Sunday, February 10, 2013

The shifty world

Ah, this is what I wanted to get to before.  Only it turns out I'm not as inspired by cabin fever as I might have hoped to be.

But this is an excerpt from A New Human by Mike Morwood.  Morwood led the team that discovered homo floresiensis in Indonesia.  His work there also encompassed learning about the Manggarai, a tribe native to that part of Flores, and about their view of the world.

Beliefs about the beginning of the world and how life orginated determine many aspects of Manggarai life, including their traditional ceremonies, religious structures and the layout of fields, villages and houses.  Like most other people on Flores, the Manggarai are overwhelmingly Catholic, but blend Christian beliefs with traditional adat beliefs that place emphasis on ancestral spirits and offerings.  The Manggarai say that the first people emerged out of the strong, versatile bamboo plants on a newly formed Earth, which, after a great collision, was lifted streaming from the sea that covered the entire world.  Back then, Earth, the mother, was connected by a vine to the Sky, the father.  But mother and father flew apart when a dog bit the vine separating them.  Human beings - who are said to have originally had long fur - spirits and animals were closely related to them.  Humans became distinguished from other animals and forest spirits by their ability to cultivate plants.  Finally, with the use of fire, came rules of eating and rules of marriage, and only then the transformation to human beings.

At first soft and malleable, the Earth hardened as it aged, trapping the impressions of ancestral activites and the sacred rituals associated with them.  An ordered pattern of ritual was established, weaving together the connections between world, between clans, between human beings and ancestores, and between humans and the surrounding fields.

This is an elaborate mythology, or part of one, of course.  But notably it does contain elements of the truth as we currently understand it, including the solidification of the Earth and the role of patterns in distinguishing matter from other matter.  Which suggests that there are numerous paths to knowledge.


susan said...

Mike Morwood's book sounds very interesting in that he he describes an unworldly (by Western standards) culture that lives by the tenets of an essential understanding of Creation. There could be good arguments made that human beings went seriously off the track when we stopped living in harmony with the natural world.

I'm reminded of a very favorite book written by Bruce Chatwin called 'The Songlines'. You probably know the Australian aboriginals believe the world and all its creations were sung into existence by their semi-divine 'ancestors.' To reaffirm their identity, their place in this world and the 'world' itself, today's Aboriginals retrace the routes their ancestors walked across the continent, re-singing everything back into life. It's an incredible way of understanding the world.

Chatwin starts out describing a trip to the Australian Outback pretty in beautiful descriptive prose. Before long you realize you are actually reading his brilliant ruminations about the human race as a species, where we came from, and where we are going. The book isn't really about the Aborigines, though they provide a number of terrific characters, but I suspect someone who really wanted to know more about the actual Songlines could be disappointed by this book. Instead, he makes a very clear case that humans are not really an aggressive species at heart, and that evolution has not really programmed the human to fight for power but to defend the tribe.

Songlines' greatest message is that life itself is a journey and that we should live it as one, constantly moving, constantly growing to the next level of existence, learning to let go of that which was never 'ours' to possess. You're right that there are many paths to knowledge.

Ben said...

As a rule, when I hear that humans are fundamentally anything, I'm skeptical. It sounds like such an oversimplification.

Thanks to your description, I definitely plan to check out that Chatwin book in the near future. Whether or not its about the deep history of Aborigine culture, it sounds like it captures much of the necessary flavor.