Our Hunting, Wandering and Gathering Heritage
This excursion into that which is asserted to be inescapably human began with the reading of The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin,. I quote here from Wikipedia’s entry for the book:
The basic idea that Chatwin posits is that language started as song, and the (Australian) aboriginal dreamtime sings the land into existence. A key concept of aboriginal culture is that the aboriginals and the land are one. By singing the land, the land itself exists; you see the tree, the rock, the path, the land. What are we if not defined by our environment? And in one of the harshest environments on Earth one of our oldest civilizations became literally as one with the country. This central concept then branches out from Aboriginal culture … (to) the African Savannah (when) we were a migratory species, moving solely on foot, hunted by a dominant brute predator in the form of a big cat: hence the spreading of ‘songlines’ across the globe, eventually reaching Australia … where they are now preserved in the world’s oldest living culture.
[Note: The book can be called ‘fiction’, according to a review in Spike Magazine–“One of the most amazing qualities that sets Chatwin apart was his ability to mix fact and fiction in his ‘stories’. As he said himself, ‘The word story is intended to alert the reader to the fact that, however closely the narrative may fit the facts, the fictional process has been at work.’ This is idea is best held in mind when considering his best-selling book, The Songlines (1987).” (Source)]
Somewhat over half-way through the book, Chatwin digresses from Australia of the 1980s into a presentation and discussion of notes he has written during his many years of travel in the least urbanized parts of our world. Many of these notes are from his readings:
- Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right -Søren Kierkegaard, letter to Jette (1847)
- Solvitur Ambulando–It is solved by walking -St. Augustine
- Perhaps our need for distraction, our mania for the new (is) an instinctive migratory urge akin to that of birds in autumn -Chatwin
- Our nature lies in movement; complete calm is death -Blaise Pascal
- I was forced to travel, to ward off the apparitions assembled in my brain -Arthur Rimbaud
- Natural selection has designed us for a career of seasonal journeys on foot through a blistering land of thorn-scrub or desert–Chatwin
I read a lot of popular scientific writing during the 1960s in this new examination of animal behavior as it may apply also to man as animal (ethology). Two other authors in this realm are Robert Ardrey and Desmond Morris.
African Genesis and The Territorial Imperative, two of Robert Ardrey’s most widely read works, as well as Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape (1967), were key elements in the public discourse of the 1960s which challenged earlier anthropological assumptions. Ardrey’s ideas notably influenced Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick in the development of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
From opening scene 2001: A Space Odyssey
- To live in one land is captivity; to (run in) all countries, a wild roguery–John Donne
- It is good to collect things, but it is better to go on walks–Anatole France
- We Lapps (Sámi) have the same nature as the reindeer: in the springtime we long for the mountains; in the winter we are drawn to the woods–Turi’s Book of Lappland
Not all the theories propounded by these and other authors in this realm, during this time (1960s and 1970s), hold up today, especially that we humans are inherently killers or descended form “killer apes” as Ardrey suggests.
But, back to the book that started this conversation: The Songlines, by Bruce Chatwin–I recommend it to you, if for no other reason (and there are many), to live, as much as is possible through reading of it, in the Australian Outback.
The Northern Territory of Australia, including Alice Springs, a major reference point for the travels in this book
I’ve been meaning to read this book. My interest in songlines increased after reading another author who discusses the Australian Aborigines. It is from Lynne Kelly as found in her two recent books: Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies, and The Memory Code. I’m sure I’d get a lot out of Chatwin’s book.
Thanks for the referral to Lynne Kelly.
Dear Ron and Benjamin,
It is very clear that all three of us are very interested in songlines in relation to Australian Aboriginal culture and tradition.
Being multilingual and multicultural, I have been naturally more sensitive to and cognizant of cultural differences as well as similarities, plus the roles played by languages in different environments and societies. For example, there are compelling reasons for me to be really mindful of the contributions of both (socio)linguistics and translating because together they can reveal the accumulated and collective knowledges as well as the sociocultural and sociohistorical outcomes in all its synergy and diversity that have been imparting depth and richness to humanity (and the human mind) across different cultures.
Hence, I embrace being consilient and holistic through interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity in order to see and understand the parts and the whole through (socio)linguistics, paleohistory, forensic science, social sciences (anthropology, archaeology and sociology) and natural sciences ((ethno)biology, (ethno)botany, (ethno)zoology, palaeontology, geology and so on) as well as behavioural sciences (psychology, psychobiology, anthropology and cognitive science). For example, to fathom the “mystery” of songlines of the Australian aboriginals, one needs to understand the oral history of the Aboriginals through anthropology with a greater emphasis on ethnography and ethnomusicology as well as cultural anthropology, (socio)linguistics and paleohistory, plus archaeology, ethnogeology, ethnobiology, ethnobotany and ethnozoology when necessary.
The need and importance of seeing and understanding the parts and the whole are also why many of my posts (and certain pages) published in my main blog tend to be very extensive, interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, encyclopaedic and elaborate in their details.
Quoting Dyami Millarson and Ken Ho as follows:
Hence, you can see that “Languages offer you a kind of ‘uncensored’ or ‘unprocessed’ version of history that practically no history book would ever tell you; the way in which languages tell you about history is so much more chaotic, yet so much more informative on so many levels.” Whilst different languages have many similarities (and differences) in syntaxes and grammars, it is very true that they possess very different “sound and feel” as well as “cosmologies”, so to speak, even as/if we take into account the subjective or elastic nature of the meanings and imports of words. In addition, when one adds or super(im)poses linguistic/cultural variations and idiosyncrasies, the results can be unexpected and contingent.
Unfortunately, many languages are (or in danger of) going extinct as we speak. Therefore, the need to be able to translate and preserve languages has become much more urgent and critical.
When I was in the social science department (inclusive of anthropology, sociology, criminology and archaeology) of one of my former universities, I voluntarily audited some of Dr John Bradley’s classes to learn the Yanyuwa language, which has been regarded as one of the Ngarna languages of the larger Pama–Nyungan language family. The language belongs to the Yanyuwa people, an Indigenous Australian people of the Northern Territory who reside in the coastal region around the Sir Edward Pellew Group of Islands in the southern Gulf of Carpentaria. In some respects, the language is more complex than English to learn. According to a passage from Wikipedia which also mentions Dr Bradley:
Even when one is proficient in multiple languages, to translate well requires a great deal of knowledge about the materials at hand and the wider, historical contexts from which those materials arise. My most recent foray into translating can be seen in my multidisciplinary post entitled “Strong Wind Knows Tough Grass“, which you can easily locate from the Home page of my blog.
Speaking of the hidden and often tacit, unspoken nature of culture and space, one could think of Edward T Hall’s books. I happen to own four of his books, namely, The Fourth Dimension in Architecture (1975); The Hidden Dimension (1966); The Silent Language (1973); and Beyond Culture (1976). The first one mentioned is the shortest; and the last one is the longest. What a wonderful writer he has been!
Happy New Year to both of you!
All of these are your great posts Ron. I was in process to add these to my re-post on my blog of your posts.
Thanks for the reposts, Bud. I appreciate it…
Ron I am not sure whether you have ever read or watched Robert Sapolski of Stanford University? There are are a large number of captivating lectures available for free on animal and human behaviour. Wonderful stuff.
Haven’t heard of him before… Will investigate, and thnaks.