The Descent of Man – Day 138 of 151

The Influence of Beauty in Determining the Marriages of Mankind

In civilised life man is largely, but by no means exclusively, influenced in the choice of his wife by external appearance; but we are chiefly concerned with primeval times, and our only means of forming a judgment on this subject is to study the habits of existing semi-civilised and savage nations. If it can be shewn that the men of different races prefer women having various characteristics, or conversely with the women, we have then to enquire whether such choice, continued during many generations, would produce any sensible effect on the race, either on one sex or both according to the form of inheritance which has prevailed.

It will be well first to shew in some detail that savages pay the greatest attention to their personal appearance. (42. A full and excellent account of the manner in which savages in all parts of the world ornament themselves, is given by the Italian traveller, Professor Mantegazza, ‘Rio de la Plata, Viaggi e Studi,’ 1867, pp. 525-545; all the following statements, when other references are not given, are taken from this work. See, also, Waitz, ‘Introduction to Anthropology,’ Eng. translat. vol. i. 1863, p. 275, et passim. Lawrence also gives very full details in his ‘Lectures on Physiology,’ 1822. Since this chapter was written Sir J. Lubbock has published his ‘Origin of Civilisation,’ 1870, in which there is an interesting chapter on the present subject, and from which (pp. 42, 48) I have taken some facts about savages dyeing their teeth and hair, and piercing their teeth.) That they have a passion for ornament is notorious; and an English philosopher goes so far as to maintain, that clothes were first made for ornament and not for warmth. As Professor Waitz remarks, “however poor and miserable man is, he finds a pleasure in adorning himself.” The extravagance of the naked Indians of South America in decorating themselves is shewn “by a man of large stature gaining with difficulty enough by the labour of a fortnight to procure in exchange the chica necessary to paint himself red.” (43. Humboldt, ‘Personal Narrative,’ Eng. translat. vol. iv. p. 515; on the imagination shewn in painting the body, p. 522; on modifying the form of the calf of the leg, p. 466.) The ancient barbarians of Europe during the Reindeer period brought to their caves any brilliant or singular objects which they happened to find. Savages at the present day everywhere deck themselves with plumes, necklaces, armlets, ear-rings, etc. They paint themselves in the most diversified manner. “If painted nations,” as Humboldt observes, “had been examined with the same attention as clothed nations, it would have been perceived that the most fertile imagination and the most mutable caprice have created the fashions of painting, as well as those of garments.”

In one part of Africa the eyelids are coloured black; in another the nails are coloured yellow or purple. In many places the hair is dyed of various tints. In different countries the teeth are stained black, red, blue, etc., and in the Malay Archipelago it is thought shameful to have white teeth “like those of a dog.” Not one great country can be named, from the polar regions in the north to New Zealand in the south, in which the aborigines do not tattoo themselves. This practice was followed by the Jews of old, and by the ancient Britons. In Africa some of the natives tattoo themselves, but it is a much more common practice to raise protuberances by rubbing salt into incisions made in various parts of the body; and these are considered by the inhabitants of Kordofan and Darfur “to be great personal attractions.” In the Arab countries no beauty can be perfect until the cheeks “or temples have been gashed.” (44. ‘The Nile Tributaries,’ 1867; ‘The Albert N’yanza,’ 1866, vol. i. p. 218.) In South America, as Humboldt remarks, “a mother would be accused of culpable indifference towards her children, if she did not employ artificial means to shape the calf of the leg after the fashion of the country.” In the Old and New Worlds the shape of the skull was formerly modified during infancy in the most extraordinary manner, as is still the case in many places, and such deformities are considered ornamental. For instance, the savages of Colombia (45. Quoted by Prichard, ‘Physical History of Mankind,’ 4th ed. vol. i. 1851, p. 321.) deem a much flattened head “an essential point of beauty.”

The hair is treated with especial care in various countries; it is allowed to grow to full length, so as to reach to the ground, or is combed into “a compact frizzled mop, which is the Papuan’s pride and glory.” (46. On the Papuans, Wallace, ‘The Malay Archipelago,’ vol. ii. p. 445. On the coiffure of the Africans, Sir S. Baker, ‘The Albert N’yanza,’ vol. i. p. 210.) In northern Africa “a man requires a period of from eight to ten years to perfect his coiffure.” With other nations the head is shaved, and in parts of South America and Africa even the eyebrows and eyelashes are eradicated. The natives of the Upper Nile knock out the four front teeth, saying that they do not wish to resemble brutes. Further south, the Batokas knock out only the two upper incisors, which, as Livingstone (47. ‘Travels,’ p. 533.) remarks, gives the face a hideous appearance, owing to the prominence of the lower jaw; but these people think the presence of the incisors most unsightly, and on beholding some Europeans, cried out, “Look at the great teeth!” The chief Sebituani tried in vain to alter this fashion. In various parts of Africa and in the Malay Archipelago the natives file the incisors into points like those of a saw, or pierce them with holes, into which they insert studs.

As the face with us is chiefly admired for its beauty, so with savages it is the chief seat of mutilation. In all quarters of the world the septum, and more rarely the wings of the nose are pierced; rings, sticks, feathers, and other ornaments being inserted into the holes. The ears are everywhere pierced and similarly ornamented, and with the Botocudos and Lenguas of South America the hole is gradually so much enlarged that the lower edge touches the shoulder. In North and South America and in Africa either the upper or lower lip is pierced; and with the Botocudos the hole in the lower lip is so large that a disc of wood, four inches in diameter, is placed in it. Mantegazza gives a curious account of the shame felt by a South American native, and of the ridicule which he excited, when he sold his tembeta,–the large coloured piece of wood which is passed through the hole. In Central Africa the women perforate the lower lip and wear a crystal, which, from the movement of the tongue, has “a wriggling motion, indescribably ludicrous during conversation.” The wife of the chief of Latooka told Sir S. Baker (49. ‘The Albert N’yanza,’ 1866, vol. i. p. 217.) that Lady Baker “would be much improved if she would extract her four front teeth from the lower jaw, and wear the long pointed polished crystal in her under lip.” Further south with the Makalolo, the upper lip is perforated, and a large metal and bamboo ring, called a pelele, is worn in the hole. “This caused the lip in one case to project two inches beyond the tip of the nose; and when the lady smiled, the contraction of the muscles elevated it over the eyes. ‘Why do the women wear these things?’ the venerable chief, Chinsurdi, was asked. Evidently surprised at such a stupid question, he replied, ‘For beauty! They are the only beautiful things women have; men have beards, women have none. What kind of a person would she be without the pelele? She would not be a woman at all with a mouth like a man, but no beard.'” (49. Livingstone, ‘British Association,’ 1860; report given in the ‘Athenaeum,’ July 7, 1860, p. 29.)

Hardly any part of the body, which can be unnaturally modified, has escaped. The amount of suffering thus caused must have been extreme, for many of the operations require several years for their completion, so that the idea of their necessity must be imperative. The motives are various; the men paint their bodies to make themselves appear terrible in battle; certain mutilations are connected with religious rites, or they mark the age of puberty, or the rank of the man, or they serve to distinguish the tribes. Amongst savages the same fashions prevail for long periods (50. Sir S. Baker (ibid. vol. i. p. 210) speaking of the natives of Central Africa says, “every tribe has a distinct and unchanging fashion for dressing the hair.” See Agassiz (‘Journey in Brazil,’ 1868, p. 318) on invariability of the tattooing of Amazonian Indians.), and thus mutilations, from whatever cause first made, soon come to be valued as distinctive marks. But self-adornment, vanity, and the admiration of others, seem to be the commonest motives. In regard to tattooing, I was told by the missionaries in New Zealand that when they tried to persuade some girls to give up the practice, they answered, “We must just have a few lines on our lips; else when we grow old we shall be so very ugly.” With the men of New Zealand, a most capable judge (51. Rev. R. Taylor, ‘New Zealand and its Inhabitants,’ 1855, p. 152.) says, “to have fine tattooed faces was the great ambition of the young, both to render themselves attractive to the ladies, and conspicuous in war.” A star tattooed on the forehead and a spot on the chin are thought by the women in one part of Africa to be irresistible attractions. (52. Mantegazza, ‘Viaggi e Studi,’ p. 542.) In most, but not all parts of the world, the men are more ornamented than the women, and often in a different manner; sometimes, though rarely, the women are hardly at all ornamented. As the women are made by savages to perform the greatest share of the work, and as they are not allowed to eat the best kinds of food, so it accords with the characteristic selfishness of man that they should not be allowed to obtain, or use the finest ornaments. Lastly, it is a remarkable fact, as proved by the foregoing quotations, that the same fashions in modifying the shape of the head, in ornamenting the hair, in painting, tattooing, in perforating the nose, lips, or ears, in removing or filing the teeth, etc., now prevail, and have long prevailed, in the most distant quarters of the world. It is extremely improbable that these practices, followed by so many distinct nations, should be due to tradition from any common source. They indicate the close similarity of the mind of man, to whatever race he may belong, just as do the almost universal habits of dancing, masquerading, and making rude pictures.

Having made these preliminary remarks on the admiration felt by savages for various ornaments, and for deformities most unsightly in our eyes, let us see how far the men are attracted by the appearance of their women, and what are their ideas of beauty. I have heard it maintained that savages are quite indifferent about the beauty of their women, valuing them solely as slaves; it may therefore be well to observe that this conclusion does not at all agree with the care which the women take in ornamenting themselves, or with their vanity. Burchell (53. ‘Travels in South Africa,’ 1824, vol. i. p. 414.) gives an amusing account of a Bush-woman who used as much grease, red ochre, and shining powder “as would have ruined any but a very rich husband.” She displayed also “much vanity and too evident a consciousness of her superiority.” Mr. Winwood Reade informs me that the negroes of the West Coast often discuss the beauty of their women. Some competent observers have attributed the fearfully common practice of infanticide partly to the desire felt by the women to retain their good looks. (54. See, for references, Gerland, ‘Ueber das Aussterben der Naturvolker,’ 1868, ss. 51, 53, 55; also Azara, ‘Voyages,’ etc., tom. ii. p. 116.) In several regions the women wear charms and use love-philters to gain the affections of the men; and Mr. Brown enumerates four plants used for this purpose by the women of North-Western America. (55. On the vegetable productions used by the North-Western American Indians, see ‘Pharmaceutical Journal,’ vol. x.)

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