some of you have requested/hoped/prayed that, for a change already(!), i would post about some nice group of people who don’t engage in clannish fighting or tribal battles, and who aren’t so retarded when it comes to civicness or familism or corruption (other than my “core” northwest europeans, that is (~_^) ).
well, here they are! the semai of malaysia:
the semai are one sub-group of the senoi peoples who are some of the indigenous groups of malaysia (i.e. they were there before “the malaysians” got there). they’re not related to the indigeneous negritos of malaysia, but rather are another indigenous group that live in the center of the peninsula — they prolly arrived sometime after the negritos. the semai are swidden agriculturalists who also practice a bit of hunting and gathering (at least that’s what they did traditionally).
“Violence within and between Semai communities is nearly nonexistent. Husbands do not beat their wives nor parents their children. Neighbors do not fight with one another, nor do communities contest violently. There are no reliable reports of Semai engaging in intergroup or intragroup warfare or raiding. Over the past three or four decades [this was published in 1996 - h.chick], there are fewer than a half-dozen reliable reports of homicides in the entire population, and nearly all of these, in one way or another, involved outsiders (see Dentan 1988)….”
the semai pretty much don’t appear at all on steven pinker’s “deaths during warfare” scale either (from The Better Angels of Our Nature – click on chart for LARGER view):
the semai simply hate conflict. they hate, hate, hate it and do everything to avoid it. from Societies at Peace: Anthropological Perspectives [pgs. 36-7]:
“[In completing a] sentence-completion test … [t]o the item ‘More than anything else he/she is afraid of’, the model response, more frequent than ‘tigers’, ‘spirits’, or ‘death’ combined (all of which were cited), was ‘becoming embroiled in a dispute’….”
so what else characterizes the semai? their individualism and independent mindedness. from Rethinking Social Evolution: The Perspective from Middle-Range Societies [pg. 95]:
“The Senoi value social and emotional isolation as well as personal autonomy. ‘From an early age, the autonomy of the will of the individual is culturally affirmed. No child can be forced to do anything he or she does not wish to do’ (Robarchek 1989, 37). ‘One of the consequences of this reluctance to surrender autonomy is an exteme difficulty in organizing any collective action unless everyone can be convinced that it is in his or her best interest’ (40). At the same time, the desire for autonomy is tempered by the recognition of interdependence between people. This is exemplified by the concept of *pehunan*, the state of vulnerability to dangers that results from frustrating an individual’s wishes. While this concept is central to Senoi attitudes of dependency, it also gives a privileged position to individual’s wishes (38-9). According to Robarchek, ‘The injunctions to share food and to avoid violence are the most important moral imperatives in [Senoi] Semai society’ (34)….”
that’s not to say that the group is ignored or neglected. quite the contrary. the group is important to the semai, but it’s the whole group, not just extended family or clan members [pg. 37]:
“The Semai ethic of sharing mandates that aid be given when it is needed (with the exception, to be sure, that it will be reciprocated by someone at some later date when the giver is in need), but any accounting or direct reciprocation is unacceptable. This was made very clear to me early in my fieldwork when I offended a neighbour by trying to make explicit return of food that had been given to my wife and me. Accepting help thus does not entail an accumulation of debt nor does it imply subordination, and is not a route to subjugation. Nor is sharing or giving help a route to dominance; it is merely what is expected, part of the minimal definition of what it is to be a member of a Semai community….“
of course, a lot of the individuals in a semai village are relatives, but many are often not — or are distant relatives — due to the semai fission-fusion settlement traditions [pg. 330]:
“[L]ocal groups of Semai periodically fission, the splinter group forming a new village or fusing with an already established village.”
the big question, then, is: what are the mating patterns of the semai?! *drumroll please!* … from Migration and Colonization in Human Microevolution [pgs. 98-99]:
“Semai settlements are generally small, ranging from 25 to more than 270 persons. Semai have no formal rule regarding settlement endogamy or exogamy. There is, however, a general mistrust and fear of ‘strangers’ (Dentan 1968) and most Semai would prefer to marry someone they know or know about. This preference translates into a tendency to marry endogamously when possible and often into a family already connected by marriage (Benjamin, 1986 notes this preference for marrying affines among other Senoi of Peninsular Malaysia).
“A stronger rule is that prohibiting marriage between close kin. Semai say this proscription includes *all* relatives but it seems to apply usually to kin within the range of second cousins (in a group of 129 marriages for which genealogical information was sufficient to gauge, no first cousin and only nine second cousin marriages [7%] occurred; Fix 1982a). Since relatives are often localized in the settlement of residence, and the smaller the population, the greater the likelihood of a potential spouse being kin, this rule may have a strong affect on endogamy…. Among the Semai, the strong sense that consanguineal kin should avoid marrying combined with an ideology of kin solidarity leads to an apparent conflict. Coresidents often express their unity by stating, ‘we are all kin here’, by inference, all the members of the local group will cooperate and help each other as would kin. Syllogistically, if *all* members are truly kin, then *no* member can marry any other and the group must be exogamous. When presented to them in this way, some Semai agreed that local groups were exogamous. Actual data on marriages (Table 2.2), however, showed some 45 percent of spouses were both born in the same settlement and a greater number were coresident at the time of marriage. The endogamy rate in any settlement, then, depends on the presence of non-kin in local groups. The fission-fusion structure of Semai settlement histories usually ensures that some more distantly related persons will be available within a settlement….
“To summarize, a Semai preference to marry endogamously is constrained by the proscription on marrying near kin….”
OUTBREEDERS! relatively speaking.
they’re not a large population (ca. 34,000), but they do have a tradition of generally avoiding marrying anyone closer than a second cousin, although that does happen sometimes. and if/when they do marry relatives — distant relatives for the most part — they are maternal relatives [pg. 189]:
“In contrast to the Semang, Semai prefer affinal kin [in-laws, i.e. maternal relatives] as marital partners, a practice that increases the density of the kin network locally.”
and the kicker, from “Two Paths to Peace: Semai and Mehinaku Nonviolence” [pg. 183]:
“Even in a very large and heavily acculturated settlement where consumption of inexpensive Malay palm ‘toddy’ had increased to the point where many Semai men were intoxicated nearly every night, there was little increase in the expression of emotion and virtually no expression of hostility.”
that, to me, sounds like the semai just don’t have (many) “genes for violent behavior” (whatever they might be). even when their inhibitions are drowned in palm toddy, the semai don’t become violent. sounds like it’s just not in their nature.
it should be noted that the semai live in upland, mountainous areas of the malaysian peninsula, and so seem to be a possible exception to the (possible) inbreeding mountain folks “rule.” perhaps the fact that they’re not pastoralists is a clue(?).
btw – here is the classic book on the semai – i haven’t had a chance to read it yet: The Semai: A Nonviolent People of Malaya.
update 11/12: see also random notes: 11/09/12
(note: comments do not require an email. semai lady.)