the semai

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).

aaaaaaaand … they are famous for being peaceful. from “Two Paths to Peace: Semai and Mehinaku Nonviolence” in A Natural History of Peace [pg. 161]:

“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.)

23 Comments

  1. I wonder if the reason for why very low violence peoples are so rare is because they’ve been, as a rule, cleansed by violent ones?

    Incidentally, I don’t recall you writing about this, but NW Europeans weren’t, of course, always as internally peaceful as they are now. Medieval homicide rates in Europe were as high (maybe higher) as anything you’d find in Africa today. What accounts for this change? The gradual and accumulating effects of the marriage laws promulgated by Christianity?

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  2. @anatoly – “I wonder if the reason for why very low violence peoples are so rare is because they’ve been, as a rule, cleansed by violent ones?”

    yeah, that sounds pretty right to me. =/ i just saw in one of these sources in the post how the semai lost territory to the tougher “malaysians.” i’ll have to go back and find the quote.

    @anatoly – “NW Europeans weren’t, of course, always as internally peaceful as they are now. Medieval homicide rates in Europe were as high (maybe higher) as anything you’d find in Africa today.”

    absolutely!

    @anatoly – “What accounts for this change? The gradual and accumulating effects of the marriage laws promulgated by Christianity?”

    that’s my theory (here, too) and i’m sticking to it! (~_^)

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  3. To my mind, there are two kinds of people: the chimp-ish (hierarchical, combative) and the bonobo-ish (innately peaceful, and uninterested in status games). Evo-bio’s a great help to understanding people who tend to be more chimp-like, but it’s of almost no help at all to understanding the bonobos among us. IMHO, of course.

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  4. Very interesting. I think that the ideal exogamy/endogamy system is to have a closed population (no mating with outsiders) but within that population mate as exogamously as possible.

    Your point about pastoralism is good. Cattle are walking capital, the payoff for stealing one is so high that the temptation would be great, and thus constant vigilance and distrust is necessary for pastoralist to survive.

    Marrying in-laws is also smart, as it means that cousins will be double cousins. Let’s say that we are in a stem family and I am the heir. My brother doesn’t have any land but he wants to get married. So I let him marry my wife’s sister and allow him to have one child. My father did the same thing, allowing his brother to have a child with my mother’s sister. So on the family farm I have a double-first cousin. Due to high relatedness (25%) he is more like a half-brother than a cousin. He is less of a threat to me than a regular first cousin. These extra people and their descendants would be limited to having one child, meaning that they never get out of hand. Having them as extra muscle (to defend the homestead) would be good, and if land does become available they can move away. They could take on monk-like professions (lawyer, lobbyist, doctor) and serve the family. Plus they help the line not die out.

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  5. @anatoly – “I wonder if the reason for why very low violence peoples are so rare is because they’ve been, as a rule, cleansed by violent ones?”

    i said: “yeah, that sounds pretty right to me. =/ i just saw in one of these sources in the post how the semai lost territory to the tougher ‘malaysians.’ i’ll have to go back and find the quote.

    here it is — from “Two Paths to Peace: Semai and Mehinaku Nonviolence” in A Natural History of Peace [pg. 161]:

    “Semai oral history recalls a (perhaps mythical) time when they were actively at war with the Malays. The tales recount ambushes and battles, which the Semai invariably won. In more recent times, continuing into the early years of this century, Semai settlements were subject to slave raids by Malays and others. Neither Malay nor colonial histories nor the oral history of the Semai themselves report active resistance to these incursions. The Semai response was always a disorganized and headlong flight into the forest.”

    so, if the “mythical” stories are at all true, then maybe once upon a time the semai were a bunch of tough guys and stood their ground. if that really was the case, has something happened in the meantime to make them a bunch of pacifists/wimps? or have they always really been peaceniks? hard to know without some sort of history. in any case, it certainly sounds like the malays/others have beaten them up in more recent times.

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  6. @paleo retiree – “Evo-bio’s a great help to understanding people who tend to be more chimp-like, but it’s of almost no help at all to understanding the bonobos among us.”

    well, i would think that if evolutionary biology can explain the “why” for one group, it ought to be able to explain the “why” for the other, just like evolution ought to be able to explain why there are chimps and why there are bonobos … and why the chimps are so chimp-ish and why the bonobos are such hippies. (^_^)

    @paleo retiree – “Great posting, btw.”

    thanks! glad you enjoyed it. (^_^)

    Reply

  7. @t – “I think that the ideal exogamy/endogamy system is to have a closed population (no mating with outsiders) but within that population mate as exogamously as possible.”

    yeah, that sounds ideal to me, too. i don’t know how large your population ought to be, though. ca. 34,000 semai sounds kinda small to me, but maybe being a westerner i’m used to thinking in the millions. i also wouldn’t be (am not) opposed to some genetic input from outsiders. a little fresh blood can be a good thing. (~_^)

    @t – “Your point about pastoralism is good. Cattle are walking capital, the payoff for stealing one is so high that the temptation would be great, and thus constant vigilance and distrust is necessary for pastoralist to survive.”

    well, one of the standard anthropological explanations for very close marriage (the fbd marriage of the arabs) is that it’s got something to do with pastoralism — mainly because the area of the world where it originated (the levant/arabia) was full of pastoralists at the time (i think this argument is made here). the explanation runs along the lines of: very close marriage keeps the herds (family wealth) together, so that’s why they do it. i’m not 100% convinced of that, but there does seem to be some sort of connection between pastoralism and very close marriage.

    another explanation — or maybe a better way of putting it is “a noticed connection” — that i came across recently was that highlanders tend to marry more closely than lowlanders. again, this might be related to pastoralism (uplanders tend to be pastoralists whilst lowlanders tend to be agriculturalists) and/or sheer difficulty in finding a mate (it’s harder to travel long distances when you live in mountainous terrain).

    dunno which, if either — or both — are right.

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  8. @t – “My brother doesn’t have any land but he wants to get married. So I let him marry my wife’s sister and allow him to have one child.”

    the trick is enforcing this. (~_^)

    but, yeah, double-first cousins definitely more related to you than regular first cousins — like half-siblings.

    (i don’t think there are any double-first cousins in my clan — what an oversight!)

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  9. You could just as easily say these people are like the Japanese or something, as opposed to NW Europeans.

    Your characterization of NW Euros as being non-violent and averse to conflict or dispute or confrontation doesn’t seem accurate. High levels of violence, including individual violence over honor such as in dueling, persisted long after the Middle Ages, into the 20th century in highly civilized environments. And when NW Euros found themselves in less civilized environments, such as the American frontier (which only closed 100 years ago), where there was less state power to repress them and greater freedom for their genes to express themselves, rates of violence skyrocketed.

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  10. @john – “You could just as easily say these people are like the Japanese or something, as opposed to NW Europeans.”

    sure, i’d be happy to say that.

    @john – “High levels of violence, including individual violence over honor such as in dueling, persisted long after the Middle Ages, into the 20th century in highly civilized environments.”

    yes, perhaps, but duelling is quite different, i think, from clan/tribal battles (i was just thinking about doing a post on this, so you must be reading my mind!). both are typically about “honor” — but the duel, esp. the european duel of the modern era, normally relates to an individual’s honor (or maybe you insulted his sister), whereas the clan wars (the hatfields and mccoys, for instance) normally relate to the entire family’s honor. so, too, the honor killings today in the arab/muslim world. there’s a different flavor of violence here, i think.

    @john – “And when NW Euros found themselves in less civilized environments, such as the American frontier (which only closed 100 years ago), where there was less state power to repress them and greater freedom for their genes to express themselves, rates of violence skyrocketed.”

    absolutely. conditions matter, i won’t deny that. violence everywhere decreases in good times and escalates in bad. and the state is a big help. but i’d also be interested to know who engaged the most in that frontier violence. people (men) of all sorts of backgrounds equally? or were some groups (e.g. the descendants of the border reivers for instance) more represented than others? i don’t know, but i’d like to.

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  11. The mystery is intergroup conflict. Malaysia isn’t all that densely populated by East Asian standards, so maybe it has avoided the kind of Malthusian conditions that encourage fight over flight? Or have governments suppressed inter-group conflicts in the back country long enough for a culture of nonviolence to merge?

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  12. > I wonder if the reason for why very low violence peoples are so rare is because they’ve been, as a rule, cleansed by violent ones?

    I seem to recall that being the story regarding the people the Maori replaced.

    > violence over honor

    In contrast to the Japanese absence of violence over honor? NW Europe and Japan are pretty mild in violence though I don’t disagree Japan is more extreme.

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  13. I was expecting the Semai to be living on an island, but Wikipedia says they’re on a very narrow peninsula, so I wasn’t too far off. I’ve had a guess for a while that islands tend to be better-governed — Iceland gets cited for having good governance all the time, Seychelles and Mauritius are the two best-off countries in Africa, and then there’s Singapore and Hong Kong. Also, I read something a while back saying that island-dwellers tend to be less violent (see also: Moriori), so I wonder if there’s something there. (It wouldn’t necessarily have to be islands, even: Chile! And I wonder how Ireland is doing; I’ve heard conflicting accounts.)

    Of course, not all islands / places where most of the land is close to the sea are well off. Madagascar sucks, as does Portugal.

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  14. @nydwracu,

    I think it’s because islands tend to have very low carrying capacities. Wreck that and you can’t just “move on” (well, you can, but then you leave, and you no longer have a society to analyze anyway…). So many of them have evolved social structures that limit male competition.

    I remember reading about gift economies on some Pacific Islands in Polanyi’s The Great Transformation. And Jared Diamond has some material on the social structures that develop on islands to limit resource usage / competition in Collapse.

    Reply

  15. @steve – “The mystery is intergroup conflict.”

    maybe. i don’t find it that mysterious, though. some group of strangers comes along and they want to take some of your coconuts or cattle or whatever, what are you going to do? fight with them, of course! happens every day amongst other primates.

    @steve – “Malaysia isn’t all that densely populated by East Asian standards, so maybe it has avoided the kind of Malthusian conditions that encourage fight over flight?”

    maybe. certainly something like population density+amount of available resources must affect intergroup conflict levels, but then some areas of brazil, like where the yanomami live, are as lightly populated as the area of malaysia in which the samai live (at least today), and yet the yanomami are notorious for their violent streak — so what happened there? (the yanomami marry very closely, btw — bilateral cross-cousins, so your wife is both your paternal AND maternal first cousin. don’t ask me how that happens!)

    @steve – “Or have governments suppressed inter-group conflicts in the back country long enough for a culture of nonviolence to merge?”

    and not in brazil, maybe? dunno. could be. such governments would have to have devoted themselves to that, though. certainly the ottomans didn’t manage — but they prolly weren’t trying.

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  16. @RS-prime – “I seem to recall that being the story regarding the people the Maori replaced.”

    who were they? i never heard that the maori didn’t get to new zealand first. -?-

    edit: never mind! i guess you’re prolly also talking about the moriori.

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  17. @nydwracu – “see also: Moriori”

    oh, thanks! i’ll have to check them out.

    @nydwracu – “And I wonder how Ireland is doing; I’ve heard conflicting accounts.”

    well, they were still clan fighting in the 1800s as they were back in the medieval period (when they were also still inbreeding pretty closely) — and today the country is one of the piigs — so, i dunno. not doing all that well i’d say.

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  18. @anatoly – “I think it’s because islands tend to have very low carrying capacities. Wreck that and you can’t just ‘move on’ (well, you can, but then you leave, and you no longer have a society to analyze anyway…). So many of them have evolved social structures that limit male competition.”

    how would the selection for non-wrecking islanders happen?

    i mean, ok: you have a bunch of people living on an island and they wreck the place … so some of them move on to somewhere else … but wouldn’t they just be wreckers, too?

    when/how would the non-wreckers arise?

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  19. Apart from the lack of violence this sounds a lot like Tacitus to me

    http://lucy.ukc.ac.uk/sonja/rf/ukpr/Report62.htm

    “The territory of each tribe is defined but has no precise boundaries.”

    “Land never belongs to an individual person or to a family group, and it is not considered a scarce commodity. However, each group has its own hereditary territory (teiq sakaq) on which to prepare its plots.”

    “For the Temiar, land cannot be owned, and only the produce from the soil and the constructions on the land are considered property. Thus an individual’s rights over a plot cease when the exploitation of the plot does.”

    “Clearing work and its produce is shared at village or group level”

    “The forest on the slopes of the valley is where the hunting and gathering is carried out. In the west, villages move every 2 to 4 years”

    “Ladang swidden agriculture predominates”

    (swidden is a politer sounding euphemism for slash and burn)

    “A 12 year fallow allows for proper forest regeneration, and is crucial to regenerate the soil”

    “Hunting, fishing and gathering are important activities for all and are necessary to supplement agricultural production.”

    #

    I’m gonna guess (i’m an amateur so i’m allowed) that the Germanic/northern forest marriage form that created kindreds rather than clans was the same as the Semai* for the same reason – village level inheritance as a result of privately owned land not making any sense with slash and burn agriculture.

    (* and other groups like some Polynesian islanders where food-getting involved a collective resource.)

    #

    Why the noticeable difference in levels of violence?

    1) rain-forest -> lower population density?

    2) semai are swidden + hunting + gathering whereas germans were swidden + hunting + gathering + herds? herds -> raiding because fields and apple trees can’t walk.

    3) semai were once like the yanomani but lost a long campaign of ethnic cleansing along the coasts. warrior genes aren’t universally spread so if a warrior society loses very badly over a concentrated time period then almost all their warriors could get killed faster than they could reproduce?

    3b) i have a similar theory to how some isolated tribes could become peaceful after a particularly extreme civil war. if you had a population where 80% of the men were die-hard types and a civil war started over *dramatically* shrinking resources then i think they could all kill each other in one go.

    3c) 3b happening in the interior after 3a happened on the coasts and squashed all the surviving tribes together in the interior on not enough land.

    #

    I’m gonna guess at either or both

    1) low population density + fluid villages + kindred marriage form + semi-island effect from the peninsular leadign to the semai (in the past) being more related to each other across the peninsular than the yanomani are.

    or

    2) all the warrior genes being wiped out as a result of a very concentrated, very high casualty war leading to a “never again” culture which selects against aggression.

    Reply

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