Monday, 29 February 2016

This Could Be The Most Interesting Programme On Television All Year

I was just watching some catch-up TV, and the show I was most looking forward to was the Channel 4 documentary about the hitherto 'undiscovered' tribe of Amazonians, centred on the studies of the Brazilian anthropologist Carlos Morellis, and the first meeting of a tribe that were ostensible hunter-gatherers.

To begin with the tribe were very fearful of white men, and it took Morellis a whole year and a practical understanding of their language and mannerisms to realise that these Amazonian hunter-gatherers had been treated very badly by white fortune-seekers looking for gold, by illegal loggers, and by those who enslaved native men to tap rubber trees. In fact, in one of the most startling moments, a photo was shown of such a group from yesteryear with chains round their necks and wrists.

After Morellis had spent some time patrolling up and down the river, sussing them out, there was a meeting, which was sufficiently successful enough to ensure the Amazonians no longer feared all white men. When both parties finally learned to put their guards down, there were some very moving scenes between the two groups.

Some will be perturbed by the fact that more advanced people have come along and disturbed a tribe of people otherwise living in virtual isolation from the rest of the world's population. But the Amazonians weren't exactly having a blast there - their daily existence was a continual struggle for survival, and always with the spectre of being attacked by poisonous snakes and jaguars, and, particularity interestingly if you're someone who knows your Bible, experiencing repeated feelings of shame for being mostly naked.

This programme was a rare chance to experience something terrifically fascinating and unique - a real life present-day social experiment back to our hunter-gatherer past (even more intriguing given the fact that rainforests are not the most natural habitat of hunter-gatherers). As well as getting to observe the behaviour of people one is never going to meet in virtually all other places in the world, there were for me two other notable things. Firstly, the Amazonians had no obvious status ornaments, yet there was evidently a hierarchy. And secondly, despite no socialised views of religion or the divine, they believed in heaven and the afterlife.

The programme was compelling viewing for virtually every minute of its duration. But perhaps the standout thing I observed is this. It's quite possible that in just one hour of observing these Amazonian hunter-gatherers we have clear exhibition of an analogue to the precursors of all the world's religions: that homo-sapiens have evolved the hardware to experience awe and wonder in a way that appears to make us worshipfully inclined (something the writer of Ecclesiastes noted in chapter 3 verse 11), and that we have always possessed all the blueprints for hierarchicalism, which makes the organised religions that have emerged from our evolved hardware not in the least bit surprising, and perhaps even somewhat inevitable.