Re: Pigs (was Re: No Anthropology here)

Gerold Firl (
12 Sep 1995 12:42:37 -0700

In article <1995Sep8.155818.7842@hobbit> writes:

>So, tell me about these pigs in New Guinea that the Kapauku Papuans are
>busy raising (like, um, why pigs?).
>Reviews of Marvin Harris' _Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches_ by you
>anthropological scholars out there would be welcome.

Why pigs ... in the new guinea environment, pigs are a very efficient
protein-producer. Chickens might be even better, particularly chicken eggs,
but pigs are good.

That is one part of the answer, one based on raw calorimetric and
nutritional calculations: pigs are an efficient food source in that
environment. The other aspect to consider is historical; once pigs are
established as a food source, and incorporated into the culture as part of
the ritual/symbolic/spiritual structure, they are very difficult to
dislodge. It takes a serious cultural breakdown to convince people to make
such a change in their foodways. In _good to eat_ harris uses the example
of the indian conversion from beef-eating to cow-milking which bracketed
the strife-torn indian epic period, when war and famine convinced people
that the old gods and old ways were invalid and ready for change. The cycle
described in _cows pigs wars and witches_, used by the male of new guinea,
is explicitly identified as a means of avoiding the ecological breakdown
which leads to cultural breakdown. The size of the surplus pig-stocks are
linked to replenishment-time for slash-and-burn agriculture, thus providing
a timing mechanism to trigger the wars which lead to resettlement away from
depleted soils.

Bottom line: pigs work. The pig-rearing cultures of new guinea have reached
a stable equilibrium, and pigs are a significant part of the control

I read _cows ... witches_ a while back, but would love to discuss it. I
found the analysis to be extremely insightful. The linkage between the most
mundane details of survival, like getting enough to eat, and the most
rarified abstractions of spiritual belief, like the nature of good and
evil, are much more closely linked than most people, even anthropologists,
realize. Any culture which puts the population at a competitive
disadvantage with respect to the neighbors will adapt or die; the pork
taboo in the mideast is a good example. Pig-rearing in hot and arid regions
is inefficient; it decreases potential population density, and hence
increases vulnurability to invasion. As harris points out, islam spread to
the arid west of china, but no further; the pork taboo is disadvantageous
in temperate, tropical, and semi-tropical china.

Question: why did java go muslim? The climate seems well-suited to pigs. Of
course, java is _very_ densely populated; the kinds of opportunistic
foraging availible in temperate forests is probably not an option in java,
but still, pigs are efficient as scavengers. It doesn't seem like much rice
would be needed ... of course, pigs can be very destructive, and a few pigs
loose in a rice paddy would be a disaster. Still, pigs are raised in
southern chinese rice-growing areas ... anyone know about the details of
the javanese conversion to islam? I believe the islamic wedge entered java
through the mercantile classes, but I'm not sure about the timing. WAs it
complete by the time of the dutch arrival?

I also wonder about the enforcement of the taboo on java. Javanese islam is
probably the least dogmatic on earth, and I wouldn't be surprised if the
pork taboo were loosely enforced.

As I recall, the section on witches was the least satisfactory. Harris is
great on foods, maybe somewhat less so on witches, though my memory of why
I felt that way is somewhat hazy.

Which brings back the cannibalism controversy. After reading the chapters
in _good to eat_ (reissued as _sacred cow, abominable pig_ because
bookstores often mis-shelved it in the cookbook section!) on people as
food, the objections raised by arens and others to ethnographic reports of
cannibalism look pretty laughable. It's sad, really, to see so-called
anthropologists who are so squeemishly ethnocentric about their own taboos
that they pretend cannibalism is a fable. Pathetic. In science we do not
throw away data which conflicts with our sense of propriety, which is
exactly what the people who argue that cannibalism is a myth are trying to

Enough -

Disclaimer claims dat de claims claimed in dis are de claims of meself,
me, and me alone, so sue us god. I won't tell Bill & Dave if you won't.
=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=---- Gerold Firl @ ..hplabs!hp-sdd!geroldf