November 25, 2017

Cultural convergence

Appendix 4 of The Stable Society: its structure and control: Towards a Social Cybernetics, Wadebridge Ecological Centre, UK, 1978.

The early ethnographers were mainly struck by exotic cultural divergences. Slowly, with the development of scientific method, the accent has shifted to the study of the much more impressive similarities that characterise the cultural patterns of peoples occupying similar ecological niches. These were originally attributed to cultural contacts, or diffusion. Such a thesis is no longer entertained by serious anthropologists, since similar cultural traits can be shown to have developed independently by people inhabiting different continents, isolated by oceans, mountain ranges, and other natural barriers, and who could have had no possible contact in historical times.

Striking examples are the extraordinary prevalence of the concept of power, or vital force, in the worldview of primitive peoples, and the role played by ancestor worship in their ‘religious’ practices. Regarding the latter, it appears to have characterised, to a greater or lesser degree, the beliefs and practices of peoples at a certain stage of cultural development. Thus we find it among the Australian aborigines, the Indians of North and South America, the peoples of India and South East Asia, and both the Chinese and Japanese. Lods40 tells us that it was the original religion of the Jews, Karsten133 that of the Empire of the Incas, Fustel de Coulanges6 that of the ancient Greeks, and Robertson Smith45 that of the ancient Semites.

We are led to a similar conclusion by an examination of magical practices and of the different rituals that punctuate the life-cycle of man in simple societies. Thus, initiation ceremonies appear to be common to all peoples, and they very often take very similar forms. Among these, circumcision appears to be common to peoples as distant from each other as the Australian aborigines and the ancient Egyptians. The notion that during circumcision the initiate is swallowed by a large monster, who vomits him back to life, after which traumatic event the child qualifies as an adult of the tribe, is, according to Vergiat,134 common to the Urbunnas of Central Australia, the Anulas of the Gulf of Carpentaria, the Bukanas of New Guinea, the Sulkas of New Brittany, as well as to many other peoples of Australia, Oceania, and Africa, such as the Bushmen of the Kalahari and the Manja of Ubangi. Kenyatta73 points to the existence of this same belief among the Kikuyu and related tribes.

The study of social structures reveals astonishing similarities in those developed by peoples at the same level of complexity, and fulfilling similar ecological niches in totally distinct areas of the world. Bilateral extended families, unilateral clans that may be patrilineal or matrilineal, rules of residence that may be patrilocal or matrilocal, strict laws of exogamy and endogamy, age-grades, secret societies, military societies, etc., are to be found among people as remote from each other as the Amer-Indians, the Bantu, and the Australian aborigines. Indeed, as Murdock writes: “Any structural forms can be developed anywhere if conditions are propitious.”22

The same is true of religious systems. Similar myths, beliefs and religious practices are to be found among peoples between whom there can have been no possible cultural contact.

Gray points to a striking example of religious convergence: that between Christianity and the religion of the Sonjo of Northern Tanzania.135 The latter are a Bantu people, who practise agriculture in a small area entirely surrounded by hostile Masai pastoralists. Their religion appears to diverge very radically from the African norm, in that the ancestral cult is relatively insignificant. Instead, they are principally concerned with the worship of their cultural hero, Khambageu, and have developed a cult which resembles Christianity in many ways. Khambageu was born, like Christ, in a supernatural way, apparently “through his father’s swollen leg.” Both Khambageu and Christ were humble men, worked miracles of healing, and died from maltreatment by the people—in Khambageu’s case, as a result of overwork, as he was forced to work overtime to cure the sick. Both rose to heaven, and, in each case, their tombs were afterwards found empty. Once in heaven, both became identified with God, Khambageu with the sun god, Riob. In addition, the extension of divinity to the former’s son, Aka, establishes a sort of trinity reminiscent of the Christian one. In both religions, we find a religious rite marking initiation into the ranks of the faithful: baptism in the case of Christianity, and the ntemi scar in the case of the cult of Khambageu. Both religions foresee the end of the world, and the return of their respective Messiahs to save the faithful.

Gray considers that the Sonjo religion was “. . . developed independently (of Christianity), perhaps during a time of crisis, brought on by the incursion of the Masai into the region.”135 Thus its similarity with Christianity cannot be explained in terms of cultural diffusion, and the two religions can only be regarded as adaptive reactions to similar systemic conditions, i.e., as very striking examples of cultural convergence.

Such religions undoubtedly began as Messianic cults. These seem to occur in periods of social disorder, after the breakdown of a cultural pattern, and their object is clearly to recreate a new one, more in keeping with changed systematic requirements. The literature on this subject [also includes the study of] revolutionary movements in the European Middle Ages that are normally classified as heresies. Vittorio Lanternari137 shows how all the revolutionary cults [that] developed by contact with the colonialist powers, are but variations around this same theme. The most famous among these are possibly the Peyote religion among the Navahos, the cargo cults among the Melanesians, Rastafarianism in Jamaica, the religion of Handsome Lake among the Iriquois and that of Father Cicero in Brazil. These, however, are only a few among tens of thousands of such movements. Wherever they occur, whether it be among the tribal societies of India, Pakistan, China, Africa, Australia, or Melanesia, they will have many similar features: their leaders will have in common certain psychological traits, their doctrines will appeal to the same frustrated psychological requirements, and the responses of their adepts will be characterised by the same pattern of naivity, self-sacrifice, and fanaticism. Lowie considers that a study of the Messianic cultures of primitive peoples provides “. . . an irrefutable proof that cultural traits can develop independently in distinct areas.”138

What is true of myths, social structures and religious movements, seems also to be true of all cultural traits, and hence of cultures as a whole. The latter in fact, can be regarded as long-term adaptive responses, which, like all other behavioural responses, can be understood in terms of the same general model of behaviour.


6. Fustel de Coulanges, La Cite Antique Hachette, Paris, 1927.

22. George Peter Murdock, Social Structure The Free Press, New York, 1965.

40. Adolphe Lods, Israel: From Its Beginnings to the Middle of the Eighth Century Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1932.

45. W. Robertson Smith, Essays on the Religion of the Semites Adams and Charles Black, London, 1914.

73. Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya Secker and Warburg, London, 1953.

133. Rafael Karsten, La Civilisation de l’Empire Inca Payot, Paris, 1957.

137. Vittorio Lanternari, Les Mouvements Religieux des Peuples Opprimés Maspero, Paris, 1962.

138. Robert H. Lowie, ‘Le Messianisme primitif: contribution a un probleme d’ethnologie’ in Diogene No. 19, Gallimard, Paris, 1957.

134. A.M. Vergiat, Les Rites Secrets des Primitifs de L’Oubangui Payot, Paris, 1936.

135. Robert R. Gray, ‘Some parallels in Sonjo and Christian Mythology’ in African Systems of Thought (M. Fortes and G. Dieterlen, eds.) Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1965.

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