What deep insights into human cultures do non-specialists miss out on?
June 16, 2017 1:18 AM   Subscribe

A question for anthropologists, linguists, cultural historians and other humanities scholars. What's the most thought-provoking custom, idea, metaphor or sociocultural phenomenon you've encountered in the academic literature that non-experts will probably never get to hear about? For example, the "sound-painting" of the Siwu , the absence of fiction or art among the Pirahã people [pdf], or the popularity of communism in 500 AD Persia [pdf]. Or to put it another way: in all your years of digging around in dusty old journals, what was your biggest "whoa" moment?
posted by dontjumplarry to Society & Culture (8 answers total) 100 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: We in English talk about the future as lying ahead of us and the past behind: a lot of languages have the past ahead of you (because you can see it) and the future behind (because it's not yet visible.)

Kind of a difference between whether you conceptualise yourself as walking along time, which is a path, or time moving underneath you while you stand still.
posted by lollusc at 1:37 AM on June 16, 2017 [41 favorites]

I have no idea how to find the article, but this blew me away in grad school. During the Renaissance in England, the scientific belief was that a baby's sex was determined by the amount of heat in the womb. If there was sufficient heat, the baby's vagina and ovaries would move out of the body and become penis and testicles. So this Renaissance scholar wrote an article saying that it made total sense that women's roles on the stage were played by young boys, since both boys and women were incomplete or unfinished men. When the scientific viewpoint of gender changed, women started playing women on the stage.

Knowing this just completely changed the way I read Shakespeare.
posted by FencingGal at 6:24 AM on June 16, 2017 [4 favorites]

I think other people have an idea of what sortition is, but whenever I bring it up, there's always a serious culturally-constructed resistance. The ancient Athenians selected many of their political officeholders at random. In our technocratic age, we assume that every job, including governing, is best done by specialists. The Athenians, though, believed that sortition was a way to avoid wealthy demagogues gaining office. (Hmm.) If you still think it's crazy, consider that it's how we empanel juries, and while they have their faults, they're generally regarded as fair and competent.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:35 AM on June 16, 2017 [19 favorites]

Best answer: Recently, Base-4 fractions in Telugu. Numbers in Telugu -- "the third-most widely spoken language in India" -- have a fractional part that isn't 1/10, 1/100, 1/1000, etc. but 1/4, 1/16, 1/64, etc. and an odd and even version for disambiguation.
posted by zengargoyle at 6:41 AM on June 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Here are a couple of mathematical insights.

In this video, it's explained that the ancient Greeks, meaning Euclid, thought that math started with geometry and shapes, rather than with numbers as we do now.

In this one, it's explained that doing geometry through paper folding (origami) is, in some ways, more powerful than the straight edge and compass approach of Euclid. I don't know if there is anywhere math was done this way, though.
posted by SemiSalt at 9:42 AM on June 16, 2017

Best answer: Lynne Kelly working out that the "superstitious" "creation myths" of "primitive" oral cultures worldwide actually function as the narrative structural framework of a sophisticated, well structured and staggeringly effective memory palace technique for the accurate mental preservation and propagation of literally encyclopaedic quantities of highly specific and valuable local knowledge.

I was particularly taken by her insight that if a culture's entire body of life-sustaining knowledge is to be held continuously in human memories, then the culture needs systems in place to limit and correct corruption of that knowledge. This is why secret knowledge, available only to the initiated, features pretty much universally in oral cultures: to share knowledge with people who are not properly prepared to be able to memorise it accurately is to invite those people to remember it wrong. And this, in turn, is the reason so many of these myths sound kind of childlike to the "sophisticated" Western ear: the stories chosen as suitable for general promulgation are exactly the ones that the cultures involved teach their kids, in order to give them a readily remembered narrative skeleton on which to build the huge body of knowledge to be learned in later years.
posted by flabdablet at 11:39 AM on June 16, 2017 [48 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, here's another one I just remembered - a colleague who works on languages in Papua New Guinea gave a seminar a while ago about how counting and numbers work in the language she studies. Apparently after you get to ten, the number words used by women and those used by men are one different from each other. Like, if men say 'blah' it means 'twelve' but if women say it it means 'thirteen'.

The reason for this is that number words are derived from body parts for the first twenty or so, and while both genders start by counting fingers, then elbow, then shoulder, the women then continue by counting each boob, then across to the other shoulder, while men count shoulder, head, shoulder, etc.
posted by lollusc at 11:13 PM on June 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

FencingGal - That's most likely from Thomas Laqueur's Making Sex, if anyone is interested in the source.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 12:55 PM on June 17, 2017

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