Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes

The title of this book refers to a saying which is a piece of literal advice, on how to survive during a night in the Amazonian rainforest without being bitten by poisonous reptiles. The book itself is a complex, multi-layered and personal account of Daniel Everett’s and his family’s time, over 30 years, with the Pirahã, a little-known tribe in the Amazonian jungle.

Initially, as a devout Christian missionary, Daniel Everett is sent to translate the Bible into the local language, one which very few outsiders at the time had any knowledge of. He describes his own journey of self-transformation, the bravery to question cultural and scientific assumptions and an investigation into language and culture, all of which are revolutionary.

The Pirahã regard their own way of life and the place where they live as the best of all possible worlds. “This is a beautiful place, the water is pretty. There are good things to eat here. The Pirahãs are nice people”. Everything they need is to hand; the jungle provides a sustainable existence. They are extremely independent and self-sufficient, but also compassionate, sharing resources and caring for each other. Friedrich Engels, in his masterpiece “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State”, which was based on anthropological studies of the Iroquois Native-American Indians, would recognise Pirahã culture as primitive communism.

The  Pirahãs live in a simple hunter-gatherer society, with few material possessions. They eschew technological advances, even when these would make their life ‘easier’ – they neglect even important, labour-saving tools such as machetes, and allow their children to play with them. However, they are expertly adapted to life in the rainforest. Pirahã ideas of morality, of discipline, and the way they look at life are completely different to Western “civilised” values, and are in many ways quite unique. Everett argues that this is in no small part to their unusual language. At the same time this makes the Pirahãs vulnerable to exploitation by traders, but they have no conception of war or conflict.

Everett’s thesis is that the language of the Pirahãs, defies Chomskyan linguistic analysis and his concept of a Universal Grammar. The tribe have no concepts other than those they have immediately experienced, or that they have heard through the first-hand testimony of other people. Dreams for the Pirahãs are as real as everyday experiences. The tribe only has eleven different sounds in its speech, so, Dennett argues, their culture also plays a part in eliminating outside influences to their language. They have no counting system, idea of personal property, and no idea of the past. The only thing which matters to them is the here and now.

It may be tempting to denounce such hunter-gatherer cultures as “primitive” – yet Western observers, ironically, are the ones who have lost all trace of a deep knowledge of the natural work around them and any idea of how to live sustainably. We have become removed from Nature, and are in the process of destroying our environment. As to the eternal question of where we came from, it is assumed generally that “primitive” tribes have superstitious beliefs, ironically ignoring our own dominant set of superstitious beliefs, which we call organised religion. This is completely absent from Pirahã culture, and provides the key with which Daniel Everett re-evaluates his own belief system.

This is an eye-opening, and surprising book, which tells a story of human courage – the courage to cast aside preconceptions about the world, and to evaluate situations according to the evidence we are presented. It makes bold, controversial assertions, but is at the same time accessible to the lay-reader. It forces us to re-examine our relationship with different cultures, punctures any ideas of Western cultural supremacy and makes a forceful argument that preserving indigenous cultures and languages is of crucial importance, if we are ever to be able to live sustainably as a species.

As the people of Brazil, protesting against capitalism, make their way on to the world stage amidst the whitewashing of the continent’s problems in the name of football, at a time when when native languages and cultures are at risk the world over, and when we are exploiting our natural resources in the relentless pursuit of profit at the expense of whole ecosystems, whole tribes and cultures of indigenous peoples, this book is vital and important reading.

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