Field of Science

Amazonian tribe is from another planet 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 [1], as well as in a book from 2008, Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes [2].

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.

[1]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
[2] Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes (2008), Pantheon.


  1. To me, this seems like a typical case of a community that has become broken by the many great changes of encroaching "civilisation". The same breakdown of family structure and empathy can be seen amon many disenfranchised groups - both indigenous and working class. There is obviously problems with alcohol.

    The same disregard for life and children can be seen in slums as well.

  2. If they live entirely in the present, do they believe in an afterlife?

  3. Eric, no, there is no belief in an afterlife whatsoever.

    ArchAsa, I do understand why my terse descriptions give the impression that this is a "broken community," but the fact is that this is everything but. First off, outside influences are extremely weak compared to other tribes. They are notorious for their resistance to change.

    Drinking is not a frequent thing with them, and certainly has nothing to say about their relationship with their children. This is wholely independent of alcohol. In fact, they don't really have an alcohol problem. They drink, they fall down - no problem. It does not disrupt community and family life. They function impeccably socially, and have core families that work very well, too.

    And the point was not that there is no empathy. They have lots and lots of that, but they distribute it somewhat differently than "we" do. Besides, letting children learn from a very young age to fend for themselves is one way to cope with the very dangerous environment they live in.

    Oh, and, the real disregard for life and children is by the most "civilized" countries, when they wage war in places like Iraq. Thousands of children are knowingly killed for political gain.

  4. Bjørn,

    Maybe you and your readers would like to know that this behaviour of amazon tribes is very controversial here in Brazil. FUNAI, the governmental body responsible for public policy for the tribes, try do not interfere with these "internal affairs" of tribes. But christians missionaries cares a lot, and the whole issue become a talking point to conservative pundits in Brazil denouncing "relativism". Sadly these same commentators seems do not care much about the fate of acultured tribes that "respect" children (in fact not; sexual assault against young girls is increasing among them) but live in miserable poverty.

  5. Hermenauta, thanks for sharing that.

    The Pirahã is, according to Dan Everett, very, very resistant to change form the outside. The ways in which they are influenced are under their control. That goes for alcohol consumption - they drink occasionally only. So do I. No problem. This is not a society in trouble because of alcohol.

    I can't speak for other tribes, though. But I will say that I agree with FUNAI policy of leaving people alone to make their own choices, and would love it if the conservative pundits would shut their traps.

  6. "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."

    Well, sure. To be human also does not mean that there is a universal way of looking at, for example, the origin of man. But that there is not a universal way of looking at right and wrong doesn't mean that there isn't an objective difference between what is right and what is wrong. For example, some "look" at the origin of man as being created by god; some don't. The one's who think man was created in the image of god are wrong. Just because there is disagreement doesn't mean that there is no right answer. Moral and ethical truths may be difficult to discern, but it doesn't mean that there aren't any.

  7. The question of what the origin of man is is a purely scientific one where posed answers can be ruled out. Man did actually originate. Not so for the concepts of right and wrong, which are completely made up by humans. They have no origin in nature apart from human (or other "higher" animal) minds. It's not the existence of disagreement that obliterates the notion of objectivity (you seem to imply that I say so), but the fact that one is a figment of our minds, while the other exists in nature independent of minds. You're right that "moral and ethical truths may be difficult to discern, but it doesn't mean that there aren't any," but you have also not provided any argument that they do exist.

    Please do present any argument or evidence to the contrary.


Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS