Culture and urbanisation

What effect does urbanisation have on culture? And for that matter, where does our culture come from?  

Culture is as old as human kind according to experts, but is constantly changing. How do we relate to our ancestral roots in an urbanised world? Where do we come from and how does that change in a modern context? 

University of Johannesburg Archaeologist, Dr. Gerrit Dusseldorp says culture is developing much quicker as a result of urbanisation because more people are coming up with new ideas, which gives people the choice to adopt or reject.

Speaking to SABC News, Dusseldorp says this phenomenon makes culture baggage much more variable than it used to be for most of the history.

Heritage month, which is celebrated in September, recognises various aspects of South African culture, such as music and performances, our historical inheritance, language and the food we eat.

This month is also exciting because a new species of the human genus was revealed at the Cradle of Humankind in Gauteng. Homo-naledi, which is said to be the largest collection of human fossil elements to be discovered on the African continent, puts the spotlight on the origins of man and the question of very early rituals.

Urbanisation has effect on culture

Dusseldorp says if culture is seen from an evolutionary point of view there are many definitions of culture.

"The most basic definition of culture is, all the behaviour that is not genetic, that is not based on individual learning, so basically every behaviour that you learn from another individual. If you use that definition then a lot of animals have culture."

He says evolutionary culture has evolved and transferred to increase the cohesion of social groups.

"We use symbols to see is if someone is part of our group or part of a different group and that in terms of evolution, we as humans collaborate with a lot of people coming that not necessarily related to us."

"Although cultural tradition are used to signal whether someone is in our group. It's also a mechanism where we exclude other people from the group and that I think can be quite a nasty side of how we use culture in our modern day."

Cultural expert, Ndela Ntshangase says urbanisation effects people's culture because they are dominated by western culture.

“When people stay in the urban areas for a long time then they can absorbed by urbanisation, even other cultures. When they go back to their homes, rural areas, they come with these ideas, and influence their areas.”

Click below for insights from Ntshangase on culture and how western cultures have infiltrated black South Africans' cultures specifically. 

Ntshangase says, "People who have been exposed to urban areas who abandon their culture are in the minority." He adds that religion is often the reason why people abandon their traditional cultures.

"Culture itself is not a static thing, its dynamic, I'm saying it will change, so if people have opted to whatever and don’t need culture anymore then there is no problem.

"But they will have a problem in terms of the extended family who have not abandoned what has been abandoned by their other members, they will still be asking themselves, 'you didn’t do this, why’, but if they have chosen to do so then they are able to live with it," He says.

Culture versus law

Dusseldorp says in the modern society there are always going to be cultural practices that people are going to disagree with, however the main thing is whether the person subjected to the cultural practice has a say about it.

"You must evaluate on how a cultural practice impacts on the autonomy of an individual."

Referring to the Xhosa cultural practice of Ukuthwala, where they take a girl without her consent to the home of her potential husband and, the UJ archaeologist says kidnapping takes away from their autonomy.

Similarly, with regard to circumcision of boys an ethical stance must be established.

"With circumcision of newborn boys, it is difficult because no real harm is done but the young boy himself does not have a say in it. That is problematic. If it happens at an initiation school then it is a decision of the guy himself, so I would say, that is permissible."

Ntshangase says in most cases genuine culture does not collide with the law.

"According to my understanding there are not many incidents where the two collide. Ukuthwala, if it is done genuinely does not collide with the law, but if it is done incorrectly then it will collide."

Humans are born with culture

Dusseldorp says in the human species there is no such a thing as a person without any culture. "Culture is ingrained in us and in our way of life that obviously an individual can't survive without culture."

"However, because we have been cultural species for so long, you get a phenomenon that is called gene culture code evolution. Take language for example, we can't survive without language, it is so important."

"Over time this led us have a "language instinct", part of our cultural adaption for language has actually become fossilised in our genes. But the specific language that we speak, weather we speak English, Afrikaans or Zulu, that is not encoded in our genes, we learn this when we are young,” He says.

Ntshangase emphasises Dusseldorp’s statement by saying that people have culture from when they are born. He says culture are ways and means of addressing needs, such as mechanisms of fetching water. “I the needs change, culture will change, If the environment changes, the culture will change.”

Early origins of culture

Dusseldorp says Africa is the place where there is the earliest artefactual evidence of what is recognised as modern human behaviour.

"A large part of this is that obviously throughout the evolution of our species our brain size increased. We became a lot smarter and now in some site in South Africa, especially in the Western Cape, there are sites called Blombos and Klipdrift, we see the earliest evidence of symbolised behaviour, so we get engravings on ochre and ostrich eggshell. We get people making jewellery from sea shells, that to us suggests that people have a symbolic mind."

“So this might be where people started defining symbols, defining cultural traditions that go beyond the kind of culture that we see in chimpanzees, elephants and dolphins. Culture that becomes like the specific symbolic traditions that we see nowadays and that allows us to have this cohesion in much bigger communities than what we see, in for example chimpanzees or dolphins.”

The people who lived along the Cape Coast where these early indications of modern human behaviour have been found are in our genus, Homo sapiens.

“Most of our behaviour is an adaptation to life as a hunter-gatherer. The people living in South Africa more than a hundred thousand years ago were anatomically modern humans, so they are the same species of humans that we are. All of us, across the entire world, are descended from them.”

Culture must not be shunned

The cultural expert says culture is important. "What we need to do in South Africa, we need to introduce those cultures. "

"There should be lessons for culture so that we can know. So that we know culture in terms of urbanisation. This is how we will know how Indians do things, this is how we will know how Jewish people do things. In that way we won't look down upon culture, it addresses the needs of the day."

-Lebo Tshangela