In January 2016, Cathryn Townsend set out to live among “the loveless people.” So named by anthropologist Colin Turnbull, the Ik are a tribe of some 11,600 hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers living in an arid and harsh mountainous region of Uganda.
Everyone has experienced generosity—and its opposite. An anthropologist investigates the roots of human cooperation.
When anthropologist Cathryn Townsend headed into the field in 2009 to study generosity, she knew the project was for her. That’s because she was the only person, other than anthropologist Colin Turnbull, who had lived and studied with both the Mbuti people of the Congo region and the Ik of Uganda, she says. One community was known for its egalitarianism and the other for its selfishness.
My talk will discuss how both mythology and ritual are involved in mutual causal interactions with other factors of social life that mark the emergence of inequality among a small community of Baka former hunter-gatherers. An emerging ideology of male predominance in mythology mirrors the same phenomenon in ritual, kinship practices and household economics. I argue that this preoccupation with patriarchal concerns in mythology is one of several strands of evidence pointing to the centrality of gender politics in the emergence of inequality among the Baka.
Social & Biomedical Anthropology.
Ik former hunter-gatherers of northeast Uganda.
The Ik became infamous during the 1970s for their allegedly selfish and loveless culture. This characterization came about as a result of the publication of The Mountain People, an ethnography written by the anthropologist Colin Turnbull. In collaboration with colleagues at the Human Generosity Project, our research has uncovered the cooperative nature of Ik culture, exploding the myth of "the loveless people".
Baka hunter-gatherers of Cameroon/Congo Republic.
The Baka are an ethnic group of BaYaka hunter-gatherers, who live on the western side of the Congo Basin. I've examined emergent inequality in a small Baka community on the border of Cameroon and the Republic of Congo. This research suggested that incorporation into the global economy has catalysed gender inequality and nascent Big Man politics, though the Baka are still less patriarchal than neighbouring farming peoples.
Mbuti & Efe hunter-gatherers of Ituri, DRC.
The Mbuti and Efe are adjacent groups of hunter-gatherers who live in the Ituri Forest on the eastern side of the Congo Basin in the DRC. Both groups subsist primarily by gathering and hunting but the Mbuti are still highly mobile and have rigorously egalitarian social organization. My research on Mbuti & Efe mythology has revealed motifs that encourage equality including those that may be considered feminist.
I conceive of gender roles as cognitive schemata that shape behaviour by interacting with biological sex-linked traits. They are responsive to the experiences of development, including the acquisition of socially transmitted information (culture). They vary from person to person and with cultural context, however it's possible to describe the aggregate characteristics of collective schemata within specific populations at specific historical moments. Femininity and masculinity are interdependent roles but I am most interested in the role of femininity in egalitarian social creation. Photo is of Efe girl preparing for her initiation into womanhood.
The gender politics of Congo Basin hunter-gatherers (such as the Mbuti) are surprisingly egalitarian. This is achieved through complementary but flexible gender roles and strong female coalitions in daily & ritual life. Such coalitions have interesting implications for human evolutionary history, because they facilitate women's freedom to choose their reproductive and residence partners, which in turn facilitates cooperative child-rearing.The female-biased gene flow pattern of African hunter-gatherers suggests an ancient tendency towards matrilocal residence and the importance of women's kinship networks.
Family relationships are influenced by the fitness interdependence between family members and the structures of families. Interdependence can manifest in cooperation or competition, while family structure is dependent on larger patterns of social organization, which are culturally variant. Humans are remarkable in that co-operative childcare extends well beyond parental care, including even conspecifics who are not close kin. However, there is considerable variation in the composition and structure of these networks. Traditional societies rely on matrilineal, patrilineal or bilateral associates while post-demographic transition societies rely more on the nuclear family and institutional care.
Fitness interdependence is an umbrella term used to describe cooperation that arises from mutual dependence for survival or reproduction. This includes the inclusive fitness of genetic relatives but also mating partnerships and risk-pooling networks. Humans have complex brains that allow complex social organization, such as the use of symbols and the creation of institutions like rules, norms and belief systems. Culturally variant kinship systems and religions may be viewed as formal systems of social organization, which regulate cooperation and competition in accordance with optimal fitness outcomes for the ecology. Humans may also calculate the probability of fitness interdependence outcomes at the level of conscious perception.
A child's brain is like a social learning sponge. Mimesis and the use of symbols are behaviours that characterise human learning, differentiating us from our chimp & bonobo relatives. But children prefer to learn from those who resemble them, which means cultural information from in-groups is funnelled their way. One of the most relevant in-groups are people of the same gender.
Experience of violence.
The experience of violence is a traumatic part of human life that requires psychological healing. I am interested in indigenous ways of managing the experience of violence and the memories it creates. Both Mbuti and Ik people have had very significant experiences of coming under attack by outsiders. I have found the retellings of these experiences of victimhood extremely moving. Mimetic ritual also seems to be a way that the Ik people manage their experience of violence, and organize mutual aid to cope with attacks from outsiders and the aftermath of raids.
Peer-reviewed & public outreach writing
Sear, R., Townsend, C. (2023). ''Dysgenic fertility' is an ideological, not a scientific, concept. A Comment on: ‘Stability and change in male fertility patterns by cognitive ability across 32 birth cohorts’ (2023), by Bratsberg & Rogeberg. Biology Letters 1920230390. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2023.0390
Townsend, C., Ferraro, J. V., Habecker, H., Flinn, M. V. (2023). 'Human cooperation and evolutionary transitions in individuality'. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 378(1872). doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2021.0414
Fedurek, P., Lacroix, L., Lehmann, J., Aktipis, A., Cronk, C., Townsend, C., Jerryson Makambi, E., Mabulla, I., Behrends, V., Berbesque, J. C., (2020). 'Status does not predict stress: Women in an egalitarian hunter-gatherer society'. Evolutionary Human Sciences 2(e44).
Townsend, C., Aktipis, A., Balliet, D., Cronk, L. (2020). 'Generosity Among the Ik of Uganda' . Evolutionary Human Sciences 2(e23), doi:10.1017/ehs.2020.22
Cronk, L., Berbesque, C., Conte, T., Gervais, M., Iyer, P., McCarthy, B., Sonkoi, D., Townsend, C., Aktipis, A., (2019). ‘A Global Perspective on Community Risk Management: The Human Generosity Project’, in L. R. Lozny & T. H. McGovern (eds.), Global Perspectives on Long-Term Community Resource Management. Book chapter for the book series Studies in Human Ecology and Adaptation, New York: Springer.
Sznycer, D., Xygalatas, D., Agey, E., Alami, S., An, X-F., Ananyeva, K., Atkinson, Q., Broitman, B., Conte, T., Flores, C., Fukushima, S., Hitokoto, H., Kharitonov, A., Onyishi, C., Onyishi, I.E., Romero, P., Schrock, J., Snodgrass, J., Sugiyama, L., Takemura, K., Townsend, C., Zhuang, J-Y., Aktipis, A., Cronk, L., Cosmides, L., Tooby, J. (2018). ‘Cross-cultural invariances in the architecture of shame’. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115(37).
Townsend, C., (2018). ‘Egalitarianism, evolution of’. In The Wiley Blackwell International Encyclopedia of Anthropology, edited by Hilary Callan. Oxford: John Wiley and Sons, Ltd. Encyclopaedia.
Townsend, C., (2015). ‘Baka Ritual Flow Diverted’ in Hunter Gatherer Research, Volume 2.
Townsend, C. Aktipis, A., & Cronk, L. (2021, June 23rd). 'Does scarcity lead to selfishness?'. In Anthropology News.
Townsend, C. (2020, October 5th). 'Neither nasty nor brutish'. Edited by S. Dresser. In Aeon magazine.
Flinn, M. V. & Townsend, C. (2019). Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science & Society, by Cordelia Fine, 2017. New York, W. W. Norton & Company; ISB 978-0-393-35548-2. The Quarterly Review of Biology 94(4). doi.org/10.1086/706412
Townsend, C. (2017). How Compassion Made Us Human: The evolutionary origins of tenderness, trust & morality, by Penny Spikins, 2015. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Archaeology; ISBN 978-1-7815-9310-3, hardback 19.99; 278pp. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 1-3. doi.org/10.1017/S0959774317000105
Vierich, H. & Townsend, C. (2015). Human Violence and Morality: A review of a public lecture by Steven Pinker: The Past, Present & Future of Violence. Hunter Gatherer Research 1(1), 125-133.