Thursday, March 21, 2013


"The Lord said to Abram, "Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you..." Genesis 12: 1, Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia and Jerusalem,1985

Humankind is a most diverse collection of bipedal primates...

One of the few truthful general statements which we can make about our species is that sexual desire appears to lack prejudice, ignoring skin pigmentation, language barriers, and a plethora of other tools we use to prove we are better than other members of our own kind...
The Aboriginal Peoples of Australia, seen here in a traditional
ceremony staged for tourists, may offer insight the earliest
beliefs and customs of modern man.  Their cultures date back
approximately 50,000 years to a time when the first people
arrived on the Australian continent-- probably as migrants
from the Indian subcontinent.

If a person has lived on multiple continents or traveled extensively on even a single one of these giant land masses, he or she may speak of strange ways and customs to be found in these other places to friends who have not journeyed so far across the earth's surface.  He or she may speak knowingly and say these odd folkways belong to a very different culture, my dear friend, from our own more civilized practices...

Culture is a concept given to us courtesy of the anthropologists and other social science specialists.  Knowledge of what this term entails is limited-- for many of us-- to practical yet ultimately superficial distinctions between ourselves and people living elsewhere... 

Tourist guidebooks may warn us not to prove ourselves uncouth by holding a fork in the wrong hand and advise us how to properly to address the man selling us tickets for the underground.  Practical persons who have traveled abroad may warn us life-threatening situations can result if certain gerunds or verbs are used in conjunction with descriptive nouns involving female relatives, especially mothers and sisters... 
Many cultures, including those of the Viking
peoples, postulate supernatural beings with
mysterious powers of transformations. These
ancient Norsemen believed Valkyries-- warrior
maidens who transported the souls of those
who died in battle to Valhalla-- could transform
themselves into swans, ravens, and wolves.
This 1893 illustration depicts three Valkyries
enjoying a bath after shedding their swan skins.

But a true wanderer knows culture involves deeper things...

An anthropologist will say that an anthropologist's job (in the words of anthropologists Carol and Melvin Ember) is to define or outline "the customary ways of thinking and behaving that are characteristic of a particular population or society."  It follows, they say, that culture is a chimera of language, general knowledge, religious beliefs, work habits, music, food and dietary preferences, taboos, and almost anything else human-- all of it pasted or sewn together in a way unique to a specifc group of people...

No anthropologist is actually content with creating a laundry list of behaviors.  He or she wishes to know why one specific group of people will find its spiritual truths in a mystical experience undergone by a desert nomad originally named Abram and another group is guided by the teachings of Prince Gautama...
The Apache people of America's Desert Southwest lived
originally in northwestern Canada, according to linguistic
evidence gathered by anthropologists.  These men are
part of a ceremonial procession photographed in the very
late 19th or early 20th Century.

Why is it, the anthropologist asks, that warriors in one society prize long locks and those in another take pride in almost-shaven heads?  How is it that one band of people finds public (or even private) nudity shameful and sinful while groups living elsewhere take an extremely casual attitude toward the unclad?  Some find tattoos repulsive, some decree a woman's face should be seen only by her male relatives or her husband, some isolate their young males at the onset of puberty to initiate them into adulthood with dances and tales of brave ancestors and a bloody circumcision...

My own thoughts on such differences are that geography and the size of the group have quite a lot to do with why no two societies live the same way or believe the same thing...

Let's postulate three small tribes-- one living in a semi-arid desert, a second by the sea, and the third in a temperate subtropical area blessed of rich soil and frequent rains to fill its many rivers and streams... 
Contact with superior technology can lead the less technologically
advanced culture to view visitors as possessing magical or even
godlike power.  Melanesian villagers attributed just such abilities
to Allied soldiers they encountered during World War II and built
wooden "airplanes" in hopes these "gods" would return with more
gifts in the form of food and clothing.

Our desert dwellers are limited by their environment when it comes to finding food: they have little in the way of fruits to gather from trees and any attempts to grow vegetables will likely be futile due to lack of rain.  To survive, they may become nomads who tend their own flocks of goats and sheep or hunters who follow migrating herds of antelopes and gazelles.  In either case, their homes will likely be mobile-- it's simple enough to roll up the animal skins used to make a tent and collect the poles used to hold it up when the bison move southward as the cold weather approaches...

The coastal band has a ready source of food in the form of fish and crustaceans.  Tribal members may catch crabs by the shore or build boats, going out to sea with spears and nets to harvest the waters...

Members of our lush subtropical area have multiple food source options.  They can pick berries from bushes, perhaps cultivate crops, even hunt animals living in the forests just beyond the clearing where they've erected wooden dwellings with thatched roofs...
The False Face Society of North America's
Iroquois people wore elaborate wooden
masks designed to heal sickness in those
unlucky enough to encounter malevolent
supernatural forces dwelling in the forests
surrounding their settlements.

Each environment, however, also imposes another limitation on human populations with limited technologies.  Lack of water in a desert prevents a nomadic group of shepherds from becoming too large since both humans and livestock require this often scarce resource to live.  Tribes by the ocean may dwell far from rivers with fresh water-- ergo, their populations can't exceed a number that can be supported by collected rainfall. It appears the group living in the rainy subtropical area has the greatest potential to enjoy a fairly large population since water and food are abundant...

Human technology is also limited by the world around us.  This fact isn't always obvious to those of us who live in industrialized nations fueled by international trade as we mock the "primitive" ways of "uncivilized" people.  Our own westward expansion in the United States, however, was limited for much of the 19th Century by a lack of forests in the dry grasslands in the American heartland and lack of water in the southwestern deserts...

The Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa average
about 5' in height.  A nomadic people, their culture is noted for its
music and vivid artistic style.  They live in bands of approximately
25-60 people.

People without forests can not build substantial wooden dwellings.  Those with no ready source of minerals taken from mountains will not experiment with ways to make metals more malleable and suitable for being turned into plows or swords.  And, in turn, a man who has never seen gold will have no word to name or describe the precious ore.  It will be a shiny yellow rock to him...

Without words to communicate our common knowledge or understanding of things, we humans tend towards mistrust or contempt of our fellow homo sapiens.  And the same can be said of the diversity of human religious experience. Those who weave nets to catch fish are leary of the ways of men who plow the earth for the god of a fisherman is often asked to bless his believers in ways other than those ways asked in prayers to the god of a man who patiently waits for seeds to sprout...
This Mongolian shaman, seen in a
photograph taken circa 1909, served as
the key religious figure in his society.
He was expected to go into a trance
and journey into the world of spirits
where he gained insight into how to
cure an ailing tribesman or see future
events before they unfolded in this

And that, ultimately, is why some retrace the steps of Abraham and some walk the path of the Buddha.  One man left a fertile valley to cross desert sands with his flocks under a blazing sun in search of green pastures promised to him and his descendants by God and the other sought to find the Middle Way in the lush land where lived, a Middle Way balancing the madness of self-deluded ascetics and the corruption of gluttons who ate rich foods and drank wine merrily as others starved...

We are all children of the lands of our birth... 

Those of us who travel no farther than the next village will see the same thing that those who journey to distant lands see: all men seek shelter and food.  No matter where they live, fathers and mothers struggle to give their children lives no worse than their own.  Some even hope their daughters and sons will enjoy more comfort than their parents...
The Kuna of Panama and northern Colombia are noted for their
textile arts, such as this mola featuring a highly stylized cat.  The
Kuna have successfully resisted integration into the Hispanic
culture of Central America.  It is also a culture which, unlike
many, prizes albinism-- to the point that albinos are believed
to be entrusted with the duty of preventing the destruction of the
Moon during lunar eclipses. 

Perhaps the greatest miracle given to humankind by God or Nature is that we are, like it or not, one species-- a diversity that merges into unity.  Consider this: geneticists tell us that a child born 6000 to 10,000 years ago somewhere near the northwestern coasts of the Black Sea likely amazed his or her parents because of a mutation in the gene OCA2 gave this one child the first pair of blue eyes in a world filled with brown-eyed persons...

This child obviously survived to maturity and reproduced in his or her turn, becoming the common ancestor of all persons past, present, and future with blue eyes.  Should you or I have a single ancestor with blue eyes, we are ultimately distant cousins... 

In the early 1990s a group of Jewish scholars met with the Dalai
Lama and other Buddhist religious authorities to explore common
ground between the two ancient faiths.  Kamenetz later discussed
these meetings in his book, The Jew in the Lotus.  Here, he shares
a lighter moment with the Dalai Lama after giving the latter a
yarmulke-- the head covering traditionally worn by Jewish males.



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Note: Definition of culture from Cultural Anthropology by Carol and Michael Ember (New York, 1977); information about the OCA2 gene mutation from "All blue-eyed people can be traced back to one ancestor who lived 10,000 years ago near the Black Sea" by Michael Hanlon, London Daily Mail, 01 February 2008.   All photographs for this essay were located through Google Images or Wikipedia, without authoritative source or ownership information except as noted: Poet Roger Kamenetz gives the Dalai Lama a yarmulke from; Australian Aboriginal Dancers from; Valkyries with swan skins off from The Poetic Edda by Fredrik Sanders, 1893; Apache ceremonial procession from; Cargo Cult from; Kuna Art- Stylized Cat from via collection of Anne Wenzel; Bushmen from; Mongolian shaman in ceremonial robes with drum, circa 1909 from

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