Spoken Reflections From Tanzania: Hadza Day Five

IMG_5486In this audiorecording, I continue to describe more of my adventures and observations with the Hadza hunter gatherers of Tanzania. This time, I visit a different group and describe more of what I learn about their archery equipment and how they make their arrows. In the photo below, you can see the fletching style on one arrow and a bunch of shafts on the ground.IMG_5456

IMG_5463Necessity is the mother of invention. One guy is holding an arrow shaft between his toes and he shapes while the man in the foreground uses the back of his sandal as a cutting board for trimming the feathers on his newly made arrow. He wore a Hadza-style tire sandal on one foot and a”Croc” type shoe on the other.

 

 

Tanzania 2017 This photo shows a still smoldering charcoal pit. The Iraqw tribe are mostly subsistence agropastoralists but they make charcoal to be sold for cash. The production of charcoal for cooking fuel is one cause of deforestation in this area. The trees chosen for charcoal production are often the important habitat trees for the animals the Hadza hunt such as birds and Galagos.DSCN5533

In this photo, you can see  what I  think is some species of Cordia with edible berries. We spent almost an hour gleaning fruit from this tree. This tree is also the source of the arrow shafts and bow staves used by the Hadza. Talk about a multipurpose plant! Further research on this tree in its human ecological context would be very useful. Fortunately for the Hadza, it seems that the Agropastoralists often leave this tree when they are clearing areas for cultivation, probably not for the fruit as much as for the valuable fodder the leaves provid.On this trip we also saw some cool cucurbit species growing wild including a jelly melon, which I have grown in my garden in California.

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On this eventful day with this group of the Hadza, this guy shot a hornbill and another guy shot a Goshawk. These were some of the most interesting bird species that I saw close up during my entire trip to Tanzania. What is it about killing and eating a hornbill or a bushbaby compared to chicken or pig that affects modern Westerners? For more about this topic see Eating Biodiversity.

 

In this video you can see part of the fletching process.

I practice archery and I fletch my own arrows so I have a lot of appreciation for the speed, efficiency, and artistry of the Hadza fletching process. It takes me twice as long to fletch a single arrow.

IMG_5465While the Hadza worked on arrow shafts, I was busy drawing the plants, animals, and material culture that make up their daily life. This journaling process was the backbone of my trip and the basis for the book that I put together when I got back home.

For more about my time in Tanzania you should check out my book, Intertropical Impressions: Volume Three, available in a high quality print edition, a downloadable PDF and an ebook edition.

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Spoken Reflections From Tanzania: Hadza and Cultural Tourism

On my third day with the Hadza I tag along with the women for a little bit to learn about some of the plant resources they gather and use. When I get back to camp I spent some time reflecting on some of the complexities of my observer/tourist role and the implications of cultural tourism on the Hadza way of life.

Some of the questions that I ask are: What is authenticity? How is the Hadza’s daily life curated to provide an “authentic” experience to tourists?

Part of my intent with my Tanzania trip was to be as transparent as possible. I’m recording my impressions, I’m recording what I see, and I am recognizing that I am part of the equation. I am not objectively floating above the landscape. In these audiorecordings and in my book you can see how I try to pay attention to and process my conflicting feelings around cultural tourism, my role in it, and my relationship to the Hadza. While it might be easy to imagine some isolated stone age tribe living in harmony separate from everyone else, it would be a disservice to all involved to project this blindly onto the Hadza. The truth of the matter is that we live in a much more complicated and inextricably interconnected world.

Tanzania 2017

In the above photo you can see two Hadza and Yussef the motorcycle driver walking past several spiffy safari Land Cruisers parked outside the Hadza camp. Some days there would be more than 5 groups of tourists that might come through and visit one Hadza camp. They would often be led through the same series of activities and hear the same speech from the cultural tourism guides. “And here you can see how they make fire with sticks, and now you can see how they smoke marijuana, and now you can see how they shoot the bow, and here are the women cooking baboon, etc.Tanzania 2017This photo would have looked more “authentic” if it were not for the bright green shirt of Ita, the motorcycle driver, and Zacharia in the frame. I noticed in myself the automatic desire to snap photos of just the Hadza with their bows and animal skins and to exclude the modernly dressed guide and driver. This is one way in which the bias and expectation of outsiders can influence how the whole experience is curated. When I look at a lot of the photos about the Hadza and videos of the Hadza online the Swahili speaking guides and the drivers and the other Tanzanians are usually not present in the photos. I understand the aesthetics behind this but what is the meaning? How would you feel if you were one of the guides and you notice that the tourists are always avoiding you or even shooing you out of the frame when they are taking shots of the primitive Hadza tribes-people?

 

If you are interested in learning more about my trip you should check out my book, Intertropical Impressions Volume Three.

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Spoken Reflections From Tanzania: Hadza Hunt Day Two

On my second day out hunting with the Hadza I experimented with doing audiorecordings during the trip instead of trying to take notes in my small pocket notebook. It was my first time trying this and was a bit hard because I felt self-conscious talking to myself in English while following these guys on their subsistence hunt. Once I got over that it turned out to be a much more efficient and safe way to record information while running over rocks, dangerous steep gullies, and seventeen kinds of spiny plants. Part way through you can hear the loud sounds of humans, baboons, and dogs clashing violently. You can hear some of my personal questions and train of thought around the human ecology of Hadza hunting.

 

IMG_5433Young hunter and the large male baboon that he shot with his bow on this hunting trip.

 

 

 

 

Here is my recap from the rest of that day. In this recap I share some more of the complexities and reality of how these people actually live and my own personal experiences in the moment. For example, how they shared food with some of the agropastoralists and how they stopped to get soda at a weird little shack. I talk about my own reflections around the concept of a “curated experience” and some of my hidden biases around what to portray and what not to portray in my photos.

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Spoken Reflections from Tanzania: Day 1

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During my trip to Tanzania, I used my nature journal and my pocket notebook for drawing and writing and I used my phone for photos, short videos, and audiorecordings. With this diverse toolbox I tried to document my observations, feeling, and impressions.

The following is a recording where I review my first day:

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Flashback: Eating Bidodiversity

In this article, I describe a typical armadillo-hunting expedition and some of my personal reflections around what it means to eat “exotic” animals. It is an excerpt from my blog in 2005 when I was living in Costa Rica.

 

November 2005
Eating Biodiversity

After several weeks of telling them that I was interested,  I went last night with the neighbors to go cusuceando, or armadillo hunting(cusuco is the name for armadillo here)

I went over to their house around seven o’clock, a couple of hours after nightfall. After getting everything ready we started out across the cattle pasture on the other side of the road. I went with Jader and Milton, two of the young guys from the Nicaraguan family renting the house bordering our farm. Me and Milton were carrying flashlights and machetes and Jader had a homemade light strapped on his head that was wired up to a motorcycle battery that he carried on his belt. I was really impressed by this homemade light that looked like something a coal miner would have.

We crossed the damp grass, heading towards the edge of the river, the four dogs ran out ahead of us, tails wagging excitedly. An erratic light rain had fallen earlier that evening, but the layer of clouds had already been replaced by the usual, clear, starry sky of the dry season.

Cusuco hunting has been one of those symbolic activities for me, that has really come to represent my time down here. I had my first experiences cusuceando when I used to come down here as a little kid during my summer vacation. I was always hanging out with the kids that lived next door when it was Doña Tomasa’s family that was renting the house there. So, not only did I go with them to keep the pericos out of the milpa, but I also went a bunch of times to look for armadillos.

A lot of the things that we used to do as kids, I think of as “hunter gatherer games.” We were always climbing in trees eating guavas, jocotes, mangos, and nancites or looking for other kinds of fruit or fishing, catching crawdads and crabs, or getting shellfish from the ocean.
These were the activities that took up the time that I spent down here, and for the rest of the year in California I would continue to think about these. In my mind they came to be especially symbolic of the things that I enjoyed here in Guanacaste. ( I think that there is nothing better for a kid than to pass hours climbing in trees and eating fruit or sitting on a river bank fishing, I am very grateful that I was able to do this so much.)

All of the kids my age in Doña Tomasa’s family that I used  to play with have moved to Alajuela to work, so I have not been cusuceando in a really long time. I knew that the current neighbors went often, so I told them that I wanted to go next time they went. When I came down to Guanacaste this year, on my list of things to do I was hoping to get in  at least one armadillo-hunting excursion.

The majority of the day armadillos spend underground in their tunnels, so cusuceando is best done at night when they come out to root for food. What you do is you get the dogs all riled up and excited, running around following their noses through the grass. When they scare a foraging cusuco it starts running through the grass and brush. The dogs also scare out other animals, including skunks and opossums.
I can still remember the first time I went cusuceando how surprised I was by the distinctive ‘buzzing’ sound that the armadillos make as they run. This sound and the exciting chase that follows are the most memorable and also the part most resembling a “real hunt,” the majority of time actually being spent slogging through monte and digging in the mud.

The cattle pasture was  about a hundred yards wide where we crossed. Within 10 yards of the river we came under the canopy of the tall trees that grow on the banks. Like the beaches here, the river can not be privately owned, and the trees along the edges are supposed to be left. Unfortunately, what often happens is that the river carves away at the banks and the forested margin falls into the river little by little. Eventually, there is no barrier of vegetation left, and the cattle pasture extends all the way to the river edge. This erosion continues, with more and more of the cattle pasture being washed away in the river every year. This process results in the loss of the forested buffer that protects the edge of the river and provides vital riparian habitat.

It seems to me that it is exactly this riparian habitat that the cusucos are very fond of. Almost all of the times that I have gone cusuco hunting has been in the corridor of tall trees along the river. During the day you can see the many dens in the tangle of roots on the river banks; you can also see where they have been rooting for food in the leaf litter.

After walking through the open pasture, the transition to tall trees and vining undergrowth was dramatic. I no longer felt the cooling dry breeze, and the light of only a few stars made it through the swaying leaves and branches above. Jader and Milton suggested that we cross the river and continue the search on the other side so we waded across a part that was about knee deep. We walked through slowly, shining our flashlights down and scanning the water. Many tiny, pink, shrimp eyes reflected back at us from the sandy bottom and silvery minnows darted in and out of the light.

We sloshed out on the other side, Milton and Jaders rubber boots squeaked comically as we climbed up the steep bank. The forested margin was wider on this side of the river. We continued walking along the river edge, following the dogs. At one point we stumbled upon a bunch of cows, hanging out under the trees chewing cud.

Less than ten minutes after crossing the river, one  of the dogs started barking loudly, it sounded as if he already had something trapped. We hurried over to where the sound was coming from. When we got there, we saw the dog with the front half of its body stuck down a hole and its butt sticking in the air, tail wagging wildly. The other dogs were circling around barking and sniffing.

Jader pulled the dog away, and we all got on the ground with our lights straining to see into the hole…and listening for the sound of armadillo claws digging. There was no sign of anything but Jader assured me that the dog, called capitán, never lied. Milton started digging away at the hole as I held the flashlights and Jader went off and started chopping a tree branch. He came back and quickly fashioned the branch into the handle for the shovel that we were carrying. I was really impressed by this logical ingenuity because I would have probably hauled along a shovel with the heavy, long, awkward handle instead of just making it on the spot when we needed it.

After a couple of minutes of digging with the shovel we could see the armored tail of the cusuco. Everyone was glad because we had just been telling stories of other trips in which the digging race with the armadillo has lasted for hours. Milton noticed that there were a couple of nearby holes that might be escape routes, so he covered these up as Jader slowly started to dig away the top of the tunnel where he calculated the cusuco’s shell would be.
The dry dirt gave way sooner than he was expecting, crumbling down around the many-sectioned shell of the armadillo. Uncovered suddenly in its hiding spot, the cusuco shuddered its armored body, turning around and pushing quickly through the pile of loose dirt in a final attempt at escape. Milton, predicting the manuvuere, shouted a warning to Jader, who hurriedly pinned the armadillo with the shovel.  He reached down, grabbed it by the tail and lifted it into the air, holding it away from his body. The cusuco went into its furious “escape shake,” where they thrash back and forth violently trying to get free. You have to be careful when picking them up because of their strong legs and sharp digging claws, it is hard to hold on as they shake.

Jader stunned the armadillo hitting it sharply on the head with the dull side of the machete. He then slit its throat and we waited for the blood to drain before starting to walk back.

As usual, I felt a tinge of remorse in the last minute, or maybe that is not the right way to describe it. Not exactly remorse, but a thoughtful moment in which my mind grapples with meaning, the meaning of the whole thing. What this animal means and what it means to be killing it. Sitting at the computer, removed from the situation, I reflect on the different, often conflicting perspectives that I use in my attempts to make meaning out of the cusuco hunting that I participate in.

One of the foremost reactions that I can identify is the almost automatic association of hunting as something ‘bad.’ Combined with this is a sort of built-in, not necessarily well-founded tendency to think that “eating wild animals is just not right. (especially ‘exotic’ animals that seem more like something you would see in a zoo.)” Surely, a lot of people reading this have a similar first reaction. This is not only a semi-automatic tendency, I also have been trained to question the sustainability of what humans do, and I believe strongly that this is something important to question.

I always wonder about the ecology of cusucos and the impact that human hunting has on their local populations. I start to think: “should I really be eating these things?” But then I can also wonder about how much forest is cut down and turned into pasture, planted with non-native grasses, and permanently dedicated to cattle; what kind of impact does that have on cusuco populations?.  So…I can also ask myself: “should I really be eating and drinking milk products and beef?”

Why would it be so easy for me to label armadillo hunting as ecologically damaging even without all the research necessary to show that this is actually the case? I could probably pass it off as destructive while drinking a glass of milk and eating cheese, and the guy I was talking to would probably agree that the cusuco populations need a break while he eats his hamburger. The point I am trying to make is this: even in myself, I notice that I am likely to first be critical of the ecological impact of eating wild animals and only afterward reflect on the ecological impact of eating domestic animals.
I think that the reason for this sort of double standard has a lot to do with culturally built-in ideas of what is food and what is not food. The result is that we are likely to say “Looks delicious!” when offered a steak, but when offered a steaming plate of fried armadillo we are more likely to say “are you sure these things aren’t endangered?”

A lot of the questions that come up in my mind are equally applicable in other instances of eating biodiversity, such as fishing and crawdad hunting in the river, collecting shellfish from the rocks and tidepools.

If anyone knows anything more about armadillo ecology, or has something to contribute about the relative sustainability of eating domestic meat or eating bushmeat please contact me, I am very interested in the topic.

For all those still lamenting the death of the armadillo, don’t worry nature will get its revenge. please read my next entry, when biodiversity bites back!

 

 

I plan on sharing some more of these old articles and I will come back to this particular subject in a future post. I’m still thinking about the ethics of eating biodiversity twelve years later.

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The cranium of a cooked monkey I was served in Amazonian Ecuador in January. Primates are not at the top of my most-want-to-eat mammals list but they are also no longer on my never-eaten mammals list now either. In some rain forests monkeys are an important source of food.

The Most Powerful Learning Technology

Journaling is the most powerful toolkit for dynamic human learning. It is affordable, accessible, democratic, and it can be modified and specialized in almost infinite ways. All you need is a pad of paper and a pencil.

Whether your learning is emotional, scientific, or artistic, journaling should be an essential part of your toolkit. Some of the greatest minds of history relied heavily on diaries, journals, and sketchbooks as a substrate for their thought process. Notable examples include Mark Twain, Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, Frida Kahlo, and of course Leonardo Da Vinci.

marie-curie-notebookPages from the journal of Marie Curie

How it works: I have done my best to break down journaling into what I see are the 7 major benefits.

Commitment and Attention : When you sit down to draw a flower in your journal or write about an idea you make a commitment to focus on that thing. This is very different from daydreaming where your brain might briefly consider something in passing. By writing about something or sketching it in your journal you show your brain that this is something important and you give your brain a chance to actually work on this subject. You will notice more about your subject, be more creative, and have better problem solving ideas when you attend to something by working it out on paper.

Visual-Verbal-Manual: Words are abstract and language is a recent innovation that uses a limited part of our brain. Many problems can not be solved in this part of the brain. However, when we put words on paper, when we write by hand, and especially when we combine images with words, more and more of our brain is engaged in the task. Even off-topic doodling during a lecture has been shown to improve retention of information (doodling).Visual thinking in general is a very powerful tool and incorporating graphic facilitation or sketch-noting into your work can be very beneficial. Sketch-noting

Externalizing your thinking For Objectivity: Another huge benefit of journaling or keeping a diary is that it allows you to get ideas, feelings, and emotions out of your head and down on paper. This is a powerful way to break cyclical thinking, unproductive rumination, and downward depressive thought spirals. If you are feeling super frustrated about a team that you work with and you start to write down how you feel on paper you immediately put some distance between yourself and the emotions. Now you can be more objective. Even if your only goal is to record your feelings you will find creative solutions start to bubble up on their own. For more artistic projects or group projects, externalizing your thinking is essential for feedback. And you know how I feel about feedback! Put your logo idea, business model, or permaculture design on a piece of paper where you can stand back and evaluate it. Now, it is not so personal, now, you can see the strengths and weaknesses, now, you can learn, now, you can move forward. Your journal can document these feedback loops and revision cycles.

Externalizing your thinking For Mental Space: Another benefit of getting your ideas out of your brain and onto paper is that it frees up mental space for higher level thinking. One of the main weaknesses of the human brain is our inability to simultaneously hold many pieces of information in mind. The more you are trying to hold the less freedom you have to make connections between the pieces or solve problems in a creative way. Get that stuff out of your brain and you will find new energy and inspiration to take your ideas to the next level.

Venting: People have used pen and paper to vent their emotions for a long time. This is another form of externalizing your thinking and your emotions. Just by expressing the emotions onto paper you get more relief than cycling it through your mind. The paper won’t get exhausted, judge you, complain, or resent you (some of the common drawbacks when venting to friends or family.) Venting in your journal or diary is healthy and can be emotional or intellectual. For example, when I am nature journaling at an aquarium and I am trying to accurately draw the subtle profile of a salmon I might get frustrated at my inability to quite capture the look. In my notes next to my sketches I will often write something such as: “This curve is tricky! Gah!” Or I might write a funny expletive next to an indelible mistake that I made. This helps me  get over it fast, not take myself too seriously, and not get to precious about the appearance of the page.

Chronology and Trajectory: The human brain is weak when it comes to remembering precise dates, times, and chronologies. It is also weak at noticing (or caring about) long trajectories and big patterns. Journals and diaries by their very nature become valuable sources of chronological information. When a journal keeper looks back at a journal from 3 years ago they are often able to see connections and recognize patterns. Is the snow on the mountains melting earlier this year then it has for the last 10 years that I have been keeping a journal? Am I noticing a pattern in my romantic relationships over the last decade since I have been journaling? These are the types of insights that by themselves make journal-keeping infinitely valuable because they are precisely the things that our human brain would often miss.

Record: Last of all, a journal provides a record. Do you need to double check how you conducted an experiment last year? Do you want to remember the name of someone you met or a secret waterfall you found? What about once you are dead? The world would be a much poorer place if Leonardo DaVinci and Frida Kahlo did not leave a piece of their brain behind on paper.

If you are already keeping a journal I commend you. If you are thinking about starting a journaling practice then I remind you: all of the great geniuses had a journal.

darwin-journal Pages from the journal of Darwin.

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Paralysis by Analysis…(rant)

There is a terrible affliction among humans past and present, it does not kill but it cruelly cripples, and it wastes many lives of those who otherwise have all of their physical needs well met. Many of the greatest minds, the most intelligent people, and the most creative types have been ravaged by this disease. And humanity has been robbed of much great art, great literature, and the greatest of inventions by the actions of this horrible disease.

What do I speak of?

I speak of Paralysis by Analysis!

It is a terrible disorder and it seems to become an epidemic especially among populations that have their basic survival needs met but are overstimulated, over-educated, over-developed, and in general have too much of everything they need. The chief irony here is that those with the most free time, the most opportunity, and the most means to achieve great new things fall into this disease by which they fritter away their time pondering what best to do and how best to do it. So much time do they spend on this analysis that they never quite get around to the execution of their overthought ideas and overwrought works.

Image result for renaissance drawing despair

While I am a big fan of “protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor” there is something to be said for “just doing it.” Unfortunately, the people who spend so much time perfecting their ideas and creating the best designs often lose and are preempted by the people with the bad, half-baked ideas who actually have the cojones to get out there and produce their ideas. Perhaps this is why we are being inundated by piss-poor ideas and terrible designs.

This then is a call to arms. If you are one of those who thinks a lot but diddles away your time trying to decide how exactly to do that thing you really love and that might actually help the world but you are not sure if you have the time or the resources or the will to actually do it…this is for you. There are plenty of people on the planet with bad ideas and the grit and the gumption to produce those bad ideas and push them.

Break free of the self-imposed shackle of analysis paralysis and start producing something! Putting yourself and your ideas out there will create feedback loops that accelerate your learning and improve your product faster than your solitary pondering.

I hate to quote corporations but the most fitting rallying cry is “just do it.”

 


 

“protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor” is paraphrased from a Bill Mollison quote.

The ink drawing at the top is by Tiepolo.

 

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Eating Babies

Spring and early summer are surely one of the most delightful times of year to be outside. In this vibrant phase of the yearly cycle nature is overflowing with tender new growth, fresh life, and amazing vitality. It is the perfect time of year to enjoy the bountiful blooming of wildflowers, to watch the lazy flight of newly emerged butterflies, and to eat the succulent flesh of babies.

“What did you say!? That is horrible! I would never eat babies.”

Most people will be surprised by one element from that list of spring delights. Some will be disgusted and offended. Nevertheless, I would argue that eating babies is as much a part of the spring season as wildflowers, bird song, and the verdant carpet of green that covers the hills.

Why is it that we romanticize the unfurling of flower petals, the prodigious buzzing of pollinators, and the chorus of frogs while feeling revolted and indignant when we see opportunivores swooping in to eat vulnerable babies? This is one of those instances where many scientifically-minded, and usually objective naturalists feel an uncontrollable urge to step in and “interfere” with the natural processes. The same person who professes a “leave no trace” backcountry ethic and a hands-off conservationist approach to wildlife management suddenly finds themselves chasing a hungry predator away from a fragile baby animal.

Is this just another example of our imposition of arbitrary and misguided ethics onto the natural world? Is this a product of the Disneyfication of nature in our modern Western society? Or is it perhaps a deeper human instinct, an innate and adaptive desire to protect our own babies that is easily triggered by the young of other species? A deeper look at the logic behind our diet and a cross-cultural survey might provide some semblance of an answer.

If you are adamantly anti-baby-eating, I suggest we take a look in your fridge. Do you have any baby broccoli, baby carrots, or baby corn in there? “But that is different,” you might protest, “those are just plants.” What about sprouts, the quintessence of tender babiness, that the health-conscious human might ingest by the thousands in a single meal? You might argue,“Those are still plants. They are not really babies.”

If eating baby plants is morally acceptable because they are more distant from us on the tree of life that might make some kind of sense. We won’t delve into the controversy of whether or not plants have feelings here, nor will we look at baby mushrooms which are phylogenetically more similar to animals like us than they are to plants. Instead, let’s take another look into the fridge of the anti-baby-eater to see if we can find any other ethical contradictions.

What’s that in the cardboard carton in the door? “Those are just, well, uh, you know, eggs…” you respond someone guiltily as if realizing the logical inconsistency mid-sentence. “ But they aren’t really babies yet and, uh, everyone eats them.” If an egg is not the best example of a helpless, tender, succulent, vulnerable, under-developed baby then I’m a mountain gorilla. Yet in our society we scarf chicken eggs in astronomical quantities without thinking twice about their nature.

It is a delicate ethical tight-rope walk that we navigate with egg-eating. We eat eggs by the dozen and incorporate them into more recipes than almost any other ingredient. Yet many people in our society get squeamish if they see a speck of blood in the yoke or think too much about the biological meaning of an egg as they eat their omelette. While we Westerners hard-boil eggs and put the whites in our desserts we are revolted by the mere mention of some of the Asian uses of eggs. The partly developed “balut” eggs prized in the Philippines are particularly difficult for most Westerners to stomach. This embryonic delicacy is but one example that shows the ethical ambiguity of eating eggs and babies when a cross-cultural perspective is taken.

In the case that you argue, “But I don’t eat Balut eggs, that is just weird and wrong!” let me bring up some other examples that are more appealing to the Western palate. As we continue our perusal of the fridge of the anti-baby-eater we might have to look in the freezer. Are those lamb chops? And is that veal? These examples of baby eating require less explanation to the average American and despite growing concerns about the ethic of veal production both of these meats are still commonly consumed in the US.

I think that baby-eating is a perfect example of where the ethics of humans and the ethics of nature converge in an ambiguous gray area that we must examine further. The simple fact that such topics incite powerful and conflicting emotions in most people means they deserve more thought. There is a tendency to do the opposite, to assume that something is either right or wrong, to make an unconscious value judgement based on one’s instinctual reaction or the majority opinion of one’s mother culture. This is a perfect time to slow down and observe our own thought process, our emotional responses, our social programming, and the realities of the natural world. It is at this frayed edge of our comfort zone where deep learning takes place.

Culture: Definition and Function

“Culture refers to the learned, socially acquired traditions of thought and behavior found in human societies. It is a socially acquire lifestyle that includes patterned, repetitive ways of thinking, feeling, and acting.”  –Marvin Harris and Orna Johnson 2003

If you were to take a person and peel away their clothes, food, tools, language, ideas, beliefs, and worldview, what would you have left? Would that naked body and empty mind still be a person? Would they be able to survive?

Humans are the only animal that depends more on culture than biology. Our bodies are weak and unimpressive compared to most animals. We are ill-protected from the elements in our thin skin, our senses seem mediocre compared to most, and we seem to have few physical adaptations for self-defense or harvesting of food. Nevertheless, we have colonized more of the planet than any other species and have developed strategies for surviving in some of the harshest bioregions.

Since the emergence of anatomically modern humans, 200,000 years ago, culture has been our main way of adapting and evolving. Unlike biological evolution, cultural evolution allows for much faster change. In many cases, cultural evolution allows for adaptations and novelties that would not be possible with biological evolution. Human populations that migrated to the arctic did not have to evolve thick layers of blubber, dense fur, or other physiological adaptations to the cold. Such evolution would have taken thousands and thousands of generations if possible at all.

Cultural characteristics, whether they be material culture or worldview, can be analyzed from a sort of evolutionary perspective. The basic assumption is that if culture is our way of adapting to the environment then there should be a rationale to cultural characteristics. While this view can be criticized as overly simplistic and deterministic I feel that it often provides useful insight and is capable of explaining many things. This way of seeing culture can also be helpful to get away from the idea that some cultures are superior to others or that there is a progression of cultural stages from lesser to greater. All cultures came about as an adaptation to a particular environment over time. Cultures that have been in the same region for thousands of years must adapt to fit that environment. From this perspective, the aboriginal culture of a region is likely to be the best-suited culture for that region.

This essay outlines the basics of the anthropological definition of culture. Whenever I refer to culture it is this anthropological definition that I am referring to.

Why learn primitive skills?

Stretching goat hides - 1
Your ancestors did not hop into their GPS-guided, climate controlled SUV’s and drive (while texting) to the nearest Wal-Mart to take care of their survival needs. They did not have heat, light, and water at the flick of a switch next to the refrigerator full of food. Your ancestors depended directly on their skills and in-depth knowledge of their surroundings to survive.

“Why do primitive skills still matter today? Aren’t we beyond that?” Some people might ask, implying that modern technology negates the importance of such ancestral ways. There are several major reasons why these skills are worthy of study and appreciation. First, I would point out the fact that for 99.9% of our existence humans have lived in small, non-hierarchical, minimally-specialized bands of foragers. That means that individuals understood, owned, and practiced the skills necessary for their survival. That is the context in which our species evolved; that is who we are.

When you begin to learn some of the basic skills that your ancestors used to survive you will develop a new understanding and connection with what it means to be human. You will be humbled by the level of sophistication, strength, dexterity, coordination, and creativity required for “primitive technologies.” Failure, frustration, exhaustion, and blisters will teach you to appreciate ancestral skills and hopefully you will stop taking for granted the luxuries of more modern technologies.

While humbling, primitive skills offer endless rewards for those who take time to practice and learn. In addition to a newfound sense of connection and respect, you will develop an empowering sense of self-sufficiency and a new way of seeing the world. Knowing your survival priorities and how to take care of them from materials found around you is a powerful and extremely basic set of skills. In today’s society the average person knows more about video games and celebrity pregnancies then they know about what their body needs to survive! Ask them to list their survival needs in order of priority and they will fail. No, Wi-Fi and caramel macchiatos are not survival priorities!

Studying ancestral skills will make you feel more confident, more connected, and more self sufficient. It will also put your life in perspective and help you deal with many modern issues. When you understand the basics that have provided for our species for the majority of our existence it will be easy for you to detect bullshit in the modern world. You will have a better grasp on what matters and what does not matter; you will see which modern technologies are indispensably useful and which are worthless trash.

Some primitive skills, such as tracking and nature awareness, have the potential to entirely change how you see the world! You will notice things and recognize patterns that other people will be clueless about. Not only is this perceptual shift fun and intriguing it is also utilitarian. Noticing things and being aware of subtle clues comes in handy in the modern city world just as much as in the woods. It could give you new insights at work, help you find your keys, or save your life.

There are also ecological benefits to learning and practicing Ancestral Skills. Basic human survival skills are the most fundamental way in which we relate to our surroundings. When you spend more dirt time practicing you get more connected to your environment and better understand your relationship with it. This should lead to a sort of environmental ethic that is not naive, city-born, or blinded by the human-nature dichotomy. Such an ethic and understanding can inform wiser daily choices. In general, our pre-industrial ancestors had a much deeper and culturally codified understanding of sustainability, resilience, and ecological responsibility.

Other benefits of practicing Ancestral Skills can come to our social lives, and our mental and physical health. Getting outdoors and cooperatively working with other people on tasks that we evolved to do has a powerful way of inspiring and satisfying. Communication, teamwork, and conflict resolution are also survival skills that served us in the past and are necessary in the modern world. This social aspect combined with the nature of many of the Ancestral Skills provides great exercise for the brain and the body. Many of the skills require new perceptual training, sensory development, and cognitive functions that we don’t engage sufficiently in modern life. Working on the type of tasks that our bodies and brains evolved to do has a powerful effect.

“Now I see why these skills matter, and they sound fun and interesting, but how am I supposed to learn about them? They don’t teach those things at my school!”
Ironically, now is the best time in history to learn these skills. There is a resurgence in the US and other countries to teach and practice primitive skills and technologies from different cultures and time periods. Below are links to several events and organizations that are good places to start.

Buckeye

Acorn

The Sharpening Stone

Saskatoon Circle

Wintercount

Rabbit Stick

Bulletin of Primitive Technology

 

 

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