6 Apr 2009

A Wilderness of Chance: Shepard, Coming Home to the Pleistocene, Ch.4, subsection 3

Paul Shepard

Coming Home to the Pleistocene

Chapter IV: How the Mind Once Lived

Subsection 3

A Wilderness of Chance

Shepard now examines the complex mental processes involved in primitive foraging. The result of their interpenetration with the nonhuman world are such human accomplishments as toolmaking, intellectual sophistication, philosophy, and tradition. As Lévi Strauss writes: "in a world where diversity exceeds our mental capacity nothing is impossible in our capacity to become human." (57b)

On the one hand, civilized thought aims to simplify complexity rather than to clarify it. We unify, seek continuities, variabilities, and relativities rather than conceptualize new schemas. But this is precisely what primitive cultures attain.
the "civilized mind" attempts to simplify and level the world whereas the "savage mind" is not afraid to become enmeshed in its complexity. (57bc)
Rituals transcend the difference between real and imaginary. And yet, the way that primitive people conceptualize their world is nonetheless coherent and sophisticated. It is a "science of the concrete." And the world is seen as made-up of discontinuities. Lévi Strauss writes:
The manner in which primitive peoples conceptualize their world is not merely coherent but the very one demanded where objects are discontinuous and complex. (qt 59c, emphasis mine)
They treated plants and animals as "elements of a message."

For many prehistoric foragers, animals were the "principle actors in cosmology."
The human task was to discover social themes coded in nature and cataloged as taxonomy, told as stories and danced to the rhythms of animal-skin drums. (58a)
To hunt and gather, we need memory, which is directly related to brain size.
Memory becomes more important the bigger and more dangerous the game, the more helpless and far-traveled the gatherers. (58a)
Humans are naturally the prey to large animals, or at least we are their inferiors in the natural order of the wild. But we developed hunting abilities. Giant animals became our prey, and not the other way around. To hunt the great beasts, we needed to cooperate in a well-timed way. And this required planning. Primitive cultures must initiate and carry-on lengthy dialogues about how they will conduct the hunt. They continue the discussion throughout. And afterward their conversation reviews and assesses the events.
When tracking, the !Kung San note birdcalls and signs and discuss the spoor. Tracks tell the species, age, sex, speed, and physical condition of the animal and whether it was accompanied by other animals, what it was feeding on, and when it passed. Since tracks change over time, the !Kung San develop "their discriminating power to the highest degree," estimating how far ahead the animals are. The hunters read the dung and watch for bits of the foliage dropped from the animals' lips while eating. They appraise the size of a herd, whether it has been seeking shade, resting, or halting to feed. The stalking of a wounded animal opens new and repeated discussions and decisions. (58c-d)
At night, the hunters enter the wilderness of spirit.
During overnight stops the hunters observe specific taboos in a ritually heightened state. Access to the spirits by hunters -- ancestral, demonic, plant or animal -- is not unusual and can be undertaken in prayer, supplication, dream, trance, visionary disembodiment, and ecstatic flight to the other world. This spiritual state leads to a deeper insight into the meaning of the hunt, the chancy character of the game that may lead to a loss of the hunter's life, and the ethical implications of taking other lives. (58-59, emphasis mine)
Hunters are humble. They learn the fragility and spiritual value of all creature's lives.

Before and after the hunt, primitive people tell stories and conduct ritual ceremonies. This enhances the hunt's spiritual dimension. The hunters will hunt animals. To do so, they spiritually become animals.
Animal masks in rites give palpable expression to transitional states. On the body of a person the animal mask joins that which is otherwise separate -- not only representing human change but conceptualizing shared qualities -- so that unity in difference and difference in unity can be conceived as a pervasive truth. And some animals, by their shape or habit, such as foxes and frogs, are also boundary creatures who already signify the threshold world of human passages. In dance and song, bodies, painted and adorned, move to deep rhythms that bind the world and bring the human into mimetic participation with other beings and the truth of the multiplicity of all domains. (59bc)
José Ortega y Gasset describes human hunting. We enter inside the natural system.
Wind, light, temperature, ground-contour, minerals, vegetation, all play a part; they are not simply there, as they are for the tourist or the botanist, but rather they function, they act. (qt 59d)
And we learn about death from the animal we kill. So "we must seek his company" in the "subtle rite of the hunt." Gasset argues that hunters are our true fathers: "we realize our true heredity in the hunt." (60a)

Power is structured much differently in primitive cultures. It is less hierarchical and more fluid. What binds them socially are
the array of natural species about them. Animals and plants are regarded as centers, metaphors, and mentors of the different traits, skills, and roles of people. Insofar as they model diversity and the polythetic cosmos, the animals provide analogs to the multiplicity of stages and forms: the are interlocutors of change that is brought ceremonially into human consciousness. (60bc)
The forager's world is just as rich. It is full of "signs of a gifting cosmos, a realm of numerous alternatives and generous subsistence, not so much to be controlled by humans as to be understood and affirmed and joined." (60c) Hence forager's and hunters affirm chance.
The original chancy game of prey and predator, of eating or being eaten, takes on a more significant meaning in a gifting world where chance is still an element: the only question is when the gift will pass on. (60c, emphasis mine)
Recall Bateson's notion of metarandom variables. We are only limited parts of cybernetic ecosystems. So we can never understand the whole of its workings. There are always variables that vary other variables. We can never predict everything. So we must affirm chance. Or as Shepard writes:
Hunter/gatherers know nature well enough to appreciate how little they know of its complexity. They are engaged in a humble play of adventitious risk, which is hypostasized in gambling, a major leisure-time activity. Gambling is, after all, miniaturizing the game, depicting in the bodies of beasts, lounging or in repose, the ravishing mystery and fun of being a counterplayer, of moving and being moved in the excitement of the chase, the stillness of its sacred aftermath, and the joy of retelling. The great game of chance is elaborated in foragers' myths rich in the strangeness of life with its unexpected boons and encounters, its unanticipated penalties and rewards, not as arbitrary features of supernatural visits but as infinitely complex affiliations. (60-61, emphasis mine)

Shepard, Paul. Coming Home to the Pleistocene. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1998.

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