The Bainingâ€”one of the indigenous cultural groups of Papua New Guineaâ€”have the reputation, at least among some researchers, of being the dullest culture on earth. Early in his career, in the 1920s, the famous British anthropologist Gregory Bateson spent 14 months among them, until he finally left in frustration. He called them â€œunstudiable,â€ because of their reluctance to say anything interesting about their lives and their failure to exhibit much activity beyond the mundane routines of daily work, and he later wrote that they lived â€œa drab and colorless existence.â€ Forty years later, Jeremy Pool, a graduate student in anthropology, spent more than a year living among them in the attempt to develop a doctoral dissertation. He too found almost nothing interesting to say about the Baining, and the experience caused him to leave anthropology and go into computer science.
Finally, however, anthropologist Jane Fajans, now at Cornell University, figured out a way to study them.
Fajans studied the Baining in the late 1970s and again in the early 1990s. Like her predecessors, she found that they lacked the cultural structures that are the stock-in-trade of anthropology, such as myths, festivals,religious traditions, and puberty rites, and that the method of trying to learn about them through interviews produced little response. They did not tell stories, rarely gossiped, and exhibited little curiosity or enthusiasm. In Fajansâ€™s words, â€œTheir conversation is obsessively mundane, concerned primarily with food-getting and food-processing.â€ She found, however, that she could study them by following them around and observing their daily activities and interactions. From this she could discern their general cultural beliefs and values. What she found is fascinating, at least to me. By negative example, it tells us something about the value of play to human existence.
The Baining are small-scale agriculturalists, who subsist on their gardens and the few animals they raise. In their style of life and attitudes they are in many ways the opposite of hunter-gatherers, including those hunter-gatherers to whom they are closely related. Hunter-gatherers love the bush, or forest; value freedom and individual initiative; andâ€”as I have discussed elsewhere (including here and here)â€”are extraordinarily playful in their daily lives and especially value play among children. Hunter-gatherer children are allowed to play all day, every day, from dawn to dusk, and in that way they acquire the subsistence skills, social skills, and personal traits and values that characterize their culture. In contrast, the Baining shun the bush, which they view as chaotic and dangerous, and they derogate play, especially that among children.
Yep, sounds like Moose Jaw. via