The Headman Was a Woman: For Batek, Nurturance = Leadership

What is the Batek's secret ingredient for peace and cooperation?

Posted May 26, 2009

Tanyogn was the kind of person who would be an asset to any community. She was highly intelligent, able to see through specious arguments, able to judge when the traders from outside might be trying to pull a fast one. She was knowledgeable about midwifery, herbal medicines, religious practices, and many other matters crucial to her culture. She had a powerful personality and capacity to persuade. She participated vigorously in the community's discussions, with a voice of reason that people could not ignore. She had enormous energy and capacity for hard work. When a job needed to be done she was the first to dig in, and she encouraged others, by her example, to join her.

Perhaps most valuable of all was Tanyogn's extraordinary sense of responsibility and care for others-–not just for relatives, but for all members of the community and even for outsiders who came to visit. She attended to the sick and comforted crying children, no matter whose children they were. She and her husband took care of two orphaned boys. When the two young anthropologists-–Kirk and Karen Endicott-–came to study her community, she took them under her wing and helped to protect them from their own clumsiness. For example, when she saw them slip on a muddy sloping path near their camp, she shoveled steps into the path-–steps that no native would need but were helpful to Kirk and Karen.

The Batek of Peninsular Malaysia, like many other hunting and gathering groups throughout the world, are an egalitarian people. They value personal freedom and are repelled by the idea that any person should have authority to control the activities of another. They make all group decisions by consensus, sometimes after days or weeks of discussion and debate. They have no official leaders, but they do have natural leaders–-people who, by dint of their personalities, knowledge, and abilities are sought for advice and are listened to more closely than others. For the Batek inhabiting the upper Lebir River valley, Tanyogn was such a leader. In fact, she was such a powerful natural leader that the Batek, and even many of the neighboring Malay (the predominant farming people of Malaysia), referred to her as Penghulu, which is the Malay term for Headman, or Chief.

The story of Tanyogn and the Batek is told beautifully in a recent book by Kirk and Karen Endicott entitled The Headman Was a Woman: The Gender Egalitarian Batek of Malaysia (Waveland Press, 2008). The book is more than a documentation of gender equality in a long-standing human society. As you read it you discover that the remarkable fact to be explained is not that the headman was a woman but that the headman was a person, regardless of gender, with Tanyogn's qualities. In what kind of society can a person who is not competitive, not interested in status, not the slightest bit threatening, but simply helpful, become the most widely recognized leader? The book is about the social conditions that can give rise to such a leader.

The Batek are a people who resist all attempts, by anyone, male or female, to act in a domineering manner. Their highest values include individual autonomy, social equality, cooperation, and the sharing of all material wealth. They love to play, but they never play competitively, because the idea of beating another person is repugnant to them. They raise their children to be both self-directed and respectful of others by trusting them to make their own choices and by treating them respectfully from birth on. In many ways the Batek violate the stereotypes about human nature that evolutionary psychologists often promulgate.

And yet, for people who read the anthropological literature, the story of the Batek is not unique. It is in many ways similar to stories that other anthropologists have told about other hunting and gathering people. The Endicotts' book has many of the same themes and messages that are found, for example, in Elizabeth Marshall Thomas's The Old Way (2006) about the Ju/'hoansi hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari Desert, and in Colin Turnbull's classic The Forest People (1968) about the Mbutu hunter-gatherers of the Congo's Ituri Forest.

What is it about these and other hunting and gathering societies that allowed them, perhaps for hundreds of thousands of years, to resist the temptations of status, dominance, and violence that have dictated the course of history for the rest of us over the last ten thousand years? What secret did they have about how to live peacefully and cooperatively? What can we learn from them that might help save us from our own worst instincts?

I have spent a considerable amount of time studying the hunter-gatherer literature-–not just the popular books about them, but also the articles in academic journals. My study has led me to conclude that a common denominator of all of these societies is a high degree of playfulness. All such societies, as far as I can tell, optimize the human capacity for play and humor in ways that seem deliberately designed to combat the tendency to dominate.

As many of you know, I took some time off from blogging. I was buried in another project that had immediate and unavoidable deadlines. But now I am nearly done with that, and breathing again, and ready to resume the pleasure of weekly posting.

My next six posts will constitute a series entitled "Play Makes Us Human." The posts will deal with such topics as playful government, playful religion, playful work, playful parenting, and playful education. With each topic I'll explain what I learned from research on hunter-gatherers and how I think those ideas are relevant to our society today. An overarching idea I will present is this: A major evolutionary function of play is to combat dominance and promote cooperation. For hundreds of thousands of years, hunting and gathering people maximized their playfulness in ways that enabled the high degree of cooperation that was essential to their survival.

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