When I was a kid it seemed like everyone smoked! My dad rolled his own smokes every morning on a little hand cranked machine. In those days it didn’t matter where you were at you could smoke at home, in the office, in public places and the worst – in the car! We kids hated it when Dad would light up in the car! We didn’t dare show it but we would be gagging in the back seat every time. The only fun part about it was playing with the push in cigarette lighter; if dad wasn’t looking of course.  

It didn’t take long to learn in the tribe that the people smoked like chimneys. Seriously, both men and women smoked all the time. When they woke in the morning, they would smoke. When they walked along a trail in the jungle, they would smoke. When they went to sleep at night, they would smoke. Tobacco was readily available because it was grown right alongside their houses. When a plant’s leaves were big enough, they were picked, dried and then then rolled in a dry banana leave for smoking. I took time to observe their smoking habits, but then I began to investigate the purpose and motivation for smoking. After all, it is very unhealthy for you, so maybe I could help them understand that. 

In my quest to understand the motivation for such an unhealthy habit, I discovered three reasons for smoking: The first reason is that it’s actually healthy in the people’s minds because the smoke provides a smoke screen around them that can protect them from spirits that make them sick! Whoa! So no wonder they smoke like chimneys! If you smoke all the time, you will stay healthy. Observance matched with motivation, check. 

Secondly, smoking gives you good breath. What? There was no way this could be explained to me. I know what a smokers breath is like and it ain’t what I like to be near. But I had to understand this reasoning from their perspective. The people said that if you don’t smoke, your tooth decay will be too over powering for other people. It’s true! Smoker’s breath smells way better than rotten teeth breath! In the tribe there is no toothpaste, floss or Listerine. The people would “clean” their teeth with river sand or nothing at all. Tobacco breath is definitely more tolerable than bad breath. 

Thirdly, sharing tobacco is one of the most polite gestures you can show a visitor to your house. When the people would visit from house to house or hamlet to hamlet, they would exchange bundles or pieces of tobacco as a kind gesture to show there were no concerns or heavies between them and their visitor.  

So the next time you light up, try these three motivations to justify your habit… just kidding! Smoking is still not healthy for you, but now you can understand what motivates it in another culture. 

Ever turn your nose up at food when you were a kid? You know, mom tried something new and it didn’t look so great when placed in front of you, so you crinkled your nose and refused to eat it. Or how about those veggies you despised? I used to “hide” food under my plate thinking I was so sneaky. When we lived in the tribe, we made sure our kids ate all their food on their plates because we were living with a people that literally ate everything from the rainforest they lived in. Hunter-gatherers don’t waste food either. When they kill a pig, they eat everything but the squeal so to speak. In their minds the brains and eyeballs are as tasty as the loins. They would eat big bats and small bats, fish, tadpoles, grubs of various shapes and sizes (like chocolate to them of course), ant larva, and many types of seasonal fruit in the jungle. The people had gardens, but they weren’t prolific gardeners. They would grow many types of bananas, sugar cane, taro, some greens and various types of sweet potato. Often times wild or semi-domestic pigs would destroy their gardens and eat everything they could dig out of the ground. So, in general, hunter-gatherers will eat anything because that is how they survive.

But one time to our utter surprise a tribal lady turned her nose up at food that was offered to her. Our coworkers invited a lady into their house for lunch one day. A fairly normal meal was being prepared of canned meat, beans and elbow macaroni with cheese. The tribal lady agreed to the invitation and cautiously sat at the table with our coworker’s family. Now already the timid visitor had crossed over into our culture by sitting at the table. They don’t have chairs or tables in their homes. They don’t sit up to eat like us. Nonetheless the woman had her brave face on and proceed to her chair. Lunch was served up with utensils (another new thing instead of just using fingers) and they all began to eat. The tribal woman moved the meat and veggies away from the foreign looking whatever it was on her plate – the mac n cheese. She slowly ate the meat and veggies which she found pleasant and tasty. Our coworker noticed all was finished on the guest’s plate except of the macaroni. “Are you going to finish?” our coworker asked as politely as she could. She didn’t want to prematurely take the plate away knowing that it was a great opportunity to try some foreign food. The woman replied staring at the mac n cheese like it was from another planet, “I can’t eat that.” “That’s ok” our coworker replied with understanding in her voice, “we’ll just give it to your dog.” Without a millisecond of thought the woman stated emphatically, “My dog won’t eat that!” With a giggled response our coworker said to herself, “Yeah right, those poor starved and mangy critters eat anything!”

Plates were cleared and the disgusting mound of mac n cheese on the plate was taken to the door at arm’s length so the woman could serve it up to her dog laying out on the porch. Following with curious nudges and giggles, our coworker and her girls wanted to see if the claim would actually play out. There was no way the dog would refuse to eat – it was food! The dog jumped up ready for its master and it immediately started wagging its tail in glee as it saw what looked like food coming its way. The plate was presented, the dog rushed toward it ready to inhale the food but stopped instantly when it came within range. Tail froze. Nose went into gear and front paw razed showing the investigation pose.  The smell test engaged and instantly the dog turned and snorted to clear the disgusting smell from its nostrils as it jumped down off the porch!

Our coworkers and kids howled together in laughter! They couldn’t believe what they just witnessed. “See, I told you my dog wouldn’t eat that whatever it was!”

As the story was retold to the rest of us, we tried to figure out why the mac n cheese so repulsive to the lady and her dog. We scratched our heads and came up with a few theories, but in the end, we concluded that it was just so foreign and beyond anything that the woman had ever seen she just couldn’t make herself eat it. And apparently the same was true for her dog!

Are Hunter-gatherers lazy?

That is a great question and on occasion people have made the observation (only to regret it after talking with me) that the tribal people looked lazy. You know, just hanging around the village doing nothing. Now to be fair and not judgmental of any anyone, when a person goes to an unfamiliar culture the natural tendency is to observe behavior through their own cultural grid. Making assumptions is quite normal but can be inaccurate. I suggest the following: objectively keep a journal about all the observed behavior you come across and then as time allows seek to understand what is motivating the behavior. This will help mitigate against judgements, misunderstandings and culture stress or anxiety.

It’s important to understand that while cultures vary from place to place on this earth, each one has universal personality types within its scope. Cultures have industrious people that seem to be working all the time, they have followers, they have thinkers and they have lazy people. These types are not unique at all.

Let’s also understand our Western culture. We typically work 9 to 5, Monday to Friday in order to generate income to facilitate buying food, shelter, transportation and entertainment. We often live in cooler climates and have developed many helps for generating income like the light bulb, piston driven engine, airplanes, telecommunications and a plethora of other technologies. We are no longer hand to mouth, we are industrialized.

So back to the observation of tribal people looking lazy. Here’s how simple it is: if hunter-gathers are laying around the village it means one thing – the aren’t hungry! They have had enough to eat or have enough food on hand! I know from firsthand experience that hunter-gatherers can work me into the ground out hunting, gathering housing materials or carving a canoe. But if they aren’t hungry there is no need to work. They live to survive. They work for today. It is truly hand to mouth.

Now what about the actual lazy person in a tribal culture? We have distain for lazy people in our culture and the same is true of hunter-gatherer cultures. The lazy man in a hunter-gatherer culture is characterized by his unwillingness to build his family a house. He will stay with relatives, friends and move around from place to place. The consequence is that his wife becomes open game and will be taken advantage by other men in the village. Unfortunately, that is how they show disrespect for him.

To end on a positive note, the ideal man hunts, builds his own house, makes his own canoe and is generous with his food. His family and friends show him the utmost respect by contributing generously to his son when he needs to buy his bride.

I find it amazing how cultural ideals are pretty universal like in the case of a lazy person who are looked down upon, but the diligent, hard working person is looked at as being ideal. Our perception and assumption of what those ideals look like is what may need a little tweaking when we go into a cross cultural situation.

Have you come out of your Thanksgiving coma yet? Oh, my goodness, the food! And not just Thanksgiving Day food, but the leftovers seem to last forever. We do have much to be thankful for in our culture – the land of plenty for sure.

How do hunter-gatherer cultures celebrate Thanksgiving Day? Well, that’s an easy answer – they don’t. Now the explanation of that is not so easy. Let’s start with the concept of being thankful or expressing gratitude. I’m sure you realize this, but our western culture puts a lot of emphasis on expressing gratitude and we do that mainly by saying “thank you” when we receive something from another person. We teach our children from an early age to say “please” (the frontside of gratitude) and “thank you”. By far my hardest adjustment to a hunter-gatherer culture was the apparent lack of gratitude the people would express – that just didn’t align with my culture and its way of expressing gratitude. Actually, in the tribal language they don’t have words for please and thank you. They just say, “Ane pitene ape manine” or in English “I will definitely get that thing.” Whoa! I found it insulting and offensive that there was no expression of gratitude whatsoever! But it was important for me to put my culture on the back burner and try to understand the how and why of their culture. The how was the easy part – you don’t need to express gratitude. The why took a while to understand, accept and be okay with. What I learned over time was that because hunter-gatherers share and share alike, it’s just expected that I will give the extra I have – even when someone says, “I will definitely get that”. That’s a hard adjustment, but as I grew in my understanding of their culture, I realized that I could participate in their culture as well. Therefore, if I was hungry, I could simply say, “I will definitely get that pig leg, sweat potato or greens.” It was so hard to do and practice, but it worked! This way of “sharing” has helped hunter-gatherers survive for centuries because everyone was “equal”; no one starves to death. As with every culture, there is an upside and a downside to the way things are done. The downside to everyone being equal, was that while they did survive, they didn’t thrive. The culture limited the amount invention and self-promotion by doing more or making something thing better than the way it was always done. I’ll address that whole issue in a later blog.

Hunter-gatherers are very skilled at stuff and gorge – they can really pack the food away when it’s available. This is for good reason because if you go a week without killing a wild boar, you get hungry! So, when opportunity avails itself, eat until you can’t eat anymore and eat until it’s all gone. Sounds a little like our Thanksgiving dinner table! The tribal language has a saying “Ane lile ‘une henewe” which in English means, “My stomach is tight and coming out now.” This expression is only heard when a person can’t fit anymore food in their system; they are stuffed! You don’t hear this expression every day, but when you do it means there was a good pig hunt or fishing trip.

Different from our Thanksgiving dinner is the whole issue of leftovers. Not only do we stuff and gorge Thanksgiving Day, we graze on leftovers for several days after! You know, hot turkey sandwiches smothered in gravy or pumpkin pie and whip cream screaming from the refrigerator for days after. In hunter-gather culture there are no leftovers like we know it. One time we had a couple of guys over for a meal in our house. We had learned by this time that we serve up the plate of food to each person at the table – equal portions of course. We ate, chit chatted and when we had basically eaten everything, there was still gravy in the bowl at the center of the table. The look on the fellow’s faces was priceless. You could seem looking at each other thinking, “What about the gravy?” Thinking the meal was done, my wife said, “I’ll put the leftover gravy in the fridge”. Within the next heartbeat they guys stopped my wife like she was doing something illegal and said, “That’s okay, we’ll eat it!” The guys poured the gravy into equal portions on their plates and finished it off!

There are several reasons for the lack of leftovers: firstly, there is no refrigeration, so food doesn’t last. Secondly, food is all about opportunity – if you kill a pig, it’s a great opportunity to eat and the next opportunity to eat most likely won’t be later in the day! One day out hunting we killed 9 pigs and pretty much there was eating all day long and into the night! The only time I would ever see “leftovers” was when we were out at one of the bush camps. If a lot of game was harvested, the people smoked it above the fire pits in order to preserve it for a day or so.

Would you like to experience an “eating opportunity” with a hunter-gatherer people? EthnoTrax can facilitate that for you – along with the hunting party and fishing to make it happen!