Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes

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One of the most interesting conversation I've had about food was with a Pirahã. It occurred when I ate a salad in the village for the first time.

Rice, beans, fish, and wild game, smothered under copious amount of Tabasco sauce, can keep one's culinary drive satisfied up to a point. But if you like the crunch of fresh lettuce, then after a few months you might begin to dream about eating a salad.

The missionary plane visited us every eight weeks in the jungle to bring mail and supplies. It was our only contact with the world outside the Pirahãs. On one trip, I sent out a note to a fellow missionary and asked if he would do me the tremendous favor of sending some salad makings on the next flight. Two months later, our salad arrived.

That evening I sat down to my first taste of lettuce, tomatoes, and cabbage in six months. Xahopati walked up to watch me eat. He looked bemused.

"Why are you eating leaves?" he asked. "Don't you have any meat?"

The Pirahãs are very particular about foods, and they believe, as we do to some degree, that the foods you eat determine the person you become.

"Yes. I have a lot of canned meat," I assured him. "But I like these leaves! I have not had any for many moons."

My Pirahã friend looked at me, then at the leaves, then back at me. "Pirahãs don't eat leaves," he informed me. "This is why you don't speak our language well. We Pirahãs speak our language well and we don't eat leaves."

This is from Daniel Everett's Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes. I first heard about him through this New Yorker article. He was sent as a missionary to convert the Pirahã tribe in the Amazon by learning their seemingly-impossible language. In the process he was turned from a pious missionary to non-theist linguistics professor. To a linguist, the Pirahã are fascinating because they have no numbers or recursion in their language. To anthropologists they are also fascinating because their culture values immediacy and first-hand experience above everything. They are resistant to Christianity because they do not believe in anything that they themselves have not experienced. They have no formalized religion or religious rituals, but they firmly believe in spirits and often consort with them.

The Pirahã are no longer hunter-gatherers, though they were until very recently. Their diet is still mainly wild fish and game, but it's amazing how far foods of civilization have traveled into the depths of the Amazon. Wheat, sugar, and whiskey in particular seem to have had a large negative effect on this tribe. Socially they have some elements of the tribe in The Continuum Concept, but Everett seems less prone to romanticization, though some is definitely present. I personally find it strange that he would describe the tribe's social structure as being non-coercive when there are mentions of murder, gang-rape, and marginalization of women. It's impossible to say much about whether those are "natural" for humans based on this tribe and other tribes that represent the last of the world's foragers. Almost all such tribes have been removed from their original homelands, pushed into the world's harshest habitats, and subject to the negative effects of trade for things like alcohol.

But that doesn't mean they should be dismissed. Everett recognizes negative aspects of their culture, but is eternally grateful for what he learned about life from the Pirahã.

Reading the book, I took away most lessons about what we don't need. The title itself is what Pirahã say as a greeting at night and alludes to the fact that for them a good night's sleep is a dangerous thing. People sleep lightly at night and there is always someone awake by the fire, sometimes many talking and laughing. People in the US act like a good night's sleep is essential, but perhaps it's not. However, one major difference is that the Pirahã have the ability to nap whenever they want during the day.

The Pirahã also scoff at the idea of regular meals. They have no food preservation methods and simply eat when they have made a kill. Apparently being hungry is no obstacle to exerting themselves: "I have seen people dance for three days with only brief breaks, not hunting, not fishing, or gathering -- and without stockpiled foods."

Children are kept close to their mothers during the nursing period, but after weaning they are treated as full members of the community. According to studies by psychologists, the Pirahã spend more time than any other known culture laughing and smiling. This is despite the fact that loss and hardship are a daily part of life. A breech birth or an infected wound is a death sentence.

Reading this book and its descriptions of how different the Pirahã mindset is from the Western, it reminded me that paleolithic hunter-gatherer cultures would have been more diverse than we give them credit for. We have these stereotypes of chieftains, ritualized dances with painted faces, elaborate myths, trading using shells... the Pirahã have none of these things.

In a world of homogenizing agents like trade and monotheistic religion, the fact that the Pirahã exist is amazing. Most such tribes have simply been wiped out. The paleolithic was a world of fairly isolated tribes that may have had cultures completely different from anything around today.