Re: Origin of circumcision

Stephanie G. Folse (
4 Nov 1995 19:25:58 GMT

In article <>, <> wrote:
>Here's a comment that I came across in another newsgroup (whose name I
>am keeping secret, in order to protect it from the foolishness that
>has been haunting sci.anthropology):
>"Male circumcision is quite common among most groups whose tribal origins
>can be traced to dry desert environments. Australian Aborigines, various
>African tribes, most Middle Eastern tribes (including Jews and Muslims) all
>practice circumcision. The foreskin can be problematic in dry environments
>with inadequate supplies of water for cleaning - hence this practice in those
>Now there's a basis for doing some *real* research.

What I think would be interesting would be to find out howmany of these
groups practice circumcision-at-birth and how many practice
circumcision-at-puberty. The African groups I've read about (and I don't
claim to have read about all or even most) tend to practice
circumcision-at-puberty, which I think would argue against the
cleanliness hypothesis for those tribes at least, since a boy would spend
eight to fifteen years of his life at risk for infections, according to
the hypothesis.

Circumcision at puberty, I think, is basically a rite of passage, roughly
analogous to femal menstruation. While girls don't necessarily need a
rite of passage to mark their entrance into womanhood (although some
cultures do give them one, sometimes involving femal circumcision, ear
piercing and other blood rites) since their bodies provide the physical
evidence, many cultures provide boys with one to mark their passage into

And for the gentleman who started all of this: while his hypothesis is
interesting, he is assuming that all cultures value female virginity (and
by extension that all cultures who practice male circumcision value
female virginity). This is a culture-bound assumption and simply not
true. Many tribal cultures value female fertility higher than virginity,
which makes sense since fertility will enhance the survival of the group
(*biological* sexual impulses tend to enhance the survival and
continuation of the individual, *cultural* sexal impulses and practices
also enhance the survival of the group).

Once groups are organized at a more complex level than the tribal one,
female virginity takes on importance. Male circumcision, however,
seems to have originated in tribal times. I would say that while Mr.
Nakis' hypothesis might have some bearing on a few cultures in modern
times (and it might not, I don't know), the origins of the custom had
nothing to do with disguising male virginity.

(I think I spelled his name right -- I don't have any of his posts on hand
to double-check.)

If we take his hypothesis, that male circumcision is to disguise male
virginity, and take it to mean that female virginity is valued and male
virginity is not in these cultures, then the inverse should be true, that in
cultures where male circumcision is not practiced, we should find that
female virginity is not valued in these cultures. In medieval and
present-day Europe, where circumcision was not practiced on the general
population (excluding Jewish and Arabic settlers), female virginity was
and is still highly prized (Note that "prize" and "practice" can be two
differnet things).

I simply do not see a clear correspondence between the occurrence of male
circumcision and the valuation of virginity within cultures. That does
not mean it is not there, since I have not sat down and done the
research, but at first glance I do not see it.

(This is not intended to be a dismissal, but a suggestion for the next step.)

What I suggest is that Mr. Nakis fully develop his hypothesis, figure out
what evidence he needs to look for, sit down with a bunch of
ethnographies and other books, and chart the correspondences between male
curcumcision and attitudes towards virginity in males and females
cross-culturally. Then in six months or a year, provide us with the numbers
and then let us merrily argue out whether or not his research was accurate.

(The next paragraph are not directed at Mr. Nakis personally, but to
readers of sci.anthropology in general)

This is a forum for discussing issues, hypotheses and theories relating
to the science of and subject of anthropology -- cultural and biological.
Posts suggesting new ideas are certainly welcome, but getting angry
because no one will believe those ideas without actually taking into
account *why* they are being dismissed is not particularly good form.
The reverse is also true -- posting messages dismissing them
without saying why the ideas are being dismissed is a waste of
bandwidth. I don't think anyone has been convinced by solely "You're
wrong." People *have* been convinced by "You're wrong -- due to (a),
(b) and (c)." If you don't agree and don't care to explain why, the
solution is simple: don't post. Not being challenged on USENET does not
mean the idea is generally accepted, so don't worry that you're doing the
world a disservice by not refuting it.

And getting miffed because people -- good heavens! -- bring cultural
definitions and discussions into what is essentially a newsgroup about
culture is just silly.

I have little hope anyone will pay attention to what I just said, but it
feels good to get it off my chest.

As always, calm discussions for or against any of my above points are
welcome. If someone presents me with a reasoned case against them, I
have no problem considering it and possibly discarding my original point.
That's the process of science.

If this is still being crossposted to alt.religion.kibology, then of
course really odd responses are expected. :)

Stephanie Folse

<*> || <*>
+ Museum Studies grad student|| "Will you cut that out? +
+ Department of Anthropology || Everybody knows Isz don't have eyeballs." +
<*> University of Denver ||====>I claim this .sig for Queen Elizabeth<*>