Exploring Tribal Literacy with Michael Cook

Publisert 04.10.2017
Love letters and graffiti are some of the main uses for tribal scripts that are not very well known to much of the outside world, explains Holberg Laureate Michael Cook at a Holberg Prize event in New York.

On 27 September, the Holberg Prize and the Norwegian Consulate General in New York hosted a reception at the Consul General’s residence. Invited guests from academia were given a presentation on the Holberg Prize, before 2014 Laureate Michael Cook delivered a lecture on the theme “How to Achieve Mass Literacy Without Really Trying."

Cook is a Class of 1943 University Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. As a historian of religion, Cook is one of the today’s leading experts on the history and religious thought of Islam.

A Tale of Three Tribes

In his presentation, Cook spoke about several tribes—three in particular, of which two were Muslim—who historically have had surprisingly widespread literacy in scripts of their own. The first tribe was the Tuareg people, a large Berber ethnic confederation who inhabit the Sahara desert. The second was the Lampong people, who inhabit the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The third was the Hanunoo, or Mangyan, in the Philippines.

The Foundations of Literacy  

“When we think of mass literacy,” Cook said, “we ususally think of it a modern phenomenon, a time consuming investment, which entails the building of schools and infrastructure, and of teachers who teach both boys and girls, who then go on tothe job market.”

“We tend to think of the pre-modern period as being very much unlike that,” he continued, “with less investment in infrastructure, so that that fewer people achieve literacy, and with a big gap between males and females.” As an example, he referred to the Indian empire in 1901, where male literacy was at about 10%, while female literacy was at less than 1 %.

While this notion largely holds true, Cook acknowledged, there are exceptions, he said, which he came to by accident. He chanced on three above examples of tribes that had wide spread literacy.

Romance in the Desert

The Tuareg tribespeople are camel nomads who scattered throughout different countries of northern Africa, including Algeria, Libya, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. The Tuareg have a traditional writing system of their own, called Tifinagh, which is well known within the tribe. Tifinagh is considered the sole descendent of the more widespread ancient Berber script. It ultimately derives from the Phoenician script. Some ethnographers claim that women knows the script particularly well.

“So, what do they do with the script?” asked Cook. “They send each other love letters and short messages,” he explained. “They have rocks in abundance, and the Tifinagh script is ideal for graffiti, which is often of the romantic type.” But knowledge of Tifinagh will not get you a job, Cook explained.     

A Jungle Telegraph?

Cook then spoke about the Lampong tribe, who live in the jungle in the southern part of  Sumatra. Their script as well is descended from one of the many ancient Indian scripts.

Cook referenced a Ducth-Indonesian census from 1930s, which showed that 45 % of the Lampong men and 35% of the women were literate. This is not quite mass literacy, but still the highest literacy rates to be found anywhere in Indonesia at the time. Older generation knew the script to a larger degree than the younger generation, and it also seemed that literacy rates were higher in the past than in the 1930s.

Once again, the tribal script was not useful for the job market, but it was useful for social life. For example, boys would often write erotic poetry and present the poems to their favourite girls.

Neither Snow nor Rain nor Heat nor Gloom of Night

After talking about the first two tribes, Cook turned his focused to three tribes of the Mindoro Island in the Philippines: the Hanunoo tribe, the Buhid tribe, and the Bangon. The tribe whose literacy rate is the highest is the Hanunoo tribe, whose language is known as Hanunoo-Mangyan, or simply Mangyan. The Buhid tribe also uses a script to a lesser extent, and the Bangon tribe also seems to possess their own script, though this is less widely known. Of these three tribes, Cook focused mostly on the Hanunoo, or Mangyan, tribe.

The Hanunoo people live in the interior southern part of the Mindoro Island, which means that they traditionally have not successful in holding territory. Those who have been more successful have a coastline.

The Hanunoo have been left behind in terms of world history, but they have a tribal script, which again derived from an Indian script, which then spread to the Philippines.

We know from written sources that a Dutch 16th century missionary went to the island, where he subsequently left the priesthood, married, and became an ethnographer. He wrote about the Hanunoo tribe,and he estimate the literacy rate to be about 70 % - 80 %. This is a very high literacy rate for a tribe “back and beyond.”

The Hanunoo too use the script to write short messages, and they have what resembles a postal system, where they will hang messages on a branch on a tree. Someone will pick the message up and move it along, and someone else will transport it further. As with the tribes referenced above, there is no institutionalization of the written language, and the script is traditionally passed down by the women of the tribe.

Two Essential Questions

The phenomena observed with the three tribes mentioned, raise two obvious questions, explained Cook: Firstly, Are these isolated cases, or rather the tip of an iceberg? It seems to be the latter, as there is evidence of such scripts elsewhere as well, for instance rocks with graffiti in various parts of Africa. According to one hypothesis, the Tuareg script represents the survival of this phenomenon.

There is also some reason to extend speculation to include ancient, Pre-Islamic Arabia. In the Syrian desert there are an enormous number of cases with graffiti in rocks. Leading experts have referred to the Tuareg parallel and argued that these findings are evidence of large-scale tribal literacy.

“Furthermore,” said Cook, if we go to Sumatra and Java, we have 19th century attestations of this phenomenon.” The role of women and the love of poetry are two essential features associated with the use of their scripts, he explained.

 And lastly, as mentioned above, there are several island scripts in use in the Philippines. Spanish 16th century accounts describe how there was a surprisingly high literacy rate among women in particular. The use of these scripts today include writing the names of candidates down during elections—a purely practical purpose.

“The second question is,” Cook said, “How is it that these scripts are perpetuated and handed down without coercive institutions like compulsory educations systems? How is it that these tribes can do without them?” “So far,” said Cook,” we have no good answer.”