Category Archives: lost congo memoir

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.

What a Difference a Century Can Make

At the beginning of the 20th century, a traveler in Central Africa made mention of some strange people that he had come across. He was traveling among regular, run-of-the-mill natives…probably Bantu-speaking people living in scattered villages and farming for their food. But along the way, strange people came out of the forest. These strange people had sloping foreheads; they were short of stature, bow-legged and otherwise misshapen. They also clearly were, in the eyes of the traveler, of subhuman intelligence. The traveler described these people as a separate, subhuman race that lived in the forest. As I read this, I began to think that perhaps he was speaking of so-called “Pygmies” who live in this region, and as I began to think that, I started to get mad at this writer because so-called “Pygmies” do not look or act as he described. Continue reading What a Difference a Century Can Make

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.

“Excuse me, there’s some food in my bugs!”

We were talking about insects, and eating insects, and this reminded me of something funny. I was traveling in the most remote part of Central Africa, several days walk from any place you could possibly drive a car, visiting uncharted villages mainly occupied by people who had moved into the deep forest because they were in trouble with the “law” in some way (usually for perfectly good reasons in this lawless country). I was traveling with a Lese Villager and his sister, who was hired as our cook, and three Efe Pygmy men. We visited a village that was not exactly uncharted, but which officially did not exist. Years earlier everyone who lived in this part of the forest was forced by the government to move to the “road” (now a slippery foot path you could sort of drive a very good 4-wheel drive truck on if you were prepared to dig yourself out now and then). This village was “abandoned” at that time as people moved to the road, but in fact it had been unoccupied for only short intervals of time over the last few decades.

The people who lived in this village were very familiar with the idea of an anthropologist, and were aware that we had a research facility a few days walk to the east. Others, while they had heard of us, either had never met any of the outsiders or didn’t care much either way about us.

When we initially embarked on our long trek to the village, we carried enough food to get there, but not much more. I was assured by my fellow travelers that the streets of the village would be paved with food, as it were, and that we would not have to carry much with us, and if we brought just a little cash and some tobacco and salt, we could easily trade for plenty of spare rice to get ourselves back to the road fatter than we had left. Since it was technically the tail end of one of the two seasons of widespread reduced food availability, I didn’t much like that idea but I didn’t have a choice. It was simply impossible to carry enough food to make the trip there and back. So we gambled with the odds against us.

And, of course, we lost. We arrived at the village with a kilo of rice and little else, and we found that there was not much food there. Even though the rice harvest was just starting, so people weren’t exactly starving, there was nothing close to an abundance. We knew that we could eat while we stayed in the village … there was enough for that … but clearly we’d have to make the trip home without provisions. We’d have to live off the land for the three day walk home … which would probaby be a four day walk since we’d be starving and you go slower when you are starving. (Another story for another time. It was not a good week to be a monkey along our route!)

The village was traditional and I was a guest, so I was treated accordingly, and had to act accordingly. This meant we travelers needed to divide up into appropriate traditional roles and mete ourselves out among the villagers per spec, and thereafter more or less spend our time that way. The Efe men went to hang around with the Efe that were living in the village and they were also able to sit with the village women when they were outside processing food; Our cook went to work and hung with the village women in the mafika … an open air kitchen building with a roof and food stores, cooking gear, etc. … during the heat of the day. And, as the adult male, I was expected to hang around with the other adult males in the baraza … the open air ramada-like roofed-over sitting area in the middle of the village. As men, we would have important things to do in this baraza. Planning things and stuff.

So, I sat there and did my Ethnoarchaeology, hanging out with the other men, observing things and writing it all down, while the women prepared our first meal together, which would include all of the rice we had brought and whatever the village had to offer.

And what did the village have to offer? There were three things besides our rice. Someone had killed an antelope that morning so there was a bit of meat. The meat was cooked in palm oil traded about noon that day with some Budu merchants who had come by to exchange forest products for oil. (The oil was traded for a forest fruit known as “eme” which is not really food but rather medicine.) Then there was sombe. Sombe is wonderful. It is the very young leaves of the casava (manioc, manihot) plant pounded and cooked with palm oil. The process is much more complex than I’ve indicated. It is the main thing to eat that I miss from the region, and until recently was impossible to get outside the forest unless you have connections and live in Belgium.

And the third thing was bugs. To be specific, palm larvae. These are grubs of some critter, and you get them from inside a palm tree, which were eaten frequently this time of year. They are fried up in a bit of palm oil which gives both flavor and color, and some salt is added. They are not very flavorful but they are quite nutritious.

When the food was all prepared, the women came over one or two at a time and gave a plate of food to each man. A woman or women associated with a particular man or men as mother, wife, sister, or daughter had prepared each plate and had brought it to the baraza, so of course, our traveling cook, Maria, brought me my plate.

When she handed me the plate, our cook also gave me a knowing look, because she knew that I was not enamored with the traditional roles of her culture and was somewhat uncomfortable getting served along with the other men in the baraza. I returned the look as I glanced down at the plate, and on the plate was some rice, some antelope, some sombe, and about a dozen palm grubs. But there was a small problem. While all the food types were neatly separated into their own zones on my plate, some of the sombe had moved across the plate and joined the palm grubs. A splotch of green leafy food rested among the larvae of the palms.

Maria was five steps away when I called out.

“Maria!”

She stopped and turned. I pointed at my plate.

“Maria, there is some food in my bugs!”

She was close enough to see exactly what I referred to.

It turns out that some jokes translate and some do not. It is all a matter of available symbolic reference and context. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pointed at a plantain or banana peel laying on the ground (these are a main crop for the region) and said to someone “Hey, don’t slip on that!” Every time I did that I amused myself but the person whom I had warned had no clue that this was funny to me, no image of Woody Allen and a giant banana peel came to their mind. The joke was always a dud.

But this time it clicked. Maria laughed heartily and, pointing at me and barely able to talk, explained the joke to the men in the Baraza. They all laughed as well. Maria told the joke to the women back at the mafika, and I could hear their laughter mixed with phrases like “Those white people… they are so funny sometimes” and that sort of thing. The joke spread across the Ituri Forest and it was also retold among anthropologists. In fact, one famous anthropologist giving the keynote address at a major event celebrating Mary Leakey’s birthday told the joke as part of his remarks. Mary Leakey LOL’ed.

Maria, there’s some food in my bugs!!!! Still cracks me up.

“We Live In Little Houses Made of Beans”

We were discussing insects. What about eating insects?

When it comes up that I’ve lived in the Central African Rain Forest, certain questions often come up, and one of them is: “Did you eat bugs?”

Every one has seen those National Geographic specials where some natives somewhere are eating insects, and of course, Westerners who think they generally don’t eat insects are fascinated with the idea. However, Westerners eat a lot more insects than they think. You should really consider any processed food you eat that started out as a plant crop to be part insect. If what you are eating is made of any corn product, rice, wheat, etc. or pretty much anything else, consider how the foodstuff got from field to factory to your face. At no point did someone sit down and do what you do with the veggies you buy at the grocery store: take the time to clean them off and if you run into a bug, get rid of it. And, even when you do that to your own produce, you are not seeing some of the invertebrates that are just too small and too well hidden to see.

We had a more extreme than usual buggy food situation arise in the Ituri Forest one year. Our practice was to grow some food, and occasionally purchase food from a local market when one existed, but to mostly stay away from the food the local people grew, because we didn’t want to be draining away their resources. So, we would go to town every several weeks and purchase a number of long-term staples, including 20 kilo sacks of rice, beans, or other dry foods, a few gallons of palm oil, and to splurge, twenty boxes of pasta and dozens of tiny little cans of tomato paste which we would turn into feeble Italian food. The tomato paste cans always exploded on opening, so one had to learn to aim them into the pot first. But I digress.

Once you brought that food back there was no changing plans. If something bad happened to the sack of rice, there would be no rice for six weeks. We kept the food in a special food storage hut, and our cook, a locally hired woman who worked a few hours a day for us, would take very good care of it. All sorts of things can go wrong from leaks in the roof to vermin to mold or rot.

And one day something went wrong with the beans.

At first we noticed little black spots floating around in the cooked beans. A little later we noticed that among the beans, while cleaning them, there were these little tiny things that would fly away. Then we noticed that some of the beans had little holes bored into them. Eventually, we put two and two together and figured out that we had some sort of infestation. Some small beetle creature had taken up residence in our beans. Their larva would bore a hole into a bean and live there for a while, presumably eating each bean from the inside out. I’m pretty sure both the larvae and adults were doing the boring, but I can’t be sure. The way we handled this was to spread the beans out in the sun, and over time a bunch of the beetles would fly away. Then we’d wash off the beans as per usual and some of the beetles left behind, beetle corpses (of which there was an increasingly large number) and grubs would be washed away. But as each day passed, the number of beetles that would end up in the cooked beans went up and up and up, and the efficacy of getting rid of the beetles was obviated by their ubiquity. So we stopped laying the beans out in the sun. At that point we stopped eating “cooked beans” and started eating “cooked beetles and beans” or, for short “B&B”.

And eventually we discovered that this was not all that uncommon. If you want beans in that habitat, you’re gonna get beetles too. Its just that this particular batch of Beetles and Beans was farther along than usual. Eventually we had to speed up the rate at which we consumed the beans so that there would be some left for us to eat! And, as I recall, the next batch of beans had hardly any beetles in it.

Well, I’m sorry to report that you do something like this every day when you eat stuff made out of pretty much any plant, but probably to a lesser degree. When products are made in factories in the US, some sort of test is applied to the powder or juice or whatever the corn or beans or wheat is turned into, to see how much invertebrate (mainly insect) matter is in there. I assume that batches with “too much” are mixed with batches of “not much” to make batches of corn meal, wheat flour, etc. that have under the regulated maximum amount of insect matter. Right?

In any event, there is nothing wrong with eating most insects, especially those that eat the foods we eat. Chances are they are low in toxins, and they are loaded with amino acids and other protein related molecules! Here as well as the Ituri, people eat insects all the time in this manner.

But of course, that is not what people are really asking me. They want to know if I’ve ever eaten insects as part of the cuisine. On purpose.

Yes, of course I have…

No place to sit down (or, why do the Efe let some insects live?)

I knew a couple who had spent a lot of time in the Congo in the 1950s. He was doing primatology, and she was the wife of the primatologist. And when she spoke of the Congo or Uganda, where they spent most of the time, she always said “The thing about Africa is that there’s no place to sit down.” Continue reading No place to sit down (or, why do the Efe let some insects live?)

Which works better, Acupuncture or Changa?

Acupuncture is the ancient East Asian practice of poking people with needles in specific places and in specific ways in order to produce any one of a very wide range of results that could generally be classified as medicinal or health related. I don’t know much about it, but Wikipedia tells us:
Continue reading Which works better, Acupuncture or Changa?

The Best Eclipse Ever (of the moon and of the sun)

I remember my first solar eclipse. I was a kid, and it was the one Carlie Simon sang about, in March 1970.

(The eclipse reference is just past three minutes. Some other time we can argue over whether or not Carlie, singing in this video on Martha’s Vineyard, was referring to the March 1970 eclipse or the July 1972 eclipse, but I’m sure it was the former, because that’s the one everybody got all excited about.)

I was such a geek that I actually missed the eclipse because I was busy collecting data. There was a phone number you could call and a lady’s voice would give you the time and temperature. Perfect. I called the number again and again and wrote down the time and temperature and made a graph. And I got results!
Continue reading The Best Eclipse Ever (of the moon and of the sun)

Floods: Don’t go in them.

As an archaeologist, my expertise in the cognate field of geology includes fluvial processes, so I know something about floods. And I’ve experienced plenty of floods working in the Hudson and Mohawk river valleys … now that I think of it, I’ve got quite a few good flood stories. But the most significant experience I’ve had with flooding happened in about a foot of water.

It was in the Congo, at Senga, a location I’ve written about before. Our camp was on one side of a wash right where it entered the Semliki River, and the excavation was on the other side of the wash, but since the digging all occurred during the dry(ish) season, that was never an issue. But when the excavation was over, and almost everyone went home, those of us left behind to do our own non-excavation research projects experienced a number of good rains.
Continue reading Floods: Don’t go in them.