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Jungle Life: Facts and Stories of the Piraha

A-photo-of-Evan-Blake-WelchDan Everett is a linguist and former missionary who spent much of his life living with and studying the Piraha people of the Amazon tributary, the Maici River. I wrote this piece on the Piraha, but it’s thanks to Dan that the information is available. His book is called Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes. It’s mainly about Piraha culture and how it influences the Piraha’s unique language. Everett comes from a rural area and credits it for many of his abilities to live remotely. Below are some facts and stories I found interesting about the tribe.

Don't Sleep There Are Snakes cover imageChildren

An arms length from her child a mother sits watching the baby walk straight for the crackling fire. A guttural voice of disapproval is nonchalantly issued, but that’s as far as her parenting goes. The baby is scorched, unchided but in pain. It’s a tough lesson but children are considered equals to adults no later than when they're weaned in the Piraha tribe; children are treated with the same objectivity dealt by nature. Toughness is necessary for jungle life, and learning quickly is imperative to their survival.

Child weaning is a traumatic experience for the kids. It’s a right of passage for them making them accountable for finding their own food. Crying and pleading for milk is ignored, forcing the child to learn to find his/her own food.

Baby talk doesn’t exist. Babies and children are spoken to with the same tone and respect that an adult would use with another adult in our Western society.

Relationships and ‘Marriage’

Family ties are apparent, but loosely secured and free-form when perceived alongside western arrangements. Coupling begins when a man and a woman spend an intimate night in the jungle. The choice of staying together or not is then made. This occurs whether the patron is single or not. No relationship is required or necessarily expected to be life long. After spending a night with another woman, a taken man either stays with the new woman or the original. The extent of punishment a ‘wife’ might give to her companion (considering he has come back) is confinement in their hut together, but the issue is otherwise not worried about for long. Grudges aren’t common on the matter.

Piranha tribe members in the Amazon basin

Language

The Piraha’s language is the most fascinating part of the book, and the reason Dan Everett wrote it. The Piraha live from moment to moment, and the language reflects that. Everet describes it as the "Immediacy of Experience Principle." No stories exist that haven’t either been experienced by the speaker or by someone the speaker knew personally. If anything is spoken of that isn’t within that principle it isn’t credible to the tribe and therefore is not accepted. Stories don’t travel more than one or two generations because one must experience subjects personally. The Piraha have no creation story, largely due to the language constraints. No stories or fictional tales are passed on.

The language consists of only eight consonants and three vowels. It’s a tonal language that is simple enough it can be whistled.

Recursion doesn't exist in Piraha language according to Everett, a controversial claim well-described in the book.

Piranha tribe members on the Amazon River

Hunting/Fishing

Monkeys are the main meat, hunted with bow and arrows. Fish are also hunted with bow and arrows. Hooks traded from Brazilian boats are used by women and children to fish.

Piraha men whistle to communicate when hunting which is less likely to startle their prey.

Manioc (cassava) is their only form of agriculture. The Piraha don’t deliberately garden. The seeds are spit out when the people eat and thus inadvertently planted. Then they seem to accidentally grow.

Preserving food doesn’t happen. They hunt when they want to eat and often go days without eating making them "harder" or tougher, which is a highly valued attribute in their society.

Ethnocentric to the Core

The Piraha have resisted missionaries and other outsiders since the 1700s. Outside ways of life are considered inferior to theirs, and change isn’t accepted. They use tools such as machetes and canoes built outside of the tribe, but they have no interest in creating them, because the Piraha don't traditionally do such things.

The tribe has been described as one of the happiest groups of people ever according to a psychologist who visited the tribe.

Piraha tribe members visiting the author

Balanced with stories and factual analysis, the book was profoundly interesting, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in tribal culture and language.

Photos courtesy Dan Everett.

tim upham
1/17/2012 8:39:35 PM

What makes the Piraha language so unique, is that it is not related to any other language in the world. That is the reason why Brazil must make every effort to preserve its indigenous languages. Peru just passed a law requiring it to place all of it government documents in its 80 indigenous languages, maybe Brazil may want to follow suit, because not everybody speaks Portuguese. In doing so, Brazil would be preserving its unique cultural heritage.


nebraska dave
6/15/2010 8:03:41 PM

Evan, it’s always interesting to me to see how other cultures deal with the common issues of life. I have traveled through many Central American countries and have friends in some of those countries. Their life styles are much different than mine but still they are quite happy with their lives. Language is another fascinating thing. I often wonder if other cultures like the Piraha people have an evolving language like the English language or does it remain basically the same? The Piraha people language sounds like it’s limited in concept communication and perhaps they really don’t care about philosophical things anyway. I’m not really a person to talk about philosophical things either. Thanks for sharing your story about the Piraha people group.