It’s often assumed that indigenous peoples think of themselves as being closer to nature and not as involved as the rest of us in trying to prove that they are not as mortal and finite as all other animals. But that’s not the case. A great example is the Baining people of New Guinea.
In their paper I Am Not an Animal, a group of psychologists note that “the men of the Chagga tribe in Tanzania wear an anal plug to pretend not to defecate.” (Western custom is simply to do your excreting in private.) And the men and women of Central Africa “view facial scars as attractive and will cut deep wounds in their face to attain such standards, whereas in Western culture we use a great deal of time, money, and beauty products to hide any lines or blemishes that may appear on our skin. In these and many other ways, the body is transformed from something creaturely and material into something symbolic and ethereal.”
All human groups have their own ways of relating to their animal nature, developing all manner of codes and rites and behaviors to do with eating, excreting, having sex, dying and dealing with the death of others.
Writing in his blogabout the Baining people, Peter Bateson, a professor of evolutionary psychology, says that anthropologists were having a hard time finding anything of interest to say about these people until Jane Fajans, a professor of anthropology , offered some fascinating insight into their apparently rather dull lives.
The “dull” factor is that they don’t have religious traditions, myths and rituals, nor any festivals except for a regular Fire Dance, which, even though it involves meticulous work preparing the masks and other equipment, has no deep meaning in their lives and is conducted these days mainly as a show for tourists.
The Baining people, who subsist off of small-scale agriculture and do very little hunting, don’t like the forest that’s all around them. They avoid almost anything “natural”, including, for example, children’s playtime. Play is natural, so it’s discouraged. Bateson writes:
The Baining believe, quite correctly, that play is the natural activity of children, and precisely for that reason they do what they can to discourage or prevent it. They refer to children’s play as “splashing in the mud,” an activity of pigs, not appropriate for humans. They do not allow infants to crawl and explore on their own. When one tries to do so an adult picks it up and restrains it. Beyond infancy, children are encouraged or coerced to spend their days working and are often punished—sometimes by such harsh means as shoving the child’s hand into the fire—for playing.
Part of the reason the Baining are reluctant to talk about themselves, apparently, derives from their strong sense of shame about their natural drives and desires. While they do have sex and do produce babies, they disapprove of both and favor adopting children when possible “because to raise someone else’s child is less natural than to raise one’s own.” Fajan found that more than one child in three was adopted – often from other tribes. And she reported that work is a fundamental value because it is all about denying what is natural.
To behave naturally is to them tantamount to behaving as an animal. The Baining say, “We are human because we work.” The tasks that make them human, in their view, are those of turning natural products (plants, animals, and babies) into human products (crops, livestock, and civilized human beings) through effortful work (cultivation, domestication, and disciplined childrearing).
In her book, They Make Themselves: Work and Play among the Baining of Papua New Guinea, Fajan writes that they are a socialistic society without priests or police. This might lead to the assumption that they lead some kind of idealized, Rousseau-esque, back-to-nature life. But that would be a very wrong impression. The absence of a need for police, priests, etc. is made possible by the deeply ingrained, super-Puritan, work-based lifestyle. The need to deny our basic nature as animals is at the core of our human identity.
The need to deny our basic nature as animals is at the core of our human identity. Every society goes about it in a different way, but it always stems from the same basic urge: to cope with the self-awareness that enables to see ourselves and reflect on our own lives, to consider our past and future, and to be conscious, beyond all else, of the fact that we are doomed to die.
Every individual and every society copes with this in a different way. Few have ever been reconciled to it, and the result, from New Guinea to New York and from Mali to Michigan, is an array of customs and cultures that we develop to tell ourselves: “I am not an animal.”
And since we are, indeed, all animals, it sets up an internal conflict and a world of unresolved anxiety that cannot help but lead to all the dysfunction we see in our very human world today.
See also: “I Am Not an Animal“.