Friday, September 30, 2016

Hunting the wild myth, cultural phylogeny

Julien d'Huy, Scientists Trace Society’s Myths to Primordial Origins, Scientific American, 29 September 2016; here's the opening:
The Greek version of a familiar myth starts with Artemis, goddess of the hunt and fierce protectress of innocent young women. Artemis demands that Callisto, “the most beautiful,” and her other handmaidens take a vow of chastity. Zeus tricks Callisto into giving up her virginity, and she gives birth to a son, Arcas. Zeus’ jealous wife, Hera, turns Callisto into a bear and banishes her to the mountains. Meanwhile Arcas grows up to become a hunter and one day happens on a bear that greets him with outstretched arms. Not recognizing his mother, he takes aim with his spear, but Zeus comes to the rescue. He transforms Callisto into the constellation Ursa Major, or “great bear,” and places Arcas nearby as Ursa Minor, the “little bear.”

As the Iroquois of the northeastern U.S. tell it, three hunters pursue a bear; the blood of the wounded animal colors the leaves of the autumnal forest. The bear then climbs a mountain and leaps into the sky. The hunters and the animal become the constellation Ursa Major. Among the Chukchi, a Siberian people, the constellation Orion is a hunter who pursues a reindeer, Cassiopeia. Among the Finno-Ugric tribes of Siberia, the pursued animal is an elk and takes the form of Ursa Major.

Although the animals and the constellations may differ, the basic structure of the story does not. These sagas all belong to a family of myths known as the Cosmic Hunt that spread far and wide in Africa, Europe, Asia and the Americas among people who lived more than 15,000 years ago. Every version of the Cosmic Hunt shares a core story line—a man or an animal pursues or kills one or more animals, and the creatures are changed into constellations.

Folklorists, anthropologists, ethnologists and linguists have long puzzled over why complex mythical stories that surface in cultures widely separated in space and time are strikingly similar. In recent years a promising scientific approach to comparative mythology has emerged in which researchers apply conceptual tools that biologists use to decipher the evolution of living species. In the hands of those who analyze myths, the method, known as phylogenetic analysis, consists of connecting successive versions of a mythical story and constructing a family tree that traces the evolution of the myth over time.
Stories track human migration:
My research suggests the evolution of the Pygmalion myth followed a human migration from northeastern to southern Africa that previous genetic studies indicate took place around 2,000 years ago. In folktales told by various tribes along that route, a man carves an image of a woman and falls in love with it; the doll comes to life and marries the master. According to the Venda of South Africa, a man sculpts a woman out of wood. After she is animated, the head of the tribe tries to kidnap her. The sculptor resists and throws the woman to the ground, whereupon she turns back into wood.

A phylogenetic tree I constructed using the Greek version of Pygmalion and a version from the Bara people of Madagascar as starting points yielded intriguing results. The Greek and Bara myths mirror each other structurally, even though they represent the greatest geographic separation of any of the stories included in the computer model. In addition, the Bara settled on an island that did not allow for great population expansion and mythological diversification, and the Greeks remained isolated for much of their history from exposure to African folktales. Nevertheless, both the Bara and Greek versions of the myth bear remarkable similarities to an earlier version of the story from the Berber tribes of the Sahara.

Statistical and empirical analysis suggests that the accounts of the Greeks and Baras probably preserve a version of the Pygmalion saga that originated with the Berbers between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago and appears to encapsulate a very ancient version of the myth: A man makes a statue from a tree trunk to lessen his solitude; he or another man clothes it; the statue comes to life, thanks to a god, and turns into a beautiful young lady; she becomes the wife of her creator, even though another person also desires to marry her. Of course, the real protomyth was probably as rich in complexity as the versions on which the re­­construction is based.
Out of Africa:
My current research lends credibility to the out-of-Africa theory of human origins, asserting that anatomically modern hu­mans originated in Africa and spread from there to the rest of the world. It complements phylogenetic studies by biologists that indicate the first major wave of human migration radiating from Africa followed the southern coastline of Asia, peopled Australia some 50,000 years ago and reached America from an east Asian source. Both the biological and myth­ological research point to a second migration reaching North America at more or less the same time from a north Eurasian source.

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