The reason the Efe won’t normally kill an insect …

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that has wandered into their camp if they don’t know anything about it a priori is … according to what they told me when that happened once … is …

Many, though certainly not all, insects are linked to important things in life. This is true of many things that are not insects as well. For instance, one does not walk to the right of a young male Canarium tree in the afternoon, because he who shall not be named could be sitting in the tree, and then you’re screwed. Or, one should not handle the fetus of an antelope if any females in your family are planning on getting pregnant soon. For many insects, killing them is bad because that may affect fertility of someone related to the one who kills the insect.

Generally speaking, the local culture is very uptight about babies and fertility issues generally. Some of this is spillover form the village-dwelling horticultural Lese with whom the foraging Efe share a culture. The Lese have a repressed fertility owing to a number of causes. When a fertility rule is broken, a great deal of effort may be expended to fix it. As the reproductive ecologist Peter Ellison (who was involved in the same project) once said, “The Lese and Efe are constantly afraid of overdrawing on the bank of fertility.” (I paraphrase.) One of the most dangerous things you can do is to accidentally have twins. That’s like going to an ATM machine to get 100 bucks and the machine gives you 200 bucks. What do you do with the extra money? Will you get caught? When you check your bank account later, will there be 100 or 200 bucks taken out? Will there be a fee? A fine?

An insect that you don’t know about might be an insect linked to something important like fertility, or if not fertility, something else. Better to just leave it alone and let it go on its own way.

Oh, and there is probably a lot of heterogeneity across the cultural landscape in the detailed beliefs. It is not at all unlikely that an Efe visiting a distant settlement will discover that those people have a different set of beliefs about various insects or other things. The ethnography certainly shows different things happening across time and space, rather dynamically. The Efe do not generally look at beliefs of other people with disdain. Rather, they figure that those beliefs might be valid as well, and try to incorporate them in their routine.

So it makes sense that Efe would assume that an insect they’ve never seen before … and in this very species rich rain forest that is not as unlikely as it sounds, though it is certainly not a daily occurrence … has an importance of which they are simply unaware.


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6 thoughts on “The reason the Efe won’t normally kill an insect …

  1. I wonder if the Efe have some explanation for how killing an insect could influence fertility. Not handling the antelope fetus makes sense intuitively in a sympathetic “magic” kind of way.

    I’m wondering if they have some kind of causal explanation for how it might work with insects. Is it the spirit of the insect, or is it some third-party spirit that intervenes, is it the dead ancestors? Does it have to do with revenge for killing the insect?

  2. To walk by it correctly (on the left) I assume you keep your right arm towards it (e.g., if circling the tree you walk clockwise around it). Oddly enough the same custom for certain things like churches applied in English folklore (see the fairy tale Childe Rowland and Burd Ellen).

  3. Yeah, the conversation about which side of the tree you can’t walk by went on for some time… It depends on which direction you are going. Yeah, that walking around thing applies in a LOT of cultural practices around the world. In one group of Siberian caribou herders that a colleage of mine studied, there was an imaginary line running from a stake in front of a house backwards through the house (all the houses face the same way) to infinity, and women can not ever cross that line. Sort of similar.

    I like to think of the fertility rules as being pretty typically linguistic; They are arbitrary and symbolic, not functional/meaningful. The fetus link is pretty typical. .. there’s a bunch of blatant iconographic linkage between acts or things and fertility. For instance, if someone does have twins there is a ceremony which involves going from village to village and pretending to plant and hoe a garden. But much of the other symbolism is purely arbitrary. I definitely probed that question.

  4. Weel it’s how early humans CONTROLLED THEIR POPULATION BASED ON SURROUNDING RESOURCES AND ENVIRONMENT. Compared to popping out spawn every time you get the urge because society will help to rape the land’s resources to provide. Now instead a Semitic/Arabic God approves of our species to GO AND MULTIPLY ADD INFINITUM and replace biolife with humanity and sprawl.
    GROWTH IS GOOD AND PROGRESS, no matter the type or the repercussions.
    We are walking viruses, algae blooms, spreading cancer with legs and brains.

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