Pygmonia: In Search of the Secret Land of the Pygmies by Peter McAllister, 265 pp, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 2010, ISBN 9780102236914, $34.95.
Pygmonia begins with McAllister’s (allegedly) first encounter, in both print and reality, with the (supposed) Pygmies of the North Queensland rainforest in 2007. It ends with an assessment of whether these rainforest ‘Barrinean’ people are, in any meaningful sense, Pygmies. In between, McAllister traverses the mythology, folklore, anthropology, genetics and human biology of the world’s Pygmies, both real and imagined, from ancient Greece to now. He recounts this kaleidoscope of information in a generally accessible and often quirky written style, evidently intended to appeal to a wide readership – although the chapters devoted to genetics and biochemistry inevitably become jargon-laden and somewhat laborious. McAllister is careful, however, to balance such passages of scientific explication with longer stretches of narrative prose. Among the latter is a particularly fine chapter recounting the life of Ota Benga, a Babinga Pygmy man from the western Congo who in the early twentieth century fashioned a career for himself in the United States as both human exhibit and independent personality.
Unfortunately, the book does not get off to a good start. On the first page, McAllister claims that until 2007 he had never encountered the notion that Pygmies lived in North Queensland. Yet the blurb tells us that he is ‘a qualified palaeo-anthropologist and archaeologist, with degrees in archaeology from the University of Queensland and the University of New England’. With that background, how could he possibly have been unaware, until 2007, of Tindale and Birdsell’s claim to have found ‘pygmoid’ people in the North Queensland rainforests? Tindale and Birdsell first published this claim in 1941. Over subsequent decades, it was frequently repeated (and perhaps more often refuted) in the anthropological and archaeological literature. In 2002 Keith Windschuttle and Tim Gillen made quite a splash with a Quadrant article, ‘The Extinction of the Australian Pygmies’, which claimed that scientific knowledge about Pygmies in Australia had been suppressed in a politically-motivated cover-up. Windschuttle and Gillen’s article drew numerous counter-attacks, including a devastating one by Michael Westaway and Peter Hiscock, published in this journal in 2005. Somehow, if McAllister is to be believed, all this passed him by, completely unnoticed despite his professions as anthropologist and archaeologist.
More likely, McAllister adopts this chronology because it suits his narrative. The year 2007 was when he visited North Queensland for a scientific conference, and took the opportunity to visit Yarrabah to see the local ‘Pygmies’ for himself. For the sake of the story, it is best if his first hearing of the Pygmies and first visiting them are brought into close temporal proximity. That is a perfectly acceptable narrative technique, telescoping events for dramatic effect. However, it is not a wise technique to employ when, as in this case, it undermines the narrator’s own claimed expertise.
After the prologue, the book picks up pace. By Chapter 2, McAllister is explaining the theories of the nineteenth-century French anthropologist, Armand de Quatrefages, according to whom modern-day Pygmies are the remnants of a primordial human race who had once populated the Earth, before being supplanted by larger varieties of the human species. Thenceforward, de Quatrefages’ theories become McAllister’s constant reference point: a set of postulates about human origins, evolution, migration and diversity against which subsequent theorising about Pygmies can be conveniently compared and contrasted. Generally, the comparisons provide an effective means of illuminating and simplifying some complex and contentious issues, although sometimes they become a little stretched. More importantly, McAllister’s version of events glosses too lightly over a major shift in scientific thinking between de Quatrefages’ day and our own.
The big shift in scientific thinking about human diversity occurred shortly after the Second World War with the discarding (albeit incompletely) of the concept of racial types. McAllister alludes briefly to this shift, but gives it too little weight. Scientific thinking about Pygmies before the Second World War (including that of de Quatrefages and Tindale and Birdsell) was framed within an assumption that humanity was divided into discrete races, who in the past had variously merged with, suppressed or exterminated each other. The specific theories they propounded, whether about Pygmies or any other facet of human diversity, made sense only in the context of that assumption. With the shift in scientific thinking from ‘races’ to ‘populations’, such theories lost their intellectual moorings. It is true that essentialist ideas of race persisted, in science as in other domains. However, the changes in how scientists understood Pygmies were due not only to changing scientific methodologies and technologies, as McAllister intimates, but to more fundamental changes in how human diversity was conceived.
In the final chapter, ‘Return to Yarrabah’, McAllister revisits arguments for and against the ‘Barrinean’ Aboriginal people’s status as remnant of a Pygmy race left isolated in the North Queensland rainforest. It is an anticlimactic ending. For reasons I cannot fathom, he never names any of the recent protagonists in these arguments – Windschuttle and Gillen, Westaway and Hiscock, for instance – although their identity is obvious to any reader familiar with the literature. His account of their disputes is as flat as his conclusion is banal: ‘Barrinean people are not an outpost of Pygmonia’.
But the journey is as important as the destination. The journey McAllister takes us on, although sometimes a bit touristy, visits some fascinating and revealing episodes in the changing ways in which Pygmies have figured in Western peoples’ attempts to understand human origins and diversity.
James Cook University