What do metalheads and Papuans have in common?


A lot apparently, according to an anthropologist:

Heavy metal fans have evolved to communicate with each other like remote tribes in Papua New Guinea, a study by anthropologists has found.

They have rules for behaviour in the front-of-stage “mosh pit” that are passed down by “elders”, there are gift-sharing rituals at concerts and dark cathartic music, which mirror rites among Papuan tribes that have changed little in 40,000 years.

Lindsay Bishop, a researcher, has spent 10 years studying heavy metal, the loud, pounding style of music that has grown from early followers of the band Black Sabbath in Birmingham into a worldwide culture with millions of fans in almost every country.

Ms Bishop, of University College London, said her research demonstrated how fundamental were some tenets of our humanity: “It recognises this completely alien culture of mosh pits, heavy metal music and rituals links into this indigenous clan living in the rainforest of Papua New Guinea.”

I always love it when academics go out on field research and make startling discoveries just outside the walls of their ivory towers. The research does indeed read like a report from deep in a jungle: “Heavy metal was also no longer ‘angry white males’ but culturally inclusive, she said. A third of its followers were female, with all-women groups of fans such as the Botswana Queens. Involvement was transgenerational, with fathers and grandfathers passing on the etiquette of the ‘mosh pit’.¬†Older generations taught the etiquette while newcomers learned ‘moshing’ was not a fight but a way to release tension and often create lasting bonds with people.” You don’t say. You read stuff like that and you wonder if it’s not the universities that are increasingly like the isolated tribes deep in the primordial forests who have little comprehension of what’s going on in the world outside of their own lost valley.

I’ve been to metal concerts and I have been to Papua New Guinea though I’m not going to claim expertise in either, much less the expertise that comes from studying a subject for 10 years (I hope that Lindsay Bishop is not deaf by now), but this sort of research arriving at this sort of conclusions strikes me as pretty glib. Humans are by nature tribal. Some tribes, like those in Papua New Guinea, are based on kinship, others, like those in the developed world, are based on shared values, beliefs and interests, from Presbyterianism, through the Labor Party, to stamp collecting. Every group of people, every tribe,¬†has its own rituals – the way the members of the group are supposed to behave and interact with each other and the outsiders. The range of rituals is limited, because the range of human expression is limited. Thus the rituals of every tribe will be similar in kind (though not in their particulars). A similar work of comparative anthropology could be written about any two collectives – for example a Papuan tribe and the academics, or the academics and the metal fans. Or metal fans and the Presbyterians.

You say mosh pit, I say the graduation ceremony.