A Blog Book, by Victor Grauer

. . . . . for Alan Lomax, who lives . . . . .

I felt that their music came from the back of time, but also, to a certain extent, from my own depths.

Simha Arom

For Table of Contents, see Blog Archive, below and to the right.

(NB: In some browsers simply clicking on an image
may not be sufficient to enlarge it. In such cases,
opening the image in a new tab and clicking on it again
should do the trick. For PC's, right click on the image
and select "Open Link in New Tab" -- for Macs,
press the CTRL key and click, and then select this option.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Chapter Eighteen: The Legacy

Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather
Robert Frost, “Directive”

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

BEIJING, April 5, 2004 (Xinhuanet) -- A historical tribute by some 4,000 Chinese from home and abroad paid homage in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province, to Xuanyuan Huangdi (the Yellow Emperor) on behalf of more than 1.3 billion Chinese across the globe. The gathering took place outside the legendary emperor's mausoleum, and was a sign of respect to the ancestor of the Chinese nation. . .

The Yellow Emperor, a great tribal chief towards the end of primitive China, was honoured as the ancestor who helped greatly bring Chinese civilization into being. The invention of, among others, the cart, boat, bow and arrow, and Chinese medicine are attributed to him. One of his imperial historians is believed to have created Chinese pictography.

As is evident from the above, the story of the Yellow Emperor and the Yellow Bell is not simply about how an important tradition got started, but is also a story about how a brilliant ancestor went about establishing order, not only in the realm of music, but also economics, law, statehood, the relations between the sexes, and, last but not least, heaven and earth. While he was at it, he also invented important tools, such as the cart, the boat, the bow and arrow, medicines and even pictographic writing. Significantly, the Yellow Emperor is regarded as an ancestor due more to the traditions he established than to any biological functions he may have performed.

One reason I decided to focus on the Yellow Bell myth is because it tells us so much about the nature of both ancestry and tradition, and how closely bound to one another they are. While traditions are what are passed down from generation to generation, it is their association with the ancestors that gives them their meaning and their unique power. What is important, therefore, is not simply to keep a particular tradition going, but to honor the intentions of the ancestor who established it.

Thus the Yellow Bell, which is, after all, simply a length of wooden pipe, must not only be preserved but also, from time to time, replaced, through a process analogous to the process by which it was first established. Similarly, we find in many rituals, both “primitive” and “civilized,” an effort to re-establish the original conditions under which a particular tradition first came into being, as a way of connecting with the ancestor(s) who initiated it. Even in a supposedly modern society like the United States we refer to the Constitution as the ultimate arbiter of all things legal, but need a Supreme Court to continually evaluate and re-evaluate its meaning, so the intentions of the “Founding Fathers” are preserved.

While the Chinese myth places the Yellow Emperor and the Yellow Bell well back into a vaguely defined “olden times,” when China itself was being established as a state, according to my version of the myth tuned pipes originated at a much earlier time, before modern humans voyaged out of Africa -- and well before that, to the time before humans learned to speak to one another. And despite all the many tens of thousands of years from that primeval time to this, we still find ensembles of pipes and panpipes, still cut from lengths of cane, still tuned, in a great many cases (though not all), more or less according to the system described in the story of the Yellow Bell, based on the simple whole number ratios, 2/3 and 4/3.

Remarkably, we still find, all over the world, musical traditions, both instrumental and vocal, based, more or less, on those exact same ratios.1 And just as the Yellow Bell became the foundation of so much that was central to Chinese civilization, so did the ratios long ago established in the “law of pipes” become the foundation of so much of importance in other civilizations, as, for example, in the pioneering mathematics and physics of the ancient Greeks, where the exact same ratios were “discovered” by Pythagoras.

Such a tradition did not simply come from nowhere. And even though it must have originated well before the existence of China or the Chinese people, as they now define themselves, it most likely did in fact, as the Chinese myth implies, have a very definite beginning, at the hands of a very real, flesh and blood, but also very mysterious “ancestor,” whose identity is shrouded in the mists of deep history.  

Which returns us to the questions posed in the Introduction, for which I am now in a position to offer some meaningful, though admittedly speculative, answers: “who were our ancestors, what were they like, what part of their legacy has survived, and what lessons can we derive therefrom?” My responses will give us an opportunity to review some of the most important ideas already covered in preceding chapters.


As far as the “who” is concerned, there are in fact a great many ancestors. Our parents are our most recent ancestors, and our grandparents our next most recent. When we speak casually of “our ancestors” we are usually invoking a vaguely defined abstraction, either a long list of ancestors, accumulated over many thousands of years, or else a single founding ancestor or ancestral group that we assume must have existed at some distant point in a now mythical past. Since so many peoples so strongly identify with a particular territory, kingdom or nation, the ancestors that most concern them are invariably associated with specific places, if not specific times.

According to ancient Chinese documents, the Yellow Emperor lived in “olden times,” in Shaanxi Province, well within the boundaries of what is now China. In the Old Testament, we learn that Abraham was the first Jew, thus the ancestor of all Jews. He is said to have lived in Ur of the Chaldees at some time roughly around 2,000 BC. However, the ancestors of Abraham and all other humans living at his time would, from the Old Testament perspective, have to have been Noah and his wife, since all humans other than they and their progeny would have been destroyed in the flood. Moreover, Noah and his family also had ancestors, going all the way back to the Garden of Eden. And before Adam and Eve was “God the Father”, who could be considered the ultimate ancestor, as far as the Judeo/Christian tradition is concerned.

So much for the Chinese and Hebrew traditions -- but just about every society in the world has its ancestors, who in most cases are completely different from one another. One might conclude from this that, as far as mythology is concerned, we are living in a world where every group has its own unique history and its own unique ancestry, tied to the land where it presumably originated.

As far as science is concerned, however, there is a different story to tell. As we've learned, there is now good reason to believe we all ultimately share exactly the same ancestry, known technically as “MRCA,” i.e., the Most Recent Common Ancestors of everyone now living on planet Earth. This is the group I identified in Chapter Four as HBP, or Hypothetical Baseline Population. The notion that such a group might actually have existed in flesh and blood is relatively new, based on genetic research associated with the so-called “Out-of-Africa” model.

The Multiregional View

Anthropological thinking for a great many years was dominated by various versions of a very different theory, known as the “multi-regional” model, which was based largely on “racial” differences, with each of the major “races” originating in a different part of the world, implying either no MRCA at all, or an MRCA so remote in time that it represented little more than an abstraction. According to this model, “Caucasoids” would have descended from European Neanderthals, “Mongoloids” from Asiatic Homo Erectus and “Negroids” from a long line of archaic human and pre-human species in Africa.

Multiregionalism in its purest form holds that almost all human commonalities are due to “convergence,” based on certain evolutionary and/or biological universals, making the development of things like language, music, dance, kinship systems, religion, and even our characteristically “modern” anatomy, the inevitable products of a common destiny shared by archaic humans in widely disparate regions of the world, while “racial” differences can be traced to multiregional origins.

Since such an idealized and in fact racialized view of human history is so strongly at odds with both the genetic evidence and the postmodern zeitgeist generally, it can no longer be seriously maintained. Most multiregionalists have fallen back on a sort of compromise in which the various “racial” groups originated in their respective regions, but exchanged both genes and cultural elements through millions of years of continual cross-continental migration.2

 Partly because there is no archaeological evidence for such migrations, partly because the alternative, Out-of-Africa, model is so strongly reinforced by so much of the genetic research, the multiregionalist position has, for the most part, faded into the background. While multiregionalism is nevertheless still vigorously defended by a small but highly active and vocal group, the view of human history presented here is consistent with the mainstream “Out-of-Africa,” or “recent African origin,” model developed over the last 25 years or so by population geneticists, as described in Chapter Two.

A Phylogenetic Model

In contrast to multiregionalism, Out-of-Africa is essentially a phylogenetic model, based on the Darwinian notion of “descent from a common ancestor,” meaning that when we refer to MRCA we are referring to a very specific group that lived at a very specific time and place, and not simply to a theoretical abstraction. As noted in Chapter Two, various estimates date the divergence3of the oldest mitochondrial haplogroups found in modern humans, labeled L0 and L1, to roughly between 90,000 and 150,000 years ago.

And since all haplotypes directly derived from L0 and L1 are found almost exclusively among peoples now living in Africa, it seems reasonable to conclude, as have the great majority of population geneticists, that MRCA most likely lived somewhere on that continent, at some time during the Middle Paleolithic (or Middle “Old Stone Age”). Pretty vague, I admit. But nevertheless something. In fact, much more than we had any reason to expect even 20 or 25 years ago, when population genetics was still in its infancy.

While the dates may be vague, the existence of MRCA is marked by a very specific event, the moment when a group of proto-Bushmen or proto-Pygmies broke away (the technical term is “diverged”) from the population of which they had formerly been a part. This need not have been a momentous occasion, but more likely a relatively minor split, now considered significant only in retrospect. MRCA were thus the population from which this breakaway group diverged. What makes them especially interesting is the fact that they can be characterized, both biologically and culturally, by their status at the moment of divergence.

It must be stressed, however, that MRCA is by no means the end of the line, because they too had ancestors -- and if you want to compare humans with great apes, you can posit an MRCA for these two groups as well – and on down the line: prior to humans, apes and monkeys we find more primitive mammals and prior to them lizards, insects, bacteria, etc., all the way back to the earliest life form, which can be considered the ultimate ancestor. 

In a sense, therefore, the question of “who” our ancestors were becomes a kind of tautology: our ancestors are the ones from whom we are descended, all the way back to the beginning of life. But such a definition would never satisfy those many peoples throughout the world for whom the notion of “ancestor” holds such great meaning. As I noted above, we can’t really separate such ancestors from the traditions with which they are associated, which tells us that the traditional notion of “ancestor” is at least as much cultural as biological: the ancestors are simultaneously those from whom we are descended and those from whom our traditions stem.

And if we wish to get beyond the ancestry of any particular group to the common ancestry, both biological and cultural, of all such groups, then we have no choice but to consider the group I’ve been referring to as MRCA. For all practical purposes, the MRCA identified by the geneticists can be regarded as our common ancestors and their culture can be regarded as the source of some of most venerable traditions now being perpetuated among so many societies, both “primitive” and “modern,” of today. 

There are, additionally, two other ancestral groups of special importance to the story I’ve been telling: the Out-of-Africa migrants discussed in Chapter Seven, who appear to have been the ancestors of all non-Africans; and what I’ve referred to as the “post-bottleneck” population(s), the earliest survivors of the cataclysmic event hypothesized in Chapters Nine and Ten, which may have triggered much of the large-scale diversity, both “racial” and cultural, we see in the world of today.

So much for the “who.”

What Were They Like?

While the genetic research has identified “mitochondrial Eve” as our most recent common female ancestor, and “Y chromosome Adam” as our most recent common male ancestor, it has nothing to say about what either of them, or the group (or groups) to whom they belonged, were like – in other words, what sort of society were they a part of, and what sort of culture did they possess? 

While archaeologists have attempted to reconstruct at least certain aspects of the culture of “early man,” little or no attempt has been made to reconcile the various bits and pieces with one another, not to mention the genetic findings -- and in fact, many of the “bones and stones” they study are from populations whose lineages may well have gone extinct thousands of years ago and can hardly be regarded as “ancestral” as far as any of today’s peoples are concerned.

Which is, as I see it, why the approach I’ve taken in this book is potentially so useful. In the spirit of the revolutionary methods of the population geneticists, I’ve managed to construct a tool for the “excavation” of the ancestral culture by extrapolating backward from the present to some of the deepest recesses of our common history. And while the geneticists have been unable to reconcile “mitochondrial Eve” and “Y chromosome Adam,” who seem to have lived during two very different eras, the Hypothetical Baseline Culture I’ve managed to cobble together (see Chapter Four) points to a single, specific ancestral society, which in all likelihood existed prior to the L0-L1 divergence, and appears, on the basis of my “triangulation” method, to have maintained (if not necessarily originated) certain highly distinctive and uniquely interesting cultural traits and traditions.

A Lost History

While the whole idea of extrapolating backward from present to past has been anathema to most anthropologists for some time, I am not completely alone. In a similar spirit, and informed by essentially the same set of genetic findings, Nicholas Wade’s Before the Dawn:Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors (2006) is equally ambitious in its attempt to reconstruct ancestral culture. Wade’s logic is simple and convincing:

[S]ince people in societies around the world behave in much the same way, the principal elements of human nature must already have been present in the ancestral human population before its dispersal into Africa and the world beyond.

Despite the fact that “not a trace of these first people has yet been found by archaeologists,” nevertheless, “a surprising amount can now be inferred . . .” (p. 52 – my emphasis).

By analyzing the behaviors common to societies around the world, particularly the hunter-gatherers who seem closest to the ancestral people, anthropologists can describe how the ancestral population probably lived and what its people were like. (ibid.)

In elaborating his theory, Wade points to two very interesting “ways of developing a portrait of the ancestral human population; one is through the Universal People, the other through the Real People.” He first considers “universal human behaviors” ranging from “cooking, dance and divination to fear of snakes” facial expressions, and, more importantly, language, all “found in societies throughout the world . . .” (p. 65) He goes on to list a range of behaviors and traditions apparently shared by all peoples and thus likely to have been a part of ancestral culture.

In addition to the Universal People, it is possible to consider a very specific group of Real People, such as the “San,” i.e., Bushmen, who “as members of the L1 [actually it’s L0] branch of the mitochondrial tree may be the closest living approximation to the ancestral human population” (p.66). As you can see, Wade’s thinking is in some ways remarkably similar to my own. Indeed, as he paints a fairly detailed portrait of the !Kung San (aka Ju/’hoansi) Bushmen, he lists many of the same characteristics highlighted in these pages, especially chapters Three and Four.

Of course, he is not so naïve as to assume that everything we find in Bushmen culture can be attributed to the ancestral population, and in the following section, entitled “Ancestral Portrait,” he judiciously weighs the possible differences. As he does so, however, some limitations of his approach become evident.

In contrast to the many specific, well documented details of !Kung life he’s already enumerated, his “Ancestral Portrait” is highly speculative and vague, based on untested and in certain cases inaccurate assumptions. Clearly the !Kung in and of themselves cannot be a reliable model, because we have no way of knowing the degree to which any aspect of their culture is due to the specific conditions under which they now live. For example: does their communal reciprocity stem from an ancestral tradition, or is it simply a strategy for holding the community together in the face of a harsh, resource-scarce, desert environment?

As far as the Universal People are concerned, while it’s true that many elements of culture do in fact seem universal, it would take a very ambitious research project to confirm that. Do we really know that cooking, dance, divination, fear of snakes, standardized facial expressions, etc. are found in literally every society, or even a significant majority? How could we go about testing such a hypothesis? 

Moreover, it is by no means self-evident that the absence of a certain trait in certain societies means it must have been absent in the ancestral society. Wade rules bows and arrows out because we don’t find them among the Australian aborigines without considering the possibility that this technology could have been lost at some point in their history, for any number of reasons.

The most serious problem I have with Wade’s approach is his continual reliance on the behavior of “hunter-gatherers” as an index of ancestral culture. As we learned in Chapter Five, there are a great many different types of hunter-gatherers, with a wide variety of often very different value systems and survival strategies. And, again, as with the Universal People, any attempt to identify cultural elements held in common by all or even most hunter-gatherer societies would require a research project of major proportions.

The dangers of such an approach become especially evident when he concludes that the ancestral people must have “engaged in constant warfare, defending their own territory or raiding that of neighbors” (p. 74), because he sees strong evidence of violence and endemic warfare among such “hunter-gatherer” groups as the Australian Aborigines, the tribal peoples of New Guinea, the natives of the Andaman Islands, the Yanomamo of Brazil, etc., supplemented by widespread evidence of head-hunting and cannibalism throughout the hunter-gatherer world. 

As far as the allegedly “harmless” Bushmen are concerned, he cites reliable evidence that “the San fought regularly with their pastoralist Bantu neighbors” and were found to have an internal homicide rate “some three times that of even the United States.”

According to Wade, the tendency of the ancestral people, and, by implication, humans generally, to engage in territorial aggression, warfare and raiding, was hard wired into their genes as a legacy from our primate ancestors. Such a conclusion might seem odd in light of the fact that the great majority of today’s primates do not engage in such behavior, but Wade has chosen to focus his attention on chimpanzees, the only other creatures in the animal kingdom4
with  “a strong propensity to kill their own kind” (p. 148). Since Wade is already convinced that the earliest humans were inherently violent and warlike, he has little problem deriving such behavior from a “joint human-chimp ancestor” (p. 141).

Methodological Issues

Wade’s book is an intelligent, well written and perceptive overview of a large body of meaningful evidence, including some of the most recent genetic research, pertaining to a great many important aspects of human culture and evolution, and on that level I highly recommend it. I take exception, however, to the methodology he has employed in his attempt to recreate the ancestral culture, which is, as I see it, far too vague, and far too dependent on untestable or inadequately tested assumptions – notably the assumption that certain commonalities in the behavior of today’s “hunter-gatherers” can be extrapolated into the behavior of a common ancestor. Especially problematic is the repeated harping on a supposedly inherent human tendency toward violence, which I find both misleading and potentially harmful.

Why am I so convinced Wade must be wrong? All the issues raised above have been extensively discussed in these pages, especially Chapters Four, Five and Six. In Chapter Four, I explicitly question the tendency of many anthropologists

to lump all hunter-gatherers together, as though there were some universal ahistorical force that unites them, simply because they maintain hunting and gathering traditions. As we will learn from the following chapter, this is far from the case. All ‘immediate-return’ societies do not, in fact, look alike.

In Chapter Five, as promised, I describe a wide variety of different hunter-gatherer societies (including some of the simple “horticulturalists” included on Wade’s list, who share many forager characteristics), with a range of very different behaviors and social structures, from some, like the Pygmies, Bushmen and Hadza, who are acephalous, egalitarian, communal and relatively non-violent, to others, such as the New Guinea tribes cited by Wade, dominated by aggressive “Big Men,” characterized by fierce competition for status and endemic warfare. As I concluded, it is a mistake to “accept the commonly held view of ‘hunter-gatherers’ as representative . . . of some sort of universalized essence of ‘Stone-Age Man’.”

In Chapter Four, under the heading “Core Values,” I distinguish between violent behavior, as found among certain individuals in literally all societies, and institutionalized violence, in which violence is woven into the fabric of the society as a whole, where it is both tolerated and in many cases encouraged. The three populations I’ve drawn on to produce the baseline ancestral culture outlined in Chapter Four lack any of the trappings one would expect to find in such a society (see below).

In Chapter Six, I explicitly address the unfortunate comparison between early humans and chimpanzees, which can be sourced to a highly influential, but seriously misleading book, Demonic Males, by Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson. As does Wade, the authors assume that all hunter-gatherers have always engaged in endemic warfare, which makes the comparison with the aggressive and violent behavior of male chimpanzees seem particularly apt. While noting that bonobos, close cousins of chimps, have a very different, essentially non-violent, culture, the authors’ preconceived notions of what our “Stone-Age” ancestors must have been like make the comparison with chimps seem far more likely.

The theories of Wrangham and Peterson have been widely accepted and are exerting a significant influence on many of our leading thinkers. An especially disturbing example can be found in a recently published book by the well known political scientist Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order, a work which is sure to have a powerful influence on decision makers throughout the world. A key section of Fukuyama’s book is in fact titled “Chimpanzee Politics and its Relevance to Human Political Development.”

According to Fukuyama, who confidently cites Wrangham as a basic source, “[we] know that both human beings and modern chimpanzees are descended from a common chimplike ancestor . . .”
He continues, noting, reasonably enough, that our earliest human ancestors were, like Chimpanzees, highly social (as indeed are many of their primate cousins), making the perfectly valid point that sociability has most likely been a part of human nature from the beginning. 

Even more significant, in his view, is the observation, again based on Wrangham, that chimpanzee behavior is inherently violent, with “groups of male chimpanzees in the wild ranging beyond their territories to attack and kill chimps from neighboring communities” (p. 31). On this basis, and this basis alone, he ultimately concludes, with equal confidence, that “violence is rooted in human nature,” as “one of the most important points of continuity between ancestral apes and human beings,” thus endorsing Hobbes’ famous dictum “that the state of nature was a state of war of ‘every man against every man.’” This dubious conclusion becomes the fundamental basis for a theory of socio-political evolution colored throughout by a highly cynical, deeply pessimistic view of human nature. 

I cannot agree, and find such conclusions alarming, to say the least. As I wrote in Chapter Six,    
the Pygmy and Bushmen groups on whose traditions I’ve drawn for the construction of an ancestral baseline, are nothing like chimps. Indeed, when we examine those cultural elements shared by so many Pygmy and Bushmen groups . . . [it] looks, in fact, as though our ancestors were closer to bonobos than chimps.

Since writing this passage, I’ve come across a remarkable video that makes my point quite dramatically: Video Example 13: Bonobos Like to Share.


The "subject" is not only willing to share, but goes to the trouble of unlocking another Bonobo's cage to make sure his pal can also get to the food. 

Compare with the following description of Aka Pygmy sharing, by Michelle Kisliuk:

On another occasion I brought a tomato to the Bagandou camp . . . I gave a wedge to Bandit sitting beside me, expecting him to pop it in his mouth. Instead, he proceeded to call for a knife and cut the wedge into about sixteen tiny pieces, sharing it with everybody in sight (Seize the Dance, p. 132).

There are many other notable similarities between bonobo culture and the baseline culture I constructed in Chapter Four, including synchronized vocal interlock, female assertiveness, non-hierarchical political structure and yes, most certainly, a tendency to avoid violent behavior, none of which are characteristic of chimpanzees. Thus, one way of answering the question of what our ancestors were like might be, very simply: bonobos!

The HBC Model

In attempting to paint a relatively comprehensive picture of our common ancestry, we must first, as we have seen, reject theories based on universals and/or “hunter-gatherer” behaviors and customs, including the notion that MRCA must, like chimpanzees, have been inherently violent and warlike.

The long neglected musical evidence presented in Chapters One and Three has led us to a very different conclusion, based on a radically different approach, as elucidated in Chapter Four. Thanks to an important clue provided by the remarkable affinities between the highly distinctive musical traditions of those populations in the world with the deepest lineages, the African Pygmies and Bushmen, coupled with the equally remarkable manner in which the organization and performance style of their music reflects certain key elements of the social organization and cultural values of both groups, it has been possible to move out from the realm of music to the realm of culture generally, to speculate meaningfully on what the common ancestors of the Pygmies and Bushmen might have been like. 

And since the genetic evidence so strongly suggests that the common ancestors of these two groups are the common ancestors of everyone else as well, we have opened the door to a meaningful (though necessarily provisional) consideration of what MRCA might have been like.

For a full accounting see Chapter Four, where you’ll find a listing headed “The HBC Model Thus Far.”  Briefly, what my triangulation method reveals is an ancestral culture that is, in some ways, almost embarrassingly “Utopian,” with an economy very close to what Marx called “primitive communism”; a non-hierarchical, acephalous, highly egalitarian political structure based on close interpersonal cooperation rather than coercion by leaders; a high degree of both group integration and personal freedom; a spiritual life refreshingly free of dogma or institutionalized thinking; a “complementary” relation between the sexes, in which women are relatively, though certainly not completely, equal to men; finally, despite a high degree of interpersonal contentiousness coupled with occasional episodes of violent behavior, we see no sign of institutionalized violence.

While certain Pygmy or Bushmen individuals have acted violently, and certain Pygmy or Bushmen groups have, from time to time, engaged in warfare (invariably stemming from relatively recent external pressures), “[w]hat we do not see, and would not therefore expect to find in HBC, are evidences of: cannibalism, head-hunting, endemic warfare, exploitation of women or children, female mutilation, prostitution, slavery, blood-feuds, raiding.” 

Migrants, Bottlenecks and the Origins of Institutionalized Violence

As for the two other ancestral groups considered in this volume, I’ve made an effort to characterize the Out-of-Africa migrants in Chapter Seven, where my ideas regarding their culture are summarized in an extensive table (see Table One), while the socio-cultural effects of the bottleneck event hypothesized in Chapter Ten are considered under the heading “The Toba Effect.” 

While there are many fascinating things to consider regarding the nature of both the migrants and the post-bottleneck survivors, one single issue looms largest for me: the origins of violence and warfare -- or to be more specific, institutionalized violence and endemic warfare. Since I cannot agree with the now widely held view that violence is programmed into our genes, and see no evidence that MRCA either encouraged or tolerated it, then, as far as I am concerned, the origins of violence and warfare as socially sanctioned behaviors are yet to be determined. Initially I planned to devote a chapter to this problem, but ultimately decided against it simply because I lacked the time and resources to do the necessary research, and didn’t want to wander off too far into the realm of vague speculation. Nevertheless, the topic is of sufficient interest and importance as to warrant a certain amount of discussion here, however incomplete and tentative.

Assuming I am correct about the essentially pacifist nature of HBP, then the next question for us to consider is whether the Out-of-Africa migrants (HMP) shared similar values or, at some time prior to their African exodus, had adopted the very different values of a warlike society. As I noted in Chapter Seven, geneticist Eduardo Moreno has argued in favor of the latter alternative, referring to them as “The Migrant Warriors that Colonized the World” (Moreno 2010). Moreno’s work is of special interest to me since he has approached such issues from a perspective so close to my own.

To review some of the points already made in Chapter Seven:
Moreno sees no correlation between those populations characterized by the ancestral mitochondrial haplogroups L0, L1 or L2 (mostly African Bushmen or Pygmies) and a warlike ethos, supporting my view that our common ancestors were essentially non-violent. On the other hand, he does find such a correlation with hunter-gatherer groups carrying haplogroup L3, and its M and N descendents, who tend to exhibit either patently warlike behavior or the presence of competitive rituals, games, etc. that appear consistent with an essentially warlike value system. On this basis, he arrives at the conclusion that the high degree of violent behavior so characteristic of so many non-African hunter-gatherers is most likely due to cultural values inherited from their L3 ancestors, the Out-of-Africa migrants.

At this stage, I’m not completely convinced, though I find Moreno’s approach impressively original, sympathetic and promising. There are too many hunter-gatherers in too many different parts of the world who are distinctly non-warlike, regardless of whether they might or might not engage in competitive rituals or games. Moreno’s focus on such competitions is nevertheless suggestive and certainly deserves further consideration, but as I see it, there is not yet enough evidence available on which to base a strong hypothesis one way or the other.

If in fact HMP had retained the values of their HBP ancestors and were not warlike, that could possibly account for the many non-African hunter-gatherer groups that have traditionally tended to avoid violence, and would, moreover, explain why so many have apparently retreated into marginal “refuge areas,” such as forests, islands and mountains, where they have, until recently, been able to pursue their traditions in relative peace. If that is the case, however, then we are still left with the question of where, and how, very different traditions supporting institutionalized violence originated. 


As I see it, in order to understand the origins of socially sanctioned violence, regardless of where or when it originated, we need to arrive at a clearer understanding of traditions in general, how they originate, the manner in which they are propagated, and the conditions under which they can be altered. And since the lasting power of age-old traditions over the human mind and psyche has been a persistent theme throughout this book, it makes sense, at this point, to do some reviewing.

As the musical evidence considered in Chapter One so strongly suggests, certain traditions can persist essentially intact for tens of thousands of years. While such a conclusion is certain to trigger skepticism among social scientists, the evidence (see especially Appendix A) cannot be ignored. And if we are willing to consider such a conclusion, however provisionally, then we are faced with the question of why certain traditions fail to “evolve” or “develop” while others apparently do. 

I deal with this question in its most general  form in the first “Sidebar,” under the heading “Cultural Continuity.” While this analysis is presented as “preliminary,” it is, in fact, based on conclusions drawn as a result of all the research that went into this book, which convinced me that the traditional approach to continuity and change is based on a serious oversimplification of both culture and history.

As I see it, there is no such thing as “cultural evolution” in the sense of some sort of inbred, natural tendency for traditions to change over time. “Cultural drift,” when it does occur, almost always pertains to relatively superficial elements, such as, for example, all the many variants we can find of a particular folk song as it makes its way through both time and space. When we consider deeper issues of musical style and structure, which was, of course, Alan Lomax’s great innovation, we see no significant change at all. 

Thus we find the salient characteristics of, say, ballad style, remaining virtually unchanged from country to country and even continent to continent, implying relative stasis over many thousands of years. The same is true of more practical traditions such as, say, archery, where we find many different types of bow and arrow developing over the centuries while the basic principle remains precisely the same.

According to this model, real change, when it does occur, is due either to external forces, such as natural disasters, wars, or the influence of neighboring groups; or, in the case of more highly developed societies, the desires (or whims) of powerful leaders, or competition among specialists, which can drive innovation. In the case of non-specialized hunter-gatherer societies, the origin of traditions supporting violence cannot be due to powerful leaders, as such societies are typically acephalous, nor competition among specialists, since there are no specialists; nor can it be due to war, or the influence of neighboring societies with a warlike culture, since we are considering the origin of such a culture, which would not yet have existed elsewhere. It seems logical, therefore, to look for the origin of institutionalized violence in the effects of a natural disaster. Which is one reason I’ve attached such great importance to the “bottleneck event” highlighted in Chapter Ten.

Whether produced by the Toba eruption or some other comparably significant occurrence, the effects of a major ecological disaster, as we well know from recent experiences with floods, earthquakes and tsunamis, could have been profound and lasting. Under such conditions, as I wrote in Chapter Ten,

Instead of an egalitarian ethic, steeped in non-violence, a new system of values, based on the survival of the strongest, most assertive and most competitive individuals, and their subservient followers, could emerge. Once such a tradition is established, it would be almost impossible to go back to the old way of doing things and even of thinking. Even if things might improve over time, to the point that the society is no longer stressed, and no longer dependent on strong, aggressive leaders, it might not matter, because traditions tend to perpetuate themselves long after they have lost their original purpose and even their meaning.

Thus, if under dire circumstances, a situation is created whereby only the most aggressive and violent individuals are likely to survive, then, as I see it, we have good reason to expect that traditions supporting competitive, violent and warlike behavior could suddenly emerge from an originally nonviolent base. And once such traditions are established, then, as I’ve argued above, they will tend to persist indefinitely until they, in turn, are confronted with a more powerful external event or influence.

Whether such a theory is adequate as an explanation of the origin of violence remains to be seen. As I stated above, much more evidence would be necessary before any firm conclusion could be reached. Nevertheless, from evidence presented in Chapters Ten through Fifteen, there is good reason to see the bottleneck event as a major turning point, both biological and cultural, for large segments of the human race, for whom the bottleneck survivors would have constituted an especially significant ancestry. 

The Legacy

Now that we have a clearer (or more confused?) notion of who our ancestors were and what they were like, we can move on to the next question: what part of their legacy has survived? And here I must admit to having begged the question, because it’s not at all self-evident to what extent any such survivals could be regarded as a “legacy,” rather than a simple curiosity, of interest only to antiquarians.

Here’s how I put my feelings a few years ago, in an essay entitled Echoes of Our Forgotten Ancestors:

The highly integrated, interlocked, freely polyphonic, improvised and playfully hocketed yodeling of the various Pygmy and Bushman groups of Africa would seem to constitute a perfect reflection of their social order: intensely group oriented, but also individualized—acephelous, egalitarian, more or less gender equal. . .  If humankind is, indeed, “innately” aggressive, violent, and competitive, that information seems never to have reached the gentle aborigines of Africa.

Can the Pygmy/Bushman model be applied to the earliest musical and social state of homo sapiens sapiens, prior to its “Out-of-Africa” adventure? If true, such a finding would be of immense importance, not only to ethnomusicology and anthropology, but all of us, simply as human beings—which is to say: as the inheritors of a certain legacy—of cooperation as opposed to competition; gentleness and mutual support as opposed to aggression and violence—a legacy of interactive play, pleasure—and joy. (Grauer 2006, p. 44)

Is there evidence that any aspects of such a legacy could have indeed survived to the current era? My answer is, very simply: yes. For one thing, this book itself is based on the premise that such survivals exist. If I saw no indication of that, then I’d have had nothing to work with in extrapolating backward from the present to the past. What we see as we look around us on a global scale is abundant evidence of survivals from a long distant past, most obviously in the cultures of so-called “indigenous” societies, which, until very recently, were still very much alive and if not thriving, then at least managing, and in many cases struggling, to preserve at least some of their most valued traditions.

What I see in each of these societies is a kind of palimpsest, i.e., an overlay, of sometimes very different and even contradictory cultural elements. And in this palimpsest it is often possible to identify traditions stemming from the three ancestral sources I’ve highlighted in these pages: HBC, the Hypothetical Baseline Culture of our most recent common ancestors (MRCA); HMC, the Hypothetical Migrant Culture of the Out-of-Africa migrants; and, finally, a culture, or group of cultures, originating, as I suspect, in some of the profound changes stemming from the “Bottleneck” event discussed in Chapters Nine and Ten. The most recent layer, is, of course, the layer formed by the profound and often negative influence of the more “advanced” cultural forces now impinging on them. As I see it, none of these layers has been entirely lost when “supplanted” by the next, which is one of the reasons such societies can seem so complex and contradictory to outsiders.

Let me now pose a particularly challenging question, especially meaningful, I’d imagine, to those reading here: Can we tease out the various layers of such a palimpsest from the so-called “developed” world, the society of automobiles, airplanes, computers, cell phones and Internet blogs? In other words, does the story I’ve been telling in these pages have any immediate relevance for us? Is the ancestral legacy our legacy too, or largely a matter for professional anthropologists and the indigenous peoples they study?

As far as music is concerned, I’ve pointed, in Chapter Twelve, to signs of the “African Signature” in Europe, not only in certain folk traditions featuring vocal interlock, hocket and canon, but in the liturgy of the medieval church, clearly influenced by some of these traditions, for which such vocal interplay became common, forming one basis for the development of the polyphony we now take for granted in the “classical” tradition to which it gave rise. I confess that, now that I’m attuned to it, I hear a great many “echoes” of Pygmy/Bushmen style in the classical music I love, from Medieval motets, to Renaissance madrigals, Bach fugues, Beethoven string quartets, all the way to “modernist” works, such as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and the intricately hocketed counterpoints of Webern, Boulez, Berio, Stockhausen, etc. I hear it in much popular music as well, including Hip Hop. Especially Hip Hop. But this is another story for another day.

I sometimes wonder whether the ideals that now form the basis of modern democracy could be a part of that same legacy. Notions such as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” or “all men are created equal,” supposedly stemming from the Eighteenth Century European “Enlightenment,” are perfectly in tune with the “Utopian” values of the ancestral culture I’ve postulated. If such values are indeed at the basis of a common cultural ancestry, and if, as I’ve argued, our most valued traditions tend to persist, even in the face of the most powerful and persistent obstacles, then the egalitarian values of our ancestors, like their egalitarian music, may have persisted unnoticed and unrecognized in the psyches of countless individuals who, under even the most oppressive conditions, have persisted in their belief that a luminous “golden age” of equality and freedom might someday return.

Such thinking has been sternly rejected of late, as part of a reaction against supposedly naïve and romantic characterizations of indigenous peoples. To choose one example among many, here is Roy Grinker commenting on views expressed in Colin Turnbull’s popular, The Forest People:

The Forest People . . . is in many ways a thinly veiled attempt to use the idea of the "Pygmies" as a way to make universally valid statements about human nature. Turnbull played upon a deep-seated need throughout much of the West to invent a "primitive" and original form of human society, and toward this goal he draws an idealized picture of the Mbuti living a romantic and harmonious life in the bountiful rain forest of the Congo (Houses in the Rain Forest, 1994:6).

A similar view is expressed by Francis Fukuyama, in the book referenced above:

The idea that violence is rooted in human nature is difficult for many people to accept. Many anthropologists, in particular, are committed, like Rousseau, to the view that violence is an invention of later civilizations, just as many people would like to believe that early societies understood how to live in balance with their local environments. Unfortunately, there is little evidence to support either view. (The Origins of Political Order, p. 73)

 Aside from the fact that, as I have demonstrated, there is indeed considerable evidence to support such views, both Grinker and Fukuyama fail to address a key question that goes to the heart of the issues they’ve raised. If in fact there is “a deep-seated need . . . to invent a ‘primitive’ and original form of human society,” and if “the idea that violence is rooted in human nature is difficult for many people to accept,” one is tempted to ask: why? Why is it that so many people in our society have such a “deep-seated need” to think in such idealized terms, and why is it so “difficult for many people to accept” that humans are, at base, cold-blooded killers? If human nature is as essentially ruthless as Fukuyama claims, then one would assume the great majority of humans everywhere would have no problem at all with such characterizations, and in fact point to them with Klingon-like pride.

If most people have a “deep-seated need” to idealize certain indigenous societies as “primitive and original” “noble savages,” one can only wonder where that need comes from. What is there in us that responds so strongly to stories, books and movies about the adventure filled, freewheeling lifestyles of Tropical Forest Pygmies, Bushmen of the Kalahari, Hadza, etc.? Are such values the product, simply, of overactive imaginations? Or might they themselves be survivals from our distant past? Could what Carl Jung once referred to as the “collective unconscious,” an innate, universal feature of the human psyche, be better understood as an “historical unconscious,” located not so much in the human mind, as in the vast field of culturally transmitted norms and values that condition it? 

In this regard, I suspect that some of the most fundamental values may have always been conveyed most powerfully and effectively through music. While certainly not a “universal language” in the sense once generally accepted in the West, music does have certain unique properties that make it an especially effective communicative tool, even across the most profound cultural and social divides. Despite the media dominance of pop, rock, country, hip-hop etc., many different kinds of music are enthusiastically appreciated and even cultivated in our society, to the point that recordings of some of the most esoteric musical practices from the most remote corners of the world have been widely available for many years. 

Because of its unique properties and extraordinarily important social role, music has been widely documented in a manner that is special, totally unlike just about any other type of human behaviour one could name. Listening with an open mind for ancestral echoes still present in the authentic music of the traditional peoples of today may be the first step toward the understanding and appreciation of a long neglected, infinitely valuable, legacy.

Cultural Equity

Assuming a portion of our ancestral legacy has survived, we must now deal with the final question: what lessons can we derive therefrom? No one worked harder to convince the world of the importance of such a question than the controversial father of Cantometrics, Alan Lomax. The phrase “Cultural Equity” was coined by Lomax in a seminal essay of 1972 (An Appeal for Cultural Equity, World of Music, XIV [2] 1972), in which he identified a cultural “grey-out,” destined to “fill our human skies with the smog of the phoney and cut the families of men off from a vision of their own cultural constellations.” He descried an “over-centralized electronic communica­tion system” that was “imposing a few standardized, mass‑produced and cheapened cultures everywhere,” promoting “the swift destruction of culture patterns all over the planet.”

As one might expect, musical traditions played a special role for Lomax, who had devoted so much of his time and energy to their preservation:

Scientific study of cultures, notably of their languages and their musics, shows that all are equally expressive and equally communicative. They are also equally valuable; first, because they enrich the lives of the culture or people who employ them and whose psychic balance is threatened when they are destroyed or impoverished; second, because each communicative system . . . holds important discoveries about the natural and human environment; and third, because each is a treasure of unknown potential, a collective creation in which some branch of the human species invested its genius across the centuries. . . [Thus, we are in danger of destroying] a system of interaction, of fantasy and symbolizing which, in the future, the human race may sorely need.

While Lomax saw cultural equity in terms of justice and equality, I wonder whether he also considered that other meaning of the term “equity,” the one that’s used when we invest in a stock. As he had strong socialist sympathies, this notion, with its capitalist overtones, may not have appealed to him. But aren’t the traditions Lomax championed a kind of equity in that sense as well, as a sort of “common stock” in which our ancestors have been investing since the dawn of humanity, and in which we all share an interest?

In that case, what’s at stake is not only a matter of fairness, equal justice for all modes of cultural expression, as important as that surely is, but the preservation of a common heritage, an infinitely precious cultural legacy of incalculable value to every living human being. As Lomax implies several times in his essay, there is a strong analogy at work linking our efforts to preserve the natural environment, all but universally applauded, with the need for similar efforts on the cultural front, equally important for the well being of our human environment, but unfortunately far less well understood.

Are Indigenous Cultures “Frozen in Time”?

If by "cultural equity" we simply mean "fairness" to various and sundry remote and exotic cultures, each seen as both unique and also set apart, "frozen in time" in a world of its own, then one might feel a responsibility to preserve each of these separate worlds in its own pristine "authenticity." If, however, we see "cultural equity" as something in which we too hold a stake (i.e., equity), as a spiritual investment made by generations of ancestors, going all the way back to the beginnings of our species -- which, as I’ve been arguing, does appear to have a common source, and, therefore, a common cultural heritage -- then we cannot separate indigenous peoples off from ourselves in exotic and remote worlds of their own, but must see them as part of a dynamic ongoing process that concerns everyone now alive -- and our descendants after us. This is especially significant in view of the fact that it is the same so-called “indigenes” who have been most concerned, if not obsessed, with both the preservation and cultivation of tradition. These are the ones whose lessons we must be prepared to learn if we are to profit from the “equity” that’s been accumulating for so many generations.

All well and good, one might say, but when we get down to specifics we seem to be confronted with an enormous number of totally different traditions, each appearing to us as something rigid, indeed "'frozen in time," sometimes irrational, often fragile and even brittle, difficult to understand and even more difficult, therefore, to connect with. While I’ve been emphasizing that which is admirable in our ancestral traditions, it’s impossible to deny that in many cases there is a dark side as well. 

Indeed, tradition can be a force for repression, control, exploitation and a host of other practices that many find disturbing, if not evil. The problem is indeed immense, and there are many different ways of addressing it. The path I’ve been following here represents my own effort to dig down deeply enough through all the historical and cultural clutter to find something we can all agree is worth not only studying and learning from, but also preserving, encouraging and developing. Once we arrive at this point, we may be surprised to see traces of this ancient heritage cropping up in many unexpected places.

A good example might be the young girl in the film "Whale Rider," who identifies so strongly with her Maori heritage, in spite of the opposition of tribal "traditionalists," even her own grandfather, who object to her activities because females have traditionally been excluded from playing the roles to which she so longingly aspires. I think that story has great meaning for those who are trying to sort out what is valuable about tradition, what is destructive about it, and why the differences are so important. 

What is especially interesting to contemplate is whether the girl represents tradition or is resisting it. On the one hand, she is attempting to overthrow age-old traditions by doing the sort of things usually reserved for males. On the other hand she appears  to be the only young person in the village with a real interest in perpetuating the very traditions threatened by her involvement in them.

As I see it, this story can be understood not so much as an opposition between generations, or a new or old way of seeing things, but as the opposition between certain relatively new traditions (new, that is, from the perspective of deep history), concerned primarily with social control, which have, indeed, become frozen in time; and older, more fundamental traditions stemming from a much deeper cultural layer, which promote social integration, fairness, equality -- and adaptation to new and different conditions where appropriate. The elders are trapped in the former, while the girl is tuned in to the latter and behaves accordingly -- in a manner that eventually wins the day, transforming the consciousness of all involved, including the film’s viewers -- one of which, I'm pleased to say, was me.

An Economics Lesson

There is one more lesson to be learned, a lesson of special relevance at this particular moment in history, when our economic system appears on the verge of collapse, and our way of life with it. One of the basic principles of classical economics is that all humans are ultimately, whether we like to admit it or not, motivated by self-interest, which in turn drives competition, the basis for our “free market economy.” This is a view once widely, and uncritically, accepted in the post-Soviet, “free market” driven world of today. Here's one particularly clear statement of what was, until recently, regarded as unquestionable wisdom, from a 1995 article by Mark Perry, entitled Why Socialism Failed:

In a capitalist economy, incentives are of the utmost importance. Market prices, the profit-and-loss system of accounting, and private property rights provide an efficient, interrelated system of incentives to guide and direct economic behavior. Capitalism is based on the theory that incentives matter!

Why do incentives matter? Human nature, for one thing: “By failing to emphasize incentives, socialism is a theory inconsistent with human nature and is therefore doomed to fail.” For another, the need for maximum efficiency due to the scarcity of resources: “In a world of scarcity it is essential for an economic system to be based on a clear incentive structure to promote economic efficiency.” Which leads, inevitably, to competition: “Without competition, centrally planned economies do not have an effective incentive structure to coordinate economic activity.” Thus, “Without incentives the results are a spiraling cycle of poverty and misery.”

Yet, as has been clear to those who have studied the Pygmies and Bushmen of Africa, their remarkable societies appear, through most of their history, to have lived collectively, sharing goods on an equal basis, shunning competition, and yet managing to survive peacefully and harmoniously among themselves, for the most part, with little if any trace of regimentation or coercion, for what now appears to have been literally tens of thousands of years!

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, in her book The Old Way, writes with glowing admiration of the !Kung Bushmen's “almost obsessive sense of equality and sharing. . . In daily matters, sharing was the way of life. Everybody shared” (p. 108).

If sharing can be a way of life for societies that have flourished for tens of thousands of years, then a need for personal incentives based on competition cannot be grounded in “human nature.”
And if life in the Kalahari desert, where Bushmen groups have survived for centuries at least, is marked by extreme scarcity of both food and water, then Perry's assertion that “In a world of scarcity it is essential for an economic system to be based on a clear incentive structure to promote economic efficiency” cannot be true.

Why is this important? Because, as we now know, it is not only Soviet style socialism that has collapsed, but also the brand of “free market capitalism” so enthusiastically promoted by Perry -- and so many others.

Perry was able to conclude, with some confidence, back in 1995:

Capitalism will play a major role in the global revival of liberty and prosperity because it nurtures the human spirit, inspires human creativity, and promotes the spirit of enterprise. By providing a powerful system of incentives that promote thrift, hard work, and efficiency, capitalism creates wealth.

The main difference between capitalism and socialism is this: Capitalism works.

Which reminds me of those famous words of Gordon Gekko: “Greed is good. Greed is right. Greed works.” As we now know, to our sorrow and grief, Perry was not only wrong about societies “where all things are held in common,” to quote More’s Utopia. He was also wrong about the capitalist Utopia he was promoting. “Free market” capitalism does not work. Greed does not work, and therefore cannot be good for anything at all. Despite the continual litany of complaints and rollings of the eyes we've been getting for so long from fashionably revisionist academics, there is something we can learn from those “primitive” Pygmies and Bushmen after all. The only question is: will the message reach us in time?

1. It has often been argued that these ratios are derived from the harmonic overtone series, which would explain their universality as a manifestation of “nature,” rather than the perpetuation of a human tradition. If this were the case, however, then we would expect to find these same ratios employed throughout the natural world, in the vocalizations of all sorts of animals, and especially the songs of birds. But that is not the case. In fact, humans are the only animals who use them.

2. For a vigorously argued presentation of this version of multiregionalism, see Alan Templeton, “Out of Africa again and again,” Nature, 416 , 2002.

3. Estimations of genetic divergence dates are based on a technique known as “coalescence.” For a definition and discussion of this topic, see the online Wikipedia article on Coalescent Theory.

4. According to evolutionary biologists Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson, as already quoted in Chapter Six, “Out of four thousand mammals and ten million or more other animal species, this suite of [violent and warlike] behaviors is known only among chimpanzees and humans. . .” (Demonic Males, p. 24).


  1. Marvelous ending to a stupendous effort! Well done, DocGee.

    A bit soothing after seeing our President and his party. that controls the U.S. Senate, demonstrate a line by Chomsky, "The advantage of having a very good education is that you can avoid obvious facts." Some of those obvious facts are that our country has sick people receiving no or little care; malnourished pregnant women and children; and an educational system grossly overpriced and a cultural wasteland grossly noisy but with little genuine life. But, please, let us not tax the super-rich.

    However, it would be wonderful if you could expand on this chapter's footnote 1.

  2. Thanks for the encouraging words, Dave. I'm really pleased to learn that 1. you've actually read the thing and 2. it's been a meaningful experience. Great!

    What you say about our wonderful "democracy" is all too true. It would be nice to think my concluding argument might make a difference, but that's unlikely.

    As you know, I have another blog that deals more directly with many of the same issues. And I've started posting there again, so you might want to check it out: http://amoleintheground.blogspot.com/

    As far as footnote 1 is concerned, it would probably take a long essay or book to fully develop that argument, but in a nutshell: just because a trait is based on some natural phenomenon doesn't mean it's "only natural" and doesn't need to be explained in the same way any other aspect of human culture is explained. Atomic energy is also natural, but our use of it is clearly a product of human cultural evolution.