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Himba Animal Classification and the Strange Case of the Hyena

  • David P. Crandall

Continent-wide in African folklore the hyena is depicted as a dull witted, easily duped creature—despite the fact that the hyena is also known as a cunning and dangerous predator. This article explores why in particular the Himba of northwestern Namibia entertain the characterisation of the hyena as stupid yet from the management of their flocks and herds have experienced first hand how clever a predator the hyena is. For the Himba, the answer lies in the hyena's anatomy, in the perception that the hyena is a hermaphrodite. As such, the hyena stands at the margins of fixed social categories; it is neither this nor that but a hybrid, a creature acting outside of its proper bounds. Among the Himba, such marginal people or creatures are not felt to be dangerous, rather, their primary characteristic is stupidity.

Présente dans le folklore africain, l'hyène est représentée comme une creature à l'esprit lent qui se laisse facilement duper, malgré qu'elle soit aussi connue pour être un prédateur rusé et dangereux. Cet article examine en particulier les raisons pour lesquelles les Himba du nord-ouest de la Namibie nourrissent l'image de l'hyène stupide, alors même que leurs activités pastorales leur ont appris de première main que l'hyène etait un prédateur intelligent. Pour les Himba, la réponse réside dans l'anatomie de l'hyène, dans le fait que l'hyène est perçue comme un être hermaphrodite. En tant que telle, l'hyène se trouve à la limite des catégories sociales fixes ; c'est un hybride, une créature qui évolue en marge de ses propres limites. Chez les Himba, les personnes ou créatures marginales ne sont pas perçues comme dangereuses ; au lieu de cela, leur principale caractéristique est la stupidité.

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  • ISSN: 0001-9720
  • EISSN: 1750-0184
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