Popular Science Monthly/Volume 49/May 1896/The Pygmy in the United States
|THE PYGMY IN THE UNITED STATES.|
By JAMES WEIR, Jr., M. D.
IT is highly probable that at one time or another most of the civilized nations of the world knew of certain small, undersized men, and that they constructed and built up legends and myths about them. The ancient Talmudic writers, however, were probably unacquainted with these little people, for nowhere in the Old Testament nor in any of the ancient Hebrew writings are they mentioned. The giant plays a prominent part in more than one biblical drama, but his direct opposite, the pygmy, never appears in any rôle. But long before the Israelitish captivity and exodus, and thousands of years before the five Nasamonians of Herodotus made their memorable journey of exploration into the deserts of Libya, the earliest of known historiographers, the Egyptians, had made his acquaintance, and had made note of his peculiarities of form. Marriette Bey has seen the figure of a pygmy on a monument of the old empire, and has deciphered his name, Akka (the name by which he is known to this day), written beside him.
The legend of the storks and the pygmies has been familiar to us since our earliest childhood, and I dare say many of us believed in it with a child's unhesitating belief for some years after we had escaped from the thralldom of the nursery. I know that I did, and whenever I would see cranes winging their way southward I would conjure up a mental picture of an army of little men mounted on rams and goats, and engaged in a sanguinary battle with myriads of cranes. I would then lift up my childish voice and shriek out the warning, "Beware of the pygmies!" to the birds flying high above my head. Homer is the first of the classical writers who makes mention of this legend, and he probably borrows from beliefs much older than his time. Says he in the Iliad, Book III, when speaking of the advancing Trojans, whom he likens to a cloud of birds:
Thus by their leader's care, each martial band
Moves into ranks, and stretches o'er the land;
With shouts the Trojans, rushing from afar,
Proclaim their motions, and provoke the war;
So when inclement winters vex the plain
With piercing frosts, or thick descending rain,
To warmer seas the cranes embodied fly.
With noise and order, through the midway sky:
To pygmy nations wounds and death they bring,
And all the war descends upon the wing.
Although Homer does not mention the country of the pygmies in this passage, he does say that the cranes "fly over the ocean" (Pope takes advantage of a poet's license and does not give a literal translation); hence he must have located them unquestionably in Africa.
Aristotle, in his History of Animals, mentions these little men in his description of storks. After stating that these birds pass from Scythia to the marshes of Egypt,"toward the sources of the Nile," he declares that "this is the district that the pygmies inhabit, whose existence is not a fable." A hundred years before Aristotle, however, Herodotus had written of these homuncules, for he says that certain Nasamonians, five in number, had conceived the idea of exploring the deserts of Libya. After they had been traveling in the desert for several days they saw trees in the distance. They made toward these welcome objects, and when they had reached them, and while they were eating the fruit which grew on them in great abundance, they were suddenly surrounded and seized "by a large company of very small men who were much below the average height, and who dragged them away with them. They did not understand the language of the Nasamonians, nor did the latter understand that of their captors. They were conducted by these little men across a marshy country, into a town whose inhabitants were black. A large stream flowed before this town from west to east, and there were crocodiles in it."
Authorities now unhesitatingly state that this river could have been no other than the Djoliba, or Niger as it is called by cartographers and geographers. This river rises in a cañon of
Tasmanian. From The Pygmies, Quatrefages.
the mountainous plateau of eastern Senegambia, where it is known as the Djoliba or Joliba, flows northeast, then west, and then southeast, to empty into the Gulf of Guinea near Cape Formosa.
In the neighborhood of Timbuktu, 18° 5' 10" north latitude, and 40° 5' 10" west longitude; the river flows from west to east. Says De Quatrefages, in Pygmies: "There" (Timbuktu) "the river bends abruptly, and flows almost directly from west to east as far as Bourroum, over a distance of over three degrees of longitude, before turning toward the south to reach the Gulf of Guinea. It is, then, between the first and the fourth degree of west longitude that the Nasamonea reached the Niger." (It should be noted here that a large proportion of our former slave population was brought from a section of Africa only a degree or so south and east of Timbuktu.) The above-quoted author very correctly states that the town in which the Nasamonians were held captave could not have been the famous Timbuktu, for Ahmed Baba, the celebrated Arab historian and annalist, declares that the town was not founded until the fifth century of the Hegira, or 1100 a. d. But, taking everything into consideration, I am inclined to believe that it was really in this neighborhood that these adventurous explorers met the pygmies, and that the latter at that time had a town on the banks of the river Niger. The incursions of stronger and more warlike peoples probably drove these little men southward, out of the immediate neighborhood of the present site of Timbuktu.
The older writers, notably Pliny, located the pygmies in more than one country. Pliny not only locates them in Africa, but also in India, and modern research has declared that this historian was correct.
In the Vindhya Mountains, Malwa, India (20° to 25° north latitude, and 75° to 80° east longitude), M. Rousselet has found the Bandra Loks ("man monkeys"), true pygmies, less than five feet in height. These people are, unquestionably, bona fide negritos ("little negroes"). Saint-Pol Lias also found negritos in the province of Perak, called Sakaies. These little negroes were all five feet or under, and presented all the characteristic marks of the African pygmies, with the single exception of the protuberant abdomen. This modification of form is probably due to their surroundings. Not only are the negritos to be found in India, but they are to be observed in the Andaman Islands, Bay of Bengal; in the Malayan Archipelago; in Melonesia and Polynesia; and in Australia. This race has penetrated as far north as Japan, for Dr. Maget has found true negritos among the Japanese. They are also to be found in the archipelago of Loo Choo and in Formosa.
The Andamanese probably approximate more nearly in stature and form the pygmies of the United States than do any other tribe of little people save the Akka and Bushmen of Africa. The Tasmanians, however, resemble our negritos very much, as far as facial angle and expression are concerned. I have, therefore, introduced the portrait of a Tasmanian for the sake of comparison. In recent times explorers have penetrated Central Africa, and have found the smallest of all little people in the region of the country ruled over by King Munza, sovereign of the Monbuttos (18681871). Here Schweinfurth found a small colony of pygmies supported by King Munza; their chief, Adimokou, told Schweinfurt that his race dwelt farther south. From information given him by this negrito chieftain, this eminent traveler and scientist came to the conclusion that the country of the pygmies was situated about 30° north latitude and 25° east longitude. (I may state, parenthetically, that the pygmies of Africa are Called negrillos by some anthropologists; why, I know not, for it is generally conceded that the eastern and western pygmies are generically of the same stock. If this be denied, the doctrine of polygenesis must be accepted as true. But while a firm believer in polygenesis, I yet believe that these widely separated tribes of negritos originally sprang from the same root-stock. Their dissemination over such a wide area has been due to one of two causes: either, in times long past, some of them have been carried across the Indian Ocean by storms, or at one time Africa extended across the ocean even as far as Australia. The mighty cataclysm that changed the Sea of Sahara into the Desert of Sahara, by elevating the northern portion of Africa, probably occasioned a corresponding subsidence, and the eastern portion of the continent, save Australia, the Andaman Islands, and the Malayan Archipelago, was covered by the ocean.)
Chaillé-Long says, in Three Prophets, when returning from the country of King Munza: "I brought back with me, besides the six hundred Niam-Niam warriors, who had joined me in the battles against inimical tribes, . . . a specimen adult woman of the Ticki-Ticki, or Akka pygmy race. Ticki-Ticki is now in Cairo, and is a favorite plaything—being quite an acrobat—in the harem of the Khedive's mother." That adventurous Frenchman and most entertaining writer, Paul du Chaillu, met with pygmies at Niembonai, latitude 1° 58' 54" south, and longitude 11° 56' 38" east. Here they were known as Ohongos. He says, in Equatorial Africa, that during his stay in the village of Niembonai he succeeded in measuring six adults, all women save one—a young adult man. The height of the women ranged from four feet four and a half inches to five feet, while the height of the young man was four feet six inches. Finally, Stanley came across these little people at Avatiko, a village near the river Lenda. Two of the pygmies, a man and a woman, were captured by his men and carried into camp. The height of the man was four feet; his hands and feet were small and delicate; his body was rounded and wellproportioned, and his abdomen protuberant; the hair on his body was almost furlike, being nearly half an inch in length. On viewing this little man, Stanley rhapsodizes as follows: "Not one London editor could guess the feeling with which I regarded this manikin from the solitudes of the vast African forest. To me he was more venerable than the Memnonium of Thebes. That little body of his represented the oldest types of primitive man, descended from the outcasts of the earliest ages—the Ishmaelites of the primitive race—forever shunning the haunts of workers, deprived of the joy and delight of the home hearth, eternally exiled by their vice to live the life of human beasts in morass and fen and jungle wild. Think of it! Twenty-six centuries ago his ancestors captured the five young Nasamonian explorers, and made merry with them, at their village on the Niger" (In Darkest Africa). Stanley saw pygmies on several occasions after this, and Emin Pasha gives some interesting measurements in Stanley's book; so, I think, from the evidence adduced, that we can safely assert that there are tribes of pygmies, both continental and insular, in Asia, and that they are likewise still extant in Africa. All of these little negroes, both in Asia and in Africa, have certain anatomical, physiological, and skeletal characteristics in common, which declare that originally they must have come from the same stock. The true negro is dolichocephalic (longheaded); is of an average height as compared with the white race; his form is not rounded, but, on the contrary, is generally spare and angular; he is not at all hairy, and a strong, acrid, hircic, and disgusting odor emanates from his person. The negrito or pygmy, wherever found, is, on the contrary, brachycephalic (round-headed) or subbrachycephalic; he is far below the average height; his form is rounded; his body is generally covered with a soft, downy fell, and no appreciable odor is given off from his person. The true negro has large feet and hands, while in the negrito these members are small and delicately shaped.
While looking over some old papers published in New Orleans in 1842, I found a short description of a batch of, presumably, freshly imported slaves. Among them were "six or eight very small negroes, men and women, all of whom were under five feet in height. Who ran in this cargo is not known, but Mr.—— has the disposal of them." An old bill of sale, now in the possession of Mr. Wolfgang Werner, of Savannah, dated April 2.'), 1810, gives a description of two adult slaves, male and female, in which the height of the male is declared to be "four feet six inches (4 ft. in.), and the female four feet three inches (4 ft. 3 in.)." Finally, in the possession of the Armistede family, of Virginia, there is a letter dated "The Oaks," February 20, 1773, and written by Miss Judith Graeme to her friend Miss Sarah Armistede. In this letter Miss Graeme bewails the fact that "Pa has bought four of those trifling, good-for-nothing little 'ginny niggers,' who will steal the cloathes off your back if you give them half a chaunce." After giving a page or so of local gossip, Miss Judith closes her letter with a postscript anent the little negroes, who seemed to have aroused her bitterest animosity. Says she, "The biggest one of those nasty little 'ginny niggers' is not five feet high." Thus we see that over a hundred years ago negritos were brought to America and sold as slaves. For all I know to the contrary, these little negroes had been coming into the country ever since slavery was first instituted. This is probably the reason that pygmies are no longer found in the region of the Niger or in Ashantee. The incursions of the Arab slave dealers have driven them farther and farther inland, until they now inhabit the dense forest solitudes of equatorial Africa. I do not believe that any of the Akka have ever been brought to America and sold as slaves, for the evidence shows that they have occupied the same region of country (Central Africa) for hundreds of years, but negritos closely akin to them and springing from the same root-stock were undoubtedly brought from the west and east coasts of Africa and sold as slaves in America. The descendants of these negritos are our American pygmies, who can be found in large numbers either living in colonies like that in the neighborhood of Charleston, S. C, or Bayou Goula, La., or scattered along the South Atlantic and Gulf seaboards. Hon. W, T. Ellis, member of Congress, who has made a study of these little negroes, says that they speak a language intelligible to themselves alone; that they have undoubtedly retained a large number of the words of their ancestral vocabulary; and that they have retained and make use of their original idioms. Of course, many English words have crept in, but these are so commingled with their native speech that their meaning is utterly lost unless one is familiar with the peculiar patois that these diminutive individuals make use of. Captain Ellis, of course, has reference to one particular colony, that near Charleston, S. C. In Louisiana these negritos use words borrowed from the French, but so corrupted that it would be difficult for the most expert philologist to trace out their derivation and meaning.
Crossing has done much toward obliterating the pure type, many of these little people having only their undersized bodies and brachycephalic heads to indicate their origin; and, whenever there is a strain of negrito blood in an individual, he is very apt to possess one or both of these striking characteristics. I have examined a number of these half-breeds and have invariably found them round-headed and of short stature. In some localities, however, the pure type is very prevalent, and one may see the full-blooded negrito who possesses all the distinguishing features of his African or Asiatic brother. Such is the individual whom I have chosen to illustrate this paper. He was born in Bayou la Têche, La., of negrito parents, if his description of them is correct, and came to Kentucky with his "ole mistiss" when about fifty years old. He is four feet nine inches tall, and is perfectly proportioned. A glance at his photograph will show that his feet, notwithstanding the fact that they are covered by rough and unsightly brogans, are small and well made. His hands, although somewhat knotted by rheumatism and hard work, still show traces of their former slimness and delicate outline. His skin presents the characteristic texture of the full-blooded negrito, feeling like velvet to the touch, and is covered by a soft and downy fell. I have known him intimately for years, and have never detected the slightest odor emanating from his person. Finally, he is decidedly brachycephalic, and slightly hypsistenoceplialic. (The vertical diameter is compared with the transverse diameter; when the former is equal to or exceeds the latter, the skull is hypsistenocephalic.) Notwithstanding his age (according to his count he is nearly seventy years old) he is quite strong and active. Mr. A. E. Davenport says that these negritos of the Southern States, notwithstanding their diminutive stature, are very strong and exceedingly active. De Quatrefages says the same of the Andamanese. I have examined a large number of these American pygmies, and have been very much surprised at their strength and agility.
In a number of localities, notably in Florida and Louisiana, the negrito has abandoned civilization and relapsed into savagery. He supports himself by hunting and fishing, and never leaves his haunts in morass and forest, unless compelled so to do by lack of ammunition or other necessary supplies. He is a devil worshiper, paying more attention toward propitiating the Evil One, in order to "keep out of his clutches," than to God, who does not need propitiation because he is good and merciful. Voudou and Walla-walla dances and incantation ceremonies are of almost nightly occurrence among these people. Every hollow tree, every tangled brake, and every miry morass is the dwelling place of either a ghost or an evil spirit. The fetich is greatly in evidence, every hunter carrying about with him some peculiarly formed root or stone, or perhaps a "conjure bag," which he wears securely tied about his neck, and which has been furnished him by some noted "conjure doctor." So much afraid of ghosts and spirits are these negritos that they will rarely leave their hovels at night. Whenever they do go out at night they never go alone, but always in companies. Courtship and marriage among these half-savage negritos possess some peculiarities which have partially originated with themselves; yet some of their customs in these social rites seem to be only modifications of similar ceremonies handed down to them by their ancestors. For instance, the young negrito man will leave a basket of fruit at the door of his sweetheart's hut some time during the night; if she takes it in the next day, he knows that his suit has met with favor. The Sakies of India and Obongos of Africa go through the same performance. Marriage, however, especially among the Florida negritos, is simply a mating of the two individuals. Where these little people still live in the neighborhood of towns and thickly settled portions of the country, they generally seek the services of a minister or magistrate, though not always.
The dead present awful and awe-inspiring attributes to the pygmies; the ghost of the departed is his bête noire; hence, when one of these individuals departs this life, his body is treated with the greatest reverence. If he happens to be a negrito of the Bayou Goula, Bayou St. Martins, or Bayou la Têche neighborhood, or if he be one of those little people who dwell among the morasses and swamps of central Florida, his corpse is wrapped in bark, securely corded about with strips of hide, and hidden away in some secret place in the almost impenetrable forest. His ghost is supposed to linger in the neighborhood of his body; hence no negrito will ever approach the vicinity of his grave for fear of giving offense, and thereby incurring the enmity of the dead man, which would entail untold and unmentionable horrors.
These little men make splendid hunters, for they seem to have regained (if they have ever lost, which I greatly doubt) that acuteness of sight, smell, and hearing which makes their prototypes in India the very best of shikaris. There is no animal in all the woods their equal in cunning; there is no fish in any landlocked bayou or swiftly running stream which can avoid their rude but cunningly set nets and traps.
With their return to savagery these pygmies of the United States seem to have lost all desire for the comforts and refinements of civilization. Their huts among the moss-covered trees lining the bayous of Louisiana, or their still more miserable hutches in the Everglades of Florida, remind one very much of the pictured burrows of the Akka, their kinsmen, who dwell in the vast forest solitudes of Central Africa. Like that remnant of the Seminoles also living among the labyrinthine fastnesses of that vast waste of swamp, brake, and forest—the Everglades—these black manikins shun the haunts of men, and when discussing them one quotes almost involuntarily the thoughts of Stanley when he first saw the pygmy of Avatiko. When the wave of immigration turns southward, which it will eventually do, these little people will lose forever their individuality and become merged into the general population. Crossing will finally obliterate the pure type, but we will still continue to find, for an indefinite length of time, among our colored population, individuals with round heads and undersized bodies who will serve to show that once the pygmies dwelt among us.