The Anthropology of Avatar

The Anthropology of Avatar

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

Premise 2: The Na’vi Have Domesticated Animals

Mr. Kottke’s next argument has to do with the Na’vi’s domesticated animals.  If you’ve seen Avatar, you know that the blue folk have access to alien-horses and alien-sky-horses.  Even more interesting, it seems that the Na’vi and their steeds evolved in parallel so that their nerves can be hooked up to one another via hair cable.  Cool stuff.

That Mr. Kottke made an argument based on domesticated animals suggests to me that he’s read Guns, Germs, and Steel or has at least heard the ideas held within its covers.  In that book, Jared Diamond argues that the denizens of certain continents turned out to become more technologically-advanced than the denizens of other continents not because some races are smarter or more physically-capable than others, but because some continents have domesticatable animals and others don’t.  According to this theory, Eurasia had a leg up on all other continents, because it had 13 species of large, domesticatable animals, including cows, horses, sheep, goats, and so on.  Africa had just one domesticatable animal (the camel), South America had one (the llama), and poor Australia had zilch.  The argument follows that the people who were able to domesticate animals advanced into the New Stone Age period and were able to make a whole lot of food a whole lot faster.  First, they were able to breed lots of cows and sheep and goats and so on for food, and, second, they were able to use animals like horses and oxen to plow their fields when they started farming.  That led to more food, which led to population explosions, and added resistance against animal-borne diseases.

It makes sense, then, that Mr. Kottke would make this argument.  The Na’vi have domesticated animals, so why are they still living in the Stone Age?

This argument has a number of flaws.

First, the Na’vi only have close relationships with two animal species.  They have domesticated Pa’li (their horses), and they have access to Ikran (those cool flying things that live up in the mountains).  Let’s start by focusing on the Pa’li.  Horses are helpful, sure.  As Kottke says, they give the Na’vi the ability to travel long distances.  But it doesn’t really help them grow their food supply.  There was no indication that the Na’vi use their horses to plow fields so they can farm; after all, the Na’vi we saw lived in the rainforest and thus didn’t have fields to plow.  Plus, there was no indication that the Na’vi bred their horses for food.  So the horses aren’t really helping them grow their populations or move into a Neolithic stage of development.

As for the Ikran, I’m not sure we can truly call them “domesticated.”  On the one hand, the Na’vi have an evolutionary link with the Ikran (as humans do with, say, dogs).  On the other hand, one Na’vi can only control one Ikran in a lifetime; the other Ikran are completely wild to them.  This means that the Na’vi can’t pen the Ikran like cattle and can’t breed them in captivity.  Seems to meet that each individual Ikran is more “tamed” than domesticated.

The Na’vi, then, are most like people living in Stone Age Africa, domestication-wise.  They really only have one domesticated large animal, the Pa’li, which is almost solely used for transportation rather than for agriculture or meat.  The Na’vi, in short, have domesticated the camel—and you can’t build a postindustrial society on a camel alone.

Premise 3: The Na’vi Have Few Natural Predators

This argument seems wrong to me, given what the film showed.  When Jake was stumbling around Pandora’s forests at the beginning of the movie, it seemed like everything was trying to kill him.  Everything.  Off the top of my head, I can think of that pack of wild dog things, the giant dinosaur-rhinoceros things, the Ikran, the Toruk, and that giant panther thingy that Neytiri was magically able to ride at the end of the movie.  At some point in the film, all of those animals tried to kill Jake.  There are plenty of predators in Pandora.

The movie then takes its time to show the difference between humans like Jake and Na’vi like Neytiri.  The predators in the woods don’t attack Neytiri, but I don’t think it’s because they find blue flesh unappetizing.  Neytiri says it’s because she knows how to approach them.  Jake, on the other hand, is like a baby, making noise and annoying the animals to no end.  It’s like people in Asia who live with tigers, or people in Africa who live with lions.  These big predators WILL eat humans if those humans happen to stumble out into the brush making all sorts of noise, but predators don’t go out of their way to eat humans, because A) there’s better meat out there and B) they’ve learned over the course of millennia that human hunters will fuck them up with their Stone Age weapons.  Like those humans who live in dangerous, predator-filled areas of the world, the Na’vi have predators but have learned to live with them.

Anyway, just because a culture has few natural predators, it doesn’t mean they’ll magically start a technological revolution.  Take the Taíno Indians again.  They had literally zero natural predators (except other humans, of course).  You’d think that their populations would explode, but the fact is that it couldn’t, because they could only make little gardens, not massive farms.  This was because their land wasn’t made for agriculture—which is exactly what you can say about the rainforest-dwelling Omaticaya.

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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