[Paleopsych] NYT: Remote and Poked, Anthropology's Dream Tribe
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Sun Jan 1 23:12:22 UTC 2006
Remote and Poked, Anthropology's Dream Tribe
[This recalls the Pilgrims of Massachusetts in 1620 being greeted by an Indian
who spoke English, evidently learned from the earlier settlers at Jamestown.]
By MARC LACEY
LEWOGOSO LUKUMAI, Kenya - The rugged souls living in this remote desert
have been poked, pinched and plucked, all in the name of science. It is not
always easy, they say, to be the subject of a human experiment.
"I thought I was being bewitched," Koitaton Garawale, a weathered cattleman,
of the time a researcher plucked a few hairs from atop his head. "I was
I'd never seen such a thing before."
Another member of the tiny and reclusive Ariaal tribe, Leketon Lenarendile,
scanned a handful of pictures laid before him by a researcher whose unstated
was to gauge whether his body image had been influenced by outside media.
girls like the ones like this," he said, repeating the exercise later and
pointing to a rather slender man much like himself. "I don't know why they
asking me that," he said.
Anthropologists and other researchers have long searched the globe for
isolated from the modern world. The Ariaal, a nomadic community of about
people in northern Kenya, have been seized on by researchers since the
after one - an anthropologist, Elliot Fratkin - stumbled upon them and began
publishing his accounts of their lives in academic journals.
Other researchers have done studies on everything from their cultural
to their testosterone levels. National Geographic focused on the Ariaal in
in an article on vanishing cultures.
But over the years, more and more Ariaal - like the Masai and the Turkana in
Kenya and the Tuaregs and Bedouins elsewhere in Africa - are settling down.
have migrated closer to Marsabit, the nearest town, which has cellphone
and even sporadic Internet access.
The scientists continue to arrive in Ariaal country, with their notebooks,
and bizarre queries, but now they document a semi-isolated people straddling
modern life and more traditional ways.
"The era of finding isolated tribal groups is probably over," said Dr.
professor at Smith College who has lived with the Ariaal for long stretches
is regarded by some of them as a member of the tribe.
For Benjamin C. Campbell, a biological anthropologist at Boston University
was introduced to the Ariaal by Dr. Fratkin, their way of life, diet and
practices make them worthy of study.
Other academics agree. Local residents say they have been asked over the
how many livestock they own (many), how many times they have had diarrhea in
last month (often) and what they ate the day before yesterday (usually meat,
Ariaal women have been asked about the work they do, which seems to exceed
of the men, and about local marriage customs, which compel their prospective
husbands to hand over livestock to their parents before the ceremony can
The wedding day is one of pain as well as joy since Ariaal women - girls,
- have their genitals cut just before they marry and delay sex until they
recuperate. They consider their breasts important body parts, but nothing to
The researchers may not know this, but the Ariaal have been studying them
these years as well.
The Ariaal note that foreigners slather white liquid on their very white
protect them from the sun, and that many favor short pants that show off
legs and the clunky boots on their feet. Foreigners often partake of the
food but drink water out of bottles and munch on strange food in wrappers
meals, the Ariaal observe.
The scientists leave tracks as well as memories behind. For instance, it is
uncommon to see nomads in T-shirts bearing university logos, gifts from
In Lewogoso Lukumai, a circle of makeshift huts near the Ndoto Mountains,
rushed up to a visitor and asked excitedly in the Samburu language, "Where's
They meant Dr. Fratkin, who describes in his book "Ariaal Pastoralists of
how in 1974 he stumbled upon the Ariaal, who had been little known until
With money from the University of London and the Smithsonian Institution, he
traveling north from Nairobi in search of isolated agro-pastoralist groups
Ethiopia. But a coup toppled Haile Selassie, then the emperor, and the
between the countries was closed.
So as he sat in a bar in Marsabit, a boy approached and, mistaking him for a
tourist, asked if he wanted to see the elephants in a nearby forest. When
aspiring anthropologist declined, the boy asked if he wanted to see a
ceremony at a local village instead. That was Dr. Fratkin's introduction to
Ariaal, who share cultural traits with the Samburu and Rendille tribes of
Soon after, he was living with the Ariaal, learning their language and
while fighting off mosquitoes and fleas in his hut of sticks covered with
The Ariaal wear sandals made from old tires and many still rely on their
camels and goats to survive. Drought is a regular feature of their world,
in regular intervals and testing their durability.
"I was young when Elliot first arrived," recalled an Ariaal elder known as
Lenampere in Lewogoso Lukumai, a settlement that moves from time to time to
patch of sand. "He came here and lived with us. He drank milk and blood with
After him, so many others came."
Over the years, the Ariaal have had hairs pulled not just from their heads,
also chins and chests. They have spat into vials to provide saliva samples.
have been quizzed about how often they urinate. Sometimes the questioning
become even more intimate.
Mr. Garawale recalls a visiting anthropologist measuring his arms, back and
stomach with an odd contraption and then asking him how often he got
and whether his sex life was satisfactory. "It was so embarrassing,"
father of three, breaking out in giggles even years later.
Not all African tribes are as welcoming to researchers, even those with the
necessary permits from government bureaucrats. But the Ariaal have a
for cooperating - in exchange, that is, for pocket money.
"They think I'm stupid for asking dumb questions," said Daniel Lemoille,
headmaster of the school in Songa, a village outside of Marsabit for Ariaal
nomads who have settled down, and a frequent research assistant for visiting
professors. "You have to try to explain that these same questions are asked
people all over the world and that their answers will help advance science."
The researchers arriving in Africa by the droves, probing every imaginable
every now and then leave controversy in their wake. In 2004, for instance, a
Kenyan virologist sued researchers from Britain for taking blood samples out
the country that he said had been obtained from a Nairobi orphanage for
H.I.V.-positive children without government permission.
The Ariaal have no major gripes about the studies, although the local chief
Songa, Stephen Lesseren, who wore a Boston University T-shirt the other day,
he wished their work would lead to more tangible benefits for his people.
"We don't mind helping people get their Ph.D.'s," he said. "But once they
their Ph.D.'s, many of them go away. They don't send us their reports. What
we achieved from the plucking of our hair? We want feedback. We want
Even when conflicts break out in the area, as happened this year as members
rival tribes slaughtered each other, victimizing the Ariaal, the research
not cease. With tensions still high, John G. Galaty, an anthropologist at
University in Toronto who studies ethnic conflicts, arrived in northern
In a study in The International Journal of Impotence Research, Dr. Campbell
found that Ariaal men with many wives showed less erectile dysfunction than
men of the same age with fewer spouses.
Dr. Campbell's body image study, published in The Journal of Cross-Cultural
Psychology this year, also found that Ariaal men are much more consistent
men in other parts of the world in their views of the average man's body and
they think women want.
Dr. Campbell came across no billboards or international magazines in Ariaal
country and only one television in a local restaurant that played CNN,
him to contend that Ariaal men's views of their bodies were less affected by
media images of burly male models with six-pack stomachs and rippling
To test his theories, a nonresearcher without a Ph.D. showed a group of
men a copy of Men's Health magazine full of pictures of impossibly
men and women. The men looked on with rapt attention and admired the
"That one, I like," said one nomad who was up in his years, pointing at a
of a curvy woman who was clearly a regular at the gym.
Another old-timer gazed at the bulging pectoral muscles of a male
the magazine and posed a question that got everybody talking. Was it a man,
asked, or a very, very strong woman?
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