A book by Robert Wolff. It is a commercially edited form of an earlier
"What it is to be human".
This is the text of the foreword, by Thom
Most of us were raised in the Empire of the First World, a world
and culture steeped in literacy, certain of the fundamental truth
that life's great goal is to find that niche where we can spend our
days working to the large enrichment of another person or corporation.
When we hear or read of people who live a more idyllic life in a
laterally organised culture without layers of hierarchy or riches
or want, we tend to think of them as either mythological or, if real,
simply too ignorant to have developed civilisation. Indeed, with
books such as The Ecological Indian there is a worldwide movement
afoot today to "prove" that indigenous peoples were every
bit as wanton, rapacious, and planet-destructive as we are (albeit
they were less technically competent).
And certainly some were. But such generalisations always fail; it's
as if we were to try to describe all Europeans by the story of the
Roma Gypsies, or Attila's Huns.
It's even fashionable nowdays for First World ecotourists to visit
remote parts of the world, spend a week or two with an indigenous
shaman, smoke a few plants, see a few hallucinations, then come back
to declare themselves shamans and develop large followings. Shamanism
for self-growth, shamanism for business, shamanism to build wealth
and power—it's popping up all over, but always with a curiously
familiar flavour since it's simply the most recent reinvention of
the classic dominating leader/searching follower, you-pay-me-and-I-teach-and-lead-you
way so many cults, fads, and religions have gone.
For those who have never learned the language of indigenous peoples,
true contact is impossible, for the culture is embedded in the language.
Ecotourists meet natives or guides who have already been culturally
contaminated simply by learning to talk with us. Their worldview
has been shifted by contact, and their hungers often tend toward
metal, TV, candy, alcohol, and guns. So how is one to know what's
The question is important, because those of us with European or
African or South American roots have ancestors who lived as indigenous,
tribal people for the vast majority of the history of the human race.
Yet nobody in Europe today remembers the Old Ways, the sacred places
and plants, the meanings of the stones and markings and holy groves.
It was all wiped out in a massive holocaust led first by the Celts,
then the Romans, and then the Catholic Church. And that great forgetting
was then carried to five other continents by zealous missionaries,
the first wedge of empire and theft, and brutally enforced by armies
and trading companies for five centuries.
Now comes Robert Wolff. Trained as a psychologist with a smattering
of anthropology, but possessing the heart and soul of an aboriginal
Malay, he learned the language of the secretive Malaysian jungle
people, the Sng'oi. A few books have been written about them, often
dismissed as fanciful and one even as fictional, but none written
(to the best of my knowledge) by people who actually lived among
them and spoke their language.
But Robert Wolff did.
Through that experience he discovered a startling new reality, a
new way of knowing, which is largely missing from the lives of modern
Americans and Europeans, and when mentioned is often relegated to
the fringes of science by our religious empiricists.
But the reality—and the profundity—of his experience cannot
be escaped. This book will fascinate you in its reading and haunt
you in its memory. Most important, it will fill you with hope for
a human future more in line with what it means to be truly human.
Read it, dream about it, and share it with your friends. This is
a message the world must hear.
Read an excerpt from this book
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