The Anthropology of Avatar

The Anthropology of Avatar

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

Premise 6: The Unspoken Premise

Here’s the most important point.  Although Mr. Kottke never says this outright, his entire argument is based around this false premise: that cultures naturally “progress” according to our current Western notions of what progress means.  And, for all its flaws, Avatar needs to get props for discussing this fallacy in its script.  Colonel Quaritch (a.k.a. the evil soldier guy) and Parker Selfridge (a.k.a. the evil corporate guy with the evil spiky haircut) offer the Na’vi technology, medicine, and education in exchange for their Unobtanium.  The Na’vi refuse.  As Jake makes clear to his human bosses, the Na’vi do not want any of these things.  They do not want anything humanity can give them.  And why would they?  They were doing just fine until the humans showed up.

The fact is, technological progress does not happen on its own.  Yes, people are naturally inventive, but they only need to invent things if they have a use for them.  It’s only been in the past two hundred or so years that people have been developing technology just for the sake of developing it (thank you, capitalism).  Before that, and still today even, technological progress (if you must call it that) sometimes happened slowly, backward, or not at all.  If you don’t believe me, look at medieval fashions, which barely changed at all for hundreds of years at a time, and compare that to today, where fashions change every other day so corporations can make some extra moolah.

Look: there have been plenty of times in history where cultures have not adopted new technologies because they just have no use for them in their environment.  Take the ancient steam engine, which first developed in the 1st century A.D., redeveloped during the Renaissance, and then finally picked up for real in the 1700s.  Or consider the Stone Age-level cultures of the Americas, which developed the wheel for their kids’ toys but decided they didn’t really need it for transportation or agriculture.  They were doing fine without the wheel, thank you very much.  Or consider my favorite example from Guns, Germs, and Steel: the example of Beta-Max, which was passed over for the inferior VHS tape player.

And, as far as agricultural progress is concerned, trust me, you don’t get into agriculture willy-nilly.  Farming is much, much harder than hunting and gathering is; raising animals will cut your lifespan short because you’ll trade diseases with them; and agricultural societies tend to be taken over by annoying kings and emperors, who tend to make life difficult for the grunts.  Cultures only develop agricultural technology if environmental pressures force them to.  The Na’vi are lucky enough and smart enough not to need it.

Even if they wanted to, the Na’vi’s culture and religion would discourage them from developing and adopting new technologies at the drop of a hat, anyway.  The Na’vi are taught to respect and be a part of nature; most technology is developed to subjugate nature.  Mr. Kottke says that the Na’vi must be aware of all the natural resources available to them, and I agree.  They probably do know all about that vein of Unobtainium under their Home Tree.  But even if they wanted that metal to make guns or whatever, they would never think of digging it out.  It’s under the Home Tree, for Heaven’s sake!  That shit is sacred.  Human history makes it clear that, time and again, civilizations will do without technology—even if they desperately need it—for religious reasons.  (See Europe’s Dark Ages for details.)


It makes perfect sense that the Na’vi live in the Stone Age, and, more than that, I think it’s fine that they live in the Stone Age.  Great, even.  It seems to be working for them, so more power to ‘em.  I’m not saying I want to live that way—this computer I’m working on seems to have domesticated me good—but if the Na’vi were real, I’d wish them well.

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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