Tales from Tanzania: Making beer, wedding skirts & attaching to chameleons with the Irwq

DSCN1314See that guy? That is Martin, and today we visited his house. He is one of the chiefs of the Irwq tribe, the second largest group in Tanzania (after the Maasi).

The Irwq (which is nearly impossible for English speakers to pronounce because it requires a guttural sound) are agriculturalists. The traditional Irwq house is built into the ground, due to a slight conflict with the Maasi who believe that all of the cows in the world belong to them. The Maasi would come to the Irwq villages in the middle of the night to “reclaim” their lost cows. To compensate, the Irwq started building their houses into the ground as dugouts so that when the Maasi would look for the Irwq houses, none would be visible.

In 1974, the president of Tanzania said that the Irwq couldn’t build thier houses in this manner any more because it used a lot of trees, and he understood the need for conservation. To stop the conflict between the Maasi and the Irwq, the president declared if the Irwq could prove that their cows had been “reclaimed,” the government would give them 10 cows to replace it. This eliminated any hostilities between the two groups almost immediately.

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Martin (our friend pictured above) is allowed to keep his house because he and his tribe teach traditional crafts and ways to the Irwq people (and a small group of HMNS travellers), somewhat like a museum. He taught us about two very important parts of his culture: beer making and wedding skirts.

The “local beer” is super important and is prepared before any big job, ceremony or wedding. To make it, corn is ground and mixed with yeast and cane sugar or honey. Finger millet is ground and added to this after a few days. It is then boiled and left to sit for two days. On the third day, it’s ready.

After trying the local beer, which I would say has the flavor of applesauce made from diluted vinegar, I think I will stick with Shiner.

The other skill Martin’s wife, Victoria, showed us was how to make a wedding skirt. The skirt is made from dried goat skins. Once the skin has been dried out, a special tool is used to scrape off the hair. The skins are then cut into wedge pieces and sewn into an apron shape, and beading is applied.

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When Victoria asked for volunteers to try the beading, I hopped right up! Sewing is a skill I can get behind. The beading is similar in technique to Native American seed beading and every pattern has a meaning.

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The blue river pattern, Martin explained, is a metaphor for life. The river goes up and down, just as life has ups and downs. In the rounded patterns at the bottom you can see the tree of life, and just above those you can see a gourd shape, which represents a calabash.

The colors have meanings as well. Yellow represents the natural resources and minerals, green for vegetation and black for the African people.

The best part of the visit happened in the last few minutes. Some of the village children were playing in the bushes and found a chameleon. Apparently the kids are taught that chameleons are poisonous (maybe to keep them from bothering them?), and I have heard a couple different versions of folk tales that say if a chameleon bites you, it won’t let go — and the chameleon becomes part of you. So the kids were willing to show us the chameleon, but from the far end of a very long stick.

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We, on the other hand, had no such worries, and you can tell by Dave’s face that he was tickled pink to get to hold it.

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Lions and zebra and black rhino, oh my! Join HMNS on an African safari next November

There are some things you just can’t see in your own backyard, or even at the Museum — so our entertaining and informative curators David Temple and Dr. Dirk Van Tuerenhout are bringing a group to Tanzania in November 2013.

The unique eco-system of the Ngorongoro Crater, the vast savannahs of the Serengeti, the forest and grassland near the shores of Lake Manyara, and the renowned anthropological and geological sites at Olduvai Gorge are must-see wonders of east Africa included in this HMNS-exclusive trip.

Herds running across road.HR.RM

This two-week trip includes safaris to superb areas for seeing giraffe, zebra, elephant, hippo, tree-climbing and black-maned lion, black rhino, wildebeest, impala, flamingo, warthog, baboon, and many other species of African wildlife. All are guaranteed a window seat for wildlife viewing in a 4×4 with photo roof. You will also visit the site where the roots of modern man were unearthed by Mary Leakey and a Maasai village.

Dr. Dirk Van Tuerenhout, HMNS curator of anthropology, curated the human evolution section of the new Hall of Paleontology along with numerous special exhibitions, including Lucy’s Legacy: The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia. He has a special interest in this trip as Africa is the cradle of humanity. Tanzania’s Rift Valley has yielded important early human fossils, landmarks in the evolution of mankind. “We are all descendants of these early Africans. Visiting Tanzania will be a return home for all of us,” Dr. Tuerenhout says.

Maasai Men Jumping 6.HR.RM

David Temple, HMNS associate curator of paleontology, curated the Museum’s new Morian Hall of Paleontology and possesses a wide knowledge base of the evolution of mammals and modern African wildlife. “Tanzania is a perfect destination to learn of the great creatures of the past and witness the great creatures of the present,” he adds. Temple also holds a special interest African history, culture and economic development.

Lioness & cubs in Crater.HR.RM

Space is very limited. For complete itinerary, pricing and registration, click here and mark your calendar for our informational session March 19.

“And how would you like that cooked?” [The Ancient History of Cooking]

If we take a look at the current lineup of possible human ancestors and distant relatives, one can pick out several lines of change. Compare some of the earliest hominids, like Ardipithecus ramidus with a modern human and the differences are obvious. Living about 4.4 million years ago, Ardipithecus was a tall, tree-climbing and bipedal fellow. They were omnivores, eating a mix of plants, meat and fruit.

Modern humans are omnivores as well, although there are many people choosing to eat only vegetable matter. Some early human relatives, such as Neanderthals may have been top-level carnivores. Anthropologists and especially paleoanthropologists, have studied diet among early humans for a long time. Two events had a major impact on human diet: the mastery of fire and the development of agriculture and animal husbandry. Of these two milestones, mastery of fire came well before agriculture. While some argue that early hominids mastered fire in Africa as early as 1.5 million years ago, others place it at perhaps 400,000 to 500, 000 years ago. With a range like this, it should be obvious that it remains hard to pinpoint when exactly this happened, especially when one relies on archaeological evidence. One might wonder: “what other evidence is there then?” Read on and find out.

The advent of agriculture and animal husbandry is a much more recent phenomenon, and therefore relatively more easy to date. Experiments involving plants may have been underway some 12,500 years ago. Cattle was domesticated in Egypt by 9000 BC.

Traditionally, the mastery of fire was seen as a catalyst for a series of evolutionary changes in early humans. With fire, it was argued, one could not only stay warm, keep predators at bay, even engage in art in the back of dark caves, but also cook one’s food. The latter then permitted rapid brain growth and before one knows it, we are off to the races, with rapid changes in technology leading to humans becoming more and more in charge of their environment.

Recently, new voices have been heard in this debate. In studies followed around the world, Dr. Richard Wrangham argues that cooking started at 1.9 million years ago, much earlier than traditionally assumed. With cooked food, we could chew and eat our food in an hour, instead of the six hours chimps need to chew theirs. With cooked food, we no longer needed a large gut, and with a reduction in size of our intestinal track, there was a reduction in energy spent on maintaining our gut. These savings could then go toward fueling our brain growth. The appearance of Homo erectus, the first hominid species with our body form, and the appearance of mastering fire drove human evolution to where we are today, according to Dr. Wrangham. In Dr. Wrangham’s words: “Cooking was not invented by humans; it was invented by pre-humans and it made us human.”

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Dr. Richard Wrangham will speak at HMNS on Tuesday, Feb. 28.

According to Dr. Wrangham, mastering fire and getting used to cooking food led to further changes in social behavior among early humans. To see what these are, join us for Dr. Wrangham’s lecture at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, sponsored by The Leakey Foundation on Tuesday, February 28, 2012 at 6:30 p.m.

HMNS Distinguished Lecture
“Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human”
Richard Wrangham, Ph.D., Harvard University
Tuesday, February 28, 6:30 p.m.
Sponsored by The Leakey Foundation
Click here to purchase tickets.

Ever since Darwin and “The Descent of Man,” the existence of humans has been attributed to our intelligence and adaptability. Renowned primatologist Richard Wrangham presents a startling alternative: our evolutionary success is the result of cooking. In a groundbreaking theory of our origins, Dr. Wrangham will show that the shift from raw to cooked foods was the key factor in human evolution.

When our ancestors adapted to using fire, humanity began.

Once our hominid ancestors began cooking their food, the human digestive tract shrank and the brain grew. Time once spent chewing tough raw food could be sued instead to hunt and to tend camp. Cooking became the basis for pair bonding and marriage, created the household, and even led to a sexual division of labor.

Tracing the contemporary implications of our ancestors’ diets, Dr. Wrangham sheds new light on how we came to be the social, intelligent, and sexual species we are today. A path-breaking new theory of human evolution, Dr. Wrangham will fascinate anyone interested in our ancient origins or in our modern eating habits.

Dr. Richard Wrangham is the Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard University. He is co-director of the Kibale Chimpanzee Project, the long-term study of chimpanzees in Kibale National Park, Uganda. His research culminates in the study of human evolution in which he draws conclusions based on the behavioural ecology of apes. As a graduate student, Dr. Wrangham studied under Robert Hinde and Jane Goodall. He also helped the late Dian Fossey establish her eponymous Gorilla Fund to protect and research the Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda.

 

Le Monde des Aztèques [The World of the Aztecs]

This blog entry is different from any of the ones I have ever written before.

It contains a book review and commentary on the current state of book reviews in the US. 

A while back, I was asked by a friend and former museum colleague to review a French-language book on the Aztecs. I agreed, read the book, wrote the review and then started looking for a place that would accept it. And that is where things went awfully awry. Between my reading and reviewing of the book and the day I am writing this, about two years have passed. Granted, I have not been pursuing this project on a daily basis, but I have been pretty persistent about finding an outlet for this review. As I have not been successful, I am posting it onto the museum’s blog. This is a first; I hope to follow up with more such reviews.

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Aztec calendar stone
Creative Commons License photo credit: gorriti

I am not the only one who has noticed this “book review crisis.” As it happens, Dr. Michael Smith, an archaeologist working on Aztec sites, professor at Arizona State University’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change and a prolific author has made the same observation. He has blogged on this topic on several occasions, like here, here, here and here.

You get the picture. There is a problem out there in the world of publishing. So, here it goes. You will get the book review first, followed by details on the book itself.

Le Monde des Aztèques is a collaborative volume.

Danièle Dehouve is affiliated with the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes and the Université de Paris VIII. She has written several books on Mexico, most recently, Offrandes et sacrifices en Mésoamérique. Anne-Marie Vie-Wohrer is also affiliated with the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. She specializes in central Mexican writing systems and has authored Xipe Totec, Notre Seigneur l’ écorche, étude glyphique d’un dieu aztèque.

Each of the authors wrote about half of the volume. Danièle Dehouve contributed six chapters, dealing with the history of the Aztecs, the city and its king, the calendar, the day count, the concepts of time and space in Mesoamerica and bloody rituals. Anne-Marie Vie-Wohrer penned chapters on the Aztec pantheon, worldviews, man in the world, pictographic manuscripts and the writing system.

An introductory chapter sets the stage, defining the concept of Mesoamerica and outlining the physical and cultural geography of this region. The authors link past to present when they mention that out of the hundreds of indigenous languages that existed before Contact, there are more than fifty that have survived until today. In a nod to research conducted in South American rock shelters, human presence in the Americas is set to 33,000 BC, a date that most specialists in the field still find hard to accept.

The chapter on Aztec history addresses topics such as the origins of the Aztecs, how to read Aztec documents, the empire at the time of contact. Information related to the excavations at the Templo Mayor includes discoveries made up to the year 2006.  In the chapter on the city and the king, Dehouve teases apart the fabric of Aztec society. Starting with the office of the ruler, the author covers nobility, warriors, judges, priests, traders and artisans and farmers.

Quetzalcoatl
Templo Mayor, Tenochtitlan
Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: Jami Dwyer

Three chapters deal with the calendar and the perception of space and time all contain common threads: our fragmentary understanding of these aspects of Aztec society is due in large part to the fragmentary nature of our sources.  The author does provide an easy to follow discourse on what could be a difficult matter to comprehend. The author also very effectively uses illustrations to help clarify her points, for example on p. 119, where the tonalpohualli calendar is discussed. One detail slipped though the cracks however, on p. 96, where the location of the Maya site of Copan is incorrectly listed as Guatemala; that site is just across the border in Honduras.

In her final chapter, dealing with bloody rituals, Dehouve argues that one ought to approach this subject from the Aztec point of view. This reviewer believes that references to the scholarly work by Eric Taladoire and Ted Leyenaar with regard to the Mesoamerican ballgame would have made this section more complete.

Anne-Marie Vie-Wohrer starts off her section with a discussion of Aztec deities.

The chapter has three parts, with detailed discussions of what we know about these gods. Illustrations from colonial-period documents are used with great effectiveness.  The following chapter deals with the creation of the world. Again, the use of illustrations allows the reader to follow the story in two complementary formats. For example, the author reviews the first page of the codex Fejervary-Mayer in multiple segments; each of these steps is accompanied by an image of the codex highlighting the very topic discussed in that portions. In the chapter on the creation of humans, Vie-Wohrer points out that there are many versions of the creation story and that some of them are contradictory.

In the final two chapters, Vie-Wohrer covers materials very familiar to her: pictographic manuscripts and writing systems. Those who are interested in these topics will find the references to the holdings at the Fonds Mexicain at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France very interesting. We can all agree with the sentiment expressed by the author regarding the tragic loss of so many prehispanic documents during the conquest and early colonial days.

This is a lavishly illustrated book on Aztec culture. Although there are many more topics on the Aztec world one could write about, I found the chapters well-written and well-illustrated. The bibliography presented at the end of the book presents a good starting point for those interested in things Aztec. One final remark, because the volume is written by two very qualified French researchers, one gets insights that occasionally differ from those offered by North American counterparts (be they Mexican or American). In order to appreciate these contributions, a working knowledge of French is a must. Sadly, this reviewer has noticed that all too often, this is missing among North American researchers.

Publication details:
DANIELE DEHOUVE, ANNE-MARIE VIE-WOHRER. 2008. Le Monde des Aztèques. Rineuve, Paris. 336 pp., ISBN-978-2-914214-51-3.
Book reviewed by Dirk Van Tuerenhout, Curator of anthropology, Houston Museum of Natural Science.
One can find more information on this book here and here. Just like the volume, these reviews are written en français.

Zut alors.