June 8, 2012

The hunter-gatherer view of the natural world

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 6:08 pm by Jeremy

In this section of my book, I explore some of the core hunter-gatherer perceptions of the natural world.  To the early hunter-gatherers, which is how our ancestors lived for 99% of our human history, the earth was a giving environment.  It was also in a state of continual transformation…

[Previous section: Everything is connected]

The giving earth

If everything is connected in the hunter-gatherer worldview, it seems to be the earth that forms the hub of this web of connectivity.  As the aboriginal man Hobbles Danaiyarri describes it, “Everything come up out of ground – language, people, emu, kangaroo, grass.”[1]  In the aboriginal Dreamtime, certain places have a special connection to one or another manifestation of the creative ancestors.  “Our country,” explains Nganyintja Ilyatjari, “is full of sacred places. The kangaroo Dreaming has been there since the beginning, the wild fig Dreaming has been there since the beginning, many other women’s Dreamings are also there.”[2]  The earth is seen as not only where we come from, but also where we go back to when we die.  “Variously known as spirits, dead bodies, the old people, or the ancestors, the people who belonged to country in life continue to belong to it in death.”[3]

Aboriginals sing out loud to the country when they go into the bush

This idea has a far more tangible and immediate presence to it than the modern version of “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”  For example, many aboriginal groups in Australia speak directly to the “old people” when they go out into the bush.  They call or sing out loud to the country, the Dreamings, the other living beings and the ancestors, treating them as though they’re fully living members of an extended family.  Sometimes, they will use a visit to “country” (as they call their ancestral land) as an opportunity to introduce new arrivals such as youngsters or newly married spouses to the “old people”.[4]  This intimate connection of the earth to the ancestors also informs aboriginal land management practices.  The Yanyuwa, for example, see the burning of country as “an important way of demonstrating a continuity with the people who have died, their ancestors.”  Until quite recently, after burning a section of “country,” they would leave it for several days “so the spirits of the deceased could hunt first.”[5]

The close linkage of earth, spirits and family is shared by hunter-gatherer societies across the world.  In the forested Gir Valley in the Nilgiri region of South India, the Nayaka foragers “periodically invite local devaru [spirits] to visit them and share with them.”  The Nayaka “appreciate that they share the local environment with some of these beings” and view them as an integral part of the family.  In fact, they call them nama sonta, “our relatives,” and refer to specific devaru as “grandmother,” or “grandfather,” and even sometimes “big mother and father.”[6]  Similarly, on the other side of the world, the Ojibwa Indians refer to the natural spirits as “our grandfathers.”[7]

The Nayaka look on nature as their mother-and-father

Nurit Bird-David, an anthropologist who has studied the Nayaka extensively, has proposed that this linkage of nature and family is a manifestation of what she calls a “root metaphor” of FOREST AS PARENT.   Referring to George Lakoff’s ground-breaking insights into our pervasive use of metaphor to build abstract meaning from the scaffolding of the tangible world,[8] she argues that such a root metaphor not only offers a “means of ‘seeing’ the world” but also governs “everyday functioning down to the most mundane details.”  She explains that the “Nayaka look on the forest as they do on a mother or father.  For them, it is not something ‘out there’ that responds mechanically or passively but like a parent, it provides food unconditionally to its children.”  This root metaphor leads to a relationship of trust with the natural environment rather than one characterized primarily by anxiety or fear.  Bird-David explains that, just as a Nayaka parent may punish a misbehaving child with a spanking but would never dream of withholding food, so the spirits of the forest may inflict aches and pains on an errant Nayaka, but would still provide them with their means of nourishment.  Following on from this metaphor of FOREST AS PARENT, the Nayaka  refer to all social groupings outside of the immediate family unit as sonta, which means “something like an aggregate of relatives as close as siblings.”  It is on account of this root metaphor, Bird-David believes, that the Nayaka view their world as a “giving environment.”[9]  This would also account for the respectful but intimate way that hunter-gatherers tend to communicate with their spirits.  “Hunters don’t worship gods,” writes one observer, “they converse with local, earth- and sea-bound spirit persons without adoring them.”[10]*

Continual transformation

An important characteristic of a root metaphor, such as the one described by Bird-David, is that it can become so embedded in the collective consciousness of a culture that it’s not even viewed as a metaphor but as reality.  Generally, when we hear a metaphor, our capability for counterfactual thought reminds us that it’s not the real thing.  When we hear that “stocks are falling,” we don’t listen out for the sound of them hitting the floor.  But for most hunter-gatherer cultures, as anthropologist Graeme Barker points out, “non-human animals are not just like humans, they are persons.” As a result, “their environment is a treasure house of ‘personages’, each with language, reason, intellect, moral conscience, and knowledge, regardless of whether the outer shape is human, animal, reptile, or plant.  Thus the Jivaroan people of eastern Ecuador and Peru consider humans, animals, and plants as ‘person’ (aents), linked by blood ties and common ancestry.”[11]

This view is understandable in light of the evolutionary development of mythic consciousness described in the previous chapter.  Recall the observation of Pascal Boyer that “the only feature of humans that is always projected onto supernatural beings is the mind,” a phenomenon that derives from the central importance of theory of mind in the evolution of human consciousness.[12]  The attribution of mind to all other natural entities leads to a dynamic where an entity’s spirit or mind might remain stable but its outward bodily manifestations are capable of total transformation.  For example, as Barker explains, “as the whole world is self, killing a plant or animal is not murder but transformation.”  This is the reason why many hunter-gatherers have detailed sacred rituals around hunting animals, believing that although the flesh of the animal has been made available to them, the spirit of the animal remains sentient and needs to be treated with due respect and appreciation.[13]

The ability for sentience to shift from one form to another leads to a world without the sharp dividing lines between categories that we’re used to in our modern consciousness.  Rather, everything has the potential for transformation.  Hallowell, describing the Ojibwa worldview, notes that “the world of myth is not categorically distinct from the world as experienced by human beings in everyday life.  In the latter, as well as the former, no sharp lines can be drawn dividing living beings of the animate class because metamorphosis is possible.”[14]  Here’s how an Inuit woman living in the early 20th century, Nalungiaq, described her people’s beliefs in the original transformative capabilities of both humans and animals:

In the very earliest time when both people and animals lived on earth, a person could become an animal if he wanted to and an animal could become a human being. Sometimes they were people and sometimes animals and there was no difference.[15]

The Inuit creation myth is remarkably similar to that of the Aboriginal dreamtime

Nalungiaq seems to be narrating some version of a creation myth, remarkably similar in essence to the Aboriginal Dreamtime.  But virtually every hunter-gatherer culture also sees such transformations as something happening, not just in the past, but within its own society.  Most people are not considered capable of managing this metamorphosis of themselves at will, but in each society, specific individuals are believed to have the power to journey to a world where direct communication with the spirits is possible.  These individuals are generally known as shamans and the set of beliefs and practices around their spirit journeys goes by the name of shamanism.

[Next post: The worldwide reach of shamanism]


[1] Rose (1996) op. cit., 9.

[2] Ibid., 27-8.

[3] Ibid., 71.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Bradley, J. (1995) “Fire: emotion and politics; A Yanyuwa case study”, Country in Flames; Proceedings of the 1994 symposium on biodiversity and fire in North Australia, D Rose (ed.), pp 25-31.  Cited by Rose (1996).

[6] Bird-David, N. (2002). “‘Animism’ revisited: Personhood, environment, and relational epistemology”, in G. Harvey, (ed.), Readings in Indigenous Religions. New York: Continuum, pp. 72-105.

[7] Hallowell, A. I. (1960/2002). “Ojibwa ontology, behavior, and world view”, in G. Harvey, (ed.), Readings in Indigenous Religions. New York: Continuum.

[8] See Chapter 3, page 41, “The metaphoric threshold.”

[9] Bird-David, N. (1990). “The Giving Environment: Another Perspective on the Economic System of Gatherer-Hunters.” Current Anthropology, 31(2), 189-196.

[10] Calvin Luther Martin, quoted in Barker (2009) op. cit., 409.  See also Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, New York: Basic Books, 69, for a description of the African Ituri pygmies’ perception that the forest “looks after” them.

[11] Barker (2009) op. cit.

[12] See Chapter 4, “Religion as a spandrel”, page 51.

[13] Barker (2009), op. cit., 59.

[14] Hallowell (1960/2002) op. cit., 34.

[15] Reported by ethnologist Knud Rasmussen, quoted by Abram, D. (1996). The Spell of the Sensuous, New York: Random House, 87.

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