The Anthropology of Avatar

The Anthropology of Avatar

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

Premise 4: The Na’vi Can Travel and Live in Different Environments

It’s true.  Like humans, the Na’vi can travel fairly long distances and live in wildly different environments.  But travel alone doesn’t lead to technological advances.  It only does that if A) the culture you’re traveling to is more technologically-advanced than yours, B) that other culture wants to share that technology with you, C) you can use that technology in your homeland, and D) you want or need to use that technology back home.

Again, let’s look at the Taíno.  They weren’t trapped on tiny islands in the Caribbean.  They had boats, and they traveled all over the place.  But the question is, where could they travel to get more advanced technology?  The other islands in the Caribbean were still operating in the Stone Age, as were the tribes in Northern South America.  Maybe the Taíno could have gotten better technology from the Aztecs, but the Aztec technology wasn’t much more advanced, and I somewhat doubt the warlike Aztecs would have wanted to share it.

It seems to me that this is why Avatar’s Omaticaya aren’t all that technologically-advanced, either.  They can visit other Na’vi clans, but what technology can they get from them?  Not much, I’d guess.  Moreover, the end of the film suggested that the Na’vi clans get along fairly well, which means that they wouldn’t need to constantly develop new weapons technology to use in wars.  Until the Sky People showed up, the Omaticaya were doing quite all right in terms of weapons.  The other clans were under control, their natural predators were under control, and they knew how to live in their environment in a sustainable way.  Why would they need to develop new weapons?

James Cameron, on the other hand, needs to use the most advanced weaponry available to him, even if it is completely unnecessary.

Premise 5: But for God’s Sake, Woman: The Na’vi Have a Supercomputer!

This argument suggests to me that Mr. Kottke believes that all possible computers would naturally be like Earth’s current computers.  Our computers, which are made by humans, store information about how to make technology and other types of “progress.”  We’d naturally assume that the Na’vi supercomputer would be similar.

But why assume that at all?  First of all, the Na’vi supercomputer is clearly not a human computer.  We make our computers in our image; the Na’vi didn’t make their computer at all.  The neural network in and under their trees might have been there before Na’vi ever existed.  It’s likely that the Na’vi evolved to connect to that network, rather than the other way around.

Even if the Na’vi had made the supercomputer themselves, they would have made that supercomputer to store the information they found valuable.  You can see this in any scene that features Jake or Neytiri connecting to the Pandora-net.  In the Tree of Voices, Jake doesn’t learn from the ancestors how to build a functioning abacus or how to destroy an enemy culture with a nuclear-powered death ray.  It seems that Pandora-net doesn’t store technological blueprints but important cultural information: advice, stories, myths, information on how to live.  Pandora-net is less a Wikipedia and more a Soul-a-pedia.

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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