Were one to ask the people one meets in the street in any given city in the West how they picture their first ancestors, some might say they were a man and a woman created by God, living in a lush green garden; others would reply that as we came from the monkeys, surely they were dumb and ferocious creatures. Contrary opinions of other scientists notwithstanding, since Darwin the hairy savage brandishing his club has become an accepted way of depicting our early forefathers. A steady stream of literature, popular and scholarly, still keeps this simplistic image alive in the public mind. A work like: A Personal Investigation African Genesis into the Animal Origins and Nature of Man by Robert Ardrey, for instance, propounds that not only did man evolve from the simians but he was innately aggressive, for only a "killer ape" could survive the hostile conditions of prehistoric times. And if we lash out, physically or verbally, it is but a more subtle way, it seems, of swinging a thighbone or snarling. We may have conquered nature and walked on the moon, but that primal aggression is supposedly undiminished, though naturally somewhat suppressed in our domesticated environment.
Peoples in various parts of the globe who do not share our technological lifestyle we call primitive, a word that has acquired a denigrating connotation instead of just describing something or someone "of the earliest age or period." Just a few hundred years ago there was even serious debate as to whether such 'heathens' were really human beings or some type of animal. Currently their humanhood is no longer denied, but they figure low on the scale of civilized esteem. If they are docile and peaceloving, they are "innocent children of nature"; if fierce and warlike, all the more proof man started out as a bloodthirsty brute.
Ideas once established are usually no longer questioned as to their veracity, but when they are, often they show themselves to be clichés, founded on half-truths to begin with. As for our supposed angry-ape ancestry, another light is cast on it if we turn to Africa, now considered the cradle of mankind, for here we find evidence of a very different nature among its most primitive and oldest living inhabitants: the Bush-men and the Pygmies.
The Bushmen have been extensively studied for the last hundred years, but perhaps no one has brought them closer to us than Laurens van der Post in his sympathetic writings and lectures. These little people, as their rockpaintings and skeletal remains indicate, once roamed over wide sections of Africa, but under Hottentot and Bantu pressure they have had to retreat farther and farther into the inhospitable interior. Only the tribes in the Kalahari Desert and in the northeastern part of South Africa have been able to cling to their traditional ways. Living and hunting in small bands, a hand-to-mouth existence keeps them forever on the move. Apart from their hunting gear and typical decorated ostrich eggs, used as food and water containers, they have few possessions. A simple shelter, a fire, and a skin cape are their only protection against scorching sun and chill winter night.
Far from being unreasoning savages, however, they are thoroughly cooperative human beings who live together in almost complete harmony. Scarcity and hardship, instead of making every man fight for his rights, have led them to share whatever they have. As the individual's well-being is inextricably involved with that of the group, they are devoid of any sense of competition, a quality deemed so basic to the functioning of our society that we no longer recognize its divisive effect on us. The Bushmen have a horror of violence and cruelty, even to animals, and despise bad temper — something the stress-ridden metropolitan takes for granted. Despite the fact that magic is considered the precursor of religion and should, to all intents and purposes, be rife among these 'primitives,' it is actually a great deal less prevalent than among the more 'developed' Bantu, and mainly confined to healing and rainmaking ceremonies.
Although the religious ideas of the Bushmen vary slightly from one district to another, some of their concepts show a link-up with the universal wisdom traditions. We know, for one thing, that they hold that there is a governing Force of Life, the creator of all of nature, of which they themselves form a part. As for man's composite being, the esoteric wisdom teaches that our divine aspect is a spark of our parent star and that it instantly returns to its source at death, while the spirit and the soul must travel their own path to enter a state of rest and assimilation. The Bushmen believe that the stars are great hunters, and that the heart of the human hunter is also the heart of a star, and when a man dies, his death is announced by a shooting star. Some of them think the souls go to the "skyhut" where they remain with God, who after a while "again makes living beings out of them," ( I. Schapera, The Khoisan Peoples of South Africa, p. 169) which would point to their being familiar with the idea of rebirth.
The Bushmen's myths, often seemingly simple animal stories as might be expected from a nation of hunters, show motifs common to myths all over the world. The awakening of mind in man, for example (something that took place many millions of years ago), is frequently symbolized by the theft of fire. The Bushmen have their own version, in which the God Mantis, represented as the little 'praying' insect, steals the precious substance from the ostrich (who keeps it safely in his armpit) by tricking the big bird into opening its wings. Like other fire thieves, Mantis has to suffer for his audacity, for the fire burns him to a cinder. Out of his bones and ashes two new Mantises are formed, one of whom is gentle (or wise perhaps) and stays in the background while the other and active brother has to face all the challenges — an allegorical way of depicting the division into higher and lower mind after humanity had gained self-consciousness.
Brotherhood is a living reality to the Bushman in all his thinking and acting, for he feels totally at one with nature and the cosmos. His relationship with the stars is a mutual one, for not only does he know them but they know him. He hears their voices which make a "ringing" sound, forming what equally sensitive metaphysicians of a different background have called the "Harmonies of the Spheres." So close is his kinship that he speaks of Grandmother Sirius and Grandmother Canopus. Yet in his scheme of things there is room also for the less evolved, and even though they may be repulsive, they are never judged for their ugliness, for doesn't Brother Vulture share in the flow of life as much as the sun, the wind and the Bushman himself? (Laurens van der Post, The Heart of the Hunter, Hogarth Press, London, 1961; pp. 166-8, 200)
The Pygmies, whose archaic origins are swathed in myth, are held to be still more primitive than the Bushmen in that they do not even make fire by friction or employ traps or snares when hunting — for lack of intelligence, it is thought. Yet they do not know crime or perversion and there is no record of any Pygmy ever killing another one. They live in accordance with a highly ethical code of conduct, given them by their God.
Homer and Herodotus, as well as other classical Greek and Roman authors, referred to the "pygmaioi" (literally "fistlets"), but the West did not become actively aware of their existence until George Schweinfurth, much to his delight, came upon them unexpectedly during his African travels between 1868 and 1871. Since then they have formed a study object for the anthropologist, but as many live in close relationship with surrounding Bantu tribes, it is not always easy to differentiate between their original customs and those adopted from their neighbors. In the case of groups which remained in the heart of the forest, their very inaccessibility and their own wariness have precluded too much inquiry. Someone who did dare approach them was Jean-Pierre Hallet, a Belgian agronomist, who spent eighteen months among them in 1957-58, and has shared his experiences in his bestsellers, movies and personal appearances. A man of great courage and compassion, he now devotes his entire time and energy to preserving the rapidly dwindling Efe Pygmy population from extinction.
That the Pygmies have not done anything to improve the material quality of their life is due to their ethics, not because they are incapable of invention. They do not use traps or snares as this is "wasteful and unmanly." In their "Eighteen Sins of Man" six ecological rules are included which forbid wanton slaughter of animals, wasting food, fouling water, cutting the tall trees, setting traps for animals and eating eggs, which are like "seeds of life." (Jean-Pierre Hallet with Alex Pelle, Pygmy Kitabu, pp. 475-6.) These restrictions have enabled them to preserve for perhaps thousands of years the forest which is like a father and mother to them. The Pygmies do not approve of the use of firesticks because fire they consider to be sacred. Since it was created by God, man is only to preserve it, as to make it would be defiance of God. They therefore carry their fire with them from one encampment to the next.
Like the Hopi Indians who, after the last purifying earth cataclysm, chose to inhabit the least fertile land in America's Southwest in order to remain untainted by materialism, the Pygmies too have made a deliberate renunciation. As they told Mr. Hallet: "Our ancestors, the men of the first ages, were rich and powerful. They lived in great villages. They used wonderful tools. They worked miracles. These things did not make them happy." (Ibid., pp. 120-1.) Indeed, they caused calamities evidently, for their traditions say that the misuse of fire led to a great starvation. Eventually the cultural hero, Efe, with some other Pygmies, left the ancestral home in a boat. Thereafter they gave up all material prosperity, only to live for the real values, their philosophy being that "If you give a piece of your heart to things that you own, you cannot love people with all your heart. We love and take care of people, not things." (Ibid., p. 120)
These racial memories cannot be dismissed as so much wild fantasy on the part of a group of unintelligent savages. In the first place, though uneducated in our sense of the word, they are not, as generally thought, unable to learn. In the previous century Count Miniscalchi brought up two Pygmy boys in Verona, Italy. "Affectionate and appreciative pupils," Tebo and Chairallah spoke fluent Italian and "passed tests in composition, arithmetic, grammatical analysis and dictation." Tebo learned to play the piano (Armand de Quatrefages de Breau, The Pygmies, pp. 181-3). Jean-Pierre Hallet succeeded in teaching his Pygmy friends to read and write and speak French" (Jean-Pierre Hallet with Alex Pelle, Congo Kitabu, pp. 302-3). The Pygmies have an extensive pharmacopeia and refer to Saturn as the planet of the nine moons.
That Efe crossed a vast water in a boat, which moved without any visible means of locomotion, and invented all the arts and sciences, such as working metals and making pottery — things that are patently absent today — would suggest that the Pygmies are of a very ancient culture, instead of being a totally primitive people who originated and forever remained in the tropical forests. Their legends of a "killer cold," which came suddenly, and their knowledge of "far away frozen countries," (Pygmy Kitabu, p. 326) would only confirm this.
Landmasses rise and fall over aeons of time, and when the continent and island-complex now called Atlantis (its true name being no longer known) began to sink — a process believed to have taken several million years — there was a steady exodus from the threatened areas to newly emerged territory. Especially toward the end of the Atlantean era, when its inhabitants had become intensely degenerate, people who could no longer go along with the general trend may well have been prompted to seek a new and better world, denouncing all that formerly had seemed advantageous in favor of a purer way of life. The Pygmy legends seem to point to their ancestors having made just such a choice.
The Pygmies too are remarkably pure in regard to magic and witchcraft, so prevalent among surrounding tribes. Colin M. Turnbull, who traveled with a band of Pygmies for some time, mentions an incident of a family practicing hunting magic. The other members of the band condemned them as totally antisocial and selfish: why should they have all the luck for themselves while others might go without game? By common consent the magic ingredients were thrown into the fire.
Like the Bushmen, the Pygmies link their inborn divine aspects with the stars. The universe and all it contains, they believe, is animated by the vital force of the deity, and man's essence, spiritual fire, is a part of this. At death, this fire returns to God in the heavens, where it becomes a star, and if the person has led a good life, his star will shine brightly. Before the Pygmies were made to bury their dead, they used to erect funeral pyres, as the fire "separates the parts of a person," (ibid., p. 394) for they too see man as a composite entity. The lower personality does not survive after death, but the balimo or higher self journeys to the lunar angel (a kind of heavenly father), who in time produces a new human being, meting out its lifetime and determining whether it will be a man or a woman. He rarely brings together again exactly the same components as before, so that each human being is, as it were, a fresh creation with no memory of its previous existence.
The supreme deity (who is actually a trinity) is never depicted in any form, for his ineffable image cannot be captured. He created the world with a single word and since then has been maintaining and regulating all life. Originally dwelling among men, their trespasses caused him to retreat, though in the spirit he has always remained with his Pygmy people.
The ethical and spiritual standards of the Pygmies and Bushmen make it necessary that we reexamine our idea of the primitive. The contrast between their inner wholeness and our own alienation and destructiveness would suggest that amid material progress and plenty there can be a type of primitivism more difficult to eradicate than a mere lack of education and technology. Of late, the word traditional is often used in preference to primitive, designating thereby societies still living by their sometimes archaic traditions. Mircea Eliade includes in this category (which he also calls premodern) both those "usually known as 'primitive' and the ancient cultures of Asia, Europe and America." (Mircea Eliade, The Myth of Eternal Return or Cosmos and History, p. 3.) This author, well known for his perceptive works on mythology, sees the difference between modern and premodern or traditional man as springing from two distinct states of consciousness; whereas present-day Westerners regard themselves as a product of rectilinear progressive history, ancient and primitive peoples experience life as cyclic, an ever-repeating pattern of cosmic events, changing and yet forever unchanged since primordial times.
Rather than never having developed, some of these societies are remnants of nations or races which reached their peak of material evolution long ago and are now on the downward cycle, for like human beings races and nations are born, mature, have their heyday and go into decline. Individual man, however, despite a weakening body can experience in his old age a flowering of the spirit, inconceivable while in full vigor and meeting day-to-day exigencies — something that only occurs in people of unselfish and aspiring nature, otherwise there will be just a waning of energies and faculties. So too with nations and races: those which have not grown beyond gross pursuits and have not kept their wisdom teachings unadulterated, will decay and degenerate. Literalization then soon gives rise to aberrations such as human sacrifices and sorcery; the Aztecs, whose massive bloodbaths shocked the hardened Spaniards, are an illustration in point. But the best of the traditionals who have kept their spiritual heritage intact and emphasized its inner values, can and do enjoy such a spiritual blooming.
Two facts stand out: first, our culture is entirely geared to technology and cannot simply 'go back to nature.' Moreover, we must follow our own avenue of evolvement and, perhaps, our more mental approach is right for us at this time — if we do not lose sight of the things of the spirit. In the second place, some of the traditional peoples may indeed have reached the end of their lifespan. There is no merit in trying to turn the clock back or reserve the form as such when the spirit clearly needs a fresh vehicle of expression. But if so, we can well leave this in the hands of nature, for she will act in her own way with infinite justice and mercy, whereas our interference causes nothing but suffering. For one reason or another, the aboriginal populations are rapidly disappearing and if we continue to wreak havoc with their ways of life, not only do we add to our own already heavy burden of karma, but also we may deprive ourselves of something of value. For it is remarkable that at this period of choice — when we can either persist in the mismanagement of our environment and perish, or change our aims and make our planet livable again — so many new insights should come to us about the way traditional societies the world over see their relationship with earth and the cosmos. Sometimes distinguished men in their own hierarchies have revealed these for the specific purpose of making them available to us now when we are most in need. If we ignore the message, we may well have turned a deaf ear to a life-saving secret flowing from the lips of a dying man.
(From Sunrise magazine, October, 1976. Copyright © 1976 by Theosophical University Press)