The Anthropology of Avatar

The Anthropology of Avatar

Of course the Na’vi live in the Stone Age. What’s the problem?

So I finally saw Avatar, everyone.  Yeah, I know, I’m late.  I didn’t hate it as much as I thought I would, but I didn’t love it, either.  The story had problems, and I didn’t find myself connecting with any of the characters.  The animation was cool, but not cool enough to justify the boring plot and characters.  Also, the movie was long.  Real long.

But I did quite enjoy one thing about the film, and that thing was the world building.  Okay, the Na’vi species isn’t all that different from the human species, and, sure, the Na’vi culture isn’t all that different from white Americans’ common misinterpretations and mental mishmashing of every native culture our grubby pale hands have ever come in contact with.  But overall I thought the Na’vi were kinda neat.  I liked the idea that they could literally connect with nature via a neural net, I liked that they could tame animals this way, and I liked that this all influenced the development of their culture.  I also liked the general badassness of the Na’vi, whose pedagogy seemed to boil down to, “Learn this fast or die in the most painful way possible.”  Probably wouldn’t work for us squishy humans, but Na’vi bodies take a beating better than ours do—they can handle it.

My quick review of Avatar, then, is, “Bland plot, bland characters, pretty animation but not so pretty that I’m going to start cursing God for giving James Cameron such powers… but it had its moments.  And those moments involved the world building.”

Color me surprised, then, that the ever popular Jason Kottke had almost the exact opposite reaction.  To him, Avatar’s story, characters, and visuals were top-notch; the world building, on the other hand, was piss-poor and nonsensical.  According to his review, the Na’vi shouldn’t be living in  Stone Age conditions because

1.    They are physically capable.
2.    They are very intelligent.
3.    They are aware of their environment/have access to many natural resources.
4.    They are well-nourished, healthy, omnivorous, adaptive, and inventive.
5.    They have domesticated animals.
6.    They are troubled by few serious natural predators.
7.    They can live in different environments.
8.    They can communicate over and travel long distances.
9.    They have regular access to a global supercomputer.

And he concludes: “The Na’vi are too capable and live in an environment that is far too pregnant with technological possibility to be stuck in the Stone Age. Plot-wise it’s convenient for them to be the way they are, but the Na’vi really should have been more technologically advanced than the Earthlings, not only capable of easily repelling any attack from Captain Ironpants but able to keep the mining company from landing on the moon in the first place.”

My response is thus:

Nope.  Nope nope nope.  Wrong on almost every count.  And here’s why.

Premise 1: The Na’vi Are Smart And Strong

Let’s start at the beginning.  Rather than refute each sub-argument point by point, I’m going to combine the first four premises of Mr. Kottke’s thesis into one big point: “In their intelligence and resourcefulness, the Na’vi are like humans.”

And I agree with this premise, for the most part.  In almost every important physical way (let’s put off discussion of their neural ponytails for the time being), the Na’vi species is humanlike.  We can expect, therefore, that they will develop in an anthropologically similar way.  (This is a big assumption, I know, but you have to make some assumptions in a case like this.  It’s not like I can go to Pandora and study these people for generations like Sigourney Weaver’s character.)

The problem here isn’t the premise that the Na’vi are as smart and physically-capable as humans but the conclusions that follow this premise.  Mr. Kottke seems to be assuming that intelligent, physically-capable people would naturally explode with technology.  This argument bothers me quite a bit because of its unspoken flipside: that any culture existing at a Stone Age level must be UNintelligent, UNhealthy, and weak.  I don’t want to call anyone out on being a racist here, but, dude, that’s a little racist.  I know you didn’t mean to be racist, but, dude.

Anyway, the notion that any smart and physically-capable civilization will break out of the Stone Age is just not true.  Take the Taíno Indians, for example.  (You know, the folks Mr. Columbus and co. stumbled upon when they accidentally crashed into the Caribbean in that helpfully rhyme-able year of 1492?  Them.)  As far as we can tell from our limited sources, the Taíno who lived back in the 15th century were in many ways similar to the Na’vi.  They most certainly lived in Stone Age conditions.  They didn’t wear much in terms of clothing; they didn’t have a real written language; their weapons were made of rock and wood and bone.

Oh, and the Spanish killed them.  Not all of them, but, like, 99.9% of them.  Guess they must have been really stupid, then.  Really stupid or really weak or really… something.

But that’s not what Columbus said.  Read his logs from his first voyage and you’ll see that he was in awe of how strong and tall (read: healthy) the Taíno really were.  He also constantly mentioned their obvious intelligence and curiosity.  (These traits were of interest to him, by the way, because it meant that the Spanish could probably convert them to Christianity easily.  You can’t do that with true “barbarians.”)

The 15th century version of Avatar.

Now, you may argue, “Well, maybe the Taíno weren’t actually strong or healthy or smart; maybe Columbus was just making shit up so he could sell these people as slaves.”  Maybe.  But the fact is, when Columbus got home to Spain with a small group of Taíno he kidnapped, everyone else in Europe was impressed with their strength, health, and intelligence, too—impressed enough to want to buy them as slaves.

“Okay, okay!” you may argue.  “But if the Taíno really were that smart and healthy and physically-capable, why didn’t they try to fight off their Spanish conquerers?”  Well, actually, they did, and, trust me, they f-ed some shit up.  This is from a culture that, if Spanish records are of any use, described themselves as a peace-loving people.  And they did some damage.  You may not recall from your elementary school history class, but Columbus was forced by circumstance (read: Dumbass crashed a ship) to leave a whole boatload of armed Spanish sailors in a fort on Hispaniola, and one clan of Taíno ended up killing all of them.  Stone Age weapons 1, Renaissance weapons 0.

Unfortunately for the Taíno, there was a little thing called “disease” back then, which thinned their numbers to the point of no return.  (They got their revenge, though, in a way.  The Taíno got smallpox or whatever from the white man; in return, the white man became familiar with a little disease known as syphilis.)

The Taíno wasn’t the only human culture full of smart, physically-capable people who lived in the Stone Age.  You may also recall that several groups of smart, physically capable white Europeans lived in the Stone Age, too, for, oh, about two and a half MILLION years.  Long story short: Intelligence and strength alone do not instantly lead to technological advancement.

But wait!  There’s more!

12 Comments on “The Anthropology of Avatar”

  1. nick #

    Great Kottke takedown. His reaction, although so short, managed to come up with so many technological determinist, one way to modernity, eurocentric that I was taken aback. You got him.


  2. RiderIon #

    I would argue that if wikipedia could teach you how to find materials and construct a nuclear powered death ray we would have a lot of people running around fulfilling their Bond villain/super villain fantasies. Wikipedia cannot do this and thus, your argument is invalid.

    In all seriousness, I haven’t seen Avatar and more than likely won’t. Part of it is the fact that I have no desire to see it. However, I do agree that this is a good critique of the idea of societial evolution as protrayed in popular science fiction. Keep up the good work.


  3. Penn #

    I theorize that Pandora engineered the Ma’vi specifically to interface with the human invaders, and not very many generations ago either. This explains why Na’vi look just like humans (same teeth even), down to number of limbs. The only significant difference is the neural link in the hair, which connects the entire planet into one big network.
    This also explains why they do anything they do: it’s programmed into them. They act like primitive humans, because modern humans will be able to understand that, it’s not alien. They haven’t tamed more of the giant flying things, even though it appears to be easy for flying hunters, because they don’t need to, and they haven’t been around that long anyway.
    It explains most of the really silly things about how the Na’vi are, physically and mentally.
    Nothing can explain the stupidity of the mercenary soldiers, or the flying mountains, however.


  4. Thomas #

    One thing that bothered my about the relations between human and Navi was the lack trade between them. Just because you might have no use for another people’s culture doesn’t mean you dismiss their trade goods.
    I am thinking of Plains Indians who continued living much as they had before Europeans came but took up horses and guns, as well clothing and food supplies from European traders. They clearly liked their lifestyle but even they had to acknowledge their lifestyle was on a knife edge of survival. Guns, horses, European food and clothing meant their lifestyle was much less uncertain.

    This is perhaps best exemplified by the Ottoman Turks who became the elites of an agrarian society, yet still tried to keep up their pastoral lifestyle. They enjoyed their freedom, but also wanted the security that agriculture brought.

    What bothers me is that this kind of point of view isn’t present at all in Avatar. Of course the out is that the Navi are alien.


  5. Turin Hurinson #

    Good takedown of the theory that the Na’vi should be more advanced; but there are other, major problems with the worldbuilding as well.

    For example, the one I find most egregious: the Na’vi have a warrior culture – they have a concept of what “warrior” means – while at the same time being on friendly terms with all of the other Na’vi and with Pandora herself? What do they conceive themselves as fighting against? I can see how they’d have a concept of “hunter,” but hunter and warrior are very different. Look at the Hrossa in C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet – they’re a lot like the Na’vi done better. They hunt the hnakra, but have no idea what to do when attacked by the humans.

    Also, USB plugs in their ponytails? Wish I had one, but, does it really make evolutionary sense?

    Of course, Penn’s theory above about the Na’vi being engineered by Pandora specifically to interact with humans explains all of this and is also highly amusing. I think I’ll go with that.


  6. stokes #

    The really annoying thing about the Na’vi, to me, is how monolithic they are. Granted, this one particular tribe doesn’t need to be doing anything but what they’re doing. But we’re given to understand that *every* group of Na’vi is a hunter-gatherer society, with the same religion, the same basic culture, the same… oh, I don’t know, the same everything. This isn’t really unusual for SF world-building. TV Tropes even has an article about it.

    It even makes sense, in this case, at least if you buy the idea that Eywha is consciously evolving and/or grooming the Na’vi. Presumably whenever some inventive group of Thundersmurfs starts spreading a bright new idea about plows or ziggurats, they suddenly find themselves exposed to a whole range of other ideas about what the digestive system of a space-pteranodon looks like from the inside. So I’m not really nitpicking. I’m just griping about the politics. Because making the Na’vi one giant undifferentiated planetary culture goes a long way towards reducing them to an amorphous, mute, vaguely receptive “other” that the Great White Hunter can define himself against. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if there were lots of different Na’vi cultures, complete with language barriers, blood-feuds, bigotry, and mutually incompatible ideas of what Eywa’s vision for them was?

    Great article, though.


  7. Gab #

    I only saw it once, so I may be wrong, BUT, I thought there was talk about how the Uber-Ikran hadn’t been ridden/tamed for ten generations or something, yeah? If that’s the case, wouldn’t it be pretty unlikely that the Na’vi were bred by Pandora to combat humans?

    But, it’s kind of interesting that Kottke is alluding to racism by being racist.

    I do think it’s worth noting how even though the Na’vi only interacted regularly with the horses and pegasi (is that the plural for pegasus?), they still seemed capable of doing the mind-nerve-meld thing with other species. After all, the big thing Neytiri rides at the end lets her make that link with her nerve/hair thing, just as she and the other animal-riding Na’vi make with whatever they ride. So it makes me wonder if the Ikran were the “wildest” they could handle normally (you know, when Pandora wasn’t programming the other animals to ATTAAACK and such), and why the Na’vi didn’t bond with more species. Not in an accusatory, theyshouldutilizetheirresources kind of way, though- I’m guessing their intelligence means they’re at least curious, so I’d be interested to know what made them UN-interested in doing stuff with all of the other species.

    But in a not-so-related topic, if the Na’vi could link with the “lesser” animals, could the “lesser” animals link with each other? I mean, did the horses link with the pegasi? Did the dogs link with the rhino-things (I thought those looked like a cross between a rhino or hippo and a hammerhead shark, btw)? Did the animals get together and kill Na’vi as a means of revolt? What if (and it’s a big one, yeah) the Na’vi were “warriors” not because they had to fight other Na’vi, Turin, but because they had to fight off the rest of Pandora?

    I’m totally rambling, but that sort of jumped out at me.


  8. AsWicked #

    How ominous was the final scene, with Mighty Whitey Jake Sully administering an enemy prisoner of war movement, as he and his chosen elites in the Na’vi community wielded machine guns and marched them in a decidedly human troop formation on to their ships?

    Does this scene completely, and by that I mean completely, undermine the anti-imperial message of the entire movie preceding that point in the movie? Something tells me political exigencies would lead to unobtanium exports within the next decade. Old-style colonialism: 1. James Cameron: 0.


  9. rake #

    Agriculture gives a society more power. First, it provides more energy per hectare than hunter gatherer and second you invest in the defense of that land, meaning that you are less likely to be pushed off it. To start agriculture, however, requires a suitable crop plant such as wheat, corn, rice or millet. If the Na’vi didn’t have such a plant avaliable to them then they could start mass agriculture no matter how intelligent they may be.


  10. meg #

    why would you say farming is much harder than hunting and gathering? large scale agriculture takes more organization, but farming isn’t harder, it’s different. And I think some people would say it’s easier. Anyone can dig a hole and put a seed in the ground; the skill necessary to hunt a large animal is much greater.

    That being said, people in lush rainforests don’t generally become agriculturalists, so I still agree that it fits fine in this world. But H&G IS difficult.

    Also – the people on the horses came in from the Plains, we have no idea if they are agricultural or not, since we never saw their villages.


  11. Valatan #


    In terms of hours per day, there is almost no comparison between huting/gathering and farming–the former requires much, much less work, so long as your population density is sufficiently small to allow for hunting-gathering. I believe someone had the average Bushman working a 17 hour work week, but that might be wrong.


  12. rtpoe #

    I’m leaning toward’s Penn’s theory about the Na’vi being created by Pandora. But I think the entire biosphere was artificially created, not by the Pandoran Computer God, but by the “parents” of the Na’vi.

    The main clue here is all that bioluminescense (glow in the dark plants). Sure, it’s pretty, but it makes no evolutionary sense. Especially when so many different plants are using it so extravagantly.

    And just how did all those differing species wind up with compatible network cables coming out of their heads?


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