Apologies to regular readers
this week, I am under a 'press deadline' for the writing of an anthropological
project whose text I must e-mail to the USA next week. So unfortunately there
is not enough time this week, nor possibly next week to continue filling you
in on the ins and outs of Europe's attempts to try and prohibit the medicinal
use of extracts from the root of the South Pacific kava plant (piper
methysticum). This will have to wait until until I have finished the anthropological
text on ... overmodelled skulls (!).
The above-mentioned project
is to be published as the first scientific worldwide and historical study of
overmodelled skulls. It will not, of course, be a best-seller, but then most
academic texts are not supposed to be nor are meant to be (and real anthropologists
don't really 'work' for money anyway as they are so impassioned with interest
and fascination for the vast panoply of human behavioural variation that they
don't really class their 'work' as work, nor do it with the main aim of financial
benefit - which is why many institutions take advantage of them). It is a bit
like 'missionary work' but sometimes on the other side of that cultural fence.
The more we can gain insights into the immense varieties of human social and
cultural behaviour throughout history and around the world today, the more we
may be able to understand where we may come from and where we may be headed.
With the way so many things seem to be going in the world today, if we are not
careful, we may unfortunately end up where we seem to be headed - with much
of the 'developed world's' population forced to work really to pay off debts
and bank loans, many big multi-national companies raking in money as if there
were no tomorrow (Enron, etc, excepted! - but do not be fooled, Enron's 'mistakes'
were not that unusual, 'creative accounting' is a rather well-known and widespread
practice in our modern world ) and by smart 'financial management' minimizing
their taxes. The 'Developing World' (Ĺdeveloping to what?') seemingly mired
in a vicious cycle of poverty and debt. The really lucky ones, in a way, are
those very isolated societies - and 'tribes' - who are still so isolated that,
if our 'modern world' disappeared, they would not notice it's passing. There
are, luckily, still some parts of the world like that.
A note about 'overmodelled
skulls'. Throughout human history we have used human skulls in many ways. One
rather unusual (maybe to us, but not to certain other cultures) skull technique
consists of remodelling the features of the deceased person onto his or her
skull, sometimes in clay, sometimes in other materials. Possibly the oldest
(so far found) overmodelled skulls are those found archaeologically in early
historical levels in what is now Jericho - human skulls overmodelled with plaster
features from eight thousand years ago. Many of these Jericho skulls had been
'deformed', i.e. shaped artificially by cranial manipulation when the individual
was very young and the bones were still soft. In many areas of the world - but
not all - skull overmodelling took place within cultures where cranial manipulation
was an accepted and admired cultural trait. Overmodelled skulls are found historically
in many areas of the world - the early Middle East, certain examples from Ancient
Egypt, parts of early Peru, early Eastern Europe and certain early Southeast
Asian cultures, to name but a few. For most cultures this was obviously a religious
practice and certain Catholic societies in Western Europe treated human skulls
in such a way well into the early 19th century (Italy, France, Germany and Switzerland
were particularly well known for rather bizarre treatment of certain human skulls).
The practice of skull overmodellage survived until very recently in certain
areas of Papua New Guinea (especially in parts of the Sepik River area) and
in certain very isolated areas, still does. But practically the last area of
the world where skull deformation (I prefer to call it 'beautification' - and
don't forget, such 'beautification' was widespread in Ancient Egypt, Nefertiti
possibly being the best known example to us) and skull overmodellage still persists,
or is well within recent living memory, is on the southern part of the island
of Malakula in Vanuatu in the Southwest Pacific. I have been working with these
societies for nearly 30 years, so the practice for me seems perfectly natural.
It is for this reason that I have been told that my section of this forthcoming
academic text is the critical one. However, there may be certain traditional
sacred aspects that my friends on the island of Malakula wish to retain secret,
and so I will not write about those. I must respect the laws of their cultures
and there exists certain information that is 'copyrighted', so that only particular
individuals, or clans, within their society have the rights over it. 'Copyright'
is not a Euro-American invention; forms of it have been around in certain parts
of the world for longer than some of our own countries have existed.
A small note about 'skull
elongation'/deformation/beautification. Do not make the mistake that 'only tribes'
did or do that. The practice was, for example, actually quite widespread in
certain peasant areas of France right up until the 19th century and there were
quite a few French peasants with artificially modified skulls still living at
the end of the 19th century and some were still alive into the early years of
the 20th century. A certain French medical photographer amassed quite a collection
of photographic portraits of such living peasants between 1875 - 1912. Some
of these photographs were displayed in the Australian Museum's 'Body Art' exhibition
in Sydney two years ago, specifically to make the public aware that such practices
are not just confined to the 'isolated' areas of the world, but that forms of
them are also often part and parcel of 'our' own cultural heritage. I had notified
the exhibition organizers of the existence of these photos and my now wife (she
wasn't then) - who was working on the exhibition preparation - made sure they
were included in the displays.