EA900-0031 Claydoll

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In the beginning of October our last blog post presented a pair of fluorescent green foam shoes from Tanzania. Through a conversation with curator Thea Skaanes*, the reader was invited to ponder the importance of shoes in both every day and ritual life. Today, we continue that conversation, as the foam shoes opened up for a discussion about how anthropology had previously (mis)understood the Hadza. However, it was not the shoes by themselves who sparked this discussion, but instead the story of how the above clay doll became part of the collections.

Anthropologist James Woodburn was one of the first to describe the Hadza people. Besides describing the Hadza as ‘semi-nomadic, immediate return – hunter gatherers’, he also classified their society as one of the most egalitarian in the world. However, the Hadza have also, some would argue, been unfairly cast as being a group of people closest to mankind’s primordial starting point – they have been described as being without a complex cosmology or imagination, and without strong bonds of kinship or friendship among members of the group. In James Woodburn’s conclusion to his 1982 article Egalitarian Societies** he states that the Hadza feel no obligations towards one another and will leave their elders or sick behind.

Curator at Moesgaard Museum, Thea Skaanes, however, argues that the clay doll above challenges this view of the Hadza, simply by its own existence. She has been working with the Hadza since beginning her PhD in anthropology in 2011 and has lived together with the group for a year. She has together with the Hadza created a collection for Moesgaard Museum, that includes objects of both everyday and ritual life, of which the clay doll belongs to both.

The Hadza live in the central part of Northern Tanzania. They are completely surrounded by game reserves and the Serengeti is just north of their territory, as with other savannas. The area has since the 1960s been thought of as being unfit for human settlement because of the seasonal extremes (flooding in rain season and draught in dry season) and because of dangerous animals – the big cats, but also Tsetse flies especially. There is estimated to be around 1200 Hadza in total, but only a small group of these, around 300 people, still live as hunter-gatherers. Their lives are characterized by a great degree of pragmatism, as they have to be ready to leave in an instant in case of an emergency or if better opportunities arise elsewhere.

The clay doll, also known as olanakwiko (femine) or olanakwete (masculine),  above is made from unburned clay and decorated with glass beads, inserted on its face and chest. It resembles a newborn child both in appearance and size – it weighs about 4 kilograms and 30 cm tall. It has two separate necklaces tied around its neck and small marks on its arms from where it was repaired after being unlucky during the journey from Tanzania to Denmark. It is this journey, which Thea Skaanes underwent twice, that our conversation on the Hadza culminated in, and which you are now invited to partake in.

For how long have you been working with the Hadza? I seem to remember from being part of a grant committee, to have seen an application from you regarding a clay doll, is that correct?

’I first visited them in 2011, when I began my PhD. But I have spent just about a year together with them in total.’

‘And it was a total drama with the doll! The doll was animated – it had a soul. The Hadza decided that I should be given different objects and stories to keep for them for the future. The idea of the museum made so much sense to them! It was a huge investment for them – they thought ‘great, we’ll use you!’. So they chose me to take care of these things, and also of the secret things. Which is a challenge, as I have to keep it safe for future generations, but they also have to remain secret. So the museum and I are keeping the objects for them to know about them, but also the things only few of them are allowed to know…’

Sounds easy…

‘They have given me all these things and then this clay doll, which was animated because it had been named. And I actually wrote about this in my PhD dissertation – what’s in a name. I looked into three objects and they all turned out to be names – they had to be understood as being names.’

‘Names are this technology, through which a soul or spirit is transferred from one body to another. So my dissertation went from having this very material focus to quickly shifting to the immaterial and the cosmology of the Hadza. And this doll was just as much a person as I was, since I was also given a name.’

‘So there was a complete overlap between me as a person and this doll as a person. And therefore, I was told that when it died, it had to be buried just like a human. And so, I was repeating what they had told me about the burial rites, and there was this thing about having its head point towards a specific mountain, where the deity resides, right? And so when I was repeating it, I said I would point the head south and they screamed ‘ARE YOU SAYING YOU WANT TO POINT THE HEAD SOUTH!? Are you completely mad!? The Sun rises here and sets here and HERE is the mountain – YOU HAVE TO POINT IT IN THAT DIRECTION!’ – I wanted to make the point that when I was to bury it in Denmark it would have to be pointed south, but I just thought ‘Oh no…’. But I had to promise that when it died, I would bury it. And then it died.’

How does a clay doll die?

 ‘It basically dried up and then shot off its head – it was obvious that it was dead. It hadn’t just lost an arm.’

What!? How!?

 ‘It dried up and well, we hadn’t been able to find the best clay for it. There is this clay, which is also animated, and comes from a termite nest. We had to go to the swamp and make it out of swamp clay, which You can also do. But it is a bit trickier and the doll was very heavy as it was completely made out of clay.’

And it had made it back to Aarhus at this time?

 ‘Yes it had come all the way here. And it was a huge concern to have this dead doll lying – here in the office. And for a really long time. But then of course, I got the funds to return to the Hadza and get it properly buried. And when I returned and showed her – she was a girl – to this really amazing woman from the group, she just shrugged and told me to follow her. And so we hurried to find a termite nest and then she made a new one. When we returned to camp, I couldn’t find the old one! I was stressed! I had one job – to bury the doll! And then I saw its head lying next to some trash and I just thought ‘NOOO!’ – but then it turned out that the new doll we had just made – it had just been given the same name.’

The same name?

 ‘The same name! I waited to tell them not to give the new doll a name, because I was worried we would be in the same situation later, but it turned out that it was already given the same name and that in this process, the spirit from the old doll had moved to the new doll. Which turned the old doll into – essentially a pile of dirt – it was no more. It makes you wonder about the status of people who are not part of this named community. Well, but it didn’t have to be buried and all that. It was just residue, scrap, or remains, but if we hadn’t made a new one, then we had to send this soul back to the god through the proper burial and so on. So in that way – the doll is this kind of future oriented technology – the future is created through this doll and it also created its own future, even though it was supposed to have died. Completely. It was supposed to have been terminated and the soul was meant to return to the others. So in a way it created its own rebirth – the spirits really have some powerful technology there.’

And what happened to the new doll?

 ‘It’s here at the museum. And it’s in good shape – it’s made from good clay after all. The clay from termite nests really has excellent cementation qualities.’

How do you take care of it then?

 ‘Yeah, actually, I should be taking care of it like it was a child. Sitting with it, putting it to bed. Feeding it and carrying it around in a kanga.’

It sounds like a lot of work to have a doll…

‘It is an insane amount of work! It is in way a way of making room in the world for a new child. So that everything is in place when the new child comes – because You are ready.’

But how does that add up to the description of the Hadza as ‘immediate returners’? It seems like a pretty long process with no immediate return…

 ‘There are these things that contradict this understanding of the Hadza. I have written a piece for Jordens Folk*** about meat and how some pieces of meat have completely egalitarian connotations while others have the complete opposite. Some meat is secret and hierarchical and not everything can be shared. So there are these contradictions – there will always be. The same goes for immediate and delayed return systems. In the Hadza case, we find prominent aspects of both. There are striking examples of immediate-return system, for instance that there is no storage facilities for storing food, nor do they keep cattle or other husbandry. So they indeed do rely on going out to get it. In that sense it is immediate-return: they hunt, then they eat. But, at the same time, there are there long stretched out processes that do not comply with the idea of ‘immediate return’.’

‘There are these rituals every month which don’t fit with the idea of immediate return – that you put in effort and get immediate results. The Hadza have been used as a major case study in evolution anthropology. And what makes them interesting to this kind of anthropology is that they are thought of as being very close to our primordial starting point as humans. They are seen as a good opportunity to study morals and religion, because they are not believed to have ‘invented that yet’ – ugh! So they are thought to be at the absolute lowest stage of ‘societal complexity’ together with the Mbuti pygmies.’

‘And in the other end You have Japan – traditional Japanese society. And you know all these stories about the Hadza being such a simple people, as living in the instant or the instantaneous as Meillassoux**** has described them – it simply isn’t the whole truth! What I have shown in my work and what I experienced when I lived together with them is that there is a huge degree of manipulation of the future. This one – the naricanda sticks – is the craziest manifestation of the past! It is ‘name-sticks’ on which the Hadza carry their past with them and all the family relations.’

EA900-180 and EA900-181 Naricanda sticks – or name sticks

‘The story about the Hadza has also been that they have ‘no care for the morrow’, ‘family relations don’t matter very much – even to close of kin’ – it has always been this story of an almost primary group of humans before You started developing all these things. Before ‘We’ were really cultivated. And that has been the story about them for so long! And what I am trying to do – just through all these little things is to show that there is so much more.’

‘There is a very active belief in the afterlife for example, which they weren’t believed to have for so long! There is this very active manipulation of the past and of the future. So this thing with ‘the instantaneous’ – it’s misunderstood. There are so many of these things – the monthly rituals which are essential and some of the most touching – here they let the soul of other family members enter themselves – it is one of the most affectionate ways of taking care of the family! And all of this, fits very poorly with them supposedly having a loose family structure – their families matter and these untold stories are so important.’

The clay doll, which now lives at Moesgaard Museum, is thus a testament to the complex cosmology of the Hadza and poses a challenge for what anthropologists thought they knew about the Hadza and potentially other hunter-gatherer societies.

//Katrine Mandrup Bach

To read more of Thea Skaanes’ work see her article “Notes on Hadza Cosmology. Epeme, objects and rituals” Hunter Gatherer Research 1 (2), 2015.

*See the previous post ‘These shoes aren’t made for walking – a conversation with curator Thea Skaanes’ https://ethnographica.net/2019/10/02/these-shoes-arent-made-for-walking-a-conversation-with-curator-thea-skaanes/

**Woodburn, J. 1982 ”Egalitarian Societies” Man, New Series, 17 (3), pp. 431-451

*** Skaanes, T. 2019 “Kødkraft. En historie om køddeling fra feltarbejde blandt hadza i Tanzania” Jordens Folk, 55. årgang, nr. 2

****Claude Meillassoux was an anthropologist known for his work describing the Mbuti people in Congo and his Marxist analysis of their production methods.

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  1. Pingback: Dancing with the Dead: Ancient Spirituality Returns to a Modern Age – The Search For Life After Death

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