If I were a passenger, I don’t think I would find Nepal Airlines’ maintenance procedures at all reassuring.
Officials at Nepal’s state-run airline have sacrificed two goats to appease Akash Bhairab, the Hindu sky god, following technical problems with one of its Boeing 757 aircraft, the carrier said Tuesday.
At least the in-flight meals must be fresh and tasty.
Mark Nutter says
Silly Hindus. Everyone knows the way to appease sky gods is to cut off the flesh of your foreskin. Please be ready as the stewardess comes down the aisle…
From reading the article, it’s not clear whether the plane is now fixed BECAUSE the goats were sacrificed, or if that was just a part of the process. One hopes there was at least some actually tinkering going on.
Either way, I’m going to have to put off that trip to Everest!
With the current price of oil, the fats were needed to lubricate the engines! It all makes perfect sense.
Won’t someone think of the kids?
A plane is a very complicated and sophisticated piece of technology..
wouldnt it be better to sacrifice a whole plane with goats/humans in it?
True Bob says
May still be on the schedule…
Salad Is Slaughter says
Do the Boeing manuals specifically call out sacrificing goats as part of the repair process, or do they allow substitutions? Can this solution be applied to other technical problems?
US airlines don’t do bizarre things like that.
They know the way to ensure maximum safety is to remove the 13th row of seats. Seems to work pretty well.
Greg Laden says
OK, as an anthropologist, I have to jump in here. We are making fun of people sacrificing goats to fix an airplane like that was something extra-special funny because it is strange and exotic compared to other equally irrational practices. But of course, it isn’t. At Kennedy Airport, airline mechanics are walking around with sepuchures, saying oddly worded prayers, crossing themselves, and so on (Irish Catholics) and none of that has a rational link to actually fixing the airplane either, obviously.
Actually, a goat sacrifice can probably “work” better than many other practices. I’ve been involved in many goat sacrifices … it is not a Hindu practice, but rather, part of a larger, widespread animal sacrifice cult that runs from the north/eastern “South Asian Subcontinent” (formerly known as the Indian Subcontinent) in a large sweeping arc across southern Asia, into west Asia, down into Africa, and to about the Limpopo river valley. The goat sacrifice (and child sacrifice) we see in Hinduism is probably akin to the goat/cattle/child sacrifice we see in the OT. Among the oldest texts regarding this practice in detail is Leviticus, of course.
The goat sacrifice works as a social mechanism and a culinary mechanism, and links kin groups, etc. etc. because there are so many different elements to it. There are all kinds of complexities that go into it that I won’t describe here. I’d say goat sacrificing would work better than simple praying and stuff like that because of it’s social consequences, and yes, you get a meal. Think of it as:
“OK, guys, lets all take a deep breath, spend the afternoon chatting about this difficult mechanical problem we are having, and relax a little. Then we’ll go at that engine with renewed vigor. Ok, who’s got the goat???”
Much better than prayer, confession, etc.
My point is simply this: We all enjoy making fun of religion, and that is a good thing. But let’s be a little careful about laughing in a particularly or uniquely condescending way at what we see with western eyes as more quaint or more primitive.
By the way, there is something very different and in some way powerful about a ceremony in which a life is taken. The goat does not go happily. It takes a while to kill it, there is a lot of blood (in fact, where the blood flows is key in most cases … that’s why you would do it in front of the airplane), and so on….
Tower: “Eastern 702, cleared for takeoff, contact Departure on 124.7.”
Eastern 702: “Tower, Eastern 702 switching to Departure. By the way, after we lifted off we saw some kind of dead animal on the far end of the runway.”
Tower: “Continental 635, cleared for takeoff, contact Departure on 124.7.
Did you copy that report from Eastern?”
Continental 635: “Continental 635, cleared for takeoff, Roger; and yes, we copied Eastern and we’ve already notified our caterers.”
Jon Rusho says
LMAO…and people question my sanity when I say we should sacrifice a goat to fix the computers!
Brandon P. says
I thought Hindus were supposed to be vegetarians. Or does that somehow not apply to gods?
jaim klein says
Greg Laden, I have a free ticket to Kathmandu on Nepal Airlines that I am not going to use. Do you want it?
Greg Laden says
Brandon: Good question. With a complicated answer.
Hinduism is probably one of the most complex religions. It is so complex that internally, one of the key beliefs of Hinduism is that it is very complex, so it actually divides religion and religious activities into several subcategories. A Hindu temple to serve all Hindus (like you might build in a major tourist area?) would probably have to be several buildings…
Anyway, vegetarianism and live sacrifice are not the same thing at all. In fact, when you think about it, sacrifice of a living thing is of much greater significance or impact if you are a vegetarian.
Consider that many sacrifice traditions include human sacrifice. Sacrificing a human when presumably there is a general day to day prohibition against killing a human is very powerful mojo. The fact that you have a rule that says “do not kill (a person)” does not mean that you can’t have a human sacrifice clause in your religious practice manual. Having a rule that says “don’t eat animals” does not mean you can’t have animal sacrifice.
Many Hindu/buddhist aren’t simply vegetarians, but actually have a rule against killing animals in general. But there are (some) Hindu/Buddhists who have this rule but also practice animal sacrifice. There is not a contradiction. The sacrifice is not an extension of day to day normal life/behavior. It’s a bit of powerful magic, perhaps made more powerful by the day to day prohibition.
Greg Laden says
Jaim: Are you trying to get my goat?
Greg Laden says
Oh, and keeping with the theme of being the scolding anthropologist, I should mention: I’m pretty sure that the vast majority of educated “modern” (whatever that means exactly) Hindus look at animal sacrifice as cynically as an atheist may look at any religious activity. I suspect Hindus living in cities in, say, India, look to some extent at the Nepalese as primitive or backwards. What is really going on here is probably a class struggle thing.
I also suspect many Nepalese practice a form of Hinduism that reflect, or through which bleeds, the most traditional religious practices of that region, and the label “hindu” is not very meaningful. While most Nepalese will self-identify as “Hindu” they are equally likely to visit a Buddhist as a Hindu temple. It’s a little like modern Japanese in relation to Buddhism vs. Taoism.
One time I was walking along with a Japanese friend. She was just telling me that her family is traditionally Buddhist, but she was an Atheist. As we were strolling along, we came to a Taoist Monk selling fortunes. She bought one of them from him, as we continued to talk about Atheism, rationality, etc. Then we walked a little farther along, and she dropped the scroll into a giant bronze pot in which a fire had been made, paused for a moment with her hands together, gave the pot a little bow as she intoned some ancient sacred phrase. Then we continued walking, and talking about atheism and rationality.
Respect for other cultures, while valid, does not happen to include tolerating irrational behavior which endangers lives.
And just to be fair, Greg, if someone were to point out the mechanics at JFK or wherever who were anointing brakes with holy water, I’d damn well make fun of their idiotic superstitious customs as well.
I’m an equal-opportunity mocker of religious stupidity.
Come on, Greg. First we get scolded for mocking Christianity to the exclusion of all other silly superstitions. Then, when we dutifully mock Hinduism for their silly superstition, you get all pedantic and uppity and, dare I say it, kinda po-mo and culturally-relativistic.
You can’t have it both ways.
One of the other math professors in my department is from the former Soviet Union. When one of our colleagues died last year at a tragically young age, this prof began talking about a “purification” ritual to cleanse our office building of bad luck. Yes, he wanted to use a goat. I’m sure he was disappointed that we didn’t take up his proposal with enthusiasm. (Perhaps if he had suggested using an algebra student…)
I think Greg makes an interesting point here, and Warren does not go far enough. Most of us would probably laugh at sprinkling holy water on brakes, but what about just PRAYING.
We have days of prayer for this and that, pray for rain, pray for whatever, our leaders are always praying instead of thinking ahead.
This is the EXACT EQUIVALENT of sacrificing goats and just a dumb and laughable.
Are we sure it wasn’t just carrion luggage?
Greg – good comments.
That ain’t “pomo”. Cultural relativism, as practiced by sane anthropologists, is exactly opposite to post-modernism. Postmodernism asserts complete idealism – sane cultural relativism asserts realism, in context (like any kind of decent analysis).
And Warren, if you’re going to get all uppity about goat sacrifice, then I hope that you’re a veggie. At least when they kill the goat, they take a moment to think that they are sacrificing a sentient being, rather than just stuffing their mouth with MickeyD’s without a thought to how it got into their mouth, and who got sacrificed to do it.
Goat sacrifices may be superstitious, but Greg is right on point to put it into context. It’s better to have a group of Nepalese goat sacrificers next-door than a church, and it’s saner (relatively) to think that sacrificing an animal would help get the plane working, than to think that wishful thinking will do it (even though that does have some efficacious effect – clearing your mind and all that).
AJ Milne says
Are we sure it wasn’t just carrion luggage?
Anyone know a ritual to cleanse the thread of evil puns?
Personally, I’m happy to say I’ve found I can rely upon the Pharyngula community to provide excellent, highly ecumenical/pluralistic mockery, across a wide spectrum of superstitious practices and beliefs, with some appropriate relative emphasis for probable areas of audience interest/familiarity. Christianity gets good coverage, same with less institutional superstitions common in the West such as astrology et al… Islam the odd and required slap, nice to see a little here and there for Hinduism…
Oh… But have we done Jainism recently? I think they’re due.
Greg Laden says
You are absolutely correct. Praying, sprinkling of holey water, and spilling the blood from the neck of a freshly killed, still writhing goat on the taxiway are all equally irrational gestures worthy of mocking. Mock away!
But, there is a trope to the mock. When we mock christians the trope is often linked to medieval practices or popish politics or similar western things. When we mock brown people living in bungabunga land the trope is often primitivism. Primitivism is the most demeaning and personal of insults. It says “they are not people like we are.”
I object to the trope which objectifies or demeans differentially along these lines.
The average western person thinks, for example, that brown people in bungabungaland speak primitive languages, with fewer words, less complex structure, less ability to produce nuance, etc. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The average western person assumes that in the absence of a K-College educational system and written literature, the brown bungabungalanders are less intelligent than “we” are. This is not true. Whenever we attach the trope of primitivism to the brown bungabungalanders, we demean them as people. That is not OK.
Demeaning the religious is, of course, a noble task, a necessary activity, and great fun to boot.
In truth, I don’t really see this happening on this list in this discussion. I was reacting more to a) the nature of the original story, and b) the very fact that the original story was written. That, itself, is very objectionable and my objection fits perfectly with PZ’s theme. Think about it this way….
When was the last time we saw a Reuters news report that said:
New York (Reuters) – Officials at American airline have ritually consumed the body and blood of the founder of their religion to appease Yalwah, their all powerful god, following technical problems with one of its Boeing 757 aircraft, the carrier said Tuesday.
American Airlines, which has two Boeing aircraft, has had to suspend some services in recent weeks due the problem.
The “body” and “blood” of this god, in the form of bread and wine, were sacrificed in a public ceremony attended by thousands (including children) in a nearby place of worship, on Sunday in accordance with Catholic traditions, an official said.
“The snag in the plane has now been fixed and the aircraft has resumed its flights,” said Raju K.C., a senior airline official, without explaining what the problem had been.
Local media last week blamed the company’s woes on an electrical fault. The carrier runs international flights to five cities in Asia.
It is common in New York to simulate the cannibalistic rite of consumption of “The Body and Blood” of the founder of this religion, to appease the diety.
We don’t see the bizarre “mainstream” and/or “western” practices reported as oddities in the western press. Oddness, exoticness, and primitivism, and ultimately, less-than-human status are all linked.
It is unlikely that the people of this Nepalese village have bombed anyone because they believe in a different god. Recently.
We’re not allowed to sacrifice goats to the gods in the UK. Bloody nanny state . . .
Greg Laden says
For the kids….
So Greg, just because I’m curious, are you saying that this is more the equivalent of the manager ordering pizza for his guys and saying a prayer before they get to work? That’s what it kind of sounds like – a religious “team building” exercise, but with extra goat. Or at least, more goat than I normally like at my team building exercises…
Anton Mates says
I doubt that’s much comfort to the goat.
AFAIK, McDonalds and Burger King have relatively high standards for their suppliers’ care and slaughter of animals, mostly because they’ve been heavily targeted by animal rights and welfare groups. Regardless, it’s certainly possible to be a meat-eater who buys from companies which treat their animals more humanely than this goat was treated.
I don’t see that it’s more or less sane. Most Christians are working off the assumption that their God is omnipotent and omniscient, and therefore doesn’t need any goats. The only thing you can really give the Christian god is–according to the free will idea–your love and loyalty. He already owns everything else. Prayer is simply the appropriate type of sacrifice for such a god.
The goat sacrificed was probably someone’s personal goat, raised at home with the freedom to roam the neighborhood. The goat then had it’s throat sliced fairly quickly by someone the goat knew. It was probably terrified to some extent, but not until the last few moments.
Have you been to a slaughterhouse? The cows used for most meat production in the US (that includes McDonalds), have been raised on feedlots and fed corn, limiting their motion throughout much of their lives and leading to GI tract ulceration. They get shipped cross-country to factories, where depending on the country, the get electrocuted or smacked by a hammer on the skull. They’re in terror from the time they get on the train until their last breath, in addition to physical discomfort.
You’re really fooling yourself if you think that any significant portion of meat-production is in any way humane, at least in comparison to primitive practices. And I doubt that even the best practices in the West are in any way more humane than primitive practices. Killing an animal isn’t inhumane – the question is the treatment of the animal throughout it’s life. To a poor person in an undeveloped country in a rural area, that goat is a significant portion of his entire wealth – damn straight they’re going to treat that goat as well as is possible for them. Probably better than they treat their neighbors. In New Guinea, it’s common for women to breast-feed the pigs that are later used for BBQs/sacrifices.
And comparing prayer to sacrifice – I wasn’t arguing that the reasons were more sane. In both cases, the individual reasons aren’t connected with scientific reality. But for the group, it’s saner to have a barbecue before doing serious work than just muttering some magical formulae.
We Westerners are so individualistic that we often can’t recognize the difference between relatively reasonable group behavior, and individual delusion. They are two different things. I’m not saying that whatever god the Nepalese sacrificed to is more likely to be scientifically real than Yahweh and his merry band. But throwing a party, even if it involves a little magic, is better than mumbling nonsense. Just like a Southern Baptist church picnic is a saner, healthier thing than normal Sunday services if you want to do some business, and even though both involve silly magic.
Greg (24) part 2- Perfect – You said it really well that time!
I was once very amused when immigration in a small Caribbean Island turned back a Haitian with a dead frog because he was up to Voodo. However, a priest with holy water and magical “turn to flesh” wafers would be welcome.
I am, actually, but that’s irrelevant. Whether one is vegetarian, ovo-lacto, macrobiotic or even breatharian has nothing to do with one’s ability (or right!) to make fun of a silly superstition.
And, to be honest, there’s some argument to be found in the assertion that vegetarianism itself is a bit of a superstition.
Potentially valid point on the trope, but that suggests I was the one who preferentially called to light the silliness of sacrificing goats as opposed to the silliness of ritual deicide and symbolic cannibalism. I wasn’t, of course; I was just responding to it.
In fact I tend to mock those Christian rituals more often, because they are more familiar to Western culture.
Greg (#9, #9, #9…) wrote: “At Kennedy Airport, airline mechanics are walking around with sepuchures, saying oddly worded prayers, crossing themselves, and so on (Irish Catholics)…”
Did you mean “scapulars”???
Anton Mates says
True, but for this very reason, McDonalds, and many of the fast-food chains, actually buy as much beef from overseas as US import laws will permit. They want grass-fed beef, because it’s leaner, and in other countries that’s most of what they buy.
Also true, but Burger King started to faze in more human slaughtering practices this year, at least for chickens.
So you think the average animal raised on a Niman Ranch-affiliated farm, for instance, has a more unhappy existence than the average Nepalese goat? It’s quite true AFAIK that most American meat is produced inhumanely, but your original post implied that no meat-eater has the right “to get all uppity about goat sacrifice,” and I suspect that the average meat-eating Pharyngula poster is unusually concerned with getting their meat from suppliers who raise it humanely.
Compare, however, Gandhi’s complaints about cow treatment in India–he considered them to be treated more cruelly there than anywhere else in the world. “How we bleed her to take the last drop of milk from her, how we starve her to emaciation, how we ill-treat the calves, how we deprive them of their portion of milk, how cruelly we treat the oxen, how we castrate them, how we beat them, how we overload them. If they had speech, they would bear witness to our crimes against them which would stagger the world.”
The thing about pigs is that their dietary and environmental requirements are very similar to human ones. You either have to treat them very well, consciously sacrificing human-usable resources to raise them, or you can’t have them at all. So societies tend to either treat their pigs like royalty or, like Jews and Muslims, ban them outright.
Cows, on the other hand, eat what humans can’t or won’t. You don’t need to treat them well because they can wander and feed themselves. If they manage to avoid starving, you can get some milk out of them. If they starve, well, it hasn’t cost you much and their meat and skin can still be used–as in fact it is, in India, by lower-castes, non-Hindus, and even upper-caste Hindus in private. You certainly don’t need to waste time treating their injuries, vaccinating them against disease, and that sort of thing.
I don’t know whether the goat in this instance was treated more like an Indian cow or like a New Guinean pig–but regardless, it was killed in an unnecessarily inhumane manner. Complaining that various slaughterhouses also have inhumane practices hardly changes that.
Depends on the time it takes. You can pray in twenty seconds and be done with it; killing and roasting a goat takes time and cleanup work. If you subscribe to the “anoint with blessed oil” version of prayer, of course, you’re wasting time and energy and not getting a good meal out of it.
Re Greg Laden’s satire in #24:
I recently read a section in a book attacking poor history in American textbooks which did something similar regarding the religion of the Native Americans. A passage from a grade school text on Native American religion — which simply stated their beliefs factually — was given, and then contrasted with a similar, invented facts-only passage on Christian beliefs. The writer pointed out how silly, childish, and primitive religion sounds when you fail to embellish it.
His solution? Why, the Native American religion must be approached with the same “respect” given to Christianity — link it to conservation of resources, load it up with values, soften or obscure the superstitions, and make it sound reasonable and positive and vague. Throw around the rhetoric, connect it to love, gush about how wonderful it is, how profound and life affirming and meaningful it was to the culture. Whatever you do, don’t just give the bare facts which distinguish these particular supernatural beliefs from other supernatural beliefs — because then it just sounds stupid. Embellish.
Personally, I’d rather do it the other way around. Treat Christianity without the hand-waving redirection, just be simple and direct about what makes it different than other religions and philosophies. No, it’s not the love and bonding together, they all do that. If it sounds “stupid,” maybe there’s a problem with confusing the cultural use and value of a belief system with the fact claims.
hm, sacrificing goats to prevent problems … sounds stupid … almost as stupid as requiring all passengers to put their liquid containers in sealed ziploc bags.
I find it hard to take Gandhi too seriously. Here was a man who would intentionally sleep next to hot young chicks so he could suffer by not having sex with them. Who’s great personal tragedy was that he was having sex with his wife when his father happened to die.
He had a tendency to be a bit melodramatic, to say the least. Compare his statement to his statement regarding British colonialism, and you’ll see that cows where treated by Indians at least as well as Indians were treated by the Brits or by other Indians. The “horror” of castrating oxen… well, oh my! I’d have to ask the oxen whether they would have preferred to stay intact or not.
And by the way, I’d expect that your belief that Niman Ranch meat is deriguer among Pharyngula devotees may be overly optimistic – we need a poll. But very few meat-eaters have that kind of expendable cash. Why we’d be reduced to eating as little meat as primitive people, with their one-goat a month diets!
Pigs are not kept by primitive people because they eat the same things as people, it’s because they eat the detritus of human meals. The hulks, the trash, etc. Like dogs. Both have traditionally been used to recycle calories that are difficult or unhealthy for human beings to directly ingest. They also have a tendency to over-graze sensitive lands, like goats – one explanation for middle-eastern aversions to raising pork, at all (unlike royalty, which they seem to breed in excess).
They get treated well in cultures where they are the primary form of wealth storage. Like cattle for the Masai, where they only bleed but rarely if ever eat their cattle – they love that cattle they’re bleeding.
Another explanation: the conflict in the ME between sedentary and nomadic people. Pigs would have been raised by farmers and not herders, so cultural tropes from a herding culture would disdain pigs as associated with those dirty Mesopotamian farmers (who felt the same way, I’m sure about the nomads herds and the nomads themselves — see Cain & Abel).
The difference being, of course, that in Nepal it’s okay to bring on a Ziploc full of goat’s blood.
Greg Laden says
Scapular … misspelling of Scapulae, plural of Scapula. It’s a piece of cardboard or plastic or plasticized cardboard hung around the neck under your clothing. One who is a member of a particular sect, cult, or “order” wears the appropriate scapula. As a child, I was a member of the Order of the Green Scapula.
Warren: No, honestly, I was not responding to anyone’s comments here.
Greg Laden says
NonyNony and others:
The ceremony definitely serves to solidify the team and make everyone feel like they are doing the right thing, and that they will have better luck. Very much like pizza.
I have to say this, though. I have attended and/or participated in a number of goat sacrifices. We actually have done a faux sacrifice here in the US for scientific purposes, but the goat is usually a sheep and it is always dead, so there is no actual sacrifice
But those real ones I’ve attended and participated in in Africa always involve a real goat, a real sacrifice, etc. I hate to say this, but the LAST thing on anyone’s mind is making sure the goat dies the most peaceful death possible. One or two people hold the goat down while another takes a minute to saw through its throat. The goat makes a lot of noise and generally puts up quite a fuss. Several seconds after the blood starts to drain and/or spurt out of the neck area, the goat will stop writhing around as much.
Did I mention: The knife/machete is by almost any standard, dull.
From that point the method varies, as to whether the head is taken off at this point or left on. In some cases, the goat is hung by its back legs from a frame (like you hang a deer) and skinned and butchered. In other cases it is cut into either five or six pieces (2 hind quarters, the back/loin, two front quarters one with the head attached, or two front quarters and the head separately). Various things happen to the entrails. Depends on the culture involved and various other factors.
As the goat is cooked you drink a lot of beer and tell stories and stuff.
The goat is usually purchased for the ceremony. Nobody involved in the ceremony will be the person who owned the goat. The reason for this is that no one is ever in possession of a goat they own anywhere I’ve ever been in Central Africa. So somebody has to buy the goat from someone, almost always a close cousin of somebody with clout.
I’m sure the way it is done in Nepal is different in many details, but I’ll bet not too much different. Maybe they have sharper knives.
OK. Feathers unruffled. :)
Though, if you feel like hurling a few righteously-valid stones, here’s a toon I did earlier today on this topic (scroll to the bottom). It’s a mock ad.
Let’s just say I haven’t heard from Royal Nepal yet about heading up their PR division…
Okay, as somebody close to the ‘incident’ both in terms of physical distance and cultural similarities(I live in India and was born in a practicing Hindu family) my two cents.
Its sad, but true, that such religious ceremonies are rather common in these parts of the world. Conducted by politicians, even those in the government, while facing natural disasters; At the start of new projects including hi tech ones like satellite launch vehicles; or just for world peace. This doesn’t mean that they rely solely on God for the success. But its a tradition which almost nobody bothers to break or even think about.
Greg and others,
Regarding vegetarianism in Hindus, as you said it is complicated. But the short answer is, not all hindus are required to be vegetarians. It depends on the persons caste and the region he comes from. For eg. Brahmins as a rule don’t eat meat unless they happen to be from West Bengal, a state in India, who are allowed to eat fish. Its pretty bizzare.
Also, its quite common to sacrifice an animal and eat it afterwards as a token of Gods blessing.
Regarding Gandhi, first of all thanks for spelling it correctly. I have seen it spelled Ghandi so many times that I have stopped cringing. Agreed, he had some very eccentric ideas like the one you mentioned. But they are very petty compared to his core ideals which I really respect a lot. Truth and honesty no matter what. A refusal to hate even your enemy. non-violence. These are the things which I sorely wish for in todays ‘world leaders’. It would have been a much better place.
Anton Mates says
We’ll just have to disagree on this. So far as I’ve read, pigs can subsist on the detritus of human meals in the First world, because we throw away a lot of potentially usable calories. In New Guinea, they’re competing with humans for human-usable resources. Likewise across the Pacific Islands, which is why they vanish from the historical records on a lot of islands–in times of famine, the human population couldn’t afford keep to keep them around as competitors. Chickens worked out a lot better because they could live entirely on stuff humans didn’t eat.
And Gandhi may have had a weakness for melodrama, but he didn’t have to make anything up about the large fraction of Indian cows that are permanently on the brink of starvation, the practice of phooka and other painful techniques for inducing a cow to give its last drop of milk, the culling of female calves via roundabout methods which cause the mothers to kill them, and so forth. An urban cow, at least, is not a happy animal.
My source for the above, aside from a South Pacific archaeology course, is mostly Marvin Harris’ “Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches: The Riddles of Culture”. It contains a number of citations for information on Indian cattle-raising and New Guinea pig-raising. I’ve tried to confirm the relevant information via the Intarweb, but Greg Laden can probably tell us whether Harris’ facts are reliable (even if his interpretation may be out of date.)
Kausik Datta says
Bharat #41, you beat me to the clarification of the situation. It is slightly incomplete, in the sense that even in West Bengal, people who desire to be vegetarians give up fish, and if this vegetarianism is for religious reasons, they also give up onions, garlic, and certain types of lentils. Doesn’t make any sense, but when has religion ever?
But I am curious about Brandon and Greg Laden’s assertion: where on earth did you get the idea that Hindus are required to be vegetarians? This is a stereotype perpetuated in the West for whatever reason. Same goes for Buddhism, which is often considered a religio-political offshoot from Hinduism. According to historical accounts of the relevant times, Goutama Buddha and his direct followers objected to killing animals for the purpose of eating, but had no problems if meat-dishes, already prepared, were to be offered to them.
As Bharat mentions, Gandhi’s greatness and appeal lie not in his religiosity or personal idiosyncrasies, but in his steadfast adherence to the core ideals of truth, honesty, justice and non-violence – basic qualities which should be the cornerstones of any civilized society.
We will have to disagree on the food stuffs for pigs. I was going by “Pigs for the Ancestors,” Rappaport. New Guinea folks are always living at the caloric brink, so feeding their pigs the same food they have would be absurd. On the other hand, Polynesians usually had some more distance between their intake and starvation – so saying that they abandoned pigs because of that doesn’t follow. A more reasonable explanation is that since the founding populations were small, and many islands had very limited trade relations over the thousands of miles separating them, it was quite easy to lose a domestic animal. A typhoon, a famine, etc, and suddenly you’d have to voyage from Hawaii to Samoa to get new pigs.
Easier just to breed the surviving dogs into pig-like form (as the Hawaiians did).
Regarding cows: I’d have to see a comparison of the state of nutrition of Indians and cows. Since vast swaths of the Indian population were underfed, etc, under colonialism, I can only judge their treatment of cows in the context of the state of health of their owners. It’s difficult to call callous a man with a starving family who neglects his cow.
Bharat: I agree that Gandhi had some very commendable principles, principles that saved India from descending into a maelstrom of violence during decolonization (unlike, for example, much of Africa). But even the best of us are crazy in some respect or other.
Greg Laden says
Right. I don’ think I said or implied, or did not mean to, that Hindus are automatically vegetarian.
On pigs: I closely supervised a PhD student doing pigs, so I happen to know about ten times more than I wanted to know about pigs…
In European, Mediterranean, and American contexts, even going way back in time, it is likely that some of the pigs subsisted on human food waste, in contrast to New Guinea, where the pigs are specifically fed yams that are grown for the purpose of feeding the pigs. This is direct competition because you could be eating the yams yourself or growing something else.
In New Guinea (traditionally) there is not any sort of effort to make this optimal. The system is not set up to produce an optimal diet or to maximize calories. Pigs and Yams in New Guinea are all about power and/or reproduction.
Think about this, though, in the other contexts: With pigs vs. cattle, the cattle eat grasses. What are the humans eating? If you live in a society in which wheat, barley, etc. is a staple, then the humans are also eating grasses. Cattle and humans, in this context, directly compete, and across cultures, there is a very strong positive correlation between human reliance on grasses and human involvement with cattle husbandry.
Generally, it is a mistake to assume or to use as a yardstick of some kind optimal strategies or maximizing strategies, in humans, for food. Humans are optimizing fitness. The food is often an intermediate step in either defeating your enemy or getting laid.
Warren: Yes, your cartoon is very funny.
But the world is unfair as long as the Nepalese goat sacrifice gets to virtually every news outlet, but when a US based news agency reports “a miracle” no one bats an eye. Hundreds of miracles are reported daily on national and local news outlets in the US.
My objection is not to labeling this stuff as silly. My objection is to the differential silliness meter calibration, and to the differential linkage that sometimes occurs to the reasons for the siliness. The news reporters in the US do this silly thing because their culture expects it. The Nepalese do this silly thing because they are primitive, and hinduism is after all the oldest formal religion (not true but often said).
But your post is nicely balanced. You are clearly annoyed, appropriately, by everybody.
Completely agree with you. After all, any person who tried to get all Indians agreed on any issue has to be crazy.
What you said is quite true. What would have been called an idiosyncrasy in a western societies is invariably labeled primitiveness if happening in eastern regions.
Not that has happened on this blog at least. Here we call a spade spade irrespective of where it happens. Lets keep the torch going.
Greg Laden says
Oh, I forgot to mention about pigs: In many contexts, including but not limited to the Pacific Islands, it was probably the standard practice to keep the boars wild and the sows in the pens. Then you let the sows out when you want them to breed, then recapture them. Some stay uncaptured, so there is always going to be some wild population. This way you can avoid having an animal capable of breaking through any fence you can construct and eating your family right on the farm or in the village, and you can go out and hunt/trap them if you want.
We also believe that if keeping pigs simply became a bad idea for a period of time, you would let them all go and later on re-capture some, and start farming them again. there is strong evidence that local pig populations across Europe and Asia were regularly swapped between feral/wild and domestic groupings.
Pigs were probably an important part of the Mediterranean economy from the late Neolithic through the classic period for small villages to raise, and trade them into larger markets. Changes in pig raising practices may be the first evidence we see of the rise of state-level society in the region.
My colleague and the real expert on this stuff is Melanie Fillios, currently working on Megafauna Extinctions in Australia.
Umm, I tend to roll mine. Every time — every time — I hear the word “miracle” I want to slap the person saying it until his ears bleed.
Recently we had a local woman give birth to sextuplets. Not only is this fertility-clinic engendered litter termed a miracle, but the silly bint is now begging for financial help because she and her husband refused to cull the “harvest”, insisting that God wanted them to have all six of those fucking little miracle crotch-droppings, and now they can’t afford to keep them in shitrags.
Zero sympathy. In the face of that kind of stupidity you either roll your eyes or start swinging a morning star.
The objection, then, is with the media, not with those of us who mock the silliness. Might be worth shaking some trees at Reuters and the AP to see if any nuts drop loose. ;)
Or even inappropriately, sometimes.
Anton Mates says
You might want to reread Rappaport–he’s very clear that they do feed their pigs the same food they have, except when the pig numbers are at their lowest. This is kind of redundant after Greg’s post, but from “Pigs for the Ancestors:”
“Small numbers of pigs are easy to keep. To supply one or two animals with substandard sweet potatoes…requires little extra work, for these tubers are taken from the ground in the course of harvesting the daily ration for humans. When the heard becomes large, however, the substandard tubers incidentally obtained in the course of harvesting for human needs become insufficient. It then becomes necessary to harvest especially for pigs–that is, to work for the pigs and perhaps to give them food fit for human consumption.”
A little later,
“The thirteen to fifteen pigs [of the Tomegai clan] received considerably more sweet potato and manioc than did the sixteen humans. Of 9,944 pounds of sweet potatoes brought to the houses…the pigs were given…53.7% of the total. O(f 1,349 pounds of manioc brought home, the pigs received…82.0%…..The pig ration was 40.7% of the total root crops carried home.”
That really isn’t the case. Periodic famines are extremely common in the history of the Pacific islands, with attendant wars, genocides and emigrations. Tikopia, for instance, went through a number of such cycles before developing a (very unusual) cultural commitment to zero population growth and sustainable orchard agriculture. Easter Island is often held up as a mirror image to Tikopia, where the people didn’t find a very workable means of dealing with the frequent resource shortages.
That doesn’t seem to be the conclusion of most archaeologists. From “No Pig Atoll: Island Biogeography and the Extirpation of a Polynesian Domesticate”, by Christina Giovas:
“Nonetheless, archaeological data in combination with the accounts of early European explorers reveal a pattern of pig distribution far more extensive in prehistory than at the time of historic contact (Allen et al. 2001; Bay- Petersen 1983; Bellwood 1987; Dye and Steadman 1990; Kirch 1991, 2000b; Kirch and Yen 1982; Rolett 1998), suggesting that prehistoric Polynesians either allowed swine herds to die out or intentionally exterminated them…..It has been suggested that animal husbandry was simply less feasible on resource-impoverished islands (Anderson 2001, 2002; Bay-Petersen 1983; Kirch 2000b), particularly since husbandry practices involved feeding pigs cultivated crops, setting up an element of resource competition between pigs and their Polynesian keepers.”
(I admit I may be biased on this, since the Patrick Kirch cited above taught my only archaeology class.)
“Of special note is the role of pig husbandry in prehistoric Polynesian food production systems into which pigs were closely integrated (Kirch 1991). A key aspect of the husbandry system’s organization involved pigs’ dependence on humans for their fodder. Available ethnohistoric data indicate that pigs were generally fed a vegetarian diet drawn from cultigens and agricultural products that Polynesian peoples grew to meet their own needs.”
In this paper, Giovas considers the possibility that pig populations were lost through natural disasters and never replenished via trade, but she finds little correlation between pig survival/extirpation and the isolatedness of a given island. On the other hand, she finds significant correlation between pig survival and an island’s ecological productivity, supporting the idea that pigs were done away with when they couldn’t be allowed to compete with humans.
Dogs were also a “luxury” livestock, however (which is probably why Hawaiians kept both dogs and pigs into modern times.) Poi dogs, for instance, were fed on human-prepared taro gruel.
Anton Mates says
I certainly don’t think Indian cows are usually neglected out of cruelty or callousness–veneration of cows is strongest among the poorest farmers, AFAIK, and I’m sure they would treat them better if they could afford to.
Anton Mates says
Harris’ argument, at least, was that urban cows in India are remarkably non-competitive with humans; they fed mostly on grain hulls, straw, small and untillable patches of ordinary grass, and so forth. I don’t have the book in front of me, but if memory serves he cites figures to the effect that only 15-20% of the diet of a typical scavenging cow consists of materials which humans could render edible. There are only a few tillable plots which are kept, by the police stations IIRC, for the use of starving cattle.
Harris fingers that lack of competition as a key factor in Indian veneration of cows; because their bare survival costs the poor farmer so little, and because their bare survival is sufficient to keep them “in reserve” so that they can be fattened up to calve and plough in a good year, they’re vital insurance for the agricultural lower class.
Not that the average Hindu is actually doing a cost-benefit calculation in that way, but Harris thinks that such a calculation can explain the long-term survival of cow love.
Good quotes Anton. I don’t have my Pigs for the Ancestors handy, but I seem to recall that the vast majority of manioc, etc, fed to the pigs were substandard.
I thought that pigs had died out on the Hawaiian Islands following colonization. If you have quotes correcting me, please present.
Regarding caloric intake of the Polynesians: I wasn’t implying that there weren’t periodic famines on pacific islands. But that’s cyclical, with periods of relative bounty in between. On the other hand, my understanding is that most New Guinea tribes are under constant caloric restriction. In other words, there did exist plenty of fat Polynesian islanders, but a fat Papuan is an amazing aberration. The Polynesians could afford expensive projects, such as poi dogs and giant statues during periods of bounty, and then during famines they would get into their boats and head for new lands or death at sea.
On the other hand, New Guinea folk didn’t have excess for non-agricultural waste, other than intermittent warfare (which in some cases acted as a calorie source itself). I’d be surprised to find that over the long term, a large portion of the pig raising (and not just the tail end before a warfare cycle), was really using foods that were fit for human consumption (not by mass but quality). Not all agricultural product collected from gardens is easily cooked or worth converting into human food.
I didn’t mean that the poi dogs were treated like feral dogs, as waste-to-food converters, since they were primarily kept by royalty. That was a separate point that I was unclear about in my posting. But it is a good point that if poi dogs were pig replacements, then their previous treatment of pigs was probably structured the same as poi dog care.
Anton Mates says
Will a Nature Conservancy page do?
The Hawaiians actually exchanged pigs with Captain Cook, which turned out to be a big mistake; the European pigs went feral, were much better at it than the Polynesian pigs, and eventually competed/interbred them out of existence.
True. But, I think–and Harris argues–that it’s the famine end of the pendulum that matters. If you repeatedly enter times so harsh that even feral pigs are unacceptable competition, pigs will disappear, even if you’d do just fine with them next year. The Maring, on the other hand, may not eat like kings, but they don’t seem to skirt starvation that often either. (They also live at higher altitudes than the feral pigs prefer, so during a famine they wouldn’t have to extirpate the entire species.)
Well, here’s one last quote before I succumb to transcriptive exhaustion: Rappaport explains how substantially more ground has to be cultivated just for the pigs, and computes the amount. “It would seem that 1.65 acres were put into cultivation for the provisioning of eleven adult and adolescent animals. It may be mentioned here that the figure of .15 acres in cultivation per pig falls within the range, computed later in this chapter, for acreage under cultivation per person.”
The pigs certainly can’t be subsisting just on substandard tubers, if entire new fields have to be tilled for their benefit! As for the time duration, these figures apply over a period of about eight months prior to the pig sacrifices, during which the human and pig populations are pretty much constant. So that’s almost a doubling of the farming effort, for the better part of a year, just for the pigs.
(Not, by the way, that the greater part of each pig’s diet is human-provided. The pigs mostly scavenge, and the crop component merely helps them fatten up. I imagine that’s another reason why the pigs are treated with so much kindness and affection; they could go feral at any time if they weren’t socially bonded to their owners.)
You’re absolutely right that the Maring diet is not calorie-rich, and so it is very surprising that they’d expend so much energy on the pigs. That’s why it was one of the “riddles of culture” Harris chose to cover. The answer must be that, as Greg said, it’s not all about calories. Among other things, the pigs are massively useful because pork is the primary bargaining chip in Maring military alliances–hence the great pig sacrifice, where you display your opulence and hand out pork by the pound to anyone willing to fight with you. Apparently it’s better to have lots of friends, than to keep few pigs, grow more food for yourself, and grow taller and stronger but fight alone.
Generalized Words of Thanks:
Having visited this site purely by happenstance–a friend sent it to me to get me up to speed on the all-important Nepalese Airlines goat sacrifice story–I was blown away by the quality of discourse. You guys are not just smart, but also funny and *civil* in disagreement. I’m sure you’re aware of just how rare that is. If that’s the work of your moderator, good on ya’, moderator; if this arises through the good character of the posters, well that’s enough for this secular humanist to give praise n’ thanks to the Whatever Which Art High Atop the Thing (and I will personally sacrifice a goat on behalf of anyone who can name the source from whom I stole that last line).
P.S. to Wildcardjack
“Carrion luggage”? Dude, are you married? Because I would procreate with you on the basis of that brilliant pun alone. May your genes reproduce themselves through eternity.
Good recap. I will have to read Harris, and eventually Rappaport in light of that.
(But I still think that goat sacrifices are no big deal! At least compared to the barbecues I’ve been too.)
Greg Laden says
Anton: Cows wandering around in cities in India may well not compete much with humans, and that may be a special case. But if you have a village surrounded by land that could be planted in grains (grasses) or used for pasture (cows) then you have direct competition of these strategies going on.
On pigs in Hawaii: Do you mean colonization by Euros or original colonization? There would be no pigs in hawaii prior to humans being there.
Manioc, by the way, is also introduced recently into the areas we are discussing. Manioc is South American root crop. The USOs brought to the Pacific Islands by the poly/meli/micro -nesians were taro and possibly later, yams.
(I’m not sure if any of that matters to the present discussion)
Greg Laden says
Here’s my thumbnail version of the role of pigs in more or less typical New Guinea society (this is very oversimplified).
The scenario ENDS with this: A bigman defeats his enemy by giving him more than his enemy gave him previously. Since one bigman must return a gift with inteterst, if bigman A gives bigman B 1000 dollars, bigman B must give bigman A 1100 dollars. If he can’t do it, he is defeated, his political and social power diminishes, and, by the way, the number of wives he gets to have diminishes.
So the way you do this is by staging a “moka” … the cermony in which bigman A gives bigman B a gift.
A typical gift may be a few dozen pigs, a few hundred dollars or other currency (that would be australian dollars in some cases) maybe a used truck or car, and so on. But the pigs are the central key gift.
But you can’t yourself raise more than a dozen or two pigs. There is not food or room. But you try. But to raise a couple of dozen pigs requires a couple/few women to do all the work of raising USO crops and feeding them to the pigs. The bigman himself does a lot of work as well, he does not just sit back and watch, but the extra labor of the women is critical, and the only women who will do this for him are his wives. But the number of wives he has depends on his overall qualities … you can imagine the selection dynamics going on here.
But a couple of dozen pigs will not get you a Moka. So you visit your cousin, George, and convince him that he should give you a dozen pigs next year. If he is prepared to let you be bigman, and to form an aliance with you, then he will agree, and he’ll start accumulating wives, roots, pigs, etc. just like you are doing. He may go to his cousin, Harry, and get Harry to promise six pigs. So George combines the forces of sexual selection, abilities to form alliance, etc. to come up with his contribution.
Repeat above paragraph with all of your allies, and they in turn repeat this pattern with all of their allies.
In this manner, the number of pigs (and other stuff) that the bigman gets to accumulate and present to his enemy is a very direct reflection of the number of powerful, well connected, healthy men that he can assemble to carry out either some major socio-political act, or, if necessary, bring to the battle field and kick some other bigman’s ass.
Very simple. Yet very complex.
Anton Mates says
Keith Douglas says
Brandon P.: Large numbers of Hindus aren’t, however.