May 31, 2012

Everything is connected

Posted in Hunter-gatherers tagged , , , , , at 4:17 pm by Jeremy

This section of my book on the hunter-gatherer worldview discusses its most important underlying assumption: that everything is connected.  At the end of the section, I speculate that the connectivity of this worldview and the intrinsic connectivity of language (through recursion) is not coincidental, but arises from the fact that both conceptual systems emerge from the unique connectivity and patterning instinct of the human prefrontal cortex (pfc).

Everything is connected

Of all the underlying patterns of the hunter-gatherer worldview, there is probably none so pervasive as the implicit belief that all aspects of the world – humans, animals, ancestors, spirits, trees, rocks and rivers – are interrelated parts of a dynamic, integrated whole.  In the words of one anthropologist, “hunter-gatherers think about the world in a highly integrated fashion, with an interpenetration of the natural and social in a single integrated environment, and an ideology encompassing humans, animals, and plants in a living nature.”[1]  The natural environment is, for hunter-gatherers, most definitely alive.  Anthropologist Richard Nelson writes evocatively about the sentient natural world perceived by the Koyukon people of Alaska’s boreal forest:

Traditional Koyukon people live in a world that watches, in a forest of eyes.  A person moving through nature – however wild, remote, even desolate the place may be – is never truly alone.  The surroundings are aware, sensate, personified.  They feel.  They can be offended.  And they must, at every moment, be treated with proper respect.  All things in nature have a special kind of life… All that exists in nature is imbued with awareness and power; all events in nature are potentially manifestations of this power; all actions toward nature are mediated by consideration of its consciousness and sensitivity.[2]

This sentience of nature is frequently manifested in the spirits that are perceived to exist all around.  To call these spirits “supernatural” would be a serious misconception, applying another modern viewpoint anachronistically to the hunter-gatherer cosmology.

To hunter-gatherers, spirits were an integral part of the natural world

These spirits are an integral part of the natural world just as much as humans and other animals.  As Canadian anthropologist Diamond Jenness wrote about the spirits of the Ojibwa (Chippewa) Indians, “they are a part of the natural order of the universe no less than man himself, whom they resemble in the possession of intelligence and emotions.  Like man, too, they are male or female, and in some cases at least may even have families of their own.  Some are tied down to definite localities, some move from place to place at will; some are friendly to Indians, other hostile.”[3]

Just as the spirits are integrally connected to the natural world, so those aspects of life that we define as “religion” permeate all the normal, daily activities of the hunter-gatherer.  As Wright puts it, “one of the more ironic properties of hunter-gatherer religion: it doesn’t exist.  That is, if you asked hunter-gatherers what their religion is, they wouldn’t know what you were talking about.  The kinds of beliefs and rituals we label ‘religious’ are so tightly interwoven into their everyday thought and action that they don’t have a word for them.”[4]

One forager tradition that powerfully demonstrates the interconnectedness of each of the dimensions of life that we tend to keep separate is the Aboriginal Dreamtime.    As described by researcher Deborah Bird Rose, “in Aboriginal Australia, the living world is a created world, brought into being as a world of form, difference, and connection by creative beings called Dreamings.”[5]  Rose goes on to describe the Aboriginal creation myth of the Dreamtime:

The Australian continent is crisscrossed with the tracks of the Dreamings: walking, slithering, crawling, flying, chasing, hunting, weeping, dying, birthing.  They were performing rituals, distributing the plants, making the landforms and water, establishing things in their own places, making the relationships between one place and another.  They left parts of themselves, looked back and looked ahead, and still traveled, changing languages, changing songs, changing skin.  They were changing shape from animal to human and back to animal and human again, becoming ancestral to particular animals and humans.  Through their creative actions they demarcated a world of difference and of relationships that crosscut difference.[6]

Through the Dreamtime, Australian Aboriginals integrate not only the human, natural and spiritual domains, but also the past, present and future.  We are used to creation myths describing events that occurred long ago, but for the Aboriginals the Dreamtime exists in the present as much as in the past.

For the Australian aboriginals, the Dreamtime exists as much in the present as the past

In the words of one observer, “it exists as a kind of metaphysical now, … a spiritual yet nonetheless real dimension of time and space somehow interpenetrating and concurrent with our own.”[7]  The creative ancestors may connect with humans in dreams, but also in other ways.  For example, in a phenomenon known as “conception Dreaming,” it’s believed that the spirit of the place where a woman initially conceives a baby enters the fetus there, and remains a part of the infant when she’s born.[8] As Rose describes it, there is “thus a web of relatedness in which everything is connected to something that is connected to something, and so forth.”[9]  Here is the same idea expressed in the more concrete words of an elderly aboriginal lady, Daisy Utemorrah:

All these things, the plants and the trees, the mountains and the hills and the stars and the clouds, we represent them.  You see these trees over there?  We represent them.  I might represent that tree there.  Might be my name there, in that tree.  Yes, and the reeds, too, in the waters… the frogs and the tadpoles and the fish… even the crickets… all kinds of things… we represent them.[10]

This integration of meaning, where “nothing is without connection,”[11] is intriguingly reminiscent of the inherent structure of language as described earlier.[12]  In language, the power of recursion can be viewed as a “magical weave,” permitting the connection of previously separate modules of the brain in order to create new meaning.  Just as in language a symbolic network permits emergent meaning to arise from its connectivity, so in the hunter-gatherer worldview, all aspects of life participate in a conceptual system which “links species, places, and regions, and leaves no region, place, species, or individual standing outside creation, life processes, and responsibilities.”[13]  I suggest that this similarity between the structure of language and the forager worldview is not coincidental, but rather arises from the fact that both conceptual systems are created by the innate connectivity and patterning instinct of the pfc.


[1] Winkelman, M. (2002). “Shamanism and Cognitive Evolution.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 12(1), 71-101.

[2] Nelson, R. K. (2002). “The watchful world”, in G. Harvey, (ed.), Readings in Indigenous Religions. New York: Continuum, pp. 343-364.

[3] Cited in Lévi-Strauss, C. (1966). The Savage Mind, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

[4] Wright (2009) op. cit., 19-20.

[5] Rose, D. B. (2002). “Sacred site, ancestral clearing, and environmental ethics”, in G. Harvey, (ed.), Readings in Indigenous Religions. New York: Continuum, pp. 319-342.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Arden, H. (1994). Dreamkeepers: A Spirit-Journey into Aboriginal Australia, New York: HarperCollins, 3-4.

[8] Rose, D. B. (1996). Nourishing Terrains: Australian Aboriginal Views of Landscape and Wilderness, Canberra: Australian Heritage Commission, 39-40.

[9] Rose (2002) op. cit.

[10] Arden (1994) op. cit., 23.

[11] Rose (2002) op. cit.

[12] See Chapter 3, “What’s special about language?”, page 29.

[13] Ibid.

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