Writers as armchair anthropologists

It’s been a little while since I’ve done a post in my series on anthropology and Fantasy/SciFi, so I thought I’d kick off Sunday with a consideration of some of the awesome sources of writing inspiration anthropology can provide.  To read the other entries in this series, click on the “anthropology 101” tag.

Inspiration comes from all sorts of places, both likely and unlikely.  My most recent flashes of inspiration occurred during a poker game, in the middle of the pas de deux at Swan Lake, and at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix.  I’ve blogged about the importance of travel and experiences in a writer’s life, but sometimes time and finances don’t cooperate.  Enter inspiration drawn from the travel and experiences done for you by anthropologists and archaeologists.

The first anthropologists were called “armchair anthropologists” because they stayed at home and used the reports of explorers and adventurers as source material.  Nowadays, anthropologists spend their careers traveling to far-flung locales themselves (or even not-so-far-flung ones) to live among other cultures or to excavate the ruins of ancient societies.  They discover cultural beliefs and practices ranging from the bizarre and beautiful to the reassuringly familiar.  These insights can be fodder for writerly inspiration and allow us the chance to play at armchair anthropology.  Here are a few fascinating cultural practices you might like to mine for ideas:

Interested in the intersection of magic and technology?  Consider looking into cargo cults.  Arising primarily in the south Pacific following WWII, cargo cults found their genesis in the sudden arrival (and equally rapid departure) of American military personnel.  Soldiers brought technology and material wealth into previously isolated and low-tech island communities, who came to believe the cars, planes, radios and refrigerators had been magically summoned from the spirit world (mostly because they arrived in cargo planes from the sky).  After the soldiers left, some Pacific Islander communities engaged in magic and rituals designed entice the return of Westerners and their goods.  Some of these rituals were based in traditional religious practice, while others included things like ritualistically building airstrips and “control towers” to summon cargo planes from the sky.  Sound crazy? Tragic? Fascinating? Like fodder for some interesting sci fi?  Here are a few links on cargo cults from good old Wikipedia (including a good bibliography for further reading) the Smithsonian.

Maybe your cup of tea  isn’t technology, but music.  Consider then the Molimo, or voice of the forest, of the Mbuti pygmies of Zaire.  The tropical rain forest is the heart of Mbuti culture, providing everything these largely nomadic peoples need…so much so that the forest is considered a living spiritual entity.  The molimo is a long, hollow trumpet stored in a secret place deep in the forest.  When Mbuti life is thrown out of balance (for good or ill), the molimo ceremony is conducted.  It can last for several days, or up to a month or more, and is designed to wake up the forest.  Each night the community gathers to sing.  The song of the molimo answers from the forest, sometimes drawing closer to the camp, sometimes farther away.  Eventually, when the time is right, those bearing the molimo burst into the camp, trumpeting wildly and dashing around the fire before vanishing again into the forest.  A sacred musical instrument that must be fed and watered, is believed to be the voice of the forest, and is capable of restoring balance in society?  Awesome.  If you want to know more, Colin Turnbull wrote the classic ethnography “The Forest People”, or you can check out Wikipedia or UConn‘s pages.

Another practice to consider is the Kula Ring in Papua New Guinea.  The Kula Ring is all about gift-giving, social status, and the creation and maintenance of social obligation.  Best known among the Trobriand Islands, the Kula Ring revolves around the exchange of kula, red shell necklaces and white shell armbands.  These gifts are purely symbolic and are traded around the islands from partner to partner (necklaces traveling clockwise and armbands counterclockwise around the “ring”); the more exchange partners you have, the higher your status.  Individuals will travel great distances in their canoes to participate in the exchanges and elaborate negotiations through lesser forms of trade spring up as members compete to entice new partners and enhance their social standing.  The Kula Ring has been long- and well-studied, if you want to know more, read up on Bronislaw Malinowski’s classic ethnographies, Marcel Mauss’ discussions of gift-giving, or start with this catch-all Wikipedia entry.

I could go on here, but three seems like a good start for now.  Out of curiosity, I’d love to know if these cultural practices are new to you or if you’d heard of them before.

One thought on “Writers as armchair anthropologists

  1. EF Kelley

    I hadn’t heard about the Molimo. That’s really quite interesting. We first worlders have very little connection to our environment. It exists to serve us, not the other way around. The idea of a cooperative environment is fertilizer for the writer brain.

    Way cool. 🙂

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