The Politics of Chimpanzee Societies

Book Review: The New Chimpanzee by Craig Stanford. Harvard University Press. 2018.

In his 1982 book Chimpanzee Politics, primatologist Frans de Waal made the then-provocative argument that much of human’s political behavior stems from the evolutionary heritage we share with chimpanzees. Describing the similarities humans have in common with chimps in domains such as coalition building, status competition, and sex differences, de Waal concluded that, “What my work [studying chimpanzees] has taught me…is that the roots of politics are older than humanity.”

In The New Chimpanzee (2018), anthropologist Craig Stanford offers a worthy successor to de Waal’s classic, integrating the latest research to expound not just on the many similarities we share with our relatives of the forest, but their own unique traits and behaviors as well. While Stanford does an admirable job of conveying just how fascinating and distinct chimpanzees are in their own right, it is nonetheless striking how humanlike many of their behaviors seem to be.

Following de Waal, Stanford gives particular attention to chimpanzee status competition and ‘political’ behavior. Stanford notes that male chimpanzees that are higher ranked in dominance hierarchies have better reproductive success (more children) and live longer than lower ranked males, and he connects this to research in humans showing that higher status males also tend to be healthier and have greater reproductive success. Stanford suggests that “there might be an ancient origin for the relationship between human life expectancy and social status.” This may be due to direct effects, such as access to better nutrition, or “it could also be due to indirect effects: being high ranking may carry psychological perks that promote long, healthy lives,” Stanford writes.

Some of the similarities Stanford describes when it comes to political behavior end up being quite humorous. Stanford tells the story of the alpha chimpanzee, Ntologi, who lived at Mahale National Park in Tanzania. Stanford writes that Ntologi, “shared meat liberally as he rose in rank.” However, once he achieved alpha status, Ntologi’s “generosity dropped, and he began sharing meat mainly with those whose political support he still needed most.” This behavior so closely mirrors that of many of our own politicians it feels almost cliché. Political leaders supplying resources or favors to allies to maintain their support is well documented in social science research. In their 2003 book The Logic of Political Survival, political scientist Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and his colleagues write that “The survival of leaders and of the institutions or regimes they lead is threatened when they are no longer able to provide sufficient resources to sustain political support.”

As with humans, no single chimpanzee can maintain power on their own. Stanford writes that, “In my own field studies, there was always a single alpha male, but his power at a given moment was highly dependent on those around him.” For humans, the authors of The Logic of Political Survival write, “Make no mistake about it, no leader rules alone. Even the most oppressive dictators cannot survive the loss of support among their core constituents.” It’s difficult not to be impressed with how strategic, and even rational, chimpanzee political behavior and status competition is.

Similarly, we see strategic elements in chimpanzee hunting behavior. Chimpanzee males at many sites engage in cooperative hunts, seeking out prey such as red colobus monkeys. At the site of Ngogo at Kibale National Park in Uganda, Stanford writes that, “Male bonding and male efforts to rise in rank by currying favor with the right higher-up were major motivating forces in obtaining meat in the first place.” More than simply seeking out subsistence, hunting for male chimpanzees is often part of building alliances and jockeying for political power.

There is a risk when studying chimpanzees in ascribing uniquely human characteristics and behaviors onto them. Yet learning about chimpanzees can lead us to greater insight in understanding our own behaviors and evolutionary history. Sensitive to these issues, de Waal writes that, it would not “be correct to accuse me of having, either consciously or unconsciously, projected human patterns onto chimpanzee behavior. The reverse is nearer the truth; my knowledge edge and experience of chimpanzee behavior have led me to look at humans in another light.” While Stanford gives appropriate emphasis to our similarities with chimps, he also gives due attention to how intriguing chimpanzees are in their own right, writing that he hopes “readers will appreciate chimpanzees for what they are— not underevolved humans or caricatures of ourselves, but perhaps the most interesting of all the species of nonhuman animals with which we share our planet.”

Stanford concludes by noting that chimpanzees act “as ambassadors between our own evolutionary history as apes and our present selves, the technologically advanced humans of this century who grow more divorced from our heritage with each passing generation.” Chimpanzees are an impressive species: fundamentally unique, while also offering us an avenue to better understand ourselves and our own history. For those interested in learning about chimpanzees and their relationship to humans, Stanford’s work is bound to satisfy.

Editor’s note: This article was first published in French at Phébé par Le Point.

Initiation Prelude [Fiction]

In the late 19th century, an explorer working with the Dutch colonial administration in Papua New Guinea heard a portion of a men’s initiation ceremony while he was temporarily staying with the people of a small, unnamed community. Apparently being familiar with the region and the local language, he translated and transcribed the words allegedly spoken at this event. His notes were found as loose pages in some unspecified archive by an anthropology professor of mine, who provided me with a translated, annotated copy. The explorer did not seem to have had a view of the inside of the spirit house where this initiation occurred, but he could hear them from the temporary hut situated nearby that this group had gifted him.

In some cases, terms were used that the explorer did not provide a direct translation for, which my professor seems to have substituted with his own translations in brackets. In the interest of better reconstructing the event, my professor also indicated where the explorer’s notes described additional details about the initiation, such as prolonged periods of silence, or where unheard comments were made. Unfortunately, due to the explorer’s use of short-hand, not all of his writing was legible.

Due to the paucity of details about the society, where they lived, or the specific expedition the Dutch explorer was part of, my professor stressed to me that he cannot vouch for the veracity of this account, and I want to convey the same caveat to you.

[Illegible]…of course it would be you. You, young seeker of power – you have the ambition to be a [spirit leader] but have you developed the requisite skills? What do you offer us?

[There was a prolonged period of silence here.]

You: still so young, we have noticed your accomplishments in [the hunt], but have you crafted your first dagger from the bones of the cassowary? Have you produced great works of art for the interior of the [spirit house]? You have no pigs yet, young man—how can you host a feast when your garden is as empty as our bellies? Too inexperienced to stand guard at the local watchtower; hands too shaky to sew the sacred armbands; too ignorant to decipher the entrails of swine—you leave the [omens] undeciphered! [He was shouting.] What do you offer us?

[Another period of silence.]

You must visit the sorcerers to the west for training in magic. They are [“monstrous cannibals”] but it is they who hold the [powerful shells] that grant our success in battle. You will take to them these bundles of bananas and taro and they will give you what is required. [There was some inaudible back and forth conversation here between the elders.]

You have felt the sting of our nettles, and known the fear induced by our capricious [great spirits], but until the dirt of battle has known your blood or that of your foe you are not a man. Like the women bury their blood in the taro gardens to enrich its feminine spirit, the roots of our tribe are nourished by the blood of men on the battlefield! You must learn what is required of you, boy.

[He began speaking quietly] It is [we, the elders of men, descendants of the founding lineage] that are the guardians of our great society. You wish entry into our powerful community, and we may grant it if you demonstrate your worth.

You have not violated the [sexual taboos]. You maintained your silence in the face of the questions from the women and children, demonstrating your tact, and again you maintained your silence in the face of the torture from us men, demonstrating your resolve. When you were a child you did women’s work but now you are a man! A man needs a wife: she will tend to your garden.

If you return from your travels with the goods I require, my [sister’s youngest daughter] will be your wife. This is a gift and I ask for nothing in return, though you will recompense me when you are able.

Learn from the [sorcerers to the west] their [ritual leader] is my [2nd wife’s cousin? Maybe some other relative]. He will see my [sacred armband] on your arm and the magic of him and his people will not be able to harm you. Here. Take it.

[The explorer indicates here that he began to hear the sounds of flutes playing, as well as a series of loud whirring sounds, which seemed to be coming from the forest. This appears to have created a great commotion among the women and children, who went into their residential homes, while the men stuck around lazily.]

You will leave tomorrow. Tonight we have work to do. There are lessons that must be learned.

To be part of our great society is to serve [the local deity]. The accomplishments of men please [the deity]. When you do not violate the taboos, when you kill our enemies, when you make the necessary sacrifices during our ceremonies, when you host feasts in [the deity’s] honor. As a man you please [the deity] with your deeds and achievements, but you must not come into conflict with us or be jealous of our achievements. You must respect the elders. [Illegible]

[The explorer mentions that the flutes and whirring stopped, but the women and children have not returned to the communal areas and remain in their homes.]

There are things… [Illegible]

[The explorer’s account was interrupted here as a few young men from the community entered his hut and started inspecting his lantern and cookware. The explorer tolerated their curiosities for a few minutes before trying to convey to them that he wanted to be alone. They nodded like they understood but kept playing with his things.]

Omens of War and the Promise of Prophecy

"And to seal his prayer, farseeing Zeus sent down a sign. He launched two eagles soaring high from a mountain ridge ...All were dumbstruck, watching the eagles trail from sight, people brooding, deeply, what might come to pass ... Until the old warrior Halitherses, Master's son, broke the silence for them: the one who outperformed all men of his time at reading bird-signs, sounding out the omens, rose and spoke, distraught for each man there"

– Homer, The Odyssey, 8th century BC

Uncertainty is embedded in the practice of warfare. The potential rewards can be great, yet the cost of failure is incalculably grave. While war is a cooperative endeavor, often undertaken to benefit a larger social group, wars are fought by individual people with their own interests and motivations. The instinct of self-preservation, the anticipation of potentially disastrous consequences, and extreme feelings of fear may act as constraints on the engagement of aggressive conflict. To mitigate these limitations, cultures developed beliefs and practices to reduce the fear of warriors, and increase their willingness to fight on behalf of the group. Many such traditions purport to offer nothing less than protection and approval from the gods themselves.  

Societies throughout history have always played close attention to the clues offered by the divine. As archaeologist Bruce Trigger notes in his cross-cultural study of the kingdoms of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Shang China, the Aztecs, Maya, Inca, and the Yoruba: “Ascertaining the will of the gods through reading omens and practicing divination was highly elaborated in all the early civilizations.” The ubiquity of these beliefs and practices, and their association with powerful and long-lasting regimes, hints towards a functional component, particularly in the domain of warfare.

Rituals play an important role in warfare across numerous societies, as anthropologist Luke Glowacki notes in a recent commentary on the cultural evolution of war rituals. Glowacki writes that,

Although cultural systems contribute to incentivizing participation [in warfare] (Glowacki & Wrangham 2013; Zefferman & Mathew 2015), humans also adopt superstitious beliefs and behaviors to overcome anxiety and fear and increase self-confidence. Warriors in numerous societies carry amulets or use drugs and alcohol to mitigate fear (Goldschmidt 1994). With astonishing frequency, many of these interventions purport to make enemies unable to see or harm the warrior.

Importantly, such beliefs and practices can reduce the perceived cost of engaging in warfare. If you believe you cannot be harmed by conventional means you may be less hesitant about participating in a raid on a rival group.

Related to the practice of rituals that reduce fear, omens and prophecy can fulfill a similar function. The uncertainty of conflict is reduced substantially if one can foretell the outcome. Across many societies, dreams, the movement of animals, the position of stars, and the proclamations of prophets were believed to offer tantalizing hints of a momentous future.

Anthropologist George Murdock, who helped compile many of the large cross-cultural databases still in use today, such as the Ethnographic Atlas and the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample, provides multiple examples across societies where omens and visions had an important role in the practice of warfare. Murdock writes that in native Samoa, before battle:

A feast is held, and the village gods are consulted by divination. If the auspices seem favorable, the war party starts out; it returns immediately, however, if any bad omen, like the squeaking of rats, is observed... By observing the behavior of the animal incarnations of the war gods, the success or failure of a military expedition can be predicted. If, for example, an owl, heron, kingfisher, or other fetish bird of a war god flies ahead of an advancing party, it is an omen of victory; if, however, it flies across the path or toward the rear, it is a bad omen, and the party immediately retreats (Murdock 81).

Often, the insight of specialized professionals is required to interpret or act on an omen. Among the Crow American Indians, Murdock writes that, “Any man may organize a war party. But he must first have a vision, or else purchase medicine and receive the details of a vision from a war shaman”. Murdock also notes that among the Haida hunter-fisher-gatherers of British Colombia, a shaman would always accompany war expeditions to read omens.

A ritual or divinatory specialist who plays a prominent role in preparing for battle is found in many societies. Anthropologists Mathies Osterle and Michael Bollig write of the importance of prophets in war planning among Pokot pastoralists of Kenya, “Before the men congregate in a huge final ritual (kokwö luk)…[they] consult a prophet (werkoyon), a ritual specialist who forecasts future events on the basis of his dreams. Only if his visions for the attack are promising will the raid go ahead.”

Among the Mursi pastoralists of Ethiopia, men with divinatory skills examine the intestines of a stock animal to predict the location and severity of future battles. Like the Samoan societies mentioned above, the flight patterns of specific birds are believed to convey information about upcoming battles. Anthropologist David Turton writes;

It is a common occurrence during the dry season for warnings to be sent to the cattle camps from the Omo by older men who “know about birds”, warnings which certainly have the effect of increasing the vigilance of the herders, and, in particular, of persuading them to engage in the irksome and generally unpopular task of scouting in the Mago Valley.

 The intestines of a stock animal are examined during Mursi divination. From ‘War, Peace and Mursi Identity’ (1979) by David Turton.

The intestines of a stock animal are examined during Mursi divination. From ‘War, Peace and Mursi Identity’ (1979) by David Turton.

The way the bird omens are responded to by Mursi men, with their increased vigilance and scouting patrols, indicates how such beliefs may promote collective action in socially important domains, such as defense in war. Absent the increased threat hinted at by the omen, men may be more inclined to shirk on scouting duty.

When it comes to the professional prophets and seers, we might expect them to be particularly perceptive individuals—or, perhaps in some cases, persuasive charlatans—with a keen ability to anticipate future events. While repeated false predictions risk a loss of credibility or faith in the omens themselves, the literal accuracy of individual predictions is less important than their ability to induce confidence in potential recruits, increasing participation and a willingness of—perhaps unwitting—self-sacrifice on the part of warriors.

In her work on the kingdom of Buganda in Uganda, anthropologist Lucy Mair describes the organizational role played by prophets and prophecy in assembling for battle. Mair writes that,

The one activity in which magic exercised a positive organizing force was warfare…[I]n the conduct of the war itself the prophet played a more influential part than the general. But it was not only over the course of the actual fighting that they predominated. The time and place of the war, the selection of the general, and probably also the districts whose inhabitants were to stay at home “to guard the king”, were decided by them in answer to inquiries.

The proclamations of prophets can also have significant propaganda value to affirm existing rulership and promise future success in conquest. Apolo Kagwa, former prime minister of the kingdom of Buganda, describes the grandiose assurances given to the new king by his obsequious priests,

Finally the king asked Kinyoro to ask all the gods to prophecy for him. The priests were brought and stood before the king. They said. “You will live longer than all the other kings. You will be the father and all your subjects will love you dearly. Love the gods. They will defend your cause. Love your kingdom and be just. You will be more prosperous than the other kings and whenever you wage war you will win.” This was the introduction of the prophets to the king. They were all given gifts and then the king left for Nakere’s for the final ceremonies.

A similar history can be found in classical Greece. Plutarch describes Alexander the Great hectoring the Oracle at Delphi until she proclaims him invincible. Afterwards, Plutarch writes that, “Alexander taking hold of what she spoke, declared he had received such an answer as he wished for, and that it was needless to consult the god any further.”

While omens and prophecies do seem to provide some social functions, they also likely come with a cost. The use of divination in making important policy or military decisions can—at least in some cases—compound uncertainty, lead to contradictory decision making, and promote an undue focus on details unrelated to making informed choices on the battlefield.

For example, classicist William Kendrick Pritchett notes in The Greek State at War (1974) that Spartan military decisions were not infrequently influenced by the capricious and contradictory whims of the gods. Pritchett writes that,

it is not difficult to find examples where an unsatisfactory omen held back [an expedition]... The project of erecting a fort on the Argive frontier in 388 B.C. was abandoned in consequence of unfavorable [sacrificial omens]. Moreover, there are three examples in Thucydides (5.54.2, 5.55.3, and 5.116) where the Spartans abandoned proposed military expeditions because the sacrifices were not right (Pritchett 113).

While this devotion to omens might seem unproductive, the fifth century BC Greek philosopher Xenophon offers a strong case for why omens should be taken seriously enough to inform decisions in times of war:

If anyone is surprised that I have so often prescribed that one should act 'with the gods', it is certain that he will be less surprised if he often comes into danger, and if he realizes that in a war enemies plot against one another but seldom know whether these plots are well-laid. It is impossible to find any other advisers in such matters except the gods. They know everything, and give signs to those they wish to through sacrifices, birds of omen, voices and dreams.

The explanation given by Xenophon points to the role of omens in dealing with uncertainty. The decision-making process in the ‘fog of war’ can be so chaotic that giving credence to the ambiguous whispers of the gods may not always harm—and in some circumstances perhaps improve—the outcome of conflict.

At the same time, the practice of interpreting omens can come with significant flexibility. Spartan kings seem to have had considerable latitude in the decision-making process, and may have sometimes used omens as a way of selectively confirming decisions that were already made. As historian Robert Parker writes in his work on Spartan religion,

Above all, if the omens from a first sacrifice were discouraging, it was the king's decision whether to perform it again in hope of something better or to abandon the enterprise. Unless there were unusually strict restrictions on the repetition of crossing-sacrifices, they would always have come right in the end for a sufficiently determined leader. Divination, therefore, left room for manoeuvre even to the pious. What mattered above all was the king's strength of will and confidence in his cause… If, therefore, a plan or expedition was abandoned because of the lesser obstacle of discouraging sacrifices, the king must either have been unusually timorous, or have felt genuine doubt whether the proposed action was wise (Parker 203).

In a recent paper illustrating how introducing some (but not too much) randomness in a network of people can actually improve coordination, sociologists Hirokazu Shirado and Nicholas Christakis describe some of the beneficial aspects of having some noise within complex systems;

Prior theoretical work has suggested a surprising, even paradoxical, solution to the coordination problem: adding “noise.”1315 Noise is usually defined as meaningless information, and it is often seen as problematic16. When it comes to optimization, however, noise can help a system to reach a global optimum. For example, mutation has an essential role in evolution17; error can facilitate search for information18; random fish schooling may enhance survival19; and cooperation may benefit from deviant behavior7

Similarly, economist Peter Leeson’s paper on oracles demonstrates how randomizing strategies that manage to coordinate individuals’ choices (through their acceptance of the oracles decision) can help solve ‘low grade’ interpersonal conflict. Analogously, perhaps the divine assurances of omens and prophecies help coordinate activity in war, where otherwise participants may have been more hesitant to join, or scattered in the midst battle.

In addition to acting as focal points for coordination, omens and prophecies can reduce the perceived risk of engaging in conflict, embolden participants in warfare, and confer increased legitimacy to existing rulers. While the amount of noise induced by giving undue credence to omens may lead to suboptimal decision making, in some circumstances—perhaps when access to information is quite poor, as in the ‘fog of war’—the randomness effect might in fact prove beneficial.

Forbidden Utterances: Naming the Dead

All societies know grief, though how they handle it can vary significantly. One notable manner in which some cultures deal with the death of a member of their community is through name taboos; where the name of the deceased is forbidden from being spoken.

As anthropologists Lyle Steadman and Craig Palmer wrote in The Supernatural and Natural Selection (2008), “prohibitions on saying the name of a dead person, especially in front of his or her relatives, are fairly widespread.” Anthropologist James Frazer wrote that across Australian aboriginal societies, “to name aloud one who has departed this life would be a gross violation of their most sacred prejudices, and they carefully abstain from it.” Frazer adds that, “A similar reluctance to mention the names of the dead is reported of peoples so widely separated from each other as the Samoyeds of Siberia and the Todas of Southern India; the Mongols of Tartary and the Tuaregs of the Sahara; the Ainos of Japan and the Akamba and Nandi of Eastern Africa; the Tinguianes of the Philippines and the inhabitants of the Nicobar Islands, of Borneo, of Madagascar, and of Tasmania.”

Ethnographer Stephen Powers wrote of the Tolowa tribe of California that, “The Tolowa share in the superstitious reverence for the memory of the dead which is common to the Northern California tribes. When I asked the chief, Takhokolli, to tell me the Indian words for “father”, “mother”, and certain others similar, he shook his head mournfully and said, “All dead, all dead; no good”. They are forbidden to mention the names of the dead, as it is a deadly insult to the relatives; and this poor aboriginal could not distinguish between the proper names and the substantives which denote those relations [ed: Possibly this is a case of miscommunication rather than an inability on the part of the chief to understand the difference between the name and the category].”

Among Australian aboriginal societies in the western district of Victoria, pieces of land were named after the family or individuals that were considered to own them, and the existence of the name taboo affected how the land was described after its owner died. James Dawson wrote that, “Should a family die out without leaving 'flesh relatives' of any degree, the chief divides the land among the contiguous families after the lapse of one year from the death of the last survivor. During that period the name of the property, being the same as the name of its last owner, is never mentioned...”

The name taboo can radically change communication after the death of an individual, particularly a prominent one, or one whose name is similar to everyday objects. Among the Apaches, anthropologist Morris Opler wrote that, “There is, first of all, a strong taboo against mentioning the name of the deceased. If it becomes necessary, for any reason, to mention his name, a phrase meaning “who used to be called” must be added.” Opler adds that, “In cases of the death of prominent men who have been named after some object or animal, that animal or object is given an alternative name or another.” And further that, “Ordinarily the names of all the children are changed when a death occurs in a family. The reason given is that the deceased called the children by these names and to repeat them now would be to evoke painful memories of the one who is gone.”

Violations of name taboos can be a significant source of conflict. Of the Apaches, Opler wrote that, “In fact, nothing is more insulting, provocative, and certain to precipitate conflict than to call out the name of a dead man in the presence of his relative. A surprising number of feuds between families have had such an origin or include such an episode in their histories.” Opler describes one such example,

In the case of one feud which I recorded, a drunken man went to undue lengths to stir up trouble. For some time he abused the man who had aroused his anger, but without causing a conflict. Then he hit upon the sure method of shouting out the name of a deceased relative of his opponent. The other man had been earnestly trying to avoid a fight to this point. Instantly his attitude changed. “You did not have to say that!” was his reply, and he reached for his weapons. In the battle which followed seven men lost their lives, and the hate that was generated then persists among the descendants of the combatants to this day.

Opler also tells an Apache story of another violation of the name taboo which is almost Shakespearian in its element of poetic revenge:

The tale recounts how some Chiricahuas, led by a certain man, raided a group of Mescalero camps. Among the prisoners taken were an old woman and a young boy, her grandson. The old woman was a robust spirit who possessed a ready tongue. She proceeded to give her captors a sound lashing with it and singled out the leader for a number of uncomplimentary remarks. She succeeded in infuriating him and brought a death sentence to herself. Her grandson escaped and made his way back to his people. He swore that some day he would meet the murderer of his grandmother face to face. When he grew to a warrior’s estate he started out on his mission of revenge. He penetrated into Chiricahua territory and wandered from camp group to camp group seeking his enemy. Finally he found the camps which this man controlled. That night he sat in the tent of this chief and listened while many men told stories of their past exploits. He stayed until this chief recounted the story of the raid he had led upon the camps of the Mescaleros. Then the young man left and procured a lance. He entered the dwelling again. By this time the other men were leaving. The Mescalero waited until all were gone and he was alone with the chief.

“Won’t you tell the story of the raid on the Mescalero camps once more?” he asked.

The chief politely began his recital again. When he paused the young man asked, “And were any killed?”

“Yes, an old woman.”

“Do you remember what she was called?”

“Yes, I believe they called her -.”

The name was the last word he ever uttered. The Mescalero youth had deliberately led the Chiricahua chief to commit this foulest of insults, and when he heard the name of his dead grandmother, in the cold fury that possessed him, he sent the lance through the older man’s heart.

The name taboos can also cause significant difficulties for anthropologists attempting to collect genealogical data. Two extended examples are reproduced here. In 1934, Morris Opler wrote of his problems during field work among the Apache;

As a result of this taboo it proved extremely difficult for me to obtain reliable genealogical material. It was considerably easier to persuade Apaches to discuss and reveal rites and ceremonies than it was to bring them to the point of talking freely of the kinship ties which had existed between them and those now dead. After considerable effort I felt sure that I had obtained a very complete genealogy from one of my best informants. This was a man who went to some little trouble to provide me with ways and means of obtaining valuable ethnological material. Once when we were passing a certain locality my friend chanced to remark that he had formerly lived near-by. When I asked him why he had moved he became glum and silent. I learned later from other sources that a child of his had died there. No mention of that child appeared in the genealogy.

Another informant, so willing and precise that he would make me read back pages of notes to him if he suspected me of missing and omitting a detail, gave me what he assured me was his full genealogy. Later I had reason to believe that he had omitted mention of a maternal uncIe, a man who had been very close to him and could not easily have been forgotten. When I questioned my informant concerning this lapse he offered a perfect Apache explanation. The man was dead, he said. Moreover, he had died a horrible death. Under the circumstances how could one be expected to call his name?

Napoleon Chagnon also faced similar problems during his fieldwork among the Yanomami. Chagnon noted that the Yanomami “have very stringent name taboos and eschew mentioning the names of prominent living people was well as all deceased friends and relatives. They attempt to name people in such a way that when the person dies and they can no longer use his or her name, the loss of the word in their language is not inconvenient.”

Chagnon gives a fairly comical description of his attempt to collect genealogies of the Yanomami and how they responded to his attempts to get around their name taboos:

They reacted to this in a brilliant but devastating manner: They invented false names for everybody in the village and systematically learned them, freely revealing to me the “true” identities of everyone. I smugly thought I had cracked the system and enthusiastically constructed elaborate genealogies over a period of some five months. They enjoyed watching me learn their names and kinship relationships. I naively assumed that I would get the “truth” to each question and the best information by working in public. This set the stage for converting my serious project into an amusing hoax of the grandest proportions. Each “informant” would try to outdo his peers by inventing a name even more preposterous or ridiculous than what I had been given by someone earlier, the explanations for discrepancies being “Well, he has two names and this is the other one.” They even fabricated devilishly improbable genealogical relationships, such as someone being married to his grandmother, or worse yet, to his mother-in-law, a grotesque and horrifying prospect to the Yanomamö. I would collect the desired names and relationships by having my informant whisper the name of the person softly into my ear, noting that he or she was the parent of such and such or the child of such and such, and so on. Everyone who was observing my work would then insist that I repeat the name aloud, roaring in hysterical laughter as I clumsily pronounced the name, sometimes laughing until tears streamed down their faces. The “named” person would usually react with annoyance and hiss some untranslatable epithet at me, which served to reassure me that I had the “true” name. I conscientiously checked and rechecked the names and relationships with multiple informants, pleased to see the inconsistencies disappear as my genealogy sheets filled with those desirable little triangles and circles, thousands of them.

My anthropological bubble was burst when I visited a village about 10 hours’ walk to the southwest of Bisaasi-teri some five months after I had begun collecting genealogies on the Bisaasi-teri. I was chatting with the local headman of this village and happened to casually drop the name of the wife of the Bisaasi-teri headman. A stunned silence followed, and then a villagewide roar of uncontrollable laughter, choking, gasping, and howling followed. It seems that I thought the Bisaasi-teri headman was married to a woman named “hairy cunt.” It also seems that the Bisaasi-teri headman was called “long dong” and his brother “eagle shit.” The Bisaasi-teri headman had a son called “asshole” and a daughter called “fart breath.”

And so on. Blood welled up to my temples as I realized that I had nothing but nonsense to show for my five months of dedicated genealogical effort, and I had to throw away almost all the information I had collected on this the most basic set of data I had come there to get. I understood at that point why the Bisaasi-teri laughed so hard when they made me repeat the names of their covillagers, and why the “named” person would react with anger and annoyance as I pronounced his “name” aloud (Chagnon, 21).

To get around these issues, Chagnon ended up interviewing children, who could generally use names without being punished, and socially marginalized individuals, who may have been less wary of violating taboos, to get accurate genealogical information from them. Chagnon ended up receiving some criticism for this tactic.

A name is more than an arbitrary designation; over time its meaning becomes indelibly associated with the character of its owner.

Taking a wife

“Marriage is nominally by capture. The word “to marry” means also “to fetch” and “to catch.”” – D.F. Bleek, The Naron: A Bushman Tribe of the Central Kalahari, 1928.

One of the benefits of reading 19th and early 20th century ethnographic accounts is learning about cultural traditions that, in many cases, either no longer exist, or are not commonly discussed by present-day anthropologists. Headhunting, men’s cults, ritual mutilation, and infanticide are some topics that I have covered previously. Bride capture is another practice that is highly prevalent in early ethnography, but has not been the subject of much systematic investigation by anthropologists today, so I figure it warrants further attention.

Sociologist Nguyen Thi Van Hanh offers a useful definition of the practice, writing that, “Bride capture, or bride kidnapping (also known as marriage by capture or marriage by abduction), is a form of forced marriage in which the bride is kidnapped by the groom.”

One aspect of bride capture that may surprise many readers is how prevalent the practice was among hunter-gatherer societies in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In The Bushmen of South West Africa (1920), ethnographer Louis Fourie described bride capture during intergroup conflict, writing that, “Women are never killed intentionally during the course of these feuds but it not infrequently happens that when one group overwhelms another the women are made captive and taken in marriage.” In 1930, anthropologist Isaac Schapera noted the regional pattern, writing that, “Among the North-Western Bushmen girls taken in war or found trespassing are also often held as wives by their captors.”

In 1928, anthropologist Dorothea Bleek made note of the practice of bride capture among the Naron hunter-gatherers of the Central Kalahari, writing that, “The women said, a man seizes a girl of another village, and takes her to his village, and thereby she is married, whether she likes it or not. He comes with an older man just to pay a visit and sits chatting without mentioning his purpose. They look out for a good opportunity and carry the girl off. The Bridegroom keeps watch on his bride at first, till she settles down.” Bleek described one failed attempt at bride capture:

One day, the Bushmen had collected in front of the house to give exhibitions of dancing for the purpose of photography. At mid-day we made a short interval. On coming out again, we found that all the men had gone; and were told that the huts were on fire and they had gone to put it out. We could see no sign of smoke or fire in the direction of the huts, and by and by some of the men began to trickle back, said it had been a bush fire, no huts were in danger. Later, when I was a lone with the natives, I was told what had occurred. One of the women had been at the huts with her young daughter and two Auen men from the north had turned up and tried to carry off the girl as wife for one of them. The mother lighted a fire to summon her men to her assistance. They arrived in time, and after a verbal quarrel, the would-be wife-stealer retired (Bleek, 33).

In The Uttermost Part of the Earth (1948), explorer E. Lucas Bridges wrote about the Ona hunter-gatherers of Tierra del Fuego, noting that, “Most of the marriages I knew amongst those primitive people were brought about either by conquest or by abduction.” Bridges describes one such case, where three brothers named Koh, Kaniko, and Tisico, were massacred by a neighboring band that they had previously been on good terms with, specifically because some of the men from that band wanted their wives. After they were killed and their wives were taken, Bridges writes that,

The numerous widows had cut their hair in mourning, but if the funeral and wedding bells were not intermixed, there had been hardly a pause between one and the other. The women of a party vanquished in a battue [hunt] would have been unwise to refuse to follow their new husbands when those victors had “blood in their eyes.” The fear would soon subside; women captives were wooed and made much of, to prevent them from running away. When badly treated, women took the first opportunity to give their captors the slip, though, if they were caught by their new husbands before they could get back to their own people, they ran the risk of being soundly beaten or arrowed through the legs with arrows from which the barbs had been removed—generally. A wife of long standing, if she obstinately refused to do her husband’s will, was just as likely to be thrashed or arrowed (Bridges, 223).

Bridges indicates that one of the wives may not have been entirely displeased with the outcome, however, having previously been a lower status wife to an apparently unattractive man:

Halimink, who had already had one wife, had gained a second from the massacre just described. She had been one of the wives of Koh—the third, I imagine—and her name was Akukeyohn (Afraid of Fallen Logs). I have noticed Halimink, with a mischievous grin on his face, lay unnecessary stress on the word koh [Koh, in addition to being a name, means “bone”] when speaking to Akukeyohn. She would put on a vexed, but coy, expression. Her anger was obviously only skin deep, for Halimink was a good husband to his favourite wife, and Koh had been by no means attractive (Bridges, 223).

In some circumstances, the practice of bride capture seems to be at least partially voluntary, with the potential bride herself choosing her putative captor. Though, this sort of voluntary elopement, ostensibly by capture, can cause much friction between different groups. In Life Amongst the Native Race (1884), John T. Hinkins described how one such conflict between two Australian tribes was dealt with:

A blackfellow of the Murray tribe had stolen a lubra (i.e., woman) from the Goulbourn tribe, though quite with the lubra's consent. This created a great commotion among the two tribes, and such a scene took place as I never before witnessed, nor am I likely to see again. The chief and friends of the captive girl, who was remarkably pretty, came to demand her from the hands of her captor. A meeting took place between the two tribes on a plain not far distant from my hut, and, owing to the influence my child had over them, I was permitted to attend this gathering, as they had especially invited her to be present, and I had positively refused to let her go unless I accompanied her. On arriving at the plain we found that upwards of a hundred of the two tribes had met. They placed us in a good spot for seeing all that was going on amongst them. As far as I could understand their "yabber" (talk) it was decided that the young lubra was to be given up to her friends, unless the captor, her intended husband, could stand an "ordeal " of six of her friends—her nearest relatives—endeavouring to wound or even kill him by throwing a certain number of each of their war instruments at him. He was to use no weapons to defend himself against these attacks but a shield. This ordeal seems to have been customary with them on such occasions. Six able young men were chosen, and each of them was supplied with a certain number of "spears," "nulla nullas," a kind of club, "boomerangs," and other implements of war. The captor was to stand, as far as I could judge about fifty yards distant from the warriors, and these instruments were hurled at him one at a time by the six men. If he was either killed or wounded the young lubra was to return with her friends to her own tribe, but if by his dexterity her would-be husband was able to evade all their weapons he would then rightly claim her as his bride, and she would be delivered up to him accordingly. Prior to the contest this young fellow had completely smeared himself with opossum fat till he shone like a mirror. This was no doubt, as he thought, to cause the weapons to glide off from him and also to give suppleness to his limbs. A greater sight of agility and cleverness on the part of this young aboriginal I never witnessed. Every weapon was hurled at him with unerring aim, but he cleverly disposed of them all by turning them off with his shield, stooping down or stepping aside, lifting an arm or a leg, showing how good and steady his sight must have been. One "nulla nulla" was thrown with such force that it broke his shield, which was made from the bark of a tree. He was immediately supplied with another, for they would have scorned to take advantage of his undefended state, and then with the same success he avoided all the rest of the weapons that were cast at him, not receiving a single wound. There was a great shout raised for the victor, and he was allowed to carry off his prize, who seemed greatly pleased, for she had evidently been watching the scene anxiously. Indeed, all parties appeared completely satisfied, and her friends returned home (Hinkins, 68).

In other cases, however, the practice is described as being wholly coercive and violent. In 1798, David Collins, Lieutenant Governor of the Colony of New South Wales, which was the first European settlement in Australia, described the practice of capturing wives among some native hunter-gatherer societies in the region, writing that, “[wives] are, I believe, always selected from the women of a tribe different from that of the males…and with whom they are at enmity.” Collins offers an extended description of the practice:

Secrecy is necessarily observed, and the poor wretch is stolen upon in the absence of her protectors; being first stupified with blows, inflicted with clubs or wooden swords, on the head, back, and shoulders, every one of which is followed by a stream of blood, she is dragged through the woods by one arm, with a perseverance and violence that one might suppose would displace it from its socket; the lover, or rather the ravisher, is regardless of the stones or broken pieces of trees which may lie in his route, being anxious only to convey his prize in safety to his own party, where a scene ensues too shocking to relate. This outrage is not resented by the relations of the female, who only retaliate by a similar outrage when they find it in their power. This is so constantly the practice among them, that even the children make it a game or exercise; and I have often, on hearing the cries of the girls with whom they were playing, ran out of my house, thinking some murder was committed, but have found the whole party laughing at my mistake.

Collins adds that, “The women thus ravished become their wives, are incorporated into the tribe to which the husband belongs, and but seldom quit him for another. “

In Our Primitive Contemporaries (1934), anthropologist George Murdock, who helped create many of the cross-cultural databases we still use today, such as the Human Relations Area Files, the Ethnographic Atlas, and the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample, described many bride capture practices across societies all over the world. Murdock noted that:

Among Tasmanian hunter-gatherers, “When a man was of age to marry, he usually seized a women by stealth or force from another tribe. In other words, marriage was exogamous and by capture.” (pg. 9)

Among Aranda hunter-gatherers of Australia, “A man may take a wife -- from another man -- by capture, elopement, or magic. The capture of a woman from another group usually follows the murder of her husband in blood-revenge.” (pg. 38)

Of the Crow Native Americans, Murdock writes that, “The Crows often marry women captured from hostile tribes, and under certain circumstances the stealing of women is permitted even within the tribe. The approved mode of marriage, however, is by purchase." Murdock adds, however that, "Marriages are easily terminated.  A woman may desert a husband whom she dislikes, and a man may send away his wife for infidelity or incompatibility, or even for being “cranky.”” (pg. 274)

Among the Ganda farmers of Uganda, “Although wives may be obtained by inheritance, by gift from a superior or a subordinate, or by capture from the enemy in wartime, the most usual and honorable mode of marriage is by purchase.” (pg. 538)

Among Samoan horticulturalists, Murdock notes that during warfare, “Male prisoners are slain, unless held as hostages. Sometimes, as the acme of revenge, they are cooked and certain parts of their bodies eaten. Women, however, are usually spared and distributed among their captors.” (pg. 64)

Even where bride capture is no longer conducted, elements of the practice may continue in more symbolic or ritualized form. In describing the prevalence of bride capture in Indo-European history and literature, Ruth Katz Arabagian writes that, “Like the theme of cattle raiding, the theme of bride stealing in Indo-European heroic literature appears to reflect actual practice. It is noteworthy that this practice catches the imagination so powerfully that echoes of it persist in ritual even when the actual practice is no longer sanctioned by society.”

Richard Lee notes that among the Ju/’hoansi hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari, “The Ju/'hoansi marriage ceremony involves the mock forcible carrying of the girl from her parents' hut...In fact, the “normal” Ju marriage has many aspects of marriage-by-capture.” Even though they do not practice bride capture today, these ritualized elements may represent a holdover from a previously practiced tradition. This is speculative, but it would not be surprising considering how prevalent the practice was among other Bushmen societies in the Kalahari in the past.

In The Comanches: Lords of the South Plains (1952), anthropologist E. Adamson Hoebel writes that, among the Comanche, “It was a normal pattern for a man to take as wives the younger sister or sisters of his first wife and any women he might have captured or girls who grew up as captives in the tribe.” In addition, elements of the Comanche ritual Eagle Dance also show similarities with bride captures practices:

When the smoking was over, the leader arose and, followed closely by the dancers, sneaked silently to a near-by camp to “capture” a girl. Spectators remained some distance apart. In the old days the girl had to be a captive. The girl's family made a pretense of defending their camp against the attacking party, but the "victorious raiders" carried the "captured" girl to their own camp where preparations had been made for the remainder of the ceremony…During the dance, the warriors of the girl's people rushed up and made a sham attempt to recapture her. In actual practice they rushed in and recited some coups of their own…After the "failure" of the girl's relatives to recapture her, they brought in presents, which they deposited before her in a circle (Hoebel, 205).

Of course, the abduction of wives is not exclusive to small-scale societies of the past. Sociologist Nguyen Thi Van Hanh notes its existence in larger, historical and contemporary nations as well, writing that bride capture,

is practiced in the Caucasus region (e.g., Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia), in Central and Southeast Asia (Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, China, among the Hmong community in Vietnam, Laos, etc.), in some nations in Africa (e.g., Rwanda, Ethiopia, Kenya), in South America (Chile, Mexico),and among the Roma community in Europe. In all of these areas, bride capture may be practiced throughout the country but is most common in the rural areas and in ethnic minority communities. Normally, young girls (often under 25, even as young as 8–12-years-old in some cases) are victims of bride capture. Bride capture was widely practiced throughout history and continues to be in some parts of the world today.

   The Kidnapping of the Sabine Women   (1574–82) by Giambologna.

The Kidnapping of the Sabine Women (1574–82) by Giambologna.

In Albion’s Seed (1991), historian David Hackett Fischer mentions the practice of bride abductions among the border counties of Scotland, Ireland, and England, and how this practice continued when many ‘borderlanders’ came to America,

Marriage customs among the people of the backcountry also derived from border roots. An ancient practice on the British borders was the abduction of brides. In Scotland, Ireland and the English border counties, the old custom had been elaborately regulated through many centuries by ancient folk laws which required payment of "body price" and "honor price." Two types of abduction were recognized: voluntary abduction in which the bride went willingly but without her family's prior consent; and involuntary abduction in which she was taken by force. Both types of abduction were practiced as late as the eighteenth century. It was observed of the borderlands and Ulster during this period that “abductions, both 'under the impulse of passion and from motives of cupidity,' were frequent.”

The border custom of bridal abduction was introduced to the American backcountry. In North and South Carolina during the eighteenth century, petitioners complained to authorities that "their wives and daughters were carried captives" by rival clans (Fischer, 367).

Fischer also writes that, “Even future President of the United States Andrew Jackson took his wife by an act of voluntary abduction,” providing an extended description:

Rachel Donelson Robards was unhappily married to another man at the time. A series of complex quarrels followed, in which Rachel Robards made her own preferences clear, and Andrew Jackson threatened her husband Lewis Robards that he would “cut his ears out of his head.” Jackson was promptly arrested. But before the case came to trial the suitor turned on the husband, butcher knife in hand and chased him into the canebreak. Afterward, the complaint was dismissed because of the absence of the plaintiff--who was in fact running for his life from the defendant. Andrew Jackson thereupon took Rachel Robards for his own, claiming that she had been abandoned. She went with Jackson willingly enough; this was a clear case of voluntary abduction. But her departure caused a feud that continued for years (Fischer, 367).

To conclude, if you have read some of my previous articles: in particular, The Behavioral Ecology of Male Violence, On secret cults and male dominance, and my post on Yanomami warfare, the prevalence of bride capture practices across cultures should be wholly unsurprising to you. Further, the decline of these sort of practices in small-scale societies – why you don’t see them as often today – should be equally unsurprising if you’ve read my piece on The sad and violent history of ‘peaceful’ societies, and my post on The Complicated Legacy of Colonial Contact. If not, I’d recommend you check those pieces out, as I think they help flesh out the historical, evolutionary, and ecological logic behind the ebb and flow of bride capture practices, and other similar institutions.

The Cause of Illness

“Nowhere is the duality of natural and supernatural causes divided by a line so thin and intricate, yet, if carefully followed up, so well marked, decisive, and instructive, as in the two most fateful forces of human destiny: health and death…by far the most cases of illness and death are ascribed to [sorcery].” - Bronislaw Malinowski, Magic, Science, and Religion, 1925.

In The Afterlife is Where We Come From (2004), anthropologist Alma Gottlieb describes her fieldwork among the Beng farmers of West Africa. In this book, Gottlieb recounts her failure to persuade Beng villagers to boil their drinking water;

During our stays in Beng villages, Philip and I have always either boiled or filtered our own drinking water. To our dismay, our neighbors often derided our laborious efforts. One day we thought to explain our mysterious actions. The village had been experiencing an especially crippling outbreak of Guinea worm. After reading about the disease, Philip and I were convinced that polluted drinking water was the cause of our neighbors’ misery. We urged our friends to boil their water as protection against future infestation. But even our closest and most open-minded friends dismissed our suggestion with casual laughter.

“Can you see the worms in our water?” our friend Yacouba challenged us. We admitted we couldn’t.

“There’s nothing wrong with the water,” he insisted. “Anyway, even if the Guinea worms come to us through the water, they’re put there by witches.” Yacouba added emphatically, “Boiling the water wouldn’t stop the witches.” (Gottlieb, 189).

There are a few interesting elements to this passage.

First, there is the belief, common across cultures, that illness is due to witchcraft or sorcery. I discussed this in my last blog post, where I wrote that,

Sorcery beliefs can be used to understand the world, seeking out causes of uncertain events, and may [also] be embraced by self-interested parties to scapegoat enemies and promote collective violence. Functioning as a legal system, a practical tool of manipulation and control, a social philosophy, and a conceptual framework for understanding the world, sorcery beliefs have been a fundamental component of human societies the world over.

Second, while Yocouba’s position may seem absurd to many educated Westerners, his logic seems to me no less sound than that of Gottlieb. Gottlieb posits invisible worms causing disease in the water, while Yocouba posits invisible magic causing the sickness. In both cases, each of them are working from the body of knowledge they have inherited from their society. Further, in his objection to Gottlieb’s assertion that worms are causing the disease outbreak, Yocouba is making a distinction between levels of causation that, in many cases, is quite an important one. Namely that, even if it’s true that worms are causing the disease outbreak, that would only be the proximate cause, in contrast to what he asserts is the ultimate cause: withcraft.

Now, obviously we know that Gottlieb’s explanation comes from centuries of empirical work demonstrating the existence of disease causing parasites, but the point is, no less than Yocouba’s sorcery beliefs, Gottlieb (and us) have inherited this knowledge, not generated it independently.

In other words, it is not that Gottlieb’s logic here is superior to that of Yocouba’s, it’s that the body of knowledge she has inherited was generated through the rigors of the scientific method. It is information that we are fortunate indeed to have inherited, and that none of us could have come up with on our own. As anthropologists Robert Boyd, Joseph Henrich, and Peter Richerson write in ‘The cultural evolution of technology’ (2013);

Isaac Newton remarked that if he saw farther it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants. For most innovations in most places at most times in human history, innovators are really midgets standing on the shoulders of a vast pyramid of other midgets. Historians of technology believe that even in the modern world the evolution of artifacts is typically gradual, with many small changes, often in the wrong direction. Nonetheless, highly complex adaptations arise by cultural evolution even though no single innovator contributes more than a small portion of the total.

The third and final element of Gottlieb’s anecdote that I find interesting is the dilemma anthropologists face in trying to ‘change’ the culture they study. There are obvious and sad public health implications to the refusal of Yocouba and other Beng villagers to boil their water, and the difficulties of persuasion in this kind of context can come at a severe cost to the population in question. I think a comparable issue in the United States would be opposition to vaccines.

Persuasion is more than simply being right; you have to understand the attitudes and social contexts people’s beliefs come from (and even when you do have such knowledge, it may not be enough, as we can see with Dr. Gottlieb's difficulties among the Beng). As psychologists Michele J. Gelfand and Joshua Conrad Jackson write, “many studies have shown that people often rely on intersubjective consensus to a greater extent than objective information.” One of main virtues of the scientific method is the manner of subjecting the intersubjective consensus to falsification, with ideas continuously tested and retested, which has led to a more accurate understanding of the causes of death and disease. As I wrote in my last article at Quillette, you can see this reflected in the substantial decline in infant and child mortality throughout the world over the last few decades, due in no small part to the expansion of vaccinations and effective sanitation practices.

The knowledge passed down to us that provides us with a more accurate picture of the causes of sickness came about through a cultural evolutionary process that we are the fortunate beneficiaries of.

The Social Dynamics of Sorcery

“The difference between sacrificial and nonsacrificial violence is anything but exact; it is even arbitrary. At times the difference threatens to disappear entirely.” - René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 1972

Strategically deployed, the rumor represents one of the most powerful weapons that can be utilized in interpersonal conflict. The strength of an accusation lies primarily in the persuasiveness of the speaker, the repugnance of the charge attributed to the accused, and the willingness to believe on the part of the listeners. Malicious gossip is a cudgel wielded collectively, and in societies where sorcery beliefs are deeply ingrained, it can function as an instrument that stimulates communal punishment.  

Humans are rapacious creatures, and our demand for information is most satisfied by salaciousness and intrigue.

  Pirai, a  kanaimà’san , also known as a “dark shaman” or killer shaman. From  Dark Shamans: Kanaimà and the Poetics of Violent Death  (2002) by Neil Whitehead.

Pirai, a kanaimà’san, also known as a “dark shaman” or killer shaman. From Dark Shamans: Kanaimà and the Poetics of Violent Death (2002) by Neil Whitehead.

The sorcerer is a contradictory figure. He may be a dreaded and feared warrior, or a scapegoated loner, marginalized and despised. Among the Ilahita Arapesh horticulturalists of New Guinea, a man named Asao reveled in his status as a magician of great power. In the book The Cassowary’s Revenge (1997), anthropologist Donald Tuzin writes,

During my first fieldwork, Asao was the scariest man in the village – a sagguma, and proud of it. People would have openly despised him, only it was too dangerous to do so. It was safer to fear him, and that they certainly did…Sangguma [sorcerers] are said to acquire ghostly powers by mastering magical skills, submitting to harsh bodily disciplines, and drinking the fluids of a rotting corpse. Asao did not simply admit to all of this, he boasted of it. Animal familiars (mostly night birds) spied for him and brought him news of distant places. Asao claimed the ability to fly and to make himself invisible. With ostentatious glee, he told of participating in attacks (sangguma usually work in teams of two or three) on selected victims…Occasionally, he would be mysteriously absent for days or weeks at a time, presumably in retreat to purify his magical powers or on commission to stalk and attack someone in another, possibly distant, place (Tuzin, 57).

Tuzin adds that, “It was apparent that Asao liked being feared, liked being outrageous, liked being thought of as a scoundrel and a ghoul.” Sorcery for Asao was a practice he oriented his entire identity around, and it represented an integral part of the high degree of social status he received. Yet this public recognition came at a price;

Asao's baleful reputation carried social costs. With his three wives and two children, he lived in a bleak, unshaded camp thirty minutes' walk from the community in the village would have him. Asao was a pariah. Even his own kinsmen did not like to have this golem around, living and lurking nearby...his complicity as a sorcerer was suspected in nearly every adult death… reviled and respected at the same time, Asao was viewed as a kind of public executioner (Tuzin, 58).

Anthropologist Adolphus Peter Elkin writes that across a number of Australian aboriginal societies, “to have a reputation for successful sorcery is to be a marked man. Such a man knows that sooner or later he will be designated the "murderer" of some person or other, and that either magical retaliation will be taken or else a revenge expedition will be sent to kill him.”

So, what is a sorcerer? A sorcerer is a – real or perceived – violator of norms of conduct. Such atypical behaviors often entail great risk. One who transgresses taboos that are not particularly esteemed, or that indicate one’s impressive abilities, can gain greater status and prestige, while those who infringe on regulations widely considered legitimate earn the enmity of kith and kin. This is the paradox at the heart of sorcery – the sorcerer seizes power or inadvertently orchestrates his own demise, on occasion performing each concurrently.

In Marcel Mauss’s work A General Theory of Magic (1902), he expands on the relationship between having high status and utilizing magic or sorcery, writing that,

Among the Australian Arunta, the chief of the local totemic group, its master of ceremonies, is at the same time a sorcerer. In New Guinea, most influential members of society are magicians; there are grounds for believing that throughout Melanesia, the chief – an individual who possess mana, that is, spiritual force – is endowed with magical as well as religious powers. It is no doubt for the same reasons that the mythical princes in the epic poetry of the Hindus and Celts were said to possess magical attributes (Mauss, 47).

In ‘The cultural evolution of shamanism’ (2017), anthropologist Manvir Singh notes how becoming a shaman can affect an individual’s social status, writing that, “Becoming a shaman provided a way for low-status individuals to attain prestige, such as in some hierarchical societies of the Pacific Northwest, while in other instances, shamans were regarded as attractive sexual partners.”

When it comes to distinguishing between practices that have been variously referred to as ‘sorcery’, ‘witchcraft’, ‘magic’, or ‘shamanism’, there is no widely agreed upon typology among anthropologists. In Witchcraft, Sorcery, Rumors and Gossip (2003), anthropologists Pamela J. Stewart and Andrew Strathern write that, “In principle…a distinction can be made between witchcraft as the expression of a malign power in a person’s body and sorcery as the use of a magical craft or knowledge to harm or benefit others. Especially, what is labeled witchcraft is often seen as a consuming force. The witch eats the life power of the victim.” Yet these differences are often not so clear. They add that, “in fact, people’s ways of putting ideas and practices together outrun any neat distinctions we may wish to make. Often what one writer translates as “sorcery” may look like “witchcraft” to another observer, depending on what features are emphasized.”

In the volume In Darkness and Sorcery: The Anthropology of Assault Sorcery and Witchcraft in Amazonia (2004), anthropologist Carlos Fausto notes that, “We know that one of the shaman’s functions is to favor hunting and warfare expeditions. We also know that shamans are held capable of magically killing their adversaries and that many Amazonian people do not clearly differentiate the shaman from the witch.” Singh adds that, in many societies, shaman represent a professional class that may be somewhat distinct from the more informal recognition of a witch or sorcerer. However, shaman tap into some of the same belief systems, and may fulfill similar social roles as that of the sorcerer. In this sense, all shaman may be said to practice sorcery, but not all sorcerers are professionals in the shamanic sense.

As each of these terms were originally developed in the early days of anthropology, and were largely subject to the vagaries of individual ethnographers, I consider them all together as related phenomena here, focusing on the facets they tend have in common in the relevant ethnographic material.

There are, however, differences between types of sorcery, across and within societies, that are worth addressing. For example, anthropologist Bruce Knauft writes that the Gebusi forager-horticulturalists of New Guinea distinguished between two types of sorcery: “Bogay constitutes what ethnographers call “parcel sorcery”—sickness sent by manipulating a parcel of the victim’s leavings. By contrast, ogowili qualifies as “assault sorcery,” a cannibal attack by magical warriors.” These sort of societal distinctions are not uncommon. Sorcery in warfare tends to be the undertaking of men, while the more subtle shades of magical torment can be deployed by either sex.

While sorcery can be wielded by persons of high status in some societies or circumstances, accusations of sorcery can also be used to impose punishments on marginalized individuals. Among the Mundurucu horticulturalists of the Amazon, anthropologists Yolanda and Robert F. Murphey write that, “For a person to shirk group work bespeaks of alienation from others, a dangerous pose in a society that identifies sorcerers by their estrangement from their fellowman – and kills them for the crime of witchcraft.” Knauft says that, “Gebusi sorcery is a form of scapegoating. The identity of sorcerers is “confirmed” by elaborate spirit inquests and divinations. Male spirit mediums play a key role in Gebusi sorcery accusations.”

Sorcery beliefs can exist as a key component of interpersonal or intergroup conflict. Of the Azande farmers of north central Africa, anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard notes that, “Death is due to witchcraft and must be avenged. All other practices connected with witchcraft are epitomized in the action of vengeance.” For the Yanomami forager-horticulturalists of the Amazon, Napoleon Chagnon says that, “New wars usually develop when charges of sorcery are leveled against the members of a different group.”

Accusations of sorcery can be both a cause of, and response to, conflict. Stewart and Strathern note that, in many cases, “While the witch or sorcerer is seen as the source of evil or wrong doing, it is the accusers who can be seen as playing the aggressive role.” They add that, “Rumor and gossip form the substratum from which accusations of sorcery or witchcraft may be made.” While the sorcerer is ostensibly a figure of great power, the accusation itself can contain far more hostile magic, as it may impel the group to engage in violent sanctioning of the putative magician. In The Scapegoat (1986), anthropologist René Girard writes that, “Magical thought seeks “a significant cause on the level of social relations,” in other words a human being, a victim, a scapegoat.” Girard adds that, “Those who are suffering are not interested in natural causes. Only magic makes “corrective intervention" possible, and everyone eagerly seeks a magician who can put things right.”

Accusations of improper sorcery can be used tactically by individuals to punish those they’re in conflict with, or to benefit themselves. Knauft notes that, “The opinion of spirits during all-night séances has been especially influential for finding and interpreting “evidence” of sorcery. Though spirit mediums should be neutral parties, the outcome of the sorcery inquest may benefit the spirit medium who conducts them.” Knauft tells the story of a spirit medium named Swamin, who redirected sorcery suspicions away from an accused woman named Sialim, and months later took her as his wife. Swamin had previously identified Sialim’s own mother, Mokoyl, as the alleged sorcerer responsible for killing his first wife, and he executed Mokoyl himself.

Among the Gebusi, individuals from families who fail to follow socially prescribed marriage exchanges were often accused of sorcery. Knauft writes that, “In this sense sorcery homicide is ultimately about male control of marriageable women. However, these statistically significant factors are neither publicly nor privately recognized by Gebusi as a cause of homicide against sorcery suspects, even by the closest kin of those killed.” Anthropologists Neil Whitehead and Robin Wright also note the strategic element of sorcery allegations in the Amazon, writing that, “sorcery accusations may represent forms of discourse about tensions in intervillage and interethnic relations, and may be structured by the idiom of kinship (consanguinity and affinity) and village hierarchy.”

In their study of 800 households in rural southwestern China, anthropologist Ruth Mace and her colleagues found that households accused of practicing witchcraft were often excluded from mainstream social networks, and instead preferentially associated amongst themselves. Mace and her colleagues argue that this “stigmatization originally arose as a mechanism to harm female competitors.” Stewart and Strathern sum up many of the patterns identified here, writing that,

Claims and counterclaims about the activities of witches and sorcerers tend to exist in the background of community affairs in the societies where such ideas are held. They flourish in the shadows, fed by gossip and rumor, and emerge into public debate or accusations only in times of specific tension, most often following the actual sickness or death of someone in a prominent family. Notably, rumors follow the patterns of imputed jealousies, hostilities, and resentments that also keep mostly to the shadows or lurk in the background of social life, ready to reveal themselves in times of crisis. Or they swing into play at times of unusual or epidemic deaths that themselves cause panic and fear (Stewart & Strathern, 7).

Beyond self-interested social conflict, or misattributed suspicions against marginal figures, sorcery accusations can function as a component of a legal system used to punish criminals and known killers. In his work on Ifugao law, anthropologist Roy Franklin Barton describes one such case;

Atiwan of Longa acquired a reputation as a sorcerer. He killed several of his kinsmen in Baay. Even his relatives in Longa admitted that he was a sorcerer, and said that he ought to be killed. Ginnid of Baay and several companions went to Longa one night, and called to Atiwan that they had come to see him. He opened the house and put down the ladder. The party ascended, and set upon Atiwan with their war knives and killed him. In trying to protect him, his wife, Dinaon, was wounded. The killing was universally approved.

The concept of sorcery hits at core notions of power and punishment, community and ostracism, causation and chance; it offers a framework both for understanding the world and mediating social relationships. In his book on The Australian Aborigines (1964), Elkin writes that sorcery across Australian societies “arises from a belief that illness and death and even accidents are caused by magical or animistic actions.” Across the world, in South America, anthropologist Esther Jean Langdon concurs in the volume In Darkness and Sorcery: The Anthropology of Assault Sorcery and Witchcraft in Amazonia (2004), writing that,

one is struck by the shared images throughout these ethnographies associated with death and illness. Both are generally caused by aggressive activities and forces in the occult side of reality, whether they be instigated by humans or not. “Being eaten from the inside” is an extremely widespread image of illnesses that are attributed to invisible attacks. Putrid smells and other rotten qualities, particularly the stench of tobacco and blood, represent the decay of death as well as secret uncontrolled aggression (Whitehead, 308).

Fausto argues that Amazon shamanism is best understood as “predatory animism: subjectivity is attributed to human and nonhuman entities, with whom some people are capable of interacting verbally and establishing relationships of adoption or alliance, which permit them to act upon the world in order to cure, to fertilize, and to kill.”

  “When outcomes of uncertainty are controlled by invisible forces, cultural selection will favor individuals who claim special abilities of interacting with those forces.” Figure from ‘The cultural evolution of shamanism’ (2017) by Manvir Singh, published in  Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

“When outcomes of uncertainty are controlled by invisible forces, cultural selection will favor individuals who claim special abilities of interacting with those forces.” Figure from ‘The cultural evolution of shamanism’ (2017) by Manvir Singh, published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

The sorcerer is a paradox. At times both respected for their talent, and despised for their impropriety, they may be elevated by the community or punished and killed. Sorcery beliefs can be used to understand the world, seeking out causes of uncertain events, and may be embraced by self-interested parties to scapegoat enemies and promote collective violence. Functioning as a legal system, a practical tool of manipulation and control, a social philosophy, and a conceptual framework for understanding the world, sorcery beliefs have been a fundamental component of human societies the world over.

Sorcerers and their accusers are still among us, yet rather than fetishes and incantations, their weapons are often social networks and mass media. Take a recent case from the New York Times: An ornithologist collects a “ghost” bird seeking to learn its secrets, is accused of murdering a totemic animal, and is hit with counter-witchcraft advocating his elimination from society. In the aftermath, his fellow ornithologists vow to continue their activities with greater secrecy. This is modern sorcery, framed in terms more ostensibly moral than magical, but containing many of the elements of traditional sorcery—scapegoating, gossip, fear-mongering, rumors, ostracism, manipulation of information, reputational management, collective punishment. As Stewart and Strathern write, “even when particular notions of witchcraft or sorcery are not involved, rumor and gossip themselves may act as a kind of witchcraft, projecting guilt on others in ways that may cause them harm: for example, to lose their jobs, to be physically attacked, or to be socially shamed.”

Ritual mutilation, human consumption, and contemporary insulation

“Until you have used a sieve to find the finger bones of a newborn baby in ploughsoil it is hard to explain how small they are.” – Timothy Taylor, The Buried Soul – How Humans Invented Death, 2002

There are many dimensions of human behavior, and quite a few of them are unpleasant or inconceivable to modern, western eyes. One stares repulsed or uncomprehendingly at acts that likely would have been much more commonplace across cultures throughout our history. Consider the mourning practices of the Gebusi forager-horticulturalists of New Guinea. Anthropologist Bruce Knauft recounts the aftermath of the death of a man named Dugawe;

The following morning, Dugawe’s body was grossly bloated. His swollen limbs oozed corpse fluid, and his peeling skin exposed putrid yellowgreen flesh. His belly and even his genitals had swelled with the gases of decomposition. The stench was unforgettable; it burned up my nose, down my throat, and into my brain. Equally powerful were the actions of Dugawe’s female kin. With unearthly sobs, they draped themselves physically over the corpse, lovingly massaged its slime, and drew back its skin. They rubbed their arms and legs with the ooze of the body. Corpse fluid on one’s skin is a tangible sign of grief, of physical as well as emotional connection to the deceased—making one’s own body like the corpse. Seeing this, Dugawe’s departing soul was said to know how much they cared for him and ease his anger at having died, at least a little (Knauft, 51).

Knauft describes his own reaction to viewing this behavior; “Prior to fieldwork, the only dead body I had seen was the sedate face of a friend of my parents at an open-casket funeral. Now I was shocked and repulsed by the events surrounding Dugawe’s death. It seemed hideous that his corpse was allowed to decay and that our women friends wallowed in its stench.”

The Gebusi also previously had a practice of killing, cooking, and eating those suspected of committing sorcery. Knauft tells the story of a woman named Mokoyl, who was killed after being accused of sorcery, “Her body was summarily buried in the forest, but villagers from another settlement, knowing she had been killed as a sorceress, dug up and cooked and ate parts of the body before it decomposed. In doing so, they indicated their own support for the killing.”

Traditions of cannibalism often revolve around attempts to control the violent and unpredictable elements of life, as well as the afterlife. In Divine Hunger: Cannibalism as a Cultural System (1986), anthropologist Peggy Sanday writes that,

In many reports, the events associated with cannibalism refer not to hunger but to the physical control of chaos. For example, the victim is cast as the living metaphor for animality, chaos, and the powers of darkness - all those things people feel must be tamed, destroyed, or assimilated in the interest of an orderly social life. Cannibalism is then associated with a destructive power that must be propitiated or destroyed, and the act of propitiation or destruction is directly tied to social survival (Sanday, 6).

As anthropologists Kim Hill and Ana Magdalena Hurtado note of the Ypety Ache of Paraguay, after the death of a particularly hated individual, or if the death was especially violent, they “simply ate the cooked flesh of such cadavers and broke open the skulls to liberate the vengeful spirit rather than cremating the body completely.”

Anthropologist Fitz John Porter Poole described the funerary rites of the Bimin-Kuskusmin horticulturalists, also of New Guinea, writing that, "The wife of a deceased man, if she is still within her childbearing years, is expected to eat a tiny, raw fragment of flesh from her dead husband's penis.” Notably, however, there is good reason to think many Bimin-Kuskusmin themselves found these practices quite unpleasant. “Indeed, most Bimin-Kuskusmin consider this mortuary act to be particularly degrading and disgusting.” Poole considers – but does not necessarily endorse – the idea that “some expressions [of disgust towards these rituals] were shaped by the knowledge that Europeans (government officials and missionaries) were strongly against such practices.”

Other Bimin-Kuskusmin rituals also showed a strong connection to bodily fluids in ways that are largely incongruous with modern western sensibilities. Buried tubes of menstrual blood were used in ritual fertilization of crops considered to be "female" (cultivated by women), such as sweet potatoes. In taro gardens, which are cared for by men, “tubes of semen are placed there to strengthen the finiik spirit believed to inhabit the tubers.” Men of the Arunta foragers of Australia would drink some of each other’s blood under the belief that it would make them stronger and prevent treachery. Anthropologists Francis Gillen and Walter Spencer wrote that, “If [a man] refused to drink the blood, then, as actually happened in one case known to us, his mouth would be forced open and blood poured into it, which would have just the same binding influence as if the drinking had been a voluntary one.” Gillen and Spencer also discuss practices of treating sickness with blood, adding that,

When a woman is very ill and weak, one of her male Umba, to whom she is Mia alkulla – that is, he is the son of one of her younger sisters – may volunteer to strengthen her with his blood, in which case all the women and children are sent away from her. The man draws a quantity of blood from [his] sub-incised urethra, and she drinks part of it, while he rubs the remainder over her body, adding afterwards a coating of red ochre and grease. [italics added]

Beyond funerary cannibalism, and the particular attention given to viscera and bodily fluids in rituals and social practices, cultures the world over have practiced forms of extreme body modification. In Captain James Cook’s journals describing his voyage to the Polynesian Islands, he described the amputation practices of the people of Tonga;

When I first visited these islands, during my last voyage, I observed that many of the inhabitants had one or both of their little fingers cut off; and we could not then receive any satisfactory account of the reason of this mutilation. but we now learned, that this operation is performed when they labour under some grievous disease, and think themselves in danger of dying. They suppose, that the Deity will accept of the little finger, as a sort of sacrifice efficacious enough to procure the recovery of their health. They cut it off with one of their stone hatchets. There was scarcely one in ten of them whom we did not find thus mutilated, in one or both hands; which has a disagreeable effect, especially as they sometimes cut too close, that they encroach upon the bone of the hand which joins to the amputated finger (Cook, 403).

Among several Xhosa-speaking populations, there was another ritual mutilation practice involving fingers, known as ingqithi, which was described by the superintendent of a mission hospital in South Africa in 1964;

The ingqithi custom is a ritual mutilation among several Xhosa-speaking tribes, usually performed upon children of pre-school age, in which the last portion of one of the fingers is amputated. The word is derived from the verb ukuthi qithiqithi, which means “to separate”. Separation, anatomical as well as psychological, is an important element in this custom…The whole family witnesses the ceremony, no outsider being present…the mutilation is not medically an amputation, but an exarticulation. The joint between the middle and the distal phalanx is crossed, the knife not cutting the bone… Special attention is paid to concealing the amputated portion of the finger. A burial place is chosen in the wall of the hut, at the top of which a little hole is made, and the phalanx is wrapped in cow-dung and plastered into that hole. This secrecy is exercised to prevent witches or evil spirits from detecting the piece of finger, as this would be fatal to the child. People say that if witches found it, the wound could swell and become septic.

Among 677 patients at Dr. Jensen’s hospital in 1964, 225 (33 percent) had ingqithi.

In a previous article, I described numerous historical traditions of extracting and displaying human heads, both during warfare and for ritual purposes. Heads would be severed, either in war or after the death of a relative, then in some cases organs would be removed, parts would be eaten, the head would be treated with chemicals and stitched, or defleshed, and prominently displayed. Such traditions have existed all over the world.

Head-hunting, extreme body mutilation, sorcery killings, cannibalism, human sacrifice; these were very real components of many human societies throughout history.

  Heads taken by the Iban people of Borneo. From  The pagan tribes of Borneo  (1912) by Charles Hose

Heads taken by the Iban people of Borneo. From The pagan tribes of Borneo (1912) by Charles Hose

Anthropologist Timothy Taylor writes that the concept of ‘visceral insulation’ “describes the way in which the necessary specialization of the modern world screens or insulates people from 'visceral' things - bodies, blood, death screams, screams in in childbirth, excessive grieving…” He argues that this insulation has its genesis in the development of civilizations with substantial economic specialization;

Within civilizations, dirty and distressing jobs were delegated to people who could become habituated to them. The viscerally immersed specializations of slaughterers, tanners, butchers, embalmers, grave-diggers, and refuse collectors free others to become insulated enough to specialize in the arts and sciences. Without visceral insulation there would have been no Johann Sebastian Bach and no Marie Curie (Taylor 279).

Occupational specialization combined with modern infrastructure, sanitation systems, and medicine leads to most people in wealthy, industrialized societies – most of the time – having a degree of insulation from the violence, death, and disease that has been substantially more common throughout human history. Taylor adds that, “Visceral insulation, in prehistory and history, has led to the creation of a series of increasingly distinct and exclusive comfort zones.”

Being shielded from the violent, the horrifying, and the disgusting elements of life leads to a perspective of human existence that is fundamentally alien to the beliefs and social practices that have come before. Eating the body parts of a hated enemy or a loved one, collecting severed heads, cutting off fingers, or drinking the blood of a relative to cure a sickness, are behaviors that can only make sense among people familiar with the visceral. People who saw one-third of their children die in infancy, who had to regularly hunt, kill, and butcher animals themselves for food, where less than half of children made it to adulthood, and warfare was often fundamentally personal and endemic.

In sanitized environments, the visceral is kept hidden – and represents a much-maligned intruder – yet many cultures had to acclimate to its frequent appearance. If their practices seem strange, it is only because we inhabit societies that have been constructed precisely to shield us from this reality.

A Tale of Sorcery and Marriage Among the Gebusi

This post covers events described in the book The Gebusi: Lives Transformed in a Rainforest World (2016) by Bruce Knauft.


In 1980, while anthropologist Bruce Knauft was conducting fieldwork among the Gebusi forager-horticulturalists of New Guinea, a Gebusi man named Dugawe killed himself.

Knauft did not see the act, only its aftermath, and with other Gebusi individuals he went into the forest to inspect the body. When he arrived, he saw Dugawe’s wife, Sialim, weeping over Dugawe’s corpse. Knauft looked for signs of foul play, and wondered if the death may have been a murder disguised as a suicide. “But the only sign of struggle was a mark on the front of his faded T-shirt; something had poked and scratched down its fabric for a couple of inches.” However, nothing had pierced his skin.

After discussing it with the others, Knauft managed to piece together part of the story:

It turned out that Dugawe had fought earlier that day with his wife, Sialim. During the scuffle, she had held an arrow, thrust it toward him, and scratched his shirt. Their fight had been about a sexual affair that was generally acknowledged between Sialim and a young man, Sagawa. Publicly cuckolded, Dugawe had been furious. He had wanted to kill his wayward wife, and perhaps her lover as well. But Silap and others had discouraged him from doing this. Incensed but lacking other recourse, Dugawe had fought with his wife. He was further shamed by her scratching his shirt, his prized possession. When she went off to fetch water, the men said, he took tubes of poison he had previously made to kill fish in the stream and, in a fit of rage, drank them all. Empty tubes with the smell of the deadly toxin were found nearby. Dugawe had died a writhing death after poisoning himself in anger against his wife (Knauft, 49).

A number of Gebusi men lashed Dugawe’s body to a makeshift stretcher to carry him back to the village, with Knauft walking with them, and Sialim trailing behind. As they were walking through the forest, two women converged on them from another direction. Seeing Dugawe’s body, the two women began screaming and attacking Sialim. They were Dugawe’s extended “mothers”, not by blood, but through an important social kinship category. One of the women began hitting Sialim with the blunt side of a steel axe. She soon ended her attack and began sobbing over the body, while the other woman started shoving Sialim with a pointed stick. The men soon intervened and wrestled them both away, and then continued carrying the body to the village.

When they arrived at the village, they laid Dugawe’s body down in his family house. A crowd of women were waiting nearby and they began beating Sialim, who “could not run away without neglecting her duty to mourn her dead husband.” Knauft writes that, “Our neighbor, Owaya, emerged waving a firebrand in her face and shouted, “Si-nay!” [to Sialim]. I later learned this meant, “We’re going to cook and eat you!”—which is what Gebusi traditionally did to persons executed as sorcerers.”

Knauft goes in to more detail:

Only an hour later, a constable arrived from Nomad Station [the local center of government]. Silap and other men had taken the rare step of sending word to the Nomad Station about Dugawe’s death. Why? Apparently, villagers had worried that authorities might receive a different tale of Dugawe’s death from another source. After a long conversation through several interpreters, the constable finally wrote a brief entry in his police book: “Reason of death: Suicide caused by his wife fooling around.” Though the constable’s inquiry was completed, discussion about Sialim continued. Given the anger against her, it was decided that she should go with the officer back to Nomad and stay there for her own protection. The main events of the day were then over; the piercing wails of women haunted the night.

The Gebusi traditionally believed that all adult deaths were due to sorcery (I described some of the changes the Gebusi have recently undergone in a previous article for Quillette). As a consequence, a sorcery inquest was required to determine who ‘killed’ Dugawe, even though it seemed clear to Knauft that he had killed himself. The sorcery investigation would occur weeks after Dugawe’s death. In the interim, Knauft learned new information that substantially changed his perspective of Sialim and Dugawe:

by the time this sorcery investigation resumed, my opinion of Sialim had changed. At first, I thought she had acted irresponsibly. She had carried on a sexual affair with a young man named Sagawa, and she had apparently shamed her husband into killing himself. But additional facts painted a different picture. As Eileen [Knauft’s wife] found out from the women, Dugawe had previously killed not only his first wife but also his own small son. These murders had been so awful that villagers had informed the police, and Dugawe had served a five-year term at the Western Province prison. To my knowledge, no other Gebusi had ever been incarcerated there—or has been since. With his prison term over, Dugawe had returned to the Gebusi and married Sialim, who had recently been widowed by the death of Dugawe’s “brother.” Gebusi widows often end up marrying a clan brother of their dead husband. This custom is common in a range of societies; anthropologists call it marriage by “levirate.” Such marriages can keep a woman— her residence, her labor, and her children—within the clan of the deceased husband. Women themselves may desire this. Knowing Dugawe’s history, however, Sialim did not want to marry him. As newlyweds, they fought, and he frequently beat her. On one occasion, she showed her bruises to police at the Nomad Station, and, knowing his violent history, they put him in jail. While he was there, Sialim took up with Sagawa, her young lover. Perhaps she hoped her new relationship would become a de facto marriage. But Dugawe was discharged earlier than expected. Enraged, he wanted to kill Sialim and Sagawa. But Silap and other men persuaded him this would only give him a longer prison term than he had already endured. Amid this tension, Dugawe took up again with Sialim. But after their fight, he killed himself (Knauft, 53).

The sorcery inquisition was conducted five weeks after Dugawe’s death, and was led by the local spirit medium, a man named Swamin.

The spirits that Swamin conferred with apparently redirected the popular suspicion away from Sialim as culprit. “Rather than accuse Sialim, the spirits described how ogowili [sorcerer] warriors had descended on Dugawe from a distant settlement while Sialim was away fetching water.” Armed with this knowledge, the men searched the location where Dugawe died for evidence of this sorcery attack:

we searched for the magically transformed remains of the sorcerers’ attack. With Swamin’s spirits guiding us, we found an odd-looking stick that was said to be the “bush knife” that the sorcerers had used to cut Dugawe open. An indentation in the ground was the “footprint” of an ogowili. A discolored patch of dirt was Dugawe’s “blood,” which poured out during the attack. As incredulous as I was, the men around me seemed completely convinced (Knauft, 56).

Knauft adds that they tried to track the putative culprits back to their distant settlement, but, “Swamin’s spirits lost the trail as we waded up a stream. As such, we could not determine exactly where the sorcerers were from, or their identity. But the investigation did validate that Dugawe had been killed by an assault sorcerer from a distant village. It being impossible to discover more, no further action was taken.”

This was the end of the sorcery investigation, and it left Sialim in the clear. Over the next seven months, she spent more and more time with Swamin, the spirit medium who exonerated her. “Strong and robust for a middle-aged man, Swamin had been a widower.” Eventually, she consented to marry him, despite the objections of Sagawa, the young man she had an affair with. By the end of Knauft’s fieldwork, they seemed to be happily married…

However, more details are required to flesh out this story. A year before Knauft’s arrival, Swamin had killed Sialim’s own mother. Her mother, Mokoyl, was thought to be a sorcerer responsible for Swamin’s first wife’s death. l will end with Knauft’s description:

At the time, Mokoyl tried to prove her innocence by conducting a bird egg divination—cooking eggs placed inside a large mound of sago starch. Unfortunately, the eggs were badly undercooked. When Mokoyl had given Swamin one of the eggs to eat—as she was expected to do—he had vomited. This was taken as a sign that Swamin’s dead wife was clutching his throat, refusing Mokoyl’s food and confirming her guilt. A few weeks afterward, about a year before we began our fieldwork, Swamin tracked Mokoyl alone in the forest and split her skull with a bush knife. As the spiritual evidence had confirmed Mokoyl’s guilt, most in the community agreed she had been guilty and deserved to die. Her body was summarily buried in the forest, but villagers from another settlement, knowing she had been killed as a sorceress, dug up and cooked and ate parts of the body before it decomposed. In doing so, they indicated their own support for the killing. Government officers never discovered what happened.

The Human Penis is Remarkably Boring

In case you missed it, I wrote an article for Quillette critiquing the first episode (titled ‘Monogamy, explained’) of Vox’s new Netflix series. Author Christopher Ryan was featured in that video, and he provided a very civil and thoughtful reply to my article in the comments section at Quillette.


He makes two main points here that I think are worth engaging with further. The second one (communal caregiving among foragers), I will save for a later date, to focus narrowly here on the first.

The first point is in regard to the suite of features that Ryan argues testify “in support of ancestral promiscuity.” These being: “penis morphology, repeated thrusting movement, frequent non-reproductive sexual behavior, female multiple orgasm, female copulatory vocalization, etc.).”

Let’s consider penis morphology. I will quote at length the case Ryan makes regarding the uniqueness of the human penis in Sex at Dawn:

Despite its lack of curlicues, the human penis is not without interesting design features. Primate sexuality expert Alan Dixson writes, “In primates which live in family groups consisting of an adult pair plus offspring [such as gibbons] the male usually has a small and relatively unspecialized penis.” Say what you will about the human penis, but it ain’t small or unspecialized. Reproductive biologist Roger Short (real name) writes, “The great size of the erect human penis, in marked contrast to that of the Great Apes, makes one wonder what particular evolutionary forces have been at work.” Geoffrey Miller just comes out and says it: “Adult male humans have the longest, thickest, and most flexible penises of any living primate.” So there.

            Homo sapiens: the great ape with the great penis!

The unusual flared glans of the human penis forming the coronal ridge, combined with the repeated thrusting action characteristic of human intercourse—ranging anywhere from ten to five hundred thrusts per romantic interlude—creates a vacuum in the female’s reproductive tract. This vacuum pulls any previously deposited semen away from the ovum, thus aiding the sperm about to be sent into action. But wouldn’t this vacuum action also draw away a man’s own sperm? No, because upon ejaculation, the head of the penis shrinks in size before any loss of tumescence (stiffness) in the shaft, thus neutralizing the suction that might have pulled his own boys back. Very clever.

Intrepid researchers have demonstrated this process, known as semen displacement, using artificial semen made of cornstarch (the same recipe used to simulate exaggerated ejaculates in many pornographic films), latex vaginas, and artificial penises in a proper university laboratory setting. Professor Gordon G. Gallup and his team reported that more than 90 percent of the cornstarch mixture was displaced with just a single thrust of their lab penis. “We theorize that as a consequence of competition for paternity, human males evolved uniquely configured penises that function to displace semen from the vagina left by other males,” Gallup told BBC News Online. (Ryan, 234).

Broadly, we can break Ryan's argument down into a number of specific claims:

1) The human penis has “interesting [unique] design features,” it’s “specialized.”

2) The human penis is, among other virtues, the “longest…of any living primate.” (according to Geoffrey Miller, and quoted favorably by Ryan)

3) The flared glans of the human penis is “unusual” and that, according to Gordon G. Gallup, “as a consequence of competition for paternity, human males evolved uniquely configured penises that function to displace semen from the vagina left by other males.”

Now, Sex at Dawn was published in early 2010; however, in 2009, a book was published by primatologist Alan Dixson, who Ryan accurately describes as a “primate sexuality expert.” Ryan repeatedly quotes Dixson’s work from the late 1990’s and early 2000’s in Sex at Dawn, but I’m guessing Dixson’s 2009 book, Sexual Selection and the Origins of Human Mating Systems, was published too late for Ryan to integrate his insights from that work into his own, since it is not referenced.

This is unfortunate, because Dixson offers a pretty comprehensive breakdown for why each of these claims are likely mistaken.

First, the human penis actually seems to be comparatively quite dull in terms of “design features”. Here are illustrations from Dixson’s work on the penile morphology of various primates.


A-H are from primates which have polygynous mating systems, while I-N are from primates with multi-male/multi-female mating systems. As you can see, primates with polygynous mating systems have comparatively simple penises, much more similar to that of humans, compared to those of multi-male/multi-female mating primates.

To better compare primate penile complexity, Dixson created a rating system:

Ratings of penile complexity (length, distal complexity, size of baculum, and penile spines) show some consistent differences between these mating systems, as can be seen in Figure 3.22. Using a 5-point scale, each trait was rated for species representing forty-eight primate mate genera…Primates in which the females typically show multi-partner matings (multi-male/multi-female and dispersed mating systems) have significantly longer and distally more complex penes than representatives of polygynous or monogamous genera (Figure 3.22). They also tend to have longer bacula (when present) and larger penile spines, but these traits are more variable.


Regarding humans, “Human penile morphology is not exceptional when compared to that of the prosimians, monkeys, and apes. The overall rating for all four traits analysed is 10 for H. sapiens. This is the same rating as scored by a number of putatively monogamous or polygynous primates (e.g. Leontopithecus, Callimico, Erythrocebus, Theropithecus) and less than the ratings given to twenty-seven of the forty-eight primate genera included in the study.”

So in regard to penile morphology, humans are comfortably within the norm of monogamous and polygynous primates, and unlike multi-male/multi-female mating primates.

Next, let’s consider size. In Sex at Dawn, Ryan shows this graph:


The problem with this graph is that it compares erect human penises with flaccid bonobo, chimp, and gorilla penises. Dixson provides a table comparing erect and flaccid penis length between chimps, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans, and humans:


As you can see, when erect, human penis length is actually roughly the same as that of chimps and bonobos. Further, Dixson writes that, “The erect human penis is comparable in length to those of other primates, in relation to body size.”


So the human penis is not uniquely long: it is roughly the same length as that of chimps and bonobos, and it scales with body size to about the same degree as most other primates. Its size is not particularly impressive.

However, when considering its girth, the human penis might be at least somewhat unique. Dixson adds that, “Only its circumference is unusual when compared to the penes of other hominoids. However, even this comparison may not hold true for some primates, such as the spider monkeys (Ateles) which have large and thick penes.”

I can't find any comparative data on penis circumference, in Dixson's work or elsewhere, so this question has to be tabled. Dixson writes that, "No accurate data on penile circumferences are available for apes, or for the vast majority of primate species."

Nonetheless, even if the human penis is uniquely thick (which has yet to be demonstrated) there is no reason to think this has anything to do with sperm competition or "ancestral promiscuity".

Finally, what about Gallup’s ‘semen displacement’ hypothesis? Again, Dixson must disappoint. I will quote him at length here, but you can skip to the bolded parts to get the gist of his argument.

Gallup et al. (2003) tested Baker and Bellis's (1995) hypothesis concerning the 'plunger' action of the human glans penis in relation to sperm competition. They used models of human penes and vaginae to examine the putative effects of copulatory movements upon displacement of previously deposited (artificial) semen. Despite their contention that the large diameter of the human glans and its posterior margin (corona) represent adaptations to displace semen and provide an advantage in sperm competition, I can find no comparative evidence to support this view. A helmet or acorn-shaped glans is common amongst Old World monkeys, such as various colobines, macaques, baboons, mangabeys, and guenons, regardless of whether they have polygynous or multi-male/multi-female mating systems (see Figure 3.21 for examples). Gallup et al. stress that reduced length of the portion of the penile shaft covered by the prepuce (the pars intrapreputialis) in man is unusual, citing this as an adaptation to assist in removing semen from the vagina. However, this trait is shared by H. sapiens and the gorilla which, despite having a very small penis in relation to its body size, exhibits a distal morphology more similar to the human condition than is the case for other apes… The gorilla's genitalia are remarkably similar (in miniature) to the human condition. Among the African apes, the chimpanzee and the bonobo have the most specialized and derived penile morphologies. A glans penis is lacking, and distally the penis is filiform and contains a very small baculum (6.9 mm in P. troglodytes and 8.5 mm in P. paniscus)…The information presented thus far has, I hope, helped the reader to place earlier accounts of human penile morphology and that of apes and other primates in comparative perspective. A detailed argument has been made here because I believe it necessary to correct misunderstandings about the role of sexual selection and sperm competition in relation to the evolution of the human genitalia. It is highly unlikely that penile size or shape in human beings has been influenced by sexual selection via sperm competition…Nor is there any credible evidence that human penes evolved as plungers to displace semen deposited by previous males.

So the human glans penis is not actually unique, and is in fact very similar to that of numerous Old World Monkeys, and much of human penis morphology is actually quite similar (though larger) to that of gorillas (who have a polygynous mating system). In contrast, chimps and bonobos (with multi-male/multi-female mating systems) have a much more specialized penile morphology, and yet they lack the glans penis that Gallup (likely incorrectly) considers to be an adaptation for sperm competition (which is extreme among chimps and bonobos).

I’m afraid your dick is remarkably boring.

Now, I haven’t delved deeply in regards to the reasons for “frequent non-reproductive sexual behavior, female multiple orgasm, female copulatory vocalization, etc,” in humans, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and propose that for any argument that associates these behaviors with “ancestral promiscuity,” you could equally come up with a model that considers them to be adaptations for pair-bonding in humans. Or by-products of other features. I’ll look a bit more into it, though, and If I find anything notable I’ll do a follow up.

Otherwise, in part 2, I’ll address Ryan’s claims in Sex at Dawn, and in his reply to my article, about communal caregiving among foragers.

Yanomami Warfare: How Much Did Napoleon Chagnon Get Right?

“Since most lethal conflicts among the Yanomamö involve disputes over women at some point in the development of the dispute, the status of unokai [killers] by definition is intimately related to reproductive striving." - Napoleon Chagnon, The Yanomamo, 2012

One of the most acrimonious debates in anthropology over the last few decades revolves around patterns of warfare among the Yanomami forager-horticulturalists of the Amazon. What began as a contentious, but scholarly debate in the late 1980’s/1990’s became a frenzied conflict over a variety of incendiary claims made in the book Darkness in El Dorado (2000) by author Patrick Tierney. The book and subsequent media attention ended up derailing what was otherwise a fairly informative discussion addressing the nature of warfare among Yanomami, and how those insights can be applied to other small-scale societies. Rather than relitigating the controversy over Tierney’s book, I want to go back to the scholarly debate between anthropologists Napoleon Chagnon, and his main critic, R. Brian Ferguson.

Chagnon initially gained controversy for his ideas about violence and warfare among the Yanomami – and the potential application of these ideas to small-scale societies more generally – arguing that “homicide, blood revenge, and warfare are manifestations of individual conflicts of interest over material and reproductive resources.” In particular, Chagnon noted that Yanomami men who had killed had greater reproductive success than men who hadn’t. Ferguson contested this claim, arguing that, among other things, this effect is primarily driven by the fact that killers are more likely to be older (older males have more children), and more likely to be a ‘headman’ (headmen usually have more wives and more children).

Regarding his objection about the inclusion of headmen in Chagnon’s sample, this seems like Ferguson is advocating a preferred form of post-treatment bias, by wanting to statistically control for a variable in order to dilute the size of an effect associated with it. 12 of the 13 headmen in Chagnon’s sample were killers (the only non-killer had only recently obtained headman status). If being a killer is, for all practical purposes, a requirement to obtain or keep headman status, then removing headmen from your sample just obscures the way killing can be a pathway to greater power and reproductive success.

Warriors in small-scale societies gaining greater status and attention from women is a fairly common (though not universal) trend. I discussed aspects of this in two articles over at Quillette, and I also noted this pattern in my last blog post discussing head-hunting traditions across cultures. In some societies, to even be considered eligible for marriage a man had to collect a skull or skulls from members of rival societies.

 Table from 'The Role of Rewards in Motivating Participation in Simple Warfare' (2013) by Glowacki & Wrangham.

Table from 'The Role of Rewards in Motivating Participation in Simple Warfare' (2013) by Glowacki & Wrangham.

Two other objections Ferguson raised are worth mentioning. Ferguson noted that Chagnon could not account for dead men in his sample (maybe being a killer is associated with greater risk of death, and potentially worse reproductive success overall when including the dead, so only accounting for living men leaves you with a survivorship bias in your sample). This is a reasonable objection, although to my knowledge it hasn’t been adequately tested. It’s also not exactly fatal to Chagnon’s model; it would simply illustrate that being a killer, not unexpectedly, is a risky reproductive strategy, with potentially high-costs but large benefits for success. At larger social scales, you can see this with the examples of Ghengis Khan or Ismael the Bloodthirsty, that being a successful conqueror conferred some pretty substantial fitness benefits.

Although, as those examples show, political jockeying and developing coalitions of other men to be violent on your behalf, potentially reducing your own personal exposure to risky conflict when possible, is quite important, so the success of the headmen among the Yanomami is worth noting.

Further, we’d also expect some stabilizing selection for this type of aggressive behavior, as being indiscriminately violent, or conversely, being unable to defend yourself, are both unlikely to be particularly helpful strategies. Chagnon makes a related point in his reply to Ferguson, noting that, “Being excessively prone to lethal violence may not be an effective route to high reproductive success, but, statistically, men who engage in it with some moderation seem to do better reproductively than men who do not engage in it at all.”

This fits with anthropologist Luke Glowacki and primatologist Richard Wrangham’s work among the Nyangatom pastoralists of East Africa, where men who participated in more low-risk stealth raids had greater reproductive success, while men who participated in more high-risk large battle raids did not have greater reproductive success. Glowacki and Wrangham have also shown that intergroup violence in both chimpanzees and among nomadic hunter-gatherers is often undertaken tactically; aggressors are more likely to attack when they have a numerical advantage and can ambush outsiders who encroach on their territory. Indiscriminate use of violence is not favored, but the tactical use of violence can represent a genetically and/or culturally adaptive strategy. As Chagnon wrote regarding raiding parties among the Yanomami,

“The objective of the raid is to kill one or more of the enemy and flee without being discovered.”

Ferguson’s second objection is his argument that the influx of Western goods exacerbated Yanomami violence. This is difficult to test but it would not surprise me if it is true. The Salesian missions in the region distributed thousands of machetes and axes to the Yanomami, and due to unequal distribution and competition for highly valued Western goods such as these, it doesn’t seem unlikely that this may have increased rates of violent conflict.

Much of Ferguson’s work throughout his career has been devoted to reinforcing the point that initial contact with outsiders (particularly Western societies) can exacerbate small-scale warfare, even if ultimately colonial authorities eventually end tribal wars. I cited Ferguson favorably on this point in my Quillette article on colonial contact. This doesn’t mean societies like the Yanomami did not wage war in the past, of course, but it is certainly possible the scale and scope of their war practices were at the high end of its distribution when ethnographers like Chagnon visited them.

On the other hand, Ferguson makes a pretty severe error in attributing essentially all Yanomami conflict to competition over Western goods. While the Yanomami themselves often said their raids were due to revenge or access to women or witchcraft accusations, Ferguson refuses to believe this, attributing everything to basic material factors. I’ll have some posts coming out in the future on traditions of bride capture, revenge raids, and sorcery across cultures, but suffice to say here that these traditions are very common the world over, and generally can’t be attributed to Western influence.

I think Ferguson is missing a pretty big part of the picture here, which Chagnon has highlighted in his own ethnographic work. As Chagnon wrote in his book on the Yanomami, “New wars usually develop when charges of sorcery are leveled against the members of a different group. Once raiding has begun between two villages, however, the raiders all hope to acquire women if the circumstances are such that they can flee without being discovered.”

More controversially, Ferguson also has claimed that Chagnon himself (wittingly or not) exacerbated warfare among the Yanomami. The American Anthropological Association attempted to investigate this question in the aftermath of the publication of Darkness in El Dorado and were unable to come to a determination on this, although they did note an example of Chagnon participating in an attempt at a peace agreement between hostile villages, at great risk to himself.

Tentatively, here are some of my conclusions from this debate:

Successful warriors, among the Yanomami and elsewhere, often do reap social and fitness benefits. Although this is not always going to be true, and excessively, indiscriminately violent males are probably unlikely to do well. Context is important.

The hypothesis that the influx of Western goods contributed to some sort of increase in rates of violent conflict among the Yanomami seems plausible, in my view. How big of an increase I cannot say.

There is no evidence that Chagnon himself exacerbated violent conflict among the Yanomami. Chagnon did give gifts of machetes and pots and other Western goods to the Yanomami groups he studied, so it is, however, possible he may have contributed to the general problem of competition for Western goods. The scale of his gift-giving is dwarfed by the activities of the Salesian missions, however. Ferguson also agrees with this, and argues that the Salesian missions had a much greater impact on Yanomami violence than Chagnon.

I think Chagnon broadly got a lot right. Many of the factors that seem to stimulate violent conflict among the Yanomami revolve around cultural traditions that have been incredibly common the world over, and pre-date Western contact, such as wife capture raids, sorcery accusations and revenge attacks. On the other hand, it seems plausible to me that the influx of highly desired Western goods, and their unequal distribution, due in particular to the activities of the Salesian missions, would add a new contributing source of violent conflict. This contact pre-dated Chagnon’s arrival and continued while he was there. Further, the Yanomami were not small bands of mobile hunter-gatherers; they lived in relatively large villages (sometimes upwards of 400) and practiced horticulture, in addition to hunting and gathering.

While some patterns of Yanomami warfare are informative when considering many other small-scale, and potentially even ancestral, human societies (particularly in relation to wife-capture, sorcery allegations, and revenge raids, which have been documented among quite a few mobile hunter-gatherer groups) the comparison should not be taken too far.

There was an informative intellectual debate here, that ended up being buried beneath various fabricated accusations, egos, as well as the tragic outcomes for the Yanomami themselves.

Head in Hands: Notes on the Extraction and Display of Human Heads

“Removing the head of a victim, however repellent to Western sensibilities, was not simply an act of gloating triumphalism but was regarded as transferring certain spiritual or supernatural benefits to the head-taker.” – Ian Armit, Headhunting and the Body in Iron Age Europe, 2012

 Neolithic plastered skulls with shell pieces used as eyes,  in situ . From the paper 'The Plastered Skulls and Other PPNB Finds from Yiftahel, Lower Galilee (Israel)' by Milevski  et al.  (2014), published in  Plos One.

Neolithic plastered skulls with shell pieces used as eyes, in situ. From the paper 'The Plastered Skulls and Other PPNB Finds from Yiftahel, Lower Galilee (Israel)' by Milevski et al. (2014), published in Plos One.

Many scholars have remarked on the impressive size and abilities of the human brain, but few have understood the otherworldly allure of the human head. The head is the focal point of social interaction in life – its center of attention is communicated through its eyes, meaning is conveyed by its facial expressions, and language is emitted from its mouth, heard by its ears and interpreted by its brain. In death, it may be no less important; often functioning as an object of veneration or a trophy to be secured by the enemies of its owner.

Evidence for the removal and likely ritual use of human heads goes far back in human history. At the Late Pleistocene (130,000 years ago) Neanderthal site of Krapina in Croatia, the remains of a Neanderthal skull were found with 35 cut marks on the frontal bone. While other fossil material at the site show possible evidence of cannibalism, this skull is unique in that the cut marks are located on a region with very little muscle tissue, and the parallel cuts would not have been useful in removing the scalp, making cannibalism or defleshing unlikely explanations. Anthropologist David Frayer and his colleagues argue that these cut marks represent, “some type of symbolic, perimortem manipulation of the deceased.”

The remains of skulls with cut marks similarly lacking a utilitarian function have been found at the early Neolithic (11,000 – 12,000 years ago) site of Göbekli Tepe in southeast Turkey. Archaeologist Julia Gresky and her colleagues described this find in relation to evidence for the existence of similar ‘skull cults’ that have been found throughout the region, writing that;

In the Pre-Pottery Neolithic [9,000 – 11,600 years ago] of Southeast Anatolia and the Levant, there is an abundance of archaeological evidence for the special status assigned to the human skull: In addition to the deposition of skulls in special places, as attested by the “skull depot” at Tell Qaramel or the “skull building” at Çayönü, human skulls are also known to have been decorated, for example, where the soft tissue and facial features have been remodeled in plaster and/or color was applied to the bone.

Archaeological finds from all over the world attest to the enduring fascination humans have had with skulls. At Gough’s Cave in England, the remains of skull caps, plausibly used as drinking cups, were found dating back to about 15,000 years ago.

 Various archaeological and ethnographic examples of human bone modification. From the paper 'Modified human crania from Göbekli Tepe provide evidence for a new form of Neolithic skull cult' by Gresky  et al.  (2017), published in  Science.

Various archaeological and ethnographic examples of human bone modification. From the paper 'Modified human crania from Göbekli Tepe provide evidence for a new form of Neolithic skull cult' by Gresky et al. (2017), published in Science.

The earliest evidence for decapitation in the Americas goes back to about 9,000 years ago in Brazil, where a skull was found buried with amputated hands carefully laid over the face.

 9,000 year old skull with amputated hands placed over the face. From the paper 'The Oldest Case of Decapitation in the New World (Lapa do Santo, East-Central Brazil)' by Strauss  et al.  (2015), published in  Plos One

9,000 year old skull with amputated hands placed over the face. From the paper 'The Oldest Case of Decapitation in the New World (Lapa do Santo, East-Central Brazil)' by Strauss et al. (2015), published in Plos One

The practice of extracting the heads of enemies is also well-attested to among a diverse array of societies described in ancient literature. Decapitation is mentioned numerous times in the Bible, such as when David cut off the Philistine Goliath’s head, brought it back to Jerusalem, and showed it to King Saul (1 Samuel 17:54), which is later mirrored by the Philistines cutting off King Saul’s head and publicizing his death among their own people (1 Samuel 31:9). There is also the famous example of Salome’s demand to King Herod that he bring her the head of John the Baptist on a platter (Matthew 14:8).

  Salome with the Head of John the Baptist  (c. 1607) by Caravaggio

Salome with the Head of John the Baptist (c. 1607) by Caravaggio

Ancient Assyrian inscriptions contain numerous accounts of kings decapitating the heads of enemies. King Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 BC) boasted, “I gouged out the eyes of many troops. I made one pile of the living [and] one of heads. I hung their heads on trees around the city.” His son, King Shalmaneser III (859–824 BC) claimed, “I mustered (my) chariots and troops. I entered the pass of the land Simesi (and) captured the city Aridu, the fortified city of Ninnu. I erected a tower of heads in front of the city. I burned ten cities in its environs.”

 Wall decoration depicting Assyrian warriors carrying severed heads during the siege at Lachish (8th-7th century BC). From the British Museum; photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

Wall decoration depicting Assyrian warriors carrying severed heads during the siege at Lachish (8th-7th century BC). From the British Museum; photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

The Greco-Roman writer Plutarch described how the Parthians cut off the Roman soldier Publius’s head, attached it to a spear, and displayed it in front of his father, the Roman general Crassus. A Parthian soldier would later cut off Crassus’s own head, which was then brought to the Parthian King Hyrodes, while he was watching the play The Bacchae by Euripides, which itself contains a plot involving a decapitation and the display of a head.

The Greek writer Strabo, in his work Geography, described the practice of headhunting among the Celts, writing that;

In addition to their witlessness, there is also that custom, barbarous and exotic, which attends most of the northern tribes — I mean the fact that when they [the Celts] depart from the battle they hang the heads of their enemies from the necks of their horses, and, when they have brought them home, nail the spectacle to the entrances of their homes.

Celtic headhunting is particularly well-documented among classical sources.

 Table noting various classical sources that describe Celtic headhunting. From  Headhunting and the Body in Iron Age Europe  (2012), by Ian Armit.

Table noting various classical sources that describe Celtic headhunting. From Headhunting and the Body in Iron Age Europe (2012), by Ian Armit.

While many early archaeological finds point to unknown ritual use of human heads, much of the ancient literature described here involves more practical matters, such as cutting off the head of a hated enemy to offer proof of his death, or publicly displaying decapitated heads to humiliate or terrify rivals. Among more recently documented traditional societies, both the signalling function of headhunting in warfare, as well as the sacred role of the head in ritual life, were described by late nineteenth and early twentieth century ethnographers.

In 1922, anthropologist Ivor Evans described multiple reasons for head-hunting among various societies in Borneo, writing that;

The reasons for head-hunting among Bornean tribes in general seem to have been threefold: firstly, the practice was not without religious significance; secondly, it was considered a sport and the heads regarded as trophies; and thirdly, among some tribes no youth was considered fit to rank as a man until he had obtained a head, the women taunting those who had been unsuccessful as cowards. (Evans, 186)

A similar pattern was identified among societies on the island of Kiwai in New Guinea in 1903 by missionary James Chalmers, who wrote that, “When heads are brought home, the muscle behind the ear is given in sago to lads to eat that they may be strong…The skull is secured, and the more skulls, the greater the honour. No young man could marry, as no woman would have him, without skulls.”

In his volume on Head-hunters (1901), ethnologist Alfred Haddon wrote that, “There can be little doubt that one of the chief incentives to procure heads was to please the women.” In these societies, capturing the heads of enemies is associated with masculine virility, and a young man must seize the skulls of outsiders to be considered a viable partner for a young woman.

The collection and control of heads was considered a source of prestige and power in some societies. In 1896, anthropologist Henry Ling Roth wrote that among the Iban people of Borneo;

…the most valuable ornament in the ruai [veranda] by far is of course the bunch of human heads which hangs over the fireplace like a bunch of fruit; these are the heads obtained on various warpaths by various members of the family, dead and living, and are handed down from father to son as the most precious heir-looms… (Roth, 13)

In The Evolution of War (1929), sociologist Maurice R. Davie further stresses the relationship between headhunting and prestige, adding that, “In Borneo the possession of a large number of heads is also a qualification for the chieftainship, and certain feasts can only be held by a war leader who has been particularly successful against the enemy and has succeeded in taking many heads.” Davie describes a ceremony celebrating a successful headhunter among the Iban people of Borneo, recounting how;

the women, singing a monotonous chant, surround the hero who has killed the enemy and lead him to the house. He is seated in a place of honour, and the head [the trophy he has taken] is put on a brass tray before him, and all crowd around to hear his account of the battle, and how he succeeded in killing one of their foes and bringing home his head. (Davie, 52)

In the recent volume Emergent Warfare In Our Evolutionary Past (2018), anthropologists Nam. C. Kim and Marc Kissel describe a number of traditional headhunting practices, explaining the pattern commonly found across cultures; “For many societies, a warrior’s prestige or spiritual power could be increased depending on the reputation of a defeated adversary, and often the head served as a personal manifestation of that enemy. Such trophies could symbolize a warrior’s prowess and courage.”

 Ifugao warrior showing the heads he has taken from his enemies. From  The Head Hunters of Northern Luzon  (1912) by Cornelis Wilcox.

Ifugao warrior showing the heads he has taken from his enemies. From The Head Hunters of Northern Luzon (1912) by Cornelis Wilcox.

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.”

After extraction, heads were often treated to a range of modifications, primarily for long-term preservation or decoration.  In the volume Violence and Warfare among Hunter-Gatherers (2016), anthropologist Paul Roscoe described headhunting practices among New Guinea foragers, writing that, “Headhunting raids were sometimes overnight affairs, launched usually on foot, though occasionally by canoe. The heads were brought back to be modeled, painted, and stored as trophies to be used in future "ritual preparation for warfare.””

In 1894, missionary Philip Walsh described a complex treatment process for heads among the Maori, writing that;

All authorities agree in stating that the brain, tongue, eyes, and as much as possible of the flesh were carefully extracted; the various cavities of the skull, nostrils, &c., stuffed with dressed flax; and the skin of the neck drawn together like the mouth of a purse, an aperture being left large enough to admit the hand. The lips were sometimes stitched together, and the eyes were invariably closed, as the Maoris feared they would be bewitched (makutu) if they looked into the empty sockets. This was done by a couple of hairs attached to the upper lids, and tied together under the chin.* The head was then subjected to a steaming process, which was continued until all remains of fat and the natural juices had exuded. Rutherford states that this was done by wrapping it in green leaves, and submitting it to the heat, of the fire. Polack says it was steamed in a native oven similar to that used for food. Those seen by Mr. King were impaled on upright sticks set in open holes in the ground, which were kept supplied with hot stones from a fire close by, while the operator basted them with melted fat. Each of these processes would equally serve the purpose required. The next stage was a thorough desiccation, effected by alternate exposure to the rays of the sun and the fumes of a wood fire, of which the pyroligneous acid helped to preserve the tissues and protect them from the ravages of insects. A finishing touch was given by anointing the head with oil, and combing back the hair into a knot on the top, which was ornamented with feathers, those of the albatros being usually preferred. The work was then complete.

The extraction and display of heads is not always directly connected to violence or warfare. In Headhunting and the Body in Iron Age Europe (2012), anthropologist Ian Armit writes that, “In a number of ethnographically documented contexts, certain communities retain, display, and venerate the heads of their own kin.” Armit adds that;

These are obtained not through violence but in the course of conventional funerary practices, even if only a small proportion of heads are retained. These may belong to particularly important, influential, or unusual individuals, whose particular life histories made them appropriate foci for communal ritual and memory, but equally they may be chosen quite arbitrarily. Among the Mountain Ok peoples of Inner New Guinea, for example, skulls were displayed in central ‘ancestor houses’ where they were painted, on certain occasions, in the colours of particular clans and played a central role in communal ceremonies. (Armit, 12).

Headhunting is sometimes considered essential to maintaining a thriving, productive society. Armit writes that, “the explanation most commonly offered by practitioners themselves, was that headhunting was necessary to ensure and enhance the fertility of crops, people, and animals.” This connection was made explicit among some societies in Borneo, with the traditional practice of “treating infertile women by placing a trophy head between their thighs.”

In some cases, the heads are viewed as essentially living things, requiring continued sustenance and care. Among the Berawan of Borneo, heads had to be “fed” with offerings, and “kept warm with a fire that never went out.” Anthropologist Peter Metcalf writes that, in 1956, the Berawan lost a number of the skulls they kept in an accidental fire. However, the loss was not lamented, as “Though it was claimed that the heads had the potential to bring benefits to the community, the service of them was considered onerous.”

The recognition that the extraction and display of human heads is not a singular phenomenon, but instead can stem from multiple diverse motivations helps pin down why these practices are quite variable, yet still widespread across cultures. Headhunting can be incorporated into cultural practices of warfare, and used to indicate a society’s strength and power in intergroup conflict. The care and decoration of heads can also be an important part of a society's religious beliefs or practices of ancestor worship.

Human heads, disconnected from their formerly living bodies, have been used variously to terrify enemies, secure status and prestige for an individual and their kin, or honor the dead. Whether religious or secular, the display of human heads has been a relatively common component of human cultural traditions across cultures and throughout history.

The Dilemma of the Deserted Husband (and why polygyny is more common than polyandry across cultures)

In the volume Politics and history in band societies (1982), anthropologist George Silberbauer described how a G/wi forager band in the Central Kalahari Desert solved a social problem involving a man named /wikhwema.

/wikhwema was “not very bright”. Silberbauer described him as a vain and inflexible man, prone to petulant outbursts, whose opinions were often wrong. He was apparently considered something of a standing joke within the band. Unsurprisingly, his wife N!anoag//ei was described as a morose and chronically dissatisfied woman, and one day she left /wikhwema for his best friend, a recently widowed man named /amg//ao.

/amg//ao was well-regarded within the band. He was “a virtuoso dancer, a consistently successful hunter and was rumoured to be a bit of a demon as a lover.”

/amg//ao was also a dwarf.

/wikhwema mourned the loss of his wife and best friend for over a year, and many in the band considered him quite the nuisance, including his daughter and mother-in-law, who still lived in the band. Every time /wikhwema was despondent or threw a tantrum, the rest of the band would convene to discuss the problem. Eventually, word got around to where N!anoag//ei and /amg//ao were living, and intervening parties tried to convince her to return to /wikhwema, but she wouldn’t budge.

While N!anoag//ei was happy with /amg//ao, she missed her daughter and mother terribly, and wished to see them again.

Finally, some “lateral thinker” among the band proposed a unique solution. How about a joint marriage: N!anoag//ei, /wikhwema, and /amg//ao could all live together. A polyandrous marriage! Polyandry was completely unknown to the G/wi, yet after a long deliberation among the band, this arrangement was considered acceptable.

While the trio did not exactly live happily ever after, /wikhwema was no longer considered a nuisance to the rest of the band, and the matter was considered resolved.

Among the G/wi, this is the only known example of a polyandrous marriage. Most marriages among the G/wi are monogamous, however, there were nine men married polygynously: eight men with two wives each, and one man with four wives.

Across cultures, polygyny is significantly more common than polyandry. In the Ethnographic Atlas, less than 1% of societies (only 4 out of 1231) are coded as practicing polyandry, while 85% (1041 out of 1231) of societies are coded as practicing at least occasional polygyny. In anthropologists Katherine E. Starkweather and Raymond Hames 2012 paper ‘A Survey of Non-Classical Polyandry’, published in Human Nature, they argue that polyandry is more common than previously reported, noting there is evidence for at least occasional polyandry in an additional 53 societies.

However, as with the G/wi foragers, polyandry still tends to be rare, and generally restricted to specific social and ecological circumstances. For some of the societies mentioned by Starkweather & Hames, there is only a single example of polyandrous marriage, such as among the !Kung, and as we saw among the G/wi. Further, polyandry in many societies may be a temporary response to a highly skewed sex ratio in favor of men. For example, Starkweather & Hames write that, 10 of 15 marriages were polyandrous in 1958 among the Shirishana Yanomamö when the sex ratio was 149 [149 men for every 100 women]. As the population grew and the sex ratio declined to 108, however, only 1 of 37 marriages were polyandrous.”

Overall, polyandry is more likely to occur in these contexts:

1) Where the sex ratio is highly skewed, with significantly more males than females.

2) Among relatively ‘egalitarian’ hunter-gatherer societies.

3) Where adult male mortality is high.

4) Among brothers.

5) Where males generally contribute a majority of the subsistence and economic labor.

6) Where males are often absent for prolonged periods of time (frequently traveling to trade, for example).

 Table from 'A Survey of Non-Classical Polyandry' (2012) by Starkweather & Hames illustrating the factors most commonly associated with polyandry.

Table from 'A Survey of Non-Classical Polyandry' (2012) by Starkweather & Hames illustrating the factors most commonly associated with polyandry.

Starkweather & Hames note that, among the most well-known societies practicing polyandry, such as those found in Tibet, polyandry occurs, “where land is scarce and a fundamental requirement for successful reproduction and the maintenance of high status,” and therefore, “the marriage of all brothers in a family to the same wife allows plots of family-owned land to remain intact and undivided.”

For the 53 cases of polyandry reviewed by Starkweather & Hames, polyandry generally seems to be a reproductive strategy mostly used by lower status males, likely as a last resort. They write that, “less socially competitive males may be willing to share a wife and make an attempt at achieving paternity, rather than risk never reproducing.”

Among various Inuit societies, “Exceptionally great hunters are able to support more than one wife; good hunters can support one wife; and mediocre hunters, or those unwilling or unable to take a wife from another man, share a wife.” As we can see, polygyny and polyandry can co-occur, and where some competent, high-status males are able to support multiple wives, lower-status males may end up having to share, or risk having no wife at all.

In such contexts, women can also benefit from multiple partners, gaining protection and provisioning from their additional husband(s), particularly when their first husband is likely to die early or be absent for long periods of time.

Overall, polygyny being more common across cultures than polyandry is not at all surprising considering patterns of sexual dimorphism in humans, and their implications for sexual selection during our evolutionary history. I have previously described how sex differences in gamete production can help explain why men, across cultures, are more violent, and more prone to take political power, than women are. The same basic explanation follows here. All else being equal, because of basic sex differences in gamete production, which contribute to sex differences in reproductive output and parental investment, an individual male generally has more to gain from mating with multiple partners than an individual female does. And further, an individual male likely faces a greater cost to his reproductive success by sharing a mate than an individual female does.

On average, polygyny benefits a given male more than polyandry benefits a given female, and polyandry hurts a given male more than polygyny hurts a given female.

Note that I am not saying men and women are ‘wired’ to behave in a specific and narrow way. Because of sex differences in reproductive strategies, we would expect that men would, on average, be less wiling to share a mate than women would be. But as the cases of polyandry discussed above show, in certain socioecological circumstances we can expect some males particularly lower-status males to be equally or even more likely to share than the average female, depending on factors such as the sex-ratio, mortality profile, and subsistence practices, as they may have no opportunity to reproduce otherwise.

The sad and violent history of 'peaceful societies'

“...war is almost ubiquitous in the ethnographic record, in the absence of external powers that imposed pacification, and the frequency distribution is skewed sharply towards the high end.” - Ember & Ember (1997)

 Semai man wearing the Shamanic Headman's Dress. "The blowpipe and dart quiver are emblems of Semai identity." - From  Overwhelming Terror  (2008) by Robert Dentan

Semai man wearing the Shamanic Headman's Dress. "The blowpipe and dart quiver are emblems of Semai identity." - From Overwhelming Terror (2008) by Robert Dentan

Over at the Department of Anthropology web portal on the University of Alabama at Birmingham website, there is a section on ‘Peaceful Societies’, with an ‘encyclopedia’ listing 25 putatively peaceful societies. The page is clearly influenced by the work of Douglas Fry, who is the chair of the anthropology department at UAB, and, fittingly, two of his books are recommended on the ‘Best Books’ section of the site. Along with links to ‘News and Reviews’, and the ‘Peaceful Societies’ facebook page, there are two motivational quotes displayed on every page:




Aspiring to make the world a more peaceful place seems like a worthwhile goal to me. To that end, one would think that seeking out societies that have solved the problem of violence, and thus may be worthy of emulation, would be a productive endeavor. For each of the societies referenced, the website attributes their seemingly low rates of violence to social norms discouraging violent behavior, and traditional practices of peaceful conflict resolution.

Unfortunately, I think there is a very important factor being left out.

In addition to the fact that some of these populations had higher rates of recorded violence in the ethnographic past, many of the ‘peaceful societies’ mentioned have a long history of being violently subjugated and enslaved by more powerful neighboring societies.

Consider the G/wi foragers of the Kalahari Desert. The ‘Peaceful Societies’ page cites Hunter and Habitat in the Central Kalahari Desert (1981) by George B. Silberbauer as the “major book on the G/wi”. In that book, Silberbauer describes the G/wi as “a timid people, fearful and initially shy and reserved in the presence of strangers.” This is perhaps unsurprising considering the history of violent interactions with neighboring groups that Silberbauer describes;

John Campbell, who visited the southern Tswana in 1813 and 1820 describes Bushman [G/wi] raids on his hosts’ cattle as if they were of fairly frequent occurrence. Retaliation ranged from giving the reivers a severe thrashing to the indiscriminate slaughter of men, women, or children encountered by the punitive party. Missionaries and travlers who worked among and visited the Tswana in the second half of the last century report them as keeping Bushman slaves. Mackenzie, writing in 1870, said that the slaves were absolute property…He makes it clear that both the Tswana and the Kgalagari despised Bushman and treated them very badly at times. (Silberbauer 7)

In addition to violent conflict with various neighboring native African societies, Silberbauer also describes extensive violent interactions with Dutch, German, and British farmers during the 19th century, with the killing going both ways. In the 1970’s anthropologist Mathias Guenther noted that many Bushmen living in the same district as the G/wi began to refer to themselves as the 'kamka kwe, which in the Naro language means ‘weak or inconsequential people', comparing themselves unfavorably to more powerful neighboring societies.

 A scarred G/wi woman. From  Hunter and Habitat in the Central Kalahari Desert  (1981) by George B. Silberbauer

A scarred G/wi woman. From Hunter and Habitat in the Central Kalahari Desert (1981) by George B. Silberbauer

Another society on the list, the Batek of Malaysia, has a similar history. I previously referred to the Batek in an article I wrote for Quillette about contemporary hunter-gatherer societies. Quoting myself here:

…the Batek of Malaysia…have a long history of being violently attacked and enslaved by neighboring groups, and developed a survival tactic of running away and studiously avoiding conflict. Yet even they recount tales of wars in the past, where their shamans would shoot enemies with blowpipes.

While the ‘Peaceful Societies’ page for the Semai of Malaysia is focused primarily on their methods of conflict avoidance, a link to one of the cited sources mentions how the Semai, “raise their children to fear strangers with stories of violence. The Semai have been dominated and enslaved by their neighbors, the more powerful Malay people, for centuries.” In anthropologist Robert Dentan’s book about the Semai, titled Overwhelming Terror (2008), he writes that, “The slave raids, unpredictable and brutal, create a sense that the whole cosmos is unpredictable and brutal. As in the Semai case, they may give rise to feelings that love and peace within the local group are the only security people can have.”

For the Mbuti, their ‘Peaceful Societies’ page draws on Colin Turnbull’s ethnographic works The Forest People (1961) and the aptly titled Wayward Servants (1965). These works describe the “submissive” relationship the Mbuti pygmies have with their neighboring Bantu village “masters”. While these works contain many charming descriptions of Mbuti individuals exercising personal agency and controlling their own destiny, and while Turnbull rejects any use of the term “slavery” to describe the Mbuti relationship with the neighboring villagers, the social system portrayed may be fairly described as one of servitude and dependency. In Wayward Servants, Turnbull writes,

As a child an Mbuti may grow accustomed to a number of "owners," as his parents move from band to band, or village to village. When he is old enough to hunt he will choose whichever "owner" happens to be convenient at the time, but if he does not get the treatment he expects, he will without hesitation get himself "adopted" by another villager, even in the same village. (Turnbull 47)

I have not given a detailed reading of the ethnographic literature for every society listed on the ‘Peaceful Societies’ page, but my impression is that many of these societies are ‘peaceful’ because they have been ‘pacified’ by more powerful neighboring societies. Many anthropologists have previously remarked on this pattern. As Lawrence Keeley wrote in his volume War Before Civilization (1996), "Most of these peaceful societies were recently defeated refugees living in isolation, lived under a "king's peace" enforced by a modern state, or both."

Many of the societies on the UAB 'Peaceful Societies' list have a sad and traumatic history of being killed, exploited and enslaved. Highlighting these societies as paragons of peace – alongside motivational quotes – as though their situations are something to aspire to, seems to me completely inappropriate.



Where are the matriarchies?

“Beginning with anisogamy, the differences between the sexes have important consequences on social systems.” - Kitchen & Beehner (2007)

 A Kitepi 'big man'. Picture from  The Rope of Moka  (1971) by Andrew Strathern.

A Kitepi 'big man'. Picture from The Rope of Moka (1971) by Andrew Strathern.

In the volume Kinship and Gender (2010), anthropologist Linda Stone writes that, “Today anthropologists generally agree that cases of true matriarchy do not exist in human society, and that they most probably never have.” If you start from the position that human cultural diversity is essentially unlimited, then this presents something of a puzzle. When looking across cultures, it’s clear that societies with patriarchal social institutions are very common, so why don’t we see comparable matriarchal institutions?

In a recent article for Quillette, I tried to explain why sex differences in lethal violence are found seemingly everywhere, with men consistently committing more lethal violence than women do. I will not rehash the entire argument here, but will simply note that this pattern is entirely predictable in light of classic sexual selection theory. Males produce small, relatively mobile gametes while females produce large, less mobile gametes. Female mammals engage in more parental care than males, while male mammals have a greater potential reproductive output – as they are not constrained by gestation and lactation time – and can thus benefit more from competing directly for mates. Much violent conflict between men can be explained as competition for mating opportunities, or competition for status and/or resources that may net them more mating opportunities.

These very basic sex differences in reproductive strategies have important implications for political systems. In anthropologist Martin King Whyte’s study on The Status of Women in Preindustrial Societies, he looked at sex differences in political participation across 93 nonindustrial societies of various subsistence types (hunter-gatherer, horticulturalist, pastoralist, agriculturalist) from all over the world. Whyte found that in 88% of societies, only men were political leaders, while in another 10% of societies some political leaders were women; however, men were more numerous and/or more powerful.

In only 2 societies (2%) were women coded as having roughly equal power in political leadership as men; the Bemba of southern Africa and the Saramacca, who are descendants of African slaves in South America. However, behavioral ecologist Bobbi S. Low notes in Why Sex Matters (2015) that among the Bemba, women “had power over women's affairs but had only informal influences on men's issues,” and among the Saramacca, while women “appeared to be able to make the same decisions as men,” they “held power less often.”

In describing the results of his study, Whyte noted that, “These findings fit the generalization accepted by most anthropologists that there are no known cultures in which women are generally dominant over men, whereas there are quite a few in which the reverse is true.”

Even within relatively egalitarian societies, men seem to be disproportionately represented among individuals participating in prestige activities. In The Lifeways of Hunter-Gatherers (1995), anthropologist Robert Kelly writes that, “...even the most egalitarian of foraging societies are not truly egalitarian because men, without the need to bear and breastfeed children, are in a better position than women to give away highly desired food and hence acquire prestige.” In Kinship and Gender (2010) Linda Stone cites the Vanatinai of New Guinea as an example of a gender equal society. Yet in her study on the Vanatinai, titled Fruit of the Motherland: Gender in an Egalitarian Society (1993), anthropologist Maria Alexandra Lepowsky writes that,

“…because of women’s specialization in childcare and in life-giving activities more generally, and because of men’s identification with the destructive powers of sorcery and killing…more men than women are highly active in ceremonial exchange and mortuary ritual and thus gain area-wide renown and influence.”

Note the theme here; women are more constrained by caregiving duties while men are more able, and/or more willing, to seek prestige. Not unexpectedly, in Whyte’s study he also found that in every society in his sample, women did more household work than men did.

While I think you can explain these cross-cultural sex differences in political participation in light of individual fitness interests, other scholars have sometimes attributed it to pressures related to intergroup competition throughout our evolutionary history. Primatologist Richard Wrangham and psychologist Joyce Benenson argue that, “male humans and chimpanzees were selected for effective use of male-male alliances as a result of their vulnerability to lethal intergroup violence.”[1] It can be hard to separate individual fitness concerns from more group oriented pressures, as coalition formation can be in an individual male’s fitness interests. Among a chimpanzee population at Gombe National Park in Tanzania, participation in coalitionary aggression was found to increase a male’s reproductive success.[2]

This connection is illustrated clearly in a paper fittingly titled, ‘Male chimpanzees exchange political support for mating opportunities’ (2007), which demonstrated that while the highest status male of the Kanyawara chimpanzee community at Kibale National Park in Uganda had the greatest reproductive success and monopolized access to females, he rewarded the males who supported him in conflicts by tolerating their mating efforts.[3] We can see the connection here between adaptive strategies for pursuing status among males, as well sex-specific coalition formation in the face of strong competition (for direct mating access, status, or resources), whether intra- or intergroup. Frans de Waal makes the relevant point in his book Chimpanzee Politics (1982),

“The contrast between the sexes cannot be denied. Stated in the simplest terms, the one is protective and personally committed, the other is strategic and status oriented. The picture looks familiar? Am I allowing myself to be governed by my prejudices, or is this once again a striking similarity between chimpanzees and humans?”

 Female chimpanzee, Zwart, with her one-year old daughter, Zola. From de Waal's  Chimpanzee Politics  (1982).

Female chimpanzee, Zwart, with her one-year old daughter, Zola. From de Waal's Chimpanzee Politics (1982).

Finally, I’d add that the main pressures I see related to male dominance in political participation are 1) high status males having greater access to mates, and greater access to other desirable resources, and thus being incentivized to seek more political power, and 2) the disproportionate caregiving burden that falls on women. In modern, industrialized contexts, as we see technology reducing domestic labor, high income families able to outsource caregiving duties to low-wage (often immigrant) labor, and the demographic transition changing traditional patterns of high-status males having greater reproductive success, it’s not surprising to see greater female participation in politics and prestige-occupations, and I would expect this to continue in the future. The one unanswered question I have is if male variance in reproduce success will increase due to greater numbers of males dropping out of the workforce and staying out of the labor and mating markets. In such a scenario you could still have a relatively small cohort of ambitious males dominating the political process and prestige occupations for a long time.  


[1] Wrangham, R.W. & Benenson, J. 2017. Cooperative and Competitive Relationships Within Sexes. in Chimpanzees and Human Evolution (ed. by Muller, M. et al.) Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[2] Gilby, I.C. et al. 2013. Fitness benefits of coalitionary aggression in male chimpanzees. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

[3] Duffy, K.G. et al. 2007. Male chimpanzees exchange political support for mating opportunities Current Biology

On secret cults and male dominance

““They told us that Abvwoi was a secret cult, and that if we told women we should be killed and dragged away into the forest. They really did kill people – not in our own time, but two people were killed before us.” - Daniel Bako of Agban village, Kagoro [Nigeria].[1]

“I don’t want to see the sacred flutes. The men would rape me. I would die." —Itsanakwalu, a young woman in her early twenties [from the Amazon].[2]


Every contemporary society owes its development to the human predilection for cumulative cultural evolution. From the smallest hunter-gatherer bands with the simplest tools, to the largest, most technologically advanced nation states, everywhere people utilize knowledge passed down through generations and shared among each other that no single individual could ever have accumulated alone. With the benefits of open exchanges of information well-attested, the prevalence across cultures of ritual secrecy, and the monopolization of information, require greater attention.

One of the more surprising elements of secret societies in the ethnographic record is how visible they are. They can be found everywhere, and are particularly well documented across Melanesia,[3] the Amazon,[4] and West Africa.[5] Undoubtedly, there are mixed-sex,[6] and all female,[7] secret societies, but when examining aggressive and domineering coalitions engaged in physical coercion, ritualized deception, and violent punishment of outsiders and taboo violators, these are often comprised entirely of males.[8],[9] These all-male secret societies are best described as ‘men’s cults’, and they can be found among hunter-gatherer societies, horticulturalists, and agriculturalists alike. Many of these secret societies may no longer exist, however I will describe them as they are generally portrayed in the ethnographic material.[10]

The men’s cult represents a conspiracy in plain sight. The ‘men’s house’ is often the largest structure in a village, and built in a position of prestige, at the center or top of a settlement. This is where most adult males and teenage initiates spend the majority of their time when not engaged in subsistence activities. The house can function as a ritual center for the men, and it holds the sacred paraphernalia of the men’s cult, which often consists of masks and/or musical instruments. These objects are usually meant to be kept hidden from women and children. A woman who would glance at the sacred flutes among the Mundurucu of the Amazon would be punished through gang-rape by the males.[11] Across New Guinea, the punishment for a woman who saw the sacred objects was often execution.[12]

  Nggwal Bunafunei spirit house (men’s house). From ‘ The Cassowary’s Revenge’ (1997)  by Donald Tuzin.

Nggwal Bunafunei spirit house (men’s house). From ‘The Cassowary’s Revenge’ (1997) by Donald Tuzin.

Male cult members whirl their bullroarers and play their sacred flutes in private, hidden away from the uninitiated. The women and children are told that these sounds are the voices of their ancestors, and spirit beings. Among the Ilahita Arapesh of New Guinea, men would wear full body costumes during cult ceremonials, while the women would be told they are materialized spirits.[13] Men from neighboring villages were often asked to wear the costumes – and were given yams and sprouted coconuts in return – in order to prevent the women from suspecting it was males from their own community in the costumes.

  Arapesh men’s ritual costume. From  The Voice of the Tambaran: Truth and Illusion in Ilahita Arapesh  (1980) by Donald Tuzin.

Arapesh men’s ritual costume. From The Voice of the Tambaran: Truth and Illusion in Ilahita Arapesh (1980) by Donald Tuzin.

While sacred flutes were particularly common among men’s cults in northwest Amazonia and throughout Melanesia, other types of ritual paraphernalia were also widespread. The use of masks and costumes in rituals have been common in secret societies across West Africa. In A History of African Societies to 1870 historian Elizabeth Isichei writes, “masking cults an agency of social control over women, children, slaves and foreigners…”[14] Ekpe societies in Nigeria had special masks of various colors. Anthropologist H.P. Fitzgerald Marriott notes that, “Women, on pain of death, are not allowed to see the black masks.”[15] Secret societies found across Nigeria had many similarities to those in Melanesia and Amazonia, including a large men’s house used for rituals, the use of bullroarers to indicate the voices of spirits, and male cult members wearing full body costumes to portray spirit beings.

Men’s houses, as well as religious rituals and sacred paraphernalia that are kept secret from women and children, also existed among native hunter-fisher-gatherer societies across Alaska, and hunter-gatherers in Australia. Ethnologist Edward William Nelson wrote that in villages across the Alaskan mainland and the islands of the Bering Strait, the ‘kashim’ (men’s house) was “the center of social and religious life”.[16] While women and children were frequently invited to the kashim for public ceremonies and festivals, “at certain times, and during the performance of certain rites, the women are rigidly excluded, and the men sleep there at all times when their observances required them to keep apart from their wives.” In describing secret societies across Alaska, anthropologist Ben Fitzhugh writes:

“These societies maintained secret knowledge, songs, and dances that gave them the power to emulate evil spirits, devils, and demons in rituals. It is widely reported that the performances of these secret societies were designed to invoke fear in women and children.”

 Drawings of Alaskan ceremonial masks. From 'The Eskimo about Bering Strait' (1900) by Edward Nelson.

Drawings of Alaskan ceremonial masks. From 'The Eskimo about Bering Strait' (1900) by Edward Nelson.

In the Australian men’s houses, boy initiates would carve sacred boards that were off-limits to women and children, following the traditions of their fathers and grandfathers.[18] In the volume Politics and history in band societies, Annette Hamilton describes land rights in the Australian western desert, writing that, “rights over sacred sites are owned by certain specified men; access to them is forbidden to all women, uninitiated men, and children…”[19] Social institutions are consistently conceptualized in terms that might be best described as ‘religious’, and complex initiation rites are often required for young males to signal the necessary commitment to be integrated into the men’s cult.

Young boys may view their initiation into the cult with a mixture of excitement and dread. Integration into the cult requires undertaking a variety of dysphoric rituals. All Aboriginal societies in the western desert of Australia practiced subincision as a requirement for novice males to progress into adulthood. The underside of the young boy’s penis would be slit, exposing the urethra, which does not heal closed. The practices of subincision act as “badges of full manhood and proof of their right to participate in the sacred life.” Other common initiation practices among male cults include ritual seclusion, piercings, beatings, and inducing nose and penile bleeding.

Among some societies, such as the Sambia (a pseudonym) of New Guinea, initiation rites take on an explicitly sexual character. Boys begin living in the men’s house at about seven to ten years of age. On the third day of their initiation, after rites involving beatings, nose bleeds, and stinging nettles, the young boys are introduced to the sacred flutes. The boys are lined up in a row, while a married man walks past them, placing a small bamboo flute up to each of their lips. The boys are then threatened and intimated into sucking the flute.

 "An older initiate shows how to suck the flute." - From ' The Sambia: Ritual, Sexuality, and Change in Papua New Guinea' (2006)  by Gilbert Herdt.

"An older initiate shows how to suck the flute." - From 'The Sambia: Ritual, Sexuality, and Change in Papua New Guinea' (2006) by Gilbert Herdt.

Anthropologist Gilbert Herdt writes, “The flutes are thus used for teaching about the mechanics of homosexual fellatio...” The boys are told that, in order to grow big, they must suck the penises and have sex with older boys and elder males. An elder tells them, “Suppose you do not drink semen, you will not be able to climb trees to hunt possum; you will not be able to scale the top of the pandanus trees to gather nuts. You must drink can 'strengthen' your bones.” They are threatened with death if they should reveal the secrets of the cult.

The Sambian men’s cult has some clear parallels to ancient Sparta, where boys were also separated from their mothers at the age of seven, began to live in the men’s house or men’s camp, were subject to dysphoric rites and rituals, and would also have sexual relationships with older males.[20] The comparison to ancient Sparta is instructive, as Sparta was well-known for warfare, which is quite common across societies with men’s cults. There is a strong cross-cultural association of warfare with dysphoric and traumatic male rituals,[21] which are a recurrent component of the men’s cults.

Many societies with men’s cults would also often practice marriage exchanges with enemy groups, which may help explain some of the male hostility towards females in these societies.[22] The men often consider women to be contaminated or polluting, and menstruating women may be segregated into menstrual huts. Herdt writes of the Sambia, “men's secular rhetoric and ritual practices depict women as dangerous and polluting inferiors whom men are to distrust throughout their lives.” Nelson writes of societies in Alaska that, “During menstruation women are considered unclean and hunters must avoid them or become unable to secure game.” This may be an example of social norms tapping into, and repurposing, human’s natural disgust reaction.[23]

The presence of warfare and marriage exchanges with enemy groups offers some plausible functional explanations for the men’s cults. The men can plan their military excursions while in the men’s house, away from the ears of potential enemy sympathizers (their wives and the wives of the other males). The secret rituals and rites may help socialize young boys into becoming effective warriors. Herdt writes of the various functions of the men’s house:

“These include military training, supervision and education of boys in the masculine realm, the transmission of cultural knowledge surrounding hunting magic and warrior folklore, the organization of hunting, some separation or recognition of the differences between men and women, the socially sanctioned use of ritual paraphernalia and musical instruments such as flutes and bullroarers, and so forth. These distinctive customs anchor the men’s world in the clubhouse throughout Melanesia.”

A third explanation for the men’s cult is that they represent a way for older males to control the sexuality of young males, to reduce reproductive competition, and increase their own paternal certainty. Of the Ilahita Arapesh, Anthropologist Donald Tuzin writes, “…there was a specific taboo, strong and apparently effective, against premarital sexual contact. This injunction was much stronger for males than for females…”[24] The Ache hunter-gatherers of Paraguay don’t have a men’s cult; however, their social organization does exhibit some similarities in this regard. Boys are forbidden from engaging in sexual activity until they’ve undergone initiation rites conducted by older males, such as a lip piercing and mock club-fights.[25] Across many aboriginal Australian societies, young males were delayed from marriage, while elder males were able to have multiple young wives.[26]

While this pattern of recurring warfare, marriage exchanges with enemies, and control of male sexuality helps explain some aspects of the men’s cults across Melanesia, it’s less clear whether this pattern holds in other parts of the world. The Mundurucu in the Amazon have a history of warfare, but not marriage exchanges with enemy groups. Further, in this society the women seem to have their sexuality policed to a much greater degree than the men. The punishment for a promiscuous woman was the same as the punishment for viewing the sacred flutes: gang-rape, and I can find no mention of any comparable punishment for a promiscuous man. The Mehinaku, also in the Amazon, have strong taboos on male sexual activity between the ages of twelve to fifteen, but are relatively lax on sexual behavior otherwise, and don’t seem to have the history of warfare and marriage exchanges with enemies that many other societies with men’s cults do.

The conspiracy of the men’s cult generates a complimentary mystery: how much do the women and children know? Mehinaku and Mundurucu women are clearly aware of the existence of the sacred instruments, and it seems to be the threat of punishment that keeps them away from challenging the men. Among the Ilahita Arapesh, the women seem to have been generally in the dark about many aspects of the men’s cult, until the men voluntarily revealed their secrets and destroyed the cult in 1984 after decades of Christian missionary activity. Historian Henry Pernet argues that women may be well-aware of the true nature of much of the ritual paraphernalia across many societies with men’s cults, and that potential punishment effectively pressures them go along with the charade, even as they profess seemingly genuine credulity to the ethnographers who interview them.[27]

Still, a question remains: why the flutes, and their phallic symbolism? Other than vaguely appealing to psychological universals, a general tendency among males to be fascinated with their own genitalia, and a common human predilection towards symbolism, I don’t have a good answer. Anthropologists who studied men’s cults have often interpreted the symbolism in neo-Freudian and psychoanalytic terms, and while I do not find that approach particularly satisfying, I can’t say that I have a better answer.

The fact that men’s cults can be found across so many diverse small-scale societies may point to similar institutions having existed deep in the past. Archaeologists Oliver Dietrich and Jens Notroff have speculated that the ~12,000 year old site of Göbekli Tepe in modern day Turkey may represent a sanctuary for a men’s cult. Anthropologists D’Ann Owens and Brain Hayden speculate that secret societies (not necessarily men’s cults) may go back to the Upper Paleolithic, and argue that caves during the Upper Paleolithic were used to initiate elite children into secret societies.[28] In R. Dale Guthrie’s book The Nature of Paleolithic Art, he argues that most Upper Paleolithic cave art was made by adolescent boys.[29] Paleolithic art often consisted of hunting scenes, naked women, and phallic imagery, which seems generally consistent with the notion that they were made as part of adolescent boys being initiated into a men’s cult. It is difficult to test these ideas, so they should be interpreted with caution, however they remain a plausible line of speculation.

 Drawings of perforated batons found at various Paleolithic sites across Europe. From ' The Nature of Paleolithic Art'  (2005) by R. Dale Guthrie.

Drawings of perforated batons found at various Paleolithic sites across Europe. From 'The Nature of Paleolithic Art' (2005) by R. Dale Guthrie.

There is a relatively common tendency among males throughout time and across cultures to seek to monopolize access to resources that can increase their reproductive success.[30],[31],[32],[33] Food, territory, women…knowledge. In my view, the men’s cult represents – in part – a strategy by older males to increase their reproductive success through exercising social control of younger male competitors and women. The fairly common association between men’s cults and warfare, as well as marriage exchanges with hostile enemy groups, also illustrates the important role socioecology plays in the development of these institutions. Considering the common rhetoric about pollution and disease, parasite stress may also be a factor.[34]

Men's cults are not universal, but they are recurrent throughout history and across cultures. Such institutions are antithetical to the kind of free and open society that many in the West prefer today, yet the historical pervasiveness of the men's cult tells us something important about evolution and human behavior.

Future posts will delve more deeply into other cultural traditions and their relationship to human evolutionary history.


[1] Isichei, E. 1988. On Masks and Audible Ghosts: Some Secret Male Cults in Central Nigeria. Journal of Religion in Africa

[2] Gregor, T. 1985. Anxious Pleasures: The Sexual Lives of an Amazonian People. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[3] Herdt, G. 2003. Secrecy and Cultural Reality: Utopian Ideologies of the New Guinea Men's House. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

[4]Murphy, R. F. 1959. Social structure and sex antagonism. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology

[5] Butt-Thompson, F.W. 1929. West African Secret Societies. High Holborn London: H. F. & G. Witherby.

[6] Elmendorf, W.W. 1948. The Cultural Setting of the Twana Secret Society. American Anthropologist

[7] Bosire, O.T. 2012. The Bondo secret society: female circumcision and the Sierra Leonean state PhD Thesis: University of Glasgow

[8] Herdt, G. 1982 Rituals of Manhood: Male Initiation in Papua New Guinea. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[9] Webster, H. 1908. Primitive Secret Societies. New York: The Macmillan Company.

[10] There is certainly significant variation across these societies, however the description that follows here is consistent with the record of numerous men’s cults across Melanesia and the Amazon, in particular.

[11] Murphy, Y. & Murphy, R. 1985. Women of the Forest. New York: Columbia University Press.

[12] Hays, T.E. 1986. Sacred Flutes, Fertility, and Growth in the Papua New Guinea Highlands. Anthropos

[13] Tuzin, D.F. 1980. The Voice of the Tambaran: Truth and Illusion in Ilahita Arapesh Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[14] Isichei, E. 1997. A History of African Societies to 1870. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press

[15] Fitzgerald Marriott, H.P. 1899. The Secret Societies of West Africa. The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland

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