Sacred Metal

The status of the blacksmith in tribal societies poses one of the most puzzling problems of anthropology. By a strange paradox, this noted craftsman, whose bold and meritorious services are indispensable to his community, has been relegated to a position outside the pale of society, almost as an “untouchable.” Regarded as the possessor of great magical powers, held at the same time in veneration and contempt, entrusted with duties unrelated to his craft or to his inferior social status, that make of him performer of circumcision rites, healer, exorcist, peace-maker, arbiter, counsellor, or head of a cult, his figure in what may be called the “blacksmith complex” presents a mass of contradictions – Laura Makarius, ‘The Blacksmith’s Taboos: From the Man of Iron to the Man of Blood’, 1968.

As it happens, in Mande culture it is the smiths who make all the sculpture, and they own and operate, as administrators, chief priests, and horizontal mask dancers, the powerful Komo secret initiation association – Patrick R. McNaughton, ‘From Mande Komo to Jukun Akuma’, 1992.

Mastering the sacred is a social practice—a performance art of persuasion, imbuing the mundane with a sense of awe and otherness, in ways that are not uncommonly deceptive and self-interested. Men sanctify their labors and their property and monopolize their consecrations with force, as their domination of supernatural forces invites competition and resentment.

The occupation of the blacksmith in small-scale societies can tell us much about men and their pretentions to the control of esoteric knowledge, and from the Mande blacksmiths of West Africa in particular there is much we can learn.

Ubiquitously across societies, metalworking is a male dominated behavior. Yet this is not merely an inevitable, nature-endowed monopoly men enjoy but one they may consciously act to protect, through secrecy or coercion if necessary. Anthropologist Patrick McNaughton writes that among the Mande, “Women in the [heredity] blacksmith clans own the rights to make pottery. Men nearly monopolize wood carving and absolutely monopolize iron working.”

Before we get to how iron working is monopolized, let us consider what Mande blacksmiths actually do. McNaughton provides an extended description of the central role blacksmiths play in Mande society,

We can begin with craft and art, the most material manifestations of blacksmiths’ expertise. We have seen that smiths make nearly every wood and iron product used in Mande society. Many of their products, such as furniture and farming tools, are utilitarian. Many of them, such as komo masks and iron alter staffs, are also sacred and supercharged with potent occult forces. Even in instances, such as boat making or leather working, where smiths are not the manufacturers, they make the tools the manufacturers use.

In a realm that uses material elements to achieve nonmaterial ends, smiths are masters at other types of manufacture. As herbalists they make medicines to improve the physical state of their clients. As soothsayers they use a variety of natural materials to make prophecies and proffer explanations regarding the present and future state of things. As circumcisers they use the human body to make fundamental changes in the human condition that affect forever the social and spiritual domains in which men operate.

Finally, in a realm that ignores material and balances spiritual and social elements, blacksmiths are masters at making, verifying, and helping to enforce arrangements among people. Their counsel is sought in important family and community matters. Their wisdom is sought when people compose new social or political alliances or break society’s rules, and it is sought again when parents consign their sons to the smiths who govern komo associations, where the youths’ education and socialization proceeds in earnest. With komo as our example we see how any of the works of smiths can blend into a single arena, because here sculpture is used, amulets are made, and soothsaying transpires, all with the goal of transforming boys into men (McNaughton, 149).

Amidst this description illustrating the central, prosocial role of the blacksmith in Mande society, the allusions to the komo association hints at a much more complex character. McNaughton writes that,

Many Mande believe a legendary smith named Ndomajiri created the ntomo association, which provides an arduous, trying, and sometimes painful program of socialization. Indeed, this boys' association is the first organized effort on the part of society to make irresponsible male children into responsible male adults. As part of that process the neophytes are at a certain point led to the bush and forced to confront what is for them at their age and stage of cultural development a most horrifying instrument. They are visited by a monstrous horizontal mask, which belongs to one of the most powerful secret Mande initiation associations, komo. It consists of enormous jaws, huge horns, and all kinds of organic matter, apparently held together by what looks like a surface of filth. This unsavory creature seems clearly to be in its own domain, wild space, and it suggests with graphic force the kinds of problems antisocial citizens are likely to encounter. In spite of its obvious social dislocation, it appears on behalf of society to encourage youth in their proper development, thereby adding confusion to fear. Since their earliest days these boys have heard about komo. They have been told that it kills sorcerers and any intemperate soul who sees it without being initiated into its cult. Gradually, as they grow older, they learn that the mask and its association articulate concepts about nature, the spirit world, sorcery, and the nature of people and society, and they come to see the mask in a wholly different light. At this first sighting however, they understand very little about the beast. They do know, however, that the mask and the association are things of blacksmiths, the same group of people who will circumcise them and the protect them from the operation's hazards, who will provide them the tools of their trade and possibility visit sorcery upon them. It is easy to see why people view smiths with ambivalence (McNaughton, 19).

Elephant Mask ,  Komo  society

Elephant Mask, Komo society

McNaughton also describes the insular secrecy of the endogamous blacksmith clans, writing that,

In the minds of most Mande, and certainly in the minds of the blacksmiths, endogamy (with its corollary, inherited membership) is a primary characteristic of the nyamakala [specialized professionals] group. While anyone can leave one of these special professions to become a carpenter, a modern mechanic, a government employee or anything else one likes, only children born to families that belong to these professional clans can take up the trades their parents practice. It is first of all a matter of corporate identity and of monopoly. A tremendous body of technical expertise is associated with each trade, and it must be learned over many years of apprenticeship that traditionally begin before the novice turns ten. That makes it inconvenient for outsiders who might want to enter these professions. Then there is the matter of special attributes. Nearly everyone believes that members of these special clans possess a mysterious spiritual power that underpins occult practices and makes the people possessing it potentially dangerous. These powers go well beyond the practice of the clan's special trade, but they are also considered essential to anyone who takes it up. Often members of these clans go to great lengths to nourish a belief in their power among the rest of the population. Indeed, they generally believe in it themselves. Furthermore, they say they are born with much of this power. It is part of their heritage and one of the things that makes them so different from everyone else. That too creates a profound handicap for any outsider who might want to earn a clan's special trade (McNaughton, 3).

Underneath the secrecy we find once again coalitions of men monopolizing esoteric knowledge for themselves and their lineage, with the concomitant benefits and dangers this may incur.

Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune, and the 'Loving Deception' of the Mountain Arapesh

In September of 1931, Margaret Mead and Reo Fortune set out from New York to conduct fieldwork in New Guinea. Their initial choice of field site was among a Plains people, later called the Abelam, “We had seen pictures of the splendid ceremonial houses and we hoped for an elaborate culture,” Mead wrote. Getting to the Abelam proved to be quite the challenge, however, and after staying for a week at a government station, they stopped at the Karawop plantation owned by a man named Mr. Cobb, and tried to figure out how to carry their months’ worth of supplies through the mountainous trails and out to the Abelam. While Mead stayed at the plantation, Fortune went scouting for villagers in the region and tried to compel them to carry their cargo. Mead says that,

The chances of getting our stuff moved in looked very poor. The country is mountainous, there are only native trails, running up perpendicular cliffs or along the beds of streams. The natives have practically everything they need of white goods, knives, blankets, kettles. They cannot be compelled to carry, and they don’t like carrying. Reo was pretty hopeless at first, but he went about from one village to another, unearthed their darkest secrets which they wished kept from the government, and then ordered them to come and carry. This for some villages, and the others came by contagion. Reo came back to the Cobbs’ not knowing whether any carriers would turn up or not, but the next day 87 came. In all it took about 250 to get our stuff up here to Alitoa, which is three days from Wewak, the government station, and two days from the Cobbs’.

Mead had an ankle injury at this time, and she had to be physically carried to the field site. She writes that, “Mr. Cobb lent us six strong boys from his plantation line to carry me in. We had brought one of those string hammocks and they strung it on a pole and laced me, with banana leaves over me to keep out the sun and rain, for all the world like a pig. It was a little sea-sickish being handed up and down some of the mountains, but it was a great improvement on walking.”

As many of these disparate villagers were effectively blackmailed into carrying Mead and Fortune’s supplies, it seems there were limits to their cooperation, and they refused to carry the cargo all the way to the Abelam. Mead says “the carriers recruited by Reo on his first trip inland from Karawop plantation all came from the villages across the mountains and they refused to carry our equipment and supplies beyond the mountain village of Alitoa, among a people we later called the Mountain Arapesh.”

Initially enthused about the prospect of studying the “elaborate culture” of the Abelam, Mead with her injured ankle spent eight months confined in the community of Alitoa, studying the “exceedingly simple culture,” (according to Mead) of the people she and Reo Fortune would call the Mountain Arapesh. Fortune writes, “The Arapesh have no word in their language indicating their entire tribe or their entire country. The word arapef means simply friends, and it is their word for their more distant personal connections. This word has been coined in the written form Arapesh in order to name their tribe, country, language, and culture.”

In her volume on the Mountain Arapesh, Mead provides a frank discussion of the limitations she faced in conducting this fieldwork, writing that,

The first limiting condition is that this is part of the report on a joint expedition. I did not study the whole culture; therefore, I could not, if I would, include all the aspects of the culture within this series. Doctor Fortune specialized in the language and in such parts of the culture as had a high linguistic relevance or which demanded a linguistic ear more sensitive than mine. He also witnessed or collected accounts of the men's rituals which were automatically forbidden to a woman and recorded events which took place beyond the borders of the village of Alitoa to which I was myself confined by a condition of my ankle and the roughness of the roads.

This honest acknowledgement of the limited window Mead had available to her in describing Arapesh society is at odds with the more sweeping and totalizing characterization of the Arapesh as ‘maternal’ she provides in her volume Sex and Temperament. Quoting her at length,

Arapesh life is organized about this central plot of the way men and women, physiologically different and possessed of differing potencies, unite in a common adventure that is primarily maternal, cherishing, and oriented away from the self towards the needs of the next generation. It is a culture in which men and women do different things for the same reasons, in which men are not expected to respond to one set of motivations and women to another, in which if men are given more authority it is because authority is a necessary evil that someone, and that one the freer partner, must carry. It is a culture in which if women are excluded from ceremonies, it is for the sake of the women themselves, not as a device to bolster up the pride of the men, who work desperately hard to keep the dangerous secrets that would make their wives ill and deform their unborn children. It is a society where a man conceives responsibility, leadership, public appearance, and the assumption of arrogance as onerous duties that are forced upon him, and from which he is only too glad to escape in middle years, as soon as his eldest child attains puberty. In order to understand a social order that substitutes responsiveness to the concerns of others, and attentiveness to the needs of others, for aggressiveness, initiative, competitiveness, and possessiveness — the familiar motivations upon which our culture depends — it is necessary to discuss in some detail the way in which Arapesh society is organized.

Mead, confined to one village and prohibited from participating in the men’s rituals—just as all women were—nonetheless speaks with a great deal of authority about the reasons why the men exclude women from the ceremonies (for the women’s own good, apparently, according to Mead). Similarly, Mead portrays leadership roles and the men’s cult as a powerful burden held by the men for the good of their society, not a self-interested and coercive social system they impose on the women.

After a few months in Alitoa, Mead described Mountain Arapesh culture thusly in a letter from the field,

The women do all the carrying, the weeding, the cooking and have to all appearances a hard life, but they are attractive, valued and conscious of being valued. Shut out from the religion, from magic and from the social life of the men, they nevertheless seem to maintain a firm sense of importance, and it is a sight to see a young woman swish her way across a village square where all the elders have been orating vigorously upon some affair of state. There is menstrual and birth segregation, also. But although the women are formally excluded from the House Tambaran and such, a man spends about two-thirds of his time alone on his farm with his wife or wives and their children, so family life is well developed. Husbands and wives talk pleasantly together in the sight of the village.

Just as it is with the Ilahita Arapesh [a related but distinct group located about 40km south of the Mountain Arapesh], as I discussed here, “The secret of the House Tambaran and the sacred flutes…resolves itself into the way the men keep meat away from the women by saying that the monster eats it and then secretly consuming it themselves. The flutes the men blow to scare the women away while they hide the meat.” Mead also writes that,

After a big feast, the men of the locality make a special little family feast for the women whose hard labour in carrying food and firewood has made the feast possible. They often garnish the plates with tree-kangaroo, a food that the women themselves cannot eat. But when I commented on the seeming thoughtlessness of rewarding the women with meat that was forbidden them, they stared at me in surprise; “But their children can eat it.”

Mead describes a variety of what seem to be quite patriarchal social norms in her volumes of material on the Arapesh (Table 1), although this is never quite integrated or sufficiently explored in relation to the purportedly ‘maternal’ character of the Arapesh collectively.

Table 1 . Patriarchal social norms described by Margaret Mead and Reo Fortune among the Mountain Arapesh.

Table 1. Patriarchal social norms described by Margaret Mead and Reo Fortune among the Mountain Arapesh.

There are a few occasions in Sex and Temperament where Mead describes women’s relationship to the Tambaran men’s cult that are worth citing at length and discussing here. Mead writes,

Underneath all of these preparations runs a current of excitement. The tamberan will be coming, coming from beyond the hill, coming from seaward. The little children think of him as a huge monster, as tall as a coconut-tree, who lives in the sea except on these rare occasions when he is summoned to sing to the people. When the tamberan comes, one runs away, as fast as ever one can, holding on to one’s mother’s grass skirt, tripping and stumbling, dropping one’s mouthful of yam, wailing for fear one will be left behind. The lovely sound of the flutes is getting closer every minute, and something frightful would happen to the little girl or boy caught loitering in the village after the men and the tamberan enter it. So they hurry down the slope of the mountain, women and children and puppies, and perhaps a little pig or two that have come squealing after their mistress. One woman carries a new-born baby, with many little bundles of leaves hung from its net bag to protect it against evil, and a banana-leaf over the bag to shelter it from sun and rain. An old woman, her sparse white hair standing up abruptly on her nearly bald head, hobbles along at the tail of the procession, muttering that never again will she try to climb the mountain for a feast, no, after this she will stay in her little place in the valley, she will feed her son’s pigs, but when his wife again has a child, she will not climb the mountain to see it. It’s too hard, too hard for her old legs, and the tumour is too heavy to carry. The tumour is slowly becoming more pronounced on her abdomen, out-lined clearly beneath her sagging skin. That tumour came from giving food to the sorcerers who had killed her brother long ago. As she shuffles along, holding tightly to a stick, the others look at her a little askance. Old women so far past the child-bearing period know a little more than young women. Their feet are not hurried by the same fear that makes a nursing mother clutch her child to her and flee from the sound of the flutes, and later will make her tremble when she hears her husband’s step on the house-ladder. What if he has not properly washed his hands in the proper magical herbs? It was for such neglect that Temos lost her baby, and that one child of Nyelahai died. Old women do not fear these things any longer they go no more to the menstrual hut, men do not lower their voices when they talk near them.

So when the men play the flutes and impersonate the Tambaran, the women and children run away, seemingly in genuine fear that they will die if they don’t, with the partial exception of the old women who, while still expected to flee from the Tambaran, are older, more aware of the circumstances, and less subject to the men’s secrecy. Mead continues,

High and clear from the distant hill-side comes the sound of the flutes. “Does not the tamberan have a beautiful voice?” whisper the women to each other, and “Tamberan, tamberan,” echo the babies. From a knot of small girls comes a sceptical whisper: “If the tamberan is so big, how can he get inside his house?” “Be quiet! Hush your talk!” comes sharply from the mother of the new-born child. “If you talk about the tamberan like that, we shall all die.” Nearer come the flutes, lovely broken sounds played faultily by young unaccustomed musicians. Now surely the tamberan is in the hamlet itself, winding among the trees, taking from the palm-trees his sacred mark, which he placed there six months ago, so that now the coconuts may be picked for the feast. The sun, before so hot, goes behind a cloud and a quick shower drenches the waiting women and children. The voice of the tamberan does not come so clearly through the rain. A chill settles upon the little company, babies cry and are hastily hushed against their mothers’ breasts. Now to the sound of the flutes is added the sound of beaten slit gongs. “The tamberan has entered the house,” whispers one of the older women. They stir, rearrange the net bags, which they have slackened from their foreheads, call to the children who have wandered farther down the hill-side. A distant halloo is heard from the hill-top; this is the men calling the women and children back to the village, which is once more safe for them now that the tamberan is closely housed in the special little house that is more gaily decorated than any of the others, with its painted wall-plates at the four corners and the painted shield set up in the gable. Answering the men’s call, they climb laboriously back. There is no feeling that they have been excluded, that they are in any way inferior creatures whom the men have banished from a festive scene. It is only that this is something that would not be safe for them, something that concerns the growth and strength of men and boys, but which would be dangerous for women and children. Their men are careful of them, they protect them diligently.

So, we have a display of skepticism on the part of a young girl, which is immediately silenced by the mother of a new-born child, who appears to be particularly concerned about violations of taboo. Skepticism does exist, but in this case at least it was quickly silenced by social pressure. Mead ends this passage by claiming the women do not feel excluded from these practices and that they believe the men do it to protect them (unfortunately, she does not directly quote any Arapesh women saying anything to this effect). It is odd because Mead very directly recounts both an example of skepticism, and the women’s fear that they will die if they do not obey the Tambaran, yet her analysis implies the women feel little discontent at this situation and she does not grapple with the problems these events pose to her framework.

“Arapesh men play the sacred flutes, and women and children must hide.” From Mead’s  Letters from the Field, 1925-1975 .

“Arapesh men play the sacred flutes, and women and children must hide.” From Mead’s Letters from the Field, 1925-1975.

Finally, we have one event where there is a discrepancy between how it is described in Sex and Temperament and how Mead describes it in her letters from the field. In Sex and Temperament Mead writes that,

On one occasion in Alitoa, there were many visitors from the beach in the house of the tamberan, blowing the flutes, beating the slit gongs, and generally taking matters into their own hands. After all it was from the beach that the flutes had come 5 forty years ago the mountain people had had nothing but seed whistles with which to impersonate their supernaturals. The visitors were haughty and hungry and demanded more meat. In traditional fashion they banged on the floor of the tamberan house and began hurling fire-sticks down the ladder. Finally, with a great clatter, they threatened the emergence of the tamheran. It was just dusk. Women and children were gathered in clusters close to the tamheran house, cooking the evening meal, when the threat came. Frantic, unprepared, desperate, they fled down the mountain sides, children straying, falling, lost among the rocks. With my hand held tightly in hers, Budagiel, my “sister,” dragged my unaccustomed feet after the rest. Slipping, sliding, gasping for breath, we tumbled on. Then came a shout from above: “Come back, it was nonsense! It was not true.” And breathlessly we clambered back up the slope. On the agehu confusion reigned, men were rushing about, arguing, exclaiming, disputing. Finally Baimal, volatile, excitable little Baimal, always indomitable despite his slight stature, dashed forward and began beating the front of the tamberan house with a stick: “You would, would you.? You would come out and frighten our women-folk, and send them slipping and stumbling out into the dark and wet? You would chase our children away, would you? Take that and that and that!” And blow after blow fell with resounding whacks on the thatched roof. After that Baimal had to send in some meat to the outraged tamberan, but he didn’t mind. Nor did the community. Baimal had expressed for all of them their objection to the use of the tamberan as an instrument of terror and intimidation. It was the tamberan that helped them grow the children and guard the women'. The visitors from the beach sulked, ate the meat-offering, and went home to comment upon the barbarous ways of these mountain people who had no sense of the way in which things should be done.

Now compare the above description with Mead’s characterization of what appears to be the same event in a letter from the field from April 1932,

Then they brought the Tambaran into the village and all of us mere females and children ran away to the end of the village and repeated solemnly: “If we see it we will die.” Meanwhile Reo went about with the Tambaran, which is really two flutes—a mama and a papa who very obligingly beget children (the uninitiated are told) to sell to other villages, which lack flutes, for pigs. When the Tambaran was safely housed in the village all of us were allowed to come back again. But later in the evening the Tambaran lost his temper because, Balidu said, he had not had enough to eat that day. He started throwing sticks out of the house and we had to scuttle over the side of the hill and down the slope in the dark. Children got separated from their mothers and wailed bitterly, and one kindly little blusterer got up and started beating the outside of the House Tambaran for its treatment of the women. But everybody made such a fuss over this untraditional behavior that he got quite sulky and the next day had a fight with one of his wives to restore his masculine prestige.

The events seem to be largely the same and yet the social impact described from the man’s act of beating the Tambaran house are entirely different. In her popular book she says this act was done with the approval of the community, and in reaction against their more traditionalist visitors from the beach who were apparently abusing the Tambaran. Yet in her private letters the man who beat the Tambaran house (described as “one kindly little blusterer”) was apparently criticized for his “untraditional behavior”, and he felt the need to try and “restore his masculine prestige” in the aftermath by fighting with his wife.

This reference to concerns about “masculine prestige” is very much entirely lacking in Sex and Temperament, and to understand this dimension of Arapesh society we need to look to the work of Reo Fortune.

For Fortune, it was the roads that were one of the most important facets of Arapesh society, and a topic that Mead did not cover properly in her own writings. Anthropologists Lise M. Dobrin and Ira Bashkow write that,

When Mead sent Fortune two draft chapters of her Mountain Arapesh monograph for comment, he wrote back that he had no criticism except for the section ‘‘On the Roads and on Diffusion.’’ Of this he disapproved in no uncertain terms, telling her he thought she should burn it: ‘‘You did no substantial work on the roads, but were carried over one road twice under European conditions—and the whole chapter betrays it. [It] is largely garbled from my gossip to you and largely incorrect in consequence’’ (MMP, RF/MM, February 23, 1936).

While Mead’s final draft would discuss the role roads played for trade and cultural diffusion, and the fact that their access was inherited down the patriline, their ritual functions, as well as their importance in alliance formation and warfare, were not addressed in her work. Unfortunately, Reo Fortune published very little of the ethnographic material he collected on the Arapesh, and we have only bits and pieces from his few published pieces and unpublished notes to address this issue. Fortune writes [as quoted from his unpublished notes by Dobrin & Bashkow (2006)] that,

The carrying of pigs is a ritual business, and it is the gravest insult to carry pigs ourselves over neighbours’ territory. We call on our neighbours and they carry our pigs on over their own territory. But first we sit down in the hamlet and our hosts give us coconuts to drink and food to eat. They talk a little with everyday enquiries and answers, and after the food there is some brief orating by the hosts. This is usually talk of the antiquity of the road, for the road that is open to the carrying of pigs today is the road that was open also in the old days of war. [pds 60–61]

This is the manner of the open road. We A go to our friends B, who escort us to their friends C; then C escort us all to their friends D, who then take upon themselves the escorting of all us to their friends E—and before escorting, feeding in each case. At least this is the manner of the open road when gifts of pigs are carried upon it. All the people of the road swell the carriage upon the road, and we come into our destination half way down to the coast as if our pigs have rolled up the men of the roadway and carried them with them. Indeed they had. Pigs of other inland villages converged also upon Kobelen by the same general road, but through other hamlets in many cases. [pds 66–67]

Fortune characterized this practice as the “convention of the ‘telescoping’ safe road by repeated escort”. He also emphasizes the roads’ important genealogical component. Dobrin and Bashcow write that,

since road friendships had historical depth and were often said to reflect a shared ancestry, the assembly of road friends arriving at a feast could be seen as a living tableau depicting the history of a sequence of places as a chain of genealogies and step-wise migrations, which perhaps sheds some light on why the Mountain Arapesh were able to ‘‘count their genealogies in the direct paternal line for twenty to thirty generations back. The open road is maintained by memory of a migration that may have occurred five hundred years ago or more. Friends in the road may be descendants of a collateral line that split off and migrated twenty five or only four or five generations ago. Or again the friendship may be traditional without origin in any known migration’’ (pds 62).”

This function the roads played in providing visible displays of alliances has clear implications for warfare, however Mead downplayed the presence of war among the Arapesh, writing that,

Warfare is practically unknown among the Arapesh. There is no head-hunting tradition, no feeling that to be brave or manly one must kill…But although actual warfare — organized expeditions to plunder, conquer, kill, or attain glory — is absent, brawls and clashes between villages do occur, mainly over women. The marriage system is such that even the most barefaced elopement of a betrothed or married woman must be phrased as an abduction and, since an abduction is an unfriendly act on the part of another group, must be avenged. This feeling for righting the balance, for paying back evil for evil, not in greater measure, but in exact measure, is very strong among the Arapesh. The beginning of hostilities they regard as an unfortunate accident; abductions of women are really the result of marital disagreements and the formation of new personal attachments, and are not unfriendly acts on the part of the next community.

Interestingly, despite coming to very different conclusions about the importance of warfare among the Arapesh, Mead and Fortune are mostly in agreement about the contexts where coalitionary violence does occur; namely in response to the abduction of women, although Mead claims such abductions “are not unfriendly acts on the part of the next community,” which Fortune contests. Fortune says that,

Arapesh warfare had no headhunting and no cannibal objectives, but only an objective of stealing women. The “pushers” or the promoters of Arapesh war generally employed an agent provocateur, or a secretive go- between, between them and a woman they designed to alienate from her foreign locality husband. This secret agent, called in Arapesh speech the bera libere, had some ties of kinship to the woman, which allowed him to visit her in her husband’s place; perhaps he also had some ties of kinship to one or two other persons in the woman’s husband’s locality.

Fortune also notes directly, “If the woman has any marks of a beating from her husband, so much the better. His proposals are then introduced by comment upon the marks of the beating.” After transcribing an Arapesh war leader’s speech in response to one such abduction, Fortune continues,

This war leader’s speech, upon the mobilizing of the clans of the locality, acknowledges the divorce which a woman has taken under the protection of the rules of chivalry.* The Arapesh approve of divorce and promote it only in hostilities, in bloodshed against enemies, and in the honor of men slain for and against it. The patrols of the community that had lost a woman scattered to discover what alien community was their enemy. In some cases the patrols made their discovery, and surprised an outlying plantation of the enemy locality before those working in it were advised by their own people of a state of war in existence. In these cases the patrols secured a quick and an easy killing against an unsuspecting enemy still lulled in peace. The fact that such cases occurred shows that the team work between the absconding woman, the bera libere, the promoters, and all the people of their sovereign locality was often defective.

Due to his frequent travels on the roads, extensive knowledge of Arapesh language, and his presence at many important speeches by the old men, Fortune was well-aware that war was more common in the region in the past, writing that, “Warfare has been suppressed in most of the Arapesh territory since the time of the German administration before 1914, and in all of the Arapesh country under the Australian administration under mandate which succeeded the German.”

Discussing the historical patterns, Fortune writes, “The battles were fought on cleared grounds traditionally used, lying on the borders of localities. These fields had their proper names. Today, after many years of peace, when assemblies from two formerly hostile localities meet, the orators of either side call the names of these fields and stir quick applause with them.”

The importance of the roads in Arapesh warfare comes through quite clearly in Fortune’s paper on Arapesh warfare, and he takes great care to situate the battles geographically, as the locations were very important to the Arapesh themselves: “The following is an account of a war between the localities of Nyauia and Suapali, both on the Dugong road, the eastern inland-seawards road in the Arapesh country.” Fortune writes,

Madjeke and Shootman of ours hid themselves beside the road Nyauia and their Hamasuk allies were expected to come on, to their end of the field. They stayed. They saw Eimas come up leading the enemy line, then a man in white paint, then a man with a cassowary plume in his hair, then a man with a flower in his hair, then a man wearing the beak of a hornbill, then a man wearing a pandanus matting rain covering, then a man wearing a white cotton singlet. Then Madjeke shot at the next man in the line. Hamaleba and Shootman shot at the next man again. Two men of the enemy went down wounded. Madjeke and Shootman and Hamaleba, trying to make their get-away, heard them now on all sides, but succeeded in working through the undergrowth to their own end of the cleared field. Hega, following Madjeke hard, shot him ii the upper thigh. Minio took a spear full in the chest, fell, and died.

This account of an ambush reminded me of Fortune’s description of the processions on the roads, as this account also seems to describe a procession of men coming from their road to the battlefield.

Fortune’s concludes his paper on Arapesh warfare by noting the character of the old men’s typical speeches, writing that their “criticisms of secondary wives, of extra marital liaisons, and of the strife made by them are underlined with sorcery feuds, and, in warfare, with corpses, in support of a system of child betrothal and arranged marriage and fidelity.” (see Table 1).

Without naming her directly, but citing Sex and Temperament in the footnotes, Fortune strongly contests Mead’s sweeping characterization of the Arapesh as ‘maternal:

As far as we know, the Arapesh do not expect a similar temperament in both sexes, moreover. In this connection we may cite the proverb, aramumip ulukwip nahaiya; aramagowep ulukwip nahaiya, “Men’s hearts are different; women’s hearts are different,” and also the existence of a class of men called aramagowem, “women male,” or effeminate men. The class of aramagowem is a definitely assigned class, with definite functions, given inferior food at feasts and special subordinate place. The man, Djeguh, mentioned in our accounts of faction feud and of war, was, for example, an aramatokwilz, “woman male” (the singular form of aramago-wem). He was never suspected of cowardice in war. He was, however, without ability in men’s dances, oratory, economic leadership, and in his understanding. He was found by the writer to be very reticent and quiet.

There is no socially organized class of masculine women. A few cases are told of women who intervened actively in warfare, and there is record of one such who was buried by the men’s secret society, with all a warrior’s honors. (Ordinarily the sacred flutes, secret in the initiated men’s society, are kept severely away from women and used to honor men’s burials only.) Of such a woman it is said, in praise, kw ar aramanum ulukum, “She had in her a man’s heart.”

In their series of papers on the topic, Dobrin and Bashkow try to get to the heart of Mead and Fortune’s disagreements, and why their perspectives differed so strongly,

Whereas Mead was confined to their Arapesh field site, the mountaintop village of Alitoa, due to an injured ankle (see, for example, Mead 1977b:103), Fortune traveled extensively throughout the region. As a result, when Mead wrote about regionwide phenomena such as diffusion, sorcery, pathways of exchange, and the tamberan cult, much of the information she was assimilating was acquired indirectly through him. Fortune objected to her implicit claim to authority on these topics, as it not only overreached the bounds laid down by their original division of labor but also implicated him in the offending analysis. But given Mead’s limited experience with interlocal phenomena, it was also unjustified from an Arapesh perspective, which takes firsthand experience of events as necessary for one to be able to speak of them with authority.

Dobrin and Bachkow describe Fortune’s unpublished work, writing that, “by far the largest part of Fortune’s surviving Arapesh materials are notes and fragments toward what was apparently to be an ethnographic monograph on Arapesh society. Without a doubt, this manuscript was intended to stand in opposition to Mead’s depiction of Arapesh culture in Sex and Temperament, with which Fortune vehemently disagreed.”

At the end of the section on the Mountain Arapesh in Sex and Temperament, Mead writes that,

The Western reader will realize only too easily how special an interpretation the Arapesh have put upon human nature, how fantastic they have been in selecting a personality type rare in either men or women and foisting it as the ideal and natural behaviour upon an entire community. It is hard to judge which seems to us the most utopian and unrealistic behaviour, to say that there are no differences between men and women, or to say that both men and women are naturally maternal, gentle, responsive, and unaggressive.

While Mead was clearly a careful observer with an eye for important details, as well as a great writer, I have always struggled to understand how she came to some of the conclusions she did, based on the data she provides. Mead characterizes the cult system as a “loving deception that the men practice on the women,” and tacitly accepts what I suspect is the Arapesh men’s characterization of the “exclusion of women as a protective measure congenial to both sexes.”

In a letter discussing her fieldwork among the Mundugumor, Mead provided this unflattering comment about the Arapesh, 

These people have been charming in many ways; they are even postponing their quarrels until we leave, a point which we—scientifically, of course—do not appreciate. It takes adepts in hypocrisy to be sufficiently self-conscious to think of what a front they present to a white man. The Samoans would do it, but not the Manus, who are too sincere, or the Arapesh, who were too simple-minded, or the Dobuans, who could have thought of it but were too nasty.

Based on the material reviewed here I tend to think Mead was quite wrong about this. When Mead writes that, “if women are excluded from ceremonies, it is for the sake of the women themselves, not as a device to bolster up the pride of the men, who work desperately hard to keep the dangerous secrets that would make their wives ill and deform their unborn children,” I can’t help suspecting she is largely repeating the men’s justification for their cult, as this type of popular rhetoric is not uncommon across the men’s cults I have written about previously. In a chapter discussing his work on the Ilahita Arapesh men’s cult, Donald Tuzin writes that, “In general, the nurturant and protective attitudes expressed in the domestic sphere are reminiscent of the temperamental qualities ascribed by Mead (1935) to the Mountain Arapesh—who, it should be noted, appear to lack the ritually ordained ferocity of their linguistic cousins, the Ilahita Arapesh.” (Although, as we noted, Mead did not have access to the men’s rituals and Fortune never published his materials on the topic). By my reading, Mead’s credulity regarding the necessity and virtue of the men’s dominance in part reflects the sophistication and subtlety of the cult’s deception.

Additional Notes:

As Mead described in Sex and Temperament, the layout of the village and the names of places also reflect male bias in social power,

In this steep, ravine-riddled country, where two points within easy shouting distance of each other may be separated by a descent and an ascent of some fifteen hundred feet, all level land is spoken of as a “good place,” and all rough, steep, precipitous spots are “bad places.” Around each village the ground falls away into these bad places, which are used for pigs and for latrines, and on which are built the huts used by menstruating women and women in childbirth, whose dangerous blood would endanger the village, which is level and good and associated with food. In the centre of the village, or sometimes in two centres if the village straggles a little, is the agehu, the feasting and ceremonial place of the village. Around the agehu stand a few stones that are vaguely associated with ancestors and whose names share the masculine gender with all the words for men.

Mead also gives an extended description of the terrorizing effects the Tambaran has on young girls,

As children grow older and beyond the period when they cling in fright to their mother’s skirts, there comes to be a marked sex-difference in their attitudes towards the tamberan. The little girls continue to follow their mother’s steps; they learn not to speculate lest misfortune come upon them all. A habit of intellectual passivity falls upon them, a more pronounced lack of intellectual interest than that which characterizes their brothers’ minds. All that is strange, that is uncharted and unnamed — unfamiliar sounds, unfamiliar shapes — these are forbidden to women, whose duty it is to guard their reproductivity closely and tenderly. This prohibition cuts them off from speculative thought and likewise from art, because among the Arapesh art and the supernatural are part and parcel of each other. All children scribble with bits of charcoal upon pieces of bark, the highly polished sago-bark strips that are used as beds and as wall-plates. They draw ovals that are yams, and circles that are taros, and little squares that are gardens, and patterns that are representative of string figures, and a pretty little design that is called the “morning star.” Drawing these designs becomes in later years an occupation exclusively of women, a game with which they can amuse themselves during the long damp hours in the menstrual hut. But painting, painting mysterious half-realized figures in red and yellow, on big pieces of bark that will adorn the tamberan house, or a yam-house, this belongs to the men. The feeling against women’s participating in art and in the men’s cult is one and the same; it is not safe, it would endanger the women themselves, it would endanger the order of the universe within which men and women and children live in safety. When I showed them a brown, life-sized doll, the women shrank away from it in fright. They had never seen a realistic image before; they took it for a corpse. The men, with their different experience, recognized it as a mere representation, and one of them voiced the prevalent attitude towards women’s concerning themselves with such things: “You women had better not look at that thing or it will ruin you entirely.” Later the men became gay and familiar with the doll, danced with it in their arms and rearranged its ornaments, but the women, schooled since childhood in the acceptance of marvels and the suppression of all thought about them, never quite accepted the fact that it was only a doll. They would take me aside to ask me how I fed it, and ask if it would never grow any bigger. And if I laid it on the ground with its head lower than its feet, some solicitous woman always rushed to turn it around. Thus through the appearances of the tamberan the women and girls are trained in the passive acceptance that is considered their only safety in life.


Dobrin, L.M. & Bashkow, I. 2006. “Pigs for Dance Songs”: Reo Fortune’s Empathetic Ethnography of the Arapesh Roads. Histories of Anthropology Annual.

Dobrin, L.M. & Bashkow, I. 2010. “Arapesh Warfare”: Reo Fortune’s Veiled Critique of Margaret Mead’s Sex and Temperament. American Anthropologist.

Dobrin, L.M. & Bashkow, I. 2010. "The Truth in Anthropology Does Not Travel First Class": Reo Fortune's Fateful Encounter with Margaret Mead. Histories of Anthropology Annual.

Mead, M. 1935. Sex and Temperament.

Mead, M. 1938. The Mountain Arapesh.

Mead. M. 1977. Letters from the Field, 1925-1975.

Fortune, R. 1939. Arapesh Warfare. American Anthropologist.

Eternal Subjugation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Great Death Pit’

‘Great Death Pit’

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Miller also gives this gratuitous jibe directed at Wallace,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From  The Australian aboriginal  (1925) by Herbert Basedow.

From The Australian aboriginal (1925) by Herbert Basedow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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