“…They are of simple manners and trustworthy, and very generous with everything they have, refusing no one who asks for anything they may possess, and even themselves inviting us to ask for things. They show greater love for all others than for themselves; they give valuable things for trifles, being satisfied even with a very small return, or with nothing… I especially took possession of a certain large town, in a very convenient location, and adapted to all kinds of gain.”
— Christopher Columbus, describing the Taíno of Haiti,
Letter to the Sovereigns on the First Voyage, February 15–March 4, 1493
“Where had been a flourishing population, it is now a shame and pity to see the island laid waste and turned into a desert.”
— Bartolomé de las Casas, Spanish Theologian,
arguing in 1542 that the Haitian genocide be stopped
“Up ahead was Pandora. You grew up hearing about it, but I never figured I’d be going there.”
—First line of the film Avatar
It wasn’t the 40-second earthquake that devastated Haiti, it was the 500 years leading up to it. Even the Chilean earthquake, a hundred times stronger, failed to achieve the same level of devastation. Half a millennia of degradation and economic misery left Haiti particularly vulnerable to what other nations could have recovered from. And as Haitians struggled to locate loved ones under crushed homes, schools and hospitals, Americans donned 3D glasses and flocked to theaters to watch Avatar. The popularity of Avatar, a movie whose very premise parallels the history of Haiti’s indigenous Taíno, seemed poised to act as an emblem of diverted resources and thwarted compassion; but instead of news-cycling into detachment and amnesia, a spontaneous outpouring of empathy emerged from the “first” world.
Not a single local store or classroom was without a donation box or clothing drive. Why was this happening? Perhaps, despite all indications to the contrary, we humans hadn’t lost our humanity. Perhaps the popularity of the biggest grossing film in history points less to our need for distraction from the suffering industrialized people endure and cause — and more to our yearning for a healthy ecological and sociological environment, one attuned to the conditions for which we evolved over millennia. The earthquake made us all aware of a land that had once been paradise, and Avatar let many see what such a land might have been like.
The international response to Haiti’s disaster on one hand and the appeal of Avatar on the other, offer clues to the fact that, even after millennia of assault, an equitable society may still exist. Despite centuries of destruction in the name of religion, nationalism and xenophobia, all fronts for venal economics – despite the history of unbearable heartbreak that constitutes the last few thousand years of human existence, the harmonious, humane world for which we evolved has a half-dormant latency in our everyday life. It surrounds us even if we’ve lost the ability to recognize it. Such a social reorganization is in our DNA, issuing the undeniable demand to be made manifest. The simultaneity of the world’s worst natural disaster and the world’s most successful movie reveals more than what’s best in us. It reveals what we’ve evolved to be all along.
In the days and weeks that followed the earthquake, Caterpillar machines carved the earth for mass graves. The surviving coffin makers worked around the clock for the few who could afford their services. In a place where most people save their whole lives in order to have a proper funeral, the dead lay splayed in the streets, lost in ghastly postures amongst rubble. The traditional honor and expense given to the dead in Haiti may seem out of sync with lives spent in extreme poverty — even before the earthquake, Haiti was the poorest country in the Americas with a per capita GDP of $790, about $2 a day — but the emphasis on funerary rites stems from locating prosperity beyond mere material possessions. To honor one’s dead is to remain connected, through generations, all the way back to the African continent or to the indigenous Taíno. The loss of loved ones is unbearable but so too is the severed ancestral line, their family’s connection to a history beyond the era of conquest. A history of using adversity to create new, adaptively full ways of living. When forced to assume European religion, they channeled African Orishas into the empty forms of Catholic saints. And they answered the pain of colonialism with the foundation of their own nation.
Haiti didn’t just end up poor. It’s complex history is one of the greatest examples of inequitable distribution of wealth, political corruption, environmental devastation and willful disregard for basic human rights. Time and time again the global masters of the day lined their pockets with whatever the previous ones had left behind, a practice justified by racism and dating back to the first European “explorers.” The conversion of Haiti from verdant island nation with apparently inexhaustible resources to devastated wasteland began on December 5, 1492 when Columbus happened upon a large island in the Caribbean Sea. It was inhabited the Taíno, who called their island Ayiti. Since then, the story of Haiti has had many collisions with imperialism, from early European colonial empires to modern day multi-national corporate globalism.
After the slave revolt of 1804 Haiti became the first black state to free itself from imperial rule. The African slaves who were “imported” to work the island revolted against their French rulers and sent them packing. The United States, with millions of African slaves of its own, was understandably upset. The founding fathers and other members of the American aristocracy didn’t want the Haitian brand of freedom to spread to their own plantations.
In July 1825, long after the Haitians won their liberation, King Charles X of France sent a fleet of 14 vessels to put a military blockade around Haiti to force them to pay reparations for their own freedom. France insisted they were owed a great deal of money for the cost of all those freed slaves. Under pressure, Haitian President Boyer agreed to a treaty by which France formally recognized the independence of the nation in exchange for a payment of 150 million francs (later reduced to 90 million in 1838). French abolitionist Victor Schoelcher wrote, “Imposing an indemnity on the victorious slaves was equivalent to making them pay with money that which they had already paid with their blood.”
Woodrow Wilson’s invasion of Haiti in 1915 killed thousands, restored a kind of legal slavery and left much of the country in ruins. American forces dissolved the Haitian parliament at gunpoint, because it refused to pass what the US media called “progressive legislation,” to allow US businesses to take over Haitian lands. Wilson’s marines then orchestrated an election in which five percent of the population was permitted to vote. The puppet government compelled Haiti to import goods from the United States. Working people, mostly women, labored under miserable conditions and were paid Jim Crow-style wages in US-owned assembly plants. “Wilsonian Idealism,” the new principle of U.S. foreign policy, was considered a smashing success by American leaders. And if anyone in Haiti begged to differ, vicious national guards watched over the island, beginning what would become decades of torture, violence and misery.
Through the 20th century, the Duvalier dictatorship prospered under Wilsonian mandates. As the means of repression became ever more advanced, the US-backed Papa Doc and Baby Doc regimes savaged the people of Haiti while stealing an unimaginable amount of wealth for themselves and their cronies. Prior to the 1970’s, the vast majority of the Haitian population lived in the mountainous countryside. But then “international experts” decided Haiti’s economic salvation; that is to say, its ability to become a more efficient profit engine, lay in the creation of huge assembly manufacture plants. And in order to advance that, it was decided that Haiti needed a captive labor force in the cities. So a slew of aid policies, trade policies and political policies were implemented to move people from the countryside to places convenient for sweatshop labor. The shantytowns were born. Most of the people who died in January’s earthquake were killed in these ramshackle hillside structures, their deaths set in motion 30 years ago.
In 1990, the results of Haiti’s first free election threatened five hundred years of “economically rational” programs. The poor majority voted into power Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a populist priest. Almost instantly, Washington began undermining Haiti’s first democratically elected leader in nearly a century. That set the stage for a military coup and subsequent reign of terror supported by both Bush administrations and, most egregiously, by President Clinton. When, under extreme pressure, Clinton sent US forces to restore President Aristide to power, it was done on very strict conditions. Haiti had to accept an austere “neoliberal” economic policy that would continue to devastate the nation’s economy, environment and social fabric.
A few years later, when Aristide began responding to the needs of the Haitian people, the US and France worked together to depose him. On February 29, 2004 a team of US Navy Seals kidnapped him. He’s been in exile in Africa ever since. The U.S. still denies him access to the entire region.
As horrific as the earthquake was, it casts light on a nation that’s been ignored by everyone except those who would exploit it. For the first time in history, the entire world’s eyes are on this island and on the tactics that France and the US employed to create a dystopian hellscape. But what we may also see, if we turn our gaze to a time before 1492, is a place that was once more than just beautiful. This present day cauldron of the world’s worst sorrows is, if we go back far enough, an entryway to the story of all people, an entryway that the powerful could not close.
The Taíno culture on Haiti was thriving five centuries ago, just as pre-agrarian society had thrived for hundreds of thousands of years, around the world. Their society maximized the sort of relationships and experiences that neurologists and evolutionary biologists attest we evolved for. We humans are most fulfilled by the social complexities and dynamic everyday stimuli of our generalist brains. The drive for these involvements goes beyond race and gender. They predate social hierarchy. They certainly predate the development of agriculture as a social model 10,000 years ago. And therein lies the problem. For about four million years humans evolved as gatherers and hunters, passing down genes that best allowed our physiology and psychology to match our environment. Then, when humans became dependent on farming, the framework we’d evolved for changed radically. The world population grew from perhaps 60,000 to nearly 7,000,000,000. But the quantitative success of the species hides a much more difficult qualitative disaster. A disaster that the Taíno shows a way out of, and movies like Avatar unknowingly amplify and decipher.
The fact that we are wired to live a lifestyle that is left unfulfilled by modern life is why. We are replicating motor skills and reflexes that pod life in an office could never reach.
Judged in terms of technological breakthroughs, industrialized society appears pretty amazing, even if that technology is mostly used to replicate the hunter-gatherer conditions for which we evolved, or distract us from a nagging lack of social fulfillment. Hunting video game zombies or speeding along on motorcycles feels so good precisely because they force us to employ skills and reflexes that the sedentary land ownership life completely neglects — we are hard-wired to live a lifestyle that modern existence is unable to provide. Our society might seem “advanced,” but in terms of intellectual realization and daily satisfaction, the most advanced cultures are those that could be called close-to-the-earth, those that have remained in sync with evolution.
The role of women is particularly illuminating. A “stay at home” mother in close-to-the-earth cultures would have the equivalent of a graduate degree in botany, education, medicine, architecture, biology, and music. Women were the big “earners” in most of human prehistory, using their gathering skills to provide approximately 80% of the community’s “income” of caloric needs. Hunting, often but not only the providence of men, made up the remaining 20%. Elder women were considered extremely valuable, as both child care specialists and perhaps more importantly, living libraries of the complex knowledge needed to function in dynamic and changing environments. As evolutionary biology writer Natalie Angiers wrote, it is women’s foraging that keeps families afloat, and an older women’s foraging skills did not decline as she aged, in fact, they became more effective.
Timothy L. Taylor, a British archeologist, traces one origin of sexual inequality to the Near East 10,000 years ago, where the agrarian use of animal milk fostered the ability to raise many, many more children than had been possible with breast milk alone. Where pre agrarian “stay-at-home” mothers actually spent very little time at home, agricultural women were often breeding prisoners, shackled to the hearth. The elderly, keepers of ancestral wisdom but unable to do hard labor, became obsolete burdens on society. Taylor dispenses with old theories about prehistoric peoples’ ignorance about the world. “Most prehistoric communities were in control of their fertility and fully able to separate sex from reproduction.” He adds that as a result, in addition to what we would consider a feminist structure to their way of life, these societies fully embraced homosexuality and the transvestism as a natural part of the human experience. It was the highly-specialized agricultural life that separated us from the full use of our generalist minds and countless generations of wisdom. But the human mind, and that wisdom, is still there — despite every effort to shut it out.
Another huge shift for both the sexes; the amount of hours we spend working. We lived for millennia as hunter gatherers who worked from 15-20 hours per week obtaining the necessities to survive. Anyone who has ever visited a farm, or spent time in a modern industrial city does not need to be told how many hours of work a week it takes to survive now.
The 15-hour work week and everything else changed with the introduction of agriculture, the new concept of land ownership and increasingly unsustainable population growth. With food demand met through technological means, there was no longer a need for women’s generalist approach to life. They were relegated to mere heir breeders, valued only insofar as they could ensure the stable continuation of property ownership from one generation to the next. But civilization was a split second relative to the prehistoric millennia in which we evolved. While forests could be cleared to make room for fields, the human jungle of neurons couldn’t be turned off so simply to match a life of specialized, repetitive conduct.
An agricultural society requires an ever-growing population to support itself, which in turn requires more territory. This led to conflict with the outnumbered wandering hunter-gatherers and sealed their destruction. As such a society grows, the roles within become more sharply defined — farmer becomes irrigator — becomes pipe mender — becomes pipe-mending glue manufacturer. Just as the expansion of territory destroyed the hunter-gatherer’s external world, the increasing layers of specialization destroyed the generalists’ brain’s internal environment. Anthropologist Colin Tudge asserts that the story of Cain and Abel is an allegory for the expansion of the new land owning agriculturalists and the end of nomadic life. Abel, the nomadic shepherd, died at the hand of his brother, the crop farmer; a fragment of sympathetic history in an otherwise oppressive storybook.
A side effect of this new lifestyle was the rise of diseases and plagues in the human civilization due to over-crowded living conditions and a poor diet. Somewhat surprising; a farmers’ diet is nutritionally compromised and poor in comparison to that of the bounty of hunter-gatherer variety that preceded it. Yet, because the way society is structured, and the information we are given, we’re eating the farmer’s diet every day. The people Columbus found living in the New World were bigger and stronger. They were free of many of the diseases that plagued grain-fed Europe.
Avatar is to our suppressed gatherer what the madeleine was to Proust. From behind those 3D glasses, our ancient human wiring is electrified. We evolved over millennia to live as the character Neytiri lived which is precisely why the escapist indulgence of living in a primeval forest feels so good. Amusing that it takes hundreds of millions of dollars, years of work in 3D optics, hundreds of production specialists to accomplish what a botany nerd gets on an impromptu stroll in the Catskills. I’d roll my eyes at the movie’s simplistic writing, for the public adulation and especially at the unfortunate tacit racism of Whitey saving the day — I’d roll my eyes were it not for it’s role as gatherer madeleine. It’s success at the same moment that people were donating time and money to Haiti — a place once as lush as Pandora itself — made me optimistic that people’s advanced, prehistoric minds were closer to reawakening than any of us suspected.
Many critics of Avatar’s racist plot elements rightly compare the film to Dances with Wolves or Pocahontas. The white man’s fantasy of redemption from imperialism, and absolution for environmental degradation. In the happiest of endings, he himself becomes half “Indian Chief,” half savior — immorality washed clean for having gone native. Native Americans’ special place in the modern American imagination is somewhere between noble savage and simple new age nature worshiper — useful when you need either a grunting sidekick or some vague spiritualist.
James Cameron is no Herzog, or even Eastwood, yet Avatar is the highest grossing film ever — a feat impossible had it resonated only with white Americans thirsty for a little exoticism. Despite Avatar’s many weaknesses, people from around the world feel drawn to the Eden of Pandora. The crisis explored in the film pushes us beyond a cinematic experience into a cultural event. The images before us give form to something that predates modern conceptions of the world, they trigger a memory that hangs like Spanish moss on the dendrites of our earliest brain: There! That’s what we are missing! Humans are hard-wired to thrive in communities that live cooperatively with a basic reverence for life as it fans out in all directions. Linear, industrialized post-agrarian society cannot provide this fulfillment. Our current way of life is able to provide a nurturing simulacrum and the appearance of sustainability to the 1% of humans who can afford it. But all the surrogate forms of life, augmented by medication, therapy, Jesus, video games and reality TV cannot blot out the desire. At best it’s a hollow neurotic ache and at worst it degenerates into psychosis. And among the remaining 99% of the planet, for whom the balm of consumerism isn’t available, what was once and what could yet be, is eternally in the fore of their exhausted minds.
Despite the fact they benefit from centuries of imperialism and the agrarian distribution of resources that created it, even white Americans respond to Avatar in a way that moves beyond their ingrained racism. Many would protest that they are progressive, but it’s impossible to reap the benefits of America without accepting the murderous history that created it. Get a few drinks in them and see just how close they to their society’s genocidal origins. A relative of mine who turned to his much younger Mexican bride and declared “…your people weren’t really using the land, what’s the big loss? You didn’t even have the wheel!” Or Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed, “The expansion of the peoples of white, or European, blood during the past four centuries has been fraught with lasting benefit to most of the peoples already dwelling in the lands over which the expansion took place.”
To not go mad, Americans have internalized the subroutine, always humming in the background: We only murdered the primitives who wouldn’t consent to becoming slaves, and we only enslaved those who weren’t human enough to embrace progress. Celebrations like Columbus Day serve to suppress any errant, destabilizing thought. Americans need these reminders that the nation is morally unassailable, despite the evidence because the evidence speaks directly to them. Americans have endured generations of indoctrination, but they were evolutionarily imprinted long before being taught the bylaws of race, gender and class. Long before they were Americans, they were humans and anything that directs them through the thicket of lies back to the origins of their species will be irresistible. The racist lure of the white savior may satisfy the hunger of the more indoctrinated, but Avatar’s fundamental attraction is its embodiment of the exact opposite.
Avatar’s fictional people of a fictional planet are a stand-in for what was best in all of us, not the naïve or the innocent, but possessing the articulate morality of the richly interconnected. They borrow much from cultures indigenous to the pre-conquest Americas, especially the Taíno of Haiti. The Taíno, (meaning literally “the good people” in their language) celebrated a pantheon of gods and held special reverence for the Earth Mother (Atabey), representing as she did, the web of all living things. Unable to efficiently enslave them, the Europeans killed them by the millions, nearly exterminating the entire race in under 50 years. Bartolomé de las Casas, a witness to the prolonged massacre, wrote, “I saw here cruelty on a scale no living being has ever seen or expects to see.”
Within 250 years, the French had replaced the Spanish and slaves brought from Africa had all but replaced the native population. It was one of the richest colonies in the world due not just to the wealth of sugar, coffee and indigo, but also to the extreme brutality doled out to the slaves — a third of whom were worked to death within a few years of their arrival.
The story of western conquest requires us to believe that the cultures assaulted by the conquistadores are long gone. That the crimes were done behind the misty veil of ancient history and that nothing, no people, no ideas, no cultural relic, survived. Nobody’s left to punish, and certainly nothing’s left to save. Even if you don’t like the Europeans, they’re the only ones standing. Most historians insist the Taíno are an “extinct” people. But anthropologist and archaeologist Dr. Pedro J. Ferbel Azacarate writes that some Taínos escaped the massacre and intermarried with runaway African slaves. They lived in isolated “maroon” communities in remote Haitian communities developing their own, isolated Taíno-African communities. He bases this assertion not just on the undeniable archeological record, but on contemporary rural Dominicans and Haitians who retain Taíno linguistic features, hunting and fishing practices, medical techniques, technology, architecture, and religious views. These cultural traits are often looked down upon by city dwellers as provincial. “It’s surprising just how many Taíno traditions, customs, and practices have been continued,” says David Cintron, an anthropologist specializing in the Taíno revitalization movement. “We simply take for granted that these are Puerto Rican or Cuban [or Haitian] practices and never realize that they are Taíno.”
But the Taíno are very much alive, and not just in the islands of the Caribbean. Their vocabulary has been folded into the English and Spanish languages — barbacoa became barbecue, hamaca hammock, kanoa canoe, tabaco tobacco, batata potato, and juracán hurricane. Their existence continues in a much more universal way, too. As long as there remains a single human on the planet, that person’s DNA carries with it the Taíno ways, the apotheosis of homo sapiens’ evolution. Avatar represents not just an expression of that quintessence but a reminder to our very mitochondria of the good life.
When we see the wheel chair bound protagonist in Avatar looking at his giant avatar-self floating in the bell jar of a laboratory, we are looking at our own crushed selves watching the movie. Our great ancestral past is one that should unite us with our fellow humans, in a sustainable and healthy future for all humanity. It is a fragment what we grandly call “civilization” has even existed. The other world is inescapable: it’s what we evolved for and evolution, by definition, always wins. The Na’vi of Avatar, like the Taíno of Haiti and like, I believe, all humans in the not too distant future, understood the true qualities of natural resources — wealth lies not in exploitation of nature or other people. It lies not in the acquisition of minerals or the restriction of others’ freedom. It lies in the breadth and array of connections between all the earth’s flora and fauna, all living creatures. Such wealth, like water-carving canyons, must break down any artificial constraints placed on it, all divisions must fall, all centralized structures give way to entropy and chaos before reforming into the infinite network they were meant to embrace and be embraced by. This is the secret revolutionary message of Avatar. As poet Chris Martin said to me, “I can just imagine a six-year-old girl watching Avatar, wringing her hands and screaming, Nobody’s gonna fuck with my Earth!”
Hundreds of thousands lost their lives in the Haitian earthquake, the culmination of 500 years of modern civilization at its purest. But millions have offered assistance to this battered island in their latest hour of plight. Some have given despite their own privations. Others gave because they recognize their privations, while less extreme, have the same source as Haitian suffering. All gave because their humanity is our humanity. We are all living in a crumbling structure created by vast disparities in wealth and rights, shored up by perma-wars and furnished with lies. And out every window, despite all the lessons designed to divide us into selfish cliques, we share the same daunting view of the abyss.
But the abyss is merely the end of civilization. Civilization, that blip on the planet’s timeline, a few fractured seconds of humanity’s run. This intuitive moment allows us to see that what happens in Haiti happens to us all. The Taíno echo against the deep walls of our culture tells us those ancestral ties can be restored. This is our chance to use our shared prehistoric wisdom to build a society in which the means to flourish is distributed among every inhabitant of the earth, human, flora and fauna. A society in which our global efforts align with the egalitarian and cooperative structures of our past. All our pasts.
And our common past ensures a unified future. You don’t need an imax theater to be enveloped in its embrace even now. Arundhati Roy’s forecast might just prove accurate, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” And in the din of catastrophe I can see she is already here, always was.
Before agriculture injured the great human potential, before industrialization further entrenched our divisions, most major events centered on evolving towards ever more filial solidarity. Civilization undid millennia of growth, but unstoppable growth even now the undoing of civilization. As we move through the horizon from one era to the next, the past few thousand years will feel increasingly unreal, for it was unreal even while we believed in it. As Avatar’s protagonist said, once he became comfortable in his healthy Na’vi body, “Everything is backwards now, like out there is the true world, and in here is the dream.” Everything you know is an illusion and the moment of collective, lucid sight is upon us.
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