December 18, 2014
Shrunken heads and shrinking crime
For the Herald
OXFORD (England) — Some of the most macabre items to be found in any European museum stand only a few centimetres tall, but watch visitors with an inscrutable, waxy scowl. Acquired by British ethnographers during exploratory treks through the Upper Amazon region of Ecuador and Peru in the late 19th century, it took some defiance of the evil eye and the aggrieved afterlife to transport them back to England. And here, in this city’s Pitt Rivers Museum, they still sit in glass cases: homunculi made of the skin of dead enemies’ heads that have been stripped off, boiled, polished, sewed up and stuffed with pebbles so as to form shrunken heads that can be strung on a victor’s necklace.
These heads, known as tsantsas, are stark reminders of the Hobbesian brutality of traditional human life. Pine as we might for the simplicities of primitive communities, with neither material envy nor social media, it is the extreme violence of ancient societies that continues to impress. Corpses pickled in peat bogs over thousands of years tend to suggest death by bashing over the head was hardly uncommon. Even a great defender of the virtues of tribal existence, US academic Jared Diamond, finds ample evidence among the Ache of Paraguay, the tribes of New Guinea or the Kung of Africa of high levels of the homicidal urge.
Sheer terror, furthermore, seems to have been the prevalent emotion between members of rival tribes. “Rarely or never do members of small-scale societies encounter strangers,” explains Diamond, “because it’s suicidal to travel into an unfamiliar area to whose inhabitants you are unknown.”
Modern Europeans, on the other hand, appear to be celebrating an ever more gilded age of civil peace. Put aside for a moment the skirmishes in the Ukraine or the rampant and incendiary youth of London and Paris, and consider the raw data. Official figures released this week in Britain indicated that crime fell last year by 15 percent, the largest single decline recorded since the survey began over 30 years ago.
The downward trend is unmistakeably strong, and applies almost across the board. Crime rates are 60 percent lower than in the peak year of 1995; murder, violent crime, household theft, vandalism, car crime and anti-social behaviour are all down, some significantly. Of the few crimes to have risen, perhaps the most striking is that of shoplifting — a non-violent offence against business which several police forces link directly to the effects of austerity and benefit cuts.
From the perspective of Latin America, where many countries grapple with extraordinarily high and rising rates of violent crime — and where the issue is the primary public concern in around a dozen countries — these numbers may appear abnormal. But they are repeated to a greater or lesser extent across Western Europe and North America. The Netherlands, for instance, has attained the curious honour of having more prison guards than prisoners as its jail population continues a relentless decline, down by close to 30 percent since 2007. Even in Spain, where unemployment levels are stuck well over 20 percent and the business of home repossession continues its funereal march, crime rates dropped by 4.3 percent last year, marking the lowest ebb for 12 years.
The case of Spain points to what is undoubtedly the most mysterious aspect of this decline. Scholarly study of crime rates has repeatedly linked the phenomenon to deep social undercurrents, above all inequality, public neglect, family dislocation, displacement and collective trauma of one sort or another. No one seriously question these links. One comprehensive report on crime in Latin America produced by the United Nations Development Programme last year found that it was in the region’s fastest expanding cities that crime tended to fester. Poor and incomplete education is also strongly correlated with crime: 80 percent of the region’s jailed population were in school for less than 12 years, the UN report found.
This all makes for fascinating reading, but leaves behind a gaping hole in our understanding. Why on earth should violent crime worsen across Latin America over a decade in which its economies have grown and state budgets have expanded, whereas crime declines in Western Europe in a period marked by precisely the opposite drift? Doesn’t this suggest that far from piggy-backing on social exclusion, ennui and anomie, as common sense expects, crime is now doing precisely the opposite? For the same Britain and Europe that is enjoying a high tide of civic peace is also suffering a great widening of the gap between poor and rich, growing wariness across social barriers, sharp rises in suicide (the British rate has reached a 28-year-high, for instance), and any number of increases in obesity, depression, disillusionment and political discontent.
Here is where explanations branch off into any number of experimental directions. Perhaps, it is argued, restrictions on youth drinking play a role. There is an economic theory that abortion has reduced unwanted births, and thereby the threatening presence of unattended young males; Latin America and Europe seem to differ markedly in this respect. Other theoretical avenues open up wherever one looks. Strict European controls on lead in petrol might play an important role in brain chemistry. Other possible causes include better policing, changing jail terms (either longer or shorter), closed circuit television, or the counter-intuitively pacifying role of violent cartoons, video games, smart phones and omnipresent retail culture.
Alternatively, consider again the shrunken heads of the Pitt Rivers Museum. The fact that such great pains were taken to boil and embellish a dead rival’s skin suggests that the violence of killing was connected to a deep sense of the importance of the enemy. From what we know, the ancient tribes were intensely fearful of their rival, and very aware of the presence and intentions of their foes. Modern Britons and Europeans, on the other hand, appear at times to be drowning in an ocean of their own self-interest, and find it hard to remember any more who or what their enemy might be.