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 village...no 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.

geabugds.JPG

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.

chrisryan.JPG

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.

peniasgd.JPG

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.

ldsag.JPG

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:

grapha.JPG

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:

lkasdg.JPG

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.”

peniasg.JPG

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:

RESPECT FOR THE RIGHTS OF OTHERS IS PEACE” -Benito Juarez

and,

 “ANYTHING THAT EXISTS IS POSSIBLE” – Kenneth Boulding.

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]

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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 acted...as 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 semen...it 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

[16] Nelson, E.W. 1900. The Eskimo about Bering Strait. Extracts From the Eighteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology. Washington: Government Printing Office

[17] Fitzhugh, B. 2003. The Evolution of Complex Hunter-Gatherers. New York: Plenum Publishers

[18] Tonkinson, R. 1978. The Mardudjara Aborigines: Living the dream in Australia’s desert. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston

[19] Hamilton, A. 1982. Descended from father, belonging to country: rights to land in the Australian Western Desert. in Politics and history in band societies. (ed. by Leacock, E. & Lee, R.) New York: Cambridge University Press

[20] Herdt, G. 2006. The Sambia: Ritual, Sexuality, and Change in Papua New Guinea. Belmont: Wadsworth publishing.

[21] Sosis, R. et al. 2007 Scars for war: evaluating alternative signaling explanations for cross-cultural variance in ritual costs. Evolution and Human Behavior

[22] Ember, C. 1978. Men's fear of sex with women: A cross-cultural study. Sex Roles

[23] Curtis, V. et al. 2011. Disgust as an adaptive system for disease avoidance behavior. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B

[24] Tuzin, D. 1997. The Cassowary’s Revenge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[25] Hurtado, A.M., & Hill, K., 1996. Ache Life History: The Ecology and Demography of Foraging People. New York. Routledge

[26] Bodley, J.H. 1994, 2017. Cultural Anthropology: Tribes, States, and the Global System. Lenham: Rowman & Littlefield.

[27] Pernet, H. 1992. Ritual Masks: Deceptions and Revelations. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press

[28] Owens, D. & Hayden, B. 1997. Prehistoric Rites of Passage: A Comparative Study of Transegalitarian Hunter – Gatherers. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology

[29] Guthrie, R.D. 2005. The Nature of Paleolithic Art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[30] Jaeggi, A.V. et al. 2016. Obstacles and catalysts of cooperation in humans, bonobos, and chimpanzees: behavioural reaction norms can help explain variation in sex roles, inequality, war and peace. Behaviour

[31] Nettle, D. & Pollet, T.V. 2008. Natural Selection on Male Wealth in Humans. The American Naturalist

[32] Betzig, L. 2012. Means, variances, and ranges in reproductive success: comparative evidence. Evolution and Human Behavior

[33] Glowacki, L. et al. 2017. The evolutionary anthropology of war. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization

[34] Fincher, C.L. & Thornhill, R. 2012. The parasite-stress theory may be a general theory of culture and sociality. Behavioral and Brain Sciences