi-related case, among the Agta hunter-gatherers of the Philippines, better story tellers have greater reproductive success. However, this is not due to mate choice—for one, Agta first marriages are usually arranged with a bride price, and two, we have a more plausible mechanism—anthropologist Daniel Smith and his colleagues write that,

Of these stories, around 70% were classified as pertaining to ‘social behaviour’ (i.e. prescribing social norms or coordinating behavioural expectations), more than any other category. Therefore, storytelling in general may provide a mechanism to coordinate behaviour and expectations, transmit social information and promote cooperation in hunter-gatherer camps…It is possible that by performing an important social function skilled storytellers receive increased social support from others, which has been associated with increased fitness among numerous primate species, consistent with the fact that they are preferred social partners. Supporting this interpretation, we also demonstrate that skilled storytellers are more likely to be recipients of resource transfers in the experimental game.

Good story tellers increase cooperation but also reap individual benefits themselves. More coercively, but somewhat analogously, the art and music produced in the men’s cult confer status on the older men who monopolize access to them, and they often receive meat or other resources or support from the younger males throughout initiation. At the same time, the initiations provide a form of social regulation and operate essentially as both a school and a legal system in ways that may have some prosocial benefits. Initiates are often taught, “Obedience to the elders or the tribal chiefs, bravery in battle, liberality towards the community, independence of maternal control, steadfast attachment to the traditional customs and the established moral code,” and many other rules or skills. They often include a healthy mix of self-interested demands from the elders and instruction in genuinely practical skills or prosocial rules. Among the Kurnai of New Guinea, “boys are told to obey the old men, to live peaceably with their friends, and share all they have with them, to avoid interfering with the girls and married women, and to observe the food restrictions.”

Let us return now to Alfred Wallace and his description of Uaupés native practices. Wallace writes that,

They have many other prejudices with regard to women. They believe that if a woman, during her pregnancy, eats of any meat, any other animal partaking of it will suffer: if a domestic animal or tame bird, it will die; if a dog, it will be for the future incapable of hunting; and even a man will ever after be unable to shoot that particular kind of game. An Indian, who was one of my hunters, caught a fine cock of the rock, and gave it to his wife to feed, but the poor woman was obliged to live herself on cassava-bread and fruits, and abstain entirely from all animal food, peppers, and salt, which it was believed would cause the bird to die; notwithstanding all precautions, however, the bird did die, and the woman got a beating from her husband, because he thought she had not been sufficiently rigid in her abstinence from the prohibited articles.

Considering the ethnographic evidence he compiled, perhaps Wallace rejected an emphasis on female choice due to “the necessary weakness, comparatively, of female selection, owing to the very limited range of her choice.” Wallace wrote that in 1892 in the context of birds, but it is perhaps more accurately applied to human evolutionary history, and captures the spirit of his ethnographic findings. He referenced this in his 1893 interview discussing his reason for supporting women’s suffrage, saying that,

I believe that this improvement will be effected through the agency of female choice in marriage. As things are, women are constantly forced into marriage for a bare living or a comfortable home. They have practically no choice in the selection of their partners and the fathers of their children, and so long as this economic necessity for marriage presses upon the great bulk of women, men who are vicious, degraded, of feeble intellect and unsound bodies, will secure wives, and thus often perpetuate their infirmities and evil habits.

Now, remember how Miller said “If Darwin had found that male animals choose female mates selectively and that many females are highly ornamented to attract male attention, would Wallace and his contemporaries have been so skeptical about sexual choice? I think not.”?

Well, let me draw your attention to this quote from Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man: “Man is more powerful in body and mind than woman, and in the savage state he keeps her in a far more abject state of bondage than does the male of any other animal; therefore it is not surprising that he should have gained the power of selection.” And even where Darwin argues that female choice plays a role in ‘savage’ societies, he primarily cites examples of resistance to coercive marriage practices in small-scale societies, such as girls refusing arranged marriage (in some cases being beaten in the process), hiding in the woods to avoid being captured, and seeking out some alternative protector to avoid someone worse. So, both Darwin and Wallace actually agree that female choice has been quite constrained across human societies, though with Darwin also arguing it has been less constrained “than might have been expected.”

Now, while this post has focused largely on the art and music produced within the men’s cults (both because it is a topic of interest to me and because it provides such a compelling counter to the mate choice explanation, in my view), there are of course numerous roles that art and music can play across societies, and they really can’t be boiled down to one particular instinct, practice, or selection pressure. This table from the Natural History of Song project indicates many of the different contexts where music tends to be made across societies:

Table from  ‘A natural history of song’  by Mehr  et al . Music is produced in many diverse contexts across societies, pointing to multiple pathways where one can gain status or fitness benefits from making it. Music may be particularly effective or important for courting in some societies, but this is only one of dozens of contexts where music occurs around the world.

Table from ‘A natural history of song’ by Mehr et al. Music is produced in many diverse contexts across societies, pointing to multiple pathways where one can gain status or fitness benefits from making it. Music may be particularly effective or important for courting in some societies, but this is only one of dozens of contexts where music occurs around the world.

Anthropologist Stacy B. Schaefer writes that “In Huichol society the women are the weavers, and according to social standards, becoming a weaver is considered the destiny of all “good women.”” Domestic crafts such as basketry, textiles and pottery are often domains where women produce artistic designs across societies, and the designs sometimes reflect larger social beliefs or practices, and can be infused with religious meaning. Schaefer herself spent five years in an apprenticeship under a Huichol shamaness learning weaving practices, and describes the religious significance of some the designs Huichol women make,

There are various ways in which women express through their designs the messages they receive from the gods. After ingesting peyote women look forward to receiving beautiful designs, and many consume peyote as a kind of vision quest to reach closer to the gods, to communicate with them and see them in their brilliant splendor. Peyote induced designs are believed by Huichols to have been sent from the gods and are sacred.

Huichol peyote design. From the volume  Art in small-scale societies  (1993)

Huichol peyote design. From the volume Art in small-scale societies (1993)

Anthropologist Donald H. Rubenstein describes the function of ceremonial textiles called machiy in the Yap Outer Islands of Micronesia, writing that,

Traditionally they were woven for chiefs, and were exchanged within the sawei system of chiefly tribute and wealth among the islands of the Yapese “Empire”. The Western Caroline Islanders consider them “sacred” (ye tab) owing to their association with chieftainship, and by implication, their association with the guardian spirits of chiefly power and social well-being of the island. Women of certain house estates were obliged to weave one textile annually for donation to the chief. The weaver would present the finished work to her village chief, who would lay the textile upon the “spirit-shelf” (fangel yalus) of his house as an offering for the ancestral spirits of the house estate. After four days, during which prayers would be made over the textiles, the village chief would then present it to the island chief, the paramount authority on the island, who would similarly honor it with a second four-day observance on the spirit-shelf of his own house. The textile would then be carefully folded, wrapped, and stored in the chief’s house.

"Brocaded end of  machiy  by Josephina Waisemal," from  Art in small-scale societies  (1993)

"Brocaded end of machiy by Josephina Waisemal," from Art in small-scale societies (1993)

In describing the textile designs, Rubenstein discusses how, “the woven designs conform to a particular symmetry based on center-marking and successive halving, and how this symmetry is replicated in other art and architectural forms, and is represented also in the groundplan of the village.”

As we can see, art and music are often produced in a social context that goes far beyond individual attempts at mating. Art and music production may potentially act as signals for individuals who are particularly competent or productive, but this need not—and frequently does not—take place in the context of choosing mates.

The Assassin's Footprint

It is to be remembered that a person's footprints are as well known as his face – Lorna Marshall, The !Kung of Nyae Nyae, 1976.

You will know a man by the impressions he leaves behind. Deep or shallow; a long gait or a short stride; the force of his movement—keen observers pay careful attention to the impact and breadth of his arrival. The road not traveled becomes well-trodden ground under his feet, and you learn from the depressions left in his wake.

The common occupation of the adult forager man is to hunt, and the hunt requires a specific set of skills, strategies, and equipment. Anthropologist George Murdock described the tool technology of the Aranda hunter-gatherers of Australia, writing that,

The weapons of the chase and of war are manufactured mainly of stone and wood…Knives are of chipped stone, either held in the hand or attached with resin to a wooden handle. An ax or an adze consists of a carefully ground stone head hafted with resin to a piece of wood forked at the end. A point of stone or wood spliced and bound with tendons to a wooden shaft about ten feet in length, the whole often equipped with barbs, constitutes the Aranda spear. A unique and exceedingly useful implement is the spear-thrower, a leaf-shaped and often concave piece of hard wood about two feet long tapering at one end to a narrow handle and at the other to a blunt point, to which is attached by a tendon a short sharp wooden point. This fits into a hollow in the end of the spear and propels it with much greater force and leverage than the arm alone could impart. On the handle end is fixed with resin a sharp piece of quartz, which forms the principal cutting implement of the natives…As projectile weapons the Aranda also use flat curved sticks or boomerangs, not, however, of the returning type. Shields are fashioned of light wood or bark with a concave inner surface and a longitudinal bar as a handle.

From  Our Primitive Contemporaries  (1934) by George Murdock.

From Our Primitive Contemporaries (1934) by George Murdock.

Murdock also gives a description of Aranda hunting tactics:

The men kill brush turkeys, pheasants, snipe, geese, ducks, pigeons, cockatoos, eagle-hawks, and other birds with their boomerangs. They usually stalk the kangaroo, creeping up cautiously and halting when the animal looks up, until they are close enough to hurl their spears. Sometimes several hunters combine to drive a kangaroo into an ambush, and occasionally fire is employed for a similar purpose. To catch the rock wallaby, which follows definite runs, a man will lie in wait patiently for hours. To trap the emu or Australian ostrich, a pit is constructed on its feeding grounds, a spear fixed upright at the bottom, and the top covered with brush and earth. Sooner or later a bird steps on the bushes, breaks through, and is transfixed by the spear. Sometimes a native poisons a water-hole frequented by emus with pituri, a narcotic drug, and hides in the vicinity until a bird drinks and becomes stupefied. Occasionally, too, relying upon the natural inquisitiveness of the emu, a man carries a pole resembling the long neck and small head of the bird and imitates its aimless movements, until it advances to investigate and he can throw his spear at close range.

From  The Australian Aboriginal  (1925) by Herbert Basedow

From The Australian Aboriginal (1925) by Herbert Basedow

The weapons and tactics involved illustrates some important patterns: these acts of physical violence are carefully planned, taking a significant amount of time to develop during the process of stalking prey, but are enacted rapidly with great lethality when opportunity strikes. Patience is required, and strategies of deception and ambush are often utilized.

It is not difficult to see how these tools and skills can also be used in intra- and intergroup conflict. A man who engages in violence strategically in the appropriate context may reap great rewards, while careful deceptions and an abrupt ambush can reduce the chance of reprisal.

Which brings me to a very important type of footwear found among the Aranda and other Central Australian forager populations. P.M. Byrne described the Kurdaitcha shoes thusly:

They consist of a sole made of human hair and a great number of intertwined emu feathers, a certain amount of human blood being used as a kind of cementing material. The whole form a large pad, flat above and convex below, with the two ends rounded off so that there is no distinction between them. The upper part is in the form of a net, made of human hair, with a central opening for the foot, across which stretches a cord of hair which serves as a strap for the instep.

Anthropologist Walter Baldwin Spencer adds that,

it is by no means an easy matter to make the shoes and, as usual, in the manufacture of any special article, there are certain individuals who are famed for their skill in making them. No woman or child may see them and they are kept wrapped up in skin or else placed for safety in the sacred store house along with the Churinga [male cult objects]. It is said that they may be used more than once, but the nature of the shoe is such that it could not last more than one journey over the hard ground characteristic of the interior.

Further, the right to wear the shoes must be earned, and comes at a cost. Spencer goes on,

Before a man may wear the shoes he has to submit to a most painful ordeal. A stone is heated to redness and then applied to the ball of the small toe of either foot, it does not matter which, until, as the natives say, the joint is softened when with a sudden jerk, the toe is pulled outwards and the joint is thus dislocated. There is no doubt that some such ordeal as this is passed through, as we have examined feet of men who claim to be what is called Ertwa Kurdaitcha at Charlotte Waters, Crown Point on the Finke River, Owen Springs and Alice Springs amongst the Macdonnell Ranges, all of which show the remarkable peculiarity of the dislocation. In correspondence with this is the fact that the true Kurdaitcha shoe has, at one side, a small opening made in the hair network through which the toe is thrust.

The male secrecy oriented around the shoes, as well as the costly ritual required to wear them, is similar to various practices found across other small-scale societies with ‘men’s cults’, as I’ve described previously. The key parallel, however, is that much like the hangahiwa wandafunei costumes I discussed in my article on Nggwal and the Arapesh horticulturalists of New Guinea, the Kurdaitcha shoes were also used by men while undertaking a killing.

In The Creation of Inequality (2012), anthropologists Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus write that across Central Australian societies, “Sometimes a dying man would whisper the name of the person whose magic he believed was killing him. Then an avenger, his body coated with charcoal to make him invisible at night, his footsteps muffled by emu-feather slippers, set out to kill the offender.” I think their choice of the word ‘muffled’ here is unfortunate, because it seems to imply that the function of the shoes was to dampen sound, which is mistaken.

To understand the function of the Kurdaitcha shoes requires recognizing the tracking abilities of Aranda foragers. Spencer writes that,

The tracking powers of the native are well known, but it is difficult to realise the skill which they display unless one has seen them at work. Not only does the native know the track of every beast and bird, but after examining any burrow he will at once, from the direction in which the last track [Page 21] runs, or even after smelling the earth at the burrow entrance, tell you whether the animal is at home or not…Not only this, but, strange as it may sound to the average white man whose meals are not dependent upon his ability to track an animal to its burrow or hiding-place, the native will recognise the footprint of every individual of his acquaintance.

From  The Australian Aboriginal  (1925) by Herbert Basedow

From The Australian Aboriginal (1925) by Herbert Basedow

With this in mind, anthropologist Herbert Basedow gets to the heart of the matter regarding the Kurdaitcha shoes and their use in conducting a killing,

Whilst undertaking their reconnoitres, the scouts carry slippers, which they wear when it is necessary to hide the individual tracks of their party. These slippers are generally known as ‘kurdaitja-shoes’; they consist of a thick pad or sole of emu feathers, knitted together with string and clotted blood, and an ‘upper’ of neatly plaited human hair-string. The wearer of such ‘kurdaitja-shoes’ leaves shallow oval tracks in the sand, which, if seen by any other natives, occasion much alarm, being immediately recognized as those of an enemy on a treacherous mission; if the enemy is not discovered, the tracks are regarded as those of the ‘Kurdaitja, ’ an evil spirit about to molest the tribe.

What is key is that the shoes obscure the individual identity of the killer, and the vague horrifying imprint left by the Kurdaitcha shoe causes the Aranda man, “if he catches sight of such a track, to avoid as much as possible the spot where he has seen it, in just the same way in which an ordinary European peasant will avoid the spot haunted by a ghost.”

One of the greatest deterrents to the use of violence is the threat that it will be reciprocated by your enemy and/or their allies. In small-scale societies without formal legal systems, revenge is often a prime motive for lethal violence, alternatively deterring or perpetuating it in different contexts. The Kurdaitcha shoes may allow a man to destroy an enemy—such as one who had previously threatened or harmed himself, his allies, or kin—in secret, and reduce the risk of reprisal. Similarly, the Kurdaitcha shoes could also be used in conjunction with other methods of camouflage and concealment. Bryne writes that,

The head-dress worn consisted of a bunch of feathers in front and a bundle of green leaves behind. As a disguise the face was blackened with charcoal, the whiskers tied back behind the neck, and a broad white stripe of powdered gypsum was drawn from the top of the forehead down the nose to the bottom of the chin, while a similar stripe extended across the chest from shoulder to shoulder.


Even without these careful disguises, killings undertaken in secret can be found across other forager societies as well. Anthropologist James Woodburn wrote of the dangers of the ambush in discussing his fieldwork among the Hadza hunter-gatherers of East Africa, writing that,

Hadza recognise not just the danger of open public violence, where at least retaliation may be possible, but also the hazard of being shot when asleep in camp at night or being ambushed when out hunting alone in the bush (Woodburn 1979: 2~2). Effective protection against ambush is impossible. Those of you who have seen the film about the Hadza which I was involved in making (Woodburn & Hudson 1966) may remember Salida, the successful hunter of an impala in the film and of very many other animals in ordinary life. He is now dead and is believed by the Hadza to have died in such an ambush. Only his bones were found. The Hadza had theories about who the murderer might be but there was much uncertainty; the cause of the conflict is said to have been a dispute over a woman.' No action was taken. The important point in all this is that, with such lethal weapons available to all men, with the possibility of using them for murder undetected, with the likelihood that even if detected no action will be taken, with the knowledge that such weapons have indeed been used for murder in the past, the dangers of conflict between men over claims not only to women but more generally to wealth, to power or to prestige are well understood.

Beyond the ambiguity of the killer’s identity and the paranoia this induces, the secretive nature of the Kurdaitcha shoes also incentivizes a different sort of deception, namely lying: co-opting the fearsome reputation of Kurdaitcha to boost one’s prestige. Spencer writes that,

We have met several Kurdaitcha men who claim to have killed their victim and many more men who are perfectly certain that they have seen Kurdaitcha. One group of men will tell you that they do not go Kurdaitcha but that another group does do so, and if you then question the latter they will tell you that they do not, but that their accusers do. It is in fact a case of each believing the other guilty and both being innocent. At the same time many will at once confess that they do go Kurdaitcha, when as a matter of fact they do not.

Of course, if such lies manage to reduce the likelihood of oneself and one’s kin being attacked by an enemy, acting as an effective deterrent without the risks entailed of actually engaging in Kurdaitcha homicide, the more innocuous deception of the lie is quite understandable. Nonetheless, boasting of committing such killings can also attract the wrong kind of attention, and can invite the very reprisals one may have been hoping to ward off.

Notes on Nggwal

Astonished upon first hearing this, I asked my informant, What, then, was the truth about Nggwal? to which he replied, “Nggwal is what men do.” – Donald Tuzin, Rituals of Manhood, 1982.

During an undetermined time period preceding European contact, a gargantuan, humanoid spirit-God conquered parts of the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea. With a voracious appetite for pork and yams—and occasional demands of ritual murder—Nggwal was the tutelary spirit for a number of Sepik horticulturalist societies, where males of various patriclans were united in elaborate cult systems including initiation grades and ritual secrecy, devoted to following the whims of this commanding entity. Anthropologist Donald Tuzin describes the great power and capriciousness of Nggwal,

[cult members] know the secret myths, they know that Nggwal depends on them for food and shelter. Metaphors conjure forth an infantile image; a vast baby crying piteously to be fed, its tears the untimely rains that spoil hunting and gardening activities. on the other hand, this is no ordinary toddler. His monumental power and monumental dependency evoke worrisome prospects of what he may do if his needs are not smartly and amply met. And even if they are, this is no guarantee that a moment's whimsy will not move Nggwal to deliver death or discomfiture on those who support and care for him.

Gilbert Herdt also describes the sinister demands of Nggwal, and particularly his disdain for women,

Nggwal constantly introduced conflict within the village. And his intense misogyny, registered in the hatred of menstrual blood and the willingness to do bad things to women while the men were possessed by the spirit, signified a profound gulf of internal differentiation within the village, especially regarding ideas about gender and the meaning of women.

Margaret Mead herself noted the effect Nggwal had on many New Guinea societies, as she described some of the behaviors of the cults that worshipped him, and gave particular focus to Nggwal’s demand for male dominance of women and children:

In many parts of New Guinea, the tamberan [another word the supreme spirit/Nggwal] cult is a way of maintaining the authority of the older men over the women and children; it is a system directed against the women and children, designed to keep them in their ignominious places and punish them if they try to emerge. In some tribes, a woman who accidentally sees the tamberan [costumed spirit or the sacred paraphernalia] is killed. The young boys are threatened with the dire things that will happen to them at their initiation, and initiation becomes a sort of vicious ragging in which the older men revenge themselves upon recalcitrant boys and for the indignities that they themselves once suffered. Such are the primary emphases of the wide-spread tamberan cult. Secrecy, age and sex-hostility, fear and ragging, have shaped its formal pattern.

So, what specific demands does Nggwal make? The first is for food. Nggwal must be fed, and while it is the men who are his most devoted servants and the keepers of his great secrets, it is often the responsibility of the women to provide for his subsistence, “Women are well aware of Nggwal's hunger, for to them falls much of the gardening, hauling and cooking needed to feed him,” Tuzin writes. But how does Nggwal consume the food offered to him? “Needless to say, it is not the Tambaran [Nggwal himself] which eats the pork but the men themselves, in secret conclaves,” and Tuzin continues describing the “feasts among Tambaran Cult members in secret seclusion, during which non-members are under the impression that the food is being given directly to the spirits.” During the cult’s feasts, it is the senior members who claim the mantle of Nggwal while consuming the pork for themselves:

When the men hold their secret pig feasts, the story given to noninitiates is that the gigantic, devouring Nggwal is present in the flesh—hence the impossibility of outsiders joining the banquet. Initiates understand, of course, that this is a metaphor signifying real but spiritual attributes of the deity. Women are judged incapable of comprehending the metaphysical Nggwal; if told that Nggwal is invisibly present at the feast, they would not believe it and would insist on participating, thereby provoking wrath on a cosmic scale.

At the same time, some men risk the wrath of Nggwal by “secreting a piece of meat from a ritual feast and giving it discreetly to their wives. The wives are told that the Tambaran had eaten its fill and kicked aside this morsel, growling that it could be given to the women.”

Nggwal did not restrict his demands just to food, however.

During the proper ritual seasons, Ilahita Arapesh men would wear hangamu'w [ritual masks/costumes], and personify various spirits;

These benign creatures, when they are at large in the village, move about begging small gifts of food, salt, tobacco or betelnut. They cannot speak, but indicate their wishes with various conventional gestures, such as holding a small coconut-shell cup on the end of their spear point as a sign that they would like to have some soup. The man who is approached (or the husband of a woman who is approached) cheerfully carries the desired item to the Falanga spirit house in the ward where it is deposited along with other booty, to be enjoyed by the wearer and by certain others of appropriate ritual standing.

Despite the playful, Halloween-like aspects of this practice, the hangahiwa wandafunei [violent spirits] were a much more serious matter. Ten percent of the male masks portrayed hangahiwa wandafunei, and they were associated with the commission of ritually sanctioned murder. These murders committed by the violent spirits were always attributed to Nggwal.

“Hangamu'w  with crimped-leaf homicide badges.” from  The Voice of the Tambaran  (1980) by Donald Tuzin

“Hangamu'w with crimped-leaf homicide badges.” from The Voice of the Tambaran (1980) by Donald Tuzin

The costumes of the violent spirits would gain specific insignia after committing each killing, including homicide badges of crimped leaves (Cordyline terminalis) and the addition of bone ornaments. After the slaying of the first victim, the skull would be hung from the neck of the hangamu'w mask. After the second, a radius bone would be mounted in the left earlobe. For the third, a radius bone in the right earlobe, and a humerus bone would be mounted in the septum for the fourth. For the fifth, and all subsequent victims, a knotted rope would be draped around the neck to keep a record of each killing. “Word goes out that Nggwal has “swallowed” another victim; the killer remains technically anonymous, even though most Nggwal members know, or have a strong inkling of, his identity.” Tuzin writes that,

These hangahiwa wandafunei (the latter term being an adjective meaning "violent" or "hot-blooded" in a ritually powerful sense) are universally feared, and nothing can vacate a hamlet so quickly as one of these spooks materializing out of the gloom of the surrounding jungle. The reason why even men flee before it is that the spirits of its victims have putatively impregnated the mask. Thus, when an ordinary man dons one of these costumes he feels the "heaviness" of the mask, and the indwelling spirit(s) transform him into a compulsive killer; his own child or brother would not be spared if he came upon them. To this extent, the men are not entirely deceiving the women when they tell them that the hangahiwa are spirits incarnate. Traditionally, hangahiwa wandafunei sought out victims who were alone in their garden or on the forest paths at dusk. Pigs, dogs and chickens were also fair game. After spearing the victim, the offending hangamu'w would escape back to its spirit house. The wearer would replace it with the other costumes and emerge without fear of detection - in time to join the general alarm aroused by the discovery of the body.

Sometimes the wearer would not put the mask away, however, and instead he would take it to a nearby enemy village, where a relative or other acquaintance of his would take the mask and keep it in their own community’s spirit house, until it was time to be used and transferred once more. Through these ritual killings and the passage of costumes between communities, Nggwal impels cooperation between men of even hostile villages, and unites them in cult secrecy.

Nggwal, who travels in structures of fiber and bone atop rivers of blood.

"The spirit house of Nggwal Walipeine [the top initiation rank], Ilahita village." from  The Voice of the Tambaran  (1980) by Donald Tuzin

"The spirit house of Nggwal Walipeine [the top initiation rank], Ilahita village." from The Voice of the Tambaran (1980) by Donald Tuzin

Now we may ask, what service does Nggwal provide, considering his great demands? Nggwal was viewed as the collective aggregation of each unique spirit from every individual patriclan, and this united them into one powerful entity. In this way Nggwal helped stave off treachery between patriclans, “Premeditated betrayal, on the contrary, was out of the question: the offenders' own Tambaran [cult spirits devoted to Nggwal] would have wrought terrible vengeance on them for having thus abused his name. Even in the case of spontaneous outbreak, the combatants were inviting supernatural reprisal, and the knowledge of this went far in keeping tempers under control.”

Tuzin adds that, “It was sometimes expedient for enemies to call a temporary truce, especially in order to cooperative in a major cult undertaking.” Nggwal’s role in uniting diverse clans for purposes of ceremony and war points to some possible group-level benefits conferred by his presence, in aiding defense and territorial expansion;

When great occasions bring Nggwal (in "his" collective aspect) to the village, the unitary spiritual presence is achieved by congregating all its separate manifestations inside the tall spirit house, a supreme symbol of, among other things, the village's descent composition. By killing and warring under the aegis of Nggwal, emphasis is laid on the collective, village achievement, rather than on the exploits of particular individuals. When the deed is unambiguously singular, as in laf murder [murders committed by the hangahiwa wandafunei], the putative involvement of Nggwal is maintained by the anonymity of the killer. Uninitiated persons are led to believe that such deaths are caused directly by the spirits.

Clearly, however, there are areas where Nggwal benefits some people at the expense of others. Individuals of the highest initiation level within the Tambaran cult have increased status for themselves and their respective clans, and they have exclusive access to the pork of the secret feasts that is ostensibly consumed by Nggwal. The women and children are dominated severely by Nggwal and the other Tambaran cult spirits, and the young male initiates must endure severe dysphoric rituals to rise within the cult.

In a previous post on all male secret societies, I pointed out some of the common functional benefits they seem to provide, to individuals or larger groups: 1) the men’s house/secret rituals increase male cohesion, allow for larger cross-cutting alliances between clans through participation in the cult, increase community sizes, and thus promote more success in defense/war, 2) the men’s house lets men plan warfare excursions away from the women, who often have relatives in the enemy communities and might be at risk of running away and trying to warn them [the cults often seem to develop in societies with exogamous marriage exchanges with rival communities], 3) the men’s house and the dysphoric rituals imposed on the young men keep them away from the women, and this may benefit the older males in reducing reproductive competition, 4) the older men use the cult secrecy to their advantage to monopolize access to resources/knowledge/women when possible. The social control by the older males over the women, children, and younger male competitors may help sustain the cult, as once the younger males are old enough to gain status, learn the secrets and have influence, they start to benefit from the cult practices. All of these factors often seemed to be at play in the Tambaran cult and their devotion to Nggwal.

Note that the explanations above reflect both within-group and between-group dynamics. My understanding of entities like Nggwal and the other men’s cults I’ve written about fit nicely with the ‘self-interested enforcement hypothesis’ (SIE) of culture laid out by Singh et al. (2017), who write that,

Cultural group selection clearly occurs: practices and institutions diffuse across groups as societies subdue each other or observant rule-makers adopt them from their successful neighbors (Diamond 2005; see the Pama-Nyungan expansion for an example among Australian hunter-gatherers: Evans and McConvell 1997). The global pervasiveness of nation-states where tribes, bands, and chiefdoms once stood suggests that at least some cultural practices spread because of their effects on group-level properties (Flannery and Marcus 2012; Fukuyama 2011). But in emphasizing between-group selection, researchers have underappreciated the scope and extent of within-group processes based in self-interest, limited reason, and power. In fact, CGS is sometimes considered to be the primary or even only explanation for the development of group-functional norms and institutions (Boyd and Richerson 2002; Chudek and Henrich 2011). Richerson et al. (2016:16), for example, could not recognize how“ any of the alternatives to [cultural group selection] can easily account for the institutionalized cooperation that characterizes human societies.” Here we respond to Richerson et al.’s challenge by elaborating on how within-group processes—specified here as self-interested enforcement—can account for various aspects of rule design, including the creation of group-level benefits. The self-interested enforcement hypothesis (SIE) proposes that the design of rules reflects the relative capacity of cooperating or competing parties to enforce their preferences and the degree to which the interests of those parties overlap. Rules that promote cooperation, control conflict, and encourage success in intergroup warfare can thus emerge from the interactions of self-interested agents.

Social norms and practices can have group-functional properties, but they are also tools that can be manipulated and controlled strategically by self-interested parties.

Nggwal is no longer active these days. Decades of missionary and colonial activity have reduced the power of this once mighty entity. In 1984 several Ilahita Arapesh men rose during a church service and revealed the secrets of the Tambaran cult to the women. I’ll discuss that in a future post.

Moloch, as I understand the concept, primarily represents all the many ways people are disincentivized from cooperating—the “multipolar traps” and coordination failures, the general collective action problem to be found at the heart of many attempts at pro-social group endeavors. Nggwal instead is a truly impressively example of coordination—he is metaphorically and literally a collective that unites even enemy communities in displays of dominance and power. Nggwal as an entity symbolizes something of significant interest to me and a key focus of this blog: namely all the ways in which men cooperate to do extreme and destructive things to themselves and others.