Anthropological clickbait

Curios from (Ember, Ember, and Peregrine 2014) follow. These don’t fit into subsequent posts, but may pique your interest in said posts. No judgment intended or permitted—we’re all Boasians here.

Culture change

On great men of history

Within 50 years, paper was being made in many places in central China. Although the art of papermaking was kept secret for about 500 years, it was distributed as a commodity to much of the Arab world through the markets at Samarkand. But when Samarkand was attacked by the Chinese in A.D. 751, a Chinese prisoner of war was forced to set up a paper mill. Paper manufacture soon spread to the rest of the Arab world

On inventing

In stimulus diffusion, knowledge of a trait belonging to another culture stimulates the invention or development of a local equivalent. A classic example of stimulus diffusion is the Cherokee syllabic writing system created by a Native American named Sequoya so that his people could write down their language. Sequoya got the idea from his contact with Europeans.


On the prevalence of infant mortality

cross-culturally, parent–child play is exceedingly rare […] Lack of play with parents may be related to the same factor that probably explains high responsiveness to infant physical needs—high mortality of infants and the psychological need of parents to create emotional distance.

On appropriate behavior

Some societies actively encourage children to be aggressive, not only to each other but even to the parents. Among the Xhosa of southern Africa, 2- or 3-year-old boys will be prodded to hit each other in the face while women look on laughing. Similar behavior is described for the Gapun of Papua New Guinea; even raising a knife to an older sibling is rewarded. Yanomamö boys of the Venezuelan-Brazilian Amazon are encouraged to be aggressive and are rarely punished for hitting either their parents or the girls in the village.


Although Ariwari is only about 4 years old, he has already learned that the appropriate response to a flash of anger is to strike someone with his hand or with an object, and it is not uncommon for him to give his father a healthy smack in the face whenever something displeases him.

Communication and language

On gendered language

In Japan, males and females use entirely different words for numerous concepts (e.g., the male word for water is mizu; the female version is ohiya)

On forensic linguistics

Some linguists believe that the approximate location of a protolanguage is suggested by the words for plants and animals in the derived languages. More specifically, among these different languages, the words that are cognates—that is, words that are similar in sound and meaning—presumably refer to plants and animals that were present in the original homeland. So, if we know where those animals and plants were located 5,000 years to 6,000 years ago, we can guess where PIE people lived.

On universal grammar

[Bickerton] says that the “errors” children make in speaking are consistent with the grammar of creoles. For example, English-speaking children 3 to 4 years old tend to ask questions by intonation alone, and they tend to use double negatives, such as “I don’t see no dog,” even though the adults around them do not speak that way

Getting food

On Keynes’s 15-hour working week

!Kung adults spend an average of about 17 hours per week collecting food. Even when you add the time spent making tools (about 6 hours a week) and doing housework (about 19 hours a week), the !Kung seem to have more leisure time than many agriculturalists

Social stratification

On noble children

Inequality in burial suggests inequality in life. Particularly telling are unequal child burials. It is unlikely that children could achieve high status by their own achievements. So, when archaeologists find statues and ornaments only in some children’s tombs, as at the 7,500-year-old site of Tell es-Sawwan in Iraq, the grave goods suggest that those children belonged to a higher-ranking family or a higher class.

On the peculiar institution

Slavery has been practiced in about 33 percent of the world’s known societies

Economic systems

On internationalization writ small

The exchange of goods between far-flung islands is essential, for some of the islands are small and rocky and cannot produce enough food to sustain their inhabitants, who specialize instead in canoe building, pottery making, and other crafts. Other islanders produce far more yams, taro, and pigs than they need. However, the practical side of the trade is hidden beneath a complex ceremonial exchange, called the kula ring, an exchange of valued shell ornaments across a set of far-flung islands.

Two kinds of ornaments are involved in the ceremonial exchanges—white shell armbands (mwali), which are given only in a counterclockwise direction, and red shell necklaces (soulava), which are given only in a clockwise direction. The possession of one or more of these ornaments allows a man to organize an expedition to the home of one of his trading partners on another island.

Sex and gender

On yams as extended foreplay

In working among the Abelam of New Guinea, Richard Scaglion was puzzled why they invest so much energy in growing giant ceremonial yams, sometimes more than 10 feet long. Additionally, why do they abstain from sex for six months while they grow them? Of course, to try to understand, we need to know much more about the Abelam way of life. Scaglion had read about them, lived among them, and talked to them, but, as many ethnographers have discovered, answers to why questions don’t just leap out at you. Answers, at least tentative ones, often come from theoretical orientations that suggest how or where to look for answers. Scaglion considers several possibilities. As Donald Tuzin had suggested for a nearby group, the Plains Arapesh, yams may be symbols of, or stand for, shared cultural understandings. (Looking for the meanings of symbols is a kind of interpretative approach to ethnographic data.) The Abelam think of yams as having souls that appreciate tranquility. Yams also have family lines; at marriage, the joining of family lines is symbolized by planting different yam lines in the same garden. During the yam-growing cycle (remember that yams appreciate tranquility), lethal warfare and conflict become channeled mostly into competitive but nonlethal yam-growing contests. So yam growing may be functional in the sense that it helps to foster harmony.

On hospitality

The Chukchee of Siberia, who often traveled long distances, allowed a married man to engage in sex with his host’s wife, with the understanding that he would offer the same hospitality when the host visited him.

On keeping a calendar

the Etoro of New Guinea preferred homosexuality to heterosexuality. Heterosexuality was prohibited as many as 260 days a year and was forbidden in or near the house and gardens.

Marriage and the family

On the wedding night

Among the Gusii:

The groom is determined to display his virility; the bride is equally determined to test it. “Brides,” Robert and Barbara LeVine remarked, “are said to take pride in the length of time they can hold off their mates.” Men can also win acclaim. If the bride is unable to walk the following day, the groom is considered a “real man.”

On sisterly love

Wolf focused on a community still practicing the Chinese custom of t’ung-yang-hsi, or “daughter-in-law raised from childhood”:

When a girl is born in a poor family … she is often given away or sold when but a few weeks or months old, or one or two years old, to be the future wife of a son in the family of a friend or relative which has a little son not betrothed in marriage. … The girl is called a “little bride” and taken home and brought up in the family together with her future husband.
Wolf’s evidence indicates that this arrangement is associated with sexual difficulties when the childhood “couple” later marry. Informants implied that familiarity caused the couple to be disinterested and to fail to be stimulated by one another. Such couples produce fewer offspring than spouses who are not raised together, are more likely to seek extramarital sexual relationships, and are more likely to get divorced.

On folk genetics

biological harm to offspring was mentioned in 50 percent of ethnographic reports. For example, Raymond Firth reporting on the Tikopia, who live on an island in the South Pacific, wrote:

The idea is firmly held that unions of close kin bear with them their own doom, their mara. … The idea [mara] essentially concerns barrenness. … The peculiar barrenness of an incestuous union consists not in the absence of children, but in their illness or death, or some other mishap. … The idea that the offspring of a marriage between near kin are weakly and likely to die young is stoutly held by these natives and examples are adduced to prove it.

Marital residence and kinship

On teenage rebellion

Schlegel and Barry found that adolescents are likely to be rebellious only in societies, like our own, that have neolocal residence and considerable job and geographic mobility.

Associations and interest groups

On credit unions

A common type of mutual aid society is the rotating credit association. The basic principle is that each member of the group agrees to make a regular contribution, in money or in kind, to a fund, which is then handed over to each member in rotation. The regular contributions promote savings by each member, but the lump sum distribution enables the recipient to do something significant with the money. These associations are found in many areas of East, South, and Southeast Asia, Africa (particularly West Africa), and the West Indies. They usually include a small number of people, perhaps between 10 and 30, so that rotations do not take that long.


In societies that depend on sharing, saving money is difficult. Others may ask you for money, and there may be an obligation to give it to them. However, if there is a rotating credit association, you can say that you are obliged to save for your contribution and people will understand. Rotating credit associations also appear to work well when people find it hard to delay gratification. The social pressure of the group appears sufficient to push people to save enough for their regular contribution,

Political life

On the end of history

Whether by depopulation, conquest, or intimidation, the number of independent political units in the world has decreased strikingly in the last 3,000 years, and especially in the last 200 years. Robert Carneiro estimated that in 1000b.c., there may have been between 100,000 and 1 million separate political units in the world; today, there are fewer than 200.

Religion and magic

On possession

Calcium deficiency in particular can cause muscular spasms, convulsive seizures, and disorientation, all of which may foster the belief that an individual is possessed.

On mixed strategies

Moore, unlike the Naskapi, did not believe that the diviner really can find out where the animals will be; the cracks in the bones merely provide a way of randomly choosing where to hunt. Because humans are likely to develop customary patterns of action, they might be likely to look for game according to some plan. But game might learn to avoid hunters who operate according to a plan. Thus, any method of ensuring against patterning or predictable plans—any random strategy—may be advantageous.

On witchcraft

The disease implicated in Salem and elsewhere is the fungus disease called ergot, which can grow on rye plants. (The rye flour that went into the bread that the Salem people ate may have been contaminated by ergot.) It is now known that people who eat grain products contaminated by ergot suffer from convulsions, hallucinations, and other symptoms, such as crawling sensations in the skin. We also now know that ergot contains LSD,

On plea bargaining

A common kind of ordeal, found in almost every part of the world, is scalding. Among the Tanala of Madagascar, the accused person, having first had his hand carefully examined for protective covering, has to reach his hand into a cauldron of boiling water and grasp, from underneath, a rock suspended there. He then plunges his hand into cold water, has it bandaged, and is led off to spend the night under guard. In the morning, his hand is unbandaged and examined. If there are blisters, he is guilty.

Ember, Carol R, Melvin R Ember, and Peter N Peregrine. 2014. Cultural Anthropology. Pearson.