Monday, February 22, 2016

Fascinating little-known Native American cultural facts

I am often pretty hard in my judgments of modern society, and specifically of the utility (or lack thereof) of many new technologies.  However, one facet of modern life that I really admire and value is the Internet.  I'll talk in a future post about how the Internet has revolutionized alone time for a lot of people.  Before, if you were home alone and too lazy to get a book and read or do something else involved, you just watched bad TV.  It was a very lonely, passive experience.  Now though, you can doodle around on the Internet.  A lot of people don't spend their time on the Internet very productively, looking mainly at memes and other mindless entertainment that isn't much better than TV.  But Internet at least gives you the option of a more active, intellectually valuable use of your spare time, because you can look up something you have always wondered about, then follow it where it leads you, looking up and learning about countless other related topics.  For me at least this totally changed my way of spending time alone, and it made me feel much less isolated from the rest of the world.

These days, with a full time job, a family, a house (with relatively gender-equitable division of domestic duties), and especially two young boys, I don't have much idle time for the Internet.  Just keeping up with my own blog writing is a Herculean effort that I can never get ahead of (I recently budgeted that it would take me about 84 hours of writing time to produce finished blog posts about all the different subjects that have been building up for me over the past years).  But recently I had a spare moment that allowed me to learn two things about Native American cultures that I'd had no idea about before.  Thank you Wikipedia!

One is Fuegian dogs.  These were dogs that the native people of Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of the Americas, domesticated not from wolves but from the Andean fox.  This is amazing, because it represents to my knowledge the only domesticated canid in the entire world that does not descend from the gray wolf.  I mean, even the domesticated dingos of Australia, the remotest outpost of human settlement, are just regular dogs like everywhere else.  And here this other culture, at the other extreme of human settlement, that is in all other respects pretty materially primitive, took a totally different (and very difficult) path to domestication of an animal.  It also seems that the terms of this domestication differed from that of the common domestic dog--Fuegian dogs were not loyal to a specific owner, and one of their major uses was simply as a heat source, wrapped around lightly-clad humans sleeping in a cold climate.  Unfortunately, the Fuegian dog seems to have been exterminated, presumably by Euro-descended settlers of Patagonia.

The second wild thing I learned about South American Native culture is the existence of a few indigenous languages that became widely-used among non-indigenous colonists--a total reversal of the course of most of the rest of the Americas, where European languages have supplanted Native ones.  Many people know about Guarani, the major language of Paraguay, and the best, living example of this anomaly of an indigenous language becoming the dominant tongue even for non-indigenous people in a given territory.  But apparently there also existed something called lingua geral Paulista, which was a modified form of the Tupi language spoken all along the Brazilian seaboard pre-Conquest.  For most of Brazil's early history, Tupi and lingua geral were spoken by indigenous and colonist alike, as the lingua franca of much of the territory.  More established Euro-descended colonists apparently adopted it as a native tongue, and would communicate in lingua geral with other colonists.  This situation prevailed until the mid-1700s, when an imperial decree and increased Portuguese migration led to a resurgent dominance of Portuguese, eventually wiping out lingua geral.  But still, it's amazing to me that for so long an indigenous language remained the lingua franca in a post-contact American country.  In the present day, a cousin of lingua geral paulista, Nheengatu, is widely spoken in the upper Rio Negro basin (think Colombian Amazonia), and in its turn is even displacing some other native tongues as members of smaller ethnic groups lose their own language and adopt Nheengatu.

Interestingly, Guarani, Old Tupi, and Nheengatu are apparently pretty closely related, (perhaps mutually intelligible?), and the three also gained and in two cases retained a dominance thanks in large part to the efforts of colonial-era Jesuit missionaries, who encouraged literacy, education, printing, and catechism in these languages and not in Spanish or Portuguese.

Anyway, none of these are things I knew two weeks ago, and all of them I learned with a few simple mouseclicks on Wikipedia.  If you're interested in Nheengatu, there's even a professor teaching it in Sao Paulo!

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