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Countersignalling in the Forest

July 26th, 2006 · 1 Comment

Tyler Cowen’s post on countersignalling, which I discussed in a post below, came back to me as I read Christopher Bohem’s account of the behavior of egalitarian forager bands in Hierarchy in the Forest. Turns out it’s pretty widespread among groups where members are hypervigilant against dominant hunters or temporary, limited-function leaders becoming dominant over the group. Here’s one instance, quoted from a !Kung bushman informant:

Say that a man has been hunting. He must not come home and announce like a braggart, “I have killed a big one in the bush!” He must first sit down in silence until I or someone else comes up to his fire and asks, “What did you see today?” He replies quietly, “Ah, I’m no good for hunting. I saw nothing at all…maybe just a tiny one.” Then I smile to myself because I now know he has killed something big.”

When modern people use countersignalling to convey status, is partly from a general sense that it’s bad form to be too showy. Perhaps that bit of etiquitte is at least distantly related to the rather more severe consequences that could befall anyone in a forager band who came to be seen as impressed enough with his own strength, skill, or wealth that he might try to threaten the autonomy of others.

I also note, incidentally, that certain nomadic hunter-gatherers had ritualistic ways of handling serious conflicts between male members, meant to prevent them from going lethal and triggering a series of retaliatory killings between family members. Among these were “mutually vilifying song contests.” In other words, they invented battle raps.

Tags: Obedience and Insubordination



1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Chris // Jul 28, 2006 at 10:31 am

    Hi Julian,

    Interesting conversation last night. Thanks for the poker invitation. Please do let me know when there’s a game – I’ll be in town until August 25.