McWorld?......McDeath. McLife not served today.
August 5, 2004 8:50 PM   Subscribe

Wade Davis, on "Death and life in the Ethnosphere - The Naked Geography Of Hope" : "In Haiti, a Vodoun priestess responds to the rhythm of drums and, taken by the spirit, handles burning embers with impunity. In the Amazon, a Waorani hunter detects the scent of animal urine at forty paces and identifies the species that deposited it....On an escarpment in the high Arctic, Inuit elders fuse myth with landscape, interpreting the past in the shadow of clouds cast upon ice.....Just to know that such cultures exist is to remember that the human imagination is vast, fluid, infinite in its capacity for social and spiritual invention." The death of the Ethnosphere was Margaret Meade's great concern up to her death, says Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis of Serpent and the Rainbow fame and student of Richard Evans Schultes, founder of Ethnobotany : "The surprising results obtained from treating psychoactive plants allowed their users to communicate more directly with the unseen world which they believed to exist." Davis coined the concept of the "Ethnosphere" and has worked for it's preservation through Cultural Survival
posted by troutfishing (16 comments total)
* Zombies ! * ..... * Naked ! * >>>>> * Drugs! * - OK, now that we've gotten that out of our system.......
posted by troutfishing at 9:05 PM on August 5, 2004

Or : I wish I'd had the heart to sex this one up a bit more than I did. Somehow, I couldn't - despite the pulp potboiler value of the material.
posted by troutfishing at 9:30 PM on August 5, 2004

Wow. For a brief period, back in my halcyon [and hyperreal!] days/daze, I wanted to be a (ethno)psychopharmacologist and Schultes books (along with Ott's) were always fascinating and inspiring reads. Nice post, tf (no need to sex it up!)
posted by shoepal at 10:05 PM on August 5, 2004

Nice post.

I have to say it though: I've yet to hear of a Vodoun priestess handling embers in anything other than an environment of her own choosing. Bring her to a well equipped laboratory and it can be conclusively demonstrated how thermodynamics trumps magic. Also, David Copperfield can't fly.

I'm not convinced that the world is moving towards some kind of cultural homogeneity, though cultures that refuse to embrace technology surely aren't doing themselves any favours in trying to preserve their uniqueness amongst the many competitive lifestyle choices that are available to individuals these days.

You can, for example, integrate a wireless communications network with traditional Yak farming. People have proved that. On the other hand I don't think that a culture attempting to ignore technologies that improve the comfort and convenience of everyday life will prove particularly popular.
posted by snarfodox at 12:08 AM on August 6, 2004

Inspired by Serpent and the Rainbow (the book not the silly movie “based” on the book) I made a visit to Haiti. Later I would use the experience to write a paper arguing that the Vodoun was (is?) the real government of rural Haiti and the successive governments in the capital irrelevant to the day-to-day legal, and social lives of the people in the countryside.

Sometime later I taught to a group of the Hudson Bay Cree. What I found there was intriguing. Like the Inuit, the Cree had been used and abused by France, England and Canada. Many of the communities were torn apart by alcoholism and the exodus of the young to the bright lights of western (southern) civilization. The group I worked with was for the most part returnees from places like Toronto, NYC, Vancouver and LA. They were building a new community with no alcohol and they were returning to old ways.

Hunting and fishing were providing the vast bulk of the food supply unlike the old days when the Hudson’s Bay Company store provided processed food at high prices ensuring debt and obesity. People were again going out to hunt Caribou and Ptarmigan instead of sitting around all winter drinking pop and eating chips. People were learning to butcher meat and smoke fish rather then trying to fight boredom with alcohol or, when that just got too costly, gasoline huffing. Everyone had a snowmachine but they were also breeding sled dogs. A carburetor can be trouble at minus 40 but the dogs are happy to work.

The community was getting well again by taking back the ways of their ancestors. Yet, when the men went out on the Caribou hunt they called home each night on the sat phone and while the front room of the house was the place where the butchering of meat took place the living room was where the family would gather to watch Sienfeld on the satellite feed. It was an exciting place to be.

I would argue that the “Ethnosphere” like “Culture” is a dynamic thing. It can never be codified and can never be preserved (except in a museum). Western Liberal democracy may not be the answer to every question but the genie cannot be put back in the bottle and none of us can go home anymore.

Yes many folks have been hurt by being forced or coerced into adopting cultural norms not there own but I believe the answers lie in creating a new Ethnicity or culture as needed by the group in the here and now.

Great post troutfishing.
posted by arse_hat at 12:48 AM on August 6, 2004

> Just to know that such cultures exist is to remember that the human imagination is vast, fluid, infinite in its capacity for social and spiritual invention."

One of the interesting things about this post is that it pushes me to reevaluate various skills from my own cultural background. I quite like the parallel between specialists who can identify wines by odour and the Waorani hunter who can identify different animal urines.

> The key indicator is language loss.

Maybe. Many estimates have more than one fifth of the world's languages being native to New Guinea with a lot of them spoken by fewer than five thousand people. Some native speakers of those languages no longer choose to teach their children how to speak them. Instead they are favouring a national language that will give their children the capacity to communicate more widely in later life. You can hardly blame them for making that choice and it says very little about a loss of cultural identity.

If there aren't many (or any) written records in the language or culturally significant stories have been translated into the new language the culture behind the language is hardly ‘lost’ so much as it has adapted to the modern world with its widely available telecommunications technologies.
posted by snarfodox at 1:33 AM on August 6, 2004

Old cultures pass away, new ones form. This is as it should be and always has been. It's an evolutionary process, and the alternative is stagnation.
posted by rushmc at 9:42 AM on August 6, 2004

snarfodox - I don't know about the handling of live embers, but you can take courses in walking over hot coals - so many people do it that it's a cliche. But - assume that there's a physiological mechanism, that it's not magic.

If so, there has to be a threshold for the effect so - for example - although I'm willing to grant the possibility, at least, of live coal handling on the basis of the amazing sorts of expanded capabilities people show under hypnosis. But, even so, there's got to be a limit to that - people surely couldn't swallow live embers unharmed.....or could they?

Or - If one were to drop an entranced Voudon priestess from a helicopter into a live volcano, she wouldn't just bob around unscathed, aid of spirits or not. ( That would be a neat trick. ) Or - as one who believes in the occasional miracle - I'd assume that miracles of such magnitude are (and especially these days, damn "Age of Reason" ! ) exceedingly rare and tend only to occur around rather exceptional individuals who do not come along very often.

For an interesting historical example of human capabilities that seem to have been expanded through trance, see the "Jansenist Miracles" (which the French Government of the day chronicled in great detail).

Here's one thought I've had on the subject - such "miracles" (or enhanced human capabilities, perhaps) tend to be associated with the sort of deeply passionate religious faith which also, in some cases, can turn also towards religious violence - and, even if such phenonenon as the Jansenist miracles proved to be truly inexplicable, would this somehow validate the accompanying theological beliefs?

(BTW, I was going to reply to your comments on that last post, but I've been rather busy. They made me reflect quite deeply on those issues. And, I'm not done.)

arse_hat - thank you for that story, it was amazing and inspiring to read. I completely agree with your take. (" I believe the answers lie in creating a new Ethnicity or culture as needed by the group in the here and now. ")
posted by troutfishing at 9:50 AM on August 6, 2004

rusmc - sure, but the issue at stake here cocnerns a dramatic decline in cultural diversity.

Imagine the entire world as covered by American style formulaic strip malls populated by fast food chain restaurants, Wal-Marts, and Targets.

That's where the current trends point.
posted by troutfishing at 9:53 AM on August 6, 2004

Nice post. It certainly has been troubling to watch indigenous people struggling - and failing - to keep tradtional ways alive. I am personally sad to see so many forms of musical expression dying away, although I also revel in all the new forms of music springing up amidst the cultural turmoil.

On a minor note, I am disappointed to see a scholar like Davis repeat what is a low-ball estimate at best, an urban legend at worst: that fathers spend an average of eighteen minutes a day with their kids
posted by kozad at 10:27 AM on August 6, 2004

assume that there's a physiological mechanism, that it's not magic.

actually, its thermodynamics again. If they tried to walk on a steel plate at the same temperature they wouldn't get very far unless they had non-stick cooking spray on their feet.

I think the WiFi Yak farmers and the Amazon tribes that have their own radio shows are a great example of adapting...bushmen with Sat phones discussing what the stock in their medical herbs is doing....that is the sort of future i would like to see.
posted by th3ph17 at 10:46 AM on August 6, 2004

th3ph17 - OK, but what are the thermodynamics at work ? Also, I like the bushman - cellphone scenario.

You might be interested India's "Simputer" initiative : those Bushmen could eventually also manage their bank accounts - full of herbal derived profits - via personal smart cards plugged into shared community simputers which have been programmed for their local dialect and are internet enabled via chained Wi-Fi stations connecting to a main hub with a wireless link.
posted by troutfishing at 12:07 PM on August 6, 2004

firewalking., and firewalking.

i think that some of the pre-industrial cultures can--if they survive--skip a lot of the problems that others have had. Skip coal burning and move straight into solar and wind power. Set up Forest WiFi networks to monitor their hunting grounds turned national parks. Use camera phones and PDA's to send information back to research labs. I'm such a scifi nerd.
posted by th3ph17 at 2:59 PM on August 6, 2004

Though she is seen as getting the ball rolling, what Margaret Meade did was neither unique, nor did she do it well. She told people what they wanted to hear, during the "sexual revolution", and even believed herself what a "primitive" people with a highly developed sense of humor told her about their sexuality. Properly, she should be compared both to Kinsey, also a dubious scientist, and Hugh Hefner.
As far as reaching into the "Ethnosphere", I highly recommend the (very hard to find) book "The Music Hunter", by Dr. Laura Bolton, an ethnomusicologist who assembled an extraordinary collection of music from around the world, and from many peoples that no longer exist:

(link is to a related book.)
posted by kablam at 4:39 PM on August 6, 2004

sure, but the issue at stake here cocnerns a dramatic decline in cultural diversity.

Which is occurring as the aggregate result of individual choices. So how does one ethically stop this from happening? (It's a serious question, as I have no idea myself. Education makes a small difference but not nearly enough to reverse the trend.)
posted by rushmc at 5:16 PM on August 6, 2004

rushmc - I'd suggest expert counsel : via such groups as Cultural Survival. Thesde folks are pragmatists who know the stakes and aren't trying to reverse the course of time.

But for a bit of an answer to your question, see my recent post and the responses < ahref="">here
posted by troutfishing at 5:31 PM on August 6, 2004

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