The Ascent of Humanity
Chapter 2: The Origins of Separation
The Marvelous Piraha
Some months after writing the rest of this chapter I came across the work of Daniel Everett, a linguist who has spent more than a decade studying the language and culture of the Piraha. The Piraha, a small tribe of hunter-gatherers in Brazil, have resisted, with breathtaking consistency, all the developments in linguistic abstraction, representational art, number, and time described above.
While this tribe has been in contact with other Brazilians for two centuries, for some reason they have maintained an extreme degree of linguistic and cultural integrity, remaining monolingual to this day. Significantly, in not just one but all the areas described in this chapter, they exhibit very little of the separation implicit in modern symbolic culture. They do not impose linearity onto time. They do not abstract the specific into the generic through numbering. They do not usually genericize individual human beings through pronouns. They do not freeze time into representation through drawing. They do not reduce the continuum of color to a discrete finitude by naming colors. They have little independent concept of fingers, the basis for number, grasping, and controlling; nor do they use fingers to point.
Most strikingly, the Piraha are unable to count. Not only do they have no words for numbers, their language also lacks any quantifiers such as “many”, “some”, or “all”. Even more amazing, they apparently are incapable of even learning to count. Despite eight months of sustained efforts, speech pathologist Peter Gordon failed to teach them, even with the Piraha’s enthusiastic cooperation. They cannot mimic a series of knocks because they cannot keep count of how many there have been.
The Piraha language is nearly devoid of any sort of abstraction. There is no semantic embedding, as in locutions like “I think she wants to come.” (“She wants to come” is a nominalized phrase embedded in “I think [X]”). The lack of nominalized phrases means that words are not abstracted from reality to be conceived as things-in-themselves. Grammar is not an infinitely extendible template that can generate meaning abstractly through mere syntax. Words are only used in concrete reference to objects of direct experience. There are, for example, no myths of any sort in Piraha, nor do the Piraha tell fictional stories. This absence of abstraction also explains the lack of terms for numbers.
Even colors do not exist in the abstract for Piraha. While they are clearly able to discern colors and to use words like “blood” or “dirt” as modifiers to describe colored objects, these words do not refer to any color in the abstract. One cannot say, for example, “I like red things, ” or “Do not eat red things in the jungle” in Piraha.
Even the very idea of abstract representation is apparently impossible to explain to the Piraha. Everett describes his own attempt:
If one tries to suggest, as we originally did, in a math class, for example, that there is actually a preferred response to a specific question, this is unwelcome and will likely mean changing subjects and/or irritation. As a further example of this, consider the fact that Pirahas will ‘write stories’ on paper I give them, which are just random marks, then ‘read’ the stories back to me, i.e. just telling me something random about their day, etc. which they claim to be reading from their marks. They may even make marks on paper and say random Portugeuse numbers, while holding the paper for me to see. They do not understand at all that such symbols should be precise (demonstrated when I ask them about them or ask them to draw a symbol twice, in which case it is never replicated) and consider their ‘writing’ as exactly the same as the marks that I make.
Abstraction is also absent from their art. The Piraha do not draw representational figures at all, except for crude stick figures used to explain to the anthropologist the spirit world , of which they claim direct experience. They cannot even draw straight lines. As Everett continues from above, “In literacy classes, however, we were never able to train a Piraha to even draw a straight line without serious ‘coaching’ and they are never able to repeat the feat in subsequent trials without more coaching.” This is highly significant, given that the straight line is itself an abstraction, being absent from nature. It is an abstraction, moreover, fraught with powerful cultural and psychological implications. At the most literal level, the Piraha do not engage in linear thinking.
This absence of linear thinking comes out in the language, which lacks tenses, and not only in the morphosyntactical sense of conjugations and tense markers. There is simply no verbal way to fix an event at a specific point in the past or future, for Piraha doesn’t have words for tomorrow, yesterday, next month, or last year. The sentence, “Let us meet here in three days”—or even, “Let us meet here tomorrow”—is inexpressible in Piraha. Piraha has only twelve time words at all, such as day, night, full moon, high water, low water, already, now, early morning, and another day. None of them allow the establishment of a time line. Accordingly, the Piraha have no sense of history, no stories that reach back before living memory, and no creation myths. “Pirahas say, when pressed about creation, for example, simply ‘Everything is the same’, meaning nothing changes, nothing is created.” They often do not know the names of their deceased grandparents; their kinship terms do not apply to dead people. Theirs is a timeless world. The past, after all, is just another abstraction as soon as it extends back before living memory.
The Piraha similarly abstain from projection into the future, sharing with other hunter-gatherers the nonchalance and disdain for food storage described in Chapter One. They are aware of food storage methods such as drying, salting, and so forth, but only use these techniques to make items for barter. For themselves they store no food, explaining to Everett, “I store meat in the belly of my brother”. In other words, says Everett, “They share with those who need meat, never storing for the future.” A further level of interpretation of this statement is also possible, however: taken literally, it suggests a different conception of self-interest and therefore a different conception of self. To help another is to help oneself. We are not separate.
Like other hunter-gatherers, the Piraha have few material possessions, and those they do possess are very impermanent: baskets that last a day or two, dwellings that last until the next storm. Their material culture makes no provision for security in the future, no provision for progress, betterment, or accumulation.
A final refusal of separation lies in the Piraha’s incapacity to form an abstract concept of value. Unable to understand money, they rely on barter for trade, and in these transactions tend to be painfully ingenuous. They present what they have to offer (Brazil nuts, raw rubber, and so forth) and point to items in the trader’s boat until the trader says they are paid in full. “There is little connection, however, between the amount of what they bring to trade and the amount of what they ask for,” Everett observes. “For example, someone can ask for an entire roll of hard tobacco in exchange for a small sack of nuts or a small piece of tobacco for a large sack.” Yet the Piraha are intelligent people, skillful hunters and fishers, with a well-developed sense of humor.
The main thrust of Daniel Everett’s paper is to refute a widely accepted hypothesis in linguistics, “Hockett’s design features for human language,” which lays out a dozen or so characteristics of human language it claims are universal. Piraha, says Everett, defies at least three of those characteristics. I believe that Hockett’s design features only appear universal to us because of our present perspective of separation. Contrary to Hockett, Piraha is severely limited in its ability to speak of events removed in time and space from the act of communication (Displacement) and in its ability to generate new meaning via grammatical patterning (Productivity). All of this stems from the resistance of the Piraha to the distancing from reality that we call abstraction.
From numbers to colors to time, there is much that the Piraha language is constitutionally unable to express, inviting the conclusion that the Piraha are a cognitively impoverished and socially isolated people. Moreover, theirs happens to have the fewest phonemes of any known language: just three vowel sounds and seven consonants for women, eight for men. Accustomed as we are to associating communication with semantic meaning, we can only conclude that the Piraha suffer an extreme poverty of communication.
Of great significance, then, is Everett’s observation that the Piraha communicate almost as much by singing, whistling, and humming—non-symbolic modes of voice communication—as they do by speaking. A rich prosody enhances their verbal communication as well. Could it be that they are closer to the Original Language than the rest of the world, mired as it is in representation and abstraction? Perhaps it is we, not they, who suffer a poverty of communication.
 Everett, Daniel L., “Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã: Another Look at the Design Features of Human Language” Current Anthropology, Aug-Oct 2005.Vol.46, No. 4
 Gordon, Peter, “Numerical Cognition without Words: Evidence from Amazonia,” Science, August 19, 2004. pp. 496-499
 Video footage by Peter Gordon, available on his Columbia University website.
 Everett, p. 628
 Id., p. 626
 Id., p. 633