A society so strange it changes what it means to be human. A culture so foreign that the ways which we know ourselves are altered. I no longer need to invoke aliens coming to Earth to imagine how one culture might find another extraterrestrial. The Pirahã will do.
Living on and off with the Pirahã (pronounced pi-da-HA or pi-ra-HAN) for three decades, Daniel Everett has gotten to know them pretty well, and as a linguist, he has studied their language and turned the theory of Universal Grammar on it's head in the process. He has described both their culture and their language in a paper from 2005 in Current Anthropology , as well as in a book from 2008, Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes .
I am mostly interested in what I think are neglected consequences of what Everett has learned about their culture and values, rather than their language. For example, I would never have thought that it would be possible to find a people who think it's proper for a toddler to play with a big knife. The story goes that the child was sitting waving a big knife close to his eyes, and when he dropped it, his mother picked it up and gave it back to him.
Hold that thought for a moment.
The men will drink when they can trade brazil nuts for some cachaça. They get drunk. The women don't like it, so they move into the rainforest. That's not unique. But how about letting children drink? No big deal, you say? Then how about not hiding the guns first? Still not something you can't find in the mid-west? Then how about not even interfering when a drunk boy shoots the dog of his younger brother?
The Pirahã consider children and adults as equals, and no one goes around telling others what to do. There is no "incorrect" way to be. On the other hand, everyone is also expected to be able to fend for themselves. This is a matter of survival, as when they need to be able to find food for themselves in case they are all alone. This sounds harsh and almost like they purposely have a Darwinian attitude to life. And death.
A woman went to the river to give birth. Alone. But that's normal for them. This time the baby was in breech position, and wouldn't come out. No one came to her help, and she died in pain. The rest of the village sat some distance away, watching.
Everett nursed a baby whose mother had died back to health against all odds. Baby asleep he went for a swim, and meanwhile a group of adults euthanized the baby. They had seen death in her eyes.
I do not understand this way of looking at things, but that cannot make me judge the Pirahã. Admittedly, trying to understand who they are is painfully difficult, but before we forget, know that they are supremely well adapted to live in an environment in which a city-dweller would perish in short order. They live very happy lives, do care very much for each other (despite what one might comprehend from some of these anecdotes), and they don't worry about many of the things typical internet users do, like wealth and status. They live in the present without worry of what comes tomorrow (in their environment it's probably not much different from today anyway), and thoroughly enjoy what life has to offer them.
To me some of these stories make it clear that to be human does not mean that there is a universal way of looking at right and wrong. Clearly this depends sharply on the culture, which in turn is heavily influenced by the environment. Flimsies such as Natural Law and absolute morality are vacuous notions, dragged kicking and screaming to the gallows by the light of the diversity of human ways.
Everett went to Amazonas as a missionary to convert the Pirahã. Two decades later it was them who made him have doubts, and today he is an atheist. You cannot save someone who isn't lost, and the Pirahã aren't lost.
Everett, D. (2005). Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Piraha Another Look at the Design Features of Human Language Current Anthropology, 46 (4), 621-646 DOI: 10.1086/431525
 Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes (2008), Pantheon.
19 hours ago in The Phytophactor