Alan Lomax (1962:261)
Once upon a time, it was not unusual for anthropologists to see all hunter-gatherers as “primitive peoples,” still living in the “stone-age,” whose lifestyles were assumed to be more or less identical to those of our paleolithic ancestors. The field has changed drastically since that time, and today's anthropologists know better than to express such “hopelessly naïve” and “reductive” opinions.
Nevertheless, “stone age hunters” are still with us as far as the popular media is concerned, as is evident from an article that appeared on the Worldwide Web in July, 2007, Face to face with Stone Age Man: The Hadzabe tribe of Tanzania. In this account, the authors describe “a four-day quest covering thousands of miles by light aircraft, Land Rover and, finally, on foot,” to “reach back in time and meet our living human ancestors from countless millennia ago. . .” The Hadzabe (aka Hadza) are described as a “mysterious Stone Age tribe . . . whose way of life has scarcely changed since human evolution began.”
These nomadic hunter-gatherers live as all humans once lived: wandering the plains with the changing seasons, killing game for survival, constantly avoiding aggressive wild beasts, and, finally, dying as they were born, under the sun and the stars.This is exactly the sort of thing that inevitably causes professorial eyes to roll and heads to wag sagaciously. The “myth” of the “stone-age hunter-gatherer” is always fair game for even the most politically incorrect of social scientists, what everyone in the field feels duty bound to “deconstruct.” But why, exactly? Doesn’t it seem reasonable to assume that the Hadza are in fact living in more or less the same manner as all humans were living, back at the evolutionary stage when we were all hunter-gatherers?
Political correctness considerations aside, the real problem with such thinking lies with two key words: “assume” and “stage.” We can assume all sorts of things about the lifestyle of “early man,” but such assumptions tend to be based only minimally on evidence, and maximally on something halfway between educated guessing and wishful thinking. It may certainly seem as though the Hadza are living in “the stone age,” but what can we really know about the lifestyle of humans who existed tens of thousands of years ago -- and what do we really mean when we talk about the “stone age,” as though all of human history could be neatly divided into stages?
While significant advances in our understanding of prehistory have certainly been made by physical anthropologists and archaeologists, the fragmentary and often controversial “stone and bone” evidence can take us only so far. A frustrating gap yawns between such evidence -- tangible, datable (sometimes), and unquestionably representative of some past situation, but also fragmentary and difficult to interpret -- and the evidence gathered from living peoples through anthropological field work, which can be plentiful, rich in meaning, and somewhat easier to understand (through direct questioning of informants), but much more difficult to assess historically. Thus the skepticism of today’s anthropologists is certainly justified in the face of the seemingly insurmountable difficulties inherent in any of the usual attempts to reconstruct our distant past.
While most anthropologists are willing to accept, or at least consider, the implications of genetic evidence retrievable from the DNA of contemporary populations, there has been great reluctance to consider the possibility of a cultural correlate, retrievable through the comparative study of contemporary indigenous peoples. It stands to reason that all sorts of changes must have taken place among all human lineages over the last 150,000 years, even the most isolated. And there is no lack of evidence for that.
If, for example, the ancestors of the Bushmen were the original inhabitants of southern Africa, their lifestyle would have been quite different in a great many respects from that of their Kalahari descendants, displaced to the desert by the relatively recent migrations of Bantu farming peoples over the last two to four thousands years, and thus forced to adapt to one of the most challenging environments on Earth.
And if the ancestors of today’s Pygmy groups lived as “pristine” tropical forest hunter-gatherers during the Old Stone Age, their lifestyle would have been significantly different from that of their modern descendants, symbiotically tied to neighboring villagers, on whom they have long relied for farm produce, tobacco and metal tools. But an important question remains: did such groups alter their lifestyle and their value system entirely, or make only those changes absolutely necessary for survival?
The Hunter-Gatherer Paradigm
The perennial debate has centered on the question of whether, and to what extent, certain groups now dubbed “hunter-gatherers” or “foragers” can be regarded as in any way representative of ancestors from the distant past. The great majority of today’s anthropologists would no doubt insist that all living peoples must be seen as fully modern and thus as fully evolved as “we” are.
What has too often been lost in the debate is the fact that there is, in any case, really no such thing as “hunter-gatherer” culture in general, but a great many different such cultures, with certain things in common and other things not in common, so in order to claim “hunter-gatherers” represent our earliest ancestors it is necessary to universalize them first, which means removing most reference to specifics and in effect “essentializing” them out of any real existence and into some idealized evolutionary “stage” -- i.e., turning them into a myth; which has, of course, become a standard complaint among the many skeptics.
In this context the genetic research emerges as a welcome beacon of hard evidence and specificity in a sea of vague assumptions, generalizations, claims, counter-claims and denials – and the beacon is very clearly pointed in one direction. Not “hunter-gatherers” in general, but a very specific group of hunter-gatherers, with a remarkable “pedigree.”
Over and over again, as we have seen, it is the African Pygmies and Bushmen who are singled out in the genetic literature as uniquely representative of the ancestral group from which all living humans descend. But what can this mean in cultural terms? Since they currently live in totally different environments, both natural and social, separated by vast distances, isn’t it safe to assume that each population has long since adapted to its environment in completely different ways since their ancestors diverged, tens of thousands of years ago?
Foragers and Farmers
A recent genetic study by Etienne Patin et al. (2009) provides us with a useful clue by raising important cultural issues pertaining explicitly to the question of adaptation:
The sequence of the divergence events underlying the current differentiation of Western Pygmy, Eastern Pygmy and agricultural groups remains unclear. All Pygmy groups share idiosyncratic cultural and phenotypic traits, but substantial linguistic and genetic differentiation between Pygmy groups is also observed. These observations call into question the postulated common origin of African “Pygmy” populations. Indeed, if Western and Eastern Pygmy groups share a more recent ancestry with their respective agricultural neighbors than with each other, then they may have acquired their shared specific traits by convergence rather than by shared ancestry. (Patin et al. 2009:5)The language of each Pygmy group is derived from that of neighboring Bantu farmers, a pattern found over and over again among Pygmies throughout central Africa. Certain other cultural differences between the various Pygmy groups have also been noted. It has been suggested therefore, in the words of linguist Roger Blench (1999), that the whole notion of Pygmies as a distinct, culturally unified population could be an ethnographic “fiction,” and that each Pygmy population may be more closely related, both genetically and culturally, to the farmers with whom it has become associated than to any other Pygmy group.
Indeed, significant cultural differences between Pygmy populations, due largely to their association with different farming villages, have been noted by Barry Hewlett, who concluded on that basis that the many “patterns of diversity” make it “difficult if not impossible to refer to an African ‘Pygmy’ culture” (Hewlett 1996:244).
Since Hewlett concentrated almost exclusively on the current state of Pygmy life, characterized by varying degrees of external influence, dependency, and change, with little or no attention paid to those aspects of their culture most likely to be survivals from a common past, the broader significance of such a finding is difficult to assess. Regardless, interpretations of this sort reflect a deep-seated reluctance on the part of many anthropologists to acknowledge that anything particularly meaningful might lie behind the so-called “myths” so often associated with Pygmy and Bushmen foragers.
In such a context, the conclusions of Patin and his associates take on a special importance. On the basis of their analysis of the genetic evidence, “Western and Eastern Pygmies share a recent common ancestry, indicating that their shared specific traits, such as hunting and gathering in rainforest ecosystems and short stature, were acquired by shared ancestry rather than by convergence” (Patin et al.:8). Specifically,
we show that the ancestors of Pygmy hunter–gatherers and farming populations started to diverge ~60,000 years ago. This indicates that the transition to agriculture—occurring in Africa ~5,000 years ago—was not responsible for the separation of the ancestors of modern-day Pygmies and farmers. We also show that Western and Eastern Pygmy groups separated roughly 20,000 years ago from a common ancestral population. This finding suggests that the shared physical and cultural features of Pygmies were inherited from a common ancestor, rather than reflecting convergent adaptation to the rainforest (from the Author’s Summary, Patin et al.:2 – my emphasis).While the Patin group focused on cultural practices associated with subsistence, such as hunting, gathering, honey collecting, etc., their findings suggest that other cultural features might also be due to inheritance from the same common ancestor identified in this, and so many of the other, genetic studies. But which features, exactly? And what of the Bushmen, whose genes are apparently rooted in the same deep ancestry?
Music and Language
The possibility of a long lost linguistic connection between Pygmies and Bushmen has been proposed by genetic anthropologist Sarah Tishkoff, whose research suggested that “[t]he shared ancestry, identified here, of Khoesan-speaking populations with the Pygmies of central Africa suggests the possibility that Pygmies, who lost their indigenous language, may have originally spoken a Khoesan-related language . . .” (Tishkoff et al. 2009:1041)
If certain Pygmy groups had languages that could be related to Khoisan, the family of languages spoken by most Bushmen groups, or even if they only had the clicks so closely associated with Khoisan languages, then such a commonality would have to be taken very seriously, as it would strongly suggest a common origin stemming from the culture of a common ancestral group. While, on the basis of the genetic evidence, this same group could be considered ancestral to all living humans, the fact that African Pygmies and Bushmen have been isolated for so long that their genetic markers occupy the deepest branches of the human family tree suggests that this same isolation might have preserved aspects of the ancestral culture as well.
Realistically, however, though Tishkoff’s reasoning is sound, the linguistic association is simply not there -- and the fact that Pygmies and Bushmen currently speak totally different languages, from completely unrelated linguistic families, has contributed to the general tendency among anthropologists to treat these two populations as though they had no more in common culturally than any other hunter-gatherer groups anywhere in the world.
Partly for this reason, partly due to extreme skepticism regarding the possibility that any tradition could survive more or less intact over many thousands of years, the full impact of the genetic discoveries has yet to be felt among the great majority of today's cultural anthropologists. Without actually being able to return to the archaic past in a time machine, the skeptics insist, we have no way of knowing what the culture of our ancestors was like.
But we do have a time machine, remember? In the form of a language, of sorts -- the very special musical language I’ve been referring to as Pygmy/Bushmen style, or P/B. We have already examined some of the implications P/B has for the study of our earliest musical traditions, but the same evidence can take us even farther, because it holds a vital clue – a remarkable piece of the puzzle of human history that is, in my view, both incontrovertible and decisive.
Just as the various phylogenetic trees represent the most compelling evidence for a deep biological connection between certain groups of Western Pygmies, Eastern Pygmies and Bushmen, the most compelling evidence for a comparably deep cultural connection can be found in their music -- or, more precisely, the highly distinctive stylistic and structural qualities of what is clearly a shared musical language.
If, in fact, we are transported tens of thousands of years into the past by the distinctive, unmistakable sound of African Pygmy and Bushmen music, we can take its hand, so to speak, to be led inexorably from the aesthetic to the social, from musical style to cultural style, from the distinctive organization of sound to the equally distinctive social structure appropriate to the production of that sound.
A Musical Mirror
The distinguished French-Israeli musicologist, Simha Arom, began his career playing French Horn with the Kol Israel Symphony in Jerusalem. Bored with the routine of an orchestra musician, Arom eagerly accepted an invitation from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs to work with musicians from the Central African Republic, as part of a cultural exchange program.
I’ve already related the story of how, while in Central Africa, he heard some music that would change his life, the sound of a group of Pygmies singing in the street beneath his hotel window. From then on he was to work tirelessly, recording and analyzing both the music of the Aka Pygmies and that of other tribal groups in Africa with similarly intricate instrumental traditions involving the complex interweaving of independent parts.
On the surface, it might seem as though Arom were focusing exclusively on the purely musical aspects of Pygmy performances, the sort of thing that can be completely represented on the five lines of the musical staff, at the expense of the social and cultural contexts that motivate all the notes and make them meaningful.
On the contrary, Arom’s unusually deep absorption in the music itself enabled him to more fully appreciate the manner in which the contrapuntal interweavings of Pygmy music were a reflection of their richly interwoven social life, and the deeply ingrained egalitarian values that grounded it. I want to dwell for a while on some of Arom’s observations, which provide us with useful insights on the intimate relation between these two seemingly very different realms: Pygmy music and Pygmy culture:
[Aka] music is collective and everyone participates; there is no apparent hierarchy in the distribution of parts; each person seems to enjoy complete liberty; the voices swell out in all directions; solo lines alternate in the same piece without any preset order, while overall the piece remains in strict precision! It is this which is perhaps the most striking thing about this music, if one had to sum it up in a few words: a simultaneous dialectic between rigor and freedom, between a musical framework and a margin within which individuals can maneuver. This moreover reflects perfectly the social organization of the Pygmies -- if only mentioned in passing -- and it does so perhaps not by chance [my emphases] (as quoted in Kisliuk 1998)
The social activity of a Pygmy encampment has no apparent hierarchy. Each person appears to enjoy total liberty; however, life is rigorously organized according to implicit plans, imperceptible to the uninitiated observer. As we shall see, Pygmy music, in the image of all their social activities, presents very similar characteristics, that is to say, relative autonomy of each participant within implied but strict structures [my emphases]. (Musical Anthology of the Aka Pygmies)I’ll now expand on certain passages from the above which I find particularly telling. In each case we find terminology that can equally be applied to both music and culture.
• “The music is collective,” i.e., it is an expression of a group consciousness, which appears also to be the case with Pygmy culture generally, where important decisions are made collectively.
• “Everyone participates” i.e., music making is an occasion for all present to join in. While certain rituals are limited to males or females only, there are no musical specialists. All participants are expected to add their voices to the musical fabric.
• “There is no apparent hierarchy in the distribution of parts.” This is an extremely important aspect of P/B style that is often overlooked. Whereas much Bantu music is based on solo-chorus interaction (“call and response”) with the soloist choosing the song, setting the tempo, improvising, and generally playing a leadership role, solo-chorus antiphony among Pygmies is relatively rare (and probably the result of Bantu influence). Most Pygmy music is built around the interlocking or interweaving of essentially equal parts, and anyone can choose to sing any part at will, entering or dropping out as he or she pleases. While much Bantu singing is accompanied (and often dominated) by drumming, a highly specialized skill mastered by a relatively small number of specialists, Pygmy music is traditionally accompanied by an especially intricate type of polyrhythmic handclapping or stick beating, with everyone participating according to his or her degree of skill. Non-hierarchical organization, both vocal and percussive, is the aspect of Pygmy music most consistent with the egalitarian nature of Pygmy society generally.
• “Each person seems to enjoy complete liberty.” In other words, there do not appear to be explicit rules that anyone has to follow when participating in any song. While there are certainly implicit rules, these are so ingrained from childhood that they don't have the psychological effect of rules, just as the rules of grammar are not felt as conscious restraints when we speak. Anyone may choose to join in or drop out of the singing at will. This atmosphere of complete individual autonomy is instilled in BaAka children from an early age.
• There is “a simultaneous dialectic between rigor and freedom, between a musical framework and a margin within which individuals can maneuver.” While such a dialectic can be found in many types of music, P/B style music-making tends to be simultaneously more highly organized, in a more intricate manner, than just about any other traditional music anywhere in the world; yet is, almost paradoxically, far less regimented, with a remarkable degree of individual autonomy. Combining intricately coordinated group interaction and synchronization with a remarkably fluid social context, within which anyone can improvise his or her own part at will, at any time, Pygmy music does indeed appear to embody a social situation characterized on the one hand by “sharing and cooperation” and on the other by individual “autonomy.”
Not only does the music mirror some of the most basic elements of the culture, but more significantly, as Arom’s comments suggest, a musical practice of this degree of complexity and precision requires a degree of highly synchronized interpersonal coordination and musical skill that only a certain type of culture can provide.
Comparable results can be achieved in the Western classical tradition only through a significant period of preparation on the part of especially trained ensembles. Yet, according to Arom, his recordings “bear witness not only to the extraordinary variety of the musical patrimony common to all the Aka, but, also -- and this is particularly notable -- to the perfect knowledge of this patrimony by each of the members of the community.” The intricate musical technique required of all participants “is the fruit of long apprenticeship. As soon as they are able to walk, the children take part in the life of the community and thus in one of its principal manifestations, music.” (Musical Anthology of the Aka Pygmies).
Thanks to his enduringly popular book, The Forest People, Colin Turnbull is probably the best known of the many anthropologists who have studied Pygmy culture. While music was not the focus of his studies, his musical training (he was a skilled organist) enabled him to appreciate and, at times, write quite eloquently, on various aspects of Pygmy music, which, like Arom, he recorded extensively.
While Arom’s observations are based on his study of western Pgymies, especially the Aka, Turnbull writes in very similar terms of the strong association between music and social structure among the Mbuti Pygmies of the eastern group. Turnbull has been accused of idealizing the Mbuti and their life in the forest, and indeed there are passages in The Forest People that suggest an almost Utopian view of Pygmy life:
The Pygmies were more than curiosities to be filmed, and their music was more than a quaint sound to be put on records. They were a people who had found in the forest something that made their life more than just worth living, something that made it, with all its hardships and problems and tragedies, a wonderful thing full of joy and happiness and free of care. (p. 26)His tendency to hear Mbuti music as an expression of the same worldview is clearly apparent when he waxes lyrically on
the sound of the voices of the forest people as they sing a lusty chorus of praise to this wonderful world of theirs – a world that gives them everything they want. This cascade of sound echoes among the giant trees until it seems to come at you from all sides in sheer beauty and truth and goodness, full of the joy of living (1961:13).Regardless of what one might think of Turnbull’s supposedly idealized view, for which he has often been criticized, passages such as this strongly suggest the existence of an intimately reciprocal relation between Mbuti music and culture. In the following passages from his lesser known companion volume, Wayward Servants, he writes of this relationship in more down-to-earth terms:
An examination of Mbuti song form not only reveals areas of concern to the Mbuti, such as their food getting activities, life and death, but it also reveals the concern of the Mbuti for cooperative activity . . . The songs are most frequently in round or canon form, and the hunting songs, in order to heighten the need for the closest possible cooperation (the same need that is demanded by the hunt itself), are sometimes sung in hoquet (p. 256).
It is certain that an acute analysis of Mbuti music would reveal much that parallels the structure of Mbuti society. The extraordinary level of polyphonic achievement is surely related to a highly developed individualism that would hardly tolerate the confines of unison. The Mbuti musical categories of berai and imaia, chorus and solo song, indicate a system of recognized relationships between the group and the individual, and the technique of hoquet, already mentioned, further mirrors social relationships . . . [as well as] social values (Colin Turnbull, Wayward Servants, p. 257, footnote 7).A similarly intimate relation between musical structure and cultural value among the Bushman has been noted by ethnomusicologist Nicholas England:
As they severally alternate the musical materials in what might be called an extended Stimmtausch [part crossing] technique, the singers bring into being a contrapuntal complex that constantly changes throughout the performance as the musical period . . . is repeated again and again until the performance is terminated. This interchanging of melodic phrases is a common method of music making in Bushmanland, and it is a principle that, to my mind, epitomizes the Bushman way in general: it clearly reflects the Bushmen desire to remain independent (in this case, of the other voices) at the same time that he is contributing vitally to the community life (in this case, the musical complex) (England 1967:60 – my emphasis).Many reports on Bushmen culture and values reflect a “Utopian” view remarkably similar to that of Turnbull. Witness this passage, from the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers:
Ju/'hoan political ethos abhorred wealth and status differences. No one should stand out from the rest of the group. If someone returned from a successful hunt showing excessive pride, he was put firmly in place, even if the kill was large. Emphasis on sharing and lack of status roles produced a high degree of egalitarianism. . . . Anger and resentment were low as each person's opinion was respected. Conflicts could be terminated by a disputant leaving to join another group (p. 208).Since, as we’ve seen, Bushmen and Pygmies vocalize in essentially the same manner, it’s not difficult to conclude that their “Utopian” cultures are also mirrored by a no less “Utopian” style of music making. Or, in more realistic terms, the Utopian aspects of their musical language would seem to mirror an equally Utopian ideal at the heart of their value system – an ideal more easily achieved, no doubt, in music than the realities of day to day life. (I’ll be having more to say about Utopia, and its discontents, in an upcoming chapter.)
It’s difficult to imagine how the conditions variously described above could hold among so many groups of contemporary Pygmies and Bushmen unless both their musical style and the cultural characteristics we've been considering had not also been present in the culture of their (and our) mutual ancestors. We are speaking, therefore, not only of a very deep musical heritage but of the opening of a door through which music can lead us, step by step, to certain insights regarding an equally deep cultural heritage. What are these steps? Let's review:
First, as far as the musical evidence in itself is concerned, P/B is a practice traceable all the way back to a “common root,” i.e., the music of the common ancestors of the Pygmies and Bushmen, as identified by the genetic evidence.
Second, since the great bulk of the genetic evidence points to the lineages of certain Pygmy and Bushmen groups as diverging during a time frame well within the Old Stone Age, it seems reasonable to conclude that P/B is at least that old, very possibly much older.
Third, as attested by the observations of experienced musician/ethnographers, such as Simha Arom, Colin Turnbull, Nicholas England, etc. (see above), the musical organization of P/B appears to reflect certain aspects of Pygmy and Bushmen social structure in such a manner as to take us directly from the realm of music to that of culture.
There are two aspects to this association: 1. the organization of P/B in such a manner that it reflects the organization of Pygmy and Bushmen societies generally; and 2. the organization of Pygmy and Bushmen societies in such a manner as to make some of the most remarkable and distinctive characteristics of P/B possible.
In the light of all the evidence presented so far, it seems logical to conclude that the very distinctive mode of musical behavior we’ve been considering would have embodied the ancestral social structure in precisely the same manner as it embodies the social structure of contemporary Pygmies and Bushmen. And if this is indeed the case, we cannot ignore the possibility that other traditions also held in common by representatives of all three populations (Eastern Pygmies, Western Pygmies and Bushmen) could also be grounded in traditions stemming from the group ancestral to all. Remarkably, the musical evidence has led us to a point where we can begin to consider the much broader question of culture in general, the question that has eluded so many for so long: what were our ancestors like?