Category Archives: Efe Ethnoarchaeology

About that 130,000 y.o. Human Occupation in California

A claim is being made, in a recent issue of Nature Magazine, that humans were active in the vicinity of San Diego well over 100,000 years before archaeologists think humans were even in the New World. Most commentary on this claim dismisses it out of hand, but out of hand rejections are no better than foundationless assertions. Let’s take a closer look at the Cerutti Mastodon Site. But first, some important context.

The Near Consensus on North American Prehistory

The Clovis Culture is a Native American phenomenon that occurred between about 12 and 10 thousand years ago (most likely between 11,500 and 11,000 uncalibrated radiocarbon years before present). Clovis_Point

The key feature of Clovis is the rather extraordinary “Clovis Point.” There is another, similar looking, point that goes with the Folsom Culture, which is about as old as the Clovis culture, but a bit younger, and there are a couple of other less common named forms. We refer to them all as “fluted points.”

Unlike some other so-called “projectile points” (many of which are knives or spearheads, many perhaps not even mounted in use) fluted points are rarely found in large numbers anywhere, but are represented over a very large region; They are found across the United Sates and Canada, and as far south as Venezuela.

There is almost no evidence suggesting that any humans existed in North America prior to Clovis times, and this has been known for years. Therefore, “Clovis culture” or more broadly, “Paleoindian” culture has long been thought to represent the first humans to come to North America. Since Native Americans physically resemble East Asians (an observation supported and refined by genetic analysis) it has always been assumed that Native Americans came from Asia as Paleoindians, or developed the Paleoindian culture right after arriving in North America. The dates of Clovis sites cluster into such a tight time frame that it makes sense to assume that these folks arrived on an unoccupied continent, spread quickly over a large area, and subsequently differentiated into diverse groups.

The idea of earlier, pre-Clovis, occupation has long been considered by the occasional daring archaeologist, and even the famous African archaeologist, Louis Leakey, suggested that certain finds in the vicinity of modern day San Diego represented much older human occupation. However, North American archaeologists remained firm on the idea that there is no pre-Clovis, and argued strongly and vociferously against the idea. Indeed, any archaeologist who wished to argue for pre-Clovis risked something close to professional censure, others were so sure about Clovis first.

For a very long time it has been at first quietly, and later less quietly, recognized that there are some problems with the Clovis-First hypotheses. First, even though one might expect the early dates for Clovis, if it represented a sudden and rapid colonization of a world with no humans, to be difficult to interpret, it became apparent that the earliest Clovis is in the far East of the continent, with later clovis being farther west. Recent interpretations of the data have suggested that this may not be true, but those interpretations are tenuous. Oddly, pretty solid dating evidence showing east coast Clovis to be earlier was always rejected as unimportant, while a much less clear argument that Clovis out west is early has been quickly and not very critically accepted, presumably because it fits the underlying assumptions of a sudden colonization from Asia.

Fluted points are way more common in the East, east of the Mississippi, in various Mississippi drainage valleys, and along the East Coast. They are relatively sparse in the west, say, on the west side of the Rocky Mountains, and they are very rare in Alaska. So, the distribution of fluted points is exactly the opposite of what one might expect with a simple model of Asians arriving in North America, suddenly becoming Clovis, then spreading from there.

Of the fluted points found in North America, the oldest style, Clovis, is mainly an Eastern phenomenon, with later styles, such as Folsom, are more in the West. If the so-called spatio-temporal boundaries of these styles is correct, and Clovis is older than Folsem, then it is very hard to argue that Clovis is a primary phenomenon that came out of Asia as the first thing people did in North America.

These observations together with the absence of Paleoindian culture in Asia strongly suggests that the actual history of people in North America prior to about 10,000 years ago was a little more complex than the usual textbook version. Indeed, Clovis would make a lot more sense if there was a pre-Clovis culture that did some or much of the initial spreading, followed quickly by the rise of a Clovis Culture among those people, perhaps in the east, which then spread across the continents very quickly. That would have simply been an early example of a phenomenon we see again and again in New World prehistory, where a material phenomenon of some kind, a type of projectile point, or a symbolic image, or something, spreads in what seems like an instant across a vast area.

Beginning mainly in the 1980s, a number of archaeological sites were discovered and presented as pre-Clovis. These are dated using various means. They occur across the US in Pennsylvania, Souoth Carolina, Oregon, Florida, Alaska, and elsewhere. They are also found in South America in Brazil, Chile, and Columbia. Most, perhaps all, of these sites — there are about 16 of them — are very strongly and forcefully argued to be real, and have varying degrees of evidence on them.

Most of the sites date to either just a thousand or two years, or sometime, just centuries, before Clovis and would easily fit into a pre-Clovis model as suggested above. This would go with the idea that somehow, humans arrived in North America, spread out, then popped out Clovis Culture soon after. Some of the sites are much earlier, but as far as I know, all the earliest sites have very questionable artifacts or dating that is not very secure.

I am not certain, but I think most of the North American archaeologists who so forcefully argued against pre-Clovis of any form have either moved off that position, stopped talking, or died off. Now, I believe, most North American archaeologists accept that there is a distinct possibility that there is what I would call a “near-Pre-Clovis.” But, since there are just over one dozen sites across two continents, one must be reserved in assuming this. Such a small number of sites could represent a small number of aberrant if well meaning interpretations of sites that have something wrong with them. I personally have excavated many, many archaeological sites, and I have seen things that can’t be explained. Personally, I think some of the late pre-Clovis sites are good. But, I would not be surprised if an all knowing alien with a time machine landed nearby and proved that I was wrong.

The CM Mastodon Site: Humans in the New World at 130,000 years?

The Cerutti Mastodon site is in San Diego County, California. The site was excavating in the early 1990s by a team from the San Diego Museum of Natural History. If you ever get a chance to visit that museum, do so. It is one of the many museums of Balboa Park, which also includes the famous San Diego Zoo.

3F9FD05F00000578-4447720-image-a-2_1493212011779The finds at this site include a juvenile Mastodon, Mammut Americanum, as well as dire wolf, horse, ground sloth, camel, and mammoth.

The site is dated using Uranium-thorium dating on the mastodon bone, to 130,000 +/- 9,400 years b.p.

A recent analysis of the site, just published in the journal Nature, claims that the bones show evidence of human modification, and that some stones also found on the site show evidence of having been used to modify the bones.

The modification suggested is the smashing of bone to extract marrow, and possibly, to make some flakes or otherwise modify the bone to make tools.

The authors of the paper suggest that there are, as commonly agreed by North American archaeologists, four criteria that a site must meet to be considered a candidate for early pre-Clovis human evidence:

1) archaeological evidence is found in a clearly defined and undisturbed geologic context;

2) age is determined by reliable radiometric dating;

3) multiple lines of evidence from interdisciplinary studies provide consistent results; and

4) unquestionable artefacts are found in primary context

They argue that all of these are met. From the abstract:

The CM site contains spiral-fractured bone and molar fragments, indicating that breakage occured while fresh. Several of these fragments also preserve evidence of percussion. The occurrence and distribution of bone, molar and stone refits suggest that breakage occurred at the site of burial. Five large cobbles (hammerstones and anvils) in the CM bone bed display use-wear and impact marks, and are hydraulically anomalous relative to the low-energy context of the enclosing sandy silt stratum. 230Th/U radiometric analysis of multiple bone specimens using diffusion–adsorption–decay dating models indicates a burial date of 130.7?±?9.4 thousand years ago. These findings confirm the presence of an unidentified species of Homo at the CM site during the last interglacial period (MIS 5e; early late Pleistocene), indicating that humans with manual dexterity and the experiential knowledge to use hammerstones and anvils processed mastodon limb bones for marrow extraction and/or raw material for tool production. Systematic proboscidean bone reduction, evident at the CM site, fits within a broader pattern of Palaeolithic bone percussion technology in Africa, Eurasia, and North America. The CM site is, to our knowledge, the oldest in situ, well-documented archaeological site in North America and, as such, substantially revises the timing of arrival of Homo into the Americas.

That the site is in a good geological context is apparently beyond question, as far as I know. The “refitting” referred to is where bits and pieces of one thing that was broken apart can be glued back together, showing that since the breaking event not much has moved around, which helps to argue that the site is not too messed up by geological processes. The dating seems good. Everything seems good.

Yay, an early site showing humans in North America way before we ever thought!

But wait, not so fast …

Why this site could be real, and other comments on the early Americas

Archaeologists have a conceptual problem with discontinuity. They don’t believe in it.

Say you are working in a previously unstudied part of the world (there are none, but pretend). You find a site with some pottery on it, and date the site to 1,000 years ago. In the same area, you find several sites, of various dates, from 1,000 years ago to 4,000 years ago, but they are all sites with chipped stone tools on them and no pottery. But then, you finally find another pottery bearing site. The pottery looks different, and the site was fairly deep down, so when you get your dates back from the lab and they are about 4,000 years old, you are not surprised.

And, now, you know that pottery using people lived here from 4,000 years ago to 1,000 years ago, right?

Wrong. It is possible that people showed up here with pottery, and left, leaving behind non-pottery using people, then came back later. Or, people moved here with pottery, or invented or were introduced to pottery, 4,000 years ago, then stopped using it for some reason, then pottery made a return, somehow, more recently. The problem is, most archaeologists will not accept that once something happens, it can unhappen, even though we actually do know of places in the world where pottery was brought there with the first people, then forgotten about or rejected for some reason, later.

So, here’s the idea. During warm periods, like the interglacial of roughly the age of the CM site, and the present, hominins tend to spread. Even the ones that like warmer regions, maybe not even humans, spread around during warm periods, and spread north. So, naturally, some of them get to the New World somehow, and these are them. They don’t even have to be chipped stone tool using humans. They could be bone breakers. They could be bigfoot! They could be anything.

Now, this may seem like a crazy idea, and it almost certainly is. But, the rejection of occupation as early as 130,000 years ago because we have no evidence of anything half that old requires that the new world can be occupied in only one way: something or someone shows up, then they never leave. This is in direct conflict with the known migrations of large mammals, many of which migrated either to the New World from the Old World, or the other way round, several times over that last 5 or more million years, and most of which do not exist in the place they migrated to now.

Why the Old World makes the CM site highly unlikely

I know an archaeologist who once said this. She said, teaching her class, that the discovery of a house structure at about 5,000 years ago (by the way, it might have been the house structure I discovered, which for a time was the oldest one in North America) tells us that by 5,000 years ago, Native Americans had a concept of building a house, like a wigwam, and the technology to do so. I once read an archaeological monograph that suggested that the presence in some 3,000 year old pottery of impressions of woven material show that by that time Native Americans could weave cloth. One textbook refers to the earliest fire in North America (several thousands of years back) indicating that we now knew that by that time, at least, Native Americans had fire and thus could possibly cook their food.

I’ve read and heard North American archaeologists say things like this over and over again. These statements assume that the first proto-Native American people to come to the new world, say as just-pre-Clovis people, must have arrived naked and technology free!

People in the Old World had chipped stone technology, whereby stones were used to break stones in a very systematic (and not too easy to learn) way to produce, ultimately, tools. Our ancestors had this technology before the genus Homo existed. In fact, it may be the case that our ancestors were stone tool chipping bipedal apes for as long before the rise of the genus Homo as after (this remains to be pinned down). Modern humans have existed on this planet for only a fraction of the time that hominins were making chipped stone tools. Until the abrupt and dramatic near perfect elimination of chipped stone technology in recent centuries, chipped stone tool technology was as much a part of human behavior and culture as walking on two legs was.

We know this because of all that Old World archaeology that has been done. Despite the limited understanding of world prehistory by many North American archaeologists, the truth is that a human (even a non-fully modern human) presence in the New World would have chipped stone tools with it.

If a creature was at the CM site with a culture that lacked chipped stone tools, but that used hammer and anvil stones to break up bone, it was an ape, not a hominin. It was Gigantopithecus, or something. Bigfoot! CM is potentially believable as a site if it occurred in a larger time horizon with definitive human evidence. In other words, a bunch of chomped up elephant bones down the way from clear unambiguous human occupation on a landscape with many sites of that date might be acceptable as a human site, but not this. Not just pounded bones with no other cultural manifestations.

Now, I want to add new rules to the ones listed above.

5) The artifacts have to include evidence of proper chipped stone tool technology, as this is a ubiquitous trait of Homo and proto-Homo

6) Among the chipped stone, there must be both flakes and pieces that are flaked, because many natural processes will produce one or the other (usually flaked pieces) without human engagement.

7) The flakes must exhibit many cases of clear striking platforms, the part where the flake is hit to make it fly off the parent rock, and those striking platforms must be mostly below 90 degrees angle, because that is the experimentally established difference between “natural” flakes (including those made by cars running over rocks and rocks falling off cliffs, etc.) and human made proper flakes.

8) If flaked bone is invoked as an artifact type, the flakes must be numerous and have the same low angle of percussion, and there must as noted above, also be stone flakes.

This is the underlying fact that must be understood by people considering the CM site as human. Humans bust up bones, but busted up bones in the absence of any other evidence of human activity does not constitute unquestionable artifactual nature. Ever.

Just to make sure that I was still up to date on bone breakage taphonomy, the study of how to interpret bone breakage, I asked Professor Martha Tappen of the University of Minnesota, a bone taphonomist, for her opinion about the site. She told me, “I would say that the breaks appear to be consistent with human breakage, but quite possibly other causes, too, such as backhoes and perhaps other scenarios involving trampling. Other evidence is needed to support the idea that people reached the new world at this early time.”

What really happened at CM

I spent a certain amount of time living among the elephants of the African Rain Forest. Well, OK, I wan’t actually “living among them” but I was living there doing archaeology and other things, and they were there too. In fact, I studied elephant movement and trial making, and in so doing, observed a lot of places where elephants tromp around.

Some of the elephants we observed in the Ituri (along with the afore mentioned Professor Tappen) which had been killed over the years by Efe hunters (they are the traditional elephant hunters of the region), died on or near regular elephant trails. Once an elephant is all butchered up or scavenged, I assume the living elephants walk around the remains, though in some areas they have been known to play around with the bones of the dead. But eventually, the bones get incorporated with the undergrowth and the sediment, and get trampled by the elephants. The elephants also trample rocks. I saw locations where the elephants walked a lot, including trails and one location where they had dug a cave to obtain sediment that they would eat, where there was so much elephant trampling of stone that most of the stone looked human modified.

CM site has several animals, including some large ones. Something about this site attracted animals that then died, but at one point were alive. This is a very common phenomenon in paleontology, and is not fully understood. It is very likely that the broken up bones and the seemingly modified stones look the way they do because huge multi-ton animals stepped on them repeatedly.

But what if …

I don’t want to rule out CM out of hand. I don’t want to do this because Archaeology is full of stuff that was ruled out by orthodoxy then later found out to be important or real, but data was lost because of the narrow mindedness of the narrow minded. I believe it is appropriate and necessary to reserve a part of our dogma for possibilities, evidence for things that we are pretty sure are not real but that have just enough credibility, just enough of a question, to allow for a later surprise. I would love to see more large mammal sites of the late Pleistocene excavated carefully to see what they look like. A program of exploration for and investigation of sites during and near the Last Glacial Maximum in the Western US is a good idea, and should yield some very interesting paleontological results. If there was some kind of a hominin running around then — which is very unlikely and indeed almost impossible to imagine — but if there was one, it would eventually be bumped into. Meanwhile, think of all the cool extinct animal stuff we would get to learn no matter what the human prehistoric story turns out to be!

Why I ate a Pangolin

The Lese people practice swidden horticulture in the Ituri Forest, Congo (formerly Zaire). Living in the same area are the Efe people, sometimes known as Pygmies (but that may be an inappropriate term). The Efe and Lese share a culture, in a sense, but are distinct entities within that culture, as distinct as any people living integrated by side by side ever are. The Efe are hunter-gatherers, but the gathering of wild food part of that is largely supplanted by a traditional system of tacit exchange between Efe women and Lese farmers, whereby the Efe provide labor and the farmers provide food. The Efe men also work on the farms sometimes, but their contribution to the family’s diet is more typically from foraged goods, including plants but mostly animals, and during a particular season of the year, the products of honey bee nests.

For several years, in the 1980s and early 90s, I lived in Zaire (now Congo) for several months out of each year (generally between May and January, roughly), and for much of that time I was in the Ituri with the Lese and Efe. During that time, I spent much of the time in the forest with the Efe (very few of the researches on that long term multidisciplinary project did that — most spent their time with the Lese for various reasons).

To go from our study site to the grocery store (which was not really a grocery store because they did not exist in that part of Zaire, but a city with markets) was about a week’s trip or more. Only a few days of that was driving, the rest fixing the broken truck, doing the shopping, etc. So, one did this infrequently. There was no local market during my time there, though one opened up 10 clicks away for a while, at which one might or might not be able to buy a chicken or a yam, if you showed up early.

I (and this pertains to most of my colleagues as well, only a few of us would be at the site at a time) would buy sacks of rice and beans and other long term food items in the city, and carefully curate them at the base camp, a small village constructed of wattle and daub leaf-roofed huts and outhouses. When I went to the forest just to live with or observe the Efe, I would bring the exact amount of food I would need to survive if all I did was feed myself. This way my presence would not affect the Efe’s food budget. But, this is a sharing culture and it would have been very bad for me to just eat that food. I feely shared my food with my fellow camp members, and they shared their food, and my food was almost exactly the same as their local food (rice was grown there) except I would have beans and they are not local. Otherwise, the same.

This meant that I ate what they ate.

Other times, I would hire Efe and maybe one Lese to go with me to the forest to carry out research. I’d be careful to hire them for limited amounts of time to not disrupt their lives too much, but there was very little difference between them working for me and, say, getting honey during honey season. I would only ask them to work with me for a few hours a day and they would otherwise forage. On these trips, I brought more food, for them, because our geographic location and the work we were doing interfered with their normal food getting activities, so I made up for that. But still, during these times we ate plenty of forest foods.

So, what do the Efe (and their Lese compatriot) eat?

Locally, the plant diet is insufficient nutritionally, and often, children are undernourished. There is a hunger season during which the plants from the forest and gardens are rare or absent at the same time, and this is often the death season. No one dies form starving, really (though that apparently can happen) but they have another dangerous disease, and the lack of food may put an ill individual over the top. During one bad hungers season, a small family attempted mass suicide, and mostly succeeded.

Locally, there is no beef, or as is the case a couple of hundred clicks away in most directions, commercially harvested fish. They have goats but the are ceremonial and seem to be never eaten. The Lese have chickens, a few, and they are eaten now and then. The wild animal foods they eat are incredibly important. Without that, they would be in very bad shape.

The most common animals they eat, as in day to day and mundane, are a form of antelope called the Blue Duiker, and monkeys, usually Mangabeys. During a certain season they eat a fair umber of another animal, like but not exactly a duiker, called a water Cheverotain. But since food supply is so unpredictable, they are always on the lookout, and they eat everything. A song bird or bat that flies too close may be batted down with a machete, a Honey Badger that stumbles up on a group of resting Efe may be chased own, an Elephant Shrew that happens on a camp will be dispatched by an archer and cooked up. The only time I ever saw the Efe not go after an animal that happened to show up is when a small herd of elephants came along, and the Efe made a lot of noise to chase them off, while at the same time making plans to hide in the nearby hide-from-the-elephant trees (yes, they have them.) And snakes. Something odd going on there with snakes (see below).

One of the focal points of my research was to look at how animals reacted to the Efe’s presence, and it is striking. Since the Efe will kill and eat almost anything they encounter, most of the animals are very careful to avoid the Efe, and even the Efe’s habitually used trails.

There is a certain amount of elephant hunting. Pygmies, generally, are the African elephant hunters, and apparently, have been so for a very long time. The importance of elephant is very under-appreciated by most experts. The data show that most of the food the Efe eat is plant food, and animal food makes up a percentage of their diet typical for tropical or subtropical African hunter gatherers. But those data never include elephant. I’ve estimated that the total amount of elephant meat they eat over medium periods of time, left to their own, is about the same as all the other meat combined. This happens because when someone does kill an elephant (a rare event compared to the daily killing of a duiker or other more common mammal), everyone from everywhere shows up and gorges on that meat for a few weeks.

So, even though most researchers would classify elephant as uncommon in their diet and therefor not a major contributor to the diet, they’ve simply got that wrong. It is a big deal.

Beyond that, the range of animals is huge, because the number of species native to the area is huge. Oddly, the Efe I was with (and these were more than one distinct group) didn’t seem to eat snakes, tough I know that others do. These Efe also often have a particular species of snake as their totem animal, and you don’t eat your totem animal. So, maybe that is the reason.

Because Efe live the life they live, one without the privilege of access to unlimited supplies of cattle flesh, swine meat, domestic birds, and commercially caught or raised fish, they have a wide dietary niche. Because they live in a remote part of the African rain forest, this list includes a lot of animals many may have never even heard of, or that most regard as exotic, though they are very common there. They live a life where the plant foods often fail them, and collectively do not provide a sufficiently nutritious diet, so they do not have the privilege of eschewing meat, and in fact, perhaps with the knowledge that meat is the real hunger-killer in their environment, they prefer to spend as much time as they can chewing meat.

And I spent a lot of time sharing their culture and ecology with them, and in so doing, had the privilege of getting much closer to truly experiencing another culture than most ever get. Close enough, in fact, to know that I wasn’t even close, and knowing that is a privilege the dilettante missionary or subscriber to National Geo can not have.

The Great Human Race: How to survive

The Great Human Race is a new production of National Geographic, in three parts. I recently viewed the first episode, “Dawn” which comes with this description:

All people can trace their roots to the savanna of East Africa, the home of one of the first members of the human species — Homo habilis. Archaeologist Bill Schindler and survival instructor Cat Bigney face what early man did as they work together to survive in the wild savanna just as these primitive people did 2.6 million years ago — without any weapons or fire. But they soon find that living like our ancestors is harder than they expected.

Great Human Race premieres Monday, February 1, at 10/9c on National Geographic Channel.

Photo at the top of the post: NG Studios

NGS has asked me to participate in a roundtable (here is the link to the roundtable) focusing on this documentary, specifically addressing this question:


Do you think that experts today can accurately replicate the challenges that Homo habilis faced thousands of years ago? And do you think that experts today could survive and thrive as Homo habilis did?

This is very much my area, and I’m glad to contribute to the discussion. The short answer is, of course, no, this is too hard. But, we can try and in so doing, we can develop some interesting thinking about early human evolution.

My contribution to the conversation centers on two rules of being a human hunter gatherer. Homo habilis was not, of course, a human, but we assume that this early hominin had some incipient human traits, further developed with early Homo erectus/ergaster. The two rules of being a human hunter gatherer refer to important aspects of living off the land that my research indicates apply to modern humans living without agriculture or animal husbandry as a source of food. I don’t know if these rules applied to earlier hominins or not … that is the $64,000 dollar question.

Rule 1: If you don’t know where it is, you are not likely to find it.

Much of the story in the first episode of The Great Human Race has to do with the two scantily clad protagonists, a professional survivalist of sorts and an “experimental archaeology” expert, set lose in the African Savanna to see what would happen, searching for various resources. I won’t give you a spoiler, but the episode ends with their discovery of one of the most important resources they need to survive, with that discovery realized in a very spectacular way.

I spent a lot of time in the 1980s and early 1990s living with, and studying the foraging patterns of, the Efe Pygmy foragers of the Ituri Forest, Zaire (now Congo). One of the things I discovered and documented is the simple fact that most of the resources they use are not really found by them, as though they had no idea where they might be. They already know where most of the stuff they can eat either will be, or are likely to be.

Bot men and women gather plant resources, but this is more of a woman’s job. In most cases, the more important plant resources are well known fruiting trees or concentrations of trees, or patches of wild yams that are frequently exploited. Women catch fish in streams that they have fished repeatedly before. This involves damming the stream at two points and removing the water from between the dams so the fish are easy to harvest.

Men seasonally hunt honey, and much of the honey is taken from trees they have exploited in the past, and check on a regular basis to see if the bees have settled in that cavity again. They do occasionally cut down a honey tree, but this is fairly rare (it is very hard work).

Even hunting, which one might assume is somewhat random, is done with a great deal of expectation based on knowledge. One type of hunting (not the most revered but among the most predictable) is to take porcupines or other small mammals from cavernous areas beneath rock piles that are found here and there across the landscape. If you find a rock pile and try to get at the animals hiding in it, even with the use of dogs, the animals can easily escape as they have many hidden exists. But if you return to the same rock pile repeatedly, you know where many of these escape routes are and can block them with wood or stone. A repeatedly used rock pile can be exploited with a high degree of confidence in success.

One of the most productive methods of hunting is the ambush. A well known tree that produces a fruit eaten by small ground mammals such as duikers is identified as currently producing the bait. A nearby tree which is climbable is used as a hide, where the Efe man waits for his prey, shooting it from the tree. The Efe almost always camp in locations that were previously used as camps, so at any given location where they are living, any of the men can easily point out the location of excellent ambush sites, rock piles, and nearby potential honey spots, and the women, and some of the men, can easily point out the locations of nearby fruit trees or yam patches.

There is uncertainty as to what resource will pay off, and not every resource is so easily predicted, but most of the wild foods the Efe gather and hunt are exploitable because of this knowledge.

The information is probably shared among people in a group, but remarkably little conversation centers on this topic. You don’t hear Efe talking about the location of this or that resource more than you hear, say, Americans talking about the locations of this or that grocery story. Certainly, such things are part of the normal conversation but do not make up a large percentage of it.

Rule 2: If you are doing it right, the use of a given instance of a resource can increase its future return.

This is probably a more important finding than that related to the first rule, and is rather counterintuitive. If the Efe use a resource, they will quickly use it up. This is one of the main reasons they move frequently from camp to camp over the year. But, the value of that resource, both the likelihood that it will produce something, and the abundance it produces, is enhanced by their very use of it.

I’ve already implied a couple of examples. If you block off a few exit ways on a rock pile, you don’t unblock them when you are done. Those escape routes may remain blocked between uses. If you add to your ambush trees a blind to sit on (usually just a few sticks tied on here and there) or modify the tree to make it easier to climb, these modifications may make the use of that ambush spot easier in the future, allowing you to climb and sit in the tree more quickly, more quietly, and more comfortably. Efe will also remove branches that interfere with their view and their shot.

Often, after an Efe man has finished taking the honey and comb out of a bee nest way up in some tree, he will spend a few more minutes making the cavity the bees had nested in larger. This may increase the amount of honey that can be fit into that cavity the next honey season.

When Efe women harvest yams, they tend to keep the “head” of the yam, attached to the above ground vine, intact, and rebury it. The space where they took the yam out will then be filled, with a little luck, with more yam months later.

As the Efe walk along the trails they habitually use to get around in the forest, they maintain the trails to keep them open and passable. it takes an Efe twice as long to traverse a given distance of forest without a trail as with a trail. This is a huge long term enhancement in the return of foraging.

As the Efe walk along a trail, they often grab up fruits from trees along the way. They eat the fruit as they walk, or stop at a resting place and eat it there. I documented five species of fruit tree where the Efe spit out or otherwise discard the seed of the fruit. This process of dispersal, well known to plant ecologists, enhances the number of those fruit trees along these trails, roughly doubling the abundance of these seasonally consumed fruits.

And there’s more, I won’t bore you with now. Much of the energy the Efe put into foraging enhances future return, including the development and maintenance of the basic knowledge of where various resources are.

There is some evidence that chimps do something like this as well. Chimps are probably primary dispersers of some of the fuits they exploit, almost certainly enhancing the abundance of that type of tree or plant. Where chimps use nutting stones (this is rare, but there are some groups that do this), they seem to keep track of the where the stones were left, so finding this rare object is much more efficient.

Given that chimps use prior knowledge and enhancement a little, and human foragers are capable of using these two “rules” a lot, I would assume that some of this would have been going on with Homo habilis.

I should mention that the observations I’ve made with the Efe have since been made among other groups of foragers. This seems to be a general pattern among African tropical and subtropical foragers, and possibly beyond. If you don’t already know where something is, you are not likely to find it. And, once a resource is exploited, foragers are often likely to enhance its future value. The emergence of those two features of modern human foraging must have been part of the hominin evolutionary story.

When Are Nomads Not Really Nomads? (Efe Pygmy Ethnoarchaeology)

“First, we’re going to collect our data,” Jack, the archaeologist, was telling me as we slogged down the narrow overgrown path. He seemed annoyed. “Then, we’ll leave. Until we leave, they won’t leave. They think it would be rude. After they leave, we’ll go back and map in the abandoned camp.”

I had just arrived at the research camp in the Ituri Forest, then Zaire and now the Congo, after a rather long and harrowing journey that took me from Boston to New York to London to Lagos to Kinshasa to Kisingani to Isiro, all by plane, then over 250 kilometers of increasingly less road-like road, to the world’s most “remote” research site to be found among human settlements anywhere on the planet. Jack’s research involved looking at what happened to Efe Pygmy “camps” after they were abandoned. The Efe hunter-gatherers were known to move camp an average of once every two weeks or so. An archaeologist would want to know what happens to a camp once it is abandoned because many of the ancient sites we excavate are exactly that, abandoned settlements. Jack had been tracking Efe movement and camp abandonment patterns for one year, and the expectation was that I would continue his data collection for another year, as he and his wife returned to Montana to write up their results.

A typical Efe forest camp.
A typical Efe forest camp.
The Efe, being very hospitable, were reluctant to leave a camp with visitors present, even if the visitors promised to leave with them, and certainly would never leave a camp if the visitors stayed behind. It just wasn’t done. Jack never told me how long it took for him and Helen to figure out that every time they visited a camp they were told would be abandoned that day, the Efe never actually moved, but eventually they came upon the method of arriving about the time of expected abandonment, collecting some preliminary data, and then leaving only to return hours, or perhaps a day, later.

“Oh, excuse, me have you moved yet? No? OK, see you tomorrow.”

When we arrived at the camp, which was located very near the Lese villages … the Lese are the farming people who with an overlapping culture and economy with the Efe … there were a lot of people there. This was a camp with several adult couples and a number of kids of all ages from baby up to nearly teenage. Since this was Jack and Helen’s last visit, they brought gifts to give to the people who had helped them out for the previous year. Project regulations and ethics required that any gifts be irrelevant to diet or economics, not usable as tools of poaching, not likely to change people’s status, and be likely to be used up or worn out quickly. So, everybody got plastic green sunglasses, the really cheap kind you buy by the dozen at a party store to use as favors.

A typical Lese village.
A typical Lese village.
The data collection involved listing all the people who were present, using coded references so no one could ever trace a real individual to any of our reports or publications. Years ago there was a revolution here in the Ituri during which lists of plantation workers or other employees, people who might be sympathetic to the Belgian colonials, were used to find and sometimes kill sympathizers. In case something like that ever happened again, we did not want our records to be used to identify people who were friendly to outsiders who might be seen as oppressors. That we tried very hard to not be oppressors was hardly the point; violent revolutions often get such things wrong. We would also offer everyone in the camp the opportunity to display their tools and other durable items so that we could inventory and photograph them. This was done voluntarily, but in this particular culture there was no proscription against it as long as we were looking only at regular household items or hunting weapons. Any sacred ritual items would be kept hidden, most likely, and we would not ask about them.

It was a party, a good time, lots of conversation, some weeping over the fact that the much beloved Jack and Helen would be moving back to the States, lots of fun with the green sunglasses, lots of data collected. Then, we left, and the next day we returned to map in the locations of the small dome shaped leaf-covered huts and other structures, fire hearths, stick chairs, drying racks, midden piles, trampled central-use areas, and so on and so forth. This is what the abandoned camp of a people known in the literature, and generally to outsiders, as “nomads” looked like. There was lots of stuff there, but all of it was made from materials available on the spot, transformed from wild growing plants to architecture and kitchen furniture, but eventually thrown out or left behind. Everything else was carried by the Efe, in one trip, to the next camp they would build from natural materials. Or almost everything.

Saying goodbye to Jack and Helen.
Saying goodbye to Jack and Helen.
To understand the movement of the Efe across the landscape, one had to first understand the seasonal cycles of the villages and the forest. While the Efe were hunter gatherers, living off the land in the African rain forest, they also associated with the Lese Villagers, farmers who grew crops in swidden (slash and burn) gardens. Sometimes the Efe men helped the Lese to develop the gardens, especially new gardens, by cutting and burning trees, in exchange for some goods, often tobacco and marijuana (which were always consumed together). But much more regularly, the women worked in the gardens planting, tending, harvesting, and processing rice, peanuts, cassava, plantains, and other crops. These gardens had a seasonal cycle. Being almost on the equator, there were two growing seasons, a wet season for “dry” country rice and a less wet season for growing peanuts. The other crops were grown year round. So, there was a harvesting and planting season around June, and another harvesting and planting season around November.

Collecting data from an abandoned camp.
Collecting data from an abandoned camp.
In return for their work in the fields, Efe could take food from the gardens. In the end, about half of the food the Efe ate consisted of agricultural produce procured in exchange for this work and the other half of their food came from the forest, mostly hunted meat but also gathered fruits and roots and other things.

And the forest had it’s seasonal cycle as well. During the dry season, which lasted several weeks around November and December, certain animals were easier to hunt because the streams they hid in, or that would impair hunter’s movement through the forest, were very low. Staring in late June and running into August, the famous African Killer Honey Bees (the wild version of our own domesticated honey bee) produced copious honey in nests about 100 feet up in the forest canopy. The Efe men were very dedicated to harvesting this honey.

If you think about that information for a bit you’ll notice possible conflict. For example, the Efe are drawn to the deep forest for Honey Season, but this overlaps with the mid-year harvest and planting. The November harvest and planting overlapped and conflicted with the dry season hunting. You might guess that men and women would have different opinions about where to reside during these periods of conflicts. The women would never stay overnight in a farm village during harvest; they moved each day by foot from the Efe camp to the gardens and back. But as it became more desirable to camp farther and farther into the forest, that commute became longer and longer. We say (usually tongue in cheek) that Western couples fight over certain things, like money or how to raise the kids or what channel to watch on TV. Efe couples argue over where to put the camp in relation to the horticultural villages vs. the deep forest.

I ended up never continuing Jack and Helen’s data collection project. That I would spend a year doing Part II of another graduate student’s thesis was an idea cooked up by our shared advisor, but neither Jack nor I saw the benefit in doing that. He had enough data, I had other things to do. So, instead, I studied the larger scale structure of Efe nomadism, of their movements across the landscape and their use of forest resources.

I discovered that each Efe group possessed (and that is a carefully chosen word) rights to a trail, usually one single trail but sometimes something a bit more complicated, that ran from the villages out into the forest. Along this trail, at intervals of almost exactly 1.5 kilometers, was a potential camp site. Of these camp sites, a handful were used again and again as the Efe moved through their seasonal cycle. Some of the other camps were used only occasionally. This was interesting, because it meant that even though the efe might move over 20 times a year, the part of their movement in the deep forest had them return to the same exact four or five camps again and again for years. They would also repeatedly use the same camps near the villages, but since village farmers often moved their swidden gardens, wiping out grown-over sections of the forest in one area and abandoning a garden elsewhere, the Efe “village camps” … the camps used during planting and harvest seasons … were often destroyed or otherwise became inconvenient.

Efe hunter.  As a general rule, if you don't know at least approximately where something is in the forest before you go looking for it, you're not likely to find it.
Efe hunter. As a general rule, if you don’t know at least approximately where something is in the forest before you go looking for it, you’re not likely to find it.
I also discovered that the Efe named each of their camps. This should not be surprising. Humans everywhere use place names to navigate and situate themselves in space. As with place names generally, the names of camps often had a meaningful history. One camp was named “Near the rotten orange tree.” That was a camp located near a garden where there once stood a citrus tree, long gone. That was revealing because there were no villages anywhere near the old orang tree today, the original village having been left decades ago. The best camp name I encountered was “Place the women refuse to pass.” This meant that this was the location along that particular group’s trail that the women refused to move camp beyond during the seasons they commuted to work in the gardens. As it was, this camp was about two hours walk from the villages. No wonder they refused to live beyond that point while working in the farms!

And now we come to the interesting anthropological lesson that emerges when we look at other cultures, in this case, the Efe and Lese. In books and articles about the Pygmies of the Central African rain forest, the Pygmies (including the Efe as well as other groups with different names) are often called “nomads.” Nomads, we all know, are people who move a lot. The term also invokes, for many, a certain amount of randomness, or at least, uncertainty in where one might be moving next. There is indeed uncertainty, of a sort, among the Efe as to when they are going to move and where to. But this is simply because one does not need to decide when or where until it is time to do so. There is a constant negotiation happening between members of a particular group as to when to move, and which camp to move to. If there is a big enough difference between different families in a camp, they can easily move to two different locations for a while, or one group can stay and others leave. But these differences never lead to the men going one place while the women go elsewhere, even though the biggest conflict is usually between men and women. The point is, their movement is not random, but well considered and systematic, yet in at the scale of days or weeks in advance, not very predictable at any level of detail.

Yet, at the same time, the Efe are the opposite of nomadic. Consider their Lese village farmer neighbors. They live in permanent villages. But, over time, the Lese use up garden space and firewood in the vicinity of their village. Also, a mini-epidemic of disease in a given village will cause people to not want to live there any more. So, over the course of a person’s life, say a person who lives to 70 years old, one might move seven or eight times from one village to another just in service to the agricultural cycle.

But wait, there’s more. Among the villagers, men and women, when they are married, move to one parent’s village or another for a while, then try to start their own village, and that sometimes does not work out, so they move again. So, around the age of marriage, a person may move three or four times in two or three years. A young man might spend two or three years working at a plantation far from their village, or spend some time in the army. A woman and her children might move to near a chief’s village if her husband is caught doing something wrong and forced into indentured service for a few months. Every now and then the government comes along and moves any village that is too far out in the forest closer to the road so it is easier to tax them. Then later, the government disappears (remember, this is a remote area) and everyone moves back. If grandma gets really sick part of the family might move far away to a mission hospital, because the family is required to supply food and labor to support grandma’s stay in what amounts to a hospice. And so on and so forth.

Betweeen all of these factors, Lese farmers might move 20 times in their life.

Let’s view “nomadism” among the Efe hunter gatherers and the Lese villagers from a slightly different perspective. Let’s ask the question: How many different places have you slept a total of 100 nights or more? That eliminates short forays, fishing trips, very short marriages, etc. Or, putting it a slightly different way, let’s look at the list of places one lives ranked by how many nights one has slept there in a lifetime. Nomads, given our usual conception of them, should have a very long list with a small number of nights at each place, while settled people should have a list with a short number of localities each associated with hundreds or thousands of nights, even if there is a tail of several places with a small number of nights each down hear the bottom of the list.

If we look at the “nomadic” hunter gatherers of the Ituri Forest, the Efe, their list will have five or six places that account for 80% or more of their nights, if we adjust for the frequently destroyed camps in or near the gardens. The Lese farmers, on the other hand, will have over a dozen localities with a several hundred nights in each. By that reckoning, the Lese are more nomadic over a lifetime, even if the Efe are constantly moving.

Minnesotans who go away for college and whose families have a cabin (maybe a series of cabins over time) up north and who spend part of their lives moving opportunistically from apartment to apartment in South Minneapolis are pretty nomadic too. I myself moved once before the age of 16, then about every six months for the next 15 years, chasing relationships, jobs, schools, and doing field work.

Finally, let’s look at nomadism in one more way. If you move every several years, occasionally more often such as around the time of marriage, then at any given time the landscape you know is the landscape you live in, and the memories of details of the landscape of your childhood or other times gone by both fades and becomes obsolete. But if you move constantly, but over the same exact landscape all the time like the Efe do, then your knowledge of every bit of the landscape is detailed an intense and constantly updated and renewed. The Efe know every root that ever tripped them and every rocky pile that ever harbored a small forest animal procurable for dinner and every mature fruit tree and every patch of tasty forest yams in the place they live. The other part of my research, looking at Efe diet, came to this conclusion: There is a fair amount of food in the rain forest, but the only way to find any of it is to know in advance where it is located. Otherwise, the costs in time and energy to discover it excede its caloric value.

The Efe are not nomadic. They are, rather, constant inspectors of their rather large home, centered on their traditionally used trail, consisting of a half dozen venues to sleep and live.


More stuff about the Congo

A while back I wrote a Novella, as a fundraising effort for the Secular Student Alliance, set in the eastern Congo. A cleaned up version of it is available here: Sungudogo

You can read the harrowing real life story of a season of field research in the same region, in a series of blog posts, by clicking HERE (then click through to the next blog post, and the next, and the next, until you’ve read them all!).

And, THIS LINK will get you to a selection of other stories set in the region.

Jack’s research was written up here:

Ethnoarchaeology Among the Efe Pygmies, Zaire: Spatial Organization of Campsites, by J. W. Fisher, Jr. and H. C. Strickland. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 78:473–484.

Meat Eating in Human Prehistory

All human hunter-gatherer groups that have been studied incorporate meat in their diets. Studies have shown that the total dietary contribution of meat varies a great deal, and seems to increase with latitude so that foragers in subarctic and arctic regions eat a lot of meat while those living near the equator eat less. It is probably true that tropical and subtropical foragers obtain more of their calories from plants than from meat over any reasonable amount of time. The meat consists primarily of mammals for most groups, but fish, birds, reptiles, and invertebrates can reach high proportions, especially seasonally. Most forager groups make use of dogs in their meat acquisition, and it may well be the case that dogs are as important in the forager tool kit as any projectile, spear, or butchering tool. Continue reading Meat Eating in Human Prehistory

King Leopold’s Soliloquy

I first became aware of, and read, King Leopold’s Soliloquy, which is not his soliloquy but a parody of what he might say according to Samuel Clemens, while doing fieldwork in the ex-Belgian Congo. That is where the real story that inspired the essay took place. I lived in an area that at one time had a few a plantations, but the plantations only existed briefly and are now long gone. The “road” through this area was passable only with a very tenacious four wheel drive vehicle (we had a Land Rover) and grew worse every year. But the road at one time was excellent.

I knew a guy, an older Efe Pygmy man, with one leg. When I first arrived in the Ituri Forest I was shown by my colleague an abandoned camp that a group of Efe Pygmies has only recently been living in, and told “everyone in this group lived here but the old man and his wife … he’s a bit contentious and there was an argument.” Having read all the literature written in English about Pygmies, I was aware of the fact that these foraging people, who moved frequently — perhaps ten times a year or more — would often change the composition of their residence groups to reflect forming and breaking alliances among people who often, but not always, lived together. After hanging out in the camp long enough for my colleague to collect some data, we went back to the road via a different path and passed the old man, Kobou (pronounced “Ko-bo-oo”), and his wife in a small clearing in a freshly cut garden. “Strange,” I thought, “They live in a square hut. Everyone else lives in a dome-shaped hut. I guess some Efe live in square huts.”

But no. Kobou is the only Efe I ever came across to always build square huts. Maybe somewhere else in the Central African Rain Forest, but not around these parts.

Thin, old, bearded, fierce eyes contagious laugh and one leg. Kobou1 was the father of one of my main informants. Kobou would come by the research base camp whenever I was there, more or less daily. He’d sit in a chair and chill for a while, then we might chat about one thing or another. Then he’d say “I’ve come to get my plantains” or “I’ve come to get my mohogo” or “I’ve come to get my [fill in the blank with something to eat that we had growing in our fields]”. The base camp did have a rather large garden, and the main purpose of the garden was so that Kobou and a handful of other Efe could come by now and then and claim some of the food.

“You’d better cut your plantains, then,” I’d say.

Kobou and I hanging around in the Harvard Ituri Project base camp.
Kobou and I hanging around in the Harvard Ituri Project base camp.
More often than not he’d reply, “I did already,” pointing with his bearded chin to some big bunch of plantains at the edge of the clearing. Then he’d speak to a child or other handy person in KiLese (the local language) and that person would drag the food over to Kobou. Kobou would then pull out some vines he always seemed to have handy and create a tumpline strap or other carrying device incorporating the plantains or other food item, stand up on his one leg, grab one of his hand-fashioned canes, attach the food to himself, and grabbing the other cane head off to his camp. Unless his wife was with him, then Mrs. Kobou would carry the food.

Kobou had lost his leg to a snake. He had been bitten by a full grown Gabon Viper. The Gabon Viper is one of the scariest of snakes. It’s head is huge, it’s body very stout, and it’s venom is the richest venom known in a snake, both neurotoxic and haemotoxic.

When my friend was bitten by the snake, he was driven by someone from a nearby plantation to a hospital, to have is leg cut off, which was the only way to save his life. In the days I lived there, this drive required many many hours (or a day or two), and would beat the hell out of the truck. But in those days, they were able to drive him there in a few hours. At 120 kpm, it would have been a two or three hour drive.

But the reason that the road was so good is because of the sort of policy satirized in King Leopold’s Soliloquy. In those days, a Belgian Colonial Administrator would drive a vehicle at 100 kilometers per hour down this road with a glass of water on his dashboard. Wherever water spilled form his full glass, he would stop, and his agents would beat and/or maim the nearest villagers. This encouraged the villagers to keep the dirt road in perfect condition by constant attention to any rivulets or potholes, using hand labor and simple tools.

Eventually, the revolution came, in it’s own way, and the Belgians, guilty of a decades-long holocaust, got their due. They were burned to death in the buildings they hid in, they were shot, strangled, and drowned, and a few got away.

At a later time, I stayed in one of King Leopold’s mansions. Well, not really. We kept some of our stuff in the mansion. The mansion had no roof, and was filled with birds and bats, and their guano. It was better to stay in a tent, outside, even though one would risk being trampled by a hippo or hassled by a hyena. This was Ishango, known locally as “The Most Beautiful Place on the Earth.” It is. But they should really tear down those old mansions (Two stood there side by side) and neaten the place up just a little. Leopold had mansions here and there across his Congo, though he never actually visited the place.

I have ruled the Congo State not as a trustee of the Powers, an agent, a subordinate, a foreman, but as a sovereign — sovereign over a fruitful domain four times as large as the German Empire — sovereign absolute, irresponsible, above all law; trampling the Berlin-made Congo charter under foot; barring out all foreign traders but myself; restricting commerce to myself, through concessionaires who are my creatures and confederates; seizing and holding the State as my personal property, the whole of its vast revenues as my private “swag” — mine, solely mine — claiming and holding its millions of people as my private property, my serfs, my slaves; their labor mine, with or without wage; the food they raise not their property but mine; the rubber, the ivory and all the other riches of the land mine — mine solely — and gathered for me by the men, the women and the little children under compulsion of lash and bullet, fire, starvation, mutilation and the halter.

Leopold did not say that. Clemens puts those words in his mouth as a political and social parody. But it is absolutely accurate; had Leopold said those word he would have been speaking the truth.


1Here and elsewhere, when I write about people in the Congo, I use fake names. There are reasons.

Is it appropriate to use the term "Pygmy" when speaking of…Pygmies?

Left: Efe (Pygmy) man. Right: White guy.
Some of the people who live in the rain forest of Central Africa are known widely as “Pgymies.” That word…Pygmy…is considered problematic for a few different reasons. It refers to a person’s physical appearance, because it means “small.” The word is sometimes used in biology to refer to the smaller species among a group of closely related species, as in “Pygmy Hippopotamus” or “Pygmy Chimp.” In English and probably some other languages, the term is used in a derogatory way to refer to someone who is perceived as not very smart, as in “Pygmy mind.” Sometimes the word is simply used, as it is, as a non-specific derogatory word. Someone might be called a “Pygmy” because by someone who does not like them. Also, more of a distracting complexity than negative meaning, the term “Pygmy” is often misused to refer to a much larger number of different people around the world who happen to be dark skinned and short. We see the term used for the Andaman Islands, in Papaua New Guinea and Australia, for example. These a are some of the reasons the term is considered problematic. Continue reading Is it appropriate to use the term "Pygmy" when speaking of…Pygmies?