Did Jesus visit Indians

The happiest people in the world : Pirahã Indians: "Don't sleep, there are snakes here!"

There is no doubt that the jungle is full of danger, especially at night. And whoever sleeps less hardens up, so believe the Pirahã (spoken: Pidahan). As one of the last hunter-gatherer peoples, they live on a tributary of the Amazon in Brazil, in a reserve of 240 kilometers in length, two day trips by boat from the outer edges of our civilization. There are barely more than 350 people who still get by today largely without civilizational achievements, with simple huts without walls and solid floors, without electricity, telephone and also without a doctor.

Daniel Everett first came to them as a missionary in 1977, on behalf of an American mission company and paid for by the evangelical churches in the United States. He came to convert the Pirahã to Christianity "in order to change their hearts" and to bring them to worship an alien god, in whom alien people believed, whose culture and morality they should adopt. "Although I didn't even know the Pirahã, I was convinced that I can and should change it."

That is the background of almost every missionary activity, Everett writes today, after having repeatedly visited the Pirahã for over three decades and lived with them over and over again in the Brazilian rainforest with his wife and three children. But in the end it is he who, thanks to this life with the Pirahã, is “turned away”. When Everett loses his faith, he also loses his family.

Everett, who is now professor of linguistics at the University of Illinois, has spent a total of seven years since his first visit to the Pirahã in the jungle. In his travel and life report “The happiest people”, he not only describes the everyday life of a field researcher in the Amazon. His book is at the same time the story of a physical as well as an intellectual adventure. The reading is downright a relief, because Everett's report does not come along as high-pressure instruction on the supposedly meaningful travel adventures of a TV-proven lay traveling preacher, as the book market otherwise has. Here someone reports calmly, but up close and authentically, from his truly unusual journey to what he thinks is a truly happy people in a corner of the world that is still hidden today; to people who say goodbye while saying goodnight with the words: "Don't sleep, there are snakes here".

Everett captivates the story of a world that is completely alien to us, offers a fascinating insight into a strange way of life, a different view of the world and, above all, a completely different way of thinking. His book meanders successfully between an adventure report and an anthropological research report, which also allows an almost incidental glimpse into the insights of the linguists. Because in order to convert people, missionaries all over the world first had to learn the language of the local people. Like his predecessors, the Pirahas did not make life easy for Everett. The indigenous people remained monolingual because, in their remoteness in the Amazon, they had no reason to learn anything other than “Apaitsiiso” - the language “that was born out of the head”.

In fact, Pirahã differs as its own language from all others, including that of other Amazon Indians. Not only is it sung, whistled and hummed, it also differs structurally from other languages. It lacks many elements that we consider natural. The fact that it only has three vowels and eight consonants can still be accepted, and that there is no word for “thank you” or “sorry”.

Above all, the Pirahã don't know any words for numbers, none for colors, none for yesterday and today. They do not form subordinate clauses and therefore never combine two individual statements into one. “The man who has a canoe” and “the man cuts a tree” never becomes “the man who has a canoe cuts a tree,” explains Everett. Because they lack genuine color designations such as “red”, “black” or “green”, they make colors vivid with characteristic colored things “like blood”, “like coal” or “that's not yet ripe”. They give strangers the name of the most similar member of their kin, and they change these names several times in life. Daniel Everett, who they initially called "Xoogiái", had at least four names in the course of his career with the Pirahã, until he was named "Paóxaisi" after a very old man of the clan.

Everett tried in vain to teach arithmetic to the Pirahã, who cannot count. Even after months of fruitless learning, they were unable to grasp even the topic: not one of them succeeded in counting to ten or adding one and one. There are only two numerals in their language, Everett said at first. "Hói" means one and "hoí" means two (note the fine tonal differences). Today, however, he believes that a better correspondence would be “few” and “many” and that the Pirahã were completely missing numerals. After all: apparently it does play a role for these people whether either a few or a lot of fish are caught.

Thanks to its peculiarities - and probably also due to Everett's now well-known theses - Pirahã has recently become one of the languages ​​linguists around the world are interested in. Everett's research has sparked debate among them because his analysis is controversial. Everett believes that the Pirahã language is closely linked to their way of life and habitat. After all, they reject everything abstract and only care about experiencing the moment. In contrast, many linguists are convinced of a universal basic linguistic structure and grammar of human beings, the lowest common denominator of the approximately 6500 living languages. They assume that the ability to form complex sentence structures is genetic in our brains. Instead, Everett considers language to be more flexible and determined by the respective culture, so languages ​​for him differ depending on the living space and the standards of value of a community.

Presumably because of this, his attempts at converting the people were ultimately unsuccessful. The imaginative story of Jesus of Nazareth remained completely incomprehensible to them. Everett doesn't realize why until late. The Pirahã only talk about things that they have experienced. They don't talk about the distant past or the future, least of all about fantasy events. “Hey Dan”, they ask him, “how can you have words from Jesus if you have never seen him?” The Pirahã only believe what they see. Point. Sometimes they also believe things that someone else has told them - provided that he actually witnessed the events described.

The missionary realizes that creation myths do not fit the Pirahã's demand for immediate evidence. When Everett later worked as a linguist, such evidence became crucial for him as a scientist too. He could only give subjective reasons for what he told the Pirahã about his beliefs: his own feelings. At the end of the book, Everett confesses how, by studying the Pirahãs he was initially supposed to convert, he began to seriously question the essence of his own religion, the act of believing in something that cannot be seen. “Religious books like the Bible and the Koran glorify this kind of belief in things that are not objective and contrary to intuition. The afterlife, the virgin birth, angels, miracles and more. "

A people in the rainforest who are considered primitive teaches him, the Christian missionary and linguist, the immediacy of experience and the demand for evidence.

Daniel Everett: The happiest people. Seven years with the Pirahã Indians in the Amazon. DVA non-fiction book, Munich 2010, 416 pages, 24.95 euros.

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