The elves of our imagination and reality

In Did Adam and Eve Have Navels? the late Martin Gardner reviewed evidence for cannibalism and ultimately came to the conclusion that it was not a real phenomenon. He agreed with the interpretations of some anthropologists that cannibalism stories emerge in human groups as a way to demonize their enemies. For various genetic and archaeological reasons I think since Gardner wrote that chapter at least two decades ago, it has been shown that cannibalism did exist as a cultural practice.

In the year 2000 The Atlantic published a piece, Mistaken Identity? The Case of New Mexico’s “Hidden Jews”. The authors suggest, again in line with the theories of some anthropologists, that the crypto-Jewish identity purported to persist in some Hispano families in the American Southwest derived from a mix of internalized racism and Judaizing influence from Protestant missionaries. For a variety of reasons I think it is quite possible that actually, the Hispano populations did preserve some crypto-Jewish traditions through converso ancestors.

The point I’m making here is that contemporary “debunkings” of somewhat fascinating or titillating phenomena are not always correct. Heinrich Schliemann went to Turkey, and he did find the historical Troy.

Recently I came across a blog post, Neanderthals in Ancient Mythology*, which makes the case that our cousins are the source of the idea of beings such as trolls. For various reasons, I am skeptical of the theories and models in that particular post. But that prompted me to reflect: where do ideas of trolls and other such quasi-human beings come from?

Cognitive anthropologists would have an answer. There is an idea, evoked culture, which refers to universal phenomena which naturally develop at the interface of our minds and conventional stimuli. To give a concrete example of what I’m talking about, the idea of kings. One can think of the idea of kings as an innovation which has to spread from people to people. Or, one can see kings as a natural development of human cultural evolution and our ability to fit into hierarchies and defer to leaders, the latter of which is a function of our cognitive architecture.

One can think of the idea of kings as an innovation which has to spread from people to people. Or, one can see kings as a natural development of human cultural evolution and our ability to fit into hierarchies and defer to leaders, the latter of which is a function of our cognitive architecture.

As it happens we’re pretty sure that the idea of the king has emerged independently at least twice. After the translation of the Maya Codex we know that these people had kings, as we understand them. Not to mention the fact that the Aztecs and Inca both had kings of a quite autocratic variety.

A more obvious case of evoked culture is the idea of gods. The cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer refers to these as “minimally counterintuitive” concepts, which makes them memorable and memetically contagious. In general, gods are not prosaic and banal. They have supernatural powers, and violate our ontological intuitions about what persons can do. But they don’t smash all intuitions. I once read a science fantasy story where a devout Jewish man dies and goes to heaven, and there he his introduced to G-d. It turns out that Hashem is a very dumb giant chicken.  This is not a minimally counterintuitive concept; it’s just weird. And so not a good candidate for a god concept which would be culturally contagious.**

Ideas of trolls, witches, and ghosts, then bubble naturally out of our cognitive landscape of memes. Has anyone seen a ghost? To my knowledge no. But the belief in ghosts persists, because it appeals to some intuitions. It’s a very attractive idea. One can say the same of trolls.

But just because an idea is evoked does not mean it has no basis in fact. The John Frum cult happens to believe in a religion which is probably wrong on many facts. But “John Frum” and other aspects of the religion are based on factual interactions with the American government and servicemen at a specific place and time.

Similarly, myths about trolls, elves, and witches, may reflect a combination of the fertility of our native imagination, and distortions of contact with different peoples. When Europeans showed up in the highlands of Papua their ghostly pallor made the locals wonder if they were, in fact, dead souls. We know that in places like Central Europe farmers and hunter-gatherers lived in close proximity for thousands of years, but did not mix much sexually. Additionally, it is highly likely that the hunters and farmers were physically distinctive, probably in complexion in Western Europe. Their genetic distance was equivalent to that between modern Northern Europeans and Chinese.

This does’t mean we can necessarily mine folklore to understand ethnography of the past. Rather, it just suggests that folkore is not just from our imagination, but may show influences from events and contacts in the real world.

* I rarely link to blogs anymore!

** The Christian idea that God had to be incarnated as a human being to connect well to us actually nods to this idea of minimally counterintuition.

15 thoughts on “The elves of our imagination and reality

  1. Religion and other fantastical beliefs may be rooted in dream content.
    I’m a rational skeptic nerd, and occasionally I have horrify dreams where I encounter malevolent people with supernatural powers. It’s really scary! When such dreams are verbally shared, they may become the stuff of legends, myths and religions.

  2. “We know that in places like Central Europe farmers and hunter-gatherers lived in close proximity for thousands of years, but did not mix much sexually.”

    Your link here goes to the John Frum article. I assume you meant to include a different one? Sounds like an interesting study!

  3. Razib — you might enjoy the book “When They Severed Earth From Sky”, which is a bit rambling, but addresses many of these issues (the “factual” origins of myths).

  4. On a tangent to this general theme, I was wondering if anyone knows of a good book or essay/article that discusses (preferably lists out and then critically examines) various references in ancient Indian texts to events like:
    1. The drying up of the Saraswati, a long drought, etc (some such is in the Mahabharata)
    2. The sinking of a city near Dwarka into the sea (also in the Mahabharata)
    and any others like that.. references that seem to be connected to major natural or man-made events about which we have some evidence from more scientific sources.
    Thanks 🙂

  5. RE: Cannibalism,

    Cowboy Wash

    “The site, designated 5MT10010, dates to between approximately 1150 and 1175 A.D. It is located on the south slopes of Ute Mountain near Towaoc, approximately 15 miles west of Mesa Verde, the famous Anasazi cliff dwellings. Some archeologists believe that the site was settled by immigrants from Chaco Canyon, or the Chuska Mountains.[2]
    Five of the human skeletons at the site were from burials. The remaining seven exhibited many signs of cannibalism including defleshing, fragmentation of long bones to extract marrow, chopped, cut, and blackened bones. A stone tool kit appropriate for butchering a mid-sized mammal was found”

    “The initial reports speculating that the seven humans had been cannibalized was met with skepticism from some scientists and criticism by Native American groups including the Ute tribe. (The Ute are a separate people from either the alleged victims or the alleged perpetrators.) The Ute have a strong oral tradition of peace between their ancestors and neighboring groups, which is not necessarily in agreement with the traditions of other groups or historical information.[6]
    To investigate the theory that cannibalism had been practiced at the Cowboy Wash site, Richard Marlar, a University of Colorado molecular biologist examined the coprolite (fossilized human feces) found on site and discovered it tested positive for human myoglobin, which is found in human muscle tissue. This type of myoglobin was not found in 20 ‘control’ coprolites in comparable sites.[7] This indicated the feces contained the remains of digested human flesh.[8] Malar also found the myoglobin protein during a chemical analysis of a cooking pot at the ancient Anasazi site.”

  6. @syonredux, interesting link. I followed one of the footnotes [7] which is an article that quotes Jared Diamond at some length:

    Diamond describes this evidence for cannibalism as “compelling” but argues that Western abhorrence of cannibalism makes it hard for us to accept evidence. This abhorrence, he says, has in turn pushed the practice underground and has made first-hand accounts by Westerners more difficult.

    “Would you invite someone to watch you doing something if it would get you arrested?” Diamond asks rhetorically.

    To make matters worse, he aruges, those Westerners who obtain evidence of cannibalism are condemned as slandering the non-Western society reported as having practiced it.

    But, wonders Diamond, is all this justified?

    “Some widespread Western practices are far more destructive than cannibalism,” he writes.

    That last bit appears to be a bit of posturing to avoid academic condemnation, but the modern world (not just Western) probably poses many more significant risks than a small pre-modern tribe, which is only hurting itself or its nearby enemies.

  7. I don’t believe in ghosts either, but I had sleep paralysis for a week once and were I not innoculated against ghosts as a meme, the raw experience would have been pretty convincing.

  8. I’ve always thought it a possibility
    Trolls are strong, ugly, few, lurking about in ambush, intelligent, humanoid but not human

  9. Razib, just in case you or anyone knows or heard anything, the Rakhigarhi dna results were originally projected to be published in september, possibly october. Does anyone know the status? Almost seems like crickets chirping when I try to google it.

  10. As anon and John point out, dreams could be a source of quasi-human monster myth concepts. That then raises the question of where does the dreaming mind come up with this – maybe from the myths they’ve been told.

    My other guess is birth defects in humans and animals are common enough to become cultural knowledge, so it wouldn’t be hard to exaggerate those into mythical proportions.

  11. Razib, you are correct to challenge the doubting narrative in that antiquated Atlantic piece. Many New Mexican Hispanos really have some Sephardic Jewish ancestry. This is why they sometimes show up as valid matches to autosomal DNA segments shared by European Jews and also why they occasionally match their Y-DNA lines to Jews in Family Tree DNA. I am more interested in the genetics than in the study of folklore and customs so I will not comment on the veracity or lack thereof of the Jewish traditions that some families from New Mexico and Mexico appear to have preserved while outwardly appearing Catholic to their neighbors.

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