It’s about time I wrap up this “Who are you?” series. This time I’ll use a few observations from Lorna Marshall‘s research of hunter-gatherers to demonstrate what I’m really driving at. In my last post, Who are you? (Part IV), I pointed out how our ancestral old way just happens to mirror the core spiritual qualities that the world’s religions promote. Essentially, our ancestors were ‘taoist’. Taoist not by volition, mind you, but rather by dint of circumstances — natural circumstances.
In truth, we are still hunter-gatherers!
The most evident civilized expression of hunter-gatherer instincts is shopping. Still, shopping only scratches the surface. In fact, I can’t think of an activity that is not either a simple expression or an emergent property of that primordial drive.
As I said in my last post (Part IV), the perception of the cup half empty vs. cup half full is a cornerstone of this hunter-gatherer drive. This feels so important to me that it bears repeating! Setting aside our glorious ‘cup runneth over’ moments, we naturally feel the cup half empty more often than not. Feeling this negative bias drives us to get out there to hunt and gather just in case what we have will not be enough. We fear being caught short, and naturally so.
We no longer need to hunt and gather food, so we intuitively substitute other things that we feel will make us full-filled, i.e., happy. Shopping is one of the most common pursuits. It’s simply a matter of feeling some deficiency (cup half empty) and then hunt and gather for solutions. Naturally, some activities, such as shopping, are more obviously hunting or gathering. Others are tangentially so, such as researchers hunting and gathering evidence to ‘feed’ their case.
Realizing that all we do in life is simply an extension of core hunter-gathering instincts takes courage. It not only humbles one’s claim to fame, but also the glory of the heroes and role models we idolize. It makes mountains into molehills by neutralizing much of the hierarchical framework upon which civilization rests… not all the framework, but perhaps just enough to make civilization feel a little more natural.
A New Old Way
Our ancestral circumstances were more conducive to touching the spirit of emptiness and stillness. Civilization often leaves us too busy chasing progress to fully fathom the wisdom of chapter 16.
Devote effort to emptiness, sincerely watch stillness.
Everything ‘out there’ rises up together, and I watch again.
Everything ‘out there’, one and all, return again to their root cause.
Returning to the root cause is called stillness;
this means answering to one’s destiny.
Answering to one’s destiny is called the constant;
knowing the constant is called honest.
Not knowing the constant, rash actions lead to ominous results.
Knowing the constant allows, allowing therefore impartial,
Impartial therefore whole, whole therefore natural,
Natural therefore the way.
The way therefore long enduring, nearly rising beyond oneself
The deeper my sense of how our species was — and might be — in a natural environment helps me find closure. By closure, I mean the simplest answer to who we are. Naturally, we’re not going to return to that level of natural simplicity, but as nature appears to seek balance, I expect we will culturally evolve a more stable form of civilization—a new old way.
Excerpts from !KUNG OF NYAE NYAE
Lorna Marshall’s book, Kung of Nyae Nyae, offers some serious ethnographic detail for anyone wishing to deepen their sense of the old way. Nevertheless, her daughter’s books, The Harmless People followed by The old way: a story of the first people are more than enough to make the point, if you’re receptive and ready to find closure.
I do hope this most brief selection works. All I wish is that it sparks curiosity and sets in motion your own quest to find the profound sameness that we share with our ancestors. Note: The brackets “[” and “… ]” enclose contiguous excerpts. Also, I’ve underlined and bolded sentences that stand out to me, and occasionally add commentary in italics, enclosed within parentheses ( ).
THE !KUNG HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE (Page 52 to 54)
[ Our informants among the Nyae Nyae !Kung had apparently not noticed the little stone artifacts that Dyson found in their area, and when their attention was called to them, they said they had never known people to make stone blades or arrow points and had never been told anything about them by the old people….]
[ In a recent personal communication, Yellen corroborates that no !Kung to whom he spoke in Botswana had any knowledge about Late Stone Age tools of the kind collected in South West Africa by Dyson. Yellen excavated over 5,000 of these microliths in the Dobe area and showed them to the people. They were not recognized as tools made by human beings until Yellen explained them as such. However, he feels that direct ancestors of the present-day !Kung were, in fact, most probably the makers of these tools. This is the most reasonable and parsimonious explanation, he says, since Late Stone Age tools in southern Africa are definitely associated with Khoisan groups and were still being made in South Africa in historic times.
(The transition from the Middle Stone Age to the Later Stone Age is thought to have occurred first in eastern Africa between 50,000 and 39,000 years ago. It is also thought that Later Stone Age peoples and/or their technologies spread out of Africa over the next several thousand years.)
Ground stone tools, on the other hand, are known to living !Kung. Yellen interviewed an old man at Dobe who had lived at /Gam, in South West Africa, as a young man. The old people there, he said, hacked stone out of rock faces and shaped it into axes by grinding. When the old people died, and as iron became more readily available, the art died out. Iron was known and available to a limited extent when the old man (now perhaps seventy-four years old) was a young boy.
Lack of wonder, such as our informants showed when we spoke to them about the stone artifacts, is characteristic of the !Kung. They know extremely little about the world outside their own region and their own time. Except for the past depicted in their ancient tales, other times and other people are blanks to them. Instead of being stimulated by curiosity, the !Kung imagination, faced with the unknown and having nothing concrete to work on, becomes inactive and indifferent. It is the here and now that engages the !Kung …] (This paragraph reminds me of chapter 80.)
(This suggests to me the probability that very curious people (‘nerds’ like me?) are not well connected socially. Curiosity can be a driving force behind finding something upon which to connect. I’d guess that when any animal (human or otherwise) feels fully connected, curiosity is minimal and confined to the current conditions and stimuli in one’s immediate environment. )
[They think their people lived in the Nyae Nyae region since time began. That the !Kung do not remember a golden age in which they did not inhabit the desert is corroborated by the collections of their mythology made by members of the Harvard Group and other researchers….
[ Knowing these nonaggressive people now, one cannot imagine that when they did come into the area they took it by force from former inhabitants. Among the !Kung, no tales are told of battles; no praise of warrior heroes is sung. The !Kung are strongly set against fighting and accord it no honor. To have to fight is to have failed to find a solution by wiser means. As /Ti!kay of Band 9 remarked, “Fighting is dangerous—someone might get killed”… ] (This paragraph reminds me of chapter 31.)
[ The !Kung do not worship their ancestors or perform any rites of reverence for them, but they respect them, Ju n!a, old person, is a term of respect. The old are the conveyors of knowledge and wisdom. The young know nothing, they have no sense, the !Kung say, till they are taught by the old. Very often adults, even elderly ones, when they do not know an answer to a question, will take refuge in a claim of youth. “We are but young,” they say, “we do not know. The old old people knew these things.”
Although they look respectfully to the past, they are not history-minded. They make no effort to hold actual past events systematically in mind or teach them to their children—neither events that concern the living people nor those concerning their forebears. They remember what they happen to remember their father and grandfathers telling them.
Often they point to someone and say, “I was the age of that person.” They reckon the recent past by the seasons; they may remember two or three dry or rainy seasons back and can place the birth of a child, for instance, within that range, but after that they lose track. Placing events in measured time is not significant to them …] (Chapter 20 comes to mind.)
SETTLEMENT AND FIRE (Page 79 to 85)
[ The !Kung have no permanent dwellings. Although a !Kung band, moving from one place to another to gather food and obtain water, returns season after season and year after year to the same waterholes and to the same areas in which their plant foods grow, the people do not reoccupy old camp sites—not, at least, until time and the winds have torn apart the abandoned shelters and blown away or covered up the piles of ashes from the old fires. The !Kung may settle near an old camp site, but they will make a new encampment, one that has never existed before. In that vast land there is plenty of ground for new camp sites. The !Kung do not want to kindle new fire exactly where old fires have been. New fire is associated with fresh hope, fresh chance for good fortune. To build new fires on old sites might nullify the fresh chance and invite misfortune.
The !Kung usually settle at some distance—half a mile or so—from their waterhole. This is discreet: lions, leopards, and hyenas share water-holes with the Bushmen, and the Bushmen think it wise to let the predators have the waterholes to themselves at night…]
[ While the old man makes fire, others go about picking up dry wood to lay on the new fire, and when it is burning well each family takes a brand from it to start his family fire, beside which the family will live. The original fire started by the old man is not regarded as a ritualistic, perpetual fire…]
[ It always amuses me to speak of residence when I visualize the nomadic !Kung settling down for the night, like migrating birds in the bushes, or building their grass shelters for a longer stay, which will nevertheless be temporary…]
[ The clearest visible indication of a family’s location is the fire. One can see who lives at each. Always, summer and winter, every nuclear family has its fire, which is kept burning all night. The fire is the nuclear family’s home, its gathering place, its rightful place to be. In a way, a fire is more of an unchanging home than is a house on a plot of ground, from which a family might depart. A fire-home is always where the family is. The family hangs its possessions in the bushes near the fire, sits around the fire, cooks at it, sleeps at it. At night, the light of all the family fires in the encampment forms the protecting wall that encloses the people, holding out the prowling beasts and the darkness. An old man once said to us, “Fire, water, and food hold our lives. We have been so created. Without fire we would have no light, no warmth; food could not be cooked. Even an old person can live by his fire. Someone will give him food and water, and he can be warm.” (This, and much of their way, reminds me of chapter 24.) …]
[ The families in a band always settle close together, and the brown and clustered encampment makes me think of a swarm of bees. Some people build their shelters actually touching each other; others may build shelters or place their fires ten or twelve feet apart.
Within the encampment, the families demarcate themselves consistently. The fires of the nuclear families that compose an extended family are always near each other, not scattered about among other families in the encampment. Adult dependents have their own fires near the families with whom they live. Visitors have their own fires near the families they are visiting. In other ways the settlement pattern is variable. The encampment can take almost any shape—roughly circular.]
THE FAMILY AND THE BAND (Page 200)
[ The interaction of the !Kung population as a whole in the Nyae Nyae region is governed by a kinship pattern. This pattern is based on and extends from the numerous actual kinship bonds. Intermarriage, by preference and custom, within the region, for unknown generations, has bound the people together across band demarcations. Counting only parents, offspring, and siblings, we find, for example, that persons of Band 1 have one of these primary relatives in seven other bands, those of Band 2 in thirteen other bands, those of Bands 3 and 4, each in five.
These are the closest bonds and the ones on which residence is patterned. But the !Kung also interact with their collaterals, especially in their own and adjacent generations—uncles and aunts, cousins, nephews and nieces. Furthermore, !Kung society has taken a form out of the concepts of kinship and cast it upon the relationship of people who have no known consanguineous or affinal ties. It is what we call the name-relationship. The !Kung apply kin terms to persons who have the same names as their consanguineous kin or affines. (Their more casual use of names reminds me of chapters 1 and 32.)
The applying of kin terms means to the !Kung that they are not strangers but that they belong together and should accord to each other polite, respectful behavior, as they would to kin or affines, and take care not to give offense. Methods by which the !Kung help to keep peaceful relations amongst individuals within a band, methods such as meat-sharing and gift-giving, which I shall describe later, are employed ‘also with name-relatives and have worked for peace in interband relationships. Our informants never heard of a fight between bands in the Nyae Nyae area, even from the old, old people. ]
SHARING, TALKING, AND GIVING: RELIEF OF SOCIAL TENSIONS (Page 287 to 303)
[ This chapter describes customs practiced by the !Kung which help them to avoid situations that are likely to arouse ill will and hostility among individuals within bands and between bands. Two customs which I consider to be especially important and which I describe in detail are meat-sharing and gift-giving. I discuss also the ways in which mannerliness, the custom of talking out grievances, the customs of borrowing and lending, and of not stealing function to prevent tension from building up dangerously between members of a group and help to bring about peaceful relationships.
The common human needs for cooperation and companionship are particularly apparent among the !Kung. An individual never lives alone nor does a single nuclear family live alone. All live in bands composed of several families joined by consanguineous or affinal bonds. The arduous hunting-gathering life would be insupportable for a single person or a single nuclear family without the cooperation and companionship of the larger group. Moreover, in this society, the ownership of the resources of plant foods and waterholes and the utilization of them are organized through the band structure, and individuals have rights to the resources through their band affiliation. Thus, the !Kung are dependent for their living on belonging to a band. They must belong; they can live no other way. They are also extremely dependent emotionally on the sense of belonging and on companionship. Separation and loneliness are unendurable to them. I believe their wanting to belong and be near is actually visible in the way families cluster together in an encampment and in the way they sit huddled together, often touching someone, shoulder against shoulder, ankle across ankle. Security and comfort for them lie in their belonging to their group free from the threat of rejection and hostility.
Their security and comfort must be achieved side-by-side with self-interest and much jealous watchfulness. Altruism, kindness, sympathy, or genuine generosity were not qualities that I observed often in their behavior. However, these qualities were not entirely lacking, especially between parents and offspring, between siblings, and between spouses. (This lack of altruism and the like reminds me of chapter 5 and 73.) …]
[ Occasions when tempers have got out of control are remembered with awe. The deadly poisoned arrows are always at hand. Men have killed each other with them in quarrels—though rarely—and the !Kung fear fighting with a conscious and active fear. They speak about it often. Any expression of discord (“bad words”) makes them uneasy. Their desire to avoid both hostility and rejection leads them to conform in high degree to the unspoken social laws. I think that most !Kung cannot bear the sense of rejection that even mild disapproval makes them feel. If they do deviate, they usually yield readily to expressed group opinion and reform their ways. They also conform strictly to certain specific useful customs that are instruments for avoiding discord. (Chapter 53 comes to mind.) …]
[ I mention talking as an aid to peaceful social relations, because it is so very much a part of the daily experience of the !Kung, and because I believe it usefully serves three particular functions. It keeps up good, open communication among the members of the band; through its constantly flowing expression it is a salutary outlet for emotions; and it serves as the principal sanction in social discipline. Songs are also used for social discipline. The !Kung say that a song composed specifically about someone’s behavior and sung to express disapproval, perhaps from the deepest shadow of the encampment at night, is a very effective means of bringing people who deviate back into the pattern of approved behavior. Nevertheless, during our observations, songs were not used as much as talking. If people disapprove of an individual’s behavior, they may criticize him or her directly, usually putting a question, “Why do you do that?,” or they may gossip a bit or make oblique hints. In the more intense instances what I call a talk may ensue.
The !Kung are the most loquacious people I know. Conversation in a !Kung encampment is a constant sound like the sound of a brook, and as low and lapping, except for shrieks of laughter. People cluster together in little groups during the day, talking, perhaps making artifacts at the same time. At night, families talk late by their fires, or visit at other family fires with their children between their knees or in their arms if the wind is cold.
There always seems to be plenty to talk about. People tell about events with much detail and repetition and discuss the comings and goings of their relatives and friends and make plans. Their greatest preoccupation and the subject they talk about most often, I think, is food. (Chapter 8: In speech, satisfactory is truth.) …]
[ Another frequent subject of conversation is gift-giving. Men and women speak of the persons to whom they have given or propose to give gifts. …]
[ The custom of gift-giving, in my opinion, comes second only to meat-sharing in helping the !Kung to avoid jealousy and ill will and to develop friendly relations. !Kung society puts considerable emphasis on gift-giving. Almost everything a person has, may have been given to him and may be passed on to others in time. The !Kung make their artifacts, on the whole, of durable material and take good care of them; the objects may last for generations, moving in a slow current among the people. The dealings in gift-giving are only between individuals, but they are numerous and provide occasion, perhaps more than any one other activity does, for visits which bring groups of people together. …]
[ The !Kung have not developed special objects to use as gifts. Nor have they invested ordinary objects with special gift significance. What they give each other are the common artifacts and materials of everyday life. However, among those, some are more highly valued than others, as one would expect. I gathered that relative scarcity of material was a factor, and that objects were appreciated for their beauty and workmanship. (Chapter 9 and 77 come to mind,) …]