Cat’s Cradles, Diamond Jenness, and a Non-Traditional Approach to Writing a Four-Field Anthropology Textbook

back to blog
  • posted byJohn Steckley
  • dateSeptember 19, 2013
  • comments2
Image courtsey of Xcanbiet at en.wikipedia.

I don’t always teach a four-field anthropology course, but when I do I start somewhere in the first class by saying that anthropology involves ALL: all times (we dig deeper than historians, who don’t even know how to use a trowel), all peoples (not just white faces in big places), and all aspects.

And when I begin writing a textbook (I am now working on my fifth), I typically begin by writing down ideas from my first class of the semester. I do not look at how authors of similar books write their introductions (that’s for later on, when I am checking what I might have missed). I play an anthropological John Nash, the “crazy” mathematician of A Beautiful Mind, the movie (2001) and the better book (Nasar, 1998). When Nash discovered a mathematical problem that had yet to be solved, he would not look at how others had tried to solve the problem. He would just ride the horse of his intuition, ride it hard, and ride it far. It took him to crazy places that made no sense, but it also took him to original answers where none had gone before. I want that kind of originality.

So the first few pages of my four-field anthropology textbook-to-be will include the “all” of anthropology. While “all times” and “all peoples” are relatively easy to illustrate, the “all aspects” is not, particularly if you don’t want people to think that anthropology is a trivial pursuit, looking so hard at the veins on the leaves of the trees that they don’t see the forest. My favourite example comes from an early figure in Canadian anthropology that student and teacher readers of my textbook-to-be will become familiar with: New Zealand-born Diamond Jenness (his father was a watchmaker).

Jenness, in his fieldwork, studied and learned to make string figures, for which we in Canada often use the term “cat’s cradles.” To the Inuit that he studied, these were like television, movies, and video games all in one simple form. Look how they embody song, skill, and competition all in one medium.

This wasn’t just a quirk of his. The study of string figures was something of an anthropological fad of the early twentieth century, an area of contemporary social anthropology in which Jenness excelled, and to which he made a major contribution. String figures were being recorded by anthropologists all over the world: Europe, Africa, the Pacific Islands, India, Siberia, and Aboriginal North America. It was such a mainstay of anthropology at the time that W.W. Rouse Ball, in his book An Introduction to String Figures (1920: 14), referred to his carrying a “piece of string (without which to-day no self-respecting anthropologist ought to travel).” Famous anthropologists who also studied  string figures include: E.E. Evans-Pritchard, Raymond Firth, A.C. Haddon, Alfred Kroeber, Louis and Mary Leakey, Ralph Lowie, Bronislaw Malinowski, A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, and W.H.R. Rivers.

String figures appear to have been Jenness’s initial field interest. His first publication, based on his fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, published in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (1920), was entitled “Papuan Cat’s Cradles.”

Jenness jumped right into the subject as a researcher in the Arctic. In his field notes, they occupy pride of place, particularly in the early months. From September 20, 1913 to April 6, 1916, there are 63 references to string figures, more than any other topic. We learn from those fieldnotes, edited and published by his son Stuart Jenness, that all members of the Inuit family—men, women, and children—made string figures, that some were much better than others, and that there were distinct taboos about when string figures could be made. They also show the spirit of play with which Jenness engaged in fieldwork, enjoying the company of the Inuit he lived with, and having respect for them.

The result of Jenness’s diligence and interest was his report published in 1924—192 pages with some 156 string figures, as well as a chart of distribution of figures in the back. In this report he included not just his own Inuit work, but also material from other researchers such as Franz Boas on the Cumberland Sound and west coast of Hudson Bay Inuit.

Jenness’s work was organized according to the “opening movements” in making the string figures, and often included chants that were to be sung when making or manipulating the string figures, as in the following from the Colville Inuit called “The Little Old Man” figure:

“The little old man
Is hauling, hauling
My poor old grandfather
When he gets a bearded seal
I want to eat some cooked blubber
It (the line) has snapped

At the last word… drop the left finger loop; the line is broken in the middle” (1924: 22).

Some of the figures he reported provide good examples of Inuit humour in potentially serious social situations, something that might otherwise be difficult to obtain even in thorough fieldwork. One, for example, called “A Women Pulling Another By the Hair,” refers to two co-wives with one not doing her share of the considerable work that Inuit women had to do. At the end of the making of the string figure by that name, “You have the ‘two women,’ one tugging the other’s hair. If you sway the hands they gradually part in opposite directions” (1924: 51). The chant for this figure is as follows:

“Hair pulling
Hair pulling
The other wife’s hair she pulled it
Because she would not bring water,
Because she would not bring wood,
She pulled her hair.”

The more complicated string figure sequences he called “cycles” as, for example, the one of “The Bow.” This has eight different figures in sequence, with the chant for each figure being such as the following:

“Your bow here, give it to me
My bow, this one, I will not give you; it is the one thing I depend upon for food” (1924: 105).

In an interview a few years ago, Jenness’s son, Stuart, said that he would sometimes find his father doing string figures on his own, but was unsuccessful in teaching his sons the art. What he was studying may seem strange to the non-anthropologist, but in a different way it provided the entertainment of television, movies, and the variety of devices with which many people today entertain themselves. Anthropologists, in writing about these social artifacts, move readers towards learning how diverse (and yet remarkably the same) human cultures are—one of the constant themes of anthropology.

I have written or co-authored textbooks in sociology, physical anthropology, and Native Studies, and each one has been an adventure in learning and creativity. Each is like cat’s cradles—unique but with a familiar story attached.

John Steckley is in the process of writing a four-field anthropology textbook, to be published by the University of Toronto Press. He has been a full-time professor at Humber College in Toronto since 1986. He has written a number of textbooks, including Full Circle: Canada’s First Nations (co-authored by Bryan Cummins), Elements of Sociology: A Critical Canadian Introduction (with Guy Letts), and Introduction to Physical Anthropology. He is also the author of White Lies about the Inuit.



Ball, W.W. Rouse, 1920, An Introduction to String Figures, Cambridge: W.F. Heffer and Son.

Jenness, Diamond, 1920, “Papuan Cat’s Cradles,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, vol. 50, pp. 299-326.

——-1924, Eskimo string figures, Report of the Canadian Arctic Expedition 1913-1918, vol. 13, Eskimo folk-lore, Part B.

Jenness, Stuart, ed., 1991, Arctic Odyssey: The Diary of Diamond Jenness 1913-1916, Hull, QC: Canadian Museum of Civilization.

Nasar, Sylvia, 1998, A Beautiful Mind, New York: Simon and Schuster.


Hide Post Comment
  1. Gillian Crowther says:

    I use string figures as a class exercise in a visual anthropology course, which gets the students working with one another to reproduce the figures – often resulting in knotted contortions, performed with lots of ethusiasm. It serves to explore how lifeless pieces of string displayed in museums were once serious yet entertaining means of communicating significant cultural knowledge and values, and leads into discussing artefacts and museum displays, and the challenge of writing instructions that can be followed.

  2. John Steckley says:

    I wish I had the ability to do that. It must be great for your students. The closest thing to that that I sometimes do is an anthropology of drums, when I talk about the different functions that drums play in different cultures (e.g., religious, military, communication, ethnic identity representation), and everyone gets to play the drums. Unfortunately, while students like this, teachers in nearby rooms do not.

    Congratulations on the publication of your book on the anthropology of food. It sounds fascinating.

Post a comment

Your email address will not be published.