First Mythic Tribe

At some point in prehistory, perhaps 50,000 years ago, a group of humans woke up and asked themselves a question: How did we get here? The mere fact that they asked themselves such a question was momentous, for it signifies they had become behaviorally modern. These humans, whom we will call the “Talking Heads Tribe” for purposes of our thought experiment, had gone symbolically viral and become linguistically fluent. Unlike modern Talking Heads, whose 1984 wish was to Stop Making Sense, our prehistoric Talking Heads needed to make sense. On the mythical day of their awakening, having become fully conscious in the word cloud, they may have experienced a Jamesian “blooming, buzzing, confusion.” With the world impressing itself upon them in strangely new or symbolic ways, we might imagine them performing an ancestral version of this song:

While such imaginings may strike some as the worst sort of conjecture, this kind of thought business is not completely idle. It is not, in other words, just another fruitless search for origins and speculative story about beginnings. These are questions that my students and I ask when contemplating the thought and speech worlds of our behaviorally modern ancestors. These worlds, whenever they began and wherever they appeared, surely had to make sense.

To make sense, construct experience, and negotiate the world, our ancestors surely told stories that were structurally and functionally similar to what we today call theories. While more recent versions of these stories are usually classed (or denigrated) as “myth,” we would do well to remember that the remarkably rapid peopling of the world was powered by animist worldviews. These worldviews may have been “mythical,” but they obviously worked. Indeed, they worked so well that we should just call them what they are: theories.

When thinking about the first mythic tribes, a good place to start is with Stanley Krippner’s article (pdf)  on shamanic epistemology and ways of knowing. Though Krippner prefers to class these worldviews as “technologies” (a refreshing change of pace from the usual talk about shamanic “mysticism”), he is also clearly describing what amount to theories:

Epistemology is concerned with the nature, characteristics and processes of knowledge, and in this essay I am suggesting that shamanic epistemology drew upon perceptual, cognitive, affective and somatic ways of knowing that assisted early humans to find their way through an often unpredictable, sometimes hostile, series of environmental challenges. Not only did early humans have to become aware of potentially dangerous environmental objects and activities, they needed to have explanatory stories (enacted as mythic rituals) at their disposal to navigate through the contingencies of daily encounters and challenges. The acute perceptual abilities of shamans, in combination with their intuition and imagination, met their societies’ needs.

In psychological terms, shamans are socially designated practitioners who claim to self-regulate their psychological functions to obtain information unavailable to other members of their social group. Shamans were probably humanity’s original specialists, combining the roles of healers, storytellers, weather forecasters, performing artists, ritualists, and magicians. Mythological worldviews arise from epistemologies which, in turn, are fueled by the motives, needs, and traditions of a group in a specific time and place. (98)

For the shaman, everything provided knowledge about everything else, and the whole of being was “fundamentally an immense signal system” (Kalweit, 1992, p. 77). Shamanic states of consciousness were the first steps toward deciphering (or deconstructing) the signal system, and this was made possible once humanity’s symbolic capacity matured. (107)

Myth describes a systematic exploration of the human body by privileged members of archaic cultures. Explanations were needed for birth, death, illness, procreation, and other bodily phenomena, as well as for cyclones, forest fires, floods, sunsets, eclipses, and the changes of seasons. [Behaviorally modern humans] were able to use symbolism in image-making and storytelling, both of which were adaptive because they helped to make sense of one’s body, one’s peers, and one’s environment. (108)

Western science is characterized by a search for satisfactory explanations of “reality.” This search is achieved by statements of general principles; these can be tested experimentally or through repeated observations. Shamanic epistemology also attempts to explain “reality,” employs repeated observations, and makes statements about general principles. (112)

I would propose that the image-schemas of those men and women who a community held to be shamanic practitioners were especially adept when prediction was demanded. Game needed to be located, weather patterns needed to be forecast, enemy movements needed to be anticipated, and flight paths needed to be discovered. These tasks required feedforward processing, and the shamanic fine-tuning of image-schemas through heightened perception and/or changed states of consciousness may have assisted this assignment. (114)

For those who have been reading Robin Horton, all this should sound familiar: on several levels, myth works much like science. They are both fundamentally concerned with explanation, prediction, and control.


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8 thoughts on “First Mythic Tribe

  1. Sabio Lantz

    (1) When reading your thoughts, I wondered if “world-model” captures these ideas better than “worldview” or “myth”. Model sounds more fluid and fluxing with testing — for scientific thinking has always existed: postulate, test, reform.

    (2) I am not convinced by this logic, however:
    (a) Early humans had animist worldviews.
    (b) Early humans spread all over the planet
    (c) Therefore, animists worldviews “worked so well that we should just call them pragmatic theories.”

    The hidden premise there is:
    (b.i.) animist views were responsible for humans spreading.

    But I am sure you can see what a huge jump that is.

    Christians and Muslims use the same argument that Christianity or Islam has to be correct (as a believer would say), if believers now cover the planet. Did Buddhism not spread because it did not work? or Shinto?

    Did animist worldview just tag along for the ride, serving some function well and some horribly while other human traits like tools, hunting skills and mental adaptiveness [or some such set] act as the major engine for the “rapid spread”?

    I think this is bound to be a major doubt of any skeptical reader who hears moderns singing the praises of ancient animists.

    Were these shamans just find a ride along niche while hunters, guides, cooks, gatherers, tool makers, cloth makers, shelter builders and others did the important real work which caused the spread? Sure, they offered entertainment through stories and hope through their supposed medicine and such, much like religious professionals do today. But much like today, societies have shown that we can do without religious professionals. Sure, models and view will still evolve and explain, but do they cause the success or follow the success (or failure)? Or both?

  2. Cris Post author

    I don’t see any equivalence between animist worldviews, which are ways of cognizing the world, and religions. Animist worldviews are cognitive facts that go along with our brains. So unless you or some other skeptic wants to claim that fully modern human brains-minds are not adaptive or are maladaptive, we just have to accept that animist worldviews are what evolved in ancestral settings. From an evolutionary or fitness perspective, they were successful and “adaptive.”

    While I think you make a good suggestion about changing the phrase to something else, this is the phrase that most specialists in the field use, so I can’t change it by myself. I also think Walter Ong makes a good argument for changing it to “animist world-event,” but animist “worldview-event-model-schema” is rather unwieldy isn’t it?

  3. Sabio Lantz

    I still don’t think that just because astrological thinking has been with us for millennia in several cultures that there is something about astrology that “works” and helps the spread of humans. The world view of animists may not be what caused their successful reproduction. I did not see in your first paragraph how you offer a counter to this rather obvious objection. I must be missing something.

    I am not talking religions, I am talking about ways of telling stories about your world.

  4. Cris Post author

    Animist worldviews are comprehensive ontological, epistemological, and cosmological “systems.” They are, in the largest possible sense, ways of knowing about everything. They literally and figuratively construct experiences and shape perceptions. All behaviorally modern humans for perhaps 50,000 years had such worldviews and these humans colonized the world in ways that are unparalleled in life history or mammalian history.

    Astrology is not such a “system” and neither are world religions. Neither astrology nor world religions are part and parcel of the human brain-mind that evolved over millions of years in ancestral settings. Do you see the difference?

    Let me put it this way: animist worldviews evolved in tandem with modern minds. These worldviews formed the basis for cognizing all that was encountered, experienced, perceived, negotiated, constructed, and discussed.

    I’m not sure why you are so resistant to this idea. It’s just a fact.

    All that aside, I’m not suggesting that we try to go back to such worldviews or that they were better than modern or derived worldviews. In fact, this would be impossible because ancestral settings can never be recovered or reconstituted.

    But the fact of the matter remains that from an evolutionary and ancestral perspective, these worldviews worked. In evolutionary biology and theory, this is called an adaptation. Fitness, or differential reproductive success, is all that matters from an evolutionary perspective.

  5. jayarava

    “Western science is characterized by a search for satisfactory explanations of “reality.”

    Western Buddhism also.

  6. Larry Stout

    The earliest cognitively modern humans, I think, had made an evolutionary (adaptive) quantum leap in theorizing within an instinctive context of causation. If/then — based fundamentally on observation, experience, and experimentation, but expanded where cause and effect seemed murky — was and remains the basis of all rational thought. We’re compulsive about identifying cause and effect, thus compulsive in making our personal perceptions of cause and effect comprehensive and universal — beyond all experiment and experience — in religion. I’ve long been quite comfortable in saying about a great many things, “I don’t know.”

  7. Dominik Lukes

    Cris, I don’t have any problem with what you say about animism. I just don’t think you are basing what you say about “modern minds” on the same evidence base or using a similar interpretive framework. Once you define animism as an all pervading hermeneutic system (which I’d accept with only minor reservations), you can no longer compare it with ‘modern’ religion. Instead, you’re going to have to look at the society as a whole to see if there are parallels. That’s why I find the concept of ‘religion’ a very difficult unit of analysis. I think you need to address these cases:

    1. Systems in contact. What happens when animism encounters a non-animist society (missionaries in Papua New Guinea, process of spreading of early Christianity, Mongol encounters with Christianity, Budhism and Islam, introduction of Christianity to Hawaii, current magical practices in Christian or Islamic Africa, etc. There’s lots of evidence of deep mutual misunderstanding but the encounters are not completely alien (e.g. see political alliances and technology exchange). Of course, all ideological systems are in periodic contact so treating them as completely isolated is a problem.

    2. Non-animist religious practices (e.g. those of American protestantism or Liberation Theology) as part of a holistic worldview containing technology. (I spent some time watching all-Christian TV networks and think they provide a great example of the deep integration of supernatural into every day life – it may turn out this is of a different nature than animism but I’d want to see more analysis, first).

    3. Animist societies’ dealing with technologies and logistics. Most animist societies will also have incredibly complex systems of folk taxonomies which will be interwoven with other beliefs but not identical. I’d like to see how close this integration is. I’m sure such studies exist but I haven’t seen this addressed in this context.

    4. Use of irony and negotiation in both systems. Laughing in sacred contexts is common in many surprising contexts. Evans Pritchard has some interesting examples in his paper on obscenity in the Azande rituals.

    5. Specialization of knowledge. To the average consumer of medical advice, there’s no significant difference between clinical medicine and homeopathy. However, to the specialist, they’re worlds apart. Equally, your typical Calvinist won’t care about the finer points of salvation through predestination or might not even be able to list all 10 commandments. Would we find similar stratification of doctrinal guardianship, specialization and facility in an animist society? My guess is that we would but it does not appear to be studied very systematically.

    I’m not ready to draw any firm conclusions but I think all of these represent dimensions that problematize your account to some extent, at least from the comparative perspective.

  8. Larry Stout

    Child psychologists studying language-acquisition have developed a “theory of theory”, postulating that very young children slowly formulate and progressively modify a “theory” of speech sounds directed at them face to face (they are oblivious both to recordings and to videos simulating face-to-face speech). The researchers hold that this theorizing is perfectly analogous to the theorizing of scientists.

    Long ago I noticed that my young daughter and her little brother began to utter the clause “Amn’t I”. This was something they had never heard from a parent or anyone else, but had come up with independently (by my daughter first, I assume, and mimicked by her younger brother), by analogy with “Aren’t you”, “Isn’t he/she/it”, etc. Somehow “Aren’t I” has become standardized in English, despite it’s being clearly ungrammatical. I don’t remember, but I think I routinely must have used the expression “Am I not”, which the kids contracted on subconscious “theoretical” grounds.

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