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

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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.”

Now, I’ve been all over Africa, and I’ve sat down in Nigeria, Kenya, Lesotho, Botswana. I admit having had a hard time finding a place to sit down in Namibia but that’s because I’ve only been in places with no chairs but there were a lot of rocks. I once sat for a long time on a curb in Rwanda. I’ve never been to Egypt but I’m pretty sure they may have invented the chair there. South Africa is, of course, all about sitting down. Lots of places to do it there.

Having said that, the question of where to sit down is an interesting one when certain things are true. For example, if you go into the deep forest to hang out with the Efe Pygmies siting down can get a little dicey. We can talk about that later. But what she really meant, I think, is that there is no place to sit where there will not be a bug or a spider or something either where you want to sit, under where you want to sit, or flying around where you want to sit.

It isn’t really true though. When I first went to the Ituri some people quite thoughtlessly (i.e., they did not put any thought into what they were saying) advised me to bring bug spray, because the place would be thick with mosquitoes and such. So I brought a couple of small cans of bug spray, and after I arrived, I found the big basket hanging from the roof of the supply hut that contained dozens of unused containers of bug spray that various researchers had brought there over the previous five years or so, only to discover as I had that there was no use for such a thing. “Maybe we’ll have a garage sale someday” I thought as I added my bug spray to the rest.

An Efe camp is usually out in the the forest somewhere, and that is a good place to sample the invertebrate life in that habitat. There are no clouds of mosquitoes or flies in the rain forest, or at least not in this rain forest. Why? There are too many bugs! If any insect tried out the strategy of being in a horde some other insect would come up with the strategy of eating the entire horde, and said strategist would simply wait round, in numbers, under wet leaves somewhere, for the next horde to come along. Really, clouds of insects, like the mosquitoes or lake flies or black flies we get in the northern states and provinces of North America exist because there is a winter, from which the landscape emerges, and into which swarming hordes of insects swarm, one after another, until deadly winter returns again. A set of evolutionary stable strategies resulting in this pattern have developed in the colder regions. If you got rid of the winters (though you could not get rid of seasonality) there would be fewer swarms of flying insects in a highly species rich forest environments. Swarming insects are more likely to be found in habitats with a winter, in low species diversity forests, and grasslands (including marshes and swamps), or areas a more distinct dry and wet season. Not so much in tropical rain forests.

But that does not mean there are not a lot of insects. There are plenty, and even just sitting in a camp is a great way to discover new ones. One day as I sat on my Efe-made “chair” (we can discuss those another time as well) a whopping big slow moving thingie came along and started to climb up the chair leg. I managed to guess that it was some kind of cricket … bear in mind, though, that crickets in the African rain forest are as much like our temperate crickets as an elephant is like a hyrax. I asked the nearest Efe what it was.

He looked. Shrugged his shoulders. “No idea.”

I was surprised. Normally the Efe knew the name of anything I pointed to (and yes, I did verify their knowledge using various techniques … they weren’t usually making stuff up, though that could happen now and then). We kept an eye on the slow moving creature as it explored around on my chair and the nearby ground, and everybody who came along got asked.

“What is that thing?”

“Huh. No idea. Strange looking.”

Eventually, an older man picked the thing up with a stick and moved it several hundred feet into the rain forest and let it go. Why do this instead of ignore it or squishing it? Well, the Efe don’t squish an insect or other invertebrate unless they know what it is. With good reason.

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

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

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 waiting to put a curse on you, and then you’re screwed. Or, one should not handle the fetus of an antelope if you are a fertile female or 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, this culture is very uptight about babies and fertility issues. Some of this is spillover from 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 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.

Want to read more about insects in the Congo? Click here: “We live in little houses made of beans.”

A modified repost; stay tuned for more on the Ituri Forest and Insects.

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

  1. The part on why winter climes have swarms and tropical ones do not was very interesting. makes sense – thanks

  2. “If any insect tried out the strategy of being in a horde some other insect would come up with the strategy of eating the entire horde, ..”

    Um, fire ants? Pretty sure I recall seeing in a doco or three that you get swarms of ants that devastate areas they pass through in the rainforest although I guess I could be mistaken.

    Ants are insects too I’m fairly sure.

    Did you ever find out what the strange insect was – could have missed a chance to discover a new species and get it named for you! Were you able to photograph and record its details at all?

  3. I was referring to swarms of flies, mosquitoes, etc. Ants are a whole different story.

    I don’t know of something called fire ants in the Congo, but there certainly are “army ants” and there is a whole other discussion one can have about them. I put one small story about them in my novel (not work safe)

    No, the guy put the insect off in the forest. I saw stuff that could not be easily identified all the time. I was mostly not doing insect research so it was not possible for me to report everything.

    I brought a person from a musuem with insect skills to a site where I knew of a possible “new species” and it was., At another time, I helped a colleague collect night flying insects for the NYS museum. That was easy! I’m sure a few interesting things came up in that.

    Finding a new species there is not hard. Knowing it is a new species, then describing it, requires expertise I don’t have!

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