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Joseph Kaminski

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November 23, 2017

Anthropology of ‘Dying Peoples’


When asked for evidence for either argument on the topic of another world, we (to a certain extent) must admit to ourselves that there is none. We, on both sides of this rather controversial argument, attach ourselves to 3,000-year-old literature or modern-day scientific theories in attempt to prove that our existence means something…anything. Why must there be a meaning, why must there be some greater purpose in an exclusive and elusive afterlife? Our overwhelming interest with life and death reverts to a spiritual, philosophical, or any other universal purpose for everything; and I personally believe that this is a blind spot in our universal perception.

Cultures, albeit geopolitically diverse, all face this philosophical predicament. To answer these questions (and many others), every culture tends to fabricate stories that tend to work for their personal philosophies. From here, we get to the more ‘supernatural’ aspects of understanding the world around us. Tales and traditions were all inserted into an enthralled culture to answer questions that society didn’t necessarily have answers for. Life and death were different beasts before modern day medicine and thought came around; and thus, at least in my opinion, we can portray certain supernatural phenomena (such as vampires, for example) as more outdated interpretations of such major aspects of human life. But, this is not to say all supernatural or religious concepts are the same, as this goes against my aforementioned point.

Anthropologist Wade Davis explains the presence of most supernatural beliefs in culture as being a “rich topography of the [human] spirit”. After briefly discussing several different peoples from around the world, Davis concludes his TED Talk by stating that none of them were a dying breed. Although their ‘spirituality’ and/or beliefs in the ‘supernatural’ may be deemed ‘different’ or even ‘outdated’ by a more modernized society, their traditionalist mindset allows us to see the world through anthropological rose-tinted glasses. Cultural imperialism doesn’t need to stomp out these cultures, as they exist as some sort of “rich tapestry” or embodiment of human spirit. As Davis continues, “these people aren’t failed attempts at being modern, they’re unique answers to the question: what does it mean to be alive?”.

The spirits and demons and angels and other religious figures are all these ‘unique’ ideologies, clambering voices in the wind of human history that offer different perspectives through significant cultures. It is not necessarily the idea that supernatural creatures do or don’t exist, it is the thought of having these unique explanations for creatures disappearing from our history. Anthropology studies these unique perspectives, as they are not inferior cultures that lost to a battle of cultural imperialism, but rather individual thoughts that stand out against the overwhelming barriers of ‘modern civilization’.

As stated previously, I don’t neccessarily see a difference in the ‘supernatural’ way these traditionalist cultures live and the so-called ‘modern religious’ way of life. The spirits, demons, and angels of cultures around the world are an insight into the cultural explanations for spiritual enlightenment and gateways into the other worlds/spaces/places that most haven’t heard or thought of. Some are just more commonly accepted in a world of modernity.

So-called modernized, industrial cultures have only existed for the past three centuries, and it goes without saying that we are far from having answers for the unanswerable – even though we have deemed ourselves to be more aware than the societies that Davis identifies throughout his TED Talk. But, as I turn back to my original statements, I don’t personally believe that there are or aren’t answers for these questions to begin with.

In ‘modern culture’, we have monotheistic and (in some cases) polytheistic religion in place to ‘answer’ the unanswerable. In the cultures described by Davis and as defined by Auguste Comte within his Course in Positive Philosophy, they have an early fetishist way of enduring spirituality with inanimate objects such as trees and stars through the concept of natural spirits. Differences in culture spark anthropological, sociological, and historical confrontations – and they must be preserved (and even understood) for our cloth of life to be woven correctly.

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