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Understanding the Ur-Bororo

I’ve really been enjoying the BBC’s Human Planet series, which films some of the most extreme and isolated environments and their inhabitants on the, erm, planet.

A Bayaka Tribesman climbs a tree in the jungle

The jungle was great fun. In one section we followed a Bayaka tribesman as he climbed a vast, bee-ridden tree in search of precious honey; he returned to his (somewhat ungrateful) family successful, having proven his virility. In another scene an aeroplane circled an as yet undiscovered tribe in the Amazon.

There’s always a slight artificiality to these types of documentaries (which, to be fair, the makers acknowledge by presenting an explanation of how the scenes are shot); the fact that we’re able to film these supposedly remote, untouched people is a contradiction in itself, and the odd glimpse of a Nike swoosh or Adidas stripes on a tribesman’s clothing hints at some dealings with the ‘normal’ world.

Anyway, Will Self parodies this notion of difference in a wonderful short story entitled Understanding the Ur-Bororo. Janner, an anthropologist, is obsessed with the Ur-Bororo, an Amazonian tribe with a familiar set of customs. He begins courting a tribeswoman called Jane:

Our courtship started immediately. There are no particular guidelines for courtship in Ur-Bororo society. In fact the whole Ur-Bororo attitude to sex, gender and sexuality is muddied and ambiguous. At least formally, pre-marital sex, homosexuality and infidelity are frowned on, but in practice the Ur-Bororo’s sexual drive is so circumscribed that no-one really minds what anyone else gets up to. The general reaction is simply mild amazement that you have the energy for it.

Janner and Jane marry:

Unlike other tribes who have shamen, the status of the shaman in Ur-Bororo society is ambiguous and somewhat irrelevant. The shaman often sketched out the form of some of the rigorous rituals the Ur-Bororo nominally believe in, but hardly anyone even bothered to attend these mock performances. On the whole he was regarded with a kind of amused disdain. Although it was still important to have pale versions of the ceremonies performed for births, marriages and deaths.

And finally they settle (with Jane’s brother, David) in Purley. The narrator visits Janner in his semi-detached house. The anthropologist’s circle is complete:

We hung up our coats and sat down in a rough semi-circle around the redundant fireplace, and exchanged the conversational inanities which signify ‘getting-to-know-one-another’. After a while Janner came in. “Sorry, I didn’t hear you arrive. I’ve just been in the garden doing a little pottering. Would anyone like a drink?” He took orders and repaired to the kitchen. By the time he returned I was deeply embroiled with David in a discussion of the relative merits of the Dewey decimal system, as against other methods of cataloguing.