Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Dwarf Question

This book is actually subtitled “Collected Papers on the Curious Anthropology of Robert Grant Haliburton”. Curious is indeed the right word here. Haliburton was a Canadian lawyer who dabbled in anthropological research and comparative mythology. (He was also a Canada First supporter and hence an opponent of Louis Riel and the Métis.) Apparently, Haliburton believed that a world-wide cult of the Pleiades was one of the primordial religions of Man. He also argued that many Greek legends and traditions had originated in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. And perhaps the Greeks as a people, too? However, it seems Haliburton's main claim to fame were his papers on the Dwarf Question.

In these peculiar articles, reprinted in this volume, Haliburton claims that an unknown race of dwarves or Pygmies lived in the Akka region of Morocco, south of the Atlas range. These Pygmies supposedly have a reddish complexion, wooly hair, ride small but fast ponies, and are specialized at ostrich-hunting. They are probably pagans, worshipping Dido and Osiris, and can occasionally be seen in a remote temple dedicated to these deities. The Arabs and Berbers fear the purported supernatural powers of these dwarves, pay them tribute and in general refuse to talk about them. There are also dwarves who work as acrobats or tinkers, and these sometimes travel to the town of northern Morocco.

Haliburton was mocked by several critics for his speculations (the critical comments are also reprinted in this book), and it was strongly implied that he may have concocted the entire thing. A more “charitable” interpretation was that he had been taken in by recreational liars while visiting Morocco. Haliburton himself insisted that other Western travelers in the region had corroborated his findings. He also claimed that a dwarf race lived in the Pyrenees in Spain! I admit that the exchanges between the amateur anthropologist and his detractors have certain humorous quality, and so have the “corroborative” reports. I think it's obvious that Haliburton was either extremely credulous or something of a Schwärmer. Many of the “Pygmies” observed by him and others were simply ordinary Moors of smaller stature, or people with genetic disorders.

Haliburton's search for dwarves was connected to a grander theory, according to which Pygmid races had once roamed all the world, and gone extinct only recently. Thus, Haliburton speculated that a dimunitive Turanian race had once lived all over Europe. Legends about “fairies” and “little people” are really distorted memories of the Pygmy races. Presumably, the same is true of the legends about trolls and gnomes. I don't know what happened to Haliburton's Moroccan dwarves (or their ponies), but like the editor of this material, I suspect they may never have existed at all. That being said, I think it's well-established that Central African Pygmies and Southeast Asian Negritos are very ancient and must have been more widespread during the Stone Age than they are today. And what about Homo floresiensis?

Maybe, just maybe, the curious anthropology of the old credulous Canadian Tory might one day be vindicated…

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