The Lessons Ancient People Have for Us
The Lessons Ancient People Have for Us
By Thom Hartmann /

From the San and the Kogi:

Value community and cooperation;
we are part of the world,
not separate from it.

One of the oldest cultures on Earth is that of the !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in the northern parts of South Africa.

The exclamation point in their name !Kung represents a sound in their language which we don’t have in English: it’s a popping noise made in the mouth by forming a vacuum between the tongue and the top of the mouth and then pulling the tongue down quickly. There are three other sounds in their language for which we have no letters, all of them clicks or pops, made by similarly clicking the tongue against the front of the mouth or the sides of the mouth and teeth. They are such a unique culture that although they’re ancient, their language contains sounds that have traveled to no other human tongue on earth.

Over the past few decades, as they’ve become more well-known, they’ve asked anthropologists and linguists that they be called the San, although most texts from before the 1980s refer to them as the !Kung. (They and their life are portrayed wonderfully well in the film The Gods Must Be Crazy.)

The San are racially distinct from the other Africans who have conquered the continent in the past few millennia. Their skin is more yellow than black, and their eyes are slightly slanted, as if they share a common ancestor with Asians, or perhaps are indeed an early ancestor of the Asians. Their hair is black and curly like other Africans, but they’re comparatively short and thin, often standing less than five feet tall and weighing less than one hundred pounds.

The lives of the San were first chronicled, quite elegantly, by Laurens van der Post, a South African explorer and writer. In his 1961 book The Heart of the Hunter,[1] he tells of coming across a small !Kung tribe of about a dozen adults and children as they crossed a particularly hot and barren part of the desert. Van der Post and his fellow explorers started hunting some game so the Bushmen could have extra food to carry on their journey “toward the lightning on the horizon” where the seasonal rains were beginning.

The explorers spent an entire day hunting with their Land Rovers and provisioned the Bushmen well for their trip.As the little tribe was leaving, van der Post and his group stood to wave good-bye, but the Bushmen simply walked off with many smiles. No thank-you’s were ever given.One of van der Post’s assistants, a hunter who’d never encountered Bushmen before, commented that they seemed ungrateful and uncaring. Ben, one of the other men in the group who understood Bushman culture, responded that to give another human food and water is only good manners and is routine behavior among the Bushmen. If the white men had been starving on a long trek and the Bushmen had found them, they would immediately share their food and water, even if it endangered their own survival. And they wouldn’t expect thanks in response.

In fact, in San Bushman culture, to eat in front of another person who is without food is an immoral act, every bit as horrific as in our culture if a person were to walk out onto a busy city sidewalk, pull down their pants, and defecate. Everybody would be shocked and horrified.

As it happens, the San do say “thank you.” They do it whenever they’re hunting, when they’re making a decision to take a life. No animal is killed for food by the San without being thanked by them, both at the time of the hunt and later when a dance is done for the soul of the animal. And animals are only killed when there is a clear need for the food.

For those of us who grew up in modern civilization, it’s difficult to imagine a life and culture where such fundamental things are simply taken for granted. When we stop behind a car at a red light, we don’t open the door and run up to the car in front of us to thank them for being so considerate as to follow the basic rules of the road and stop for the red light—it’s simply a given that everybody does that. No thanks are required. Thanking people for doing something implies that they had a choice to do otherwise, and did it out of a desire to be nice.

But imagine a world where feeding another person is as much an automatic response as stopping for a red light; a world where a person who fails to feed or care for another is ostracized or punished, the way we give people tickets if they run red lights; where the care of others is more important than even the care of yourself; where the teaching, “All things that you would want others to do to you, do ye even so to them,” is actually practiced—not out of effort but as part of the daily routine, as the normal way things are, as a basic assumption of society. That is San culture: the way of an Older Culture.

A storyteller of Chippewa and Cree ancestry told me that his people have a belief that if a person visits your home, and you fail to share with them food and water so that they leave hungry or thirsty, and then the Creator decides to “take them home at that time,” they will arrive in the Spirit World hungry or thirsty. “The responsibility for that, for that person’s condition in that world, is yours, because you were the last person he met and you then had an opportunity to feed him. So we have an obligation to feed and give water and shelter and whatever else a person may need whenever they come into our village or our home.”

In our Younger Culture, we value productivity and possession. In their Older Culture, they value community. Most “modern” people find it difficult or impossible to imagine a world where community is more important than possessions, yet this is how about one percent of the world’s population still lives, and how most of our ancestors lived for 100,000 years.

In 1997 a group of 13 researchers released a study in which they quantified the value of all the environments of the planet. From measuring the size of Louisiana shrimp harvests to how much people were willing to pay for access to a lake, coral reef, or other natural attraction, they concluded that the planet’s natural areas were worth about $33 trillion.

That someone would even consider putting a price-tag on the world is an indication of how far out on the edge we’ve gone. It demonstrates a mind-set which says that the world is here for us and only has value to the extent to which we can or do use it. According to this perspective, “natural resources” are only a “resource” if they are usable by humans.

Many people share this viewpoint. From those who claim that the planet is a self-stabilizing, living system to those who argue that we need more wild areas to preserve forests for campers and backpackers, the implicit message is that we need to save ecosystems because they are of value to humans, directly or esthetically.

There are those who wax poetic about the views from the Pacific coast, or the astounding vitality of Amazonian rainforests. We have to save these environments, they say, so that our children and their children can appreciate them. Or we need to save them because those trees are the lungs of the planet and that shoreline is where unique life-forms exist which may one day be discovered to have the cure for cancer. Keep it because we may someday want or need it.

The ancient Kogi Indians of Colombia,[2] however, look out on the mountains of South America’s Sierra Madre chain, the Great Mother Of All Life, and see that while Mother has provided a place for humans, their “younger brothers” of our Younger Culture are now on the edge of destroying Mother herself. Our jets pierce her like so many needles, criss-crossing the sky; we dig into her flesh and tear out her innards with our mining equipment; we drill deep into her and drain out her fluids with our water and oil wells; we throw soot and waste and smoke into her face and onto her body.

The Kogi have sent out emissaries to tell the modern world that they are horrified at what they are seeing: we are killing the Mother Of All Life.Even at its most noble, its most altruistic, its most concerned for our environment, our Younger Culture is expressing a profound self-centeredness, a concern that if our natural environment is lost, we may no longer use, appreciate, or even worship it.

In all cases, what’s implicit in our cultural view of the world is a hierarchy, a good-better-best and a bad-worse-worst. Nature is better and more noble than humanity, or humanity is superior to nature and has a noble obligation to subdue and exercise dominion over nature. Good guys and bad guys.

But there’s a different way to view the natural world. Older Cultures, with few exceptions, hold as their most foundational concept the belief that we are not different from, separate from, in charge of, superior to, or inferior to the natural world. We are part of it. Whatever we do to nature, we do to ourselves. Whatever we do to ourselves, we do to the world. For most, there is no concept of a separate “nature”: it’s all us and we’re all it.

From the Kayapo: Sustainable Agriculture

The Kayapo are a Gê–speaking tribe of native peoples who live in the rainforests of northern Brazil. They’ve been there at least two thousand years, and many researchers believe they’ve lived in that area for as long as 8,000 to 10,000 years. Their way of life has been continuous for that entire time...until recently.The Kayapo practice an interesting form of agriculture, based on the idea that you can take what you need from the forest or fields, and even manipulate the forest and fields so they produce more human foods and medicines, but that you cannot do this in a way which injures the land.

They begin by creating what are called “circular fields.” Starting at one particular point in the forest, they’ll fell trees in a ten- to twenty-foot area, with each tree falling so that its crown points out toward the edge of the circular clearing. This produces an open area covered with felled trees, which radiate out from the center like the spokes on a wagon wheel.

In the first year, they plant legumes and tubers such as manioc, potatoes, and yams, among and between the felled trees. These plants stabilize the soil, and many of them fix nitrogen and other nutrients into the soil. At the end of the growing season, the Kayapo burn the trees, distributing the ash around the soil to fertilize it. The burning doesn’t hurt the root vegetables, which are then dug up and stored or eaten.

In the second year, edible plants are sown in circles from the center of the clearing out toward the surrounding forest. The plants which have the greatest need for sunlight, such as sweet potatoes and yams, are in the center, then progressively more shade-loving crops are planted—corn, rice, manioc, papaya, cotton, beans, and bananas in rings that move toward the outer periphery. The most shade-loving plants are on the outer circles.

For two to five years, the field is cultivated in this fashion, and each year a new field is prepared. Finally, around the seventh year, the first field is abandoned for agriculture so that the forest can re-seed it and new trees begin to grow in the still-fertile soil. Many of the crops continue to grow wild in the area—particularly the potatoes and yams—and are harvested for years as the forest reclaims the field. For the first ten or twenty years as the field returns to forest, berries, medicinal herbs, and small fruit trees proliferate, providing a new and different food source. There is also a lot of bush and underbrush which grows up, providing home for small game, which the Kayapo hunt to supplement their diet. Within twenty years, the area is once again rainforest.

This sustainable agriculture has been practiced by the Kayapo for at least two thousand years, and possibly for as long as ten thousand. It enabled them to build a huge culture over millions of acres of Brazil before the invasion of South America by the Spanish and Portuguese genocidal invaders who called themselves “conquerors” or Conquistadors.

[1] Harvest Books, New York, later republished by Harcourt Brace, New York, 1980

[2] There is more information about the Kogi in my book The Prophet’s Way and also in an excellent videotape available from Mystic Fire Video called “From the Heart of the World.”

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The Lessons Ancient People Have for Us