Daily Stone Age Life – trade and war

The Sohi villages are set in rugged mountainous country, the kind that would nowadays be described as “inaccessible”. Of course that’s not quite true – there are ways to get in and out of the valleys, but the combination of steep mountains, rocky slopes and slippery ground make it a major undertaking.

Each valley contains one or a few small villages, but it can be a full day’s trek to get to the next valley. A woman will occasionally undertake the journey, laden with produce to trade. She will also carry food for herself, wrapped in palm leaves – perhaps some taro root that was cooked the previous evening and has been kept warm overnight in the ground oven.

The woman sets off early, and will stay one night before returning home. Hopefully by then she will have traded all her produce. She stays with friends and family, for she was born in that village.

The Sohi people don’t lack for much, so what would she trade her produce for? Well, stones for one thing. The Sohi villages are in primarily limestone country, and limestone doesn’t make very good tools compared to the hard chert stone that comes from the coast. This valuable stone is traded from village to village, passing through hundreds of hands before it arrives at its final destination.

Sea shells are also valued, being the currency by which a “bride price” will be paid. Decorative feathers, too, are sought. Occasionally a small quantity of salt is available that has been traded up from the coast, and this will be exchanged for a large quantity of produce – for the Sohi people, in their hot climate, get little salt in their natural diet and do crave it.

For much of the time, this limited trade is the only contact between the villagers in one valley and those in the next. So difficult is it to pass from one valley to the next, and so infrequent the contact, that different languages have evolved in each valley.

If the Sohi have experienced a few years of good harvests, and are strong and healthy and well-equipped, they may take it upon themselves to raid a village in an adjoining valley. Armed with spears and bows-and-arrows, they will make their way up and over the mountains, hoping to surprise their victims while they sleep.

It’s quite likely that the attacking party will be repelled, because they are limited to the weapons and ammunition that they can carry with them, and are limited in numbers. But in the event that they are successful they will raid the village, rape some of the women, and capture some young women as brides to take back to their own village.

It’s brutal behaviour, but it does spread the genetic material of the successful tribes, and it does prevent genetic degradation due to the intense inbreeding that would otherwise occur in these isolated societies.

So now we see why it is the women who travel from valley to valley to trade produce for stones, because they are returning to visit the village from which they were kidnapped many years previously.

The aim of the attacking party is to stage what is effectively a smash-and-grab raid; they are not aiming to inflict casualties. Similarly, those being attacked are primarily concerned with halting the raid rather than inflicting casualties. Nevertheless, deaths do sometimes occur and the deceased will be carried back to his own village.

More common are spear wounds and arrow wounds. Many a Sohi man can point to a scar where a spear went in, and usually also to a scar where the spear came out. If the spear tip has lodged in the flesh, it will usually cause less injury to push it right through than to attempt to pull it back out (which would cause its barbs to trigger much more internal bleeding).

Injuries unrelated to the battle can also occur, commonly broken arms or legs. These will be wrapped with a herbal poultice and the victim will be rested until they recover. Or not. If the wound and the dressing turn a putrid brown colour then everyone knows the victim has only a few days to live, and the victim knows that their bones will soon be joining those of their ancestors on the rock ledges above the lake.

Tribal warfare is not the usual state of things. Most of the time the Sohi channel their energy into growing crops, looking after the pigs, building huts, foraging and hunting for food, then cooking and eating the food.

But there is recreation too, which I’ll mention briefly in the next post.

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