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.