27 November 2016

The Anomalous Pangolin

A small tree pangolin being held.
A tree pangolin, by Valerius Tygart.

This cute Pokémon-like creature is a pangolin. Pangolins are interesting to anthropologists because they tell us something about how we classify things, and how we react to things that can’t easily be classified.

Mary Douglas was anthropologist who wrote about the Lele people of Central Africa in the 1950s. She was particuarly interested in how people classify things and what it says about our cultures. She thought that we felt strong emotions towards things that we couldn’t classify, we could consider them taboo or somehow special.

Douglas wrote that the panglolin was a special animal to the Lele because it didn’t easily fit into their system of classifying animals – it was scaly like a fish but it climbed trees, and it could give birth to a single baby like a human instead of a litter. Because of this, it was seen as a sacred animal that could act as a mediator between humans, animals, and spirits. The sacrifice and eating of pangolins in a ritual was believed to help men hunt for food and help women concive children.

Sadly, everyone else seems to want to hunt pangolins too. They’re the world’s most trafficked animal, illegally poached for meat, skins, and traditional medicine, particularly in China. Loss of their habits is also killing them off. However, people are trying to help them. This September, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora officially banned any commercial trade of pangolins.

No wonder this little guy is happy!

A gif of a pangolin playing in mud.
A playful pangolin, by Buzzfeed and Earth Touch.

Sources and Related Links

Animals in Lele Religious Symbolism by Mary Douglas
Pangolin, The ‘Artichoke With Legs,’ Earns Top Trade Protection
Pangolin – Wikipedia
Lele People – Wikpedia
Save Pangolins
Species Survival Commission: Pangolin Specialist Group
World’s Weirdest – YouTube
Pangolin Plays in the Mud

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Anthropology, Weird


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