Dead Names, Dead Dog: Time for the Toda, Redux

Simon revealed to me, during our discussion of the Toda, that he has anthropological training.  From reading Dead Names, you wouldn’t know that.
One of the first and most important lessons anthropologists teach is to avoid ethnocentrism, the belief that one culture is innately superior to another.  Such beliefs – in “primitive” people, in “unnatural” customs, and the like – have been cited to excuse the most horrendous atrocities and centuries of exploitation.  While anthropologists should indeed make moral decisions about how people treat each other, they should be able to learn how strange customs fit into a broader context and respect them enough to examine them fairly.  It doesn’t always work, of course, but it’s a good principle for starters.

This is why I was shocked to re-read Dead Names on the Toda and find the following:

They worship the buffalo, and see in the horns of this beast a reference to the crescent Moon, whose images they carve on stone tablets and on their homes. They are strict vegetarians, yet they keep cattle for their milk. . . and occasionally sacrifice them in barbaric and savage rituals.

This might not strike some readers as wrong, but coming from someone with training in anthropology, it’s shocking.  Words like “barbaric” and “savage” are insults used to denigrate people whose customs are unusual.  It’s the sort of language that characterizes old travel writing, and that all anthropologists are taught to avoid.  Even today, those who wish to take away the lands and resources of these groups use this sort of language to justify their actions.  Critique is still possible, but using words like this is completely beyond the pale.

(Some readers might argue that these terms are appropriate for animal sacrifice.  As “Simon” mounts a defense of that practice later in Dead Names, he can’t use this excuse.)

Later on, we find these passages:

Unfortunately, female infanticide was also practiced in this manner until recently, the doomed infant thrown into the bull ring and the bulls incited to trample her to death.

The sacrifice of the buffaloes is also a barbaric affair. Depending on the occasion, the number of bulls to be sacrificed varies. The manner of killing them, however, is with a heavy hammer blow between the horns. In a ritual similar to what one would expect from a Spanish bullfight, young men jump into the ring and each tries to kill as many as possible with their hammers. He who kills the most is considered a hero, blessed by the God of the Moon.

Now, as we’ve seen in the piece by anthropologist Anthony Walker, these findings are most likely inaccurate.  Nonetheless, even if they were reflections of Toda society, what do they have to do with the Toda’s supposed Sumerian origin?  If we set aside the mere fact of cattle sacrifice – nothing at all.  In fact, such examples would seem to work against Simon’s theory of Sumerian ties, as the Sumerians didn’t do anything like this.  The only reason for their inclusion that I can see is an appeal to cheap sensationalism.

I know there are some readers who will think that cultural relativism is a crock, or who genuinely believe their culture is superior.  What “Simon” has done here, however, is to toss aside the most basic of ethical principles of anthropological work, using harsh  and as-yet unsubstanitiated charges and biased language, merely to entertain his readers.

If this is true, it says a great deal about “Simon” and how he treats others – possibly including his readers.

Published in: on July 3, 2006 at 5:16 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] The Toda people – not Sumerian or even remotely as “Simon” describes them. Part 1, Part 2. […]

  2. […] The Toda people – not Sumerian or even remotely as “Simon” describes them. Part 1, Part 2. […]


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