[Note: The following is some new and updated material from my rough draft of Wild, Free, & Happy. It is primarily expansion or revision of subjects related to samples 52, 53, and 54. The other samples of this rough draft can be accessed HERE. If you prefer audiobooks, Michael Dowd has been reading and recording my book HERE.]
During my years of studying and writing, I have enjoyed learning about wild cultures that preserved elegant low impact simplicity. They hold up a mirror so we can fully appreciate the incoherence of modernity. Let’s take a quick peek at a few of those cultures.
The Andaman group of islands is located in the Bay of Bengal, and belongs to India. North Sentinel Island is inhabited by the Sentineli, a society of negrito pygmies. Outsiders can sometimes view them from offshore boats, or from helicopters, but the natives want nothing to do with outsiders. Intruders who get too close are showered with arrows, rocks, and rude comments. Some have been killed. India has outlawed all visitors. Today the Sentineli enjoy a complete separation from the modern world.
Their island is 14,700 acres (5,949 ha), a bit smaller than Manhattan. The interior is forest, surrounded by sandy beaches, surrounded by reefs. Treacherous currents make landing on the island impossible for ten months of the year, and extremely dangerous for the other two. The island has nothing that is attractive to greedy parasites from elsewhere. For these reasons, the Sentineli remain wild and free in the twenty-first century.
Flyovers have noted the existence of several villages with clusters of small huts. No evidence of agriculture has been observed. There may be 50 Sentineli, or 500, nobody knows. They survive by foraging, fishing, and gathering shellfish. They may also hunt for turtles, birds, and invertebrates. Their small canoes are used in the lagoons, but not for open-sea travel. They fish with spears and nets.
Long ago, two expeditions were able to land on North Sentinel. They brought along folks from a nearby island to serve as translators. In the brief and hostile meetings, the Sentineli spoke a language that the translators did not understand. Obviously, they have been living in isolation for a long time. They may be descendants of the folks who first settled in the Andaman Islands 60,000 years ago.
Imagine what it would be like to live in a society that was not at war with the planet and the future — a genuinely sustainable way of life, a tropical culture with a year round supply of food, where your wardrobe consisted of a g-string, headband, and a couple leaves. Imagine a life without money, clocks, calendars, automobiles, airplanes, sirens, internet, locks, fences, bosses, salesman, presidents, police, classrooms, guns, dogs, nuclear weapons, taxes, racism, billionaires, and religions. Imagine a paradise where the diseases of civilization were unknown.
Contemplate the enormous load of information stored in your brain, accumulated during a lifetime of existing in a highly complex society, and your constant struggle to keep pace with competitors in the endless quest for status, wealth, and power. Now, imagine being blissfully unaware of absolutely everything happening in the outside world — and the entire outside world knowing almost nothing about your society. Imagine having a healthy, simple, sane life.
Imagine living on an island where there were no strangers, where the soundtrack was waves, birds, breezes, and the voices of your friends and family. We weren’t meant to live like consumers. There are better paths.
New Guinea Highlands
New Guinea is a land base much larger than Oregon and California combined. Around 1930, white folks from elsewhere began wandering into the highlands, in search of mineral treasure. At that time, the highlands were home to a million uncivilized folks unknown to the outer world.
Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson wrote that native groups spoke maybe 800 languages, of which several hundred were unique, having absolutely nothing in common with any other language in the world. Communication between tribes was limited or impossible. It wasn’t easy for innovative ideas to spread from group to group. This helped tribes preserve traditional cultures.
Long distance travel (10+ miles) was also difficult or impossible because of the rugged mountain landscape, warlike enemies, and deadly fevers. There were no roads, wheels, or beasts of burden. One group might be completely unaware that other groups resided just a few miles away.
So, many groups may have existed in complete isolation, living as they had always lived, in their ancient time proven manner. Nobody in the highlands knew that they lived on an island, or that the Pacific Ocean existed. There may still be uncontacted groups that remain wild, free, and unknown to the outer world.
As mentioned earlier, when interaction between groups creates regional webs, and more and more webs share more and more ideas with a widening circle of other webs, shit happens. Over the passage of centuries, accumulations of cleverness can trigger explosive snowballing chain reactions, creating situations like the world outside your window. How clever was that?
I was especially fascinated to learn about the Pirahã (pee-da-ha) people of the Amazon rainforest. They are hunter-gatherers who live in a few jungle villages along the Maici River in northwestern Brazil. Estimates of their population range up to 800. They hunt, fish, and forage. Fish provide about 70 percent of their diet.
Over the years, I’ve read about many wild cultures. The Pirahã are among the simplest and lowest impact of all. We know a lot about their culture, largely because of Daniel Everett, a missionary sent to save them. Over time, it became painfully clear to him that they didn’t need to be saved. He was the one who was lost. He concluded, “I would go so far as to suggest that the Pirahãs are happier, fitter, and better adjusted to their environment than any Christian or other religious person I have ever known.”
The Pirahã knew the usefulness and location of all important plants in their area. They understood the behavior of local animals, and how to take them, or avoid them. They could walk into the jungle naked, with no tools or weapons, and walk out three days later with baskets of fruit, nuts, and small game. By the age of nine, all of them were capable of surviving in the jungle on their own, feeding themselves and making shelter.
The Pirahã were able to effectively communicate via speaking, singing, humming, and whistling. When hunting, whistles were less likely to spook monkeys and other game. Whistled words allowed conversations between folks who were not close together. Their language has nothing in common with any other language in the world.
The Pirahã had no leaders or social hierarchy, all were equal. It was taboo to tell someone to do something. They were amazingly content, tolerant, and patient. Children were never spanked or given orders. They were free to play with sharp knives. Adults spoke to them as equals, no baby talk.
In the tribe, memories of ancestors or historic events were not preserved, they evaporated. Their realm of reality was limited to stuff that they could personally see or hear, or things seen or heard by their living parents, grandparents, friends, and kinfolk. History was strictly limited to living memory. If a missionary had not actually met Jesus, then jabber about Jesus was meaningless.
The Pirahã people were remarkably easygoing and infectiously happy. They wore bright smiles, and laughed about everything. Folks didn’t worry about what happened yesterday, or what might happen tomorrow. They had no word for worry. They lived entirely in the here and now. They had no cultural folklore, legends, fables, or worship. He wonders if they might be the only group in the world that has no numbers, and no creation myth.
Everett wrote, “Committed to an existence in which only observable experience is real, the Pirahã do not think, or speak, in abstractions.” (“Abstract” is the opposite of concrete. Abstractions only exist as ideas or thoughts.) They have no concept of heaven, hell, sin, god, creation, apocalypse, devils, angels, guilt, punishment, salvation, damnation, sustainable, rich, poor, overshoot, democracy, capitalism, and on and on.
Modern folks spend their entire lives with their heads constantly buzzing with swarms of abstractions. The Pirahã spend every day of their lives being highly attuned to the incredible living paradise that they are so lucky to inhabit. They enjoy living in a stable, low impact, time-proven culture where everyone shares the same belief system.
Everett was amazed by them. “This is a culture that’s invisible to the naked eye, but that is incredibly powerful, the most powerful culture of the Amazon. Nobody has resisted change like this in the history of the Amazon, and maybe of the world.”
They were lucky to have enjoyed centuries of isolation in a vast tropical rainforest. They had very little contact with clever outsiders who had bad habits, odd tools, dark impulses, and heads slithering with brainworms. Unfortunately, the outer world has found them, and wants to “help” them enjoy the wonders of modern living.
Every morning, I listen to news reports describing a world that is out of its mind. I think about the Pirahã, who are also getting up, smiling and laughing, down by the river, welcoming the beginning of a new day. Same species, same morning, same planet. They have not forgotten who they are, or how to live.
If you are curious about the Pirahã, and have a couple hours to invest, I recommend that you listen to the 52 minute The Humanist Hour #183 podcast (2015), and watch the 2012 documentary, The Grammar of Happiness.