IN Ethnology, as in other sciences, nothing is too insignificant to receive attention. Indeed it is a matter of common experience among scientific men that apparently trivial objects or operations have an interest and importance that are by no means commensurate with the estimation in which they are ordinarily held.
To the casual observer few amusements offer, at first sight, a less promising field for research than does the simple cat's cradle of our childhood; and, indeed,it is only when the comparative method is applied to it that we begin to discover that it, too, has a place in the culture history of man.
As a child I had played cat's-cradle and had seen various string tricks, but it was not until the year 1888 that I saw in Torres Straits some of those elaborate string figures of savage peoples that put our humble efforts to shame. I found that a couple of natives do not play together as we do, "taking off" from each other, but that each plays separately, though in exceptional cases two players may be required to construct a particular figure. They can make much more intricate devices than ours and the manipulation is correspondingly complicated, toes and teeth being at times pressed into service; on the other hand, although many figures pass through elaborate phases in the making, the final result may be simple.
Travellers in various parts of the world have had a similar experience. We are informed that these figures are much more complicated than are ours, and they represent various natural and artificial objects in a state of rest or motion.
Occasionally a list has been published of some of the figures made by a particular people, and in rare instances with illustrations of the completed figure. So far as my information goes, Dr. Franz Boas (1, p. 229) was the first to publish a descriptive account of the method employed by a primitive people in making any of these figures; unfortunately he gives descriptions of but two of the five Eskimo
- For the full title of a work referred to in parentheses after an author's name consult the bibliography at the end of this volume. Other references are to pages of this book.