The Fifth World

Ancestors

We live in the world that our ancestors made. Every family praises their ancestors for that. We know that they often made mistakes. We see the legacies of those mistakes around us. That doesn’t change the honor we give to our ancestors, though. We live in paradise, in the center of the universe, and we have our ancestors to thank for that. We hope that one day we will join them, and when we do that we will leave a world for our descendants that seems even better for our having dwelled in it.

Sometimes we speak of our ancestors as a collective group, the line of our predecessors going back to the beginning. However, we also honor specific individuals, our ancestors, who had an enduring effect on our world. They do not belong to our living family, or even our recent past among the names we invoke when we trace our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents to determine how we relate to another person. Somewhere, though, in a hazy hinterland between the people recent enough to reckon direct kinship, and people so ancient that we have forgotten altogether, we find the individuals that we honor as ancestors.

Some families revere their ancestors more than others. We all see the ways in which our ancestors sustain us. Their bodies have become the soil and grown into the plants that become the animals we hunt. I have visited some families that say that their ancestors live again as feral pigs, returned to feed their descendants.

People in the Fifth World have a deeper concern with relationship than genealogy, and so when they speak of their ancestors, they mean more precisely those who have shaped the world in which they live, regardless of their genealogical relationship. In Animism: Respecting the Living World, Graham Harvey writes:

[I]n those cultures in which they are significant, the term ‘ancestors’ is most often used to refer to specific, named individuals and not merely to some amorphous and vague conglomeration of all who have died. Merely genealogical interest is not enough, it can be vitally important to know and use the names of ancestors in addressing them. To be an ancestor is to continue relating.

In The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, Tim Ingold provides an example from the Chewong of Malaysia, noting that for them an ancestor

was an ordinary human predecessor whose activity, in this case of planting a tree, left an enduring token in the landscape. But his contribution to successors was not to hand anything down by way of substance or memory (thereby converting ‘successors’ into ‘descendants’); it was rather to play a small part, along with the innumerable other beings  —  human, animal, spiritual — that have inhabited the forest at one time or another, in creating the environment in which people now live, and from which they draw their sense of being. Passing by the fruit tree, contemporary Chewong may be reminded of the ancestor’s erstwhile presence and deeds, but it is in such acts of remembrance, not in any transmitted endowment carried in their bodies and minds, that he lives on.

The Nayaka of Tamil Nadu in southern India refer to their immediate forebears as well as geographical features like hills, rivers, and rocks in the forest as dod appa (“big father”) and dod awa (“big mother”). Anthropologists, relying on the genealogical model, typically split this into a system of “fictive kinship” that cannot possibly have anything but a metaphorical connection to real kinship. “But the people themselves,” Ingold writes, “for whom there is no anomaly, are telling us something quite different. It is that the role of parents is not, as the genealogical model implies, to pass on to their offspring the essential specifications of personhood in advance of their entry into the lifeworld, but rather — by their presence, their activities and the nurturance they provide — to establish the necessary conditions in the environment for their children’s growth and development. This is what kinship is all about.”

Ingold goes on with further examples from Australian aborigines and the Ojibwe who claim as ancestors various beings who could not possibly have contributed genetic material to modern human populations, like the sun (a grandfather to the Ojibwe). Most anthropologists simply dismiss these claims as primitive myths and superstitions, but Ingold illustrates how, if we take indigenous claims seriously, we can see a different model of ancestry at work here. The relational model defines ancestors not in terms of biology, but in terms of relationship. It cares very little for genetic makeup, genealogy, or bloodlines. Instead it cares deeply about the relationships that define and create us and the world around us.

Graham Harvey writes about the Wari’ in Brazil, who believe that their ancestors come back again and again as white-lipped peccaries to feed their descendants. Like the dod appa and dod awa of the Nayaka, anthropologists dismissed this as mere mythology, missing that under the relational model this did not describe a primitive superstition but a sophisticated conservation ethic.

Indigenous people around the world define themselves not in terms of genealogical descent, but in terms of relationship to the land and in terms of their relationships to others through the land. Tim Ingold writes:

Every being, in the course of its life history, works in the first place to keep the progenerative process going rather than to secure its own procreative replacement. Thus there is no opposition, here, between history and land. Both carry the same intrinsic temporality. Woven like a tapestry from the lives of its inhabitants, the land is not so much a stage for the enactment of history, or a surface on which it is inscribed, as history congealed. And just as kinship is geography, so the lives of persons and the histories of their relationships can be traced in the textures of the land.

Less well known to the people of the Fifth World, though, they live in a world just as profoundly shaped by a sort of negative ancestry discussed in the page on survivorship bias. Besides the ways in which the ancestors shaped the world by dwelling in it, it has also not gone done many other possible paths because of those people who did not dwell in it.