Everyone continued to look toward the beach. I heard Kristene, my six-year-old daughter, at my side.
"What are they looking at, Daddy?"
"I dont know. I cant see anything."
Kris stood on her toes and peered across the river. Then at me. Then at the Pirahãs. She was as puzzled as I was.
Kristene and I left the Pirahãs and walked back into our house. What had I just witnessed? Over the more than two decades since that summer morning, I have tried to come to grips with the significance of how two cultures, my European-based culture and the Pirahãs culture, could see reality so differently. I could never have proved to the Pirahãs that the beach was empty. Nor could they have convinced me that there was anything, much less a spirit, on it.
As a scientist, objectivity is one of my most deeply held values. If we could just try harder, I once thought, surely we could each see the world as others see it and learn to respect one anothers views more readily. But as I learned from the Pirahãs, our expectations, our culture, and our experiences can render even perceptions of the environment nearly incommensurable cross-culturally.
The Pirahãs say different things when they leave my hut at night on their way to bed. Sometimes they just say, "Im going." But frequently they use an expression that, though surprising at first, has come to be one of my favorite ways of saying good night: "Dont sleep, there are snakes." The Pirahãs say this for two reasons. First, they believe that by sleeping less they can "harden themselves," a value they all share. Second, they know that danger is all around them in the jungle and that sleeping soundly can leave one defenseless from attack by any of the numerous predators around the village. The Pirahãs laugh and talk a good part of the night. They dont sleep much at one time. Rarely have I heard the village completely quiet at night or noticed someone sleeping for several hours straight. I have learned so much from the Pirahãs over the years. But this is perhaps my favorite lesson. Sure, life is hard and there is plenty of danger. And it might make us lose some sleep from time to time. But enjoy it.
Life goes on.
I went to the Pirahãs when I was twenty-six years old. Now I am old enough to receive senior discounts. I gave them my youth. I have contracted malaria many times. I remember several occasions on which the Pirahãs or others threatened my life. I have carried more heavy boxes, bags, and barrels on my back through the jungle than I care to remember. But my grandchildren all know the Pirahãs. My children are who they are in part because of the Pirahãs. And I can look at some of those old men (old like me) who once threatened to kill me and recognize some of the dearest friends I have ever hadmen who would now risk their lives for me.
This book is about the lessons I have learned over three decades of studying and living with the Pirahãs, a time in which I have tried my best to comprehend how they see, understand, and talk about the world and to transmit these lessons to my scientific colleagues. This journey has taken me to many places of astounding beauty and into many situations I would rather not have entered. But I am so glad that I made the journeyit has given me precious and valuable insights into the nature of life, language, and thought that could not have been learned any other way.
The Pirahãs have shown me that there is dignity and deep satisfaction in facing life and death without the comfort of heaven or the fear of hell and in sailing toward the great abyss with a smile. I have learned these things from the Pirahãs, and I will be grateful to them as long as I live.
Excerpted from Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes by Daniel L. Everett Copyright © 2008 by Daniel L. Everett. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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