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All Sojourner's Tranquil Respite

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A "Glimpse of Eden" [Sep. 21st, 2006|08:54 pm]
All Sojourner's Tranquil Respite


(x-posted from the christianity lj)

I just thought I would post something which I discovered about a year ago and which, as a student of anthropology and a person of faith I found deeply fascinating.

It was in a publication called "Parabola" which reflects on myths, ritual and story from sacred traditions around the world. You can find them at http://www.parabola.org/

The article concerns the !Kung people of the Kalahari desert in Africa. I had previously studied this people in my anthropology courses, even seeing old black and white films of their relgious ceremonies, so I knew a little more than the article- including recent studies relating to genetics and language which I'll get to in a second.

The Parabola article basically describes the author's experiences of the beliefs and rituals of this tribe, including drawings by their own hands explaining some of their beliefs. According to the article, they have a range of animistic/shamanic elements seen in tribal cultures around the world, but at the core of their faith lies a belief in a "Big God" who lives in the sky and is their creator, where souls go when they die, and responsible for granting healing to people, through people who seem to be granted His Power. A person feels themselves filled with a white-hot energy, which they can then use to heal their fellow tribe members through laying on of hands and drawing out evil spirits or harmful forces. Some of the !Kung actually drew pictures of how they see this energy, descending down like a line of light from their God in the sky to the person. Their communal life revolves around regular nightly ceremonies where people experience this divine energy, and heal people in the community who need it. The early black and white film I watched was of one such ritual, which went on for hours and was like a cross between a native american ritual and a charismatic Christian worship. I was very moved by the simplicity of their faith, which at the same time seemed to fill every aspect of their lives and bind them together in a commmunity in the middle of the lonely, vast desert they'd been isolated in for millenia.

Now the interesting thing is that several studies have shown this to possibly be one of the oldest genetic and lingual groups on earth. Studies tracing a genetics through ethnic groups around the globe (using mitochondria, which are passed along the mother's eggs rather than DNA, and thus serve as excellent rarely-mutating markers) have found this group to be a "common anscestor" to nearly all the people in the world- or the closest thing we have. At the same time, their language is itself very unussual. The "!" I included before their name is actually a "clicking" sound of which their language has 48 variations and which is unlike all but a few isolated groups in the world. All of these groups are in Africa, and studies have also shown than they are very genetically isolated from each other so likely represent pockets of what the first languages of humanity sounded like.

What amazed, and humbled me is that we may be looking at the cradle of our species in this people- the closest thing to "Eden" you might say. Most evolutionary theories believe we come from Africa, and regardless of how literally you interpret the Bible it has humanity coming also radiating out from a common place, often going "East" which still works with Africa (I for one ascribe to evolutionary science, but also hold that our ancient scriptures and oral stories may contain more truth about our history than most scientists accept, and to throw such out completely denies us precious window into our pre-historic past). Now these people aren't cavemen or any less human than the rest of us- but their isolation means we may be seeing the roots of our common lingual, cultural and religious heritage, which I find a thrilling idea.

And their faith is... interesting. It seems to contain simple elements of monotheism and healing, along with bits and aspects which mirror shamanism and charismatic traditions from around the world. In this "proto-faith," I wonder if we aren't seeing an echo of our species first graspings towards an understanding of the Divine.

Tragically, like many traditional people the !Kung are facing pressures from the outside world which may erase much of their culture. But I thought I would share this "snapshot" of a fascinating people.