Ecology, Kinship, and Social Structure -- From Papa New Guinea to the Mountains of the Alps
Of course, an anthropologist can never entirely separate the delicate relationship that exists between ecology, kinship, and social structure within any given society or community. Family, food, and environment are the key building blocks that produce a culture. The language of food's abundance can create an entire symbolic system of need, dependence, and social uncertainty, when deployed within a particular, uncertain system and environment of kinship and social structure, as noted in Miriam Kahn's text regarding Wamiran attitudes towards sustenance in Papua New Guinea. The mere mile separating two Alpine villages, thousands of leagues away from New Guinea, can also prove equally formative as the relationship of kinship and food to the individuals chronicled by John W. Cole and Eric R. Wolf in their classic anthropological text The Hidden Frontier. In these two villages, language proves more important than terrain in creating alternative cultures.
Yet although an anthropologist can stress and make a persuasive case for a clear relationship between environment, sustenance, family relations, social structure and food and culture, after the fact of the anthropological analysis, the comparison of these two studies also reveals that it is difficult if not impossible for an anthropologist to predict how different social and ecological factors will become interrelated and 'play themselves out' in the text of real life. The anthropologist can catalogue the dialogue of society and environment, but never predict the outcome.
For instance, the anthropologist Miriam Kahn's experience and analysis of the native residents known as the "Wamira," highlight how the notions of the social status conveyed by food impact the social as well as the agricultural relationships of the people of Papua New Guinea. The attitudes of the Wamira towards food define their entire social society. Kahn states throughout her book that the Wamira are obsessed with food as markers of social status, in a way that transcends physical notions of what even Americans construe as hunger. What most modern societies construe as hunger, as a physical or at least an emotional state of being in fact, for the Wamira is entirely conflated with social status and kinship structure, to the point that hunger transcends the individual body of the consumer.
The fear and the threat of the specter of famine is constant in the minds of Wamirans, even when they are full, because through the accumulation of livestock, grains, and a diversity of goods in the garden, emotions and sexual relations can be dealt with in a concrete, distanced fashion. The exchanges of such goods enable rivalries and friendly alliances to be forged. But what is so striking is that even when there is not a true absence of food in the concrete sense, relations between others in the community are spoken of entirely in the language of the belly, rather than of the heart or the mind.
Kahn deploys what she calls a symbolic ecological orientation, in other words, rather than taking a previous or present lack of food as a given merely because the Wamirans say there is no food, she attempt to understand why these people use food in such symbolic terms. She stresses that one cannot interpret food only in a literal fashion in this society. Instead, she examines how food functions symbolically -- how who owns how many pigs, how much taro grows in a particular garden, and who contributes what food at a feast, function symbolically as a way for the Wamirans to deal with emotionally delicate issues between one another that cannot be spoke of overtly.
The fact that food preoccupies the social structure and the kin relations does not have to do with an ecological absence, oddly enough. Rather, Kahn points out that Wamirans themselves account for their preoccupation with comestibles by saying that they suffer from perpetual famine not of actual sustenance, but that their world was founded and rests upon mythic structure that will always present food in a challenging fashion. They say that Tamodukorokoro, a monster who would have brought them abundant food. But, in typical Wamiran style of fearing what they most desire, they chased Tamodukorokoro away.
This myth thus also stresses how relations between men and women are a continual dance of thwarted desire for what one most wants. This mythic interpretation shows how the people of New Guinea render emotional and gendered relationships of desire, both of sex and food, in a concrete fashion, rather than discuss them in uncomfortably abstract of literal terms. Food is a symbolic way of interpreting and expressing desire, sexuality, relationships between men and women in sexual and nonsexual ways, and also a way to establish connections between different kinship groups -- and a way to communicate rivalries between such kinship groups, rather than through out-and-out war. Who has the most food essentially 'wins' in this society.
Kahn also echoes the anthropologist Mary Douglas by stressing the Wamira's need to control the ambivalent desires is at the heart of their food taboos. "Sorry my friend, no food," does not merely mean an absence of food, but also an absence of friendly connection, even when the word of friendship is articulated. The Wamiran notion of "famine" must also be reconsidered in light of our understanding real hunger, and understood within its societal context to be a famine or an absence of getting what one most wants. The promise of Tamodukorokoro is the promise of the monster within, or the promise of completely fulfilling one's own desires, but in a dangerous fashion. Even the excessive attention given to pigs, pork, and feasting in New Guinea shows the importance of ambivalent animals, such as the pig, which is a hairless and domesticated animal, an omnivore like a human being, but tasty to the palate of a human tongue.
Kahn's analysis is particularly interesting because it might be tempting to an outside, casual observer of the community to assume that a preoccupation with eating is merely the result of a previous famine, rather than something with profound sociological and historical roots. In The Hidden Frontier, John Cole and Eric Wolf provide a similar analysis of terrain and language, and how it impacts upon two Alpine communities located in Italy.
The study of Cole and Wolf examines how ethnicity and identity can transcend nation building. Two Alpine villages, one a German-speaking community called St. Felix and another a Romance-speaking Tret have entirely different cultures, say the authors, despite their extreme proximity. A purely ecological or environmental examination of these villages and their natural and human resources might yield the assumption that the two communities would be substantially similar in their modern development. But although the two communities have been faced with similar physical obstacles regarding yes, food, and also general agricultural productivity of farming and livestock, they are extremely different -- one quite Germanic, the other quite Italian in nature. Even the population pressures of a shrinking young population and fears for the future have been very similar for both villages. Both communities were relatively recently transferred to Italy as provinces at the end of the Second World War, yet view their nation-state in entirely different ways.
Despite this intense similarity of ecological, environmental, social, and even health pressures, both towns have family structure, work organization, and political practices. Thus, both have differed in ways that might cause an anthropologist to predict that they come from completely different areas of Europe, if unaware of their geographic location. The anthropological study of The Hidden Frontier was originally undertaken during the 1960's, when intense separations between a highly divided Europe were still quite manifest in the wake of war -- as well as the difference between Teutonic and Romantic cultures.
The Romantic-speaking village exhibited traditionally 'Italian' frames of cultural reference,…