Right from the beginning ‘Earthlines’ declared an interest in anthropology and a desire to publish articles in this fundamentally important field. We’ve been lucky to have some great submissions – from Prof Tim Ingold and Terhi Vuojala-Magga for example, and in this latest issue 15 from Michael Engelhard.
Why do we think anthropology is so important? Simply because the human animal is extremely important to the future of this planet and our species has not always been well understood. There has often been too much of an assumption in western thought that the human animal is a pretty straightforward kind of a beast: predominantly a rational creature, defined by the frontal lobes of the brain and only by exception or by failure governed by animal instincts. This has also been the image which many religions and philosophies have tried for centuries to overlay on the complex animal that we are. At its simplest – we are made in the image of God; a non-animal, purely rational being.
Anthropology, in the broadest sense, approaches the problem in the opposite direction. It goes out into the world and first observes the animal that we are, in the actual circumstances of a society or a civilisation. Often with very surprising results. For instance, it turns out that people very often don’t choose what is rationally and manifestly best for them. Quite the opposite. It very quickly begins to look as if our rational faculties are actually a bit of fragile veneer over a fundamentally irrational way of being. This is scary stuff. The thought of rational beings in possession of the technologies capable of altering or destroying whole ecosystems is frightening enough. But irrational, aggressive animals in possession of nuclear weapons – that’s a whole different prospect.
So, yes, we think the insights of anthropologists are central to getting us out of the mess we are driving the world into. Not because we believe in any sort of primacy of the species homo sapiens (quite the opposite actually) but because it happens that this species is currently in the driving seat and there is little use in insisting that people should respond in such-and-such a way to stimuli and stress within society because some pre-conceived non-empirical theory about our species tells us it should be so. It is important instead to observe how the human animal actually prospers and grows or how it fails to thrive and turns to destroying itself.
In this issue Michael Engelhard’s ‘The Sacred Game’ looks closely, and without blinking, at the complex relationship between a people and the animals with which they shared their world. Despite a clear sense that there was something fine and noble in the way of life he researches and describes for us, neither Michael nor ‘Earthlines’ are suggesting for a moment that we should try collectively to go back to these ways or copy them in detail. But we are suggesting that we can learn a lot about our own nature, our needs and the sources of our current dis-ease in the world, by looking closely at ways of life radically different from our own, whether current or historical.
You won’t find a whole lot about Michael personally if you go searching the internet. There are tantalising scraps about his 1000-mile solo trek from the Canadian border west to the Bering sea, across the width of Alaska, above the Arctic Circle. For many modern ‘adventurers’ this would have been a life-defining achievement to be re-hashed and talked about for decades. But you’ll maybe have a suspicion, as I do, that Michael did it just because he wanted to get a proper feel for the land of the American North. He seems to me to be the kind of man to take his time and let the world soak in. So in his books and essays there is a clear sense that he has fully lived in and wrestled with the places and the people he writes about. This gives his writing the sort of calm authority that reminds me often of Barry Lopez.
While you may not find a lot about the man himself you will find a wealth of his essays and articles online – both on his own website and those of various universities and publications. I have many favourites and you’ll find a lot to choose from – but if you follow this link you’ll quickly get a flavour of the breadth and depth of his writing:
Michael’s own website is at:
and his forthcoming book Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon is available for pre-order at: