People of the Amazon Rainforest

 

The story of where the ideas of Chaco came from arose far from Chaco. Archeologists Anna Roosevelt and Chris Davis were interviewed in the series Native America.  They explained that they have been trying to answer such questions. They have been searching for evidence of the earliest people in the Americas.

Some interesting data has been discovered in the Amazon Rainforest of western Brazil. They looked in a cave there referred to in Portuguese as the Caverna da Pedra Pintada, or in English, the cave of the Painted Rock.  The walls of the cave are covered with art of animals and the sky. “This cave in the Amazon is re-writing the history of when and how people settled the Americas and who those people are.”

For a long time history books presented only one view of how this happened. They said that about 11,000 B.C. during the last Ice Age big game hunters from Asia crossed over to North America a frozen land bridge in the area known a Beringia. That land bridge arose when sea levels dropped dramatically during the last Ice Age.  Later when the continental ice sheets of North America and the world melted. the ocean levels rose again sharply growing that land bridge once more. It was thought that after the ice melted the people of Asia who had arrived in North America  migrated south into North and South America. They were thought to have hunted mammoths, giant sloths and caribou with finely fashioned stone spear points. Many of these animals have since disappeared.

According to the standard view people reached the Amazon about 1,000 years ago.  Recently scientists have discovered evidence in caves that people arrived in the Amazon much earlier than that. ?That evidence even includes some surprising art as well as human remains which have been carbon dated. .  As Anna Roosevelt from the University of Illinois said, “The remains we found and dated in the cave show that people were living deep in the Amazon forest at least 13,000 years ago. This is some of the earliest art and its definitely so far, the earliest art, so far, in the hemisphere.”

This demonstrates, she said,  that, “Thousands of years before the Romans or Greeks, eight thousand years before the Egyptians, at least 13,000 years ago, people arrive in the Amazon, and their stone tools and paintings reveal these first Americans are not only mammoth hunters, they are foragers, fishermen, artists, and perhaps scientists.”

Chris Davis is a specialist in archaeoastronomy, the study of how ancient peoples looked at the sky. He and Roosevelt found images that appear to be a grid that indicates how something was tracked  in the sky, because it was outdoors, not in a cave. These two scientists believe that these images represent calculated observations.

Davis thinks the art represents very sophisticated thinking. As Roosevelt said, “This art links people with their environment through its animals, its plants, and the heavenly bodies of the sky.” This actually reminds me of what Northrop Frye, Canada’s pre-eminent English literature scholar described as the purpose of art. The purpose of art is to give the world a human face.  Artists try to connect the world to us.

Bertrand Russell also agreed. As he said in his book On God and Religion:

“Men, as is natural, have an intense desire to humanize the universe:  God and Satan, alike are essentially human figures, the one a projection of ourselves, the other of our enemies.” Of course this is exactly what Northrop Frye said too.

Roosevelt concluded, “These paintings are the earliest art ever found in the Americas. They suggest that people 13,000 years ago had already developed ideas about the world that centered on the sky, caves, and nature. But what exactly are these First American artists trying to say?” What is clear though is that we ought to be wary of making easy conclusions that Europeans and their descendants were vastly superior in knowledge to the Indigenous people. If you recall, this is the point I am trying to make. I think that for too long we in the west have been blinded by bias about our own superiority to Indigenous peoples. The point is that this is a bias.

People of Chaco

 

This past year I watched an amazing series called Native America on PBS. It was narrated by Robbie Robertson of the Band.

The more I learn about Native Americans the more I am surprised by them. By Native Americans I mean the people of North, Central, and South America that lived here when the Europeans officially arrive in 1492. Like Europeans, there were an astonishing variety of peoples. No stereotypes fit. They did not think and act alike anymore than humans from Europe, Asia or Africa did. Diversity is the most important key to understanding Indigenous people. And that diversity is their greatest asset. We can learn a lot from them. But to do that we have to ditch our inbred sense of superiority. We  have to look at them without bias and with empathy. If we can to that we will be blessed.

More than a 1,000 years ago, 500 years before contact with Europeans, Native Americans built one of the largest cities of North American New Mexico. It was called Chaco.

Most of the city has been destroyed. All that remains are largely dismantled or ruined structures that most of Americans have forgotten about. To them they are insignificant. But they aren’t.

Some Native Americans still maintain a strong connection to Chaco. People like the Hopi from Northern Arizona make pilgrimages to Chaco because it is a way of connecting to their ancestors. One of these people is Leigh Kuwandwisiwma who is an ancient keeper of knowledge. He husbands and cherishes ancient knowledge–the traditional knowledge of America’s first peoples.

The Hopi are one of the pueblo communities–the most ancient people that live in the American Southwest. Leigh Kuwanwisiwma helped lead a group of elders from the Hopi community to a cave north of the ancient city of Chaco. The Hopi are notoriously reticent to share their culture with outsiders. For the filming of the series Native America, for the first time, the Hopi people shared an ancient ceremony outside their community. They offered cornmeal and eagle feathers in gratitude.

The Chaco housed a lot of people with high spiritual knowledge. A lot of great teachings were shared and stored there. The Hopi and other native peoples see this ancient city as being still alive. The structures contained 100s of rooms and were, skyscrapers by standards of the time. “Their walls were carefully aligned to the sun and stars. They transformed the surrounding desert into gardens and fields of corn.” The Hopi believed that many people, perhaps thousands came here to learn about natural forces. As Robertson said, “It was a place of higher learning hundreds of years before Harvard University was built.” In the Chaco the people shared secret knowledge, traditional practices, about the world of nature and the natural forces that governed it. Except for being secret, isn’t that what universities are all about? They believed that in this way they learned to influence the natural elements like wind, rain, and clouds. “Here a thousand years ago in the American Southwest was a thriving center of science and spirituality.”

What people learned at this center of knowledge helped them to cope, survive, and even thrive in a harsh environment. That knowledge was not useless; it was essential. Many clans came together there to share their knowledge. Each wanted to learn from the other and each wanted to help the others for the mutual benefit of all. They shared their wisdom about how to be and act as caretakers of the earth.

Recent archaeological evidence is showing how far Chaco influenced societies and how far people were willing to travel to come there. They came from hundreds of miles away. Archaeologist Patti Crown was the lead scientist in the search.

One of the rooms is very interesting. It is called Room 28 and when it was originally excavated in 1896 it contained dozens of cylindrical pots of which scientists have only recently come to understand the significance. Crown thought they were drinking vessels but was not sure what they were drinking. She used modern forensic techniques to get at the surprising truth. What they were used for was chocolate! Chocolate comes from the Cacao bean that only grows on trees in the tropics of Central America more than 500 miles away! Obviously they had to trade with people that far away to eat drink chocolate at Chaco.

There  “Chocolate was considered food for the gods.” I know my wife would agree. It was used in ceremonies where it would be poured from one vessel to another. The shape of the vessels in Central America were similar to those found in Chaco. “Chocolate and its sacred drinking ritual must have travelled from Central America to Chaco.” It is surprising how far ideas travelled in the ancient world.

Many other sacred objects were found at Chaco. They found carved shells from the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. They found precious metals and minerals that could only have come from far off mountains. They found colorful tropical bird feathers that came from Central America over a thousand miles away! All of these were objects of ritual significance that had been carried here from a great distance.

As Crown pointed out, “It made Chaco part of this very, very deep and distant belief system. The remains of an ancient city, combined with Hopi traditions of a great center of knowledge, and sacred artifacts that connect Chaco with distant cultures, have together helped create a new vision of what Chaco was all about.

“In a world of cities teeming with people, immersed in the science and spirituality of earth and sky Chaco is a metropolis of ideas and beliefs that span two continents.” That of course leads to the next question, ‘Where did these ideas come from?’

Cultural Relativism

 

If you want to understand Indigenous People you should know something about anthropology. Sadly, I know little about anthropology. Of course, as faithful readers of my blog know, absence of knowledge has never stopped me from offering my opinions. Today is no exception.

I have said that to understand the relationship of the invaders of the western hemisphere to the Indigenous people cannot be understood without realizing the arrogance and superiority they felt to indigenous people.

Franz Boas, sometimes called the father of modern Anthropology was perhaps the first anthropologist to poke holes into the false sense of superiority of the west. He was interested in how beliefs and convictions coalesced into something he referred to as culture. He thought this was a valid organizing principle. So does Wade Davis another eminent anthropologist. Boas, appreciated, as very few of his fellows did, that cultures of the west had a lot to learn from indigenous cultures.  As Davis said of Boas, “Far ahead of his time, he sensed that every distinct social community, every cluster of people distinguished by language or adaptive inclination, was a unique facet of the human legacy and its promise.”

Each culture provided an opportunity that every one who contacted it would be well advised to pay attention to it and learn from it. Ideological blinkers are never helpful. Boas is seen by many as the originator of modern cultural anthropology and for good reason.  He looked at cultures without bias and without suffocating feelings of superiority. Boas wanted to learn from people he met. He was not there to teach them. He was not there to save them, he wanted to benefit from their stored ancient wisdom. That attitude was extremely unusual in its time. Boas worked among many people including the Inuit of Baffin Island, the indigenous people of the west coast of North America and in every case made sure that his students kept an open mind. Boas ensured that his students communicated with the indigenous people they met in the language of those people. He asked them to participate as much as possible in the lives of those people they studied.  As Davis said of Boas,

“Every effort should be made, he argued, to understand the perspective of the other, to learn the way they perceive the world, and if at all possible, the very nature of their thoughts. This demanded, by definition, a willingness to step back from the constraints of one’s own prejudices and preconceptions. This notion of cultural relativism was a radical departure, as unique in its way as was Einstein’s theory of relativity in the discipline of physics. Everything Boas proposed ran against the orthodoxy. It was a shattering of the European mind, and ever since, anthropologists have periodically been accused of embracing an extreme relativism.”

That does not mean we have to abdicate from making judgments. That does not mean we can’t cherish the good from our society too. Lets cherry pick the best from each world. Lets just not be blind to the good fruit from our kin. When we make judgments, lets make sure that they are informed, based on reasoning not wishful thinking, or worse, no-thinking, and free from bias. In other words we should always try to be ideal observers.  We owe that not only to them, but to ourselves.

One day Boas in the cold winter of 1883 was caught in a dreadful snowstorm in northern North America. It was the mother of all blizzards. Temperatures dipped to minus 46º C. That would even impress people from the prairies of Canada like me. Boas and his group understandably became disoriented in the storm. For 26 hours in the freezing cold there was nothing he could do to help his men. He left himself and his entire crew to the care and custody of the local Inuk companion and their dogs. Eventually the Inuk guide led them to safety and the men survived, though half dead when they arrived. They were nearly frozen to death and nearly starved. The next day Boas wrote this in his diary,

“I often ask myself what advantages our good society possesses over that of ‘savages’ and find, the more I see of their customs, that we have no right to look down on them…We have no right to blame them for their forms and superstitions which may seem ridiculous to us. We highly educated people are much worse, relatively speaking.”

Boas opened the eyes of anthropologists, but many more. Many people came to realize we have a lot to learn from others. Our hubris must be put on the shelf.

Boas  explored the idea that random beliefs could coalesce into what he called “culture.” Boas was among the first to promote the idea of culture as an organizing principle of anthropology.

Boas became the leader of modern cultural anthropology. He studied with an open and unprejudiced manner how human social perceptions are formed and how members of distinct societies become conditioned to see and interpret the world. I would say Boas was the father of modern cultural anthropology and also the father of the sociology of knowledge.

Boas insisted that his students learn and conduct their research in the language of the place and even participate in the lives of the people that they studied. These were revolutionary ideas at the time.  Davis said of him, “Every effort should be made, he argued, to learn the way they perceive the world, and if at all possible, the very nature of their thoughts.”

Of course this required his students to set aside their preconceptions and actually look at, and listen to, the people they were studying. Prejudice had no place in their science. One had to look skeptically at one’s own cultural preconceptions in order to avoid being enslaved by them.

This led Boas to his revolutionary idea of cultural relativism. According to Davis, “This notion of cultural relativism was a radical departure, as unique in its way as was Einstein’s theory of relativity in the discipline of physics. Everything Boas proposed ran against orthodoxy. It was a shattering of the European mind, and ever since, anthropologists have periodically been accused of embracing an extreme relativism.”

This does not mean that all cultures are equal. It does mean that all cultures merit respect. It does mean that all cultures have something to teach us. It does mean that cultural arrogance is misplaced. As Davis said,  “In truth, no serious anthropologist advocates the elimination of judgment. Anthropology merely calls for tis suspension, so that the judgments were are all ethically obliged to make as human beings may be informed ones.”

Boas wanted to see the world through the eyes of his subjects. He wanted to walk in their moccasins. He practiced radical empathy, not arrogance. That is the attitude we need to understand Indigenous issues. Not arrogance. Not a sense of superiority. Empathy is much more helpful.

Wade Davis and the Lessons of Anthropology

 

I never studied Anthropology. I wish I had. I think I could have learned a lot.  I think it would encourage humility. I think a study of anthropology would relieve one of a sense of superiority. For example, the feelings of superiority that westerners brought to the “New World” are truly breathtaking.

One person who knows intimately how unfair and how unjustified these feelings of superiority are is Wade Davis, perhaps Canada’s premier Anthropologist. In June of, 2015 he delivered the Milton K. Wong lecture at the University of British Columbia. The name of the lecture was “Catalogues of Culture.” Part of his talk was aired on CBC radio’s Ideas, my favorite radio show on my favorite radio station. It aired September 22, 2015. It was fantastic.

Davis was an anthropologist, ethno botanist, and an author of 17 books, one of which I have read, The Wayfarers. He talked of being an anthropologist who tried to discover as much of the diversity of human culture as possible. In doing that he came to realize the immense loss that we would experience if we permitted the continued obliteration of cultures around the world. For centuries we in the west have been doing exactly that out of a horribly misguided sense of our superiority that has no justification at all when the evidence is examined and myths scrutinized.

A basic question that Davis asked was ‘what kind of world do we want to live in’?  Do we want to live in a world of monochromatic monotony or polychromatic diversity?  The answer was obvious. Who would choose differently?  That was why Davis had so much respect for a wide variety of cultures. We have a lot to learn from them, but learning is difficult if our minds are chained by prejudice and self-serving misguided beliefs in our own cultural superiority.

As Davis pointed out, one of the great benefits of travel is to live among those people who have not forgotten the old ways, who still feel  truth in the path in the wind, feel it in the stones polished by rain, and the taste of the bitter leaves of plants. He said he was comforted by the knowledge that the Shamans of the Amazon still journey beyond the Milky Way, that to the people of the high Arctic the myths of the elders still resonate with meaning, and that in the Himalaya the priests still pursue the breath of the Dharma.

According to Davis, a key insight of modern anthropology is that the world in which each of us was born is just one model of reality and there are many such realities. As Davis said, “the social central revelation of anthropology: the idea that the social world in which we live does not exist in some absolute sense, but rather is simply one model of reality, the consequence of one set of intellectual and spiritual choices that our particular lineage made, however successfully, many generations ago.”

Anthropologists study people around the world. And there is an incredible variety of people around the world. Davis realized what many anthropologists have learned, that “all these peoples teach us that there are other options, other possibilities, other ways of thinking and interacting with the world. This is an idea that can only fill us with hope.” That is the same insight that travelers around the world have come to realize; tourists seldom understand that.  It is for that reason that Paul Theroux was right when he said, “Travellers don’ t know where they are going, tourists don’t know where they have been.”

Our world in which we were born is just the result of a particular set of adaptive responses that our cultural lineage made however successfully many generations ago. Any claims we might want to assert to cultural supremacy are but “worthless foam from the mouth” to borrow the words of Bob Dylan. If we forget that we we lose the world.

Whether it is a voodoo acolyte in Haiti, a yak herder in Nepal, or an eagle hunter in Central Pakistan, or a thunder hoof shaman of Mongolia, all of these people teach us that there are other waysof thinking other ways of being, other ways of orienting yourselves culturally, in social, spiritual, ecological space. That is an idea that if you think about it can fill you only with hope.

From this insight made Davis concluded, “together the myriad of cultures of the world make up a web of social life that envelopes the planet and is as important to the well-being of the planet as the biological web of life that you know so well as the biosphere.” He called this the ethnosphere. He believed it was just as important as the biosphere.

Superiority and Race

 

People of European descent have long had a grossly exaggerated sense of their own superiority to indigenous people around the world. After all weren’t they politically and technologically dominant around the world? They must be superior. What other explanation could there be? This is part of what I have called the Original Sin.

From that robust sense of superiority sprang the notion that they must have sprung from a superior race.  Even though that notion has been intellectually discredited, this feeling of superiority runs deep. It is easily sublimated when under siege, but invariably bobs up somewhere else.

At one time such notions were convenient. For example, they were used to justify first the destruction of native societies and then slavery and later more subtle forms of dominance over other races. That allowed Europeans to prosper unimaginably from an economic perspective.  It also allowed them to sleep at night, or perhaps, put their conscience to sleep.

It is difficult for us to comprehend objections to what is to our advantage. That is why slavery and  racial bias were so difficult to defeat.  These were convenient biases. Bias has in fact not been defeated in centuries of trying.

Yet this entire feeling of being a superior race is a feeling built on sand. There is no secure foundation for it at all.  Partly because the entire notion of race itself has been discredited. As Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis said in his book The Wayfinders, “science in fact suggests an end to race, when it reveals beyond any reasonable doubt that race is a fiction.” Of course racism is not a fiction!

Science has clearly demonstrated:

“The genetic endowment of humanity is a single continuum.From Ireland to Japan, from the Amazon to Siberia, there are sharp genetic differences among populations. There are only geographical gradients. The most remote society on earth contains within its people fully 85 percent of our total genetic diversity. Were the rest of society to be swept away by plague or war, the Waroni or the Barasana, the Rendille or the Tuareg would have within their blood the genetic endowment of all of humanity. Like a sacred repository of spirit and mind, any of these cultures, any one of these 7,000 would provide the sees from which humanity in all its diversity might be reborn.

What all of this means is that biologists and population geneticists have at last proved to be true something that philosophers have always dreamed: We are all literally brothers and sisters. We are all cut from the same genetic cloth.”

This of course is a recurring theme in my blog. I come back to it over and over again. We are connected. None of this should come as surprise to anyone. After all, we are all descendants of a small group of humans, perhaps as small as 150 people, that migrated out of Africa about 60,000 years ago and proceeded to colonize the world. And guess what, those people were likely dark skinned! I remember when we were in Africa a few years ago in what was called “the Cradle of Humanity,” when I mentioned this fact to an evangelical Christian in our group, he was obviously disturbed by that possibility. Why should that be?

The consequence of this is, as Davis said,  “all cultures share essentially the same mental acuity, the same raw genius. Whether this intellectual capacity and potential is exercised in stunning works of technological innovation, as has been the great achievement of the West, or through the untangling of the complex threads of memory inherent in a myth—a primary concern, for example, of the Aborigines of Australia—is simply a matter of choice and orientation, adaptive insights and cultural priorities.”

After all how can one say the people of the west who created a great technological society are superior to the indigenous people of North America who learned to flourish and not just live in North America where the Europeans who arrived on contact would have starved or frozen to death? Who can say Europeans are superior to the people of the Amazon rainforest who have learned to live with robust knowledge and experience amidst the natural splendors of their homeland? In particular, when modern industrial society, of which the West is inordinately so proud, has led to the destruction of about half of life on the planet, does it even resemble sense to hold the western ways superior?

Davis got it profoundly right when he said,

“There is no hierarchy of progress in the history of culture, no Social Darwinian ladder to success. The Victorian notion of the savage and the civilized, with European industrial society sitting proudly at the apex of a pyramid of advancement that widens at the base to the so-called primitives of the world, has been thoroughly discredited—indeed, scientifically ridiculed for the racial and colonial conceit that it was.  The brilliance of scientific research and the revelation of modern genetics have affirmed in an astonishing way the essential connectedness of humanity. We share a sacred endowment, a common history written in our bones. It follows, … that the myriad of cultures of the world are not failed attempts at modernity, let alone failed attempts to be us.  They are unique expressions of the human imagination and heart, unique answers to a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human and alive?  When asked this question, the cultures of the world respond in 7,000 different voices, and these collectively comprise our human repertoire for dealing with all the challenges that will confront us as a species over the next 2,5000 generations, even as we continue this never-ending journey.” And we need that entire repertoire.

The ignorance of western cultures mired in the excrement of  feelings of superiority is magisterial in its colossal stupidity. There really is no ignorance like it–anywhere any time.

 

Sociology of Knowledge & the “Discovery” of the Americas

The story of exploration, “discovery,” conquest, and colonization of the western hemisphere By Europeans is incredibly important and incredibly interesting. The explorers were astonishingly brave. They sailed towards what many people thought was the edge of the world where they would fall off. Yet they did it. They plowed ahead no matter what the dangers. They were brilliant in their adaptions. Yet, also importantly, there was a dark side to the impact of conquest and colonization. That dark side, in my view, grew out of the soil of the Original Sin. Often it showed the utter brutality of the conquerors. The Christians, for examples, seemed profoundly barbarian.

We must always remember that all “knowledge” is coloured by ideology. This is what the sociology of knowledge is all about.  We see the world through the invisible lens of our own beliefs and presumptions. It is very difficult to avoid this. As Wade Davis in his brilliant book The Wayfarers, said “Knowledge is rarely completely divorced from power, and interpretation is too often an expression of convenience.”

The study of anthropology was born out of a deep attitude of superiority, as did so much of “knowledge.”  People believed in an evolutionary model in which 19thcentury men like Herbert Spencer saw that societies developed in a linear progression from savagery to barbarism to civilization.

In time anthropologists learned a lot more and abandoned the error of their earlier ways. As Davis, reported,

“Such transparently simplistic and biased interpretation of human history, though long repudiated by anthropologists as an intellectual artifact of the nineteenth century, as relevant today as the convictions of Victorian clergy who dated the earth at a mere 6,000 years, has nevertheless proved to be remarkably persistent, even among contemporary scholars.’

Davis gave a powerful example of this in a  Canadian book, Disrobing the Aboriginal History: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation, that ridiculed the very idea that the original inhabitants of the Americas had anything useful to offer to the Europeans they encountered. Here is what that book said, “Never in history has the cultural gap between two people’s coming into contact with each other been wider.” The profundity of this ignorance is astounding, and I will have a lot to say about how wrong this idea was as we meander through this issue. That does not mean the idea is not common and deeply pervasive.

It is pervasive because it is deeply embedded in the ideology of supremacy that grew out of the fundamental sin–White Male Human Supremacy has been the implicit underlying ideology of the west for centuries. It cascaded through the generations. It blinds everyone under its influence, both the alleged superiors and the presumed inferiors. Everyone has been infected. It makes the privilege invisible.

For generations indigenous peoples have been taught they are inferior. For generations white people have been taught they are superiors. And likewise, men are superior, and women inferior. Or that Christians are superior to all others. And finally, and still largely underappreciated, that humans are superior and animals and nature inferior. These attitudes are so pervasive that it is almost impossible to dissent. These assumptions are invisible. They imbue nearly everything that happens in the west. Any dissent from the predominant ideology is automatically seen as irrational if not insane. As Herbert Marcuse noted, dominant groups rarely acknowledge anything that undermines their dominance. They just don’t see it.

Members of the dominant group do not even see their privilege. This is just who they are.  Only those who relentlessly try to act like ideal impartial observers with fellow feeling and are armed with critical thinking skills are able to extract themselves from the influence of the dominant ideology and even then, only with great difficulty.