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From Issue #42 May 8, 2014

String Theory

A bit of twine transformed between two hands is an icebreaker that transcends cultures and languages.

By Matthew Amster-Burton Twitter icon 

To the casual observer few amusements offer, at first sight, a less promising field for research than does the simple cat’s-cradle of our childhood. —A.C. Haddon

A few weeks ago, my 10-year-old, Iris, had one of those “I’m bored” moments. When this happens, I usually hand her my phone and let her disappear into the latest in mindless 99-cent entertainment.

Instead of Cut the Rope, however, something sent me into the kitchen, where I pulled a ball of twine out of the drawer and cut off a few feet. I tied the “rope” and taught Iris how to play Cat’s Cradle, just like a classmate had taught me when I was a kid.

We pinched and rotated our way through the steps of the game as best I remembered them, from Cat’s Cradle through Fish in a Dish. I taught her Witch’s Broom and Cat’s Whiskers. At that point, my string game knowledge was tapped, and I figured that’s about all there was to the pursuit. I also figured string tricks were invented by bored American kids, maybe in the 1950s while they were waiting to get their hands on drugs and early time-sharing computers.

Fish in a Dish from *String Figures: A Study of Cat’s-cradle in Many Lands*, 1906

Shortly after that, Iris and I took a trip to Japan and learned how wrong I was.

In Tokyo, Iris found that a loop of string is the ultimate icebreaker. Produce the Cat’s Cradle opening, and nearly anybody, old or young, will jump in with delight. Our friend Akira showed me up with flashy tricks that make the string seem to pass through a grinning victim’s fingers and wrists. I started wondering: Where do these string figures come from? How long have they existed? And where do you find them besides the United States and Japan?

Humans have used string since prehistoric times, and wherever there is string, there are string figures. We have no idea where they originated, but they’re found in hundreds of cultures, from hunter-gatherer to modern industrial, and the figures often take the form of important cultural signifiers. On the island of Yap, for example, one string figure represents the island’s famous stone money being moved by four men carrying a log passed through the stone’s massive center hole.

Carrying money in Yap

String figures are a special kind of game: they’re noncompetitive. They’re what you play when you get bored with Patty Cake and somebody invents string. While the practice of string figures might assist with the development of fine motor skills, it’s hard to make a case that they serve any function beyond fun. They provide concrete evidence that early humans liked to chill out.

We know about the ubiquity and diversity of string figures because of one particular group that practices them: anthropologists. Franz Boas, known as the father of American anthropology, wrote about Inuit string figures in 1888. Louis Leakey, the discoverer of Homo habilis and countless other pieces of proto-human history, used string figures the same way Iris did: as an icebreaker (in his case, when traveling in sub-Saharan Africa). String games are like musical instruments or food: it’s hard not to get along with people when you’re sharing the experience.

But the world of string games would be poorly understood today without the work of Caroline Furness Jayne. Like Leakey, Jayne studied under the English anthropologist and string figure enthusiast A.C. Haddon. Jayne, however, didn’t use string figures as a way to get to fossils. She studied string figures as human artifacts themselves, and traveled the world collecting them. In 1906, she published String Figures: A Study of Cat’s-cradle in Many Lands, an encyclopedia of over 200 figures from Europe, Native America, the Pacific Islands, the Arctic, and Africa.

Jayne approached string figures with equal parts enthusiasm and science. “One pretty figure I invented, as I flattered myself,” she writes, “only to find out later that it is common among the natives of the Caroline Islands.”

The book is now in the public domain. You can download it for free or buy a cheap reprint edition.

You may be wondering whether it’s possible to learn string figures from a book. Good question. Unless you’re sitting across from another human, teaching string figures is hard. “Now stick your finger under the loop.” Uh, I see six loops. Which one?

To solve this problem, Jayne’s mentor Haddon created a taxonomy of string figure openings, plus standard terms for moves. Jayne simplified and extended this lexicon, and her book is full of precise illustrations. As a result, its instructions are far clearer than the average string figure video on YouTube. In a way, these anthropologists invented an early programming language, complete with keywords (“left palmar string”) and operators (“separate the hands”).

Iris and I can now make the Japanese butterfly, the Siberian house, and the mosquito. We use string made of modern synthetic polymers, but our fingers, frustrations, small triumphs, and cross-cultural exchanges belong to a tradition spanning back to when our ancestors had to contend with actual angry birds.

Photo by author.

Matthew Amster-Burton is a Seattle freelance writer covering food and personal finance. He has written for Gourmet, the Seattle Times, and the Wall Street Journal, and writes a weekly column for Mint.com. His new ebook, Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo is now available.

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