Saturday, June 27, 2009

In the garden of Eden

This is one of those rare books that inspires aching disappointment that it will have to end. It offers daredevil adventures, life and death drama, warm introductions to the most exotic people on earth, data that shatters received scientific paradigms, moving memoir, and deep meditations on the meaning of life and truth.

Daniel Everett has spent his life as a missionary and student of the language of the Pirahã (pronounced pee-da-HAN) on the Maici river in the central Amazon. Graduating at the top of his class from the Moody Bible Insitute, he undertook the most arduous possible mission to what were known as the most recalcitrant native people in the world- who had rejected missionary activity for 300 years and counting. Daniel became the first outside person to thoroughly understand the language and later served as translator for the Brazilian government which had no interpreters of its own when it began the process of protecting the tribe's land.

The Pirahã are people of many superlatives, numbering only about 300, strictly hunting and gathering, who do not indulge in abstractions, worry about the future, or regret the past. They trust only first-hand information, disregarding accounts from long ago or far away. They have no gods, creation stories or other myths (though they do see spirits in people and physical objects, and dramatize them in theatrical productions.) They treat children on equal terms as adults, with minimal correction and no corporal punishment. They have virtually no mental illness or problems with adolescent adjustment. The can't count, and Everett spent eight months to no avail trying to teach them that 1+1=2.

They are neither matriarchal nor patriarchal, nor do they prevent divorce and remarriage when one partner wants it. Their severest punishment is ostracism. They change their names from time to time, as the spirit strikes. Their language is tonal and has several distinct modes, including hummed, sung, yelled, and whistled. The male version has one more letter than the female version. Oh, and they are the happiest people on earth.

One of my favorite paragraphs was:

As I became more fluent in Pirahã, I began to harbor a suspicion that the people were keeping their speech simple for my sake. When they spoke to me, the sentences seemed short, with only one verb each. So I decided it would be worth listening more carefully to how they spoke to one another, rather than basing my conclusions on how they spoke to me. My best opportunity, I knew, would come from Báígipóhoái, Xahoábisi's wife. Each morning she talked loudly, beginning around five o'clock, sitting up in the hut in the dark, with Xahoábisi getting the fire going strong, only a few feet from my bedroom. She spoke to the entire village about what she had dreamed. She asked people by name what they were going to do that day. She told men leaving in canoes what kind of fish to catch, where the best places to fish were, how foreigners could be best avoided, and on and on. She was the village crier and gossip rolled into one. She was enjoyable to listen to. There was a certain artistry to her discourse, with her deep voice, the range of intonation in her talk (from very low to very high and back down again), the stylistically different way she pronounced her words- as if breath were going into her lungs and mouth rather than coming out. If ever there was a speaker that was speaking Pirahã for Pirahãs and not for me, the linguist, Báígi was it. Important for me, as I recorded then transcribed her sentences, they were structured identically to the sentences spoken to me by Kóhoi and other teachers- just one verb each.

One might say that this culture has, for complex cultural/linguistic reasons, declined to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and appears to be quite the happier for it.

Incidental links:


  1. I need to read the book. Thanks for the heads up.

    Not too impressed with the "historicity of jesus" link. I'll check out more Robert Wright, but he's only quoting Schweitzer and Ehrman (both great), but if he read the historic studies of John Dominic Crossan, and a myriad of others, he would see a very different side of things. An itinerant Jewish preacher who created a radical network of communal sharing and healing in a rural society destroyed by Roman urbanization. Still eschatological, but not necessarily as apocalyptic as the redactions written after Rome sacked Jerusalem.

    It's all educated speculation, but we can't put forth the (possibly) redacted apocalyptic words of the Q gospel and attribute them to Jesus as the real words. Detailed study into anthropology, archealogy, textual criticism, etc. reveal a lot of possibilities.

    Anyhoo. sounds like an amazing book.

  2. On August 29, 2005, I experienced a structural, technological and societal meltdown. There was no electricity, no running water, no transportation, and no communication other than face to face. We who had stayed for the storm learned a lot about ourselves and our fellow man. We were stripped of titles and positions, races and political leanings, and certain rights and privileges we had always taken for granted. Arrogance is a defining delineator among human relationships and often goes undetected in oneself until challenged. In any arena of supposed superiority, not just knowledge, a man is clouded in his judgment of his fellows. When life is at a more basic survival mode, people tend to get along better and help each other more and are therefore, happier - more true to their nature. It is not the absence of knowledge, however, but the absence of arrogance, that makes for more harmonious relationships. Or, at least, that was my social experience.

  3. Hi, Silver-

    Thanks for your beautiful comment. You are right, of course about the problem of arrogance/hubris/xenophobia. But the Pirahã actually are quite dismissive of others, confident that their life is the best and greatest possible. A healthy position to be sure, and quite justified, and also in part responsible for their successful isolation.

    Whether prosperity generates higher morals is another fascinating question here.. the Pirahã example would seem to go the opposite way, but prosperity is far more about disparities than about absolute values, as current social research indicates.