Hunter-gatherer superstructures of belief: comparing BaYaka ekila with Hadza epeme

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Ekila is a polysemic concept of the Central African forest hunter-gatherer cosmos, reaching from Western to Eastern Congo, implying significant antiquity of this superstructure. Its meanings cluster around ‘menstruation, blood, taboo, a hunter’s meat, good hunting luck, the power of animals to harm humans, and particular dangers to human reproduction, production, health and sanity’. In highly egalitarian contexts, ekila acts as a pedagogic device for both boys and girls as they grow up to become productive and reproductive adults, underpinning the basic rules of sharing properly.

Epeme stands in the same kind of relationship to the cosmos of the Hadza, a small language-isolate group of hunter-gatherers in Tanzania. Several aspects of epeme – obligations of sharing, meat distribution, ritual connections to women, blood and the moon – strongly resemble ekila. Can we use the shared features of these concepts to propose an ancestral superstructure of hunter-gatherer belief – an ideology of blood and spirits – that may have belonged to proto-Khoesan-Pygmy populations? Such a system of belief could date back to the time of modern human populations moving out of Africa.

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Daryll Forde Seminar Room, Anthropology Building, 14 Taviton St, off Gordon Sq., London WC1H 0BW. Tube: Euston Square

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Speaker(s): Chris Knight