The Pirahã are an indigenous tribe from the Amazonas region of Brazil. There are thought to be about 400 individuals left living mainly along the Maici River in the Amazon Rainforest.
The Pirahã descend from a larger indigenous group called the Mura, but split from the main tribe long before the Mura were first contacted in 1714. The Mura learned Portuguese and their language is now extinct, but the Pirahã retreated into the jungle and still appear relatively uninterested in adopting outside influences. In 1921, the anthropologist Curt Nimuendajú noted that they showed “little interest in the advantages of civilisation” and displayed “almost no signs of permanent contact with civilised people.” Little has changed today.
Pirahã people build simple huts where they keep a few pots, pans, knives, and machetes. They make only scraping implements (for making arrowheads), loosely woven palm-leaf bags, bows, and arrows. They rely on neighbouring communities' to build canoes for them and trade Brazil nuts for consumables or tools, e.g. machetes, gunpowder, powdered milk, sugar, whiskey. One adoption of western living they have taken on is clothing. Traditional necklaces are still worn but so are T-shirts and shorts for men and home sewn cotton dresses for women.
An Interesting Language
In recent years the Pirahã gained much academic and public interest after the publication of Daniel Everett's book, 'Don't sleep there are snakes'. Everett, his wife and family, lived with the Pirahã for many years as a missionaries, sent there by their mission due to Daniel's evident flair for languages. And although Pirahã language had been spoken by his predecessors, it is Everett who is widely attributed to having first grasped their grammar.
One of Everett's claims is that the Pirahã language defies classical theories of grammar, as had been championed by the eminent linguist Noam Chomsky. The ensuing debate over the origins of culture and linguistics, and theories of universal grammar, are ongoing and heated, with the Pirahã largely (and somewhat unknowingly) at the centre.
“When someone walks around a bend in the river, the Pirahã say that the person has not simply gone away, but xibipío—‘gone out of experience,’” Everett said. “They use the same phrase when a candle flame flickers. The light ‘goes in and out of experience.’ ”
Cultural values are strong and outsiders ways of doing things temporarily interesting at most. Daniel Everett states that one of the strongest Pirahã values is no coercion; you simply don't tell other people what to do, even children.
Daniel Everett - Don't Sleep there are snakes
Daniel Everett - The grammar of happiness (film)
Tom Wolfe - The Kingdom of Speech
New Yorker - The Interpreter