Beads and Gossip

Beads and gossip.

I never knew beads and gossip held so much history.

Our readings this week expound the idea of a methodology of historical research in which natural science intersects with history and ideas of periodization, temporality and historic disruption give way to a history devoid of the “pre”. Often historians look to temporality or disruption to begin their historical narratives and investigations, or perhaps look to a particular period, especially the modern era. Everything before is pre-history.

According to David Lord Smail in On Deep History and the Brain and to Smail and Andrew Shyrock in “History and the “Pre””, however, the “pre” needs to be prefix no longer associated with the word history. Beads and gossip show us why.

Let’s start with beads, just because they are easier to explain. Way back in time, around 110,000 years ago, beads with holes in them appeared in human populations. About 43,000 years ago perforated beads began to explode in proliferation. It is believed that the strings of beads (cowrie shells and red deer teeth) were “an emerging medium for sharing and exchange”  and that “extensive networks of marriage, friendship, and exchange grew up along chains of bead-giving and receiving”. (AHR, 723 & 725) Even though production of perforated beads exploded 43,000 years ago, it is Smail’s contention that we are not to look at that as a type of modernity at that time, but to realize that the language of beads was already ancient. (726)

The use of small perforated objects as modems of exchange continue to be seen. Grave goods found in what is present day Bulgaria but which date to 4500 B.C.E., contain metal perforated objects strung together. (729) The oldest coins found in China contained holes and were strung together reminiscent of the strings of cowrie shells. (732) Also, paper money from the Ming dynasty is in inscribed with a picture of a thousand coins strung together in groups of one hundred. (736) And, interestingly enough, in my drawer at home a have a souvenir from Japan – a coin with a hole in the middle. According to Smail and Shyrock, “The phylogeny of the bead offers a model for writing history that can work in many other domains. Food, kinship, ecosystems, language, migration, goods, religion, sex, energy use and the body can all be treated using similar ideas and frames.” (735)

So, let’s look at another idea, gossip. According to Smail in On Deep History and the Brain, gossip plays the same role as grooming in primate social structures. It is social interaction in the form of gossip which produces the “stimulation of peace and contentment hormones” (176). In historicizing gossip, Smail points to the general belief that women participate in gossip more than men in an opposite reaction to the male “fight or flight” response in a “tend and befriend” response. (177)

Smail then points out the history of gossip, or rather, the history of trying to regulate and control gossip. Smail argues:

As I suggested earlier, alpha individuals in human and other primate societies routinely practice a range of behaviors that induce feeling of stress in subordinates. Since gossip, like grooming, is a practice that eases stress, the denigration of female gossip in human societies has the appearance of a cultural device for preventing the alleviation of stress among women, the better to control them…177

Smail continues on to espouse that gossip then joins other mildly addictive practices prevalent in postlithic societies whose origins begin in the deep history of the brain.

So, beads and gossip…I’ll be honest, in my pragmatic and somewhat mathematical mind, the beads make sense but, the gossip,…that is a bit of a stretch, for me at least. In Smail’s book, I would prefer he spent less time setting a framework and arguing against detractors and more on his ideas and examples of history across the millennium.

On that note, I think I will leave the last word in this post to someone else, Akinwumi Ogundiran, an Africanist historian whose methodology for many years included a broad intersection of history and natural science.

“The study of Man’s past should be indivisible and there can be no such thing as an historical time before history…”


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One Response to Beads and Gossip

  1. Laura Keith


    I completely agree that Smail spends a bit too much time in On Deep History and the Brain arguing against those who disagree with him. And yet, do you think this is a necessity? Certainly, Smail’s ideas and concepts are way out there, particularly for historians (such as myself) who believe that history should be left to the historians and science to the scientists. Are his ideas so revolutionary (perhaps) that he must spend a great deal of time defending himself? In some ways, I would agree with his approach. But I also agree that I wish he would have proven his own point a bit more. And while I enjoyed the book overall, I am not sure I am entirely convinced by his argument. Maybe we need a On Deep History and the Brain Part II.

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