Play, Music, and Taboo in the Reproduction of an Egalitarian Society

  • Jerome LewisEmail author
Part of the Replacement of Neanderthals by Modern Humans Series book series (RNMH)


An examination of musical participation and taboo among the egalitarian Mbendjele BaYaka illustrates how cultural learning can be organized without recourse to figures of authority. The chapter describes two complementary pedagogic processes that accompany BaYaka as they move through life. One acts on groups of people playing together (massana), the other on individuals as they are differently affected by taboos (ekila). Both serve to lead growing BaYaka into opportunities for learning more abstract cultural knowledge at salient points in the life cycle.

In successfully performing the dense polyphony of BaYaka music (massana), people experience what BaYaka consider to be desirable emotions, ideal relationships, and interaction. They participate in an enhanced learning environment that promotes peer-to-peer imitation rather than direct instruction with its concomitant implication of authority and status. Key economic strategies and political orientations are experienced during massana in ways that stimulate their application to non-massana contexts. The ethnography of ekila demonstrates how counterintuitive explanations of striking hunting and reproductive prohibitions stimulate a learner-motivated pedagogic process that does not depend on defining any individual as a focus for learning important knowledge. These taboos anchor key areas of cosmological knowledge, gender, and political ideology in the physical and biological experiences of human growth and maturation making gendered practices and cultural values take on a natural, inevitable quality.

Together, massana and ekila provide major avenues for BaYaka children to learn and to reproduce a distinctive and remarkably durable cultural system. The chapter finishes by suggesting some structural features of these culturally embedded pedagogic systems that contribute to their efficacy, durability and ability to adapt to, and incorporate change.


Play Cooperation Imitation Music Prohibition Cultural transmission Pygmy Hunter-gatherers Polyphony Song Dance Ritual Initiation Myth Egalitarianism 


  1. Atran S (1993) Whither ethnoscience? In: Boyer P (ed) Cognitive aspects of religious symbolism. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 46–70Google Scholar
  2. Blacking J (1973/2000) How musical is man? University of Washington Press, Seattle and LondonGoogle Scholar
  3. Bloch M (1998) How we think they think. Westview Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  4. Bourdieu P (1977) Outline of a theory of practice. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Brunton R (1989) The cultural instability of egalitarian societies. Man New Ser 24(4):637–681Google Scholar
  6. Finnegan M (2013) The politics of eros: ritual dialogue and egalitarianism in three central African hunter-gatherer societies. J R Anthropol Inst 19:617–715CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Fogarty L, Strimling P, Laland KN (2011) The evolution of teaching. Evolution 65(10):2760–2770. doi: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2011.01370.xCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Fürniss S, Joiris D (2011) A dynamic culture: ritual and musical creation in the Baka context. Before Farm 2011(4):1–12CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Hewlett BS, Lamb ME, Leyendecker B, Scholmerick A (2000) Internal working models, trust, and sharing among foragers. Curr Anthropol 41:287–297CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Hewlett BS, Fouts HN, Boyette AH, Hewlett BL (2011) Social learning among Congo Basin hunter−gatherers. Phil Trans R Soc B Biol Sci 366(1567):1168–1178. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2010.0373CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Ichikawa M (1987) Food restrictions of the Mbuti Pygmies, eastern Zaire. Afr Stud Monogr Suppl Iss 6:97–121Google Scholar
  12. Kisliuk M (2001) Seize the dance. BaAka musical life and the ethnography of performance. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  13. Lave J, Wenger E (1991) Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation. University of Cambridge Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Köhler A, Lewis J (2002) Putting hunter-gatherer and farmer relations in perspective: a commentary from Central Africa. In: Kent S (ed) Ethnicity, hunter-gatherers, and the ‘other’: association or assimilation in southern Africa? Smithsonian Institute, Washington, DC, pp 276–305Google Scholar
  15. Lewis J (2002) Forest hunter-gatherers and their world: a study of the BaYaka Yaka Pygmies and their secular and religious activities and representations. Phd thesis. University of LondonGoogle Scholar
  16. Lewis J (2008) Ekila: blood, bodies and egalitarian societies. J R Anthropol Inst 14:297–315CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Lewis J (2009) As well as words: Congo Pygmy hunting, mimicry and play. In: Botha P, Knight C (eds) The cradle of language, vol 2, African perspectives. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  18. Lewis J (2012) Response to Richard Widdess, music, meaning and culture. Empir Musicol Rev 7(1–2):98–101CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Lewis J (2013) A cross-cultural perspective on the significance of music and dance on culture and society: insight from BaYaka Pygmies. In: Arbib M (ed) Language, music and the brain: a mysterious relationship, vol 10, Strüngmann Forum Reports. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, pp 45–65Google Scholar
  20. Lewis J (2014) BaYaka Pygmy multi-modal and mimetic communication traditions. In: Dor D, Knight C, Lewis J (eds) The social origins and evolution of language: studies in the evolution of language. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  21. Lomax A (1962) Song structure and social structure. Ethnology 1(4):425–451CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Radcliffe-Brown AR (1933) The Andaman islanders: a study in social anthropology. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  23. Rangaswamy N, Cutrell E (2013) Anthropology, development and ICTs: slums, youth and the mobile internet in urban India. In: Proceedings of the fifth international conference on information and communication technologies and development. ACM, pp 85–93Google Scholar
  24. Robertson AF (1996) The development of meaning: ontogeny and culture. J R Anthropol Inst 2:591–610CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Shore B (1996) Culture in mind: cognition, culture and the problem of meaning. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  26. Tsuru D (1998) Diversity of spirit ritual performances among the Baka Pygmies in south-eastern Cameroon. Afr Stud Monogr Suppl Iss 25:47–84Google Scholar
  27. Turnbull C (1966) Wayward servants: the two worlds of the African Pygmies. Eyre and Spottiswoode, LondonGoogle Scholar
  28. Widess R (2012) Meaning in music. Empir Musicol Rev 7(1–2):88–94Google Scholar
  29. Woodburn J (1982) Egalitarian societies. Man 17:431–451CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Japan 2016

Open Access This chapter is licensed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 International License (, which permits any noncommercial use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license and indicate if changes were made.

The images or other third party material in this chapter are included in the chapter's Creative Commons license, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the chapter's Creative Commons license and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder.

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity College LondonLondonUK

Personalised recommendations