maandag 6 februari 2012

The primitive savage as a class-A naturalist

Columbian Desana constructing a trap.
The following quote is taken from 'Cosmology as Ecological Analysis' (PDF-link) by Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff (earlier, earlier). It reiterates a point that has been made before and before and before: to be successful as a hunter-gatherer you need to be a keen naturalist. Reichel-Dolmatoff's unique contribution is in the how he shows that the stories and superstitions of 'primitive' people make-up a well-argued and consciously operated ecological strategy. 
Among the Indians there is usually little interest in new knowledge that might be used for exploiting the environment more effectively and there is little concern for maximising short-term gains for obtaining more food or raw materials than are actually needed. But there is always a great deal of interest in accumulating more factual knowledge about biological reality and, above all, about what the physical world requires from man. This knowledge, the Indians believe, is essential for survival because man must bring himself into conformity with nature if he wants to exist as part of nature's unity, and must fit his demands to nature's availabilities.

Animal behaviour is of the greatest interest to the Indians because it often constitutes a model for what is possible in terms of successful adaptation. On the one hand the Indians have a detailed knowledge of such aspects as seasonal variation and micro-distributions of the animal and plant species of their habitat. They have a good understanding of ecological communities, of the behaviour of social insects, bird flocks the organisation of fish schools, the patterns of fish runs, and other forms of collective behaviour. Such phenomena as parasitism, symbiosis, commensalis, and other relationships between co-occurring species have been well observed by them and are pointed out as possible models of adaptation. On the other hand, myths and tales abound with accounts of visits to the animal world, of people turning into animals in order to learn more about their habits, or of animals teaching men how to make use of certain resources.

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