What is Art For? Part 4 How art is used

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What is Art For? Part 4

How art is used

Dr Charles Whitehead continues his series of blog posts on the many functions of art

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Many shamanic societies believe that humans can transform into animals, and vice versa. This was once true in Europe – such ideas survive in fairy tales and today inspire many horror movies.

After I gave my talk last November, someone questioned a claim I made, asking: “How can art falsify consciousness?” I did not give a full answer at the time – that would have required a recap of my entire talk. This blog is mainly about how art is used in cultures very different from our own, but it will also help to answer that question about ‘false consciousness’ (not a new idea: cf. Marx & Engels, The German Ideology, 1846).

There is no doubt that culture profoundly influences human awareness through belief systems that are often illogical and counter-intuitive. Dan Sperber, during ethnographic research in Ethiopia, was taken aback when a Dorze informant told him that “All the local leopards are devout Christians.” He concluded that this idea must be “symbolic”, and coined his own rule-of-thumb definition: ”That’s symbolic.” “Why?” “Because it’s false!” However, the belief in Christian leopards does not “symbolize” something else that is not Christian or not a leopard. In fact it’s an example of a perspectival belief. Such beliefs originate in animism and shamanism, and reflect a profoundly unnatural disturbance of body image and understanding of bodies. You may recall that in my last blog I suggested that art, as part of a system for developing self- and other-awareness, is most likely to influence the development of body-image and body-understanding. I also noted that all human cultures maintain false beliefs about humanity and the world humans live in. This is true even for the culture of modern science, which has its fair share of ‘Christian leopards’.

Let me first define animism and then explain perspectivism:

Animism is the belief that non-human entities – including animals, plants, the sun and moon, rocks, mountains, rivers, and even trade goods such as potlatch coppers – are conscious beings with human-like minds and articulate powers of speech.

Perspectivism goes a step further – not only do non-human agents have human-like minds, they also see themselves as human beings and perceive the world from a human perspective. So, where we might see a jaguar lapping the blood of its prey, the jaguar sees itself as a human being drinking manioc beer. A vulture sees itself as human, and maggots in rotting meat as grilled fish. A beaver in its lodge sees itself as a human being living in a human village, complete with chief, shaman, sacred rituals, and clan-based marriage system. And just as animals see themselves as human, they see us as animals – and it all depends on relations of carnivory. In South America, jaguars and spirits eat humans, and humans eat white-lipped peccaries. So jaguars and spirits see us as white-lipped peccaries, and white-lipped peccaries see us as jaguars or spirits. So all beings are simultaneously spirits, carnivores, prey animals, and humans, living in parallel worlds, according to the perspective of the viewer. And these worlds are not just appearances as distinct from reality, they are all equally real. Which means there is no essential self and no essential concept of bodies or even substance.

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More than a work of art: an eagle costume transforms a dancer into an eagle. Why the eagle cannot fly, apparently, is not a question that concerns people with perspectival beliefs.

Perspectivism also includes the paradoxical belief that when humans, during ritual, don animal masks or costumes, such disguise does not mask their identity – it creates it. The human being is transformed into the animal portrayed. Further, animals are conceived to be human beings wearing animal costumes. No matter how big or small the animal, it is still a human wearing an animal suit. This belief persists in hunter-gatherers who regularly butcher meat, and never find the human inside. The animal transformation, it seems, goes right through to the bones.

There is nothing “primitive” about such beliefs. Scott Atran has done cross-cultural research showing that four-year-old children know perfectly well that a horse in a zebra suit is still a horse. Children everywhere have an essentialist understanding of bodies – if you shave off a lion’s mane and paint it with stripes, it does not become a tiger. It remains its essential self, and is still a lion. The same extends to objects – show a three-year-old a candle that is shaped and coloured to look like an apple, the child will tell you it’s a candle. Ask if it looks like an apple, the child will say “No – it’s a candle, and it looks like a candle.” So perspectival beliefs are unnatural and counter-intuitive. We do not spontaneously develop such beliefs, merely because we don’t know any better. Culture scrambles our innate and primordial cognitive heritage, in quite sophisticated ways. The enculturated state could be described as wholly-believed-in role-play, which just happens to be a widely accepted definition of the hypnotised state.

Animism also is counter-intuitive. After reading Puss in Boots to my daughter, aged around four or five, she asked “Why do animals talk in stories? They don’t in real life.” I told her that this is a magical story, in which magical things happen. She then commented, “It makes the stories more exciting!” My eldest son, at a similar age, asked a similar question after hearing Grimm’s tale, The Griffin, even adding the comment “It makes the stories more exciting!” Colwyn Trevarthen, after decades studying pre-school children, observed that, unlike the cognitive self-awareness of the scientist, children strive to understand the world “in active negotiation of creative imaginings that are valued for their human-made unreality”. The curious conclusion seems to be that we are pre-adapted from birth to value counter-intuitive human fictions, and live in worlds of wholly-believed-in make-believe.

This forces me to conclude that the hypnosis-like effects of culture, which scramble our innate powers of reasoning and create surreal beliefs such as Christian leopards are by no means entirely negative. My children are not the only ones who find counter-intuitive events exciting. Popular media reveal a widespread interest in the miraculous and paranormal, and there seems to be a near-universal hunger for magic that transcends mundane reality. I think that the paranormal beliefs of our ancestors, which probably originate in ritual trance, allowed the first enculturated humans to discover their spirituality.

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the lost city

Ciudad Perdida (the “Lost City”), was built by the ancestors of the Kogi people, who have sent a warning from “The Heart of the World” that we must stop hurting and wounding our Mother, the Earth, before everything dies.

Whilst it can be shown that animistic beliefs are “unnatural”, it is also true that animistic people live in close communion with nature. Their survival depends on it. Their belief that everything is alive gives them a deep reverence for nature, which makes them “the best conservationists” (according to Survival International, the charity that defends indigenous rights). Take the case of the Kogi, who live on a mountain which they call “The Heart of the World”, on the Caribbean coast of Columbia. Central to their belief system is Aluna – a living cosmic mind who created everything through her thought. She is also the soul of Nature and our Mother, the Earth.

The Kogi use divination to select babies who will be trained to become Mama, or “enlightened ones”. They will be raised from birth throughout their formative years in total darkness, so that they will learn to see with true spiritual vision, to connect with cosmic consciousness and respond to its needs in order to keep the world in balance. Aluna created human beings so that we can perform the vital work of protecting the Earth and all living things. Seeing the mountain snows getting less each year, which threatens their rivers and breaks the water cycle, the Kogi are aware of global warming, as well as the ecological damage caused by power stations, logging, and mining operations. So they (“the elder brother”) decided they must send a warning to the rest of us (“the younger brother”) so that we will stop hurting and wounding Mother Earth – via a BBC film and, twenty years later, a second film because we clearly didn’t understand the first one. The films are worth watching. You can find them here:

Clearly, culture could not influence us without the social displays that enable us to share feelings, emotions, and ideas. Human culture is virtually built out of social displays. It exploits all of them, including many kinds of art.

We might begin with body art. Homo sapiens is the only animal species that alters the appearance and sensory qualities of bodies in so many sophisticated and culturally varied ways.

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Homo sapiens is the only species that alters the visual and sensory properties of its own bodies in so many culturally varied ways

One significant influence on body image is sexual modesty. No known human society is without sexual modesty in some form, and it usually involves concealment of the genitals. No self-respecting chimpanzee would think this a good idea. When chimps want to mate, they display their genitalia, whereas humans seldom do this in public unless in a culturally falsified way – like the codpieces of Tudor England, the penis tubes of New Guinea, or rituals such as the Ida ceremony in New Guinea where men wear artificial vaginas on their heads. In Koisan, Hadza, and Mbendjele rituals, girls sport penises. Check out this very entertaining ten-minute video:

Making our genitalia less salient (or highly salient in fictive ways), with a powerful taboo against their public exposure, must influence the way we perceive and think about ourselves and each other. But body art – loosely defined – must also have profound effects. Many of us may think that the way we dress is a form of self-expression. This is sometimes true, but always within strictly defined cultural limits. Even a few decades ago, people dressed differently, and very differently in Tudor times or in different cultures. Human life is a costume drama, and what you wear is very much determined by society.

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Biologically, there is not much difference between these two women. But the Elizabethan queen is required to appear unassailable and plays her expected role, whereas the dolly bird pretends to be what men in her circle want her to be. Because human beings are highly social and highly suggestible, we tend to believe we are the roles we play, and what we believe others believe us to be.

When we turn to art in other cultures, the first thing to realise is that the western concept of “fine art” (curated in museums, sold for vast sums of money, etc.) is highly aberrant and inevitably colours our view of what art is and what it can do. There are an estimated five or six thousand languages spoken in the world today, of which only about half a dozen are spoken by populations centrally involved in the origin of the fine art concept. That’s around 0.1 per cent. The number of non-western societies that have produced art forms remotely comparable to western art is not much different. China is one example, but even here calligraphy is traditionally regarded as the most sublime form of visual art, superior to all others. Even in classical Greece, though poets were highly esteemed, sculptors, who work with their hands, were regarded as mere artisans.

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Because of his western notion of “art”, the anthropologist Jeremy Coote could write, in 1992, “The cattle keeping Nilotes of the Southern Sudan make no art objects and have no traditions of visual art.” Yet he acknowledged that they had a strong aesthetic sense, evidenced in their rich vocabulary of terms describing the colours, patterns, and textures of cattle (their hides, horns, eyes, etc.) which abound in their highly visual poetry. He also noted that if you give a Nuer boy a ball of clay, he will use it to fashion a cow or other animal. Nuer children make toy corrals for their toy cattle and play at cattle herding and marriage (a Nuer man cannot marry unless he owns cattle to pay the bride price). Dinka children play with dolls which, if an archaeologist dug one up, would almost certainly be interpreted as a “ritual figure”. These cattle herders also dress in textiles with bold colourful designs.

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So we can see that these cattle keeping Nilotes have both forms of art which I have pointed out in child development and human evolution – iconic representations which are not necessarily aesthetic, and decorative patterns which are. Coote simply did not regard toys as “art” or clothes as “art objects”. As I noted in Part 1, representational art most probably had its origin in toys improvised or made by or for children to use in pretend play. Child art is the universal and fundamental manifestation of art, and I believe toys are the primordial iconic art objects.

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Yolngu paintings on eucalyptus bark show the snake that bit Gurrmirringu (the Yolngu Adam) and his body prepared for burial in the first funeral ceremony. The Yolngu say that “The Gurrmirringu ‘spirit man’s’ power is in the ground and is listening forever.”

One peculiarity of western art is its current valuation of “creativity”. Very few societies share this value. In medieval Europe, artists were expected to portray sacred stories in prescribed ways. A stained glass window was intended to be beautiful, but it was not expected to be “creative”. In Balinese tourist art, if a particular painting is seen to be selling well, other artists will not hesitate to copy it repeatedly – no one cares about “copyright” or “originality”. Others, such as the Yolngu of northeast Arnhem Land, actually despise creativity. They believe that if a man paints something just to please himself, it could not possibly be of interest to anyone else. Yolngu artists paint what the ancestors require them to paint. That is, they value the archetypal – the opposite of the creative. They do not believe in anything “new” – even trucks and bulldozers introduced by white people always existed in the eternal Dreamtime, until the ancestors decided to deliver them into our world.

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Similar paintings applied to the bodies of boys whose personalities are about to be irrevocably changed by initiation.

Unlike western art, which is curated and displayed in galleries, stately homes, or municipal spaces, traditional Yolngu art served transient teaching or ritual purposes. There is no need to conserve paintings because the imagery is conceived to be eternal. Wäka Munungurr, from the Yirrkala community, explained: “The painting that you see today in the bark paintings or whatever, we have it all the time. It is in our body. Whatever we do the painting is there. That represents who you are and what we are and what clan we come from… That’s my painting and it represents my land at Waṉḏawuy. It talks about the river, the land, the nature and it’s really important. I have that painting all the time in me wherever I go, I can’t lose it. I can’t lose that one.”

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Spirit painting showing the “rarrk” hatching technique

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Detail showing the regularity and continuity of hatched lines across colour transitions.

Yolngu paintings acquire enormous spiritual power through a hatching technique called “rarrk”. After flattening and drying a section of eucalyptus bark, this is primed with a coat of red ochre. When this is dry, the basic painting may take a few hours to complete. It is then painstakingly covered in fine hatched lines using a blade of grass, a process which may take months or the best part of a year, transforming the painting from “dull” to “brilliant”. A rarrk painting would not be looked at directly, because its spiritual power could kill. Such paintings may be deliberately smeared over before they can be seen by women or uninitiated persons, who would be unable to cope with such deadly power.

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Malangan funeral figure, collected 1882-3: made of wood, vegetable fibre, pigment and shell.

Malangan funeral sculpture represents an extreme case of art which is intended to be displayed for a few hours only, and then burnt or left to rot in the forest or a cave. Nowadays, selling a sculpture to a western collector is considered to be equivalent to its destruction. Malangan is a cycle of rituals of the Nalik people of the north coast of New Ireland, an island in Papua New Guinea.  The rituals are extremely complex, requiring months or years to prepare, and are so expensive to stage that several funerals may be combined into one. The Malangan sculptures are made of distinct units, each of which “belongs” to a specific family, who will instruct the sculptor on how to make each component. The sculptor will then have dreams in which the ancestors will provide further instruction. He will create the work in a secluded hut. No one is allowed to see his work until the proper moment of the ritual, and then they must pay in shell money for having seen it. The primary function of the Malangan figure is not display, but to house the spirit of the deceased and then release it to the ocean underworld from which all life comes.

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Kanak children of New Caledonia

One of the most telling points concerning art and altered self-awareness comes from a study of the Kanak people of New Caledonia. In 1949, Maurice Leenhardt, a protestant pastor and anthropologist, published a book called Do Kamo: Person and Myth in the Melanesian World. In it he reports a discussion he had with a sculptor called Boesou, about the impact of colonialism in New Caledonia. Summing up, Leenhardt (being a devout Christian) concluded: “In short, we introduced the notion of spirit to your way of thinking?”

            “Spirit?” Boesou retorted, “Bah! You didn’t bring us the spirit. We already knew the spirit existed. We have always acted in accord with the spirit. What you’ve brought us is the body!”

            It may seem surprising that a sculptor – whose job is to carve representations of bodies – should feel that bodies are not self-evident. Leenhardt linked this to the disarticulated sense of body revealed by New Caledonian body terms – and by the associated art which crystallizes bodies into geometric fragments. He attributed this to a ‘primitive lack of depth perception’. This interpretation is typical of anthropology at that time, but today we know that babies have fully functional depth perception from an early age. As soon as they can crawl, for example, they will not cross over a ‘visual cliff’. And there is clearly nothing ‘primitive’ about New Caledonian art. Pictures spontaneously created by children – which might with some justification be thought of as ‘primitive’ – are relatively naturalistic. They are perhaps ideographic – a style which cartoonists wilfully imitate – but they do not show fragmented or disarticulated bodies. The same might be said of Upper Palaeolithic cave paintings. Here, animals are portrayed with perfect naturalism. Leenhardt was probably nearer the mark when he hinted that ego boundaries are erased in ritual, “when the time of the living being mingles with the time of the ancestors.”

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Representations of ancestral figures in Kanak sculpture

Fragmented bodies also appear in the art of Northwest coastal America, where animals are regularly portrayed as though seen from several viewpoints simultaneously. First Nations artists also often depict animals and plants with ‘X-ray vision’ – showing bones and muscles, or the hidden roots of plants. X-ray vision is one of the powers bestowed by shamanic trance, enabling the shaman to ‘see’ the cause of an illness, and ‘extract’ the noxious object – often a tiny claw, feather, or crystal – from the patient’s body. Shamanic healing is not entirely innocent of deception – the item to be extracted is secretly palmed by the shaman before healing begins.

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Haida painting of a shark in “exploded” view: the head viewed from the front with both side views to the right and left. The eye-like shapes on the fins represent joints, and ribs are shown in X-ray view. Much indigenous art of NW coastal America, as here, disjoints each part of the figure within black “formlines” with standardised shapes such as ovoids, U-forms and S-forms.

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Tlingit house showing a bear in similar “exploded” style. In both the bear and shark pictures a human face is inserted at the top of the head, reflecting the belief that animals are humans in animal guise.

Fragmented art styles such as those of Melanesia and elsewhere were briefly imitated by Picasso and Braque during their cubist period, though with little ethnographic insight – Picasso thought he was learning to paint ‘like a child’. Westerners have regularly misperceived preliterate cultures as ‘childlike’ or ‘primitive’. As I have noted, children do not produce such art and it certainly cannot be regarded as ‘primitive’ – rather, it represents a sophisticated and systematic assault on perceptions of bodies. Wherever we have ‘Art’ with a capital ‘A’ – especially on the monumental scale seen in NW coastal America and many western art galleries and municipal spaces – it is inevitably political, inextricably entangled with issues of class, power, authority, and prestige

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East Sepik Tamburan house, New Guinea.            Tamburan spirit images.

Anthony Forge, who has been very influential in the anthropology of art, reported one particularly impressive example of the way art can influence perception. He found that Abelam children in New Guinea had no problem understanding photographs of themselves and of their friends and family, but adult Abelam men — after repeated initiation ceremonies in which they were exposed to vivid two-dimensional images of spirits (tamburans) — lost the ability to understand photographs. When shown a photograph, their immediate reaction would be to turn it over and scrutinize the back.

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Drawings of “a person” by two Bushmen who have never experienced ritual trance.

These drawings are normal for someone who has never drawn before.

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Drawings of “a person” by three Bushmen who trance once or twice a week, showing disarticulation and omissions of essential body parts. They are dominated by spiral representations of boiling N/um energy, rising like a Kundalini serpent up the spinal column.

Just as art can influence awareness and conceptions of bodies and the world, such conceptions can influence art. Richard Katz asked a number of Ju/’hoansi men (a “Bushman” or San people) to “draw a person”. Up until the nineteenth century, when the San had lived in the Drakensburg mountains and other rocky areas, they created the most plentiful rock art anywhere in the world, spanning a period of around four thousand years. This is comparable in quality and style to the cave paintings of France and Spain, with the advantage that present day Bushmen can interpret the pictures for us. But today farming and urban societies have driven foragers into the most inhospitable environments. Bushmen inhabit the Kalahari desert where there is no opportunity to paint. Katz found that men who had never experienced ritual trance drew figures that included the essential parts (head, body, arms, and legs) all attached in the normal manner. But healers who entered trance once or twice a week produced disarticulated figures with missing heads and limbs. The only common feature was a spiral motif representing boiling N/um energy, which rises (like the Kundalini serpent) from the sacrum bone during trance dancing, and ascends the spinal column. When it reaches the brain, the dancer “dies” – meaning that his soul leaves his body, travelling to investigate distant places or ascending to the sky to argue with God.

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San rock art at Game Pass Shelter in the Drakensburg Mountains, South Africa. Naturalistic portrayals of eland are reminiscent of Palaeolithic cave paintings in Europe but the running figures across the top are similar to European Mesolithic art. Behind the eland are figures that may be entranced dancers wearing karosses, with diminutive heads, animal ears, and torsos inflated with N/um energy.

When people produce images of bodies which are not naturalistic, I am not suggesting that there is anything physiologically wrong with their vision. Retinas, optic nerves, and visual cortices function in pretty much the same way everywhere. It is more a matter of conception (what the artist regards as essential, often including invisible things like internal organs or spiritual power) and attention. When children first draw “tadpole people” with head and limbs but no torso, this is because their earliest explorations of the world involve contact organs, so that is what they pay attention to. They are simply not aware that they are omitting the torso until this is pointed out to them, or they grow older and more experienced. But concept and experience are very much shaped by culture, including art and associated beliefs.

In this blog I have mentioned a few cultures to illustrate how differently art is regarded and used in most societies known to anthropologists. In contrast to the western notion of “fine art”, few communities curate their art, it is not primarily created for display as such (sometimes only being seen by initiates), and only since contact with the west is it sold for monetary gain. It certainly is not conserved as a financial investment. Creativity – a relatively recent value in western art – is not valued at all. What is primarily valued is the archetypal – the very opposite of the creative – and the imagery is revealed by the ancestors, spirits, or gods, who communicate to the people through divinations, dreams, visitations, and trance experiences. Consequently the main functions of art are ritual and spiritual. After use, artworks are commonly discarded.

I have also noted that many societies see themselves and the world in ways that can seem extremely bizarre to us and which can be shown to be counter-intuitive, counter-logical, and counter-natural. At the same time, people with such unnatural beliefs live in close harmony with nature. They conceive of everything on the earth, in the waters, and in the heavens above, as alive, and have a deep reverence for everything around them. They are also deeply spiritual; for them, spirits are just as substantial as bodies, or – more accurately – bodies are just as insubstantial as spirits. Nothing has “substance” as “we” (post-urban and post-industrial people) understand it. What seems biologically paradoxical is the curious fact that human beings everywhere seem to be fascinated by the counter-intuitive – magic and miracles – which seems to be a consequence of an innate motivation that we call “spiritual”.

As I have explained, there is no way for culture to exert such effects other than through social displays, which enable us to reveal and share feelings, emotions, perceptions, ideas, and beliefs. One of our most impressive social displays is art – or rather two kinds of display that we classify as “art” – aesthetic non-figurative designs, and iconic representations of real or imagined things. The latter in particular are important for the development of body-image and bodily understanding. People who make fragmented images of bodies seem to have fragmented bodily self-images. During childhood, social displays are essential for the development o f self- and social-awareness, and human cultures use the same means to alter such awareness.

What I have not mentioned is why this should be so. Why should human societies falsify perceptions? What possible benefit could this provide? Karl Marx reasoned that the ‘dominant ideology’ in any society is that of the ‘ruling classes’, and serves to make the inequities of social hierarchy and privilege appear natural, inevitable, and ‘right’. This is what he called ‘false consciousness’ – blinding the proletariat to the way they are being exploited. But Marxian theory does not explain counter-intuitive beliefs in egalitarian societies with no ‘ruling classes’ and no exploited labour force. Something much more ancient is involved.

Marshall Sahlins pointed out that in apes society is controlled by sex, whereas in humans sex is controlled by society. He inferred “the greatest reform in history” – a human revolution that turned an ancient ape-like social order on its head. In order to persuade our selfish ape-like ancestors to behave in anti-biological ways, it must have been necessary to falsify their perceptions of themselves and the world. Endless competition and conflict over sex and food had to be replaced by cooperation. Among modern foragers this is accomplished by monogamous marriage rules and obligatory food sharing.

The likeliest reason why human culture emerged in the first place was to ensure that children are properly cared for. Human childbearing and rearing are especially problematic in humans. We have a narrow pelvis adapted for bipedal locomotion, but give birth to large-brained babies. Women have wider pelvic arches than men, but even so the birth canal is so narrow that babies’ heads get squeezed out of shape during birth, with painful and dangerous consequences for mother and baby. In most human communities, the assistance of a midwife is necessary. Following the trauma of birthing, women must then carry the burden of breast feeding, during which they must supply the dietary lipids essential to sustain the baby’s rapid brain growth. Since these essential lipids can only be obtained from animal fat, it follows that culture of modern human type must have been initiated by women, in order to ensure that male hunters bring the meat home, rather than eating the best parts at the kill site, as do other social carnivores. This is in fact what happens in foraging communities to this day. I have no space here to discuss the menstrual sex-strike theory of cultural origins, or the Female Cosmetic Coalitions Model, but the ten-minute video I have linked to above will give you some idea.

In my next blog I will outline how it is that western art and consciousness are so different from that of the peoples I have discussed so far, and how western culture evolved from a perspectival to a physicalist world-view.

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