A pilot drops his empty, glass Coke bottle from a plane window into the inhospitable Kalahari Desert where almost no one lives. A hunter-gatherer finds it and takes it back to his tribe. They make music with the glass and find multiple uses for it, but there is only one and it becomes a source of jealousy.
So, the tribe leader decides the Gods must be crazy to drop such an evil object into their lives. He leaves on a journey to throw the bottle off the end of the earth. On his way he encounters a warring, “civilized” world.
I watched “The Gods Must Be Crazy” as a child and came across the film while scrolling through movie options one weekend recently. The movie made me laugh again in places. But more than that, I thought about how strange the world can seem to people with different realities and worldviews. I loved the perspective of the tribesman as he encountered this strange world beyond him. If you think about it, some of the best stories on Earth are about individuals stunned by a new world.
We take for granted now that the world is “connected.” But think about human history and how for thousands of years there was no way to know what lay beyond our own reach. I often think about how we live in a “discovered” land that was already occupied for thousands of years. “Discoveries” are always the story of mankind breaking free of its limited perspectives. Land and vast oceans used to separate people almost like outer space divides us from other planets. And the first interactions of people from different civilizations could surely feel extraterrestrial.
Think about the psychology of this. I’m really entertained by imagining such things.
My daughter is frequently reading aloud from her World History textbook in the car these days. There’s a lot to memorize and it helps her to speak it. But as she reads, I think about what a day in Rome would have been like when the Goths actually came to town.
On occasion, I listen to Dan Carlin’s “Hardcore History.” Carlin is an entertaining storyteller, and he is good at talking about life in different places and time periods. I listened recently to his hour-long talk called “Steppe Stories,” about the many tribes of nomadic people of a wide range of ethnicities in the thousands of miles of grasslands between Hungary and China.
The ancient steppe people moved in wagons from place to place so their goats, sheep and camels could graze on new land. They ate meat and drank milk, lived in felt houses or “yurts.” Around 1000 B.C., tribes in this territory figured out how to ride horses like no one else, with children being placed on horseback at a very young age and learning to shoot arrows on the run with extreme precision. Carlin said the myth of the half-man, half-horse Centaur, which was first mentioned in Greek mythology around 500 B.C., was a product of fear of the steppe people, who pushed into settled lands, wreaking horror and havoc. This is the land of Genghis Khan.
Carlin spoke of the Scythians, ancient tribes of nomadic warriors who originally lived in what is now southern Siberia, in a culture that flourished between 900 and 200 B.C., stretching from China to the Black Sea.
They are known in the Bible as Gog and Magog. The only history of them is in the writings of those who encountered them. So, their humanity and their sophisticated artistry is not as noted as their savagery. But the Scythians were heavily tattooed head hunters of frozen lands who made drinking cups of skulls and who buried their kings with living horses and riders staked to the ground with the dead. What’s really intriguing is that moisture in the Siberian lands got into the tombs and preserved the bodies. So, the tattoos are known, because in some cases, their skin has been preserved in ice.
The Scythians are only one tribe of people from this vast ocean of land. Carlin said a tribe would be mentioned in Chinese writings, then disappear into the steppes, mentioned 200 years later on the other side. The nomads were constantly pushing each other from one position to the next, with battles often forcing one tribe westward, where they eventually clashed as “barbarians” like a great wave crashing on settled lands. So, inner Mongolia was, as Carlin says, a “womb of nations,” with many groups moving and mixing over time.
I love history. I truly do. I want to know so much more. I’m a true novice.
But as I learn about history, I also see that the tribal brain is a long part of our collective inner world, people joining together to fight for self-preservation against outside forces.
I recently learned the phrase “extended phenotype,” referring to inherent behavioral traits passed in genes, such as a spider making a web or a bird making a nest. We are born with certain behavioral traits, like the baby’s natural desire to nurse, or possibly certain inherent fears, such as of snakes, which were a threat to people for thousands of years. But I wonder if tribalism is another “extended phenotype.” We have a natural inclination, it seems, to cast other humans as the “other.” And when tribe is not geographic, it can easily be replaced by ideology, which turns neighbor to alien very quickly.
From my limited perspective, the internet is that Coke bottle dropped on us, that evil thing making us alien to each other.
The idea of the tribesman walking to the end of the earth to toss the “evil” bottle into the abyss seems funny on its face. But the kind-faced fellow gets his moment. He walks to the edge of a cliff and drops the Coke bottle far down into the sea. It was indeed the end of the earth to that man, as far as he could tell.
If only I could say, “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” then walk with your cell phone and mine, dropping them off a cliff, returning to hugs, certain and satisfied that the problem had been resolved for our people. I would venture across the steppe to do just that.