I just finished the book Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle by Daniel L. Everett. Thank you to Perran for recommending it.
A riveting account of the astonishing experiences and discoveries made by linguist Daniel Everett while he lived with the Pirahã, a small tribe of Amazonian Indians in central Brazil.
Everett, then a Christian missionary, arrived among the Pirahã in 1977–with his wife and three young children–intending to convert them. What he found was a language that defies all existing linguistic theories and reflects a way of life that evades contemporary understanding: The Pirahã have no counting system and no fixed terms for color. They have no concept of war or of personal property. They live entirely in the present. Everett became obsessed with their language and its cultural and linguistic implications, and with the remarkable contentment with which they live–so much so that he eventually lost his faith in the God he’d hoped to introduce to them.
Over three decades, Everett spent a total of seven years among the Pirahã, and his account of this lasting sojourn is an engrossing exploration of language that questions modern linguistic theory. It is also an anthropological investigation, an adventure story, and a riveting memoir of a life profoundly affected by exposure to a different culture. Written with extraordinary acuity, sensitivity, and openness, it is fascinating from first to last, rich with unparalleled insight into the nature of language, thought, and life itself.
I read the book hoping to find some evidence either supporting or contradicting Ajit Varki’s MORT theory. It was an enjoyable and very interesting read. The author is smart, articulate, and an engaging expert on languages and anthropology.
Everett describes in detail the Pirahã (pronounced Pita-hah) which is (was?) a rare tribe whose culture has (had?) not yet been significantly modified or subsumed by contact with modern industrial civilization.
The Pirahã are unusual in that they have no origin myths or well defined religion, although they do believe in spirits, but Everett was very vague on how these spirits influence their culture. The Pirahã have no interest in, and resist conversion to, other religions like Christianity.
I was most interested to learn whether the Pirahã believe in life after death because this is central to Varki’s MORT theory. I found it very odd that the author, a former Christian missionary, would discuss almost everything about their culture except their belief, or lack thereof, in life after death. Everett did say the Pirahã bury their dead with the few valuable items they own, which to me suggests they do believe in life after death, otherwise why not keep the wealth for the living?
I found it difficult to identify Pirahã behaviors that suggested they do or do not deny unpleasant realities. Perhaps this is a side effect of them living in the moment and therefore having many fewer unpleasant things to deny.
In summary then, with respect to support for or against Varki’s MORT theory, I’d say there was evidence for denial of death, but not much else.
The book offered, as a pleasant surprise, some genuine inspiration on how to lead a happier and more sustainable life.
The behavior of the Pirahã suggests that the Maximum Power Principle (MPP) may not be a primary driver in all human cultures, as I had previously assumed. The Pirahã work hard to acquire enough resources to survive, and will fight to protect those resources if necessary, but do not acquire nor desire more resources than required to survive.
The Pirahã live in and enjoy the moment. They do not obsess about bad events in the past. They do not worry about the future. They forgive quickly. They laugh, tell stories, and dance. They are proud of their way of life. Everyone is expected and does contribute to the tribe, unless they are physically unable, in which case the tribe looks after them.
I very much like stories with happy endings and this book delivered. Everett began his work as a devout missionary trying to convert the Pirahã to Christianity. Over time his scientific training that required evidence based reasoning, and the obvious fact that the Pirahã led happy fulfilling lives without Jesus, caused Everett to abandon Christianity and become an atheist. Hallelujah!
I wish the Pirahã would turn the table and send out missionaries to convert the 8 billion lost souls that need salvation.
P.S. Everett did a nice take-down of Noam Chomsky’s linguistic theories, which I enjoyed, because Chomsky irritates me as yet another famous polymath who knows a lot about everything, except what matters.
P.P.S I’ve started another book by Daniel Everett, How Language Began: The Story of Humanity’s Greatest Invention.
P.P.P.S. Here are a few videos of Everett talking about the Pirahã.