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Old 01-22-2010, 02:55 PM   #1
bigmonkey
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Why do people from some cultures carry things on their heads?

I saw a news report from Haiti earlier which showed a woman carrying a pot of water on their heads. I think I've seen this in many cultures across the world, mostly African, but also Indian and American Indian. My question isn't so much why they do it. But why is it that they have developed it as a strategy and we haven't? I mean, you never see representations throughout Western history of people doing it, either BC or AD. It seems to me that our first ancestors to pick up and carry heavy objects must have done it thousands of years ago, possibly before we were even humans. And they would have used the most efficient method of doing it. I'm not saying the head-carrying way is the wrong way and the hand-carrying way is the right way. But surely one of them has to be the wrong way, doesn't it? Is it an example of an evolutionarily poor strategy that has just had little effect through the generations? Could they actually just be strategies of virtually identical expected utility, even though they don't look like it?
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Old 01-22-2010, 03:26 PM   #2
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Re: Why do people from some cultures carry things on their heads?

Head carrying seems like a very good way of carrying objects over long distances. You have to maintain good posture to be able to carry burdens levelly.

Also you're maintaining good visibility.

It seems like a skill developed nations have lost.
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Old 01-22-2010, 04:18 PM   #3
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Re: Why do people from some cultures carry things on their heads?

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Originally Posted by bigmonkey View Post
My question isn't so much why they do it. But why is it that they have developed it as a strategy and we haven't? I mean, you never see representations throughout Western history of people doing it..
Westerners have had carts, wheelbarrows, horses, etc.

Last edited by ctyri; 01-22-2010 at 04:21 PM. Reason: and also slaves to carry the really heavy stuff.
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Old 01-22-2010, 05:14 PM   #4
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Re: Why do people from some cultures carry things on their heads?

I would guess it's a habit stemming from culture where scarcity of materials make tools rare. That doesn't mean it only exists in
such cultures however.
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Old 01-22-2010, 05:33 PM   #5
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Re: Why do people from some cultures carry things on their heads?

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Originally Posted by bigmonkey View Post
I saw a news report from Haiti earlier which showed a woman carrying a pot of water on their heads. I think I've seen this in many cultures across the world, mostly African, but also Indian and American Indian. My question isn't so much why they do it. But why is it that they have developed it as a strategy and we haven't? I mean, you never see representations throughout Western history of people doing it, either BC or AD. It seems to me that our first ancestors to pick up and carry heavy objects must have done it thousands of years ago, possibly before we were even humans. And they would have used the most efficient method of doing it. I'm not saying the head-carrying way is the wrong way and the hand-carrying way is the right way. But surely one of them has to be the wrong way, doesn't it? Is it an example of an evolutionarily poor strategy that has just had little effect through the generations? Could they actually just be strategies of virtually identical expected utility, even though they don't look like it?
It's actually amazingly effortless if you have something that balances reasonably well. I haven't read a study on point, but personal experience is that for enough weight over enough distance, head>>hand. And the looks you get walking through Wal-Mart carrying 50 pounds of pet food on your head are priceless.
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Old 01-23-2010, 09:06 AM   #6
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Re: Why do people from some cultures carry things on their heads?

When moving house I carry lots of stuff on my head fwiw. Much easier as very little muscle is used.
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Old 01-23-2010, 02:14 PM   #7
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Re: Why do people from some cultures carry things on their heads?

The load placed on the head compresses down the entire length of the spinal column, thus the burden of weight is spread over a pretty resilent support structure.

Even the strongest man alive can't hold a 5 pound weight forever - all of the strain is on the shoulder muscles. Put it on his head and eventually he won't even notice its there.
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Old 01-24-2010, 12:17 AM   #8
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Re: Why do people from some cultures carry things on their heads?

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The load placed on the head compresses down the entire length of the spinal column, thus the burden of weight is spread over a pretty resilent support structure.

Even the strongest man alive can't hold a 5 pound weight forever - all of the strain is on the shoulder muscles. Put it on his head and eventually he won't even notice its there.
This is basically correct. You can try it yourself. Get the biggest pot you have, fill it with water, and try carrying it in front of you versus carrying it on your head.
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Old 01-25-2010, 05:01 PM   #9
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Re: Why do people from some cultures carry things on their heads?

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This is basically correct. You can try it yourself. Get the biggest pot you have, fill it with water, and try carrying it in front of you versus carrying it on your head.
This is what I thought, too, but I never understood how people don't strain their necks since its easy to do that.
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Old 01-25-2010, 05:06 PM   #10
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Re: Why do people from some cultures carry things on their heads?

If they had SUVs they'd put them in there, but they don't.
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Old 01-25-2010, 06:14 PM   #11
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Re: Why do people from some cultures carry things on their heads?

Carrying ont he head is still used its just that we never really needed to. Water is alot more available in Europe. Its a skill we naturally do when needed

Quote:
When moving house I carry lots of stuff on my head fwiw. Much easier as very little muscle is used.
Like this. My example was when having to carry a large holdall bag to a camp-site which took about an hour i initially carried it in front of me hugging it but I'd have to stop every 5 mins for a rest but then i launched it up onto my head and it was much easier. So its a matter of need.
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Old 01-25-2010, 09:45 PM   #12
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Re: Why do people from some cultures carry things on their heads?

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This is what I thought, too, but I never understood how people don't strain their necks since its easy to do that.
Neck strain comes from holding the neck at an 'awkward' angle with pressure. any angle that isn't "straight up an down" is 'awkward'

So long as you keep things "straight" there should be no strain.
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Old 01-26-2010, 12:36 PM   #13
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Re: Why do people from some cultures carry things on their heads?

I would suspect that you have to develop some peripheral/support muscles before it would be "safe" to do this with pretty heavy objects.

So I would be careful if you've never done this before and all of a sudden you want to try it out when your moving into a new house or something.
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Old 01-27-2010, 11:06 AM   #14
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Re: Why do people from some cultures carry things on their heads?

I'm not usually one to say there are dumb questions but this one is getting close imo.
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Old 01-28-2010, 04:38 PM   #15
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Re: Why do people from some cultures carry things on their heads?

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Old 01-28-2010, 06:46 PM   #16
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Re: Why do people from some cultures carry things on their heads?

I saw program where in one segment they addressed the issue of just how effective a method of carrying a burden on top your head is. Apparently, the amount of weight that can be carried is considerable and can sometimes be carried for several miles. I don't remember the specifics, but the general conclusion was that it is an effective method. I do remember that there was a certain amount of learning curve and acclimation to it involved. IOW, you can't just go out into your back yard and try it and decide if it a good method or not.

Another similar method I have seen is the use of a cloth sling that wraps around the head and comes down to carry a burden at the level of the middle of the back.

And then there is the method using a pole balanced on the shoulder with 2 burdens attached to the ends of the pole.

What all these ideas for carrying stuff have in common is that they are strategies for getting away from having to use your arms to carry what you need to carry. The arms are much weaker at carrying burdens particularly when they involve use of the hands where the muscles there are relatively tiny.

My guess is that any strategy that gets away from using your arms and/or dragging a burden to be carried is probably a good strategy. Of these methods, the one where the object is carried atop the head is the most striking and I would say the most aesthetic and graceful one.
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Old 01-29-2010, 07:47 AM   #17
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Re: Why do people from some cultures carry things on their heads?

Everyone is mysteriously forgetting shoulders. For most things, they are not significantly behind the top of head, and it is a lot more intuitive/requires less training. Unless you have specific intent to learn how to balance stuff on your head eventually, it makes more immediate sense to carry on your shoulders everything that fits on them.
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