drugs, food, remedies, sex

What is it about the pangolin?

British trains now commonly have posters encouraging travelers to text a small donation to a charity. This could be a charity supporting people, or one helping animals. Yesterday, however, I saw a poster for what was a new cause for me: a charity aiming at preventing pangolins from becoming extinct.

It’s a long time since I’ve even heard the word ‘pangolin’. The Goodies, a British TV comedy show from my distant youth, featured ‘The Terrapin Song’, which included the line “You can depend on a pangolin to get them rolling in the aisles”. But I first encountered these mammals when I was studying social anthropology at university, and they were definitely not regarded as a joke there – instead, they were a key part of Mary Douglas’ classic work Purity and Danger (1966), an important book on classification systems as a way of making sense of the world. Maybe the most famous quotation from the book is ‘Dirt is matter out of place’ – in other words, it all depends on where you think the proper place should be, as with that fine line between what counts as a weed, and what counts as a garden plant.

In this book Douglas returned to the Lele people of Zaire; she’d first written about them in 1955. Like us, they categorised animals into which they considered edible and those they did not eat. Also like us, the Lele classified some animals as part of human society – domesticated chickens for example. Anything in that category was seen as just as inedible as your family members. Just think here of the horror many of us feel at the idea of eating cats or dogs, or of the range of views in Europe on whether horses are edible or not.

The interesting thing about any classification system is what you do with things that don’t fit neatly into the categories with which you are operating. One of the most anomalous animals for the Lele is the pangolin. It’s also known as the scaly anteater, which tells you at once why it doesn’t fit: it has scales but it’s not a fish. It produces only one offspring at a time – like humans do, most of the time. So it’s sort of part-fish, part-human. As well as looking like something that should be in the water, it also climbs up trees towards the sky. And, the Lele claimed, it bows its head in the presence of its mother-in-law, as a man does! As it doesn’t fit anywhere in the classification system, it is regarded as inedible.

But specific Lele religious cults held that the in-betweenness of the pangolin makes it powerful so that eating it conveys fertility. Only a man who had produced both a son and a daughter could join the main pangolin cult. Mary Douglas, brought up a Catholic, gave an explicitly Christian analysis of some of the myths and rituals around the pangolin, for example one in which the corpse of the pangolin is carried round the village as if it were a chief. For her the pangolin was the kingly victim who, by dying, releases a power for good. Like the ram in the thicket in the story of Abraham it was also a willing victim, offering itself for sacrifice. In many other cultures, too, the ideal sacrifice is one which agrees to dying.

The importance of Douglas’ analysis is such that the image of the pangolin has been picked up across a wide range of subjects beyond anthropology. For example Iver Neumann labels Russia as ‘Europe’s main pangolin’ – it doesn’t fit, but it is still an important part of the system.

Subsequent studies of the Lele have argued that it is not so much the pangolin’s lack of fit into classification systems which is key to their role in ritual; instead, it’s due to a belief that they can tell the future, and even change it. So, for example,  they feature in rain-making ceremonies. It’s clear that different groups across central Africa hold different beliefs about them and about how they should be treated. And there’s more than one kind of pangolin – in other parts of the world, too, these scaly mammals exist but are under threat.

So why is there such a threat to the pangolin today? The belief that the animal has some sort of special power has led to various types of pangolin being used in medical remedies across the world: and the focus is often precisely on those anomalous scales which can be claimed as the cure for stomach ulcers, sexually-transmitted diseases, stroke or mental illness. And it’s not just the scales. Pangolin eyes are used to treat kleptomania, apparently because the pangolin is thought to be a shy animal. The danger here is that traditional medicine is not concerned with sustainability of the plant and animal substances it uses. The demand for pangolins is such that many countries have listed them as endangered species. But people’s appetite for cures is such that the pangolin is now in serious danger of being destroyed. This strange looking mammal is at risk because of the very same features that led to it becoming a staple of undergraduate anthropology courses.



Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (1966)

Iver B. Neumann, ‘Europe’s post-Cold War remembrance of Russia: Cui bono?’ in Jan-Werner Mueller (ed), Memory and Power in Post-War Europe: Studies in the Presence of the Past (2002)

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