Most of the content was about cooperation, egalitarianism, and gender equality

Friday, January 12th, 2018

Andrea Migliano, an anthropologist at University College London, wanted to know what qualities the Agta — Filipino hunter-gatherers — most value in their peers:

So, her students asked 300 Agta to name the five people they’d most want to live with. They also asked the volunteers to nominate the strongest people they knew; the best hunters, fishers, and foragers; the ones whose opinions are most respected; and the ones with most medical knowledge. And finally, almost as an afterthought, they asked the volunteers to name the best storytellers. That, they assumed, was something relatively unimportant, and would make for an interesting contrast against the other more esteemed skills.

In fact, the Agta seemed to value storytelling above all else. Good storytellers were twice as likely to be named as ideal living companions as more pedestrian tale spinners, and storytelling acumen mattered far more all the other skills. “It was highly valued, twice as much as being a good hunter,” says Migliano. “We were puzzled.”

Fortunately, she had been working with Agta Aid, a nonprofit organization that had been trying to preserve the Agta’s oral stories in written forms. “We asked them if we could have a look at the stories they were collecting, and we realized that most of the content was about cooperation, egalitarianism, and gender equality.” The male sun and female moon divvy up the sky. A pig helps its injured friend — a sea cow — into the ocean so they can race side by side. A winged ant learns that she is not above her other wingless sisters.

These themes aren’t unique to the Agta. They’re also present in around 70 percent of the stories that Migliano compiled from work with other hunter-gatherer groups. “Hunter-gatherers move around a lot and no one has particular power,” she explains. “You need ways of ensuring cooperation in an egalitarian society, and we realized that you could use stories to broadcast the norms that are important to them.” People can use religion to achieve a similar end, enforcing good behavior through fear of a punitive deity. But Migliano points to research suggesting that high gods are a relatively recent invention, which emerged once human societies became large. Small communities like the Agta don’t have them. Instead, they use stories for the same purpose.


  1. Candide III says:

    Isn’t it wonderful how the content just happens to agree with the researchers’ own (presumed with high degree of certainty) values? Margaret Mead, come back from Samoa, HR is paging you.

  2. Graham says:

    Yes, I immediately thought of Margaret Mead as well. Though heavily discredited, her account of selected Pacific Islander ideas about sexuality had lasting influence on us. At least until right about the last few years…

    I also thought the article a bit stunted as to just the level of mindset and linguistic habits required to arrive at “most of the content was about cooperation, egalitarianism, and gender equality.”

    It’s not that it isn’t true as far as it goes- any human society will have core objectives of managing relations between sexes and facilitating teamwork and the more basic the society’s level, the closer to survival requirements, and the fewer the labor differentiations, the more egalitarian those will be. Or they might allow for command roles but flexible and on an experience basis.

    It’s just that it filters the layers of meaning in a culture’s stories- personal conflict, identity, history, love, hate, life, death, memory, man and nature, man and the cosmos, men and women and all that passes between them, the value and personalities of animals in interaction with man – and drills them down to the intellectually, morally, and spiritually degraded level of the 21st century grad school. One pities the Agta.

    Man’s archetypal ideal was so long the storyteller or poet. Now it is the lab technician or, worse, the social scientist. The former ideal has brought us much wealth, power, comfort and safety, if with hidden prices. The latter ideal I can hardly not praise, as it most closely reflects my own background and experience, but allowing social science to rule or even to define the boundaries of one’s society, culture and very frame of mind is a terrible bargain. Rudyard Kipling would probably have had a closer sensibility for the Agta’s tales.

    That and, inevitably, the articles’ just touching on but failure to ultimately grasp that storytelling, used for these purposes, is not a substitute for religion, but the ancestor of religion. Indeed, it is religion. Those storytellers are one step away [be it 10 years or, the Agta enduring so long, 10000 years away] from being anointed shamans and their stories invested with magic power.

  3. Graham says:

    …as perhaps they should be.

    Their stories would be the basis of what preserves them as a people, if anything would. We all survived, if we did, through having our stories grow to ever more elaborate depth, complexity and number with the growth of our numbers, skills, complexity as peoples. Ever more numerous and detailed heroic myths, tales of gods specifically our own or shared with kindred peoples, eventually recorded history, philosophy, theatre, visual arts, music. Our stories, our ways, our peoples. Theirs too, for them.

    It’s a pity that at their level of development their stories will be not quite up to the shock of too much modernity too quickly, as has happened to so many others. But investing their stories with power is the only way to preserve some sort of identity, if there is such a way at all.

    Anyone here watch Star Trek TNG back in the day? There’s a few episodes in which Worf struggles vainly to explain the role of Klingon stories in preserving the Klingon identity and ways to his idiot son, and a couple when he tries to do so to Klingon youth who have grown up under largely Romulan care. The son eventually takes some of it on board. The exiled youth get it much more quickly.

    Star Trek writers weren’t always obtuse when they tried to apply vaguely discerned anthropological concepts.

  4. Wan Wei Lin says:

    No lines of demarcation in roles, responsibilities or hierarchy, but with an emphasis on feel good stories. Sounds like post-modernism. Just shows that liberalism is a primitive philosophy.

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