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

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

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

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

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

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

Miller also gives this gratuitous jibe directed at Wallace,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From  The Australian aboriginal  (1925) by Herbert Basedow.

From The Australian aboriginal (1925) by Herbert Basedow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Assassin's Footprint

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

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

If I do not look you in the eye, it is because I am examining the trail that follows you.

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

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

From  Our Primitive Contemporaries  (1934) by George Murdock.

From Our Primitive Contemporaries (1934) by George Murdock.

Murdock also gives a description of Aranda hunting tactics:

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

From  The Australian Aboriginal  (1925) by Herbert Basedow

From The Australian Aboriginal (1925) by Herbert Basedow

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

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

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

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

Anthropologist Walter Baldwin Spencer adds that,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From  The Australian Aboriginal  (1925) by Herbert Basedow

From The Australian Aboriginal (1925) by Herbert Basedow

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Notes on Nggwal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlatanism: realms of deception and religious theater

In so far as individuals can always be found who misuse their authority to promote their own selfish aims, the [Inuit], in this respect, exhibit nothing peculiarly distinguishing them from any other nation - Hinrich Rink, Danish Greenland, Its People and Its Products, 1877.

Many social scientists have noted that humans are a particularly cooperative and interdependent species. One under-emphasized consequence of being such a cooperative and socially dependent species, however, is that we are quite vulnerable to deception from others. Put another way, people can sometimes benefit greatly by deceiving each other—individually or cooperatively with allies—in strategic ways.

Perspectives of human sociality often emphasize large, group-level benefits of human cooperation. For example, anthropologists Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson describe an evolutionary history where “natural selection within groups favoured genes that gave rise to new, more pro-social motives. Moral systems enforced by systems of sanctions and rewards increased the reproductive success of individuals who functioned well in such environments, and this in turn led to the evolution of other regarding motives like empathy and social emotions like shame.” However, sometimes the individuals who “functioned well in such environments” were not necessarily the ones with the most “pro-social motives”, but those who could effectively manipulate others. Part of functioning well, and increasing one’s reproductive success, in the extremely social environments of human societies, can revolve around taking advantage of the empathy and shame and trust and general ignorance of others.  

Inuit shaman of Greenland known as angakkoq or angakkut, despite commonly being considered some of the most productive and intelligent individuals in their society, were often reported to have had little compulsion about taking advantage of the status accorded them. Many angakkut would tell people that their souls were damaged, and offer to repair them, in return for a gift. Some would also claim the right to sleep with any man’s wife, and anyone who denied them that would be threatened with an early death or other horrible tragedies. One example during the early 18th century was described by Norwegian missionary Niels Egede. Anthropologist Merete Demant Jakobsen recounts the episode, writing that,

A young woman has denied the angakkoq his right to sleep with her and has been told that she will give birth to a seal instead of having children that could have been angakkut. Niels Egede is called to her bedside and asked to feel her stomach: ‘I said that it was not my profession to feel the stomach of women, and that it was impossible that it could be true’. He then asks whether she had eaten anything unusual and is told she had eaten raw barley. He suggests that she should drink water and the woman is well next day and convinced that he is stronger than the angakkoq as he can make seals disappear.

In the early 20th century, one angakkuq named Maratsi was described by Danish botanist Christian Kruuse thusly: “He has a difficult personality and has committed murders, theft, threatening women who will not sleep with him with soul stealing, and so on.”

Of course, this aggressive and nakedly self-interested conduct can generate a great deal of resentment, as I discussed previously in my article on sorcery. Jakobsen writes that,

The ambiguity in attitude among the Greenlanders to their angakkoq seems to be characteristic of the many encounters that [Niels Egede’s missionary father] Poul Egede meticulously reports. On the one hand they are seen to have great respect for their angakkoq and his skills, whilst on the other they seem to take any chance to get back at him because of the fear he induces and the power he possesses.

Another 18th century missionary, David Crantz thought that due to their “superior intelligence”, angakkut should, “be deservedly considered as the physicians, philosophers, and moralists of Greenland,” while also noting that their “intercourse with the spiritual world is merely a pretence to deceive the simple, and that their frightful gesticulations are necessary to sustain their credit, and give weight to their prescriptions.” Jakobsen adds that for many of the ethnographers who went to Greenland from the 17th to the 20th century, “The angakkut are seen as intelligent manipulators of their stupid fellow countrymen who are credulous and easily persuaded by any trickster’s performance.” Jakobsen gives a description of one such performance,

The spectators assembled in one of the houses after dark and then the angakkoq is tied, his head between his legs and his hands behind his back and the drum next to him. The light is put out and, while the spectators sing a song that they claim was made by their ancestors, the shaman begins conjuring and conversing with toornaarsuk, the great spirit. ‘Here the masterly juggler knows how to play his trick, in changing the tone of his voice, and counterfeiting one different from his own, which makes the too credulous hearers believe, that this counterfeited voice is that of Torngarsuk [a sprit-being], who converses with the angekkok’. The shaman manages to work himself loose and is believed to ascend into heaven through the roof of the house to meet with the souls of the angakkut puullit, the chief angakkut. Hans Egede [Poul’s son and Neil’s brother], although giving a detailed description of the séance, carefully establishes his own detached attitude to the performance. He has no doubt about the conjuring and falsity of the shaman’s work.

“The helping spirit amô, called by the tied up angakkoq, enters a house during a séance. The drum is seen floating across the floor. Karale Andreassen, The National Museum of Denmark. From Ib Geertsen (1990): Kârale Andreassen. En østgrønlandsk kunstner, Atuakkiorfik, Nuuk.” From ‘Shamanism: Traditional and Contemporary Approaches to the Mastery of Spirits and Healing’ (1999) by Merete Demant Jakobsen†.

“The helping spirit amô, called by the tied up angakkoq, enters a house during a séance. The drum is seen floating across the floor. Karale Andreassen, The National Museum of Denmark. From Ib Geertsen (1990): Kârale Andreassen. En østgrønlandsk kunstner, Atuakkiorfik, Nuuk.” From ‘Shamanism: Traditional and Contemporary Approaches to the Mastery of Spirits and Healing’ (1999) by Merete Demant Jakobsen†.

Due to their skill in performances such as these, as well their role in healing and executing witches or other sorts of criminals, Danish geologist Hinrich Rink noted in the 19th century the dilemma faced by missionaries in trying to end the power of the angakkut,

One of the first reformatory steps was that of doing away with the angakoks. As a matter of course the high priests of paganism could not exist in friendly harmony with the propagators of the new faith. But here two peculiar circumstances have to be kept in view. In the first place, on account of the amalgamation of religious observances with the social customs and laws, totally subverting the authority of the angakoks was the same as abolishing the only institution that could be considered to represent appointed magistrates and law-givers. Secondly, the class of angakoks comprised the most eminent persons, both as regards intellectual abilities, personal courage, and dexterity in pursuing the national trade.

The kind of self-interested deception and spiritual manipulation used by the angakkuts is given a greater scale and scope in the numerous all-male secret societies we see in the ethnographic record. I described many of these societies in a previous article, noting of the Amazonian and New Guinea cases in particular, where,

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. 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.

As with many other societies with these sort of men’s cults, Ona hunter-gatherer men of Tierra del Fuego, would impersonate spirit-beings as a way to exercise social control over the women and children. The only European to be initiated into the Ona men’s cult, explorer Lucas Bridges offers a description of its origin and practices in his excellent book the Uttermost Part of the Earth (1948);

the men invented a new branch of Ona demonology: a collection of strange beings--drawn partly from their own imaginations and patly from folk-lore and ancient legends--who would take visible shape by being impersonated by members of the Lodge and thus scare the women away from the secret councils of the Hain [men's cult]. It was given out that these creatures hated women, but were well-disposed towards men, even supplying them with mysterious food during the often very protracted proceedings of the Lodge. Sometimes, however, these beings were short-tempered and hasty. Their irritability was manifested to the women of the encampment by the shouts and uncanny cries arising from the Hain, and, it might be, the scratched faces and bleeding noses with which the men returned home when some especially exciting session was over.

During Bridges’ own initiation into the men’s cult, cult members made loud shouts and yells while in the men’s lodge, and then cut themselves with glass and stone, and made their noses bleed using pointed sticks, to give the illusion to the women and children that they had to fight dangerous spirit-beings and protect Bridges from them during his initiation. Bridges also describes numerous examples of men impersonating spirit-beings and terrorizing the women and children. Bridges also floats the idea that at least some women might know what’s going on, but that they may pretend to be ignorant out of fear of being killed if they indicate they’re aware of the deception. Bridges also notes that the terror of the teen boy initiates before they become aware of the subterfuge is genuine, so the deception seems to have been remarkably successful in being maintained.

Of course, even with all of the violent coercion and deception of the men’s cults, as with the figure of the angakkut, we can point to some of the functions these kind of social roles and institutions play. As I wrote previously,

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.”

With the Inuit angakkuts and the men’s cults we are looking at the ways higher status males in particular used deception and religious justifications to dominate society, but spiritual manipulation has also been commonly used by lower status women in many societies to illicit important benefits, such as greater social standing and support. Anthropologist I.M. Lewis wrote of the way beliefs about spirit possession could used by women whose social position was insecure;

This sex-linked possession syndrome we are tracing seems to be equally prevalent in India and in South East Asia generally. In Utter Pradesh disaffiliated malevolent spirits, or ghosts, haunt the weak and vulnerable and those whose social circumstances are precarious. Thus the young bride 'best by homesickness, fearful that she may not be able to present sons to her husband and his family may label her woes a form of ghost possession'. And, 'if she has been ignored and subordinated, the spirit possession may take an even more dramatic and strident form as a compensation for the obscurity under which she has laboured'. Amongst the Havik Brahmins of Mysore, where as many as twenty per cent of all women are likely to experience peripheral possession at some point in their lives, the pattern is similar. Here it is again mainly insecure young brides (or older, infertile women) who are most exposed to this form of possession. More generally, women as a class are considered weak and vulnerable and thus easily overcome by spirits which, flatteringly, are believed to be attracted by their beauty. In possession, the spirit conveys 'its' demands, causing the husband and his family to mount an expensive ceremony designed to placate it and to persuade it to leave the sick host. Until waves have gained more secure positions in their families of marriage and have given birth to heirs, the illness is liable to recur, thus granting the sick woman all the attention and influence which she is otherwise denied.

Lewis adds that, “Women are, in effect, making a special virtue of adversity and affliction, and, often quite literally, capitalizing on their distress.” Ethnographer Gerhard Lindblom described women pretending to be possessed in order to get material goods from their husbands among the Kamba of East Africa, writing that,

Although the women are more superstitious than the men, it does happen that an intelligent and artful woman may make use of the spirits to get her own desires satisfied. For instance, she may for a long time have longed for a piece of many-coloured cloth, but her lord and mater has not been pleased to grant her desire. She pretends to be possessed, makes a terrible noise, and says that the spirit can only be appeased with a piece of cloth. To recover his lost domestic peace the otherwise dignified Kamba husband gives himself no rest till he has found the desired object, then the spirit disappears.

Lindblom also describes one such case where a married woman asked her husband to kill a fat buck for meat. The husband refused, as he had designated that animal for a religious offering the next time it was needed. Some days later the wife started twitching and uttering shrill cries, exhibiting symptoms that the Kamba consider to be the result of spirit possession. Her husband asked her what was the matter, and she conveyed that she was possessed by a spirit who wanted the buck meat. The husband went to hunt the buck, while the wife, elated at her success, began singing a lullaby to her child which contained lyrics mocking her husband for falling for her deception. Her husband happened to return earlier than expected and overheard her. Outraged, he ended their marriage and sent her back to her father.

That humans are particularly cooperative and reliant on each other to survive is undoubtedly true. Among individuals in every society—either on their own, or in coalitions with others—you’ll find people taking advantage of this fact.

The Momma's Boy Strategy: Why Bonobo Males Tend Not To Form Coalitions

Bonobos are unique compared to most primate species—and across mammals more generally—in being relatively female dominant. I’ve been working on a more comprehensive post about female power structures in mammals, but I figured I’d post something on bonobos in particular first.

Bonobos are moderately sexually dimorphic, with males being larger than the females. They live in multi-male/multi-female groups, mate polygynously, have high male reproductive skew, and have female-biased dispersal, where the females tend to leave their natal groups while the males often stay in the community they were born in. Many of these factors tend to contribute to relatively strong male dominance, but bonobos are more co-dominant, and comparatively female-dominant compared to most other mammals. What explains this?

One popular explanation is the existence of female coalitions which constrain male dominance. The data on violent encounters in captive populations shows females are more likely to group together and attack a male, but many of these cases seem to represent sustained violent bullying of a lower-status male. Primatologist Amy Parish writes that,

Keepers at several institutions report that attacks appear to be provoked by male bluff displays or by male "nervousness," including "annoying" submissive vocalizations. Some attacks have been associated with external tension, as when unfamiliar zoo staff appeared with a hand-reared bonobo infant (Parish and Hamilton 1995). Attacks often occur outside any obvious context, however.

At the LuiKotale field site in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, female coalitions formed most often against individual males who were displaying aggression towards a female’s offspring, which may hint to some evolutionary history of infanticide by males, even though infanticide has not been observed among bonobos.  

The biggest question for me is: why don’t males form coalitions? While female coalitions may play some role in inhibiting male coalitions, I think there are two other main factors at work.

First, bonobos seem to have relaxed feeding competition compared to chimpanzees. Anthropologist Volker Sommer and his colleagues write that,

We found that chimpanzee diet is more diverse, whereas bonobos can rely on a few staple species for longer periods of time – which reflects the more seasonal climate at the chimpanzee site. Both species prefer fruit with elevated contents of water, sugar and fat, but chimpanzees have to cope with much higher levels of anti-feedants such as tannins. Moreover, only bonobos have access to a herb with low levels of fibre but high protein. In addition, chimpanzees invest more time and energy in the removal of seeds from fruit and in digestion. The costs of acquisition of high quality food are thus higher in chimpanzees than in bonobos. The greater constraints in terms of food availability and quality are reflected in greater levels of female-female competition as evidenced by consistently lower levels of gregariousness in chimpanzees measured through the size of nest groups.

Bonobo diets seem more likely to rely on abundantly available fallback foods, reducing competition for resources. So, this relaxed feeding competition seems to make it easier for female bonobos to form coalitions than female chimps, who have stronger female-female competition for food. Similarly, the ‘patchier’ distribution of high-quality foods in chimpanzee territories can lead the males to form coalitions and patrol the boundaries of their territory, to monopolize the best fruit patches where the females come to feed, and prevent rival males from accessing it. For bonobos, no such incentive seems to exist.

The second factor is the strong mother-son relationships bonobos form, and the key role this relationship plays in influencing reproductive success. Adult females and their sons spend more time close to each other, and more time grooming each other, than any other bonobo pair. Arguably this is the most important relationship in bonobo society.

Now, as with many other mammal species, bonobo males have linear dominance hierarchies, with the highest ranked male tending to win intrasexual fights with other males. The highest ranked male also tends to have the greatest reproductive success of any male in the group, fathering as much as 62% of the next generation. But importantly, mothers also play a key role in increasing her son’s reproductive success (and by extension her own) by helping her son get greater access to fertile females and have more mating opportunities. This is particularly important for middle and lower status males, who may not be able to successfully fight higher status males to move up in the dominance hierarchy. Primatologist Martin Surbeck and his colleagues write that,

Overall, higher ranking males were more frequently in proximity to oestrous females, but the mean number of oestrous females in proximity to mid- and low-ranking males increased when their mothers were in proximity. Except for the highest ranking male in the community, the mean number of oestrous females in proximity was higher when their mothers were also in proximity.

“Mean number of oestrous females in proximity of focal males in relation to absence (filled squares) or presence (open circles) of the male's mother. For all but the highest ranking male, the number of oestrous females in proximity was higher when the mother was also in proximity.” From ‘ Mothers matter! Maternal support, dominance status and mating success in male bonobos ( Pan paniscus ) ’

“Mean number of oestrous females in proximity of focal males in relation to absence (filled squares) or presence (open circles) of the male's mother. For all but the highest ranking male, the number of oestrous females in proximity was higher when the mother was also in proximity.” From ‘Mothers matter! Maternal support, dominance status and mating success in male bonobos (Pan paniscus)

Notably, there are examples of bonobo mothers helping their sons sexually coerce other females. Primatologist Klaree Boose writes that,

We observed 56 attempts of direct sexual coercion performed by two males with a combined success rate of 71.4%. Of the two males who engaged in direct sexual coercion behaviors, the son of the alpha female (Gander) participated in direct sexual coercion events significantly more than any other male. We also observed that all but two females were targets of direct sexual coercion, where only the alpha female and mother to Gander (Unga) and mother (Susie) of the previous alpha male (Donnie) did not receive any direct sexual coercionconflicts in which [Gander] was involved were almost always met with coalitionary aggressive support from his mother, the alpha female, who was frequently observed to engage in intense forms of retaliatory aggression including physical contact that would often result in the wounding of targets. All individuals in this group were highly deferent to the alpha female, and she received the least amount of aggression from males during the course of this study. Furthermore, females were found to be most receptive to her son’s solicitations for copulations. Evidence that mothers impact the relative dominance rank and subsequent mating success of their sons has been demonstrated in a wild population of bonobos (Surbeck et al. 2011). It is likely that this male’s relative dominance rank was effectively as high as his mother’s when she was present in the party and, therefore, reduced his likelihood of receiving retaliation for his attempts to directly sexually coerce a female. Our data that the success rate of direct sexual coercion attempts was dependent upon presence of the mother of the aggressor support this hypothesis. We also observed several instances of coalitionary sexual coercion (N=11) where the alpha female supported her son during his attempts to directly sexually coerce three separate females, including two parous adult females (Ana Neema and Lady), neither of whom were close associates of the alpha female.

Putting it all together, here is what I think is going on: there seems to be two fruitful reproductive strategies available to males—either through success in the linear male dominance hierarchy, winning conflicts with other males to increase access to fertile females, or through maintaining a strong bond with their (preferably high ranked) mother, which increases male access to fertile females. You might think that middle status males would join together to overthrow the disproportionately successful alpha, but consider the cost: they’d be reducing the time spent with their mothers, and by extension in the vicinity of oestrous females, to develop a same-sex coalition with no guarantee of success. There is a coordination problem in getting such an initiative started, with the costs of spending reduced time with the mother simply being too great.

For lower status males, here is where I think female coalitions might play a role in inhibiting male dominance, through preventing lower status males—who may not have their mother around, or whose mother is similarly low ranked—from developing effective alliances. I’m speculating based on limited information here, though.

Associated with this, I think the long period of pseudo-estrus found among bonobos, with more consistent non-conceptive sexual behavior, also plays an important role in reducing male dominance over females. Surbeck and his colleagues write that,

Results of the present study indicate that female bonobos derive a source of leverage from the reduced predictability of ovulation, possibly because male reproductive success becomes contingent on proceptive behaviors by estrous females. Bonobo females at LuiKotale were more likely to win a conflict when they were maximally tumescent [swollen].

It seems that the males may defer to fertile females, perhaps to stay in their good graces and have increased sexual access to them.

So, we might again think of the possible fitness strategies available to males: 1) win fights with other males and become the (intrasexual) alpha, or 2) have a higher ranked mother who gets them access to fertile females, or 3) if low ranked, be generally well-liked or inoffensive enough to the females to take advantage of mating opportunities without alienating them. Noting again the lack of feeding competition, none of these scenarios seem to lend themselves well to male coalitions.

The close mother-son bond in particular, in my view, contributes to the (relatively) more peaceful intersexual relationships between males and females among bonobos, even though some sexual coercion does seem to exist.

One final note: there is difficulty in comparing bonobos (or chimps) to humans, because of some of the unique constraints each species faces. For example, bonobos may sustain more peaceful intersexual relationships by virtue of more consistent sex due to prolonged pseudo-estrus, paternal uncertainty, and sperm competition reducing infanticide and direct male-male violent competition for sexual access. In humans, this strategy can have the opposite effect, where paternal uncertainty leads to ubiquitous social institutions that regulate female sexuality, and having multiple sexual relationships can lead to reduced male and kin investment into their highly altricial infants, increase the risk of infanticide, and lead to greater male-male conflict over sex.

Why headhunting men’s cults develop in lowland riverine rainforest areas

There are many ways that a culture can develop, but some outcomes are more probable than others. Multiple factors make a given belief or cultural practice more likely to spread, such as those that have a salient psychological appeal to many people, or that offer them some utility or personal benefits—at least in the context in which they appear—or that can effectively be maintained by force by self-interested parties, or spread through coercion. Similarly, some environments make certain cultural practices more or less likely to appear, like greater polygyny across cultures being associated with greater female contribution to subsistence, and greater polyandry being associated with greater male contribution to subsistence. Considering two other topics I’ve written about previously, headhunting and men’s cults, I thought it would be interesting to see the ways they co-occur in the ethnographic record, and the environmental characteristics associated with them.

Across the South Coast of New Guinea, there was a ‘cultural package’ that was ubiquitous in the region, which included headhunting raids, sex rituals, male cult secrets, and competitive and exchange feasting. They also often had a ‘dual organization’ social system: anthropologist Bruce Knauft describes it this way in his book South Coast New Guinea Cultures (1993),

On the one hand, individual totem-clans or analogous units within a multi-clan longhouse typically maintained their own longhouse section and fertility shrine of trophies, sacrae, and carved ancestral embodiments. Such a group usually constituted a "single canoe" that could act with some autonomy in subsistence, trading, war-making, alliance, treachery, or relocation. On the other hand, these sub-groups - which can in some ways be glossed as fertility clans (Whitehead 1986) - typically coordinated their efforts with those of the longhouse or territorial group as a whole, which usually also shared a larger spiritual or even patronymic identity. In various forms, this tendency toward residential or political aggregation of diverse local groups characterized the social organization of all south coast societies, but was pronounced in language-culture areas that headhunted most frequently, that is, among Asmat, Marind, Kiwai, and Purari (Knauft 220).

In fact, Knauft also notes a really interesting environmental variable that seems to be associated with this kind of social organization around the world:

Though it would be easy to overstate the connection, lowland riverine rain forest areas such as the Sepik, the New Guinea south coast, parts of insular southeast Asia, and the Amazon basin all supported at least some groups that lived in sizable men's houses, developed elaborate dual organization, and practiced headhunting. Few other areas of the world are known to have exhibited this particular cluster of traits. All these propensities were largely or virtually absent in highland New Guinea (Knauft 220).

This is an intriguing pattern, but before it can be addressed a point must be made about the nature of headhunting. Headhunting, quite often, is an incredibly intimate act. Cutting someone’s head off, possessing it, treating it with chemicals, braiding its hair, or defleshing it, putting it on display, keeping it as a family heirloom—the relationship between headhunter and head is often a deeply personal one. When alive, the head itself has a profound and enduring psychological attraction, so the choice of victim can be considered quite important. As I wrote previously:

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.

Now, let’s look at headhunting and its ritual significance among the Asmat hunter-gatherers of New Guinea:

The heads acquired are intended for the initiation of sons and younger brothers, nephews and cousins. At times it is hard for a hunter to decide who is to be favored. All the different sections of the village, grouped around the bachelors’ houses, have claims and those who have treated the others expect a feast in return. Often the claims of the different clans would lead to altercations and sometimes to bloodshed. On such occasions the corpses of the headhunting victims would be the subject of fights, would be taken and retaken by the different factions. It has happened that village unity has been permanently damaged by such fights.

A couple important elements here: first, the heads are a ‘currency’ which older males use to ‘pay’ for the initiation of their young male relatives into the men’s group. Second, multiple clans often cooperate on these headhunting expeditions, and thus fight over the spoils (though fights over the spoils can also reflect feasting dynamics, gifts owed, or existing social conflicts, so it’s more complex than just a direct fight over the head alone). Third, acquiring heads benefits the men who seize them, as well as their lineage through initiating their relatives. They also can benefit the wives of successful headhunters: “The beheaders of the victims are sometimes the wives of the headhunters. This is one way in which a greater warrior, tesumejipic, enables his wife also to become tesumaj, great.” Headhunting is also wrapped up in feuding dynamics between groups, with headhunts generating reciprocal revenge raids after each attack. Asmat religious beliefs associated with ceremonial cycles requiring heads also played a role in headhunting practices.

There is one final element worth emphasizing about Asmat headhunting, which is how it was connected to complex cultural beliefs about identity:  

The informants emphasized repeatedly that the initiate is smeared with the ash of the burnt hair and with the blood of the victim. This is explained by the fact that the initiate assumes the name of the victim. This identity between victim and initiate will later prove very useful. When meeting the initiate, even after many years, relatives of the murdered person will always call him by his assumed name, the victim’s name, and treat him as their relative. They dance and sing for him and give him presents. It is strictly forbidden to kill people from other villages who, because of their ritual names, are related to one’s village. These people are often chosen to be negotiators.

It’s worth repeating that the initiate given the name in these ceremonies did not kill the victim himself, but it was likely an older male relative of his that did so. The relatives of the victim embracing someone who is essentially their enemy is quite striking: though of course, they probably didn’t see it that way. The designation of the name meant that some aspect of the spirit of the headhunting victim was from then on associated with the initiate, making the relatives’ embrace of the individual from the enemy group perfectly sensible. While they may have sought revenge against the group and the individual who did the killing, the young man who received their dead relative’s name represented a piece of him living on, and thus warranted being treated as kin.

Now, using the broader pattern identified by Knauft, and the Asmat case study, let’s try to put together some of the socioecological factors at play in the general headhunting/men’s cult complex:

1) In an environment of chronic raiding, aggregating together into larger groups provides protection and offers advantages in intergroup conflict. Because of this, multiple semi-autonomous clans come together to cooperate, and work together in headhunting raids.

2) Among small-scale populations without the wheel or horses, travel over land is relatively slow, but waterways can offer rapid and distant journeys. For groups living near navigable rivers, and where people may use canoes to travel to fish or visit relatives, you can have extensive interactions between even relatively remote groups. Knauft writes that, “In coastal and riverine areas where major settlements were far apart but readily accessible, an approach-avoidance fascination with a distant enemy was ripe for cultural and symbolic elaboration in headhunting.”

3) When resources are clumped together spatially, they can be more easily monopolized by coalitions exercising force, and tend to be a prime source of conflict between groups. In the Asmat case, control of rich sago patches and desirable fishing grounds were an impetus for many political alliances as well as a significant source of conflict.

4) Points 1 and 3 intersect in Asmat foraging practices, where men would patrol and protect women while they worked. Anthropologist David Eyde writes that;

It used to be the case that an entire village or men's house group of a village would usually go to the sago or fishing areas together. Such an outing provided protection for the entire group. Good warriors would remain in canoes up and downstream from the area where the group was working. They would give warnings if the enemy approached. Other men accompanied the women into the forest to help with the work, but especially to protect them from ambush. In doing all this, old people and young children were sometimes left without adequate protection in the village, where they were prey to surprise attacks.

5) Sago patches are important to control because individual men and clans can gain prestige from hosting large feasts. The sago is extracted and processed largely by women, and men gain status (and reproductive benefits), by having multiple wives to work the sago for later feasting.

6) Where most of the subsistence is procured or produced by women, men are more likely to spend their time engaged in warfare. As F.W. Up De Graff wrote of the Jivaro in the Amazon, another lowland riverine rainforest society that engaged in headhunting; “The work is divided very unevenly between the sexes, the larger share falling to the lot of the women. They do the cooking, spinning, packing, and have the care of the plantations…The men are before everything else warriors--the protectors of their womenfolk from the raids of neighbours.”

7) Strong intergroup competition means groups that are more effective at inducing cooperation among males for purposes of collective violence are more likely to survive, and thrive, thus the men’s houses and rituals which are often used to induce solidarity and teach men valuable skills such as conduct in war. The dual organization system allows for wider cross-cutting alliances between clans to cooperate in war.

8) The chronic ‘frenemy’ dynamic between groups, of temporary alliances, conflict, revenge, and then self-identification of the enemy through headhunting and male initiates assuming the name of the dead (for more on name taboos across cultures, see here). This new identity can be useful in negotiating between hostile groups, potentially reducing enmity and forming new alliances advantageous in war. A similar dynamic can be seen, once again, among the Jivaro. Anthropologist Henning Siverts writes that,

Although they form a linguistic and cultural entity—an ethnic group—they do not constitute a TRIBE if we take tribe to mean a permanent political group or corporation. The Jivaro are rather an aggregate of neighborhoods called jivarias in Ecuador and caserios in Peru, whose members consider each other as ceremonial foes or temporary allies within an all-embracing kin- and affinal network. As headhunters they recognized only Jivaro heads as worth taking and shrinking into /¢an¢a/ to be displayed and celebrated at the great victory feast following a successful headhunting expedition. In other words, a Jivaro is a potential /¢an¢a/ while all others, including the white people are just foreigners.

To repeat and summarize, in this region 1) women procure most of the subsistence, 2) this allows men to spend more time pursuing status, particularly in the realm of warfare and headhunting, 3) heads are used to initiate younger male relatives into the men’s group, benefiting an individual man, his clan’s prestige, and potentially his wife or wives, 4) settlements placed next to rivers and the use of canoes allows greater contact between distant groups, for good and for ill, 5) settlement placement affects competition for forest resources like sago, and desirable fishing territory on rivers, 6) kin groups/clans form alliances for defense/war/resources/marriage/rituals, 7) alliances can be fragile, temporary, subject to treachery due to conflicts of interest between clans, and between individual clans and the larger social unit, 8) warfare is personal and endemic between clans and rival camps, leading to associated beliefs about headhunting and the nature of identity, which regulate and make sense of conflict, 9) men’s houses, male cult secrets and rituals which increase male solidarity likely increase success in war.

There’s still a lot more worth discussing on this topic, so I might build off this in a future post.

Academic Resources

This page contains a list of primarily anthropological, but also general social science resources—books, papers, films, and other relevant materials—that I consider informative, or have otherwise enjoyed. I do not necessarily endorse everything in these—or any—works other than my own, but I consider everything on here worth checking out. Links are offered where materials are publicly available. This list will likely be expanded considerably in the future.

Book recommendations

I have broken these recommendations up into categories based on similarities these works share in terms of modes of analysis/theoretical framework and time.

Early Comparative (1890’s-1950’s)

The History of Human Marriage (1891) by Edward Westermarck

Slavery as an Industrial System (1900) by H.J. Nieboer

Primitive Secret Societies (1908) by Hutton Webster

Totemism and Exogamy [volumes I-IV] (1910) by James Frazer

Our Primitive Contemporaries (1934) by George Peter Murdock

Early Quantitative (1940’s-1970’s)

Social Structure (1949) by George Peter Murdock

The Status of Women in Preindustrial Societies (1978) by Martin King Whyte

Late Comparative (1970’s-Today)

Manhood in the Making (1990) by David Gilmore

Sick Societies (1992) by Robert B. Edgerton

The Lifeways of Hunter-Gatherers (1995) by Robert L. Kelly

Late Quantitative (1980’s-Today)

Constructing Frames of Reference: An Analytical Method for Archaeological Theory Building Using Ethnographic and Environmental Data Sets (2001) by Lewis Binford


Apostolou, M. 2007. Sexual Selection Under Parental Choice: The Role of Parents in the Evolution of Human Mating. Evolution and Human Behavior.

Apostolou, M. 2010. Sexual selection under parental choice in agropastoral societies. Evolution and Human Behavior.

Glowacki, L. & Wrangham, R. 2013. The Role of Rewards in Motivating Participation in Simple Warfare. Human Nature.

Glowacki, L. & von Rueden. 2015. Leadership solves collective action problems in small-scale societies. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B.

Glowacki, L. & Wrangham, R. 2015. Warfare and reproductive success in a tribal population. PNAS.

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.

Knauft, B. 1987. Reconsidering Violence in Simple Human Societies. Current Anthropology.

Marlowe, F. 2003. The Mating System of Foragers in the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample. Cross-Cultural Research.

Marlowe, F. 2005. Hunter-Gatherers and Human Evolution. Evolutionary Anthropology.

Rosaldo, M.Z. 1974. ‘Woman, Culture and Society: A Theoretical Overview’ in M.Z. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere (eds) Woman, Culture and Society. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Sahlins, M. 1963. Poor Man, Rich Man, Big-Man, Chief: Political Types in Melanesia and Polynesia. Comparative Studies in Society and History.

Singh, M. 2018. The cultural evolution of shamanism. Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

Smuts, B. 1992. Male aggression against women: an evolutionary perspective. Human Nature.

Walker, R.S. et al. 2011. Evolutionary History of Hunter-Gatherer Marriage Practices. PLoS One

Wrangham, R. & Glowacki, L. 2012. Intergroup Aggression in Chimpanzees and War in Nomadic Hunter-Gatherers: Evaluating the Chimpanzee Model. Human Nature.

Cross-Cultural Volumes (1980’s-Today)

Rituals of Manhood (1982) edited by Gilbert Herdt

Gender in Amazonia and Melanesia: An Exploration of the Comparative Method (2001) edited by Thomas Gregor and Donald Tuzin

Human Behavioral Ecology/Sociobiology (1980’s-Today)

Despotism and Differential Reproduction: A Darwinian View of Human History (1983) by Laura Betzig

Homicide (1988) by Martin Daly and Margo Wilson

The Origin of War: The Evolution of a Male-Coalitional Reproductive Strategy (1995) by J.M.G. van der Dennen.

Why Sex Matters: A Darwinian Look at Human Behavior (2000) by Bobbi S. Low

Adaptation and Human Behavior (2000) edited by Lee Cronk, Napoleon Chagnon, and William Irons

Mammalian Behavioral Ecology/Primatology (1980’s-Today)

Primeval Kinship (2008) by Bernard Chapais

Mammal Societies (2016) by Tim Clutton-Brock

Chimpanzees and Human Evolution (2017) edited by Martin Mueller, Richard Wrangham, and David Pilbeam

General Social Science/History/Biography

The Campaigns of Napoleon (1966) by David G. Chandler

Coup d'Etat: A Practical Handbook (1968) by Edward Luttwak

Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years (1994) by Elizabeth Wayland Barber

Understanding Early Civilizations (2003) by Bruce Trigger.

Codes of the Underworld (2009) by Diego Gambetta

Ethnographic Films

The Hunters (1958) Part 1 and Part 2

Dead Birds (1963) —12 minute clip

—The book Gardens of War (1968) by Robert Gardner, the anthropologist who made the film, is also worth checking out.

A Man Called “Bee”: Studying the Yanomamo (1975)

Fictionalized ethnographic films

In The Land of the Headhunters (1914)

Nanook of the North (1922)

Cannibal Tours (1988)

The Human Systems and Behavior Lab


Omo Valley Culture and Behavior Project

Cross-Cultural Databases

D-PLACE – Database of Places, Language, Culture, and Environment

Standard Cross-Cultural Sample Codebook

Ethnographic Atlas Codebook

Sex, Revenge, and the Social Fabric

The imperious drive of sex is capable of impelling individuals, reckless of consequences while under its spell, toward behavior which may imperil or disrupt the cooperative relationships upon which social life depends. The countless interpersonal bonds out of which human association is forged, complex and often delicately balanced, can ill suffer the strain of the frustrations and aggressions inevitably generated by indiscriminate competition over sexual favors. Society, therefore, cannot remain indifferent to sex but must seek to bring it under control – George Murdock, Social Structure, 1949

nam fuit ante Helenam cunnus taeterrima bellī causa – Horace, Satires, 35 BC

Social living necessarily entails certain conflicts of interest. All societies require norms and institutions to sustain general peace and cooperation among its population, as within even the most cohesive groups individuals’ needs and preferences will frequently diverge. Often, such conflicts will occur in domains that are quite comprehensible; over resources, status and personal relationships, or reproductive matters. By necessity, every surviving society developed cultural traditions (with variable success) to regulate behaviors of significant social consequence—like theft or violence—and few behaviors are more consequential than the act of sex.

Some of the ways that sex is regulated are universal across cultures. All societies have taboos on incest, for example. I know of no society where sexual relationships or marriage between a parent and a child, or between siblings, is considered socially acceptable. Psychologist Norbert Bischof notes that “Exceptions to this rule are extremely rare, when they do occur it is mostly a) in the form of privilege of small groups (e.g. royal families), or b) in conjunction with certain rituals.” There is good reason to think this universality of the incest taboo at least partially stems from certain biological foundations, as inbreeding avoidance is well documented across a wide variety of animal species.

On the other hand, the incest taboo is often simply one part of a larger system for classifying kin and mediating social relationships. Long-standing social traditions tell you whose name, and perhaps property, you inherit, who your close and distant relatives are, who you are allowed to—or forbidden from—marrying or mating with, and what will happen to your own name and property when you die. Such social proscriptions are not always followed, of course, but these kind of traditions represent guidelines for navigating complex social dilemmas, even if they are not always optimal ones. When we look at the most common social norms and traditions across cultures, we might expect that the most widespread practices tell us not only something about the biological foundations of human behavior, but also the common ways social systems have evolved to regulate conflict.

In all societies, people form pair bonds, and in most societies the pair bond, often formally recognized through marriage, comes with the presumption of significant or complete sexual exclusivity. In his work Social Structure (1949), anthropologist George Murdock remarks that, “Taboos on adultery are extremely widespread,” noting that they appear in 120 of the 148 societies in his sample, and that even among most of the 28 exceptions it is only conditionally permitted by special circumstances, such as ‘wife lending’ between male allies. Adultery is also widely viewed with moral disapproval across modern nation states. A 2014 Pew Research survey found that a median of 78% of people across 40 nations considered a married person having an affair to be morally unacceptable, and only 7% of people considered it morally acceptable. This raises the question of why adultery should be such a widely condemned behavior across a diverse array of societies.

To some degree, this probably reflects underlying human instincts towards pair bonding and mate guarding: in other words, people are opposed to cheating because they don’t want to be cheated on. At the same time, this doesn’t necessarily explain why people would care about other people cheating on each other. For this, we might want to consider the effects that adultery—and unrestrained competition for mates in general—can have on a social group.

In Despotism and Differential Reproduction (1983) anthropologist Laura Betzig cites a significant amount of ethnographic evidence demonstrating the link between violent conflict and sex—particularly in men’s attempt to obtain and control it;

Notoriously, the major precipitating cause of club fights among the Yanomamo is: conflict over women (e.g., Chagnon, 1983:119). Disputes over women “stand apart” among modern Turks, invariably calling for violence (Stirling, 1965:270); elopements may lead to physical fighting among the Mohla in the Western Punjab (Eglar, 1960:18); adultery is regarded as the most serious crime among the Semang (Schebesta, 1928:22-80); and over 90% of Tiwi disputes were matters in which women were somehow involved (Hart and Pilling, 1960:90). Among Kapauku, Pospisil noted that most Wars start because of violations of a husband’s exclusive sexual rights (1958:167); Linton found Marquesan killings followed two motives: sexual jealousy and revenge (1939:21-76). Among the Saramacca of the upper Suriname River basin, quarrels over women were more frequent than any other kinds of disputes (Kahn, 1931:97); and among Trumai, “the chief source of conflict in the village was sex” (Murphy and Quain, 1955:58).

Independent of direct fights over access to women or adultery, males may also behave violently—either opportunistically, or in more formal, socially appropriate contexts—to signal their courage, status, ability to protect, or other desirable qualities in order to attract women. Anthropologist DA Turton noted that among the Mursi pastoralists of Ethiopia that, “There is no doubt that dueling is associated, first and foremost, with unmarried men... [they] are highly motivated to take part in ceremonial dueling because it is the principal culturally valued means by which a young man seeks to attract the attention of unmarried girls.” Dueling systems like these may be one way of regulating in-group male-male competition in a less socially costly fashion than if it were expressed in less restrained ways. Conversely, it may promote and help maintain more aggressive behaviors that a society might otherwise want to keep in check.

Sometimes women may implicitly or explicitly encourage such violent behavior on the part of the men, particularly when it is directed against outsiders. Ethnologist Charles Hose writes that, “The Iban women urge on the men to the taking of heads; they make much of those who bring them home, and sometimes a girl will taunt her suitor by saying that he has not been brave enough to take a head; and in some cases of murder by Sea Dayaks, the murderer has no doubt been egged on in this way.” Similarly, anthropologist Bruce Knauft notes that among the Asmat of New Guinea, “women disparaged and were loath to marry men who had not proven themselves by taking heads in warfare.” In The Cattle Brings Us To Our Enemies (2010), anthropologist J. Terence McCabe writes that, “Young women will sing songs about young men who are successful raiders, and such individuals often receive the benefits of their adulation.”

The pursuit of sex can be a key motivator to engage in violence, and successful application of force to obtain social or political power may provide extensive reproductive benefits. In their paper ‘The evolutionary foundations of revolution’, sociologist Joseph Lopreato and F.P.A. Green write that, “ruling powers, including successful revolutionaries and their entourage, typically have sexual access to a disproportionate number of mates and therefore contribute an extraordinary number of offspring, legitimate or otherwise, to the population pool.” The reproductive benefits that can be conferred to males through conquest and the acquisition of power are also reflected in genetic data. In his book Who We Are and How We Got Here (2016), geneticist David Reich notes a common trend of sex-biased admixture across many human populations, writing that, “This pattern of sex-asymmetric population mixture is disturbingly familiar... the common thread is that males from populations with more power tend to pair with females from populations with less.”

Of course, while fitness considerations are key to understanding why sex should be such a prime source of conflict—as I discussed here, here, here, and here—there is also a social process at work that requires explanation: namely why sexual violations should be so commonly met with an act of revenge.

Anthropologists have long known that reciprocity is an important mechanism governing cooperation in many traditional societies. In his classic work The Gift (1925), Marcell Mauss writes that,

In the economic and legal systems that have preceded our own, one hardly ever finds a simple exchange of goods, wealth, and products in transactions concluded by individuals. First, it is not individuals but collectivities that impose obligations of exchange and contract upon each other. The contracting parties are legal entities: clans, tribes, and families who confront and oppose one another either in groups who meet face to face in one spot, or through their chiefs, or in both these ways at once. Moreover, what they exchange is not solely property and wealth, movable and immovable goods, and things economically useful. In particular, such exchanges are acts of politeness: banquets, rituals, military services, women, children, dances, festivals, and fairs, in which economic transaction is only one element, and in which the passing on of wealth is only one feature of a much more general and enduring contract. Finally, these total services and counter-services are committed to in a somewhat voluntary form by presents and gifts, although in the final analysis they are strictly compulsory, on pain of private or public warfare

Of course, there is a corollary to this, which is that the logic of reciprocity will also, on occasion, demand retribution. Thus, “To refuse to give, to fail to invite, just as to refuse to accept, is tantamount to declaring war; it is to reject the bond of alliance and commonality.” Anthropologist Ernst Halbmayer notes that among the Yukpa horticulturalists of northwest Venezuela, the various subgroups, “generally see each other as enemies... Their relations have been characterized by negative reciprocity, war and wife-stealing.”

Revenge and fights over women and sex are the prime motives for warfare across Amazonia. Anthropologists Robert S. Walker and Drew H. Bailey write that,

In order of importance, the tallied motives for killings (including multiple responses) were revenge for previous killings or other wrong-doings like adultery or sorcery (n=63 or 70% of responses), jealousy over women (n=16 or 18% of responses), gain of captive women and children (n=6 or 7% of responses), fear or deterrence of an impending attack (n=3 or 3% of responses), and lastly the theft of material goods (n=2 or 2% of responses).

In 54% of the external raids recorded in Walker and Bailey’s sample, at least one woman was captured.

This social logic of negative reciprocity, which may perpetuate long-running feuds between groups, also often leads men to take extreme measures to protect their honor and status within their group. In his book Blood Revenge (1984), anthropologist Christopher Boehm writes that, “To fail to retaliate homicidally in many contexts used to result in severe damage to one’s honor, in that the disapproval of the tribal moral community was so intense that it became almost intolerable.” Boehm noted that most feuding between families among the Montenegrins began with an insult to honor, and that the commonly noted causes are “abduction of a maiden to marry her, seduction of maidens, adultery, runaway wives, and a breach of betrothal agreements, as well as disputes over pastures.”

Anthropologist E. Adamson Hoebel writes that, “A Comanche male who had suffered a legal wrong was under social obligation to take action against the offender. For a man not to do so was not looked upon as an act of social grace; indeed, such behavior was a social disgrace.” As if to drive home what one of the most consequential wrongs a man could suffer was, Hoebel adds that, “Adultery and taking another's wife were direct attacks upon the prestige of the wife's husband. Both acts were unmistakable challenges which could not be ignored by the man who would maintain enough face to make life livable.”

In his book on the Yanomami, anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon gives an example of the way a man unable to protect his honor by force might expect to be treated in some societies;

Although Rerebawä has displayed his ferocity in many ways, one incident in particular illustrates what his character can be like. Before he left his own village to take his new wife in Bisaasi-teri, he had an affair with the wife of an older brother. When it was discovered, his brother attacked him with a club. Rerebawä responded furiously: He grabbed an ax and drove his brother out of the village after soundly beating him with the blunt side of the single-bit ax. His brother was so intimidated by the thrashing and promise of more to come that he did not return to the village for several days. I visited this village with Kaobawä shortly after this event had taken place; Rerebawä was with me as my guide. He made it a point to introduce me to this man. He approached his hammock, grabbed him by the wrist, and dragged him out on the ground: “This is the brother whose wife I screwed when he wasn’t around!” A deadly insult, one that would usually provoke a bloody club fight among a more valiant Yanomamö. The man did nothing. He slunk sheepishly back into his hammock, shamed, but relieved to have Rerebawä release his grip (Chagnon 31).

Of course, we can also think of the ways the logic of negative reciprocity may successfully prevent some conflicts. If you know with a great deal of certainty that any social violation on your part will be met with extreme retribution, you may be less likely to act out in the first place.

Absent social norms and institutions that enable effective conflict prevention and resolution, a never-ending game of tit-for-tat becomes an increasingly likely outcome.

The Politics of Chimpanzee Societies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Initiation Prelude [Fiction]

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

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

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

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

[There was a prolonged period of silence here.]

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

[Another period of silence.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are things… [Illegible]

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

Omens of War and the Promise of Prophecy

And to seal his prayer, farseeing Zeus sent down a sign. He launched two eagles soaring high from a mountain ridge ...All were dumbstruck, watching the eagles trail from sight, people brooding, deeply, what might come to pass ... Until the old warrior Halitherses, Master's son, broke the silence for them: the one who outperformed all men of his time at reading bird-signs, sounding out the omens, rose and spoke, distraught for each man there – Homer, The Odyssey, 8th century BC.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forbidden Utterances: Naming the Dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, an old woman.”

“Do you remember what she was called?”

“Yes, I believe they called her -.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking a wife

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cause of Illness

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

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

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

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

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

There are a few interesting elements to this passage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Social Dynamics of Sorcery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ritual mutilation, human consumption, and contemporary insulation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Tale of Sorcery and Marriage Among the Gebusi

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Knauft goes in to more detail:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Human Penis is Remarkably Boring

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


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

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

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

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

            Homo sapiens: the great ape with the great penis!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m afraid your dick is remarkably boring.

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

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

Yanomami Warfare: How Much Did Napoleon Chagnon Get Right?

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

One of the most acrimonious debates in anthropology over the last few decades revolves around patterns of warfare among the Yanomami forager-horticulturalists of the Amazon. What began as a contentious, but scholarly debate in the late 1980’s/1990’s became a 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.

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.