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Commento a M. Meschiari, 'Roots of the savage mind: apophenia and imagination as cognitive process'

M. Meschiari, Roots of the Savage Mind, «Quaderni di Semantica», 2/09 (in press).
Roots of the Savage Mind.
Apophenia and Imagination as Cognitive Process
by MATTEO MESCHIARI (University of Palermo, Italy)
Questo articolo discute e sviluppa la Landscape Mind Theory (LMT) che l’autore ha
precedentemente formulato. Utilizzando un’ampia scelta di esempi etnografici e le recenti
acquisizioni delle neuroscienze, viene esplorato il ruolo del paesaggio e dell’ecosistema nel
modellare le strutture cognitive di Homo sapiens sapiens. L’analisi si concentra in particolare sulle
culture di caccia e raccolta, e mostra come la fenomenologia venatoria da un lato e le attività
intellettuali e simboliche rivolte all’ambiente dall’altro siano legate tra loro da fattori
evoluzionistici e culturali. Un rilievo particolare viene dato alle produzioni immaginative e
linguistiche dei cacciatori-raccoglitori.
This article discusses and develops the Landscape Mind Theory (LMT) that the author previously
formulated. Using numerous ethnographic examples and recent research in neuroscience, he
explores the role of landscape and the ecosystem in the shaping of cognitive processes in Homo
sapiens sapiens. The analysis focuses in particular on hunter-gatherer cultures, and shows how
hunting phenomenology on the one hand and intellectual and symbolic activity related to the
environment on the other are connected through evolutionary and cultural factors. A particular
emphasis is placed on the imaginative and linguistic productions of hunter-gatherers.
[Keywords: Hunter-Gatherers, Cognitive processes, Apophenia, Hunting, Language and Place,
Landscape Mind Theory]
The dynamic of pursuit and escape is the great sculptor of brains.
Paul Shepard [1998b: 6]
The Landscape Mind Theory (LMT) that I outlined a year ago in this
review (Meschiari [2008a]), has been the object of reflection and commentary by
certain readers. The main ambiguity raised about the theory is the following: is
the “landscape mind” a new metaphor to talk about cognitive processes and how
they are organized, or should it be taken literally, meaning that there really exists
an isomorphism between mental structures and landscape structures? In other
words, if the landscape and functional interactions with it have modeled the
cognitive pool of Homo sapiens sapiens, to what extent—between genes and
culture—is the human brain a reflection of the ecosystem in which it was formed?
The most obvious and immediate objection is: how can we explain the
universality of certain landscape-based cognitive traits (cognitive mapping,
wayfinding, folkecology, sacred ecology, ritual landscape) through the
M. Meschiari, Roots of the Savage Mind, «Quaderni di Semantica», 2/09 (in press).
evolutionary response to pressures of a paleoenvironment, when in fact Homo
colonized very diverse ecological niches? Are these not, rather, different adaptive
responses? And the logical corollary is obligatory: either it is a matter of local
cultural adaptation, whose similarity is polygenetic, or these faculties are innate,
but they are grouped at a more general cognitive level, in the sense that they also
serve to experience and understand the landscape.
The pages that follow propose a most radical theory: the human brain was
modeled on the landscape by natural selection (and by “landscape” I mean the
space of physical, cognitive and social interactions between humans and the
ecosystem), while the problem of paleoenvironment is incorrectly formulated.
We know with certainty that the ecological context intended as habitat and as
dynamic relationship between the species is capable of selectively operating on
genes, but more than wondering about the ancestral landscape in which Homo
evolved, we should wonder what Homo had to know how to do in order to survive
in it. If, for example, the food supply of the Nunamiut of Alaska is based 87% on
hunting, 3% on gathering and 10% on fishing, while that of the Penan of Borneo
is based 30% on hunting and 70% on gathering, we easily deduce that the
difference is due to opposite environmental conditions (Kelly [1995: 67-69]).
However, we tend to neglect a fundamental factor, which is that the system of
hunting and gathering is not one subsistence strategy among many, but it is the
only way of life that has characterized Homo for at least two million years (Lee -
De Vore [1968]; Bettinger [1991]; Lee - Daly [1999]; Panter - Brick et al. [2001];
Waal [2001]). Analyzing in particular hunting phenomenology and its cognitive
relevance (what does a hunter need to know to succeed?), I would like to
emphasize the fact that, beyond the necessary familiarity with plant and animal
species and with the physical structure of the land, hunting (and in a similar way
gathering) is based on universal innate strategies independent of the specific
ecological context.
In addition to relying on the obvious support of ethnographic data, I would
like to strengthen my argument with examples from neuroscience, cognitive
psychology, and evolutionary psychology (Mithen [1996, 1998, 2006]; Golledge
[1999]; Lewis-Williams [2002]; Dehaene et al. [2005, 2006]; Renfrew [2007]).
These approaches are not unrelated, and it is actually their confluence that offers
the scholar a new heuristic model. After a long period of epistemological crisis,
perhaps the time has come to solidly construct a new anthropological method
based on synchronic and diachronic comparison (in the field of ethnolinguistics,
see for example Benozzo [2007] and Costa [2003, 2008]). Comparative
ethnology, or the use of recent ethnographic examples to resolve the problems
raised by paleoethnology, has been the source of heated debate for more than a
century. But if we work under the assumption of a genetic-cognitive unity in
Homo sapiens sapiens (Stone - Lurquin [2007]; DeSalle - Tattersall [2008]), it is
possible to identify in the evolutionary genetics of the brain, in neuroscience and
in cognitive psychology a level of consistency coherent enough to proceed to a
“total” comparison. It will not be a matter of comparing de-contextualized
cultural facts, but rather ecosystems, subsistence, foraging and cognitive strategies
that regulate the comprehension of the former and the development of the latter.
M. Meschiari, Roots of the Savage Mind, «Quaderni di Semantica», 2/09 (in press).
To investigate the roots of the “savage mind”, I would like to concentrate
on a particular aspect. The study of the “categorical impulse” (Ellen [2006]),
from Claude Lévi-Strauss [1962] to Scott Atran and Douglas Medin [2008], (i.e.
folk-taxonomies as representation of the world), usually neglects a fundamental
dynamic principle: imagination. I am not referring, at least for the moment, to the
cultural imagination of man as “myth creator” but, at a more elementary level,
biological imagination that plays a role in the causal comprehension of the
physical world. The “stem cell” of this imaginative faculty, which we probably
share with other mammals, can be identified in a neurocognitive phenomenon
called apophenia. In the coming pages I will argue that apophenia is at the center
of a bundle of cognitive faculties closely connected to understanding landscape,
potentiality for enhanced success in the hunt and the production of symbolic
thought through linguistic images. The hypothesis is that behind the savage mind,
in a way that has yet to be studied in depth, there exists a “generator of images”
that has played a crucial role in the evolution of the human brain: at the center of
fundamental semiotic questions, born of the landscape and for the landscape, it
can enlighten us on thepresent prehistory” of our way of thinking.
Apophenia is derived from the German Apophänie, a term coined by the
neurologist Klaus Conrad [1958] to define the exaggerated tendency of
schizophrenics to see imaginary connections of meaning. More recently the term
has been used to define “the pervasive tendency of human beings to see order in
random configurations” (Brugger [2001: 196]) or “the experience of seeing
meaningful patterns or connections in random data” (Petchkovsky [2007: 247]),
therefore a modality of the mind that is not necessarily pathological, and is even
universally characteristic of the human species (Fyfe et al. [2008]). Apophenia
may be visual (recognizing familiar images in ambiguous configurations such as
ink blots, clouds, patterns in wood and bark, rock outcroppings, constellations,
etc.) or auditory (recognizing voices, words and phrases in casual or involuntary
sonic emissions that have no human meaning). The phenomenon, which has been
observed since Antiquity (Pliny), has had applications both artistic (Leonardo da
Vinci, Cozens, Escher) and psychoanalytical (the Rorschach test, the Sandplay
Therapy), but in general it has been relegated to the domain of mere curiosity.
However, greater importance has been given to one of its specific variants,
pareidolia, or the tendency to recognize noted figures in casual configurations
(Christ’s face in a stain on the wall, the profile of the Virgin Mary in a rock, etc.).
In a strictly scientific field, the current tendency is to ascribe an important cultural
role to apophenia and pareidolia, as shown by studies in the domains of neurology
(Brugger [2001]), psychology (Petchkovsky [2007]) and anthropology (Guthrie
[1993]). Certain ethnographic examples of apophenia can helps us to illustrate the
phenomenon’s spatial and temporal range as well as its centrality in the respective
cultural systems.
M. Meschiari, Roots of the Savage Mind, «Quaderni di Semantica», 2/09 (in press).
a) Mbuti decorative motifs: Among the Mbuti Pygmies of the Ituri Forest
in the Congo Basin, the women use “abstract motifs” to decorate barkcloth
(lengbe), which are obtained by beating inner bark from ficus trees. These ritual
decorations are inspired by a principle of mobility: dots, dashes, lines, interlaces,
chevrons, waves, spirals, base motifs, complex motifs and the relationship
between full and empty space, all respond to unexpected rules of accumulation,
progressive complexity, variability, asymmetry and synchopy, until an imbalance
and rupture in the composition is sometimes achieved. What emerges is a strong
propensity for dynamism, which has a parallel in the ecological and social
mobility of the Mbuti group, and in the polyphonic yodelling that accompanies
the significant moments of their life. The reversibility of the design
(positive/negative, full/empty) and the confusion of visual relationships
(figure/background, periphery/center, high/low, inside/outside) are all factors that
render ambiguous the perceptive and conceptual dualism, transferring even into
the decorative system the dynamic-ecological principle of spatial mobility of the
hunter-gatherers (Turnbull [1965]; Farris Thompson [1983]; Farris Thompson -
Bahuchet [1991]; Meurant - Farris Thompson [1996]). Some scholars have
emphasized the resemblance between these graphic results and plant vines, woven
baskets, hut structure, string figures, the coat of certain animals, the starry sky,
etc. Mbuti women, when asked about the meaning of their designs and these
similarities, gave vague or ambiguous answers, such as “it looks like this” or “it
could be this”, demonstrating that the apophenia triggered by their designs
(similar to that of Multistable Vision Patterns) maintains dynamism and
guarantees polysemic openness, avoiding unequivocal and definitive
identifications (Meschiari [2008c]).
b) String figures: This is the most widespread example of apophenia
documented in ethnography (Africa, the Americas, Australia, Borneo, China,
Korea, Europe, the Philippines, Japan, India, New Guinea, New Zealand, Siberia,
Oceania). These figures are formed by a string tied at both ends to form a ring,
which is then woven through the fingers and the thumb to produce abstract
geometric figures. The more or less pronounced resemblance between these
images and real objects led to their “recognition” and their naming based on the
native context, and many figures are related to local plants and animals. The
same figure may be found in various cultures, but its interpretation differs
considerably. From an ethnological standpoint, the relevant aspect is that the
“game” is usually connected to the history and the mythology of the group and is
practiced in narrative and pedagogical contexts, of which they are the visual
accompaniment (Furness Jayne [1962]; Averkieva - Sherman [1992]). Whether
these configurations are obtained by accident or whether they are invented ad hoc,
their fruition creates the conditions necessary for the manifestation of the
phenomenon of apophenia: the ambiguity and abstractness of the images demand
of the observer an effort of anagnorisis that necessarily relies on images from the
physical world.
M. Meschiari, Roots of the Savage Mind, «Quaderni di Semantica», 2/09 (in press).
c) Paleolithic art: European rock art tended to intentionally integrate the
contours of the pictographs and petroglyphs in the anomalies of the rock substrate.
In other words, a veining, a limestone dripping, a convex or concave portion, a
nodule or a chromatic variation in the rock could allude to anatomical parts of an
animal, such as a spine, a belly, hooves, an eye, or even the ground on which it is
standing. In this way, the animal was first “glimpsed” in the rock, and only later
was it drawn by retouching, emphasizing and completing the outlines (Graziosi
[1960]; Lejeune [1981]; Leroi - Gourhan [1982]; Lorblanchet [1993, 1995, 1999];
Meschiari [1999]). To explain this “visionary” behavior, some have suggested
altered states of consciousness due to sensory deprivation induced by the
environment of deep caves or the possible use of psychotropic substances (Lewis-
Williams - Dowson [1988]; Clottes - Lewis-Williams [1998]), but apophenia is
more than sufficient to justify the phenomenon. In support of its universality, it is
worth citing The Prelude by William Wordsworth, not so much as a literary
curiosity, but rather for the extraordinary exactitude in the description of
apophenic dynamics:
The curious traveler, who, from open day, / Hath passed with torches into some huge cave, / The
Grotto of Antiparos, or the Den / In old time haunted by that Danish Witch, / Yordas; he looks
around and sees the vault / Widening in all sides; sees, or thinks he sees, / Erelong, the massy roof
above his head, / That instantly unsettles and recedes, — / Substance and shadow, light and
darkness, all / Commingled, making up a canopy / Of shapes and forms and tendencies to shape /
That shift and vanish, change and interchange [...]. / But let him pause awhile, and look again, /
And a new quickening shall succeed, at first / Beginning timidly, then creeping fast, / Till the
whole cave, so late a senseless mass, / Busies the eye with images and forms / Boldly assembled,
—here is shadowed forth / From the projections, wrinkles, cavities, / A variegated landscape, —
there the shape / Of some gigantic warrior clad in mail, / The ghostly semblance of a hooded
monk, / Veiled nun, or pilgrim resting on his staff: / Strange congregation! yet not slow to meet /
Eyes that perceive through minds that can inspire. [1850: VIII, vv. 563-592]
In order to understand the cognitive and cultural reach of apophenia, we
must explore the physiology of the brain. A first step is to examine non-
pathological subjects characterized by a strong propensity for belief in magic and
the paranormal and for hallucination (traits that are particularly pronounced in
schizophrenic patients). It has been observed that, on the one hand, these
individuals show a reduced dominance of the left hemisphere of language, and on
the other they register greater activity of the right hemisphere, characterized by a
tendency to grasp distant semantic connections (Leonhard - Brugger [1998];
Pizzagalli - Lehman - Brugger [2001]; Brugger - Surbeck - Loetscher [2007]).
The right frontal lobe seems to contribute to the generation of dynamic images
evoked by ambiguous visual input (Minor et al. [1989]; Gill - O’Boyle [2003]),
and if we intertwine the two observations we can hypothesize that magical
thought on the one hand and apophenia on the other participate in the general
cognitive module of “belief” described by Wolpert [2006]. Moreover, it appears
that the neurotransmitter dopamine is directly involved in the process, if it is true
that one increment of it provokes a decline in the condition of a schizophrenic
patient, while in healthy subjects it produces an increase in curiosity and meaning-
making, at times linked to rapturous, numinous states and frequent apohenic
M. Meschiari, Roots of the Savage Mind, «Quaderni di Semantica», 2/09 (in press).
experiences (Mohr et al. [2004]; Petchkovsky [2008]).
From an evolutionary standpoint, apophenia may have played an essential
role in the predation and escape mechanism: mimicry and recognition of danger in
ambiguous perceptive contexts are amply documented in biology. In a wooded
habitat, for example, recognizing without delay prey or predator in the indistinct
foliage constitutes a selective advantage, even in the case of error: it is better to be
mistaken in a hurried evaluation than fatally delay, waiting for certitude. And the
example of foliage helps to clarify the cognitive mechanism: in a system of dark
and light spots, the eye, stimulated by confused forms devoid of autonomous
meaning, analogically completes outlines and ambiguous masses, based on the
model of known images (Haken [1979]; Kelso [1995]; Kruse - Stadler [1995];
Falk - Konold [1997]). While for contemporary man it has been reduced to a
mere curiosity, it is plausible that apophenia functioned for millions of years as an
essential survival mechanism. But it is the intermediate stage that we are
interested in, that is, the moment, and especially the way, in which the biological
fact took on a cultural surplus. Although it is relatively intuitive to link
phenomena such as animism and religion to Wolpert’s “belief-generating
machine” [2006], and Guthrie [1993] places pareidolia at the center of his theory
on religion, we must concentrate the analysis on the semiotic relevance of
Cutting out discontinuities in the perceptive continuum of the world is the
inevitable condition of every act of comprehension (Buttitta [1996]), and
apophenia seems to operate in exactly this way, preferring perceptive short-cuts to
the stalemate generated by an ambiguity. In an ecological context in which rapid
decision-making can mean the difference between life and death, and in an
environment in which establishing even illusory random connections is preferable
to the cacophony of a world made up only of punctual events, biological
imagination serves the function of an elementary cognitive “glue”. Sign and
meaning are treated as a single thing, and it is precisely their necessary
relationship (only in appearance) that lends itself to the interpretation of
phenomena in a way that favors survival. If the track of an animal were not its
“metonymy”, it could not be interpreted as a “presence in absence”, and it could
never “lead” the hunter to the prey. Inversely, since every image has an
unexpected semantic surplus (Wunenburger [1997]), the track is the animal, but it
is also itself, or, if incomplete and difficult to read, it can be decidedly something
else. In other words, apophenia may resolve an ambiguity but it never does so
definitively, and it can even trigger a perceptive oscillation that, after the first
attribution of meaning, always slips into new projections, as in Multistable Vision
Patterns (Leopold - Logothetis [1999]; Leopold et al. [2002]). If, therefore, the
first solution is sufficient for an animal, the perspective shifts radically for modern
humans, who are “schizophrenically” programmed for the search for meaning.
This is why a handprint on the wall of a cave has an imperfect mirror image effect
and it is precisely for this reason that it is meaningful (that hand is me, but it is not
really me. What is it then?). As I said, the crucial point is to understand how
apophenia became symbolic thought. And that is where hunting comes in.
M. Meschiari, Roots of the Savage Mind, «Quaderni di Semantica», 2/09 (in press).
There is a book on this subject that made history: Man The Hunter. The
First Intensive Survey of a Single, Crucial Stage of Human Development—Man's
Once Universal Hunting Way of Life. For those who question the adjectives
“crucial” and “universal”, the editors Richard Lee and Irven de Vore, settle the
matter in this way:
Of the estimated 150 billion men who have ever lived on earth, over 60 per cent have lived as
hunters and gatherers; about 35 per cent have lived by agriculture and the remaining few per cent
have lived in industrial societies. […] It is still an open question whether man will be able to
survive the exceedingly complex and unstable ecological conditions he has created for himself. If
he fails in this task, interplanetary archeologists of the future will classify our planet as one in
which a very long and stable period of small-scale hunting and gathering was followed by an
apparently instantaneous efflorescence of technology and society leading rapidly to extinction.
“Stratigraphically”, the origin of agriculture and thermonuclear destruction will appear as
essentially simultaneous. [Lee - De Vore 1968: 3]
Of equal importance are books by Robert L. Kelly [2007] and George C.
Frison [2004], but the ecological approach of the former and the archaeological
approach of the latter leave little space for cognitive considerations. Their
hunting phenomenology informs us on very detailed biological and technological
strategies, but it does not tell us what happens in the brain of the hunter. It is, in
effect, a rather impregnable subject, and it is difficult to find authors who are
comfortable discussing it. What follows, however, are a few enlightened
examples. The first is about the “joy” of hunting:
Rather than anxiety, it would seem the hunters have a confidence born of affluence, of a condition
in which all the people’s wants (such as they are) are easily satisfied. This confidence does not
desert them during hardship. It can carry them laughing through periods that would try even a
Jesuit’s soul […]. [Sahlins 1968: 89]
[…] one might expect to find a more happy-go-lucky attitude among groups which have achieved
a homeostatic relationship with regard to food resources. Such a group might move from one
resource area to another, consuming immediately available products; or a group might gain time
utility from resources through storage and preservation techniques and stabilize population below
the point at which exploitation of the standing crop would threaten productivity. The point here is
that “happiness” in the sense of little care for tomorrow would be more a function of homeostasis
than of hunting per se. [Binford 1968: 90]
Here we notice the oscillation and can imagine the spectrum of the
hypotheses: from the subjective and idealized invention of the hunter-gatherer—
seen as a “beautiful soul” or Rousseau’s noble savage—to that which brings the
discussion back to a more impersonal ecosystemic matrix. Paul Shepard has a
different approach, highlighting the fact that hunting, more than a simple
subsistence strategy, is a pervasive and totalizing experience, it is a way of life.
Commenting, for example, on Ortega y Gasset’s text Sobre la caza [1943], he
M. Meschiari, Roots of the Savage Mind, «Quaderni di Semantica», 2/09 (in press).
There is a sense in which metaphors on hunting to explain mental activity are not metaphors at all,
and we must take care not to suppose that the true reality is the metaphor. […] To hunt for an idea
can never be fully understood – or fully practiced – by those who have not hunted game. Ortega,
like many students of the traditions of hunting, is careful to note that many philosophers and other
great men have been hunters. [Shepard 1998a: 149, 150]
It should come as no surprise that a primatologist like Shepard would refer
to the work of a philosopher: just as apophenia and its perceptive phenomenology
are more well documented in literature (besides Shakespeare and Wordsworth, we
could cite the apophenias in Dino Campana’s Orphic Songs, Vladimir Nabokov’s
Signs and Symbols or William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition), the psychological-
cognitive aspects of hunting—which are rarely the subject of scientific analysis—
are well represented in narrative and non-fiction creative writing (the works of
Mikhail Prishvin, Eugenio Barisoni, Ernest Hemingway, Ted Kersote, Barry
Lopez, Bob Benson and James Kilgo come to mind). But what Shepard says—
that in evolutionary terms, hunting has shaped the human brain—remains well
within the realm of science. The following are a few ideas—almost aphorisms—
on hunting and cognition from The Tender Carnivore and the Scared Game:
To urban man the range of the hunter’s daily experience may seem small and boring, but his
boredom is not a true reflection of the measure of sensory richness and diversity of possible
experience in the hunter’s camp and habitat. [Shepard 1998a: 132]
The hunter, unlike the farmer, cannot move on to some other place. His mental health and
orientation are inseparable from the particular features of his terrain. This is the real “territorial
imperative”. [Shepard 1998a: 140]
[Among boys in ancient hunting-gathering societies], play hunting has the same relationship to
hunting that love for mother has to adult love: grounding in a fundamental context combining
action and implicit thought. […] Every animal brought to camp for butchering is a lesson – in
language, anatomy, perception – and an exercise in thinking. [Shepard 1998a: 140]
The variety of spiritual attention given by different tribes to all the steps of hunting in its many
forms is immense. In all cases, however, men are engaged in more than a merely physical food-
getting activity, for in hunting they are immersed in their most deeply held spiritual and aesthetic
conceptions. [Shepard 1998a: 143]
For cynegetic man nature is a language. I do not mean only that he is a skillful reader of animal
behavior or meteorological events but that nature functions as a syntax. Travel across the terrain,
the internal anatomy and relationship of animal parts, the taxonomy and classification of plants
and animals with its concept of species, the objet trouvé – all are steps in the normal maturing of
consciousness and mentality. [Shepard 1998a: 145-146]
The choice of passages is not only illustrative: I would like to discuss
individually the underlying ideas of each (sensory richness, territorial imperative,
apprenticeship, spiritual attention, landscape as cognitive syntax), relating them
directly to apophenia and other faculties of mental imagery.
a) Sensory richness and reading landscape: ethnographic literature has
M. Meschiari, Roots of the Savage Mind, «Quaderni di Semantica», 2/09 (in press).
always referred to the “exceptional” naturalistic skills of hunter-gatherers, from
the many shades of white recognized in snow by the Eskimos to the Aboriginal
Australians’ sense of direction. The first effort to depart from a merely
impressionistic evocation of these refined natural capacities was The Savage Mind
by Claude Lévi-Strauss [1962], which even prior to the studies in cognitive
psychology and neurophysiology on the subject, opened the door to the modern
folkbiology. As I have pointed out (Meschiari [2008a]), it would be more
appropriate to talk about “folkecology”, linking it to other indispensable
naturalistic competencies such as folkgeology, folkanatomy, wayfinding and
cognitive mapping, etc. In any case, it is worth noting that modern studies on
intuitive taxonomies developed by human societies neglect or minimize the
imaginative components of these ways of understanding the world. The idea that
the classificatory instinct is linked to a general module of the brain, interpreted as
the result of direct selective pressure, now seems to have been confirmed by
interdisciplinary studies in cognitive psychology and anthropology (Fodor [1983];
Atran [1990]; Berlin [1992]; Hirschfield - Gelman [1994]; Sperber [1996]; Atran -
Medin [1999]; Ellen [2006a, 2006b]. But some scholars’ use of categories such
as taxa to interpret ethnographic data runs the risk of imposing a western model
on the information gathered.
According to these studies, the competencies of the interviewed groups
reflect a few basic taxonomic principles: 1) biological knowledge is hierarchically
organized into inclusive groups, the taxa (animal mammal feline
leopard); 2) at each hierarchical level the taxa are mutually exclusive (fish vs.
mammals vs. birds vs. reptiles); 3) every known living creature is automatically
attributed to a taxon; 4) although the taxa are culturally variable, in general the
hierarchical levels are stable across cultures (folk-kingdom, life-form, folk-
generic, folk-specific, etc.); 5) the entire system functions in an inductive-
inferential manner (i.e. if two species have a common characteristic, it can be
inferred that such a characteristic is also shared by other species in the same
taxon; if a new animal is put into a taxon, there is a tendency to automatically
attribute it with the same characteristics shared by other animals in that taxon); 6)
living beings are characterized by a “causal nature” or “essence” (Atran [1998])
that determines its appearance, behavior, habits and organic identity (a sort of
internal “intelligent design”, or “proto-animism”).
In reality, the system is much less mechanical, and the exceptions are so
numerous as to call into question the very validity of the basic principles. I am
not referring to the potential taxonomic ambiguities—such as in the case of the
Iglulingmiut of Baffin Island, who indiscriminately include spiders, insects,
worms and crustaceans in the taxon qupiqruit (“small animals”) (Randa [1996:
98])—but rather to the fact that the taxa can almost always partially overlap, both
horizontally and vertically, and that there exist classificatory systems
superimposed on these that lead to a transgression of hierarchy, levels and
inferential rules. Among the Inuits, for example, the hierarchical principle
matters less than relationships of contrast and inclusion; in other words, the
animals are not perceived as isolated entities within the taxon, but as crossroads of
complex relationships, even with animals belonging to different taxa (for example
M. Meschiari, Roots of the Savage Mind, «Quaderni di Semantica», 2/09 (in press).
the wolf and the killer whale, or—based on much less obvious connections—the
lemming, which is the center of the constellation “walrus—ermine—harfang—
squirrel”). This interweaving of naturalistic knowledge spreads to other levels,
and conditions mythology, ritual practice and language (in Nunavik, for example,
the connection between the muskrat, kiggaluk, and the falcon, kiggavik, is made
explicit even linguistically). Vladimir Randa speaks of the necessity of studying
“the relationship that imagination maintains with the observable” [1996: 97], and
affirms that although the connections between animals are “real”, meaning based
on the ecosystem (predator-prey relationship, shared habitat, related food chain,
etc.) or on physical appearance (similar coloring, morphology, etc.),
the analogical, associative character of the Inuit zoological thought is manifest. It consists of
systematically recognizing in an animal characteristics that are likely to correspond to those of
other animals. In other words, animals are thought of in relation to one another, the fauna thus
forming a system. When the same animals are associated with several registers, the same traits
that are emphasized through observation tend to be reused in the construction of different types of
representations. Therefore, imagination is fed, in part, by experience. [Randa 1996: 113]
The reference to imagination is essential, on the condition that the
functional vector is inverted: it is not so much imagination that feeds on
experience, as experience that is organized by imagination, meaning that it acts as
a causal glue (meaning-making) capable of transcending mere taxonomic logic.
Moreover, the fact that the animal is never decontextualized from the environment
in which it lives, but functions as a metonymy of the place that it occupies in
physical space (geographical habitat) and in ecosystemic space (biological
habitat), suggests that taxonomic organization is embedded in a primordial
topological matrix. And in that case, it would be more appropriate to talk about
topoi rather than taxa, to account for the various levels—even spatial—of the
interweaving. The issue could be made that while the construction of a
hierarchical taxonomy is the reflection of an innate behavior, transgressions of the
norm are the result of a cultural drift. It is very probable, but we should not
exclude the possibility of a biological explanation, linked to the tracking and
stalking capabilities of hunters.
To return to the sensory and experiential wealth of hunters, it is almost
certainly due to an exhaustive knowledge of the hunted ecosystem, the habits of
the species, and the specificity of the land, but even Lévi-Strauss [1962] pointed
out the excess of information that characterizes these naturalistic competencies.
In fact, it has been observed that folk-taxonomies respond not only to the primary
need to catalogue edible or poisonous species, but that they extend to living forms
for which humans have no immediate use. The example of the zoological
classification of the Inuit demonstrates a similar redundancy enhanced by the
imagination, and the biological reasons can be found at a superior level: thinking
about species in terms of an “animal landscape” or “animals in the landscape”—
that is, adopting a systemic and holistic vision of living creatures—is the
reflection of a cognitive tendency that impels humans to interpret the whole. This
tendency toward hyper-interpreting natural signs, as well as the importance of
imagination for the hunter, is described by Richard Nelson in this explanation of
M. Meschiari, Roots of the Savage Mind, «Quaderni di Semantica», 2/09 (in press).
moose tracking:
A hunter wants to find signs that the moose is feeding and resting in a certain area, as indicated by
a very crooked, wandering trail with beds in the snow, broken willows, and perhaps areas where
the snow has been pawed to get at the vegetation underneath. The more tracks he finds the better.
On the other hand, a straight trail through the forest is a bad sign, because it probably means that
the animal was on the move and is now far away. […] Instead of following directly in the animal’s
track, the Indian makes semicircular detours or loops downwind away from the trail, returning to it
at intervals. If he circles back and does not find the trail where it should be he knows the moose
has doubled back. At this point he makes a series of smaller semicircles back in the direction from
which he came until he finds the animal’s doubling-back trail, which he then follows. [Nelson
1983: 104-105]
Reading animal as well as environmental signs requires not only
competencies stored in the memory, but also faculties of analogical projection,
prediction, mental imagery and imagination. In this hypersemiotic perspective,
therefore, folk-taxonomies are only the tip of the iceberg in a much more complex
and uncertain system of experiential and sensory competencies: the successful
hunter is the one who best interprets the landscape, gathering a greater number of
circumstantial facts and forcing them to produce a unitary and predetermined
meaning. It is not simply a matter of knowing how to read tracks and following
them, but rather of interpreting the entire landscape as a track, establishing causal
connections between phenomena that are perhaps unrelated but which in the end
become the dynamic-evenemential track of the absent prey. Imagining an animal
that is not visible, including its movements and its potential behavior, even in the
absence of real tracks, means setting its behavior in the real milieu that is offered
to a sensitive hunter: detail assumes a central importance, the connection between
details is invented, and the dynamic whole of the details is an invisible tale. The
“basic cell” of apophenia is therefore articulated through a complex apophenic
chain, which perhaps represents the second evolutionary stage of the human
imaginative faculty.
b) Territorial imperative and unknown landscapes: Knowledge of the
land is an essential prerequisite for a hunter. More than geomorphological and
biological competence, it is a matter of being able to distinguish minor but
significant particularities for orientation and stalking:
[The Kutchin] seem to focus upon minute details of the scene that confronts them rather than
viewing the landscape more generally, as an Outsider does. This ability to pick out subtleties in the
environment probably comes from practice; at least it seems that Outsiders are able to improve
their perceptiveness greatly over a period of time. I found that the Eskimos in north Alaska, for
example, would point out “hills” in what looked like perfectly flat tundra. After months of hunting
and traveling with them, however, I could see these “hills” quite easily. [Nelson 1983: 90-91]
But this is almost a paradox: if familiarity with the environment is
fundamental, how can one hunt in unknown territory? The problem must have
arisen more during the first human migrations than for more recent hunter-
gatherers: while the latter tend to exploit in rotation or alternation relatively close
territories that are traditionally well-known, the former must have found
M. Meschiari, Roots of the Savage Mind, «Quaderni di Semantica», 2/09 (in press).
themselves in totally unknown environments. For these explorers, the individual
experience of one life or the collective experience passed down for generations
proved to be partially useless (Kelly [2003]). If we combine with this factor the
low numerical density of human groups in the Upper Paleolithic and the hostile
environmental conditions in Europe and America during the Ice Age, imagining a
colonization by simple expansion is somewhat reductive: the risks of failure were
too high. Studies of Neolithic diffusion have shown, however, that the first
groups of colonists tended to choose places that were morphologically and
ecologically similar to those of origin, as if a desire for familiar territory
influenced their decision (Fiedel - Anthony [2003]). But even that does not
explain how humans could act in unfamiliar places, seen for the first time; we
must attempt to understand the cognitive strategies that were put into action to
transform the disadvantage of an unknown terrain, whose ecological system and
particularities were alien, into an immediately usable resource (Rockman - Steele
[2003]). One plausible hypothesis is that Homo sapiens sapiens, and perhaps
even his predecessors, superimposed known environmental models on unknown
places in order to feel “at home” even in a foreign land, and in order to move in
unfamiliar terrain with a greater sense of security. This could have also come
from a fundamental faculty of language: naming, describing and outlining the new
domesticated it (Sanga [1997a, 1997b]). In more general terms, it would have
been like projecting a mental map of their own territory onto a new country,
stochastically adjusting as they explored (Golledge [2003]). The need to imagine,
think and talk about an unknown place through the lens of a known one that
resembles it has been sporadically documented in ethnography, as in the case of
the Wola of Papua New Guinea:
The mention of a place’s name can conjure up its attendant physical geography. It can serve to
represent a landscape type and substitutes for a technical description. Reference to the place called
Paym in a topographical context for example, will suggest a relatively level valley pocket and all
that this implies physically, whereas citing the locale of Pongtenda will suggest karts terrain, and
so on. When they relate events and tell stories, the Wola frequently depict the terrain featuring in
the narrative by referring to somewhere like it known to all those listening, sometimes suffixing
the place name with the word nonbiy or “like”. [Sillitoe 1996: 112]
But this behavior, culturally supported by language and toponymy, has
much deeper neurophysiological roots, if it is true that even today we experience
déjà vu in places that we have never been before, or that we perceive as vaguely
familiar a place that we are seeing for the very first time (Benozzo [2004];
Meschiari [2008b]). The following account by Robert Kelly takes us right to the
heart of apophenic phenomena:
[…] at the 1990 International Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies (CHAGS) in Alaska
I was listening to a paper on northern Scandinavia. The slide that was projected had been taken
from a boat facing the shoreline, and it showed a wide expanse of water with a very low terrestrial
horizon that I perceived as “flat”. Two Inuit from northern Canada entered the session after the
speaker had been introduced and, after looking at the slide a few moments, asked me if the paper
was about a particular place on the north Canadian coast. When I replied no, one commented to
the other that the hill in the photo looked just like a particular place near the MacKenzie Delta. I
M. Meschiari, Roots of the Savage Mind, «Quaderni di Semantica», 2/09 (in press).
had to look again at the slide to see, indeed, a slight rise in the middle of the photo that to me was
meaningless as a topographic marker. [Kelly 2003: 49]
Like Richard Nelson, Robert Kelly is amazed by the perceptive faculties
of the Inuit, but what is interesting for our purposes is that the Scandinavian coast
was mistaken by the Inuit for the Canadian coast: this is a clear example of
landscape apophenia, by which an unknown territory is interpreted as a familiar
territory based on a random morphological resemblance. This example contains a
whole range of inductive possibilities that illustrates the advantage, in
evolutionary terms, of “seeing” familiar places in places that in reality are not
familiar at all: 1) similar habitats are treated as the same habitat (efficient strategy
from an ecological point of view); 2) geomorphological similitude activates
wayfinding and stalking abilities used in analogous places (efficient strategy from
a topographical point of view); 3) similar sites are likely to reproduce previously
observed phenomena (a probable, possible or unlikely event, such as the sudden
appearance of an animal near a stream—probable; in a clearing—possible; at the
site that resembles the one where an animal was killed—unlikely). The basic idea
is the same as the one already described for more elementary biological
imagination: better to act in doubt than to not act at all.
c) Apprenticeship and magical landscape: For a hunter-gatherer,
knowing the landscape is a life-long process, but it is during childhood that the
cognitive strategies on which he (or she) will depend later in life are activated
(Hewlett - Lamb [2005]). Before learning to hunt, the child familiarizes himself
with the hunting terrain, and in particular: 1) develops topographical awareness of
the territory, distinguishing confines, areas of transition, thresholds, barriers, etc.,
and using landmarks to organize his perception of space; 2) memorizes itineraries,
distances, how long it takes to get from one place to another and strategies of
spatial navigation and local orientation; 3) assimilates biogeographical
competencies on the distribution and the associated dynamics of plant and animal
species; 4) learns to recognize ecosytemic connections between the catalogue of
familiar places, plant, animal and geological taxonomies, weather and climatic
typologies, etc.; 5) connects the stories and mythological tales of the group to
specific places; 6) fills himself with generally unconscious strategies that help him
interpret an unknown landscape through the individual exploratory experience and
the cultural heritage of the group, for example hunting stories, or the language
itself, which can be “landscape oriented”, meaning that it is partially organized on
a geographical structure (see below). But, once again, to these abilities must be
added the glue of imagination, which creates cross connections that are more or
less real, more or less advantageous, between different sorts of phenomena. The
Wola of the plateaus of Papua New Guinea, for example, demonstrate outstanding
competence in the area of folkgeology, which is the foundation of a cultural
landscape in which topography and imagination are based on one another:
[…] while disinterested in the origins of rocks and lacking to my knowledge any theory or myth-
equivalent about how they came to be or how they relate one to another, the Wola are fully aware
of the different kinds of rocks that outcrop across the surface of their region, and their properties.
M. Meschiari, Roots of the Savage Mind, «Quaderni di Semantica», 2/09 (in press).
[…] Regardless of their variety, the Wola make few terminological distinctions between
limestones. The exceptions relate to the state of the rock, not its type. They distinguish rotten
powdery limestone, found in dump locations (for instance, limestone buried in wet soil) or where
pieces of fractured limestone have ground pulverulently together (for instance along a fault line),
calling it haen hok. […] The soft and friable calcareous mudstones and siltstones are also haen
hok. […] The Wola perceive a connection between the rocks that predominate in any area, notably
whether sedimentary or volcanic, and its landscape [… and] appreciate in some measure that the
different geologies, although imperfectly understood, exert some control over the landforms that
they can see. […] While the Wola may not exploit the rocks of their region to any great extent, its
geology has impressed itself in other ways on their culture. They associate some of the countless
potholes that occur throughout the limestone for example, with spirit forces, particularly those
containing a deep pool of water. [Sillitoe 1996: 127, 129, 120-121]
At the basis of hunter-gatherers’ landscape-oriented behaviors—even
those characterized by a very structured cultural envelope—there exist innate
cognitive modules: wayfinding, cognitive mapping, categorical impulse. While
the last of these seems to be unique to our species, we share the first two with
other primates (Bicca-Marques - Garber [2004]; Strier [2007]). In general, these
modules allow us to internalize in complex spatial representations a wide range
of ecological information, and therefore can be described as truly imaginative
activity. But the imagination comes in through other ways as well, ways that
seem to be in logical contrast, or in weak relation, to the body of “realistic”
knowledge acquired in the landscape:
All humans dream, of course, and many dreams are experienced as an escape from the boundaries
of everyday life. But for hunters, the dream experience is real. The events of the dream are relied
upon as a guide to trails and the location of animals. In this way, dreaming is also an actual hunt or
a phase of gathering. For many hunter-gatherers dreams are a form of decision making. Along
with other forms of insight and intuition, hunters use dreams to help them decide where to hunt,
when to go there, and what to hunt. These decisions can be matters of life and death; they certainly
make the difference, day to day, between an adequate and an inadequate supply of essential food.
[…] To make these decisions, hunters need knowledge. They must bear in mind all the facts that
inform the choice. […] But a listing of facts is not enough. […] In the end, there is a need for
some other kind of knowledge, some leap of the imagination, some way of processing the facts so
that they yield a conclusion. [Brody 2000: 247, 248]
Nocturnal dreams (REM sleep), shamanic dreams (altered states of
consciousness, visions) and waking dreams (rêverie, day dream, hypnosis,
hallucination) are all cut from the same cognitive fabric; but to understand the
evolutionary relevance of the imagination, it is useful to refer to the mental
development of a child, who even before experiencing cultural imprinting, begins
to create imaginary causal connections between perceived phenomena. If in fact,
on the one hand, the child seems to possess a sort of innate intuitive physics that
helps him to grasp the connections between mass, position and movements of
solids, on the other it is well known that children tend to develop a magical
conception of the world in which the causal connections are invented (Corrigan -
Denton [1996]; Harris [2000]; Schlottmann [2001]). The cognitive usefulness of
this “false” knowledge can be understood based on Jean Piaget’s concept of
“realism”, that is, “the confusion of thought and things, or of me and the outside
world” [2005: 128]:
M. Meschiari, Roots of the Savage Mind, «Quaderni di Semantica», 2/09 (in press).
from the moment that realism consists of considering as belonging to things and as emanating
from things that which, in fact, is the result of activity itself, it goes without saying that activity
itself is conceived, in turn, as plunging immediately into things and as being all-powerful over
them. [Piaget 2005: 131]
While avoiding the trap that compels us to homologate ontogeny and
phylogeny, it can be agreed upon that the imagination satisfies a fundamental
psychological need of active control over reality, which, above all, is the most
immediate and direct response to the cognitive urgency to make out meaningful
and positive connections between things. This need of meaning, fed by magical
thought, finds its clearest adaptive reason precisely in the context of hunting: a
“believing” hunter—who mentally evokes the animal in order to push it into a
trap, who speaks to it in order to calm it and convince it not to flee, who thinks
about it intensely in order to make it appear exactly where he expects it, who
trusts “supernatural” signs—is actually more optimistic and persistent than the
“skeptical” hunter. And in this sense apophenia plays a consistent role: if the
tracks are indistinct, I must use my imagination to complete them and deduce the
direction of the animal—perhaps I will be wrong, but if I do not do it I will never
know; if a rustling in the underbrush sounds like an animal passing by, I will
freeze and stay silent—maybe I am wrong, but if I continue walking and make
noise, I may spook a potential kill; if the shadows of dusk inhibit my vision and I
think I see a familiar shape, I prepare to shoot—I could be wrong, but if I do not
draw the bow and the animal is really there, I will have lost the advantage. The
hunter suffers from a referential obsession (Piaget’s “logical and ontological
egocentrism”) which compels him to interpret the natural realm in which he is
immersed in a centripetal and predetermined way. It is an obsession that can also
drift toward internal confabulation, the perception of “external voices” that guide
the action, and trance and hallucination. It is therefore not unthinkable that
schizophrenia is not simply a cerebral error, but the extreme vestige of an
adaptive tendency that was advantageous for hunter-gatherers, an idea that seems
to be partially confirmed by ethnographic literature linking shamanism and mental
illness (Silverman [1967]; Noll [1983]; Lex [1984]; Winkelman [2000]; Krippner
- Combs [2002]; Polimeni - Reiss [2002]; El-Mallakh [2006]).
The generator of belief which Wolpert [2006] discusses, and which the
author justifies in many ways, could be the evolutionary result of more than two
million years of hunting and gathering. In hunting phenomenology—beyond the
necessary ecological competence—all of the qualities that constitute belief come
into play, without exception: 1) certitude of one’s own knowledge and judgment;
2) willingness, when faced with a dilemma, to accept solutions that are immediate
and “evident” rather than rational and statistically proven; 3) representativeness,
according to which something new is judged based on its correspondence with
what is already known, and on the presupposition that that which is similar is
connected; 4) anchorage in personal and traditional knowledge that function as
postulates from which to draw conclusions; 5) self-deception, as constructions of
perceptions, ideas and cultural structures that are imaginary but endowed with a
certain practical efficacy. This is a summary in the words of a Cree hunter:
M. Meschiari, Roots of the Savage Mind, «Quaderni di Semantica», 2/09 (in press).
“In the past, animals talked to people. In a sense, there is still communication between animals and
hunters. You can predict where the black bear is likely to den. Even though the black bear zigzags
before retreating into his den to hibernate, tries to shake you off his trail, you can still predict
where he is likely to go to. When he approaches his den entrance, he makes tracks backwards,
loses his tracks in the bush, and makes a long detour before coming into the den. The hunter tries
to think what the bear is thinking. The hunter and the bear have parallel knowledge, and they share
that knowledge. So in a sense they communicate”. [Berkes 1999: 80]
The reading of the ecological semiosphere is interpreted by the hunter as a
semi-intentional communication between different species. This imagined
projection, as I will illustrate in the next section, is the main connective tissue
between ecosystem and cosmology, and is the element that explains the animism
of hunter-gatherers, not in speculative or psychological terms, but in evolutionary
and adaptive terms.
d) Spiritual attention and sacred ecology: The Cree of James Bay, Canada
believe that it is animals, not humans, that control the success of the hunt. The
animals observe the humans and know their every activity, and this compels the
hunter to fulfill certain obligations to them, in a relational system that extends the
principle of reciprocity to the non-human world. Passive partner in this
reciprocity, humans must tempt the animal into being captured, and the best way
of doing this is to show it respect: the more widespread and prompt the respect
shown, the more likely the animal is to concede. This produces gestures of
spiritual attention that permeate the hunter’s entire sphere of action:
The Cree say that the main reason for showing respect to animals is that humans and animals are
related, they share the same Creator. Just as one respects other persons, one respects animals. Cree
culture is rich with rituals related to respect. Among the Chisasibi Cree, respect for the animal is
shown in several ways: the hunter maintains an attitude of humility when going hunting; the
animal is approached and killed with respect; the animal is carried respectfully to camp; offerings
are made to the animal; the meat is butchered according to rules signifying respect; the meat is
consumed according to rules signifying respect; the remains of the animal are disposed of
properly. [Berkes 1999: 83-84]
From this point of view, the world is considered a community of beings in
which cosmological and ecological systems tend to coincide, but it is clear that
the “Creator” functions as a normative closure of a highly regulated daily practice.
The analytical itinerary, however, goes from the biological to the cultural:
humility and respect in the quest for and the killing of the animal are
psychological projections of more elementary strategies of caution and silence in
the activity of predation; the respectful transport of the animal to the camp is
another means of maintaining a vigilant attitude in order to avoid frightening a
potential prey on the return path; butchering and consuming the meat according to
strict rules does not have only social repercussions (showing respect toward
certain members of the group, reinforcing community bonds, satisfying the
reciprocity of the gift), but, as with the disposal of the remains, it satisfies the
primary demand of reducing to a minimum the traces of the butchering, the meals,
and the waste, so as to avoid attracting possible predators and to leave the place as
M. Meschiari, Roots of the Savage Mind, «Quaderni di Semantica», 2/09 (in press).
it was prior to the hunt. Even the offering made to the animal is the symbolic
reinforcement of a biological preoccupation: reciprocity serves the purpose of
rectifying the offense of the killing and alleviating the hunter of what he
experiences as a psychological responsibility, but more than that, it represents the
basic ritual gesture that renews the awareness of something that is much more
than a utilitarian quid pro quo of the ecosystem. Tim Ingold makes this
observation about circumpolar cultures:
The world of this ‘animic’ understanding is home to innumerable beings whose presence is
manifested in this form or that, each engaged in the project of forging a life in the way peculiar to
its kind. But in order to live, every such being must constantly draw upon the vitality of others. A
complex network of reciprocal interdependence, based on the give and take of substance, care and
vital force – the latter often envisioned as one of several kinds of spirit or soul – extends
throughout the cosmos, linking human, animal, and all other forms of life. [Ingold 2000: 113]
It could be said, then, that the intuition of an ecological homeostasis and
the necessity of sustainable conduct translate into a system of rules and beliefs,
the so-called “sacred ecology” (Berkes [1999]; Krech [1999]; Menzies [2006];
Haen - Wilk [2006]; Harkin - Lewis [2007]), in which magical imagination plays
a connective role in the passage from the biological to the cultural. If, in effect,
we analyze the way in which the hunter thinks about landscape, somewhere
between innate prerogative and traditionally acquired cultural structures, we can
understand the original connection between apophenia, magical thought and
symbolic thought, and their fundamental ecological role. The holistic
representation of the cosmos concerns not only the realm of living beings, but also
the inanimate world, or better yet, it extends to the inanimate world certain
qualities of living beings, in a animistic conception of geomorphology. This is
observed especially in landscape creation myths, and not only in those universally
known of the Australian Aboriginals (Munn [1984]; Layton 1995]; Morphy
[1991, 1995]; Fullagar - Head [1999]; Layton [1999]; Smith [1999]). It is the
case, for example, among the Plateau Indians of British Columbia:
To Indians, those geological transformations were the work of Coyote, culture hero and slayer of
fire-snorting monsters. He carved the rivers Snake and Columbia, which served Indians as
gateways to buffalo-rich grasslands (eastward) and the trade-promising seacoast (to the west).
Along their river valleys, he created shoals, narrows and marshes, with natural pools and spills that
rose steplike into higher elevations. […] The true events of mythic times made this land and
peopled it with these spirits. Plateau Indian stories told of the rock near present-day town of
Nelson, in southeastern British Columbia, which contained the imprints of Grandfather, who
helped Coyote perform his earth-transforming deeds; the boulder that another superhuman being
made from a young mountain lion’s heart; the thermal spa where Four Brothers boiled meat in a
“pot” between the Kootenai and Columbia rivers, thereby creating the streams that flow in
opposite directions and wrap their streaming “veins” around the world, which sometimes bubbled
up into hot springs for the benefits of human health and pleasure. [Nabokov 2006: 150, 153]
And among the Koyukon of Alaska:
The scope of Distant Time stories ranges from the minute to the cosmological. […] Features of the
earth, such as prominent hills or mountains, are also given some accounting in these stories. For
example, a hill near Huslia is called “Giant’s Firemakers” (Yiłkuh tł aala’), because it was formed
M. Meschiari, Roots of the Savage Mind, «Quaderni di Semantica», 2/09 (in press).
when a giant man lost his flints there. […] Near the upper reaches of the Nulitna (Nolaaytna)
River, for example, there is an area covered with sand dunes. Scattered among the dunes are many
depressions (perhaps twenty-five feet deep), said to be permanent despite constant shifting of the
sands. These were made by two giant men who fought the possession of the dunes, making huge
footprints in the sand as they wrestled. […] The landscape is also filled with other associations,
many of them supernatural powers that lurk near certain places or emanated from them. [Nelson
1983: 16-17, 34]
It has been observed that among the Wola of New Guinea, there are no
recorded myths about the origins of land forms, but there is no lack of connections
between geology and the supernatural:
At a place in the Was valley called Simborolbombok, there are some caves high above the river
where local inhabitants say the spirits of the deceased reside, those who suffer violent deaths going
to the left and others to the right hand caves. Some geological formations add to the awesomeness
of the mountainous Wola homeland. The foregoing spirit caves for instance are adjacent to a
massive rock arch across the river which is used as a bridge, the crossing of which involves a
thrilling climb up notched logs until you are perched tens of meters above the thundering river
below, when you scramble using root handholds up a steep slope high onto the opposite bank.
Other geological features associated with limestone include rock pinnacle and cliffs weathered to
weird shapes, standing up like enormous jagged teeth. [Sillitoe 1996: 121]
In this case, more than ethnographic information, we notice the point of
view of the ethnographer, who is struck by “weird shapes” and who unwittingly
reproduces the associative process that he attributes to the Wola. In other words,
whether you come from England or Papua New Guinea, from the twentieth
century or the Upper Paleolithic, geomorphological curiosities universally trigger
an apophenic mechanism and stimulate an etiological explanation. This
explanation may be mythical, narrative or folkloric, or it may be based in an
intuitive science. But it may also have repercussions in the scientific field, such
as in the case of Archaeology of Natural Places, when the researcher attempts to
identify possible cult sites in a natural landscape while observing landmarks. As
in the case of the Saami of Norway:
The sacrificial sites are generally known as siejddes. They are nearly all places that seem to be
distinguished from the surrounding landscape by their striking topography. […] The siejddes are
often characterised by rock formations that bear a certain resemblance to humans, animals or
birds. These features were retained in their original forms and the shapes of these outcrops were
never changed. […] They might be particularly massive or they could be an unusual colour. Some
of the most distinctive were blocks that had been split open during cold weather to provide fissures
or natural portals leading into the surface of the rock. [Bradley 2000: 6]
These notable morphologies, which we could call “geophanies, illustrate
perfectly the cultural role that apophenia can play in the construction of a sacred
geology, and though the phenomenon transcends the universe of hunter-gatherers,
it nevertheless occupies an important position in the process that leads the hunter
to weave an imaginary cultural web over the hunting ground. Marek Zvelebil,
proposing a comparative study of the ethnographic culture of the Ket of
Podkamennaya Tunguzka, the Namforsen culture of Sweden (5500-1500 B.C.)
and the mesolithic culture of Olenii Osrtov in Karelia (5500 B.C.), created a
M. Meschiari, Roots of the Savage Mind, «Quaderni di Semantica», 2/09 (in press).
model of the ritual landscape of sub-Artic hunter-gatherers from the Paleolithic to
the present. His synthesis is relevant:
[…] practical landscapes are also ritual landscapes. Practical activities are embedded in a broader
framework of ideology and ritual; profane time is linked to ritual time. Cosmology and ritual
impose a web of meaning on the landscape, and in its turn, landscape enculturated through
symbolism and ritual plays a role in the processes of social production and reproduction. There is
now an extensive ethnographic record of hunter-gatherers using feature of a landscape as a means
of communications, as claims to ownership, as structures of meaning and as structures of power.
Such social strategies are usually legitimised through ritual and by reference to cosmology and
mythology, where ancestors play a major role. Ritual landscapes then, possess symbolic, ancestral
and temporal significance, which is complementary to, and dialectically interactive with, the
practical, economic landscapes. [Zvelebil 1996: 36]
We must add that, if the interpretive framework is correct, sacred ecology,
geomorphological animism and sacred geography are coherent cultural responses
to the demands of the hunter-gatherer: helping him experience and think about the
hunting grounds with confidence and self-control, they accompany him at all
times and through all actions with information and strategies that are highly
effective in both the short and long term. But Zvelebil’s model neglects the
evolutionary dimension: are these culturally acquired cognitive structures, or can
we trace a genetic path in the ecological and cosmological behavior of hunter-
gatherers? In other words, are there elements that allow us to affirm that the
problems landscape has posed for Homo in terms of survival and adaptation have
contributed to sculpting his brain in function of culturally processed behaviors?
e) Cognitive mapping and Cognitive landscaping: Until now I have
discussed mainly apophenic episodes, or at the most, apophenic chains.
Discussing sacred geology is another thing. We are accustomed to believing that
complex cultural structures are the result of social invention, but it is not absurd to
attempt to trace the innate matrix of certain highly structured landscape-based
behaviors. In fact, if we closely analyze the universal mechanisms of wayfinding
and cognitive mapping, we can argue that it is precisely upon these
neurocognitive structures that the construction of cultural landscape is based. In
particular, landscape, as it is both perceived and experienced, is organized on: 1)
landmarks, or notable points in the environment that aid in the absolute and
relative localization between humans and place and between place and place; 2)
paths, or itineraries of interconnection between sites, places, areas, etc.; 3) homing
(path integration), or the faculty of reversing the order of data gathered along a
traveled path in order to return to the point of departure, integrating topographic
references and travel times; 4) piloting, or the faculty of reaching a destination
that is not directly perceived by constructing a sequence of previously noted
places and landmarks; 5) chunking, or dividing the itinerary into easily
memorized pieces; 6) schemata, or generic cognitive strategies that because they
are useful in memorizing recurring spatial structures and objects in their context,
serve to compensate for a potential lack of perceptive information; 7) cognitive
mapping, or the internal representation of the external world through codification
and memorization of spatial information (Golledge [1993, 2003]).
M. Meschiari, Roots of the Savage Mind, «Quaderni di Semantica», 2/09 (in press).
The effectiveness and frequency of use of these skills vary considerably
from individual to individual and from culture to culture, but anyone is capable of
developing them through experience and the right training (see for example the
case reported by Nelson [1983: 90-91] on the perception of landmarks). Their
universality leads us to believe that they are the genetic response to a given
context that is primarily environmental, and secondly, social. In particular, the
noticeable differences in strategies of orientation that exist between modern day
men and women are interpreted by evolutionary psychologists as an adaptation to
different relationships with space that the division of roles brought about during
archaic times: a hunter had to develop macro-territorial skills while a woman
dedicated to gathering tended to refine detailed knowledge on a reduced scale
(Tooby - Cosmides [1992]; Lowton et al. [1996]). The neurocognitve faculties in
points 1-5 are shared by other primates and mammals, which seems to be proven
by the capacity for wayfinding in certain monkeys (Bicca-Marques - Garber
[2004]), while for the purposes of this discussion, point 7 merits further
Cognitive mapping is a controversial topic because there currently exists
no proof that the brain organizes acquired spatial skills into anything similar to a
map. The expression “cognitive map” tends to be considered, rather, as a useful
metaphor to designate the cerebral activity that processes spatial information
stored in the memory (Golledge [2003: 30]). Nevertheless, certain recent studies
have localized two distinct and complementary areas in the brain that play a role
in the recognition of places, and that are therefore directly involved in wayfinding
and cognitive mapping. These two areas are the Parahippocampal Place Area
(PPA) and the Retrospenial Cortex (RSC), the former linked to the perception and
codification of spatial structure of places both familiar and unknown, the latter to
topographic memory and long term spatial knowledge, in particular of familiar
places (Epstein et al. [1999, 2007]). We should add that the PPA tends to react
better to images of closed spaces, while the RCS reacts positively to images of
open, expansive spaces (Henderson et al. [2007, 2008]). Finally, these areas are
equally activated in the presence of visual stimuli as when the subject is asked to
mentally visualize a place, which means that visual perception of places and their
imagined representation (mental imagery) are products of the same cerebral areas
(O’Craven - Kanwisher [2000]). This data provides the starting point to interpret
cognitive mapping less metaphorically than we were able to until very recently. It
is fairly plausible that while the PPA is the cerebral area most qualified to
perceive, process and recognize static data like landmarks, paths and fixed
topographic structures, the RSC seems qualified to preside over a series of
mnemonic type operations, such as homing, piloting, chunking and schemata. In
this sense, cognitive mapping could be described as the operative and dynamic
process that integrates representation of places (PPA) and topographic memory
(RSC), in an internalized model in which the temporal and spatial relationships
between the parts are based on what has been defined as a “geometric model”
(Cheng [1986]). Therefore, something less than a mind organized like a map, but
something more than a simple spatial metaphor.
In any case, it is worth noting that based on this complex cognitive system,
M. Meschiari, Roots of the Savage Mind, «Quaderni di Semantica», 2/09 (in press).
the most complex and culturally diversified landscape behaviors of Homo sapiens
sapiens can be explained. In effect, it is not as important that cognitive mapping
is a way in which the brain is “really” internally organized, as it is that the brain
developed a specific topographic-topologic module to deal with environmental
problems. Moreover, if ethnographic and palethnologic literature reports
numerous cases of wayfinding and cognitive mapping in which the landscape is
known with topographic awareness and competence (see for example Spink -
Moodie [1972]; Conkey [1984]; Jones - Eliza [1986]; Brody [1988]; Francis -
Kelley [2005]), just as numerous are the examples in which the importance
accorded to the landscape extends beyond the ecosystemic-cosmological sphere.
My hypothesis is that environmental pressure provided Homo with a specialized
cognitive structure to solve problems linked to spatial comprehension of the
ecosystem, that is, the principle problems in the two million years of human
history. But in Homo sapiens sapiens, for a sort of functional co-optation
(exaptation), this “landscape module”, at the time the module of complexity par
excellence, was reused to confront other complex realities, and in general to
organize (in a landscape-based way) knowledge. For this reason I am compelled
to talk about “cognitive landscaping”, a universal faculty documented by
numerous ethnographic and archaeological examples in which real topography
becomes a matrix of topological thought that applies to other spheres of reality.
As Shepard says, “nature functions as a syntax” [1998a: 145]:
The entire Koyukon system of geographic orientation is based on rivers, not on the compass points
used by Westerners. […] Direction and distance on land are reckoned by a complex of terms
meaning upriver, downriver, toward the river, away from the river, and across the river. […] Other
features are also described by reference to the large rivers – for example, a lake has a shore toward
the river, a shore away from the river, and upriver and downriver shores. This is only a basic
summary of a complex and sophisticated system for geographic location and mental mapping. The
system combines locational terms, including the elemental ones above, with hundreds of specific
place names known by Koyukon adults and elders. Besides these reference points, people develop
their own mental maps of regional topography during their lifetime. [Nelson 1983: 36]
The hydrographic structure of the Koyukon territory is thus a grid that
spatially organizes their geographic, ecological and spiritual knowledge. But
there are cases in which different semantic horizons tend to overlap, as in the case
of the body and the landscape:
The early apprehension of anatomical form and function served to configure ancient man’s
perception of the world. Anatomical form remains a salient organizing system even in cultural
categorizations that have little or no apparent connection with anatomy. […] The organization of
the mammalian body provides a basis for intellectual organization, and anatomical analogies and
reasoning are found in all cultures. […] The Aleuts and the Eskimos are able to state position very
precisely. This is done by means of demonstratives and postpositions, so that position, relative
position, relative level, invisible position (invisible to the speaker), dawn on the water, upward on
the land and toward the interior, and enclosure or house position (the one farthest back or nearest
the entrance, etc.) can be deftly depicted. This habitual concern with position is expressed in
internal anatomy as easily as in external geography. [Laughlin 2004: 150, 172, 156]
The confusion of levels is meaningful: anatomy is a model for thinking
M. Meschiari, Roots of the Savage Mind, «Quaderni di Semantica», 2/09 (in press).
about other organized realities, like landscape, but in turn landscape is a model for
thinking about anatomy (in addition to the Australian examples previously cited,
see also Bastien [1985] and Alinei [2008: 259]). Places of the body and the body
of places are, in effect, the matrix of universally diffused mythological thought,
but are also the first and most immediate form of analogical thought, a
protostructure that sets the mind on the path towards complexity. We should, for
example, reread the important observations of Dorothy Lee on non-lineal thought,
from a fully landscape point of view. Studying the language of the Trobriand
islanders, Lee noticed the absence of lineal thought in the spatial, temporal,
causal, dynamic and narrative. The non-lineal codification of reality is manifested
in a language that is at once disparate and centripetal, in which the word “refers to
a self-contained concept”, with no adjectives, predicates, prepositions or
conjunctions. It is no coincidence that the most exhaustive examples provided by
Lee regard the perception of space and cognitive mapping:
A Trobriander does not speak of roads either as connecting two points, or as running from point to
point. His paths are self-contained, named as independent units; they are not to and from, they are
at. And he himself is at; he has no equivalent for our to or from. There is, for instance, the myth of
Tudava, who goes – in our view – from village to village and from island to island planting and
offering yams. […] Point after point is enumerated, but his sailing from and to is given as a
discrete event. [Lee 1950: 94]
Malinowski diagrams the garden site as a square piece of land subdivided into squares; the
Trobrianders refer to it in the same terms as those which they use in referring to a village – a bulky
object or an aggregate of bumps. When the plots in the garden site are apportioned to the
gardeners, the named plots are assigned by name, the others by location along each named side of
the garden. After this, the inner plots, the “belly” of the garden, are apportioned. [Lee 1950: 94]
In a spell naming villages on the main island, there is a long list of villages that lie along the coast
northward, then westward around the island, then south. To us, of course, this is lineal order. But
we have no indication that the Trobrianders see other than geographical location, point after point,
as they move over a physically continuous area; the line as a guide to procedure is not necessarily
implied. No terms are used here which might be taken as an implication of continuity; no “along
the coast” or “around” or “northward”. [Lee 1950: 94]
The negative definition (“non-lineal”) and the ethnographic description,
which tends to emphasize the absence of something, give the false impression of a
cognitive void, as if the Trobrianders reason “in pieces” and perceive their world
as an aggregate of monads suspended in nothingness. If, on the other hand, we
recognize that languages are never completely arbitrary, but can be “landscape-
oriented”, as in the case of the Inuit or Apache, then Lee’s “non-lineal” could be
substituted by this same term. In other words, the Trobrianders have worked out
an ideological and linguistic representation of their environment that, influenced
by insular geography and by the spatially circumscribed activity of horticulture,
leads them to interpret the landscape (and all of reality, for that matter) as a
centripetal space, closed in on itself. In this closed space, the continuum was not
made discreet by known points and connecting lines (which are more effective on
a continental scale or in the context of hunting), but was seen as a mass of spots
(the vegetable plots?), in which there was a natural and spontaneous relationship
M. Meschiari, Roots of the Savage Mind, «Quaderni di Semantica», 2/09 (in press).
of juxtaposition between the spots, the parts, the objects and the action. In the
third part of this essay I will discuss the linguistic aspects of the founding of a
cultural landscape, but here it is sufficient to observe that topography and ways of
using the land can permeate the most varied aspects of a culture.
The last series of examples, taken from archaeology, are rich and complex,
and therefore merit a separate discussion (Meschiari [2004]). We have already
encountered the case of Archaeology of Natural Places (Bradley [2000]), where
noticeable topographic reliefs were endowed with an extra symbolic meaning that
made them excellent landmarks. These natural shrines were not modified by
humans, but the mere fact of frequenting them and connecting them with other
noted sites by walking from one to the other, contributed to the creation of a
sacred geography, carved out of the land and full of concrete implications for the
daily life of the individual (Tilley [1994, 2004]). At times, however, the need for
more explicit intervention was felt, and the land was marked with stones, bones,
rock art (Steinbring et al. [1992]; Smith [1994]; Bradley [1997]; Faulstich [1997];
Nash - Chippendale [2002]; Chippendale - Nash [2004]), or ditches (Norman -
Kelly [2004]), thus demonstrating the desire to semantically redirect landscape
and to frame it in a conceptual system. In Chukotka, in a circular bay of high
cliffs, on the grass of the meadows above, fifteen groups of Greenland whale
skulls were discovered, planted vertically, 20-22 meters away from one another,
with a fixed alternation of groups of two and four skulls, as well as an avenue of
monoliths, a rock amphitheater, ritual paths and stone altars (Arutjunov et al.
[1983]; Malaurie [1986, 2008]; Krupnik [1987]). In Bohuslän, Sweden, the rocky
summit of a hill presents petroglyphs of watercraft that, as a metonymy of water,
record the desire to transform the terrestrial elevation into an island, or a threshold
to another world (Bradley [2000]). Though they differed from culture to culture,
the primary motive for these behaviors was the same: imposing a network of
anecdotal, narrative, mythical and cosmological references on the physical world
helped the hunter-gatherers memorize and use the cognitive map of the territory
on which their survival depended. And vice versa ecological knowledge was
the spontaneous and infinitely fertile substrate of every invention.
The brain of Homo evolved to think about landscape and to think of reality
as landscape, while hunting functioned as the stimulus and the imprint of this
fundamental cognitive module. From apophenia to Bohuslän, the levels of
complexity and abstraction are certainly many, but that does not mean that the
scholar’s work remains a mere linguistic exercise. Wayfinding and cognitive
mapping are the biological substrate of the symbolic organization of space, but
although they are substantially supported by a genetic platform, they only work
because they are qualitative and imagined experiences. For as much as we are
accustomed to a western, mathematical topography, in reality we come from a
more archaic and universal “fuzzy” topology (Golledge [2003]), in which space is
thought of, felt and imagined on the basis of empirical and psychological
coordinates such as “density”, “sparseness”, “nearness”, “remoteness”,
“similarity”, “difference”, “closure”, “openness”, “uniformity”, “fragmentation”,
“danger”, “security”, “pleasantness”, “unpleasantness”, etc. The ethnographic
M. Meschiari, Roots of the Savage Mind, «Quaderni di Semantica», 2/09 (in press).
examples to support these qualitative landscape experiences are numerous, as in
the case of the Australian aboriginals, who are given to distinguishing places by
“safe” and “dangerous”. Safety and danger are a direct result of the Time of
Dreams and not of real environmental characteristics, but from this imaginary
geographic taxonomy derive very concrete consequences on the dynamic
perception of the territory, on who has access to certain places and how, on
kinship structure, and on conceptions linked to the birth of individuals (Biernoff
[1978]). Gaston Bachelard [1957] stated it definitively: we construct our value
system on dialectic topology. But to understand the deeper reason, he would have
had to interview a hunter. Many years ago now, William S. Laughlin observed:
While learning to learn, man, the hunter, was learning animal behavior and anatomy, including his
own. He domesticated himself first and then turned to other animals and to plants. In this sense,
hunting was the school of learning that made the human species self-taught. [Laughlin 1968: 320]
Some of the ethnographic examples given previously emphasize the
central position of language in the construction of cultural landscape. Certainly
ecosystem taxonomies, topographic descriptions, toponymy, etiological
interpretations and myths about the origins of ancestral lands would not exist
without language. But as I point out, it is not only a matter of representation:
language functions as a perceptive lens that allows us to penetrate the nuances of
certain phenomena and sketch a cognitive network in which these phenomena
tend to be spatially ordered. From the hypotheses of Sapir [1983] and Worf
[1956] to the ethnopragmatics of Duranti [2007], we are accustomed to thinking
of language as a way of structuring perception and knowledge, but it is rare that
the accent is placed on the spatializing power of lexicon, morphology and syntax.
If, as Bachelard [1957] asserted, the image is the spatialization of an idea, we
could say that when language evokes, qualifies and organizes images (which is, in
practice, always), it is a thought in space and of space. However, although it is
rather obvious to assume that different world visions correspond to different
deictic systems (Ballester [2006]), it is not as easy to accept the idea that the
relationship between space and language is not as arbitrary and conventional as
we are accustomed to believe. Without slipping into a linguistic
“geodeterminism”, we must nevertheless recognize that landscape seems to have
provided language with a structuring model (see in particular Basso [1988, 1996];
Tersis - Therrien [1996]; Senft [1997]; Benozzo [2008]; Burenhult - Levinson
[2008]; Brown [2008]; Burenhult [2008]; Cablitz [2008]; Enfield [2008];
Levinson [2008]; O’Connor - Kroefges [2008]; O’Meara - Bohnemeyer [2008];
Tamisari [2002, 2008]; Thornton [2008]; Widlok [2008]), as opposed to the
common idea that language culturally precedes the perception of the environment
(Sapir [1983]). And perhaps the first “syntax” was what hominids and Homo had
right in front of them for four million years, that is, the ecosystem in its
spatialized form, a sort of cognitive “model” that, even before the advent of
language, helped to organize thought.
M. Meschiari, Roots of the Savage Mind, «Quaderni di Semantica», 2/09 (in press).
Among the many glottogenetic theories, one of the most in vogue is the
one that links the origin of language and the invention of stone tools (Alinei
[1996a, 1996b, 1997b]; D’Errico - Blackwell [2005]; Costa [2007]). Recent
studies have shown that the fabrication of Olduwan and Acheulean tools by
modern experts activate the equivalent of the Broca area in the right cerebral
hemisphere, and more generally other areas that are directly involved in the use of
language, which suggests that the two activities share the same neurocognitive
bases (Stout et al. [2008]). The cerebral areas that process spatial data from the
environment are more ancient than those of language, but we must not dismiss the
possibility that, in a hunting and gathering context, advantageous cognitive and
co-evolutionary interferences were created between “areas of language” and
“areas of landscape”. This hypothesis seems to be encouraged by the existence of
ethnographic languages based on the landscape, or languages that being made for
interpreting landscape, derive their very structure from it. In order to understand
the difference between languages that are generically “attentive” to landscape and
languages that are effectively modeled on it, there are two initial examples worth
The Wola name different kinds of soil according to observed properties (such as colour, texture,
moisture, stoniness and so on), and they can combine and modify these endlessly to build up
descriptive classes, referring to “some of this and some of that” and so on (for example hundbiy
sha araytol onduwp as opposed to hundbiy araytol or hundbiy tongom momonuw araytol haeruw,
which broadly translate “very stony bright-brownish clay” as opposed to “stony bright-brown
clay” or “stony bright-brown with gleyed-clay” etc.). [Sillitoe 1996: 272-273]
Although the territory and subsistence life took place far inland from the Hudson Bay coast, their
language – Inuktitut – had a pre-existing geographical concept that organized and oriented the
landscape according to the location of the ocean in relation to the flow of the drainage system.
This concept, as represented by the binary terms kangilliq/killiq, is embedded in the place names
of the Harvaqtuurmiut area. […] According to Schneider [1985: 139] kangilliq means “thing that
is further inland than another.” Fortescue et al. [1994: 157] agree with this definition and add that
the root kangi means “bottom of bay, direction towards land, source of river.” Schneider [1985:
139] gives the meaning of killiq as “what is furthest toward the sea (opposite of kangilliq).” [Keith
2004: 52]
While in the case of the Wola the need for a phenomenological
classification is satisfied through a specialized lexicon and an elementary
combinatory strategy, in the case of the Harvaqtuurmiut, landscape permeates the
language so deeply that it completely escapes the awareness of the speaker. The
kangilliq/killiq pair is amply diffused in the Inuit language and is but a minor
example of the remarkable geographical complexity that characterizes it: linguists
have not only highlighted aspects such as the variable classification of Inuit
deictics and the relativity — embedded in the morphosyntax — of the orientation
of the speaker based on the land/sea axis, the axis of the winds or the transverse
axis of the coast (Fortescue [1988]), but they have also recognized that
endocentric and exocentric functions of localization or orientation are attributed
even to single vowel and consonant phonemes. In the case of the Tunumiisut of
eastern Greenland, for example, the vowels I, U, and A, when inserted in like
morphemes where the consonant remains the same (-pi-, -pu-, -pa-; -ti-, -tu-, -ta-)
M. Meschiari, Roots of the Savage Mind, «Quaderni di Semantica», 2/09 (in press).
systematically assume a different spatial meaning, indicating, respectively,
permanence, nearness and farness (Tersis [1996]). Here is another eloquent
example from the Western Apache of Arizona:
[…] the study of place-name systems reveal a great deal about the cognitive categories with which
environmental phenomena are organized and understood. […] By way of illustration, consider the
following place-names, which have been segmented into their gross morphological constituents.
Tséé Biká’ Tú Yaahilįné: Tséé (rock, stone) + Biká’ (on top of it; a flattish object) + (water) +
Yaa- (downward) + -hi- (linear succession of regularly repeated movements) + -lį- (it flows) + -
(the one). Translation: Water Flows Down On A Succession Of Flat Rocks. […]
Tséé Hadigaiyé: Tséé (rock, stone) + Ha- (up and out) + -di- (extends in a line) + -gai- (white,
whiteness) + -yé (the one). Translation: Line Of White Rocks Extends Up And Out. [Basso 1996:
44, 46]
Why do the Apache so faithfully evoke a site? Is it only a matter of a
phenomenological perspective, like that of the Wola, or are there more complex
reasons that explain this analytical rendering?
Place-names are used in all forms of Apache storytelling as situating devices, as conventionalized
verbal instruments for locating narrated events at and in physical settings where the events
occurred. Thus, instead of describing these settings discursively, an Apache storyteller can simply
employ their names, and Apache listeners, whether they have visited the sites or not, are able to
imagine in some details how they might appear. […] Western Apache place-names provide more
than precise depictions of the sites to which the names refer. In addition, place-names implicitly
identify positions for viewing these locations: optimal vantage points, so to speak, from which the
sites can be observed, clearly and unmistakably, just as their names depict them. To picture a site
from its name, then, requires that one imagine it as if standing or sitting at a particular spot, and it
is to these privileged positions, Apaches say, that the images evoked by place-names cause them to
travel in their minds [Basso 1996: 47, 89].
The connection between language and landscape could not be more
complex because it traverses various cognitive levels: 1) naming as topographical
narration, 2) linguistic images as evocation of an invisible place, 3) place-names
as landmarks of a real or virtual cognitive map. Like the Inuit pair
kangilliq/killiq, Apache place names serve a wayfinding function, whereby
orientation is not only topographical, but also topological, meaning that they help
to situate the speaker and the listener in a symbolic geography that can extend to
other spheres, such as myth or social structure. Among the Yolngu of the Land of
Arnhem, for example, there are toponyms and anthro-toponyms, that is names of
places and names of people that express their geographical and mythical location:
while the ancestral beings were forming the shapes of the land, they were
simultaneously naming them, thus, for the Yolngu terrestrial morphopoiesis and
linguistic morphopoiesis are considered one in the same. In this sense, the names
of a single person or of a group imply a substantial commonality with an ancestral
place, and help to situate man in a precise geographical, totemic, patrilineal and
social context (Tamisari [2002, 2008]). It is important to emphasize that it is not a
matter of simply incorporating place into name, but in a fully cosmological sense,
the conceptual vector is perceived by the Aboriginals as a gemmation of the name
by the landscape. We find a similar conception among the Umeda of the central
M. Meschiari, Roots of the Savage Mind, «Quaderni di Semantica», 2/09 (in press).
plains of Papua New Guinea who, like the Kaluli studied by Field [1982], can be
defined as an “auditory culture” in which soundscape is central to the mental
ecosystem. For the Umeda, a name is the sound of that which it designates, or
better yet, it is “the shape in articulatory/acoustic space” (Gell [1995: 232])
produced by the thing. The result is a linguistic system wherein the arbitrary
nature of the sign (Saussure [1916]) is reduced, either because of the high
presence of onomatopoeia, or because the entire language is considered
onomatopoeic. But in the Umeda language there is also a phonological
“rationalization” that seems led by topological/topographic axes derived from the
Lacking a visual landscape, what the Umeda have instead, I would say, is a ‘landscape of
articulation’, a landscape which is accessible, primordially, in the acoustic modality. This
landscape is constructed out of the interface between two kinds of experience; distally it comprises
a codification of ambient sound, this is a soundscape, proximally it comprises the basic unifying
armature of the body as a sounding cavity […]. The fundamental schema of Umeda phonological
symbolism can be derived from the following basic mapping. Front (alveolar) consonants are
associated with centrality (edie = man, edie = middle, edtodna = male/central moiety), while velar
(back) consonants are associated with peripherality (agwa = woman, aga = ear, agea =
arm/branch, agwatodna = female/peripheral moiety). […] The above/below axis is linked to the
phonological contrast between the low/back vowels ‘u’ and ‘o’ and the high/front vowels ‘a’ and
‘i’. If we start from the top we have the empyrean (pai). The stars are painauf. […] The bush,
which is ‘low’ in relation to the village, is sugut. The lowest part of the bush are swamps: pud.
[Gell 1995: 240-241, 243]
The idea, therefore, is one of a co-fusion between language and the world
that carries a permanent exchange of fluids between the two horizons: language as
landscape, landscape as language, in a feedback system in which perception and
representation follow one another in a circular motion. Perhaps the scientific
confirmation of the existence of a “linguistic cognitive landscaping” can only be
provided by what has been defined as “Neuroarchaeology of the Mind”
(Malafouris - Renfrew [2008]), but I maintain that some of the observations made
in this essay, in particular those on apophenia, can have a direct effect on
glottogenetic and ethnolinguisitc theories. The Umeda language, for example,
could be described in terms of auditory apophenia, because words are allusively
and analogically charged with every sound from the external world, defining their
sonorous boundaries and conferring on them a greater substantiality in acoustic
space. In the same way, visual apophenia seems to be an important vehicle in the
linguistic production of images.
I had occasion to observe this in an experiment conducted on my students,
which consisted of projecting images likely to be apophenically interpreted.
Some photographs were less “legible” than others, so much so that only a few
students “saw” the hidden figure. However, once the object to be distinguished
was named, the percentage of recognition increased considerably, proving that
language, though not strictly necessary, contributed in a determining way to
apophenic recognition. As the French psychologist Pierre Kaufmann observed
[1967: 219] of the Rorschach test, the emergence of the act of representation is
not simply a perception that the designation of the object follows: in reality, the
M. Meschiari, Roots of the Savage Mind, «Quaderni di Semantica», 2/09 (in press).
two moments are simultaneous. The word, therefore, does not “indicate” the
thing, but it is consubstantial to its perception. Another example of how, at the
evolutionary level, language may have supported and, in turn, been supported by
pre-existing neurocognitive faculties, and at the operational level, how apophenia
can function as an “index fossil” to anchor research in historical linguistics and
ethnolinguistics to the neurocognitive dimension.
In particular, I believe that apophenia plays a considerable role in what is
traditionally called “lexical motivation”, and which Mario Alinei calls “iconymy”,
that is, the recycling of pre-existing words to designate a new referent through
metaphorical and metonymical association (Alinei [1997a, 2003]). It is precisely
in these arbitrary associations that resides the motivation for re-use, and at times
the roots of such re-use are less arbitrary than they seem. If, for example, in the
Franco-Cantabrian region a man of the Upper Paleolithic saw animals in the rocky
morphology of a cave, they were generally horses and bison (rather than giraffes
and hippopotamus) because the ecological context and the cultural superstructures
pre-selected the range of possible associations. This “surplus value”, as Alinei
calls it, that is the ideological-cultural-motivational meaning of the word that the
linguist must be able to reconstruct, is what in anthropology is called
“ethnological context”, which allows us to inscribe a single cultural fact in the
total system of the culture being studied. Nevertheless, apophenia is a mode of
perception/representation that, beyond any given culture, photographs the genesis
of the imagination at a primary and universal stage. In the field of “etymological
archaeology”, Alinei has pointed out numerous examples of what in my opinion
can be interpreted as obvious cases of apophenic motivation:
1) European names for “rainbow” can have zoomorphic references and
mean “dragon” (Albanian ylber), “snake” (Lithuanian smākas), “green belly”
(Latvian delvērdze), “earth worm” (German in Italy regenwurm), “black cow”
(Slovenian mavrica), “an ox and a cow” (Komi öškamöška), “yellow weasel”
(Kalmyk solŋg), “(ox) horn” (Basque ortzederra), “intestine of the sky” (Zachur,
North Caucasian /han ‘ewur/), “fox’s belt” (Khvarsci, North Caucasian /zar ‘us
œšu/). The rainbow can also be linked to the action of drinking: “pump”
(Romanian curcubu, Hungarian szivárvány), “trunk (that sucks)” (Lithuanian
straublys), “drinker” (Udmurt vujuis). All of these interpretations of a natural
phenomenon are seen in European and extra-European ethnographic contexts and
connect the lexical motivation of the rainbow to a gigantic (mythical?) animal that
drinks water and returns it in the form of rain (Alinei [1996a: 693-695]).
2) Certain Neolithic tools such as the “shovel”, the “hoe”, and the
“serrated sickle” could be “seen” by ancient farmers in the outline of the Alps, as
attested by numerous Italian toponyms, such as “Pale di San Martino”, “Pizzo
Badile”, “Sappada”, “Serra”, “Resegone”, etc. (Alinei [2000: 846-852]).
3) The Latin word pratum (meadow) has no etymology, but it can be
linked, through the Ligurian prau, to pilatum (bald), in juxtaposition to the “veil”
of the forest in an ideological-cultural context retro-datable to the Neolithic
herders of the Ligurian area. For these shepherds the meadow may have
resembled the sheered parts of the sheep, or the fact that they practiced burning to
obtain pasture land was seen by the shepherds as a sheering of the woods.
M. Meschiari, Roots of the Savage Mind, «Quaderni di Semantica», 2/09 (in press).
Inversely the French pelouse (lawn) comes from the Latin pelosa (hairy),
probably in reference to the fur of an animal (Alinei [2000: 961], [2009]).
4) The Latin lama means “marsh, bog, pond” and generated the
dialectical Italian lama, lamare, lamatura, slamare, meaning “swamp land,
landslide, inundate, etc.”. But the Latin làmia means “dragon, monster, feminine
serpent” and may be at the origin of a morphological association between curving
bodies of water, pebbly river banks, landslides and avalanche corridors on the one
hand, and dragons and enormous snakes on the other (Alinei [1989]).
5) The Latin meridies (noon) means in almost all of Italy “shady place” or
“resting spot”, while south of Tevere it is transformed into morra, which can
mean both “flock” and “pile of rocks”. This semantic diffraction can only be
explained in apophenic terms, because observing “the flock that rests at noon, all
huddled together, and with the sheep that hide their heads under the body of their
neighbour, the inevitable effect for the person who sees it from afar, given the
color of the sheep, is that of a pile of rocks” (Alinei [2009]).
In all the examples given, landscape forms are devoid of independent
significance but are “recognized” based on apophenic motivation, according to
morphological similarities that refer to other environmental and material realities.
On the linguistic front, it seems therefore that apophenia participates in a
phenomenology of imaginative production, acting as the neurophysiological
vehicle of a basic etiology, whose founding moment is the act of naming (places,
animals and people). The implications for glottogony, ethnolinguistics and
iconymy are varied: 1) as a stem cell of causal thought for images, apophenia may
have played an important role in shaping and encouraging the linguistic behavior
of Homo; 2) its potential evolutionary importance can be traced to the fact that
auditory apophenia is heavily involved in babbling, in particular when an adult
thinks he recognizes words or fragments of words in random chains of syllables
uttered by a baby, and encourages correct division and pronunciation by
emphasizing and repeating certain parts of them; 3) the connection between
apophenia and language is further confirmed by neurocognitive studies on
reading, and in particular by the fact that the Visual Word Form Area, before
being re-used for the recognition of letters, evolved for “reading” natural forms
(tracks, places, faces), based on analogical procedures similar to those of
apophenia (Cohen et al. [2000]; Cohen - Dehaene [2004]; Dehaene [2003];
Dehaene et al. [2005]); 4) apophenia can be simple or complex, can define pairs
or chains of like images, or can support entire isomorphic systems, as in the case
of parallelism-homology between body and landscape. The fact that some groups,
such as the Inuit, the Australian aboriginals or the inhabitants of the Marquesas
Islands embed language in an isomorphic landscape/body/language system
suggests that apophenia is the elementary basis of a more complex analogical
mode of thought. This implies that 5) apophenia as ideological motivation
should be part of the interpretive framework of ethnolinguistic analysis; 6)
apophenia as lexical motivation should be systematically explored in the fields of
etymology and toponymy.
M. Meschiari, Roots of the Savage Mind, «Quaderni di Semantica», 2/09 (in press).
Apophenia, visions, dreams, hallucinations, rêverie, wayfinding, cognitive
mapping, sacred geography, etiology and creation myths all find in landscape an
ultimate coherent space, at the confluence of fundamental horizons such as
physiology and neurophysiology, linguistics and cognitive linguistics, ecology
and geomorphology. The fact that certain cultures have developed conceptions on
the basis of which the body, language, and place are overlapping universes is
reason for reflection. For these peoples landscape accommodates not only a
corporal dimension, but also an intrinsic linguistic dimension. In other words,
language is in the landscape, or simply is the landscape, in a closed system where
the landscape is body and language, language is body and landscape, the body is
language and landscape. Glottogony, cosmogony and human origins thus belong
to a single mythical flux that words, in their narrative dimension, keep in motion.
Regardless of the most complex of cultural disguises, this is a profound cognitive
structure in which the permanent exchange of fluids between “earthscape”,
“bodyscape”, and “tonguescape” (Meschiari [2008a, 2008d] is the historical and
logical prius of the savage mind, that is, ours. Body, landscape and language,
reflecting one another, are the primary paradigm of our species to interpret the
complexity of reality.
The Italian text of this article, as well as quotations from sources in French, was translated by Ann
Kilgo. The author would like to thank Mario Alinei and Francesco Benozzo for their helpful
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Full-text available
"Not our houses, but our brains are haunted" G. M. Beard, 1879 (p. 67) Guidebooks to haunted places usually organize their contents according to geographic criteria or to the main types of "paranormal" events a visitor is invited to expect. This chapter is intended as an introductory guide to the most frequently and thoroughly haunted site, indeed, the cradle from which all hauntings ultimately emerge. It is the human brain. Localization criteria seem premature. Although we know a great deal more about the functional neuroanatomy of psychotic and paranormal belief than we did a century ago, when the American neurologist George Beard wrote about the topic (Beard, 1879; see Brown, 1983 for a review and bibliography), we are still far from being able to pinpoint, in a physical sense, those brain loci giving ghosts a permanent housing. Nevertheless, as cognitive neuroscience enters the 21st century, it is increasingly successful in identifying interactions between distributed neural systems and the experience of and the beliefs in forces whose origins some of us project into the outside world.
These essays by one of leading scholars in this field bring together a body of influential and inter-linked work which attempts to bridge the divide between cultural and cognitive studies of classification, and which develops a more embedded and processual approach. In particular, the essays focus on people's categorization of natural kinds as a means through which to obtain an understanding of how classifying behavior in general works, engaging with the ideas of both anthropologists and psychologists. The theoretical background is set out in an entirely new and substantial introduction, which also provides a comprehensive and systematic review of developments in cognitive and social anthropology since 1960 as these have impacted on classification studies. In short, it constitutes a useful and approachable introduction to its subject.