We don’t have a quirky or fascinating name for our weblog — neuro + anthropology = no points for being an inside joke or clever reference — but we did put together a new bannerhead when we moved from our old digs at Neuroanthropology.net to this site. Someone commented on the new image, and I thought it was a good chance to explain what the elements are. The new bannerhead was pretty low-tech in origin, mostly just fiddling with images in PowerPoint, and it combines a digital image of a neuron with an illustration that is renowned in anthropology.
The facial image is probably best known for appearing on one of the English editions of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s landmark book, Structural Anthropology: the Basic Books, 1974 edition is where Greg first saw it. One symbolic connection that the image evokes, then, is to the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss, an extraordinarily original thinker in anthropology who profoundly affected a wide range of fields with his model of cognition, although he drew on a much older, less biologically-based understanding of thought than we advocate here (see Thinking through Claude Lévi-Strauss).
The image, however, is a cleaned up, graphic arts re-rendering of a drawing by Maori chief, Te Morenga, of his own moko or facial tattoo. That original drawing appeared in H. G. Robley, Moko, or Maori Tattooing (electronic version of Robley’s book here, with the original drawing here).
The image is even more interesting, in my opinion, when you realize that it was drawn, not by an interested spectator or European naturalist, but by the bearer himself. Not so much about appearance, the drawing is likely much more about significance.
I don’t know why exactly the image was chosen for the cover of Lévi-Strauss’s volume, but for Neuroanthropology, the traditional Maori moko is especially apropos because of the way that biology, culture, social structure and anatomy all converge in the practice. Ta moko, the Maori technique for marking the skin, differed from more widely known practices of tatooing in that a chisel was used to to introduce the pigment into skin (rather than a needle or sharp comb). Chiseling left permanent grooves in the skin, meaning that the designs could be felt and not just seen.
The process of getting a moko started in puberty and took many years, as recipients would need time to recover and some parts of the moko could only be completed after initiation ceremonies or key life events. Different parts of the face were marked to indicate a Maori man’s rank, his family, his marriage, his birth status, his own work; women were typically only tatooed on the chin. One side of the face indicated status through the maternal and the other through the paternal line; not being of elite status through one or the other meant that the appropriate side of the face was left blank. Commoners did not have moko.
In other words, the moko is a powerful metaphor for culture’s effect on the body and nervous system (although, like any metaphor, also limited). Cultural identity, social status, class, occupation, gender ideals, as with the moko, leave indelible marks on the human body and brain that are not merely superficial. The moko, like so many great anthropological examples, appears at first blush a terribly exotic case of extreme cultural practice, but upon closer examination suggests basic principles for understanding much more pervasive tendencies across our species.